Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Private Notice Questions

Industrial Action.

3:00 pm

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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I will call on the Deputies who tabled questions to the Minister for Transport in the order in which they submitted their questions to my office.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Question : To ask the Minister for Transport what steps he has taken to avert the threatened action by air traffic controllers planned for today, 20 January 2010.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Question : To ask the Minister for Transport the steps he is taking to facilitate an urgent resolution of today's proposed industrial action by more than 300 air traffic controllers at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports given that it may cause the cancellation of more than 100 flights, severely disrupt thousands of air travellers and have a negative effect on the national and local economies; the way in which he is utilising all the industrial relations machinery of the State to bring about an immediate end to the dispute; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Question : To ask the Minister for Transport if he will introduce a statutory cooling off period before essential transport workers such as air traffic controllers can withdraw their labour and have a wildcat strike thus bringing chaos and disruption to tens of thousands of travellers and damaging the economy.

4:00 pm

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Deputies opposite for the opportunity to outline the background to the current industrial relations dispute at the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports and to bring Deputies up to date with the air traffic control problems at the three State airports.

I am very disappointed that air traffic controllers are disrupting the travel plans of thousands of air passengers from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. this afternoon. The action arises in the context of an industrial relations dispute between the company and the air traffic controllers' trade union, IMPACT. The immediate cause of the dispute is a withdrawal by IMPACT of co-operation with new technology since 1 January and the consequent suspension of a number of air traffic controllers.

However, I am advised that the issues at the core of this dispute are the non-payment of increases under Towards 2016 and the issue of an employee contribution towards the IAA superannuation scheme. The dispute was referred to the Labour Relations Commission and a hearing on 14 January last failed to resolve the matter. A Labour Court hearing on the pay and technology issues was scheduled for 26 January and the IAA requested IMPACT to desist from industrial action and maintain normal co-operation with the introduction of new technology pending the outcome of the hearing.

The IAA has advised me that it is ready to co-operate fully with the industrial relations machinery of the State with a view to addressing these issues quickly and in full. To that end the authority would be willing to lift suspensions immediately if air traffic controllers return to the co-operation with the technology projects as applied up to 31 December last. I would urge both parties to avail of the services of the Labour Court and to make every possible effort to resolve this dispute as quickly as possible.

The dispute must be considered in the context of the impact of the downturn in the aviation sector on the lAA's customers, namely, the airlines. The IAA has pointed out that this country has witnessed the biggest decline in aviation traffic in Europe and the continuing downturn means that the IAA is under very strong pressure from airlines to minimise cost increases. The world's commercial airlines are set to lose $5.6 billion this year, following an estimated loss of $11 billion dollars last year. European carriers, many of which are IAA customers, are on track to generate the largest losses of any region in 2010 of $2.5 billion. Of the lAA's top ten customers, only one is currently making a profit.

Deputies will be aware that Aer Lingus is currently implementing a major transformation plan with the agreement of staff. Similarly, the Dublin Airport Authority has negotiated a cost reduction package. Employees in both companies have also taken cuts in pay and allowances, improved roster flexibility, and additional productivity measures. That is the real aviation environment in which the IAA must operate.

Air traffic controllers are very highly paid, have suffered no pay cuts and are not subject to the public service pension levy, as the IAA is a commercial State body. The majority of air traffic controllers are former civil servants who transferred to the IAA on 1 January 1994. They make no contribution to their pension fund while the IAA pays 30.5% of gross pay towards the fund, which in 2009 had an actuarial deficit of €234 million. The IAA introduced a new defined benefit scheme with employee contributions for all those recruited on or after 1 April 2008.

My Department is closely monitoring developments in the air traffic controller dispute. I hope that both sides in this dispute can recognise the imperative of reaching agreement. I urge them to work constructively with the Labour Court with a view to resolving this matter.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his reply and I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving us the opportunity to raise this issue. This morning the Taoiseach referred to the strike as an inconvenience to travellers. I do not think he was trying to belittle the effect, but it does not even begin to describe the enormity of the damage that this has already done to this country's reputation, tourism and jobs. There is not a single job in this country that does not depend to some extent on the people and goods which come and go through our airports. Although I do not want to belittle it, it is an outrage that what is effectively a petty little dispute involving 15 people has been allowed to close down the entire country. It is unforgivable. At any time, we would be sending out the wrong message, but at a time when the country is on its knees economically and we are in the middle of a national economic crisis unlike anything we have faced before, it is unforgivable that this should happen.

Only this morning, as the Minister noted, the tourism figures for last year were announced. We lost €1 billion in tourism revenue last year due to the loss of 1 million tourists. Only two days ago, the Dublin Airport Authority announced it was slashing its landing charges and in some cases abolishing them so desperate is it to try to stop the haemorrhage of routes out of Ireland, which is having a hugely damaging effect on the country in every sense but particularly on the tourism industry, where hotels are closing and jobs are being lost.

It is almost as if we have a death wish to allow something like this to happen. I cannot describe to the Minister how outraged people are to have their jobs jeopardised in this way. What they want is the assurance that it cannot happen again, that a few people cannot bring the country to its knees in a way such as this and jeopardise jobs. I want the Minister's assurance, particularly if this dispute is to continue, that at the least he is investigating the possibility of bringing in the Air Corps or, if necessary, bringing in expertise from abroad or from Northern Ireland, which I understand is available. This can be brought in at short notice to man the air traffic control towers if those who are very well paid for this will not do it for us.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister agree that this is an act of economic sabotage by a very highly paid group of workers? The average pay for these workers is over €160,000 per year, which is a lot of money. They do a very important job that is critical to our economy - we all know that - so it is imperative that they go back to work immediately and that they and the IAA get together with the Labour Relations Commission to sort out this issue. Nobody has any sympathy for them or what they are doing. They are destroying the good name of the country and they are affecting business people travelling today who would have had routes planned for many years. People are coming here to set up employment and do something about lifting our economy off the ground.

Does the Minister agree it is time for him and the Government to take action on this issue? Two years ago, a strike was threatened by this group. The Minister at that time agreed with me that there ought to be a no-strike clause in the employment contract of essential transport workers like these. Is it not a fact that the Labour Relations Commission in 1994 identified workers in this area and other emergency workers who should never be able to have a wildcat strike? It is unacceptable in a modern age that our economy can be held to ransom by these people. Will the Minister return to the commitment he made two years ago to introduce legislation to make sure this can never happen again? They are well paid, highly intelligent and capable people who do an excellent job. They are able to sit down with their union, IMPACT, and the Labour Relations Commission and the IAA to solve the issues but they should not hold the country to ransom.

The Minister will be held accountable for failing to act on this. For two years he has introduced no legislation and there has been no change. His work programme for this Dáil session contains no legislation other than two small merchant shipping Bills. He is asleep at the wheel and letting the country collapse around him. He is not dealing with the issues he said he would deal with two years ago.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Everyone agrees that this is an appalling situation for tens of thousands of travellers, including business people, holiday makers and people coming and going to see their relatives. Some are stranded this afternoon at foreign airports, which is a truly horrendous situation.

The first question that will be asked is what exactly the Minister has done to try to prevent this happening. Although, generally, the public did not know about this until yesterday, a few hours before this disaster befell us and we lost 120 flights, the Minister and his Department have known since the beginning of this month that there was a dispute in regard to the new air management system which this country operates along with Denmark and Sweden, and the 10% or so of controllers who are routinely pulled out of daily operations to retrain into new systems - this was a significant new system. Is it true that the IAA informed the Minister early this month that this crisis was coming down the line and that no steps were taken to try to avert it and prevent this ongoing disaster?

We have seen people in floods of tears at the airport, some from the other side of the world who are visiting our country, spending money here and supporting Irish jobs. Many have missed their connections, which is an appalling prospect for them. Did the Minister know about this? Was he informed by Mr. Brennan or Mr. Kavanagh, the director of human resources at the IAA, that this was taking place? Given there was a Labour Court process and that the LRC had dealt with this, why were there suspensions? The Minister said the substantive issues also include a possible pay change related to Towards 2016 and the huge €234 million hole in the pension fund. However, these issues were going to the Labour Court next week so why did these suspensions take place? Does the Minister agree that all suspensions should be ended and people should be asked to get into the industrial relations machinery to try to resolve this matter?

My party leader mentioned an important point to the Minister this morning, namely, that before Christmas the Minister and the Government abandoned social partnership. We have the national implementation body. A Deputy referred to the problem we had in this regard two or three years ago when we discussed in the House what was only a threatened strike action at that time. This could go the national implementation body. Does a national implementation body still exist? Has it got a role? Could it have prevented today's events from happening and enabled our vital aviation industry to go forward?

It is a desperate situation and, unfortunately, once again a major aspect of our transport infrastructure, one of the most important of all because we are an island people, has been allowed to stop. The Minister is the man on the bridge.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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I like the way Deputy Broughan presents matters. This is not just something that befell us. It is a deliberate action by a small group of well paid people.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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I know that.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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That is what it is. Let us not dress it up in any other fashion. It is an unnecessary action.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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The Minister could have prevented it.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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As Deputy Mitchell said, in the current economic situation, it is one that is unforgivable. Let us cut out the nonsense about this. These air traffic controllers perform a vital function in this country. Their alleged reason for a dispute and walking off the job today is not acceptable. I repeat, it is not acceptable.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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In the current climate, when people have lost their jobs, as Deputy Broughan has so often pointed out, and have taken cuts in pay and everything else, this is not the way to resolve the difficulties they have.

Deputy Broughan asked me why there were suspensions. There were suspensions because the people were going into work and refusing to do the work they were doing up to 31 December 2009. They were allowed to do that for the best part of three weeks while the IAA tried to resolve the difficulties and the IAA decided-----

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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What did the Minister do?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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The IAA decided-----

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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I know that. What did he do?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy does not want to hear this. It did not sound as if he knew about it. He asked me why there were suspensions and I am telling him. It is because people who are well paid decided that they could go into work and not do what they were being asked to do, and challenge management because of another dispute they were having with regard to a 6% pay increase. That is why the suspensions took place. This is not a disaster which befell us but rather something these people decided they would do. The kind of operation they have been asked to undertake is work which they have been doing up to now. One of them, a scheme called the cross-runway operation, was done by them up to two years ago but they did not need to continue it because there was talk of putting in place a parallel runway. As that has been deferred they were asked to go back to the cross-runway operation but they have refused to do so. That is one of the disputes, and the others involve equally ridiculous reasons for going on strike. If people want to start pointing the finger, as the Deputy seems to, they should point it in the right direction.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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I am asking what the Minister is doing to get people back to work. What is he doing now?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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Having said that, it is important that both sides get into the Labour Court. The Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, has made it clear that it is willing to engage again. As I stated in my reply, the authority is willing to withdraw the suspensions and go to the Labour Court if it can be facilitated. I understand an early hearing could take place.

The issue is very simple and straightforward. The IAA is willing to go to the Labour Court, which is the body that decides and tries to operate the industrial relations machinery of the State. The Government does not interfere in that as it is a matter between management and unions. The issue will be resolved in the Labour Court rather than here or anywhere else. The sooner the parties get to the Labour Court, the better.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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There are three people offering.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I put a question on the no-strike clause.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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The question was not answered.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will come back to it. There are three other speakers offering.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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When this issue arose two years ago we debated it and the Minister agreed that there ought to be a statutory cooling-off period for essential transport or emergency workers like these people. What is the Minister's position now and would he agree that legislation should be introduced to ensure this can never happen again? Workers who are so critical to our economy cannot strike in a wildcat manner such as this.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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There are other Deputies offering so I will come back to Deputy Mitchell.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I wanted an answer to the first question about an alternative way of manning the air traffic control towers either by the Air Corps or other expertise if this strike continues. Has the Minister considered the feasibility of that?

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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There are a number of other questions.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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I will come back to the Deputy with an answer.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister address the issue of a no-strike clause, particularly for emergency workers and those providing an essential service to the economic well-being of the State? We are an island nation and totally dependent on air links to get off the island.

I agree with the Minister in that this is a completely unnecessary action which should not be happening. The consequences of this action by a small number of well-paid workers, who the Minister has indicated are not subject to any pay cuts or pension levies that other public servants have been subject to, are great and they can hold the country to ransom. The consequences of the action far outstrips the impact on the air traffic controllers themselves.

In his response the Minister indicated readiness to co-operate with the industrial relations machinery of the State with a view to addressing these issues quickly. The IAA has offered to lift the suspensions immediately and return to the position as it pertained on 31 December 2009. That is new information to me. Was that conveyed to the air traffic controllers before 2 p.m. today, when they went on strike, as I know they are talking about escalating their action? Although it is not an agreeable situation, if we could revert to the position as it pertained on 31 December 2009 it would at least get this country back working again.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I was not going to participate in the debate but like many other people I am incensed by what is happening in Irish airports today, whether it is my own airport in Cork, Dublin or elsewhere. We have enough obstacles as a country and an economy without 300 people deciding to shut down Ireland for four hours with respect to air traffic. In addition, they are inconveniencing all the other airlines which transit through Irish airspace on journeys that do not involve landing in Ireland.

I wish to emphasise again the point made by Deputy O'Dowd. Will the Minister ensure that we will not see a repeat of this in future by introducing legislation that will require a no-strike element or clause in the contracts of air traffic controllers in future? The Minister could go even further and make it illegal for controllers to strike by putting them in the same category as the Garda, the fire services and the Army, which legally are not allowed to strike.

There must of course be industrial relations machinery that can allow people to air their grievances and facilitate discussions on the introduction of new technology or pay agreements, for example. The capacity must exist to deal with complex or indeed simple problems. The Labour Relations Commission exists for that. I welcome the Minister's unambiguous statement as to who is to blame. With an issue such as this the public has a right to expect that the Government will take charge of this issue and ensure it will not happen again.

I regard air traffic control as absolutely essential to the running of an island economy and people should be able to come and go from this island without having this kind of farcical disruption, which is costing this country a fortune in finance and reputation. The Minister would get strong support from this party if he moved to ensure there is no repeat of this and at the same time took a responsible approach to ensuring that genuine industrial relations can be resolved. The recourse to strike action and holding a country to ransom to try to ratchet up pressure on the Irish Aviation Authority is a totally unacceptable tactic in a dispute between the two bodies at the moment.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North, Sinn Fein)
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There is no doubt that Reaganism is alive and well, judging by some of the commentary I have heard. I want to be constructive but what does the Minister intend to do to resolve this issue? Nothing can be resolved unless there is dialogue and people are prepared to sit down and talk their way through the process. People have been suspended despite other avenues being open.

I suggest that the Minister meet with unions if possible and try to resolve the issue between both sides as quickly as possible. I welcome that the IAA is now prepared to withdraw the suspensions, as that may leave some room for manoeuvre. Is the Minister prepared to meet with union officials on the issue?

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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I also welcome the IAA response. Nobody is disputing that the withdrawal of a service by a small group of critical workers is a disproportionate response, to put it mildly, to the issues involved, particularly in a case that most of the public were completely unaware of. On investigation, it seems quite clear there was an industrial relations process in train and the LRC was involved. There was to be a Labour Court hearing next week. When such a process exists, it is obviously incumbent on everybody - workers and management in such a critical role for our country - to ensure they get to the talking stage.

My understanding is a number of people were suspended with pay over a number of weeks. I accept that we have just come from a committee meeting which held an intense debate on the near-collapse of the transport system during the recent freeze-up. In spite of that, there is no evidence that we have had a hands-on approach, as the last Deputy said, from the Minister to ensure the industrial relations machinery maintains service and connectivity, which is a key requirement for our economy. What did the Minister do and what is he doing to ensure that this situation will not prevail for another minute?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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A number of points have been raised. I apologise to the Deputies regarding the questions they asked about a no-strike clause. Deputy O'Dowd referred to an exchange we had two years ago, although we had one more recently than that in late April last year.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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We have them every day.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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I have not changed my view on this issue. If anything, this action has strengthened my view. It is not a decision I can make on my own regarding specific areas. This option will have to be examined in a number of areas across a number of Departments. If this kind of disruption, and, as Deputy Broughan said, this disproportionate response to an industrial relations issue will be a feature of industrial relations in this country, every option will have to be examined. I and every Member of the House believes this is a disproportionate response. I will raise the matter in the first instance with my colleagues in Government.

On the matter of meeting representatives of the union, if they will not go to the Labour Court and use that machinery of the State I would not have much faith that they would decide to meet me. In other circumstances I am sure Deputies on all sides of House, but particularly those on the side represented by Deputy Broughan, would be the first to object if I was to interfere in the day-to-day operation of any of these companies. Access to the considerable machinery of the State is available to resolve difficulties and on the union side and management side it has worked fairly successfully. That is the route that should be followed in this case. It is a matter for both sides to do that.

The IAA has made an offer in inverted commas. That has been known since mid-day. It issued a statement at 12.15 p.m. today to the effect that it was prepared to do that. To my knowledge, there has not been any direct or indirect response by the union to that offer. As Deputy Broughan has acknowledged, and I thank him for doing so, we have been attending a committee meeting and I have not had an opportunity to be briefed since that meeting commenced at 2 p.m.

On the question of bringing in other air traffic controllers, there are 300 plus air traffic controllers and while some may be available this is not a route I would advocate pursuing. It would be entirely up to the IAA to decide if it wanted to go down this route but it is not one I would advocate at this stage. The best route to take would be to get both parties to go to the Labour Court and talk to each other. I agree with the other statements that were made and I have made a statement on this.

On the matter of the damage to our reputation caused by this action, I received a number of telephone calls, one from a person who has spent considerable time, which I know to be true, convincing investors to come into this country to maintain businesses and to create new ones. He has been successful in many cases. That person had arranged for more investors to come to this country today but had to tell them that they could not travel here because of the strike.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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We were closed for business.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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I am not saying that business is lost but this strike does not create the right impression of this country. There are times perhaps when strikes are necessary and when they are unavoidable, but given the current situation when we are trying to recover economically and show that we are fighting back, this kind of action is inexcusable.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for responding. I understand he is reluctant to intervene at this stage and obviously the best way to proceed is through negotiation, but this weapon can never be used again and air traffic controllers have to know that they are important but replaceable.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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A key point is that the recommendation of the Labour Relations Commission that there should be a no-strike clause was made in the 1990s. Notwithstanding the Minister's personal commitment, it is not good enough that the Government has sat idly by and nothing has been done about this. We will hold the Minister to his commitment on this and will follow up on this with him by way of questions and on the Order of Business because it is essential that we deal with the matter once and for all. He will have the support of the Fine Gael Party in introducing such legislation.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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A complicating aspect of this, and a point to which the Minister has not responded, is that we have had 20 years plus of social partnership and we set up structures which should always be utilised. I am sure the Minister would agree that the management of IAA should also use those structures. We seem to be in a strange period now following the collapse of social partnership talks prior to Christmas. I would like to address that point. Additional mechanisms are in place to resolve disputes in such a critical area as this one. Workers voluntarily make contracts with employers. I do not share Fine Gael's approach in this area but the stoppages in Dublin, Shannon and Cork Airports need not have happened.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge the comments that have been made by Deputies O'Dowd and Mitchell. I want to make it clear to Deputy Broughan that the Government has not withdrawn from social partnership.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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The Minister could have fooled me.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Transport; Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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The Government is still ready, willing and able to engage in social partnership and to talk about the very necessary transformation that needs to take place in the public sector generally. Changes and transformation are required to provide the kind of service for our citizens that is needed, the kind of service we saw many frontline workers deliver during the past three or four weeks. We are still very much part of social partnership. The Labour Court is still available to the parties, as are other mechanisms, and I again urge everybody involved to use them.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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That concludes the debate on this private notice question.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,