Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Questions (14)

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

14. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation his plans to address the defects identified in legislation relating to the making of sectoral employment orders following the recent High Court judgment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15993/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Business)

On the same matter, I wish to have placed on the record of the House the Minister's intentions in terms of dealing with the High Court decision on sectoral employment orders, outside of appealing to the Supreme Court. Are there legislative proposals from his Department? The Minister indicated to my colleague that he does not have any legislative proposals but I ask him to clarify that and to justify it.

As I mentioned earlier, this case is going to be appealed to both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, with a view to going straight to the Supreme Court in order that we can have an adjudication as soon as possible. The difficulty we have is that because this section of the legislation has been struck down as unconstitutional, it is questionable as to whether this House can bring in sector-specific minimum wages, pension arrangements or terms and conditions. With that power in question, all we can do is bring in legislation across the board but that will not work because the whole point of sectoral employment orders is that they are sectoral. I am not sure we have a legislative solution to address this lacuna and the problem that arises, at least until the Supreme Court hears the case.

We have to work on contingencies, depending on what the outcome of the case might be. Having spoken to the Attorney General, we are confident as a Government that this House does have the authority to make sectoral employment orders. The Minister cannot do so on his or her own but provided it is done by regulation and can be revoked by the House, then we are confident that we can but it does create a lacuna during that period, and does speak to a bigger question that we need to resolve. One of the problems with sectoral employment orders is that they only apply to sectors and one issue we both need and want to address in next couple of years, presuming the economy allows it, is to continue to raise pay and terms and conditions for all workers, not just those in particular sectors or those who are represented by unions. I refer to the move from the minimum wage to the living wage. What that means has to be defined because it means different things to different people in different countries.

It is also intended to introduce auto-enrolment so that everyone has access to a pension fund. At the moment, three quarters of people in the private sector have no access to an occupational pension fund. We have pension apartheid in Ireland when one compares the public and private sectors. The third issue is to increase social insurance benefits more generally to every working person, so that work pays. In recent years we have made some good progress in that regard on issues such as treatment benefit, maternity benefit and parental benefit and we need to add to that now with other social-insurance related benefits as well, so that we are raising the floor for everyone not just those in particular sectors or those who are unionised.

If one is in employment that is governed by a sectoral employment order, one will feel particularly insecure currently, in conjunction with how insecure one might feel because of Covid and the fact that in living memory we had an economic crash less than a decade ago. We have lived in a low-wage economy for some years. I stated to the Minister previously - the Labour Party wishes to repeats the point - that statistics provided by the OECD show that 23% of workers are on low pay. Last week, my colleague, Deputy Nash, introduced the Industrial Relations (Sectoral Employment Orders) Confirmation Bill 2020. If the Minister were to support the legislation or to bring in similar legislation, he would be signalling to these workers that he has their backs and he is on their side. I have been in these Houses long enough to know that when a Government needs or wants to do something, it sends out a message. It is able to do so, regardless of what commentators might say or whether its constitutionality might be questioned. What sort of signal would the Minister give in terms of a legislative response? Just as the Labour Party has done with its Bill, could the Minister not do something similar in order to show the workers that he does have their backs and that he is not just going to wait for the outcome of a case before the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal?

What we are doing to demonstrate that we have the backs of electrical contractors and workers on this issue is appealing the High Court decision. We do not have to appeal it but we are choosing to appeal it because we think it is the right thing to do. We will look at the legislation produced. I have not seen the Bill yet, but we will examine it. Deputy Ó Ríordáin has been a Minister and he has served in government. He knows that no Government can bring in legislation that is unconstitutional. Producing legislation that is unconstitutional is not showing that one has anyone's back: it is showing that one is pretending to have someone's back and that is not a good thing.

It is all about intent and how strongly one believes in these things. This is legislation that has been proposed by a former Minister in this area, who brought in the 2015 legislation to which the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, referred in an earlier comment. It is not a case of playing games or doing something for the sake of it; it is legislation that has identified the issues raised in the court case and is trying to iron them out. What I suggest is that the Minister could support the Bill or give it proper consideration and bring in his own legislation while we wait on the Supreme Court to rule on the case.

It jars with me and my party, and probably with others, to hear the Minister congratulate himself on taking the case to the Supreme Court. If the Minister were not to take the case to the Supreme Court, we would definitely see which side of the fence he is on. In the meantime, while we wait for the stimulus package and for the outcome of the Supreme Court case, it is the responsibility of the Government to show there is nothing the Government will not do or entertain in order to protect people who are covered by SEOs, who by their very nature are in vulnerable work, and are open to exploitation. That is the reason for the necessity of SEOs. This is the type of message we need from the Government. I appreciate that the Minister said he will examine the legislation that has been produced by the Labour Party, but I wish to hear a harder and more supportive message than that.

There is a big difference between intent and sincerity on the one hand and virtue signalling and critical messaging on the other. One is good and the other is phony. We will look at the legislation Deputy Nash has produced. We did look at the Bill he produced before Christmas, which was unconstitutional. We will give the Bill serious consideration and see if it is defective or not. What we have on behalf of the Government is intent and sincerity. I do not know what we have from the Labour Party. We will see whether it is just virtue signalling or not.