Industrial Relations (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2011: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Bill's main purpose is to implement the commitment in the programme for Government to reform the joint labour committee, JLC, system and to provide for the more comprehensive measures required to strengthen the legal framework for employment regulation orders, EROs, and registered employment agreements, REAs, in sectorial wage-setting mechanisms under the Industrial Relations Acts 1946 to 2004 in light of deficiencies in the original legislation identified in the July 2011 High Court judgment in the John Grace Fried Chicken case.

The Government has been clear on the need for reform. To do that it is necessary to make our economy more flexible, more competitive and more productive. In the programme for Government, we pledged to restore the national minimum wage and to reform the JLC system. While we need a robust system to protect vulnerable workers, we also need a system that is sufficiently flexible to maximise job opportunities.

The independent review report on statutory wage-setting mechanisms - the Duffy Walsh report - found the system was in need of radical overhaul and that substantial competitive gains in some sectors worst affected by job losses could be achieved by reforming the structure of decision-making to make it more responsive and flexible to the needs of particular sectors. This is particularly important at a time of enormous challenge for job creation. With the numbers out of work at record levels, it is vital we do all we can to protect those in jobs and to give those out of work the best chance possible to get back to work in key sectors of the economy. The system was designed in another era and needs to be modernised to reflect the current environment.

The fact the process of making EROs was found by the High Court to be unconstitutional, together with the identified lack of adequate Oireachtas scrutiny of this process, only underscores some of the main features of the recommendations for reform that were put forward by the independent review report. The High Court action in the John Grace Fried Chicken case was only one of a continuing series of legal challenges to the statutory wage-setting mechanism systems. A challenge to the electrical contracting REA was successfully defended in the High Court in 2010 by the State. It is, however, under appeal to the Supreme Court. In addition, there are several pending High Court challenges to the current electrical and construction REAs, all of which challenge the constitutionality of the legislation underpinning the REA system.

Following the High Court ruling of July 2011, it has been my priority to prepare and deliver a comprehensive reform package as the implications of the High Court judgment are not confined to the JLC system. What is required is a programme of reforms to the JLC and REA systems that can address all of the recommendations for reform put forward in the Duffy Walsh report, as well as the broad implications of the High Court ruling in the John Grace Fried Chicken challenge.

The Bill is divided into three Parts. Part 1 deals with general and preliminary matters such as the Short Title. Part 2 deals with reforms to the REA system. Part 3 deals with the JLC system and the making of EROs. Part 2 also makes the necessary amendments to four sections in the Industrial Relations Act 1946 to provide for new procedures for registering, varying and cancelling REAs. Agreements may be registered with the Labour Court under the Industrial Relations Act 1946 and they are then made universally applicable to all employers and workers to whom they relate, even those who are not signatories to the agreement.

The recent High Court judgment confirmed the Oireachtas may devolve certain law-making powers on other bodies, such as Ministers, the Government or the Labour Court. However, it also made clear that where the Oireachtas devolves a law-making power on some other body, it must give that body guidance as to how the law-making power is to be used. That guidance should be set out in primary legislation by way of clear principles and policies.

Section 5 sets out more detailed principles and policies than currently exist in the 1946 legislation. These are the principles and policies to which the Labour Court must have regard before registering an employment agreement. The additional principles and policies would apply only where an employment agreement relates to more than one employer. Currently, there are 73 REAs on the register maintained by the Labour Court. Some 50 of these agreements are specific to individual employments and were registered because the parties wished them to be binding in law. In future, it will be simpler and easier for a single-employer agreement to be registered than one which relates to a number of employers or to an entire sector. New REAs may not come into force until they have been confirmed by the Minister. Sections 6 and 7 make necessary changes to the 1946 Act to ensure that variations or cancellations of new or existing REAs must also be confirmed by the Minister before such variations or cancellations would have effect. Henceforth, the confirmation, variation or cancellation of an REA may be annulled by either House of the Oireachtas within a specified period. The new procedures introduced in the Bill will not affect the validity of the more than 70 REAs made and in force before the commencement of Part 2, when enacted.

Section 5 also amends the Act to provide that every application to register an employment agreement must be accompanied by confirmation by the parties to the agreement that they are substantially representative of the employers and the workers to whom the agreement applies. The original provisions regarding the representativeness of the parties to an agreement had given rise to controversy, especially in scenarios where a group of employers might constitute a minority of the total number of relevant employers but, nonetheless, employ the majority of the workers normally employed within the relevant sector. In establishing the representativeness of a trade union party to an REA, the court will have regard to the number of workers represented by the trade union. Similarly, the Labour Court must have regard to the number of workers employed by the employers involved in promoting the registration of the agreement. A consequential provision under section 7 amends the 1946 Act in that the Labour Court may cancel an REA if either the worker or employer parties have ceased to be substantially representative of workers or employers concerned.

Section 6 amends the Act to reflect the recommendation of the Duffy Walsh report concerning the introduction of a time-bound process by which the terms of an REA may be varied by the Labour Court in exceptional circumstances without obtaining the consent of all parties to the agreement. The amendment, which is based on a recommendation in the report, is intended to facilitate more rapid adjustment to changing economic circumstances and the imperative of maintaining employment.

Section 7 makes the necessary changes to the Act to enable the Labour Court, on its own initiative or acting on the request of the Minister, or following an application by an interested person, to conduct a review of the circumstances of an industry to which an REA applies to establish whether there has been a substantial change in the circumstances of the relevant industry and whether the continued registration of a particular REA is desirable.

Section 8 amends the Act to provide a new straightforward enforcement mechanism to secure compliance with REAs instead of resorting to a criminal prosecution. A complaint about non-compliance by an employer with an order of the Labour Court for compliance with an REA may be brought before the Circuit Court by or on behalf of the worker concerned or the Minister if he or she considers it appropriate to do so. The Circuit Court shall make an order directing the employer to comply with the terms of the Labour Court order.

Section 9 amends the Act by introducing new inability to pay provisions in respect of REAs. While these are substantially the same as those proposed in regard to EROs, to which I will refer later, the inability to pay mechanism would only apply where the REA itself permits it to apply. Accordingly, where an REA so provides, an employer in financial difficulty may apply to the Labour Court seeking temporary exemption from the requirement to pay the rates of remuneration in the agreement.

Part 3 deals with the JLC system and the making of EROs. Section 11 amends the 1946 Act to provide that the Labour Court will, following the commencement of this Act and at regular five year intervals thereafter, conduct a review of each JLCs. Following such review the Labour Court may recommend that a JLC be abolished; a JLC be amalgamated with another JLC; or that the establishment order for a JLC be amended.

The Duffy Walsh report had recommended that reviews of the establishment orders of existing JLCs be undertaken periodically to ensure the range of establishments to which they apply remains appropriate and that necessary amendments might be made to the establishment orders by which they were created. I intend to proceed in advance of the enactment of this Bill to apply to the Labour Court requesting the abolition of a number of JLCs that were identified in the report as having ceased to function effectively or to be unduly small in terms of the numbers employed. I shall ensure the general review of the establishment orders of all remaining JLCs shall take place before a JLC proposes a new ERO under the terms of the Bill, when enacted.

The High Court in the John Grace Fried Chicken case declared section 42 of the 1946 Act to be unconstitutional because it was invalid having regard to the provisions of Article 15.2.1 of the Constitution, which provides that the sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State vests in the Oireachtas. The High Court judgment found that section 42 failed to prescribe sufficient principles and policies to govern the exercise of the powers conferred on JLCs under the Act. Section 12, accordingly, introduces the necessary amendments to the 1946 Act to establish the "principles and policies" to which a JLC must have regard from now on when formulating proposals to submit to the Labour Court for EROs.

The new provisions will guide the formulation by JLCs of proposals on the fixing of remuneration and conditions of employment and will also provide for the regulation of the JLC's own decision-making process. The constitutionality of the restored JLC system should be strengthened as the Bill not only provides for a direct role by the Minister in making EROs in future, but also ensures that, with regard to all such orders, including orders for the establishment, variation or abolition of JLCs, he or she may refuse to make any order that he or she considers inappropriate. If the Minister is not satisfied that it is appropriate to make an order, he or she may refuse to do so and notify the Labour Court of the reasons for the decision. These measures are also complemented by the standard scrutiny procedure for the laying of orders before both Houses of the Oireachtas.

Whereas previously an ERO could provide for any number of different rates of pay for different categories of workers, the Bill provides that a JLC may make proposals for a basic rate and two service-related increments. The Government has decided, moreover, to examine how the fixing of the two additional higher rates might take account of the standards and skills recognised for the sector concerned. The adult wage rates that may be proposed by a JLC will also be linked to sub-minimum rates that will apply in the same proportions as were originally fixed under the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 in respect of employees aged under 18 years, first-time job entrants, and employees undergoing training.

The Bill provides for a commonsense or straightforward definition of "remuneration" for the purposes of formulating proposals for EROs, which excludes the following matters from the scope of employment regulation orders: pay or time off work in respect of public holidays; Sunday premiums or equivalent compensation for Sunday work; payments in lieu of notice; or redundancy payments. JLCs will no longer set Sunday premium rates or other specified conditions of employment covered by universal standards provided for in existing legislation but the special position of Sunday working will still be recognised under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997

Section 12 inserts a new provision in the 1946 Act to provide for the regulation of the decision making procedures the reception of representations by a JLC and a requirement that the committee's chairman shall have regard to a relevant Labour Court recommendation in the event of a casting vote being exercised. These provisions address a significant weakness in the constitution of JLCs, as the original legislation did not contain an express provision whereby an affected party could make an objection directly to the Labour Court before it made an ERO nor did it require the chairman of a JLC to include details of the objections made in his or her report to the Labour Court. The Bill provides that the chairman must furnish the court with all the material considered by the JLC in formulating the proposed ERO, including submissions received from interested parties. It also provides that the court can hear all interested parties before making a decision on the proposals.

The Bill provides that a JLC chairman will be responsible for facilitating the parties represented on a committee in seeking to reach agreement and, where no further efforts are likely to advance the resolution of the difference between the parties, the outstanding matters may be referred to the Labour Court. It also sets out clear guidance regarding the factors to be taken into account by the Labour Court in making a recommendation in the circumstances of a reference made by a JLC that has failed to reach agreement upon specific proposals. In the event that agreement is not reached within a joint labour committee following its consideration of a Labour Court recommendation made in these circumstances, the JLC must vote on the issues in dispute and if the votes are tied, the chairman of the JLC shall exercise a casting vote having regard to the recommendation of the court.

Section 13 inserts a number of amendments to replace provisions struck down by the High Court judgment in the John Grace Fried Chicken case. The High Court judgment highlighted how questions about the appropriateness of criminal sanctions exacerbated concerns about the delegation of broad regulatory powers to bodies such as JLCs and the Labour Court. The new Bill follows the recommendation of the Duffy Walsh report by introducing an alternative enforcement mechanism to criminal prosecutions. The new enforcement mechanism will offer an alternative to a criminal prosecution by enabling a complaint about non-enforcement to be brought before the Labour Court.

The new provision will enable a complaint about contravention of an employment regulation order to be made to a rights commissioner. Up until now the District Court could, in the event of a successful prosecution, order payment to the worker concerned of the difference between the remuneration prescribed by an ERO and the amount actually paid. The Bill establishes a new remedy for workers which puts them in a stronger position than they were before for the purposes of claiming money from employers who are found not to have complied with EROs. The objective is to bring sanctions for breach of EROs into line with the generally accepted standard that sanctions should be effective, proportionate and dissuasive.

Where an employer fails to carry out a determination of the Labour Court the new Bill ensures that it can be enforced by the employee, the trade union or the Minister in the Circuit Court without hearing the employer or any evidence on the complaint. The court may order the employer to pay interest on the award. The compensation payable to a worker by virtue of a rights commissioner's decision or a determination of the Labour Court shall be given priority in the distribution of the assets of a company being wound up or in bankruptcy.

The new enforcement mechanisms are strengthened by enabling the Minister to present a complaint to the rights commissioner in circumstances where a breach of an ERO has occurred and it is unreasonable to expect the employee to present a complaint. The complaint so presented by the Minister shall be treated in the same way as if it were a complaint from the employee.

Section 14 provides for a derogation from the scope of EROs for companies in cases of financial difficulty. These provisions mirror the mechanisms for claiming an exemption from the requirement to pay the rates of remuneration in an REA at section 9.

The basis for claiming an exemption on grounds of inability to pay is less restrictive than the equivalent measure under the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 which has never been used to date. While the objective of the provision in the Act of 2000 was that the relief sought by an employer would be available in cases where a majority of employees so agree, the new provision covers situations where a majority of employees may not necessarily agree, but where it can be proved to the satisfaction of the Labour Court that there is a genuine, albeit temporary, inability to pay and that appropriate safeguards can be assured.

The maximum period of an exemption will be 24 months and must be for a minimum of three months. An employer will not be entitled to seek an exemption if he or she has already been granted an exemption in respect of the same workers in the previous five years.

In the absence of an agreement with the majority of the workforce, the Labour Court must be satisfied that the employer has informed the workers concerned of the financial difficulties of the business and has attempted to reach agreement with the workers concerned; the employer is unable to maintain the terms of the ERO; and requiring the employer to comply with the ERO would result in a substantial risk that a significant number of the workers concerned would be laid-off or made redundant, or that the sustainability of the employer's business would be significantly adversely affected.

The Labour Court must also have regard to whether granting an exemption might have an adverse effect on employment levels and cause a distortion of competition in the sector to the detriment of employers not party to the particular application. In addition, the Labour Court must have regard to the implications of granting an exemption for the long-term sustainability of the employer's business.

Section 15 provides that, in the context of the reconstitution of existing joint labour committees, all current independent members of the JLCs would cease to hold office and that new appointments will be made. Independent members will in future hold office for a period not exceeding five years.

Section 16 provides for consequential amendments to the Employment Permits Act 2006 and the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997.

Section 17 amends the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984 to ensure that payments due to a worker arising from a decision of a rights commissioner or a determination of the Labour Court made under this Bill when enacted will be treated as debts for the purposes of employees' rights on the insolvency of their employer. Section 18 strengthens the provisions relating to informing workers of their statutory entitlements by requiring the employer of any worker to whom an ERO or REA applies to include the terms of that ERO in the written statement of terms of employment to be given to the worker under section 3 of the Terms of Employment (Information) Act 1994. The section also provides for prompt rectification of incomplete or incorrectly stated terms by allowing a NERA inspector to give directions to the employer concerned.

The present arrangements for effecting compliance with the obligation to provide employees with a written statement of their terms of employment have proved unsatisfactory. The only remedy for employees has been to make a complaint to a rights commissioner and seek compensation, which can be up to four weeks' remuneration. This procedure can result in delays and is often contrary to the best interests of employees. Improving the arrangements for providing timely information are preferable to focussing exclusively on an eventual award of compensation. The new approach will enable matters to be rectified earlier at workplace level thereby avoiding unnecessary recourse to rights commissioners and on appeal to the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

It is my intention on Committee Stage, and following further more detailed consultation with the social partners and other interests affected, to bring before the House a number of amendments in order to clarify or strengthen certain provisions of the Bill, in particular, those dealing with the principles and policies applying to the framing of REAs and EROs, the timeframe for the variation of REAs, and the provisions regarding the granting of temporary exemptions from the obligation to pay the terms prescribed under EROs and REAs.

To complement the provisions of the amending legislation, I intend to proceed with the following additional reforms: taking steps to reduce the number of JLCs currently in place from 13 to 6, through a process of abolition or amalgamation, using my powers under section 40 of the Industrial Relations Act 1946; and standardising benefits in the nature of pay, including overtime and the conditions under which it becomes payable, across sectors covered by JLCs either by means of a nationally-agreed social partnership protocol or a statutory code of practice, through a request to be made to the Labour Relations Commission to initiate social partner consultations to this end. I will arrange for the preparation of a new statutory code of practice on Sunday working to provide guidance to employers, employees and their representatives in sectors covered by EROs, on arrangements that may be put in place to comply with the options specified at section 14 of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. The rights commissioner or Labour Court will have regard to this code in making a decision, and implementation and enforcement will be as per the Act of 1997. I intend to request the Labour Relations Commission to prepare the code. The code of practice will subsequently be given formal status by means of a ministerial order.

Together with the restoration of the minimum wage to €8.65 per hour with effect from 1 July 2011, the reform of the statutory wage setting machinery operating at sector level, and putting the JLC and REA systems on a more secure legal and constitutional footing, represents a significant commitment by the Government to protect the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers. The overall effect of these reforms will be to substantially reduce the burden of record-keeping and compliance on employers. The Bill will make the long-established minimum wage setting mechanisms fairer and more responsive to changing economic circumstances and will eliminate rigidities that are considered to have had a negative impact on competitiveness and jobs in the affected sectors.

I commend the Bill to the House.

The JLC system was introduced by Seán Lemass via the Industrial Relations Act 1946. The original purpose of the scheme was to protect people who did not have access to the normal method of collective bargaining based on trade union representation. In today's Ireland, it covers migrant workers, part-time workers and women who are compelled to work in low paid jobs such as waiting and cleaning because their husbands have lost their jobs. My objective is to achieve the best possible deal for these people. CSO figures indicate that the average wage in the JLC sector is €300 per week. These are the people at the bottom of the heap. Last week we debated the issue of agency workers, who constitute a very different category to those affected by the Bill before us.

We all agree that the JLC system needs reform if it is to be made more efficient but some of the arguments for reform have relied on the myth that reducing pay at the lower end of the scale creates employment. Irish businesses have been failing not because of pay levels but due to an unprecedented collapse in consumer spending. In some cases, the collapse has been ten times greater than other eurozone countries. Reducing further the wages of low income workers will result in a further drop in consumer spending and, ultimately, job losses and lower economic growth. These workers spend all their income and consequently a cut in their wages will inevitably mean a drop in demand, higher unemployment and a bigger bill for social welfare.

All the recent economic studies dispel the myth that cutting wages at the lower end creates additional employment. There is no evidence to support the theory that minimum wages have a negative effect on employment in the sectors to which JLCs apply. European Commission data reveals that Irish labour costs in the food and accommodation sector are 6% below the EU average. These costs are based on 2008 figures and the gap has since widened because labour costs in Ireland have fallen or remained flat while costs in other EU countries have increased. Ireland suffers from some of the most significant levels of low pay in the eurozone and most of these low paid workers are in sectors covered by the JLC.

I observed the Minister's reaction to the debates that have taken place on the Bill and I listened carefully to the contributions by Deputies on the previous two Bills. It is clear that a significant number of Members from his party would prefer to consign the JLC system to history. I suspect he shares that view but I understand the exigencies of coalition Government. I do not suggest people are not entitled to their points of view but it just happens that I profoundly disagree with them regarding this cohort of workers.

Anybody who follows the debates surrounding the Bill or the various statements that emanate from the Government would have to conclude that the thrust is towards the contraction and eventual abolition of the JLC system. I recently met representatives of an organisation called the Coalition to Protect the Lowest Paid and they gave me a copy of the ten point action plan they are submitting to the Government. The coalition is concerned to ensure that workers do not lose protections as a result of the rationalisation of the JLC system. The ten point plan suggests that legislation should provide for the possibility of creating new JLCs to cover new situations that are not envisaged at present. Anybody who expects to see new JLCs will be sadly disappointed, however, given the Government's desire to consign the entire system to oblivion.

The coalition made several valuable points to which I will briefly advert. In regard to legislation on permitting JLCs to set a basic adult rate and only two supplementary minimum rates, it points out that the one size fits all approach does not always work. In this case, it may limit the effectiveness and flexibility required to address the concerns of both workers and employers.

It argues for the provision for achievement of skills in supplementary rates above the adult basic rate in certain JLCs. It also draws attention to an area of potential exploitation in training rates where new workers are paid below the basic rates with little ability to access higher rates for their skill sector. The coalition proposes that training rates be permitted only to give workers access within a defined period to the achievement of skills commensurate with higher rates. I support that proposal and will bring amendments on Committee Stage to amend the Bill accordingly.

In respect of the regular reviews that will take place under the Bill, the coalition argues that representatives of employers and employees must be able to raise issues and reach agreement on a consensual basis. Confrontation will ensue if arbitrary decisions are imposed on people.

While it has no difficulty in reducing the record keeping requirement for employers on EROs and REAs - and I am all for this - it argues that employers should be compelled to maintain sufficient records to allow monitoring of their compliance with legal obligations to their workers.

Shortly after the Minister took office he outlined his thinking on JLCs. His proposals differed significantly from those set out in the Duffy Walsh report but because of whatever has happened in between and, I presume, political pressure from his partners in Government, he has apparently moved much closer to that report. One must ask, however, how much he agrees with it. There are several significant differences between the Bill's provisions and the recommendations of the Duffy Walsh report. While the report recommended the inclusion of an inability to pay clause, it advised that derogations should only be granted where the alternative was a substantial loss of employment or distortion of the marketplace. The derogation granted by the Bill appears to be considerably wider. It can, for example, be granted based on the notional long-term sustainability of an enterprise or if the Labour Court is influenced by any other matter that it considers relevant.

We should not forget this debate concerns the wages of people at the bottom of the pay scale. The Government is reluctantly maintaining the JLC system. Nevertheless, it is allowing employers to opt out of whatever small wages these people are being granted. The Labour Court can consider not just the long-term sustainability of the business, the imminent loss of employment and distortion of the market, but any other matter it considers relevant. That is very wide. I need hardly add that the Duffy Walsh report suggested that the derogation should be given for a period of 12 months. The Bill gives it for two years, which is a considerable change.

The Duffy Walsh report also proposed, as we did ourselves, principles and policies which must be taken into account when formulating proposals for a JLC. Section 12 of the Bill deals with this. It seems to me that the principles proposed in the Bill are quite restrictive and will severely limit the flexibility of JLCs to act in the best interests not just of their own sector but of the economy as a whole. The Coalition to Protect the Lowest Paid, which I spoke about a moment ago, suggested a number of additional principles and policies. As the Minister has already indicated his intention to amend this section of the Bill on Committee Stage, he might consider these. The coalition proposes, for example, that one of the principles to be taken into account should be the impact on working poverty and adequate income. It states that appropriate rates are needed, not only to ensure that the principles of social equity are maintained, but to ensure that people will take up positions in the industry. Wages set at too low a level can result in labour market distortions. Another principle or policy it suggests is to do with consumer demand. It states that to ensure the economy is not harmed by wages so low that they undermine the purchasing power of the workers affected and therefore reduce demand in the economy, Exchequer finances and the social protection budget should be taken into account. It makes the obvious point that deteriorating wage levels will have an impact on tax and, as a consequence, on social welfare.

The other thing that concerns me about the principles and policies outlined by the Minister is that the general level of wages in comparable sectors, including sectors outside the country, can be taken into account when setting wages. What does this mean? What countries can be used in this comparison - the United Kingdom, which is the only country with which we have a common landmass? Can a hotel in Skibbereen be in competition with a hotel in Belfast? The wording seems to be wide enough to allow comparisons not only with the United Kingdom but also with countries on the European mainland and perhaps anywhere in the world. One could argue quite logically that a person who gets out of bed in the morning in California and decides where to go on holidays could just as easily choose Tahiti or Timbuktu as Ireland. The concept of comparable jurisdictions including those outside Europe is a strange one, and this will have to be tightened up and pinned down on Committee Stage.

Then there is the question of the Sunday premium, which is now gone. The Minister says he wants to give workers their rights under the Organisation of Working Time Act, but they have had those rights since 1997. What he is saying is that he will introduce some sort of statutory code to give guidance to the Labour Court on what this Act means. We could find that it is far better to let the Labour Court make up its own mind on what this Act gives workers rather than to take away its flexibility by imposing some sort of quasi-statutory system. In any case, the Sunday premium is gone. The 1997 Act itself recognises that Sundays are different. We have had to put up with an awful lot of guff since this debate started about how the meagre payments workers in this sector are getting for Sunday work are destroying the economy. We are told they are massive payments - people are coming up with the most extraordinary examples - and that the system is totally inflexible and cannot be changed. The hotel sector, of its own accord, changed the ERO governing that sector to reduce the standard Sunday work premium from time and a half to time and a third. I am not quite sure whether it was double time originally, but anyway, it was reduced to time and a third. Many of the people affected are working for €10 an hour. One third of ten is three. Let us say somebody is working for four or five hours on a Sunday - that is €50 before tax. Is this what is bringing down the economy? I very much doubt it. The vast majority of people who work on a Sunday are now subject to time and a third, but there is a substantial cohort of people who, because they are rostered for a seven-day week, are working for a flat rate on Sundays. When this debate took place in the UK in the early 1990s, there were the same sorts of suggestions, largely from employers' groups. The Sunday premium was abolished in the UK in 1993, but this did not create one single job.

I am surprised that the Labour Party so tamely accepted the dismantling of the Sunday premium, given that the people who are benefiting from it are those who are right at the bottom of the pay levels - and it was pretty meagre anyway in the overall context of labour costs in this country.

Another aspect of the Bill which quite frankly disturbs me is the new involvement of the Minister. In the judgment in the fried chicken case, to which the Minister adverted, the High Court held that these JLCs were making what were tantamount to laws. It said they were doing something very important but were not governed by any principles. The JLCs were so important that they had the final say in these matters - or at least, the Labour Court had the final say. The High Court made the point that there was no reference to the Minister; the Minister did not have to sign off on decisions. Anticipating trouble, the previous Government, in the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill 2009, which unfortunately did not become law, introduced involvement by the Minister. Section 9 of that Bill states that when something is all agreed and sanctioned by the Labour Court, the Minister shall, as soon as practicable after receiving a copy of the proposal - that is, the ERO - from the Labour Court, make an employment regulation order. The Minister did not have a substantial impact; his role was pretty passive. The aim was to provide that when a proposal had been agreed and sanctioned in whatever form by the Labour Court, it would go to the Minister and enjoy the authority of ministerial authorisation. It would have the ministerial stamp. It was not in any way suggested in the 2009 Bill or any of the Bills we put forward in Opposition that the Minister should have any greater say in the matter. With all due respect, the employer and workers on the one hand and the Labour Court on the other have all the requisite expertise. The 2011 Bill, which we are discussing, states in section 12 that the Minister will sign off on proposals. Of course, the 2009 Bill provided, and my Bill should have provided even if it did not, that the order would be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas and a resolution proposing to annul it had to be put forward within 21 days. The Oireachtas had the right to annul it within 21 days if an appropriate resolution was put forward. However, there was no suggestion that the Department would have this all-encompassing power to say "yea" or "nay".

When I first looked at section 12 of the Bill I realised it is not just a question of the Minister signing off or being passive in this case. The first part of the section provides that the Minister will sign off when he or she is satisfied that sections 42A and 42B have been complied with. Sections 42A and 42B deal with the procedure to be followed when formulating an ERO and what must be taken into account when doing so. That is not too bad, even if it is going a great deal further than was ever envisaged. The Minister is being asked to second guess the Labour Court, as it were, as regards whether proper procedure has been followed and all the matters stated have been taken into account.

However, when I read further I was flabbergasted, to say the least. In addition to that, the Minister can simply turn down a proposal for an ERO if "he or she considers it appropriate" to do so. A later section in the Bill provides that the Minister must give reasons in writing to the Labour Court. That reminds me of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, giving reasons for prosecuting or not prosecuting a case by simply writing that he or she decided to prosecute because he or she considered there was enough evidence to secure a conviction or that he or she had decided not to prosecute because there was not enough evidence to secure one. There is a serious danger here once the Minister gets rid of this system. The Duffy Walsh report recommends that these should be reviewed every five years, while the Bill provides that it be at least every five years. At any time when a proposal is made - possibly not the first one because politics will dictate otherwise - or when the review comes up from time to time, the Minister can simply say "no". He or she can say they do not think it is appropriate because the economy has changed. The Minister hascarte blanche to say “yea” or “nay”.

Formerly, JLCs were overseen by the Labour Court. To get departmental authority we had proposed the inclusion of the Minister, or the 2009 Bill proposed it, but under this Bill the Minister is effectively being given a veto instead of being included as somebody to sanction this if there is no obvious glaring error. That gives the Department and the Minister, if he or she is so minded, the power to wind down and get rid of the entire JLC system over whatever period suits him or her.

My other concern is the redress provisions. I accept that I put forward legislation in the House in which the redress provisions were nothing to write home about, but my understanding is that the law at present, under the Industrial Relations Act 1946, provides that if somebody is not being paid their proper wage or they do not have the proper conditions under the terms of an ERO, they can simply make a complaint to NERA. NERA has the right to prosecute the employer but in 99.9% of cases the threat of prosecution is enough to bring the employer to heel. The system is quite efficient. The only inefficiency is that there are not enough inspectors to get around quickly enough. They are only scratching the surface. However, that is provided for in sections 45 and 7 of the 1946 Act.

The Duffy Walsh report suggested an alternative. Incidentally, it did not suggest getting rid of the criminal sanction. An alternative means one has two choices and one can choose one or the other. The authors recommended that as an alternative to a criminal prosecution a complaint could be brought before the Labour Court and that NERA be authorised to bring such a complaint. In other words, one can automatically approach NERA and it will bring the complaint before the rights commissioner initially and then the Labour Court. The authors further recommend that NERA be authorised to serve a compliance notice on an employer when a contravention is detected.

What the Bill proposes, however, is entirely different. There is no automatic involvement of NERA. It will become involved if somebody is not bringing a case in a situation where NERA considers that it is unreasonable for them not to bring a case or make a complaint. NERA can decide to represent the person. However, to apply to a rights commissioner is not a very difficult procedure. If one goes to one's local Deputy, he or she will fill out the form to apply to the rights commissioner. I cannot imagine in what circumstances it will be reasonable for a person not to make the simple complaint to a rights commissioner.

There are two significant differences here, despite what the Minister said in his speech and what is said in the explanatory memorandum of the Bill. The criminal sanction is gone. The section that provided for it was deemed unconstitutional by the High Court. Second, resort to NERA is no longer automatic. I will outline what is very strange about this Bill. Under section 18 workers have the right to be informed about their rights. What sanction do they have if they are not informed about their rights? They can complain to NERA and the inspector can issue a directive. It is an extraordinary situation that a person has a quick and easy remedy involving NERA when they do not get information about their rights, but they must go around the world, wait months for the rights commissioner and, if one is outside Dublin, wait at least six months for the Labour Court and ultimately go to the Circuit Court when their pay is, perhaps, €5 per week less than it should be.

Why does a different procedure apply for people who are deprived of their rights as opposed to when people are deprived of information about their rights? The explanatory memorandum attempts to supply an answer. It states that the present arrangement for effecting compliance with the obligation to provide employees with a written statement of their terms of employment have proved unsatisfactory, as the only remedy for employees is to make a complaint to a rights commissioner and this can entail delays pending the outcome of a hearing. We are worried about the delays and hassle that will inevitably result from applying to a rights commissioner as regards not getting information about one's rights, but the Bill insists on it when one is trying to vindicate those rights. There is a glaring contradiction there.

My general point is that there are very significant differences between this Bill and what was proposed in the Duffy Walsh report. The Labour Party appears to have readily accepted what is being proposed, perhaps because its opposition to the Minister's proposals was a little synthetic in the first place or perhaps because its members have been hoodwinked about what is in the Bill. They should read it very carefully before signing off so readily on it. Certain trade unions fall into the same category. I recall a trade unionist referring to the debates on this Bill and he mentioned the other Opposition parties. He must have been out of work the day I put forward a Bill in the House and must have had something in his ears during the contributions I made.C’est la vie.

However, this Bill seriously diminishes the rights and protections of workers in the most vulnerable sector of the economy. Despite the Government's overwhelming majority, I will do my best to ensure it is radically amended on Committee Stage. I welcome the Minister's intention to bring forward amendments but the Bill will have to be amended considerably more than that. The real action will take place on Committee Stage but I cannot support the Bill unless it is radically amended as I have suggested.

In response to the last speaker, perhaps the last 15 years clouded the judgment of the union man with regard to the depths of the new-found reformation.

Perhaps he was not studying Sinn Féin's policy north of the Border.

Go raibh míle maith agat a Cathaoirligh. Ní mór dúinn cuimhnigh sa chéad dul síos ar an bhfáth gur chruthaigh an Rialtas na JLCs sna daichidí. Chruthaigh siad iad chun tuarastal agus coinníollacha mhuintir an íseal pá a chosaint. Chruthaigh siad iad chun oibrí na hÉireann a chosaint ó dhúshaothrú ó fhostóirí neamh-scrupallach. Is léir ón nuacht is déanaí ó thaobh Vita Cortex agus eile go bhfuil borradh ar an méid fostóirí neamh-scrupallach agus tá brú uafásach ag teacht ar oibrí. Sin an fáth gur cóir dúinn gach cosaint a chur i bhfeidhm comh luath is is féidir.

Last July, Sinn Féin brought its own legislation on joint labour committees, JLCs, to the Houses. However, our Bill has been stalled by the Government on Committee Stage. My party, in partnership with the trade union movement, has campaigned for the past six months for watertight legislation on this issue. While the Bill has many positive attributes, Sinn Féin cannot support the negation of the Sunday premium as it will cut the wages of the working poor. The matter is as simple as that.

It should be remembered in all of this that the joint labour committee system was developed to safeguard the rights and entitlements of low paid workers. The committees were established to prevent workers being exploited and hundreds of thousands of people being pushed into poverty. The recent legal challenge and subsequent court ruling necessitated legislative change and presented the Government with an opportunity to further enshrine in legislation the rights and safeguards of low paid workers. The lack of urgency demonstrated by the Government on this matter caused concern to many of those involved in this area. The failure of the Minister to introduce legislation promptly was the reason Sinn Féin, in consultation with the trade union movement, drafted and submitted a Bill for the consideration of the Oireachtas. Responding to our legislation, the Government stated it would bring forward a Bill before the end of the term but produced it at the eleventh hour in late December.

On publishing the Bill the Minister stated: "I have been determined to strike a balance between protecting vulnerable workers and providing reforms that would make systems more competitive and more flexible so to allow for the creation of jobs in these sectors." This is not a case of trading workers' rights against job creation. The Government's own report, the Duffy Walsh review, found no evidence of a connection between the protections and pay rates of joint labour committees and employment levels. It found that "lowering the basic JLC rates to the level of the minimum wage rate is unlikely to have a substantial effect on employment."

There is no doubt that if the wages of certain workers were pushed down, some employers would be able to employ more people. It is also the case that the severe strain many businesses are under has caused many of them to grab on to the potential of lower wages as a drowning person would grab a life raft. However, there is no evidence to substantiate the view that JLCs undermine employment in general.

There is, not surprisingly, a lobby by some employers to drive down wages to increase profits. This lobby appears to have found a willing partner in the Government because many of the changes in the Bill are not about creating jobs, enhancing competitiveness or safeguarding the rights of workers but are largely ideologically driven. It should be remembered that the Minister and his senior officials and personally appointed advisers receive multiples of the wages awarded to JLC workers. As always, there has not been any drive to reduce their wages. Perhaps the Minister and officials believe they can justify receiving a salary ten times higher than the wages of the JLC workers who work for them.

It is incorrect to argue that our competitiveness and unemployment levels are the result of joint labour committees or the cost of low paid workers. A myriad of other costs, including energy, rent, rates and credit, could be tackled by the Government but it has failed to do so. For example, it has not invested in transport and broadband infrastructure, two areas in which investment would significantly enhance competitiveness. They are being ignored because of vested interests with strong voices. Unfortunately, the working poor do not have well financed lobbyists to plead their case. Workers did not bring the State to the brink of bankruptcy or call on the Government to bail out hard pressed bankers, bondholders and developers. The registered employment agreements, REAs, in construction did not decimate the building industry and JLC workers in retail did not crash that sector.

Let us consider the responses and achievements of the Government thus far. In the past year, its economic policies have delivered increased unemployment, emigration and business closures and brought about a return to recession. The Minister contends he is seeking to enhance competitiveness and employment, yet the impact of the Government's actions on the economy, business and citizens is the polar opposite. He speaks of competitiveness but fails to implement obvious opportunities to enhance competitiveness.

The Government has tried to hide behind the troika on the issue of who is responsible for competitiveness problems. The troika did not demand changes to the joint labour committees. The Government has built a public relations wall over the last year, stating the troika is forcing various negative policies on it leaving it with no choice but to comply. My party has met representatives of the troika on two occasions and is aware that this is not the case. Water and household charges are not set in stone with the troika but reflect the ideological preferences of the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition. The same is true of the Government's decision to repay unguaranteed unsecured bondholders in full and its plan to sell off €5 billion worth of State assets. The troika knows the world in 2012 is a different place from the world in 2010 when the document was drawn up. While it seeks a deficit reduction, it is flexible on how this objective is achieved. The policies being pursued reflect the priorities of the Government and its lack of negotiating skills.

Let us contrast the Government's approach to legislating on joint labour committees with its agreement with the troika to introduce civil fines for abuse of competition rules. Its decision to drop the latter suggests the Government is more at home with the large multiples which sometimes abuse dominant market position and the cosy cartels such as those in the concrete industry than with those who fall under the joint labour committees.

The biggest issues facing the competitiveness of our retail and small business sector are levels of demand and upward only rents. The retail sector is suffering badly and while I do not wish to be a harbinger of doom, the closure of some retail and small manufacturing businesses in recent weeks will be followed in the month ahead by many more closures. Many of the businesses which did their utmost to get through to the new year must now face the reality. The retail sector has shed 50,000 jobs in the past three years and a further 40,000 jobs are at risk. Having promised to end upward only rents to address the excessive Celtic tiger rents which are crippling competitiveness, the Government, rather than finding a resolution to the problem, has hidden behind the advice of the Attorney General. To add insult to injury, the budget included additional measures to subsidise property speculation. The Government did not seek to drive down property costs and rents. Its priority was not employers and workers but landlords and speculators. It is transforming our economy and society into a debt repayment agency and all other concerns - jobs, enterprise or workers - are deemed secondary.

Deputy Olivia Mitchell and other Fine Gael Deputies are of the view that joint labour committees are not required as a national minimum wage is in place. A minimum wage should not be the objective but should function as a floor under which no one is forced to work. If some of those on the benches opposite were to try to manage on the minimum wage, it would focus their attention. The knock-on impact of the drive to reduce wages for the low paid will be to reduce demand in the domestic market. Given that those on low wages tend to spend all of their earnings, reducing their wage has a disproportionately large impact on the economy and demand.

Turning to the detail of the Bill, I ask the Minister to provide clarity on a number of issues and, where necessary, consider directing his Department to further amending it on Committee Stage. I share the previous speaker's concerns about the new powers the legislation affords the Minister in the area of employment regulation orders. I ask him to outline how Ministers may effect change in this regard in future.

With regard to section 5, which substitutes section 27(2) of the 1946 Act, I hope the Minister is in a position to clarify that the test of the term "substantively representative" of the workforce will be that it ensures and enhances trade union recognition in sectors that have been traditionally filled with the most vulnerable employees, many of whom work in isolation without representation.

In continuing to balance the rights of workers with the rights of employers, section 5 adds principles and policies to which the Labour Court must have regard in considering whether to register an agreement. The Labour Court must explicitly have regard to the potential impact on employment levels and yet only have regard to the desirability of a fair and sustainable wage. The word "desirability" is too weak. Less consideration is given to the need for a fair wage. An employer can now make the case that he or she might employ more people if wage rates are kept low or might make workers redundant if a fair wage is struck. The Labour Court can only consider the desirability of a fair wage. It appears to me and to others that this tilts rights away from vulnerable workers.

Why does the legislation direct the Labour Court to have regard not only to the general levels of wages in comparable sectors but also adds, "including, where enterprises in the sector in question are in competition with enterprises outside the State, the general level of wages in such comparable sectors in other relevant jurisdictions"? These additions seem driven by the fallacy that workers covered by EROs and REAs are overpaid compared to those in other jurisdictions. The addition of other jurisdictions is a charter to drive down wages here. Let us be clear. We do not want to be a State which prides itself on driving down wages.

The EU labour cost survey in 2008 showed that labour costs in retail, hotels and restaurants were below the EU average and that the operating costs to labour costs ratio was on a par with the EU average. By including a specific clause in the legislation, the Government may allow for a reduction in wages. If the worry is the ability to compete with businesses in the North, I would welcome the Government working with my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to develop a truly national approach to tackling low pay and creating all-Ireland harmonisation rather than taking a regional approach in the Twenty-six Counties. If one is looking for a solution to competitiveness on the island of Ireland, that is the only way it will be resolved in the long run.

Section 9 provides for a temporary exemption from the Act. Will the Minister assure us that businesses seeking an exemption must make a full disclosure of their financial standing to the Labour Court, including remuneration of directors and managers and payments to companies associated with directors? This is a can of worms in which paper walls and company walls can hide information and rights from workers in sister companies.

Section 11 allows for a periodic review of the JLCs and directs that the Labour Court must have regard to the impact of EROs on the employment levels, especially entry level. Consistent with the approach throughout the legislation, this insertion places the ideology that fair wages cost employment on a statutory basis and is open to exploitation. The subtext is that one can have fair wages or decent employment levels but not both. We believe one can have decent employment levels and fair wages.

How can the Labour Court quantify the effect a fair wage will have on employment levels? Will this be done using mathematical and economic models or will it be left to the assumption current at any given time? The disparity between the rights of workers and employers is further highlighted in section 12 which directs that the JLC must have regard to the legitimate financial and commercial interests of the employers but only have regard to the desirability of agreeing a fair wage. As I said, this leads to a hierarchy of priorities and favours one citizen's rights over those of another. It gives an enhanced legal standing to the profits of the business over the need for a fair wage.

These provisions are repeated in the direction to the Labour Court. I do not know if the Labour Party members opposite are, like the Minister for Education and Skills, out of practice or have completely given up the ghost on low paid workers. However, writing into law that the concerns of the employer is more important than the worker is a disgrace and I hope this Bill will be amended in committee.

In section 12, the Minister again draws on comparators in other states in regard to wage rates here. It would appear that the Government is involved in a race to the bottom in this regard. I question the Labour Party on section 12, which amends section 42 of the original Act to remove the rights to public holidays, Sunday working, payments in lieu of notice and redundancy from JLC agreements. Workers will now rely on the minimum legislative safeguards in regard to public holidays, payments in lieu of notice and redundancy. Everyone in this Chamber is well aware of how businesses have circumvented their responsibilities. All one has to do is look at companies such as Vita Cortex.

Given the avalanche of retail and manufacturing businesses which are on the edge of collapse, the Government must do all in its power to strengthen workers' rights. However, there is no set rate for Sunday working in legislation. The removal of this from the responsibility of the JLC process will reduce the premium low paid workers can expect. We are not talking about staff who can choose to work on Sundays but about low paid workers, many of whom have no choice but to work on Sundays. We are talking about people who have difficulty feeding their families, paying their bills, paying their mortgages, going to doctors, etc. We are talking about people who will take a major wage hit if this happens. It will fall to the most vulnerable workers to try to negotiate terms around these issues. Does anyone on the benches opposite believe this will result in increased wages or that wages will remain as they are? The Government should amend this legislation to ensure that JLC workers receive premium rates for working Sundays. The constitutional challenge to the JLC framework could and should provide an opportunity to enhance the rights and rates of pay for low paid workers but instead these have been eroded.

Aspects of this legislation appear to be ideologically driven and the Labour Party has acquiesced to that ideology. Do Labour Party members believe this legislation is a progressive step to further enhance the rights of low paid workers? If the Government is serious about tackling competitiveness and promoting jobs, it should bring forward complementary legislation in regard to the major costs small businesses face and increase investment in education and infrastructure.

John Spicers Bakery has operated in my home town since the 1830s. It is an iconic brand in County Meath and I am sure the Minister is aware of it. That business has shed 27 staff in the past three days. I believe there are 15 staff left and that they are hanging on by a thread. There are a number of organisations under the remit of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, such as the county enterprise boards, Enterprise Ireland, etc., which will give advice to new businesses to get them up and running.

John Spicers Bakery is an old business which has been in operation for more than 150 years. I call on the Department to visit the bakery and into other businesses in a similar situation. There is no point going in after the business has closed. When a business is suffering extreme difficulty, there should be a facility whereby the Department, through one of its functionaries, will go into the business, help it to analyse its business plan, work out whether the business is feasible, analyse the costs and see whether the Government can effect changes to reduce those costs. If the business is viable and it is struggling for a short period of time, employment grants should be given to ensure employment levels are retained. This happens in Germany and should also happen here. Will the Department go into John Spicers Bakery and other businesses like it?

If the Government really means what it says about competitiveness, I urge it to look at all the issues we have brought forward in this and past contributions. The Government should amend this legislation to ensure that a balance is struck between employers and employees, rather giving priority to employers in this Bill.

I too am delighted to speak on the Bill. I congratulate the Minister who, in fairness to him, has been very proactive since assuming this portfolio. He is interested and passionate about getting to the bottom of the problems that are diminishing job numbers on a daily or weekly basis. While we may get lost in many of the Bill's technical issues, I want to speak as a small employer who understands many of the issues involved. Next month, I will have been in business for 30 years. I currently employ eight people, but I have often employed up to 12 or 15. While they are not huge numbers by any means, those sort of small businesses have built our economy, yet they have received no State supports by way of huge grants from the IDA, Enterprise Ireland or county enterprise boards. I never received any grants, nor did I look for them. I may have sought one or two employment grants, but never succeeded in getting them. There are many people throughout the country who have had the same experience.

It is a delicate job for the Minister and his Department to protect vulnerable workers while allowing flexibility for businesses to remain in place. The last speaker, Deputy Tóibín from Meath, said that many issues were wrong, including low wages. In his own constituency, Spicers is shedding jobs because of competition. The vast majority of companies, especially smaller businesses that have grown larger, have had a great relationship with their workers over the years. Some of them did not have unions and did not need them because they were fair. In turn, their employees worked hard for the company, as well as for themselves and their families. That happened in many communities but in the past 40 years, up to 2004 or 2005, legislation was brought in to protect workers and rightly so for much of it, but unfortunately we never seemed to repeal the old legislation.

When I was first elected to the Dáil, I was lobbied continuously, and still am - I am sure the Minister is also lobbied - about all the EROs, JLOs and little empires that were set up, including NERA, the National Employment Rights Authority. They were established from the perspective of being necessary and having the requiredmodus operandi, including good operations and vision, but they got carried away. It became more cumbersome, awkward and difficult for employers to maintain their workforces, as well as making plans to develop in future. Employers had to deal with such a plethora of agencies, rules and regulations that they would have had to be legally qualified to understand and assess them. If an employer had five employees, he or she needed a secretary specifically to deal with all the book-keeping and other paperwork, not to mention all the inspectors that were arriving. To cap it all, we got NERA.

I ran a long campaign to have NERA stood down. It should have been changed from the National Employment Rights Authority to being a national employers support agency. I certainly saw this coming, as most people did. There was no help for employers who got caught up in industrial relations issues. Once greed set in, we lost sight of honest men and women who wanted to work and provide for their families by contributing to the company and the community. Not only did it set in with some greedy employers who wanted to drive down wages to make more profits, but SIPTU and many other unions also had a role to play in this. They lobbied and all got cosy under the various schemes that were brought in by previous governments to enhance industrial peace. We got industrial peace, thankfully, but at what cost to the economy? What good is it now having a plethora of quangos that we cannot get rid of? We cannot get rid of them because they are too embedded in legislation and cannot be touched. The Construction Industry Federation and many other agencies were involved around the one table, but they forgot where the crumbs were falling. They also forgot where their meals were coming from because they killed the goose that laid the golden egg. They went over the top completely and now we are trying to pick up the pieces.

Having just come from a meeting with the troika, I have learned a lot in the past two hours. I am glad the Technical Group has had an opportunity to meet the troika for a first meeting. The troika may be blamed for everything, but it should not be blamed for half of it because it had to come in here. The troika did not come here soon enough; it should have been here two years earlier. Now that the troika is here, however, it is a convenient scapegoat for everyone to blame.

I challenge the Jack O'Connors and other union leaders to come to the table and be honest about ordinary workers and lower paid people. I am meeting self-employed people daily, as well as workers and - worst of all - people with no jobs. I compliment the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, on indicating recently that she will consider giving something to self-employed people under the PRSI scheme when they cease business. When their jobs are gone, their families face a human tragedy because they cannot get a shilling. Is that fair? Who is speaking for them? Where is the Construction Industry Federation or the small business association? They are not there. They are able to negotiate all these rates and other issues they want to apply, but they got carried away completely. We had a government, of which I was a member, which was too willing to give them everything, no matter what. They wanted to buy industrial peace at whatever cost. That is why the Croke Park agreement cannot and will not deliver. It is not delivering, it will not deliver and cannot do so. I cannot see why the troika is not looking at that because it is nonsense. I will not say what the troika representatives said this evening because they asked us to be respectful until they leave on Thursday. Nonetheless, anyone undertaking a peripheral examination would know that there is a lot wrong in this system and it is not all about employers.

The Vita Cortex dispute was mentioned in Cork. I can say that the Ronan family were damn good employers in south Tipperary for decades. When NAMA was set up, I said it was like a wild animal in the woods and no one knew where it would end up. By hell, do we know now where it is ending up? We might have banned stag hunting, but we will have to bring in some sort of hunting for these NAMA officials and the racket that is going on in there. No one knows where it will end up, yet millions of euro due to small and medium-sized businesses are now tied up in NAMA for one reason or another. It is no good to this State or employers and it is worse for employees. What is happening down there is a scandal, yet their money is tied up. I wanted to say that although I might be attacked for doing so. The Ronan family gave exemplary employment to hundreds of people in south Tipperary. It was all fine and dandy while Vita Cortex and other companies were going well, but not now because of the money that is tied up in NAMA. I am not defending Jack Ronan in this instance, although I know many members of the family. There is more going on under the surface in all these cases than what is seen.

We can have all the attacks from our Sinn Féin colleagues on this, but Deputy Tóibín could see for himself at first hand when he asked the Minister to intervene. I support him on that because people should go in. That is why I said that NERA, the National Employment Rights Authority, should be changed to the national employers support agency. Employers are struggling and are on their knees. I was talking to an employer recently who employs six or seven people in a small business. She is spending her life savings to try to keep the business afloat, but that cannot last beyond 2012. She will be broke, her life savings will be gone and so will her business. It is not good enough. State agencies must support businesses that are trying to maintain thestatus quo and keep people employed. Entrepreneurs will get us out of this mess, not unions and others sitting around tables who negotiated all these lovely deals. They wanted things to be grand and cosy, but the ordinary workers did not benefit.

Debate adjourned.