Fás Under Further Pressure

Fás, the state training agency, has uncovered evidence that a number of training providers are using money allocated to specific training projects to fund everything from their electricity bills to building maintenance and cleaning costs. 

Following an examination of several Community Employment and Job Initiatives programmes, Fás has highlighted a number of areas of concern in relation to the financial controls and documentation of the schemes.

Fás has been coming under mounting pressure over the practices of a number of external course providers in recent months.

In particular, Fás said certain grants were being used by course sponsors to meet other unrelated costs, including excessive insurance premiums and audit fees.

The concerns are raised in a letter from Paul O’Toole, director-general of Fás, to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee. 

A copy of the letter has been seen by the Sunday Business Post newspaper, and the concerns expressed will be examined by the committee in the coming months.

In particular, Fás has highlighted concerns about the community employment scheme, which is one of the largest jobs programmes in the state with an annual budget of €392 million.

The problems in the operation of the Community Employment Scheme could create further problems for Tánaiste and Minister for Education Mary Coughlan, whose department now oversees Fás. 

Fine Gael tried to prevent her from travelling to the US last week in order to face a series of questions about the operations of the state agency.

The scheme offers long-term unemployed and disadvantaged people temporary placements in jobs based within local communities.

The scheme is sponsored by groups, including voluntary organisations and public bodies involved in not for profit activities.

According to the letter, many large organisations which run the schemes are required to form separate companies and legal entities, and must use separate bank accounts.

‘‘This is required to ensure that public funding is used for the specific purpose it is intended for and to meet the costs of running such projects," O’Toole said. ‘‘It is not intended to meet other unrelated costs of running such projects.

‘‘Areas of concern identified included excessive insurance premiums, landlord’s electricity bills, excessive audit fees and large claims for maintenance and cleaning materials."

The letter also makes reference to so called ‘top-ups’ to wages of supervisors by other state agencies, stating that the practice was a ‘‘matter of serious concern’’ to Fás within the context of double-funding by state bodies.

While Fás accepted that the course sponsor reserved the right to pay supervisors whatever salary they deemed appropriate, an issue arose when the top-up is received from another state body.

‘‘If another public body is giving funds to the sponsor for the same person and in relation to the same service or during the same hours that are being funded by Fás, this would be of concern," O’Toole said.

‘‘Fás would be negligent by failing to request relevant information in order to ensure that this is not happening."

Wider concerns about the operation of the Community Employment Scheme have also surfaced in a recent report by Forfás, the state advisory board, which recommended major changes to the scheme as part of an overhaul of national job training programmes.

Forfás said the state needed to decide whether the programme was designed to get people back to work or whether it was a community programme. It said payments to participants should be examined to ensure that they were not a disincentive to people taking jobs.

According to Forfás, 7,736 people completed the scheme in 2008, and the cost per person was €126,000. Of the people who completed the course, Forfás said that just 44 per cent obtained employment or went on to further education.

‘‘It is considered that the employment programmes . . . are not well aligned to deliver the strategic policy response required for the new labour market environment," according to Forfás.

Fás has been coming under mounting pressure over the practices of a number of external course providers in recent months. Last week, it emerged that more than 1,700 certificates were being withheld from students because of course irregularities.

Sean Haughey, the Minister of State designated to the Department of Education, said problems had been uncovered with 54 different courses run by outside companies on behalf of the state training agency.

Haughey said 1,719 certificates had been withheld from 968 students as a result. All the courses are in the north-east.

The training course irregularities were discovered during a nationwide review. Officials found evidence of exam papers being marked incorrectly, possible manipulation of test results and other nonconformance issues.

The problems were not limited to the north-east.

(source: Sunday Business Post)