Dáil debates

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage (Resumed)

 

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:05 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Deputy Paul Murphy was in possession. I apologise for interrupting him twice.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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That is no problem at all. I was essentially making the point that this Bill is missing anything to address the situation facing the Debenhams workers and other workers who may be in the same situation in the future. There is a difference in the approach taken by the current Taoiseach compared with what he said about Clerys over five years ago. At that time, he spoke about what happened to Clerys as the worst example of vulture capitalism. The difference in approach is striking now that he is the Taoiseach and has the power to do something about it. He repeats a particular set of words about how poorly the workers are treated, which I am sure he believes, whenever he is asked about the subject. At the same time, he is taking no action.

At the very least, there should be a restructuring of the order of creditors to ensure that workers come first. In this particular case, the State needs to give up its position as a first creditor and ensure that the €5 million tax debt owed to the State can instead go to workers. I encourage people to support the national demonstration that is happening on Saturday, 8 August because the fight for Debenhams workers is a fight for all workers.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We will move on to the Regional Group and Deputy Berry.

Cathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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Níl ach cúig nóiméad uaim agus mé ag caint ar son an Regional Group.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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An bhfuil tú ag roinnt d'am? Are you sharing your time?

Cathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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Níl. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, for proposing this new legislation. As an Independent member of the Regional Group, I am broadly supportive of it. It is necessary, appropriate and timely for a number of reasons. The business sector is important not just for the economy but also for society. Small and medium-sized indigenous enterprises and our microenterprises are especially important because they contribute billions of euro to the Exchequer, which helps to support vital public services but, most important, those types of businesses help to support, protect and provide thousands upon thousands of jobs in each constituency in this country. We in this House should seize the opportunity to support the smooth running of businesses and enterprises during these turbulent times.

This Bill is more than just window dressing and routine housekeeping. There is good stuff in it. We need to regularise, normalise and codify in law the new remote working culture that has been recently foisted upon us as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. It is good that annual general meetings and extraordinary general meetings can now take place remotely, in whole or in part.

Businesses can continue necessary operations quite smoothly, which is very good.

People can now be present at meetings virtually, rather than just physically. The fact that a quorum can exist in cyberspace is important from a legal perspective. People can vote remotely at AGMs, provided normal precautions in terms of authentication are in play. That is all good stuff.

Many of those who hold small numbers of shares are retirees and some company directors are in their early 70s and would be quite vulnerable. Any mechanisms or measures we can introduce which will allow businesses to continue as normal, bearing in mind public health concerns, should be welcomed.

I support the measures on dividends in the Bill. A proposal in the Bill allows company directors to withdraw, withhold or reduce dividends at their discretion, even those that have already been announced. That is good because it allows businesses to maintain a cash buffer and reserve to see them through the stormy waters that are coming down the tracks. It facilitates cash flow. Giving company directors that level of discretion is a good thing and I encourage the vast majority of them, where appropriate, to consider taking that action.

The most important and progressive part of the Bill relates to the period of examinership which is currently set at 70 days. Examinership is an excellent way to provide core protection for small and large companies that are going through difficult periods and are still viable, but vulnerable. It allows them breathing space to trade out of their difficulties so that they can become a going concern on the far side. The Bill refers to increasing the examinership period to 120 days. The Minister of State mentioned today that it will be increased to 150 days, which is positive.

The fact that these measures will be in place until the end of the year is also very positive. I am in favour of putting them on a more permanent footing because, as I said, there is much that is good in the proposals. I agree that a phased introduction on an incremental basis is probably a good way to go. The fact that the Minister has, at his or her discretion, the opportunity to roll the measures over at the end of the year is also good. If the Bill is brought back to the House in the new year, I would be of a mind to support it and put some measures on a more permanent footing. As I said, because businesses are so important from a jobs perspective, as well as funding crucial public services through tax revenue, anything the House can do to support them should be considered.

I place on record my gratitude to the Minister of State, who is speaking on behalf of the Government, and the Opposition spokespersons present for the cross-party and unanimous support the Regional Group received last night for its proposal on perjury. It will make a significant difference to the cost of insurance. I am not suggesting for a minute that it is a panacea for all of the problems with insurance, because we all know there are other factors at play. It is, however, an opportunity to address one of the key components of rising insurance premiums, which has to be welcomed.

I look forward to working with the Minister of State and other Opposition parties to progress the perjury Bill over the next few months. As was said during yesterday's debate, we hope to get it on the Statute Book by 31 October.

1:10 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Is Deputy Berry sharing time with Deputy Noel Grealish? Maybe Members have been taken by surprise that we are moving quickly. As Deputy Marian Harkin is present, I will move on to the Independent Group.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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The Bill is a proportionate response to the situation companies and workers find themselves in during the Covid pandemic. We have had no pre-legislative scrutiny, but there has been widespread consultation. In that context, as a Parliament, we have to act quickly.

The provisions in the Bill allow companies to hold their AGMs electronically in a suitable venue. The Bill also allows for an extension of the time period for the presentation of a report by an examiner to the High Court to 150 days. This is important because it will give companies the opportunity to restructure. Workers will not have to get High Court approval before enforcing employment rights complaints when a company is being wound up. Depending on the context, the figures involved before a statutory demand can be issued will increase from €10,000 or €20,000 to €50,000. In that context and in the context of fairness and efficiency, I support the Bill.

While these provisions are important, they form part of a bigger picture of supports for workers and businesses. During a debate with the Minister for Finance yesterday, I spoke of my extreme disappointment that the VAT rate for the tourism and hospitality sector had not been reduced from 13.5% to 9%. This decision will have a significant negative impact on tourism and hospitality throughout the country, in particular in Border regions.

I again ask the Government to consider the fact that there is a 5% VAT rate in Northern Ireland for the tourism and hospitality sector, while the rate is 13.5% across the Border. Many businesses will find themselves having to use the provisions in the Bill when that might not have been the case had the VAT rate been reduced. It would be far better if businesses did not have to use the provisions in the Bill in the first place. One way to help to protect the tourism and hospitality sector across the country, and especially in the Border and north-west region - the Minister of State comes from the area - would be to reduce the VAT rate. We should not charge 8.5% more VAT on tourism and hospitality services than operators north of the Border.

I want to discuss support for companies. The restart grant was brought to my attention after yesterday's debate. It will increase from €10,000 to €25,000, and the minimum payment has increased from €2,000 to €4,000. Many businesses are happy about that. However, the Bill states that turnover has to be less than €100,000 per employee. That will leave a lot of businesses out in the cold. Some businesses, by their nature, have a high level of turnover. A garage could employ somebody who sells four cars worth €25,000 each in one year, which would put it over the €100,000 threshold. That does not make much sense to me. Not every business has that level of turnover, but many do. Take, for example, a drapery business in a regional town. If its employees sold six suits at €350 each per week, the income of the business would exceed the threshold of €100,000.

2 o’clock

The Government needs to look at this again. We also have the issue that if, for instance, a business has a profit margin of 15%, which is quite generous for some businesses, that would mean on a turnover of €100,000, the profit would be €15,000. One could not employ somebody for €15,000, even if one pays them minimum wage, by the time one has paid PRSI, etc. Somebody did a bit of multiplication and division here but did not actually work out how this would impact businesses on the ground.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, am I sharing this time?

1:20 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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You have the floor completely. You have four and a half minutes remaining.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I had expected to share but that's that is okay. I ask the Minister to seriously consider this. I know it is not his area and the Bill he has put in front of us today is important. However, his Bill is the second or third step in this process. I ask the Government today to look at the first steps in this process so fewer people or companies find themselves having to use the provisions in this Bill.

Seeing that I have the floor unexpectedly for a little bit of extra time, I want to put on record my serious concerns about an agreement that has been reached on the rota of speaking time in this House. I raise this issue as there is no other opportunity to discuss this because we will vote on it this evening without debate. The issue is not about the amount of time, because the d'Hondt system is being used and there is an element of fairness in that; it is about the rota and how one speaker follows another. I said previously that I had the opportunity to spend 15 years in the European Parliament and we used the d'Hondt system strictly. In that instance, we had the largest group followed by the next, right down to the smallest group, one after the other. After that, the rota system kicked in.

Members of this House, in Sinn Féin, for example, Deputy McDonald was in the Parliament at that time-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Please avoid mentioning names, Deputy Harkin, just mention the issue.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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Stick to the points of the legislation.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I am new; I sincerely apologise. Several Members of this House were in the European Parliament at that time. I was going to mention them all, not just one, but I will not as the Chair has asked me not to. They will know that no matter what group they were in, right down to the smallest group, and some people were in quite small groups, they got an opportunity in the rota system to speak when their turn came. In other words, the largest group was followed by next largest and so forth. In this House that would be Government, Sinn Féin, the various parties right down to the three independent groups, and after, that the rota would start. My issue here is that we cannot pick and choose. This is not an àla carted'Hondt mechanism for Dail Éireann unless we say it is. Then it is not reform.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I am sorry, we are here to debate the Bill.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I ask the Government, in that context, to make sure what it carries out is actually reform.

Finally, I will return to the point on the Bill after my slight diversion. This Bill is worthy of support and it shows this Government and this House can respond in a timely and proportionate manner to some of the issues faced by companies and workers at this time. I also agree with Deputy Berry who spoke earlier about the fact that this is good legislation in its own right. When it comes to the end of this year, on 31 December, I will certainly be one of the people looking at extending this legislation.

James O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this Bill, which makes changes to existing company law to enable firms to adapt to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It recognises that we are in a new normal and people should not be penalised for not meeting requirements that are simply unworkable under the current circumstances.

The Bill addresses the operational issues in respect of compliance and gives breathing space to businesses with respect to examinership. It makes sense to allow the company seal and the necessary signatures to be on separate documents and be able to hold AGMs digitally as more people move to remote working.

While not the intended purpose of the Bill, this is a great win for balanced regional development. It removes the competitive advantage of city-based company employees who live near one another, which up until this point was a necessity under the current legislation.

I know many towns and villages across Cork East that will benefit from this. It immediately makes them a more attractive location to work. People want to work in places like Youghal, and I recently spoke to young working professionals who had moved back and who wish to be able to work from and build a life in their own town. While this will not solve all the issues, it is a welcome step in the right direction.

The Bill increases the current debt threshold for a winding up petition from an individual debt of €10,000 up to €50,000 for aggregate debts owed by a single creditor. This prevents companies being compulsorily wound up for relatively small debts. It enables the courts to extend the maximum period of examinership, in exceptional circumstances, from 100 days to 150 days. This is a substantial change that will enable much needed time for an examiner of a company to negotiate with key stakeholders and possible investors to put together workable rescue plans.

Alongside this, under the legislation, directors of insolvent companies must have regard to the interests of creditors of a company and the preservation of the company’s assets. This is a significant provision, which acknowledges that it may well be of benefit to the creditors to not hastily wind up a company and to take steps to maintain value by protecting key assets such as leases.

These two measures go to root of what we could learn about the crisis. It is not always about companies working against one another to achieve high levels of profit in short-term-driven shareholders' capitalism. It can be about all stakeholders in communities working together to try to achieve a better outcome for all.

As a public representative, an experience I have found to be deeply rewarding is engaging with stakeholders in our community that are supporting stakeholders on the ground. I recently spoke with the chairperson of Cork Chamber of Commerce, which supports and represents 1,200 businesses employing over 100,000 people in the region. He told me all about the great work businesses are doing right around the country. I want congratulate Cork Chamber of Commerce on the good work it does and I will continue to work alongside it to make sure Cork is a great place for businesses.

I will continue to support this Bill that makes the great work that is being done easier to do.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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It is my first opportunity to congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on her own elevation and wish her well in that post. We both sit in that chair from time to time and it is a good and privileged experience. I know she will be a fair adjudicator on Dáil proceedings and I wish her my personal best.

I am delighted to have a brief opportunity to speak on this Bill. As the previous speaker, Deputy O'Connor, mentioned, it raises specific issues on companies winding up, examinerships, liquidations, and, specifically, regarding the obligations, duties and responsibilities of directors of insolvent companies. In the present context, one cannot help but think of the plight of the Debenhams workers and the application some of the measures in this Bill may have.

What was obvious, in terms of the Debenhams situation, was the perception that the company took advantage of Covid-19 to wind up the company and, certainly, the parent company. That is the claim of those who are picketing and striking and those who were laid off at short notice, many of whom had between 25 and 30 years' service with the company.

It calls out for additional legislation and powers, much of which was flagged following the closure and winding up of Clerys four years ago after which we thought significant lessons had been learned. A review was carried out into the issue by two eminent researchers, Mr. Kevin Duffy and Ms Nessa Cahill, who produced a fine report and made some very fine recommendations which were sat on for four years. We now have a golden opportunity.

While there are some dissimilarities between what happened with Clerys, a profitable company sitting on significant capital assets, and what happened with Debenhams where there have been trading and profit issues going back several years, there are significant lessons to be learned. Notice should be given, as was referenced in the Duffy Cahill report, and the value of stock should be taken into account. One significant recommendation, which unfortunately has not yet been provided for in law, is to legally facilitate State creditors to forgo losses in order to channel the capital from those debts into a fund that would look after workers who have been left in this situation. This simply cannot happen again. It should not have been allowed to happen this time.

I know the Taoiseach and the Minister of State are meeting the representatives of the Debenhams workers today and the Tánaiste met them earlier this week. The State should use every apparatus at its disposal, every possible loophole, to try to rescue the workers from this. Some of them are of an age and could be facilitated if a task force was set up to provide alternative work for them. However, others have given a lifetime - 30 or 31 years - to one company. It is unrealistic to expect them to be in a positive, healthy position to be able to find gainful employment given the state of the retail market in Ireland now.

This is a small but important Bill. It only gestures towards some of the measures I am saying are absolutely required to ensure that never again will a company whose coffers are empty wind up leaving employees who have made a lifetime of contributions at the back of the queue of creditors. I would like to see that issue addressed in the term of this Government. Workers' rights should not be put at the bottom of the list when it comes to dealing with the debts of an insolvent company that has gone into liquidation or examinership.

1:30 pm

Sorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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In general terms, the Bill is welcome. It is indicative of the extraordinary times we are in that operational issues in respect of compliance arising from the Companies Acts and the Industrial and Provident Societies Act need to be addressed as a direct result of Covid-19. The ability to hold AGMs through video technology is something that has been accommodated elsewhere for a long time and the Bill is simply catching up with what has been done in other areas with regard to the use of electronic communication. We have a real opportunity to make use of such technology. I spent time on the audit committee of Longford and Westmeath Education and Training Board where our meetings could be facilitated through video link with a member in the UK. Unfortunately, that was not available to other ETBs and caused significant difficulties.

The elements of the Bill that deal with companies and small businesses struggling with debt are extremely welcome. However, I strongly recommend that these be inserted on a permanent basis. There are pressures on businesses' cash flow and the threshold at which businesses are deemed unable to pay debts for the purposes of being wound up is extremely low, even in normal times. Therefore, it is imperative that it is increased during this extraordinary time.

In that regard, the Bill seeks to support as many businesses as possible to trade through this crisis, supporting economic activity and preserving employment. In constituencies such as mine, Longford-Westmeath, which has seen the closure of Bord na Móna and the ESB in Lanesborough, significant numbers of people are leaving employment and moving into another industry in which they will need to gain experience. We need those businesses to continue operating.

Increasing the examinership period to give businesses breathing space to restructure will also be essential. However, much more needs to be done for business. When I saw what was on the agenda for today, I sat back and scratched my head. I sometimes wonder at the lack of joined-up thinking in the Government and if it is to be taken seriously. I spoke yesterday to a proprietary director who owns 15% of a very small business in Longford which will no longer be eligible for the wage subsidy scheme. This will put half a dozen people on jobseeker's payment because that company will close. The individual in question has run out of savings to keep it open.

Businesses have been waiting weeks for the Government's July stimulus package to be announced. To say it was disappointing is an understatement. The announcements for businesses were a total let-down. Not one business owner in my constituency rang me to say they were delighted, but plenty rang to ask where the rest of what had been promised was. They said they had not been thrown a lifebuoy, but an anchor and they were about to sink. Businesses are struggling to get back up and running. They have been screaming out for liquidity injections through grants. The Taoiseach went off to Europe and spoke about grants for an entire weekend but came back only to load our small businesses with debt. The 4:1 ratio of debt to grants flies in the face of something that is supposed to support business, encourage enterprise and maintain jobs. Businesses have been calling out for real and substantial grants, but they are nowhere to be seen.

The speed with which this legislation can be rushed through is also very interesting because it centres on the health and safety of company directors and board members. It is in stark contrast to the failure of the State to legislate to protect ordinary workers on the shop floor and in hospital wards and meat factories where we have repeatedly seen clusters of Covid. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has been to the fore in campaigning for a simple change by way of regulation - not even primary legislation - to make outbreaks of Covid-19 in workplaces notifiable to the Health and Safety Authority. That could have been done at the stroke of a pen. Workers could have been given additional protection for their health and safety, but it was not to be. The incidence of Covid-19 in meat plants has been rife during lockdown, including in my constituency. Many workers had their lives put in danger because of that failure to act.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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During this whole period we are talking about the July stimulus. As a number of Deputies said yesterday, this stimulus is bring introduced at the same time as the initial pandemic unemployment payments are being cut, when we were implementing regressive measures in the economy and reducing the free flow of money in the economy. We need to take all that into account. We welcome some of the measures for companies, especially the provision on the debt threshold for administration and examinership, which gives some wriggle room for companies that are in a precarious position.

We also welcome the provisions to allow AGMs to be carried out via videoconferencing, etc. Over this period through the use of Zoom and other applications we have learned that we can do a considerable amount of work remotely. The Bill rectifies certain issues for companies, but we also need to follow up with actions to protect workers who work from home.

We also have to look at possible solutions that would represent a halfway house, particularly for people who do not have the same access to broadband as others. There are proposals for operational hubs in some areas and some already exist. There is plenty of space and the right facilities to do this in Dundalk. People who now work in major firms, particularly technological and IT firms in the city, could work in shared facilities in the town of Dundalk in groups of two or three or even on their own. This would save them and their families the time lost in commuting and would help save the environment as fewer people would be travelling using any type of transport. It would also allow people the positive aspects of the workplace setting because people have realised that, although it is great to be able to work remotely at times and to spend time with family, there are mental health advantages to shared workspaces. We need to follow up on this.

I will refer to a major failure of the State which existed long before the pandemic. We welcome the moves being made to protect companies but there has been an absolute failure to protect workers. Some companies have taken advantage of this period and believe that one should never waste a good crisis. I know of a firm in my home town, National Pen, which laid off a number of people. People were able to see that jobs similar to those jobs which were about to be lost, or about which negotiations were ongoing, had already been posted on recruitment websites in Tunisia and other parts of North Africa. These postings were taken down from one website and put up on another. The company also failed to allow negotiations involving union members or third parties with experience in negotiations. This is absolutely unfair. This issue must be dealt with as quickly as possible. Sinn Féin brought a motion before the House which aimed to deal with some of these issues. It is unfortunate that it was voted down by the Government.

We have also spoken about the absolute failure of the July stimulus package to deal with these issues. Like my colleagues, a number of companies have spoken to me recently and they were very hopeful that the July stimulus would enable them to operate into the future. I fear that some of them will be in a very precarious position in the near future. We need Government action.

We have not yet dealt with the difficulty regarding the Health and Safety Authority's lack of capacity and powers to investigate cases of outbreaks. We also need testing and tracing to ensure that we can isolate problems and continue to open our economy. There are significant problems and we need to ensure they are all dealt with. We welcome some aspects of the Bill but we need more action quickly.

1:40 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have an opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. I congratulate the Minister and Minister of State on bringing it forward in good time. It is progressive and positive. It supports industry and companies that give employment. It is necessary. As a result of it coming before the House, jobs will definitely be saved. The investment is good and will benefit all of our people and our economy at large.

As I said with regard to another Bill yesterday, I hope it will be possible to revisit this legislation if issues arise over the course of the next three, four or five months and if deficiencies still need to be addressed. I recognise that there is a sunset clause in the Bill but that it can, and will, be renewed as necessary. It should not be necessary to wait until the end of December. In the interim period, the situation should be monitored with a view to identifying any snags that might appear. Let us see how it is working. If it is working effectively and efficiently in the manner the Government intended, that is fine. If it is not and if voids appear, we should be prepared to look at it again to see what can be done.

If I may digress for a moment, previous speakers made reference to the situation in respect of Debenhams. I agree with them. It is sad to see cases such as this and the Clerys case previously. People who worked for these companies, for almost their entire working lives in some cases, find themselves out on the road because of an executive decision. Although this decision was made in a non-EU jurisdiction, it is mean not to accept the normal responsibilities with regard to redundancies. That goes without saying and needs to be borne in mind.

I do not know whether anything can be done about the Debenhams case from a legislative perspective at this stage. I know there are many reasons for the decision and that trading issues arise from time to time but there may be more such cases, especially in light of Brexit. We need to be very cautious, careful and watchful with regard to what may emerge in the future. We need to be absolutely certain that, in the event of other companies taking a similar route in the context of Brexit, some preparations will have been made.

I will again bring Brexit into the discussion because it is part and parcel of this matter. Along the Border, as and from now, businesses here that compete with businesses in Northern Ireland may find themselves in something of a difficulty. Businesses will obviously register themselves wherever they see their position being safest. In the situation which will emerge as we come to the end of this year and in light of the obvious implications of Brexit, we will have to be very watchful as to how our companies are progressing and to ensure they progress rather than running into the proverbial brick wall. I ask the Minister of State to keep that in mind with a view to identifying issues as they arise and dealing with them insofar as that is possible.

It is necessary to deal with the issues with which the Bill aims to deal. I was in the House when the original Companies Act 2014 went through the House and when subsequent amending Acts were discussed. We have lived a lot in recent years. Business, industry, the general public, employers and employees have lived an awful lot of life in the last ten years. They have faced more challenges than they ever faced before. I have no doubt but that when Brexit, the virus and normal business challenges are added up, enormous issues will arise which we may have to revisit. We need to be ready for such situations and we need to be able to deal with them resolutely as and when they arise.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am moving through the groups and I do not see speakers from some parties or groups. If speakers are present, I hope they will let me know. There is no Sinn Féin speaker indicating in this second round. I will move on to the Rural Independent Group's two speakers, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. They have five minutes each.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I will be as quick as possible. I call for counties in which the coronavirus is being controlled to be allowed to reopen businesses more quickly. The Department's list of confirmed cases of Covid-19 shows just one confirmed case in Kerry in the last 14 days. I call on the Government to use this information when making decisions on any future restrictions. Such measures should be considered on a county-by-county basis in order to allow counties with few or no new cases to open up all of their businesses.

While it would be foolish to think that the real threat of Covid-19 has gone completely, the fact that of 260 cases nationally in the past fortnight, only one of those was in County Kerry, points to solid reasoning for allowing counties to open up at a faster pace than others. Since 15 July, a further 260 cases were confirmed, with Dublin accounting for 154 of them, so 59% of the cases are here in Dublin. Many small businesses were looking for good news in the July stimulus package and while some measures were welcome, there is little in it for many of the small local businesses in Kerry, which either still remain closed or are trying to operate at a fraction of their normal level. The Minister knows the argument I and others have been making about opening up public houses. They are small businesses. I want to see those people being catered for and allowed to open. It is causing real hardship. We are not even being told that they can open on 10 August. The Tánaiste replied to me on the day following the announcement that the only thing he could confirm is that they were not going to open before 10 August. Before the Dáil rises, I ask somebody in government to say for definite when they will be allowed to open.

As we are talking about small businesses in the context of the Bill, I wish to raise flooding, which directly affects businesses. Unfortunately, in County Kerry we had an awful situation last night. I compliment staff and workers from Kerry County Council and the hard-working people in the fire service who had to work during the night throughout the county, in particular the Kenmare engineering staff, who had to go out to places such as Finnehy Court, Railway Crescent, Scarteen Park and the square in Kenmare. It is not too long ago since the then Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Kevin Boxer Moran, came to Kerry, visited places like Glenflesk and gave us money to carry out works. I was very grateful to him for the funding. He also gave us money for flood relief measures in other parts of Kerry, which was very welcome.

What is happening makes no sense to me when it comes to flooding situations such as in Kenmare, where businesses on the square were directly affected overnight and awful damage was done to them. Many of them perhaps do not even have insurance now due to the fact that they were flooded previously. The square in Kenmare is at one level and there is a fall in ground going to Kenmare Bay. There is no reason in the world the water should not carry from A to B. In case the response is that it has something to do with the tide, I can say with absolute authority that the tide went out of Kenmare last night at 1 a.m. and the square was flooded between 2 a.m. and 2.30 a.m. Great people such as Kerry County Council staff, led by Mr. Jackie Horgan and others from Kenmare, did outstanding work throughout the night. I compliment each and every one of the individuals working for the council and those working for the fire service who came out at that hour of the night and worked through the night and early morning. They are still there today. Other staff were working in other parts of Kerry such as Falemore, along the N70 Sneem to Caherdaniel Road, the Inny Bridge, Dromod and Killeenleigh. An awful lot of damage was done last night and that is affecting the public but also the businesses. Simple measures could be taken. I call directly on the new Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, to do as his predecessor did in the past and come to County Kerry, see the problems that we have on the ground, listen to local councillors in the municipal areas, see what is on the priority list drawn up by the excellent people in management in Kerry County Council, who are working in conjunction with the hard-working councillors from all parties and none, and give us the funding to introduce flood relief measures, but, for God's sake, let us stop the flooding occurring in the square in Kenmare because it should not happen. There are engineering solutions to stop it. I urge the Minister of State to take that on board. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute.

1:50 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I too wish to raise the plight of the publicans in places such as Kilgarvan, Barraduff, Rathmore, Gneeveguilla, Scartaglin, and Cordal. Very few pubs are opened in Castleisland. Other places include Knocknagoshel and Brosna, Currow, Fieries and Ballyfinnane. So much of that entire countryside is still in lockdown, as such. There are two aspects to the issue. There are the publicans, whose doors have been shut for all these months, who were employing people and would be employing people. As has been said before, some of the publicans are over the age of 66 and they only have their pensions to pay for all the outlay they have in a public house such as electricity and insurance. Insurance bills do not go away. They are saddled with all these costs and they did not qualify for the Covid payment. All we asked is that their pension would be topped up by approximately €100 to bring it up to the €350 Covid payment, but that was refused, which was very unfair on people who were employing so many others and who add such value to the communities they serve.

For the ordinary man who wanted to go for a drink or two, the nearest place they could go was to Killarney, Tralee or Kenmare and they had to have a meal when they might have just wanted to have two pints. It meant that they were away for three or four hours to have a meal and a couple of pints. That is very unfair on all those people. We should remember that mental health is very important too. Many people have gone into themselves because they cannot go out and meet people. It is not just about drink; it is about conversation, meeting people and discussing the events of the day, the week or whatever else and keeping in touch with people. They have lost all of that. I really hope the Government and the public health team give the green light to these premises to open on 10 August. We will be very concerned if that does not happen. There have been murmurs in recent days that pubs being open could adversely affect schools. I do not see any sense in that.

Regarding flooding, we were very lucky to get the Flesk river cleared down as far as far as Gortahoosh, but the other half of it is still to be cleared, going into Killarney. Fleming's caravan site is prone to flooding. The Lake Hotel is also affected because the Flesk river flows out of the lake and the Laune river is blocked as far back as the Laune Bridge and the bay. This needs to be dredged and cleaned out. It cost the wonderful Huggard family a fortune and they were not covered by insurance because it has happened two or three times. I believe it cost them €2 million or €3 million to reopen the last time they were flooded. It is very unfair.

If one were to fill a glass with water and put a few stones into it, the water would spill out over the top. People can talk about climate change until the cows come home but if we do not clear out the rivers, then houses and roads will be flooded and bridges will be swept away. We need to allow farmers to clean the rivers like they always did. They are stopped from doing it now because of cross-compliance and they would lose their payments. What is happening is very unfair.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I will call Deputy McGuinness but I wish to point out that we will be stopping the debate at 2.50 p.m. to allow the Minister to contribute for five minutes and Second Stage will come to a close then.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Bill. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, every success on his appointment.

It is good that we have someone who understands business and the difficulty of transacting business in normal times, and that he has with such speed got to the point where these changes are now being introduced as part of the new Covid-19 requirements for businesses to ensure that legally they are able to operate in an efficient way covering all of the aspects of the law.

It is essential legislation because it is law and one never knows when it is going to be contested one way or another, be it board meetings, paperwork or something else. It is essential that we get it right. Equally it is essential that renewing it, according to the Bill itself, for the periods that it is required, be done carefully and in a way that can be changed should that be necessary in the future. The provision and stamping of documents is a vital part of the transaction of business and a vital part of court proceedings, should they happen. The original documents that are required, therefore, must be arrived at in an appropriate legal way. They must then be acceptable not just to the business and the board but also such that they can be tested in the courts. That is an essential part of any legal challenge that may be faced by any business.

The Minster of State mentioned that he is responding in the context of Covid-19 but in a common sense way. I ask him to examine that in the course of his work and apply the common sense that is necessary for the transaction of business in this country. He will agree that there is a need for certainty in business in these very uncertain times. The proposals the Minister of State puts forward, or the supports that are put in place for businesses, must be secure and be for the longest period he can achieve in the context of dealing not just with Covid but with the serious problem that now faces the country, namely the pandemic coupled with the Brexit negotiations. It is quite clear from the world economy that a serious problem is emerging in the context of how we trade and how we keep individual economies alive and well and trading during these times. There will be new challenges but in Ireland the basic central theme of what we need to protect is small business and family businesses and the assurance that those family businesses can trade well.

For a long number of years we have had issues with insurance companies and banks, and with regulations generally. I encourage the Minister of State, in the context of company law, to deal with the regulations that are weighing so heavily on businesses. The need to comply with regulation is an enormous cost to business and is preventing businesses from developing in the normal way they should because as a person takes the next steps in the development of his or her business, he or she must look over their shoulder to see what other regulations will be applied in his or her case and what the cost will be. My background is in the transport industry and in small business. The regulations in place now have substantially changed compared to ten years ago and they are absolutely in need of reform. I encourage the Minister of State to examine this issue just as much as I encourage him to look at the insurance industry. I appreciate it does not come under this brief, but he will understand, as someone who has developed a keen interest in not just the SME sector but beyond it, that the insurance industry needs to be reformed and needs to be responsive to the needs of a modern business community asking for extended coverage because of litigation. I understand that the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Fleming, and others are now looking at this but for five years on the finance committee and indeed before my time on it, we examined every detail and change that could be made to ensure fair play for small businesses. They were objected to and derailed by the industry itself. There is a need to find another way to solve the insurance problems in this country. If we do not do it soon, more and more businesses will close because insurance is a burden on top of everything else that they simply cannot carry and yet must carry.

I know from my own experience that family business owners go home at the end of a week. The employees will be paid in full for their work, which they deserve, but the operator of the business often goes home with nothing or far less than the employee. That is the nature of the small businesses throughout the villages and towns of the country. The Minister of State has seen it himself and I have spoken about it in his own constituency. Post offices, pubs, small grocery stores and so on have closed. These are the heartbeat of a local community and they have all been closed with no opportunity for them to reopen with no grants available to the business owners to adapt to a changing world and a changing society. Regardless of how much the world changes or how much business will change, it is central to the rural way of life in Ireland that small businesses be kept alive.

The Minister of State deals in this legislation with the co-operative societies and their general regulation under the Friendly Societies and Industrial and Provident Societies (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 and so on. They also need support. The greatest example of community support through business comes in the shape of credit unions. They have significant assets and a willingness to participate in rescuing the economy through business, housing and so on. They have been prevented from doing so because Government has in the past been extremely slow to respond to the requests from credit unions for them to get involved with providing the type of credit that is needed at local level where the information is available on a business and a decision can be made on a really informed basis.

In that regard I also encourage the Minister of State to look at the Irish Credit Bureau, ICB. Why should people who suffered during the crisis and did their best to keep their doors open, but for one reason or another missed a repayment or a number or them, and is now on the ICB list be excluded? They cannot get credit. We are killing off a generation of entrepreneurs who carried this country in difficult times but were unable to make it, not because of their inefficiencies or poor business methods but because of the world crisis that was brought about. They are still just recovering from that crisis. They are still carrying personal debt and they have used up whatever inheritance or savings they may have had. They are keeping their doors open based on pride and the desire to stay in business. We have not responded the way we should have. We have not given them the grants that they need because they cannot get credit. The institutions that have been set up such as the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, and so on have acted as nothing but a road block to providing the funding. Banks have again not performed as they should in the interests of small businesses.

As such there is an awful lot of work to be done. I am not loading all of it onto the Minister of State's shoulders. He is however a Minister of State with a vision and an understanding of what needs to be done. I encourage him not to be afraid of tackling the big issues because it is those big issues that will change circumstances in a very direct way for family businesses and those businesses that are caught up in the difficult problems that now exist in the world. It can come down to the basic need of carrying stock and not being able to sell that stock because it has now gone out of season.

There are serious issues that need to be addressed and I ask the Minister of State to take a hands-on, common sense approach. I know he will achieve the best for the small and medium enterprises in Ireland.

2:10 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all of the Members who have contributed to the debate, which has been largely positive. As quickly as I can, I will go through some of the issues raised and there are other issues that I will leave and go through on Committee Stage because there might be a better opportunity then to tease them out with the Deputies.

A number of Deputies noted that the Tánaiste and Minister, Deputy Varadkar, was not here for the debate. Very frequently, people are critical of the roles of Ministers of State and their role in a given Department. For my part, I am the Minister of State with delegated responsibility for company law so it is important, when company law is being debated, that the person with that responsibility be here to go through it and engage with Members. In fairness to Deputy O'Reilly, at least she stayed around to participate in the debate.

Remote working from home is not always a good thing. Deputies were right to say that people who are working from home now are not doing so out of choice. They are doing so out of necessity. I agree with what Deputy Ó Ríordáin said about the lack of proper infrastructure and lack of access to proper equipment. It is for this reason that it is welcome the Department has launched a consultation process for people to feed into what needs to be done so we can have a proper system of working remotely, in which we will have the proper infrastructure, broadband and office infrastructure so people no longer need to leave Mullingar, Portlaoise or any of the commuter towns at 6 a.m. or 6.30 a.m. to go to work in Dublin. This is something we need to look at. We also have to be conscious that the mass exodus of people who normally work in Dublin has posed challenges to many of our service industries in the capital city. We cannot forget about that.

The Bill provides for meetings to be conducted by electronic means. The Government will use this interim period as a trial run for measures to see whether they should be enacted permanently. A number of people have said they welcome these changes but they would like to see them on a more permanent basis. We can see how they work out over the next four to five months and, if necessary, we will put them on a permanent basis.

Much has been said about the speed at which the legislation has been brought through. I would point out it is necessary and there are times when we have to act and respond quickly. Although there was no pre-legislative scrutiny, there was consultation with the trade unions through the Company Law Review Group. They fed into this legislation and welcome it. This is not about big business. I am tired listening to certain Deputies say that when a measure is introduced or a proposal is made to help and support business it is because it is for big business. The vast majority of businesses are small and medium enterprises. The vast majority of our businesses are run by people who employ local people and create opportunities and jobs. I do not think just because a measure is introduced that is pro-business or pro-enterprise it means we are against employees' rights or against employees for one reason or another. What we want to see is good businesses bringing forward opportunities for employees. We want to ensure businesses are supported because without businesses there is no work for employees. We need to remember that.

The July stimulus was raised numerous times in the debate. The stimulus is the greatest and largest injection in the history of the State. While there are people who would like to see more being done, we have to look at this in the round. We have to look at the level of grant aid that is being made available. The grants have increased from a minimum of €2,000 to €4,000 and from a minimum of €10,000 to €25,000. Perhaps one of the biggest daily overheads any business has is the cost of labour. We have provided certainty to our business community that until April next year there will be a subsidy and a grant of €204 per employee.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We are ruled by the clock and I have to stop the Minister of State.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps we will have an opportunity while discussing amendments to make more points.

Question put and agreed to.