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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 Jun 2013

Vol. 808 No. 2

Topical Issue Debate

Local Authority Charges Review

It is clear that the revaluation process being undertaken by the Valuation Office in the city and county of Waterford will send a considerable number of businesses to the wall. The revaluation is leading to increases of over 300% in some cases and will affect the retail sector in particular, with some of the larger industrial users getting discounts of up to 40% for some reason. The average increase for retailers seems to be between 50% and 100%. One of my local newspapers reported the town clerk of my home town as saying not a week goes by without another business closing down.

Many businesses have been forced to close and the surviving businesses - what is left of the rates base - are struggling. It seems their reward for staying afloat in this environment is a doubling or tripling of their commercial rates.

The Dungarvan Chamber of Commerce stated recently that if businesses fail as a result of excessive rates demands, as they surely will, the relentless logic of the new system will merely redistribute the same rates burden over an ever-diminishing cohort of ratepayers. In many respects, the Government had the answer before it asked the question. For example, a local authority needs €1 million in rates, the Valuation Office undertakes its technical exercise and an analysis of rental values, and the certificates are then issued. The problem is that the taxation system fails to take into account ability to pay, and therefore it is badly flawed. It does not take into account the fact that the overall rates burden is itself unsustainable due to erosion of the rates base. This is a constant case of diminishing returns. We talk endlessly in this Chamber about the creation of jobs, and correctly so. However, if the various arms of government such as the Departments of Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Environment, Community and Local Government, as well as the Office of the Taoiseach, do not consider and mitigate the impact that a doubling or tripling of commercial rates would have on a business, one begins to ask whether the Government is aware of the economic reality for these businesses.

Ministers must not say continually that the Valuation Office is statutorily independent and that it is outside their responsibility. They cannot run away from the issue; nor should they keep talking about jobs and small businesses while ignoring the impact this will have.

These new revaluations are being done under the Valuation Act 2001, which will be revamped by the Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012, which is currently before the House. The most significant change in the new Bill is the provision on assessment or self-assessment. When this new Bill is signed into law, ratepayers will be able to self-assess or value their own properties. When the new legislation is enacted, will every ratepayer, including those who are being assessed under existing legislation, be allowed to reassess his or her property under the self-assessment regime? If they succeed in agreeing a lower commercial rate payable, will they be eligible for a retrospective rebate from the State? In effect, within a year or so, businesses in different parts of the country will be valued for commercial rates under two different systems. I ask how these two systems will be integrated as one.

The Deputy will be aware that under Irish law there is a distinct separation of function between the valuation of rateable property and the setting and collection of commercial rates. The valuation of commercial properties for rating purposes is the responsibility of the Valuation Office. The rate payable by a ratepayer in any calendar year is a product of that valuation multiplied by the annual rate on valuation, ARV, set annually by the elected members of the rating authority. The ARV was formerly known and is still often referred to as the rate in the pound.

The valuation system is operated under the Valuation Act 2001 and is underpinned by a number of long-standing valuation principles, as well as interpretation of the legislation by an independent valuation tribunal and the higher courts. The system is based on the concept of net annual value, which is derived by estimating the rental value that the property might command as of the particular valuation date specified in an order made by the Commissioner of Valuation - who is independent in the exercise of his function - as provided by the 2001 Act. The rateable value of a shop, for example, is the yearly rent for which it could be let on the assumption that the tenant was responsible for rates, repairs and insurance. The basis of assessment applies to all properties irrespective of whether they are rented to a tenant or owner-occupied.

A fundamental element of valuation law, practice and procedure is the attainment of equity and fairness between ratepayers through the establishment of correct and uniform valuations. Accordingly, the function of the Valuation Office is to produce and maintain valuation lists for each rating authority area which reflect the estimated rental value of each property on a specified day relative to the estimated value of every other property on that list on that date. Of course, the values of individual properties and categories of property change over time as a result of differential shifts in rental values between property categories and locations. This is a recurring phenomenon which reflects market movement and economic activity. The only way to address these shifts is through a revaluation process. Outside of the rating authorities that have been valued to date - for example, South Dublin, Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown - the rates in all other rating authority areas are, at present, based on valuations of properties which reflect market conditions and relative values prevailing in 1988. The values in some sectors or locations will have increased significantly since 1988, while other parts of the market may not have fared so well. This is clearly not a satisfactory situation.

Revaluation is an exercise in redistribution of the overall rates liability in a rating authority area to maintain the fairness of the rating system. It is the process that brings rateable values back into line with current property rental values. It results in the production of a new valuation list that contains modern valuations for all rateable properties in the rating authority areas being revalued. The process is that all industrial and commercial properties in a rating authority area are revalued by reference to a specific valuation date and all new valuations in that rating authority area become effective at the same time. The ultimate objective is the production of a valuation list for each local authority which provides equity, uniformity, stability, certainty and predictability for ratepayers, local authorities and the Government, and brings the valuations on which rates are assessed back into line with current property rental values.

Following the first revaluation in each area, the Valuation Act 2001 requires the commissioner to subsequently carry out recurring revaluations at intervals of a minimum of five years and no more than ten years. This will ensure that movements in the property market are tracked and reflected in rateable valuations within a reasonable timeline, which has not been the case heretofore. Accordingly, individual valuations are established and remain fixed for a five- to ten-year period. On the other hand, the ARV, as determined by the elected members of the rating authority, may vary from year to year and therefore so can the rate payable annually by an individual ratepayer.

In line with Government priorities, the revaluation programme will be expedited so that the first revaluation in 25 years can be completed as soon as possible across the country. In keeping with Government policy, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, has introduced the Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012, which is currently before the Oireachtas. The primary purpose of this legislation is to accelerate the revaluation process. The Bill also includes new features which provide for the streamlining of the valuation appeals procedures available to ratepayers. Also, as part of the effort to accelerate the national revaluation programme, it provides the legislative basis for carrying out a revaluation based on self-assessment by ratepayers and also for the external delivery of elements of the valuation process. I understand that both of these approaches will be piloted in revaluations to be conducted following the enactment of this Bill.

Revaluation does not result in an increase in the total amount of rates collected by a rating authority. The Valuation Act 2001 empowers the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to cap the total amount of rates in the year following a revaluation. This provision has the effect of ensuring that revaluation acts as a distribution of the rates liability between ratepayers in an equitable fashion relative to the values of the properties they occupy. Accelerating the national revaluation programme is a priority for the Government and is a feature of the Action Plan for Jobs 2012. The Valuation Office has achieved considerable momentum on the programme in recent years. The process is complete for South Dublin County Council, Fingal County Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, while revaluation of the three Waterford rating authorities, Dublin City Council and the two Limerick rating authorities is well under way. The revaluation processes in the three Waterford rating authorities and Dublin City Council are currently at the representations stage. This a significant stage at which the ratepayer can engage actively with the Valuation Office. The objective is to ensure the valuation lists are correct before they are published later this year.

The representation phase provides the ratepayer with an opportunity to raise with the Valuation Office any elements of a proposed valuation considered to be inaccurate and to provide fresh evidence material to the ultimate determination of the valuation. There is also a statutory right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal, an independent body set up for such purposes, and, on a point of law, to the High and Supreme courts.

The programme is particularly important given the significant changes in rental values following the economic downturn of recent years. It is further the case that most rateable valuations reflect the economic circumstances that prevailed a quarter of a century ago. While property values have fallen generally, given that the purpose of the programme is to redistribute the overall rates liability, some ratepayers will obtain a reduction while others experience an increase from the process of redistribution. Overall, revaluation results in a fairer distribution of the rates burden.

The system is not fair. I know how it works and what is being proposed. I acknowledge that this is not the Minister of State's portfolio. The system is the problem. It will put people out of business. The town council in my home town, Dungarvan, has a lower rate valuation than the county. On its abolition, local businesses run the risk of being harmonised with the county rate. They may suffer an increase in their rates due to amalgamation. They also face a doubling or tripling of their commercial rate on foot of the revaluation process. It is a double whammy. Has anyone in the Government thought about that? Does anyone in the Government care? If the Government does care, what is it going to do about it? We are putting businesses to the wall. Everyone here likes to have his or her photograph taken with Christine Lagarde and President Obama, but we must keep our eye on the ball when it comes to taxpayers and businesses that are failing, and we are not doing so. I know how the system works. It puts businesses to the wall. When one doubles or triples a business's rates bill, only one thing will happen. This is not an equitable redistribution of the rates burden.

There are things that are outside our control and things that are within it. The CAP talks the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, is undertaking right now involve the competing interests of other member states. We must acknowledge that and do our best in the negotiations. While we cannot determine entirely the outcome of talks on matters such as the CAP, the rates issue is within our grasp. It is basic, fundamental stuff concerning the administration of our governmental systems and the impact on taxpayers. We cannot ignore the impact this is having on businesses. If we ignore the impact, questions will be asked of the Government about its knowledge of what is happening on the ground in local economies.

I should have apologised on behalf of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, who is unavailable as he is in the Seanad taking Committee Stage of a Bill. His Minister of State is away.

He will have no excuse when the Seanad is gone.

I will not even reply to that.

I understand where Deputy Deasy is coming from. As a public representative, I speak to people daily who fear the closure of their businesses. It is something of which we must take cognisance when town councils are abolished and the time comes to set rates. The Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill is on Committee Stage in the Seanad. I hope the Minister will consider some of the issues Deputy Deasy highlighted today. We are going through a very difficult time economically and must take into consideration the business people who are holding on by their fingertips. I understand this is something within our control that we can change as a Government. Local authorities also have a responsibility for rates and they must take matters into consideration while keeping their finances afloat. The Government must consider the matter nationally and examine the best way forward for ratepayers. We must take their views and the views of their representative bodies, including chambers of commerce, into account.

Hospital Staff Recruitment

I am delighted that the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, is in the Chamber to listen to my pleas today. We waited in anticipation for a great deal of time for the Higgins report. I acknowledge that it was pulled and pushed around and that Kilkenny made a break for the border to align with Dublin. We had been working hard in the south-east region for many years. We had accepted the fact that there would be change and accepted the Higgins report as an honest effort to tidy up our hospital systems. We welcome the fact that we are linked with Cork University Hospital, which is a teaching hospital. However, I want a commitment from the Minister that the seven senior registrar posts at South Tipperary General Hospital will be filled. These are senior positions for real decision-makers working under consultants. I compliment the consultants, medical staff, nurses and other full-time staff on the work they do daily to deal with the issues that arise, particularly since the closure of Nenagh General Hospital and of St. Michael's unit at South Tipperary General Hospital, with the relocation of beds to Kilkenny. These are vital posts but the hospital and regional management seem to be unable to recruit people to fill them. The deadline of 8 July is little more than a week away. I understand there is very little interest in the posts. There is nothing wrong with the facility; it is a question of an unfair balance. I call on the Minister, in the spirit of the Higgins report, our linkage with Cork and the hospital group system, to ensure registrars are redeployed to us forthwith.

We had 32 people on trolleys in our hospital last week as we did not have senior staff to deal with the situation. We do not have anything like a full complement of staff, being short of five registrars. We will be short of the full seven by 8 July 2013. It is a serious situation. I hope it is not a question of sabotage and that we will not be closed by stealth or through something happening behind the scenes. The Minister gave a commitment to keep our hospital. These positions must be filled. I appeal and demand, as an elected representative of the people of south Tipperary, that these posts be filled, even temporarily, with registrars from Cork, Limerick and other hospitals in the group to maintain vital services and safety at South Tipperary General Hospital in Clonmel. It must happen.

The hospital management must be empowered if it lacks the power to attract people. I do not know what the reasons are. The Minister is perhaps aware of the reasons and might outline them to the House. We need support now. We are on a lifeline. If we do not recruit the registrars by 8 July we will be in big trouble. I do not want to be all doom and gloom; I want to be positive about our hospital and support it. I am critical when it is required. We have had two HIQA reports that were anything but pleasing. I am no apologist for uncleanliness in hospitals, especially where people's lives are at stake, or for lacklustre management and too many trolleys on the floor. However, I stand shoulder to shoulder with consultants and all staff from the front door up to the very top on recruiting the full complement we need. Given our reciprocal relationship with Cork and Limerick, they must provide senior registrars this week. Next week will be too late. The appointments must be made and the registrars must be on site to do rounds with junior doctors and senior house officers. We need the full complement to have a safe working hospital. The hospital has been recognised over the years for providing the treatment that the public expects and deserves.

It is over to the Minister. I hope he will have good news for me. I hope he will be able to ensure we get these staff rather than excuses that they cannot be recruited. If necessary, staff must be redeployed.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for raising this issue. I am glad to hear that he wants to be positive about his hospital. He has every reason to be.

Particular hospitals and specialties have experienced difficulties in filling medical non-consultant hospital doctor, NCHD, posts over the past number of years. Addressing this issue has been a priority for the health service and, as the Deputy will be aware, there have been a number of recruitment programmes internationally. As a result, over the past three years, 98% of NCHD posts have been filled normally. Where staffing issues exist, there remain sufficient agency staff to meet service needs. This means that the hospital system is operated successfully with a small ongoing vacancy level in recent years. I want to reduce agency working even further and I fully intend to do so.

The total complement of NCHDs for South Tipperary General Hospital is 20 - that is, six interns, seven senior house officers, SHOs, and seven registrars. Of the seven medical registrar posts, four are specialist registrar posts and the remaining three are registrar posts. Currently in the hospital there are 17 NCHDs - five interns, seven SHOs and five registrars. A comprehensive process of recruitment has been under way in respect of the July 2013 intake since earlier this year. South Tipperary General Hospital has already recruited six interns and six SHOs, with the final post in the process of being filled. However, as the Deputy pointed out, we are experiencing a challenge in securing the necessary registrar posts, which have been allocated on a national basis by the Irish College of Physicians. There are difficulties nationally in the recruitment of specialist registrars - that is, there are more vacant posts than registrars. As a result, no specialist registrars were allocated by the Irish College of Physicians to South Tipperary General Hospital for the July 2013 intake.

South Tipperary General Hospital, with the support of HSE South and the national HSE system, is working with the assistance of agencies to secure the necessary registrar posts for the hospital. Two registrars are considering offers currently but have not quite yet accepted the positions, while one registrar from South Africa has agreed to take up a post later on this year. The accelerated recruitment campaign is continuing with the intention of maximising what can be achieved through this process. In addition, senior management at South Tipperary General Hospital, in association with the HSE area manager for Carlow, Kilkenny and South Tipperary, are working closely with Cork University Hospital, Waterford Regional Hospital and St. Luke's General Hospital in Kilkenny with a view to securing their support for sharing the registrar posts in a way that would improve the situation in south Tipperary and ensure safe service delivery. This work is continuing. I can assure the Deputy that the matter is being addressed as a priority and progress has been kept under review on a daily basis.

I thank the Minister. I want to be positive. The staff are under enough pressure. We need definite dates. I am aware that there are two candidates who have not fully come on board, and one is due to take up a position later on this year, which I welcome.

In the spirit of the Higgins report, I appeal to the Minister to ensure South Tipperary General Hospital gets support from its sister hospitals, Waterford Regional Hospital and St. Luke's General Hospital in Kilkenny. As we are in that region, why abandon the recommendations of the Higgins report before they have been fully implemented? We need the support of these hospitals.

As I stated, this is a fully accredited hospital with high standards and high expectations. I know by the Minister's tone of voice that he will support it but I demand that he does because we are only days away from 8 July and the matter is serious. One can imagine the stress. I have spoken to regional management. I spoke to Ms Anna Marie Lanigan and others, who are doing their best, but this is a case in which we cannot do it on our own. We need the help of the Minister and the other hospitals need to be encouraged to allow their staff to be redeployed temporarily until we get the matter sorted out. This must be done now. We cannot allow such a situation with a deadline such as this. It is just too serious. It is a matter of patients' health and safety and, of course, all medical treatments must be available.

As I said, I do not want to see a situation in which gaps are left and we are told it is because the HSE could not recruit the staff. Whatever must be done, whatever ban must be lifted or whatever agency must be recruited or contacted, this is the 11th hour and we need it to be acted upon. I beg the Minister and hope he delivers. Being a medical professional, he himself understands the situation better than I do.

As I stated, I am committed to the hospital. We all are in south Tipperary. We will support the Minister, but we need him to put his shoulder to the wheel. We need the meitheal spirit of the Higgins report. Hospitals must support each other and stand with each other to fill those posts. When we in Clonmel have to do the same, we will do so.

I can assure Deputy McGrath that I take on board what he is saying. I am aware that the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes, is most concerned about this issue too.

As Deputy McGrath said, the hospital is a busy one. He mentioned in his earlier contribution that he hoped it was not being closed down by stealth. There is no question of closing down any hospital of this nature. That will not happen. We do not have the capacity in the system to allow for such things. It is not my intention to close any hospital.

Last year there were more than 30,000 emergency department presentations, 13,490 inpatient discharges, 5,842 day cases, 1,070 births and an excellent average length of stay of 3.96 days. This is a good hospital that performs really good work. It is invaluable to the local community and also to the network.

I do not know why there is a noise. I do not think it is my phone.

It is the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, from Brussels.

It must be Deputy Tom Hayes's phone. He is probably watching in.

There are a number of points I want to make, and I will take the opportunity to make them, if I may.

First, the way in which we have been treating our NCHDs - giving them six-month contracts - is anathema to me. It is wrong. We should be giving them two-year or three-year contracts. This would allow much greater certainty for them and for their families, and we would have greater certainty as well. Second, we are trying to create a much clearer career path for NCHDs. Third, and most important, there is nothing else that exemplifies the need for hospital groups as much as the matter we are discussing here today. This hospital in Clonmel is not a small hospital. It is a model 3 hospital but, because of its location, it occasionally has difficulties in attracting staff. By being part of the hospital group of Cork and Waterford, South Tipperary General Hospital will have access to that greater pool. Even though these groups are only starting and the Government has passed its plan, we will seek to get the help from those hospitals which are South Tipperary General Hospital's natural allies to ensure that the people of Clonmel have the staff to deliver a safe service to all. That is critically important to me as Minister for Health.

Beidh fíor-fháilte roimh gach duine a thiocfaidh go Cluain Meala.

Overseas Missions

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for having selected this topic. I suppose we are asking that the Minister for Defence, Deputy Shatter, avail of the opportunity to clear the record on this matter.

Last weekend there were newspaper reports that the Government was to examine the triple lock mechanism that has guided Irish participation in international peacekeeping for so long. It was reported that the Minister was to bring a Green Paper to Cabinet this week. Earlier today, the Minister advised the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality that he hopes to bring that Green Paper before Cabinet before the break, which is a positive development. We were also told in media reports - not by the Minister today - that the triple lock would be part of that review.

While it is unimaginable that the Minister will get his way on this, it is none the less important that we send a message to the Government at this stage that the triple lock should be retained, and we will do everything we can as Opposition to retain it. While the Minister has never explicitly called for our neutrality to be abandoned, his distaste for neutrality is manifest from virtually all his public utterances. When we hear that he has his sights on the triple lock, it is natural that there would be concern on this side of the House. Fine Gael has previous history in this regard. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, may remember that ten years ago Fine Gael introduced a Bill to remove the triple lock. My party warned about this policy prior to the last general election, as did the Labour Party. Typically, when the programme for Government was drawn up, the Labour Party policy on the triple lock went the way of its policy on child benefit and the €1 on a bottle of wine.

For my part and that of my party, I want to reaffirm our commitment to the triple lock.

Ireland has always attached fundamental importance to the United Nations since it joined 58 years ago and, working with other UN members, Ireland has supported international action in areas such as disarmament, peacekeeping, development and human rights. We are strong and committed supporters of collective security through the United Nations, and this has been the stated policy of many Governments over the past 50 years. Along with this, we have endorsed and supported the primary role of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

The Nice treaty 2002 with the associated Seville declaration endorsed the stance that the participation of the Defence Forces in overseas operations requires authorisation of the operation by the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations, the agreement of the Government and the approval of Dáil Éireann in accordance with Irish law. The emphasis on the UN is not one we should lightly discard. I acknowledge that the UN is not perfect, but we must recognise that it confers a legitimacy on peacekeeping operations that other international organisations cannot confer. Furthermore, the legitimacy a UN mission confers bolsters the safety and security of our Defence Forces when they participate in peacekeeping missions. Obviously no mission will be without risk, but the absence of the blue hat will heighten the risk. With that in mind, I restate my belief that we should not abandon the triple lock. I hope the Minister can give a positive response.

I wish to apologise on behalf of the Minister for Defence for his being unavailable today. He had already scheduled a press conference regarding the Magdalen laundries.

Ireland has accorded central importance to the United Nations since it became a member in 1955. Within the UN system, Ireland has supported effective international action in areas such as disarmament, peacekeeping, development and human rights. Article 24 of the UN Charter provides that: "Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf." Ireland is a strong supporter of the UN and, in accordance with Article 24 of the UN Charter, respects the primary responsibility of the UN Security Council regarding the maintenance of international peace and security. The existence of such UN mandates confers legitimacy on, and acceptance of, particular peace support operations by groups engaged in conflict and by host states.

Deployment of Defence Forces personnel on all peace support missions is subject to what is referred to as the triple lock, that is, Government, Dáil and UN approval. However, personnel may be deployed for training, for humanitarian operations and for other such reasons, under the authority of the Government in accordance with the provisions of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006, which formalised arrangements in this regard. Participation in overseas peacekeeping missions is a key element of Ireland's foreign policy. It has been an important dimension in meeting Ireland's international obligations as a member of the UN and the EU. It has also been a key factor in Ireland's influence and credibility in the international arena and in advancing Ireland's foreign policy interests.

Unfortunately, despite the ongoing efforts of the UN and other international organisations involved in conflict resolution, the continuing need for peacekeepers has never been greater. With the increasing use of more robust Chapter VII missions and operations in the past number of years, the UN has turned to regional organisations, including the European Union, the African Union and NATO, among others, to undertake and lead missions on its behalf. The European Union, the African Union and NATO are now major players in UN peacekeeping. Chapter VIII of the UN Charter has always provided for the use of regional organisations to undertake operations on behalf of the UN. Ireland has contributed peacekeepers to many of these regionally led missions in furtherance of its commitment to the UN and to UN peacekeeping in particular.

Ireland's approach to international security is characterised, inter alia, by our willingness to participate in peace support operations throughout the world and by our commitment to achieving collective security through the United Nations, in particular. To date, the Defence Forces have served and continue to serve in a wide range of UN mandated multinational operations led by the UN, EU and NATO.

My colleague, the Minister for Defence, is aware that successive Governments have made it clear that the triple lock provisions, as provided for in the Defence Acts, would continue to apply to service abroad by contingents of the Irish Defence Forces. Ireland's policy in this regard was most recently underpinned by the adoption by the people of the Lisbon treaty in 2009. Ireland's act of ratification of the Lisbon treaty was reinforced by the associated national declaration which states "that the participation of contingents of the Irish Defence Forces in overseas operations, including those carried out under the European common security and defence policy, requires (a) the authorisation of the operation by the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations, (b) the agreement of the Irish Government, and (c) the approval of Dáil Éireann, in accordance with Irish law".

The White Paper on Defence, which was published in 2000, has provided the policy framework for defence for the past 13 years. In the period since its publication there have been significant changes in the defence and security environment and the defence policy framework has continued to evolve. In this context, the Government decided that there is a requirement to prepare a new White Paper on defence. This will provide the policy framework for defence for the next decade. As part of this process, the Minister for Defence initiated the preparation of a Green Paper on defence. The Green Paper is intended to inform and to stimulate a mature and informed debate about Ireland's defence policy. When published, it will initiate a broad public consultative process, which will provide for members of the public and interest groups to input their views as part of the process of developing the new White Paper on defence.

The Minister for Defence hopes to publish the Green Paper and initiate the White Paper public consultative process in the coming weeks. It is anticipated that the new White Paper on defence will be approved by the Government and published before the end of June 2014.

I will not delay the House unduly. I welcome in principle what the Minister has said. He has given a clear assurance that he will not advocate a change in the triple lock arrangement, which is something we support enthusiastically.

I join the Minister of State in acknowledging the critical role the Irish Defence Forces have played in overseas missions over the years. Our role in peacekeeping has been quite outstanding and has brought great credit on the Defence Forces, the Irish Government and the Irish public. I also welcome the initiation of a Green Paper which will lead to a White Paper. If the Minister of State is to follow up a little on what he said, he might further confirm and clarify that in the course of the Green Paper and White Paper process there will not emanate from the Minister, Deputy Shatter, any attempt to promote the abandonment of the triple lock, which the Minister of State has spoken positively about and to which the Irish people in general are very strongly committed.

I agree with the Deputy's comments on our peacekeeping operations abroad. The reply I gave was explanatory and the Deputy welcomed it. I assure him that when the Green Paper is published it will initiate a broad public consultative process. We hope all Members of the House and the general public will get involved in that process. I can also assure the Deputy that nobody will be driving anything without the public and the Dáil being very much involved following the publication of the Green Paper. The Minister anticipates that the Green Paper will be published before the end of July, when we will break for the summer recess. That will be followed by the White Paper. Everybody will have their say and there will be broad consultation. Everyone's views on the triple lock will be taken into consideration.

People have their own personal views on this. When the Deputy's party was in government it opposed a Private Members' Bill which we put forward when we were on the other side of the House. Undoubtedly, there are many different views across the House and everybody will have the chance to have their say during the consultative period for the White Paper.

Pension Provisions

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this Topical debate.

People who have worked hard all their lives deserve an opportunity to live their retirement years with dignity and financial independence.

For many, however, the dream of a secure retirement has slipped away. The recession has taken its toll on many retirement funds. Millions of euro were wiped off pension funds and people approaching retirement are really worried as several pension schemes are in deficit. Furthermore, a significant number in the workforce are not in any pension scheme at all. The FÁS community supervisors and assistant supervisors fall into this category and that is the reason for my raising this matter. In July 2008, the Labour Court recommended that an agreed pension scheme be introduced for community supervisors and assistant supervisors employed on FÁS community employment, CE, schemes. There are currently 1,143 CE schemes in the country. They are an integral part of our communities and they are providing a lifeline for the participants, who are gaining valuable experience. They are sponsored by voluntary and community groups but their day-to-day management is the role of the supervisors and assistant supervisors who are employed on a 39-hour-week basis.

An integral part of the success of CE schemes has been the fact that they have been run by a dedicated group of supervisors for whom the position is much more than a job. I recently met a number of such dedicated supervisors in my constituency. I met them in the evening when they had finished work, and they expressed their concerns. Their duties range from preparing and implementing training programmes for participants and planning the day to the running of the schemes. They comprise a self-motivated group and work hard. They are devoted to their jobs and go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure participants derive the maximum benefit from their participation on the schemes. They are experienced in people management. They have a very good understanding of business operations, including finance, and many hold a relevant third level qualification or equivalent qualifications.

Ultimately, however, there is no recognition for their years of loyal and dedicated service to their work because, when they reach the statutory age for retirement - 65 years, for example - they are not entitled to a pension. I refer to a dedicated group of people who have devoted their careers to their communities. Some have amassed 20 years' service. Unfortunately, the circumstances I describe seem to obtain regarding many workers in the country since there are in the region of 900,000 people who have no provision for a pension other than the State old age pension. From 1 January 2014, the age of entitlement for the State pension will rise to 66 years. It will increase again to 67 years in 2021 and to 68 years by 2028. The supervisors are worried about how they are going to fund the gap from their retirement until they receive the State pension.

I understand that negotiations had been entered into by the unions representing CE supervisors, but they have not yielded any positive results for the workers. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. Although they are paid by FÁS, I understand they are direct employees of their sponsoring organisations. It is quite clear that their sponsoring organisations are not in a position to pick up the tab for their pensions given that they are community-based organisations that rely on voluntary contributions themselves to subsidise the schemes.

The Minister is not present, unfortunately, but I acknowledge she is anxious that people, particularly older people, would have a safe and secure retirement. She has engaged the OECD to undertake a review of our pensions policy. Now that the report has been finalised, when can we expect to hear the proposals on the long-term plan? Will the Minister include considerations in her proposals in regard to the dilemma facing CE supervisors and communicate with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to encourage his Department to re-engage the unions?

I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, who is unable to be here this afternoon. I thank Deputy Breen for raising this important issue.

The Labour Court recommended in July 2008 that an agreed pension scheme be introduced for CE scheme supervisors and assistant supervisors, and that such a scheme be adequately funded by FÁS, which was then responsible for the programme. The Department of Social Protection assumed responsibility for the CE programme in October 2010. It must also be noted that the employer in this case is the sponsoring organisation and not the Department.

Notwithstanding that this matter has been the subject of discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the unions representing CE supervisors, the position of the Department is that liability for these costs should not be met from public funds. The Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform have informed FÁS and subsequently this Department that any provision for pensions for CE supervisors would have to be financed from the existing financial allocation. Additional funding will not be made available to cover this item. That has left the Department in a position in which, in order to make funds available, reductions would have to be met from a reduction in the number of CE places for jobseekers and other vulnerable groups. This is not a viable option. The implementation of the claim is not considered sustainable in light of the current and ongoing fiscal environment and the requirement to contain and reduce public expenditure. The costs of the introduction of any such scheme are likely to be of the order of €3 million per annum, with retrospective costs of the order of at least €30 million.

It should be noted again that the Department of Social Protection is not the employer of CE supervisors and that such employees are not public servants. Neither FÁS nor the Department of Social Protection was a party to the Labour Court hearing on this matter. The responsibilities of the sponsoring organisations - the employers and the employees concerned - must be recognised in considering pension provision arrangements.

There is very little new in the reply provided by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton. I acknowledge that the Minister of State cannot really speak on her behalf. I am well aware of what the Minister of State has said. The supervisors to which I refer are caught between a rock and a hard place. Many have years of experience and qualifications. There are doing trojan work in every rural community. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, is well aware of the good work they do in Wexford. I am sure the major roads looked quite good for the festivities in his region last weekend. I am sure many FÁS schemes are working hard to ensure New Ross and other towns are looking well.

The problem is that when the supervisors retire from their jobs, they will not have any pension. Some 900,000 citizens are similarly affected. In this day and age, the Government should be very conscious of this. As the age at which one is entitled to a pension increase, it will make circumstances even more difficult. There is a gap to be addressed. I hope the Minister of State will pass on to the Minister for Social Protection the concerns of many FÁS workers throughout the country. I am representing only those in my county but I realise that supervisors throughout the country have similar concerns. The Minister of State should pass on their concerns to his constituency colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to ensure that the funding will be found, although perhaps not immediately. Some €30 million is required. The money, on being spent, would return to the Exchequer. Most pensions are spent in the country.

I compliment the people on CE schemes and the supervisors on their work. There are currently 1,373 supervisors on 1,089 CE schemes across the country. This year, there are 25,000 involved, including supervisors, assistant supervisors and those on placements. There have been 25,300 places available. This includes an additional 2,000 places allocated by the Government in the budget for this year.

I acknowledge the important work of CE schemes across the country and the role of supervisors in looking after their workers. In my county, County Wexford, villages have been transformed by the work of those on CE schemes.

Community employment schemes involving tidy towns groups or parish organisations in visiting the elderly or community hospitals and so on do fabulous work. I have no doubt that County Wexford is not alone in this regard and that community employment schemes in County Clare have transformed places also.

I will convey the Deputy's concerns to the Ministers for Social Protection and Public Expenditure and Reform. There was consultation with the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance and responsibility lies with FÁS.