Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Back to Education Allowance Appeals
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, for coming to the House. I look forward to hearing his comments on the plight of a constituent of mine in Dundalk. The lady in question obtained a third level qualification in 2000. Unfortunately, after working for several years she was made redundant and has been on jobseeker's allowance since then. Commendably, she decided that rather than sit at home and do nothing she would go back to college to pursue a further education course. She applied for a course but was refused the back to education allowance because the qualification she holds at present is higher than the course for which she had applied in Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, in September. I understand the reasons for the decision and that is not in question. However, she was also refused the student grant from SUSI. The decision is under appeal at the moment. As a result, the lady concerned has had to leave the course she started in September with high hopes. She has been forced to leave the course and return to the dole queue as she has no other income. I commend the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, on the work she is doing with JobBridge in the area but I also understand the situation the person in question is in at present. She wishes to improve her education and increase her job prospects but the system does not seem to allow for that.
Currently, people are thankfully more aware of mental health issues. It is important that we take the mental health issues of such people into consideration. This lady wants to work. She wants to improve her education and is totally despondent at having no other option but to go back on the dole. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could pass on my concerns to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, and ask for a review in situations such as this to ensure that people wishing to return to education, even if the qualification is lower than the one they already hold, are entitled to supports to ensure that they can improve their education. This lady is being penalised for being too highly qualified in the first place. If she had no third level qualification she would have qualified for the back to education allowance. I understand that if the qualification one holds is higher than the current course then one does not qualify for the allowance, but the system should provide for assistance in such cases because of the many people in a similar situation to the case I have outlined who want to come off the dole queue and improve themselves in order to get a job. I accept there are systems in place but we must examine the situation outlined whereby this person applied for a course and began to attend a college but was forced to leave it and go back on the dole queue.
I thank Senator Moran for raising this issue. The Department of Social Protection has estimated expenditure of more than ¤960 million on employment supports in 2012. This substantial expenditure, which is against a backdrop of significant fiscal consolidation, underlines the Government's commitment to enhancing support for activation and assisting people return to employment. As outlined in Pathways to Work, the Department will offer job placements, work experience, training and education initiatives to 85,650 people in 2012.
Included in the supports available is the back to education allowance, BTEA, scheme which is a second chance education opportunities scheme designed to remove the barriers to participation in second and third level education. A person wishing to pursue BTEA will have to satisfy a number of conditions such as being a certain age, in receipt of a prescribed social welfare payment for a specified time period, pursuing a full-time course of study leading to a recognised qualification in a recognised college and progressing in the level of education held by the client with reference to the national framework of qualifications among others. The BTEA scheme covers a large range of full-time courses of education in approved colleges spanning basic foundation courses to third level courses across all disciplines.
As the Senator outlined, the Department received an application for the back to education allowance from the person in question. The application was refused on the grounds that the course did not lead to a higher qualification on the national framework of qualifications than that already held. The person concerned was notified in writing of the reason that she did not so qualify. The BTEA guidelines are in the main in line with the mechanisms in place for student support-type schemes administered by the Department of Education and Skills. Progression in education is a condition which is not unique to BTEA, indeed State support for education purposes is grounded on a student progressing from one qualification level to a higher one. That is necessary to ensure displacement does not occur, in that courses could be offered to students who are not progressing at the cost of students progressing from a lower education level.
Resources allocated and numbers supported via BTEA have increased steadily in recent years. It is estimated that more than ¤200 million will be spent on BTEA in 2012, compared with the position in 2008, for example, when just over ¤77 million was spent on the scheme. Some 25,700 participants were supported in the 2011-12 academic year which represents a significant 120% increase compared to the 2008-09 academic year. It is expected that numbers availing of the scheme for the current academic year will be similar to last year.
If a person wishes to pursue a part-time education course they may be able to do so while retaining their jobseeker's payment under the part-time education option, PTEO, of the back to education programme. An example of courses that may be pursued under the PTEO are the 6,000 part-time higher education places for unemployed people made available under the Springboard initiative announced earlier this year by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. In addition, the Department also supports the provision of a wide variety of training through networks of private sector companies, in a range of sectors and regions, supported by Skillnets Limited via the PTEO.
It should also be noted that FÁS, as the national training authority, anticipates the needs of, and responds to, a constantly changing labour market. It strives to do this through the provision of tailored training programmes that suit various needs and access to many training programmes is not determined by a person's welfare status. The Department is currently reviewing a wide range of activation supports available to DSP customers, including BTEA, and it is the intention to canvass the views of stakeholders as part of the implementation process resulting from the review.
I am afraid that the response does not progress the query I have any further. Perhaps I should also outline that the lady was refused the student maintenance grant because she was in receipt of jobseeker's allowance, but she was not in receipt of it because she had to forgo it in order to go back to education. The current appeal process for SUSI, which I accept relates to a different Department, has meant she has had to drop out of college. We should be trying to help people. It affects a person's mental health when they want to further their education but they are left in a position where they cannot.
I understand the issue the Senator raised because I am familiar with it. I have come across it myself. The difficulty is that when a regime and set of requirements are in place it is difficult to see how they can be set aside in any individual case, but that does not take from the strength of the case the Senator made for the individual concerned. I will communicate what the Senator said to the Minister.