Topical Issue Debate

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for taking this debate. The issue of appropriate supports for children with disability in the preschool year appears to fall between the remit of a number of Departments. The Department of Education and Skills is responsible for children with a disability attending mainstream schools. I refer to a very welcome initiative in recent years which is the provision of special needs assistants. I have been pursuing this issue as have other Deputies, including my constituency colleagues, on foot of representations made to us about individual cases. I refer to last week's debate on a Private Members' motion tabled by Deputy Troy. While there is some momentum to address the issue, it still seems that no particular Department is willing to take ownership of it.

To put the problem in context I refer to a letter I received from the HSE on foot of representations I made about an individual case. The HSE letter in reply reads: "There is no obligation for a service under the ECCE grant to take a child with special needs if they cannot provide supports." In other words, they can simply refuse to take a child and that child will sit at home instead. The Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, will be aware that this issue is a long time on the agenda. In the 1996 report to the Government by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, it was stated on the issue of preschools that it should be the responsibility of the Department of Education to provide high quality appropriate preschool services to the children with disabilities. The Minister of State might well reply that she was not in office on that occasion and she may wash her hands of that report but the National Disability Strategy Implementation Plan 2013-2015 states as an aspiration to improve supports for children with disabilities in the preschool year. It stated that the outcome desired is to improve school readiness and learning for children with disabilities and that one of the key indicators will be to have more than 50% of children in preschool year in receipt of appropriate supports. The flip side is that almost 50% of children with disabilities are not receiving the appropriate supports and I suspect that a substantial minority of those children who are not getting the appropriate supports are unable to avail of the preschool year and consequently start at a disadvantage in their formal education in the primary school system, behind their peers by virtue of a learning or a physical disability.

I take my hat off to many of the community providers of early childhood education who through their own resources are providing funds for special needs assistants or other supports needed for these children. The system is too ad hoc. One child who cannot avail of the preschool year is one too many, but regrettably there are many children. I cannot quantify the number but perhaps the Minister of State can do so.

I welcome the cross-departmental endeavour under way but I remain to be convinced that somebody is taking ownership of the issue, even if not to the extent outlined in the National Disability Strategy Implementation Plan 2013-2015, which has a timeline to have this issue addressed by September 2016. It is feasible to have this issue addressed if there is a willingness to so do, by September 2014, in order that children with disabilities would be on the same footing as any other child and available to take up a place in early childhood education.

I thank Deputy Creed for raising this matter. It is very obvious from his contribution that he has taken a considerable interest in this matter, which I appreciate. Notwithstanding the financial pressures on the health system, I assure the Deputy that the Government is fully committed to the ongoing delivery of vital services and supports to children with disabilities to the greatest extent possible within available resources.

The free preschool year is provided through the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, which is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I note this is another Department which has entered the fray. The objective of this scheme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to eligible children in the year before they commence primary school. I understand that certain flexibilities are built into the scheme in an effort to accommodate children with special needs, such as an over age exemption or waiver for children with special needs who do not meet the age criteria, as well as the option to split the free preschool year over two years.

While the HSE has no statutory obligation to provide supports for children with special needs wishing to avail of the free preschool year, it works at local level and in partnership with the relevant disability service providers to address individual needs as these arise. This is done in a number of ways such as providing grant aid to support preschool provision in community preschools and by funding special preschools catering specifically for children with disabilities. In some cases at local level disability services have also facilitated children with disabilities to attend mainstream preschools by providing assistant supports where possible.

As the Deputy suggested, the HSE national programme for progressing disability services for children and young people from birth to 18 years aims to achieve a national, unified approach to delivering disability health services. This programme, when implemented, should mean greater equity in accessing services based on need, clearer referral pathways to these services and improved collaboration between the sectors. An additional €4 million has been specifically allocated in 2014 to drive implementation of the programme. This equates to approximately 80 therapy posts. The HSE's role in supporting children with disabilities involves working in close co-operation with the disability service providers it funds, the education sector, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the parents and families of the children in question.

There is a need to strengthen these arrangements, however, and a dedicated cross-sectoral team, comprising representatives of my Department, the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, plays a key role in fostering greater collaboration on children's disability issues and building on the existing cross-sectoral working arrangements. A subgroup of this cross-sectoral team has been set up to examine the issues around the integration of children with disabilities into mainstream preschool settings, building on previous analysis in this area. Representatives of the Departments of Health, Children and Youth Affairs, and Education and Skills, the Health Service Executive and the city and county child care committees are members of this group which is chaired by the Department of Health. The issue of supports for children with disabilities in mainstream preschool settings is being examined by the subgroup.

I thank the Minister of State for her response, which included a great deal of information. I acknowledge that this issue is cross-departmental in nature, coming also under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Minister of State referred to additional funding of €4 million that has been allocated in 2014 specifically to drive implementation of the programme on progressing disability services for children and young people. This allocation amounts to the provision of 80 additional therapist posts. My understanding, however, is that this will not facilitate a single child in accessing the early childhood care and education programme.

The issue I am raising here is not about assessment of needs. I am referring to a situation where a child who has a specific disability, be it a physical disability or a learning disability, is refused a place by a local child care provider on the basis of that disability. My understanding is that these service providers are paid on a per capita basis. Perhaps the cross-departmental group might consider an arrangement whereby a portion of funding would be held in reserve to accommodate whatever additional resources are required by individual service providers to provide, for example, a special needs assistant for one child or a wheelchair for another. In each individual case, the funding held in reserve could be used to facilitate that child's access. The provision of funding for 80 therapist posts is not the issue. It is about ensuring that when parents approach a local service provider, the latter cannot turn their child away because he or she has a disability. That position would not be countenanced at primary school and it should not be countenanced at preschool. If we are serious about addressing these types of issues, there must be a much faster implementation of the objectives outlined in the national disability strategy for 2016. This particular issue should be resolved by next September.

Where a place is denied to a child with a disability, the reason usually given is that he or she is not ready for that level of education. This is where the new therapy posts will come in. The reconfiguration I have described is essential and the allocation of €4 million was very hard won. It is not about a diagnosis; it is about providing the interventions that are necessary at a very young age, whether speech and language therapy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy or something else, to ensure children gain the very most from a preschool place.

In terms of when this will be achieved, the 2016 timeline is essentially a safety net. In 2014, Kerry, Mayo, Galway, north Lee in Cork, Wexford, Kildare and west Wicklow will fully reconfigure their services in line with the new model. Having said that, I very much take on board what the Deputy is saying. There are some providers who simply do not want to take on children who require additional care. The whole idea behind the appointment of additional therapists is to ensure children will be ready to avail of the preschool provision that is available.

Cyberbullying

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this Topical Issue matter. It is only right and proper that we have an opportunity to discuss such an important issue. I raise it in the context of the survey published by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals which shows a disturbing rise in the number of victims of cyberbullying and the number of pupils who admit to such bullying. As well as the headline figure of a 33% increase in students who report being cyberbullied and an 80% increase in the number of students admitting to cyberbullying another student, the survey found that only one in four parents monitors children's online activity daily, while 15% of parents admit never doing so. These findings copperfasten those of a recent study by DCU which found that 14% of students reported being cyberbullied and 8% admitted carrying out cyberbullying. Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, has observed that cyberbullying poses a clear and present threat to the collective morale of schools. The NAPDP survey showed, he said, that the less parents monitored their children's online activity, the less they knew about what might be going on.

I accept that this is a complex issue, made more complex by the rate of advances in technology, and, as such, is far from simple to tackle. Moreover, responsibility in this area spans several Departments. The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications recently prepared a report on this issue which was discussed at a Friday Dáil sitting some weeks ago and will feed into the work of the Internet content governance advisory group. Many schools are being proactive in this and are doing good work in educating parents on the devastating consequences of cyberbullying. In fact, I received an invitation this morning from the Presentation senior school in Mullingar to attend its information evening.

My specific concern today is the role of the Department of Justice and Equality in this matter. Specifically, I am concerned it is not receiving the urgency and priority it deserves. Lives are being lost and this is a time-sensitive issue. Last year, in his 2013 report, the special rapporteur on child protection pointed to a clear deficiency in the legislation to deal with this area. Twelve months later, no action has been taken to implement the clear recommendation of the rapporteur. The simple reality is that the legislation has not kept pace with advances in technology. My Cyberbullying Bill 2013, which I published last year, would create a stand-alone offence of cyberbullying that would apply both to those who engage in the act and those who assist or encourage it. If enacted, this legislation would ensure there are consequences for the bully, not the vulnerable child. As it stands, the perpetrators are getting away with their behaviour.

This is about protecting children, not punishing parents. In fact, it is a core protection issue. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider giving time to debate this crucial matter. As I said, it is a time-sensitive issue. Unfortunately, lives are being lost as a direct consequence of cyberbullying.

I am taking this important issue on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality. Cyberbullying is an issue of concern for all of us. Indeed, the Minister is conscious that there has been increased awareness of this issue as well as increased support for those who are the targets of bullying. A wide range of actions are already in place aimed at raising awareness among children and young people, and their parents, of the importance of safer Internet use in general and cyberbullying in particular.

One important initiative in this area is the Safer Internet Ireland Project, which is co-ordinated by the Office for Internet Safety, OIS, under the auspices of the Department of Justice and Equality. Funded by the EU's Safer Internet programme, the project is a consortium of industry, education, child welfare and Government partners which provide safer Internet awareness, hotline and helpline functions in Ireland. The Professional Development Service for Teachers under the auspices of the Department of Education and Skills, ISPCC-Childline, the National Parents Council - Primary, and Hotline.ie operated by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland are all partners in the consortium. The aim of the project is to develop national initiatives promoting safer use of electronic media and enhance protection of the vulnerable, particularly children, against the downside of the Internet, including cyberbullying. The OIS also makes relevant information available, through its website, on linked sites and through its publications, to children and young people and their parents.

One of the booklets produced by the OIS focuses specifically on the issue of cyberbullying. In addition, a leaflet entitled Combat Cyberbullying was produced by the OIS for International Safer Internet Day, which took place on 11 February last. Copies of this leaflet in soft and hard copy format are available from the OIS. The OIS also works closely with the Garda Síochána and contributes material for use in the Garda schools programme. The Minister would also like to mention that his colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, has undertaken an extensive awareness-raising programme on bullying, including cyberbullying, for use in schools.

As the Deputy knows, bullying, including cyberbullying, may constitute an offence under existing legislation. Harassment is an offence under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. The Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act Act 1989 was enacted to prohibit incitement to hatred on account of race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. The Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 permits the retention of and access to data for the purposes of preventing, detecting, investigating or prosecuting serious offences. Cyberbullying may be an offence under any of these Acts. The Minister is aware that the Deputy has proposed legislation on cyberbullying. He would like to thank the Deputy for his interest and work in this area. In November 2013, the Law Reform Commission published its fourth annual programme of law reform. As part of this programme, the commission will examine the topic of cyberbullying as an element of the project on crime affecting personal safety, privacy and reputation including cyberbullying.

In view of the existing legislation and of the work of the Law Reform Commission, the Minister does not intend to legislate on cyberbullying at this time. The Minister will, of course, look carefully at the commission's report when it is furnished to him. The Deputy will recall that the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, announced at the end of November 2013 that he was setting up the Internet content governance advisory group to consider, among other things, emerging issues in the area of online content and the general impact on the lives of children and young people of bullying and harassment online. The group will take submissions from the public and interested groups. The Minister understands that it is due to report to him in the summer. As part of this process, the Minister will be very interested to hear from Deputies who have a particular interest in this area.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. In my original contribution, I acknowledged the work being done by the Government and accepted that this is an issue of public health and education. I also said it is a time-sensitive issue because lives are being lost. We cannot afford to wait for advisory groups to come back and report on this, that and the other, especially when we are talking about people's lives. If the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997, which was mentioned by the Minister of State, was fit for purpose and was keeping pace with advances in technology, there would have been no need to refer it to the Law Reform Commission. The decision to refer the Act to the commission is an acknowledgement that there is a deficiency and a weakness in it. If the existing legislation is so strong, why are so few criminal prosecutions being brought in respect of cyberbullying, which is now at an epidemic stage? That is just a point I want to make. Education and resources are of great importance in this regard. If we introduce stand-alone legislation that clearly outlines the consequences of this venal and horrendous crime for perpetrators - parents who do not monitor their children must also accept an element of responsibility in this regard - it will act as a clear deterrent for those who might otherwise engage in it. As a result of cyberbullying, some children will be psychologically damaged for a long period. Even worse, some teenagers and young children have taken their own lives on foot of this behaviour. I would like the Minister of State to ask the Minister to consider introducing stand-alone legislation which would act as a clear deterrent by pointing out the clear consequences for those who engage in this awful crime.

I understand perfectly that people can become quite upset when they see horrendous things happening in their communities. I think we have all had that experience. I accept fully that there is a genuine concern in this whole area. The Deputy and I know that when a young person - a ten year old, a 14 year old or a 16 year old - is being bullied online, it usually involves someone else in his or her peer group. I am not certain about what can be done if a 12 year old or a 14 year old is bullying a ten year old. Education is the way forward if young people are to recognise that when they push the button to send something, it might disappear from their screens but that does not necessarily mean it has no consequences for the person who receives it or for the person who sent it. I am not certain about how to deal with that other than by educating young people not to be bullies, regardless of whether that bullying takes place face to face or online. It is a question of education. While I do not share the Deputy's view that there is, as he termed it, an epidemic, in this regard, I agree with him that if one child is damaged as a consequence of this type of action, it is one child too many. Regardless of whether it is my child or someone else's child who is bullied, we know it causes a great deal of upset within a whole circle of people. There are ways of dealing with this activity. If it is not this today, it will be something else tomorrow. It has to be about education. The Deputy is quite right to say that is not just about schools or friends. It is equally about parental responsibility. Most parents are not as au fait with the whole online sphere as their children. I am not. I do not think any of my friends are as up to date on these matters as their children. There is definitely a great deal of work to be done in this area from an educational perspective. We need to point out to people who engage in this activity that their actions have consequences and that those consequences are sometimes fatal for the person who is being bullied.

Wind Energy Generation

I have been sent a copy of a letter that the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, sent to Westmeath County Council on 15 February last. Basically, the letter informs the council that a democratic decision made by councillors will be overruled. The vote in question relates to the locations and set-back distances for wind turbine developments in the county development plan. The councillors voted that industrial wind turbines should be strictly limited to cut-over or cut-away bogs. They agreed on a set-back distance from occupied dwellings of ten times the height of the turbine. The letter that was sent by the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, basically tells the members of the council that the democratic decision they took was not in line with national policy, as set out in the Planning and Development Act. Perhaps I am naive, but I believed this Government's promise of a so-called democratic revolution when it first came to power. So far, it has delivered an all-out attack on local government and local democracy. That has been my experience.

I do not need to remind the Minister of State that the wind turbine issue is a very controversial topic, not least in the midlands area. It has been proposed that industrial wind turbines will generate large volumes of energy to be exported to Britain. Sinn Féin will soon introduce legislation to provide for minimum set-back distances for wind turbine development.

I ask the Minister of State to take heed of local concerns over wind turbine projects. The local people are better able to identify whether an area is suitable for such developments than somebody sitting in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, who does not know the lie of the land. Local people know local areas best.

I am concerned over the letter the Minister of State sent. It looks like the Government is trying to steamroll through these developments without paying heed to local democracy through the votes of those who represent the concerns of local residents. It is not acceptable in a modern democracy. It is not just bad planning policy. It is bad policy, full stop. I ask the Minister of State to change her mind on her decision to block the democratic voices of Westmeath County Council. I believe all parties were represented in this vote. I ask her to respect the wishes of the people of Westmeath and the people of Ireland because it is time for a total rethink of our national energy strategy.

The Deputy raised as a Topical Issue the very general issue of set-back distances. He has now specifically raised an issue in Westmeath. While I will answer the general point, I wish to point out that the directive is a draft directive and not a final directive. As there is an ongoing process with the local authority, I will not comment further on that specific issue at this point.

I thank the Deputy for raising this Topical Issue. As he will recall from our previous debate, I commenced a public consultation on 11 December 2013 on proposed draft revisions to the existing 2006 wind energy development guidelines focusing specifically on the issues of noise, set-back and shadow flicker.

The draft revisions propose the setting of a more stringent absolute noise limit, day and night, of 40 decibels for future wind energy developments. This limit is an outdoor limit - in general the reduction of noise levels between the outside of a dwelling and inside would be approximately 10 decibels. The draft revisions propose a mandatory set-back distance of 500 m between a wind turbine and the nearest dwelling for amenity considerations. The draft revisions propose that a condition be attached to all future planning permissions for wind farms to ensure there will be no shadow flicker at any dwelling within ten rotor diameters of a wind turbine. If shadow flicker does occur, the wind energy developer or operator will be required to take necessary measures, such as turbine shut-down for the period necessary, to eliminate the shadow flicker.

It is important to emphasise that the mandatory set-back of 500 m is for amenity considerations, including visual amenity, and is not proposed as a noise control measure. To ensure an evidence-based approach to this issue, Marshall Day Acoustics, which has previously assisted the Australian and New Zealand Governments in their reviews on wind energy, was commissioned to prepare a study on wind noise, which was a significant input into this review. Marshall Day Acoustics recommended that an absolute noise limit be strongly considered as a noise control method rather than set-back. On the issue of set-back, Marshall Day stated:

The relationship between distance from a wind turbine or wind farm and noise effects is significant, and there is little means of future proofing when specifying minimum set back distances. In this respect, setbacks therefore have the potential to either over-protect or under-protect wind farm neighbours. It is therefore recommended that setbacks are not used as a control method [on their own].

Therefore, on the basis of the technical advice received, the draft guidelines address the issue of noise control through a more stringent absolute noise limit, day and night, of 40 decibels for future wind energy developments, combined with a minimum set-back distance requirement of 500 m for amenity considerations, including visual amenity. The proposed noise limit takes into account both the World Health Organization findings on night-time noise and the review of international practice undertaken by Marshall Day Acoustics.

More than 7,000 submissions have been received in my Department on the draft revisions to the wind energy development guidelines during the public consultation phase, a substantial number of which were on the issue of set-back distances, and I will certainly give these views careful consideration prior to finalising the revisions to the guidelines.

There are three elements to the issue. The first element is the planning guidelines and legislation for the wind turbines. The second element is the wider planning and critical infrastructure policy, procedures and legislation. The third element is the Government's view of what local government and local governance should mean.

The Minister of State has said this was a draft directive and that she will not comment on it. That is like the HSE west-north west hospital group suggesting it is only a proposal to remove maternity services from Sligo General Hospital and that a decision has not been made. It is like saying the Environmental Protection Agency is considering only hydraulic fracturing and that a decision had not been made. They are both considering something that should not happen anyway. It would be the express opinion of the people in the affected areas that these things should not happen and should not be even discussed.

It is foolish to process wind farm planning applications when the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, has indicated that he will shortly publish a Green Paper on energy and when we have been told that no financial arrangements have been discussed with the British Government for our midlands being used as a giant British offshore wind energy farm.

Similarly, elected members of Leitrim County Council, representing Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and Independent, voted by a large majority to have fracking banned in the county development plan, yet the EPA is spending its time and taxpayers' money on continuing research into something that anybody, who cares for the next generation, would know should not be allowed under any circumstances or any regulatory regime.

This is not reform of local government and whatever it is, it is not democracy.

The current guidelines remain in existence. The draft guidelines I have proposed are from the Deputy's perspective an improvement. Existing guidelines call for a 500 m set-back, but it is not mandatory. I am proposing that it would be mandatory. They also provide for an improvement with regard to noise and the eradication of shadow flicker. These draft guidelines would improve the existing situation. I cannot say what will be in the final guidelines. I have received 7,000 submissions by last Friday's closing date. I expect we will be able to publish the final version of the guidelines by the end of June. It is not true to say that if I were not doing this, things somehow would be better. In fact what we are proposing represents an improvement from the perspective of local people.

On the Deputy's point about democracy, I remind him about the Mahon tribunal. Some local authorities made planning decisions that gave rise to a tribunal of inquiry resulting in a recommendation for a planning regulator. We need to have planning policy side by side with local democracy. We need national guidelines to guide decisions made locally. Nobody would want us not to have any national guidelines. For example, I issued a directive to a local authority that wanted to change its county development plan to allow for building on a flood plain. I believe I was right to do that.

We need balance between national policy, good planning and local democracy. I am quite happy to stand over that balance. In this case we need a balance between national policy on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels through using the natural energy we have and the needs of local communities. That is what I intend to ensure when we publish the final guidelines on wind energy.

Pension Provisions

I, together with my colleague, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter and I acknowledge the presence of Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. My position is simple. I thank the Minister of State for attending on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Varadkar. I would like the Minister, given the State's share in Aer Lingus and the Dublin Airport Authority, to request that the company and the trustees of the Irish airlines superannuation scheme, IASS, include deferred members, that is, those who have retired but are not yet in receipt of their pensions, in any further negotiations towards resolving the pension deficit concerns. We understand negotiations are at an advanced stage but decisions are being made which are affecting the approximately 3,900 deferred members and they have had no input into the process. They feel their interests are not being represented in the process. Many of these deferred members were actively encouraged to take early retirement by management as recently as last year.

According to people to whom I have spoken and who have contacted me, they are facing a potential cut of 50% to 60% in their pension benefits as a result of proposals currently on the table. This is a massive cut for people. It must also be noted that it was compulsory for these members to pay into the superannuation scheme in the first place. It is also worth noting that many of these workers were then encouraged to take early retirement.

Will the Minister intervene and work with all the stakeholders involved to ensure the voice of the deferred members is heard? There is a basic issue of fairness at stake which needs to be addressed.

I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter along with Deputy Ryan. No one wants to see a strike in Dublin Airport or in Shannon or Cork. I hope the pensions dispute can be resolved by agreement as otherwise it would greatly affect the tourism industry.

I discussed this matter today with Deputy Ó Ríordáin and we were looking at the figures. When one takes into consideration Aer Lingus, the Dublin Airport Authority and others, approximately 5,800 people will be affected by this, and in that sense I mean deferred members. Those with deferred pensions, as a result of cost-cutting and restructuring within the company, took redundancy and, by doing so, have helped the company return to profitability. Members who have left employment but are not yet on pension have no power. They have no representation. They cannot close the airport and are facing a much reduced pension entitlement.

I am not asking for special treatment but for fairness for the former workers. The deferred members have no access to the industrial relations mechanisms of the State. They have been frozen out. Will the Minister of State take this matter up with his colleagues to ensure that, in the interests of fairness, the interests of those members are protected?

I thank the two Deputies for raising this important issue.

I should make it clear that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has no function in regard to the administration of the Irish airlines superannuation scheme, IASS. The resolution of the funding difficulties in the IASS is primarily a matter for the trustees, the members of the scheme, the companies participating in the scheme and the regulator for such pension schemes, which is the Pensions Board.

There are many features of the IASS scheme that make it quite distinctive. One is the fact that the scheme has a very high proportion of deferred and pensioned members compared with active members. Only the active members and their employers are still paying contributions into the scheme.

Both Deputies have raised the issue of representation of deferred and pensioner members. It should be pointed out that the trustees of the scheme, who are central to any solution of the funding difficulties, are required by law to act in the best interests of all the members. On that basis the trustees have to take account of the interests of the deferred and pensioner members in any proposals they make.

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation is responsible for labour and industrial relations policy and the Department of Social Protection is responsible for pension policy. Pension related matters are increasingly arising in industrial relations disputes, and the issue of how pensioners and deferred members are represented in the negotiations around such disputes is an issue. I am aware that this is a matter that is under active discussion between the two Departments concerned. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has stated recently that it is actively considering issues in relation to the provision of access to former employees, including retired workers, to the industrial relations machinery of the State under the Industrial Relations Acts.

Another particular feature of the IASS is the fact that it is a multi-employer scheme involving the Dublin Airport Authority, Aer Lingus, the Shannon Airport Authority and SR Technics. There are around 14,800 members in the scheme, which is now closed to new members. It is estimated that Aer Lingus membership constitutes around 69% of the total, with DAA-SAA representing 26% and the former SRT workers representing 5%.

The scheme currently has a substantial and unsustainable deficit and the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has encouraged the parties to continue to use the State's labour relations machinery to resolve the difficulties. The parties participated in extensive discussions with the assistance of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court to identify solutions. In May of last year, the Labour Court issued recommendations on the matter, including separate recommendations in regard to Aer Lingus and the DAA. A range of meetings involving the parties have taken place since then.

The first step in the process of implementing a solution to the funding difficulties is for the trustees of the scheme to submit a funding proposal to the Pensions Board, as required under the Pension Acts. The trustees announced on 14 February last that they have decided in principle on a number of changes to address the funding difficulties. I welcome this first step as I believe this will assist the parties to refocus on workable solutions to the funding problems in the scheme.

The proposed measures include a number of cuts to current and future pension benefits, which would affect all categories of scheme members, including active members, deferred pensioners and pensioners. In their letter to the employers and the unions, the trustees formally requested the employers and the unions to give appropriate consideration to the position of the deferred members in further discussions.

The problems with this scheme have been well recognised for many years and must be resolved. This is in the interests of all members of the scheme. Now that the trustees have issued their proposals, I would urge all parties to engage again, utilising the State's labour relations machinery where necessary. Any industrial action would not help such a process but rather inconvenience passengers and damage the financial position of the companies, which will ultimately, along with the scheme members, have to contribute to the resolution to the problems of the scheme.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I welcome that he said that the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation is actively considering issues in regard to the provision of access to former employees generally. However, this will take some time in terms of changes to the law and it will not benefit the workers in Aer Lingus at this time. I ask that the Minister would use the influence that comes with being a considerable stakeholder in the companies to request that the deferred members would be included in the process. The recent vote from SIPTU workers for industrial action over this issue highlights the need for further and more intensive negotiations. The Minister of State can understand the frustration of the deferred members, who number such a high proportion of the overall members, having to sit back, not being involved in the process and not having a voice.

I encourage the Department to see what, if anything, can be done at this stage to ensure their voices are heard.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I point out that the deferred pensioners cannot utilise the labour relations machinery of the State, where necessary, nor can they go on strike. They are very much powerless and without a voice. Many of them are facing up to a 50% reduction in their pension benefits. Aer Lingus has said it will hold an extraordinary general meeting to seek approval for a once-off contribution of €140 million, if agreed.

It stressed that those contributions will not be made without shareholders' approval.

What way will the Minister vote with the State's 25% shareholding? Will he ensure the interests of the deferred pensioners are protected? Those workers who retired early were convinced to do so on the assurance of their future pensions and, by doing so, they have helped the airline to return to profitability. Are they now to be thrown under the bus?

First, as I pointed out, the Minister has no function in regard to the administration of the scheme. However, I accept what both Deputies have said and I accept the point about the frustration of the members, especially those who have paid into the scheme. People want to know what their pension rights will be when the time comes to draw their pensions.

I want to put on the record that the trustees must represent all sections, and they cannot just represent one part of this. That is the legislation and, under law, they have to do that. I would hope that, with the new proposals, the trustees can use the mechanisms of State to try to resolve this problem. There is a massive deficit of €760 million that has to be dealt with. In March, we are coming to the kick-off of the tourist season. It would be in no one's interest, neither the country's, the company's nor the members', to have a strike. I hope all sides can try to resolve this very serious situation in the best interests of the country and particularly of the members.