Deputy O'Brien referred to the economy and I am pleased to be able to say that it is going very well. However, there is a phenomenon in regard to it. The economy may be progressing but it is not producing the jobs at a rate we would like. I am sure the Minister for Labour is aware of that and is working feverishly to correct it. I should like to congratulate the Minister on the introduction of the Bill which has been long awaited by the social partners. Its roots extend back to the last decade. There are none in the House who could not accept that the Bill is a result of much necessary study and deliberation by the Minister and his Department over a long period. That was necessary in order to ensure that the right balance was obtained in terms of the reform of the labour law proposed in it.
I am aware that the Minister has received many submissions from all sides in regard to the provisions in the Bill and that the debate in private and in public was an essential part of the process, a democratic process, before he brought his final proposals to the House. We have had much time to deliberate on the type of reforms necessary in labour law and, in particular, the trade disputes law since the publication of the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Industrial Relations was published in 1981. That report recommended a new system of industrial relations highly regulated by law and operating within a new institutional framework.
I believe that while we have certainly moved a considerable distance from the concept of voluntarism in industrial relations it is very unwise to do any more than is absolutely essential to regulate by law the relationships between employers and workers and their trade unions.
We know, for example, that the Employment Appeals Tribunal was originally intended as an informal forum for the resolution of disputes on redundancy and dismissal cases but that the impact of the Unfair Dismissals Act in particular has resulted in a highly legalistic framework being established and the proceedings today are, for the most part, dominated by solicitors and barristers representing both sides. In hindsight such developments were inevitable when the Act provided for the application of the rules of evidence as would apply in any court of law.
I merely point to this by way of illustration as to the consequences, perhaps unforeseen, which can result from the application of legal frameworks to the industrial relations process. I think, therefore, that the Minister has been absolutely correct to deliberate long and hard on the degree of change necessary at this point in time.
It is also true to say that times change and circumstances change. What might have been perceived as necessary in 1981 by some parties need not necessarily be true today and I think that the contribution of all sides to achieving a more harmonious industrial relations environment during the eighties deserves great credit. That the number of man-days lost today through industrial action bears no relationship to that of days gone by, is indicative of the progress and endeavours achieved by all sides.
The Bill is more the fruits of the discussion begun in 1984 through the publication by the Department of Labour of their discussion document on industrial relations reform and subsequent action by the Minister to obtain the views of interested parties and the general discussion which developed from his action. The Minister will gladly admit that in a true industrial relations spirit he has attempted to achieve a balance between the various views and ultimately has decided on what he sees as the minimum and essential steps necessary to redress what the discussion document referred to as, "the acknowledged deficiencies in our industrial relations arrangements".
The Bill, I am certain, will generate much constructive discussion within this House on both of its two principal areas of reform, that is, in the area of trades dispute law and in reform of the institutional arrangements for dealing with industrial relations issues. In both areas there is much debate as to the appropriateness of the proposals, on whether they go far enough or too far, and on whether one institution is adequately linked with another and so on. I hope I can contribute constructively to that discussion in regard to both areas.
The Minister, in the Second Schedule, has repealed the entire Trades Dispute Act, 1906, while re-enacting and modifying many of its provisions in regard to immunities. All will be glad to see the improvement in the situation which applied under this Act and particularly in the extension of the immunities to cover all stages of the legal process, thereby minimising the necessity for courts to interpret the boundaries of lawful industrial action.
The principal effect of section 8, through its definition of "trade dispute", is to ensure that disputes between workers will not be regarded as a dispute to which the immunities will apply. I welcome this change, as I am sure all do. I would presume that where a dispute is considered to be between a trade union and an employer, as distinct from workers and employers, that definition would embrace such a dispute.
It would appear to follow from the wording of section 11 where workers are perceived to be acting, "on behalf of a trade union", that such a situation would constitute a trade dispute. In order that no unnecessary misinterpretation occurs, I would be glad if the Minister would clarify this point and consider whether the definition requires any further elaboration. In regard to section 9, I am particularly pleased that the Minister has included references to normal or agreed procedures availed of in the resolution of individual grievances and that the benefits of sections 10, 11 and 12, are not available where such procedures have not been resorted to and exhausted.
I believe that today it is unacceptable that normal grievance and disciplinary procedures are not in place in all places of employment. I know that this provision follows a guideline established by the Employment Appeals Tribunal for many years and I would like to think it is possible to go further at some stage in insisting that such procedures are adopted by employers and workers, much the same as there is now a requirement for safety statements and procedures. I know that the Labour Relations Commission will have a proactive role in developing codes of practice and I certainly hope that a minimum standard procedure will come out of those guidelines which would operate as a fail-safe mechanism in the event of no procedures being voluntarily adopted.
There is an area here, however, within the procedures adopted in the event of a dispute arising on dismissals which I would like to address to the Minister. I know that many have held the view for some time that such procedures should only have ultimate recourse to the Employment Appeals Tribunal and not, as it currently stands, to the Labour Court or now to the Labour Relations Commission, as an alternative road.
Since this Bill specifically refers to procedures adopted in the event of dismissals in section 9 (2), it would seem appropriate to confine those procedures to one avenue which, under the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977, has a six months time frame. Notwithstanding my references earlier to the legalistic framework of the tribunal, I think that a significant amount of case law has emerged which enables both parties to apply generally accepted principles to the resolution of disputes in this area. It must inevitably occur, however, that when such disputes are referred to the Labour Court — now there is no time frame and there is not necessarily adherence to the Unfair Dismissals Act, or case law established by the tribunal — inconsistencies arise. I would ask the Minister if he would address this issue in the context of the role of the Labour Court resulting from those provisions and consider whether it is now opportune to deal with this matter. I think it would certainly assist in the interpretation of section 9 (2) and the exhaustion of normal procedures required by that section.
Section 11 contains a much welcome provision to restrict picketing to the place where the employer works or carries on business, and makes it unlawful to picket a person's home where the home is not used to carry on business. This is a very necessary provision and one which I welcome. The secondary picketing provision in section 11 (2) imposes a liability on those picketing to a reasonable belief that another employer has acted in a way calculated to frustrate the strike or other industrial action by directly assisting their employer who is a party to the trade dispute. There is quite a distinction, as the House is aware, between "belief" and "belief that is reasonable" and this requirement and distinction are necessary. It will, I hope, cause the extension of picketing to the places of work of other employers to be justified only on objective grounds and thereby reduce the potential for unjustified or malicious secondary picketing.
I know that many employers would like to see this country following the road of others in making secondary picketing unlawful but I do not agree that we have reasonable grounds to do so. There are surely circumstances in which a legitimate industrial action can be frustrated by the combined efforts of two employers and if another employer chooses to enter the action, so to speak, then I believe, and I hope reasonably, that that employer may become a target for picketing within the framework of the provisions of this Bill.
While I fully understand the intentions of the Minister in section 11 (3) to safeguard actions taken by a health services employer to maintain life preserving services during a strike or other industrial action, I am concerned that similar actions by other public authorities or utility organisations supplying essential services are not covered by this provision. There are circumstances in which the supply of electricity, water, gas, transport, etc., can contribute to safeguarding life in a very direct way.
I know the Minister must walk a fine line here so as not to deprive a whole section of the working community of the ability to take lawful industrial action which could not always be frustrated by such a provision. I think, however, there must be a case to consider some framework in which there is a stipulation of minimal services required to ensure the supply of those services thought necessary to safeguard life.
I have to say I am also concerned that there are services which are necessary to maintain the employment or services to those not connected in any way with a particular industrial action and that there are resources in the hands of certain categories of public employees which give to them inordinate power to disrupt the community and economic activity in furtherance of industrial action. Again I recognise the fine line which the Minister walks here and if he considers it is not possible to address this matter in legislation, I hope it is possible to achieve an alternative route which would approach a balance between the legitimate rights of workers and of the community at large. Perhaps this is a matter which could be high on the agenda of the new commission and the list of codes of practice which could be agreed between the parties involved.
Section 14 (2) contains a provision that within two years of the passing of this Bill all trade unions are required to have provisions in their rule books requiring a secret ballot to be held before taking industrial action and gives discretion in subsection 14 (2) (c) to the committee of management of the trade union to decide on whether to support industrial action notwithstanding a majority ballot in favour of industrial action.
I think that this is also a necessary provision which merely ensures a democratic process within the operations of trade unions and ensures that wildcat strikes cannot proliferate and that the majority voice of trade union members is heard clearly by the committee of management of the trade union. I know that this may appear to trade unions as interference in their private affairs but it is an example of the balance which the Minister is striving to achieve a better industrial relations environment. I, therefore, welcome this provision and believe it is a progressive step.
I would like the Minister to clarify for me, however, how this section links up with a definition of place of employment. I have in mind workers within an organisation which has many outposts, offices, stores, shops, etc., which are relatively or semi-independent of each other and where industrial action might be proposed at only one or some of these places. Is it only the workers employed at that place or places who can vote, and how will the inter-relationships be determined in that decision? Perhaps this matter is covered in the interpretations of a combination of various Acts but I would be glad to understand how that area will work.
In similar vein I would be glad if the Minister would clarify the restriction of immunities contained in section 17. I presume that the immunities do apply to action taken by workers where the majority of workers have voted in secret ballot to support industrial action but also where the committee of management of the trade union have decided under section 14 (2) (c) not to support that action. That is how I read it and it would help me if the Minister would confirm my understanding.
I am very glad to see the provisions of section 19 before this House as I know that the whole issue of ex parte injunctions has dogged the industrial relations environment for many years. They cannot now be given where trade unions carry out a secret ballot and give one week's notice to an employer of its intention to take industrial action following a majority vote in favour of that action. The balance struck here by the Minister is very welcome and I know that he has had to strike a balance between conflicting views on this thorny subject. This section as much as any other imposes an obligation for reasonable action on both sides and strongly encourages dialogue before action is taken by either party, which can only be in everyone's interest.
I also congratulate the Minister on the additional measures provided for in relation to the amalgamation of trade unions and I believe the House fully supports any and every action taken to encourage a reduction in the number of trade unions and any proliferation of small unions. The formation of SIPTU is an example to other unions and if I have no other opportunity to do so I would like to offer my congratulations to that new union, or should I say re-union, and to wish them every success in maintaining the significant contributions which both parts have made to industrial relations life and national progress over many years.
In turning to the provisions relating to reform in the industrial relations institutions, beginning at section 24 which establishes a labour relations commission, I believe, in so far as it is possible to envision the operations of these new and reconstituted bodies, that the total effect of all the provisions of this Part of the Bill will be to greatly improve the facilities for workers, trade unions and employers to obtain assistance, direction and guidance in promoting harmonious industrial relations. Ultimately, as in all situations, there has to be a facility for a body to make a final decision, and that role has been given to the Labour Court.
While there may be much debate on the attachment of certain services to the commission rather than to the court, there is an obligation on the part of both bodies to set about ensuring that the intentions of this Bill are fulfilled to their fullest extent and that the full weight of the services now provided for are used extensively for the promotion of better industrial relations arrangements. I am certain that both the commission and the court will more than adequately fulfil their new roles. The existing roles of the court, their conciliation service and the Rights Commissioners have contributed enormously to the service of workers and employers. I know that for the most part the value of their services are relatively unknown except to those involved or interested in these matters. I would, therefore, like to pay tribute to these services and to the equality officers for the tremendous work they have undertaken and for their very significant contribution to the promotion of good industrial relations practices and in the resolution of disputes.
Given the significance of this role, particularly the role of the conciliation and equality officers, I hope that the commission will attach a high level of importance to the selection and training of these officers and to ensure that the quality of service provided will be maintained and enhanced. The qualities of these officers is well known and highly regarded by all those in the industrial relations world. They have ensured that all parties are secure in the knowledge of receiving a professional and knowledgeable service. In like manner, I am pleased that the Minister, under section 34, will rely only on the advice of the commission in the appointment of a Rights Commissioner. This will also help to ensure the application of professional standards and knowledge to all activities within this sphere.
I referred earlier to codes of practice. This is one of the most important new contributions which this Bill provides. In time the proliferation of these codes into accepted norms of practice and guidelines will bring about a confidence in the relationship between employers and workers and help to reduce uncertainty or misunderstandings arising unnecessarily from the absence of a specific code. I know that any organisation which have, for example, a disciplinary and grievance procedure, have a far greater chance of avoiding industrial action or disputes when there are set and exhaustive procedures for addressing the issues in such disputes. It is necessary to ensure that those who do not have such procedures are encouraged and facilitated in the preparation of such agreements. That will be a very important role for the commission.
Finally, I would again like to congratulate the Minister on the introduction of this Bill which is a major development in the industrial relations arena. I am certain it will lead to significant benefits to employers, workers and trade unions and thereby to the economy and to the preservation and generation of employment in this country.