Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Question 70: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the contingency plans in place to ensure that customer services are not affected by the ongoing industrial dispute within her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24897/08]
The Civil Public and Services Union, CPSU, the union which represents clerical and supervisory grades in the Civil Service, is currently engaged in industrial action in pursuit of a claim for the extension of flexi time bands in the Department. Initially, the industrial action commenced with the withdrawal of co-operation with the implementation of a new time and attendance system by the Department. The implementation of the new system had been agreed in November 2006 as part of the Department's Towards 2016 modernisation action plan, progress on which has been the basis for pay awards under the agreement.
Industrial action was escalated with effect from 28 April 2008 to include the withdrawal of lunch-time service to the public at the Department's local offices and not answering telephones during the lunch-time period across the Department. Discussions at a departmental level were unable to resolve the issue. Following the intervention of the National Implementation Body, the parties were referred to facilitation discussions at the Labour Relations Commission. At the end of two sessions, on 29 May and 12 June, agreement was not reached.
The CPSU escalated industrial action, with effect from 16 June, to include not answering telephones in all of the Department's offices and a ban on overtime. However, on foot of a statement issued by the National Implementation Body on 19 June 2008 and the agreement of both the Department and the CPSU to engage in further discussions at the LRC, the CPSU stood down the escalated action that had been in effect from Monday 16 June. In accordance with the recommendation of the National Implementation Body the discussions at the LRC are to be completed by 1 July 2008.
Pending resolution of the dispute the Department's local offices will be closed and telephones will not be answered during lunch-hour. However, apart from this, services are being provided as normal.
Clients who may be unable to attend at a local office during current opening hours may continue to make application for various payments by post. Application forms are widely available at post offices, citizens information bureaus and on the Department's website www.welfare.ie.
It is not envisaged that the current dispute will lead to delays in payments, but the matter will be kept under review. I was reassured to hear the assistant general secretary of the CPSU state in an interview on national radio that "nobody's payment will be affected" and that it will continue to be a priority that "nobody suffers in terms of payments".
Some improvement in resolving matters has occurred since I tabled this question last week. As I was not allowed raise and get a response to this matter on the Order of Business, I raised it by way of tabling this question.
Has a backlog of work been created as a result of the industrial action to date? I appreciate the Minister said the industrial action has not caused the stoppage or prevention of payments to people, but is there concern that such industrial action has created or will create in the period up to 1 July a backlog of work in the Department's offices? I received correspondence, which I am aware the Minister also received, as it was copied to me, from people who experienced difficulty contacting the Department's offices and who have complained to us on that basis. This is the key issue, namely, whether as a result of the inconvenience caused by the industrial action a backlog of work has been created and, if it has, how the Minister intends to address it.
I am not aware of any backlog and it is unlikely one would develop at this stage, particularly now that the escalation of the strike has been stood down. It is important that people realise that given that applications must be made in writing, that they will be dealt with. People should download the relevant forms or obtain them from the Department's offices and submit their applications.
Our intention always is to serve the public. We want to ensure the best possible service continues to be delivered, as is the case in all the local offices throughout the country, and to ensure people can get the information they need and have their applications processed.
At present, local offices will be closed during lunch-hour and telephones will not be answered during that period. Hopefully people will be able to contact the offices during office hours outside lunch-hour. Given that the people concerned will engage in further discussions at the Labour Relations Commission tomorrow, I sincerely hope both sides can reach a resolution of the dispute in the interests of the public.
Difficulties arose initially about flexi time hours. Some concern was expressed that if the dispute escalated, which hopefully will not happen now, it could affect the agencies under the remit of the Minister's Department. Does she have an concern about that or has that issue been brought to her attention?
No it has not been brought to my intention that there is any danger or likelihood of that happening. It is probably a bit early to be discussing these issues, given that discussions on this matter will take place at the Labour Relations Commission tomorrow and that the advice is to have it resolved before 1 July, which will be next week.