Senator Zappone:“We need to make sure lone parents can stay in education and complete their courses”

19.02.2015

Commencement matter, Seanad Eireann, February 18th, 2015. 

Senator Zappone raised the issue relating to the changes in One-Parent-Family Payment (OFP) that impacts those lone parents currently in full time education. On July 2nd, 30,000-40,000 women will no longer be eligible to receive OFP due to the changes to OFP eligibility rules. This means that these parents will need to apply to Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) if eligible to BTEA, they will no longer be eligibile to receive SUSI maintenance grant. Without this financial support, many lone parents in full time education will be forced to drop out of education. 

Read Senator Zappone's remarks and the Minister's response below. 

welcome the Minister. I am delighted to have him respond and am hoping for a positive outcome, as he gave to Senator Brennan.

  I refer to the need for the Minister for Social Protection to re-evaluate the eligibility rules related to the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, maintenance grant for parents in full-time education who are no longer eligible to receive the one parent family payment, and transferring to the back to education allowance, are not currently eligible to keep their maintenance grant, which assists them towards the cost of child care and commuting.

  As of 2 July this year, any parent on the one-parent family payment with a child aged seven years or above will no longer be eligible for the payment. That means that lone parents who are currently in full-time education will now need to apply for the back to education allowance, which is granted on a discretionary basis. Hence, it will be up to individual social welfare officers to decide if these students will be granted this allowance, which will ultimately determine whether they will be able to continue in their studies. Obviously, being denied this grant would be devastating for anyone who has been working hard towards a degree for years in that they will be forced to drop out of their course. This is something that we cannot accept and must work towards changing. Even if they are granted the back to education allowance, they are not currently eligible to receive the SUSI maintenance grant and will only receive the fee portion of the grant.

  As the Minister is aware, the SUSI grant consists of a student contribution towards the fees and the maintenance grant. This has been indispensable for the lone parents, of whom 97% are women, to pursue their higher education goals while on the one-parent family payment. There are many women currently in education full-time on the one parent family payment and when their child moves beyond the age of seven they will be in the midst of the education, and this is impacting on them. The rate of the maintenance grant ranges from €300 to €5,915 a year and it is based on household income, living distance from the college and the number of children. It is a grant that has assisted lone parents towards the cost of child care and commuting while they are in full-time education and without that financial support most of these women will be forced out of education.

  The Minister is here on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection and I ask that reason and common sense take hold here. Good parenting tells us that children under ten years of age still need minding and cannot be left on their own while their parents are at work or in education. Their school days are short, and access to affordable after-school places is limited. That is one of the reasons I have, since the introduction of these changes, opposed the lowering of the age threshold to seven under the one-parent family payment. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection has promised that a child care system similar to what is found in Scandinavian countries would be in place before these changes take effect but that has not been acted on. I know there are movements towards that. I am very familiar with what is going on in that arena but this is where we are now, and we would all agree that we do not have anywhere near such a Nordic model of child care as a public service in this country. This is where we are now, and it will impact a number of women.

  The Minister, the Tánaiste, and the Minister of State, Deputy Humphreys, are sincere when they advocate their support for lone parents to participate in education and training. I am aware of the reform the Tánaiste has introduced in that regard, but the women I am speaking about have been hit disproportionately harder than any other segment of Irish society. They are dynamic and they are driven. They do not want to have to drop out of the education course they are in the midst of because they will no longer get a maintenance grant. I ask the Minister for a guarantee that the lone parents in full-time education would be granted the back to education allowance, without discretion, and that the rules of the SUSI grant would be adjusted to better facilitate their care duties when they move to the back to education allowance.

Deputy Simon Harris:   I thank Senator Zappone for raising this matter and apologise on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection who is not in a position to attend and who has asked me to deliver a response on her behalf.

  As the Senator will know, the eligibility rules governing the payment of a student maintenance grant are a matter for the Department of Education and Skills and are set down in its legislation. In budget 2010, the Department of Education and Skills amended the eligibility criteria for the receipt of the student maintenance grants in respect of persons in receipt of the back to education allowance and the VTOS allowance. As a result of this amendment people in receipt of the back to education allowance for all schemes, and the VTOS allowance for those pursuing a PLC course, are no longer eligible for a student maintenance grant. However, the cost of the student service charge and any fees payable to third level colleges may continue to be met by the Exchequer on their behalf. This applied to all new grant holders from the 2010-11 academic year onwards.

  With effect from the academic year 2010-11, students entering or progressing to a new course are no longer eligible to hold the back to education allowance together with a student maintenance grant. These students may continue to apply to be assessed to have the student contribution and any tuition fees paid on their behalf. The Department of Education and Skills decided to discontinue the practice of allowing students to hold both the back to education allowance or VTOS allowance and a student maintenance grant simultaneously as this represented a duplication of income support payments.

  In budget 2012, the Department of Social Protection introduced reforms to the one-parent family payment, OFP, in particular the reduction of the age of the youngest child for receipt of such payment to seven years of age. These changes have been implemented on a phased basis with the final phase due to take place on 2 July 2015 when the age of the youngest child will reduce to seven years for all existing and new one-family payment recipients. The purpose of the phased OFP scheme age change reforms is to reduce long-term social welfare dependency by ending the expectation that lone parents will remain outside the workforce indefinitely and to assist these customers to make their way into employment and financial independence. All customers who are affected by this reform will be supported by the Department of Social Protection to transition onto an alternative income support payment as appropriate.

  In regard to the education element, given that there is no work conditionality attached to the one-family payment, recipients of the payment can participate in training and education programmes and are not obliged to inform the Department of Social Protection. In some cases, such recipients do inform the Department and, where relevant, move to the back to education allowance scheme at the start of the course. Where entitlement to the payment ceases for these recipients, they can continue, and this is important, to participate in the back to education allowance scheme until their course is completed. In cases where the customer has not informed the Department of Social Protection, and they are mid-way through their studies, as Senator Zappone outlined, the back to education allowance scheme has been amended to allow them avail of this scheme at mid-course point, assuming that all other relevant qualifying criteria are met. This allows these customers to complete their course of study while also receiving an income support payment from the Department of Social Protection. If the customer has received a student grant, they are informed that they are no longer entitled to the maintenance portion of the grant. They may, however, retain eligibility for the student contribution or tuition fee portion of the grant, if applicable. The rules that determine payment of the student maintenance grant are a matter for the Department of Education and Skills.

Senator Katherine Zappone:   That is a very helpful response. I am most appreciative of that. I take it from that, first, that if they are mid-way through their education they can move automatically, as distinct from going through another assessment process.  The second point that the Minister of State is saying loud and clear is that it is a matter for the Department of Education and Science and that it has amended its legislation so as not to include the maintenance grant. That may have been done before these other changes were made by the Department of Social Protection where women are going to be left midway, by 2 July, without maintenance. We need to take a look at the Department of Education and Science being aware of what has happened in the Department of Social Protection to ensure that these women are able to stay in education which I am sure that is what the Ministers in both Departments would hope for.

Deputy Simon Harris:   I thank Senator Zappone for her comments. The Tánaiste has been very consistent in her view that she wants to help people access education, training and the workplace. The changes that have been made to the back to education allowance scheme allows a customer of the Department of Social Protection who may not have informed, nor were they obliged to inform, someone they were in study, to access the back to education allowance scheme at the mid-point in a course, which is an important change. It will mean that people who are not in receipt of the back to education allowance, but would qualify for it, can now take it up at mid-point to allow them to complete their course. I hope that is helpful to the Senator.

Senator Katherine Zappone:   I thank the Minister of State. He has been very helpful.M

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