Gabhaim buíochas ar dtús leis na Seanadóirí as ucht an rún seo a chur os comhair an Tí agus de bharr go bhfuil deis agam labhairt faoi na cúrsaí atá ag cur as dúinn ar fad chomh fada agus a bhaineann sé leis An Post, agus leo siúd atá ag obair, pé acu an ag obair mar bhaill den fhoireann atá siad nó mar bhaill den fhoireann bainistíochta. Ba mhaith liom anois deis a bheith agam na fíricí mar atá siad faoi láthair a chur os comhair an tSeanaid. Níor mhaith liom tosnú ag caint faoi dhaoine go pearsanta, go háirithe daoine nach bhfuil anseo agus in ann iad féin a chosaint, ach deileáilfidh mé le cuid de na rudaí a bhí le ag rá na Seanadoírí go dtí seo.
I thank Senators who participated in the debate. On 20 February 1991, in the course of a debate on a motion on An Post's reorganisation proposals, my predecessor gave a detailed report on An Post's financial problems and the need for changes in the postal service. Unfortunately, An Post's loss-making problem continues and the need for remedial action becomes more urgent.
An Post have suffered financial losses since 1989. Their accumulated losses to end 1991 amounted to £13.8 million and the company are projecting a loss of £8.5 million for 1992. Their annual overtime bill is £21 million.
At this juncture, I will outline what has been done to facilitate the management-union negotiations on recovery measures for An Post. Early last year my predecessor arranged for the drawing up of a Government/Irish Congress of Trade Unions formula for the necessary management-union negotiations. At a later date and in accordance with that formula, he arranged for the negotiations to be held under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission, with a view to drawing up proposals to achieve break-even in 1992. The commission devoted considerable time and effort to this exercise and, in addition, set up an independent tribunal, in agreement with both sides, to make recommendations on An Post's recovery proposals; on certain priority proposals by 15 November, 1991 and on the balance by 31 January 1992. I understand that a total of 41 meetings took place since March 1991. I regret that, despite all these initiatives and efforts, it has not been possible for management and unions to reach agreement on any significant measure to reverse the loss-making trend in An Post.
A formula drawn up by the Labour Relations Commission last October, following an industrial dispute in An Post, made provision for deferment of payment of the first phase of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress to postal staff from 1 November 1991 to 1 February 1992, subject to the ability of the company to make the payment. As the company's financial fortunes had not improved in the meantime An Post could not make the payment on 1 February. However, the company reviewed their position in the light of their worsening financial problems and the genuine concern of postal staff about the Programme for Economic and Social Progress payment.
An Post decided to proceed with their priority proposals with effect from 27 April and made the Programme for Economic and Social Progress payment retrospective to 1 November, 1991 to their staff on 15 May 1992. The proposals include the employment of 250 temporary and part-time staff to reduce overtime levels in the Dublin area and maintain the quality of the mails service as the leave season commences.
I must refute the claim that An Post are attempting to exploit workers in any way by recruiting temporary and part-time staff. Already, as Senator Cassidy pointed out, the company employ over 300 temporary and part-time staff in the provinces with pay and conditions agreed by the Communications Workers Union. All over the world post offices employ temporary and part-time staff because it is the most effective means of matching staff to work levels.
I am disappointed that the unions are resisting the implementation of these recovery measures. Such action will aggravate an already difficult financial situation in An Post and delay the implementation of urgently-needed recovery measures.
I also want to refute an impression or a perception, and in these days of mass media communications perceptions and notions of ideas are very important, that in some way An Post propose to dismiss postal workers or lay off people. No such proposal has been put by An Post management. The proposal has been to employ 250 extra people in a temporary capacity. I would not like it to go abroad that An Post, in some way, were proposing that in the Dublin north inner city area people who are working in Sheriff Street should be made redundant and that the Government and the Minister were going along with that notion. Let me dispel that impression.
The development of modern telecommunications services and courier services is providing, as Senator Cassidy pointed out, keen competition for An Post. The European Commission adopted their Green Paper on the Development of the Single Market for postal services last week. The paper, which is a discussion document and the lead-up to the drafting of proposals for Community action in the postal sector, envisages the introduction of possible liberalisation measures. Senators will understand that this could place a further competitive pressure on An Post and other postal administrations in the European Community.
Our postal service plays a major part in the economic and social life of the community. It also provides very important agency services particularly in the disbursement of social welfare payments and in attracting funds for the national savings services. A protracted industrial dispute in the postal service in 1979 caused serious hardship to the staff as well as to customers. Also, the economy suffered serious damage. The community cannot afford a disruption of postal services at this stage.
I appeal to the unions involved to consider the gravity of An Post's financial position and the danger of causing long term damage to the postal service. Postal charges were increased in 1990 and 1991 to generate much-needed additional revenue for An Post but the increases were not sufficient to resolve the company's financial problems. Further general price increases at this stage could not be justified.
All Governments since An Post were established in 1984 have set their face against subsidising the postal service. The taxpayer simply cannot afford it. The pressure from all sides of the House is to reduce the tax burden, not to increase it. A subsidy would be a disincentive for An Post, and their staff in the pursuit of ways and means of reorganising the postal service and of reversing the loss-making situation as well as gearing up the service for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Cost-cutting measures in An Post cannot be avoided if the future of the company and their employees is to be secured. If An Post were to continue on the same basis as they have up to now, at the beginning of 1995 we would not have a postal service and therefore we would not have employment for any of An Post's current employees. I cannot allow that kind of situation to develop.
I have received the report of the consultants appointed by my predecessor to study the socio-economic implications for rural communities of An Post's proposals for closure of sub-post offices and the installation of roadside letterboxes. I will arrange for publication of the report in due course. An Post are not proceeding with these proposals.
An Post's present proposals have been examined by the independent tribunal set up by the Labour Relations Commission, as agreed by both sides. I understand that the tribunal, comprising senior representatives of ICTU and the FIE and chaired by public service arbitrator, Mr. Hugh Geoghegan, S.C., unanimously made recommendations which An Post have accepted. What the company are proposing appears to be fully in line with the recommendations of the tribunal and does not go outside the scope of their recommendations.
I am seriously concerned about the disruption in mail services caused by the postal dispute. It is causing problems as Senators Cassidy, Upton and Costello outlined, for business and it is also damaging our international reputation. I am keeping in close touch with the whole situation. I am making every possible effort to ensure that the dispute ends at an early date and that the postal service can resume its full and proper role in the economic and social life of the community.
The Chief Executive of the Labour Relations Commission met both sides for discussion over three days last week but unfortunately sufficient progress was not made between the parties to effect a settlement of the dispute at that stage.
I am very glad that the Labour Relations Commission are seeking elaboration from the tribunal of their recommendations. When the commission have received the elaboration they will consider what further action can be taken to help resolve the dispute.
I can assure the House that I will remain in close touch with the situation and I hope that the commission's initiative will lead to further negotiations.
I refer to remarks made by Senator Costello at the beginning of the debate. I have been very careful in this dispute to look at the issues. Anybody who knows me well would know that I have a reputation as a straight talker. I do not waffle around the edges, I come straight to the point. I have been a straight talker from the very beginning of this dispute.
I do not think it is helpful to either side in the dispute to start personality bashing. To call for a man's resignation who is not here to defend himself, or to ask a Government to dismiss him, is an unwarranted attack on an individual who cannot respond. Emotive language and emotive debate will not help at this stage. We must ignore personalities and deal very carefully with the issues.
It is easy to get backed into a corner in a dispute because certain people backed me into the hardline corner. I have been interested in the tenor of the telephone calls to my office and the messages dropped into my home in Galway. Regardless of how what is said, it all boils down to a very central question — which side of this disute is the Minister on? Is she on management side, which is what Senator Costello in effect was saying? I want to put on the record something I have said on a number of occasions publicly — I am on the side of the national interest, I am on the side of the taxpayer. As Minister, I have no choice.
Senator Costello talked about difficulties in An Post being related to bad management decisions. I watched a current affairs programme on television last night and I clearly heard the chief executive of An Post accepting that there were bad management decisions in the past. He accepted that there was fault on both sides, that is what I would expect any good professional manager to do. I do not think that is in dispute. What we must focus on are the issues involved in this dispute.
A number of Senators talked about the non-interventionist attitude of the Minister. Since I went into politics in 1975 I have always been a great believer in Ministers not intervening until it is absolutely necessary. The trade union movement and employers, and particularly the Congress of Trade Unions, have gone to a lot of trouble to set up labour relations machinery and I feel very strongly, as a former member of a trade union, that the labour relations machinery should be allowed to operate. The Labour Relations Commission have been involved and there have been results. We have had the results and recommendations of the tribunal. The Labour Relations Commission machinery continues to be available.
I accept and support efforts by both sides to sit around the table. At the end of the day, I honestly do not believe it is the Minister, the Government or any individual member of the Government who will resolve this dispute. It will be resolved by both sides sitting around the table and using the existing labour relation machinery that we all worked so hard to ensure was there.
Much play has been made here and publicly of the consultancy costs paid by An Post. To put it on the record, it is fair to say that a large percentage of the consultancy costs were associated with the computerisation of the counter services to improve and extend the range of services to An Post customers, in particular to those who are in receipt of social welfare benefits. I do not think any Member would say An Post were wrong to invest in the computerisation of counter services to enable them to be competitive in the post-1992 era when we will be flooded with competiton from the telecommunications end and from other sources as well.
People have been saying I was not prepared to talk to the unions. I want to put it on record that I went to Tralee last week to the Conference of the Communications Workers Union; I went from my home in Galway last weekend to the Conference of the Communications Managers Union. At a time of dispute, it would be the easiest thing in the world if the Minister responsible for the company in dispute with their staff stayed away from the conference. I feel it is important for whoever has ultimate political responsibility to meet both sides, to go to the conference and listen to what people are saying.
Many people had a lot to say on the margins of both conferences. Any utterances I made at either venue were straight talking about the issues and encouraging members of both trade unions to come to the table and negotiate with management. I am hopeful that when the Labour Relations Commission receive the elaboration of the tribunal's recommendations it will be possible once again for both sides to come to the table. I encourage management and the trade unions to do that.
At the end of the day, this dispute can only be resolved to the benefit of everybody by both sides sitting down and using the tried and tested industrial relations machinery. I will work very hard to ensure that every assistance is given by the Labour Relations Commission and others to bring both sides together so that An Post will be viable and restored to a financially healthy state. Working together, everyone, and in particular the Government and I, must ensure that An Post can face the implications of the Green Paper which that just been published by the European Commission on the liberalisation of the postal service and the competitive factors and that they will be in a financially healthy state and capable of taking on the competition and beating it. That is my attitude and that is what I want to achieve for the ocmpany and their staff.