Topical Issue Debate

Maritime Training

Deputies Martin Kenny, Martin Ferris, Micheál Martin and Thomas Pringle have three minutes each.

More than 400 people who have been trained by the National Maritime College of Ireland over the past year or so now find that they are not being certified. If this situation is not resolved, all of these people will be out of work from 1 January 2017. They will be unable to take up positions in Ireland or anywhere else in the world. It is intolerable that these people cannot be employed on any vessel anywhere until they get this certification in place. There seems to be some kind of stand-off between the Marine Survey Office, which is part of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, and the National Maritime College of Ireland. We need to get this resolved as quickly as possible. Many of these people cannot go anywhere else in the world to get these courses. They took these courses in good faith and expected that everything would be all right. It is intolerable that they have been left out in the cold in this manner. I implore the Minister to sort out this problem as a matter of urgency. It needs to be done immediately in order that people can be reassured. No one is aware of any reason this situation has not been resolved up to now.

Up to 400 seafarers and 20 lecturers are poised to lose their jobs on 1 January 2017. Their jobs will be at risk unless we resolve a dispute between the National Maritime College of Ireland and the Marine Survey Office. In February 2015, the National Maritime College of Ireland made a submission to the Marine Survey Office seeking approval of a refresher course, but it has not yet received such approval. Following the Marine Survey Office's failure to respond, the National Maritime College of Ireland approached the UK Marine and Coastguard Agency through a dedicated maritime offshore joint venture training company. The UK agency is highly regarded globally and has approved courses undertaken in a number of EU member states, including France, Spain, the Netherlands and Croatia. Every member state recognises the appropriate certificates issued by other member states. The seafaring upgrade that was carried out by the UK Marine and Coastguard Agency in conjunction with the National Maritime College of Ireland relates to on-board safety and basic seafaring safety skills.

The Minister can resolve the stand-off that has developed as a consequence of all this. He needs to convince the Marine Survey Office of the legitimacy of the refresher courses that were provided by the UK Marine and Coastguard Agency. The agency, which is recognised globally, came here to provide these courses, and 400 seafarers took part in them.

Their jobs are now at risk if this is not resolved, as well as the jobs of 20 lecturers.

I believe the Marine Survey Office is in contravention of Article 3 of the 2005 directive due it not recognising this. I understand the National Maritime College of Ireland has written to the Minister about this and is awaiting a response. Has the Minister received and read that letter? It can also test this by proceeding through court proceedings if necessary. This could be very embarrassing both nationally and internationally for the Minister's office and the situation pertaining to the recognition of the legitimacy of this course.

I thank the Minister for attending this debate. I ask him to intervene in this situation, not just in terms of the specific issues in dispute but also with regard to the wider issue of the relationship between the Marine Survey Office, the Department and the National Maritime College of Ireland. As the Minister with responsibility for education at the time, I was involved in sanctioning the public private partnership that led to the establishment of the National Maritime College of Ireland for €65 million in capital spend, a major infrastructure in maritime education. It is dismaying and deeply depressing that a row of this nature has developed. The level of hostility, although that might be too strong a word, between a national college and a parent Department is unacceptable.

My colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, attended a meeting yesterday with some officials from the Marine Survey Office, MSO, and the head of the maritime college. There was a robust exchange of views. It should never have come to this, that there is a major public dispute about accreditation in the maritime field. That, above all else, demands the Minister's intervention, and his commitment and determination to resolve this and to put the relationship between his Department, the agencies under the Department and the maritime college on a better footing for the future. As a former Minister with responsibility for education I cannot comprehend how such a dispute has developed. One does not see this type of intractable row developing with Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, the institutes of technology, universities, the National University of Ireland, the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC and further education bodies.

In this case, 400 mariners had been certified under a British accreditation agency. The programmes were delivered in a joint venture by the National Maritime College of Ireland and SEFtec Global Training. They offer these courses, a number of refresher training courses, in the maritime college in Ringaskiddy. They are approved by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in the United Kingdom, but not by the Irish equivalent. That is contrary to the mutual recognition of qualifications directive under the European Union. It appears that the MSO is requiring fully qualified master mariners to deliver the courses whereas people who have knowledge of this issue say it is not the place of master mariners to teach these basic courses. In colleges throughout the world the courses are taught by ex-boatswains, ex-petty officers from the navy or other such seamen who are used to launching and recovering life rafts, lifeboats and so forth on a daily basis. Likewise, firefighting courses are normally taught by people who are experienced firefighters. Ship masters are not required. There appears to be a lack of pragmatic engagement here.

The upshot is a damaging public dispute, which I regret, as well as potential redundancies, the ending of the joint venture, damage to the reputation of the college and the undermining of its future. I urge the Minister to become involved due to the macro dimension to this, the need to put that relationship on a much better footing than it currently is. He also must have the issue sorted for the 400 people who have done the course.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for accepting this issue today. I am not surprised we are discussing it. It is good that it is being aired in the House. It should not have come to this but we must air the matter now to ensure we do not have to return to it in the future.

The most damning part of the statement from the NMCI is that it applied for accreditation in February 2015 and as of yesterday it still had not received formal approval for the course. Noting the delays in the Marine Survey Office, it was able to go to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, MCA, in the UK, get approval in May or June last year and have a course up and running in August 2015. It has now trained more than 400 personnel and given them a European recognised accreditation, yet the Marine Survey Office refuses to recognise that accreditation. There is something badly wrong if such a situation can develop and the inertia from February 2015 through to today is allowed to continue.

I have dealt with fishermen who were obliged to deal with the Marine Survey Office over the years and I am aware that they have great difficulty getting processed and dealt with through that office. I have raised issues on numerous occasions in the House relating to fishermen getting their skipper's tickets recognised for work in the offshore industry and in the workboat industry. In the UK jurisdiction, a person who has a full skipper's ticket can automatically get a workboat licence for a workboat up to 500 tonne weight. One cannot do that here. The Marine Survey Office insists that the person must go on a two-year course in the national college and work up six months sea time in the sector before it might consider giving them the certificate. There is a real problem with the Marine Survey Office responding to the needs of people working in the industry and getting their certification.

I hope the Minister will intervene to resolve this issue and that the issue can be resolved. The prospect of 400 seafarers being out of work, the possible closure of the training course and the losses this would cause is too much to lose at this stage. However, it might be welcome if it leads to changes in the Marine Survey Office so that it will do what it is supposed to do and respond by facilitating the training and allowing it to happen, rather than sitting on an application for more than 16 months with nothing being done about it.

I thank the Deputies for raising this subject. I will address the immediate issue for those who are unaware of it. There was a meeting yesterday between my officials and representatives of the MSO and the NMCI and it appears they have reached an agreement on a solution to this problem. However, I take the point made by Deputy Martin, which is new to me. If there is a bad relationship between the two organisations concerned and if it is a permanently bad relationship, I will address it with the officials and find out what is happening. Obviously that could have led to this outbreak, although I am not saying it did.

One of the features of this row was that an extraordinary amount of political speed and agility was shown. I learned about it last Thursday or Friday night. Deputy Ferris asked me to intervene. I am not prone to intervening directly unless I have to, but I rapidly asked my officials to meet with the MSO people involved. They did that yesterday. It appears at this stage to have been sorted on agreeable terms. The implementation of it is still to be proven, but the action terms appear to be agreed. I will address the wider subject and if there is bad blood between these two organisations, let us address it. In the meantime, the intervention, the fact that they met and that there was not so much megaphone diplomacy meant it could be resolved to the satisfaction, I believe, of all parties involved in a very short time.

I will outline some of the background to this dispute and the parties involved. Ireland is a party to the International Convention on the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, STCW. This is the convention which regulates the safety of seafarers on a global basis. Ireland has been subject to evaluation by the International Maritime Organisation, IMO, which has confirmed that Ireland is giving full and complete effect to the provisions of this convention, as a result of which Ireland is placed on the IMO whitelist for the provision of maritime education and training.

We also comply fully with all our international obligations relating to mutual recognition of qualification in the maritime sector.

My Department, through the MSO, approves and certifies a number of providers within the State for the provision of training in accordance with the convention. This includes the National Maritime College of Ireland, which is the principal provider of seafarer training in Ireland. My Department also approves many other course providers that provide short courses in sea survival, boat handling and firefighting skills. The Deputies will appreciate that the provision of courses in line with an international convention in safety is one which is taken very seriously by my Department. The Deputies have raised an issue which has been the subject of a good deal of communications in recent weeks between SEFtec NMCI Overseas Training, the commercial partners of the National Maritime College of Ireland, among others, and my own Department. My Department has, at all times, endeavoured to engage constructively with what are sometimes sensitive and complex issues.

I am also aware that there have been media inquires during the past week to which we have provided responses, so I am happy to have this opportunity this afternoon, as Minister with responsibility for safety regulation in the maritime sector, to clarify a number of important issues on the record and for the benefit of Members of the House who may have concerns or inquiries on behalf of constituents. Let me at this point confirm that my Department, through the MSO, has approved the programmes mentioned by the Deputies in the National Maritime College of Ireland. The NMCI sought approval in 2015 for these programmes, which are mandated by the convention I mentioned earlier. The programmes cover a number of vital safety areas, including sea survival, boat handling and fire fighter skills. Full approval was granted in autumn last year in respect of two of the five categories sought. On the remaining three categories of courses, a final application was received in spring 2016. My Department has given preliminary approval to the NMCI to deliver these courses. Final approval is given when my Department officials attend the first programme and confirm that it is delivered in accordance with the approval. This is a normal practice when certain programmes are being approved.

If a meeting has occurred between the Department and the two organisations, they have buried the hatchet to some extent at least and got things moving along, then that is very good news and a positive outcome. The issue, which has been going on for a considerable length of time between these two organisations, needs to be resolved permanently. I am sure that the Minister and his staff will work to ensure that whatever kind of reconciliation is required will happen quickly and that we will not be in this position again. It is deplorable that two State organisations providing a service as vital as this one should be at loggerheads over something. It is unbelievable that it can come to this stage. I welcome the result that has occurred. I hope we will work out a way to ensure this never happens again.

I thank the Minister for intervening effectively to resolve this dispute. It is an indictment of the entire system when it takes an intervention by the Minister to resolve it, for which I commend him. People who have the trust of the Government and elected representatives should live up to and honour that trust, not be in the situation where we read headlines in the papers about what is happening, where the livelihoods of 400 plus people were in jeopardy because of ego, or for whatever reason this could not be resolved. From what I have been told about this and what I have read about it, the intervention is timely in so far as this could have ended up in the courts. It would have been highly embarrassing from a European perspective, especially in the EU maritime section. It would have been highly embarrassing for our situation here. I again thank the Minister for intervening and commend him on it.

I thank the Minister for his response. I have not used the phrase "bad blood", but I make these assertions in the context of what has unfolded. It seems difficult to comprehend how the situation developed in the manner it has. The Minister was not in a position to give the full reply because of time constraints, but he said that final approval is given when Department officials, "attend the first programme and confirm that it is delivered in accordance with the approval". To date I see that the NMCI has not notified us of the date for the first programme. This is contrary to what we have been told about the courses. The Minister's full reply states that he is conscious of the plight of the 400 mariners, that the reasons are too complex to go into any real detail, but he will do something about it.

I trust that anyone who has undertaken the courses will have validation and be sorted, because they undertook them in good faith. I welcome the Minister's intention to get involved in the relationship issue, because there should be a seamless system in place to facilitate accreditation of courses delivered by national colleges. The Minister's reply confirms that this college is a main provider of a range of seafaring programmes under the auspices of the MSO. Therefore, it is imperative that a seamless, constructive, engaged process is delivered in terms of accreditation of programmes. The joint venture is an important enterprise because it is key to the Cork harbour area and to the development of education and research. The National Maritime College is a very important aspect of that. We are a maritime nation.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am glad to hear that this issue has been resolved. Again, it should not have to be taken to the floor of the House to be resolved and the Minister should not have to intervene in a process to make sure that a resolution is reached. I welcome the fact this has happened because that might change the practices and change how business is done between the Marine Survey Office and the people it is there to service. Sometimes you wonder whose role it is to service who. That might be part of the problem. We also get the suggestion thrown up that this is a safety issue. That is a way to try to shut down any discussion and conversation on how business is carried out. I urge the Minister to make sure we do not get into this kind of situation again in the future. That is the key thing that has to be learnt from this.

I thank the Deputies for their responses. I cannot promise the same result in any other disputes looming on the horizon, but this one seems to be resolved for the moment and I hope permanently.

The area covering the seafarers is a big issue. For those who might have been in limbo and those who have already undergone relevant training in SNO, which are obviously parallel or similar programmes to the ones the Deputies referred, I make it clear we are conscious of their position. Without getting into the details, some of which are quite complex, I can confirm that a process is being put in place which will ensure that maritime safety, employment and the validity of the qualifications of seafarers are fully respected and protected. I understand that both parties have undertaken to act very quickly to ensure that the necessary applications, analyses and validation can take place within a matter of weeks, and that no further disruption to course activities need occur, nor should there be any further question mark relating to employment.

In passing, I thank not just all the Deputies here who have been involved, but Deputy Michael McGrath for the role he played in bringing everybody to the table.

Charitable and Voluntary Organisations

I am grateful to the Cheann Comhairle for listing this issue among the Topical Issue matters for today. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee for dealing with this.

A lot of media and public attention has correctly been focused on the emerging administrative, management oversight, employee, auditing and financial aspects of the Console scandal, but there is, as I am sure the Minister of State will appreciate, another dimension to this story of equal importance, which until today has not gathered much traction. That concerns the clients the charity serves. The focus over the last two weeks has correctly been on the emerging scandalous management of what is known as the national suicide charity, Console.

While the mismanagement of Console has been to the forefront and the news has focused on how the organisation was managed essentially as a constant credit supply to its chief executive without proper supervision or auditing, while simultaneously being in receipt of significant State funding, I am sure the Minister of State will agree that there are voices which have not been heard and which have been given little volume since the story first broke. They are the voices of clients who, most disturbingly, seem to be the very last to be considered as talk of a wind-down of Console gains traction.

The question of what would happen to the clients of Console arose once last week. They are the individuals who turned to its counselling service for help because they were suicidal or had familial experience of suicide. One answer suggests the services of Console will be transferred to another agency. Several agencies have been mentioned in this context. Neither of the two agencies I have heard mentioned specialises in the services offered by Console in the past ten or 15 years and this point has been made in the media and on social media. As the Minister of State is aware, Console is specialised and provides bereavement counselling services. A profound challenge which is unlikely to be met by those responsible for dealing with the financial and administration issues which have arisen concerns where the clients have been left. The CEO of the HSE moved today to address some of these issues but in a general way. However, I very much welcome his intervention and some of what he said. The HSE has contingency plans in place which involve maintaining the existing services and replacement services. I wish to focus on replacement services.

After the Minister of State responds, I may have further questions to ask.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he rightly stated, the revelations relating to Console in recent weeks have, unfortunately, once again sent shockwaves through our very small nation. While we are a small nation, we are very generous and have always given to charitable organisations. Therefore, something like this is very upsetting not only for those who are availing of the service but also for those who work in the organisation.

Console is one of the charities funded in part through the HSE's National Office for Suicide Prevention. The services it provides are counselling therapy and support services for people who have been bereaved by suicide and they have a huge benefit for many individuals. The HSE audit of Console was initiated in April 2015 by the National Office for Suicide Prevention following an examination of the 2013 records from Console to the HSE which were received in late 2014. The HSE has confirmed that concerns arose in a number of areas, including corporate governance and the financial management of the agency. Concerns had been raised in 2009 by the HSE about Console's cashflow, resulting in certain controlled actions being taken at the time by the National Office for Suicide Prevention. In 2014 the HSE put in place a revised governance framework for all organisations funded by it. A question has been raised about the new revised framework which did not work. I have been informed that at the time the HSE was confident the matters that had been raised would be resolved and its aim was to work with the organisation and ensure the services remained. We now know that there was much more to it.

The need to maintain public confidence in the charities sector is of the utmost importance, particularly in view of the excellent work carried out in the sector which is of benefit to the most vulnerable people in society. I fully support the involvement of the Charities Regulatory Authority in this matter. As all Deputies are aware, An Garda Síochána is also involved at this stage. While it is a serious matter that needs to be comprehensively investigated, it is important that the services offered by Console not be affected.

The Deputy has rightly said much of the media attention has been on the scandal of the mismanagement of funding, but all the while consideration by the HSE of alternative service options has been under way and worked through in parallel with this process. While I cannot comment on some of the work being undertaken, there are two groups of people whom we need to ensure are looked after properly. We need to ensure we look after the service users, their families and friends in order they will know the service they have been receiving until now has been the correct and proper service. We also need to ensure the counsellors, staff and volunteers who are also victims do not feel abandoned by us and that they know, whether they move to another organisation and whether the services needed are created somewhere else, that they are part of it and not left behind. That has been my priority throughout. It has also been the HSE's priority and needs to continue to be our priority.

I am grateful and know that the users of the service will also be. The Minister of State has her finger on the pulse and it sounds as though she has had her finger on it since the issue began. She knows and appreciates that the relationship between a counsellor and a client is special and confidential. A number of questions might be going through the minds of clients about alternative or replacement services, particularly for those in a vulnerable position. They may be wondering whether they will see the same counsellor again, if the same counsellor will be available to them in a replacement service and where will they see the counsellor. They may be wondering who will be responsible for their case notes if there is a replacement service, where the case notes are now and whether they are the responsibility of the counsellor or Console. They may also be wondering who will make contact to inform them. If Console has responsibility for the details and case notes, will they, without the knowledge of the client, be passed on to another organisation designated to do the work of Console? While Mr. David Hall and his team are to be commended - they may be attempting to address the financial and administrative issues - it is important to distinguish between the relative ease in the business world with which clients can be transferred from one business to another after a liquidation and the sensitivity surrounding the issue.

When the CEO of the HSE speaks about contingency planning and replacement services, it needs to be spelled out a little more. The board of Console will meet this evening and I understand the Minister of State may not be able to spell it out now, but it is a question that must be answered. I note from Console's website that its plans for later in the calendar year are still being advertised. Does the Minister of State agree that it is vital to keep the counsellors and clients of Console fully briefed on ongoing developments? Does she understand the sensitivity of the issues surrounding the replacement of services as opposed to their continuation? Does she agree that should Console be wound down, the services it has offered will still be badly needed? What contingency plan does she or the HSE have in place to meet this possibility? Is she committed to the continued funding of mental health services, specifically for those bereaved by suicide? Will she reassure the clients of Console that their needs will be placed front and centre, as they appear to be, and that this will continue to happen as the scandal reaches its conclusion?

I assure the Deputy, the staff, counsellors, patients and service users of Console that how this issue has affected and will affect them has been to the forefront. The reason we have not heard many comments on it from me, the Department of Health and the HSE in recent weeks, in the past week in particular, is it is sensitive and we want to ensure they are briefed and happy with what is happening, that whatever process happens next is right and suits their needs and that the service provided will continue. That is the priority.

The Deputy mentioned the provision of information for service users.

The HSE and all public staff have responsibilities under data protection legislation. These responsibilities ensure personal data such as medical records are used and shared appropriately and legally, that they are stored securely, that they are not disclosed to unauthorised third parties and that they are disposed of appropriately when no longer required. They will apply to any information on service users, regardless of whether it is transferred to another service.

Moving forward and to follow on from our discussion last night, it is welcome that the Minister will now commence section 4 of the Charities Act, that this will give the regulator more power and that more money is being raised to hire more staff to carry out its duties. Now more than ever we need to make sure people have confidence in these organisations in order that, wherever the service users will move to, they will have confidence in that organisation. A lot of confidence has been knocked and, unfortunately, what has happened at Console and one or two other organisations previously has left a bad taste in people's mouths. However, it is not the norm. Therefore, we need to make sure there is a proper regulatory body that can act and make sure something like this will not happen again. I again reassure the Deputy that the service users, counsellors and staff working within Console are and will continue to be at the forefront of everything we are doing.

School Funding

I am delighted to be able to raise this matter. Today, at 3 a.m., a serious fire engulfed the Patrician Academy post-primary boys' school in Mallow, County Cork. It caused extensive damage to the administrative block, science labs, technical drawing and woodwork rooms and computer facilities. The building dates from 1886. The school was established by the Patrician Brothers and has since been laicised. The fire caused such extensive damage that adjoining residential premises were evacuated in the early hours of the morning. In the meantime the Garda has confirmed that a technical examination of the site is under way.

In raising the matter I recognise that it will take considerable time to move to construction phase and that people are still getting over the shock of what happened last night. The school community still feels very raw about it, but I ask the Minister for Education, Deputy Richard Bruton, once the school community, the principal and the board of management make formal contact with the Department, if emergency accommodation can be provided in advance of the start of the new school year in September. Parents, the principal, the teachers and the community are very anxious not to be left without at least temporary accommodation, particularly for those students who will be facing into State examinations from September onwards. I am, therefore, raising the issue to ask that these resources be made available.

I acknowledge that the Secretary General of the Department spoke to me today about the matter. I recognise that there are quite a number of issues that will have to be gone through, including insurance, investigations, etc., but I am hopeful the Department will prioritise this project. We acknowledge that there has been a considerable degree of capital investment in the school in the recent past, including the provision of an autism unit, as well as additional classrooms. I am hopeful, therefore, that at least in the short term, pending further planning for the rebuilding and future-proofing of the school, emergency accommodation will be provided as soon as possible and that, once the school makes formal contact with the Department, the matter will be expedited.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I know that he raised it earlier on the Order of Business and I can only imagine what a devastating blow it is to the community in Mallow. As he said, it concerns a school with a great and outstanding record and it comes as a great blow to it that it suffered such damage in the fire. I thank him for contacting the Department and assure him that we will take the matter extremely seriously. My officials have since spoken to the school principal about the extent of the damage caused and while it is too early to determine the level of structural damage caused, the principal has advised my Department that the school has made contact with its insurance provider and that an assessor is due to visit the school today. A member of my Department's technical service will also visit the school site today. The Deputy will appreciate that the position is fluid, but the outcome of the assessor's site visit is expected to suggest a way forward. I understand the statutory authorities will also conduct a technical investigation. My Department will work very closely with the school and other interests in the community to make sure we make the very best provision possible for the children who have been impacted on. I undertake to track the issue and report back in due course to the Deputy on how the project is evolving, following the receipt of the technical assessments.

I am very grateful to the Minister for his response and his officials for the contact that has been made with the school authorities, particularly the school principal, Ms Catherine Fitzpatrick. I also acknowledge the fact that officials will undertake a site visit, which is to be welcomed. I thank the Minister for his proactive response and I am assured by his statement that provision will be made for the emergency or temporary accommodation that will be necessary from September onwards.

I cannot really add to what has been said, but I will tick-tack with the Deputy and others, including other Deputies in the area, who are concerned to make sure there will be no breakdown in communication and that the various technical assessments will be acted on hastily.

Sitting suspended at 4.10 p.m. and resumed at 4.30 p.m.