I welcome Minister Stagg's lateral move to Education tonight. I know he will bring his vision, progressive nature and spirit to bear upon this problem.
When a vice-principal is required to do the work of an absent principal, there are arrangements to ensure that, if it goes on for a period of time, it is reflected in the payment of allowances. When the principal is away from work for a period of three months, the vice-principal is normally paid the principal's allowance. In the case of St. Malachy's School in Dundalk, the vice-principal is in an unusual situation which is without precedent in the educational area. This does not have any impact at the moment but there could be implications for the future.
The principal of the school has been seconded by the Department of Education to work with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, which all parties involved in education, including the Minister and the Department of Education, are committed to. It is necessary to get expertise from the teaching area. The nature of this secondment is not continuous, but continual, in the sense that this has taken up two days every week for the past couple of years. When this occurs, the vice-principal takes over the principal's duties. There is a good relationship between them in the school — there would have to be, to make an arrangement like this work. However, the vice-principal has had no recognition for this work in his salary or allowances. The reason given by the Department is that because the absence is not for a period of three continuous months or more, he is not entitled to the payment. There was an aggregate of more than 80 days of the past school year where the vice-principal was in charge and it will probably be the same this year and as long as this continues. It is unfair, unjust and untenable.
I have discussed this with the Department, which took the view that circular 19/1982 deals with the payment of vice-principals acting as principals for periods of time. It is an agreed report at conciliation and deals with a continuous period of absence; that is all it does. It is not exclusive of anything else and it does not deal with the type of problem I raise tonight. I freely admit this case does not come under the aegis of the agreed report on three months absence, but is justice being done? Anyone I have spoken to on the matter would readily concede that, if the vice-principal was doing this work on a continuous basis, he would be paid for it, but because it is only two days a week over a longer period the Department are hiding unfairly, incorrectly and unjustly — I would almost say illegally — behind this circular so as not to pay him.
I am sure the speech the Minister of State will make will be in line with what I have said because I know what reply the Department are sending out on this matter. What will happen next? The case I am promoting is a correct and just one. I recognise that it does not exactly come into what was envisaged by this agreement, because it did not deal with this type of matter. I will now have to put down a claim on behalf of this person in the conciliation process. About 20 officials, representing my side, that of the Department of Education, who will have to travel from Athlone, the Department of Finance and the Conciliation and Arbitration Service will waste a valuable hour of their time at conciliation. The Department may not agree to that procedure, in which case this will have to go to arbitration. A plethora of procedures, including council, will have to be set up to hear this case.
Any reasonable and fair-minded person would agree that it is only fair to pay someone for this work if they have to do it. What it reflects is an inflexibility and a lack of capacity in the Department to deal with a matter that happens to be different. It may be a good case, but they cannot deal with it because it is not included in the agreement. That is like saying that agreements should cover all eventualities. People have to think for themselves and look at situations from a new point of view. The principal is absent on departmental duties, dealing with curriculum development on behalf of the Minister. While he is absent, his position is taken by the vice-principal, who is doing the work competently and correctly and with the full support of the board of management, the parents, the teachers and the absent principal, but he is not being paid for this. I ask the Minister of State to tell the Department to examine this case, knowing that it will have to be sorted out at some stage. Can it not be dealt with administratively, rather than going through this procedure involving 30 different people? It will cost more to process this claim through conciliation and arbitration than to concede it ten times over.
This may have implications for the future, but I do not know of any. There is a principle involved, which the Department would readily concede, that if one does the work, one should be paid. The exact conditions in the agreed report dealt with a different type of absence. If this person is clearly doing the job, the Department should deal with this administratively, in terms of fair play. I ask the Minister of State to be flexible in his reply so the Department can examine the alternative. I cannot let this go and it is not right to tie up the conciliation and arbitration process on such a matter.
In the recent discussions with the Minister for Finance on public service pay determination, one of the clearest criticisms coming through from all sides was that the system was inflexible, could not deal with issues and must be made work. There are three stages to that — dealing with issues administratively, at conciliation and sending them to arbitration. This case should be dealt with administratively.