Tuesday 23 May 2017

Banks differ on disclosure of meetings under new lobbying laws

BOI says meetings don't qualify as lobbying while AIB says it is exempt under new laws, writes Sarah McCabe

Banks have said they do not consider meetings with Finance Minister Michael Noonan last September to discuss their positions on variable rates as lobbying. Photo: Frank McGrath
Banks have said they do not consider meetings with Finance Minister Michael Noonan last September to discuss their positions on variable rates as lobbying. Photo: Frank McGrath

Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB have said they do not consider meetings with Finance Minister Michael Noonan last September to discuss their positions on variable rates as lobbying.

Noonan and senior Department of Finance officials met with senior management from Ireland's main retail banks late last year for discussions on variable rates, in which the banks agreed to review their rates. Irish banks charge significantly higher variable rates than their European counterparts.

Two other banks who attended the meetings, Ulster Bank and KBC, both reported the meetings to a register set up with the passing of the Registration of Lobbying Act 2015.

The publicly accessible register was designed to make the lobbying process more transparent.

Bank of Ireland said it complies fully with the Lobbying Act adding that the meetings in question and topics discussed did not constitute lobbying under the Act.

The Act describes lobbying as "the initiation, development or modification of any public policy or of any public programme; the preparation or amendment of any law; or the award of any grant, loan, contract, or of any licence or other authorisation involving public funds."

Permanent TSB said it "has not registered under the Act on the basis that it doesn't engage in lobbying as set out in the relevant provisions".

AIB said that because of its state ownership, it was exempt from registering the mortgage rate meetings under the Lobbying Act.

A spokeswoman said it did not report the meeting because "communications between a Minister or his/her Department and the company in which that Minster is a shareholder, which occur in the ordinary course of business of that company, are an 'excepted communication', and so are not classed as lobbying under the Act."

Fianna Fail finance spokesperson Michael McGrath said that any and all meetings between senior bank officials and the Minister for Finance should be recorded on the lobbying register.

The Standards in Public Office Commission regulates the lobbying register.

SIPO can not currently investigate or enforce suspected breaches of the Act; that power should come into effect this September, after its first year in operation.

A spokeswoman for SIPO said she would not comment on individual cases. She told the Sunday Independent that the fact that a government official requested a meeting did not make any difference to whether it should be considered lobbying.

"The Act makes no distinction as to who initiated the communication" she said.

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