Breen argues the case for a VEC Sub-Office in Ennis

October 11th, 2011 - Pat Breen

Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Clare T.D. argued the case for the provision of VEC Sub-office in Ennis, when he raised the issue in Dail Eireann on Wednesday morning last.
The Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn T.D. had previously outlined his proposals to amalgamate Clare VEC with the two VEC’S in Limerick City and County VEC’s. On Tuesday afternoon last, he announced that Limerick City was the chosen location for the headquarters of the new merged VEC.

During the Debate on Tuesday last, Deputy Breen voiced his disappointment with the decision not provide a sub-office of the VEC in Ennis. He pointed out that the office in Ennis is very busy and he paid tribute to the staff who he said are doing an “excellent job.”
He said that “Deputies will be aware that at this time of the year the VECs deal with a huge volume of applications as they administer the third level maintenance grants scheme. I know this because my office interacts with County Clare VEC on a daily basis. While applicants can use the online application service, the reality is that each application can generate a number of inquiries which need to be dealt with on a one-to-one basis. I know of a young man from Kilrush who had to drop into the VEC office in Ennis on four occasions to follow up on his application.”

He asked the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills Ciaran Cannon T.D. who was responding to the debate in the absence of the Education and Skills Minister Ruairi Quinn T.D. to “have regard to the geography of County Clare when he reconsiders his decision not to locate a sub-office of the new amalgamated VEC in Ennis. The closure of the existing office in Ennis would cause significant inconvenience for many people. A person from Kilrush who has a query with the VEC would have to travel to Limerick, a round trip of 160 km.”

Deputy Breen argued that the “retention of a sub-office in Ennis would be cost-neutral because the Department owns the building in Ennis.”

Concluding he said that “County Clare always seems to be the poor relation when decisions on regional services are being made. We have already lost our accident and emergency service and our Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food office to Limerick and now we are about to lose our VEC office.”

In his reply Minister of State Ciaran Cannon T.D. said that “the main purpose of the VEC rationalisation is to bring about greater efficiencies” and in that regard he said that “the optimum headquarters location for the new merged VEC is within the greater city of Limerick area”. However, Minister Cannon agreed that in the short-term a sub-office in Ennis will be maintained in order to facilitate an “orderly merger.”

Given that a sub-office was being retained in the short-term, Deputy Breen appeal to the Minister to take a fresh look at the matter.
However, Minister Cannon said that the decision to have a sub-office in each of the seven other locations was driven by the fact of the redeployment distance of 45km. He said that the “existing VEC headquarters in the Clare-Limerick region were all within 45 km of one another, so staff redeployment was not going to be an issue.”
Minister Cannon went on to argue that non provision of a sub-office in Ennis would not be detrimental to the level of services provided by the Merged VEC in that he said “On a day-to-day basis, I foresee the main interaction between the general public and the VEC structure happening through the locations of the VECs themselves – through their schools and further education and community training centres – as well as through NEES, the national employment and entitlements service, which will be the first port of call for people wanting to avail of further education and training. I do not believe the lack of a sub-office in Ennis will detract from the service that will be available to people in County Clare. I have every confidence in the current staff at Ennis and their soon to be merged colleagues in the area of Limerick, who will continue to provide an excellent service for the people they serve.”

ENDS

See Transcript of the Dail Debate underneath for your information.

Dail Eireann
Wednesday, 6th October 2011.
Deputy Pat Breen: This is the first time I have availed of the new topical issue system. It is good that it allows for an exchange of views. I am raising the matter of the designation of headquarter locations in the new vocational education committee structure. I am anxious that the Minister for Education and Skills approve the location of a VEC sub-office in Ennis, County Clare. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilsitating my request to raise this issue in the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, who is here instead of the Minister, Deputy Quinn.
The rationalisation or amalgamation of any department is never easy, but the current tough economic circumstances obviously make it particularly difficult. When there is restructuring on a regional basis, it can involve the transfer of services from one county to another. I would have thought there was a compelling case for County Clare VEC to remain independent, in the light of its budget, enrolment size and geographical location. However, it has been decided to merge it with the two Limerick VECs. The Minister announced on Tuesday that the headquarters of the new merged VEC would be in Limerick. I am disappointed that the decision does not provide for a sub-office of the VEC to be located in Ennis. Once again, County Clare is losing out on an essential service.
The staff of the extremely busy County Clare VEC office in Ennis do an excellent job. A great deal of vocational education services are provided from the Ennis office. Deputies will be aware that at this time of the year the VECs deal with a huge volume of applications as they administer the third level maintenance grants scheme. I know this because my office interacts with County Clare VEC on a daily basis. While applicants can use the online application service, the reality is that each application can generate a number of inquiries which need to be dealt with on a one-to-one basis. I know of a young man from Kilrush who had to drop into the VEC office in Ennis on four occasions to follow up on his application.
County Clare VEC provides a range of other services. It processes school transport applications for the 18 post-primary schools in the county. It is involved in adult and further education. It administers the Burren Outdoor Education Centre in Bell Harbour which provides a quality outdoor education experience for people of all ages. It also runs St. Joseph’s Education and Training Centre which mainly caters for Travellers.
I ask the Minister to have regard to the geography of County Clare when he reconsiders his decision not to locate a sub-office of the new amalgamated VEC in Ennis. The closure of the existing office in Ennis would cause significant inconvenience for many people. A person from Kilrush who has a query with the VEC would have to travel to Limerick, a round trip of 160 km.
We have already experienced closures in Ennis. When the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food closed its office there last year, it had an impact on farmers. We all recognise that the need to drive efficiencies is extremely important, but it cannot always be done at the expense of people.
I suggest the retention of a sub-office in Ennis would be cost-neutral because the Department owns the building in Ennis. It would make economic sense to continue the use of the facility.
County Clare always seems to be the poor relation when decisions on regional services are being made. We have already lost our accident and emergency service and our Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food office to Limerick and now we are about to lose our VEC office. I ask the Minister to reconsider his decision and learn from the mistakes of the past. The location of a VEC sub-office in Ennis to maintain some level of service in County Clare would make economic sense, notwithstanding the problems being faced by the VECs and the Department of Education and Skills.
Deputy Ciarán Cannon: I welcome the opportunity to outline this week’s decision by the Minister for Education and Skills on the location of the headquarters of the new education and training boards following the Government decision to revise the configuration of VECs. As Donegal, Kerry and Dublin city VECs are not being merged, there will be no change to the location of their headquarters at Letterkenny, Tralee and Ballsbridge. Six of the new entities will have sub-offices for the foreseeable future. The Minister has decided the amalgamated north and south Tipperary board will have its headquarters in Nenagh and a sub-office in Clonmel; the Cavan and Monaghan board will have its headquarters in Monaghan and a sub-office in Cavan; the Kildare and Wicklow board will have its headquarters in Naas and a sub-office in Wicklow; the Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim board will have its headquarters in Castlebar and sub-offices in Sligo and Carrick-on-Shannon; the Galway city and county and Roscommon board will have its headquarters in Athenry and a sub-office in Roscommon; and the Waterford city and county and Wexford board will have its headquarters in Wexford and sub-offices in Waterford and Dungarvan.
A single headquarters location has been designated for each of the remaining seven new entities. While staff will be expected to move to the new location as soon as is feasible, sub-offices will be maintained in the immediate short term to facilitate the mergers. The amalgamated Cork city and county board will have its head office within the greater city area of Cork; the Meath and Louth board will have its headquarters in Drogheda; the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire board will have its headquarters in Tallaght; the Laois and Offaly board will have its headquarters in Portlaoise; the Carlow and Kilkenny board will have its headquarters in Carlow; and the Longford and Westmeath board will have its headquarters in Mullingar. The newly merged Limerick city and county and Clare board which has been referred to by the Deputy will have its headquarters within the greater city area of Limerick. In arriving at these decisions the Minister considered a range of factors, including the need to ensure VEC headquarters would be in locations that, to the greatest extent possible, facilitated staff redeployment under a redeployment scheme within the context of the Croke Park agreement and the need to operate at lowest cost having regard to the accommodation available in existing locations.
It is important to note that the offices of the three specific VECs mentioned by the Deputy are within a 45 km radius of one another. Consequently, there is no barrier to redeploying staff under the Croke Park agreement and no requirement for sub-offices in these cases.
I am sure the Deputy will appreciate that the main purpose of the VEC rationalisation is to bring about greater efficiencies. This goal can be realised, in part, by reducing the number of offices used by VECs. In the circumstances, the Minister is satisfied that the optimum headquarters location for the newly merged VEC is within the greater city area of Limerick. I expect staff in Ennis will move to the designated headquarters location as soon as is feasible. A sub-office in Ennis will be maintained in the short term to facilitate an orderly merger.
Deputy Pat Breen: I do not want to compare County Clare with other counties that have sub-offices. That is not what I want to do. However, I am astonished to learn that many other counties will have sub-offices. When one considers the geographical size of County Clare, one realises that Loop Head, for example, is 80 or 90 miles from Limerick. That long distance can be compared to the distances involved in some of the places where sub-offices have been established. I will not name any of them. While I am glad that the Ennis office will be maintained in the short term, I hope we can make a case for maintaining it in the long term. County Clare VEC owns its state-of-the-art two-storey office building which was refurbished a few years ago. The office is ideally located and has car parking facilities. As I said, the VEC provides a number of other services also. Perhaps more optimal use could be made of the building to provide more educational services. Given that the Ennis office will be retained on a short-term basis, perhaps the Department of Education and Skills might consider retaining it as a sub-office on a long-term basis. I am delighted the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, is here. He is lucky enough because there will be a sub-office in Nenagh.
Deputy Alan Kelly: It is a full one.
Deputy Pat Breen: The amalgamated VEC which will be based there will cover a single county. Perhaps some influence was brought to bear along the line in that case. I hope I can use my influence to convince the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, of the need for an office in Ennis to deal with the provision of education services in County Clare which have been eroded for far too long.
This can be done in a cost-efficient way. We own the building and now is not the time to sell it. County Clare VEC has a strong and good reputation in dealing with education and this service is badly needed in the area. All I want is a sub-office to deal with some of the day-to-day queries while the main office in Limerick deals with other issues. I appeal to the Minister to take a fresh look at the matter, in particular in regard to the economic aspect, to ensure we can keep a sub-office in County Clare.
Deputy Ciarán Cannon: I thank the Deputy once again for outlining the case for the sub-office. I point out again that Clare and Limerick are not unique in having an arrangement in place where there is one headquarters and no sub-office as there are six other entities across the VEC structure in a similar situation. The decision not to have a sub-office in each of these seven locations was driven by the fact of the redeployment distance of 45 km. I note the three existing VEC headquarters in the Clare-Limerick region were all within 45 km of one another, so staff redeployment was not going to be an issue. This was the main driving force behind the decision not to retain a sub-office in Ennis.
Deputy Breen is correct to point out that the staff in Ennis and in every other VEC headquarters across the country are doing excellent work in serving the needs of the people they encounter on a daily basis. I have every confidence this work will be able to continue throughout the new locations. From the initial two meetings of the SOLAS implementation group, which is overseeing the merging of further education and training and we hope, will turn a significant new chapter in Irish education towards the end of next year when SOLAS finally becomes live, I am sure the significant information and communications technologies that will be