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The General Assembly debate on the PMS

June 11th, 2010

I seconded the report from the Panel on the Financial Crisis to the General Assembly on Wednesday afternoon, but because of the amendments to the resolution about ministers making a personal contribution towards the church’s proposed £1 million donation to the “hardship fund”, my speech didn’t get reported.

It was a classic case of the General Assembly, in a debate which had the attention of the press, shooting itself in the foot by debating the details of a plan that may never need to be activated. I have no doubt that many ministers would make significant and sacrificial personal contributions to such an appeal, if it was launched. They don’t need a resolution from the General Assembly to encourage them to do that.

It is important to keep the big picture in view. Our goal is a resolution that makes a hardship fund unnecessary. If and when this contribution to a rescue package is required, I expect we will see a generous response from the whole Presbyterian family, including its ministers. But we remain hopeful that this fund may not yet be needed.

So here’s the speech that wasn’t reported.

Moderator,

At the meeting of our Special Assembly in April, this church responded positively to the request made of us by making a clear commitment to raising £1 million as part of a proposed rescue plan for the PMS. By that action, we made it clear that we were concerned about the savers who had suffered terribly in being denied access to their savings for 18 months at that stage, and we wanted to move forward to a resolution.

At that Assembly we also put on record our appreciation for the work of all our local representatives in seeking a good resolution of the PMS crisis, and we expressed our particular thanks to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the other members of the Northern Ireland Executive. We want to re-affirm that appreciation today. They have understood our plight and, in putting together what we refer to as Plan B, they have done everything they can to get this crisis resolved. We appreciate the cross-party support which we have received from our local MLAs, and also the tremendous work of the Northern Ireland members at Westminster. And we want to say a clear and unambiguous word of thanks to them all.

We also acknowledge the sterling work done by the savers’ lobby groups in all that they have done. Their work has been critical in keeping this matter to the fore and making the key people aware of the desperate situation that many people are facing.

Since the meeting of our Special Assembly in April there has been one significant change in the whole situation, in that a new Government has been elected at Westminster. Prior to the election, we were encouraged by the words of leading members of the Conservative Party, and especially by what was said by Mr Cameron on his visit to Northern Ireland. He said,

“So I give you this pledge: if I am Prime Minister, a Conservative and Unionist Government will work with the Executive here to ensure a just and fair resolution of the PMS. It’s about saying we’re all in this together, you’ve done the right thing, and you deserve for that to be recognized and rewarded.”

Those were encouraging words, and especially since the Conservatives, while in Opposition, had used Gordon Brown’s own words that “no UK saver has suffered as a result of the financial crisis” in order to press the case for the PMS.

I wrote to the Prime Minister immediately after the election to encourage him to move the situation forward on the basis of that clear pledge. And you can imagine that when the Clerk and myself went to see the Secretary of State last Monday, we were eager to hear his response and attitude to the PMS situation.

I have to say I was greatly encouraged by what the Secretary of State, Mr Paterson, said, and by the clear indications of support we received from him and the new Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, Mr Hugo Swire. They made no bones about affirming, in the most positive terms, the Government’s commitment to deliver on Mr Cameron’s pledge. In fact, the Secretary of State encouraged me to quote the PM’s commitment in my speech to this Assembly and affirmed that this issue was a high priority for him and his officials.

We were greatly impressed by the sincerity of the new team’s approach, by their grasp of the issue, and by their sense of urgency. We made it clear to them that what is needed is that all the PMS savers, and not least the smaller savers, should be treated no less generously or fairly than their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

The Secretary of State recognized that the PMS is not a basket case, that it has substantial assets, and that elderly savers simply haven’t got the time to await a long, drawn-out process. They need action to be taken quickly.

One of the issues that has greatly concerned us is how, since going into administration, the PMS has essentially been “demutualised” in that a distinction has been drawn between those with less than £20,000 in savings and those with more than £20,000. This metaphysical distinction between creditors and investors has caused untold anxiety and distress, and is seen by many as being blatantly unfair and unjust. We have to say clearly that those smaller savers who put their money, often their life savings, in the PMS were thrifty savers, not risk-taking investors. They were not gambling with their money; they were depositing it in a place that they believed was safe and secure.

That is why, when we had the opportunity this week, we asked the Secretary of State, that in taking a totally fresh look at the PMS, he and his team would re-consider the commercial option, namely that the Society would be taken over by a larger financial institution. One of the advantages of this commercial solution is that it removes the iniquituous distinction between larger and smaller savers, and guarantees that everyone has full access to their money.

It is our belief that the previous Government at Westminster did not pursue this option with any degree of energy or commitment. Now it seems that this Government will give this option real and genuine consideration. If successful, (and we know that it is complex and that no one has a magic wand) this commercial option is the one which would deliver what we have consistently sought, namely, the restoration of 100p in the £ to every PMS saver.

We do not have that solution yet, but I believe that every PMS saver can take considerable comfort from the fact that as far as our national Government is concerned, the issue is for the first time being addressed sympathetically and constructively. We believe that the case for PMS savers is solid and well-grounded, and that the arguments in favour of its rescue are compelling.

What can we do?

Firstly, we can continue to pray. Jesus has a lot to say about prayer and especially about persistence and perseverance in prayer. Please continue to pray. I encourage ministers to pray about the PMS situation in their public prayers of intercession, and to make it an item on your congregational prayer lists or small group prayer list. For many people, this is a critical personal issue, and it is a critical issue for this church. We will be under pressure as a denomination until this situation is resolved.

Secondly, as I said back at Christmas, we need to be sensitive to the pastoral needs of those who are affected by this crisis. I ask ministers and elders to do all they can to support and help and encourage all those who are affected by the overall financial downturn that has brought unemployment and hard times to so many, as well as to PMS savers.

Thirdly, if you are a PMS saver, you can continue to write to those in positions of influence to let them know about your situation. We can make available to you addresses and contacts so that you can phone or email or write letters. Let me encourage every minister to make this information available to those in your congregation who are affected. Our local representatives are well aware of our position and we appreciate so much their advocacy of our cause. We ask them to continue their good work, and we ask you to encourage them in that work.

I believe that we are now in the best position we have been in for some time. With the clear commitment of the Northern Ireland Executive, and now the positive support of Her Majesty’s Government, I believe that we have reason to be hopeful. But we have had so many false dawns and hopes have been raised, and dashed, in the past.

Along with our panel and our advisors, I will continue to do all I can to see this matter addressed and resolved. In the words of that well-known reformed theologian, Bruce Springsteen, “I’m working on a dream”, but have to admit that in the words of the song,  “sometimes it seems so far away”. But by God’s grace we will not faint nor fail in working on this dream, namely, that every saver will have all their money restored to them.

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