Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

3:00 pm

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Labour)
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Question 80: To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the number of occasions in respect of each of the past five years on which prosecutions were initiated and prosecutions secured in respect of failure to hold appropriate work permits against employers and employees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25399/07]

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Minister, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Under the Employment Permits Acts 2003 and 2006, it is illegal to employ a non-EEA national without an employment permit where one is required. These Acts provide for a large number of obligations and offences including those relating to the employment of foreign nationals except in accordance with an employment permit; refusal to co-operate with inquiries of the Garda Síochána; forgery, fraudulent alteration or fraudulent use of an employment permit; and misuse by employer or employee of an employment permit.

Any prosecutions initiated under these Acts are a matter for the Garda Síochána, which comes under the auspices of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am informed the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has made inquiries with the Garda authorities in relation to the number of prosecutions but it has not been possible in the timeframe available to obtain the statistical information requested. This information will be forwarded to the Deputy as soon as it is available.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for that reply. Is there also an EU directive which makes it a criminal offence for employers to employ illegal immigrants? Could Ireland opt out of that directive, along with Britain, under the terms of Title lV? Can the Minister provide details of that possibility?

There is a general perception that while employees are prosecuted if detected working illegally, employers are not. It is important, because of this perception, that accurate figures are provided and I ask the Minister for further clarification. It is my understanding that Ireland and the United Kingdom indicated an intention to opt out of a new EU directive making it a criminal offence to employ illegal immigrants. This is so that criminal sanctions would not attach to employers. Is that the position or am I misinformed? If I am misinformed I will accept that, but I do not think I am.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Minister, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will check that matter for the Deputy.

The situation has changed somewhat. The Employment Permits Act 2003 provided for no enforcement body other than the Garda Síochána. The 2006 Act provides that "the Minister may appoint, in writing, such and so many of his or her officers to be authorised officers for the purposes of all or any of the provisions of the Act or the Act of 2003". My Department is currently holding discussions with the Garda national immigration bureau, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the National Employment Rights Authority with a view to developing a very robust system for such prosecutions.

The fundamental ethos of the National Employment Rights Authority will be one of building compliance. It will give people the opportunity to correct their wrong ways. Its objective will be to reduce transgressions by building a robust compliance model. Article 27 of the Employment Permits Act 2006 allows the exchange of information held by my Department for the purpose of the Acts, between my Department, the Ministers for Social and Family Affairs and Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Revenue Commissioners. This will allow agencies to combine their focus on employment sectors, such as the construction or hospitality sectors.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for that reply. I am glad to see there is a greater cohesion and integration in this regard. I understand it is important to provide the opportunity to become compliant rather than bring down the full force of an immediate criminal sanction. Nevertheless, it is important that we correct the perception that it is always the unfortunate employee rather than the employer who suffers as a result of a minor indiscretion.

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Will the Minister accept that the lack of awareness among employees and employers of their obligations in that area is still an issue? Will he consider introducing a penalty points system with more aggressive penalties for employers who are frequent offenders in regard to abuse of employees?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Minister, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is a useful suggestion that I would not rule out and that we could pursue because it could be built into the compliance model. I have taken a fairly hard line with regard to some employers. One of the easiest things to say to employers is that if they are found guilty of flouting employment and labour law, they need not bother to reapply for a work permit. That would be a very simple way of concentrating their minds. We had a very high profile case regarding the methodologies we use that has concentrated minds. It has ended up in the higher courts. Some of the feedback from the employers' side indicates that they are not overly enthused about the robust provisions of the 2006 Act. However, we have no alternative other than to do this to ensure we send a very clear statement that we will not tolerate any abuses of Irish employment and labour law or exploitation of Irish workers irrespective of class, creed or colour.