VEC forced to answer tough questions

CCVEC will no longer be able to avoid giving answers, writes investigative correspondent Conor Ryan

THIS morning County Cork VEC will be required to do what it has stoically avoided since it became embroiled in controversy over waste, mismanagement and student safety. It will have to answer questions and provide information.

The members of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee will be able to put to it, in an open forum, the misgivings others have aired but have been unable to level directly at an institution which has decided to remain silent.

County Cork VEC (CCVEC) is a public body set up by law to manage institutes of education. These include schools, creches, colleges, adult education centres and Youthreach facilities for early school-leavers.

Unlike similar public bodies it is not covered under the Freedom of Information Act and it can decide what information is released about it and when it is released.

This has meant that in the past month it has not responded to any query or question put by this newspaper. CCVEC has been given repeated opportunities to clarify issues, respond to criticism, make a statement or write a response on its management of affairs.

It did not avail of any of these options, despite the revelations in the past week that organs within the CCVEC network:

* Overpaid teachers at Macroom Youthreach.

* Allowed a rapist convicted after posing as a taxi driver in Manchester to drive pupils around without being checked.

* Stopped the bank account for another Youthreach project after concerns about management.

* Became trapped in a lease with the Diocese of Cloyne for a facility now deemed unsafe for students.

* Invested €216,000 in a education software project, lost €161,000 of this, but signed away rights to the intellectual property which were subsequently part of package which attracted €400,000 in private investment.

* Kept large amounts of uninsured cash onsite in schools.

* Funded a sail training programme while its flagship vessel was in dry dock.

VECs are public bodies. They are responsible for spending and accounting for a enormous amount of money. In the case of CCVEC it has an annual budget of close to €100m and is responsible for the education of more than 10,000 pupils.

However unlike so many other bodies it is not covered under the FoI Act.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has repeatedly said this will change and his department is in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure to resolve this.

It remains to be seen whether this only covers the work of the new combined VECs or will the existing structures be opened up for retrospective scrutiny for the first time.

Efforts have been made to prise information from CCVEC in other ways. As CCVEC was established by law in 2010, this newspaper submitted a request under the European Access to Information Directive for information on the money spent subsidising fuel.

This was neatly captured by data on its mileage expenses and was supplied by some other VECs in the country.

Meeting minutes show that CCVEC sought advice from the Department of Finance, the data protection commissioner, and the IVEA but did not release the data.

Even basic headline figures from the VECs are difficult to come by. The financial statements of CCVEC are laid before the Oireachtas, as V15 forms, but they are not released to the public and remain in the Oireachtas library for use by its members.

CCVEC’s annual report is published as a synopsis of the events rather than the detailed breakdown of spending that is standard practice for private companies.

VEC meetings can be attended by members of the public or the press. There are observers representing teachers. However, sensitive issues, such as the handling of the audit of Macroom Youthreach, are taken in committee. This means everybody but members must leave the room.

A general synopsis of committee discussions is contained in the minutes of the next meeting. However, these minutes are not accessible to the public nor are the minutes of the constituent boards of management and sub-committees released.

Following a request from this newspaper, the acting chief executive of CCVEC, Joan Russell, explained to the January meeting of the committee that minutes were not public documents.

She said they were the property of the committee and could only be inspected by the Department of Education on request. Ms Russell said they would not make minutes available for inspection.

The reluctance to open up is not simply taking place during its engagement with the public or the press.

Following the initial audit on Macroom Youthreach, which estimated that up to €200,000 of public funds may have been lost, CCVEC’s own audit committee considered its findings.

However, the then chairman of the audit committee, Humphrey Deegan, said he felt compelled to resign from his position because he was denied an opportunity to view previous audits carried out into similar centres.

Were it not for his actions the only notes that would have alerted other VEC members, who were not on the audit committee, to the affair were contained in the monthly reports of the chief executive that highlighted the fact the centre’s co-ordinator was on sick leave pending an audit.

This would, in all likelihood, have remained the case until Mr Deegan forwarded it to the Public Accounts Committee. This committee had already provided a lightning rod for problems which had failed to spark outside of CCVEC.

The initial scandal regarding the loss of €161,000 on an ill-advised computer project at Glanmire Community College was probed by the Comptroller and Auditor General. However, this only came to light when the Public Accounts Committee received an anonymous single paragraph typed note alerting them to the issue.

It had appeared as an item of discussion by the board of management of Glanmire CC and was discussed at the audit committee of CCVEC. But again it would not have been discussed at the public meeting if CCVEC had it not been brought to the attention of the PAC and subsequently reported on in the press.

Had it not been for these two issues provoking an in-depth newspaper investigation, a series of other problems would have remained hidden. Yet until this morning, CCVEC has remained silent.

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