Topical Issue Debate

Domestic Violence Incidence

I recently visited the family courts in Dolphin House where I witnessed at first hand the archaic buildings, lack of basic facilities and long queue of people seeking to access the courts. Women who are already in extremely stressful situations are being forced to make sensitive decisions about their lives and those of their children in corners, hallways and empty doorways because there are only three consultation rooms serving the three courts. Victims of domestic violence are often left in what can only be described as holding pens, with the perpetrator eyeballing them in a very confined space. That is a very intimidating experience. Compare this to the state-of-the-art facilities available at the Central Criminal Court where suspects are treated royally, with 22 courtrooms, 27 lifts and 450 rooms. Will the Minister undertake to find a more suitable building for the family courts? Surely there is something appropriate in the National Asset Management Agency's portfolio.

It can take eight to ten weeks to obtain a barring order after a protection order has been issued to the victims of domestic violence. Victims, the vast majority of whom are women, often have no place to go other than home and are, therefore, obliged to continue residing with their abuser during this time. That is potentially exceptionally dangerous for the women concerned and their children. Domestic violence is often not taken seriously in this country, being passed off as something that happens within a relationship. It is about power and control and often overlaps with child abuse. In many instances, even if a child does not see his or her mother being shouted at, threatened, kicked, beaten or raped, he or she will see physical evidence in the form of bruising, black eyes, damaged windows and broken furniture. Make no mistake, children in this situation are being emotionally abused. The statistics released today by Women's Aid indicate that elderly women make up a significant group among those experiencing domestic violence, often for many years and decades.

The Minister has done tremendous work in the past in the area of family law. Will he consider the points I have raised today? Women and children deserve better.

The facts revealed once again in today's Women's Aid annual report are shocking. They are not just shocking; they are depressing, because annually Women's Aid and other organisations release statistics which lay bare the reality of domestic violence in this State and the brutality that women and their children experience in their homes. We know that one in five women in Ireland will experience violence and abuse from an intimate partner at some stage in their lives. Women's Aid revealed that over the course of 2012, there were 3,230 disclosures of direct child abuse to its aid helpline. That is a 55% increase on last year. The helpline receives 32 calls each day and has had more than 16,000 disclosures of emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse.

When one reads the report and moves beyond the statistics to the human experiences of these victims of abuse, the detail is quite harrowing. Women have given disclosures of being locked in and prevented from leaving their houses, being drugged, assaulted and hospitalised, being beaten while pregnant or breast-feeding, being gagged to stop screaming, being raped and sexually abused, including being pinned down and assaulted, and being forced to have sex in return for money to feed their children. These are not the kinds of scenario that I take any joy in reading into the record of this House but it is important that we understand the true, harrowing human suffering endured by large numbers of women and their children behind the statistics. Deputy Mitchell O'Connor quite rightly pointed out in her contribution that children witness these violent episodes in their homes and are damaged by that.

The programme for Government promised consolidated domestic violence legislation. I am very disappointed that the Minister has put that on the back burner in favour of other legislative priorities. Women's Aid has called, very reasonably, for an on-call system for accessing emergency barring orders to give women and their children at risk 24-7 protection. It has also called for the removal of the strict cohabitation criteria to extend eligibility for protection under the domestic violence legislation to women who are abused in dating relationships. I was disappointed in the Minister's response to a parliamentary question that I put to him in respect of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which cited Article 52 of that convention, a provision for emergency barring orders, but set it against the property rights defined under the Irish Constitution, offering that as a rationale for this State's not signing, or indeed ratifying, the convention. The time for action is now.

I thank my colleague Deputy Mitchell O'Connor for raising this matter, and Deputy McDonald, who seems to be consistently disappointed about everything. I regard this as an issue of particular importance and have always done so.

The report released by Women's Aid today shows that domestic violence continues to be a blight on the life of many women, children and indeed men in Ireland and shows the importance of the community and voluntary sector in the provision of appropriate responses to social problems in Ireland. The community and voluntary sector, which includes organisations such as Women's Aid, comprises no fewer than 60 domestic violence services in this country, offering helplines, emotional support, information, court accompaniment, onward referral and refuges. A key support offered to those who avail of these services, including male victims who contact Amen, is safety planning. This supports the person in planning a safe and speedy departure from his or her home at a predetermined time or when the situation demands. This is a sensitive area, as violence can intensify where a victim gives signs of leaving the home or the relationship.

The domestic violence sector in Ireland spent €31.2 million in 2011, according to annual accounts. The sexual violence sector spent an additional €7.8 million in that year. In 2012, the HSE, the main State funder of the sector, contributed €14.5 million to the domestic violence sector and granted a further €4 million to the sexual violence sector. The Department of Environment, Community and Local Government also provides significant State funding, primarily to fund voluntary sector refuges.

The issue of domestic violence is one that I and this Government take very seriously. Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, is continuing to co­ordinate the implementation of the National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2010-2014. The remit of the strategy covers men and women, including older people. One of Cosc's key objectives on its inception in 2007 was to improve awareness of the issues and the services available and to encourage family and friends of victims to recognise the problem and help them to get appropriate assistance from the State and from organisations such as Women's Aid. In that sense, it is encouraging to note that more people are seeking help in dealing with these problems.

After coming into office, I did in fact at a very early point take action to reform the law. I was able to bring through important amendments to the Domestic Violence Acts 1996 and 2002 through the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011, one of the first Bills enacted during my term as Minister. The net effect of these changes has been to extend the protections of this legislation to a wider range of people and circumstances. The first amendment allows for a parent to apply for a safety order against the other parent of his or her child, even where those parents do not live together and may never have lived together. This amendment ensures that the protection of the law is available where access to a child is an occasion of intimidation or even violence between disputing parents. The second amendment extends the protections of the Acts to same-sex couples who have not registered a civil partnership, on the same basis as had previously been available to unmarried opposite-sex couples "living together as husband and wife". These same-sex couples are no longer required to have lived together for at least six of the last 12 months before one of them can obtain a safety order against the other.

In addition, during its Presidency of the European Council, Ireland successfully negotiated an agreement with the European Parliament on the European Protection Order, a civil law measure which will ensure that victims of domestic violence and other forms of violence, harassment and intimidation can avail of national protections when they travel to other EU member states. I was particularly pleased to be able to effect an agreement on this very important measure in my position during the Presidency as Chairman of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, which sends an important signal that domestic violence, harassment and intimidation are unacceptable throughout the EU.

Work to develop further responses to help children affected by domestic violence is expected in the context of the new child and family support agency, which will replace the HSE as the core funder of domestic and sexual violence services and which will fall under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Work is also being undertaken on the consolidation of domestic violence legislation and further reform. As Deputy McDonald, who complains about this matter, well knows, there is a substantial legislative programme and I prioritised immediate issues relating to domestic violence at an early stage. I hope in 2014 to bring the further legislation required in this area before the House.

Finally, I wish to address the particular issue raised by my colleague Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. I absolutely agree with her that there is a need for new and better family court facilities in this State. One of the reasons for the proposal to have a constitutional referendum to provide for a unified system of family courts is that we need an integrated family court structure with the necessary back-up services and with judges who have the special skills necessary to deal in a sensitive and appropriate way with family cases. The Deputy may be interested to know that in early July a consultative seminar will take place involving members of the legal profession working in this area to feed into the process of developing the proposals necessary to create a new, unified family court structure. In that context, one of the issues I am exploring is the identification of funding that will be necessary to improve the court structure that administers family law.

I believe it is crucial in the context of the family courts that there are adequate consultation and in-house mediation facilities such as those operating on a pilot basis in Dolphin House. It is important that when there are issues between estranged parents they are encouraged to deal with matters relating to the welfare of their children and resolve these issues through mediation without the necessity for court proceedings. We must put in place a careful and sensitive approach, one that is already reflected in the family courts system in Australia. The House may be interested to know that we have arranged for the president of the Australian family court to speak at the seminar taking place in early July.

I was delighted to hear the Minister’s plans for this area and that he agrees the family court system needs a radical overhaul. Behind each of the figures released today by Women's Aid is a woman or a child living in fear of being beaten, ridiculed, abused and emotionally battered. While the Government has plans to hold a referendum to provide a unified system of family courts, there is no doubt that the family court structure is falling apart and many women involved are in great need of help. I know the Minister is holding a consultation forum in the next few months, on which I commend him.

The Women's Aid report has given us an idea of the scale of the abuse being suffered in this country. It is up to the Minister and to us in government to offer these women the protection they deserve and to facilitate them in rebuilding their shattered lives. I do not want to attend the Women's Aid annual report event again next year to hear the same or worse statistics. Let us make a real difference.

The Minister claims I am consistently disappointed. I will remain disappointed so long as Women's Aid produces reports that reflect such statistics. Not only I but many women and citizens will remain disappointed if the Minister continues to delay the introduction of consolidated domestic violence legislation. Will the Minister take the opportunity today to give a date for the introduction of this legislation? Will he also respond to the call from Women's Aid for an on-call system for accessing emergency barring orders that would afford women and children 24-7 security? Will he elaborate on his reluctance to sign the European Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence? I cited the Minister’s reply to a parliamentary question that I tabled in which he referred to concerns about emergency barring orders and property rights as his rationale for not ratifying the convention.

I do not want to be disappointed on this issue. Instead, I want to be encouraged and optimistic that the Government will take the right actions and not drag its feet on these matters. Will the Minister set out his concrete plans for introducing the consolidated legislation and on-call emergency barring orders and signing the European convention? Offering concrete dates for these three items will give some sense not just to Women's Aid but to the women who rely on its services that they are being heard and, when their experiences are recounted in this Chamber and elsewhere, that their stories are not falling on deaf ears.

Again, I thank the Deputies for their contributions. There is no one in this House who does not share the concern to ensure we have the best possible legal architecture to deal with domestic violence issues, as well as the necessary social and other supports for victims of such violence. As in other areas, however, we are constrained by the State’s financial difficulties. We do not have an open pot of money so we must make judgments as to what is necessary and what can be done in the context of our limited financial capacity.

In other countries there are not, as far as I know, 24-hour court services for accessing emergency barring orders. Here, if someone is forced to leave his or her home because of domestic violence, it is possible in emergency circumstances to seek a protection order in the courts within 24 hours.

There is no capacity. The current services cannot cope.

A protection order can be sought, whether or not Deputy McDonald is aware of it, at District Court level by way of an ex parte application by a wife who is a victim of domestic violence. By simply attending the District Court, a wife in such circumstances is afforded every assistance by the District Court clerks and these applications are dealt with in camera before District Court judges. As a family lawyer, on many an occasion I have made that type of application on behalf of a victim of domestic violence. In that context, a protection order is helpful.

I am an enthusiast for the European Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and would very much like Ireland to be a party to it. There is an issue, however, surrounding it. Where an individual is the sole and only owner of a home, an issue arises of whether that individual can be barred from the home under our Constitution. Successive Attorneys General have advised the Government that this is the only barrier to our signing the convention. I am not happy about this. Instead, I would very much like to be in a position to enact legislation that prescribes that where someone is the victim of domestic violence and resides with the perpetrator, then the perpetrator, even if he or she is the sole owner of the home, can at least be temporarily barred from it. There are difficulties, however, arising under Article 43 of the Constitution in this regard and I cannot ignore the advices on this.

I do not want to make any promises that I cannot deliver upon, but these are issues that we will explore further when consolidating legislation in this area as best we can. I cannot give the Deputy a definitive date for the publication of the Bill, but it is my aspiration that we publish it in 2014. Behind the scenes, a substantial amount of work has been done on a whole rake of reforms in family law which I hope will see the light of day in the coming months. I earlier referred to the proposal to provide for a separate and unified system of family courts that will inevitably result in our having to hold a constitutional referendum. Substantial work has been undertaken in my Department on a family, relationship and children Bill. There will be engagement with other colleagues in government on this. This Bill will bring about substantial reforms in family law and will be of great benefit to children and couples in a variety of different circumstances.

It is my aspiration that we will make substantial progress in these areas as we go through 2014. I look forward to the constructive contribution to the development of this legislation from Members. Indeed, I look forward to their constructive engagement in what I anticipate to be discussions and debate on the final structure of a new family court system and the constitutional provisions that should apply to it, as well as the manner in which we should deal with a whole range of family law issues, from child abuse to marriage breakdown to gay partnerships breaking up to custody and access disputes that occur between both marital and non-marital parents. There is an agenda of work on which I look forward to engaging with colleagues.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important and appropriate issue on the day Women's Aid has published its annual report.

Pension Provisions

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this most important topic for debate, and I thank the Minister, Deputy Burton, for her presence here, which indicates clearly that this is an issue to which she attaches significant importance. This is a very sensitive and complex issue, which requires detailed analysis, focus and consideration, as undoubtedly there will be impacts as a consequence of any proposed change, but it must be tackled and addressed. The last thing we should do is to adopt an ostrich-type stance, with the wish that the circumstances relating to pension fund wind-ups, deficits arising and employer exposure will go away. Clearly, that will not suffice because of the pressing nature of events surrounding defined benefit schemes.

We are all aware that currently, when a defined benefit pension scheme is wound up, pension legislation and the trust deed require that the scheme's assets be applied to provide for members' benefits after payment of the expenses incurred necessarily in the wind-up, in the following order: first, benefit entitlement relating to members' additional voluntary contributions, AVCs, or relating to a transfer of rights from another scheme; second, the continued payment of pensions currently in payment, excluding any future increases; third, deferred pension entitlements for members who have not already retired, including statutory revaluations up to retirement age but excluding future increases post-retirement age; and fourth, post-retirement pension increases on the above benefits, in so far as they are required under the rules. It is possible, therefore, in the context of these priorities, that some people will receive 100% of their benefits while others will receive much reduced benefits or no benefits.

Prior to the Waterford Crystal case, in which judgment was delivered by the European Court of Justice, ECJ, in April 2013, the 1980 directive, which was updated in 2009, required the State to provide appropriate protection in the event of a double insolvency - that is, where both the employer and the pension scheme are insolvent at the same time. The insolvency protection scheme introduced in the 1980s provided for cover for contributions payable in respect of the last 12 months prior to wind-up, but in the current environment this can represent a small fraction of the deficit on a scheme.

Following on from the Carol Robins case in 2007, in which the ECJ ruled that the UK Government was not compliant with the directive, the then Government introduced the pension insolvency payment scheme, PIPS, for a limited three-year period, which I believe will expire in February 2013, with an initial budget of €100 million. This facility is subject to a number of stipulations and conditions; in particular, it is limited to pensions at the date of insolvency, so it provides no relief for active and deferred members. That is the area on which we are trying to focus our attention, particularly with regard to those who are active members and nearing the end of their lives. They are particularly worried and concerned about this matter and great stress and anxiety are caused to many people in these situations.

The structure of PIPS is designed to ensure cost efficiency and to provide pensions in a more cost-efficient way than through the purchasing of an annuity contract. It can reduce the cost of an annuity purchase, which ensures there is more cash available, but it is still possible that a significant deficit can arise.

We are all aware of the most recent decision in the Waterford Crystal case, and I understand that it has gone back to the High Court for consideration. As it is before the courts, we cannot comment too much on it until it is finalised, and I appreciate the Minister's dilemma in that regard. The ECJ ruled that the Irish legislative mechanisms do not provide sufficient protection in these situations.

I am deeply concerned about this matter and it is one I feel very strongly about. I have raised it in parliamentary questions to the Minister. It is important that an appropriate scheme be put in place to protect workers' pensions rights - workers who are paying into pensions are deeply concerned about this matter - when an employer becomes insolvent and the relevant pension fund to which contributions have been made is in deficit. There is no doubt that consideration of an adjustment of the priority order to ensure that significant funds will be available to active and deferred members will have to be confronted and addressed and appropriate alleviating measures introduced.

I genuinely wish the Minister well in her efforts to devise an appropriate scheme. I know she has received a report, which I hope addresses this matter, and I hope the decision of the High Court in the Waterford Crystal case will feed into her consideration.

I thank Deputy Penrose for raising this extremely important issue. The Pensions Act sets out the order in which the assets of a pension scheme are distributed in the event of the wind-up of a pension scheme. The statutory order of priority is of no consequence, as the Deputy knows, where a scheme winds up with sufficient assets to meet all of its liabilities. In the event of the wind-up of a pension scheme, all pensioner benefits except provision for post-retirement increases are given the highest priority after wind-up expenses and additional voluntary contributions made by individuals. Any remaining assets are then divided according to the accrued liabilities among active and deferred scheme members.

If a scheme is underfunded, the assets remaining after the distribution of assets in respect of payments to pensioners may not be sufficient to meet the liabilities pertaining to active and deferred members. In some cases, they may receive much less than the promised benefit after the commitments to existing pensioners have been satisfied.

The Government decision dated 4 October 2011 approved the drafting of legislation to change the current 100% priority given to existing pensioners on the wind-up of a deferred benefit pensions scheme in deficit by introducing a threshold on the amount and percentage of the pension payment. However, this is a complex and difficult issue which directly affects a group of people who are about to retire and those who are already retired and have little opportunity to increase their incomes. Given the significance of the proposed change, I have requested that the legislation not proceed for the moment pending broader consideration of some of the issues to which Deputy Penrose referred. A consultation process was completed in the last quarter of 2012. The process involved engagement with representatives of older people, the pensions industry, employers and trade unions. In addition, the Department engaged external expertise to assess the impact of possible changes on how the assets of a scheme are distributed on the wind-up of a scheme.

When I published the Social Welfare and Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013, I pointed out that I would not be proceeding at this stage with a change to the manner in which the assets of a scheme are distributed on the wind-up of a scheme. It must be remembered that while people are very conscious, as Deputy Penrose has said, of the impact that the wind-up of an underfunded pension scheme can have on a scheme member who is close to retirement, any change to the current arrangements is likely to involve a reduction in current payments to pensioners. It is a challenging issue and one which requires a determination of the fairest outcome for all beneficiaries, bearing in mind that the level of pension for many pensioners of such schemes, as the study shows, is relatively low. This is an important factor to bear in mind. The matter is under active consideration and, in light of the recent decision by the European Court of Justice in the Waterford Crystal case, the Government recognises the need for a comprehensive policy and legislative response that addresses the range of issues involved.

The Deputy may also be aware that the Pensions Act provides a procedure - that is, the funding standard - for determining whether a scheme has sufficient assets to meet its liabilities. The funding standard was suspended following the downturn in financial markets in 2008 until it was reinstated in June 2013 by me. Following the reintroduction of the funding standard, defined benefit pension schemes have until the end of June this year to submit funding proposals to the Pensions Board. It is considered prudent to await the submission of funding proposals by the trustees or plan sponsors of underfunded defined benefit schemes, as these will give a more comprehensive, in-depth picture of the funding position of defined benefit schemes. It will also allow for the impact of the many measures already introduced by the Government to be assessed, including the potential benefits to schemes, for instance, of the use of sovereign annuities or annuities. As such, I am keeping the situation under intense review and I will report back to the Government in the coming months. A wider package of legislative proposals and additional reforms will be considered at that stage.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. This is a very complex issue which needs to be addressed with great care, and consideration needs to be given to all of the various elements. There will be an impact on people who are currently in receipt of various pensions. That must be spelled out in the overall context the Minister outlined. Defined benefit schemes are under pressure to submit funding proposals by the end of June and it will be quite difficult for them to reconcile this aspect and examine how it will affect benefits in terms of how they will proceed.

How will they reconcile this particular aspect of matters? How will it impact on benefits in respect of how they will progress? A good deal of company restructuring taking place in defined benefit schemes now is designed to keep the employer in existence and in operation. The net effect of employers agreeing to such restructuring is that their schemes do not come within the ambit or terms of the directive and this raises certain issues. Unless the matter is addressed an unusual conundrum could arise whereby, purely from a pensions perspective, pension scheme members may be better off if the employer goes into liquidation. A clear conflict can arise between the demands of the scheme and the survival of the employer and these need to be addressed quickly. It is an unusual conundrum and a difficult situation for everyone concerned, including those operating the schemes, the employers and the people who are making contributions to the schemes. There is a triangle of relationships in place and including the Department it is a four-sided stool or relationship. It is important that everyone gets together to ensure that the best outcome is available to all those concerned, especially those who are coming close to retirement and who have made contributions over a substantial period. These people are concerned about events and this is why it is important to bring finality and a way out of the significant difficulties that have arisen in this important area of people's existence.

I appreciate the comments of Deputy Penrose, who clearly has a wide knowledge of this area. I am aware how worrying this is for the type of people Deputy Penrose has referred to who are coming close to retirement. Many defined benefit pension schemes have been contributed to by employees and, it must be said, employers in good faith. It is unfortunate that what has happened on the financial markets has delivered for several schemes the worst of all worlds.

It is important to get the indications from the submission of funding proposals with regard to where schemes stand. A great deal of work has been done in several schemes to provide for re-funding of schemes with contributions from workers and employers. My objective is to provide for the maximum protection for as many as possible. There have been discussions with the various stakeholders. As Deputy Penrose noted, this is a quadrangle or a stool of four legs, one of which is existing pensioners. The Deputy will be aware that many pensioners in defined benefit schemes are on pensions of below €12,000 and below €24,000. The pensioners on relativity high pensions are in the minority in many schemes.

We can all agree that people who have handsome pensions should contribute, but in many cases their contribution alone would be insufficient. Therefore, we need to consider where the balance should lie. We must consider the interests of current pensioners, many of whom are on a fixed income. Some have a supplementary State pension, depending on the type of employment they were in, but not all. There are deferred members as well. There are current members, paying in now, some of whom may be coming close to retirement. As Deputy Penrose stated, these are the people for whom this is a serious concern and I recognise and acknowledge that. There are the scheme trustees and the various advisers to schemes. The Government has a strong interest in providing the maximum protection in so far as it is possible to all the various parties. We need to consider the situation of the employers and the nature of the contributions they should make to ensure the survival of schemes and the best possible outcomes. I acknowledge the work good employers have done in this respect and it is important for that work to be understood. Promises were made in many cases but only when we see the funding proposals will we have a better picture of the extent to which those promises are capable of being fulfilled.

Deputy Penrose's question primarily relates to an insolvency situation. The Waterford Crystal case relates to a double insolvency situation, which is currently before the Irish courts. It will be interesting and important to see what view and approach the Irish courts will take in respect of the judgment of the European Court of Justice. The workers involved won their case comprehensively on all seven points put forward. I assure the Deputy that this issue has the highest priority in my Department. By the end of this month we will have a significant level of information on funding proposals submitted by the various schemes, as required by the regulator, and we will have a clearer picture of the situation of various schemes at that point. The regulator has undertaken to work with the various schemes to ensure the best possible outcomes in what is a difficult situation.

Educational Research Centre

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Cannon, for taking this Topical Issue. I wish to be clear from the outset that I am raising this matter in a non-adversarial manner. Yesterday, the Educational Research Centre released National Schools, International Contexts: Beyond the PIRLS and TIMSS Test Results. The 2011 progress in international reading literacy study, PIRLS, and the trends in international mathematics and science study, TIMSS, are the world's most comprehensive studies of academic achievement in primary schools. The ERC report examines how Irish schools, teachers, classrooms and pupils compare with their counterparts in other countries. The ten themed chapters address a diverse range of topics, all of which have policy relevance for the Irish education system.

There is much to welcome in the report. Irish pupils are more likely to feel safe in school and less likely to experience bullying. Irish parents almost universally agree that their child's school provides a safe environment and that those responsible care about their children's education. However, the report had several findings which raise concerns and pose challenges. There has been a great focus on social inclusion in schools in the past decade and that is to be welcomed. However, it seems that at a personal level compared to most other countries Irish children, specifically boys, are less inclined to like or feel they belong in school. While Irish pupils are generally less likely to experience bullying, within Ireland being bullied is more common among boys and pupils in large urban and DEIS project schools.

There is an ongoing debate about the future of rural schools in Ireland and there are some interesting findings in the document published yesterday. The report states that the demographic context within which fourth class pupils in Ireland attend school has some unusual features. Ireland has a relatively low population density among countries that took part and a considerably higher proportion of pupils in Ireland compared to other participating countries live in remote rural locations. At 279 pupils, the average size of primary schools in Ireland is approximately half the international average, with almost one fifth of primary schools in Ireland having fewer than 50 pupils. Small schools in areas of low population density are not uncommon. The report points out that for pupils in other countries with sparsely populated regions this feature of enrolment is not typical. In all the comparison countries with lower population densities than Ireland the average school size was generally a good deal higher than here.

Nonetheless, the report says that "fourth class pupils in Ireland living in smaller rural areas did better on average in reading, mathematics, and science than those attending schools in more populated urban centres, whereas the opposite is true internationally". It would appear that the Irish experience bucks the international trend in this regard. The report also noted that the higher level of bullying in DEIS schools does not apply in rural DEIS schools.

The report also poses challenges with regard to science and maths. Irish pupils spend considerably less time than the international average in science lessons, regardless of whether the official curriculum or the curriculum as implemented by teachers is considered. In maths, the report found that insufficient time is devoted to teaching problem-solving, that the curriculum is out of date and that Irish pupils are not learning essential skills that are being taught in other countries. This may be a contributory factor to Ireland's below-average international standing in maths at second level. I would be interested to hear the response of the Minister of State and of the Department to this wide and extensive report, which provides us with much food for thought.

I agree with Deputy McConalogue that this report presents us with much food for thought. I welcome the research published by the Educational Research Centre on Ireland's performance in PIRLS and TIMSS. Such international studies enable us to benchmark the achievement of our pupils with those in other developed countries. They are invaluable as we roll out our strategies and plans for the future. That is why participation in the PIRLS and TIMSS international assessments was one of the key actions identified in the national literacy and numeracy strategy. It is good to note that Irish pupils performed very well in PIRLS and TIMSS. Our performance in English was excellent. Pupils in just five countries performed significantly better than our pupils in English reading. Irish pupils scored significantly above the international average in both mathematics and science. The new report provides more detailed analysis of the home and school environment factors that impact on teaching and learning in these areas.

The report identifies main positive elements in our educational system. As Deputy McConalogue mentioned, our pupils feel safer in school. There are very few discipline issues in our schools, compared to other countries. Irish pupils also have more positive attitudes to reading and science than the international average. We have a relatively young cohort of teachers, and they report high levels of career satisfaction. The report recognises that Irish parents are actively involved in their children's education. Nevertheless, the report also identifies a number of areas for improvement. We spend significantly less time on science than the average in other countries. Our teachers report below average confidence in their ability to teach science. In maths, while our pupils rate well on number and knowing, they do not rate as well on shape and space, measures and problem solving. While the incidence of bullying is lower than in other countries, there are differences in this regard between genders and types of school. Pupils with English as an additional language tend to report more incidents of bullying. Our teachers also report significantly lower levels of professional collaboration than their peers internationally.

We need to bear in mind that these assessments were administered in 2011 prior to the publication of the literacy and numeracy strategy. In line with that strategy, we have increased the time available for the teaching of English and mathematics. We have taken steps to enhance initial teacher education and continuing professional development for teachers in these areas. Some colleges are providing for additional specialisms in science education. While the report notes that our curriculum predates that of many other countries, both our mathematics and science curriculums have been mapped very well against international benchmarks. Work is well under way to revise our languages curriculum with the integrated language curriculum from junior infants to second class, which is due for publication in 2014.

Other developments have taken place. A new reporting system has been introduced in primary schools to ensure parents get meaningful information about the progress and achievement of their children. In line with the action plan on bullying, we hope the roll-out of new anti-bullying procedures to all schools this September will see further progress made against bullying in our schools. With regards to enhanced collaboration among teachers, the recent introduction of school self-evaluation is designed to promote teacher collaboration as they review current practice, identify strengths and areas for development and implement actions for improvement. Clearly, much work has been done since these assessments were administered in 2011. We have to do much more to achieve a world-class education system. This comprehensive and interesting report should help us considerably in mapping the way.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. As he suggested, this report reminds us of the importance of participating in international studies, benchmarking where we are at with where other countries are at and trying to learn from other countries. I asked the Minister of State for some feedback on the finding that Ireland bucks the international trend with regard to rural schools. The report mentions that "nearly one-fifth of primary schools in Ireland [have] fewer than 50 pupils". The educational outcomes from such schools are quite strong, which is in contrast with the international experience. That useful finding needs to be taken strongly into account when the upcoming value for money review of smaller schools is published. I would like the Minister of State to give us an update on that review in his response.

There are things we need to continue to address. The Minister of State mentioned the importance of feedback from schools to parents as we try to ensure parents are as involved as possible in their children's education. Too often, our schools use parents primarily for fund-raising purposes, as opposed to considering them as a key part of the education system and the experience of schools. If we are to maintain the positive aspects of the report, we need to ensure we protect educational funding. The lesson we should take from this report is that the upcoming budget should not affect the pupil-teacher ratio in any way. I ask the Minister of State to give the House an assurance in that regard. It is crucial for us to ensure schools continue to focus on the development of the education product. We need to support them in that regard. I am concerned that as a result of some of the policies we have seen in recent budgets, schools are having to focus more of their energies on how they are run. As we are not supporting them sufficiently, fund-raising has become a key concern. Approximately half of the schools in this country were in the red last year. I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I ask him to address the points I have made.

As the Deputy has pointed out, this is a valuable and thought-provoking report. I noted with interest his specific reference to the educational outcomes of smaller rural schools. I think the information in the report in this respect will feed into our overall assessment of how we deliver education, not only in smaller rural schools but indeed across the whole school population. The Deputy and I share the aspiration of ensuring outcomes of the very highest quality are achieved in all school settings, regardless of whether a child attends a rural school with ten pupils or a school of 700 or 800 pupils in a large urban centre. I understand that the value for money report on small rural schools, to which the Deputy specifically referred, will be presented to the Cabinet quite shortly.

As I said at the start of this debate, it is important to note that Irish students scored remarkably well in the TIMSS and PIRLS assessments. We should be proud of that. I want to pay tribute to teachers, schools and, in particular, parents for this achievement. It is also heartening to read of the many strengths in Irish schools that are identified in the report. On a personal level, one of the things I took most heart from was the positive experience that children glean from attending our schools. They feel comfortable in our schools. It is a credit to our teachers, in particular, that such a safe, protected and caring environment is provided to students on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I accept that this report provides enormously important detail about aspects of the system that can be improved. There is no doubt about that.

It is good to recognise that since this research took place in 2011, many of the issues that were identified have been addressed and plans are in place to tackle others. The effects of initiatives such as improvements in teacher education and curriculum reform will take some time to manifest themselves. Other initiatives are already in place, for example, we are already providing better information to parents through better school reports. It is possible that this Government has taken the issue of standards in the school system more seriously than any of its predecessors. The improvement of outcomes for learners has been and will continue to be a central plank of our actions. My Government colleagues and the officials in the Department of Education and Skills intend to glean much useful information and many insights from an indepth examination of the report. That will help us to monitor our current initiatives and inform and develop future policy.

Leader Programmes

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter and the Minister for coming to the House.

There has been some confusion on the question of community project funds through the Leader programme. While this issue was raised briefly at Question Time, I seek further clarification. A headline in the Connacht Tribune three weeks ago read, "Galway takes an €18 million hit in community project funds", while it was stated in the article that "Leader groups face a race against time for sanction of schemes as EU deadline looms". There was great concern that, if this was to be the case, it could be another four years before projects could be considered for funding under a new Leader programme. There was also a feeling that not all of the European moneys would be drawn down. While that is one view, another from the people in the east Galway rural development office was that while they had a budget of €12 million which was agreed to by the Minister and while there was funding towards enterprise and community measures, there were 40 existing applications for projects which would cost close to €5 million, with only €1.5 million to allocate. Of course, there are many other community groups which wish to apply and cannot do so if that is the position.

This has been a very successful scheme. I can point to a project in my own parish of Caltra where the community centre is almost complete and where there is a very successful relationship with the Leader company. The project has involved a lot of fundraising which is still ongoing and I hope we will be able not only to develop the community centre but also to have a sports field and other facilities when the centre is complete.

The article in the Connacht Tribune went on to discuss not only the situation in east Galway but also that of Comhar na nOileán in the Connemara Gaeltacht area which only has €4 million to allocate by the end of the year. Forum Connemara has an allocation of €7.7 million, of which it has spent €1.9 million, leaving it with a balance of approximately €5 million to allocate. Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta which shut last year had only paid out €1.9 million of its €4 allocation. This raises many questions. The same newspaper contained another article in which it was stated, "Development groups claim centralisation of Leader programmes will put rural communities back 30 years".

These concerns are coming to a head. I ask the Minister to clarify these issues and assure rural communities that the good work being done will be allowed to continue. I hope he will be able to sanction other projects and, most importantly, allow other groups to make applications where they believe funding will be made available for either enterprise or community measures.

The Leader elements of the rural development programme 2007-13 commenced in February 2009 after a delay of more than two years which reduced the time available to allocate funding to less than five years rather than the original seven. Two main issues have impacted on the revised allocations notified to local development companies last month. The first relates to overall programme performance. During 2010 and 2011 it became evident that a significant number of local development companies which had been contracted to deliver the programme were not committing funds at the level required to ensure all of the funding would be allocated by the December 2013 deadline. Any funding not committed by the end of this year will be lost to the programme. Similarly, it became clear that a number of local development companies were more than capable of allocating additional funding if it was made available.

In this regard, in January 2012 my Department notified all local development companies, including Galway local development company, that the original allocations awarded in 2009 were no longer valid and that the programme was being opened up on a first come, first served basis to all local development companies in order to ensure all the available funding would be allocated to eligible projects within the timeframe allowed. All local development companies were encouraged to maximise the opportunity this created for them. All local development companies had an equal opportunity to maximise funding in their respective areas and some companies were better than others at availing of this opportunity.

The second issue relates to the change in co-financing rates. During 2011 the European Commission approved a change in the maximum co-funding rate from 55% to 85% for the Leader elements of Ireland's rural development programme but only for expenditure incurred in 2012 and 2013. This had the effect of reducing the available funding under the programme from €427 million to an estimated €370 million, which is still a lot of money.

In January 2013, in the light of all the changes to the programme, it became necessary for me to carry out a comprehensive review of the level of commitments and expenditure across the various measures of the programme in order to apportion the remaining funds among the local development companies, taking into account the level of commitments already entered into. Using an estimated final programme allocation of €370 million, the total spend to date and outstanding contractual commitments under the programme were established and deducted from the €370 million. Some €6 million was provided for the former MFG legacy files, new Gaeltacht projects and associated administration costs. Funding was also provided for projects greater than €150,000 in value that had been submitted to my Department for assessment. The original percentage of the programme awarded to each local development company in 2009 was then applied to apportion the remaining funding. Where a local development company would receive less than 80% of its original allocation, bearing in mind that the overall programme value has been reduced by approximately 13%, an adjustment was made to bring the revised allocation up to 80% of the original.

For the Galway local development companies - Galway Rural Development, Forum Connemara and Comhar na nOileán - this represented a decrease from their original allocation. The redistribution of available funding was conducted in as fair and equitable a manner as possible, with many local development companies experiencing similar reductions. If my Department had not adjusted the allocations to ensure all local development companies received at least 80% of their original allocation, a number of companies, including Galway Rural Development and Forum Connemara, would have experienced even higher reductions and, in that context, the allocations were calculated in the fairest possible manner.

I am glad to hear the Minister believes he is being fair in the allocations, but I make the point made in the Connacht Tribune headline that Galway was to take an €18 million hit on community projects.

I cannot be responsible for the Connacht Tribune.

It is fearless, like the Irish Farmers' Journal. I am glad that the Connacht Tribune is highlighting this issue as it is an important one. The Minister did not refer to the fact there were many people who wanted to make applications, as any representative from Galway would tell him. I would feel very sorry for them if they were unable get their applications in on time.

A concern was raised by Pat the Cope Gallagher, MEP, about a possible reduction in rural development funding if, for example, management of the Leader programmes was moved away from the local development companies. Again, I would like the Minister to deal with this point. If people are trying to provide community facilities or undertake enterprise projects and the Leader companies are not involved, where is the alternative source of employment in rural areas? There will be serious ramifications if rural development funding is reduced. I hope the Minister will keep his mind on this issue and perhaps even rethink the plans for the future of the Leader programme, if that were to be the case. My attitude has always been that the programme is working well, certainly in the case of the east Galway projects about which I know more than the west Galway projects. Is there a need, therefore, to change something that is working well? I would say no and if the Minister has other ideas, I would certainly like to hear from him. I hope he will give attention to the funding problems being encountered in the case of the east Galway projects.

The rationale behind the alignment of community projects and local government is to reduce administrative costs and provide more money for front-line services and projects for individuals and communities. I am sure the Deputy shares my objective in doing this. Some €32 million has been requested by local development companies out of a total of €90 million to be allocated this year and next year.

That amounts to 30% of all moneys available. It is an enormous amount of money in administrative funding and I would love to see some of it diverted to ensure local development company projects in Galway could be considered. Such a heavy administrative burden is not sustainable when CAP funding is being reduced, the rural development aspect will be reduced and we are trying to give as much money as possible from the Exchequer to local development companies. As a result of this administrative burden, projects and communities are being deprived of necessary funding.

Approximately 2,000 people are employed in the various programmes in the community sector. A total of 250 people are employed under the rural development programme. It is only the administrative part that is affected by this alignment. There will be no change in employment for local community development projects, Tús and rural social schemes. What is at issue is how we can maximise the opportunity for the rural development programme under the CAP. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine will have a role to play in that regard by the end of the month.

I understand and accept the frustration of local development companies at the reduction in the rural development programme allocation, as the overall size of the programme has reduced by approximately 13%. As a result of this and in the manner I have outlined, I did my best to ensure the Galway Leader companies and other companies such as Comhairle Ceantar na nOileán and FORUM Connemara would be underpinned. If the Galway Leader companies had heeded my request in January 2012 when the scheme was opened up on a first come, first served basis, like so many other companies, they could have gained access to more funding, but they chose not to do so. Therefore, I have rewarded the companies that did and have had to cut back for companies that did not subscribe to the letter sent in January 2012.

We have received approval from the European Union for the alignment of community development and local government to streamline our structures and maximise the opportunities for projects. We have provided that opportunity in the context of a working committee in place to implement that decision. At the end of August I will review the available funding again. I am monitoring on a weekly basis the funds coming in and how we can secure the maximum drawdown. I have an interesting figure for the Deputy. Of the moneys committed to date since 2009, only 43% has been drawn down by the Leader development companies and project promoters. There are only six months left between now and end of the year; therefore, I have to question what people have been doing in the past four years in committing and drawing down funds to ensure the sum of €370 million is actually spent. The last thing we want to do is to allow money to remain in the fund to be handed back to the European Commission. That is not our objective. In taking this decisive course of action we are maximising the opportunity to spend. If money is not drawn down, the Galway rural development company and other Leader companies will have an opportunity at the end of August to have it reallocated. The drawdown has been disappointing. I ask the companies involved to work more constructively with the Department to ensure the full amount will be committed by the end of the year and that the moneys can be drawn down as quickly as possible thereafter.