TOPICAL ISSUE DEBATE ON NASRA/PNA STRIKE ACTION

Deputy Joan Collins

I am disappointed the Minister is not here, considering the importance of the issue. I apologise on behalf of Deputy Thomas Pringle, who had a commitment elsewhere at 7 p.m. and had expected the Topical Issue debate to be at around 11 p.m.

This is the third day of a strike by the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, which comprises ambulance drivers and paramedics. There will be a fourth day tomorrow. Since the mid-1990s, ambulance workers have campaigned for the freedom to join the union of their choice. They joined IMPACT in the 1990s but, because IMPACT did not historically represent health workers, IMPACT could not take them. They then set up NASRA and went into negotiations with the PNA, which does represent health workers.

The PNA’s 6,000 members voted and agreed to accept them in 2010. The NASRA union deductions had been facilitated by the HSE to a point when the executive decided not to facilitate the union deductions in January 2018 for new members and August 2018 for all members. Approximately 350 ambulance personnel were affected by the stopping of this deduction and another 180 had filled out forms to join but could not do so because of the decision taken in January 2018. There were also 80 students who wanted to join NASRA. This leaves a total of approximately 610 of 1,380 ambulance drivers in the HSE who wanted to join the union.

These workers have been denied the fundamental right to join a union. This is not a breakaway union, as has been argued, and the PNA has negotiated for and represented members in the health service for 49 years. The NASRA branch of the PNA has represented members at the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court but the HSE has refused to engage with the union on grievance procedures and investigations. For example, representatives have been told they can attend meetings as colleagues but they cannot speak. I have never met a group of workers who need union representation more in the workplace. Their conditions and pay are atrocious. After 11 years of increments they are on €36,000, and they start on approximately €24,000. I do not know if the Minister of State or the Minister has seen the HSE national staff survey from 2016, with another one produced during the week for 2018. It contains a question as to whether an employee has experienced bullying or harassment in an organisation in the past two years; 48% of workers in the National Ambulance Service, NAS, said they had but this increased in the two years to 68% in 2018. It is absolutely scandalous.

I could reel off another few points but maybe other Deputies will raise them. This must be negotiated and fixed. We had a meeting yesterday in the AV room and a cross-party delegation wants to meet the Minister for Health to discuss the matter.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan

Members may remember that in the late 1990s on behalf of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, I brought forward the first trade union recognition Bill to the House. That was in the early part of the struggle to win trade union recognition for SIPTU baggage handlers who worked for Ryanair. So it seems incongruous tonight, so many years later, that we should need to have this debate regarding the negotiation rights of a significant cohort of key public service workers, the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, which is a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA.

As my colleague said, for the HSE to present this dispute as a breakaway union issue is not remotely tenable as the PNA has negotiated for and represented its members in the health service for almost 50 years. From 2010, the membership of NASRA has continued to grow and this union branch has represented its members on different issues at the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. The Oireachtas had an excellent briefing yesterday from NASRA, which was organised by my colleagues, Deputies Joan Collins and Pringle. The HSE simply refuses to negotiate with this union branch about members’ very serious grievances and work conditions, as mentioned by my colleague. I note also that since 2010, NASRA union subscriptions were deducted by HSE from members’ salaries but in January 2018 the HSE stopped these deductions at source for new members. Last August, the HSE ceased deducting union subscriptions from all NASRA members.

It is deplorable that the PNA and NASRA have had to resort to the current 12-hour stoppages today and tomorrow to secure their right to trade union recognition and negotiating rights. We are in the third and fourth days of industrial action on this matter and all Deputies believe this could be swiftly and easily resolved by the HSE with the encouragement of the Minister of State. I urge the Minister and the HSE to abandon their approach and immediately negotiate with the PNA and NASRA and work closely with the branch and the PNA to advance all the very serious problems felt by ambulance staff that my colleague referred to.

Deputy Mick Barry

I will ask the Minister of State a question and I would like a “Yes” or “No” answer. Has she read the HSE national staff survey for 2018? If she has, is she aware of the shocking figures it produces for the National Ambulance Service? Is she aware that almost 69% of staff surveyed in the ambulance service said they had experienced bullying or harassment in the past two years and that 51% personally experienced discrimination at work? A mere 8% said they felt valued and recognised in their job, with 6% expressing satisfaction with their level of pay. What does that tell the Minister of State about our ambulance service?

It tells the tale of a service that is very understaffed and short on ambulances, with perhaps 600 staff and 300 ambulances. There has now been an attempt to fill the gap by organising a quasi-military command structure in the ambulance service, where managers apply the lash to paramedics or emergency medical technicians who are overworked, overstretched and underpaid. These workers provide a vital service and are being denied their rights but they are not going to go away. Has the Minister of State read that report? How can she stand over the denial of the rights of more than 500 workers in our National Ambulance Service to be represented by the trade union of their choice?

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

The right to trade union representation is fundamental and workers should be able to exercise choice as to which trade union they can join. Having made that choice, they should be able to confidently expect that their representatives in a trade union would be accorded proper recognition and respect by being engaged with by members’ employers. That this is not always the case is a shameful reflection on some employers. That it is the case where the State and its agencies are concerned is absolutely disgraceful.

I join Dáil colleagues in calling on this Government to immediately set in train the required steps to afford the PNA and its NASRA branch their due entitlement to full recognition as a properly accredited representative body for the very significant number of ambulance personnel who are members of the PNA NASRA branch. Today has seen the third day of strike action by ambulance personnel, who are highly trained and respected members of our health service’s emergency provision. Tomorrow will be yet another day of strike action and more will follow if this matter is not appropriately addressed. That the HSE meets other trade union organisations covering a range of service employees and in separate engagements but will not meet representatives of the PNA on issues except those relating to the psychiatric nursing sector indicates a double standard that is wholly unacceptable.

This dispute can be resolved. As stated very clearly yesterday by the PNA representatives, they remain available to take up the genuine invitation of the Workplace Relations Commission to work to a solution using the established disputes mechanism to avoid further and escalating strike action. Surely we can agree that this is the result we want to reach.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Catherine Byrne)

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, I apologise to all the Deputies for his not being here for this debate on such an important matter. Industrial action was taken today, Thursday, 28 February, between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. by a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association called the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA. The HSE has been advised that NASRA members will again engage in industrial action tomorrow, Friday, 1 March, between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Members of NASRA represent approximately 350 front-line ambulance personnel from a total National Ambulance Service workforce of 1,800.

I understand that most are based in Cork, the south east and Tullamore. The HSE and the National Ambulance Service have confirmed that, again, robust contingency planning will be in place to ensure that there is no risk to the health and safety of our health service users despite this escalation in action. Of course, this escalation by the union to two consecutive days of industrial dispute will be an increased challenge. The HSE has also confirmed that full emergency cover will be provided during the action. This means that all emergency calls will be responded to.

In addition, the National Ambulance Service has put robust contingency arrangements in place to provide additional emergency cover. The Defence Forces are also on stand-by, if required. The intention is to minimise any disruption and to ensure that patient safety is not compromised. Similar to the last day of industrial action, National Ambulance Service management will closely monitor service demand and delivery on the days of the industrial action. The National Ambulance Service has confirmed that there was no negative impact on the ability of the service to provide patient care and service delivery during the last date of industrial action. So far, during this current day of action, there have been no adverse incidents.

I think it is important to again state the factual position regarding this dispute. NASRA, which is affiliated to the PNA, is not recognised by the HSE and, therefore, does not have negotiating rights. Also, the PNA does not have negotiating rights in respect of ambulance personnel. The legal position is very clear. The HSE and the National Ambulance Service have no obligation to recognise NASRA or the PNA in the context of ambulance personnel. The PNA, which is a non-ICTU affiliated union, does have negotiating rights for nurses working in psychiatry and intellectual disability sectors.

The main union that is recognised by the HSE for ambulance front-line grades is SIPTU. Fórsa and Unite also represent ambulance grades. The HSE deducts subscriptions at source for those ambulance staff who are members of SIPTU, Fórsa and Unite. This is consistent with the fact that these are the unions that are recognised as representing ambulance grades. The HSE does not carry out deductions for subscriptions to NASRA as it is not recognised. It should be noted that facilitating deductions at source is not a legal right, rather it is a concession granted to recognised unions. Of course, individuals have a right to membership of any trade union. However, they do not have a right that such membership is facilitated or recognised by their employer. The Minister has asked the officials to engage with HSE management to explore ways forward and see if a resolution to this dispute can be progressed. These discussions are ongoing.

Any recognition of the PNA with regard to ambulance personnel could have a serious detrimental effect to the current state of industrial relations in the health sector. This is a complicated situation and it has to be managed very delicately. However, as of today, the fact remains that the PNA does not have negotiating rights for ambulance grades. I will respond to some of the questions raised by the Deputies.

Deputy Joan Collins

Has the Minister of State read the results of the health sector national staff survey? This question was already asked by one of the Deputies and I also asked it. In 2016, in response to a question about whether respondents had experienced bullying or harassment in their organisation in the past two years, 48% of ambulance workers said “Yes”. In response to a question about whether they had witnessed bullying or harassment in the past two years, 68% said “Yes”. In response to a question about whether they had been subject to either verbal or physical assault in their organisation in the past two years, 51% said “Yes”. A so-called staff engagement forum was set up. What did we see after two years? In response to a question about whether respondents had experienced bullying or harassment in their organisation, up to 69% said “Yes”. Up to 70% said they had witnessed bullying and harassment and while 73% said they had been subject that they had been subject to verbal or physical assault. This is a dire situation for workers to be in and they need to be represented by a union. I asked the Minister of State whether she would ask the Minister to meet a cross-party grouping in respect of this issue in order to move it on as much as possible. These workers have a right to freedom of choice regarding which union they join. Complications and Chinese walls are being put up regarding these workers. They are professionals. There have been no major incidents because they are leaving the picket line, getting into ambulances and driving to critical incidents in order to ensure that people are not left on the road or in any danger. These are professional people who should be recognised and respected.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan

The Minister of State mentioned a total of 1,800 highly-trained staff. However, the issue here is that the 350 workers to which also she referred have an absolute right to have their trade union represent them. To date, the simple fact is that the HSE has refused to accept the invitation to the Workplace Relations Commission for talks aimed at resolving this matter. What role can the Minister and Minister of State play in encouraging the HSE to get directly involved in bringing about a resolution? Several of my colleagues referred to the health sector national staff survey for 2018. The survey results make disturbing reading detailing as they do the kind of pressures these staff members are under. We were informed at the briefing last week that staffing levels are dangerously low in areas such as the north east, where 22 people were rostered but just ten were available. A paramedic who worked as a psychiatric nurse for 20 years told us that the target is that an ambulance is dispatched within 90 seconds of dialling 999 but that the caller is not told where the ambulance will be dispatched from so many issues need to be addressed. The PNA has said that it is open to going to the Workplace Relations Commission with the HSE. Members just want to have their choice of trade union, improve their working lives and provide the best possible service to the public. The Minister of State can enable that and I urge her to do so.

Deputy Mick Barry

I asked the Minister of State whether she had read the survey. She came in here, read a script and did not answer the question so I invite her to answer it when she replies. Has she read the survey? She stated that the Government must manage the situation delicately. The Government has managed it so delicately that it has managed to become the first Government in the history of the State to preside over a national ambulance strike. Tomorrow, we face the fourth day of national strike action. In such circumstances, the Minister of State should not think that the Government’s delicacy has got us very far in that regard. She said that this union cannot be recognised because three unions are already represented. She mentioned SIPTU, Fórsa and Unite. Is she aware that the membership of the PNA in the ambulance service is greater than the membership of Fórsa and Unite combined? She mentioned a figure of 350. The real figure is more than 500 but even if we took the figure of 350, it is probably more than double the membership of those two unions put together. It would be very close to that in any case so that is an excuse and the Minister of State is not going to hide behind that.

Tomorrow is the fourth day of strike action. These workers and their issues are not going away. The workers will keep fighting and campaigning until such time as their union is recognised and people sit down and talk to them. Is the Minister of State prepared to give any commitment tonight that the Government is prepared to do that or will she force these workers out on strike again?

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

The Minister of State’s prepared script, as it has already been described, is absolutely unacceptable. It contains an acknowledgement of the right to membership of a trade union yet the Minister of State indicated that this membership does not give rise to any right to recognition by the employer. It is difficult to believe that she is seeking to justify the failure of some to recognise the right to free collective bargaining, due recognition and membership of a trade union. This is the State, it is the Government. Surely what has been stated must give great comfort to those who wish to ride roughshod over the rights and interests of the many workers across this land. The sentence to the effect that any recognition of the PNA with regard to ambulance personnel could have a serious detrimental effect on industrial relations in the health sector needs to be expanded on and explained.

What are we talking about? Is it the case that the Minister is not prepared to instruct the HSE, as he should do, to recognise the PNA and its NASRA branch as a representative body for the ambulance personnel who are members of that branch, and that there are perhaps other influences or pressures that would prevent that action happening? That is a very serious situation and that is what is implicit in this document the Minister of State has read into the record. It is incumbent on the other named entities to clarify their position. When I stood with the PNA NASRA branch workers on their strike on 15 February, I was very encouraged by the fact they had colleagues from SIPTU there with them, shoulder to shoulder, workers together.

Deputy Catherine Byrne

What I read was the script I was given. To answer Deputy Barry’s questions, I have not read it, like I have not read a lot of the documents that are sitting on my table. I gradually go through them as best I can. I have not read it and I will not say here that I read something I did not read.

Deputy Mick Barry

The Minister of State should read it.

Deputy Joan Collins

I have two copies. I can leave them with her.

Deputy Catherine Byrne

I will read it. I will take it on advice from Deputies Barry and Collins and I will read it. I do not need to be lectured.

Deputy Collins asked that I would ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to consider a cross-party meeting and I will do that tomorrow. I take on board the points raised around the HSE, understaffing and whether people have a right to join the trade union of their choice.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, has expressed his disappointment that the PNA has decided to take this industrial action. The Department of Health and the HSE are exploring options to sort out this strike.

Deputy Mick Barry

They would need to explore them fairly quick.

Deputy Catherine Byrne

I do not know if I can say much more than that. The Minister, Deputy Harris, is keen to see the end of this dispute. As I said, officials from the Department of Health met representatives of the HSE and the management of the national service to explore possible options for the strike to be called off. However, the Minister remains confident that a solution can be found. It is incumbent on me to say that. There is always room for solutions and we should be able to negotiate and to sit with people and talk to them.

Deputy Mick Barry

That is the point. They should be able—–

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard J. Durkan)

Order, please.

Deputy Catherine Byrne

I am not going to be brought in here to read a statement and then be abused by Deputy Barry or anybody else as to whether I read a document or not.

Deputy Mick Barry

It is the ambulance paramedics who are being abused.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard J. Durkan)

The Deputy has had his say.

Deputy Catherine Byrne

I want to make it clear to Deputy Barry that I have not read it and I am not going to lie and say I did. However, I will look at it and inform myself. Prior to taking this Topical Issue matter, I had not read it and I am making that clear to the Deputy. I could not answer the Deputy in the opening statement because it was not part of the opening statement. I answered him in my reply. I hope he takes that fact on board. He now knows I have not read it.