Before we adjourned this discussion I stated that there was complete dissatisfaction with the consultations between the Post Office Workers' Union and the Department. Despite the assurances of the Minister the union are not happy with the situation and the workers have grave fears for their future. Questions were submitted to the Minister last Christmas but to date a reply has not been received and I should like the Minister to say when they will be answered. I am sure that the Minister and his officials will agree that proper consultations have not taken place to date.
Will the Minister inform the House what will be the situation if the staff resist this transfer from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs to the two new bodies proposed, as this seems the likely course they will pursue?
On the occasion of the circulation of the Green Paper the previous Minister, Deputy Reynolds, circulated a document to each member of the staff in which it is stated:
I want to assure you that there will be full consultation with your Union/Association about all aspects of the changes likely to affect you.
I regret to say that this has not taken place. Another assurance in this document reads as follows:
Chapter 6 describes the broad implications that the setting up of the State-sponsored bodies would have on the staff. During the period of change which lies ahead, the safeguarding of your legitimate interests will be one of my primary concerns.
There is a notable absence of this concern in the legislation which is presented to us and I will deal with that as we go through the various sections.
I have a document from the present Minister, Deputy Wilson, circulated to the staff no later than last week. I quote from it:
—your pay at the changeover will be maintained if you are transferred to An Post or Bord Telecom Éireann, —your pension entitlements will be maintained also,
Further on it is stated:
As you probably know, since the reorganisation was originally announced, there have been consultations with staff organisations about those aspects of the reorganisation which are likely to affect the staff. These consultations will be continued during the coming months.
We are now being asked to pass this Bill with, as yet, no satisfactory outcome to these consultations, and this is the great fear that members of the staff have regarding their future in either body. The Minister further says in his document that it is his wish that both bodies should commence operations later this year.
I will now, with the permission of the Chair, go through some sections of the Bill which I feel are worthy of further consideration and on which I wish to express some doubts. Deputy Cooney spelled out earlier today the problem of funding to get both boards off to a good start. The funds are totally inadequate and before very long the boards are likely to be in a loss-making situation because they would have to get fairly hefty loans since sufficient funds are not being provided from the Exchequer. Section 10(3)(a) is as follows:
Subject to paragraph (c) the authorised share capital of An Post shall be an amount not exceeding the total of the following— ...
In the case of An Post this will be £50 million to meet capital expenditure. This will in no way be sufficient in view of the extent of the capital programme which the Minister spelled out, which is fairly hefty and which arises from the fact that down through the years the Post Office did not have sufficient finance to maintain their structures properly. In some cases the buildings are not fit for people to work in and are not conducive to good productivity. They were not custom built for their purpose and are long outdated. Therefore £50 million is totally inadequate to meet the demand that is likely to be placed on it in the future if the new company is to be profitable. Unless we can provide proper working conditions so that we will have a happy staff and greater productivity, it is not likely that this company will survive.
Section 12(1)(a) of the Bill is as follows:
to meet the industrial, commercial and social needs of the State for efficient postal services and, so far as the company considers reasonably practicable, to satisfy all reasonable demands for such services throughout the State,
I am concerned about the lack of emphasis here on the social needs of the community. Despite the fact that we are now embarking on a commercial venture, there is a need for concern to be expressed regarding the social work which is to be carried out by both companies.
Section 13(1)(a) provides:
Charges for services are kept at the minimum rates consistent with meeting approved financial targets,
If proper funding is not provided we will incur further trouble because if we increase our charges business will fall off. Everybody realises that the recent increases have led to a reduction in the volume of traffic and as a result both companies are likely to suffer.
In section 14 the social need is again played down. Subsection (1)(a) states:
To provide a telecommunications service to meet the industrial, commercial and social needs of the State ...
Section 25 is in relation to the power to borrow. Again, I would emphasise that the provisions are in no way adequate to meet the demands likely to be placed on the new companies.
Section 26 refers to guaranteeing by the Minister for Finance of borrowings. In the case of the postal company the amount is £8,500,000 and in the case of the telecommunications company the amount is £1,050,000,000. In regard to the postal company, £8,500,000 is in no way sufficient to maintain services within that company.
Section 27(2) states:
.... the Minister for Finance, after consultation with the Minister, may make available ....
What does the Minister mean by "may"? Is the Minister going to make this available? The Minister has discretionary powers. He may decide not to finance the capital works and as a result we are back to the old problem of plant which is outdated. In the postal section at the moment there is a van fleet which cannot provide an efficient service. Last week there was nearly a major row about 17 motor vehicles which were transferred from the telecommunications side to the postal side. Are we going to be faced with this again if the Minister is not prepared to use the discretionary powers which he insists on holding in this case under section 27(2), which is as follows:
During the period of three years from the vesting day, the Minister for Finance, after consultation with the Minister, may make available to the postal company grants of an amount not exceeding £20,000,000 for current expenditure.
If one takes into account the current losses, we are talking about something in the region of £6.5 million per year, which is in no way sufficient to meet the demands which are likely to be placed on it in the coming years.
Section 42(1) states:
Subject to subsection (2), a member of the staff of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs who is transferred on the vesting day to either company shall not, while in the service of the company, receive a lesser scale of pay or be brought to less beneficial conditions of service than the scale of pay to which he was entitled and the conditions of service to which he was subject immediately before the vesting day.
This is crucial to the whole approval of the Bill, because we have here in effect the movement of 28,000 people. Their conditions, it is stated, are not going to be worsened. I will not accept that, because they are being cut off from a valuable avenue of promotion. They are going to be deprived of the promotional outlets they had in the past simply because they will no longer be civil servants. This needs to be looked at again. Does the Minister intend to compensate these people? Would the Minister be prepared to allow staff members who enjoy civil service status to retain that status on vesting day? Otherwise I can see quite a lot of unrest and a lot of industrial problems in the years ahead.
It was traditional that civil servants were entitled to a non-contributory pension. Nevertheless, in every wage deal there was a 5 per cent hidden contribution. Will cognisance be given to this in the transfer from one service to the other? Will the workers be compensated for increased PRSI contributions? Would the Minister enlighten me?
Section 44 deals with the provision of certain welfare funds — the Post Office Sanatoria Fund and the Rowland Hill Benevolent Fund. What happens to the moneys already in these funds? Will they be transferred to meet the social needs of the staff? Granted the contributions were small, but these funds have been contributed to by many staff members for a number of years.
Sections 45 and 46 deal with the establishment and functions of the Users' Councils. Section 46 (5) says:
The Minister may—
(b) recover from the appropriate company the cost incurred by its Council.
The implications are quite serious. Section 46 (3) says:
A Council may, .... employ advisers to assist the Council in its work.
This could prove to be quite costly. If workers in the new company were asked to produce reports which were time consuming and costly, the implications could be very serious for a fledgling organisation which is trying to get off the ground. In my opinion the Minister should bear these costs rather than either of the companies.
Section 47 deals with statutory interim boards. While the Minister will appoint some people to the interim board, there is a need for the election of the worker directors to be carried out prior to the appointment of the interim board. Otherwise there will be a time lag.
Section 48 covers loss making services. Section 48 (1) (c) states:
that company satisfies the Minister that, over a period of at least 12 months, it has sustained a loss in the provision or maintenance of such services,
The Minister is prepared to cover these losses for 12 months. I maintain he should be talking about a five year period at least. I ask him to examine this section again. The only people likely to be happy about sections 51 and 52 are the city and county managers who will collect the rates from both companies' premises.
Part IV deals with the postal company. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs enjoyed a monopoly situation in this area in the past, but we should sound a warning here. If there is to be an erosion of services when it is siphoned off to the private sector, there will be a great danger. We have a monopoly situation at present; yet nobody has been charged under the Monopolies Act, even though there are people operating openly and providing services which could be termed proper to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. In this House we have the use of a courier service. The danger is that there might be some people in the private sector who would be prepared to take on this very lucrative service but they would not be attracted to providing the service in sparsely populated areas. The Minister is empowered to issue the necessary licences. This whole matter deserves further scrutiny.
Section 64 deals with the provision of banking services, including a giro service. Had this area been properly worked in the past, we would not be in the situation where we would have to provide funds for the maintenance of a telecommunications system. We cash giro cheques from practically every European country, yet we do not provide a giro system ourselves. This is something the postal authorities can be faulted for. When Britain introduced this service, they made a loss for the first two years; they broke even on third year and made a profit the fourth. This area will need immediate attention. We are moving into the area of plastic card banking. With proper capital investment there are appliances available which will make every sub-post office and every post office a branch of our banking system. In this way we would win back the business we lost. Before the vesting date the Minister should give a commitment that he will introduce the giro system.
Section 65 deals with money orders and postal orders. This was a lucrative operation at one time but because of increased costs it has become run down. It is no longer possible to send money orders to Great Britain because of the change in the monetary system. Under the present money order system, it costs £1.50 to send a limited sum abroad.
Section 70 empowers the company to issue licences to others to provide postal services. There is a need to tighten up this area. As yet we have not been successful in deterring people who want to cut into the monopoly situation enjoyed at present by the Post Office. There is a need for further examination of this situation.
Section 73 deals with the collection of television licence fees. I do not want to get involved in a Post Office versus RTE argument about the collection of TV licence fees. It has been the custom and practice of the Post Office to collect these fees and to issue licences and I do not think it would serve either system if we were to set up an independent collection system within RTE. I do not think the demand exists to justify the setting up of a special collection system. There may be a need for streamlining, but the Post Office personnel, with their knowledge, are the best people to operate this service. The Minister is aware of this, as he indicated already today.
I am aware that two former Ministers are present and also a Minister of State and I was taken by one piece of Post Office jargon in Section 80 (g) — to defer the despatch or delivery of a postal package where the company considers it to be necessary in the interest of the service. There is a subtle change here. In the past, the exigency of the service was referred to. The change is not in the best interest of the customer. It may be one word, but it is a very important one. I ask the Minister to examine this matter, because the customer is now put in a disadvantaged position.
In Part V of the Bill referring to telecommunications, most of those involved in the telecommunications sector, namely the technicians, are reasonably satisfied, with some reservations, about the introduction of the Bill. Nonetheless, they have expressed legitimate fears. Also in that section there are 5,000 members who would not be too happy about their future in the new company, largely due to advancing technology. Some years back, when an assessment was made of the development of the telecommunications service, 15 automanual exchanges throughout the country were envisaged. This figure has now been reduced to five and consequently a number of jobs have been put in jeopardy. These fears on the part of telephone operators need to be expressed. A reduction in exchanges with the advancement of technology and the provision of digital exchanges, will inevitably lead to a reduction in manning levels and some provision must be made for those affected. Can we provide alternative employment for them within the system? In the past, outlets were available to such people, if they so wished, to contest a position in another part of the service. This is no longer open to them under the present legislation. Will provision be made for financial compensation? Many of these are in their late twenties and early thirties, married men and women who decided on the Post Office as a career and whose jobs are now threatened by advancing technology.
It is quite heartening to hear the Minister say that in many parts of the country there are no waiting lists for a phone service and this is something which we should all welcome. However, that sounds a warning signal for some members of the union. While at the moment it is an expanding industry, the Minister did say that he would see the waiting list wiped out by 1984. What do you then do with the highly skilled personnel who have been working for you? Could they expand into the section which is now being taken over by the private sector, that is, beyond the point of connection of houses, the private automatic branch exchanges where the private sector have effectively out-paced the Post Office? They have provided a more advanced type of apparatus than the Post Office were prepared to do. As a result, they have taken quite a share of the lucrative side of the market.
This is an area in which the telecommunications company must get involved, if we are to maintain our staff levels. Quite a lot of money has been spent to date on the training of these personnel, who are of a very high standard, second to none. Despite the shortage of capital — and all Governments must take their share of blame for not having provided sufficient capital down through the years — a reasonably good service has been provided against tremendous odds. I hope the Minister will give me information regarding the threat of redundancy within the telecommunications sector, mainly to those involved as operators.
On section 92, concerning control of telecommunications service, am I right in asking is there a facility for what is commonly referred to as phone tapping? I am not advocating it for a moment, but is it catered for in the Bill?
This is a potential growth area and there are likely to be problems of demarcation between the two services with developing technology. In an article in The Sunday Press last Sunday, Mr. Byrne made a disturbing comment and I would like the lines of demarcation to be very clearly drawn regarding the future of technology. There are several operations within the postal system which traditionally have been carried out by the postal side. With the changeover to facsimile transmission and so forth, there is a danger that some people on the telecommunications side would feel that this was proper to their side of the operation. This matter should be resolved before we have very serious industrial problems.
On Section 105, similar to the granting of licences in the postal section in granting licences for the telecommunications services, we cannot afford to relax our efforts because the whole philosophy is based on this. If this is not successful, it is unlikely that there will be any success at all. Incidentally, I will be awaiting the Minister's reply before making a decision on whether to support the Bill. Several questions will have to be answered before I can indicate the direction in which I will vote. My first reaction to the Bill is that I am not satisfied with the consultation which has taken place to date between the Minister and, especially, the Post Office Workers' Union. Until such time as all these questions have been answered satisfactorily, I doubt very much if much progress will be made.