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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 12 Mar 1992

Vol. 417 No. 3

Private Notice Questions. - Banks Dispute.

(Limerick East) asked the Minister for Finance the plans he has to ensure a full banking service in view of the announcement by AIB that they are suspending staff from today, and that the other associated banks are likely to act similarly; and if he will make a statement on the likely effects of a prolonged bank dispute on the economy.

The provision of a full banking service is a matter for the banks concerned. Yesterday at the Labour Relations Commission meetings with both sides in this dispute failed to reach agreement and I understand that no further talks have been arranged. I would appeal to both sides in this dispute to make full use of the labour relations machinery that is there and seek a solution acceptable to both sides.

I have been following developments closely and I understand that, while a small number of AIB branches have been closed since this morning the situation is that AIB hope to reopen these branches as soon as possible and that all ATM machines will continue to operate. I would also like to point out that as of now all branches of other associated banks and, indeed, other credit institutions continue to operate normally.

In the event of a more widespread bank stoppage the Government would have to consider how the inconvenience to the public and the economy could be alleviated. The officials of my Department are continuing to monitor developments in this regard and have been considering contingency arrangements in the event of a bank stoppage.

While the stoppage is not as dependent on the associated banks as it was in the past a prolonged bank strike could still have serious detrimental effects on the economy but I cannot say in any precise way what the overall impact would be.

We are still monitoring the position which has been changing by the hour since morning. While the banks' management hope to reopen the banks shortly it is not too clear when they will be in a position to do this.

(Limerick-East): Is the Minister aware that over 1,000 employees of Allied Irish Banks have now been suspended and that the other associated banks have arranged to make deductions of 20 per cent from the wages and salaries of their employees? Is he aware that this is causing major disruption in the banking system, will lead to enormous inconvenience for customers and will have a seriously disruptive effect on the economy?

I am aware of that. I understand that about 20 branches in the Dublin area have closed. However, AIB hope to reopen these branches as soon as possible and as 1,000 staff will be involved, they will provide limited services with the help of management. AIB have informed the Department of Finance that all the automatic teller machines will continue to operate. AIB also believe that the other banks will be dealing with their customers.

As Deputy Noonan stated, the Bank of Ireland said today that from tomorrow staff who do not sign an undertaking to discontinue the dispute will have their salaries cut by 20 per cent. I understand that both the Ulster Bank and the National Irish Bank will also cut the salaries of staff continuing the dispute by 20 per cent. The Bank of Ireland said in their statement that many of their staff have signed the undertaking. I have no definite information on whether that is correct.

If the dispute escalates and the associated banks' branches are closed it does not automatically mean there will be a complete stoppage in the services provided by the associated banks. My information from the banks is that they are satisfied they will be able to keep their hard core banking activities in operation and maintain certain services for customers. Hopefully these will include key services such as the clearance system, the electronic funds transfer service, the automatic teller machines and the provision of a skeleton service for customers. We are continuing to monitor the dispute by the hour as there may be changes. Hopefully the major action threatened for tomorrow will not happen.

(Limerick East): May I——

I have three further questions and am concerned to avoid overlapping. Admittedly, the three further questions from Deputies Therese Ahearn, Pat Rabbitte and Seán Ryan are addressed to the Minister for Labour but I gather the Minister for Finance will take these questions. The Deputy will appreciate the invidious position I am in.

(Limerick East): I will avoid the labour relations implications of the issue in my final supplementary. I will leave that to my colleague, Deputy Ahearn.

(Limerick East): Is the Minister for Finance aware that the changes he announced in the budget in regard to preferential loans to bank employees, profit-sharing schemes for bank employees and the new arangements for the taxation of company cars of bank employees have a cumulative effect which has further reduced the morale of bank employees and added to their militancy, even though it has no direct impact on this dispute?

When the tax certificates are issued they will show that they are no longer stuck with the three rates of taxation — a higher rate of 65 per cent, a middle rate of 58 per cent and a lower rate of 35 per cent — which existed seven or eight years ago. I am sure they will be very pleased by the substantial cut in their salaries as a result of this.

(Limerick East): A cut in their salaries?

A Freudian slip.

An increase in their salaries. As Deputy Noonan knows, this dispute has been going on for some time. I would be very concerned if the staff had any prior knowledge when they started this dispute about 15 months ago of what would be contained in the 1992 budget.

I want to deal with the three Private Notice Questions addressed to the Minister for Labour on the same subject matter. I will be calling the Deputies in the order in which they submitted these questions to my office. I call first Deputy Therese Ahearn.

asked the Minister for Labour if he will outline the action he proposes to take to dissuade all sides in what could be a major industrial dispute in the main banks from taking any further action which might escalate matters even further before the Labour Relations Commission have had an opportunity to find a solution.

asked the Minister for Labour if, in view of the further deterioration in the banks' dispute through the decision of Allied Irish Banks to suspend staff and the subsequent closure this morning of a number of that bank's branches and the public inconvenience and economic disruption which will follow from this escalation, he intends to take any steps to help seek a resolution to the dispute, and if he will make a statement on the matter.

asked the Minister for Labour if, in the event of a breakdown in talks under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission, he will indicate the action he proposes to take to prevent an escalation of the banks' dispute.

On a point of order — I mean no disrespect to the Minister for Finance — why is the Minister for Labour not in the House today when our banking system is about to collapse? Surely the least we should expect is that the Minister for Labour would be present in the House.

It is not unusual for one Minister to reply for another. This is the position today. The Minister for Finance is acting for and on behalf of the Minister for Labour in this instance.

Does the Minister know where he is?

I understand my colleague, the Minister for Labour, is abroad.

(Limerick East): Is he at Cheltenham?

If he is, I hope he has a few winners.

Let us hear the reply.

I assume he is on official business. The Government have expressed concern about the industrial relations situation in the banks and the serious consequences for the economy of any escalation of the dispute. I regret, therefore, to learn that the situation has worsened.

The Minister for Labour asked both sides to use the services of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court to monitor the position. Discussions were held in the Labour Relations Commission office yesterday but were adjourned without progress being made. The Labour Relations Commission continue to keep in touch with the parties with a view to exploring the possibility of arranging further negotiations. I urge both parties to avail of the services of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court and to enter into discussions in a spirit of good will and co-operation. The Minister for Labour and his Department will continue to keep in touch with the situation and monitor developments.

In view of the fact that since this morning an extra 1,000 people are out of work — the number is rising — as a result of this dispute which has continued for almost eight weeks, will the Minister consider at this stage intervening in the dispute? Alternatively, will he consider, under section 38 of the 1990 Act, calling on the Labour Court to intervene in order to avoid escalation of a dispute which could have disastrous consequences for our economy at this time?

I know the Minister for Labour, who asked both sides to attend at the Labour Relations Commission office yesterday, would still urge that they should follow that option. I understand a considerable amount of progress was made at those discussions but they did not come to any fruitful conclusion. The commission believe that further talks would be helpful. I know the Minister for Labour would ask me to urge both sides — the Irish Banks Staff Relations Committee led by Bill Brown and the IBOA led by Ciaran Ryan, both experienced negotiators in the industrial relations field — to come together at the Labour Relations Commission office to continue where they left off yesterday to try to avoid an escalation of the dispute.

Will the Minister confirm that the absence of the Minister for Labour does not mean the Minister's attitude is "if in doubt, leave them out". I sincerely hope that is not the attitude of the Minister for Labour to the people who are involved in the dispute. Does the Minister agree that the Labour Relations Commission can only work effectively if the parties in dispute are determined to make it work effectively? Does he also agree, notwithstanding the duration of the dispute, and judging by the aggressive public statements by management that there does not seem to be serious intent in this case? Finally, does the Minister agree that any attempt to take the matter to court, as threatened by the AIB management, would only worsen this dispute and that attempts should be made to make the industrial relations machinery work so as to prevent further damage being done to the economy and hardship being inflicted on the public?

I assure Deputy Rabbitte that my colleague, the Minister for Labour, is away on business. I am standing in for him as I was taking an earlier question from Deputy Noonan. I also stood in earlier today as a back-up on agricultural matters.

The Minister is a mighty man.

A Jack of all trades.

It is one of those days.

The Minister should be Taoiseach.

He should play his cards right.

(Limerick East): He will have to get overtime.

As Deputy Rabbitte correctly stated, any threat of court action or strong talk by either side will only make the problem worse. This dispute was signalled for many months in advance and it covers a wide range of issues. The only way the dispute can ultimately be resolved is through meaningful and constructive conciliation talks. As Deputy Rabbitte rightly said, the Labour Relations Commission can only create a constructive and positive atmosphere for discussion, if both sides are willing to participate.

As I have said, both Bill Brown and Ciaran Ryan are experienced people in this business and I would expect them to understand the value of the Labour Relations Commission or whatever machinery is necessary. As Deputy Therese Ahearn said, if the Labour Relations Commission do not solve the problem there are other options to be considered. If exceptional circumstances warrant it, the dispute could go to the Labour Court under section 26 (5) of the 1990 Act. The Minister for Labour may also refer it to the Labour Court under section 38 (1). Since progress was made by the Labour Relations Commission, it would be much better to follow this line over the next few days.

Would the Minister not agree that the 20 per cent reduction in income and the intimidation by the banks of IBOA members, who are in pursuance of their legitimate industrial claim, is deplorable and unacceptable? Furthermore, would the Minister not agree that the selective action by management of AIB in suspending 1,000 of the 5,500 staff has brought about a run on the banks and that this undermines the confidence of the public in the banking system? In these circumstances would the Minister call on the management of AIB to reinstate the staff immediately and restore industrial relations so that the dispute can be resolved before there is a recurrence of the last national bank dispute? In that instance hundreds of small business people were forced to close down. The reaction of the Minister for Finance does not augur well for this strike. Both he and the Minister for Labour should intervene to bring the dispute to an end.

Deputy Ryan has made some sensible points as well as some off-the-top points. It is not true that there is a run on the banks, particularly in view of the fact that some banks are closed.

That is true of the other banks.

If that is so, the banks will handle the matter. The Deputy is right in that I have never seen a dispute being resolved by people taking tough line action on one side or the other. The management have a right to do as they see fit just as the staff have a right to take action as they see fit. However, that will not resolve the dispute. Neither will it be of help to the customers who are inconvenienced by the dispute and who are likely to be further inconvenienced if it escalates. I am sure I speak for every Member of the House when I say that it is important that the warring factions on both sides in the dispute sit down with the Labour Relations Commission to try to resolve the problem. Before I came into the House the Labour Relations Commission informed me, through the officials in the Department of Labour, that they will be available to both parties this evening and throughout the night to enter into discussions to bring the matter to a conclusion. As I have outlined, if that does not happen and the dispute escalates there are other mechanisms that may be used. In the meantime this House should urge both sides to use the mechanisms that are there for the resolution of industrial disputes and to try to avoid inconvenience to the public, to business and to the community at large.

We must move on now to the next business.

May I ask one supplementary?

Several supplementaries have been asked.

I have asked only one question.

We are not going to have a debate on this matter.

We are on the brink of a bank strike. May I ask the Minister, in view of the seriousness of the dispute, whether he and his colleague, the Minister for Labour, will join with me in appealing to both sides to suspend their present action in order to allow the Labour Court to intervene?

That might not be very helpful in the short term. I will certainly join the Deputy in saying that action should be suspended until the industrial machinery of the State has an opportunity to try to resolve the dispute. The Labour Relations Commission should continue their work, and the Minister will have to decide what will be done thereafter.

Would the Minister assure the thousands of people who receive cheques from the Department of Social Welfare and from the Eastern Health Board through the Department of Health, the people at the coalface of poverty, that if this strike should escalate the Government will find immediate alternative means of payment for them, particularly in view of the fact that we are approaching a national holiday?

In reply to Deputy Noonan, I said that officials of various Government Departments have been considering contingency plans and arrangements in this regard, as is normally the case in disputes of this kind.

Would the Minister contact the management of the other three banks and ask them not to escalate the dispute tomorrow, as was indicated by the Minister earlier?

I will certainly convey that suggestion to the officials in the Department of Labour. The banks are working jointly through the Banks Standing Committee.