Dáil Éireann - Volume 568 - 17 June, 2003

Education Allowance Scheme.

  Mr. Penrose: I wish to share my time with Deputy O'Sullivan.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. Penrose: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for selecting this important item tonight. On behalf of the Labour Party, Deputy O'Sullivan and I want to highlight this important issue. We have brought it to the attention of the Minister for Education and Science on a number of occasions and we also want to highlight it on behalf of the many people who have contacted us.

  There is great anger directed at what is effectively a cutback in the back to education allowance, which had been highly successful. Many people feel it is an attack on a vulnerable sector which has fallen prey to Government spending cutbacks. I know the Minister has probably stood in the breach to ensure that the wild swinging axe of swingeing cutbacks that would be perpetrated by that great right-wing axis of the Ministers, Deputies McCreevy and Harney, who epitomise the “Reaganomics” view of politics in this country and who practise it with great zeal. They would undoubtedly have done even more damage if the Minister had not stood in the breach.

  I am, however, disappointed. A groundswell of anger is directed against this cutback, which is rightly perceived as an assiduous attack on the vulnerable. For many people, the back to education allowance represents an opportunity to halt a cycle of unemployment in which they might have been for a period of time. It opened up educational opportunities and offered a chance to get back to productive work. The Minister has now changed the winning formula. When something is not broken it does not need to be fixed, and there is no need for tinkering at the edges. This is [1177]another unfortunate implementation of a cutback by stealth.

  I have already referred to the Minister the case of a person whose plans were torpedoed in mid-stream. This person had a legitimate expectation of an ongoing funding stream over the 12-month cycle. This has now been cut back to nine months, with the payment for the three-month summer period gone. The holiday period payment has been curtailed and there are no longer allowances to cover post-graduate courses except those which lead to an educational qualification.

  I thank the Minister for considering the position of people studying for the higher diploma in education and similar courses. That was an important concession that was wrung from her. There are, however, technical problems arising daily as a result of this cutback, problems the Minister did not countenance when this cutback was introduced. Representatives of the Union of Students in Ireland were very unhappy the Minister failed to meet them or consult them or give them some view of the thinking in this regard. They felt it was a rushed measure. The scheme was originally designed to help the long-term unemployed, those on widow's pensions or disability allowances, to break out of the poverty trap. That is the essential area on which the Labour Party is focusing. That is why its anger is echoed here tonight by Deputy O'Sullivan in the education area and by myself as the party spokesman on social and family affairs.

  Cutting back on the back to education allowance brings huge negative effects in return for a very small saving. This was a very successful Government initiative on education. This matter must be reviewed and we strongly urge the Minister to do so. There are only about 6,800 people who qualify for the scheme. What will be saved other than a few euro here and there? If some of the tax shelters of which we have heard were to be closed off – there are 33 in operation – the money brought in could go to the Minister's Department. I know she would spend it wisely and make sure that the back to education scheme would apply to all the people currently locked out.

  Ms O'Sullivan: I thank Deputy Penrose for sharing his time with me. I am concerned, as he is, that the people who will be affected by the changes to this scheme are people who did not have the opportunity to benefit from the educational system when they were younger. In many cases they would have left school in their early teens. They would have seen the scheme as an opportunity to return to study, and they have genuinely benefited.

  As Deputy Penrose said, this was a very good and effective scheme. Because some of the people in the scheme will no longer be paid during the summer holidays and will not be able to avail of [1178]the opportunity to do post-graduate work, the cutbacks are directly affecting people who have made plans. In many cases, people would be doing voluntary work during the summer as an adjunct to their courses. I know of particular cases where people are going to developing countries or working in their own communities on a voluntary basis during the summer. They would have expected to have the back to education allowance scheme available to them. As the Minister is aware, if these people sign on the unemployment register, they must be available for work and actively seeking work. Accordingly, it will not be practicable for them. Only a very small amount of money will be saved by the cutbacks, yet they are creating a genuine deterrent for many people who did not have certain educational opportunities.

  I thank the Minister for attending the House to take the question. We are all anxious to give people this second opportunity. There are many people of our ages – I am not too sure how old the Minister is – who did not have that opportunity. They might have it now, if they were in the education system, but certainly they did not have it when we were going to school. The scheme has offered these people an opportunity to get right through the education system. It is a shame that the scheme has been cut back in this way.

  Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mary Coughlan): Ar dtús báire gabhaim buíochas le mo chomhghleacaithe as an cheist seo a cur os mo chomhair anocht.

  My Department administers a range of back to education programmes under the umbrella of its employment support services to encourage and facilitate unemployed people, lone parents and people with disabilities to return to work through the acquisition and improvement of skills and academic qualifications which will enable them to compete more successfully for employment.

  The aim of the BTEA scheme is to assist people who are unable to access the labour market because of lack of qualifications or education and who are caught up in a cycle of unemployment and disadvantage. For example, the scheme has given many people who left school early a second chance for education which will improve their prospects of getting employment.

  Following a review of my Department's back to education provisions and in light of the expenditure constraints facing us this year, it was decided that the scheme should be refocused towards people who most need additional training or qualifications to gain a foothold in the labour market. In the past, the back to education allowance scheme provided for payment to be made to persons during the summer period between academic years. However, people who had been previously unemployed often find work [1179]opportunities either at home or abroad during the summer months. In such circumstances and to ensure that resources focus on the most vulnerable in our community, it was decided that it was inappropriate to continue to pay BTEA for this period. Of course, participants in the scheme who fail to find employment during the summer may be entitled to an unemployment payment, subject to satisfying the usual qualifications. Participants on the BTEA scheme who have to, as an integral part of their course, undergo a period of work placement, work experience or research during the summer months will continue to receive the allowance for this period. I know that the chairman of the committee raised specific issues in this area and I will get back to him on the voluntary aspect of it.

  The decision affects only BTEA participants who were in receipt of an unemployment payment prior to participation in the scheme. Participants who accessed the scheme by way of a disability or lone parent payment are not affected and will continue to receive the allowance during the summer.

  I should also add that BTEA participants who intend returning to the next year of their course or progressing in qualifications will have their BTEA reinstated from the beginning of the new academic year, irrespective of whether they were employed or in receipt of an unemployment payment during the summer.

[1180]  Regarding changes in the scheme as it relates to postgraduates, I am satisfied that those in possession of a third level qualification have, generally speaking, already achieved a good level of academic attainment, which will impact positively on their employment prospects. However, the BTEA will continue to apply to postgraduate courses such as the higher diploma, H. Dip., which add significantly to a person's employability. My Department will therefore continue to support those wishing to take up a higher diploma in all disciplines or graduate diploma in primary school teaching.

  In a time of financial constraint, I want to ensure that supports are directed to those with more pressing needs. I am satisfied that the new arrangements will ensure that the back to education scheme continues to provide support to those people who are most distant from the labour market.

  With regard to the Union of Students in Ireland, their representative took the opportunity of coming in to enjoy themselves at the front door of my Department some time ago. I asked them to forward a submission to me, which I have not yet received. My officials met them and discussed the issue with them. I look forward to seeing their presentation in due course.

  The Dáil adjourned at 10.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 18 June 2003.