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Adjournment Debate. - Environmental Health Officers' Dispute.

Wednesday, 8 May 1996

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 465 No. 1

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Mr. Killeen: Information on Tony Killeen Zoom on Tony Killeen The environmental health officers, represented by the union IMPACT, are in dispute with the Department of Health. The impasse dates from January of this year and is having a negative effect in the tourism and services sector. All first applications for registration by Bord Fáilte of hotels, licensed restaurants, guest houses and cafés require prior sanction by the environental health officers under the [315] hygiene regulations. People who are changing restaurants to licensed restaurants also require approval before they can be registered. Due to the dispute the environmental health officers do not undertake this work. Consequently, new businesses in the categories affected cannot operate legally, nor can they be registered in their appropriate categories. This is having a devastating effect on the individuals concerned and many of them are in severe financial difficulties as a result.

The dispute is detrimental to the maintenance of high standards in the delivery of services to tourists. It would be a pity if unscrupulous operators were to benefit from it. The fear has been expressed to me that some individuals may be able to seize this opportunity to gain registration by default and this must not be allowed to happen.

I understand some health boards have returned valid applications and fees to the applicants and advised them to resubmit them when the dispute has been settled. This is most unfair to those who are seeking in good faith to comply with the regulations, particularly in view of the fact that an attempt is not being made to settle the dispute.

The dispute is also creating difficulties for the operators of food stalls who need an annual licence. Are some of these people operating without the required licence? Since week end or late night inspections are not being carried out because of the dispute, there is a major question mark over the standards in this area. Events which have outdoor catering and are of more than one day's duration also need a permit. These have also fallen victim to the dispute. Many outdoor events play an important economic role in communities and require outdoor catering facilities to operate effectively. At this stage some of the major events are at an advanced stage of planning and the organisers need to be assured that potential hitches will be avoided.

The environmental health officers have traditionally advised business [316] people in advance of making applications, yet this practice has ceased. Arising from the dispute, the environmental health officers are no longer checking private nursing homes. This is a matter of grave concern and requires an urgent response from the Minister.

The dispute arose this time last year when the officers declined to take on students to work with them for a time as part of their training. This action was discontinued and restructuring talks began but collapsed late last year. The union argued that officers' workload increased significantly since the last review in 1981, that the health boards are in receipt of a substantial income arising from their work and that this ought to be taken into account in determining their rate of remuneration.

I am informed that an arbitrator found against the officers early in 1994. Many in this House would not be surprised at the outcome if they knew who adjudicated on the matter. An attempt to break the logjam under option B of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work also appears to have failed. I understand negotiations are not under way at present. This is clearly the most serious aspect of a very important matter.

I call on the Minister to take immediate action to end the dispute while there is still a reasonable level of co-operation. The environmental health officers are currently co-operating in emergency situations. This dispute has already adversely affected many people. There is an onus on the Government to seek an early resolution and ensure that no further escalation occurs.

Minister for Health (Mr. Noonan,: Information on Michael Noonan Zoom on Michael Noonan Limerick East): A pay claim submitted by IMPACT on behalf of environmental health officers for a salary revision was processed through the standard industrial relations procedures and was the subject of two hearings by a board under the scheme for a National Joint Council and Arbitration Board for Local Government and Health Services.

[317] The arbitration board heard submissions from both parties on 31 January 1994. The hearing continued on 18 February 1994 and the claim was considered by the board in private on the same date, following which the chairman issued his findings.

The arbitration board rejected the basis on which the claim was made. Both the management and staff interests had opted to refer the matter to arbitration. By convention, the decisions of the arbitration board are accepted by both sides. However, IMPACT, on behalf of the environmental health officers, rejected the arbitration report and commenced industrial action in the spring of 1995. The industrial action was eventually suspended following agreement to process the claim under clause 2 (iii) — Annex 1 of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work.

On entering these negotiations, management and union agreed a framework agenda which would form the basis for discussions. As discussions progressed, it became clear that the broad range of issues raised by the staff side could not possibly be addressed within the terms of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work, which limits the pricing of any agreement reached to approximately 3 per cent. Both management and staff were aware from the outset that they were obliged to negotiate within the confines of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work. The management side entered the negotiations in good faith but could not agree with the environmental health officers statement that they had a “unique case” as all health professions negotiating under clause 2 were limited to an award of approximately 3 per cent and, as the majority of these professions are represented by IMPACT, the scope of the negotiations was clear-cut from the outset.

In the course of the negotiations, management tabled an offer which was rejected by the staff side as it failed to meet their aspirations as set out in their original pay claim, aspirations which far [318] exceeded the terms of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work. IMPACT, on behalf of environmental health officers, then withdrew from negotiations and opted to recommence their work to rule with effect from 15 January 1996. The environmental health officers' work to rule involves non-cooperation with and non-implementation of legislation pertaining to a broad range of environmental health issues.

The Special Restaurant Licence (Standards) Regulations, 1988 were made by the Minister for Tourism and Trade, with the consent of the Minister for Justice, under section 12 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1988 and are implemented by Bord Fáilte. These regulations provide for the grant of a Bord Fáilte certificate to restaurants which comply with the requirements and standards set out in the regulations. The grant of such a certificate is a prerequisite for a restaurant to apply, through the courts, for a special restaurant licence under section 8 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act. A restaurant owner, when making an application for a Bord Fáilte certificate, must furnish a wide range of documentary evidence in support of the application, including evidence under section 4 (2) (b), Part II of the 1988 regulations that the health board is satisfied that the provision of facilities for serving a full range of drinks in the restaurant would not interfere with the requirements of the Department of Health's Food Hygiene Regulations, 1950 to 1989.

As a result of the ongoing work to rule by environmental health officers, health boards are not in a position to issue restaurant owners with the necessary documentary evidence required by Bord Fáilte relating to the Food Hygiene Regulations 1950 to 1989. My Department, under the auspices of the Local Government Staff Negotiations Board, remains available for discussions at all times should IMPACT, on behalf of environmental health officers, wish to re-enter negotiations within the terms of Programme for Competitiveness and Work.

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