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Bus Éireann (Continued)

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 801 No. 4

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley] As all parties are currently committed to their positions in this dispute, there is entrenchment on both sides. How does the Minister plan to become involved? I accept the State has an industrial relations mechanism by which such a dispute would normally be resolved. Unfortunately, an impasse has been reached and it now appears extremely likely that strike action will take place, which will affect everyone concerned. The red lights are on and the Minister can see what is happening. He should not have allowed the travelling public or students who face exams to suffer to bring about a resolution because ultimately, such a resolution will come at some stage. Consequently, I call for the Minister to become involved as quickly as possible, thereby protecting those who depend so greatly on this vital transport network.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Peter Mathews): Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews I note Deputy English was scheduled to speak. Is he not taking his slot?

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty He is not present.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Peter Mathews): Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews Very well.

Deputy Brian Walsh: Information on Brian Walsh Zoom on Brian Walsh In common with the other Members present, I am sure the Minister is acutely aware that the financial circumstances facing Bus Éireann at present are dire. It has been acknowledged by both the Labour Court and the trade unions' own financial assessors that the company is in a highly precarious position and its very viability and future are under imminent threat. Most people would accept that the company must identify savings fast. It has accumulated losses of more than €27 million over the past five years and this simply is not sustainable. The prospect of industrial action would have serious implications for the company's viability, for those workers and their jobs and for those who rely on the services. As other speakers have noted, the timing is appalling, as 114,000 students are preparing for exams and this may be their only mode of transport to sit those exams. In addition, an entire community of elderly and retired people who live in remote parts of the country rely heavily on these services. Moreover, initial data appear to show the Minister's initiative, The Gathering, will be a huge success. In this context, it is important that the service be fully operational during the months ahead in order that the undoubted benefits that will accrue will be shared evenly across the entire country and not simply in urban areas. As the Minister is aware, many of Ireland's cultural treasures are located in rural areas and it is important that visitors have access to them. As Bus Éireann will play a highly important role in ensuring access to remote parts of the country, the timing is appalling.

I have a couple of questions. First, how long has this process of engagement between the unions, the management and the Labour Relations Commission been under way? Does the Minister expect them to re-engage with one another in the short term? As for the workers who have raised this issue, is it not the case that, unlike other public servants, their core pay has been protected in the past and will be protected in the future? The Minister should address these basic issues.

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Leo Varadkar): Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I thank the Deputies for raising this important and pressing matter. Bus Éireann is in a very difficult financial position. It has incurred accumulated losses of €27 million in the past five years, which is unsustainable and now places the viability of the company at risk. In June 2012 the company announced its business recovery plan, with savings of €20 million-----

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan On a point of order, is a ministerial script available to Members?

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I do not know, but the Deputy could listen-----

Acting Chairman (Deputy Peter Mathews): Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews I will let the Deputy know in a moment.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar -----if he likes.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan Sorry?

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar The Deputy could listen. However, I am sure a script will be provided for him.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan Hold on. This is not acceptable from the Minister.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley Tá siad ag teacht anois.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Peter Mathews): Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews The scripts have arrived.

Deputy Brian Walsh: Information on Brian Walsh Zoom on Brian Walsh It is not the responsibility of the Minister to provide scripts.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan Actually, it is. When the Deputy has been in the Dáil for a bit longer, he will understand that.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I understand the scripts are now being distributed. I also note that none of the Deputies opposite provided a script to me. I was obliged to listen to what they had to say and I hope they will listen to what I have to say. Would it be possible for me to start from scratch?

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan I have a script for the Minister, if he wants it.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Peter Mathews): Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews Please-----

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar The Deputy did not distribute it. However, if it is okay with the Deputy, I will not have a row with him over something petty and procedural. This is an important issue.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan Yes, it is.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I have provided a script now-----

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan Now. Fine.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar -----and the Deputy did not.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Peter Mathews): Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews I would like to rub clean the blackboard and have the Minister start again.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I thank the Acting Chairman.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. Bus Éireann is in a very difficult financial position. It has incurred accumulated losses of €27 million in the past five years, which is unsustainable and places the viability of the company at risk. In June 2012 the company announced its business recovery plan, with savings of €20 million, to bring the company back to profitability by 2013. Approximately €9 million in savings were to come from terms and conditions, with €11 million to come from operational savings. Although many of the operational savings have been delivered, no progress has been made on savings from terms and conditions, despite the involvement of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court in the process. Without the necessary savings from changes to terms and conditions, as well as ongoing inter-city service changes, Bus Éireann is facing annual losses of more than €11 million, which simply are not sustainable.

According to the Labour Court and the trade unions' own independent financial assessors, Bus Éireann is in a precarious financial situation, with the very viability of the company now under threat. In its recommendation of 8 February last, the Labour Court concluded that significant reductions in the company's cost base, including payroll costs, were essential to ensure its future and to protect employment within the company. Under the company's business recovery plan and the Labour Court recommendation, there would be no reductions to basic pay or employment levels. Moreover, there have been no reductions to basic pay to date, despite the reductions applied to so many others in the country. It is important to emphasise that these issues have been through the full industrial relations machinery of the State, culminating in a Labour Court recommendation that recognised that the savings must be made to protect the jobs of staff. Before implementing the recommendation, the company engaged further with the unions through the Labour Relations Commission to ascertain whether any alternative measures could be identified that would deliver the same savings. This process did not identify any viable alternatives and now, 11 months after negotiations started and three months after the Labour Court recommendation was handed down, the company simply cannot postpone the implementation any longer. I am assured it will engage with the unions at any time and in any place to discuss alternative approaches, but unless these are agreed, the implementation date of 12 May must proceed.

The future of the company must be secured for the public that depends on its services and for the benefit of its employees. Bus Éireann runs commercial Expressway services that are currently loss-making and legally, the State cannot subvent these services. The viability of these services can only be secured if these savings are achieved now. I greatly hope the management and the unions will use the period between now and 12 May to engage in further intensive dialogues, which will ensure the necessary savings are made and that the provision of bus services for the public and the jobs of the staff are preserved.

It is important to explain how Bus Éireann works to those who may not know. Essentially, it operates three sets of services. It operates schools services on a cost-recovery basis. It cannot make a profit on those services because, if it did, it would be obliged to put such services out to tender. The company operates a second set of services, namely, public service obligation, PSO, services. While these are subsidised by my Department, Bus Éireann cannot use the profits made from the PSO to cross-subsidise other services because that would be in breach of competition law. Finally, it operates commercial services that cannot be subsidised or subvented due to state aid rules. Consequently, this is not an issue of subvention and anyone who thinks I can find €1 million or €2 million from my budget or can re-profile spending and provide additional subvention to Bus Éireann to solve this problem is completely wrong, does not understand the facts and is misleading people. I cannot subvent commercial services that are now loss-making to the extent that they cannot be continued.

I also wish to conclude with the important point that there may be some Members of this House, particularly on the benches opposite, who think this Bus Éireann dispute is somehow emblematic of a bigger battle between unions and the Government over the Croke Park agreement or between management and workers or that it is some sort of ideological or philosophical debate about austerity. It is not. This is about a company that operates commercial services in competition with commercial operators and which is losing money. Its losses now are unsustainable, the jobs now are at risk, and the Labour Court says so. I wish to protect jobs, to save this publicly owned company and to protect services. The only way in which this can be done is for the Labour Court recommendation to be respected. I appeal to the Members opposite in this regard. There are bus drivers and Bus Éireann staff who have families to feed and mortgages to pay. There are passengers all over the country who need to get to work or to school. Let us not see bus drivers or Bus Éireann staff being out of pocket or anyone being inconvenienced, because the only way in which this can end is through the Labour Court recommendation being respected.

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I thank the Minister. While the Minister has answered my question, he might clarify it a little. I asked whether there was flexibility within his budget to support Bus Éireann, but if my understanding is correct, he stated clearly that even if this was the case, he is not in a position to subvent commercial services. He should confirm this point. In addition, I refer to the first of the three sections within the organisation, namely, the provision of school services. Will they be affected next week or will that service be separate to the actions that will be taken?

Deputy Joan Collins: Information on Joan Collins Zoom on Joan Collins According to figures supplied to me, €58 million was taken out of Dublin Bus in 2009.


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