I welcome warmly the publication and Second Reading of this extremely important Government Bill. I respectfully disagree with the criticism by the last speaker. Many of his points were quite good and reasonable but his notion that there was an inordinate delay, for which he claimed the Government is culpable, does not stand up. When the High Court decision was handed down last July, there was a very robust and immediate response on behalf of the Minister giving an undertaking that this Bill would be brought before the House. The Bill is not without complexity. It arises from a decision in the High Court striking down earlier legislation as unconstitutional. It is not a Bill that could have been cooked up in a couple of days or weeks.
As I pointed out to Deputy O'Dea when he introduced his Bill in July, it would have been foolhardy of the Government to proceed in the manner suggested by Fianna Fáil, in good faith, at that stage. It was not a case of the introduction of emergency legislation in the manner suggested in that the Bill introduced by Fianna Fáil, including Deputy O'Dea, was essentially a rerun of that brought forward by the previous Government in 2009, perhaps with some modifications. That Bill would not have solved the problem or addressed the very serious issue that arises. It would have been found wanting and would have risked further challenges. It certainly would not have been the robust and very carefully drafted legislation now before the House.
I would not be critical at all of the Government over what has been described as a delay. The Government, Attorney General and others must take the time to consider the details of the legislation, determine the principles and policies that should be contained in it and engage in discussion and analysis on this issue with all political parties and interested organisations, be they employers or trade unions. There is nothing wrong with that. It is the way the system tends to work when it is working well, and it is right that it should do so.
It was interesting to listen to Deputy McConalogue, who criticised the Bill for having, as he saw it, departed quite considerably from the Duffy Walsh report. His party colleague, Deputy O'Dea, on the other hand, said in the House yesterday that he felt it had moved considerably back in the direction of the Duffy Walsh report. Deputy O'Dea took the view that this was a Bill the Minister, Deputy Bruton, was perhaps uncomfortable with but that he had to go ahead with because of the Labour Party, or something along those lines. I do not believe that is true. There is a high measure of debate, discussion and agreement as well as some of the compromise which undoubtedly took place in recent months. The Bill is being brought forward with the full agreement of all in the Government and it reflects the careful study, analysis and preparation that has gone into it.
I strongly agree with the point made by Deputy O'Dea yesterday that although we often hear the clarion cry in regard to pay as if the only thing that needed to be done in this economy was to reduce pay, particularly the pay of low paid workers, that argument does not stand up. There are many difficulties and challenges in this economy but the issue of reducing pay is not at the top of the list of what needs to be done, if it is on the list at all. We know labour costs in the economy have fallen dramatically in the past two years. If we are looking at where we need to point the finger or make changes in the economy and the labour market, it is certainly not in the area of seeking to reduce the pay of already low paid workers. Deputy O'Dea made that point very well and I agree with him.
The Bill is great achievement on the part of the Government and I strongly welcome it. Let us pause for a moment to consider what is happening. Deputy Tóibín asked whether the Bill is progressive. It is restoring a mechanism for the setting of pay rates which was struck down by the High Court. The entire infrastructure was essentially struck down for stark constitutional reasons and it has now been reconstructed, brick by brick, by the Government and put back in place. If one wants to ask whether that is progressive, it depends on the perspective from which one is approaching it. I regard it as very progressive.
Deputy Tóibín and others argued it was ideological or infused with ideology. I do not mind this debate about ideology, and I believe there is such a thing as ideology. However, if one wants to query what ideology is at the heart of protective rights for workers, the Bill is introducing a new mechanism which was never there before so workers can enforce their rights directly through the Rights Commissioner and on up to an enforcement mechanism in the Circuit Court. This is a new entitlement given to workers, protecting the system that is in place, which is essentially overseen by the JLCs and the Labour Court, and in many ways strengthening the procedure for the making of employment regulation orders and registered employment agreements. If there is some ideology lying behind all of that, it is certainly not a right wing ideology. I do not suggest it is ideologically driven one way or the other but, in so far as anybody is trying in this House to suggest the Bill is motivated by right wing ideology, it is simply a nonsense.
The Sinn Féin Members and others, including Deputy Clare Daly, to whom I listened earlier, have in recent weeks been almost foraging around in the Bill to see if they can find something to object to or that confirms their suspicions that this is a Government hell-bent on destroying workers' rights. Of course this is not the case. There is almost a sense of disappointment that comes across their faces when they read this legislation and see it is not the sky falling in or the undermining of workers' rights. It is the opposite. It is concerned with the restoration of a wage setting mechanism, the introduction of new enforcement mechanisms and the making available and extending to workers of what is their right, namely, that in particular those who are vulnerable and low paid should have in place and available to them a system that stands the constitutional test at the most rigorous level. That is what we, as legislators, should be doing and what we are doing in the Bill. While I am sorry Deputy Tóibín cannot find something in it of substance to rail against, the reason he cannot do so is because it is not there.
The Bill is a considerable achievement. To paraphrase the saying, "They said it couldn't be done", they said it wouldn't be done. In fact, it has been done, and the Bill has been brought before the House in a very reasonable period of time. I acknowledge it incorporates some compromise. It is not so much that there are things in the Bill I would prefer not to see, rather there are a number of things I would prefer to see in the Bill that did not make it. It is no secret that the removal of the Sunday premium from the Bill, among one or two areas, is, quite reasonably, a disappointment for some. However, it has been replaced by the necessity to introduce a code of practice to which the Labour Court and others must have regard. Again, this is a strong piece of protective legislation and people should see it that way.
I am broad shouldered enough, as I am sure others are, to be able to take criticism from the Opposition in regard to Government policy and to defend Government policy as and when we see fit. God knows, there are things on which the Opposition could find it relatively easy to have a go at the Government. However, when the Opposition has a go at everything and sees a problem in every corner, its credibility in criticising the Government, when perhaps it is more justified, is out the window. The Opposition Members should welcome and support this legislation. If they want to improve upon it, by all means they should seek to amend it but they should welcome it because the Government has done what it said it would do.
The most important thing that had to be done in the Bill was to reintroduce the principles and policies, as has been done at section 5, which inserts a new section to section 27 of the 1946 Act. That 1946 Act was very interesting legislation, as I know from having read through the original debate. It was introduced just after the war by Mr. Seán Lemass, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, and was the legislation which set up the Labour Court. The Labour Court has proven itself to be a progressive body, one that has representatives from both sides of industry - employers and trade unions - with an independent chair. From time to time, like all adjudicative bodies, it comes in for criticism but it has stood the test of time, in particular in the area of collective rights. We sometimes make a distinction between collective rights and individual worker's rights. The Labour Court has performed extremely well in this regard down through the decades, having been set up by the 1946 Act.
It was also the 1946 Act that set up the wage setting mechanism that was struck down by the High Court last July. At the time of the original Act, the country had just come out of the war and, when one looks at the legislation in the context of the time, it was very progressive in regard to protecting workers in the 1940s despite being introduced many decades before the raft of new legislation to protect workers that came in from the 1970s onwards.
While it is almost not worthy of comment, it is extraordinary when I hear colleagues opposite wondering what the Labour Party is doing or where was the Labour Party. If one did a word search on their speeches, one would find much mention of the Labour Party, for some reason. As this is particularly so in regard to Sinn Féin, I do not know whether there is an instruction to get at the Labour Party at every opportunity. We do not particularly mind because we are doing the job we are required to do. As a party, we have an extremely proud record in this area, as far back as the 1970s. It is true that much of the legislation was motivated by our membership of the EEC but there is the early anti-discrimination and equality legislation, right up to the 1990s when the equality legislation was ultimately passed by the Government which took over in 1997. However, all the work in that seminal piece of legislation was done by Mervyn Taylor. I do not say the Labour Party is the only party that has a strong record in this area - so have Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Ministers.
The suggestion, however, is that we are in some kind of a bunker inside the Government, not influencing it, not standing up for workers' rights and ensuring that legislation reflects those rights. We put it into black and white. It is laughable when people question where we were and what we were doing. We have done an enormous amount of work, as have our Fine Gael colleagues, in respect of this legislation and other Bills to protect workers, their rights, their earnings and their standards of living. I do not claim any such monopoly for my party but the criticism that we are not interested in, or are semi-detached from, the issue is really hard to take. It is not even remotely in accordance with the facts.
I mentioned the principles and policies in the legislation, which are extensive. They are balanced and important in terms of giving the JLCs and, ultimately, the Labour Court, a steer on the criteria they should adopt when establishing these orders. They are not unreasonable and if, on Committee Stage, Members wish to bring forward suggestions to tweak them that can be done. None occurs to me, in particular, because in my view these are a well-balanced set of principles and policies. The important point is they are far more extensive and comprehensive and therefore ultimately more reliable and defensible, constitutionally, than the material which was introduced in a Bill last year. In this instance I do not criticise Fianna Fáil for introducing a Bill. I will be honest enough to admit that if we were in Opposition that is what we would have done. However, the legislation in question would have been found wanting had it been adopted by this House. We were right to wait and get it right, which is what we have done.
In section 7 of the Bill there is much to praise in terms of what has been done, and in the detail as set out. For example, section 7 deals with where the court may, on its own initiative or on the written application to it of an interested party, undertake a review of a trade or a business. This is sometimes characterised as, "Oh, if there's going to be a review they're going to pull the whole thing down". Steady on. A review is a review. How can anybody object in any credible way to a review process being put into the legislation? There is a provision whereby an order or agreement can be cancelled in certain circumstances but those circumstances are clearly delineated. It is not easy to have an order or an agreement cancelled under this legislation. There are many safeguards and the Bill bears close reading in terms of the balanced way in which it is put together.
There has been some concern among colleagues on the opposite side of the House about circumstances where it might emerge, after an agreement or an order has been made, that either the trade union has become less than substantially representative of its members or the union of employers is no longer substantially representative. In those circumstances, the cancellation of an agreement is not done on a whim. Again, a procedure is set out, the Labour Court takes charge of it, hearings are organised, both sides of the argument are heard and a careful opportunity is afforded to both sides to attend and make their argument before the Labour Court. The suggestion is that the order or agreement will be pulled or cancelled, and that will be the end of it. That is simply not in accordance with what is contained in the legislation.
I turn briefly to the enforcement mechanism. This is found in section 8 in respect of the registered employment agreements and is found later in the Bill in similar terms in respect of the EROs. This is a very progressive addition to our legal environment in respect of JLCs and EROs. I ask the Opposition to look at it and see what it states. It is a new area of protection for workers. If the Government was set on a course to be minimalist, to pull back on protection and, as Deputy O'Dea stated, set on a course to jettison the entire system, why would we introduce a new system of enforcement? That is completely inconsistent with the argument that we are trying to dump this protection or stop it happening.
It is the same with the exemption. I ask Members to look at the derogation provisions, as they are called. Again, major safeguards have been included, in terms of consultation with both sides and the opportunity for people to come before the court. Rigorous, testing and demanding circumstances must apply before the Labour Court can give a derogation. It is not easy to get a derogation under this legislation. I defy anybody to make a credible argument that it is easy to secure a derogation under the rules that are included here. Far from it. I ask colleagues to look carefully, as I am sure they will, at the provisions and safeguards put into the Bill and at the centrality of the Labour Court. This is far from being a provision that takes from workers' rights. It protects and, in some cases, expands and strengthens the rights workers have under this regime.
I note that Deputy Calleary was looking for a chorus of Labour Party Deputies and was disappointed they were not present. I am sorry I am not a chorus line and that on this occasion I am not surrounded by others. At least we can put together a choir rather than a group of soloists, but that is for another day.
I try not to take too much exception to what is said in the back and forth that goes on in the House. However, I will refer briefly to the issue of trade unions and the Labour Party because this is a matter that comes up and is spoken about, often out of the corner of people's mouths. It is the notion that the Labour Party, or its Deputies, are in some kind of stranglehold with trade unions. That is complete nonsense. We are proud of our connections with trade unions. I am very proud of them. When I look at a piece of legislation I listen to people. I worked as a barrister in the courts and tribunals for both employers and employees, probably more often for employers. I hold very dearly the connection the Labour Party has with trade unions but do not regard my party as being controlled in some way by them, or as being some sort of a spokesperson for them. Far from it, in my experience. I decide whether I agree with them and so does my party. We are not the mouthpiece for the trade unions.
I would not criticise Deputy Calleary, for example, for taking the same view as Chambers Ireland, an organisation for which he worked, as he was entitled to, for eight years. He may have the same views as Chambers Ireland but do I come to the Chamber and suggest that he is asked by that organisation to speak for it? No - he is well able to make his own points just as we are able to make ours and set out our own analysis, without direction from anybody.