Wednesday 20 November 2019

FG ministers to block plan to include farm assets in means test

Ruairi Quinn: controversial
Ruairi Quinn: controversial

Fiach Kelly Political Correspondent

SENIOR government ministers have promised backbenchers they will shoot down any plans to include farm and business assets in the means test for student grants.

The Fine Gael ministers have said the controversial plan will not get past them when Education Minister Ruairi Quinn brings it to the cabinet table, which is expected to happen in the coming weeks.

Mr Quinn's department sent out a memo on the policy to fellow ministers in recent days, and has received some observations back, as per normal practice.

However, sources said the response has been "very much a mixture" of opinion, and when asked if Mr Quinn was confident of getting the proposals approved, his spokeswoman would only say: "It's a cabinet decision, Cabinet will decide on this."

It is understood those with serious reservations include Taoiseach Enda Kenny himself, Finance Minister Michael Noonan, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, Environment Minister Phil Hogan, Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan and Chief Whip Paul Kehoe – although Mr Kehoe does not have a vote.

The review of the means test has been a long-running source of tension in the Coalition because many Fine Gael TDs rely on votes from farm families and small business owners.

Waterford TD John Deasy said he raised the controversial proposal with senior Fine Gael ministers and was assured it would "not be entertained" and "will not pass Cabinet".

It comes as the latest opinion polls show support for Fine Gael has dropped substantially among farmers, with Fianna Fail overtaking the senior coalition partner.

Income

Mr Quinn is planning to mount a five-year trawl of assets owned by farmers and business people whose children are applying for the college grant in September.

He intends to include assets in excess of €750,000, on top of how much income is being earned.

Farmers' organisations have estimated that a farm of 60-70 acres worth €750,000 would require a super-efficient dairy farmer to generate income of €41,000, which is the cut-off point for college grants.

However, the threshold is seen as something that could be up for negotiation.

One Fine Gael minister said: "Will it pass Cabinet? I don't know. It depends on the threshold he puts in. That'll be negotiable."

Another senior Coalition source said: "There are serious reservations in some areas of Government about this."

Mr Deasy added: "I think Fine Gael need to be careful not to take the farming community's vote for granted."

He said he raised the matter with ministers last week, understood to have been before they saw Mr Quinn's memo.

"I have spoken to senior ministers about this and they made it clear to me it will not pass Cabinet," the Waterford deputy added.

Mr Deasy declined to identify who the Cabinet members were, but said the proposals would cause serious difficulty in Fine Gael.

Cork North-West TD Michael Creed described it as a "fundamental issue for Fine Gael", adding: "I would be very disappointed if my Fine Gael colleagues in Cabinet do not appreciate that."

Mr Creed said that the measure would be "tokenistic" and would be difficult to implement. Other assets to be measured are stocks and shares, as well as PAYE returns and property portfolios that are earning income.

Farmer groups have now mounted a massive campaign against the plans, with all TDs and senators yesterday receiving letters from the Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers Association outlining its opposition.

Irish Independent

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