Wednesday 17 January 2018

Tanaiste offers few details of replacement for scrapped FAS

Michael Brennan, Aine Kerr and Edel O'Connell

TANAISTE Mary Coughlan came under fire last night for leaving the nation in the dark about the effective scrapping of state training agency FAS.

Her department was unable to reveal how plans to replace it with a new agency would affect the 2,000 FAS staff or the 72,000 apprentices and workers currently in FAS training courses.

Ms Coughlan yesterday announced that the agency, which had an annual budget of €1bn and has been dogged by expenses scandals, would be replaced.

But the Government has yet to decide whether the new organisation will retain the FAS name, whether it will retain the annual €1bn budget and what new measures will be put in place to improve performance at a time when 442,000 workers are on the dole.

The new agency will be given direct responsibility for training workers and will be under the control of the Department of Education rather than the Department of Enterprise.

There will also be a linking of unemployment benefit payment with proof of job searching as the FAS employment services and career guidance role will be transferred to the Department of Social Protection.

This department will also take over the agency's responsibility for looking after the 26,000 workers on community employment schemes.

Opposition parties last night branded Ms Coughlan's announcement of the replacement of FAS in the Dail without outlining a detailed plan as "irresponsible" and said it could merely be a "rebranding exercise".

The Department of Education currently has a draft plan for the new agency which was drawn up by the FAS board earlier this month -- but it is not publishing it.

Last night, it would only answer two of 11 questions submitted by the Irish Independent about the implications of replacing FAS.

Ms Coughlan, who said earlier this month that FAS would not be scrapped, maintained again yesterday that she was not "getting rid" of it.

"It is important for the staff and for morale that we are looking at a re-energising of a training agency appropriate for the economy, and this will be done with the new board, and with the strategic plan it is bringing forward," she said.

There are around 2,000 staff in FAS. Of these, approximately 800 are in employment services which is being transferred to the Department of Social Protection.

The other 1,200 are involved in training, apprenticeship, offices, payments to trainees and other duties. Some of the trainers have been redeployed as there was not enough work for them due to the reduction in apprentice numbers.

Protected

FAS staff are protected from compulsory redundancies under the Croke Park Agreement signed by the public sector unions. The new agency will be launched early next year.

Ms Coughlan yesterday said the Government had dealt with the "governance issues" in FAS and would ensure that past problems never occur again.

She also paid tribute to FAS workers whose morale has been damaged by the revelations about the lavish foreign travel spending by former senior executives.

"I think it is appropriate that we do reiterate our thanks to people who work for FAS on the frontline, who have had a very difficult challenge, with huge numbers of people and needs to be supported," she said.

Labour education spokesman Ruairi Quinn, who recently called for the scrapping of FAS, said he was dismayed that Ms Coughlan had not provided any detail about what would replace it.

"The recent controversies in FAS have completely destroyed any public confidence in the organisation and there is a widespread perception that the agency is unable to cope with the massive unemployment crisis Ireland is currently facing," he said.

Mr Quinn also pointed out that responsibility for the new agency was being given to the Department of Education -- which had seen FAS as a rival in education training when he was a minister in the Department of Enterprise.

"It will drown FAS at birth. That was its mindset in the past and if FAS is to survive with a new name and a new focus, it has to have a willing, loving parent," he said.

Fine Gael education spokesman Fergus O'Dowd criticised the lack of detail about "any real reform" in FAS.

"A simple rebranding exercise from Mary Coughlan does not deal with the malpractice, corruption and scandal that have been at the root of FAS," he said. He said his party did not want FAS to have any role in providing training to workers -- it wanted private companies to do the job instead.

Comment: Pages 24 & 29

Irish Independent

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