Ceisteanna – Questions (Resumed). Priority Questions. - Summer Jobs Scheme.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

88 Mr. O'Dowd asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the reason he has abolished the student summer job scheme; and the alternative scheme he intends to introduce to provide income support for less well-off third level students during the summer months. [3842/03]

The student summer job scheme was first introduced in 1993 to provide income support for less well-off students who were disqualified under social welfare legislation from receiving unemployment assistance during the summer months. The scheme allowed students to take up part-time work useful to their community and to receive payment for this work.

When the scheme was introduced, unemployment levels in Ireland were among the highest in the EU and students found it difficult to obtain work during the holiday period. In the past five years, however, the take-up has dropped significantly from 13,500 in 1998 to only 4,600 last year. This decline reflects the greater and wider availability of alternative and well-paid summer jobs in recent years.

In view of above and in light of the financial pressures on my Department, it has been decided to discontinue the student summer job scheme. I have, however, requested the area based partnerships to consider alternative measures to assist students from disadvantaged areas in finding suitable summer employment.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Although the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, said in 1993, when the student summer job scheme was introduced, that the purpose of the social welfare system is to direct resources at those who are most in need, and in view of the fact that the parents of about 1,800 students who were on the scheme last year were on social welfare, why is he depriving people who come from the most disadvantaged section of our community of the opportunity of benefiting from the scheme? While the Minister for Education and Science is attacking the students' parents and crucifying them by removing the grants for third level education, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is attacking the students from the weakest part of the community and depriving them of the right to work for their community.

The Minister of State is correct in his statistics regarding the take-up of the scheme. On the eastern seaboard, there is certainly a significant drop to single or double digit figures. However, along the southern and western seaboards, Mayo, Donegal, Cork, Galway and Kerry have very significant numbers of students working on the scheme. For instance, Mayo had nearly 600 last year and Donegal had 500. Galway, the county in which the Minister's constituency is located, had 354 and Kerry had almost 500. The fact that these students are working for hundreds of community groups must be considered. Every GAA hall, parish community, social club and school is using these students during the summer for very useful and valid social projects. What the Minister is doing is shameful and unacceptable in the extreme.

The policy of the Government is to focus resources, as far as possible, on disadvantaged students. I agree with the Deputy in that regard, but we might differ on the issue of how one does that. We feel the student summer job scheme is not appropriate and its popularity has diminished hugely in recent years.

I accept what the Deputy said regarding the take-up of the scheme. However, take-up has declined hugely on the western seaboard as well. He mentioned Donegal and Galway. The figures pertaining to Donegal have, over four or five years, dropped from just under 1,200 students to just over 500. The figures for Galway and other places have dropped significantly as well. Many students from Dublin, including my own son, go down to Galway to work, drink or whatever for the summer, and therefore the notion that there is no work on the western seaboard is entirely false.

I agree that the Government's aim is to target resources at those who are most disadvantaged. Resources are being put in, mainly by the Minister for Education and Science, and there is a review being carried out to determine the best way to target people in disadvantaged areas and encourage more of them into third level education.

Does the Minister agree with his most senior executive, the Secretary General, who said "the student summer job scheme provides income support to less well-off students—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

It is not in order to quote during Question Time.

I apologise. Why does the Minister disagree with the advice of his Secretary General, who strongly supported the scheme and said it was "good value for money" and good for communities? Why is he taking it away now? I accept that numbers have dropped, but the drops occurred when the economy was doing extremely well. It is not doing as well now. People can say what they like, but the western seaboard needs jobs, community action and support. By getting rid of the scheme, the Minister is depriving the communities concerned of a very valid and important resource.

The scheme was introduced to stop students from benefiting from social welfare and getting unemployment assistance. It was a way of giving them an income and making them work for that income, which is socially good and progressive. Research shows clearly that students, particularly those from low income families, are dropping out of third level education, particularly in the UK. Students from low income families are going into debt to stay in college, but the Minister is depriving them of an employment option that was deemed acceptable, useful and proper by all sides of the House.