Before the adjournment for lunch I was dealing with the need to improve industrial relations in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. I pointed out to the House the sad history of that Department which is without parallel in the entire State. I referred to the long drawn-out strike that took place and said that unless we proceeded with caution and with the goodwill of those concerned we would not achieve anything. Not alone would we be performing an idle exercise here but the national Parliament would be totally irrelevant. For that reason I told the Minister he would have the goodwill of Fine Gael not alone on Committee Stage but in any private discussions he might want to enter into with us. I recommend to him in the interests of all concerned that it might not be a bad thing to depart from the usual procedure of having a Committee Stage where both sides took up positions from which it would be difficult to move away. In the general interest of the people who have elected us and who expect a service from the Department, for which they are paying dearly, I suggest we should behave as adults. I am not saying we do not always behave as adults, but I am making a special plea on this occasion.
This Bill may threaten the livelihood of many people and certainly it will interfere with the livelihood of 30,000 people. We cannot dismiss lightly any Act of Parliament that has such far-reaching effects and which, rightly or wrongly, makes people believe that their jobs are threatened. If people believe that the proposals in the Bill will threaten their livelihood, whether that is true or false, those deep-felt fears must be taken into account. I have no doubt that if many of the strikes that have occurred were dealt with at an early stage, if there was some commonsense shown and an appreciation for the other's point of view, many of the strikes could have been avoided.
Before the House adjourned for lunch I was also outlining a situation in Sheriff Street where the workers' normal duties were going to be interfered with because the Department wanted to install machinery which would sort parcels by mechanical means. Because these men were being displaced, they naturally entered into negotiations with the management. Management had their way of doing the job, I am not going to pronounce on whether they were right or wrong. I recognise that the workers felt it could be done in an alternative way which they felt was more efficient. One side blamed the other and I found myself in the centre of that controversy, where the workers were claiming total entrenchment on the part of management and management were claiming irresponsibility by the workers. After meeting both sides for half a dozen times, commonsense prevailed; but not until I realised that the workers had a legitimate proposal which, although different to that of management, was still a reasonable way of doing the job.
I do not know what has happened since the change of Government. Perhaps some people in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs felt that my stand was influenced by the workers. Perhaps it was but, if so, it was because I wanted their goodwill. Their proposals were not going to cost any more and, from an examination of the figures, they would probably cost a lot less. When management and workers take up positions, personality clashes enter into disputes. When there are clashes of personality, reason ceases to have any meaning. None of the trade unions has welcomed this Bill because they suspect that the livelihood of some of their members is being threatened. I do not know whether that is a legitimate position to adopt, but to them it is real. I will be acting as a watchdog on their behalf and I expect Deputy Wilson would have done the same if our roles had been reversed.
The postal section of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs acts as a contractor to the Department of Social Welfare. What would happen if the Government had less control over semi-State bodies and if a future Minister for Social Welfare, for reasons put forward by his advisers, decided that there was a more efficient way of paying recipients of social welfare benefits? I believe the postal section of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs would take a fatal knock and that the loss of business would rock it to its foundations. The trade unions, post masters, sub-post masters and all the people who count the money that comes from the Department of Social Welfare will be looking at this matter.
I made the point before lunch that centralisation is the curse of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. The unions did not want centralisation, but the management did. When they centralised the sorting office in Sheriff Street they caused a holocaust which they can no longer handle. It is very strange that, if I want to post a letter from Donegal to Sligo, that letter has to come to Dublin, through the sorting office in Sheriff Street, and back to Sligo. If the Minister wanted to post a letter in Cavan that letter would also have to come to the sorting office in Dublin before it was sent on to Sligo. I would like to meet the genius who thought that was in the best interests of the people.
A bus travels from Cavan town to Sligo twice a day. There is also a twice daily service from Donegal to Sligo in both directions. It is costing £90 million a year to subsidise CIE. We pay that money to CIE but we will not let them provide a better service. What other society would tolerate such stupidity? There is no point in saying it is the fault of the trade unions and that they stand in the way of progress. That is a lot of codswallop. I used to believe it, but I do not believe it any more.
We must loosen up the very tight management structures in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, because the system has grown up with the Post Office. We copied that system from the British. It does not take into account modern society, which is light years ahead of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Unless we take note of the way private couriers are operating the post and parcel services, the postal side of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs has no future. A close associate of mine in County Donegal, who is in private business, told me that he was telephoning a wholesaler in Dublin for supplies. The supplier said that if he wanted them urgently he had an arrangement with a private carrier who would deliver them the following morning. The businessman said he appreciated that but, as he was a sub-postmaster, he thought that would be disloyal to the postal service. The supplier said if he posted them that day the businessman would not have the supplies the following morning. They compromised and decided to put half the supply in the post and to send the other half by private carrier. The sub-postmaster told me — and I have no reason to doubt him — that he could have had delivery of the goods later on that evening. He said it would suit him to have the goods delivered the following morning and they arrived then. One week later the parcel came from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. That is not the type of service which people are paying for and the semi-State companies will not achieve their objectives unless they have the goodwill of the trade unions and unless there is a dynamic force running the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. The goodwill of the men must come before anything.
I say this with regret but advancing it as an honest opinion after months of thinking about it as Minister of State; now, with responsibility to my party to monitor what is happening in the Department, I say that semi-State bodies cannot achieve anything like the dreamland some people would have us believe. What we are talking about basically is achieving a Utopian Department of Posts and Telegraphs simply by introducing the Bill and saying: "We will forget about the past. We are going to have two semi-State bodies and all of our difficulties end there." That does not make sense to me. It does make sense to achieve an objective whereby the structures obtaining in the Department at present can be changed and loosened. That objective cannot be achieved within the present structures of the Department. The people who run that Department, the senior civil servants, are excellent people. One of the sincere regrets I have of ceasing to be Minister of State in that Department was losing the companionship and friendship of the people I had all around me in the GPO. I say that most sincerely. The relationship I had established with them was something I cherish very deeply. I respected their advice and loyalty. I have no complaint against any one of them. But these men and women serve a different master from those of the semi-State boards. They serve the Minister and the Government. Whatever the Minister and Government may tell them to do they will do loyally. Whatever policy the Government may decide to implement they will carry through to the last letter, unless someone along the line decides to cut across the tracks. Then they will make up excuses and notes will arrive back on the Minister's desk that it is not physically possible to do this, that or the other, or that the unions have an objection to it.
The present structure of the Department must be changed. If we want to meet modern day requirements and provide a better service, the management of the Department must be changed. That is no reflection whatever on the management personnel of the Department, but is very definitely a questioning of the system obtaining and the control which ties people who want to do things and cannot. It is argued that the way out of this difficulty is that the whole system be rationalised, that the demarcation lines be examined, that there is an overlapping of tasks between the different grades, that all of that adds up to clumsiness, that the whole system must be decentralised. And we come up with the proposal of semi-State boards. Now that the semi-State idea has gathered this momentum which cannot be stopped, I wonder whether we should not be looking around to seek an alternative. Unless we can sell the semi-State conceptin toto to the unions, it will not work. We shall have to be cautious about it and this party will be very cautious in agreeing anything with the Minister. We shall strenuously challenge every aspect of this Bill. I should say that I could not remain a Member of this House or a spokesman for my party if I did not feel I was arguing fairly and squarely on behalf of the people whose livelihoods will depend on this. I just could not and will not do it otherwise. I want to say that I will be strenuously challenging everything the Minister is doing. I shall be asking him to assure me that not alone is this the best and only way it can be done, but that every union within the Department is satisfied also. The centralisation of the postal services constituted an impediment to good service, as indeed did the centralisation of the telecommunications services.
The Minister was asked a question by Deputy Blaney about my setting up an office in the constituency. Of course, in his pettiness Deputy Blaney believed that I was setting up an office to promote myself in the constituency of North-East Donegal. That was not the reason at all. The reason was that I considered it an affront to anybody in County Donegal who wanted to find out anything about telephone or postal matters to have to contact Dublin, where they are treated as anonymous callers. I do not say this in any disparaging way about the personnel in Dublin who may be answering the telephone, because it could be me or somebody like me who would be doing so. But the human reaction would be exactly the same. I believed that, if I could reach an agreement with the trade unions to decentralise, to devolve responsibility to an office in Letterkenny that would deal with all the telephone and postal queries in Donegal, I would be serving the people I represent—not alone that but that it would represent in microcosm a system that could be applied to the whole State.
Everybody in the Department, from the secretary right down to the fellow who delivers letters in the town of Letterkenny, believed that was a good idea. All the trade unions believed it was a good idea. But then the demarcation lines began entering into it. One union began to say to the other: "You cannot do that because that is our work". Therefore we got bogged down on demarcation lines in regard to whose responsibility it would be to answer a query about a telephone or about why it took a letter ten days to reach Rathmullan from Thurles, which was a case I had investigated. Equally, people are entitled to ask why a telephone service was cut off when they had paid their account. These are mistakes that happen within the Department but which aggravate ordinary, decent people. Yet that person in Donegal would have to ring the GPO or talk to some anonymous person in Dublin.
In order to provide our people with a good service we must get away from centralisation. We must get down to devolving responsibility to the lowest possible level of administration so that ordinary people who are paying dearly for a telephone service can be treated in the manner they deserve. Unless the present Department structures are changed that goal is not attainable, as I realised when endeavouring to set up a Donegal office in Letterkenny. But the Government proposal is that those structures be handed over to semi-State bodies and those semi-State bodies do not happen to please the unions. As I said before lunch, the headlines in about a dozen different papers criticise the haste with which the Government are proceeding, question that haste and say quite categorically: "Unless you consult with us, it is a non-runner". If it is going to be a non-runner now is the time to ask questions and seek alternatives. Indeed, that is the reason for this debate: to reach a situation in which the present structures of administration of the Department can be dismantled resulting in a loosening up so that people in the Department can act on their own initiative, doing the things they want to do. We, as politicians, can relax the rules to allow them reach those objectives by an alternative method which could deliver the goods, perhaps a method better than that envisaged in the semi-State bodies.
The purpose of this debate is to search for that alternative. One of the alternatives offered by the Department of the Public Service was the executive unit. That unit is comprised of responsible people in the Department, professional people, people whose experience is without question, people who know the way to do things, who know the difference between right and wrong, who know how to achieve their objectives and who have built a personal relationship with the leaders of the trade unions resulting in there being confidence now not alone in the leadership of the trade unions but also in the personnel of the Department. Both sides will admit that one side cannot do it because of Government control and the other cannot do it because of demarcations from their members and they have to speak on behalf of their members.
It might be no harm for us to look at the executive union and form the professional people in the Department into units, give them the power to rationalise and to negotiate with the trade unions on demarcations and other things. If you do not give them this power we are not going anywhere. I would like the Minister to consider this because we could at least debate this alternative. It may not be the answer and semi-State bodies may be the better deal for the workers. We should have a thorough discussion on the executive union type of management. Perhaps this might be the one the people involved would buy, it might be the one they would be happier with and would be cheaper for us to operate. If the semi-State body is the only alternative the Minister will not have any serious obstruction from us on Committee Stage if every Stage of the Bill brings the trade unions with us.
The basic responsibility of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs is to provide a good telephone service which means providing many more telephones than we have at the moment. I envisage a situation where every home in Ireland will at least have one telephone. If the people are to be given that and if there is to be no backlog of people waiting for telephones something must be done about it now. If we are to achieve the objective where anybody who requires a telephone can have it within 24 hours then the Department have to clear up the backlog of telephone applications. They must also provide a faster and better repair system. Those things cannot be done without the goodwill of the unions and the workers. It cannot be achieved under a semi-State organisation if we have not their goodwill.
The responsibility on the postal side of the Department is to deliver a letter or a parcel as fast and as efficiently as possible and in competition with outside agents. If we cannot do that we should not be in business. If we want to stay in business and achieve those objectives it is of paramount importance to bring the trade unions with us all of the way. As I said before lunch, many of the trade unions understand that this is the ideal situation.