Before the adjournment of the debate last night I had expressed my regret at the introduction of this Bill by Fine Gael. I did so because I felt it was a slur on the locally elected and other members of the vocational education committee and on vocational education committee teachers and members of staff. I rejected the slur and I want to reject it again tonight.
I should like to praise the dedication, enthusiasm and professionalism of all members of vocational education committee staff, particularly the teaching staff. They have done a very good job, often in very difficult circumstances, down the years, they have catered for a sector of Irish society who would have been left behind if we did not have the vocational education committee system. They have looked after sectors of the community who would not have got an education otherwise within our education system. For those reasons I reject any slur or innuendoes which might be cast on members of the vocational education committees by the introduction of this Bill.
As I stated last night, the Bill proposes to remove the right of an employer, that is, the vocational education committee, to appoint their own employees. What other similar organisation would hand over the right to select its own employees to an outside body? I do not know of any such organisation. I should like to ask why the vocational education committees should do this.
I sat here last night hoping to be enlightened by the contributions of Deputy Bruton and Deputy Deenihan and I listened carefully to the arguments. I must say I was not very enlightened by their arguments and they did not put forward any reasons which would convince me to agree with this Bill. The only reason given by Deputy Bruton last night, was, and I quote: "There is the possibility that people might think that there was political influence in the appointment of teachers". Is Deputy Bruton so naïve that he honestly believes any system could be put in place which would give rise to a situation where no one would believe there was the possibility that political influence might be used? I think it would be impossible to try to meet those criteria. It does not matter how independent a body may seem to be or is meant to be by this House or the Minister concerned; I do not know of any body which everyone will agree is non-political or will not be influenced politically one way or the other. Even though they may not be influenced politically that will not stop people believing political influence was exerted. The argument put forward by Deputy Bruton last night that he wanted to remove "the possibility that people might think that there was political influence in the appointment of teachers" cannot be sustained. He went on to say that 99.99 per cent of appointments made by the vocational education committees are excellent. He also said that this Bill is designed to tackle the 0.01 per cent of appointments which he alleges may be tainted.
To put the Bill in context, Deputy Bruton is asking this House to change a system of appointment which, at the current rate of recruitment, produces one so-called, to use his word, "tainted" decision in 10,000. He wants to overturn a system which has worked exceedingly well for the past 60 years. To put it further into context, at the current rate of recruitment, that means there is a possibility of one so-called "tainted" appointment over a period of 35 years. I should like Deputy Bruton or any other Deputy to name any other body, independent or otherwise, which could boast such a record — one possible "tainted" appointment in 35 years. Are Deputy Bruton and Deputy Deenihan seriously asking this House to remove such an effective and fair system of appointment and replace it with a Local Appointments Commission? That is what they asked us to do last night but I do not understand why.
He also said last night that members of the vocational education committee should not be the people to decide appointments to vocational education committee positions and that those who have experience of teaching should make the decisions. I know Deputy Bruton never served on any local authority or vocational education committee and he may not be aware that in many cases the members of the vocational education committee have experience of teaching or are serving teachers. Over and above that, the majority of the members of the vocational education committees are parents who have a wide range of experience of the educational system, whether primary, vocational or secondary. For instance, in the case of my local vocational education committee the members of the board include a professor, a vocational teacher, a secondary teacher and a primary teacher together with a variety of other people who are professionals in their own spheres— farmers, auctioneers and so on. There is quite a broad spectrum of society represented on the board of that vocational education committee and they, through their experience, are capable of making teacher appointments, or any other appointments, for the vocational education committee. The fact that we have such a broad spectrum of opinion on the vocational education committee ensures that the process is fair and independent and that the teachers appointed to the scheme are not just educationally qualified but are suitable to meet all the other needs of the pupils and the schools in the vocational education committee system.
The only other excuse for putting forward this Bill which I could discern in Deputy Bruton's or Deputy Deenihan's contributions was the need to introduce safeguards to the system and to establish an independent set of principles by which decisions could be made on appointments. There is probably some excuse for Deputy Bruton making a statement like that, but I am very surprised that Deputy Deenihan should say so because he has been a member of a local authority and a vocational education committee. The statement shows a complete lack of understanding of the system as it operates currently. The Minister referred to this last night.
There are safeguards and independent principles in relation to the appointment of teachers. The criteria and the principles that Deputy Bruton is seeking have been outlined in various circulars issued by the Department, especially Memo V.7 and Circular 16/79. These circulars and other directives from successive Ministers have made quite clear the criteria to be used. There are independent principles there at the moment. One is the basic principle that a person who is not suitably qualified cannot be appointed. Another is that the full vocational education committee must approve the appointment of a teacher and in turn ministerial approval is necessary. The selection board make a recommendation to the vocational education committee which they approve if they are satisfied and later the Minister formally approves. The decisions are made on the basis of independent principles outlined in circulars from the Department.
There are further safeguards in the composition of the boards themselves. The central appointments board consists of three members of the vocational education committee, who do not have to be of the same political persuasion and in many cases are not, an IVEA official and a Department official overseeing the whole procedure. The general appointments board consists of four vocational education committee members and a Department official. Almost always CEOs and principals of schools will sit on the interview boards in an advisory capacity. It is clear that there are safeguards and that the vocational education committees are operating under an independent set of principles. The Department monitor very closely every appointment made by a vocational education committee. In addition to the monitoring of the Department and of the full vocational education committee, the whole system is also monitored by the general public, precisely because it is democratic and open and the people making the decisions are answerable to the local community. Not only is the system fair but it is seen to be fair and there is very little criticism of it.
In the debate so far and in the debate last year there was some talk about controversial cases involving appointments by vocational education committees in the past two or three years. I am aware of only three controversial cases. The fact that we are aware of these cases shows the effectiveness of the system under which we operate. When was the last time anybody in this House heard a criticism of the appointment of a secondary teacher anywhere? There is no public scrutiny there. If a vocational education committee do something which is incorrect, if a person is appointed who should not be appointed, it comes out in public. It will be raised in public at a vocational education committee meeting and in the local and national press. All these things can come to light because of the open system under which vocational education committees operate.
I would say to Deputies Bruton and Deenihan and anybody else supporting the Bill that we have a very effective system. The most effective safeguard is the last one I mentioned, but the most important one is that the politicians on the vocational education committee have to face the electorate on a regular basis and the electorate are not slow in punishing mistakes and punishing people whom they feel have not acted in their best interests. Irish people are very conscious of the need for education and all concerned about the future of their children. Any member of a vocational education committee who messes about with the future of children will be given an effective answer. I have dwelt with this matter at some length because of the innuendo that there is a taint on appointments made by vocational education committees.
I have shown that the proposed Bill is unnecessary. The only two reasons given do not stand up to any kind of examination. There is no taint on vocational education committee appointments. Deputy Bruton, using his own figures, said that 99.99 per cent of them are excellent and he said there may be a taint on one in every ten thousand. The safeguards are in place and are more than adequate. This leads me to wonder why the Bill has been introduced. It is simply another attack on local democracy and the whole notion of subsidiarity in relation to Government, that is, decisions being made at the level nearest the people. During the debate last year, in which I spoke, Deputies opposite shed crocodile tears because of the postponement of local elections and said everybody wanted local democracy and local elections and Fianna Fáil were running away from the people.
This Bill exposes the hypocrisy of Fine Gael on this matter, demonstrating the real attitude of that party to real democracy at local level. I have always contended that what is needed is not this type of Bill — when one divorces local democracy and input from procedures — but rather a lot more rather than less. Why should Deputies opposite call for more power for local communities when they do not want any of these local bodies to have any power at all?
The proposed Bill is part of a general trend which is now fairly popular, that is to call for independent bodies for this, that and the other. It is very fashionable to call for such bodies to take over the functions of a national or local body. Such calls may have been made because politicians generally are going down in public esteem. It is my view that that is the fault of politicians themselves. The trend towards bodies that are not answerable to the public, not open to public scrutiny, should be resisted. Any such body should be amenable to local scrutiny.
Politicians should be in a position to ensure that their wishes — as outlined in legislation enacted here on behalf of the electorate — are complied with and fully implemented. There are too many decisions being taken nowadays by faceless bureaucrats not answerable to anybody and, when decisions are taken that do not suit the people generally, it is the politicians who get it in the neck. Therefore we should cop on to ourselves in this regard.
I oppose this Bill also because of its impracticality. I do not believe the Local Appointments Commission have any competence in the area of teacher recruitment. Neither do I think they have the requisite manpower. We are all aware of the delays occasioned in filling appointments under the Local Appointments Commission. Since the appointment of teachers must be made within a short period, I contend that this would not be practical. Speaking as a teacher I contend that education and teaching are very different from the other spheres of responsibility of the Local Appointments Commission. For example, it is relatively easy to specify objective guidelines and measurements in respect of local authority officers.
Apart from their qualifications, at present catered for in relation to teachers, other aspects would have to be taken into account in deciding who may be the best teacher to fill a given post. For example, one would have to take into account the local needs of any scheme, the specific needs of a school and perhaps extra curricular skills. I do not believe the Local Appointments Commission would be in a position to judge those local needs. Therefore, all they could go on would be any candidate's qualifications. It has been my experience as a teacher that, very often, those people who appear most highly qualified, most intelligent, do not always make the best teachers. I contend there are other matters that must be taken into account than mere qualifications. I do not believe the Local Appointments Commission would be capable of taking all these extraneous matters into account.
Deputy O'Shea referred to a TUI survey. He spoke at some length about the dissatisfaction on the part of teachers with the vocational education committee system. Of course dissatisfaction will be registered by way of any such survey; anybody who was unsuccessful in obtaining a job before an interview board will always register dissatisfaction. I venture to suggest — from my experience at second level — that if a similar survey were conducted in that sector, the dissatisfaction registered there would be even greater. There are no real interviews held at second level and, more importantly, responsible posts are allocated on the basis of seniority, not on ability, prospective input or anything else.
There was also an allegation made here that the morale of teachers within the vocational education committee system is very low; it is not. I reject that totally. At present their morale is very high and, it is fair to say, is rising. The vocational education committees, led by the IVEA following on a period of perhaps having been on the defensive, are coming out fighting, seeking to fulfil their 1930 mandate. I might avail of this opportunity to compliment the Minister on her initiatives which have led to this resurgence of morale within the vocational education committee system. In particular, I might refer to the expansion of the VPTPs, the arrival of all-Irish second level schools, one of which is located in my constituency in Rathcarn. There are special programmes for travellers and the disadvantaged. There have been increases in the literacy allocation. Indeed, many vocational education committees are now running more adult education courses catering for a variety of people who were not afforded such opportunities heretofore.
In summary, I am opposing the Bill on the grounds that it is unnecessary, is totally impractical and constitutes an attack on local democracy, and indeed on the integrity of vocational education committee teaching staff.