Fine Gael welcomes the Bill but is at a loss as to why it took so long to come before the House. I know the Minister of State will probably have a plausible explanation for it taking so long to become part of legislation.
The Bill is a transposition of an EU directive into Irish law and the deadline for submissions from interested parties dates back to September 2003. The original target date for enactment of this law was March 2005, and now we are in December. I am aware that drawing up legislation is a complicated affair and can take some time, but it has taken a very long time to enact this legislation. From time to time we are at the mercy of the European Union with regard to the implementation of EU directives. The publication of the legislative agenda has shown just how light is the Government schedule. The delay in getting this Bill into the House is a timely reminder of just how much remains to be done.
It has always made good business sense to keep employees fully informed about what is going on in a company. Any manager knows that to keep morale and productivity high, he or she must make everyone feel like a stakeholder, a fully paid up member of the team. I fundamentally believe in the worker shareholding agenda. I recall John Bruton as Minister for Finance in the 1980s introducing tax incentives to ensure that workers would take shareholdings, for their personal benefit, in particular companies. This was the germination of the stakeholder agenda which ensured that workers were part and parcel of a particular company's affairs. In the past few years we have seen in the public sector, in the context of privatisation of those companies, that 14.9% of some of the companies privatised have been assigned to workers and that the dividend for workers from those decisions has been enormous.
We cannot in a civilised society view a firm's labour force as anything other than an integral part of the decision-making process. Workers are not just a resource to be turned on and off as conditions permit but a vital component in any management team. The provision of information to them is a vital component in any management strategy.
Under the Bill, employers will have to provide information and consultation on issues such as the probable development of a firm's activities, the structure and future of employment in the business and any decisions likely to lead to major changes in work organisation or contracts. The Bill also obliges employers to provide enough information to enable worker representatives to make adequate preparations for consultation. Employers must begin negotiations to set up information and consultation procedures once 10% of employees make such a request. The Labour Court will be able to investigate disputes about the operation of these agreements. Employers could face fines of up to €30,000 for breaches of the proposed legislation. Those are significant penalties.
This Bill is part of a suite of worker rights legislation. It is worth reminding the country that those on the far left who oppose the European project are being deceitful when they say that the EU is anything but a social project because it has been a leading force in giving better working conditions for Irish employees and forcing national parliaments, including the Irish Parliament, to bring about better working conditions for our workers. It is interesting to note that in the context of the Irish Ferries dispute, it was the absence of agreement and support from the Government with regard to the maritime directive, the manning directive, that led in some part towards the dispute we now see. If Ireland and other countries had supported the conditions that were inherently important for workers in EU states with regard to that manning directive, that would have made a significant difference in the resolution of the dispute between Irish Ferries and workers.
Employers should also be generally satisfied with this Bill. It strikes a fair balance between employers and employees in sharing information. As I said, employees must be part and parcel of the entire management team to have forward-looking and constructive company practice. I share the Minister's belief that the Bill does not tie the hands of business and is sufficiently flexible. For example, employers have the option under the Bill of putting in place agreements before a date to be prescribed following enactment of the Bill, known as pre-existing agreements, which can be tailor-made to suit the culture and circumstances of their company.
In a press statement of 19 September, IBEC stated that any measures that make Irish business less able to adapt to changing global markets will undermine competitiveness and put jobs at risk. It said that companies that already have successful information and consultation procedures should be supported and allowed to continue without change. I agree and hope that when the legislation is enacted they will see that our competitiveness will not be undermined by this legislation. By the time Committee Stage is concluded, I do not believe it will. There are many Government actions and decisions that have hurt business, and that is not down to lack of employee consultation but because stealth taxes and charges imposed by the Government gave birth to"rip-off Ireland".
During Question Time in the House today the Minister chose to ignore the fact that we have not got the necessary resources to back up the Competition Authority and investigate, in the interests of the consumer, the anti-competitive practices and cartel agreements, official or unofficial. This Bill has nothing to do with that but it is required to ensure that everyone is in the loop.
The Bill specifically precludes companies employing fewer than 50 employees. That is important and there are sound reasons for it. Small firms have a particular need to be protected from over-regulation and their distinctive competitive disadvantage means the Government must endeavour to protect them at all costs, not least because they tend to be indigenous. We must ensure that those who work in small firms are not treated as inferior to those who work in large companies. Just because an employer has only 45 staff, for example, does not mean his or her workers should be treated with less than the respect and dignity afforded to those who work for large corporations such as Microsoft and Coca Cola. I am interested to hear the Minister's views on how we can ensure that the provision of information is extended to everyone, notwithstanding that the legislation stipulates a requirement in respect of employers with more than 50 staff.
Before the summer recess, my party's deputy spokesperson on enterprise, trade and employment, Deputy Pat Breen, met a number of individuals on my behalf who have formed a support group for victims of workplace bullying. These people have lost their livelihoods and have had to endure severe financial, emotional, psychological and medical hardship as a result of how they were treated by their employers and colleagues. They told Deputy Breen that one of the key ways in which they were mistreated was the withholding of information and the deliberate attempt by their tormentors to keep them in the dark, out of the decision-making process and without the necessary information to do their jobs. What is the Minister of State's views on how we can use legislation such as this to place a legal obligation on employers to ensure nobody can become the victim of an information black hole? It is a tool often used by those seeking to rid themselves of persons they view as more competent, talented and worthy of a particular employment than themselves.
The discussion of this Bill comes against the backdrop of the Irish Ferries dispute. That the management flatly refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the Labour Court's recommendations is very disappointing. Now that it seems clear Irish Ferries is operating within the law in reflagging theMV Normandy under the flag of the Bahamas, I urge the Minister to lead the way in convincing our European partners to change EU law in this area to protect workers. I note that the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Gallagher, has signalled the necessary U-turn in respect of the Government’s policy on the manning directive which I mentioned earlier. This directive was opposed by the Government in 2004 and that mistake is now acknowledged. The Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, is working hard to undo the damage done on the occasion of the meeting of transport Ministers. I hope he is successful and that it will make a contribution to the Irish Ferries dispute, which has serious consequences for the economy, particularly in regard to exports, employees’ working standards and the future of the partnership process.
The Bill is opportune in the context of that dispute and I hope we will see it enacted as soon as possible. As spokesman for Fine Gael, my party welcomes the Bill. I am sure we will table some amendments on Committee Stage, however, and I look forward to the ensuing discussions with the Minister. The legislation must be enacted speedily in the context of employers and employees having the fullest possible information available to them. This will ensure we have a strong and thriving enterprise sector and an enterprising economy.