Adjournment Debate. - Dublin Car Assembly Plant.

Thursday, 11 February 1971

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 251 No. 8

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Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  I raise the subject matter of Question No. 39 of 4th February on the Adjournment because, in my opinion, I did not receive a satisfactory reply from the Minister. In that question I asked him:

If he will make a statement on the proposed closure of the Booth Poole car assembly plant which will result in the loss of jobs for over 140 workers especially in view of guarantees given in respect of the car assembly industry under the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement.

The Minister replied:

I understand that the decision to cease assembly was taken on the grounds that the relatively small [1295] volume of assembly was proving uneconomic. I understand further that the company's assembly activities will be undertaken by other assembly plants in the group of companies of which Booth Poole & Co., Limited, is one and that the decision to transfer assembly was taken in the interest of achieving increased efficiency and thereby preserving employment within the group as a whole, at the maximum level consistent with economic production.

The Minister for Industry and Commerce said in a statement on 23rd April, 1968, that he got an assurance under the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement for maintenance of assembly at the general level achieved immediately prior to the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement when assembly operations were at a very high level. He said there was also an expression of intent to expand such assembly operations in so far as this might be consistent with the economics of the operation and the development of the market.

Despite all these assurances and the guarantees given in relation to the car assembly industry, we have had fully assembled cars being imported. These fully assembled cars were previously being assembled by Booth Poole and they are being imported in ever-increasing numbers. Without any advance notice the employees were told they would become redundant. The Minister's office was not made aware of this fact until the afternoon of the announcement, and the Minister has said this. On the Monday afternoon, 1st February, representatives of this company went to the Minister's office and told him they would make the announcement an hour or two later.

That is scandalous treatment of the workers in the car assembly industry, these people who have laboured for years in this business, who find themselves now on the slag heap and who find they will not be re-employable. The Minister for Industry and Commerce must have been aware that this was a very shaky industry. He got the assurance that the same number of people would be employed in the car [1296] assembly industry. Despite these assurances he could not give an assurance that these 140-odd people would be re-employed in the assembly which is now being taken over by Brittains, the motor car assemblers.

I maintain that if the same level of employment was to be guaranteed we must have an assurance given to these workers that they will be employed by the new company that has taken over Booth Poole. I could not get such an assurance from the Minister. Indeed, his apathy was perhaps more annoying than anything else, the fact that he took it so casually that he should be informed only a few hours before the decision to make public their announcement of closure. It is showing contempt for a Minister for Industry and Commerce that they should tell him at such a late stage. In a supplementary question on 4th February I asked:

In view of the fact that a guarantee was given that the staff would be retained, does the Minister not think that this was broken by that decision?

He did not answer the first part of the question, but he was very anxious to answer the second part about take-overs and rationalisation. We can have rationalisation, take-overs, mergers, call them what you like, but the real issue here is men, human beings, who are now in their forties and who will not be re-employed as car assemblers here. A car assembler cannot very easily get a job elsewhere.

There is a very high rate of unemployment, 70,000-odd people. It is difficult enough to get a job and I certainly know this from trying very hard for young people, but anyone who looks at the appointments page in his newspaper will see that 35 is the upper age limit for employment.

This is a disgraceful way for Booth Poole to treat workers. I do not think the company have the right to do this. I would ask the Minister to investigate this and demand that these workers be taken on in this new assembly that is going on in Brittain's factory. I made inquiries from the workers in this assembly plant. I am not denying [1297] that a small assembly plant is uneconomic, but what I am saying is that the Minister and his Department should have been making these investigations earlier. The onus was on this company to say to the Minister “In twelve months time we plan to cease production and we will now see what we can do to have these people integrated into the assembly plant at Brittain's”. This is the least the Minister could have expected from this company, the head of which was a former Member of this House.

The head of the company, who, as I say, was a former Member of this House, has condemned the Government because he says the Government's repressive measures on the expansion of the company have been the cause of its closure. If such be the case I should like to know what can be done even at this late stage to rectify the situation. I should ask the Minister has he had any discussions with him since I put down the question to know what percentage of the workers will be re-employed immediately. I should like to know, also, has he had discussions with the company that has taken it over, Messrs. Brittain. Has he had assurances that these 140-odd people will be re-employed? If we are to have an assurance that the same number will be kept employed in the car assembly industry, I should like to know the number employed in the car assembly industry at this time as compared with 1965 prior to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement.

This afternoon I read what the former Taoiseach said about the signing of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement. I found it a very valuable exercise to read what he had to say. He said everything would be great, there would be no danger to anyone, we would be ensured of increasing employment and increasing prosperity. If this is a sign of what is going to happen even before our entry into the EEC I cannot see anything but a complete collapse of the car assembly industry with consequent unemployment.

No company have a right to make decisions without referring to the workers. Workers have a right to be [1298] consulted on matters affecting their own future because they are part of the industry. It is not good enough to say they will be paid redundancy payments. Redundancy benefits mean very little when one is faced with having to live on unemployment assistance for the rest of one's life or face separation from one's family and seek employment in Britain.

I should like to know the number of fully assembled cars which were imported by this company during the last two years. We must know this in order to find out whether they were really making an effort to keep this car assembly plant going or whether they had decided to run down this car assembly plant in order to prove that it was uneconomic. No company have the right to say it is uneconomic if they have been availing of the concessions which would not normally have come into effect until 1975.

One of the Minister's predecessors said that the manufacturers and assemblers of British vehicles had given him satisfactory assurances of their intention to support the continued assembly of their motor vehicles in Ireland on a long-term basis. In return the Government agreed to extend immediately to these manufacturers the duty reductions on fully built-up vehicles which would not otherwise fully mature until 1975. If these concessions had not been granted would this car assembly plant still be in operation? From what I have heard from the workers about the number of fully assembled cars that were being imported, I believe had this concession not been granted this car assembly plant would still be functioning and there would be no signs whatsoever of its closing.

Will the Minister, first of all, arrange a meeting immediately with the owners of Booth Poole and, secondly, seek a meeting with the Brittain car assembly plant and obtain guarantees from them that these workers will be re-employed in the major car assembly plant which has taken over from Booth Poole? This is the least I can ask the Minister to do in order to give these people and their families some feeling of security about their future. If the Minister does this he will be fulfilling the [1299] terms and using the guarantees that were promised. I would ask him very sincerely to do this without delay.

Minister for Industry and Commerce (Mr. Lalor): Information on Patrick J. Lalor  Zoom on Patrick J. Lalor  I can appreciate the Deputy's concern about this matter. I do, however, have serious objections to the Deputy's saying that I took the whole situation casually. It is rather unfair to suggest that because I, as Minister for Industry and Commerce, do not find myself in a position to turn around to an employer, when I am informed that he has to close down for one reason or another, and say to him “I will not allow you to close down. You must continue to remain in business despite whatever you say are the justifications for closing down”.

The Deputy asked me if I had any idea of the numbers employed in the car assembly industry now as compared with the numbers employed in 1965. While it is difficult to obtain accurate figures of the numbers engaged in the industry on assembly operations as such, on the basis of information available from the Central Statistics Office I am able to inform the Deputy that, comparing like with like, 300 more people were employed in motor assembly plants in 1970 than were employed in 1965. That is to say, 3,765 people were employed on assembly in 1970 as compared with 3,449 people in 1965. These figures are an indication of the success of the arrangements made in relation to protecting employment in the car assembly industry. It was because my predecessor felt there was a degree of worry about the future of the car assembly industry some years ago, that he had this arrangement with the assemblers drawn up.

The number of cars assembled in 1970 as compared with the number assembled in 1965 show a comparative increase. The total number of vehicles assembled by the Irish car assembly industry in 1970 was 52,976, which is almost 53,000, as compared with 49,709 in 1965. These figures indicate that the operation of this arrangement has worked successfully and that the assemblers have, overall, honoured the [1300] obligations entered into by them. This is one of the reasons why in the interests of the people working in the industry the Government are at the present time endeavouring, in relation to our negotiations for entry into the EEC, to retain the existing scheme for its full life span. The particular cessation that has taken place is relatively small when compared with the volume of the car assembly industry. I understand that a union official on television conceded that the Booth Poole affair, as such, was an isolated one.

Early in the afternoon on the day the announcement was made, when my Department became aware of this impending rearrangement or closure or tie-in with Brittain, I was asked positively by Deputy Corish would I not think, to say the least of it, that it was an unsatisfactory way to treat the Minister for Industry and Commerce, and the records of the House show that Deputy Corish did not even let me away with a nod—that I positively said I agreed with that observation. I have no reason to change my mind on that. I do not think it was a fair way to have dealt with the closure announcement, both from the point of view of the Minister for Industry and Commerce and of the workers. Indeed, the workers were made aware of the closure before me.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  The Minister did not hear about it until 5 o'clock.

Mr. Lalor: Information on Patrick J. Lalor  Zoom on Patrick J. Lalor  I had to attend a function in Cork that night and I did not hear of it until I got there. A question was asked about efforts to find alternative employment for the 140 workers. In relation to the development of the Brittain group, they are hoping to employ as many as possible of the people who have become unemployed. This is being done to the maximum extent and it is hoped to re-employ gradually as many as possible. The number will depend on how soon the group's Long Mile development will develop. A certain number of the workers have been offered employment by British Leyland and every effort is being made by my Department to get as many as possible absorbed. It may have been [1301] said that the Minister treated this matter casually——

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  We should not say that. We should say, though, that the Minister should speak out against it. This is very important.

Mr. Lalor: Information on Patrick J. Lalor  Zoom on Patrick J. Lalor  I do not think I was slow in any way. Attention was drawn in the Press to the fact that I had attended a function organised by the motor car assemblers the previous week. Somebody stated that Government taxation was responsible for this thing and it was thought that, having met the president of that organisation, I might have had something whispered in my ear. I wish to say categorically that there was no reference to this. Indeed, I was most disappointed when I arrived in Cork to find this information awaiting me.

Dr. O'Connell: Information on John F. O'Connell  Zoom on John F. O'Connell  Would the Minister not make it known that he would be glad if manufacturers who are having [1302] trouble would tell him well in advance?

Mr. Lalor: Information on Patrick J. Lalor  Zoom on Patrick J. Lalor  On the other hand, it must be remembered there is a balance. Let us be quite frank about this. The Minister for Industry and Commerce does not want to begin to invite manufacturers in and to have them say: “Listen, we may have a bit of trouble. Would you have a chat with the Minister for Finance?” There are two sides to this question. Naturally, I was disappointed over this matter but it should positively be understood—I said this at the function to which I referred—the future of the industry is pretty assured. I said that the Government are dedicated to trying to ensure through EEC negotiations that this position will continue. I wish to reiterate my views in that regard.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 16th February, 1971.

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