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Leaders' Questions (Continued)

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1000 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett] That should make the Government sit up and act in a way that it has so far failed to do to intervene for these workers, since Debenhams is effectively threatening the State as a creditor. All this is based on spurious claims which are being discussed at the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the failure of the Government to implement the Duffy-Cahill report and the way that companies like Debenhams hide assets which should be used in this case to pay a decent redundancy to workers. The online business and other Debenhams assets have been hidden even though Debenhams stood in court in April and said that an online business worth at least €30 million was an asset of the Irish company, which it is now claiming is an asset of the British company. All this is contrived to deny these workers a just redundancy and now, possibly, to rob Revenue and the State of money. Will this finally prompt the Taoiseach to engage with the Debenhams shop stewards to force the liquidator to sit down with those shop stewards to secure a just settlement where the actual, real assets of the company are used to give them the just redundancy and save them from having to stay on the picket line for the coming winter months?

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I have said numerous times in the House that the staff in Debenhams have been treated very unfairly and appallingly in this very protracted dispute by the company. In fairness to the Deputy he has raised this issue consistently in the House and he is anxious that talks would develop. KPMG was approached to enter talks on behalf of Debenhams to try and resolve the outstanding claims. Those talks, which were being facilitated by the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, unfortunately broke down on Monday. I will contact colleagues in government to see where we take this now in terms of the situation which has emerged. I am not satisfied with that. I acknowledge the stance that the workers have taken to protect themselves. The Government has constraints with the legal framework on how liquidations are managed in the courts, which we must respect. I hoped these exploratory talks under the aegis of the WRC might lead to a pathway to resolve the issue once and for all. It has not borne fruit but my view is we should try to resurrect it. I will discuss it with colleagues this week to see if we can inject anything new into this to resolve it, particularly for the workers. The Ministers of State are meeting with the social partners today to discuss the Duffy-Cahill report and also reforms around redundancy and how best to progress those. We will do everything we can within the current constraints to resolve this for the workers.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett The Taoiseach has an invitation to meet the shop stewards today to hear directly from them. They are also holding an online mass meeting on Thursday. The Taoiseach is also invited to that and they would be very happy for him to attend to hear from them.

Successive Governments failed to legislate for Duffy-Cahill and now Debenhams find themselves in a situation where a company is once again hiding assets. Staff are furious that the Government, Revenue and the liquidator show no interest in the fact that the directors of Debenhams Ireland stated explicitly that the online business worth €30 million in 2018, and almost certainly more in 2019, has not been pursued while Debenhams says it has nothing, despite the balance sheet which it put forward in court during pre-liquidation showed a balance of €30 million as at the end of 2019. That is three times more than would be necessary to pay their workers their just redundancy yet neither the Government nor the liquidator show any interest in pursuing these assets from a company that swore in court that it had these assets magicked those assets over to Britain a few weeks later, pretending they did not exist. They are asking the State to go after those assets to pay the just redundancy as well as Revenue the money that Debenhams owes them.

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin If only it was as simple as the Deputy articulates it, but it is not and he knows that. That is the unfortunate reality. The implementation of the Duffy-Cahill recommendations would not have resolved this. The Government is committed to and is undertaking the reform of company law, particularly in improving the rights of workers where collective agreements have been formulated and signed off by both employers and unions and to give greater and stronger protection to such collective agreements in the event of liquidations than currently. That should happen and the Government is committed to making that happen but retrospectively applying that will not resolve this situation.

I have maintained an interest in this issue all along. I have not led people up a hill with a view that it can all be resolved very easily. My gut instinct is that it cannot, particularly when the liquidation is in the High Court and within the Court's parameters and procedures. Governments cannot just walk in and make declaratory interventions of the kind that the Deputy suggests. That said, I will still try to exhaust every opportunity to try to get some meaningful response for the workers concerned. I regret that the WRC channel has not borne fruit and that the talks broke down earlier this week.

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle As we read in a message quoted in that infamous Village magazine article, a WhatsApp message dated 6 November 2019 said: “Leo literally couldn’t give a f--- about the refugees. It’s Flanagan’s baby. There would be a huge amount of work required to get it over the line.” November 2019 was the 20th birthday of Flanagan’s baby and there have been many reports about the need to change the system for applicants for international protection here and calls to end direct provision.

  In December 2019, the interdepartmental group on direct provision reported to the Minister of Justice and Equality. The group was to review the implementation of our obligations under the EU Reception Conditions Directive. One recommendation was that applicants for international protection be accommodated in short-stay congregated reception and screening centres and then moved to permanent State-provided or leased accommodation centres. This is at odds with the more recent Report of the Advisory Group on the Provision of Support including Accommodation to Persons in the International Protection Process, submitted in September 2020 and recently published. This advisory group, chaired by Catherine Day, recommended “ending the congregated and segregated accommodation of applicants for international protection and providing own-door accommodation sourced through the local authorities within three months of an application for protection.”

  Which report recommendations does the Taoiseach plan to implementing? When will the White Paper be available for review?

  In August 2020, Powerless – Experiences of Direct Provision During the Covid-19 Pandemic, a report by the Irish Refugee Council, was published. It outlines a chronology of key events and shows that the Government was asked that vulnerable people be moved out of cramped direct provision accommodation on 22 March. On 23 April the Ombudsman's annual report on direct provision was published. By 8 May, advocates and organisations were calling for the closure of the Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen. By 19 May, 171 cases of Covid-19 were reported in 13 clusters in direct provision settings and the following week the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response looked at congregated settings. By the end of July, the residents of the Skellig Star Hotel were on hunger strike to highlight the inhumane conditions there. It was reported that approximately 1,600 people remained in shared bedrooms in August.

  Also, in August, we learned that the Department of Justice was using resources to examine social media posts that are critical of direct provision.

  This week, it emerged that two healthcare workers have been denied leave to remain in Ireland, despite having worked in nursing homes throughout the pandemic.

  On 1 November 2020, the Sunday Independent reported that a mother in a direct provision centre claimed she was locked into her room without food or access to care during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic while waiting to be moved to the HSE isolation centre.

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