Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 30 Jun 1999

Vol. 507 No. 3

Adjournment Debate. - Kildare VEC Dispute.

I wish to share time with my constituency colleague, Deputy Power. It is important that in the early days of this official dispute every effort is made to find an acceptable solution.

As this issue affects education and its provisions in Kildare, it is of paramount importance that the Department on the one hand and the trade union on the other do not become so entrenched in their views that it prevents them from finding an acceptable solution. I stress that time is of the essence.

Kildare VEC is one of the most active in the country, with ten post primary schools, more than 4,000 students, three VTOS centres, two Youthreach centres and a teaching facility in the Curragh Prison. In addition, it operates a huge adult education programme in the county with more than 1,000 adult participants. The VEC also helps hundreds of people through its literacy programme.

The VEC also has to deal with the primary and post-primary transport scheme as well as third level and post-primary grant schemes. Having been a member of the VEC, I recall the problems which occurred in 1995 in relation to this matter. The small gains made by the staff on that occasion were to be supplemented by further action from the then Department of Education. Sadly, this has not happened. If the previously mentioned work of the VEC is not to be damaged in the long-term, it is imperative that the Minister and his officials enter into dialogue with IMPACT, the officials' trades union, to resolve the present impasse.

County Kildare is the second fastest growing county and it cannot afford to have a vital link in its development, such as education, undermined by a lack of action on the part of the Department. The staff have, to my knowledge, which is first hand due to my involvement with the VEC, acted honourably at all times in this matter. However, the lack of personnel to meet the workload involved to ensure the successful running of the VEC has left the workforce with no other option but to bring this matter to a head. The members of staff have on many occasions been forced to bring work home to ensure that deadlines are met. Surely it is totally unacceptable that staff who have given such excellent service over a long number of years should have to endure such unnecessary and unsustainable pressure. The Minister should put a mechanism in place to ensure an equitable solution can be reached in order to resolve this very important matter for the staff of County Kildare VEC and for the development of education in County Kildare.

I thank my colleague, Deputy Wall, for allowing me share time with him this evening. He has outlined the difficulty which County Kildare is facing at present. It is most unfortunate that the strike is taking place. There has been a staffing problem in County Kildare VEC for a number of years. This has been brought to the attention of the Department of Education and Science but little or no action has been taken. Certainly the numbers have not been increased and the problems have remained. The figures have been provided to the Department. Comparisons with similar vocational education committees throughout the country clearly demonstrate that there is a serious shortage of staff in County Kildare VEC.

The action the workers are taking is not being taken lightly. It comes after much dialogue and effort on their behalf to try to bring about a solution. The workers have made great sacrifices to try to keep the show on the road and they feel at this stage that strike action is necessary.

I appeal to the Minister to get involved directly. It is not a pretty sight to see these people on strike. They would much prefer to be doing their work, as many of them have been doing well for a long number of years. The Minister should get involved and ensure that this problem is sorted out as quickly as possible.

I thank Deputies Wall and Power for raising this matter. It gives me an opportunity to clarify the circumstances which have led to the present industrial relations difficulties in County Kildare VEC and to outline my Department's plans to have claims for improved staffing levels and structures processed within an agreed framework for the VEC sector.

The allocation of administrative staff in the vocational education sector is made on a scheme-wide basis. It is a matter for each vocational education committee to deploy sanctioned staff in the best manner possible to meet the needs of the committee and its schools. The Deputies will be aware that any case for an increase in staffing has to be approached in the context of Government policy on public service numbers and staffing norms in the VEC sector as a whole.

County Kildare VEC has made a number of representations to my Department concerning the adequacy of staffing levels in the scheme based on the increases in pupil numbers and the expansion of programmes. Arising from previous claims for an improved grading structure and staffing increase, my Department carried out an examination of the staffing levels in 1995. In addition, the grading structure of the VEC was evaluated by an independent consultant. Arising from these reports, the clerical staff complement for County Kildare VEC was increased from 15.8 to 17.8 posts and a new senior management grade was created in the committee. This allocation was arrived at on the basis that it compared favourably with other schemes of similar size. Further increases in the administrative staffing complement of the VEC have since been approved by my Department to support the ESF and PLC student maintenance grant schemes and the operation of the VTOS and Youthreach programmes.

In his report on the grading structure to apply in the VEC, the independent consultant recommended that the need for the appointment of an assistant principal officer in the VEC should be reviewed at a later date. My Department has agreed to have this review carried out but IMPACT indicated that this was not acceptable. It requested a full review of its structure and threatened industrial action, including an all-out strike from Monday, 21 June.

My Department is not opposed in principle to the carrying out of a staffing review in County Kildare. However, I am not aware that the levels of activity in County Kildare VEC have changed substantially since 1995. In addition, my Department has received similar requests from many other vocational education committees. I want to ensure that all requests from vocational education committees for improved staffing levels and structures are dealt with in an equitable, trans parent and timely manner. With that in mind, work is currently under way on the development of an agreed framework for looking at staffing claims generally from the VEC sector. This framework will inform my Department concerning the level of pressures and demands falling to be meet by vocational education committees, including County Kildare VEC, in an objective way so that an appropriate and timely response can be made. My Department expects to be in a position to finalise the detailed arrangements shortly following discussions with all relevant interests, including staffing and management representatives.

The threatened strike action in County Kildare was deferred for one week pending discussions between my Department and the VEC to be held under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission. These talks were held on Wednesday last and were adjourned without a solution having been found.

As Minister, I am conscious of the hardship which might occur following the withdrawal of labour by IMPACT members in County Kildare. I am anxious that this hardship be kept to a minimum and, in this respect, I have asked the committee to ensure that all possible steps are taken to minimise the hardship caused for groups affected by the dispute.

My Department continues to be available for further talks in order to resolve the matters at issue. I am confident that a mechanism can be found which addresses the particular difficulties of County Kildare staff while also allowing for the development of the proposed national framework.