HC Deb 12 March 1986 vol 93 cc992-1028 7.24 pm
Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

I beg to move,

That this House deplores the Government's announcement of only a two per cent. increase for next year in the student grant, which is a further cut in real terms in addition to the 17 per cent. reduction in value since 1979; and condemns the Government's policies of restricting the access of students to the social security system whilst failing to make up the losses, which will be severe for students who have no other form of income. The Government's record on student grants is widely recognised to be deplorable. Since 1979 it has steadily and consistently eroded the student grant system, which was, I would remind the House, established by a Conservative Government in 1962 and supported and developed by subsequent Conservative and Labour Governments. Hon. Members are only too familiar with what has happened. By next year the real value of the student grant will have fallen by about 20 per cent. The level of the parental contribution has increased sharply. In addition, students have lost their right to be reimbursed for their travel costs—and I see that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) is in his place.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

That is very cryptic.

Mr. Radice

It is not cryptic, because Canterbury university is in the hon. Member's constituency and I know that there have been many protests from the students of that university about their travel costs.

One of the most depressing features of the Government's policies is that, as local education authority spending has been squeezed, the number and value of the so-called discretionary grants provided by local councils have also fallen significantly.

On top of all this, the Government announced in their White Paper "Reform of Social Security" that they propose to amend the existing regulations on entitlement to supplementary benefit and housing benefit for students, to remove all full-time students' entitlement to supplementary benefit and unemployment benefit in the short vacations, to remove entitlement to housing benefit for students in halls of residence, and to modify and reduce entitlement to housing benefit in all vacations. These proposals, it was said, were seen as a first step towards removing students from entitlement to social security as a whole.

It is true — I fully accept this — that some compensation for the loss of benefit is to be introduced. Students living away from home will receive £36 a year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) will be dealing in more detail with what the Government are proposing. I merely draw attention to the Prime Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), when she made it clear that at least half the students are likely to face a loss of income. The National Union of Students believes it would be even worse.

No wonder that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has said that the system of student financial support is now in an advanced state of decay. No wonder that the rector of Glasgow University, the vice-chancellor of East Anglia and the vice-chancellor of Durham have all separately warned about the consequences of Government policies. The vice-chancellor of Durham has told parents that financial difficulties are now driving some students out of higher education, while the vice-chancellor of East Anglia and the rector of Glasgow have both said that financial hardship is having an adverse effect on some students' academic performance. I am merely quoting what vice-chancellors have said, and I should have thought that Government Members would also take some account of this.

It is no wonder that, shortly before Christmas, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James)—the hon. Gentleman has courteously informed me that, although he is not able to be present for the beginning of the debate, he will be present later—resigned as the Government's higher education officer. He told the Prime Minister when he resigned: the squeeze on university finances has now become intolerable, and the last straw was the decision to give a 2 per cent. increase in student grants coupled with removing all benefits. He added: Students have suffered cuts in real terms of something like 19 per cent. since the Tories came to office. He continued: I have always seen it as my job to encourage young people to go into higher education and I fear that what the Government has done, and is doing, is in absolutely the opposite direction. That is what the hon. Gentleman told the Prime Minister, and all credit to him for his courage in saying openly what many Conservative Members are saying in private.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge that the Government are moving in the wrong direction. However, at times it has been difficult to discern exactly what the Government's policy is on student financial support. The House will remember that, at the end of 1984, the Secretary of State found himself in rather a mess with Conservative Back Benchers over his plan to make tuition fees liable to parental contribution. In announcing his climbdown to the House, he spoke of his intention to review the system. He said specifically that the review would include an examination of the feasibility of replacing student grants with student loans.

We were told by the press during the summer of 1985 that the Cabinet had vetoed the Secretary of State's pet proposal that the review should recommend the introduction of student loans. If those reports were not accurate, I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will tell us when he speaks. After that, the right hon. Gentleman was clearly at a loss to know what to say. After months of prevarication he announced that the promised review would not be published and that he would not be bringing forward proposals for reforming the grant system. After all that, the right hon. Gentleman is left with a policy of cut, cut and cut again.

The Secretary of State told me in January—this was in justification of his position—that he thought it right that students should share with other responsible adults some of the burden of holding down public expenditure, thus helping to regenerate our economy to the ultimate benefit of everyone, including students and their families. In other words, students should have to pay for the failure of the Government's economic policy.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. George Walden)

No, its success.

Mr. Radice

The Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for higher education says that he wants students to contribute towards the success of that policy. I rather doubt whether cutting student grants will help to do that.

In a gloss on the same argument the hon. Gentleman, whom I welcome to the debate, has argued that the student body should have to help pay for the increased numbers of students in higher education. That is an odd argument. Why should existing students have to pay directly for an increase in the student population, which should be to the advantage of the entire community? What is the Secretary of State's strategy on grants? I know that many Conservative Back Benchers would like to ask him that question. Does he propose to continue cutting their real value?

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Of course he does.

Mr. Radice

If so, perhaps he will tell the House that that is his intention. Alternatively, does he intend to rely on a de facto loan system continuing through the banks? After all the heavy weekend briefings that we have had on vouchers and all the other pet items on the agenda of the reactionary tendency—I see that a representative of that tendency, the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), is in his place — is the right hon. Gentleman proposing that loans should feature on the agenda?

Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

Does my hon. Friend realise that, throughout the country, students are getting in serious debt because the banks, in an irresponsible way, allow students to run up quite large overdrafts? Does he know that I have been involved in cases where banks have allowed students' overdrafts to run up to £5,000 or £6,000? Is this not a back-door way of forcing through a loans policy?

Mr. Radice

My hon. Friend has outlined clearly what is happening. It would be useful if he sent some examples to the Secretary of State, or perhaps to the Under-Secretary of State, so that the latter can find out for himself what is really happening in higher education. I often doubt whether either Minister knows. The Secretary of State should tell the House what the Government intend to do to remedy the highly unsatisfactory state of student financial support.

The Labour party rejects the Government's policy. Even the Daily Mail has described it as "shabby". We believe that students deserve better for themselves and for the sake of the nation. As a community, we need a sustained and increasing supply of skilled, adaptable and creative graduates. The community should have responsibility for supporting them adequately. As the National Advisory Body for Public Sector Higher Education has said—

Mr. Martin Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)


Mr. Radice

No, I shall not give way for the moment.

The national advisory body has said that the system of student financial support is central to the debate on the future demand for higher education places. The decision whether to enter or to continue in higher education depends in part on access policies, and I hope that we shall be debating those policies in future. The decision depends also on the level and availability of financial support. The 17 per cent. decline—it will almost certainly be 20 per cent. by the end of the coming year—in the value of student grants since 1979 is causing many students hardship and may well have discouraged qualified young people from going into higher education.

As evidence of that, I quote a written answer of 10 March in which the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for higher education stated that the proportion of qualified young people—those with two A-levels—entering higher education had declined since 1981. I refer to the qualified participation rate.

Mr. Walden

indicated dissent.

Mr. Radice

Unfortunately, that is the fact. Therefore, the Labour party proposes that the value of the student grant should be increased. We also believe that mandatory grants should be extended and that assistance should be provided for part-time students, who are very important for the nation's future.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

I hope the hon. Gentleman will quantify his remarks. He will recall that yesterday there was an altercation in the House about the famous list of Labour spending of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). The right hon. Gentleman said at the Dispatch Box that the list was false and that only two items were true. He named them, and they did not include additional provision for students.

Mr. Radice

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) was listening yesterday when I said that the Chief Secretary had multiplied by five the amount we proposed to spend on schools. Of course everyone would like to be able to spend five times as much on improving the quality of education, but we are a responsible Opposition and we were not putting forward irresponsible proposals. Unfortunately, the Chief Secretary totally misled the House and some of my hon. Friends about what would happen in their areas. That is deplorable. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South should have made such an intervention.

We shall also introduce a system of maintenance allowances for those who are in full-time education after 16. If we want more young people to go into higher education, we must encourage them to stay on after 16. As a nation we have a very low ratio of those staying at school. That is one reason why we need maintenance grants.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)


Mr. Radice

I am not giving way, because I am coming to the end of my speech.

Maintenance grants would be an investment in our young people and adults who want to take part in higher and continuing education. It would be an investment worth making and the benefits would easily outweigh the cost of not having a skilled and competent population. We reject the Government's short-sighted, wrong-headed policies on students, just as we reject their cuts in higher education as a whole.

I invite Conservative Members who have been so clear in private about their opposition to what the Government have done about student financial support, and who write letters to the National Union of Students to point out that they are on the side of the students, to join us in the Lobby to vote for the motion.

7.42 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Sir Keith Joseph)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

recognises that more students than ever before are receiving higher education; appreciates he need to hold increases in student grant rates to levels which the country can afford; welcomes the Government's current efforts to rationalise and simplify some aspects of the provisions of the social security system as it effects students; and notes that the Secretary of State for Social Services expects shortly to receive the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee on his proposals to this end.". The Government wish to listen carefully to the debate, and I have listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice). We accept that there is anxiety in the student population and no doubt among their families about what the Government's proposals may mean. I emphasise straight away that the Government's decision to remove students from the social security system will be implemented over the medium to long term. As a first step to disentitle students from certain identified social security and related benefits the Government intend that a sensible rationalisation should take place in the near future.

Because the Government recognise that the alterations may influence student intentions and student lives, we embarked upon consultation, which has recently come to an end. We hope in the next few weeks to receive the report from the Social Security Advisory Committee. I assure the House that the Government will study the report carefully and sympathetically. The House cannot expect that in anticipation of the report the Government will announce this evening what should be done to achieve the sensible rationalisation steps that we propose.

We expect to learn from the advisory committee that some students will not be affected by the proposed short-term changes and that some will be slightly affected. We expect that some students might, unless suitable arrangements are made, be more severely affected. Until we get the report, we cannot identify the scale and the impact of the proposals that we have in mind, nor can we decide on the optimum compensation arrangements.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

My right hon. Friend has referred to a study which will reveal the implications for students. Will he also consider the implication that that might reveal, that some potential students will not become students because they feel that their parents could not afford it? I put the point seriously, having talked to many students about that possibility.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Will my right hon. Friend take a second point before he replies?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. We cannot have two interventions on the trot.

Sir K. Joseph

The answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) is yes. We shall certainly consider whether there is any reason to expect that possible changes would discourage potential students from going forward, although my hon. Friend will realise that we are in the realm of conjecture. Often allegations are made but it is hard to establish evidence. I shall come later to the nearest to evidence that we have, namely the age participation index, which is so far very encouraging.

Mr. Cormack

My point follows on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) said. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that parents are exceptionally concerned? Will he reaffirm that it is the policy of the Government, as he told the Select Committee in the last Parliament that it was, that over a period they will phase out the parental contribution, bearing in mind that young people become adults at the age of 18? He told the Select Committee some years ago that that was the Government's long-term policy. Does it remain so?

Sir Keith Joseph

I am sure that my hon. Friend is quoting me accurately, but I am slightly nervous to think that I used the mode of a future definite in what I said to the Select Committee. No doubt any Government would want to phase out the parental contribution, but I doubt whether I actually said that the Government will phase it out. Alas, I do not see that as an immediate prospect for any Government. That we should like to do so I can confirm.

Into the sympathetic reception with which the Government wish to greet the expression of anxiety by hon. Members on both sides of the House, I must insert a couple of realistic points that need to be borne in mind. It has been the policy of all Governments in recent years to consider that students should look to a combination of sources from which to draw their income. For example, they should look to student awards and to their parents. That has been the common policy of both Labour and Conservative Governments. They should also look, although to a lesser extent in many parts of the country than a few years ago, to occasional part-time earnings. Moreover, they should look to some extent to the savings that they may have put aside, and even to loans individually contracted with their families or banks.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) intervened with a story about an overdraft of thousands of pounds being run up. If it will not breach confidence to do so, I hope that he will send the information to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State or to me.

Mr. Weetch

Perhaps I should tell the Secretary of State that I have already written to his Department and have had a reply from one of the Ministers, who said that the problem would be borne in mind. I hope that that is indeed so.

Sir Keith Joseph

I shall make it my business to look at the case so that I can bear it in mind. However, it seems a little imprudent to run up such an overdraft unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir Keith Joseph

Yes, but I must limit the number of times that I do so.

Mr. Shersby

In talking about the various ways in which students can be supported at university, will my right hon. Friend say something about the possibilities of encouraging industrial sponsorship? Will he recognise the problems experienced by students at sandwich universities, such as Brunel in my constituency, as the cost of accommodation in west London is very high?

Sir Keith Joseph

I am cursing myself for omitting business sponsorship from the list of sources to which students can turn. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of it, as I should have included it.

Thus, there are various sources which, in combination, Governments have considered as potential providers of revenue. But I say, on behalf of the Government, that we certainly do not want to defeat the legitimate expectations of students entering higher education to a degree that would alter their intention. That is not what we want. Consequently, we shall study the consultation report very carefully. Obviously, the Government do not for a moment wish to discourage students from poorer households. In response to the hon. Member for Durham, North, I should say that we do not want to discourage the admission of those who are qualified for higher education.

We take particular pride in the fact that there is a record percentage of a record age cohort in higher education now. There are nearly 80,000 more students in higher education than in 1979. There are slightly fewer students in universities, but many more in the polytechnics and colleges. The degree to which the number of students from polytechnics and colleges has risen is shown by the net increase in higher education. The figure in total is nearly 80,000 more, which is over 15 per cent. more than the number in 1979. That is a record number and a record proportion of a record age cohort.

I say gently to the hon. Member for Durham, North that there were fewer students in higher education in 1979 than in 1975. Before he adopts too sanctimonious a tone, he should recognise that fact. Indeed, the qualified age participation index—the proportion of those who are qualified for admission to higher education—is better now than in 1979, when the Labour Government left office.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will the Secretary of State accept that he has got the figures wrong? Between 1979 and this year the qualified participation rate has fallen. But the more worrying factor is that in the early 1970s there was a qualified participation rate of about 97 per cent. The figure is now down to 81 or 83 per cent. Is there not a clear correlation between the way in which grants fell during that 15-year period and the proportion of people with qualifications going into higher education?

Sir Keith Joseph

This is rather technical stuff—[Laughter.] Before Opposition Members crow too much, I should add that the technicalities are against them. It is true that in the early 1970s the age participation index was 0.1 per cent. higher than it is now. But that was because at that time it included people going on to teacher training with only one A level. Therefore, on a comparative basis, the age participation index is at a higher level than in 1979. I think that the hon. Gentleman must be working on a quite different definition when he talks about 97 per cent.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

My right hon. friend rightly said that no one from a poor background should be prevented from embarking on further education. Does he agree that those who are qualified and whose parents refuse to pay are automatically disqualified from any form of higher education?

Sir Keith Joseph

I must accept that in such circumstances that is so, unless the potential student can find other resources. But I very much doubt whether there are many such examples. The latest survey to be given to us shows that those parents who fail to pay are, on average, failing to pay only a small fraction of the sum ideally due from them.

Students in this country receive all their tuition fees from the taxpayer and ratepayer. Those tuition fees vary from about £3,000 a year for a humanities course, which normally runs for three years and thus totals about £9,000 in subsidies from the taxpayer, to perhaps about £7,000 or £8,000 a year for a medical or veterinary course, which lasts for perhaps five or six years. I am not quarrelling with those figures but merely reminding the House of them. So in the case of veterinary or medical courses, the subsidies from the taxpayer and ratepayer are very large, amounting to about £40,000 for the course.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

A very sensible investment.

Sir Keith Joseph

The hon. Gentleman says that quite rightly. I am not judging those facts but simply explaining the extent to which the taxpayer and ratepayer subsidise students. I do not quarrel with that. But I must point out that that subsidy is paid by a taxpayer who lives, alas, in a much less prosperous country than many of his continental neighbours do. However, I shall speak about relative prosperity in a moment.

Mr. John Powley (Norwich, South)

Given the level of funding that Governments put into student benefits or higher education, are we not entitled to expect a reasonable standard of conduct from the students who have the advantage of being educated? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the actions of the student union at the University of East Anglia in my constituency, which yesterday effectively banned Conservative students from operating within the university in anticipation of a visit from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) to speak? That means that the local Member of Parliament is also effectively banned from speaking to students at the university.

Sir Keith Joseph

I was not aware of that until my hon. Friend told me just before this debate. If the facts are exactly as he has been informed, I am considerably worried by that news and will make inquiries.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the students at Lancaster university met and, by a vote of two to one, decided to give entirely free speech at the university, which is as it should be?

Sir Keith Joseph

Quite right too; and Lancaster is by no means the only one. Yet there is all too much evidence that some higher education students do not behave in that civilised way.

As the hon. Member for Durham, North reminded the House, it was a Conservative Government that introduced student grants. The maintenance grant now provided is not quite as much as some students would like, but it is a great deal more generous than that provided by much more prosperous countries.

I have been given some evidence relating to the difference of opinion between Members on the Front Benches. I stand corrected in the correction that I tried to introduce. It appears that the figures used by Opposition Front-Bench Members were of qualified participation rates, that is, the proportion of people with qualifications for entry to higher education, whereas I was talking about the age participation index. That explains the difference between us. I apologise to the hon. Member for Durham, North, but his figures do not support his arguments, because the age participation index is substantially higher than when the last Labour Government left office.

Mr. Radice

I quite accept that the age participation rate is higher now than in 1979. It is a very good thing that it is. What I was saying was that the qualified participation rate—that is, the percentage of qualified people going into higher education is now lower than it was in 1979. I am quoting now from a reply which the Under-Secretary gave in the House on 10 March. It is the Minister's own Department's information.

Sir Keith Joseph

I call that roughly deuce.

The maintenance grant may not be as much as some hon. Members would like, but it is a great deal more generous than that provided in more prosperous countries which, on the whole, provide maintenance through loans rather than grants and which generally leave students to earn or borrow at least part of the money for their own maintenance. Not every student feels that the maintenance grant is inadequate. Letters have appeared in the press, pointing out that for some it is perfectly adequate. It is also considerably more than a single pensioner tends to get.

I must also remind the House that most students are on their way to relatively prosperous and satisfying careers. It is quite true that what they do is not only for their own benefit but potentially benefits the country. Nevertheless, the people who pay the maintenance grants and tuition fees are, in most cases, on average, poorer in their careers and in their earnings than students will be.

Nor is it enough to assume that the more students we have in higher education the more prosperous the economy. Higher education is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for prosperity and full employment We need enterprise, we need risk-taking and we need, above all, to be competitive, as well as to have qualified people.

Although our economy is considerably stronger than it was, although we are substantially more productive than we were in 1979, and although there is better understanding in the country of where jobs and prosperity come from than there was in 1979, the countries which compete with us are also improving their performance and, compared with them, we are still considerably less prosperous. It is by an improving but still substantially less prosperous economy that students are supported, with all their tuition fees paid and a very substantial amount available for maintenance.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)


Sir Keith Joseph

No, I will not give way. I think that I am coming by chance to the very points that my hon. Friend wants to make. But I cannot give way even if I am not.

Of course, we regret having to ask the more prosperous parents for the contribution that we seek from them. I do not foresee that any Government will be able quickly to dispense with that. I must remind hon. Members that the contribution to maintenance by those parents, even those who pay the full amount and for whose children there is no maintenance grant, amounts to only half the average subsidy provided for the tuition fees. In the context of an economy which is improving but which is still not as prosperous as we would like, I do not think it entirely wrong that students should not look to the taxpayer for total protection in every circumstance, bearing in mind that the average taxpayer is considerably poorer than most students will be in the course of their careers. That is no reason, however, for the Government to impose severe and unexpected costs beyond the scope of students to meet, so we shall consider very carefully the report which is due to be put in Government's hands in the next few weeks.

I hope that the House will reject the motion and accept the amendment.

8.6 pm

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

We are tonight debating the Government's policy on student grants and student benefits, if "policy" is not too strong a word for what the Government have in mind. The official Opposition, from the good motion on the Order Paper, are obviously unhappy about what the Government are doing, and we in the Liberal and Social Democratic parties totally agree with the official Opposition. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Where are they then?"] I imagine that my colleagues are in roughly the same places as most other Members' colleagues who are not in the Chamber.

The Opposition parties are solid in their disagreement with the Government, although different parties will have different views about the remedy. It seems to us—by "us" I mean virtually all Members of the House—as if there is some hidden agenda which the Government have in respect of students and about which they have not told us. The Secretary of State speaks of a record proportion of students. I would like to remind him that there is also a record amount of apprehension among students who do not know what is to happen next. This benefits no one. The accepted status of the student appears to be under attack. First, the Government are doing all in their power to reduce their numbers, unless they happen to be financially independent; and, secondly, they say that if anyone manages to buck the system and manages to get to university, polytechnic or college of higher education, they will lose their entitlements, both legal and financial, although I suppose that they will still have their health care entitlement.

These changes are being introduced with no explicit admission that the basis of entry to further and higher education is to be changed, or that the choice about institution or course is to be shifted. I should like the House to look briefly at the proposed changes. I refer first to the withdrawal of supplementary and unemployment benefits during short vacations, as a prelude to complete withdrawal, as is stated in the social security Green Paper.

Apart from our general concern that the Government are making the existence of students even more difficult, my main concerns are the inability of students, parents and, indeed, the teachers who prepare students to plan ahead, and the inherent wrongness of what is proposed. We have rules about benefits. The rules are that if one pays contributions one receives unemployment benefit. Now one can pay contributions and receive no benefits if one is a student. The point about supplementary benefit was that one received it according to one's needs. That is why it was called supplementary benefit. Now, with the proposed compensation, we shall have to tell students if they are in need—as were 275,000 students; to quote the number from a reply given by the Prime Minister to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) —that they are not covered.

The Secretary of State said that some students will be unaffected. He is wrong. The 140,000 students—I use the same reply by the Prime Minister—who claimed nothing at all will now receive £36 a year. This scheme makes the equalisation of the reimbursement of students' transport costs look, by contrast, like enlightened legislation.

As for housing benefit, students need it because there is no standard housing cost for students. We as a nation are proud that there is no standard housing cost. Different universities and colleges have different types of accommodation to suit different types of students. I refer to the different situations in different areas — from private landlords to medical students postgraduates who work a longer student year, mature students as well as conventional undergraduates who live in college accommodation. Housing benefit was the only mechanism that recognised that different students had different needs and it catered for those needs. The housing benefit review team which advocated the removal of housing benefit from students made it clear that this should be dependent upon a thorough overhaul of the student grant system. The Government have taken note of the first comment, but they have ignored the second.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Does the hon. Gentleman share my hope that the Secretary of State and the Government will heed not only the report of the Select Committee on Social Services about a review of social security but that they will also, and even more importantly, pay attention to the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee—which the Secretary of State said is expected soon—and that if they highlight examples of genuine hardship amendments will be introduced by the Treasury Bench during the passage through the House of the Social Security Bill?

Mr. Freud

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that the Secretary of State will heed all advice and that he will stop heeding solely the advice that he receives from the Treasury.

I have said in the past that this Government have no education policy, simply a financial policy in which education has to fight for survival. Now we see benefit changes determining education issues. If the Government want students to work their way through college—the increased earnings limit as well as ministerial exhortations, suggest that, and we have heard the Secretary of State refer to occasional part-time earnings—I wish the Secretary of State would say so. I wish he would say that unless one goes out to work one cannot go to university.

I put it to the right hon. Gentleman, first, that there are no jobs and, secondly, that in evidence given to the Select Committee the opinion of many academics was that it is completely unhelpful to our kind of university and polytechnic education, in which high quality courses are given within a short timespan, to have students seeking employment elsewhere. I use the word "seeking" advisedly because it is the search for work which takes time, is dispiriting and unhelpful to someone's pursuit of a degree.

If the Secretary of State wants students to study only at local institutions and to live at home, I wish he would say so. I believe the strength of our system lies in the fact that one can select a course, even if, in the end, it tends to be the computer that selects the student.

If the Secretary of State wants students to have loans, I wish he would say so, rather than hide behind the claim that a loan is a private arrangement between the bank and the customer.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Is the hon. Gentleman able to say whether the policy of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) is being considered by the Liberal party as well as by the Social Democratic party, or has it been rejected?

Mr. Freud

The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) referred to student loans and said specifically that it was not the policy of the two parties but that the possibility of student loans ought to be investigated. The two parties have the same goal but different routes to reach it. There must be minor changes in approach to policy.

What dialogue has the Secretary of State's Department had with the National Union of Students to try to simplify matters? The official justification for the changes has always been that it involves a high administrative cost. We are apprehensive about that. Rather than wipe out whole categories of claimants just because it is administratively difficult, the Secretary of State ought to take more advice from more people and find out to what extent the administration can be simplified. I accept that there are instances where the cost of administering it is absolutely unwarrantable. Each student fills in a different form each term, printed in different colours, to be signed by different people. I maintain that it would be far more sensible to take advice anti to try to eliminate this unwarrantable expense rather than eliminate the payment.

It seems that the number of claims has increased because the grant has fallen and students are in need. This is the direct result of Government policy. However, we believe that to maintain the present system by putting more money into it, which is the Labour party's approach, will not solve the problems or meet the new demands of the 16 and 19-year-olds. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] If the Labour party has new ideas to put forward, it has not made them very clear. The changes that we are discussing are symptoms of a system that is on the edge of collapse. Tinkering with it will not, therefore, do. The structure has to be recast so that it can work properly.

As with the tax credit scheme, we seek to integrate student grants, taxes, benefits and housing needs. We would give a student grant by virtue of studenthood, with additions according to need. I am opposed to the idea that because one is a student one fails to qualify for benefit. We contend that to be a student is a worthy calling and that students should not be eliminated from benefit, which this policy seeks to do. The system needs recasting to give it the stability and integrity that has been lost. The Government believe in a ritual of hardship, with the only escape route being rich parents or sacrificing study for work.

Mr. Powley

The Government have to find the money, but the Opposition do not.

Mr. Freud

Yes; but the Opposition must point out their priorities. Both Opposition parties see the need to build up a skill base over the coming decades, and give that much more priority than the Government do.

The basis for our motion, had it been our turn to table one, which, sadly, happens seldom, would have been to occasion a full and open review between Departments, local government and others with interest, such as the NUS and the college authorities, to find a new integrated structure. That structure would benefit further and higher education, and provide more places for our youth to acquire skills. My right hon. and hon. Friends—

Mr. Powley

Where are they?

Mr. Freud

They will be here—will vote for the Opposition motion.

8.21 pm
Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I was a little disappointed that the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) was not somewhat more forthcoming about the policy of his alliance partners. How far, for example, would they follow the loans route? Are they arguing for total loans or for interest payments on loans? I would not dream of implying that the hon. Gentleman is two-faced, but, as usual, the alliance seems to be facing two ways. It seems a pity that for once we did not receive a straightforward statement about its policy.

No one likes to see his income reduced, even if that reduction might seem to be justified on the grounds of fairness. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, student support in the United Kingdom continues to be the most generous in the western world. It is significant that neither of the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen has denied that. Clearly, the House must therefore accept that our student support continues to be the most generous in the western world. That point at least should be remembered when the rhetoric has been forgotten. Other countries apparently believe that when students graduate they can expect to receive substantially higher incomes than those who are not graduates.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

If they can find a job.

Mr. Pawsey

The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to make a speech and to put his points as he thinks fit.

Those who graduate from university will have the opportunity to earn substantially higher incomes than those who leave school at 16, 17 or 18 and then go into industry, and help, through their tax payments, to fund students. Clearly, most students will earn substantially more than many who leave school early. It may be for that reason that many countries insist that advances made to students are repaid. But, whatever the reason, no other nation treats its students as generously as we do.

It is worth recalling that the cost of student support, excluding tuition fees, now totals about £500 million. If one considers the total value of awards, including fees, one sees that in 1978–79 they totalled about £528 million and that by 1985–86 the figure had increased to £815 million—a substantial sum, no matter how one looks at it.

I regret that the promised review of student support has been abandoned. That is particularly unfortunate as it raised expectations which, sadly, have not been fulfilled. It proposed to address itself to the question of loans. I was interested to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) about loans which students receive from banks. Clearly, if loans are of the magnitude which he suggested, it would be more logical to introduce a more formalised system of which students may take advantage.

Certainly no one advocates a complete system of loans, and if they were introduced, there should be a basic grant which could be topped up by a loan to the extent to which a student feels is appropriate. Interest rates should be lower than those paid through the clearing banks. That would represent a step forward. It is unfortunate that the review did not reach a conclusion. Indeed, it suffered a somewhat abrupt termination.

The problem which faces my right hon. Friend and Governments of all colours — it certainly faced the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979 — is that the taxpayers' pound can be spent only once. There is nothing magical about it. It can be spent, for example, on social security, student support or the police. Opposition Members are beginning to accept that. If one votes additional funds for students, one must ask where the additional funding will come from. It will come from extra taxation which, for example, will be paid by exactly the same parents who are at present expressing anxiety about the level of grants.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

My hon. Friend is talking about producing additional funds and asking where they will come from, but we are also talking about taking away money of which students have had the benefit in recent times, through supplementary benefit and housing benefit. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the Government are changing the system, perhaps the Department of Health and Social Security should pass certain resources to the Department of Education and Science so that student grants can be increased by the amount by which assistance is being reduced under the social security and housing benefit reductions? Does he agree that that is justice? It is both wrong and hard to take from people something which they had, and which they took into account in deciding how to pay for accommodation, maintenance and so on at university.

Mr. Pawsey

I thank my hon. Friend for his typically thoughtful intervention. I agree that it is always difficult to remove a benefit which someone has enjoyed for some time. I shall refer to housing benefit and supplementary benefit later in my speech. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming our hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security to the debate. When he replies I am sure that he will deal in detail with my hon. Friend's question.

Mr. Radice


Mr. Pawsey

I thought that the hon. Gentleman copped out in his speech once or twice. The alternative to increased taxation would be to increase borrowing, which leads to additional inflation or to cuts.

Labour Members know a great deal more about cuts than we do. Let me refresh their memory about an extract in Barbara Castle's diary. [HON. MEMBERS: "Boring."] I am sorry that this does not please Labour Members. Boring or not, they will have to listen to it; they do not even know which extract it is. It reads:

  • "All things bright and beautiful
  • All projects great and small
  • All things wise and wonderful
  • Denis Healey cuts them all.
  • Healey cuts the old age pension
  • Although he cuts by stealth
  • And when he looks for savings
  • Healey cuts the National Health."
That is the record of Labour Members. It really is a cheek for them to tell us about cuts and to grumble about the amounts that we are seeking to adjust.

Labour Members, in the clear knowledge that they will not be forming an incoming Administration, can promise anything they wish. They have said that they will increase levels of student support. That promise, added to all the other promises that they have made over the past six or seven months, would undoubtedly represent a substantial increase in taxation.

Mr. Freud

Why is the hon. Gentleman defending cuts when the Secretary of State said that there were no cuts?

Mr. Pawsey

My right hon. Friend has been saying that one is seeking to adjust levels of student support. He has been careful to point out to the House that the number of students has increased dramatically. He gave a figure of some 80,000. Clearly, when one adds in those 80,000 additional students, what cut can there be in the totality of student support?

Let me return to my theme that Conservative Members are not unsympathetic to students. It might help to put matters into perspective if I quote from The Listener. The Listener is not usually regarded as being an organ of the Conservative Party but it really answers the question posed to me a moment ago by the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) and he might find it helpful if he listened rather than thumbing through the book on his knees. It said: The fact is that after five years of what we are repeatedly told have been 'savage cuts', there are more students in higher education now than ever before. The polytechnics are booming: graduates and first-year entrants both stand at record levels; applications for this October"— October 1986— are officially described as `buoyant'. There is not much gloom and doom in that article.

The Government have a duty to protect taxpayers, parents and students. They must strike a balance. I understand that changes in supplementary and housing benefit are unpopular, but we should remember that the social services were designed to help the poor, sick and elderly, and not those who will be tomorrow's highest wage earners.

8.33 pm
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) left me somewhat confused. I am not clear whether he was advocating the abolition of student maintenance grants and the support of loans or whether he was trying to redivide the cake, and in the process pretend that he is not enhancing misery by cutting the income available to individual students, or whether he was totally confused by his arguments and the facts available to him.

Mr. Pawsey


Mr. Fatchett

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman immediately.

Mr. Pawsey

The hon. Gentleman does not wish to be unconfused.

Mr. Fatchett


Mr. Fatchett

I rest my case.

Mr. Fatchett

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will not be able to unconfuse me, if his track record over the past few minutes is anything to go by.

It might be useful if the hon. Gentleman were to have a look at one or two other facts after flicking through Barbara Castle's diaries. He might be interested to know that the real value of student maintenance grants increased under the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979. If the hon. Gentleman wants to check that fact, he will not find it in Barbara Castle's diaries but in a parliamentary written answer of 28 January 1985. When he criticises the Labour Government's record on student grants, let him get the facts right, not work on prejudice. He should look at the record of that period.

If the hon. Gentleman could come to the House and say that the Government have a similar record to that of the Labour Government, his arguments might have some credibility. But the reality of tonight's debate is that it is taking place against a backcloth on which we have seen student incomes deliberately cut by the Government. Everybody accepts, as did the Secretary of State, that the real value of student grants has been cut by 19 per cent. during the Government's lifetime. He was shocked when he thought that he heard my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) say 90 per cent. He probably did not feel that it could have gone quite that far but was happy with 19 per cent.

The announced increase in student grants —this massive figure of 2 per cent. —will mean a further decrease in the real value of student grants. That is the backcloth and those are the facts. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth should recognise that. He should have the courage to tell the House, students and parents, that the Government are cutting the real value of student grants because they do not want to spend as much money on student maintenance. That would be an honest argument. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) agrees with that. He wants to cut back and I suspect that he will be going round Nottingham university and Trent polytechnic telling students and their parents that he will expect them to welcome that policy.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

I have done just that. Honesty is the only policy in this debate.

Mr. Fatchett

If one has a short life in politics it should be a sweet life. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman will be here after the next election and I am sure that the students will welcome his honesty in that respect.

We have those cuts which have already taken place, and now we have the further cuts that are likely to be implemented as a result of the changes in the social security regulations. I do not want to go into detail, but I recognise, as I think other hon. Members have, that the proposed cuts in housing benefit will have a deep effect upon student incomes and living standards. It will be difficult for students to secure tenancies in a city such as Leeds and to maintain those tenancies without the benefit of being able to claim housing support through the social security system.

The changes that the Government are proposing and discussing will adversely affect students. I have no faith in what the Secretary of State said about consultations having taken place and the Government listening to the comments and advice before making decisions. Students, like everybody else, know that consultation with the Government is a one-way street. They listen, but simply do not heed the comments corning forward. If I were a gambling man I would suggest to the Minister that what will emerge from the consultation process will probably take a similar shape to the proposal currently on the table. Students will suffer severe cuts as a result of the proposal.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

Obviously, I want to assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall look at the consultations. But, leaving that aside, I am sure that he would not wish to mislead the House. He did rather convey the impression that he did not recognise that the proposals currently on the table, to which he referred, do not change the right of students to claim housing benefit for privately rented accommodation at any time during the year.

Mr. Fatchett

I recognise that point—

Mr. Newton

If they are living there.

Mr. Fatchett

That is right. The Minister's final qualification will cause difficulties to students.

We have a backcloth of cuts in students' living standards. I wish to develop the argument, because the debate is not only about social security or student maintenance. It is about access to higher education. We have an elitist system, whether we like it or not. It is structured so as to broadly discriminate against women, to discriminate strongly against the ethnic minorities, and even more strongly against those who come from social classes IV and V. No hon. Member could be satisfied with our participation rate from those sectors.

What will happen in the future? Ministers often say that higher education is an investment, that we should invest in skills in new technologies, and that we need brains and students who are trained. I agree with those arguments, but our record in that respect compares unfavourably with the record of all our major competitor countries. We must spend more to bring us in line with other countries. The Secretary of State said that spending money on higher education is not a sufficient condition for improved economic performance. No one would disagree with that. He also said that it is a necessary condition for improved economic performance, and I share that view. But if it is a necessary condition for improved economic performance, we must widen access and make it possible for all sections of society to obtain higher education. By adopting the Government's policies on students, we are curtailing the possibility of investment, restricting access to higher education and reinforcing the elitist system.

The major criticism of the Government's attitude to students and higher education is that they have pushed back all the possibilities of opening up our higher education system. It was clear from the arguments between the Secretary of State and my hon. Friends the Members for Durham, North, and Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that, under the Government, the participation rate of those who qualify for higher education has declined. That is a serious indictment of the Government's education policies.

The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) said that the Government's policies are unclear. He asked whether they want to introduce loans by the back door and whether that is why they are forcing more parents to make contributions. I do not believe that the Government's policies are unclear. They want to cut student maintenance and the opportunities for people to enter higher education. Society will condemn the way in which they have treated people with ability and potential. Britain will condemn them for the fact that they have made it impossible for many students with qualifications and ability to benefit from higher education. Unless we reverse those policies, our higher education provision will decline further and we shall have an even stronger elitist system. I object to that, and I hope that, at some stage, the Government will recognise the danger, not just to individuals but to the education system.

8.43 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Two things are clear from the speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett). First, his speech was completely sincere and doubtless he completely believed what he said. The problem is that he painted a version of the facts that is so wholly at variance with the real facts that there is a danger that the criticisms which could be levelled at the Government will be entirely missed. The Government's record on higher education generally and on student grants specifically is creditable. I say that even though, in 1984, it took a fairly hefty effort from Conservative Back-Bench Members to keep it that way.

Whatever may be the long-term benefits of investment in higher education, the simple fact of life is that the money must be found from somewhere. The only place where it can be found is in the nation's taxes. The money cannot be said to be self-generating. If the history of post-war Socialism as practised by both main political parties has taught us anything, it is that the mere idea that we should spend money on things simply because they are worth while—

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

Was it a waste of taxpayers' money to invest in the Spitfire?

Mr. Nicholls

I do not know how my hon. Friend plans to bring Spitfires into the debate. After that encouraging taste of what is to come, I await his speech with interest.

My point is that we cannot spend money on something simply because it is a good idea. If we adopt such a policy, it leads to nothing worth while, only to conversations in car parks at Heathrow airport, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer being turned round and forced to return to give an account of himself to the International Monetary Fund.

Investment in higher education must reflect those economic facts of life. Indeed, it must go further than that. The Government's problem is that they lack flexibility in their attitude to the funding of student grants. The mere fact that the system for funding student grants worked well in the 1950s does not mean that it will work well in the 1980s. The Government have got it wrong in that respect because they are not maintaining the flexibility of approach.

It will not be enough to continue saying, true though it may be, that we have the best system of student maintenance in the Western world. That is not the point, and that is not the standard by which we shall be judged. We shall be judged by the fact that, compared with what we have done for our students in the past, what we are doing now is not good enough. It is not much consolation if one's Rolls-Royce is misfiring to be told that the man down the road has only a mark II Cortina. Such arguments do not answer the point.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security, who will reply to the debate, has drawn the short straw. Between 1978–79 and 1985–86, the real value of student maintenance grants has decreased by about 10 per cent. My hon. Friend's difficulty is that, while acknowledging that that is the position, the Government have not yet decided what to do about it. The Government seem to have headed for a desert island, marooned themselves there, and broken their lifeboats. There was a way out for them. They could have done what it looked as though they would do, and said, "The system is no longer sufficient. We shall have to consider student loans." It looks as though they will not do so.

It is not for me in a short debate to set out a blueprint of how student loans might have operated. Suffice it to say that there are enough examples worldwide on which we could have drawn, but because we have abandoned any such approach, we have landed ourselves in the worst of all possible worlds. No Conservative Member can be happy with the position into which the Government have locked themselves. We seem to have cut off any opportunity of extricating ourselves from that position.

There is no doubt that the Government's record on funding higher education is creditable. That is why it will be no hardship for me to support the Government tonight. But the system to which we have nailed our colours does not allow us to tell the public that that is the way it really is. If my hon. Friend could mention a radical initiative or hold out some hope that a system which is beginning to fail can be brought up to date, we could tell the public the undoubted truth—that we have a creditable record. If we lock ourselves into a situation in which we are obliged to decrease the student grant, when we have cast away any possibility of doing something about improving that situation over the 1980s and 1990s, then truth and logic will still be on our side, but there will be a grave danger that people outside the Chamber will simply not realise it.

8.50 pm
Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I hope that the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) sends a copy of his speech to every student in his constituency. When I listened to the speech of the Secretary of State for Education and Science I thought that there was, after all, something to be said for the Scottish Office taking further, higher and university education under its wing, especially when the Secretary of State was replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch). It was like trying to squeeze a dry sponge—no matter how hard one tried, nothing of substance came out.

The Government have a cheek to table such an amendment to our motion. In the numbers game, how honest are the Government being over the figures that have been bandied about? Surely in the 1980s it is not too much to expect that a greater proportion of our post-school population might usefully, if not enjoyably, benefit from higher education. Surely in the 1980s, with higher hopes and ambitions than in the 1970s and 1960s, we can achieve more.

If there were the same level of participation in higher education among 18-year-olds as there was in 1973–74, another 40,000 people would be in higher education. Does the Secretary of State not know that between 1973–74 and 1983–84, the proportion of 18-year-olds in the United Kingdom rose by 25 per cent.? He must recognise that not only have there been demographic changes but that there is greater competition to get into higher education.

Moreover, the Government should recognise that there should be some scope for older people who wish either to take up for the first time, or augment, higher education studies. There are also quite a number of young people who because they cannot get a job as a result of the economic recession, are filling in at least a part of their unwanted leisure time by attending university courses. A slight problem sometimes arises, about which the Minister will be aware, that such studies must be for under 12 hours, and the students must be available for work. I have one or two constituency cases that have, fortunately, been sorted out.

The change in housing benefit will be the most savage aspect of the Government's package. Notwithstanding the intervention that the Minister for Social Security made in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) many young people are distraught about what faces them as a result of the proposed housing benefit changes. If young people are able to get private rented accommodation, they will not easily be able to say to the landlord that they will not be there during the summer months, and therefore do not want to pay, because they will be staying with their parents, but they expect the accommodation to be available when they return in the autumn. The Minister should understand that the whole character of parental support has altered. Far more families have at least one member unemployed, and there are far more single-parent families and families in which the income is not particularly substantial, so there is not the secondary support available for those students who, perforce, are living away from home.

How honest are the Government being over the uprating of student grants? Did not the Department of Education and Science say in negotiations that it was taking account of the present social security system when it uprated by only 2 per cent.? Now, it is proposing that the massive changes in the social security system will be ignored, and the students will still get only a 2 per cent. uprating. The Government are failing to recognise the cost of accommodation, which is one of the biggest outlays that students have to face.

I listened to the Secretary of State's speech intently. I do not often listen to him because much of the education system in Scotland comes under the Scottish Office. It surprised me that a Government made up of so many people whose curriculum vitae shows that they enjoyed the benefits of higher education are so reluctant to see present and future generations benefiting from higher education. The Secretary of State does not need to pass a law to increase the number of drop-outs in our system. The pincer action that the DHSS and the Department of Education and Science have in mind will do that for us. By grant erosion and social security exclusion, we shall create more dropouts in the higher education system.

I listened to all this business about loans. There will be the introduction of a pawnbroking economy with the higher education system that the Government propose. We have just finished a debate on the City of London. Presumably the loans system is to breathe fresh life into the financial institutions. The students will not have any say in what the rate of interest will be. It shows up the Government's ineptitude in managing the economy that interest rates are so high.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science has much to answer for. It strikes me that the hand of Joseph has been disastrous wherever it has touched. As an example of that I need only look at the Health Service and see the bureaucracy that abounds there because of the right hon. Gentleman's previous influence. The state of industry in this country is another testimony to the right hon. Gentleman. Half the problems which must now be solved in education are due to the declining fortunes of industry in this country.

What a record the right hon. Gentleman has. Since Victorian times this country was able to export more manufactured goods than it imported and now, under this Government, the exact opposite is the case. I hope that the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who is on his way out, does not take the whole higher education system with him in his passage.

9 pm

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I thought we were supposed to be debating higher education tonight. I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the Minister of State and the Secretary of State for being absent at the beginning of the debate for reasons which I hope will be understood.

The House will be aware that, in December, I resigned from my position in my party on higher education matters for a combination of events. I regretted the so-called 2 per cent. increase in student grants. I also regretted the benefit proposals made for students. I regretted also the abandonment of the grant review in which I was involved and the failure to deal with the threshold of parental contributions. All these matters dealt with the future of higher education.

I hope that I have made clear my profound affection and admiration for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Although we disagreed, we did so on a matter of principle, and we disagreed sincerely. I once wrote to my right hon. Friend in a memorandum and said that it was possible that he might be right.

When one looks back at the sad situation of higher education, one realises that we have failed to grasp the problems of the way we fund research. We have failed to grasp the topic of higher academic salaries which has led to a real and serious brain drain. In fact, a constituent of mine who is a plasma physicist earns less than a secretary working in London.

The situation has deep-rooted problems and dates back to the Green Paper "The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s" which was published last summer. In retrospect, I should have protested more strongly than I did at the time about the Green Paper. I described it as illiterate, innumerate and philistine. I recently reread it and was reminded of that famous phrase: "I am astounded at my own moderation."

I feel very deeply about that Green Paper. Paragraph 1.3 of it states: The Government is particularly concerned by the evidence that the societies of our competitors are producing, and plan in the future to produce, more qualified scientists, engineers, technologists and technicians than the United Kingdom. Why is that so? It is because our competitors have invested in higher education. They are the recipients of investment made in the past.

The Green Paper is wrong because my right hon. Friend starts from a position of defeatism. His principle is that, because our competitors are rich, they can afford these luxuries. They are not luxuries; they are the future of our nation. The Japanese, Americans, Germans, South Koreans and everyone else understands that. Why do we not understand that?

There is a real brain drain and underfunding. However, the problem is not simply one of funding. If one could throw money at the problem to resolve it, it might be resolved, but it is more complex than that. I would like to make a proposal to my right hon. Friend. I do not believe in Royal Commissions. However, given the fact that the Robbins committee has unhappily been proved wrong, could we not have a real working group which involves people from industry and business, higher education, the state and independent schools, the universities, polytechnics, Government and local authorities?

Cannot we get together and ask ourselves, "What is higher education for?" The answers we give may differ, but that is the key question. We need a small element of humility. During the 1960s, we made several assumptions, most of which were proved wrong. There was a huge expansion of higher education which was ill thought out. We then went from the euphoria of expansion to total disillusionment, which was also wrong. More did not mean worse, but it did mean disappointment.

We should have the finest higher education system in the world, but we have not. Regardless of party and attitudes, we should ask ourselves why and where we have gone wrong. What can we do to make the system right? We have moved from dangerous euphoria to perilous disillusionment. We should return to the middle way and try among ourselves to provide the finest higher education system in the world. This is needed not just for the present generation or for our children; it is critical for our country's future. We survive on our brains and our ability, not on our brawn. That is what is at stake.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. It might be convenient to the House if I say that I understand that the first of the Front-Bench speakers will seek to rise at 9.40 pm. Four hon. Members who have been present during the debate would like to take part. Perhaps hon. Members would bear that in mind.

9.6 pm

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

The Government's proposals are yet another sign of the sort of society that they are attempting to create—one with decided class divisions wherein opportunities in education, as in health and social services, will depend on how much people have in their pockets rather than on their qualifications, abilities and talents.

There can be no doubt about the reality of the Government's proposals. Since the Conservative party came to power in 1979, there has been a real cut of 20 per cent. in the value of student grants. As well, many potential students have found that they remained potential students because they would not be able to study in the lower levels of education. Discretionary grants have been cut or have been completely abolished by local authorities which have had their rate support grant reduced from 61 per cent. to 46 per cent. of current expenditure. In many parts of Britain local authorities have been rate-capped.

What chances do young people in my constituency have? In one part of my constituency in Liverpool 94 per cent. of young people are unemployed. What chance do they have even of starting on an ordinary A-level or O-level course? The local authority cannot afford much by way of discretionary grants. We need not look for poor young people entering higher education in two, three or four years, because they will not be there. They will not have had the wherewithal even to obtain A-levels and O-levels.

Any increase in the university student population will not come from the ranks of those living in Norris Green, Croxteth and the poor areas of Liverpool. If parents, most of whom are unemployed, struggle to get their offspring through sixth form, through their A-levels and O-levels and through colleges of further education and if those young people are able to go on to university, with what will they be faced? Under the Government's proposals students will be faced with a reduction in housing benefit and they will find that supplementary benefit is denied to them during their vacations.

When the Minister replies I hope he will tell me what encouragement there is in his proposals — he is proposing to deny social security benefits to students—for the parents in the poor areas of Liverpool and elsewhere to struggle to get their children an education. Conservative Members have referred to loans, but such loans must be repaid. There are many young people who have struggled to get to university but then find they cannot get a job. How does an unemployed graduate pay back a loan to a bank, the Government or any other institution?

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

I feel strongly about loans. There would clearly have to be a provision whereby one did not start to repay the loan until one was earning a certain amount. That would thus rid us of the great problem of the reverse dowry on girls. This works well in other countries. Such a policy would give youngsters more independence from their parents and they would not run up haphazard bank loans.

Mr. Wareing

The future of the young people I am discussing is a future of unemployment. However, it does not mean that, because they have the prospect of a jobless future they should be denied the possibility of securing educational qualifications. They are denied this because few young men or girls whose fathers or mothers are unemployed and who live in deprived conditions would borrow money from a bank to get their education.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

There would be a proper scheme.

Mr. Wareing

Under this Government few young people would have the prospect of being able to repay that loan. More is required to deal with the problems of further and higher education. Successive Governments have not dealt with the problems. The next Government — the Labour Government — will, I hope, act in a different way from the previous one.

I wish to refer to the payment or non-payment of supplementary benefits to young people who, during a period of unemployment, enter colleges of further education on a full-time course to gain qualifications. It would be interesting to know from the figures bandied about concerning the increase in the student population, what proportion of those students are involved in courses which lead to Mickey Mouse qualifications—the type that this Government have introduced. How many colleges of further education for example, are dependent upon courses which are provided through the Manpower Services Commission?

Unemployed youngsters may wish to use such time to study and gain qualifications. Those who study for O or A-levels will find that, because they are on a full-time course or are studying for over 21 hours a week, they will be denied a discretionary grant from the local authority for the reasons I have mentioned, and also denied supplementary benefit. I admit that the same was true under the Labour Government, but that does not make it right. It is ludicrous that supplementary benefit can be paid to somebody who decides to languish at home, but that it is denied to somebody who steps through the door of a college of further education.

Much more should be spent through the Department of Education and Science. I do not want the Department of Health and Social Security to be involved. There should be a mandatory grant paid through the DES. Some Conservative Members are loth to spend more money on grants. They talk of the poor taxpayer. "It is not our money," they say, "it is the taxpayers' money." Meanwhile, they are helping out some of the rogues in Johnson Matthey and spending money on Trident as if there were no tomorrow. They do not refer to the taxpayer then.

We should ensure that the future is prosperous. We can do that only by making real investment in people. That means expenditure on higher education. It is no use saying that other countries are richer than us and that they can therefore provide more. Our future riches depend on what we invest in our young people today.

Access to education should not be based on class. It should not be a matter of whether a parent can afford to send a youngster to university. However, during the past six years, the parental contribution to students' upkeep has increased by 170 per cent. To a poor family—and there are more poor families under this Government—to a family in which the breadwinner is unemployed—and there are more unemployed breadwinners under this Government—that is the toll which tells.

I do not believe that the exercises and policies of Ministers and their Departments have anything to do with education or health. Everything is aimed at reducing expenditure, so that the Chancellor can provide more than the £2.5 billion that he has already provided for his rich friends through tax cuts during the past six years. That is what it is all about. As soon as people realise that that is the reality, they will not be fooled by arguments about the Government being interested in education.

I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) was unable to spell out Liberal policy. I hope that his party's policy would be more beneficial than what we experienced under Liberal control in Liverpool between 1973 and 1983. During those years, we had the first cuts in discretionary grants. Even under Tory administrations in the 1950s and 1960s, there were generous grants.

Our only hope is that enough Conservative Members who share the anxiety of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) will have the guts to defy their Front Bench.

9.20 pm
Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

My constituency is proud to contain two most excellent institutions of higher educaton — Nottingham university and Trent polytechnic. I am not sure of the precise figures, but I estimate that our city must have some 20,000 students within its boundaries. It would be comparatively easy and perhaps convenient for me to court popularity with such a large electorate—almost as easy, perhaps, as the promises made by the Opposition and certainly easier than the promises made by the Liberal and Social Democratic Members on the remote possibility that they could, or even would, deliver.

I have enormous respect for Nottingham's student population and I believe that they have a more practical grasp of the problems before us than many people are giving them credit for. Like most colleagues in this place, I have had much correspondence on the subject. Sadly, most of it has consisted of identical letters worked from a common draft. All too rarely—and, bearing in mind that we are discussing higher education, I think it is fair to say this — has a letter been about the needs and problems of the student writing. What makes it even worse—and I think that this should be pointed out—is that one of those letters that I received this morning reads as follows: Dear MP, I note with great concern … I urge you to reject the Government's proposals which could mean that I will have to find another £800 a year to keep my child/children at University. Clearly, if the person signing it does not know whether he or she has a child or children at university, I question whether the £800 a year is a fact either. In case the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) thinks that I am fooling, I am more than happy to lay this letter before the House. I believe that one of my colleagues on the Front Bench has had a similar pre-printed letter.

My understanding from the discussions I have had with many students in Nottingham indicates quite the reverse of the position described by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), because it is the student coming from a very humble background who gets the full grant. That student is not the one who is harmed by these provisions; he is covered. Equally, it is true that the student who comes from an affluent household and whose parents are generous will manage.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett


Mr. Brandon-Bravo

I am sorry; we are very short of time.

It is indeed the student who comes from a so-called middle-class family background and whose parents are not making the presumed parental contribution who seems to be in trouble under the present system. It was for that reason that I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State over 12 months ago saying that in my view the only way out of that problem was to have, on top of the basic grant system, a loan system that could be guaranteed in some way in order to ensure that all students, whether they came from a humble background or a very rich background, were not denied access to higher education.

It really amazes me that Opposition Members always have to presume that Conservative Members come from other than a humble background. I will not waste the time of the House replying to idiotic comments on these lines. I support the view that the generality of the welfare state, the DHSS, is not, and never was intended as, a primary source of student support. I do not say that it does not have a role, and I hope that the report to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred earlier will address itself to some of the problems that I know concern us all. I believe that student support should come from grants, loan, parental contribution, and vacation earnings.

The student body produced a list of what it wanted and it was clearly expensive. I believe that the total was about £500 million, and it may have been more. I have had to say to students—they have accepted the comment with good grace—that if I had £500 million to spend on education, I could produce a long shopping list of items on which I would want to spend the money in our universities and polytechnics before I increased maintenance grants to students. I realise that I am representing a highly marginal parliamentary seat and I have already told the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) that I am prepared to stand my ground. I would rather be honest than go for the flannel that comes from Opposition Members.

Liberal Members complain about the loss of transport cost provision and imagine that all students were against its withdrawal. I shall quote from one of the letters that I received from a student body on that issue. It reads: the majority … will be better off with a flat rate of £100", which was the decision at that time. The letter continues: Even under the old system it was not possible to be able to claim daily travel unless you lived outside a three mile radius from the university … Although the new system will mean rough justice for some, it will not be open to the flagrant abuse of the old system". Apparently, the Liberal party wants to return to the flagrant abuse of the old system.

Under the changes that are being proposed, benefits will not be given during short vacations. If a student returns home for Christmas, he surely cannot claim to be unemployed over the Christmas period. The long vacation is different and I understand that provision will continue to be made. I understand also that there are some students who will be forced to pay rent for their accommodation when they return to their home base. Those students will undoubtedly have a problem, and I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Front Bench will consider that most carefully. I would not wish to find students unable to return to their universities because their accommodation had been let.

With so large a student body in my constituency it would be convenient for me to criticise the Government, but given the generality of the financial constraints that we are facing, I believe that they are being extremely fair. On that ground I am happy to join my colleagues in supporting the Government.

9.29 pm
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak briefly on student support. I have calculated that I have precisely six minutes in which to make my contribution and I shall try to get as much into that time as I can.

I am happy to support the Government's amendment because I believe that it recognises the realities which any Government would have to face. Throughout the debate the Opposition have been courting popularity in various ways. Indeed, they have admitted that openly during the past few minutes.

Education and training are the keys to our future, and they must have priority. I have regular discussions with students who live in my constituency and I have great respect for the work that they are doing at the university of East Anglia. Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have an understanding of the problems that they face.

The Government are right to be wary of the indiscriminate call for extra resources. I am sure my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will not be shaken by the gloomy alliance between vice-chancellors and student union representatives. Only the other day the newsletter published by the university of East Anglia contained a joint statement issued to parents, signed by the acting vice-chancellor and the president of the students union, which said: the measures proposed by the Government are going to face you with impossible choices. The student support system in this country is now grinding to a halt. Without doubt, problems exist for students, but however great they are, if that is not an overstatement, nothing is. I do not think it helps the cause of higher education for any of us to go over the top about it.

We must think about priorities. When we are talking about student support, it is not good enough, as university teachers and students often do, to say that we want more money for this, that or the other. With finite resources we have to make a choice between money for student support, money for teaching salaries, and facilities, and money for research. Many students tell me that they are not happy with the quality of their lecturing, and members of staff at the university of East Anglia have told me, rightly, that they need more funding for research. I hope that the Government will make it clear what the priorities are for higher education and what their policy is before they deal with funding.

What I want to drive home is that we must decide on future policy for universities before responding to calls for more funding. Yes, I believe in a higher priority for education, but I also believe that we must consider what our universities are for, and whether we want universal entry to universities, which many Opposition Members call for, or whether we want centres of academic excellence with high quality research, which many university staff call for. Those are hard choices which neither the Government nor the Opposition can escape. All too few hon. Members have addressed the matter of choice and priorities.

In regard to student morale and motivation, I am one of those hon. Members who are sorry that the Government have deferred the review of the student grant system. Indeed, I still think it worth while to consider at least a partial loan system. We could have tackled the problems head on by examining the whole system of student support rather than reacting, as we are now, to the mail which we are getting from so many unhappy students and their parents. We must consider thoroughly the whole question of student support. I support my hon. Friends who have suggested that in the debate.

We are used to being lobbied by the National Union of Students. Some of the lobbying is sensible, and some not so sensible. I am particularly unhappy about the way in which over the years students unions have been politicised. It is a sad fact with which we have to live but it is not doing the universities any good. The recent scenes of disorder in many universities have not helped their cause. Therefore, it is particularly sad that today in the university of East Anglia intolerance has reared its head yet again, with the National Union of Students saying that it intends to withdraw support and funds from the Conservative association in the university. That is just the sort of thing that does not help those of us who support the cause of higher education. My constituents know that I am fighting for education, but I am not helped by the attitudes that are, unfortunately, all too often displayed. The Opposition offer £24 billion of spending—much of it on education—yet that will solve nothing because they are not addressing the priorities. We must decide what those priorities are and consider the future of higher education clearly and sensibly.

I support the amendment.

9.35 pm
Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)

For the 12 years immediately before entering the House in 1983 I was a lecturer at a polytechnic not very far away. During that time I came to know many students, with many of whom I am still in close contact. The views ascribed to students by Opposition Members do not wholly accord with my experience of student feelings. The students came from varied backgrounds, and part of my job was to try to encourage those whose families did not have any experience of higher education and to show them that there was something for them in higher education within that polytechnic.

There were very few elitist courses such as the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I shared at the same institution of higher education. There were several day-release courses. Students worked for four days a week and were released to study for one. That needed great motivation, because they needed to study for about six years before they obtained their degrees. They had both the motivation and the maturity. As a result of working with students of that calibre, others gained the ability to see that there was work to be done and that there were ways of supporting themselves other than solely on a state grant.

I was most involved with a "thick sandwich" course. The students were in college for two years and then spent the next year gaining work experience in a professional firm, returning to college for a fourth year. There is no doubt that that year's work experience gave them a new approach to their studies. There is every advantage in having a diversity of funding and of student support instead of a straight handout from the taxpayer or ratepayer.

I have no hesitation in saying that the proposals being put forward are a step in the right direction towards finding that diversity of support, and I welcome what the Government are doing.

9.37 pm
Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston)

I wish to make a few brief points that have not yet perhaps been raised. I shall concentrate on mature students. In common with many others, I have lost jobs. In 1966 I lost a job, and at the age of 48 I undertook four years' full-time study at a university. As a result, my wife and two children went through a very difficult period. That was in 1966, but things must be much worse today for many of those who have been made unemployed and who would like to go back to school to equip themselves for other things.

Students are often young people and we should give them a full opportunity to educate themselves without any hardship. However, hon. Members should also bear in mind mature students. I believe that hundreds and thousands of married men with children would return to full-time education as long as they did not have to inflict additional hardship on their families and children. That is a brief but important point to bear in mind when considering the education of our people.

9.39 pm
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

In the Green Paper on social security the Government said that they believed that it was right in principle to return to the situation which had existed before 1966, in other words, to dependence for students on grants; in the subsequent White Paper, they said that they remained committed to the aim of removing students from dependence on social security benefits. We could all, in a sense, support that aim, that students should be dependent on grants rather than on benefits, but this depends on the grants being sufficient for students to sustain a reasonable standard of living and to study.

The Government seem to have drawn substantially on the comments of the housing benefit review, which suggested that there should be an option of excluding students from housing assistance, without going on to read to the end of the paragraph where the review team said: We do not underestimate the effects of this; it would require complete overhaul of the student grant provision for housing costs. This is precisely what the Government have not provided. Apart from the fact that the Government have failed to provide what the review team saw as a prerequisite for the kind of change to be introduced, the changes are being made, in higher education as elsewhere, against a background of cuts.

The Secretary of State was kind enough to say in his opening remarks that he recognised the anxiety among the student population. From other remarks that he has made, it seems that the Secretary of State may not be aware that there is not only anxiety but debts in the student population —substantial debts, even now, before the cuts that we are debating tonight. The anxiety which already exists is fuelled by the Government's overall record in higher education support. The Secretary of State described a situation in which there should be a balance of support for students, some coming from their parents, some from the state or perhaps, on occasion, even from the earnings of the students themselves.

Unfortunately, however, that balance has already shifted substantially. The level of assessed parental contributions increased from £84 million in 1979–80 to £230 million last year. In cash terms, that is an increase of some 270 per cent. or, in real terms, as has already been identified this evening, some 70 per cent. It is, in any case, a substantial shift in the burden away from the state towards parents.

I noted that the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) asked his right hon. Friend about some comments that he thought he had heard about the long-term phasing out of the parental contribution, and based his question to the Secretary of State on the premise that, of course, at 18 individuals were adults. It is rather unfortunate that elsewhere, in the Social Security Bill, a fact which the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South may not have observed, the Government make it very plain that at 18 one is not an adult and that, until they are 25, people will receive a lower rate of benefit. That ties in with the way in which, for students, they have moved the contribution towards the parental side.

The Secretary of State also referred to the potential for support from student earnings, but these days it is much more difficult for students to supplement their financial support from earnings. As I understand it, the Department of Employment's figures show that between 1979 and 1985 the proportion of students unemployed in the long vacation rose to 70 per cent. There are figures to show that, no matter what region is surveyed, the extent of student unemployment in both the long and the short vacations is unprecedented in recent years. Here again, it appears that students cannot look for the support that the Secretary of State implies. In fact, although the Department of Education and Science implies that it expects students to support themselves from their earnings, the Department of Health and Social Security puts all its emphasis on their not having earnings and on their being available for work if they are to be able to claim benefit.

In this context, one of the more unfortunate effects of the proposals is that some students will lose their entitlement to unemployment benefit. The Secretary of State says that students can supplement their income from earnings, either as mature students before they go to university or during the vacations. However, one of the side effects of student earnings is that students may have built up an entitlement to unemployment benefit. However, even if they have built up an entitlement to unemployment benefit that is sufficient to meet the additional condition that students have to fulfil in order to draw such benefit in the short vacations, their entitlement, for which they have paid, will be removed by these proposals.

Apart from the shift of the contribution from the state towards parents, there have been other changes and cuts. The minimum award has been abolished. It was worth £410 in 1982–83. It was halved by 1983–84. Then it was abolished altogether. As the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) said, changes have also been made to the travel grant. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) suggested that some of the students who attend the university in his constituency may not have been troubled by this abolition. I have received letters from constituents who attended colleges or universities all over the country in which they say that they suffered from that change.

The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East asked the Secretary of State to be honest. The whole history of the Government's policy in this, as in so many respects, is not one of honesty but of a rather shoddy and undercover set of shifts and compromises. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) referred to the cuts in support from public funds and to the way in which the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and others have drawn attention to the serious consequences for students. They are serious indeed when one hears that the grant has dropped by 20 per cent. since 1979.

The Government appear to be claiming that part of the problem is that students are making increased claims on housing benefit. Of course, 90 per cent. of the savings that the Government are hoping to make will come from housing benefit. The Government say that these claims show that students are too dependent on benefit. But if students are too dependent on benefit it is because of the tremendous increase in costs, particularly in housing costs. It is because students need these additional resources that they have been forced to claim benefit. Heaven knows, the Government have done everything they can to reduce the generosity of the housing benefit scheme year by year. It is not only students as individuals but the whole community in which they live who until now, and also in the future, will be impoverished by the increased poverty among students. To suggest that £36 will be adequate compensation for the loss, in total, of between £20 million and £25 million in student support is insulting, even if all students were to receive compensation, which they will not.

Accommodation costs have risen by between 68 per cent. and 73 per cent. in the university sector. The Government's answer to that is to say that they will cut the entitlement to benefit and that instead they will give £36 to students. However, students who are without grants will not receive £36. As we read the Government's proposals, a number of groups of students are to be credited with the same resources as grant-aided students, but because they are not receiving grants they will be affected by the reductions in benefit. Any housing benefit claim that they may make will be subject to the special student deduction. We understand that even the partner of a claimant who is not a grant-aided student will be affected by such deductions; because they are not grant-aided they will not receive even the paltry £36 that the Government have proposed.

In this respect, the Government's policy approach seems to be that students should be supported from public funds so that they will not be entitled to benefit, even if they are not supported from public funds. The Secretary of State may be able to see the logic in that, but the Opposition cannot see it.

Students on discretionary awards in particular may be hit. The National Union of Students has produced figures for the losses that students are likely to face. A London student who is resident throughout the year in his own accommodation will lose about £209 a year. Students who go home during the vacation will lose about £150 in an academic year, and £514 or more in a full year, particularly because they are likely to face the loss of housing benefit in the long vacation. Even students out of London face losses of about £300. Those are substantial sums for groups whose grants have been reduced by 20 per cent.

Will the Government tell the House the time scale of the future changes? The Secretary of State made it clear that, irrespective of whether students will be compensated by the Department of Education and Science, they will lose entitlement to benefit from the Department of Health and Social Security in the medium to long term. He said that we could not expect to decide tonight exactly what compensation was appropriate because we were waiting for the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee. If that is so, why are the changes in housing benefit during the vacation to take effect in June? We are not waiting very long, are we? We already know the date for that, although the report is not even written, never mind before the House. If June 1986 is, to be charitable, the short term, what is the medium term for the complete removal of benefit? Is it October 1986, December 1986, or January 1987?

There is no question but that the Government are, in effect, and probably by design, introducing loans by the back door. The British Medical Association has written to us, drawing our attention to the whole range of problems that medical students face, particularly in central London, which are coming to a peak in the sense that students are facing loans of about 20 per cent. of income. In other words, they must now make up from loans what the Government have withdrawn in benefit. One wonders how they are to manage.

The Secretary of State made a remarkable statement when he said that there is no reason for the Government to impose severe cuts which are beyond the means of students to meet. We agree, and hope that the Minister will tell us why the Government are doing that. In view of the Secretary of State's remarks, we expect to see him with us in the Lobby tonight.

9.51 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

I am never sure what the rules of the House require about declaring direct personal interests as distinct from commercial interests. Perhaps I should tell the House that I have a daughter who expects to go to university this autumn, and another daughter who expects to go the following autumn. Therefore, I can be seen to have a direct interest.

Perhaps I should begin by restating briefly the Government's general position, which is that in the long run it is not sensible that students should be subject to two separate but intertwined systems of support. It has been clear from tonight's debate that that view does not necessarily depend on sharing the precise view about the right balance between grants, parental support and vacation earnings which the Government have put forward in the Green and White Papers. It is necessary to accept only that it cannot be satisfactory as a deliberate and permanent arrangement for students to be wholly or partly dependent on a system, which is primarily designed for those who, for various reasons, cannot work, rather than for those who have withdrawn voluntarily from the labour market to study, and which is not and cannot be sensibly equipped to make judgments about for whom and for what courses studies should appropriately be supported by the community.

Mr. Wareing

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Newton

I shall not give way because the hon. Gentleman made a constructive point, and I have little time.

The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and, implicitly, the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) acknowledged that the basic proposition that it would be better if student support and social security were separate was not one from which they would dissent. I accept that they expressed considerable and strong reservations about the particular policy proposals before the Social Security Advisory Committee. That view would be shared by many of my hon. Friends who have spoken, including my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), and certainly my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), who made a most thoughtful speech to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will pay careful attention.

Having said that, let me make it clear that our belief that it would be right to work towards a position in which the systems of student support and social security are once again separated out is, as we have repeatedly said, a long-term aim and not a current proposal.

That brings me directly to the points that the hon. Member for Derby, South made in her closing speech.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett


Mr. Newton

I shall come to that in a moment.

Despite what we have said from the outset about what our current proposals do not do, they have been widely and persistently misrepresented, as my hon. Friends have found from much of the correspondence that they have received. The most recent and notable example that I have seen was in The Times last Saturday, 8 March, in its section on family money. Among numerous inaccuracies—I shall quote only the most sweeping and glaring—it said: All students will lose all benefits by academic year 1987–88. From that basis it went on to make suggestions of potential losses of £1,100 in London and £840 elsewhere. There is no foundation for that statement whatever.

The specific proposals on which we have been consulting do not affect students' entitlement to supplementary benefit if they cannot find work in the long vacation, which is far and away the biggest element in the social security help which students receive. Nor do they affect any entitlement that there may be to unemployment benefit in the long vacation. Nor, as I told the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) do they remove the right to claim housing benefit in respect of privately rented accommodation in which students live at any time during the year.

Any major specific proposal on those matters would require further consideration within Government involving both the grant and the social security systems. They would require further consultation with the Social Security Advisory Committee, and, if they affected housing benefits, with the local authority associations. They would require fresh regulations to be brought before the House, and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, such proposals are not an immediate prospect. Nor—I wish it to be clear—will they be found in the Social Security Bill.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) asked me to say when, and I have no doubt that many of my hon. Friends would wish me to make that clear as well. The public expenditure plans in the recent White Paper covering the three years 1986–87 to 1988–89 include continued provision for social security benefits for students on the basis only of the limited changes in the current consultative proposals. Having, I hope, made that clear, let me deal with the limited and specific proposals themselves.

The first point, which gives further emphasis to what I have just said, is that the proposals concern only a relatively small part of the current social security entitlement of students. Taken together they would affect some £40 million to £45 million of social security expenditure. Of that, £10 million to £11 million would go directly back into making one aspect of the housing benefit rules more favourable. So the net reduction in social security would be of the order of £30 million to £35 million. Of that, £10 million or £11 million would go back in the proposed £36 a year grant increase to students living away from home which is over and above the general grant increase announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

The net overall saving for the budget for social security benefits is therefore between £20 million and £25 million and that may be compared with present benefit expenditure on students of around £120 million. I hope that that puts the nature of the proposals in perspective.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

If the SSAC reports examples of hardship to students, will my hon. Friend consider introducing some form of amending legislation so that students do not lose overall the cash they are receiving at present?

Mr. Newton

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that they are consultative proposals on draft regulations, that we shall consider the results of the consultation constructively, and that we shall take into account the points made by my hon. Friends and other hon. Members during the debate. However, we shall also consider them against the background of a student grants system which is one of the most generous in the Western world and of the recognition that the bills must be paid and student benefits weighed against the claims of pensioners and many others in the community.

I invite the House to reject the motion.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 193, Noes 258.

Division No. 101] align="right">[10 pm
Abse, Leo Beith, A. J.
Alton, David Bell, Stuart
Anderson, Donald Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Bidwell, Sydney
Ashdown, Paddy Blair, Anthony
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Boothroyd, Miss Betty
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Boyes, Roland
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)
Barnett, Guy Brown, N. (N'c'tie-u-Tyne E)
Barron, Kevin Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Bruce, Malcolm
Buchan, Norman Kirkwood, Archy
Caborn, Richard Lamond, James
Campbell, Ian Leadbitter, Ted
Campbell-Savours, Dale Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Canavan, Dennis Litherland, Robert
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Cartwright, John Loyden, Edward
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) McCartney, Hugh
Clarke, Thomas McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Clay, Robert McKelvey, William
Clelland, David Gordon MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Maclennan, Robert
Cohen, Harry McNamara, Kevin
Conlan, Bernard McTaggart, Robert
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Madden, Max
Corbett, Robin Mallon, Seamus
Corbyn, Jeremy Marek, Dr John
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Craigen, J. M. Martin, Michael
Crowther, Stan Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Cunliffe, Lawrence Maxton, John
Cunningham, Dr John Maynard, Miss Joan
Dalyell, Tarn Meacher, Michael
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Meadowcroft, Michael
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Michie, William
Davis, Terry (B ham, H'ge H'l) Mikardo, Ian
Deakins, Eric Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Dewar, Donald Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Dixon, Donald Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Dormand, Jack Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Dubs, Alfred Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Duffy, A. E. P. Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. O'Brien, William
Eastham, Ken O'Neill, Martin
Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpt'n SE) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Ewing, Harry Park, George
Fatchett, Derek Parry, Robert
Faulds, Andrew Pavitt, Laurie
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Pendry, Tom
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Penhaligon, David
Fisher, Mark Pike, Peter
Flannery, Martin Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Radice, Giles
Forrester, John Redmond, Martin
Foster, Derek Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Foulkes, George Richardson, Ms Jo
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Robertson, George
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Freud, Clement Rogers, Allan
Garrett, W. E. Rooker, J. W.
Glyn, Dr Alan Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)
Godman, Dr Norman Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Gould, Bryan Rowlands, Ted
Gourlay, Harry Sedgemore, Brian
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Sheerman, Barry
Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central) Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Harman, Ms Harriet Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith Skinner, Dennis
Haynes, Frank Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Heffer, Eric S. Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E)
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Snape, Peter
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Soley, Clive
Home Robertson, John Steel, Rt Hon David
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath) Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Howells, Geraint Stott, Roger
Hoyle, Douglas Strang, Gavin
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Straw, Jack
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Janner, Hon Greville Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd) Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
John, Brynmor Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Johnston, Sir Russell Tinn, James
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Torney, Tom
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Wainwright, R.
Kennedy, Charles Wallace, James
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wareing, Robert Wrigglesworth, Ian
Weetch, Ken Young, David (Bolton SE)
Welsh, Michael
White, James Tellers for the Ayes:
Wigley, Dafydd Mr. Allen McKay and
Wilson, Gordon Mr. Allen Adams.
Winnick, David
Adley, Robert Eggar, Tim
Aitken, Jonathan Emery, Sir Peter
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Evennett, David
Ancram, Michael Eyre, Sir Reginald
Arnold, Tom Fairbairn, Nicholas
Ashby, David Fallon, Michael
Aspinwall, Jack Farr, Sir John
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Favell, Anthony
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Fletcher, Alexander
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Fookes, Miss Janet
Baldry, Tony Forman, Nigel
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Bellingham, Henry Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Bendall, Vivian Fox, Marcus
Benyon, William Franks, Cecil
Bevan, David Gilroy Fraser, Peter (Angus East)
Biffen, Rt Hon John Freeman, Roger
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Fry, Peter
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Gale, Roger
Body, Sir Richard Galley, Roy
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Bottomley, Peter Garel-Jones, Tristan
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Glyn, Dr Alan
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Gorst, John
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Gow, Ian
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Gower, Sir Raymond
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Greenway, Harry
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Griffiths, Sir Eldon
Bright, Graham Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Brinton, Tim Grist, Ian
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Ground, Patrick
Brooke, Hon Peter Grylls, Michael
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Gummer, Rt Hon John S
Bruinvels, Peter Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Bryan, Sir Paul Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Hargreaves, Kenneth
Buck, Sir Antony Harris, David
Budgen, Nick Harvey, Robert
Burt, Alistair Haselhurst, Alan
Butcher, John Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Butler, Rt Hon Sir Adam Hawksley, Warren
Butterfill, John Hayes, J.
Carlisle, John (Luton N) Hayhoe, Rt Hon Barney
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hayward, Robert
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Heathcoat-Amory, David
Carttiss, Michael Heddle, John
Cash, William Henderson, Barry
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Hickmet, Richard
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Chapman, Sydney Hirst, Michael
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Holt, Richard
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Howard, Michael
Colvin, Michael Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Conway, Derek Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)
Coombs, Simon Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N)
Cope, John Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Couchman, James Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Critchley, Julian Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Crouch, David Hunter, Andrew
Currie, Mrs Edwina Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Dickens, Geoffrey Jessel, Toby
Dicks, Terry Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Dorrell, Stephen Jones, Robert (Herts W)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith
Dover, Den Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward Kershaw, Sir Anthony
Dunn, Robert Key, Robert
Durant, Tony King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Knowles, Michael Squire, Robin
Lamont, Norman Stanbrook, Ivor
Lang, Ian Stanley, Rt Hon John
Latham, Michael Steen, Anthony
Lawler, Geoffrey Stern, Michael
Lawrence, Ivan Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Lee, John (Pendle) Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Lightbown, David Stewart, Ian (Hertf'dshire N)
Lilley, Peter Stokes, John
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Sumberg, David
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Maclean, David John Taylor, John (Solihull)
Major, John Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Malone, Gerald Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Marland, Paul Temple-Morris, Peter
Mather, Carol Terlezki, Stefan
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.
Merchant, Piers Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Meyer, Sir Anthony Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Miscampbell, Norman Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Moate, Roger Thornton, Malcolm
Morris, M. (N'hampton S) Thurnham, Peter
Newton, Tony Townend, John (Bridlington)
Nicholls, Patrick Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Page, Richard (Herts SW) Tracey, Richard
Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil Trippier, David
Parris, Matthew Trotter, Neville
Pawsey, James Twinn, Dr Ian
Portillo, Michael van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Powell, William (Corby) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Powley, John Waddington, David
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover) Waldegrave, Hon William
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Walden, George
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Wall, Sir Patrick
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Waller, Gary
Robinson, Mark (N'port W) Ward, John
Rossi, Sir Hugh Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Watson, John
Ryder, Richard Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Sackville, Hon Thomas Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Wheeler, John
Sayeed, Jonathan Whitney, Raymond
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Wiggin, Jerry
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Wilkinson, John
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Winterton, Mrs Ann
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Winterton, Nicholas
Shersby, Michael Wolfson, Mark
Silvester, Fred Wood, Timothy
Sims, Roger Woodcock, Michael
Skeet, Sir Trevor Yeo, Tim
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Soames, Hon Nicholas
Speller, Tony Tellers for the Noes:
Spencer, Derek Mr. Francis Maude and
Spicer, Jim (Dorset W) Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 33 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House recognises that more students than ever before are receiving higher education; appreciates the need to hold increases in student grant rates to levels which the country can afford; welcomes the Government's current efforts to rationalise and simplify some aspects of the provisions of the social security system as it affects students; and notes that the Secretary of State for Social Services expects shortly to receive the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee on his proposals to this end.