Seanad debates

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


12:00 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I am glad to say we are making good progress in Australia and Peru, two of the pressure points so far. Senator Higgins is right, of course. Whatever challenges we face here in protecting our citizens, reinforcing the health infrastructure and the staff behind it, we have to ask the question as to how on earth some countries, with extremely limited resources and effectively no health infrastructure, are going to have the capacity to respond to the pressures they will face in the weeks and months ahead. That will certainly be to the fore as we prioritise and decide how we will spend the hundreds of millions of euro that we spend in development aid, assistance and the partnerships we build in doing that.

I take the points made regarding direct provision centres and homeless people. I give the assurance that we are working on that. Several Senators raised concerns regarding construction sites. In respect of everything we do, it is important to say that the decisions we are making on guidelines for employers and employees all originate from our public health emergency team, led by the Chief Medical Officer. The advice they give is that if a workplace can comply with the social distancing guidelines, if employers can ensure they are protecting their employees and their workforce, and if they are not in the categories we have named to close temporarily, then the responsibility is there for an employer, interacting with employees, to ensure a safe workplace is provided. If that cannot be provided, then those workplaces should close. We want to link the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, and others that are going to be working with employers, to ensure the guidance is being respected on site so we can maintain employment where it makes sense safely. Nobody, however, is contending or making the point that we should be requiring people to work in an unsafe environment through this emergency. There is no economic justification for that and this Government will never attempt to justify a workplace staying open on that basis. I want to make that very clear.

I also want to make sure that I answer everybody's questions.I take the point that some wanted to go further with wage subsidies and some wanted to require employers to make sure workers get 100% of their salaries. This is an emergency and there are some employers that will not be able to pay. There are others that will be able to pay. We need to do everything we can to make sure that those companies that can pay do pay but we also need to ensure that those companies that cannot pay are not essentially pushed into insolvency unnecessarily. This is about protecting a work environment and as many SMEs as we can through this crisis so that they can grow, expand, employ people and pay good salaries when this is all over.

On the SME task force, I will speak to the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys about that again. I reassure Senator Ó Céidigh that the Minister and her Department have a stakeholders group where they listen to employers, trade unions and many other stakeholders that are linked to employment and SMEs. That being said, maybe there is a case to go beyond that and to allow people who understand and have lived through what it takes to build an SME successfully and survive through good times and bad to give a more direct and detailed input. I will come back to the Senator on that. For those working in SMEs who are listening today, there is updated guidance on the Revenue Commissioners' website and I encourage people to look at that.

On Senator Mullen's contribution, this is about bringing people together and that is what we are trying to do. This House has made a significant contribution to that. Politically, we come from different places in this House but we are working together to ensure we act quickly, if not perfectly. The assurance I can give Members on behalf of the Government is that for the issues they raise that are relevant and that need answers, we will endeavour to do all we can to provide those answers and to correct mistakes if they are made during this process of bringing through legislation quickly.

I thank Members for continuing to work with us.


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