Wednesday, 15 September 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
46. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment when legislation delivering a right to request remote working will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43777/21]
In advance of the phased return to workplaces from 20 September, many workers are wondering when they will have a legal right to request remote or blended working arrangements. Can the Tánaiste give an update on the drafting of legislation to deliver a right to request remote working?
The right to request remote working is part of a broader Government vision to make remote working a permanent feature of Ireland's workforce in a way that can benefit all, economically, socially and environmentally. The commitment to introduce legislation to underpin an employee's right to request remote working was made in the national remote work strategy published last January. The pandemic has certainly brought remote working centre stage and work on this important legislation is well advanced.
The Bill will set out a clear framework to facilitate remote and blended work options, in so far as possible. It will ensure that when an employer declines a request, he or she must give stated reasons for doing so. Remote working will not work for everyone, which means we must take a balanced approach with the legislation. On 20 August, I published the views of members of the public and stakeholder groups on the new legislation. The summary report of the 175 submissions is now available on my Department's website. Informed by the public consultation and a review of international best practice, the drafting of the general scheme of the Bill has commenced and I will be seeking Cabinet approval for the drafting of heads of Bill in quarter 4 of 2021. The Bill will be progressed through the Oireachtas as quickly as possible thereafter. The intention is to introduce a mechanism for employees to request remote working that is fair but does not place undue burdens on employers.
In the meantime, we will continue to provide up-to-date advice, guidance and information on all aspects of remote working for workers and employers. On 28 June, I launched my Department's Making Remote Work campaign. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the advice and information available from Government to help workers and employers facilitate more remote and blended working. It includes guidance for employers and workers and a remote working checklist, all of which are available on the Department's website. I can also inform the House that the work safety protocol has been updated, in consultation with unions and employers, and I should be in a position to publish it tomorrow or the day after, in advance of the phased return to offices that will begin next Monday.
Since the announcement by the Government of the phased return to work from 20 September, many workers have expressed concerns to us about what that will mean for remote and blended working in the future. From the Tánaiste's response, it seems we are a good bit away from having the right of workers to request remote working delivered into law. In the absence of that firm legal footing for workers, will he publicly state that the Government's preferred option is for employers and managers to agree with workers, their trade unions and representatives a blended working programme that takes into account the health and safety of workers? This means ensuring engagement with workers, their trade unions and representative bodies as the phased return to on-site working happens. Furthermore, will the Government lead by example in this regard by ensuring remote and blended working options are offered to workers in both the civil and public service?
That would be a good start in that regard.
We expect to have heads of the Bill, that is, the general scheme of the Bill, in the next couple of weeks. Obviously, that will have to go to the committee chaired by the Deputy. We hope to have the legislation enacted, realistically early in the new year, but if we get it done before then that would be great.
I am a big fan of remote working and blended working. It is part of the future. Part of the dividend from this pandemic is that we will not have people crowded into offices in the way they used to be. The office will be a different place. It will be a more creative place. Most people, or many people at least, will work sometimes from home, sometimes from the office and possibly sometimes from a remote hub in a small village or town. Of course, services have to be provided and the work has to be done. However, so long as services are provided and the work is done, we want people to have maximum choice and flexibility around that.
The return to the office begins next week and the message we are sending out to employers is that it will be phased. The public service will lead by example in that regard. It might initially involve people returning to the office for only one day or two days a week. People who can successfully work from home should be facilitated to continue to do so if that is their wish.
I thank the Tánaiste for his response. Many people are concerned regarding what will happen. It is good that the Government is calling on employers to do X, Y and Z but we will be coming into this very soon. I agree with the Tánaiste that one of the benefits of the pandemic is that working will change for many people. My colleagues and I have spoken to many people on this issue in the past couple of months and the message we have received is that a blended approach would suit many people, while working from home suits other people. Some people want to get back to the office full time.
As the Tánaiste noted, I am Chairman of the committee to which the Bill will come. We will not be lax in getting it through as fast as we can and we look forward to receiving the heads of Bill. We will work with the Tánaiste in that regard.
Essentially what I want to do here is to maximise choice for people. Many people have seen the benefits of working from home and remote working. Many people said it could not be done or that we would see a big drop-off in productivity. Generally speaking, that has not been the case although some people would dispute that. We are keen to make this part of the new normal.
The legislation will put in place a structured system whereby a person can request remote working. The employer will have to provide a response within a defined timeframe and will have to give a reason for refusal. That reason can then be challenged. That is the system on which we are working. It is similar to the system in place in the UK. In the meantime, I hope employers and employees will be practical and sit down together to work out the best arrangements for them. There are many people now working from home because they have to do so due to Government orders and Government advice. That will change. It is going to be much more choice-based in the future.