Topical Issue Debate

Legal Aid Service

As the Minister will be aware, the growing problem of access to the services of free legal aid centres is causing crises for individuals who are on waiting lists for civil legal services. Figures provided by the Department show the number of people waiting for the services of free law centres increased from 1,681 people in January 2009 to 4,500 in September 2011. One must bear in mind that 74% of those on the waiting list are seeking legal services for the purpose of family law cases, whether emergency cases or cases involving divorce, separation, maintenance and so forth. I am aware that priority is given to urgent cases involving domestic violence and urgent child care needs.

One hears a great deal about the impact of the recession. The people affected by the delays in providing legal services include individuals whose relationships have broken down, those in negative equity and people who are trying to resolve problems related to family, children and property. To ask people in such circumstances to wait for up to 11 months at some law centres is tough and cruel. It creates major difficulties for those who are unable to avail of the advice of a solicitor for lengthy periods during which they believe their world is falling apart and they need some certainty, advice or professional input from a lawyer. Many of those affected have visited my clinic to raise this problem and my heart goes out to them

I ask that inroads be made in the waiting lists. The law centres seek to achieve an average waiting time of four months but are clearly unable to reach this target given that waiting periods have increased to 11 months in some cases. I commend many of the solicitors in private practice who give legal advice or guidance to people who cannot afford to pay for it but require independent, objective advice on their circumstances. For many of the individuals in question, solicitors who give their services free are a godsend.

The second aspect of the matter I raise is the possibility of generating some revenue through the criminal legal aid service. Last year, €56 million was spent on criminal legal aid and I understand the €47 million allocated for this year will be exceeded by approximately €10 million. As of 1 August, 33,225 legal aid certificates had been granted. I am not sure what the current figure is. Those who avail of the services of law centres are asked to pay a contribution towards the cost of the legal service provided. While the charge depends on the person's means, it may range from €1 to upwards of €50. On the other hand, people who receive legal aid certificates in criminal cases are not asked to pay anything. Information on re-offending levels among those who come before the courts, specifically those who receive non-custodial sentences, is not available. As a practitioner who did criminal work in the District Court, I used to see the same people repeatedly come before the court and receiving legal aid certificates at no personal cost. This practice is ridiculous and flies in the face of justice and common sense. If people receiving legal aid certificates, especially those who have reoffended, faced charges similar to those applied to those who receive civil legal aid, savings of approximately €3.3 million would have been made up to 1 August this year.

I thank Deputy Mulherin for providing me with the opportunity to discuss the matters she has raised. As she knows, the Legal Aid Board has 33 full-time law centres located throughout the country, including seven located in Dublin. The board also operates a private practitioner service, refugee documentation service and library service in Montague Lane, Dublin. In addition, the functions of the Legal Aid Board were recently extended to include a family mediation service.

The past three or four years have seen a considerable increase in demand for legal services from the Legal Aid Board. This increase in demand has coincided with the downturn in the economy and greater pressure on Departments and their agencies to provide services from reduced financial resources.

In 2007, slightly more than 10,150 persons sought legal services from the board in relation to general civil, non-asylum matters, a substantial portion of which fell within the family law area. This figure increased to 17,175 in 2010, while the number of applicants in the first six months of this year was almost equal to the total number for the 12 months of 2007. The board has been proactive with regard to the provision of services at this time of increasing demand in a resource constrained environment. It has prioritised certain types of cases for immediate or near immediate service. Priority cases include those where allegations of violence have been made, child custody matters and where statutory deadlines are fast approaching when clients make their first contact with the law centre. These cases comprise some 15% of all applications. A considerable number of other applications are referred speedily to private practitioners. Up to 40% of all cases receive a very speedy service.

The budget for civil legal aid for 2012 is being maintained at the same level as for this year. However, the ongoing increase in the number of people seeking services from the Legal Aid Board makes it inevitable that difficulties will continue. As the Deputy may know, a new board was appointed this week and I am confident it will do its best to address the pressures under which it is operating.

The Legal Aid Board primarily provides legal services through law centres located throughout the country. I am acutely aware that as a consequence of the relatively small number of staff, a retirement or maternity related absence can have significant impact on the capacity of an individual law centre to provide services. The board has been to the fore in making use of the JobBridge scheme. It has retained a number of solicitors who are making a valuable contribution to the board's work in that regard. while at the same time gaining valuable experience that will assist them in the jobs market. The board will pilot an initiative early next year. It is a somewhat different approach to the provision of legal services. It will attempt to ensure every applicant for legal aid gets an appointment with a solicitor within three to four weeks. The person may have to wait for a period of time if he or she wants representation in court, or further steps undertaken on his or her behalf. The Deputy may be aware that in November of this year, I announced the formal integration of the family mediation service with the board. I hope many of the family disputes that have resulted in litigation up to now will be resolved through the use of the mediation service.

I would like to speak briefly about the criminal legal aid scheme. As the Deputy knows, the scheme is demand-led in the sense that it is affected by the incidence of crime, the rate of detection and the prosecution of cases. It is difficult to anticipate the level of activity in this area and to control the costs associated with it. This year's Estimate for the criminal legal aid scheme was €47 million, but that has been exceeded by €10 million to date. It is estimated that the ultimate out-turn will be €57.5 million. Just €47 million will be available for the scheme next year. As Minister, I have to find savings of €10 million. Of necessity, a number of cost reduction measures were implemented this year, including a 10% reduction in the fees and rates payable to legal practitioners under the scheme.

As in other sectors of the economy, the reduction in the fee rates paid under the scheme has had an impact on practitioners. Nevertheless, they cannot be exempt from the financial stringencies that are applying across the public sector, or from the difficulties the State is experiencing within the funds available to it. We have identified a series of cost-saving measures which we hope to implement in 2012. The Deputy's specific suggestion that every successful applicant for criminal legal aid should have to make some initial payment has been investigated by the Department of Justice and Equality. Unfortunately, an examination of the matter has given rise to the receipt of advice to the effect that if we were to introduce such a payment, it could give rise to constitutional difficulties and difficulties pursuant to the European Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless, we will explore the matter further in so far as we can.

I suppose I am most interested in the latter part of the Minister's answer. While I understand the difficulties that potentially exist, I suggest that a fee of between €10 and €50 would be affordable even for someone on social welfare, especially if it were spread over a period of time. It would represent some form of justice. I appreciate that people are not guilty until they are tried and their cases heard. However, many of those who break the law are reoffenders. A woman and her children will have to wait between six and 11 months to be seen by a solicitor in a law centre, whereas someone who breaks the law tonight will get legal aid in the morning. While I accept that such people need to be represented, I do not think it is excessive to deduct between €10 and €50 from their social welfare over a period of time to facilitate that. It might mean they have to do without a packet of cigarettes, or stay out of the bookies, for a week. I am not generalising when I say there are many cases of that nature. There is merit in providing for such a levy. I agree this service should be provided, but those who avail of it should have to pay something towards it. I do not think the rest of society should have to pay in every way for the actions of these people.

The Deputy might be aware that the judgment which was delivered by the courts in the 1976 case of State (Healy) v. O’Donoghue, which has been reiterated in many judgments since then, provides for a constitutional right to legal aid in criminal cases. As I have already mentioned, there is a view that a small application fee might deter some applicants from availing of the scheme in circumstances in which they perhaps should not benefit from such a scheme. It is important that we remember there is a presumption of innocence in criminal prosecutions. Those who cannot afford to pay for legal representation have a constitutional right to obtain it. We must respect our Constitution and the obligations imposed on this State by the European Convention on Human Rights. Detailed consideration is being given to the possibility of introducing a scheme of the kind she has proposed. Even if it were constitutionally feasible, I would have to ensure it would be of financial benefit. We should not introduce a scheme that would create further unnecessary administrative expense which could exceed any financial benefit that might accrue to the State. I appreciate the Deputy raising this issue. Although we should protect the rights of those accused of crime and ensure they are properly legally represented, it is of huge importance that we ensure taxpayers’ money is not wasted at the same time. There is an overriding need to bring the cost to this State of the criminal legal aid scheme under some level of control. It is not tenable that this year, the scheme will cost €10 million more than the provision made for it by the State.

Courts Service

I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter. Concerns have been raised with me about the length of time it takes to deliver court judgments. Many of those who go through the courts process find it stressful and costly. It appears that the timeframe for which they have to wait before the process is concluded is being extended. We should try to alleviate such delays. I have been informed that 71 cases in the High Court have been awaiting judgment for 12 months or less, as have 17 Supreme Court cases. I do not think it is acceptable that the public should have to wait so long for a judgment. The cost of going to court is often prohibitive. The stress and anxiety that many people endure is a cause of additional concern. The pressure that brings to bear on a personal level can manifest itself in all sorts of ways. Any effort we can make to ensure these judgments are delivered in a timely fashion would be most welcome. The European Convention on Human Rights provides that people are entitled to a fair trial within a reasonable timeframe. It specifies that the judgment must be made known within a reasonable timeframe. I am concerned that people's rights under the convention might be breached. What is being done to alleviate these delays? If efforts are being made to that end, how soon will their benefits be evident?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. As I recently outlined to her in reply to a parliamentary question, the Courts Service has informed me that at present, there are nine High Court cases and one Supreme Court case in which judgments are awaited for between three and six months. I have also been advised that there are 15 cases in the High Court and 19 cases in the Supreme Court in which judgments have been reserved for in excess of six months. Three of these have awaited judgment in the High Court for over 12 months and seven have awaited judgment in the Supreme Court for over 12 months. The corresponding figures for judgments awaited for less than three months are 50 cases in the High Court and four cases in the Supreme Court.

This is of significant concern as under the European Convention on Human Rights, member states are obliged to ensure excessive delays do not occur in domestic proceedings. Article 6(1) of the convention establishes the right to a fair trial, and within this provision "trial within a reasonable time" is protected. The length of trial is measured up to the moment the national judgment becomes final. Therefore, the length of time a judge takes in giving judgment is considered when establishing whether there has been a violation of Article 6(1). If this right is found to have been violated, as in the case of McFarlane v. Ireland, the injured party may be entitled to compensation. Notwithstanding the independence of the Judiciary, it is incumbent on the Government and the Judiciary to take all possible steps to ensure delays do not become excessive.

As the House will appreciate, the delivery of judgments following completion of a court hearing is a matter for the Judiciary and the presidents of the courts who are independent in the exercise of their judicial functions, subject only to the Constitution and the law.

In addition, within my area of responsibility as Minister, I have an obligation to take action to seek to address particular problems as they arise, including those arising through legislation. Following the decision in the McFarlane case, I established an expert group on Article 13 of the convention to consider how delays might be remedied. I look forward to considering the group's report when it is completed.

I understand the Chief Justice has brought forward a welcome series of initiatives to facilitate a review of the reserved judgments list in the Supreme Court on an ongoing basis, including the implementation of an electronic database of the list. Active management of the list is being facilitated by a series of processes which have been put in place by the Chief Justice to minimise current delays and to establish new systems for the future. Considerable progress has been made in reducing delays generally.

I am also informed that the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court regularly meet with senior officials of the Courts Service to review matters relating to the operation of the courts in order to ensure efficiency in the disposal of court business. In addition, where possible, supports are provided to assist judges in the preparation of judgments, including the engagement of judicial fellows and judicial research assistants. I am informed that the introduction of such assistants since 2008 to assist High Court judges has had a positive impact in addressing delay.

In addition, there is a register of reserved judgments in civil proceedings which was introduced in 2005. It provides that if a judgment is not delivered within two months from the date upon which it was reserved, the president of the court which heard the case must list the proceedings before the judge who reserved judgment at two-month intervals. That judge must specify the date on which he or she proposes to deliver the judgment. The register provides a mechanism to remind judges of outstanding judgments, and supports the Chief Justice or the President of the High Court in ensuring that judges who need it can be given time out of court to write reserved judgments.

It is worth noting that the Supreme Court operates a priority list to expedite urgent cases such as those that arise under the Hague Convention in regard to child abduction and European arrest warrant appeals and these are automatically prioritised. In other cases, a party may apply to the court for priority if urgency or another basis for the application can be shown. The President of the High Court has also been proactive in reducing delays experienced in judicial review proceedings in asylum and immigration cases in which leave has been granted, and the court has held additional hearings before vacation periods to reduce backlogs and delays.

The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers which monitors how member states implement ECHR judgments has recently recorded satisfaction with how Ireland is progressing in dealing with delay. For this reason, I am most anxious to ensure that we do not regress and I very much welcome the Chief Justice's recent initiatives in this regard.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. I appreciate her legitimate interest in ensuring the efficient and effective administration of justice in Ireland and I recognise the importance of ensuring that when a hearing of a case is concluded, judgment is delivered within a reasonable timeframe in the interest of the parties to the proceedings.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. I note he referred to a report from the expert group which is examining this matter and his expectation of a response. I hope that report will come sooner rather than later. It would be good if there were a timeframe for it because it is very important that it is available as soon as possible.

What progress has been made on the establishment of the court of appeal to which the Minister referred?

I expect to receive the report early in the new year and intend to publish it then. I hope it will contain comprehensive recommendations to address outstanding issues, in order facilitate the hearing of cases earlier than currently occurs in some courts. I also hope the measures that have been taken will ensure that judgments which are outstanding are delivered within a reasonable period. I emphasise that what I can do about this matter is limited because of the independence of the courts. However, I welcome the initiatives the Chief Justice has taken.

It is part of the programme of Government that we provide for a court of civil appeal. That matter will require the holding of a constitutional referendum. The establishment of such a court is likely to result in some additional expenditure being incurred. Nevertheless, it is in the interest of justice that such a court is established. I hope that towards the end of next year the preparatory work being undertaken on this issue will be complete. A considerable number of cases have been appealed from the High Court to the Supreme Court in recent years that might have been dealt with at the level of the civil court of appeal. That would have taken some pressure from the Supreme Court and allowed for earlier hearings of some appeals and a resolution of civil litigation at an earlier time than occurs at present. I hope we will make progress on that matter which remains very much part of Government policy. I hope to advance the proposal substantially in 2012.

Industrial Relations

Deputies Clare Daly, Seamus Healy, Joan Collins and Joe Higgins are raising the next matter.

I am sharing time with Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett only.

I am afraid that is not allowed. Deputy Higgins cannot share time with a Deputy whose name has not been called by the Ceann Comhairle and so he must take the allotted time. Time can only be granted to a Deputy who is named.

I am sorry about that.

I submitted this matter twice this week.

Deputy Boyd Barrett submitted this yesterday. I shall continue and the Acting Chairman can consider this as a joint submission by all the Deputies concerned.

I am glad the Minister for Finance is in the Chamber. What we would like to have with him today is a quiet measured conversation about the issue I raise which concerns 370 workers at EBS Limited, now merged with Allied Irish Banks. These are very low-paid and middle-income workers. They are coal-face workers, not the erstwhile high fliers who expanded the property bubble and destroyed the economy in the process.

For 45 years workers in the company were paid their annual wages in 13 equal instalments. Therefore, after nine years of service, a worker on a gross income of €30,000 would receive 13 instalments of €2,308, before tax deduction. The 13th instalment was paid in December, before Christmas. For decades this was accepted by everybody to be part of the basic wage and not as a Christmas bonus. It was consolidated into the wage de facto.

On 6 December, possibly as the Minister was on his feet in this Chamber announcing the budget, the workers were informed that their 13th instalment was not going to be paid. They had expected this payment the very next day in a pay packet. Obviously, they had planned for Christmas and had already spent the money on their families' Christmas preparations, etc. They were totally reliant on the payment, given they are very low-paid or middle-paid workers. This is a devastating blow.

A loan facility at 12.5% interest offered to the workers by the management of EBS as an alleged compensation adds insult to the injury. It is because of this great outrage and the injustice the workers feel that they have called a strike on December 20. If it goes ahead, another day's pay will be lost by those workers.

Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us but I understand the Department of Finance made that decision by virtue of powers invested either in the Department or in the Minister himself, in conjunction with AIB. In addition, senior managers on €90,000 a year who had the same arrangement are not having their 13th instalment withdrawn — not that the measure would be justified if they were.

On behalf of those workers I ask the Minister to go into immediate conclave with officials and management of AIB and EBS to ensure this decision is reversed. As it is Christmas time, he could cast himself in the role of Santa Claus rather than Scrooge.

I have the utmost sympathy for EBS staff regarding the timing of the announcement of the decision that this so-called 13th month payment would not be made. This does not reflect well on management and should not have happened. However, this payment is described in the contracts of the relevant staff members as the payment of a Christmas bonus. The terms of the latest capital investment in AIB and its accompanying letters made clear in July 2011 that no bonuses whatsoever could be paid or awarded.

Since 1 July 2011, EBS is a wholly owned subsidiary of AIB and covered by the above conditions. When approached in November and again in December, my Department made it clear to AIB management this was our understanding of the relevant provisions of the agreement underpinning the State's capital investment in the bank.

Much has been made of the fact that these payments have been paid for several years previously, especially from 2008 onwards. For clarification, when the State invested moneys in EBS in May 2010 by means of a subscription for a special investment share, remuneration restrictions only applied to senior management. As a result of this investment and the recommendations of the covered institutions remuneration oversight committee, no bonuses have been paid to this cadre of staff since 2008.

As conditions deteriorated and further capital was injected into AIB in December 2010, these restrictions were broadened to formally prohibit the payment of bonuses to all staff and became the template that would apply to all the institutions as further investment was made. Had EBS been maintained as a separate institution following the PCAR, prudential capital assessment review, of March 2011 any further injection of capital would have been covered by the expanded restrictions.

The Government decided, as part of the restructuring of the banking sector, that EBS would merge into AIB and, as a result, the wider restrictions on the payment of bonuses came into effect. Either way the blanket restrictions on the payment of bonuses to all staff would have applied. I have indicated this when replying to parliamentary questions on the matter yesterday and today.

While I have sympathy with the staff on the timing issue, it has to be stressed that the State's capital investment into the banking has protected jobs across the financial sector. Without this crucial investment, our banks would have encountered severe difficulties and many jobs would have been lost. The State has already invested some €20 billion in AIB and identified it as one of the two universal pillar banks.

Last week saw the introduction of a very difficult budget that meant reductions in State payments to some of those who rely on the State as their only source of income. This was in addition to other reductions in previous budgets including the termination of the Christmas bonus payment to social welfare recipients. We are facing three more difficult budgets as we attempt to extricate ourselves from our present challenging economic and fiscal circumstances. While I readily acknowledge the sacrifices made by employees, both public and private, in this battle for survival of the nation, in this context, it is not unjustified for a bank which the State has rescued not to pay a Christmas bonus.

The proposed strike is to be very much regretted. I fully acknowledge the staff have a right to express their grievance in any legitimate way. However, the union and staff should reflect again taking all of the circumstances into consideration. I understand EBS is putting in place a loan scheme to facilitate employees to assist them in meeting their commitments over this period.

This is not a case of going after the "little people" who have not caused this crisis while more senior employees have departed with generous remuneration and severance arrangements, as has been alleged. This latter aspect is a cause of great annoyance to citizens and shared by the Government. In such circumstances we are greatly constrained by the strong legal advice available that recovery of such awards would not be possible. Hence the introduction of the blanket restrictions on the payment of bonuses and other remuneration items now included in the latest agreements with the banks.

In such circumstances, I do not think it is unreasonable to ask employees of a rescued institution to forgo a Christmas bonus where it is totally dependent on the State for survival while the Government has to ask citizens to accept much greater impositions with the likelihood of more to follow.

That is a deeply regrettable response. For the Minister for Education and Skills sitting next to the Minister to be nodding his head in agreement is also rather ironic. The prohibition of bonuses in the banks is enthusiastically supported when it relates to the high flyers and the fat cats who devastated our economy with their reckless lending and gambling. Their bonuses ranged from €60,000 and €70,000 to €100,000 and €250,000. The bonuses in question here are for workers on €26,000 per annum. The Minister is denying them a gross of €2,000 as the 13th instalment. Clerical staff on €34,000 per annum are being cut a gross bonus of €2,600. These bonuses have also been cut the day before they were due. The Minister will know how families will have already prepared to spend that money for Christmas. This was not a bonus and the arrangement obtained for 45 years.

It is a cut in their pay.

I am afraid it is going after the little people. A manager on €91,000 would traditionally get two instalments on 12 and 13 December of €7,000. He will still get this 13th instalment while the other workers will not. It compounds the whole injustice of making ordinary people for this crisis. They are not responsible for it but the victims of it. The majority of ordinary, decent, fair-minded people will agree the workers in question should be paid the thirteenth instalment of what is their normal wage. Will the Minister reconsider this decision?

It is a matter for management at EBS and it was told last July the rules pertaining to bonuses. The Department of Finance and I had to respond to very strong advocacy from Deputy Higgins and others who said no bonuses should be paid in the banks as long as taxpayers' money was bailing them out.

We were talking about the guys who dictated lending policy.

Deputy Higgins has lectured me and the Taoiseach on several occasions on Question Time about no bonuses to the banks because they have been bailed out by the taxpayer.

We were talking about the guys at the top who were guilty of reckless lending.

Now, Deputy Higgins has a different view. Consistency was never his strong point.

I would like this matter to be resolved.

Deputy Boyd Barrett's position is dishonest.

No, it is not.

We are for the workers. That is very consistent.

If his position is that no bonuses should be paid to staff in banks because it uses taxpayers' money——

We were referring to bonuses for those at the top and never about the workers.

——the Deputy cannot come back and demand the payment of bonuses. If Deputy Boyd Barrett admitted to his own inconsistency, we would do our best to resolve the issue.

The Minister is only playing games.

There are no games being played.

The Minister should be fair to the workers.

Allow the Minister to continue without interruption.

The Deputies opposite are the people who rant and rave about bonuses.

We do not rant and rave.

They have done so on several occasions.

Can the Minister find me a quote where I said we should not pay ordinary workers?

Allow the Minister to reply.

I am glad Deputy Higgins is more moderate in his approach today. However, he has put great pressure on the banking system and the Government not to pay bonuses. Now we are not paying bonuses and he wants to reverse it. Will he tell me what he wants?

We want the people at the top to pay.

Do the Deputies opposite want us to pay bonuses to the people they select?

We want to pay the ordinary workers who should not get their pay cut €2,500 before Christmas.

It does not become the Minister to divert attention from this issue.

What diversion? Check the record.

The Minister puts a bank employee on €26,000 a year gross in the same bracket as the big guys.

There is no further right to reply. We will move on to the next matter.

School Staffing

I am sure the Minister is well aware that an ESRI report stated that the scaling back of guidance counselling in schools will be most keenly felt among young students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such students are more reliant on advice from their school in making post-school decisions, particularly those relating to higher education entry and educational quality and standards. The guidance teacher is also a counsellor and he or she has an important role in a school. There is little doubt that children from less well off backgrounds are more in need of advice because they do not have the same support at home.

The route to successful adulthood can be an obstacle course and those from difficult backgrounds often fail it and opt out. Middle class children very often copy their parents to achieve a good standing in employment and life whereas working class children often have to throw off the role of their parents and aim for something better to find a better way in life for themselves. I understand form teachers originally were allowed four hours in community schools but given the pressure on schools, fewer form teachers are given time to operate. They also acted in a pastoral role. I acknowledge schools have the option of retaining the guidance teacher within their pupil-teacher ratio but that could lead to the loss of another teacher and, sometimes, a subject. The options are poor for the school.

I appreciate the presence of the Minister to reply to this important question. Following budget 2012, guidance provision at second level will be managed by schools from within their standard teacher allocation from next year. We believe this decision will not only lead to the end of the guidance counselling profession but its effect will be felt most by vulnerable and disadvantaged students. The Government decision to include guidance provision within the standard teacher allocation is an effective increase in the pupil-teacher ratio at second level. Next year, second level schools will be faced with the choice to either let go of up to 1,000 guidance counsellors in 700 schools or to let go other teachers such as science and language teachers leading to reduced subject choice. However, apart from the impact on the pupil-teacher ratio and on subject choice, we are hugely concerned that this decision will result in the obliteration of the guidance counselling profession and about the severe social impact of this decision on young vulnerable students, particularly those with mental health problems.

Through parliamentary questions, I asked the Minister if his Department's guidelines relating to the entitlement to appropriate guidance at second level still remains in force. Under current legislation, students are entitled to appropriate guidance under section 9(c) of the Education Act 1998. Is this still in force? Will the Minister ensure all second level students continue to have access to career guidance and counselling services at some level? For example, will schools be required to provide a certain level of provision? Will these services be provided by fully qualified guidance counsellors only? Does he still believe only qualified guidance counsellors should provide counselling services to students?

These are fair and reasonable questions that the Minister needs to urgently answer. Instead, the Minister's reply to these questions this week avoided addressing any of these issues. He said, "Schools must meet their guidance requirements from within the overall resources provided by the normal staffing schedule." This would indicate that there is still a requirement to keep guidance counsellors in place. However, he contradicted that assertion when he went on to say, "Individually schools can continue to make provision for guidance and counselling. Decisions on how this will be done will be taken at school level in the best interests of students and to ensure the best use of resources available." What are the guidance requirements the schools must meet?

The change that has been announced gives schools greater autonomy in how they allocate staff resources to best meet the needs of their students, including how they provide for guidance and counselling. It is a change to how resources are allocated to schools not a policy decision to terminate guidance provision as some may chose to present it. Until now, a specific resource was provided to all second level schools for guidance in addition to the standard teacher allocation. This broadly equates to an additional allocation of approximately one teacher for every 500 pupils.

In future, schools must meet their guidance requirements from within the overall resource provided by the normal staffing schedule. Individually, schools can continue to make provision for guidance and counselling. Decisions on how this will be done will be taken at school level in the best interest of students and to ensure the best use of resources available. I am confident school management and teachers will continue to work together to meet the needs of the students in their care. Our schools are caring institutions and I am certain they will provide the necessary supports for vulnerable pupils in their care.

In this way, the main teacher allocation can be maintained at 19:1 for schools generally, while schools will have discretion to balance what they allocate for guidance against all other competing demands. Moving to a more general allocation by integrating stand alone allocations like the one that has existed for guidance is how many other countries resource schools. In other words, we trust the principals to deploy the resources made available to them in a manner they think is most appropriate. It is about devolution and liberation within management at school level and I fully support it. Many principals have been seeking that flexibility rather than a one size fits all direction by way of circular from the Department.

The Government's protection of schools serving disadvantaged areas is further underlined by the maintenance of €13 million in enhanced funding for DEIS schools, €2 million in school book funding for DEIS schools, as well as a €26 million investment in the home-school community liaison scheme. We will communicate with schools in early January regarding the guidance issue. There are two components to this. The first is counselling for students who are distressed or who are coping with difficult circumstances in their lives and the second is career guidance. It may be that we can examine ways in which both those complementary services can be provided.

I assure the Deputies that we will communicate with schools indicating to them how they may interpret this devolution of power and responsibility. Principals have been looking for this. Deputy Smith will recall that many principals said there needed to be more devolution of responsibility. The countries we wish to emulate, which are achieving good educational outcomes, such as Finland and Australia have schools in which principals have much greater discretion. It is not the case that career guidance will disappear or that counsellors will not be retained.

There is nothing wrong with the notion of giving more responsibility to the schools themselves but I have spoken to teachers from two different schools who feel they are under more pressure to deal with the children's problems. I do not know whether that is down to the principal not allocating the resources in the most efficient manner. I accept there have been cutbacks and everything is more difficult. I also understand there is not as much money around as we would like but I am glad the Minister will communicate with the schools in January. The feedback from schools is that they are under severe pressure. Children are under more pressure than they ever were and the classroom is a more difficult place to be than it ever was because children are so insecure and there are more issues at home. They are bringing more problems to school and teachers have fewer resources to deal with these additional problems.

The ESRI said yesterday in its report, Improving Second-Level Education: Using Evidence for Policy Development, that the removal of guidance counselling in schools will impact most on young students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are more reliant on advice from their schools, particularly in regard to going on to third level. Better-off households can afford to buy particular guidance at different times. We want to ensure that vulnerable young people will not lose out when the changes are made. I am sure the Minister shares that ambition, as we all do.

Will section 9(c) of the Education Act 1998 be clarified in the circular that is due to issue from the Department in January? In the parliamentary question reply I quoted, which the Minister might check when he has the opportunity, it was stated that the schools “must” meet and then, subsequently, it was stated that the schools “can”. Clarification is badly needed. We do not want to see section 9(c) of the 1998 Act changed. We are all aware of the importance of the Act and we want those requirements adhered to.

Let me respond very clearly. Section 9(c) is not being changed. It stands, and the schools have an obligation to adhere to the 1998 Act, including section 9(c). Second, school guidance is not being eliminated from the schools and guidance counsellors are not being eliminated. That is scaremongering and it is simply not the case.

I accept the advice and findings of the ESRI on this matter. Deputy Wallace referred to the role models that might exist in some households as against others. There is a major distinction between guidance as to how best to deploy the talents of young people as they move into the adult world and counselling for young people, from whatever background, who are encountering real difficulties — sadly, there is much evidence of this. This is not uniquely the function of the guidance counsellors. Every school teacher will say they have to deal with that in their own classroom.

I agree the counsellors have professional counselling skills, which are essential additional skills that are needed for particularly troubled young people. What has been said to me in the last three years in opposition by principals in primary and secondary schools is that they want more autonomy in how best to deploy resources in their schools, not the kind of one-size-fits-all circular that has characterised the Department of Education and Skills in Marlborough Street. I am changing that. I am giving them that discretion. If some guidance teacher said that they fear their principal is going to get rid of them, they must ask themselves the question, "Is that because I am not valued in the classroom or in the school?" I can understand the uncertainty that might be there for some people but, in the communication I will have with the schools in January, I will clarify that along the lines Deputy Smith referred to, and I will ensure the sort of concerns that were conveyed to Deputy Wallace will be properly addressed.