Deputy B. Desmond gave notice that he wished to raise the subject matter of the reply to a written question on Tuesday, 15th November.
Private Members' Business. - Adjournment Debate: Teaching and Administrative Material.
The question was No. 564 addressed to the Minister for Education:
To ask the Minister for Education if his Department offer any advice to national, vocational, community, comprehensive and private secondary schools and third level colleges and universities as to where they can purchase Irish made teaching and administrative materials.
The reply I received from the Minister was: "My Department do not offer any such advice". I rarely raise matters on the Adjournment but in view of the nature of this reply I did not think it should be allowed to pass. Whether it was intentional or otherwise I regard this reply as being almost contentious: it made no effort to answer what I regard as a reasonable question. Members of this House, whether they are in Opposition or in Government, are entitled to a reasonably detailed reply and, above all, they are entitled to a courteous reply to any parliamentary question. It has been the tradition of the House that when a Deputy puts down a question for written reply and voluntarily foregoes an opportunity to ask supplementary questions, the reply is usually reasonably extended.
The Minister's reply was not only rude but it was also rather inaccurate. My understanding is that as a general rule the Department issue annually to teachers in virtually every school a circular in relation to school books asking that where possible they should purchase Irish-made products. Apart from that my question was in respect of the very wide range of educational and administrative materials and services, asking that a comprehensive list of Irish suppliers should be made available to schools and that the Department should do their utmost to ensure that all purchases, or the vast bulk of such purchases, be made from the suppliers of Irish-made teaching and administrative materials.
I fully appreciate the difficulty that arises in relation to tendering, particularly in relation to capital requirements, but there is now a multi-million purchase each year of educational and administrative materials and services and it is a sorry day indeed when one is offered in response to an inquiry of the nature I made, a one line reply—"My Department do not offer any such advice". The Minister should have been more considerate in his response. If one takes the current public expenditure on various non-salary items in the Estimate for the Department of Education, it includes several subheads and it covers the State contribution towards the cost of educational and administrative materials in schools, such as school books, class materials, maintenance and so on. I did a quick calculation this afternoon and it would appear that for national schools alone £1.3 million in 1973-74 and up to £4 million in the current year arises under various subheads in the Estimate. This is not an inconsequential sum even in relation to national schools. In relation to secondary and vocational schools the figure for 1973-74, if one adds together the general subheads of the voted Estimate, is £5.6 million. This year's Estimate will be in the region of £16 million. On a broad basis the State would allocate the best part of £20 million a year for expenditure on materials in schools. That does not include the various grants towards the capital building costs. Even if one breaks it down further, for example, taking just science equipment alone, in the current years something like £300,000 will go to secondary schools and something in the region of £600 will be spent for school books for secondary schools. I will not go into other aspects such as service contracts, like heating and so on, where the Department would have a direct interest.
One must also consider the Minister's reply in the context of the Fianna Fáil manifesto. I had thought that even in the Department of Education there would have been by now a circular from the Taoiseach to each Minister asking him to make a special effort to ensure that Irish-made administrative materials were used in his Department, since there is a great deal of taxpayers' money involved. The manifesto on page 8 said that a campaign would be launched by the Government to buy Irish, which would switch from imports to home products. The manifesto also said that there was a need for the Government to think and to act Irish by getting rid of some tax practices and by other administrative arrangements which put Irish goods at an unfair disadvantage against imports. All I inquired about was particular administrative practices within the Department of Education. I wanted to know if there was any new thinking in that regard. I would remind my colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary, Deputy Tunney, that one of his esteemed Ministers who was wont to set the tone with a great deal of travelling round the country attending functions, said in Dáil Éireann about a month ago that Fianna Fáil preferred to make their own innovations and to set about modernising our structures in their own way. There is no evidence of that in the reply from the Minister.
I am raising this matter by way of protest against a reply which I consider to be grossly inaccurate and coming from the Minister for Education, Deputy Wilson I regard it as being particularly inadequate because we have had a flood of classical quotations here from the Minister in the last few months on virtually every conceivable topic. I almost feel like nominating him as a kind of poor man's Pericles and of giving him an opportunity of expanding perhaps in relation to a reply of this nature. If the Minister is so loquacious he should extend his knowledge of the classics at least to providing a detailed reply in relation to a question of this nature.
There is a time honoured way in this House of curing those who give inadequate replies or who display no involvement or interest in the question, and that is that one can raise matters of this nature ad nauseam on the adjournment, at relatively short notice, and the Government of the day are obliged to reply. Not in any carping or badgering way. I want to say to the Minister that if I receive replies of this nature in future from either him or the Department, acting on the assumption that the Minister reads replies drafted for him, I intend to raise them on the adjournment, with the permission of the Ceann Comhairle. I will raise them each evening, if necessary, even if it means bringing in the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary at the end of the business of the House. I have no desire to do that. I think it is a waste of parliamentary time, but it is one way of curing people who give replies of this nature.
Again I protest against the content of the reply and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will elaborate further as to whether this is Departmental policy. I should like him to say if he is prepared to ask the Minister to have a fresh look at the way in which advice is conveyed to the various education authorities in relation to the purchase of material originating in Ireland or being assembled in substantial part in Ireland which would help us to create greater employment and which would be helpful in relation to our balance of payments. There is a very substantial sum of taxpayers' money involved each year and as custodians of that money for the time being we must ensure that it is spent to the best possible advantage.
I can see the basic over-simplification that has taken place in the reply. Though I can accept that the answer is an accurate reply to the question, it is not by any means an adequate one and it seems to be quite unnecessary to invoke such brevity in a matter in which, as Deputy Desmond has pointed out, reasonable and repeated practice in the Department of Education would seem to have given the Minister grounds for a fuller reply which would not cast him in such a bad light.
The question asked if the Minister had indicated to schools, colleges and other institutions where they might purchase Irish equipment for their institutions. The question was not asked if he had indicated to them whether they should purchase such equipment. I contend that you cannot answer the "where" question without also answering the "whether" question. Obviously, if the Minister is to require that institutions wherever possible should buy Irish-made goods, it is a natural corollary that he should facilitate the institutions by providing them with lists of suppliers, not necessarily approved suppliers, from whom such equipment can be acquired.
It may be objected that this might create discrimination, that the Department might be seen to be singling out some suppliers and ignoring others, and that charges of political patronage and the like would arise. However, I do not think the task of compiling such lists in a fair and adequate way is beyond the wit of the Department's administrators. It is a very small thing to ask them to do and I am surprised the Minister has not asked them to do it. Perhaps he will do so after this debate.
A comparatively small proportion of the educational budget is spent on materials, equipment and so on. When you compare that proportion with the total expenditure on education you will realise it is small. Particularly by comparison with the amounts spent on books, equipment and so on in other countries, it is a very parsimonious proportion indeed. In education here, the huge majority of the Education Vote goes on salaries and this is why it is all the more important that the small proportion of the vote for equipment will wherever possible be spent on Irish supplies, and that the Department should actively facilitate and promote such purchases.
Like Deputy Desmond, I have been through some of the recent figures, including those in the most recent Estimate, and it occurred to me that this Government still are offering up silent prayers of gratitude for the Estimates passed here earlier in the year. On education in particular, this seems to me to be a freewheeling Government whose only momentum so far is based either on the Estimates we have passed or the commitments made before the election.
In the Estimates there is a clear indication of the kind of figures we are talking about, not least for the Office of the Minister for Education which is to spend £125,000 on office machinery and supplies and £200,000 on technological aid. There is another area in that office connected with grants-in-aid. Can we have an assurance from the Minister that the same policy will apply to recipients of grants-in-aid— that they, too, will, wherever possible, be required to spend their grants-in-aid on Irish equipment?
Look at the figures for higher education: equipment and furniture, UCD, £115,000; UCC, £65,000; UCG, £60,000; Maynooth, £8,000—the Minister's alma mater has not been doing so well—and TCD, £65,000. We all know that when architects are commissioned, especially in the high status area of higher education, to design new buildings, there is a grave danger they may occasionally let their imagination run away with them and prescribe equipment and furniture which may harmonise with a certain aesthetic sense they have regardless of whether it has been manufactured in this country.
This is the sort of area where perhaps it is not always entirely wise to leave sole discretion to the individual institutions in the matter of the spending of large amounts of money. One of the things that has been highlighted by the question and the inadequate response to it has been the lack of local buying authorities for local schools and colleges which would be much more sensitive to the democratic needs we have been talking about. We have the fastest growing youth population in Europe and it is about time we did something about using this as a basis for the further expansion of Irish industry.
I thank the two Deputies for their contributions if for no other reason than that it serves to clarify what was in the mind of Deputy Desmond when he first tabled the question. He has seen fit to comment on the laconic nature of the reply. I suggest that he is demonstrating a new sensitivity, the existence of which I have not been aware during my years in the House. He is also endeavouring to establish a principle with which I personally would take serious issue. He seems to be suggesting that because a reply is given in few words, notwithstanding that it is the truth, it is ipso facto contemptuous. I do not think Deputy Desmond believes that from what I know of him in the House over the years. Perhaps the real reason for his raising the question is, on his own admission, for the purpose of teaching the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary the salutary lesson that where answers given are not in accord with what the Deputy considers appropriate or correct he has the right of bringing the Minister or Parliamentary Secretary back and suffering whatever inconvenience one attaches to being here for an adjournment debate.
Having said that, I propose to indicate to Deputy Desmond how true the answer was and how difficult it would have been for the Minister to have said anything other than that which appeared in that sentence. I have listened to Deputy Desmond and Deputy Horgan and I am not convinced that the extent and nature of the information they required is yet any clearer. As they know, national schools, comprehensive and community schools are administered by boards of management. Vocational schools are administered by vocational educational committees. Secondary schools are administered as private institutions. Deputy Desmond knows as well as I do that on all those boards and committees there is already representation of people who, to say the least of them, have an interest in what is good for the Irish people and in all aspects of Irish life whether social, economic or educational. There is an implied reflection on those people if we remind them day in day out of the reasons why they should buy Irish goods when acquiring materials for teaching and administrative purposes. I do not think that Deputy Desmond would want to sustain that point. He knows the calibre, the integrity and the sense of patriotism of the people who constitute these management boards and vocational educational committees and he knows that he can entrust to them the overall interest of the people.
The second point is that the variety of goods to be purchased would represent a fairly comprehensive list. It is not obvious to me how the Department of Education could take the steps which would be necessary to furnish a catalogue of those items to every school or institution in the country. Deputy Horgan asked about the attitude of the Department and their position in exhorting boards of management and vocational educational committees to do business with one firm as against another. Presumably Deputy Horgan knew that the Minister would refer to this point in his defence. How would one decide which firm should be included and which firm should be excluded when making recommendations to the purchasing authorities? If Deputy Desmond were Minister for Education, as could happen some day, I do not think he would like to have imposed upon him a requirement by which he would inhibit those agencies I have mentioned from purchasing whatever they regarded as being right and proper, in all cases giving pride of place to the Irish-made article which was suitable for the purpose.
In the few moments available to me I will refer to the main area to which the Buy Irish campaign relates and that is the Department's capital programme in the building of schools. Bearing in mind certain constraints that exist in respect of EEC regulations and World Bank considerations, I can tell the Deputies that before any building is commenced the consultants are required to bring together all the interested parties and to indicate to them that where desirable preference should be given to Irish products. They are reminded, too, of the need of the adherence to that advice, Deputy Desmond was speaking about advice. In so far as that represents an amount of the annual expenditure, Deputies can be happy that the interest of Irish industry and the workers is being satisfied.
I am quite sure that, bearing in mind the reminder which the Minister has obtained from the Deputies in this matter, he will—perhaps earlier than he might have done normally— remind all these agencies of his interest in the matter and where necessary exhort them to buy Irish.
The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 23rd November, 1977.