Wednesday, 5 October 2016
Free Travel Scheme Eligibility
Before calling Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, I welcome to the Visitors Gallery Councillor Michael O'Brien of Westmeath County Council who has a particular interest in the matter the Senator proposes to raise. I also welcome the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar.
I thank the Minister for taking time to come to the House. He has a busy schedule as the budget approaches; therefore, I appreciate the effort he has made to come to the House to respond directly to the issue I raise.
Councillor Michael O'Brien of Westmeath County Council has made an excellent proposal that a free travel scheme be introduced for third level students attending college. While the scheme would cost money, it would ease the financial hardship faced by many students. Councillor O'Brien's colleague, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, has been advocating in the other House for the introduction of such a scheme. The proposal merits consideration and deserves our support.
The rationale for introducing a free travel scheme for third level students is that the costs associated with third level education have been increasing, especially this year, as a result of rising rents and a shortage of student accommodation, both in the capital and nationwide. Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, produced a cost of living guide for students which estimated that travel costs per month in the 2015-16 academic year amounted to €135 per third level student. The increase of 13% on the figure for the previous year means that annual travel costs have reached approximately €1,215 per student. If this cost could be offset by support from the Department of Social Protection or the Department of Education and Skills feeding into the Minister's budget, it would alleviate much of the hardship being experienced by third level students.
As the DIT guide notes, students can be divided into two groups, namely, those who live at home and those who live in rented accommodation. According to the guide, the financial breakdown for both classes of students was identical and they experienced the same monthly travel costs of €135. Students who travel to college from home probably face higher travel costs, although they do not incur rental costs. Overall, however, the subsidy would have the same impact on both sets of students.
I am aware that budget day is approaching. The Union of Students in Ireland argues that the increased costs of third level education are leading to elevated fears among students that they may have to leave third level education. As Councillor O'Brien has pointed out, a USI survey shows that 87% of third level students are living in fear of having to leave third level education as a result of the increased costs they face. While I acknowledge that the Minister does not have responsibility for third level education, he is responsible for the excellent free travel scheme which is available to the elderly population. Will the Department or the Department of Education and Skills examine the case for reducing the costs of travel for third level students? The Leap card is capped at €30 per month in the city but that card is only one element of the equation. For example, a student coming from Westmeath, Donegal or Kerry must provide for travel on a weekly basis to the city, after which he or she must also pay for the Leap card. The card is not the solution in itself. The Minister's consideration would be greatly appreciated.
I thank the Senator for raising this innovative idea. I acknowledge the high cost of third level education for students which is attributable to travel and accommodation in addition to fees.
Services for students and the adequacy, or otherwise, of their supports are matters for the Minister for Education and Skills. Transport is primarily a matter for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. However, my Department provides a free travel scheme as a secondary benefit to older people and certain people with disabilities who are already customers of my Department, that is, people who receive a weekly welfare payment from us. This provides free travel on the main public and private transport services for those eligible under the scheme. There are approximately 864,000 people in receipt of free travel but many do not use it regularly and prefer to travel during off-peak periods when seating is readily available.
The measure proposed would cater for the needs of students who are not our existing customers and who will be students for only a few years or, in some cases, only a few months. Any such scheme would require a more significant operation than that which administers my Department’s free travel scheme as it would have to grant and withdraw potentially hundreds of thousands of passes each year, using information that ultimately would have to be provided by all colleges in the State.
Income support and services for students are in the policy domain of the Minister for Education and Skills and my Department is not the best placed to calculate the cost of the proposed measure or to decide whether it would be an appropriate way to supplement or replace other supports available for students from the relevant funding streams. Any increase in eligibility to the scheme would require a substantial increase in funding at the expense of the taxpayer. The current funding for the scheme is €80 million per year and any scheme that extended a similar service to students would most likely require a substantial increase in funding, even taking into account the fact that many providers already operate reduced fares for students. No such provision has been made in my budget for 2016. I am, therefore, not in a position to operate such a scheme or comment on whether it would represent equitable use of resources. However, I encourage the Senator to discuss the matter further with the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
I thank the Minister and acknowledge that the third level education sector does not come within the realm of his Department. When I was submitting this matter for debate today, I initially contacted the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Officials within that Department advised that the matter was more appropriate to the Department of Social Protection. However, I appreciate, and agree with, what the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, has said. If the Department of Education and Skills were willing to engage with the Department of Social Protection at ministerial or official level on this question, would the Minister consider it?
This is an innovative and good idea. Of course I would be happy to engage with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Department of Education and Skills on any idea like this. Joined-up thinking is important in government. There are, of course, other good ideas also. Free travel for children is a good idea. When I was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I was involved in providing free days for children on the Luas, in addition to making a decision to link up the Luas lines. In certain other jurisdictions, there is free transport for children. I believe London Underground, for example, provides free transport to all children under 16.
As with any good idea, one must consider the cost. There are two sets of costs. One is the cost in terms of money. I do not have much money at present. Every day, there seems to be somebody demanding €100 million in additional spending in my Department but they do not seem to want to give me the money. Aside from the monetary cost, there is also an opportunity cost. I refer to all the other things one could do with the money, such as reversing some of the cuts made to the disability and carer's allowances and the blind person's pension. This is the battle I am currently trying to fight. As the Senator can imagine, there are many demands. Given the new political scenario we are in, I expect Fianna Fáil will produce its budgetary proposals in the next couple of days. Perhaps the first step would be to ensure the Senator's proposal is included as one of the party's priorities. We can take it from there.