Adjournment Debate. - Third Level Education Grants.

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter which is of great importance to parents and students in the lower income brackets. As of now, education grants are paid at the maximum level to students in families of at least two children with a gross income of up to £10,700 and in families with three children, with a gross income of up to £11,595. Taking into account tax deductions, PRSI and so on, these are relatively low incomes. The maximum grant is £1,409 which does not represent 50 per cent of the cost of keeping a student in third level education.

On 1 June, 74,000 students will go on holidays for a minimum of 12 weeks — in the case of universities, for approximately 16 weeks. Up to 12,000 students will seek holiday work in the USA and on the Continent and it is uncertain how many can hope to secure employment in Ireland. However, it is certain that a substantial number will apply for unemployment assistance. It is most unjust to assess a student's grant as income in relation to such an application.

A large number of parents whose only income is social welfare are severely handicapped by this regulation as they are not capable of providing money to their children during the holiday period. It must be recognised that these people make a tremendous sacrifice to keep their children in third level education. To avoid hardship in 1992 it is absolutely necessary that the Minister make regulations or amend existing regulations to exempt school grants from assessment so that students who are unable to emigrate or to get employment at home are treated on the same basis as other unemployed people.

To apply, as a basis of income, the maximum grant would reduce the unemployment assistance of any such applicants by approximately £25 per week. Having regard to the inadequacy even of the maximum allowance of £50 per week, it is unacceptable that £25 a week will be taken from the allowance, taking into account also that in the overwhelming majority of cases these students will be resident with their parents in respect of which a further reduction will be made. I appeal to the Minister to consider this matter. Parents have approached me who have been seeking, for a number of months, employment opportunities for their children in third level education but without success. They are extremely concerned that should their children not succeed in finding a job, which in a certain number of cases will be the position, any social assistance they will get will be dramatically reduced. This is an injustice to the student and the parent. As I outlined earlier, it is only parents in very low income brackets, including many on social welfare, to whom education grants are paid as a small contribution at least to ensuring some element of equality in education. I urgently appeal to the Minister, before the start of the 1992 school holiday season, to implement regulations to give justifiable rights to these students.

My good friend, Deputy Michael Moynihan, has made a very passionate and strong case but I am not able to bring him any good news tonight about this matter.

Social welfare legislation provides that, in assessing means for unemployment assistance purposes account will be taken of: (i) all cash income which an applicant can expect to receive during the succeeding year; and (ii) the value of any benefit or privilege such as free board and lodgings. There are no exceptions to this requirement for any category of claimant and accordingly any income received in cash by students falls to be included in the assessment.

It is a basic condition for receipt of an unemployment payment that a claimant must be unemployed, available for and genuinely seeking work. Full-time attendance by day at a course of education is not regarded as being consistent with the notion of being available for employment as it normally involves a degree of commitment inconsistent with availability during the academic year.

The unemployment provisions of the social welfare code are intended to protect workers against the contingency of loss of employment. Students engaged in full-time studies have generally been accepted as having become part of the labour force on completion of the academic year in May or June. At that stage they are eligible to be considered for unemployment assistance until such time as they succeed in getting a job or resume their studies, provided they meet the statutory requirements and satisfy a means test.

The legislation provides that all cash income apart from certain exemptions such as social welfare payments which a claimant may reasonably expect to receive during the succeeding year is assessable as means. The legislation therefore obliges deciding and appeals officers to take note of the amount of means which applicants are likely to receive in the 12 months from the date of their application. The manner in which such income is taken into account is to take the yearly income and divide by 52.

In assessing the weekly means of students, the maintenance portion only of the education grant they received is assessed and allocated equally over the 52 weeks of the year. To assess students with nil means over the summer months would, in the opinion of my Department, be an incorrect and unacceptable interpretation of the legislation which, as I have indicated earlier, is designed to provide for persons on the labour market who are involuntarily unemployed.

The maintenance portion of the grant is not assessable where an applicant is not returning to third level studies, either on completion of a course or where they decide not to pursue a course further. Confirmation would normally be sought from the college authorities that a student had indicated their intention not to resume studies.

Students are also assessed with the benefit and privilege of free board and lodgings if they are resident at the time the claim is made in their parents' home or that of a close relative. Where students live elsewhere during the academic year this is reflected in the level of the board and lodging assessment.

For means assessment purposes, students are treated no differently from a number of other categories of claimants such as smallholders or the self-employed whose income is allocated equally over the 52 weeks of the year, although in practice it may vary considerably over the course of a year.

I do not think generally it is a good idea that students should get into the habit of signing on during the course of their academic studies because it creates a "signing on" ethos. Perhaps it is a matter for another Minister such as the Minister for Education. I cannot change the rules. To do so for students would open up the floodgates to lots of other categories and would change the whole basis of assessing means for unemployment assistance.

For that and other reasons I am of the opinion that the method of assessment is fair and reasonable and I have no plans to change it.

They do not have recourse to the education grant.

I do not think the Department of Social Welfare should be involved in this matter.