European Globalisation Fund: Discussion

I welcome to today's meeting Ms Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, MEP, head of delegation, Ms Marije Cornelissen, MEP, Proinsias De Rossa Uasal, MEP, Ms Marian Harkin, MEP, and Mr. Joe Higgins, MEP. I also welcome the translators accompanying the delegation, namely, Ms L. Regan, Mr. V. Capet and Mr. N. Loiseau and thank them for their attendance.

Unfortunately, the joint committee must suspend again and will resume in a few minutes.

Sitting suspended at 12.28 p.m. and resumed at 12.45 p.m.

I again thank everyone for their attendance. I wish to draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. This is the first time. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or of an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the European globalisation fund, which came into force at the beginning of 2007. It is there to assist workers who lose their jobs as a result of changes in patterns of world trade. Members have seen how crucial this fund is to Ireland on foot of the significant loss of jobs in Dell in Limerick. This fund is there to assist workers to obtain new employment following redundancy, which is extremely important in the current climate. It can be used to provide training, up-skilling, job search assistance and occupational guidance and is available to all employees in the European Union who have lost their jobs as a result of globalisation and supplements national and local supports already in place. In this context, I am delighted to welcome the delegation today. It provides the joint committee with an excellent opportunity to discuss its core responsibility, namely, jobs, jobs and jobs.

Mr. Proinsias De Rossa, MEP

I remind the Chairman that there are language issues, in that his words must be translated.

I hope that through our discussion here today, we can identify something particular and extra that can be done and can put this before the Minister. I know we all are constantly working on these problems but every opportunity to brain storm and to engage in cross-consultation should be taken.

That said, I invite Ms Morin-Chartier to address the joint committee.

Ms Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, MEP

I thank the Chairman. We would like to express our very great interest in this matter. We are very grateful for the time the joint committee has set aside to work with the European Parliament delegation on the European globalisation fund, EGF. The delegation comprises five MEPs, three of whom are fellow countryman representing your country at European level, namely, Proinsias De Rossa, Marian Harkin and Joe Higgins. We have three MEPs from the EGF working group in the European Parliament, namely, Marian Harkin, Marije Cornelissen and myself. All five MEPs work in the Employment and Social Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. There are five political groups represented in the delegation and we work together to further the interests of a social Europe.

This is the first trip organised for the EGF. We have come to Ireland because of the sizeable request dossiers being dealt with from your country, particularly those pertaining to Dell and Waterford. The trip is part of ongoing debate on the matter and a new report is being drafted by me on changes required to the way in which the EGF functions. We hope to be able to discuss with members what has worked well, where things have not worked so well and how the EGF can be improved to better serve workers, who are at the heart of this fund.

A particular point of concern is the involvement of social partners in drawing up worker retraining plans. We have a number of other questions. I will hand over to my colleagues who will put those questions to the committee.

Ms Marije Cornelissen, MEP

I have been asking a question of the employers, and also in some form of the unions, and I will pose the same question to the committee. If the European globalisation adjustment fund, EGF, had not existed what would have happened in terms of the different cases and most redundant workers? Would Parliament have intervened in another way? In what respect is it absolutely necessary?

Proinsias De Rossa, MEP

I thank the committee for receiving us. It is extremely important that we work together and it is a good idea to have the committees in the national parliaments, which are sister committees, so to speak, of the employment committee, meet in this way because it is good for exchange of information.

As far as Ireland is concerned the European globalisation fund is relatively new. It is clear in the case of Dell that there was inadequate preparation for the implementation of the decision to grant the globalisation fund, and it has taken a long time for the Government agencies and so on to work out how they should handle it.

What is worrying is that we were informed this morning that while the European Parliament's employment committee approved the Waterford Crystal application yesterday, which I expect will be agreed at the plenary session of the Parliament in two weeks, no preparation has been made to deliver this fund at the local level. No agency has been appointed to co-ordinate it at the local level. We were informed of that this morning by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, IBEC. Apparently, there is some indecision as to whether, say, FÁS should be the lead agency. In other words, the Department would tender for a private company to manage the delivery of the fund. I would have concerns about a new agency being created at the private level because of the costs involved, and we must keep the administration costs very low. It makes more sense to have organisations that are already experienced in the delivery and co-ordination of training and education involved in the delivery of the European globalisation fund.

A third application is being processed for SR Technics workers in the Dublin region. It is a different region of the country from Waterford and Limerick but it would be a shame if some central lead agency is not established with a permanent remit to deal with the globalisation fund.

I understand a fourth application is being prepared by Government regarding the Halifax closures in Ireland. That will come down the tracks, so to speak, as well. We cannot guarantee that the SRT application will be successful, or indeed the Halifax one, but there should be a mechanism in place to ensure that as soon as a decision is made the system falls into place. That is my main point.

Ms Marian Harkin, MEP

I thank the committee for facilitating this meeting. I agree with Mr. De Rossa. This type of connection is important, and this committee can influence the thinking behind the applications.

We are here to try to learn lessons from what has happened which will allow us use our influence to try to improve the globalisation fund and the way it operates in all 27 member states. The committee has a role in that as well.

Mr. De Rossa has made the central point. As he said, while an inter-agency forum has been set up in Waterford, or at least that is what it states on the application, the implementing body has not yet been set up and given that our committee voted yesterday to approve the funds for Waterford Crystal on which we and the Parliament will vote in two weeks in Strasbourg, as the committee voted, it is extremely worrying that this implementing body has not yet been decided upon. Mr. De Rossa stated that he favours FÁS. I am much more open than that. I do not have strong views on it. FÁS is already implementing one in Dell. I am not sure how efficient that is but we will have a better idea of it tomorrow. It is worrying, however, that that body has not been set up. I am sure SR Technics will come before our group, that is the working group, very soon. We will want to know at that stage that such a body has been set up and that it could hit the ground running, so to speak, whenever a decision is made by the Parliament.

I will briefly make three other points. First, one of the issues raised this morning was the time involved. It has taken 17 months from the time workers in Dell and Waterford Crystal were made redundant for the application to be finally approved. I am aware we have some delay in the parliaments but we are cutting back on that time. The application should have been made on day one and therefore that must be dealt with.

Second, it was clear this morning that there was not the level of involvement of the social partners that the working group and the committee would have wished. I am aware Dell was non-unionised but that is not the case with the others and we believe that part of it is missing.

Third, a concern I and others have is that this money is for the redundant workers. It is supposed to meet their needs and it is important, therefore, that the training and education provided for workers is targeted to meeting their needs. We are not convinced that is happening, and I am not just talking about the position in Ireland. We will know more about that tomorrow but that kind of flexibility is written into the fund and it is important that workers get the benefit of it.

Mr. Joe Higgins, MEP

I will be brief also. That means I will not go into the conundrum of Dell moving to Poland with the EU Commission authorising substantial state aid in Poland while public funding will now try to accommodate the workers who have been left behind. Nor will I deal with the question of public funding going in after the disastrous closure of Waterford Crystal and SR Technics where jobs could have been saved if there had been public intervention before the closures. We are now trying to chase the horses around the fields when it is too late.

I have two questions for the committee. Its members have met the Dell workers in a delegation and later this afternoon we will meet representatives of the Department of Education and Skills and FÁS, which are critical agencies in the implementation of the €22.8 million authorised for this fund. Do the members have anything to say to us? They have their own lines of communication with the Minister and the Department but we are meeting them also, as Members of the European Parliament implementing the fund. Do the members want us to say anything to them, first, with regard to the question of the flexibility of the fund, about which we have had many complaints from workers, and, second, the timeframe given within which it must be spent, which is very short and must be extended?

Ms Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, MEP

I have a final question for the Chairman. How was his parliamentary committee involved in the request submitted at European level?

We had arranged to meet the Dell workers and they were particularly concerned about the tardiness of the whole process, given that they had been made redundant and were out of work for 17 months, especially given their particular skills. After six months a skilled person can experience real difficulty in getting back into the workforce. The first six months is a critical period. The longer one goes beyond six months the more difficult it is. The issue as regards a process being tardy and ground down in bureaucracy is somewhat difficult to fathom.

One of the points made to us by the Dell workers, as I recall, was to the effect that when all the structures are in place it is important that the workers should have some significant input as regards their preferences, to sway the scheme, as it were, from their perspective. What works for Dell workers might not work for the SR Technics workers so there needs to be that degree of flexibility. The range of skills and the different levels of educational attainment must all be put into the mix.

As far as I could gather from the Dell workers and I believe I am right, over-prescriptiveness is to be avoided. The scheme should be as wide-ranging as possible to accommodate people of varying skills. That is just an overview. Senator Ryan has indicated that he wants to get in.

We had the Dell workers here and obviously they outlined their frustrations in terms of flexibility and delays. However, it is shocking to find here this morning that Waterford is not prepared. It just means we are not learning at all. That is absolutely shocking news.

As regards the delays, in terms of the process, Ms Harkin referred to the need to apply on day one, but could she please clarify what this means? On the website there is mention of a reference period for redundancies, so what is the earliest day one can be? SR Technics is in my constituency and many of the workers live in my area, so I am quite close to that situation. There is a great deal of frustration there in terms of the delays. The announcement was last February, the Government made an application in October and further to that there was a delay in supplying additional information. Then there is the 24 months, as has been referred to, and that time is passing.

In terms of the 24 months for implementation, if there is a delay by a member state as regards supplying additional information, is this time lost out of the 24-month period?

In fairness to members of the committee, they are concerned with fact finding, so perhaps Mr. De Rossa might like to reply.

Mr. Proinsias De Rossa, MEP

My understanding of it is that "day one" is from the known notification of the decision, and so it is 24 months from that date. The pre-planning element can start from the point at which the application is made. Once an application is made and the criteria have been sorted out, certainly from the viewpoint of what the committee of the Parliament has approved on a 27-member state level, there is no reason arrangements cannot fall into place, on a provisional basis at least, so that no time is lost from the viewpoint of those who need to benefit.

Another point I made at one of our earlier meetings is to the effect that in most cases this EGF applies to companies employing 500 or more. There is also a requirement that companies employing 500 or more have an obligation to consult with their employees when they are going to make them redundant, and there is supposed to be some pre-planning in that regard. If there was co-ordination between the companies, employees and Departments at national level about what is coming down the tracks, then earlier applications could be made for the EGF so that again, less time is lost. The question of co-ordination is crucial.

Ms Marian Harkin, MEP

I shall answer the Deputy's question, very briefly. Approval is given by the Parliament within the 24 months, so that is not eaten into. I do not need to add to what Mr. De Rossa has said, since he has clarified the other points.

It is supposed to be 24 months from the date of application, but this is not correct, or is it?

Some €22.4 million is the amount available for the Dell operation. That is an enormous pot of money. Has the company any discretion in the spending of that money or is it the national Government that is responsible? Is it filtered through education or will it be made available to each of the employees to do what he or she wants with it?

The mid-west region is close to my constituency and some workers at Dell in Mitchelstown, not far from the border with County Limerick, have lost their jobs. The University of Limerick and many other hi-tech colleges in the Limerick area could provide a level of education and upskilling. Is the money being invested in that area, or is being put into other activities?

Ms Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, MEP

I should be delighted to answer the Deputy's question. In our working group, we have always focused on specifics, for example, the age pyramid of the workers affected because the responses provided will very much depend on the age bracket the worker falls into. There is also the level of qualification to be considered, because workers could be handicapped not only on grounds of age but also because of their skills levels. The mobility of workers is also a factor.

In addition, the way the EGF funding is used will very much depend on, and must be linked to tailor-made responses, to ensure it is more effective. This will be linked to customisation, to meet workers' needs. That is very much the spirit and aim of our work.

To give the committee some idea of how we work in the European Parliament, we are striving to be as effective as possible, to speed up our work. Take the example of the Waterford application. This was discussed within the EGF working party two weeks ago, voted on yesterday at committee level and will come before the plenary in Parliament in two weeks' time. We are trying to get the solutions to be speeded up and addressed as speedily and in as upstream a fashion as is possible, to improve effectiveness.

Ms Marian Harkin, MEP

To add to what Mme. Morin-Chartier has said, the Deputy superficially asked about money and where it goes. None of it goes to the company. I shall just list a few headings, however, so that the committee may get a sense of what the funding is being applied for. FÁS training programmes, for example, will get €1.3 million. This will facilitate 500 workers and the cost of each course is €2,600. Workers will avail of that training and FÁS will be paid. FÁS training allowances are given to 500 workers at €5,200 each, which amounts to €2.5 million. There is €3 million at €10,000 per worker envisaged for 300 workers taking third level courses at level six. Another €3 million is provided for the student maintenance grant for 250 students at €12,000. Enterprise Ireland CEB aid for self-employment is in the form of 50 grants of €20,000 each, totalling €1 million. All this provides a flavour of where the money is being spent. None of it goes to the company. It will go to the various agencies that will supply the training and individuals at third level or those who are involved in entrepreneurship will be able to access maintenance grants or grants for setting up their own businesses. The detail of all this is available in the application.

I would like to extend a traditional céad míle fáilte to the committee delegation on their trip to the Irish Parliament. It is great to see our good friends Marian, Proinsias and Joe among them. We wish the committee well in its work in the European Parliament. The MEPs will be aware from the last round of European elections that the public is not connected with Europe to some extent. That is why I welcome the delegation's visit here today and it is most appropriate that it is before the enterprise committee. Maybe we can make a better connection and that can be passed through. Mr. De Rossa and I worked on the city council together and it was great to be able to push a button and a manager would be right next to us and we could see something happening. As we go through the bureaucratic system, it becomes more difficult and bureaucratic. This fund was established in 2007, yet we are talking about it three years later at committee level, so I do not need to say any more.

We should work with the committee to create a model that would apply to any appropriate applications. European money has been made available for small and medium enterprises in Ireland and I understand the banks are processing those applications. I do not know if any of that will be visible at the end of the day because it will be in the big pot. I do not know if we will be able to say whether that money was used to create additional jobs. That is the issue. I appreciate the points made by Mr. De Rossa, MEP, and Ms Harkin, MEP, in respect of FÁS. It is marvellous to have this fund available. I agree that we want to see the benefits on the ground and it is about how we can work together to reach that. I look forward to doing that work with the delegation.

Mr. Proinsias De Rossa, MEP

It is important that we have a two-way process. We are looking for information on this visit. The primary purpose of our visit is to figure out how the EGF can be made more effective on the ground and how it can be improved at our end.

The response to my colleague on the role of this committee has been that the joint committee had no role. Therefore, I take it that the joint committee was not formally informed or given sight of the Dell application, the Waterford application, the SRT application or the Halifax application.

That is correct.

Mr. Proinsias De Rossa, MEP

That is a huge lacuna in the process, because if the Dell workers come to the joint committee demanding to know why the system is not delivering, committee members will have no information about the application in the first place.

That is why we have had to facilitate the Dell workers.

Mr. Proinsias De Rossa, MEP

It seems that in the Irish case, the national Parliament has not been involved so far.

I know that the Dáil is looking at how to implement the new role of national Parliaments under the new Lisbon treaty provisions.

We are looking at that at the moment. We are under severe time pressure at the moment, so I hope Senator Phelan and Deputy Morgan will be succinct.

There will be no preambles. I am sorry I missed the start of the discussion. Ms Harkin, MEP, answered Deputy O'Keeffe's earlier question on who gets the funding, and it understandably does not go to the company. If funding is not allocated and is not disposed of, what happens? Are extra allocations made to people who have been successful, or does it go back to the globalisation fund? Mr. De Rossa pointed out that the decision has been already made in respect of Waterford and that there is no template in place on what might happen in Ireland. Do the national governments receive an indication that an application is likely to be successful prior to a decision, or is it just pure speculation? Do other countries have templates in place so that they are ready to hit the ground running if an application is successful?

I was going to ask a question about the Dell workers, but I think Ms Morin-Chartier dealt with it. There was a 17-month period between closure and a decision being made. I understand from translation that the delay is being examined and that it will not be as great in the future.

In the consideration by the fund of an application, is it possible to have a provision for the workers' representatives to be involved? In the case of SRT, there was some "back and forth" between the fund and the application, which in that case was made by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The workers felt there was a perceived sluggishness on the part of the Department to get back to the fund with some additional questions or clarifications. Mr. De Rossa made an excellent suggestion to involve the committee, because that would provide the business end of the Oireachtas with an input to try to make sure there were no road blocks. This is a good committee in so far as there is no politics in it and we just try to do our business. Nevertheless, I wonder if it would be possible to involve workers' representatives to some degree in making sure those responses are shared with them.

I have one question regarding possible future changes to the fund's operation. At present, the system allows intervention only when a company has lost a certain number of jobs. Has consideration been given to the scenario whereby an area, rather than a company, has lost a certain number of jobs? For instance, one could have a furniture industry comprising ten small companies within a region.

Could this scheme operate on a regional or county level rather than simply on a company basis? The delegation may wrap up all the questions together.

Ms Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, MEP

I will start with some answers and of course my colleagues may fill in if they so wish. First, our aim is to ensure maximum efficiency of this fund and this can be obtained by ensuring that all involved are familiar with the rules to access EGF funding, as well as by ensuring that co-ordination of the entire chain is as efficient as possible. While the rules and regulations are evolving, members can be sure that in the proposals set out in my report, there will be great emphasis placed upon the involvement of the social partners as early on in the process as possible to ensure they are kept informed and there are no misunderstandings as to the recipients of the funds. The funds are not made available directly to workers but to schemes in the interests of workers to ensure retraining, re-qualification and up-skilling. Consequently, the social partners must be involved throughout the process and the same goes for all stakeholders.

An application is submitted by a given country and we are meeting the joint committee because we consider it is important that the representatives of the people, that is, parliamentarians, are involved in this process. As I stated, the application is submitted to the fund at country level. However, it is not only available to companies in which 500 or more workers have been made redundant. Several companies, including subcontractors, can come together and aggregate their request and may put forward an application to the EGF to benefit the country as a whole. For example, one can help a given sector, such as construction, aeronautics or a production chain, whereby several companies involved could put together an application and have right of access to the funds.

There also may be changes to allow big companies to submit a joint request that would cut across borders and would involve two countries that are affected by the same problem, redundancies in the same company or in the same sector. To sum up, I refer to social partner involvement, modalisation at country level involving social partners and diversification in respect of the size of the companies involved to ensure the overall benefits are reaped by all. I was a member of the European Parliament in a previous mandate and have witnessed changes to the EGF as time has gone by. Today, we must ensure we advertise and promote awareness of the fund in order that the EGF really does help to retrain workers to help them to reintegrate into the labour market.

I thank Ms Morin-Chartier. We must conclude. The greatest performance today was given by the translator, Ms Regan, in the course of that last reply and members must compliment her. I believe the joint committee has learned a lot today. The shortest meeting probably is the most efficient.

Thursday is a bad day for votes.

Normally, it is not and I again apologise to the delegation.

Some interesting matters have emerged from this meeting and members certainly will take a more prominent role on foot of the delegation's advocacy today that we should do so. We certainly will be far more fastidious about ensuring we are aware of all the applications and the process. I believe we are entitled to do so under the Lisbon treaty and the joint committee certainly will explore this possibility at that level. The delegation has indicated where changes can be made and the joint committee certainly will pursue them. Moreover, members would be delighted, were the delegation to furnish them with any additional information that might arise from their discussions on how matters are about to progress or change, in order that members could make the relevant amendments to incorporate what the European Parliament is doing. I again thank each member of the delegation for his or her attendance and apologise for the fractured nature of the meeting although I believe most of the witnesses will understand. I hope they enjoy the remainder of their stay in Dublin and again offer the joint committee's thanks to the delegation's translators for the excellent job they have done.