Adjournment Matters

Third Level Grants

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, for taking this matter. The issue I wish to raise is not a transport matter but one that has created problems for people living in my area in County Kilkenny.

In the last budget announced in December the qualifying distance between home and college for the payment of a non-adjacent grant was increased from 24 km to 45 km. This issue affects not only people living in County Kilkenny but also others living in counties such as Roscommon and Leitrim. We do not have third level facilities in the county. The closest facilities are Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology. Perhaps it is time the south east had a university, for which the Minister of State might lobby. It is the only region that does not have a university. The problem is that Kilkenny city is within 45 km of both Carlow and Waterford; thus, people living in Kilkenny will not qualify for a grant to attend a third level institute. This has caused and will cause hardship for families in my area. Parents will either have to pay for transport daily, provide a car or transport their child to and from college.

Some 7,515 people are unemployed in County Kilkenny. According to CSO figures, some 1,283 of the people concerned are under the age of 25 years. A well educated young population would help in reducing the level of unemployment in the county. However, we do not have a third level institute and the rate of third level participation in the county is one of the lowest. In the most recent study of participation rates in third level education, 2004 being the last year for which figures are available, County Kilkenny was far down the league table of counties. The research study has found that the county ranked 19th in admission rates to third level, lower than County Carlow, and 18th in admission rates to universities. The absence of a third level facility in the county is regarded by many as a crucial reason for its lower than average participation rates in third level education. The changes to the grant rules made in the last budget are likely to have an adverse effect on the participation rates.

During the Celtic tiger years many young people might not have been interested in going on to third level. We had construction and service industries, but many of the jobs in these sectors have been lost. The only way we can help our young people is to educate them to allow them to become highly skilled. In Kilkenny, the problem is that the distance was changed from 24 km to 45 km. If one lives in Kilkenny, one must attend college in a major city — Cork, Dublin, Galway or Limerick — to get a full-time grant. One cannot stay close to home and go to, for example, Waterford Institute of Technology or Institute of Technology, Carlow. Will the Minister of State ask that the rule be examined?

In Kilkenny, 1,283 people under the age of 24 years are on the live register. Given the economic climate, we do not want this figure to increase because young people cannot access third level education. Parents are at the pin of their collars trying to educate their kids. If the grant is removed, the number unemployed will increase. Will the Minister of State consider reversing the change to 24 km?

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn. I thank Senator O'Neill for raising an important matter. He referred to a change to the student grant schemes announced in budget 2011 by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government, which increased the qualifying distance criterion for the non-adjacent rate of grant from 24 km to 45 km.

I understand that a number of issues were taken into account in arriving at this decision. The over-arching need was to find savings to manage additional cost pressures arising from a significant increase in the number of students qualifying for grants, a proportionate increase in the number of students qualifying for higher rates of grants and payment of the student service charge on behalf of grant holders. As a consequence, an increase in the qualifying distance criterion for the non-adjacent rate of grant formed part of a package of measures to achieve these savings.

I understand that the justification for this decision was that the existing qualifying criterion was in place since 1968 and no review or change had taken place since that time. This was despite the improvements to transport facilities and road networks and better and more cost effective travelling options that have altered commuting practice more generally in society over that time.

The fourth round of the Irish Eurostudent survey relates to the 2009-10 period and provides information on where students live. The statistics indicate that some 45% of all full-time students choose to live in their own or their parents' homes during term time, yet some 77% of grant holders are currently on the higher non-adjacent rate. The recently published DIT "Student Cost of Living Guide" for the 2011-12 period, which provides students with information on costs for rent, utilities, food, travel, books, socialising, and so on, shows that the likely cost for a student living in rented accommodation is almost twice the cost involved for students living at home. This is why the non-adjacent rate of grant is designed to assist with the costs of living away from home.

Regarding the distance set, 45 km was deemed to take account of a fair and reasonable radius in which students could be expected to commute on a daily basis. This distance criterion is in line with the Croke Park agreement for the redeployment of public servants. I also understand that, if the approach were not taken to target grant reductions in areas where student's costs were genuinely lower, a far deeper cut than the 4% introduced for all grant levels in January of this year would have been necessary. The potential impact of this on all students, particularly those on the lowest incomes, was taken into account.

In general, it was considered that none of the changes in budget 2011 would result in a student losing a grant. Those living further than 45 km away will obviously continue to get the non-adjacent rate of grant and those with particularly low incomes will still qualify for a top-up. Others will receive a grant level reflective of their circumstances. The Senator will also be aware that €5 million for the student assistance fund has been made available to help students in a particularly difficult situation. The Minister regrets that he is not in a position to reverse this or any of the changes to the student grant schemes made by the last Government.

Rail Network

I praised Ministers for attending the Seanad to debate various Adjournment matters and I hope they will continue to do so, but they may be busy tonight. While I am delighted that the Minister of State is present, I hope Ministers will not forget about or get bored with appearing in the Seanad.

The Navan rail line is an important infrastructural issue, not only for Navan town or County Meath, but in terms of access to the north west. Last year, we were delighted when the first phase of the Navan rail line opened, resulting in 20 trains per day each way between the M3 Parkway Station and Dublin, passing through Dunboyne. In recent years, Iarnród Éireann has done a considerable amount of work in extending the rail line between the M3 Parkway Station and Navan. Numerous consultation events have been held, the attendees of which found them to be helpful and useful. I pay tribute to Iarnród Éireann for the extent of its public consultation.

A preferred route has been identified and the public in County Meath and the north east is waiting for a railway order to be presented to An Bord Pleanála in order that the next stage of the process can go ahead and people can look forward to the railway line coming to Navan. However, serious concerns have emerged in County Meath, particularly in light of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar's review of spending on new road and rail projects. Many commentators and many people living in the area believe this review might mark the beginning of the end for the project.

My party's intention is to fight for the project. We delivered the first stage, proving the project can be done, and we intend to put as much pressure on the Government as is required to ensure the rest of the job is done. Recently, the Minister has refused to engage with the local authority and the local community. We appreciate that there is a spending review and that we are in straitened times, but we still have a capital budget and choices will need to be made by the Government. We want it to make the right ones in County Meath. The former Minister, Mr. Martin Cullen, received a cross-party delegation, which led to the first phase being opened. However, I understand that the current Minister has refused to engage. In terms of his review of these projects, it would be helpful were he to engage with the local community.

I would be delighted if the Minister of State said the project was going ahead or if there was an announcement. I expect neither, but I press the case for this crucial project.

I am taking this Adjournment debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, whose Department has responsibility for policy and overall funding in respect of public transport.

Following the establishment of the National Transport Authority, NTA, in December 2009, the implementation and development of infrastructure projects in the greater Dublin area, such as phase 2 of the Navan rail line, comes under the remit of the NTA. The Government recently announced a comprehensive review of capital spending, which is now under way. The review will examine capital proposals across all sectors of the economy to establish a set of priority projects and programmes that will support economic recovery and provide new employment opportunities. The results will form the basis of a new national development plan, NDP.

The preparation of the new framework requires that the Department review all existing projects and programmes. As part of the review process, all agencies funded by the Department have been requested to make submissions supporting their programmes and setting priorities in a scenario of reduced allocations. Submissions have recently been received from the NTA, the Railway Procurement Agency and Iarnród Éireann regarding public transport projects. These submissions are being examined by officials and will inform the Department's conclusions on the capital review.

Fundamentally, the review will need to take account of new funding realities. A major priority will be to ensure funding to protect and maintain investment made to date and to maintain high safety standards. This will of necessity restrict the funding for new projects with only those offering the highest return having any prospect of being prioritised. A clear decision on the development of the Navan rail line will be made in the context of the new NDP, which is expected to be published by September. Until such time as this decision is taken, it would be premature to comment further on the future development of the Navan railway line.

I would like to comment on phase 1 of the line from Clonsilla to Dunboyne, which opened in March 2010. This line, with half hourly services and a large park and ride facility at Pace, offers commuters a viable alternative to the private car. Substantial progress has recently been made regarding the opening of the station at Hansfield and it is now expected that the station will open in early 2012.

That was a disappointing reply. The Minister of State refused to make any commitment on the Navan rail line. He points out that, while consultation with various bodies is under way, there is none with the area's public or elected officials. I urge the Minister of State to plead with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to meet his colleagues. Four of the county's Deputies are in Fine Gael and have gone on the record to support the plan. The rest of us want to push the process onwards. The Minister should meet the elected politicians, the community and the local authority to see the determination of the people of County Meath for the project to go ahead. I urge the people of Meath to inundate the Minister over the summer before a decision is made. It is the only way to get the project done.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 29 June 2011.