Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 10 Dec 2014

Vol. 861 No. 2

Topical Issue Debate

School Completion Programme

Could the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs support strongly the school completion programme in the Donaghmede, Ayrfield and Edenmore areas of north Dublin because it is excellent? Those concerned need our full support to deal with the issue of early school learning.

The Minister will be aware that the school completion programme is a targeted initiative that aims to retain in school those most at risk of early school leaving. The programme was introduced in 2002 as a follow-up to the SSRI programme at senior cycle level. Initially, the programme was partially funded by the European Social Fund and also the Department of Education and Science. Later, the programme was funded through the Department of Finance with the Department of Education and Skills.

The programme was introduced in the Donaghmede-Ayrfield-Edenmore area in November 2002 and is now an integral part of the work of the schools in the area. It is aimed at the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in those schools. Nationwide, it caters for between 35,0000 and 53,000 children. As the Minister knows, the programme provides excellent services to children at risk. It provides funding for the breakfast clubs and school curriculum supports, including drama, music, yoga, trips, attendance awards and attendance tracking and monitoring. It also supports excellent after-school curricular supports, including homework clubs, study support and games and activities, including boxing, football and gymnastics. It also supports out-of-school supports and summer camps.

Since 2008, the national budget for the programme has been cut from €32.9 million to €24.7 million. This is a massive cut of 33%. There are eight schools in the cluster that I mentioned. They have had to tolerate a cut and survive on €47,000. In light of the amount of funding allocated nationally, this is a small sum. The schools, comprising two secondary schools and six primary schools, are doing an excellent job and have targeted 1,800 children. The good news from the assessment of the programme is that it has increased school attendance. In many cases, the attendance rate has increased to 95%. This is amazing among children who come from economically and socially disadvantaged families. Many of the families are homeless and some are living in temporary accommodation, including hotel bedrooms.

It is important that there be no further cuts. Since the project is so excellent, the Minister needs to protect the €24.7 million available nationally. In light of the review by Tusla and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, he needs to consider seriously increasing the funding for the project in question. It has been proven by bodies such as the ESRI that it works and is very positive. I ask the Minister again to reinstate the funding as the programme is seriously doing something about economic disadvantage, particularly on the north side of Dublin.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue.

As the Deputy knows, the school completion programme aims to retain young people in the formal education system until their completion of the senior cycle and to improve generally their school attendance, participation and retention in education. The programme is a targeted intervention aimed at those school communities that are identified through the action plan for educational inclusion of the Department of Education and Skills, DEIS.

The programme involves 124 locally managed projects and related initiatives that operate across 470 primary and 224 post-primary schools. It provides targeted supports to some 36,000 children and young people who may be at risk of educational disadvantage. The projects within the school completion programme are each managed and directed by a local management committee, which includes representatives of schools, parents, and other education stakeholders in the locality. The programme's project model approach gives local communities the autonomy to devise innovative approaches to address the needs of young people most at risk of early school leaving. That is critical.

Typically, projects offer homework clubs, breakfast clubs, mentoring programmes, learning support, social and personal development programmes for young people and out-of-school supports including music, art and sports and a range of activities during holiday periods.

Since 1 January 2014, the Child and Family Agency has had operational responsibility for the school completion programme, including the allocation of funds to local projects. In 2014, an allocation of €24.756 million has been provided for the programme. The agency has approved local projects' school retention plans for the 2014-15 academic year. The first instalment of 2014-15 funding was issued to local projects last September. Further payments, totalling approximately €9.5 million, will be issued this month, with a third instalment in May 2015. The Child and Family Agency will continue to work closely with local management committees, schools and local school completion programme co-ordinators to assist projects through the process and offer support in the delivery of their plan for young people.

The school completion project in the area mentioned by the Deputy comprises six primary schools and two post-primary schools. I am advised that €214,184 was allocated by the agency to the project for the school year 2014-15. The amount provided for 2014-15 takes account of the savings requirements in the comprehensive review of expenditure for the period 2012 to 2014.

The allocation of the funding across the range of interventions planned for young people and between the local schools in the school completion programme project for the area is a matter for the local management committee.

The Estimate for the Child and Family Agency for 2015 is €635 million, a 4.3% increase on its 2014 allocation. My Department will issue a performance statement this month under section 45 of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013. This will include my priorities for consideration in the development of the agency's 2015 business plan. The business plan will set out the agency's proposed activities, programmes and priorities for 2015, including provision for the school completion programme, in light of the moneys available.

The Deputy may be aware that a review of the school completion programme has commenced. The review is an important initiative in planning for the future development of the school completion programme.

It is anticipated that the review will assist in identifying the reforms necessary to both consolidate the programme on a sustainable footing for the future and in line with the aims of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, and ensure that available funds are targeted to those services that provide the greatest contribution to good educational outcomes for children and young people at risk of educational disadvantage.

The balance of the Minister's statement will be made available.

I thank the Minister for his response to my query on the school completion programme.

I would make a number of points on the review. First, an issue that must come up as well is that there are non-DEIS schools that form part of this project. Some seem to think that if one is not in a DEIS schools, one does not have disadvantaged children. I had a meeting with a number of people on Monday night last in my constituency office in Donnycarney and they emphasised that there is a constant stream of poor and disadvantaged pupils in non-DEIS schools. I would ask the Minister to ensure that they are not excluded in the review and that the funding is not solely targeted at schools in a particular category.

I have a feeling from the response from the Minister - I hope I am right - that deep down he knows that the school completion programme is a good programme. It is important that we say so. Representatives of one of the schools said to me on Monday night last that, because of the cuts to the programme, the school had to cut back its homework clubs, from four days to two days a week, which is having an adverse effect on the pupils and on their parents and guardians. They also advised me that since the introduction of the programme in my constituency in 2002, the attendance figures have increased by over 8% and these cutbacks could undo all the good that has been done to date. In this regard the Minister referred to a business plan. Even though in one school attendance has increased by 8%, another school had been forced to let go its attendance officer and it can no longer pay for a teacher for in-school support. These are the kind of real issues on the ground.

I would like to see the reversal of the overall national 33% cut, but also that the Minister would look at it objectively and let the review group see that the project services 1,800 children in disadvantaged communities. They need our support.

I echo the Deputy's sentiment that they need our support. I fully subscribe to that.

I will refer to the review for a moment because I think it is making people nervous and it should not. It is being overseen by a steering committee involving officials of the Child and Family Agency, my Department and the Department of Education and Skills, and it is being carried out by the Economic Social Research Institute following a procurement process which was managed by the agency. The review will seek to examine the programme and how it can best support an integrated approach to address early school leaving. It will analyse the interventions provided and make recommendations for evidence informed supports designed to secure the best educational outcomes for young people. It is envisaged that the review will be completed during the 2014-15 academic year.

I note what Deputy McGrath stated about deprived children at risk in non-DEIS schools. I am pleased to say that I was invited by Deputies Regina Doherty and Helen McEntee to visit Kells where we looked at one such school completion programme and I was impressed by what I saw. There were young men and women who are interested in what they are learning in these situations around cooking, for which they fortunately have a Ballymaloe trained chef, and woodwork. They have an excellent sculptor too. It is important when we bring children back into the educational system that we make available subjects that are of interest to them and with which they can engage, and thereby also bring in the other issues around literacy and numeracy.

This is an important scheme. If I were to put it in one simple line, the review is about finding out what is working and transposing that across the entire scheme to ensure, as we are duty bound to, that the money we spend is achieving the best outcomes for the children we hope to serve.

Child Safety

I appreciate the Ceann Comhairle selecting this important Topical Issue matter for debate. The Minister will be aware that one of the national newspapers today highlighted the serious situation that Childline faces. Childline is the only 24 hour free-of charge listening service of its kind and because it is in such a precarious financial position, for the first time since 1998 the voices of the most vulnerable children will be silenced. There is a shortfall of €1 million and if that is not found before the end of the year, the service risks being closed, from 3 p.m. to 8 a.m.

This 24-hour service has been in place since 1998. It provides an invaluable and critical service to children who are in distress and who may be suffering from abuse, fear and isolation. The ISPCC estimates that 11% of the calls are received at night. Some of the most harrowing tails are received at night time. It is because of domestic arrangements that some of these calls can only be made at night. If this service ceases, 45,000 calls will go unanswered in 2015. These represent 45,000 children who are suffering from isolation, distress and perhaps abuse. A range of issues will go unanswered.

The Government pats itself on the back for initiating the children's referendum. That constitutional amendment, which the people voted for, ensured the rights of the child were enshrined in the Constitution, ensured the voice of the child must be heard and ensured that the best interests of the child is of paramount consideration. Childline is providing a service that the State is failing to provide. We have no out-of-hours social work. According to the ISPCC, up to October of this year, 74 cases have been referred on to the Garda and 38 cases have been referred to the Child and Family Agency.

The Taoiseach is on record pledging the protection of children as a national priority. He stated that children are the most precious possession of all and that safeguarding their integrity and innocence must be a national priority. Earlier this year, in March, the Minister's predecessor, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, launched Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014 - 2020, which states, "Our vision is for Ireland to be one of the best small countries in the world in which to grow up and raise a family, and where the rights of all children and young people are respected, protected and fulfilled; where their voices are heard and where they are supported to realise their maximum potential now and in the future".

Childline survives primarily on the generosity of the people. Unfortunately, because of scandals in CRC and Rehab, there has been a notable drop in contributions. The State only contributes 5%. I ask the Minister, in light of his overarching policy, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the key objective of which is providing a safe environment and protecting children from harm, and ensuring their voices are heard and supported, what funding he will ring-fence to ensure the protection, retention and expansion of this critical service, Childline.

I thank Deputy Troy for raising this issue and I welcome the opportunity to clarify the Government's approach to the funding of ISPPC services, including Childline. The Irish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children has a long history of service delivery and advocacy on behalf of children. I acknowledge the work of the society over the years in providing support services to children and their families.

The ISPCC has indicated that its Childline service will have a shortfall of €1.2 million by the end of this year. The service currently operates on a 24-hour basis, but the ISPCC has stated that as a result of the shortfall in funding, the night-time service may have to be discontinued.

While the costs of the Childline service have always been met by ISPCC fundraising activities, Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, funds the ISPCC in respect of core running costs and towards a number of projects on a regional basis. The level of funding provided in 2014 is €476,000. Separately, my Department funds the ISPCC to provide the missing children's hotline, which takes calls in relation to any missing child, including from the general public, family members, or potentially, the missing child themselves.

Childline is a free, confidential service that can be accessed seven days a week, 365 days a year. It was set up by the ISPCC in 1988. The focus was changed from 1992 to an active listening service for all children and the service was extended to a 24-hour basis in 1998. The Childline service is used by children who want to talk, rather than children with serious child welfare and protection issues and the overwhelming majority of calls, thankfully, do not relate to serious child welfare or protection concerns.

I have met with the ISPCC and I am aware that a fall in the level of public donations for Childline has created financial difficulties for the service. The ISPCC informed me that it was embarking on a major fundraising campaign, and also that it would provide details of the nature and cost of the service. I have asked officials in my Department to meet with the ISPCC, along with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, to examine how best such a service can be provided to the greatest benefit of children.

The Government will continue to promote and support the welfare and protection of vulnerable children and families. We are making significant improvements in this regard. Key initiatives to date include the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, in June 2011; the establishment of the Child and Family Agency in January 2014; a proposal to which the Deputy alluded, to amend the Constitution to ensure that children's rights are strengthened was put to the people in a referendum in November 2012; and Better Outcomes: Brighter Futures, the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020, was published in April 2014. It is Ireland's first overarching children and young people's policy framework which spans the age ranges from birth to 24 years.

In addition, there has been the introduction of a suite of child protection legislation, including the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act, 2012, the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the Children First Bill 2014. The provisions of Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children in 2011 have been revised and updated. The Children First Bill will put key elements of the Children First Guidance on a statutory footing. Key provisions in this regard include introducing a mandatory requirement to report child welfare and protection concerns to Tusla, and to assist in investigation of such concerns if required. Every organisation that provides services to children is required to develop a child safeguarding statement. The Children First interdepartmental group will be put on a statutory footing. The Children First Bill has completed Second Stage in the Dáil and Committee Stage will be scheduled early in 2015.

I assure Deputies that I am committed to ensuring children benefit to the greatest extent from every euro we spend. In that context, I have asked my Department to meet again with the ISPCC and Tusla so that we can work towards a sustainable service focused on achieving the best possible outcomes for all our children.

I thank the Minister for his reply. We could speak more about the record of the Government on children since the formation of the Department in light of what has been delivered, as opposed to what has been promised, announced, launched or re-launched but what I am speaking about today is the dramatic decrease in funding to a critical and important service for children.

In his reply the Minister stated the Childline service is used by children who want to talk, rather than children with serious child welfare and protection issues and the overwhelming majority of calls, approximately 80%, do not relate to serious child welfare or protection concerns. By my reckoning that means 20% of 45,000 calls next year, which is in the region of 9,000 calls, will relate to child welfare and child protection. At a time when we do not provide out-of-hours services for social workers, at a very minimum we should provide a service that children who need direct access and help can call. Those who give of their time and volunteer for the service say that the most harrowing stories come at night time when children feel safe, when their parents are away or in bed and they can creep down the stairs and use the phone. That is the time the service is most needed.

The Minister referred to Better Outcomes: Brighter Futures. His Government’s vision is for Ireland to be one of the best countries in the world in which children grow up, raise a family and where the rights of children and young people are respected, protected, fulfilled; where their voices are heard and where they are supported to realise their maximum potential now and in the future. In light of the overarching policy framework, will the Minister indicate not what meetings or deputations will take place, but what money will be ring-fenced to ensure this critical service is protected in the future?

I refer to Deputy Troy’s opening comment in his riposte about the record of the Government on child care. We could do well to talk about the record of his party in government over 14 years and its failure to disclose for many years the number of children dying in care. Deputy Alan Shatter had to drag that out of the Government over a prolonged period in order to bring it to the light of day. In regard to this service, in the interests of children and ensuring we get the best results for children, we need to examine with the ISPCC, Tusla and my Department how best to continue the service and ensure the best outcomes for children.

Given the Deputy's closing remark about additional funding, I am minded of the modus operandi of his party’s leader and Government in the past, namely, to throw money at everything. Health spending quadrupled over a 14-year period yet we still ended up with the worst trolley count in the history of the State since records began.

The Minister lasted a long time in the Department of Health himself.

Yes, indeed, I was there for three and a half years and we made progress.

The Minister did such a good job that the Taoiseach moved him.

I made much more progress than the Deputy’s party leader, Deputy Martin, ever made.

However, notwithstanding that, the reality in which the children of this country and their parents and those who care about children are interested is that we have a service that is appropriate to the needs of children. I believe the ISPCC, the new Child and Family Agency, Tusla, and my Department will get the best result by co-operating, examining how the service is delivered, drawing up a business plan, and a service level agreement if necessary, in order that we can all be sure that the money we spend gets the result we require. Evidence-based policy is the only way to ensure the best outcome for children.

Road Safety

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing this Topical Issue matter to go forward because it is very topical and it covers two Departments, namely, Justice and Equality, and Transport, Tourism and Sport. Everyone is singing from the one hymn sheet, in the sense that we all believe that anything which could be done to make roads safer is a good thing. There is no doubt in the recent past the behaviour of drivers on roads has changed for the better. Unfortunately, in recent years, especially last year, the number of road fatalities has begun to creep up again. That said, a very worrying development has also been taking place in recent years, whereby cases are being thrown out by the District Court in considerable numbers.

It is not exaggeration that since 2009, 1,393 cases involving GoSafe vans have been thrown out by District Courts. The difficulty I have is that if the implementation of the speed detection system is to be seen to be fair and impartial and to be doing what it says on the tin, so to speak, then this should not be happening. This year alone, 59 cases have been thrown out in Castlebar; 133 in Ennis; 71 in Gorey; 68 in Nenagh; 71 in Wexford, along with a whole clatter of others. This culminated last week in a situation in a court in the Cavan-Monaghan area where the judge within his remit referred to the law being brought into disrepute. This is a very serious situation. I refer to the person who is informed by post that he or she has incurred penalty points and is fined - as happened to me in the recent past - and the person accepts the situation. However, on the other hand, a person will say they did not receive the notice, the case will go to court and it is thrown out. There is a massive unfairness built into this system which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Two problems arise, in my view. Legitimately detected speeding offences are not being upheld by the system because the system is flawed massively, it seems. In other cases, people will do the right thing; they will admit they broke the speed limit, they will take the penalty points and they will pay the fine. Where do those people stand now? What is the situation as regards the penalty points on their licences and the increase in the cost of insurance premiums as a result of having penalty points?

The penalty points system has been dogged by controversy in the recent past. I refer in particular to the whistleblowers and the GoSafe vans. The law needs to be seen to be impartial and blind to interference, be that from loopholes that one could drive a lorry through or interference from members of the Garda Síochána, as was reported by whistleblowers. The law must be seen to be fair.

Ultimately we must ensure the roads are safer and this system is an attempt to change people's behaviours. However, people's behaviours will not change and they will probably get worse if they believe there is a way out of getting penalty points if all one needs to say is, "Judge, I never received it". I have no doubt that among the lists of District Court hearings there are legitimate reasons for non-receipt of penalty points. However, I would be very dubious that the summonses, notices or letters issued to 1,393 people since 2009 just vanished into thin air or were at the bottom of a post bag and ended up in the Liffey. I do not believe this to be the case and I do not think anyone believes it. It is time this was fixed.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The Minister regrets that she is unable to be present as she is abroad on official business. The Minister has asked that I emphasise that the initial decision to introduce outsourced safety cameras came after a number of years of detailed analysis and was identified as a key additional measure to reduce deaths and serious collisions on our roads. I need not remind the Deputy that the Road Safety Authority, An Garda Síochána and many others working in the field of road safety, continue to emphasise the role played by speeding in serious collisions. Excessive and inappropriate speed is the number one road safety concern. The advice to the Minister is that in many instances, reducing speed by even a few kilometres per hour can made all the difference to the severity of a collision.

It was against this background that GoSafe was awarded the contract to provide outsourced safety cameras in November 2009, following a tendering process. Operations commenced in November 2010 and were supported by advertising and an awareness-raising campaign highlighting the life-saving objective of the cameras.

The Minister wishes to clarify that GoSafe is paid according to the number of hours of surveys and monitoring. The number of detections has no bearing on the payments made. The service provided by GoSafe operates under the overall direction and oversight of An Garda Síochána, including with respect to scheduling of speed monitoring, training and quality assurance. Vans operate in defined speed enforcement zones, the location of which is in the public domain, including on the Garda website. These zones were identified following an objective and evidence-based analysis of collision data and speed surveys.

Compliance has increased across the zones since the network was introduced. For example, between January 2011 and October 2013, compliance in 50 km/h limit zones increased from 62% to 98%, while compliance in 80 km/h zones increased to 96%. The Garda authorities are reviewing the location of the zones on a continuous basis to ensure the cameras are located where they can have the most impact on safety. All of the analysis carried out points to the conclusion that the safety cameras have saved lives and therefore bring very significant human and economic benefits. Moreover, research carried out on behalf of the RSA earlier this year found that 81% of adults surveyed supported the use of safety cameras and 71% surveyed believe them to be effective in influencing motorists to drive more safely. It is also important to bear in mind that the safety cameras free up Garda resources for other road safety enforcement, including more mobile operations, as well as carrying out alcohol checkpoints.

The Minister is aware of the recent court cases in which GoSafe speeding detections have been dismissed. The Deputy will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for the Minister to comment on the outcome of specific cases before the courts. She has, however, discussed the matter with the Garda authorities and understands that they are carefully studying the recent rulings and taking legal advice, including with respect to the possibility of seeking clarification from the higher courts. This is being addressed by the Garda authorities as a matter of urgency and developments will be reported to the Minister.

In so far as the question of reviewing the law is concerned, the legislation governing the operation by An Garda Síochána of speed detection cameras and the use of outsource safety cameras, is contained in section 81 of the Road Traffic Act 2010, which comes under the remit of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The advice from An Garda Síochána, however, is that the recent court cases do not identify issues which would warrant amendment of the legislation. I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue and I will certainly communicate the points he has made to the Minister.

I acknowledge the presence of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the discussions I have had with him on this matter.

The reply from the Minister of State is fine in that it tells me everything I know about the speed detection system but that is not what I asked. I refer to information from the Department. In 2012, 111 cases were thrown out at Naas District Court. This has nothing to do with what has happened in the past couple of weeks because it has been ongoing since 2009. In 2012 alone, 936 cases were thrown out of court across the country. It is not today or yesterday that this problem began. The law as it is constructed is definitely not seen to be fair. If a person can say in court that he or she did not receive the necessary documentation in the post, based on the figures I have given, the court will likely come down on the side of that person and decide that it was probably not received. As a result, 1,393 cases since 2009 have been thrown out. I do not know how this situation can be resolved.

At a meeting of the transport committee this morning my proposal was accepted that both Departments as well the Garda Síochána and legal practitioners should come to the committee to discuss what is a fundamental issue of road safety and also an issue to do with the fairness of the law. For example, I may have received three penalty points because I accepted the notice and the accompanying picture of my car as detected in County Limerick breaking the speed limit and I paid the fine, and the same notice was posted to another person who claimed in court he or she did not receive it and the case was thrown out. There is a gross unfairness which must be resolved. Penalty points are being attached to licences and insurance premiums are increased, and rightly so, but other people are getting off scot free. This situation needs to be addressed. I would like both Departments to co-operate on providing a more comprehensive answer.

The advice from the Garda Síochána is that recent court cases do not identify issues that would warrant a change in the legislation. The judge in Monaghan last week said the law was being brought into disrepute. What more needs to be said from the bench of an independent court before something is done?

I thank the Deputy for his contribution. I acknowledge his contribution was not about the effect of the speed cameras. The Deputy will appreciate that the reply as provided indicates the Minister takes the issue seriously and has liaised with the Garda authorities.

I am not in a position to discuss the individual cases the Deputy has outlined.

The Garda is studying the recent rulings and taking legal advice with respect to the possibility of seeking clarification from the higher courts. I take on board the points made by the Deputy and will communicate them to the Minister for Justice and Equality. It is convenient the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is here. I will endeavour to get a more detailed response for the Deputy. The Minister for Justice and Equality is unable to comment on individual cases. The issues raised by the Deputy have been discussed with the Garda authorities and they are aware of them. We will endeavour to work on a cross-departmental basis to provide the Deputy with a more direct response if he requires one.

Irish Airlines Superannuation Scheme

I thank the Minister for being present in the Chamber. Deputy Peter Mathews has submitted this Topical Issue matter every day since 22 October and I want to acknowledge this. It is unfortunate he will not have a chance to speak on it today. Aer Lingus was a State company when these contracts were entered into and when current and deferred pensioners paid into the defined benefit pension scheme. Today the Government has a 25% shareholding in Aer Lingus, so it has a moral duty of care in this respect. What I have encountered from discussing this with pensioners who are on small meagre pensions is that it is the difference between survival and not. It is a most serious issue. It is taking bread from the table of families and older people, in particular in the city but in a wider area also.

Pensioners have been abandoned by Aer Lingus, the DAA and the trade union involved, Impact. It is outrageous that pensioners were excluded from a decision-making process which affected their pensions. Others voted to benefit themselves while excluding those who would take the hit. A total of 70% of Aer Lingus current employees voted to cut pensioners' annual income, starting in January 2015. This is completely out of kilter with any sense of justice or fairness. In other unions, such as teachers' unions, retired members have just as much influence as and an equal say to those in current employment. It beggars belief that this has happened.

A total of €175 million of the pensioners' defined benefit pension saving fund was redirected without their permission or consent. They were not even consulted. Various figures are circulating, but at least 5,000 retired people are involved and at least 5,000 deferred pensioners and possibly more. It was a unilateral decision which did not involve any consultation, and it was completely unfair. Pensioners themselves had no involvement whatsoever in any of the resolution of the Irish airlines superannuation scheme, IASS, deficit negotiations which led to this decision on cutting their income. They are the only group of members of the IASS pension scheme to whom the employers, namely, Aer Lingus and the DAA, decided not to provide any compensation to mitigate against this cut in their yearly pension.

This is all at a time when the Aer Lingus share price is rising. What is most reprehensible is that the price of Aer Lingus shares rose fairly substantially when ICTU told the company the ballot had resulted in a 70% vote in favour. This had a direct impact on the value of shares in Aer Lingus, which is extraordinary.

A 10% cut may be perceived to be minor or negligible in some people's minds, but to low income pensioners it is substantial. I could read some of the e-mails and letters I have received. The matter has already been raised in the Dáil by Deputy Clare Daly and others. I received an e-mail-----

Sorry Deputy we are over time.

-----from a lady who stated that for 38 years she paid into a defined benefit pension scheme which guaranteed a pension. It was all part of the contract, but now she can look forward to a diminished pension and will struggle to pay her bills. It is not acceptable and the Minister needs to intervene.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. I know other colleagues have sought to have it selected. In responding to the points I will begin by stating I am deeply aware of the impact of the proposed changes on many people. I have met them and read a huge amount of correspondence from them. I have heard at first hand the personal consequences of this crisis for them and their prospects for the future. The plight they face and the scale of difficulties present in the fund weigh heavily on me.

In framing my response to the Deputy, I want to begin by emphasising a number of points on where it stands at present. Legal responsibility, and responsibility with regard to resolving this great difficulty, is primarily a matter for the trustees, the company, the scheme members and the Pensions Authority. The Deputy did not touch on the scale of difficulty in the fund, but I am sure she is aware of it. In 2011 the deficit for the fund, which is the largest fund of its kind in our country, was €344 million. In March 2013 it was €769 million in deficit. I understand that at present the deficit is approximately between €700 million and €750 million, with the potential to affect up to 15,000 members.

I have thoroughly investigated where it stands legislatively. Based on the minimum funding standard available from the IASS actuaries in December 2013, the estimated coverage for deferred as well as active members' benefits is approximately 24% to 31%. This is what people would have claim to in the pension fund. This takes direct account of the 2013 pensions legislation allowing reductions to be made in pension payments. I completely understand the initial level of pensions which many people have at present is modest after many years of work. This pension fund, which sources pension payments, now has a deficit which we estimate to be between €700 million and €750 million.

With regard to the process the Deputy described, an expert panel was established. As a result of this process the total contribution proposed by the employers aimed at resolving the difficulties now amounts to €260 million. With regard to the point made by the Deputy on the lack of a share of this additional money for deferred pensioners, it is an increase of €20 million on what was proposed by the original employers, in addition to the €40 million already there, bringing the proposed amount to be available to deferred pensioners to €60 million. On Friday, 14 November, the trustee sought approval from the Pensions Authority for a funding proposal and requested me to commence provisions to facilitate implementation if approved. The trustees confirmed they believed this was in the best interests of the fund. This was also the view of the expert panel.

Having considered this and reflecting on all the issues involved in such a significant deficit, I signed the order. Had I not signed the order - this was done with the support of Government - it would have posed an unquantifiable risk to the entire scheme, which would have had profoundly serious implications for all members of it.

Are any of the trustees beneficiaries of the deferred scheme? I do not have the answer, but it certainly arises as a potential conflict of interest.

Aer Lingus is now returning a fairly substantial profit and is doing quite well commercially. However, it seems very unwilling to deal with the problem. The Government has not pursued that issue. I am conscious that this is recently on the Minister's watch. He has drawn attention to the fact that the deficit increased substantially from €344 million to €769 million between early 2011 and March 2013, which was under the watch of this Government. The Taoiseach made some extraordinary comments on the matter in the Dáil in recent weeks. He said that the issue had dragged on for years and had been allowed to drift. However, he did not seem to assume any responsibility for that or provide any solutions. I am afraid that what the trustees recommended to the Minister in November does not offer a solution.

We are aware of the water protest outside the gates of Leinster House today. People are protesting for different reasons - many because they cannot pay and many others not for that reason but because they are frustrated over how the Irish Water quango was established. These are people who are terrified that they genuinely will not be able to pay the water charges. Many of them are living in rented accommodation and cannot pay their rents and have no security of tenure. These are genuine risks.

I believe the Minister has serious concern for their plight, but we need a better solution than what has been put on the table by Aer Lingus and the DAA. We need something much more comprehensive than the trustees' proposal.

The Deputy asked me a direct question about a trustee which I cannot answer.

The Deputy asked about the responsibility of the different individuals who have been involved in this. The implementation and management of the pension fund in the first place is the responsibility of the trustees and I have to recognise that. The Deputy asked me what had happened. Nearly four years of work has gone into trying to come up with a resolution to this difficulty. Nearly every labour body or institution of the State has been involved in it. Various difficulties led to the appointment of a group of people who were charged with trying to resolve the issue. An expert panel was appointed to try to do it. Considerable effort has gone in to get it to this point.

I return to the figures with which I began. The scale of the deficit is now between €700 million and €750 million. Some people have suggested that I, having received a communication from the people whose job it is to run the fund that has a deficit of this magnitude, should not do what they believed was in the best interest of the fund. I took this very seriously. I considered all the consequences of what could happen if this resolution could not be delivered. Given all that had happened up to this point, I made the strong judgment that all the alternatives that were facing the fund were considerably worse than what is being faced at the moment. For those reasons I made the decision to enact the legislation that had been introduced because I had to respond to what the trustees of the fund were recommending. I looked at all the other options and consequences for everybody. It is apparent to me at the moment that they would have been dramatically more serious and unknown than what we are facing now.

I am acutely aware of people's concern over their future as a result of this matter. The Deputy asked me a question that I am not in a position to answer. However, if I can secure the information, I will come back to her.