Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic

Louise O'Reilly

Question:

80. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if his Department has estimated the number of expected redundancies resulting from the pandemic in 2022; the steps he is taking to minimise this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61085/21]

The question is fairly straightforward. It concerns whether or not the Tánaiste has an estimate of the number of expected redundancies that will result from the pandemic. I understand that efforts have been made to save jobs. I appreciate that that has been a priority for the Government. However, it is inevitable that redundancies will arise out of the pandemic. I know there was consideration at committee last week of legislation in this regard. I am seeking an estimate on the scale of it.

I thank the Deputy for her question. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 here in March 2020, the Government has sought to save as many lives and as many livelihoods as possible. The early introduction of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and its longer term successor, the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, provided immediate assistance. This was followed by many targeted measures for business which have been critical in keeping them afloat and preventing redundancies. We acted swiftly to prevent the closure of viable companies experiencing temporary pressures on liquidity making temporary amendments to the Companies Act 2014 in respect of insolvency.

On Tuesday I signed an order commencing the new small companies administrative rescue process, SCARP, legislation. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, for leading on this initiative. From this week, small and micro enterprises have access to a new restructuring and rescue process mirroring examinership, but in an administrative form. It is designed to be cheaper and faster than the court-sponsored examinership system. Taken together with the range of grants and loans available, we should save viable businesses and jobs that would otherwise have been lost.

Last week's labour force survey revealed that more than 110,000 people returned to work in the third quarter of this year. Encouragingly, employment is up in every region and every sector. At the end of November, the number of people on the pandemic unemployment payment had fallen to 54,824, its lowest level to date. We are not able to project how many of those will become redundant.

While many sectors are rebounding relatively quickly, a smooth recovery is certainly not guaranteed and the announcement last Friday of the reimposition of some restrictions is a reminder to us all in that regard. Redundancies in some businesses will regrettably arise. We do not have a definitive measure of redundancies arising, as distinct from job losses or gains. The measures we do have, such as collective redundancy notifications and redundancy claims from the Social Insurance Fund, SIF, give only a partial picture. That said, after a surge last year, both have dropped significantly in 2021. Redundancy claims from the Social Insurance Fund for this year are below 2019 levels. More people became redundant in 2019, before the pandemic, than in this year of the pandemic. Collective redundancy notifications have dropped approximately 40% from 2020 levels.

This is my issue. As the Tánaiste mentioned the drop in the number of people receiving the PUP, he might use his own platform to deal with some of what comes from people like Pat McDonagh, who say that those on the PUP are living it large and they will not go back to work. All of the available evidence actually suggests that the minute work is available, people are straight back at it and they want to be back in work. The difficulty for people in the private sector and those working in small companies, in particular, is having available staff and supports there to get them through the process. The Tánaiste has heard me say many times that the best defence any worker can have is to join a union. Where there is a union and a process, that is one element of it. However, the unfortunate things is that many people do not have that, so there will need to be additional staff to shepherd people through. It is not easy to become redundant. It is awful to lose your job, but to have to deal with the paperwork then when you may never have had experience of that before is difficult. I want to hear from the Tánaiste that his Department will provide additional resources to help people through the process.

I will certainly examine that. If more resources and staff are needed, we will provide them. I accept the Deputy's point that it can be difficult for people to work through the redundancy process. Some of us have experience of it, but it is more complicated than people may think. The Deputy's point is well made in that regard.

On the number of people on the PUP, at its peak there were 650,000 people in receipt of that payment. That is down to around 55,000 now. It should be evident to everyone that more than nine out of ten of the people who were on the PUP went back to work. To characterise all people on the PUP in any sort of negative way is totally wrong. The statistics do not lie. More than nine out of ten people on the PUP went back to work as soon as they had the opportunity to do so. For those who are still on it, around 55,000 people, we are working with them on an individual basis, helping with job searches, education and training opportunities and such. There are also control measures in place, because a small, but a not tiny, number may not currently be in the State or may be working and claiming at the same time. We need to work on that.

I welcome that the resources will be provided. It really is not easy. People need to know the timeframes involved in respect of claiming the SIF. These are things that are not widely known. They are questions that I get asked. I am sure the Tánaiste is asked them himself. I have never been made redundant, but I have been through the redundancy process. Collective redundancies are not easy on the people being made redundant, but when they are in a bigger group, they do have that support. Notwithstanding the SCARP, if that does not work, the company is gone and the person does not have those supports, it is really difficult for them to claim from the SIF or go to the WRC when they have not been given the requisite paperwork. I encourage the Tánaiste to have a list of FAQs put onto the Department's website. I know that information is available on the WRC website. It is not that easy to understand and digest. I believe that there will be high numbers of people who will need that support in the early part of 2022.

I will certainly talk to the Secretary General at the Department about that and see if it can be done. One might say that what is happening in the economy is a bit peculiar. We are facing a pandemic, yet in the face of that pandemic the economy is growing very rapidly. There are 2.4 million people at work. We think that next year there will be more people at work in Ireland than ever before. Most sectors are doing extremely well, but there are some sectors that have been hit really hard. We have always had two economies in Ireland, but we really have two economies now, because there are the affected sectors and the unaffected sectors. Interestingly, statistically, 5,452 potential collective redundancies were notified in 2019. That rose to 12,514 last year. There have only been 7,500 such notifications to date this year. Nobody can say for sure what will happen next year. However, it is of note that the number of collective redundancies notified this year is half of what it was last year.

Energy Prices

Catherine Murphy

Question:

81. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps his Department has taken to address the volatility and increases in energy costs for the commercial sector, small businesses and sole traders. [61025/21]

My question relates to the volatility and increases in energy costs for the commercial sector. We know that in the domestic sector, people can switch suppliers. My understanding is that some companies are not issuing new contracts, so there is very little competition. I wrote to the Tánaiste by email on 23 November and to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, citing an example of that in my own constituency. I am asking what the Tánaiste's Department can do on this issue.

Wholesale and retail energy costs, electricity and natural gas, have risen significantly over the past year, primarily driven by the market price for natural gas internationally. The global natural gas price appears to be rising because of a combination of international geopolitical factors, lower than usual reserves and regional supply chain and weather issues. Increased oil prices are also affecting the cost of petrol and diesel at the pump.

I am extremely conscious of the pressure that volatility in costs can put on a business, particularly small enterprises, those with tight margins and those particularly dependent on certain fuels. I have asked my officials to engage with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications on the issues arising for business as part of wider Government consideration of the effects of energy costs increasing. Energy bills can be an inflexible component of the cost base of a business in the short term and in certain energy intensive manufacturing sectors. These are a key element of cost-competitiveness.

Energy costs are volatile historically. Ireland is particularly dependent on natural gas for electricity generation, heating and industry and, therefore, recent international price spikes are a cause for concern for the Government and a threat to our competitiveness. However, these increases are unlikely to last indefinitely as the market responds and production increases. Recent global price volatility for fuels is yet another reminder that our society and our businesses should increasingly be looking to reduce our exposure to fossil fuels.

Government efforts to achieve price competitiveness should focus on delivering diversified energy systems and support for energy efficiency and renewables, with regulation that protects consumers and delivers efficient, competitive energy retail and wholesale markets. A range of incentives and advice is available to business to help them use energy efficiently, diversify their fuel use and switch to renewable energy sources. Small businesses can currently receive an energy audit voucher from SEAI to get professional advice on how to increase efficiency and reduce their costs.

I sent the Tánaiste the details from the constituent who was in contact with me who employees 120 people. I completely accept there is an international issue. I hope it will be short term. There is a lack of competition whereby there is no possibility of being able to negotiate with a provider. Domestic customers can switch but not enough of them do. This competitive side is problematic. This particular enterprise was paying 6 cent a unit and is now paying 25 cent a unit. It may well compromise future contracts for this particular company.

I thank the Deputy. I do not recall seeing that particular email but I will ask my private secretary to pull it out for me and I will take a look at it today or tomorrow. That is a huge increase from 6 cent to 25 cent. For any business facing that sort of increase in energy costs it will be very serious and very severe. I will take a look at it.

Obviously responsibility for energy and energy prices does not fall under my remit or that of the Department. It is the responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Ryan. I will take up the point the Deputy raised on competition and switching with him and with the regulator. As the Deputy pointed out, domestic users can switch a lot and achieve reductions in their bills this way. They tend not to. People have busy lives and do not get around to it. I encourage them to do so. For businesses it is a little bit more difficult. I re-emphasise the point I made earlier. The best thing we can do, and the Department is doing this, in the medium term is to help businesses to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewables and alternative sources. These will be much more reliable and stable in price.

I do not disagree with the Tánaiste on this. The reason I sent the email, and I will resend it for ease of access, is because it is probably one of many examples. If there is an issue with energy companies refusing to compete, even in a very volatile environment, it needs to be specifically addressed. When replying to a previous question the Tánaiste spoke about the number of people in employment and this is great. We also want to retain jobs and we want companies to be able to compete for other work. This particular company, as I am sure others do, feels it is compromised by virtue of the fact it cannot have some certainty on its energy costs.

I draw the attention of the Deputy and businesses to the new climate toolkit for business which we will launch tomorrow. It is a toolkit that will highlight the help available from the Government, financial educational training and expertise. Assistance is available from local employment offices, Enterprise Ireland, the SEAI, Irish Water, the EPA, IDA Ireland and others to help businesses to implement their actions. The target audience for the toolkit is SMEs and small businesses that want to begin their decarbonisation journey, reduce their energy use and move towards renewables and alternative sources. It should be useful to any business that does not yet have a sophisticated understanding of its carbon emissions and will help to recommend the steps it should be considering to reduce them. We are very aware that businesses have a lot on their plate and some will find the transition easier than others. We also know from detailed engagement in many sectors that most businesses are eager to be more sustainable to add value to their customers and communities by taking action on their environmental impact.

Enterprise Policy

Maurice Quinlivan

Question:

82. Deputy Maurice Quinlivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps that have been taken to date in 2021 by his Department to implement the recommendations of the Cahill Duffy report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61086/21]

The Cahill Duffy report was presented to the then Minister in March 2016 following concerns about redundancies of the former Clerys employees. The authors made a number of proposals to enhance the statutory protections and entitlements of employees made redundant in a situation where the assets of a business are separated from the operating company. What steps is the Department taking on the implementation of the recommendations made in that report in 2016?

I thank the Deputy for the question, which gives me an opportunity to provide an update on the report and our action plan. Ireland has a robust suite of legislation to protect and support workers facing redundancies. The Cahill Duffy report was in response to particular terms of reference that were quite narrow and specific and do not address the generality of redundancies that arise in insolvency situations.

Following extensive engagement with the social partners, the Oireachtas committee and many others over the past 18 months, the plan for action on collective redundancies following insolvency was published on 9 June this year by the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and I. This sets out several commitments to safeguard further the rights of workers in these circumstances, including a range of amendments to company law and employment law, setting up an employment law review group on a statutory basis and the provision of an accessible guidance document to help workers and their representatives navigate the existing legal framework. The guidance document has just been completed and will be published shortly. It will provide clear and accessible information for employees facing a collective redundancy situation following a company insolvency. It will be of great assistance because there has been much misinformation in many cases. The Deputy referenced Debenhams. There was much misinformation at that time. The guidance will be very useful to enhance the work that has been completed by the unions.

The following recommendations were progressed in the Companies (Rescue Process for Small and Micro Companies) Act 2021, which was signed into law this week. It amends section 627 to clarify that the liquidator has power to bring or defend proceedings before the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court. It amends section 587 to oblige the liquidator and director to ensure creditors are made aware they have the right to form and participate in a committee of inspection. This includes employees. It amends section 666 to provide that where a committee of inspection is appointed it shall include at least one employee creditor member. Work on drafting amendments to the Protection of Employment Act 1977 will commence in quarter 1 of 2022.

The remaining company law recommendations will also be progressed next year. The employment law review group will initially be established on a non-statutory basis as early as possible in 2022. This will be very useful. This complementary range of measures will promote the provision of quality information, enhance participation and transparency for those workers facing a collective redundancy following company insolvency and will also provide for the continued development of employment law in general. This is a positive development.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I appreciate the fact the Act will come into law this week and it will be important. There are real concerns that once the employer support schemes introduced during the pandemic end there may be many business closures throughout the State. Everyone has this concern. Unfortunately, in many cases employees will be made redundant when businesses collapse. Would it not be more prudent to have the recommendations in the Cahill Duffy report implemented in advance of this possibility? I do not think the Minister has done enough on this one. Such a step could protect workers who will face similar shutdowns as those experienced by the then workers at Clerys and as we saw in Debenhams recently. We witnessed how disgracefully the former workers at Debenhams were treated last year without the report recommendations being implemented. We witnessed how they had to camp outside their former places of employment in an effort to ensure the assets of the company were not transferred out of the State. It is five years since the report was published. I do not believe there has been a serious attempt by the Government to implement the recommendations of the report in full.

I have to point out the Cahill Duffy report was in response to particular terms of reference that were quite narrow with regard to the case in Clerys.

The authors of that report presented it to the Deputy’s committee and quite clearly said that the implementation of their report would not have prevented what happened in Debenhams. That was very loud and clear. We have allowed a discussion on this with the Deputy.

I think that is an opinion from the Minister of State.

As a result of what happened in Debenhams, the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy and myself met with the employees at Debenhams and said that in line with the programme for Government, we would review the legislation to see if we could strengthen, enhance and make it better. It was from that that the plan of action would come. It is not a case of saying that if we implemented all of the recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report that would have solved Debenhams or any other redundancies.

On potential redundancies in the months ahead, I think the Deputy will appreciate that the response during Covid-19 over the past 18 months has been to try to keep businesses open and to prevent the loss of jobs. Every effort has gone into that. Yes, it is possible there will be some redundancies in the new year but we will do everything we can to prevent that from happening and that is what the business supports are there for.

I thank the Minister of State. I think we will to have to agree to disagree on the Debenhams issue. When the Minister of State addressed questions on this issue in June of last year he said that on the Tánaiste’s direction, a review was to be undertaken into the matter, including legislation in this space to determine if they could do anything to strengthen the position. Part of the Government’s stated plan was to involve some of the recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report but not all six of them. Can the Minister of State provide a rationale as to why the Government is not now considering all six recommendations to be implemented? I ask this because one should consider the fact that Mr. Duffy advised the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment that the employment law proposals in the report were part of a package that should be implemented in full rather than picking and choosing those which one liked, otherwise it would not make sense and would be incapable of operation. We have a real concern that when the employment supports are withdrawn, which they will be, and when we move out of the pandemic, many companies will collapse with people losing their jobs.

We all have a concern and that is why we are committed to this and there is a fund set aside to work with businesses and to support them right through the final stages of Covid-19, and recovery from that into the new year. There will be more announcements in that space today. We are very much committed to saving these jobs. I have not seen the Deputy’s committee report on the Duffy Cahill report or read it in detail but it is wrong in the view of the Government, and I will keep saying this, to continually say that implementation of the Duffy Cahill report could have prevented what happened in Debenhams. That is not the case and the authors very clearly said that also. We have engaged in work with the Duffy Cahill report and with numerous other reports. We have reviewed the legislation. We are making the changes and have a plan of action. This has been accepted by all relevant stakeholders in this space, including by the employees of Debenhams. Separate from that, a fund was put in place to assist the Debenhams workers which opened on 1 November of this year, if I remember correctly. It is open for two years and approximately 458 of those workers have engaged with that and are using those funds to assist them find new work or start new businesses, which is a positive development.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Louise O'Reilly

Question:

83. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he or his Department have had engagements with business groups or trade unions regarding the new Covid-19 public health restrictions since they were announced on 3 December 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61087/21]

This is a fairly straightforward question. The Tánaiste said that he did not believe that restrictions were going to come in on Wednesday. They came in on Friday and there was a great deal of confusion with regard to sectors which thought that they would never have to take a backward step when they had to take that step. My question is about the amount of interaction that there has been, not just with the sector representatives, but also with the worker representatives in this space.

I thank the Deputy. I think I said I was sceptical as to the need for additional restrictions, particularly ones that would impact on family life and businesses and so on. I will maintain a healthy scepticism around that as Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment. I hate to see any business being closed or being restricted. As Minister for employment I very much hate to see anyone being laid off specially for the second or third time. As a politician who believes in personal freedom and liberty I hate to see people’s individual freedoms or family life being restricted by Government in any way. Sometimes it is necessary. Any time we impose restrictions on people and business we need to ask questions. Where is the evidence? Will this work? Are there alternatives? That is my responsibility and I will continue to do so, particularly if further restrictions are proposed in the weeks ahead.

The new instructions that were announced on Friday were a bitter pill and a deep disappointment to all of us. They were a body blow in particular for sectors like hospitality, the arts, events, entertainment and leisure which rely on December to see them through other parts of the year. On Monday, the Taoiseach, the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Catherine Martin, and I met with representatives of the hospitality entertainment and arts sectors. The meeting included representatives of business bodies and also of trade unions. At each point of closing and reopening the economy during the pandemic, I have met with stakeholders to update them and listen to their feedback. This includes the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU.

The announcement made on Friday was based on strong public health advice that notwithstanding a stable or improving epidemiological situation, there are three concerns, in particular. First, the certainty of increased social mixing as we approach Christmas and the impact that that might have. There is a flu season that we did not experience last year but expect to experience this year. Our immunity to the flu has waned as a consequence of social distancing for the past year or two. There is also uncertainty about the Omicron variant.

We sought to keep workers connected to their employers and on the payroll and to help businesses survive through a robust and sustained programme of financial support from Government. We will continue to provide assistance where and when it is needed and this was evident on Friday when we announced a package of financial interventions for the hospitality, events and entertainment sectors. This includes a change to the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme, CRSS, or the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, details of which will be confirmed very shortly by the Minister for Finance, an extension of the targeted commercial rates waiver at least until the end of March and an extra €25 million to the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media targeted at the live events and sectors covered under the remit of that Department.

The Tánaiste mentioned that he had a meeting which is fair enough. On the sectors that have been specifically impacted, particularly the entertainment and hospitality sector, one is talking about the Unite and Mandate unions representing the workers there. There needs to be more detailed engagement. When I speak to people, some of whom have attended the meetings or have certainly been briefed after them, I have learned that there needs to be detailed discussions around issues such as ventilation. If I take the example of a restaurant in my town of Skerries called Potager, it has put in ventilation systems but it is still finding itself restricted. No account is taken of that. There needs to be more detailed engagement, and I do not necessarily mean with the Tánaiste, although that would be helpful, but with his officials around mitigation measures as well as the announcement and explaining of how it is going to work. The Tánaiste said he is accepting feedback. They tell me they want some traction on the mitigation measures but are not getting that. How much value is either side are getting out of these engagements when they happen?

In fairness, anybody who takes part in these engagements will say that there are very valuable. We do them in different ways. There is the hospitality and tourism forum, which is co-chaired by me and the Minister, Deputy Martin. It very much engages with the representative bodies in that sector and there are many of them. Unions are also represented there, as they should be. The Minister of State, Deputy English, chairs the retail forum which is probably less significant in pandemic terms at the moment but was a very big deal when retail was restricted with issues around supply chains. There is then the labour employer economic forum, LEEF, which has sectoral groups with different unions represented on it through ICTU, which is led by the Taoiseach but I also have a role in that.

Ventilation is covered under the work safety protocol but at the moment no business gets any kind of additional benefit for having good ventilation and that is down to an absence of adequate evidence but there probably should be. That is something that I have an open mind on and if it is the case that the evidence stacks up and we could allow higher capacities in well-ventilated businesses, that would make sense to me.

The Tánaiste will not find what he is not looking for. The businesses are not being asked for this and they tell me that it is not on the agenda and that they are getting no credit for it but they have put their hands in their pockets. They did so, incidentally, believing that they were not going to have to take a step back and had in sight what they thought was going to be a reasonably decent trading month. Many businesses were relying on the fact people would be dying to get back out, as I am and as I am sure the Tánaiste is. We want to be able to socialise again. Businesses have spent that money and now find themselves in a situation where their capacity to trade is being curtailed and they are not getting any support. The Tánaiste said that is not getting any traction and that he has an open mind on it but has he done anything on it? Has he engaged in any research on this and looked at how it might be done because there are premises with high ceilings and good ventilation? These are very different from smaller premises with lower ceilings and capacity.

It is very much on the agenda and is part of the work safety protocol. Grants have been provided to schools, for example, for CO2 monitors and other things like that.

NPHET, our public health adviser, is sceptical in respect of the benefit of HEPA filters. However, if the pandemic is going to be a long war - unfortunately, it may be a war - part of our vaccine plus response in the next couple of months, the next year or however long the pandemic will last may well be filtration, clean air and allowing more capacity in areas that are well filtered. It is something on which I will spend more time.