Thursday, 8 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
1. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if the holiday earnings disregard is applied to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, for SUSI applicants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36806/21]
I want to know if the holiday disregard of €4,500 will be applied to the PUP payment to create equity. If students were working as they normally would, they would get disregard. I want to know before I leave here today if this disregard is going to be applied and that at a minimum €4,500 would be disregarded.
I thank the Deputy for the question. The student support scheme is a critical financial support for students participating in higher education. As of earlier this week, Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, had received almost 74,000 applications from students. To date, almost 53,500 applications have been assessed, with more than 47,000 deemed as eligible for support for the next academic year. As in any statutory scheme, a core principle is that there is a consistency of approach and equitable treatment for applicants as part of the means assessment process. This applies to people who are dependent on different types of social protection payments. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has been treated as reckonable income since it was introduced in March 2020. Income from the Covid-19 payment, therefore, has the same standing and is treated in a similar fashion to other Department of Social Protection payments, such as jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance. This means that a student or family on the PUP should be treated in the same way as a student or family who are dependent on jobseeker's benefit or allowance.
The holiday earnings disregard does not apply to these social protection payments and, therefore, it would not be fair, equitable or, possibly, legal to apply a different approach to the PUP. However, an important feature of the scheme is the change of circumstance provision. If an applicant has experienced a change of circumstances during 2021, they can apply to SUSI for their application to be assessed or re-assessed under a change of circumstances. Such a change in circumstances will clearly include no longer being in receipt of the PUP. Students will no longer be able to receive the payment from early September, in line with normal circumstances where students do not qualify for unemployment payments while at college. Therefore, no students will miss out on the SUSI grant as a result of them being in receipt of the PUP because they will not be receiving it from September onwards. I know entirely what the Deputy is trying to get at. It is a very important point that she is trying to highlight, in not wanting someone to have lost out because they received the PUP. The fact, though, that a student will not be in a position to receive the PUP from September means they will qualify under the change of circumstances for the payment to be disregarded.
Please take it from me that the exceptional circumstances are not working. People and families who were in the same financial position last year as they are this year are being excluded by SUSI, which is unacceptable. I understand in terms of social welfare, disregards, and uniformity across the board, but we are in a global pandemic. We have made all kinds of exceptions. We have put through emergency legislation and everything else. Why are students being singled out? The Minister is putting money in their pockets with one hand and taking out twice as much with the other. The same issue applies to medical cards. I spoke to a mother yesterday evening whose son had lost his medical card because of PUP. If students had known at the beginning that if they accepted PUP, many of them would be excluded from medical cards and SUSI, they would never have taken that payment. The payment is directly connected to employment.
There are crossed lines of communication here, so let me be clearer. Full-time students will not be in a position to receive the PUP from September. Therefore, they will be entitled to have their SUSI application assessed as though they have not received the payment. That is the purpose of the change of circumstances. I met my officials as recently as yesterday on this. I acknowledge that Deputy has pursued this matter in a number of occasions and it is important. If students were going to receive the PUP beyond September we would have the issue of which the Deputy speaks, but because students are not going to be eligible to receive PUP from September, all of them will qualify to have their SUSI application reassessed under the change of circumstances with their PUP payments not factored in.
I will arrange for SUSI to provide a briefing for Oireachtas Members on this. I will also arrange for SUSI to communicate directly with students and put information directly on their website in respect of this. Our intentions are the same. No student will lose out as a result of them receiving the PUP.
Basically, the Minister needs to communicate with SUSI. People who are applying at the moment are being told that they are over the limit. They need to know. Parents and students need to plan now as to whether they can afford to go to college and continue their education. Waiting until September and hoping that everything will be okay is going to delay and clog things up. Parents and students have enough worries as it is, without being excluded from this. Dealing with SUSI, in terms of change of circumstances, is not as simple as the Minister portrays. We are in such exceptional times that there should be an exceptional blanket at a minimum of €4,500. Why can that not be done? I know the Minister referred to social welfare norms but, because it is an exceptional payment, surely there is some mechanism between the Minister’s Department and SUSI for it to be done.
Not to surprise the Deputy, but I am doing more for students than she has asked me to do. Not only are we going to put in a disregard of €4,500, because full-time students are no longer entitled to the PUP from September, if they apply for the change of circumstances, that will mean their application will be reassessed without their PUP payment being calculated as part of it. SUSI has kept on additional staff. The Deputy probably knows that SUSI takes on staff for certain periods. It has extended that period to deal more students who will use the change of circumstances this year. The change of circumstances is a well-established procedure. We have seen that it can operate at scale. For example, last year or this current year, more than 10,000 applicants declared a change in circumstance. Approximately 40% of those were related to Covid-19. However, I take the Deputy’s point about this needing to be simple and straightforward for students. It needs to be well-publicised and well-advertised. I will arrange for SUSI to provide a briefing for Oireachtas Members on this and, most importantly, to communicate directly with students, through student unions, their websites, etc, on how they can available of this. However, I genuinely believe that the change in circumstances route will address the issue the Deputy highlighted.