Private Members' Business. - Local Authorities (Officers and Employees) (Amendment) Bill, 1989: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

In relation to the observations of Deputy Michael D. Higgins on the Order of Business today, it was not Fine Gael's wish that anyone should be taken short in responding to this measure. When we decided upon it, I took steps to inform the Minister and the spokesmen on Education in the other parties of its contents and I indicated why we were not in a position to have it published, that being that the judicial separation Bill does not complete its passage through the House until Thursday morning. The measure is a very straightforward one. This is a very short Bill and no one can have been disadvantaged in any way in responding to it.

Although one might think that the Dáil should exercise a particular responsibility in relation to the State sector of the educational system, it is just about 18 months since we had a debate in this House on that sector. It has been a very difficult and traumatic 18 months for that sector. At a time when the number of students in the public sector post-primary schools and colleges was increasing, the sector has been the victim of cutbacks that have seen the loss of subject choice for students, the elimination of ex-quota posts, the loss of replacement teachers, a curtailment in guidance and remedial services, increased class sizes and now the delayed inevitability of a number of smaller schools facing closure. All that has been going on while support for the vocational sector in terms of the vocational preparation and training programme being withdrawn, has been reduced as allowances were cut.

The core of that sector since its foundation has been that it should be free and non-selective and that it should be comprehensive in the sense that it should address both the practical skill needs and the educational intellectual needs of the students. Fired by that philosophical base, the schools have seen themselves as having a particular role in responding to the needs of the disadvantaged. That remains the case. A great number of students in public sector schools come from families with no background in post-primary education. Very many of them come from the least affluent sections of society. One might have thought that those involved in that sector of education, because of that sense of mission they enjoyed, could have expected sympathy and understanding but that was not forthcoming. Instead, just about every school in the country has had decreases in staff numbers and part-time teachers, in the availability of materials and has suffered the elimination of subject choices, of pass or honour options, the erosion of guidance provisions and remedial provisions and a decrease in the class day and in the class week.

The effect of all that has been to give rise to a crisis of morale in the teaching profession. The almost 10,000 teachers employed in that sector have seen their working conditions deteriorate as they see their sector crumbling around them. It is incumbent on this House to address that crisis of morale. One obvious way would be to ensure that adequate resources are made available. Unfortunately Standing Orders constrain Opposition Parties in advocating increased expenditure. That constraint, however, does not leave us powerless, because the question of resources is by no means the only area where reform is required.

This Bill seeks to address that crisis of morale in one limited but specific way in seeking to remove from the teaching profession one long-standing irritant. The Bill seeks to assert and vindicate the professional status of the vocational school teacher. That is what is central to this Bill, because at the core of the Bill is an anxiety to vindicate the profession and to establish beyond doubt the right of the profession to carry on free from the actuality or the perception of political influence or control. Those two possibilities are significant. This evening we had at times a difficult and acrimonious debate that essentially related to the question of seeing to it that there should be no apparent conflict of interest. It is not part of my task in moving this Bill on behalf of Fine Gael to cast any aspersions on any vocational educational committee in relation to how they discharge their duties. However, I have had drawn to my attention a number of specific instances that have caused me concern. Even in the couple of days since this Bill became public knowledge I have had contacts from several parts of the country from people drawing my attention to what they saw as anomalies or improprieties. My objective is not to cast judgment but simply to say that temptation should not be put in people's way.

The issues with which this Bill seeks to grapple have a long and distinguished pedigree, because even before the emergence of the newly independent State, some of the leading figures in Irish nationalism had criticised the methods of appointment to the British Civil Service and the British-influenced, British-controlled system of local authorities in Ireland. Arthur Griffith, for example, addressing a Sinn Féin Ard Fheis as far back as 1905 in the Rotunda said:

The Poor Law Boards for Ireland employ about 4,000 officials, the Urban Councils must employ at least 2,000 more. Here we have the materials for the foundation of a National Civil Service. At the present moment their appointment is determined on the majority of cases more by the amount of personal influence they can wield with the members of the Board under which they seek appointment than by any other consideration. The question of efficiency is often, though not always, a secondary consideration. It is evident such a state of affairs tends both to the impairing of efficient administration in our local government and to a lowering of the moral standard that should prevail in the conduct of our public bodies....

For the haphazard method of selecting the local officials in Ireland at present let us substitute an ordered one.

I would be happy to adopt that statement of principle as my own in moving this Bill. Indeed, it was a theme to which Arthur Griffith was to return more than once. Writing on that subject in his work on rebuilding the nation he said:

It is decreed that a National Civil Service embracing the employees of all public bodies shall be established. None who is not corrupt will fail to welcome this decree.

In the very earliest years of the State the old system was carried over. It was a system that gave rise to some controversy to the extent I understand, that at least two members of local authorities found themselves charged with various offences under the public corruption legislation and I understand that jail sentences were imposed. At a very early stage in the history of the new State the aspirations of the leaders of nationalist Ireland in that regard were taken on board. In 1924, for example, the Civil Service Commission was established. They sought to free from political influence appointments to the Civil Service and it is a measure of the success of that legislation that over I do not know how many charges of Government the independence, objectivity and impartiality of the Civil Service has never been called into question. However, that legislation was limited in scope because it dealt only with the narrow Civil Service and excluded from its application the local authorities. That was not universally popular and I noted that as the debate was going through the House requests, suggestions and proposals were put that its scope should be broadened to include local authorities.

The Progressive Democrats might be interested to know, for example, it was a particular concern of Eoin MacNeill that the Civil Service Commission would be capable of performing the same functions for local authorities as they were entrusted with for central Government but the Civil Service Commissioners at the time were reluctant to take on a wider role and their remit was confined to the Civil Service.

A degree of unease and anxiety persisted and that was taken on board in 1926 with the enactment of the Local Authorities (Officers and Employees) Act. That Act prescribed that all appointments by a local authority should be made on the basis of a recommendation from the Public Appointments Commission. Section 2 (1) (b) of the 1926 Act provided that the Act would apply to every office and every employment "not being an office or employment as a teacher". That is a very curious exception. I have not been able to discover what the thinking on that exclusion was in 1926 but the theme arose again four years later when the House addressed the seminal Vocational Education Act, 1930.

On that occasion the exclusion of the teaching profession and of appointments within the VEC system from the general principle of Public Appointments Commission control was raised. This was touched on several occasions during the course of that debate and it emerges quite clearly, if now rather anachronistically, just what the thinking was; it is clear that at that time it was believed that teachers in the vocational sector were not in a true sense professionals, that they were analogous to tradesmen or manual employees and that the method of appointment should reflect that relationship rather than follow the path which was laid down for every other professional appointment in the public service.

Whatever the truth may have been in 1930, that clearly is manifest nonsense today and there can be no logical distinction any further from excluding the teaching profession from the standards we set for every other appointment in the public sector. In the past when the case for reform was put — and this has been a long standing demand of the teaching profession — the answer they sometimes got has been rather like St. Paul making it holy but not yet——

That was not St. Paul; that was St. Augustine.

That was St. Augustine.

Thank you, I am showing my absence of a vocational education.

The Deputy is on the wrong road.

St. Paul went to Damascus.

I welcome my neglected religious education being looked after by my colleague.

That is the difference between the male and female members of this House.

Deputy Deenihan and Deputy McGinley are in a position to put me right.

Do they read from the same source?

They are very well informed on this matter. I think the attitude has been that it had merit but that now was not the time to do it. Specifically, the argument has been put in the past was that it was not feasible to do it because the number of appointments that would come to be made in the teaching sector would impose impossible burdens on the Local Appointments Commission. Clearly that is not the case any more and is not, both for reasons of public expenditure and demographic changes, likely to be the case in the future. Therefore, there can be no objection in priniciple to putting teachers on the same footing as everybody else.

What has the effect been of the failure to put teachers on the same basis as everybody else? Because the selection boards who make the appointments are not professionally qualified, it is very difficult for appointments to be made purely on the basis of merit. It also means that all appointments in the system are open to the possibility of politcal interference, and the voting system almost invites political interference and political influence. We have the curious situation that appointments may be made by a board where no professionally qualified interviewers make the decisions. There will, of course, be advisers present, but they are present as advisers and the actual decision-making may be made entirely by people other than those who are professionally qualified. Different approaches are taken by different VECs. For example, it is the practice of some VECs — though I think a minority — to state in their applications that canvassing will disqualify a person but it seems to be a practice of a majority not to state it and leave the expectation that it is open season for canvassing.

A system such as that which now applies is unlikely to attract the best people because some of them at least must wonder whether their applications will be treated in an entirely objective manner. At present — and this fails to accord with the standards of natural justice we would normally apply — there is no system of appeal for an aggrieved teacher. Of course, the application form states the minimum qualifications for eligibility to enter a competition, but nowhere is it made public what factors will influence the decision making body so that no one is in a position to say: "It seems I have the necessary qualifications and therefore, this is a position for which I can apply with some confidence". As a matter of practice — and many Members of the House have served on vocational education committees at one stage or another — candidates are required to lobby and canvass, and one cannot believe that that is other than distressing and degrading for them both professionally and personally.

For all of those reasons it is hardly surprising that over very many years the teaching profession have expressed their disquiet and unhappiness. That disquite and unhappiness has intensified in recent times. The system was always wrong in principle but its potential for creating injustice is greater now than in the past. It is greater now simply because vacancies are fewer and to that extent vacancies are more precious. The effect of that is twofold. First, it increases the temptation to take into consideration factors other than objective merit. If an interview board know that is the only appointment they are likely to be making that year or for a number of years and somebody has approached them on the basis of being a local boy and if they know that if they say no there may be no second opportunity, the temptation to respond to such an approach is all the greater. Equally, if people respond to such an approach, the injustice to the other applicants who went before the interview board is all the greater. No longer is it a case that these can say with resignation that somebody else had the inside track but that there would be another vacancy and what is the difference. Now, failure to have their application considered on its merits may mean that they are condemned to a lengthy period without a full time appointment.

I am asking the House to accept the principle that we should introduce an element of impartial objectivity into the selection process. I have proposed that the teaching profession be put on the same basis as every other profession in the State when it comes to public appointments and that appointments would be a matter for the Local Appointments Commission. How it would progress from there I have an open mind on and I am prepared to listen to suggestions. I can see that people may want to limit the scope, that there may be quite understandable reasons for excluding, for example, temporary positions where perhaps only a small number of teaching hours are involved, or replacements in the case of maternity leave or other leave of short duration. If that is an issue that worries the Minister or any other Member of the House, it is a subject to which I would be delighted to return on Committee Stage with an entirely open mind.

There may be Members of the House who will ask for an opportunity for parents or for the principal of the school to have a say and the answer is that I would be happy to consider on Committee Stage how we could give effect to such an approach. I am simply telling the House tonight that we are open to the principle of impartial, objective selection, giving teachers the same standard of fairness that we give to every other profession within the State.

In introducing this Bill, I said that it was designed to address the question of low morale within the system and to introduce a limited but worthwhile reform. I do not pretend for one moment that it represents the full extent of what is required in the vocational education area. What I do say is that what an Opposition party are capable of doing in their legislation is necessarily limited, both by reason of practice and by reason of the Standing Orders of the House. It is not feasible for an Opposition party to attempt to restructure the entire vocational education system. In those circumstances, it seems to us proper to set ourselves more modest ambitions and address specific reforms that we are capable of taking on board. We will be happy, and eager indeed, to see this reform discussed in the context of the need for wider reform in the Vocational Education Act.

Again, if people come forward and say that what they would like to see happen on Committee Stage is that other necessary reforms be incorporated in the Bill, and that the thrust of the Bill should be broadened, that is something also that we would be happy to take on board. When in Government we addressed the question of the need to look at the 1930 Vocational Education Act. We did so, not on the basis of abandoning an Act that has served the State well, has certainly worn its years well and is a tribute to the distinguished Kerry educationalist who introduced it, John Marcus O'Sullivan, but on the basis that any changes we have in mind should be embedded in that Act and be seen as a natural development from it. We thought long and hard on that issue when in Government and presented some proposals for public debate in the form of a Green Paper, Partners in Education: Serving the Community. Whether considered by way of amendment to this Bill, or by way of alternative legislation, that agenda remains relevant today. That agenda, as this Bill does, addresses the question of morale within the sector. I said that it would have to be embedded in the spirit of the Vocational Education Act of 1980. That means democratic, local control. That was provided for in the local education committees we proposed. We addressed the tension and difficulties that exist at the moment in some parts of the country between the public sector schools and voluntary secondary schools. We presented proposals designed to see to it that the two wings of the sector would work in greater harmony. That, too, was designed to address the question of morale within the sector. That case remains as relevant today as when the Green Paper was published.

We addressed the particular difficulties of the regional technical colleges in that Green Paper, again not on the basis of disparaging the efforts of the vocational education committees. Indeed, what we were really doing was paying a tribute to them. They presided successfully over the regional technical colleges. We were, however, saying that they had been so successful that the colleges were now ready to enjoy a substantial degree of autonomy but that we still believed they should remain regional in character and that there still be provided the role for the local education committees as we conceived them or, be pending their creation, of the vocational education committees. We believed that there was a need to enhance the opportunity for the regional technical colleges to forge ever closer links with business, industry and agriculture in their areas. We believe that that was best done by giving them the autonomy and freedom to do that for themselves. We saw the particular need for movement in the case of the Dublin Institute for Technology Colleges which have achieved such a status that it seems entirely appropriate that they should have an independent statutory base.

All these issues remain relevant and material. We would be anxious to see all of them addressed. Whether that is to be done in alternative legislation or by way of amendment to this legislation remains to be seen. We are satisfied that this Bill represents a worthwhile, if modest, reform and that it tackles an area that has consistently given rise to disquiet, an area where that disquiet is growing of recent times. It sets out to establish a principle that public appointments in this State should be seen to be free of political influence and control.

I mentioned earlier some of the history as to how teachers got themselves excluded. Professor F. S. L. Lyons, writing in Ireland since the Famine on the establishment of the Civil Service Commission and Public Appointments Commission, suggested that the establishment of those two commissions was essential to the creation of a young and healthy democracy because it removed crucial appointments from the political spoils system. For much of the history of this State we have had a situation where just about every appointment other than rate collectors and vocational teachers has been outside the system of political influence. In recent times even the rate collectors have been removed. Only one system of appointment is now perceived as capable of being influenced on the basis of political inclination, lobbying and stroking. I refer to the appointment of teachers in the VEC sector.

In fairness to members of vocational education committees and to people who seek appointments in their schools, we owe it to them to change that system. Any modern system of administration would indicate that it is proper to distinguish between the policy-making function of a committee and the interviewing and appointment of individual candidates. We owe it to individual teachers to assert and vindicate their professional status. It is a modest and overdue reform and I ask the House to support it.

The Minister for Education.

I understood that Deputy Birmingham was dividing his time with Deputy Deenihan.

The Deputy gave no such indication to me.

My expectation was that Deputy Deenihan would be the next Fine Gael speaker.

I am ready to make my contribution but I had understood that Fine Gael would take up their 40 minutes.

Deputy Birmingham gave me no indication whatsoever that he was sharing time and my duty is to call another speaker.

I am very interested in what Deputy Birmingham has had to say and I am glad to address this Bill. I was quite fascinated, particularly after the excitement of this afternoon, to come into somewhat quieter waters tonight and to hear a fascinating lecture by Deputy Birmingham. I compliment him on his research into Arthur Griffith, F. S. L. Lyons and the various other people he mentioned. He left off in 1930 at the point where my history lesson will begin.

The Bill before the House is one which, if passed into law, would have the effect of removing from vocational education committees the power of appointing teachers and vesting this power in the Commissioners for Local Appointments.

This power is vested in vocational education committees under section 23 of the Vocational Education Act, 1930. Section 23 of the Act states:

(1) Subject to the provisions of this section, every vocational education committee shall appoint a chief executive officer and such other officers and servants as it shall from time to time think necessary for the due performance of its powers and duties under this Act.

(2) The numbers, qualifications, salaries or remuneration, and appointment of all officers shall be subject to the approval of the Minister.

(3) Every vocational education committee shall take from its chief executive officer and any other of its officers who receives or pays money on its behalf such security as may be directed by the Minister.

(4) A vocational education committee may dismiss any servant of such committee and, with the approval of the Minister, remove any officer of such committee.

(5) A vocational education committee shall be deemed to be a local authority within the meaning of the Local Authorities (Officers and Employees) Act, 1926 (No. 39 of 1926), and for that purpose the expression "the Minister" in that Act shall in relation to a vocational education committee mean the Minister for Education.

Since the passing of the Vocational Education Act, which has served us so well, the practice has been that the chief executive officer appointed to each vocational education committee is a person recommended by the Commissioners for Local Appointments. The committees may appoint one of their officers in an acting capacity — several are in such a capacity at present — while the office of chief executive officer is vacant, but the permanent filling of such office requires the recommendation of a person by the Commissioners for Local Appointments.

Aside from chief executive officers, vocational education committees appoint teachers, including principals of schools, education officers including adult education organisers, administrative and clerical staff, and caretakers and maintenance personnel for their various schools and premises. In addition they appoint teachers to posts of responsibility and to posts as vice-principal in schools.

Vocational education committees which have, within their committee's area, a regional technical or other vocational education college, appoint to such colleges, principals, teaching staff of various grades including supervisory grades, administrative and office staff, technical support staff and such maintenance and other staff as are required.

Teaching posts under vocational education committees, from the time of passing of the Act were filled directly by the vocational education committees concerned, subject to the rules and procedures set out by the Minister for Education in Memorandum V7. While there was a number of exceptions, the normal process of filling a teaching post was by direct application to the committee which then decided through their normal voting procedures which of the candidates was to be appointed. The appointment was subject to ministerial sanction, but such sanction was withheld only in the event of the candidate not being fully qualified for the post or otherwise where there was evident administrative irregularity in the making of an appointment.

This position continued until 1967, when the then Minister for Education, Donagh O'Malley, following consultation, issued personally a letter to the chairman of each vocational education committee outlining a procedure which was to be followed in the appointment of vocational teachers. This procedure envisaged the establishment of two selection boards, one for the whole time class III appointments and for teaching posts carrying allowances of less than £280 per annum, the second for posts carrying allowances of over £280 per annum and for all posts as higher technological teacher grade III and for all appointments to posts carrying inclusive salaries above that level.

The first or general selection board consisted of five members, four named members of the committee and one officer of the Department of Education to be nominated by the Minister. The board was to act for one year from 1 April 1967 and was to be assisted by the chief executive officer as a non-voting adviser and by such other non-voting advisers as it might desire in particular cases.

The second or central selection board was one of seven members, four nominated members of the vocational education committee, one representative of the Irish Vocational Education Association and two officers of the Department nominated by the Minister for Education.

In outlining the proposed procedure in his letter, the Minister stated:

It is envisaged that Vocational Education Committees, having adopted the procedure outlined above, should not find it necessary to proceed in full committee to duplicate the work of the selction boards and that in the normal way they should make their appointments in accordance with the selection of the Boards.

The Minister further stated that it was his intention "that this procedure be adopted by all Vocational Education Committees and that proposed appointments, after its adoption, will be approved only in accordance with its provisions".

The foregoing procedure was adopted by the VECs and put into effect. It was continued beyond the trial period and incorporated into Memorandum V7 as an appendix to that document. Selection boards generally adopted the practice of interviewing all qualified candidates as an aid to selection, except where excessive numbers of candidates were involved. In this latter case selection boards met to implement short-listing procedures on the basis of information contained in application forms. The procedure outlined in Minister O'Malley's letter of 7 March, 1967 continued without change until March 1979 when circular No. 16/79 was issued to VECs advising them of "Revised Selection Procedures for Appointment of Teachers in second-level Vocational Schools". This circular stated the Minister's belief "that short of a completely radical alteration in the method of selection which is not practicable at the present time, the existing procedures have functioned with reasonable success".

While not departing fundamentally from the lines on which selection boards had hitherto discharged their functions, the circular went on to propose some practical amendments as a means of removing difficulties and providing for a desirable degree of uniformity. The principal changes amounted to: (i) reduction of the number of members in the central selection board from seven to five — giving a revised board of three VEC members, one IVEA and one officer of the Department; (ii) provision for a minimum composition of each board — two VEC members and one officer of the Department; (iii) various provisions with regard to non-voting advisers and substitute VEC and IVEA members; and (iv) some procedural matters of board operation and definiton of function with regard to general and central selection boards.

The system of selection and proposal for appointment outlined in C.L. 16/79 is that currently in operation for second level vocational schools and for colleges, other than regional technical colleges, operated under vocational education committees. In the case of regional technical colleges, under the provisions of C.L. 29/69 each parent VEC appointed a board of management, as a sub-committe of the VEC, under section 21 (1) of the Vocational Education Act, 1930. The board are responsible for running the regional technical college and report back to the parent VEC for confirmation of its acts. The original boards of management consisted of seven members comprising: One member of the VEC of the area in which the college is situated; one selection from agricultural interests; one CEO of the VEC of area in which the college is situated; one principal of the RTC; one nominee of ICTU; one nominee of local chamber of commerce; and one nominee of the Minister who will be an official of the Department of Education.

In 1979 the boards of management were extended to incorporate nominees of neighbouring vocational education committees and, subject to a maximum of 12 members, were advised where possible to provide for representation of the industrial sector, an elected representative of the teachers in each college and a representative of ICTU. Up to 1979 boards of management generally also acted as selection boards for teaching posts in the RTCs. In October 1979, the Department, in a letter to the then President of the I.V.E.A., stated:

In the matter of the composition of the Selection Board for teaching appointments in each Regional Technical College, other than in an appointment to the post of Principal, the Minister is of the view that the total number of members of the Board of Management nominated for this purpose should not exceed five. The Minister would see the Selection Board consisting of the Chief Executive Officer of the “parent” Committee, three other members of the Board of Management, at least one of whom should be a member of a V.E.C. and the Minister's nominee.

As in the case of all other actions by the board of management the appointment of teachers is referred back to the "parent" VEC for ratification and though there is an "understanding" that this process should be automatic, the position is not in any way as explicit as that stated in the historic letter of 7 March 1967.

Apart from teachers and teacher-related appointments (e.g. education officer, adult education organiser etc.) other appointments to administrative and office staff, technical support staff, maintenance staff, and the appointment of "servants" generally are made by VECs directly in accordance with general agreements to cover section 23 of the Act and the Department have not been involved in the setting out, or in the operation, of selection procedures.

A consideration governing the appointment of teachers to VECs is the number of appointments to be made. In the second level sector there are approximately 5,000 teachers and the number of appointments made annually is in the order of 350. I am coming to Deputy Birmingham's point. Appointments of existing staff to posts of responsibility would be additional to the above. In the RTCs and VEC colleges sector there are approximately 2,000 full-time teachers and an allocation of some 300,000 part-time hours. Some 200 appointments were made for the year 1984-85 but are being made at a rate of about 30 to 40 per annum at present due to financial and other circumstances. As the RTCs are of recent establishment staff generally are about mid-career and the replacement requirement is not very high.

While these numbers are not excessive it must be remembered that the posts cover very broad ranges of study with hundreds of different post specifications and qualifications requirements.

It will be seen from the foregoing that explicit selection systems exist for vocational teachers both in schools and in regional and other colleges under the control of VECs. While any selection system is open to abuse the presence of the Minister's nominee on all selection boards gives a transparency to their work and on the whole the impression is that the system works satisfactorily. While there is a selection system outlined for posts in primary schools, it does not provide for involvement by a nominee of the Minister. Secondary schools are free to select their own teachers with or without a selection procedure. In community and comprehensive schools selection of teachers is a responsibility of the boards of management.

The centralisation of selection procedures for VEC teachers under the Commissioners for Local Appointments would be contrary to the devolution of authority to the appropriate operational level. Furthermore, the number and variety of appointments could, if centralised, cause undue delay.

While certain types of appointments — notably of a planning, advisory or administrative kind — can generally await "due process", it is essential that teaching appointments are filled quickly as pupils cannot be left unattended or without instruction.

The selection procedures and appointment processes outlined are a component of the general management procedures of VEC schools and colleges and of the interaction of the Department of Education with these procedures. The isolation of selection procedures from the general management functions and the centralisation of these procedures is likely to add to the administrative costs of the system although it would not be possible, without a detailed analysis, to say by how much they would be increased.

The selection-appointment process is seen nowadays more as an interactive process, where the selection board, in addition to assessing a candidate's suitability for the job, are also involved in supplying the candidate with information regarding the post and its demands. The matter of "mutual suitability", that is, candidate to job and job to candidate, is frequently in question. Selection of this nature requires detailed knowledge of the post, its duties and the environment in which they are performed. The further removed the selection is from the operation of the system, the more difficult it is to carry out on the above basis.

My Department are now preparing legislation which would reorganise vocational education committees in respect of a number of such committees, their composition and their functional area. Preparations are also in train for legislative proposals which would give greater autonomy to the boards of regional technical colleges and would review the governing structures of other VEC colleges while maintaining them under the general aegis of VECs. The question of selection and appointments procedures as outlined in this Bill could, therefore, fall for review in the course of preparation of these proposals. I should like to say to Deputy Birmingham that, in the formulation of the legislation, I would certainly be prepared to consider the very important and relevant question which he raised tonight.

It is assumed that these objectives are to ensure that the selection of teachers for posts under vocational education committees is fair and is seen to be fair and that it results in the selection of the best candidates for the post. It is also important that the background which I outlined has shown that Ministers for Education and vocational education committees and their representatives have been working together over the years to bring about these objectives. The major breakthrough was in the O'Malley letter of 7 March 1967 and actions since then have been based on that pioneering initiative. VECs have been co-operative in adopting and putting into effect revised selection arrangements. However, we must consider whether these are now as good as they can be, whether improvements are necessary and, if so, how best they may be put into effect or whether the shift of authority proposed in the draft Bill under consideration is warranted or likely to lead to a more equitable and effective selection procedure. I welcome Deputy Birmingham's points and they will appeal to anyone who has an interest in educational matters. The proposals in the draft Bill will be considered rigorously and actively by me in the preparation of the legislation.

In so far as the regional technical colleges and the colleges forming the Dublin Institute of Technology are concerned, I am at present having legislation prepared to give them a clearly defined basis. They are at present operating under the 1930 Vocational Education Act which, because of its origins in and orientation towards second level education, is inappropriate to third level colleges in the way they must operate today.

First, as I have said on a number of occasions, the colleges have a vital role to play in economic development at regional level, not only by supplying required skilled manpower but through linkages with industry in research and development. I intend to make specific enabling provision in the proposed legislation for such activities from which the colleges are effectively precluded in their present status. They carry out research and development with great enthusiasm and vigour often not knowing how far they can push out the parameters of the Act or how soundly based are their operations in these fields.

I referred earlier to 1969 and recalled the set up of regional colleges. Having served for a number of years on a board of management, I was chairperson of the board of management in my home town for so many years, I am aware of the innovative nature of the regional colleges. From the very beginning they took the bit between their teeth, and here I speak of all the regional colleges around the country. While it was intended originally that they would serve their regions, they do so and will continue to do so in a personal and intimate way, they galloped ahead and have gone from offering certificate to diploma to university courses in many cases. They have taken to research and development in a very broad and active way and have seen fit to participate in all of the various programmes being promoted by Europe at third level, such as the Erasmus, Comett and Sprite programmes and all the other quaintly and I suppose aptly titled programmes.

The regional colleges and the DIT colleges have been to the fore in seizing opportunities to take advantage of available funding to carry out further infrastructural development and they have done so, as I said, in a very active way within their communities in the process interacting with industry, agriculture and the social partners and in a wider way with all of the professional interests. The debate tonight and in the nights ahead of us will help to focus our minds on the very important developments which are needed in these areas.

The recent report on the provision of technological education in Ireland, produced by a committee chaired by the very eminent Mr. Hardiman, led to the proposal by the Government that the two NIHEs be given independent university status. Little reference has been made to the other provisions contained in that report relating to the regional technical colleges and the DIT. That is for another day. As I said, we are presently in the process of preparing legislative proposals in two areas: first, the Vocational Education Act aimed at amalgamating various VECs and, second, legislation to give regional technical colleges and the DIT the right to use their research and development to put themselves on a very firm footing and to enable them to fulfil their very fine potential for increasing economic development throughout the country given that we are now approaching 1992 and the need for regions to establish development agencies of their own. The regional colleges can certainly fulfil the role of development agencies to an enormous extent. Let me add that much has already been achieved in this area despite the constraints. I wish to ensure, however, that the colleges have the authority and the encouragement, correctly and legislatively based, to intensify and expand their efforts.

Secondly, the colleges as with any institution at this level, need greater scope and autonomy to manage their own affairs. What I have in mind is to encourage a partnership between the colleges, the vocational education committees and the Department of Education under which, within agreed budgets and operational plans and policies, the colleges would manage and be accountable for their own day to day affairs, free from undue restraints. I see this as very important if colleges are to in a position to respond effectively to new and varied demands but equally they will need such scope as they will be responsible for ensuring that agreed operational plans are implemented within the agreed budgets. The approval process, therefore, operating through the vocational education committees and the Department would stress strategies, plans and budgets to provide the framework within which the colleges would be permitted and required to operate. I would anticipate then a more dynamic and effective relationship to develop between all parties concerned under these new arrangements.

Deputy Birmingham raised some points which I would like briefly to refer to. At the outset he stressed that it was not his intention to point the finger at the VEC selection process or at any VEC who had engaged in their rightful task of teacher selection. He later, advertently or inadvertently, referred to the need for public accountability in such appointments. I am sure he would agree as would all Members of the House that the VECs are held publicly accountable in that their meetings are open to the press. It is their own business as to whether they attend but certainly these meetings are open to the press. Outside of Dublin the activities of the various VECs are reported very extensively. Appointments come up for ratification at a monthly meeting or at least at a statutory meeting and the proceedings are publicly recorded and noted. In this way the issue of public accountability is very much evident.

I am aware of the point Deputy Birmingham is getting at in referring to the professional appointees but I should point out that all of us in this House have come through the democratic process. We put ourselves up for election and the people saw fit to send us here. It should be far from any of us to decry the democratic process through which people are appointed to the VEC committees which are subcommittees of county councils. Some committees have appointed teacher, parent or student representatives or representatives of other outside interests. These are non-elective. In the main most of the men and women who are members of the vocational education committees have come through a public voting procedure, the ballot box. This certainly amounts to public accountability and is the democratic process at work.

I just want to put my own thoughts on the record. I have always thought that anyone who goes for election, be it to a local urban council right up to the highest office in the land, is exercising a very noble option. When teaching young people and at political meetings I have often said that it is very easy to decry the democratic process. As we all know various pressures combine to denigrate the work of elected persons. At the same time a person who goes forward for election puts himself or herself in front of the population at large. They knock on doors and invite responses. They go to the ballot box and are vulnerable. Therefore I think we should espouse and guard the democratic process in all of our doings.

The Bill as presented to us tonight is an interesting one which will lead to very wide debate on the whole procedures as outlined by Deputy Birmingham and myself. Such a debate is to be welcomed. We have very little occasion for what one might call proper full debate on relevant subjects, and this is one. I intend to be here tonight, tomorrow and next Tuesday and Wednesday listening to all the points put forward relevant to the Bill and to the wider issues which can be expanded throughout the debate. I will be taking careful notes and in the preparation of our own legislation within the Department of Education we will be reviewing and paying particular attention to the points which have been put before the House here tonight.

The Progressive Democrats have no quarrel with the aims and objectives of this Bill. We support any measure that guarantees that in respect of all applicants for VEC posts, be they new posts or posts by way of promotion, interviews are carried out in the most fair, correct and professional manner possible. We also support any measure that would put teachers on a par with engineers, accountants, clerks and other such people seeking public appointment. Teachers are professional people and there is no good reason they should not be interviewed in a professional manner by persons with a professional qualification to carry out such interviews. The present position when elected politicians make up the majority of members on an interview board is fraught with danger. I am going no further than that and I want to put on record here that I am a member of a VEC. I have sat on many an interview board and I can say categorically that any appointment made in that VEC area was made purely of the merit, capability and suitability of the applicant, on the basis of matching the best applicant to the post available at the time the vacancy occurred.

However, I have heard stories from other parts of the country that would make your hair stand on end. There is no place in an enlightened modern democracy for such stories. It is said there is no smoke without fire. While I have not seen the fire, I am not prepared to ignore the smoke. Any system that gives rise to these stories must be changed in fairness to the system as well as to the applicants and the education system in general. The only way I see that we can guarantee protection to every teacher in the vocational sector is to put new applicants on a par with applicants for public appointments, as I have said.

Having pledged my support, I am a little disappointed that this Bill is so narrowly focused. Ordinarily, I would welcome very much any Private Members' time that allows a debate on education. Seldom in this House do we get an opportunity to debate educational issues at all. In more than 12 months there has been no debate at all on education except for the brief period that each spokesperson gets on the budget debate. Each spokesperson gets just 15 minutes to raise issues and make points in relation to education. That has been the only time and the only scope provided in the last 12 months to debate issues educational, except for emergency measures like adjournment debates. There have been adjournment debates on education, and there is Question Time which leaves very little scope for real, open two way dialogue. Usually Question Time becomes an answer time and, while the Minister has great scope to put her points on paper and say what she has to say, I am afraid the questioners get very little scope to make their points.

Do not give her a swelled head.

That is the way the Order of this House is framed, I am afraid. That ought not to give the Minister a swelled head; however, if it does she is welcome to it.

That is the way the cookie crumbles.

I am a little disappointed that this Bill was circulated so late. It did not leave a great deal of time to Opposition spokespersons to frame a very considered or extensive response. That is a pity since we get so little time to debate education. Secondly, it is a great pity the Bill is so narrowly focused. I see no material in this Bill for any kind of controversy. What it advocates is essentially right and I have no great quarrel about it, but there are other issues directly related to vocational education that ought to be debated when we get an opportunity of this nature. For example, the question of the amalgamation of VECs seems to be lost sight of. That is a pity. That issue was raised in the Green Paper, Partners in Education: Serving Community Needs published in 1985. It is as relevant to education today as it was then, but in the intervening time we have had very little debate of any kind on the issues raised in that Green Paper. Deputy Hussey who introduced that paper and put a great deal of work and thought into it must feel at this stage that a good deal of her work is going to waste. However, in relation to the same proposals the present Minister since taking office proposed that the number of VECs would be reduced. Her proposal was that the numbers would be reduced from 38 to 20. That proposal seems to be equally put in cold storage.

No, it is not. It is cooking.

It certainly is not in a microwave if it is cooking. Speaking on that issue in the Dáil on 9 March last, almost 12 months ago, the Minister said in response to a point I made and I quote from the Official Report of 9 March 1988, column 2290:

The question of the amalgamation of VECs was also referred to in the amendment tabled by the Progressive Democrats. It is highly appropriate in my opinion that this question should be addressed....

that is what the Minister said almost 12 months ago. In response to the question "When?", the Minister replied:

That is a very logical question. I hope that the legislation will be ready for the term after Easter.

She did not say which Easter she had in mind but we are on the home straight to another Easter and the proposed legislation is still in the oven. Therefore, I ask her please to turn up the thermostat and bring the legislation before the House. That sort of work is overdue.

It will be lovely and well browned.

I go on to quote from the Minister's speech on the same occasion when she said with great conviction:

The amalgamation therefore, of a number of VECs is designed to create a more efficient and cost-effective system and to enable the VECs to provide a better service to the public in their areas.

That is a very fine sentiment, but I say to the Minister that delay is a very deadly form of denial. If she is so convinced of the benefits of that amalgamation it seems a great pity that so much time, indeed another academic year, has been lost.

Our educational system is subjected to intense pressure at present. Schools and their authorities are being called on to respond to a whole range of demands from dozens of different sources. Teachers are subjected to the most severe pressure to produce ever better results at a time when they are battling against a range of adverse circumstances. Therefore, any legislative measure that would render the system more effective or efficient or that would raise the morale of teachers should not be deferred.

The Bill's sponsor said that he felt the old system of interviewing and appointment had led to low morale among teachers. I am certain he did not say that lightly and that there is a strong element of truth in that assertion. That being the case there is an obligation on the Minister to eliminate that factor. Heaven knows teachers have sufficient to contend with without also having to contend with something that could be remedied if only the requisite legislative initiative were taken and followed through.

I might point also to the problems encounteed by teachers nowadays vis-á-vis discipline in the classroom. Most teachers will tell you that these are problems on a scale not encountered in our day, occasioned by factors totally beyond their control and, to a large extent, ours too. Whatever their source, there is an obligation on us to offset their worst repercussions. That is a very real obligation which must not be ignored.

We are calling on teachers to implement new courses in classrooms, new syllabi, additional languages, a whole range of new subjects. We are asking teachers to improve their skills with very little in-service training, this at a time when so many pressures are causing them extreme difficulty. We must not ignore any legislative provision that would help raise their morale or better equip them to cope with these demands and deadlines. I am quite sure that the Bill sponsored by Deputy Birmingham constitutes such an answer.

Deputy Birmingham said that the present system of appointments constituted a barrier or deterrent to some people applying for posts. This may be true in certain areas in that they may feel that, from the start, they have not a chance. Therefore, rather than be rejected, they will apply for posts elsewhere, perhaps in the voluntary secondary schools or others. If that is the case, that is indeed serious. I am quite sure Deputy Birmingham did not make that assertion without having done his homework and research. If the present system of appointments keeps the best qualified and motivated people from the vocational sector, then that is the strongest argument that can be advanced for its revision.

Talking about other reforms that ought to be effected without delay the Minister referred to the position of the RTCs. I agree entirely with her comments in that respect. I am certain the Minister has clearly in mind the necessary legislative provisions. I would appeal to her to bring the required Bill before the House as soon as possible. It must be remembered that the third level colleges are coping with enormously changed circumstances. We must not place the regional techincal colleges at any disadvantage vis-á-vis, for example, the NIHE colleges or the National University of Ireland. There is great hope placed in the future of our RTCs. Their courses are designed for young people for the conditions of the workplace today and tomorrow. Let us not tie them down or restrict them for the want of framing the necessary legislstion that would give them autonomy and allow them develop their full potential.

All of that should be done in the context of the Bill before us this evening because they are all closely related. I have little patience with what might be described as piecemeal reformative legislation when so much of this reform is long overdue if we are to provide the kind of educational system so necessary for our young people in today's world. I would appeal to the Minister to introduce that reforming legislation, when she will find there will be a great deal of support for it in the House.

The Minister referred to the merits of the present interviewing system. It is not without merit; the Minister is quite right in that respect. She referred to the obligation to match an applicant to a post and the inherent danger that the type of applicant one might find through the Public Appointments Commission might not be familiar with the requirements of the post in question. Indeed, such an applicant might not be conversant with the ethos of the school in which the vacancy occurs. It must be remembered that every school has its ethos, and that every principal knows exactly what he or she is seeking when taking on a new appointee which very often goes beyond professional qualifications. Very often they seek other qualities which will allow appointees knit into the existing school personnel framework or environment. If this Bill reaches Committee Stage that factor must be recognised — that school principals, who are familiar with all the dimensions and requirements of any given post, must not be excluded from an interview board.

At present they are often.

Yes, often but not always at present. I am now talking about the ideal new, reformed system. There is no doubt but that they bring to an interview the kind of vital information that ensures the best person is appointed at all times.

There was reference to the fact that once ratepayers were appointed to local authorities under a system different from that now obtaining. At that point Deputy Molley reminded me that the system of selection of ratepayers to local authorities was revised during his term of office as Minister for Local Government. He pointed with some pride to the fact that it was during his term of office as Minister that change was effected.

He was a Fianna Fáil Minister then.

He contended that that was a very good move at the time. May I say to another Fianna Fáil Minister: what is she waiting for?

I am listening attentively to the Deputy.

In fairness to the Minister, she did not indicate that she was hostile or apathetic to what is being advocated. I detected a great deal of optimism in what she said. It appears that the Minister is open to change if she can be shown that it will be for the betterment of the education system.

If change is delayed too long it somehow loses a great deal of its value and that is the essential point I wish to make in the debate. The proposals advocated in the Bill are good and their effects will be very beneficial to education. I have no doubt that if they are implemented benefits will flow to teachers and on to the children, who are our main concern. Parents will also be pleased. In fact the whole system will benefit if the proposals are implemented. I should like to repeat, for the umpteenth time, my request to the Minister to ensure that the change is made today. I would like to see the change made in the context of the wider reform I referred to in the course of my short contribution to the debate.

I was disappointed that the Bill was circulated so late. Deputy Quill's statement about change for change sake interested me.

I did not say that. I suggested a change for the betterment of the system; change for the children's sake.

I understood the Deputy to refer to change for change sake. I must ask if there is anything in the Bill that will improve the existing system. Deputy Birmingham is a new spokesman on Education and, obviously, he is anxious to bring a new proposal forward. I welcome any debate on education but I have difficulty in supporting the Bill particularly having regard to statements made by a front bench colleague of Deputy Birmingham's. Deputy Bruton is on record as saying that he favours devolution but the Bill appears to suggest further centralisation. That suggests to me that the Fine Gael Front Bench spokesmen have not considered what they would like to achieve in various sectors, particularly in regard to education. We must call for localisation in regard to education. The VECs have served us extremely well. They have been responsible for education at local level since the passing of the Act in 1930. It is important to make the point that VECs are publicly accountable, as the Minister said. Their meetings are open to the press, the membership of them is representative of all political opinion, staff and industry. One can justifiably make the claim that they represent local interests to the best of their ability.

It would be remiss of a person who is a product of the vocational education system not to emphasise the important role the VECs have played in the development of education. It is important for me to highlight the foresight of those who framed the 1930 Act and how its provisions have stood the test of time. They have been adapted to modern developments in technological education. We have seen the advent of regional colleges and higher institutes of education being established throughout the country. At this stage I should like to congratulate the Minister on granting university status to two technological institutions, a move that was welcomed by everybody in the education field. It is important that we should not forget the progress made by students attending vocational schools and pay tribute to those who have worked within the vocational education system, particularly the teachers. We must acknowledge the work done by teachers for the schools, the pupils, their parents and for industry. One of the greatest achievements of vocational education was the creation of a link between the schools and modern industries.

I should like to refer to the Local Appointments Commission and ask what role they play. Is that a role we would like to have within the education sector? It is appropriate to put that question because Deputy Birmingham seems to be suggesting that a local appointments commission should be established to decide on the appointment of teachers to VEC schools. I wonder why we should not have a similar commission to decide on appointments to secondary and national schools.

Why not for the legal profession?

Why not have a commission to decide on appointments for ancillary education services? If we adopt Deputy Birmingham's suggestion in regard to the VECs I do not see why it should not be applied across the board. However, the Deputy must be aware of the logjam in regard to appointments by the Local Appointments Commission. It appears to me that the Deputy wants to screw up the appointments system.

The idea of a local appointments commission was promulgated by Arthur Griffith for the purpose of filling top level executive posts and with the desire to remove such appointments from any political interference. I am sure all Members agree with that procedure. Subsequently, the Local Appointments Commission were used to consider applicants for posts in the Garda Síochána, the prison service and other sectors in the public service. They have operated well and are held in the highest esteem. However, they have never been known for the speed of their operations. For example, after the acting city manager of Cork was appointed manager of the Limerick City authority it took 15 months for the commission to appoint a full time replacement. What was the cause of that delay? There are many other examples in the public sector particularly in the appointment of town clerks on urban councils, commissions and so forth. I would like to cite the example of a composite advertisement for, say, a town clerk in places as diverse as Kinsale, Bundoran, Wicklow and Navan.

Debate adjourned.