I am grateful to you for having allowed me to raise on the Adjournment the matter of the savage increase in group and secondary and leaving certificate fee increases. I want to bring to the attention of the House, and through the House to a wider public, the fact that the Minister for Education, appointed by this House, is operating basically in this examination scheme a taxation system for which he has no warrant from the House, one which is open to serious question on a number of counts.
First of all, let me tell the House exactly what the scale of the increases is in terms of which I am aware. The group certificate examination fee last year was £4. This year it has been increased to £7. If my mathematics are correct that is a 75 per cent increase. Last year the leaving certificate fee was £7. This year it has been put up to £11, in my book a 60 per cent increase. I do not know what the fee was for the intermediate certificate last year. This year it is £10. I doubt very much if the increase is less than 50 per cent to 60 per cent.
This is not the whole story. These examination fees — free education how are you — must be paid by a certain date or a further late fee becomes payable. If fees are not paid by the end of this month an extra charge of £3 per child becomes payable from 1 December to 15 December, and if then for any reason the fee still has not been paid the late fee will be increased to £15. I do not have in front of me the late fee charges for last year but I have no doubt that they also represented a savage increase.
This is a tax on learning of which the Government and the Minister should be ashamed. It is the worst kind of tax because to the best of my knowledge it is not related to ability to pay. I should be interested to learn from the Minister what is his attitude and that of his Department to social welfare recipient families who have to pay examination fees in order that their children at the end of their school careers could have a certificate to show what they had done and how well they had done it.
There are 150,000 children living in families on social assistance of one kind or another. Not all of them are in school and not all of them who are in school will be in these examination classes, but I daresay a fair slice of them will be, and the Minister and the House should ask themselves seriously whether this has gone beyond the bounds. On several occasions I have tried to bring the attention of the House to the secret forms of taxation operated by Government Departments and by the Department of Education in particular. This situation makes a mockery of free education.
I stress, incidentally, that I am not saying things cannot be done: I know that the staff in the Department of Education have been known to interpret flexibly the rules in relation to dates when hardship might have been occasioned. The issue is not whether certain officials are kind hearted enough. The issue is that the fees now announced by the Department have gone beyond a laughing matter. I can give the Minister many cases. I will give him only two.
The first relates to a broken home where the mother, who has the children, is dependent on erratic payments from her husband for the children's education and welfare. She is approaching the deadline for the leaving certificate with considerable dread because, though £11 may not be much to the Minister — I daresay I could find it myself — to this woman in her situation it is simply not possible. Her child is going to a State school and out of the funds at its disposal that school cannot pay the entry fee for that child. If the deadline of 15 December comes and goes, how likely do you think it is that this husband, who has refused to pay £11, who will refuse to pay £14 by 1 December, will cough up the £26 that will be required after 15 December to ensure that his child will have a chance to sit for the State examination?
Another case I bring to the Minister's attention relates to a family in which one child is doing the leaving certificate and two children are doing the intermediate certificate. Before the end of the month, effectively this week, £31 — the take home pay of the principal wage earner is not much more than £60 — must be paid. Where is that man expected to find in one week a sum equivalent to 50 per cent of his net weekly earnings? I will now give a hypothetical case which will put this whole question in a realistic context. It is not impossible that in a family there would be two children doing the leaving certificate or the intermediate certificate at the same time. If for some reason unemployment, sickness, plain shortage of cash, the parents cannot find the entrance fees for the examinations, they will be landed after 15 December with late fees of the order of £50.
The Minister knows better than most people that in the not too distant past £50 would buy a child's entire secondary education in a Christian Brothers' school in a provincial town in Ireland. In some of the Christian Brothers' schools if you were hard up they would let you off — they would just skip a year or two. How can the Minister in conscience stand over and justify this tax? I have my suspicions as to the reason why it is being introduced without being brought before the House in any way except by me as a member of the Opposition. The fact of the matter is that in this area, as in so many other areas, the Minister has been kept so short of money by the Government that he finds it wherever he can. Everybody knows that within the past week the teachers have finalised an agreement on a salary offer. Good luck to them. They operate in an industrial arena and they have got this through industrial negotiations of a classic kind. Will the parents of the country now be asked directly to make up part of the teachers' award without any reference to family circumstances, family income or ability to pay?
In the 1980 Book of Estimates in the section dealing with secondary education we find subhead K for Appropriations-in Aid. The first item there is for examination fees for students, £1 million in 1980. I presume that this £1 million which has been put in in relation to 1980 is based on the assumption that this increased scale of fees already applies. I draw the attention of the House to the figure for 1979 of £620,000. The inescapable logic of those figures is that in this area alone, one over which the Minister and the Government have absolute control, the price of education has risen by 66 per cent. There are plenty of different pleadings for price increases by the Government but this is an area in which they cannot evade responsibility.
This is a savagely increased tax on learning, which will fall most heavily on larger families. I do not believe the Minister can be in ignorance of the fact that larger families are more frequently to be found in the lower income groups. It is a direct tax which will affect the lower income groups more heavily than the higher income groups. It makes a farce of the Minister's and the Government's continued rhetoric about equality of opportunity in education. If the Minister and the Government cannot get their money in any other way than this mean and underhand mechanism they should not be in the business at all.
I appeal to the Minister to withdraw this increase. If he is to have an examination fee at all let him peg it at a level at which it will not cause any real hardship to many families. Let him give a little more substance to the idea that education, at least up to leaving certificate level, is genuinely free for those who require it and are able to avail of it. We all know that in many respects this freedom does not exist. School uniforms, voluntary contributions, books and many other things add up to a large sum those days. The fees are the smallest part of that type of expenditure. We now have the reinforcement of another fee system, which is not operated by the schools but directly by the Department of Education, which is robbing Peter to pay Paul and is merely introducing by the back door a charge for education which everybody thought had been abolished a long time ago. It is a function of the Members of this House to draw the attention of the public to what the Minister is doing. I appeal to him, even at this late stage, to change his mind.