Wednesday, 10 July 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Coast Guard Services
I thank the Minister, Deputy Ross, for coming to the House to deal with this matter personally. There were scheduling difficulties in the last couple of weeks in arranging for that.
The Minister will be well aware of the motivation for tabling this Commencement matter. The Irish Coast Guard does extremely valuable work. The more than 700 volunteers who operate in the various Coast Guard stations around the country do vital work in supporting the emergency services. They are available and on call 24-7, but they are not paid for doing the work as they are volunteers. However, these people could find themselves on a search and recovery mission for days, at which point they must take leave from work. They are using up their annual leave and in some cases are taking unpaid leave.
Not all the 700 people are necessarily happy with the manner in which the Coast Guard does its business. All of them are very dedicated and proud of the work they do, and the connectivity they have with the sea and with helping people is extremely admirable. On many occasions they take their lives into their hands when they go out on both search and rescue and search and recovery missions. My reason for tabling this matter is that every organisation has grievance mechanisms to deal with grievances and when the mechanisms in the organisations do not work there is usually an independent process as a last recourse. People who are not satisfied they are getting a fair hearing within the structures that are available can appeal to the independent body. Most people who are in employment are able to appeal to outside bodies.
I am asking for a structure to be established under the auspices of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport whereby the few volunteers in the Coast Guard who have grievances and who are not satisfied with the manner in which their grievances have been dealt with can appeal to an independent body overseen by the Department. I recommend that this be established and that it be headed by a retired High Court or Circuit Court judge. The body would also be tasked with recommending improved practices in the Coast Guard. I also recommend that this body should look at cases which have concluded where volunteers are not satisfied with the manner in which they have been dealt with. There has already been a case where a volunteer ended up going to court and being reinstated by the court. We do not wish to see that type of thing. It was reported in the media recently.
Essentially, I wish to enhance and improve the Coast Guard and to provide a mechanism within the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in which volunteers in the Coast Guard can feel confident that their grievances will be properly investigated and adjudicated. As I said, these people are volunteers and are not paid. That is a separate issue and I believe the country must examine that. In this case, however, it is only reasonable that there would be an independent structure to which they could appeal, and that this independent structure would look at previous cases as well. It is something that must happen and I urge the Minister to make it happen.
I thank Senator Conway for raising this issue. He is second to none in his respect and advocacy for the Coast Guard. I salute the Coast Guard and the work it does. We both want to see any grievances in the Coast Guard resolved in a way that is satisfactory, independent and fair. We have met on many occasions to discuss this issue with the Irish Coast Guard. On at least one occasion we met Bernard Lucas, the widower of Caitríona Lucas who died in a tragedy. That was a particularly moving meeting and I hope the response I give today will be well received by him as well.
Senator Conway has raised the concerns of a number of Coast Guard volunteers that existing procedures for handling grievances need to be improved. The proposal to establish an independent body to deal with such grievances has been raised by the Senator. To be clear, the number of grievance cases currently stands at three. This represents less than 0.5% of the total volunteer cadre. That is not to demean them in any way but just to point out that any response should be proportionate. It is not in any way to denigrate the grievances or to make a judgment on them. I wish to look closer at the manner in which grievances are currently managed in the Coast Guard. The relevant key documents involving volunteers are the Irish Coast Guard code and the grievance and complaints procedures.
Last year, the Coast Guard completed a review of the code. It includes sections on performance management, disciplinary procedure and a positive volunteering environment. This review was conducted with independent expert input from a human resources consultancy to ensure that the Coast Guard's processes were fair and fit for purpose for an organisation of its type. The review also involved a consultation process with the volunteers which was managed through the coastal unit advisory group. This group is a representative structure for the volunteers made up of six members elected by the units independently of full-time staff in the Coast Guard.The HR consultants recommended various modifications and a revised code was published late last year. These independent experts confirmed that the code represented good practice, particularly given the voluntary nature of those involved.
In terms of grievances, all volunteers have access to a process to address issues about any aspect of their volunteer duties or how they are managed. Volunteers who are unhappy in their role or have a grievance they wish to discuss may approach their designated line manager or where they do not wish to go that route, they can escalate their grievance to their coastal unit sectoral manager. These are full-time staff in the Coast Guard. The matter is dealt with in a private manner and in line with the Coast Guard's human resources standards. Various checks are in place to ensure that where one or other party is not happy with how a grievance is being handled, he or she has recourse to independent mediation.
In terms of the independence of human resources processes within the Irish Coast Guard, the existing system has been enhanced over the past six months. As mentioned, a human resources company has been procured to provide reassurance about the procedures and offer the aforementioned independent mediation, where requested. This ensures a sufficient level of independence within the existing system proportionate to the level of grievances. The Coast Guard management accepts that the new code will take time to bed down and, to this end, training is being organised at all levels throughout the organisation, including for volunteers. The Coast Guard is also committed to reviewing its code on a regular basis. In looking to further improve the system, the Coast Guard has recently created an additional external review process for volunteer grievance investigations, disciplinary and appeal processes. This policy has been developed in the interests of ensuring that the principles of natural justice are upheld for volunteers involved in grievance investigations, disciplinary and-or appeal processes. Under this new policy, the intention is to allow for a further external review of a case, whether grievance, disciplinary or appeal, to be conducted by a competent third party, most likely a HR company. Its focus will be to determine whether procedures were followed correctly. Such a review would be triggered where all other internal review options have been pursued. A volunteer who requests such a review would, naturally, be informed of the outcome of the review and relevant findings. Effectively, this new process will, hopefully, ensure a final independent arbitration relating to grievance and other processes or seen under the code.
The Coast Guard remains a vital component in our search and rescue service. I reassure Senator Conway that its interests are at the core of the significant transformation that is taking place in the search and rescue system.
Clearly, there have been some advances in the months since Christmas. I may raise this matter again in September once I have engaged with volunteers to check if they are satisfied. It is good that an external company or human resources expert has been retained to consider future grievances. The fact that there are three formal grievance cases does not mean that other members of the Coast Guard who have not triggered formal complaints are happy and would not like to see the current system strengthened. I request the Minister to instruct the Coast Guard to have the independent external body review all grievance cases closed in recent years to see if correct procedures were followed and make recommendations. I welcome the use of an external body and it is a step in the right direction. To be fair, however, the external body should be asked to review all grievances that have arisen in recent years.
The new policy must be given an opportunity to work. I give Senator Conway a commitment that I will ask my officials to review the policy after one year to see how it is working. I will also ask him to have discussions with us on how the volunteers have received the policy because they are the people concerned. In a year's time, we will consider the policy in the light of how people have experienced the policy and we will see if any improvements can be made.