Adjournment Debate. - Departmental Industrial Action.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter which is creating further havoc in an industry which is already on its knees. The lack of action and inability by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to solve problems is becoming a sick joke.

This Adjournment matter arises as a result of the industrial action by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, which has resulted in chaos in the services administered to farmers, particularly in relation to their need to trade livestock and the permits which are needed to certify the disease free status of herds in relation to TB and brucellosis. There are farmers now who cannot trade. For months, they have been holding back stock because of the appalling prices on offer. That catastrophe is now compounded by the failure of the Minister to resolve a problem which means many farmers cannot obtain special herd tests and are practically locked up, through no fault of their own.

I have pleaded with the Minister on a number of occasions in relation to various areas of policy. I raised this issue because of the number of inquiries I received over the past few weeks in relation to this matter. For example, I was contacted today by a person involved in the farm retirement scheme who leased his farm from 1 May. As a result of this decision he has arranged for a disposal sale of his livestock and farm machinery for 4 May. In preparation for the sale he tested for TB and brucellosis on 5 April. Because of the work to rule, he is unable to obtain the laboratory report of the results of the blood tests. Consequently, he is unable to get cattle identity cards to proceed with the sale as planned. It is of considerable significance that in 34 years of intensive livestock farming, this individual has never had a single case of TB or brucellosis. If he has to postpone the livestock sale he will forfeit all his benefits under the retirement scheme and will have to provide for the upkeep of livestock at great expense as he has already leased his property.

This is just one of a number of cases where people have asked me if the Minister or the Department have any inclination to deal with the havoc, pressure, hardship and worry suffered by an increasing number of farm families as a result of the failure to deal with the work to rule. The Minister should consult his colleagues in the Departments of Education and Finance who have been able to secure special measures for acute problems in their Departments. The Minister for Education resolved the problem in relation to examinations.

The famous farmers' charter is becoming something of a racket. People around the country are asking if anybody in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry has the ability or competence to solve these problems and resolve the crisis cases. People need cash now and to sell now. They are entitled to the results of blood test. Livelihoods are at stake. We do not need to talk about BSE, the reduction in export refunds and all the other issues we have continually highlighted here, although unfortunately to no avail, in terms of farmers' livelihoods and earnings. The Department is not capable of solving a problem which arises as a result of people not being able to sell in the marts in their own country, let alone being able to sell in foreign markets because of issues which have arisen in the UK.

The Minister must confirm in the House he has resolved the issue because it cannot go on any longer. Farmers are telephoning and writing to me, the Minister and every other Deputy asking if there is any way the collective genius of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry can overcome this problem so that people, like the person to whom I referred, will not lose all entitlements as a result of a failure in the Minister's Department to deal with the workings of the country's most important industry.

As I said earlier, the farmers' charter is a sick joke. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry spent £600,000 of taxpayers' money on special payments to staff in his Department before Christmas — advance payments before the work was done. This advance payment was for overtime, the purpose of which was to clear backlogs of work which arose because he insisted on the offices being open all day and not allowing staff to deal with the backlog which was accumulating as a result. The farmers' charter has proved to be an unplanned and uncosted fiasco. It is the most expensive photo opportunity in the history of Irish agriculture. This estimate does not take account of the approximate £250,000 spent on the launch. Farmers are paying in spades for the continuing one day, PR driven agenda of this Minister. He is not even willing, it seems, to deal with the most desperate cases from this latest fiasco in the running of his Department. There are livelihoods at stake. People expect results and are fed up listening to excuses.

I support the case made by my colleague in relation to this matter. Farmers are desperate. They have suffered a number of body blows in the last few months, but now administrative difficulties in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry are preventing them from selling cattle in their local market to provide themselves with an income. This is a penalty imposed on farmers. As Deputy Cowen said, when there was a problem in the Department of Education in relation to examinations, the Minister rightly got down to work and sorted it out. Farmers are virtually demented at this stage and have contacted Members on all sides of the House. They are angry about the situation and cannot get anyone to listen to them.

If the immediate cash flow situation was not bad enough, agricultural shows and various other events are taking place in the coming weeks. The organisers of these events have asked us to raise this matter in the Dáil to bring the seriousness of the situation to the attention of the Minister to see if something can be done about it. At present, people cannot get blood tests done on cattle they wish to sell. With difficulty, I contacted the office in the South Mall in Cork two days ago. I was told that since 2 April there is no way such tests can be done. It appears that no great pressure is being applied. The Minister must resolve this matter.

My office and I have been acutely aware for three or four weeks of the deterioration in services from my Department by virtue of the industrial action taken by the CPSU. While the decision was taken to exempt the intervention intake from the dispute, the restriction on services to farmers and the agribusiness and food sectors is unacceptable.

The Deputies referred to the worldwide crisis in the beef sector. While intervention has been made available, it is impossible for farmers who cannot sell animals because permits and cards are not being returned to herd owners from district veterinary officers.

The interpretation that the CPSU has put on new work combined with the effective work to rule has essentially meant that 400 of its members working in district veterinary offices are doing no work. I have high regard for the CPSU. Its members are key members of the staff of my Department. They deal directly with the public under a multiplicity of schemes operated by my Department. I acknowledge that staff in these grades are diligent people delivering an excellent service in normal circumstances to the public. Industrial relations in my Department have been very good and I hope this situation will continue and that the present action will not damage these relations in the future.

Deputy Cowen referred to the severe criticism which he and others made of me with regard to advance payments I made, in excess of £835,000, in connection with overtime in the latter half of last year. This is indicative of how I have bent over backwards to facilitate the CPSU.

I regret the action being taken by the CPSU, which is having an extremely severe impact on the farming community. It means that, under the disease eradication schemes, tests have virtually ceased in all counties since farmers are reluctant to pay for tests when in many cases they cannot get identity cards or test results. In addition, many farmers are unable to sell cattle as cards are not in date.

There are even more serious problems. The results of drug tests done under the brucellosis scheme, which is not a new scheme, are not being made available. This means that diseased animals are perhaps mixing with other animals in a herd for which no diagnosis can be obtained. Brucellosis is a very contagious disease. In addition, reactors cannot be slaughtered because permits are not being made available. These are fundamental issues of animal health and I am deeply concerned that, at a time when food safety is at a premium, the national effort should be undermined by such industrial action.

This is not to say that there are not other problems. The House should be aware that utter havoc is about to descend on my Department in respect of the entire premium payments for 1996. There are tens of thousands of maps in respect of the land parcel identification scheme which are in unopened envelopes in Hume House. It will not be possible, therefore, to administer the premium schemes with regard to forage area aid etc. This will become a monumental crisis for my Department if the strike extends well into this month. It will cause huge direct hardship for farm families.

This situation is unacceptable against a background of ongoing talks between the union and the Department of Finance at the Labour Relations Commission. When the Department of Finance agreed to these talks there was a clear understanding that problems arising would be addressed. It has been a long standing and laudable practice in the trade union movement to suspend any action which might cause hardship while talks are in progress. Even today, there were lengthy talks under the auspices of the facilitator. It is unfortunate that the CPSU has not seen fit to do likewise on this occasion.

I realise that industrial action by its nature causes disruption. However, the interpretation by CPSU of the type of industrial action to apply to the disease eradication programme is unnecessarily rigid. A more realistic interpretation would allow clerical staff to undertake the aspects of the new scheme which applied prior to 1 April. This would allow trade to continue unhindered. The same principle should apply to the other areas I have mentioned.

As the House is aware, talks are continuing at the Labour Relations Commission to resolve the dispute. The Government has already signalled its preparedness to end the embargo which was the initial cause of the dispute. In this context I am surprised that the union has persisted in its action in all Departments. In particular, I am amazed it has refused to address the immediate problems arising for the agricultural sector. It demonstrated co-operation in that it said it would not obstruct the intervention system, but this makes no sense when it is obstructing cattle movement which will prevent many farmers from delivering their cattle to factories and marts.

The talks between the union and the Department of Finance are continuing at the Labour Relations Commission and it has been clearly signalled by the Department of Finance negotiators at these talks that the union's separate claims on behalf of its members in my Department will be addressed in the context of the central talks.

In these circumstances, I see no genuine reason for the continuation of the industrial action in my Department. I am therefore calling on the CPSU to call off its industrial action now, or at the very least to cease the specific actions that are preventing animals testing or movements of animals and actions in area aid schemes which will in due course lead to problems with premia payments for farmers.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 2 May 1996.