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Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. As he indicated, there was some difficulty about how the public sector could be defined. The terms "public sector" and "not for profit" seemed to cover the point. I know that there is a question whether universities are themselves in the public sector, but I am certain that they are not-for-profit bodies because I do not believe that they pay dividends. Therefore I suspect that universities would be included in the not-for-profit sector.
However, the main aim of the amendment was to ensure that this debate is on the public record. It makes it clear that Section 186 of the Education Act 2002 exists and that the Government, if they are minded and there is a problem, have one way to address any shortage of opportunity by suggesting that people may well be able to take on courses and other related work. The opportunity is there. In withdrawing the amendment, I am glad that the debate has been recorded for the future.
"REPAYMENT OF FEES VIA VOLUNTARY SERVICE (1) The Secretary of State shall use his powers under section 186 of the Education Act 2002 (c. 32) (student loans) to develop a scheme whereby fees charged under sections 23 and 24 of this Act may be repaid in whole or in part through the performance of voluntary service. (2) Regulations under section 186 of the 2002 Act shall specify both the types of voluntary service eligible and the minimum period of service necessary to qualify for such repayments."
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment concerns voluntary service. Previously, we had a helpful response from the noble Lord, Lord Triesman. This is perhaps more serious in that we can see a real problem arising here. Is it conceivable that youngsters will undertake a significant period of voluntary service if, at the end of it, they have to embark late on a career, take on a mortgage and so forth, and face debt repayment? That is a hill too steep to climb. Although the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has indicated that there are powers under Section 186 of the 2002 Act to develop a scheme, this amendment would ensure it by stating:
In moving this simple new clause to ensure that there will be a scheme, there is no plan to introduce it for a frivolous period of voluntary activity lasting perhaps only three months. I refer to significant periods of voluntary service. This kind of scheme would be very worthwhile for those taking on significant voluntary service. That is why I seek to add to the legislation a provision that the Secretary of State "shall" use powers to develop a scheme so that people know where they stand. They will then know that it is possible to undertake significant periods of voluntary service without feeling that, when they embark on a career later on, they will face too much debt. I beg to move.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, this is an excellent amendment with much for the Government in it. I can imagine a scheme being set up which Gordon Brown would rather like. I can think of a certain organisation that he would particularly want to foster: Voluntary Service Overseas.
Let us imagine a student coming out of university with a degree in development studies. He wants to go out and change the world and to make a contribution; and he wants to volunteer. He decides to go to a community in need in Africa. Alternatively, someone may want to develop the skills they have acquired in engineering. That person, too, may well decide to join Voluntary Service Overseas.
The question is whether, in deciding to make such a contribution, those students will be worried about the amount of debt outstanding in their names. We are talking about debt here. Predictions at this stage about the scale of that debt are not very precise. All sorts of predictions have been made, some from the Government which we have not gone into this evening, as well as from the National Union of Students and independent think tanks which believe that the level of debt presumed by the Government is far lower than is otherwise being forecast. The point is that the debt will be substantial, whatever the figure may be.
I am concerned to ensure that a critically important group of people willing to make a contribution overseas should not be put off in any way. My noble friend would be doing us a great service if her civil servants were to write to the Treasury and draw the attention of its Ministers to this amendment. I can imagine a scheme being set up that would lead the world in methods of repayment to incentivise our whole approach to overseas voluntary service.
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Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, I am interested in the amendment, but who do its proposers imagine will foot the bill? I support the amendment as long as it is not the universities. I was not happy with the two amendments that have been carried today because it seems to me that the universities will foot the bill and not the Treasury.
However, I welcome the amendmentor I think I dobecause I take it that the implication of the Secretary of State using his powers is that the Treasury will foot the bill. I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, nodding their heads. I have not seen my noble friend Lord Forsyth nodding his head, but he is nodding it now. I am delighted that my Front Bench is now endorsing the principle that the Treasury rather than the universities should pay for this welcome amendment, which I am happy to support.
Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I support the amendment, to which my noble friend Lord Forsyth has added his name. It places a duty on the Secretary of State to use his powers to encourage young people to undertake voluntary service by making it a form of student loan repayment.
The debate on the pros and cons of top-up fees is not new to the House. It is well known that while we recognise the need to address the funding crisis in universities, the level of student debt that the Bill will effect is of great concern to us. Our concerns range from anxiety about debt acting as a deterrent to the young people we are trying to encourage to enter university, to the fact that it would saddle students with a significant financial burden at a time when they would be encountering the pressures that everyone faces at the start of adult life.
We also reiterate our admiration for those who work in, or offer their services to, the voluntary sector. We recognise the valuable work done in so many sectors where there never seem to be enough volunteers. Voluntary work benefits everyone and can be a life-forming experience.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, perhaps I may seek clarification as to what the amendment really means. The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, referred to the "voluntary sector". The voluntary sector forms an enormous part of the public and private provision of all kinds of services in this country. Most people in the voluntary sector are paid for the work they do. It would not make any sense for the amendment to apply to anyone working in the voluntary sector, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, implied.
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If I am right and the Liberal Democrat amendment concerns unpaid voluntary service, either overseas or in this country, I wonder whether there will be a problem with defining it. Will it be full-time or part-time? A great deal of volunteering is done not on a full-time basis but on a part-time basis.
Although I can see what lies behind the amendment, were it to be agreed to, the practicalities of implementing it would be enormous. For those reasons alone I suggest that this piece of legislation could not and should not take the amendment on board.
Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, in supporting the amendment in principle I should declare an interest: one of my granddaughters and her husband run a small company called www.workingabroad.com, which arranges attachments overseas for a large number of people, both young and old. Many people work in the Third Worldwhere they themselves have workedand I think that is greatly to the advantage of those individuals. They are not often remunerated for the voluntary service they give.
Who will evaluate the voluntary service given by such individuals in order to justify the repayment of their loans by order of the Secretary of State? It will require a certain amount of accountancy expertise to carry out that evaluation. However, having raised that query, I support the amendment in principle.
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