Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hollis: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass, with one sentence only: I should like to thank your Lordships for the unfailing courtesy and good humour exhibited, especially when it was believed that the Government were wrong, and perhaps even harder when it was suspected that, despite their Lordships' views to the contrary, the Government might even be right. In the light of that, I should like to thank your Lordships. We now send the Bill, with the amendments made by your Lordships, to the other place. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I shall not delay the House more than a moment or two, but I would like to express our thanks to the Minister, who has carried the entire burden of this Bill on her shoulders. She has done so with consummate skill, knowledge and expertise, and we are extremely grateful to her. If I may say so, I do not believe there is any other Minister who could have dealt with this Bill in a better or more efficient way than the noble Baroness. In particular, of course, the clauses dealing with the Child Support Agency are very much hers. I think she will look back in future years and say that that was a good piece of legislation. It is to be hoped that it works out. I have

19 Jul 2000 : Column 1123

fears that the combination of working two systems side by side will prove very difficult, but at all events, both behind the scenes and in this House, the noble Baroness has done a magnificent job.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the Minister, and all those with whom she has worked so hard to get this Bill through.

Her courtesy and her skill have been very great indeed. We have seen a remarkable example of it tonight. That example is one of many.

As regards the Bill, as I am sure the Minister knows, that is a different matter. She knows what I think about the CSA proposals and I shall not repeat them. If the issue of benefit and conditionality reaches this House again the Minister will think she has not seen anything yet. But, meanwhile, I thank her very much for everything she has done, and for the kindness and courtesy with which she has done it.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

Social Security Amendment (Students) Regulations 2000

9.33 p.m.

Baroness Amos rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21st June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Social Security Amendment (Students) Regulations 2000, which were laid before this House on 21st June be approved.

The draft regulations before your Lordships today amend existing regulations in three ways. First, they improve the interface between the educational maintenance system and social security provision by introducing new provisions for students who are recovered ill and former carers and who want to resume their studies but are required to wait until the education institution permits them to do so.

Secondly, these draft regulations tighten the definition of full-time student for social security purposes to reinforce the policy intention that in general full-time students are not eligible for benefit.

Thirdly, we are taking the opportunity to introduce a better alignment of definitions across the income related benefits. These changes are technical.

In 1998, seeking to clarify the definition of full-time student for social security purposes, we referred draft regulations to the Social Security Advisory Committee. The committee conducted a public consultation exercise, and recommended that we look again at the provisions for students who, for a number of reasons, interrupt their studies.

The Command Paper before your Lordships today comprises three main elements: first, the original draft regulations which we referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee in 1998; secondly, the report produced by the advisory committee following its

19 Jul 2000 : Column 1124

public consultation exercise on the draft 1998 regulations; thirdly, our response to the advisory committee's report. In addition, there are the draft regulations before your Lordships today.

Part-time students are eligible to claim social security benefits just like anyone else. But full-time students are in the main not eligible for social security benefits. This is for the very good reason that full-timestudents are supported by the educational maintenance system, which is designed for their needs; social security is not.

We already make an exception to that rule for prescribed vulnerable group full-time students--for example the long-term sick and lone parents--not because they are students but because they are vulnerable people who need additional support. Those vulnerable group full-time students are therefore eligible for social security benefits--typically income support and housing benefit.

The advisory committee's report focused on the interface between social security and educational maintenance provision. As we make clear in our published response to the committee, we are grateful to it for its observations, which we considered carefully. In summary, the committee recommended that we should not proceed with the draft 1998 regulations, but that we should review the interface between social security and educational maintenance provision.

I have already explained that these regulations clarify the policy that in general full-time students are not eligible for social security. I have also reminded noble Lords that we make an exception to that rule for full-time students in vulnerable groups. We now propose to make another exception. Some full-time students have to interrupt their studies because of illness or caring responsibilities. In some of these cases, when they are in a position to resume their studies, their educational establishment may not allow them to do so immediately. They may often have to wait until the beginning of the next academic year. In such circumstances, those "recovered ill" or "former carers" do not receive educational maintenance, nor are they eligible for social security because they have not finished their courses of full-time study.

The draft regulations fill that gap. Because full-time students in that position are expected to make every effort to support themselves--just like other people--these draft regulations provide that they will be eligible to claim Jobseeker's Allowance and, where appropriate, housing benefit, subject to the normal rules. More specifically, the period during which they will be able to claim benefit is from the date of recovery from illness, or the end of their caring duties, until they are able to rejoin their course or the start of the next academic year, whichever is sooner.

The report of the Social Security Advisory Committee made a number of additional points about full-time students who interrupt their studies for other reasons. Your Lordships have copies as part of the Command Paper, but I want to cover some of the detail here. First, as regards sickness, the Government

19 Jul 2000 : Column 1125

have already acted here: mandatory support from the educational maintenance system has been more than doubled from 28 days to 60 days. If sickness should continue, the relevant education authority has discretion to extend support further. If sickness goes beyond 28 weeks, the student becomes eligible to claim social security benefits as a vulnerable group student as already prescribed in existing regulations.

The committee referred to full-time students who interrupt their studies for other reasons, ranging from academic difficulties to personal or domestic problems. In these cases, support is available from the educational maintenance system at the discretion of the relevant education authority, but officials will continue to keep them under review.

The committee also expressed concern that a full-time student who switched to part time would continue to be treated as a full-time student for social security purposes and therefore would not be eligible to claim benefit. That is not the case in practice. We understand that if a student wishes to change from full-time to part-time study, he or she has to abandon the full-time course. If that happens, the student is eligible to claim social security because our policy is that part-time students are eligible.

The draft regulations respond to a further recommendation by the committee. We originally proposed that, for social security purposes, postgraduates should continue to be treated as engaged on their course full time after the formal part of the course has ended, but while they are writing up a thesis or awaiting an oral examination. The committee asked that we reconsider it, and we have.

We are not proceeding with that amendment.This is not the end of the story. We continue to keep student provision under review. The regulations we are debating today represent positive progress in maintaining the interface between social security and educational maintenance. I commend the regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21st June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].--(Baroness Amos.)

9.45 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I must declare an interest in these regulations as a university teacher. They directly affect the interests of no fewer than three students for whom I am responsible at the moment. They affect the interests of students for whom I am responsible every year. These problems take up more time and effort in my working life than any other professional duty I have. I have seen the interface between social security and educational maintenance ruin the lives of large numbers of people who should have had good and successful careers.

These regulations are a missed opportunity. The Minister is a professional and she will not take personally anything that I say. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, with whose office

19 Jul 2000 : Column 1126

I have corresponded on many of these cases and on a great many occasions and been received with her usual courtesy and thoroughness.

These regulations were introduced by the Government, in their own words, because court judgments had,

    "cast doubt on whether the present Regulations fully support the Government's stated policy intention: that a full-time student is to be regarded as such unless or until he completes, finally abandons, or is finally dismissed from, his course of study".

That sounds fine in theory until one begins to apply it to real cases. Then it becomes a great deal more difficult. One would have thought that it was a basic point of principle that everybody should be entitled either to educational maintenance as a student or to social security maintenance as an ordinary citizen. The problem arises because for a great many people in a great many different anomalous circumstances, that is not the case. Lord Justice Evans, giving judgment in the Webber case in 1997, said that in this case,

    "the statute is sought to be order to create, for no apparent reason, 'an anomalous class of people left to destitution without state support of any kind'. I would require express words of the utmost clarity to persuade me that Parliament intended to produce that disgraceful result".

It is my daily responsibility to explain to distressed students that Parliament did intend to produce that result--and it is a very painful process. It brings our political system into disrepute. The trouble is that it was a misconceived policy intention in the first place. When one sets out to clarify a misconceived policy intention, one very often makes confusion worse confounded.

The first misapprehension, as the Minister stated it in 1990, was that students had withdrawn from the labour market. If only they had. The Minister said that students are supported by the educational maintenance system. The case is that they are in part supported by the educational maintenance system, supplemented by a large amount of part-time earnings. The concept of the full-time student is just about dead. The only surviving full-time students I know are those with rich parents, and there are not that many.

The second misapprehension is that student support covers 52 weeks; it does not. They reach their overdraft limits usually around the last week of term. The Minister talked about a concession for sick students of social security becoming available after 28 weeks. They will have been reduced to total destitution well before those 28 weeks are concluded. I think, in particular, of one person; a student estranged from his parents and therefore unable to go home in vacations. He is regularly in my room every June explaining that, unless extra money can be found from somewhere to get him through the long vacation, he has to withdraw immediately.

The Minister will invoke access funds, as she has done. However, access funds are not on a scale to support people through 22 weeks of the year. They are not on a scale to support any student through 28 weeks. I am reminded of the time I was five when I started to feed the hippopotamus at the Philadelphia zoo. I had a bag of peanuts and threw one to him. To

19 Jul 2000 : Column 1127

my great pride it landed plum in the middle of his tongue. The hippopotamus simply kept his mouth open waiting to be fed. The position here is just about as appropriate to the occasion as that.

The Minister also mentioned discretionary funds from local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham made a study of this subject. She knows how difficult it is to get local authorities to dedicate funds to that purpose. I shall not make a speech about the financial difficulties of local authorities; I think that people are familiar with them.

The next misapprehension is that the boundary between being a student and not being a student is non-porous; it is totally porous, especially since the introduction of modular courses, into which universities have been considerably encouraged by people from within the Government and the Department for Education. When dealing with re-sits, which do happen, people may have to go through the process of preparing for a paper again. It may not be offered for examination until the same time the following year. Obviously, they will not be full-time students all through that year, so there we have a problem.

The Minister has allowed for cases of current sickness. However, in my experience the two most common reasons for students having to take time off are either time lost because of past illness, which is not allowed for, or that their debts have become so great that they need to earn money full-time before they can return. Sadly, that is very common indeed. Neither situation is allowed for.

I have not forgotten one of my own pupils who first discovered the existence of that problem in the summer of 1991 when the disentitlement to social security was only a few weeks old. Early in the long vacation she was found to have a cyst and was told that it had to be operated on. It provoked the same sort of fear it might provoke in anyone. Her father had just gone bankrupt. Her contribution cheque had just bounced. Clearly, she would need to spend her long vacation working. She asked me what money she would have to support her should the lump be malignant. The answer was that she could get support only if she withdraw finally from the college, detached herself from the educational institution totally and gave up hope of taking a degree. That was the situation in 1991. As far as I can see, it will remain the situation after the passage of these regulations.

In passing, will the Minister correct one thing she said? She talked about situations in which an educational institution was not willing to take the person back. But if we are dealing with a time in the middle of the long vacation and with somebody who needs regular teaching, in particular with somebody who needs to sit a course which is taught to a class on a regular weekly basis, it would have been a little more relevant to say that the educational institution "was not able" to take them back. When it is individual teaching that is needed, one can easily do it on one's own, and I regularly do. If it is an organised class or an examination, it is not so easy.

19 Jul 2000 : Column 1128

I have one final point. These regulations were put before the Social Security Committee in 1998. It made an excellent report, as always, and I thank the committee for that. There was a small cost implication and, because the Government wished to remain within Conservative spending limits, they put off doing anything. I make no comment on that now; it is not germane. But in fact for the first two years this Government had a £3 billion undershoot on Conservative spending limits. Within that £3 billion they could perfectly easily have implemented the small concessions they have now brought in and I do not see why they did not.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page