Thursday, 22 November 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. O'Dea: I cannot accept the amendment. I understand from where Senator Henry is coming and I would be surprised if representations had not been made to her. However, my position is clear. If I accepted Senator Henry's amendment, the Bill essentially would revert to its original form. It changed because I accepted an amendment from Deputy Creed on Committee Stage in the other House. The effect of accepting Senator Henry's amendment would be to undo what I did by accepting Deputy Creed's amendment.
I accepted Deputy Creed's amendment because it found a middle way between what the National Youth Council of Ireland and the IVEA wanted in relation to this matter. Regarding the chairmanship and vice-chairmanship of the youth work committee, I received representations from the NYCI that the chairman and vice-chairman of the national youth work committee should be selected by the committee and it should be possible for them to come from either the voluntary side or the VEC side. This was the proposal in the original Bill. The IVEA wanted the chairman and vice-chairman to come from the VEC side and it only wanted the VEC members of the national youth work committee to be empowered to select them.
Deputy Creed's amendment was to the effect that the chairman and vice-chairman should come from among the VEC members, but they should be selected by the committee as a whole. This is the position. It may not be very satisfactory or a neat compromise, but I am not agreeing totally with either side on this matter. Strong representations were made to me by both sides. I am not going 100% of the way with either side, I am going a certain distance with each. This is as far as I want and am prepared to go.
Mr. Burke: Vocational education committees are made up of teachers, public representatives and representatives of outside groups. Does the provision mean that the chairman and-or vice-chairman could be a representative of an outside group?
Dr. Henry: I understand the Minister of State received representations from many people. However, I thought the National Youth Council's proposal was reasonable because it does not preclude the two coming from the vocational education committee. I have received nothing but help from the Dublin Vocational Education Committee on anything I have ever had to do with it. It is not that I oppose what it does. However, it would have been good to loosen it up and create a situation where representatives of the voluntary sector would be eligible for those positions.
I appreciate the Minister of State must be like Solomon in terms of dividing babies in two, but I wish he could have taken this measure on board. We cannot underestimate the amount of work done by people in the voluntary sector. I do not think the Minister of State underestimates it, but I am sorry he cannot accept the amendment. I do not intend to call a division on this because he obviously considered it carefully. I have nothing against vocational education committees. As Senator Burke said, they are diverse bodies. However, I favour the promotion of the voluntary sector because it is so difficult to get people to work in it, particularly these days. It should be given as much status as possible so that people recognise the value of the work it does.
I am sure the Minister of State is as aware as I am, because of work I have done in the voluntary sector, of the amount of time and effort put in by many people. Senator Kett is also aware of it. We should do all we can to recognise the value of their contribution. We should also try to make them understand that we realise their importance. This is why I support the National Youth Council's proposal.
Mr. Burke: Vocational education committees will decide the size of the youth councils. Section 22(4) states that “as far as practicable, at least one-fifth of the membership of a Voluntary Youth Council shall consist of persons who were young persons at the date of their election”. Will the Minister of State describe what is a young person because everybody feels young? To me, a young person is somebody who is aged less than 20 years. The council members are elected for a period. Does the provision mean that somebody who was under the age of 20 years would be excluded because, by the time the elections took place, he or she was over the age of 20 years? What does the term “young persons at the date of their election” mean? The Minister of State  should clarify this point or delete it from the section.
Mr. O'Dea: I have no intention of deleting it. Young person is defined in the definition section. It means a person who has not attained the age of 25 years and provided somebody falls into that category at the time of the election, it does not matter if he or she is in office when he or she exceeds that age. He or she will not automatically cease to hold the position on his or her twenty-fifth birthday. The definition of a young person is set out specifically in section 2, which is the definition section.
Mr. Burke: This section allows the Minister to make a grant available to vocational education committees or voluntary groups. It would be much better if the Minister said that a youth grant would be given to vocational education committees annually. Youth organisations could then ask vocational education committees for money rather than all organisations having to apply to the Department. This Bill dilutes local power because if the Government was serious about devolving power at local level, funds would be given to vocational education committees. Youth organisations could then apply to the vocational education committees for grants.
Mr. O'Dea: I am advised that this is a standard wording used in Bills when speaking of accessing money from the Department of Finance. Details of how funding will be made available have yet to be determined but will be clarified soon following discussions between the National Youth Work Advisory Committee and the Department. The fact that the wording is in this form does not mean there is a specific procedure to be followed. The wording of this section is standard, but details of how funding is to flow have yet to be worked out. The Bill allows flexibility in determining funding procedures.
Mr. Burke: Yes, but is this not the type of red tape found in every Department? Would it not be much simpler if the Bill stated that grants would be sent to the vocational education committees? Various groups could then apply to the vocational education committees. Why is there so much red tape, meaning that both vocational education committees and other organisations have  to apply to the Department and the Department then has to write to all the groups involved?
Mr. Burke: In my view, it creates red tape. It also means that the Department can distribute funds in any direction it desires. The removal of part of this section to enable grants to be paid to vocational education committees is the best way to devolve funds on a local basis, if that is our intention.
Dr. Henry: I am quite sure it is not the Minister's wish, but the fact that funding has to be given in each financial year means that it is difficult for voluntary organisations to plan ahead. I have raised this problem on other occasions. It would be splendid if anything could be done to assure voluntary organisations that they can make plans, although I do not think it is within the power of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea. He should relate to the Department of Finance the serious difficulties that are encountered by voluntary organisations. It is not fair to expect organisations to plan for a year at a time and to wonder what is to happen the following year. Three or five year plans are needed if progress is to be made. As Senator Burke has said, the bureaucracy involved in continually having to apply for additional grants makes life difficult for voluntary groups. We owe a debt of gratitude to such organisations and I ask the Minister of State to highlight the difficulties they face.
Mr. O'Dea: In relation to Senator Henry's comments, I am aware of the difficulties faced by organisations when grants are not paid within a reasonable period of time. The situation has improved and the Government hopes to improve it further. This Bill will bring certainty to the distribution of grants and certain practices will emerge which will be adhered to by all organisations.
I profoundly disagree with Senator Burke's interpretation of section 34 as it is not a question of creating more red tape but of allowing maximum flexibility in the distribution of funding. Discussions are under way with many interest groups, including voluntary organisations which will be the main beneficiaries, regarding the allocation of funds. Rather than pre-empting the discussions by saying the funding is to go to a certain body, the Bill says that the Minister may decide to allocate funds to various groups. There will not be more red tape as a result of this Bill but there will be the flexibility to enable all parties, particularly voluntary organisations, to agree a system of funding.
Mr. Burke: This section may allow a Minister to create a slush fund. Various groups will have to bypass the vocational education committee and apply directly to the Minister. I am not speaking of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, when I  say that Ministers may decide to allocate funds to groups with which they are familiar rather than allowing vocational education committees to decide. This Bill provides a golden opportunity to put into law a provision to allow local statutory bodies to determine where funds should go. The Minister will have to tolerate many organisations from all parts of the country making representations. The same problem is found in the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation which receives letters from every voluntary organisation seeking grant aid. Local statutory authorities should be allowed to disperse funds locally. I agree with the point made by Senator Henry in relation to the fact that organisations receive grants annually as such groups face a precarious financial situation. We should do whatever needs to be done to support such organisations.
Mr. O'Dea: I wish to make three brief points in reply. I think the distribution of sporting funds from the national lottery has worked very well. I am glad the Government has increased substantially the amount of money available for sporting organisations. Criticism cannot be directed at the Government, given that numerous sporting organisations have availed successfully of sports lottery grants. I have not heard the Minister, Deputy McDaid, complaining that too many organisations are writing to him, as he knows they are entitled to do so. Fianna Fáil respects the right of all organisations to apply for funding regardless of their size or location.
I have no intention of amending this section to say that money should go directly to vocational education committees as that would preclude the possibility of direct ministerial dealings with youth organisations, such as the National Youth Council of Ireland or local groups. It may be that Ministers will not deal directly with organisations, but I have no intention of impeding such a possibility by changing this Bill.
The final thing I wish to say is that youth work legislation introduced by the Rainbow Government contained a section that was practically identical to that currently under discussion. I am sorry if I am incorrect, but I think my memory serves me correctly. If it was good enough for the previous Government, I do not see why Senator Burke finds it unacceptable now.
Mr. O'Dea: I do not know if we can say, after four years, that we are in a different era as regards grants. This Government has given more money to youth organisations than the previous Administration.
Mr. O'Dea: I do not think the shibboleth that  the passing of four years constitutes a different era is a coherent argument. I am not hidebound by tradition as there is no quicker person to change something if the need exists. I have no reverence for the traditions of parliamentary draftsmen and the style of writing legislation. I am interested in improving matters that can be improved. When talking of the distribution of public moneys to youth organisations, it is important that there is consultation with all involved, including the distributing bodies, such as vocational education committees. A system that is acceptable to all has to be found. In that context, it is important that this section be drafted in as flexible a form as possible. I have no intention of pre-empting the discussions by legislating that money will only go to vocational education committees without the possibility that the Department can deal directly with youth organisations, whether national or local.
Mr. Burke: I thank the Minister for introducing this legislation. It is long overdue. I wish him well with it. It is good legislation and it puts all the youth organisations on a proper footing. I compliment the Minister, the Department and his staff on the Bill.
Dr. Henry: I echo what Deputy Burke has said. It is a good day's work. I am sure the Minister of State and his officials put a great deal of work into getting this together. The criticisms I have heard in representations made to me have been minor. Most people are delighted that this has been brought forward. The Bill has been a long time in gestation, as the Minister said, not only with this Government but also with the previous Government. It is good to see that we have passed it in this House today.
Mr. Kett: I too want to thank the Minister of State and his officials. As my colleagues have stated, it is a Bill which has been in gestation for quite some time. All voluntary organisations and vocational education committees have welcomed it with open arms.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. O'Dea): I sincerely thank the Members of this House for their positive con tributions. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the organisations, both statutory and voluntary, which contributed towards the finalisation of this Bill. As my colleague, Senator Kett, and others stated, it has been a long time in gestation but it will prove worth the wait. The debates in this House and the Lower House have helped us to make it the best Bill possible. Its effect will be seen in the very near future.
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