HC Deb 06 March 1956 vol 549 cc2069-78

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Godber.]

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to another educational matter, namely, the difficulties which have recently arisen about the National Insurance situation of post-graduate research students who have been classified as self-employed, class 2, and have consequently been compelled to pay 8s. 5d. a week contribution.

Previously, they were exempt from payments, in common with undergraduates, by virtue of Section 5 of the 1946 Act, and were allowed to pay contributions in arrear within four or five years in order to safeguard their pension rights. It is, of course, understood by these students who are raising the complaint now that if they do not pay contributions they cannot expect pension rights and benefits.

This new classification is a particular hardship for these research students because many of them are on very "low" scholarships, and they will have to pay arrears which they incurred during their undergraduate period. It is particularly hard, too, because in many cases they are required to study for 48 weeks in the year and do not, therefore, have the opportunities which other undergraduates have of earning money during vacation periods. Many of them actually hold State scholarships or receive D.S.I.R. grants and therefore, if the logical next step is taken and the grants are increased to cover the additional £20 burden which the student has to carry, that means another increased charge on public funds.

Another complaint is that the application of the new rule is very uneven. Forty-five students in Sheffield University have already been required to pay. Others in Oxford, Newcastle, Birmingham, London and Southampton have also been required to pay, and even in the same university there are students who are not expected to pay while others in exactly the same circumstances are called upon to do so. If the requirement is extended to all post-graduate students, thousands more will be affected. The matter has been actively pursued by the National Union of Students, at both local and national level, and I should like to pay my tribute to them for bringing this rather serious subject to my attention.

As I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education will note, this new arrangement comes precisely at a time when the Government are producing a new White Paper on their plans for the expansion of technical education. The hardship and discouragement is hitting the people who, as research workers or teachers, will be those on whom the Government's new scheme must depend for its success or failure. They are the people to whom we shall be looking for an extension of technical education and an increase in the number of trained technologists.

It seems that there is a great lack of co-ordination between the Government Departments concerned. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us whether the Ministry of Education has been consulted on this matter. The universities think it is most odd that the Ministry of Labour and National Service is content to accept their certificates that students are undergoing full-time education and so are exempt from National Service but the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance will not allow the universities to give a similar certificate for insurance purposes. The Inland Revenue, under Section 458 of the Finance Act, 1952, draws no distinction between scholarships held by undergraduates and those held by students who read for further degrees.

It appears that the Ministry's decisions are based on case M.39, reported in Pamphlet M.6, "Selected Decisions of the Minister on Questions of Classification and Insurability." It seems to me that the circumstances in that case are very different from the circumstances in many cases of which I have given the Minister notice. In any case, I would say that the decision in case M.39 was wrong. Most of the trouble arises from the fact that full-time education is not defined in the Act or in the Regulations, but Regulation 7 (1) in Statutory Instrument, 1948, No. 1417, appears to contemplate research students working in higher education, for it states: …for the purpose of determining whether such education has terminated, the following shall be disregarded: Any period of employment as a teacher during any term of such education not exceeding six hours a week. That is a very common regulation in universities for students doing research work for higher degrees. Certainly it would not be applicable or of any great value to undergraduates.

The only basis on which any distinction can have been drawn by the Minister is that of a very narrow view of education. I believe that it has been suggested in correspondence that education should be confined to instruction in classrooms—as if we shall have more technologists by treating them as school children. It is a particularly unfortunate view to come from a Ministry presided over by an Oxford graduate.

As the House knows, lectures at Oxford and Cambridge are not even compulsory for undergraduates. There is abundant evidence that many of the people now called upon to pay extra are receiving more direct supervision as post-graduate students than they received as undergraduates. Another flimsy point made has been that to qualify for a higher degree one has to do original work, and that that therefore cannot be instruction. It has been known for original work to be done by undergraduates—[Interruption]—and as one of my hon. Friends says, by school children.

The thought occurred to me that one of the penalties for a first-class honours degree, which might come from original work in the examination room, might be a demand from the Ministry for three years' arrears of National Insurance contributions. I am sure that no one would want to push that argument very far. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will explain how one can be self-employed as a research student or a research worker. I can understand how one can be employed as a research worker or student. I have a research fellowship which I am sure would come within the employed category. I cannot understand how one is a self-employed research student.

There is no dispute about these students being full-time students. The regulations of all universities for higher degrees prescribe that there shall be full-time education and study, and in the case of many of the scholarships there are similar requirements. The regulations usually go on to say that there shall be no more than six hours' teaching. I have searched the regulations of many universities to find some distinction in them on which the Minister might have seized; but I have not been able to find one of fundamental importance.

In the University with which the Parliamentary Secretary will be most familiar, Birmingham, the only distinction is that the post-graduate student is allowed to park his motor vehicle in the grounds, whereas the undergraduate cannot. I am sure that that is not a basis on which to charge post-graduate students the 8s. 5d. per week, as in most cases they cannot afford to run a motor car. I therefore ask the Minister to take appropriate action in a typical case to stop this fallacious distinction being drawn between undergraduate and post-graduate students. It imposes great hardship on individuals, and it is discouraging the research student at a time when the Prime Minister has indicated, in speeches throughout the country, that he is embarking, we hope seriously, on an attempt to remedy the dire need for technologists.

If, for reasons that I cannot appreciate at the moment, the Minister cannot say tonight that this ridiculous practice will stop, I would ask that the Minister's definition of education should be tested in the courts. Under Regulation 4, S.I., 1948, No. 1144, the Minister has power to refer matters of this kind, where a question of law is involved, to the High Court for decision.

The crux of the matter is what construction one puts on the word "education" in the Act. These serious students are worried by the present situation, and can be relieved one way or the other, if the Minister will take the responsibility of deciding the matter. I ask that he will put the matter before the court and that he will undertake to pay the High Court costs. I do not think that he would expect, in a matter of this sort, one student to pay the costs. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us that at least that concession will be made.

11.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Edith Pitt)

Perhaps I should begin what I have to say with a little explanation to fill in the background of this rather difficult problem. As the House will know, all people have to be classified for National Insurance purposes into three classifications. They are, first, employed persons working under a contract of service for employers; secondly, self-employed persons, gainfully occupied in employment but not under contract of service to an employer; and thirdly, non-employed persons.

There is no difficulty about the classification of the vast majority of people; the nature of the work they do is clear and no doubt arises. When a doubt does arise, the responsibility is laid, by the Act, on the Minister to determine classification, and his decision can be contested in the High Court—as the hon. Member has just said. That is an important point. The Minister must interpret the Act in relation to the facts as he finds them in a completely impartial manner so far as the individual is concerned.

This is the general position when anyone has to be classified for National Insurance purposes. I can perhaps come closer to the problem that we are interested in tonight if I explain that persons in full-time education are regarded as non-employed persons. Up to the age of 18 they are credited with contributions. Beyond that age they are excepted from liability to pay contributions so long as they continue in full-time education. That is to say, they are not compelled to pay contributions as non-employed persons although they may do so if they wish, and it is, of course, to their advantage to do so if they wish to preserve title to the benefits of the scheme—again, a point which the hon. Member has brought out tonight. If they cannot pay and wish to do so later, they may do so at any time up to approximately four years after their course of full-time education ends. Those provisions were agreed after very careful examination of the whole problem by the National Insurance Advisory Committee.

But where do research workers come into the picture? For a research student at a university to be classified as non-employed and excepted from liability to pay contributions, he must come within the category of persons still in full-time education; and in deciding that question the Minister must apply a sensible interpretation of what constitutes full-time education. There is, at one extreme, the schoolboy, who can readily be accepted as being in full-time education; at the other extreme there is the trained research worker receiving a fairly substantial monetary award to do a valuable piece of original research by the light of his own intelligence and knowledge, and with little or nothing in the way of tuition or supervision.

Such a person could hardly be regarded as in full-time education. He is a professional worker engaged on research as a job. In some cases such a worker may be under a contract of service with a university or a grant-awarding body, and he would then be classified as an employed person. But often he will be working independently, and so he falls to be classified as self-employed, and liable for contributions as a self-employed person.

Between those two extremes there are quite a large number of students engaged on research or being trained as research workers in a variety of conditions while receiving financial grants from one source or another. Whether they should still be held as undergoing full-time education depends on the facts of each case—for instance, the nature of the work done, the extent of control exercised and the amount of tuition received. In a number of cases which have been examined, after oral inquiry and consideration of evidence taken from interested parties, such as the student himself and the university authorities concerned, it has been ruled that a student in that field is self-employed.

A precedent decision by my right hon. Friend's predecessor was published in November, 1954, in the Ministry's series of published decisions (Pamphlet M.6). This aroused a good deal of interest in the universities and among students generally and discussions have been held with the National Union of Students on this point during the past year.

Mr. Mulley

That has no bearing on the class of case I have raised, because that is a case of someone who went back to the university after being a teacher. We are talking of people who go straight from getting their first degree to higher education.

Miss Pitt

I will continue with the general picture.

It is recognised that even if a research student is classified as self-employed and thus liable for contribution, in a number of cases he will be receiving a grant which is sufficient only for his maintenance and does not include any amount for insurance purposes. That will at least be true of the junior research worker.

On the other hand it must be emphasised that this special exception from liability to pay contributions is not an unqualified privilege. If the research student does not pay it means that he and his dependents are ineligible for any of the benefits of the National Insurance scheme. These people will already have spent three or four years as undergraduates at a university and will now be getting on into their twenties. Some of them get married, and with the assumption of family responsibilities it is highly desirable that they should have the cover which the National Insurance scheme provides. Even those who are single are building up the arrears which they ought to pay when their studentship ends if they are going to preserve their title to the full range of benefits of the scheme. To take an example, the young man who marries soon after he has taken up a job following his university course—as many do—will not be able to provide any cover for his wife and children should he die unless he has paid up at least three years of arrears or until he has worked for at least three years. For full cover for his wife, he must pay all arrears of contributions.

The Ministry has been considering that matter with the interested parties—this is the answer to one of the questions the hon. Member asked me—the interested parties being the Ministry of Education, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and other grant-awarding bodies. The terms and conditions of the various kinds of grants are being examined with a view to deciding what should be, under the terms of the Act and Regulations a proper classification for the various kinds of research workers.

The hon. Member is naturally very interested in the position at Sheffield. He will know from the reply given by my right hon. Friend to the hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. G. Darling), on Monday, 13th February, that special inquiries are being made into the position of research students at Sheffield University, although this, of course, is only part of the general picture.

The hon. Member also referred, in a telephone call to my office at the Ministry, and in a passing reference tonight, to the case of a research student at Birmingham University. Here he was trespassing very much on my territory, because it so happens that this student is a constituent of mine and has already written to me directly. I do not begrudge the hon. Member his interest, and I am not trying to warn him off.

Mr. Mulley

I did not mention his name.

Miss Pitt

I am aware of that, but the hon. Gentleman mentioned his name in speaking on the telephone to the Ministry, and I took it the hon. Member was intending to refer to that case tonight. He can be assured of my help. I also have been in correspondence with the student concerned, and have told him I am looking into his position. I hope that the hon. Member's interest will continue.

To sum up, the classification of research students for National Insurance is, in the first place, a matter of the correct interpretation of the law—

Mr. Mulley

What we want to know the answer to tonight is why it has suddenly become necessary, five or six years after the Regulations were passed, to have an inquiry and to change the procedure.

Miss Pitt

The decision was made in April, 1954, and since then a number of questions have been raised. I think I am correct in saying that the Assistant Bursar at Sheffield University, having become aware of that 1954 decision, circulated a number of students, and that has caused the recent inquiries.

As I was saying, the classification of research students is a matter of the correct interpretation of the law as laid down in the Act in its application to this varied group of people. While I cannot comment tonight in detail on individual cases—and the hon. Member has been careful not to refer specifically to any individual cases—I would say that the Minister is examining the general position carefully; he has very much in his mind the considerations urged upon him by interested parties—that is, the students themselves, the universities and the grant-awarding bodies, and, of course, the view of hon. Members as expressed in the House, in this debate and in correspondence with the Ministry.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I think we are all indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) for raising this somewhat complicated but really important matter—important obviously to the students, and to the nation. I am sorry to say that I find it difficult to be entirely satisfied with the reply that the hon. Lady has given us. We cannot, of course, discuss on the Adjournment whether it might be desirable to have the law amended on this matter, although dare say that is in the hon. Lady's mind—or I hope it is. Apart from that, what worries me is whether one can really say that somebody who is working for a first degree and doing full-time study for it is in one insurance category and somebody who is working for a higher degree and working full-time at it is in another insurance category. It seems to me a very odd decision to make, and that such a distinction should work out to the disadvantage of a post-graduate student is, on national grounds, undesirable.

Secondly, can we really say that somebody receiving a grant to do research is self-employed? The hon. Lady herself mentioned that these grants are given on conditions. I am not a lawyer, but I ask whether, if somebody is given a grant on condition that he does certain research work, it is impossible for the Minister to decide that that is, within the terms of the Act, employment under a contract of service. I should have thought on a commonsense view one would conclude that it was. I wonder how much and how profound legal advice has been taken on these questions. I presume the legal advisers of the Ministry have been consulted. I wonder whether the Law Officers of the Crown have been invited to give an opinion on the conclusion to which the Ministry seem to have come, but which it seems rather difficult to reconcile with common sense.

I am glad to hear that the Ministry is looking at this matter, and I hope in time it may be able to give my hon. Friend and those for whom he is speaking a reply that will cause them to rejoice more. If under present legislation the hon. Lady and her right hon. Friend find it impossible to do that, then I hope they may have recourse to a remedy which it would be out of order to mention in this debate.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.