Topical Issue Debate

Tax Code

Tá áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. My matter concerns the loss of entitlements to more than 5,000 shareholders in Standard Life plc due to inordinate postal delays. It is an incredible situation that approximately 5,300 citizens will incur a tax bill due to delays in our postal service. The United Kingdom insurer, Standard Life, sold its Canadian affiliate and returned payment to shareholders. A large number of Irish shareholders wrote to Standard Life, stating they wanted their payment treated as capital, so as to enable them to avoid paying tax on most or all of the moneys they were due. Otherwise, they would be liable to income tax at the rate of 51% if the payment was not designated as such.

The farcical situation occurred that these 5,300 citizens found the letters to Standard Life did not reach the company on time to have their wishes implemented at the emergency general meeting held to deal with the sale of the Canadian affiliate. One batch of post did not arrive until six weeks after it was posted. Neither An Post nor the Royal Mail has accepted responsibility. Incredibly, there is no traceability of more than 5,000 letters. There is a rumour that they ended up in Roscommon but there is no proof of that. They certainly did not reach the United Kingdom in time. Unfortunately, An Post is immune from all liability for loss or damage arising from any delay in providing a universal postal service under the provisions of section 26 of the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Act 2011.

As the Minister knows, similar postal delays were experienced when Vodafone returned money to shareholders in Ireland following the sale of its American affiliate. In the 2014 Finance Act, the Minister included provisions allowing for a measure of tax relief to the many thousands of Irish Vodafone shareholders who had a relatively small holding and who, likewise through no fault of their own, found themselves liable to income tax, PRSI and USC, rather than what they expected, namely a zero capital gains tax liability.

I suggest the principle is the same. Irish citizens have lost income due to an inadvertent mistake regarding the return of payment to them after the sale of an affiliate by a parent company. The fact that Vodafone shareholders may have incurred previous losses is neither here nor there. The Minister cannot treat the Vodafone shareholder preferentially and deny the Standard Life shareholder. Both sets of shareholders lost out through no fault of their own. In the forthcoming finance Bill in October, will the Minister consider inserting a provision, similar to that in the 2014 Act, to allow Standard Life shareholders receive a tax relief in a similar fashion, as the same principle underlines this case?

I thank Deputy Costello for raising this matter.

My understanding of the background to this issue is that, following the sale of its Canadian business, the UK company Standard Life plc offered its shareholders the option of having the return of value payments due to them treated as income or capital. Treatment as income was decided by the company as the default position in the absence of shareholders choosing the capital option within a specified period, which elapsed some time ago.

It seems that the chosen options posted by quite a number of Irish shareholders in the company were delayed beyond the deadline and that the form in which they then received their payment was not the most tax efficient from their perspective. The Revenue Commissioners have informed me that, from an Irish tax perspective, the position is that, if the Standard Life return of value payment is received as income by an Irish resident taxpayer, it will be taxed under income tax rules. If it is received as capital, it will be taxed under the capital gains tax rules.

Comparisons have been made between this case and one from last year relating to Vodafone shareholders. In last year's Finance Act, I included provisions allowing for a measure of tax relief to the many thousands of Irish shareholders with small shareholdings in Vodafone plc who inadvertently found themselves subject to an unintended liability to income tax, PRSI and USC rather than a nil capital gains tax liability arising from a return of value payment from that company. I did this because the shareholding of many of the Vodafone shareholders arose originally from their investment in eircom from which they continued to carry capital losses. It was in this context that I felt it appropriate to protect these small shareholders in last year's Finance Act from additional cost or losses through a tax liability.

The particular background to the Vodafone case is not a feature of the Standard Life return of value case. Furthermore, it is important to note that the fact that notifications of the options made by some of the Vodafone shareholders were also delayed in the post beyond the deadline date in that case or were not dealt with by the company as shareholders would have wished were not factors in my decision to provide the relief.

Having said that, though, I have undertaken to give consideration to the views and concerns expressed in respect of the affected shareholders in Standard Life in the course of my preparations for the forthcoming Finance Bill, and I will do so. The matter is already receiving attention in this regard.

I thank the Minister for attending and for his response. I am delighted that he is considering this issue and that it is receiving attention. I hope he will take steps in the forthcoming Finance Bill to redress this matter. It was brought to my attention by the Standard Life shareholders. They are people, including people from the public sector, who made small investments with their redundancy payments, money they received, lump sums, etc. Due to the Celtic tiger and a number of changes made arising out of the troika's involvement, money became available for investment by small earners, people who would have worked all of their lives and believed their investments were secure. We are not referring to major investors, large sums of money or high flyers.

The Minister's explanation for the principle he established in providing tax relief to those Vodafone shareholders who lost out in a similar way does no justice to that principle. The underlying principle in this case is the same. The Minister stated, "The particular background to the Vodafone case is not a feature of the Standard Life return of value case." The circumstances are exactly the same. I cannot for the life of me see how he could make provision in the Finance Act 2014 yet not make similar provision acknowledging this matter. Doing so would not establish a new precedent, as it would be along the lines of what he Minister had already established.

I hope that An Post and the Royal Mail have learned their lesson. We need to tie down the traceability of all mail and the question of not incurring inordinate details. As to the question of tax relief and redress, though, that matter lies in the Minister's hands only. I hope he will be in a position come the budget and the Finance Bill to respond positively.

I thank the Deputy again and will examine the matter sympathetically, but without prejudice, as I prepare the Finance Bill, which is usually published in late October. I have asked officials in my Department and the Revenue Commissioners to examine the matter further in that context and to revert to me. I will make a decision based on the advice I receive from them and on the views that have been expressed to me by Deputy Costello and previously by other Deputies and citizens of this Republic.

I thank the Minister. He made my job easy.

Apprenticeship Programmes

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this Topical Issue. I will take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister, his staff and the other organisations involved in the Harnessing Our Marine Wealth Conference that was held in Haulbowline last Friday. SeaFest at the weekend was a tremendous success and well attended. I was pleased to hear contributions from the European Commissioner with responsibility for marine issues.

Arising from the conference is the achievable aspiration of developing a far greater maritime, or blue, economy, one that could create an extra 29,000 jobs. I will focus on an idea that continuously arises in Castletownbere, which the Minister is well aware is the location of the Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM, regional training centre. I compliment Captain Shane Begley and his staff in the centre. They do an extraordinary amount of good work in preparing young men and women for careers at sea, particularly in the sea-fishing industry. I was pleased to see people like Mr. Declan Power qualifying for a full skipper's ticket in the past week or two based on the work that was done in Castletownbere. More of the same is required.

The college offers a FETAC level 5 course in marine engineering processes, covering vessel construction, main propulsion systems, auxiliary machinery, electrical systems, hydraulic and pneumatic systems and health and safety and environmental modules, but we need to look beyond those. While there are many trades people, not just in places like Castletownbere, our fishery harbour centres and our ports, small and large, there is a considerable shortage of skills in the mainstream trades that could be adapted to working in the marine sector, for example, fabrication, hydraulics and electrics. I am referring to trades for which it might not be necessary to undertake full FETAC level 5 courses. Trades people could be slowly introduced into courses or modules that would not impact unduly on their own work but would qualify them to conduct some maintenance work, for example, in many ports and harbours.

This issue may be tied into the dearth of trades people in rural Ireland. One of the sad effects of the economic downturn was the loss of a generation from rural Ireland, and many from our ports and harbours. Places like Castletownbere have suffered due to the emigration of people with specific trades.

We could consider more nuanced education or trade studies. Captain Begley in Castletownbere is under tremendous pressure for resources and I would not be naive enough to suggest this would not need resources. It would eventually do so but it is time to start planning and reviewing how we deliver courses for trades to serve the marine industry.

In common with other sectors, the seafood industry needs a regular supply of suitably trained and skilled personnel to work on board fishing vessels, on fish farms and in processing plants and it needs broader skills around harbour activities. BIM has a long established record of providing the industry with vocational training for appropriate qualifications to work as crew members, skippers and engineers on fishing vessels and this vital service continues to develop. BIM provides a broad range of Department of Transport and QQI accredited courses through the National Fisheries College with locations in Greencastle, Castletownbere and Dún Laoghaire. These courses include fishing vessel deck officer and engineering certificates of competency training as well as short duration courses on safety, radio, first aid and other nautical skills.

BIM's mobile coastal training units provide short courses in safety, radio, engineering and navigation at ports around the coast, offering industry practitioners convenient access to necessary training. Courses related to product handling for seafood processors and traders are provided in the seafood development centre at Clonakilty. Developing industry skills is one of the five themes in BIM's current strategy, which addresses the promotion and development of business management skills in the sector through leadership programmes. Attracting potential seafood graduates into the sector is also targeted through the introduction of new seafood business management courses with selected third level institutions. The provision of appropriate skills and training to the sector will underpin the drive towards competitiveness which is the central focus of BIM's strategy.

With regard to fishing operational courses, BIM has committed to provide practical certificate and diploma courses, including essential safety training, leading to recognised qualifications from the Department of Transport and FETAC at the BIM training colleges in Greencastle and Castletownbere; to develop and implement a strategic upgrade of the training programme for sea fishermen with particular emphasis on safety and on professional qualifications; to provide statutory safety and FETAC accredited training places to fishermen, fish farm workers and others working in the sector; to provide relevant courses at various fishing ports through the mobile coastal training units; and to work with industry to improve the occupational health and safety environment for crew serving on aquaculture and fishing vessels and staff working in seafood processing operations.

I take it the Deputy would like to see more of a focus on practical apprenticeships, managed out of his home port of Castletownbere. I will be there on Monday when we can perhaps talk in a bit more detail about what he has in mind. We have an open mind on the subject and we are trying to raise the skill set of coastal communities, not only around fishing and aquaculture but in respect of other marine industries as well. Many of these were explored for their potential at the SeaFest conference last Friday and Saturday, which I know Deputy Harrington attended.

I acknowledge the commitment of the Minister to the maritime and fishing sectors. Places like west Cork have a proud tradition in shipbuilding, particularly in areas around Baltimore, but where I live, only one shipwright is left, and he will not mind my saying that he will not be around for very long more as he will be looking to retire shortly, and there is a general dearth of skills. The National Maritime College of Ireland is a hugely successful story in terms of the way it attracts graduates and in the way it links to larger elements of the maritime industry, whether that be the merchant marine or other specialities. I am interested in how tradesmen who have a basic skill level for onshore work might be attracted to the maritime sector, whether in sea fishing, the leisure industry, commercial activities or general maintenance in a variety of disciplines. This might allow the industry to up its game in parts of this country where, at the moment, there is not considered to be a future. It would require a different type of thinking from bodies such as BIM. The people of whom I talk may have basic skills, which would not enable them to make a living onshore or to attract work in the offshore sector, but by combining both might be able to satisfy the basic requirements of the industry in smaller ports and harbours. This would provide a varied future for tradespeople in those ports and harbours.

The Deputy is preaching to the converted. The Government is taking a collective approach to create viable coastal communities, whether in fishing, marine tourism, ocean renewables, servicing offshore oil or gas rigs, leisure and sport or technology and design. We think the marine sector will have a turnover of well over €6 billion by 2020 and that should enable us to maintain a quality of life in coastal communities of which we can all be proud. The challenge is to ensure that young men and women growing up in those coastal communities can develop the skill sets to build careers servicing those industries by building their own businesses around those industries, whether aquaculture, fishing, tourism, energy or hospitality. I will happily talk to the Deputy in more detail about it. It might be useful to set up a working group of some coastal Deputies, maybe of Government and Opposition, to explore the possibilities of putting in place apprenticeships about which the Deputy speaks and to improve skill sets in areas that may have been traditionally valuable but may, over time, have become diminished.

Teaching Qualifications

I thank the Minister for Education and Skills for coming to the House to respond to my issue in person. I wish to raise the issue of recognition for Montessori teachers to teach in special education primary schools and in special education across the country. There is currently one school, St. Nicholas Montessori College Ireland, which carries out a level 8 qualification for teachers over four years to become qualified Montessori teachers. Until now, graduates from this level 8 course have been in a position to teach special classes in primary schools and students with special educational needs and have been able to take up positions in special education schools, of which there are some 150 across the country. In the consultation currently being carried out by the teaching council to review the regulations in accordance with the 2001 and 2012 Teaching Council Acts, I understand there is a proposal to remove regulation 3, under which those graduates of St. Nicholas Montessori College Ireland currently get restricted registration to enable them to teach in primary schools and special education schools.

Will the Minister update the House on the current position with regard to the Teaching Council's proposals to change this regulation? Will the Minister confirm whether the students who are due to start the course with St. Nicholas Montessori College Ireland this coming September will have the same recognition as previous graduates when they graduate in 2019?

In light of the Minister's recent announcement of an early years education advisory group, which has been asked to look at the development of possible qualification structures in the early years sector and is now carrying out that work, will she await the outcome of its report before deciding to remove the current recognition graduates of the Montessori college enjoy? I know the Minister has a particular affinity with this sector, having worked in it in the past, and that she knows it very well. I look forward to her response.

I thank Deputy McConalogue for raising this issue. I am aware of the concerns of Saint Nicholas Montessori College Ireland about the recognition of its teacher education programmes. As the House will be aware, the Teaching Council is the independent statutory regulator for the teaching profession. The council sets standards for all elements of the continuum of teacher education including initial teacher education programmes, induction and continuous professional development.

The Teaching Council's regulations for the registration of teachers were first published in 2009 and set out the standards teachers must meet if they wish to be registered members of the profession in Ireland. Teachers recognised under regulation 3 are eligible for employment in restricted school settings, that is, in certain categories of special schools and in certain classes in mainstream schools where Irish is not a curricular requirement. The council has been engaged in a review of the regulations for some time. The review has been necessitated by the extension and reconceptualisation of all programmes of initial teacher education. New regulations will be also necessary in light of the Bill to amend the Teaching Council Acts that is currently completing its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The developments are part of a significant programme of reform of teacher education in which the council has been engaged in recent years, informed in part by my Department's literacy and numeracy strategy of 2011. It is important to remember that the primary focus of the reform programme is to enhance the quality of the teaching and learning experience for all children and young people. In any discussions we have about teaching and learning, including inclusive education, the learner must be the focus.

As the statutory professional standards body for teaching in Ireland, the Teaching Council is of the view that all teachers should be first and foremost qualified and registered as teachers in their given sector, whether primary or post-primary, before they specialise in particular areas of teaching and learning. Special education needs is now mandatory in all programmes of initial teacher education under the council's criteria and guidelines so the landscape has evolved significantly since regulation 3 was put in place.

That said, the council itself acknowledges that no one phase of teachers' learning will be sufficient to address all the needs of the pupils they will teach throughout their careers. The very concepts of continuous professional development and the draft national framework for teachers' learning, Cosán, bear out that. Specialist provision will continue to have its place in teachers' learning. Once teachers are fully qualified and registered, it is hoped they will continue to have a keen interest in finding quality programmes that will enable and empower them to adapt their practice to the needs of children in their care.

The council has consulted with a number of stakeholders, including St. Nicholas Montessori College Ireland. Following consultation, the council has revised its draft regulations to provide that students who commence the programme, which is one of the questions Deputy McConalogue asked, on or before 1 September 2015 and who complete it no later than 1 September 2020 will be able to register with the council. This will give the college ample lead-in time, in addition to that which they have already, to develop a programme at post-graduate level which would meet the requirements of the council. In this scenario, future graduates of St. Nicholas Montessori College Ireland would be registered teachers who would have specialised in special education needs and would therefore have access to the same employment opportunities as other registered teachers.

Recent changes in the teacher education landscape have been designed to ensure that inclusive education, incorporating the education of learners with special education needs, is given the appropriate professional space and time. In summary, the advice of the council that regulation 3 is no longer required has been accepted.

I thank the Minister and welcome the clarification for the cohort of students beginning the four year course this September that they will be eligible to apply to the Teaching Council for registration and to teach in special education settings in primary schools and in specialist special needs schools. However, the fact that the Teaching Council will no longer recognise this four year course will be a source of real regret and disappointment to many people who very much value the option of a level 8 course in Montessori teaching. They value the option of being able to specialise in Montessori teaching from the outset of their third level career given its particular value from a pedagogical point of view in special needs teaching.

Will the move away from this recognition reduce the employment capacity of those who have already graduated from the level 8 course? Will those graduates continue to be able to attract and win employment in special educational settings in the same way as they did before, as new graduates of the course will no longer be able to avail of registration from the Teaching Council?

The Minister did not refer in her reply to the work of the early years education advisory group which is carrying out an important overview of the development of the early years sector and trying to ensure there is a professionalisation of the workforce at early years level over the coming period. It would be appropriate for the Minister to consider any approach by the Teaching Council on qualifications of current graduates of Montessori degrees in light of the work of that advisory group. Will the Minister await the outcome of that advisory group's report before pursuing any change to regulation 3?

I did not refer to that particular issue in my earlier response. I expect the early years education advisory group to have an initial report back to me before the end of the year and I intend to meet it in the autumn. The group has started having meetings and looking at some of the issues. However, the group is focusing primarily on the early years rather than school age sector. It is clear the Montessori method of learning is very much a feature of early years education in Ireland currently and I am sure it will continue to be a feature into the future. I intend to engage with the advisory group on that matter. Having the extra year, whereby people starting the course this year will be still able to register, gives some time for a full discussion and I intend to meet representatives of the Montessori method and the Teaching Council in the near future.

The Teaching Council is an independent statutory body and one of its roles is to advise on standards, qualifications, educational programmes and professional development of teachers. Its advice has to be taken seriously. There is also a lot of respect in Ireland and in other parts of the world for the Montessori method generally but it features primarily in Ireland in the preschool area rather than the primary and post-primary sector. However, it has been a feature in special schools and special classes. There is a period of time before a change in respect of regulation 3 will be in place, during which time there will be the opportunity to engage further with the Teaching Council and with the Montessori association.

Cycling Facilities Funding

I wish to raise the issue of funding for a cycleway or walkway in what is known as the greenway in Blessington, specifically, for phase 2 of the project. I will set out some of the background. One objective of the Wicklow Outdoor Recreation Strategy 2009-2013 was to explore the potential of new trails in west Wicklow. A feasibility study was carried out in 2010 and the Pollaphuca Reservoir area, which forms part of the greenway, was identified as a flagship project. More recently, Fáilte Ireland developed a destination development strategy for Kildare and Wicklow and launched a new brand identity for the region. Subsequently, this was incorporated into the Ireland's ancient east initiative. All are very welcome.

A map shows clearly that this project is sited in the main around Pollaphuca Reservoir. The area is almost entirely owned by the ESB. Irish Water is now involved among the other stakeholders, as is Wicklow County Council. There are others including BirdWatch Ireland which works on potential nature reserves.

A comprehensive scoping study was carried out. It was identified that there could be up to three extra phases. The initial phase was carried out under the auspices of the Blessington and District Forum and ran to 6.5 km. It was opened by the Minister's predecessor in February 2014. Ironically, on the same day, a new car park facility was opened at Russborough House, down the road. Part of the proposed phase 2 includes a 2 km spur to Russborough House. There has been controversy over the sale of paintings in Russborough House recently and among of the problems identified was the lack of footfall and the need to improve visitor numbers. This extension would have added to that, although it is not the primary reason for it.

The proposal was further assessed by a Fáilte Ireland assessment team in early 2014. The assessment team was shown detailed plans for the greenway following Wicklow County Council's application for funding under the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport national cycle network funding scheme for local authorities. A total of 38 projects proposed by local authorities were funded. Unfortunately, the Blessington proposal, which finished among the top two, was not. Essentially, that is why I am in the House raising the topic.

An economic impact assessment took place when the Blessington and District Forum began the project in 2011. It estimated that between domestic, overseas and local residents the economic boost in a year would be of the order of €7 million. This project stands up to scrutiny. It stood up to the expert assessment team's scrutiny. It can be completed in a year. It is shovel-ready. All the various issues have been boxed off. There are some selected alternative routes which would shorten the route somewhat and take out some of the more expensive and problematic or challenging routes. Phase 2, with the amended route, would bring the total route from 6.5 km to 34.5 km, an increase of 28 km in the length of the cycleway or walkway.

We all know the value of these facilities. We are trying to encourage outdoor activities. This route goes around the lakes and links some of the villages, including Ballyknockan and Ballymount - Ballyknockan is known as the granite village. It also links to Avon Rí, a tourist resort and there is the spur to Russborough House as well. The project is well worth funding, whatever way we have to do it. I believe it stands up to scrutiny. I call on the Minister to seriously consider the matter, whether it involves working with other agencies or entities to try to secure the funding.

I thank Deputy Doyle for raising this matter. I am fully aware of the value of these projects. I have had the opportunity to experience a number of these cycleways and I have visited many of them throughout the country. One of the challenges I face is that in so many different counties and local authorities there is a strong demand for greenway projects like this. The script that is being handed to Deputy Doyle states that at the moment I have no additional funding for the coming period to allocate to new projects. It acknowledges that in recent years we have allocated many millions for greenway projects. A total of €6.3 million was made available last year to three local authorities for the delivery of three greenway projects. A further 11 greenway proposals were submitted by local authorities to share in stimulus funding, and €10 million was made available for the delivery of greenways.

I believe strongly in and I am passionate about the delivery of a system of integrated greenways across the country. A small number are under way but we want to get more under way. I am working within my Department to see whether we can come up with a framework within the constraints of the funding that is available to us such that we can better support and fund a number of greenways across the country.

There will be opportunities in future, particularly for Border counties, to apply for funding under the new programmes for cross-border co-operation and the EU PEACE programme. These funding programmes will be in place between 2014 and 2020. Alongside these it may be possible for some groups to secure funding via the Leader programme, which will at least allows proposals to be progressed up to design stage.

I am aware that this project is already designed and that Deputy Doyle is seeking funding to move it to construction, or, at least to move the next phase to construction. While I am not in a position to say I have funding available at the moment to do that, I accept the real value of projects like this and I am working at the moment to see whether there is some framework or way in which we would be able to fund these projects over of a number of years to enable more of them to be realised. I have seen the extraordinary benefits these projects deliver in the communities and the local authorities that have executed them not only from a tourism point of view but also in terms of sustainable transport and the way they serve as catalysts for local economic development. For example, I have seen the effect the greenway in Mayo has had on a community like Newport. I am keen to see these effects replicated throughout the country. In the time left open to me in this role and in the Dáil I am keen to find some way to support projects like that.

I know the Minister is keen to get projects like this under way. We both dabbled in the greenway when we were in Westport at a party event some years ago. I am interested in what the Minister said about the INTERREG funding. He referred to the PEACE initiative and cross-border initiatives, whether they involved Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom. Not too far away from the greenway is the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. It is stretching it a little but, at the same time, it has been involved in many projects that have brought people together from all over the planet from areas of conflict. Often this happens under the radar. The former director said once that in Glencree people can get things done or take credit for them, but they can seldom do both. It is a place that goes somewhat under the radar. It gets funding from the Ireland Fund and elsewhere. Perhaps some linkage could be established if all that is needed is imagination.

There are really no land-ownership issues affecting the greenway. Everything can be accommodated, including the nature reserves and the bringing of people to the area. It is in west Wicklow, which tends not to do as well as the east coast. It does reasonably well but could do better. I ask the Minister to keep the project on the agenda with a view to having it on the list if funding is available.

The kind of project to which the Deputy is referring is one of which I am very much aware. We have made some progress on similar projects in some parts of the country. I hope that as our economy continues to improve, we will find funding to support projects such as the one referred to by the Deputy. However, I am not in a position today to say the funding is currently available.

With regard to the Deputy's specific question on the use of INTERREG funding and funding through the PEACE IV programme, the eligibility criteria are unlikely to be directly applicable to the Deputy's county. The programmes could be of great help, however, in that an opportunity could arise under them to seek co-funding for projects we want to fund in other parts of the country, which in turn would free up capacity in other parts of the country. That is where I hope a benefit would accrue for the kind of project to which the Deputy referred. Consider the opportunity both of us had on Monday afternoon to see the extraordinary 16.5 km of new motorway that will enable greater contact between the Deputy's county and the rest of the country. It would be great if we were able to use the infrastructure in a way that would allow people to sample and enjoy an even greater variety of tourist experiences in the area. I have no doubt that a project such as the one in question would be one of these. Although I cannot make funding available for it at present, I hope that, over time, we will find a way to make progress on it.