Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

8:00 am

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to the House and thank him for taking this matter on the Adjournment. This is an important issue which has become more so in recent weeks since the announcement of the decision on the locations of VEC headquarters.

Having spoken to managers, tutors and administrative staff who work in VECs, I have found the general reaction, not just to the amalgamations but also to the decisions on the location of VEC headquarters, has been that it may cause more trouble and cost more money than it is worth. The biggest grievance I have heard is that there is a complete lack of transparency in the decision-making process, especially with regard to the criteria used for the decisions on the locations of headquarters.

What criteria were used in deciding on the location of the VEC headquarters, or were the criteria decided retrospectively after decisions had been taken? Most important, who made the decisions? I know the ultimate responsibility rests with the Minister but I would like to find out, if possible, what advice was relayed to him and on what basis. Such big decisions and actions garner public acceptance not through secrecy and shady dealings but through transparency.

We all know that no VECs do things in the same way. It will be some time before any merger will result in a smooth operation. The current angst over the criteria and the headquartering decision will make this merger process even more difficult.

The an bord snip nua report recommended the number of VECs be cut from 33 to 22. The previous Government decided to go further and cut them by more than half. The four VECs that will remain without change are Donegal, Cork city and county and Dublin city. At the time of the announcement, questions were raised about the decision to retain those VECs, particularly Donegal's and the fact the then Minister was from that county. Calls were made for the release of information on that decision to ensure transparency.

The yardstick by which the success of the VEC amalgamation programme will be measured is whether the new structures will enhance educational opportunities and provision. However, the amalgamation of Cavan and Monaghan VECs raises some concerns. The decision to put the headquarters in Monaghan is strange, considering the education campus has not yet been built and its planning application contains no reference to a VEC headquarters. Cavan VEC already is leading in ICT infrastructure and the deployment of technology in supporting three non-VEC schools in the county.

I am not in the business of playing counties off each other as such parochialism only leads to trouble. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the amalgamation process in Cavan and Monaghan, particularly the headquartering decision. If there were greater transparency around how these decisions were made, it would reduce the tensions that exist.

How does the Minister envisage maintaining excellence and good practice while engaging in this rationalisation? Where will savings be made, particularly considering the cost of building new facilities and rebranding costs? How has the amalgamation process fed into the comprehensive spending review? Will the Minister publish the cost-benefit analysis of this process? We need to have more information on the number of students and schools in each VEC. This would assist in understanding some of the decisions made in certain amalgamations. In the absence of transparency, the process will not be easy. There are outstanding issues surrounding criteria used in the process and costs. These need to be addressed before drafting any enabling legislation.

Restructuring should not be introduced to save costs or reduce the number of VECs. The purpose should be to realign the VECs in a manner that addresses the weaknesses in the system and results in a properly resourced system that meets the needs of teachers, students, staff and parents. Was there any dialogue between the committees and stakeholders in the amalgamation process?

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills.

I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House the decision taken by the Minister in early October on the location of the headquarters of the new education and training boards following the Government's decision to revise the configuration of VECs. In January 2011, the Department invited submissions from all of existing VECs on possible headquarter locations when the mergers took place. To facilitate submissions, the Department gave the following guidance to VECs:

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.

The key criteria of redeployment and cost-effective accommodation solutions continued to be dominant in considering the locations that were finally determined by the Minister. 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 became less significant for the short to medium term.

It would be difficult to accurately predict the costs or savings which will arise from any one particular merger or relocation, given the range of options to be considered with regard to use or disposal of existing property interests in those locations which have not been selected as either a head office or a sub-office.

Any costs in property acquisition, upgrading or refurbishment which may be required at those locations which have been selected as head offices will also have to be taken into account. The VECs involved and the new merged bodies when established, in conjunction with departmental officials, will work through these details in the coming period. Since some of the likely savings from the restructuring of the VECs, including the relocation of headquarter functions, will come from the sale of some existing VEC buildings, these may not be realised in the short term.

The potential revenue to be raised from the sale of these assets is closely linked to the current state of the property market. It may not be possible to dispose of such properties satisfactorily in the short term and we must proceed in such a manner that does not give rise to new or additional costs in a manner that prejudices realising the savings that are targeted.

The special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes suggested savings of €3 million could be realised. The reconfiguration to 16 VECs can, over time, yield such savings in the recurrent cost of the headquarter functions of VECs which, at present, is €40 million in total.

I thank Senator Reilly for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on this matter.

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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We have been advised by a departmental official that Cavan and Monaghan VECs were tied in the amalgamation process until the decision was made for a new education campus in Monaghan. The current plans for this campus do not even include a VEC. Will the Minister provide information as to the criteria used in the amalgamation? What were the two VECs tied on? Cavan was leaps and bounds ahead-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Does the Senator have a question?

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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Is there more detailed information about the criteria used rather than this quote about the advice to the VECs? Was the criteria uniform for all VECs or were there differences by location?

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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Senator Reilly earlier said no two VECs do things in the same way. This was acknowledged by those involved in advising the Minister on final headquarter locations when this amalgamation process began. While there were many different factors playing into each decision in each geographical area, the overriding considerations were the need to facilitate the staff to be redeployed and the need to operate at lowest cost having regard to the accommodation available in existing locations. I am not aware of the minutiae of the final elements of the decisions made in Cavan-Monaghan or elsewhere. I assure the Senator that each area was forensically analysed and the Minister, Deputy Quinn, is more than happy to stand over the decision taken on the location of the headquarters. I have no doubt that when the amalgamation process is complete the decisions taken now will prove to have been correct.