Thursday, 5 July 2012
Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Report and Final Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 18, to delete lines 43 to 45 and substitute the following:
"(3) For the removal of doubt, the rights and entitlements in respect of tenure, remuneration and superannuation enjoyed on commencement by persons who are employees of the amalgamating bodies shall not, by virtue of the operation of this Act, be any less beneficial than those rights and entitlements enjoyed by those persons as employees, or former employees of HETAC, FETAC and NQAI, immediately before such commencement.".
I tabled this amendment on Committee Stage, at which point I expressed my concerns about the fact that with the amalgamation of the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC, the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, and the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, NQAI, the working conditions of staff might be downgraded or changed to some extent. The Minister indicated that there could be minor changes and stated the best way to deal with the matter would be through a process involving the unions and management. He also indicated that he understood from where I was coming on this issue but said there was no need to set anything in stone in respect of it. He then stated he would consider the matter further but that he was strongly of the view that there was no need to change the legislation.
I am supportive of any arrangement that will harmonise relations with management and improve the efficiency of existing work practices. However, this must be done in a way which does not undermine or diminish the protections for and conditions of workers in the context of salary and pension rights and other related matters. I am not in a position to provide examples, but as I informed the Minister on Committee Stage, a number of people have expressed their concerns about it to me. Any change, such as amalgamation or changes to job specification, means people are concerned about how it will have an impact on their livelihood. There will be changes to the management structures and how people operate. That is where the concern of the staff comes from. I note the Minister's comments about the intent of the Bill. Has the Minister examined this matter again? The Minister gave assurances that he did not think it was useful to include this provision in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can put on record his view on the changes.
My recollection of this amendment is that the Minister gave us a good assurance on Committee Stage that the rights of all employees were protected and that there would be no defects in respect of the conditions of employment of the personnel in existing bodies who will be employees of the new body. The Minister's comments caused me no concern as he is genuinely committed to ensuring no rights are breached. Perhaps, as Deputy Crowe said, putting that on record would be no harm.
I am happy to accede to the request from the Deputies. These issues are covered by sections 21 and 22 of the Bill. There are four subsections under section 21 and ten subsections under section 22, all of which take on board the statutory entitlements and pension entitlements with regard to superannuation, which are quite complex. We do not need a belt, braces and bicycle clips approach. Three organisations are being brought into one. As is inevitable, even in sister organisations, there are different day-to-day work practices and arrangements for annual leave and for Christmas, Easter and summer. Management must be given the autonomy and authority to synchronise. We cannot have management constrained by primary legislation in terms of its day-to-day operation. It does not make sense in this day and age. The rights of workers and pension entitlements are protected but how workers behave subject to management cannot be protected in primary legislation. It must be the best practice, not the lowest common denominator practice, within the three organisations as determined by the manager. Our responsibility as legislators is to set the framework for these people to pursue the task in question. In this case, it involves certification and satisfaction that we are reaching the quality standards set out in our qualifications.
Regarding the manner in which people do this in law, we must allow autonomy for the management of a semi-State, non-commercial organisation. That is why we have them outside the Department of Education and Skills. If we had them in the Department, I would be festooned with parliamentary questions and they would never get a day's work done. The management would be unable to manage because they would be looking over their shoulders every time the Dáil sits and parliamentary questions are tabled. That is why we have the separation of an executive agency from a Department that is accountable to Members. As a national assembly, we decide collectively to set up an organisation and we give it the constraints under which it must function, but those constraints must be matched by a degree of freedom in operation and management discretion. The balance is right here.
There will be difficulties for some staff, and unions will be involved in discussions. I take on board the Minister's point. Large organisations are coming together and we all agree with the spirit of the Bill. It makes sense in respect of the changes to qualifications. On the basis of the Minister's reassurance, I withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 31, line 44, to delete "subsection (6)" and substitute "subsection (5)".
As a result of the proofing of the Bill on Committee Stage, a number of minor technical issues have come to light that require amendment. I informed the House on Committee Stage that a number of amendments of this nature would be required. In total, eight amendments fall into this category. Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are purely technical in nature. Section 40 deals with reviews by the authority of the review procedures of the NUI. As currently drafted, section 40(6) incorrectly refers to itself, whereas the reference should be to the previous subsection. It is therefore proposed to make an amendment so that the reference is to section 40(5). This is the purpose of amendment No. 2.
Section 62 provides for the annual charge for use by providers of the international education mark. As currently drafted, section 62(5) refers to "the annual charge prescribed under subsection (2)". However, the charge is actually prescribed under subsection (3) so it is now proposed to amend this reference to reflect the fact. This is the intention of amendment No. 3. These amendments do not involve any change to the substance of the relevant sections and subsections.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 50, line 40, to delete "subsection (1) or (2)" and substitute "subsection (1)".
Section 63 deals with reviews by the authority of a provider's compliance with the code of practice and the use of the international education mark. As currently drafted, sections 63(3), 63(4) and 63(8) refer to such reviews being conducted by the authority under sections 63(1) and 63(2) of that section. However, these reviews are actually provided for in section 63(1). These technical amendments delete the three unnecessary references to section 63(2).
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 55, line 38, to delete "An Appeals Panel" and substitute "The Appeals Panel".
This technical amendment is intended to correct a grammatical error in section 68. This section provides for the establishment of an appeals panel to determine appeals received against decisions made by the authority. This amendment proposes to change the reference to "An Appeals Panel" in section 68(3) to the more appropriate form of "The Appeals Panel".
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 63, lines 4 and 5, to delete "the review under subsection (6)" and substitute "the amendment under subsection (8)".
This is the last of the technical amendments. Section 80 deals with the determination of fees by the authority. As currently drafted, section 80(9)(b) refers to a review conducted by the authority under subsection (6) when the reference should actually be to subsection (8). This amendment seeks to address the error. There is no change to the substance of this section as a result of this amendment.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 69, line 19, to delete "8 members" and substitute "10 members".
I move to recommit in respect of amendment No. 9 as the proposal to increase the size of the board of the authority involves a marginal increase in the charge on the exchequer.
I indicated on Committee Stage that it was my intention to accept the proposal by Deputy Smith to make provision in the Bill for the Union of Students of Ireland to make a nomination to the board of the new authority. Amendment No. 10 proposes that the right of the USI to nominate a board member is specifically provided for in the Bill.
I also indicated on Committee Stage that I am very conscious of the fact that the authority will be dealing with a very diverse set of learners, particularly in the adult and further education sector. To reflect this, I am also proposing through this amendment to allow for two learner representatives to sit on the board, one of whom will be nominated by the USI. This leaves scope for the second learner representative to be representative of the further and adult education sector.
The inclusion of two learner representatives on the board of the authority is evidence of my firm commitment to strong learner involvement at all levels of the quality assurance process. Student involvement is critical to the successful operation of quality assurance processes within institutions and within the authority. The inclusion of a strong student voice at board level complements the other provisions in the Bill that specifically provide that institutional quality assurance procedures should include evaluation by learners of the education and training provided to them. I made the wording of this amendment available to Deputies Smith and Crowe in advance of it being finalised and I thank them for their cooperation on this issue.
I also expressed the view on Committee Stage that an eight member board may be too small to be effective if five positions are already reserved for the chair, the CEO, an international expert and two student learner representatives respectively. I am therefore proposing through amendment No. 9 to provide for an increase in the size of the board from eight to ten members. This will ensure a more balanced membership while simultaneously affording a strong voice for learner representatives at board level.
Schedule 1 to the Bill currently provides that the quorum required for a meeting of the authority, unless the Minister directs otherwise, shall be four members of the board. This was appropriate when the board consisted of eight members. As it is now proposed to increase the size of the board to ten members, it is considered appropriate that the quorum requirement should also be increased to five members. This is the intention behind amendment No. 11.
I thank the Minister for his cooperation and assent to the proposal we put forward. It is a progressive move and I thank the Minister and his officials for consulting us in advance of the amendments being tabled in the House. On Second Stage, I said that my Seanad colleague, Senator Power, had suggested two student representatives and to be honest I thought that was ambitious. I am glad the Minister has acceded to that request and that the Union of Students in Ireland has been designated as a nominating body. The Union of Students in Ireland in recent years, particularly under the leadership of Gary Redmond, who vacated the office last week, has displayed great maturity in the campaigns and issues it has brought to our attention. I thank the Minister and welcome these amendments.
The website of the Department had a section that was open to people who wished to put forward their names to be considered for this. I could not, however, see a professional teacher filling that position, although there will be a need for such expertise on the board. The people filling the two slots created by these amendments will come from a USI nomination and for the other slot, because there is no formal representative organisation for learners, I will consult. Typically I would like to get someone who left school at 14 and re-entered the system after quite a period of time and who, as an adult, experienced what it was like to come from level four, five or six possibly all the way to level ten. There is a hell of a difference between teaching someone who is 36 as against 16. I want that voice to be heard, but I have no one in mind and it will not necessarily be someone who is politically on my side. I am looking for the experience. If life long learning is to be a genuine process, the secondary teaching profession will have to come to terms with teaching people who are older and in many cases, more experienced and smarter.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 69, to delete line 29 and substitute the following:
"(b) at least 2 people who are representatives of learners, one of whom shall be a person nominated by the body known as the Union of Students in Ireland.".
I thank my colleagues and, on behalf the entire House, I thank my two officials, Mr. Phil O'Flaherty and Mr. Tony Gaynor, without whose help this work would not have made such good progress.