Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Ulster Bank branch closures: Martin McGuinness slams 'cavalier' approach to job cuts

Ulster Bank has announced 39 branch closures and the potential loss of 1,800 jobs
Ulster Bank has announced 39 branch closures and the potential loss of 1,800 jobs

Martin McGuinness has called on the British and Irish Governments to "bring banks into line" following the announcement of branch closures at Ulster Bank.

The Northern Ireland deputy First Minister, who attended the annual conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in Belfast on Wednesday, said he was shocked by the Ulster Bank announcement and the way it had been made public was absolutely disgraceful.

The troubled bank announced on Tuesday it would be axing hundreds of jobs with the closure of 39 branches, mainly in rural areas, across Ireland.

1,800 jobs could be set to go over four years under plans to return it to profit.

Martin McGuinness said: "Banks in general on the island of Ireland have rightly had a bad Press over the course of recent times, not least because of the revelations with the Anglo tapes. Any announcement that sees the prospect of rural offices closing and people being thrown on the dole queue is very bad news indeed."

He said he had been approached by workers seeking meetings with himself and First Minister Peter Robinson.

"The big difficulty is that the banks for far too long have been a law onto themselves," he claimed.

"There is a huge responsibility on the Irish and British Governments, these people have more power and control over banks than a local administrations like ours. They have a job to do and a duty to bring banks into line."

He added: "What we are clearly seeing is banks adopting a very cavalier approach to how they deal with customers and how they deal with their own staff."

He said during a recent tranche of job losses Ulster Bank had said those would be the last.

"That is not the way to do business, either with a government, with customers or with their own staff," he added.

He said Ulster Bank had totally revised its position on further job losses so would treat with caution the organisation's claims the latest announcement would help it return to the black.

"I think it is a totally disgraceful situation and I think they should be ashamed of themselves," he said.

Separately, referring to the Anglo Irish Bank tapes recorded of senior executives shortly before the Republic's bank guarantee, the deputy First Minister told delegates at a trade union conference in Belfast that bank bosses had effectively laughed while the people in Ireland suffered.

He added later: "There will be more of it because all of the banking institutions have all of their conversations recorded, that is statutory, it is in the law and eventually there will be more revelations which possibly could be just as shocking as what we have heard in the course of the last week."

Mr McGuinness's words came as First Trust announced the next four branches of its bank to shut.

The branch in Ballymoney, Co Antrim is due to close at the end of September with the shutters coming down on two branches in Belfast and a fourth in Ballynahinch, Co Down by the end of November.

Meanwhile Sammy Wilson has said he has been given assurances that the number of Ulster Bank branches closing in Northern Ireland is in single figures.

The Finance Minister was speaking to the BBC on Wednesday morning, before the Assembly's finance committee discussed the job cuts on Wednesday morning.

Members said they wanted to bring Ulster Bank bosses before the committee later this month.

Ulster Bank – which operates on both sides of the border – said that the overall figure includes 950 job losses announced over a year ago. It also stressed it hopes to reduce staff levels by 'natural attrition' – meaning not replacing people who retire or leave their jobs for other reasons.

During a briefing to investors at parent Royal Bank of Scotland yesterday, it was announced that employment is to be cut from the peak of 5,800 full-time staff it had last year.

Staff numbers could potentially drop to between 4,000 and 4,500 by 2016. This could equate to losses of between 1,300 and 1,800 over four years.

The branch network will be reduced from 214 to between 175 and 185 by the end of 2014.

The job losses and branch closures will effect both sides of the border.

Chief executive of Ulster Bank Group Jim Brown said that there are currently 238 branches across the island of Ireland and by 2014 the group was looking towards a "streamlined footprint" of between 175 and 185 "focused on urban centres" and with a reduced staffing level.

However he said that branch closures would lead to an 'increased presence' and that by 2016 the bank envisioned that a majority of transactions would still be performed via direct channels.

"Physical branches may reduce but physical points of presence will increase through kiosks in shopping malls," he said.

Mr Brown added that as a result, while he could not give an exact forecast, he expects the bank to break even by next year and return to profit by 2016.

The bank, once Ireland's third-largest consumer lender, was split in 2009 into a core bank and non-core bank, which includes assets the lender plans to sell over time.

It has the largest market share in Northern Ireland and is the third largest bank in the Republic – but made a loss of £1bn in 2012 raising questions about its burden on RBS.

Mr Brown added: "The business will be smaller than it was at the peak of the boom but will be profitable and more efficient."

A spokesman for Ulster Bank said: "Ulster Bank has already announced and is implementing a programme to reduce headcount by 950 across the business.

"The investor relations presentation made reference to a smaller organisation with approximately 4000-4500 full time employees.

"Taking account the 950 reductions announced in early 2012, the remaining decrease in headcount should be met through natural attrition over the remaining course of the strategic plan."

Ian Gordon, a banking analyst at stockbrokers Investec, said he did not regard the announcement as "hugely surprising".

"Ulster Bank appears more positive vis-à-vis 'core' growth opportunities and appetite in Northern Ireland vs The Republic, in large part a reflection of its much stronger funding position in Northern Ireland where it has a surplus of deposits over lending," he said.

But trade union the Irish Bank Officials Association reacted angrily to the news.

General secretary Larry Broderick said: "Ulster Bank's parent, RBS, is in some disarray at the moment and its commitment to its Irish operation has been the subject of much speculation recently."

He accused the bank's senior management of "a cavalier approach to their customers and staff".

Cold comfort for customers as employees count cost of controversy

By Claire Weir

It's been a torrid few weeks for Ulster Bank.

In fact, it's been a bit of an annus horribilis.

This time last year the bank was mired in controversy after a IT glitch meant that ATMs failed to work and hundreds of thousands of people did not receive wages or benefits for many weeks. Direct debits were also impacted, meaning that some people defaulted on payments, and others were stranded on holiday with no cash.

The bank, which cost £14.3bn to rescue in a taxpayer bailout, reported a £1bn loss in 2012 – the only loss-making division of RBS, which also owns Nat West – while overall the parent company made a loss of £5bn.

At the start of last month, speculation around a parliamentary report suggested that one way of allowing RBS freedom to lend more would be to hive off Ulster Bank to the Irish Treasury.

There were reports that Ulster Bank operations could be transferred to the Republic's 'bad bank' Nama in return for loans on English based properties currently in Nama.

Then just weeks ago RBS chief executive Stephen Hester announced he was moving on, five years after taking over from former-knight Fred 'The Shred' Goodwin, with 12 months' pay and benefits worth £1.6m and the potential for £4m in shares.

Ulster Bank again hit the headlines a fortnight ago when Chancellor George Osborne, in his annual Mansion House speech in the City of London, said he had ordered an urgent review, to report in the autumn, into the possibility of breaking up the Ulster's parent company RBS into a "good bank" and a "bad bank", to separate out toxic assets and risky loans from parts of the business which support the economy.

The review will particularly focus on assets in Ulster Bank and commercial real estate, and will not involve any further injection of taxpayer money into RBS.

And then yesterday news came of more job losses and branch closures.

As this reporter watched the briefing to investors, Jim Brown and his colleagues appeared upbeat and jovial when it came to discussing returns to profit – and a brave new world where banking customers can pop into a kiosk in their local shopping centre to do their banking. That solution to branch closures will however be cold comfort to the elderly and incapacitated living in rural areas.

Crucially when it came to a question and answer session during the investor briefing, not one person questioned the human cost of the much-vaunted 'return to profit'.