Topical Issue Debate

Courts Service Issues

I appreciate this Topical Issue being selected for debate.

I am very concerned at the apparent policy of centralisation of court services being pursued by the Courts Service and its buildings sub-committee. The most recent decision by the board on 1 July will see two further courthouses being closed in County Mayo, in Swinford and Ballyhaunis, bringing to ten the number of courthouses closed in the county since 2000. The administration of these courts and the court sittings are being transferred centrally to the courthouse in Castlebar for the stated reason that there are better facilities in Castlebar courthouse and there is a holding cell there. If these are the criteria - I understand there are several other items which I will address - all District Courts and all courthouses in County Mayo will shut down and all of the work will be transferred to Castlebar where the investment has been made in the courthouse.

What is the State saving? In Ballyhaunis and Swinford there are 24 hour Garda stations, but now gardaí will be required to travel a distance to Castlebar and spend their time, a day perhaps, sitting around the District Court and will then have to travel some distance back to their towns. They will not be able to attend to their policing duties as easily or readily as if they were attending the District Court in their own towns as they have been doing to date. What is being saved in the way of resources and policing hours when one considers that gardaí will have to travel? That is not to mention, first and foremost, the question of accessibility to District Courts and courthouses in the county. As in many other counties and District Court areas that serve large dispersed rural populations, public transport is a major problem in County Mayo. It is all very well to have a court case running, but if one does not have a car and cannot get into court, or meet one's legal representative beforehand, one is in difficulties. This is a very real and serious issue which is often not appreciated in bigger urban centres where public transport is more readily accessible.

What consultation is ongoing? I have no doubt that some consultation has taken place and the reasons have been given for preferring Castlebar. Why are the administration of Swinford District Court and the court sittings being moved to Castlebar? This work is being done in Ballina District Court office. This office holds all of the liquor licensing files and all other files pertaining to the operation of Swinford District Court. I have spoken to stakeholders there, including local gardaí, solicitors practising in the District Court and other interested parties, including representatives of the Mayo Solicitors Bar Association. The general feeling is that there is already a very good working relationship between the District Court staff in Ballina and the Swinford area and as they are already doing this work. Why centralise it in Castlebar, unless to undermine the Ballina District Court office and in pursuit of a centralisation policy?

I know that the Courts Service will claim that it looks into issues of public transport, but I cannot believe that is a very real and urgent consideration for it, given the number of rural courthouses it closes down. In this case I am aware that there are considerably more Bus Éireann services - the public transport services available - between Ballina and Swinford because they are on the same N26 national primary Ballina-Dublin route than there are between Swinford and Castlebar. Equally, the new administrative and local authority area sees Swinford being included with Ballina, while much of the Garda district area in Swinford is also being subsumed into the Ballina district. This does not make sense on any score.

In respect of the holding cell, mentioned in connection with Castlebar, there is a state-of-the-art Garda station just around the corner, where all prisoners and people required to be detained in custody can be satisfactorily held. One of the fundamental tenets of the District Court and the way it operates is that it should be accessible to the people of an area and administered locally.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and appreciate her interest in the matter of court services in rural counties, particularly in County Mayo. As she may be aware, under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, the management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service and I have no role in the matter. Section 4(3) of the 1998 Act provides that the Courts Service is independent in the performance of its functions which, of course, include the provision, maintenance and management of court buildings.

The Deputy will be aware that the Courts Service has been reviewing all aspects of its organisational and operational structures throughout the country with the specific objective of ensuring front-line court services can be maintained. I am informed that all venues were included in this aspect of the review. In the context of the review, a number of venues were identified to be considered for closure, subject to a detailed assessment and the preparation of a business case.

The service established a general framework within which such venues were assessed taking into account a range of criteria such as caseload, proximity to an alternative venue, physical condition of the building, availability of cells, etc. The likely impact on other justice agencies, such as an Garda Síochána and the Prison Service, is also taken into account. Consultation processes are carried out in each case and among those consulted are the Judiciary, the local Bar Association, an Garda Síochána, the Prison Service, the Probation Service and the relevant town council.

In line with the process, the building committee of the Courts Service board considered outcomes and recommended a number of closures to the board. As part of the consultation process, all those who had been consulted previously were informed of the recommendation of the building committee and were invited to make further submissions which would be placed before the full board for consideration. I am informed these submissions, together with all previous submissions, have been taken into account in the decision-making process.

As the Deputy is aware, the board recently approved the closure of a number of courthouse venues. At its meeting on 1 July 2013, the board approved the closure of venues at Birr, Edenderry, Clones, Swinford, Ballyhaunis, Kinsale, Baltinglass and Kells. I am informed a decision regarding the future of Skibbereen was deferred until the autumn.

The business normally transacted at those venues will be transferred to alternative venues in adjoining District Court areas. It is anticipated all of the venues will formally close on or before 1 January 2014. As already stated, the board is independent under statute in regard to these matters and it is not open to me as Minister to influence the outcome of the deliberations of the independent board.

It was a decision made by the board that the Swinford court work be transferred to Castlebar. The Courts Service fully examined the alternatives available to it and this decision was made having examined those alternatives.

The Courts Service, like all other areas in my Department, has been affected by the cutback in funding available. Each service provider, including the Courts Service, is under an obligation to see what action it can take to ensure expenditures are reduced and appropriate savings are made. The Courts Service had a reduction of €800,000 in its 2013 allocation. I am anticipating that there will be a further reduction in the funding available for 2014.

In that context, it is important for the Courts Service to review existing court centres, the manner in which justice is administered and how savings can be effected while providing the most modern court facilities for the benefit of the public within the limited funding available. I am sorry I cannot be of greater assistance to the Deputy in this matter. Ultimately, these are decisions to be made by the Courts Service.

What savings are being achieved with having gardaí 15 miles away from their station attending a District Court elsewhere and the drain on policing resources that stems from that? I accept savings have to be made. However, consultation with local stakeholders is not meaningful because the grounds for the decision do not resonate with any stakeholders involved. I have sought clarification from the Minister on what seems to be a centralisation policy solely based on cost-cutting measures. If this is the case, the cost for rural areas is that services will be closed down. There should be more consideration than that and recognition of realities such as the availability of public transport. There is not the same level of public transport available to Castlebar that there is to Ballina.

I have been in contact with the Courts Service and it automatically assumed the court work from Swinford would go to Castlebar with no consideration given for Ballina. I appreciate the service may look at this in light of the case I have made to it. However, it shows that the concerns of local stakeholders affected by these decisions were not taken seriously. A buildings committee sitting in Dublin has no concept of what it is to be operating in rural Ireland.

It does not matter where the Courts Service building committee sits. It is chaired by the Chief Justice and the presidents of the various courts have input into it. The Courts Service is for the whole of the country; it is not a Dublin-based committee. There was extensive consultation with stakeholders including an Garda Síochána. It is about ensuring that in the current economic climate we maintain a sound Courts Service and that people have access to it but it is done in a manner which is careful with resources. This is an obligation that, unfortunately, our predecessors were not always very conscious of in the arrangements they made on a broad range of areas.

The Government is conscious of the value of providing for an excellent courts system and has continued to provide substantial resources for the service. Last year, a Supplementary Estimate of €5 million was given to it, on top of the original net budget of €54.1 million.

No area can be exempt from the financial constraints of the past few years. While funding has been cut in common with every area within the justice sector, it has been possible to press ahead with some aspects of the capital programme by way of public private partnerships. The Government’s infrastructures stimulus package announced last year includes the development of seven new county-town courthouse projects in Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, Drogheda, Letterkenny and Mullingar. There is no question of centralising our courts in Dublin.

The board, however, has had to take unpalatable decisions to close several smaller non-viable venues elsewhere. The continuing investment in the county-town venues will facilitate the introduction of more efficient work processes, prisoner transports, allowing the other criminal justice agencies to continue to provide front-line services with reduced staffing levels that are essential nowadays.

I am conscious of the Deputy’s concern to ensure a full and proper Courts Service is available to the people of Mayo. I am committed to that too and I thank her for raising this issue. Ultimately, the final decision-makers with regard to court venues are the Courts Service. Having engaged in a consultative process, it is for it to determine what changes should be implemented with regard to court venues.

Sentencing Policy

The number of people jailed for the non-payment of fines has increased by 82% which the Minister will agree is nothing short of substantial and alarming. We as legislators must delve into this. I strongly suspect this increase is related to the economic climate. Considering the small financial quantities of some fines, why would someone bother going to jail if they had the wherewithal to pay them?

There may be another view on that issue, but it probably relates to working class people who find themselves in a bad place and if they do not have the money, they find themselves in a place where they should not be. That is something legislators should address.

We should also be concerned that 60% of all District Court cases involve road traffic offences. It is interesting that the Courts Service has called for fines for these offences to be included in road taxes. I do not know what the Minister's view on this is, but it should be explored. District Courts administer justice, yet 60% of the work relates to road traffic offences. Surely there must be another way to deal with this issue rather than jamming up court proceedings.

The issue of sentencing aggravates all citizens of the State, particularly when cases arise where the ordinary man or woman on the street recognises that there is an injustice and nowhere does it agitate people more than in the case of sentencing for sexual crimes, which are violent crimes against women. There is a difficulty with section 6 of the Criminal Justice Act 1993 which allows for compensation to be paid. Without citing recent cases with which we are familiar, this raises the question that if somebody has money and engages in this kind of dreadful act, he can buy himself out of the crime. Most citizens of the State would not agree to this, but we inherited a justice system which is not our own and we have to deal with it as it is.

I thank the Deputy for raising these important issues. As he will appreciate, judges are independent in the matter of sentencing, as in others concerning the exercise of judicial functions, subject only to the Constitution and the law. In accordance with this principle, the role of the Oireachtas has been to specify in law a maximum penalty and a court, having considered all of the circumstances of a case, imposes an appropriate penalty up to that maximum. The court is required to impose a sentence which is proportionate not only to the crime but also to the individual offender, in that process identifying where in the sentencing range the particular case should lie and then applying any mitigating factor which may be present.

From time to time, issues arise with consistency in sentencing and the sentences imposed in high profile or particularly sensitive cases. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I cannot enter public discourse on individual cases. It is ultimately for the judge to impose sentence taking into account all relevant factors. However, I draw attention to an important safeguard, the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions to apply to the Court of Criminal Appeal to review a sentence she regards as unduly lenient.

The Law Reform Commission has recently published a report on mandatory sentencing. Separately, I have established a strategic review group to consider penal policy, including sentencing policing. I expect the group to report later this year and intend to publish its report. The group will take account of the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission's report in its deliberations and both reports will be considered in due course.

I turn to the separate but related issue raised by the Deputy, that of fines. Fines are the most commonly imposed sentence in the courts and I am pleased to say that subject to the approval of the Government, the fines (payment and recovery) Bill will be published next week. The overall objective of the Bill is one that I am sure is shared by the Deputy and most in this House. That objective is to reduce and, to the greatest extent possible, eliminate the need for judges to commit anyone to prison for the non-payment of fines. Last year around 8,300 people were sent to prison for the non-payment of fines. They comprised the vast majority of those sentenced to short sentences by the courts and committed to prisons in 2012. The resources expended by all involved in the justice system is staggering, from the Judiciary to the Garda Síochána to the Courts Service to the prisons, at a time when resources are at a premium. Prison is not the answer to the non-payment of a fine, except in exceptional cases.

None of this is to say I am sanguine about the non-payment of fines. For the justice system to work, it must have the capacity to detect crime, prosecute offenders and, where they are convicted by the courts, ensure compliance with whatever sanction the courts impose. Where fines are concerned, this means collecting the fine. It is regrettably the case that a significant minority of around 30% of fines are not paid. The fines (payment and recovery) Bill seeks to address this issue in a number of ways that avoid the need to send defaulters to prison. It provides that everyone can pay a fine by instalments over 12 months and, where a person is in default, an attachment order may be made requiring his or her employer to collect the fine and pay it over to the courts. The Bill also provides that community service orders may be imposed in all cases of non-payment.

I am confident that the proposals contained in the coming Bill will achieve a significant reduction in the committal to prison for the non-payment of fines, while protecting the principle that sentences imposed by the courts must be served. Where this involves a fine, the fines payment and recovery system will strive to collect the fine either from the person's income or assets and, failing this, will impose community service on the person.

I note that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court recently suggested that where road traffic tickets were issued and not paid, that a system might be put in place to provide for the recovery of outstanding payments through road tax. This is an issue I intend to raise with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, within whose remit the Road Traffic Acts fall, with a view to seeing if a system in this area be considered and put in place. I am conscious that circumstances may arise where fixed ticket charges are issued by mistake, issued to the wrong person or someone who does not own the vehicle, or there may be extenuating circumstances. It is a more complex issue than may otherwise have been assumed, as there are many instances where proceedings may not be appropriate in respect of road traffic matters and if all tickets issued automatically attached to someone's annual road tax, justice could be done. It is a very interesting proposal to which I am giving some consideration, following discussions with the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar.

Reforming the law is a tedious and slow business, but I must acknowledge that in the short period he has been in office, it looks as if the Minister might prove to be the most reforming justice Minister in the history of the State. That is to be welcomed because the legal process needs to be changed in the modern world. We need to tackle the perception which I consider to be true that the law is in place for the better-off, not the ordinary person. I am particularly interested in the system that operates in England and Wales, in which the Sentencing Council is made up of eight judges who represent all courts and six lay people with specialist knowledge. They have the role of promoting consistency in sentencing and informing the public about the factors that are taken into account by judges in formulating sentences.

I agree with the Minister that judges have to retain discretion. I do not think the law would work without a separation between legislators and judges.

The sentencing council for England and Wales has drawn up guidelines for sentencing which outline all the factors to be taken into account when judges pass a sentence. That is a radical initiative. The guidelines are contained on a single page which judges fill out at the time of the court case and forward to the sentencing council for analysis and use in the promotion of consistency. All of us want consistency in the application of the law. I referred earlier to rape cases in which people believe they can buy their way out of sentences and the thorny issue of corporate misdemeanours and white collar crime, which we have failed to address in this country.

I thank Deputy Maloney for raising these important issues, which effectively go to the heart of our penal system and our criminal justice system. They are of interest to the public at large and have great importance to legislators on all sides of this House. It is important they remain in the spotlight and that we continue to reflect on how our criminal justice system works. I hope I have made the position clear in regard to sentencing and I look forward to receiving the report of the penal policy review group in due course.

Within the overall parameters of judicial independence, we need to ensure sentencing is coherent and consistent. Above all, confidence in the system requires that the public believe the sentence is commensurate with the crime. In many cases a sense that it is not commensurate is based on an incomplete picture. The factors taken into account by the judges are not always known to the public and, indeed, are not always reported. A more transparent system that ensures people understand the process and the factors taken into account in sentencing would help and, as I noted earlier, I intend that the Law Reform Commission report will feed into the work of the penal policy review group. I assure the Deputy I am open to any reform that improves the system.

With regard to the issue of sentencing, the Judiciary has done some work in this area. One of the items of legislation standing in line for completion is the judicial council Bill. When the Bill finally comes before the House and is enacted, I hope the judicial council might have regard for the development by the Judiciary of sentencing guidelines to assist judges in sentencing and consistency of sentencing. However, we must always remember when a judge exercises discretion in a particular case that background circumstances can substantially differentiate what may appear on the surface to be two similar cases. This is not always understood.

In regard to fines, we are genuinely on the cusp of an historic reform of the fines system that will make imprisonment for the non-payment of fines the exception rather than the rule. These are important reforms to which the Government committed in the programme for Government and it is my hope that the fines payment and recovery Bill, which is fully drafted and which I hope will be before the Cabinet next week, will be published within the next ten days. It is my objective, with the agreement of the House, that it will be enacted by Christmas and that the new regime will be in place in early 2014. The days of automatically sending those who either cannot or will not pay a fine to prison will be at an end. It is important that those who can afford to pay their fines but fail to do so understand there are consequences for such actions. These consequences may include supervised community service if circumstances are such that an attachment of earnings order may not be appropriate. This is a reform that I hope will be widely welcomed. It will make a significant difference and I look forward to a debate on that Bill taking place in the House shortly after we return from the summer vacation.

Defined Pension Benefit Schemes Issues

The problems facing the pension system in this country are manyfold. Unfortunately I will only have time in the two minutes available to me to focus on one of these problems. I suspect the reason the Minister for Social Protection is not here is that less than one month ago we told her in unmistakable terms that the 30 June deadline for the trustees of defined benefit pension schemes to submit funding proposals would not be met by most of those trustees. That has turned out to be the case. They have not submitted their proposals by the 30 June deadline because they know they have no hope of meeting the onerous funding requirements set out for them. The result is that many of them will wind up in a situation where the assets are distributed in a most unfair and patently unjust manner. When these schemes wind up, those who have already retired will get the full benefits to which they are entitled regardless of how much it will cost - it is costing a lot more now than previously - and the balance will have to be distributed among the remaining scheme members. A person who has retired, such as a chief executive with an index-linked pension of €100,000 per annum, will have his or her pension fully protected, whereas somebody who has worked for 30 years and is a few weeks or months short of retirement may get nothing.

This is not simply an academic exercise. I am currently dealing with three deferred pensioners with the TSB in Limerick, all of whom are in their late 50s. They should be entitled to pensions ranging between €22,000 and €25,000 per annum but, as a result of the wind-up of their scheme and the fact that those who are already retired have to be fully compensated, they have been told they will get amounts ranging between €4,000 and €5,000 per annum. That is a blatant injustice.

The Minister promised on a number of occasions to change the order of priority. She has allowed the 30 June deadline to elapse in full knowledge that the schemes will wind up and their assets will be distributed in this unfair manner. She made commitments in the programme for Government and the legislative programme, as well as to organisations such as ICTU and IBEC, but her indecision appears to be final. What is the reason for this paralysis? Is she going to do something, even at this late stage, to alleviate the problem these people face?

The cat is clearly out of the bag and we are now dealing with an open crisis. As Deputy O'Dea noted, however, it is not unexpected because we knew this day would come. Some 400 of these schemes have already closed over the past five years and 300 out of the 900 existing schemes have failed to meet existing standards. What this means in reality is that the reasonable expectation of tens of thousands of workers to a certain standard of living on retirement has been ripped from underneath them. What is the Government going to do about this? The delayed reaction in changing the order means that when these schemes wind up the pensioners will get everything and those still at work or making deferred contributions will get nothing.

Furthermore, many pension schemes are using the current crisis to get out of existing commitments. Examples of such schemes are the ESB and Aer Lingus. The ESB's pre-tax profits increased fourfold last year to more than €300 million. Its chief executive earns in the region of €400,000 and his predecessor earned approximately €700,000. Despite stating it cannot honour the commitments given in the ESB pension fund, it paid out a dividend. Similarly, Aer Lingus is going through a huge crisis involving thousands of workers.

There was a 40% increase in operating profit this year, with record numbers of passengers being carried, yet Aer Lingus says it cannot contribute to the pension scheme. This is not good enough. Some of these schemes are in trouble because of inappropriate regulation - which successive governments have stood over - as well as asset stripping by some of the companies and flawed accounting practices. What we want to know is what is the Government going to do to protect the livelihoods of these tens of thousands of pensioners.

First, I wish to inform Deputy O'Dea that I understand the Minister for Social Protection had another commitment from well before this matter was submitted and that is the only reason she is not here and I am. In so far as I do not answer some of the issues raised, I will ensure that she is aware of the issues the Deputy has raised.

I thank both Deputies for raising what is an important issue for many people. The persistent funding difficulties of defined benefit schemes, due to increasing life expectancy and the financial downturn, have been well recognised. Employers, unions and trustees have been making strenuous efforts to protect the viability of their schemes and many measures have been introduced to support these efforts. The funding standard for defined benefit schemes was suspended in 2008, following the downturn in the financial market, to give the trustees and sponsoring employers adequate time to assess their schemes and consider a response to improve the funding position. The reintroduction of the funding standard was then delayed on a number of occasions pending changes to legislation which were designed to help trustees respond to these challenges.

Following the reintroduction of the funding standard in June 2012, pension schemes were required to submit funding proposals to the Pensions Board by 30 June 2013. Where funding proposals have not been submitted, the Pensions Board is formally contacting schemes to ascertain their particular circumstances. The Pensions Board will then decide what steps to take on a scheme-by-scheme basis and taking account of the individual scheme circumstances. However, it must be emphasised that trustees must meet their legal obligations and ultimately the Pensions Board will use its regulatory powers where benefit underfunding is not properly addressed.

In trying to strike a balance between the need to support schemes in their efforts to meet funding challenges while simultaneously implementing a regulatory framework to ensure pensions commitments made can be met, the following measures were introduced to ease pressures on defined benefit schemes while the funding standard was in abeyance: significant legislative changes were made in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act in 2009 to allow for the restructuring of underfunded schemes by removing the priority given to post-retirement increases for pensioners to ensure a more equitable distribution of assets in the event of the wind-up of a defined benefit scheme; the powers of the Pensions Board were strengthened to ensure that pension contributions are remitted by employers to scheme trustees; the pensions insolvency payments scheme was established to reduce the cost of purchasing pensions for trustees where the employer has become insolvent; and legislation was introduced in 2010 and 2011 to provide the option of a sovereign annuity for trustees.

Changes to the defined benefit model and the funding standard, including the introduction of a risk reserve, were made in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. The reintroduction of the funding standard followed. More recently, the Minister for Social Protection announced a number of regulatory changes to assist defined benefit schemes as they prepared funding proposals. Legislation has since been enacted in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2013 to strengthen the powers of the Pensions Board.

The funding standard provides a benchmark against which the "health" of a scheme can be tested. The responsibility rests with the employer and the trustees for ensuring that the scheme is properly funded and managed. While the recent OECD review of the Irish pension system describes the funding standard as "undemanding", many schemes are coming from a deficit position and it is clear this is a difficult problem that requires careful management. Ultimately, it must be remembered that the regulatory structure is there to ensure members' benefits are protected. Therefore, it is expected that all defined benefit schemes will submit their proposals to the Pensions Board. Compliance with the regulatory structure is essential for the future sustainability of these schemes and increased security of members' benefits. It will also ensure that we ascertain the precise funding position of schemes.

Following receipt of proposals, it will be possible to get a more accurate indication of the level of underfunding in defined benefit pension schemes. This will also allow for the impact of the many measures already introduced by Government to be assessed, including the potential benefits to schemes of the use of sovereign annuities or bonds. The Minister, Deputy Burton, is keeping the situation under review and will report back to the Government in the coming months on these issues. A wider package of legislative proposals and additional reforms will be considered at that stage.

The Minister's response, which is obviously a script from the Department of Social Protection, is not unfamiliar because we have heard it here several times previously. I could quote it by heart. It will give no comfort whatsoever to people who will be affected by this. Everybody knows, including the Minister and her colleagues, that a number of defined benefit pension schemes will close down. The longer the situation is left as it is, the more of them will close down, and the more of them that close down, the more current or active employees will be affected. Their pensions will be determined in a way that is manifestly unfair.

I put it to the Minister that the programme for Government states that the priority system will be changed. It is also on the legislative programme for this session that the current rules for the distribution of assets and the wind-up of defined benefit pension schemes will be changed. This has been promised by the Minister on no less than three occasions. However, we are now told that the Minister is reviewing the situation and thinking about it. We are told she is considering the options and looking at this and that. In the meantime, with every week that passes another defined benefit pension scheme closes down and employees are left at a disadvantage. Is the Government going to do anything to alleviate this injustice before it affects further thousands of employees who are just unlucky because they have not reached retirement age by the time their schemes are wound down?

The Minister's response is totally unacceptable. The statement that the crisis in defined benefit schemes is because of increased life expectancy and a downturn in the financial market is not true. He has failed to address the points I raised regarding very profitable companies that are using the current situation as an excuse to avoid their responsibility. Defined benefit schemes are not unaffordable nor unreasonable. We are talking about relatively modest pension schemes under which people had a certain expectation as to what they would get on their retirement. They contributed heavily out of their pockets and their employer sometimes contributed as well for them. Therefore, they have paid for their pensions. Unless the Government acts, these people will get nothing. People currently in work, some of whom have worked for up to 40 years, are being told by Deputies and Ministers, who can get quite a gilt-edged pension after 20 years, that the Government is going to do nothing for them. This is not good enough. Already, we have seen this happen at TSB and the Abbey Theatre, and now AIB is indicating it will close its defined benefit pension scheme. Some 300 other schemes are on the edge. What is the Government going to do to deal with this situation? It is unacceptable. In reality, pensions are deferred wages that have been earned by workers. They should not be gambled with and left open in this way. The Government has a responsibility to address the problem sooner rather than later.

I tried not to choke when I heard Deputy O'Dea tell me that the people affected by this are simply unlucky. They are the casualties of the complete mess your party made of this country over 14 years.

They are unlucky not to be retired already. The Minister knows what I meant. He should address the subject.

They are the casualties of the Fianna Fáil Party's failure to put in place a regulatory regime that ensured defined benefit schemes were properly maintained.

The Government has been promising to address it for two and a half years. When is it going to do something?

I did not interrupt the Deputy, so perhaps he will let me conclude.

I ask both the Minister and the Deputy to speak through the Chair.

Stick to the subject and answer the question. The Minister should not be here at all on this.

Let us not suffer from amnesia as to who laid the foundations for the enormous difficulties confronting a large number of people throughout the country who are members of defined benefit schemes.

The Minister suffered from amnesia about a certain incident when he insulted the Garda and would not take a breath test.

We will have to finish on this, as we are running out of time.

The Deputy does not like it when reality comes back to hit him.

I do not like it when I do not get an answer to a specific question.

He is crying crocodile tears on behalf of individuals who have genuine concerns.

I am concerned for people in Limerick and down the country on whose behalf I am asking these questions. Address their concerns.

Those people would not be in the difficulties they are in if not for the incompetence of the Deputy and his colleagues in government.

I ask the Minister to sit down and the Deputy to be quiet. I am on my feet and I will ask the Deputy to leave the Chamber if I have to speak to him again.

It does not matter, as I am not going to gain much by staying in the Chamber.

The Deputy understands the procedure as he has been in the House a lot longer than I have. I am on my feet, so be quiet. The Minister to continue without interruption or else the Deputy will be out of this Chamber.

It does not make any difference.

I am afraid not all of us fall for the PR advice the Deputy has been given to forget the past and just engage in criticism. This is a very important issue. It is correct that it affects a number of people and there are obvious difficulties in this area. In total, 212 of the 933 defined benefit schemes currently subject to the funding standard were due to submit a funding proposal by 30 June and did not do so. A number have been in contact with the Pensions Board with a view to submitting proposals very shortly. Immediately after the 30 June deadline, the Pensions Board initiated contact with schemes that had not submitted plans to ascertain their particular circumstances.

I want to emphasise the importance of trustees arranging for an actuary to carry out a valuation of individual schemes' liabilities and assets at regular intervals. The effective date of actuarial valuations must be not later than three years after the previous effective date. If the actuary certifies that the scheme has insufficient assets to satisfy the funding standard, the trustees must ensure that a funding proposal is forwarded to the Pensions Board with the actuarial funding certificate. The funding proposal must be designed to ensure the scheme could reasonably be expected to satisfy the funding standard at the effective date of the next actuarial funding certificate. The trustees should instruct the actuary to bring forward proposals for the range of measures that could reasonably be expected to meet such requirements. These could include, first, an increase in the level of contributions to be paid by the employer and-or the scheme members, second, a reduction in the benefits which would be payable to each respective member, third, changes to the investment strategy in regard to the scheme's assets, or, fourth, a combination of any of the measures I have just set out. Specific guidelines under the Pension Acts must be followed if a reduction in the accrued benefits of members is proposed.

The Pensions Board has a specific statutory remit in this area. When it has followed up on these matters, it will be reporting to the Minister, the Minister will be reporting to Cabinet and Cabinet will consider what steps Government should take. However, to suggest the Government has done nothing so far is unfair to the Minister for Social Protection. It is also untrue, and I detailed some of the action taken in my initial comments. Let no one pretend this is an easy problem to resolve. Let us have a bit of honesty in this House. Deputy O'Dea and others in Fianna Fáil should stop washing their hands of their responsibility as individuals for the problems this Government is now seeking to address.

Nothing is going to be done.

Health Services Staff Recruitment

I hope this matter will be more engaging than the last debate between the Minister for Justice and Equality and the former Minister who was shamed out of office because of the false affidavit he provided against a colleague of mine.

This issue is one I have been raising in the House nearly every sitting day for the last three weeks and I am delighted it has been selected. It concerns a number of community hospitals across Donegal. We have seen in recent months a huge turnout of ordinary people who are seriously concerned about the future of their community hospitals and the services they have provided and will provide into the future. They have come out in support of Dungloe Community Hospital, Carndonagh Community Hospital and St. Joseph's Community Hospital in Stranorlar as these vital community services are faced with further cutbacks.

I am not sure if the Minister of State is aware of Dungloe Community Hospital but it is a fine facility with 35 beds. The Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, visited that hospital last year to open a new wing, which cost €600,000, including the equipment that was needed for it. While there, the Minister acknowledged the impeccable care, staff and services at the hospital. Barely a year later, however, ten beds in that hospital are lying empty, two of which were provided by the community through fundraising efforts over a long period. Those two beds were traditionally used for palliative care due to the fact they were in private single rooms. The local HSE management explained to me in May of this year that the decision taken to temporarily close the beds was due to an increase in long-term sick leave, a number of staff retirements and planned maternity leave, with the moratorium on recruitment restricting its ability to replace these staff. The HSE was very clear as to why these beds were lying empty and closed.

Meanwhile, St. Joseph's Community Hospital in Stranorlar, which is the largest community hospital in Donegal, is also faced with the loss of ten beds, which is in addition to the 13 beds this hospital has seen closed in recent years. Since the recruitment moratorium was introduced, the level of nursing staff at St. Joseph's Community Hospital in Stranorlar has reduced from 37 whole-time equivalents to 25, and in non-nursing grades there has been a reduction of six front-line workers. A recently published HIQA report on St. Joseph's stated: "At the time of inspection there were 10 staff off through illness, five nurses and five carers", in addition to one retirement. The confidential HSE public service agreement, PSA, document, to which I have access, states that the St. Joseph's management team has indicated its staffing levels are an increased risk and that this increases the potential risk of an adverse incident to a client. That is a stark warning in a HSE document on staffing levels and the impact of the moratorium. While the document is confidential, it has thankfully seen the light of day.

My question, which I ask on behalf of the many hundreds of people in Donegal who have turned out at community meetings to express their concern, is how the Government expects community hospitals to maintain the highest standards of patient care if it will not provide the resources required. Local HSE management confirmed to Oireachtas Members recently that the population of over 65s in County Donegal is set to double within ten years, so it is clear there is a greater need for community hospitals and extra beds if we are to avert the crisis that is facing us. However, that is not what we are seeing on the ground. Carndonagh, Dungloe and St. Joseph's community hospital have all lost beds. This all comes on the back of beds that have been lost in these hospitals in the past two years.

I ask the Minister to take urgent steps to address the situation. While we understand the pressures the Government is under, it is wrong to cut front-line resources and impose a moratorium so strictly where we know the need exists to open these beds, some of which were funded by the community. Beds in our hospitals are lying empty and the reason for this is the recruitment moratorium. I ask the Minister to consider that the necessary supports be put in place to allow our public sector workers to carry out the task they are qualified to do, which is to look after our elderly and not so elderly in the community hospitals in Donegal.

I thank Deputy Doherty for raising this issue, which I feel I know by heart as Senator Jimmy Harte raised it just last week and I gave virtually the same answer.

Government policy is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. Where this is not feasible, the health service supports access to appropriate high-quality long-term residential care, including the provision of financial assistance under the nursing homes support scheme. In 2012, with a budget of almost €1 billion, financial support was provided to over 22,000 people in nursing homes. As the Deputy is aware, these are challenging times for the Health Service Executive in respect of all services. In the case of community nursing units, these include challenges regarding staffing, funding and the age and structure of its units. In this regard, all developments have to be addressed in the light of the current economic and budgetary pressures and Government policy to reduce the numbers employed in the public sector.

This policy requires that, by the end of 2013, the health service achieves a workforce of 98,955 whole-time equivalents. Staff appointments may be made only where an inescapable service need has been identified which cannot be addressed by other means, such as the redeployment of staff or reorganisation of services.

The recently concluded Haddington Road agreement increased the working week of nurses from 37.5 to 39 hours and also provided for increased hours for all other staff who were working less than a 39 hour week. This will have the effect of increasing the overall staff capacity available to management to deploy in service delivery.

There are 11 community hospitals in County Donegal providing 400 public beds, of which 238 are short-stay, while the remaining 162 are long-stay beds. These are supported by a wide range of community-based services. Six units have primary care centres attached, with access to services, including a public health nurse service, a community psychiatric nursing service, a home help service and an old age psychiatry service. These services are available to residents of the units as need requires.

Dungloe Community Hospital has recently experienced an increased number of staff retirements, annual leave, long-term sick leave and maternity leave. In order to maintain a safe level of care for patients, the Health Service Executive decided to reduce temporarily the number of short-stay beds by ten. This was done to ensure there would be an adequate number of staff to meet all of the needs of the residents safely. It is proposed to reopen five beds by mid-July. Arising from a temporary staff shortage owing to sick leave and annual leave, it was also decided to reduce capacity at Carndonagh Community Hospital by four beds. I understand the HSE proposes to reopen these beds on a phased basis this month.

Services at St Joseph's Community Hospital in Stranorlar include respite, rehabilitation, palliative and intermediate care and long-term residential care services. When the hospital was last inspected by the Health Information and Quality Authority in April, inspectors observed that while staff provided care in a knowledgeable, competent and respectful manner, there was a concern that the complex mix of residents could make it more difficult for staff to meet the needs of long-term residents. In order to address this issue, one ward, with a dedicated staff, has now been designated for long-stay residents only. The changes mean St. Joseph's Community Hospital will now have an operational capacity of 67 beds.

Residents and their families can be assured that management and staff will continue to work to provide the highest standards of care in all community hospitals in County Donegal. The HSE has asked me to assure the House that the residents in all of these facilities are receiving a safe and high-quality service. Bed capacity across community hospitals in County Donegal will be kept under ongoing review. However, there are no current plans to reduce bed capacity further.

I am well aware of the proposal to reopen five beds at Dungloe Community Hospital and four beds at Carndonagh Community Hospital and I am pleased this will be done in the coming weeks. It shows the importance of trade unions that SIPTU was instrumental in putting forward the proposal regarding Dungloe Community Hospital. It can be done because the staff are non-nursing staff. The reality remains, however, that five beds will remain closed at Dungloe Community Hospital and up to ten in St. Joseph's Community Hospital. A difficulty will arise if a large number of patients get sick at the same time or there is an outbreak of the vomiting bug. In such a situation staff could not return to the hospital, even if they were healthy, and the beds currently open would have to be closed for patient safety reasons. The HSE has indicated to Oireachtas Members in County Donegal that the number of people aged over 65 years in the county will increase by 100% in the next ten years. In other words, the need for additional beds is known. It does not make any sense to have a situation where beds have to be closed if a member of staff goes on annual leave, retires or becomes ill.

I do not expect the Minister of State to produce a magic wand to solve this issue. The fundamental problem is that the system is absolutely broken. I feel sorry for the nurses who have to call in sick knowing their absence could mean that patients will not be given the bed they need. That is a consequence of the moratorium on recruitment. Regardless of whether one agrees with the moratorium, it should certainly not be so restrictive that beds in community hospitals must be closed because somebody has retired or fallen sick or is on maternity leave. It simply should not happen.

There must be greater flexibility within the system, especially when we know we are facing into a crisis. One of the issues of most concern to people in County Donegal is that the inevitable increase in demand comes at a time when the number of beds in the public system is decreasing and there are no plans to increase capacity in the private sector. There is no evidence of foresight or forward planning on the issue. People are fearful in the face of what happened in these hospitals two years ago. We are seeing further bed closures at Dungloe Community Hospital and the same at St. Joseph's Community Hospital. People know the recruitment moratorium is still in place and that more nurses and other staff will be sucked from the system. They are very worried that there will be another public meeting next year at which the closure of another three or four beds, whether temporarily or permanently, will be announced. The system is broken and it is the patients in need of long-term support and care in their own community who will suffer.

The system is not broken and staff are doing an incredible job. In fact, we have a very good health service and the people availing of the 400 beds in County Donegal are receiving a good standard of care. There is a requirement for a different skills mix, with some people requiring more intensive care than others. I acknowledge that older people are more vulnerable to the vomiting bug, but the reality is that in hospitals throughout the country, whether patients are young or old, the same procedure kicks in.

As for the Deputy's claim that there is no plan, the reality is that there has never been more planning. We are very conscious of the demographics and what is going to happen to us as we age.

Why then is the Government closing beds?

I am sure the Deputy will agree that none of us, when we come to a point where we need support, would like to have no option other than a bed in a long-stay facility. That is not where older people want to live. They want to live their lives in their own communities, the same as all of us. They have the same dreams as I do or the Deputy does. We are planning for all of this on a regular basis. The positive ageing strategy is in place and we are developing a dementia strategy. We have a whole range of strategies because we know the demographics better than anybody else. The notion of standing up and striking fear into the hearts of vulnerable people and their families is reprehensible.

Beds are being closed.

It is utterly reprehensible.

The beds have been closed. What the Minister of State is saying is disgraceful.