Estimates, 1983. - Postal and Telecommunications Services Bill, 1982: From the Seanad.

The Dáil went into Committee to consider amendments from the Seanad.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 1:

Section 21: In page 17, lines 2 and 3, "unless the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, has authorised such issue" deleted.

This is an amendment to section 21 which is a standard provision found in legislation for State-sponsored companies. It was included in the Bill for that reason. It precludes the issue of shares in the companies additional to those issues of shares which are expressly provided for in the Bill except as may be authorised by the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs with the consent of the Minister for Finance. During the course of the passage of the Bill a question was raised in reference to section 21 to an issue of shares additional to those issues of shares which are specifically provided for in the Bill. The opinion was expressed that the section might be seen as leaving a way open, however unintended, for privatising part of the equity of the company. In view of the provisions of sections 10 and 18 of the Bill which limit to specified categories the authorised and issued share capital of the company there is, of course, no such way open. I fully accept, therefore, that the reference which I now propose to delete is unnecessary and could therefore be confusing. The reference would only be required if the Bill was amended by further legislation to provide for issues of shares beyond the category specified in sections 10 and 18. No such legislation is envisaged. Accordingly, this amendment provides for the deletion of the reference in section 21 to additional issues of shares.

During the course of the Dáil debate on the Bill a number of amendments were introduced to ensure against privatisation or the sale of shares. This section was overlooked and it was drawn to my attention before it was introduced in the Seanad. I tabled an amendment in the Seanad yesterday on Committee Stage. I am glad that matter was drawn to my attention and to have the opportunity to table the amendment here so that there will be absolute consistency throughout the Bill as to our intentions in relation to the maintaining of the postal and telecommunications services firmly in the State sector.

I support the Minister's amendment. This illustrates clearly the fact that we had so little time to discuss the details of the Bill on Committee Stage. The fact that we passed all Stages of the Bill and sent it to the Seanad where it was amended in such a short space of time set a precedent. Nevertheless the fact that the Bill has to be brought to the Dáil for final ratification highlights certain areas. The Minister and I gave assurances that under no circumstances did we ever envisage the sale of any shares to private enterprise at any stage and the amendment confirms that. It reassures the staff that there was not an ulterior motive in having the section in the Bill. I welcome the deletion proposed by the Minister because we must re-emphasise our commitment to the retention of both boards in the semi-State sector. The deletion ensures that it will be necessary to bring amending legislation before the House if any change is proposed in the future.

It would have been useful to have had more time to consider the provisions of the Bill because I have no doubt that elsewhere in it there are words or sections which may give rise to problems in the future. While the detailed assessment of the provisions in the Dáil and Seanad was useful I am sure most Members would have liked to have more time to consider it. Fianna Fáil are committed to a policy of the retention of both boards as semi-State organisations. That reassurance is necessary because there are 30,000 people involved. They are in a twilight situation in changing from civil servants to semi-State status. That will be a traumatic experience for them because many of those officials joined when they were 16 or 17 years of age and have been in the service since.

During the debate in this House I pointed out that commitments were given, possibly in good faith, by the Minister's party, and Deputy O'Sullivan's party, that civil service status would be retained. We did not give that commitment because we could not do so. We always put the facts before our people and we could not give that commitment even for short term political gain. It is possible that as a result we lost out in some constituencies, particularly where many POWU members resided. The passage of the Bill through both Houses has proved conclusively that the Government parties misled the electorate and the Post Office Workers Union. I regret having to end the debate on that note but I do so in the interests of honesty and integrity.

The debate at this stage is confined strictly to the amendments.

I accept that but I am anxious to explain why it was necessary to delete these words. The Minister is endeavouring to honour to some extent a commitment given by his party. It was given in 1981 and it could not be honoured. The removal of the two lines in question is in some way making amends to the workers. We have been completely consistent in our approach throughout.

I should like to thank the Minister for accepting the amendment. It typifies his approach to the whole debate. I should have preferred more time to go into greater detail with regard to the contents of the Bill. The Minister has set a record in that he has shown he was open to suggestions from all sides and this is something that is desirable in a democracy. Deputy Leyden may interpret this as succumbing to pressure but I see it as democracy in action. The Minister has demonstrated he was big enough to accept an amendment where he saw it would be to the advantage of the workers and the board.

By accepting the amendment the Minister has allayed fears of those who were afraid both companies would be privatised. While accepting that it may be necessary to raise capital from outside sources at some stage, there was great fear that in the future the boards would not be in a strong position because a large block of shares would be held by outside interests. The Minister has demonstrated he is not in favour of privatisation. I welcome the remarks of Deputy Leyden that his party endorse what the Minister said, that they do not want to create something that might in time go out of the semi-State sector and into private hands. I thank the Minister for his co-operation and for accepting this amendment.

I wish to endorse the words of Deputy Leyden. I am on the record of the House as saying there was no intention to leave any loophole or path by which the two companies could be denationalised and sold to private interests. Deputy Kelly comes into this House regularly and utters wise remarks. Their wisdom is in no way diminished by the wit with which he expresses his opinions. He has said we are inclined to be hypnotised by what happens in our neighbouring island. All the suspicion arose from a tendency, arising from a certain ideology in the British administration, to sell off the telecommunications industry to private interests. Deputy Kelly was quite right. We are hypnotised by what has happened there. The unions also were scared about what is happening there but there was no foundation whatever for their fears.

Deputy O'Sullivan and Deputy Bermingham made a great brouhaha about how they were going to oppose this Bill, and this section in particular caused them some trouble. I interpret Deputy O'Sullivan's comments now as trying to justify the noise he kicked up at that time, despite the fact that the Bill now before the House is substantially the same Bill, incorporating amendments I had accepted on Second Stage, as it was when he and Deputy Bermingham opposed it.

Question put and agreed to.

Before we deal with the next amendment I wish to point out that the Order of Business has been departed from in order to take this Bill from the Seanad. The Chair has no discretion as to the length of speeches or the number of Deputies who may speak. However, the Chair would like to remind the House that also ordered for tonight is Vote 42 which deals with Posts and Telegraphs and that must be concluded by midnight. We will deal now with amendment No. 2. Amendment No.3 is related and, by agreement, amendments Nos. 2 and 3 may be taken together.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 2:

Section 45: In page 27, line 20, after "in its service." the following inserted:

"As provided in subsection (2), no such variation shall operate to worsen the scales of pay and conditions of service applicable to such staff immediately before the vesting day, save in accordance with a collective agreement negotiated with any recognised trade union or staff association concerned."

Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 deal with probably the most important section in the Bill. This is the section dealing with security of tenure of the staff transferred on vesting day. In moving these amendments it is only fair to recall the history of the section. Deputy Wilson said that the Bill is substantially the same Bill that he introduced in the last Dáil. That is true. During the course of the debate on Second Stage Deputy Wilson indicated his willingness to accept a number of amendments, a commitment I have fulfilled.

Even though there have been more than 150 amendments and the Bill is somewhat changed from that point of view, the purpose and intent of the Bill as drafted by Deputy Wilson is very much the same. With regard to section 45 there has been a clear wish on all sides to give the necessary assurance and guarantee to the transferred staff that their tenure of office and security of employment will be as good, strong and safe as it is in their present civil service capacity.

I mentioned there had been more than 150 amendments to the Bill. With regard to this section, this is the third set of amendments. Deputy O'Sullivan has been barracked a little from the opposite benches and also from these benches but it is only fair to recall his contribution. Even though many Deputies on all sides have contributed significantly to the improvement in the Bill, no Deputy has contributed more than Deputy O'Sullivan. He deserves immense credit for his efforts in the past six months. This section caused him and the Post Office Workers' Union and other unions the greatest concern.

On Committee Stage in this House I tabled an amendment which clarified and underlined the guarantee in the original section. Following contributions from all sides of the House during the debate on Committee Stage, further suggestions were made and I promised to consider them. When it came to Report Stage I tabled further amendments which helped to underline the guarantee, even though I believed the amendment tabled on Committee Stage was more than adequate. However, I understood the need to underline and repeat the assurance. On Report Stage, further suggestions were made and I said I would consider them. When the Bill went to the Seanad I tabled two further amendments which, in many cases, are a repetition of what is said elsewhere in the section but it is to underline and emphasise the guarantee. This is an amendment to subsection (3). Subsection (2) already outlines the need for consultation and agreement with the trade unions and staff organisations concerned.

It is worth reading the full section and it would be very difficult to find such a rock-solid, emphasised, repeated guarantee of job security in any enactment in any parliament in the free world. That sounds a very strong claim but I doubt if any lawyer will find in any enactment the guarantees that have been given in this section. I am proud of that claim because it is right that those guarantees should be given in the most fundamental re-organisation of the public service since the foundation of the State and perhaps for much longer than that. If we are asking people to transfer from the civil service into a commercial environment, they should be given solid guarantees of security. The fundamental reason for this Bill is to transfer the postal and telecommunications business out of the civil service, which they have now outgrown, into a commercial environment which is much more appropriate to them.

It is reasonable to expect that the Minister would bring forward new amendments to appease the Labour Party because, when a party gives a commitment at election time, which is subsequently broken, all the pious platitudes and compliments the Minister paid to Deputy O'Sullivan are useless because the electorate are discerning enough to know that the Labour Party voted against this Bill at the end of Second Stage in 1982. They used every parliamentary tactic to try to defeat this Bill. In 1982 we were a minority Government and yet we stood over our comitment in relation to this Bill. It was initiated by Deputy Faulkner, the then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, and carried on by Deputy Reynolds and Deputy Wilson. We were consistent in our approach. In 1982 we could have deferred the Bill for political reasons but we had the integrity to stand over it going into a general election. I cannot say the same for the Labour Party. They attacked this Bill viciously in the House. They voted against the Bill and every Member of the party, including Deputy Spring, voted against it. The Fine Gael Party had not the courage to vote either for or against it and they abstained, which could be regarded as less than a commitment to the Bill and could be seen as playing politics with it. Our approach now is the same as it was then. We support the Bill and we see the need for it. Otherwise we would not have brought it before the House.

The Deputy should confine himself to the amendment.

Deputy Wilson gave a commitment on Second Stage that he would discuss the section with the unions and bring agreed amendments to the Bill before the House which would give complete security of tenure to every member of the staff of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Deputy Mitchell is forcing me to make these points because of his approach to his Labour colleague in relation to the Bill.

The Deputy need not apologise for making a speech as long as he relates it to the amendments.

Deputy Leyden does not understand the amendments.

That is grossly unfair and I ask you to withdraw that comment.

I will not withdraw it.

The Deputies should address the Chair.

I have studied the section and the amendments very carefully. The people in Cork are able to read the commitment which Deputy O'Sullivan and his party gave and which they have broken. No matter what is said, the Cork people and the POWU know that the commitment has been broken. As the Deputy is adopting this attitude, I will read out the commitment again but before that I must refer to Deputy O'Sullivan's comments on my position in relation to the Bill.

Deputy O'Sullivan of the Labour Party said that any reorganisation must take into account the existing status of the staff within the Civil Service. He said that status will not be undermined. Does he understand the full impact of that commitment given on 10 June 1981? Was that to ensure his election to this House? That was a fraudulent approach by the Labour Party in the light of their support for this Bill. In Fianna Fáil we were consistent. We could have introduced amendments to ensure that status would not be undermined and embarrassed the Minister and Deputy O'Sullivan. But we have our integrity to preserve and so I, as spokesman for my party on Posts and Telegraphs, adopted the consistent attitude, followed all through by my party. I could easily have tabled that embarrassing amendment and the Minister and Deputy O'Sullivan would have voted against it because there is a fundamental difference between this now discredited Coalition Government and a one-party Fianna Fáil Government.

The difference is quite clear. Deputy O'Sullivan has forced me to say that because of his comments on my position in regard to this Bill. If he is not prepared to withdraw those comments, then all I can do is stitch into the record Deputy O'Sullivan's position in relation to this Bill. If he wants to revert to a Second Stage debate then I shall do so, however reluctantly. The people in Posts and Telegraphs know the position. They know what has happened. The majority party, Fine Gael, stated there would be no loss of status. But the Minister admitted he could not maintain status in a semi-State organisation. That is the fact. Deputy Wilson will verify what I say. One cannot be in both camps. One cannot have one foot in the Labour camp and another in the Fine Gael camp. One cannot have one foot in the Labour camp in an effort to satisfy certain members of the Union who are not prepared to take a risk in an attempt not to jeopardise the Government.

We brought in a Bill in 1982 and we agreed to amendments which could have brought the Government down in 1982. But we did not give commitments, though that may have meant the loss of an odd seat here and there. We stuck to our principles. We were consistent in our approach at all times as I am being consistent now. We could have tabled amendments which would have embarrassed the Minister and the Labour Party. That would have savoured of short-term expediency, something we eschewed since we had no ambition to gain any short-term gratification. We were simply not prepared to take that stand because it would not have been right in the long term.

I sympathise fully with the 30,000 people who are changing from the security of the Civil Service. As Deputies we have no similar security but we are prepared to safeguard the security of those affected by this Bill. Deputy Wilson gave that commitment and we would have honoured that commitment. Those civil servants who transfer to these two semi-State organisations should be given an opportunity of promotion within the Civil Service or at least an opportunity to transfer to other Departments. The Minister said there was nothing to prevent that happening. That should be written into this Bill. From my discussions with union officials and civil servants I know they would appreciate such recognition of their situation.

The law of diminishing returns has an impact here. Returns are down by about £10 million at the moment. This is a very worrying trend because the more costs increase the lower the returns. There is now competition with the courier services. I resent that service arriving at the GPO with mail as I resent it arriving at Leinster House. Deputy O'Sullivan may not appreciate the significance of this development. The Post Office will be in competition with these services.

In regard to documentation we have a very sensitive area. The personal files are stored. Is it the intention to transfer these to the new bodies? Various reports are carried on these files. Who exactly will have responsibility for these files? Will the residual Department hold them? There is concern about possible black lists. Will these be held in the residual Department or will they be made available to the new bodies? I would like the Minister to comment on this.

We accept the amendments because they go further along the road towards ensuring the staff are satisfied and are getting further guarantees. They are still a long way short of the commitments given and broken by the Government parties at this stage. As far as I am concerned, I welcome the amendments which will assist in some way to appease the fears of the employees involved.

I also wish to welcome the two amendments the Minister has brought in. They are significant advances on the original section in the Bill proposed by Fianna Fáil and as introduced by the Coalition initially. The Minister praised himself concerning the introduction of those amendments, saying they were the best terms available to any worker in the free world. They do not go as far as the terms which those in the civil service enjoy and which they will be giving up when they transfer to the new companies. I welcome those amendments, particularly amendment No. 3 but they still do not go far enough to meet the conditions and the security which the employees of the Post Office enjoy at present.

There are two other matters I wish to refer to, one of which has already been referred to by Deputy Leyden, that is the question of the transfer of files on existing staff. I have received representations on this matter, as I am sure other Deputies also have. It is a matter of concern, where so many employees are involved and where in normal circumstances, when employees are going to new employment, their former employers do not transfer confidential information to the new employers without the permission of the people involved apart from basic information. The Minister should give some kind of commitment that the files will not be handed over in toto to the new companies. I feel it would start the companies off on the wrong foot if there are feelings among staff that there are records which may or may not do harm to them or harm their relationship with the new company.

The other matter which has been brought to my attention is the right of staff to have access to files kept on them by their employers. As the companies will have large numbers of staff, no doubt the files will be computerised. The tendency for large organisations is to feed in all sorts of scraps of information into their files when they are on computer. I feel the staff in the new companies should have access to the files kept on them so that they are aware of what is in them and so that they can verify or correct any information which may be wrong. It is not unknown for information collected on staff to be erroneous.

Another point which I would like to raise with the Minister, also as a result of representations made to me, is the case of telephonists who, because of the type of job they are in and the fact that technology will undertake the kind of work they do at present, feel particularly vulnerable at present. I understand the Minister gave some commitment in the Seanad in relation to their position regarding redundancy, retraining and so on. I would like him to elaborate on that aspect of the transfer of staff.

Like Deputy De Rossa I would like to welcome those amendments. It is a recognition by the Minister that people were concerned about their future in both companies. I do not want this to be regarded as a mutual admiration society. Nevertheless, it is a measure of the man that he has responded in a very positive manner. Security of tenure was the great fear which members of the staff had. I hope that as a result of those amendments these fears will be abolished if possible.

During the course of this debate I was perplexed why at all times Deputy Terry Leyden was flanked by two senior members of his party. It was said, if one can believe what is circulating in the House, that one of these people may probably hold before long one of the most prestigious places in Irish politics.

On the amendment, please.

I have made my point. I can see the reason why this is, with somebody like Deputy Leyden representing the Fianna Fáil Party. Deputy Leyden failed to say that the reason why we are going through this exercise at this late hour is that the document circulated on the Second Stage of the debate was faulty. There were many loopholes in it and, as a result of this, we have to go through this very minute examination in a short space of time. He said that Deputy Wilson, as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, agreed to discuss these matters. I will not deny that there was discussion with the unions concerned but there was no agreement whatsoever. One has only to read Postal Worker of May and June 1982 to see that there were over 230 items still outstanding unresolved. I will produce them if necessary. Is Deputy Leyden trying to suggest that all was well, that if Fianna Fáil had the opportunity to shepherd this Bill through the Dáil, all the problems we have discussed would have been resolved? I do not think so.

Deputy Wilson said during the Second Stage debate that when he was Minister he was prepared to accept amendments to sections of this Bill. It is recorded in the Official Report of that period. Deputy Wilson as Minister was prepared to discuss them but there was nothing about agreement. The amendments now before us guarantee discussion and agreement with the unions concerned. Deputy Wilson refused to give me an assurance on the floor of this House that he would do this. Each of the 230 cases is documented for history as a failure by Fianna Fáil to come to terms with the people employed in this Department who are now going into semi-State companies.

Deputy Leyden may, as a diversion, try to launch an attack on me but I am quite prepared to defend my role in this whole debate, likewise that of my party. I draw a distinction between the contribution of Deputy Wilson as Minister and that of Deputy Leyden as spokesman, because at all times Deputy Wilson carried out the debate in a dignified manner. I regret very much that he should describe The Labour Party contributions from Deputy Joe Bermingham and myself as the noise we are making. I do not believe the contributions will be measured in terms of decibels but rather in terms of the content of what we had to say regarding the various sections of the Bill. That is the Deputy's choice and I cannot tell him what to say. I again thank the Minister for accepting these amendments and I hope they will go a long way in allaying the fears of my colleagues in the Post Office.

This Bill has given rise to certain fears of people employed in the Post Office. These fears have been made known to us personally and in writing. On Committee Stage at section 45 the Minister alleviated those fears by adding subsection (4). I would like the Minister to give that assurance. I would like to repeat what Deputy De Rossa said, that with advanced technology there is a fear in the minds of people employed as telephonists in the Post Office of certain forced redundancies. I would be thankful if the Minister would give the assurance that he gave in the Seanad in that regard. I endorse Deputy De Rossa's point, that those employed in the two separate companies set up by this Bill should have access to the records kept in relation to their service. It is important that we should have that open-mindedness about the matter and I am sure the Minister will be gracious enough to accede to that request.

I want to comment on what Deputy O'Sullivan said. Experience in this House would have indicated to him that on Second Stage every aspect of a Bill is or may be covered in general rather than specific terms. The framework of the modus operandi of this House for getting legislation has various stages so that what is dealt with in general on Second Stage may be dealt with specifically on Committee and Report Stages with certain conditions, as far as introducing amendments on Report Stage are concerned, written into Standing Orders. I find it very hard to understand why Deputy O'Sullivan's blood pressure is rising because at the end of Second Stage I did not say that I was accepting 238 amendments or whatever. What I indicated was a state of mind. I indicated two things: that I realised what Committee and Report Stages were for, that as far as amendments were concerned I had an open mind and was prepared to be convinced, that I would discuss all possible amendments with interested parties. I had already been discussing them with the trade unions.

I would like to put on the record of this House that I have as good a record as has any Deputy in this House as a trade unionist. I am of the second generation that can claim that. There is no point in people trying to arrogate to themselves all virtues with regard to the rights of trade unionism, and I would reject that. I regret the heat that has crept into this post-Seanad stage. It may serve a useful purpose in keeping us awake, as the debate must go on until late into the night, but I do not see why the House should be getting up to high doh in order to prove that Deputy O'Sullivan is true to his colours with the POWU or that he is way ahead of The Workers' Party in the defence of trade union rights. Deputy O'Sullivan in raising the temperature here let slip an offensive remark as far as our spokesman, Deputy Leyden, was concerned. In all fairness he should have withdrawn that remark when he was asked to do so and I regret very much that he did not do so. The consensus of opinion in the House, including that of the Minister, is that we are here trying to launch these two semi-State companies for the efficient running of our telecommunications and postal services, that we want the workers in both sections to have all the guarantees possible — we must not forget that this is the primary purpose of the exercise — so that they will be able to provide a service to the people, and the objective is the very best possible service. In the consideration of all the minutiae of this Bill we seem to forget sometimes what the whole thing is about.

It is interesting and curious that we find this Bill back before this House on the basis of dealing with section 45 and security of tenure. At this stage Members of this House in all parties have bent over backwards to satisfy the demands of the employees of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs to ensure their job security, wage security and everything else. I accept and agree entirely with comments made by the former Minister opposite when he said that this Bill and its provisions are about providing a service. As a Member of this House I regret deeply that this House has not spent one-tenth of the time debating consumer protection, the rights of the general public, the need to ensure that we have an efficient service, that has been devoted to this whole area of job security and wage security. If an efficient service is provided, employees in An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann will have job security. If a service is provided which is profitable from the point of view of those boards and efficient from the point of view of the general public nobody will want to interfere with the wage structures or job security of the employees there. They would be entitled to job security and decent wages by virtue of the service. I may not be thanked by anybody for saying that the length of time spent on this aspect of the Bill is quite extraordinary considering the insignificant length of time that has been devoted to discussing consumer protection.

I said in this House on Committee Stage that I welcomed the amendments the Minister made then to the Bill to provide some additional protection at the consumer end but certainly nothing resembling sufficient protection. I regret that so much time has been spent on an issue which if an efficient service is provided will be irrelevant. It is a great shame that the sort of pressures that the workers in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs have placed on Members individually from all political parties and on the parties themselves was not mirrored by similarly active pressure on behalf of people who use and depend upon the postal and telephone services. Similar pressure groups in that area represent a far larger proportion of the electorate than do the employees of the Department. If there were similar pressure groups in those areas the content of this Bill would be very different.

In my constituency I find, as other Deputies find in theirs, that the public are becoming more conscious of the debates taking place in this House and of a growing worry and disillusionment of the manner in which this Bill deals in effect with the general public and fails to protect their rights and their interests. Some of us as politicians have steered clear of getting into that because we all have constituents who are employees of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and who will become employees of An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann. Politics as it operates in this country demands that we create the minimum offence to all our constituents just in case somebody somewhere will not vote for us at some stage. I recognise the worries of the employees, but I deplore the fact that we have not devoted a similar amount of time in debate in this House to securing consumer protection because the telephone service we have at the moment, particularly in Dublin, is the most atrocious that can be found in any EEC country. It is recognised as such particularly by people living in Dublin who despair of having an efficient telephone service despite assurances by Ministers of all parties that telephones will be available on demand.

That has no bearing on section 45.

It is indirectly relevant in the context of the amendment.

It is very limited.

The general public are deeply worried about the type of telephone service being provided. They perceive the service, particularly in Dublin, as falling to pieces despite continuous assurances from successive Ministers that by 1984 Utopia will dawn and the service will become efficient. I sincerely hope that those employees who have been so anxious to achieve security of tenure and to make sure that their rates of pay will remain at the same level as obtains in the civil service will show similar concern about providing the proper service which is so badly needed.

Question put and agreed to.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 3:

Section 45: In page 27 line 24, after "civil service" the following inserted:

"; any alteration in the conditions in regard to tenure of office of any such member shall not be less favourable to him than the prevailing conditions in the civil service at the time of such alteration, save in accordance with a collective agreement negotiated with any recognised trade union or staff association concerned".

I was hoping for a response from the Minister in relation to the transfer of employees and the security of the telephonists.

I understand that Standing Orders will not allow me to reply now but I will do so at the end of the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

An Leas-Ceann Comhairle

Seanad amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 6 are related and may be taken together.

Mr. Mitchell

I move that the committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 4:

Section 73: In page 39, subsection (4), line 33, "by order" inserted after "may".

The purpose of these amendments, which are closely related, is to require the Minister to make an order if he wishes to grant a licence on an appeal under this section. Similar amendments are proposed to section 89, the corresponding section for Bord Telecom Éireann. Section 73 empowers An Post, with the consent of the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, to license others to provide postal services within the exclusive privilege granted to it under section 63. If the company refuse to grant a licence sought by a third party subsection (4) permits the Minister to grant a licence on appeal if he is of the opinion that this would be in the public interest and would be consistent with the justifications in section 63 (2) for the grant of the exclusive privilege to the company. That subsection was inserted on Committee Stage in the Dáil in lieu of the original subsection which did not qualify the power of the Minister to grant a licence on appeal.

It has since been represented to me that the section as it stands could be availed of to bypass the provisions of section 111(1) which require the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs to make an order before he can license others to provide any service within the exclusive privilege of either An Post or Bord Telecom Éireann. In other words, under section 73 as it stands a person might seek a licence from An Post knowing full well that it would be refused but the Minister could grant a licence on appeal without having to make an order which would have to be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. Obviously that possibility was not envisaged in the preparation of the section. As I have repeatedly emphasised, these licensing provisions are purely and simply fall-back provisions designed to enable the Minister if unforeseen circumstances arise to meet his overall responsibilities in the public interest and the issue of such licences is not contemplated.

This is further confirmation that there is no question of giving away any of the monopoly rights of the Department. Basically I agree with these amendments because it is an area which would be of great concern to staff. The exclusive privilege is very dear to the hearts of all the workers because it guarantees their position in the future. This commitment is absolutely essential.

Couriers are at present creaming off the most lucrative parts of the postal service. I have already stated my views in relation to couriers. They are not providing a door-to-door service once or twice a day five days a week, nor are they providing a service in rural areas. They are taking away the city deliveries which are economical and profitable. I would oppose any application to grant a licence to a courier service operating in this manner.

I am aware that certain courier services are using the free transport facilities available to old age pensioners to send bags of mail from one city to another and the mail is then delivered by the couriers to the various destinations. The Minister may have some information about this abuse. It is a very lucrative business and they are charging excessive rates for deliveries. They have a young staff who use motorbikes and come even to the Dáil. They also have the audacity to arrive at the GPO with courier mail. It is an illegal service and I appeal to business people not to support it and to rely on the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.

The Department pride themselves on their credibility, reliability and guaranteed delivery of the mails. We had an example a few weeks ago of a company who absconded, leaving thousands of undelivered pieces of mail, but the Department took it on themselves to deliver certain pieces of mail that had been thrown into letterboxes, for a small surcharge. I suggest that the new company will have to introduce an express delivery service in the cities which will compete successfully with the couriers. The Department have the personnel and the expertise to do it. In my time in the Department certain investigations were instituted about this possibility and I know that the unions will co-operate fully because their bread and butter are involved.

I hope that never again will a licence be issued to private couriers to skim the cream of the service here in the city. There will be some difficulty, of course, because "letter" is not defined properly in the Bill and this could result in litigation. It is a pity the definition is not there to ensure successful prosecution of couriers. It is difficult to define a letter by shape, size and weight. However, I support the amendment because it will ensure control by future Ministers of the issuing of licences. As I said before, I hope the board will consider in the interim, the institution of a guaranteed delivery service in the cities. I hope that they will approach business people and groups in the cities to encourage them to rely on the dependability of the Department to provide a reliable delivery service.

This is one of the major sections in the Bill. The Minister has spoken about these services being used for emergencies but he has not specified the kind of situations in which private courier services could be used, and that is a weakness in the Bill because some future Minister or Government could allow the development of private postal and communications services.

Deputy Leyden spoke about what would happen when he would be Minister when he would not allow a courier service to operate. The fact remains that on at least one occasion known to me last year the then Minister for Justice used a private firm to distribute thousands of letters to householders throughout the State. There is that kind of inconsistency and we must juxtapose it with the trend in other countries towards privatisation of national services. Who knows whether there might not be elements in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to favour delivery services run by private enterprise? We have no guarantee of what may happen in the future — the inconsistencies are there. I could refer to another instance involving another party, but I have not the precise facts.

There are grounds for believing that this section leaves the door open for a weakening of the national delivery service, and though the Bill tightens things up somewhat, the weakness remains.

The section refers to the fact that the Minister by order may revoke an order made in paragraph (a). I presume that refers to subsection (3) of this section, but there is a similar paragraph in section 74.

It is section 73 (4).

But there is no paragraph (a) in 74.

There will be; it is a drafting matter.

So the amendment will constitute paragraph (b).

It is regrettable that we did not have time on Committee Stage to deal fully with this matter. I regret that Deputy Shatter is not here, but I must make some reference to his contribution and his emphasis on the staff side. I do not accept Deputy Wilson's claim that I have any monoploy, nor indeed am I their exclusive spokesman. Everybody throughout the country has lobbied and I played my part, as requested, to the best of my ability. I would not say that my contribution was any greater or more genuine than that of, say, Deputy Wilson or any other Member of the House.

I think the Minister is a trade unionist as well.

I do not think that the Labour Party would suggest for a moment that we have a monopoly of trade unionists in this House. That goes without saying.

The greatest assurance to any potential customer is a staff who are happy in their work; that is the basic requirement for any staff. Some of them have given in excess of 30 years' service. They are entitled to some expression of thanks from this House for the service they have rendered over the years. I should like that to go on record to the staff of what will now be An Bord Telecom and An Post, a sincere thanks for the service they have rendered which is second to none. Granted since 1979 things have not been good. Nobody would deny that. Nonetheless, between 1922 and 1979, they had unbroken service, something which is without precedent in any democracy in which people are entitled to express their views regarding conditions of employment. The postal and telecommunications workers of this country have an envious record, something for which this State should be grateful. It is only right that some Members would express their gratitude.

I have no doubt that, with the formation of these new boards, both the present and former Ministers wanted to revitalise the whole organisation. I hope they will achieve that goal.

The Deputy is now reverting to amendments Nos. 2 and 3.

I would hope that the specialist services will be developed, that they will keep abreast of modern technology, winning back the business poached from them in the recent past. For example, in the postal service, there are the couriers and in the telecomunications service the PABX, which is quite lucrative despite the fact that the telecommunications side undertake the really difficult, heavy outside work. The lucrative side of the business is given to private telephone companies who demand a high fee for their modern technology. I would hope that the telecommunications board will now enter into that field.

For good measure, at the close of this debate, I should like to go along with Deputy Leyden.

On amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 6.

I regret very much that "letter" has not been clearly defined in the Bill. I fear that lack of such definition could lead to difficulties in the future. I would hope that, before vesting day, there would be some provision for a clear definition which would be extremely important to the postal services.

Question put and agreed to.

I move that the Comittee agree with the Seanad in amendment No.5.

Section 73: In page 39, subsection (4), lines 36 and 37, "The Minister's decision on any such appeal shall be final." deleted.

Question put and agreed to.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 6.

Section 73: In page 39, subsection (4), between lines 37 and 38, the following paragraph inserted:

"(b) The Minister may by order revoke an order made under paragraph (a) and if such an order is revoked or is annulled under section 3, the licence granted by the order shall stand revoked."

Question put and agreed to.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 7:

Section 80: In page 41, lines 29 to 36, subsection (2) deleted.

Subsection (2) was inserted by an amendment tabled by me on Report Stage in this House following an undertaking given by me on Committee Stage to consult the parliamentary draftsman about the wording of an amendment moved by the Opposition. The purpose of the amendment was to ensure that all concerned, including public representatives, would be alerted in good time to any proposed closure of a sub-post office and so have an opportunity of making representations to the company. This seemed reasonable and the Report Stage amendment met with general acceptance.

In the meantime there had been representations from the Opposition spokesman on postal and telecommunications services and from the Irish Postmasters Union that the subsection was widely misunderstood and causing anxiety amongst postmasters. Apparently it is seen as giving encouragement to the closure of sub-post offices. Of course it does no such thing. In order to allay what I am told is widespread anxiety amongst postmasters, I propose the deletion of the subsection. Of course its deletion will not have the slightest effect on the practical position that any proposed closure of a sub-post office would be appropriately publicised in advance in the area concerned, and that there would be ample opportunity for public debate and representation on the matter, save of course in regard to disciplinary matters.

I want to express my appreciation to the Minister for his co-operation in relation to this subsection. The background outlined by the Minister is absolutely correct. The actual subsection was originally an amendment of mine which was not pressed to a vote and the Minister agreed at the time that he would consider the amendment I put forward. He did so and returned with an amendment on Report Stage which was inserted in the Bill. Since then there has been concern expressed by the Irish Postmasters Union. I conveyed their representations to our spokesperson in the Seanad and directly also to the Minister. In fact last Thursday evening I had a brief discussion with the Minister when I told him I would be meeting the Irish Postmasters Union at the weekend. I had a meeting with the Irish Postmasters Union executive members on Saturday last in Roscommon when we discussed the background to this subsection. I felt they deserved more security of tenure than was included in their contract. I must admit that the Minister was very anxious to include a subsection which would guarantee them as far as possible security of tenure of office. That is the background to the actual amendment which was included and which is now being deleted.

Furthermore, as I conveyed to the Irish Postmasters Union, my information from experience of working within the Department is that the contract being used at the time I was there — and I believe it is still in use at present — is one which states at section 5 that the service of a postmaster may be discontinued without notice should the Department in any circumstances decide on such a course and that no compensation will be payable to a postmaster for loss of office. That is the contract which a postmaster signs. On their appointment there is a requirement of them to give three months' notice, in advance, to the Department prior to their resigning from their post. I understand from the Irish Postmasters Union that they have an understanding with the Department that for conciliation and arbitration the three months would apply both ways. From my experience within the Department, however, that is not the case. Indeed, having obtained advice on certain occasions, my understanding is that the contract could be adhered to exactly as it stands. Furthermore, it is my understanding that An Post will inherit all the contracts of postmasters, that the existing contracts signed will apply and will be those inherited by the new board. Nevertheless it is my view that there should be some section of the Bill which would give security of tenure to postmasters. As it happens, the postmasters themselves initiated the request to have this subsection removed. I requested the Minister to do so and he kindly agreed.

I should like the Minister to indicate that, as far as he is concerned, he will ensure that postmasters are not dismissed and that sub-post offices are not closed. It is a matter that causes me grave concern because of the great service which has been provided by the postmasters throughout this country, over 2,087 of them working for the Department in a most dependable and reliable way. I understand from the new chief executive, Mr. Garvey, that he has plans to utilise the sub-post offices to a greater extent. I hope there will not be any problem in the future as far as security of tenure is concerned. The present remuneration for such people is below subsistence level. In fact, it is less than what a person on unemployment assistance would receive. Postmasters are held in high esteem in rural areas and the public have a false impression that they are very wealthy. That is untrue in many instances. I can show from my records that many postmasters receive a remuneration of between £35 and £40 per week. At least 120 postmasters have an income of £1,382 and that is well below subsistence level. For that miserly sum they must maintain an office, provide heat and light and pay rates to the local authority. They do not receive a pension at the conclusion of their service. They receive a letter of gratitude from the Minister similar to the one sent to staff after 40 years' service. Those who have 40 years' service in the Department will at least have a reasonable pension but postmasters do not receive a pension even if they have served for 50 years.

This is very wide of the amendment.

In my view it is relevant and it clarifies our motivation in asking the Minister to provide security of tenure as far as possible. The Postmasters Union would prefer if this section was not included. I am aware that the Minister is concerned about the remuneration for such people and that he is having consultations in regard to this. I appeal to the Department to conclude an agreement prior to vesting date or otherwise the whole question of remuneration will have to be opened again. The Department before vesting date should make an honourable settlement so that postmasters will get a decent weekly wage.

I appeal to the new board not to consider the closure of any sub-post offices which provide an essential service in rural areas. Those areas are losing their schools and other essential services and the sub-post office is the last service available to them. The new board should ensure that sub-post offices are not closed unless with the agreement of the Postmasters Union.

I support the amendment. When we were debating this matter before I understood it was in aid of the postmasters, that it would apply to offices which were not doing enough business and that steps would be taken to close them down. I can see now the bona fides of the Minister and Deputy Leyden is not in doubt but the context in which we had been discussing this matter has been widened.

Question put and agreed to.

Amendment No. 8 is the next amendment to be moved by the Minister and as amendments Nos. 9 and 10 are consequential the three may be discussed together, by agreement.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 8:

Section 89: In page 46, subsection (4), line 10, "by order" inserted after "may".

I have already spoken broadly on these amendments because they are precisely the same as those tabled in respect of section 73.

I agree with the amendment. In regard to the section it is highly unlikely that the Department would give a licence to provide a telephone service above and beyond that provided by the new board. Nevertheless the safeguard has been included in the Bill but it does not prevent the provision of internal telephone services. The new board should give attention to the provision of internal telephone services. The Department and the new board will be in an ideal position to provide a first-class internal service. In future years the new board will find that the demand for installations will reduce because we have peaked in this regard. In the next five years we should be in a position to provide telephones on demand. That ambition was outlined in a programme some years ago and when that occurs it will be necessary for Bord Telecom Éireann to develop new features regarding internal telephone services. I am aware that there is an excellent internal telephone service in the GPO, one which would be ideal for private enterprise. We will not go into the SL console about which the Minister is aware having made wild allegations which later proved to be totally incorrect.

I did not make any allegations. I proved the facts.

They were found to be totally incorrect and the Minister is aware of that. A committee investigated the matter for a long time prior to the 1982 general election. When Deputy Wilson as Minister was concluding his Second Stage speech Deputy J. Mitchell made outrageous allegations.

Factual revelations.

The Minister knew his allegations were totally unfounded and that was proved by a Committee of the House after a detailed study of the situation. That committee held that the Minister's allegations were unfounded.

That is untrue.

If one went to the Minister's office one might see that he has the same facility there.

That is also untrue.

If one went to the office of the Minister of State one would find an extremely efficient console which has amazing facilities.

The Deputy would be in order to raise this matter on the Estimate which will be dealt with later.

Have we to dispose of the entire Estimate tonight? Will we get another opportunity to discuss the Estimate? It is ridiculous to think that we are passing a Vote for millions of pounds and we do not get an opportunity for a proper debate.

The order of the House to bring the Estimate debate to a conclusion at midnight.

Bord Telecom Éireann will have to develop the sales area and utilise the excellent engineering headquarters we provided. In co-operation with An Post they should provide sales offices throughout the country to sell their equipment such as the Shannon telephone developed by Ericsson of Athlone, a concern that provides many jobs. Bord Telecom Éireann will have to give consumers a choice of telephone consoles. That is an area of great concern to the staff because they realise that the ambition is to be able to provide telephones on demand.

I hope these amendments will go some way towards averting what could be the greatest disaster. There is no other section in the service that could be as attractive to any outside concern as telecommunications. It could be the most lucrative area. For that reason I hope the amendments will tighten up the likelihood of the issuing of the licences.

That union is licking its lips to get a chance to work the scheme.

I am talking about what I consider would be a means of generating finance in the interest of the State rather than of any group of individuals. Vast amounts of money can be made in this area of telecommunications. I have referred already to an area which I consider the Post Office have neglected up to now, namely, the PABX. The Post Office carry out the very expensive cabling operations that are necessary to provide the service throughout the country but then someone else takes over. This was due to negligence on the part of some of the people who were charged with that responsibility. I hope that under the new system efforts will be made to win back this work because I consider that the future of the telecommunications industry depends on it. The earlier amendments accepted by the Minister will go a long way towards ensuring that the company have a free hand to exploit the full potential of what they have at their disposal, namely, the advanced technology for which the State has paid dearly in recent years.

Question put and agreed to.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 9:

Section 89: In page 46, subsection (4), lines 13 and 14, "The Minister's decision on any such appeal shall be final." deleted.

Question put and agreed to.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 10:

Section 89: In page 46, subsection (4), between lines 14 and 15, the following paragraph inserted:

"(b) The Minister may by order revoke an order under paragraph (a) and if such an order is revoked or is annulled under section 3, the licence granted by the order shall stand revoked."

Question put and agreed to.
Ordered: That a message be sent to the Seanad accordingly.

Am I in order if I suggest that the debate on the Estimate should continue until 3 a.m.?

The Chair is bound by an order made today to bring the debate to a close at 12 midnight. The Chair reminded the House of this fact shortly after 10 p.m.