HC Deb 17 March 1976 vol 907 cc1474-88

10.38 p.m.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 9, leave out subsection (4).

Like my hon. Friends in the previous debate, I am moving the amendment in order to be constructive. There were a number of questions which the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security did not answer in Committee. The hon. Gentleman said then that he understood that there had been full consultation with the Institute of Careers Officers. But I understand that those parts of the Bill which relate to social security were not discussed with the Institute.

The careers officers are annoyed that they were never given a chance to discuss these matters. They were last asked to submit their views about the change of the school leaving age two years ago. I have a copy of their submissions to the Department of Education and Science. The Department of Health and Social Security has never approached the Institute to discuss the consequences of their changes.

The careers officers believe that, as I argued in Committee, the change from the phrase "over school age" to the age of 16 can cause certain anomalies, and is no improvement. The former Minister who dealt with the passage of the Bill in another place, Lord Crowther-Hunt, was obviously reading from the same sort of brief as we heard in Committee. Both he and the Under-Secretary argued—to quote what the hon. Gentleman said in Committee—that The effect is simply to secure that the earliest date from which a person becomes liable for contributions will be his sixteenth birthday, rather than as now, which is either the date on which he would be entitled to leave school or his sixteenth birthday, if the latter were later."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 11th March 1976; c. 85.] We have not yet heard a satisfactory reason for the change, which has important wider consequences.

The Minister and I did not understand each other in Committee, and we did not clarify the matter. Let us assume that someone must stay at school until the Easter leaving date because his sixteenth birthday was on, say, 2nd September. He may decide to do part-time work in the Christmas vacation, and if he earns more than £13 a week he will be entitled to a national insurance number. The careers officer will supply the national insurance card.

The Government do not seem to understand the psychology of young people in the present employment situation, and they do not understand the psychology of employers. It is important to bring home to employers the consequences of the Bill. We need a major publicity drive such as that which followed the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act. The pupil, parent and employer are accustomed to regard the possession of a national insurance number as eligibility to a job, but that will not be the case. Once a pupil has a number, where is the incentive to stay in the classroom until Easter? Desperate for a job, is he not likely to grab anything and to play truant?

Through this provision the Government could undermine the whole concept of the raising of the school leaving age. They should be encouraging young people to stay on to do constructive work in the schools, or, as we suggested in amendments, to go into further education and obtain qualifications. Most of those leaving at Easter—80,000-odd of them—leave without qualifications. Instead, the provision will almost give a licence to play truant and to seek a job.

This matter is causing anxiety not only to the Opposition but to the Institute of Careers Officers. It arises from failure to understand the psychology of so many young people and the pressures on them.

Secondly, the Minister did not answer the narrower point about the period between pupils leaving school at the end of May and returning to take GCE examinations. Will he pay supplementary benefit for that period of six or seven weeks? A person of over 16 may decide to leave because his peer group has left and yet want to return for the examinations.

10.45 p.m.

Thirdly, I suggest that the cost will probably be greater than the Minister thinks. Many firms say that it is more satisfactory for them to take on young people at the end of August or early September. That is the time of year when the previous year's intake of apprentices has completed its training. If there were recruitment in June-July, no sooner would they be in employment than they would be in the holiday period. They would be in employment for such a short time that they would not be eligible for holiday payment. They would no doubt claim supplementary benefit. That would be an additional cost.

There is a glaring anomaly which I accept probably existed under former Conservative Governments, but it will be worsened by the Bill. By bringing forward the date on which pupils can leave school and standardising the date, if they are not to be hired until the end of August or early September they will be out of work for an additional eight or nine weeks in some areas. That is a long time for young people not to be employed. The Minister said in Committee: The effect is simply to secure that the earliest date from which a person becomes liable for contributions will be his sixteenth birthday … The purpose is to ensure that there will continue to be no liability for contributions before a person reaches the age of 16."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 11th March 1976; c. 85–6.] It is all very well saying that they are entitled to family allowances but the allowances go to the mothers. We must remember that in some instances the relationship between the son or daughter and the parents will not be good. The children will leave school early because they will be entitled to do so, and they may not be able to get a job. They will not receive family allowance and they will not be entitled to supplementary benefit. What will happen to them?

By leaving the Bill as it stands we could be adding to the problems of delinquency and vandalism. The Government should consider the wider implications of the course that they propose to take. They should try to find an answer to what will be a worsening problem as long as the present employment situation exists, and which will occur again.

There is great dissatisfaction among careers officers. It is they who will have to operate the scheme. They do not understand why there should be this change to a specific date and they want an explanation, as do the Opposition. It seems that the change is pointless. I ask the Minister to delete the subsection and to leave matters as they stand.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Meacher)

The hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) drew attention to the fact that in Committee on 11th March I implied that the Institute of Careers Officers had been consulted about the change to the age of 16 as the earliest date of liability for national insurance contributions.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to suggest that my understanding of this point was incorrect. However, I assure him that it is true that we have had close and detailed consultations with the Institute on the general operational arrangements for issuing national insurance numbers to young people. There have also been informal meetings—they have not amounted to consultations—with officials of the Institute since the Bill was presented.

It is true that the earliest date of liability for national insurance contributions had to be considered separately from the operational requirements for the registration of young people. Quite apart from the lack of time, I do not think it was a matter for consultation with outside bodies. The change will make a slight difference to the procedural arrangements in which the careers service is involved, but the officers of my Department will be approaching interested parties, including the careers service, concerning the changes which will be necessary.

The effect of the amendment is to retain the attainment of school leaving age as the earliest point at which liability for Class I or Class 2 contributions, or the right to pay Class 3 contributions, can arise. Under present legislation, liability for contributions cannot arise until the person concerned is over school leaving age which, for this purpose, is effectively the same as the upper limit of compulsory school age for the purposes of the Family Allowances Act.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the link had not been maintained. If the link with family allowances had been maintained, the earliest start to liability for contributions this year from those who leave school in May would be a date in July—roughly coinciding with the end of the summer term—at which they will be deemed for family allowance purposes to reach the upper limit of compulsory school age or, if later, the date of their 16th birthday. This link could remain only for 1976 because next year the family allowance scheme will be replaced by the child benefit scheme. All this would be very confusing for employers and we therefore decided to sever the link between the "school leaving age" for national insurance purposes and the "upper limit for compulsory school age" for family allowance purposes.

We chose to make the direct link with the attainment of age 16 because this is the simplest and most readily understood concept. Having a common earliest time of contribution liability for all young people is a simpler concept for employers and employees to understand. Because of other changes which are taking place, it is important to have clear-cut rules for employers.

The change in the start of contribution liability is also consistent with the arrangements for national insurance benefits. Entitlement to retirement pension is related to the contribution record over a period beginning with the tax year in which age 16, not school leaving age, is reached. Finally, the change is consistent with other social security legislation, including family income supplements, supplementary benefits and child benefits, where the attainment of the age of 16 is the starting point for rights and obligations. This is a simplification which will be welcomed by employers and employees.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether a person who is 16 at Christmas and then gets a national insurance number because he gets vacation work, would stay away from school and take illegal employment instead of remaining at school until Easter as he is required to do. I think that is very unlikely. Where a young person wishes to know his number before his school leaving date because he is over 16 or because he has earnings from a vacation or part-time job on which he is liable for contributions, he will be directed to the careers officer who will be able to supply it. The involvement of careers officers should be a reasonable safeguard against young people taking up full-time employment before they are entitled to do so. We do not think that there is much danger of this anyway because employers have the responsibility of ensuring that they do not engage young people in contravention of the statutory provisions concerning employment.

The leaflet accompanying the notification of a national insurance number expressly states that it is not an authority to work, and beyond that, which I hope will be sufficient in tthe great majority of cases, we are also considering the possibility of further safeguards.

Dr. Hampson

That is the important thing. Will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that the Government will keep this situation under review and possibly intensify the publicity if necessary? It was disturbing that in Committee the hon. Gentleman gave an absolute assurance that this sort of truancy would not happen, yet the only safeguard he offered was the careers officers, but they are concerned that the 80,000 people who leave at Easter without qualifications, often with no intention of taking examinations, would have no incentive to stay once they had their national insurance number. In great parts of the country many people will try to slip out of it. The hon. Gentleman's Department must try to educate the employers.

Mr. Meacher rose——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. I thought that the Minister had sat down. If that was an intervention by the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), it was some intervention.

Mr. Meacher

Those of us with experience of the hon. Member in Committee, Mr. Deputy Speaker, do not believe that paucity of words is his greatest virtue.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the means of support for young people under the age of 16 who might leave school and then not be able to get work. I think he suggested the possibility of supplementary benefits which might be given to persons who left in May prior to their returning in June to take O levels. I do not think that that is a realistic proposition. We take the view, as I am sure the Conservative Government did, that if children leave school under the age of 16 and are therefore not eligible for supplementary benefit, their parents have the same responsibility for maintaining them if they fail to find work as they would have had if the children had remained at school.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the financial implications for the national insurance fund. The sort of contribution liability of children reaching the age of 16 in the period February to June and leaving at the end of May is likely to be brought forward by Clause 2(1) by an average of only seven weeks. If their average earning were £25 a week, say—probably an optimistic estimate—the extra contributions paid would be about £½ million a year, to which would be added about £500,000 by Treasury supplement. That is the likely limit of extra involvement of the Exchequer in the national insurance fund. It is a small sum and it is perhaps an optimistic estimate.

There should also be some extra income from people for weekend or vocational work when over the age of 16 but still under school leaving age, and there are not likely to be many of them. This cannot be estimated with accuracy, but it may be about £30,000 to £40,000, to which would be added a Treasury supplement of about £6,000, a very small sum.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is assured that the changes proposed here are for simplification, both for employers and employed, that there is no significant extra cost to the Exchequer, and that we shall liaise with the Institute of Careers Officers and seek to give full publicity to employers of the operation of this new control.

11.0 p.m.

Dr. Hampson

We are not entirely happy with the assurance, but I think that the Department has looked at the matter seriously. On that basis, and bearing in mind the other factors which the Minister has mentioned, particularly the education of employers and notifying them about the full significance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

11.1 p.m.

Dr. Hampson

We accept that the main aim is to deal with the difficult post-examination period, but nevertheless we are a little disturbed. There is a long period of time in which students may cause disruption—because there is nothing to motivate them any longer—or there is heavy truancy. It is not a tolerable situation.

We accept that the Bill is trying to deal with them, but why is it that, after over two years of discussions on this problem and others related, more has not been achieved?

In Committee and elsewhere the Government have recognised the existence of an ill-motivated group in the final year of school. The problem is not one that arises only after the examination period. It exists earlier on. There is a wider problem, and it is compounded by the lack of flexibility over this concept of the school leaving age. Students can, by the accident of birth, miss the leaving date by a few days, and have to stay on for virtually the whole extra school year, all but six weeks. There ought basically to be greater flexibility.

After two years of discussion the Government should have been able to do something more about this problem. We have heard from several Government spokesmen that they will do something about the 16s to 19s, with some sort of initiative on work-related and education-related courses. Why is it, there-fore, that some 16-year-olds will have these more exciting opportunities while other 16-years-olds, because their birthdays fall in September, will be imprisoned in the classroom for a year?

There is a generation for whom the last year is a time not for learning but for killing time. Therefore, there ought to be more opportunities available to them. In particular, they ought to have the chance to leave the classroom and the school environment, to which they may have been hostile for many years, and to enter further education.

The Minister of State himself has pointed out that in the last five years the number of students taking GCE examinations in colleges of further education has gone up by 10 per cent. To use his own words, students are "choosing with their feet", in many cases taking O level in further education colleges. Before the raising of the school leaving age, many were going into further education colleges at 15. What is the point of now curtailing their opportunities?

There was an opportunity in the Bill to do more than has been done to redress this situation. That is the real gist of the argument. Surely some flexibility could have been achieved on the lines of Opposition amendments. There could have been the option to go into further education colleges, or into approved apprenticeships. That would have been eminently sensible. The students would have been under the broad umbrella of education, but there would have been more constructive pursuits for them to undertake, and they would have been better motivated.

I come back to the charge made on Second Reading about the battle with the Department of Employment, and particularly the influence of the trade unions on this Government. The trade unions are frightened, particularly at a time of tough economic conditions and mounting unemployment, that by bringing more people on to the labour market or allowing them to go into apprenticeships the situation will deteriorate. For two years, therefore, there has been a battle royal between the Departments and vested interests. It is not good enough from the educational point of view that this should happen. We have missed a great opportunity. It has been a tragic waste of an opportunity to give a better deal to a very large body of young people.

The Department has two major Bills—this one and the Education Bill. When will the opportunity arise for further legislation? If the Department is concerned about the apprentice situation and the employment position from a trade union point of view it could have covered it. I have before me an Act of the State Parliament of Victoria, Australia, which has launched an imaginative scheme for providing a wide range of possibilities for the last year at school. There is a guarantee in the Act to safeguard the trade union position. This could have been done here. There has been enough time to get things ironed out.

In a situation fraught with difficulties for the teachers and headmasters—they are not in a happy situation—there was a chance to make more flexible provision. We on the Conservative Benches are not attacking the principle of Rosla. We do not say that it is not a good thing to extend the opportunities for education for this age group. We say that it should not necessarily take place within the school. I fully accept that since Rosla came in there has been a dramatic improvement in the numbers willing to acquire qualifications. In 1971–72, 43 per cent. of the age group left without taking any exams, whereas in 1973–74 the figure fell to only 19 per cent. That is a great achievement and I pay tribute to those in the schools who have helped to secure it and improve the motivation of young people. The Department's paper shows that there has been this success. It was my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition who brought about this reform.

There is no point in pursuing too narrow an objective, one which we fear could stultify the situation and be a positive disincentive to those whom we want to encourage to stay on and take exams. This, as I argued on the Amendment, affects those 80,000 or so who are forced to stay on until Easter and who often do not aim to take qualifications. There will also be a second disincentive effect. Many young people, particularly those from poor backgrounds—where family pressures are for them to get out into employment—will heed the call from their mates in the classes who leave at the end of May and they will leave too. In a tight economic situation they will be desperate to get a job and not lose out to their mates. Why should they stay on, or come back to do GCE? Even if they do CSE, they may want to do GCE or be encouraged to do so by their teachers, yet there may now be a disincentive to them.

There is an awful lack of flexibility. We all experience this as constituency Members. I had a case of a girl who was 16 on 2nd September. She wanted to do a pre-nursing course in further education where she could take O levels. Her school, a fairly mediocre one, did not allow her to take O levels. If she had gone to the further education college she could have done O levels and the training course, which was what she most wanted to do. She could not get in at Easter and lost interest in the whole thing. There are examples of people who have done O levels and who will, because they are 16 after 1st September, have to stay on until Easter. The frustration is great. We feel that the Government have not understood what is happening on the ground in the schools—have not understood the psychology of young people and have wasted a great opportunity.

11.9 p.m.

Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), I was concerned that in Committee the Government were not represented by a bona fide Minister from the Department of Education and Science. Many of us feel that as the Bill has taken a lot of time to get to the House and although we approve of the underlying principle behind it, nonetheless it could have been much better planned and embraced many more of those aspects which are so necessary within our education system.

This is an enabling piece of legislation but we are concerned that a Minister from the Department of Education and Science was not present during the Committee stage. The Government sent along the Minister for the Arts to lead for the Government. That is a depressing situation when one considers that the Minister took a long time to explain that he was attached to the Department of Education and Science, even though he was situated not at that Department's headquarters in SEI, but in the lusher pastures of SW1 where, in his own words: … physically I am detached and in Belgrave Square, and I find this of great benefit and advantage, and useful to my primary job…."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 9th March, 1976; c. 40.] I should have thought, from reading the papers a few weeks ago on the subject of fire-bricks and his assiduity in sponsoring that particular purpose, that his presence might well have been better off in the Department of Housing and Construction or perhaps the Department of Energy.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Gerry Fowler)

Will the hon. Gentleman address himself to the Bill, because that would make a change after the past two or three minutes?

Mr. Macfarlane

Yes, I shall certainly address myself to the Bill. I am grateful for that intervention from the Minister. I wish he had addressed himself to the Bill in Committee instead of sending along his hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts. That might have saved Mr. Deputy Speaker and the House a lot of time.

As the Minister is so anxious to intervene, will he address himself to the question of external approved apprenticeship schemes? This is something which could have been introduced into the Bill and which is gravely lacking.

Although I do not fully agree with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon, who said that he was in favour of raising the school leaving age, I believe that now that we have this feature we must make it work. One way in which we could assist the classrooms and teachers is for the Government to encourage the external approved apprenticeship scheme, and that could have been included in the Bill. I should like the Minister's comments on this matter, because I believe, essentially, that, despite the late hour and the heavy programme he has had in recent weeks, no doubt in propping up his Department he would wish to make an observation on this matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Even at this late hour when there is plenty of time to speak and business is exempted, we have to stick to the Standing Orders. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to discuss only what is in the Bill and not what he would like to be in it.

Mr. Macfarlane

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your observations, which I shall always endeavour to follow.

I would be grateful if the Minister would comment upon this particular feature. It is of paramount importance, not necessarily in the Bill, but in the future——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I shall not allow the Minister to reply to something not in the Bill and I ask the hon. Gentleman not to maintain his invitation to the Minister.

Mr. Macfarlane

I am sorry if I incurred your displeasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but this is a matter of considerable importance. The Bill, which is shortly to be finalised, is important enabling legislation, but there are many grave disadvantages by its introduction at this time.

11.14 p.m.

Mrs. Margaret Bain (Dunbartonshire, East)

I do not intend to detain the House long, but as the only Scottish Member who served on the Committee I cannot let the Third Reading pass without speaking.

The hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) showed grave misjudgment when he spoke of the Bill dealing only with the post-examination situation for children at school. He showed a Conservative attitude to education—namely, that education can be measured only by people's qualifications. We in Scotland do not believe that people's qualifications are what count at the end of the day. As more and more children stay on at school to take O grades, or O levels, as they are called south of the border, employers raise the qualifications for children entering employment and that is a disadvantage for those children who would probably be defined as non-academic.

As I argued in Committee, I do not think that the Bill goes far enough. Educationists argue for greater flexibility in school leaving dates, but we as politicians tend to take a very authoritarian attitude to the amount of time that children spend at school. We see attendance at school as being the same as education, but the two are not necessarily identical. I do not want to go back over the educational seminars that I had at university, where we spent hours trying to define the importance of education. That was a semantic and academic argument.

There should be flexibility in school leaving dates. A child who leaves school and moves into post-school education is much more likely to benefit than one who is forced to stay on as an unwilling learner. I know that there is a severe economic climate, but I ask the Government to consider extending post-school activities.

11.16 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Gerry Fowler)

Most of the matters raised in this short debate—I might add, not short enough—have not been apposite to a Third Reading debate because they have concerned what is not in the Bill rather than what is in it. While I admire the remarkable prolixity of the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), with which he entertains us twice weekly upstairs in Committee, I confess that my admiration does not extend to sympathy. I sympathise with him, of course, in his bid to establish a permanent place on the Opposition Front Bench, but I advise him that he might achieve that place more easily by brevity rather than by prolixity.

The nub of the hon. Gentleman's speech was more or less the nub of the speech by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain), but she managed to say it more briefly. It was that there is great concern in the House that children should have the opportunity, if that be in their best educational interests, to proceed to another educational environment instead of staying at school. That is an important point, but it does not have much to do with the Bill. The Bill is designed to deal with a much shorter-term problem. The hon. Member for Ripon said that the Government had had two years to deal with this matter. His Government had three years of planning before they raised the school leaving age, but they implemented the change in such a way that even now we have had to come back with this Bill to tidy up a purely technical matter.

The hon. Member asks why children cannot on the one hand leave school and go straight into technical training, and, on the other, why they cannot leave and go into further education. He is posing two entirely different questions. In the first case they are going into employment-cum-training, and in the second they are continuing with their full-time education in a different environment. I reject the first question out of hand and will not detain the House as this matter was fully discussed in Committee. The second is an interesting point, but, as he knows, there are major problems over the assimilation of the regulations covering schools and those covering further education. While it is an interesting question, therefore, it is not one which could possibly have been dealt with in the Bill.

This is a useful minor measure, but no more than that. I hope we shall make more progress in the future in determining the best method of continuing education for 16-year-olds.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with an amendment.

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