Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages

Sections 1 to 13, inclusive, agreed to.

Deputy O'Reilly tabled an amendment that was ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 1 not moved.
Question proposed: "That section 14 stand part of the Bill."

The amendment I sought to make was on tactical insolvencies, an issue that has been raised by other Deputies. I take the point the Minister of State made about the Minister, and it is very good to have the Minister of State with direct delegated responsibility for this issue in the Chamber but it is not unusual for the Minister and the Minister of State to attend. My comments were directed at the Minister, who is not here. I fully respect that the Minister of State is here and that he is he very engaged, which is extremely welcome, but it is not unusual for the Minister and the Minister of State to attend together and it is unfortunate that, once again, the Tánaiste has not felt it was important enough to come to the Dáil to participate in a debate on his own legislation.

The amendment I tabled is on tactical insolvencies. We have had Clerys, TalkTalk and now Debenhams. Every time it happens people shrug their shoulders and say it is desperate and awful. Collectively, the Government and Opposition speak with one voice and say we cannot allow it to happen again. The Opposition brings forward Bills that would deal with it that get mired in procedure. Will the Minister of State commit to working with me and others who have an interest in progressing the legislation that reached Committee Stage in the previous Dáil? That Bill has been updated and is now extremely necessary. We cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say this should not be happening, that it is absolutely awful and that we cannot allow it to happen again but then somehow allow it to happen again.

While I have the floor, I want to say a word of thanks to all of the civil servants who have worked on this legislation. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, whether he would like to associate with or disassociate from the remarks made by his party colleague, Deputy MacSharry, that implied that during the lockdown civil and public servants were at home watching box sets and doing virtually no work.

I think he used the word "lazy" and if he did not, I am happy to be corrected. However, on behalf of my party, I thank all the civil servants for the work they have done, as well as all the public services and agencies that are involved in producing complex legislation such as this and ensuring that the Houses of the Oireachtas function so we can be here today to debate this Bill. It was extremely disappointing but the Minister of State has an opportunity now either to associate or dissociate himself with the remarks of his colleague. That is important. We should not just head off into the recess with those words ringing in the ears of the men and women who work extremely hard in the civil and public service. The people who are around us today are outside their usual place of work and are here to facilitate the House being able to sit today. They have gone above and beyond to come here and are certainly not sitting around watching box sets or the like.

To return to the purpose of the amendment regarding tactical insolvencies, I would welcome a commitment from the Minister of State that we will be able to work together on the legislation Sinn Féin put forward in the last Dáil and which was supported by his party.

At the outset, I did not hear Deputy MacSharry's contribution in the Dáil. For my part, in my dealings with Westmeath County Council, Longford County Council, the HSE, the people who are running the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Garda and other bodies, many people went over and above the line of duty to facilitate the smooth running and operation of their respective roles. That goes without saying. That also applies in the private sector. Consider the retail workers who went above and beyond to ensure the shops stayed open. My parents had a concern about where we would get food when the pandemic originally broke out. Many people went above and beyond the line of duty. Unfortunately, in some instances some people probably did take the mick, but my dealings overall with everybody led me to believe that the vast majority of people went above and beyond the call of duty in their work.

Regarding tactical insolvency, I have been advised by my officials and the legal advisers that there is a provision in the existing legislation under which tactical insolvencies can be challenged and if the challenge is upheld, any assets that were stripped would be required to be paid back. I believe there has never been a challenge. For me, that demonstrates that the burden of proof is disproportionate and there is a need to review it. I am more than happy to sit down with the Deputy and discuss how we can bring that forward. It is not something that can be done in a knee-jerk reaction, and I accept the Deputy is not suggesting it can. The Bill went through various Stages in the last Dáil but we must be conscious in enacting legislation, and this was mentioned by my colleague, Deputy McGuinness, that any new laws or regulations must be proportionate and we must examine the potential for any unintended consequences. This must remain an attractive place for people to start business and create employment and opportunities. If the Deputy contacts my office today, we can set up a meeting for the first week in September and I will happily sit down with her.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 15 and 16 agreed to.

Amendment No. 2 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Sections 17 to 26, inclusive, agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, are out of order.

Amendments Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, not moved.
Question proposed: "That section 27 stand part of the Bill."

It was remiss of me not to congratulate you publicly, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, although I did so in person. I am delighted. You were not elected because you are a woman but it is good that you are nonetheless, and I wish you the very best in your new role. I know that you will be impartial and fair. I also know that you will be firm so I will just have to deal with that.

My amendments were ruled out of order. They referred to facilitating the establishment of workers' co-operatives. In the North, Scotland and across Europe, workers' co-operatives and community co-operatives are very much the norm, but they are not the norm in this country. It is a very good way of working. I read in the newspaper recently about a co-operative of migrant workers who came together to provide a not-for-profit home care service. If ever there was a place that needed a not-for-profit home care service, it is this State. We have debated at length the need for in-home care for people and giving them that choice and opportunity. Workers' co-operatives are a fantastic way to do that.

Amendments Nos. 3 to 8, inclusive, sought to make changes to allow for the formation of these co-operatives, to reduce the number required to establish a company board and to make provision for the creation of a legal definition for co-operatives. I stress that workers' co-operatives are a different way of doing business. We all talk at length about how we are living in unprecedented times and say that this is perhaps an opportunity for people. If there is an opportunity here to re-imagine how we do business and workers' rights, which I would love too, and to re-imagine the area of workers' co-operatives, we should take it. I was disappointed that the amendments were ruled out of order. Where businesses are struggling, the option of saving them through the formation of a workers' co-operative can be viable in some instances. We should be trying to create the conditions to facilitate that. If businesses are struggling, the employees or staff in some instances might want to be able to come together to form a workers' co-operative, as happens in many other countries in Europe. It is a mechanism through which one can maintain employment and continuity of service. The business can be kept alive. It is ideal for our State. It would be a good opportunity to see wealth and jobs created locally and kept within our communities. We have fallen behind the rest of Europe and my amendments sought to give us an opportunity to catch up.

I welcome what the Minister said about us meeting in September to talk about tactical insolvencies. While we are there we might also have a chat about workers' co-operatives and the potential they offer. Historically, this island was a pioneer in respect of agricultural co-operatives. The Minister of State will be familiar with them, as I am. We are all talking about re-imagining business. The opportunity exists to do that. That was the purpose of my amendments and I am disappointed they have been ruled out of order. Notwithstanding that, I believe there is scope for us to discuss workers' co-operatives, perhaps not as part of this legislation but at some time in the near future.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be aware of my views on co-operative movements. She herself raised a question about the issue the first time I took oral questions, at which stage I confirmed to the House, and I am happy to do so again, that work has commenced on comprehensive legislation relating to the co-operative movement. That work is under way, and it is my intention to work with the Department to ensure we can bring it as speedily as possible to pre-legislative scrutiny, with an opportunity for all Members to feed into it.

The legislative framework for co-operatives throughout Europe embraces a variety of approaches towards worker co-operatives. While some member states, such as France and Portugal, define worker co-operatives in their legislation, others, such as Germany and Belgium, leave it to the co-operative movement to provide definitions and rules surrounding worker co-operatives. As part of the review of the industrial and provident societies legislation, my Department intends to provide a definition of a worker co-operative in the new legislation, as I referred to. To increase the visibility of this particular form of co-operative, the Registry of Friendly Societies has added a separate category for worker co-operatives on the register of friendly societies. It is, of course, up to each individual operation to choose the model that best suits the nature of its businesses and the desired ethos of that identity. My Department does not promote one business model over another. Its role is to provide the legislative framework for co-operatives and facilitate their formation and transparent operation rather than actively to encourage or promote them as a preferred structure for enterprise. My Department supports co-operatives in the same way it supports other types of entities, and co-operatives can avail of all the supports available to all other enterprises via the State enterprise agencies. I acknowledge, however, that the legislation is antiquated and needs to be updated. That updating will take place. The Deputy is correct that there are so many good co-operatives in the agricultural sector. I am thinking even of group water schemes in rural Ireland, which were predominantly formed around co-operative movements.

Question put and agreed to.
Section 28 agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, have been ruled out of order.

Amendments Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, not moved.
Question proposed: "That section 29 stand part of the Bill."

I wish to speak briefly to this section and the new section that would be introduced by amendment No. 9, if that is okay. I spoke previously about the concerns that were raised - nobody will be unaware of them - about access for trade unionists to the workplace. What this global pandemic has highlighted, particularly for those of us who are trade unionists, is the need for workers to be organised and to come together to prioritise their own health and safety. The new section I propose in amendment No. 9 includes a right to access for trade union officials and activists to workplaces. Although we all have the right to join a trade union, sometimes it can be very difficult for trade unions to access workers at their places of work. Remote working will pose a challenge to the trade union movement, but I urge all workers who are not in a union to join one, get active, get organised and protect themselves if they are working at home or in a designated workplace. If this global pandemic has taught us anything, it is that sick pay is now a public health measure and that getting organised, being part of one's trade union and working with one's colleagues to improve one's terms and conditions at work has never been more important. At no time in our history has it ever been more important for people to be able to do just that and to safeguard their own health and safety. To do so, however, we need to ensure those who need it can get access to workplaces.

Of all the amendments I tabled, which I appreciate have all been ruled out of order, amendment No. 9 is the one I thought would be ruled in order. I am not a pessimist; I am an optimist with experience. I should have known it would be ruled out of order, but it is an important amendment nonetheless. It is my intention to table legislation to deal with this issue, and I hope that that will not be opposed by the Government because to do so would send a pretty awful message to workers and their representatives.

Amendment No. 9 has been ruled out of order. The right of access requires consultation with stakeholders, and it is not appropriate to include it in this Bill. I will not make a confirmation or commitment to support any legislation in the absence of seeing it.

I wish to take this opportunity, however, to refer, as I did in my concluding remarks on Second Stage, to an assertion that was made about the HSA only having 67 inspectors. I wish to clarify this because it was raised in the Seanad and I promised Deputy's colleague, Senator Gavan, that I would revert on it. He made the same assertion, but it does not take account of or acknowledge that an additional 500 inspectors were transferred from within the Civil Service pool who are complementing the work of the authority. We, therefore, have more than 550 people looking at the protocols. To be fair to the Deputy, earlier she acknowledged the good work that has been done by the various stakeholders, including the unions, on ensuring that the return-to-work protocols are good and mean something. There are the required numbers of inspectors to enforce this. We should also take comfort in the fact, and acknowledge that of the inspections that have been carried out to date, 92% of companies are operating appropriately and adhering to the protocols that have been agreed with the unions and the representative bodies of business. They are being implemented well. The other 8% need to up their game and acknowledge that they have a responsibility to adhere to the protocols just as the vast majority of people are currently doing.

Question put and agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.

A message will be sent to the Seanad acquainting it accordingly.