Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin has pledged that lower paid public servants will be the major beneficiaries when pay cuts are restored.

The minister has said that at the time of the Haddington Road Agreement, he had told them that the next time he came knocking it would be to give money back.

Addressing the SIPTU Health Division conference in Dublin, he said that time had now come.

However, he warned that any deal on pay restoration would have to involve staff continuing to cooperate with reforms which he said were now "hard wired" into the Croke Park and Haddington Road agreements.

He also told delegates that restoration would require a multi-annual approach, as trying to restore pay in one fell swoop could imperil the recovery.

He said he will seek formal approval from Government next week to commence restoration negotiations in May.

Responding to the minister's speech, SIPTU Health Division Organiser Paul Bell urged him to address issues including outsourcing, interns and zero hour contracts.

He urged the minister to give permanent contracts to 1,300 health support staff currently employed on internships.

He described the lower paid graduate nurse programme as a failure.

Mr Bell added that the British government had recently indicated that it would be mounting a significant recruitment campaign for nurses and midwives.

He also said it was time to confront the issue of zero hours contracts for members in community based Section 39 bodies and to ensure they had a right to collective bargaining.

Many members remained fearful for their jobs, he said, because of outsourcing, claiming that the HSE had continued to surrender in-house services to agency staff organisations at a cost of €350m last year.

It would have been preferable to use these resources to hire staff at a more competitive rate, he added.

He welcomed the minster's assurance that restoration would commence with those earning below €35,000.

However, he warned that given the major productivity conceded by staff over the last four years, members were determined to recover pay as recognition for commitments already delivered.

SIPTU represents around 45,000 nursing and support grades in the health sector.