Seanad Éireann - Volume 173 - 12 June, 2003

Adjournment Matters. - Industrial Disputes.

  Mr. U. Burke: This issue has dragged on for ten weeks and caused enormous hardship to farming communities in the west, especially County Galway, not only with respect to permits used for the movement of cattle and the sale of livestock but also with respect to thousands of REPS application forms which have been retained in many offices since last November and not processed. This has led to a denial of substantial amounts of money which form most of the basic income of many farmers. There have also been instances where farm building grants have not been processed. At a time when the Minister for Agriculture and Food is taking farmers and their families to court, he has failed to provide access for farmers to their legitimate entitlements such as moving their cattle to allow them to be sold.

  There is a serious concern about diseased herds where cattle have been retained for anything up to six weeks on farms. If the shoe was on the other foot and a farmer retained or asked to retain a diseased animal on his or her farm, he or she would be brought to court and sent to jail. This is an inconsistency that needs to be rectified.

  One of the most difficult aspects to understand about this dispute is that, in the past fortnight, senior veterinary officials of the Department in Galway have refused to accede to its legal advice to issue on request the documents required for the movement of cattle. This indicates that senior officials in the Department have taken it upon themselves to defy the instructions of the Minister.

  Turmoil of this nature within a Department is not good. The only recourse is for the Minister to take the matter to court. Farmers must be very fed up with such action. They are the meat in the sandwich. As we speak, many farmers are protesting in Galway in order to highlight the hardship many families have endured during the past ten weeks because of the instances I have outlined.

  It is important that the Minister takes this in hand once and for all and intervenes personally so that the people who have been promised promotional opportunities in these rural offices will at least have some recognition for the work they have been doing down the years. When an emergency arose, with the advent of foot and mouth disease, they were verbally promised that if they went back and did their work – which, to their credit, they did – the matter would be settled immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, this was [807]a verbal undertaking – nothing was given in writing – and it was not honoured when the crisis was over. They became absolutely desperate when the favourable recognition and promotional opportunities to which they were entitled were denied to them and they went out on strike. The Minister of State will be aware of the manner in which they were taken off the payroll, namely, by e-mail at 4 p.m. on a Thursday. This is not a good indication of how relations within the Department are being handled.

  I hope that there will never again be such an occurrence among any group of employees within the Department. I plead with the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Walsh, to intervene immediately to ensure that the two aggrieved parties can be granted their entitlements as quickly as possible so that the very important work on which the Department should be concentrating at the present time can continue. Serious negotiations are taking place in respect of the Fischler proposals and Ministers and senior officials should be able to concentrate on these rather than being diverted by an issue such as this, important though it may be.

  It is sad that the people who are most dependent, particularly those on the west coast, are being denied their rights. If a similar incident occurred in Dublin among any corresponding group, media attention would have been drawn to it and it would have been resolved in a much shorter period. It is a pity that there is less concern for the people of the west than there is for those of any other part of the country.

  Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. Aylward): I thank Senator Burke for raising this matter. Like many of his colleagues from the west with whom I have daily contact, I am aware of and regret the hardship and inconvenience caused to farmers in the area covered by the Department offices involved in this industrial dispute. However, much progress has been made, perhaps even since the Senator notified the House of this matter. I will be careful about what I say here because I do not want to jeopardise the steady progress that is being made. The current mood is very positive and I am optimistic that the matter will be resolved within the next number of days.

  Several efforts were made by my Department to ease the hardship to the farmers in the counties involved, particularly those in the west. People in my part of the country were fortunate that the strike did not spread to it. The necessity of obtaining advance clearance from the CMMS data for animals intended for local slaughterhouses was temporarily suspended and an arrangement was reached with the union to introduce procedures to deal with urgent animal welfare cases. The dispute has proven difficult to [808]resolve and my Department is continuing to work towards a resolution. I am sure the House will appreciate the necessity of resolving the dispute within the partnership process, which has served the country well to date.

  The application to the High Court by CPSU members seeking a judicial review of the decision to remove members of the union from the payroll was heard two weeks ago on 27 and 28 May and judgment has been reserved. The Senator will appreciate that I will not comment on that judgment whenever it is forthcoming. Veterinary officers issuing movement permits and identity cards for livestock would have limited impact, given the volume of work involved and the number of veterinary officers in each office. This, coupled with the fact that there is a convention among trade union members not to perform the duties of another trade union member who is on strike, presented real difficulties for the Department. However, as I have said, we have as far as possible put arrangements in place to provide some level of service to farmers in the affected counties.

  The Senator mentioned REPS payments. Prior to the commencement of the dispute, the vast majority of applications were paid in accordance with the terms of the protocol for payments to farmers.

  Following the intervention of the national implementation body last week, I am satisfied that real progress has been made and that agreement will be reached within days to put a process in place which will enable the striking CPSU members to return to work. When the dispute is resolved, as I assure the Senator it will be, I will ensure that adequate arrangements are in place to deal with the backlog of work in the offices in question.

  My reply is short, for obvious reasons, but I am optimistic that within a number of days the staff in question will be back within their places of work and arrangements will be put in place to try to deal with the backlog. I appreciate the concerns of the Senator, as a public representative from that area, and all public representatives who have to deal with this on a daily basis. The fact is that all strikes cause hardship, particularly to innocent bystanders. In this case, we will be very happy to see it resolved. I hope we will have good news within the next few days.