Tuesday, 8 September 2020
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
This morning, the striking Debenhams workers occupied stores in Dublin and Cork. They did so after more than 150 days of campaigning for fair treatment from the company that has treated them in an appalling manner. The company, as the Taoiseach knows, simply shut up shop and left workers high and dry. Initially, they were left with only basic State supports and the prospect of statutory redundancy. I am sure the Taoiseach understands the anger and frustration of these workers at this time. The liquidator, KPMG, has now withdrawn the offer it proposed to the workers. This is a very provocative action, especially when we consider the duration of this dispute and everything the workers have been through.
I have raised the issue of the Debenhams workers with the Taoiseach previously. On that occasion I asked him to act immediately to intervene in support of the workers and to legislate so that this disgraceful scenario can never happen again to another worker. At that time, the Taoiseach said he would do everything he could to help the workers. Given what has unfolded today, including the arrest of some Debenhams workers here in Dublin, I want the Taoiseach to set out what he has actually done. Figures released by the European Commission today show Ireland is second only to Spain in terms of jobs lost in the second quarter of this year. A lot of people have lost their jobs and a lot more will lose theirs. This is what makes this Debenhams dispute so important for every vulnerable worker. This is, in fact, a test case for the Government. The Taoiseach gave a commitment that the Government would review company law, which leaves workers in such awful situations, with a view to amending it. Where is this review at? That the Government acts now and stands up for workers and legislates in their interests is not only important for the Debenhams workers, it is also important for every worker throughout the country. The Covid emergency has brought great economic turmoil and many people now look with a level of nervousness and uncertainty, particularly as the Government plans to curtail and cut the pandemic unemployment payment and the employment wage subsidy scheme.
The Taoiseach may say this is very complicated and complex but he knows he has options available to him to protect workers and prevent rogue companies from treating their staff in such a disgraceful way. We in Sinn Féin have published legislation to stop unscrupulous employers using tactical insolvency to avoid their obligations to their workers. The Taoiseach could support that legislation. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has outlined a statutory scheme for the protection of redundancy payments. The Duffy Cahill report presents a range of measures the Government could support and adopt in legislation. The Taoiseach therefore has options but he now has to demonstrate the political will to stand on the side of workers. He needs to start with the Debenhams workers today. He needs to intervene directly on their behalf. He should lift the phone to them at this time when they feel very vulnerable and left behind. He also needs to raise the phone to KPMG and request that it re-enter engagement and negotiation with the workers. It is not good enough for the Government to stand idly by while workers who have given years, in some cases decades, of loyal service give such service only to be abandoned.
The treatment of the Debenhams workers has been very shabby, shoddy and unacceptable and I have made that point on a number of occasions. Notwithstanding the difficulties the parent company was or is in, the failure to honour the collective agreements into which these workers had entered is unacceptable, and the manner in which they have been treated is unacceptable as far as the performance of the company is concerned. I have met the workers on a number of occasions, both in the Taoiseach's office and on the picket line. They were very exercised and focused on getting a practical outcome to the present dispute, which is difficult.
Last week, as the Deputy will be aware, particularly last Friday, there had been progress, or indications of some progress, in discussions between Mandate Trade Union and the liquidator towards a deal that could be put to the workers in a ballot. I know Sinn Féin welcomed that announcement and the fact that a proposal had been put to the workers after agreement had been reached between Mandate and the Debenhams liquidator. The nature of that offer, however, specifically the overall amount of funding made available, was clearly unacceptable to the workers on the ground. When the amount was divided among all the workers, it paled into relative insignificance in comparison with what they would have expected if the collective agreement had been observed.
The Government has communicated its views to the company. The parent company in the UK was in examinership and is not coming forward with any resources to assist in this situation. All sides must now get back around the table. We have kept in close contact with Mandate on this dispute, its continuation and efforts to try to bring about a resolution to it. Mandate will tell Deputy McDonald, to be fair, that it is challenging to work out a satisfactory package for the workers involved. The Government has committed to reviewing company law more generally to make it very difficult in future - one can never render it impossible - for companies tactically to create situations of this kind, to use the word the Deputy used. There is a range of measures involved, for example, separating assets from trading income, and these loopholes have to be closed. Our view is to take a supportive stance on behalf of the workers. I met ICTU last week and I have met IBEC. I spoke to ICTU at some length on this issue, particularly the legal side and mechanisms that could perhaps be deployed to try to assist the workers at Debenhams but also more generally in situations into the future.
That is the position as of now. We need to get all sides back to the table and to get dialogue opened again to see if a package can be put to the workers in terms of what is available out of that liquidation process. It is beyond the Government's sphere of influence, legally.
Debenhams was not the first offender in using such tactical insolvencies and the loopholes the Taoiseach has described. Everyone will recall Clerys and its workers and will remember that at that time, the political class said it must never happen again. Guess what? It has happened again and will happen again, time after time, both the retail sector and elsewhere, unless those loopholes are closed. The time for reviewing is over and the time for action is now. When will the law be changed to protect workers in these situations?
The Taoiseach says the workers and all parties should get back around the table. What table? To what table do the liquidator, the company, the workers and their union return? Can the Taoiseach set that out? Engagement is essential. The industrial relations machinery of the State has run its course. That is over and we are dealing with a deeply unjust situation in which workers who have given decades of their lives and of service have been thrown on the scrapheap by Debenhams. The Taoiseach has to intervene with the liquidator and others and tell them to return to the table. What table will that be?
It is the table to which the Deputy has just alluded. She knows what I am saying. Talks should begin. There should be dialogue again between the key interests. The Deputy knows there was ongoing work by Mandate, in particular, to do its best in difficult situations to arrive at and realise a package from the workers. Last Friday, the Deputy welcomed that there was a result from that engagement. However, the scale of the engagement clearly was not sufficient to meet workers' desires, understandably. It did not even get to ballot. In my view, KPMG, the liquidators, and others should engage in dialogue to see if that package can be improved upon and if we can do the best we possibly can for the workers. That is of immediate relevance to the workers.
We should not try to pretend to the workers that we can do everything and work out a perfect solution. There have been a number of false dawns painted for the workers by others over the last number of weeks. I do not believe that to be helpful. There are real legal constraints in terms of the liquidation process. The Deputy knows that and I know that. It is under the oversight of the High Court. There are real difficulties. There is no point in throwing them to one side or dismissing them. I am interested in seeing how we can help the workers as best we can. The Government will come forward with statutory redundancy and all of that but we have to focus on what we can get out of this desperate situation, which is an unfair situation for the workers. I salute their courage and perseverance. They have kept at this for a long time. I have met them and I have nothing but admiration for them. That is why we will do everything we can to support them in any way we can.
On the review and the Company Law Review Group, the Tánaiste asked it to expedite its assessment of this issue.
Today at 6.15 a.m., ex-workers from Debenhams stores at Mahon Point, St. Patrick's Street and Tralee occupied the St. Patrick's Street store in Cork city. At 7 a.m., workers and supporters occupied the store at Henry Street, Dublin. As the news broke on "Morning Ireland", I have no doubt but that working people across the country will have silently cheered. Everybody knows by now that this dispute is a litmus test for how workers' rights fare in this pandemic. The workers sitting in were stepping up their campaign for four weeks' redundancy pay per year of service. It is a just campaign.
They were firmly rejecting the insulting offer made to them by KPMG last week, an offer which amounted to the statutory minimum plus one day's pay per year of service. In a company in which most workers worked part-time, the KPMG offer equalled €615 for one part-time worker with 18 years of service and €137 for another part-time worker with six years of service. These are sums of money less than one-tenth of what they would have received under their old deal with Debenhams.
There is a long-standing and proud tradition in this country of worker sit-ins. In Cork, we remember the Vita Cortex workers. Scandalously, people who were sitting in this morning on Henry Street, including shop steward Jane Crowe and workers Doreen Keegan and Seán Powney, were arrested, removed from the store and charged on suspicion of trespass. These workers are not the criminals, they are the victims of a multinational company, which has robbed them of a decent redundancy, engaging in a tactical liquidation while hoarding £95 million in the bank.
The Government has been in power for more than two months. The Taoiseach himself met a delegation of Debenhams workers at Government Buildings. Valerie Conlon was part of that delegation and she is leading the St. Patrick's Street sit-in today. The Taoiseach has stood on the St. Patrick's Street picket line for photographs with these workers. The Taoiseach cannot tell me that he was unaware of the insulting offer that was made to these workers. His own backbench Deputies were telling workers the broad outlines of that deal days before the offer was made. The Taoiseach speaks of these workers having suffered shoddy treatment. Some of the parties that have treated the workers shoddily include the Taoiseach himself, his party and his Government, by standing by and allowing such an insulting offer to be put before them in the first place. How could the Taoiseach be so out of touch that he would think that an offer of €1 million would end a dispute over the need to increase redundancy payments by €10 million? The workers feel they have been badly let down by the Taoiseach. They feel that the KPMG offer, which was withdrawn this morning, must be replaced by an improved offer of four weeks' redundancy per year of service.
I asked the workers sitting in on St. Patrick's Street for a comment that I might read to the Taoiseach at the end of my contribution. They sent me the following comment: "Remember golfgate". It is time to play ball with the Debenhams workers.
The Deputy is correct that I met the workers in the Taoiseach's office. They were realistic and they were not easily fooled by anybody about what was possible and not possible within the law. They had no intention of being taken up the mountain only to be led back down again. They were focused on trying to get a realistic package for themselves and their colleagues, who have spent a long time with the company and who have worked for many years. The Deputy knows full well that last week's offer was not a Government offer so he should not try to portray it as such.
To be fair to the trade union involved, Mandate, it is doing its best within limited circumstances to try to get some sort of a package from a company that has left, through the process where some resources could perhaps be freed up to make a contribution to the workers' situation. That is my understanding of the situation but I was not directly involved in that; nor was the Government.
I went to the picket line on St. Patrick's Street because the workers asked me to go. I did not go for a photograph. When I was there, the workers asked if they could take a photograph with their mobile phones and of course they could. The Deputy should not make comments of that sort in a derogatory way as he is passing by in his contribution. As I have said, my only focus is on the workers themselves. They have worked for this company for a long time and they have been badly let down. The Government, through its mechanisms, will fulfil its obligations in respect of statutory redundancy. As for the law, there are commitments in the programme for Government to make sure that legal provisions are made around collective redundancies and the liquidation of companies to protect effectively the rights of workers into the future.
That is the priority but that will not help in the current situation and with the challenges facing the workers in Debenhams. It is an issue that the Government is very concerned about, as is the plight of the workers. We intend to do anything we possibly can to help them in the aftermath of the closure of the stores in this country, within the law and the frameworks available to us.
His backbenchers were going around the picket lines for days previously giving the workers the broad outline of the offer. I ask the Taoiseach not to take people for fools. He was part and parcel of an insulting offer that was made to these workers. The workers the Taoiseach met in Government Buildings and whom he has just spoken about organised a rally outside the shop today at which thousands of leaflets were distributed. The workers made very clear that they feel the Taoiseach and other Government Deputies have let them down very badly, as indeed they have.
KPMG has stated it cannot make the offer the workers wish unless it is instructed to do so by the Government. The workers will not let the stock leave the shops and this dispute will not go away until that offer is made. The Taoiseach knows what he has to do. I ask him to do it now, please, and resolve this dispute.
What is happening, from Deputy Barry's perspective, and has happened from the beginning of the dispute, is that this is about the politicisation and exploitation of the issue to the best political advantage of the Deputy. I put it to him bluntly that that is what he is about. My focus is on what I can do practically for the workers.
There are two things we can do from this date. We will do whatever we can to put pressure on to get a deal, a respectable package, for the workers. We need to change the law as well to protect workers in future by protecting collective agreements. That has to happen. As I said, I had preliminary discussions with ICTU. They were not on the agenda. I had a general discussion with representatives of ICTU last week in the context of the social dialogue unit we are establishing in my Department. In the context of that discussion, we discussed Debenhams and how we could develop mechanisms in the future, and whether we could do something to assist Debenhams' workers. That is my only focus and the focus of the Government right now.
As I am sure the Taoiseach is aware, there is great concern and anger about how leaving certificate grade inflation, which we witnessed on Monday, will impact more than 20,000 Central Applications Office, CAO, applicants who are using the previous leaving certificate results. I had assumed that the calculated teachers' estimated marks combined with the standardisation process, overseen by the Department of Education and Skills, to bring these grades more in line with previous years would have resulted in more consistent results when comparison was made with previous years. The breakdown of results shows clearly that teachers overestimated the marks of their students. One in six, or 17%, of teachers' estimated grades ended up being reduced downwards to limit the scale of grade inflation. Despite this, we still see an overall grade increase of almost 5%. Looking at individual subjects, we see big jumps in H1 grades, ranging from 79% in applied mathematics to 54% in geography, 43% in English, 32% in biology and 31% in mathematics.
Overall, the proportion of students achieving top grades in higher level papers has jumped significantly since last year. As a result, we can expect the CAO points requirement to increase across the board. Putting this in context, if an average student received a higher grade in four of seven subjects, this would result in him or her achieving an increase of 45 CAO points. The net effect of this is that the points required for CAO courses will rise significantly. This is completely unfair to students seeking to apply through the CAO system this year who completed the leaving certificate in 2019 or earlier. I have spoken to a number of students from County Louth who completed the leaving certificate in 2019 and are applying to the CAO in 2020. They are at a complete disadvantage.
Many students who sat the leaving certificate examinations in 2019 and earlier have since been working to save money to be able to afford to go to college this year. They must be protected and given a fair chance. With no system in place to ensure the fair treatment of this group of students when the CAO offers are released on Friday, it is now clear that the 20,000 students affected will be at a severe disadvantage when competing for a course place against those who received their results through the predicted grading system. These applicants do not have the same representation as those who were due to sit the leaving certificate this year and must not be ignored by the Government. Is the Government willing to do the right thing by these 20,000 applicants to ensure they are not severely disadvantage by this process? If the Government is not willing to take decisive action to rectify this impending problem, the subsequent unfairness will be abhorrent.
The Government has referred to the fact that additional college places are being made available this year. These extra places will not be nearly enough to fully offset this predictable injustice. We must support and encourage this group of students. Education is the key to a successful career and we must afford every opportunity to students to allow them reach their full potential. We cannot have a situation where a certain group of students is totally disadvantaged as a result of a situation over which it had no control. I appeal to the Government to do the right thing by this group by taking whatever measures or actions are necessary to ensure the CAO offers are fair to all students and not solely to the class of 2020.
Yesterday was a special day for the thousands of students in the class of 2020 and their families. It is fair to say these students have endured a lot of anxiety and uncertainty over the past year due to the severe impact that Covid-19 has had on their lives, education and leaving certificate examinations. School communities and teachers articulated more than a sigh of relief that we have got to the stage when results have been issued.
I pay tribute to all involved in the calculated grades system, including the technical people within the Department Education and Skills, and the extraordinary work that has gone into this solution. The overall point that should not be lost on us is that this has been a unique year because of Covid and no ideal solution can be found, other than to sit the leaving certificate examinations. The Deputy will know that the examinations have always involved a standardisation process. The process undertaken this year has been comprehensive.
On grade inflation, it must be pointed out that there was no change of grade in approximately 79.2% of cases. It was not 20,000 students who sat the examinations in 2019. My understanding is that approximately 9,000 of prospective college applicants undertook the examinations in 2019 and the figure of up to 20,000 relates to applicants who have sat the examinations since 1985. Some of the affected 9,000 students may get third level places. There is a range of variables that will play into what will happen next Friday when the points for the CAO competition are published. It is difficult at this stage to be precise about the challenges that may arise for last year's leaving certificate students who are seeking to secure places in colleges, institutes of technology or other areas this year.
The Minister with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, have been working on this matter and there will be more than 5,000 additional places available at third level this autumn to be assigned through the CAO system. Of that number, 2,000 provide for demographic increases and another 2,000 come from the July stimulus package and human capital initiative. A further 1,200 places were agreed by the Cabinet two weeks ago. All of those places are designed to try to reduce pressures in key areas and approximately 370 of those additional places apply specifically to high grade areas. Much will depend on the decisions students make.
Particular variables that will impact on demand this year include changing patterns of learning with more blended learning, accommodation and transport factors and students who may be seeking to defer or reapply in subsequent years. Reduced opportunities in the economy may also become a factor in people's decision making. The pandemic itself will have an impact on the decisions that students make about courses.
A lot of courses will be online this year. That may impact on student decision-making. The uncertain patterns of international students travelling could also impact on places.
I agree with the Taoiseach that this is a unique year. This group has a lot of questions and I feel he has not answered them. It is clear that the CAO points requirement will be greatly inflated this year due to the predicted grades system. A level playing field is needed. Grades increased in 2020 by 4.4%. This Government is, like the previous Government, always asking for solutions. A real solution is that students who did exams in 2019 and previous years would have their results increased by 4.4% so they would be treated the same as those who received results in 2020. That is one solution the Government could consider.
Everybody deserves an education. As the Taoiseach said earlier, education is the key to a successful career and we must afford every opportunity to students to ensure they reach their full potential. In Dundalk, we have a college called DkIT. I am very proud of it for the simple reason that 80% of the students who attend it have parents who never had the opportunity to get a third level education. Education is very important.
This is a unique year. I ask the Taoiseach to make sure that nobody is stopped from getting a third level education. All students should be given a course. If someone does a course he or she is not capable of doing, he or she can drop out. People should not be stopped from having a third level education.
As I said, the Government has approved 5,000 extra places this year to try to ease the pressures. The calculated grades model is robust and as fair as it can possibly be. The decision to take out the socio-economic profiling of schools was correct and was broadly welcomed in the House.
The Government does not have within its capacity the power to create places for every single person who wants a place in third level, unfortunately. Third level institutions do not have the capacity. Ministers have worked with third level institutions to secure additional places. The Deputy will understand that for practical courses involving laboratories and so on it can be difficult to expand numbers. Significant work has been put into providing resources to get increased numbers at third level this year. We will monitor the situation.
The Minister is continuing to work with colleges this week to see if he can get additional places. We will see where this lands on Friday and what the nature of the challenge will be for those students to whom the Deputy referred. It was not possible to have separate calculated grades for the 2019 cohort who are applying this year. This is a once-off and unique situation. All the work involved has been about trying to make the system as comparable as possible with previous and future leaving certificates.
I also wish to raise the issue of the Debenhams workers, because I do not think we got an answer that we can stand by. Would the Taoiseach condemn the arrests of the workers this morning? Is it now the policy of the gardaí to arrest workers engaging in peaceful industrial action? To my knowledge, this has never happened before. Occupations have been broken up and workers have been arrested and, indeed, jailed, but only on the basis of a fine, court order or injunction, none of which was issued in this case. Workers were arrested on the basis of trespassing under the public order Act and an act of criminal damage is being investigated by the gardaí in Store Street.
Former Debenhams workers are entitled to protest at their disgraceful treatment by a major company, which is still trading and which, as has been mentioned, has £94 million in the bank. We are dealing with a tactical insolvency and the use of the Covid-19 pandemic as a cover. The actions of the liquidator, KPMG, in withdrawing what was a measly offer is also to be condemned.
I note the Taoiseach's point that the expectations of the workers were not very high. To get one extra day's pay per year of service is an insult to those workers and they were rightly very enraged about it.
The situation could have been avoided if the outgoing Government, which the Taoiseach supported in the confidence and supply agreement, had legislated to implement the recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report. This report was commissioned by the then Minister for Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation in 2015 and presented to that Government in 2016. The Taoiseach is correct that Mandate is constrained by having to work within the legislation but that has to be amended with immediate effect. We have been here over the past number of weeks bringing in emergency legislation, which the Opposition has allowed to go through because it related to Covid-19. This legislation for these workers and for future workers should be brought in as a matter of urgency in the next two weeks. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to introduce this legislation to implement all nine recommendations in that report as a matter of urgency? There may well be a tsunami of closures, bankruptcies and insolvencies as a result of the economic crisis caused by Covid-19. The Taoiseach needs to be prepared and to take action to legislate for the Duffy Cahill report now.
The report did not make specific proposals for changes to the Companies Act 2014; rather its proposals were primarily concerned with amendments to employment law and the company law review group has considered options in respect of company law. The Tánaiste has asked it to do so now with a view to protecting the rights of workers where collective agreements have been arrived at. Clearly there has been a breach of a collective redundancy agreement here by the company, which is in liquidation. The parent company was in examinership but I believe it is now in liquidation and did not want to know about, nor did the examiner, releasing any resources to honour the company’s commitment to the workers in Ireland. Passing the law now would not help the workers in Debenhams right now but will would have an impact in the future, which I acknowledge. The review that was asked for will be ready in the fourth quarter of this year. It will be a Government priority to work on that and to bring about changes on that issue.
The Companies Act 2014 needs to be reviewed, for example, to address the practice of companies splitting their operations between trading and property, as we discussed earlier, as well as examining legal provisions that pertain to any sale to a connected party following the insolvency of a company. That is one dimension to this. What should happen is that dialogue should resume between representatives of the key parties and stakeholders here to see if a package can be arrived at through the liquidation process or if resources from that can be allocated to workers. I do not get the sense that it can ever be of the same scale as what they had agreed with the company in the redundancy agreement but one route among a number is that particular one, which should be pursued again. The liquidator should re-engage and resile from any actions that further inflame the situation and make a resolution more intractable in the coming weeks and months.
The workers have been on the picket lines for far too long. It is very difficult for them and their families. This needs to be brought to some resolution so that they can recreate their lives as best they can in a very difficult situation.
The Duffy Cahill report was published in March 2016. We had 2017, 2018 , 2019 and we are now in 2020. The Taoiseach is correct that those workers have been a long time on the picket line - 150 days. When people were told to cocoon at the very start of the restrictions, those workers had to go out there and protect the shop's stock so that it would not be sold off above their heads. They have been out there every single day of the week of the last period of time. We have a duty to those workers to say now that legislation will be brought in immediately as an emergency measure to deal with this.
The Government should put all its resources into doing that in the next week or two. The Taoiseach said it will not affect the Debenhams workers but if he brought in legislation immediately, and I know the unions have raised this with him, the liquidation is still in process so it could impact on those workers if the Government hunted down Debenhams assets to pay the workers. It can be done. The Duffy-Cahill report said that the Government should pay the four weeks' redundancy per year of service and then hunt down the assets. The law has to be changed. It is not good enough to leave these workers in this position for the next ten, 20, 30 or 40 days without bringing in legislation. The Taoiseach should bring in emergency legislation now. He has the power to do it. He has done it repeatedly over the past while in terms of emergency legislation to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. I ask him to do that now for these workers.
They were very straightforward measures to give a legislative basis to make sure that workers did not go without during the pandemic, particularly before the summer recess. In this situation, it is about changing company law and bringing in recommendations - a combination of both - that emanate from the Duffy-Cahill report. The Duffy-Cahill report in itself would not necessarily, in some cases, help a situation similar to that in which the Debenhams workers are but it could not be applied retrospectively and it would not help the workers right now. The focus now should be on what can be done to help the workers involved in this dispute. That is where the practical focus should be, in my view. The review is under way in terms of the law. It has to be informed because company law is not simple.
We have got to make sure we do this properly this time. We must ensure that loopholes are boxed off, that there is a greater emphasis on protecting collective agreements in employment law into the future and preventing bad practices in terms of separation of assets from trading income and a whole load of mechanisms that can be used by some companies to exit from their obligations.