As I understand it, we are addressing the definition of "new entrant" in section 1, the interpretation section. It states "new entrant" shall be read in accordance with section 2. In anticipation, Deputy Burton has dealt with many of the arguments which will arise. She made a political charge that I was new to what she described as an "escapade". I had a substantial "escapade" in Seanad Éireann in which I piloted the Bill through all Stages. I will address the merits of the points raised by Deputies.
The definition of "new entrant" is found in section 2. The guiding principle and heart of the Bill is that a "new entrant" is a person appointed as a public servant, as defined in the Bill, on or after 1 April 2004. I am glad to agree with Deputy Burton that its provisions will, for practical purposes, begin to click in around 2044 for most public servants. The new arrangements will not apply to public servants serving on 31 March. The commission did not propose a three month gap, rather it stated there should be a due date on which this arrangement should be put in place. The Minister gave notice that 1 April would be the due date. Therefore, there has been ample time to make plans on foot of the proposals he announced in his Budget Statement last winter.
A broad scope has been given to the word "serving". The general principle is that anyone who has an employment relationship with the public service on 31 March will not be deemed to be a new entrant. This means that staff on paid or unpaid leave or on secondment from public service bodies will not be regarded as new entrants on their return. It also means that a person who has received a written offer of employment before 1 April but has not yet taken up duty will not be regarded as a new entrant. It further means that persons admitted to training in the Garda college before 1 April will not be regarded as new entrants on completion of their training.
While I welcome and acknowledge the specific provision for members of the Garda Síochána, Deputy Burton regrets and criticises the fact that primary teachers and members of other professions now in training have not been included within the ambit of the section. The difficulty the Minister had in addressing these issues was presented by the employment relationship which is fundamental to the definition of "new entrant".
In the case of a person training in the Garda college there is an implied contract of future employment in the Garda Síochána, subject to satisfactory completion of training. This is not the case in respect of a person in a teacher training college or a student teacher undertaking the higher diploma in education in a higher education college or a person undergoing a degree course in nursing. In all these instances there is no contractual commitment, no undertaking to engage the person. For this reason, the Minister has not extended the category beyond the Garda Síochána.
Garda members enrolled for training in Templemore are seconded and perform the tasks and duties of peace officers in the field with Garda units as part of their training. Equally, the Garda Commissioner has the final say on whether they pass out. Once in the college, they are assimilated for all purposes into the force and there is an implied contract that they will be engaged on satisfactory completion of their training. This is an unusual status beyond that of the other groups to which the Deputy referred. I understand and share to some extent her concern about them but the Minister gave due notice of this provision in his Budget Statement which he decided to bring into operation on 1 April. This gave those already in the service a substantial period within which to plan for the future.
Staff employed in the public service in a temporary or seasonal capacity will not be regarded as new entrants if they resume duty within the same employment relationship. There are certain categories of public servant who will not be engaged in actual duties on 31 March but specific provision has been made for them to ensure the legislation does not mean a cesser of their employment relationship.
I am going through the definition in detail because it is at the heart of the drafting of this measure and based on the employment relationship. Many of the decisions about the drafting and the amendments which will be argued and discussed today turn on the fundamental distinction in an employment relationship, namely, whether there is an employment relationship and whether there is a right which we must safeguard and accommodate in legislation or a mere expectation. Understandably, Opposition members will argue for the expectations of groups not referred to in the measure. However, none of them is in an employment relationship.
Provision has been made to ensure any serving public servant who leaves employment and subsequently returns within a period of 26 weeks will not be regarded as a new entrant. The stipulated period of 26 weeks reflects analogous provisions in employment law generally. For the purposes of mobility, staff serving in the public sector on 31 March who subsequently take up another appointment in the public service will not be regarded as new entrants.
Deputy Bruton raised the general question of that period and was unhappy with its short duration. However, the fact remains there is a fundamental distinction between resignation and leave of absence, paid or unpaid. In the case of leave of absence, paid or unpaid, there is no final intention to cease or end the employment relationship with the public service. However, in regard to the category to which Deputy Richard Bruton referred, in respect of which he argued that a public servant should have a right of re-entry into the public service as an old entrant rather than under the new terms prescribed in this legislation, such a person would have resigned from the service. There would have been a final dissolution or termination of the employment relationship. Presumably such a decision is not taken lightly and is weighed up by the person concerned before he or she takes it. Under existing arrangements, such a decision has serious implications for pension arrangements. I take it that such a person would be aware of those before he or she would make a decision to resign from the public service. Deputy Richard Bruton is arguing that we should make a further special provision for this particular group of public servants and exempt them from the recommendations of the commission before us.
I am aware of the views of some of the public service unions. Discussions have taken place between officials of the Department of Finance and the unions on this issue. In drafting the legislation, the Minister has been as sensitive as possible to the unions' concerns in regard to the definition of new entrant. He is confident that the definition contained in the Bill is fair, sensible and workable. The approach adopted is a balanced one, allowing for a reasonable interim period within the overall context of a clear and practical definition. Account has been taken of the position of part-time, temporary, seasonal and contract staff.
Deputy Richard Bruton also referred to the provision that was made for Members of the Oireachtas and Ministers and said that an analogy should be drawn from that in these provisions and in the definition of a new entrant. There is a fundamental distinction in that regard. The great bulk of Members of the Oireachtas do not voluntarily resign from office or membership of the Houses. Having regard to the differences relating to security of tenure, it was considered appropriate to make a specific provision for public representatives. We will not develop that point in the present company, but we are well aware of experiences in this regard, and we may return to this point during the discussion.
The Minister would not accept the proposition that doctors and teachers have no clout or that he should have no regard for them. I must defend him on this matter; he has had an ambitious view about our public service pension arrangements. That is a matter of public record. He put in place the national pension reserve fund. He is conscious of the long-term implications of what we do today. The Minister has shown an insight and a concern, which is not often found in public figures, about what will happen not only this year or next year but in 20, 30 or 40 years' time when many of us will not grace these chambers.
Deputy Richard Bruton has raised a serious point. The discussion on a new entrant touched on the Second Stage debate. There is a fundamental issue here, as the Minister said in his reply to the Second Stage debate in the Dáil, we cannot continue with the status quo. The commission was asked to do a job. It did it and made a recommendation. It made a general recommendation in regard to pensionable age and it made a number of other recommendations, to which Deputy Burton referred and with which I would like to deal.
As indicated by the Minister for Finance in his budget speech, it is hoped to introduce additional changes as recommended by the pension commission. The officials in the Department of Finance are in discussions with trade union representatives on various items. These include the commission's recommendations on pro rata pensions for part-time employees and the reckoning of the best three consecutive years in the ten years preceding retirement in the case of variable pensionable allowances. There was a core recommendation of the commission in regard to pensionable age. It made another core recommendation which the Minister did not accept following consultation with the public service unions. However, the core recommendation regarding pensionable age is at the core of this measure. It is a recommendation that the Minister believes is in the public interest to put forward at this stage.
An important point was raised by Deputy Burton, which was also indirectly touched on by Deputy Bruton, namely, the question of burn-out. Special arrangements must be arrived at from time to time in regard to particular classes or categories of public servants. Under this Bill, there is no change in the current practices that obtain in that area and for the future there is a legislative foundation for such arrangements to be agreed through negotiation, if required.