When we returned to the House after the Christmas Recess the first item to be dealt with was the Sugar Bill. That was the same day as the budget and I had an opportunity for about 20 minutes to put on record the Labour Party's opposition to this Bill and our intention to oppose it on Second Stage. I think we could deduce from the speech here of my colleague Deputy Deasy that the Fine Gael Party were not going to oppose Second Stage of this Bill; therefore it appears to us on the figures in this House that it is quite likely that this Bill will pass that Stage. Nevertheless I was trying to put on record why I thought this Bill should be opposed.
The Taoiseach before he went into Government in 1987 assured the then Assistant Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Mr Peter Cassells, that the semi-State bodies were safe in the hands of Fianna Fáil and there was no intention to privatise any of those bodies. We know that the much criticised Thatcher Government of about the same time, on going into a general election listed all those areas in the public sector — water, gas, telecommunications and so on — they intended to privatise. They went to the country and received a mandate to do so. It is very strange that in January 1987 the Taoiseach could give representatives of the workers in all semi-State industries an assurance that their companies would remain within the public sector.
The position of the Progressive Democrats was somewhat different in that they gave some indication that public enterprise would be attacked should they come into power. At the last general election, whereas the Progressive Democrats had some, shall we say, arrangement with the Fine Gael Party, the Government that finally emerged was a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Coalition. Therefore, the question would have to be posed: was it the Progressive Democrat element of the Government that persuaded the Fianna Fáil Party to take on board the privatisation of various semi-State companies beginning with the Sugar Company, and going on to Irish Life. Indeed, from remarks made it would appear that Telecom Éireann and even a slimmed down An Post could fall into this category. We are aware that the chief executive of Bord na Móna has indicated that that company also could be privatised.
It is my opinion that in the general elections of 1987 and 1989 the electorate were misled since the major Government party had given a clear signal that they did not intend to privatise any semi-State companies, maintaining that workers in those companies could be satisfied with the written assurances given to Congress to that effect. As we are aware, policy has since changed. Now everything within the public sector that can be moved, and some that cannot, is being examined in that light.
I contend that this Government and the previous minority Fianna Fáil Government never received a mandate to do this; they never put it to the electorate as part of their policy. In that they differ significantly from the stated position of the Conservative Government in England, who listed their proposals in that regard. Yet our electorate have never given this or the previous Fianna Fáil minority Government any mandate to privatise any of these companies. Neither has there been a debate with the general public on this issue. Certainly, the Government cannot contend that they have had this issue publicly debated in the run up to a general election seeking that mandate.
We in the Labour Party are concerned about what is being done, for several reasons. In his introductory remarks the Minister said that he had had a study conducted into the affairs of Siúicre Éireann under three headings: first, the continuation of their present activities and structures, it remaining a private company. The second proposal was that it be considered for total privatisation. The third option was partial privatisation and commercial development of the company while retaining a degree of State control over their sugar operations and quota.
We know that the Sugar Company has a very valuable asset in the EC quota of 200,000 tonnes of sugar which has rendered it a very attractive company to private companies within and without this State who might be interested in its privatisation. There are those of us who think that one cannot have a little privatisation and that the guarantees enshrined in this Bill fall far short of what we and workers within the industry would regard as a safeguard for them. We contend that State control over the company should have been retained at 51 per cent at least if the Government pursued this privatisation. Our contention was that it should be retained under total State control. Since it is obvious that this Bill will receive a Second Reading — and we will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage — at the very minimum we should demand that the company remain in State control to the extent of 51 per cent.
Of course, the provisions of the Bill stipulate that the Minister will retain 45 per cent of the shares in the company with beet growers and workers being offered a share option of 5 per cent, the safeguard for the company being the golden share of the Minister. I contend that the golden share does not constitute a safeguard at all. I can see no difference between what the provisions of this Bill offer and those offered in the Bill, for example, to privatise Jaguar in Britain, when the golden share proved worthless when circumstances arose in which the State and Government there wished to get rid of their interests in that public company. Therefore, I contend that that golden share could be got rid of easily if circumstances demanded here. It would be my hope that the Minister could give much more assurance about that golden share than workers and the public in Britain received when it was offered as a great safeguard for their interests in Jaguar and other companies. This golden share will be seen for what it is, merely something to give the impression that the Sugar Company will remain a partially public one with a large private interest. It is also my belief that the private sector will have little interest in the company if they believe the State still retains the ability to take decisions over their heads. On the one hand the Minister has endeavoured to give the impression that by way of this Bill he is privatising the Sugar Company and, on the other, that the company is safe with the Government as long as this golden share maintains the balance between the private and public interests.
Neither do I see any great enthusiasm on the part of beet growers that their position or future is secured. They have written to us public representatives expressing their concerns about their future in the industry and about the quota. If that quota were lost to the country obviously their future in a very valuable sector of the agricultural industry could be lost also. Yet they have not been assured either by the provisions of this Bill or the Minister's remarks that their concerns are being met. Therefore, the workers and growers will look with a great deal of suspicion at what is proposed under the provisions of this Bill.
The recent announcement concerning cutbacks in An Post would lead to considerable concern that workers' rights cannot be assured in any Bill coming before this House. Whether it be a wholly public company or a private one, enshrining assurances in a Bill do not sufficiently guarantee either of the groups or interests I have mentioned. I have grave concerns about the assurances the Minister has given, and in discussions with unions representing the workers, that their jobs will be secure in the future. I hope the amendment we will put down on Committee Stage will give greater assurances, if they can be given as a result of being accepted by the Minister.
The options offered in the Bill should be looked at, having regard to the options available in other companies such as An Post. The Labour Party are disappointed that the joint venture option was not seriously considered by the group who examined this company. FII, a company which was facing difficulties in the mid-eighties, survived because this option was considered and joint ventures were approved in that case. The Minister should have seriously considered that option, especially as he has the example of the success in FII. That option would have assured our EC quota of 200,000 tons. It would have met the needs of the growers and assured the jobs of the workers.
When we last debated this Bill we said that the company as it stood had made very good profits over the last ten years, having been brought through a very difficult period due to the excellent leadership in the company provided by the chief executive of the company, their board and their worker directors. The company was rationalised. The branches in Tuam and in Thurles were closed. Great sacrifices were made by the people who work in the industry and by the people who supplied the two factories in order that the company should be able to rationalise.
The remaining two configurations of the industry, seeing that success is measured by the profit and loss account, should continue as they are. The company were expanding and increasing their profits. Both the chief executive of the Sugar Company, Mr. Comerford and the chairman were strong in their demand that the company should be privatised because it would give them more latitude in the wider industrial world to attract more business. I admire what these gentlemen and their boards have done in the past, but I disagree that a company making profits and expanding could not have had the same latitude in the public sector as in the private sector. After all, one of the assurances given to the workers in Thurles was that the company could go out and bring industry to the town in order to make some reparation to the workers and the people for the loss of a large industry.
We do not agree with the Government. We do not trust the Government's assurances. The Minister, Deputy O'Kennedy, gave very clear assurances to the people of Thurles during the 1987 election in letters distributed to all the workers that the company in Thurles was safe as long as Fianna Fáil were returned, and certainly if he became Minister for Agriculture. Why should we now accept the Minister's assurances and guarantees on this Bill? We are very sceptical about the contents of the Bill and the assurances in the Minister's speech. We are opposing this Bill because there is not any reference to workers' rights and because security of employment is not assured in the Bill. The concerns of the growers are not covered in the Bill either.
Since the Bill was published the Minister has obviously talked to unions and to growers, but the Bill before us today does not have those assurances in it. As long as that is the case we have to be sceptical. For all the reasons I put forward today and on 31 January last, the Labour Party will not support this Bill on Second Stage and probably not on Committee Stage unless radical amendments are made to it. Because of the genuine concerns of the people in the industry and those depending on it and of the agricultural community, the Labour Party will oppose the Bill. If the Members on the other Opposition benches have decided to support this Bill, I hope they will have second thoughts and will join us in our opposition to it.