Deputy J. Bermingham was in possesion.
Postal and Telecommunications Services Bill, 1982: Second Stage (Resumed).
Before the Adjournment of this debate on the last occasion I had given some of the reasons why we in the Labour Party are totally opposed to this Bill. I might summarise them as follows. I submit that this Bill, as presented, is capable of taking away rights and status held by workers in the Post Office and telecommunications operations. I submit further that certain rights reserved for the Minister under this Bill can mean the hiving-off of certain sections, probably profitable sections of this service, to outside bodies.
Sorry, Deputy. I appeal to the House for the removal of background noise which might interfere with your contribution.
I would be very glad if you would.
An Leas-Ceann Comhairle:
Could I appeal to Deputies, who are interfering with Deputy Joe Bermingham, not to do so? Deputy Bermingham to continue without interruption of any kind.
I pointed out on the last occasion the options given to the Minister to provide licences to certain people to do certain functions and works at present administered by the general Post Office service. As I pointed out on the last occasion, this is a very dangerous thing, because since before the foundation of the State these services have been directly available from the Government to the people. It is agreed that the new boards will have certain borrowing powers and that certain funds will be available. No indication has been given as to how much but yet we are expected to believe that the two new boards will be able to provide a better service. I cannot see how that can be done because Deputies on the Government side have repeatedly said that the people in the post and telecommunications service up to now have given an excellent service. We are now told the two new boards are necessary to give a better service but it is not explained how the better service will be given.
I said on the last occasion on which we discussed this Bill that in my opinion it would be uneconomic to split this whole area into two boards. It seems that the amalgamation engaged in by the two people who are to head those new boards was the criterion used in their appointment. Now we have two separate boards being set up which will have two separate and large administrations. I do not believe that can be profitable. I believe there will be an overlap of duties between the two boards. I believe the status of the people employed in the Post Office at present will disimprove. I understand that the method of recruitment will be changed. I believe the recruitment will be carried on by the Civil Service Commission for a year or two and I fear for the day when that it discontinued. The Civil Service Commission have been very fair in selecting people by open competition to do the work within the State service. I fear for the kind of people who may be recruited under any other system. I have a lot of experience of other systems. Those are the reasons why the Labour Party are totally opposed to this Bill. We will oppose the Second Stage.
I feel it is necessary to go into some of the details of the Bill to show how what I have said is applicable under the Bill. Under this Bill, if a person decides to set up in business those two boards will have a monopoly. If a person decides to break the law and do this work there is a penalty of £500 laid down. A penalty of £500 or imprisonment is not a real deterrent when one considers the kind of profitable operations which might be undertaken under this Bill. Section 9 states that the Minister, after consultation with the Minister for Finance, shall cause two limited companies conforming to the conditions laid down in this Act, to be formed and registered under the Companies Acts, 1963 and 1977. Why do we have to set up two companies? Why is it not possible to set up corporations? I am not accepting for one moment that two bodies of any kind should be set up but, assuming they are set up, why would it not be advisable for the Minister to set up corporations? It has been found that corporations are more protective of staff interests and changes in relation to them must go through Parliament as distinct from companies where only the sanction of the Minister is required. If changes have to be made in corporations a Bill has to be brought before this House. I have regard to the protection I feel I would need if I was an employee of the Post Office.
The Minister will appoint a vesting day for bringing into operation each of the companies as soon as practical after the companies have been registered. Appointment of the two companies will make privatisation of the service easier legally in the long run. I am very suspicious of this. There is another Bill before the Seanad which is hiving off another large area of the civil service. The deliberate policy of the present administration is to take away the responsibility of Government. The Bill before the Seanad will hive off large sections of the Office of Public Works. It is a follow up to this Bill which is hiving off nearly half the civil service. Is this the proper way for a Government to carry on? This responsibility has been carried by the Government since before the State was founded. The present administration are now hiving off half the civil service and reneging on the responsibility they have for the postal and telecommunications service which they have accepted over the years.
Our spokesman for Posts and Telegraphs referred to another company in this connection. The people on these boards are not properly chosen for trade union negotiations. They do not realise what they are dealing with. The Minister has had discussions, but there is no agreement at present. Deputy Fitzpatrick from the Government side asked 28,000 people to willingly and voluntarily agree with these changes. There have been some discussions, a White Paper and so forth, but there has been no agreement by the workers. I warn the Minister, who wants to hive off almost half the section that this legislation may have repercussions which he will never forget. He will have to change it. A Bill should not have been introduced until there was at least a broad form of agreement with the workers. This is a wrong and foolish step for no apparent reason.
I refer now to counter services and objectives. Section 12 (1) includes among the principal objects of the postal company in its memorandum of association:
(c) to provide counter services for the company's own and Government business and, subject to the consent of the Minister, for others as the company thinks fit,...
This is very restrictive, unless I am unable to understand properly what I am reading. Does that mean that they are to provide only services for the company's own and Government business? If there is one area which could be expanded profitably it is the counter services. There is scope, for example, for services in connection with tourism and even the sale of theatre tickets. This could be done on a profitable basis, but the Bill appears to prohibit those services. I agree that the Minister will have power to allow them to sell rashers if he so desires, but this section was meant to be restrictive; otherwise it would not be there. Is the Minister serious about developing the service and making it economical? I understand that the idea behind the Bill is to make the service a viable, economic unit but this section restricts the one area where many profitable activities could be introduced.
I have not much confidence in the board, with all due respect to them. Their real interest is not in the provision of services within the community in this great State venture. Will this section restrict the Post Office savings business from expanding into the general banking system? There has been a lot of talk, from my own party as well as elsewhere, about taking over and nationalising banks. Here we have a readymade nationalised banking service capable of being highly profitable. Must they get the permission of the Minister for every new venture? The implications of this section were not sufficiently thought out. Who was responsible for the drafting of the section? Was it meant to lessen the activities of the Post Office? This is a huge area offering an opportunity for the provision of investment and other services through a banking system which will be owned by the State. This could be done under the present system, without this Bill or the creation of any new boards. The civil servants operating the Post Office system are well capable of running a proper banking system, which should include every type of banking, including investment and the granting of loans.
At present under the regulations a Government social welfare or pay cheque cannot be cashed in a post office. These people are being blamed for doing a job properly and they are prevented from doing something which every grocer and small shopkeeper can do. This stupid attitude has continued down the years. Yet these people who are prohibited from cashing pay or social welfare cheques are told "You are not doing your job. We will have to replace you." Are we now putting the same obstacles before the people who are looked to as the saviours of the system, who are going to make the service profitable in the future? These obstacles have been placed in the way of the people who have carried out these services honourably since before the foundation of this State.
There are several other sections to which I must refer. The Bill has provision for worker representation on the boards. Apparently, in accordance with the Bill passed here a few years ago, there will be representatives of the trade union members employed in the services on the boards. However, section 15 provides that the chairman and other directors shall be appointed and may be removed from office by the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Finance. Does that mean that the workers' representatives on the boards can be removed by the Minister? If that is not what is meant, why is it not made clear in the Bill? Let us hope the Minister will explain what it means and that if it means what I have been saying that he will amend the section to make that clear.
The boards will have power to borrow, and the aggregate at any one time shall not exceed £58.5 million. How was this figure arrived at? Was research done into the potential needs of the companies so that the operations would be viable? We are entitled to be told why and how this sum for aggregate borrowing was arrived at. Will that borrowing be from the private or the public sector? I am sure the borrowings will be guaranteed by the Government, but why could the State itself not borrow and provide the finance for the companies to enable them to operate viably? Will the companies be able to borrow privately? Why is it necessary to appoint two boards?
Recently Deputy Fitzpatrick, who was a junior Minister in that Department, said the Post Office services had been grossly under-capitalised. In view of that, will this amount of money be enough? If we are to pass this Bill we must be told if this figure for aggregate borrowing has been pulled from the sky or if there is some basis for it. The Bill sets out that the Minister, after consultation with the Minister for Finance, may make available to the companies a sum not exceeding £50 million to finance capital works. Has that figure been pulled from the sky?
We all know there is an urgent need for modernisation of the Post Office services and therefore that there is a need for capital. I am only an amateur and therefore I seek information about the reason for this figure in the Bill. If this kind of money has become suddenly available now, why could it not be made available directly from the Government? If successive Governments since the foundation of the State had capitalised these services properly there would not be need for this Bill now because it has become necessary only to make up for lack of Government funds earlier. We are now to set up two boards and say to them, "Run these services on an economic basis. We will give you borrowing powers".
I have my doubts, as I said earlier, if these sums will be sufficient to put these services into a viable state. It is only lately that we have heard about limits to Government borrowing. There is plenty of money available from borrowing for wild cat schemes and even for day to day administration but apparently the Government were not prepared to borrow to capitalise properly, to improve and to re-equip these services.
Section 24 (2) refers to the transfer of staff from the Department to the companies. It states that a member of the staff of the Department transferred on the vesting day to the companies shall not receive a lesser scale of pay or be subject to less beneficial conditions of service than the scale of pay and the conditions of service to which he was subject immediately before the vesting. I do not think that is fully satisfactory because no matter how it is to be operated, those people are being downgraded in the sense that a huge area of promotion opportunities is being denied to them. People in the Post Office service, down to the most junior postman, are entitled to look forward to promotion within any part of the civil service. I know people who started as postmen and now are HEOs in other Departments. Such promotion opportunities will not be available to them. The Bill states that their pay and conditions will not be less, but there is no provision for compensation, and I do not think those staffs to be transferred will agree to such conditions. The Minister has no such agreement even though a Bill is being processed in this House. The White paper has been out long enough and investigations have been carried out but no real effort has been made to get the support of the people in the service. No real case has been made to them as to why all this is necessary.
I read carefully through the Minister's speech, which was a very lengthy document and he has not convinced me that there is any real necessity for this transfer. The Minister has put the cart before the horse in introducing the Bill in this House. He is pressing forward and wants it dealt with in the shortest possible time. He is saying time is scarce and that there was a hurry about this Bill, that it would be on today and tomorrow and that the Minister hopes to dispose of the Second Stage of this Bill tomorrow and then go on to Committee Stage. But from what I hear from various interested parties no real effort has been made to negotiate with the people who number half the direct employees of this Government. We have a responsibility to these people. How can we expect proper labour relations between people outside when we will not give a proper example ourselves? I could go through each section but I have no wish to delay the House any further. We have now spent over an hour on this Bill. I could spend three more hours and still find no justification for the Government being so anxious at this time to push this Bill through when they have not consulted with the people involved. I could understand it if there were nine or ten people involved who could easily be consulted. But here we are dealing with 28,000 people, half the civil service, and no real negotiations have gone on and no effort has been made to find out how these people really feel about this Bill. The people in the postal service are very worried about what is happening in regard to their future. They are worried because they do not know exactly what is happening. We got white papers and there were submissions made. Some accepted the idea. I understand from what the Minister said that there was only one objection but that objection came from a union that represents a large proportion of the people the Minister is going to have to deal with. These are the people whose rights are affected.
I oppose this Bill on principle because I think it is wrong for a Government Department to shun their responsibilities. It has been the responsibility of a Government Department since the foundation of this State. We failed to develop that service as it should have been developed. Here I want to pay tribute to the people who work within that service. With the financial restrictions and the red tape imposed on them by several administrations, they have provided a service of which they can be proud and of which I am certainly proud. Before the Minister proceeds any further with this Bill he should go out and negotiate and get the feeling of the people up and down the country. These people are worried to death about where they will stand as a result of this Bill, how they will be compensated, whether they will have the opportunity to which they are entitled to opt to stay within the civil service structure and move elsewhere in that structure, and about whether they will have any say in their future. They are worried that they are just being hived off and will not have any guarantees as to how their future pay negotiations will be carried on, and about whether they will be comparable with the civil service or will have to go out into the open market to negotiate. These are very serious matters.
If rights are taken away from people, rights of progress and rights of promotion which are peculiar to civil servants, then they must be compensated in some way for the loss of their privileges. It is said that conditions will be better. Trade unions will have to think of their future membership and how that will compare with their present membership in terms and so on. I am warning the Minister that he has taken on a king-size job. In the name of the people of Ireland he should consider, if he intends proceeding with this Bill, how he can ensure that the service is maintained even in remote rural areas. Will some board decide that they will administer from a centre which may rule out many people who have served this country well, such as sub-post-mistresses and sub-postmasters? Will daily deliveries of post be maintained in rural areas? These are the things that people are worried about. I have mentioned already the things that the staff are worried about. I say to the Minister, in the name of God, walk warily.
The Bill before the House is endeavouring to give effect to the proposals contained in the White Paper entitled "Reorganisation of Postal Services and Telecommunications" published by the Government in 1981. The first thing we should ask ourselves is whether this dividing up of the functions of the old Department of Posts and Telegraphs is really necessary. We have to ask ourselves will it improve the service which this Department gave this country in these two very vital areas which provided, in different ways, a social service and a business service. We must ask ourselves is this the best way to go about matters at this time with the reognised need for the services which the old Department gave.
I believe the Minister's proposals are the correct ones, but there are certain reservations which I will come to soon. Good service was given by this Department over the years in relation to the postal service and in relation to the telephone and telecommunications service. It is true that it suffered from various financial constraints which meant that the service could not go forward at the necessary pace needed by the social and business community and fell further behind the services of neighbouring countries.
It is important that we start off on the right foot and that we recognise that the two services which were provided by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs were too much to be carried out efficiently by one Department. We are now setting up two State-sponsored bodies to provide these services — An Bord Poist and An Bord Telecom. An Bord Poist will deal with the Post Office and interrelated matters and An Bord Telecom will provide a telecommunications service.
We must ensure that these bodies give the service we want and a service which is comparable with that provided by our competitors. If possible we might even provide a better service, but we must make a good start. We are beginning a new chapter in the history of communications and we must provide the necessary postal and telecommunications services which many people are demanding. If businesses are to prosper we must have not only a proper economic climate but an up to date communications system which will encourage foreign investors to set up here.
The object of this re-organisation is to give the public a better and more efficient service. An Bord Poist will provide an efficient postal service at a reasonable price. The present postal service is satisfactory, but there are exceptions. Letters are delivered in Dublin two days after being posted in the country, while letters posted in Dublin can take up to one week to be delivered to the other side of the city. Such a service must be improved because people are paying for a service and expect value for money. People who have complaints must be able to make them to the board.
As I said, An Bord Poist will be taking over the duties which up to now were performed by the Post Office — the delivery of mail and providing an adequate service and there are some elements of today's service which can be improved. They might consider Saturday deliveries, and even Sunday deliveries. If one is providing a service, it should be provided for six days a week and possibly even seven days a week.
I hope An Bord Telecom will have regard for all consumers, from the private individual to the businessman, whether large or small. We all know from looking at the Dáil Order Paper that there is a very long list of people waiting for telephones, and that list is growing. There are many people waiting for telephones who should have their phones installed at the earliest possible opportunity — the old, people living alone, doctors, small businesses and so on. At the moment some small businesses are merely surviving because they do not have a telephone. We cannot expect to run a country and encourage people to set up businesses if we cannot provide a basic necessity — a telephone. The scarcity of phones affects small businesses more than large businesses because a large firm will not take over a premises unless adequate telephone facilities are provided. Even in the last days before An Bord Telecom take over, I hope the Minister will make every effort to ensure that these applications are given priority.
One of the main problems at present is the high cost of a telephone installation, £200 or £300, and there is no intimation about when the telephone will be installed. If one is providing a service one should not ask the consumer to pay such a large fee. This is not the way to run a business. We should encourage people to have telephones installed because we all hope this service will be able to pay its way.
There is also a problem with regard to telephone kiosks and at times one wonders where to find one in working order. In Europe the kiosks are supplied with plenty of data to enable people to obtain numbers and other information. I hope something on those lines can be done with regard to our telephone kiosks. In conjunction with the Minister for Justice, the Minister might consider enforcing more severe penalties on people who vandalise telephone kiosks. It gives a very bad impression to tourists and other visitors who may have to use the telephones in an emergency when they find the kiosks vandalised. I hope the new board will put special emphasis on the provision of telephone kiosks and will fit them out with telephone books and adequate instructions on how to obtain numbers and other relevant data.
I welcome the measures in the Bill with some reservations. As the previous speaker said, the Minister may have put the cart before the horse. I hope he has not, but if he has I hope he gets the horse back between the shafts before the Bill becomes law. I refer specifically to consultations with the employees of the Department. On Second Stage the Minister spoke at considerable length but he skimmed over the consultations that had been or are being held. I have spoken to people in my constituency who work in the Department at various levels. They are concerned about the new proposals and they feel they have been left slightly in the dark. They do not really know what is proposed or how they will be affected. It is inevitable, having regard to this major changeover, that they will be affected to some degree. It is important that we get the correct mixture from the start. We should not rush this Bill through and say that problems can be ironed out later. That would be a recipe for further industrial unrest.
Employees in the Department are worried about possible job losses and also about aspects in the Bill in relation to the transfer of their personal files and to redundancies that may occur. It is obvious that with the new services envisaged and with new technological advances several thousand jobs will be put in jeopardy — I refer in this instance to telephone operators. The old coin boxes are being abolished and new automatic exchanges will be provided. It is expected that fewer people will be needed to work the various types of apparatus. It will not be quite as simple as transferring people from one part of the Department to another.
Before the Bill goes through, I ask the Minister to give an assurance that the consultations will be finalised and to reassure the workers in relation to the various points they raised with him. They are worried that in the light of new technological advances they will not be needed for certain functions they have been performing up to now. I ask the Minister what he intends these people will do and to state where they will be put in the Department. The Minister said the discussions were ongoing but from reports I have received and from my discussions with some of the workers it appears they have been kept in the dark. I hope before this Bill is passed the Minister will be able to tell us that the employees are satisfied with regard to the various issues raised. Employees are concerned that their pension entitlements be maintained and that their pay and conditions should be as heretofore and probably improved. I know one section of the Bill states that things will be the same as heretofore but it is not just a case of transferring exactly the same rights. Probably some of the workers have been at a disadvantage up to now and it is important that we improve their situation at this time.
I should like to hear from the Minister with regard to promotional opportunities that people in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs would have enjoyed heretofore. I should like an assurance that such promotional opportunities will be maintained in the new bodies. This is very important because it gives people an incentive to work and to provide a good service for the benefit of the country. It is important that the services to be provided by the two companies should be welcomed by the people and that the workers should be pleased to provide such services which the country badly needs.
I am glad that the Users' Council has been maintained. I accept that up to now if people had complaints regarding a parcel lost in delivery or a telephone in need of repair probably the Users' Council was the last organisation they got in touch with. More likely they contacted the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in connection with the matter. It is important that such complaints are monitored and that there is adequate access for people, the consumers, to make their complaints. They should also be given proper replies. That should be done even if the complaint relates to simple things such as the loss of a parcel, a telephone being out of order or a query in relation to a telephone bill. It is important that a standard type of reply is not sent to those who make complaints or query certain matters. The public, the consumers, should be given the service they are entitled to. Like any other consumer service those genuine complaints should be properly attended to.
I suggest that the new boards investigate the workings of the ESB, particularly in regard to the repairing of faulty lines. The ESB act promptly when there is a power failure and the same speedy action should apply in regard to the telephone and postal services. If consumers are satisfied they will avail of the services to a greater extent and, in that way, the boards will pay their way. The new postal board should be in a position to compete favourably in regard to private couriers in the hope of regaining some of the business lost during the 1979 industrial dispute, a dispute which left a bad mark on the Department.
I welcome the Bill with certain reservations. I am anxious that matters such as employees' rights are dealt with before the Bill passes through this House. It would be disastrous if these companies commenced business with their workers uneasy. The Minister, and his representatives, should listen to any proposals put forward by the workers. They should assure the employees who will be transferred from the Department that their views will be taken into consideration. It is important that these new boards mark a new chapter in the development of the postal and telecommunication services.
Down the years sub-post offices have played an important part in urban and rural life and many of them have been run in conjunction with other businesses. It is important that those services are continued and that people do not have to travel miles to collect their pensions, obtain postal orders or stamps. Those basic services should be maintained throughout the country. I hope the Minister will indicate to the House in the course of his reply the progress that has been made in the discussions to date. He should remember that many of the workers are concerned about many matters. I hope the Minister will give an undertaking that things will not be done in reverse order and that before these new bodies commence operations discussions will be held with the workers. The Minister should ensure that the rights of the workers and the consumers are protected.
I should like to discuss some aspects of the Bill which are deserving of comment. I notice that the Minister in his complete speech introducing the Bill allowed himself to pat on the back that part of the administration over which he presides and which has been providing a postal and telephone service up to now. While admitting that the 1979 postal strike inflicted damage on the service — I suppose he means on the morale and the organisation of the service — the Minister claimed that the service was pretty well back to normal. He admitted that it was not quite back to normal but felt it had made most of the distance back to its normal standard. I believe he said that before the dispute there was regularity in the postal service, measured against the target which the Department recognised, of 90 per cent. The Minister mentioned in that connection the target of having an overnight delivery in Dublin and I presume he means also in reasonably proximate parts of the country. The Minister said this had fallen back but with a great effort by the Department it got back to 84 per cent. I do not wish to make little of the difficulties the Minister has had to face in answering to this House for the postal service and I am aware of the damage to morale, organisation and practices which a long stoppage such as that which occurred in 1979 can cause. However, I believe the Minister is living in dreamland if he imagines that the percentage proportion of efficiency and regularity borne by the existing postal service to the pre-dispute postal service is in the order of 84-90. It is no such thing.
In order to get the proof of that the Minister need not go any further than this House. Until that dispute the Order Paper of the House, and amendments proposed in the House — I can recall this during my time in the Seanad — up to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. could be put in type by Cahills, put in the late post and be delivered to Deputies and Senators at their Dublin addresses by first delivery the following day. That has gone by the board and there is no use in the Minister saying otherwise. If it has not gone by the board how is it that Deputies and Senators living in the city, roughly one-third of the membership of both Houses, get their Order Papers in the pigeonhole in the House because it is no longer possible to guarantee with regularity their delivery the following morning?
In that case it is possible that they say: "Watch out for that one, put the Minister's one in a separate bag lads because that one must not be the subject of complaint."
The Deputy like me must live in Ultima Thule.
I do not live in Ultima Thule. I live within walking distance of this House and I walk in every day unless it is pelting rain. I live in the back garden of RTE and that is as near the throbbing heart of things as I can get.
I meant that I live in Ultima Thule compared to where the Deputy lives.
I am amazed to hear that because, in that case, there is discrimination of a gross and abominable kind going on if it is possible that in Ultima Thule, whichever suburb the Minister has chosen to dignify with that description, post is received regularly overnight, whereas in the suburb I live in, 30 minutes from where I am now speaking, they can no longer trust themselves to deliver my Order Paper with the first post. I have to wait until the morning to get it in here. I believe that is the case with every Dublin Deputy and I am amazed to find there is this gross discrimination in favour of the Minister. I meant to throw this in as a footnote to what I want to say and I do not want to make a large point about it. I am afraid the Minister has provoked me and egged me on with his references to the suburbs in which we live.
I want to illustrate the absurdity of the claim that we are almost back to the 1979 level of efficiency. I put a bundle of letters in the post here shortly after lunch yesterday as I do most days. When I checked this morning, two of the recipients, one in Ballsbridge and the other in Dún Laoghaire, had not received their letters. It may be that Oireachtas post is treated as second class mail and I have strong reason to think that is so. If so, it should not be treated in such a fashion and an Oireachtas letter addressed in handwriting rather than by addressograph or by some multi-process ought to get the same speed of delivery as an ordinary letter. I assure the Minister that it does not get any such priority.
I wish to mention another matter but not in a carping mood of personal complaint. The fact that I have to wait until I come here in the morning for an Order Paper instead of getting it at home is a very minor irritation in my life. I would not waste the time of the House by making a fuss about it except that it demonstrates, in a silent but very eloquent way, how empty the claim is that the postal services are back to the 1979 level.
Another demonstration of the relative slackness of the postal service and of their undependability can be seen in the sprouting on all sides of courier services. Why does the Minister think there is a thriving business called "The Dublin Document Exchange"? Why are there similar little services all over the city? If it was possible to get one's letter delivered at a 12-hour interval and that you could rely on it for a 26 pence stamp, why is it possible for people to start businesses — and more power to them — out of providing something which the Minister is supposed to have a statutory monopoly to supply but is unable to? I do not say it is because of malice or incompetence at official, his own or political level. It may be the result of a complex of factors, of which industrial difficulty is only one. We are entitled to be told the naked truth on these matters and I do not accept that postal regularity here is virtually back to the same level as it was before the dispute. My experience in all fields is that whenever something is working all right but then is seriously disrupted it never gets back to the same level again.
I know the telephone service is a whipping-boy for everybody. I suppose one ought not to take up the time of the House by making complaints or telling funny stories about it and I am not going to do that. But if the Minister is under the impression, as I have heard Fianna Fáil speakers say in the last few weeks, that there is any marked improvement — except in one area which I must admit, the supply of telephones and the extension of the automatic system which undoubtedly has been going on apace — in the multitudinous minor irritations of using Irish telephones, he is under a grave misapprehension. There is not an improvement.
I am speaking from memory but I think it was a Deputy Ahern — I am sorry I do not know his first name — who said that when Deputy Reynolds was Minister for Posts and Telegraphs we made terrific strides, that everything went forward with great alacrity and that there was improvement upon improvement. He said that when the Coalition Government got in we dropped back again but now, with Fianna Fáil back in power, it is full steam ahead again for the telephone service. That is the kind of primitive, brontosaurus kind of politics that I would like to kill in this House. You should not be able to say this sort of thing without the House telling you to grow up, that in the course of eight months, merely because your political opponents are in power, the posts and telephone services show a deterioration. The Minister is too civilised to say such a foolish thing except in moments of excitement, to which he is no more immune than I am but he would not be capable of saying it in cold blood. He knows it is not the case and he knows also that, as far as Deputy Reynolds is concerned — I will not fall into the same brontosaurus trap as Deputy Ahern — the message that the telephone service here was under-capitalised only percolated through to Government level in the term of the national Coalition Government of 1973 to 1977. It had percolated through to a Fianna Fáil Minister a couple of years before that, I think Deputy Gerry Collins was Minister at the time.
I remember Dr. Cruise-O'Brien, when he was Minister, playing a very dirty trick, as it was painted by the Fianna Fáil Deputies, of taking out of his bag a long plaintive letter written by Deputy Collins in 1971 to the Minister for Finance of the day, warning him that unless massive funds were made available for the telephone service, we were going to find ourselves back at Somerville and Ross levels compared to the rest of Europe. He said it would be the king of the tinker's level of service here if we did not get a massive injection of funds, but nothing happened. If I may blow the trumpet of my own friends for a couple of minutes, I shall resume my ecumenical habit after that, it only happened when the Coalition Government came to power and put more in four years into the telephone service than had previously been put into it in the 55 years since the foundation of the State. I can see Deputy Harte nodding, I would not expect him to contradict me. He knows that is the case and I am sure he will be saying it with much more force and conviction, authority and detail when he rises to speak. That is the reality. That heavy investment programme was continued by Fianna Fáil when they got in 1977 and I do not begrudge them the credit for it. I would not be so childish as to pretend it got any worse. It did not get any worse under the short period of the second Coalition Government either, but it is still far behind European levels.
Many of us live and die without ever requiring to make an STD call to Moscow or Hong Kong but the ordinary dialling service in the city of Dublin is fit to drive a man out of his mind. You lift the telephone and you diall 789911, the number of this House, and you could get no tone three times in a row, not the engaged signal, not the out of order signal, not the service suspended or they have not paid their bill signal, but no tone at all. That just does not happen in other countries. I said I would not make a meal out of the telephone service but I suddenly find I have done so. I want to tell the Minister, in case his Department have any illusions, that with the exceptions I have conceded of the continuing level of installations and the trunk dialling system, if he thinks that the level of service at the ordinary domestic level is getting any better or the level of frequency with which people complain about delay in repairs to the system is getting better, he is deceiving himself.
There are other things I should like to see in the telephone system here which I think is a stick-in-the-mud system. I say that with regret and I should like the Minister to hear this: over the years, in and out of office I have had a very happy relationship with the staff of the secretary's office who have provided me with the most courteous, careful friendly and speedy service. I have very often been able to help constituents — as they say, of whatever political persuation. In parentheses, may I say that it is a curious tribute to say of a politician that he never discriminated, that he was willing to help somebody on the other side of the fence. So well he might be; it is the best of his play; if he can get that man to vote for him it is as good as two of his own. With regret I have to say that I think the attitude of the Minister's Department by and large has been somewhat stick-in-the-mud when it comes to devising means of making the service more popular or getting the people to like it and use it more.
Last year when Deputy Killilea was Minister of State I asked whether he would consider introducing a system whereby subscriber trunk dialling to the Continent on Saturdays and Sundays and off peak hours could be at a cheaper rate. This country does not spend its life dialling Munich or Montparnasse and I think the volume of traffic to Europe would be modest from here but the people who need it are inclined to be business people and it is a very heavy item to them. Many are business people who do not mind working and whose second nature it is to work Saturdays and Sundays if need be and it would be a considerable asset to them to be able to use the telephone at weekends at a reduced rate in the manner which is customary in a very large part of the European Community.
There is a reciprocal system in operation between the German Federal Republic and all its neighbours which means that it operates between Germany and Denmark — it stretches into the Eastern Block, Czechoslovakia; I am not sure about Eastern Germany but there are subsidised rates for that in any case — Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. All these countries have reciprocal arrangements with Germany, so that we are talking of the large bulk of telephone consumers in the European Community, whereby telephone calls out of peak hours are made at a privileged rate and on Sundays I think at something like half rate.
The suggestion I made here was made little of by Deputy Killilea but I believe it would relieve pressure on the trunk lines at peak hours and the cost to the State, taking into account the reduced exasperation of people who cannot avoid using the phone on weekdays, would be extremely small. It is a typical reflection of the way we do business that we are very willing to cut all kinds of corners in order to treat this country and Britain as one. I never tire of complaining about that. We look over our shoulder to England for everything. We have the same postal rate for posting to England as inside the country; the same telephone regulations, cheap rates and so on but when it is a question of going as far as Ostend, the curtains come down and the niggers begin there just as completely as they do for the English.
I am sorry that I have spent far too long on this matter. I believe that the Minister — not himself personally but the person a which he has the honour to carry — is under an official illusion if he supposes that the public are satisfied or within an ass's roar of being satisfied with the level of postal and telecommunication services: most certainly they are not. I am sorry to give voice to such an unworthy suspicion but I think the real reason behind the creation of these two boards — except for the "Paddy" reason that the English have two such boards, which I suspect is the most basic reason, God help us — apart from the fact that we still have to copy the English whatever they do——
Australia and the United States.
We never would have thought of An Bord Poist and An Bord Telecom if the English had not had such things for the past four or five years.
And other countries also.
When did we invent something here, let alone a major structural administrative reform in which the English had not preceded us? Let the Minister name one. It is shaming and I should expect the Minister to be foremost in being ashamed about it. We were long enough learning about other countries. We hardly know where they are. It is enough to have An Bord Poist and An Bord Telecom so that Pat can traipse after them.
The real reason next to that and the real reason they said in the Post Office that it might not be a bad idea to have these two boards, is that they would take the political heat off whoever is Minister for the bad service which the public are getting. It will now be possible for the Minister to say or, possibly, the Ceann Comhairle to say in an expession which I get in my daily communications from his office: "The question is out of order because the Minister has no responsibility to the Dáil for this matter." Certainly, when the postal service is under an Bord Poist and when telephone, telex and so on are under An Bord Telecom the Minister will be able to decline all responsibility. He will not have to answer questions about it any more than as Minister for Transport he will have to answer questions about why it is that four No. 7 buses arrive at a bus stop within three minutes and that another 40 minutes can go by before another one is seen. He will be able to dismiss questions in the House about the abominable working of these services in the same way as the Minister for Transport cannot be called on to answer here for the condition of CIE.
That is the real reason, apart from the fact that we have to stay near the English — it could be dangerous to depart in any way from the pattern which the English have laid down, keen though we seem to have been for 800 years, if I understand my mythology correctly, to get clear of them and do things our own way. That fine enthusiasm evaporated quickly; it lasted about ten years while William Cosgrave was in power and that was the end of it. In fairness I must say, I think it extended into the first few years of Mr. de Valera's regime also, but for the last 25 or 30 years very little of it was seen. Any innovation in this State was done in the first 15 or 16 years or was not done at all, any independent innovation that was worthwhile.
I hope we shall not find that the establishment of these two boards will make the cost of the service worse instead of better. Perhaps the Minister is not aware of the degree to which the people have to carry this taxation on their backs. Of course it is a form of taxation because one is as much dependent in the late 20th century on posts and telegraphs as one is on every public service. One cannot do without it and so a telephone or postal charge is as much a form of taxation as income tax or VAT. It is no use telling somebody not to use the postal service or telephone. People must use them. Only hermits or members of enclosed orders, of which there are fewer and fewer and they are becoming less and less enclosed, are in the situation of not being dependent on these services. People are dependent on them and the charge for them is as much a form of taxation as VAT.
The Minister may again be looking over his shoulder no further than England and I suspect — I do not mean Deputy Wilson, who I know is a man of individuality and character who is not so base as to be this in his own right, but the ministerial persona, a sort of man in the iron mask, the man being switched out through a kind of zip in the back with every change of Government. Therefore the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs may not be aware of the gross disparity which exists between the level of these charges here and those that obtain in most of Continental Europe. When I was a student in Germany as long ago as 1954 the cost of a local telephone call was 20 pfennigs. In those days, because the German mark was worth less than it is now, 20 pfennigs was worth about four old pence. It was a somewhat dearer local call than the Irish one which in those days was 2d. The cost of a local telephone call in Germany today, 27 or 28 years later, is still 20 pfennigs. You can still ring up and talk your head off to somebody in the same city or postal district for the same 20 pfennigs, the same two coins which you could have put as a lucky charm in your wallet. When I qualified in 1956 I could have put 20 pfennigs in my pocket, come back 28 years later and put them into the same telephone and I would have got the same service for them.
What has happened here? The 2d have gone by the board. We now have new pence honoured with the dignity of designs personally approved by the present Taoiseach without competition or consultation with man, woman or child, let alone anyone who knew anything about it. Those 2d amounted to less than 1p. The cost of a local telephone call now is 10p, two shillings in old money or 24d. In other words the cost of a local telephone call here in the span of time which I am talking about 28 years, has risen 12 times, that is when you can find a public telephone that works, that has not been vandalised, or, having been vandalised because Ireland has no monopoly of vandalism, has been repaired.
If I may use the same comparison, I would like to recall that when I first went to Germany as a student in 1954 I could write a letter to my mother at home for 40 pfennigs. In other words, that was twice the cost of a local telephone call or about 8d. in those days. The cost of a letter in the other direction, from Ireland to the Continent, was 5d. What is the situation now? In Germany the cost of a letter to elsewhere in Europe has advanced from 40 pfennigs in 1954 to about 70 pfennigs in 1982. I am not absolutely certain of that and it could be 80 pfennigs, but I believe it is 70. What has happened here? If I write to someone in Germany from here I am not paying 5d any longer. I am not even paying 5p. I am paying 29p. How about that for an increase? That is damn nearly 6s in the old money. It is not far off half of the week's pocket money that I got when I was a student, and that is the cost of posting one letter. I could multiply these examples in other European countries, not with the same accuracy or recollection naturally, but I want the Minister to understand that it is not simply a question of people who do not do very much writing of letters, of some old lady or gentleman who neither gets nor sends very much post. It affects people in business who are attempting to run their lives in dependence on a postal or telephone service. It is extremely expensive and unless An Bord Telecom can provide a cheaper service they will avoid giving us a great deal of the benefit that they might give.
I must apologise to the House for going on so long on these two topics, the quality and the cost of these two services. I have dined out on them to some extent and I did not mean to do so. I will do penance for that by being quick in the rest of the points I want to make. The Minister proposes in section 61 to confer immunity from liability on An Post. We can discuss this in greater detail on Committee Stage, but I ask the Minister if he has got the Attorney General's Office to consider if in this country immunity from suit can be conferred legally on anybody and whether it is possible to discriminate between citizens or between citizens and the Administration in such a way as to make one sort of person immune from being sued for an act which would be actionable if committed by somebody else. The section relates to An Bord Poist and reads:
(1) Subject to subsection (3), the company shall be immune from all liability in respect of any loss, damage or injury suffered by any person by reason of—
(a) failure, neglect or delay in providing, operating or maintaining a postal service,
There may be a mistake, an accident and nobody is making any fuss about that, but suppose there is widespread neglect, carelessness, indolence, indifference in the postal service and people are damaged in their business as a result. It is to avoid that very thing that we find the courier services, document exchange and so on springing up all around us. Why should this board be exempt from a suit? Why should they be feather-bedded, cushioned against their own neglect by such a provision?
My memory is nearly as bad as that of former Deputy Lynch. I am never entirely sure when I am talking about something that happened a few months or some years ago that I am recollecting it accurately and very often I make serious mistakes in the way that he did although never about anything quite so serious, but I feel for him because I know what it is to have a bad memory. I will not swear to this, but when we were in government six months ago I too had a persona, a kind of man in the iron mask outfit. I climbed into it after Deputy O'Malley left it and I restored it to him in good shape when I left by decree of the sovereign people. At any rate, the Department over which I presided felt — and I agreed with them — that there was no justification for exempting An Bord Poist from having actions taken against them for neglect and if my recollection is correct I do not quite know why this provision is back here again. There were one or two other provisions on which I will not waste the House's time now of which the same could be said in which at my instance objectionable provisions were removed but I suppose the absence of a Fine Gael Minister allowed the people to feel that they could be safely reinstated in the Bill before it reached the Dáil. Such an immunity may not be constitutional. I recognise that the Constitution, in Article 40, permits discrimination to take place where people's social function differs. Of course, there is a clear distinction between a State board with a public task to perform on the one hand and an individual on the other, but is the difference one in respect of which it can be said there is any material element justifying this discrimination? I cannot see that there is. The Minister will do himself a service by asking the Attorney General to advise him about this and any other similar provision which there may be in regard to An Bord Telecom.
Section 63 has a provision about the inviolability of mail. I have nothing to say about that. Naturally I agree that mail should be inviolable except under the familiar conditions relating to security, but could the Minister find out, even as a matter of reference or information for himself and his Department, whether there is a legal view as to who owns a letter or postal packet — a grand Victorian name for what you and I would call a letter — when it is in transit? That is a serious legal question and I spent some hours vainly trying to get the answer during the limited postal dispute affecting the Blackrock delivery area when I was consulted by people who were desperate because their remittances, pension payments or some money they expected, a postal order perhaps, were, they knew, locked up in Blackrock Post Office and they could not get at them. They had no money and were destitute until the expected money arrived. Luckily the dispute ended before it came to a final point, but it was a serious question, leaving aside the sacredness of industrial disputes, as to whether it would be possible or advisable to sue the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in respect of withholding or the physical detention or possession of an item which did not belong to him. After all, the Minister is the carrier and the person in possession of the letter in transit. If it happens to be in the bowels of the Blacrock post office at a time when the industrial curtains come down in the course of a dispute, the Minister is still the possessor. I presume he does not own it. Who owns it? Is it the sender or the recipient? If it is either of them, one or the other must be entitled to recapture the letter from him. If not, why not? That is a point my own legal expertise was not able to surmount in the time available to me. But it would be well worth the Minister's while, and it would be in the public interest, if he was to inquire about that and find out what his legal situation is where he finds himself involuntarily in control of a postal packet which is inaccessible and incapable of delivery because of an industrial dispute. It may well be that the High Court would pay no attention to an industrial dispute and would simply say: "John Wilson, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, hand out that letter this minute and no more old talk out of you about industrial disputes". I hope there is enough freedom and law in the country that there would be that effect, particularly in the situation where an old widow or a remittance man is left destitute because a money order or draft which is destined for him cannot be got at as it is in the bowels of a strike-bound post office.
Deputy Cosgrave mentioned sub-post offices and paid tribute to the services they have provided. I support him in that and praise the Minister for taking the trouble to say something to the same effect in his speech. The State would suffer a great loss if it sacrificed the unique network of potential public facility which the sub-post offices represent. I am not putting in a plug for them or for the people who work in them or whose business is associated with them. In this immense network of post offices the State has a means of communicating with the people and a means of providing facilities for them which is established and understood and used for a range of purposes which have nothing to do with the strict postal service.
I can imagine many situations, even of national emergency, where it might be necessary to expand the range of services provided by the post offices. In the seventies we had a series of incredible bank strikes. The last one in 1976 or 1977 lasted for six months or more. It was a mammoth strike and business was paralysed. People, as Deputy Colley used to say, wrote their own credit because they were not within reach of their bank manager and there were IOUs flying around. Bank notes were such that one could almost see the cultures of vermin growing on them. The country was in a situation of severe commercial handicap. I repeatedly questioned Deputy Colley when the strike was over about what contingency plans he had for providing for a further bank strike. The State, with all due respect to the sancity of industrial dispute, must have emergency plans up its sleeve for dealing with a protracted bank dispute. What would Deputy Colley have done if the banks had never re-opened? Did he ever think about that? Surely there must be contingency plans, whether in the Department of Defence in Parkgate Street or elsewhere, for an endless bank strike. My suggestion is that if such plans were drawn up they could be based on the post office and sub-post office structure. I am not suggesting that one can turn a country sweet shop, a Ballyscullion operation, into something which is capable of handling a large cash flow overnight. However, some thought ought to be given to the possibility of saving the economy and commercial life of the country in the event of a prolonged bank strike by having a contingency system which will depend on and be operated by the sub-post office network.
I should like to draw the attention of the House to the suspect nature of the State monopoly in the postal and telephone service which the Minister proposes to confer on these two bodies. These monopolies are constitutionally defensible only as long as they serve the public interests. Once the time comes when, because one or other falls victim to industrial unrest or for some other reason, it fails to provide a reasonable service the constitutional basis for the monopoly drops away into the sea. When that moment comes there will be a free for all situation just as free as in the selling of sweets or ice cream so far as the provision of telephone, telegraph, postal or broadcasting systems are concerned. The Minister or his predecessors have never taken that point of view as seriously as they ought, not because it is mine but because it is staring everybody in the face. There is no reason why there should be a postal or a telephone monopoly unless it serves the public interests. When it ceases to do that, the legal basis for having a monopoly disappears. When that happens there must be a free for all. I do not think the Department or any Minister under any administration ever really faced up to that situation and asked themselves how they would deal with it or, less frequently asked, how the interest of the people require that it be dealt with.
This is a very important debate. It is perhaps one of the most important Bills which has come before the Dáil for a long time. What the Bill seeks to do is create a major change in the administration of a very big sector of the public service.
One of the major differences between the administration of a public service by a State body and by a public Department is answerability to this House. It is on matters relating to the House and to the security of the telephone system that I wish to refer in this debate. I intervene to raise a very serious matter affecting the security of telephone conversations where what are knows as PABX facilities exist, technically described as an overall capacity. This overall capacity enables a person whose phone is so equipped to interrupt a conversation between other people on the PABX system. It can be used for such things as telephone conference facilities. However, this capacity can, in some systems, be put to another use. It can be employed to overhear conversations on a PABX system without the persons engaged in the conversation being aware of such overhearing. The existence of this overhearing capacity, which people using the PABX system are not aware of, is an alarming feature and one which, in the public interest, must be brought under legal control. On behalf of my party, I am seeking an assurance from the Minister in this debate that he will introduce the necessary amendments to the Bill to achieve this control.
Just how alarming and dangerous is the present, uncontrolled, situation is evident from what happened here in the Houses of the Oireachtas in 1980 and 1981 when a system was installed which provided, in a number of offices, a capacity to overhear conversations on any Leinster House extension without even lifting a receiver. First of all, I shall describe how the situation came to light in the closing weeks of our Government. Then I shall explain, to the extent the inquiries made up to the time the Government changed, enable me to do so, how the situation came about because this will demonstrate how important it is that legislation be introduced to control this potention abuse.
In early January of this year, shortly before the budget, it was suggested to me, as Minister for Justice, by an informant that the Leinster House telephone system was insecure and that calls between any two extensions on that exchange, or between any extension of that exchange and any outside number, could be monitored by any of a small group of people who had particular facilities. My informant demonstrated to me how this was done and showed me that, by using what is known as an SL 1 console with this special facility, it was easy to listen to telephone conversations of a very confidential nature unknown to those carrying on the conversation and without even lifting a receiver.
On a point of order, Deputy FitzGerald and his colleagues were highly critical here last week of Deputy Gallagher (Waterford) for reading a speech from other than ministerial benches. In the interests of equity in the House I might ask: is Deputy Mitchell reading a speech because I was always aware that that privilege was not allowed other than for Ministers in this House.
The Chair will explain to Deputy Lawlor, as it did on the occasion on which the right of Deputy Gallagher (Waterford) to refer to a speech or notes was questioned. On that occasion the Chair indicated that over the years it had been noted that Deputies did refer to scripts, or to notes, and that apparently it had been accepted, as such. On this occasion, as in the case of Deputy Gallagher (Waterford), the Chair is accepting that Deputy J. Mitchell is making his contribution fortified by notes he has brought in with him and, accordingly, is in order.
Thank you, sir.
(Waterford): I think the reason for the interruption last week was the disappointment of members of the Fine Gael Party that something quite striking was not going to emerge from my contribution in relation to perhaps some deal or other that they, in their imagination, had conceived that our party were in the process of making with the Government of the day. That was the reason for their frustration.
Is it not a fact that Deputy Gallagher (Waterford) was allowed to make a speech last week from notes because it was deemed that he was speaking on behalf of his party, and Deputy Mitchell is speaking authoritatively on parliamentary ——
Sorry, Deputy, the Chair allowed Deputy Gallagher (Waterford) to proceed on the assumption that he was referring to a speech or to notes he had brought in with him. The Chair is acting precisely in the same fashion now in respect of whatever script or notes Deputy J. Mitchell has brought in. Deputy Mitchell to proceed without interruption.
On a point of order, Deputy Kelly is in the House and the first time I heard that matter raised was by him when he criticised a colleague on these benches for reading a maiden speech. It seems the order of the day that speeches can be read even though a Deputy is supposed to be referring to notes. If that is the procedure, that is all right. But it was grossly unfair last week that the Fine Gael Party should have been so critical and then this week carry on the same procedure themselves.
Deputy Mitchell to proceed.
I should say, as Deputy Lawlor has dragged me into this piffling ——
The Deputy does not have to respond to such dragging in if he does not so desire.
The extent to which a Deputy referred was not specific. It was because in those days every Fianna Fáil backbencher was supplied by their "think tank".
That is not true.
After that interlude perhaps the House would agree to allow Deputy Mitchell to proceed.
As I was saying, an SL1 console is a very modern electronic machine with a surveillance capacity inbuilt, known as an override facility. My informant advised me that SL1 consoles had been especially provided in 1980 to a small group of people in the Taoiseach's office in Leinster House and in Government Buildings and subsequently in the offices of the Minister for Finance in Government Buildings, all on the Leinster House exchange. In mid-January 1982 some days after this was brought to my attention, in the presence of the Taoiseach, the Secretaries of both the Departments of Justice and Posts and Telegraphs, the Deputy Secretary to the Government and my own Private Secretary, a similar test was conducted on the Taoiseach's own Leinster House extension, itself having the surveillance capacity. To the shock of all present, the Taoiseach's own telephone conversations could be listened to unobserved from other telephones fitted with the surveillance system.
It became immediately clear to us all that every Leinster House extension was similarly exposed, including those of all Ministers, Deputies, Senators, journalists and Government employees having Leinster House extensions. It was equally clear that all communication with the Leinster House system from any outside telephone was similarly vulnerable and had been for almost two years.
As Minister for Justice I was alarmed to find that certain of my own conversations within Leinster House, or to Leinster House from outside, even with the Taoiseach, could have been listened to.
When I was first informed of this the Taoiseach was not in Ireland. I asked for secret consultation between the Secretary of my Department the Secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, and for an immediate report on how this insecure system had been installed in Leinster House, and what were the full ramifications.
A preliminary report was ready for my presentation to the Taoiseach on his return. The Taoiseach was alarmed by the information disclosed to him in the report. He was especially concerned to learn that his own telephones both in Leinster House and Government Buildings had this overhearing or surveillance capacity.
We had it confirmed that the problem was as big as we had thought; that 8 SL1 consoles — 7 with the surveillance facility — had been installed in early January 1980 at the request of the then Taoiseach in his offices. This request was made orally by him to officials of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs on 16 December 1979 at a meeting in his office. We also learned that a further 8 SL1 consoles — all with the surveillance facility — were installed in the offices of the Minister for Finance at Government Buildings in March 1980.
In both instances, it was found that the work had taken place and the system had been in operation months before the written orders for the equipment were made. Much documentation was either missing or appeared never to have existed.
We also found that 2 SL1 consoles — both with the surveillance capacity — were installed immediately after the change of Government in July 1981 in the Leinster House offices of the Leader of Fianna Fáil at his request. This installation was apparently approved by the new Taoiseach who was unaware of the significance of the equipment at that time. We found it difficult to get full and exact details of the separate installations in the time then available, because of gaps in the back-up documentation and because the engineer responsible for the installation of the consoles had left the employment of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.
The Taoiseach, having received a report on this matter, reported to the Cabinet and, after informing the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, had the surveillance capacity immediately removed from all extensions known to have it, and immediately informed the then Leader of the Opposition of the situation. This process was completed by 26 January 1982. As a general election unexpectedly arose the next day, followed by the Dublin-West by-election soon afterwards, there was no appropriate opportunity up to now to raise this matter in the House in a non-electoral context. It must now be raised on this Bill so that the necessary safeguards can be incorporated in this Bill.
Other questions arising from this affair relating to the integrity of communications within and to and from the Houses of the Oireachtas I believe must be dealt with by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. These questions include:
(1) How such a capacity came to be installed in such a sensitive security area and how no notice of this feature of the system was given to the Houses of the Oireachtas?
(2) How such a system was extended during its time of operation from January 1980 to January 1982?
(3) How the administration of telephone ordering in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs was so incomplete as to make full investigation difficult?
(4) How and why services can be provided up to six months before they are ordered in writing?
I am sure there will be many more questions asked. The timetable of events was as follows:
(1) December 1979. Verbal instructions from the then Taoiseach for special telephone facilities.
(2) Early January 1980. Temporary system introduced.
(3) 15 January 1980. Eight SL1's, seven of which had activated surveillance capacity, installed in the Taoiseach's office.
(4) 21 March 1980. Order placed for temporary equipment installed in early January 1980.
(5) March 1980. Eight SL1's, all with activated surveillance capacity, installed in the office of the Minister for Finance.
(6) 14 July 1980. Order issued for 10 SL1's to cover Taoiseach's permanent installation in late January previous.
Eight were installed as mentioned.
(7) 30 October 1980. Order issued for nine SL1's to cover the Minister for Finance's installation in March 1980.
Eight were installed as mentioned before.
(8) July 1981. Two SL1's, both with activated surveillance capacity, installed in Fianna Fáil Leader's room in Leinster House.
(9) January 1982. Minister for Justice advised of security problem by informant.
(10) January 1982. Government order investigation into, and subsequently termination of, this facility on all phones in Leinster House.
(11) 5 March 1982. Formal report submitted by investigating committee.
The dangers of such a faulty telephone installation are almost endless. In the terms of reference of the high level investigating committee set up by the Coalition Government we included a provision that all records and documentation should be kept intact for further investigation.
I now formally suggest that the whole question of past, present and future telephonic arrangements for Leinster House be referred to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges by a suitable motion of both Houses and with appropriate terms of reference and powers. It is possible that the discovery in Leinster House would also have implications for PABX systems elsewhere. That is why the statement I have made today is particularly relevant to the present Bill and especially to my comments at the outset. I ask the Minister, when replying to the Second Stage, to undertake to include in the Bill the necessary amendments to legislate against such facilities in PABX systems and to tell us if since 26 January 1982 any overhearing or surveillance capacity has been reactivated in this House.
My contribution will be directed at total opposition to this Bill. The Bill proposes to transfer from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs to two semi-State bodies the very important services of posts, telegraphs, telecommunications and other services which have a bearing on every section of the population. The major contributions up to this in relation to this Bill pinpoint the defects of our existing system which are many and varied. Our people have at all times aspired to substantially better telephone, telex and postal services. The criticisms levelled by the public and private sectors have been considerable in relation to the Ministers responsible for the Department and the employees in the Department.
My party's opinion is that while those criticisms are justified, because of the defective system, they have been directed at the wrong Department because the Department of Posts and Telegraphs are entirely governed by the limited finance provided by the Department of Finance for capital and ongoing expenditure in the Department. The main point in our opposition is that a completely inadequate financial provision was made to meet the requirements of the public and private sectors in the postal and telecommunications services. Very substantial progress has been made and it has been contended that telephones will shortly be available on demand. It is an inopportune time to attempt this denationalisation to a semi-State body of such important services. As well as being important to the community those services are also very important to about 27,000 employees, who have been recruited and trained within a system which they have accepted and grown very used to. These employees feel deep concern and frustration about their future. They have given in the past, are giving and in the future would give absolute loyalty and dedication of service. Unfortunately, the present legislation and the discussion between their union representatives and officials of the Department leave them in great doubt. This factor will have to be weighed heavily by the Minister before these people are transferred from their long-standing traditional area of employment.
There is particular concern among postmasters and postmistresses, especially in the rural areas. With the operation of a semi-State body removed from the political responsibility of the Minister and the Department they fear that that body could, for economic or other reasons, severely curtail or possibly discontinue services in some or many areas. They have in view the decisions of that other semi-State body, CIE, bringing about the closing of railway stations and the disuse of great lengths of railway line.
Very many part-time postmen who have served us well in the west and in other areas are also very concerned and worried. The aim and ambition of everybody has been, is and will be the improvement of the services; but this restructuring under two semi-State bodies may not achieve the desired results. At present there are 200 or 300 unresolved matters at issue between the union concerned and the Department. Anyone with any knowledge of industrial relations will realise that the resolution of these matters before the introduction of a new negotiating machine is of the utmost importance if we are to avoid industrial strife. Matters under review or concerning the current structural decision must be resolved now, because they will not be satisfactorily resolved in the boardrooms of the new semi-State bodies. Before a final attempt is made to pass this legislation, I strongly urge the Minister to see that all outstanding issues regarding conditions of employment partly negotiated and left unresolved are attended to before other legislative proposals are put forward.
Another major issue is that of telephonists. It is frequently and strongly contended that this restructuring will result in very substantial redundancies. There is also the question of the opportunities for promotion which have for so long existed, which enabled the employees within the Department of Posts and Telegraphs with the necessary abilities and the aspirations to seek higher and more remunerative posts in other Departments. Will this new legislation bring those opportunities to an end? That would be a serious setback which would require further and continuing negotiations.
Many of the sections of the Bill are still in the air in so far as the employees and the trade union are concerned. There is the decision that the elected representatives of the board will not meet for a full 12 months after the enactment of the legislation.
That is not so.
Here again, there is a deep worry that decisions of the most vital importance to the interests, not only of the services but of the employees, could be taken prior to the sitting of the elected representatives of the employees on the board.
The service requires improvements and criticisms were made. We have heard criticism during the debate in this House. We have heard that many telephone kiosks are in an unworkable condition. The people blamed are the Minister and the officials and staff of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, but this is caused by vandalism and the Minister and the Department officials should not come under attack. I would advise the Minister to hasten slowly with this legislation. Everyone suffered immensely during the industrial troubles of 1979 in the Department. With such a nervous situation for employees going in under new management, facing new directives and new conditions of employment, we could be facing further industrial problems, which nobody wants and which the country certainly does not. All outstanding matters must be negotiated, teased out and satisfactorily resolved, otherwise trouble will ensure, not only for the staff of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs but for the new boards if this legislation is passed.
(Waterford): Represending a party which advocates modernisation and, indeed, expansion in the public sector, I would like to be able to say quite frankly that our party welcome this Bill as a recognition by the Government of the type of economic and management strategy which Ireland needs in the eighties. Unfortunately, the Bill as proposed by the Minister and the Government is, as always when it comes to semi-State bodies, the usual hamfisted and half-hearted effort to cope with the problems which the revolution in electronic technology has brought to our communications system.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the sections of the new Bill dealing with the allocation of finance to the proposed two new companies. The total amount of working capital provided under section 29 of the Bill is a mere £8.5 million for the postal company and £130 million for the telecommunications body. Yet the State tacitly admits how woefully inadequate these amounts are in section 26 of the Bill, where it is stated clearly that the Minister will be authorised to guarantee loans totalling another £8.5 million for An Bord Poist and a staggering £1,050 million for An Bord Telecom.
Out of the money already allocated to the Telecom sector, plus the proposed amount, nowhere is there any mention of setting money aside for the retraining of the telephone operators where jobs will be at risk by the ongoing telephone development plan. The magnitude of this problem can be seen in a report published by the National Board of Science and Technology —"Micro-Electronics; the implications for Ireland". This showed that the present five-year telephone development plan is expected to reduce the jobs of telephone operators from 5,600 to about 1,000. We cannot stop technology: none of us should put a brake in the way of technology, and indeed in the society we are living in, anyone who stands in the way of technology will be rolled over. However, 4,500 jobs will disappear, and the loss of 4,500 jobs is three times the number of staff employed in the Ferenka plant. These operators have given loyal and dedicated service down through the years and worn out equipment in antiquated buildings. On more than one occasion they had cause to take industrial action to highlight the fact that they were unable to give a proper service to the public owing to the state of the equipment. The Workers' Party believe that a scheme of early retirement for those who wish to avail of it, plus retraining for operators in areas at the moment dominated by private enterprise, such as DAD Directory Services and other agency type services, should be a priority for the new Telecom Board.
Even this understates the full disparity between the State's aspiration for the new bodies and its unwillingness to give them the financial resources to meet those aspiration, because section 25 of the Bill grants the new companies the right to raise a total of £8.5 million in loans with regard to An Bord Poist and £1,400 million in the case of An Bord Telecom.
In other words, the State is admitting that it foresees these vital new State bodies having to borrow more than ten times as much finance on the private money market as the State itself is prepared to put up. This is an invitation to insolvency on a colossal scale. It will leave both new companies in permanent hock to the banks. Because of the financial proposals in the Bill, it is certain these companies will be strangled at birth. No one denies the serious state of public finances, but a little more imagination could have been applied to allow these bodies to generate their own sources of finance through the creation of a national giro system.
Such a service is badly needed in the many isolated communities throughout Ireland where the commercial banks find it is not profitable to open branch offices. Indeed there are many urban areas, particularly in the more deprived regions, where banking services are not readily available because the commercial banks do not find them commercially viable.
What is more, a network of post offices on which such a giro system could be based is already available. No doubt, conservative minded politicians in the Dáil of the main parties will condemn my proposal as a threat to the private banking sector which controls all the important sources of investment in our economy. They are right, but if Irish banking is efficient and is serving a real need, it has nothing to fear. In that showpiece of modern capitalism, Japan, there is also a highly successful national giro run by the post office. Today it is the biggest bank in the world with deposits totalling over £60 billion.
Surely it makes more sense to allow the Irish people to invest in developing a modern State communications system directly than to allow it to fall into hock with the private banks. At the end of the day the general public will have to foot the bill either through increased service charges or taxpayer subsidies — and they will also have to pay for the bankers' profit margins.
My party intend to propose an amendment on Committee Stage to expand the functions allowed for in the Bill under section 12, to allow for the creation of a giro service and a full range of banking services, with no restrictions to be placed on the new service as to its expansion in either rural or urban areas.
I have alluded already to the impact that the new organisation will have on staffing levels within the new bodies. Indeed the threat of job losses is only the most dramatic in a whole range of changes proposed in the new Bill unless it is amended.
Therefore, it is hard to understand why the Minister has made provision in the Bill under section 32 that elections for worker-directors shall not take place for 12 months after the vesting day for the new bodies. By that time crucial decisions affecting all sorts of matters could have been taken. The Bill is unclear as to whether Government nominees will be appointed to the boards prior to worker-directors being elected. Worker-directors should be able to take part in the decision making process from the beginning, and my party would also argue that there should be greater trade union representation on the working committee at present in operation.
Another unsatisfactory section from the staff point of view is section 42 which states that staff pay and conditions shall not be less beneficial than on vesting day of the new bodies. There is understandable fear among postal workers concerning their security of tenure. The latest circular from the Minister to the staff in relation to staff transferred to either company states that previous service in the civil service shall be reckonable for the purpose, but subject to any other exceptions or exclusions in the Holiday (Employees) Act, 1973 and the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act.
The Minister should be aware that any reference to the Unfair Dismissals Act, and the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act, would be a worsening of conditions. At the moment, PO employees do not come under these Acts and any attempt to force them into a situation where their unions would be forced to negotiate under these Acts would be a worsening of conditions.
The Minister has stated that there is nothing new in the Bill, in so far as what it contains was in the original Green Paper. The Minister will be aware that the largest union in the Post Office, the POWU, gave a detailed submission on that Green Paper. Yet, despite this, these objectionable paragraphs now appear in the Bill. The Minister will agree that the amount of co-operation forthcoming from the largest union has been exceptional, yet, the union's reward for co-operation is an attempt by the Minister to railroad legislation through the Dáil, many aspects of which are totally unacceptable to the union concerned. I intend to propose an amendment to the effect that the pay and conditions of staff in the new boards shall be no less favourable than they would have been if they had remained in the civil service.
From section 43 of the Bill it appears as if the Government are trying to weaken workers' rights within the new body with regard to pensions. While there is nothing wrong with subsections (1), (2) and (3) of the pensions section, why on earth did the Minister then include subsection (4), which effectively gives the management, in conjunction with the Minister the right unilaterally to alter staffs' pension rights?
I believe that this clause would make much more sense if it was brought forward and taken as subsection (3). Subsection (3) would then be taken afterwards. This would give an assurance to former Post and Telegraphs employees, as well as new employees, that their pension rates would keep pace with those of the civil service on the vesting day. Will the Minister consider this proposal? I would also like to know if he will replace the vesting day reference with a commitment, as in the pay and conditions section, to ensure ongoing comparability with civil service pay and conditions of employment to ensure that these constitute a floor below which conditions of employment in the new bodies will not fall.
On the question of pensions there is one further point I would like to make, that is, that the burden of providing pensions to retired employees of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs should not be a burden on the new boards. Given the tremendous financial handicaps already imposed on them in this Bill it would be fatal to their future viability if they were also burdened with servicing this area. The Minister should make it clear whether he expects the pension entitlements of existing retired employees of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs to be serviced by the new semi-State boards, An Bord Poist and An Bord Telecom Éireann. The Bill does not make this clear.
Our party is also dissatisfied with section 47 which refers to the setting up of the interim board. The largest union in the Post Office has no direct representation on An Bord Telecom Éireann and the general secretary of the POWU is on the postal board only in his capacity as staff panel representative. We intended putting down amendments to this section to provide for direct representation by the POWU on both boards. This can be done by increasing the figures set out in section 47 (3) from 10 to 13. This is all the more urgent when one considers that the chief executive of the Telecom board, Mr. Tom Byrne, and the Chairman, Mr. Michael Smurfit, are anything but friends of the trade union movement. If the Minister is really serious about appointing worker directors, why does he not start now and give proper representation, not through a staff representative or panel but through the unions involved in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, on the interim board?
Perhaps the Minister would also like to reflect on his present position in relation to section 46. At the moment he is suggesting that the users committee should be paid for from the funds of the new bodies. It hardly seems fair that the new organisation should pay for its own watchdog, and this is what the Minister is proposing in this section. The new boards may have their own ideas as to whether or not they should have a watchdog. But it seems that only the staff are to be put under public scrutiny while the activities of senior management are to be protected from censure. While it may be argued that a watchdog committee is or is not in the public interest, no one can deny that the present Department runs many services that are in the public interest. In the new Bill the Minister is authorised to direct the relevant body to continue carrying out those services.
Surely the Bill should also provide some means by which the losses incurred can be recouped from the Government, particularly if the new organisations are not to be allowed to exploit potentially profitable areas like the national giro scheme. Loss-making services should be financed by the Government regardless of how successful the companies are. In that regard I must ask the Minister to reconsider his attitude to section 60 (3) (d) which allows for the establishment of private courier services. Also under section 105 it seems that private firms are to be allowed to cash in on the undoubtedly attractive market that will develop for electronic mail. Under section 60 (3) (d) the Minister intends to licence private couriers. The present monopoly supposedly enjoyed by Post Office for the carrying of letters has been broken in recent years.
It is a fact of life — and Deputy Kelly referred to it — that in recent years the present private courier companies operate in a black economy situation with cheap labour. A number of these companies was investigated by the Revenue Commissioners recently and found guilty of tax evasion. Their method of payment to their employees is absolutely scandalous. Young people of 16 to 18 years of age are paid a miserable basic wage, the balance of which is made up from the amount of collection and deliveries they perform. Is it any wonder that these exploited youngsters can be seen daily weaving in and out of the traffic, travelling at dangerous speeds? Likewise the parcel service is being creamed off by courier firms of a larger kind. Needless to say, these companies are only interested in the lucrative markets. All of this has happened while postal workers wait for the Government to fulfil the promise made by Deputy Albert Reynolds, the previous Fianna Fáil Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, that the Post Office would soon start up its own courier services. That promise was made in 1980. To date, nothing has happened other than more empty promises.
Nobody in the House can deny the need for a high speed delivery service throughout Ireland. The priority of the Workers' Party is that these services will be operated by postal workers and not by exploited youngsters and multinationals. The Workers' Party will therefore look for the deletion of section 60 (3) (d) and a strengthening of the monoply for carrying mails with realistic fines and imprisonment for those who break it. When one takes section 70 of the Act in conjunction with section 60 of the Act one can see the hyprocisy of the Government concerning the setting up of the new semi-State companies. What company, public or private, is going to grant a licence to an individual to perform work which would be proper to the company? This is exactly what the Government are proposing. Furthermore, if the company refuses to grant a licence to an individual to provide a postal service, the individual may appeal to the Minister and the Minister's decision on appeal under the section will be final. Needless to say, one of the unwritten qualifications for a licence will be membership of Fianna Fáil. Our party intends treating section 70 with the contempt it deserves and will seek to have it taken out altogether.
There is no reason why postmen and drivers employed by the Department should not be involved in the security services, the delivering of money to banks and factories which is presently being done by private security firms who are afforded the use of the Army and the Garda at the taxpayers' expense.
Another section of the Act which is causing great concern and which is topical in the newspapers is the present format for collecting television licence fees. Under section 73 (5) it is provided that the Minister may revoke an order under the provisions of this section. The Workers' Party will be seeking the deletion of this subsection. Postal workers do not need threats hanging over their heads to encourage them to catch evaders. What is needed is a proper and permanent inspectorate grade of Post Office clerk. This would be a new grade with inspectors paid on a full-time basis to investigate the registration of television dealers under the 1972 Act. Also, in view of the growing video market, their work could be extended to checking films on sale in video shops. The chaos and shortage of finance which exists at present regarding the collection of licence fees is having a detrimental effect on RTE. If the station had the revenue it is owed it would not be in the financial difficulties it is in at present. There is an attitude among some of the unions in RTE that they are having financial difficulties because of the unwillingness or lack of interest of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in going out and chasing these licence fee evaders. That is not true. If there was a properly staffed section in the Post Office working on this on a full-time basis licence fee evasion could be reduced bringing in the revenue needed by RTE to transmit the type of programme being cut back at present.
Too often in the past successive Governments have set up semi-State companies to carry out important and vital functions and then denied to them the opportunity to pay their way by engaging in the most profitable areas open to them. They have had to share those profitable areas with private companies which can avail of the supplementary services provided at subsidised rates by their semi-State rivals in order to cream off the profits in the market place. By restricting the new bodies in their commercial activities, by leaving them under-financed and offering facilities to potential business rivals, the Government are leaving the new Bord Poist and An Bord Telecom Éireann in the same position as previous bodies such as CIE.
As far as my party are concerned, I would like to put the Government on notice that, if they are not prepared to review the proposed legislation and give the new bodies a realistic chance of viability, we will fight them tooth and nail. We will be putting down various amendments to tighten up this legislation because the future viability of Ireland's publicly-owned telecommunications system is at stake. We await with interest the Minister's response to our contribution and to the points raised by other Members about their fears not only about the employees but about the future of these new proposed bodies.
I begin my contribution feeling somewhat shattered because I had no idea Deputy Mitchell was going to make such allegations. I do not intend commenting on these but I hope they will be answered fully in this House. The atmosphere they created leads one to feel that the tenth anniversary of Watergate may well have been very appropriately honoured here. It is with this cloud hanging over us this evening that we consider this Bill which will fundamentally alter one of the most seemingly unchangeable institutions in our State.
When we gained our independence there were some changes — many of us feel there were not enough changes. The new Post Office changed very little from what existed in the days prior to our independence. The same people did the same kind of work in the same way as before independence — same methods, same people and usually the same offices. Even the GPO, the nerve centre of our postal service which had been destroyed in the 1916 Rising, was rebuilt and designed to reflect continuity rather than to reflect any radical change with what had gone before.
Within the post service all the changes had been on the surface. The most striking indication that there was a new regime was that the pillar boxes once royal red now became Free State green. We did not do anything so dramatic as to scrap these fine Victorian and Edwardian pillar boxes; in pragmatic style we simply repainted them. It was a wise and prudent thing to do because most of them still survive today. The new pillar boxes do not show up so well by comparison with these working monuments to the origins of our postal service which are still in efficient use today. Down the years the fact that the name "Victoria", "Victoria Regina" or "Edward Rex" were simply painted over in green on the pillar boxes did not deter even the most rabid Republicans from using a postal service which was firmly established in the affections and trust of the people as being efficient and above reproach.
The painting of the pillar boxes was in one sense symbolic of how little had changed, but in 1922 there was very little reason for us to think of fundamental changes in our postal service. We inherited from Britain a highly efficient and honest postal service which at that time was adequate for the needs of all individuals and those in commerce. Reading accounts of that time one can only be nostalgic about the type of service which allowed same day delivery of a letter posted before noon in the same town or city, where overnight delivery was the norm rather than the exception. We all share the frustrations so eloquently, if waspishly, articulated by Deputy Kelly earlier this evening about the growing deficiency especially in the letter service because the two day, if not four day, delivery has now become the norm for letters posted in Dublin to Dublin.
The postal service we inherited has served us very well over the decades. At all levels we had become accustomed to high levels of honesty and until recently we were accustomed to very high levels of public service from the Post Office, and that is what we got. Unfortunately, the Post Office service has been let down by succesive Governments. This was never more true than in the sixties. In recent years it has become increasingly clear to anyone who watches the patterns of economic development here that the two biggest stumbling blocks to foreign investment apart from the violence in Northern Ireland and the damaging propaganda consequences that can have on potential investors have been the state of the postal service and our very bad road network. These have been found completely inadequate and utterly incapable of dealing with the demands of a rapidly urbanising industrialised country.
Every Deputy could tell from his own constituency horror stories of investment lost because the infrastructural services were not adequate. We are used to talking about infrastucture, but in basic terms we mean roads, telephones, railways, drainage and so on. These are the areas in which we did not invest during the days of heavy optimistic growth, the sixties. Many mistakes were made against the environment — understandably, trying to catch up on years of neglect. We were going headlong, sometimes concentrating more on showy enterprises and not paying sufficient attention to environmental consequences, sometimes taking short cuts, cutting corners and neglecting the more fundamental parts of the infrastructure which were essential to later development. In many cases we have been found wanting for that lack of investment.
Deputies have cited their own horror stories about the state of our telephone system. Dublin is bad enough, but I have great sympathy for Deputies from some of the more remote areas where making a phone call can involve 15 minutes or 30 minutes and results in frustration. I often wonder at the patience of many Deputies who have to constantly phone their constituencies. I marvel at their forbearance and their ability to grapple with a system which makes effective communication and the transaction of business impossible.
Ironically this type of inefficiency can often be found side by side with a very commendable and admirable degree of sophistication. I remember on one occasion being in a newsroom in this city where two journalists were trying to make telephone calls, one to Kampala and the other to Cork. This was at a time when Idi Amin was unfortunately President of Uganda. The journalist got through to Kampala to be told the President was in Entebbe. He then got through to Entebbe to be told politely that President Amin was not interested in talking to a journalist from that newspaper. The point I am making is that twice he had been through to Uganda while the other journalist was still trying to get a reply from Ballyvourney, County Cork.
In recent years this sophistication has been very marked and the degree of investment has been obvious under successive Ministers for Posts and Telegraphs. Looking back I would rate Conor Cruise-O'Brien as one of the first of our modernising Ministers for Posts and Telegraphs. I was not a Member of this House at the time but I observed that many people opposite could not take him seriously as a Minister with responsibility in this area. Many attempts were made to distract him from the high-minded issues with which he liked to become involved by putting down numerous questions about faults in the telephone service but he was the first Minister to grapple seriously with the problem of under-investment.
In the past few years we have been fortunate in our Ministers for Posts and Telegraphs. Deputy Reynolds, with the showbiz qualities for which he is known, dramatised to a certain extent the amount of investment needed and what was being done in the past few years to bring the telephone service up to the required standard. With a great deal less razzamatazz but perhaps with greater solidity, Deputy Cooney continued that same programme and intensified it. I have no doubt that the present Minister and the Minister of State are aware of the extent of the problem and are committed to achieving what has to be done. However, they arrived late on the scene. They arrived at five minutes to 12 o'clock to tackle the problem. In a sense they have had to catch up with the failure to invest. To some extent the blame must lie with the community. It was not pointed out that the investment was needed and had to be paid for, but perhaps people were not particularly interested in paying for what had to be done. Nevertheless great progress has been made and I do not think any Deputy would find fault with the commitment or the general approach of any of the more recent Ministers in this Department.
With regard to the Bill itself, the Minister is absolutely right to go for a radical reorganisation of the entire service. He would have been wrong to try to modify the existing structure, and here I disagree strongly with Deputy Moynihan who spoke earlier. The Minister would have been wrong to try to modify the existing structure or to adapt it. For all its virtues and its good qualities, the present structure is much too big to take any tinkering around with at the present time. The enormity of the task demands radical root and branch measures if we are to make the progress needed.
In addition, the present structure was never intended or designed to operate within commercial criteria. It was never seen as something that should strive as far as possible to pay its own way. With regard to the postal service, up to now the dominant criteria have been the need to emphasise public accountability, the traditional and the highly important civil service values, but this has had to be accommodated at the expense of the commercial flexibility and sometimes at the expense of a greater degree of service and efficiency. What is needed now is a much greater degree of flexibility. In the new structure this flexibility should be possible without in any sense lessening the standards of public service, honesty and commitment to which we have become accustomed in our postal service during the years.
I would disagree with Deputy Gallagher on the principle, although on the case he outlined I would have a certain sympathy with him on the question of couriers. I could see myself in some agreement with the details, but the principle in the Bill of allowing a certain degree of private enterprise is one that should be welcomed, perhaps slowly and with care at first. That is not to say that at the present time there is any case for privatisation. It is a horrible word that has crept into use in the past few years. If the Minister should consider there was a need to privatise certain sections of the new service, I hope he will find some other word to use rather than this Americanisation which does not reflect on the richness of the English language, although I cannot find a word that would suit in this instance.
It is in the interest of everyone to have the possibility of private sector involvement in the new boards. I can think of the number of instances where the private sector could move in, not to compete with the public sector or these new boards but to augment them. For example, there could be a situation where the delivery of mail to the islands could be a loss-making operation, something that was more of a nuisance to the new board, and where a private agency could find it could deliver the mail more efficiently and perhaps cheaper. I can imagine there will be some areas like this where some degree of private sector involvement will be possible, where the work will be done more efficiently and where it will not do any damage to those working in the boards. We need to study this matter carefully, certainly not in a sense of ideology, not in a Thatcherite sense designed to bring into head-on conflict the various groups. We should see if this can be done without any great cost and perhaps more efficiently.
As has been stressed by a number of speakers — Deputy Gallagher made some important points here — one of the most important tasks and challenges facing the service will be the question of staff morale. There is no doubt that in the past few years there has been a serious decline in the morale of staff working in the various sections of the postal service. The reasons are quite clear. One does not need to be an expert in industrial relations to recognise the reasons — the rapid growth and the increase in demand while at the same time the facilities have remained Victorian in design, scope and so on. This has placed enormous strains on staff. Deputy Gallagher mentioned the conditions under which many telephonists have been forced to work during the years and, quite correctly, he said they may well be the most vulnerable to any changes that take place. Their situation will have to be considered with great compassion to ensure they do not suffer any loss. Having looked at the conditions under which they have worked for a number of years, it is surprising there has been so little industrial unrest.
Many of the staff procedures themselves are antiquated, Victorian, outdated and irksome and do little to aid good industrial relations. All of these are factors that have led to a drop in morale in the postal service. There is no real opportunity for promotion for many people. There is no real outlet for those who are prepared to work harder and to apply their talents to the job. This has had a stultifying effect on the staff in the postal service and has led to the drop in morale that has been mentioned by many speakers. Partly as a result of this and partly because most people are suspicious and somewhat fearful and resistant in the face of enormous changes, there is no doubt about this. We are not in a position to lecture anybody on the need to face change openly, bravely and courageously given the reluctance we all seem to have to change even the most basic procedures in this House and the slowness with which we face up to bringing our House of Parliament somewhere into the sixties, not to mention the eighties. We are not in the strongest position possible to lecture the workers on their need to face up to changes.