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Dublin: 4 °C Thursday 12 December, 2019
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Liveblog

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GOOD AFTERNOON AND welcome to our liveblog which followed events as three senior members of Ulster Bank appeared before the Oireachtas Finance Committee. You’ll be able to watch events from Committee Room 4 of Leinster House in a livestream here from 2.30pm. As always, you can leave your thoughts in the comments section below or tweet me @christinebohan if you’ve anything to say on this afternoon’s events.

Here’s the main findings from this afternoon:

  • CEO Jim Brown has refused to say that he will turn down his bonus this year and says he will make a decision at the end of the year as to whether he’ll return it or not.
  • The bank is planning to offer compensation to customers who have been affected by the glitch, as well as ensuring that they are reimbursed for any fees, charges or interest accrued.
  • The bank estimates that around 500,000 to 600,000 customers may have been affected by the problem.
  • There will be an independent investigation into what happened which should be published within weeks.
  • None of the three representatives from Ulster Bank/RBS know if anyone was recently made redundant from the section in Edinburgh where the problem happened.

Here’s what’s likely to happen this afternoon. The three senior representatives from Ulster Bank are likely to be allowed to make a statement once the meeting of the Joint Committee starts at 2.30pm. Then the floor will be handed over to the 21 TDs and 5 Senators members of the committee who will ask questions about the banking fiasco – can we call it a fiasco yet? Let’s say yes – of the past two weeks.

It’s worth keeping an eye out for Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald who has proved to be one of the strongest members of this committee over the past few months. Other people worth watching: committee chair Alex White TD of Labour, Independent TD Stephen Donnelly, and Pearse Doherty, also of Sinn Féin.

Slight aside: When we rang Ulster Bank yesterday they gave a rather haughty statement saying that they couldn’t tell us who was going to appear in front of the committee. Rather more helpfully, the Oireachtas press service has been able to tell us. So we’re going to be hearing from:

  • Ulster Bank CEO Jim Brown
  • CEO of UK Corporate Banking for RBS Chris Sullivan
  • Managing Director of Branch Banking for Ulster Bank Jim Ryan

Committee is going to kick off any second now. For a quick reminder of why the management of Ulster Bank have been hauled in to answer questions, here’s some of the experiences that readers have gone through over the past 16 days as the bank has struggled to deal with the backlog in payments to customer accounts after a technical problem.

Yup, any second now…

And here we go. Alex White of Labour is the chair of the committee. He starts by saying there’s apologies from Arthur Spring, Stephen Donnelly and Heather Humphreys. He then welcomes the Ulster Bank representatives to the committee.

Jim Brown is going to make a public statement and members will then be able to ask questions

Alex White reminds the witnesses – sounds a bit like a courtroom – that they are covered by absolute privilege for anything they say in the room, unless they’re told to stop talking by a member of the committee.

Jim Brown starts by describing the ‘major IT problem’ of recent weeks.

He says he wants to make three main points:

  1. He apologies for the unprecedented disaster. “It is unacceptable, and customers expect better from us”
  2. Staff at Ulster Bank and RBS are working around the clock to solve the problem.
  3. No customer will be left out of pocket by this incident.

Brown says on an average day RBS processes 20 million transactions.

He says that transactions are processed in batches – a system which has run without failure for 25 years.

A problem was created when maintenance on systems, which are managed in Edinburgh, caused an error in the batch scheduler. This caused the system to fail on the night of 16th of June, which created knock-on affects.

This was made worse because teams could not access the record of transactions created up until the system failure.

Brown: The exact cause of this will only be known once there is a full investigation, which will be done once the backlog has been cleared.

Brown says he expects that next week (beginning 9 July) will be the final week of delay for Ulster Bank customers. says he expects notable improvements for customers this week.

He says that by the week of 16 July, the vast majority of customers will be returned to a normal service.

Brown: It has been frustratingly slow to be solved.

He says that the results of the investigation will be made public and will be circulated to this committee.  He doesn’t give details of when exactly the investigation will take place or who will do it.

Brown gives some facts and figures:

He says that Ulster Bank branches were open for an extra 1,659 hours in the Republic of Ireland. He says 167,000 customers were spoken to directly in branches around the country; that there were 1.3 million visitors to the website; and that there were 174,000 views to the Question and Answer section of the Ulster Bank website.

Committee chair Alex White thanks Brown for his statement – and immediately jumps right in.

He notes that Ulster Bank yesterday put out a statement to customers thanking them for their continued patience – an assumption, White says, that customers were patient, or had a choice about being patient, and says he’d suggest that Ulster Bank has tested that patience to the hilt throughout.

Alex White goes through the timeline of what happened and outlines all the times that Ulster Bank said that the problem would be solved within a few days or in a short period of time.

“Why should we accept these assurances [that things will be fixed by next week] when previous ones weren’t true?” he asks Brown.

Brown says that “significant advances” have been made in processing the backlog over the last weekend. So while previously they weren’t sure that things would actually be solved when they said they would be, this time they’re almost definitely certain.

Well, this is anti-climactic: Alex White says that a vote has unexpectedly been called in the Dáil so the committee will have to adjourn briefly to go and vote.

Just when things were getting interesting too. Boo.

Oh, that was quick. I was just about to link to some photographs of pandas getting the Tube to kill some time but we’re back.

Alex White is questioning Jim Brown about why customers should trust anything Ulster Bank says. Brown hastily passes the question over to Chris Sullivan, the head of corporate banking for RBS in the UK.

Sullivan says RBS apologises unreservedly – which, by my count, is the fifth apology from Ulster Bank in the last 30 minutes – and says that it is an RBS issue, which runs transactions on behalf of Royal Bank of Scotland, NatWest and Ulster Bank.

He says that all information given to customers was given ‘in good faith’ and that ‘we’re now in the recovery phase’.

Alex White raises the question that many customers have brought up in recent days: was Ulster Bank really a low priority for RBS?

Sullivan says that that wasn’t true, and that no priority was given to any of the three banks involved  because of size or geographic reasons.

Chris Sullivan says that the independent investigation into what went wrong has been commissioned and should be published ‘within weeks’. Like Brown, he doesn’t say who will be conducting the independent investigation.

Alex White 1, Ulster Bank 0.

Alex White asks if anyone has recently been let go from the section in Edinburgh where the problem happened. Sullivans answers by saying that there have been no issues in terms of staff or quality of staff – and White, quite rightly, points out that he hasn’t answered the question.

Sullivan flounders: “To my knowledge, no… I have no knowledge of [that”.

White keeps at him. He asks if he would know if anyone was made redundant from that section and if he would know about it. Sullivans says he “can’t answer that properly”. Alex White: “So you don’t know?” Sullivan: “Correct”.

White asks all three of the Ulster Bank representatives if they know if reports that the team in Edinburgh was recently halved from 60 to 30. All three look sheepish and defensive and admit that they don’t know the answer.

Michael McGrath of FF asks how many people have been impacted by the problem.

Back to Jim Brown again. He says that initially the bank estimated over 100,000 people but that has changed because the problem has gone on longer than they’d expected. He says he would guesstimate that around half of Ulster Bank’s 1.1 million  customers in the Republic of Ireland have been affected – which would mean around 500,000 to 600,000 people.

That’s a LOT higher than all the previous figures which were given.

What about the bonus? There’s a lot of pressure on Jim Brown to reject his bonus after the head of RBS said last week that he’s going to give his back over the fiasco.

Brown says that his bonus is reviewed at the end of the year and it’s based on a lot of factors, so he’ll make the call at that time. He says:

I’ll make that decision at the end of the year once I know where we’re at.

Michael McGrath: “That’s astounding, Mr Brown”.

Brown says he “wouldn’t exclude the possiblity” that he will still receive the bonus.

Kieran O’Donnell (FG) asks if the system in Edinburgh, where the problem arose, had been outsourced.

Chris Sullivan of RBS says the system operated entirely is run entirely by RBS staff who looked after the Royal Bank of Scotland, Nat West and Ulster Bank. “These are RBS staff, it is not outsourced at all,” he says.

We still haven’t heard a word from Jim Ryan, the head of branch banking for Ulster Bank, who is sitting beside Jim Brown.

Kieran O’Donnell asks if the problem was caused by a human error or a technical malfunction.

Chris Sullivan again says that he isn’t clear on the technical difficulties and that the “answer is somewhat complex”. TDs suggest that he tries to answer the question.

Sullivan says the issue was “originally a software issue” but that the investigation will find out what caused the later issue. Hmm.

Ah, there’s the previously-quiet Jim Ryan.  Kieran O’Donnell asks for a commitment that people will not be hit by any charges over what happened.

Jim Ryan: “We accept what happened here and we’re responsible. What we said from the outset was that no-one will be out of pocket“.

Kieran O’Donnell asks Jim Brown to reconsider accepting his bonus this year.

Brown: “I’ve already given my answer. I’ve already given my answer”.

Kieran O’Donnell: “Well, that’s a shame”.

Pearse Doherty (SF) says that Jim Brown should be reconsidering his position and asks if he is.

Brown repeats what he has already said when asked about his bonus: He tells Doherty that his focus is on fixing the backlog and minimising disruption to customers. He says in terms of accountability there will be a full independent investigation throughout the whole group, and that accountability will be sorted out once the review has been completed.

There’s a notable increase in tension between the TDs and the three men from Ulster Bank as the questions focus on bonuses and whether someone from Ulster Bank should resign over what happened.

Jim Brown keeps following the same lines. Pearse Doherty asks if the buck stops with him and if he is responsible for the issue.

Brown: “I’m responsible for the business but I’m also responsible for getting the business back to normal”.

Senator Lorraine Higgins (Lab) says Ulster Bank has been describing it as an IT hitch when it’s actually a fiasco of epic proportions.

She asks what the situation is with people who have received letters from the bank warning that they’ve missed direct debits and loan repayments.

Jim Brown says that the bank is looking at giving compensation to customers and that the bank hopes to be able to give information as to exactly what the compensation will be some time next week.

He says that fees, charges and interest will “clearly” be reimbursed but that the compensation will be “over and above that. He also says the bank is working to make sure that people’s credit records are not impacted as a result of the issue.

Best exchange of the entire session so far.  Shane Ross asks how much Brown got paid last year.

Brown: “That’s private information”. He says the figure will be revealed in the company’s annual accounts which will be released in October.

Shane Ross: Give us a ballpark figure.

Brown: No.

Shane Ross is hammering Jim Brown about his bonus. He says: “You ARE going to take a bonus this year, but you’re going to get through this meeting” by saying that you’ll consider it when the time comes.

Shane Ross is now asking about a back up plan for the bank. Chris Sullivan says he thinks the back up plan was last tested six months ago. Jim Brown says: “I don’t know when it was last tested or when it was last reviewed. Shane Ross is incredulous.

Shane Ross: Was the [financial] regulator in touch with you over the back up plan?

Jim Brown: “I don’t know the details… but I can tell you since the issue occurred we have been in regular dialogue” with both the FSA [Financial Services Authority in the UK] and the Central Bank twice a day. We also had people from the Central Bank in monitoring our recovery plans.

Shane Ross says that the evidence from the three men is ‘unsatisfactory’. He says that the Ulster Bank men seem to have total amnesia over what happened at their bank.

Michael Creed (FG) asks if anyone on the board of Ulster Bank has IT expertise or if they are all banking experts. (Experts might be putting it a bit strongly there, Michael).

Jim Brown says that the board has a ‘wide range of expertise’ but he doesn’t think that anyone has specific IT expertise. He says this is something that the bank may need to look at in future.

Olivia Mitchell makes an interesting point. She says that Irish people have already lost a lot of trust in banks and this could make a lot of them take money out of the banks.

She says that she intends to hold more cash in the future, and that the bank can be “absolutely sure” that its customers are going to make sure that hold more cash in future, in case anything like this happens again.

The committee has been meeting for two hours and this is what we know:

  • CEO Jim Brown has refused to say that he will turn down his bonus this year and says he will make a decision at the end of the year as to whether he’ll return it or not.
  • The bank is planning to offer compensation to customers who have been affected by the glitch, as well as ensuring that they are reimbursed for any fees, charges or interest accrued.
  • The bank estimates that around 500,000 to 600,000 customers may have been affected by the problem.
  • There will be an independent investigation into what happened which should be published within weeks.
  • None of the three representatives from Ulster Bank/RBS know if anyone was recently made redundant from the section in Edinburgh where the problem happened.

Favourite analogy of the day so far: Former banker-turned-Fine-Gael TD Peter Mathews compares the situation to a significant blowout in the power grid – bear with us, it’s worth it – and says that the bank giving people money to tide them over is comparable to:

It’s like depots of the ESB giving people candles to do their housework.

Unlike other TDs and Senators, Peter Mathews isn’t so much asking a question as delivering a lecture on badly Ulster Bank have messed up. Unsurprisingly, Chris Sullivan and Jim Brown don’t look too happy about this:

Peter Mathews reads out a letter from a constituent with a small business who has been badly hit by Ulster Bank not responding to their questions and not answering phones.

The letter also includes this line, which Mathews delivers in his deadpan tone: “While you may be an ex-banker I believe that you are an honest man…”. Heh.

Peter Mathews just spoke for around eight minutes without pausing – or an obvious question. He ends by asking Alex White:  ”Was I calm, measured and logical?”

Alex White: You always are, Deputy.

Alex White managed to find a question in what Mathews said. He says to Jim Brown: “The net question is that you don’t know what happened on the night [the problems started], isn’t that right?”

Brown says: “What we don’t know is how the issue was caused and why the backups didn’t respond as they should”. So that’s a yes.

By my (albeit very rough) guesstimate, Jim Brown has answered nine questions this afternoon by saying “Our focus has been on to try and minimise the disruption to our customers/solve the problem/get this issue resolved”. The man knows how to stick to a script.

And that’s it. Alex White has thanked the three Ulster Bank representatives for coming in and answering questions and the meeting has broken up.

It lost a bit of steam towards the end but there were a number of moments where the three – especially CEO Jim Brown – were put under a lot of pressure from TDs (most notably Shane Ross) over the scale of the problem and the response from the bank.  There’s a summary in the 16.38 entry of all the things that we learned from this committee meeting – not least that Jim Brown is a man who is very attached to his bonus.

Thanks very much to everyone who read, commented, and tweeted the liveblog. Bye for now.

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