Wednesday, 18 October 2006
I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter and I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Seán Power, for coming in to participate in the debate.
As the Minister of State probably knows, Cobh General Hospital is a voluntary independent hospital that is community-run and not directly funded by the HSE south. It is operated by a board of management and currently has 35 employees, of whom 17 are nurses. The structure consists of a board of governors. The Minister of State is probably aware that the hospital was handed over by Lady Bell, I understand, in the 1920s. It is now run by a board of governors that is very interested in the future of the hospital and up to now it has been doing its best to manage it properly.
One of the main issues with the hospital, and the reason I am here, concerns the introduction of a pension scheme, particularly for the nurses and other staff. The HSE is funding the hospital indirectly in the main. As everyone agrees, the management structure is out of synchronisation with the management structure in other similar hospitals in the area and the State.
I understand the HSE is anxious to take over the hospital and the board of governors is anxious that this come about. The workers in the hospital are looking for it to be taken over also as the pension issue could then be dealt with. An issue appears to be the public service embargo on recruitment. Extra staff coming on board could possibly breach the embargo. This is the reason the Minister should get involved. It is only at this level the matter can be sorted out. Everybody else wants this to happen and it is now on the Minister's desk. It is up to her to make the decision and up to the Government to sanction it.
Once this happens, the hospital will come under the auspices of the HSE. In the long run, that will be better for the well-being of the patients in the hospital. That is the issue which everyone is focusing on, particularly the workers, nurses and the board of governors and management in the hospital. They are all anxious about the future of the patients.
There is a worry about the future recruitment and retention of staff due to the lack of a pension scheme. The Minister of State will understand there is a shortage of nurses in the State anyway. If a pension scheme is not in place, current nurses may leave. In the event of future vacancies, it may not be possible to recruit new staff.
This matter went before the Labour Court, which adjudicated on it on 10 July. It agreed with the issue put before it and noted the management was working towards a solution to the difficulty. It recommended the discussions continue and be concluded as quickly as possible, especially given the fact that some nurses and other staff are due to retire shortly, which should alert the Minister to the urgency of the situation.
The Labour Court was also alarmed to be informed that nurses with more than 20 years service in the health sector have no occupational pension entitlements. I am sure the Minister will also be alarmed by that. The issue must be resolved soon but cannot be because of the public service embargo. I hope the Minister will address this issue in his response tonight or, if not, will investigate the matter, reply accordingly and use his good offices to ensure the difficulty is resolved.
It is not hugely difficult in a global sense. The staff are being paid out of the public purse and the hospital is resourced similarly so the proposed solution should not, in practice, breach a public service embargo. It would also solve the pension scheme problem. By bringing the hospital under the auspices of the HSE other issues such as equipment could be dealt with and standards raised to the benefit of the patient and the town of Cobh.
I look forward with interest to the Minister's reply.
I thank Deputy Stanton for raising this matter on the Adjournment this evening I will attempt to clarify the matters raised by the Deputy.
As he knows these issues are primarily a matter for the Health Service Executive. Cobh General Hospital is a community-run facility with an independent board of management overseeing its administration. It is a legal entity in its own right and plays an important role in delivering services to older people in the Cobh area, through the provision of private and contracted publicly-funded beds. This is not a HSE hospital. It is, however, contracted by the Health Service Executive Southern Area, as one of a number of health care providers, to provide step-down facilities for older people in the region.
It is important to point out that employees of Cobh Hospital are not public sector employees and therefore do not have access to any public sector pension schemes. Eligibility for membership of public health sector pension schemes is based on a number of strict criteria that employees of Cobh General Hospital do not meet. The staff involved are the employees of the board of Cobh Hospital and their contracts of employment are with Cobh Hospital. The Department is advised by HSE southern area that there are no plans to change the employer-employee relationship.
The hospital, as an employer, is legally obliged to provide access to personal retirement savings accounts, PRSAs, for their employees. Employers are not obliged to contribute to a PRSA but must provide access for employees so that the employees can contribute if they wish to do so. The management of the hospital fulfilled its obligation in this regard in 2003. I am informed that there was no uptake by employees. Management at the hospital advised a Labour Court hearing in July of this year that due to a lack of resources, it was unable to introduce a pension scheme.
The Department of Health and Children is advised by HSE Southern Area that, following a recommendation of the Labour Relations Commission hearing in August 2005, there were discussions regarding governance and structural and management change at the hospital. The Labour Court recommended that the ongoing discussion between the HSE and Cobh Hospital continue. I confirm that regular meetings have taken place and will continue in this regard.