Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Questions (78, 79, 81, 82)

Clare Daly

Question:

78. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will end the policy of wage curtailment, which has meant that the wages of many special needs assistants in primary schools have been reduced due to new contracts based on a 32 hour week; and if he will implement clear and direct procedures for solving disputes over wages. [42650/13]

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Clare Daly

Question:

79. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Education and Skills if the 32 hour benchmark currently used is an appropriate mechanism for determining the salaries of special needs assistants in the majority of schools. [42651/13]

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Clare Daly

Question:

81. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will end the ambiguity faced by special needs assistants in dealing with three different entities when seeking redress regarding contract disputes; and if he will implement clear and direct procedures for resolving disputes over the payment of wages. [42653/13]

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Clare Daly

Question:

82. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Education and Skills in the case where it is determined that his Department has overpaid special needs assistants, if he will ensure there is an amnesty for those in receipt of such payments while a fairer and more equitable contract system is implemented. [42654/13]

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Written answers (Question to Education)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 78, 79, 81 and 82 together.

All of these questions relate to Special Needs Assistants (SNAs). In relation to SNA contracts, the position is that the standard contract for SNAs was agreed by this Department, the Trade Unions (IMPACT and SIPTU) representing SNAs and the Management Bodies in 2005. This standard contract has not been amended recently nor are there any current plans to amend the standard SNA contract.

In that context, the position on working hours for SNAs is that there are no nationally set working hours for full-time SNAs. The working week for SNAs is defined in paragraph 2.5 of their contract as follows: "You will be required to work normal classroom hours including class break periods and in addition to attend before and after school in order to help with the preparation and tidying up of classrooms, reception and dispersal of children etc. The hours of work will normally be from [xxxx] to [xxxx] daily during term time."

This standard contract has been designed to be flexible to cater for the different spectrum of working hours across all the various schools including primary, post-primary and special schools. No set hours were agreed but instead, full-time SNAs are expected to work for the normal school hours in the school that they are working in, and in addition to be available for a period of time before and after school in order to help with reception and dispersal of children and preparation and tidying up of classrooms etc. These times are set locally by the school management and will vary from school to school depending on the requirements of the school.

Furthermore, all SNAs were required to be available for a number of days at the start and finish of each school term not exceeding 12 in total. Under the Croke Park Agreement it was agreed to introduce greater flexibility to the use of these 12 days. These 12 days now equate to 72 hours (pro-rata for part-time SNAs) to be used by schools as an additional bank of hours to be utilised and delivered outside of normal school opening hours and/or the normal school year. SNAs who are employed in a part-time capacity are paid a pro-rata amount dependent upon their level of hours of employment. Part-time SNAs are paid on the agreed divisor rate for pay purposes for part-time SNAs which is 32 hours.

In relation to the suggestion that the agreed working hours/working week for an SNA should be altered and-or that there is a policy of wage curtailment being pursued in respect of SNAs the position is as follows. The Deputy will be aware that a new set of proposals for a public service agreement were put forward by the Labour Relations Commission which now form the Public Service Stability Agreement 2013-2016 (the Haddington Road Agreement). Two of the key aspects of this Agreement relate to working hours for all public servants and remuneration, increments and related balancing measures. The measures in respect of remuneration, increments and related balancing measures for SNAs were given effect in DES Circular 34/2013 which issued on 27 June 2013 and which is available on the Department's website at the following address: http://www.education.ie/en/Circulars-and-Forms/Active-Circulars/cl0034_2013.pdf

The specific text of the Haddington Road Agreement relating to working hours for SNAs is as follows:

SPECIAL NEEDS ASSISTANTS Hours Under the terms of the Public Service Agreement 2010-2014, discussions took place that led to agreement on changed attendance arrangements for Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) that give schools the option of an additional two hours working time per week from each Special Needs Assistant. Under the terms of this Agreement on increased working hours in the Public Service, the available requirements in schools for additional hours for SNAs is quite limited. Given issues such as the duration of the school day and operation hours, and the specific availability of individual SNAs the details of the utilisation of any additional requirements should be the subject of further discussions. These new attendance arrangements, allied to the provisions outlined in the above paragraph should be the subject of a review by the LRC in advance of the 2013/2014 school year, involving the Department of Education and Skills and IMPACT/SIPTU, in order to assess if the additional hours are being utilised in the most effective and appropriate manner and in order to achieve agreement on any changes deemed necessary in terms of the arrangement agreed for teachers. This will constitute the liability on Special Needs Assistants in respect of working hours for the purposes of this extension to the Public Service Agreement.

As the LRC proposals which formed the Haddington Road Agreement are part of a wider public-sector pay agreement that represent compromises by both employers and unions, I do not have the ability to alter the terms of that agreement. If an individual SNA has a dispute over their salary, and if they are a Department paid SNA, then in the first instance they should raise the matter directly with the NTS Payroll section of my Department who have responsibility for the payment of SNAs on the Departmental payroll. An SNA employed by an Education and Training Board should raise the matter directly with their own employer.

In respect of the point made regarding overpayments of salary the position is that such overpayments occur for numerous reasons and the recoupment of overpayments is dealt with in line with my Department's published policy and procedures for dealing with Overpayments of Salary (DES circular 15/04 which is available on the Department's website at the following address http://www.education.ie/en/Circulars-and-Forms/Active-Circulars/pay15_04.pdf). The occurrence of overpayments is avoidable and with co-operation, the inconvenience caused to staff members in such situations can be alleviated. It is acknowledged that it may not always be possible for school management-staff members to provide the Department with the required written notification in advance. In that instance, it should be possible to contact the Department directly - by phone or e-mail; thereby lessening the risk of the staff member concerned being overpaid.