HC Deb 20 December 1946 vol 431 cc2414-27

2.47 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Combined English Universities)

Without any disrespect to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, may I first register a complaint that the Minister of Education is not in her place today to reply to this Debate? If the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Secretary of State for War could be here today, I should have hoped that the Minister of Education could be here also. Last week the Minister made a deliberate statement, after which she was questioned by 12 Members, on the subject of training grants for ex-Service students. In that statement, and in subsequent cross-examination, she said that 7,000 applications had been received this term, and later. She asked us to imagine the flood of applications there must be. She said that 22,000 awards had been made, but she did not say how many were pending. In a letter to me on 27th November, about an individual case, the right hon. Lady said that I should be reminded that there were 12,000 cases in front of this particular case. She said in the House that she could not investigate general charges of delay, and that the position was bad enough without exaggeration. Further, the right hon. Lady said that there were so many forms to be sent in, that individual investigation held up the process of assessment and payment, that colleges did not return the primary certificates of attendance, and that, in some cases, it was the fault of the students. She said that if Members felt aggrieved they must go to the Public Accounts Committee and, finally, the right hon. Lady said that her Department was not master in its own house.

What a series of confessions, admissions, and contradictions, all in ten minutes. In a word, the right hon. Lady blamed the colleges, the Public Accounts Committee and the students—a particularly mean line to take—and suggested that there was an unknown body, or Department, which prevented her from running her own Department. She blamed Members for exaggeration, and stressed the number of forms which had to be examined. All this after 12 months of letters, questions and deputations warning her officials that this would happen. In June, one of her officials said to a deputation that precautions, including an increased staff, had been taken which would ensure that no breakdown occurred when applications flooded in. Note the word "flooded." When after 12 months of interviewing and deputations, the students lobbied—a legitimate democratic method—this was described by one high personage in the right hon. Lady's Ministry as "exhibitionism." The right hon. Lady, as I have said, accused the colleges. On the contrary, I find that form 0.5 is returned within 48 hours after receipt. One of the universities employs a fulltime clerk to track down difficulties. Some universities have instituted loan systems and other special charitable organisations for their students.

The right hon. Lady blames the students. Like all other humans, they sometimes err in filling up forms, and, having seen the acceptance forms, I am not surprised. I therefore treat this accusation with the contumely it deserves. The Minister said that she was not master in her own house. Will the Parliamentary Secretary explain why she is not? Who is interfering? Yesterday, the Parliamentary Secretary told me that the bottleneck was not only in his Department. Will he explain where it is? Is he aware that these ex-Service students were told that it was a concession for payments to be made to them before the end of the term, because it was the recognised custom of the Treasury that all Government payments should be made at the conclusion of the contract. In answer to the hon. Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning), the Minister said that it was impossible to speed up the payment of recurrent grants, because of certain duties laid on her Department by the Public Accounts Committee. In view of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's proved and practical interest in the universities, I refuse to believe that the Treasury are holding up this matter

Is it, therefore, the Ministry of Labour? Apparently, this is the procedure: There is a three weeks' delay through the Ministry of Labour, about four weeks through the Ministry of Education, five or six weeks for the assessment stage, and three weeks for the payment stage. The actual payment comes from the Paymaster General, via the Ministry, to the university, or directly to the man. I want to quote one or two cases which have come to my notice. The right hon. Lady challenged me about Leeds but I have here 60 cases of people who will not receive any payment this term, and who will go home for Christmas with no payment. In Leeds, the bursar of the university there sent all certificates to the Ministry on 1st October. The first payments were made on 20th November. On 14th December, 276 payments had been made through the normal channels. Today, 300 are outstanding out of the 600 to be made to ex-Service students. In Leicester, where there is a small university, 40 men are concerned. Six have received grants, 22 have been accepted for grant, and 12 are still awaiting assessment. In Aberystwyth there are 26 cases of particular hardship, four with dependant parents or relatives, four in debt, and four making allowances to parents, and so on. Twenty-five of these applied, but have not yet received an acceptance statement. Fifty per cent. have received acceptance, but are awaiting assessment, and 25 per cent, have been assessed but, up to 3rd December, had received no grants.

Take London, University College, where 41 per cent. of the ex-Service men have had to wait for three months for a decision as to the eligibility. Thirty per cent. have had to wait five months or more for assessment, and now the end of the term has come and 300 out of 600 are awaiting cheques. I have proof of cases from Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Aberystwyth, University College, London, The London School of Economics, and various university colleges such as Lough-borough and Leicester. Here is a file from the London School of Economics, from which I will give these examples: Mr. X applied in February, and got his grant on 20th August; Mr. Y applied in July, and got his grant on 28th October. Mr. Z applied on 14th January, but no grant was received until the end of the summer term. Now I come to one of the individual hardship cases. Mr. X of Lough-borough College wrote on 19th August advising of the birth of a child and asking for prompt attention. There was no reply. On 20th September he sent a registered letter, to which there was no reply. On 17th October he wrote again, pointing out the impossibility of making the grant last for the allocated period. He pointed out that he was practically "broke"—I am using the picturesque language of this student—and that it was 20 weeks since the last instalment had been received. Mr. Y was released under Class B, filled in a form, and sent it to Cardiff regional office. Nothing was heard up to mid-October, when he approached Cardiff again, and was told that everything was in London, and that "he would receive an answer in due course." On 3rd November a financial form was received from the Ministry, but he has heard nothing since. Here is a case from the Royal Technical College, Salford, about a man taking a course in mechanical engineering, a most important industry at this time. He says: After Christmas I will have to apply for public assistance owing to the muddle of the awards grants of the Ministry of Education. My application form was accepted by the Ministry as correct on 21st August, 1936. I wrote saying that my wife had had a baby, and that the old saying about living on love did not apply these days. From an R.A.F. meteorological department, I quote the case of a married man, with a son aged two years, with a little savings. This man says that he has to withdraw money weekly, and that this cannot go on indefinitely. He says that he chose teaching because he loved children, and because his country claimed that they wanted teachers. Mine is not an isolated case, an oversight, an unfortunate mistake. None of my colleagues has received an instalment. We are entering the third month. Here is another case of a man released from the Royal Air Force. He has no other resources, and he cannot meet his rent or the hospital expenses of his wife. So I might go on. How can anybody think this is a case of exaggeration? Why should these boys have to undergo this suffering? They have not done anything wrong, except go away to serve their country and come back to try to rebuild their broken lives.

I want to try to be constructive. The one thing which the Minister refuses to do is to re-examine the machinery of her own Department. The right hon. Lady blames all these others. I know that there has been some extra staff provided, and that there are now 20 officials and 120 juniors, but there are 20,000 cases. I believe that this scheme is a good scheme and a generous scheme, more generous, in fact, than when I came out after the last war, but the administration is clumsy and callous, and, in my opinion, the delays are avoidable. I find it very hard not to accuse the Ministry of complacency, neglect and misrepresentation. We have been too tolerant in this House, but we ought not to have had to quote these individual cases, which are holding up justice for the others. I doubt whether the Ministry of Labour should come into this at all. Much delay has been caused by the interpretation of paragraph 5 of P.L.150, a form which is sent to the regional office of the Ministry of Labour to establish a prima facie case about going to a college or university. Either the Ministry of Labour ought to go on with it, or not be brought in at all. I could quote a case in which a man was sent to Leeds, then to Manchester, then to Newcastle, because the student happened to live there, and finally back to the Ministry of Education. But that delay is nothing like the delay of the Ministry in deciding on eligibility.

I ask the hon. Gentleman this afternoon if he will speed up the issue of the memorandum giving provisional notice of the award of the grant Form 0.5. I ask him to separate the certificate of attendance of the student so that he may receive a maintenance grant as soon as he goes into the university. I ask him if he will grant the student £150 straight away and let the details be settled later. The other form, 0.9, is the definite acceptance. I know that this is a highly technical matter and that I can only suggest lines of improvement. Why is it that the Ministry of Pensions, which has got much more complicated claims to deal with, can deal with them at the rate at which it does? Why do the Minister of Agrictulture's students get treated more equitably? I suggest that this Ministry is not fitted to do executive work, either by its history or nature. It broke down-over emergency training, which, finally it had to park out on the local educational authorities. This kind of legislation is likely to last, and this further education scheme may become part of our social system. Therefore, I must ask the Minister to assume complete control.

I do not come to this House pleading with individual cases and questions. I demand that this very thing, which was refused last week—a general investigation—should be made at once. I demand a reconstruction of the machinery of administration. I demand a simplification of forms, and a speedier payment of recurrent grants to students, when students in their second and third terms wait six or seven weeks before they receive any payment. I demand that something should be done for travelling expenses and equipment, such as microscopes, which might mount up to £60 or £70 in a year, and, above all, I demand common courtesy for applicants.

It is within your recollection, Mr. Speaker, that I tried to move the Adjournment of the House on this matter. I say that the claims of ex-Service students to enter into their rightful heritage are at least as important as that of Mr. Brooke to enter Sarawak. We have been given this Debate in order to say that we want swift and businesslike action to be applied to these young men and women, in the interests of justice, and, surprisingly, of higher education.

3.5 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, Central)

The senior Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. Kenneth Lindsay) has on many occasions raised subjects of the first importance in the educational world; he has today raised one which is of importance not only in the world of education, but in the social life of our nation as a whole. It is a case of the pledged word of the Government being kept to the ex-Servicemen, and it represents, in my opinion, a glaring instance of a complete breakdown in administration. No one likes to be critical to the extent which I feel obliged to be, of a Department in which one is interested, but I am tired of receiving letters which, in their strain, make me ashamed of the treatment which has been given to these people. This morning I received a list of 90 cases from University College, Cardiff. The chairman of the ex-Servicemen's Students' Committee tells me: I am sending to you some 90 forms of people of University College, Cardiff, who have not been assessed. There are more than 90 in reality, but I send these as an example of the hardship being imposed upon these students who are dependent upon the grant. Several students have had to apply to the college authorities for loans. That is being repeated time after time. Why should these young people be obliged to change the person from whom they are borrowing, owing to maladministration somewhere? Why should a person have to go to the professor of his department or the principal of his college and plead poverty? I like to think that when I was in college I was on good terms with the University staff, but I should never have liked to have had to go to them and plead poverty and beg for financial assistance, but that is what is taking place in almost every university college in Britain at the present time. The Parliamentary Secretary is to reply, and I readily associate myself with the words of the Senior Member for the Combined English Universities when he said that that is an unpleasant task for my hon. Friend. He has already given the information that there are now 23 officials and 153 juniors at the Grants Department of the Ministry to deal with these 20,000 cases. He reveals further that the problem is that outside the Civil Service a higher wage can be obtained by the clerical assistants who are required. The House undoubtedly feels strongly on the subject, but I know that it will also want to be reasonable, and if the way to deal with this problem of staff is by tackling the wages problem inside the Civil Service it must be said that if wages there are too low that, although in turn a scandal, cannot be laid at the door of my hon. Friend.

I promised not to speak for more than five minutes, but I believe that I have another half minute. There are also university colleges which have not played the game in this matter—and it is here that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman the senior Member for the Combined English Universities. I am informed by the National Union of Students that two of the worst grievances concerning delays on the part of the colleges are in the respect of Exeter and Loughborough. The Minister pointed out that at both these colleges, the necessary registration forms were not returned until six or seven weeks after the beginning of term. The whole machinery must be checked once again. The Minister said last week that if only they would write to her, they need not have a delay. Perhaps if they would write to her instead of to me, there would not be a delay, but I write to her and I experience a delay. I want to say to the Parliamentary Secretary that things have now reached such a pass that further delay is not only intolerable but unjustifiable in any way whatsoever.

3.10 p.m.

Mr. Henry Strauss (Combined English Universities)

I know that there are other subjects which it is desired to discuss and I will therefore be extremely brief. I think all sections of the House are indebted to my colleague in the representation of the Universities (Mr. K. Lindsay) for bringing forward this subject again. I believe that nobody who was in the House when this subject was raised at Question time could doubt how widespread and how justified is the anxiety.

Most hon. Members attempt to do their duty when they get a large number of letters, and they do not forward them all to the Ministry. They use their own judgment whether the complaints are substantial and well-founded or not I would say at once to the hon. Gentleman who is to reply, that whenever I send a letter to him I always receive an answer which is both courteous and comes with as much promptitude as possible. Nevertheless, in spite of all that, the impression left on my mind—and I have some experience of the inside of a Government Department as well as of this House—as on the minds of the two previous speakers, is that there is here an administrative breakdown. Not only is great suffering caused; that would touch us all in any event: but these men and women are working under great anxiety, which hinders the very work they are trying to do.

We could tolerate all this much better if it were not for the sense of smug self-satisfaction on the part of the right hon. Lady. The fact is that the actual tragedy would be very much greater than it is if it were not for the extremely good behaviour of the universities themselves. If it were not for some of these university schemes, with which the universities ought not to be troubled at all, and by which they come to the rescue of the students in order to deliver them from the effects of the administrative breakdown, the outcry would be much greater than it has been. Somebody has said that it is hard to be blackmailed for one's vices, but it is almost worse to be blackmailed for one's virtues That is happening to the universities. They are behaving so well that their good behaviour seems to be delaying the moment when the Ministry puts its own house in order. I promised to be brief. I, therefore, content myself with supporting the general case put forward by my hon. Friend, a case which I believe is supported in every quarter of the House.

3.14 p.m.

Mr. Newman Bower (Harrow, West)

I would like to put forward a suggestion which might be helpful to the Ministry in connection with the problem which has been raised, and in the payment of the fees. This is quite a simple administrative problem. I would ask the Minister whether it would not be possible to pay a sum of money to the universities at the beginning of each term so that the universities themselves could make payments punctually to the students. If that were done I do not think there would be any possibility of payments being made to people who were not entitled to them and it would get to the root of one of the difficulties, the great delay, the continual delay, term after term, in the payment of the grants, a delay which has been causing so many people so much hardship.

3.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Hardman)

As the hon. Member who introduced this subject said, this is an urgent problem, and I want to say at once that it is a problem concerning which I have every personal sympathy with the students Up to a year and a half ago, I was professionally engaged in meeting students and, indeed, only a fortnight ago, I resigned office as treasurer of a well known students' union society. So I feel that I can appreciate the anxiety that this matter is causing to individual students and to then dependants; and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this urgent matter and for the very considerate and moderate way in which he has spoken about it. I must confess that I also have a personal feeling towards it because, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Central Cardiff (Mr. G. Thomas) I had to go to the length, after the first world war, of borrowing money from my college tutor.

At the same time I want to impress upon the House not a series of excuses for the Department, but some of the difficulties which face us. In doing so, I want to assure hon. Members that I am personally determined that everything will be done to speed up the machinery for the payment of these grants as soon as posible. As my hon. Friend said, a candidate for grant applies to the Ministry of Labour, and, in due course, usually after three or four weeks, we get a certificate from the Ministry of Labour saying that we can now go forward and investigate the details for the payment of grant. We have to decide whether the candidate has a justifiable claim to fulltime education from public funds; whether he is of a suitable standard of education to benefit, and whether the course he intends to take is justifiable at public expense. Therefore, each application is a matter for individual attention, and so of course it ought to be; yet many cases are not straightforward.

There may be a man who has studied part-time for, shall we say, a National Certificate in engineering for a year and he asks, as he is entitled to do, for a fulltime degree course lasting three or four years. There may be a girl clerk going to evening classes and she decides that she wishes to take a degree at Cambridge. There may be a man who has had some three years' training for architecture, who asks for a six years' course to take a medical degree. The result is, and my hon. Friend knows this as well as I do, that many preliminary individual inquiries have to be made. As he said we have made 24,000 of these individual awards and when, in the late summer and early autumn the great rush began, we found at the beginning of term all over the country that we had nearly 10,000 applications at various stages of consideration.

Since then we have made just under 10,000 new awards, and since the term began we have received a further 7,000 applications from students who have actually started their courses. Now the average value of each award is a matter of £250 a year, and as each application has to be considered on its own merits, and as the value is calculated in relation to the needs and resources of each candidate, a certain time must elapse before payment can be made and then, before we can pay, we need an undertaking from the candidate that he will go through with his course or will refund the money if required to do so. We also need a certificate from the college that he is attending the course. I must apologise to hon. Members for going into these details, but I feel that in this matter I am not only giving facts to hon. Members, but also explaining the position to the thousands of students outside who, naturally, feel individual anxiety.

Let me come to the question of the time taken, because that is the crux of the matter. In the summer we met it by putting the whole thing through, in a clear case where there were no really serious inquiries to be made, in a matter of six weeks. When the great autumn rush came, this lengthened to 12 weeks. Sometimes it was less, but, where individual inquiries had to be made I must admit that sometimes it was longer. We had a target of 500 new awards a week as our aim, and in the last three weeks, I am glad to be able to inform the House, we have been making more than 900 a week. The intake of new applications is now under 400, so I can say that the situation is improving every day, but we are not satisfied even at the Ministry, We are in fact getting several hundreds of applications a week from people who-began their university and college courses several weeks ago. It is true that we have not got a large enough staff to deal with this problem. There are some 20 administrative officers, as has been said, and a clerical staff of about 150. I would like to remind my hon. Friend that many members of this staff are themselves ex-Servicemen and women who are extremely keen to get on with the job and who do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Some of them have been working on individual cases which have been causing us anxiety, and which have been sent from hon. Members even at weekends.

It seems to me that there are two distinct problems, the need for making new awards as quickly as possible, and the need for making regular terminal payments as quickly as possible. I have already referred to the machinery for new awards. We had an extremely difficult patch in the late Summer and Autumn, but the awards are now being made at the rate of 900 a week, and the situation is improving In regard to terminal payments, we are the only Department which, makes grants in advance, and not in arrears. But, at the beginning of each term we must have the certificate to show that the students have come back to college. In spite of the optimistic remarks of the hon. Member for Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss) I must say that we have had difficulty with some of the universities and some of the university colleges. I am sorry to say that the colleges in some instances—by no means in all—have often made very heavy weather of this. May I give the House two or three examples? A college had certificates in the first week of this Michaelmas term. In spite of repeated reminders, we did not get them returned until 18th November. That was less than a month before the term was to end. We had cleared the whole lot through the Department by 26th November. That is one instance. Another great university was to send us certificates—

Mr. Cobb (Elland)

Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, will he answer this question? Does he chase them to send these things in, or leave it until they move?

Mr. Hardman

I said that after repeated reminders we had the certificates returned on 18th November.

The second instance is of a great university which was repeatedly asked for certificates of attendances and we had returned to us at last a complete roll of all the students in attendance at the university, and it was the business of the Department to tick off the names of students who had applied for grants. That was a laborious addition to the work we had to do. A third example was that of two colleges from which certificates of attendance were returned to my Department on 9th December last. These certificates were filled in six weeks before they were actually posted to my Department. I am glad to say that after receiving these certificates on 12th December, payment was made in the course of ten days. I will not elaborate this, and I am not attempting to shift the blame, but I am attempting to suggest to the House that there are other bottlenecks, as I said at Question time yesterday, which are not in the Department.

It is perfectly true, as hon. Members have said, that students are suffering great personal anxiety. I wish to tell the House that we intend at the Ministry—and indeed we have already started to do this—to look at the whole machinery for making these awards. I wish to say to my hon. Friend who, quite rightly, raised this matter, that I intend to take a personal responsibility in talking to the heads of the Department, and in seeing what can be done to revise the machinery and to speed up the method of making these awards. One important modification can be made, and I hope it will be possible to make it, by separating the maintenance grants from the fee grants, as was suggested. At the same time, we can overhaul our administration of the scheme and take every possible step to prevent any delays on the part of institutions in the return of forms. That was the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Elland (Mr. Cobb), who asked whether reminders were sent.

Mr. Cobb

Could my hon. Friend take one of the 20 people he has in his organisation, and send him round the universities on a kind of internal audit, to see that these things do not stay there?

Mr. Hardman

That is an extremely good suggestion, and it is one which we have already been considering, though I must point out it will be very difficult to send a responsible person from the Ministry to the universities, the colleges and the technical institutions all over the country. But it may well be possible that something along these lines can be done in the immediate vicinity, shall we say, of the Metropolis.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

It may help my hon. Friend to know that the Ministry of Supply has, with very good effect, recently dealt with a similar kind of problem by sending special representatives round all the universities, and not merely those in the Metropolitan area.

Mr. Hardman

We are grateful for the suggestion. If it can be worked by one Department, it can be worked by another. It is possible that we may find other ways in which we can simplify the present procedure without undue financial risks, and I have issued instructions for an examination all the possibilities of meeting this extremely urgent matter. I conclude by promising the House that my Department will do everything in its power to overcome the difficulties to which hon. Members have, in my opinion, quite rightly drawn our attention.

Major Haughton (Antrim)

Would the hon. Gentleman answer the point about letters which were not acknowledged, even registered letters?

Mr. Hardman

As the hon. and gallant Member will admit, the difficulty in answering letters that come in that way, is that the file has to come out of the machine, and in due course a reply is sent; this undoubtedly causes delay, as my hon. Friend admitted in his opening speech. But I agree that courtesy is an important virtue, and if we can only have more staff—and we are making a determined drive to extend our staff—I hope we can be as courteous as is suggested.