Dáil debates

Thursday, 8 December 2005

7:00 pm

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Having listened to the budget debate and the many billions of euro being spent in each Department, it should be easy enough to sort out my problem. I appeal to the Minister in that context, in the hope of finding a solution. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is very much aware of the issue I bring to the House, the plight of the Comerama workers. As we know, the factory closed on 28 November 2002. On 12 December 2002, public representatives from Kilkenny, the unions, workers and officials of the Department met the Tánaiste who gave an unambiguous commitment that the workers would benefit from the improved statutory redundancy being provided for in legislation that was due to be introduced at that time in the House. The shop steward attending the meeting, Eamon Nolan, based on that commitment concerning the legislation, recommended acceptance of the package before them on the basis that they would benefit from further redundancy. The factory was then wound up.

If the commitment had not been given on that day I have no doubt arrangements could have been put in place to fix a later date for the wind-down of the factory so that the employees could benefit from the legislation due to be introduced and the redundancy which would follow on from that. I accept that a mistake was made at that meeting, in that the proposed legislation could not be applied retrospectively. Given that a shop steward brought the workforce with him and agreed to the closure based on the commitment from the Tánaiste, we have a moral obligation to pay the workforce the €910,000 that would have been due to it. This equates to roughly €10,000 per person.

As the circumstances of the case are unique, it should be possible to ring-fence that payment. It may be possible for the union to agree to the ring-fencing of that payment to the Comerama workforce through the social partnership process so that this money can be paid to the workforce. Correspondence from various Ministers and the Taoiseach's office addressed the many issues relating to the closure of Comerama but none have addressed the suggestions by the workforce through its union representative, Phil Funchion. It is now time to address these issues and to inform the workforce of the Government's intention.

The workers met Ministers, most recently the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche. I have made representations on their behalf, as have all the other Oireachtas representatives from Kilkenny. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle raised the matter in the House some time ago. The correspondence received by Oireachtas Members from SIPTU last week was a truthful recollection of the meeting that took place in which the Tánaiste gave a commitment to the workers. I accept that a mistake may have been made but based on that commitment the workforce took a certain course of action and they should not be penalised for it. The outcome should be the payment of €10,000 each for the Comerama workers.

The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, was good enough to meet the workforce and listen to their appeals, as well as mine and those of other Oireachtas Members on many occasions in this House. I urge him to try to find a way to fulfil the commitment given by the unions so the payment can be ring-fenced and made to the workers. If a way can be found to ring-fence this money the political will is there to ensure the payments are made. I urge the Minister to look favourably on the case made in recent weeks by the union, SIPTU, and the workers involved at this time of goodwill.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy McGuinness for raising this matter on the Adjournment. He has been very sincere in tenaciously pursuing this issue in recent years. I recognise that other Deputies have done likewise and discussed it with me. The matter has been raised in this House on a number of occasions.

From the outset, I wish to state that neither I nor my predecessor have ever given any commitment to the former workforce at Comerama in respect of their entitlements under the redundancy payments legislation enacted in 2003. On 12 December 2002, following the announcement of the closure of the Comerama factory with a loss of more than 160 jobs, the Tánaiste, together with officials of the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment met a SIPTU delegation representing the Comerama workers. As I understand from the official minutes of that meeting, the main concern of the workers, many, if not most of whom, had already been made redundant, was that if a deal on enhanced redundancy rates was made under the partnership process, it should be retrospective with regard to the workers concerned. In this context the Tánaiste gave an undertaking to do everything she could to ensure that the Comerama workers would get the retrospection. This undertaking was recorded in the official note of the meeting prepared by the official attending as follows:

An Tánaiste said that talks were on going in relation to the Statutory Redundancy issue. She gave an undertaking that if the legislation is changed she would do everything she could to ensure that the Comerama workers would be included in any amendment.

At the time neither the Tánaiste nor the officials attending the meeting were aware of the legal principle established by the courts that the Legislature cannot impose retrospective financial obligations on employers, or indeed anybody else. This was subsequently confirmed in legal advice given to my Department. The legal advice from the Attorney General was that: (i) The enhanced statutory redundancy payments require legislation to be enacted in order to be brought into effect, and; (ii) As the payment of a statutory redundancy lump sum is a legal requirement on employers, it could not be imposed on them with retrospective effect. In fact, employers are entitled to due notice, usually about two months, of the intention to legally require them to pay enhanced rates.

This legal position was communicated to the Comerama workers. Both the Tánaiste and I very much regret, therefore, that it was not possible to apply the new legislative provisions on enhanced redundancy payments to the Comerama workers or any other workers with retrospective effect after the new provisions came into effect in May 2003. The factual position in regard to the former workers of Comerama is that 154 of them had been made redundant long before the new rates of redundancy came into effect. As I understand it, they received substantially more than the then statutory rate in settlement with the company. Some 13 workers, who were made redundant by the liquidator of the company since May 2003, have been paid the new enhanced statutory rates from the social insurance fund by the Department. However, these amounts were less than the settlements received by the 154 workers who were made redundant before the company went into liquidation and received ex gratia payments.

Subsequently, at the request of the Tánaiste, two officials of this Department met a delegation of workers and union representatives at the factory premises in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny on Monday, 23 June 2003, to discuss the situation regarding the new rates of statutory redundancy in regard to the employees of the company, who were made redundant in December 2002 and January 2003. The union officials and the workers' representatives spoke at the meeting. They made the case that the workers who had already been made redundant up to January 2003 before the new enhanced rates came into force in May 2003 should be retrospectively paid these enhanced rates. However, on a voluntary basis, the company had already paid these workers about 3.2 times the then statutory rate. The two officials who travelled to Castlecomer were told by the Comerama workers that they had, at the time of their negotiations with their employer on redundancy terms, been prepared to accept, in final settlement of their redundancy claim, the 60% rebate the employer was entitled to claim and receive from the SIF. It is quite clear that no one, save the employer has any say in what he does with the 60% refund paid from the SIF, which he has claimed and to which he was legally entitled.

The case was also made on behalf of these workers that if it was not legally possible to meet their claim for payment of the enhanced rates, the Government should consider bringing a scheme to the Oireachtas to enable them to be paid the enhanced rates from the SIF, as a special case. This proposal was brought to the attention of the Tánaiste and actively considered but was ultimately deemed impractical. It would mean making a special case for the workers concerned on the basis that they had missed out by being made redundant quite a while before the new enhanced rates were passed by the Oireachtas into law. Many thousands of other workers are in a similar position and could make a case for special treatment. Unfortunately, for the workers concerned, my Department is precluded from paying the enhanced rates of redundancy with retrospective effect. Suggestions were made regarding the utilisation of the national implementation body in this matter. The role of that body is to ensure delivery of the stability and peace provisions of Sustaining Progress. As the redundancy element of Sustaining Progress contains no provisions regarding retrospection, the national implementation body has no role in this matter.

Of those made redundant, 150 attended for interviews with FÁS. Subsequently, 136 people were called for training and 98 of these attended. Most of this training took place between February and June 2003. Some further training was provided for a total of 35 individuals. Training was completed in 2003 and at that time, FÁS records indicated that 50% of the workforce who had engaged with FÁS on training programmes had progressed to employment.

There have been numerous representations made on this matter both to me and to my predecessor, and, over the past two and a half years, a large number of parliamentary questions have been tabled with regard to the Comerama workers. Notwithstanding this, the position has not altered. The payment of a statutory redundancy lump sum is a legal requirement on employers and cannot be imposed on them with retrospective effect. There are no legal provisions for making additional payments from the public purse to the 154 workers or those made redundant by the liquidator.

I am satisfied that everything possible was done to ensure that the Comerama workers got their full redundancy entitlements and that no commitment was given, nor could one be given, to retrospectively enhance statutory redundancy payments. I met the unions some time ago and recently discussed with my officials all the issues raised at that meeting, in particular, the issue of ringfencing. I do not consider it possible to facilitate the award of redundancy payments to one set of workers without extending them to everybody else made redundant before the new enhanced rates were introduced. I acknowledge the Deputy's concerns but hope that people equally acknowledge the issues facing the Government on this issue.

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important matter on the Adjournment debate. I ask the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food to intervene to save the jobs of 100 people who work or, I should say, used to work, in his Department in Davitt House, County Mayo, who are being forced to move to Portlaoise or deploy to alternative employment in the Garda's PULSE system. However, these are no substitutes for their former jobs. It beggars belief that people already decentralised to County Mayo are now being forced to transfer to Portlaoise. The Government constantly raises the importance of decentralisation but this group, which is already decentralised, is being forced to return to the centre. It is a desperate, difficult and scandalous situation.

The alternative employment being offered in County Mayo represents no choice because it is completely different and involves shift work. People are being offered 25% extra as an incentive to move to shift work, but that is a poor substitute for the loss of existing terms and conditions, which is what this amounts to. The other option is to work as a driver tester, but that is a laugh because, even after spending six weeks in training in Dublin, the contract will end in 18 months.

Morale is at an all time low in Davitt House in Castlebar, County Mayo, and justice demands that the Minister intervenes immediately in this terrible situation. Of the 100 people concerned, 16 have opted for the PULSE system but they will be working shifts which include weekends and nights. The incentive is 25%, whereas 40% can be earned in the private sector. It is certainly not an equal situation and, in addition, they are losing their terms and conditions.

While people are being forced to think about transferring to Portlaoise, many will not go. People will lose their jobs in County Mayo, which will be to Portlaoise's gain because 80 temporary people will have to be employed there to substitute for the work of the Castlebar staff. That sounds like a recentralisation rather than a decentralisation programme. With 16 people having undergone PULSE training, 84 are left in this desperate situation. While decentralisation has been a disaster, it does not make sense to take the people concerned from County Mayo when they are willing and prepared to work there.

County Mayo has suffered greatly. The mid-term review of the national development plan revealed underspending in the county. The county airport is seeking €15 million for the years 2005-07. We are being left without these resources. The western corridor has a deficit in spending of €200 million, although all we needed was €365. People are talking about these matters. Agriculture is winding down and industrial jobs are going to China and elsewhere. The few jobs we have as a result of decentralisation are also being taken away.

I ask the Minister of State to address the issue because, even after today's budget, the situation in County Mayo has not improved. My area continues to lack an ambulance base, despite the minimum requirement of a base every 20 miles. The other night, my colleague, a GP, had difficulties in finding an ambulance for a man whose eyes had all but burned out of his head. However, he could not locate one because only two ambulances are available for the entire county. It is the third largest county in Ireland, with a population of 120,000, yet this doctor could not find an ambulance in a hurry. The patient concerned had to travel from County Mayo because there is no eye unit in Mayo General Hospital.

I ask the Minister of State to intervene in the situation concerning the Department of Agriculture and Food. It is important that the county retains whatever jobs it has and I hope that he will respond in some way to this plea.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Minister of State, Department of Agriculture and Food; Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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The introduction of the single payment system, SPS, brought about a reduced workload for Department of Agriculture and Food staff in Castlebar previously involved with headage and livestock premia payments. The work concerned with the single payment scheme is in the process of being centralised to Portlaoise. At present, there are approximately 135 staff in the Castlebar office and, while they have been assisting with the roll-out of the SPS, approximately 100 will need to be redeployed to other work in the near future.

At the outset I want to state clearly that none of my Department's staff in Castlebar has been forced to go to Portlaoise and none will be made redundant. However, to assist with the delivery of the single payment scheme, volunteers from my Department's local offices, including Castlebar, were asked to transfer temporarily to Portlaoise and were paid the appropriate travel and subsistence rates.

My Department, together with the Department of Finance and other Departments, is working to identify opportunities for redeployment of our Castlebar staff to other work. Given that my Department now finds itself in a situation where it is experiencing staff surpluses, this will inevitably mean transferring staff to fill vacancies in other Departments. At all times, they will continue to be employed as civil servants on the same terms and conditions that they currently hold. There are no proposals to relocate any staff to a town or location other than where they are currently based. The only exception will be where staff volunteer to transfer to another location.

My Department is pursuing a number of different strategies to provide our staff in Castlebar with a number of options in the short and medium term. One option open to staff is to transfer to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in Castlebar. That Department, in conjunction with the Garda Síochána, has established the Garda information services centre, GISC, which will perform some administrative functions for the Garda. This centre will be situated in Michael Davitt House and, when fully rolled out, will have a staffing complement of 161 people. While the majority of staff in GISC will be required to work on a shift basis, there are about 40 positions within the centre where staff will continue to work on a normal day basis and these are being reserved for Department of Agriculture and Food staff based in Castlebar. The transfer of staff to shift work will be on a voluntary basis. With regard to the provision for training for civil servants, the Garda has specifically developed a month-long full training programme for administrative staff working in GISC.

Additional possible options may include transferring to other Departments based in Castlebar and my Department has been in contact with these Departments to pursue this matter. A number of staff in Castlebar have applied to move to other locations in County Mayo under the Government's decentralisation programme. Accordingly, my Department has had discussions with the Department of Finance and other Departments on the possibility of advancing the plans of Departments which are decentralising to County Mayo.