Adjournment Debate. - Advance Payment of Overtime.

Sir, the Minister or Minister of State is not present.

I have no control over such matters. Will the Deputy please proceed?

A Cheann Comhairle, I brought this matter to your attention out of courtesy.

Sir, thank you for allowing me to raise this matter albeit that there is no one to reply.

Tá an tAire ag teacht.

I know the Minister has been busy trying to concoct a reply. I raised this matter on 14 December 1995, before the Christmas recess when I asked the Taoiseach to confirm — it was at the time of the creative accounting to deal with hepatitis C — if the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry had reached a settlement with the CPSU whereby staff would be paid before Christmas in respect of overtime to be done in 1996. Unfortunately under Standing Orders, the Taoiseach was not obliged to reply on that occasion, apart from the fact that he probably did not know about it.

The reason I am raising this issue tonight goes back to that time. Will the Minister explain why he authorised the payment of £600,000 to workers in the Department in respect of work which had not been done at the time but which he authorised should be done in the future? It was a grotesque, unprecedented and bizarre decision, almost a return of GUBU with which I am sure the Minister would not like to be associated. The advance payment was an attempt by him to buy himself out of a mess of his own making. I remind the House that £600,000 represents a 10 per cent increase in the Department's existing overtime bill of £6 million. Because of the Minister's pre-Christmas binge, the taxpayer was left with a serious hangover. The reason the Minister put forward for these extraordinary, bizarre, unprecedented payments was to provide as he said "an interim settlement for an industrial dispute in the Department". He was not suggesting that this was the end of the matter.

This dispute arose from the opening of farm offices in the afternoon. It is important to point out that the Minister's explanation is that it arose as a result of the need to ensure that payments were made to those who were due payments but he did not seek to explain that the opening of farm offices in the afternoon was a central feature of his famous farmers' charter. Unfortunately he did not check with the staff to see if this could be implemented. He made solemn promises to the farmers and the farming organisations, to whom he usually succumbs, without having the resources or the agreement of staff to implement them. The farm offices were closed in the afternoon by the Minister's predecessor to allow the available staff deal with administrative work — for example, complete the copious paperwork that attends all aspects of their work and ensure payments were made as expeditiously as possible.

The House will be aware that the Minister introduced a charter of farmers' rights, a major PR stunt. It came into operation last September. The Minister stated the overtime payment was in respect of issues which arose in previous weeks. This, of course, explains the fact that he did not have staff agreement for opening the offices in the afternoon. When he sought to impose this decision there were industrial relations difficulties.

The backlog of work this interim settlement, at a cost of £600,000, is intended to clear was created by the Minister's decision to open farm offices in the afternoons without making proper staffing arrangements. It was the unravelling of the farmers' charter.

As staff in these offices previously carried out administrative work in the afternoons, we now have the extraordinary position that the taxpayer is liable for £600,000 in overtime payments for work previously carried out in ordinary time. The Minister should confirm that no extra work is being carried out by the staff and that the overtime payment has resulted from his insistence that these offices remain open in the afternoons.

From where did the money come? Was it from the administrative budget? If so, the Minister's interference has resulted in wasting taxpayers' money. The public has a right to know who in the Department authorised this payment. Was it the Minister acting on his own initiative? Did every office receive this money? Was it paid willy-nilly to every member of staff? This money is an interim payment. The public has a right to know where this deal will end and what it will cost. The Minister came clean eventually earlier today and I ask him to do so on this issue and confirm that the problem is of his own making.

I am glad to have an opportunity to clarify the issue. It is neither as dramatic nor as personalised as Deputy Cowen indicates. I am happy to lay the facts before the House. During November and December 1995 the Civil and Public Services Union took industrial action involving the closure of my Department's offices to the public in the afternoons and a ban on overtime in all offices.

There are approximately 1,350 staff in the Department in the grades represented by the CPSU, that is, CAs and COs. In notifying the Department of industrial action the union said that their members would refuse to co-operate in the afternoon opening of public offices; the offices would be manned only between 10 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. They would not co-operate with the proposed information offices as provided in the charter of farmers' rights. This included participation in training courses. The most significant element was they would refuse to work overtime. The union stated the action could be escalated up to and including all out strike action.

The earlier sentences are the most significant.

The dispute caused problems for the Department in processing payments under various premium and headage schemes and also in dealing with EU export refund payments to industry.

Blame the staff.

The nature of the work in these areas means that overtime is often a feature of the duties of the staff. The workers involved are among the lowest paid in the Civil Service, many of them earn less than £10,000 per annum.

My Department considered it essential that this dispute be settled, a view with which I concurred, in order that the severe cashflow problems faced by food firms particularly in the meat and other sectors depending on export refunds would be addressed through the earliest possible payment of export refunds due and the clearance of bank guarantees amounting to £200 million on which interest was accruing. As closure of the 27 local departmental offices in the afternoons, as a result of the dispute, disrupted communication between the Department and the farming community in relation to animal movements, queries on premium, headage and agriculture structures schemes, CFP, REPS and so on, at a time when there was genuine concern to ensure the earliest possible issue of payments, settlement of the dispute was the overriding consideration.

That was important.

It was an exceptional measure adopted in very difficult circumstances. It was made in the interests of securing an interim settlement of the dispute to enable the Department catch up on the backlog of work which had arisen in the previous week and to ensure the continued smooth flow in the New Year of vital supports to the farm and agri-industry sectors which, as the Deputy will appreciate, are vital to rural communities.

And to save the Minister's face.

Please, Deputy.

Facts are important.

Deputy Cowen was allowed to make his speech without interruption. He should extend the same courtesy to the Minister.

The reason for paying the money in advance was not motivated by any budgetary strategy aimed at bringing forward expenditure. It was intended solely to assist in the settlement of the industrial relations problem and to ensure continuation of the necessary supports to farmers and the agri-industry sector. Staff are required to work the overtime in full. This did not create any additional overtime; it was a prepayment of overtime in respect of the backlog of work which arose as a result of the dispute in November-December.

The House is being misled.

Total overtime payments for 1995 were broadly in line with those for previous years.

Deputy Cowen should not imply that the Minister is misleading the House. That is a serious allegation.

It is also untrue.

I am making that allegation.

If the Deputy is asserting that the Minister is deliberately misleading the House he must withdraw that allegation or withdraw from the House.

In the interests of procedure I withdraw it.

It should be an unqualified withdrawal.

It is as qualified as I am giving it.

I am not accepting a qualified apology.

I am trying to give full information to the House.

When it suits the Minister.

In 1994 overtime payments amounted to £5.686 million.

I know the facts.

In 1995 it was just over £6 million, including this amount. The difference of £300,000, allowing for pay increases, shows a real increase of £200,000 which is broadly in line with the year on year position.

There was a backlog of work and companies were due export refunds. Effectively there was a work to rule which had to be settled.

What was the reason for the work to rule?

The dispute with the CPSU.

The reason was the opening of the offices in the afternoon, an innovation the Minister imposed on the staff.

This is not Question Time.

The decision to close the offices in the afternoon was taken by management in 1994. It was not the result of industrial relations, rather management changed its policy as part of the charter.

The charter was the Minister's initiative.

If the Deputy finds it difficult to listen to the Minister's reply he has a remedy.

The Minister's obfuscation is unbelievable.

There are many exits from this Chamber; the Deputy might consider taking one.

There is no necessity for the Deputy to be confrontational. The facts are straightforward. Since 8 December my Department cleared over £90 million in export refund payments and £100 million in guarantee releases. On the headage-premia side in the last week alone the Department issued £65 million to 190,000 applicants.

This is padding.

It may not be of concern to the Deputy but it is very important.

It is irrelevant to the issue before us.

This would not have happened if the staff did not work overtime.

The Minister knows it is irrelevant.

I will bring this debate to an end if Deputy Cowen does not permit order to maintain.

As the Deputy is fully aware the Department's workload increased enormously in recent years. Last year almost 750,000 applications from farmers for headage premium payments were processed amounting to £760 million. In addition over £500 million in export refunds was paid to food and livestock exporters. I am fully committed to ensuring that all payments by my Department are delivered in the most effective and expeditious manner.

In view of the seasonal nature of many of the Department's schemes the working of overtime by staff is not only essential but a normal feature of their annual work. This did not cost the taxpayer one extra penny.

Were the staff paid in this fashion before?

It was a prepayment to settle a dispute. The overtime was unavoidable, necessary and inevitable.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 31 January 1996.