Further Education and Training Bill 2013: Second Stage

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.

Sections 37 to 44, inclusive, deal with the winding up and dissolution of FÁS, including the transfer of FÁS functions and property to SOLAS. It also provides for the transfer of FÁS rights and liabilities to SOLAS and the continuity of schemes created by FÁS, where appropriate. Section 45 provides the Minister with the power to designate staff for transfer on a transfer day from SOLAS to the proposed education and training boards under no less beneficial terms and conditions of service, remuneration and superannuation which they enjoyed immediately prior to the transfer day. Section 46 provides that the Freedom of Information Act 1997 shall apply to SOLAS on its establishment.
The Schedule to the Bill provides a vehicle for seeking redress for contravention of section 35. It also provides for the process of obtaining redress where an employee of SOLAS is penalised by SOLAS 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, for making a complaint to the Minister that a direction given by him under this Act has been or is being contravened, for making a complaint to a member of the SOLAS board that there has been serious wrongdoing in regard to SOLAS, for giving evidence in any proceedings under this Act or any other enactment.
A number of issues which remain under consideration are likely to be introduced on Committee Stage. These relate to the impact on other legislation of the repeal of the Labour Services Act 1987 and the abolition of FÁS. References to the Labour Services Act 1987 and to FÁS are contained in legislation enacted by other Ministers. I may need to cater for a number of amendments to this legislation but these proposed amendments will require further consideration by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to the Government following detailed discussions with officials in the Departments affected by these changes.
The Government is determined that the establishment of SOLAS, combined with the establishment of the education and training board structures, with a modern Irish apprenticeship system, will provide the framework for the positive future management and development of the further education and training sector. I commend this Bill to the House.

I am taking the debate on behalf of my colleague, Deputy McConalogue, who is unavailable. On behalf of my party, I welcome the publication of the Bill and acknowledge the work the Minister of State, in particular, put into its preparation, work which was commenced by our former colleague and former Tánaiste, Mary Coughlan, during her time in the Department. This Bill and the Education and Training Boards Bill are very important steps in furthering our further education and training, FET, sector and making it more adaptable to labour market conditions.

The Minister of State went through the main provisions of the Bill and SOLAS will play a hugely important role. However, as I have always done, it is important to acknowledge the huge role played by FÁS, in particular by the staff. Despite the difficulties the organisation had, which were caused by a minimal number of staff, the vast majority of the team who work in FÁS have provided fantastic service to hundreds of thousands of people. They have given their time and their talent to many people and have provided the foundation to a huge source of skills and talent since the initiation of the organisation in 1990. It would be inappropriate for us not to acknowledge that.

Like FÁS before it, SOLAS must play a crucial role in meeting the skills requirements of our country and our economy. It must also meet the skills requirements of individuals and employers and ensure both those requirements are matched to each other. It will have to streamline the provision of further education and training while placing a major emphasis on quality assurance, in particular in regard to the provision of training and education by the private sector. However, in an employment market, the needs of which are constantly evolving and changing, our education system generally needs to become more adaptable and less resistant to change. That is one message which keeps coming from industry, and this is an appropriate time to reflect that.

While going ahead with SOLAS, the Government must continue to protect adult and community education within the new structures. The Minister of State briefly referred to the need to promote and reform the apprenticeship scheme. Even though construction is in a very serious dip currently, it will come back. The fact that just over 100,000 of those on the live register come from a construction background shows that we have very skilled unemployed people who have skills to offer to the economy. With a proper apprenticeship scheme, we can adjust those skills and give them opportunities in areas which will have growth potential in years to come. The construction sector in Ireland is currently in a dip but that is not to say it should be forgotten. Our apprenticeship scheme, in particular, and its links with the ITs needs to be reviewed and enhanced to ensure its relevance.

Given that just over 430,000 are signing on the live register, it is extraordinary to think there are vacancies in our technology sector and in many of the multinationals announcing jobs. That points to a very serious skills gap in the economy. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, led by Senator Deirdre Clune, made a number of suggestions which we discussed with some business people last week, including Sean O'Sullivan from Open Ireland. When asked which Ministry they would choose if they wanted to influence enterprise policy, they chose the Department of Education and Skills because it is through education that we will influence our ability to attract enterprise and create enterprise culture as well as an enterprise-dependent culture. This legislation could potentially be very important in making our education system more focused on, and relevant to, the economy, and that is why we support it.

However, there is a difficulty. While we have this legislation and the words that go with it in terms of promoting our further education sector, practical decisions being taken by the Government undermine its ability to deliver. The two point increase in the pupil-teacher ratio for PLCs will result in the loss of 200 whole-time equivalent teaching posts and, in turn, the loss of many places on courses providing chances and the second chances which we will expect SOLAS to govern. One cannot promote and speak of quality when one undermines the ability to deliver that quality. We have reduced training allowances for further education and training scheme participants in VTOS, in Youthreach and in FÁS. We have reduced the allocation to VECs and the capitation rates have also been reduced. In addition to legislation and fine words, we need practical engagement in this sector. As in so many areas of government, what we have are pledges. We had it again with the Action Plan for Jobs last Friday. When it comes to implementing policy decisions, the Government is implementing decisions and cuts which undermine its ability to deliver on those pledges, and the further education and training sector is another example of that.

Currently, 270,000 further education places are being offered by a range of providers and we must ask if we are getting bang for our buck. That is one of the jobs for which SOLAS will be responsible. Some 9,000 people are employed to deliver these courses from levels one to nine in FETAC and in HETAC. While SOLAS will not deliver the programme, the education and training boards, which we discussed earlier, will be charged with that. SOLAS will be charged with overseeing the funding, ensuring the sectors which need funding get it and with making the call that funding for sectors which no longer need it goes to newer sectors. It needs the ability and the resources to do that. Most important, it needs political courage and the political support not only of the Minister of State but of his successors to be able to make tough decisions, which will probably affect institutions. Given the vacancies in our technology and language sectors, it is clear we need an organisation which has the ability to make those decisions quickly and in a manner which works in co-operation with the IDA and other State agencies.

The primary function of SOLAS includes the development and implementation of a national strategy for the delivery of further education, which is important and is under way in the Department, and to consult the Department of Social Protection and employers to determine what type of education and training programmes should be funded by SOLAS and delivered by public and other bodies. This issue of consultation is crucial and IBEC, in terms of its feedback to the consultation process which preceded this legislation, advanced a number of thoughts on what employers will be looking for from SOLAS and the further education sector in the future.

They want a system which targets supports for individuals and employers where they are needed most and allows colleges and providers to deliver an excellent service in a high skills, high employment and high productivity country. IBEC challenges SOLAS about its role in skilling and re-skilling workers. There must be clarity about its economic and social objectives. It wants a complete review of the suite of programmes to be offered and funded by the Department of Education and Skills to ensure they are relevant, have measurable outcomes, avoid duplication and achieve value for money.

There is duplication in the 270,000 places on offer. Are we getting value for money? Are the staff involved in the delivery of the programmes skilled enough to be able to be adaptable? Have they the resources to upskill themselves as well as those they propose to upskill? Most important, the needs of the Irish and world economy are changing. We do not know where the labour markets opportunities will be five years hence. We cannot have a system in which it takes between two and four years to get a course accredited and staff trained for it. Courses must be accredited and delivered within months to ensure they are relevant. The demands of students who are now starting first year in secondary school will be completely different from current demands. It is widely recognised that the Minister of State is involved in the promotion of the CoderDojo movement around the country, but many of the people starting first year in college this year have no experience of CoderDojo and in five or six years CoderDojo will be as important a skill as a foreign language, if we are still to operate to our potential as a leading country in ICT.

Will the people in SOLAS, as the people who are making the call in accreditation and quality, be suitably equipped and skilled to have the ability to be on top of that game and to be on top of where labour market trends are going? Will the wholetime equivalent staffing allocation for SOLAS reflect that need? Will it encourage people to travel from abroad to take up positions in SOLAS? They might be more comfortable with international trends and in a better position to challenge where we are going with our education system. That is what SOLAS must do. The days of a job for life are gone in the labour market. We do not know in 2013 where the job opportunities will be in 2018. One of this country's strengths is its ability, as an economy, to adapt, change and be available to where the new opportunities arise, in order to provide employment opportunities. SOLAS is crucial to that ability to adapt, and it is vital that the Minister ensures that it has the flexibility in its staffing structure to bring people in from outside and to use outside resources and expertise so it can be on top of future trends. What relationship will SOLAS have with Forfás? Forfás will be moved to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation but in terms of identifying trends, where the economy is going and where the job opportunities will be, there will have to be a strong and robust relationship between the two.

Our party and Deputy McConalogue have prepared a range of recommendations for the reform of this sector. The area of high quality soft skills is hugely important. We are setting up this new body and have just completed the legislation on the education and training boards. However, we have removed guidance provision from schools in the secondary school sector, at both vocational and non-vocational level. If we are to get careers right and to have any semblance of an economic direction, we must intervene at second level education in terms of skilling people and giving them guidance. This Government has completely pulled the rug from under guidance provision. How will we get the 2,500 extra graduates this year, which are promised in the jobs action plan? How will we be able to work with students at second level in this country, by telling them where the trends are, where the jobs might be and where their interests match where the skills are, when there is no guidance provision at that level? That is what is happening in schools across the country, due to a decision taken by this Government.

On the one hand we want this world class training and accreditation organisation, which is what this legislation seeks to provide for and everybody supports that, but on the other hand the people who have the ability to deliver the children into that world class training organisation are completely hamstrung and tied by the same Department. The legislation is great, the words are fine and the ambition of the Minister of State is admirable, and I genuinely respect what he has put into this, but the practical daily reality is that the foundation for SOLAS is being undermined on a daily basis by his Government's budgetary decisions. Unless we get that correlation right, and get the Department of Education and Skills talking to itself, not to mind other Departments, the ethos of this legislation is unfortunately fatally undermined from its inception.

There are a number of other issues. We support the call for a full review of all the places. Some of the places are still in the traditional construction skills, and where those skills were five and seven years ago. A range of courses on offer at institute of technology, IT, level still reflect the situation five years ago. We must bring them forward. We need our ITs to deliver courses in eco-systems, the new energy systems and so forth. There is a new energy action programme in the jobs action plan so we must ensure we have people who are skilled in that area. SOLAS will be responsible for that but it must have the power to challenge the IT sector to upskill its lecturers to deliver courses in renewable energy and new building techniques.

Second, we must look at the speed of this process. I referred earlier to the speed of providing new courses. Our education system is generally far too slow at moving this economy forward. We are still not teaching foreign languages in our primary schools. It is done on an ad hoc basis by some very good teachers. However, as the most open economy in the world, that is utterly dependent on foreign trade, we should have the ambition that children in every primary school will learn a foreign language, when they are most able to take on a language. That ambition can be measured and delivered. It will give children not only a skill but a cultural appreciation of another country that they can bring into secondary school.

A total of 1,000 jobs in a major multinational in this country were announced last year. There was huge celebration and the Government announced them with the normal razzmatazz. However, there was no razzmatazz about the fact that 500 of those vacancies were filled by people from outside the State, because the skilled employees could not be provided here. We did not have people with native language skills to fill those vacancies. Our education system must be adapted now so people can reach the C2 language level of being able to speak as a native. That can be done if we intervene early enough and if we have the ambition in terms of providing skills from an early enough stage in the education process. While that might not fall within the remit of SOLAS, if we have that ethos it will make life easier for SOLAS and its challenges much less demanding.

The overall ethos of the Bill is welcome. There must be a complete root and branch review of our education and training sector to ensure it is relevant. It is something that should not be provoked by the current economic crisis but which should be done anyway. We are growing too complacent about our education system and our graduates being the best in the world. The reality is that the market moves on very quickly and unless we constantly review our education and training facilities and everything we do in our economy, we will miss the boat. We could easily miss the next boat of employment creation if we do not get this legislation right.

However, as well as getting the legislation right, the practical daily decisions of the Ministers in the Department of Education and Skills must support the legislation with resources. We have a very good Bill, supported by most Members of the House, with very grand and lofty ambitions, but when it is implemented and the 400,000 people looking for a job approach SOLAS for an opportunity, we do not want a situation where the SOLAS staff do not have the resources or backup and do not have adequate places on courses where the demand exists or courses that will not be filled. The practical measures and the budget must follow the legislation. We will pursue the Minister on that issue. The legislation is welcome and Deputy McConalogue will table amendments on the later Stages, but it is on the practicalities and follow through that we will pursue the Minister.

Sinn Féin welcomes the publication of the Bill and will support it. We believe the ethos and spirit of the Bill are welcome and overdue. On Second Stage we simply outline the proposals in the Bill, but on Committee Stage we will bring forward a number of amendments which will improve the legislation. The Bill is part of a package of legislation the Government has brought forward to reform further education and training. We have just completed consideration of a Government Bill prior to the commencement of this debate in respect of which there was all-party support. I said at the conclusion of the previous debate that the Bill which is now going to the Seanad for consideration is without doubt one of the most reforming we have seen. The Further Education and Training Bill 2013 is equally reforming and important. Its importance places on us a responsibility to get it right. If we do not, the consequences will be felt for many years to come.

The Bill will establish SOLAS and disband FÁS. When the heads of the Bill were initially published, 150 submissions were made on them. It is a measure of how critical the legislation is considered to be, not just by those in the business sector but by those providing education and working within the further education sector and adult learners and disability groups. They all have an interest in the legislation. Sometimes when we talk about further education, there is a perception that it is for people who have recently lost a job or who are just coming out of school and did not get enough points to get into college. They use the further education model as a stepping stone. However, it is not just people in those categories who benefit from further education and training. I will touch later on some of the functions of SOLAS but one of them will be to develop a five-year strategy. The strategy will be critical to the performance of SOLAS. If we do not get the strategy right at the outset, everything that follows will be flawed.

The further education and training sector has developed many offshoots and is not very cohesive in the delivery of programmes. FÁS and the VECs deliver approximately 70% of FETAC awards, but there are other organisations providing further education courses through secondary schools, Youthreach and community groups. It is a diverse sector with no cohesive way to manage courses. The Bill is an attempt to put in place a body, SOLAS, which will be responsible for the oversight, planning and funding of further education in the State. There will be many challenges, some of which Deputy Dara Calleary touched on. It is all well and good in theory but the practicalities will have to be examined. International research shows that countries which ring-fence education budgets and in times of recession place a greater emphasis on education, increasing funding in some cases, recognise the importance of education to economic recovery. The further education and training sector in the State has a critical role to play to turn the economy around. Unfortunately, some of the decisions which have been taken recently are not helping.

Deputy Dara Calleary touched on measures in the last budget on the pupil-teacher ratio. We will lose 400 teaching posts in the further education sector on post-leaving certificate courses. Many of the posts involve teachers with the expertise we need to educate the up-and-coming workforce, the long-term unemployed and those who have something to offer to help to turn the country around economically. Not only did the Minister propose to increase the pupil-teacher ratio, he washed his hands of it. He said it was up to the CEOs of various VECs and the principals of institutions providing the courses to get together to minimise the impact of the policy on further education. It is up to CEOs and principals to sit down and ensure that courses which need to be protected are protected. It is no way for the Minister to do his business. I have been very complimentary of the Minister on many of the measures he has introduced and understand that he is under increasing budgetary pressure. I do not lay the blame solely at his feet. The Cabinet has a responsibility to ensure that the education budget is protected and it should not be up to the Minister himself. There should be a widely-held belief in Cabinet that education plays a critical role in turning the economy around. The Minister for Education and Skills should be receiving the support of other Ministers when he is at the Cabinet table trying to protect the education budget.

There will be significant challenges in transferring staff to SOLAS. We must ensure that as the process takes place there is no disruption to services. A significant proportion of the legislation deals with the transfer of staff to the new body. We welcome the provision of whistleblower protection given the problems we saw in FÁS when a small number of individuals did a huge amount of damage to the agency's reputation. It was unfair in circumstances in which FÁS provided some high quality courses over many years and helped many people to get back into employment. It should not be forgotten.

The Bill lists five or six of the functions of SOLAS. I mentioned one earlier, which was the preparation of the five-year strategy for the provision of further education and training which has to be completed after consulting with stakeholders. SOLAS cannot prepare the strategy simply to meet current skills shortages in the labour market. There cannot be a short-sighted approach. We need to take a holistic approach to labour shortages. We have spoken about foreign languages. A group of us returned from Finland this morning where we were studying that country's education system. Finnish school leavers aged 16 years can speak four languages whereas the schools here teach English, Irish and one other language though some students may opt for two. The languages are not used in everyday life and become defunct after a few years. In Finland, there is a focus on languages. They know that if members of the workforce speak a number of languages, they are better prepared to meet economic challenges as they arise.

Its whole education system aims to prepare for life after school. It prepares for five, ten, 15 years down the line, observing the trends in the labour market in the short, medium and long terms. It tailors its curriculum to meet those potential needs further down the line. In every report Finnish students perform above average in reading, writing, mathematics and languages. There is no state examination in Finland. The students go through the system learning what they need to learn but there is no way of evaluating that. The only way to evaluate it is in terms of employment rates and how they meet the changing needs of the labour market and they do it very well.

There are several issues the Government must consider in the strategic plan for SOLAS. It cannot focus only on the immediate needs of the Irish labour market. It needs to see what trends are coming down the line and put in place the courses to deal with them. We must also put in place courses for the long-term unemployed to help individuals of a particular age who are not suited to manual labour, who have maybe worked for the past 20 years and have unfortunately lost their jobs and want to upskill. We need to put tailored courses in place that enable them to contribute to society. While the legislation is very welcome and we will support the Bill we must examine in more detail how we transfer what is being proposed in theory and how it will work in practice. We look forward to working with the Minister of State on Committee Stage. We will bring forward several amendments and we look forward to that debate taking place sooner rather than later. It is critically important that we pass this legislation as soon as possible and that SOLAS can get on with its job.

I compliment the Minister of State on bringing Second Stage of this very important legislation to the House and on his opening remarks. This is a time of huge change in our country and our economy. Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leo siúd a bhí ag obair sa sector seo ar feadh na mblianta. The VEC sector was the champion of adult and further education and was not often recognised as such. I salute the VEC staff whose offices were often set up on low budgets. They did tremendous work. I salute all the staff in the VECs throughout the country and their CEOs, adult education boards, voluntary boards, and adult education officers, and later the community and further education staff who got involved with FETAC training, for the job they did under difficult circumstances in another time of huge change. They adapted and got accreditation for the FETAC courses. I also salute the many voluntary tutors who gave of their time freely, with passion and great gusto to pass on skills adapted to different life settings.

The Government, the Department and this House have a major role in transforming the further education sector. The City of Dublin VEC is one of the main contributors to the proposal, with IBEC, and some other groups. I thank all those who made submissions to the consultation document. I hope that the Minister of State is aware that the City of Dublin VEC got the franchise, or whatever it is called, for handling the third level student grants, under the nice acronym, SUSI. What a fine mess it made of that. It is nothing short of an appalling vista. I and my office have worked hard with many traumatised families in my constituency and beyond who cannot get through the logjam of the bureaucracy and inefficiencies in this system.

Heretofore 64 bodies dealt with these applications. It might have been a lot of bodies and the Government might have wanted to change that but this change has been for the worse. We are now approaching the second year of its operation and things have not changed. I blame the City of Dublin VEC and its set-up and I blame the Department which advertised and drew up the conditions of employment and tender for this huge transformation, taking the role of 64 bodies into one. Surely someone in government and officialdom must have seen what would happen, after the medical card mess, the PPARS scandal and all the things that we have amalgamated into one big body. There is scope here to study past failures, such as the electronic voting machines. Experts went abroad to see those and bought a pig in a poke which I would say cost the State €300 million. PPARS also cost a fortune. All of these things cost a fortune.

In these times there is no work or opportunities for school leavers and because there are no jobs they are forced into education. Many people have lost their jobs and are trying to get third level places. To visit this appalling mess on them is nothing short of a scandal. Nobody is accountable. The SUSI officials invited me to their headquarters two weeks ago and tried to explain and show me what they are grappling with but obviously the advertising and consultation process for setting up the new body broke down. City of Dublin VEC could not have tendered for and got the job without having some idea of what it involved but it could not have been much further off the mark. It did not have enough staff or expertise and had to outsource much of the work, which beggars belief. I do not blame the Minister of State but he has to take responsibility for it as do the senior officials in the Department.

I salute the staff in the VECs and county councils who dealt with this over the years in each county because they dealt with people whom they knew and who knew them. There was a lot of to and fro. I am not saying anyone got a grant who was not entitled to one but one could talk to people. One did not get automated messages looking for information that had been sent in a month earlier. I was told the reason for that problem was that the work was outsourced to a company in Cork but the people opening the envelopes were not there. Tens of thousands of letters containing people's details were kept in a building and the people sending out the automated messages never thought to go in and see whether the information had already been supplied. That is a sheer and abject failure of a system. Does the Minister of State think that he, or his Government, or I as an elected representative can stand over it? I cannot. It is just not good enough to have families tearing their hair out and in trauma, students depending on food parcels, and the threat of people losing their place on courses and so on. It is an appalling mess. I hope that if the City of Dublin VEC has anything to do with setting up SOLAS that it will be better prepared for it.

The problem with the public service is nobody takes the rap, nobody can be disciplined, dismissed or punished in any way despite Croke Park I, Croke Park II or even Croke Park XI. This has to change. We have to become leaner, fitter, tidier and accountable to the taxpayer. We have not been like that for decades and it became worse with the more agencies amalgamated into a larger system. We have seen quango after quango set up to create jobs and cushy careers for the boys. It is just not good enough. The public and taxpayer suffer with services diminishing.

At this vital time of the need for education, we have to get this right. While I value the fact IBEC, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, was involved in the consultation process, it must be remembered it represents the larger business organisations. It does not represent those companies represented by RGDATA, the Retail Grocery Dairy and Allied Trades Association, or the small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs. We always forget about those companies when drawing up these consultative documents. Why not talk to the ordinary business people and those businesses that the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, deals with every day? Our ordinary small businesses, which are struggling, are the backbone of this economy. Why not give them a voice? One will never find them on any State boards. Instead it will be IBEC appointments.

The document continues:

Our goal should be a further education and training system which targets support for individuals and employers where it is needed most, and allows colleges and providers to deliver the excellent service we must have as we move towards a sustainable vision of a high-skills, high-employment, high-productivity nation.

While there is some jargon there, it is fine language. It continues, “SOLAS need to work effectively with all stakeholders including those outside education and training if their goals are to be achieved.” This is an important point because the new agency cannot be inward looking. We must change our whole education system to make it more adaptable.

IBEC's paper stated:

Work placements are a significant feature of the most effective further education and training courses (the FÁS traineeships are often cited in this regard). However, close links with employers will be required to widen the scope of occupations covered by this type of programme.

The new agency will not be able to operate without extremely close links with employers. It is not just the IBEC companies but also the smaller employers that we must deal with. They are the ones which provided work experience, training and apprenticeships before FÁS was in place. It was these companies that delivered the skillsets that got our economy to move between the 1960s and the 2000s before we all went mad.

The many people involved in FÁS did tremendous work and had brilliant ideas and goals. However, the agency got big - big is beautiful according to successive Governments over the past two decades - and it got out of hand meaning accountability went out the window. However, this did not happen in the smaller schemes such as those volunteers who organise community employment schemes and their participants or the rural transport projects because they were all audited properly. I am chairperson of a FÁS scheme in which, recently, the wages were not paid into the bank because of a 9 cent discrepancy in the accounts. Millions of euro could be wasted, however, on foreign trips, junkets, hairdos and what not. What went on higher up was an abomination. Nobody will be sorry to see the name of FÁS gone. We cannot just wash it away like was tried with the Magdalen laundries. There was good work done in FÁS and a few bad apples should not spoil it all. The agency has a proud record in many areas but it has a desperate record at the top and at board level. All types of training schemes have been cut back savagely in the past several budgets.

There was hope about retraining and upskilling but many people have been prohibited from starting on courses. IBEC recommended, “Where necessary staff at various levels need to be provided with professional development to ensure the needs of the learners and the stated desire to improve 'customer experience' is recognised as a strategic priority.” That should be par for the course for any public service outfit. Why should this jargon have to be recommended when it should be a compulsory part of serving the public with respect and dignity? Training courses should not be needed to ensure staff do their job properly.

IBEC recommended, "A robust quality management system must be developed in respect of all aspects of further education and training activity and provision". The old education training board system was robust. It was when it became a larger entity it went wrong. We have seen this with the recent experience of SUSI, Student Universal Support Ireland.

A report published by the National Economic and Social Council in August 2011 expressed concerns about the relevance and quality of some of the further education training courses that have come on stream recently. It argued for an immediate root and branch review of all training places on offer. SOLAS must ensure its budget is spent in a most efficient way and must listen to industry, both big business and small-sized enterprises. It must be remembered if every SME were to create one job, we would wipe 350,000 off the live register.

We must increase the effectiveness and speed by which education and training agencies respond to labour markets and learners' needs, as well as ensuring industry is formally involved in course design. Many FÁS courses provided training in construction skills during the boom. However, since the downturn, there are many still teaching these training courses. In some cases, they refuse to reskill and cannot be redeployed or dismissed if necessary. We have to get rid of this job for life belief and work ethic out of these systems. While I accept there are employment regulations concerning these trainers' rights, they must move with the times. They must be willing to upskill and be ready, willing and able to deliver new courses. If they do not, then they will have to be asked to move on. We need every hand on the wheel at this time and everybody to work.

One problem affecting young people is not getting a place on their course of choice. I accept we cannot have an à la carte menu when it comes to courses but we must nurture and encourage young people when it comes to training. We need to go back into the secondary and national schools system to ensure teachers are reskilled. Deputy O'Brien earlier spoke about how a different type of education is required. Some have argued we need to look at the Finnish model of education. However, I believe the Finnish model can be very cold and uncaring and would be very different to our national school model. The old masters in the national schools did train people for life. That has changed with the onset of new technologies but we must be able to train our young people. I have a young family myself and I know we have to be adaptable.

We can never have the scandals again that occurred in FÁS with no one held accountable for these shenanigans or charged with any wrongdoing. Courses that are most in demand must be provided on a rolling basis so that applicants do not have to wait significant periods to gain entry and are forced to take up unsuitable courses in the interim.

A man came to work with me. He came off the live register and was employed through the Houses. I did not fill out the form, nor did anyone else. It was a 20 hour contract. Anyway, what happened? He found out that he was knocked off unemployment assistance although he was only working a three-day week or a two-and-a-half day week. He was knocked off rent allowance and everything else. The black economy is thriving but that is no surprise. What if a young, interested and self-respecting gentleman wishes to apply for a job to further his career and leaves his young family to travel to work, but he loses everything? That should not have happened. It did not take place under my employment, it happened from one State agency to another. I had to spend €40 on mobile telephone charges to try to get through to the Department of Social Protection without ever speaking to anyone, save for a machine. That is a scandalous way to treat people who are unemployed. It is a scandal to treat people who want to train, change and re-skill. That is outrageous. The system is not fit for purpose.

If I or Deputy Healy-Rae or anyone else in business had customers ringing and had to pay such money then we would not last one week. Most businesses are offering freefone telephone numbers. This must change. I welcome all the IBEC recommendations but I am disappointed that we had no input from small business and SMEs. If we do not listen to such people we will not get anywhere.

There are 16 education and training boards now and these will replace the VECs, as we knew them. I wish them well. In some places there was a good deal of unease about how they came about but I suppose we must move on. The VECs have served the country well. They were disregarded and looked down on by some of the colleges because of snobbery and by some people elsewhere in education, but they were the only people involved in adult and further education and they were in place when no one else was there.

Each education and training board will have a chief executive and the boards will absorb a large number of FÁS staff and training centres when they are established. They will implement training programmes previously provided by FÁS. It was proposed to amalgamate two agencies - I cannot think of the two names now - some time ago. When I inquired about it one year later I was told they still had not amalgamated. All the staff were on learning courses and in arbitration with regard to who would take this and that job. If a job is not there anymore then one goes to the next job. If a person needs a little training, that is fine but the carry-on of arbitration and all the associated issues has grown into the public sector. That is why we cannot afford the public sector. I am not knocking public sector officials. There are some great people in place but there are others who are deadwood and they cannot be sent anywhere. Should they not be sent home? That happened and the two bodies may not be amalgamated as of yet.

The process involved bringing in outside bodies, facilitators and consultants and it cost a fortune. We cannot do anything in this House at this stage without consultants. There is an industry in it. It is the same with the HSE. For example, we heard of cuts this morning to the disabled but there is no talk of cuts to HSE legal fees or consultants' fees. Yet we can cut the allocation to ordinary unfortunate disabled people because it is only €10 million. We can take away that money and they will not fight back because they are all right.

We must ensure this takes place. I am not suggesting the staff should move from Clonmel to Donegal but they should move within reason and they should be put in place without much further training and with little need for consultants. I hate using the word and I will not use the word because it is too horrible but consultants have become like a disease and they are all over the place. We cannot do anything and the Minister of State knows this better than I do.

Let us suppose there is a need to put on a small extension to a VEC building. One needs consultants to draw up reports although the VEC may have done the same thing in a school nearby. Instead, there must be a new design with design fees and architect fees. Let us consider what happened to the VEC building in Clonmel. It had flooded several times in its history. We got a grant of €400,000 for a new building and we got in consultants and design architects and specialists. What happened? Instead of raising the building above the floodplain as per all warnings - one could not get planning permission to build a house there - they built it at the same level. The first flood that came destroyed the whole new building and we had to look for a further €200,000 to redo the entire floor. There were consultants and architects involved and they all got paid, signed off and then left. No one was called to book or called to account. That is what happened to the VEC building in the Mall in Clonmel. It was an outrage that money was paid to consultants and architects to design a building at the same level as the building that had been flooded for decades. That is what the consultants and architects did and they got away with it and no one was held to account. That is what is wrong with the public system. The view is that it is not the money of the Minister of State or my money. People seem to believe it belongs to no one. Anyway, we do not have the money now. I cannot understand why the troika is not getting involved in the public service in these areas. Some people tried to tell us that the troika enforced the cuts last July on disability expenditure. It did not but I cannot understand why it did not examine and establish where the waste is and where this carry on is occurring.

I look forward to working with the new entities. I always enjoyed my work with the VECs. I am a long-time member and chairman of a board and I have been on the local adult education board for years. I salute the volunteers and the voluntary tutors involved. Nothing has been more rewarding for me in public life in the past 20 years than going to the adult education awards and FETAC accreditation courses to see people from 16 to 19 years of age getting certificates. There was joy for entire families. People were getting delivery of service on slim funding which is ever decreasing.

I hope the new outfit will not be related or on the same field as Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, because if it is we may as well forget about it. The names of both begin with the letter S. I know something else that begins with S but I will not mention it in the House because I could not. SUSI was a disaster and it is still a disaster. I hope there is more planning in this case. I am keen to see the officials who set up SUSI and who did all the background work relating to the City of Dublin VEC brought before a committee to answer how they failed so miserably.

Until now programmes have been provided by many different organisations, including FÁS, VECs, community groups, second level schools and private bodies. I have referred to FÁS and the VECs but I wish to refer to community groups. I thank the county enterprise boards which provided funding in my county for various community groups to kit out centres and areas where they could retrain and up-skill people. Many people have been involved and we cannot forget that. We must move on but we cannot forget where we came from. Further education and training is a highly important sector and we welcome any move to strengthen it but the changes must take place and the sector must be brought into the new era. It must be brought up to modern-day needs to provide the relevant services. The Government has stated that since it came into office it has continued with a large-scale reform agenda and it has done so but it is no good making changes unless it is change for the better and unless it provides value for money. Some examples have been unfortunate in this regard.

The primary functions of SOLAS are set out in section 7 and relate to the development and implementation of a natural strategy for the delivery of further education and training. We must pick it up where we got it and run with it and adapt to give the hundreds of thousands of unemployed people and those who wish to re-skill, including farmers and small business people who are not now making a feasible living, an opportunity. Such people wish to re-skill to get back into the labour market or perhaps other cottage industries. These people must be supported.

We must also tackle the army of officialdom which is prohibiting people from starting their own business and killing the entrepreneurial spirit. These people are many and varied. Today I sat in the audiovisual room and heard from shopkeepers throughout the country about the red tape they must go through. It is unthinkable and unbelievable. There was a shopkeeper sitting behind me but he has gone for the moment. Shopkeepers must have three different coloured brushes to sweep the shop floor: one red, one blue and one green. I have said it before and I say it again with no disrespect: the lunatics are running the asylum. This has gone totally over the top with regard to health and safety and HACCP. While I support all of these things and they are very necessary and anyone who is doing wrong should be penalised, all the red tape amounts to a plague. One shopkeeper wanted to reopen his shop and had to pay €8,000 in fees to the ESB to be reconnected. He had to pay €4,000 to a newspaper company for it to supply newspapers to him. That is hello money and amounts to daylight robbery. We should encourage people to re-open shops and keep rural Ireland alive. We must get real and have some vision and passion and embrace change. However, we cannot simply throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The feedback from the consultation process was varied. I am disappointed that it was not broad enough and the next time we engage in consultation I hope the various small business groups with hands-on experience will be involved. The CEOs of companies do a good job in their own right but there is nothing like the man on the ground who opens the shop, pays the bills and looks after the customers and staff. He operates a one stop shop. Often these people need advice and support. Above all, they need a break from regulatory Ireland. They can deal with their problems locally but I urge the Minister of State to ensure that SOLAS is fit for purpose and that we do not see a repeat of the issues that arose in FÁS. The bad work in FÁS was done by a minority. I salute the many excellent officials throughout the country who worked hard for that organisation and I condemn out of hand those who blackguarded the system or let them get away with it. Where was the regulation and the bodies or people who were paid to take charge? Where were the auditors? When I was a board member of Pobal, I once spent two hours at a rural transport meeting trying to account for an underspend of €20 in a budget of €250,000. This was a community and voluntary board with statutory obligations in respect of financial and employment laws. We were, rightly, subject to audit. What went on at the top of some of these organisations was reprehensible and would not happen in Russia. I wish SOLAS well and hope it is being built on a good foundation and will be fit for purpose in terms of delivering much needed services.

I thank the Minister of State for bringing this important Bill before the House. I was not going to engage in a political rant against the Member opposite but we all know that the party which Deputy Mattie McGrath supported for most of its 14 years in Government discredited FÁS. I regret that because I agree with him about the great people who worked in FÁS and delivered a top-class service. I know many of the people working in Ross Avenue in my own area of Cork. They are outstanding public servants who deliver great training to those who need it.

I speak as a former director of adult education and someone who understands the importance of retraining, upskilling and empowering people. The value of education and training for adults can be seen in the VECs, adult education courses, community and comprehensive schools, institutes of education and universities. We have changed the model of training and provision of adult education to make it more student friendly. We have broadened its appeal and have moved to provide classes in our communities. The system now takes a more modular approach and we have removed the stigma of exams and made courses more project orientated. This allows people to return to education in order to upskill and retrain.

Bringing people back to education creates a challenge for this Government and those vested with the responsibility for implementing this new approach. In the past there was an over-emphasis on training for the construction industry but if an individual in his or her late 50s is unsuitable for a course in computing or has previously worked as a qualified engineer, how do we develop a suitable training course? The education must be specific to the needs of the individual. At times I wonder whether we have the capacity to change our thinking. Sometimes the European computer driving licence is presented as the cure for everything but it is not. I commend the Minister of State on his embrace of CoderDojo as a way of getting young people involved in changing mindsets and opening up a new form of fun and friendly exploration. We must do the same for adults. We need to build new synergies through the merger of education and training. I accept that the change is not easy and will take time but the Minister of State's task is to give people new life and opportunities. If he travels the country to engage with people, whether in constituency offices, GAA clubs or shopping centres, he will find a yearning to be involved and challenged by new ideas in education and training.

We must look to models of education and training which have been successful for other countries in encouraging people to learn new skills and change old perceptions. It is not easy but, as somebody who spent many years in adult education, I want to impress on the House the importance of this task. I am very proud of the adult education department in Ballincollig Community School and the Cork VECs under the guidance of Ted Owens and Barry O'Brien. They made education people centred and demystified the return to education. I am probably in a minority in recognising the value of the courses provided by FÁS at the coalface in Ross Avenue and Bishopstown for young and unemployed adults.

I am concerned that there is insufficient understanding of the way in which people's needs change. Their training or upskilling should be modified to suit their needs. I am delighted to see the amalgamation of FETAC, HETAC, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Irish Universities Quality Board. One of the challenges I faced in delivering adult education was the bureaucracy and paperwork required by FETAC in accrediting courses. I understand why an awarding body would require a paper trail but it must be about the person who is engaging in education.

The Minister of State referred to the amalgamation of the vocational education committees. As a Cork person I am disappointed that Cork could not have two separate VECs. Deputy McLellan will probably agree with me in this regard. Next week we are launching the lifelong learning festival in Cork city under the auspices of the City of Cork VEC and Tina Neylon.

If the Minister of State gets a chance to come to Cork, he should come, because this is a model which should be rolled out across the 32 counties of Ireland, North and South. This is a project where people in every community in the city and metropolitan Cork are involved in education, from the cradle to the grave. They are involved, from learning how to turn on a computer to learning how to cook or to use an iPad.

Debate adjourned.