On Second Stage, members of the Government parties, especially those from constituencies close to Dublin Airport, made a cogent case as to why Aer Lingus should not be privatised. It would be interesting to hear the Minister responding to his backbenchers. When asked whether they felt it would be good policy by the Government to sell the company, they said that it would not and was not in the long-term strategic interests of the company, workers or the public interest. I agree with and commend those Deputies on the Government side. I would like to see them return to the Chamber to discuss these crucial amendments.
Given the limitations in the Bill, I commend my colleague from the Technical Group, Deputy Crowe, for tabling these amendments. It is difficult to amend this legislation in a straightforward manner other than by deleting the section that gives the Minister the power to sell the company. It was clear on Second Stage that the main intent of the Bill was to prepare for the sale of the company. I regret that the Minister was not more upfront and frank about this. Had he been, we could have had a more concentrated debate.
The Government has followed what is known as the "Washington Consensus" for a number of years. The Government seems to believe that social or business objectives cannot be achieved through public enterprise. There is a suggestion that public enterprise is unable to organise the affairs of a company to operate properly in the market and provide the necessary services. I disagree with this basic assumption. I have met a number of people working in public enterprise and I have full faith in them. The ownership structure often allows them to operate in such a way that benefits the proper long-term development of the business. This is the proper background against which these services can be provided. I do not believe that those on this side of the House have an ideological difficulty with the use of public enterprise in the provision of such services. In many cases, such enterprises can serve the public and the State much better.
If the Minister has a problem with the way a company operates, he or she can change the board, policy and management structure. While European directives may say Ministers cannot be responsible for public companies in services, we have seen governments fighting to protect their rights to issue management directions in other areas. I do not see why we cannot do the same in this case.
My party is in favour of the principle of worker participation in companies. This leads to a better working environment and decision-making within the company. Giving a voice in the boardroom to those working on the ground is a clever move. Giving them a share of the profit of the company is an example of good business sense and good social policy. It is also a good economic policy for the country. I support the development and use of employee share ownership schemes and trusts as a way of furthering this goal.
The Minister commented on the Second Stage debate that the reason for giving a 14.9% stake in the company to employees was that it is Government policy to give such a stake where the State is exiting a company. This is not the correct strategy. It does not pursue an ideology that encourages worker participation. In essence, it says this stake will be given to workers to compensate them for the State withdrawing from the business. What message does this give to workers in Aer Lingus? What message does it give to workers throughout the country about the possibility of becoming more involved in management decision-making?
It is deeply regrettable that we are linking the provision of employee share ownership trusts with the sale and privatisation of companies. Yesterday on the Order of Business, Deputy Broughan asked the Taoiseach about the position of the ESOT for An Post. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources looked at one another questioningly and came to the conclusion that it is going nowhere. The reason for this is that the company is in severe financial difficulties. Therefore, there are no plans to privatise it and the employee share ownership plan will not be introduced. This is not the way to operate ESOTs.
Deputy Sargent raised the issue of ESOTs during Leaders' Questions. Some workers may perceive some of the criticisms my party has directed at the actions of the Government in the Eircom case as being criticisms of ESOTs. It is far from it. The Green Party supports such trusts and seeing workers rewarded. However, the circumstances in the Eircom case, where the workers received a preference shareholding to encourage a further buy-out of the company by venture capitalists, runs against the long-term general interests of workers in terms of participation. Preference shareholding does not convey voting rights. Owing to the tax changes meted out by the Government, we may see more trusts take the form of preference shares. Under this, it will be safe for employers to feed a certain tax-free revenue stream to workers without giving them a say in how the company is run. This is another reason this secret deal was bad not only for the public, but also for workers.
I would imagine that the Aer Lingus workers will understandably be looking at that deal and asking how they are magically to double their stake to 30% of the company on a tax-free basis. I would have to caution the workers that, while the Eircom deal proved to be incredibly lucrative and successful for the unions involved, future returns from a shareholding trust would be far more difficult and precarious after selling an airline. As the Minister knows, the airline business is far more cyclical, with no real fixed assets backing in the same way as Eircom. We are selling goodwill, know-how and the skills of the workforce as much as anything else.