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 Header Item Ambulance Service Provision (Continued)
 Header Item Student Grant Scheme Administration

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 835 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Billy Kelleher: Information on Billy Kelleher Zoom on Billy Kelleher] With a tweaking of legislative proposals or statutory instruments, Dublin Fire Brigade could be brought within HIQA oversight in meeting HIQA guidelines.

Deputy James Reilly: Information on Dr. James Reilly Zoom on Dr. James Reilly I understand the concern of Deputy Lyons about what is an excellent service and anything he construes as impairing it. Far from it; this is designed to improve the service. It may transpire that the report will make unexpected findings which Deputies in this House are presupposing. It is not fair to compare an urban service like the one in Dublin with rural services in the light of the distances that must be travelled, the number of hospitals available and the density of population. A review is taking place and let us await its outcome. We will revisit the issue at that point and give everyone in the House the opportunity to engage. The ambulance service in Dublin is a critical part of infrastructural services within the city and has a long and proud tradition. I do not want to see anything interfering with this. I am a believer in not accepting the status quo if something can be improved and there is no service that cannot be improved. There is unanimity on this point. It is an excellent service which has nothing to fear from a review other than seeing how we can improve it further. Therefore, let us not prejudge the outcome.

Student Grant Scheme Administration

Deputy Paul J. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter and the Minister for being in the Chamber to take it. This issue has come to my attention in the past few weeks and concerns students who have applied for third level grants. I will give details of three cases in which people were awarded grants and then had them taken back in different circumstances which was upsetting for them and their families. I acknowledge that we know about the difficulties SUSI had when it was first set up. With the assistance of the Minister, the kinks in the system have been ironed out and it is working much better this year. Students who have contacted me are being paid on time, which is welcome. When I heard about the first student in the past few weeks, I thought it was unfortunate; then, on hearing it had happened a second time, I thought it was unlucky; but on the third occasion I thought a pattern was forming. When I ran it by some of my colleagues, I found it was happening across the country. I do not have the exact number which might be quite small, but it should not be happening.

The first case involves a student in Galway who received a grant in first year. The grant was paid up to Christmas in second year, but after Christmas it was no longer paid and the student was not notified that it had been stopped. When he went to see what was going on, he was not given straight answers as to why he was not receiving the grant. When he received an answer, he was told he had been receiving the back to education allowance, which came as a surprise to him because he had never sought, applied for or qualified for it. It was used as a reason he was not receiving the grant. I cannot understand why he had the grant taken from him after it had been awarded to him.

The second case involves a student from Galway who is studying in Limerick. He was told in 2012 that he would receive full fees and a maintenance grant. Some months later he found out that he was only receiving the contribution fees for a course that finished in 2013. He did not have the money in the first place, which was why he was looking for the grant. He cannot pay the full fees to the college which is withholding his qualification until they are paid. He has qualified but not in the eyes of the college. It is remarkable.

The third case involves a student from Galway who is in St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra and who was informed in writing by SUSI on 17 October that his grant had been awarded. He received an e-mail from it to this effect, but he was then informed on 17 December that the grant had not been awarded and that the fees would not be paid. He is halfway through the year and was proceeding in the belief he was receiving full fees. He is another student who cannot understand why he does not now qualify. This is causing great anger, frustration and concern for students and their families who believed they were financially safe for the year ahead. I am worried and concerned that this is happening on a wide scale. I understand there are issues with applications, but in every one of these cases SUSI had informed the students that they would receive the grants for which they had applied. We now find ourselves in a situation some months later where the grants have not been paid. This is causing great concern and anger and must be brought to a head.

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. The project to establish a single authority for student grants was of a very significant scale within the education system. It required the enhancement and development of systems, management and governance structures and new ways of working in order to progress the realisation of benefits both for grant applicants and the Government. Although very considerable challenges were experienced in the initial year of operation, a comprehensive review enabled the identification of key improvements to be addressed and a focused programme of development was implemented.

Additionally, a major benefit in having a central database of information in a single awarding authority is that it enables efficient electronic data sharing with relevant authorities of income and other data necessary for a speedier and more effective processing of applications. For example, SUSI now has data sharing arrangements in place with the Department of Social Protection, the Revenue Commissioners and a range of other bodies. On occasion, these arrangements have highlighted discrepancies between the information SUSI has to hand on specific applications and the relevant data received from these other authorities. Section 24 of the Act allows an awarding authority to recover moneys from an applicant where it has been demonstrated that he or she was not entitled to receive a payment.

I understand from SUSI that as part of its ongoing internal examination of the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of its operation, quality checks are conducted at both grant award and payment stages on an ongoing basis. Where it is discovered and confirmed, following a reassessment of an application, that such discrepancies show that an applicant is, in fact, ineligible for grant assistance from SUSI, this is communicated to the applicant and the award is withdrawn. While any inconvenience caused is regrettable, SUSI endeavours to identify such issues at the earliest possible stage. The Deputy will appreciate that, in the context of SUSI having received in excess of 69,000 applications in year one, some errors inevitably arose in handling such a high volume of applications within a relatively short timeframe. For its second year of operation in 2013-14, SUSI has continued to make significant improvements to its systems and procedures to streamline the grant application, processing and payment process. There will be an ongoing focus on this work in 2014 to achieve ongoing improvements.

The Deputy has brought to my attention three cases, of which I was not aware. Without reservation, if he can demonstrate that a person was clearly told by SUSI that he was entitled to and was receiving a grant and that if he, in good faith, made arrangements and commitments, he will not be penalised in the way suggested in my reply. If it is bona fide, the cost will have to be carried by SUSI. If there was misinformation and SUSI stated to a student who had applied for a grant that he or she qualified for it and would receive it, the obligation rests on SUSI, irrespective of what might be said. I will explore the matter with the Deputy and perhaps he might give me the full details.

Deputy Paul J. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton I thank the Minister for the last element of his response, which is the most important. I will supply the details of the three cases. I would not have raised them if the students had not been told they would be receiving the grant. If a student is not deserving of a grant, that is another matter. The initial problem in SUSI was in getting payments out, but now they are being made a lot quicker. Mistakes can happen, but it is disturbing for families who have been told they will receive a grant and then do not receive it. I welcome what the Minister said and will supply him with the details of the three cases. I hope this is not widespread and that SUSI can focus on this issue in order that no student or family will have to deal with this situation. I hope we can bring the three cases to a positive conclusion.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I thank the Deputy for bringing the matter to my attention. Some 42% of third level students are receiving some grant. The amounts of money involved are substantial. If the fault in administration is clearly seen to lie with SUSI, not the applicant, the responsibility lies with it to make good on its promise and certification. It may need to change its procedures in this respect, but the Deputy has brought to my attention something of which I was not aware. We will investigate the matter.

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