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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999

Vol. 502 No. 4

Priority Questions. - Trade Union Recognition.

Pat Rabbitte


4 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she has received the report of the high level group on trade union recognition; the main findings of the report; the steps, if any, being taken to uphold the right of employees to join and be represented by trade unions, particularly in view of the findings of the report of the inquiry into the industrial dispute at Ryanair; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8344/99]

Nora Owen


5 Mrs. Owen asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she has received the report on trade union recognition; the proposals, if any, she has to implement this report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8347/99]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together.

In December 1998 I reconvened the high level group on trade union recognition and addressed them on a number of industrial relations issues. On 11 March 1999 the group adopted and submitted to me a report which includes an agreement on industrial relations issues. I thank the group for reporting back so speedily.

The group agreed that, where negotiating arrangements are in place, the most effective means of resolving differences which arise between employers and trade unions representing employees, is by voluntary collective bargaining, that is, the existing voluntarist industrial relations system.

The group's report makes four proposals, designed to underpin the voluntarist approach to industrial relations, which serves this economy so well. These areas are as follows: agreed arrangements to enable the parties to a dispute to work voluntarily with the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court on the pay and conditions elements of the dispute where negotiating arrangements are not in place and collective bargaining does not occur; agreed exceptional arrangements, which would confirm, in legislation, the Labour Court as the court of last resort in disputes where the agreed voluntary arrangements proposed by the group are not followed; amendments to the Code of Practice on Disciplinary Procedures, which would reflect existing legal provisions and best practice on grievance as well as disciplinary procedures; and the parties providing essential services to amend their dispute procedures to include key provisions of the Code of Practice on Disputes in Essential Services before the expiry of Partnership 2000.

This is an agreed report and I express my appreciation for the work of the group's members, especially the IBEC and ICTU representatives. Debate on the group's proposals has commenced, not least within the social partner organisations.

The proposals in the report merit careful consideration by those concerned with national social and economic partnership, industrial relations generally, the role of the LRC and the Labour Court and investment in business and jobs. I will present the report to Government in due course.

I understand legislation is necessary in this area. Can the Minister of State indicate when such legislation will be published?

The process is as follows. IBEC will put these proposals to its national executive in the coming weeks. As the Deputy will be aware, the trade union movement has publicly supported these proposals. I understand it will put its recommendations to its executive congress. I am not in a position to say when I will introduce legislation on this area. This question was tabled before proposals have been put to Government. This matter has been debated publicly, but this is the first time it has been aired in the Dáil. I welcome the opportunity to respond to this matter along the lines I outlined. I wish to await the conclusions of the deliberations by IBEC and ICTU, in particular, before indicating when legislation on this matter will be introduced.

In terms of negotiation getting under way for a prospective new agreement, is it not the case that it is the wish of both social partners that this matter should be out of the way and such legislation enacted? Will the Minister of State give a rough guideline as to when that will happen?

The Minister of State welcomed the innovation that the Labour Court will have a role ultimately in terms of binding conclusions or recommendations. How does he reconcile his welcome for that with his comments on the Labour Party Bill, which sought to do the same thing, to the effect that "it will undoubtedly lead to litigation in industrial relations disputes"?

It is not permissible to quote during Question Time. The Deputy must proceed by way of question.

I will refer to it from memory. Why is the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, so happy about a mandatory role for the Labour Court, given that when this proposal was brought forward in a Labour Party Bill it was his belief that it would undermine the effectiveness of the Labour Court? Is he now satisfied that, on mature reflection, it will not undermine its effectiveness?

The Deputy can be assured we will deal with this as speedily as possible. He is correct in suggesting this is an important issue for the trade union movement, in particular, in the context of agreeing a successor to Partnership 2000. The Deputy will be aware a number of issues emerged in the Ryanair dispute that had to be dealt with. I said at that time we needed to bite the bullet and that is why I welcome the fact that matters have progressed to this stage.

Regarding the Deputy's comments on the Labour Party Bill, which was put forward before the he joined the ranks of that party, I made comments then that are still valid now. These proposals are based on an agreed formula. They are not being imposed. I recall clearly the debate on that Bill where I said it was endeavouring to impose mandatory trade union recognition. At that time I said the voluntarist system was the foundation of our industrial relations procedures and it was valuable in the context of social partnership, particularly since 1987. Under these proposals that system is enhanced and the proposals seek to get the parties to work the State machinery to resolve difficulties. I was concerned at that time about following the legal route and ending up with issues of this nature coming before the courts. I asked the high level group on trade union recognition to take account of a number of issues, including the Labour Party Bill, because it was a valuable contribution to the public debate at that time, but my views on that Bill have not changed. We are putting forward an agreed formula drawn up under the umbrella of social partnership, which is a valuable contribution. I look forward to following up on that.

I thank the Minister of State for letting me have a copy of a report that was available to people who contributed to a radio programme. Will he examine the mechanism and methods whereby information, such as this, is made available not only to Members but to the public? I understood this report would be issued in the normal way when the high level group had reached its conclusions, but information has filtered through in various ways. I thank the Minister of State for sending me this three page document, but I only got a copy of it today even though the document was in the public arena for some time.

On promised legislation, I exhort the Minister of State to realise this legislation and the awaited minimum wage legislation will form vital components of a new partnership agreement. The possibility of a new partnership agreement will have been strengthened by the issuing of this document on trade union recognition. Are there not elements of other legislation that could be amended prior to the introduction of the substantive legislation on this area? Paragraph 3.5 recommends that the Code of Practice on Disciplinary Procedures of 6 May 1996 be amended. Could that not be done prior to the introduction of the substantive legislation? Are there any other elements of this report that could be implemented prior to the introduction of the substantive legislation?

The group most concerned about mandatory trade unionism was the multinationals. We were told a number of multinationals might not invest here because of that concern. Has the Minister of State any indication about their sense of satisfaction about these recommendations? It would be welcome if they were happy with this because that would mean we would not face the problems highlighted previously by the Minister of State?

The Deputy asked a number of questions. With regard to the mechanism of releasing this information to colleagues and to the general public, I am sure the Deputy will accept that the procedures involved here were very much internal. We reconvened the high level group and let it get on with its business. I am pleased with its speedy response. Information has come into the public domain. This is my first opportunity to inform the Dáil about this. I circulated, albeit at short notice, the contents of the report to Deputies Owen and Rabbitte earlier today. We want to get this right. Ideally this information will come into the public domain when it is signed sealed and delivered. There is still some consultation to take place with ICTU and IBEC. However, I accept it would be appropriate to get this information to Members of the Oireachtas as quickly as possible if we had developments of this nature. I note that point made by the Deputy.

The Deputy referred to the minimum wage. The minimum wage legislation is being dealt with by the social partners and the drafting is under way. Such legislation would amend the 1946 Act and it would be prudent to do it comprehensively in one fell swoop.

In regard to foreign direct investment—

I asked about the code of practice. I assume that is not legislation.

The code of practice will have to be agreed by the social partners. The social partners have agreed to deal with two issues – disputes of special importance and the code of practice on dispute procedures – before the end of the year. There are clear time limits on aspects of this agreement. This is all being done in the context of a successor to Partnership 2000.

In regard to foreign direct investment, my view is that the general response has been positive. People are looking very carefully at these pro posals, as we speak. I hope this will win approval – the initial responses have been positive. Given that this has been done in an agreed way and that ICTU and IBEC have signed off on it within the high level group, I expect we will have a positive response.

It is interesting to compare what we are doing here with what is happening in the UK. The UK approach, under the fairness at work document, goes down the route of mandatory trade union recognition and examines the whole question of thresholds, which is a different approach. The UK employee relations Bill is before Parliament at present. My concern at the time of the debate was that if we went down that road we would bring industrial relations into the law courts.

The work of the high level group is to be commended on the basis that it has built on and enhanced the voluntarist industrial relations procedures and come up with these proposals. I am confident that the multinationals, which have particular views on this, will support the proposals of the high level group.

I think there will be some alarm outside the House that the Minister of State is so hazy about a date for legislation. I wish to press him again to tell the House when he will bring this legislation before it.

I remind the Minister of State that when he responded to my colleague, Deputy Broughan's, Bill, he referred to the Labour Court issuing binding recommendations. Does he accept that this accord provides for binding recommendations by the Labour Court? Does he still think that will undermine the efficacy of the Labour Court, which was his point then? It is important that he, as the Minister of State with responsibility for industrial relations, puts his views on this on the record. If he harbours fears about it undermining the voluntary system, he ought to say so; if he is now happy and has thought better of his intemperate and ill considered remarks during the debate on the Labour Party Bill, he should say that also.

I have already referred to the Labour Party Bill and what it sought to achieve, which was to deal with mandatory trade union recognition. This agreed approach is a better one and one which the Deputy would have pursued when he was a Minister of State in this Department.

I agree, but the point was about binding Labour Court recommendations.

The Deputy is right that the existing procedures are lengthy and tortuous and there are cooling off periods. There are many steps along the way, which were mentioned in the Labour Party Bill. I acknowledge the role of the Labour Party in bringing forward that Bill but there were a number of things wrong with it. There is a great deal of common ground here with the thinking in the Labour Party Bill, in that we have cooling off periods, etc. I have no problem with acknowledging that reality.

I am not asking the Minister of State to praise the Labour Party Bill. I am asking him to acknowledge that he was wrong then and that he is now right.

What I was advocating at that time was that we would deal with this within social partnership and come up with an agreed formula. We are now at the first stage of doing that. I will introduce the legislation as soon as it is practicably possible to so do. We must first get approval from ICTU and IBEC. I want to get the views of the many parties out there.

The Minister of State got that today. He should tell Deputy Owen that he got the approval from the parties today.

Does the Deputy mean the parties in Dáil Éireann?

No, the parties outside the House.

It is good—

My understanding is that IBEC is happy.

That is also my understanding. The Deputies are talking about the multinationals – I am anxious to hear the views of others. We have a formula and the makings of very good, solid legislation that will enhance the voluntarist approach to industrial relations. I commend the high level group on its work.

Will the legislation be published before the summer?

That is all we want to know. If one waits too long something could go wrong.

I will publish the legislation as soon as I have the opportunity to so do. Frankly, I am not in a position to do so but I may be in a few weeks or a month. The Deputies should table a question whenever they feel it is appropriate.

As the time for Priority Questions has expired, we will take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 in ordinary Question Time.