The head of the Department of Education does not know if Co Cork Vocational Education Committee intentionally misled it over leases it entered into without the department’s prior permission.
Department officials have met VEC acting chief executive Joan Russell and others over the issue which was highlighted by the Irish Examiner last week.
The department’s secretary general Seán Ó Foghlú told the Dáil Public Accounts Committee that, subsequent to the meeting on Feb 13, officials have written to ask the VEC to clarify a number of matters in relation to the lease arrangements.
CCVEC entered two leases in 2008 and 2011 in relation to property in Mallow without the approval it should have had from the department. The property was bought by Mallow Credit Union for the VEC in 1996 and a Youthreach centre was built there, with plans that CCVEC would buy it outright at the end of the initial lease in Dec 2011.
However, in 2008, the VEC surrendered the right to own the building and adjoining land where a childcare centre had also been built. It entered a new lease agreement and was approved for a €430,000 loan from the credit union, its landord on the site, in the same deal. It revised the lease in 2011 when it decided not to draw down those funds.
Dublin South East Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy asked Mr Ó Foghlú if he thought the VEC intentionally misled the department on the lease arrangements.
“I don’t know whether it was intentional or not. Obviously we were given wrong information at some stages in this process and we are seeking to get clarification,” he said.
Mr Murphy asked what level of concern he had in relation to the operation of CCVEC, as the latest matter follows the emergence a year ago about irregularities at its Macroom Youthreach centre. These included payment of about €60,000 for more than 1,000 un-timetabled tutor hours, payment of teachers for non-teaching work, allowances paid to learners who were not eligible for the project and additional travel allowances being paid.
Mr Ó Foghlú said the department had been given a number of clarifications on the issues and is waiting for the VEC’s proposals on seeking to recoup the allowances paid to ineligible learners.
“Clearly, there have been a number of governance challenges in relation to the VEC which they are engaging with us to seek to address. We would be anxious that they assure us that they have revised and upgraded systems in place to ensure these don’t occur,” he said.
“Both of the issues in relation to Macroom and Mallow go back for a number of years. So yes, I do think there was a breakdown within the VEC in terms of the reporting arrangements and so on.”
He said updates are also awaited from CCVEC in relation to some personnel-related issues and whether it plans to refurbish or destroy a sailing boat it was gifted. The Omar B was being used for a training programme for early school leavers since 2003 but was taken off the water in 2007 and has been costing money to keep in storage.
Mr Ó Foghlú said the department does have the option suggested by Mr Murphy of sending someone into the VEC to investigate matters more deeply, but the outcome of the various issues has to be understood before considering such a move.
Picture: Acting County Cork VEC chief executive Joan Russell has met with department officials on the issue.
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