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Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019: Committee Stage (Continued)

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 980 No. 4

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Joe McHugh: Information on Joe McHugh Zoom on Joe McHugh] The purpose of my proposed amendment to section 14 of the 2011 Act is to allow the Minister to prescribe classes of persons after a detailed evaluation of factors has been assessed. The proposed new section 14A.(1) will give the Minister the power, where he or she "is satisfied to do so", to prescribe a class of person after he has "consulted with the Higher Education Authority", secured "the consent of the Minister for Finance" and considered the policies and principles set out in the proposed new section 14A.(2). The policies and principles in question include matters such as "whether there are reciprocal arrangements in place with the" third country, "the development of skills .... in sectors of the economy", "the nature and level of the qualification", the "resources available" and "any other matters which in the opinion of the Minister are proper .... having regard to the objective of enabling persons to attend courses of higher education".

  The use of the word "may" in the proposed new section 14A.(1) is appropriate in this context. The use of the obligatory word "shall" would require the Minister to prescribe every third country which reaches the threshold provided for in the legislation. Given the cost-increasing nature of any decision to prescribe a new class of person, it would be inappropriate for the Minister to be required to prescribe this in this way. It would also mean that the Oireachtas would not have a clear line of sight over the potential implications of what we are enacting and to which countries it could apply. Finally, there would be a clear conflict between the obligatory term "shall" and the governing policies and principles which the Legislature is using to curb the Minister's powers. The final decision must be in our interests. The decision on the class of person must rest with the Minister of the day. It is important to point out that discussions on the common travel area are at a very advanced stage. This means the arrangements we have today are the arrangements we will have post Brexit, regardless of whether there is a no-deal Brexit or a deal is reached. The common travel area will override any of this in that instance.

  Amendment No. 38, in the name of Deputy Funchion, relates to the operational aspects of processing applications for payments delivered by an awarding authority such as SUSI, which is a business unit of the City of Dublin Education and Training Board. It is a memorandum of understanding. It is not underpinned by legislation. It is a service level agreement. There is already provision within the Student Support Act 2011 for SUSI to outsource certain functions. In this regard, the City of Dublin Education and Training Board has engaged the services of an outsourced provider, Abtran, which provides a call centre and document management services for SUSI. If the need arises, it will be possible to increase the resources provided by this company to meet any potential peak in demand. In addition, SUSI's staffing model provides a certain degree of flexibility regarding the recruitment of temporary staff to meet peak demands during the grant processing season. If the need arises, it will be open to SUSI management to reallocate resources to meet its operational needs.

  I appreciate that the objective of the amendment is to ensure there are resources which must be in place to deliver very clear messages to all applicants for SUSI supports, and specifically for those who are seeking to study in the UK or UK citizens who are seeking to study in Ireland. I agree fully with this. I am particularly conscious that any changes in the area of student finance can lead to uncertainty. Clearly, I want to avoid that. My Department will continue to consult SUSI to ensure adequate resources are in place to deal effectively with the level of queries that may arise from students who feel they will be affected by Brexit. As I said earlier, the option remains to adjust resources if required. If there is any weakness with regard to the equal treatment of the existing arrangements, obviously we have a duty to make sure it does not persist.

  The Government is very committed to clear and precise communications on all aspects and impacts of Brexit. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recently updated its content on Brexit, and specifically on the common travel area. In addition to using its own social media and communications outlets, the Department of Education and Skills will update materials on its website on specific educational issues as they arise. In seeking to reassure the Deputy, I want to communicate very clearly that Irish students will continue to be eligible for SUSI supports while they study in the UK and in the North, and that Northern and UK students will continue to be eligible for SUSI grants while they study in Irish higher education institutions. I assure the Deputy that in line with the spirit of the amendment, I take her intervention very seriously. If there are any weaknesses or shortcomings in this service, or if resources are required to ensure information is provided through a helpline, I have already spoken to my officials and we remain vigilant in that regard. I have confidence in the services provided by SUSI. It is already providing a very professional service. When it was first established - I think it was in 2012 - there were many complications. Everyone in this House was trying to figure out how it would work. We are not talking about SUSI as much as we used to because it is providing an absolutely excellent service. I want to acknowledge it for that.

  Tá leasuithe Uimh. 39 and 40 curtha chun cinn ag an Teachta Thomas Byrne. Tá mé cinnte go mbeidh leanúnachas i gceist i ndiaidh an common travel area. Nuair a bheidh an aontú sin déanta, beimid in ann socruithe cinnte maidir leis na blianta i ndiaidh 2020, 2021 agus 2022 a dhéanamh. Ní bheimid ar ais san áit ina bhfuilimid ag smaoineamh ar céard a tharlóidh an bhliain seo chugainn agus an bhliain ina dhiaidh sin. Mar atá ráite ag an Teachta, tá sé déanta don bhliain 2019-20. Tá mé i gcónaí ag labhairt le mo chomhghleacaithe sa Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna mar gheall ar an gcinnteacht atá i gceist sa réimse seo. Tá an comhaontú idir an Bhreatain agus an tír seo ar son an common travel area thar a bheith tábhachtach. Táimid ag éirí níos cóngaraí i gcónaí. Tá an comhartha ar deireadh an líne maidir leis an gcomhaontú foirmiúil atá i gceist fosta.

  I welcome Deputy Thomas Byrne's contribution on leasú Uimh. 39. While the SUSI scheme is statutory and is distinct from the free fees initiative, which is an administrative scheme, I acknowledge that the two are inextricably linked and share common eligibility criteria, including residency and nationality criteria. Amendment No. 39 would have the effect of preserving an entitlement to access the free fees initiative, with UK residency continuing to be counted and UK citizens treated similarly to those in other EEA countries, including Switzerland. Amendment No. 40 would require the Minister to produce a once-off report at the end of this year on the position of UK or Irish students who are resident in the UK or Northern Ireland regarding the free fees initiative. Deputy Byrne mentioned the thinking of the officials. With regard to timing, if it comes at the end of the year, it will be very close to the start of the new academic year in September. Having said that, it could be argued that neither amendment to the Bill is strictly necessary given that the free fees initiative is administrative in nature. I recognise that the overriding objective of the amendments is to provide long-term clarity for all concerned.

  D'ardaigh an Teachta Thomas Byrne an cheist sin sa Teach seo cúpla mí ó shin. Ba mhaith liom cé chomh tiomanta is atá sé i dtaobh an ábhair seo a aithint. Nuair a bhí mé i mBéal Feirste cúpla mí ó shin, chas mé le cúpla tuismitheoir a bhí ag iarraidh orm céard a tharlóidh i mí Mheán Fómhair na bliana 2020 nó 2021. Glacaim leis go bhfuil leanúnachas agus cinnteacht thar a bheith tábhachtach. I have made it clear from the outset that the common travel area will address many of the concerns in the education sector. This includes the question of SUSI grants and the maintenance of the current EU fees system for Northern Irish and UK students. Agreements between my Department and the UK Department for Education on these principles, as well as wider policy issues at other levels of education, have been reached. Discussions are now focusing on framing these agreements within a memorandum of understanding. I hope that a meeting between the Secretary of State for Education and me will be convened in the next few weeks with a view to signing the memorandum of understanding. I am also happy to commit to the publication of a report by the end of the year. Neither amendment is contrary to Government policy. They reflect our desire to maintain the status quo post Brexit. Given that amendments Nos. 39 and 40 do not conflict with our approach, I intend to propose their acceptance by the House.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne Zoom on Thomas Byrne Cuirim fáilte roimh an tacaíocht ón Rialtas don dá leasú atá curtha os comhair na Dála agam. Tá mé sásta go bhfuil an tAire ag rá go bhfuil siad ag teacht le polasaí an Rialtais. Ní raibh mé in ann a leithéid de ráiteas a fháil ón Aire aon uair a chuir mé ceist air. Tá mé sásta go bhfuil sé ráite ag an Aire anois. Tá mé buíoch den Rialtas go bhfuil siad ag tacú leis an mholadh seo agus go mbeidh sé sa dlí. Má éiríonn le leasú Uimh. 39, beidh mé sásta gan dul ar aghaidh le leasú Uimh. 40 mar ní bheadh aon ghá leis an tuarascáil sa chás sin toisc go mbeadh an dlí athraithe. Chuir mé leasú Uimh. 40 isteach ar eagla nach mbeadh leasú Uimh. 39 glactha.

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