Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Select Sub-Committee on Education and Skills DebatePage of 4
Chairman: I welcome Mr. Matt Ryan, principal officer, Mr. Dalton Tattan, principal officer, and Mr. Frank Fox, assistant principal, Department of Education and Skills, and apologise for the delayed start to this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Mr. Dalton Tattan: I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to attend before the select sub-committee to brief it on the general scheme of the education and training boards Bill. This brief presentation will set out the background to the structures in the vocational education committees, VEC, sector, outline the Bill’s purpose and focus on several key provisions.
VECs were established under the Vocational Education Act 1930 and operate principally in accordance with the provisions of this Act and the Vocational Education (Amendment) Act 2001. They are linked to the local authority structure in each area. The existing legislation defines certain functions as reserved to the committee members. All other functions are executive in nature and are performed by the chief executive officer of each VEC or other members of staff to whom such functions have been delegated.
Originally, 38 VECs were established by the 1930 Act. Following a process of rationalisation in the 1990s, which merged several town VECs with their county VEC, this number was reduced to 33. In October last year, the previous Government decided on a reduction to 16 new entities in order to deal with the issues of scale and based on the current and potential prospective requirements of the sector. In June of this year, the Government affirmed the reduction to 16, revised the configuration decided by the previous Government and approved, in principle, the preparation of a new Bill to replace the existing VEC legislation.
In July, the Government decided that a new further education and training authority, to be known as SOLAS, was to be established to replace FÁS. The new authority will operate under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills and will co-ordinate and fund the wide range of training and further education programmes around the country. The proposals in relation to SOLAS as agreed by the Government envisage a key role for the VECs in the future delivery of further education and training in an integrated manner under the reforms that will be driven by SOLAS. The Minister accordingly proposed that this legislation should be entitled the education and training boards Bill. Last month, the Government approved the publication of the general scheme of an education and training boards Bill, an accompanying explanatory memorandum and their referral at the same time to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education.
The purpose of the Bill is give effect to the Government decisions by providing for the establishment of the newly-configured bodies as education and training boards, reforming and modernising the governance provisions, and by articulating the functions of the boards to better reflect the actual evolution over time of the role of VECs.
The Bill will replace the nine existing vocational education Acts with one piece of primary legislation. The following heads of the Bill, 8 to 10, inclusive, provide for the establishment of 16 new education and training boards based on the configuration announced at the end of June.
Head 11 provides for an 18-person board composed of ten local authority representatives, two parents’ representatives, two staff representatives and four others to be co-opted by the core board from such bodies as the Minister may determine. This is a change from the current arrangements whereby there are nine local authority elected members, or 12 in the case of County Dublin VEC, two members for each urban district within a county area of up to four urban districts, or one member for each urban district where there are more than four urban districts, two parents’ representatives, two staff representatives and four community representatives appointed by the local authority, following consultation with the other members appointed to the VEC.
Where an education and training board is to be composed of representatives of more than one local authority, the composition of the ten local authority members will be formed in such proportions as the Minister, by order, determines. This follows the existing approach adopted in relation to County Dublin VEC which has local authority representation from Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. Head 12 provides that the term of office of each member of an education and training board will commence on the first meeting of such a board following a local election. In the case of the first boards to be constituted under this legislation, the existing VEC members will continue in office after the commencement of this legislation as members of the relevant education and training board, pending the next local elections. This will provide an important support to the transition from VECs to education and training boards.
The role of VECs in education has evolved considerably since their establishment. Their functions today are much wider than the original concepts of vocational and technical education, which are set out in the 1930 Act. Part 4 of the Bill seeks to modernise the language around the functions of the new education and training boards to reflect their important role.
Heads 22 and 23 provide for overarching objectives and specific functions including: the establishment of schools, centres for education and other education and training settings; the provision of education and training in those settings; provision of education and other supports to institutions other than education and training board facilities; co-operating with other education and training establishments in each board’s functional area; and provision of training on behalf of bodies which fund training. These heads reflect the proposed restructuring of what is now SOLAS and the delivery by education and training boards of training previously provided by FÁS.
Head 28 provides for a streamlining of existing procedures in relation to the annual service plan by allowing education and training boards to adopt an annual service plan based on a provisional expenditure limit in advance of knowing its finalised budget for the year. In practice, this could be based on a percentage of their budget in the preceding year.
Head 32 permits education and training boards to jointly operate education facilities with bodies that are not education and training boards and to provide support services, such as procurement, financial or HR expertise, to other education service providers in certain circumstances.
The Bill proposes to end the current requirement to hold sworn inquiries prior to a staff member’s removal from office. Instead, it removes the bar on staff from taking an unfair dismissals claim to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. The involvement of the Minister in the dismissal of VEC employees is also removed, except where it relates to the chief executive officer.
It is intended that the Bill will be both an enabling and reforming legal instrument. It will concentrate the governance, powers and functions of education and training boards in one Bill, modernise the statutory framework in this area and remove outdated terminology.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I join with the Chairman in welcoming the officials from the Department. We had an opportunity previously to discuss in general the whole further education sector and the merger of the VECs. I have consistently supported the merger of the vocational education committees and have stated that publicly in the Dáil on Question Time and elsewhere. I agree with the reduction of the number to 16 entities. Where I have some particular difficulties is with issues that have been raised with me which I raised previously with the Minister and his officials, in particular, Cork city and county being amalgamated into one entity. I have concerns also in regard to a single entity for counties Mayo, Roscommon and Leitrim. I said before that when one goes to east Leitrim, which is on the Longford-Cavan border, it is a considerable distance from Belmullet on the west coast. These two mergers have given rise to consistent concerns which have been raised with me as party spokesperson on education and skills. I assume the Minister will not revisit the proposed entities at this stage.
I differ from the Minister on the proposed location of the headquarters. I know that County Cavan, my own county, has an exemplary vocational education committee. There have been significant increases in enrolments during the years. The Cavan institute is a very good PLC centre. It is run effectively and is very efficient. It gives a very good return on the grant-in-aid from the Department. Mr. Colm McEvoy is an exceptional chief executive and all his staff are excellent.
In his presentation, Mr. Tatton refers to partnering with other education service providers. We have been doing that in County Cavan and have been providing technology services for primary schools and voluntary secondary schools for some time. The VEC has gone out and been proactive in working with local business and commerce in ensuring that the needs of the local economy are met by providing the appropriate courses in Cavan Institute. It is a major source of disappointment that the Government did not chose Cavan as the location for the headquarters for the new proposed entity.
I would like a note from the Department on the functions of a sub-office. Does it mean that it is an office for the time being and with natural wastage it will be run down in the future? I do not know if that is within Mr. Tatton’s remit.
Mr. Tatton concludes his presentation with the functions of the new Bill, one of which is to “remove outdated terminology”. I would like somebody to remove one such phrase, when they speak of natural wastage, when it comes to dealing with human resources. I think that phrase is awful. One of the fears that I have heard repeatedly is that the sub-office will be there for the time being. The Minister will have to overcome the political problems that will arise in choosing a location. We all realise that people can put up a good argument for an alternative location. The fact that Cavan was overlooked could not be based on a full assessment of the success of County Cavan VEC in recent years.
The Minister has stated very clearly that those employed by the VECs have security of employment and that the merger will not affect their rights. That message needs to be reinforced constantly. I have spoken to people in different VECs but they are still concerned about the security of their employment. When officials meet the stakeholders, it is very important to continue to emphasise that there is no threat to anybody’s job or employment position. I hope that is the case.
I am concerned at the proposed membership of the new education and training boards that a small local authority may be submerged where there are two or three local authorities involved. For example, Leitrim is a small county, with probably a population of only 30,000. None of us wants to see it submerged and its needs not met because it is aligned with much larger counties. There must be a weighting in favour of the smaller populated local authorities to ensure the needs of that area are not ignored at committee level when those boards are appointed.
The point that local authority nominees plus the parents and staff representatives will co-opt other members as the Minister may determine needs to be bedded down in a much tighter network. It should be representative of local industry and of boards of management of community colleges or vocational schools. There are particular parameters within which community representatives are chosen. That should be specific. Any political party that has a majority on a board could nominate four of its own people who may have nothing to contribute. We do not want that to happen. That would not happen everywhere but there is always the temptation if a party has a majority to nominate fellow party supporters. I am not opposed to any party supporter being on any board but we want to ensure there is a balance and that there are people with a particular competence who can bring something new to the board, where there may not be a representative of a particular interest already.
I welcome the overall position. However, I am concerned as to what the sub-office would mean in the future. We need to reassure the personnel working there that none of its employment is in peril, that the smaller local authorities are not ignored and they do not become a minority in the new board structure.
I have not had an opportunity to go through the proposals in detail. It would be useful if we had a contact person in the Department whom we could telephone directly in the event of particular issues arising, instead of raising them on Committee Stage. This would save time at the committee. That would be useful, if it is appropriate.
Mr. Matt Ryan: I will deal with the issue of sub-offices, which, as the Deputy said, is probably not a great term. I work in the Department’s offices in Athlone. Our office in Athlone is a sub-office of Marlborough Street. We have the existing headquarters but we are moving down to 16 new entities, the headquarters of which has been determined by the Minister and the Government. The intention is that the staff of the headquarters will be merged. The Croke Park agreement means we are not in a position to redeploy people beyond 45 km. It is a practical solution in terms of the agreement. We will not forcibly redeploy people from one location to another in contravention of the Croke Park agreement. In that scenario we would envisage an office being maintained in some of the existing locations, although it might not be delegated as the HQ of the new entity. Essentially, it will be a matter for the CEO and the new bodies, when established, to determine what functions will be carried out in those offices and how they will be staffed in the future.
Mr. Matt Ryan: For example, in respect of the new entity in Tipperary, the headquarters has been designed as Nenagh. It will mean that an office will continue to be maintained in Clonmel, which is the headquarters of south Tipperary VEC. We cannot redeploy the people from Clonmel to Nenagh - it is obviously beyond the limits. We would envisage, certainly for a number of years, that the office in Clonmel would continue to exist and that it would carry out certain functions as determined by the CEO. Down the line, it would be a matter for the entity itself and the CEO to determine how the staff would be distributed between the office in Nenagh, the headquarters and the sub-office in Clonmel.
Mr. Dalton Tattan: Deputy Smith raised the issue of security of employment. A redeployment scheme has been agreed at CEO level but that is being done under the auspices of the Croke Park agreement. The way it is being formulated means there will be no forcible redundancy - there will be redeployment either within the sector or within the wider public sector. Given that it is part of the Croke Park agreement, there can be no forcible redundancy in that context.
Deputy Smith raised the issue of membership and asked that smaller local authority areas be properly represented. The Bill is structured so that the Minister of the day can make an order, rather like what happens with County Dublin, providing that the proportions will come to the ten if there are two or three local authorities feeding into one education and training board. Obviously, there would have to be a rational basis for the Minister forming a view as to what the proportion should be in forming the ten in each new entity.
In regard to co-opting, the idea is that the Minister would designate a list of bodies from which individual education and training boards could draw and co-opt people and thereby ensure a diversity of voices at the board level, whether that is through community groups, industry or whatever. Another one which may become more relevant is with SOLAS in the training world as it may have some representation. There is proper representation through having a list of designated bodies. There will be local authority members, parents, staff and others.
On the issue of a direct contact point, I am happy to provide my details to the Chairman, through the clerk. I am happy to deal with Members’ queries through e-mail, telephone or whatever way is best for Members.
Mr. Dalton Tattan: That is a hard question to answer because even when the legislation is enacted there are commencement provisions proposed within it. When it is passed by the Oireachtas, it can be phased in after that. It is hard to say as much will depend on how good progress is made on the legislation.
Mr. Matt Ryan: We have had discussions with SIPTU, the union that represents the chief executive officers of the VECs, and we have agreed a scheme with it. The scheme applies only to permanent CEOs. We have 33 VECs, of which 22 have a permanent CEO in position and 11 of which have an acting CEO. The scheme allows for the 22 CEOs, when the Act is commenced, to indicate a preference for the new entity of which they would like to be the CEO. Where one or more opts for a particular entity, the person with the most seniority has first call on it. That scheme has been agreed. In the current scenario, where there are 22 permanent CEOs and only 16 posts available, we are talking about a surplus. The scheme allows for any surplus remaining when the new entities are established and the CEOs are in position to be redeployed either within the education sector or the broader public service, in accordance with the terms of the Croke Park agreement.
Deputy Seán Crowe: We have raised the issue of the redeployment of CEOs with the Minister on a previous occasion. It will be helpful to have the contact number to which Mr. Ryan referred. Mr. Ryan said the locations of the headquarters were determined by the Minister and the Government and, therefore, he cannot elaborate on them. However, there is a great deal of confusion in terms of whether that decision was primarily a political one or something else. For example, one of my colleagues in Waterford has inquired why the Waterford headquarters was moved to Wexford. There are legitimate questions to be addressed. It would be useful to hear whether there were particular reasons that these locations were chosen. Some of this initiative is about saving money, something in which we are all in favour. However, I have concerns about how it has been done. It was not as transparent as it should have been.
I have several points to make in regard to some of the proposed provisions in the Bill. On page 69, clarification is needed of subheads (7) and (8) of head 30, which deal with the criteria under which members of a committee may be removed from office by the education and training board concerned. Subheads (9) and (10) deal with the circumstances under which an education board may, with the consent of the Minister, be at any time dissolved. Will the delegates clarify these provisions?
I understand the rationale for this provision, but it is not necessarily to be welcomed that this committee, for example, would be unable to question a CEO on the merits of a particular Government policy and whether it is working. Perhaps the delegates might have an explanatory note on this issue.
Mr. Dalton Tattan: Regarding the provision on page 69 on the removal of members of the committee, that is something we can look at in the course of drafting. There certainly needs to be a power of removal in regard to committees established by an education and training board, but I accept there may be a need to review this and perhaps elaborate on it in terms of grounds and so on.
The provision regarding section 2(1)(j) of the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 is connected with a change we are proposing under this legislation. As it stands, before an officer of a VEC can be removed from office there must be a sworn inquiry and it ultimately requires the approval of the Minister. We are proposing to end that process and instead afford members of staff of the new education and training boards access to the provisions of the unfair dismissals legislation, from which they are currently excluded. We could not remove the right to a sworn inquiry without offering something in its place. The proposal is that members be given the protections flowing from the unfair dismissals legislation. As such, where there is a dismissal at issue, it can be taken to the Employment Appeals Tribunal.
The provision at subhead (2) of head 53 is a standard provision in legislation whereby officials are not drawn into questioning policy they are being asked to implement. We are simply following precedents obtaining in respect of other State bodies in this regard.
Chairman: The perception is that officials cannot feed into policy. In the case of the legislation establishing the Health Service Executive, for example, the impression is given that officials cannot even inform the Minister of their opinions. That is a cause for concern. We must surely recognise that the CEOs have a right to a say in policy.
Mr. Dalton Tattan: Of course, and there is a provision in the Bill which allows the CEO to assist the members of the board in the exercise of their reserved functions, which effectively will be policy ones.
Mr. Dalton Tattan: We can look at it further in the course of drafting. We need to consider the types of criteria we might use. It might not need to find a home here, but we will certainly endeavour to elaborate on it for the Deputy.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I presume that where a teacher is a member of the board and he or she is suspended from teaching duties, his or her membership of the board would accordingly lapse. Is that the type of instance envisaged in this provision?
Mr. Dalton Tattan: It is more fundamentally concerned with removal generally in terms of the grounds for removal. Is the Deputy referring to a situation where a teacher is effectively placed on administrative leave pending a disciplinary inquiry and he or she is a staff representative on the education and training board?
Chairman: In terms of process, our duty as a committee is to devise a report with recommendations, changes and suggestions. However, these proposals are draft provisions and are still being considered by the Department. My concern is that by the time we send our recommendations to the Minister in mid-December, the delegates may already have made changes to the draft proposals. Is there a process by which they could keep us informed of any such changes in the next six weeks?
Mr. Dalton Tattan: We are happy to do so. It is a case of whatever works best for the committee. Perhaps in the final session we could report on issues we have identified or produce an updated version of the document.
Chairman: It would assist us in our work if the delegates were to inform us of any major changes they have made or intend to make. That would prevent us spending hours debating something that has already been changed. Perhaps the delegates would communicate any changes by e-mail to the clerk.
Deputy Tom Fleming: I compliment the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and everybody concerned on the retention of the Kerry Education Service. The original proposal to group us in with Limerick had no logic or rationale about it. Among other reasons, it made no sense on geographical grounds, given that Kerry is a very large county. Moreover, the existing set-up under the former CEO, Dr. Barney O’Reilly, and former chairman, Mr. Brendán Mac Gearailt, and continued by Councillor Jim Finucane in the chair and the acting CEO, Ms Ann O’Dwyer, has been very successful. I am very thankful that the VEC is continuing in its rightful place as a county VEC. We have an excellent staffing organisation throughout the county with a wonderful delivery of service. Under the composition of the new boards, I was interested that there would be an involvement by SOLAS. I am disappointed that SOLAS has not been involved in the primary board that has been set up. I welcome the democratic representation of ten councillors, two staff representatives, two parents and four community representatives. In what way will SOLAS be integrated into the new board?
There may be a need for a sub-committee in order to spread it out. We need to bring in people involved in all the growth sectors, including tourism, agriculture, enterprise and manufacturing. There should be somebody from career guidance and human resources. Adult education will be very important. It would be important to have a representative from a county youth organisation who could also be a representative of the pupils. We need both a top-down and a bottom-up approach. We should not underestimate the importance of the contribution that could be made by a representative of the pupils. Perhaps a minimum age of 15 should be established with the person being appointed for two years after which someone else from that sector would be appointed.
Given the economic situation many components are needed to address matters and education is one of the primary aspects. I hope my suggestions will get a positive outcome. If I have omitted any other organisations, perhaps they could also be considered.
Mr. Dalton Tattan: To respond to the SOLAS point, ultimately the intention is that the staff in the FÁS training centres will be transferred to the new educational training boards. Effectively education and training service provision to a large extent will be integrated under the one roof. Once it is formally established SOLAS will then receive an increased financial allocation from the Department and will enter into service level agreements with service providers such as educational training boards to ensure the level and quality of service is there.
Mr. Dalton Tattan: It is one of the challenges at the moment because it will require separate legislation. To an extent we do not know how quickly that legislation, which is being drafted in the Department, will proceed. As it will be shorter legislation it could proceed more quickly than this one.
Chairman: That can be in this committee’s report. We will spend some more time. We will take note of the Deputy’s recommendation and come back to him. There is merit in parts of it. I do not think the officials should comment on it yet - it is up to us to make a report on it.
Deputy Brendan Smith: The local authorities will be nominating people where the new entity covers more than one local authority area. A town council in a county town should still be permitted to nominate one person. At present some of them can nominate two or there may be a number of town councils in one county. If the county town has a town council, it should get some recognition and be able to nominate one person to the new board.
I have some questions about the sub-offices because like some other members, I have a difficulty with the choice in my own area. That is not a matter for today and we will come back to it again. We will be holding public hearings and we need to be better informed of the criteria used to make the selection. I accept the officials might not be able to discuss it today, but we should receive a briefing on or explanation of the choice that was made. Numerous VECs have contacted us claiming different reasons and criteria are being given. It would be useful for us to have the exact information so that we can at least engage with people. I know it is not entirely relevant to the Bill, but it is important that we are able to explain it when groups appear before the committee. We want to try to engage properly with the issue in the next month or two.
Likewise we need some clarity on the sub-offices. It should relate to services to the people and not just to accommodate staff issues or the Croke Park agreement. When there is a large geographical area a sub-office serves a useful purpose in being close to the people. I know the training and education will still be close to the people but sometimes the public need to engage with the administration part of it. Can sub-offices be considered as a solution if there is a long distance to travel or do they just deal with staffing problems and problems relating to the Croke Park agreement? Those are the issues that will come up. It is hard to find the exact piece of the Bill that specifies dealing with sub-offices but they will come up in our discussions and will probably feature in our report so we need some more information on that.
Chairman: I ask that we receive that before 22 November because we will have some public hearings on that day also. There is an open channel to communicate to and fro, but do members have any other questions?
Head 31 provides that the Minister for Education and Skills can direct the Irish Vocational Education Association to perform a co-ordinating role to assist in the joint exercise of functions. I ask the officials to elaborate. I understood that that association was the representative body of the CEOs, but there would be differences of opinion coming from others on that. I ask the officials to elaborate on the thinking behind the Minister directing it to have a co-ordinating role with which everybody has to agree. Does it just relate to time?
Mr. Dalton Tattan: Part of it is about practicalities because at the moment there are 33 bodies and whenever we need to get information or do something in a co-ordinated way the Department ends up dealing with 33 individual bodies, which can create its own practical difficulties. At least one of the reasons behind it is to provide a means-----
Mr. Dalton Tattan: ----- to pull that together in a way that is legally effective. While the IVA exists as a representative body it has no real means to require individual VECs to produce stuff. The Minister can look for information from all the individual VECs, but then one is dependent on them all coming in individually in different formats and so on. It is an attempt to bring more co-ordination to it.
Mr. Matt Ryan: The IVA is a representative body of all 33 existing VECs. It does not represent the CEOs; it represents the VECs. A large number of the CEOs serve on its executive committees. We would envisage an expanded co-ordination role for the IVA.
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