I propose to take Questions Nos. 91, 95, 99, 105, 115, 116, 128, 361, 365 and 366 together.
The issues of nurses' pay and working hours have been fully processed through the State's industrial relations structures and procedures — the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court. While health service management have accepted the Labour Court Recommendation, the Irish Nurses Organisation and Psychiatric Nurses Association state that they have neither accepted nor rejected this Recommendation and have instead served notice of industrial action. Discussions regarding impending industrial action have been led by the Health Service Executive — Employers Agency. These discussions form part of the process of established industrial relations practices and procedures. Officials from my Department have been included in these discussions as appropriate and have ensured that I have been fully briefed on the issues.
Social partnership agreements have created and sustained the conditions for economic growth over the last decade and significantly enhanced the position of employees in the public and private sector. The Government has agreed with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions a basis on which pay and conditions for the public service as a whole should be managed and the second Benchmarking Body has been established to provide an objective means of assessing the appropriate pay for particular groups or professions. However, the Irish Nurses Organisation and Psychiatric Nurses Association are refusing to co-operate with the current Benchmarking process which is reviewing the pay of public servants and is due to report in the second half of 2007. The INO and PNA have so far declined to sign up to the new national partnership agreement — Towards 2016. Instead both unions lodged eight cost increasing claims for improvements in pay and conditions. The additional cost of these claims would be almost €1 billion per annum. The Unions are also seeking retrospection estimated to cost in excess of €500m.
These claims were lodged during the lifetime of the Sustaining Progress Agreement which prohibited cost increasing claims. Both unions had signed up to Sustaining Progress and their members had received increases of 13.16% under this agreement, in addition to Benchmarking increases of between 8% and 16%.
The claims lodged by the Unions were the subject of an in depth examination by the Labour Court which issued its Recommendation last November. The Court did not recommend concession of the major cost increasing pay claims. Instead the Court urged the Unions concerned to reconsider their position with regard to Benchmarking so as to have their pay claims examined through that process.
In relation to the claim for a reduction in working hours from 39 to 35 hours per week, the Court recommended that the parties should jointly explore the possibility of initiating an appropriate process aimed at achieving major reorganisation of working arrangements and practices within the health service generally. The Court also stated that such an initiative should take account of and support existing development involving other groups. It held the view that if such a programme of change could be successfully implemented, the efficiencies, cost savings and other benefits accruing may allow this claim to be processed within a reasonable timeframe to be agreed between the parties.
The Benchmarking Body is due to report in the second half of the year and is in a position to review the issues that the nursing unions feel strongly about. I believe that a solution to the current dispute can be found within the context of the Labour Court Recommendation and the prevailing national agreements. In this regard I arranged for exploratory discussions to be held between all the parties concerned at the offices of the HSE-Employers Agency on 19 January 2007. While I understand the discussions provided clarity as to the respective positions of the parties the meeting adjourned without agreement on the way forward.
The Deputy will be aware that the first graduates from the nursing degree programme qualified in 2006 and the vast majority accepted posts and remain in employment in the public health service. There is no evidence to suggest that 75% of graduates have left Ireland.
It remains the Government's view that Benchmarking is the appropriate mechanism to resolve the pay issues. Management have offered to enter into discussions on an appropriate process aimed at achieving major reorganisation of working arrangements and practices within the health service generally and remain available for further discussions within the context of the Labour Court Recommendation and the prevailing national agreements. I would ask the INO and PNA to give further consideration to the Recommendation of the Labour Court and to make the case on behalf of their members, as other nursing unions have done, before the Benchmarking Body.