Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 16 Jul 2015

Vol. 241 No. 9

Commencement Matters

Weight of Schoolbags

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State and thank him for being here. While schools might be out for summer, parents and students will soon be preparing to return in September. The issue of the weight of schoolbags remains unresolved not for another year but for another decade. The issue was raised in the Dáil as far back as 1996 and the then Minister, Ms Breathnach, gave the exact same reply as the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, gave in 2014. Both said it was a matter for local school management and that circular letters to this effect, incorporating the recommendations of the working group on the issue, had been sent to schools in 1998 and 2005.

The time lag is notable. The 1998 report generated two circular letters, both with the same content and both deferring to local school management. In the meantime, an entire generation of schoolchildren have struggled to and from school with schoolbags weighing up to two stone in some cases. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong, but it appears that since the working group reported in 1998 there has been no follow-up, no examination on if and how its recommendations are being implemented and 17 years later there is still no comprehensive current research.

Osteopaths, physiotherapists and doctors report an ever-increasing number of incidents of schoolchildren presenting with serious neck, shoulder and back strain due entirely to the weight of schoolbags. A school principal who surveyed pupils found the junior students carried the heaviest weight as they had 13 subjects. In that case, the first year students were carrying in excess of 15 kg in textbooks and copybooks.

The recommended weight for children of 12 years is 12% of their body mass, which would average at 3.5 kg of textbooks for 13 year olds and 6.3 kg for 17 year old male students. The detrimental and long-term effects on the still developing spine of a 12 year old carrying five times the recommended weight is of serious concern to many parents and an issue of national importance requiring a national and co-ordinated response.

Mr. Liam Moloney, a Naas-based health care solicitor, is on record as saying the failure of many school managers to deal with it was one of the most serious issues of our time and "the State could face thousands of future compensation claims from schoolchildren who suffer back injuries if their school managers have not complied with the recommendations made by the Department of Education." This issue could leave the Army deafness and other compensation claims in the ha'penny place. More important, in letting this issue run on without proper checks and balances and systematic review by the Department of Education and Skills, we are damaging the health of the most precious asset the State possesses, namely, the health and welfare of young people. If employees in any sector were presenting with such symptoms on so large a scale, a major health and safety investigation would be put in place.

There have been successful and ingenious commercial initiatives such as Booksplits, the brainwave of mother of four Ms Margo Fleming from Wicklow, which is now a commercially available alternative that reduces the weight of text books by half. Alternatively, some schools are replacing books with tablets, some have lockers and some do not, with some allowing children to leave books in schoolm while others do not.

Will the Minister of State revisit this issue as a matter of urgency, commission research on every aspect of it and put in place a system that would guarantee a uniform application of unequivocal regulations? Issuing guidelines to schools has manifestly failed and it is now time for another approach.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the matter of the weight of schoolbags. It is an issue that most of us present have an interest in, but certainly we all have memories of carrying bags on our shoulders on the way to school. As the Senator has good shoulders, I am sure he was able to carry his. There have been some improvements and weights have been reduced, but he is right about it still being an issue. Perhaps someone might invent a schoolbag that is cooler when not being carried on a shoulder, as the design of schoolbags is part of the solution, too.

The Department and I are well aware of the potential problems caused by the weight of schoolbags. In this regard, some years ago the Department set up a working group to examine the issue. The group's terms of reference were to consider the issue of heavy schoolbags, the extent of the problem, the factors that contributed to the problem and possible implications of the problem, particularly for the health of pupils. The report of the working group, which was presented in July 1998, recognised that many of the solutions to this issue belonged at local school level and made various recommendations such as the provision of lockers, active liaison with parents and, in the case of second level schools, co-ordination of homework by subject teachers and the arrangement of the timetable into double class periods.

The working group also found that there was a need to heighten awareness of the potential health hazards posed by excessively heavy schoolbags. In this regard, my Department initiated an awareness-raising campaign by disseminating the working group's report with an accompanying circular to all primary and post-primary schools. My Department issued further circulars to all primary and post-primary schools in 2005 to highlight the potential health hazard of overweight schoolbags and to outline a range of local measures that could be put in place to help alleviate the problem.

Ultimately, it is a matter for each school to choose those measures that would be most suited to its individual needs and that fit with how the school organises teaching and learning. The parents also have a role in this decision-making process. Not all of them feel empowered to play it, but they should be involved in decision making in every school.

There are decisions that can be made at local school level. The use of digital resources by teachers and students in schools is increasing. While conventional textbooks are still widely used, a number of schools have introduced or are considering introducing e-books and other digital resources to enhance students' work in school and at home. Schools can use the book grant scheme to purchase a range of digital resources relevant to the curriculum. These may include student subscriptions to online maths or reading programmes, school site licences or app downloads.

The Department's Guidelines for Developing Textbook Rental Schemes in Schools provide practical advice for primary and post-primary schools on how rental schemes can be established and operated. These guidelines highlight the advantages of the use of digital media, including e-books, to enhance teaching and learning in schools. Among these advantages is reducing the weight of schoolbags. However, the decision to use personal digital devices such as laptops or tablets is a matter for the board of management of a school. Where the introduction of new technology is planned, it is advisable that there should be consultation with members of the school community, including parents. The cost and other implications must be fully considered by the board of management before a decision is made. In some cases, the cost can be quite high. Some schools are proactive in meeting costs. I hope to see an increase on that front in the years to come. We all agree that we need to see more such work.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the matter of the weight of school bags. It is improving, but most people are still concerned about it.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am concerned that we are pushing things down to boards of management. A recent high profile case regarding the abuse of a lady while she was a student in a primary school in Cork came back to bite the Department and the Government. As the Legislature, we have a responsibility. We cannot shed it to boards of management. We cannot offload it to subject teachers or parents. We must put directives in place.

I understand the Senator's point, but schools are run by boards of management and are separate from the Department. This is a fact of life. If we were to remove all of that power, a different discussion would be held. The best thing that the Department can do is work with the schools and give guidelines, advice and support. We could probably fight for more resources to increase the offering to schools, but their boards of management are in charge of what happens in them. We provide circulars, directions and so on.

Parents need to realise that they have as much power as anyone else involved in the school in terms of making decisions. They need to become fully involved in that process. When I visit some schools, I see where parents who have worked in certain companies have had an influence in terms of the schools' equipment. However, other offerings are available to schools and it is for each to decide what it wants. Naturally, as more resources become available in the years ahead, the Department will increase what we can do, but the decision in question is a local one. While I recognise and share the Senator's concerns, we are all involved in the solution.

I thank the Minister of State.

University Status Applications

I welcome the Minister of State who will be aware that parts of the Kelly report which has not been published but which has been furnished to the Minister for Education and Skills and brought to the Cabinet on a technological university for the south east were leaked last week. The belief was that the report was going to be discussed by the Cabinet, but I do not know whether that has yet happened. The report has been a long time in the making and we need to know whether the Minister has received it and brought it to the Cabinet and whether she intends to publish it.

I met Mr. Michael Kelly as part of his consultations. He has carried out wide-ranging consultations across the south east. He has a significant job to do, as this issue is important to the people of the south east, including my city of Waterford. At our meeting, I put it to him that what he and the Government needed to do was verify whether a technical university was possible - in my view, it is - and, if so, to recommend a reasonable timeframe within which to achieve it. He needed to determine whether additional resources would be required. It has been stated that it will take a great deal of resources to achieve a technical university in the south east within a reasonable number of years owing to differences in the positions of the Carlow and Waterford institutes of technology. He also needed to determine how to bring about a unitary vision and get both institutes onto the same page in order to deliver what would be critical infrastructure for the people of the south east.

My questions for the Minister of State are simple. Has the Kelly report been given to the Minister? If it has, when does she intend to publish it? Does Mr. Kelly validate a technological university for the south east? Does he recommend a timeframe for this? Does he recommend additional resources and what recommendations does he make in respect of achieving a unitary vision and a plan that will get us to the point we seek?

I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it gives me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position on the technological university for the south east on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan.

As the Senator will be aware, the national strategy for higher education to 2030, published in January 2011, recommended the consolidation of the institute of technology sector and the creation of a small number of multi-campus technological universities. The process for designation as a technological university consists of four stages and requires the merger of two or more institutes of technology prior to application for designation as a technological university.

The technological university for the south east project was initiated in 2011 and consists of a consortium of two institutes of technology, the Institute of Technology Carlow, ITC, and Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT. The TU south-east consortium made good progress initially and submitted a stage 1 expression of interest in 2012. However, following this initial promising start, the consortium encountered a series of challenges and difficulties and did not succeed in finalising a stage 2 plan prior to the decision by WIT to suspend merger activities in October 2014.

Following meetings with both institutes in early November 2014, the Minister announced the establishment of a new process of engagement and consultation with the governing bodies, staff and students of both institutes, together with the wider community in the south east. The Minister appointed Mr. Michael Kelly to lead the process of consultation. While a ten week timeframe was initially set for the process to be completed, the timeframe to completion was extended due to a number of factors, including the change in governing authorities of both institutions at the end of quarter one in 2015.

The Minister recently met Mr. Kelly and received his report on the outcome of the engagement and consultation process, which answers one of the Senator's questions. Mr Kelly has undertaken a very thorough and extensive consultation process with regional stakeholders on this important issue. He has met stakeholders in all of the counties of the region in the past few months. This includes local authorities, chambers of commerce, employers, the enterprise development agencies, social and community groups, as well as public representatives. I assume the Senator was one of them.

I understand 40 meetings took place and the Minister wishes to record her gratitude to Mr. Kelly for undertaking such a comprehensive and wide-ranging consultation process and for producing a comprehensive report.

In terms of the next steps, the Minister is meeting representatives of the two institutes shortly, either this week or next week, to discuss the findings and recommendations of the report. It is important that she have the opportunity to engage with the institutes before the report is published. The Senator asked a number of questions about the report which I cannot answer because it has not yet been published. I have no doubt that the answers to his questions are in the report as I am sure Mr. Kelly covered the areas the Senator mentioned. However, they are not ready to be published yet as it is only fair to consult the two main players first. The Minister assures the Senator that she intends to publish the report for the information of all stakeholders in the south east and, more generally, at the first opportunity thereafter.

I welcome the Minister of State's response. I strongly believe this is an issue on which nobody should play party politics. It is extremely important for the people of Waterford and the south east. I accept that the Minister must meet both institutes before the report is published, but perhaps the Minister of State could convey to her that she might arrange a briefing as quickly as possible for Members of the Oireachtas on what is in the report, either at the time she publishes it or beforehand. There have been leaks of the report and leaks are very unhelpful. There are all sorts of differences of opinion and there are many vested interests at play also and we do not wish to see any of them get the upper hand. We must be very clear about what is being recommended. The Minister has a duty to work with all of the public representatives, including members of the Opposition. We have been very supportive of this process up to now and we are anxious for this to be delivered. I hope the Minister will agree, in the near future, to meeting Members of the Oireachtas. I will make myself available during the summer recess to attend that important meeting.

I will certainly convey that suggestion to the Minister. She wants this to happen also and is very supportive of it, as am I. I have visited WIT on a couple of occasions and was very impressed with the work done there. I have not yet had a chance to visit Carlow Institute of Technology, but I intend to do so shortly. The idea is that it would increase the offering to the area. It must be about quality also. However, there is a great desire to make this happen. I will convey the Senator's request to the Minister that she organise a briefing for Members of the Oireachtas. I am sure it can be arranged when the time is right. As it would be the wise thing to do, I will try to make it happen.

Local Authority Members' Remuneration

There is a need for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to recognise the additional workload county councillors have since the enactment of the Local Government Reform Act 2014 and to carry out a survey of all councillors, in conjunction with their representative bodies, to ascertain how these changes have affected their personal, professional and public lives.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank the Chathaoirleach for facilitating this debate as it must be held. The number of local authorities has been reduced from 114 to 31. Members of the public talk about political reform, but they need to know what is really happening. There were 114 councils and that number has been reduced to 31, including the abolition of town councils. That is 83 fewer councils. The number of councillors has been reduced from 1,627 to 949, a reduction of 678 or almost 42%. Some might call that rationalisation, but that reduction in the number of councillors is phenomenal. I believe the public does not realise what reductions have been made. Counties have been divided into municipal districts, with county councillors also being district councillors. Any councillor who is not doing 30 or 40 hours a week is not doing their job. That is a fact.

My brother is a councillor, although I am not raising this matter on his behalf. We all know councillors and we are in this House because of councillors. The additional workload that has been put on the shoulders of councillors is unbelievable. As I said, any councillor who is not doing 30 or 40 hours a week is not doing their job; therefore, it is a full-time job. However, the remuneration package and the supports in place do not recognise this. They are not appropriate to a full-time job. I am afraid that this will decimate the calibre of the councillors we will have in the future. It will be a case of only the wealthy need apply, owing to the workload involved. It will be interesting to see what happens.

One of the terms often used in politics, which I absolutely hate, is "unintended consequence". One often hears it. The unintended consequence of this legislation being enacted will be that councillors will walk away. I have been talking to councillors and I can genuinely state that they will walk away unless something is done on their behalf. Waterford's city and county councils have been merged, as have Limerick's city and county councils and North Tipperary County Council and South Tipperary County Council. As I am a former councillor, I know the workload that is involved, but since the municipal districts have been introduced for councillors there are meetings every day of the week, which means councillors are engaged in their job every day of the week. If they are expected by us, as legislators, or by the public as their representatives to do a full-time job, they must be given the required supports and remunerated properly.

I am replying on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and thank the Senator for raising the issue. The Minister would like to have attended, but he is taking parliamentary questions in the Dáil. It is an important issue, as the Senator said.

I am sure Senators are already aware of the extraordinary number of hours local elected members contribute in carrying out a wide range of functions to provide the optimum level of service possible for the public. As the Senator has said, between 30 and 40 hours are worked. The majority of councillors put in long and serious hours. Being an elected member of a local authority is not a job of limited hours. Councillors are continually on call to provide assistance for their constituents. The ending of the dual mandate had an additional impact. It increased pressure to provide services for constituents on local authority issues.

Elected members may be financially disadvantaged in representing citizens, especially if it necessitates them taking time off from full-time employment. To assist councillors in their work, a range of financial supports are already in place. These include an annual representational payment, an annual expenses allowance, travel and subsistence, a mobile telephone allowance, and an allowance for the role of chairman also. Elected members have a commitment to their role that extends beyond the financial. Councillors know that the annual representational payment, and other measures, are not fully commensurate with their workload but they continue to undertake their functions with an admirable degree of dedication.

The House is aware that significant changes have been made to local government structures by the provisions of the Local Government Reform Act 2014. These are the most far-reaching changes to have ever been implemented and affect the local government system, a matter referred to by the Senator also. The changes will need considerable time to bed-in and to fully demonstrate their long-term value. In the meantime, it is important to keep the position under review and to be open to operational improvements should they be needed.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has initiated an evaluation process on the operation of the new structures and arrangements, through a broadly based advisory group, together with a forum for engagement with the Association of Irish Local Government. These processes will examine how the new arrangements are impacting when consideration is taken of financial and non-financial matters at municipal district and plenary council levels. I understand, from the Minister, that the review work will include a survey of what is happening on the ground in local authorities at both the elected member and executive levels. The AILG and other relevant interests will be closely involved in working out the detail on this issue. The review, and the surveys planned to take place, will provide the necessary sound evidence base upon which the Minister can consider the operation, to date, of the revised structures and arrangements, and the ongoing implementation of the reform programme. The workload of local authority members, in the context of the new structures and the associated financial arrangements, will inevitably arise for consideration in the course of the review. The House can be assured that full account will be taken of all views expressed on this matter and other matters as the work proceeds. Again, I thank the Senator for raising this issue.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply. I have been in discussion with the Minister. I understood he could not be here this morning but that he did want to be. I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on his behalf.

This issue is not about money. Councillors need other supports. When we say councillors are working between 30 and 40 hours that includes working on Saturdays and Sundays. I am glad that the Minister has initiated an evaluation process comprising a review and surveys to collect evidence. If he asked the councillors or any Senator here they could give him all the evidence that he needs. I do not want the Minister of State to use the term "unintended consequences". I do not want the enactment of this legislation to lead to us losing the calibre of people who work on the ground. Councillors are the foundation of democracy in this country and are the first port of call for everybody. I want the system enhanced and councillors properly remunerated and supported. It is not all about financial support. I want councillors to be properly supported to carry out their work.

The Minister probably agrees with most of what the Senator has said. I shall convey the Senator's comments to him also, even though I know that he has made direct contact with him. As most of us here have been a councillor at some stage in our lives, we understand the work of councillors. Most people do not understand the workings of a local councillor and one could not explain it to them either. Most of us in this House probably do recognise that work because we have come through the system. It is important that the workload of councillors is facilitated and increased in a professional way when we can do so. I thank the Senator for raising the issue.

Army Personnel

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Defence.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter on the commencement of Seanad Éireann today. I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, for being present to listen to my request. I do not expect a miracle solution today. I simply ask him to listen to my submission and see how we can progress this unfortunate case. I do not want to list private names on the record of the Seanad but the gentleman, whose concern is being discussed here, is seated in the Visitors Gallery. He is a former serving member of the national Army and served abroad in a peacekeeping capacity in a very admirable fashion. Alas, since 1989, which is a long time ago, he has suffered greatly as a result of the events of his discharge. To cut a long story short, my assertion to the Minister of State is that the discharge of this Army private was not conducted in an appropriate, proper and official fashion. Since that time he has suffered greatly as a result of that mishap.

The issue has been raised by numerous public representatives, including by me, during the years. The files have been examined by various Ministers, officials and the Ombudsman. I respect all of the investigations that have taken place but, unfortunately, there has been no progress in the case.

The kernel of the matter is the method of discharge of this gentlemen, which took place, I think, in March 1989. The discharge of a person from the armed forces must comply with Army regulations. In addition, the medical must be processed and proceeded with in a fashion that is provided for in the regulations. I have read the correspondence received from the Minister's predecessor in 2011. It was pointed out to me at the time that paragraph 1306 of "A" Administrative Instruction Part 12 is the relevant provision in this instance which reads: "[M]edical examination of personnel of the Permanent Defence Force should as far as possible be carried out by a Medical Officer of the Medical Corps and not by a civilian Medical Practitioner. The regulations clearly provide that situations may arise when a discharge medical is not conducted by a medical officer". A review of the files of personnel stationed at Fermoy barracks at the time shows that the gentlemen in question had the medical examination carried out by a civilian practitioner who had completed such examinations previously. What the Minister's letter did not point out, at the time, was that the medical doctor concerned had been retired for four years at the time of the medical examination. We need to reflect on the fact that the medical examination was carried out, in 1989, by a doctor who had retired in 1985.

There is an issue with the fact that all of the medical files and the medical report have "gone missing". I am quoting from the report on the inquiry by the Ombudsman into the case. The Ombudsman pointed out the following about the gentlemen who is with us today:

The claimant is correct in his assertion that an AF332A is required to be completed by the examining medical officer on completion of a pre-discharge medical. However, this document and another document, AF14, the medical examination sheet, are both missing from your file. It is clear that these documents were sent to the directorate of the Army Medical Services and is acknowledged as being received by them in July 1989. However, there is no record of how they were removed or lost. The CMF was copied on two occasions, once for the Chief State Solicitor's office, and once for Dr. Charles McCarthy in Fermoy. However checks that were made, with the recipients of these copies, have revealed that they do not have copies of the missing particulars.

All of that sounds very strange. I am not into the blame game, but in many cases, not just in this case, mistakes were made. I do not want to use the phrase "cover-up", but there is an unwillingness to accept that mistakes were made and there is a hope the problem will go away.

The person concerned was found to be perfectly fit but then was, rather surprisingly, found to be very far from fit by another State agency which was, at the time, the health board and is now, I suppose, the Department of Social Protection. He is now in receipt of a disability payment.

It is difficult to accept that one Department claims a person is perfectly fit and another claims they are far from fit and that they should be in receipt of payment because of their illness.

I know that files are simply presented to the Minister of State and he is told what was said before and that it is difficult for him to say something different, but I ask him to reflect seriously on what has happened this person. His medical examination was carried out not by a defence personnel doctor or by a doctor who was in service at the time, but by a retired doctor, who is, unfortunately, deceased. As some of the correspondence acknowledged, obviously no verification or additional information can be obtained from that man. Mistakes do happen and the victim of this mistake left the armed services 26 years ago and has been suffering on a daily basis since. He is not looking to cause consternation, difficulty, chaos, sackings, or anything else, but simply wants to have his case fully reopened, examined and hopefully brought to a just conclusion.

Yesterday in this House I was talking about the proud service of An Garda Síochána. The Minister of State at the Department of Defence knows from attending to his duties the great work being done by our soldiers at home and abroad. The least they can expect is a little fair play, courtesy and consideration. If a possibility occurs that a mistake has been made - mistakes occur in all walks of life and we all make mistakes - we should be willing to try to resolve those issues. It is not a question of apportioning blame or pointing fingers. I could reflect all day on being paranoid about missing files and documents posted and not received, but that is not going to solve the problem.

I ask the Minister of State to sit down with all sides involved. The gentleman is not represented by any legal person. He is pursuing this on his own bat, very thoroughly, but to no avail, after 26 years. Will the Minister of State see, from a humanitarian perspective, how the file can be reopened and re-examined with the objective of finding a fair and equitable solution? I thank him for attending the House to listen to my presentation. The time available to us here is not adequate because while I will not say the case is so complex, there is so much paperwork and so many documents, traversing various Departments and offices that we would need an hour and a half to go through it fully, which neither of us has. I hope I have given the Minister of State a brief summary.

The kernel of the matter is the medical examination which, through nobody's fault, was not carried out in the fashion required or by the personnel required. I would not like to have my medical history summarised in a five-minute examination by a retired doctor and I am sure if the Minister of State or the Cathaoirleach had a medical problem in the morning, he would not be happy if he went to his local surgery and was given a five-minute examination and then told the examining person had retired four or five years ago. That is where the problem begins and ends. I am asking the Minister of State to deal with the problem humanely and sympathetically.

First, I acknowledge the presence of the person in question in the Visitors Gallery and his service in the Army. He was a member of the Defence Forces for a period of 12 years and I acknowledge the service he gave to the State over those 12 years. He was discharged in June 1989 at his own request. Defence Forces Regulation A10 requires that, when an individual is being discharged from the Defence Forces, a medical examination should be carried out by a medical officer of the Medical Corps.

Situations arise where military medical officers are not available. Paragraph 1306 of "A" Administrative Instruction Part 12, in catering for such situations, provides that "medical examination of personnel of the Permanent Defence Force should as far as possible be carried out by a Medical Officer of the Medical Corps and not by a civilian Medical Practitioner". I am advised that due to the unavailability of a serving medical officer at the time, the former member's discharge medical examination was carried out by a civilian medical practitioner in March 1989. The fact that the discharge medical was conducted by a civilian doctor is not unique as civilian doctors may be used from time to time as circumstances dictate. Notwithstanding the fact that he was examined by a civilian medical practitioner, I am advised that his discharge at his own request remains valid and is in accordance with regulations. His discharge documents were issued to him at that time and he has not been subject to military law since.

A record of the discharge medical examination taking place is contained in the former member's army medical book - LA30 filed on his central medical file. The medical book shows that at the time of his discharge the former member had a medical grade of A1. The medical examination report, AF332, which would have been completed by the doctor during the examination is not on file and cannot be located. This matter has been pursued by the person in question over a number of years. In this regard, a review was undertaken by the military authorities in 2012 on foot of representations received on the matter. A further search of military archives was undertaken, but the missing documentation could not be located. The civilian doctor passed away in 1994; therefore, the matter cannot be clarified from that source.

I understand the former member has suffered a hearing loss disability and contends that he is unable to obtain a disability pension due to an inadequate medical assessment prior to his discharge. In this regard, I am advised by departmental officials that an application for a disability pension is not dependent on the result of a medical examination prior to discharge. Under the Army Pensions Acts, a wound, or disability, pension may be granted to a former member of the Permanent Defence Force in respect of permanent disablement due to a wound or injury attributable to military service. Noise-induced hearing loss comes within the scope of this provision. Under the Acts, application for a wound pension must be made to my Department within one year of discharge from the Permanent Defence Force. The person in question was discharged from the Permanent Defence Force in June 1989 and made his first enquiry regarding a pension in respect of disablement in February 1997. As this was outside the statutory time limit, it was not open to the Department to accept an application for a wound pension from him. All personnel on their discharge or retirement from the Permanent Defence Force are provided with information setting out their possible entitlements under the Army Pension Acts and the statutory time limits for the making of applications.

With regard to the pre-discharge medical examination findings it is also noteworthy that assessment standards have changed over the years. The military authorities have advised that in 1989, the prescribed regulatory method of assessing "keenness of hearing" was by whisper or voice test only. Audioscopy standards were not introduced until 1991 and audiometry standards until 1997.

I am advised that the former member has been compensated for his hearing loss disability. He received compensation from the Department in settlement of a civil action in respect of loss of hearing in 1999.

The Department remains satisfied that there was no breach of Defence Forces regulations at the time of the former member's discharge in 1989. It is now some 26 years since the former member's discharge and a further review of the discharge procedures would not clarify matters further.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply, but he has not said anything I have not heard before. I do not want to rehearse what I said earlier but I appeal to him, notwithstanding what he has said, to take a personal interest in the case and try to arrange a substantial meeting between some of his officials and the gentleman in question, which he may be able to attend himself. His knowledge of the Department of Defence, military personnel and serving soldiers in the past three or four years and the active interest he takes in such matters would have to cause him to try to reach out to find a solution.

We are not talking about solutions that cost multi-millions, blaming anybody or rewriting history because what has happened has happened. It is very difficult for the former Army private to accept it. We have to be satisfied with the fact that files have gone missing. We have to be satisfied that his medical examination was carried out not by an Army doctor but by a retired doctor. Owing to all these difficulties, I cannot accept the Minister of State's view that a further review would not clarify matters further. We might not be happy with the clarification, however, we need to give it a final thorough examination. I am not expecting it to happen today, tomorrow or next week. In fairness the next six weeks should be a time when Ministers, in particular, can get a break from their duties. Can the Minister of State take a personal interest in this when we come back in the autumn? I am not looking for a miracle solution. Will he try to bring to the table the people who could try to chat with the former soldier and a friend or two - he will not bring barristers or senior counsel - to see if they can try to answer the remaining unanswered questions?
I appeal to the Minister of State to keep the door open on a person who, as he has said, has given 12 years of dedicated service in the line of duty to the State and the people.

I very much appreciate that all members of the Defence Forces put their lives on the line when they join. I have no doubt that the gentleman in question who was a member of the Defence Forces for 12 years served the country and the State extremely well.

On foot of the Senator's personal representations and interest in this case, I will ask my officials to contact him directly to arrange such a meeting in due course. If the gentleman in question would like to attend the meeting with the Senator, I would have no problem with that. I am not sure if the issue can be progressed but at least the door would not have been closed. We do not close the door on anybody's face on any occasion. We are talking about people and the life of a person with a disability who feels commitments have been reneged upon. I will ask my officials to contact the Senator to arrange that meeting. I am not sure if I will be available, but I will talk to my officials before the meeting and explain to them the Senator's pleadings today. We will treat this case in a very sympathetic manner.

I greatly appreciate that and thank the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 11.25 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.