Coalition divisions deepen on means-testing for student grants

 

The two Coalition parties are experiencing deepening divisions on an imminent proposal by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn to include business and farm assets in the means test for student grants.

Mr Quinn is expected to bring a memorandum to Cabinet later this month that will include non-income assets such as farm and business assets, savings, property, shares and dividends in the means test. It is believed that children of parents with incomes less than the current threshold of €41,000 but with assets worth more than €750,000 may no longer be eligible for student grants.

The proposal has led to consternation among farming organisations and to widespread opposition from backbenchers within the largest Coalition party, Fine Gael. At a recent parliamentary party meeting more than a dozen TDs expressed strident opposition to the move and the party’s internal education committee unanimously said that it would oppose the move on the basis it would be a punitive measure against farmers and the self-employed.

Reservations

Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney has also expressed reservations in recent months about the impact the change could have for farmers but has said in recent days no proposal has been put on the table for discussion. It is believed the memo may come before Cabinet on March 12th.

In contrast, there has been widespread support for the move within the Labour Party, which has argued that the current system is inequitable and discriminates against the poorest and most deserving families in society because some recipients who get grants should not be getting them, on the basis of their accumulated wealth.

‘Red line’

As positions have entrenched among backbenchers of both parties, TDs have openly described it as a “red line” issue for the Coalition partners. The latest salvo in the war of words was fired yesterday by Labour Dublin North Central TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who said most reasonable people would agree that people with assets of more than €750,000 should pay for their children’s education, even if their income was low.

He said the issue was about equity and fairness, the overall fund of €336 million should be directed at those who needed it most and there was evidence some were getting the grant who should not be getting it.

His Meath East colleague Dominic Hannigan later strongly supported his position, pointing out that the last few years have been comparatively good for farming while many other sectors in society have had to make sacrifices.

Fine Gael TDs said the move was a potential deal-breaker.

“You have to ask if the cost of being in coalition with Labour is too great,” said John Deasy, the Waterford TD who has led opposition within Fine Gael to the change.

His Galway West colleague Seán Kyne pointed to the party’s education committee unanimously opposing such changes.