Friday, 27 March 2020
An Bille um Bearta Éigeandála ar mhaithe le Leas an Phobail (Covid-19) 2020: An Dara Céim - Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage
As we deal today with another suite of emergency measures in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I want to address some specific items. My colleagues will deal with other items in the Bill later on.
On the planning legislation, the proposal to give the Minister the power to extend statutory deadlines or to pause deadlines is, obviously, common sense. There are many reasons for this but above all we could put our whole planning system in jeopardy if the public cannot fully participate in the planning process and decisions going forward could face judicial review. This would bring further problems to the planning system.
With regard to the current state of play in the planning system, the briefing note referred to the consideration, and the basis for the amendment of the legislation, that if public offices have to close at some point, the ability to view information and make submissions by the public will be constrained. Can we take it that these public offices are open at the moment and that people can go in to view planning files as normal? I would say that many people do not know that. If it is the case, and if some change is envisaged, is it coming soon? Perhaps this is a difficult question to answer, but I believe it is important.Obviously, when we pause our whole planning process and our deadlines, we are pausing future development in the country because the basis of any development we see is a planning permission or some other consent given by the State and this applies across the board.
There is another point referred to in the briefing which I could not get clarification on. It states that the powers being provided to the Minister under this Part would address these matters by pausing processes for a time so that the decisions are not made but other work can continue to be progressed where possible in the interests of managing the overall economic aftermath of the emergency. I wonder what is this other work that can proceed under the planning and development code because I do not know of anything that can proceed absenting any consents or permissions that are required. This is not in the legislation per se, but it is to provide clarification of the underlying considerations. The Minister might be in a position to clarify that.
Another matter is the temporary wage subsidy scheme, the fundamentals of which are good. It is to keep the employer-employee relationship even though a business may not be trading owing to Covid-19. However, I am sure the Minister will be aware that employment law practitioners and insolvency practitioners - in particular, Mr. Richard Grogan whom the Tánaiste may have heard on the "Today with Sean O'Rourke show" - say that they would not advise any employer, especially somebody trading as a company, to avail of this scheme. They point out that there are difficulties with the scheme. In order to avail of this, the paperwork would see an employer de facto making a declaration that he or she is insolvent and in the case of a company, of course, if one is insolvent and one continues to trade, this is a matter of fraud on the part of the company directors.
Other issues were pointed out as well. On the notion of a 25% drop in turnover, it is not clear what is the relevant turnover period that the comparison should be made with. There are numerous issues. Another that stood out for me was that where an employer is in a position to pay a top-up over and above the €410 - it is a pro rataproposal - the wage the employer would pay would not be deductible as an expense of the business in the normal way that wages would be. Normally, when an employer is trading, he or she pays wages to an employee and that is deductible before profit. They seem to have a plethora of issues. The bottom line, without going into the detail, is that there is a body of experts in this field, such as employment lawyers and insolvency practitioners, stating they will not advise their clients to avail of this. I accept that is not the intention of it but perhaps the Tánaiste can give us some clarity and reassurance on those various concerns that have been raised.