Court rules Minister had no power to terminate allowances of VEC chief executives

Judge says Minister did not violate Croke Park Agreement in their redeployment

Dr Katie Sweeney. Photograph: Collins/ Courts

Dr Katie Sweeney. Photograph: Collins/ Courts

 

A High Court judge has ruled that the Minister for Education had no power to terminate a €12,500 annual allowance paid to two Vocational Education Committee chief executives.

However, Mr Justice Gerard Hogan also ruled that the Minister had not violated the terms of the Croke Park agreement in the manner in which the redeployment of those chief executives had been organised.

Mr Justice Hogan found the Minister’s June 2012 revocation of the transport liaison officers’ allowance in the case of the chief executive officers of Mayo and Galway VECs was unlawful.

The State had argued it was entitled to revoke the allowance as administering the school transport scheme had not been part of the role of chief executive for some two years.

The case was brought by Galway chief executive Seosamh Mac Donncha, a former GAA president, and Mayo chief executive Dr Katie Sweeney. They are on annual salaries of some €100,000 and claimed the axing of the allowance would affect their pension entitlements.


VEC reorganisation
Under the Government’s plans for reorganising the VECs, Dr Sweeney also claimed she faced being “ousted” from her present position and reassigned while Mr Mac Donncha claimed he would be taking over the running of three counties for no extra remuneration and a 300km commute.

The case arose against the background of the Government’s plan to abolish the country’s 33 VECs and replace them with 16 educational and training boards.

Mr Justice Hogan said we live in “hard and stirring times” and that while the State felt obliged to examine the continued utility of almost all items of public expenditure with a view to ensuring the public finances returned to equilibrium, the validity of the termination of the transport liaison officers’ allowance had to be governed entirely by legal considerations.

While the Minister must consent to the relevant employment terms for chief executives including remuneration and allowances, the legislation unambiguously assigned the role of determining the terms and conditions of the chief executive to the local VECs, he found.

In this case, there was no evidence to show the relevant VECs had taken any decision to terminate the allowances for the chief executives, he said. Instead, the decision was clearly taken by the Minister for Education.


“Absolutely no role”
It was clear from the express terms of the Vocational Education Committee (Amendment) Act 2001 that the Minister had “absolutely no role” in terminating the allowances or otherwise varying the terms and conditions of the employment of chief executives, Mr Justice Hogan added.

It was plain the purported termination of the allowances by the Minister was unlawful.

In finding that the Minister had not violated the terms of the Croke Park agreement in how redeployment of VEC chief executives was organised, the judge said the agreement did not confer a legitimate expectation on chief executives and was predicated on the existence of sufficient flexibility and a commitment to change on the part of employees.

Pending the enactment of the Education and Training Board Act 2013, the plaintiff chief executives remained undisturbed in their posts, he said.

A 2012 circular on the proposed categorisation of the new training boards with new salary scales was not an unlawful executive attempt to circumvent the legislative regime existing before the coming into force of the 2013 Act.