Adjournment Matters

Third Level Funding

I thank the Minister for Education and Skills for coming to the House and his officials for contacting my office when this motion was originally submitted last week. I want to use this opportunity to raise a number of questions on the future of third level funding, maintenance grants and fees and I will leave it to the Minister's discretion to answer them. I tabled this matter in context of the report on funding for third level education which is due to be presented to him later this year.

Issues pertaining to the future of third level funding have come to my attention through meetings with various student organisations and other interested parties. Does the Minister accept that senior academics in Ireland receive, on average, salaries that are 35% higher than their UK counterparts and that the pay aspect of the higher education budget must be examined in order to prevent further cuts to the non-pay budget? Is it acceptable that higher education institutions have not made costed representations of their funding requirements to maintain quality while accommodating increased participation? Are these institutions operating at maximum productivity and what is the Minister's view of higher education institutions setting up limited companies to attract international students where they are used to pay staff over and above agreed pay scales?

A HEA study of the effect of the removal of tuition fees from third level education in the Twenty-six Counties found that thousands of students from lower middle class homes failed to advance to third level education, primarily because the current inadequate income thresholds for grants acted as an obstacle to students from these groups.

Does the Minister consider he should focus on tackling the outstanding problems surrounding the threshold for student grants to allow for greater participation in third level education? Given that most institutions have resumed, students are seeking reassurance that they will not lose the grant and that the eligibility criteria will not be changed to prevent their younger brothers and sisters getting the grant. There has been much hearsay about the report of the capital asset test implementation group and if its recommendations, including the revised means test, will be taken on board by the Minister in the education budget for 2013. There is a fear among farm families with small businesses and low incomes that their children will not get student grants on the basis that the value of their farmland will take them over the income threshold irrespective of whether they derive any income there it. There is a view that income should be maintained as a basis for calculating eligibility for third level grants. The mere ownership of a few fields or a small shop premises cannot guarantee the income needed to maintain the farm with a business not to mention running a household or sending a child to college. When will the capital asset test implementation group report be published and discussed by the Cabinet?

There has been much discussion about the possible reintroduction of fees. Fees in education have been shown to be a disincentive to entrants to third level education and the introduction of free third level fees during the 1990s was supposed to transform Irish education and open up the possibility of obtaining a degree for a much greater number of people. Despite that, many from working class and lower middle class backgrounds were disproportionately excluded from education but I hope that disparity can be addressed.

Does the Minster accept that students from low income families will find it increasingly difficult to access higher education courses should the recommendations of the HEA be implemented? Are the increases in the student contribution outlined to 2015 sustainable for families above the grant threshold? Is it possible that the Minister may be laying the foundation for the introduction of student loans by virtue of the increases in the student contribution which have been outlined? Does he appreciate the negative impact that a similar system had on students in the UK which showed a 17% drop in the level of participation?

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter.

The Senator may recall that the national strategy for higher education to 2030, a 20-year national strategy for the development and delivery of higher education, was launched in January 2011. The strategy recommends a number of system changes that are aimed at supporting the objectives of the report, including a sustainable system of funding for third level education to allow for further growth and development with public funding more aligned to national priorities and needs. Arising from the strategy, the Higher Education Authority completed an initial study late last year on the sustainability of the current funding system for higher education. This HEA report outlines the scale of recent reductions in funding, the growth in student numbers and provides some evidence on the possible impacts of these developments on quality of provision.

Enrolments in higher education continue to increase significantly, with more than 160,000 full-time students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, enrolled in higher education institutions in 2010. Projections of future enrolments show that by 2018 this figure will rise to more than 218,000 and by 2030 to more than 280,000 students. In the short term full-time enrolment is projected to increase by more than 18%, 30,000, by 2014 over 2010 numbers.

The report makes it clear that immediate work is required to prepare for a longer term approach to a system that can be maintained through a sustainable funding base which will be able to address the continual expansion of the sector while protecting quality of education. The HEA has emphasised that the report is preliminary only and that substantial additional work now needs to be undertaken before comprehensive proposals can be developed as to how we can sustainably fund higher education into the future. The HEA is continuing its work in this area and further advice is expected later this year.

With regard to the level of maintenance grants for students, the Senator will be aware that, under the terms of the student grants scheme, grant assistance is awarded to students who meet the prescribed conditions of funding including those which relate to nationality, residency, previous academic attainment and means. The eligibility criteria for student grants is reviewed annually and set out in the student grants scheme and the student support regulations each year.

The reality of our current economic situation presents significant challenges that have to be reconciled with limitations on public resources. This is a stark reality which, unfortunately, means that changes to any public service provision, including the student grants, cannot be ruled out. Any decision on changes to the student grant scheme, including changes to eligibility criteria, will be considered in the context of budget 2013. I empathise with students and I am very conscious of the part played by the grants scheme in supporting families who are putting their children through further and higher education. However, the state of the public finances is such that tough decisions have to be made to control public expenditure and to ensure sustainability in the long run. For this reason it is the responsibility of the Government to take into consideration all areas of public service provision when formulating budget 2013. I will take the concerns of students into consideration during the budgetary process in this regard. I will endeavour to protect, to the greatest extent possible, the most disadvantaged students in further and higher education.

Health Services

I thank the Minister for coming in to take the matter of the potential provision of a primary health care facility in Portumna, County Galway. Primary health care is the way forward in the delivery of essential health services. These services are imperative to the people living in and around Portumna and its hinterland. Such a facility would provide a wide range of services essential for the well-being of members of the community to include the promotion of health and screening, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation as well as personal social services. They are particularly attractive as a concept in that they are fully accessible by way of self-referral and operating as a one-stop shop.

Under the one roof, general practitioners, public health nurses, general nurses, social workers, community mental health nurses, dietitians, physiotherapists and occupational therapists will deliver such services. However, it must be recognised that the health system which serves the country is not fully integrated and we must try to achieve such a system within the term of the Government as committed to in the programme for Government.

I am aware from meeting interested parties recently that permission for a primary health care centre was approved by planners in Galway County Council some time ago and, as such, this is a ready to go site. I am also informed that the said facility was one that was to be prioritised under the previous Government but this never came to fruition during that time. We need better health for everyone in every community. That is why I ask the Minister to outline the plans as the health strategy should aim to deliver improvements in the personal experiences of many thousands of individuals who avail of health services every day. However, while I acknowledge that there is a list of centres approved throughout the country, I seek a commitment from the Department on the provision of such an important medical facility in Portumna within the lifetime of the Government. To that end I request that the necessary arrangements be made in the capital budget to bring such a facility to Portumna during the term of the Government.

I thank the Senator for her question. I very much welcome the opportunity to outline the current position with on Portumna primary health care centre.

As the Senator will be aware, the programme for Government sets out the Government's commitment to ensuring a better and more efficient health system; a single-tier health service that will deliver equal access to health care based on need, not income. In a developed primary care system, up to 95% of people's day-to-day health and social care needs can be met in the primary care setting. The key objective of the primary care strategy is to develop services in the community that will give people direct access to integrated multi-disciplinary teams of general practitioners, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and other health care disciplines. This is central to the Government's objective to deliver a high quality, integrated and cost effective health system.

A modern, well equipped primary care infrastructure is central to the effective functioning of primary care teams. These teams enable multidisciplinary services to be delivered on a single site, provide a single point of access for users and encourage closer co-ordination between health providers. The infrastructure development, through a combination of public and private investment, will facilitate the delivery of multidisciplinary primary health care and represents a tangible refocusing of the health service to deliver care in the most appropriate and lowest cost setting.

The intention to date has been that, where appropriate, infrastructure for primary care centres would be provided by the private sector through negotiated lease agreements. The Exchequer will also fund the delivery of some primary care centres particularly in deprived urban areas, small rural towns and isolated areas. In addition, a list of 35 potential locations for development by way of public private partnership, as part of the Government's infrastructure stimulus package, was published last July.

The provision of a primary care centre in Portumna has been progressed to date by way of a private sector operational lease process. In 2007 the HSE advertised nationally seeking expressions of interest to develop primary care centres by way of operational lease. Portumna was one of the locations included in the process. Expressions of interest were received and a number of sites explored. The HSE approved an offer to one of two applicants in 2008 and a letter of intent issued. In 2010 the applicant advised the HSE that it proposed to change the site for the centre as it had encountered difficulties in acquiring the original proposed site. The alternative site was acceptable to the HSE and to the GP practice supporting the development and project design was advanced in 2010 to 2011.

The applicant in question has had discussions with the HSE on a number of primary care centre developments it is promoting and seeking to fund, including Portumna. These discussions have recently concluded and the HSE expects to receive confirmation from the applicant that it is in a position to fund the primary care developments concerned. The HSE is endeavouring to progress the Portumna project as soon as possible.

I ask the Senator to keep in touch with my office and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, and I can keep her updated on progress.

I appreciate the Minister providing further clarity on the matter and I look forward to the facility being progressed in Portumna.

Industrial Relations Issues

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Perry, to the House.

I too welcome the Minister of State to the House. On Monday, 27 August, management at the Gleeson Group terminated the employment of eight workers, the majority of whom are active SIPTU trade union members. It was claimed that the job losses were part of a redundancy issue and that they were not sufficiently skilled for the work that they had been doing for the previous number of years. The next day, when the workers finished their jobs, management hired agency workers to take over their roles in the company. As of today, management has repeatedly refused to meet union representatives and has declined an invitation to attend the Labour Relations Commission to discuss the matter.

People have a constitutional right to join a union and it is defended under unfair dismissals legislation. SIPTU has said that the Gleeson Group had unilaterally reduced wages without written warning in breach of the Payments of Wages Act. As a Labour Party Senator and a lifelong supporter of the trade union movement, this kind of disregard for workers' rights must be challenged at every turn. I have been told that the Gleeson Group has refused to meet SIPTU representatives and ignored any attempts to discuss changes to terms and conditions of employment with the union or the Labour Relations Commission. That is unacceptable behaviour from an employer. It is incredible, as we approach the centenary of the Dublin Lockout, that we still have people being marginalised and discriminated against. We must be careful, as citizens and politicians, and ensure that the recession is not used by employers to attack workers' wages and conditions unilaterally without a proper cause or explanation. The Gleeson Group's refusal to recognise SIPTU and to allegedly sack workers for organising to defend their rights and entitlements reminds me of the days of William Martin Murphy.

I ask the Minister of State if his Department is aware of the situation faced by these workers in Ballyfermot. Is the Gleeson Group, their employers, in breach of the Payments of Wages Act? Has the Gleeson Group sought a rebate of the statutory redundancy payment made to its employees? What stage has been reached in the plan to reform workplace relations structures? When will the plan be implemented?

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter on the Adjournment. It concerns a dispute between the company and eight employees regarding the selection criteria used for making them redundant. The workers concerned have been engaged in a protest outside of the Cherry Orchard depot in Ballyfermot since 24 September. I understand that following a contract loss the company made 12 of its employees redundant on 27 August.

The redundancy payments scheme was established to compensate workers, under the Redundancy Payments Acts, 1967 to 2011, for the loss of their jobs by reason of redundancy. It is the responsibility of the employer to pay statutory redundancy to all eligible employees. An employer who pays statutory redundancy payments to its employees is then entitled to a rebate of a portion of that amount from the State. Where an employer can prove to the satisfaction of the Department of Social Protection that it is unable to pay the statutory redundancy to its eligible employees the Department will make lump sum payments directly to those employees and will seek to recover the debt from the employer. To prove inability to pay the employer must submit documentary evidence to confirm that this is the position.

Rebates to employers and lump sums paid directly to employees are paid from the social insurance fund. In order to qualify for a redundancy payment, an employee must have at least two years continuous service; be in employment which is insurable under the Social Welfare Acts; be over the age of 16 and have been made redundant as a result of a genuine redundancy matter meaning that the job is no longer available and that he or she is not replaced.

Under the Redundancy Payments Acts an eligible employee is entitled to two weeks statutory redundancy payment for every year of service plus a bonus week. Compensation is based on the worker's length of reckonable service and reckonable weekly remuneration and is subject to a ceiling of €600 per week.

The Senator has asked if the Gleeson Group has sought a rebate of the statutory redundancy payment made to the employees. Responsibility for the processing of claims under the redundancy payments scheme transferred from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to the Department of Social Protection in January 2011. I have made inquiries of that Department and I have been informed that it has no record of receiving any claims against the Gleeson Group. It also has no information regarding recent redundancies or dismissals by the group or concerns employees or former employees may have on same.

I understand from newspaper and media reports on the matter that the employees concerned in the protest feel that they were selected for redundancy because they are members of a trade union. The company has issued a statement that this is not the case. An employer when selecting an employee for redundancy should apply selection criteria that are reasonable and applied in a fair manner. People are entitled to bring a claim for unfair dismissal if they consider that they were unfairly selected for redundancy or consider that there was not a genuine redundancy matter.

The Unfair Dismissals Acts 1977 to 2007 provide protection for employees from being unfairly dismissed from their jobs by laying down criteria on which the fairness or otherwise of dismissals can be judged and by providing an adjudication system and redress for an employee whose dismissal has been found to be unjustified. The Acts also specify a variety of instances where a dismissal would be deemed to be unfair.

Section 6(2) of the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 deems a dismissal to be unfair if it occurs for one of a variety of reasons, including if it results wholly or mainly from the employee's trade union membership or activities, where the times at which the employee engages in such activities are either outside working hours or are at those times during working hours when permitted by the employer.

The Acts provide a system of redress whereby complaints may be referred either to a rights commissioner of the Labour Relations Commission or, if such a hearing is objected to by either of the parties, to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. No complaints of this nature have been received by the Labour Relations Commission with regard to the Gleeson Group.

I urge the parties involved to have regard to the availability of the industrial relations dispute resolution bodies to assist them in seeking a settlement in this dispute. Even what often appears to be the most intractable of disputes is capable of resolution where both sides engage constructively and in good faith in the voluntary process. The principle of good faith implies that both sides in a dispute make every effort to reach an agreement and endeavour, through genuine and constructive negotiations, to resolve their differences.

Ireland's system of industrial relations is voluntary in nature and responsibility for the resolution of industrial disputes between employers and workers rests with the employer, the workers and their representatives. The State provides the industrial relations dispute settlement to support parties in their efforts to resolve their differences.

Senator Landy may ask a brief supplementary question.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. By way of clarification on a number of matters in his reply, I understand that no redundancy payments have been sought by the Gleeson Group from the Department of Social Protection. Would the Minister of State agree that the fact that the Gleeson Group has not sought the portion of redundancy payments that a company in normal circumstances would be entitled to, in itself, is an admission that it is wrong in what it did. Under normal procedures, the group would have applied in the normal way for the money and would have been given it without any questioning. Given that we have highlighted this matter, through the Minister of State's Department, to the Department of Social Protection and the facts surrounding this case, I sincerely hope that the relevant Department will not pay any portion of the redundancy payments until such time as this case goes in front of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, an application for which has been applied for by the workers' union. I seek clarity on those two issues. The matter has been sent for hearing and I ask the Minister of State, through his office, to ensure no payment is made to this company. Putting it bluntly, it would be a slap in the face to every trade union member in this country and every taxpayer who funds the payments if the Gleeson Group was allowed to get this 15% of the redundancy money by allowing it to apply after sacking these workers because they are trade union members. I ask the Minister of State to watch that space for me and those involved and ensure that nothing happens until the appeal has been heard at the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

The reply states that the Department has informed me that it has no record of having received any claim against the Gleeson Group to date. No doubt the Minister will respond directly to the Senator on this issue as well. That is the current position.

Asylum Seeker Accommodation

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, to the House.

The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, of the Department of Justice and Equality is responsible for the accommodation of asylum seekers in accordance with the Government policy of direct provision. According to RIA's latest monthly report, that of June 2012, there were 4,900 people in its live system, that is, living in direct provision accommodation centres throughout Ireland. Of this number, 1,723 were children. Of this number, 907 were children between the ages of 17 and five, and 816 were aged four years and younger.

The Minister, Deputy Shatter, is very aware of the Irish Refugee Council’s report entitled, State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion: The case of children in accommodation for asylum-seekers, published on 18 September last. The report paints a bleak and worrying picture about the treatment and care of children in direct provision accommodation. It documents frequent instances of poverty, malnutrition and dietary related illnesses among young children in Ireland.

The findings of the IRC report are very much in keeping with the concerns raised by the Government's Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in his 2011 report, in which he highlighting "the specific vulnerability of children accommodated in the ... Direct Provision and the potential or actual harm which is being created by the particular circumstances of their residence including the inability of parents to properly care for and protect their children ...".

Dr. Shannon has also expressed concern about the "real risk" of child abuse in direct provision accommodation where single parent families are required to share with strangers and where families with teenage children of opposite gender are required to share one room. He cited, in support of his concern, the case of a 14 year old girl in a centre in Mayo who became pregnant by a male resident in the same centre in September 2011.

Given the parallels between Dr Shannon and the IRC's respective supports, I was surprised by the tenor of the response on behalf of the Minister to my colleague Senator Ó Clochartaigh’s recent Adjournment motion that the IRC's findings and contentions simply "seems unlikely".

That said, I welcome that the Minister has directed that the report be comprehensively examined and any issues arising be addressed. I welcome in particular his directing that issues relating to child welfare be dealt with without delay. I would be interested to hear from the Minister about the logistics for this comprehensive examination, who will carry it out and when we can expect a report.

What we cannot lose sight of when we are talking about children in direct provision accommodation is the fundamental premise that a child is a child. Irrespective of country of origin and regardless of the application status of the parent or parents, the welfare and protection of children must always be at the forefront of what we do.

It is timely to be debating this Adjournment motion on the same evening as we passed Second Stage of the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012. In recent years the Oireachtas has spent significant time discussing horrific reports about the institutional abuse of children.

To get to the point of my question, what I am genuinely concerned about is that our treatment of children in direct provision accommodation will become our shameful report of the future. Like many others, I am doing my best to ensure this does not happen.

At this juncture, I will limit my questions to the following. Can the Minister confirm the number of children living in direct provision accommodation who have been born in Ireland or born to an Irish parent? Are the HIQA national standards for the protection and welfare of children for Health Service Executive children and family services, published in July 2012, applicable to children in direct provision accommodation?

I understand the RIA's child and family services unit is responsible for the monitoring and implementation of the RIA's child protection policy and does so in close partnership with the HSE child protection and welfare service nationally. I note, in particular, the standards stipulates that "Child protection and welfare services provided on behalf of statutory service providers are monitored for compliance with legislation, regulations, national child protection and welfare policy and standards". Features to meet the requirements of the Standard include:

3.4.1 Formalised agreements are in place for the provision of child protection and welfare services for children and families, which are sourced externally.

3.4.2 Formalised agreements include the scope of service provided, resources required to deliver the service, monitoring and governance arrangements, including compliance with national policy, Children First and relevant standards.

3.4.3 External service providers are monitored on a regular basis to assure the service provided to children and families is compliant with legislation, regulations, these Standards and national policy.

The national standards for the protection and welfare of children clearly apply to direct provision accommodation. However, in preparing for this debate I contacted HIQA and the RIA and nobody could assert this for me. I would like to know what arrangements are in place for the inspection of direct provision accommodation centres in accordance with these standards.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue, to which I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter.

The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, of the Department of Justice and Equality is responsible for the accommodation of asylum seekers in accordance with the Government's policy of direct provision and dispersal. Standard 3.4 of HIQA's national standards states as follows:

Child protection and welfare services provided on behalf of statutory service providers are monitored for compliance with legislation, regulations, national child protection and welfare policy and standards.

These HIQA standards apply to the HSE children and family services or any subsequent agency which will take on the HSE's statutory functions under section 3 of the Child Care Act 1991. These functions include protecting and promoting the welfare of children at risk in the community and supporting and protecting children in the care of the State. Children living in the direct provision system are not in the care of the State. All live in a family context and their parents or guardians have primary responsibility for their care and welfare. Neither does the RIA accommodate unaccompanied minors; they are in the care of the HSE. While HIQA standards do not apply directly to the RIA, they apply to the HSE children and family services in the context of its role in dealing with children living in the direct provision system who are referred to it. Such referrals can be made under the RIA's child protection policy but may also be made by, for example, general practitioners, teachers, etc. Responsibility for child and family services is assigned to a specific unit in the RIA, the child and family services unit, the role of which is to manage, deliver, co-ordinate, monitor and plan all matters relating to child and family services for all asylum seekers residing in the direct provision system and to act as a conduit between the RIA and the HSE and, where necessary, the Garda.

The RIA and the HSE co-operate closely in meeting the needs of residents, particularly children, in all centres. Discussions take place through inter-agency meetings, health liaison officer meetings, medical screening service meetings, working groups on matters such as healthy infant feeding guidelines, child protection, psychological and other health service groups. The RIA has a child protection policy, based on the HSE's Children First national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children. This policy is being updated in line with the recently revised HSE's Children First policy published in July 2011. All staff working in RIA centres are Garda vetted and trained in the RIA child protection policy. The RIA takes its role regarding the welfare of children and vulnerable adults very seriously. It is satisfied that its child protection policies comply with all national standards and policies.

It is a difficult and complex matter to definitively establish, particularly in the short time involved, the number of Irish citizen children living in the direct provision system. In a recent report by an NGO it was described as a considerable number, but there is no evidence that this is so. In fact, the likelihood is that the cohort involved is extremely small. The number of people being accommodated in the direct provision system is just under 5,000 in 36 centres throughout the State.

The principal difficulty is that it is common for asylum seeker families to have a child born while residing in the direct provision system. In some cases, the parents concerned may have a mistaken belief their child is an Irish citizen by dint of being born here. However, this clearly is not so, as since 1 January 2005 there is no automatic right to Irish citizenship. Some parents in this circumstance do not make an asylum application on behalf of the child and the exact nationality of the child only becomes definitively known when such an application is made, sometimes arising from, for example, a deportation order issuing against the rest of the family or the institution of legal proceedings. From a practical point of view, the RIA must continue to accommodate that child with his or her family, notwithstanding the uncertainty over the child's nationality or asylum status. The Minister has asked his immigration officials to examine this statistical issue in more detail and communicate further with the Senator in the matter.

I will pursue this issue. The standards should apply to these centres, as the RIA is a statutory agency. I do not agree with the interpretation put forward, but I will pursue it with the Minister. Equally, when he seeks the numbers of children from me - I note the date of January 2005 - I will point out that, potentially, children over the age of seven years are Irish citizen children but because of the status of their parents are residing in the direct provision system. I encourage colleagues to visit the direct provision centres. We talk about the Ryan report and what society knew what was happening in the past. It is happening in direct provision centres, on which the report in 20 years time will be shocking and damning if we do not do something now. The Minister is a very strong defender of children's rights and child protection, which is why I raise the issue.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 3 October 2012.