Adjournment Debate. - Threatened Industrial Dispute by Nurses.

I thank you for allowing me to raise the question of the threatened industrial dispute by nurses in the health services. I have said to the Minister for Health that Fianna Fáil wishes to see justice done to nurses because of the key role they play in our health services. I have also said that the level of frustration among nurses is not to be underestimated. I remain of that view and of the view that the aspirations of nurses in relation to pay and conditions can be met. Meeting those aspirations would yield tangible and measurable improvements in health service delivery.

I note that this evening the Government has announced that a framework has been agreed with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I also acknowledge that the Minister met the Alliance of Nursing Unions this evening. I hope it is a positive measure taken in a spirit of generosity by the Government and the Minister and that he will be successful in convincing his Labour colleague, the Minister for Finance, to deliver the financial requirements to resolve the dispute.

Three specific issues need to be addressed if a resolution is to be found. There must be an examination of the retirement provisions for nurses and a rethink on the proposed entry pay for nurses and the pay phasing provisions in the deal. There must also be an examination of the role of ward sisters and provisions for nurses who work in specific units.

The failure to address the situation of ward sisters in the proposed deal was a clear weakness. I hope the Minister will agree that ward sisters are effectively managers of what could be described as small enterprises and, in some instances, medium enterprises. In a small surgical unit with 30 beds, a ward sister's responsibilities are vast. In one month, for example, she would have to cope with 125 admissions, while every day there would be 40 attendees for dressings. Answering telephones is a huge responsibility in any ward. A ward sister I know has worked out that in a 24-hour period her unit would take as many as 196 telephone calls. As well as those responsibilities, a ward sister manages, delegates and co-ordinates large numbers of staff each day, including nurses, hospital consultants and their large teams of doctors, operates all sorts of technology, interfaces with visitors and maintenance staff and deals with deliveries, ordering and social work.

Following the announcement of the ballot result, I said to the Minister that it was not wise to make it appear that the Government was going over the heads of nurses to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It sent a wrong message to nurses and I am delighted the Minister has reversed that by meeting the alliance today. Engaging in dialogue with nurses is very important and I hope it proves fruitful. If not, the fallout will be immense.

The threatened industrial action has major implications for the services delivered by health boards and hospitals because, for the first time in 16 years, we are facing a wholesale dispute by nurses. In addition the immediate disruption of services, a strike by nurses will have major implications for the hospital waiting list initiative. Already the number on the list is rising. In a reply I received to a parliamentary question on 23 April, the Minister for Health said the waiting list for a range of surgical procedures stood at 28,004 in December 1995, the latest date for which figures were available. He went on to make a comparison with 1993, when the waiting list stood at 40,130. However, in December 1994, the waiting list total stood at 23,835 so the number increased by over 4,000 to the end of December 1995. This rise appears to be attributable in part at least to the limited industrial action so far by nurses, which has led to the cancellation of operations and other admissions.

Nurses are dedicated to their work in hospitals. They do not want to be involved in an industrail dispute with the Minister and are anxious to settle it. They have a strong case and if the three specific issues on which the recent deal was voted down by members of the nursing unions were resolved, the industrial dispute could be avoided. I urge the Minister in that regard.

Limerick East): I thank Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn for giving me the opportunity to respond to the issues she raised on the industrial action being threatened by the nursing unions. The Deputy will be aware the Government met the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in recent days to consider the public service pay negotiations and the continued failure of a number of groups to reach agreement on restructuring under clause 2 (iii) (a) of the public service agreement on pay incorporated in the Programme for Competitiveness and Work. This meeting was held in the hope of reaching some agreement on a possible framework for the continuation and successful completion of a number of outstanding sets of discussions.

In this context I met the nursing unions this morning and asked them to consider their position on the proposed new framework. Given the sensitive nature of the discussions taking place with this and other groups it would be inappropriate to comment further on the nature or scope of the framework at this time. The text of a joint statement from the Government and ICTU, issued this afternoon, is probably of interest to the House. It reads:

The Government and the ICTU agreed last week to work in partnership to meet the substantial changes in the public service and achieve the necessary restructuring in a positive and constructive way. The two sides also agreed to hold further urgent discussions to find the means of resolving and bringing to finality the current problems including the teaching, nursing and CPSU areas within the parameters of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work.

These discussions between the Government and ICTU have developed a framework in that context to allow: (1) direct discussions with the assistance, if relevant, of a facilitator; (2) independent adjudication of issues relevant to option A of clause 2 (iii) of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work, and (3) in the light of the unprecedented changes which have to be dealt with in the public service in the years ahead, the bringing forward of the provision in the Programme for Competitiveness and Work for reviews of the evolution of public service pay and conditions relative to other sectors of the economy. Provision will now be made for this review process in the period following on the Programme for Competitiveness and Work given the reality of the scale of change required.

Separate discussions will now take place with each relevant public service union group to examine how the framework can be applied in their case. Discussions have taken place with the Civil and Public Service Union and a satisfactory arrangement to progress the outstanding issue within the framework has been identified.

The statement continues:

The Minister for Health today met with the alliance of nursing unions. The Minister outlined the framework to the unions and asked them to consider working through the framework to resolve the concerns of nurses in a positive way. Discussions are continuing with the teaching unions who are examining how this framework, or a similar framework, might enable outstanding issues for teachers to be brought to an acceptable conclusion.

The House is now fully informed of the most recent position, not only on the nurses dispute but also on the other two current disputes.