Adjournment Debate. - ISPCC Dispute.

Thursday, 15 October 1987

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 374 No. 2

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An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  A number of Deputies have given me notice of their intention to raise on the Adjournment the subject matter of the strike at the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Among those Deputies are Deputies McCartan, M. Higgins, Colley and Flaherty. The Deputies will have available to them 20 minutes to make their case. They ought by now to have decided how best to allocate that time between themselves. The Minister will have ten minutes to reply.

Mr. McCartan: Information on Patrick McCartan  Zoom on Patrick McCartan  I thank you for the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment this evening the issue of the protracted strike of the workers in the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. By agreement, we shall share the time equally between all the parties because this is an issue which affects us all, right [512] across the party divide. We are hopeful that by our intervention we can achieve a formula this evening that will lead to the early resolution of this dispute.

This strike, as we know, is now in its fifth month and the failure of the Government to exert any pressure on the ISPCC management to agree to a solution of the dispute has been most disappointing. The result of the strike has been that thousands of families around the country have been deprived of the vital system of community support which the ISPCC staff provide. In addition, the staff, many of whom are married with families and mortgages to support, have had to endure particular hardship. Anybody who has observed closely this strike will acknowledge that the attitude of the ISPCC management since the dispute began has been consistently intransigent and unreasonable. Their refusal to accept the Labour Court findings following the hearing in July last which recommended the reinstatement of the bookeeper whose redundancy sparked off the dispute is a disgrace. The Labour Court findings on the other hand, recognise that the position adopted by the staff was one of flexibility and reasonableness and the court acknowledge the sacrifices the staff have made because of the society's difficult financial position.

The management structure in the ISPCC is different from that normally involved in an industrial dispute. The executive of the society is made up generally of voluntary members and while they have overall responsibility for the direction of the society, the day to day decisions are made by a small professional management team and particularly a chief executive, Mr. O'Tierney. I know that there are many decent people on the executive and I find it hard to believe that they could have supported the arrogant and unreasonable attitude of the professional management in this dispute. It is well known that the ISPCC have had particular financial difficulties in recent years but there must be no question of the society's management being allowed to try to sort out their financial difficulties by a lengthy strike [513] during which they have no outgoings on staff salaries while their fund raising activities, many of which involve students paid on a commission basis, continue as normal.

Almost half of the ISPCC funding comes from the State. Indeed, it is significant that at a time when almost every voluntary sector has been cut back and agencies like the National Social Services Board are to be abolished, the allocation for the ISPCC in this year's Book of Estimates has been maintained at £90,000, the same as last year. There is an obligation on the Government to ensure that those to whom this money is entrusted administer the society in a fair and reasonable manner and this must include the area of industrial relations.

The work done by the ISPCC has changed over the years in keeping with the changed needs of Irish society. It seems, however, that the society's management have a concept of industrial relations which is still firmly locked in the Victorian era. Our main concern in this dispute must be the plight of the families who have been depending on the ISPCC for services which, indeed, otherwise the State would have had to provide in the areas of family support and pre-school education. One of the most notable aspects of this dispute is the absolute solidarity that has existed between those who normally depend on the ISPCC services and the staff who are on strike. Time after time delegations of families have come to the ISPCC offices and demonstrated their support. The people of Darndale in my constituency who have been lucky enough to have had the services of an ISPCC family centre know that the real value of the society lies in the people they have working for them.

The workers in the ISPCC are an honourable and dedicated group of people. They would never have gone on strike had they felt that there was any alternative, but the attitude of the management has left them with no alternative. This strike has gone on long enough. The Ministers for Labour and Health must make it clear to the ISPCC management that they are not prepared [514] to tolerate this Dickensian attitude to staff relations. The Ministers should call on the management and try to knock some sense into them. It must also be made clear to the society that the taxpayer cannot be expected to fund the society for services they are not providing.

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  I join with Deputy McCartan in expressing public interest and concern at the fact that as our Dáil opened a dispute which started several months ago is still under way and that we could see members who had worked in the caring profession within the ISPCC standing in the rain outside the offices. I was one of the Deputies who with others intervened with the Minister for Labour and tried to break the impasse that has arisen in relation to this dispute. Listening to Deputy McCartan presenting the case in its stark outline, my patience is beginning to wane equally.

The ISPCC internally have financial difficulties. They set about resolving these and the history of this dispute is a very simple one. The ISPCC were negotiating with the staff and their union about appropriate measures. The union agreed to leave aside such progress as had been made while a task force reported. When the task force reported to the union and negotiated in good faith on redundancies and pay, once again the management, in this case a single individual, decided that he could rub the nose of the union and the staff into the dirt, simply saying that he was changing the goal posts again. Then a bookeeper was dismissed who happened to be a shop steward of the union. Deputy McCartan referred to solidarity. The staff of the ISPCC have incurred my admiration for the manner in which they have stood by their fellow employees.

The union at that stage referred the matters under dispute to the Labour Court. In 1987 we were dealing with the situation where a chief executive of the society involved has treated with arrogance not only the employees and the people who are availing of the services of the society but also the Labour Court. [515] He said that he would not be bound by a third party recommendation, even if that third party recommendation has the status of the Labour Court. This cannot continue.

Many suggestions were made as to how this dispute might be resolved. I know of no group of workers who have made more concessions in relation to conditions of employment and pay than the group of workers involved and it is an absolute scandal that the services they provide have been curtailed. The parents in my constituency have said that they want this matter resolved. I have spoken on this matter previously in the Dáil and I said on that occasion that if a charter existed within the voluntary sector as to the basic conditions for workers and for the operation of societies — the Minister of State will know that the National Social Services Board made recommendations to the Department of Health in that regard many years ago — it would have provided a framework in which this dispute could not have arisen.

It is important for us as elected representatives to say that this madness must stop now and that this intransigence must stop now. We represent the taxpayers who provide the moneys which are represented in the Estimate for the Department of Health. Unless this matter is resolved soon I will be among those who will suggest that a co-operative provision of these services to the public be provided with the assistance of the Department of Health, that is, that the workers involved in this dispute be assisted by the Department of Health in forming a new co-operative entity to provide these services to both parents and children, services of which they have been deprived because of the intransigence of a single individual. It gives me no pleasure to speak like this. We have exhausted every other option and I am delighted to see that the view has been expressed on all sides of the House that the normal procedures of the 20th century be applied to the resolution of this dispute.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Deputy Colley. [516] I should say that there are a number of other lady Deputies anxious to participate in this debate and I hope that they, too, will be facilitated.

Miss Colley: Information on Anne Marie Colley  Zoom on Anne Marie Colley  I will be brief. There is not a lot I can add to what the previous Deputies have said. The length of this dispute amazes me. My office is right beside the office of the ISPCC and I have become all too aware of the length of this dispute and the apparent intransigence which has emerged over the months. The ISPCC have for so long had the image of being a caring society but they are now in danger of losing that image. The administrators of the society are endangering that image by allowing this dispute to continue. Many families are affected by this dispute and have been deprived of programmes which are absolutely essential to their well-being. Playschools and their services have also been affected.

I find it very difficult to understand why this impasse has continued for so long. There were times over the past five months when a resolution of this strike seemed near. I was a member of the all-party committee which went to the Department of Health to meet the Minister. After a Labour Court recommendation had been rejected by management the Minister sent in a conciliation officer. The Department of Health and the Department of Labour should immediately get together and meet with the national executive of the ISPCC. As this impasse has gone on for so long a new impetus is needed. I propose that the Minister of State take this problem on board, given that the Department of Health fund the ISPCC to the extent of £90,000 and that the health boards contributed £250,000 in the recent year, and inject a new element into this dispute. He should demand that some compromise is reached.

A meeting which was to have taken place about five weeks ago between the union and management did not take place because of a dispute over who should be chairman and so on. It is a disgrace that that meeting has not taken place and I [517] put the blame for that fairly and squarely on the management. I appeal to the Minister of State to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Health and the Minister for Labour and for them to take immediate steps to resolve this dispute.

Miss Flaherty: Information on Mary Flaherty  Zoom on Mary Flaherty  During the last session both Deputy Higgins and I raised this matter by way of an Adjournment Debate. The Minister at that time indicated that there was going to be a Labour Court hearing on the following Monday but unfortunately that hearing did not resolve the dispute. As the other Deputies have said, other initiatives were undertaken but they did not resolve the dispute either. Now five to six months later a dedicated group of workers are still picketing the headquarters of the ISPCC and many deprived families are going without the services which they need so badly. This cannot be allowed to continue, especially when we consider the level of subvention which is provided by the State to the ISPCC for the provision of these services. There is an appalling contradiction here. Because of the public and traditional image of the ISPCC we have been more moderate than we should have been and we do not wish to do damage to a body who are tied up in providing services in the caring area. We do not want to cause irreparable damage but the level of frustration which is being felt by those directly involved is clearly emerging here today through the proposals which have been made.

A new initiative is needed and the Minister of State is in a strong position because of the involvement of his Department with the ISPCC to undertake such an initiative. He has a responsibility to do so not only on behalf of the taxpayer but also on behalf of the most vulnerable sections in our society who have been deprived of the services which they need. This is the time of the year when the ISPCC engage in pre-school work. Deputy Colley put her finger on what must be the best solution to the problem which is to bring the two parties involved to the table, broadening it beyond the [518] two parties involved to date. This may help to bring some movement to this dispute. We must make it clear here tonight that we do not want to come back here again in three months' time still looking for a resolution to this problem.

Mrs. Barnes: Information on Monica Barnes  Zoom on Monica Barnes  Like the other Members who have contributed, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this debate. I am also aware of the restriction of time. As my colleagues have said, it is not often that we in this House are called upon to form an all-party committee on a matter on which there is general agreement. Members in this House realise the tremendous work which has been done by the staff of the ISPCC down through the years. What is more serious is the lack of those services where they are most needed. My colleagues have already spoken about the work which has been undertaken and it is a matter of great concern to all of us to see staff who have such an honourable tradition in this area out in all seasons on the street when all they want to do is to carry out the work they are committed to undertaking. We appeal to the Minister of State, to the Minister for Labour and the Minister for Health not to allow this strike continue any longer. As public representatives we take this opportunity to remind the management of the ISPCC that there is public money, taxpayers' money involved. There is a tremendous historical, traditional support for the society and for the other agencies who deal with children. Our fear would be that a body blow may be delivered to that tradition and commitment from which it may not recover. The seriousness of those consequences cannot be underrated. I look forward to hearing a positive response from the Minister of State.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Mr. Leyden): Information on Terry Leyden  Zoom on Terry Leyden  I thank those Deputies who contributed to this debate, namely Deputies McCartan, M. Higgins, Colley, O'Flaherty and Barnes, for their interest and concern in having raised this matter in the House this evening. I also wish to express my thanks to the all-party [519] committee who met the Minister for Labour some time ago to discuss this very serious matter.

As Deputies will be aware, a full Labour Court hearing on this strike was held in July last. The subsequent Labour Court recommendation was rejected by the management of the ISPCC. The Minister for Labour has had a report on the situation from officials of his Department, having talked to both sides. Unfortunately, the strike remains deadlocked. Naturally, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Labour and I are most concerned that the families and children in receipt of the services of the ISPCC should continue to be deprived of those services for such a long period. In the circumstances I have requested officers of my Department to explore every avenue possible with a view to having the strike [520] settled at the earliest possible opportunity. This process is now in train. In the circumstances it would be inappropriate for me to refer to any issues relating to the strike at this time. In so saying I mean no discourtesy to Deputies or to the House but I am loath to make any public comment on any specific issue relating to the activities of the ISPCC lest it be misunderstood and possibly exacerbate what is a most delicate situation.

However, I have taken careful note of what Deputies have said and will have these issues examined in detail by my Department. I wish to express my deep concern about this matter. I appeal to all sides to have the matter resolved without further delay. I hope progress will be made when my officials meet the appropriate sides very shortly.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 October 1987.

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