Adjournment Debate

Vocational Education Committees

On 12 October, the Minister of the Education and Skills announced a Government decision to restructure the VEC system through the amalgamation of the VECs to reduce the number from the current 33 to a proposed 16. The decision includes the amalgamation of Kerry Education Service, County Kerry VEC, County Limerick VEC and City of Limerick VEC. The rationale behind the decision, according to the text of the Minister's statement of 12 October, is that it is part of the overall Government agenda to transform how public services are delivered. The consolidation ensures that each of the 16 VECs will be organisations of sufficient scale to support the evolution of local education service delivery and to meet future challenges.

The briefing document indicates that under the proposed revised structure, the smallest VEC will have a budget of €39 million. I remind the Minister of State that Kerry Education Service had a budget of €40.6 million in 2008 and a budget of €41.4 million in 2009. The projected outturn for 2010 will be €44 million. This is way above the guidelines. Under the proposed revised structure, County Kerry VEC, City of Limerick VEC and County Limerick VEC will have a combined budget in excess of €100 million.

Since the amalgamation of Town of Tralee VEC and County Kerry VEC in 1998 when Kerry Education Service was formed, Kerry Education Service has developed a vigorous, modern and progressive education service in the county, supporting and developing schools and reaching into every corner of the county with adult and further education provision. In 2009, Kerry Education Service provided education for 3,000 second level students and 11,000 further and adult education students.

The McCarthy report quoted savings of €3 million but did not take account of the collateral damage, which will be far in excess of that amount when one considers the effect on communities, service users and staff. If the proposed amalgamation places the headquarters outside of Kerry, the loss of revenue to local businesses in Kerry alone will be in the region of €5 million per year.

At present, 1,000 full and part-time staff are employed throughout the county by Kerry Education Service. Any amalgamation will impact on resources for staffing. Decisions regarding the allocation of resources for schools and further education programs will not be made in County Kerry. There will be a loss of school identity in the scheme that will span two counties and 21 schools. Larger geographical areas for teaching staff will mean that teachers will have to travel further for re-employment or redeployment purposes. Kerry will also compete for PLC, FETAC, literacy and community education places with a large city such as Limerick and with Limerick regeneration requirements. Budgets and student places will be allocated without an understanding of the local economy and educational or social needs in many parts of Kerry. Kerry education service currently has the flexibility to provide quality-assured FETAC programmes throughout the county and this may no longer be possible. The development of new education initiatives for the county will be at risk. Special initiatives currently in place in Kerry education services schools such as the development schools and enrichment learning programme may no longer be available.

I am completely opposed to this proposal. There is no evidence of a coherent, thought-out plan and costed strategy focusing on the needs of students and on the needs of Kerry as a community and as a society in times of serious economic stress.

The Fine Gael document, Reinventing Government, has been criticised by some people in Kerry — I was attacked about it today by a member of the TUI in Kerry. On page 83, it is clearly stated that Fine Gael plans to rationalise vocational education committees from 33 to 20 in number but that Kerry would be left on its own. It is Fine Gael policy that for all the reasons I have outlined, Kerry will be left on its own. We have lost our industrial independence, our health independence and we will not give up our educational independence as it is one of the last real strengths we have as a county.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the background to the Government decision to reduce the overall number of VECs.

Arising from the recommendation of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes in July 2009, that the number of VECs could be reduced in number from 33 to 22, the Government has decided to reduce the number of VECs from 33 to 16 in order to deal with issues of scale and having regard to the current and prospective requirements of the education sector. Accordingly, the Government has decided on the merger of particular counties including the merger of County Kerry VEC with County Limerick VEC and City of Limerick VEC.

Although a number of indicators could be used to identify the scale of operation of a VEC such as size of budget and number of second level schools, it is fair to say that a VEC's overall budget is the broadest measure of activity because it includes adult education and other provisions not easily captured otherwise.

With regard to County Kerry VEC, County Limerick VEC and City of Limerick VEC, the position is that at present, each of these has an overall budget of less than €40 million. County Kerry VEC has a budget of €37 million; County Limerick VEC has a budget of €39 million while the budget for the City of Limerick VEC is as low as €27 million. In terms of the number of schools which the VECs operate, County Kerry has eight schools, County Limerick has nine schools and City of Limerick has three schools. This data reflects a size and scale of operation which is representative of a significant number of existing VECs which makes restructuring of the sector a key priority.

The merging of County Kerry VEC with County Limerick VEC and City of Limerick VEC will create a VEC which has the critical mass of activity inherent in an administrative budget of €103 million while retaining the flexibility and adaptability which has characterised the VECs in this area to date. In arriving at this combination, account was also taken of geographic factors such as the total area covered by the new VEC, the distance between extremities of the area, the road network within the area and the alignment of other regional structures.

This new structure will provide the people of County Kerry and the people of County Limerick with a VEC which is designed to better position the sector to support the evolution of service delivery not just in schools under the direct governance of a VEC but in the wider education sector. This new, larger VEC will be better able to establish shared services and to provide support services to schools not just within the VEC sector but to primary schools and other second level schools in the Kerry and Limerick areas.

While the decision involves a significant departure from the present position, where there are one or more VECs in each county, the continuation of strong linkages between the new VEC and the counties that are merged to form it will be a fundamental feature of the new structure. Each of the counties concerned will have representation on the new VEC committee. The titles to be given to the new VEC and how it might best reflect the identities of the merging counties of Limerick and Kerry is one of the detailed items that will be covered in the consultations with stakeholders. The location of the headquarters of the new VEC will be determined later. This will require engagement by the Department with the VECs concerned.

I thank Deputy Deenihan for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on this matter.

Adult Education

I have raised this matter to ensure that the Dublin Adult Learning Centre receives adequate funding to fulfil its mission of providing literacy and basic education to adults in Dublin's inner city.

The ethos of the Dublin Adult Learning Centre is quite unique in that it adopts a community-based, learner-centred, creative and holistic approach which is respectful of the adult status of the learner. The centre caters for 660 students per year mostly from the Dublin 1, 3, 7 and 9 postal districts but also from other parts of the city as it is centrally located on bus routes. Almost half of the students are unemployed with the other 50% being employed often in low-paid jobs but finding it difficult to progress in employment because of their literacy and numeracy problems. For the majority of learners in the centre, the formal education system has completely failed them. A total of 47% of the centre's students have just primary school education, while a further 13% have attained junior certificate. The centre provides one to one tutoring through its highly trained volunteers. This is very important for people who are embarrassed by their low level of education and lack of basic numeracy and literacy skills. It also provides the opportunity for students to sit junior certificate, leaving certificate and FETAC levels three, four and five accredited courses. The majority of students who graduate from the centre's courses go on to further education and many find permanent sustainable employment.

Education is indeed the key to unlock the potential of participants, enabling them to pursue employment opportunities. It also restores dignity to the participants and ensures they can develop as full and active citizens in society. As one participant pointed out at their pre-budget submission yesterday, learning to read empowered him to exercise one of the most basic yet important civil rights, the right to vote. Every student in the centre can tell his or her own story as to how participating in a course in the centre helped to transform their lives.

The Dublin Adult Learning Centre works with a number of agencies throughout the city. The centre runs a number of programmes to support its core literacy and numeracy functions, including volunteer tutor training as the teaching in the centre is done mainly through the work of voluntary tutors, a crèche, a resource room and outreach activities. Many people volunteer their time, education and skills to give others the same opportunity.

The Dublin Adult Learning Centre, like many community education programmes, has been funded to date from a variety of sources. Two thirds of its funding comes from the Department of Social Protection and the remaining one third comes from FÁS, the Department of Social Protection and from Pobal. For the past 14 years, the centre received funding from FÁS and the Department of Social Welfare, which represented 19% of the overall budget. FÁS has now ceased to provide core funding and the Department of Social Protection funding has been transferred into activation funds that are difficult for the centre to access. The net impact is that the centre has already suffered a loss of almost one fifth of its income before the budget. It cannot take any further cuts.

I ask the Minister to make funding available to compensate for the loss of the FÁS and the Department of Social Protection funds. It makes no sense to cut funding for an agency that provides such essential education services during a recession with the highest unemployment in the history of the State. Funding for the centre is an investment in our citizens. It is clear from the history of the Dublin Adult Learning Centre that this investment will pay dividends in the future.

I am taking this Adjournment debate on behalf of my colleague Deputy Seán Haughey, Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning. I thank Deputy Costello for raising this issue.

The acquisition of adequate literacy skills is necessary for adults to derive any benefit from any education or training course they want or need to engage in. Adult literacy, in addition to reading and writing, now extends to such basic education as numeracy, social and personal development, learning to learn and IT skills. I refer to those generic skills that enable people to deal with challenges that spring up without warning, the core skills that enable people to exercise judgment or to think laterally; and the key competencies that enable innovation and creativity. In effect, we need to give people skills for life and these skills will enable them to make their own choices about what they want to do with their lives.

Adult literacy has been a priority in further and adult education for some years. During the past decade the level of Government investment in literacy programmes has tripled from €10 million to €30 million per annum. The level of participation has also increased from 17,000 annually to almost 50,000. Despite our economic difficulties, we have managed to maintain funding at consistent levels in recent years at €30 million which the Minister of State will endeavour to maintain in the years to come.

As the Department has funded adult literacy programmes for many years, it has funded the Dublin Adult Learning Centre which provides adult literacy and basic education services for adult learners in the north inner city from its base in Mountjoy Square. The Department's funding is channelled through City of Dublin VEC. In 2009 the Department provided more than €1 million, which level of funding was maintained in 2010. In addition, the centre will receive approximately €400,000 this year from FÁS under the community employment scheme, the aim of which remains as an active labour market programme, with the emphasis on progression into employment or further education and training. The programme is managed within this context, with consideration being given to the availability of resources and the needs of participants and the community. In the centre, the scheme aims to provide literacy and communication skills for long-term unemployed persons in the north inner city.

The Minister of State wants to acknowledge the important role played by the main provider of literacy tuition, the VECs, and wishes to acknowledge the work done by the staff of the centre. While we have maintained funding during the years, we have not stood still. We have developed and enhanced the service. New awards have been developed at levels 1 and 2, while awards at levels 3 and 4 have been revamped and updated. Core skills and key competencies are fundamental parts of these new and updated awards.

A nationwide adult guidance service, located in and operated by VECs, is available. It is targeted at those learners who need our adult literacy and other adult education programmes. The Department has also funded family literacy initiatives across the country which provide inter-generational learning opportunities. It funds intensive literacy options and workplace-based literacy schemes which seek to engage with low qualified workers who may be vulnerable to unemployment. There are specially targeted literacy programmes for those in need of particular literacy services, for example, deaf people, people with dyslexia and native Irish speakers in Gaeltacht areas. We also fund specific programmes for refugees providing literacy and other basic education programmes to assist them integrate into Irish society. Funding has also been provided for NALA to develop a number of television series promoting literacy services and highlighting the needs of learners.

Another positive development for Ireland is our participation in the OECD programme for the international assessment of adult competencies. The Central Statistics Office is acting as the national project manager and the field trial has gone very well in terms of response rates. The results of the survey are scheduled to be available in 2012 or 2013.

The Minister of State wishes to emphasise the Government's commitment to the provision of literacy opportunities for learners and will continue to fund the sector as resources permit. I again thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

Care of the Elderly

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter on the Adjournment. For many elderly citizens who see their home help as a lifeline to some comfort in the autumn of their lives, this issue is critical. The security of knowing there is someone there for them on a regular basis improves their health and well-being and is as good as or better than a lot of the medicines they might take. There is a social dimension to the home help visit which impacts positively on the physical condition of the recipient.

Allowing thousands of elderly people to stay in their own homes with the support provided saves the State money by freeing up costly beds in hospitals and nursing homes and is also the policy of the Government. However, as result of the drastic reduction in the number of home help hours, the Government is not making adequate resources available to implement its own policy and in so doing will cost the State millions of euro in the future. If matters stay as they are, many of the people concerned will end up in acute beds in district hospitals or nursing homes.

In my constituency of Mayo 50,000 hours were targeted to be cut in 2010. The HSE advises that anyone who needs home help will not be denied, but once the criteria for what constitutes a need are changed, it will be able to come up with any figure it wants to justify it. Most people who had had their hours reduced in recent months after a review had been given the all-clear less than nine months ago. If they were approved then, why has the position changed since? The truth is that the well-being of elderly citizens is at the bottom of the agenda and the only show in town is cutting the services available to the most vulnerable in society.

I will give a couple of examples to highlight the unfairness being visited on some of my constituents as a result of the cut in home help hours allocated. An 87 year old lady who is bent to the ground with arthritis and totally dependent on her home help for everything had the time cut from one hour a day to 45 minutes twice a week. Her home help is expected or entitled to walk out after 45 minutes, even though it takes 1.5 hours to do all that is needed to be done, especially when she is visited only twice a week. Let me add that the home help is providing that service on a voluntary basis.

Another person in my constituency who has Alzheimer's disease and is living on her own has had her home help hours cut from five per week to 2.5. Her home help is greeted with human faeces around the house, yet she is not allowed to do any housework or cleaning. The new criteria are so stringent that they are in no way capable of taking account of the human cases dealt with.

The concept of providing home help for elderly people in need of care living in their own home is a good one. However, because of the inadequate resources provided to implement the scheme, it now poses a threat to the well-being of the very people it sets out to protect. The Ombudsman stated earlier this week that the State had failed for many years to provide people with their legal right to nursing home care. If the issue of cutbacks in home help hours is not addressed immediately, it is inevitable the same conclusion will be reached as regards the care of the elderly in their homes.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue as it provides me with an opportunity to update the House on Government policy on the home help service and community services generally for older people.

The guiding principle of Government policy in this area is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. This policy is delivered through a range of community-based supports such as home help-home care packages, meals on wheels and day and respite care services. The importance attached to these services is highlighted by the fact that between 2006 and 2010 more than €200 million in additional funding was provided for the HSE to develop such supports for older people. Without these initiatives, many older people would spend longer than necessary in acute hospitals or be admitted to residential care earlier than might be required. Home care services are provided either directly by the HSE or in partnership with the community and voluntary sector, or by arrangement with private providers.

The home help service is one of our core community services, enabling vulnerable people to remain at home. It is a critical support for older people, in particular, and facilitates prompt discharge from acute hospitals or prevents inappropriate admissions to such hospitals or long-stay residential care. Significant progress has been made in developing the service since 2006, with a noticeable impact both on the number of people benefiting and in relieving pressures on the wider health system.

The provision has increased from 10.8 million hours in 2006 to 11.97 million in 2009. This corresponds to an increase from approximately 49,600 clients at the end of 2006 to 53,800 recipients at the end of 2009. The executive is committed to achieving its target of 11.98 million hours this year in respect of some 54,500 clients, as set out in its current service plan. The national target for 2010 for home help hours is unchanged from the 2009 figure of 11.98 million hours. Any change to this commitment would have to be notified to the Department of Health and Children.

Despite the serious economic constraints experienced in recent times, we have continued to prioritise improving community services for older people. This commitment is demonstrated by the €10 million additional funding provided in the last budget to expand home care packages nationally. These packages often contain a significant home-help component.

In addition to the mainstream home help provision, the current service plan is designed to deliver home care packages to approximately 9,600 people at any one time or some 13,000 clients over the course of the year. This represents an increase for this initiative on that provided for last year. The plan also provides for 21,300 day-care places which should facilitate up to an estimated 80,000 people. Other important initiatives in the area of home care supports are also being undertaken. Arising from an evaluation of home care packages, commissioned by the Department of Health and Children and published last December, the HSE has progressed this year with various improvements in home care provision for roll-out during 2011. These initiatives include revised national guidelines for standardised implementation of home care packages, new national quality guidelines for home care support services, national guidelines for the home help service, and a national procurement framework for home care services. The executive went to tender with the procurement framework on 22 October.

The HSE has operational responsibility for the delivery of health and social services, including the home help service at both regional and local health office levels. Reviews of service delivery are ongoing to ensure those who most need the service receive it, that the changing care needs of clients are taken into account, that people are treated equitably and that services are managed in a way that reflects seasonal changes in demand. The HSE has confirmed that services are being closely monitored to ensure the targets for service delivery in 2010 as set out in the service plan will be achieved. Notwithstanding the difficult financial environment, the Government is determined to do everything possible to protect the services referred to by the Deputy, respond to priority demographic and other needs and support ongoing reform of the public health services within available resources.

Licensing of Gold Shops

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue. At a number of recent community and constituency meetings as well as at my constituency information clinics, grave concerns have been raised by citizens about the recent proliferation of gold shops and gold trader operations across the Dublin region which seem to be linked to the recession and current economic climate. I understand the issue also featured recently on the "Liveline" radio programme when residents from throughout Ireland highlighted the recent huge upsurge of gold trading operations and widespread advertisements in the national and local press.

I acknowledge that an overwhelming number of jewellery shops and businesses are involved in legitimate buying and selling of jewellery and other gold items but on-street and door-to-door gold operations are causing serious disquiet among many citizens. Some of my constituents believe gold jewellery and other items stolen in the recent upsurge in robberies and house burglaries are turning up in some of these operations.

The media have highlighted the huge increase in house break-ins in certain urban areas. The most recent third quarter CSO statistics highlighted a 21% increase in the number of robbery, extortion and hijacking offences. There was a slight decrease of 16% in the number of burglaries in the third quarter but this came on the back of a one third increase in the number of robberies in the second quarter of 2010. It is clear that the levels of robberies and burglaries remain unacceptably high.

Many reputable and legitimate businesses are involved in the trading of gold jewellery but the mushrooming of gold trading operations has given rise to many questions. Is the Minister of State concerned about the apparent lack of regulation of the trade in gold jewellery? There have been many disastrous examples of the lack of regulation of various industries under this Government, including the taxi, banking, financial and building industries, and the Government should act quickly to address this issue.

Citizens have asked me if a licensing procedure has been put in place for the establishment and operation of gold shops, on-street or door-to-door gold trading operations. Can anyone establish a gold trading operation, even if he or she has a past conviction for handling stolen property? Do any legal requirements apply for the establishment of a gold trading operation, whether mobile or in a premises? If there is no licensing regime, why will the Government not urgently establish one? Legitimate gold businesses would have no problem with this as it would exclude unscrupulous traders.

I hope the Government will consider introducing a system of invigilation to make it easier to track items of jewellery and other gold products received by businesses in response to allegations that stolen property may be turning up in shops. Have procedures been put in place to compel gold vendors to show that their products have been legally acquired where gardaí doubt their legal provenance? I understand that some shops have asked and continue to ask an individual selling them items to produce identification. Perhaps the Government would consider making the sale of any gold item dependent on a copy of valid identification being kept on the purchaser's records. Many businesses depend on proof of identity. How can the Garda address the problem of robberies and burglaries if gold jewellery trading operations can operate with impunity? The Garda should be asked to conduct spot checks of gold trading operations for jewellery and other gold items stolen in house burglaries.

The lack of regulation of the trade in gold jewellery is damaging legitimate traders and causing concern in communities. A licensing system for gold traders, identification of gold vendors and regular spot checks by the Garda are key elements for the regulation of this mushrooming trade.

I thank Deputy Broughan for raising this important issue and giving me the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, to update the House on it. Deputies will be aware of a significant increase in the number of cash for gold outlets in towns and cities in the State and in the advertising for the direct mailing of gold to such outlets or to dedicated postal and Internet cash for gold traders. It is understood that many kiosks situated in hotels or shopping centres are operated by individuals employed by registered companies to buy gold for cash. It appears that most gold offered to these outlets is paid for on a scrap value basis and items are smelted and recycled. Established jewellers also buy gold and jewellery for cash. The prevalence of this trade appears to be linked to the high price that gold now commands on international markets and the cash for gold concept appears to be an international phenomenon.

There has been a considerable amount of media coverage of the activities of these cash for gold outlets, much of which has involved speculation as to the source of the gold being offered. The Minister is aware that the trade gives rise to concerns in communities about burglaries and other crimes that may be linked to the cash for gold trade.

The informal purchase of jewellery is not specifically regulated in criminal legislation but the circumstances under which jewellery is bought and sold may indicate the commission of certain offences, such as the handling or possession of stolen property under sections 17 and 18 of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001. Section 17 of that Act provides that a person is guilty of handling stolen property if he or she, knowing that the property was stolen or being reckless as to whether it was stolen, dishonestly receives or arranges to receive it or undertakes or assists in its retention, removal, disposal or realisation by or for the benefit of another person or arranges to do so. A person guilty of handling stolen property is liable on conviction on indictment to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or both. Section 18 of the Act provides that a person who, without lawful authority or excuse, possesses stolen property knowing that the property was stolen or being reckless as to whether it was stolen is guilty of an offence. A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on conviction on indictment to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or both.

In the context of money laundering and terrorist financing legislation, the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) Act 2010 only addresses a situation where a person buys gold and jewellery from a dealer, usually a jeweller, and pays in cash to the value of €15,000 or more or makes a number of separate purchases for smaller amounts to that total value. In such cases, significant requirements are placed on the vendor to carry out customer due diligence.

The Garda enforces the provisions of the criminal law in respect of the theft and robbery of jewellery and gold. Should members of the public have suspicions that goods being sold or traded may be stolen, the correct action is for these suspicions to be referred to the Garda for investigation.

The latest CSO crime statistical bulletin of 28 October 2010 indicates that with regard to burglary in quarter three of 2010, there were 6,016 recorded burglary and related offences, which represents a decrease of 1,194, or 16.6%, on the number recorded in quarter three of 2009. The annualised total for these offences up to end of quarter three of 2010 saw a smaller percentage decrease of 2.9% over the 12-month period to end of quarter three of 2009. Aggravated burglary offences decreased by 37, or 10.1%, in this 12-month period. The total recorded burglary and related offences for the years 2007 to 2009 are 23,603 in 2007, 24,683 in 2008 and 26,911 in 2009.

To take account of concerns about the matter, the Minister's Department has formally asked the Garda Commissioner to state his view on the extent, if any, of criminal offences that are being committed in the procurement and receipt of gold and similar items in transactions carried out at cash for gold locations. In particular, the Commissioner has been asked to examine whether the trade may be linked generally, or in particular areas, to burglary offences; whether criminal justice legislation, particularly the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001, is adequate in the context of cash for gold transactions; whether criminal elements involved in organised crime or otherwise may be connected with the operation and ownership of the cash for gold outlets; and whether new legislative provisions may be required to address criminality in respect of cash for gold transactions. As soon as the outcome of this examination of the matter is to hand, the Minister will make an assessment of what if any action, legislative or otherwise, may be required.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.50 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 16 November 2010.