By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
Families preparing for their children to return to school in the autumn need help now with back-to-school costs, the Dáil has heard.
It comes as the Government published its Summer Economic Statement on Monday, which outlined the parameters of Budget 2023. The next budget will be worth €6.7 billion and include one-off measures to tackle the hike in bills fuelled by inflation.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said the exact budgetary measures to tackle the cost-of-living crisis will be finalised closer to September when more information is available, and warned against economic measures that would contribute further to inflation.
Speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday during Leaders’ Questions, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said “families preparing now to get children back to school in late August need help and assistance now”.
“So I want to put it to you again, that it is crucial that middle income families have access to a back-to-school payment. You pointed out that there was some improvement at the budget, that now is grossly insufficient.”
She told TDs: “We calculate that there are as many as half a million households that need to be given this payment in middle income brackets. And furthermore, those on lower incomes and fixed incomes need a substantial hike in the level of the payment made to them.
“So I want to ask you again if Government will move on this urgent matter now because the children will go back to school in August.”
Defending the Government’s approach, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar said they were in agreement that back to school and back to college was “really expensive” for families.
“That’s why there is an increase in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, which has been paid from next week. It’s why there is an increase in the SUSI grant for those going to third level.
“And it’s why we changed the rules, only in the last few weeks, to allow students to earn more over the summer without affecting their grant. These are changes that are taking effect over the course of the summer.”
The Tánaiste accepted these were measures that were taken earlier in the year when inflation was forecast to be lower than it is – which is currently tracking at 7 to 8 per cent for the year.
Mr Varadkar said Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphries and Minister for Education Norma Foley are “in some discussions today and yesterday to see if there’s anything we can do to enhance the back to school package acknowledging that September will come too late for back to school”.
“That work is under way,” he said.
Mr McGrath told reporters in Dublin earlier on Tuesday that the Government was aware of the high costs facing families in the autumn.
“In relation to the cost of education, we’re really conscious as a government that it is an expensive period of time for a lot of people,” Mr McGrath said.
“The return to school and return to college in the autumn as well. We should point out that some of the measures in the last budget will only kick in at this point in September.
“In relation to further higher education, we have improvements in the SUSI grant, which will go up by €200, and the increase in the income eligibility as well, goes up by €5,000 for the first time in a very long time.
“In relation to primary and secondary level, we have the back to school education allowance, the Department of Social Protection are putting the arrangements in place at the moment to issue those payments.
“We are conscious of rising costs at this point in time, those decisions will made to take any changes to that allowance, but there are discussions under way.”
Social Democrats leader Roisin Shortall said it was “truly unforgivable” that the Government was about to “swan off on its holidays” when the Dáil goes into recess for two months, without introducing a cost-of-living budget.
“Where’s the food going to come from during the summer holidays? What will happen when parents just can’t afford food and they can’t afford school uniforms?
“Poor families need answers to these questions now, they can’t wait three months.”
Independent TD for Cork South-West Michael Collins said Ireland was now “more unequal than at any point in its history”, accusing the Government of “behaving like a British landlord in Ireland during famine times and looking the other way”.
“The cruel and heartless decision by your government not to introduce an emergency budget illustrates that you are out of touch and care little about the struggles of these people,” he said.
Mr Varadkar acknowledged that people were really “feeling the pinch”.
“There’s a real risk this year that for the first time in a long time, we will go backwards with real incomes falling with increasing poverty levels and possibly increasing inequality.
“That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing: the measures we’ve introduced already, outlined already in the Dáil; measures that will take effect over the summer in relation to back to school and back to college; measures that will take place after Budget Day in September, immediately putting money in people’s pockets; and more that will kick in January.
“This is a dynamic response to a cost-of-living crisis, which unfortunately is going to continue for some time,” he said.