Workplace Relations Bill 2014: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this Bill to the Seanad. The Bill, which has passed all Stages in the Dáil, has been recognised as progressive legislation which will provide for a fundamental reform of the State's existing employment rights and industrial relations structures and deliver an independent world class workplace relations service which is easy to use, effective, provides for workable means of redress and enforcement, and one that reduces cost to business.

Promoting and supporting harmonious industrial relationships in the workplace is an important element in achieving lasting economic growth and creating and sustaining jobs. To support this objective, we must have efficient and effective mechanisms to develop harmonious and productive workplaces and to assist employers and employees to avoid disputes. Where disputes do arise, the parties must be encouraged to work together to resolve them. Where this is not possible and State intervention is necessary, the services must be provided in the most efficient, effective and professional manner to the highest standards.

The current workplace relations system has evolved over a long period in a piecemeal fashion in response to European Union and domestic legislation and the changing nature of employment. A system that was intended to be informal, accessible and speedy has become extremely complex and protracted. While there are excellent and committed people working in the five existing workplace relations bodies, often with challenging workloads, clearly the system itself has not performed and needs to be changed. For many employers and employees the system is now too complex and onerous, takes too long to navigate and costs too much. Individual employees as well as many owners of small businesses increasingly believe they cannot navigate the system without professional help. That should not be the case.

These deficiencies have given rise to, among other matters, complexities for practitioners and users of the service, multiple points of entry to the system, forum shopping and long delays in scheduling hearings and issuing decisions. My objective is to deliver a world-class workplace relations service providing an integrated industrial relations, adjudication and enforcement service which is simple to use, independent, effective, impartial, cost-effective and provides for workable means of redress and enforcement, within a reasonable period.

From an industrial relations point of view, Ireland operates a voluntarist system of collective bargaining comprising non-intervention by the State in disputes but the State does provide dispute settling institutions and frameworks for local level and sectoral wage settling. I am satisfied that the State's existing industrial relations machinery has worked very successfully and effectively in the past and it is for this reason that it has not been necessary to make any significant changes in the Bill in terms of the manner in which this system operates.

The functions of the workplace relations commission will comprise all those currently undertaken by the Labour Relations Commission, including industrial relations conciliation, advisory services, information and research. These services, as currently operated by the Labour Relations Commission, have made a magnificent contribution to the industrial relations environment and will be incorporated into the workplace relations commission without change.

Significant progress has been achieved, in advance of the enabling legislation, in so far as the technological, structural, administrative and staffing changes required to underpin the workplace relations reform programme are concerned. These include the establishment of a shared workplace relations customer service; a shared post-registration unit and an early resolution service; the completion of the design of a computer based complaint file management system; the transfer of the Equality Tribunal to the Department; the launch of an e-complaint facility and a workplace relations website; the design of an adjudicator training programme; the holding of an open recruitment competition for adjudicators and for Labour Court deputy chairs; and the design and implementation of enhanced technologies and business processes. In addition, two public consultations on the scope of, and framework for, the reform programme were completed and the outcomes in this regard have informed programme design and implementation and the drafting of the enabling legislation. The Department continues to liaise as required with stakeholders.

The reform of the workplace relations bodies will achieve significant savings in terms of a reduction in staff numbers and the associated costs of delivering the service, while delivering a much improved service to employees and employers. The main drivers of the reduction in staff costs will be the centralisation of administration and case management services and the automation of business processes.

An essential step to achieving the two-tier workplace relations structures is the enactment of the Workplace Relations Bill which will see the existing five State bodies replaced by two. Before outlining in detail the main provisions in the Bill, I will outline a number of key measures that will be provided for in the legislation which include the services of the Equality Tribunal, the National Employment Rights Authority, the Labour Relations Commission and the first instance functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, EAT, coming together under the remit of the workplace relations commission; the appellate functions of the EAT being amalgamated into a reconfigured Labour Court; the establishment of the office of director general of the workplace relations commission; the appointment of the director general by the Minister on specified terms of appointment; the statutory powers and functions of the director general; the establishment of the workplace relations commission board with responsibility for strategy and annual work programme; the transfer of the existing functions provided by the LRC, including conciliation, workplace mediation and advisory services, to the workplace relations commission; providing workplace relations information and advisory services; a statutory basis for the use of innovative measures such as compliance notices and fixed charge notices to enhance the compliance functions of the workplace relations commission; the sharing of employment related and other specified information between the workplace relations commission, the Labour Court and other official agencies in the context of promoting compliance with employment legislation; the appointment of additional members to the Labour Court to facilitate the increased workload of the court in the new system; a new more transparent system of appointment of adjudicators of the workplace relations commission and chairs, vice-chairs and ordinary members to the Labour Court; the standardisation of certain procedural matters and limitation periods; the length of the period within which a first instance adjudicator's decision may be appealed and so on, across the full range of employment rights legislation; and better enforcement of employment rights awards and better compliance and enforcement measures for employment rights.

I now propose to outline in greater detail the main provisions of the legislation. The Bill, as passed by the Dáil, consists of 7 Parts comprising 87 sections and six Schedules. Part 1 comprises sections 1 to 8. Sections 1 to 6 contain the Short Title, collective citation, commencement provisions, interpretation and measures relating to the service of documents. Section 7 outlines the penalties which will apply when a person is found guilty of an offence under this Bill. Section 8 refers to Schedule 2 which details the provisions repealed by this Bill and makes transitional arrangements for complaints or disputes referred to a rights commissioner before the commencement of Part 4.

Part 2 comprises sections 9 to 25 and makes provision for the establishment of the workplace relations commission. The Labour Relations Commission, LRC, the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, the Equality Tribunal and the first instance functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, EAT, will be replaced by the new workplace relations commission and the appeals functions of the EAT will be incorporated into the Labour Court. Sections 9 and 10 make provision for the establishment day of the new workplace relations commission. Section 11 sets out general functions of the workplace relations commission that are additional to other functions conferred on it by specific sections by the Act. The workplace relations commission will be tasked with taking proactive steps to ensure high standards of compliance with employment legislation and equally high standards in the conduct of industrial relations generally and with the provision of the necessary services to facilitate the speedy resolution of industrial relations disputes at as early a stage as possible.

Simultaneously, the workplace relations commission will have responsibility for providing the means whereby complaints under employment rights legislation can be investigated, resolved by early intervention or adjudicated, as appropriate, by competent personnel. Where the WRC suspects continued non-compliance with employment legislation on the part of workers or employers, it may resort to prosecution of the parties in question. The functions of the WRC will comprise all those currently undertaken by the Labour Relations Commission, including industrial relations conciliation, advisory services, information and research. The WRC adjudication service will continue the dispute resolution role of the Rights Commissioners as provided for in the Industrial Relations Act 1969, as well as employment rights adjudication functions.

Sections 12 to 16, inclusive, provide for the appointment, resignation or removal from office and functions of the director general of the WRC. The director general of the WRC will be appointed by the Minister following the holding of an open competition by the Public Appointments Service other than in the case of the first appointee to the office of director general. The Accounting Officer for the commission will be the Secretary General of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Section 17 provides, on standard lines, that the director general is accountable to committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas other than the Committee of Public Accounts. Section 20 provides that the commission shall have a statutory basis, in consultation with the Minister, for the preparation and publication of codes of practice for the improvement generally of workplace relations.

Section 21 provides for the regular production of a strategy statement by the board of the WRC to be approved by the Minister and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Section 22 provides that the board shall prepare an annual work programme in consultation with the director general for submission to the Minister. Section 24 is a standard provision which provides that the Minister may appoint such staff to the commission as he or she deems appropriate for the effective running of the commission and the discharge of its statutory functions. Section 25 provides for the appointment of a qualified and experienced lawyer to act as registrar to the commission.

Part 3 comprises sections 26 to 37, inclusive, and provides for the compliance procedures that will be introduced under the new workplace relations structures. The functions undertaken by the National Employment Rights Authority to date in promoting a culture of compliance with employment legislation will be continued by the compliance service of the new workplace relations commission. However, new mechanisms such as compliance notices and fixed payment notices will supplement the existing statutory powers of NERA inspectors.

Section 26 provides for the appointment of inspectors to carry out the inspectorate function under employment legislation, and section 27 restates and consolidates in one location the powers of inspectors, which are at present provided for under a range of individual enactments. Section 28 provides for the use of compliance notices to promote higher levels of compliance with employment legislation. Such notices may issue when an inspector forms an opinion that a scheduled contravention of employment law, which the employer concerned fails or refuses to rectify, has occurred. The compliance notice will set out the steps the employer concerned must take to effect compliance. An employer may appeal against all or any aspect of the notice to the Labour Court, with a further appeal from the Labour Court to the Circuit Court also provided for.

Section 31 will allow the WRC and its inspectors and adjudication officers to share certain employment related information with other statutory enforcement authorities. Section 32 enables the WRC and other statutory enforcement authorities to advise each other of suspected offences under their respective remits which come to the notice of any of them. Section 33 is designed to safeguard the wages and other statutory entitlements of employees who are working under public construction or other public contracts while also ensuring competitive tendering and value for money in public expenditure. Section 35 is intended to provide a statutory basis for administrative co-operation and the exchange of information between employment law compliance authorities of other states and the compliance section of the WRC.

Section 36 provides for the use of fixed payment notices in respect of a specified range of acts of non-compliance on the part of employers. The matters in respect of which a fixed payment notice may be issued are specified in section 36(5). There are only three offences listed in subsection (5) for the purposes of this section, namely, section 11 of the Protection of Employment Act 1977, which relates to the requirement for an employer to consult employees' representatives and the Minister with regard to collective redundancies; section 4(4) of the Payment of Wages Act 1991, which relates to an employer's obligation to provide an employee with a payslip; and section 23 of the National Minimum Wage Act 2000, which relates to an employer's obligation to provide an employee with a written statement of his or her average hourly rate of pay. The use of this mechanism is intended to encourage compliance and reduce the need to rely on expensive and time-consuming prosecution procedures for the scheduled acts of non-compliance. The legislation provides that the maximum amount of the charge or penalty specifiable in a fixed payment notice is €2,000. I am currently taking advice as to whether it would be appropriate for the Minister to issue regulations setting out guidelines as to the appropriate monetary amount of notices in specific circumstances. The overriding concern in practice would be to ensure consistency in the application of this section and its provisions. Section 37 provides that the power vested in the Minister under relevant enactments to bring and prosecute summary proceedings for an offence under that enactment is transferred to the WRC.

Part 4 comprises sections 38 to 54, inclusive, and provides for the new dispute resolution and adjudication structures. Section 38 provides for the appointment of mediation officers to the WRC. The Bill, as initiated, provided separately for the appointment of "case resolution officers" and "mediation officers" by the director general to ensure that parties to complaints referred to the director general had access to a range of early intervention options. However, these provisions were amended on Committee Stage in the Dáil to provide for the appointment of a single class of "mediation officer" who will deliver the full range of early intervention options that will be provided by the WRC. This is a more streamlined and efficient arrangement from an internal operational perspective. No reduction in the scope of complainants' and respondents' access to early intervention will result.

Section 39 provides for the case resolution service, which will be provided by the WRC to facilitate the resolution of employment rights disputes where possible at an early stage and without recourse to adjudication. The WRC will offer a range of early intervention options to resolve disputes under employment rights legislation, including the early resolution service as currently provided by the Labour Relations Commission and the mediation service currently provided by the Equality Tribunal. Participating in early resolution or mediation is entirely voluntary. Parties availing of the case resolution service will not lose the right to have their issues in dispute dealt with by means of inspection or a hearing as appropriate to their case, nor will they be disadvantaged with their waiting time for inspection or a hearing. That is an important point. Should case resolution yield a compromise or settlement between the parties or a withdrawal of the complaint, the outcome will be confidential to the parties. Likewise, if the case resolution is unsuccessful, anything divulged by the parties in the process cannot be used subsequently in the adjudication or inspection process. As case resolution and mediation services are now provided for together in section 39 of the Bill, as amended on Committee Stage, it will be necessary to delete section 40 from the current version of the Bill, which I propose to do by way of amendment on Committee Stage in the Seanad, to reflect the amalgamation of the previous provisions which provided for case resolution and mediation separately.

Section 41 provides for the appointment of adjudicators to the workplace relations commission. All first instance cases will be heard by the WRC in a fair and transparent manner in accordance with the law and the principles of natural justice. To hit this high standard, adjudicators must be suitably skilled and trained for the role. On the establishment of the WRC, the current cohort of equality officers and rights commissioners will be appointed as WRC adjudicators. They will be supplemented by a panel of external adjudicators, comprising experienced industrial relations and human resources practitioners and employment lawyers with appropriate skills and experience appointed by the Minister. The Public Appointments Service has completed a selection process for WRC adjudicators and those selected for appointment on the panel are currently participating in an accredited training programme which is being delivered by the National College of Ireland. Only those who successfully complete the programme and pass the final assessment will be formally appointed as WRC adjudicators and assigned cases.

Section 42 provides for standardised time limits of six months, extendable to 12 months for reasonable cause. All first instance complaints requiring adjudication will be heard in private by WRC adjudication officers. The adjudication officer will convene a hearing where both parties are given the opportunity to be heard and to decide the matter. Parties will be free to represent themselves or choose their own representation.

All appeals will lie to the Labour Court, except in the case of complaints under the Equal Status Acts, where the appeal will lie to the Circuit Court.

Adjudication officers will be required to conduct cases in accordance with the principles of constitutional and natural justice. This obligation will include affording parties the right to cross-examine. Subsection (11) of section 42 has been subject to some critical comment in that it is alleged that it gives an adjudication officer the power to refuse a lawyer or other representative of a party access to proceedings. This is not the case. The Government amendment introduced on Committee Stage in the Dáil has clarified the range of persons that may represent a complainant at a hearing, which includes a trade union representative, a practising barrister or a solicitor.

Section 43 empowers an adjudication officer to dismiss a complaint in circumstances in which he or she forms the opinion that it is frivolous or vexatious. Such a decision can be appealed to the Labour Court. The words "frivolous or vexatious" are legal terms. They are not pejorative in any sense. It is merely a question of saying that as far as the complainant is concerned, if he or she has no reasonable chance of succeeding then the law says it is frivolous to bring the case.

Sections 44 and 46 provide for a streamlined and more effective enforcement procedure for complainants whose complaints have been upheld at first instance by an adjudication officer of the WRC or upon appeal by the Labour Court. The current system of enforcement of employment rights awards is cumbersome, expensive and not fit for purpose. In my view, the difficulty experienced by successful complainants in enforcing awards made by those bodies in their favour is unsatisfactory. Enforcement proceedings generally involve recourse to the civil courts, and, possibly, the relevant sheriff's office, often without a successful outcome.

One of the central planks of these reforms is to establish a new and robust enforcement regime which will provide successful complainants with an accessible and inexpensive means to enforce the award of the WRC adjudication service or of the Labour Court, as the case may be. For this reason, provision is being made in the Bill for a new mechanism for enforcing awards of the WRC adjudicators and Labour Court determinations. The general scheme of the Workplace Relations Bill as approved by the Government in July 2012 provided for an improved and more robust system of enforcement of compensation awards under employment legislation via the District Court. The scheme provided that non-compliance with an order of the WRC or the Labour Court, as the case may be, would be an offence prosecutable summarily in the District Court. The enforcement provisions in the Bill, within sections 44 and 46 as published, do not currently make provision for an offence in such circumstances; however, this issue is the subject of further discussion between my Department, the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General, and I hope to table an amendment for consideration at Committee Stage in the Seanad which will satisfactorily address this issue. I am confident that the introduction of these new measures will provide for more appropriate, efficient and effective enforcement of employment law.

Section 45 provides that either party to a first-instance hearing will have the right to appeal the decision of a WRC adjudication officer to the Labour Court. The court will act as a court of final appeal for all adjudication decisions of the WRC. Appeals to the Labour Court will be de novo hearings held in public, except in exceptional circumstances where the Labour Court will have the discretion to hear certain cases in private, such as those dealing with sexual harassment or disability. The wording of section 45 of the Bill as currently drafted does not make it clear that the Labour Court will have the power to hear cases in private in such exceptional circumstances and, therefore, I intend to bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage in the Seanad to clarify this matter.

Section 48 provides that the only route of appeal that parties will have from a decision of the Labour Court will be on a point of law to the High Court. This provision does not impact on the supervisory role of the superior courts, which may be exercised by way of judicial review.

Section 50 provides that the director general of the WRC and the Labour Court may strike out cases for want of prosecution where the director general or the Labour Court is satisfied that the complainant or appellant has not pursued the complaint or appeal within a period of one year.

Part 5, comprising of sections 55 to 63, inclusive, makes provision for a range of technical and transitional issues consequent on the dissolution of the Labour Relations Commission. Section 58 provides for the transfer of all functions from the Labour Relations Commission to the WRC. The functions which are currently vested in the Labour Relations Commission, including the industrial relations conciliation, advisory, training and research services, will transfer to the workplace relations commission. Sections 59 to 63, inclusive, make provision for a range of technical and transitional issues consequential on the dissolution of the LRC and to ensure continuity between this body and the new WRC which replaces it. These are all standard provisions.

Part 6, comprising sections 64 to 71, inclusive, makes provision for a range of technical and transitional issues consequential on the dissolution of the Employment Appeals Tribunal. The EAT will continue to function for a limited period after the establishment of the WRC to dispose of all legacy first-instance complaints and appeals referred to it prior to the establishment date of the WRC, including cases that a division of the EAT had commenced hearing. The decision to extend the period of operation of the EAT beyond the establishment of the new framework is predicated on the assumption that complainants and respondents in matters referred to the EAT prior to the establishment of the WRC would have a legitimate expectation of having the case disposed of before a tripartite tribunal sitting in public and operating with the degree of procedural formality currently applied by the EAT.

I move next to Part 7, which comprises sections 72 to 87, inclusive. Section 72 enables the Minister to provide by regulation for the levying of fees and charges on the users of services to be provided by the Commission or the Labour Court. I have decided not to introduce charges on parties for access to the WRC services for many reasons, chief among which is the belief that "forum shopping" will not be a feature in the new system. However, I am proposing the introduction of a fee in one particular instance. Where a party who has failed to appear at a first-instance hearing of the WRC without good cause wishes to appeal the decision to the Labour Court, that party will have to pay a fee of €300 when lodging its appeal. If the Labour Court determines that the party in question had good cause for failing to attend the first-instance hearing, the fee will be refunded. I wish to clarify that the introduction of any fees will require regulations and any such regulations can be annulled by the Oireachtas.

Sections 76, 78 and 80 make provision for appointment to the positions of chairman, deputy chairman and ordinary members of the Labour Court. The Labour Court currently has three divisions and nine members - that is, a chair, two deputy chairs and six ordinary members - and it sits in divisions of three. The Bill will provide that the expanded Labour Court will have four divisions, but restructured for greater efficiency to allow the court to deal with double the number of appeals with only one additional division.

The Bill provides that the appointments of chairman and deputy chairman to the court by the Minister shall, in the future, be through the Public Appointments Service. These new arrangements will not apply to the persons who immediately before the enactment of this Bill stood appointed as chair and deputy chair, and the incumbents will continue to serve in these positions for the unexpired period of their respective terms of appointment. Previously, on the appointment of ordinary members, the Minister was obliged to appoint a person nominated by either an organisation representative of trade unions or a trade union representative of employers. The change proposed will require those bodies to put forward the names of three candidates for appointment in respect of each vacancy for an ordinary member. The Minister will then choose one person from the panel for appointment.

Sections 77 and 81 make provision for the consequential amendments to the Redundancy Payments Acts and the Unfair Dismissals Acts, respectively, as a result of the new adjudication structures being introduced in the Bill. A Government amendment was introduced on Committee Stage in the Dáil to make it clear that all referrals under the Unfair Dismissals Acts made after the commencement of Part 4 will be subject to Part 4 - that is, these referrals will be dealt with by the WRC rather than the EAT.

Section 79 makes provision for the making of regulations by the Minister, after consultation with the chairman, that certain functions of the Labour Court may be performed by the chairman or a deputy chairman sitting alone. In particular, such regulations may provide that certain specified preliminary applications or procedural matters can be dealt with by the chairman or a deputy chairman sitting alone.

Sections 83 to 85, inclusive, make provision for consequential amendments to equality legislation - namely, the Employment Equality Acts, the Equal Status Acts and Part VII of the Pensions Act - as a result of the new adjudication structures. There has been some negative commentary that the disestablishment of the Office of the Director of the Equality Tribunal, which is provided for in this Bill, will result in the diminution of a person's rights under equality legislation. I wish to make it absolutely clear that this commentary is not true. This Bill does not make any amendments to the substantive provisions in existing equality legislation which protect persons against discrimination in employment or in the provision of goods and services. Under the new workplace relations structures to be established by this Bill, all complaints under equality legislation will be adjudicated upon at first instance by the WRC adjudication service with the right of appeal to the Labour Court, except in the case of the Equal Status Act, where appeals will continue to be dealt with by the Circuit Court.

The practice and procedure of the Equality Tribunal provides the closest approximation to the procedures that will be applied by the adjudication service of the workplace relations commission.

There will not be any diminution of rights under equality legislation upon establishment of the workplace relations commission and complaints of discrimination under this legislation will have equal priority in the new system with all other employment related matters. The Bill provides that the current cohort of equality officers will be appointed as adjudicators upon establishment of the WRC, thereby ensuring that their knowledge and expertise in the adjudication of discrimination related complaints will transfer wholly to the new body. Ireland has an excellent record on equality matters and was one of the first countries to give effect to the European equality directives. The reforms that will be given legislative effect by the Bill will modernise and enhance the redress mechanisms available to those who believe they have not been treated equally in the workplace on the grounds set out in the Equality Acts.

Section 87 provides for an amendment to the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 to bring it into line with rulings of the European Court of Justice in the Schultz-Hoff line of cases regarding how time spent on sick leave should be treated for the purposes of the accrual of annual leave. This section also provides for amendments to the Financial (Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) (No. 2) Act 2009 and the Industrial Relations Act 1990. Both amendments are being brought forward at the request of my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

I will provide a brief comment on the six Schedules to the Bill. Schedule 1 contains a list of the relevant Employment Acts, the provisions of the Acts of the Oireachtas and statutory instruments that are included in the definition of employment enactments for the purposes of this Bill. Schedule 2 contains a list of the provisions within individual Acts of the Oireachtas that will be repealed upon the commencement of Part 4 of the Workplace Relations Bill. Schedule 3 sets out details of the corporate structure of the new WRC. This Schedule also provides for the appointment of a statutory board of the WRC. Schedule 4 sets out details of the list of contraventions of employment enactments for the purpose of compliance notices as provided for in section 28. Schedule 5 sets out details of the individual employment enactments under which a person will be able to present a complaint or refer a dispute to the director general of the WRC. Schedule 6 sets out the consequential amendments necessary to make to other employment enactments as a result of the new structures for the adjudication of complaints and disputes that will be introduced by this Bill.

I wish to bring to the attention of Members of the Seanad that my Department is in discussion with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel on a number of issues where the Bill does not fully reflect the policy as set out in the heads approved by the Government. Moreover, the Minister has agreed to consider some changes suggested by Opposition Deputies and to introduce amendments accordingly. More minor drafting points and consequential amendments to other Employment Acts are under discussion which we propose to address with amendments on Committee Stage in the Seanad. As a result I will bring forward a number of Government amendments on Committee Stage in the Seanad.

The key issues it is proposed to address by way of amendments to the Bill include ensuring a visible provision in the legislation to create an offence of non-compliance with an order of the District Court to enforce a decision of the WRC or Labour Court under employment legislation. This refers to sections 44 and 46. Amendments to sections 42 and 45 are to clarify details relating to representation of parties appearing before an adjudication officer and the Labour Court. Amendments to Part 6 are to address issues raised relating to the provisions relating to the dissolution of the Employment Appeals Tribunal. An amendment to section 101 of the Employment Equality Act is to provide for the manner in which parallel claims under the Employment Equality Act and Unfair Dismissals Act, will be dealt with by the WRC. Amendments to the Schedules, in particular, Schedules 2 and 6, are to ensure that all of the consequential amendments to other employment enactments, including providing for the inclusion of the new dispute resolution and adjudication mechanisms in individual enactments, which arise on foot of this Bill, are accurately incorporated in the legislation. An amendment to section 80 will provide for temporary appointments to position of deputy chair of the Labour Court.

I thank Members of the Seanad for providing time for consideration of this Bill. I emphasise the importance of the Bill in the context of the Government's commitment to reform the State's existing employment rights and industrial relations structures and to deliver an independent, world-class workplace relations system. While considerable progress has been achieved to date on an administrative basis, completing the proposed reform requires the enactment of this Bill and this is a priority to give legislative effect to the new workplace relations structures and processes.

I look forward to contributions from Senators during this debate and the co-operation of the House in securing the Bill's early enactment. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister. I welcome the guests of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, who are in the Gallery. They are Terry and Jackie Kroeger, who are visiting from the United States, Johnny O'Hanlon from Cavan, and Enda Buckley from west Cork. They are more than welcome to the Seanad.

I formally congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment and I wish him well in his job. I thank him for a most comprehensive outline of the purpose of this Bill. It needs to be comprehensive because the Bill is very important and substantial legislation. For many years Ireland has been to the fore in workplace relations and in protecting workers' rights. This means that Ireland is regarded as a suitable country in which to invest and to create jobs and where workers' rights will be upheld and which has a proper appeals mechanism.

The former Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, has been speaking on Committee Stage in the Dáil. He worked on this Bill in the previous Government. Fianna Fáil supports the Bill. We will be bringing forward amendments on Committee Stage. I will consult outside organisations with regard to section 72. I assume the Minister of State has done likewise with regard to removing the need for fees to be paid to access the WRC. Speaking personally, the idea of charging people who do not turn up for an approved appointment is a good one in cases where no acceptable excuse is provided. This could also be applied in the health sector.

I will table amendments on Committee Stage on behalf of Fianna Fáil. I ask the Minister of State to consider the issue of retired and deferred members of pension schemes. I refer to the example of what has happened to the airline workers. People who have left a company and are no longer in its employ, either retired and in receipt of a pension or who have left the company but retain pension benefits in the pension scheme, have no seat at the table. I will table amendments in this regard.

The Minister of State's party leader, the Tánaiste, made an announcement on pensions reform. I use that term in the broadest possible sense because her idea of pensions reform would be very different from mine. It is important that deferred and retired members would have a seat at the table. I will look at the appropriate part in which to table an amendment. We need a commitment somewhere in legislation that those who have worked for a company and those who still have a stake in a company will have a say in what is happening to their pension entitlements and benefits.

Fianna Fáil will study the Bill in more detail with a view to tabling amendments on Committee Stage. I reiterate that the issue of retired and soon to be retired workers needs to be considered, whether in this Bill or in other legislation. This type of legislation will need to be updated regularly.

Our working lives are changing in terms of the way people work, the type of jobs they have, and the fact that people have multiple jobs. That is something that needs to be kept under review on a constant basis. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, I welcome the legislation. We want to work with the Minister of State on Committee Stage. We will table amendments which we hope will meet with the approval of the Minister of State in terms of some of the changes he wishes to make. I would like him to respond, perhaps not today but on Committee Stage when we table amendments, and to look clearly at the area of pension scheme members who no longer work for a company. The Tánaiste mentioned the issue only yesterday. This is an opportunity to address the issue and to right a wrong that exists. I again thank the Minister of State for being present and for outlining the detail of the Workplace Relations Bill 2014.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. A ramshackle maze of laws and procedures built up over decades in a totally ad hoc, spin-the-bottle and pick one's procedure manner is one legal practitioner's description of the practice of employment law in this jurisdiction. In answer to that, the Bill is the most comprehensive and innovative reform since the introduction of equality legislation by the former Labour Party Minister, Mervyn Taylor. It is welcome because when enacted it will obviate the necessity for a complainant to have to navigate multiple complaint mechanisms.

One of the principal attractions of the legislation is the reduction in forum shopping. As the Minister previously said, if a Minister and civil servants had a blank sheet and were sitting down today to design an employment disputes resolution mechanism we would be in a very different place. No one would have constructed the overly elaborate, expensive, time-consuming and overly litigious system we have. I do not say that as an attack on previous Governments. The system was built up organically over the years as different priorities came to the fore. The nature of EU employment has also changed and the system tried to adapt.

The current system has been of enormous service to the State and has made a huge contribution in terms of fostering equality and advancing employment rights and industrial relations. That, however, is not an excuse to let matters stay as they are. We must constantly review every mechanism of State to ensure that it is fit for purpose. The problems in this area are manifest. There are myriad methods by which cases can be processed. A single set of circumstances can give rise to a number of claims which must be processed through different avenues of redress. There are approximately 30 different forums involved and an overlap of functions between the bodies, resulting in forum shopping. Claims are often referred to the wrong forum or under the wrong legislation. A wide range of different practices, procedures and often inconsistent time limits apply in the various fora. There are different appeal avenues for elements of the same case involving the same employee. There is an absence in many instances of any intervention whether mediation, arbitration or simple case progression, which if in place would make the process much more effective. The systems have become overly legalistic, with many employers and employees incurring legal costs and delays that are excessive. There is also a lack of consistent procedure for enforcement of decisions of the various employment rights.

On this Bill’s enactment, four workplace relations bodies, namely, the Labour Relations Commission, including the Rights Commissioner Service, the National Employment Rights Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the Employment Appeals Tribunal will be abolished and their functions will be subsumed into two bodies, a new workplace relations commission, WRC, and a Labour Court with expanded powers. The current system is a mishmash of various bodies, locations and procedures. It was ripe for reform and the Minister is to be commended for grasping the nettle. The intention is that the new streamlined process will reduce costs, increase efficiencies and simplify the process. The Bill will also give powers to workplace inspectors and introduce two new services to assist employers and employees to resolve and settle disputes themselves without third party intervention, which is vital.

Among the amalgamated functions of the two new bodies, one very important aspect is that the WRC will be tasked with deciding or facilitating the resolution of all employment disputes in the first instance, obviating the need to take multiple claims to multiple bodies. Strides should be taken to have claims of any sort decided informally though impartially.

A series of articles appeared in The Irish Times recently about the cost of family law proceedings, in particular divorce, in this jurisdiction. The costs involved in such actions or any legal action are enormous. Additional to that, the insurance industry has voiced serious concern about the mounting cost of litigation, in particular in personal injury actions. While discussion of that specific matter is not appropriate in this context, perhaps it is something the Seanad could usefully debate in the future.

The cost of doing business in this country includes the cost of doing legal business. I am delighted in this instance that the Minister has taken particular note of that and has made strides to have matters addressed informally before the legal route is approached. Of course every citizen has a constitutional right to access the courts and such informal resolution cannot be imposed. The solution is to make such an informal resolution fair, impartial, cost effective and speedy. The legislation appears to do just that.

I would, however, make one point in relation to the practice and procedures of the new bodies. Would the Minister commit to having one common restatement of the procedure and process of claims through the various stages? The existing rules could then be repealed. This would make the process much easier to navigate for the practitioner and speed matters up. Section 42(13) would seem to allow for that. I presume the Minister intends, by regulation, to make the practice uniform.

I also have a query on section 42(9). This is at the heart of the legislation as it deals with the presentation of complaints and the referral of disputes by adjudication officers. Section 9 holds that these hearings shall be held in private. There is also provision that only the decisions shall be published and in such manner as decided by the officer but not identifying parties involved in the dispute. Perhaps the Minister could explain the reasoning behind that. It might be that a provision is warranted in cases where intimate personal details might be disclosed but otherwise it seems a backwards step.

The process is quasi-judicial, with rights of appeal to higher bodies, including the High Court. Hearings should be held in public if for no other reason than to give the public confidence that it is working fairly. For years, the Refugee Appeals Tribunal sat in private, and only recently published any decision at all. It has been rightly criticised for being a secretive process and one in which little public or academic confidence resides. The Government, for this and many other reasons, is now moving to introduce new legislation in the refugee area.

Fitness to practice hearings are now held in public, with the nursing council recently joining other professional supervisory bodies in so doing. The family law courts in recent years have followed the path of openness by allowing reporting of cases while protecting the intimate family details of people appearing before it. I cannot see any reason these cases should not be held in public other than if intimate personal details were to be disclosed. I ask the Minister of State if he could explain the reasoning behind the measure. I warmly welcome this legislation. It has great potential to be transformational. I urge the Minister of State to consider my comments which are made in a thoroughly constructive manner.

This is my first time to address the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, in the House. I am delighted to meet him.

As a trade unionist, I welcome the Bill. Anything that would streamline the process for employees who find themselves in difficulty with their employers has got to be welcomed. With the Irish Congress of Trade Unions I have a number of areas I would like the Minister of State to consider. While I will not go into them in detail today I would like him to examine section 42(11) and allow for trade union representation at mediation. I realise there is almost a contradiction in that request, as when one talks about mediation it is usually one on one. Sometimes an employee would need someone there to support him or her, not necessarily as an advocate, when facing a very strong employer.

I will have more to say on section 43 on Committee Stage. I would have serious difficulty, as would the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, with the notion that an adjudication officer could dismiss a claim based on the fact that it might be vexatious or frivolous. The application of such a criterion would operate to undermine the ability of unions to have individual cases heard that are referred under the Industrial Relations Act. The unintended consequence is likely to be an increase in the collective action as a vital dispute resolution avenue to be removed. Other complications might arise in the context of the requirement to exhaust all procedures. Congress is therefore seeking an amendment to clarify the referrals of individual disputes under the Industrial Relations Act and that they cannot be refused on the basis that they may be vexatious or frivolous.

In terms of section 72, I understand the need to penalise somebody for failing to turn up without good reason. However, there is sufficiently strong evidence in the UK that shows where a fee of any sort is introduced, it prices justice out of the hands of workers so I will table an amendment to this section.

I wish to raise another issue of concern. I have been involved for a number of years in bringing cases to the Labour Court through the Rights Commissioner Service and various other tribunals. Therefore, I am aware of the propensity of employers to arrive, armed with HR experts, members of organisations such as IBEC and legal reputation, to contest a case against a single employee, which makes it a harrowing experience for the latter. It was my understanding that this Bill would simplify and reduce the onerous task of bringing an employment related issue before any of the agencies that are being amalgamated into the new group. From that point of view, I hope the legislation would state that if an employee is coming on his or her own unrepresented, then the employer should surely come on his or her own unrepresented.

I wish to make another comment on this area. Typically, I have been involved in cases that were funded by the State or by State agencies where entire teams of legal representatives attended and where cases were lost but appealed all along the way. One goes through an adjudication and when one wins, the employer says, "No, I am not going to have that". Then one goes to what used to be called the Rights Commissioner Service, which makes an award. One wins the case and is awarded compensation, but the employer again says, "No, I am not going to have that". Next the case goes to the Labour Court, there is the same outcome and again the employer says, "No, I am not going to have that" so one finishes up going to the courts. Clearly, such behaviour by an employer must qualify as frivolous and vexatious. I do not want to take away the right of somebody to appeal - by all means, an appeals mechanism must be available to all of us - but if an employer appeals all the way through the system and loses at each stage, then something must be terribly wrong with the system.

I welcome the Bill which is a fantastic piece of work. I have some technical issues with it and I will bring forward a few amendments to sections 42, 43 and 72. I will leave it at that and thank the Minister of State for his time.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I also welcome the Bill. Everyone has given it a general welcome. All Senators agree that there is a need to consolidate the current set of procedures to deal with employment rights, workplace relations and so forth. As has been acknowledged, these issues developed in a piecemeal fashion over several years and, therefore, are unduly complex with anomalies, etc. Other Senators have addressed this point, as has the Minister of State.

Senator Kelly is normally the Labour Party spokesperson on this issue. I am grateful to him for allowing me to take his place this evening as I was keen to say a few words on the Bill. I have an interest in employment law and studied, taught and did some practice in this area some years ago. I am also grateful to my colleagues in the Employment Law Association of Ireland, ELAI, for its assistance. I know it has been in contact with the Minister of State and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation about the Bill and during its passage through the Dáil. Like the association, in general, I welcome the Bill.

As the Minister of State has said, it is important to note that Government amendments will be made on Committee Stage, which is welcome. I know some of the amendments that were accepted in the Dáil came from Opposition Deputies. I am really glad that we have all been able to work constructively on this legislation.

In a general context, I welcome the Government's commitment to collective bargaining legislation and the Minister of State's work on a low pay commission. I see this Bill as part of a package of measures that deal with industrial relations reform.

I have a number of issues with the Bill. First, I am concerned about the Title of the Bill and the title of the new commission. The latter is to be called the workplace relations commission as it is intended to amalgamate the industrial relations functions of the Labour Relations Commission, the equality functions of the Equality Tribunal and equality officers, and employment rights functions under the remit of the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Rights Commissioner Service. We have seen a distinct set of specialties develop among these areas.

I have a couple of issues with this area but I will deal first with the title issue. I am slightly concerned that the title "workplace relations commission" does not comprehensively capture the different specialties and areas that will be covered. I have spoken to the Minister of State about including the word "equality" in the title. However, I am conscious the acronym for workplace relations and equality commission would not be so good, but what about calling it the labour relations and equality commission? It may be too late to change the title but I have put forward my preferred title. The term "workplace relations" is a move away from the old language we have always used in industrial relations and labour relations. Can we return to the old way? The title is less of a substantive point.

I wish to make a more substantive point about building up the existing specialties and expertise among the new panel of adjudicators to be appointed. I very much welcome, as everyone else does, that persons with existing expertise in these areas will continue to work as adjudicators. As the Minister of State did in his speech, I pay tribute to the great work that has been done.

Section 41 deals with additional adjudicators. Some of them have already been recruited through the Public Appointments Service. The Minister of State has said the adjudicators must have expertise. I agree that is important particularly as the success of the legislation depends on the ability of the individuals involved. He has said, and it has been said to the ELAI, that 70 days of training will be provided by the National College of Ireland. I am concerned that the training covers the three specialties of employment rights, equality rights and industrial relations expertise. Is there a sense that there will be specialisation among adjudicators? Will there be three groups of adjudicators? If so, will the new adjudicators also be broken down into the three areas? Should section 41 also include a requirement for specific expertise? Is a requirement needed in statutory form?

I will return to the issue of equality, but I am glad that the Minister of State has clarified that there will be no dilution of the existing laws on equality and discrimination. There is an issue in terms of venues and equality legislation. Cases involving gender discrimination still have a different choice of venue and may go to the Circuit Court, specifically gender discrimination, while other forms of discrimination do not. We may be required to keep that extra option for gender discrimination due to EU concerns. Can the issue be explored given the spirit in which the Bill is moving towards consolidation generally?

In terms of the public-private venue issue, I am glad that the Minister of State will bring forward an amendment, under section 45, to give the Labour Court the power to hear exceptional cases in private. That is something that has been sought.

As the Minister of State said, section 87 makes provision for an amendment to the Organisation of Working Time Act which will take account of the rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union in terms of sick leave. I know ICTU also shared that concern. Given that we are amending the Act, can we address an issue that is close to the Minister of State's heart? I refer to low hours contracts which has been remarked upon in case law by the Employment Appeals Tribunal in the UK. Let me give the example of an employee who has a contract to work eight hours per week but, on a regular basis, is asked to work a further ten or 15 hours. That means his or her working hours could be as much as 20 or 25 hours per week but the overtime is not counted for other purposes such as employment rights and annual leave. Anecdotally, the Labour Court's recommendations have been favourable to employees found to be in that situation. Should we seek to put that in statutory form? I refer to cases where regular hours are worked that are in fact part of the employee's ongoing contract of employment. Can the hours worked be taken into account when calculating leave entitlements, etc.? As I said, this has been a specific issue in Britain where there is now case law available.

In terms of the package of measures regarding labour relations reform, is there a timeframe to consolidate employment legislation, as referred to by Senator Naughton, that rationalises all the different issues? The legislation could provide that the same powers would exist.

For example, we need to ensure that the same powers exist in an unfair dismissal case or an equality or discrimination claim in order that workplace relations commission, WRC, adjudicators would have powers to compel disclosure. The concern is that if the Labour Court preserves powers to it that are more extensive than those of the WRC adjudicators, the adjudicators would be seen almost as a necessary hurdle to get over before one goes to the Labour Court. That would have all the necessary adverse effects that we are trying to counter with the legislation whereby everyone will end up going on to the Labour Court in any case.

I am conscious that other colleagues have spoken about the suggested amendments put forward by ICTU and the INMO, to whom I am grateful, but I want to comment on the section 72 fees issue. I was glad to hear the Minister of State say he intends to limit fees to the specific instance where there is non-attendance and then an appeal, but will section 72 be amended to reflect that because currently it appears to provide a wider power to a Minister to impose fees?

There is another concern under section 42 that there would be a facility for representation by a union official at mediation as well as at the adjudication stage, and I know amendments have been tabled already to sections 42 and 43. I am sure we will discuss those further on Committee Stage. I look forward to that, and I welcome the Bill.

I welcome the Acting Chairman, and I welcome the Minister of State; I am in a very welcoming mood. I am in flight, so to speak, between committees but I have tabled amendments to this legislation so I thought it would be rather impertinent of me to table amendments without addressing any of the issues in a Second Stage speech.

I welcome this development and compliment the Minister of State on producing such a distinct Bill because anything that increases harmony in industrial relations is to be welcomed. There are a number of areas where matters need to be tidied up. I have been advised on that in correspondence by various people, including a well-known firm of solicitors, so I tabled these amendments. The Minister of State is in agreement with some of them because that was contained in the correspondence between the solicitors and the Minister of State. He seemed to think there were arguments here and there, so I look forward to teasing that out on Committee Stage.

In terms of the issues, they are technical, such as the address. People do not always put down a correct address. Therefore, we have to stabilise the address to ensure we have certainty in terms of knowing what we are dealing with in terms of who, what and where. There is also the question of the employer giving the full name of the company. Sometimes they do not do that, and we need to establish clearly the legal entity that is involved in these proceedings.

There is then the question of various representatives who are not solicitors or senior counsel. They are representatives for gain and they advertise and so on. They may not be regulated or subject to the same codes of practice and conduct as barristers, solicitors and so on. I am tabling an amendment, as advised, to cover that to make sure that people who legitimately represent interests at court should be subject to the same regulations. They must be subject to the same code of practice.

The appointment of the position of registrar is left fairly vague in the legislation so I tabled an amendment governing the appointment and suggesting that the person involved should have a number of years of professional practice to qualify him or her for that job.

There is a fine of €2,000 but I am tabling an amendment suggesting that should be increased to €20,000 in the case of failure to pay the national minimum wage. That is a substantial amount but it should be a real disincentive to people who are inclined not to pay. This is based on the United Kingdom model and what they have recently introduced. It is one of the areas where we could usefully follow the UK. I have been critical in the past of the fact that, very often in terms of our legislative procedures, we took down what Westminster had done and stuck it into law here, but there are moments when the United Kingdom experience is a useful one.

There is also the question of the production of documentation, and being a fairly litigious person I know the significance of that because I have battled on both sides. I have demanded documents from the other side, and I am still doing so in a series of libel cases, which I have every intention of winning, and when they come looking for documents I will say: "Not on your nelly. You are not getting a smell of these documents. You can take me to court." The production of documents is an integral part of that. It also speeds up the process. If there is a series of hearings, one sometimes hears that they do not have this or that document. If there is a requirement to produce documents at an early stage, this will speed things up.

On the question of whether the hearings are held in public or in private, it is a useful practice to hold these hearings in public. That would generally be the situation, but there may be circumstances where both parties agree that, for a variety of reasons, holding them in private is the best option. If they are both agreed on that, I do not see why it should not be provided for.

Coming back to the question of people who are not solicitors or barristers but just representatives for gain, they are unregulated in terms of fees and so on. They are entitled to charge percentage fees, contingency fees and champerty, all of which are illegal for a solicitor. I want to bring them in under the same codes of practice as exist for solicitors.

There are a number of other technical amendments but I mention two of them. One is the question of the appointment of extra members in cases. For example, in cases where there is a conflict of interest with one of the members there should be a possibility to appoint from a pool of reserve members. We have tabled an amendment which provides for that.

There is also the question of amending the Organisation of Working Time Act because it states that penalising somebody should be an offence but I want to add to that "penalise or threaten to penalise" because the threat of a penalty against an employee is in some circumstances as severe as the actual penalising. If someone says to somebody that they must do something, not do something, accept such a wage or the consequences will be such and such, the very threat itself is inimical to good workplace relations. That is included in some recent legislation including the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, so there is a precedent for that.

I have not made a very wide-ranging speech but rather indicated to the Minister of State the areas on which I have tabled amendments. I look forward to teasing them out and arguing them in substance when the Bill comes before the House again.

I welcome the Bill, although I have to admit it was not one to which I was paying particular attention. That speaks to the issue Senator Bacik mentioned about the Title. In a previous life I worked in the private sector for quite a long time. I was a director of human resources and logistics in a small to medium business where we had, on average, 50 employees. Once I started reading this Bill I got excited because it streamlines the myriad of different pathways. What is happening here is important. The idea of workplace relations did not resonate with me in terms of what the Minister of State is trying to achieve with regard to the structure. My experience of coming from an SME background is that it has a consequence on the culture of organisations. It is hoped we may never have to use the structures that are available but it helps frame how someone puts in their human resources practice, designs their workplace and what they do in the workplace. We have to be clear in what we are trying to achieve in that regard.

In his contribution the Minister of State committed to making some changes to the Bill, which I welcome.

In fact, what drew my attention to the Bill was being contacted by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in respect of sections 72, 42 and 43. As other Senators have outlined those issues, I look forward to the amendments on Committee Stage that will be tabled by the Government and by other Senators and then, if needed, an amendment may be brought forward on Report Stage. However, I note that what is happening here is substantive. I certainly will work with the Minister of State, as will other Senators, to ensure this Bill can be brought in at the earliest date to ensure good workplace practice.

As I stated, it is also about a culture of ensuring pathways are available for employees whose rights are not being upheld and who need an opportunity to appeal or to have their rights upheld. This must be streamlined, must be clear and must not be cumbersome. Moreover, everyone must know what are their rights because when one knows what are one's rights, it is much more difficult for people to violate them. I believe this is what the Minister of State is trying to do in this legislation. I again welcome the Minister of State and thank him for introducing the Bill today in such detail. I was happy to see the Minister of State outline where he intends to bring forward amendments, which takes a little pressure off Members. Obviously, however, they still will be watching.

It is my pleasure to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, to the House and I wish him continued success with his portfolio, as he has enjoyed to date. Fianna Fáil welcomes the Government's decision to reform the State's existing employment rights and industrial relations structures, a process that was commenced by Deputy Calleary in the previous Administration. Ireland has a stellar reputation in the area of workplace relations internationally and one reason we remain as a highly-favoured location for foreign direct investment is because the number of industrial disputes in Ireland, when compared with our competitors, is notably lower. However, we must remain vigilant in the face of increasing competition internationally. We must ensure that our employees and employers are provided with the proper workplace mechanisms to ensure that disputes, which inevitably will arise, will be addressed in an effective unbiased manner.

Fianna Fáil believes this Bill will be a first step in guaranteeing the structures needed for the coming years. My party will support the objective of a world-class workplace relations service, which is simple to use, independent, effective, impartial, cost-effective and which provides for a workable means of redress and enforcement within a reasonable period. A cost-effective system, which delivers for employer and employee alike, would result in significant benefits for the Irish economy overall. The system that has developed over the past 60 years may have become unwieldy, complex, inconsistent, slow and, in some cases, expensive for users. Fianna Fáil supports a streamlining of these structures to deliver a better service to those who find themselves obliged to rely on the mechanisms of the State to broker a compromise. The fact that the services of the Equality Tribunal, the National Employment Rights Authority, the Labour Relations Commission and, in the first instance, functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, are to come together under the remit of the proposed workplace relations commission, WRC, is a sensible move, as is the movement of the functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, to be amalgamated into a reconfigured Labour Court. However, Members on this side of the House seek clarification on how the officers of the respective bodies are to be integrated and the Minister of State may outline this in his response.

This Bill will not be judged a success or a failure on whether the structures look well on paper or even on how much money the streamlining of services will save. The Bill will be judged as a success only if it provides the citizens and companies of Ireland with a more effective and cost-effective service in finding resolutions to disputes, in vindicating the rights of workers and employers and in securing Ireland as a great place in which to invest and to do business in the future. Employees in Ireland are entitled to receive certain basic employment rights and those rights often need to be guarded. Fianna Fáil hopes this Bill will make those rights easier to guard than heretofore.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, and give a general welcome to his proposed legislation and apologise for having my telephone switched on. While I concede I have not read this legislation in great detail, I listened to the Minister of State's contribution and certainly was both impressed and content with its tone. In one sense, the necessity to have such detailed legislation indicates we have a long way to go in respect of relations in the workplace but we certainly are moving in the right direction. The economic situation that has faced this country over the past five or six years and which now is being resolved slowly but surely, provided an environment in the workplace where jobs were so scarce and so difficult to come by and where people in employment were so happy to be there, that some of the previous industrial relations difficulties experienced in the 1980s and 1990s perhaps were deferred - I will not say they disappeared.

However, as the commencement of economic recovery can now be discerned, as can debates on wage increases across the public and private sectors, some issues that previously caused difficulty may come to the fore again and therefore, a good industrial relations mechanism would be helpful in that regard. At the core of any good working environment must be the concept of respect, namely, respect from employer to employee and vice versa. One will never have good employment without good employers and good employees and that is what we must aim towards because all the laws on the Statute Book can never ensure harmony and goodwill, which can only be provided within the workplace environment itself. It is evident that some employers are very good in that respect while others still have much to learn. However, we must aspire towards a solid working - if Members excuse the pun - relationship on the work floor because one cannot have good employment without good employers and one cannot have a good business without good employees. Consequently, everyone must work in harmony to make progress.

The summary outlined in the explanatory memorandum provides Members with a clear picture of the aim of the Bill, namely, to create a modern, user-friendly, world-class employment workplace relations system providing significant benefits for its users and society as a whole. Who could oppose that concept? Issues will arise and I note the Minister of State already has referred to issues he intends to address by way of further amendment. I look forward to this because I do not believe any legislation is ever perfect. When drafted, no item of legislation ever appears to get the full picture initially but during the course of the debate, issues emerge and sometimes are dealt with. It will be interesting if the Minister of State can take on board in the Seanad some issues raised in the Dáil and which may be raised here on Second Stage. I believe the Minister of State's openness to amendments and his being in a position to present amendments will be helpful to the overall debate.

As for the new body replacing some older agencies, streamlining in general is deemed to be effective. Over the past decade, we have gone through a phase of politics and economics in which it was believed that streamlining inevitably was good. While generally it was, there have been instances in which streamlined agencies have not produced the goods expected of them. However, it certainly is to be hoped that the Workplace Relations Bill will be helpful in that regard. On reading the list of bodies to be amalgamated, I note it includes the Labour Relations Commission. If my recollection is correct, it has been a highly successful agency, the personnel of which have been dominant and I refer to one person in particular. I believe it was set up in the late 1980s during the time of the first Programme for National Recovery. It was perceived as a major step forward in that regard and it has engaged in all sorts of dispute resolution, not merely on the factory floor or in the workplace but on matters as diverse as the Cork county board's dispute with the players, as well as the famous concert in Croke Park last year.

It is funny; an agency is set up and sometimes it engages in all sorts of extraneous affairs.

I wish the Minister of State well with this legislation. If it provides harmony, goodwill and a fair resolution process as early as possible in a dispute, or a possible dispute, it will be making significant progress, and I look forward to that. These are my initial and, I must concede, inadequate comments. However, the legislation will be useful. In a modern economy and a modern workplace, we must continually review our legislation on workers' and employers' rights. The legislation is one necessary step in that regard.

We have had a very interesting and informative debate on what can sometimes be quite a complex area. This is not about changing anyone's rights or entitlements. It is about ensuring we have a streamlined system. It in no way impacts on the suite of employment legislation that we have or on any of the hard-won rights garnered through that process over the years in this sphere or the equality sphere. I hope I have made this clear in my earlier contribution. I appreciate that Senator Bacik understands and accepts this. She has a particular interest in this area.

I am looking forward to working with Members of the Seanad on Committee Stage. We can have a very good engagement then. In my initial remarks, I made it clear what amendments we will be suggesting and moving in the House. It is not in anyone's interest to take the scenic route around this. This legislation is a priority. A significant amount of work has been done at official level in the Department and in the LRC and the Labour Court, which are some of the institutions that will migrate to the new workplace relations commission. I sincerely thank the Members for their very helpful and well informed comments and observations on this legislation. Before I do my best to respond to individual remarks made earlier on in the proceedings, I will take the opportunity to revisit the purpose of the Bill, because we should restate it.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect to root and branch reforms which are currently being implemented in the State's existing workplace relations structures. These structures have, by and large, served us well, but there are issues with them. Promoting and supporting harmonious relationships in the workplace is a very important element in achieving lasting economic growth and creating and sustaining jobs. Senator White referred to this. Our continued economic recovery very much depends on having robust institutions that everyone can trust and in which everyone can have confidence. To support this objective, we must have efficient, robust and efficacious mechanisms that citizens depend on and that economic growth and success also depend on. Where disputes arise, the parties must be encouraged to resolve them, in the first instance, as informally as possible. Where this is not possible, State intervention is often necessary to ensure we can resolve issues which can threaten industrial peace, erode people's working conditions and pay and have a negative effect on the economy and our reputation.

The Government and I remain committed to a fundamental reform of the workplace relations framework and structures. We want to deliver a world-class workplace relations service, providing what I have referred to as an integrated industrial relations adjudication and enforcement service which, critically, is simple to use, independent, effective, impartial and cost-effective and provides for workable means of redress and enforcement within a reasonable period of time.

It is worth saying that the decisions we will make on this legislation will probably outlive all of us. We want these particular provisions to be in place for a long time. We need to be mindful of this when we are legislating for something so important. We need to design it to the highest possible standards, and I think we have managed to achieve this. The resources we have will be put to their optimum use. We will maximise our use of them. We want them to be efficient and we want the process to be less complicated than is the case at the moment. Senator Naughton spoke very eloquently of the problems that users - whether trade union officials, lawyers, employer representatives or individual complainants themselves - have in navigating what is a very complex system. I know that Senator Craughwell and others have had experience of this over the years. We are trying to turn this into a first-class system which is effective and responsive. We have made considerable progress on this. We want it to benefit everyone in our society. We want to have an effective system that people can trust, that works from day one and that prevents the type of forum shopping that has characterised the system to date. Through the fault of no one, the system developed in a very organic way over decades and is imperfect. We have acknowledged this in terms of our commitment to legislate and to develop a better system. I wish to recognise the work of the previous Government in kicking off this process.

I will turn, if I may, to a number of the individual points made. I do not intend to respond to all of them. We can have a more detailed discussion on Committee Stage and I look forward to that. I will deal with the speakers in chronological order. Senator O'Brien referred to the fees to access the workplace relations commission in section 72. As a citizen, apart from anything else, I believe it is important that we ensure all citizens feel they can use this service and system. It is for them. It is to promote harmonious industrial relations and harmonious relations between employers and employees. The fees issue is an important one. However, I make no apologies for our proposal in legislating for this. Where an appeal is made to the court and someone has not shown up to the original hearing, then the €300 fee will be applied. I do not think anyone will have a difficulty with this in principle.

Senator O'Brien made some important remarks on providing an opportunity for deferred pensioners, for example, to have their voice heard with regard to their pension situation. This is a very current debate and I made reference to this on Report Stage when considering this legislation in the Dáil. It is something we need to return to, as a Parliament, over the next period of time. I know that there are discussions ongoing within the system at the moment as to how we can best meet the requirements of that cohort of people who feel they do not have a voice in terms of what happens to their pension. Often, it is a very difficult situation. I speak specifically with respect to deferred pensioners.

Senator Craughwell referenced issues to do with representation of trade unions at mediation. The current practice of mediators in the Equality Tribunal does not restrict who can accompany a party at mediation. I contend, to be frank, that there is no need to make specific provision for this at this point. The practice of the Equality Tribunal will be continued. This is an important point to make. Senator Craughwell also referred to remarks I made about the vexatious or frivolous nature of some cases. This is a legal term; it is not a pejorative term. Of course, a decision by an adjudicator that a case is frivolous or vexatious can be appealed to the Labour Court. Senator Craughwell also spoke about - he might correct me if I am wrong - the potentially never-ending process of appeals which can often take place. It is my understanding of this legislation that decisions can be appealed to the Labour Court, but ultimately this is the final appellate court as such. The only means of further appeal is to appeal to the High Court, and this is on a legal point alone. I hope this addresses the issue raised by the Senator.

I appreciate the general remarks of Senator Naughton. She referred to forum shopping and the complexity of the institutional arrangements that we have at the moment. As I stated earlier, they tend to confuse even the most experienced of trade union officials sometimes, particularly when parallel cases are ongoing and it is often not very clear which forum might best resolve an issue.

The Senator also questioned whether hearings should be in public or in private.

The Bill provides that hearings, in the first instance, would be held in private and appeals to the Labour Court would be held in public except in exceptional circumstances, and I outlined those circumstances earlier. Only in the context of the Employment Appeals Tribunal are hearings held in public, and for good reason. That has been the case for a long period. There has not been any demand from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions or from IBEC for public hearings at the first instance. We held an extensive consultation period around these institutional reforms with the key stakeholders - to the best of my recollection, two consultation processes - and did not detect any demand for hearings to be held in public at the first instance. The holding of appeals in public meets the State's requirements in terms of the administration of justice in public and our obligations under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Senator Ivana Bacik has a very clear view in regard to the title of the institution and I have some sympathy for her in that regard. It is an issue we will have to discuss again in the next period of time. The proposal has a degree of merit and I understand and appreciate that. It is possible that the Senator is right. Perhaps the WRC description does not necessarily capture the full reach of the institution but I can assure her that in terms of its emphasis and the work it will undertake, there will be very much a focus on the equality agenda and ensuring that equality is respected and that we uphold the strong and robust anti-discrimination and equality laws, hard won achievements that we are not prepared to dilute in any way. In terms of adjudicators, I expect that everybody will be trained to a very high standard in the National College of Ireland and there will be an emphasis on the equality side. I will insist on that and it is very important.
The Senator referred to Schultz-Hoff. Recently we have had some engagement with the social partners about how to best address those requirements under the Schultz-Hoff case. We are doing that to address the requirements to the satisfaction of the social partners. I went into more detail on that issue on Report Stage in the Dáil but it is an issue we can discuss on Committee Stage. I think all the stakeholders are satisfied that we will legislate for this and fulfil our obligations in terms of amendments to the Organisation of Working Time Act as it arises in terms of the Schultz-Hoff ruling.
I am glad the Senator raised zero-hour, low-hour contracts because that is an area of interest for me and many others in society. What we do not want is a economic recovery, which we are undoubtedly having, that is characterised by a race to the bottom. That is in nobody's interest. We have certain protections here that are not in place in the UK in terms of how we apply the Organisation of Working Time Act and other important legislation supporting people who are working in vulnerable situations and ensuring they are not exploited. As the House will be aware, I have commissioned a major study on the extent and prevalence of zero and low hour contracts and expect to have a report in the next few months. I have asked the group undertaking this research for the Government to make recommendations on legislation that may need to be amended or regulations that may need to be changed to ensure we do not have a race to the bottom. We always support and encourage good, strong and sustainable employment. Sometimes low hour contracts suit people in certain circumstances but under no circumstances should they become the norm. All of those issues will be addressed in the next period of time. This is the first piece of research the State has undertaken on zero and low-hour contracts. That has been a deficiency in the past. There are 32,000 zero-hour contracts in Northern Ireland. We are aware of this from significant research undertaken by the CIPD in the UK and Northern Ireland. That is very valuable because it informs public policy making and I want to have the evidence before I and my Cabinet colleagues make any decisions on what to do to protect the vulnerable and those who are working on zero and low hour contracts. We have got much anecdotal information through our constituency clinics, our own experiences and our own networks about the prevalence of such contracts, but we will address that issue in time.
Correct me if I am wrong, but I think Senator Bacik referred to the consolidation of employment rights legislation. That is something that has been on the radar of successive Governments. The logic of developing a new institutional framework would follow on to a situation where we would, in time, have a complete consolidation of the myriad pieces of employment rights legislation that can often be confusing and complex. It is critical that citizens understand their rights and entitlements and that employers understand their responsibilities and obligations. It is certainly on the agenda. It is an enormous task and a huge piece of work and is something the system will respond to in time. If the Senator is asking if this will be done this week or next week, I can categorically say "No". I have addressed the fees issue which the Senator raised.
Senator David Norris raised the issue of increasing fines for employers who are not compliant with the National Minimum Wage Act. I implore the Senator to work with us on the establishment of the low pay commission and support our efforts to have that whole area reviewed before we start talking about the issues of fines and so on. We are setting up the low pay commission, a very important public policy initiative and something which will be an important innovation on the landscape. We will be progressing that in the near future and expect to have the first meeting of the new low pay commission in a matter of weeks.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout reflected on the new institutional framework from an SME perspective. As employees and workers often find it confusing and challenging to navigate the existing system, similarly SMEs who are constantly struggling for survival often cannot afford the expert advice needed to navigate these structures. I see this system as working for the benefit of business and workers. We want it to be citizen friendly and we do not want a situation where, in the first instance, people are expected to walk into a process with an army of experts, lawyers, barristers or experienced trade union officials. I can assure those who raised this issue that I have personally spoken in recent days to some trade unions who are concerned about some elements of the package. They have worked well with my Department as has IBEC and other interests on this potentially transformational set of reforms. Where there are concerns, the Government and I have an open mind and will work to address those as best we can. Of course, we may not accept everything that is proposed, but we certainly have an open mind.
I thank Senators for their contributions and look forward to working with them to ensure this necessary legislation is enacted as soon as possible to enable the workplace relations commission to do the job we have asked it to and a job that our economy and society needs it to do.
Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 10 February 2015.
Sitting suspended at 5.10 p.m. and resumed at 5.30 p.m.