Wednesday, 14 May 2003
Redundancy Payments Bill, 2003: Committee and Remaining Stages.
The reason for this amendment is that the current wording in the Bill could be interpreted to mean that the person must be currently practising as a barrister or solicitor, and this would be more onerous than the requirements for the chairman of the tribunal. The amendment exactly mirrors the wording which applies to the chairman, with the exception that the experience required is five rather than seven years.
Section 13 is amended so that continuity of service is not broken by sickness. The omission of sickness from the Bill was an oversight. Amendment No. 2a is consequential.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 2a:
In page 7, line 40, to delete 3 and substitute 4.
Amendment agreed to.
Section 13, as amended, agreed to.
Government amendment No. 3:
In page 9, line 12, to delete "Act, as amended," and substitute "Act".
This is a technical amendment that deletes superfluous words.
Amendment agreed to.
Section 14, as amended, agreed to.
Sections 15 to 17, inclusive, agreed to.
I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 4:
In subsection (2) to delete "and different days may be appointed for different purposes or different provisions" and substitute "and in any event not later than 1st December, 2003.
Gremlins crept into the works at the printers. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I should explain that I too was somewhat remiss, because I meant that date, and cannot propose an amendment to my amendment. For the record, the date I had intended, and was asked to insert, was 28 November, the date on which the workers at Comerama signed their RP1 form.
I welcome the proposal in the Bill to simplify the application form process. At the height of their distress on being made redundant, workers had up to three forms to complete; now there will be only one. Workers signed the form on 28 November, following which a meeting was held with the Tánaiste, to which I was not a party but of which I have been made aware, which was attended by the elected representatives of the people of Kilkenny and some worker representatives. I am not making any personal allegations but workers understood that an assurance had been given. That is the only reason for my call for retrospection.
I agree with what Senator Mansergh said in regard to this being one of the fruits of social partnership. The fund was quite large and I would like to know what happened to it. Perhaps the State could pick up the tab in this instance because of the assurance given. I am reliably informed that a Government Deputy present at the meeting wrote to every worker and apparently gave a guarantee in this regard. While I have not seen his letter, I accept what I have been told. There was a belief in regard to this assurance, the reason I move the amendment.
People feel strongly about this matter. Perhaps there are other instances, although I am not saying that is the case.
The Tánaiste said the payment of a statutory redundancy lump sum was a legal requirement of employers. It cannot be imposed retrospectively. As I said to her, where does one draw the line in regard to this matter? While the date of 28 November affects the employees in Castlecomer, there are employees in Roscommon and elsewhere who have also been made redundant over the past year or so who will not qualify under the Bill. Do we make fish of one and flesh of the other? Where do we draw the line?
It is an impossible situation. When the Tánaiste met the delegation, she said she would try to include the workers under the terms of the new legislation. In fairness, any Deputy would have felt encouraged by her words. She had good intentions but legally she is—
I want to wrap this up because it will come up in the other House tomorrow. It will be raised by the Senators' colleagues from Kilkenny. The Tánaiste never made a statement to the effect that she would include the workers of the company in question in the legislation.
There were great difficulties and then other issues arose. The State can legally make ex gratia payments. The representative allowance for local authority members dated from the day the Minister published the Bill – that was retrospection – not the date on which it was actually passed. In this case, the Tánaiste has outlined that 25 May is the soonest date on which the President can sign the Bill. To put matters in context, one cannot legally impose a liability on employers to provide for retrospection. That is a fact, on which we should be clear. The Tánaiste's goodwill lies with the workers. She tried to do her utmost for them but was advised by the Attorney General that it was not possible. I hope there will be some way of resolving this issue and that workers will receive some form of ex gratia payments, particularly where employers did not pay above and beyond statutory redundancy payments. Let us be quite clear about this – if they paid above and beyond statutory redundancy payments, there are no grounds for an ex gratia or back payment. We will, I hope, do this. I accept that Senator Coghlan should revise the date to get it right but we will not accept his amendment.
Obviously, we would all like if we could do something in regard to retrospection because we all know areas of the country where jobs have been lost. To be fair, as has been pointed out by Senator Leyden, in many cases retrospection would not make any difference because the terms are above the new threshold which has been raised to a more realistic floor, similar to the position with regard to the minimum wage.
The reason I am intervening now is what was said by Senator Ulick Burke and other Fine Gael Senators threw some light on the political discourse of recent months. If there is any spin doctoring, it is on the part of those converting goodwill and sympathy into cast iron commitments and then alleging that those commitments have been broken or that there have been U-turns and so on.
In my Second Stage contribution I read out what we said in our manifesto, which was cautious enough, even though there was much discussion about going further. However, in the debate Senators have alleged that something much more concrete was promised. I welcome this discussion as it throws some light on the political debate. There has been gross exaggeration of what was promised or committed. This is being used as a stick to beat the Government. That is a good illustration of what has been going on.
I support Senator Coghlan's amendment. On Second Stage, I asked the Minister of State to request the Minister to address the anomaly in regard to the staged closure of a particular activity, whereby some workers opted to go early while others would remain past 25 May. There is room for a special investigation to address this matter. Had the workers known that the changes would be made they might have decided other than they did. I will not refer specifically to the issue as it affects workers in Kilkenny.
Senator Mansergh referred to U-turns. I am delighted that he recognised—
Will the Minister of State take special cognisance of this? The Tánaiste was in the presence of public representatives, workers and management when she gave an undertaking. She gave an undertaking – not in terms of a redundancy situation – that she would help in every way possible. She did so and I acknowledge that. She recognised the need of people, the trauma they were experiencing and the fact that this problem had revisited Ballinasloe for a second time after the original task force had failed to deliver anything.
I asked that the Tánaiste would report on the matter in person so that there could be no misinterpretation. If we are at a loss for an interpretation, we can always call on Senator Leyden for his particular interpretation in support of the Tánaiste.
In view of all the undertakings given and the support from other agencies, I am requesting that the Tánaiste give an up-to-date appraisal of all progress, or the lack thereof, since 15 January, when the town experienced this blow. The latter is directly related to the amendment in that people are caught in a catch-22 situation. That is one instance where the overlap will differentiate between, on one hand, workers who remain on – after 25 May in this instance – by choice and in support of the company, which has been a good employer over many years, and, on the other, those who left early, thereby easing the difficulty. There is a dilemma in that regard which has to be addressed and I would appreciate if the Minister of State would do so.
I support my colleague's amendment. Senator Mansergh mentioned manifestos and not having promises, commitments and so on. It is like the situation with regard to adjustments and cuts. There were no cuts until after the election – it was all a matter of adjustments. At this stage, even the Government recognises the extent of the cuts which have been made in practically everything. Even the manifesto has been cut at this stage.
As one who personally experienced redundancy – having worked for 22 years with one company and received statutory redundancy of less than €6,000 when it closed – I welcome the Bill as an advance on the dark ages in terms of redundancy payments. I appeal to the Tánaiste to take retrospection into consideration, if possible, in this instance, having regard to her statement – I will not even say "commitment"– to do the best she could, as interpreted from the other side of the House. I ask that she do the best she can. Senator Leyden said that an ex gratia payment can be made by the State to the workers. If that is possible, I urge the Tánaiste to do so on a retrospective basis.
I am not in a position to accept the amendment, having regard to legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General. First, as the payment of a statutory redundancy lump sum is a legal requirement on employers, it could not be imposed on them with retrospective effect. Employers are entitled to due notice of intention to legally require them to pay enhanced rates. Second, the new redundancy Act has to be brought into effect by ministerial order, after enactment by the Oireachtas. This cannot be made retrospective. It should also be noted that, in discussions on the new programme, it was accepted by the parties that retrospection would not be introduced in the Bill.
I thank the Minister of State. Will he inform the House as to the date on which the Attorney General gave that advice? Was it prior to the debacle in Kilkenny? Did the Tánaiste have that advice when she visited the workers and made this supposed or alleged commitment?
I can only comment on the basis of the information provided to me that the Tánaiste, at that meeting, advised the people concerned that she would use her best endeavours – that she would do what she could – to help the situation of those being laid off. The Senator's colleague, Senator John Phelan, who attended that particular meeting, stated earlier this afternoon that he was under the impression that the Tánaiste may have said she would apply retrospection. However, he was only "under the impression".
As Deputy McGuinness did not comment on the matter in my presence, I do not know what he said. I have no doubt that if Senator John Phelan was confident that he had heard the Tánaiste promise retrospection, he would be leaping up and down and thumping the table. He did not do that; the stated that he was only "under the impression".
I do not wish my words to be misinterpreted by Senator Ulick Burke or anybody else. I am simply suggesting that the Tánaiste and her Department advisers should look at every possible aspect in every file in respect of past payments. I am not saying the Tánaiste can, in this legislation, make provision for retrospective payments to the workers in Castlecomer. It was her good intention that if she could achieve that, she would have achieved it. She has to stand by the law and adhere to the advice of the Attorney General. Why detract from the goodwill of the Tánaiste and her support for the provision of alternative employment in the area concerned? Why try to undermine her efforts?
Mr. Leyden: I thank the Chair for its protection. If the Tánaiste did not have the goodwill to offer support and hope to those concerned, she could easily have said that under no circumstances could she consider such a system. The position is clear. If anybody present at the meeting interpreted it in terms other than a goodwill gesture to the workers, subject to checking with her Department, they are simply under a misapprehension with regard to the situation.
On a point of clarification, discussion of the Criminal Justice (Joint Investigation Teams) Bill 2003 was to begin at 4 p.m. but I am requesting that the Order of Business be amended in order that it can commence at 4.05 p.m., approximately.
Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. M. Ahern): I welcome the supportive comments of the Senators who have spoken. We all want to achieve a reasonable level of increased statutory payment to employees who are unlucky and lose their jobs through redundancy. As well as giving increased payments to redundant employees, the Bill will, when enacted, amend the insolvency payments legislation to allow employees of insolvent companies to claim their minimum notice entitlements through a liquidator without having to obtain an award from the Employment Appeals Tribunal. As I said, the Bill will come into effect on Sunday, 25 May 2003, or as soon as possible thereafter, for employees declared redundant on or after that date. The date on which an employee is declared redundant is the date on which notice of the proposed redundancy is issued to him or her. I thank Senators for their help in ensuring the Bill was passed speedily by this House.
I thank the Minister of State, the Tánaiste who provided an overview of the Bill at the outset and departmental officials. I omitted to mention that the Bill, which I described as being like the proverbial curate's egg, was in gestation for a short period. While I outlined its negative aspects, I welcome it in an overall sense as a measure that takes us out of the Dark Ages, as someone else said. It is a worthwhile improvement. I explained on behalf of my colleagues, rather than as a result of any personal sense of upset, that certain commitments appeared to have been given. I thought that Senator Leyden might make a proposal or suggestion in relation to ex gratia payments that would have taken me and perhaps all Senators out of a hole.
The way out suggested would be rather painful for this House. I was trying to be helpful in any way I could in relation to the Bill. I thank the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, for bringing it forward. This absolutely wonderful legislation will be most helpful for those who face difficulties in the future. I hope the Government, which should be very proud, will receive recognition from the media for bringing the Bill forward in conjunction with the social partners. The Government, which has been courageous in this regard, does not receive enough recognition when it implements its policies. This legislation is welcome and worthwhile. People are affected when grants are withdrawn; for example, they may have benefited if their applications had been made by a certain date.
Many of us who left councils in 1991 did not receive a redundancy package but there was a special agreement in 1999. There are hard luck cases but I was trying to be sympathetic. It may not have been helpful but, like the Tánaiste, I was sympathetic to the plight of individuals in this regard. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, who has undertaken a great deal of work in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. He has been helpful and co-operative. I also thank his senior officials who have been so attentive.
Question put and agreed to.