Laws may block tackling student grant backlog

DATA protection laws may prevent councils with backlogs of student grant applications from having them cleared by other local authorities, TDs have been told.

The suggestion was put to Minister of State at the Department of Education Seán Haughey after it emerged that almost 12,800 students — more than one-in-five new applicants — have not even had their forms opened by councils and Vocational Education Committees (VECs). The grant-awarding bodies with the worst records were Cork County Council, Co Dublin VEC, Kildare Co Council, Fingal Co Council, Limerick Co Council and Co Sligo VEC, in which at least half their 8,000 applications were not processed by the end of October.

The figures were supplied by the Department of Education to Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd, who suggested at a hearing of the Oireachtas Select committee on education that those awarding bodies which have cleared most or all their applications should be allowed to help process the backlogs elsewhere.

“There are 13,000 students and their families sitting at home waiting for the post and waiting for their cheques, and wondering ‘will I be able to do my exam’ or ‘can I go to the library?’,” he said.

“Let a council that has finished [its applications] put in their staff who have done the work, they could very easily take up the ones that other VECs or councils can’t do,” he said.

He pointed out that more than a dozen of the 66 grant awarding bodies have already processed all their applications or have less than 20 left to process. More than 59,500 first-time applicants have sought grant assistance this year.

Mr Haughey said the delays are unacceptable, but are partly due to staffing problems caused by the public service recruitment ban. He said he would look into Mr O’Dowd’s proposal but that issues could arise about confidentiality.

“You are raising issues around the sharing of information and there are data protection issues involved in that,” he told the Fine Gael TD.

Labour Party education spokesman, Ruairi Quinn, said this was the kind of initiative expected from increased public service productivity being negotiated by the Government.

“If the Croke Park agreement means anything, those forms better be cleared fairly quickly,” he said.

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