The decision on Wednesday by the Prime Minister to set up a working group to seek a solution to the crisis surrounding the PMS was a great relief for the many savers with the PMS. At last the government was accepting that it had a moral responsibility, if not a legal one, to get involved. It was an important first step towards a solution.
Tribute has to be paid to our First Minister and Deputy First Minister who represented the needs of the PMS savers so effectively. The fact that they were both so clearly committed to the issue did not go unnoticed by either HMG or the local electorate. I am so grateful for what they have done.
The question that has been raised is “Why should everyone else have to bail out a Presbyterian mutual society? Is it not up to Presbyterians to solve their own problem?” The short answer is that all of our taxes, including the taxes of Presbyterian taxpayers, are being used to bail out all the other financial institutions that got into trouble: the RBS, Northern Rock, Dunfermline, and British savers in the Icelandic banks. Why should Presbyterians be treated differently and be the only group of people not to be assisted?
The PMS could not insulate itself from the global financial crisis. If other people and institutions have been bailed out to the tune of many billions of pounds, then the PMS deserves to be helped. The First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, and now this week, the Prime Minister, recognised that fact.
We need to pray for the working group as it, under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State, goes about its task. The primary goal of any solution has to be to see that the totality of money belonging to those who placed their savings in the PMS is secured, as well as the credit balances of many congregations, as has happened in all the other financial institutions which have been caught up in this crisis.
It is also important to recognise the wider social and political issues which surround this crisis. I believe that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has provided significant cohesion and stability in our community in the past, and a successful resolution of our current crisis will enable our church to continue to make a positive contribution in a number of important areas. In my address on the opening night of the General Assembly I tried to point out all the different ways in which PCI contributes to our community.
Along with our sister churches, the Presbyterian Church provides more youth work than the combined efforts of local councils and government agencies. Through uniformed organisations, youth clubs and youth fellowships, through summer camps and summer clubs, we serve a massive number of children and young people in our communities. In addition to that, there are lunch clubs, meetings and fellowship groups for the elderly. In education, we serve on school boards of governors and on our area education and library boards. All of this service is provided by volunteers.
In 20 different locations the Presbyterian Church cares for a great variety of people: from accommodation in Belfast for 88 students, to those needing nursing care in seven residential homes. Every night Presbyterian Church related agencies provide beds for 400 people. There are two centres for alcohol and drug addiction, one centre for ex-offenders, two supporting schemes for people with learning disability, and one centre recently taken over for people with severe physical disability. The church provides chaplaincy services to hospitals, to students, to prisons and to the armed forces, as well as a specialised ministry for the deaf. All of this is underpinned by the spiritual, financial and human resources of Presbyterians.
If the working group fails to come up with a solution that restores money to PMS savers, all of this work will be seriously affected. So the PM’s decision last Wednesday was just the important first step. We need the next steps to be taken soon.