HC Deb 14 March 1978 vol 946 cc204-6
7. Mr. Clemitson

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will make a statement on her policy on financial help for students in full-time education between 16 and 19 years of age.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Present policy is that financial help for students in full-time education between 16 and 19 years of age is at the discretion of local education authorities. No major change in these arrangements is possible without a substantial element of additional resources, and no mandatory system could be introduced without legislation.

Mr. Clemitson

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that while the case for financial maintenance for young people in this age group has always been a strong one on grounds of equality of opportunity in further and higher education, that case is now strengthened by consideration both of the whole circumstances of employment and unemployment and of the various anomalies which have already arisen and will increasingly arise with the introduction of the youth opportunities programme?

Mrs. Williams

Yes, the case is much stronger than ever. The difficulty is that the House in its wisdom in 1962 drew a clear line between higher education which was mandatory and all forms of further education which were discretionary. I doubt whether the House would still take the same view. I regard this matter as an extremely high priority, but the House should be clear that legislation is necessary and that the sums involved are substantial—several hundred million pounds.

Mr. Fry

If the right hon. Lady is so concerned about young people between 16 and 19, why is she allowing provision for this age group in schools to be phased out of the needs element in the rate support grant?

Mrs. Williams

I do not follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. There is no question of the needs of those between 16 and 19 being phased out of the rate support grant. On the contrary, we have recently added a substantial sum for further education specifically for this age group. We have also introduced provision for the part-time education in schools and colleges of 16 to 19-year-olds.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is more than just a problem of discretionary awards? There is the new youth opportunities programme of the Manpower Services Commission. There is also supplementary benefit where young people do not attend for more than 21 hours a week. There are EMAs and students receiving nothing. This is rapidly reaching a state of total chaos, and it must be rationalised.

Mrs. Williams

I do not think that there will be any higher priority when an advance in education can next be made. I should tell the House the orders of expenditure involved. If the rate were the same as that of the MSC, it is estimated that the cost would be approximately £1,000 million a year. If it were at the supplementary benefit rate, the cost would be about £500 million a year. The reason for these high figures is quite simply that education has managed to attract more and more young people to stay on, and, therefore, the cost for those already in schools and colleges beyond the age of 16 is substantial before any more young people are attracted. I make it clear that that is not a reason for not acting on this matter, but the House must be aware that considerable resources are involved.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Surely the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler) is right when he says that there is chaos in this sphere. The different provisions for grants present us with a shambles. Will the right hon. Lady consider the case for the appointment of an inquiry into the training of 16 to 19-year-olds? Why not appoint the hon. Member for The Wrekin as chairman of it? That would do her a good turn and would rehabilitate him.

Mrs. Williams

I can think of no better chairman for almost any inquiry into education than my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler), who needs no rehabilitation from me or anybody else. However, the purpose of an inquiry is often to avoid a decision. There is nothing to inquire into. The task is to find the necessary resources.