HC Deb 15 March 1977 vol 928 cc189-91
1. Mr. Bryan Davies

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she is satisfied that the level of discretionary awards being made to students for 1977–78 by local authorities is consistent with her policy to give priority to the education of students of 16 to 19 years of age.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science and Paymaster General (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

Local education authorities are free to make their own decisions on the level of expenditure on discretionary awards and I have no information yet about their policies for the 1977–78 academic year. But I shall be exploring with the local authority associations ways and means of monitoring the position on discretionary awards.

Mr. Davies

I thank my right hon. Friend for that constructive reply. Is she aware that there is growing evidence of anxiety in many quarters that the level of discretionary awards next year will be lower than many would wish? Is there not therefore a case for her Department to look at ways in which a more specific grant could be given to local authorities in order to ensure that this aspect of policy retains the priority that she has accorded it?

Mrs. Williams

The most recent figures that I have are for 1975–76. They indicate that there was an increase of about 27 per cent. in expenditure in that year on about 50,000 discretionary awards. We do not have any later figures, and this is the purpose of a meeting with the local authority association on 23rd March. Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned by some indications that discretionary awards are being quite sharply reduced this year and were also reduced last year. I think that we should await the facts before making any further comments.

Mr. Hannam

Is the Secretary of State aware that because of the difficulties they experience in secondary education many handicapped and disabled students are not able to go forward into higher education, where they have mandatory awards? Will she therefore look carefully at the situation whereby local authorities may not be making enough use of the discretionary award schemes for handicapped students, and will she consider making them mandatory?

Mrs. Williams

I shall certainly look into that matter. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that in some cases one of the reasons is that provision is not made for handicapped young people in the design of buildings. We recently sent out a circular specifically asking local authorities to bear this in mind when, for example, they are designing extensions to further education colleges and similar institutions.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), does my right hon. Friend agree that whereas access is important, the point made by the hon. Gentleman is vital, namely, that disabled students would often qualify for mandatory grants but because of illnesses that occur, with disability, they are not able to take them up, and consequently they suffer if they come under the umbrella of discretionary grants? Will my right hon. Friend please persuade local authorities to treat discretionary grants for disabled pupils and students as mandatory?

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend's first point may provide an easier approach to the question. He probably has in mind the fact that where students are entitled to a mandatory award, as almost all are at the higher educational level on the first occasion, if they have to give them up for reasons of illness, they find that they are barred from a further mandatory award. I shall certainly look into that point. But on the wider question of discretionary awards, I refer back to my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies). We need to know rather more facts about the matter.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Apart from the narrower but human problems raised earlier, is it not a fact that, contrary to some people's ideas, these discretionary awards cover very important courses, such as aspects of the medical profession and business studies, which are all directly relevant to the country's recovery and that therefore the widespread anxiety about their undue reduction is well founded?

Mrs. Williams

I share the hon. Gentleman's worries about this. He will be aware, however, that to make all discretionary awards mandatory would involve a substantial addition to public expenditure. The most that I can promise the House is to look into the matter to see whether there are particular categories that we might reconsider.

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