Topical Issue Debate

Industrial Disputes

Possible strike action by people contracted to work in An Post main delivery centres could bring a halt to all postal services on Thursday next as 34 maintenance delivery centre workers go on strike. I. O. Systems is contracted by An Post to maintain the postal machinery crucial to the operation of its main delivery centres in Cork, Dublin, Athlone and Portlaoise.

The long-running dispute flared up once more last week after it was reported that An Post's sub-contracted maintenance suppliers docked some of their employees' wages by as much as €2,000 or 60% for refusing to work new rosters. This is not acceptable industrial relations practice and any employer introducing reforms should exhaust all efforts to ensure that workers are consulted and that they agree, where possible, to the introduction of changes. Shockingly for workers, the company tried to change the work rosters from 12-hour to eight-hour shifts without their agreement. Such a change would result in more than a 20% cut for workers and also means some employees would have to work permanent night shifts, according to Communications Workers' Union, which represents the maintenance workers.

The company was served with strike notice by maintenance workers last week after it cut workers' wages because of their refusal to work the new roster. I ask the Minister to make a statement on the matter of great seriousness for An Post and our postal services later in the week.

The issue the Deputy has raised relates, as I understand, to a third party dispute concerning a company contracted to An Post to provide maintenance services at the four An Post mails processing plants.

It would not be appropriate for me to comment on an issue which is an operational matter for the service provider company and which is also being dealt with through the normal industrial relations machinery. Should there be an industrial relations difficulty regarding the provision of services by the service provider to An Post in the future, that would be an operational matter for An Post to manage. In that regard, I understand from An Post that a contingency plan is in place should that eventuality materialise. It would hope, and expect, that all reasonable means will be used by the parties involved in this dispute to bring the matter to a satisfactory resolution as soon as possible. I would not be appropriate for me to comment any further on the matter in these circumstances.

In the wider context, the postal sector is undergoing systemic change with migration towards electronic communications resulting in significant core mail volume decline year on year. Undoubtedly, this trend places pressures on both An Post and its staff. However, it is Government policy that An Post remains a strong and viable company in a position to provide a high quality postal service. In January of this year I appointed Bobby Kerr to chair the Post Office Network Business Development Group in order to ensure the continued viability of the nationwide network of customer focused post offices. The post office network plays an important role in serving the needs of business and domestic customers alike, and this Government is committed to its retention.

Following the recent public consultation on the initial report of the Post Office Network Business Development Group, a total of 16 responses were received. These responses, along with the initial report, are published on my Department's website. The consultation responses will assist the business development group in identifying opportunities that can benefit the post office network and will inform the final report of the group which I expect later in the autumn. It is clear from the responses received that there is a strong public desire to maintain the nationwide network of post offices.

With regard to the mails processing plants, I am assured that An Post will ensure that its contingency plan in regard to such plants will be put in place should the eventuality arise that has been raised by the Deputy and that it will endeavour to ensure the ongoing provision of the postal service relied upon by the citizens of the country.

Two questions arise. How has a subcontractor of An Post, which is wholly owned by the State, attempted to drastically change workers' pay and conditions due to the terms of a tender and not through normal negotiating practices? Workers have had their job security eroded by the drastic cut in shift hours and pay. The workers are taking the ultimate step to strike, with the Communications Workers' Union providing financial help where necessary.

There is concern about this issue. I take the point the Minister made in respect of An Post, but I would be more reassured if he could seek the assistance of the Labour Relations Commission again to ensure that with respect to whatever issues exist between the company that is contacted by An Post and its workers, the company treats its workers fairly and makes sure that the issues are brought to a satisfactory conclusion. I understand industrial mediation attempts were made by Kevin Foley and Phil Flynn to have these issues resolved - if I am not correct on that, the Minister might advise me - and that a decision was made by the Labour Court at some stage in this regard. I ask the Minister to do all in his power to make sure that there is no issue on Thursday and that in respect of the outstanding issue between the company and its employees, who are represented by the Communications Workers' Union, they try to resolve their difficulties without having strike notice served on them or on the company.

The Deputy is correct in that I am advised that there was a Labour Court recommendation in February 2015 and it backed the implementation of the restructuring but subject to a number of amendments. I am not, nor would I in the normal run of events be, aware of the detail of the dispute or the issues in the dispute, other than that I would agree with the Deputy, or certainly I would say on my own behalf, it is important that there should always be meaningful consultation. It is important that the industrial relations machinery of the State should be availed of. That is what I hope and expect would occur in these circumstances. Beyond that, I would not, as Minister, be in a position to comment on the specifics, other than to urge the parties to ensure that they avoid an escalation of the dispute and that they do so through the available third party machinery that is in place.

Bituminous Fuel Ban

As the Deputy who tabled the first Topical Issue matter, which also falls within the Minister's area, has not appeared, I will move on to the next Topical Issue which is to Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. If he is outside the Chamber and hears me, he might make his way into the Chamber. He is probably waiting his turn. This Topical Issue matter is in the name of Deputy Brian Stanley. We will wait for the Minister to arrive.

The Minister is not at fault. We had one absentee. I call Deputy Stanley.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for taking this issue. The announcement by the Minister yesterday of the extension of the ban on bituminous coal, or smoky coal as it is described, to 26 extra towns is important. I understand the Minister will now give his response to this matter. Is that correct or should I continue? How many minutes do I have?

The Deputy has up to four minutes to make his case.

I want to give this decision a qualified welcome. The information available to Opposition Deputies and spokespersons has been scant. We read about such developments in the media at the weekend.

When did the Deputy first hear of it? At the weekend?

Yes, in terms of the speculation around it and then from the debates in the media.

There is also the issue of the number of towns to which it will be extended. I understand it will involve towns with over 15,000 inhabitants. There is a question, particularly in the midlands, as to how this will affect peat products, as peat briquettes are counted as smokeless fuel. What are the implications for peat products? Are there plans to ban peat in the future?

Will the Minister give a list as to the number of towns that will come under the ban? I know Portlaoise and Tullamore are two of them. Do we have the capacity to meet the new demands for smokeless fuels?

There is an opportunity in this regard for job creation, particularly if peat could be used as one of the ingredients for smokeless fuels. Bord na Móna still has substantial tracks of bog in the midlands where moss peat has been stripped away and it is down to the fuel. There are opportunities at sites such as Cul Na Móna, County Laois. I implore the Minister, as well as his colleague who has just left the Chamber, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, to examine this site. Thousands of acres of peat are located on the crossroads of Ireland, on the junction of the M7 and M8 motorways with a railway line passing through it.

The Deputy should not forget Littleton.

There is also Littleton in north Tipperary. There is an opportunity for Bord na Móna to meet the demand for smokeless fuels. However, it depends on the Government to make a policy decision in this regard as it is a semi-State company. I know the Government has a short time left in office. Whether it is a month or six months, I hope there is no ideological block to this from the Minister’s partner in government, Fine Gael. It is important to see how the semi-State sector can get involved in this. Bord na Móna has shown itself to be good in diversifying and developing new business and products. This is an opportunity for it to ramp up and get seriously involved in the production of smokeless fuels.

There is also the opportunity to develop smaller collieries such as Rossmore, County Laois, which has substantial anthracite seams, one of the ingredients for smokeless fuel.

At the clean air conference in Dublin yesterday, I announced I intend to extend the health and environmental benefits of the ban on smoky coal in place in our cities and large towns to the entire country. It was brought in 25 years ago and, parking the politics, I thought it was innovative legislative action by the Minister at the time. It is now appropriate it is extended to other areas.

The benefits of the scheme include significant reductions in respiratory problems and mortalities from the effects of burning smoky coal. Approximately 8,000 lives have been saved in Dublin since the introduction of the smoky coal ban back in 1990. Further health, environmental and economic benefits, estimated at €53 million per year, will be realised if the ban is extended nationwide. Hundreds of lives will be saved by this action.

The success of the introduction of the ban in Dublin in 1990, as well as its subsequent extension to Cork, Limerick and Galway, has resulted in the perverse anomaly whereby air quality in some provincial towns and villages during the winter is of a vastly poorer quality than in our larger urban areas and towns. Recent research by University College Cork highlighted that air pollution in Killarney can be ten times higher during the night than throughout the day. During the winter, young people playing sports in many large towns are exposed to carcinogens in the air at higher multiples to what is acceptable. This cannot continue.

The original ban in Dublin has been cited widely as a successful policy intervention and has become a best practice icon in the international clean air community. This view was reiterated at yesterday’s conference by several visiting delegates, including those from the World Health Organization, WHO. Ireland became the first country in the world to introduce a nationwide smoking ban ten years ago. We are showing similar leadership in clean air policy.

I have instructed my Department to commence the process that will see the benefits of the smoky coal ban extended nationwide. This process involves consultation with the EU, our colleagues across government, residential fuel market operators and the general public. I am encouraged by the industry’s acknowledgement of the need to improve our air quality and its plans to adapt current practices, as well as investing in cleaner, lower-smoke fuels. Deputy Stanley is correct that this presents many opportunities for Bord na Móna and others involved in the industry. Many of them are already investing in alternative fuel technologies. The Government is encouraging them to do more in this regard.

I hope these consultations will be completed in time to have the necessary provisions in place for the heating season in 2016. However, I accept this is an ambitious timeline and may stretch into the following year. The extension of the smoky coal ban is one of several initiatives my Department is examining as part of a programme to produce the first ever national clean air strategy. This strategy will provide the strategic framework for a set of cross-government policies and actions to reduce harmful emissions, as well as improving air quality and public health to meet current and future EU and international obligations. My Department will shortly issue a consultation document as a first step in this process.

I thank Deputies across the House welcoming the initiative yesterday.

I thank the Minister for his reply. While I welcome this announcement, it is a qualified welcome. The Minister said 8,000 lives will be saved. In a reply to Deputy Finian McGrath several months ago, he said there were 350 fewer annual deaths because of the smokeless fuel policy in Dublin.

The Deputy should multiply that figure by 25 years.

Later this evening, we will be discussing the Climate Action and Low Carbon Bill. Obviously, we must improve air quality, particularly in cities and towns where it is a problem. I am aware of the serious levels of air pollution in Killarney and other towns. Has the Department carried out an assessment of the availability of smokeless fuels? I have not been able to find a list of the towns in which the policy will be rolled out. I checked the Department’s website this afternoon.

The air pollution levels in many towns are not acceptable.

Will the Minister provide me with a list of the towns that will be involved in the scheme? It will involve towns with over 15,000 inhabitants. However, the existing boundaries in some towns do not take in the whole area involved. As per his reply, I hope the Minister, along with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, will steer Bord na Móna in using this as an opportunity for job creation. I know it has already done some good work in this regard.

There is an issue with fuel poverty.

The fuel allowance scheme was reduced to 26 weeks. That is causing problems. Last winter was not the coldest we have had but there have been some very cold winters and a huge slice of the income of low-income households goes on that.

There may be an issue in some areas with the conversion of appliances, particularly in the homes of the elderly. Certain appliances may need to be adapted in order to burn smokeless fuel. The final issue, which I have raised many times, is the insulation of the old local authority houses with solid walls. There is a very small number of these. There are between 35 and 40 such houses in St. John's Square and O'Moore Place in Portlaoise. They have no insulation. They cannot be insulated using the method that has obtained to date because there is no cavity in the walls. However, there is new technology available now. I have raised this matter with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government many times and he said he would consider it when the phases of the scheme were being completed. Will he examine that scheme again in order to see if it can be extended to accommodate people to whom I refer? It is mainly elderly individuals who live in those houses in question.

The ban is nationwide. There is no town size. It is nationwide.

It is everywhere. It covers the sale of smoky coal. It will not be possible to sell such coal; it will not be available in this country.

The Deputy asked several questions and I will try to answer as many as possible. Smokeless coal has been tested. From a fuel poverty point of view, this type of coal is able to deliver. There have been questions about it in the past but the technology has moved on and we are quite confident in respect of it.

I agree with the Deputy about diversification in respect of peat. There are no plans to do anything else. What we are doing is designed to deal with smoky coal. This is the initiative I have announced but we share a common interest in this. There are huge opportunities for Bord na Móna and other organisations in respect of diversification of products and building product, particularly in the biomass area, to extend the lifetimes of bogs. There is a great deal of work ongoing with several of those companies, particularly in respect of biomass briquettes and other products.

This ban comes into effect in the Republic of Ireland. Through the North-South Ministerial Council, I have been in discussions with my colleague, Mark Durkan, regarding Northern Ireland. We have undertaken some joint studies on this. I hope that the Northern Ireland Executive will follow our lead and come with us on such a ban because it would be preferable to have the same policy North and South. Somebody had to jump and from a health point of view, I felt it was necessary. When I saw the studies on Killarney and other towns, there was no way I was not going to do this.

The Deputy has raised issues about houses with solid walls previously. There are other issues in respect of those houses. I have asked the Department, in conjunction with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, to examine what diversification measures could be incorporated into the solutions we are giving local authorities because I am aware of those issues from my constituency.

Crime Prevention

I am sad to have to raise this issue about a scrap and precious metal dealers Bill, which I introduced here in November 2011. It was debated in 2012. The Minister for Justice and Equality rejected the Bill despite cross-party support. Since then there has been report after report. There was a report from the national metal theft forum, which recommended that Oireachtas Joint Committees should examine the matter. This has not happened.

I reintroduced the Bill in 2014 after the then Minister had rejected it in 2012 and promised to introduce his own legislation. I introduced eight amendments which he had suggested were necessary and, sadly, the current Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, rejected it. Lo and behold, only ten days ago the Minister, the Department and the Government announced a public consultation. It is a complete whitewash and a sham, an effort to get them past the election. All they had to consult were the homes, the families, communities, the Georgian Society, the ESB, Irish Rail, the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA. All these groups and families have been devastated by brutal attacks on their property and, above all, on their homes. One's home is one's castle. Very valuable artefacts have been taken. In Portlaoise, a monument erected on a motorway to 23 or 24 dead young people was unceremoniously cut down and taken away. Hospitals have been attacked. Precious gold and items with sentimental value, passed down through generations, have been taken from people's homes. Some of those items can be put in an envelope and sold to a cash-for-gold outlet and the money is returned in the post. I ask the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who is standing in for the Minister for Justice and Equality, to consider this and act. The Garda Síochána supports it but needs the tools of the trade to tackle these roving criminals and monstrous people who do awful damage to protected and listed buildings but, above all, to people’s homes and person.

My short scrap and precious metal Bill had four aims, including that precious metals and all transactions be recorded and that there be a waiting period for anybody who received an item or sold it on. Whether it is scrap metal or rings, jewellery or watches of sentimental value, the receiver should hold the item for 30 days in order that the seller or owner, and the Garda, would have a chance to identify it, if it was traced. This would ensure items were not melted down the morning after. The third aim of my Bill was that the Garda should have access to all the files and the books. The Revenue Commissioners have access to all businesses. I am a businessman. The Health and Safety Authority has access. Why can this matter not be regulated?

The final aim was to set penalties for the precious metal dealers. The penalties were pretty saucy but they were needed so that, for example, I could not sell to the Minister of State, or vice versa, or to anybody else, without having a personal public service, PPS, number, and the value added tax, VAT, number of the trader. All businesses, from farmers to hairdressers, must comply with regulations and have their books ready for audit. This is a rogue’s industry. It is a paradise for them. The Government is either unable or unwilling to deal with this issue. I do not know why. It is visiting trauma on families and communities as precious artefacts are exported and melted down. When I introduced my Bill, some speakers said that gates at level crossings in Dublin had been taken down. The signals were taken down at Limerick Junction. There could be a head-on crash. Aviation equipment that sends signals to aeroplanes trying to land at and take off from Dublin Airport and other places has been taken.

It is a nightmare. There is a desperate accident waiting to happen, quite apart from the trauma visited on ordinary people, their property and personages. The Minister will go down in history for neglecting to deal with this severe crisis. She need only take the simple legislation that is before her, amend it, bring it to committee and debate it. I am not saying my Bill is perfect but it is something. Action is needed here, not more consultation.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister regrets that she is unable to be present due to other business. I assure the Deputy that the Minister is very conscious of the concerns that exist in respect of the theft of scrap and precious metals and that her Department continues to work closely with An Garda Síochána and other relevant stakeholders to ensure that an effective, whole of system response is in place. Measures in respect of the sale of scrap metal were taken by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in 2014, which were designed to address this matter by improving the traceability of scrap metal. These regulations include requirements to obtain proof of identity of sellers and the keeping of records concerning the material sold. The Minister is well aware of the similar concerns that have been expressed about the theft of precious metals and stones and, particularly, in relation to the potential use of cash for gold outlets to sell stolen goods.

For that reason the Minister has recently commenced a process of public consultation on what measures may be taken in this regard. Among the potential measures on which views are being sought are the registration of such businesses, their monitoring by compliance officers, powers for An Garda Síochána in respect of such businesses and the introduction of penalties for non-compliance with any regulations put in place. An important element of this process of consultation is to ascertain the views of the many legitimate businesses that might be affected by any measures. The consultation process is open until 30 October. Once the process has concluded, the Minister will, taking into account any views expressed, determine the most appropriate approach to tackle this issue.

Other ongoing practical steps also being taken by the authorities include the establishment by An Garda Síochána of a metal theft forum involving stakeholders particularly affected by this type of crime, including the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, the Electricity Supply Board, ESB, telecommunications and transport companies, brewing concerns and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. A metal theft crime prevention and reduction plan was published in February 2013 which was developed in close co-operation with these stakeholders. It provides for an effective multi-agency response to the problem and An Garda Síochána is implementing a range of measures arising from the plan.

The Garda has also mounted successful operations which have led to charges being brought against a number of persons involved in the theft of electricity cables in this country who appear to be connected to an international organised criminal group. An awareness campaign to help address this form of criminality has been launched through Crimestoppers in partnership with An Garda Síochána and ESB Networks. Rural dwellers are asked to notify the Garda of any suspicious activity they observe and may use the Crimestoppers confidential number 1800 25 00 25 to make reports if they wish.

Again, I am disappointed the Minister of State has come here to read out the same standard reply, although I have nothing personal against her. We need action. We have had all the consultations and reports. The Garda needs support and the legislative framework whereby it can try these people. The Minister of State referred to ESB lines being taken. This beggars belief. This has happened in my neighbourhood and it is costing the ESB a fortune. However, who is paying the price? It is the people who are paying the ESB, Joe tax man and Mrs. tax woman.

We must have action. We do not have time for another consultation. The IFA and the ICMSA have contributed passionately on this. People ring the gardaí, but they are frightened in their beds at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. when criminals, who appear to be an ESB crew, arrive at their home with all types of equipment to cut down ESB lines. They have the knowledge so they obviously have prior experience to know what lines to touch. Otherwise they would fry and there would be multiple casualties. They are coming in from eastern Europe, as the Minister of State said, because we are ripe and ready to be picked and plucked, like apples hanging from a tree.

The reason is that we have an inept Government which has refused to deal with this issue. The Government was elected by the people and Bills are regularly presented to it by Opposition Deputies. I have done so twice, including an amended Bill with eight amendments, but the Government refused point blank to accept it. What is wrong that it will not accept or implement legislation to protect our people? It passes Bill after Bill to persecute people, ranging from taxes to Irish Water, but when we need a small amount of legislation to protect people in their homes, it refuses to entertain it. The Government is gobbled up in bureaucracy, red tape, reports, commissions and public consultation. All are sham and token.

I do not know the reason that the Government will not recognise this issue and not give the power and tools to the Garda Síochána and other agencies to deal with this perilous situation. People are frightened in their homes and have had their cemetery crosses cut down. It affects the Irish Georgian Society and other groups across the country. The consultation is over and done. We need action, not another public consultation. The Minister has given no date for when it will report on what action will be taken. The Government will be long gone out of office - I do not know if the Minister of State is standing for election - and there will still be no legislation. It is not right or just.

The Minister acknowledges that the Deputy has previously brought forward legislative proposals in this regard. While they contained many elements that may be of merit for these purposes, there were both legal and practical difficulties with them. As I have outlined, important measures regarding the scrap metal trade have already been taken and the consultation process on potential measures that could be taken in respect of the trade in precious metals and stones will conclude at the end of October. Once that process is completed the Minister will consider the most appropriate way forward for addressing this problem.

The Department, of course, will continue to work closely with An Garda Síochána and other relevant agencies to ensure that a comprehensive approach is taken to dealing with this important issue. The Garda has taken a number of important and successful measures in this regard already, and it will continue to do so.