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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Taken for granted?

It’s a long way from here to Clare! Not if you want to go to 3rd level college easy access to 2 universities and 2 more IT’s in neighbouring counties, education is rightly regarded in the county.  A significant number of Calre 2nd level students go onto 3rd level in Galway or Limerick.  Like most counties there are 2 ways of getting a grant; your VEC or your county council or at least there was till now.  The new Student Support Service SUSI will take on the role of processing all grants from this year forward or at least in the case of County Wexford.  I’m quite surprised at the stance taken by Clare County Council. I assumed they had ended grant awarding but they may well be continuing for another year. In their last year of awarding they have decided to link 3rd level education grants to payment of the household charge.  I don’t know how they’ve managed it in Clare but I’ ve huge doubts as to whether such a link can be legally made to stick especially of what I know about the Wexford forms.

Clare County Council has decided to leave the processing of the grant applications from those households that have not paid the charge until all applicants from households where the charge has been paid have been processed.  The fear is that the council may adopt a whenever approach. Perhaps in the short term that might lever some money out of some people,  but in my mind its noe clear to me that the council are on firm ground despite the political support they’ve received.

On the face of it if an applicant is a property owner and hasn’t paid the household charge then it would be tempting to suggest that the council should simply deduct the €100 from the grant.  So, why not? Well this is where it gets interesting.

 My own county council’s website carries a data protection statement saying that information given by applicants for education grants will be used solely to make contact about your student grant.  I don’t think that any local authority can use the information that an applicant has given for the purpose of an educational grant in relation to an outstanding charge.  I think any county council hoping to pressurise students families to pay the household charge could possibly come out the wrong side of a judgement by the data protection commissioner if they are brave enough to stick their necks out on this one.

There’s more. The application form asks for relevant financial information for the previous tax year to the application being lodged and not the current tax year. The household charge which I was happy to pay on time is a charge due in the present year.  So perhaps 2013 may be the earliest when a council form can oblige families to set out their position on the tax.

There’s one more thing that sticks out. In Wexford the applicant countersigns with their parents.  Our form presumes that all live at the one address. What if they don’t? What if one parent lives apart from the applicant and has paid the household charge and the applicant and the other parent hasn’t? Has the applicant any responsibility to pay especially if they’re under 18? If the applicant has an independent income that is part of the assessment surely fairness would suggest that the most the council could deduct would be the proportionate fraction of the parent’s income from the total income as set out in all P60’s?

What about other council services? Will the fire service, cemetery charge be linked to payment of household charges? What might have been a simple solution to a simple problem in Clare might well take off in a direction that was never intended.

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