Passport staff union issues protective strike notice

 

Passport services could be moved to another department or even outsourced to private operators as the backlog of unprocessed applications reached 50,000, a senior Government official warned today.

Long queues have formed again today at the Passport Office in Dublin where low-level industrial action by staff has led to significant delays for people hoping to collect passports.

In an emergency Oireachtas committee meeting, Foreign Affairs secretary general David Cooney said his department would review the possibility of privatising the Passport Office or moving it to another Government department.

“Clearly the outsourcing option is there. It is something there would be some concerns about - but it is there, it exists,” he told TDs and Senators.

But he added any move could not happen overnight and that the best route for quickly reducing the massive backlog of passport applications was to resolve the industrial dispute with the workers’ union.

However, Mr Cooney insisted Foreign Affairs senior management and Passport Office managers had nothing to offer the CPSU because their row was with central Government.

Revealing the backlog of unprocessed applications had now reached 50,000, the senior civil servant said he would report to Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin on the possibility of legal action to stop the union interfering with the issuing of passports.

Mr Cooney also agreed to consider another proposal by Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter to warn the CPSU they could be held liable for compensation claims brought by people disrupted by the dispute.

Meanwhile, government sources have confirmed the Civil Public and Services Union (CPSU) has issued protective strike notice for staff working at passport offices.

Government sources said this notification was made through a letter but added this did not mean automatic strike action would follow.

Speaking earlier today, the deputy general secretary of the CPSU, Eoin Ronayne, said: "The serving of notice is primarily protective in nature, its got really nothing to do with escalating the dispute or trying to screw any further on the public".

This is primarily a tactical manoeuvre where management issued a letter over the union’s head directly to individual staff members for pursuing industrial action on Monday, he said, adding: "It would be normal in any dispute if they escalate and take pay off of us then we have to have some method of response, and that’s what it is - it's protective notice," he said on RTÉ radio.

"There are now 50 to 60 staff left in the passport office as a result of the moratorium. That has contributed hugely to the backlog, nothing to do with industrial action," Mr Ronayne added.

An offer by protesting workers to prioritise urgent travel applications will have no major impact on delays in the service, Mr Martin said last night.

After criticism of its industrial action this week, the CPSU said yesterday it would extend the grounds for emergency passport provision beyond the criteria of bereavement and serious illness to cover immediate travel. It is not clear if this arrangement has been agreed with management.

Mr Martin has urged the CPSU to suspend its industrial action as it was “the only realistic way of clearing the backlog of applications in the system”.

"While the decision of the CPSU to deal with people with imminent travel plans is welcome, it will not have any major impact,” he said. Bringing more people to the public counter would not alleviate the problems at the Molesworth Street office in Dublin, he said.

He urged unions to drop their overtime ban and to allow the annual recruitment of 50 temporary staff to deal with the seasonal demand.

Fine Gael foreign affairs spokesman Billy Timmins also called for the unions to allow temporary workers to come in to help deal with the backlog and to enable employees to do overtime.

The CPSU reiterated today it would not be calling off its campaign of action.

It said its proposed measures would help reduce the pressure on the Passport Office, although it conceded that because of the large backlog in applications it could not guarantee that everyone with immediate travel requirements would receive their passports on time.

The CPSU annual delegate conference is due to get underway at the Radisson Hotel in Galway tomorrow and will conclude on Saturday.