Friday, 17 October 2014
Social Clauses in Public Procurement Bill 2013: Second Stage [Private Members]
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I also thank each of my colleagues present for engaging in this debate and with this Bill in such a spirited way, albeit for one moment in a slight rancorous way.
There is a commonsense logic to all of this. The fact that we are all supportive of the concept of social clauses reflects that fact. It simply makes good sense that for every public euro spent and invested we leverage the maximum positivity for the economy, society and our people. As I said in my opening remarks, it is about being really smart and considered in terms of knock-on benefits for the economy and society. The legislation and idea of social clauses are based on that premise. A healthy economy and a healthy society lock in together.
Discussions in which Sinn Féin has engaged north and south of the Border on social clauses in public procurement contracts have always taken account of EU directives. At no stage has Sinn Féin suggested a discriminatory process, or one in breach of the treaties and competition law, be introduced. This is because, however one feels about such laws, if one does not pay heed to them, one will fall foul of the courts. We are mindful that it would be a road to nowhere. Therefore, the Bill we are discussing takes account of the wider legislative framework.
The word "flexibility" has been used and I understand how it is meant. Indigenous industries, micro businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, must be dextrous, adaptable and flexible; that is a no-brainer, but I must sound a word of caution. We cannot confuse the idea of flexibility with a system that is so porous and ill-defined that it is not properly enforced and implemented. My anxiety on this issue stems from a point raised by my colleague, Deputy Seán Crowe. There is an ongoing dispute between JJ Rhatigan and subcontractors centred on a school site in Lucan, but I understand the issue is broader than this. Workers have been forced to take subcontractor status and paid less than the minimum wage, which gives cause for concern. They are angry and something that should have been positive - being back at work - has gone horribly wrong. They are involved in an ongoing dispute and, despite the interventions of different players, the matter has not been resolved. These men - I understand they are all men - are construction workers who have placed themselves in terrible financial difficulties by partaking in the dispute. The issues of the black economy and welfare fraud can be associated with the bad practice in question. The State sets the standard in terms of what is expected on behalf of taxpayers and it must set the gold standard of best practice through strict adherence to the law. When an entity that wins a State contract openly tramples on the law of the land, it must be stopped - it is as simple as that. The notion of enforcement and the associated appeals mechanism contained in the legislation are an expression of this necessity. There is little point in having mandatory social clauses if an entity that wins a State contract faces no consequences for breaking the law. As legislators, none of us could countenance such a scenario.
I was interested in the mention of meet-the-buyer events - it made Deputy Peter Mathews refer to the film "Meet the Fockers". I assure him that the two are entirely different.