Adjournment Matter. - Occupational Pension Schemes.

I have been asked to raise this on the Adjournment as a number of Departments have been unable to reply to my question on whether it is constitutional to compel people to take out a private sector pension. First, I asked my colleague, Deputy McGinley, to raise the matter with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform by way of parliamentary question. The Ceann Comhairle replied: "The Minister has no official responsibility to Dáil Éireann for this matter which is one for the Pensions Board; you may wish to contact that body in this regard." I duly contacted the Pensions Board which replied: "I am advised that it would not be appropriate for me, as a member of the executive arm of Government, to purport to determine on the constitutionality of any legal requirement." I then wrote to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who replied:

The provisions of the Employment Equality Act do not extend to pensions which are more properly dealt with under the Pensions Act 1990. Therefore the matter may be more appropriate to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. I have accordingly referred your correspondence to my colleague Ms Mary Coughlan, T.D., Minister for Social and Family Affairs, for consideration.

I then received a letter from the Minister for Social and Family Affairs stating:

Unfortunately, this Department cannot consent to your request to obtain a legal opinion on this issue. As you are aware, the Government's legal advisor is the Attorney General. Because of the doctrine of the separation of powers, the Attorney General does not furnish legal advice to the other branches of Government, that is to say to the legislative (members of the Oireachtas) or judicial branches or to the President.

What do I tell people who worked all their lives and paid contributions to a private pension fund or whose employer paid a contribution on their behalf? These people will not realise until they retire that their pension is worthless. The Government compelled these people to get involved in such pensions. It did not compel employers to do so. Surely somebody in the Government – the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has responsibility in this area – can say whether it was constitutional to compel workers to pay into pension schemes. A defined contribution scheme provides no guarantee of benefit; a defined benefit scheme provides no protection against inflation for early leavers. Do these people have to seek out somebody brave enough to go to the courts to find out if they have been wronged? Will we need another like Mr. Ross who was brave enough to go to the courts last week and win his case? The only people benefiting from this is the pension industry and it receives enormous tax benefits from the Government. People involved in the pension industry will not retire to discover their pensions have been eroded by inflation. We constantly hear of them bumping up their pension schemes to ensure they have a good pension when they retire.

I hope the Minister of State will not fob me off again today. It does not look good that the Government cannot give me a direct and honest answer to this question. I hope I will get a straight answer from the Minister of State.

I thank Senator Terry for raising this issue and apologise for the absence of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs has responsibility for the implementation of the Pensions Act 1990 which regulates occupational pension schemes and provides for equal treatment of men and women under occupational benefit schemes. It also established the Pensions Board to supervise such schemes and their operations.

In the main, the Act provides for preservation of pension entitlements for members, a minimum funding standard for funded schemes, mandatory disclosure of information to members and more recently personal retirement savings accounts and the Pensions Ombudsman. My understanding is that the issue of compulsory membership of occupational pension schemes arises in the context of an employment contract. The issue being raised therefore relates to employment contract law which does not come within the scope of the Pensions Act and is therefore not a matter for the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

I cannot accede to the Senator's request that the Department of Social and Family Affairs secures and furnishes legal advice in relation to this issue. The Government's legal advisor is the Attorney General. The client of the Attorney General and his office is the executive branch of Government, that is to say the Government as a whole, its individual members and the Departments they head. Because of the doctrine of the separation of powers, it is important to note that the Attorney General does not, as a general rule, furnish legal advice to the other branches of Government, that is to say the legislative or judicial branches, or to the President nor does he furnish legal advice to members of the public.

I am extremely disappointed with the reply. It now seems the only recourse open to these people is to go to the courts. That is a shame.

The Seanad adjourned at 11.50 a.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 15 October 2003.