Dáil Éireann - Volume 434 - 13 October, 1993

Adjournment Debate. - Ambulance Service Dispute.

Mr. Gilmore: I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for permitting me to raise this matter. The strike by 75 ambulance workers in the Eastern Health Board who are based at James's Street and Loughlinstown began on 27 September last and is now in its third week. It is potentially one of the nastiest and most dangerous industrial disputes for a very long time. The failure to date by the Departments [1104] of Health and Finance and by the Eastern Health Board to negotiate a settlement to this dispute is putting the lives and health of the public at serious risk.

Straight away, I want to pay tribute to the striking ambulance staff who, despite the length of the dispute have continued to provide, free of charge, an emergency service to the health board. Every hour of every day since the strike began, ambulance crews have worked without pay to keep an emergency service operating. It seems, however, that this responsible attitude by the ambulance crews has not been reciprocated by the EHB management. Instead they have engaged in the lowest form of strike-breaking by engaging a private ambulance firm and employing non-union labour, in their attempt to either break or prolong the dispute.

I understand that this dispute is over a pay claim. It is not my intention to comment on the claim. That is a matter for negotiation between management and union. The problem, however, is that there is no negotiation. Since this strike began on 27 September there has been no meeting between the health board and the union and, so far as I am aware, no attempt by either the Department of Health or the Labour Relations Commission to bring the parties together. This is highly irresponsible for an emergency, life and death service, such as our public ambulances.

We can be thankful that to date there has been no loss of life as a result of this continuing dispute. But how much longer can the patchwork involving the Army, a private ambulance firm and taxis continue to provide a service whose inherent weaknesses will not be exposed?

The emergency services are operating with untrained crews, and with crews which are not able to cope with, for example, a cardiac emergency. How long will it be before a member of the public suffers a heart attack, or is involved in an accident and dies because there is not an adequate ambulance service in place?

It is extraordinary that to date neither the Minister for Health nor the Minister for Labour has intervened in this dispute or caused the Labour Relations [1105] Commission to bring the parties together. It may be that the Government has decided to leave the ambulance drivers out on strike as part of some greater bargaining strategy in advance of the new Programme for Economic and Social Progress talks.

If that is the case, then they are literally playing with the lives of the public and I call on them now to intervene in this dispute to ask the Labour Relations Commission to bring the sides together and to negotiate a settlement before a disaster occurs.

The need for intervention is underlined by the possible escalation of this dispute since the union involved in the dispute is in the process of balloting all of its health board members so that the dispute which is now confined to the ambulances may indeed be extended to involve all of the Eastern Health Board services in the Dublin area. I would ask the Minister for Health to intervene as a matter of urgency to bring about an end to the dispute.

Minister for Health (Mr. Howlin): Let me begin by thanking Deputy Gilmore for affording me the opportunity of addressing what is an important issue. The background to this dispute is the date of payment of an increase to ambulance drivers and attendants. The issue is not the payment of the increase but SIPTU's demand that the increase be backdated to the middle of 1989.

The increase falls to be dealt with under Clause 3 of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress. The Eastern Health Board is prevented by this clause from agreeing to any backdating beyond last January as that clause clearly states that increases of this nature cannot be implemented earlier than January 1993.

The Labour Court, which has involved itself in the dispute, has indicated that the question of implementation should be addressed within a Clause 3 framework and has also indicated that it will make itself available at short notice to give any assistance as may be deemed necessary should the parties require assistance to reach agreement within these parameters. The management side accept that position and are willing and [1106] ready to co-operate with such an initiative. However, the matter now rests with the union side who must give an indication as to whether it is prepared to work within this framework to search for a solution to the dispute.

I am deeply concerned at SIPTU's decision to seek to escalate this dispute through the involvement of its non-nursing members employed in the Eastern Health Board Dublin hospitals. This is particularly so given the prominent role played by SIPTU in framing the Programme for Economic and Social Progress agreement.

Both sides to this dispute are party to the Programme for Economic and Social Progress agreement. Given this position and the failure by the ambulance staff to work through the accepted industrial relations machinery, it is a matter of some surprise that SIPTU could contemplate widening the dispute. The effect of this would inevitably bear on the sick, the elderly and other vulnerable groups in the community.

Finally, while it is a matter of regret that the routine patient transport element of the service cannot be provided at present, I take this opportunity to reassure the House and to reassure the public that all urgent and emergency calls are being responded to as normal. The Eastern Health Board has informed my Department that the dispute is having no adverse effect on the time taken to answer emergency calls, and that normal reaction times are being achieved for such emergencies.

I hope that it will be possible in the near future to bring the parties together through the good offices of the Labour Court and that a solution will be found within the parameters available under Clause 3 of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress.