Dáil Éireann - Volume 336 - 23 June, 1982
Postal and Telecommunications Services Bill, 1982: Second Stage (Resumed).
Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time”.
Mr. Harte Mr. Harte
Mr. Harte: Before the adjournment for lunch I was dealing with the need to improve industrial relations in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. I pointed out to the House the sad history of that Department which is without parallel in the entire State. I referred to the long drawn-out strike that took place and said that unless we proceeded with caution and with the goodwill of those concerned we would not achieve anything. Not alone would we be performing an idle exercise here but the national Parliament would be totally irrelevant. For that reason I told the Minister he would have the goodwill of Fine Gael not alone on Committee Stage but in any private discussions he might want to enter into with us. I recommend to him in the interests of all concerned that it might not be a bad thing to depart from the usual procedure of having a Committee Stage where both sides took up positions from which it would be difficult to move away. In the general interest of the people who have elected us and who expect a service from the Department, for which they are paying dearly, I suggest we should  behave as adults. I am not saying we do not always behave as adults, but I am making a special plea on this occasion.
This Bill may threaten the livelihood of many people and certainly it will interfere with the livelihood of 30,000 people. We cannot dismiss lightly any Act of Parliament that has such far-reaching effects and which, rightly or wrongly, makes people believe that their jobs are threatened. If people believe that the proposals in the Bill will threaten their livelihood, whether that is true or false, those deep-felt fears must be taken into account. I have no doubt that if many of the strikes that have occurred were dealt with at an early stage, if there was some commonsense shown and an appreciation for the other's point of view, many of the strikes could have been avoided.
Before the House adjourned for lunch I was also outlining a situation in Sheriff Street where the workers' normal duties were going to be interfered with because the Department wanted to install machinery which would sort parcels by mechanical means. Because these men were being displaced, they naturally entered into negotiations with the management. Management had their way of doing the job, I am not going to pronounce on whether they were right or wrong. I recognise that the workers felt it could be done in an alternative way which they felt was more efficient. One side blamed the other and I found myself in the centre of that controversy, where the workers were claiming total entrenchment on the part of management and management were claiming irresponsibility by the workers. After meeting both sides for half a dozen times, commonsense prevailed; but not until I realised that the workers had a legitimate proposal which, although different to that of management, was still a reasonable way of doing the job.
I do not know what has happened since the change of Government. Perhaps some people in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs felt that my stand was influenced by the workers. Perhaps it was but, if so, it was because I wanted their goodwill. Their proposals were not going to cost any more and, from an examination  of the figures, they would probably cost a lot less. When management and workers take up positions, personality clashes enter into disputes. When there are clashes of personality, reason ceases to have any meaning. None of the trade unions has welcomed this Bill because they suspect that the livelihood of some of their members is being threatened. I do not know whether that is a legitimate position to adopt, but to them it is real. I will be acting as a watchdog on their behalf and I expect Deputy Wilson would have done the same if our roles had been reversed.
The postal section of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs acts as a contractor to the Department of Social Welfare. What would happen if the Government had less control over semi-State bodies and if a future Minister for Social Welfare, for reasons put forward by his advisers, decided that there was a more efficient way of paying recipients of social welfare benefits? I believe the postal section of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs would take a fatal knock and that the loss of business would rock it to its foundations. The trade unions, post masters, sub-post masters and all the people who count the money that comes from the Department of Social Welfare will be looking at this matter.
I made the point before lunch that centralisation is the curse of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. The unions did not want centralisation, but the management did. When they centralised the sorting office in Sheriff Street they caused a holocaust which they can no longer handle. It is very strange that, if I want to post a letter from Donegal to Sligo, that letter has to come to Dublin, through the sorting office in Sheriff Street, and back to Sligo. If the Minister wanted to post a letter in Cavan that letter would also have to come to the sorting office in Dublin before it was sent on to Sligo. I would like to meet the genius who thought that was in the best interests of the people.
A bus travels from Cavan town to Sligo twice a day. There is also a twice daily service from Donegal to Sligo in both directions. It is costing £90 million a year  to subsidise CIE. We pay that money to CIE but we will not let them provide a better service. What other society would tolerate such stupidity? There is no point in saying it is the fault of the trade unions and that they stand in the way of progress. That is a lot of codswallop. I used to believe it, but I do not believe it any more.
We must loosen up the very tight management structures in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, because the system has grown up with the Post Office. We copied that system from the British. It does not take into account modern society, which is light years ahead of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Unless we take note of the way private couriers are operating the post and parcel services, the postal side of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs has no future. A close associate of mine in County Donegal, who is in private business, told me that he was telephoning a wholesaler in Dublin for supplies. The supplier said that if he wanted them urgently he had an arrangement with a private carrier who would deliver them the following morning. The businessman said he appreciated that but, as he was a sub-postmaster, he thought that would be disloyal to the postal service. The supplier said if he posted them that day the businessman would not have the supplies the following morning. They compromised and decided to put half the supply in the post and to send the other half by private carrier. The sub-postmaster told me — and I have no reason to doubt him — that he could have had delivery of the goods later on that evening. He said it would suit him to have the goods delivered the following morning and they arrived then. One week later the parcel came from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. That is not the type of service which people are paying for and the semi-State companies will not achieve their objectives unless they have the goodwill of the trade unions and unless there is a dynamic force running the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. The goodwill of the men must come before anything.
 I say this with regret but advancing it as an honest opinion after months of thinking about it as Minister of State; now, with responsibility to my party to monitor what is happening in the Department, I say that semi-State bodies cannot achieve anything like the dreamland some people would have us believe. What we are talking about basically is achieving a Utopian Department of Posts and Telegraphs simply by introducing the Bill and saying: “We will forget about the past. We are going to have two semi-State bodies and all of our difficulties end there.” That does not make sense to me. It does make sense to achieve an objective whereby the structures obtaining in the Department at present can be changed and loosened. That objective cannot be achieved within the present structures of the Department. The people who run that Department, the senior civil servants, are excellent people. One of the sincere regrets I have of ceasing to be Minister of State in that Department was losing the companionship and friendship of the people I had all around me in the GPO. I say that most sincerely. The relationship I had established with them was something I cherish very deeply. I respected their advice and loyalty. I have no complaint against any one of them. But these men and women serve a different master from those of the semi-State boards. They serve the Minister and the Government. Whatever the Minister and Government may tell them to do they will do loyally. Whatever policy the Government may decide to implement they will carry through to the last letter, unless someone along the line decides to cut across the tracks. Then they will make up excuses and notes will arrive back on the Minister's desk that it is not physically possible to do this, that or the other, or that the unions have an objection to it.
The present structure of the Department must be changed. If we want to meet modern day requirements and provide a better service, the management of the Department must be changed. That is no reflection whatever on the management personnel of the Department, but is very definitely a questioning of the  system obtaining and the control which ties people who want to do things and cannot. It is argued that the way out of this difficulty is that the whole system be rationalised, that the demarcation lines be examined, that there is an overlapping of tasks between the different grades, that all of that adds up to clumsiness, that the whole system must be decentralised. And we come up with the proposal of semi-State boards. Now that the semi-State idea has gathered this momentum which cannot be stopped, I wonder whether we should not be looking around to seek an alternative. Unless we can sell the semi-State concept in toto to the unions, it will not work. We shall have to be cautious about it and this party will be very cautious in agreeing anything with the Minister. We shall strenuously challenge every aspect of this Bill. I should say that I could not remain a Member of this House or a spokesman for my party if I did not feel I was arguing fairly and squarely on behalf of the people whose livelihoods will depend on this. I just could not and will not do it otherwise. I want to say that I will be strenuously challenging everything the Minister is doing. I shall be asking him to assure me that not alone is this the best and only way it can be done, but that every union within the Department is satisfied also. The centralisation of the postal services constituted an impediment to good service, as indeed did the centralisation of the telecommunications services.
The Minister was asked a question by Deputy Blaney about my setting up an office in the constituency. Of course, in his pettiness Deputy Blaney believed that I was setting up an office to promote myself in the constituency of North-East Donegal. That was not the reason at all. The reason was that I considered it an affront to anybody in County Donegal who wanted to find out anything about telephone or postal matters to have to contact Dublin, where they are treated as anonymous callers. I do not say this in any disparaging way about the personnel in Dublin who may be answering the telephone, because it could be me or somebody like me who would be doing so. But the human reaction would be  exactly the same. I believed that, if I could reach an agreement with the trade unions to decentralise, to devolve responsibility to an office in Letterkenny that would deal with all the telephone and postal queries in Donegal, I would be serving the people I represent—not alone that but that it would represent in microcosm a system that could be applied to the whole State.
Everybody in the Department, from the secretary right down to the fellow who delivers letters in the town of Letterkenny, believed that was a good idea. All the trade unions believed it was a good idea. But then the demarcation lines began entering into it. One union began to say to the other: “You cannot do that because that is our work”. Therefore we got bogged down on demarcation lines in regard to whose responsibility it would be to answer a query about a telephone or about why it took a letter ten days to reach Rathmullan from Thurles, which was a case I had investigated. Equally, people are entitled to ask why a telephone service was cut off when they had paid their account. These are mistakes that happen within the Department but which aggravate ordinary, decent people. Yet that person in Donegal would have to ring the GPO or talk to some anonymous person in Dublin.
In order to provide our people with a good service we must get away from centralisation. We must get down to devolving responsibility to the lowest possible level of administration so that ordinary people who are paying dearly for a telephone service can be treated in the manner they deserve. Unless the present Department structures are changed that goal is not attainable, as I realised when endeavouring to set up a Donegal office in Letterkenny. But the Government proposal is that those structures be handed over to semi-State bodies and those semi-State bodies do not happen to please the unions. As I said before lunch, the headlines in about a dozen different papers criticise the haste with which the Government are proceeding, question that haste and say quite categorically: “Unless you consult with us, it is a non-runner”. If it is going to be a non-runner  now is the time to ask questions and seek alternatives. Indeed, that is the reason for this debate: to reach a situation in which the present structures of administration of the Department can be dismantled resulting in a loosening up so that people in the Department can act on their own initiative, doing the things they want to do. We, as politicians, can relax the rules to allow them reach those objectives by an alternative method which could deliver the goods, perhaps a method better than that envisaged in the semi-State bodies.
The purpose of this debate is to search for that alternative. One of the alternatives offered by the Department of the Public Service was the executive unit. That unit is comprised of responsible people in the Department, professional people, people whose experience is without question, people who know the way to do things, who know the difference between right and wrong, who know how to achieve their objectives and who have built a personal relationship with the leaders of the trade unions resulting in there being confidence now not alone in the leadership of the trade unions but also in the personnel of the Department. Both sides will admit that one side cannot do it because of Government control and the other cannot do it because of demarcations from their members and they have to speak on behalf of their members.
It might be no harm for us to look at the executive union and form the professional people in the Department into units, give them the power to rationalise and to negotiate with the trade unions on demarcations and other things. If you do not give them this power we are not going anywhere. I would like the Minister to consider this because we could at least debate this alternative. It may not be the answer and semi-State bodies may be the better deal for the workers. We should have a thorough discussion on the executive union type of management. Perhaps this might be the one the people involved would buy, it might be the one they would be happier with and would be  cheaper for us to operate. If the semi-State body is the only alternative the Minister will not have any serious obstruction from us on Committee Stage if every Stage of the Bill brings the trade unions with us.
The basic responsibility of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs is to provide a good telephone service which means providing many more telephones than we have at the moment. I envisage a situation where every home in Ireland will at least have one telephone. If the people are to be given that and if there is to be no backlog of people waiting for telephones something must be done about it now. If we are to achieve the objective where anybody who requires a telephone can have it within 24 hours then the Department have to clear up the backlog of telephone applications. They must also provide a faster and better repair system. Those things cannot be done without the goodwill of the unions and the workers. It cannot be achieved under a semi-State organisation if we have not their goodwill.
The responsibility on the postal side of the Department is to deliver a letter or a parcel as fast and as efficiently as possible and in competition with outside agents. If we cannot do that we should not be in business. If we want to stay in business and achieve those objectives it is of paramount importance to bring the trade unions with us all of the way. As I said before lunch, many of the trade unions understand that this is the ideal situation.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Jim Tunney
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy has given me the opportunity of reminding him that he has placed on record his concern, reservations and interest in the workers and his concern for the trade unions. It is at a point now where I must remind him that he may be embarking on doing it for the fourth or fifth time.
Mr. Harte Mr. Harte
Mr. Harte: What point is the Chair making?
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Jim Tunney
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Ordinarily we try to avoid repetition. I am reminding the Deputy, as one who has  been a member of his audience, that he has established beyond any doubt his particular regard for the workers of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.
Mr. Harte Mr. Harte
Mr. Harte: I agree but that is not a very important point of order. I am sure you will excuse me because it is very difficult to have continuity in a speech if the Dáil adjourns for an hour for lunch and there is an hour for questions so that there is an interval of two hours from the point where one leaves off to where one resumes.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Jim Tunney
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Chair fully appreciates that.
Mr. Harte Mr. Harte
Mr. Harte: I will not overdo it. During this debate many speakers made comparisons between the semi-State bodies we propose to set up and CIE and the ESB. On closer examination this is not a very accurate comparison because there are three different options from the Government Department we have at the moment. There are the executive units, which are being proposed by the public service, State corporations, which can be described as CIE and the ESB and then there are semi-State bodies. We are talking about different things. I would like the Minister to explain in detail the difference between them for the benefit of Deputies. My Government were possibly as guilty of this as the present Government are but all of the people in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs were told they would have an opportunity to opt out. It was no fault of any person who joined the public service through the Civil Service Commission if that person ended up in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Some of them might wish to stay in the civil service and take advantage of promotion and other incentives that keep people in the civil service. The door is now being locked to anybody in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. The workers in the Department were told they would have an option to opt out or stay with the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Now they are told that is not possible because with 30,000 people involved it would defeat the object of the  exercise if they all opted out. I am not sure if that is factually true although in a general way it is the position.
The engineers who operate in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs will remain engineers, the telephonists will remain telephonists, the postmen will remain postmen, the linesmen will remain linesmen and the people who man the post offices will also remain in those post offices. All of those people will remain in the postal services. When you write all of those people off you come down to a figure of a little over 2,000 people who are in the general administrative section. The people I am talking about joined the civil service and could have been appointed to any Department. It could have been the Department of Justice, the Department of Social Welfare, the Department of Finance but they are now in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. They have no option. We will be putting down an amendment that we give more consideration to this matter. Half of this 2,000 people might want to remain in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. All of them might not wish to stay in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and might prefer to take their luck under the semi-State body or whatever other arrangements there will be in the future.
When we employ these people as civil servants and tell them that they may opt for or against continuing in the postal or telecommunications section, if they want to come back into the civil service proper they must be given that option. We owe it to them. There may only be a small minority, perhaps a couple of hundred people, who are happy where they are and would like to stay in the civil service, but the numbers might be quite large. If the numbers were large, an arrangement could be worked out over an interim period of perhaps five years, in which they would be allowed to make up their minds. Recruitment to the other sections of the service could be slowed down to take the overload of those leaving the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, the telecommunications board and the postal board. Human nature being what it is, if I were Minister I would have to be on the  side of any person who approached me saying: “Here were the conditions of my employment when I joined the civil service. I had security of employment, pension rights and everything else. I want to remain that way.” The Minister should be sympathetic to such an appeal and I recommend that special consideration be given to these grades.
The Minister may say that that opens the door to every grade in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and I must acknowledge that it does. However, it opens the door which many might not want to go through. Also, one is only opening the door for a limited period and after that five or ten years have expired — the period is negotiable — the problem ceases. Five years is not a long time in the running of a semi-State body or a Government Department. The wish of any engineer or telephonist to avail of the opportunity to sit for an examination and move into a different grade in the civil service, a privilege which exists at present, should be respected and that privilege should, as far as possible, be preserved.
The reason for going semi-State have been put forward by many. Some think it is just a desire on the part of some to meet the need for modern day communications. I want to put on record that my honest assessment is that the Department of Posts and Telegraphs was neglected by successive Governments but mostly by Fianna Fáil who have been in power for most of the time. Indeed, any Minister for this Department during a period when Fianna Fáil were not in power was not there long enough even to get to know the people around him, let alone to develop a completely new, positive and progressive policy.
I indict the Fianna Fáil Government for totally neglecting the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, not alone the postal and telecommunications service but the telephone service. They were totally oblivious of the fact that telephones were necessary to create jobs in industries. One cannot move into the industrial world and compete with foreign industry without telecommunication  of a very high standard. One industrialist recently told me that unless he was in constant contact with the factory in Detroit, California, New York, Berlin or Rome and could lift a receiver and speak to them or telex them, he was at a great disadvantage. He said that other countries have these facilities and unless Ireland has them, it is not being serious about industrial development. How many on the Government benches appreciate that? It was not my responsibility to think about that until I became Minister of State, but I was not too long in that position until I realised that fact. Many Ministers and Ministers of State in the Fianna Fáil Party did not recognise it.
Let it be put on record that Mr. Conor Cruise O'Brien, as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, recognised the need for massive spending of money in the Department. This has already been stated by Members of this House. Let it be put firmly and indelibly on record that he was the first to recognise that we would be the Rip Van Winkle of the telecommunications world if we did not spend massive sums on telecommunications development — money which we could not find and could ill afford to spend. When one looks at it, what has greater potential for revenue and income than a telephone? Large amounts of money can accrue from private telephones and telecommunications services to industry. It is a gilt-edged investment second to none.
Yet Fianna Fáil were blind to that fact. They were more preoccupied with trying to restore the Irish language — and they have made a fair haymes of that — and the unity of Ireland, and we know what they did about that. They were wound up in creating a gombeen State where shamrocks would grow out of the ears of the people and unless you became a member of the Fianna Fáil Party or thought like them you were considered inferior, a second-class citizen, not really Irish. There was a question about your loyalty to the nation. That is the nonsense with which Fianna Fáil have been identified from the foundation of the party. Regrettably I say that, because in its ranks there are very decent people and those who support it are very decent.  That party were too preoccupied with mickey mouse aspects, but when it comes to buying bread and butter, paying for food for children, the father is not very concerned as to whether the children speak Irish or what flag they fly under. It may be of importance, but it is not of high priority.
I indict the Fianna Fáil Party. The strikes of the sixties and seventies are a personification of the Fianna Fáil Party's lack of interest in trying to keep the Department of Posts and Telegraphs abreast of industrial development with the rest of the country. We had a strike which jogged Fianna Fáil into doing something about it. What could they do? The potato was too hot. They did not really give the attention to the problems in the Department which should have been given or concerned themselves about policy making for the brilliant people administering the Department. People who understood professionally what it was all about and had lifelong experience of running the Department but were at a total disadvantage when the Government did not produce the policy that would allow them to run the Department to meet modern needs. Therefore we had the strikes.
The two massive strikes made the Government take note of the situation. The potato was too hot to hold on to and they decided to have semi-State bodies. That is why we are now talking about semi-State bodies, and for no other reason.
Mr. Kavanagh Mr. Kavanagh
Mr. Kavanagh: That is right.
Mr. Harte Mr. Harte
Mr. Harte: Let that be put on the record. We should have been talking about semi-State bodies twenty years ago. If it is legitimate to talk about them now and if the reason for talking about them now is valid without political overtones, we should have been talking about them ten or twenty years ago. Some of the people working in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs are geniuses at their work whom we should be proud to know and work with, who could hold their own in any country doing the work they are doing, men of great ability and wide  experience, but whose hands have been tied behind their backs because they did not get the money or the political leadership the Government should have given to them to compete against private business.
The Government blame the trade unions, the workers. The workers know that if fewer letters and parcels are being posted their jobs are in jeopardy, and they do not have to be reminded of that. They know that if there is not immediate leadership their jobs will go. I do not see any future in the theme of this Bill, the setting up of a semi-State body, unless it provides for dynamic leadership and confidence and a trust between the workers and the other side.
I do not see why the Department of Posts and Telegraphs should not have been collecting road tax, should not have been issuing driving licences, why they should not have been collecting water rates and ESB accounts. The structure is there. The Department say that if they collected ESB accounts, for instance, they would lose the money paid by way of charge on money orders and postal orders if these bills were paid over the counter. In that case, why could they not charge fees for that work? Even if they were to lose a few pence they would be providing a service for the people.
Apart from the telephone service, the greatest asset the Department have but which has been totally ignored is the Post Office Savings Bank. The Post Office have more than 2,200 centres throughout the country. Every postman, every sub-postmaster, every post office worker could be a canvasser. But nobody cared, and now the PO Savings Bank is the Cinderella of the service. If it goes semi-State, anything can happen. The savings bank has been an agent of the Department of Finance, who control it.
It turns my stomach to see county councils and health boards commissioning the commercial banks as their treasurers. Counties Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim are in the North Western Health Board who have accounts with four banks. There may not be anything wrong with that, but when one account is in credit and another in debit we are being  paid interest on what we have in credit but paying dearly on the overdrawn account. Over the years why did the Government not decide to nominate the Department of Posts and Telegraphs as the national treasurer? At one time I believed in the nationalising of the banks although that is not part and parcel of my political makeup. I believe in the maintenance of private enterprise, and how therefore could I support nationalisation of the banks? Would I not be in a quandary? Then I thought that the commercial banks could still make their billions every year even if the Government and the public bodies accepted the Post Office as the national treasurers.
My forecast is that the postal service will be outpaced by private organisations who gear themselves to delivering letters and parcels. I do not think there is any future for the postal services unless there is new thought by new leadership. I have discussed this with many knowledgeable people in the Department. The postal service needs to be brightened up, but not by such things as delivering letters by wire or messages through satellites in the sky. We must provide a service that will deliver messages and parcels efficiently in sufficient volume to keep people in that service employed.
It sickens me to hear Fianna Fáil say that the present type of service is not the “in” thing and that if we think along those lines we are backwoods men. But what will happen in the future if we settle for the provisions in this Bill, which to my mind are against progress? This Bill should not only provide benefits for the workers but for all the people. We must have trust and confidence on both sides, between unions and the Government. The Government should say to this Department that the structures are there throughout the country to convert the Department into the State treasurers and that every cheque issued by the Department of Social Welfare, by the county councils and the health boards, by all of the public sector, could come through the PO Savings Bank. The potential there is so great that the mind boggles but  apparently the Government have not even thought of it.
The three main unions in the Department say they have had discussions but not consultations with the Government. The unions have taken a strong stand. They have said that unless they can clearly understand where the Government are going by way of this Bill they will not travel with them. There must be good industrial relations.
In this regard it is quite embarrassing at times when we hear people talking about the reunification of the country, voices coming mostly from the Fianna Fáil benches. For example, if the Minister wishes to write to a friend in Armagh, Dungannon, or Crossmaglen on the other side of the Border, it will cost him 26p to post that letter. His friend in either of those three towns will have to pay only 15p if he is writing back to him. There is no incentive there, whether the person north of the Border is nationalist or unionist, to come into a unified State. I do not know what the Minister's answer is. There comes a time when people say: “Enough is enough and we will not pay any more for the delivery of letters.”
I have no absolute evidence of this, but it is quite commonly talked about in the Department. It is mentioned in certain circles in the Department that old age pensioners who have free public transport are carrying letters and small parcels for private couriers. Now we have the strange situation in which the Government are paying for the free transport of old age pensioners on CIE and private carriers are taking advantage of them. I have no concrete evidence of that, but my information comes to me from my experience in the Department. If it is true, it is a situation which must be brought to a conclusion.
Recently we had the unique experience of the Minister for Justice employing a private publicity company to tell the people what he was doing about security. The private company were paid a very generous fee. Part of their duty was to deliver letters. We had a Department of State employing a private agency outside the control of the State to deliver letters which the Government are paying  another Department to do. It all sounds very strange. It becomes bizarre when we realise that the Minister for Justice and the Minister of State, Deputy Leyden, represent the same constituency. Are they not speaking to each other? Are they so disloyal to each other that the Minister for Justice has no confidence in the Minister of State and will not trust him with the delivery of letters?
I put down a question to the Minister about this but it was ruled out of order for some reason. I was told the Minister had no responsibility for it. If the Minister has no responsibility to report to the House why the Minister for Justice employed a private carrier to deliver letters, when the proper authority for the delivery of any letters are the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, I will have to have the word redefined. I understood that the Minister had the responsibility to answer the House on matters like this, but for some reason or another the Ceann Comhairle ruled my question out of order.
I am mentioning it now and making it public. It appeared in the public press, but the press did not notice the fact that the Minister for Justice and the Minister of State, Deputy Leyden, represent the same constituency. If the Minister for Justice told the Cabinet what he intended to do, the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs would hear about it and inform his Minister of State. If a letter is posted in Sheriff Street there is no reason why it should not be delivered the following morning as efficiently and as early and as fast as it would be delivered by a private company.
I hope the Minister will take up this matter with the Minister for Justice and find out how much public money was paid to this private company to deliver the letters. The Minister for Justice had no authority to spend public money on having letters or postal packages delivered by a private company when we are in competition with those companies, and when some of them have not won the respect of the Department. Good luck to the company for the type of business they are doing. Full marks to them for their  business acumen, but there is another side to it.
The sale of stamps and philately have not been mentioned. I became interested in this as Minister of State. It was decided to honour a Donegal man who became known as the father of American Presbyterianism, Francis Makemie, who was born in Ramelton. Because of my knowledge of him from books I had read, I became interested in philately. I went to the United States and negotiated with the general manager of the American Post Office, Mr. William Bolger, on the possibility of finding agreement on paying tribute to Irish-American presidents. I hope the Minister will continue with those negotiations.
The stamp market in the United States is wide open to Ireland. There is a great love of Ireland in the United States. It is more far-reaching than any of us imagine. I grew up in the belief that everyone of Irish descent living in America was a mad Irishman, but it goes beyond that. The president of the American Stamp Traders' Association has no Irish connections, apart from the fact that his son and daughter have an Irish wife and husband and he has four grandchildren who he claims are half Irish. Because of that he is very proud of the connection between Ireland and himself.
There is a market in America for Irish stamps but there is this weakness in it, and I know the Minister will appreciate it. Our stamps do not carry the word “Ireland”. Irish Americans in the States ask me: “Where is Éire?” They ask why the word “Ireland” is not on our stamps. I tell them that “Éire” is the quasi-Irish or invented name for Ireland. They say we are known as Ireland in the EEC and they point out that we do not put the word “Éire” on our stands for the sale of stamps. Americans identify with the word “Ireland”. They have a love for Ireland which overwhelms you. For some peculiar reason we will not use the word “Ireland” on our stamps.
As Minister of State I gave a direction that, having considered the matter in full and having discussed it with many people in the stamp world, in Britain and particularly the United States, it would  be an advantage to have the word “Ireland” on our stamps. I have a parliamentary question on the Order Paper to the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs that will probably take weeks or months to be answered, but I know the Minister will give the stock reply that every country has its own name in its native language. I wonder whether Irish is the native language of Ireland at the moment. I am a native of Ireland and there are 168 natives elected here, and I wonder how many of them say that Irish is their language. It is codology to go on with this futile argument. If people want to say Irish is the national language, I do not take exception to that; but is that going to do us any good if we are serious about breaking into the stamp market in the United States?
The business there is so big that we could move from £1 million to £10 million in two or three years. I have no doubt about that. If I had continued in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs I would have set myself the target of doubling each year our sales of stamps in the United States by putting “Ireland” on the stamp. I have spoken to Americans who come here and to people in the American Embassy that I have befriended. On asking them where they come from they say their people came from Ireland, their great grandmother came from Armagh or their grandfather came from Mayo. They are very warm towards the land of their forefathers. But if one shows them a stamp and asks if they identify with “Éire” they say that it has no meaning at all for them. In the United States there is a very deep love of this island and its people on the part of people who want to contribute towards the future of the country by buying stamps. But they will only buy stamps that they can identify with and they cannot identify with the word “Éire”. Whether the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs believes that to be true or not is a matter for him. I am only telling him what my experience is and my experience is that we are cutting off our nose to spite our face if we do not use both names, “Éire” and “Ireland”. I do not see any objection to it. There seems  to be a resistance on the part of somebody to doing that and that person is costing this State billions of pounds because of a stupid, entrenched bigoted attitude. If I were in the Minister's position I would have that person taken out of where he is.
In regard to the Bill itself, there must be an appeals procedure or a court that aggrieved persons can appeal to if they believe their rights and conditions are being weakened. I have in mind elderly people who do not wish to go into the semi-State body and who might really want to retire. They should be given the right to retire. If it means that we have to give them a golden handshake, let us treat them respectably and say thanks to them for the long years of service they have given. I was alarmed to learn of the number of people working in the Post Office who are over the age of 65 and over the age of 70 or 75. When I asked why they were allowed to remain I was told they they could not be dismissed because they might suffer hardship.
It is an answer to may question, but is it not a terrible admission that in present society we force a man to work until he is 75 years of age since to leave him off work at 65 would result in hardship for him because he would not have enough pension money to keep himself alive? It is a terrible indictment of the Department that they cannot allow people to retire with grace and with dignity at a decent retiring age. I know of young people who want to get into the Department of Posts and Telegraphs but their grandfather is holding the job, their grandfather delivers the letters. Because he has no other means of earning income he has to go to the local post office on his bicycle every morning in hail, rain or snow to collect letters to deliver to people that he has been delivering to for the last 40 or 50 years. Would it not be an honourable thing for us to do to thank the grandfather for his loyalty and service down through the years, to pay him a pension at the rate which he is now earning for the remaining years of his life and give the job to the grandson or someone else of his age group?
Here are the little pettinesses in the  Department of Posts and Telegraphs. We do not have to talk about going semi-State to discover them. But if we do go semi-State, will we do anything about changing this type of structure? I am not convinced that we will. I am convinced that we will still be cheeseparing, looking for the cheapest possible service and paying the minimum amount of money. The Minister knows as well as I and every other Deputy that the service which the sub-post masters give to this State is paid for in buttons: unless their income is supplemented by having a separate business, they just cannot survive. This is the type of service the Minister talks about. This is what we are going semi-State on. All of a sudden it is going to be alive and thriving, when it is now dead. Unless we are prepared to spend millions of pounds to pay people properly for their services then it is not going to be any more alive than it is at the moment. It will not make the slightest difference. Therefore I appeal for a procedure whereby if people want to retire they will be given the right to do so with dignity and their services acknowledged.
Deputy Brown put down a parliamentary question to the then Minister, Deputy Cooney, on 16 December asking whether it was Government policy to ensure that, when employees of the Department transferred to the new authority, responsibility for the service of all their present rights as civil service employees would be safeguarded. The answer to that was that the Postal and Telecommunications Services Bill would provide that staff transferred to the new State-sponsored bodies would not receive lesser scales of pay or less favourable conditions, including superannuation provisions, than those to which they were entitled as civil servants immediately before the transfer and that each company would also be statutorily required to set up suitable machinery for negotiating pay and conditions of staff in consultation with staff organisations. There is a fear that a person's status will be changed and that he can be paid off more easily under the semi-State bodies. I have talked to civil servants in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs who  can allay my fears and put my inquisitive mind at ease. Unfortunately, I cannot do the same for the trade unionists, the ordinary people in my constituency or people I was in contact with as a result of my responsibility in the Department. If this fear is real, it is not really important whether or not there are grounds for it. We are not going to get anywhere unless we can bring those people with us.
There are several aspects of the Bill to which I wish to draw the attention of the Minister. We will be dealing with them on Committee Stage and we will have amendments. I have assured any person who has any fears about the proposals that I and my party will be available to listen to what they have to say and to discuss the matter with them during the summer months in preparation for Committee Stage. I do not do that with a Harvey Smith sign to the Minister saying we are against him, that he had better watch out because we will trick him. That is not our intention. There are so many people whose livelihood is involved, there are so many families who have a wage earner in the Department, that I feel I have a public duty to them to ensure that when the Bill is finally debated it will be as near perfect for them as is humanly possible so far as the Minister and the Opposition parties can make it.
I refer the Minister to section 27(2). I am not satisfied that the £20 million referred to is sufficient. The Minister should consider a sum of £40 million and the period should be changed from three years to five years. I do not understand section 32 (6). I do not know what is meant by it. I believe the workers would like to be part of the planning here. The election should be held much earlier, perhaps an immediate election rather than having an election within 12 months as stated in the subsection. There is no reason why we should have to wait until vesting day. It is a matter for the Minister to decide if there is to be an election or an appointment.
I refer the Minister to section 43 (3) and (4). If the subsections were in reverse order the unions would accept them more quickly. From conversations I have had with members of the unions I am convinced  they are not satisfied with the present undertakings regarding superannuation. The workers want the Government to accept full responsibility for all existing pensioners. It does not seem an unreasonable request and perhaps the Minister would comment on it when replying. I should also like liability to be accepted for all existing staff at the date of vesting and superannuation should not be less favourable. Section 43 omits to state clearly what kind of superannuation is envisaged. Members of the scheme should be at least told if it is a civil service scheme or a fully bonded scheme. The entire section is vague and I cannot follow it very well. Section 43 should deal also with contributory pension schemes for widows and orphans which is not mentioned.
The concept of the council as set out in section 46 is worthwhile and one on which all are agreed. However, what is involved should be spelled out more clearly and perhaps the Minister would elaborate on that in his reply. With regard to section 48, the argument here is that if the Minister gives a direction to provide a loss-making service he should be responsible. I do not have to elaborate on that. The Minister knows the point I am making and perhaps he will mention it in his reply.
The spirit behind the concept of semi-State bodies is not questioned. The people who have carried out much work on research to produce the Bill must be complimented. Quite apart from all the reservations that have been voiced about the proposals we must put on record an acknowledgement of the dedicated work of the civil servants in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and those who helped them in their research. This Bill will have far-reaching effects on all workers in the Department and on Irish society. Nothing like it has come before this House since the foundation of the State. It is a major Bill and every effort should be made to ensure that when it is passed by this House we will have covered every aspect, we will have dusted away every cobweb and we will have  done everything possible to ensure there are no mistakes.
We accept the Bill and we accept that something must be done. We approached this measure in that spirit. I want to assure the Minister and everyone concerned that Fine Gael will play their part in full but with the reservations I mentioned in my speech. The end result will be a testament to all of us who are involved in trying to find a solution to a major problem, one of commercial and business interests but, more important, a matter that has deep human dimensions.
I wish the Minister guidance in achieving the objectives he has set out to achieve. With the co-operation of everyone concerned I hope we will produce the ideal solution.
Mr. Kavanagh Mr. Kavanagh
Mr. Kavanagh: I do not intend to be as voluble as the previous speaker. He has followed it through and has a deep interest in the matter. As Minister of State in the Department he was a very successful Minister and, as he said himself, he knew the ins and outs of that Department.
I speak to show a certain amount of solidarity with the Members of my party in our opposition to the Bill. The Labour Party oppose the Bill in principle. I do not intend to deal with it section by section, seeing where it could be improved or changed. I wish to indicate generally why we dislike the measure and why we will be opposing it. From what has been said from the Fine Gael benches, I take it that they will not be opposing Second Stage and the Bill will probably go through Second Stage. Nevertheless, it gives the Labour Party an opportunity to indicate their opposition to a measure which they believe is not in our best interests.
I must initially indicate a personal interest because I have a sister who is a telephonist in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. However, I am not speaking in the interests of one employee of the Department. There is great fear among telephonists because, whether the postal service becomes a semi-State body  or not, the advance of science is causing great problems among those people. The extension of the STD service is rendering many telephonists less important and is causing redundancies. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs have a very large staff of 28,000 plus 2,100 postmasters. If the public wish to see a reduction in the number of public servants, obviously the introduction of the measure before us means that the civil service will be cut in half because 30,000 civil servants will be employed by the semi-State sector. They will remain public service employees but will not be civil servants. That is one of the areas of great reservation that the Labour Party have about this Bill.
The main reasons for bringing in such a measure is to give a better service to the public by the creating of An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann. There will be a residual Department in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs when these important areas are removed from the present Department and it means we will now have three different sections, two semi-State bodies and a much depleted Department of Posts and Telegraphs. If our party could be convinced that the service to the public will be vastly improved because of this measure, I believe they could be persuaded to accept this Bill. But it would be wrong for the Minister to say that this Bill was necessary simply to change and improve the service given to the public. I remember, as I am sure many other Members do also, that we once had a six-day delivery. In the past we even had a delivery on Christmas day. You could telephone most parts of the country and be heard on the other end of the line. You could expect a letter posted in the city to be delivered to my town, Wicklow, the next day. Sometimes, if it was posted very early in the morning, it would be delivered that afternoon. This type of service has disappeared and there is a fear that we will never see it again. I know if I post a letter to a constituent of mine in Wicklow that it is rare for it to be delivered in Blessington or Baltinglass in the same week. It seems to take a minimum of four days to reach its destination. When I was a member of Wicklow County Council,  agendas for county council meetings, posted the previous week, did not arrive to Members in time for the meeting. Three members of the county council, representing all parties, continually complained that they had not got their agendas and did not know what was going to take place at meetings. As Deputy Harte said, they probably went through Dublin first before they were posted to Wicklow. To ensure delivery the county council sent in their own lorries because they often had to deliver pay packets or stores. Service has diminished over the years.
We know that the demand for telephones expanded at a tremendous rate in the last few years and that unless there was a huge investment in that service, it could not keep pace with the demands being made by a country which had joined the EEC. After our entry we demanded certain means of communication which were part of the normal service in every other EEC country. Yet when we look at the OECD Report, we find that there are 174 telephones per thousand of the population in Ireland while in Greece, a county regarded as being poorer than we are, there are 200 telephones per thousand of the population. We are at the bottom of the league of the ten countries of the EEC. Since we entered the EEC it has to be said that we have experienced a vast renaissance in the industrial world. Nowadays our demands need to be attended to much more quickly than ever before.
When Deputy Everett was Minister for Posts and Telegraphs he had not got a private telephone. He represented his constituency for something like 25 years without one. No-one else had a telephone so there was no great need for it. The postal service was reliable and efficient at that stage. When he did get a telephone his number was 74. That was for the whole Wicklow area; now the number has gone up to 3,000 so it is easy to see how well the demand has been catered for by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. It has been admitted over and over again in this House that the investment that should have taken place, especially prior to our entry to the EEC, did not take place and the telephone service  was the Cinderella of various Government Departments.
I am glad to say it has been acknowledged that Deputy Cruise O'Brien, when he was Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, was the man who took steps to improve the telephone service. He made arrangements, when Estimates were being drawn up, to see that money was invested in the service. It was proved that one could motivate people in the Post Office, by giving them the money and incentive to go ahead and to expand in the various areas, to attend to the shortcomings of the Post Office. When the Coalition left office in 1977 things seemed to slip back a little. We had the disastrous Post Office strike in 1978-79. I remember that strike because it took place during the direct elections to the European Parliament, at which I was successful, and was one of the main topics discussed during that campaign, and people showed their displeasure with the then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs.
I believe it was at that time that the idea was born that this area should be handed over to semi-State bodies. Obviously the thinking of the then Government was to look at what was happening in Britain. The idea of choosing two very successful young businessmen, Mr. Smurfit and Mr. Feargal Quinn, to put forward their ideas in the areas of posts and telecommunications was reasonable, but the results of their detailed inquiries did not come up with conclusive proof that the job could best be done by two semi-State bodies.
During my time in Government the Bill had not come before the Cabinet, although discussions were proceeding, but had we remained in office there would have been a great deal of hard thinking done before legislation would have come before the House. That is why I can honestly stand with other members of my party and oppose this Bill.
I hope that in discussing these very important matters other points which were raised yesterday, such as the phone tapping, will not deflect us from the important discussions needed on these two areas. Now that that matter will be discussed by the Committee on Procedure  and Privileges we will not concentrate on it but will deal with the very important points raised in this Bill.
Because of the very large numbers of employees involved, I hope this Bill will not be rushed through Committee Stage or Second Stage because every consideration should be given to the consultations which are taking place with the unions on the changeover of employment so that everybody will be satisfied that his or her interests will be taken into account.
It has been suggested that this Bill is a move towards privatisation and will solve all the problems in the Department. That is not a move I favour. Let us look at other areas which have been privatised. If we look at the view outside the door of Fóir Teoranta any Monday morning we will see many businessmen from the private sector looking for help to keep their businesses going. I would not like the public to think that, if the Department were run as a private concern by young whiz-kids, it would solve all the problems, because that is not so. There are 30,000 people working in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and almost all will be transferred to these two companies. They will form almost 100 per cent of the staffs needed and they will have the same unions looking after their interest. Long and detailed discussions will have to take place with the unions before any great changes can be made in conditions of employment or the rights which the workers have acquired over many years. To think that by changing over to the private sector there will be a miraculous change in the problems of the Department would not be right, because that will not happen. It would be better if we had decided how much money was available to meet the shortfall in the Department over many years. We should bring forward the bright young people in that Department and give them a chance to improve matters. They did not get this chance before simply because the money was not there.
The unions have made their voices heard and they are right to be concerned because in the White Paper workers' interests have been glossed over in very  few words. Post Office staff are civil servants and have all the rights of civil servants. For example, if the lowest paid member of a post office were to be sacked tomorrow, if a junior clerk behind a counter took a few shillings, or if a postal order found its way into the pocket of a postman a memorandum would issue from the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs to the Minister for the Public Service, who, in turn, would bring this matter before the Cabinet. They would consider all the circumstances and then come to their decision. I do not think anybody in the private sector or in semi-State employment would have such an opportunity. This is just one small but important area which a person transferred to An Bord Poist or An Bord Telecom will lose if this Bill is passed as it stands. There is a great deal of concern about this because it is not covered in the White Paper. Perhaps the Minister will tell us these people will be looked after, but from what the unions have found out this point is not covered in the White Paper.
A number of the personnel aspects of the Bill have not been fully teased out with the unions. I think Deputy Harte was correct to say that discussions, not consultations, had taken place. I remember that in Europe there was a word coined—“concertation”, which meant consultation ultimately arriving at a decision. We have not yet reached that stage in this country, a situation in which unions could be assured that something decided would now constitute part of the Bill. The relevant sections—I think they are 42 and 43—of the Bill dealing with the personnel aspects fall far short of what is required by the unions and certainly will have to be examined at a later stage. Assuming that the Bill is given a Second Reading, there are grave reservations held in that area.
It was suggested by a previous speaker that before the proposed vesting day personnel could be assigned to An Bord Poist, An Bord Telecom or to the residual Department. This is something about which there is great concern on the part of the staff of the Department. Obviously if one is a linesman or an engineer, one  knows that one will be part of one or other semi-State board. Such personnel have very little to worry about; they know they will be assigned to one or other area. But, if one is one of the approximately 2,500 people in the general services grade who sat an examination advertised in the newspapers and was assigned to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs rather than the Department of the Public Service or the Department of Labour, one did not enter that examination for the purpose of being assigned to An Bord Poist or An Bord Telecom.
I would hope that the Minister would examine that aspect carefully so as to assure those members of the general services grades who sat examinations on the basis that they would be civil servants for the rest of their days. Such people in good times may have turned down offers of employment in local authorities, semi-State bodies or in private business because they regarded the civil service as providing a permanent pensionable position suiting their mode of life. Such people now find themselves in the position of being assigned to one or other of the semi-State boards, which is not something they intended being foisted on them when they joined the public service. There are at least 2,000 people in that position. I remember inter-departmental promotional competitions being held that ensured a certain mobility between different Government Departments. Will this mobility be denied those people in the general services grade? If this Bill is passed will they be unable to look to, say, the Department of Foreign Affairs and say: “Yes, I should like to work there. There is a job going there but I cannot sit the internal examination”? After the vesting day will higher executive officers, staff officers, executive officers and clerical officers be able to apply and be assigned to any other Government Department? Those are the types of questions being asked and which have not been answered by the Minister or his officials in consultation with the unions.
I have mentioned that on occasion people do lose their jobs, but I do not want to reiterate my remarks in that respect. For example, will the pay and  conditions of those people assigned to one or other of the two new boards, if and when established, be guaranteed to be as good as those obtaining in the civil service? At present there is a demand being voiced through the national newspapers that civil service pay PRSI contributions at the same rate as people in the private or semi-State sector—in other words, that they should pay class A PRSI rates. But when negotiations took place with the civil service unions it was established that civil servants' rates were at least 5½ per cent lower than those applicable to people in the private sector simply because they were not entitled to the same benefits as those applying to the private sector. Therefore when it is contended that personnel will not lose out by becoming part of one or other of the two new semi-State companies does that mean that not only will they be paid the same rate of pay but that they will also receive 5½ per cent extra to make allowance for the increased PRSI rates? That is something that has not been clearly explained to the relevant staff at present and is something warranting explanation.
Again, I do not want to elaborate on the problems of superannuation. However, I must ask will the Government underwrite these two semi-State companies to the extent that all commitments entered into in respect of pensioners before they were set up will be honoured? Will the Government underwrite them to the extent required in respect of any improvement of pension rights of the people transferred to those two semi-State companies? These are important questions needing to be answered. Indeed, they must be answered before many people at present working in the Post Office can afford to be less cautious than they are at present about the changes being proposed. For example, will each category of personnel retain its rights to its existing workload or can they be deployed in some other area? Machinery has been established for consultation with unions in the event of somebody at present doing a particular job in a particular area not remaining. Will such conditions apply unless there is extensive  consultation with the union concerned? Should the new companies suddenly introduce new conditions and directives, does that mean that a particular individual may be changed from one location to another? What will be the consultation procedures to be resorted to to ensure that compensation can be paid if such conditions are not adhered to?
I have endeavoured to cite some of the concerns of which I have become aware from my discussions with members of the Post Office staff since this Bill, which will be of great significance to them, was introduced. We are aware that the Department of Posts and Telegraphs has a certain social service attaching to it. Certainly we want to see that social service continued. For example, there was a very good scheme introduced by the Fianna Fáil Government some years ago, continued and extended by successive Governments, providing free telephone service. Should that service be continued or expanded, that in turn means that the profit motivation of An Bord Telecom could not be intensified. We are aware that there is a recoupment from the Department of Social Welfare for the provision of that type of service. Nevertheless it must be asked: would An Bord Telecom regard that as an important part of their future responsibilities? If anything, we should like to see that social service aspect expanded. We want to see more of the old people who are without telephones receiving them. At the same time we want to see the people who need a telephone for their business or those who want private telephones receiving them as speedily as possible. We do not want to see them receiving them at the expense of the social element that has always been a part of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.
I was very pleased, when I was Minister for Labour and Minister for the Public Service, to see that 3 per cent quota of handicapped people being applied to various Departments. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs were very important because they employed the full 3 per cent quota. The post of telephonist is ideal for handicapped people if their handicap is immobility and also if they  are blind. We know the number of blind people who have been taken on in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs as well as in other Departments. I hope in the future there will be the same demand by Ministers in all Departments for the employment of handicapped people. During my period as Minister the Department of Posts and Telegraphs were the only Department who achieved the 3 per cent quota. Other Departments fell far short of that quota. I hope, if the Minister is successful in getting this Bill through all Stages, that he will ensure that the new semi-State boards achieve the 3 per cent quota in the employment of handicapped people.
I am glad to see that the previous speaker changed his attitude in relation to the trade union movement because after working in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs he found out they are not all the bad boys of Irish industry, that they perform a very important task in industry and the public service and they are there to do a job as well as they can. That is why the Labour Party listen to the points they put forward to us. Speaker after speaker from those benches has presented the case on behalf of the trade union movement so that their priorities will be listened to. Unless the staff of both of those new organisations work in harmony and unless their interests are listened to and their concerns attended to, the attempt to bring in a Bill to change the status of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs into some form of semi-State organisation will fail.
We believe what the Minister is trying to achieve in this Bill could have been achieved through the Department of Posts and Telegraphs by ensuring that sufficient capital was given to that Department. There would be no need for this Bill if sufficient capital had been given to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in the past and the rates demanded for doing particular jobs acceded to. If the 1979 strike had the attention of Deputy Harte it might not have taken place and we might not have had this Bill to consider.
The Minister must listen to the many amendments which will be put forward  by the Labour Party and also, I understand from Deputy Harte, those which will be put forward by the Fine Gael Party. As far as I understand, the amendments will be rather similar. It is important that we amend this Bill to ensure that the concerns of the people who are at present working in the Post Office side of the Department and those who will work there in the future will be attended to. We are all trying to achieve harmony in this area of public life. We want to see a better service given to the public and we want to see a return to what people were used to in the past.
We are aware of the high cost to the public of the postal and telephone services which have escalated over the past few years. We believe that this could have been ameliorated if certain actions were taken in time. We do not believe the introduction of this Bill will reverse the trend which has taken place over the last few years. I am afraid anybody who thinks it will is deluding himself by believing that everything can be achieved simply by setting up two semi-State bodies. I hope we can take the worst features away from the Bill if the Minister accepts the amendments which will be put forward by the Labour Party. Like my other colleagues who have spoken, I want to say that the Labour Party will oppose the Second Reading when the vote takes place.
Mr. E. Collins Mr. E. Collins
Mr. E. Collins: I am surprised that there is no Irish version of this Bill. The Minister has a great grá for the language. Tá fhios agam go bhfuil an blas aige agus tá brón orm nach bhfuil an Bille scríofa as Gaeilge. The Bill is certainly a major one. It reverses a trend in society which has in recent decades been in favour of Government Departments running our essential services of posts and telecommunications. The reason for the change of this philosophy have not been fully explained. I can only assume that it is felt that the environment within a semi-State body will lead to a more efficient service and one which will cost less to the public. If that is the objective of the Bill, I welcome it and believe the people in general will also do so.
 The Bill proposes that approximately 30,000 people will be transferred to the proposed semi-State bodies — An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann. That number is about half the total number employed in the civil service and is indicative of the input needed to run those services. The move has resulted in concern being expressed by the present employees. My experience of coming into contact with the employees, whether in the Post Office or the telecommunications sector, has always been good. I have always been well received and got replies to my representations. I found the employees pleasant and efficient to deal with. I am pleased to note that in section 42 of the Bill the position of transferred staff is protected, which is as it should be. Subsection (1) states:
Subject to subsection (2), a member of the staff of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs who is transferred on the vesting day to either company shall not, while in the service of the company, receive a lesser scale of pay or be brought to less beneficial conditions of service than the scale of pay to which he was entitled and the conditions of service to which he was subject immediately before the vesting day.
This is traditional in all Bills which I have seen coming through this House and which involve transferred staff. I note under subsection (2) of that section that there is to be consultation — full consultation I am sure — with recognised trade unions and staff associations. I hope that these consultations will be amicable and will lead to a full understanding of everyone's position.
The need for an efficient service is obvious as is the need for cost savings. The present position of permanent staff is exceptional. The most junior permanent employee cannot be dismissed, unless by a Cabinet decision. This, to my mind, is an extreme protection of a job. It is unnecessary and, indeed, undesirable. I hope that that anomaly will be resolved in the course of negotiations with the staff associations and trade unions and that any new employment  contract arising in the new boards will have a more modern clause regarding protection of employment.
As I am talking about staff matters. I must criticise the present method of appointing outdoor staff. Apparently, a short list is sent to the Minister's office and in the past there has been a practice of political patronage which is undesirable and has an adverse effect on the ordinary people who do not want political patronage to play a part in job appointments. Where this practice has occurred, not only in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, but in other Departments, it should cease. A greater part should be played by our National Manpower Service in the appointment of staff to such bodies and Government Departments, except where the appointment requires the services of the Local Appointments Commission and the Civil Service Commission.
There was an announcement some time ago about decentralisation affecting the Department's services and I understood, for instance, that a section of the Department was to go to Waterford. Could the Minister confirm that the decentralisation policy will continue under the two new companies, An Poist and Bord Telecom Éireann and that the section which it was proposed to transfer to Waterford will, in fact, be transferred there? The public have been very critical of the postal and telephone services, due to the number of strikes and industrial disputes. The strike of 1979 was very serious. These unfortunate breakdowns in the service give rise to a lot of criticism of the Department because people and businesses, particularly industry, feel very let down when their usual modes of communication are cut off. This is particularly so in businesses not located in Dublin but around the country, which depend to a very large extent on the availability of an efficient postal, telephone and telex service. It is vital that the new companies should address themselves to industrial harmony within the companies. There must not be a recurrence of major strikes or industrial disputes involving telephone, telex and postal services.
 The recent establishment of the regional telecommunication offices has been of some benefit with regard to the telephone service but there has been a lack of investment in this sector which is only being seriously tackled over the past few years. The explanation is often put forward that lack of equipment has been the main cause of delay in the installation of telephones and that the method of stocking telephone parts has not been efficient or to the benefit of the system down the years.
The cost of installation has given rise to criticism, particularly from people living in rural areas. Some attention should also be paid to the cost of installing phones for old age pensioners who are entitled to free telephone rental. They should be subsidised either by the Department or by some allowance towards the cost of installation. Ninety-one per cent of the population can now avail of automatic exchanges, and I hope it will not be long until the remainder will be able to enjoy this system.
Industrialists have been very critical of the high cost of the postal, telex and telephone services, higher than elsewhere in Europe. I ask the Minister to comment on that. I agree that our population is more dispersed than in more developed and highly industrialised countries but we cannot overlook the fact that costs here are militating against efficient industry and business and that they should be tackled immediately when the new companies have been set up.
Section 48 allows provision for loss-making services. It provides that the Minister will have a part to play in directing the companies to provide such loss-making services. So that An Bord Telecom will be seen to be acting in a commercial fashion, when the Minister directs that a loss-making service shall be provided, I hope that funds will be provided to cover the loss-making aspect of the service in such a way that we will not have the loss-making service appearing in the accounts in a way that would give the impression that the service was being run inefficiently. Subventions to cover the loss-making part should be forthcoming from outside the two semi-State bodies.
 The Bill refers to exclusive privileges for the two companies. That is understandable in this small country, but it is not the practice in America where private companies are allowed to compete in the provision of telephone services. In section 105 the Minister retains the right to grant licences for the provision of postal and telecommunications services after consultation with the companies. In other words, he is keeping the door open for competition, which I think is right. It is wise not to exclude competition because it leads to efficiency, and the postal and telecommunications services are no exception to the rule.
The success of the private courier service has become evident and I hope An Post will be able to compete with them successfully, though I should like the Minister to explain clearly the legal position that arises in regard to private services. The Bill is specific in regard to exclusive privilege, but will the courier services become illegal on the passing of the Bill or will they be granted licences?
Section 58 deals with the position in regard to the Planning Acts. I do not see why either An Post or An Bord Telecom should be exempt from those Acts. I do not think there is a valid reason for giving them exemptions for two years. That is bad law, and when established, these companies should be subject to the same planning laws as private individuals or commercial undertakings. I hope the Minister will explain this fully. If I came in here seeking exemptions from the Planning Acts for Senators and Deputies I would, properly, be laughed at. The law should apply equally to all citizens and organisations, although I agree that local authorities should be in a different category. I am surprised there has not been wider public protest, particularly from An Taisce who have been vigilant regarding planning matters.
Section 61 states:
(1) Subject to subsection (3), the company shall be immune from all liability in respect of any loss, damage or injury suffered by any person by reason of——
(a) failure, neglect or delay in providing,  operating or maintaining a postal service.
It is a stringent immunity, a liberal immunity, a handsome immunity. I quibble about the inclusion of the word “neglect” and the word “failure”. If we are giving them a statutory responsibility to provide a service, failure to provide that service should not be immune. That is going too far.
Neglect in providing a postal service assumes that it is a determined and purposeful decision by the company not to provide the service or to neglect to provide it. I do not think there should be immunity from that either. I can understand the situation which arises in circumstances of an industrial dispute, or acts of God, or force majeure, but I cannot understand why the Minister should give immunity for failure or neglect. That is going too far.
In section 84 the same immunity, mutatis mutandis, is granted to the telecommunications service company for failure and neglect or delay in providing, operating or maintaining a telecommunications service. Again this is giving too much immunity. If they are to act as a commercial company, they should be responsible for failure and neglect. I see no reason why they should be immune from the law in this regard.
Section 49 deals with the non-application of certain enactments to companies. The Restrictive Practices Acts and the Mergers, Take-overs and Monopolies (Control) Act, 1978, “shall not apply in relation to the exercise by either company of its exclusive privilege under section 60 or 83, as the case may be.” I can understand that in the context of the general philosophy of the Bill, but I do not agree that the Prices Acts 1958 to 1972 should not apply to “activities carried on by or on behalf of either company.” An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann should be subject to the Prices Acts and to the Prices Commission. We are giving them a carte blanche to increase their prices as they wish.
I do not think that is correct. They  should be subject to the same scrutiny in relation to the prices they charge for letters, telephone calls and the delivery of parcels as any other commercial undertakings are for the provision of goods and services to the community in general. It is going too far to exclude them. It is bad legislation to exclude them.
I agree with the intention to allow An Post, the postal company to provide banking services. “The Minister for Finance, after consultation with the Minister and the Central Bank, may by order empower the company to provide banking services, including the service commonly known as the Giro System and also including the lending of money.” This is a revolutionary section and it gives teeth to the Post Office service.
I am pleased to note that it is possible for the postal company, which will now have powers in regard to post office savings banks and other savings services, to have a full banking service. This was never advocated before. It is a radical proposal which merits serious consideration by the Minister and the Government. There have been many calls for the nationalisation of the commercial banks. I would not support those calls. I am not against the granting of full banking licences to the Agricultural Credit Corporation, which is the farmers' bank, or the Industrial Credit Corporation, which acts as a merchant bank for Irish industry. I see no reason why full banking licences should not be granted to both of those merchant banks. I see merit, in certain circumstances, in granting full banking licences under section 64 to the Post Office services throughout the country. It is an interesting development, an interesting suggestion, and merits deep thought and consideration.
This is an interesting Bill. I support it. I should not like to see any unnecessary hassle arising between the employees and the new companies. The transfer staff will be protected adequately under section 42. I hope the consultations will be beneficial and productive. I hope a new era will dawn and that we can have a very efficient postal and telecommunications service. I wish both companies well. They have a great part to play within our community,  especially in the context of business and industrial undertakings. It is a comprehensive Bill which deserves support. It will be subject to close scrutiny on Committee Stage. The Bill deserves the attention of the House.
Mr. Shatter Mr. Shatter
Mr. Shatter: This has been a long debate and much consideration has been given to the provisions of the Bill. I intend as far as possible to avoid going over ground already covered by colleagues in the House. However, there are certain matters to which I wish to refer and, if I repeat what has been said by one or two other Deputies, I will do so because I believe they are of particular importance.
I wish to look at the sort of protection the Bill affords to the consumer. There has been a great deal of discussion on the merit or demerit of transferring responsibilities from the Department to the two bodies to be established. There has been a great deal of discussion about the difficulties and concerns of the employees of the Department, and what their position will be after the transfer has taken place. Obviously these are matters which must be dealt with in a sensible way, with real discussions. That has been covered amply by my colleagues in my own party and in the Labour Party. There is nothing to add to what has been said in this area. What I am concerned about and what I have been concerned about as a public representative is the absolute failure of the existing service to regard itself as providing a service for the consumer, the failure of perception on the part of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs of its position, particularly in the context of the telephone service, and its failure to appreciate the difficulties experienced by people when either there is no telephone service available to them or indeed when they cannot even discover when or if a telephone service will be made available to them.
The Department which is concerned with telecommunications must be the worst Department of all Government Departments for actually communicating information. It has a total inability to communicate accurate information, in  particular to the telephone user or telephone applicant. It is time we stopped beating about the bush and made this point. As a public representative it is totally impossible on behalf of my constituents to find out accurately when telephones will be supplied to them when writing to the Department. There is only one way at present in which one can get any accurate indication as to when a telephone service will be made available either to an estate within one's constituency or to individual applicants, and that is by putting down a Dáil question.
If one puts down a Dáil question, be it in relation to one person or a number of people, or a school or institution, within four days one can get back a relatively accurate and sensible reply that gives an indication of when the telephone will be supplied. That is all the average person wants to know. Most people have reached a stage where they do not expect telephones to be supplied to them overnight or indeed within weeks of putting in an application. But the amount of frustration that is created for people on the telephone waiting list for two, three, four, five years and who are unable to discover when and if they will be supplied with a telephone has reached a level of ludicrousness and a stage where I believe it is a matter which should be treated far more seriously than it is at present treated.
It is not right and it should not be necessary for Members of this House to have to waste their time putting down questions about individual telephone applications or for Government Ministers to have to stand up in this House and answer Dáil questions about individual telephone applications. The reason the business of this House has descended continuously to the level of the parish pump instead of dealing with issues of major national importance, in particular in the context of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, is because of the absolute failure of that Department to communicate information to those people it is supposed to serve and because of the general acceptance over the years by public representatives that this is a valid role to play and that every constituent in one's  constituency who cannot get a telephone should have to find out what is going to happen to the application through a Dáil question. If the Department properly ordered its business, if a proper system of records were kept, there should be no need for any individual telephone applicant to experience the difficulties and continual frustrations that beset one when seeking a telephone service. On contacting the Department it should be a simple matter for an official in the Department to tell a telephone applicant when a telephone will be supplied to him. It should not be a matter of mystery. It should not be a matter that requires endless documentation within the Department while a note is passed from one section to another, from one engineer to another. It should not be a matter that takes months of investigation. Questions of this nature appear to be easily answerable within four days when a Dáil question is put down. Why can they not be answered to the individual telephone applicant within four days when he puts in a question about his application or about when a telephone service will be supplied?
But at least under the present system we have a Minister who is accountable for the inadequate supply of information and for the inadequate service at present given to the telephone user. We have a Minister who is accountable to this House, whom we can bring into this House and hold responsible if matters are not dealt with in a proper way or if we cannot get information back as public representatives. But what I am concerned about in the context of this Bill is that that small protection as it exists at the moment will fall. There is nothing in this Bill that ensures that, if a telephone applicant is seeking to find out information, he will get any more efficient response than he at present gets from the Department.
This function is being hived off to a body that will have no general function in the context of this House. The Minister has reserved functions but within months, when this body is established, no Deputy will be able to get information  through this House about the position of an individual telephone applicant because it will cease to be a matter which is of daily concern to the Minister and it will cease to be a matter for which the Minister is generally responsible. Therefore the problem I am concerned about is that the consumer, the people of this country who wish to have a telephone service will, when their telephone service collapses and they want it put right, have no method of recall, no one to resort to to seek assistance, upon the establishment of Bord Telecom Éireann because Bord Telecom Éireann will be effectively an independent body outside this House. At least at present there is some means whereby a public representative can ensure that a constituent will be able to get the information sought or have service restored if the Department does not meet up to its responsibilities or provide information when requested.
There is much in this Bill that is good but it does not provide adequate protection for the consumer and much of the protection that is in it is a shibboleth, it is unreal, it is not there. Section 45 requires the Minister to establish a users' council for both An Bord Telecom Éireann and An Post. But the users' council that is being established under the provisions of this Bill is a toothless tiger. It will have no real impact. A request or direction from the users' council will not bind either of the boards concerned. They can disregard what the users' council says. The users' council can be mere window dressing. For example, the individual who cannot discover what is happening to his telephone application, who cannot discover why after five or six weeks his telephone service has not been restored despite contacting the Department, will find the users' council appears to have little function in assisting him. It can consider any complaint or representation made to it and can pass them on to the company, but the company can ignore them. Bord Telecom Éireann can get letters from the users' council till the cows come home; it can file them all away and there can be very little that the users' council will be able to do about it.
The objectives and functions given to  the users' council should be given a great deal of examination and there should be amendments on Committee Stage. I do not want to discuss them in any detail. But to illustrate the point I am making, the users' council can consider any matter related to the telephone service other than matters of internal management. What does that mean? Does that mean that if a user of the telephone service cannot find out information about when the telephone will be fixed or when he can get a new line, or if a telephone applicant is seeking to find out when a telephone will be supplied to him, the users' council cannot deal with these problems if it discovers that these matters are being dealt with inefficiently due to matters of internal management? It is a toothless tiger. It sounds useful. It sounds as if it is going to provide a protection for the consumer that is not there at the moment. But the reality is that it will not even provide the same level of protection or assistance that public representatives at present provide. I would again emphasise that I genuinely do not believe it should be the role of public representatives to have to provide a service of this nature. No constituent should have to go to his Deputy to find out such basic information.
If the Department of Posts and Telegraphs were a private body providing the kind of service they have done in recent years, they would not have been tolerated by anybody in private business and they would long since have gone bankrupt, but they have developed a degree of complacency and consequently we find ourselves in this position. It was the hope of everyone that An Bord Telecom would sort out some of the problems that exist in this area, and it is still my hope that they will, but they will not do so if there is not sufficient protection given to the consumer and if the users' council are not given sufficient teeth to ensure a more efficient and acceptable level of service to those who wish to use the telephone service.
There is a great deal more to be said about this area but I do not wish to go on at length. There are valuable amendments which could be made on Committee  Stage to give the users' council real meaning and to ensure that the consumer gets more protection than he does at present. What sort of protection does the consumer get?
There is a need for the establishment of local telephone or telecommunications offices to deal with subscribers' difficulties at local level. If such local offices were available, they would lessen the need for the long-winded procedures at present operating in the Department and the long notes which pass from one section to another to find out the position about individual telephone inquiries. There is nothing in this Bill which suggests such offices will be established, although the powers conferred on the boards would enable them to establish them. In the context of providing a more flexible, responsive and communicative service the board should give serious consideration to providing these local offices.
In the consumer area, one must refer to sections 61 and 84 which seek to effectively deprive the consumer of the most basic protection afforded to him in dealings with any other form of service provided by the private sector. These sections effectively grant the two boards a form of legal immunity which I believe is unnecessary. If an efficient service is provided, the boards would not need such immunity.
Section 61 gives An Bord Post immunity from all liability in respect of any loss, damage or injury suffered by any person by reason of failure, neglect or delay in providing, operating or maintaining a postal service or in relation to failure, interruptions, suspension or restriction of a postal service. The members of the staff are immune from civil liability, except at the suit of the company, in respect of any damage or injury they cause. I fail to understand the necessity for such extensive immunity. If an efficient, responsible service is provided, the consumer should be given the same form of legal protection he is given in the context of each and every other form of service provided in the private sector and, in some contexts, in the public sector. This is removing an automatic legal  right of action that presently exists in the context of negligent acts done by other Government Departments or Government employees in so far as they affect members of the general public.
When people have suffered injury or damage at the hands of an employee of a Government Department — normally such cases are on grounds of negligence — it is a common matter that damages are given where they are warranted. I would draw the attention of the House to a Supreme Court decision in which the court established effectively that there was a constitutional right to sue the State when the State, by a negligent act, did damage to you. That constitutional right adheres to negligent acts done by a Government Department. Normally it is the Minister who is sued although in most cases he is merely a nominal defendant, but the Minister is responsible for those in his Department. If by the act of somebody in a Government Department a person suffers injury or personal loss, there is a right of action in our courts which I believe is a constitutional right of action, and it was declared to be such in a very famous Supreme Court decision in 1969.
I have grave doubts as to the constitutional validity of sections 61 and 84 in so far as they seek to deprive individuals from bringing action against the boards in the event of a person suffering damage. We are giving to these boards a legal protection no Government Department has except in very minor circumstances, but the sections are not of great relevance in this context. We should seriously look at them on Committee Stage because if we do not at some date they may be found to be unconstitutional.
In regard to the users' council, my view is that the members of the general public will be deprived of legal protection to which they should be entitled under the operation of an efficient service and the removal of this protection takes away some of the incentives for either of these boards to provide an efficient service. This serious matter requires far more consideration on Committee Stage and I intend to deal with it then.
If we do not have an efficient postal  and telephone service and if the present difficulties in the telephone service continue, this Bill rather than doing what was hoped of it, could be politically convenient legislation for the Minister of the day who has the remnant of responsibility for Posts and Telegraphs that will remain after this legislation comes into force. If the telephone or postal service break down under this legislation the Minister can wash his hands of the matter, or throw his hands up in the air and say it was the fault of An Bord Poist and An Bord Telecom. I doubt if we should remove this responsibility from this House. I agree in principle with the establishment of both boards but in my view the level of ministerial responsibility which will be left behind under this legislation is too little. There should be far more accountability to this House for the services being provided under the auspices of both boards than this legislation will leave in existence.
My colleague, Deputy G. Mitchell, in his contribution said much of what I was going to say and to some extent possibly I have repeated what he said. The telecommunications service we have given the public during the years has fallen far short of what should have been expected and, indeed, has fallen a great deal short of what should have been tolerated by the general public. The service has not taken into account that it is there to serve the public, not merely to exist for its own sake.
The provision of a telephone is a social necessity yet during the years the Department seem to have treated telephone applicants as though they were being given some privilege or favour when providing them with a basic service and information. I hope the boards will be far more responsive than the Department have been. There are many people who require a telephone service and who require a degree of responsiveness from the body that is charged with the responsibility of providing it far above the degree of responsiveness given to date. In my constituency there are many elderly people. There are many pensioners living on their own who need a telephone to maintain communications with  the outside world and with their sons and daughters who may be living abroad or not in Dublin.
It has often taken four or five years to get a telephone in such circumstances and applicants could never find out when the service would be provided. People who fell ill, who found themselves isolated in their homes and confined to bed often found it impossible to get a telephone even when they were living alone and dependent on the goodwill of neighbours. I could take hours in this House giving the names of people in this type of situation. There was a situation of a pregnant mother who having suffered three, four, or five miscarriages was confined to bed throughout the course of her pregnancy. On her behalf I pleaded with the Department to provide a telephone in her house so that she would have some contact with the outside world or contact with her husband or general practitioner if she should require medical attention. It was impossible to get a telephone from the Department for that person. There are many other individual situations of that nature I could list for the House.
I deplore the failure of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs to respond to individual needs when they have arisen in such circumstances. There is nothing in the Bill to indicate that An Bord Telecom will be more responsive. It may be at the beginning but after a while it will cease to be responsive unless the users' council are given real responsibility, teeth and power to require the board to undertake certain tasks if the council believe they are necessary. I am not suggesting that the council should dictate policy. The telecommunications service could not operate that way. However, there are a number of circumstances in which the board should be obliged to act on a directive from the users' council. I hope the Minister will look at the legislation himself and draft amendments to deal with the social problems. If he does not I hope he will be in a position to look at the possibility of putting down amendments.
Far too many telephone kiosks are not accessible to disabled members of the community. A specific legal obligation  should be imposed on the board to ensure that within a reasonable period all public telephones are designed to make them usable by disabled members of the community. For far too long we have ignored them. It has been done for a small number of public telephones in the past few years but the vast majority are not usable by disabled members of the community and there should be a legal obligation on the board with regard to this matter. Too often we forget the disabled and unless there is a legal obligation they will be forgotten again. It is an easy matter when providing public telephones to provide a facility that is usable by all members of the community. I hope the Minister will look at this matter carefully.
More could be done in the provision of telephones for new housing estates. Either in the context of this Bill or of the planning laws, there should be a reform to permit local authorities when granting planning permission to require developers to provide cabling for installation of telephones in industrial and housing estates, such cabling to comply with standards and specifications laid down by the board. Often there are considerable difficulties in getting telephones into new housing estates. There is a failure to coordinate the building of the estates with the provision of the services. In my constituency there are many housing estates that were built for three or four years before anyone was lucky enough to get a telephone. In many cases developers developed the estates in a way which posed difficulties for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs when they were carrying out their work. There is no reason why to some extent the expense could not be transferred to the developer who is making money out of the development. Nowadays a telephone is a basic and essential item.
I wish to refer to the provisions in the Bill relating to An Post which enable that board to collect television licence fees. I am not sure if sufficient consideration has been given to this area. I understand the RTE Authority have suggested that RTE rather than the Department should collect moneys due by way of licence fees. The board will have a considerable number  of functions and it is difficult to see why they should be given the power and responsibility to collect licence fees when the money so obtained has no relevance to the functions of the board. There is no incentive for the board to collect those fees in an efficient way. I have no doubt that if they are given the function they will do their best to collect the fees but I believe it would be more sensible if RTE themselves were given the statutory obligation to collect the licence fees if they wish to take over that function. RTE have been starved of funds in the past two years due to economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. They are looking for money and they would have a real incentive to ensure that every person who should be paying a licence fee is so doing. They would have a real incentive to ensure that all relevant funds were collected, as they would know that the more money they could collect the more would be available to them for the purposes of their own productions. I ask the Minister to seriously consider the transfer of this function to the RTE Authority, if RTE wish to take over the function, which I believe is the case. There is little rationale, now that we are creating new boards and hiving off some of the functions of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, in giving the function of collecting television licence fees to An Bord Poist. It is a function which should be given to RTE.
I do not want to be misquoted or anybody to suggest that I am being critical of the various unions and their employees in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. There are many valid worries on the part of members of these unions at present and the Minister will have to tread very carefully. He will have to engage in proper consultations with every union representing workers in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. One of the things that has long concerned me about the Department and their level of efficiency is the strict demarcation lines within that Department and the vast number of unions representing employees. In reply to a Dáil question which I tabled yesterday, the Minister for Posts  and Telegraphs informed me, in a written answer, that there are 16 unions representing workers and staff in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs concerned with the area of telecommunications. There are 11 different unions concerned with staff and employees within the postal service. All that I have seen since I became a Deputy confirms the belief I already held that the vast number of unions and the strict demarcation lines that exist are creating a problem in providing an efficient postal and telecommunications service. I genuinely believe that there is a need for rationalisation in this area, both in the interests of the consumer and the workers themselves. It is a matter that will have to be dealt with in a sensitive, consultative and rational way by each of these boards when they are established. I hope they will have the courage to deal with the problem, because until the union structure within the telecommunications and postal service is rationalised we will not have an efficient service, whether that service is run by a Minister nominally or by individual boards.
I have restrained myself from referring to individual constituency problems but there is one problem, relevant to the Bill, which illustrates the point I have been making about lack of responsiveness. In the context of the provision of post office facilities there has been a failure to keep pace with the development of population increases, particularly in County Dublin area and especially in my own constituency. The Firhouse area has developed enormously over the last ten years. There is a population there now in the region of 10,000 to 12,000. There is a small, inadequate post office to service the Firhouse area. It was closed for a period recently, through no fault of the person who runs it, who was ill, but it is not accessible to many people who live in the Firhouse and Templeogue areas which are adjacent to it. There is a need for a new, larger and more accessible post office to provide for the needs of people living in the Firhouse, Knocklyon and Templeogue areas.
I put down a Dáil question on 1 June asking the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs if he would establish a new post  office to service the Firhouse area in County Dublin as, at the time when the question was first placed on the Order Paper, the post office was closed. It referred to the fact that post office facilities were inadequate. I got a two sentence answer which said that the existing post office is considered to cater reasonably well for the amount of business transacted and that it reopened on Monday, 14 June. I tabled my question on 1 June and I got a written answer to it yesterday. It is a one-man post office which closes whenever the man who runs it is sick. It is out of the way for half the population who live in that area and is another indication of the failure of the postal service, on this occasion not the telephone service, to meet the expanding needs of County Dublin. The Minister did not even say he would consider the proposition or look into it to see if there was a need. If the Minister responsible is willing to wash his hands of this matter, what hope will there be when we have An Bord Poist with a Minister who has no responsibility for individual decisions of this nature?
I ask the Minister and his officials to look at the reality of the problems on the ground as they exist in Firhouse. They should examine the post office service there and check the increase in population figures in Firhouse over the last ten years. When he does that he will only be able to reach one sensible conclusion: that there is a need for a large post office facility over and above the existing one in Firhouse. I am not asking for this service by way of charitable donation. The provision of this facility will result in additional funds coming into the postal service, because it will effectively make money. It will alleviate difficulties experienced at present by constituents who do not know from one day to the next whether their local post office will be open and who have a post office that catered for the Firhouse area when 90 per cent of it was farm land and undeveloped and there were a few cottages on the main road. This was long before we had the vast, sprawling housing estates which we now have there. The Minister in this instance, as in the context of his  Department generally in the area of telephones, showed a lack of responsiveness, a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to examine the question. I deplore his attitude and I will have to receive far more assurances than I have heard up to now that on the establishment of An Bord Poist and Bord Telecom they will be more responsive. Unless the users' council are given real teeth and unless users of the telephone and postal service are given rights of action, such as are given normally when services fail and people suffer damage as a result, services will not provide for the degree of efficiency which is desirable.
Mr. B. Desmond Mr. B. Desmond
Mr. B. Desmond: We have to go back to the 1977 election manifesto because that was the beginning of the Bill. It is strange to see what has emanated from that famous document. As we are aware, in their general election manifesto the Government made the point that they intended to do something, in the classical Irish phrase, about an efficient, dependable communications system. Of course that was an entirely laudable sentiment and one I welcomed at the time. Then, in July 1978 the Government decided to establish the review group. The review group was set up and that is probably where a good deal of the trouble started and has finished in this debate today. Once we set off on a course of action we in Ireland tend not to refer back to our terms of reference. I do not know who drew up their terms of reference but they did contain two separate paragraphs. One was to examine and report on the feasibility of giving to the telecommunications service such form of autonomous organisation as was likely to be most effective in meeting current public demand. As we recall, those terms of reference had a second part which was to examine and report on the organisational arrangements necessary to secure the modernisation of the postal system so as to promote an efficient delivery system nationwide.
I know that the review group was comprised of an eminently competent and effective body of people. I have considerable personal regard for persons of the  calibre of Michael Dargan, Margaret Downes, Tom Hardiman, Frank Hynes, a distinguished public servant himself, and the other three members, Michael O'Keeffe, Harold O'Sullivan and Oliver Waldron. As we know, Dr. Dargan agreed to act as chairman of that review group. I wonder was it wise to give them terms of reference as narrow as that. If one asks people to discuss the autonomy of the telecommunications service and, secondly, to discuss on a separate basis the organisational arrangements relating to the postal service, it is inevitable that they will come up with two boards, which is precisely what they did, An Bord Poist and Bord Telecom.
I had a view at the time — admittedly a personal view I have discussed with a number of people — that such is the explosive nature and tremendous pace of change in communications technology generally that the wisdom of setting up two separate boards is very strongly called into question. Even in Ireland, which does not have a very high per capita segment of letters, there has been a real decline in the incidence and usage of letter mail. We know that there has been rapid growth in the incidence and usage of telephones and telex services in our community. We know also that in America and Japan there is a quadrupling every two or three years of the growth of computer-based message systems. Our existing conventional methods of communications have been supplanted, transformed beyond all recognition, in the past ten or 20 years. It is now very arguable that we are setting up a structure of two separate boards when the whole of that technology will have changed dramatically within the next ten or 15 years. We have just seen here that dramatic change in technology in regard to video. How long ago is that? How new is that in the context of Irish homes, in the context of our places of entertainment, in the context of our young people? It is a technology which has hit us only in the past two to four years. I have held the strong view that I would not have any great objection to the establishment of a separate State-sponsored body, commercially  oriented, in respect of the whole of the communications technology field which must be catered for. I have an even more vivid memory of going into the Department of Finance and asking who was handling savings banks. Somebody there said: “Well, the accountants' branch of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.” I believe that the technology concerned could be wholly integrated. Indeed, the Post Office Savings Bank should be a massive State commercial banking system. It is an absolute scandal that a country which claims to have independence does not have an internal, autonomous State banking system. I shall revert to that later.
I believe that perhaps the very conservative view contained in the report of that review group of 1978-79, presented to the Minister in May 1979, reflected organisational structures, an assessment of technology and a review of the year 2000 in an exceptionally conservative way. As a result they opted for a rather dated concept that of An Bord Poist and Bord Telecom. I would argue that there should have been integration on a separate basis. What this country needs in terms of State involvement in this area is planning of our communications structure for the year 2000 — and in terms of planning that is not a long way away. What we are doing today in the context of this Bill is planning for the year 2100. Structures tend to last, they have their inbuilt empirical longevity. I know the Minister is a most painstaking man in taking aboard all sorts of views in relation to this Bill in a most elongated debate.
I shall conclude this portion of my contribution by saying that I firmly believe that the wrong solution emanated from that review group. They had a valid point to make from the formalised, departmental civil service structure per se. That is fair enough, but they went out and then recommended the setting up of two companies. I think they should have recommended the setting up of a national communications State-sponsored structure, perhaps, just to draw an analogy, not all that dissimilar from the ESB but all of it integrated — post, telephones,  savings banks, computer technology, research and development. That would serve the needs of Ireland more effectively in the years ahead, because that integration from technology will come without question.
Dáil Éireann 336 Postal and Telecommunications Services Bill, 1982: Second Stage (Resumed).