Private Notice Questions. - Industrial Disputes.

In accordance with an Order of the Dáil of today, I now come to deal with Private Notice questions to the Minister for Public Enterprise on the threatened strike in Dublin Bus. I will call on the Deputies who tabled questions to the Minister for Public Enterprise in the order in which they submitted their questions to the Ceann Comhairle's office.

asked the Minister for Public Enterprise the reasons, if any, the LRC talks failed to resolve the Dublin Bus dispute and the Government's position in relation to further third party mediation on the matter; the future level of State subvention to Dublin Bus; the contingency arrangements, if any, to alleviate hardship during the strike and the introduction of bus competition.

asked the Minister for Public Enterprise the steps, if any, being taken to avert the strike by Dublin Bus employees on Friday and Saturday of this week, especially in view of the potential hardship to commuters and the disruption to business and social life; in view of the threat of escalated action leading to an all-out strike, the steps, if any, being taken to address the underlying causes of the dispute; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

asked the Minister for Public Enterprise to clarify the conflicting accounts of the reasons behind the proposed bus strike and of her plans to introduce a privatised and-or competition bus system and to assure the House that consultations will take place with the management and unions in Dublin Bus to avoid the pending industrial action beginning on Friday and Saturday of this week.

(Dublin West) asked the Minister for Public Enterprise if she will make a statement on why Dublin Bus drivers are being forced to take strike action tomorrow in pursuit of a decent basic wage.

asked the Minister for Public Enterprise if she will make a statement on the imminent strike in Bus Átha Cliath; if she will require the management of Bus Átha Cliath to immediately concede to the reasonable and deserved 20% pay increase sought by bus drivers; if she will increase the State subvention to Bus Átha Cliath to a level matching other European cities; and if she will ensure the provision of a comprehensive public transport system to end the gridlock on the streets of our capital city.

This is a very serious matter. I thank the Ceann Comhairle and his office for their assistance and all the Deputies who tabled questions. I will give some of the background to this matter and then home in on some of the points made by the Deputies.

The dispute relates to a claim by the NBRU for a 20% increase in the basic pay of the Dublin Bus drivers. On 11 October last the Labour Court found this claim to be in breach of Partnership 2000, but recommended that an independent third party carry out an investigation of a range of issues on which there was wide disparity between the parties on the factual position.

The third party concluded that the current pay claim would place the future viability of Bus Átha Cliath in jeopardy, if conceded in isolation. However, it also indicated that some inflexibilities still exist in work practices within the company and that there are significant opportunities for cost savings, which could form the basis of a productivity deal to address the basic pay issue in a meaningful way.

Having considered the third party report, the NBRU instituted strike action with a one day strike on 15 February. Intensified strike action was suspended when agreement on a framework for negotiations was reached on 22 February. Since then there have been a number of negotiating sessions under the auspices of a chairman nominated by the Labour Relations Commission.

At these negotiations, Dublin Bus tabled proposals which would achieve cost savings in excess of £9 million, sufficient to fund the pay claim lodged. The NBRU responded that it was not prepared to negotiate new productivity measures such as those proposed by Dublin Bus. Instead it tabled alternative proposals based on existing productivity and restructuring agreements which the company estimated would generate savings of about £2 million.

The NBRU subsequently served renewed strike notice, beginning with a two day strike on Friday and Saturday, followed by a three day strike on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 28, 29 and 30 March, a four day strike the following week and an all-out strike from 10 April.

The Government considered the dispute at its meeting on Tuesday. A Government statement was issued this morning indicating that it is seriously concerned about the planned strike and regrets the impact this will have on public transport users and the Dublin economy. In its statement the Government called for the suspension of the proposed strike action and for an immediate resumption of negotiations. The Government believes agreement is possible but emphasised that it will have to be based on genuine productivity and restructuring measures. The parties also need to take into account the pay and taxation terms of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness which will increase living standards for workers by about 25% over the next three years.

I very much regret the disruption which this dispute will cause for the customers of Dublin Bus and the impact it will have on the business life of the capital. I re-echo the Government's call for the suspension of the strike and the immediate resumption of negotiations. Dublin Bus has made it clear that it is prepared to negotiate an increase in basic pay, provided it can be financed by productivity and restructuring measures. The Government fully supports that position.

I strongly urge the NBRU to immediately resume the negotiations on the productivity and restructuring package, which will address its pay claim on a non-cost increasing basis. In that event, the good offices of the Labour Relations Commission will be available to assist the parties to reach an early agreement.

If the dispute goes ahead, the Garda Siochána and the Director of Traffic will take appropriate traffic management measures, including the temporary opening of bus lanes to general traffic and an intensification of traffic control and enforcement measures. I encourage commuters to walk, cycle or car share so that all opportunities can be availed of. This matter is very serious.

Deputy Yates asked me the basis on which the Labour Relations Commission ended its talks. It suspended them because the NBRU said it saw no further grounds for continuing talks, but the LRC remains available as it always is for any dispute. Dublin Bus management has also said it remains available today, tonight, tomorrow and over the weekend to continue to talk about this matter.

It is not my intention to make a political football out of this matter.

Nor is it mine.

This is a serious matter. I join the Minister in appealing to the Dublin branch of the NBRU which is meeting tonight to suspend its action in view of the hardship it will inflict on people who depend on public transport.

In relation to the third party mediation, the comment that the gap was too large to fill at the point at which negotiations concluded was attributed to some person. Is that the Minister's view or does she feel some other form of third party mediation would bridge that gap?

Has the Government considered contingency arrangements to alleviate the hardship that will be suffered by people trying to get to work, students trying to get to school or the elderly trying to get to hospital? I am not talking about the Army, I am talking about using other modes of public transport to facilitate people. Has the Minister information about whether, if this turns into an all-out strike, it will spread to the rail services, to DART, to Bus Éireann? Is there a risk of that or has she been assured that will not be the case?

Under the code of practice relating to disputes procedures, including procedures in essential services there is provision in section 42 of the Industrial Relations Act, 1990 to put in place, through the Minister for Enterprise and Employment a code for essential services. Would the Minister have discussions with the Tánaiste about such a code for future situations, because surely this is an essential service?

Would the Government be open to increasing the subvention to Dublin Bus if a productivity deal could be done? In previous transport debates it was noted that our subvention to Dublin Bus was the lowest. This is a political question. It is a matter solely for the Government. As a gesture of goodwill, in terms of pushing this into the medium term, so that we can have a productivity element and a public transport element as well, will the Minister increase the subvention to Dublin Bus in circumstances where this is resolved?

The Deputy referred to a comment, to the effect that the gap between the sides was too large. I read that statement in the paper but I do not recall to whom it was attributed, the Labour Relations Commission or the NBRU. Clearly if the £9.2 million in savings which Dublin Bus say their proposals would achieve amount to the 20% – and that is just in Dublin Bus – it would immediately be sought by Bus Éireann and by Iarnród Éireann. It is clearly a fact that the gap is too large.

The Deputy mentioned other modes of public transport in emergency cases. During the last one-day strike the Garda and others moved traffic very quickly and the use of the bus lanes was allowed. We will certainly be looking at emergency needs, but I do not know yet in what fashion. Such an issue has to be looked at.

The Deputy suggested introducing a code for essential services. That was being looked at during the term of office of the last Government and by this Government. I do not know how far the Department of Enterprise and Employment has gone with that in working through the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. As far as I can recall, a mechanism is outlined in the programme, but I would need to get clarification on it from the Minister for Enterprise and Employment.

The Deputy also asked whether, if a productivity deal could be done, the Government would consider an increase in subsidy. The difficulty there is that those who are seeking an increase of 20% would automatically link that with the increased subsidy and there would not be in that, any improved services for commuters; there would not be changes of routes and there would not be extra routes which would be needed to provide a better service. We will continue to look at that outside of a strike in the ongoing debate on productivity and restructuring.

Would the Minister agree that several deals were concluded that manifestly breached Partnership 2000? Why should a different rule apply to the low-paid workers in Dublin Bus who are doing a very stressful and difficult job on a basic pay ranging between £227 and £273 per week? Why can a deal not be concluded, if a deal was concluded for other significant groups in the public sector?

In the context of the hardship that is now in prospect for tens of thousands of commuters, does the Minister have any advice to give to them, other than that they may cycle, walk or car share? That does not seem to indicate an understanding of the situation. Does the Minister not understand that we are now embarking on what could be a very intractable dispute and that if it is not resolved over the next 12 hours, and certainly if it is not resolved this side of this weekend, we could be into long-term difficult indus trial relations as far as transport is concerned in Dublin where the situation is already extremely difficult?

I understand very well the serious nature of what is facing us. It might be helpful to let the House know that last week, prior to St. Patrick's Day, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I had a series of meetings. I met separately with the NBRU, SIPTU, the Labour Relations Commission and the four worker directors on the board of CIE. I listened very carefully. We had a very good exchange of views. I understand very clearly. What I regret deeply is the hardship to people. It is all very well for us here because we can get to our workplace. There are many people who will be unable not just to get to their workplace, and that is serious, but to hospitals, social engagements and so on. Part of their daily lives will be denied to them.

We know that, but what is the Minister offering them? Have they to wait for inspiration from the bathtub again?

I cannot offer them anything. If I could, I would. I do not want this strike. What does the Deputy expect me to offer?

It is five weeks since we discussed this before.

Give the Minister an opportunity to reply.

Ten days ago I was berated in this House because the former Chairman of CIE said I had intervened in labour relations and that I should keep my nose out of business. Last week I had a series of meetings with all of the parties. It is very glib to ask what I am offering. I cannot offer the commuters of Dublin anything, but I can ask the workforce of NBRU again to take up the offer of Dublin Bus and the Labour Relations Commission, who remain ready to restart talks.

The Deputy also spoke of manifest breaches of Partnership 2000. They were concluded and agreed on the basis of restructuring and/or productivity. There was manifest productivity in return for manifest breaches. That is what Dublin Bus and the Government are seeking in this proposal. I wish I could offer some comfort to the bus users, but I cannot, as of now.

I have three questions. The first is probably rhetorical. Would the Minister agree that everyone depends on public transport, whether they are using it themselves or are in the black Mercedes that cannot get from one place to another because the traffic is not moving? Ultimately we depend on buses operating. More are badly needed.

I want to ask the Minister about both the short-term and the long-term. The Minister mentioned cost savings and restructuring. Will she give more information about what hard pressed bus drivers are being asked to do to save more money apart from taking low wages? What is meant by restructuring, given the view of Dublin Chamber of Commerce that new legislation for either competition or privatisation is still in the realms of discussion? Will the Minister outline what she meant by restructuring?

Does the Minister accept that the Government faces a crisis in terms of split responsibility in the area of transport between the Department of the Environment and Local Government, which has responsibility for quality bus corridors, cycle lanes and other matters, and her Department, which has responsibility for the public transport companies? Is there a need for a single Department with responsibility for transport and a single transport plan which would be integrated and be ahead of the spatial plan and the national development plan rather than follow them much later?

Everyone depends in an immediate or related way on public transport. The Deputy asked about the proposed cost savings. They were tabled by Dublin Bus and included a variety of issues. I do not have the list with me but I met the management of Dublin Bus last week and it has sought to put forward a variety of issues for some time. The issues are wide ranging, but the NBRU did not entertain them. It said they were too far reaching and wide ranging.

The Deputy mentioned the chamber of commerce, restructuring and privatisation. Last November the Government took a formal decision, as I mentioned previously at Question Time, and asked my Department to engage in consultation on the review of the 1932 Act with the objective of increasing competition. Advertisements were placed in newspapers and we received a range of submissions which are being discussed with those who put them forward. Dublin Bus, the NBRU, SIPTU and many others made submissions. Almost every private operator in the land put in a submission.

The Department is considering those submissions and is consulting people. This process has started and, on 11 April, I will bring forward the results of it to the Cabinet sub-committee on infrastructure, which comprises half the Cabinet and the Attorney General. It appears from questions put to me outside the House that people are talking about privatisation. However, I am not talking about that. There is a need for properly funded public transport and every major metropolitan area in most developed countries has such a system.

Except Ireland.

There is a need for a properly subsidised and run public transport company. There is also a need for an element of competition within the greater Dublin area. This relates to buses, not heavy rail. An element of compe tition will not be introduced in that area because there is a different gauge, etc. Bus Éireann by default has developed huge competition. Every other bus on the road has a person's name written on its side. This arose by default through the club system and the court ruling in that regard. However, a legislative shape needs to be put on the situation.

The Minister did not give an example of cost savings.

I omitted to deal with the Deputy's point about split responsibility between the Department of the Environment and Local Government and my Department. Quality bus corridors do not come under my Department; they are dealt with by the Department of the Environment and Local Government. However, all the questions about the corridors relate to buses. There is a difficulty in this area and it will be among the matters that will be examined.

(Dublin West): Does the Minister accept that the recent one day strike in Dublin Bus brought to light the extremely low basic wage of Dublin Bus drivers and highlighted the extremely difficult conditions under which they work? Does she accept people were shocked at the facts that emerged?

Does the Minister agree that the management of Dublin Bus is now demanding, to enable it to concede a pay rise, draconian measures which add insult to the injury of low pay and difficult working conditions? Will she confirm that Dublin Bus is proposing that the work of 200 buses should be given over to private operators without any proper discussion with the workers of Dublin Bus who will be affected? Will she also confirm that the management wants to increase the spread over shift time to up to 13 hours and, at the same time, to do away with shift allowances?

I ask the Deputy to give way to Deputy Ó Caoláin as we are obliged to deal with other questions at 2.30 p.m.

(Dublin West): Does the Minister accept that the low basic pay of Dublin Bus workers has subsidised public transport in Dublin and that it is immoral to continue that practice? It is incumbent on the Government to increase the subsidy.

Does the Minister accept that the rate of pay for what is a very onerous and dangerous job of driving a bus in the city of Dublin is disgracefully low? Is she aware that the rates of pay in Dublin are well below those of drivers in comparable European cities? I urge the Minister to resolve this dispute. She holds the purse strings and she has the opportunity to do so.

I regret that the time available to deal with the Deputies' questions is brief. For a 38 hour standard week, a driver in the first year earns £271 while a minibus driver earns £275 and an established driver earns £341. The greater number of drivers – a total of 1,604 – earn £341 a week.

It is disgracefully low.

I am giving the facts.

It is disgracefully low.

I was asked for the facts and I am giving them. The bus drivers of Dublin work extremely hard. Anybody who negotiates a double or single deck vehicle through heavy traffic with many people under their care has an onerous job. I have no difficulty saying that and they do it with competence and professionalism.

(Dublin West): They should be paid for it.

The Deputy asked about shift allowances. That is not covered in the information provided to me by Dublin Bus management. It may have formed part of the negotiations between management and the NBRU which stalled. However, I do not have those facts with me.