I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Barry Andrews, on his appointment. We will lose him from one of our committees, which he chaired expertly. I wish him well. I hoped this matter would have been deemed important enough for the Minister for Health and Children to attend, but she decided not to do so.
The dispute involving the psychiatric nurses is serious and it affects the most vulnerable people, namely the psychiatric patients in hospital and in the community. Any diminution of service has an effect and the diminution in question is considerable. It is feared that the trend will continue. We urge the Minister, the HSE and the unions to make every effort tomorrow with the Labour Relations Commission to find a solution to the crisis affecting psychiatric services.
Assaults of varying degrees have been a fact of life for psychiatric nurses for a long time. In 2002 the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, carried out research on the number of assaults on psychiatric nurses in 2001 and found that 857 had been injured by assault. On making this finding, the PNA wrote to the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, stating that the frequency of the assaults in psychiatric services can, in most instances, be attributed to the mental health of the patients. The letter states that the perpetrator of the assault is, quite often, suffering from an illness such that, if charged with a serious criminal offence, there would be a finding of insanity or diminished responsibility. There was no response by the Minister and the PNA balloted members on industrial action. However, on the eve of the action, the Minister intervened and set up a taskforce on assaults on psychiatric nurses. The Minister gave a written assurance that the findings and recommendations of the taskforce would be accepted and progressed within an agreed timeframe.
The taskforce reported in April 2003 and the report contained a recommendation for the establishment of a no-fault, non-statutory compensation scheme for nurses working in mental health services who suffer serious injury as a result of an assault. It defined "injury" as "any serious impairment of the person's physical or mental condition". It provided for retrospective compensation for nurses previously injured by assault. The PNA accepted the recommendations of the taskforce but, despite several demands, there was no sign of the scheme being implemented by the Minister.
The Government considered the matter at its Cabinet meeting on 13 July 2005. The then Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, met the PNA that evening and said that, despite the Government's previous undertakings, the Government had decided not to implement the scheme. She stated she was asking the State Claims Agency to consider the introduction of a fixed redress scheme along the lines of the PIAB scheme that would expressly prohibit any compensation for psychological trauma and would not cover any injuries incurred before the introduction of the scheme. This was contrary to the recommendations of the taskforce and to the undertaking of the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Martin.
The PNA was adamant that psychological trauma and retrospection should be part of the scheme. However, it decided it would be prudent to allow the Government to approve the scheme as the principle of no-fault compensation at least would be established. The Government subsequently approved the scheme at a Cabinet meeting on 17 January 2007. The PNA immediately referred the matter to the Labour Court and sourced legal and medical expert opinion. The Labour Court in its recommendation upheld the PNA claim. It stated:
The Court accordingly recommends that an insurance-based scheme be put in place to take effect from the date of this Recommendation, which should include an element of compensation for psychological trauma, where relevant, and where it arises directly from the effects of an assault on a nurse while at work.
The Labour Court's understanding is that there are approximately 40 such claims already lodged in the system. In the case of these claims and no other, the court recommended that the terms of the proposed new scheme be extended to embrace those claimants on a once-off basis. Following the recommendation from the court, the Department went back to the various Departments involved, particularly the Department of Finance and the Office of the Attorney General for advice.
Following repeated requests to the Department of Health and Children, the HSE and HSE-Employers Agency, the union was informed that the Department of Health and Children had completed its consultations early this year and that a revised scheme to incorporate the findings of the Labour Court was presented to the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney on 3 January 2008. The PNA issued a press release describing the scheme as being "Yellow pack in the extreme".
As of yesterday evening the delivery of services has been upset to a considerable degree. Various problems have arisen in County Kildare and the Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum, where there has been a proposal that soldiers and gardaí should take over nursing duties. While I hope this was never considered, a newspaper reported that this was the case. A staffing crisis that arose before noon in County Kildare was averted until 5 p.m. Problems exist in St. Ita's, Portrane, Tallaght hospital and in the mental health services in Clonmel and counties Clare, Monaghan and Cavan.