HC Deb 16 December 1977 vol 941 cc1131-43

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

11.17 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising in the House an issue with which I have been concerned for many years, both in the Chamber and in discussion and correspondence with Ministers of successive Governments. It is the problem of the young school leaver who is unable to claim supplementary allowance if he attends certain types of short-term courses at technical college or other centres of the kind. I have a considerable file of correspondence with the Department of Health and Social Security, the Department of Education and Science, and the Department of Employment, as well as with the Supplementary Benefits Commission. I know and understand the point of view expressed by the Commission. One of the difficulties if one knows extremely well the present chairman and the previous chairman of the Commission is that one knows all too well some of the problems which face the Commission.

I want to put the issue in its setting. On Tyneside and in South Shields in particular, and the area immediately around it, we have some of the most distressing examples of the problems arising from unemployment. We have an unhappy record in the matter. The latest figures, which I received only yesterday, show that in the South Tyneside local government area no fewer than 1,078 young people under the age of 18 are unemployed—447 young men and 631 young women—and registered with the careers service.

I accept and welcome the efforts of the Government to get as many young people as possible into practical training schemes of one sort or another, and all the other arrangements that have been made, such as job creation. To give some balance, I am told that Government special measures are providing training facilities over the same area for 492 young people in the same age category who would have had to be added to the 1,100 unemployed whom I mentioned.

That would have been the position it ii had not been for the initiative taken by the Government and the special schemes that we all welcome. In spite of all that effort, I am sure that we are all deeply disturbed about the level of unemployment that remains, and especially the impact that it is having on young people, very many of whom leave school with no job prospects.

We are all concerned to try to encourage young people to stay on at school wherever possible. We do not want to take action that would discourage them. Equally, it must be understood that many young people resent the idea of being compelled to stay longer at school. There is a better chance that they will take the opportunity of education courses in the setting of a technical college, an adult college, than if we attempt to persuade them to stay on at school.

I am glad to say that some young people are staying on at school. In the past the figures in the North have not been very creditable. Not as many young people stayed on and passed into secondary education, as we used to call it as we wished. In your country, Mr. Speaker, there has often been a record of more children staying on at school than in Scotland, and, alas, in the North of England we have had to make up for a bad position.

The House will be aware that if young people stay on at school the parents may be able to claim some financial support. However, the anomalies that arise cause a great deal of difficulty. If the young people concerned merely stay at home and do nothing, they are almost certain to be entitled to supplementary allowances of one sort or another. However, if they seek to take some valuable form of part-time education, even though they are to all intents and purposes clearly available for employment, they are likely to miss all forms of support. This is a real difficulty.

If young people take a part-time course at a technical college of not more than three whole days or six half-days a week, and give an undertaking of their availability for work, they can claim supplementary allowance, and in most cases they will secure it. I had quite a long struggle to establish that provision. It is a concession that was introduced quite a few years ago. There are still a few offices that we hear about from time to time where the information has not wholly seeped through. Some misleading information is still given to young people about their rights in this regard.

If a young person seeks to take a relatively high-level education course after leaving school, a course that is beyond what is normally available in school, he or she will probably be given an education grant and receive some financial support. There is some continuing feeling that although support is obtainable if a young person takes a so-called advanced course, if he takes a non-advanced course—in fact, a fairly elementary course or a follow-up course—it is almost certain that he will be ruled out on making application for financial support.

The point that I am chiefly seeking to make is that if all young people taking courses were to opt to take one of a variety of three-month courses, even though they may guarantee that they will take up the offer of a job and break the course if a job becomes available, they would not be likely to be eligible for financial support, and certainly not for supplementary allowance. Bearing in mind a letter that I received only recently from a colleague of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, it is conceivable that they might be considered for unemployment benefit. Of course, only a small number of the young people that I am talking about are likely to have any insurance qualification for unemployment benefit. They are more likely to apply for supplementary allowance.

In these cases it is, to put it mildly, unlikely—indeed, it is almost automatic that they are ruled out for application for supplementary allowance—that they will receive financial support by means of supplementary allowance, because they are taking what in education circles is known as a part-time course, but what in my hon. Friend's Ministry is considered for the purposes of employment regulations as a full-time course. We are talking, for example, about general engineering preliminary courses. Some City and Guild courses may have examination qualifications available to them.

From the college point of view—I am speaking specially about the situation that arises in my constituency of South Shields in the internationally known marine and technical college—there are quite a number of three-month courses in operation. It would be relatively simple to take more of those who have left school and are out of work and, in suitable cases, put them into appropriate courses. However, that is not always possible under the rules and regulations as they stand.

I pay tribute to the eagerness of the staff and others at the marine technical college who do all that they can to bring more and more young people into practical and useful training courses. However, if they try to do that they appear to be set back by the rules and regulations. They have to try to design special three-day a week or six half-day-week courses, which are rather wasteful of staff, as against making fuller use of courses that are likely to be available in any case.

Despite all the correspondence and discussion that there has been on this matter, I plead with my hon. Friend and his colleagues to see whether some further progress can be made.

Among those who have done a great deal of work in trying to analyse the situation, bring out the facts and devise ways of better working are people associated with the trade union council in South Shields. Such people, in co-operation with the college, have put forward many proposals and ideas in an attempt to resolve this matter. I pay tribute to them and to all those in the town who have sought to obtain practical answers to this worrying problem of more than 1,000 young people who are still on the unemployed and the special careers registers.

Despite past regulations, I suggest that a further attempt should be made to deal with this matter. Frankly, I do not mind how this financial problem is met. If it were found possible, after all the argument, to include this type of course in education, it would fall outside the responsibility of the Minister who is to reply to the debate. I know that would please my friend—I am sure I may use that expression—the present chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, who feels that this matter should be dealt with on the education side.

At the moment it does not come within that category. Both the Department of Education and Science and the local authority insist that three-month courses cannot be accepted in the education category. They rule them out as part time and, therefore, not suitable for consideration by them.

That is why we come back to the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the DHSS to appeal for further consideration. A concession was made to me nearly seven years ago. Enough time has now gone by to enable both the DHSS and the Supplementary Benefits Commission to make a further concession to me this morning. I ask for greater flexibility to enable the technical college to tackle this desperate problem in my area.

I fully appreciate the difficulties and anomalies that will arise no matter what solution we try to achieve. We are attempting to bring a number of different Departments together. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will at least agree that the long-term objective, which the Government have declared, is to find ways of ensuring that young people leaving school are in some way provided with training facilities and opportunities. None should be left out completely, because of the serious damage that may cause in future years.

Despite all the difficulties, I hope that, even at this late stage and after so much discussion, my hon. Friend will agree to encourage as much flexibility as possible to allow benefit to be paid to the progressive and eager young people at the marine and technical college in my area.

I recognise that similar problems arise in other parts of the country. Therefore, any change or re-examination of the system that my hon. Friend may set on foot could have widespread beneficial effects at this difficult time.

11.36 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alfred Morris)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) has chosen this subject for debate today. It was extremely courteous of him to send me a note before the debate on the principal points that he wished to make.

My hon. Friend's interest in this subject goes back a long way. I read with interest a previous debate that he initiated on the availability of benefit for people taking part-time courses. Indeed, he has taken an active and important part in the process of policy-making in this area. Thus, he spoke with considerable modesty.

The debate gives me an opportunity to explain the Supplementary Benefits Commission's attitude to the payment of supplementary benefit to those taking part-time educational courses. To avoid any misunderstanding, I should emphasise that by "part-time" I mean courses at which attendance is necessary for part of a week as opposed to courses which are full time but last for part of a year. I do so because the latter are also known as part-time courses in education circles where the natural unit of time is the academic year.

I should like to deal with these part-year courses first as I believe that they admit of no compromise. In social security terms, the natural unit of time is the benefit week, and any activity which occupies all or a large proportion of a person's normal working hours within that period is regarded as full time. Therefore, a course which involves full-time attendance for a short period—for example, a 10-week intensive course—is regarded as a full-time course.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission's view is that it would be precluded from paying benefit to a student on such a course by Section 7(1) of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 even if the student undertook to leave if he were offered work. These are the terms in which my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields on 25th November this year, and, as I said, I am advised that they admit of no compromise.

I should add that the same view is taken where a worker had a temporary job for, say, one month only, in the middle of a spell of unemployment. While that job lasted, he would clearly be in full-time work and would therefore be excluded from supplementary benefit under Section 6(1) of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976. He could not argue that he was a part-time worker only on the grounds that his work had occupied only part of the year.

That appears to be not only good legal sense but good common sense, too, and the position under Section 7(1) of the Supplementary Benefits Act, which relates to education, is, for practical purposes, exactly the same. A short full-time course must be treated as precisely that. I accept that in the field of education such a course might be termed part-time, but this is a difference of terminology between the education and social security systems and it cannot be allowed to govern the clear position under Section 7(1) of the Act. Under that section the Commission can pay full-time students only if they are in genuinely exceptional circumstances—for example, orphans or others lacking normal parental support, those with severe disabilities, and so on.

Mr. Blenkinsop

The letter to which my hon. Friend referred and a subsequent letter made clear the distinction between supplementary allowance claims and unemployment benefit claims. In unemployment benefit, apparently the same judgment does not hold. There it would be prepared to examine special cases, whereas with supplementary benefit allowance there is an almost automatic bar.

Mr. Morris

I shall be touching on this point later. All that my hon. Friend has said this morning will be carefully considered by the Departments concerned. I am advised that it could not be accepted that a course of short duration could be an exceptional circumstance for the purpose of Section 7(1) of the Supplementary Benefits Act. That is why I say there is no question of paying supplementary benefit to a student attending full time but part-year courses. In the remainder of my speech I shall therefore be using "part-time" as meaning for part of a week.

Supplementary benefit, as my hon. Friend knows, is a benefit of last resort payable to those who are unable to provide for themselves by working. It is payable to people who have so recently entered the employment field that they have not yet paid sufficient contributions to ensure entitlement to unemployment benefit. Supplementary benefit is also payable to those whose entitlement to other benefits is such that their resources do not meet their requirements as calculated on scales laid down by Parliament, so that some supplementation is necessary.

But no benefit can be given indiscriminately and free of conditions, and the Supplementary Benefits Commission imposes certain conditions on those who apply for benefit. I shall not detail all of them here, but mention just one. This is that fit people under pension age should, with certain exceptions, such as the heads of one-parent families, be required to register for employment as a condition of receiving the benefit, just as they are as a condition for receiving unemployment benefit. Such a requirement entails that they should register at an unemployment benefit office and be available for, and willing to accept, any suitable employment. This has long been an accepted feature of the scheme. The Commission is, in effect, saying that it will replace the unemployment benefit that someone is unable to draw, but on similar conditions as to availability for work.

It follows, therefore, that those who are not available for work because they have prior commitments, for example, if they are attending colleges of further education, cannot receive supplementary benefit.

In the Commission's view, there already exists adequate machinery for ensuring that support is available to young people who wish to continue their schooling after age 16 in worthwhile courses. This is by way of the various subventions administered chiefly by the Departments of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Scotland, and in some cases by the Manpower Services Commission under the Youth Opportunities Programme announced earlier this year by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. They have the expertise to assess which courses and which individuals are worthy of public support, and the Supplementary Benefits Commission's officers do not.

The social security system does, of course, have a role to play in the maintenance of families containing students aged from 16 to 19 doing full-time courses to GCE A level or Ordinary National Diploma standard, but that role consists of paying child benefit—plus appropriate increases of any other form of social security benefit that happens to be in payment at the time—to the parents, in the same way as for schoolchildren under age 16. The parents may also be entitled to child tax allowances, though, as the House knows, these are being phased out by stages as the new child benefit is phased in.

Here I must pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend, because it was largely as a result of his initiation of the earlier debate that the Commission's policy wa3 re-examined in 1971 to see what might be done to help unemployed young people who were seeking usefully to fill in their time by attending courses, generally in colleges of further education on a part-time basis. The outcome was that it was decided to allow supplementary benefit to be paid to these young people, subject to certain safeguards designed to ensure that the Commission was paying benefit to young school leavers who are genuinely unemployed and not to students in further education.

These safeguards were: first, the course had to call for only part-time attendance of not more than three working days a week or six half-days; secondly, the claimant and principal of the college had to accept that the claimant could terminate his studies at any time; thirdly, the claimant had to maintain registration for work, continue to claim through the unemployment benefit office and be available to seek, pursue and take up at once suitable work if it became available; fourthly, claimants who had given up work or abandoned a full-time course in order to take a part-time course would not be eligible.

These provisions have operated without causing difficulty and have been generally welcomed as permitting some time-filling part-time courses to be undertaken by the unemployed school leaver without his title to benefit being affected. I stress that the school leaver must be prepared to abandon this course should an offer of suitable work be made.

With the recession in the economy, to which my hon. Friend referred in some detail when speaking of its effects in his constituency, there has been renewed interest in the Commission's "three-day week" concession. Various proposals were advanced which, in effect, asked the Commission to underwrite training and retraining far removed from the original concept. The funding of this retraining was clearly inappropriate to the functions of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. As one example, there was a proposal that the Commission might pay supplementary benefit to unemployed school teachers in their twenties or older while they attended a three-days-a-week, one-year refresher course in mathematics.

A reappraisal of the Commission's policy earlier this year led to the conclusion that the rules formulated after my hon. Friend's March 1971 debate had generally stood the test of time well but needed to be restated with one or two additional points to reinforce the nature of the concession. Reinforcement was necessary because the Commission's experience of the workings of its policy had demonstrated certain points of difficulty. It was, for example, evident that some young people were attending colleges of further education primarily to secure educational qualifications and were not inclined to give up their studies even though they had prospects of work. In other cases the Commission was being asked to pay benefit to people nearer to retirement than they were to leaving school and it was therefore necessary to restate the limitations of the scheme.

These points have therefore been restated as follows: first, only very exceptionally will benefit be awarded to anyone over the age of 21; secondly, where the course offered leads to a recognised qualification, for example, O or A levels, the Commission will look closely at the question, especially in the case of a very recent school leaver, whether the claimant is genuinely interested in getting work and is prepared to leave the course at once if suitable work becomes available, even if this should happen just before examinations. The accent must be on the nature of the course rather than the acquisition of qualifications. Thirdly, the "three days" can be taken as comprising up to 21 hours' instruction, which can be spread over five or even six days in the week. Fourthly, courses will almost always be held in Colleges of Further Education, and not at school, that is, there should be a complete physical break from school. Further than that the Commission cannot go.

My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Minister for Social Security and I concur with the Commission's view, as we have told the House before in Answers to Questions and in the debates at the beginning of this year on what is now the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1977. The Commission is glad to be able to help young people who are first and foremost unemployed but who wish to occupy some of their time with useful study while waiting for work to become available. But it is not its function to help—except sometimes in vacations—those who remain first and foremost students and who in reality have never severed their ties with the world of education.

The distinction between young people whose chief purpose is to find permanent work and others whose chief purpose is to continue their education without substantial interruption is clear enough, I would have thought, in principle. In practice there are, of course, borderline cases, as there always are where a line is drawn in a continuum, but the normal independent appeal tribunal machinery is available, should the individual school leaver think that the initial decision on his claim is wrong. My information is that my hon. Friend's constituents are by no means slow to make full and proper use of that appeals machinery when they feel that the local office has gone wrong—which is, of course, exactly as it should be. Those who work in the office are just as much my hon. Friend's constituents as those who appeal.

Mr. Blekinsop

Simply to try to avoid the necessity for so many of these appeals, the dangers of varied results according to who may be sitting on the tribunal, and the differences between one area and another, I want to see a coherent scheme which is flexible. That is what we are really after.

Mr. Morris

I have noted what my hon. Friend has said. He may be assured that his remarks will be carefuly considered by my Department.

I remind the House that the setting of limits to the extent to which the Supplementary Benefits Commission can and should be involved in the maintenance of students is, in principle, no longer a matter of controversy, if indeed it ever was. In its second annual report, Cmnd. 6910, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services presented to the House in September, the Commission said in Chapter 8: We were pleased to note that during the debates in Parliament on the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, both Ministers and leading Opposition Members of Parliament cited, with approval, the passage in the Commission's first Annual Report (paragraph 5.11) in which we said:— 'This is not to say that it [the Commission] sees students support as a proper function of the supplementary benefit scheme. On the contrary, it considers that the needs of students should be looked at as a whole, in an inter-grated grant system designed to provide for students' vacation as well as term-time maintenance. In this way, responsibility for student support would rest wholly with the Department of Education and Science, the Scottish Education Department and local education authorities, who, unlike the Commission, are expert in the eduation field and are in a far better position to make judgments about the particular needs of individual students.' Some progress has been made towards this objective in that the vacation element for the short vacations in the student grant has been increased to the point where it now equals the amount that a single non-householder would get by way of supplementary benefit. Any extension of these arrangements to the long vacation would have to be the subject of discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and could not be entertained until there were appreciable funds available which could be directed to educational improvements.

My hon. Friend said that the Department of Education and Science does not support full-time courses of short duration. That is correct, but I understand that local education authorities have power to do so. My hon. Friend will appreciate that we are in no position to instruct local education authorities about the exercise of their discretionary powers. I trust, however, that what my hon. Friend has said in this debate will not go unnoticed.

I thank my hon. Friend for having initiated this debate and for his courtesy and consideration in presenting his case. All that my hon. Friend has said in the debate will be carefully noted by the Government Departments concerned.

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