I thank the Senator for raising the issue and his three questions. I am speakomg on behalf of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, who was invited to attend but could not make it. I cannot answer for the Minister for Health, but I do not think he was invited. Perhaps there is an issue in that regard. I will set out the scene in respect of the issue raised and answer some of the questions posed.
In response to the last question on whether I can guarantee that this will be changed before budget 2016, I cannot guarantee it because it is budget 2017 that will be announced next week. I cannot guarantee that it will be changed, but I know about the issue and will set out the timeline.
It was asserted that there was no consultation, but that is not the case. There has been consultation between the Department of Health, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the unions and even the Workplace Relations Commission. Plenty of consultation has taken place. It is unfair to say there was no consultation, but I know the point the Senator was trying to make.
The main issue the Senator is raising is that the INMO and other nursing unions, the PNA and SIPTU, have initiated a campaign aimed at restoring incremental credit for the 36-week clinical placement undertaken in the fourth and final year of their degree programme in respect of former nursing trainees serving in the period 2011 to 2015. The background to this issue is that incremental credit for the 36-week clinical placement undertaken by fourth year student nurses was abolished by the then Government in December 2010 as part of a range of measures aimed at reducing the public service pay bill. Prior to this decision, nurses following graduation would go onto the second point of the salary scale after 16 weeks on taking up appointment with the HSE.
The issue of the incremental credit for the trainee nurses concerned was raised during the negotiations on the Lansdowne Road agreement and, arising from this, a chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement specifically provided for consideration of the matter. The details in this regard were to the effect that incremental credit for the trainees concerned would be examined in the context of nurse and midwifery recruitment and retention. This process of examination involving the relevant management and union interests concluded in January 2016 and subsequently the Department of Health forwarded a business case to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform proposing the restoration of incremental credit for the student placement - for those who did not qualify for it between 2011 and the end of 2015 and future graduates.
On consideration of the business case, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform agreed to sanction the restoration of incremental credit for the clinical placement in respect of trainees "currently on placement or who will in the future be assigned a placement". However, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform' sanction also stated the question of extending sanction to post-2011 nurses not in receipt of such credit may be reviewed on foot of consideration of whether the sanction granted would result in an increase in retention rates of trainee nurses in 2016 and 2017. This requirement to review the impact of the incremental credit in terms of its effect on recruitment and retention rates among the trainee nurses concerned was considered reasonable and prudent, having regard to the original terms of reference provided for in the chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement. In that context, in February 2016 the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform sanctioned recognition of the 36-week placement as qualifying for incremental credit for students on a placement in 2016 and into the future.
As mentioned, the sanction stated the question of awarding incremental credit for the placement to nurses who graduated between 2011 and 2015 might be reviewed on foot of consideration of whether the sanction granted in respect of 2016 graduates and future graduates resulted in an increase in retention rates for these graduate nurses. Those nurses who undertook the placement in 2016 recently completed their placements and are only now in the process of getting registered. It will, therefore, only become evident in the immediate term the extent to which the restoration of the credit will result in an increase in the retention rate of graduate nurses.
There are many initiatives under way to improve nursing staff levels throughout the country. The HSE is offering permanent posts to the 2016 degree programme graduates and offering full-time permanent contracts to those in temporary posts. The HSE launched an international staff nurse recruitment campaign which focused on attracting nurses back from the United Kingdom to jobs in Ireland last year. There was a particular emphasis on targeting Irish nurses who had left Ireland in the past few years and wanted to return home. They were offered a relocation package of €1,500, nursing registration costs with the NMBI and funded postgraduate education. There has been an increase of 1,163 nurses employed in public health services, bringing us to a total of 35,538 in August 2016, numbers having fallen by 4,000 between 2007 and 2014.
Notwithstanding the terms issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the review process on the impact of the sanction for currently serving trainee nurses, officials from the Department of Health and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform met recently to discuss whether there was scope to accelerate the review process for the restoration of incremental credit to 2011-15 graduates. Furthermore, the Minister for Health has written to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the matter. The issue is, accordinglym being reviewed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in consultation with the Department of Health, with a view to bringing the matter to a conclusion at the earliest time. However, the Senator will understand why I cannot give him a commitment on the timeframe in that regard. I know that he wanted it before the budget is annouinced next week. I cannot give him that commitment, but he will probably be happy enough to see that there is ongoing consultation on efforts to accelerate the review process, although it was in the context of retention rates. That gives space and flexibility for the issue to be resolved, but it will probably take a little time.