HC Deb 19 July 1979 vol 970 cc2127-51
Mr. Speaker

Order. There is noise in the House. Because the business is timed, the debate will be timed from the moment that I call the Minister.

10.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

I beg to move, That the draft Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) Amendment Regulations 1979, which were laid before this House on 5 July, be approved. The purpose of these regulations is to limit the entitlement of students to receive unemployment benefit in the short Christmas and Easter vacations. It is a matter of justice that we should put right in this House an unintended change in unemployment benefit entitlement resulting from the 1975 Social Security Act. Students are different from other claimants for many weeks of a year simply because in that year they are studying for 30 weeks or more.

Since the 1975 Act became law, students have been treated differently from others who are unemployed. It is an accident of the Act that that has arisen. Until the 1975 Social Security Act came into force in 1977, only 10 to 12 per cent. of students who registered for employment in their vacations qualified for unemployment benefit. These were mainly mature students who had worked for a sufficient period to satisfy the contribution conditions for benefit.

Under the 1975 Act, however, contributions are no longer related to the number of weeks worked but to a person's level of earning. The result is that someone whose earnings are above the weekly lower earnings limit for contribution purposes can satisfy the first contribution condition for unemployment benefit—namely, the payment of contributions on earnings in any one year of at least 25 times the weekly lower earnings limit—and can do that much more quickly than previously.

The second contribution condition requires a person to have paid or to have been credited contributions on earnings of at least 50 times the weekly lower earnings limit for the relevant tax year— that is, the tax year preceding the calendar year in which the period of interruption of employment begins. Starting credits have always been given to benefit young persons who have entered the employment field and have fallen sick or become unemployed before satisfying this second contribution condition.

These starting credits, which existed before the 1975 Act, have been made much more generous under that Act. Therefore, the result is that a student who leaves school in the summer can satisfy the first contribution condition by working for 9 or 10 weeks before going on to university. He can then, with the help of the starting credits to enable him to satisfy the second contribution condition, qualify for unemployment benefit in his first Christmas vacation.

The House will be aware that periods of unemployment which are not separated by more than 13 weeks link up to form one period of interruption of employment for benefit purposes. Because university vacations are less than 13 weeks apart, a student with only those 9 or 10 weeks at work could go on receiving unemployment benefit in each vacation for almost the duration of the course if it were a three-year course. This would happen because each of his claims would be determined by reference back to the same contribution year in which he received the benefit of the starting credits that are intended to help the unemployed earner get on his way.

The combination of circumstances can put students in a much more favourable position than the general group of unemployed earners. Those unemployed earners rarely have regular and successive periods of unemployment falling within the 13-week periods. They can receive only the initial help from starting credits. After that, they have to satisfy the second condition in the normal way each time. Therefore, there is a special position in which students have an easier entitlement to unemployment benefit. This was not recognised when we discussed the 1975 legislation. The changes made under that Act were to help low earners achieve the contribution tests because the new earnings test, based on average earnings and brought in under the 1975 Act, would have been a much stiffer test than before and impossible for those on low earnings.

The Labour Government recognised the position and twice tried to remedy the situation. The right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) discussed the first proposal, which was to withdraw completely a student's entitlement to benefit on these short vacations. This was unanimously rejected by the National Insurance Advisory Committee in 1977 as being " too blunt an instrument ".

The then Government came up with a second proposal, which was to require students to have paid contributions on earnings of at least 50 times the weekly lower earnings limit, now at £19.50, in the relevant tax year or the tax year immediately before. This proposal was supported by some members of the National Insurance Advisory Committee as fair and proper, but a majority of that committee considered the regulations wrong in principle.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Will the Minister say how many members of that committee felt it was right in principle and how many felt it was wrong?

Mrs. Chalker

There were two in favour and six against.

The right hon. Member for Salford, West on 30 April last year said that in view of the committee's recommendations the Government would not proceed with the regulations, but he added that they still considered it important in principle that students should not have such easy access to unemployment benefit. He said that the Government would be considering whether the second set of regulations or similar regulations should be introduced for the 1979–80 academic year.

The regulations which we are proposing tonight are identical to those which the Labour Government put to the National Insurance Advisory Committee. We share our precedessors' view that students have an unintended and unfair advantage over other contributors. This is due to the fact that they can retain the benefit of starting credits in order to receive benefit over a prolonged period and because the number of weeks that a student is available for work in the Christmas and Easter vacations is so short that he is unlikely to find work unless he had secured a job before the vacation began. Thus, employment at these times is almost a certainty rather than an insurable risk, and the whole of the principle on which we work is based on insurable risk.

The additional first condition which the regulations will impose on students—namely, the payment of contributions on earnings of at least 50 times the lower earnings limit, representing earnings of £750 in 1977–78 terms or £650 in 1976–77 terms—is one which could be satisfied by somebody on average earnings who had worked for about two and a half months in the relevant year. Once the special condition had been met, it would not have to be satisfied again, although the student who failed to satisfy the test when he first claimed benefit might do so subsequently by virtue of earnings in a later tax year. Thus mature students, who have always been able to claim unemployment benefit in their vacations would normally satisfy the special condition, but it would be unusual for a student who had gone straight from school to university to do so.

The additional condition will not apply during the long summer vacation, and student claimants then will be subject to the same rules as anyone else. The number of students who will be affected by the regulations is not large. At present, about 30,000 students qualify for unemployment benefit in each short vacation, and it is estimated that about 6,000 of them are mature students, most of whom will still be quite able to qualify for benefit at these times. The saving in public expenditure resulting from the regulation is relatively small and is estimated to be about £4 million a year.

In proposing these regulations, we are seeeking to put right something which happened which we in this House did not intend to happen. From what they said in previous debates on this issue, I know that the Opposition agree.

The regulations themselves amend the principal regulations by inserting after regulation 19 a new regulation 20. Regulation 1 is formal and includes provision for the regulations to come into operation on the day on which they are made. Regulation 2 inserts the new regulation 20 into the principal regulations. This, in paragraph (1), describes the category of persons in respect of whom an additional condition for receipt of unemployment benefit is imposed, and in paragraph (2) it sets out the additional condition whereby a person who comes within the prescribed category is required to have obtained contributions based on a minimum level of earnings in the tax years to which the paragraph refers. Paragraph (3) provides for students in cases where the earliest of the two tax years referred to in paragraph (2) is the one ending in 1975, to meet either the condition in paragraph (2) or an alternative condition.

Paragraph (4) provides for a student, in cases where both the tax years referred to in paragraph (2) fall before the tax year ending in April 1976, to meet the alternative conditions referred to in paragraph (3). Paragraph (5) provides that the additional condition applies only in respect of days between the beginning of the first term starting after 31 August in any one year and the end of the last term finishing before 31 August in the following year, so that the additional condition will not apply in respect of days falling within the long summer vacation. Paragraph (6) provides that once the additional condition has been satisfied, it does not have to be satisfied again in respect of any future claims for unemployment benefit. Paragraph (7) defines the benefit year for the purpose of the regulations.

Finally, let me leave the House in no doubt about our attitude to the National Insurance Advisory Committee. We value the advice which it gave and which it continues to give on national insurance matters. We have not taken the decision to disregard its majority view on the student regulations lightly. I accept its view that it would have been much better if the special position of students had been recognised in 1975, when the new entitlement conditions were being considered. In that case, this situation would never have been allowed to develop. However, it was allowed to develop, and we have a specific statutory power in section 20(3) of the Social Security Act 1975 to make amends.

There seems to be a firm measure of agreement that a student who may be able to get unemployment benefit almost automatically at regular intervals over a period of three or four years should be required to demonstrate a reasonable attachment to the employment field. The regulations require the student to do that. Therefore, I recommend to the House that the regulations be approved in order that those affected can have due warning before the new rules take effect in the 1979–80 academic year.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I shall make two preliminary points. Labour Members believe that student support should be in the form of a grant. I believe that there can be no argument about that. Student grants are insufficient for many students. There are problems about parental incomes, and the difficulties force students to seek every opportunity that they can to increase their income.

I shall make a comment not out of any churlishness but because it is relevant to what the Minister said, to what I have to say and to what my hon. Friends will say later. The Opposition chose to have the debate on the Floor of the House. It could have been taken in Committee without any great coverage of the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) made the decision to have the debate on the Floor of the House, notwithstanding the actions of the previous Government.

The Minister is right when she says that the issue of the regulations has passed backwards and forwards between the DHSS and the National Insurance Advisory Committee on more than one occasion in the last two years. In 1977 and 1978 the previous Labour Government did not proceed with the regulations. It is inaccurate to say that we dropped them. There is a distinction: they were not proceeded with. If the chicken has come home to roost, we have at least allowed the matter to be fully debated on the Floor of the House.

I suspect that the Ministers on taking office at the DHSS sought first to implement the measures that could be brought forward to reduce public expenditure. This measure is an easy one to bring forward. The regulations were there in draft form and the NIAC report was there.

The Minister spoke of the figure of £4 million as the saving that will be made. That is at variance with the figures estimated by the National Union of Students. It tells me that the saving in public expenditure will be closer to £10½ million. I am not sure whether there is a difference in the basis of the estimation. The union informs me that 100,000 students will be affected by the regulations.

In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), the Minister pointed out that the NIAC decision was not unanimous but was by a majority of six to two that the regulations should not be made. In paragraph 17 the committee pointed out that unemployment benefit should be available during the short vacations to those students who have paid their contributions and are available for work (i.e. those who fulfil the conditions of the scheme are entitled to benefit). We are now being asked to approve further regulations which would require students to earn double the amount applied to the rest of contributors in a tax year, in order to satisfy the first contribution condition for unemployment benefit. Following on that, the committee made an important point that may be relevant to other regulations that come before the House in future. It said that it felt that the matter should be dealt with by altering the original statute, the 1975 Social Security Act. The committee pointed out: If there was an oversight when the Act was being drafted we think it is for the Secretary of State to consider whether an amendment to the Act is required. We do not think that this is a matter for the Committee to resolve, by draft regulations. Has that course of action been considered? The Secretary of State's statement attached to the NIAC report makes no mention of whether that recommendation was considered. I ask that question not only in respect of the regulations before us but also in respect of future regulations, particularly those covering disabled housewives, whose case is still with the committee. There may be a case for amending the original Act rather than bringing in regulations.

When the committee says that the original Act ought to be changed, by what criteria do the Government decide to bring forward regulations instead? The Government may get a reasonably easy ride on the regulations before us, but there may not be the same acquiescence on other regulations.

I should also like to ask about the position of mature students, which is glossed over in the Secretary of State's report, as it was in the Minister's speech. It is said that mature students, in general, will be safeguarded. The Minister said that " most " mature students would be OK as a result of the regulations. Clearly, some mature students will be caught by the regulations.

I ask the Minister to make sure that in marginal cases where discretion is left to officers of the Department they should err on the side of making sure that mature students are not discriminated against in a way that was not intended by the regulations, the previous Government or the present Government.

There are borderline cases, and it would be grossly unfair if mature students, perhaps with a family and a mortgage and perhaps taking two or three part-time jobs, which can cause all sorts of problems with national insurance contributions and the operation of the tax year, who have been encouraged to start full-time education late in life were discriminated against after taking the decision to become full-time students. I hope that the Minister will write to me about that problem if she cannot deal with it tonight.

A press release on the regulations was put out by the Department on 5 July. It said: The Regulations will not affect supplementary benefit, which will remain available to students in the short holidays to meet needs (e.g. for rent) not covered by the vacation grant. That is rather misleading because rent needs are not covered by the vacation grant. Full supplementary benefit is normally paid only to students who stay in their flats over the vacation. If a student returns home at, say, Christmas but still has to pay the rent on his flat, he is allowed only £2 a week towards it, irrespective of how much rent he has to pay to hold the flat. A press release saying that the regulations will not affect payments and specifically citing the example of rent is misleading for students.

My final point concerns the 13-week rule. Injustices are caused by the operation of that rule and I should like to know whether the Department is considering a relaxation of some aspects, particularly as it covers those who fall ill at the end of a year and make an unsuccessful claim for sickness benefit and later, in a new contribution year, make a successful claim. Because of the 13-week rule and their original unsuccessful claim —and the two claims being linked—the successful claim is made on an old contributions year, with the result that they have less earnings-related sickness benefit or, in the case of a pregnant woman who claims sickness benefit just before the birth of her child, less of the earnings-related part of maternity benefit. This can have an unfair effect upon some people.

I ask the Minister, therefore, whether the new Administration are giving any wider thought to the operation of the 13-week rule. It shoud be remembered that not only students but other sections of the population are affected.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to comment at least on the misleading press release and, second, on the important question of the Government's attitude if they receive a recommendation from the NIAC that the original legislation ought to be amended and that whatever deed they are doing should not be done by regulation.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

It always seems to me that students are spoken of as being one of the privileged groups in our society, as in many ways they are, yet when one stops to look at the nitty-gritty of their means of livelihood and how they are expected to keep themselves—and their wives or husbands and families if they are married—their position is seen to be quite the reverse of the ideal which is supposed to be the life of the student at one of our universities, polytechnics or colleges of further education.

The position of students is, in fact, riddled with anomalies. Aged over 18, they are still treated for grant purposes as being dependent on their parents, whether living with their parents or not. Their grants are dependent not upon their own rights as citizens but upon the income of their parents and the extent to which their parents are prepared to meet their liability under the means test.

If students are married and have a family, they are treated for supplementary benefit purposes as being in full employment, but if they ask for family income supplement it is denied to them, and this Government have no intention of alt Bring that regulation.

Now, we are presented with a state of affairs under which if students, following the normal practice of ordinary citizens, make the necessary contributions towards unemployment benefit, they are to be penalised again because their periods of unemployment happen to follow a particular cycle which is dictated not by them but by their academic terms and the academic year.

That, surely, cannot be right. There must come a time when we have a full and proper examination of the position of students in our society—the role that we exepect them to play and the part that we should play in making sure that they can carry out their duties to society just as they may enjoy the privileges which they are alleged to have.

No more is that so than in the present case. It is wrong that students should be singled out in this way in order to make a very mean saving for the national Exchequer. It would have been interesting to have from the Minister a statement of how much as a result of these proposals we should have had to pay our supplementary benefit to students who would normally have collected their unemployment benefit to which they were properly entitled.

I speak as one fortunate enough to have gone to university although for a long time our parents were on supplementary benefit—or the old national assistance as it then was. I assure the House that there is no particular joy for a student to have to go and claim supplementary benefit. It did not happen in my own case, but in my brothers' it did. It is not a happy experience to go down in the Easter and Christmas vacations to claim supplementary benefit because one's grant is no sufficient and one's parents are not in a position to do all that they would want to do for their family.

The whole philosophy of the regulations seems to be based on some happy and carefree idea that when the term ends a student can be up and away to choose from thousands of jobs. Any hon. Member who has a university in his constituency or has students among his family or friends knows that the traditional jobs for students no longer exist. At Christmas and Easter there are no jobs on the post. In the summer there are no jobs in heavy navvying, on the buses or in the canning factories. This absence of jobs results from the high level of unemployment and the changing nature of many of these forms of employment.

Nevertheless, many students get jobs. Many pay their national insurance contribution, become unemployed and can pass a simple " available for work " test at Easter and Christmas. These regulations will mean that they do not get any form of employment. That is basically wrong in principal and practice and it causes grave injustice. I do not believe that we should allow the regulations to go through without a Division. I hope that my hon. Friends will be moved to join me in the Lobby. We should have done the same if my right hon. Friend the former Minister had gone forward with the regulations. He sensibly took advice and allowed them to lie on the Table, not to be implemented.

We should look very carefully at the position of the mature student. The undertaking has been given that generally mature students will be covered, but that is not good enough. There should be an absolute undertaking in this respect. In many ways the mature student who goes to full-time university having passed through Ruskin college or something similar, getting his A-levels the hard way and with a wife and family to support, is one of the heroes of our society. It takes a lot of courage and moral toughness to be able to give up a reasonably well-paid job and to see one's wife going out to work and one's children not getting the things they would expect in order that one can pursue a course of study at one of the institutions of higher education. Therefore, a statement that they will be " generally " covered is not good enough.

I believed in my innocence that my Labour Government meant to be kind to students, but that perhaps is the degree of naivety that one assumes when one supports the Government of the day. Now that we are in Opposition we should say clearly, as some of us tried to say when we were in Government, that the position of the student in society has not been resolved. Even though the age of adulthood was lowered to 18, are we to treat young men and women of 24 or 25 as children? Are they to be treated differently from the rest of society even though they can fulfil the regulations and conditions laid down in our statutes? That kind of action would be quite wrong, and we should therefore divide the House.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. Reg Race (Wood Green)

I am considerably younger than most hon. Members and, therefore, I am not so long in the tooth. I am thin on top, but I can remember vividly my student days. I speak on behalf of the many students who will be affected by these regulations in a way which is damaging to their interests.

It is clear that the introduction of the regulations is a cost-cutting exercise. Let us not make any bones about that. It is part of the analysis of public expenditure by the Government, and it should be resisted on that ground alone. The Government are ignoring the advice given by a quango. Perhaps the Government want to ignore all advice from quangos, but expert advice from the National Insurance Advisory Committee should be listened to with respect. To introduce regulations which are contrary to such advice is a retrograde step.

One of the effects of the regulations is that students who obtain low-paid jobs in the short vacations will be penalised because of the type of job that they tend to take. When I was a student, my friends washed dishes in restaurants, swept the refectory floors, worked in the local hospital or took jobs in the lower-paid manufacturing industries. One of the jobs was to pack toys in boxes for which they were paid at a low hourly rate.

The jobs that students do influence their ability to claim unemployment benefit if they are available for work but cannot get it during other periods when they qualify, because of the income cutoff point in the regulations.

The argument against the regulations relates to the level of the student grant. The student grant is totally unsatisfactory and should be increased substantially. To remove the possibility of students receiving unemployment benefit by such regulations is a retrograde step. I hope that the Government will be honest and recognise that if they are to remove unemployment benefit for students they must pay a decent level of grant. That would be a way of eliminating the need for many students to register as unemployed in the short vacations.

The situation was described graphically by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara). Students who are over 18 are often dependent in part on their parents and parental contributions. How many students receive those parental contributions? The majority of my student friends did not receive the full parental contribution. Some received none of it. The grant available to them was the reduced student grant, adjusted for the parental contribution which they did not receive.

The removal of the right to claim unemployment benefit is against the advice given to the Government by an independent body which was set up by the Government to give that advice. I shall support my hon. Friends in Lobby against the regulations.

10.55 p.m.

Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)

The case for students has been argued extremely graphically by my hon. Friends the Members for Wood Green (Mr. Race) and for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara). I have little to add to their arguments.

Bearing in mind all the difficulties that have arisen from anomalies, parental grants, the need for supplementary benefit on occasions and unemployment benefit, there is a need to have a proper debate on the general principles surrounding student grants. Such a debate would be rewarding, because not only would it be educative for us but it might benefit students in the long run. Students often find themselves in the middle of a great tangle of regulations that they do not understand. They may be forgiven for not understanding them, because, for example, we did not understand the 1975 regulation. We now know that its effect was not intended by the then Labour Government. In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central, I thought that that Government were being generous. I am sorry that I have been disabused.

I am concerned that the decision of the National Insurance Advisory Committee has not been heeded by the Government. The committee is a distinguished and august doby. It took time to hear evidence and submissions before coming to a conclusion. If we are to refer matters to NIAC, the Government of the day ought to take notice of its decisions. Bearing in mind the fate of students, I have enormous apprehension about the fate of NIAC's decision on the non-contributory invalidity benefit for married women. After some slight of hand by the previous Government, the issue was referred to NIAC. It may be that NIAC will recommend that more married women should qualify for benefit. Will the Government automatically say " NIAC has said this but we say something else, because if we accept NIAC's decision that will cost us more and we are on a cost-cutting exercise "? If that is to happen, we might as well dispense with NIAC. Let us be honest so that we know where we stand.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

I was responsible for referring the disabled housewife issue to NIAC. Perhaps my hon. Friend will recall that on that specific issue the Labour Government undertook to accept the recommendation of NIAC.

Miss Richardson

I accept that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for reminding me of it. I wish that undertakings were transferable from one Government to another, especially when they involve those who comprise the poorest sections of the community and who need benefit.

One of the submissions received by NIAC on the student unemployment problem was made by Mrs. Audrey Wise when she was chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party social security group. She made an absolutely splendid submission that we all thoroughly supported, but it was her own work. She was, I believe, very influential in forming the judgment of the National Insurance Advisory Committee.

I hope that the Government will think again, but since I suspect that they will not I shall join my hon. Friends in the Lobby in voting against the regulations.

10.59 p.m.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Like my colleagues, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am very concerned about this matter, particularly because the Minister seems to be justifying it not merely on the ground of expediency—which seems to me to be the only ground on which she could have justified it—but by trying to dream up some idea of equity. The advice of the National Insurance Advisory Committee showed quite clearly that although two people might have been convinced, the majority—six—were not. There is very little ground, therefore, for substantiating the case on the basis of equity.

The only case that could be put forward is on the ground of expediency, that there is a lot of administration involved in paying out this unemployment benefit, just as there is a lot of administration involved in paying out supplementary benefit at the same time. There is a very strong argument that much of that administration could be saved if student grants were sufficiently large to remove the necessity for people either to work or get unemployment benefit or supplementary benefit.

The only way to get away from that administrative cost, which benefits no one, is to make sure that student grants are on a sufficiently high level. It is important, therefore, to move to a level of student grant that makes it unnecessary, particulary in a period of high unemployment, for students to be competing with and trying to get jobs from the people who have perhaps a greater need for them.

As I understand the regulations, they would appear to apply only to the two short vacations and not to affect in any way the long vacations. I am not certain whether they have any influence on the level of unemployment benefit paid in the long vacation, because they take away the stepping stones. I should like to have an assurance that as long as the stepping stones were there the unemployment benefit could continue for most of the time that a student was following a three-year course. If the stepping stones are taken away, will it still be possible for a person to claim unemployment benefit in each of the long vacations if he is unable to get employment? I should like to have an assurance that it is not a back-door way of taking away the benefit applying to the longer period.

It is high time that we got away from all these anomalies. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) mentioned the conflict as to cost—whether it was £4 million or £10 million. I suspect that one of the reasons why the cost has been rather lower in some years is that it is only gradually that students find out what is their entitlement. Just as it is suggested that the House was not very clear when it passed the original legislation, it is also clear that many students did not realise their entitlement. It is only gradually that the word gets round among students and more and more take up their entitlement. I suspect, therefore, that the saving will be rather higher than the £4 million claimed by the Minister.

The most important thing to do is to get support for students in their grants and to make sure that those grants are adequate in themselves and are not dependent on parental means tests, which result in many students failing to get the full amount of their grant.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being present at the beginning of the debate. A very strong point should be made about the complete feebleness of the Department's reply as set out in the NIAC report and as to the continued belief of NIAC that this instrument represents discrimination against a particular group—that is, students—and erodes the whole contributory principle.

The NIAC report states that the main point made by the objectors is that the regulations discriminate unfairly against students. It is argued that a person who contributes to the scheme in the normal way should be able to receive benefits without satisfying additional conditions and that the imposition of an additional condition is a breach with the contributing principle and an attempt to introduce means-testing. The report continues: The Department claim that the regulations do not discriminate against students, but take account of the favourable position in which students now find themselves vis-à-vis the general body of employed earners. That is an astonishing statement and there is no evidence to support it. Students are presently some of the most disadvantaged people in the community. It continues: and seek to redress the balance by imposing a more effective test of a student's entry into the employment field. … The Department do not accept that the draft regulations breach the contributory principle; in fact "— it has suddenly wished it up from somewhere— special conditions for the receipt of unemployment benefit have existed for many years for seasonal workers and share fishermen. I do not know what a share fisherman is, but I can recognise an argument from expediency. For the Department to try to justify that major change against a substantial body of individuals in the community by ancient regulations that affect share fishermen is an extraordinary piece of casuistry. It needs to do better than that. That argument will not convince.

These regulations were brought in because students started exerting their rights as individuals who are entitled to benefit. It seems that the Department does not like individuals who suddenly discover that they have a right under law, as passed by Parliament, to claim certain benefits. If the hon. Lady intends to respond to every group in the community that suddenly becomes aware of its rights by changing the rule because too many people are starting to claim money to which they are entitled, we shall go on for ever and eventually erode every principle that we have laid down in Parliament.

From one of my brief sojourns in the Department of Education and Science two of three years ago, I learnt that the image of the student among civil servants is too often that of a rather well-heeled 18-yearold. They see all students as resembling their own youngsters. The civil servants dealing with these matters are usually approaching the age of 50 and sending their youngsters off to higher education. The profile of the student body, however, has changed out of all recognition since the Second World War. Some come from disadvantaged homes, some have broken off relationships with their parents for various reasons, others are married and some are living together in a stable relationship. They cover a wide range of ages and are not just within the 18-to-21 age bracket.

It is gross that, although they qualify in every other way for a benefit, simply because they are students Parliament should discriminate and introduce an instrument of this kind because too many people are claiming. I believe that my hon. Friends are right to vote on this issue, and I shall join them in the Lobby.

11.8 p.m.

Mrs. Chalker

I should like first to put the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) out of his misery about share fishermen. I thought at first that I had misread my notes and it should be " shore " fishermen, but share fishermen it is. I quote from national insurance leaflet No. 47 for the hon. Member's future reference: You are regarded as a seagoing share fisherman if: you are ordinarily employed in the fishing industry (not under a contract of service) as master or crew member of a British fishing boat manned by more than one person and you are paid in whole or in part by a share of the profits or gross earnings of the boat. One is regarded as an onshore share fisherman if one is paid once again by a share of the profits or earnings from the boat and has not ceased to be ordinarily engaged in such work. There are a number of conditions. We always learn something new, even in these late night debates, and I have learnt what share fishermen are.

Mr. McNamara

I do not think that the hon. Lady would want to mislead the House. That was only part of the definition of share fishermen. Otherwise, deep sea fishermen would come under the definition that she gave. They do not.

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman is so good on fishing that I would not dare dally with him over the question. I said that the passage went on and on and that there was a lot more to learn. I shall leave him to his fishermen.

To return to the subject of the use of regulations rather than an Act, it is not necessary to consider amending the Act. Section 20(3) specifically gives the Secretary of State power to impose special conditions in particular cases. The previous Labour Government used this power in the cases of seasonal workers and, once again, our friends the share fishermen. It was on those grounds that the two members of NIAC who supported the regulations under the previous Administration, when they were referred to the committee, felt that this was the way in which the matter should be handled. Therefore, we are not going into a new piece of regulation-making. We are following the pattern set by our predecessors in Government.

Mr. McNamara

Is it not true to say that the share fishermen regulations were made with the knowledge, consent and desire of the share fishermen? These regulations are being made against the complete hostility of students.

Mrs. Chalker

No. The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. He will see, if he refers back to the situation existing before the 1975 Act was passed—it came into operation in 1977—that we are in a similar situation with the students to what it was before the passing of the 1975 Act.

I realise as a result of tonight's debate and those on previous occasions that there are many worries about the situations faced by students. It is not for me to take on the brief of another Government Department and try to find solutions to students' problems. However, as students are affected by this, I hope that the House will bear with me while, without going out of order, I try to make a relationship between these regulations and what happens to a student under them.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West asked whether the introduction of these regulations was basically a breach in the contributory principle. The Act had a great deal of bipartisan support at the end of 1975. It allows for the introduction of regulations imposing additional contributions on any category of persons for receipt of unemployment benefit if the Secretary of State considers that in any way the general body of employed earners would otherwise be unfairly treated. This is not new. It was in the Act, which gained the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is noticeable that there are occasions from time to time when an insurance company may have to make a decision in the general interests of the overall members of a fund. That is exactly what is happening on this occasion.

Mr. Christopher Price

I realise that that is in the Act. Can the hon. Lady explain what was meant by the Department about the favourable position of students vis-à-vis the general body of employed earners?

Mrs. Chalker

I mentioned this matter at the beginning of my remarks when the hon. Gentleman was not here. Perhaps he will read them in the Official Report. The basic situation is that be- cause vacation times come usually within 13 weeks of each other, a student is entitled to clock up his contribution period or his absence-from-work period and can go back to the original entitlement period which contains the starting credits.

If I may continue, as the time is brief and we still have another instrument to consider, there is—

Mr. Price

I may be very obtuse at this time of night, but I understood exactly what the Minister said then, but I did not see how it related to the word " favourable " vis-à-vis anybody else who might have those periods of vacation at those distances away from each other.

Mrs. Chalker

I shall repeat exactly what I said earlier. The position is more favourable for students because the other unemployed earners who are not students rarely have regular and successive periods of unemployment falling within the 13-week period.

In regard to the numbers affected, I, too, was surprised at the figures given to me and, therefore, asked for a further briefing. What appears to have happened is that, compared with the numbers who were registering for unemployment in Christmas and Easter vacations some years ago, the numbers since 1976 have been very much lower than the assumed numbers on which we were working. At Christmas 1977 there were 63,000 students who sought to qualify for unemployment benefit of whom 26,000 actually qualified—namely, 41 per cent. These figures obviously are much lower than the figures on which the figure of £10-million, which was in the earlier regulations, was based. That is why the numbers applying for unemployment benefit in the Easter and Christmas vacations are much lower.

I wish to deal with a point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara). The point about students and their education grants is that there is a vacation element in the student grant in respect of the short vacations. In 1978–79 it was £111; it will rise by 18 per cent. to £131 to cover the Christmas and Easter vacations in 1979–80. Worked out on a weekly basis, the figure is £16.37½p. However, to avoid confusion the figure generally quoted is the supplementary benefit rate for a non-householder aged 18 and over, including the non-householder rent addition, of £16.35 a week from November 1979.

Single students who do not satisfy the additional condition for unemployed benefit in the short vacations will not be eligible for supplementary benefit at that time unless they have extra commitments. This is not different. It is exactly the situation that existed earlier. If, however, they have extra commitments, such as rent, the vacation element of the education grant does not affect the entitlement to unemployment benefit in any way at all.

I have re-examined the press notice to which reference was made. It was intended to say that the existing arrangements for supplementary benefit were totally unchanged. The reference in the notice to rent was intended to imply no more than that the existing arrangements for payment of rent in supplementary benefit cases would continue. On that basis, I do not think there is anything for the hon. Gentleman to be concerned about.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) about entitlement in the summer vacation. The benefit entitlement of a student who claims in the summer vacation will be based on the contributions which he has paid in relevant contribution year—that is, the tax year before the calendar year in which the benefit is claimed. Mature students will usually have worked during that year and will qualify for benefit. There is no disadvantage to them in that respect.

A student who has gone from school to university will not be able to carry through the starting credits from that initial year to subsequent summers. There will, therefore, be some effect on future students, but this will not affect the entitlement to unemployment benefit of mature students.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

So the Government are removing the entitlement of young students to benefit not just in the Christmas and Easter vacations but in the summer vacation as well.

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. We are not removing that entitlement. We are putting them all on the same footing from here on. All I am saying is that the mature students, who have the longer record—they are the ones about whom many hon. Members are most concerned—will have no problem unless there is something odd in their record, and that we must then look at their cases sympathetically.

I shall look into one or two of the comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), because they have some validity.

We have been concerned to protect the position of the mature student as far as possible. The mature student who has been employed for two years or more before higher education can thoroughly be expected to satisfy the additional condition by virtue of his employment during each short vacation in his first two academic years and during the first part of the Christmas vacation in his third year.

During the latter part of the Christmas vacation in the third year after the start of the new benefit year on the first Sunday in January, and for any further short vacation, satisfaction of the additional condition may vary from student to student. It will depend very much on the work done, but for the majority of students there will be no problem. That is why the words " in general " were used in the press release. Therefore, I cannot give a blanket assurance, but I assure the House that this will be looked at with sympathy. We realise the problem that mature students can face in this respect.

We have also heard tonight about what the Opposition might have done if they had faced this problem. One hon. Member was not satisfied that the previous Government would have continued down this path, for a number of reasons. In fact, the previous Government said that they would consider whether they would go ahead with these or similar regulations. I was involved in these matters then in Opposition, and I know that we were most concerned about how the matter would be rectified because of the difficulties created for Governments in judging the position of other unemployed earners who are not students.

There have been comments tonight about the National Insurance Advisory Committee. I can understand the disquiet voiced by the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) about the housewife's non-contributory invalidity pension. The regulations which the last Government tried to bring in during the long recess in September last year were referred to by my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State in the context of persuading them that that should be done. I do not believe that this situation is at all similar. I understand what the hon. Lady said—because we appear to disregard good advice on one issue is no reason not to take it on another—but these are separate issues, which arise for separate reasons.

My right hon. Friend and other Ministers will study the report of the NIAC with the greatest care before taking any further steps, and I am sure that we shall be discussing this fully in the House.

A number of hon. Members have said that we are being unfair to students, but I remember the right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) one night, at this Box saying that things occasionally had to be simplified and that sometimes that involved rough justice. I do not

believe that this proposal is rough justice, however, since many students have not had an attachment to earnings in the same way as the normal unemployment earner.

As I said, this is a matter of justice. Something was overlooked in the 1975 Act. Both the previous and present Governments have been seeking to ensure that the vast body of unemployment earners have their rightful benefit and that no one is given a special position without good reason.

It seems to me that the arrangement in these regulations which calls for a student to have shown his link with and to demonstrate his reasonable attachment to employment is undoubtedly fair compared with the position of the general body of earners, and I hope that the House will approve it.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 94, Noes 26.

Division No. 71] AYES [11.25 p.m.
Alexander, Richard Garel-Jones, Tristan Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Aspinwall, Jack Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Hannam, John Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Hawksley, Warren Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Benyon, Thomas (Abingdon) Hooson, Tom Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge-Br'hills)
Best, Keith Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Silvester, Fred
Bevan, David Gilroy Lamont, Norman Sims, Roger
Blackburn, John Lang, Ian Speed, Keith
Boscawen, Hon Robert Lawrence, Ivan Speller, Tony
Bright, Graham Lester, Jim (Beeston) Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)
Brinton, Timothy Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Stevens, Martin
Brooke, Hon Peter Lyell, Nicholas Stradling Thomas, J.
Brotherton, Michael MacGregor, John Tebbit, Norman
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe) Major, John Thompson, Donald
Buck, Antony Mayhew, Patrick Thorne, Nell (Ilford South)
Butcher, John Meyer, Sir Anthony Thornton, George
Cadbury, Jocelyn Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove & Redditch) Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Mills, Iain (Meriden) Waddington, David
Chalker, Mrs. Lynda Mills, Peter (West Devon) Wakeham, John
Chapman, Sydney Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester) Waldegrave, Hon William
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Murphy, Christopher Waller, Gary
Colvin, Michael Nelson, Anthony Ward, John
Cope, John Neubert, Michael Watson, John
Costain, A. P. Page, John (Harrow, West) Wells, P. Bowen (Hert'rd&Stev'nage)
Cranborne, Viscount Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Wheeler, John
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Parris, Matthew Wickenden, Keith
Dover, Denshore Patten, Christopher (Bath) Winterton, Nicholas
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Patten, John (Oxford) Wolfson, Mark
Elliott, Sir William Pollock, Alexander
Emery, Peter Porter, George TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Fairgrieve, Russell Raison, Timothy Mr. Carol Mather and
Faith, Mrs Sheila Renton, Tim Mr. Tony Newton
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Rhodes James, Robert
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford) Flannery, Martin
Buchan, Norman Dobson, Frank Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)
Craigen, J. M. (Glasgow, Maryhill) Dunn, James A. (Liverpool, Kirkdale) Grant, George ([...])
Cryer, Bob Evans, John (Newton) Harrison, Rt Hon [...]
Cunliffe, Lawrence Faulds, Andrew Haynes, David
Homewood, William Price, Christopher (Lewisham West) White, Frank R. (Bury & Radcliffe)
Martin, Michael (Gl'gow, Springb'rn) Race, Reg
Parry, Robert Richardson, Miss Jo TELLERS FOR THE NOES
Penhaligon, David Skinner, Dennis Mr. Kevin McNamara and
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore) Stallard, A. W. Mr. Andrew [...]. [...]
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the draft Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) Amendment Regulations 1979, which were laid before this House on 5th July, be approved.