I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the opportunity to address the House on Second Stage of the Further Education and Training Bill 2013. The further education and training sectors developed in an unco-ordinated way without strategic direction for many years. The vocational education committees, VECs, delivered further education, while FÁS delivered training. While there has been a convergence in the nature of the provision, the current separation of the further education and training sectors is an obstacle to the delivery of a 21st century service to jobseekers and learners.
The Government decided, in July 2011, to merge the further education and training sectors into a single cohesive unit under the strategic direction of a new further education and training authority to be called SOLAS. FÁS will be dissolved as part of this process. SOLAS will be a new organisation with a new mandate which will merge the further education and training sectors. This represents possibly the most significant change in further education in over 70 years. It is certainly the most significant change in the training sector since the establishment of FÁS over 25 years ago. An action plan for the establishment of SOLAS was developed by a cross-departmental group which included representatives of the further education and private sector. This plan is available on the Department's website.
There is great potential in the sector which has not been properly developed because of the lack of strategic co-ordinated delivery. This is a time of great challenge for Ireland. A world class further education and training sector will help us to get back on our feet and back to work, through upskilling for the jobs and society of tomorrow. SOLAS will bring strategic direction to the sector and enable and empower the new education and training boards to deliver an integrated further education and training sector for the people.
The creation of SOLAS is part of a wider range of Government reforms in the areas of further education and training and the activation of the unemployed. The Department of Social Protection is developing and rolling out the new national employment and entitlement service, Intreo. As part of this process, responsibility for FÁS employment services and programmes, including commensurate responsibility for over 700 staff, transferred to the Department of Social Protection on 1 January 2012. This reform provides for a single point of contact for the establishment of entitlements and activation of the unemployed.
There are 33 VECs which deliver education, including further education. The legislation designed to replace these VECs with 16 education and training boards is well advanced.
Following the creation of the new education and training boards and the establishment of SOLAS, FÁS training centres and their related staff will be transferred on a gradual basis to the appropriate education and training board, ETB, dependent on geographic location and their readiness for transfer.
FETAC, HETAC, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Irish Universities Quality Board have recently been amalgamated into one qualification authority, Qualification and Quality Ireland, QQI. A theme running through all these reforms is integration. I believe that integrated services will be the most efficient from a value for money point of view, but also the most effective from the point of view of outcomes and quality.
Taking into account the relationships and dependencies that exist between each of these elements, the implementation of this wider reform process will prove extremely challenging and will require a dedication of purpose and a well-planned programme of change. It is important to remember also that while this transformation process is under way, we have to maintain service delivery by both the vocational education committees, VECs and FÁS.
SOLAS will be tasked with ensuring the quality provision of 21st century further education and training programmes which are integrated, flexible, value for money and, importantly, responsive to the needs of learners and the requirements of a changed and changing economy. One of the key tasks for SOLAS will be the development and implementation of a national five year strategy for the further education and training sector. The development of the strategy will involve consultation with key stakeholders such as the education and training boards, ETBs, other providers of further education and training, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Intreo, employers, Enterprise Ireland, the Higher Education Authority, and other bodies as it considers appropriate.
SOLAS will not deliver programmes itself once the restructuring is complete. Its key function will be to provide strategic oversight and funding to the main deliverers, the ETBs, and, where appropriate, the private sector. It will, however, maintain the delivery of FÁS services pending the completion of transfer of the FÁS training division to the ETBs.
SOLAS will develop and facilitate the development of new and existing further education and training programmes to meet the changing needs of employers and the labour market. SOLAS will also monitor the outputs and the outcomes of these programmes to ensure they are relevant and delivered in an efficient and effective manner.
I will now outline the purpose of the Bill and deal with the individual sections. Its purpose is to give effect to the Government decision to establish a further education and training authority called An tSeirbhís Oideachais Leanúnaigh agus Scíleanna, SOLAS, under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills. The main provisions of the Bill are to provide for the establishment of SOLAS, the dissolution of FÁS and the transfer of the staff and the property of FÁS to the newly formed education and training boards.
The Bill is divided into four Parts and one Schedule. Sections 1 to 4 deal with technical matters such as the Short Title and commencement; the definition of frequently used terms; expenses in the administration of the Act; and the repeal of FÁS legislation. Sections 5 and 6 include provisions to enable the establishment of SOLAS by the Minister.
Section 7 sets out the functions of SOLAS as follows: to develop and implement a national strategy for the delivery of further education and training; to consult with the Department of Social Protection and employers to determine the types of education and training programmes to be funded by the authority and delivered by public and other bodies; to advance funding to education and training boards and other bodies for the provision of further education and training; to provide or arrange for the provision of training for employment; to monitor and assess whether education and training boards, and other bodies engaged in the provision of further education and training programmes, perform their functions in an economic, efficient and effective manner; in consultation with the Minister for Social Protection to promote, encourage and facilitate the placement of persons who are in receipt of social welfare benefits in further education and training programmes; to promote co-operation between training bodies and other bodies involved in the provision of further education programmes; to develop, and facilitate the development, of new and existing further education and training programmes; to conduct, or arrange for the conduct of, research as respects any matters relating to the functions of SOLAS; and to advise the Minister regarding any matter connected with the functions of SOLAS.
Section 8 provides that the Minister may confer additional functions on SOLAS with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Section 9 sets out the detailed requirements of the further education and training strategy which I referred to earlier. This section provides that SOLAS will prepare and submit to the Minister for approval a five year national strategy for the provision of further education and training. SOLAS will prepare this plan having regard to policy directions of the Minister, the likely cost of implementing the plan and consultations with the Minister, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and the Minister for Social Protection. SOLAS may also consult with appropriate stakeholders including education and training boards, other providers of further education and training programmes, the Higher Education Authority, Enterprise Ireland, Teagasc, Quality and Qualifications Ireland, and employers.
Sections 10 to 14 set out the structure of the board of SOLAS, the eligibility criteria for membership, and conditions of office of members of the board. The board will comprise of 11 members, including the chairperson. Nine persons will be appointed by the Minister, following consultation with the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, who, in the opinion of the Minister, have experience and expertise in the following areas: matters connected with the functions of SOLAS or matters connected with finance, trade, commerce, corporate governance or public administration. One person will be a nominated by the Minister for Social Protection and appointed by the Minister. The chairperson will be appointed by the Minister. The chief executive officer of SOLAS will be an ex officio member of the board of SOLAS.
Section 15 provides that where a member of the board of SOLAS is nominated as a Member of Seanad Éireann, elected as a Member of either House of the Oireachtas or elected to be a member of the European Parliament, that person shall cease to be a member of the board. It also provides that where a member of staff is nominated as a Member of Seanad Éireann, elected as a Member of either House of the Oireachtas or elected to be a member of the European Parliament, that staff member shall stand seconded from SOLAS and will not be paid by SOLAS.
Sections 16 and 17 deal with board members or staff conflicts of interest and provide that where a member of the board has a material interest in matters being discussed, that person shall disclose their interest and not be involved in the decision making process relating to that matter.
Section 18 prohibits the unauthorised disclosure of confidential information. Section 19 allows the Minister to give a direction in writing to SOLAS in regard to the performance of its functions.
Section 20 provides for the Minister to advance moneys provided by the Oireachtas and the national training fund to SOLAS with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Section 21 provides that SOLAS may provide grants, subject to terms and conditions, to public and private training bodies. SOLAS shall inform the Minister where an education and training board contravenes these terms and conditions. This will allow the Minister to take action against such bodies, where appropriate.
Section 22 permits SOLAS to borrow money, subject to the approval of the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Sections 23 to 26 provide for the appointment of a chief executive officer, his or her role and functions in the organisation, and their accountability to the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees of the Oireachtas. The chief executive officer will also be an ex officio member of the board of SOLAS.
Sections 27 to 29 deal with staffing issues of the new authority, including the transfer of staff and superannuation rights from FÁS to SOLAS.
Section 30 provides that SOLAS will submit a three year strategy statement in respect of the organisation not later than six months after the establishment of SOLAS, and the Minister will have a copy of the strategy laid before each House of the Oireachtas.
Sections 31 and 32 set out the requirements of SOLAS in respect of delivering an annual report and set of accounts to the Minister, which will be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Section 33 allows SOLAS to accept gifts with the consent of the Minister and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Section 34 provides protection to a whistleblower who in good faith reports an offence under this Act or any other enactment that has been or is being committed or where there has been other serious wrongdoing in regard to SOLAS.
Section 35 prohibits the penalisation of SOLAS employees for making a complaint to a member of the Garda Síochána or a member of the SOLAS board that a provision of this Act, or any enactment or other rule of law, has been or is being contravened. It prohibits the penalisation of SOLAS employees for making a complaint to the Minister that a direction given by him under this Act has been or is being contravened. It also prohibits penalisation of SOLAS employees for making a complaint to a member of the SOLAS board that there has been serious wrongdoing in regard to SOLAS or for giving evidence in any proceedings under this Act or any other enactment.
Section 36 provides that any person making a false statement in the context of section 35 shall be guilty of an offence.