Friday, 24 July 2020
Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Bill: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following: "(3) This Act shall expire at the end of the interim period and on such expiry shall be deemed to have been repealed subject to the provisions of section 27 of the Interpretation Act 2005.
(4) During the interim period the Act of 2014 shall have effect as though it is amended in accordance with Part 2.
(5) During the interim period the Act of 1893 shall have effect as though it is amended in accordance with Part 3.".
I indicated on Second Stage that I would not press the amendments for the technical reason that there are some non-temporary provisions hidden away in the text of Bill. The sensible thing is not to press amendment No. 1. To revert to the topic itself, it seems the Minister of State has an opportunity. He will be bringing the Bill to the Dáil and if he and his officials can think of a formula to include in section 1 or section 2 that will see the temporary provisions evaporate automatically and not have to be repealed at a later stage they should attempt to do so. There will be only a very tiny delay if the Bill comes back as amended from the Dáil to here. It would be nodded through, I presume, without further debate. The time constraints we are under do not really prevent the issue from being addressed. As I said earlier, I was concerned as to whether we can achieve the effect of a repeal in legislation. I looked at a number of legislative drafting books and I am convinced it can be done in a way that at the end of this period leaves the text clean. Obviously, the Minister of State would have to differentiate between the permanent amendments and the non-permanent amendments he is making but it seems that it can be done.
I want to make a point on the discussion on the threshold of indebtedness for winding up a company. Generally speaking, the petition to wind up a company for non-payment of a debt is a bit nuclear in its use. Quite frequently, a petition to wind up a company because a person is owed €5,000, €10,000 or whatever is ultimately a threat to cause serious damage to the company if it does not pay its debts. Sometimes it is almost blackmail to a company that is going through a cashflow problem. I appreciate this point very much. On the other hand, if the thresholds are raised too much it will leave people with no chance of getting their money back. If small creditors, such as somebody owed €10,000 damages or compensation from a workplace commission, cannot use leverage on the company to get paid, in the end he or she will be left without. Theoretically the sheriff can be sent out but sending a sheriff to a company in the IFSC is a bit impractical as a solution. Sometimes people are owed money and sometimes there has to be pressure on debtor companies to actually pay up to small creditors. The small sums may not mean much to very wealthy people but they can be hugely important to people of very modest means. If the Minister of State is considering making permanent changes to the thresholds I ask him to bear in mind that small creditors also need to be protected because they can frequently end up with no practical way of extracting money from companies that just keep trading and ignoring their letters and demands.
It is disappointing that the amendment was ruled out of order. I only received notification of that at 12.40 p.m. This shows the difficulties we all have. While we understand the urgency of the Bill, it is frustrating that this happens.
I want to make the point to the Minister of State and I suspect he will agree with me that we urgently need a legislative solution for tactical insolvencies. The Duffy Cahill report was produced four years ago and, as Senator Bacik mentioned, we had Clerys before that. To be blunt, there is a stark contrast between the urgency of this legislation, which we support, and the complete absence of urgency about the Duffy Cahill recommendations. The previous Government had four years to deal with the report's recommendations to stop tactical insolvencies and it did not act on them. I hope we can see proper legislation in place before Christmas. It is the least that those workers and all other workers deserve. As a leading trade unionist said to me this week, Debenhams is the tip of the iceberg. There is a tsunami of further potential job losses and tactical insolvencies on the way. Working class people in this country cannot wait any longer for this legislation. I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to speak.
I thank Senator Gavan. I should have mentioned Debenhams workers, since the matter was raised by a couple of speakers. We cannot introduce legislation today that will deal with the situation retrospectively. I support the workers. As a previous speaker said, the Minister of State, Deputy English, the Tánaiste and I have met them. The workers raised important matters of concern which deserve and are receiving thorough consideration. It is important that all stakeholders, including political representatives and the Government, do not raise expectations unduly. I want to ensure that everything that can be done within the confines of the law is being done to ensure a satisfactory outcome for the workers of Debenhams.
The Duffy Cahill report has been mentioned. I certainly think there are proposals in the report that warrant further consideration. As Minister of State with responsibility for company regulation, it is my intention and a commitment in the programme for Government for those recommendations to be considered to see how and which of them will be implemented. I agree with what the Senator said. There is little point in producing reports if we are to ignore their findings and conclusions. I do not think the implementation of everything in the Duffy Cahill report would have prevented what is happening in Debenhams. The case is before the High Court and we cannot interfere with that process. I will not say any more on the matter now.
For the benefit of Senators, I signed off on the decision to rule the amendment out of order last night. Notice was sent by email whereas the physical version may have arrived in Senators' post boxes today. We try to get the information out as quickly as possible.
I am disappointed the amendments have been ruled out of order but I want to adopt a positive stance regarding what the Minister of State said. He said a couple of significant things. I think I am right in saying he has given a commitment that the numbers required to form a co-operative will be reduced in a Bill that is coming, hopefully, in the near future. He has also mentioned a legal definition for co-operatives. I would stress worker co-operatives in particular in that regard. We all know the potential of worker co-operatives. Scotland has had significant progress in recent years. It calls them employee-owned enterprises. I do not really care what they are called once we can make progress in that regard.
We can see in this specific situation, where many businesses are struggling, that if this option was available and people had more confidence in being able to form a co-operative because of the greater legal standing, and if it was easier in that they only needed three members as opposed to seven, we could save employment across Ireland, especially in rural areas and small towns. I am delighted to hear what the Minister of State said about much work having been done. I ask him to urgently progress this legislation.
We have a significant issue across Europe with business succession when people retire after a lifetime of work. In many instances, those businesses close. Worker co-operatives are a route taken across Europe to fill that gap and to maintain employment. One beauty of worker co-operatives is that the wealth built there is kept within the communities. It is ideal for a country such as ours. We have fallen far behind the rest of Europe in this regard. I am encouraged by what the Minister of State has said. Sinn Féin will work constructively on that Bill. I urge that it come forward as quickly as possible because God knows we need it with this crisis.
For clarification, the scope of the current review is wide-ranging and encompasses issues from registration with the Registry of Friendly Societies to operational governance and winding-up issues relating to co-operatives. Based on the review, a general scheme of a co-operative societies Bill is being prepared which will provide co-operative societies with a distinct legislative identity reflecting their co-operative ethos, reducing the number of members required to form a co-operative, revising the provisions on debentures, introduce audit exemptions in line with the approach taken in the Companies Act 2014, strengthen the governance provisions and revise the powers of the Register of Friendly Societies. Work is well under way and it is my intention, before the end of this year, or at the very latest early next year, to bring that before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I understand the amendment has been ruled out of order and I am disappointed. We spoke about meat factories earlier and we know there are real concerns about health, safety and welfare at work for our workers. The meat factory problem would be solved if trade union officials were allowed to go in to meat factories. I was a trade union official with SIPTU for ten years. With the exception of one factory in Nenagh, I was never allowed into factories. They would not have a trade union man or woman about the place.When I organised workers in factories in the Minister's constituency, they were sacked, summarily fired, because they joined a trade union. This is a massive problem. We are never going to get proper rights and conditions for working people, especially in the meat factory sector, but across a whole range of sectors, including hospitality, until we have a right of trade union officials to access workplaces. What on earth does any employer have to be afraid of in this respect? We will never tackle the crisis in employment. Nothing has changed in meat factories. How many meat factories recognise trade unions? I can count them on one hand. Many such businesses have their offices in the Isle of Man and other overseas locations. In many cases they are unlimited companies. They operate in a way that is entirely unacceptable and it needs to be called out. This was a simple amendment to give a right of access to trade union officials. I would have thought Senators from all parties should support that right, which is not set out in law currently, and does need to be addressed.
I wish to briefly speak in support of Senator Gavan's comments about the need for trade union rights of access. I also support his concerns about the conditions in meat factories in particular. Clearly, that is a very pressing issue, one of which we are all well aware. Trade union rights and, in particular, rights of representation for workers is one on which this House has a good record. We passed legislation on a cross-party basis in the term of the previous Seanad that went on to be passed by the Dáil. The Bill was initiated as a Labour Party Private Members' Bill, which gave collective bargaining rights and rights of representation to freelance workers who, again, were in a very vulnerable and precarious position, and remain in one, but whose position is greatly strengthened where they have access to trade union representation on their behalf. We have worked consistently on these issues in the Seanad and I hope we will continue to do so. I accept the amendment is out of order but I wish to impress upon the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, that we should be seeking to enact such a right of representation and right of access in other legislation.
The amendment has been ruled out of order. I hear what both Senators have said about rights of access for trade unions. In order to introduce such an amendment, stakeholder engagement is required.
In response to what was said about meat plants, I accept there was an issue and corrective action was taken by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In some instances, it has been deemed that the cluster did not originate in the factory but outside of it and was brought in. I do not in any way wish to diminish the responsibility of employers and businesses in ensuring proper protocols are in place. Painstaking negotiations were involved with the various stakeholders in drawing up the Return to Work Safely Protocol to make sure adequate protocols were put in place for people returning to work. A specific point was raised by Senator Gavan about ensuring there are sufficient inspectors from the Health and Safety Authority to monitor the situation in cases where the protocols are being breached. I have undertaken to examine the issue and I will respond directly to the Senator. As the Cathaoirleach has said, in any event the amendment has been ruled out of order.