Adjournment Matter. - Students' Supplementary Welfare Allowances.

Wednesday, 20 March 1985

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 107 No. 10

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Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  The matter of which I have given you notice for the Adjournment relates to the interpretation of the criteria of qualification for supplementary welfare allowances. It deals specifically with the situation in which a number of students find themselves. To put the matter rather simply and perhaps over-simply in an uncomplicated way, let me construct a hypothetical situation. If a low income family — let us say that they can either qualify for the grant or are [1242] slightly over the limit — should send some of their children to a third level institution and manage to be able to afford that for a particular year and that student then fails the examination the position that arises is that he, of course, is under no requirement to attend lectures at the third level institution but may present himself for re-examination at the end of the year. He can receive a document from the third level institution confirming the fact that he is not required to be in attendance at any lecture. He then can register as unemployed and available for work should it be offered. The position that arises in that case is that he is now registered as unemployed and having no work. He is now perhaps living in digs or a flat or whatever and he gets into difficulty with the rent and difficulties about food.

A practice prevails in Galway that if students announce that they are students they are automatically refused supplementary welfare allowance. That is the categorical interpretation as it has been reported to me. If, on the other hand, such people said that they were simply unemployed young people, living in a flat and were not able to pay their rent or people, for example, who needed to provide themselves with some food, their applications would be successful. In other words, if they had ignored altogether the fact that they were students repeating their examinations. I have reports in front of me where such individuals were successful. This is the issue that has been raised. To the organisations involved in student welfare in these third level institutions it seems that there is some kind of arbitrary suggestion that the announcement that you are a student automatically disqualifies you for consideration under the provisions. The long, rather wordy way in which I have placed this before the Seanad may have created some confusion but I make reference to the right of individuals in these circumstances to be considered as individual citizens in their own right with the full entitlements that are available under the Social Welfare Acts and it is the suggestion of the notice that I gave that the [1243] spirit of the Social Welfare Acts is being frustrated by interpretations. Equally, the interpretations are causing hardship and needless suffering. I had the choice of dealing with each of these——

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Patrick J. Reynolds  Zoom on Patrick J. Reynolds  May I interrupt the Senator to call Senator Ferris?

Mr. Ferris: Information on Michael Ferris  Zoom on Michael Ferris  I am sorry for the interruption. In fairness to Senator Higgins, who is speaking on the Adjournment, the Minister who is taking this debate is on his way. The Minister of State, Deputy Hegarty, came in to deal with the previous motion. In fairness to him, he is not in a position to respond to this debate. Perhaps the Senator would wait until such time as a Social Welfare Minister is present.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture (Mr. Hegarty): Information on Patrick Hegarty  Zoom on Patrick Hegarty  The points the Senator was raising were so specific and detailed that I would not be competent to respond to them. In fairness to the Senator I feel that somebody should be here who would be competent to respond.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Patrick J. Reynolds  Zoom on Patrick J. Reynolds  The Minister understood that it was the Minister for Foreign Affairs he was representing.

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  I am very glad that the Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare, Deputy Pattison, has now arrived here to listen to my statement on this problem. I will try to be succinct in my summary of it. In my notice to the Seanad I drew attention to what I feel is a somewhat arbitrary interpretation of the provisions relating to the administration of supplementary welfare allowances. I am rather worried in this regard. I suggested a hypothetical situation in which a low income family who may or may not be in receipt of a grant, succeed in providing means which they transfer to the person involved to attend at university. The student then fails the particular examination. The student has now been told by the parents [1244] that they are not in a position to support him or her in the year that follows. The student is registered at the university only for examination purposes at the end of the year. He can get a certificate like the one I have in front of me signed by the academic secretary certifying that he does not have to attend lectures. He therefore registers for work and as being available for work and no work is available.

A practice seems to prevail, at least in Galway city, that where such students, who are not being assisted from home announce themselves as students they are automatically told that they do not qualify for supplementary welfare allowance. I am raising the question of the interpretation that because you say you are a student and repeating an examination at the end of the year your individual citizen's right of entitlement under the Act should not be considered. I further instanced the position where two perfectly similar cases presented themselves, one disguising the fact that he had any intention of doing an examination at the end of the year or that he had been in university previously and simply said that he was an unemployed young person living in a flat and could not afford the rent and was short of food and he was immediately granted supplementary welfare allowance. The distinction between the two cases is that one person offered the information of what his main activity was in the previous year and what it would be — hopefully — at the end of a successful repeat of the examinations. The exclusion of people on such an arbitrary basis is a wrong interpretation of the Act. It frustrates the Act.

I raised this matter on the Adjournment because I had been dealing with five individual cases. What concerned me in a number of ways is that in the reply to one student — I am referring to qualification certificate AK 12229 dated 29 November 1984 — there is a box ticked stating: “You have not given details to show that your means are not more than £2,935.40 a year. In your case this is the maximum amount of means you may have to get a qualification certificate . . [1245] ..” The problem is that this particular student had tried to get a job locally; he was studying in the evenings; he was repeating an examination in agriculture. He went to England and obtained a job as a labourer, he managed to save some money to support himself and when he returned to Galway the money was exhausted. He then started borrowing. These borrowed funds ceased. He wanted money to pay rent. He was short of money and came to see me. The local social welfare office requested him to prove he had no means. He tried to comply with their request. His suggestion of proof was rejected.

He also went to the PRSI office in Galway to get a letter of proof stating that he had not worked at any time in Ireland. He was told that as he did not work here he had no number, therefore they could not write such a letter. This is a needless “bind”. It is a problem to try to identify those people whose means are meagre and who are not being assisted from home. I accept that as a real difficulty. But the categorical and I say arbitrary decision that when a person announces himself as a student you can initially refuse him this benefit is not in the spirit of the Social Welfare Acts. It frustrates their implementation and impedes the benefit of these Acts to the people concerned.

In another case which I am dealing with the student had borrowed money. This student is Reference 3923317E. I have approximately five such cases. They indicate a certain pattern of dealing with a certain type of applicant. Rather than having a frustrating, growing file of correspondence in each of these cases, courteous but not enormously helpful letters, it is better to raise this matter here and to seek not only clarification but such direction from the Department as might straighten the matter out. If, for example, any one of these persons had the legal means to test the implementation and interpretation of the Acts in the court, I have no doubt that an individual case could succeed but I do not see why it should have to come to that.

[1246]Mr. Cassidy: Information on Donie Cassidy  Zoom on Donie Cassidy  I fully support Senator Higgins in his request to the Minister. He has highlighted a number of very serious cases. This being Youth Year I would appeal to the Minister to use his good offices to end this victimisation of students.

Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare (Mr. Pattison): Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  I would like first to explain some basic concepts which underpin the system of unemployment payments. The various conditions governing these schemes are laid down in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1981. One of these conditions is that a claimant must be available for employment. In order to determine whether the particular claimant is or is not available for employment, the deciding officer must ascertain the facts of the case as far as possible and apply his judgment to the evidence. The deciding officer must decide whether the person is genuinely on the labour market and available to take a job if one is offered to him. The point has often been made that there is little point in requiring a person to be available for work when there is little possibility of getting work. The fact, however, is that availability for work is an essential condition for unemployment payments.

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  There is a misconception here and to assist the Minister of State, may I say that the issue is not availability for work? If you register as unemployed and were available, I do not see how you could disqualify yourself by studying while you were idle. That would be the interpretation of the logical position towards which we are moving now.

Mr. Pattison: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  Yes, but there are two aspects to the question. One is the necessary qualification to get the qualification certificate but it does not automatically mean that if one gets a qualification certificate, one will get unemployment assistance. The matter has to be decided as to availability and so on. Clearly if a person is engaged on a course of study, this fact has a significant bearing on [1247] whether he is or is not available for work. Questions which would arise in the case of claimants who are engaged in a course of study would include: “Is this person truly on the labour market? What is his or her work record? What are the hours of study required? Would the student be likely to give up his studies and take a job if one were offered to him?”

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  I am not interrupting the Minister but I would like to place on record a document in relation to one of the cases. It states:

This is to certify that X (name and address supplied) is registered in this college as a first year agricultural science student for examination purposes only.

He is only required to attend for the ten days when the examinations are being held at the end of the year. This is a document signed by the academic secretary and with the seal of the college. In every one of the five cases there is a document of this kind.

Mr. Pattison: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  Yes. The answers to questions such as these will determine the position but it is obvious that each case has to be decided on its merits. Full-time attendance by day at a course of education is generally speaking not regarded as being consistent with the notion of being available for work during the academic year. Full-time students can, however, qualify for unemployment payments during the summer vacation if they are available for work and if they satisfy the other conditions for entitlement. A student engaged in a programme of studies during the summer vacation as for instance in the case of a student taking an examination in the autumn, might not, however, be entitled to payment. There are no hard-and-fast rules on this matter. Each case must be considered on its merits. The question to be determined is whether the degree of commitment to his studies by the person following the course is such as to render him unavailable for employment. There are no hard-and-fast [1248] rules to deal with the situation of an adult claimant who has been made unemployed and who decides to pursue his or her educational studies pending reemployment.

Within the limits of the existing legislation there is considerable scope for unemployed persons to engage in education courses without affecting their entitlements. Persons engaged in part-time courses, who are trying to improve their prospects of employment, would generally be able to fulfil the availability-forwork condition. My Department, while retaining the right of deciding officers to decide cases on their merits, is always prepared to discuss with educational agencies and providers of educational courses whether particular programmes would present difficulties from this point of view. This, combined with greater flexibility on the part of course organisers — which is becoming an increasing feature of educational provision — has considerable advantages in terms of giving the unemployed a greater range of options. I am satisfied that the existing approach of my Department in regard to unemployment payments and persons pursuing educational courses is reasonable and could not be regarded in any way as frustration of the Social Welfare Acts.

Decisions on unemployment claims are made by deciding officers who are independent in the exercise of their powers. Moreover, any person who is dissatisfied with the decision of his or her deciding officer may apply for a review of the case by an appeal's officer. I might say that the condition that a claimant must be available for work is basic to the unemployment schemes of other countries also and is recognised as such by the social security conventions drawn up by the International Labour Office.

The purpose of the unemployment schemes is to provide income maintenance to persons who are involuntarily unemployed. Student support is not a proper function of these schemes. The provision of income support for students [1249] is a function of other agencies. In addition to the question of availability, unemployed claimants have to satisfy the other conditions for the receipt of benefit or assistance. Since most students would not have an adequate PRSI record for benefit purposes, it is generally unemployment assistance they claim during their holiday period. This involves a means test.

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  That is a mistake I made in my presentation.

Mr. Pattison: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  In fact, if an applicant does not satisfy the means test, the question as to whether he or she is available for work does not, in fact, arise. The items to be taken into account in assessing means for unemployment assistance purposes are set out in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, 1981. One of the items which arises frequently in the case of unemployed claimants who are living at home is the value of board and lodgings. The legislation does not specify the method by which this value is to be calculated but the value of board or lodgings in any case clearly depends on the standard of living of the household and the formula which has been devised provides for assessing the value of board and lodgings in this way. The purpose of the requirement to take account of the value of board and lodgings is to achieve a degree of equity as between applicants whose parents are well to do and those whose parents are in poor circumstances. Otherwise, persons living in affluent circumstances would become entitled to the same level of assistance as those whose circumstances are poor.

I understand the Commission on Social Welfare will be examining the question of what items should be taken into account in assessing means under the various social assistance schemes and I look forward to their recommendations in regard to this item.

Aside from the value of board and lodgings any other income an applicant for unemployment assistance might have is also taken into account in accordance with the legislation. The amount of any [1250] educational grant received by an applicant is assessable as means. Similarly, any financial contributions made by the parents of an applicant who is living away from home would be assessable.

I hope what I have said clarifies matters to some extent for the Senator and in particular that I have disabused him of any notion that automatic assumptions are made by my Department in respect of any category of claimant. The fact is that every claim is decided on its individual merit. In the case of applicants who are participating in an educational course there is sufficient flexibility in the system to ensure that those who are in need and who are genuinely unemployed receive their entitlements.

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  I would just like to thank the Minister but in doing so to say that there is one problem about which I am not clear and that is in respect of the student from the circumstances I mentioned, who fails an examination and continues in the place where the third level institution is and wants to be available for work, whose parents are not supporting him or her. That person, as I have heard this explanation, because of the danger of the children of affluent families abusing the system, is not being considered. I question the legality of imputing parents' income to people who, perhaps, have broken their connection with home. Quite frankly, it is a breach of Constitution rules. I welcome the council and its recommendations. Three of these five people I have mentioned have no contact with home.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Patrick J. Reynolds  Zoom on Patrick J. Reynolds  I must say that the Senator is completely out of order.

Mr. Pattison: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  I just want to emphasise to the Senator that in cases where the applicant is a student and can clearly show that he or she is not supported, that they are living away from home and are not receiving contributions of any kind, he or she is entitled to a certificate of qualification. There will be cases where the deciding officer has to make up his [1251] mind as to whether the information is right or wrong. This has to be pursued.

I am sure the Senator has particular cases. If he gives us the necessary details [1252] of those cases we will have them looked into.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.07 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 21 March 1985.

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