Dáil Éireann - Volume 481 - 16 October, 1997

Other Questions. - Central Grants Agency.

6. Ms McManus asked the Minister for Education and Science the proposals, if any, he has [1155] for a new central agency to pay grants to third-level students; the way in which the agency will function; when it will be established; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16579/97]

Mr. Martin: I refer the Deputy to my earlier reply to Priority Question No. 3 tabled by Deputy Richard Bruton. As I indicated, a joint working group involving my Department and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has begun an examination of various options available for the administration of the grants schemes and the possible role of that Department in any new system. I expect to have a report and recommendations in the matter towards the end of this year.

My main concern is to improve the service to the students. De Buitléir, in his report in 1995, was in favour of a centralised grants agency. Many Deputies were concerned at the time it was published that students might not have access locally to some body or institution to process their claims. I am interested in the discussions under way between my officials and officials from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. A centralised agency, a potential local network and a tried and tested appeals system were all features identified by de Buitléir in his report in 1995. I am seeking ways to implement them in the most cost effective way.

Ms McManus: I am sorry I was not in the House to hear the Minister's earlier reply. Will he clarify the timeframe he talks about? We all agree a centralised system is the most preferable one.

Mr. McGrath: We do not.

Ms McManus: I thought we did. There is a continuing demand, especially from the student body, on this issue. The situation is not very satisfactory. Will the Minister elaborate on the timeframe? Certain dates have been reported, including 1999, and it seems extraordinary it would take that long to put a system in place.

Two problems which continually arise at local level are appeals and the time of the notification of grants. All TDs have experience of them at certain times of the year. Can the Minister guarantee that, if we have a centralised system, these problems will be resolved?

Mr. Martin: I said I would have the report at the end of the year. That is our target, to have the discussions between my Department and those of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs concluded. I share the Deputy's view that it is surprising we have not had progress on this since 1995. I cannot accept responsibility for that as I have only been in office for three months. Funding was provided by the last Government in the Estimates in 1995 for a centralised grant agency, but the then Minister [1156] changed her mind and decided not to proceed with such an agency. There the matter rested and little was done in terms of implementing de Buitléir, especially on that issue.

The issues are as the Deputy has outlined. Students depend on the various local authorities in the areas in which they live, they have to wait too long for grants and there have been undue difficulties in processing grants. I like what de Buitléir devised, for example, regular monthly payments to students. When students have been deemed eligible for grants, they should receive them regularly and they should also have a degree of certainty as to when they will receive them. They should also receive them on time and there should be an independent appeals process. I acknowledge the system is not satisfactory and I am determined to improve it in the interests of students.

I do not want to pre-empt what is happening because my colleague in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs will have his views. However, it seems his Department has been modernised over the past decade in terms of computerisation. It is probably the most computerised Department and the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Woods, was instrumental in starting that process. Its service to the public has been transformed over the past ten to 15 years. It has a general income support function so there is a logic in attempting to develop a system in that context.

Mr. Crawford: I represent one of the counties with the lowest level of people attending third level. Many of the students from the area have been able to travel to the North and Great Britain and that option may not now be available to them. I want to see not only a competent central grants agency but that some of the anomalies in the grants system are rectified. For example, I had a case today where a farmer had to construct a farm building to control pollution under a section 12 notice, yet that is treated as unnecessary capital expenditure and the interest is not allowed against his income.

There are many such anomalies which I ask the Minister to examine. In another case, a county council employee was forced to work overtime because of an emergency, and this made him ineligible for grants. As a result of a major breakdown, this PAYE worker had to spend a weekend working at that, which made him ineligible for grants. There should be the same criteria for education grants as for taxation. There are 16 different levels of evaluation of people's income and one of the most difficult is that for third level education grants. It is obvious that in rural areas, such as Monaghan, where there is no alternative form of education——

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy should put a question to the Minister. I remind Deputies that this is Question Time.

[1157] Mr. Crawford: Will the Minister look at the anomalies in disbursing grant aid? We often hear about areas of difficulty in Dublin, which certainly exist, but there are also difficulties in rural Ireland.

Mr. Martin: If the Deputy gives me the details of this case I will see if the eligibility rules have been properly applied. I am conscious of many anomalies in the system. It would cost money to deal with all of them. I am also conscious of the Deputy's concerns about the implications of the Deering report on students in Border counties. The Department is working actively on this issue.

Mr. Sargent: I endorse the points made by Deputy Crawford. I also come across many anomalies. These are often spoken of in general terms but they exist and I hope the Department will try to eradicate them.

How will the proposed new central agency for paying grants work alongside the existing local authority grant structure? Will it take over from that structure or is there to be a formal arrangement so that there will not be further complications? One of the biggest problems is the delay in the payment of grants rather than access to grants. Will the new structure offer any guarantee that there will not be future delays and, if there are, is there any sanction which can be taken against those responsible if they can be pinpointed? Can the Minister guarantee that we will have this report before the end of the year?

Mr. Martin: My target date for the report is the end of the year. Consultations will have to take place with all interested parties. That relates to those working in local authorities, vocational education committees and so on.

Mr. McGrath: And elected members?

Mr. Martin: Absolutely. As a former member of a local authority I can remember at Estimates time on Cork Corporation we were always annoyed that we received the money in arrears from the Department of Education. This cost approximately £100,000 in interest payments, money which could have been useful to the authority. The solution which emerges will be dependent on a consensus being achieved in terms of a new system which will guarantee payments, bringing a degree of certainty to the system rather than the varied response to date. In fairness to those working in local authorities, they have been under a great deal of pressure because of other responsibilities. There are 74 organisations dealing with three different schemes and three different forms. This seems very cumbersome and there is an obligation on us to try to simplify this in the interests of students.

Mr. McGrath: The de Buitléir report was prepared at a time when there were 74 authorities processing grants. This was far too many. Application forms for grant aid were not published [1158] until the end of August when people had received their CAO offers. The major change which has occurred during the past two years is that the application forms are now distributed in May and processed before the CAO offers are announced. This makes a big difference in terms of when payments can be made. The major change needed is that we centralise locally rather than nationally so that there is one authority in each county processing applications. This would make for a more efficient system. Local authority members would accept this. Many will be opposed to having this function being taken from them as it has been theirs for a long time.

Mr. Martin: I acknowledge the Deputy's comments on the improvements which have taken place in issuing forms. This was a beneficial reform but there were many other suggestions in the de Buitléir report which were not taken up. When I was a member of a local authority I was not conscious of a great power or function in terms of administering education grants. The higher education grant rules are fairly definitive in terms of queries from Deputies. It would overstate the case to suggest this was a major function for local authority members.

The best interests of the students should be our main concern. I am open to the Deputy's suggestion in terms of a county organisation. I am not closing my mind to these issues other than to say that I have gone down one route to see if there is any advantage to be gained from this line of inquiry. We will not delay it. In the interim we will see what can be done to improve the existing system.