This Bill, although it contains only six small sections, is a Bill of great importance. It is important because it proposes to provide more money to vocational education committees. By means of this additional finance committees may be able to continue and to extend the excellent work that they are doing in the spheres of culture and social and economic development.
Vocational education, as you all know, is financed jointly from funds obtained from local rates and from grants from the Central Fund. Existing legislation fixes a maximum rate for vocational education in the various local rating authority areas. In most cases this maximum rate is 15d. in the £, though there are a few areas in which there is a maximum of 18d. in the £. With the development of the vocational education service in recent years, and the increasing costs apart from development, many of the vocational education committees have reached this maximum of rate income. They find that further development will be impossible—and, indeed, maintenance of the present standard of the service will be difficult—unless more money is made available.
The work and the achievements of the vocational schools have been so often and so widely extolled that it is scarcely necessary for me, on this occasion, to praise them further. But this I would like to say: these schools will be called upon to play a major part in the great effort which we must make, as from now, to adapt ourselves to the rapidly changing conditions in which we live. I feel that the record of progress, development, advancement which is the story of vocational education over the past 30 years is such that we can feel confident that the vocational education committees, the teachers and all others connected with the system will play that part well and will capably discharge the responsibilities laid upon them. To do this they will, of course, need help. Financial help is their most immediate need—an gad is giorra don scórnaigh.
This Bill, therefore, proposes—in Section 2—that the maximum rate for vocational education be increased to 24d. in the £ for all areas. This does not mean, however, that the vocational education rate would jump immediately by sixpence or by ninepence. At present, a vocational education committee may, on demand, obtain an additional rate of 1d. in the £ from the rating authority over the amount provided in the previous year. I am not proposing any departure from that existing situation. I am not asking that a vocational education committee should be able to increase its income from local rates, as of legal right, by more than one penny in the £ over the rate for the previous year.
There is, however, in existing legislation a provision that permits the local authority to grant an increase of more than one penny, but not more than two pennies, from one year to another. Almost invariably, when a committee has found itself in the position that it must approach the rating authority for a rate increase of more than one penny, the additional amount has been granted. That this has been the case is a clear indication that the work of the vocational education committees is very highly valued, locally. In Section 3 of this Bill, it is proposed that this limit of twopence on the amount which the rating authority may give should be advanced to threepence. Industrial and economic development in some areas will, I am sure, be such that immediate demands for vocational and technical education will be great, and may warrant a heavier call on the local rates than the ordinary one penny annual increase. I should like to point out, however, that there is no element of compulsion in this section. It is permissive, merely. And, of course, it does not affect the over-riding maximum of 24d. provided for in Section 2.
Section 4 is rather technical. The principal Act—the Vocational Education Act, 1930—states in Section 2:
"the expression ‘rateable value' means the annual rateable value under the Valuation Acts".
For the past 30 years, this has been interpreted as meaning that a rate of one penny in the pound in so far as vocational education was concerned was equivalent to the income which a penny in every pound of the gross valuation of a rateable area would produce. For example, if the schedule of valuation gave a figure of £100,000 for a particular area in a particular year, the vocational education committee would get 100,000 pennies in respect of each penny rate available for vocational education. Certain rating authorities have recently challenged this interpretation and have claimed that the value of the penny rate should be calculated on the figure of valuation on which rates are collectable.
I understand that the question could not be determined except by submitting it to the courts, or alternatively, by clarifying the law. It appeared to me that the occasion of submitting a Vocational Education Bill to the Oireachtas was an opportune time to remove all possible doubts in this matters. As regards Section 5, this merely provides that the provisions governing the payment of travelling and maintenance expenses to members of county vocational education committees shall be on the same basis as provisions in other legislation concerning similar payments to members of county councils, members of joint mental hospital boards and members of county committees of agriculture.
The passing of this Bill by An tOireachtas will, of course, mean that the State grants to vocational education committees will also be increased, since State grants are related to the amounts provided from local rates. I have no doubt that An Seanad will agree, as the Dáil has agreed, to this measure for the provision of more money for a very important branch of our educational system.