Taoiseach Micheál Martin has condemned the fate of Debenhams workers by the company saying they have been “shabbily treated”.
Speaking during his first Leaders’ Questions as Taoiseach, Mr Martin said it was particularly regrettable that the company closed in the context of Covid-19.
“Debenhams has treated the workers very poorly and in a shabby way and it is wrong to do so. The Deputy is correct that the company has availed of the legal framework within the Companies Act in regard to solvencies, winding-up and so on, to leave the workers extremely short,” he said.
“The State will have to do its bit to provide, within the legal framework, what it can in terms of statutory redundancy, but it is unacceptable. In my view, the legislation will have to be re-examined in terms of the devices that companies may use, separating out assets from trading income in particular, to deprive workers of their just entitlements in terms of redundancy,” he said.
“This will not be an easy task because reform of any legislation can have unintended consequences. This issue is referenced in the programme for Government. It is an area on which work will commence in terms of examing the overall company law situation with a view to reducing the capacity of companies to deny workers their entitlements in terms of redundancy and workers' rights generally when a company is winding up.
"The sense is that Covid-19 was used as a basis for closing the company and leaving 1,500 people out of work,” he said.
He was responding to questions from Richard Boyd Barrett who said he welcomed the Taoiseach's words, as I am sure the Debenhams workers will, of sympathy and his condemnation of how Debenhams has treated them.
“But the test is what the Government will do about it. We need to act urgently to do everything we can to make sure that Debenhams will not get away with manipulating the law as it stands to siphon off its assets,” he said.
“Its failure to consult workers, and the fact that the State may have to pay out the statutory redundancy, gives us certain leverage under that legislation for the insolvency fund to go after the assets of Debenhams, and we should do that.
It tried to siphon off those assets but was prevented because of the heroic protests of the workers.
"There are echoes of the Dunnes Stores-South Africa strike battle on those picket lines,” he added.
Debenhams must not be allowed to take their assets, he said. “The assets should be liquidated to the benefit of the workers to ensure a just settlement for them.
"There is a great deal at stake because this is not just about Debenhams workers. We face potentially tens of thousands of similar redundancies and this is a test,” he said.
Mr Martin said he will not raise expectations that cannot be delivered on, by interfering in the liquidation process or making interventions that could not be legally sustained.
“For the existing workforce, the liquidation process and how we can leverage the remaining assets to secure the rights of workers is a challenging and complex issue, as the Deputy knows deep down. I accept his bona fides in respect of what he wishes to happen on behalf of the workers and understand where he is coming from in that regard,” he added.
Labour leader Alan Kelly said the Taoiseach has probably had the shortest honeymoon period of any incoming Taoiseach in the history of the State.
“I think it lasted about two hours before some of his colleagues started turning on him. It has continued for the last week and a half even up to today,” he said.
“He has had to manage a considerable amount of unrest, commencing with open criticism from his own party.
As we now know, one of his Ministers has now had to apologise to him and has had to apologise quite publicly for his driving ban while on a provisional licence.
"We will deal with that matter later and I hope we get full clarity,” he said.
“In the same week, the Minister for Health has stood over an interview in which he admitted taking illegal drugs. That is another matter that requires to be teased out further by the Taoiseach. A Fianna Fáil MEP ignored the requirement for quarantine when he travelled to the Taoiseach's inauguration,” he added.
RISE TD Paul Murphy sought to oppose the order of business on the grounds Agriculture Minister Barry Cowen would not face questions on his drink-driving statement.
Mr Murphy said it had been the norm in the last Dáil during issues of controversy for ministers to face question from opposition TDs.
Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail told TDs that “Deputy Barry Cowen, made a request to me in accordance with Standing Order 56, which relates to providing a personal explanation to the Dáil. I have acceded to the request and provided time for the Minister to do this later this evening.
"Standing Order 56 specifically precludes a debate or questions. This is not unprecedented and in the history of this Chamber there have been numerous statements made in this way.
"This method was chosen by the Minister, Deputy Cowen, and the request was acceded to by me. That is the end of that particular matter,” he said.
Mr Murphy sought to argue the case but Independent TD Mattie McGrath hit out at Mr Murphy’s attempt to oppose the order of business, accusing the RISE TD of engaging in “showboating and shenanigans”.
“I attended the Business Committee meeting yesterday and there was no request from Deputy Cowen or any other group for time in this regard. This is just showboating and shenanigans. The correct procedure is being used for the Minister's statement and we will all wait to hear it,” he said.
Mr Murphy insisted the matter went to a vote but was defeated by 30 votes to 14 with Labour and a number of independents voting with the government.