Dáil Éireann - Volume 489 - 21 April, 1998
Adjournment Debate. - Cork Departmental Dispute.
Ms Clune Ms Clune
Ms Clune: I am pleased to have an opportunity to raise an issue which is important to the people of Cork. The Cork office of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has been closed to the public every afternoon since 16 March and there has been a complete ban on telephone inquiries. The dispute is in its sixth week.
The Department deals with the public on a regular basis. A huge welfare community depends on it for income and services. It is not acceptable that the vulnerable and those who depend on State hand-outs should be treated in this way. In reply to a written parliamentary question on this matter, the Minister informed me the dispute relates to changes in workloads and work procedures. It appears the staff may have a genuine grievance but I am sure they are not happy with the dispute.
There are conflicting reports as to whether the Department has been in discussion with the unions. Will the Minister clarify the position in that regard? It is not acceptable that the people of Cork can avail of the services of the Department for only two and a half hours every day. Those whose queries are not dealt with on a particular day must return the following day. I have received many queries about this matter. People are concerned. They think they are abused because they are dependent on the State. The only options open to them are to write to the  Department or telephone the Letterkenny office and this does not suit many people. I spoke to community welfare officers who said they were taking on a great deal of the burden. There is no doubt there will be a backlog because the dispute is in its sixth week and many queries are not being dealt with, which is unsatisfactory.
What have the Minister and the Department done to resolve the dispute? It must be resolved as soon as possible in the interests of the people of Cork, the staff, who are not happy with the way their grievance has been dealt with, and the Minister and his Government.
Mr. N. O'Keeffe Mr. N. O'Keeffe
Mr. N. O'Keeffe: I thank Deputy Clune for raising such an important matter. Industrial action is being undertaken by the Civil and Public Service Union, CPSU, in the Cork local office of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. It has taken the form of a ban on overtime and on dealing with telephone inquiries with effect from 2 March 1998. With effect from 16 March 1998 there was an additional ban on dealing with the public attending the office in the afternoon.
The dispute arises from a disagreement between the Department and the union as to the appropriate staffing level for the office. There have been a number of major changes in the operation of social welfare local offices over recent years, including the abolition of cash payments, the introduction of less frequent signing for the unemployed and a new integrated computer system. In addition, the live register in the Cork local office has reduced since 1994 from approximately 18,000 to 14,600, representing a reduction of almost 20 per most. The Minister and Government are to be complimented on such a reduction.
It has been made clear to the union that the Department could not assign additional staff to the office without first undertaking a fresh assessment of the staffing levels required in the light of all the changes which have occurred. Discussions between the Department and the union aimed at resolving the dispute have been ongoing and the mechanism for determining local office staffing levels in the future has formed a key element of these discussions. In this context, the union has been assured the design of such a mechanism would take place in full consultation with staff.
While every effort has been made to minimise the impact of the dispute on the public the Minister regrets the inconvenience the dispute has caused. Discussions have been ongoing and as recently as this afternoon a further meeting took place with a view to agreeing a formula for a return to normal working in the office. The proposals discussed at this meeting are to be considered by the staff in the Cork office later this week and the Minister hopes for an early resolution. 
Dáil Éireann 489 Adjournment Debate. Cork Departmental Dispute.