Ceisteanna — Questions. Priority Questions. - Education Costs.

Thursday, 17 April 1997

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 477 No. 7

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  2.  Mr. Martin  Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin   asked the Minister for Education  Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach   if she will publish the cost framework undertaken by the Department of Finance prior to the publication of the White Paper on Education, Charting Our Education Future, in relation to the cost implications of the many proposals contained in the White Paper; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10312/97]

  3.  Ms Keogh  Information on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  Zoom on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh   asked the Minister for Education  Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach   the progress, if any, she has made in establishing the cost of the regional education boards as proposed in the Education Bill. [10257/97]

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 3 together.

As I have indicated to Deputies on a number of occasions, the Government decision on the funding of initiatives in the White Paper, Charting Our Education Future, is as set out in my foreword to the White Paper. This means that the amount of funding which can be made available in any given year will have to be decided by the Government in the context of its financial position and its other public expenditure priorities at that time.

In making observations on the resource aspects of the White Paper, the Department of Finance did not produce detailed, comprehensive multiannual cost projections which would take account of all the variables on which future costs depend. To attempt to do so would have been a very difficult, if not impossible, task and would be of questionable value. Government approval of the White Paper was contingent upon adherence to the Maastricht Treaty criteria in accordance with the Government's fiscal policy objectives. The allocation for education would have to be settled each year.

As regards the education boards, their establishment will not result in a completely new area of expenditure. It will rather involve the reallocation of funding and administrative responsibilities within the education system.

The Education Bill, 1997, specifically provides that the Minister must have the consent of the Government before bringing the education boards into operation. The establishment of the boards will take place on a phased basis with a gradual transfer of functions to the boards within costed and approved plans prepared by each board and approved by the Minister. This will facilitate careful appraisal of the incremental costs of the boards in the context of the Education Estimates for the year in question.

To ensure the smooth transfer of functions to the education boards and to prepare for the new role of the Department, management consultants [1477] have been contracted by my Department to review the present organisational structure of the Department. As part of their brief, they will also make recommendations regarding the future structure of the Department and the education boards. This will ensure that no unnecessary expenditure is incurred in the transfer of functions.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  I am concerned that the House is not receiving information to which it is entitled. My question was whether the Minister will publish the cost framework undertaken by the Department of Finance in relation to the costings in the White Paper. The Minister now terms that cost framework “observations” by the Department of Finance. In replies to previous parliamentary questions, it was referred to as the “cost framework”. An exercise was undertaken by the Department of Finance which outlined the costs associated with many of the White Paper's proposals, including the establishment of regional education boards. Will the Minister publish those observations or the cost framework?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  I refer the Deputies to the formula agreed by the Department of Finance in relation to funding of proposals for the education boards which is the outcome of work done with the Department of Education. The White Paper was a Government White Paper and I have quoted it on a number of occasions. The framework and costings of the proposals are contingent on many variables: for example, the pay costs under negotiation, the numbers employed in the sector, the pay rates and the timescale of the proposals. The White Paper is the Government's commitment to education.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  Will the Minister publish?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  There is nothing to publish.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  The Minister has said that there are observations.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  There was work done but there is nothing to publish. There is a commitment in the Department of Finance on the future funding of education within the Maastricht Treaty guidelines. Despite Deputy Martin's party being responsible for this Department, it had seen little investment.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  The Minister should stick to the question.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  The budget for the Department has nearly doubled in my three to four years there. We must ensure that, with such massive investment by a Government that is so committed to investing in education, such money is spent wisely.

Ms Keogh: Information on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  Zoom on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  The Minister is saying that she has no idea what the regional education boards will [1478] cost. She said so before and she is now hiding behind the notion that the boards she proposes will be phased in so that each time one is created, that board will determine how much is to be spent. That is not planning. Were any costings or framework available to the Minister from the Department of Finance to give an idea of what the regional education boards would cost? Why is it only now that the management consultants are seeing how those boards would operate? That is a roundabout way of approaching the matter. The Select Committee on Social Affairs has received 16 submissions and 14 of the groups giving evidence said that the regional education boards would be a bureaucratic nightmare and a total waste of resources. Does the Minister not agree that she should listen to these people in the front line in education?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  Deputies should listen to the 3,000 communities served by our primary and secondary schools. Parents involved in these schools are enthusiastic to play their roles in making decisions on education rather than relying on the centralised bureaucratic model that has been criticised by national and international organisations which have looked at it. I am committed to the regional development of education and to ensuring that people in their own communities will participate in decisions about their children's futures using their own tax payments.

This Government has increased the education budget by 40 per cent. Schools compete with schools and classrooms with classrooms for disastrously substandard school buildings which was the legacy of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  That is nonsense.

Ms Keogh: Information on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  Zoom on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  This is ridiculous.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  The voices of teachers and parents were not heard by those now in Opposition. Deputies who meet people over the weekend should listen to them saying that schools and parishes are looking forward to a day when their parish will not be in competition with others——

Miss Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  Where is the money for this coming from?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  ——but when decisions will be made regionally. They will be able to seek remedial and psychological aid, teaching for travellers and support for gaelscoileanna. Those decisions will not be taken by a bureaucracy in Marlborough Street.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  This is a Second Stage speech.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  That bureaucracy served the nation well until education became available to most people. We spend almost £30 million administering the system and consultants are looking at [1479] the regionalisation of the delivery of administration to benefit every parish and community in education. That is a lot of people and this will benefit them.

Mr. L. Fitzgerald: Information on Liam Fitzgerald  Zoom on Liam Fitzgerald  The Minister is known as the great rezoner.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  I do not wish to engage in a Second Stage debate as this is Question Time and we should receive answers to our questions. I spent a considerable amount of time at the three teacher conferences, rather than just breeze in and out like the Minister, and listened to the teachers. I discovered there was unanimity among them in opposing the establishment of the regional education boards. Members of the Select Committee on Social Affairs listened to 16 submissions, the vast majority of which were against their establishment.

Before replying to this question did the Minister and her officials check with the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Fitzgerald, to ascertain whether the Minister and Government are obliged to make the information available to Members and the general public on the cost framework? The Minister admitted a year ago a review had been undertaken by the Department of Finance which was admitted by the Minister for Finance in the course of replying to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Michael McDowell. That Minister admitted to Deputy McDowell that a cost framework was undertaken by his Department in respect of the costings of the White Paper on Education which he refused to publish at the time on the basis that it was inappropriate. Following the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, we are entitled to that basic information, which is not security sensitive. There is a deliberate attempt on the part of the Government to prevent us accessing this information. Has it been stamped by the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill? Why is the Minister hiding those observations? What is she afraid of? Why will she not publish those figures? We want some transparency and the Minister is accountable to this House.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  This is probably the fourth occasion this matter has been debated. I have some quotations of the Minister for Finance when replying to a parliamentary question of 19 October 1995 on the costings of the White Paper, the policy document of the Government on the future of education. In order that the general public may be confident that the White Paper faces the real issues confronted by my Department each year a formula was agreed, that the development of our education system——

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  That is not the question.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  I keep repeating to the [1480] Deputy: I am sorry, I have not got the information but he does not believe me.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  The Minister said earlier she had observations.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  I have not——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Would the Deputy please listen to the reply without interrupting?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  There are variable costs associated with education——

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  Publish them.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  My Department has a budget of £2.3 billion with attendant administrative costs, some of which I have already listed. As a Minister who has witnessed this budget reach such a level——

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  On a point of order, will the Minister publish the information? That is all we are asking.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  I said “no”; I have not got anything to publish.

Mr. L. Fitzgerald: Information on Liam Fitzgerald  Zoom on Liam Fitzgerald  The Minister is eliminating the Taoiseach.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Will Deputies please listen to the Minister's reply.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  Will the Minister publish the information?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  I have no information to give. The White Paper contains a formula, one which the Department of Finance, with Government approval——

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  Then I will pursue the matter in a different way, legally if I have to.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  It is most unusual in the case of a White Paper — the Deputy asked me to examine other White Papers — to have to confirm that such costings are normal. A White Paper points out the future direction of development in any given area.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  The Minister is filibustering.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  We expend £26 million out of a total budget of £2.3 billion on administering the education budget which has increased by almost 50 per cent. Since October 1995 I have answered questions regularly here and my responses never varied.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  The Minister's answer always was “no information”.

Mr. L. Fitzgerald: Information on Liam Fitzgerald  Zoom on Liam Fitzgerald  The futility of consistency in each case.

[1481]Ms Keogh: Information on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  Zoom on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  After almost five years it appears the Minister has perfected the art of not answering questions. It is undoubtedly the case that the Department of Finance has information the Minister must have received. The Minister's responses amount to total denial or else one must assume she has no idea what these bureaucratic nightmares of regional education boards will cost. It is not good enough for the Minister to say we spend some money on administration, some of which will be devolved, so that there will be no extra cost. Everybody involved in education, every organisation that attended the Select Committee on Social Affairs deliberations — even those who are behind the Minister on the establishment of such boards — acknowledged that available resources at primary level were insufficient and would be wasted if expended on such bureaucratic bodies.

Parents of second level pupils certainly are not behind the establishment of these regional education boards and the Minister is wrong in so implying because they are utterly against them. Parents of primary pupils mistakenly believe that unless they can participate in those regional education boards they will not have an opportunity to voice their opinions. The Minister is feeding them this line, whereas the opposite is the case——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  The Deputy must now bring her question to finality. She will readily appreciate that there is a time factor in dealing with these questions nominated for priority.

Ms Keogh: Information on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  Zoom on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  ——as the Minister well knows from every submission made to the Select Committee on Social Affairs.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  No doubt I can look forward to debating the Education Bill, line by line, with members of the Select Committee on Social Affairs. It is worth putting on record the consultation that has taken place——

Ms Keogh: Information on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  Zoom on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh  And the misgivings.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  Sometimes we moved forward more slowly than I would have wished because of irrational fears, threats and insults thrown at those who might want to support such moves.

Mr. L. Fitzgerald: Information on Liam Fitzgerald  Zoom on Liam Fitzgerald  That is a most serious allegation.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  The history of reforming our education system will show that it has been a rough journey.

Mr. L. Fitzgerald: Information on Liam Fitzgerald  Zoom on Liam Fitzgerald  How splendid.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  We have moved forward and will debate the Education Bill, line by line, within [1482] the Select Committee on Social Affairs. Members will be able to pursue these issues.

Mr. L. Fitzgerald: Information on Liam Fitzgerald  Zoom on Liam Fitzgerald  It will be debated on the streets and roads of Ireland.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  Of course, the Department of Finance has the costings of the overall education system, ranging from the payment of teachers to pensions, to school buildings, all of the services. If Deputies examine my departmental budget they will see that it contains the most detailed accounts and Votes in the Book of Estimates.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  But we do not get that information because the Minister will not furnish it.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Questions Nos. 4 and 5 will be taken in ordinary time when Members, other than those who have tabled them, may ask questions.


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