HC Deb 23 February 1972 vol 831 cc1454-64

2.3 a.m.

Mr. Ernest Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

I welcome this opportunity to raise the very serious problem of maintenance allowances for children at school.

As from September of this year, all children in Britain will have to stay at school until they are 16 years of age. I am all in favour of that, and I am glad that the Government are going ahead with that very long overdue reform. But, in order that the reform may be fully effective, I believe that it is necessary to examine the provision that we make to enable all our children, wherever they may live and whatever the circumstances of their parents or the families to which they belong, to take full advantage of the educational facilities which are offered.

Under Section 81 of the Education Act, 1944, local education authorities are empowered under regulations by the Secretary of State to provide help by way of free meals, for instance, or the provision of transport, the payment of travelling expenses, and various grants for clothing, including P.E. clothing, to enable children to benefit in full from what our schools have to offer.

There is also provision for the award of maintenance allowances to pupils over the compulsory school age. It is the latter provision with which I want to deal. These allowances are payable only to those who stay at school after the statutory leaving age and are completely within the discretion of the local education authorities. Even the amount payable is decided locally. In 1956 the Minister of Education, as he then was, set up a working party to consider the effects of such allowances and whether changes ought to be made in the scheme then operative.

That working party confirmed the need for such a scheme and drew up a recommended scale of allowances to be payable according to the income of parents. These were for the guidance of local authorities and nothing more. No other scales have been laid down since that time 15 years ago and on that score alone it seems worth another look. My recent investigations, begun as a result of representations by my constituents convince me that a complete reappraisal is urgently necessary, and I hope for a favourable response from the Minister.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that on 20th January, in answer to a Written Question he said that no regular information was collected about the numbers receiving these allowances and I can understand that because they are discretionary. There was a special ad hoc return called for for the spring term of 1970 which showed that the parents of 20,000 children were receiving the allowance. That means that the scheme is not working. That shows a scandalous state of affairs because there must be thousands of families who do not know their rights or who are denied the necessary allow ance because the adjustments to the income scale have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. I could quote examples of families where the breadwinner is either sick, disabled or unemployed and where the family is not entitled, on the income scale laid down, to a maintenance allowance from the local education authority.

When the Minister invited various local authority representatives and teacher organisations to take part in the 1956 working party it was said that the total expenditure on maintenance allowances ought not to increase and could possibly be diminished, while still giving adequate help where needed. That sort of advice was nonsense then and is nonsense now, certainly when there are over a million unemployed and when there are families whose income is inadequate if the childen are to have the necessities to enable them to take full advantage of what the schools are to offer. The Minister also said that he was inviting the working party to make recommendations because there was a need to introduce a considerably greater degree of uniformity among authorities. That is true. It is undeniable that allowances at present are inadequate, unevenly distributed and are not meeting the needs of the children for whom they were introduced.

There is agreement in this House that for all our children, wherever they may live, in whatever circumstances, the Government and certainly hon. Members on this side are anxious to make the sort of provision which will enable all our children to receive full benefit from education. The Minister knows, as I do, that in report after report, evidence has been produced that early leaving is often due to financial hardship. I am sure that the Under-Secretary is as anxious as I am to remove at least that factor which compels some children to leave school before reaching anything like their full potential.

I shall give an example from the Northern Region. There, I know because I used to be a member, there is a North-East Council of Education Committees. All the education committees in the area meet from time to time to discuss various educational matters and they review the income scale for maintenance allowances and agree how the scale shall be administered in the areas they cover. In the scheme, which I have examined carefully, I find that annual joint gross income of both parents is assessed from all sources including social security payments, widows pension and so on.

Deductions allowable include £120 for each dependent child under 18, and £180 for any dependent over 18. Rent, rates or mortgage are also allowed up to a maximum of £4.25 a week or £221 a year. The maximum allowance payable to the 15-year-old is £123 per annum, and to qualify for the maximum allowance net income must not exceed £375 per year or £7.75 a week. The Under-Secretary will agree that this is ludicrous in present circumstances.

I know that the northern authorities are reviewing the scale now because of representations made, but I think this justifies a new approach. A man, wife, and two children, one 12 and the other 15, with a gross income of £18 per week, paying rent of £2.50 a week would qualify for £18 a year. I suggest that with a 15-year-old in full-time education, many families need much greater help than that. It bears no relation to real need, and after September the 15-yearold will receive nothing.

The governing bodies of schools and divisional executives in Durham have protested to the county education authority, which in turn has made representations to the Minister about the withdrawal of grants from the 15-year-olds. Because of the school leaving age being raised, according to law, only those over school leaving age—16 plus—will be entitled even to be considered for allowances, and I am surprised to see from a copy of a letter from the Minister to the Durham authority dated 21st December last year, that no amendment of the law is contemplated.

I therefore make the following suggestions: the law should be amended to enable children below statutory leaving age to qualify for allowance. The Minister knows, because we have discussed it in the Chamber and in other places before, that in the Northern Region, many people will be staying for an extra year after next September who would otherwise have left school. I welcome this.

In the Northern Region, unfortunately, for various reasons, not just lack of finance, we have some leeway to make up in the number of children staying on. I can see—this is borne out by representations from divisional executives and governing bodies—real hardship unless allowances are made available for 15year-olds who will have to stay on until they are 16. We should remember that income per capita in the Northern Region is only about 79 per cent. of the national average, according to the 1968–69 count.

My second proposal is that the scheme should be made mandatory on all authorities, with an income scale laid down, as we had for free school meals, so that equality of treatment is achieved for all children, irrespective of the meanness or otherwise of various local education authorities. If there is one thing that parents are concerned about, it is that living in one place attracts a higher grant than in another.

Third, in establishing the scheme, we have to have regard to the earning capacity of 16-year-olds. I know that this was disregarded by the working party and I would not say that it should be the yardstick or anything like it, but, in persuading parents of the worth of an extra year, some regard has to be paid to the earning capacity of school children who might have been at work. The Minister will agree that this scheme would be a very sound investment in the nation's future, bringing benefit not only to society in general but to individual pupils.

Finally, the Department should launch a publicity campaign, whatever happens, to make parents aware of the scheme which is in operation now, inadequate though it may be. A total of only 20,000 throughout England and Wales means that the scheme is not working. The Department has some responsibility in this matter. All parents need to be aware of their entitlement, and these young men and women—for that is what they are—of 15 and 16 should feel that, by continuing their education as all of us want them to do, they are not a "drag" on their parents, but that, of right, they are compensated by some allowance, and have some independence.

This is a vital matter. With the raising of the school leaving age, it is becoming urgent. I could bring very hard cases to the Minister's notice if I had the time. The Minister should accept this kind of reappraisal, so that, all over the country, in remote rural areas, cities and towns, wherever children are attending school and wherever we want them to profit from their education, they will be able to receive as of right an allowance which will not depend upon the local education authority and its generosity or its anxiety to keep down rates but will be a national scheme, administered locally of course, but mandatory on every authority in the country.

2.19 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

As always, the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) has put forward his case not only with great personal knowledge but with an obvious sincerity. I shall do my best to answer the particular points he has raised. Probably neither of us had supposed that we should either be speaking so far into the morning, as we are, or that we should be doing so after what is, after all, one of the historic moments in Parliament's life.

I well remember the hon. Gentleman raising this point before. When I saw this Adjournment debate on the list, I recalled that he raised this point when he and I were members of Standing Committee A, considering the Education (Milk) Bill on 6th July. In a way, that is relevant to one or two points I shall make shortly, but I shall return to that.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is understandable and good that there should be a searchlight on the possibilities and availabilities of these particular grants at a time when we are contemplating, very shortly, the raising of the school leaving age. I am delighted to join with him across the Floor of the House in welcoming that event. It is a very important moment in our educational history.

I recognise that by reference to a date, which is 1st September, 1972, and by reference to whether a young person is 15 before or after that date, so will it be determined whether, as the law stands at present, that person is entitled to one of the awards about which the hon. Gentleman is speaking. The hon. Gentleman puts it perfectly fairly that, as the law stands at present, if they are 15 before that date, they will be entitled, and entitled throughout the coming school year, whereas he is perfectly right that if their 15th birthday should fall after that date they will not be entitled.

It is always tough to be on the wrong side of any particular given date. But both sides of the House would concede that if we are to raise the school leaving age, there has to be a date in the calendar from which that process starts. I must, therefore, establish clearly—the hon. Gentleman hinted at this—that if there were to be any change in this matter in respect of the grants being available to those below the compulsory school leaving age, this would require legislation. The matter derives from the Education Act. I shall not go into the references now. My right hon. Friend and her successors as Secretary of State could not do this by order made under the Act. It would require legislation.

In all fairness and directness to the hon. Gentleman, I ought to say that I see no prospect of legislation being introduced to that end; apart from all other considerations—I have other considerations—certainly not in time to affect the raising of the school leaving age. It would be only right and proper to make that point clearly. Nor am I convinced by the hon. Gentleman's case on this particular point. This is a very personal subject on which, in general principle, it would be right for the House to continue to entrust discretion to local authorities.

When talking about allowances, the hon. Gentleman said that they were unevenly distributed. He referred to a table of figures, which I think I gave not long ago in Answer to a Question on this matter and which was set out in HANSARD. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I would have expected just exactly that. In the county, part of which he represents in the House, I notice that the number of pupils in receipt of educational maintenance allowances was 1,127 on the date chosen. In the county of which I represent a part there were 62. That is wildly different but the conditions in Berkshire are significantly different from the conditions in part of the county of the hon. Member for Durham, North-West.

I do not find it a matter for criticism that in a county such as I represent, with a high rate of employment and, broadly speaking, very good economic conditions, fewer children are being assisted. I am not seeking, to say that every child in either county who ought to receive it is necessarily doing so. I would have expected uneven distribution if local authorities are to exercise their discretion according to local circumstances.

Successive Governments have regarded these allowances as an additional incentive, sometimes a determining incentive, to parents—who, by law, can remove their children from school—to allow their children to remain in school. They are glad to do so and without the allowances it would often be impossible. But they have never been seen as an additional social benefit during the compulsory years. I noticed with interest that the hon. Member made his plea for an amendment to the law almost exclusively on the basis of the age of 15. He would, I think, agree with me that if the law was to be altered fundamentally it would have to be altered so that local education authorities had the discretion over the whole range of the compulsory school age. He nods his assent so we think alike on this. There would clearly be no point in doing it only for the age of 15 although I could see the 15-yearolds in the year the school leaving age was raised thinking if they had been born a year earlier they would have had the allowance.

The argument the hon. Member is putting to me is that over the whole range of our compulsory school age we should have this additional allowance. It would then become something quite different from what it has been since it was first initiated. Surely the weapons available to the State under successive Governments in respect of children who are compulsorily at school have advanced very considerably. It could be argued they have not advanced enough. The hon. Member referred to allowances in respect of school uniforms, assistance with travel and this sort of thing. But then, over the years, there have been the social security benefits under successive Governments culminating in, for example, such totally new projects as the Family Income Supplement. These are a new injection of State assistance and help for families who are in social need.

Against that background of change and extension of social provision by the State we have to ask whether the right way forward is to provide the maintenance allowance for those who are of compulsory school age. I prefer to look at it in this way: as from this year a significant number of children who would otherwise have been under great social pressure to leave school at 15 will be buttressed by the law. Both the hon. Gentleman and I are delighted that that will be so. If they thereafter stay on over 16, and if they might then want to leave for economic reasons, we still have the maintenance allowance to assist them. But below that age there is the buttress of the law, and since these allowances came into operation we have added a number of social security weapons to our armoury.

I am asked, however, whether we should not make the allowances mandatory, even if I am limiting myself to those aged 16-plus. I am not trying to make a debating point, but it was significant that the last time the hon. Gentleman and I discussed the subject it was on a Bill when he was critical of me for, as he said, removing from local authorities a certain discretion which he thought they should have. There is a considerable difference in principle. But what the hon. Gentleman is advocating is yet one further reduction in the discretion given to locally-elected people, and that is something we should not want to embark upon without very careful thought and inquiry.

There are significant differences between this matter and the reasons why we have in the past, rightly, made awards for higher degrees, for example, mandatory. The greater number of the students are in institutions outside the awarding authority's area and so on. But the case of school allowances seems to me pre-eminently a case for local discretion. I should be reluctant to take that local discretion away.

I am also unhappy with the argument that we should make the allowances reflect earning power. That is exceedingly difficult.

But I welcome the debate, despite the hour, because it is valuable that parents should be made increasingly aware of what is available, and that local authorities should know that we in this House are interested in the problem. Local education authorities should know that they have the discretionary powers to make the awards at the levels they determine. The hon. Gentleman gave an example. I hope that that part of the debate will have been useful—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-seven minutes to Three o'clock a.m.