Thursday, 18 February 2021
Covid-19 (Enterprise, Trade and Employment): Statements
As Minister of State with responsibility for trade promotion, digital and company regulation, I am acutely aware of the need for the regulatory regime and Ireland to be supportive and adaptable to the change and challenges that our businesses face, and to ensure that the right balance is struck when making laws in the area of company, competition and consumer law. Since taking office, I focused my attention on measures to put in place over the lifetime of this Government.
Excellent progress has been made across three areas of company, competition and consumer law which are under my remit. I delivered on the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Act 2020 which has resulted in companies and co-ops having the ability to hold AGMs remotely, an increased period of protection in examinership, and an increase of the threshold at which a company can be wound up. These important amendments ensure the normal operation of the Companies Act during the pandemic and provide breathing space to companies struggling with pressures under liquidity. The amendments can remain in place by Covid-19 continues to disrupt business operations.
The Company Registration Office has also shown considerable flexibility on the deadlines for filing annual returns in recognition of the additional challenges faced in companies. It has also introduced a new filing system which will permanently simplify the filing process.
I have been particularly mindful of the challenges that will face small companies, the backbone of our economy, as and when the country emerges from the shadow of Covid-19. I want to make sure that those companies which are fundamentally viable businesses have access to an affordable small company rescue process, which the Tánaiste mentioned. At our request, the company law review group, CLRG, considered the issue and made recommendations in this regard. My Department is developing legislation at pace and a public consultation exercise is under way. I encourage key stakeholders to make submissions. I want to have the legislation in place before the summer break. I would greatly appreciate the support of the Opposition in ensuring we can achieve that.
I also want to ensure that employees of companies which are entering insolvency have knowledge of, and access to, their rights under company law. I expect the CLRG to report to me over the next fortnight on the issue of employee rights when a company goes into liquidation and have made arrangements to discuss these company law matters with the chair of the CLRG in early March. Again, any legislative proposals will be my priority.
Also in the area of company law, we are progressing the legislation to establish the ODCE as stand alone agency to be called the corporate enforcement authority. I eagerly await the pre-legislative scrutiny report of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment as I want to go to Cabinet as soon as possible in order to have the Bill published and introduced. This is an important step in ensuring that Ireland has a strong company law enforcement regime.
I also want to strengthen competition law. The forthcoming Competition (Amendment) Bill, which is undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny, will give national competition authorities such as the CCPC new powers with regard to enforcing competition law. The legislation will break new ground in this area, giving the authorities teeth by providing for administrative sanctions and other tools. Again, I look forward to the joint committee’s report which I will consider carefully before having the Bill brought to the Government for publication.
Speaking of competition, I want to ensure that businesses and consumers have access to affordable and competitively priced insurance. I have instructed my officials to develop new legislation concerning the Personal Injuries Assessment Board which will widen its scope and develop it functions as regards assessments. This is but one part of a comprehensive cross-government insurance action plan, which is being led by the Tánaiste.
On broader matters of insurance and its impact on business continuity there can be no ambiguity from insurance companies in paying legitimate claims on business interruption policies. The courts have given their verdicts, the Central Bank has issued its instructions and insurance companies must now honour valid claims from businesses without delay. I hope the legitimate claims will be resolved swiftly and allow those businesses with valid claims to access fair compensation.
It must also be noted with regards to insurance the subject of forbearance. Anecdotal reports indicate that many businesses have not been afforded such reprieves. I call on the insurance companies to honour their commitments in relation to affording businesses which are closed or whose activity is reduced due to the pandemic to be awarded an element of forbearance. I acknowledge and appreciate the contribution of the insurance industry to the overall economy and the many tens of thousands it employs - no one wants to cripple this industry - but what we do expect is fair play and due process for their customers.
My Government colleagues and I are committed to seeing effective insurance reform and the actions set out in the action plan for insurance are essential to reducing the cost of insurance and dealing with the negative impact this has on businesses and consumers. I look forward to the publication by the Judicial Council on the new award guidelines. I hope it is ambitious in its proposals. Reform of the Personal Injuries Board and enhancing the powers of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is a top priority for me to bring about effective change for consumers, businesses and community and voluntary groups.
The Government has rapidly put in place comprehensive packages to help businesses and workers during the pandemic, including the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme, CRSS, low-cost loans, the deferral and warehousing of tax liabilities and the waiver of commercial rates. Last week, the Government announced the new €60 million scheme, called the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS, that is being developed to provide grants to businesses ineligible for the Government’s other existing schemes. The introduction of the scheme will act as a further aid for businesses as part of the suite of enterprise measures that are already in operation, and crucially help the majority of these enterprises which have been locked out of CRSS.
It is estimated that up to 7,500 eligible businesses may benefit from this scheme.
This scheme will help address some of the needs of businesses as we navigate the ongoing public health crisis, keeping viable businesses in operation and supporting jobs. However, it is important to recognise that the scheme is not a silver bullet and while many more businesses will be able to avail of the many Government supports, there are others which cannot, such as the event sector. I will continue to work with this sector and with my colleagues in government, particularly the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin,to ensure that this sector is further supported.