Will the Minister explain the use of the word "undertakings"? In section 4 (1) the words "an undertaking is a Community-scale undertaking or undertakings are a Community-scale group of undertakings" are used and they are clumsy. Is there any way around that? We are trying to simplify the matter for the public. I had to read that phrase several times and I still have not got it right. I am not suggesting an amendment, but I ask the Minister to clarify it.
Transnational Information and Consultation of Employees Bill, 1996: Committee and Final Stages.
First, we must decide what is the company entity. There can be situations where a group of companies form a company. We must decide whether we take the aggregate of these associated companies or a number of individual companies each composed of 100 employees, which would be under the threshold. That would be the grouping facility. The Bill specifies in what circumstances we group subsidiaries to say it is effectively one company because there is one controlling body and it cannot be artificially divided in order to escape the provisions of the Bill. That is what that tortuous wording means.
This section deals with how we count the number of workers involved in a company. There is a legal obligation on the management to answer the workers' questions with regard to how many people are on the books. It also defines "employees", and that includes regular part-time employees. The latter count in terms of there being 1,000 employees overall and at least 150 in each of two member states. For instance, do we define Smurfit (Ireland) Limited, Smurfit (England) Limited and Smurfit (France) Limited as the Smurfit Group? That is what we are trying to establish.
I understand it now, but it is important that this message goes out clearly to all the companies involved. Unless a person has a knowledge of companies and associated areas, he or she would not grasp it; workers on the ground would not grasp that.
We are talking about between 200 and 250 companies. There have been extensive consultations with the Congress of Trade Unions and with individual unions, particularly SIPTU which represents most of these companies. They are clear about what is involved. The information has been provided and everyone knows what we are talking about.
This section enables the Minister to make such regulations, particularly in relation to expenses, as may be necessary to give full effect to the Bill. Deputy Kitt tried to change that in the Lower House. Did he succeed or was the Minister's proposal adopted? What is meant by "expenses"?
I introduced an amendment about arbitrators because there was legal uncertainty in the Bill as originally published in relation to whether the Arbitration Acts overrode these provisions. We have made it clear they do not override these provisions and we have taken out the Arbitration Acts. If we need to decide how arbitration will work, we will do that.
As regards expenses, it is the same as it was in the Lower House. The Minister may make such regulations in relation to "expenses to be borne by central managements in relation to undertakings and groups of undertakings". We want to ensure that under the terms of directives, central management bears the expenses. However, we need to provide that those expenses are reasonable and that people do not include their Christmas presents. It gives the Minister power to make regulations about what are valid expenses. If the works council is meeting in Frankfurt, for example, the travel expenses to Frankfurt and the hotel bill there would be reasonable, but it would not be reasonable for people to include Christmas presents for their wives and husbands.
I said on Second Stage that any new ideas must have the support of management and workers and that communication is important before negotiations can start. This section states that there is an obligation to negotiate in "a spirit of co-operation". It is important to lay the foundation for any working relationship. Anyone involved in negotiations understands financial and business matters. Many workers do not understand how to negotiate and they do not know how companies work. People need in-service training. There must be a spirit of co-operation in this regard.
We must accept the proposal by the Council of Ministers to set up a working group to ensure that a mechanism exists to deal with problems which arise. I hope the working group ensures that the legislation does not gather dust, that it is implemented and that companies and employees are informed.
It is interesting that the phrase "a spirit of co-operation" is included in the legislation. There is a lot of flexibility in this section as regards the different ways agreement may be reached between employees and the company. If we had an obligation to act in a spirit of co-operation, not confrontation, in many other areas of life, including Northern Ireland, we would be better off. There must be a spirit of co-operation in any negotiations which take place.
There is a wonderful spirit of co-operation in the Seanad today. The purpose of this section is to ensure that when a negotiating procedure is set up under the directive it works so that people do not refuse to talk or to make any reasonable effort to reach agreement. If either side behaved in that way, they would be in breach of the legislation.
Senator Ormonde asked what happens if people do nothing. In this case the provisions of the annex to the directive swing into position. The format of the works council is laid down in the Second Schedule to the Bill where, if they do business, both sides can agree a form of information and consultation which best suits their needs, without being dictated to from outside. If they do not do business through negotiation, the prescribed forum will descend on them after three years.
Senator Farrelly asked about the review of the expert group. The directive provides for a review. There must be a commission review on the operation of the directive reporting back to the council; this will take place in 1999.
This section refers to confidential information. There must be a clear definition of the phrase "commercially sensitive". Information must not be withheld from workers for no reason or because the company does not want to tell them. I want to ensure that people who work in a company have a right to relevant information and that it is not withheld for spurious reasons but for reasons which are commercially sensitive.
We have included a procedure so that if there is a dispute between the parties as to whether it is commercially sensitive information, it can be referred to a special arbitrator who will make a decision. That should be a binding ruling. We are making it a criminal offence to reveal information given in confidence, which is different from commercially sensitive information. If information is made available by somebody who was told it was given in confidence because it would destroy their business if it got into the hands of the competition, they will be subject to severe financial penalties.
If a company withholds information which it should not have withheld, will it be subject to penalties? Is an arbitrator employed at present or must that position be filled?
If a company decides that information is commercially sensitive and cannot be given to the workers and the workers contend it is a smoke screen, the issue will go to a third party, nominated by the Minister of the day, who will make a decision. That third party will decide, having seen the information, whether it should be made available. That is provided for under the Bill.
Is there is a penalty?
There is not a penalty but the information is made available. That is what happens if it is spuriously withheld. We envisage that when the Freedom of Information Bill, which provides for the office of information commissioner, is enacted the information commissioner will have functions in relation to determining which commercially sensitive information public and semi-State bodies may withhold. We do not want a two tier-system to apply where, for example, Aer Lingus has to give certain information under one heading but not under another. We envisage this being added to the list of duties of the information commissioner. In the interim before the legislation comes into force we will nominate someone to take over those functions.
Section 19 sets out the penalties which may be imposed for breaches of the legislation. I know there was some discussion on the exact penalties but what was decided? Was it decided to keep it at £10,000 rather than £5,000?
Deputy Kitt proposed in the debate in the Dáil to lower the penalties. The three offences are: first, non-compliance by a company, that is, refusing to disclose how many people are employed in the company to frustrate workers who are trying to put in place the machinery provided for under the Bill for setting up a works council, information consultation procedure or Special Negotiating Body; second, where the company refuses to set up a Special Negotiating Body; and third, where workers disclose information which was given in confidence.
The first and second offences concern companies with a minimum of 1,000 employees. Deputy Kitt agreed with me in the Dáil that to dilute the penalties would send the wrong signals. The third category of offence, where a worker discloses information given in confidence, could have very serious commercial repercussions for the company and for fellow workers who may lose their jobs if the company goes down the tubes. It would also send the wrong signal if the penalty for this offence was diluted. That was accepted by all sides of the House in the Dáil. We have agreed to let the penalties stand.
Under this section, the Arbitration Acts, 1954 and 1980, will not apply to an arbitration under the Bill. The intention is to ensure the arbitration procedures are not overly complex. Will the Minister of State elaborate?
When we were finalising the text the draftsman raised the point that there might be an ambiguity about whether the Arbitration Acts applied to the arbitration procedures under the Bill. That could have unintended consequences because they were set up for a different purpose. We will make regulations in relation to exactly what the steps will be because a procedure which was designed for arbitration about a CPO on land, for example, would not be appropriate. We made provision for regulations earlier in the Bill to allow us to define exactly how the arbitration procedure will work, its binding character and so on.
This amendment is simply to correct a typographical error where a reference to "section 14" should have read "section 15".
In relation to the definition of a trade union official, if a union was not accepted by a company, how would it fit into the negotiating forum or the works council? That needs to be clarified.
It is the workers' entitlement to pick who they want to represent them on the Special Negotiating Body. That is their choice. Second, the workers can pick their own expert, who may be a trade union official, lawyer, special consultant, the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions or anybody else. The workers choose their representatives on the Special Negotiating Body. The members of the works council are employees of the company. The negotiating function can be carried out by people chosen by the workers, assisted by whichever expert the workers choose.
It does not have to be a trade union official?
I thank the House for its very constructive consideration of the Bill and for facilitating me in agreeing to take all Stages today. The business was dispatched very efficiently but with time for us to tease out points of detail, which was important. This means that, subject to the technical amendment going back to the Dáil, we will be comfortably able to meet our transposition date of 22 September. That is important so that we can have our pre-directive agreements. I thank the Members; I also thank my officials for the work they put into this very technical legislation and the detailed consultations which took place. Today marks a new era in Irish industrial relations. This has been a very constructive day's work.
I thank the Minister of State. The broad thrust of the legislation is welcome. The fact we were able to work so well together was a great help in getting this Bill speedily through.
I am delighted we were able to co-operate today. If we had done nothing else today but put in place legislation which will ensure an announcement like the one which happened to the workers in Packard will never happen again without consultation, we would have done a good day's work. I thank the Minister of State. I understand she had problems attending the House on Thursday morning so I thank the Opposition for their co-operation.
I also welcome the speedy passage of the legislation. However, as the Minister of State said, we also had an opportunity to raise any of the questions we had on details. I particularly thank Senator Ormonde for her co-operation.