Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

On Thursday next, the already stretched health service will be under severe pressure, with another strike about to take place across 38 acute hospitals, the Central Mental Hospital and St. Ita's Hospital, Portrane. It will involve healthcare assistants, maternity care assistants, laboratory and theatre operatives and hospital chefs. This follows a long drawn-out industrial relations process going back to 2015 when, as part of the public service stability agreement, the Government and Department of Health agreed with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the trade unions to a job evaluation process and scheme for these healthcare workers. Despite a lot of foot-dragging, many breaches of that agreement and the intervention of the national oversight body, which involves the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, the process was put back in train and phases 1 and 2 were completed by August of last year. The unions involved have honoured the pay agreements to date and have been constructive and responsible. I understand that hospitals are already considering the cancellation of elective admissions and that only emergency care will be available on Thursday if the strike is to go ahead.

Morale in the health service is very poor already. Human resources management of all of the staff working in our health service is abysmal on any objective analysis and there are real issues. These workers feel they have been dismissed by Government. They feel their role is not being acknowledged or appreciated enough by Government. They believe there has been a detachment and distancing from their issues by the Government all along.

As I said, this goes back to the 2015 Lansdowne Road agreement.

The job evaluation process is independent. Although the HSE made a decision to grant the pay awards in 2016, the Government has refused to make them. Payments range from €1,600 to €3,200 per year. It seems that no satisfactory explanation has been given by the Government for dragging its feet on the issue. Surely the Taoiseach agrees it is imperative the strike be averted, at all costs within the limits of the agreed process. Given that the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, has adjudicated on the matter, surely it is time for the Government to re-engage and honour its commitments.

The Taoiseach has repeatedly stated in the Chamber that the Government honours agreements made by the industrial relations machinery of the State. My understanding is that the Government is placing a condition on the case's referral to the Labour Court, which is unacceptable. I ask the Taoiseach to remove all those conditions and allow the full utilisation of the industrial relations machinery to resolve the dispute, prevent industrial action on Thursday and ensure the workers receive what they were promised by the Government more than four years ago.

The Government very much acknowledges the essential work of support staff in hospitals to allow them to operate. As somebody who worked for four or five years in the public hospital system, I know the value of their work. Whether they are healthcare assistants, maternity assistants, porters, laboratory aides or people working in central sterile services departments or as instrument staff or cleaners, hospitals do not function without such essential support staff. We want to ensure they are paid adequately and that they feel fulfilled in their roles.

As the Deputy acknowledged, this is an industrial relations dispute. There are different interpretations as to how the job evaluation scheme was to be dealt with and it is worth considering the exact wording of what was agreed in that regard. Discussions were under way and took place at the WRC, adjourning only last night. The strike can be averted but the best way for that to happen is to use the industrial relations machinery in place, the exact same institution that averts or ends most, if not all, strikes, namely, the Labour Court. The Government and the employer in this case - the HSE - are willing for the matter to be brought before the Labour Court to allow the court to hear all sides of the argument and make a recommendation. If that is done, the strike on Thursday can be avoided. That is the best way forward to avoid disruption to patients and to the functioning of hospitals, and it will allow us to resolve the outstanding issues of the dispute. We would welcome a referral to the Labour Court at this stage.

If the Taoiseach respects the workers, as he says he does, he and the Government need to send a signal because the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which represents the Government, has proved to be the major stumbling block. It confirmed that the moneys owed to the workers would be considered for payment in 2021. It seems that conditionality is being applied to any referral to the Labour Court, in other words, the Department wishes to pre-empt the outcome of the Labour Court before it even hears the case. That is not acceptable and the ongoing issues within the health service need hands-on attention from the Government. While it is grand for the Minister for Health to intervene in a whole range of areas, from Botox to whatever else, he is nowhere to be seen on the tough and hard issues.

The workers feel as though they are being dismissed by the Government and do not matter to it. As a result, the matter has dragged on since 2015, as Government commitments to them have not been honoured. The case should be heard by the Labour Court without conditions, which may provide an opportunity for chaos on Thursday to be prevented in order that patient care will not be undermined and elective admissions to hospitals will not be cancelled.

The Deputy asked that I send a signal, which I am doing now. The dispute should and can be resolved, the strike on Thursday can be avoided and the disruption to patients does not have to happen. The matter can be resolved by referral to the Labour Court, where a decision on the issue can be taken. That is how it can best be resolved.

The Deputy asked that I send a signal and I am doing so. I ask that he consider the signals he is sending. He will recall this time last week when, in the morning, he was critical of Government for increasing spending too fast and critical of us for not managing the health budget well enough. I informed him that that was doublespeak because, that evening, he was demanding pay increases for the Defence Forces. I said that he had no particular regard for the Defence Forces and that it would be another group next week, and here he is again this week, doing what he always does-----

The Taoiseach committed to this. He agreed to it.

We are holding the Taoiseach to account, which he does not like.

-----which is, on the one hand, criticising the Government for not containing spending and, on the other - which he does every week - backing the causes of every group.

Who was Minister for Health in 2015? The current Taoiseach.

A Deputy

What about the Ard-Fheis and the €3 billion in taxes?

Those groups cannot trust him or believe him. He cannot be call for spending increases for everyone, every week.

Is the Taoiseach stating that he is not going to pay them?

I am saying that the matter should go to the Labour Court.