Wednesday, 7 November 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
3. Mr. B. Hayes asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will make a statement in relation to the ongoing dispute at the Letterkenny office of his Department; and the effects of this dispute on persons claiming under the social welfare code. [27070/01]
Mr. D. Ahern: The dispute in the Department's office in Letterkenny arose initially out of the filling of three additional temporary posts in the office by the recruitment of staff on short-term contracts. The staff are required for a limited period for work associated with the introduction of a new system for the delivery of child benefit from that office. In addition to child benefit, the office also administers treatment benefit which comprises dental and optical benefits and medical appliances.
The industrial action which involves 157 clerical staff commenced on 2 October 2001 with a ban on dealing with telephone and fax inquiries and a withdrawal of availability for overtime working. The action was extended on 30 October 2001 to include a ban on a range of other tasks and withdrawal of co-operation with the new service delivery project. While the industrial action is preventing people from making telephone and fax inquiries in relation to entitlements, I would emphasise that claims continue to be processed and payments continue to be made to all recipients.
I regret the inconvenience to the public arising as a result of the industrial action. Every effort is being made to resolve the dispute within the context of existing industrial relations agreements. These agreements already provide for the recruitment of temporary staff in certain circumstances and also provide an agreed mechanism for resolving disputes that may arise in relation to temporary recruitment. This mechanism involves the dis cussion of the matter at a special monitoring group and can involve a facilitator at the request of either side.
Mr. B. Hayes: —child benefit and find themselves in a back log. Will the Minister accept that it is his responsibility to sort out this dispute in his own Department? We are talking about relatively small sums of money being given to those on social welfare or under the social welfare code. There is a backlog in the Department. Will the Minister confirm that since this industrial dispute started, there has not been one meeting between the unions and senior management in his office, despite the fact that the unions have on many occasions sought a meeting? What is the Minister going to do about it? Has he considered involving the Labour Relations Commission in this dispute? If he is depending on the current situation to resolve the dispute, the service given to the public will be less than satisfactory.
Mr. D. Ahern: I disagree with the Deputy when he says that these are relatively small amounts of money. I remind the Deputy that when this Government came into office child benefit was in the region of £390 million. Today it is somewhere in the region of £900 million. It is quite a substantial amount of money.
Mr. D. Ahern: As the Deputy may or may not know, there are agreed procedures between unions and the public service in relation to the settlement of disputes. I am keeping a very close eye on the issue. I apologise to the general public but it is an issue that has arisen between the representatives of the staff and the departmental officials and has implications for the wider Department and the wider public sector. I do not wish to pre-empt any discussions in this regard. We are doing everything possible in order to settle the dispute and minimise inconvenience to the general public.
Mr. B. Hayes: Will the Minister give the House an assurance that he will instruct his senior officials to sit down with the unions in Letterkenny to work out and broker a deal? Will he admit to the House that this is the only regional social welfare office where there is no partnership committee in place? Could he explain why that is  the case? Will he shed some light on the service delivery module which I understand is the bone of contention behind this dispute? Is it the case that there was no consultation with the unions involved before this service delivery module was foisted on the staff? If that is the case, is this not an appalling indication of the incompetence of this Minister in his own Department in dealing with this matter?
Mr. D. Ahern: I do not accept the Deputy's assertions in this regard. I do not want to pre-empt discussions, but as far as I am aware and informed, the service delivery model project has been the subject of full discussion with the staff.
Mr. D. Ahern: As far as I am aware under the strategic management initiative all issues related to partnership in conjunction with staff is well embedded in the service. I am not exactly sure of the position regarding the partnership committee in Letterkenny. I can let the Deputy know the position in that respect.
Mr. B. Hayes: Is that not the root of the problem? The Minister is not aware of the facts in Letterkenny. He did not know that there was not a partnership committee there. He was not aware that there was no consultation between the unions and management.
Mr. B. Hayes: Now we are getting to Question Time and the lack of answers is absolutely clear. Will the Minister instruct his officials to sit down with representatives of the unions, whom they have not met in the past six weeks since this dispute started? That is a straight question to which I want a straight answer.
Mr. D. Ahern: I have had discussions with my officials on this and as far as I am concerned they have had full discussions with the unions on this and the union knows full well the position of the Department.
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