Adjournment Debate. - Paramedical Staff Strike.

Deputy Cowen and I have agreed to share time.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

I am sure that is agreed.

The Government has acted in a dishonourable and insulting manner in regard to the paramedics and health care professionals currently on strike. It is trying to shred the long-standing agreement on pay links between nursing grades and paramedics which has existed since the 1940s. Documentary evidence is available to support those pay links. The link was copperfastened in 1979 by the then Government. By its intransigence, the Government is flying in the face of every pay agreement, labour court recommendation and arbitration finding concerning paramedics in those years. It is ironic that Governments during those years continuously and voluntarily defended the pay links and resisted any attempt to change them.

The workers have a right to be angry, having been treated in such a shabby and unprofessional manner. As advised by the Government, the paramedics waited until the nurses dispute was resolved, but when they sought a resolution to their claim they were crudely brushed aside. The Government has acted in a disgraceful manner on this issue — a deal should be a deal.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Quinn, added insult to injury by describing the workers as "greedy and jumping on the bandwagon". He should retract those comments. The Minister for Health, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Shea, must ensure an agreement is reached that will respect the long-standing link with the nursing grades and recognise that the health professionals are no less valuable to the health service now than they were a few weeks ago. In the public interest, the Labour Court or the Labour Relations Commission could intervene.We will support the Minister in whatever decision he makes to resolve this problem, but he should honour the long-standing agreements. The dispute must be resolved speedily to ensure the thousands of patients and children with special needs are given appropriate professional and medical care.

This dispute is causing intense pain and suffering for many patients in hospitals and care facilities. As we saw in a report last night, many of the most vulnerable in our society and their carers are being affected. Because of the dispute some patients have been sent home to families who are not in a position to cope. Other patients making progress under the direction of paramedic staff are experiencing set backs. In physical terms, some may be set back for weeks because of the dispute, while the psychological impact of breaking with their routine or treatment for an extended period will devastate confidence and hope.

The dispute underlines the importance of paramedical staff in providing treatment and care. Like our nurses and ambulance personnel, they are taken for granted and the absence of a strategic development plan for their careers and education is a major weakness in our health service. This dispute is another indictment of the Minister's handling of the health portfolio. Rather than attempting to broker a settlement the Minister is clinging to a statement that does not have a basis in fact.

It was acknowledged by Government that what was submitted by the union representing paramedical staff to the Labour Relations Commission is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether the Government claims made under theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work that old pay links hold good is in fact the case. The health employers who are instructed by the Minister, Deputy Noonan, have claimed that in this situation old pay links do not hold good. However, a written agreement between the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Department of Finance made at the time the PESP was negotiated, confirms that pay links and-or pay relationships will and can be maintained where a grade chooses to do so. That agreement was drawn up in 1991 during the PESP negotiations when, for the first time, pay deals in the public service were linked to productivity, flexibility measures and co-operation with change. The agreement carried through in the context of the PCW restructuring clause. It is incorrect for the Minister to claim there are no grounds for a linked grade, such as paramedics, to seek the same improvements in pay as a marker grade provided the improvements are matched by changes in structures and-or working practices equivalent in value for both groups.

The Government is wrong to bury its head in the sand and maintain the basis of the claim is flawed when that is factually wrong. It is a dangerous strategy and it means a unilateral decision is being taken by the Government to break well established pay links without the agreement of the union concerned.

An attempt is being made to divide health workers after the claims of two groups have been settled. The Minister for Health should get directly involved before more disruption and hardship is caused to patients and their families. As the dispute will have to be resolved at some stage, it might as well be sooner rather than later.

Paramedical staff have been very dedicated and progressive health service employees. They do not want to be on strike and resent the argument put forward by the Minister for Health. Before further damage is done to the social partnership process by the rainbow coalition Government steps should be taken by the Minister for Health as a matter of urgency. The paramedics should be engaged as stakeholders in the health service by the Minister for Health.

IMPACT on behalf of paramedic professions, with the exception of medical laboratory technicians, MLTA, and radiographers, SIPTU, pursued pay claims under Clause (2) (iii) — Annex 1 of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work. The negotiations were processed under the auspices of the Health Service Employers' Agency and were complex from the outset. In most instances, it was clear that the professional groups involved were open to some redesign of their roles, leading to greater service effectiveness from their professional input. Also, many of the professions concerned are involved in aspects of the service which are going through rapid change and development, obviously under-pinned by significant new investment. In those cases some opportunities exist for restructuring and adjusting pay rates and for addressing recruitment difficulties. The grades involved are physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, dieticians, occupational therapists, audiometricians, social workers, chiropodists, orthoptists and child care workers.

Union-management contact continued since late last year on an informal basis. A formal meeting took place in Dublin Castle on 27 March 1997. The union requested that the "value of the nurses' deal" be passed on to all paramedic professions who have an historic pay relationship with the staff nurse-ward sister and that negotiations be recommenced based on a percentage increase of approximately 17 per cent. The union was told this was not possible and management went on to outline the facilitation, adjudication and Labour Court process available. The matter was referred to the Labour Relations Commission on 17 April 1997, but the talks were unsuccessful.

If the IMPACT paramedic professions were to be awarded the nurses' deal, the pay bill would be in the region of £13 million. If other linked paramedic grades are included, the figure reaches £20 million. The Government's position is that the nurses' settlement was unique and claims made by other grades must be dealt with in accordance with the terms of the PCW.

Radiographers and medical laboratory technicians, represented by SIPTU and MLTA, are also engaged in negotiations under the auspices of the HSEA and are pursuing the restructuring option. Negotiations are slow and complex and were ongoing until recently at which point both unions opted to ballot for strike action. However, management-union meetings took place with both professions within the past three weeks and it was made clear by both unions that they are rejecting the 5.5 per cent offer and will not accept anything less favourable than that offered to nurses.

Management and union met at the HSEA this afternoon concerning the provision of emergency sleep-over cover for residential centres in the mental handicap and child care services. The meeting was adjourned on the basis that IMPACT will give the matter further consideration over the next day or two. In those circumstances, I am sure the Deputies will appreciate it would be inappropriate for the Minister or me to make any further comment at present other than to say every effort is being made to resolve this dispute and informal contacts are being maintained.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 on Wednesday, 23 April 1997.