Consultants pose challenge to Croke Park agreement


ANALYSIS:Refusal to attend Labour Court hearing on work practice reforms took many by surprise, writes MARTIN WALL

THE DECISION of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) not to attend a scheduled Labour Court hearing tomorrow on reforms proposed by management poses a challenge not only to the Government but also to the Croke Park agreement.

The Labour Court is due to deal with two issues that were referred by management arising from talks at the Labour Relations Commission in September. These are changes to rest day entitlements for senior doctors and proposed cuts in payments to psychiatrists for second opinions.

Under these proposals, single- handed consultants working a 1:1 on-call roster would see their number of rest days fall from five to two for every four-week period.

A third issue – historic rest day entitlements for consultants – has also been referred to the Labour Court. However, this is to be dealt with under general industrial relations legislation and, unlike the other items, would not be subject to binding arbitration.

However, the IHCA maintains the issues referred to the Labour Court are outside the scope of the Croke Park deal.

It also reaffirmed its traditional position that it could not be party to a collective agreement under which the terms of members’ contracts could be changed without their individual consent.

One of the complicating factors in this dispute is that the Irish Medical Organisation, which also represents consultants, is to attend the Labour Court.

The IHCA has pointed to section 2.8 in the Croke Park agreement, which says all previous agreements, collective or otherwise, or recommendations by industrial relations bodies, remain intact.

It also highlighted that the deal referred to 15 areas of reform in the health sector, including staff redeployment, multidisciplinary working and reporting arrangements, that would be implemented with immediate effect. It argued this section did not mention rest days or payments to psychiatrists.

Management sources argued the 15 areas were not exhaustive, and other reforms, such as changes to holiday or sick-leave entitlements, had gone ahead under the Croke Park process.

The IHCA is not the first representative body to claim management proposals in different parts of the public service fell outside the scope of the agreement. Similar claims were made by other unions, for example in relation to plans to increase working hours in local authorities, or more recently, in relation to allowances.

In the past, unions making such cases have used the machinery of Croke Park, including the Labour Relations Commission and ultimately the Labour Court, to argue their point of view.

The IHCA contends that proposals to curb rest days could pose patient safety issues. This may be so. However, the point at issue, initially at least, is whether the proposal can be put forward under the Croke Park process.

Management sources accepted yesterday that if the measure was deemed to be outside the scope of the deal, the implications of the changes were irrelevant, as it was unlikely it could be pursued.

The IHCA move took many by surprise. Under industrial relations procedures the Labour Relations Commission can refer matters to the Labour Court only with the consent of the parties, indicating there was agreement on this issue.

A confidential internal IHCA circular dated September 21st, previously reported by The Irish Times, said three issues, including rest days, would be referred to the Labour Court. There was no mention in the document, which was sent to members, that the association did not plan to attend.

The Labour Court hearing will go ahead as planned in the absence of the IHCA. The crucial issue will be whether the association will accept any recommendation that emerges.

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