Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Nurses' Pay and Conditions.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

Question:

2 Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn asked the Minister for Health the current position regarding negotiations with the nursing unions on pay and conditions; the implications for services if the dispute goes ahead next month; and whether he has agreed plans with the nursing unions to ensure emergency cover in the event of a dispute. [11762/96]

(Limerick East): The Deputy will be aware of the joint Government-ICTU statement of 15 May in which they outlined their commitment to meet, in partnership, the substantial changes in the public service and to achieve the necessary restructuring in a positive and constructive way. This statement arose from a series of discussions which were held in the light of 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.

The statement also outlined the development of a framework aimed at achieving the continuation and successful completion of a number of outstanding sets of discussions. I immediately met with the nursing unions to ask them to consider their position in relation to the proposed new framework with a view to resolving the concerns of nurses in a positive way.

Over the past two days discussions have taken place with the nursing unions aimed at resolving, within the framework, the problems arising from the recently rejected offer. Progress has been made in these discussions and arrangements for a resolution have been identified. I hope the matter will be progressed further in the coming days.

Given the delicate balance to be struck in these negotiations, the Deputy will appreciate that any more detailed comments or statement by me would not be appropriate or helpful in bringing the talks to a successful conclusion at this stage.

Will the Minister confirm that the arrangements made yesterday propose that the pay element should be referred to arbitration on the basis that there would be no improvement in the offer but there might be an acceptance of it by the nursing profession rather than the nursing unions if it came from an independent person and that the other issues have been referred to the Local Government Staff Negotiations Board? Is the Minister aware that previously during threats of industrial action, emergency cover was guaranteed in each hospital on the basis that those who provided it were paid or got time in lieu but that on this occasion the managements of hospitals have already indicated to nurses that neither pay, nor time in lieu, will be given for emergency cover?

(Limerick East): I refer the Deputy to paragraph 2 of the Joint Government-ICTU statement issued last night which says that discussions have taken place with the nursing unions aimed at resolving, within the framework, the problems arising from the recently rejected offer, that progress has been made in these discussions and arrangements for doing so have been identified. The nursing union leadership is in the process of consultation today. What the Deputy said is, in general terms, in accordance with the framework I announced in the Dáil on the Adjournment some weeks ago. The new framework being put in place will involve an adjudication process of some items and a review process of others. I gave more detail in my reply on the Adjournment and the Deputy should check it. It is difficult to see this problem being resolved without a modification and enhancement of the original package which was rejected by way of ballot.

Will the Minister accept that any modification or improvement in the package would have to be fairly substantial so that an under-estimation would not be made once again by the Department or others of the anger and frustration among the profession?

(Limerick East): It would be very unusual for me to negotiate with Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn across the floor of the House when ICTU, by way of a facilitator, the nursing unions and the management in the Departments of Finance and Health have gone through all issues very thoroughly over the past two days, when consultations are ongoing and discussions taking place between the relevant union leaderships and their executives. I will not say anything here in respect of detail which would prejudice an outcome which I hope will be successful, in due course.

I want to deal with Question No. 3 quite promptly.

The Minister neglected to answer my question about emergency cover.

If Question No. 3 is not replied to promptly it cannot be dealt with. I will allow the Deputy a brief question.

Will the Minister reply to my question about emergency cover?

(Limerick East): When the nursing unions were contemplating a strike the indications were that it would be an all out strike if a ballot supported such action and that it would commence on 15 July. However, they had given guarantees that they will provide emergency cover. I hope the changing circumstances will bring about a situation where the many legitimate demands which nurses have had for more than 15 years will be resolved to the satisfaction of my side of the negotiating table and, more importantly, to the satisfaction of the nursing unions.

I must deal with Question No. 3. Otherwise I will have to pass it over as a priority question.