Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Pat Breen): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the motion as Minister of State with responsibility for employment and small business. I remind the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, that I have taken up the same position as his former colleague in this area, Senator Gerald Nash. These responsibilities were assigned to me this afternoon and I look forward to working in this area. I compliment the former Minister of State on the work he did in the Department and wish him well. He is in the Visitors Gallery, having taken up his new role in Seanad Éireann.
Let me reiterate the Government’s support for a social economy model to deliver a strong economy and a fair society. This is a fundamental goal of the Government and underpins the many positive proposals set out in the new programme for a partnership Government. The maintenance and improvement, where possible, of strong protections for workers have been and will continue to be a key element of Government policy as we seek to build on the progress made in recent years in our economic recovery.
As Minister of State with responsibility for employment and small business, I have a particular interest in and have been heartened by the recent CSO figures on employment. It is very encouraging to see job creation continue on a steady, upward curve and unemployment levels continuing to fall. Furthermore, the figures are showing that the improvement in employment levels is spreading across the economy and, importantly, the regions. According to the most recent CSO quarterly figures, employment has grown in 12 of the 14 economic sectors, while the unemployment rate fell in all eight regions in the year to quarter one of 2016. The regional Action Plan for Jobs initiative which was launched in February 2015 aims to build on these positive results. Action plans have been developed and published for each of the State’s eight regions. Each action plan identifies a range of actions to be taken in the period 2015 to 2017 aimed at facilitating each region to achieve its economic potential and raise its employment levels. The focus is on implementation of the eight plans and implementation committees have been established in each region. The first progress reports will be completed and published in quarter three of 2016.
The latest CSO figures show that the number of casual and part-time workers is continuing to fall. In the year to April 2016, the number of such workers fell by 8.3%, or, in real figures, 5,798. This is particularly relevant in the context of this debate and the concerns expressed by some speakers about the increasing casualisation of work.
[Deputy Pat Breen: ] Also noteworthy is the strong downward trend in the figures for part-time underemployment, which declined to 99,100 in the first quarter of 2016 from a high of more than 150,000 in 2012. This is a positive trend as it shows significantly fewer people are in a position where they would accept more work if was available. This good news is an indication that more people are in a better position in terms of their hours of work and earnings. This is not to argue that there are not challenges to be addressed in terms of, for example, the issues raised in the University of Limerick study on zero-hour and low-hour contracts. The Minister explained last night the position in respect of our response to the study. This issue comes within my remit and it is one in which I will take a special interest.
I would like to comment on a specific issue addressed by the Minister last night and raised by almost all speakers during the debate, namely, the position of the former Clerys workers. Many of these workers were in the Visitors Gallery last night and I welcome them back to the House tonight. I am aware of the dignified campaign they have pursued since the closure of Clerys last year. This was brought home to me and the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor last night. I also understand the workers’ motivation is to try to ensure that what happened to them must never happen to others workers. We should stand firmly behind them.
I commend Senator Gerald Nash on the work he did when he was a Minister of State with responsibility for this area. The Government is committed to continuing the work initiated under the previous Administration in responding to the issues surrounding the closure of Clerys. The Duffy-Cahill report is a key element of this response. The report presents a comprehensive analysis of the relevant provisions of employment and company law. It makes a number of proposals for reform of the law, the focus of which is to ensure employees will have the opportunity to consult their employer for a period of not less than 30 days before any collective redundancy takes effect, including in circumstances where the employer is insolvent or solvent and where decisions are being made on an asset of significant value by a person related to the employer, which will lead to collective redundancies. The experts also propose increased sanctions for failure to respect the 30 day consultation period.
The report proposes a number of other reforms to employment law designed to ensure limited liability and corporate restructuring are not used to avoid a company’s obligations to its employees. The experts stress that the various proposals they make need to be considered in conjunction with each other, as no single proposal will provide solutions to the issues in question.
As the Minister informed the House last night, a public consultation on the report was launched earlier this week. I remind all interested parties that the consultation period will be short as the closing date is 17 June. It is important, therefore, that those who wish to make a submission on the report do so within the next two weeks. In this respect, my Department has drawn up a consultation document to assist interested parties in responding to the report. The document is available on the Department’s website. I urge all concerned, including the small business sector, to respond to the consultation. I also urge interested parties to address the specific questions raised in the consultation document. This will help in our consideration of the report and in presenting proposals to Government with a view to agreeing the actions to be taken.
I assure the House of the Government’s commitment to build on the progress made in recent years in returning more people to work, reducing unemployment and improving the living standards of all. In pursuing these goals we remain committed to maintaining and improving the protections for all workers, the most vulnerable in particular.