Before we deal with the main business of the meeting, as agreed in private session, members who wish to comment on the nurses' action may do so.
Business of Joint Committee
It is very important that all committees and particularly this one express solidarity with the nurses. None of the thousands of nurses who were on the picket line yesterday wished to be there. They wanted to be delivering treatments within a safe system. That is the key to the recruitment and retention issue. We cannot expect nurses to work under the present terms and conditions. I plead with the Minister and the Taoiseach to intervene to sort this out. I am very mindful of the almost 25,000 patients, some of whom have waited years and months to get their treatment, who had their appointments cancelled yesterday. That is not right in a State like this and we have to do everything we possibly can to stop it happening. I am also aware that today the psychiatric nurses are refusing to go on overtime, which is absolutely within their right. This highlights the chaos within the system. The situation will escalate unless the Government intervenes, and it needs to do so now.
The Government will have to intervene at some stage anyway. Those involved will have to sit down and work this out. It should happen sooner rather than later before other appointments have to be cancelled. I urge everyone who has something in their remit to be able to change this to change it. I commend the nurses on their bravery. It was not an easy thing for them to do knowing all those appointments, operations and procedures would be cancelled yesterday. They do not want to be on the picket lines and certainly I do not want to see them on the picket lines.
It is a good idea to have this brief session. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, is coming in to us next week. I would hope that by the time he comes in the situation is resolved and that the Government and the HSE have given a meaningful indication that they are willing to move substantially on the question of pay restoration and pay parity. If the Government does not do that, then it will be making a major mistake.
I was on four different picket lines yesterday. The public support is phenomenal, for example, the number of people in cars beeping to express their support and so on. The determination of the nurses and midwives to continue with their just struggle if there are no substantial concessions is striking. They will go ahead with the two days of strike next week and that will cause even more disruption. Obviously the nurses and midwives do not want to do that but they have no choice. It will go ahead next week.
The argument of the Government is that it cannot afford to pay them, etc. That does not get far with the nurses and midwives or the general public. One thing I intend to ask the Minister next week relates to the amount of money paid to the junior bondholders who refused to get burnt before Christmas. The amount is precisely what it would take, according to the Government, to pay the pay claim of the nurses and midwives. The Government is able to find the money for the bondholders but cannot find it for our health service.
There is broad public support because people understand that nurses are on the front line of an underfunded and what is in many respects a disastrous health service. The various health professionals in the health service are the good thing about the health service when people interact with it. People understand the difficult circumstances they are in. People understand that a win for the nurses would be a win for all workers and that it would be a step towards the kind of investment that we need in building a national health service in this country. I hope that we do not have to get answers from the Minister next week, but if we do, then we should be prepared for questioning and so on.
I welcome the fact that the Minister is coming in next week. I would hope that by the time he comes in this issue will be resolved. Those involved have no choice but to go back to the negotiating table. I hope they do that immediately and bring a resolution to the whole issue.
The purpose of giving members the opportunity this morning to air their views is because the committee deals with public expenditure and reform. Part of the committee remit is to cover the agreements on public pay. Having witnessed the nurses working at first-hand, any of us would agree that they are at the coal-face, that they are understaffed, that the pay situation has not been what it should be and that it has been allowed to drag on for a long number of years. This House has overlooked the real issues in the context of the nurses. There has been no real debate about public pay in this House, but there should be.
Next Tuesday we will have the Minister before us and we can deal directly with him in respect of these matters. I was on the picket line yesterday in two different hospitals. The people there were talking about pay restoration, pay parity and the conditions of their employment. They brought to my attention the health and safety issues on many of the wards in the hospitals I went to and in many others throughout the country. They are safety issues and staffing issues. It is clear from the messages being sent from Irish nurses working abroad that they would prefer to be at home. I was struck by some of the comments from those who came back. They say they have come back from a different health service to one that is way behind the required standards. It gives us the opportunity next Tuesday to highlight these matters.
I will make two final points about the patients on the waiting list and those who have been cancelled. I would ask them to bear with the situation. I know that it is difficult, but at the same time this is about a long-term issue in terms of safety and pay.
When I was on the picket line yesterday at St. Luke's General Hospital in Kilkenny some of the nurses actually went into the hospital to relieve some of their colleagues and deal with some emergency issues that arose. It is not as if they are ignoring their patients – they are not. The strike is about patients and nurses and it should be resolved. The politics of this House is such that it is, in my opinion, ignoring the issues at hand. There should be a debate and discussion about the whole thing and resolution rather than it going any further. I thank the members for their contributions. We can now move to the next item.