HC Deb 11 December 1980 vol 995 cc1244-52

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

6.2 am

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

The threatened damage to secondary education which I put to the House tonight will be nationwide. It is causing deep concern to teachers and careers officers in all parts of the country. The full impact on parents and pupils has been deliberately blunted up to now, for the very good reason of not deterring pupils preparing for their examinations. Unfortunately, this low key can no longer be maintained.

The cause of the trouble is the radical alteration in supplementary benefit rules for school leavers flowing from the Social Security Act 1980 and regulations made under it, applying from the end of the present school term. My case is that regulations which the Government have recently made can be unmade so as to restore the much more satisfactory previous position.

Until now, those who left school and signed on were immediately eligible for supplementary benefit. Likewise, child benefit ceased immediately on their leaving school. Under the drastically changed rules, supplementary benefit will not be available to school leavers until the nearest of three fixed days in each year, roughly corresponding with the end of school holidays. A pupil leaving at Christmas will be able to claim from the first Monday in January and an Easter school leaver will be able to claim on the first Monday after Easter Monday, but—and this is the mischief—a pupil staying on at school until May in order to sit CSE or GCE O-level examinations will not be able to claim benefit until the first Monday in September, and during this long period of delay child benefit will continue to be paid to the parents.

For a school leaver under 18 years of age living at home, the average net loss—namely, the lost supplementary benefit minus the continuing child benefit—will be, at the very least, more than £8 a week. In most cases it will be about £10.50. If the youngster is living away from home, his or her loss will be much greater. These figures mean that a 16-year-old who abandons examinations to leave at Easter will draw about £250 or more in supplementary benefit before his or her mates who stay on to take examinations can draw even a penny. If we take into account child benefit, which is paid not to the youngster but to the parent, the discrepancy becomes £159 at the very least. It is these serious sums that will obviously be a severe disincentive to some youngsters to stay at school to take examinations or even to prepare for them.

The group of youngsters most seriously affected will be the 40 per cent, of fifth formers old enough legally to leave school next Easter. It is expected that 327,000 pupils will be legally able to leave school in England at Easter next year. In 1979, which is the most recent year for which figures are available, only 14 per cent, of those entitled legally to leave at Easter actually did so. My fear—it is not mine alone as it is the fear of informed opinion throughout the relevant professions and is now almost unanimous opinion—is that next year the 14 per cent, will tragically grow. It is feared that when the deplorable facts are more widely known the percentage will grow seriously in the following year.

The new social security temptation will be added to the present attraction of leaving before examinations in order to get early into the desperate job queue and to have a first chance of YOP. The change comes at a most unsuitable time when modest examination qualifications probably seem to some school leavers not to provide much answer to unemployment. Equally, the change conies at this dreadful time when unemployment in the home will make it extremely difficult for many families to make the big financial sacrifice that will be called for to keep a child at school for examinations and when the child is unable to draw any supplementary benefit until September.

Within the schools, the damage will not be limited to the actual examination period or to children in their last few months at school. The Head Teachers' Association of the metropolitan borough of Kirklees describes the likely effect of these changes thus: There is no doubt that the prospect of sitting important examinations at the end of the fifth year is a powerful motivation to secondary school pupils. In the light of this new regulation, however, it is likely that substantial numbers of pupils will not be sitting such examinations, and that they may know this for two or three years before they actually leave. The implications of this situation both for the progress of these young people and for the work of the schools generally can only be described as daunting. It is said that under the previous rules supplementary benefit could be and sometimes was abused by youngsters signing on for the summer although firmly intending all the time to return to school in September and not really seeking work in a meaningful way. I am not hers to dispute that. However, that belongs, unfortunately, to a vanished age when full employment was rightly an objective of Governments and when young people did not have to panic about work opportunities after leaving school.

My case is that if there is any merit in the change it belongs to a time which has unfortunately gone. This change has been brought cut of a pigeon-hole at a most inappropriate moment.

The old regulations enabled the DHSS to recover benefits paid where there had been abuse if it was able to do so. In today's dreadful circumstances, it is much more likely that a youngster will genuinely be seeking work, probably desperately, in the summer. If he or she returns to school in September, it will be merely as an alternative to further prolonged unemployment.

There is also the question of GCE resits, which take place in the early part of the autumn term. A child who goes back for a GCE resit, which may be of great importance to his or her future career, and then leaves school having resat the examination in September will not be able to draw any benefit until the first Monday in January, which is another disincentive to taking worthwhile examinations.

Of course, cynics might wrongly allege that many fifth formers will leave at Easter anyway under today's grim conditions, irrespective of the benefit regulations. However, certainly on the evidence that has been made available to me—and I have had a good deal—that is not so. I cite, for instance, a typical comprehensive school in the Coins Valley constituency and give the figures of those who have left at Easter rather than staying on into the examination term. In 1978 only 10 out of 213 fifth form pupils who could have left at Easter did so. In 1979 it was 10 out of 231. In 1980 it was seven out of 213. That shows how anxious children and their parents are for them to take these examinations, as long as there is no manifest and serious financial discouragement.

I have heard it alleged—and this I find extremely difficult to understand, at any rate in West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, where my constituency lies—that the summer months are not any good for job hunting anyway. The only possible grain of truth in that absurd and sweeping assumption is that perhaps apprenticeships tend to be recruited for in the autumn. Howev8r, unfortunately, in the North of England at any rate, the number of apprenticeships is dwindling rapidly. I entirely refute the general notion that the summer months are not suitable for job hunting. It is an out-of-date concept, if ever it had any serious validity.

These inhumane new regulations entirely ignore the very substantial cost nowadays of job hunting. A youngster going after a job has substantial fares to pay. He has to be properly dressed for the occasion, with an entirely different suit of clothes from the one that he or she wore at school. Then, it is important that visits are paid regularly to careers officers, which again require expensive fares.

I want to make it plain that my complaint is fully supported by at least the following bodies: the National Association of Head Teachers, the Society of Education Officers, the Institute of Careers Officers, the National Association of Probation Officers, the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association, the well-known youth organisation Youth Aid and every secondary head teacher in the Colne Valley constituency. I have already mentioned the Kirklees Head Teachers' Association.

I wonder whether the Minister's constituency has made any representations on this point. I am also most anxious to know, and I am sure that the House will be, just what the extent was of the DHSS's careful consultations with educational interests and with the Department of Education and Science before the regulations were made. There is, I must confess, a prima facie suspicion that the old Whitehall insularity in which Departments do not readily take on board points from other Departments has prevailed in this case. I find it almost impossible to believe that the Department of Education and Science has willingly gone along with this backward step.

In the Standing Committee on the Bill, when the clause came up under which this regulation has been made, there was, unfortunately, no Liberal Member. However, the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) raised the matter. I must say that the Minister's arguments in Committee seem to me very thin. For instance, he stated: These proposals, however unwelcome they may be to the Committee, also provide a welcome relief in the burden on staff. That illustrates the futility of simply playing the numbers game with the Civil Service.

We all want to reduce the cost of bureaucracy, but playing the numbers game, talking of getting rid of a relatively few clerks at the cost of irrevocable damage to children's careers and the atmosphere of secondary schools, is entirely out of proportion. I register a further protest, as my party always has, against playing the numbers game with the Civil Service Reductions should be made in a much more scientific way.

These harsh regulations for leavers who stay on at school to sit examinations are unsoundly based, partly on the false idea that a person who has left school still regards school holiday periods as meaningful. That is quite unreal. Further, this mean device has been brought out of a Whitehall pigeon-hole at the worst and most inappropriate time. Under conditions of full employment it might not have done anything like so much damage, but now the most disadvantaged young people will suffer and there will be a severe effect on motivation throughout secondary education.

I beg the Government at the least to take immediate action which is still open to them to prevent the change being made at the worst possible time for the welfare of children and for the well-being of our secondary schools.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) for raising the question of the deferment of school leavers' entitlement to supplementary benefit. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science had hoped to be here. I hope that the hon. Member will appreciate why that was not possible. My hon. Friend will, however, examine the matter with me, and I shall come to that matter later. I am aware that this issue has caused some concern in the last couple of weeks—some of it rather alarmist in tone — and it is helpful to have the opportunity to put on record the background and reasoning behind the change.

The change was proposed originally in "Social Assistance", a consultative document prepared by a team of officials and published in July 1978 under the previous Government. Under the old arrangements, a school leaver could claim benefit immediately on leaving school provided he was then over 16. Reviewing the effect of this, the team noted that, notwithstanding changes in statutory school leaving arrangements, recruitment practices of employers and the holiday expectations of the young people themselves were as often as not based on the assumption of starting work in the autumn. Entitlement to benefit in the period between leaving school and the end of the next holiday period was out of phase with holiday and employment practices and, in addition, had a number of unwelcome consequences.

A heavy burden was placed on unemployment benefit and supplementary benefit offices at a time when the staff were already under considerable pressure—for example, in handling the uprating. It was a question not of saving posts but of other pressures in the offices at that time. Similarly, careers officers might have been hampered in their efforts to secure employment for those genuinely looking for work by also having to handle cases of people primarily using their services as an avenue to benefit. This tended to create an artificial picture of the extent of real unemployment amongst school leavers. Finally, there were temptations to abuse the system, as the hon. Member has recognised.

Benefit is, of course, payable only to those genuinely seeking work. Yet some young people quite genuinely do not know, since they are awaiting examination results, whether they have finally left school. And, less creditably, others might misrepresent their intentions in order to claim benefit.

"Social Assistance" received an extremely wide circulation. A number of outside educational interests were included on the distribution list, including the National Umion of Teachers, the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Students. The report's proposals were then the subject of extensive consultation.

The proposal attracted a great deal of attention—indeed, throughout its consideration this change has been well publicised. Views tended to polarise. Some saw the proposal as an issue of principle that young people should be eligible for an income of their own right; that attitude goes rather wider than the question of deferment of benefit for a set period. Interestingly, the views of careers officers, who work with young unemployed people, were almost equally divided for and against the proposal. Those who supported the proposal tended to suggest that the immediate availability of benefit acted as an inducement to leave school, undermined a young person's determination to get a job and hampered careers officers' attempts at securing a placement.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

Concerning the careers officers' views, will the Minister say whether the consultation was with the professional body of careers officers or simply with individual careers officers?

Mrs. Chalker

I fear that I must speak from memory. The official bodies—there are more than one—were consulted. Bearing in mind the volume of correspendence that I received from individual careers officers and teachers, I am sure that they, in turn, had circulated the information sent to them in "Social Assistance" to their membership. I received widely flung correspondence and representations. They came from individuals and through the various associations that represent them. If I am in any way in error, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission, in its comments, concluded that it saw good reasons for making the change, provided that the interests of a number of special groups were safeguarded. It was particularly concerned that a young person's first encounter with the social security system might be in circumstances which encouraged him to misrepresent his intentions.

Following consideration of views on this and other changes—and it must be remembered that this change is just one of very many in the revised supplementary benefits scheme—the Government announced in a White Paper, Cmnd. 7773 published in November 1979, that they intended to proceed with the change recommended by the review team in "Social Assistance".

The change has been implemented by regulations through an interlocking amendment to the child benefit scheme, which extends entitlement to child benefit during the period of deferment, and a corresponding regulation dealing with entitlement in the revised, regulated supplememtary benefits scheme. But our intention to use regulations in that way has been put clearly on record in the House on a number of occasions. There is no validity in the suggestion that this has somehow been smuggled through by the back door. When introducing the Second Reading debate on 20 December 1979 on what is now the Social Security Act 1980, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear that the change would be implemented, and he reiterated the reasoning behind the change.

It was also discussed, as the hon. Gentleman said, in greater detail during the Bill's Committee stage on 19 February 1980 on an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett). Indeed, precisely the point on examinations was made on that ocasion and the educational implications were specifically raised. I remember the discussion well as it finished some time after five o'clock in the morning, which appears to be a regular habit. Since that occasion, the Government's intention to proceed has been reiterated on the record on a number of occasions—for example, in reply to the hon. Gentleman on 2 June: Hansard, Volume 985, column 551

I have explained the background at some length because it seemed to me light to emphasise the careful consideration that has been given to this change over the last two years or so, the widespread consultation and discussion that preceded it and the specific attention to the educational implications in the course of taking the decision.

What will be the position of future school leavers? The hon. Gentleman referred to the position since 24 November. A 16-year-old school leaver will not be able to get benefit in his own right until the first supplementary benefit pay day after either the first Monday in January, the Monday after Easter Monday or the first Monday in September, whichever of those three is the first to follow the date of leaving. For that period, the children will continue to be treated as dependent on their parents. But the deferment will not apply to a number of special groups that can claim benefit in their own right while still at school. That undertaking was given to the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Those groups are young people who have a child of their own, orphans who are not being cared for by a guardian or otherwise maintained, young people who are estranged from their parents and living away—a position mentioned by the hon. Gentleman—and pupils whose handicap is such that they would be unlikely to obtain employment in the foreseeable future were they to leave school. Nor will the deferment affect those who have reached 19 by the time they leave school. We have, therefore, protected the special groups whom the Supplementary Benefits Commission was concerned to safeguard.

Treating school leavers as dependent on their parents in the period of deferment has the further effect that their parents will continue to be entitled to social security dependency additions in the period of deferment, as well as continuing to receive child benefit in respect of the school leaver. This is important in relation to the accusation that the change is hitting those least able to cope with the expense of the extended responsibility for their child.

The fact is that a family which is already receiving supplementary benefit and which contains a 16-year-old school leaver does not lose out by the change. This is because the non-householder scale rate to which a 16-year-old would become entitled is the same amount of money—£13.10 a week—as the dependency addition that the parent of such a child has included in the assessment of needs for the purposes of supplementary benefit. That is to say, total income of a family already on supplementary benefit is unaffected by the change in the entitlement rules. The parents get what the young person is denied. We have, therefore, in implementing the change, taken care to protect the families most in need.

We are not convinced that pupils will choose to sacrifice their longer-term career interests for the sake of short-term financial gain. Of course, the Government would be most concerned if pupils were dissuaded from entering CSE or GCE examinations in order to be eligible for short-term financial gain, but, as I have said, we do not expect this to be the case, and I am sure that teachers need no guidance from the centre about advising their pupils on the value of obtaining qualifications. I have consulted my colleagues in the Department of Education and Science. They, with us, will pay careful attention to the number of entries in different parts of the country for public examinations in 1981.

I recognise the concern that this change has aroused. If there appears subsequently to be clear evidence that the change has had major unwelcome consequences, of course the Government will be prepared to review the position. We would have to take into account the wider considerations that I want to come to quickly in weighing the advantages and disadvantages of any further change. But I can assure the House that, should the fears that have been expressed prove valid, we shall look again at the merits of the change.

I should like to put the changes in the wider social context. Too often, Governments are accused of examining issues in a narrow context, ignoring the wider social choices that are at stake. This change is, by contrast, a clear example of a Government balancing priorities on expenditure and coming to a decision on where the money available might be deployed most usefully. As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, the proposal for change was just one in the wide-ranging report "Social Assistance". All discussions on the change have therefore to be set in the wider context. That has been a major task and it has entailed conscious decisions on the best use of money and staff time.

We have implemented the revised supplementary benefits scheme as a package, in which the cost of the improvements that we have been able to introduce is broadly balanced by the savings made elsewhere. I make no apology for that. Those who call for increased expenditure in this or that area ignore the reality of the total bill for the taxpayer that the accumulation of separate bids represents. Of course, the change we have made will save money. We expect there to be a net saving of some £4 millon a year after taking account of the increased child benefit cost. Some families will receive less assistance from the State than they might otherwise have done, but we have protected those most in need.

We have simplified many aspects of the supplementary benefit scheme which concern children. We now have three scale rates for children rather than five, with an enhanced benefit on the change over ages. We are offering more help to families with young children under the age of five. We have reduced from two years to one year the qualifying period for the higher-rate long-term benefit rates for claimants under pension age who are not required to register and be available for work. That will help disabled people and lone parents.

These were changes that we wanted to make, and those who have objected to the school leavers' changes have not suggested that we should go back upon them. But the improvements were bought at the price of savings elsewhere, and it seems to me that we exercised proper social priorities. Put simply, we believed that the money could be better used in other areas. The improvements that we made outweighed the disadvantages.

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that should my colleagues at the Department of Education and Science, in their monitoring of what happens, find that there are major welcome consequences of the type that the hon. Gentleman fears, the Government will be prepared to review the position. I think, however, that we have to bear in mind the weight of evidence on both sides of the case and see how we can bring together all the various opportunities for young people with the expanded youth opportuinites programme. We have to make sure that we are doing the best and the right thing, and I hope that the considerations that will take place this year will enable us to come up with the right answer for this very difficult period for school leavers.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's courtesy in putting the debate over in the way that he has done.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Seven o'clock a.m.