Thursday, 17 December 2020
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
93. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will report on the interactions he has had with the Director of Corporate Enforcement regarding the Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Bill 2018. [44126/20]
The Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Bill 2018 is important legislation. We met a couple of months ago and we discussed it briefly. If it is delivered, it could have a real impact on the issue of so-called white collar crime, or more aptly, economic crime. I look forward to the Bill coming before the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment in the new year. A fully functioning and fit-for-purpose Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, will play a key role as the Bill seeks to establish a corporate authority on a commission structure. Can the Tánaiste advise of the interaction he has had with that office in relation to this legislation?
As the ODCE falls under my delegated functions, I will take the question. I understand the Tánaiste is due to meet the Director of Corporate Enforcement in the new year. However, I met him shortly after my appointment and we had a constructive engagement primarily around the establishment of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement.
The Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Bill 2018 is my legislative priority for this session. The legislation has been in development since the Government adopted a package of measures to enhance Ireland's corporate, economic and regulatory framework in October 2017. The package included the action to establish the ODCE as an independent company law compliance and enforcement agency.
The general scheme of the Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Bill 2018 was published on 4 December 2018. My Department worked with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel on the drafting of the Bill and the director was consulted on the draft legislation on an ongoing basis. Pre-legislative scrutiny on the general scheme of the Bill had not concluded at the time of the dissolution of the last Dáil and is under way again. I understand the director recently provided a submission on the legislation to the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, at its request. I also understand it is the committee's intention to invite the Tánaiste to appear before it on 20 January next.
Subject to the completion of pre-legislative scrutiny, we hope to be in a position to revert to the Government with a stamped Bill in early 2021 and its content will be discussed again with the director in advance. My ambition is for the Bill to be enacted as soon as practicably possible following the completion of pre-legislative scrutiny. I welcome Deputy Quinlivan's comments and his eagerness to have the Bill progressed. I hope that as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, he will use his position to ensure a swift passage of this Bill.
I thank the Minister of State for the reply and his comments. I am delighted he has met the director of the ODCE. I am pleased that it was a constructive meeting. I take this opportunity to advise the Minister of State that I have invited the Tánaiste and the director to attend the first possible meeting of the joint committee in January. I hope that will happen. We want to meet the director first and we will then meet the Tánaiste, as Minister, in the next available opportunity, hopefully in January. Those invitations went out today.
The Hamilton review has welcomed the effort to enhance the autonomy of the ODCE and has made a number of recommendations regarding enhanced powers, enhancement of the Ethics Act and, in particular, amendments to the criminal justice legislation with respect to search warrants. In his discussions with the ODCE, did the Minister of State express concerns regarding the recommendations of the report? Crucially, the creation of a stand-alone authority will allow greater ability to hire staff and expertise rather than being dependent on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment for such recruitment matters. Has a decision been made with regard to the level of funding that the autonomous authority will receive?
The policy approach underpinning the general scheme is the establishment of a statutory agency that is appropriately resourced, is accountable and has a clear mandate. It is clear that white-collar crime is a menace on society and has huge consequences for the economy. It is important that we have a fit-for-purpose authority established as quickly as possible. It is regrettable that during the course of the last Dáil the committee, of which I was a member for a number of months, could not, for reasons known to it, undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. In January, the committee will have an opportunity to meet the director, the Tánaiste and me to finalise the general scheme of the Bill, to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and to plough on and ensure this legislation is enacted without any further delay. It is important legislation. I welcome Deputy Quinlivan's commitment to it and I look forward to working with him, the Tánaiste and the committee to ensure the Bill is enacted without any further delay.
I would like to put on the record my thanks for the work done by the former Chairman of the committee, Deputy Butler, now Minister of State at the Department of Health, to try to progress this Bill. There were a number of legal and other reasons that did not happen. Hopefully, it will happen next year.
We are in broad agreement on the need for structural change to the ODCE. We all agree on the need to tackle white-collar crime. White-collar economic crime is something citizens have been more exposed to during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since March of this year trade and commerce has been, in the main, conducted via electronic means. I am concerned that if we establish the authority and give it the necessary statutory power, but we fail to enhance support to the related Garda divisions and other agencies or authorities involved in tackling economic crime, the impact of this change could be negligible. The establishment of the authority is an important part of the work in tackling white-collar crime but it is not the only part. We need a suite of measures, some of which are alluded to in the Hamilton report. I hope that the Tánaiste, the Minister of State and other relevant Ministers will seek to expedite the recommendations contained in the Hamilton report.
We are on the same page on this matter. We can work together to progress the legislation in a timely fashion. The Deputy is correct that the establishment of this authority on its own will not be the panacea to white-collar crime and that this is a matter that crosses many Departments. The Deputy referenced the Hamilton report launched by the Department of Justice earlier this year and the aspirations contained therein. It is important that we take the first step, which is the establishment of the authority. It is long overdue. That does not mean the reforms will stop there. We will continue to build on that, evolve and ensure our legislative responses are fit for purpose. I have no doubt we will do that.
The Deputy asked about funding. The funding for the ODCE in 2021 is over €6 million, which is a 20% increase on the allocation for 2018. This is an acknowledgement of the fact that in establishing the authority it must be adequately resourced so it can be fit for purpose.