Banks not lending to business due to lack of funds, says competition chair

It isn’t a lack of competition that is causing banks not to lend to small businesses but a lack of funds, the chairperson of the Competition Authority believes.

Isolde Goggin told the Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation yesterday that the banking sector was in such a bad state that financial stability trumped competition as a key priority.

“I am not sure what the Competition Authority can do about the lack of loans to small businesses if the money isn’t there in the first place,” said Ms Goggin.

However, the authority continued to put pressure on the Department of Finance to ensure that the two pillar banks acted as if there were four or five banks in the market and their product offerings were as competitive as possible.

Moreover, if foreign banks were to enter the Irish market, then the authority would ensure that they had access to ATMs and a clearing system, Ms Goggin said.

The Competition Authority of Ireland is due to be merged with the National Consumer Agency, which will have one chairperson and one board, although no details had been finalised yet, said Ms Goggin.

The authority had carried out nine searches this year and there were six active investigations, she told the committee. The agency’s past successes were in the home heating oil and grocery sectors.

Committee members Dara Calleary and Anthony Lawlor urged Ms Goggin to focus on the cement and concrete sector, which they both said was open to widespread abuse. Ms Goggin said there were a number of ongoing investigations in this sector.

The agency was operating a confidential hotline system for any potential whistleblower to report cartel type arrangements. In return for information, the authority recommends to the Director of Public Prosecution that the whistleblower is given immunity from prosecution in the event of criminal proceedings.

There had been 20 applications under the Cartel Immunity Programme since its inception in 2001. A big stumbling block to the success of this programme was that the whistleblower had to appear in the witness box during court proceedings, said Ms Goggin.

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