Tuesday, 18 November 2014
Vocational Education Committees Expenditure
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, to the House. Obviously, my preference would have been to have the Minister for Education and Skills respond to my query. However, it is appropriate in one sense that the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, is here because issues such as good governance in terms of the spending of taxpayers money is at the core of this matter and, in particular, the regular flow of correspondence to the Department by a former member of County Cork VEC, on whose behalf I raise this issue.
I was a member of County Cork VEC for a brief time in 1990 and as such I am very much aware of the drive, commitment and enthusiasm of the staff there. The former member of County Cork VEC on whose behalf I raise this issue, while as committed as any other member, past or current, of that VEC, has serious concerns about it. By way of an aside, I was surprised to learn of the attempts of the management and membership of County Cork VEC to have this member struck off the committee. I understand they even wrote to the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, requesting that he be dismissed from the board. I found that quite disturbing, although that is not the subject of my query today. Fortunately, the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, did not accede to the request.
The correspondence which issued to the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, and to the current Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, raises fundamental questions regarding the spending of taxpayers' money and the decision-making process. We are all aware of the phrase "the independent republic of Cork". However, even within that independent republic of Cork normal rules and regulations, in terms of the management and governance of an entity such as the former VEC, must pertain. Questions have been raised about leasing arrangements. It is almost two decades since I was a member of the committee of that VEC and so I am not an expert on its internal structures. However, I am advised that up to 20 unusual leases appear to have been entered into, which is the subject of some of the concerns raised by the gentleman who has been in contact with me. He was so concerned that he brought this matter to the attention of the Committee of Public Accounts. I am advised that a previous Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, Ms McManus, appeared before that committee and responded to some degree to the concerns raised. The matter is now with the Comptroller and Auditor General. I am advised that a report will be made available in the near future. I understand the Department of Education and Skills has a certain timeframe to reflect on the matter.
It is not too often that a body such as the former VEC has its business examined in the first instance by the Committee of Public Accounts and second by the Comptroller and Auditor General. That this is happening shows the serious nature of the situation. The Irish Examiner has been to the fore in highlighting many of the queries raised. One of its reporters has carried out serious investigative work in this regard. It is not in any of our interests to attack the officials, past or current, of the VEC. However, we must ensure that governance is appropriate and that taxpayers' money is spent in a legal manner and that all is above board. The evidence presented to me would seem to suggest that there are serious doubts about some of the decisions made by the former VEC, particularly in relation to the 20 plus leases mentioned.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, to ensure that the Minister, Deputy O'Sullivan, takes this matter seriously. She is in the fortunate position of being Minister for Education and Skills for only a few months and cannot be held responsible for earlier decisions or omissions.
Now that the file is on her desk she must take the matter very seriously and fully investigate the questions brought to her attention.
An interim reply and then a slightly more substantive reply issued from the Department in early November but it does not answer any of the questions raised by the complainant. Reference is made to the vocational support services unit. The Department advised that the terms of reference for sale have been agreed but I am advised that they have not been agreed. I would like the Minister to comment on that. There are significant issues which must be aired fully. I look forward to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. Our country has been littered with the politics of sweeping matters under the carpet, something we must bring to a conclusion. It is in everybody's interest that this matter is fully examined under the full spotlight of all the appropriate State agencies to enable us to assure taxpayers that money is being spent in an appropriate fashion and that any inappropriate decisions are fully examined any a full response is given.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to be in the Seanad this evening. I thank the Senator for raising this issue because it affords me the opportunity to clarify to the House the matters referred to in correspondence on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan.
The correspondent wrote to the Minister for Education and Skills in regard to a number of events at County Cork VEC which arose during his time as a member of that vocational education committee, as Senator Bradford has outlined. The correspondent referred to certain matters being investigated by the Comptroller and Auditor General, which will be the subject of a special report in due course. The correspondent also asked the Minister for Education and Skills to initiate an investigation into the specific section of the Department which has been dealing with County Cork VEC and its management of those matters.
The Minister gave full and detailed consideration to the matters raised by this correspondent, including the request for an investigation into the specific section of the Department which has been dealing with County Cork VEC. She determined that an investigation was not warranted. She requested the Secretary General of her Department to advise the correspondent of her decision in regard to the request for an investigation and to respond on her behalf to the other issues raised in the correspondence. The correspondent met senior officials of the Department of Education and Skills, including the Secretary General, to discuss his concerns relating to County Cork VEC.
I clarify for the House that County Cork VEC was a body corporate established and operated in accordance with the Vocational Education Acts 1930-2001. The person accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts and other Dáil committees in law for the performance of County Cork VEC was the chief executive officer of that body. The accountability now lies with the chief executive officer of Cork Education and Training Board.
As previously indicated, the matters referred to in the correspondence are the subject of an investigation being conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Department of Education and Skills has co-operated fully with the Comptroller and Auditor General in regard to that investigation. The Department was recently provided with a draft report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, on which Senator Bradford has sought an update, and the Department has provided its observations to this. It is expected that the report will be finalised shortly by the Comptroller and Auditor General and published by that office at a time of its choosing.
I thank Senator Bradford for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on this matter. As a former member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I had some dealings with the said individual and those allegations. I am very proud of the work that committee has done on a cross-party basis. It is important we have a forum where people, be they public representatives or citizens, can bring forward those concerns and that they can be investigated. I am pleased that the Comptroller and Auditor General will shortly publish a report on this and other matters.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply and I note his comments. It is not news to me that the Minister, having given detailed consideration to matters raised by the correspondent, determined that an investigation was not warranted at this stage. I trust, however, that once the Comptroller and Auditor General's report is published and if it is deemed necessary, or if certain facts are brought to further light, the Minister will be willing to reflect on the need to have a more detailed investigation. I trust the Minister of State will be able to confirm that the Minister, Deputy O'Sullivan, will have a open mind on that because until such time as the report is published by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we will not be able to make any significant determination.
While I cannot confirm what is in anybody else's mind or thought processes, I can confirm to the House that I will convey Senator Bradford's views to the Minister, Deputy O'Sullivan, and ensure she has a transcript of this debate. My view on this, and one I will convey to the Minister and have conveyed on a number of occasions to the Committee of Public Accounts during my time there, is that if the Comptroller and Auditor General, as an independent constitutional office of this State, raises questions - I have not seen the report and I do not wish to pre-empt it - it would be important that we would all reflect and act upon whatever recommendations or conclusions that independent constitutional office arrives at. It is an office that is held in very high regard by the taxpayers and citizens of this country and by Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas. I, like many others, eagerly await the publication of the Comptroller and auditor General's report. I once again thank the individual who made the complaint for bringing it forward to the Committee of Public Accounts. It is important that people have that forum and I am pleased that Comptroller and Auditor General is now examining it.