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Minister moves to play down any rift over grants

Posted by Francis O' Toole on August 16, 2012

THE MINISTER for Finance, Michael Noonan, yesterday moved to play down possible tension between Fine Gael and Labour over proposals by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn to review how eligibility for third-level grants is assessed.

Last week Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said he would have difficulty with farm assets being included in any assessment and a number of backbench Fine Gael TDs have expressed opposition to any such proposal.

But yesterday Mr Noonan said it was premature for people to be adopting any position regarding the issue as an expert group appointed to examine the issue had yet to report back and no decision had been made.

Commenting as 55,815 Leaving Certificate students collected their exam results yesterday, Mr Quinn said the report would be completed next month.

“We have asked the departmental working party to give us an assessment and make recommendations with the view of making sure that the system is more fair. That report is due in September and when we get that report we’ll read it and consider it and then decide what to do.”

Speaking in Cork, Mr Noonan said he was conscious that thousands of students were receiving their Leaving Cert results and it was important to reassure them that there would be no change to the eligibility criteria this year.

“A lot of people who were successful today will be going on to university or college and a lot will be using education grants and, whatever political debate goes on, the present scheme for higher-education grants will be the scheme that applies for this round of Leaving Certs,” he said.

“For the future, the situation is that Education Minister Ruairí Quinn has put an expert group together to look at the whole grants scheme.

“One aspect of it has become controversial but it is only one of the aspects that is being examined.

“As Finance Minister, at the end of the day, any change will have to be allowed for in the Budget.

“So I am going to wait until the expert group reports and I’ll see what is in it and I will make my views known in Cabinet at that stage.”

Mr Noonan said he could understand why his ministerial colleague, Simon Coveney, had made his position clear given that, as minister for agriculture, he had a special relationship with the farming community, who would expect him to protect their interests.

Mr Quinn said any changes to the grants system would not unfairly target any group.

“This is not about punishing any one particular section of the community: it is about trying to take the system that is deemed to be unfair by many people, to make it more fair. But not to make it more fair in a way that causes damage,” said Mr Quinn.

“I understand that the Irish Farmers’ Association and the ICMSA – both organisations which I met with in the last couple of months – are under pressure from their own members. In turn they are putting pressure on local public representatives.”

Mr Noonan’s comments were echoed by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan who said the only place he would be expressing his personal opinion would be at the Cabinet table and he would support whatever decision was made.

Mr Deenihan said he was aware of concerns raised by Fine Gael backbenchers but there was a major difference between being in the parliamentary party and being in Cabinet, which carried additional responsibilities including a collective responsibility.

Asked whether the issue could become a source of tension between Fine Gael and Labour, Mr Deenihan said he didn’t believe there was any tension between the Coalition partners and he was very encouraged by the level of co-operation and respect between Ministers.BARRY ROCHE and DECLAN ROONEY

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