Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Barry McElduff 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Peter Bunting ) Irish Congress of Trade Unions 
Mr John O’Farrell )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

I remind members that mobile phones should be switched off. I move now to our next presentation and evidence session, which is with representatives from the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). On behalf of the Committee, I am pleased to welcome Mr Peter Bunting, the assistant general secretary, and his colleague, Mr John O’Farrell. Thank you for your attendance; you are very welcome. The usual format is that you make a brief opening statement before making yourselves available for questions. We anticipate that the session will last approximately 25 minutes, although we are not bound to that — we are at the discretion of members.

Mr Peter Bunting (Irish Congress of Trade Unions):

Chairman, thank you very much for the invitation. We have supplied the Committee with a written submission.

The Chairperson:

That has been included in the information pack for members.

Mr Bunting:

Briefly, I will run through that submission and include some additional points which, perhaps, might stimulate some questions.

In relation to the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly in European issues, our concern has two main broad thrusts. First, there is the formation of policy at a European level. Secondly, there is the execution or implementation of that policy across Northern Ireland. We are deeply concerned about the employment of European Union funds, and that is the primary focus of the Barroso task force with which, I am sure, you are familiar. In many senses, from the trade unions’ perspective, and from workers’ perspectives, we believe that there is a whole other area, which centres on employment law.

As you are aware, over the past number of years, employment law has generally emanated from the European Union — the centre of what is termed as social Europe — specifically in relation to matters such as redundancy takeovers, transfer undertakings, insolvency, and, of course, working times, part-time workers, young people and pregnant women. Another reason for bringing that policy area to your attention is the fact that there does not appear to be sufficient means for ensuring that the Assembly has an input. You guys have autonomy over employment law in Northern Ireland. Rather than slavishly follow the interpretation of the GB Government, you could enhance the quality of life, and the protection of workers, in Northern Ireland. That is something, I believe, in which the Assembly could be a major impetus, particularly in relation to how UK policy is determined.

On employment matters, we would like to see a system introduced, and an arrangement between the Assembly and Westminster, around employment rights and employment matters which originate from the EU and how they are transposed. You will be aware that the Westminster Government have sought to opt-out of the working time directive, putting them out of kilter with many of the rest of the central European countries. The directive on employment agency workers has come with the compromise of a 12-week clause, and the information and consultation directive is another compromise. In many senses, the British Government have sought derogation, and we believe that that is not in line with the European social model as envisaged by those, certainly in the trade union movement, who are very supportive of the European Union.

At times, the trade union movement is schizophrenic on many issues, and Europe can be one of those. However, our organisation in the Republic is not bad — compared to some of our affiliated unions in Northern Ireland.

The future regulation of the European energy industry is something that exercises our minds. Although there are wonderful solutions in Europe with regard to breaking up monopolies, Northern Ireland is a very small market, and so there is no room for a multiplicity or complication in that particular industry across Northern Ireland, or on the island at large, and that is something that we are concerned about.

The other area is the structural funds, which brings us back to the Barroso task force. The task force identified many of the same economic remedies that were propositioned by the trade union movement, which are linked to education and the high number of economically inactive in Northern Ireland — quite a dysfunctional economy in the sense of the small size of the private sector, and also the fact that our education system appears to let us down at times. For example, 47% of pupils leave school without the basic threshold of seeking employment with five GCSEs. There is also the 24% or 25% of people who are deemed to be illiterate or innumerate. In many senses, we share many of the findings of the Barroso task force on the economy.

With regard to deriving the benefits from European Union structural funds and the Peace programmes, those are central to how local partnership arrangements across Northern Ireland work. We had difficulty at the beginning with the amalgamation of council areas, whereby the trade union movement and social partnerships, which had played a huge role at the beginning of Peace I and Peace II, were at times excised from some of those arrangements. As far as I am aware, they are now back on track after engagement with the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).

Yesterday, we had a meeting of the social partners in Northern Ireland — economists, those from all aspects of the energy industry, the chambers of commerce, the CBI, the trade union movement, and the community and voluntary sector — to discuss what could be termed as a new deal, which would consider the whole business of green energy, sustainable job creation, retention of jobs and growing innovative products in Northern Ireland. We were informed at that meeting that a terrible lot of funding is going begging in Europe under the Seventh Framework Programme for Research, particularly in relation to green economic competitiveness.

There are various rafts of money available under EU sustainable programmes for projects linked to energy efficiency as priorities, with help getting into sustainable employment and training in sustainability. All of those issues are crucial as to how Northern Ireland should avail in the economic downturn, so that, when the upturn begins, we are in the position of being able to benefit from that. From the representations and views expressed yesterday by those who are far more knowledgeable on the subject than I am, those funds are not being drawn down in Northern Ireland while they are available, and that is a problem.

As we concentrate our minds as to how best we should grow that economy in Northern Ireland, there are opportunities available under INTERREG IV. As you and I know, INTERREG IV and IVa cover not only Northern Ireland, but the Republic of Ireland and western Scotland, with an emphasis on maritime issues. Surely that gives us an opportunity to build a number of projects worth millions of pounds that would create some degree of sustainability in linkages with our natural hinterlands, such as the Republic of Ireland and western Scotland, and we should be attempting to achieve that.

We should be concentrating on the reimplementation of the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry, and finding out what funds are available under a tourist link. Many of us are aware of other natural linkages between western Scotland and Northern Ireland — both culturally and linguistically — and there are other areas. We see those as opportunities, and we should be grasping those opportunities now.

It is not mentioned in our papers, but we are advocating that the Assembly should appoint someone to look after EU issues — either an external Minister, an EU Minister, or an EU access fund Minister.

Without another wonderful job being created, someone should be responsible for accessing the funding that is available across all the Departments. The European globalisation adjustment fund is designed to help workers who have lost their jobs as a result of fundamental changes in international trade that were triggered by globalisation. It is 50% funded, and some £500 million is available through the fund each year — the threshold used to be £1,000 million.

Seagate had 900 employees, and those people could have availed of the fund’s provisions for job-search assistants, occupational guidance, training, certification of acquired experience, job search and mobility allowances. I am not aware of DEL, DETI or any other Department having availed of that European funding, and I have not seen that mooted anywhere in the media. Opportunities for Northern Ireland seem to be going a-begging for whatever reason, and we are not availing of all the available European funding.

The UK Government has essentially said that all structural funding should be directed towards eastern Europe and that prosperous member states — such as us — should be responsible for looking after poorer regions. We do not think that the UK Government should be allowed to do that, because there are multiple areas of deprivation in Northern Ireland, both urban and rural. Indeed, rural poverty is often forgotten, with a lot more emphasis placed on Belfast-centric or urban poverty.

There is also some degree of increase in staffing levels. I have visited the Northern Ireland Office in Brussels, and its staff are very efficient. The office places particular emphasis on agriculture — which, hopefully, incorporates fishing — and the environment. That is to the detriment of the economy, funding and educational arrangements such as Erasmus programmes.

There is jaundiced view of Europe in Britain and, indeed, within our movement, which is in contrast to the Republic of Ireland’s view of Europe. Its positive view of Europe was a contributory factor to the growth of the Republic of Ireland’s economy between 1994 and 2001 before the construction industry made it self-sustainable. That has collapsed now, but it should never be forgotten that the Republic of Ireland created 900,000 jobs and doubled the employment figure. How many of those jobs remain?

A lot of the infrastructure, which dramatically changed the landscape of the Republic of Ireland, was created through the pro-European ethos of its civil servants. Those civil servants saw Brussels as a promotional opportunity, permeated every crevice, nook and cranny of the EU system and, in two terms, brought home the bacon. We do not have people in Brussels working for us at that level.

It behoves us to have people who are interested in going to Europe to benefit Northern Ireland. Our society needs that, because our economy, which is dysfunctional at the best of times, is looking into the abyss. We have the highest level of economic inactivity, which is wonderful phraseology for non-productive people. Some 500,000 people in Northern Ireland are deemed to be economically inactive and non-productive. Indeed, the labour market here can be distilled to 439,000 nine-to-fivers.

That is not sustainable in any economy. We need to get to a situation where, whatever is going on, we have a hands-on approach to build and grow the economy.

That is just the broad thrust of our views. I know that you are constrained by time, and I am constrained by time as well, because I thought that I was coming in here at 2.15pm. Sorry about that.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. A number of members have indicated that they would like to ask questions.

Mr Shannon:

Thank you for coming along today, Peter. You have mentioned the EU structural funds. One thing that has come out through the meetings that we have had all over the United Kingdom, and indeed with the Republic, has shown that maybe there is strength in having a stronger regional voice. There seems to be an indication from Westminster that they are prepared to give the regions a stronger voice. Do you think that if that were to be the case that you could influence things better in relation to Europe and what directions they take?

Regarding the energy market, energy is clearly going to be a big issue for us because of where we are and the fact that we have to bring much of our energy in. I am keen to get your ideas on how we could influence the energy debate, and how we can help here.

Mr Bunting:

I do not have a monopoly on wisdom for what is best, and I cannot wave a magic wand, Jim, but regarding regionals, I think that it is a Europe of regions anyway. There is certainly a role for small regions, be they devolved administrations within the UK framework, or devolved regions — I think that the Committee is going to visit some of them in Spain or Germany or wherever.

If Europe is to become meaningful to people, to break down some of that bureaucracy, it needs to concentrate on, and give something back to, the regions. That is crucial if Europe is to matter to all of us in the future, and certainly to the citizens who go out and vote. I would advocate a strong support of Europe. Europe, to many of us, modernised this island in many ways. It put a lot of emphasis on the social as opposed to the economic, and workers would not have half of the protections that they have in the workplace but for the social dimension of Europe. So, I think that there is a role for regions, and there is certainly a role for the Northern Ireland Assembly. After all, you are our democratically elected representatives, and it would be remiss of Europe, or of anyone else, to ignore your input into the drafting and formulation of European policy.

On the issue of energy, I attended a meeting of the council of the isles of the trade union movement. I know that there are various councils of the isles, but this one is an annual meeting of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), the Welsh TUC and the Scottish TUC, which took place last November. I was amazed at how both the Welsh and the Scottish, in collaboration with their First Ministers, had taken deliberate policy moves on developing new green energies and their emphasis on that. We are five or six months behind them, so we are trying to capture a niche and get ahead of them, because in one sense, our regions are in competition.

The discussion yesterday on a new deal was very informative, and through time, when we have got a consensus or a paper on how best to go ahead — which I assume would be circulated to all MLAs — we need to get into renewables. We cannot, as a society and as a region, keep going ahead with the carbon footprint that we have: we must reduce it. There is funding available that we can avail of.

There are issues in relation to wind- and wave-power, and there are greater experts than me, but there are issues in Northern Ireland, such as the planning system, which would inhibit that. More importantly, if you look at the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), a lot of that is designed specifically toward green energy competitiveness and innovation. We need to be doing that in Northern Ireland. It is a given under the Programme for Government that we are going to do that. The longer that we wait, the more that it will cost us, and we will be playing catch-up.

I keep coming back to this, but there needs to be someone — whether a he or a she — from the Northern Ireland Assembly sourcing those funds. I am more concerned about the manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland. We have good skills and a wealth of expertise in engineering in particular, which was the forte of Northern Ireland for many years. We still have that ability, but we are losing it. There is still innovation in Northern Ireland. Look at Wrightbus in Ballymena. It is one of the most innovative manufacturing plants on this island. If not one of the most innovative, it is one of the successful indigenous plants on the island. We need to build on that.

We also need to use the crafts that were used in the shipyard, to build wind turbines. Such innovations should be put in place, and money to create the energy efficiencies must be utilised. As a spin-off, clusters of SMEs should share market intelligence and new technologies to create a manufacturing industry that will avail itself of the benefits of its position in Europe, and that will combat the rise of the carbon footprint.

Ms Anderson:

Much of what you said about tapping into or maximising our potential in Europe has been said already. One of the things that we picked up on in the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) was the progress programme, where there is £750 million. As far as we know, DEL has not made a bid for that programme. You mentioned another programme in relation to Seagate Technology and the opportunities there.

We met Lord Trimble in Westminster. He said that the change to the structural fund will not have an adverse impact in the North. According to him, it will not have an adverse effect, because it is not additional money and it will not affect the Budget. However, you have a different slant on it.

Mr Bunting:

I will pass the name of the programme to the Chairperson and the Assembly Clerk. The UK Government have submitted their views on the EU structural funds to 2013 to the European Commission. The Government’s view is that beyond 2013, EU funds should be restricted to the poorest regions of the European Union, and the larger more prosperous member states — such as the United Kingdom — should be responsible for looking after their own poorer regions.

That is what we have been told by our people who sit on the European Economic and Social Council, which is at the heart of Europe. ICTU has two representatives on that council, both of them from Northern Ireland.

Ms Anderson:

Lord Trimble told us that, but he said that it would not have an adverse impact, because it was not additional money and it was included in the block grant. He said that the North did not have to worry about that process.

Mr Bunting:

I trust the person who gave me my information. I would trust him more at this stage than I would trust anyone else, because this person is at the heart of Europe.

The Chairperson:

You need to be careful, because the Committee is being reported by the Hansard staff. [Laughter.]

Mr Bunting:

I accept that. In our dealings regarding workplace learning and training, I have had nothing but the highest respect for the Minister for Employment and Learning. We are close to DEL. The work that the Minister and his Department are doing on workplace learning, for instance, should be used as an example to a lot of other Ministers in Northern Ireland. I am not saying that because Mr Kennedy is the Chairperson of this Committee; I know it from our experience. I will be looking for money from the Minister him next week. [Laughter.]

DEL is making an enormous contribution in such areas as reskilling, retraining and apprenticeships in these difficult times. I do not know whether anyone pursued the particular fund that I mentioned to you. It was featured in the media in relation to other closures, such as the Dell closure in Limerick. Nobody in the Republic of Ireland availed themselves of the fund either.

The Chairperson:

We will take the opportunity to investigate that for our own information. We thank you for providing that information, and we will reflect that back to you.

Ms Anderson:

Do you think that the changes to the 2013 structural funds will have an adverse effect later on?

Mr Bunting:

Our view is that it will impact a lot on the funds that are available for Northern Ireland.

Mr Molloy:

Thank you for your presentation. Will you elaborate on the question about Peace III and the evidence that trade unions have been cut out of that role? How do you get accountability with regard to community involvement in Peace III and all the different structures?

Mr Bunting:

Representatives from local council groups, employers, the community and voluntary sector, and trade unions were involved in discussions on Peace I and Peace II. However, when they amalgamated and formed into bundles of three, or whatever, those people were excluded, and elected members and officials more or less took over.

The trade union movement never got any money out of it, by the way. Local volunteers played a huge role in mediating between the competing factions to avail of local funding under Peace I and Peace II. Therefore, it was to the detriment of the broad communities, including Derry City Council and Strabane District Council, and there was an attempt to move them out. There was an attempt to exclude the trade union movement and the Concordia — the social partners’ body — from it. That has now been rectified, but it was only rectified after this was written and after we made representation to the SEUPB, which is the guardian of the fund and the structures of how the fund should be administered.

Mr Molloy:

With regard to the linkages with people working for us in Europe, you are right in saying that, compared to the South, we do not have anything like the number of people who are working in other places. Evidence that we heard from Queen’s University and others was that they were reluctant to let people travel and to get involved completely to take up jobs in Brussels or elsewhere in Europe. Does the trade union movement have any linkages that would encourage people to make that jump across and that would be of benefit to people?

Mr Bunting:

We were actually assisting in people’s career prospects. However, to be honest, I know some people, including my good self at times, who think that some European tracts are like watching paint dry, and they are very turgid.

The Chairperson:

You have not been downstairs yet, have you?

Mr Bunting:

No, I have not. In that context, I am trying to get across the fact that it is a cultural thing. It is an ethos about how people can best help their locality. That is the primary aim. People who have gone to work in Europe are good at making friends, they have made good contacts right across Europe, and they are very well liked in the community. That is why I advocate that more of our civil servants should be located there, because they can identify the gaps in funding and identify where we are not applying for it. That is where their role is highly significant.

Mr O’Farrell:

I would like to make a brief comment. Perhaps we need to improve links between Northern Ireland and other regional assemblies in Europe. The task force report specifically compares Northern Ireland to six other regions in the European Union, which are of roughly the same population size.

As you mentioned earlier, you are going to meet representatives from other regions in the European Union, as part of these evidence sessions. Perhaps one suggestion would be to beef up the idea of town twinning and have more of a direct linkage between other regions of the European Union, which have had other experiences. The task force report specifically mentions our experience in conflict resolution. However, there are other things that we have in common with other regions in Europe. For example, we are an area whose economy is dominated by a traditional manufacturing base. Other regions in Europe have similar problems trying to readjust their economy to avoid the pitfalls that we have had in our recent recovery. It could be argued that the recovery that our economy has had in the past few years has been dependent on short-term improvements, specifically in relation to the construction and retail sectors.

If we are going to have a long-term economic future, we will have to find something concrete and long term that will act as a proper replacement for manufacturing, which is not going to come back.

Perhaps those types of linkages can be used — not just between Northern Ireland and Brussels in respect of what we can get it out of it, but between other regions of Europe — to essentially bypass the national behemoths.

Mr Elliott:

Thank you for your presentation. You mooted some fairly serious accusations. Did you not slightly contradict each other in what you said, especially in respect of what John just said? On the one hand, Peter said that we had to get more structured funding from Europe — and I agree, if it is there, we should be getting it. Some serious accusations were levelled at some Departments and the Executive in general. There was almost an inference that we could have saved Seagate had some of that funding been realised.

On the other hand, John said that we must look at the longer term and focus on businesses that are here for the long haul. I have always been supportive of indigenous businesses, because those are the businesses that will always be here, whether they employ only five people, 20 people or 100 people. They will be here and — I hope — stay here, unless they hit real economic difficulties.

My question is two-fold. First, Peter, you made some serious accusations. I want to hear more about the funding streams that we have missed out on. If we have missed out on funding, has that information been relayed to the relevant Departments? I do not see any reference to that in the briefing paper; perhaps I missed it. Let us hear about that.

Secondly, there seems to be a conflict between what the two of you said about getting funding on a short-term basis essentially. You cannot rely on European funding, although, to be fair, it has created a number of jobs in Northern Ireland; however, the long-term nature of those jobs is questionable, too.

Mr Bunting:

I am sorry if I misled you, I am not advocating that the funding would have saved Seagate. I said that the funding would have gone a long way towards retraining the 900 staff who were let go from Seagate and that European funding exists for that area. You can read in the briefing paper about why £500 million of European funding exists specifically for that purpose.

If you listened carefully to what I said you would know that I said that we did not avail of that funding. I did not see anything mentioned in the media to the contrary; I might have missed it. My point is about training those 900 people from Seagate. You can be rest assured that if 900 or 500 jobs were lost in any other European country that is well clued in to Europe that it would be availing of that funding. We need to be as cute and as useful as them. After all, somewhere along the line we are paying for that money. We are not getting handouts; we are entitled to get that money.

Mr O’Farrell:

With respect, there was no contradiction at all. A press release on the Barroso Taskforce Report outlines, for example, that the regional competitiveness and employment programme has a budget of €640 million, with €307 million of investment from the EU. That programme includes the setting up 60 new centres in research and development and contributing to the starting up of 250 new businesses.

Peter and I, and the trade union movement as a whole, have said that the Northern Ireland economy is drastically underdeveloped in certain areas, particularly in research and development. The hoped-for EU average for research and development as a proportion of GDP is 2·4%. The Lisbon protocol, which was designed a few years ago to boost the European-wide economy, aims for every member state and region to have an average of 3% of GDP devoted to research and development. Our average stands at 0·8%. That is one of the lowest averages in Europe and the second lowest of any region in the United Kingdom.

The European Union is offering concrete money to develop clusters of small businesses — the very ones that Mr Elliott spoke about. Funding can help develop, grow and create not just more jobs but more jobs for the long term. It is about engaging with Europe to try to improve our situation here and to learn from best practice abroad. Perhaps then we can export our own best practice in fields that are a bit more hopeful than that of conflict resolution.

The Chairperson:

We have received your paper, which we are in the process of copying, circulating and investigating.

There have been cases when possible solutions were offered; however, upon investigation, it was found that it was not possible to avail of or obtain European funding that was, apparently, available. From memory, there was a recent case that related to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Mr Spratt:

It is a pretty serious allegation to suggest that Departments did not look into that. At the time, I was Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning. I must say that the Minister and DEL did a lot of work for the Seagate employees. The Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister at the time was also active in putting together training programmes, and so forth, to support people who had lost their jobs in that region. The area’s MLAs, from all parties, worked together to try to sort that out. Therefore, it is a bit unfair to set a document down in front of us that is dated February 2009.

I wonder whether you can give me a direct answer. Was the trade-union movement heavily involved at Seagate? You mentioned that the Irish Government did not pick up on it with regard to the Dell situation in Limerick. Did the trade-union movement draw that to the Department’s attention at any point in time during its discussion about funding, or have you only picked up on the matter as well?

Mr Bunting:

To be quite open and honest, we picked up on it after the Dell situation emerged. We had no engagement in the Seagate situation. Seagate is a non-unionised factory. However, we offered to advise workers on their redundancies. They were not part of an organised trade-union movement.

I am not making allegations. I am saying that I was unaware that that fund was utilised in training. I bring it to your attention because we should avail of that funding as a mechanism to tackle future job losses. The original threshold was a minimum of 1,000 people. That has since been reduced to 500, by the way. I stand to be corrected if that is erroneous, although that is my understanding.

You are quite right; the Republic of Ireland did not avail of that funding either with regard to Dell. However, it has come to light as a result of the situation at the Dell factory in Limerick, which has, obviously, occurred in 2009, and, consequently, after what happened at Seagate. You are quite right that, clearly, the movement did not notice it either. Had we, we would have brought it to somebody’s attention.

The Chairperson:

I thought that there would be a demarcation dispute on that issue. However, there was not.

Mr Bunting:

I do not want mixed messages to come out of what I say in case somebody gets confused again.

Ms Anderson:

We have heard evidence from a number of people, Chairperson, which has shown us that the work that is being done in the North could be stepped up a gear. We could get access to funding of which we have not availed. That is not the case in any one Department, but across all Departments and the Executive. We have inherited that. That is the whole purpose of our inquiry.

Therefore, I do not believe that we should be precious about it. If we have lost an opportunity — and we know that we may have lost other opportunities in the past — we must try to rectify that in the future. If we are in receipt of information that tells us that there are opportunities that we can maximise, we must try to share that knowledge, so that Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons of other Committees are aware of it, and to ensure that funding can be accessed and maximised.

Mr Spratt:

The point that I was making, Martina, was the fact that people who worked at Seagate were probably dealt with a lot better under devolution than they would have been under direct rule. A lot of work was done quickly — much of which was outside the box.

Ms Anderson:

That was acknowledged by some of the workers.

Mr Bunting:

I acknowledge the work of the Minister for Employment and Learning, for whom I have a lot of respect and time. He is doing that work in, probably, the worst possible circumstances.

I suggest that that would have followed on and would not have hindered or inhibited the closure of the Dell factory. However, money would have been available to train people who have been made redundant and have lost their jobs. To put them into training programmes, and so on, would help them. If money is available, we must access it. That is the message.

The Chairperson:

We will, certainly, investigate the paper that you have produced. We will make you aware of the outcome of that. Thank you for making yourselves available and for your presentation.

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