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Growth in credit unions expected under new regulatory body

Published: 4 Jan 2013 12:000 comments

More local people are approaching credit unions each week as mistrust of the banks continues, particularly following the Ulster Bank crisis.

Jim McCreery, chairman of Lisbellaw Credit Union with son Chris, treasurer, UFCU.

That's according to Lisbellaw man Chris McCreery, the current Treasurer of the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions (UFCU).

Chris and his father Jim McCreery are members of the Lisbellaw credit union and Jim is its current chair.

"Lisbellaw credit union is no different," Chris explains. "New people are coming through almost every week. People are telling us that they are finding it even more difficult to get loans from banks and things like the recent problems at Ulster Bank add to a wider public mistrust of banks in general."

Pay day loans are an increasing problem, Chris reports. These are advertised regularly on TV and online e.g. QuickQuid and PurplePayday.

"As a whole, credit unions are concerned over the increase in the number of companies offering pay day loans and the extortionate interest rates that these services often incur," he tells the Impartial Reporter.

"Unfortunately, high interest pay day loans are generally taken out by those in financial trouble, with the high interest rates often leading to a spiralling level of debt."

Credit unions across Northern Ireland are trying to persuade people away from such risky lending practices, particularly as Christmas approaches.

"I feel that credit unions can provide a real alternative and direct competition to pay day loan companies," Chris states.

"We aim to help members take control of their money by encouraging them to save what they can, and borrow only what they can afford to repay. We see this balance of responsible saving and affordable credit to be at the very core of our ethos."

On December 10, Westminster MPs approved laws to give the new UK financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the ability to cap the costs of credit when it takes over regulation of this market.

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) is the current financial regulator but is due to be replaced by two new bodies in 2013; the FCA (responsible for regulating retail and financial markets) and the Prudential Regulation Authority (responsible for regulating insurers and investment banks).

Until recently, all credit unions in Northern Ireland were regulated by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI). Following years of lobbying at Westminster and Stormont, the UK Government granted regulatory responsibility for credit unions across the UK to the FSA. This will enable Northern Ireland credit unions to expand their services in line with Great Britain.

Since he was appointed Treasurer of the UFCU in May 2011, Chris has been involved in lobbying for new regulation.

"I joined the board at a particularly busy time as the organisation went through one of the most significant transitions in its history, with regulation of Northern Ireland credit unions transferring from DETI to the FSA in March 2012," he explains.

"The move was one we were lobbying for as it will allow credit unions to expand their services." New services will include insurance and mortgage products which the FSA is responsible for, and child trust funds.

"The other big advantage is that now every member of the credit union is a member of the financial services compensation scheme, meaning that savers have the same amount of protection as bank customers, providing up to £85,000 protection of savings per member in the event of a credit union failing," Chris says.

He praises the work of Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster who has "kept a keen interest in assisting credit unions, providing grant support to the UFCU to support and advise individual credit unions on the regulatory changes."

DETI has also committed to implementing legislation which will allow credit unions to lend to organisations and community groups in the future.

"We frequently get requests from local sports clubs and community groups wishing to save with us and it is great to see that Minister Foster is beginning the process of introducing legislation to allow us to do this," Chris remarks.

Although the regulatory change will place "inevitable burdens on an organisation run almost solely by volunteers," Chris has no doubt that those who run local credit unions will step up to the mark.

"The one thing that always astonishes me is the commitment of our volunteers throughout the credit union movement. I always cite Lisbellaw credit union as one of the finest examples of the volunteering and community spirit I have seen.

"From pretty small beginnings, Lisbellaw has accumulated over 1,500 members and is run solely by a dedicated team of local volunteers, some of which have been involved since the day we first opened our doors in 1990."

An umbrella for 55 credit unions throughout Northern Ireland, the UFCU provides support to local credit unions and is broken down by county or zones, with the Fermanagh zone comprising of Lisbellaw Credit Union; Erne Credit Union (Kesh and Irvinestown), Lakeland Credit Union (Enniskillen), Mallard Credit Union (Ballinamallard) and South Fermanagh Credit Union (Lisnaskea).

The Irish League of Credit Unions is the umbrella group for 503 credit unions throughout Ireland. There are 103 affiliated credit unions in Northern Ireland with approximately 370,000 members.

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