Adjournment Debate. - Nurses' Dispute.

This is not the first occasion on which I have raised my serious concerns about the apparent hands-off approach to this dispute. There has been a certain aloofness in the attitude of the Minister and the Government to the pay negotiation. The Minister may have been justified in the past in saying he wanted to stay away from the conciliation and arbitration machinery while unions balloted their members. Now that the pay offer has been rejected twice, the time has come when the Minister must step in. Perhaps he has already decided to do that. The nurses' unions throughout the country are calling for intervention by the Minister. He must respond to that request and hold a direct meeting with the Nursing Alliance.

There are 26,000 nurses who have a strong case to make regarding their pay and conditions which have fallen seriously behind. They have put up with a lack of progress on their pay and conditions and have been prepared to take on board the various changes in the structure of nursing without getting adequate recognition.

If the national strike goes ahead, as seems increasingly likely, the health service will grind to a halt, probably within hours of its commencement depending on how it proceeds. The chaos that will result is unthinkable. The Minister must act now while there is still time. A strike here will undermine social partnership and shatter the chances of getting another national agreement which would be bad for the State.

The nurses' dispute has been badly handled. Aloofness from the negotiations was a miscalculation and reduced the chances of a settlement but the intervention by the Minister for Finance in the dispute on 10 November, when he told the nurses they had made a grave or a gross error of judgement, was a serious mistake. It did not help the Minister for Health but most particularly it did not help the nurses' unions. His comments insulted nurses who work under increasing and immense pressure and hardened attitudes in the dispute.

The contribution of the 26,000 nurses must be recognised in their pay and conditions. Their aspirations in relation to pay and conditions can be met within theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work. In the past, as my colleague, Deputy Ahern, said recently on “Questions and Answers” under the Programme for National Recovery and Programme for Economic and Social Progress, which were much more stringently controlled than is the Programme for Competitiveness and Work, radiographers, dental assistants, fire brigade staff and hospital doctors could be accommodated and their pay and conditions were improved despite the stringent financial controls.

Nurses are the people in the health service who are at the coalface. The Minister must recognise that. They are the people who take abuse from the patients and from the families of the patients. They are the people in charge. A ward sister in a hospital is like the manager of a small or medium sized enterprise. She is responsible for the patients, visitors, staff nurses, paramedics, consultants who visit the ward and for doctors. Nurses who study for an extra qualification get no recognition for it. The Minister and I who are former teachers know that if we were prepared, after we qualified, to go on for extra education it would be recognised. The pay and conditions of nurses should warrant a response from a Government which recognises the stressful work they do.

Limerick East): I am obliged to Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn for affording me this opportunity to set out the current position on nurses' pay.

Earlier this year, following discussions under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission, proposals on the settlement of the claim by nurses under theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work were agreed. These proposals provided for significant increases including an increase of 14 per cent approximately in the maximum of the scale for staff nurses, bringing it to £20,350. This improvement, when combined with premium payments, would result in an experienced staff nurse typically earning £25,000 per annum in respect of a normal 39 hour week. In addition the proposals provided for a whole range of non-pay improvements, for example, in relation to the position of temporary nurses and commitments in regard to developments in nursing education. The Nursing Alliance — composed of the four unions the INO, the Psychiatric Nurses Association, IMPACT and SIPTU — recommended acceptance of these proposals.

As these proposals were not accepted both the nurses' unions and the management subsequently agreed to refer outstanding issues to an independent adjudication board. This mechanism, involving referral to an independent third party, formed one element of the framework agreed between Government and ICTU to address outstanding problems among various groups of public service employees under theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work. It was also envisaged that, as in any other analogous industrial relations situation, this adjudication process would represent the final stage of processing of the nurses' claims. Both sides entered into the adjudication process on this basis. The adjudication board addressed all of the outstanding issues identified by the unions.

The adjudication board found in favour of the nurses in recommending a series of significant improvements to the earlier offer, including a pilot scheme of early retirement, bringing forward the date of payment of increases for some grades, further reviews of the position of nursing managers and tutors and continuation of certain allowances. The improved arrangements for temporary nurses involved permanent appointments immediately for a total of 1,700 temporary nurses with a commitment to convert further posts to permanent status following a joint review.

These extended proposals obviously would have required additional expenditure, which the Government was fully prepared to support, on the basis that the proposals had been recommended by an independent adjudication board and on the understanding that the unions would feel similarly bound to accept the outcome of the independent third-party adjudication. The Government indicated clearly that the revised set of proposals represented the absolute limit of what would be affordable within the most generous interpretation of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work parameters.

The Nursing Alliance again recommended acceptance. However, in a further ballot the proposals were accepted by nurses represented by SIPTU and the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA and rejected by nurses represented by the Irish Nurses' Organisation, INO, and IMPACT. The executive of the Irish Nurses' Organisation is due to meet tomorrow, 27 November 1996, to consider formally implementing a ballot of its members for industrial action. I would not wish, in anything I say tonight, to pre-empt the decision of the INO executive.

I have received no recent request from the Irish Nurses' Organisation or the other unions involved for a meeting. However, I have responded positively to all previous requests.

I would be deeply concerned at the impact of strike action on the health service and on the patients in its care. It is also clear that an industrial action of the type now apparently being contemplated by the INO would have very serious ramifications for the prospects of any new pay agreement based on social partnership. For these reasons I again appeal to the leadership of the Irish Nurses' Organisation and the other nursing unions, with the assistance of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, to reconsider their strategy and to adopt an approach more in keeping with the partnership model of industrial relations.