I propose to share my time with Deputy Ahern, who wishes to speak first.
Adjournment Debate. - Customs Officers Dispute.
We thank you for allowing us to raise this matter on the Adjournment. We are asking the Minister to review the strike by members of the Irish Customs and Excise Union which was due to commence at midnight last week and which will recommence for one day at the end of this week because of the grave financial and social consequences that would ensue and to say what steps he will take to prevent the strike. There were four minor issues in this strike three of which were cleared up last Monday week in letters from the Department clarifying a number of definitions relating to homes and bases.
This strike has been caused by how relief officers are treated and how their expenses are paid. Relief officers are entitled to certain travelling and subsistence allowances when they travel to deal with routine cases of an investigative nature near their posts if it is under 15 miles. When they are temporarily transferred from their posts to another post within 15 miles they are not entitled to the same allowance. If an officer was sent out to investigate the case of a man who lived ten yards away from a customs post he would get one level of expenses but if he was transferred to another post temporarily he would receive a different allowance. This is a very silly anomaly causing a major strike. About 700 officers are continuing this strike next week over this.
We made it clear last week that there would be no control on the points of entry to the State. The Minister in an acrimonious statement said that we were at fault for raising this matter in the House, although it has been on the front pages of most of the papers that morning and was referred to on the radio the following morning. We are again asking the Minister to endeavour to find an amicable solution to this strike. It is only a matter of interpreting the regulations and it will not cost a lot of money.
This dispute has continued for two and a half years but it came to a breaking point six or seven months ago when the officers concerned refused to use their own transport because they were not getting the proper rate of expenses. They started to use taxis which are costing much more than the allowances would cost. Far from cutting State expenditure this situation is costing the State money.
Last week the Minister said that there were adequate numbers of gardaí to police the entry points to the State but that was not correct as a number of points were completely open. Private individuals would find it difficult to import over the legal limit but people involved in smuggling large quantities of items must be stopped as it creates a very serious situation. The union involved in the strike are not irresponsible. This anomaly has arisen due to the interpretation of the regulations and due to the fact that probably one civil servant has calculated that the effect of this one concession would cost millions. That is always said, but it would probably save money. It would be cheaper than providing taxis as there are only 20 people involved. The relief officers concerned are key people. The officers should be able to get the one level of subsistence for both types of assignments. The situation is ludicrous. The strike has cost the State millions and the effects of it will be felt possibly for years to come. The Minister is introducing harsh measures to save money but the revenue lost to the State on that day was gigantic and nobody seems to care. I would ask the Minister to get his colleague, the Minister for the Public Service to intervene in this strike to end it by solving this ridiculous argument.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us to raise this on the Adjournment having raised it last Thursday. That is sufficient to indicate the importance of this matter. We are giving the Minister another opportunity to intervene in this strike. If the Minister is not prepared to intervene he could at least appeal to the union to call it off. The Minister did not take that opportunity last week but we are giving him an opportunity this week. An appeal by the Minister could bear some fruit. The proposed strike for Saturday next will have disastrous financial and social consequences for the country, particularly for the border counties. Hopefully the Minister will accept this opportunity. There will be no winners or losers in this but a substantial amount of money can be saved. It is impossible to calculate the amount that has been lost already. A strike such as this will have detrimental effects which will not be felt in the near future but will be felt over the months ahead and perhaps for many years to come. The electrical trade will lose thousands of jobs and many firms will go to the wall because of the major differential in the price of electrical goods in Northern Ireland as against electrical goods sold here. The 700 officials are supporting their 20 colleagues known as relief officers by going on strike. Those men are not being treated as the others in regard to the mileage rate which was agreed in 1984. They were permitted to use taxis which would cost four times the cost of using their own cars. Therefore, if the 1982 agreement were implemented in their respect there would be substantial saving for the Exchequer.
We hope the position on 7 December will not arise next week, but if the near inevitable happens I should like to know about the legality of goods which may be imported at land frontiers, airports or sea ports. It could well be that such goods will be presented at import points but there will not be anybody there to accept the duty or the VAT. Therefore I believe importers of such goods are in danger of having the imports declared illegal. I do not know much about the legal position but I suggest it could pose problems. At a later stage if customs officers want to seize goods imported on those days or prior to those days the importers could have difficulty.
Exports pose another important problem. They have been affected as a result of this dispute, and I put the Minister on notice that there will be serious problems for the fishing industry, particularly on Saturday morning. Tonight, 2,000 tonnes of mackerel caught by Irish boats are on transit from the north-west coast of Scotland back to the Republic for export. There will be serious difficulties because much of these cargoes are in a perishable state and therefore the exporters will lose heavily. The strike will certainly affect the price the fishermen will get, with serious consequent financial losses for fishermen and fish processors.
Last week the Minister told us that he would not become involved in debate across the floor of the House. When he said that I understood him to be inferring that he would be prepared to become involved in some other way. We saw the outcome on Friday — I was wrong, he did not become involved in any way. Last week he said he did not envisage any serious disruption in regard to imports or exports. Having seen the consequences of Friday's strike, if he still maintains his stance he is living in cloud cuckooland and out of touch with reality. He told us that arrangements had been made to ensure that the strike could not be exploited, that he would ensure that the Garda would have a presence at customs posts. I said that that might not be possible, that the Garda might not afford co-operation, but he said that I was casting aspersions on the Garda. I did not do that. To substantiate what I said then, I made my way to a frontier post at 9 o'clock the next morning. I spent two hours there and found there was no Garda presence whatsoever there. I spoke to others who had visited a number of frontier posts along the Border and they found that the Garda had not been there.
This is not a reflection on the Garda. They have their own job to do, and in the past number of days and weeks they have had a difficult job at the best of times. Because of widespread attacks on the elderly recently more gardaí are required and they must be allowed to carry on their duties. If we were to remove them from those duties in order to man Border posts there could be many more attacks, because criminals would take advantage of it.
I understand that the men's union met on Saturday last and decided to give a breathing space to the Revenue Commissioners who had said it was not possible to negotiate while the threat of strike was still there. The union informed the Revenue Commissioners of this by letter on Monday at 11 a.m. The letter was delivered by hand. Until today that letter has not been acknowledged. The olive branch handed out by the union was not accepted.
Last week there was smuggling by large-scale operators. This is what worries me. Those large-scale smugglers operated from midnight on Thursday until midnight on Friday with the consequent loss of millions of pounds to the State. We all know that the day trippers could not carry sufficient money into Northern Ireland to purchase goods because they are allowed only £202 each. In these recessionary times such people would try to take advantage in some small way, but that is not a serious matter. It was the large-scale smugglers who caused losses of about £6 million last year through illegal imports of electrical goods such as television sets and video machines. That was done while customs officials were working. If that could be done in such circumstances how much was smuggled last week when there were no customs officers on duty?
A Garda spokesman said that they were more interested in the movement of arms, explosives and drugs than toys and videos. As legislators we must take urgent steps to ensure that we do not help to make a few smugglers rich at the expense of the ordinary taxpayer. Of course the drugs problem worries me particularly, and the customs officers contributed in no small way to prevent and to detect the illegal importation of drugs. It is much easier detecting and preventing than trying to deal with drugs when they appear in the streets.
In conclusion I would refer to the thousands of jobs lost in the Republic last week because of the strike. At this late stage we are appealing to the Minister for Finance to intervene in some way. He has two further days during which to negotiate directly or indirectly to get the strike called off so that professional smugglers cannot continue their activities of last week.
I will begin by apologising to you and other Deputies for being a little late. I had expected to hear a division bell but Deputies opposite decided otherwise. I share the concern of Deputies Ahern and Gallagher, and I do not think I need to go into the reasons why. I doubt that either of the Deputies on the other side of the House would accuse me of taking lightly any potential loss of revenue. Most of the time they seem to hold it against me that I am a little too enthusiastic for their taste in collecting revenue. I share their worry about this matter.
It is not true to say that last week I did not make any statement about the officers who were on strike. I have the record of our discussion last week and at column 2006 of the Official Report of 6 December I made a remark and I did not make it lightly or facetiously. I said: "It is always possible for the union to change their minds between now and midnight." I do not know that my joining the Deputies opposite in an appeal to the striking officers to call off their strike next week would make any great difference. I dearly wish that those officers would reflect on the position and decide not to go on strike for a number of reasons.
The main reason is that the cause of the strike is fairly simple and straightforward as Deputies opposite said. I am afraid Deputies opposite may not be entirely informed about the matter. The matter in contention goes back to July 1982. It is one of the terms of an agreement made then between the customs officers and the Revenue authorities, not the DPS. The part of the agreement in question is not peculiar to the customs service in spite of what Deputies seem to think. It has general application in the Civil Service and, as I said last week, there is only one exception.
The officials in question are seeking full mileage rate for officers travelling to and from their headquarters to temporary centres. At the moment they are paid 50 per cent of the normal mileage rate for that. As I said last week, exactly the same position applies to other officers in the public service with the exception of one group. The vast majority of public servants who are entitled to receive mileage rates are treated in exactly the same way as these officers. They are not being discriminated against. They are not being made a special case. They are not being treated less advantageously than other officials. That is part of an agreement which goes back to July 1982.
I say this in the most uncontentious spirit possible. I honestly think that is not a sufficient cause for action which could potentially have the kind of effects which Deputies opposite are worried about. I try to be a reasonable person at all times. I say this is the most uncontentious way possible. It is entirely reasonable on my part to say to those officers that that is not an adequate cause for that kind of action. As I said, they are being treated in exactly the same way as the vast majority of people in the public service who are entitled to be paid mileage rates during the course of their work. That is the central point.
I said last week that I was not prepared to have the kind of discussion across the floor of the House which would be more proper between union representatives and Revenue representatives. I want to make that point clear for the record. On the other issues raised by the Deputies I can well conceive of the fact that there are dangers in this situation. Last Friday, as Deputy Gallagher knows, there was not a high volume of traffic across the Border. The reports I have heard indicate that, if anything, the level of traffic was a little less than it would be normally, although I would not read anything in particular into that. We do not know what was in that traffic. As Deputy Gallagher said the Garda took the view that their first concern had to be about the possible smuggling of explosives or drugs. I take it that will be their position again this week.
The Minister for Justice will be discussing with the Garda Commissioner measures which might be taken to ensure a strong Garda presence not necessarily on the Border but in the Border area with that concern in mind. I do not intend to go into any more detail on that for reasons which will be obvious to the House.
I do not think there is anything I can add to those remarks. I appreciate the concern shown by Deputies. I honestly think the matter at issue does not justify the kind of action which is in prospect. I would be just as happy as Deputies opposite if the officials in question could see it that way. I hope they will. In the meantime, if they do not, I will be looking at the arrangements which can be made not necessarily on the Border itself but in the Border area to meet what must be the primary concern of the Garda in this matter.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 13 December 1984.