Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Ceisteanna (5)

Joan Collins


5. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Health if he will instruct the HSE to accept the invitation from the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in relation to the ongoing dispute between the HSE and unions (details supplied); and if he will ensure that he has read and examined the health sector national staff surveys of 2016 and 2018. [12599/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (19 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Health)

Will the Minister for Health instruct the HSE to accept the invitation from the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, on the ongoing dispute between the HSE and Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, which represents the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, branch? Will he ensure that he has read and examined the health sector national staff surveys of 2016 and 2018, which I believe hold the ingredients for the present dispute?

As the Deputy is aware, a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, called the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, has been engaged in industrial action. The PNA states that its industrial action is in connection with two substantive issues. The first is the automated deduction of union subscriptions. The second is the refusal by the HSE to engage in negotiations with the PNA or to recognise the PNA as representing ambulance personnel.

To be clear, NASRA, which is affiliated with the PNA, is a group which is not recognised by the HSE and, therefore, does not have negotiating rights. The PNA does not have negotiating rights for ambulance personnel.

It should be noted that the HSE deducts subscriptions at source for those ambulance staff who are members of a number of trade unions, namely, SIPTU, Fórsa and Unite. The deduction of subscriptions is not a legal right but rather a concession granted to recognised unions.

While it is regrettable that the PNA has taken this industrial action, it is not possible to negotiate with a union which is not recognised as having negotiating rights for ambulance grades. Officials from the Department have met representatives of the HSE and the management of National Ambulance Service to explore possible options. However, this is a complex, challenging situation.

Industrial relations policy has had a longstanding objective of avoiding fragmentation in worker representation in public sector employments, and the trade union movement generally, so as to facilitate the orderly conduct of bargaining and other aspects of industrial relations.

The Deputy has also raised the issue of the health sector national staff surveys of 2016 and 2018. As we know, surveys of this kind are a valuable tool used to gather information to assess employee opinion and satisfaction rates.

In relation to the National Ambulance Service, the 2016 survey contained both positive and negative results. In response, management took a range of measures, including staff health and well-being programmes, leadership development programmes for managers, the establishment of a national staff engagement forum and anti-bullying initiatives.

I understand that the results of the 2018 survey were published on the National Ambulance Service website on 11 March 2019. I have asked my officials to examine these results and engage with the HSE on further measures to address any areas for improvement.

This is not a breakaway union. The PNA has negotiated and represented members of the health service for the past 49 years. It has a long history of advocating on behalf of staff and patients to ensure the delivery of quality health and mental health care. The NASRA branch of the PNA has represented its members in a variety of industrial relations fora, including the WRC and Labour Court with which it meets. However, the HSE refused to engage with the union on grievance procedures and investigations. From 2010 the membership of NASRA has grown consistently. Since its formation, NASRA union subscriptions were deducted by the HSE at source from members' salaries and in January 2018 the HSE stopped deducting union subscriptions at source for new members. Last week, when I raised this dispute with the Tánaiste he made the point that this was an industrial relations issue for the HSE, which was very revealing. The HSE is a State employer and it should not have the authority to do that. It should allow this go to the WRC, hear its recommendations and follow them.

The reference to industrial relations policy is that there has been a longstanding objective not to have over-fragmentation of representation for workers because that does not lead to coherent representation. It is accepted across the board that it is not helpful to have disparate, fragmented groups representing one sector. Ambulance personnel have three unions that are recognised to choose from, Fórsa, SIPTU and Unite.

The deduction of the subscriptions is not prescribed by law. It is done by agreement. It is a concession to the unions. The HSE recognises the right of three unions to represent ambulance workers. The PNA has been representing psychiatric nurses but not ambulance workers for years. It wants to get into this area but the HSE believes, in line with industrial relations policy, that it is better not to further fragment this one sector of workers who have three unions to represent them.

I am disappointed that the Minister for Health is not here. He knew the questions would be taken today, even though he obviously had plans to travel for St. Patrick's Day. He should be here to answer these questions. I am not questioning the Minister of State but the Minister for Health should be accountable.

It is absolutely outrageous that the HSE has taken this decision. It has refused to go to the WRC. The PNA has said it would go to the WRC, which is the industrial relations platform and court where this matter should be teased out. It is up to the WRC to decide whether the over-fragmentation of representation is an issue. If the WRC says the PNA should be a voice for the national ambulance workers, the HSE will be taken out of the equation. If the PNA does not get recognition there, it can go to the European Court of Human Rights. The Minister is denying these workers their right to join a trade union of their choice. I and a cross-party group of Deputies asked for a meeting with the Minister on this issue and we have not heard from him. I gave him the letter last week. Maybe the Minister of State can say whether the Minister will meet us.

I have already explained the Minister's absence. I cannot keep repeating myself.

He knew the questions were being taken today.

I do not think he went abroad to avoid answering this question.

If he knew this was-----

Allow the Minister of State to continue without interruption.

We either accept or not that it is good industrial relations policy to limit the number of unions-----

Where does it say that?

It is just a point of debate. I am just putting it out there. If there were 12 different unions representing one sector, it would be very difficult for the employer. That is a fact of life. We are making many demands of the HSE to do more, to do better and to improve and we have to accept that common sense and logic must prevail. If we allow 12 individual unions to represent one sector-----

I am not asking for 12.

Twelve is an arbitrary number. My point is that we should accept that over-fragmentation of the representative bodies is either helpful or unhelpful.

The WRC should make that decision.

I believe it is unhelpful. I do not want to prescribe a number but workers in this sector already have three different unions to choose from. The Deputy says the workers are being denied their right to choose a union but they have three unions already to represent their rights.

They are not being represented.

This is a debate about whether there should be a fourth union, whether we should continue indefinitely or whether the HSE as an employer should.