Thursday, 19 April 2018
Extreme Weather (Miscellaneous Provisions Bill) 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill provides for the safety of workers when certain red alert severe weather warnings are issued by Met Éireann. It will enhance public safety during status red weather warnings and ensure the safety of rescue service personnel during such warnings. We have had to contend with two such events in recent months - Storm Ophelia in October 2017 and Storm Emma in February and March of this year. This legislation was proposed in the aftermath of Storm Ophelia, during which three people tragically lost their lives. It provides for clear guidelines in an attempt to avoid the utter confusion with which many employers and workers had to deal during previous storm events in the absence of such legislation. In the immediate aftermath of Storm Ophelia, the Taoiseach rightly acknowledged that there was significant confusion regarding the action that private sector businesses and self-employed people should take when extreme weather warnings are declared. A clear mechanism was in place in the public sector to close schools and public offices. Emergency services and local authorities responded to the crisis as best they could. When the same problems arose during Storm Emma, there was confusion with regard to people working in the private sector. Thankfully, no lives were lost during Storm Emma. I take this opportunity to commend the work of the emergency services and the local authorities during that event. During Storm Emma, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government asked non-essential businesses to close for safety reasons. That was good practice because a status red warning means action has to be taken to ensure public safety during an extreme weather event.
For safety reasons, it makes sense for businesses to close for the duration of such a warning. It makes no sense, therefore, that the Government will not support the Bill, which is designed to provide clarity for businesses and workers on the safety measures they should take while a status red warning is in place. During Storm Emma, non-essential personnel were asked not to go to work but workers were very much at the mercy of employers. We would like to think that most businesses would do the right thing and it is fair to say that most businesses did the right thing. Nevertheless, there were those which did not. In the absence of legislation, many businesses would seek to exploit the confusion that surrounds action or direction for workers and employers. This Bill would provide protection for those workers.
Another matter addressed in the Bill is risky behaviour during a status red warning. We witnessed such behaviour in many counties across the State, with people swimming in rough waters and walking along piers and causeways during the red alert. Their behaviour was reckless, incredibly dangerous and stupid. It put their lives and those of members of the emergency services at risk. We a seeking, via this Bill, to give An Garda Síochána enhanced powers to pursue such behaviour under the law. It would make it an offence to engage in behaviour of this kind if a member of An Garda Síochána deems such behaviour to be reckless or without reasonable cause or excuse. It would be a criminal offence, with the penalty of a €1,000 fine, up to six months imprisonment, or both.
There is nothing in this Bill that has not been previously recommended by the Government. For it not to want to enshrine in legislation the safety of workers during a status red alert is both reckless and myopic. I urge all other parties to support the Bill and, in doing so, protect the safety of all workers and rescue service personnel. If the Bill provides for anything, it is clarity, certainty and safety during a status red alert. There is simply no justification for not supporting it.
Extreme weather events are very rare. Weather events such as Storm Ophelia and the snow we witnessed recently are not everyday occurrences. They are rare and that is their nature. It is why Met Éireann and the Government, to be fair, take all this seriously. It is the reason we have different categories of warning, with the highest being a status red alert.
The Bill does three simple things. It amends the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to provide for the safety of employees during extreme weather situations; the Government does not want to support that. It amends the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 to provide for the protection of public safety and the safety of rescue service personnel during weather warnings; the Government does not want to support that. The Bill also ensures that employees shall be treated by their employers as if at work for the period under warning; the Government does not want to support that either.
We are not talking about essential services or companies that provide essential work. We are not talking about public sector employees that provide front-line services and so on. It covers all non-essential work in the public and private sector. During the most recent extreme weather events, we had the Taoiseach, Met Éireann and a plethora of Ministers rightly telling people in red alert areas not to travel because it was unsafe to do so. With the vast majority of companies that closed, there was no difficulty for employees. When the decision was made to close those companies, employees got paid. The difficulty is that some employers, despite not providing essential services, decided to open and thus placed the lives of their employees at risk. The people who had to make journeys took their lives in their own hands because they wanted to protect their jobs, could not afford to lose pay, etc. Those who stayed at home risked losing a day's pay or having it treated as a holiday. That was very unfair to those workers.
We are trying to provide certainty in legislative terms. The Government is saying that we should trust all employers. As is the case with most employment rights legislation in this State, the idea was that we would work on the basis of a voluntary system whereby if the employer is good, employees would be protected, but if the employer is not good, there is still no real role for the State. Of course, there is a role for the State. We are trying to do something very simple in cases of very rare extreme weather events. What is so objectionable about asking employers to follow this when the Taoiseach, flanked by members of the emergency services, appeared on bulletins at 6 p.m., 9 p.m. and various other times and stated that people should not travel because it was unsafe to do so? He gave the correct message but the same people listening to the message were told by some employers to disregard it and come to work. If they did not go to work, they did not get paid. The Minister of State seems to think that was okay because the Government is not prepared to put a solution in place. We have heard from the Government that it will issue guidelines, which is no good. This must be underpinned by legislation. What is so objectionable to companies providing non-essential services being directed that in these very rare circumstances they should close. This would only happen in the geographical areas where there is a red alert. I cannot see it and the Government will have to answer on that.
I cannot understand why the Government objects to the second part of the Bill either. A small number of people engage in reckless activity during these weather events. We see them surfing, swimming, walking on piers and so on. By doing so, they put their lives at risk. If they get into danger, they also put the lives of members of the emergency services - who are obliged to respond - at risk. There is no criminal sanction for this and it is not an offence at all but it should be. It should be an offence if a person engages in reckless behaviour despite all the advice given out. We see and hear about this and people are incensed when it happens because emergency and front-line services are put at risk. Everybody says it is wrong. The Government now has a chance to take action and at least put some sort of deterrent in place but it will not do that either.
What is it about the Minister of State and this Fine Gael Government that when we bring forward legislation to try to improve the lot of workers and give them certainty, it is rejected? We had discussions about this previously. I brought forward a Bill on if-and-when contracts but apparently it could not work. A couple of months later, when the Government came under pressure, it produced legislation that does not go far enough. Why not accept our Bill? If the Government has difficulties with it, the legislation can be amended and we can be told what are the problems. Rejecting the Bill indicates to employees and workers that the Government really does not care. I should not have to remind the Minister of State that three people lost their lives during Storm Ophelia. One person was from Cork, one was from Louth and one was from my constituency in Waterford. Some of those families have been campaigning for legislation like this as they believe workers should get certainty.
I remember during the snow a number of months ago I received dozens of calls from workers who were very confused and did not know what to do. They had to make decisions that they knew put their lives in danger. One can imagine these people had children, who would have been off school. These people were really upset because they did not know what to do and were under huge pressure from their employers.
I was listening to the Taoiseach giving very clear warnings not to travel and an employer saying to travel. There has been no response from the Government at all. It is "trust the employers". We can trust the vast majority of employers. However, for those who do not do things correctly and who put their employees at risk, it is our job as legislators to make sure we protect workers. The Minister will have to account for his actions. We can only do our best in opposition. When we are lobbied about a problem by people - Teachta Adams and Teachta Munster were lobbied by individuals in Louth as I and others were across the country - we come up with a Bill that attempts to and would fix the problem. That is our job in opposition. The Minister, the Taoiseach and the Government have responsibility, but they have done nothing at all. That is despite these two bad weather situations. I do not even have to use up all of my time. Other people will want to come in.
I am disappointed the Government is not supporting the Bill. I am not sure what is the position of the other party in Government, Fianna Fáil. We will hear that in a few minutes. Other parties have indicated they will support the Bill. I hope the Government will change its mind and support the Bill. The Minister, the Taoiseach and the Government often criticise Sinn Féin in a partisan and negative way for not providing solutions. When we do, as we are doing here, the Government's response is that it will not support it. That is a matter for it.
The trade union movement, including the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, which represents workers is looking for action. Goodbody Stockbrokers did an analysis of our Bill. It was a positive and constructive analysis. It said the status quo is not good enough and something has to be done. If the Minister is going to reject our Bill, I hope he has come in with some alternative that is better. If he has come in empty handed, then he is failing all of those workers who were failed the last time we had the two extreme weather events.
I thank all the Sinn Féin Members for being here and all the other Members. As Deputy Cullinane said, it is a fine afternoon. Let me state from the outset that it is vital that the public is not put into life threatening or dangerous situations during extreme weather events. The fact that Met Éireann has a graded, colour coded weather warning system has considerable merit. It serves to inform the public and business owners when caution is required and certain activities need to be curtailed. That is an important part of the system. In that regard, I appreciate the well intentioned motivation behind the current proposal. I believe, however, that the introduction of this Bill is premature as a full review of Storm Ophelia and Storm Emma is ongoing. Like other speakers, I compliment the emergency services during both storms and the work they did to ensure the safety of the public. I compliment the team in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment as well. It would be more appropriate to wait for the outcome of this review to gain an understanding of experiences across the various sectors of the economy and Government. At that point it will be possible to determine what, if any, policy, legislative or general guidance changes are required. Also, many aspects of the Bill as presented are unworkable.
It has been the consistent policy of successive Governments to support the development of workplace health and safety legislation. Through the inspection, enforcement and promotional activities of the Health and Safety Authority, the number of fatalities and accidents arising from work related activities has fallen considerably over the last two decades. We can all welcome this and I am sure this progress will continue in the future. Our existing safety, health and welfare at work legislation offers robust protections for workers, as does Ireland's employment rights legislation.
This Bill proposes to amend the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 to provide for the protection of public safety and the safety of rescue service personnel during an extreme weather warning. It will create a new offence when some individuals act recklessly, or without reasonable cause, and engage in any activity directly or indirectly which endangers life. While this proposal is well intentioned, from my perspective, the most important concept to consider in this debate is that of balance and the potential broader impact and consequences of the Bill as it is currently presented. The primary legislation relating to occupational safety and health is the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. Under this legislation employers, including the self-employed, already have a statutory obligation to provide for the safety of their employees while at work and while undertaking work activities. This statutory responsibility includes employees required to drive as part of their work.
However, normal commuting to and from a place of work in a private vehicle or using other modes of transport is outside the scope of the 2005 Act. The issue of the safety of the commuting public in this context of an extreme weather event is a matter of public safety and is outside the remit of my Department and that of the Health and Safety Authority. I contend that the underlying purpose of the Bill is to ensure broader public safety in the context of an extreme weather event with particular reference to the commuting public. I must stress therefore that the proposed amendments are not in keeping with the overall purpose and focus of the 2005 Act which is primarily to secure the safety, health and welfare of employees at work in the context of work activities.
These amendments would confer a range of disproportionate duties on employers, as well as obligations that go beyond what could be regarded as reasonable arising from work activities and the management of a workplace. The matters raised in the Bill are essentially matters of broader public safety. Employers already have a duty to ensure the safety and health of persons at work and to manage work activities to ensure, so far as is reasonable, the safety and health of their employees while they are at work. In this regard, in the period preceding a likely extreme weather event employers should assess the risks arising from the place of work, the work environment and from work activities in order to establish whether or not the work activities are likely to cause specific risks to the safety and health of workers arising from those work activities. If a risk is established, then adequate precautions must be taken to prevent the risk of injury.
In relation to the specific proposed amendment to section 11 of the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 it should be noted that section 11(2) already deals with serious, imminent and unavoidable danger for persons at work and the protection of employees. Subsection (2) already obliges an employer to inform all employees of the risks involved and the steps to be taken to protect them in the event of such an emergency or serious and imminent danger. It is also notable that the plans and procedures to be put in place by an employer under section 11 also require the necessary measures be provided for the evacuation of both employees and any other individual at the place of work. Section 11(3) provides that an employee who leaves a place of work in such circumstances is not penalised. Subsection (5) excludes certain defined classes of emergency workers.
The proposed amendment to section 11 seeks to give the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment vaguely described, ill-defined and broad powers to exempt categories of employees from inclusion in the newly inserted subsection (4A). The terms used are vague. It is not at all clear what is meant by “essential service” or “work, that by its nature, requires continuity of it be maintained.” The provisions do not seem to be workable from either a legislative drafting, legal or practical perspective. The proposed amendment is framed as an absolute obligation on an employer to close all places of work in the affected area, without any precondition of assessments appropriate to the particular workplace, or a particular weather event, be it rain, snow, wind or a combination of these events. Furthermore, the amendment is framed entirely outside the existing provisions of section 11 which are all geared towards requiring an employer to plan and put in place procedures to deal with emergencies etc.
There would undoubtedly be unintended consequences to such an absolute obligation. For example, what happens if employees, such as teachers with pupils, are already in their places of employment when a status red weather warning is given for the area? This Bill specifically directs employers such as schools to close during a status red weather warning. That could force staff and pupils out of a safe place of employment into dangerous weather conditions.
The Bill addresses the employer's right to keep the business open especially when food production and supplies are concerned. Indeed, in the case of food distribution preventing workers from delivering food in circumstances where it has been determined that it is safe to do so may contribute to food shortages or give rise to loss of perishable foodstuffs and, in extreme circumstances, could give rise to social unrest.
The Bill proposes to insert a new section 6A into the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994. The provision creates an offence relating to dangerous activity in a workplace when a status red weather warning is in place. Under the provisions a person commits an offence where he or she acts recklessly or without reasonable excuse and engages in any activity that presents a danger to his or her life or to the life of other persons or interferes with the ability of the emergency services to perform their functions. This is unclear and ill-defined and could be interpreted by some to include going for a walk in heavy rain if there is a red alert for rainfall in the area. Indeed, industry representatives will argue that the Bill would adversely affect productivity if unnecessary closure of businesses occurs, impacting on businesses in terms of business continuity and competitiveness.
The Bill amends the definition of "public place" in the 1994 Act to include any part of the maritime area within the meaning of section 2 of the Continental Shelf Act 1968 in respect of which a status red severe weather warning is in place. However, this reference to the Continental Shelf Act 1968 is not understood upon review of the contents of the section.
The proposed section 6A(3) that would amend the 1994 Act defines "emergency service" as including the Garda Síochána, the fire service, the ambulance service, the coastal rescue service and the mountain and cave rescue services or a similar emergency service. The catch-all reference "or a similar emergency service" creates a grey area. The section does not specifically include waterways, whether inland or coastal, or emergency services such as the Irish Coast Guard, Civil Defence or Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It does not address the services of non-governmental organisations such as the Order of Malta, St. John Ambulance and Irish Red Cross emergency services or other private emergency services such as private ambulances.
The Bill amends section 8 of the 1994 Act to provide that the new offence is covered by existing Garda powers to direct people to desist from acting in a manner that runs contrary to public order and to leave the vicinity of the place concerned. The prescribed penalties for those found guilty of commission of the new offence relating to dangerous activity are, on summary conviction, a fine of up to €1,000 or imprisonment for up to six months or both. The proposed new offence of dangerous activity in a public place is well-intentioned. However, making it an offence to put one's own life in danger could deter a person from calling for assistance. My colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, has responsibility for the criminal justice aspects of the Bill, including the proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act. The Minister for Justice and Equality is conscious of the need to ensure that the law sufficiently reflects the duty on the Legislature to protect the lives and safety of the public and of the emergency services when experience shows that this is required. The foolhardy and reckless behaviour of some people entering the water when Storm Ophelia hit caused understandable controversy. While it is incumbent on everyone to act responsibly, the Minister recognises that there may be need to make the law more explicit in certain circumstances. The proposed new offence of dangerous activity in a public place is well-intentioned. However, it gives rise to some issues that may need to be teased out further if the Government were not to oppose it.
The Office of the Attorney General has been consulted and has highlighted several concerns. One relates to imprecision in the use of certain language and terminology. The broad scope of the proposed new offence could apply to all public places. There is inconsistency of language in other provisions in the public order legislation. There is some duplication or overlapping of offences that could lead to uncertainty and be exploited by the defence. For example, section 19 of the 1994 Act already provides for an offence of obstruction of peace officers - essentially the emergency services - and section 13 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 provides for an offence of reckless endangerment. One unintended consequence that could arise relates to where a person has found himself or herself in a position where he or she presents a danger to himself or herself but is deterred from contacting the emergency services lest he or she leaves himself or herself open to prosecution. Another is the possibility of inadvertently criminalising a person suffering from mental health issues who has commenced the process of committing suicide, thereby presenting a danger to himself or herself, during an extreme weather occurrence. A further concern relates to the need to ensure that proposed penalties are appropriate and consistent with other legal provisions.
These issues need further and careful examination. I put it sincerely to the Sinn Féin Party that the Minister of Justice and Equality is nevertheless open to engagement on the criminal justice proposals in the Bill with a view to highlighting the various difficulties with the criminal justice elements of the Bill, as drafted, and inviting its sponsors to take on board this feedback and bring forward new proposals.
The Bill goes beyond the updated guidance that was issued by the Workplace Relations Commission in response to the weather warnings during Storm Emma.
The Bill has flaws, especially with regard to balance and proportionality. The practical and potential legal issues that would arise if it were to be enacted are numerous. They are capable of creating many difficulties and significant consequences for individual employers and businesses. Given these flaws I cannot support the Bill and I intend to oppose it.
I have to say i dtús go bhfuil brón orm nach bhfuil an Rialtas ag tabhairt tacaíochta don Bhille seo. I am disappointed that the Government is not going to support the Bill. At the risk of being totally and absolutely wrong, I presume the Minister of State did not write the script I have before me. It has taken me the short time that it took the Minister of State to read out the script to try to absorb it.
I note that the Minister of State said on at least three occasions that it is well-intended, and that is nice. Then at the end, the Minister of State said that the Minister for Justice and Equality is open to engagement in respect of the criminal justice proposals in the Bill. We are up for that engagement and I would like to follow through on that. I have done this in the past with other legislation when we have worked through the details of some issues with officials.
I will get to the bones of what the Minister of State has said - I have not had the opportunity to study the script in great detail. The key to his statement is contained on page five of the script delivered. The Minister of State said that industry will argue the Bill will adversely affect company productivity if the unnecessary closure of businesses occurs, impacting on businesses in terms of business continuity and competitiveness. I believe that is the Government's problem. In other words, business and industry representatives anticipate this measure as meaning they will have to pick up the tab for a worker who would not be expected to turn in to work but who would have to be paid for it.
The Minister of State also said that in a likely extreme event employers should assess the risks arising from the place of work or the work environment and from all work activities. Those in Met Éireann are the people who assess that. The Government did a good job during the few days of extreme weather recently. The Government based all the warnings, instructions, guidance and appeals on what those in Met Éireann were saying. They are the people who tell us if we have a pending problem.
I got involved in this because the family of Fintan Goss from Ravensdale got in touch with my office. He was a young man on his way home from work. His child was christened beside his coffin. The family got in touch with my office so we discussed this and decided to try to bring something forward. One could say it was a fluke or a freak accident - we do not know how things work out in life at all.
The reason his family got in touch with us is that they wanted to ensure that this did not happen to someone else. This young man felt obliged to go to work. The same thing happened elsewhere and two other people, Michael Pyke and Clare O'Neill, were killed. That is the motivation and context for this Bill. I commend the Goss and the other families who, in the midst of their grief, sought to ensure that other families are protected in the future.
The Met Éireann website states: "The core rationale for issuing Weather Warnings is to protect the lives and livelihoods of all the nation's citizens." It is very clear. In other words, a weather warning is issued and people are requested to please take account of it and to take steps to ensure that they protect their lives.
The purpose of this Bill is twofold. It amends, as the Minister of State said, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to make sure that employees are safe during severe weather warnings issued by Met Éireann, not by anybody else. It also seeks to amend the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 to ensure the protection of the public safety and the safety of rescue service personnel during such a weather warning.
As I read through the Minister of State's remarks, which are written in such opaque language, it refers to safety at the workplace and workplace health and safety, and we want to make sure that whatever progress is being made in that field continues, but this is about a decision whether a person, for non-essential work - not essential work - should be obliged to risk their life going to work.
The Taoiseach asked everyone to stay at home for a 24-hour period during the red status alert. The Taoiseach was right. The State was effectively brought to a standstill. Public transport was disrupted, schools were closed and public sector workers were told to remain at home. Water and electricity supplies for many families were affected. The responsibility of the Government was to act as it did. In advance of Storm Emma there was widespread media coverage of the impending bad weather and we were left in no doubt about the seriousness of the extreme weather that was expected.
Places like Canada deal with weather conditions all the time in the winter which are much worse than what we experienced. Even though there is the danger of climate change and so on, we only get these big storms rarely but when we have that focus, those warnings, the Taoiseach asking everyone to stay at home, the shutdown of public transport and so on, then surely the Government is obliged for those non-essential workers to give them at least the protection that they deserve. It is straightforward in the case of public sector workers. Non-emergency service staff stayed at home. Oireachtas staff stayed at home. Sinn Féin staff stayed at home.
Front-line staff, hospital staff, showed amazing commitment and courage, as did carers and personal assistants. We all know stories of carers who trudged through the snow to help a person and personal assistants did the same. Another issue, with which we cannot deal today, is that some people with disabilities were left isolated for days because there was not the type of transport that could get to them in such a freak weather storm. In the private sector there was great uncertainty as to what people should do. Some people took a day's holiday and stayed at home, some people worked from home and some people either, at the behest of their employers or in the absence of clear guidelines, went to work. The objective of this Bill is to provide clarity and protection for workers and for citizens.
I am sure the Minister of State would agree that no employee should be asked or expected to jeopardise their safety to go to work when there is a clear risk to their health and safety. None of us would do it. We have a responsibility to act to remove this ambiguity. No one should have to worry about going to work if there has been a red weather alert. If it is good enough for public sector workers, for non-essential workers, why is it not good enough for private sector workers? The only reason is that the tab would have to be picked up by the private sector. Because these storms are rare, we do not believe it would put a huge burden on the State to resolve that difficulty. It would also mean that, for the first time, workers in the private sector would be on the same legislative basis as workers in the public sector.
The second part of the Bill, which Teachtaí Munster and Cullinane have addressed, deals with protecting the public and members of the emergency services. There are two Flann O'Brien-type sections in the Minister of State's remarks. One is where he states: "in the case of food distribution preventing workers delivering food in circumstances where it has been determined that it is safe to do so may ... [exacerbate] food shortages or give rise to a loss of perishable foodstuffs and, in extreme circumstances give rise to social unrest". Let us get real about the all of this. For those who drive through breaking high waves, on promenades, swim in the seas or drive into countryside blanketed in snow and so on, they put themselves and others like good samaritans, emergency staff and neighbours at risk. Everybody accepts that behaviour is irresponsible. We simply want to deal with that and to make sure there is a sanction that would put people off that sort of behaviour and, thus, also save those who might have to go to their rescue.
I am disappointed the Government is not going to support this Bill. I hope everyone else does. I have written to all the party leaders. I wrote to all the Louth TDs, given that the request came from within our constituency. We are prepared to work with officials to try to amend or straighten out any genuine difficulties with this Bill.
I am glad to be able to speak on this Bill and make my few comments. Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na daoine go léir a bhí ag obair chomh dian. I thank all the people, the emergency services, An Garda Síochána, all the different agencies, the Civil Defence, especially the Red Cross, the Order of Malta and the Fire Service, all those people who went above and beyond the call of duty in the recent number of storm and severe weather events and the late spring snowfall, and also the private people who helped in every area. While there were awful events, they were the best thing that happened for community service, as the spirit of the meitheal came to the fore and people looked out for each other.
We have a very advanced system of weather warnings now. I would say it is on too often, ró-mhinic. Many community events were planned in places, then there was an orange alert and they were cancelled, and sometimes the weather that had been alerted did not develop into that. I acknowledge it is very hard to strike the right balance. I respect Met Éireann and what it has to do but we never had these weather alerts and we managed without them. Certainly they are an effective tool but we must also be careful as a great number of events had to be cancelled at different times and they did not happen at all despite huge community efforts having gone into planning them.
This is a Private Members' Bill and I have a lot of issues with it. Let us face it, there is a massive difference between public sector and private sector workers.
Ask any small firm or growing business. It is easy for Deputy Adams and others to tell people to pick up the tab because there are not many of these events, but there are many bank holidays and other times when the private sector has to pick up all of the tab. Take water bills, for example, which were fundamentally opposed by Sinn Féin and parties of the left. Who is paying the tab now? The private employers are, since the money must come from somewhere. Water charges have been doubled, sometimes trebled. Let us face it.
This is not as simplistic as legislating to have equality between the private and public sectors. While something needs to be done to clarify the matter, we cannot rush to a decision, as we are not good at doing that. The new coroners Bill has been delayed again. There is significant trauma involved in those situations. That Bill has been expected in the House for the past two years. We were promised that we would have it this May, but it will now not even be before us this term, and perhaps not even next term.
We cannot have knee-jerk reactions. We must be cool, calm and collected. Above all, we must have the impact analysis of legislation, including its impact on businesses and, first of all, on people. Regarding life saving courses, health and safety is the most important issue of all. It has gone over the top in many places, but we must have respect for all employees, be they public or private.
This was strange because we were sent home from here. I supported the decision that we as the Business Committee made to close during the last snow storm, but we then had a ludicrous situation. All of the emergency workers were out, but some county councils had a different engagement than other councils. Some acted soon and some did not. I salute all the council workers. I salute those in Tipp FM and Tipperary Mid West Radio in my county who worked tirelessly and risked life and limb in spite of the red alert to be at work and keep the channels of communication going. I salute them 100% - Ms Trudy Waters and Mr. Pat Murphy at Tipp FM and Mr. Joe Pryce in Tipperary Mid West Radio. How they kept the message going out was unbelievable. The Garda Síochána had to work no matter what alert was there.
Along with others, I pulled ambulances along the road at midnight and other times. It was no problem. I was delighted to be able to help. The council workers had all stood down. That was a farce. They were told that they could not work after dark. How was an ambulance going to get out to an accident? How was the fire brigade going to get out to a fire? Those emergency workers had to work anyway. Let us be fair to all individuals and respect everyone's rights. Gardaí could not travel. Some were able to secure Jeeps and the like, but they mainly had ordinary cars. That was nonsensical. The workers who normally maintained the roads and whose duty it was to keep them open were sent home. That was the case in Tipperary at any rate and I will not speak for anywhere else.
There was a major difference in Waterford, on the border of which I live. Its county council took an aggressive approach and cleared the roads for everyone who had to get out. I brought a number of people in the health services to work in homes for children with special needs. Some of the workers were there for two days and beyond because they could not leave. There was no one to replace them. The pathway to South Tipperary General Hospital was blocked as well. There were other issues like that. Emergency services had to keep going. We had to keep our hospitals going. We had to bring in generators as well as fuel for those and ambulances.
It is too simplistic to believe that we can just pass a Bill under which the public and private sectors will be treated in the same way. Consider farmers. The current farming crisis is a part of the weather events. In fairness, 99% of the people whom I saw taking to Facebook did so to thank farmers. Some areas would not be out of trouble yet if not for farmers going out with their equipment. Farmers never looked for a penny for clearing the roads and doing everything else. They never would. That is the meitheal society, with people helping one another.
Home helps were not able to travel to work. Deputy Adams and others spoke about them. People who needed their help desperately to perform basic functions that they could not perform themselves were abandoned. It is fine to announce a red alert and then everyone goes into a bunker and forgets about the people, but we are lucky that the last storm did not last too long because it was later in the year. Had it occurred in January, it would have been a different story. There would still be snow in places.
We must be calm and reflective and we must be conscious of the impact the legislation we churn out is having on our economy and people, especially those in rural Ireland as well as those in this city, though if something happened here, there would be enough people to make noise about it, march and so on. A lot of legislation is lined up, including the transport Bill from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, that will have devastating impacts on rural Ireland. This Bill would have that impact too. It is fine to talk about employers picking up the tab, but they have to do that all of the time. There are pension schemes and more things being granted every day of the week. Some of them are good and I am not anti-union or anything else, but I am an employer - I should declare an interest in that regard - and it is becoming so onerous with all of the red tape, form filling, regulation, impositions and inspections. We have become a nation of enforcers, with people from the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, and God knows how many more agencies going around flashing cards at employers instead of trying to support them.
I am opposing the Bill. I will oppose any legislation that is not fair. What impact would this legislation have on rural Ireland, up the mountains, up the Sally Gap and God knows where else? I agree with one part of it, though, that relating to people joyriding, fun seeking, swimming and so on in certain places. It happens regularly in parts of my area, for example, Galtymore in the Galty Mountains. Hardly a weekend goes by that volunteers, who have to run bucket collections just to fund themselves, do not have to risk life and limb to rescue people. People think they can do what they like and go up the mountain only to get lost in snow, blizzards and fog. Anyone who lives near mountains like I do knows - a hill sheep farmer would know it - that, on a summer's day like today, and it is good to see a lovely spring day, a fog can come down in 20 minutes leaving someone without a sense of direction. People are unprepared. No matter what warnings are broadcast on radio or what red alerts are announced, they seem to want to be able to do what they like, travel over whatever land they like and then cry "Help" when they get lost. They are risking the lives of others. I cannot support the Civil Defence, mountain rescuers, air rescue and so on enough. Remember Rescue 116. Consider how rescuers must respond.
The Bill is too simplistic and comes from a party that is too simplistic about most things: "Let someone else pay"; "We are all right, Jack"; "Someone get this, get that, get the other." Many trade unions are of the same ilk and keep putting everything on the employer and small and medium-sized business people. This is not about picking up the tab, though. It is about equality and respect for these people, who are the drivers of our economy and who support it. We want to have fledgling businesses that employ our young people, who we want to be able to support and educate. These business people have buckets shoved in front of them by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other organisations in order to support their activities.
Remember the farce of what happened with Uisce Éireann. People want everything to be free, to pay for nothing and to introduce another law that will close the whole country down, to hell with the people who are isolated and sick and who need services. Local authority workers were sent home when ambulances were trying to get around the roads and farmers were pulling them out with tractors, towing gardaí and using their machinery. We only need to press a "Tá" or "Níl" button here. A red alert will close down the whole show and people will be forgotten about. That is endemic in this Government. Many people are being forgotten in society - young people, sick children in hospitals and elderly people who cannot get cataract operations and are left to go blind. This is not a Government Bill, but people need to show more thought and sensitivity instead of banging in Bills like this one just because the optics of it makes them look good in the media: "I am all right, Jack, and to hell with the little people."
I was just out in the sunshine and one could nearly say that today's weather is extreme because it is approximately seven months since we last had a day like it. It is great to see.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill, which I commend Sinn Féin on introducing. Unfortunately, our party cannot support aspects of it. While we support the spirit of the Bill, technical issues prevent us from supporting it in moving forward.
The Bill has two parts, the first of which makes it an offence to endanger lives recklessly during a red alert warning through actions such as swimming in the sea, mountain climbing and so on. The second makes it mandatory to close a workplace in a red alert area. While we strongly support the first issue, the latter is already covered by the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, which I will reference again.
Therefore, the Bill is a duplication of current law and would represent an overly stringent set of fresh rules in the matter of closing workplaces.
Fianna Fáil supports strengthening provisions for penalising reckless endangerment of emergency workers and we will work with Sinn Féin or others on this part of the Bill. I compliment our local authorities, fire service, ambulance service, radio stations, national television and radio and everybody else in the run-up to Storm Emma and other storms on the outstanding work they did. As a result of the communication with the people, many lives were saved. Deputy Adams referred to some extremely sad cases, particularly the one in his constituency of Louth. I was struck at the time by how sad it was for the family that the man lost his life during the storm.
We accept that Ireland is subject to an ever-escalating series of storms in this era of climate change. This will lead to more pressure on our emergency services. We need to respond to such extreme conditions. Sometimes there is a somewhat knee-jerk legislative reaction and we do not need it. It is not to say there are no issues in the Bill we can support. Bills should reflect a real need and show they will have a positive impact. This Bill fails that test as it duplicates current law and would probably add further red tape for employers.
The Bill aims to achieve two things. First, it imposes penalties on those who put lives in danger through reckless behaviour when an extreme weather warning has been called. It seeks to give An Garda Síochána enhanced powers to pursue people for such behaviour. Second, the Bill ensures employees are not penalised for staying away from their places of work during a status red severe weather warning. The Bill ignores the fact that existing legislation already encompasses these concerns. The Bill raises definitional issues that should prevent it from moving forward to Committee Stage. An existing 1997 law makes it an offence to recklessly engage in conduct that creates a substantial risk of death or harm to another person. It allows for a fine of around €1,900 or 12 months in prison. As a party, we put forward the criminal justice (endangerment) Bill 2017 to strengthen this provision. We agree with this principle of the Bill and will work with other parties, particularly Sinn Féin because it brought it forward, to advance this idea. However the other half of the Bill is unnecessary. The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 places the responsibility on employers to ensure the safety of their workers. This covers such extreme circumstances as weather warnings. We do not believe that adding to the existing law will contribute to the health and safety of workers. Employers are already guided by legislation and must act in the best interest of workers' health and safety in such circumstances. While well-intentioned, putting in place hard rules based on strict legislative definitions creates more issues than it will solve.
The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 already makes it mandatory tor employers to ensure the safety of their workers coming to and from work as well as within it. It raises the question of why this Bill replicates and complicates its core elements. Introducing a hard rule when the current system operates effectively and is legally enforceable, which is a very important point, appears to be unnecessary. It also raises definitional issues.
Let us look at the general duties of the employer under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. In Part 2, section 8, those duties include to ensure the safety, health and welfare at work of his or her employees; to manage and conduct work activities in such a way as to ensure the safety, health and welfare at work of all employees; and to manage and conduct work activities in such a way as to prevent any improper conduct or behaviour likely to endanger employees. As regards the place of work concerned, the employer must ensure the design, provision and maintenance of a safe, risk-free place of work, which includes access to and from it; and plant and machinery that are safe and without risk to health.
There have been many improvements in how we react to extreme weather situations. Our emergency services have done very well in recent times. The new weather alert system from Met Éireann will improve it a lot. I wish the Deputies well with the Bill. There are aspects we can support but we cannot support it in total.
I welcome the Bill as a common-sense and workable proposal to ensure public safety during extreme weather events. Before I discuss the Bill as a whole, I especially welcome Part 2, which deals with dangerous activity in public places during severe weather events. During Storm Ophelia many of us were shocked when we saw on television and in reports in the newspapers people going swimming and going for walks along cliff faces during a red alert. These people were not only putting their lives in danger but also those of our emergency services. Anything that discourages people from such reckless behaviour has to be welcomed.
As for the Bill as a whole, during Storm Ophelia there was a lot of confusion over what actions employers and staff should take. This led to situations where staff travelled and put themselves in danger in fear of the consequences of losing a day's works. It saw staff commuting to workplaces in Dublin city and other urban centres and becoming stranded because bus and train services shut down early. The Bill will provide guidelines to employers to put the safety of their staff first. These red alert weather warnings are very rare but they are there for a reason. The reason is public safety and public good. I could not believe my ears when I heard the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government say his Government believes private businesses would do what is in the best interest of the safety of their employees. While I am sure most businesses have the interests of staff at heart, there are many others which do not. Meanwhile, the Government is supposed to have the best interests of its citizens at heart. The Taoiseach acknowledged there was a lot of confusion at the time of Storm Ophelia so clearly there is a need for clarity on this issue. Despite the warnings and the alerts three people lost their lives. In two of these cases, it was due to trees falling on cars. In one case the person was travelling home from a day's work. No worker should be expected to put his or her life at risk to travel to work during a red alert. No emergency service worker should be placed in additional danger by individuals acting in a reckless way during extreme weather events. The Bill provides clarity and hopefully it will help ensure that no such tragedies happen again. I appeal to people to back the Bill and protect workers.
It is fortunate the climate in which we live means status red situations are rare.
I commend my Sinn Féin colleagues on bringing forward this Bill and I regret that the Government has decided to oppose it. This Bill seeks to ensure that our under-resourced but heroic emergency services are not unnecessarily deployed into danger where their very lives would be at risk. These critical players in times of serious and, in this instance, status red situations should be engaged only in assisting or responding to those who absolutely need that help. It is apparent to me and to most, even here in this House, that we were far from ready or prepared for all that happened during Storm Ophelia. We need a greater investment in our emergency services, including in equipment that may be required only in extreme weather conditions.
As my party's spokesperson on disabilities and older people, I advocate a plan to ensure that no one with a disability or infirmity is left isolated, alone and vulnerable in status red situations. This Bill provides for exempting key care workers, essential support providers, from any general closedown situation. People with disabilities, with specific daily care needs, and older people living alone or together in isolated locations and with particular health care needs deserve a special response in times of severe weather conditions. The emergency services should be relieved of unnecessary call-outs in status red conditions, prioritising those who need and deserve the deployment of the very best that we can provide.
It is regrettable that the Bill will not proceed, as the Government, Fianna Fáil and other voices indicate. The Minister of State said that he intends to mention this debate on the Bill and the elements of it that he feels most comfortable with to his Cabinet colleagues. I urge him, or some other speaker for Government, to report at an early point to this House on what real extra services are being considered for the next status red situation. It is not enough that we are informed and that there is the optic of the media letting us know the situation, with news reports of the heroic efforts of the emergency services. We, especially those who are dependent, also need to know that we and they will feature in Government's preparations in the event of another status red situation. That is the only real comfort we can give people now and in the hope and expectation that if the worst weather presents again, the State will be ready to muster and respond to the needs of those who really need its help because of their dependency, infirmity, disability and isolated locations. I urge the Government to put in place a real plan that takes on board all the critical elements and is prepared to meet the worst that weather can throw at us.
We are happy to support this Bill, which is a good one. It is a bit nauseating to listen to the Government and Deputy Eugene Murphy jump through hoops to explain their rationale. They must have a special department that writes these speeches to come up with explanations for opposing Bills that are perfectly simple and which obviously should be supported. The root cause was pointed out, namely, the fear of interfering with companies' profits. It is ironic that we are having this debate today because this morning the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach dealt with Deputy Pringle's Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill 2016. The Government's approach to that is to make it effectively toothless. In respect of the causes of the climate crisis, the Government is in favour of not taking the necessary action. At the other end of the line, however, and one of its effects, the increased number of extreme weather events - there will be more of them in Ireland, because in the past 12 months there have been two red weather alerts - it is not willing to touch the basic issue of profit and say that workers' lives and health and those of the public in general must come before the profits of business. It is as simple as that. What is the point of red weather warnings unless they mean something across the economy?
Unfortunately, the approach today is consistent with the approach of the Taoiseach and to Storm Ophelia where very confused signals were sent out to workers. The Taoiseach said it was up to businesses to decide whether to close during dangerous storm conditions which created the situation for hundreds of thousands of workers that they did not know whether they had to go to work. We saw this on social media and heard it from people contacting their public representatives and so on. There were irresponsible employers who expected their workers to turn up. Many workers made dangerous journeys only to be sent home. Public sector workers were rightly told not to show up, but in the same workplaces contracted private companies told their workers that if they did not show up they would have to take annual leave. Some of the companies that put workers at risk during the closure were Ryanair, Dawn Meats and Tesco. It should have been clear that a red weather warning means that nobody goes to work except those in essential services. Businesses should have put their workers' lives above their profits and given them a paid day off.
I was struck by this line in the Minister of State's response: "These amendments would confer a range of disproportionate duties on employers, as well as obligations that go beyond what could be regarded as reasonable arising from work activities and the management of a workplace." The amendment requires simply that an employer, when there is a red weather warning and it is not an essential service, would have to contact its employees and tell them they do not have to come to work because it is not opening that day. The idea of referring to "obligations that go beyond what could be regarded as reasonable" is nonsense. It is extremely reasonable that companies would have to do that. The Government's approach is an excuse not to deal with the issue and it is a real shame. I hope the trade union movement and wider society will put pressure on the Government and Fianna Fáil to say this Bill should pass Second Stage next week and then become law.
I have concerns about the duplication and complication of existing legislation that the Bill may cause. Extreme weather conditions are now a norm.
In the past 12 months alone, between rain, wind and snow, we have had three extreme red alert warnings. There were some fatalities as a result of Storm Ophelia. There was none, to my knowledge, as a result of Storm Emma, although there might have been one or two very serious accidents. The low fatality rate was due to the considerable efforts made and precautions taken by employers and employees who did not take a chance on going to work. The consequences of ignoring a red alert warning are very serious. I had the experience of working in the United Kingdom in two years in which storms hit, 1987 and 1989. The fatalities were numerous because people did not pay heed to the warnings given. In the first instance, there was no warning. In the second, it was largely ignored. The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 makes it mandatory for employers to ensure the safety of their workers. We should not do anything to interfere with it.
The road that links the town in which I live, Ballyheigue, to Tralee, the capital town, where the vast majority of the population work, has been flooded four times in the past 12 months, for one week at a time. The most recent event was last Monday. Everybody trying to get in and out of the town on the only major artery has to take a 30-minute diversion, which is totally unacceptable. It has the consequence of not allowing the emergency services to get to the town, if need be. The road is on a flood plain. In my time living in the town there has been a flood once every two years, or perhaps once per year, for a day or two at most, after which the flood waters recede. In recent times, however, the floods have lasted for a week and their depth and size are greater. As the only option is to close the road, one can imagine the difficulty it poses. I am taking the opportunity to ask the Minister of State to examine this matter. There are sluice gates at Arkeragh Lough that are not functioning. They should be manned and operated to control the flow of water.
That leads to the question of whether we need people working in extreme weather conditions. In some cases, we do. The instance to which I refer is a case in point. If there was somebody operating the sluice gates and controlling the level of water, we would not have the flooding we experience today, which is to last into the weekend. I ask the Minister of State to take this into consideration. I will be raising the matter with the OPW and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to find a solution. We need to be cognisant that in red alert weather conditions we need vital public service workers manning the fort to keep everybody safe and systems operating.
We will take it on board and report it to the various authorities. There are other areas similarly affected throughout the country. I live in a country area and know what flooding is all about. I acknowledge the inconvenience caused for motorists. I will get back to the Deputy about the issue raised.
As I said, I appreciate the well intentioned public safety motive behind the current proposal. However, the Bill is flawed and the Government cannot support bad legislation. It will support good legislation. This message has also been conveyed by Opposition speakers who spoke, including Deputy Mattie McGrath and Fianna Fáil Members. There are problems with the Bill which is premature, given that there is an full, ongoing review of storms Ophelia and Emma. As serious politicians, we should await the outcome of the review in order that we can all gain an understanding of the experiences across the various sectors of the economy. When the review is produced, the Government will determine whether policy, legislative or general guidance changes are required. I ask Sinn Féin to note that point.
The Bill seeks to amends the Health, Safety and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to provide that all places of work should shut during a status red severe weather warning issued by Met Éireann, unless exempted from doing so by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Met Éireann's weather warning systems have no legal status. The requirement for a shutdown of workplaces during a status red severe weather warning would allow no room for discretion or pragmatism, or for adapting to local conditions. Local judgment is often required based on forecast conditions in respect of the circumstances in which it is appropriate for businesses and organisations to remain open or for essential personnel to attend work. Status red alerts can cover a variety of weather events, from rain and wind to snow, and only in very extreme circumstances would a red alert give rise to any form of business closure.
The provisions included in the Bill would not be workable, legally or practically. The Bill assumes there would always be notification of status red weather warnings, but that is not always the case. As I said, this could have unintended consequences. I mentioned the consequences for schools. Also to be borne in mind are hotels, hospitals and airports. According to the Bill, all of these places of work would have to cease work in the event that there was a status red weather warning. What would happen to the guests in hotels, schoolchildren, those in airports and customers? There is a real risk of creating a significant liability for the State under the Bill. It could leave the State open to legal action by employers forced to close their businesses but where a weather event did not materialise to the extent anticipated. That can happen from time to time as weather conditions vary from region to region.
The preliminary view of the Office of the Attorney General is that the Bill lacks the legal precision required for the amendment of the criminal law. Do we ignore the advice of the Attorney General? Good Governments will not do so. There is safety, health and welfare at work legislation which offers robust protection for workers, as does employment rights legislation. This Bill would confer on employers disproportionate duties and obligations that would go beyond what could be regarded as reasonable duties and obligations arising from work activities and the management of the workplace. The Bill, as drafted, is potentially far-reaching and could have an impact on existing legislative rights, duties and protections. It would impose new liabilities on employers. Both IBEC and ISME have expressed strong reservations about the Bill and are opposed to it.
With regard to the public order aspects, as I said, the Bill clearly is well intentioned. As others said, it seeks to deal with a type of reckless behaviour of certain members of the public during Storm Ophelia, in particular. It was the most severe weather event in the country for a very long time. In addressing this issue the Bill aims to protect the safety of emergency service personnel and the general public from dangerous and reckless activities in times of high weather alerts. It does, however, raise significant concerns that require further examination by its sponsors. A key consideration is to ensure the criminal offences would be sufficiently precise to withstand legal challenges. As underlined, there are deficiencies in the Bill, as drafted, but the Minister is open to engagement with a view to the sponsors giving further consideration to the criminal justice elements of the Bill and bringing forward revised proposals in that regard. The practical issues that would arise if the Bill were to be enacted are numerous and capable of creating many difficulties.
I accept the good intentions of the Bill. However, it is fundamentally flawed. Fianna Fáil and Independent Members are in agreement with the Government that it is flawed both in content and impact.
When I heard yesterday evening that the Government parties would not support the Bill, my first thought was that they had not read it. The Bill states clearly that any work of an essential nature would be exempt and it would be up to the Government to make the call. The Government would be obliged to define what is deemed to be essential, whether that is overnight or 24-hour care, continuity care and so on and it could add or subtract to the list as it wished. The Minister of State has scraped the bottom of the barrel when it comes to excuses to not support the Bill. I was scratching my head as to why he could not last night but his opening contribution was a giveaway.
The context of the legislation is a status red alert announced by Met Éireann, which means there is a risk to life and a danger is posed to people by a weather event and they are urged not to travel. Unfortunately, we witnessed tragedies and the fear and confusion among people, particularly workers, regarding whether they should go to work and, if so, how they would get home during the two recent storms. The Minister of State said, "Employers already have a duty to ensure the safety and health of persons at work ... to ensure, so far as is reasonable, the safety and health of their employees while they are at work." He knows fine well - as does the Government - that the issue for people is getting to and from work, which is what the Bill addresses in order that workers are not penalised because they cannot attend their place of work due to a status red alert.
I have only been a Member of the House for two years. While it is not surprising, it is disappointing to encounter other Members who do not have the courage of their convictions. The Minister of State said, " Indeed, industry will argue that the Bill will adversely affect a company’s productivity if unnecessary closure of businesses occurs". However, the legislation relates to a status red alert during which Met Éireann tells people not to leave their homes because they will be putting their lives at risk. I wish the Minister of State and Fianna Fáil had the courage of their convictions in this regard. He uttered one classic comment in his opening contribution which is right up there in the context of grasping at straws. He said:
The Bill does not address an employer's right to keep his or her business open, especially where food production and supplies are concerned. Indeed, in the case of food distribution preventing workers from delivering food in circumstances where it has been determined that it is safe to do so may exacerbate food shortages giving rise to loss of perishable foodstuffs and, in extreme circumstances, could give rise to social unrest.
Who wrote that? Is the Minister of State referring to the rush to buy bread during Storm Emma as social unrest? You could not make this up. I will hand over to Deputy Cullinane because I have little tolerance for sheer incompetence and people not having the courage of their convictions to say why they are opposing the Bill. During the recent storms, the Minister of State and the Government called for every measure covered under the provisions contained in the Bill. Perhaps Deputy Cullinane will have more patience than me to deal with this.
The Minister of State said a number of times that Fianna Fáil, the main party of Opposition, also supports his concerns about the Bill. Fianna Fáil is keeping his party in government. The Minister of State's contribution was a carbon copy of those of Fianna Fáil Members so there must have been tick-tacking between the two parties in government.
The Minister of State said that employers should assess the risks but, as Teachta Adams said, he ignored the reality that Met Éireann assesses the risks and all the information it works with determines the weather event we are facing and the ability of emergency services to respond. Once staff analyse all the information they have, which is difficult work, they then adjudicate on the colour of the weather warning. When they say "red", they mean "red" and they give clear direction. The fundamental problem is the Government wants to outsource responsibility to some employers who might be unscrupulous but who are not the experts to assess the risks and to make the decision.
Teachtaí Adams and Munster referred to the key paragraph in his contribution in which the Minister of State gives the game away. It is about not upsetting businesses and competitiveness, which is a code for profit. That is paramount and workers' rights and the protection of workers is always secondary. The difficulty in that regard is the Bill seeks to put workers front and centre and protect their interests. In his closing remarks, the Minister of State mentioned IBEC and ISME. They are well able to represent themselves and they will articulate their concerns. It is not the job of Government to be lobbyists for those organisations or to put their rights above the rights of workers. It is the responsibility of the Minister of State to represent everybody. The problem is - and it is always the same when it comes to the party - Fine Gael represents the interests of business and they come first, above and beyond the interests of workers. IBEC and ISME are also opposed to the Government's Bill, as weak as it is, on if-and-when contracts. Should it not proceed with the Bill because they have concerns? That argument does not make sense.
It is farcical that the arguments for opposing the Bill are not fundamental to it. The Minister of State said the Bill is well-intentioned and he takes exception to some issues, the vast majority of which could be dealt with by amendment. For example, he referred to the lack of definitions of "essential work" and "work, that by its nature, requires continuity for it to be maintained". That could be addressed easily. The Minister of State could insert definitions through amendment. We would work with him, as we would on any Bill, to perfect the legislation if he has difficulties.
The Minister of State also said, "The proposed amendment is framed as an absolute obligation on an employer to close all places of work in the affected area". The legislation does not call for all places of work to close; it refers to non-essential services. He was disingenuous in how he presented his arguments. As Deputy Munster said, he scraped the bottom of the barrel. He came up with arguments that do not stack up. When we dealt with the criminal sanctions element of legislation for people who engage in reckless behaviour, the Government asked for submissions and we said we would work constructively to deal with the issue. Equally, we ask the Government to work with us.
Earlier, I pointed out that we brought forward a Bill having listened to people who have concerns as well as to IBEC, ISME and trades unions and family members of people who lost their lives in weather events. They asked us to do something about this and we brought forward this legislation. The Minister of State's response was poor. He did not listen to what we had to say and dismissed the legislation. He will not work with us when he could have taken the opportunity to not be patronising and tell us our Bill is well-intentioned and to work with us to improve the Bill, if that needed to be done. However, he did not do so because the crux is that when it comes to this Government the profits of businesses will always come first and the safety of workers will always come a poor second.