Dáil Éireann - Volume 331 - 10 December, 1981

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - School Enrolment Age.

14. Mr. Kitt asked the Minister for Education if he will withdraw Circular 24/81 on the age of admission to national schools because of its serious detrimental effect on the education of children and particularly on those in rural and disadvantaged areas.

15. Mr. Kitt asked the Minister for Education why he did not consult with the Irish National Teachers' Organisation or the management authorities before he raised the age of admission to national schools.

16. Mr. Molloy asked the Minister for Education the names of each branch of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation who have asked him to withdraw Circular 24/81; and the action he proposes to take in the matter.

17. Mr. Molloy asked the Minister for Education if he has received a request from the Clifden Branch of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation for the withdrawal of Circular 24/81; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

18. Mr. Coughlan asked the Minister for Education if, in view of the objection of the entire INTO profession to the new [1694] school commencement age, he will be prepared to reconsider the Government's position with a view to withdrawing the new regulation.

19. Mr. Blaney asked the Minister for Education whether he has considered the consequences his decision to raise the age of admission of pupils to national schools to five years will have on small rural schools which may be forced to close or reduce the number of teachers with resultant hardship to families in rural communities; and whether the Government have any plans to provide an alternative system of pre-national school education.

20. Mr. Molloy asked the Minister for Education if he will give an estimate of the effect of the introduction of the new arrangements for school enrolments in 1980-81 and 1981-82.

21. Mr. Molloy asked the Minister for Education the estimated annual saving in expenditure, under each heading, arising from his decision to increase the entry age to national schools to four and a half years.

22. Mr. Kitt asked the Minister for Education if he is aware of the consequences for the school transport service in rural and disadvantaged areas of his decision to raise the age of admission to national schools.

23. Mr. Kitt asked the Minister for Education if, in view of the decision to raise the admission age for pupils attending primary schools, he will state whether any changes will be made in the rules and regulations governing the school transport service in rural areas.

24. Mr. Meaney asked the Minister for Education if he is aware that many children of approximately five years will lose their right to transport to national schools as a result of the admission age to national schools being raised and that their areas will not have the required number to qualify for transport; and if, in view of the fact that some of these [1695] children will have to walk from two to three-and-a-half miles, he will now lower the qualifying number for a transport service.

25. Mr. Meaney asked the Minister for Education the number of children who will be deprived of school transport as a result of raising the age of admission to national schools; and if his Department have carried out a survey on the matter.

Mr. Boland: I propose, with the permission of the Ceann Comhairle, to take Questions Nos. 14 to 25 together.

Mr. Meaney: On a point of order, I object to this. My question is completely different from the others in this group.

An Ceann Comhairle: For the information of the House, the Minister does not have to seek the permission of the Ceann Comhairle to take questions together. It is a matter for the Minister concerned and I cannot compel a Minister to answer questions separately. It is merely a courtesy for the Minister to say “with the permission of the Ceann Comhairle”.

Mr. Wilson: This is very serious. There is a precedent. Deputy Dick Burke came in here on one occasion lumping 17 questions together. That outraged the House and it was the decision of the Chair on that occasion that the questions should be taken on the following day and taken individually.

Mr. Kitt: On a point of order, Question No. 22 relates to school transport. I understand that it is Deputy Keating, Minister of State at the Department of Education, who has responsibility for school transport and I cannot understand why the Minister for Education should deal with school transport.

An Ceann Comhairle: I looked up the rulings on this because I often wondered about this phrase “with the permission of the Ceann Comhairle” and I discovered that it is a matter for the Minister. It has [1696] been the practice for Ministers to take a number of questions together and the introduction of the Ceann Comhairle's permission is merely a courtesy.

Mr. Wilson: Would the Chair like to comment on the fact that there is a precedent, a precedent which must be known to his officials, that on one occasion on third level education the then Minister for Education came in with a common answer to 17 questions. The House would not tolerate that, the matter was referred back and the questions were answered individually on the following day.

An Ceann Comhairle: If there is a precedent for that, I will certainly look at it and inform the Deputies about it. If the Deputy likes, the question can be postponed.

Mr. Wilson: Yes.

Mr. Boland: I will answer the questions individually.

Mr. Kitt: Would the Minister do that, for the benefit of the House?

Mr. Boland: It will merely be delaying the House.

An Ceann Comhairle: For the benefit of the House and the convenience of the Deputies opposite, please.

Mr. Boland: Because of the particular development, it will merely mean delaying the business of the House.

An Ceann Comhairle: Would the Minister like to postpone answering the questions until next Tuesday?

Mr. Boland: The situation will not have changed by next Tuesday.

Mr. Kitt: That is a discourtesy.

Mr. Boland: I am most anxious to be as courteous and helpful to the House as possible. However, because of the particular circumstances in which I am placed, [1697] the situation being very unlikely to change between now and next week, I would have preferred——

An Ceann Comhairle: Would the Minister reply to the questions individually, please?

Mr. Boland: If the Deputies prefer.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister will reply to the questions individually. Question No. 14.

14. Mr. Kitt asked the Minister for Education if he will withdraw Circular 24/81 on the age of admission to national schools because of its serious detrimental effect on the education of children and particularly on those in rural and disadvantaged areas.

Mr. Boland: I have been officially informed by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation that the following resolution was passed at a Special Congress of the organisation held to discuss the question of the raising of the primary school entry age in Limerick on Saturday, 14 November 1981:

Congress declares that the Organisation shall seek a Declaration in the Courts that the Minister for Education is in breach of contract or has induced breach of contract with teachers in National Schools.

Following a long established precedent in relation to matters of which notice is given that an action may be taken in the courts in regard to them, I consider that I am precluded from making comment on the issues raised in the questions from the Deputies.

Mr. Wilson: I have been in touch with the Irish National Teachers' Organisation on this matter and would ask the Minister is it not true that no legal action has been taken as of now?

Mr. Boland: I have already, in the context of the initial reply, quoted from the letter which I received from the Irish National Teachers' Organisation.

[1698] Mr. Wilson: Is it not true that the reason given to this House is that the matter is sub judice? The matter is not sub judice and legal action has not been taken. I am asking the Minister, through the Chair, why he will not answer the question fully, seeing that the matter is not now sub judice?

Mr. Boland: As the Deputy will be aware, as is a long-established precedent, certainly in the case of the Department of Education and most other Departments, once notification is given of a matter in which action is proposed to be taken in the courts, the Minister responsible is no longer left in a position to comment freely upon the question until such time as the court action — or proposed court action——

Mr. Wilson: That was a slip.

Mr. Boland: ——has been disposed of.

Mr. Wilson: This cock will not fight. The question is not sub judice, therefore there is an obligation on the Minister to reply to the question as put down to him. If he wants to postpone the question until Tuesday, I am quite willing and I believe my colleagues——

Deputies: Hear, hear.

Mr. Wilson: ——have indicated their willingness in that respect. The excuse that it is sub judice will not hold water. The matter is not, as of now, sub judice.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister has answered the question. The Deputy may not be satisfied with the reply, but he has answered.

Mr. Kitt: That is not factual.

Mr. Wilson: The Minister has refused to answer the question on the basis——

An Ceann Comhairle: He has actually given a reply to the question. It may not be satisfactory to the Deputies, but there is a reply and, again, the Chair has no [1699] control over the content of a Minister's reply.

Mr. Wilson: On a point of order, the Minister has stated that he cannot reply because of a proposed court action. That is not a reply.

An Ceann Comhairle: No, sorry, he did not.

Mr. Wilson: That is the reason why he has not replied. That is not a valid reason and consequently it is not acceptable.

An Ceann Comhairle: I am sorry, Deputy. The Minister has given the Deputy a reply to the effect that he is precluded from offering comment, by virtue of the fact that the matter may be brought before the courts. That is the reply he has given.

Mr. Wilson: He told the House that he could not reply.

An Ceann Comhairle: No, he did not.

Mr. Wilson: He has told the House that he cannot reply because of a proposed legal action. The fact is that, as of now, there is no legal action and there is an obligation on the Minister to answer fully the question as put down to him.

An Ceann Comhairle: I am sorry, Deputy. The Deputy will have to accept the ruling of the Chair on this. I have a copy of the Minister's reply in front of me. He said: “Following a long-established precedent in relation to matters of which notice is given that an action may be taken in the court, I am precluded from offering comment on the issue.” The Deputy will have to accept my Ruling on this. We cannot go into any further argument and must now proceed to the next question.

Mr. Wilson: I am sorry, Sir, I am disputing this. This is a device. The Minister is quoting precedents, well-established practices and so forth, without the Chair having made any comment on that part [1700] of it. I know that the Chair is not responsible for the replies, but suggest that the Chair surely has a responsibility that the Minister reply to the questions on the Order Paper. The Minister has refused on the specious ground that there is a legal action pending and that it is sub judice. It is not, in fact, sub judice.

An Ceann Comhairle: Where the Deputy finds an answer is not to his satisfaction, he has another means open, to raise the matter on the Adjournment. I am afraid we cannot enter into an argument here or a debate on this question.

Mr. Wilson: I do not want a debate on it. I want answers to questions. The point I want to make is that the Minister lumped together a whole series of questions——

An Ceann Comhairle: He is now answering them individually, Deputy.

Mr. Wilson: Yes. He is taking them individually. He has already stated that Question No. 14 will not be answered by him because of a threatened legal action. It is a tradition of the House, and I can see a sound and valid reason for it, that matters which are sub judice, because of the protection we have in the House, should not be discussed or debated or be the subject of any kind of wrangling in this House. This matter, however, is not sub judice and anything which is said here cannot affect any kind of judicial process whatsoever. For that reason, the Minister is obliged to answer the question as put down to him on the Clár.

An Ceann Comhairle: If the Minister refuses to answer, or gives the answer which he has just given, the Chair has no say in the matter and the Deputy must accept that. If he is dissatisfied, he has an opportunity to raise the matter on the Adjournment, when the Chair has examined his request.

Mr. Wilson: That is not the same thing.

An Ceann Comhairle: I am sorry. I [1701] would like to facilitate the Deputy, but I must make a ruling that we cannot have further debate.

Mr. Wilson: I know that it is a well-established practice that the Chair cannot be responsible for the replies of Ministers.

An Ceann Comhairle: Yes.

Mr. Wilson: That is true. However, when the Minister says that, because of a threatened legal action, or proposed legal action, he cannot answer the question, I submit that there is some obligation on the House to see to it that the precedent is not in question here at all.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Chair cannot compel the Minister to give a reply. If the Minister has given some form of a reply the Chair has no further function in the matter. The Deputies concerned may be very dissatisfied with it but, unfortunately, I must now proceed to the next question.

Mr. Molloy: Would the Minister accept the offer from Deputies on this side to have those questions postponed until next week? In the meantime he and our spokesman, Deputy Wilson, could have a meeting with the Chair to discuss the obvious precedents which are being established and which could have a very serious effect on how this Parliament operates in the future.

Mr. Boland: I was quite upset that I had to endeavour to answer this question in this way. But the Chair will be aware, and Deputy Wilson should be aware, that the advices given to me are long-standing and relate not just to this matter but to other matters in the past when similar action was taken and similar decisions were made by Ministers. I did endeavour to point out to the House, when I tried to take these questions collectively, that it was in the interests of the expeditious business of the House that they should be taken collectively. The House did not agree and I was asked to deal with them [1702] individually. That I now propose to do, with the permission of the Chair.

Mr. Meaney: On what date were the legal documents served on the Minister and his Department by the INTO which would make the matter sub judice?

An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister has already answered that. He did not say there were any.

Mr. Meaney: He has not answered that. I am asking a simple question.

Mr. Boland: I am sorry if I have confused Deputy Meaney. I did not suggest that the matter was in fact before the courts. What I explained to the House in the text of my reply was that the INTO had informed me:

Congress declares that the Organisation shall seek a Declaration in the Courts that the Minister for Education is in breach of contract or has induced breach of contract with teachers in National Schools.

I then went on to say that, following long-established precedent in relation to matters of which notice is given that an action may be taken in the courts in regard to them, I consider that I am precluded from offering comment on the issues raised in the question.

Mr. Meaney: It is not sub judice until the legal notice has been served on the Minister and the Department, so the Minister is not precluded from answering the questions if he wanted to.

Mr. Wilson: Would the Minister give the date of that letter from the INTO?

An Ceann Comhairle: He has given it already. It is 14 November.

Mr. Boland: The congress took place on Saturday, 14 November. The letter from the INTO was dated 16 November.

Mr. Molloy: There is very serious dissatisfaction on this side of the House with the Minister's attitude.

[1703] Mr. Boland: There is on this side, too. I am not happy about it.

Mr. Molloy: Let me repeat my request to the Minister, so that some sanity might be brought into this situation. Will he allow the meeting that I suggested to take place to establish clearly precedents that are in accord with the traditions of the Chair and of this House in the past? We are offering to have the questions withdrawn until that matter is established.

Mr. Boland: All of this matter was debated some ten minutes ago. I suggest strongly to the House that the most expeditious way of dealing with this matter is to have one reply put forward, because of the very difficult situation in which I find myself which is not of my making and not of my desire. I would far prefer to be in a position to answer each of these questions individually. Because of that situation I felt that it was better that the questions ought to be answered collectively. The House chose that they be answered individually. The Chair asked if I would do so and I agreed. With the permission of the Chair, I will proceed to do that now.

Mr. L. Fitzgerald: Is the Minister prepared to take the question of precedents and have it discussed with our front bench spokesman? I would also like to point out that we have exercised great restraint in view of the Minister's failure to give us a comprehensive reply and in view of the specious reason he gave that this is a sub judice situation. We cannot accept the situation that has emerged in the House this evening. I am asking the Minister again to agree to a meeting.

An Ceann Comhairle: This has been asked before and the Minister has given a reply.

Mr. Wilson: Is the Chair saying that, if we accept this first question, we will have to accept all of the questions, because all of them are connected with Circular 24 of 1981? What we are being [1704] asked to do is buy a pig in a poke. That is not fair to the people concerned on this side of the House. It is not fair to the people throughout the country who are vitally interested in the subject matter of these questions. There is sleight of hand here to get over the answering of these questions or the facing up to these questions, and nobody in the House should be in aid of that.

An Ceann Comhairle: There is an established practice in the House whereby a number of questions are answered together. Deputy Wilson, as a former Minister, knows it very well. He also knows that the Chair has no control over the reply given by a Minister and if the reply is not to his satisfaction he can raise the matter on the Adjournment. They are the only devices open to the Deputy at the moment and the Chair cannot facilitate him in any way further than that. I have been very lenient with the Deputy and I must now go on to the next question.

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Wilson: I realise that the Chair has a problem. I realise also that the Chair has not had an opportunity to study in detail what happened in this House once before when an attempt was made to answer 17 questions together. It outraged both sides of the House and a decision was taken to have the questions answered on the following day. If the questions were postponed until Tuesday, the Chair would have an opportunity to examine that precedent and see how it relates to the problem that we have now.

Mr. N. Andrews; I would like the Chair to clarify the point that Deputy Wilson has made because my question follows on that.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy is up on a point of order or he is not. He had better tell me.

(Interruptions.)

[1705] An Ceann Comhairle: I am going to hear all your points of order now. The Chair is deciding things and if the Deputies think otherwise I will postpone the whole lot. If there is any disorder in the House I will suspend the sitting.

Mr. N. Andrews: What is being put forward here is a reasonable request from Deputy Wilson and other Deputies, including Deputies Molloy and Fitzgerald. The Chair has not ruled on the request that they have made. The Minister has been asked to have a meeting to examine precedents that have already been set in this House.

An Ceann Comhairle: That is what the Deputy is asking?

Mr. N. Andrews: Yes.

An Ceann Comhairle: Now I want to hear from the Minister.

Mr. Boland: I have already pointed out to the House that I found myself in a particular difficulty in relation to these questions and I endeavoured to answer them. So that the business of answering questions could continue expeditiously, I endeavoured to answer them collectively. When the Members of the House objected to that, I explained that the replies would not be much different but if they wished — and the Chair asked — that I should answer the questions individually, I would do so. I have answered one of the questions now and I will, with the permission of the Chair, continue to answer the remainder of the questions.

Mr. Wilson: That is far too clever.

An Ceann Comhairle: This is the final note on the matter.

(Interruptions.)

An Ceann Comhairle: If the Deputies will not resume their seats now I shall declare them disorderly. I am calling on Deputy Wilson to make his point now.

[1706] Mr. Wilson: I ask the Chair, in fairness and justice to himself, to allow himself time to have a look at the precedent of the 17 questions and to decide in the light of his study of that how it is relevant to this, because we have now a refusal to answer Question No. 14, in the name of Deputy Kitt and——

Mr. Boland: That is not correct.

Mr. Wilson: ——consequential on that there can be a refusal right down through these questions because every question here arises out of the issue of circular 24/81. The Minister is saying that something is sub judice and that he cannot reply because of that. It is not, in fact, sub judice.

An Ceann Comhairle: I am making a decision now. The Minister has agreed at my request to answer the questions individually. The Minister must be permitted to do that. If you are not satisfied, I am sorry. I cannot do anything for you. I have made that decision. We are not considering anything else.

(Interruptions.)

An Ceann Comhairle: Will Deputies resume their seats? I have made a decision. The Minister will answer the questions individually. If Deputy Molloy does not resume his seat I will have to take action against him. I am calling on Deputies to resume their seats. Deputy Molloy, I am calling on you to resume your seat. If you do not you are being disorderly and I will have to ask you to leave the House.

Mr. Wilson: That is not fair. It is not just. We are being derided and ignored by the Minister, who will not answer the questions.

An Ceann Comhairle: The sitting is suspended until 3.30 p.m.

Business suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.