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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 25 Jun 2014

Vol. 232 No. 8

Adjournment Matters

Teacher Redeployment

I apologise for the delay as I was attending an Oireachtas justice committee meeting. I tabled this motion on foot of an e-mail I received from an independent candidate who stood in the local elections in Clare who came across this issue regarding seven teachers in Clare. Those teachers have been teaching for a number of years but find that they are neither on a panel nor a supplementary panel at this stage. It seems grossly unfair, in light of the facts available, that such a position should be allowed continue. I am not quite sure of the circumstances and why these teachers have not been accepted either to a panel or supplementary panel. There may be an issue concerning the teaching of Irish but such matters can be resolved where there is a willingness to do so.

I am sure the issue is not unique to teachers in County Clare and it is reflected in other counties as well. Nationally, there is a problem in the placing of young teachers coming out of college who are trying to advance their teaching practice, and there is an ongoing issue with teachers needing six months of consistent teaching experience in order to fulfil training requirements within the education programme and finding they cannot, through no fault of their own and having done countless interviews, find such experience. The competition for the places is at such a level that many candidates do not seem to be able to secure the six months of practice. A couple of things must happen in that regard. The educational institutions which provide teaching must consider the easing of requirements, for example.

There are seven teachers in Clare whose lives are on hold because of this issue. I understand they have contacted the Department and the office of the Minister, Deputy Quinn, who is fully aware of the circumstances. Where there is a willingness to resolve a problem to everyone's satisfaction, it can happen when there is engagement between two parties. I apologise to the Minister of State as the Adjournment matter are being heard earlier than we expected, and I was attending a committee meeting at the time.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline for the House the arrangements for filling permanent teaching posts in our schools. Vacancies are filled in the first instance through the redeployment of surplus permanent teachers and this is the core function of the redeployment arrangements. The redeployment of all surplus permanent teachers is key to the Department's ability to manage within its payroll budget and ceiling on teacher numbers. Thereafter, schools are required under the panel arrangements to fill permanent vacancies from supplementary panels comprising eligible fixed-term and part-time teachers. When the supplementary panel process concludes, any remaining permanent vacancies are then filled by open recruitment through the standard advertising process.

Department circular 57/2013 was published last autumn and it set out the criteria that fixed-term and part-time teachers must meet for gaining access to the supplementary panel. The criteria include a requirement to be fully registered with the Teaching Council and be probated to work in all settings. The Teaching Council is responsible for procedures and criteria for the probation of teachers. In accordance with the council's current arrangements, where a primary teacher is employed and probated in a restricted setting, such as a special class, the probationary process is considered to be partially carried out and the teacher's registration will remain subject to the condition of probation. It is open to such teachers who complete the probationary process in a restricted setting, and who wish to complete the probationary process in full, to do so when they are teaching in a mainstream setting. Teachers who complete probation in a restricted setting are not subject to any time limit to complete probation in mainstream settings. This is the position applying to the teachers to whom the Senator refers. The teachers were not therefore given access to the supplementary panel.

It is open to the teachers to apply for fixed-term mainstream positions that are being filled by open recruitment through the public advertisement process. There are many such positions currently being advertised on the website Working in such positions would give the teachers an opportunity to get probated to work in a mainstream setting. This would enable them to gain access in the future to the supplementary panel, assuming they meet the other standard criteria as well. I hope this has helped to clarify the position for the Senator.

I thank the Minister of State for clarifying the matter.

The reality is that teachers who have been teaching for a number of years in particular environments are not guaranteed to be successful in the open recruitment process. I acknowledge that a time period is not put on teachers fulfilling the probation period, but fairness must apply and after a certain period has elapsed it is important for a person's confidence and self-esteem that the probationary period should come to an end. It would be the same as employing somebody as an apprentice whose apprenticeship continued to be renewed and they never progressed beyond it.

There is no provision for a speech.

If you could just hang on for a moment, a Chathaoirligh. I ask the Minister of State to request the Teaching Council to review the procedures.

The Teaching Council is charged with ensuring that we have the very highest standards applying in the teaching profession in this country, thus giving our children the maximum possible opportunity to benefit from their educational experience. The Teaching Council is responsible for the procedures and criteria for the probation of teachers. It is an independent, autonomous entity operating within guidelines underpinned by legislation passed through the Houses of the Oireachtas. At the moment, teachers in the situation referred to by Senator Conway, are currently working in what is described by the Teaching Council as a restricted setting, which does not allow them to complete the probationary process in full. If we were to do what Senator Conway suggests it would then mean having to change the criterion for the entire teaching profession. It is my understanding that the Teaching Council does not think that is in the best interests of the teaching profession or of students. I have much sympathy for teachers operating in such a difficult environment but for the moment the only opportunity available to them is to seek work in what one would describe as a mainstream setting and to complete the probationary process in such a setting, thus allowing them access to the full supplementary panel.

Medical Indemnity Cover

I apologise for dragging the Minister back again so soon.

He has been in the Chamber three or four times this week. A number of people from the medical profession have been in contact with me. Some of them are members of organisations within the medical profession and others are individual medical consultants. The problem lies with the Medical Protection Society, MPS, which is a non-profit organisation that provides insurance for those in private practice. My understanding is that because the number of claims has increased, insurance premia are to rise substantially.

I received a telephone call this morning from someone in the MPS in the UK. I also received an e-mail. It appears that the claims environment for private hospital consultants has deteriorated significantly in the past two years with actuarial estimates of the cost of indemnity per member increasing by more than 90%. That is a result of large increases in both the rate at which hospital consultants are being sued and the average size of the claims. Regrettably, that means the cost of subscriptions must rise to reflect the increasing risk.

The MPS is a non-profit mutual organisation owned by and accountable to members. As I understand it, the capping at the moment for obstetrics, spinal surgery and neurosurgery is €565,000 and for most other areas it is around €1.13 million. Those who approached me said it would be helpful if it is possible to reduce the capping in order to bring some kind of order to what is going on. I understand that from 1 July, insurance for some people in the private sector will be as high as €97,000 and in some cases might rise to more than €100,000. One might argue that medical consultants charge large fees but there are other costs in addition to insurance. One person said recently that it cost them approximately €250,000 per annum before any income is earned.

It is costing on average approximately €250,000 per annum before they have any income, which is a problem.

The other issue that has been highlighted to me is that 41% of elective surgery is carried out by those in private practice. Any reduction in the level of private practice available has the knock-on effect of that having to be dealt with by public hospitals which puts increased pressure on them. I am raising the issue in that context. I know the MPS has had discussions with the State Claims Agency and the Department of Health. However, I tabled this on the Adjournment because the matter is being revised on 1 July.

The indemnity caps for medical consultants in private practice were introduced, with Government approval, in February 2004, following the migration into the State's clinical indemnity scheme, CIS, of hospital consultants engaged in public practice. With the establishment of the CIS, the medical defence organisations, such as the Medical Protection Society and the Medical Defence Union, had a significantly diminished income stream to meet the cost of future claims. Without the caps, indemnity subscription rates of consultants in whole-time private practice would have been greatly increased.

Under the cap scheme the State's clinical indemnity scheme covers claims over a certain cap or amount against private consultants arising from adverse clinical events occurring after 1 February 2004 in private hospitals. In July 2013, the Government agreed to continue to provide the cap scheme for another five-year period. It was also agreed that the caps would continue to be adjusted annually from 1 July 2014 in line with the consumer price index. The present cap rates are as follows: for obstetricians, neurosurgeons and orthopaedic surgeons undertaking spinal surgery €565,000 per claim, including damages and legal costs, subject to annual aggregate limit of €1.695 million per consultant; and for all other specialties, the limit is €1.13 million per claim, including damages and legal costs, with no aggregate limit.

The Medical Protection Society provides indemnity cover to the majority of medical consultants in Ireland. The MPS has notified the Department that it faces major challenges in maintaining a solvent indemnity fund for its Irish consultants and without an increase in premiums this year its income from premiums will not match its liabilities. It notified its members earlier this month that the membership fee for indemnity would increase by an average of around 42% for all members. The Department has been informed that approximately 1,000 consultants are affected - 350 in full time private practice and the rest have B consultant contracts which allows them part-time off-site private practice.

The cost of Irish clinical negligence claims is much higher than the cost in the UK. A major problem is the long period that it takes before Irish cases come to trial. This results in significant increases in awards and in legal costs. Legislation is being drafted by the Department of Justice and Equality to address various pre-trial aspects of litigation but the impact of a change in legislation on awards will not be seen for a number of years.

The Irish Hospital Consultants Association is seeking a reduction in the caps for low-risk specialties and for high-risk specialties in order to reduce the level of the increase in premiums for its members. It argues that if this is not done, consultants may be forced out of business, while others may pass on the increase to patients.

Changes cannot be made in the short term without an in-depth actuarial analysis of the impact of any change on the financial risk to the State of such change. The State Claims Agency, which manages the clinical indemnity scheme, has commissioned this analysis. Discussions are under way between Department officials and the State Claims Agency in this regard. Officials from my Department have also met representatives of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association and the Medical Protection Society about the issue.

It took months of consideration and assessment before the Government agreed in 2013 to the continuation of the caps and the Government decision stressed that a value-for-money review should be undertaken before any change was made to the scheme. At a time of huge financial pressure on the public system any change to the caps system for the consultants in private practice must be carefully considered and a Government decision would be needed to effect such change.

When I was contacted, I was advised that the MPS might withdraw from providing cover in Ireland - that occurred in Australia. A representative of that organisation telephoned me this morning to clarify that it did not intend to withdraw from providing insurance cover in Ireland. However, that also happened with the Medical Defence Union when it withdrew from Ireland, which left its own problems. We need to be careful on this matter. There is concern that any reduction in the level of services being provided in the private sector will result in the public sector having to pick up the pieces. We need to bear in mind that 41% of all elective surgery is done by medical consultants working in a private capacity. This needs to be given serious consideration given the pressures within the sector at the moment and given the number of consultant vacancies in the HSE.

On the last matter, we have more consultants working here than ever before. There are a couple of hundred more than there were in 2008.

On the substantive issue, it would require a Government decision to enact any changes in this. We are awaiting the outcome of the actuarial study that is being undertaken. I thank the Senator for raising the matter.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 June 2014.