Tuesday, 28 April 2009
I wish to raise with the Taoiseach the matter of people being able to get to work. People are under serious pressure with 1,000 jobs a day being lost, some houses being repossessed, families under pressure with mortgages and fears about jobs being lost. These pressures are added to the normal pressures of society. The Taoiseach will be aware that in November 2007, a total of 60,000 commuters in north Dublin were stranded for a week without public transport and they could not get to work. Today, a total of 150,000 commuters were left stranded because of the unofficial and wildcat dispute at the Harristown bus depot, which spread to two other depots but which has now been retracted somewhat. The CIE group does not appear to be able to change with the times and even the most minor of changes cause absolute mayhem.
I met a woman this morning who had driven from County Cavan for an appointment in the Mater hospital. She had no bus transport and eventually got a taxi in order to get to her appointment. The pressure on people and on society as a consequence of this wildcat dispute is indicative of the way the Government has been unable to manage the affairs of the nation which in a broader sense has brought about a collapse in so many areas. The people of Dublin deserve better than this.
We should not be in a position in 2009 where because of a monopoly situation, 150,000 commuters were stranded this morning. It is a case of "your own way to work". Governments have given €4.7 billion to Bus Éireann and this group in the past ten years - €2 billion in capital and €2.7 billion for running routes. Yet this morning because of this unofficial dispute, not supported by unions, 150,000 people are left stranded. We have reports of intimidation, of rocks being thrown at buses as drivers attempted to take them out of the depot and of one female driver who was so intimidated she had to return to the depot. This is not good enough. The people of Dublin deserve better.
Has the Government reviewed this with a view to opening it up to real competition? It is more than ten years since the late Minister, Seamus Brennan, produced his document on opening up competition for Dublin Bus. Will the Government examine the possibility of opening it up to competition and what does the Taoiseach intend to do about the 150,000 people who are stranded and do not know what will happen tomorrow?
I join with everybody in the House in deeply regretting the fact that unofficial action took place, which meant major inconvenience for many loyal commuters of Bus Átha Cliath during the past couple of days. It is very much regretted that this was the case. It is not fair on commuters or on the bus drivers who want to get back to work. Everybody agrees that early implementation of Dublin Bus's cost recovery plan is urgently required in order that the company can avoid a projected operating deficit of more than €30 million for this year. It is accepted that Dublin Bus must take action to secure operational efficiencies and to reduce costs in order to maintain services at the highest level possible while stabilising its financial position. Failure to implement that plan would give rise to very serious financial losses for the company.
Dublin Bus's cost recovery plan was accepted following a labour court recommendation comprising a pay pause, reduction of 120 buses, changes to travelling time, reallocation of duties, schedule redesign and changes, limits on compensation and disturbance allowances, changes to paid breaks and overtime arrangements and reduction in support staff and trainers. The changes were signalled and discussed at local level. The most recent update on the issue is that drivers are returning to work at Harristown and that buses are leaving the depot with full service expected tomorrow.
I accept that it is greatly to be regretted that there was any disruption of services. The well-established industrial relations procedures need to be adhered to. Where Labour Court recommendations are brought forward in such circumstances it is important in the interests of best industrial practice that the recommendations are followed and that the spirit and content of those recommendations are respected. That did not happen uniformly in this case and subsequently it was an action that took wider consequences in the past 36 hours.
Deputy Kenny makes a point with which we would all agree. It is important that industrial relations procedures are such that inconvenience is avoided, particularly given the important public service that is being provided for many commuters who are going to work or conducting their daily business. To do so without notice undermines the efforts of many to ensure the necessary cost-recovery plans are put in place. That lesson needs to be learned in the interests of the company and everybody who works in it.
I am sure it is a coincidence that since the Taoiseach and I stood up here the action has been called off and I welcome that. The fact remains that 150,000 people were stranded this morning. It is difficult for Ministers, who have been driven by State transport for the past decade, to appreciate the pressure people are under.
Martin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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Some of us catch the bus.
The commuter does not mind what colour the bus is provided it is efficient, safe, reliable and economical. Dublin Bus loses a substantial amount of money every week. The Government is supposed to be in charge. Social partnership has been a valuable entity in the past number of years but this was a wild-cat action leaving 150,000 stranded. Has anybody examined a document in the files of the Department, produced by one of the Taoiseach's predecessors, Michael O'Kennedy, on strike procedures for essential services? This goes back a long way. Does the Government have a view on this? Does it believe there should be a no-strike clause for essential services? Does it believe a moratorium should be applied where a dispute will arise that could be dealt with in an intervening period to ensure the public are not disrupted in getting to and from work?
If CIE is unable to supply a proper service for the commuters of Dublin, should operators which can provide a service be brought in? Many private operators throughout the country would be more than willing to tender for consideration for new routes and provide real competition for Dublin Bus and benefit the consumer. Has the Government considered the famous O'Kennedy document, updated by the documents of the late Jim Mitchell and the late Seamus Brennan, on transport for Dublin? Has the Government considered real competition? What is the Government's view on a no-strike clause for essential services? When does it expect real competition will be provided on this route to ensure 150,000 consumers and commuters will not be stranded again?
Is it not indicative of the failure of this, the worst Government of 50 years, that it failed to put in place a procedure that allows for people to get to and from work? Harassed and pressurised though they are, they are still willing to turn up and do their duty, but the State has failed to provide a mechanism whereby essential services are protected from disruption by wild-cat strikes. That responsibility rests with the Government and I would like to hear the Taoiseach's views on how he intends to sort it out.
It is important to say we should not have unofficial action, but it is also important not to characterise all trade union activity on the basis that there was unofficial action. The unofficial action is atypical of the reaction of organised workers to such issues. Unofficial action should be avoided at all costs and in all circumstances. There is competition on commercial routes. It is intended that any new PSO routes from December onwards will be open to competition in a regulated, sensible way which will maintain quality and access to services for people, provide choice and will not put at risk the significant investment in public transport services. This investment has improved the product and provision of services to bus and train passengers. That is the approach that must be taken.
I hold no brief for unofficial action. It is unfair on commuters and on those who wish to attend for work, to get on with their business in accordance with the established procedures and who follow their unions' position on acceptance and implementation of a labour court recommendation. This recommendation is about resolving an important financial problem to the tune of more than €30 million in deficit for that company were that Labour Court recommendation not implemented. Let us make a differentiation. Those who were involved in unofficial action were wrong. It is not the way to proceed. It causes great inconvenience to commuters and is not in line with best industrial practice. It undermines the purpose and reason there should be active engagement between workers and their representatives and management. It should not be categorised as a generality, although I agree it has consequences way beyond what was merited in the first instance and should not have occurred. We are in the process of ensuring we bring forward competition on routes in a way that will enhance the service for the commuter in a regulated and sensible manner.
I welcome that the industrial action of unofficial stoppage in Dublin Bus has ended. I echo the statement issued yesterday by the Labour Party spokesperson on transport, Deputy Broughan, who promptly called for a return to work and I hope there will not be a repetition of the kind of unofficial action we have seen which has caused so much disruption to commuters and people in Dublin.
This was one of the many issues raised with me during recent days since we met in the House last Thursday. People are also worried about their jobs and fear losing them. I have come across business people and self-employed people who complain they cannot get any assistance from State agencies in these difficult times. They are concerned there is a continuing problem with the banks and that they are not able to get credit. I have met people who are concerned about new reports in respect of cancer services, this time in Waterford. More recently, people are concerned about the possibility of a flu epidemic. They wonder what action the Government is taking to deal with the cases that have emerged and the tests being undertaken. They are worried there might be a spread of this flu.
In these circumstances, people want a sense there is a Government which is in charge of such matters and is on top of them. Over the course of the weekend what we heard was a series of reports telling us this Fianna Fáil Government is riven with division. It is understandable that a Minister of State who was dropped from office will express disappointment but by the normal standards of disappointment the statements made by the former Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment are extraordinary. The former Minister of State, Deputy John McGuinness, tells us there is now paralysis within the Fianna Fáil Government.
He says she is not up to the job. He says, "she is not equipped to deal with the complex issues facing her Department and neither is her Department". When the Tánaiste issued a statement denying he had said he had no confidence in her, in a further statement Deputy McGuinness claimed he said to her face at a meeting on 11 March that he had no confidence in her. He went on to say, "she has heard nothing and acted on nothing that business leaders have been telling her since her appointment".
If Deputy Kenny or I said any of that in the House in respect of the Tánaiste I know the kind of response the Taoiseach would give us. Today I want to know what is the Taoiseach's response to Deputy McGuinness and to the other members of his party who, in thinly disguised anonymity in the Sunday newspapers, have repeated virtually the same story.
I reject those criticisms of the Tánaiste. I believe she has been hardworking, as any Minister concerned with employment in the present circumstances must be, having to contend with the most severe international recession this country has seen or any Minister in her position in any other Government has seen. On all occasions, and even as we speak today, she is working with Irish entrepreneurs and employers trying to get more business for this country. She is working well and those who work with her and have seen her representing the country in that capacity have had nothing but praise for her efforts.
I do not deal with anonymity in any guise, whether it is thinly or thickly veiled. This Government has the support of the majority of this House to continue with a consistent policy framework which is difficult and is making an imposition on people, involving hardship for them. However, we are committed to it because we believe it is in the long-term and short-term interests of the country. Of course the Opposition has many opportunities to tell the House what is wrong and what is right and all the rest of it. The bottom line is that this Government is committed to continuing the work it is doing and the Tánaiste has my full support and that of those who support the Government.
I remind the Taoiseach that these criticisms come not from the Opposition but from his own side of the House. As far as I and the Labour Party are concerned the Tánaiste has our support in the work she is doing today. We want her mission abroad to succeed. These are comments that have come from a Minister of State appointed originally by the Taoiseach's predecessor and reappointed by the Taoiseach. He was the Tánaiste's deputy in that Department for the course of the past year since the Taoiseach appointed Deputy Coughlan as Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Whatever divisions, uisce-fé-thalamh and machinations are going on behind the Taoiseach's back are a matter for him and his party. The concern they are to the rest of us and to the wider public is that the Taoiseach and his leadership team are spending their time now and for the next number of months looking over their shoulders and behind them, looking for little conspiracies and for people stabbing them in the back, for more Ministers and more backbenchers making this type of comment. Some of these comments are about the Taoiseach. For example, "paralysis" was the term used in respect of him and his leadership of the Government. As long as that continues, the Taoiseach and his team will not be focused on the problems the people of the country want them to address. That is the problem.
The Taoiseach gave a very half-hearted reply. If either Deputy Kenny or I made those types of criticisms about the Tánaiste or about any of his other Ministers, he would be fit to be tied to his seat in terms of the response he would give us.
-----because we are all collectively responsible for decisions. I have not been equivocal in any way in my rejection of the criticisms by Deputy McGuinness in respect of how he views the Tánaiste is doing her job. I refrained from engaging in any further criticism because I do not believe it is of any help or use to anybody. I believe I did a job that had to be done with regard to my responsibilities. I do not take any great pleasure in doing these things but it had to be done. It is no reflection on the competence or capabilities of anybody concerned. I had to get on with my job. The Deputy has to do this himself, from time to time. I am sure the changing round of responsibilities, or whatever, is one of the more difficult aspects of his job.
People are entitled to express opinions in certain respects but I do not accept for one moment criticisms that would suggest the Tánaiste is anything less than competent and diligent in the discharge of her responsibilities. Quite the contrary. Those who work with her and who have seen her in action doing the job the Deputy mentioned, either this week or any other, have given only praise to me in respect of the efforts she has made and the professionalism with which she has discharged her responsibilities. I do not wish to get involved in any criticism of any other individual only to say that we should all work conscientiously and together, in full solidarity, in the interests of the country.
Regarding the idea there is any paralysis in the Government the situation is quite the contrary. This Government has been involved for the past 12 months against the onslaught of the financial crisis. This would otherwise have been the case, had there been no changes to our policy, and each and every one of them has been rejected by the Opposition.