HC Deb 16 May 1978 vol 950 cc227-30
12. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what steps are being taken to increase educational maintenance allowances and discretionary awards to students for the academic year 1978–79.

Mr. Oakes

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer given by my right hon. Friend to his Question on 12th May, but I would point out that no new statutory system of awards which might result from my right hon. Friend's discussion with local authorities could possibly be introduced as early as the academic year 1978–79.

Mr. Bennett

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but does he not appreciate that if an increase is not introduced for this September there will be a temptation for people to defer going into the sixth form for a year and to join the dole queue or try to get a job and return to higher education the following year so as to take advantage of the grant? Would it not be a good idea for the Minister to try to persuade local authorities to increase the educational maintenance allowances now available from this September, possibly on the basis of reimbursement from the Government?

Mr. Oakes

I do not think that any increase in the existing provision for EMAs would have a lot of effect, nor do I think that there is a grave risk of my hon. Friend's fears being realised in that people would defer going into higher education for a year. It is unreasonable in May to expect that negotiations with local authorities could be completed for what, in effect, would be September.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Does not the Secretary of State's recent announcement add yet one further form of support for 16-year-old to 18-year-old students, some of whom are not under her control? Does not this require us to look at the totality of this support? Is there not a fear that such support is now so separated as to be defeating some of its original purpose?

Mr. Oakes

It is true that there are many different schemes at different levels. The fact that the Government are operating these schemes, which have been asked for by various Members of the House for years, is a major breakthrough. I pay tribute to all those who have put pressure on the Government, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), who has had a Question on this matter on the Order Paper every month since I have been a Minister.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Is not my hon. Friend concerned about the reluctance of Tory-controlled authorities to offer many of these discretionary awards? Does he not consider that we should now be moving towards the stage when the discretionary nature of awards should be abolished and when awards for the majority of courses should become mandatory?

Mr. Oakes

The principle has been decided, but the nature and type of the awards are still under discussion. The object of this exercise—and I hope that every local authority, whether Tory-controlled or Labour-controlled, will be of this opinion—is to increase the participation rate to well above the present 30 per cent.

Dr. Hampson

Is the Minister aware that the Opposition have repeatedly called for an inquiry into the anomalies that exist in this matter as a result of the involvement of the Manpower Services Commission and the local authorities, as well as the social security system, but that the commitment announced on Friday was of a very generalised kind, with conceivably wide-ranging cost implications? Will he say when the House will have further details and when the Secretary of State intends to have the commitment implemented? As the means test for the educational maintenance allowances is much stricter than that, for example, for school meals, what sort of means test will be implied in this case?

Mr. Oakes

I am not convinced that an inquiry will achieve more than can be accomplished through the initiatives that we have currently in hand. Indeed, we have acted, not set up an inquiry, on educational maintenance awards. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, this will require discussions with the local education authorities on a number of matters, and I cannot therefore now give a date or a time when firm proposals can be given. The whole question of the means tests will also be discussed with the local authorities. I can say, however, that those discussions will begin immediately.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

Will my hon. Friend accept, for himself and his right hon. Friend, the congratulations of this side of the House on the fact that at last we have made progress on this vital matter? Will he also accept that the net cost of such a scheme is not nearly as great as the gross cost when one deducts supplementary benefit for those who would otherwise be in the dole queue? Will he accept, too, that many of us hope that, whatever restrictions are placed upon the initial scheme, it will prove to be the thin end of the wedge in securing adequate support for all in this age group?

Mr. Oakes

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. It is, of course, a red letter day for him too after his work on this matter both as a Minister and as a Back Bencher.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I accept the Minister's argument that there is something to be said for these sixth-form allowances, but is not my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) right in saying that, by introducing yet another benefit into a competing field, we are making a confused situation even more chaotic? Is there not now a strong case for a rational policy based on clear principles to deal with the educational and employment problems of the 16 to 19-year-olds?

Mr. Oakes

There is a need for a rational approach, but in the meantime I think that the Government are right to establish the principle that they have. It is money that is wanted, not inquiries. I greatly welcome what the Government have done in ensuring that some youngsters who at present are denied higher education because they are poor will be able to achieve it in the future.