Dáil Éireann - Volume 654 - 14 May, 2008

Priority Questions. - Education Schemes.

Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will change the qualifying criteria for the back to education allowance; if so, when she will implement these changes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18884/08]

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: My Department provides a wide range of second chance education opportunities to facilitate people on certain social welfare payments to improve their skills and qualifications and, therefore, their prospects of returning to the active workforce. The back to education allowance is one of these second chance education opportunities schemes. It is paid at a standard weekly rate equivalent to the [346] maximum rate of the relevant social welfare payment that qualifies the applicant for participation in the scheme. It essentially replaces his or her existing social welfare income and in addition an annual €400 cost of education allowance is payable. This will be increased to €500 from the beginning of the academic year 2008-09.

To qualify for participation, an applicant must be in receipt of a relevant social welfare payment and be at least 21 years of age prior to commencing an approved course of study. However, lone parents and persons in receipt of unemployment payments can qualify at 18 years of age provided they are out of formal education for at least two years. In general, an applicant must be in receipt of a relevant social welfare payment for six months if pursuing a second level course or 12 months if pursuing a third level course.

People who are awarded statutory redundancy may access the back to education allowance scheme immediately, provided an entitlement to a relevant social welfare payment is established prior to commencing an approved course of study. In addition, people who are participating in the national employment action plan process may qualify where a FÁS employment services officer recommends that pursuance of a third level course of study is essential to the enhancement of the individual’s employment prospects.

The current scheme has been subject to review and modification over the years to ensure it continues to support those people who are most distant from the labour market and whose need is greatest. I will continue to monitor the scheme but I believe that, overall, the back to education allowance scheme continues to meet its objectives and ensures that limited resources are targeted at those who are most in need. Any further changes that may be found to be required would have to be considered in a budgetary context in the light of the total amount of resources available to me for improvements in social welfare generally.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: The Minister has always claimed to be an advocate of equity of access to education, including in her last portfolio. Does she intend to change the eligibility criteria to include low paid workers, to whom this question really relates? Does she realise current Government policy is forcing people to seek the jobseeker’s allowance for one year in order to qualify for the back to education allowance?

Is the Minister aware of the disparity in regard to payments? If one is on a full grant, one gets approximately €4,100 but if one is in receipt of the back to education allowance, one gets over €25,000 when everything is included. If one is on the minimum wage at €8.65 for 40 hours per week, one gets €346 per week. However, if one is in receipt of a social welfare payment with everything included, one gets €347 per week. In effect, there is €1.21 in the difference. How is that equitable? Why is the Government intent on maintaining a policy that penalises low income earners and prevents them from participation in education?

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: This is a very positive scheme given that 8,090 people are currently availing of it. Some 3,359 people are participating in second level education while 4,731 are participating in third level education. It is very much targeted at those in receipt of social welfare payments. The scheme is specifically for such people and not for those on low incomes. People on low incomes who qualify for third levels grants would probably qualify for the top-up grant as well. This scheme was designed to get people out of social welfare, with which the Deputy will agree.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: It is forcing people back into it.

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: It is designed to ensure that it gives people the opportunity to go to education which would open the door for them to employment. The fact that more than 8,000 [347] people are benefiting from the scheme means we are definitely targeting those on the live register as more than 5,500 of those people are on the live register. There are no plans to extend the scheme to those on low incomes.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: People are on the live register because this policy is forcing them on to it. If they stay on the minimum wage, they cannot get this allowance. The Minister is right that it is targeted at those on the live register. People are coming to my clinic, and I am sure to other people’s clinics, and the only advice one can give them is to go on the live register because they will then be able to avail of this payment. They simply cannot afford to go to third level if they are on the minimum wage.

I am disappointed the Minister will not change this scheme. I urge her to reconsider because this policy forces people to seek the jobseeker’s benefit in order that they can avail of the scheme. If the Minister really believes in equity of access, she should re-examine this scheme. Many groups, including the Combat Poverty Agency, have called for a change. It seems the Minister does not appreciate the importance of this and the difficulties someone on the minimum wage faces in trying to get back to education.

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: The commitment to the scheme is shown by the fact that €70.8 million is being spent on it. It is important there are schemes targeted at people on social welfare. That is not to say there should not be other schemes targeted at people on low incomes. Part of the programme for Government seeks to ensure a free fees initiative for part-time courses.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: That is not in place.

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: It is part of the programme for Government. We are only one year into the programme.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: The Minister’s party has been in government for 11 years.

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: This is a new initiative, which is also part of social partnership, to try to target those who did not get an opportunity to participate in third level education. It was piloted in Tallaght Institute of Technology last September and it will be extended in the autumn. It will specifically target the people about whom the Deputy spoke, namely, those who did not benefit from higher education, who are on low incomes and who would not be in a position to give up those low incomes but who would be in a position to do part-time courses. That is a separate scheme which would target those people.

We support people on low incomes and try to get them into education. However, the back to education allowance scheme is targeted primarily at those on social welfare and at trying to get them out of the trap which keeps them on social welfare.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: It forces them back into it.