I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill is designed to ensure that the Labour Court is utilised by the banks and their employees so that bank wages and conditions accord with the benefits which other workers are obtaining within the provisions of the national agreement. It is a temporary measure designed to meet a unique situation. I would emphasise that the legislation embodies no general principle of intervention by the Government in free collective bargaining. It is directed solely at the unique set of problems posed by the banks' settlements which twice since 1972 have been adjudged in breach of the national agreement by the Labour Court. It is to prevent a breach of the national agreement for a third time that this Bill is necessary.
Prior to our election, this Government stated that voluntary wage agreements reached on a national level were the best basis for economic development, stability and growth in jobs. We declared our commitment to a general programme of planned economic development. This very week, my colleague, the Minister for Finance, will be inviting representatives of farmers, workers and employers to a meeting of an enlarged National Economic Council which will help organise the economic strength of the nation in a co-operative endeavour. Economic co-operation between the organised economic interests accompanied by a true commitment to the demands of social justice in public policy by the elected government—this is the only way we can survive in the difficult period ahead, especially in the context of our EEC membership.
This administration is committed to a reform programme in which we declare our intention of doing nothing less than the elimination of the scourge of poverty from our society. It is our firm intention to lay the basis of a policy that would root out the basic inequality of low incomes, bad housing and poor educational facilities. It is stated in the objectives of the present national agreement that the parties to the agreement subscribe to the social and economic objectives of:
the achievement of full employment
real increases in wage and salary incomes
preferential treatment for wage earners in the lower-income groups, and
the abolition of poverty.
Undoubtedly, the architects of the present agreement, both employers and trade union leaders, would agree that, while it is not perfect it has helped appreciably the poorest, most defenceless and weakest elements in our society. That agreement stands as a tribute to the ideals of the ordinary men and women of the Irish trade union movement.
No responsible Government, least of all a Government committed as we are to ending poverty and social injustice in our society, could permit that the freely negotiated contract of Irish working people be assailed by any group, however powerful or privileged. No responsible Government can do other in their general policy than preserve an economic climate in which the good faith of the signatories of such agreement can be sustained. It was in accepting such an obligation that, for example, my colleague the Minister for Industry and Commerce intervened in controlling prices just over a week ago.
Poverty cannot be ended, or in its other aspect unemployment be diminished, in conditions of "free for all" either on the profits or wages front. A short while ago in our first budget this Government made the single biggest financial contribution in the history of our State to the economically weak. A planned redistribution of wealth in our society, a programme to begin the uphill task of equalising opportunities in our society, to banish the spectre of poverty, will not be possible if the strong and the powerful are insistent in ignoring the repercussions of their actions.
Our Government are determined to do everything possible to preserve a climate in which the national agreement may flourish. Our economic policy must be directed towards the creation of more jobs and the creation of a higher standard of living. most direct way, the Government have no choice but to act in a decisive fashion.
Our prices strategy will ensure a careful surveillance of factors which influence the cost of living but the Government's duty to the existing national agreement does not end there. Where, as in the present case the national agreement is attacked in the
It is necessary for the information of Deputies, to mention the recent past in relation to this Bill. The records of the banks and their employees in the recent past is one of persistent disregard for the consequences of violations of the national agreements. Since January, 1972, they have twice violated the national agreements. In March, 1972, the Labour Court, in a report to the then Minister for Labour, held that an agreement negotiated by the banks and their employees which took effect on 1st January, 1972, contravened the provisions of the first national agreement. Again in January, 1973, the former Minister for Labour referred to the Labour Court a further agreement negotiated by the banks and their employees which took effect from 1st January, 1973. On 6th February, 1973, the Labour Court in the interim report to the then Minister for Labour stated that they had been considering the views expressed by both sides but that they had not enough information at that time to come to final conclusions immediately on all matters raised; the problem, the Court said, required more information and study and consultation with the Employer/ Labour Conference concerning the interpretation of some provisions of the national agreement and that this would take some time. The court reported further that the parties had pressed them for a very early decision on the grounds that delay in paying money now could involve hardship for the officials involved. As it was obvious from the foregoing that a speedy decision was not feasible, the court recommended that, to meet the difficulty of hardship referred to, payment should be made forthwith to all bank employees of the 4 per cent and the cost-of-living supplement to which the court considered the bank officials were entitled under the second phase provisions of clause 3 of the 1970 National Agreement, leaving aside the further questions for decision after the court had issued its final report.
Arising from the interim report the then Minister for Finance, in protracted correspondence with the banks and the Irish Bank Officials' Association, sought an assurance that payments beyond those set out in the report would not be made until the Government's views on the final recommendations of the Labour Court had been made known. Neither party was prepared to give such an assurance, however, beyond 28th February, 1973, despite the fact that the then Minister for Finance had repeatedly made it clear that the Government's consideration of the court's final report might not be completed by that date.
On 21st February, 1973, the then Minister for Finance wrote both to the banks and to the IBOA expressing regret that they had been unable to give the assurance sought by him and adding that, if the Labour Court's eventual findings in the matter were not acceptable to the parties, the Government would introduce legislation. The general election then intervened and all proposals of that Government fell. Shortly after I assumed office—on 16th April, 1973, in fact—the Labour Court sent me its final report. That was the report sought by my predecessor. It was, of course, too late at that stage to act.
Shortly afterwards, negotiations commenced again between the banks and their employees for a new agreement to take effect as from 1st June, 1973. I immediately sought meetings with the banks and the Irish Bank Officials' Association. I indicated at these meetings that what was past was past and that my concern was with the future and particularly with the negotiations which were now again under way for a new banks settlement. I explained that I considered it to be the Government's duty to ensure that no settlement should imperil the existing national agreement.
Since then the Government have spared no effort at numerous meetings with both the banks and their employees to emphasise that any settlement must be within the terms of the national agreement. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and I have had further meetings with each of the parties. In all, since 23rd May, 1973, there have been eight such meetings. The importance of any new settlement in the banks conforming with the national agreement was emphasised at each of these meetings. The proposition finally put to the parties by the Government was that the proposals for improved pay and conditions, when negotiated between the banks and the IBOA, should be examined by the Labour Court to ensure their compliance with the present national agreement.
The IBOA stated that they had difficulty in agreeing to the use of the Labour Court for the purpose of examining and reporting on whatever agreement emerged from the negotiations with the banks. The Government have made it clear that it is important to uphold the position and status of the Labour Court and that it is necessary to adhere to the proposition that the court should be the agency for carrying out any task of this kind.
To meet the IBOA's reservations, the Government suggested that the Labour Court could be assisted by two assessors to be appointed under the Industrial Relations Act from panels drawn up by the banks and the IBOA. This suggestion by the Government was made in good faith to ensure that the court would be fully conversant with all the facts.
In the event, this proposition was not acceptable to the IBOA. Neither was any assurance forthcoming that the new agreement in the banks would be within the provisions of the national agreement.
There was an outright refusal by the bank officials to put their case to the Labour Court. I must emphasise that the Government endorse fully the right of all bank officials to be paid the increases due them under the terms of the present national agreement. The national agreement particularly favours those who are earning less than £30 per week. And according to accounts in today's Press the honorary secretary of the IBOA states that people working under £30 a week comprise more than 4,000 of those employed in the banks. I stress that the Government fully endorse payment to all of these officials under the national pay agreement. In addition, the Equal Pay Bill which I have introduced in this House will give women in our banking system equal pay with men. The area of contention is confined to the salaries of a minority and to that part of their claims which exceeds their entitlement under the national agreement.
The Bill at present before the House does not relate to past breaches of the national agreement by the banks; it will come into operation and expire on days to be appointed by me by order. The Bill contains provisions whereby I could, should I consider it necessary to do so, impose a stay on the salaries and other conditions of employment in the banks at any time during or following negotiations. The Bill also contains provisions whereby I would have power to prevent, by order, the banks from offering increases in wages or improvements in other conditions of employment in excess of those to which other workers are entitled under the terms of the national agreement. Banks which contravened or failed to comply with the terms of an order made by me under the Act would be guilty of an offence and would be liable, on conviction, to fines.
Legislation to deal with breaches of the national agreements by the banks was approved by the previous Government in January this year. The provisions of that legislation were broadly similar to those of the present Bill with the significant difference that the previous Government proposed that action should also be taken against bank employees and their trade union. The present Government in considering their approach were of the view that the history of Irish industrial relations shows that legislation along these lines is both undesirable and ineffective. I believe that such legislation is of itself objectionable and would in the long run, prove to be counter-productive.
In May, 1971, Professor Michael P. Fogarty presented his report on the 1970 banks' dispute to the then Minister for Labour. Professor Fogarty's views are relevant to the present situation. In his report he declared:
If the IBOA persists in standing out from this national effort (i.e. the National Agreement) and presses pay claims which amount to sabotaging it, then it will have to be fought not merely by the banks but by the whole community, with whatever weapons come to hand: and those who lead this fight will rightly be able to claim that it is they not the IBOA who are fighting for the future standard of living of bank officials.
He also said:
The National Agreement allows for more flexibility than appears at first sight, and the IBOA has the same right as any other trade union to make what it can of this. But it has no right to contract out from arrangements agreed, in effect, by and on behalf of the people of Ireland.
That is not a view of someone with a political or industrial axe to grind. It is the considered opinion of an experienced and reasonable man, based on his examination of all the factors and influences involved.
The Government now find themselves, on behalf of the community, having to use "whatever weapons come to hand" in defence of the system of free collective bargaining of national agreements which has the support of both sides of industry. I do not want to have to make an order bringing this Act into operation. Whether I must do so or not will depend on the banks and the IBOA.
I hope I will have the co-operation of the Opposition in passing all Stages of this Bill today.