Page last updated at 08:02 GMT, Thursday, 18 February 2010

Deti criticised over PMS collapse

British currency
The collapse of the society affected more than 10,000 savers

A parliamentary probe into the collapse of a financial institution in NI has criticised a "fatal regulatory gap".

Thousands of savers lost access to their money after a "run" on the Presbyterian Mutual Society in 2008.

In NI there is a registry for societies like the PMS, but it has no obligation to oversee the running of a society.

However, the Treasury Committee found that NI's Department of Trade and Investment had access to information which should have led it to act.

The report said it was "reasonable to expect the Deti to have taken a lead in identifying the problem".

Enterprise Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster said the report was "very short on facts and details".

"All they say is that a remedy must be found, this report does not point to any solutions," she said.

"It's very clear this report was all about apportioning blame.

"It is the shoddiest piece of work I have seen coming out of Westminster for some considerable time."

The PMS, which had 10,000 members, went into administration following a rush by savers to withdraw their money at the height of the banking crisis in October 2008.

People withdrew their money as they learned the society was not covered by the government's bank deposit guarantee scheme.

'Surprise and concern'

The Failure of the Presbyterian Mutual Society Report highlights that there was "regulatory gap which was neither publicised nor filled" and called on the government and the Stormont Executive to act to ensure that individual PMS members "do not suffer unduly".

In Northern Ireland, industrial and providential societies are registered by the Registry of Credit Unions and Industrial and Provident Societies (the Registry).

The function of the registry is simply to hold a register of the 180 societies operating in Northern Ireland, and to make sure their annual returns are filed.

The committee accepted that the registrar had no regulatory functions and could take no official action.

However, it said it was surprised and concerned that Deti had access to all the relevant information about the potential for the PMS to collapse and "yet this did not result in any preventative action or further examination being undertaken".

The report also criticised politicians at Westminster and Stormont for not resolving the situation.

"We consider it unacceptable and farcical that both the UK government and the Northern Ireland Executive appear to have suggested some responsibility for solutions but have failed to act," it said.

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster described the report as "shoddy"

The report found the estimated value of the society's assets was £100m less than its liabilities.

It said the position was improving, and the assets of the society are expected to generate £10m a year in the future but it noted that many savers, especially the elderly, will face hardship if they have a long wait to get their money.

The committee also addressed the issue of how likely people were to get their money back, particularly as PMS members fall into two categories: shareholders who invested up to £20,000 and those who invested more by making loans to the society.

"There is legal uncertainty as to whether shareholding members of the society are entitled to the return of any of their funds until those who have made loans to the society are repaid," the report said.

"The PMS was not regulated by the Financial Services Authority, nor was it part of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. Its members have no legal entitlement to reimbursement."

Last week a judge in Northern Ireland ruled that some of those who had saved £20,000 or less in the PMS could not be classed as creditors and were therefore not entitled to income from assets the society has realised since it went into administration.

'Church responsibility'

Committee chairman, John McFall, said there needed to be "a system which makes it crystal clear when whether and to what degree deposits are protected".

"We do not believe that, as a general rule, the taxpayer should stand behind an financial institution," he said.

"However it is clear in the case of the PMS there was a fatal regulatory gap, which no lay person could reasonably have identified."

The report also said the Presbyterian Church could not "evade responsibility for what happened".

"Legally, it appears that the church has no liability," it said.

"However, the society was linked to the church, its role was advertised at the general assembly, it was the subject of pulpit calls and it enthusiastically endorsed by many of its ministers.

"(It) should consider whether it can help in any way."

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