Thursday, 6 October 2011
Vocational Education Committees
I welcome the Minister to the House. I raise this matter to discuss with the Minister of State the decision to place the headquarters of the new amalgamated Waterford and Wexford VEC in Wexford and not in Waterford city as many people would have hoped for and anticipated. This issue has been in the public domain for some time and Government representatives from Fine Gael and the Labour Party were quite vociferous that proper sustainable planning and proper spatial strategy should be adhered to. As a gateway city, Waterford should have been respected as the best and most appropriate place for the headquarters and administrative centre to be placed.
The decision to place the headquarters in Wexford and not in Waterford was a political decision because a Minister is based in Wexford, and I make no apologies for stating this. It is quite interesting that representatives from Fine Gael who were in Waterford yesterday and today attacked the Labour Party Minister. Is this what we in Waterford and the south-east region will have to put up with for the next number of years? If a health issue arises will Labour Party representatives attack Fine Gael and if an education problem arises will Fine Gael representatives attack the Labour Party? There is collective responsibility for what happened and for Government decisions but we have this hand washing and Pontius Pilate-like attempt by Fine Gael to remove itself from what was a political decision.
Yesterday, a spokesperson from the Department of Education and Skills stated the criteria - these famous criteria about which we are now being told - had to take into account issues such as: the distance employees had to travel; the availability of accommodation; the number of schools and education facilities in the area; and the budgets of the VECs. I do not know who evaluated the criteria but I wonder whether these individuals had any idea of the geography of the south-east region. If anybody believes placing the administrative centre in Wexford was the best decision geographically and in terms of people having to travel, they failed to look at the map and realise people who must travel from west Waterford and Waterford city will have to travel the longest distance. Anyone who has to travel must travel the longest distance. It would have made perfect sense for the centre to be located in Waterford.
In recent weeks, many Ministers came to Waterford on the back of job losses and spoke about the pain which Waterford is experiencing at present. They sympathised and empathised and spoke about enterprise agencies and other Departments and agencies which were failing Waterford and the south east. However, the Government made a political decision which is a clear slap in the face to the people of Waterford and Waterford city and goes against the national development plan and the national spatial strategy. Why on earth is Waterford a gateway city if it will not be given the tools? Why does the Government continue with the policy of the previous Government of making political decisions? All I can say is that it learned well from the previous Government. We had it with the previous Government and here we go again. Political decisions are being made which are not based on sound principles, sustainable planning or regional development but on a decision based on where a Minister of the day resides. This is wrong.
It is also wrong for the Government to cry crocodile tears for Waterford and speak about our problems and empathise, when it has proven itself to be part of the problem and not part of the solution. It is not only me who states this. Members of Fine Gael in Waterford, the local Fine Gael councillors and the two Fine Gael Deputies from the constituency have been very vocal on this matter. The Government representatives and the Fine Gael representatives cannot wash their hands of this and simply point the finger at the Labour Party, no more than the Labour Party can point the finger at the Fine Gael representatives in respect of hospital closures or ward closures. There is collective responsibility and it is about time the Government did what it said it would do and depart from the old way of making political decisions based on parish pump parochial politics and start making the right decisions for the people of the country. With this decision the Government has let down the people of Waterford and the people of the south-east region. This is about sustainable and balanced regional development.
I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn.
I welcome this opportunity to outline to the House the rationale for the decision taken by the Minister earlier this week to locate the headquarters of the newly-amalgamated county and city of Waterford and Wexford VECs in Wexford with sub-offices in Waterford and Dungarvan.
In January of this year the Department invited submissions from all of the existing VECs on possible headquarters locations when the mergers took place. In responses received, no existing VEC was prepared to suggest a headquarters location other than in its own locality. Some did suggest there should be a headquarters in one location and a sub-office in the other. However, any VEC making such a proposal did not suggest the sub-office might be in its locality. All VECs which made further submissions subsequent to the decision on the revised configuration decided by the Government in June continued in similar vein.
In January, to facilitate submissions the Department gave the following guidance to VECs on the selection of the headquarters locations:
While a number of considerations may come into play a fundamental requirement will be the need to ensure that the location of a VEC headquarters will, to the greatest extent possible, facilitate the distance requirements under which staff to be redeployed to that location can be redeployed under a redeployment scheme, allied to the need to operate at lowest cost having regard to the accommodation available in existing locations.
These key criteria on redeployment and cost-effective accommodation solutions continued to be dominant in considering the locations that were finally determined by the Minister this week. However, as the commercial property market is likely to remain weak for the foreseeable future the likelihood of achieving savings that might defray any costs incurred in consolidating into one single headquarters have become less significant for the short to medium term.
In terms of redeployment, the distance between Waterford city and Wexford exceeds the 45 km distance agreed under the Croke Part agreement on mandatory redeployment. This will preclude redeployment of staff currently employed in Wexford to either Waterford or Dungarvan. Consequently at least one sub-office would be required.
In determining Wexford as a headquarters location the Minister therefore took into account the following additional factors. The 2011 budget for County Wexford VEC is €34.3 million, which will increase given the opening of the first post-primary school in Gorey on 1 September. In contrast, the combined budgets of Waterford city and county VECs for 2011 is €32.61 million. County Wexford has eight VEC post-primary schools, while the two Waterford areas combined have four post-primary schools as well as the college of further education in Waterford city. An assessment of the enrolment of these schools and college indicates approximately 2,860 students are within the County Wexford VEC operations, in comparison to approximately 2,640 within the operations of Waterford city and county VECs. County Wexford VEC is also a joint trustee of two additional schools which cater for more than 2,050 additional students.
According to the 2011 census data, 145,273 people are resident in County Wexford, compared with 113,707 people resident in County Waterford, comprising 46,747 in Waterford city and 66,960 in Waterford county. In addition to this, Wexford saw a population increase of 10.3% between 2006 and 2011, while Waterford saw an increase of 5.3%.
The Minister has decided to maintain sub-offices in both Waterford city and Dungarvan. I thank Senator Cullinane for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on this matter
The Minister of State spoke about potential redeployment from Wexford to Waterford and the criteria with regard to 45 km, but what about redeploying people from Waterford to Wexford? The same criteria could apply, so this is a red herring. The spokesperson for the Department stated the final choice was between Dungarvan and Wexford town. Waterford city was not even considered despite the fact that it is a gateway city and the administrative commercial capital of the south-east region. When will the Government learn that if we do not build up Waterford city as the capital of the south-east region, the south-east region will continue to underperform. If Waterford city performs well the region performs well.
The redeployment issue has been covered with the decision to retain two sub-offices in Waterford and Dungarvan. It is important to note that during the process whereby the VEC headquarters were decided, a number of decisions nationwide came down to a knife's edge and little separated a number of locations as to which would be the eventual headquarters. In this instance, the decision was taken to locate the office in County Wexford. Those factors to which I alluded played into the process. It is important that we acknowledge that this was the best decision for the region and that we move on and allow the amalgamation to occur, as that amalgamation will better serve those who avail of VEC services across the nation.
There is no reason to revisit any of these decisions. They have been taken and we will move on.