HC Deb 09 December 1974 vol 883 cc197-203

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

11.28 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I think that the Third Reading of this Bill would be a convenient moment for us to have a statement from the Government on a matter which was raised at both the previous stages of this Bill. It is, in short, the question of reciprocity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the matter of the grants with which the Bill deals.

The Minister will not, especially as I have given him notice of this point, require to be reminded of what he said in Committee. He said: it is a matter for the Northern Ireland administration but that his Department would be taking it up. He went on to say that it would welcome any initiative from the Northern Ireland administration to discuss it."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 26th November 1974; c. 11.] I must say that there is something slightly ironic in the manner in which the Government seem to divide themselves by a kind of nuclear fission into separate portions. After all, the Northern Ireland administration is part of the same Government as the Department of Education and Science in Great Britain.

I hope, therefore, that although it is a little more than a week since the Minister made that statement, this procedure of internal and almost incestuous consultation will have taken place and that the essential fairness of these arrangements for reciprocal action as between the two parts of the kingdom will be recognised. I hope that the Minister will be able to make a statement on that point.

11.30 p.m.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

In Committee the Opposition gave the Bill their backing, but we raised certain questions. The one to which I wish to refer now relates to the remission which would be given to people who start off with a diploma of higher education or HND and then move on to a degree course.

We raised this matter simply because of the principle on which those courses were set up. Especially in the polytechnics, we are looking for a more flexible system of higher education, and we hope that people will be encouraged to enter the system, perhaps without having the requisite A-levels at an early age or perhaps being mature students, middle-aged men or women, and take up a diploma of higher education or national diploma course. One has in mind vocational matters—technical education and engineering—to which we have never given enough lead or encouragement.

But what will happen if we urge people to go into those courses and then they prove their potential at that level even though they have not done so before? We now have a more flexible system, and if they prove their worth we ought to encourage them to go on to the full degree course.

When we raised this matter in Committee, the Minister was most co-operative and said that he would be seeing to it in the regulations. Since then, members of the Committee have had a communication from the Minister, and although I think that it is basically in favourable terms I feel that something further should be said for the record and a commitment given thereby.

Obviously, one must agree that the HND student should not be allowed an advantage over the diploma of higher education student, and hence it would obviously not be right to give such students eligibility for a second award for a degree course which was not given to the former. But when one examines the reasons why the Department will not give remission for more than the final year, one finds just the argument that this would encourage more expenditure on student grants and possibly more numbers entering into degree courses.

I find that argument extraordinary. I see the Minister shaking his head. His letter says that anyone who is in a position whereby, as a result of taking these courses, he is not given two years' remission will not be given the full grant for the remainder of the degree course. This is a disincentive. We live in the practical world, and many universities do not give the full two years' remission; they may give only one year. The Minister's letter specifically states that in that case students will not get the grant to cover the remainder.

I understand that the Minister may feel that this implies that the diploma is not equal to the first two years of a degree course. In that case, will he give an undertaking that he will do everything in his power to encourage—and even, if it is required, oblige—universities to make sure that they give that recognition and thus the full two years? If he does not, he must recognise that he will produce a disincentive to students to go on to degree courses, because they will have to fend for themselves for an extra year. If they are middle-aged, they may well be deprived of the income which they had in employment and they will have a hard struggle in a full-time course.

This is quite iniquitous. I have never seen any proof that the Department has worked out the numbers involved, so how can it know the commitment and cost? The Department is hedging its bets. It does not know whether it will be too great a commitment or not. The Minister's letter simply says: Such a development could lead to a substantial increase of expenditure both on student grant and on the provision of facilities for higher education. Given that the numbers are to be cut down and the whole thing is contracting, I feel that there is an illogicality in the Minister's statement, and we want clarification.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

I want to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) and thank the Under-Secretary of State. I thought that his letter, which I imagine went to most members of the Committee, betrayed a timely sense of shame since he was clearly aware that he was disappointing most members of the Committee, because he says, in the last paragraph I do understand that some members will be disappointed by his letter, and earlier on he makes the same sort of remark.

The letter does not answer the suggestion that a student should be given a mandatory award from the commencement of second year of the degree course if he has gained remission for the first year. I have read with great care the reasons, and I understand them, but I do not agree with them. They seem rather typical Civil Service reasons and do not take into account the position of a student in the situation which I outlined —in other words, the student who is not getting two years' remission but is getting only one year's remission and then has to rely on a discretionary award. I am sure that the Under-Secretary has taken this point on board and will keep it very much in mind.

Finally, I cannot let this occasion pass without once again alluding to the spouse's contribution. Unfortunately, and no doubt fortuitously, the tight wording of the Financial Memorandum debarred us from enlarging on this in Committee. However, I go back to the remark made by the Minister on Second Reading, namely, that If two students marry they continue to receive the full rate of grant on the same basis as if they were single."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th November 1974; Vol. 881, c. 843.] He was answering a suggestion that the spouse's contribution might encourage students to live in sin. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), who objected to the word "sin" on theological grounds. I have discussed this with some students, who tell me that it is correct that once an award or grant has been made it is not then varied, so that if two students who have hitherto received the grant cease to cohabit and become married the grant is not varied. However, they tell me that there are instances of students who deliberately do not get married until they have received the award.

Nevertheless, the main objection is a different one, namely, that with a spouse's contribution or a parental contribution the father or the husband can deny the married student the grant by being unco-operative.

I accept that the abolition of the parental contribution will cost between £20 million and £30 million, which is a substantial sum of money, but the abolition of the spouse's contribution would not cost much more than £1 million. I think it a pity that this was not taken into account in drafting the Bill. I am sure that my sentiments will be echoed by many students throughout the country.

11.39 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I am grateful to hon. Members who have made their points in such a reasonable way. I shall endeavour to reply to them. In answer to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who raised the point that was raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) in Committee and on Second Reading, we have been in touch with my hon. Friends in the Northern Ireland Office and they have indicated—I can confirm this—that when this legislation results in the Dip.HE and the HND courses becoming mandatory the Department in Northern Ireland will amend its regulations to make them mandatory for Northern Ireland students as well.

The Northern Ireland Department's powers in this respect are very wide, and no amendment is required to its Education Act. I put it on record that this will ensure that all students from Northern Ireland taking Dip.HE or HND courses anywhere in the United Kingdom will be eligible for mandatory awards in the same way as students who are covered by the Bill in England and Wales.

I accept the case that the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) made. I knew that my letter would be disappointing. I want to assure the House that we considered it carefully. Perhaps I may explain about the second mandatory awards. The Dip.HE or HND students will be eligible for the remainder of the degree courses following the first two years. I know that this does not go as far as some hon. Members would like, but we said at the outset that this was a modest Bill. We do not want to establish a pattern in which it would be normal for students taking Dip.HE courses to take four years over a degree course when other students would take three years.

The Dip.HE is intended to be no less demanding intellectually than the first two years of courses at degree level. It is important to establish the status of the Dip.HE, and that is our judgment on the second mandatory award. The local education authorities would, of course, still have the power to make discretionary awards and such awards would be at the same rates as mandatory awards. Therefore we would hope that this would meet the need in exceptional cases—we certainly do not want four-year courses to become the pattern—which would be considered on their merits by local education authorities.

Dr. Hampson

We are worried that the eligibility therefor from the LEA's point of view depends not so much on the quality of the student but possibly on the economic circumstances of authorities. If in the next year or two they are hard up, as is likely, it is less likely that they will make awards.

Mr. Armstrong

This Bill represents a modest extension of mandatory awards. We come across a number of hard cases from quite good students who have to resit for a variety of reasons, and they have to pay their own fees. Therefore, we have to bear in mind that we do not want to establish a new pattern of a four-year course. I understand in the present economic difficulties the problems with discretionary awards, and sometimes even good students find difficulty in persuading their local authority on this score.

The present regulations do not allow HND students getting an award for an HND to go on to complete a degree afterwards. The Bill therefore provides an improvement in that it puts them on a par with Dip.HE holders and enables them to have a second mandatory award for the remainder of the degree course after the first two years. We believe this to be fair and reasonable in present circumstances.

The spouse's contribution is a matter of great controversy. The interpretation in the debate of what I said is correct. This matter is under constant review. I cannot give any assurances or hope, but I can confirm that I receive constant representation on the matter and that we are therefore unlikely to overlook the very fair points that were made in Committee and again tonight.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Will the Minister confirm or correct the figures given by his hon. Friend, namely, that the abolition of the parental contribution would cost the Exchequer £30 million? I was under the impression that the amount was very much greater.

Mr. Armstrong

The figure which is being quoted is £63 million. I think that £30 million would apply after the tax claw-back and so on. Therefore, whichever figure one uses, depending of course upon the platform on which one is speaking, one is correct.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.


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