HC Deb 12 February 1973 vol 850 cc1051-65

Order for Second Reading read.

7.3 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. JohnStevas)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I hope that the Bill will be non-controversial—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to conduct their conversations outside the Chamber.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Bill deals with two distinct topics. Clauses 1 and 2 and the two schedules are concerned with the powers of the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Wales relating to educational trusts, whereas Clauses 3 and 4 refer to the powers of the Secretary of State for Education and Science relating to student awards.

The provisions dealing with educational trusts are new. The provisions dealing with awards reproduce, almost verbatim, clauses in a Bill which was passed by the other place in 1970. The two clauses passed by the other place are concerned with the powers first conferred upon the Secretary of State by the Education Act 1962. However, the Department's powers to deal with educational trusts are of a much greater antiquity. It inherited them from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry, in its turn, inherited them from the Board of Education, upon which they were conferred when the board was brought into existence as long ago as 1900. But the powers themselves are even older than that, for they were first created by the Statutes enacted in the middle of the nineteenth century, which revolutionised the administration of charitable trusts and, in particular, of trusts for education.

Before the statutory system of education was brought into being by the Elementary Education Act 1870 the provision of education was almost entirely in the hands of people who were, in law, trustees administering charitable trusts. In the context of the Bill it is sufficient to mention only the endowed schools—the majority of which were founded by gifts of money to provide teaching in grammar, Latin and such subjects—and those schools, most of which would now be known as primary voluntary schools, provided by the religious denominations in the second half of the last century.

The nineteenth century Statutes to which I have referred did two things. They provided for the establishment of Charity Commissioners, on whom were conferred the powers of the old Chancery Court over all charitable trusts, whether educational or not. In the Endowed Schools Acts they created a system for the reorganisation of endowed schools, establishing for that purpose commissioners with powers even wider than those of the Charity Commissioners who were subject to the Committee of Council on Education, which is the historical predecessor of the Department of Education and Science.

To complete this historical background, mention should be made of the provision in the Elementary Education Act 1870 which enabled the managers of the schools that we now know as voluntary to comply with the statutory requirements governing the provision of education, notwithstanding anything in the trust deeds or schemes which regulated their endowments.

When the Board of Education was created in 1900 all the powers I have mentioned were transferred to it. It acquired from the Charity Commissioners their powers under the Charitable Trusts Acts in so far as they applied to trusts for education. It acquired from the commissioners the powers conferred by the Endowed Schools Acts to frame schemes for endowed schools, and from the Committee of Council on Education power to approve those schemes. It also acquired a power to modify the trust deeds of the denominational schools within the statutory system so far as that was necessary to enable the managers to comply with the relevant statutory requirements.

Basically, the powers of the board remain the same today. They have been modified from time to time, but broadly speaking the nature of the powers and the manner of their exercise has remained unchanged. The board and then the Minister exercised—and now the Secretary of State exercises—the charity powers in accordance with the principles of the law of charity. The powers to modify the trusts of the endowed schools and the voluntary schools in accordance with the interests of education, unhampered by the more stringent requirements of the law of charity, also fall to be exercised by my right hon. Friend.

When the Government took office in 1970 there was a comprehensive review of departmental responsibilities, which included a review of the powers exercised under the Charities Act by the two Secretaries of State. As a result, the Government concluded that those functions, being essentially judicial in nature, were not appropriate to the rôle of central Government. The decisions which fall to be taken under the Act must be taken without regard to the kind of policy considerations with which Ministers are concerned. Because they are judicial it is not appropriate for Ministers to take them, and because policy considerations must be ignored Ministers are from time to time placed in an embarrassing position in taking them.

Furthermore, there are anomalies. The bulk of charitable trusts—about twothirds—are subject to the jurisdiction of the Charity Commissioners, who do not constitute a Department of the central Government in the same way as do the Department of Education and Science and the Welsh Office. The question whether a trust falls under the jurisdiction of the Department or the commissioners will, however, depend on factors which have nothing to do with the fact that the Departments are in charge of Ministers and the commissioners are not. Therefore, in principle there can be no question but that these functions are more appropriately exercised by a body such as the commissioners.

What goes in principle also applies in practice. I take the opportunity to make it clear that there is no question of the power under Clause 1(2) being exercised without the consent of the trustees to modify any provision in a trust deed relating to the provision of religious education. In practice it is in the highest degree unlikely that this question would ever arise, but it has been pointed out to us that it is theoretically possible, and I am glad to have the opportunity of giving a categorical undertaking that if it does arise we shall not exercise our powers so as to override the wishes of the trustees, whose duty it is to represent the interests of the denomination concerned.

Clause 2 deals with a different aspect. Many of the schools provided by the denominations in the nineteenth century are now in the process of being replaced by new schools, and as they close their endowments and, in particular, their premises become available for application to other purposes. Section 86 of the Education Act 1944 made provision to enable the diocesan authority concerned to apply those endowments for the purposes of other voluntary schools within the area of the diocese. It should be remembered that we are almost exclusively concerned here with the schools in England provided by the Church of England and in Wales by the Church in Wales.

Section 86 did that by applying the Endowed Schools Acts to these endowments. Those Acts have two distinct features. The powers they confer are very wide—much wider than is necessary for these limited purposes—and the procedure they prescribe is both elaborate and time-consuming. Clause 2 replaces the wide general powers of the Endowed Schools Acts with narrow, specific powers in the terms in which, in practice, those wider powers have been exercised. It streamlines the procedure so as to make it more efficient and more expeditious, but without derogating from the rights of those affected to know what is proposed and to make representations about it. As they have that knowledge they will be able to make representations about it. That is the purpose of the first part of the Bill.

I pass now to the second part of the Bill and, first, Clause 3, which is an enabling one, giving the Secretary of State power to supplement the grants of students holding awards from local education authorities by paying them dependants' allowances in circumstances where the family might otherwise suffer hardship. At present such students may receive discretionary allowances either from their local education authorities or from the Supplementary Benefits Commission. The intention of the clause is to centralise this provision and, at the same time, to ensure a uniformity of treatment which cannot be guaranteed under present arrangements.

Nearly all students who attend a first degree or comparable course, or a course of training as a teacher, receive an award from their local education authority. These awards are mandatory under the Education Act 1962 and are paid subject to conditions set out in regulations made by the Secretary of State or in arrangements approved by her. Some of these students can qualify for a dependants' allowance as part of their award, but the conditions under which they can do so are narrowly defined. Only if a student marries before his course begins and is either 25 or over at that time or has supported himself for three years, can he claim a dependents' allowance as of right. If he cannot satisfy these conditions—that is, if he is single when his course begins, or, having married before it begins, he is neither 25 nor has supported himself for three years—he has no entitlement to such an allowance. These rules have been made to ensure that the awards system provides no financial incentive to students to marry while they are undertaking courses with assistance from public funds.

If, however, a student does subsequently marry and is likely to suffer hardship either because his wife has a disability which prevents her from earning or because they have a child, the present arrangements are that he can go to his local education authority, which has discretionary powers to grant a dependants' allowance, which it will normally exercise within certain limits. If, however, it is not prepared to help him, he can go to the Supplementary Benefits Commission which, if it is satisfied that his is a genuine case of hardship, will normally provide assistance.

The Government feel that these arrangements are in many ways unsatisfactory and that they should be replaced by a systematic scheme which will ensure fair treatment for everyone. Local authorities who were given this discretionary power in 1965—following pressure from both major parties that something should be done to enable a student who is in difficulties of this sort to complete his course without hardship—are anxious to relinquish these powers. They are conscious of the fact that they have no satisfactory machinery for measuring hardship, and each authority applies its own standards, so that there is a considerable variation of treatment in similar cases across the country as a whole.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

The whole House will welcome this clause, which goes a long way to help, but why is it restricted to awards for first degree university courses and comparable courses? Many people marry and have a child after starting various courses in colleges of technology or art. As I understand it, they will still not be covered by the clause because it is limited to first degree courses or comparable courses. Can the clause be extended to include other courses?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is the intention of the Bill not to change the present system but merely to centralise it. I will, however, look into the point which the hon. Gentleman has raised.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission, too, is anxious to withdraw. Its normal function is to give benefit in hardship cases only where the people concerned are registered for employment. It has been continuing what was originally intended as a temporary measure which was initiated in the days of its predecessor, the National Assistance Board.

Clause 3 will enable the Secretary of State to establish in place of these somewhat unsatisfactory arrangements, with which neither the local authorities nor the Supplementary Benefits Commission are happy, a properly designed scheme, with common standards, which will be based on regulations to be laid before Parliament. The scheme will be administered on behalf of the Secretary of State by the Department of Health and Social Security, which has both the machinery and the experience for dealing with these sorts of problems. The allowances will, as now, be discretionary and will be designed so that they do not exceed those paid to students who are fully entitled to dependants' allowances.

It should not be assumed that all students who apply for assistance either under the present arrangements or when the new scheme comes into operation are irresponsible. This is by no means so. Some students may be nearly 25 when they start a long undergraduate course, and are thus in their late twenties when they finish. No one, I think, would consider it unreasonable if, say, a person of this age had married and started a family during a period of employment which might not have extended to the full three-year period to give him an allowance by right. I am sure that it is vitally important that such young people should not be precluded by hardship from taking a course from which they can benefit, or forced for the same reason to give up a course part way through on which they have spent much time and effort and on which perhaps a considerable amount of public money has already been spent.

A Bill on somewhat similar lines was introduced by the last administration in 1970, but failed because of the Dissolution. In that Bill it was proposed to include provision in such a scheme not only for wives and husbands but also for a person living with but not married to a student. This gave rise to a great deal of controversy at the time. There were accusations that mistresses would be kept on the rates, and so on. Some hon. Members may recall that controversy. We have therefore decided on this occasion not to include such a provision, although we propose that allowances shall be payable in respect of a student's children. I think that this is a reasonable distinction to make. The allowance will be paid whether these children be legitimate or illegitimate, whether they be blood members of the family, adopted, or step-children. We shall make no differentiation. I think that is right, since the sins of the father should no longer be visited upon the children.

A person living with a student who is unable to work because of disability or a young family will still be able to apply to the Supplementary Benefits Commission if there is a real need. Such cases are extremely rare, and I estimate that they will amount to no more than 10 a year. So I hope we shall not have any more fuss about that.

I emphasise that Clause 3 does not extend or enlarge the overall provisions made at present to relieve hardship to students. It simply rationalises the arrangements whereby provision is made and ensures that students in similar cir- cumstances, in whatever part of the country they find themselves, will receive the same standards of help.

Clause 4 removes, for certain categories of courses, the power that local education authorities at present have, under Section 2(1) of the Education Act 1962, to make awards to students attending post-graduate courses. Courses for which local education authorities will no longer be able to make awards will be designated in regulations to be made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The background to this is that prior to 1969 both central Government and local education authorities were free to make post-graduate awards in any field they wished. This not unnaturally led to a considerable degree of uncertainty and confusion about their respective responsibilities. It was therefore decided, in 1969, in consultation with the local authority associations, to define the areas of post-graduate study which should be the sole responsibility of the central Government agencies, thus leaving the local education authorities with responsibility for all other post-graduate courses.

This arrangement has worked reasonably well, but local authorities now feel that as long as the power remains to make post-graduate awards in areas which are the responsibility of central Government agencies, they will be subject from time to time to pressures to support courses which are not properly theirs. Clause 4 will remove this power from them.

Those are the main provisions of the Bill. I do not think that it is controversial, and I hope, therefore, that the House will give it a Second Reading.

7.23 p.m.

Mr. Roland Moyle (Lewisham, North)

I think that the House need not be detained long by the Bill. As the Under-Secretary of State has said, it broadly transfers the administration of policies which have been currently agreed from one agency of Government to another. The first part transfers functions from the Department of Education and Science to the Charity Commissioners, and the second part transfers responsibilities from the local education authorities to the Department.

The Government, if we are to believe them, have done this in the interest of efficiency. They have undertaken a study and are convinced that efficiency will result from these new arrangements. No representations have been made to us by members of the public to the contrary and, therefore, I am disposed to take the Government's word in this matter and look forward to the increased educational efficiency.

However, if things go wrong, the Government have been warned, because the Nathan Committee's report in 1950 said: … the educational endowments which would he affected … by a transfer of this sort— … are so essential a part of a single system of national education that their removal from the jurisdiction of the Minister of Education would create chaos". Confidence has come with time, and we hope that the Government know the course upon which they are embarking.

I wish first, indicating that I have read the Bill, to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to Clause 1(2)(a). The first word in my copy of the Bill is "made", whereas I think that it should be "make".

In transferring functions from the Secretary of State to the Charity Commissioners under Clauses 1 and 2, the Secretary of State is reserving to herself several powers which seem to us to be sensible in that they make it easier to adapt the trusts which are the subject of the clauses to incorporation into the State system of education. Probably the most important power is the one which makes it easier for religious schools to become part of the State system. We, of course, welcome this positively.

We on this side have a disposition to believe that the State system of education can cater for all forms of religious education, but we appreciate that a number of people not only want specific religious education for their children but believe that it can best be given in denominational schools. We would try to persuade them to the contrary but we certainly would exercise no pressures to provide that they should adopt a contrary attitude. We welcome the provision which makes an easy transition from the endowed schools to the State system.

Indeed, I think that this is an indication of the fact that the comprehensive State system is gathering ground. It is a confirmation of the thesis which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) argued in a recent debate—that hon. Members opposite have really surrendered on the essential issue that comprehensive schools are the schools for the future and that a sentence of slow death has been pronounced on the grammar-only schools. Sometimes the death appears to be agonisingly slow but it is there all the same.

Clauses 3 and 4 relate to arrangements for student grants. One thing surprised me about the hon. Gentleman's speech. One would not realise from it that the National Union of Students submitted a claim to the Department that discretionary grants should be done away with. I can understand that the Government have decided that they are not going to listen to the NUS on any of the points which it has urged upon them. That is quite understandable, given the attitude of the Government. But I would have thought that at least the hon. Gentleman would have felt that the NUS was sufficiently worthy a body for its case to be given some recognition.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. We are listening to the representations of the NUS. Later this month I shall meet its representatives to hear its representations in full. Far from having rejected or accepted its representations, we shall listen to them, and after we have heard the union's case and the cases of other representative bodies we shall take our decision.

Mr. Moyle

I am grateful for that intervention and I am sure that that occasion will provide interesting listening. But had I not made this point no one would have realised from the speech of the hon. Gentleman that the Government were taking any notice of the NUS at all. This is very important, because the NUS, although it relates most of its observations with regard to discretionary awards to those taking courses, is also interested in discretionary awards made to dependants.

After listening to the Under-Secretary I understand that, although the Government intend to produce a centralised scheme dealing with awards for dependants in the form of regulations, the discretionary element, as he specifically stated, will remain as a central feature of the scheme and, therefore, a point of issue between the Government and the National Union of Students. The success of this clause will depend to a large extent on the new regulations to be set out, and we look forward to studying them in due course. If anything, it has to be conceded that the principle of the scheme contained in the clause improves the lot of the recipient, however marginally, and we would not object to the clause for that reason.

We welcome Clause 4, centralising the payment of a number of postgraduate research grants in the Department of Education and Science, under the control of the Secretary of State. This is not only because local authorities have felt themselves to be in an invidious position and requested this it is because a more careful watch can be kept on the Department of Education and Science and on the development of the postgraduate situation. This is beginning to cause a little concern in the higher educational system. The Under-Secretary would agree that under the next quinquennium the percentage of university places devoted to postgraduate research particularly will be cut back to 17 per cent. from the current level of 19 per cent. That will be a lower proportion than in 1967–68.

There is some concern about this in our university system. The Chancellor of Southampton University has drawn attention to it, as has the Chairman of the Vice-Chancellors and Principals Committee. Both have expressed their unhappiness about the situation which seems to be developing.

This is not the only move that the Government have made in research. They have adopted the Rothschild proposals for Government research, and as a result the customer-contractor principle will he applied. That will means a much tighter and a much more managerial approach to the funds available for scientific research. I appreciate that a 10 per cent. margin for general research surcharge will be included in any funds made available, even for research specifically contracted out for what Dainton called basic research.

A number of our leading scientists are still not entirely confident that this will lead to a sufficient flexibility to maintain a core of basic research scientists in the universities in particular. I suppose that in an experiment there must always be an element of "wait and see", and in this case we shall be waiting and watching. This provision will marginally enable us to wait and watch a little more closely than would otherwise have been the case. The eminent sources who have expressed their worries are not to be ignored.

Apart from commenting on these points, I am able to say that the Opposition have decided that the Bill will receive an unopposed Second Reading. Having given the Under-Secretary that degree of encouragement, I conclude.

7.33 p.m.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

I wish to make a few brief comments to emphasise the point I tried to make in an earlier intervention. I can best do so by giving two examples.

A year or so ago a young lad was attending the Southampton College of Technology taking an HND course. It was a familiar story. He got a girl into trouble, a child was expected and he married her. She had the child. Had he not married her it would have been all right. She would have gone and claimed all sorts of social security benefits. Having married her, he applied for social security for himself, wife and child. He was refused on the familiar argument that because he was taking a full-time course in a technical college he was not available for work and, therefore, could not claim social security. We went to the local authority, which gave him the single person's grant. It was reluctant to increase that grant to cover a wife and child. We took the case to appeal before the commissioners and won it on a technicality.

The second case is one which I am conducting at the moment. It concerns a man in his twenties taking a course at Southampton College of Art with a view to getting sufficient O-levels to enable him to go on to teacher training college. He married and his wife had a child. Again we applied for social security and were told by the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission "Sorry. He is not available for work; therefore he is not entitled to social security benefit." The commission added a little note saying that it was not for it to judge whether the young man should carry on with his course. It did not pretend to be educationally competent to make that sort of decision. At the moment I have written to the local education authority in the hope that it will increase the grant. If it does not the young man will have to leave the college unless he can beg, borrow or steal the money to carry on.

We have had several cases like this. Sometimes in the last resort we have managed to fall back on local educational charities, which in most cases were set up for other purposes many years ago but which have a bit of money to spare. All of this is totally unsatisfactory.

As I read the Bill, none of the circumstances I have mentioned will be covered by Clause 3 because they do not concern awards for first degree university courses or comparable courses. Someone taking O-levels to get to training college does not come under that heading, nor, I suspect, does an HND course at a college of technology. I would like the Minister to look again at this, as he promised he would, to see whether it is possible to extend this to a wider range of courses than are covered in the clause.

7.36 p.m.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

With the permission of the House I will reply briefly to some of the points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle) quoted the Nathan Committee of 1950—nearly a quarter of a century ago. Times have changed and those conclusions are not necessarily applicable in the conditions of today.

I am grateful to him for pointing out the error in Clause 1(2)(a) on page 2. Since it is unthinkable that any Bill coming from the Department of Education and Science could contain a grammatical error this must clearly be a printer's error and will no doubt we corrected at the appropriate moment.

The hon. Gentleman welcomed the provisions of Clause 2 incorporating religious endowments into the State system. I should point out that although these endowments are incorporated into the State system they will be used for religious purposes within the State system of education. It is not a question of secularising these trusts. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was making the distinction, but perhaps it was not clear to everyone listening.

Clause 3 was also welcomed by the hon. Gentleman and it was only on Clause 4 that he became in any way contentious and then over a matter which really had nothing very much to do with the clause, except that it is the setting in which we are considering the subject. He said that the White Paper envisages that in the new quinquennium postgraduate students will represent 17 per cent. of the total of full-time students instead of 19 per cent. they represented in 1971–72. That is true, but as with all statistics, unless all the relevant statistics are quoted a misleading impression is given, and the hon. Gentleman ignored the fact that the provision for postgraduate students in the new quinquennium, viewed in absolute terms, is increasing. It is being increased by 7,000 places from the present 45,000 places to 52,000 places. That, I think, puts it in a more reasonable perspective.

The number of postgraduate students is not being cut back; it is merely not increasing as fast as the number of full-time students who are not postgraduate students. To get this matter into perspective we must remember that about one-quarter of the postgraduate students in any case are from overseas.

As to research, although funds for research have been transferred from the Department of Education and Science to individual Departments—for example, Agriculture—there is certainly no reason to suppose that those Departments will not contract with the research councils, and there is no reason why research expenditure should be reduced.

On the points made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell), if he has any particular difficulty with any constituent's case, of course I shall be only too glad to offer the assistance of my Department. Within the range of our powers we will do all we can to help in cases of hardship. The Supplementary Benefits Commission tries to deal with these cases reasonably and compassionately. With regard to students who are above O and A levels, the commission will normally make dependants' allowances available to full-time students even though it usually deals only with people who are available for employment.

Under the scheme that we shall be issuing in due course we shall take over jurisdiction. But one must always remember that in the last resort there is a right to go to the Supplementary Benefits Commission, even where particular cases are covered by the scheme. I do not think that would in fact be very productive, but perhaps more important in practice is the fact that in those cases not covered by the scheme there is still a residual right to go to the commission.

If there are further points on the Bill they, no doubt, will be probed and elucidated in Committee. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for facilitating the passage of this small but necessary Bill on its Second Reading, and I recommend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).