Other Questions

Departmental Expenditure

Dan Neville

Ceist:

6 Deputy Dan Neville asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills if she intends to take any action on foot of the recently published Comptroller and Auditor General Report on Education spending; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47606/10]

I welcome the publication of Special Report No. 74 of the Comptroller and Auditor General, which covers a range of areas of education spending. The report is generally positive about the overall merits of the strategic innovation fund, while also highlighting some areas for improvement. A number of relevant measures have already been taken to implement previous similar recommendations of a mid-term evaluation of the fund conducted by the Higher Education Authority.

The report is critical of the information on school attendance derived from periodic reporting to the NEWB. Periodic reporting is just one way by which schools report on individual student absence. In many cases, direct referrals are made to an education welfare officer. The NEWB is currently rolling out a programme called a ‘New Way of Working', which was piloted in 2009 in an effort to standardise the intervention process and focus on early intervention. A reconfiguration of school attendance and participation services is also under way to achieve improved targeting and collaboration in delivery of services and better educational outcomes for all children.

A cost overrun on a capital development at Cork Institute of Technology that was completed in 2005 is also examined. The substantive issue arising has since been addressed in the new public works contract introduced in 2007.

An early retirement scheme in FETAC, aimed at reducing numbers in certain grades, is also dealt with. The early retirements were authorised by senior management in FETAC, although they did not have the statutory authority to do so. Legal advice in respect of the recovery or reassessment of unauthorised benefits has been obtained and is being considered. The report identifies issues relating to remuneration and expenses paid to a former director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music. The arrangements entered into with the former director were not approved by my Department and were taken up with the academy when this issue came to light. The salary and contractual arrangements for the post are now in line with comparable publicly funded institutions. Significant changes have also been made by the academy in respect of expenses arrangements which are now in line with public service norms. Finally, the report presents a good factual summary of matters already in the public domain relating to the residential institutions redress scheme.

In this audit and in earlier audits on education, the issue at stake is that the Minister was not consulted or asked to give his or her consent to the payments that were made. That is the key issue. For a period of nine years in a previous audit, the advice of the Higher Education Authority was not taken by UCD, UL or NUIG. The core of this issue is the lack of governance from the Department of Education and Skills over all of these bodies, even though they are ultimately accountable to the Minister. They refuse to be accountable. They do not listen to the HEA and they ignore the Minister. Is that not at the core of all this? If we are to have real transparency and accountability, then when the Minister says "No", then it should not happen.

That is the core of it. I believe there was discussion on this at the education committee and I heard Deputy Quinn ask how many times did they not understand that the answer was "No". No means no. I pursued this issue. It is just not acceptable. The HEA did its utmost to ensure that these matters were addressed. That is why in the reform measures we will be bringing forward, I believe in the autonomy for the institutions, but I also believe that there must be value for the taxpayers' money. When circulars are not abided by, then there should be repercussions.

It is disappointing that this has happened, but I welcome the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Now that we have dealt with many of the issues that I alluded to in my reply, I hope that people will accept that when the Department of Finance, the Department of Education and Skills and the HEA state that these are unauthorised, then they should be taken seriously.

The first proper job I had in this State, after I qualified with a postgraduate degree, was with Dublin City Council. I was told that if I made a mistake that cost the taxpayer money, I would be surcharged. Clearly, management in FETAC made a decision that cost the taxpayer a lot of money. The Department received legal advice that the decision was unauthorised and was in breach of the contracts. The people in question knew their responsibilities and would not be in their posts if they did not have some experience. What does the legal advice say? Will somebody pay? Can a charge be attached to the pension of a chief executive or to other executives who made that decision? When is this country going to get real about this kind of lax attitude to public money?

FETAC had no sanction to grant those early retirement benefits and neither did the board.

I know that. The Department got legal advice.

We got legal advice and I took it because it is a very serious issue that should never have happened. There has been an acceptance by the board and the CEO that the failure to ensure a statutory compliance was not deliberate, but that is beside the point.

What does that mean?

But it did happen.

This is the crowd that are measuring standards of adherence.

They accept there were serious failures to comply with legislative and administrative processes. The CEO accepts, as the accountable person, that there was a failure on his part to ensure that an early retirement package was fully compliant with all statutory requirements. In order to strengthen financial management and governance arrangements, the council is undertaking to put in place an arrangement for compliance sign off for all major executive decisions. A comprehensive governance manual is being developed. Risk management procedures are being strengthened and training in corporate governance is being arranged for staff.

Will we get the money back?

Both FETAC and my Department have received legal advice in respect of the unsanctioned benefits, and this is being considered.

Will we get the money back?

It is clearly my intention to proceed on that basis.

Did the Minister say she will proceed to recover the money? I did not hear exactly what she said.

Yes. I have gone after money in other organisations as well.

The big thing is that the Minister is not in charge and her officials are not in charge of the quangos under her control. The Minister has promised new legislation to sort out all this, but will we see it in the new year? Unless she is in charge of her Department, then these things will continue to happen. Right across the third level institutions, especially the universities, there have been a number of instances of moneys paid to people that should never have been paid. The problem is that the Minister is recovering some of that money by increasing student grants. There is a need for significant savings and accountability from third level institutions that are thumbing their noses at the Minister and the HEA. The only people who suffer are taxpayers and students. Everyone else gets away with it.

I do not accept that there should be any waste of taxpayers' money.

Then the Minister should adjust the pensions accordingly——

Allow the Tánaiste to conclude.

I have to be guided by the legal advice made available to me from the Office of the Attorney General. We have looked at innovative ways to deal with these issues this week in the House. The other issue that causes constraint to any Minister for Education and Skills is that our third level universities are autonomous.

They are a law unto themselves.

However, they must abide by the examination of the Comptroller and Auditor General of financial standards and governance.

The universities are running riot.

The legislation for a new qualification authority has been nearly completed in my Department. I hope to publish it early in the new year.

Higher Education Grants

John Deasy

Ceist:

7 Deputy John Deasy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills the number of mature students that will be impacted by the change to the student grant criteria; her views on whether this will act as an impediment to persons trying to up-skill; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47625/10]

We can take the answer as given.

There is a slight difference in regard to mature students, which I will outline. The automatic eligibility of mature students to the higher non-adjacent rate of grant is to be removed from the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year. Mature students who reside 45 km or more from their higher education institution will continue to be eligible for the higher non-adjacent rate of grant. It is estimated that some 6,900 mature students will be impacted by this measure, with estimated savings of €4 million in 2011 and a full year saving of some €13 million. Other than that, the response is similar to that for Question No. 5.

The Department is imposing new penalties on mature students and other students in terms of new criteria for grants. If it went after the universities for greater efficiencies and savings, it could find a significant amount of the €30 million in grant reductions for third level students. If the Department tackled the issue in the context of previous reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General in regard to contact time between academics and their students, significant savings could be made. Is it not a fact that until and unless the Department stands up and insists that its writ runs and nobody else's, this abuse in the universities will continue?

I am not sure the question is particularly related to this issue.

It is related to the funding for this issue.

I take the Deputy's point and note what the Tánaiste said earlier in this regard. On the particular issue, the situation is that all students in similar circumstances should be treated equally. The Tánaiste dealt with a number of other issues arising from this question earlier in the debate. Some of the issues raised by the Deputy in supplementary questions will be dealt with in the Hunt report. As we heard earlier, it is hoped to have that published in the new year.

We will proceed to the next question, which deals with that matter.

Third Level Education

Tom Sheahan

Ceist:

8 Deputy Tom Sheahan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills when the Colin Hunt report on the future of the third level sector will to be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47665/10]

We could take this question as read also as we have heard the answer.

The Deputies are aware of the terms of reference and that the report considers the next 20 years of education into the 21st century. We must deal with many issues and challenges, including growth in participation, expansion of research and development, increasing importance of knowledge as the basis for enterprise development and economic growth, and how we want to support civic and social cohesion, personal growth and cultural development. The strategy will provide a clearly defined framework as to how that can be achieved, how we can agree national priorities and how performance expectations can be articulated and delivered on by autonomous higher education institutions as part of a high performing system.

I accept the report is much anticipated. I would hope to have it at the beginning of the year.

Is this not the most circulated report among academics and third level institutions that has ever failed to be published by the Minister? The only people who do not have a copy of the report——

We know more about it than the secret of Fatima.

The secret is that the Minister has not published it so we cannot read it. Are turf wars taking place between different institutions? As I understand it, a couple of months ago the Tánaiste was about to bring it to Cabinet but it did not happen that week, and I am not sure what has happened since. I have had people telephoning me to tell me they have a copy of it on their laptop and asking whether I want to see it. I tell them I do not, and that I want the official report published.

What is the issue? Why does everybody else have the report except the Members of the Oireachtas, in particular the Opposition? Why is there a delay in this regard? Are people within third level institutions of all types objecting to this? There is no reason for delay and no reason it should not be published immediately.

It is unfortunate that a leaked copy of an old draft was spread around the media. Those who were on the group were forthright and the lady who represented the institutes of technology was almost vilified when she would not tell them anything that was going on, as the students did not. That said, it is clearly my intention to publish the report early in the new year. No one in the institutions is preventing me from doing so.

The implementation of the strategy for the next 20 years is very important and will be hugely beneficial to third level education in this country. It will be the first time we will have a real opportunity since the Universities Act to consider this from a legislative, governance and teaching point of view and seek changes. I agree that the teaching contact hours need to be increased for our young people and also that students would have an input and, as we discussed earlier, would be asked for their views. We hear about them when they are at home——

It is a comment on the delivery of service for which they will now be paying handsomely.

Absolutely. That is exactly what I want to see. They are as entitled as children in primary school, who will now be part of the whole school evaluation and will have a view, as anyone else would.

The Minister said no one is preventing her from publishing the report — everyone knows that. The question is whether they are objecting to its publication, which is different.

No institution is objecting to it. That is good. In that case, there is no reason the Minister should not publish it tomorrow.

Departmental Expenditure

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

9 Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills the ratio of the reductions in education spending, announced in the recent budget that came from each of the following headings: capital budget; staff pay and pensions; all other resources; the reason she has decided to increase the cost of education on families in the recent budget; if she will note that the cutbacks in school capitation grants, increased third level fees and higher school transport charges in particular, will have serious consequences for families who are already suffering from wage-cuts and increases in taxation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47668/10]

The 2011 gross Voted allocation for my Department is just under €8.855 billion. This is a reduction of €147 million, or 1.6%, on the 2010 allocation. In addition, the 2011 provision for expenditure under the national training fund of €362 million represents a reduction of €60 million, or 14%, on 2010, due mainly to a projected significant reduction in fund income.

The €147 million reduction in the Voted allocation for next year is an aggregate figure and takes account of reduced allocations in respect of certain areas of expenditure and of increased allocations for other areas. In regard to capital expenditure, the allocation of €491 million represents a reduction of €216 million, or 31%, compared to 2010. On the current expenditure side, the Voted allocation of €8.364 billion represents an increase of just under 1% on the 2010 figure. Within this, the pensions provision for next year of €1.091 billion is 8.7% or €87 million higher than 2010, while the 2011 allocation for pay of €5.406 billion is €14 million or 0.3% higher than in 2010. The non-pay balance of current expenditure of €1.867 billion compares with an allocation for 2010 of €1.898 billion, a reduction of 1.6%.

In addition to the reduction in capital expenditure in 2011, Voted current expenditure for next year takes account of further savings of some €175 million. These include savings on school transport, public sector numbers, supervision and substitution, student support, third level and post-leaving certificate charges, training allowances, funding grants to schools and a range of administrative savings. Some €73 million of this €175 million relates to pay.

In the context of the considerable savings now required, the Government has gone as far as it can to protect front line education services. We have also sought to limit the impact of savings on families, in particular, less well-off families and families where two or more family members avail of a service. This is why a family cap will apply in respect of the revised school transport charges and why families with two or more dependents at third level, or those that are marginally over the income levels for higher education grant support, will be protected from the full impact of the introduction of the student contribution. In addition, students eligible for maintenance grant support and from less well-off families will be protected from the new charge for post-leaving certificate courses.

As the Deputy will be aware, achieving savings in the education and skills budget is never easy and this is particularly so at a time of growing numbers in our schools and increased demands on services. The challenge is how to achieve savings in the sector in a balanced and measured way that does not impact detrimentally on the systemic importance and strengths of our education and skills infrastructure or overly burden students or families.

I thank the Minister for her reply. There are effectively four increases that come into effect as a consequence of the budget. First, will the Minister change the name of the third level student contribution to what it used to be, namely, fees? There are fees for postgraduates and night students, so why have a different nomenclature for the financial cost? It should be called "fees". The Minister has abolished free fees.

Second, has the Minister thought out the implications in regard to €50 charge for primary schools? To my knowledge, this is the first time primary school children have been brought into the free transport area and I would like to get the Minister's response. What are the implications? Will this generate more traffic in rural Ireland, for example, where parents may avoid the €50 charge and begin driving to school, which is counter-productive? The Minister of State discussed this at a committee meeting. At second level the tipping of the balance was that in some cases there were more cars in the car park than there was space for the bus to arrive. Will this be fully evaluated now? If the cost of providing free transport at second level drives people into their own cars, should it not be fundamentally reviewed? Is a cost benefit analysis being done ? The matter of the 5% cut arises in a subsequent question and I will deal with it then.

The Minister for State has carried out a value for money review of school transport. It is fairly efficient. There is scope for greater efficiencies in the delivery of school transport through the school transport system, the rural transport system and in the support of those attending health clinics and hospital appointments. Several pilot schemes have taken place. I am aware of one such scheme in my constituency, which has worked out rather well, involving a more efficient use of the service.

We will move towards more privatised service delivery. One issue which arose from the value for money audit, of which the Minister of State took charge, was that people were buying seats but not using them, a desperate waste of money. This meant someone who may have had an entitlement as a concession passenger could not get a place on the bus. The Minister of State will roll out his value for money policy as part of a more efficient way to deliver school transport.

The charge of €50 per primary school pupil was on the basis that our intelligence has shown that there are parents who purchase a seat on a primary school bus but, in the main, do not use it. As a consequence, other children do not have the opportunity from a concessionary perspective. There is a need to be more effective and efficient in the way we deliver the service and the value for money review has given the Minister of State the opportunity to implement several policy initiatives.

It seems people buy school bus places and do not use them. Does the Minister have statistics on this? It seems a waste of money on the part of the family if they do not use it. The space is never used. There are ghost buses paid for by parents who do not use them. It does not make sense.

Does it suggest the price is too cheap for some?

At primary level, the average seat occupancy is 69% for the morning service and 64% for the evening service. At post-primary, the morning service is at 80% and the evening service is at 74%. Those are the statistics.

The difference is that people have paid for the other seats but do not sit in them.

Yes. It is more likely that there would be issues at post-primary level because people stay back at clubs and such things. Sometimes people use the service in the morning and then someone collects them in the evening.

School Staffing

Emmet Stagg

Ceist:

10 Deputy Emmet Stagg asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills the reason she is seeking a 5% reduction in the pay terms upon which school secretaries and caretakers are employed; her views that the existing pay and conditions for these workers is well below the average standard in the wider public service; to note the unique and inequitable situation where the funds for payment of these workers is made from a capitation grant to schools which is expected to cover general running costs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47405/10]

The Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (No. 2) Act 2009 determined the criteria for reducing the pay of public servants with effect from January 2010. However, when the Act was introduced there was a question as to how a public servant should be determined for the purposes of the Act. Subsequently, following receipt of legal advice, it was determined that all staff employed by a recognised school or VEC come within the definition of "public servant" solely for the purposes of the Act. In view of the time lapse involved in reaching a determination on this issue, the Minister for Finance has allowed for a temporary exemption from the application of the Act for these categories of staff up until 31 December 2010. Accordingly, my Department outlined that adjustments in salary should be applied with effect from 1 January 2011 to all relevant staff in the employment of recognised schools or VECs who were not already affected by the pay reductions introduced under the Act. Some of the categories of staff affected by this circular included school secretaries and caretakers.

Regarding the existing pay and conditions of school secretaries and caretakers, it is a matter for each school to determine the level of secretarial and caretaking needs required. Funding to cater for these needs is made available from my Department by way of capitation grants to schools to cover their running costs, including the costs of paying these non-teaching members of staff. Accordingly, boards of management are responsible for the employment of secretaries, caretakers and cleaners. A total of €22 million in savings will be secured in 2011 though an average 5% reduction in funding grants to schools and VECs. This reduction to capitation and ancillary grants for schools will reduce capitation rates in most cases to those that applied to schools between 2007 and 2008, with the exception of primary capitation where the new rate will be between the 2008 and the current rate. The reduced rates to ancillary and support services grants will reflect the reduction in pay that will apply, with effect from January 2011, to personnel who are paid from these grants.

A net point exists which must be teased out legally. School caretakers and secretaries are not public servants or public sector workers. In effect, they are temporary workers. They are not paid for the entire year; on average, they work approximately 40 weeks. They are not paid from the pay side of the public purse. Their pay comes from the capitation grant, as the Minister is well aware, and they are low-paid.

Why has the Minister insisted that 4% must be reduced under the capitation grant which, in many cases, goes to pay for these people? The Minister does not reduce the capitation grant. On the one hand, the Minister maintains the schools are the employers and she provides a capitation grant to enable them to run their affairs. However, the Minister then interferes with the employment contract between the school and the caretaker or the secretary by declaring unilaterally that there must be a 4% cut in the pay of the caretakers, without any saving on the capitation grant. This is simply a lazy, bureaucratic across-the-board slash and burn exercise. There is no rationale to it. Let us think of it logically. The capitation grant remains untouched. Through a circular, an instruction goes to the schools to the effect that payment to a caretaker must be reduced. No saving accrues to the Department. This relates to a low-paid person. Since someone in the Department has been too lazy to think through the logic of the Minister's relationship with the school, the board of management and the capitation grant, someone has simply applied the cut to all categories. These are not public sector workers. Does the Minister not agree that the belt and braces approach in the emergency financial measures legislation which we have just enacted has given her some degree of cover? Whatever the legal cover, it has no logical cover. The Minister will not save any money as a result of this measure but she will impose hardship.

A previous Minister was of the view that these people were not public servants. Legal advice was sought to get a determination of "public service" on the basis that if one is determined as a public servant in this country other entitlements arise. As a result of this legal advice it was determined that all persons employed by a recognised school or VEC come within the term "public servant" solely for the purposes of the Act. It follows, therefore, that all persons employed by a recognised school or VEC, are deemed as such regardless of the source of money used to fund his or her salary. The role of the Minister or Department in determining the pay rates remains, irrespective of whether a person is eligible for or a member of a public service pension scheme. They are public servants within the meaning of the pay reduction legislation. I was tied when it came to trying to remove this category of people from the Act when the legal advice indicated that I was obliged to implement it.

Forget the legal advice. Understandably, the Department of Finance is only concerned with money. There is no saving in the overall scheme of things because the capitation grant remains the same. The only victims are poorly paid temporarily employed secretaries and caretakers. One could argue the beneficiaries are the boards of management because they would have a little more money in the capitation grant but that is a separate issue. This is vindictiveness brought about by bureaucratic laziness. There is no saving to the Minister's Vote or to the Exchequer. Where is the logic in all of this?

A reduction in the capitation and ancillary grants has taken place on the basis of the legal advice available to the Department. Its view was that these people were exempt from the legislation. However, legal advice indicated that they were no longer exempt. Therefore, a circular on adjustments of salary had to be brought forward for January 2011 to all relevant staff, similar to the changes affecting all other public servants in the country. In the interim I fought for an exemption while the discussions took place. That exemption now expires at the end of December and I am not in a position to get a further one. The legal advice indicates that under the Act this is the determination that will be made.

Will the Minister agree that, as their pay comes out of the capitation grant which will be cut, it will be the students that will suffer?

If Deputy O'Dowd were sitting here, he too would have difficulties coming up with savings in the Department of Education and Skills. We are all curtailed in the ways we can obtain savings in a Department in which the majority of its Vote is expended on pay and pensions. That leaves one with little room for manoeuvre. There is an increase in the number of young people coming into the education system. The capitation grant is only being reduced to 2007 levels for post-primary schools and 2008 for primary schools. It is not a drastic reduction. There has also been a large increase over the past several years in the grants which means, proportionally, this is not a drastic reduction. Schools in the current economic climate should find their purchasing power more competitive and with supports from the private sector should be able to get greater value for money.

Teaching Qualifications

Paul Kehoe

Ceist:

11 Deputy Paul Kehoe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills if she has held discussions with the Teaching Council with regard to the Education (Amendment) Bill; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47653/10]

Section 12 of the Education (Amendment) Bill provides for the amendment of section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to allow for the employment in certain exceptional and limited circumstances of persons who are not registered teachers under the Act. This matter has been debated at length in the House. To safeguard the standards and quality of education in schools, it is the policy of the Department of Education and Skills that all teachers should be fully qualified and registered by the Teaching Council. Section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001, which has not yet been commenced, provides that only registered teachers can be remunerated out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas.

To commence section 30, as it stands without amendment, could have a serious negative impact for several schools in which unqualified personnel are teaching or in schools where short-term and unavoidable absences occur. I have a responsibility to ensure schools can and are capable of remaining open, even where such absences occur. For this reason, I am providing a way for this to be done while still ensuring a strong teaching profession.

The move to mandatory registration of teachers is an important factor in progressively ensuring a fully qualified and registered teaching cohort. However, it is not always possible for a school to engage a registered teacher. This may be due to geographical reasons or the lack of availability of teachers of particular subjects at a given time. The proposed amendment to the Act is necessary to allow the Minister to regulate the use of unregistered personnel. To date the use of unqualified personnel in schools has not been regulated in this way.

The Department is in ongoing contact with the Teaching Council on several issues including section 30 of the Teaching Council Act. Recently, a delegation of senior departmental officials attended an extraordinary meeting of the council, at which they explained the Department's policy regarding the Bill. I hope the council can accept that our shared view that only registered personnel be employed by schools must be counterbalanced by the obligation on my office to provide schools in the State can function effectively.

Does that not fly in the face of the fact that 30% of last year's University College Dublin graduates are unemployed? This highlights the lack of an arrangement with the unions to provide for a database of qualified people that could be used as substitute teachers. Will the Minister consider putting a sunset clause in the Bill to ensure this ceases from the end of next year?

That can be considered for the existing personnel who for one reason or other are not registered. There is no regulation in place with regard to this matter. I will set down strict regulations. On the basis that people are not adhering to the circular on the non-employment of retired teachers, I will add another legislative measure to prevent this happening. The INTO does have a list system to allow teachers——

What about a sunset clause?

I could consider that approach. I want to see if there is any possibility to get this legislation through the House before the general election.

That concludes Question Time for today.

Maybe even for ever.

Before I conclude my stint in the Chair today, I wish all Members present, our colleagues and the Oireachtas staff who have worked so diligently throughout the year a very restful and invigorating Christmas for whatever lies ahead in 2011.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.