Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Adjournment Matters

Industrial Relations.

7:00 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Since I tabled this matter last week there has been a considerable change in terms of the Labour Court outcome to the case in question. Prior to that, the Irish Nurses Organisation and the Psychiatric Nurses Association hoped for a more positive outcome in terms of their core demand to reduce the working week from 39 hours to 35 hours. The INO and the PNA will get together to try to formulate a strategic approach to getting their just entitlements and rights within the public service.

From working closely with local authorities and other State agencies, the Minister of State knows that only one arm of the public service works a 39-hour week, namely, nurses. This is a discriminatory practice and it would be wrong to revert the matter to be dealt with by benchmarking. The Labour Court was in a position to deal with it, but did not do so. For the Health Service Executive to kick the matter back to touch is the wrong way to go about this business. In the early 1990s, benchmarking did not work in respect of this issue, anomalies in pay conditions for nursing staff or anomalies in working hours. I ask the Minister of State to have a serious consultation with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, on this matter because the anger within the two organisations is growing. That anger is justified because of the way they have been treated, but it can be dealt with if we intervene at this stage. If we kick it to touch and leave benchmarking to deal with the issue, it will not be dealt with. We procrastinated before and that will happen again.

The Minister of State knows from his constituency that most nurses and nursing staff are female and work in arduous conditions with long and anti-social hours which put them under great stress. There are also males in the sector but the majority are female and it is discriminatory and sexist. The Government should not take its eye off the ball because their anger is building. The decision was made last Friday and now it is Wednesday. There is a meeting next week and I advise the Government to heed the demands of the Psychiatric Nurses Association and the Irish Nurses Organisation.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator McHugh for raising what is a very important issue and I am pleased to have the opportunity to answer the question on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. I welcome the opportunity to outline the position on the issues raised.

Since 1987 the social partnership agreements have helped to maintain a strategic focus on key national priorities and have created and sustained the conditions for employment growth, fiscal stability and the restructuring of the economy to respond to new challenges and opportunities. There has been a dramatic improvement in living standards and the culture of dialogue has served workers, employers and the people very well.

The parties to the previous national agreement, Sustaining Progress, had agreed that the benchmarking exercise was an important initiative in developing a better system of pay determination in the public sector. The parties further agreed that this process was an appropriate way of determining pay rates in the future. Following on from this, a new public service benchmarking body, PSBB, was established on 13 January 2006 by the Minister for Finance. The new PSBB is the mechanism for the determination of the pay of public servants, including nurses and midwives.

Members of the Irish Nurses Organisation, INO, and the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, had accepted pay increases under Sustaining Progress which endorsed benchmarking as the means of addressing claims concerning pay and conditions of employment. However, the INO and the PNA have since decided not to participate in the current benchmarking process.

Prior to the expiry of Sustaining Progress, the INO and the PNA lodged eight cost-increasing claims with the Health Service Executive employers' agency for improvements in pay and conditions. The eight claims were for a pay parity claim with social care and child care workers; a 35-hour week for nurses, without a corresponding reduction in pay; pay parity claim with therapist grades; introduction of a Dublin living allowance; increased shift premium payments; introduction of a preceptorship allowance; a review of clinical nurse specialist and advance nurse practitioner posts; and days lost during the 1999 strike to be reckoned for pension purposes.

An initial estimate of the ongoing cost of the claims is more than €800 million per annum and this does not include increased pension costs. In addition, the unions are seeking retrospection estimated at €566 million. It is also estimated that in excess of 4,000 additional nurses would be required to make up the shortfall if the working week were to be reduced from 39 to 35 hours.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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Can the Government not train more nurses?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It should be noted that other key health service grades, including junior doctors, health care assistants and other support staff, work a 39-hour week. Is that what Fine Gael is offering the people into the future?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I only suggest it for that part of the public service.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It would add €800 million to Exchequer costs. If the claims were to be conceded, there would be significant knock-on claims from other health service grades and the wider public service with an estimated cost to the Exchequer in excess of €600 million per annum.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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Would it be money well spent?

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister without interruption.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Acceding to this claim from the INO and the PNA would cost €1 billion. A Labour Court hearing on the claims was held on 20 June and the court issued its recommendation on 9 November. It noted that the social partnership agreements continued to have the support of the great majority of workers, their trade unions and employers. The court also stated that the agreements provided an agreed framework by which workers could obtain improvements in pay and conditions of employment.

The court did not recommend concession of any of the major claims made by the two unions. Instead the court urged the unions to reconsider their position with regard to participation in benchmarking to have their claims examined through that process.

The HSE employers' agency has accepted the Labour Court recommendation and has called on the unions to reconsider their attitude to the benchmarking process. The employers have also urged the INO and the PNA to sign up the current national agreement, Towards 2016. It should be noted that SIPTU and IMPACT, which represent a minority of nurses, are co-operating with benchmarking and have recently made written and oral submissions to the public service benchmarking body on behalf of their members. Government policy on cost-increasing claims is clear. It is not open to public service unions to pursue pay claims otherwise than in accordance with the terms of the prevailing national pay agreement.

The Minister values the essential contribution of nurses and midwives to the delivery of a quality health service and she urges the INO and the PNA, in the interests of both patients and staff, to give serious consideration to the court's recommendation.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I am struck by the emotive nature of the Minister of State's response. This is not a like-for-like demand. I am talking about a woman or a man who has worked in the nursing profession for perhaps 25 or 30 years. One cannot compare somebody with the skills and expertise of a nurse with a junior doctor just starting his or her career, who may also have to work 39 hours per week. Looking at different levels is a dangerous road to go down. The Minister of State knows, as he stated at the end of his response, the value of the contributions nurses make.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator is allowed to ask one supplementary question.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I ask the Minister to intervene. He should not use emotive language to suggest what nurses should do. He should become involved before it escalates because the nurses will ballot and may do so in a way not to the Government's liking.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The most important thing for the Government is to have an agreement going forward and participation in the benchmarking process, as laid out, from all public service unions. There is an opportunity under the benchmarking scheme for those workers and unions to have pay increases——

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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It did not work in the 1990s.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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——provided they come within the scope of benchmarking and the unions can prove their case. If we were to concede all the claims, which the Labour Court has not recommended, the Senator must accept that it would cost the Exchequer €1 billion more.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I do not suggest it accept all the claims. The Government should talk to the unions and listen to them.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We can only talk to them——

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator is allowed one question.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We can talk to them only in the context of the pay agreement. The Senator is hardly saying, on behalf of the Fine Gael Party, that——

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I am not here to make a political issue of it. I am speaking on behalf of the nurses.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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——we should talk to them and pay what the claim amounts to, which is €2 billion.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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Equal rights.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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All workers have equal rights.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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What equal rights? They work more hours than the average public servant.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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I call Senator McCarthy to raise his matter.