Thursday, 18 February 2021
Covid-19 (Enterprise, Trade and Employment): Statements
There are several matters I wish to raise. I hope the Tánaiste will have time to respond to my contribution either orally or in writing. The first matter is the closure of Ulster Bank and the protection of redundancy rights for workers with respect to the pandemic unemployment payment, the EU directive on the minimum wage and, finally, casual trading by-laws. The Tánaiste knows this move will substantially reduce competition in the Irish mortgage and small and medium enterprise lending markets, which come under his remit and not just that of the Minister for Finance. Currently the average interest rate for new mortgages in Ireland is more than double the EU average and the average interest rate on SME lending and consumer loans in Ireland is also considerably higher than the EU average. Customers with mortgages and business loans will be very concerned that their loans may be flogged to vulture funds. As has also been mentioned, there are 2,800 workers who will also be concerned about their future.
Will the Tánaiste set out what he feels he can do to save these 2,800 jobs as this comes under his remit? Will the State use its majority shareholding in PTSB to create a real third force in Irish banking that would benefit customers and small and medium enterprises? Will the Tánaiste confirm the transfer of undertakings for protection of employment will apply in any possible sale or acquisition of any part of Ulster Bank to an Irish bank where the Minister for Finance is a significant shareholder?
There have been serious concerns raised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, that time on the PUP does not count towards redundancy rights. The Department has stated that the matter is legally complex and it is seeking advice on it. This seemed to be clear enough when the legislation was introduced last March. The response of the Minister for Finance at the time was:
On the questions put to me by Deputies Nash and Brady, the existing provisions in Schedule 3 to the Redundancies Payment Act 1967 already provide that periods of temporary lay-offs do not break continuity of employment. This will obviously include temporary lay-off periods due to the effects of the measures required by an employer to comply with, or as a consequence of, Government policy to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of infection of Covid 19. I hope that answers the questions
That was from the Tánaiste's colleague, the Minister for Finance. Based on those assurances in the Dáil by the Minister for Finance and multiple assurances from officials, a Labour Party amendment at the time was not pressed. Unfortunately, the rights of workers are being put at risk by the failure of the Government to carry through on promises that were issued. The Government got co-operation on the emergency legislation because of that promise.
Will the Tánaiste ensure his Department is operating under the interpretation of the law as explained by the Minister for Finance last March?
If there is a difficulty, I ask the Minister to advise the House that he intends to fix it, and to do so in a way so as not to disenfranchise the redundancy rights of workers during this pandemic.
On the issue of the minimum wage directive, does the Minister regret his decision to co-sign a letter attempting to undermine the proposed European minimum wage directive? Does he accept that he was part of an effort to block the effective implementation of the directive? Does he accept that Ireland had pre-Covid rates of 23% of the population on low pay, as defined by the OECD, and that 40% of young workers were in insecure work? Does he accept that with less than 30% of the working population covered by collective bargaining, we are far below the 70% coverage deemed normal and desirable in the European context? I ask the Minister whether he or his Department has taken any further action in respect of the proposed minimum wage directive, what future plans exist regarding Ireland's response to this directive, and what plans he has to reduce the dependence of our economy on low pay.
I appreciate that I am eating up most of the time allotted, so a written response would be appreciated to this, my last question. Is the Minister aware of the difficulties faced by small businesses, particularly restaurants and cafes, looking to expand into food trucks and mobile businesses? Has he had any conversations with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the causal trading by-laws, which in many cases do not allow sufficient flexibility for councils to rapidly create new locations for such services? I have drafted a Bill at the request of a cross-party group of councillors in the Howth, Sutton and Baldoyle area, including Councillors Brian McDonagh and Eoghan O'Brien, which I will be happy to make available to the Minister. With time, other emergency legislation and the co-operation of the Government, it could be delivered quickly.