Student Support Bill 2008: Committee Stage (Resumed) and Remaining Stages

Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
In page 30, subsection (10), between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:
"(b) consultations with relevant parties, and”.
—(Senator Fidelma Healy Eames).

I support the amendment tabled by Senator Fidelma Healy Eames which is a very good one. I have also been lobbied, not by the vocational education committee in my own area, although there are many distinguished VEC operations, including the Dublin institutes of technology, with which I have worked, but I believe by the vocational education authority, VEA, the group which represents all of them.

I beg the Senator's pardon.

I also thank Senator Healy Eames. The Irish Vocational Education Association naturally feels its powers, role and status are being diminished somewhat, even though I am sure it agrees with the necessity for efficiency and the way in which this will be sharpened by the legislation.

I spoke with Senator Healy Eames just before the Bill was brought before the House about the nature of her amendment and she would be happy if the Minister of State was able to accept it and, in case that he does, to insert, as she and I agreed, the phrase "including local VECs". The reason is that in an appeal it is often extremely valuable to have local information, as a centralised authority may not have the same level of local information or easy access to that local information as those directly involved in dealing with a student. I say this despite the fact that I am aware of the political realities. It may not be possible because of the disintegration of the Government for amendments to be accepted. I very much hope they will be, but even if they are not, the Minister of State might indicate his agreement with the principle and the incoming Government might address the issue by way of a brief amendment. Will the Minister of State indicate if there are practical political difficulties that will preclude him from accepting the amendment, even though he may have a degree of sympathy with it?

I thought I said in my Second Stage contribution that that was included in the legislation, that one would contact one's own VEC, be it County Galway VEC or City of Dublin VEC. If, say, a student from some part of Dublin has a difficulty in completing the application form, a person will be assigned within each VEC to help him or her as part of a consultation process. I agree with both Senators in that regard. I agree that there must be consultation, but I think it is provided for. I would like to hear the Minister of State confirm that the provision is in the legislation. I welcomed it during the debate on Second Stage.

I do not propose to accept the amendment because I am of the view that the provisions, as they stand, are sufficient to allow latitude for an appeals officer to engage in any activities necessary for the purposes of determining an appeal. This would include consultations with relevant parties.

Senator Healy Eames has said this is a minor amendment. It is so minor that it is not necessary. What the Senator is trying to achieve is included in the legislation.

The Department of Education and Skills is conscious of the work VECs have been doing and of their concerns. Meetings with the Irish Vocational Education Association and the Department are continuing and a further meeting will take place tomorrow.

It is important to outline the political reality in which we find ourselves and to which Senator Norris referred. I believe this is the only amendment that has been submitted so far. Given the political considerations, were I to accept any amendment, the Bill would fall and the Union of Students in Ireland would be most unhappy about this.

I do not think the amendment is necessary. I appreciate what the Senator is trying to do, but it is catered for in the existing provisions of the legislation.

On that basis and because the Minister of State has spoken to the amendment, if he believes the appeals person would consult locally and relevant consultation with the appropriate parties is built into the Bill, I am prepared to accept his assurance and will not press the amendment. I do not believe in throwing the House or the country into further disarray.

I thank the Minister of State for his directness and honesty. Of course, it would be a great shame and appalling if the Bill fell because it is in the interests of students. They have lobbied all of us through their representatives. The Bill must go through as urgently as possible to make things equal for students. Some students are being paid in January and others in April, although they are sitting next door to each other. The Minister of State even indicated that kind of quandary.

Even were Senator Healy Eames to put her amendment to a vote, another form of reality would come into play. We would be trounced on this side of the House and the amendment would not get through. It has no chance without the co-operation of the Minister. Of course, it would be dreadful for the Bill to fall at this stage. No one wants that to happen.

I do not believe the Minister of State is right when he says this provision is included. It is not, with the greatest of respect. The Minister of State is talking about latitude. He says local consultation is something that can be done and there is nothing to preclude it. However, it is not mandatory. It is not required and there may be circumstances in which it does not happen, to the disadvantage of students. I do not regard this as a small or trivial point but I completely accept that it is in everyone's interests, on all sides of the House, that the Bill pass today.

The Minister of State has said the provision for local consultation and consultation with the relevant parties is built into the Bill. Could the Minister of State read the section where this is stated? I do not have it to hand. It would be useful to outline the wording. There is no intention to delay. We just want to be completely clear.

I have the Bill here, if the Senator wants it.

The provisions, as they stand, are sufficient to allow latitude for an appeals officer to engage in any activities necessary for the purposes of determining an appeal. This would include consultations with relevant parties. That is what I am saying to theiiHouse.

These issues such as how the services are provided in a client-friendly way and so on can be looked at when the awarding body is in place. The Minister for Education and Skills is open to having local points of information. Arising from the discussion we have just had, I wish to clarify that issue.

May I make clear precisely what the gap is? Senator Healy Eames's amendment was to insert, between lines 5 and 6 on page 30, the words, "consultation with relevant parties, and". Section 20(10) reads:

The Minister may prescribe procedures in respect of the determination of an appeal by an appeals officer pursuant to this section and may provide for such matters as--

(a) information to be furnished to the officer and by what parties, and

(b) ensuring that the determination is made with a minimum of formality consistent with giving a fair hearing to the person making the appeal.

The subsection refers to one specific person, the appeals officer. There is no reference whatever to the involvement of local personnel, although that is not precluded. The fact that it is not precluded does not overcome the difficulty that nowhere is the sense, import or fact of the necessity for the involvement of personnel from groups such as the VEC specified. For that reason, it is important that this gap be made clear. It is a significant gap, although it is not one that will be allowed to hold up the passage of the legislation.

Will the Minister of State look carefully at this issue? It is important we progress the Bill in a spirit of consensus. The Green Party is supportive of the Bill, as I believe is everyone in the House. It would be nice, in the final days of the Seanad, if we could come to a consensus on this matter and find a solution that fits everyone. The Green Party supports the Bill's overall purpose, which is to allow a great simplification of the support services for students and to introduce a more simplified way for students to be paid their grants. Senator Healy Eames will attest that every September in Galway we get calls from people who are not sure what to do or to which group they should apply.

The calls continue until January.

Senator Healy Eames is being sensible here and I ask the Minister of State to look carefully at her amendment. Overall, the Bill is one we should all support.

We are dealing with section 20, which provides:

The Minister may prescribe procedures in respect of the determination of an appeal by an appeals officer pursuant to this section and may provide for such matters as--

(a) information to be furnished to the officer and by what parties, and

There is reference to information being furnished to the officer. I do not have much further to say. There is not much separating us on this issue. The record of the House will speak for itself regarding the views of the House on this matter.

May I make one final point to assist the Minister of State and provide some degree of support? Section 20(1) reads:

An awarding authority shall designate such and so many members of the staff of the authority as it considers appropriate to be appeals officers under this section and a person so designated shall be an appeals officer for such period as the authority may determine.

The legislation does contemplate more than one appeals officer. One assumes that, especially if they take cognisance of this debate, the members of the authority will be sensitive to the local conditions. I suggested there was only one appeals officer. That is the case, but the authority has the opportunity to appoint several. There will not be one national appeals officer. That leaves some room for manoeuvre. Considering this debate, I hope the authority will be sensitive to local conditions. One assumes it will be logical for its members so to be.

That also would be my wish.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 20 agreed to.
Sections 21 to 30, inclusive, agreed to.
Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

This is an historic moment in the lives of students. The Union of Students in Ireland and many students nationwide have looked for this Bill at least since I first entered the House and next month it will have been published for three years. Consequently, today, 25 January 2011, is a good day for student support. The entire purpose of the Bill is to make life easier for students. It is to make their learning easier by freeing them from the obligation to worry about the processing of grants. Unfortunately, they still may not always qualify but at least they will be facilitated more easily. In this context, I am delighted that Members included the conversation, with the help of Senator Norris and others, on the connection between local and national or regional and central, which is highly important. I commend the Minister of State on securing the passage of the Bill before the dissolution of the current Dáil and Seanad because had this not happened, it would have been a crying shame. Ar aghaidh libh le chéile.

I commend the two Ministers who were involved, namely, the Minister of State who is present and the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills. I also pay tribute to the staff of the Department of Education and Skills who have worked very hard on this and the civil servants who are in attendance and who were in a position to supplement the advice given to the House by the Minister of State and to answer the questions put forward in a highly professional manner. As the lifetime of this Seanad comes to an end, it is good that Members have been in a position to do something as positive as effect the passage of the Bill today. It undoubtedly will be welcomed and goes straight to the practicalities of the living conditions of students and is highly welcome. Seanad Éireann played a significant role because Members from all sides, including me, have prodded the Government on this issue for a number of years. It has taken many years and a large number of professional reports and there was a danger that the advice contained in such reports once again would be left gathering dust on the shelves. I am glad to have taken part in this highly positive debate on legislation in Seanad Éireann.

I wish the Minister of State well and I am glad this legislation has been passed. The Labour Party had several amendments ready and I had been reflecting on whether to table them in recent days. The House had an interesting debate on Second Stage and great contributions were made from all sides, as well as some suggestions regarding possible amendments that would improve the legislation. However, recognising the political reality and the futility of so doing, I decided not to table them. It would have been interesting to have had that further debate which can only be brought about and teased out through the tabling of amendments but that was not to be.

Now that the legislation has been passed, I look forward to its speedy implementation. These changes must be made quickly and in time for the forthcoming academic year, 2011-12, to prevent students being left on tenterhooks any more. This practice must be ended and we must move forward in a progressive way. Students cannot be left without knowing whether they can proceed with their education, as this simply is not on. In the current economic position with no available jobs and forced emigration, all barriers, including the barrier Members debated in the context of this Bill, must be removed from young people or mature students either getting an education or getting a second chance at an education to prepare for the upturn that all passionately hope will happen sooner rather than later. I wish the legislation well and thank the Minister of State and his senior Minister and officials for the part they played.

I am delighted to note that peace has broken out in the Seanad, this is very important. I congratulate the Minister of State, one of the few remaining, on the passage of the Bill.

For another few weeks.

I also thank the many others who have been involved in its passage, including the public servants and those who have been involved in drafting and lobbying. As Senator Norris rightly noted, this is legislation in which the Seanad can take pride. Senator Healy Eames spoke very eloquently and while I look forward to doing battle with her in due course, for the present it is great to join her and other Members to ensure the passage of the Bill. I come from Galway, a university city — both Senator Healy Eames and I come from that neck of the woods. This will make a huge difference to people in many ways. I look forward to receiving fewer calls this year from students who do not know to which local authority to apply or what exactly to do. The point made by Senator Ryan to the effect that while it is one thing to pass legislation, the key point is to ensure its speedy implementation, is valid and the election should not distract the public servants from ensuring this legislation is definitely enacted. There is work to do and I hope it is ready for the start of the academic year in September next and that students this year will find life to be a little easier, even though it unfortunately is clear that less money will be available to students.

The point has been made by the Green Party and many other parties that education is the cornerstone of our society in many ways. One will look to the next Government to ensure that many young people will not be obliged to emigrate and will be able to find jobs at home. A key method of so doing in the past that also will be relevant in the future is to ensure that people can graduate from university and that they acquire the highest possible level of education. This legislation certainly will help to ensure this is the case. Members and many others have raised issues pertaining to the Bill to the effect that more needs to be done in respect of mature students in particular, as well as back to education allowances and so on, to ensure matters do not deteriorate further in this regard. However, this step is highly welcome and on behalf of the Green Party, I congratulate the Minister of State and all involved.

I compliment and congratulate the Minister of State and the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan, for processing this legislation so quickly through the various Stages towards completion in this House. I also thank the staff with whom, together with the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, I have had many discussions during the initial debate, because I was uneasy about some aspects of it. However, my concerns were clarified satisfactorily. This Bill is well thought out and the associated problems were teased out and their existence was acknowledged. If I might put on a hat from a previous existence, as a guidance counsellor I dealt carefully with many students and at times found the entire system to be highly convoluted and unmanageable. I did not know whether I should go to the VEC or the local authority, as I did not know who had control or power. When the appeals system was introduced, it was a nightmare for many students. The Bill provides for a simplified process.

I am glad we have reached this stage and very pleased, particularly as an educationist, to be associated with one of the last Bills to be passed by this Seanad. It is good that we have been able to do something huge for the young population who want to return to education and mature students who want to pursue lifelong learning. There will be an opportunity under the Bill to facilitate the flow and movement of students in third level.

Implementation of the Bill is important and should be completed quickly. There should be no obstacles place in its way. A number of issues were aired today and on Second Stage. While they are covered in the Bill, I hope its implementation will not cause problems for staff in the transition from the current convoluted system to a unified system. A lot of administration work has yet to be done. I hope it will be done speedily to make implementation easy for students to understand.

We have done great work today. With students, I am delighted the Bill has been passed.

I thank all of the Senators who contributed constructively to the debate on this important Bill. I thank them for their co-operation in allowing it to proceed as speedily as possible. I again acknowledge the co-operation and support of stakeholders in this process, including student representatives and grant awarding bodies, for the proposed programme of change. The Bill provides an opportunity to put in place a more modern, transparent and coherent system for the organisation and operation of student grant schemes.

I thank Members and the staff of the Houses for their co-operation in taking the final Stages of the Bill today, which is greatly appreciated. I also thank my officials who have put a lot of work into the Bill and on occasion had sleepless nights.

A number of questions have arisen on Fifth Stage. It is intended to introduce the unified grants scheme for the 2011-12 academic year and work is under way to this end.

It is intended that the single grant-awarding authority will come into operation on a transitional basis in the 2012-13 academic year for new students not in the system. The Bill was originally drafted to allow the grant administration function to be performed by 33 VECs in line with the transforming public services agenda. A Government decision was subsequently taken to develop a single grant awarding authority. Until the Bill was sufficiently advanced to reflect this significant change, it was not possible to set up such an authority. An expression of interest process is under way and by the time the single grant awarding authority is selected, there will only be a period of one year in which to put in place the necessary structures and resources to do the job properly. That explains the delay in finalising the Bill.

This is one of the last Bills to be passed before the general election. I am conscious that I made my maiden speech in the Houses of the Oireachtas in 1987 and this may be my last speech in the Seanad, but who knows what lies in store for all of us? I am delighted we have been able to pass this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.