Amendment No. 1 is in the name of Deputies Gilmore and McGrath. I note that amendment No. 2 and amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 2 are related and amendment No. 3 is an alternative to amendment No. 2. It is proposed that amendments Nos. 1, 2, amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 2, and amendment No. 3 be taken together. Is that satisfactory? Agreed.
Regional Technical Colleges (Amendment) Bill, 1994: Report and Final Stages.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following:
"(10) This section shall, in relation to Letterkenny Regional Technical College, have immediate effect and the Minister shall make the necessary order not later than two weeks after the enactment of this Act.".
Deputies Gilmore, Keogh and I are anxious that this amendment be adopted because we are conscious of the urgent need to put right the horrendous problems which have emerged in Letterkenny Regional Technical College. Up to last week I would have said those problems were unsurpassed in the Irish education sector but in view of what is happening in Westmeath vocational education committee, the problems in Letterkenny will fade into oblivion. The problems in Westmeath vocational education committee surpass those of Letterkenny in terms of mismanagement and misappropriation of public funds. It is a sad that an incident worse than that at Letterkenny has emerged.
We are anxious to facilitate the Minister to move rapidly so that he can put in place procedures to deal with the problems that have come to light in Letterkenny. I note he has suggested a possible alternative which will probably achieve the same objective. It is important that action be taken quickly in Letterkenny.
The purpose of this amendment is to enable the Minister to proceed immediately to appoint a commissioner to deal with the problems reported on in the inspector's report to Letterkenny regional technical college and to provide for a better system of safeguards for the other regional technical colleges. The original amendment tabled by the Minister, as an afterthought, proposed that a commission be appointed for any regional technical college where an inspector had made a report and where the Minister was not satisfied that the college was properly run. It seemed to us that that was casting an aspersion on regional technical colleges generally which was not justified, that it was unfair to tar all the regional technical colleges with the Letterkenny brush. We argued that while there was an urgency to deal with the Letterkenny problem two sets of circumstances should be defined in the Bill; one to deal with the Letterkenny problem immediately and, the other to provide a system whereby proposals to deal with other colleges would be the subject of debate in the House.
The problems that gave rise to this measure in Letterkenny were discussed in considerable detail in the select committee. What we have seen in the report by Dr. Miriam Hederman-O'Brien is the most appalling litany of political jobbery and mismanagement in a public body for a very long time. It is right and proper that it should be dealt with.
It is unfortunate and unfair to the staff and students of Letterkenny Regional Technical College and to the local community that the reputation of that college should have been so tarnished by the sordid activities that took place and the sordid way in which the chairman of the governing body conducted the affairs of that college since his appointment by the then Minister for Education, Deputy Seamus Brennan, almost two years ago.
The problem emanates from the fact that the chairman was a political appointee of the then Minister for Education, Deputy Brennan. If there is a lesson to be learned from this, it is the inappropriateness of appointing political hacks to senior educational posts. The vocational education committee system has been a good one. It has adapted itself well to changing circumstances, providing a range of courses and various educational options. Those who work in the vocational education committees are committed to the system. The parents, students and local communities are committed to it but it is being undermined by abuse at a political level where what could be described as square pegs are appointed to fill round holes, where people are appointed not for their educational competence or their managerial abilities but on the basis of their political affiliation.
Deputy McGrath raised the problem in Westmeath. The problem extends not only to the appointment of boards and governing bodies but regrettably it extends also to the appointment of teachers, principals and vice-principals. I have been told repeatedly that applicants in order to qualify for appointment as principals, vice-principals or even posts of responsibility in some vocational education committee schools have to carry the party card. I have been told repeatedly that when a vacancy for school principal is expected to arise within one or two years people who have never been known to have an interest in politics suddenly join the cumann, work their way through the political system and are appointed to the post. It is time to call a halt to that type of political jobbery, which has been operating for far too long in the vocational education committee system. I hope lessons can be learned from the Letterkenny case and that such matters are addressed in this new era of transparency, trust and accountability. Legislation should be introduced making it obligatory to state the qualifications necessary and reasons for appointments to such positions. The present system of appointment is unfair to the majority of those working in and committed to the vocational education committee system. In fairness, not all vocational education committees behave in this manner, but some do and it must be stopped. I hope what happened in Letterkenny, the measures taken to deal with it and the fact that it has been given a public airing will bring to light not alone the problem there but the wider problem of political abuse in the vocational education committee system.
On Committee Stage we debated the report on the Letterkenny case and the sorry and damning indictment it contained. It is an indictment of political jobbery at its worst, something we must guard against and bring to light at every possible opportunity. The Minister knows that my colleagues and I want this legislation to be passed but we object strongly to its going through on the nod. That would not be appropriate and valuable amendments have been tabled. We want to particularise the Bill to the Letterkenny case because if passed as originally drafted we would damn every regional technical college. That would be unfortunate having regard to the excellent work carried out by the majority of such colleges and their boards. It is a terrible indictment of a system that allows political favouritism to hold sway over appropriate qualification when making appointments to boards. That should never be allowed to happen. When the Minister appoints a commission we should have an opportunity to debate the appointments to it. I hope that will lead to public accountability, which has been sadly lacking.
The Westmeath vocational education committee and the reported deficit of some £450,000 was referred to. That is an enormous sum of money to be unaccounted for and I hope the Minister acts swiftly in that regard. I have tabled an amendment stating that every order made under subsection (1) should come before the House. That should not be an opportunity for the order to fall through the cracks, as it were, and for a Minister to make an order without it being debated fully in this House. We have seen what happens when there is not accountability. We have had a sorry tale in the past few weeks because of the lack of accountability and openness. These amendments should be accepted as a microcosm of what should happen in political life.
Deputy Gilmore and I are past students of the same university but he sometimes makes me groved by stating that ex-cumann members are appointed to certain positions. It should be known that Deputy Gilmore came through a similar system. Naturally he must back the USI, of which he was president, because he used the students union to get to his present position. He commended the courage of two officers of the students union who have blown the whistle in spite of attempts by Mr. McGlinchey to browbeat them. One of the people involved in this case is a student and the other is a sabbatical student, a law lecturer. I circulated the committee with the exact account of what happened in Letterkenny. Does Deputy Gilmore call those who signed forged cheques courageous students, people who find it more lucrative to do that than to pursue a career in law? The proceeds from 17 discos were not lodged in the accounts of the students union and a cheque for a prom held in Ballybofey bounced and was not honoured until the taxpayer paid into the students union six months later. I ask Deputy Gilmore where that money went.
As long as it was going to the Golden Grill there was no problem.
The Deputy in possession, please.
Cheques were forged. Does Deputy Gilmore believe the students who did this were courageous?
Is the Deputy ignoring the report?
I am critical of the Hederman report because it did not answer the correct questions. Questions remain to be answered. If I ask the Minister to extend the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the accounts of the students union for the years 1992-93 and 1993-94 perhaps Deputy Gilmore might consider withdrawing his remark about the courageous students.
Only if we add the Golden Grill to it.
I believe he knows nothing about the case. Once one uses the term "political hacks" the press will listen. Deputy Gilmore is a political hack of the students union. I would ask the Minister to extend the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the students' accounts and only then will we find out the truth.
The Chair reminds Members of the need to be careful with regard to mentioning by name persons outside this House. They are defenceless against accusations or reference to them made under privilege of this House.
I had no intention of participating in this debate and have so far refrained from saying anything about the college in Letterkenny. However, since coming into the House I have heard Deputy Gilmore talk about the appointments system which he should know was instituted under the colleges Act we are proposing to amend. It has always been my contention that we should not have had such an Act.
That is correct.
It is absolutely unnecessary. What we should have done was amend the vocational education committee Act, 1930. Under the vocational education committees the colleges were established and thriving. Had they not been thriving the Department, under the control of any Minister would not have wished to take them over or centralise them, to do away with the whole concept of the people living in those regions serving the regions. Regional authorities know better than does central authority the needs of the regions and what should be the curricula in our regional technical colleges.
The system of appointment is new. I say to Deputy Gilmore and to anybody else who alleges that all the appointments in these colleges are politically motivated, I served on the management board of Letterkenny Regional Technical College for 11 years and I defy anyone in this House or elsewhere to substantiate their allegations. If they are afraid to do so outside the House let them do it here and protect themselves. Let anyone pinpoint one politically motivated appointment to that college during the years the vocational education committee ran it.
My only wish is that the problems associated with that college due to recent happenings, will be resolved as quickly as possible. Delay has already damaged the college. It has been damaged not by what has been proven but rather by what is yet to be proven. Student numbers have not increased, its morale is being destroyed and parents' confidence is badly shattered, not merely because of the happenings there but by the manner in which they have been dealt with and the snail's pace with which they continue to be dealt with.
Let us get the college back in business. Let us look to the students and their welfare because that is the concept of the college. I regret there ever was a Colleges Act, without which we could have handled such problems.
I thank my colleagues for the urgency with which we can deal with the amendments to this Bill. It demonstrates the anxiety of all Members to ensure that legislative arrangements are in place whereby we can quickly begin to tackle the problems encountered at Letterkenny Regional Technical College. My overriding concern is to ensure that operations in that college are restored as quickly as possible so that once again we shall have the wide support not only of the students but of its teachers, those associated with the college and the electorate generally.
Deputies McGrath and Keogh raised problems associated with Westmeath Vocational Educational Committee. I have taken appropriate action to ensure that all of the matters relating to those problems are speedily brought to light and dealt with.
This Bill which was amended in Select Committee provides for the appointment of a Commission to manage and operate a regional technical college or a Dublin Institute of Technology in cases or circumstances in which serious problems arise. It imposes very clear-cut provisions in respect of gender balance among members of governing bodies. It provides for default by a vocational education committee in the appointment of governing bodies and clarity on the electorate for academic and nonacademic staff. Furthermore, it gives the Minister for Education power to appoint an acting Director or President to those institutions.
In the course of deliberations at the Select Committee Members expressed concern that the provisions relating to the appointment of a Commission were too wide-ranging and lacked sufficient supervision by the Oireachtas. Resulting from those concerns I propose to amend the Bill to provide that any orders, other than the order relating to Letterkenny regional technical college, will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and will require confirmation by both Houses before becoming effective. However, I am concerned that there might be undue delay in the confirmation process. This could arise, in particular, during the Dáil summer recess. To provide for such a contingency I propose that an order will become effective if not confirmed within 28 days of having been laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. Of course, this would not apply, where either House has passed a resolution annulling the order. As a further safeguard for the Oireachtas I propose that, whenever an order becomes effective without a resolution of either House of the Oireachtas, the Houses of the Oireachtas will have an opportunity to annual the order within 21 sitting days of making that order.
In my amendment I have met fairly and squarely the anxieties and suggestions made in the course of our Committee Stage deliberations and it should satisfy the wishes of my colleagues.
Deputy Gilmore's contribution was quite selective. I referred to this on Committee Stage. On my behalf and on behalf of many of my colleagues who serve on local authorities and vocational education committees. I reject the very strong innuendo in what Deputy Gilmore said here today, on Committee Stage, and at other times, that the majority of people, many of whom serve voluntarily——
Not the majority, some.
——within our educational and local authority systems are quite careless, reckless and do not give due consideration to the necessity to serve the public with integrity and to the best of their ability. Deputy Gilmore undermines the credibility of people in public life in resorting to that selective, unproven type propaganda delivered too often in this House in that manner without proof. Deputy Gilmore knows as well as I that there may well be a case to be made against a particular individual to the effect that perhaps matters could have been dealt with in a different manner. Equally, Deputy Gilmore knows that constitutes a tiny part of the problem only in Letterkenny regional technical college but he has decided to ignore that and make a solid accusation again in this House without evidence to back it up.
The evidence is in the report; I did not invent it.
The Minister without interruption, please.
A number of major problems associated with the management of that college do not reside in one person. There is a need to take decisive action and go forward as quickly as possible towards a restoration of credibility in the operation of that college so that we can once again be proud of it. It would serve this House better to encourage investigation of the facts rather than slanting our views in a way which does not do justice to the average public representative in this House, on local authorities or on vocational education committees. I support Deputy Blaney's contention that the media has given sustenance to the idea that public representatives do not take into account the merits of candidates coming before them, the reasons the vocational education system has been eminently successful, and the wisdom of people on all political sides who made decisions over the years. It must be remembered that for the greater part of 20 years Fianna Fáil has not had a majority on most local authorities. Any accusations should, therefore, be levelled across the board. I make no accusations against other parties. I believe they try to do their job as well as they can and I am prepared to support them. Whenever mistakes are made my Department will take responsibility for putting solutions in place as quickly as possible. That is what we are doing here.
Amendment No. 1 is made adequate by the Minister's amendment, No. 10a. Deputy Keogh had a further amendment which would delete all the words after the word "order" in the fifth line of the new subsection (11). Our concern is that a one party Government which did not want a debate on a particular issue could make an order without having it debated in the House, the Government having to adopt a pro-active stance to have it debated. Deputy Keogh's amendment would put the initiative on the Government to have a debate in the Dáil. That would be my preference and I support Deputy Keogh's amendment on that basis.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 3, to delete lines 21 to 26, and substitute the following:
"(10) The Minister shall, by order, appoint a Commission to the Regional Technical College. Letterkenny, County Donegal, within 14 days of the passing of this Act.
(11) Every order made under subsection (1), other than the order to which subsection (10) relates, shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made, and it shall not have effect unless and until a resolution has been passed by each House confirming the order, provided that if either House fails to pass such a resolution within 28 days of the order having been so laid and neither House has passed a resolution annulling the order, the order shall have effect at the end of that period.
(12) Where an order to which subsection (11) relates takes effect due to the failure of either House to pass a resolution confirming the order, that House may, within the next 21 days during which it has sat after the making of the order, pass a resolution annulling the order and the order shall be annulled accordingly, but without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done thereunder.".
I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 2:
In the fifth line of subsection (11), to delete all words from and including ",provided" down to the end of the subsection.
- Ahearn, Theresa.
- Allen, Bernard.
- Barrett, Seán.
- Barry, Peter.
- Blaney, Neil T.
- Boylan, Andrew.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
- Bruton, John.
- Burke, Liam.
- Byrne, Eric.
- Carey, Donal.
- Connaughton, Paul.
- Connor, John.
- Coveney, Hugh.
- Crawford, Seymour.
- Creed, Michael.
- Currie, Austin.
- Deasy, Austin.
- Deenihan, Jimmy.
- De Rossa, Proinsias.
- Doyle, Avril.
- Dukes, Alan M.
- Durkan, Bernard J.
- Finucane, Michael.
- Fitzgerald, Frances.
- Flaherty, Mary.
- Flanagan, Charles.
- Gilmore, Eamon.
- Harney, Mary.
- Higgins, Jim.
- Hogan, Philip.
- Kenny, Enda.
- Keogh, Helen.
- Lynch, Kathleen.
- McCormack, Pádraic.
- McGahon, Brendan.
- McGrath, Paul.
- McManus, Liz.
- Mitchell, Jim.
- Molloy, Robert.
- Nealon, Ted.
- Noonan, Michael.
- (Limerick East).
- O'Donnell, Liz.
- O'Keeffe, Jim.
- O'Malley, Desmond J.
- Owen, Nora.
- Quill, Máirín.
- Rabbitte, Pat.
- Ring, Michael.
- Shatter, Alan.
- Sheehan, P.J.
- Timmins, Godfrey.
- Yates, Ivan.
- Ahern, Dermot.
- Ahern, Michael.
- Andrews, David.
- Aylward, Liam.
- Bell, Michael.
- Bhamjee, Moosajee.
- Bhreathnach, Niamh.
- Bree, Declan.
- Brennan, Matt.
- Brennan, Séamus.
- Briscoe, Ben.
- Browne, John (Wexford).
- Burke, Raphael P.
- Burton, Joan.
- Byrne, Hugh.
- Callely, Ivor.
- Connolly, Ger.
- Costello, Joe.
- Coughlan, Mary.
- Cowen, Brian.
- Cullen, Martin.
- Davern, Noel.
- Dempsey, Noel.
- de Valera, Síle.
- Doherty, Seán.
- Ellis, John.
- Ferris, Michael.
- Fitzgerald, Brian.
- Nolan, M.J.
- Noonan, Michael.
- (Limerick West).
- ÓCuív, Éamon.
- O'Dea, Willie.
- O'Donoghue, John.
- O'Hanlon, Rory.
- O'Keeffe, Batt.
- O'Keeffe, Ned.
- O'Leary, John.
- O'Shea, Brian.
- O'Sullivan, Toddy.
- Pattison, Séamus.
- Penrose, William.
- Power, Seán.
- Fitzgerald, Eithne.
- Fitzgerald, Liam.
- Flood, Chris.
- Foley, Denis.
- Gallagher, Pat.
- Geoghegan-Quinn, Máire.
- Haughey, Seán.
- Higgins, Michael D.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Hughes, Séamus.
- Jacob, Joe.
- Kavanagh, Liam.
- Kemmy, Jim.
- Kenneally, Brendan.
- Killeen, Tony.
- Kirk, Séamus.
- Kitt, Michael P.
- Kitt, Tom.
- Lawlor, Liam.
- Leonard, Jimmy.
- Martin, Micheál.
- McCreevy, Charlie.
- McDaid, James.
- McDowell, Derek.
- Moffatt, Tom.
- Morley, P.J.
- Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.
- Mulvihill, John.
- Quinn, Ruairi.
- Ryan, Eoin.
- Ryan, John.
- Ryan, Seán
- Smith, Brendan.
- Smith, Michael.
- Spring, Dick.
- Stagg, Emmet.
- Treacy, Noel.
- Upton, Pat.
- Wallace, Dan.
- Wallace, Mary.
- Walsh, Eamon.
- Walsh, Joe.
- Woods, Michael.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 3, between lines 32 and 33, to insert the following:
"4.—The Director of a college as defined in the Principal Act shall, from 1st January, 1995 be called `the President of the college'.".
In putting down this amendment I was anxious that the director of the colleges should henceforth be known as president of the colleges. The Minister said he would consider this matter, but if he does not accept the amendment I will not press it.
I dealt with this matter on Committee Stage. The title "director" was provided for in the 1992 legislation, effective from the beginning of 1993. There is no great reason to change it at this time, and I think Deputy McGrath realises that.
We now come to amendment No. 5. I observe that amendments Nos. 6, 14 and 14a are related. I suggest therefore that we discuss amendments Nos. 5, 6, 14 and 14a together.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 3, line 37, to delete "three" and substitute "two shall be women and at least two shall be men and of whom at least four (of the said six persons)".
I will try not to delay the House since we had a volume of debate on this amendment on Committee Stage. The Minister on the one hand is asking the academic council and the students' union to democratically elect one man and one woman to the governing bodies of these colleges while at the same time he is asking the vocational education committees to nominate six people regardless of their gender. It is unreasonable for the Minister to expect democratic and gender balance principles to prevail in the work place and not in terms of nominations from the vocational education committee. He is not prepared to ask public representatives to ensure gender equity but he is prepared to force it on other people, and that is unreasonable.
The Minister promised on Committee Stage to go down the road towards meeting our requirements in this regard. On that basis we agreed not to press the amendment on that occasion. If the Minister checks the record he will realise that he gave a firm committment in that regard. I am very disappointed he did not meet that commitment. Perhaps at this eleventh hour he will agree that what we propose is reasonable. Gender equity should be imposed not only at one end of the scale but right across the board. It should not be imposed in a slipshod manner whereby it is applicable to the academic staff but not to vocational education committee appointees.
I support the notion that gender equity should be generally applied, particularly in terms of vocational education committees who should not be let off the hook in this instance. During the Committee Stage debate the Minister accepted the principle of what we proposed and consequently. I will be surprised if he does not accept this amendment. I ask him to realise the logic of the case that has been made.
I support this very reasonable amendment. I do not think the Minister can cherry pick on gender balance. This is the only education legislation the last Government brought to this House in its two years in office. It was introduced on the basis that the then Minister was very committed to the establishment of gender balance in the appointment to governing bodies of regional technical colleges. I agree with this principle but I cannot understand why a certain rule is set down for staff and students in electing members to the governing body — they must ensure gender balance — while no such rule applies to the vocational education committees, the biggest single nominator of members of the governing body. It cannot be argued that the reason for that is because there may not be a sufficient number of women on the vocational education committee. As I understand it, the nominations are to be made by the vocational education committee and, with the exception of the three members of the local authority, is not confined to vocational education committee members. It is surely within the bounds of possibility that the vocational education committees would find a sufficient number of women to be nominated.
Gender balance in the education system will not be achieved simply by changing the method of appointment of governing bodies and boards of management. I will be much more impressed by the Government's commitment to achieving gender balance in the education system when more women are appointed as principals and to other positions of responsibility in schools, when the first woman is appointed as director of a regional technical college or when a greater number of women are appointed to heads of departments in those colleges, which is little in evidence at present. If the appointment of governing bodies on a more gender balanced basis brings about such changes, it will be welcome, but to exempt vocational education committees from the legislation would make a total nonsense of what is being attempted here.
I do not think there is a perfect system enshrined in the amendment proposed by the Minister. It is important for us to look back at the origins of this amendment. It arose from the fact that vocational education committees, as constituted under the 1930 legislation, are not required to provide for gender equity, nor is it provided for under the 1992 legislation which is the principal Act dealing with the constitution of governing bodies. While that Act specifies that the Minister must conform to the requirement that there be gender equity, it does not contain any provision to ensure that is done. This amendment is proposed to ensure that not fewer than seven of those recommended by the vocational education committees are women and not fewer than seven are men.
The vocational education committees, for the first time, will be compelled by legislation to adhere to the principle of gender equity. In an ideal world we would not compel them to do so, we would facilitate them. It is far better to ensure that the vocational education committees will be morally bound to get the matter right instead of legislating for a precise number. We recognise that certain vocational education committees are not in a position to provide for gender equity but we can ensure that the governing body of the Dublin Institute of Technology and each regional technical college will adhere to the principle of gender equity.
That is the best we can do; it is not perfect, it would be better if we did not have to state, in relation to student and staff representation, that there should be one man and one woman. I would like to see exact numbers but we should be loath to insist on this. We should allow the Minister's amendment to be put into effect for a period and if it is not operating satisfactorily we can return to this legislation. The important point is that the Minister is ensuring that the principle of gender equity will be applied which was not possible under the previous legislation. If necessary, the matter can be dealt with in the future or under the 1930 legislation.
Deputy Gilmore raised a relevant point. It is important to have gender equity in the school at both principal and staff level, at primary, second or third level. There is an anomaly in regard to principalships. In second level schools there were more female than male principals. Now that the religious are vacating schools because of the problem relating to numbers, in girls' schools they are being replaced by males. The Minister should address this problem and what I might call the nuts and bolts of the administration of the education system.
On Committee Stage I indicated I would consider very carefully the question of the extent to which I could meet the wishes of Opposition Deputies. I said I considered their amendment unnecessarily restrictive and reinforced subsection (2) (a) to ensure that the gender balance provisions could be implemented as intended. It states categorically that vocational education committees will be required to ensure that at least seven of the people they recommend are women and seven are men.
The aim of subsection (2) (b) is to allow the Minister for Education to exercise some control over the process of making recommendations for appointment to governing bodies. As the legislation stands, the Minister appoints the governing bodies recommended by vocational education committees. The difficulties caused by the gender balance issue demonstrated how the Minister can be prevented from imposing any criteria on the selection process even where there is an obligation by statute or Government policy, to impose such criteria. The amendment I tabled to this paragraph will enable the Minister for Education to ensure, if necessary, that the vocational education committees comply with the overall spirit of the legislation on gender balance.
I would like to go further but that is not practical and it is not capable of being implemented in that form. In the amendment I propose I have included a directive relating to the appropriate gender balance among the persons nominated by vocational education committees under subsection (1) (a). This should satisfy my colleagues that the Minister for Education and the Department are determined to ensure there will be a gender balance.
It would be better if we did not have to adopt legislation of this kind. As Deputy Costello said, in an ideal world there would be a gender balance without the need for intervention by legislation. It should be a natural phenomenon. Regrettably, this has not been the case and it is not possible because of the composition of the vocational education committees in certain counties and in certain circumstances because of the lack of opportunities to secure appointment as principal of a school. I think we can all accept that in an ideal world there would be no need for the amendments tabled by Deputies or a response from me. Given the lack of involvement and participation there is a need for intervention to ensure gender balance and to give the Minister for Education the power to require the vocational education committees to adhere to that principle. Up to now, despite the Government's position, the vocational education committees were in a position to knock this off the rails. It will not be possible for them to do this in future.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 4, lines 4 to 6, to delete all words from and including "280" in line 4, down to and including "specify" in line 6 and substitute "50 per cent, of the number of hours which a full-time member of such staff is required to work, as specified by the Minister".
I will not press this amendment to a vote either. We received a letter from Mr. McGarry in which he indicated the reasons they wanted the amendment to be accepted as it stood. The letter seemed reasonable but I have not had an opportunity to contact the TUI and I do not, therefore, know its response. I will take Mr. McGarry's word.
In the context of the discussion last week I was happy to make contact with the Deputy. Although I failed to meet him personally I was in a position to enable him to have access to the letter. It makes the position absolutely clear so that nobody need be in doubt that there is widespread support from the regional technical college management services for the provisions of the Bill.
I move amendment No. 14a:
In page 4, line 42, after "time to time" to insert ",including directives relating to an appropriate gender balance among the persons nominated by the vocational education committee under paragraph (a) of subsection (1)".
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 5, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:
"6.—Section 20 of the Principal Act is hereby amended by the insertion of the following subsection:
`(2) On receipt of a report as authorised under subsection (1), the Minister may instruct the governing body to carry out such changes and in such a manner as appropriate to rectify any deficiencies and irregularities identified.'.".
This amendment is very important in terms of ministerial control of regional technical colleges. It deals with the manner in which reports by inspectors from the Department will be dealt with in the Department. It is particularly important on this day that we look at this.
I believe we should spend some time discussing the implications of what has been happening in County Westmeath vocational education committee. There is a case of very serious negligence in this vocational education committee. A former Minister for Education, now a Minister of State, not only participated in appointments which brought about this situation but failed as Minister to take heed of representations regarding problems that had arisen in Westmeath Vocational Education Committee. In order to understand what happened we need to know the background. There are acting chief executive officers in several vocational education committees. The procedure for appointment to an acting chief executive officer position is very loose and there are no controls. An acting chief executive officer of a vocational education committee is appointed by the committee. I contend that the problems in County Westmeath vocational education committee stem from the appointment of an acting chief executive officer and the manner in which he was appointed. The Minister will be aware that the acting chief executive officer of County Westmeath Vocational Education Committee is a former Fianna Fáil councillor. When the vacancy arose the then Fianna Fáil group met and two Fianna Fáil councillors were nominated for the position. On the casting vote of the then chairperson, who subsequently became Minister for Education, one of them was nominated to become the chief executive officer.
The irregularities in County Westmeath vocational education committee stem from this appointment where party loyalty to Fianna Fáil was a superior consideration over ability to carry out the job. I have raised some of the irregularities in this vocational education committee in parliamentary questions and the Official Report indicates that this body now has a deficit of more than £450,000 which was not sanctioned by the Minister. In spite of this huge deficit the vocational education committee embarked on the purchase of a property in France, again without ministerial approval. This is contrary to the 1930 Act and I wonder if we now can avail of a fail safe procedure.
In fairness I must point out that following my parliamentary questions the then Minister for Education. Deputy Bhreathnach, recognised the seriousness of the problems and immediately appointed an inspector to investigate the activities of County Westmeath vocational education committee. I look forward to the publication of that report and I hope to ensure a debate in this House will follow. I am sure the report will point out the malpractice and mismanagement in County Westmeath Vocational Education Committee. Rumour is rife about what may have taken place. For example, appointments to non-teaching positions in some instances have been carried out without any public advertisement of the positions. I understand that some vacancies were filled without interview and I can point to a post which was filled in such a manner. The previous occupation of the person appointed was manager of a slot machine arcade in Athlone. The crucial aspect of his curriculum vitae was that he was chairman of the Fianna Fáil cumann in the area.
Some officials and staff of this august body went on several trips abroad and enjoyed the globetrotting. So frequent did the trips become that the committee, somewhat alarmed, decided that all such trips should be approved by them prior to departure. When it emerged that two officials were travelling abroad without prior approval the whistle was blown on them by the local press. This newspaper was subsequently boycotted by the vocational education committee and was excluded from receiving notice of forthcoming public meetings and from advertising by County Westmeath vocational education committee. This was public knowledge in County Westmeath and one might ask why no one called halt. I attempted to do so. I approached the then Minister for Education. Deputy O'Rourke, in 1990 to discuss the irregularities in the vocational education committee. I would be precluded from relaying her response but suffice to say she was not interested in hearing about my reservations and tried to browbeat me into forgetting the whole affair. I continued to ask questions in this House. I now look forward to the publication of the Paircéir report and I will compare it with the answers I received to questions on that occasion.
I am aware also — and this will disturb the Minister — of written correspondence which was sent to the then Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, outlining the irregularities that existed and offering further help in bringing these items to her attention. That letter was acknowledged but the Minister decided not to take any action. I wonder if this was because of the close contact which she had with the vocational education committee and the many favours which were delivered to her Fianna Fáil supporters during the period in question by the vocational education committee. It should also be noted that in responding to further correspondence the subsequent Minister, Deputy Bhreathnach, stated in writing that no such letter existed on the files of the Department of Education. This begs the question of what happened to the original letter which had been sent by registered post and acknowledged by the then Minister, Deputy O'Rourke. Why is it not now on the file since it was acknowledged? Was there a clean out to destroy any possible evidence which might be left behind? What about accountability and transparency? Is this yet another Fianna Fáil incident to be swept under the carpet? Will the Labour Party, on hearing my allegations here today — allegations which I am confident will be substantiated by the Parcéir report — be prepared to enter into Government with a party which was prepared to act in this manner? In particular, is it prepared to accept that person as a Minister for Finance, as suggested this morning in a radio programme, and as a person who should take on that portfolio, knowing what has gone before? Deputy O'Rourke was not prepared to be accountable in her Department for what happened within the education system despite the fact that it was brought to her attention by at least two people, both of whom I can vouch for.
Least I appear to blacken every member of Westmeath vocational education committee I wish to put on the record that there are many honourable members of this vocational education committee, including some on the Fianna Fáil side, who consistently have had reservations about activities within Westmeath vocational education committee but, unfortunately, through lack of support from others and lack of accountability, their voices were not heard.
I am also aware of a close political ally of the Minister Deputy O'Rourke who was appointed — and again I question whether interviews were held and if the positions was advertised — to a position funded by the European Petra programme, and the Minister will be interested in this. Many questions have been raised about the effectiveness of this work and indeed we can only point to one major achievement in this programme, that is, we sent 63 people to France on a junket this year to open a vocational education committee centre. There is a gross waste of money and it cannot be countenanced under any circumstances. When the subject came up for discussion at Westmeath vocational education committee, one Fianna Fáil member is quoted as saying: "Why all the fuss about it? Sure, didn't this money come from Europe. Why should it be questioned?".
Give it back to them.
EU funding of the Petra project ceased in 1993, so how is it still running and how is it being funded? Perhaps this partly accounts for this vocational education committee's huge deficit. Indeed, I read in a newspaper this morning that this vocational education committee's petty cash account was £900,000, almost £1 million, overdrawn. Having served on many committees the Ceann Comhairle will be aware that the petty cash account is normally insignificant and if it is overdrawn by £1,000 questions will be asked. Is it not frightening that a former Minister for Education, who was alerted to problems within the vocational education committee, failed to take action and allowed this system to continue?
Is there anything in this amendment that might ensure that a similar situation cannot be allowed happen again?
I have heard of poetic licence in terms of how one might introduce a subject matter of personal or other interest into an amendment but I must compliment Deputy McGrath on stretching the patience of the Ceann Comhairle——
It is a very serious matter.
——in terms of that contribution.
It was very interesting.
It is a very serious matter.
I have already indicated to the House the seriousness with which I view reported developments in Westmeath Vocational Education Committee. I have already contacted both the Chief Executive Officer and the members of the committee who, I understand, will meet later this week to answer the questions raised. It is my desire to ensure that all of these matters are openly dealt with that an early resolution will be found and spending, when properly analysed and dealt with, will be put on a more secure footing for the future. The House would not wish me, at this early stage in that investigation, to do any more than underline my determination to ensure everything is done that is appropriate in the circumstances and to ensure that we resolve the problem as quickly as possible.
As far as this amendment is concerned, it does not add significantly to how these matters will be dealt with and Deputy McGrath would know that. It is not necessary to enshrine in this legislation powers which would enable a Minister for Education to take the appropriate action. They are already in place.
What Deputy McGrath said here this afternoon is extremely serious. The Minister has acknowledged that, but there are two aspects of what he said, on which if allowed some latitude by you, a Cheann Comhairle, perhaps he should comment.
Deputy McGrath alleges that these matters were first brought to the attention of the former Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, as far back as 1990. He alleges also that nothing was done about it then and that the correspondence dealing with it has somehow disappeared from the files of the Department. I recall distinctly Deputy McGrath raising these matters several months ago here during Question Time and I am at a loss to understand why they have not been investigated since. It would be helpful if we were given some information or report from the Minister as to what has happened since then because, if anything, it puts the Letterkenny problem in the shade. It is extremely serious and I would like to hear more from the Minister on it.
I agree what we are talking about in Westmeath vocational education committee puts the Letterkenny problem in the shade. I knew Deputy McGrath was pursuing this matter but I did not realise it dated as far back as 1990. It is extraordinary that a Minister should not have responded, or acted immediately when informed of this situation. The Minister must take this on board.
I am also amazed that when Deputy McGrath continued to pursue this matter, the former Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, allowed a time gap to develop. I acknowledge the Parcéir inquiry was set up, but will its report be published and will we have the openness to which we are entitled so that we can see what exactly transpired and also find out the whereabouts of the missing letter? It is extraordinary that the House would not be informed about such matters. It may not be directly pertinent to the amendment the Deputy has put down but the questions he has raised are important and the Minister must be open in his response to them.
I call Deputy McGrath to reply to the debate on his amendment No. 16.
I am glad to have been able to voice some of my reservations in this regard. The details I have already given represent merely a small picking of what is actually involved. There are other matters, including falsification of records and so on, which will emerge later.
If accountability and openness in Government is to mean anything the Parcéir report must be published as soon as possible and be open for inspection. We should have a debate, if not in the House, in the Select Committee on Social Affairs where we could ask the necessary questions and decide what safeguards must be put in place to ensure such a situation does not arise again. Will the Minister publish the report when it is available?
I hope I will be afforded the same facility in breaking the rules of the House as Deputy McGrath has in raising this matter in the context of this amendment. My colleagues will appreciate that those directly involved will be given the first opportunity to respond to the report. Following that I would be anxious that the matter be debated in public.
I regret we did not have an opportunity to debate whether we should upgrade regional technical colleges to university status. We could make a very good case for my proposal that they be called Irish technological universities constituent colleges.
The Labour Party gave a written commitment in Waterford that, on going into Government in 1992, they would upgrade Waterford regional technical college to university status. That was the commitment referred to in the following quotation: "as Labour Party spokesman on education I am glad to recommend the acceptance of the Tramore resolution at the Annual Conference." The document was signed by Brian O'Shea. The former Minister for Education who brought this legislation forward did not bother to live up to that commitment. The Minister should review the position if he holds that portfolio for any length of time.
Under this legislation the Minister is required to appoint a commission or a commissioner to the Letterkenny regional technical college. Given the way the formation of the Government is being negotiated that responsibility will fall to the caretaker Minister present. I would like him to assure us that the person or persons appointed will be independent. I do not want any question of political affiliation or other consideration to be taken into account when making the appointments.
The Minister was not exact about the make-up of the commission. It is important that we are assured political affiliation will not be considered in any appointment made and that those appointed will be seen to be appropriate for the position.
I thank Deputies for their help and consideration in having both Bills passed in a short time. The concept of regional technological universities is a new one and is not appropriate to this legislation.
Regarding Waterford Regional Technical College there is an accreditation process which any college must go through but, again, it is not relevant to this legislation.
I assure the House that my interest is to restore Letterkenny Regional Technical College to the position where it has the total support of the community in Donegal and surrounding counties. When established, the commission must have positive support in the college to carry out its difficult task. Those appointed will have the confidence, integrity and independence to achieve the goal of all of us here — to have a college of which everyone can be proud.