6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Health if funds will be made available by his Department to help resolve the dispute involving section 39 workers in the health care sector whose historic link to their public service comparator in terms of pay and conditions other than pension conditions has been broken due to them not obtaining equivalent pay restorations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 6088/18 asked on 08 Feb 2018)

Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): Question No. 6 in the name of Deputy Mick Barry is grouped with Question No. 9 in the name of Deputy Broughan. The procedure is that double time is allocated when two questions are taken together. Deputy Barry will introduce the question, the Minister will reply and then the two Deputies can make their contributions, and if time permits Deputy O’Reilly would also like to make a short contribution.

Deputy Mick Barry: We are less than a week away from strike action by 7,500 members of SIPTU working effectively in the health service. I ask the Minister whether funds will be made available by his Department to help resolve the dispute involving these section 39 workers, whose historic link to their public service comparators in terms of pay and conditions other than pension conditions has been broken due to them not obtaining equivalent pay restoration. Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

Deputy Simon Harris: I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 9 together.

I thank Deputies Barry and Broughan for raising this important matter. Under section 39 of the Health Act 2004, the HSE provides financial assistance to organisations by means of a grant. Many of those organisations provide very useful and valuable services that our citizens appreciate. Section 39 legally underpins the provision of services similar or supplementary to a service that the HSE may provide. In 2017, the HSE provided funding of approximately €800 million to over 2,200 of these agencies. The funding provided can range from high value, in the millions, to relatively modest amounts of just a few hundred euro. The point I am making is that many section 39 organisations have different scales and sizes

Staff in these organisations were not subject to the provisions of the FEMPI legislation. They were not a party to the public service agreements and are not covered by the pay restoration provided for in these agreements. These are not value judgements or views; they are just facts. While it is understood that pay savings were made by the organisations, the precise mix of pay cuts or other savings measures will have varied. I have seen that some did apply pay cuts and others may not have while some have restored them and some may not have. Also, where there were pay cuts, it is not at all clear that they were applied in a universally consistent manner, as was the case in the public sector and consequently, there is a complexity to this issue.

Therefore, the Government believes that we need a much deeper understanding of the funding position in these grant-aided organisations and the true extent of the pay reductions applied. In establishing the position, I am obliged to have regard to the legitimate taxpayer and value-for-money issues that arise. That is why I have requested that the HSE engages with the section 39 organisations to establish the facts around what cuts were applied and how and when they were implemented. I have asked that the executive complete this exercise as soon as practicable having regard to the large number of organisations concerned. Officials from my Department and the executive are continuing to engage with the relevant trade unions to ensure that this work is carried out on a consensus basis. We want to reach agreement in terms of how we do this. I note that one union has already agreed to how this should proceed while another has not.

I am mindful of the threatened industrial action in a number of these organisations, which is scheduled to commence with a one-day work stoppage next week. I believe that the process which I have outlined should address the concerns raised by the trade unions in a fair and transparent way. I am very conscious that the trade union movement has called for a process. I believe we need a process and I genuinely hope that agreement can be reached. I understand that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is engaged in conversations with management in this regard. It is at a very sensitive stage so while wishing to be as forthcoming as I always like be with the Dáil, I must be careful not to say anything that would in any way jeopardise something that is at a very sensitive stage. I hope a resolution can be reached because there should be no disruption to the delivery of these services. I know the unions do not want that, I do not want that and certainly the people depending on the services do not need that either.

Deputy Mick Barry: We are six days away from a national strike and I do not sense any degree of real urgency in the Minister’s reply. The case of these workers is basically unanswerable. How can the Minister stand over a situation where a nurse in the HSE is getting paid one rate with her pay restored while a nurse in Rehab doing very similar - essentially the same - work has not had her pay restored? I noticed that the Minister is wearing a little badge. My eyesight is not good enough to see exactly what it is. I suspect it marks the 100 years since votes for women were granted. The Minister will wear a badge about 100 years of votes for women. What about these workers, many of whom are women workers and low-paid women workers, who are being forced to wait for pay justice and to have their pay restored? Can we have some urgency and justice for these workers?

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: The Labour Court recommendation of 20 November is very clear. It states “The Court has given careful consideration to the submissions of both parties and is clear that the worker’s pay is clearly aligned with the HSE pay scales.” The Irish Wheelchair Association was the key mover in the case. It could not be clearer but yet, as Deputy Barry noted, we are just a few days away from a work stoppage involving 7,500 workers in nine section 39 organisations. As the Minister knows, they provide services to some of the most vulnerable citizens in our community. It is outrageous that we have reached this stage. The Not for Profit Association has been negotiating with the Minister for almost a year. When I visited the Irish Wheelchair Association last year, I raised the matter with the current Taoiseach, who admonished me that in no way were services to be cut. It was up to him, however, to bring the funding up to the required level for those organisations. The Government had an opportunity in budget 2018. We had a discussion yesterday and other debates about the deficit in the health budget for 2018. I welcome that the Minister has said he is prepared to reach but he needs to move very fast, as my colleague has said.

Deputy Louise O’Reilly: The Minister stated that talks are at a sensitive stage. I do not believe they are and I have had that confirmed to me in the past couple of seconds. In fact, very little talking is taking place. The Minister also talks about a process. It is important that the record of this House reflects that there was no process when these workers were having their pay cut, there was no recourse and no analysis was done. No money was identified. A cut was simply imposed on them. I know this because many of the Labour Court recommendations that found against the cases initially had my name on them. There was no process. It is really unfair to these workers to say that we cut their pay when we felt we needed to do so - they did not feel there was a need to do so and neither did I - and now the Minister is going to hide behind process. That is deeply unfair to those workers. We are six days away from a dispute. We need a sense of urgency about this.

Deputy Simon Harris: I am not sure what Deputy Barry’s comment about the badge relates to. I am very proud that women have had the vote for 100 years and I hope we will do an awful lot more to advance women’s rights in this country in the coming months. There is an urgency in terms of resolving this but, and I mean this respectfully, with the position I hold I do not have the luxury of being able to say some of the things Deputies can say on the other side of the House. In response to Deputy O’Reilly, I am informed that talks are at a sensitive stage. I checked that before I came into this House. I am informed that unions and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions are involved. I am also aware, as is the Deputy, that one union has already accepted the proposal and has issued a statement welcoming it. Where people get it somewhat wrong is the idea that this was applied universally in each and every section 39 organisation. That is not the case. There are 2,200 organisations with their own boards, governance structures and CEOs and they applied them in different ways.

Let me be clear in case there is any misunderstanding: I accept there are a number of legitimate issues. I accept that a number of people experienced pay cuts, that we need to establish the facts and that this will come with a bill that ultimately will need to be met. I accept that but the unions are calling for a process and I want a process. I accept that Deputy Broughan raised this issue a number of times. I believe there is a legitimate issue here but I am making the point that there is a complexity to this issue that is not there with public servants. This Oireachtas did not pass a law to cut the salaries of people in section 39 organisations. This Oireachtas did cut public servants’ pay. This Oireachtas passed a law to restore public servants’ pay. It did not pass a law regarding section 39 organisations. It is a process and we must work our way through it. I am determined to work our way through it. There is no need for industrial action because we will put a process in place and I hope we can reach agreement on that very quickly.

Deputy Mick Barry: The significance of the badge is that the Minister is prepared to advertise his support for women who fought for their rights 100 years ago. He has a practical opportunity here to demonstrate his support workers, largely women workers, who are fighting for their rights today yet these workers are left to face the prospect of picket lines next week because of inaction on his part. Their case is unanswerable. So unanswerable is it that their own employers in the sector have accepted that pay parity is warranted. Solidarity stands foursquare behind the thousands of section 39 workers who are fighting for pay justice and preparing for industrial action next Wednesday. The Government, the HSE and the Minister must see sense before the deadline for action. If they do not, the responsibility for any ensuing disruption and stress will be entirely on their shoulders, including the Minister’s shoulders.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: As the Minister is well aware, a number of organisations, including the Irish Wheelchair Association and Rehab, have been under intense pressure in terms of recruiting, retaining and looking after staff because of the ongoing issue arising from pay restoration in the public service. It is clear, from the Labour Court, the conciliation conference and every aspect of the human resources process, that the Minister forced the Irish Wheelchair Association to engage in that the workers in question are entitled to pay restoration. It is outrageous that we have reached a point where services are set to cease next Wednesday.

The Minister referred to a mapping process in a number of responses. When will we receive the report on this process and when will the HSE receive it? It is intolerable that workers in section 39 organisations who do exactly the same jobs as workers section 38 organisations and the HSE have not been paid the same rate since we embarked on pay restoration. As my colleague stated, we need to do justice to these workers urgently.

Deputy Simon Harris: There is an alternative to industrial action, namely, talking and engaging, which is generally the way we settle industrial disputes. We have dealt with a number of such disputes in the health sector since my appointment as Minister. I do not need to wear a badge to prove my record of willingness to engage and work through issues.

Deputy Broughan is entirely correct that a number of organisations are experiencing a recruitment and retention challenge. I accept that a person working in a section 39 organisation could receive a higher salary in a section 38 organisation and I see how this will play out and cause difficulty for organisations. I also hope the Deputy will also accept the legitimacy of the point that there are 2,300 section 39 organisations, ranging from groups that receive grants of a few hundred euro to organisations that receive grant of many millions and provide vital services nationwide.

In terms of the timeline for concluding the mapping process, this is one of the issues on which I want to reach agreement with the trade unions and other stakeholders. I could announce the process but I want to try to agree it with the stakeholders. There is time to achieve this and the process should be agreed as quickly as possible in order that we can provide reassurance to service users regarding their services next week. It is only by getting into a process that we will be able to successfully resolve this issue.