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Bank accused of rule breach over branch closures

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Social Democrat TD Roisin Shortall

Social Democrat TD Roisin Shortall

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Social Democrat TD Roisin Shortall

A leading bank has been accused of breaches of rules designed to protect consumers by shutting branches during the lockdown with little notice to customers.

Bank of Ireland shut 101 branches in March due to the pandemic, mainly in rural areas.

Last month it said it would re-open them, but some have yet to be put back into operation.

Now it has emerged that the bank gave just 24 hours’ notice that it was shutting what amounts to around 38pc of its total network.

It is required under the Central Bank’s Consumer Protection Code to give notify the Central Bank immediately and give customers two months’ notice of the closure of a branch.

Social Democrat TD Roisin Shortall accused Bank of Ireland of a clear breach of the code.

She told Central Bank Governor Gabriel Makhlouf at the Covid-19 Oireachtas Committee that the bank was required to give notice of branch closures.

Ms Shortall wanted to know if Governor Makhlouf was going to take action against Bank of Ireland for breaching the code.

The exchange came moments after Governor Makhlouf dismissed suggestions from the Green Party’s Neasa Hourigan that consumer protection is down the list of priorities at the Central Bank.

Many institutions had to make sudden decisions during the pandemic-induced lockdown, he said.

Ms Shortall said this was a clear breach of the code, and wanted to know if the Central Bank was going to hold Bank of Ireland to account so that there are no breaches in future.

The governor said the bank had an obligation to its staff, but did not say if the bank was going to be sanctioned.

Information gleaned from Freedom of Information requests to the Central Bank from the Financial Services Union (FSU) shows that Bank of Ireland gave just 24 hours’ notice of the closures.

Under provision 3.12 of the Central Bank Consumer Protection Code 2012 banks closing or merging a branch must notify the Central Bank immediately, and provide at least two months notice to affected consumers to enable them to make alternative arrangements.

FSU said the branch network is vital to our economy and society as underpinned by the requirement to keep the network open during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The union is now seeking meetings with the Central Bank and Minister Donohue, seeking the proper implementation of the code.

General secretary of FSU John O’Connell said the freedom of information response shows that timelines were not adhered to in any case of branch closures.

He said the Consumer Protection code is in place to ensure that banks make good on their obligations to communities.

“Our freedom of information response shows that these obligations are clearly being breached.”

He said the banks have made commitments in relation to cultural change. Proof of their commitment would be a signal that they will in future adhere fully to the Consumer Protection Code, Mr O’Connell added.

Bank of Ireland said that the rapid emergence of Covid-19 in March meant that very quick measures had to be taken in order to protect the health of customers and staff.

“While banks would normally give more notice when closing a branch, this wasn’t possible if we were to respond appropriately to the rapidly emerging health crisis at that time,” the bank said.

It said the majority of the closed branches reopened from June 29, with modifications for social distancing. The remaining branches are mostly in colleges, hospitals and airports.

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