Adjournment Debate. - Examination Fee Increases.

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.

I have listened with much interest to Deputy Horgan. Bearing in mind that he is a member of the Opposition, his attack on the Minister for Education for raising the fees for the various certificate examinations is understandable. I do not like looking back. There is a certain virtue in it but it is not my nature to go back too far. I am quite sure, in deference to the fickle utterances, the expressions of a situation where nothing has to be paid for, dearly loved by Deputy Horgan, he would not have dismissed from his mind that during the reign of the Government to which his party contributed there were similar percentage increases.

My information is that in respect of the increases for 1976, percentagewise, they were higher than some of those now proposed. I hope Deputy Horgan, who was then in a greater position of influence, went on record as having castigated that Government for indulging in the savage increases he talks about now. If he tells me that the record is there to show that then I will be much impressed by his sincerity. If he tells me that there is no record of his having uttered feelings similar to those expressed now, I can only accept that he is doing no more than enjoying the facility given to a person in the Opposition to be as irresposible as he has been and as neglectful of the circumstances which gave rise to the imposition of fees.

Did the Minister complain about them from this side of the House at that time?

Yes, and I gave an indication, unlike the Deputy, how the position might be remedied. I suggest that if the Deputy does not wish to have them he must not want examinations. I admit, as an educationalist, that I would like a situation, where we do not have any of the existing examinations. Unfortunately, nobody has come up with an alternative and we accept that examinations are necessary. If we accept that we must accept that the costs which go with them are necessary. We accept, in respect of the teachers and examiners, that they have to be paid. I am sure that Deputy Horgan was in the forefront when the teachers and examiners looked for increased fees in respect of the services they give in those examinations. I am quite sure he knows that examiners and superintendents, who come in the main from the ranks of second level teachers, have been agitating in recent years for large increases in remuneration and have threatened that they would not act unless the rates were substantially increased. I am sure the Deputy did not criticise the Minister for Education when in 1978 and last year he gave substancial increases to the teachers and examiners. I think the Deputy was mute and that his silence then would have indicated his agreement with the fact that the Minister, having examined the situation, had agreed that the teachers, the examiners and superintendents who act in respect of all the examinations to which he has referred were entitled to increased fees.

Deputy Horgan does not interrupt to say that he objected: therefore he accepted. He has accepted that there is need for examinations, for examiners and superintendents and he has not objected to the increases which the Minister gave in 1978 and 1979 to those people. I noticed his phrase that if the Government cannot get the money in some other way than by increasing the fees they should not be in the business at all. He did not give the slightest indication of what other ways they might collect the money. I recollect that during last year and this year when people were marching the streets people who understandably were uncomfortable about and in disagreement with increases which had occurred in general taxation, Deputy Horgan's voice was not heard to say that those people were in wrong in withholding from the general pool, out of which he now wants money paid, certain moneys which normally went into it.

Put the wealth tax back on for a start.

If Deputy Horgan suggests the imposition of the wealth tax will cover all the area of social endeavour and social concern which is his, I fear the community will benefit very little from it. The Deputy gave us examples of his inescapable logic, as he called it, when he said that in respect of 1979 he noted that there was a sum accruing to the Department from examinations of £620,000. He suggested that, ipso facto, there was a great gain to the Department out of which he implied part of the increases given to the teachers could be paid. If I tell the Deputy that in respect of 1979 the total cost to the Department of administering the examinations and paying the increased fees to teachers and examiners and increased allowances to superintendents cost the Department £2,436,000, I give him a perfect example of what he describes as his inescapable logic. There we see a net loss to the Department bordering on £2 million.

He gave us the amount of £1 million accruing to the Department in respect of 1980 and again his inescapable logic was that there was a net gain to the Department out of which the Minister could pay the increases he was giving in the general increase in salaries of teachers. If I tell him the cost to the Department in respect of administering all those examinations in 1980 was £2,888,000 he has another example of his own inescapable logic.

Finally, I would like to put this to the Deputy, whose commitment to a situation when nobody would have to pay for anything I would never question: is he serious in talking about free education? I have gone on the record in this House as saying that there is nothing free. Talking about education generally being free is a fallacy: there is nothing free. When we talk about making any aspect of it free to anybody there is an obligation on us to accept the responsibility of making somebody else pay the amount of money required.

Deputy Horgan made no reference to an alternative source of revenue. He indulged rather in the normal socialist claptrap and gave utterance to superficial platitudes which admittedly have an ephemeral gain for the persons who utter them but which mean little to anybody who has the responsibility of administering any service in the country.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 2 December 1980.