Adjournment Debate. - Teachers' Early Retirement Package Claim.

I raise this issue to urge the Minister for Education to take a fresh initiative to resolve the impasse between the Government and the teacher unions on their claim for an early retirement package. The Minister should bring all sides around the table in an effort to resolve this dispute, which if left unresolved, will lead to the collapse of partnership, one of the fundamental principles of the White Paper on Education. It is imperative that the Minister take this initiative now. Nobody, is anxious for industrial action in our schools, least of all the teachers who feel this is the last resort following two years of prevarication, obfuscation and foot dragging by the Minister.

Because of this dispute in-service training courses related to the introduction of new leaving certificate syllabi have had to be cancelled and the introduction of these new syllabi in September is now in serious jeopardy.

The withdrawal by teachers from and non co-operation with departmental committees will clearly disrupt and slow down the implementation of many of the proposals in the White Paper. This dispute also has the potential to cause division among the partners in education. We have already seen signs of that. This would be regrettable and would shatter that fundamental plank of the White Paper, the principle of partnership.

I would remind the Minister that it is almost ten years ago to the day when a former Minister for Education, Mrs. Gemma Hussey, was in dispute with the teacher unions. That was an unnecessary dispute. It is regrettable that the Minister seems to be going down the same road.

As I said in my contribution on the White Paper, we need to avoid unnecessarily undermining the teaching profession because the teachers are an essential prerequisite to any teaching programme in our schools. I regret the selected leaks on the integrity of the school year, which were designed to undermine teachers prior to the launch of the White Paper. One got the impression that there was an orchestrated attempt to sully their names in the public domain. That is regrettable because teachers are essential to the delivery of any education programme. It is my understanding that the gap between the two sides is quite small. A potential solution is there, the costs of which would be within the parameters of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work. It is important to stress that this claim is being pursued under the umbrella of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work which facilitated the pursuance of this issue along with others. Failure to resolve this dispute could also have implications for the Programme for Competitiveness and Work itself and for the social partnership agreements.

The Minister has had the actuarial figures prepared by the teacher unions for a number of weeks. Surely she must have come to some conclusions arising from her examination of these figures. It is time to bring these conclusions to the negotiating table. There have been many misleading comments and statements about this dispute, particularly about the number of teachers who would avail of the option and the cost of such a scheme. Not all teachers will avail of the option of early retirement. It is interesting to note that only 40 to 50 teachers a year avail of the existing scheme for primary teachers. The vast majority of teachers would not be in a position to afford early retirement because of domestic and family commitments. Many have no particular wish to retire. The teachers' claim is to have the early retirement option available to them. They are satisfied that the costs of such a scheme are well within the parameters of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work.

The Minister made a solemn promise two years ago at the teacher union conferences to deliver an early retirement package and received a standing ovation for making that promise. A year later she made another promise to have negotiations on an early retirement package concluded by 30 September 1994. She failed to keep those promises. Real talks only began last February. Their collapse before Easter marred what was in any event a hasty launch of the White Paper. The ploy to launch the White Paper before the teacher conferences to divert attention from the early retirement issue did not work. It was a cynical ploy unworthy of the Minister. Unless this dispute is resolved quickly the world of Irish education will be divisive, troubled and strife-torn. We need to replace political incompetence, which has dogged this dispute, with some degree of competence and leadership on the part of the Minister.

I welcome the opportunity of commenting on the current position in regard to the matter raised by the Deputy.

Discussions on a number of teacher union claims, including early retirement, were facilitated over a period of six weeks before Easter, by Mr. Seán Healy, director of the advisory service, Labour Relations Commission. I appointed Mr. Healy as facilitator when talks on the claims broke down at a meeting of the Conciliation Council for Teachers on 10 February 1995.

I want to stress that under the terms of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work pay agreement, the teachers unions have already accepted that their early retirement claim can only be negotiated with other claims as part of a package and in return for change and flexibility from teachers.

In reply to questions on 3 May 1995 I put it on the record in this House that a very comprehensive and balanced set of proposals were offered to the teacher unions before the talks broke down.

The offer comprised: a general provision of retirement at age 55 with 35 years service for post-primary teachers to bring them into line with primary teachers; early retirement with added years for teachers who cannot function at acceptable levels of professional performance because of stress or for other reasons; early retirement, with added years for surplus teachers; reduction of the common basic scale for teachers from a 26 to a 24 point scale; phased payment of the pass degree allowance to teachers without a degree; payment of the H.Dip. allowance as well as a degree allowance to teachers holding four year concurrent degrees; increases of up to £2,500 and £1,700 respectively in allowances for principals and vice-principals of larger schools; payment of a once-off lump sum to all current post holders; full recognition for pension purposes, for existing teachers, of capitation and supernumerary service in convent and monastery schools.

I still consider that the overall package of measures outlined represents a generous response to the teachers' claims. It is a very substantial offer which addresses many of the issues raised by teacher unions, including burn out and stress. I regret that negotiations on a wide range of issues broke down on the single issue of giving all teachers an entitlement of extra years of pensionable service.

Disagreement arose between the sides on the cost and funding of a proposal put by the teachers during facilitation talks and also in regard to its implications for pension cost in the wider public service. In response to a request from the facilitator the Department of Finance provided actuarial costings of the teacher unions' proposal. These costings were sent to the teacher unions.

As I am sure the Deputy will appreciate, actuarial costing of improved pension provisions is a very complex issue and costings depend on the quality of the data available and assumptions on a range of variable factors. An offer by the official side to have a study of the unions' proposal by an independent team of experts, including actuarial consultants, was rejected by the teacher unions. Costings produced by both sides have since been exchanged and are currently being examined.

I have already stated that the teacher unions have accepted that the claims which are the subject of industrial action must be processed under theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work. Paragraph 5 of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work pay agreement commits employers, trade unions and employees to promoting industrial harmony. The agreement precludes strikes or any other form of industrial action by trade unions and employees in respect of any matter covered by the agreement where the employer is acting in accordance with the provisions of the agreement.

By agreement with the teacher unions, claims including the early retirement claim were being processed under clause 2, option A of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work pay agreement. The terms of that clause require that if unions wish to process more than one claim they must seek to negotiate an agreed settlement on a package basis and the package must include contributions by workers to flexibility and change, savings and an improved quality of service. These contributions have been generally referred to as the quid pro quo.

The teacher unions have accepted that their early retirement claim has to be negotiated as part of a package settlement of a number of their outstanding claims. However, they remain somewhat equivocal on the issue of thequid pro quo.

In these circumstances, it is a matter of regret to me that the teacher unions have decided to embark on industrial action in support of their claims. I particularly regret that strikes will interrupt students' preparation for examinations.

In addition, the non-attendance at in-service training courses by 7,000 or so post-primary teachers will adversely affect the introduction of the new syllabus at leaving certificate level. The leaving certificate applied programme may also be affected. There is general agreement on the need for these developments at senior cycle. Any delay in their introduction, as a result of the teachers' actions, will be to the detriment of the students.

I am anxious that talks would resume as soon as possible and I am continuing to explore possibilities of establishing a basis for resumption of talks. I can assure the House that my officials are available at any time to meet with the teachers' representatives for further discussions.