Tuesday, 4 October 2016
Commencement Matters (Resumed)
Trade Union Agreements
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for coming to take this matter. I am somewhat disappointed that no Minister from the Department of Health is here. This issue was raised by my colleague, Senator Devine, on an Order of Business. Indeed, she raised the matter with the Taoiseach when he was in the House last week.
The Minister of State will be aware that in December 2015, the Psychiatric Nurses Association of Ireland, PNAI, and SIPTU's nursing unions reached an agreement with the Department of Health and the HSE to restore full recognition of the 36-week internship from 2011 onwards. It would appear that the Department unilaterally changed this agreement and only sanctioned recognition for those who graduated from this year onwards. This has created the anomalous situation where nurses and midwives who graduated between 2011 and 2015 will earn less than those who graduated before 2011 and, in some cases, less than those who graduated this year.
Apart from being discriminatory, receiving different pay for the same work is profoundly demoralising and will affect already challenging retention rates. I do not need to remind the Minister of State of the outright failure of the bring our nurses home campaign, of the importance of retaining nurses to ensure that the winter beds initiative can be delivered and that the annual overtime agency costs, currently in the region of €22 million, will be reduced. Denying this particular cohort their incremental credit is a false economy. I am aware that following their demonstration on 27 September, the unions met the Minister for Health who agreed that there was a pay anomaly and that he would make representations to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
I have three questions for the Minister of State present. Why and on whose authority was it decided to change the 2015 agreement in the first place? When and how soon will the anomaly be reversed? Will he guarantee that the anomaly will be reversed before budget 2016?
We are all acutely aware of the precarious nature of industrial relations right now. We are sitting on a tinderbox. I have called for the reopening of the Lansdowne Road agreement, as I want everybody in under the umbrella. I believe having everybody in would suit the Government and the overall recovery policy for the country.
The current situation is totally unnecessary and is something that we must guard against. I would appreciate if the Minister of State would answer my three questions.
I thank the Senator for raising the issue and for his three questions. I am here to speak on behalf of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. He was invited to attend but could not make it. I cannot answer for the Minister for Health but I do not think he was invited. Perhaps there is some issue there. I will set out the scene in respect of the issue raised and answer some of the questions.
In response to the last question on whether I can guarantee that this will be changed before budget 2016. I cannot guarantee that because it is budget 2017 that will be announced next week. I cannot guarantee that it will be changed then but I know about the issue and will set out the timeline.
It was asserted that there was no consultation but that is not the case. There has been consultation between the Department of Health, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the unions and even the Workplace Relations Commission. Plenty of consultation has taken place. It is unfair to say that there was no consultation but I know the point that the Senator was trying to make. The main issue the Senator is raising is that the INMO and other nursing unions, the PNA and SIPTU, have initiated a campaign aimed at restoring incremental credit for the 36-week clinical placement undertaken in the fourth and final year of their degree programme in respect of former nursing trainees serving in the period 2011-15.
The background to this issue is that incremental credit for the 36-week clinical placement undertaken by fourth-year student nurses was abolished by the then Government in December 2010 as part of a range of measures aimed at reducing the public service pay bill. Prior to this decision, nurses following graduation would go onto the second point of the salary scale after 16 weeks on taking up appointment with the HSE.
The issue of the incremental credit for the trainee nurses concerned was raised during the negotiations on the Lansdowne Road agreement and, arising from this, a chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement specifically provided for consideration of the matter. The details in this regard were to the effect that incremental credit for the trainees concerned would be examined in the context of nurse and midwifery recruitment and retention. This process of examination involving the relevant management and union interests concluded in January 2016 and subsequently the Department of Health forwarded a business case to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform proposing the restoration of incremental credit for the student placement - for those who did not qualify for it between 2011 and the end of 2015 and future graduates.
On consideration of the business case, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform agreed to sanction the restoration of incremental credit for the clinical placement in respect of trainees "currently on placement or who will in the future be assigned a placement". However, the DPER sanction also stated that the question of extending sanction to post-2011 nurses not in receipt of such credit may be reviewed on foot of consideration of whether the sanction granted would result in an increase in retention rates of trainee nurses in 2016 and 2017. This requirement to review the impact of the incremental credit in terms of its effect on recruitment and retention rates among the trainee nurses concerned was considered reasonable and prudent, having regard to the original terms of reference provided for in the chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement.
In this context in February 2016 the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform sanctioned recognition of the 36-week placement as qualifying for incremental credit for students on a placement in 2016 and into the future.
As mentioned already, the sanction stated that the question of awarding incremental credit for the placement to nurses who graduated between 2011 and 2015 may be reviewed on foot of consideration of whether the sanction granted in respect of 2016 graduates and future graduates results in an increase in the retention rates for these graduate nurses.
Those nurses who undertook the placement in 2016 recently completed their placements and are only now in the process of getting registered so it will only become evident in the immediate term the extent to which the restoration of the credit will result in an increase in the retention rate of graduate nurses.
There are many initiatives currently under way to improve nursing staff levels throughout the country. The HSE is offering permanent posts to the 2016 degree programme graduates and is offering full-time permanent contracts to those in temporary posts.
The HSE launched an international staff nurse recruitment campaign which focused on attracting nurses back from the UK to jobs in Ireland last year. There was a particular emphasis on targeting Irish nurses who left Ireland in the last few years and want to return home. They were offered a relocation package of €1,500, nursing registration costs with NMBI and funded postgraduate education.
There has been an increase of 1,163 nurses employed in the public health services, which brings us to a total of 35,538 in August 2016, numbers having fallen by 4,000 from 2007 to 2014.
Notwithstanding the terms issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in relation to the review process on the impact of the sanction for currently serving trainee nurses, officials from the Department of Health and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform met recently to discuss whether there was scope to accelerate this review process for the restoration of incremental credit to 2011-15 graduates. Furthermore, the Minister for Health has written to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform about this matter.
This issue is accordingly being reviewed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in consultation with the Department of Health with a view to bringing the matter to a conclusion at the earliest time. However, the Senator will understand why I cannot give him a commitment on the timeframe in this regard. I know he wanted it before the budget next week. I cannot give him that, but he will probably be happy enough to see that there is ongoing consultation on efforts to accelerate this review process, although it was in the context of retention rates. That gives space and flexibility for this issue to be resolved, but it will probably take a little time.
I thank the Minister of State for his forthright answer. Indeed it is at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that this query was aimed. I am rather shocked by the response that has been drafted for the Minister of State by the Department.One must ask whether people at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform understand anything about industrial relations. An agreement was reached between the HSE, the Department of Health and the nursing unions and somebody at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform decided to see whether it would work for the current graduates and if it did to apply it retrospectively to the people who stayed in this country. I met a number of nurses in Buswell's Hotel, some of whom had returned as mature students to take their nursing qualification. By virtue of the fact they had children and were married, they could not emigrate like the remainder of their colleagues but they will go at the first opportunity. They will do so because somebody at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform decided to see how the incentive would work with the graduates of 2016 and if it worked to perhaps apply it to the poor unfortunates who stayed in the country. It really is not good enough. A deal is a deal and the incremental credit should immediately be restored to the graduates of 2011 to 2015. If there are only 1,500 of them, that is all there is, so it will not cost a fortune. When the Minister of State goes back to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, will he ask him to have a look at this in the interests of fairness if nothing else? We must be fair in how we deal with employees.
I remind Senators that supplementary questions are a new invention to allow them back in but some make statements again. Once the four minutes are up and the Minister responds that should be the end of it. Does the Minister of State wish to add to this? This is why we cannot get five in. It used to be three, then it went to four and now it is five along with replies. This is why others cannot get in. I am not making comments personal to Senator Craughwell.
It might make our job harder.
It is quite clear both the Departments involved desire an outcome which solves this. The Senator raised the issue of fairness. We must be fair to everybody involved in the Lansdowne Road agreement and in terms of public sector pay. There is flexibility in the agreement but it is within the agreement that solutions must be found. A process was identified by which we could track this and if it proved to help to increase retention rates of nurses, there might be scope. This is the process that was set out and which I understand was agreed through consultation. Progress has been made on this, with some good changes already made over the past year or two. A little more time and more data measuring and reviewing the figures might give us the solution the Senator desires. The Ministers, Deputies Harris and Donohoe, desire to see more nurses working here on the front line because we need them there. There must be fairness for all involved in the Lansdowne Road agreement and the Senator understands there must be a process in how this can be addressed.