HC Deb 09 July 1990 vol 176 cc79-91

Lords amendments considered.

Lords amendment: No. 1, after Clause 2 insert the following new Clause—

Income support: disabled students . The following paragraph is inserted at the end of paragraph (c) of section 20(3) of the 1986 Act— (cc) he is a disabled person and he is participating in a course of higher education and he fulfills the conditions in paragraphs (a) to (c) of this subsection;".

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The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3 and the Government motions to disagree with those Lords amendments.

Mr. Scott

I ought to explain that, when Mr. Speaker's original selection list was issued, Lords amendments Nos. 7, 8 and 9 were to be considered alongside Lords amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3. As a result of discussions through the usual channels, it was agreed that it would be more convenient if we split consideration of the amendments.

This group of amendments brings us to the issue of students' entitlement to social security benefits. Wearing my hat as Minister for Disabled People, I initially approached Lords amendments Nos. 1 to 3 with some sympathy. They relate to the position of disabled students and how we propose to define and indentify those who will remain eligible for income support and housing benefit. Despite my sympathy, however, I intend to explain why I believe that the amendments should not remain on the face of the Bill. May I also explain briefly why we have taken the unusual step of making proof copies of the social Security Advisory Committee report on the draft student loan amendment regulations available to the House before the regulations are laid.

You will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there has been a good deal of speculation in the press about the content of the committee's report, much of it wide of the mark. There were also a number of references to the report during the debates in another place. In these circumstances, and in view of the interest that hon. Members have already demonstrated in the subject, we thought that it would be helpful and to put proof copies of the SSAC's report in the Library and to make copies available in the Vote office in order to ensure that the House was as fully informed as possible before today's debate. It would, of course, have been inappropriate for the Government to lay the regulations before the House had taken a view on amendments that would affect the scope of the regulations. I hope, therefore, that hon. Members will agree that this unusual step was sensible and helpful.

The amendments seek to introduce a definition of a disabled student, based on the criteria used for the local authority register of disability. I have already said that I have some sympathy with the intentions underlying the amendments. However, they are seriously defective and I shall seek the House's agreement to overturn them. Rather than quibbling about the precise technical drafting of the amendments, I shall confine my comments to the intention that lies behind them, which I understand.

I am certainly aware of the concerns expressed by hon. Members and their Lordships about the position of certain disabled students under the new arrangements for student support, which will take effect from the next academic year. We, too, recognise the special circumstances of students in vulnerable groups, including the disabled. We have always intended to preserve their entitlement to housing benefit and income support. Our views have differed only in defining what we mean by a disabled student for the purposes of benefit entitlement.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained what our original proposals were and our reasons for putting them forward. The draft regulations that were referred to the SSAC in February provided for the continuation of income support and housing benefit entitlement for those students who meet the criteria for the disability premium and, additionally, any student who had previously met the definition of a disabled student under existing income support regulations.

In practice, we expect most—if not all—students who have met that income support definition to meet the new one. However, because the old definition is based on the decision of an adjudication officer, it could not be imported into the housing benefit system. The housing benefit scheme operates without adjudication officers and it was therefore important to establish clear and straightforward qualifying conditions which it would be easy for local authorities to apply efficiently.

The criteria for the disability premium are based on the receipt of one or more of the disability benefits, long-term incapacity for work or registered blindness. These criteria are now well established in the income-related benefits and are being successfully applied both by local authorities and by local Department of Social Security offices. We felt that the criteria would cover a sufficiently broad spectrum of disability to pick up those students who face significant extra living costs because of their disability. Moreover, they could be clearly expressed in regulations and would be familiar both to claimants and to those administering the schemes. The House will have noted from the copies of the report that have been placed in the Library that the Social Security Advisory Committee also believed the definition to offer a reasonable and practicable yardstick.

The existence of the premium structure in the income-related benefits recognises the fact that certain groups of people face additional financial burdens. The disability premium is no different in that respect. However, I should stress that neither the disability premium nor disability benefits generally are intended to cater for the special educational needs of students with disabilities. In our proposed definition we therefore sought to identify students who face additional daily living costs that were not necessarily consequent on their attendance at a course of education.

I am sure that hon. Members who have studied these affairs will not need reminding that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has substantially enhanced the financial assistance available through the disabled students allowance. Those improvements will provide a good deal of support for disabled students to help them with their particular educational needs.

A number of debates have now taken place on disabled students—during our proceedings on this Bill and during the passage of the Education (Student Loans) Act 1990. In those debates the position of deaf students was of particular concern. Indeed, their Lordships' debate on the amendments before us focused almost entirely on those students, although the amendments would go substantially wider.

In one respect, however, I believe that the criteria suggested by the amendments would not go far enough towards meeting their Lordships' wishes. It would not be possible to identify deaf students in Scotland. Registration with the local authority of the kind operated in England and Wales does not exist north of the border, and there is no register of any sort for the deaf. It would therefore be impossible under those amendments for housing benefit officers and DSS administrators to identify the group at issue.

We have considered carefully the concerns expressed in both Houses and those voiced by organisations representing deaf people. As a result, I am pleased to report to the House that we propose to consult the local authority associations on draft regulations which will preserve the income support and housing benefit entitlement of students who are entitled to a disabled students allowance by reason of deafness. Incidentally, under these arrangements we would include any student who has such an additional requirement indicated on his notice of award, even if, because of the means of testing of the disabled students allowance, the student was not actually entitled to payment of that allowance.

That criterion will be additional to those that we have already proposed, and we will aim to have it in place for the start of the next academic year, subject to the consultation with the local authority associations. To allow adequate time for the consultation, I propose to lay the necessary regulations, which will be subject to the negative procedure, after the main body of regulations.

We believe that an extension of the present proposed arrangements to include deaf students who are entitled to a disabled students allowance recognises the needs and concerns expressed in this Chamber and elsewhere. In view of the Government's willingness to meet the concerns voiced on behalf of deaf students, and bearing in mind the defective nature of the amendments, I urge the House to reject them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have to inform the House that Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 both involve privilege.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Time for this debate is now so strictly rationed that I must necessarily deal only very briefly with these important amendments. In doing so, I note that the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), which would have had our support, has not been selected for debate.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) and me, the hon. Gentleman is a trustee of the fund that Lord Snowdon so generously founded to help meet the costs incurred by students with disabilities for which there is no statutory provision. Work with that important fund strongly emphasises the truth that all such students by definition—and not least those who are deaf—have problems over and above those experienced by the generality of students. That is why I warmly welcomed the Lords amendments when they were accepted in the other place.

The Government oppose the Lords amendments in the terms in which they are drafted. In the case of the Minister for Disabled People, I am sure that he does so with some serious and sincere misgivings. The Minister has clearly lost at least part of a battle with the Treasury, and my purpose this evening is to make our contribution to ensuring that the overwhelming public support for the Lords amendments is properly reflected in this House.

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I sometimes have the feeling that, if the Lords were to dare even to amend factual or spelling errors in their legislation, Social Security Ministers would now be made to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment. In supporting the Lords amendments, we on the Opposition Benches are concerned to correct now the unacceptable effects of the Bill as it left this House and to vouchsafe to all students who are disabled the retention of their entitlements to housing benefit and income support.

The Government have recently stated that deaf students are among those least likely to incur extra weekly costs because of their disabilities and, therefore, that they should not continue to receive such help. That is not true. By design, housing benefit and income support are not intended to cover additional costs. They are income maintenance benefits and, in fact, the Government failed in the other place to respond to a direct challenge made to them by Lady Darcy de Knayth on this point.

The Royal National Institute for the Deaf has shown that, unlike other students, those who are deaf cannot top up their maintenance grants with earned income. They have to spend longer on their studies due to communication difficulties and, even if part-time or casual work in vacations or in the evenings is not an impractical option for them, they are seen by many employers as "difficult" employees. That is because they often have to rely on lip-speaking or sign language interpreters for effective communication. The Minister for Disabled People knows all this as well as I do, just as he knows that, by its very nature, part-time and casual work for students—which is often waitressing, bar or reception work—is not always suitable for deaf people.

There is much statistical evidence that deaf people not only find it harder to obtain jobs but are, on average, paid less than people who can hear. In that regard, deaf students face problems similar to those faced by other disabled students whose vulnerability is already identified. They are undoubtedly much more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than able-bodied people with the same qualifications. There is, of course, no shortage of able-bodied students looking for part-time or casual work. That is just one of the difficulties in which students with disabilities find themselves today.

From many recent case studies undertaken by the RNID, I want to cite just one to illustrate the way in which deaf students, through no fault of their own, can be worse off than their peers. A deaf student at London university had numerous applications for part-time and casual work rejected. At long last, her persistence was rewarded by the offer of a job handing out magazines at tube stations in the mornings. But she was unable to keep the job, as it involved phoning in each morning at 5 am to confirm that she was coming and to receive details of the station at which she would be required to work that day.

In a letter to Lord Henderson of Brompton dated 17 May, Baroness Blatch for the Government referred to the problem of providing straightforward criteria which can be clearly expressed in regulations and readily understood by those who administer the benefits and, indeed, by those who might claim them. But that is not a problem as far as deaf students are concerned.

The Minister said that he will now be consulting local authorities about definition, but is it not already solved? The clinically accepted levels at which people are judged to have a significant hearing loss can be used. Those levels, approved by the British Society of Audiology, were initiated by the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf. Their use would be a straightforward basis for assessing entitlement to the retention of existing benefits. All hearing-impaired students who can benefit from hearing aids must have regular audiograms and the proof that they offer could be simply understood by those administering benefits. I hope that the Minister will accept that the RNID, in its briefing for this debate, has already provided the way forward in solving the difficulties about definition to which he referred.

In supporting the Lords amendments, we are not asking for deaf students now to have their educational needs subsidised by social security payments. On the contrary, we are saying that deaf students should not have to use for other purposes the money given to them for essential communication support and equipment in the course of their studies. Before the introduction of the new allowances, deaf students often had to use their maintenance grants to provide educational support. Unless they all retain existing benefits, as I hope will now very soon be confirmed, further to the Minister's welcome statement, the opposite will happen and they will be left in financial hardship.

In a letter that I received today, Lord Renwick states that the Dyslexia Educational Trust is trying to make a similar case on behalf of dyslexics. I am sure that there are right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who will want to help if parliamentary opportunities occur to argue the trust's claims. Nothing in all my years in this place gave me more pleasure than to legislate on the educational needs of dyslexics in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. The Minister clearly does not intend to help them now. Sadly, he said nothing that took account of the claim of the Dyslexia Educational Trust for very urgent consideration of the needs of dyslexic students.

I should like the Government to think very carefully again about definition. In the case of students who are deaf, we are discussing perhaps no more than 300 whose problems are already daunting enough without adding to those of any one of them by rejecting the Lords amendments. The cost of helping them all is minuscule. In his statement the Minister said nothing about the anticipated cost, but it is clearly very small. He knows as well as I do that disabled students passionately want to succeed, by their studies, in exchanging dependence on social security for the independence of having a job and becoming a taxpayer. It would be wrong to mock their brave efforts by rejecting the opportunity to help all of them given to us by the Lords amendments

If the Government refuse to listen to those who support the Lords in their amendments, I hope that the other place will stand by them if they are not satisfied with the response that we are given.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

I very much welcome the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People about deaf students. I have been very concerned that the Government were taking the wrong path in seeking to exclude deaf and dyslexic students from entitlement to income support and housing benefit. We had been given repeated assurances at meetings of the all-party disablement group and on the Floor of the House that disabled students would retain entitlement to social security benefits.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) gave that assurance during the Committee stage of the Education (Student Loans) Act 1990. In a letter on 15 January to the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, he stated: I do not believe that the loans scheme will penalise deaf students or those with disabilities. On the contrary, the terms of the scheme—retention of benefit entitlement—are designed with their needs very much in mind. There was no question of only some disabled students getting the benefit and it was therefore a bit of a surprise and a disappointment to find a different definition of disability introduced in the draft regulations. That definition would have excluded deaf students while entitlement to the disabled students allowance, which the Government have generously increased and extended, included all those disabilities that cause extra costs and earnings problems for students.

The argument put forward to me in a parliamentary answer on 7 March was that deaf students are unlikely to have additional weekly living expenses because of their disability … that income support and housing benefit are intended to meet."—[Official Report, 7 March 1990; Vol. 168; c. 681.] I am pleased that that argument has now been overturned because it was completely illogical to say that those benefits are not and never have been designed to meet extra disability costs. They are, of course, income maintenance benefits.

As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) said, much of the casual and part-time work for students is in restaurants, bars and in reception work in hotels. Those are not usually suitable jobs for deaf people or dyslexic students. Those students take much longer to study at college or university and they must work extra hours catching up on their notes for their lectures and tutorials. They do not have the opportunity to work part-time, even if jobs were suitable for them.

I understand the definition problems that certainly confronted my right hon. Friend the Minister and which benefit officers might face in identifying those groups with learning difficulties. That is why I and my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) tabled an amendment which was not selected. It was drawn up in conjunction with organisations representing deaf and dyslexic students and it was a genuine attempt to provide some criteria that would be useful for the assessment by benefit officers.

The question of cost should not really enter this matter. We are talking of only about 300 deaf students and probably a similar number of dyslexic students. No one in this House would want those deserving participants in higher education to be placed in an invidious position.

When talking about numbers, it bothers me that little accurate information is available about the number of disabled students in higher education. I hope that, in future, a much more detailed attempt will be made by the Department of Education and Science and my right hon. and hon. Friends to examine that matter and carefully to monitor the effect of any of the changes on the number of disabled students. I sincerely hope that we shall not see a reduction in the number of disabled university students.

Notwithstanding the very welcome concession by my right hon. Friend, I hope that we shall not forget dyslexic students and others with learning difficulties. I am sure that that matter will come back into focus. I hope that we shall look at their position again. I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has always been most helpful in considering the problem of deaf students. His announcement will certainly be wholeheartedly welcomed by people concerned with deaf students. I congratulate him and I shall be happy to support him in the Lobby tonight.

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Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I wholeheartedly support the pleas that were made by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), and the amendment in the names of the hon. Members for Exeter and for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson). I had hoped that hon. Members would have a chance to discuss that amendment in detail, but we cannot do so because it has not been selected. We can do nothing about it.

I hope that the Minister will say more about the consultations that the Government have announced. He is right that there is no register of deaf students in Scotland. If there are to be such consultations, I hope that the system north of the border will get the benefit of any agreements or changes that flow from the consultations. I should be obliged if the Minister would say a word about that matter and reassure me. I agree with the hon. Member for Exeter on the need to monitor the position. If the Government are minded not to heed what has been said in this House and in the other place and intend to stick to their guns with this proposal, I hope that we shall get an assurance that there will be careful monitoring in the coming months and years to make sure that the number of students does not drop as a result of additional financial difficulties.

The Government have made no case in this argument, which is essentially about administrative convenience. I do not underestimate that; I do not wish to make light of the difficulties. However, the amendment to which I referred is a good attempt to try to categorise in clear, definable and understandable terms to those who follow these things, the extension of the definition of students with disabilities. It is difficult to balance that against the individual needs of students. The amendment, the discussions and the suggestions that we have heard are perfectly reasonable, sensible and workable ways in which to proceed.

If hon. Members stick to the proposal as it stands and disagree with the Lords amendments, we shall have a system that is administratively more convenient and easier to oversee, but it is inevitable that individuals will lose out substantially because their circumstances are not properly addressed by the broad brush approach that the Government are taking.

I agree with everything that hon. Members have said, and I hope that the Government will take account of it. The number of students about whom we are talking cannot possibly mean that the amount of money and resources to be deployed are an issue. Therefore, I cannot understand why the Government cannot accept the arguments that have been put so logically and lucidly.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

I was very happy to join my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) in backing the amendment. I too was sorry that the amendment was not selected, because it has a number of possibilities for debate and would have been helpful in the theatre of disabled students. However, the point that we are able to debate is the excellent proposal that was put forward by my right hon. Friend the Minister, which will assist deaf students.

I must at once declare several interests. My first interest, apart from those who are profoundly deaf, is that I sincerely hope and believe that, in the foreseeable future, which should be very soon, deafness will not be considered a handicap any more than short sight, which can be fully corrected by spectacles, is considered a handicap. We have a large gulf between the situation today and that perfect position that I outlined. That gulf, I hope, is being bridged by new provisions of hearing aids.

The correct hearing aids exist, but people are simply not getting them. That is due to large defects in the system, which I have outlined to the House before and I shall not go into it again, but I do not mean to stop pressing that cause. We should be able to obtain hearing aids on the high street, just as readily as we can obtain spectacles. A surgeon wrote to me in horror, asking: Miss Nicholson, how could you be proposing this? Do you wish us to end up like the United States of America, where people can buy hearing aids in the supermarket? I most certainly do, because easy access to appropriate hearing aids means that most deaf people will not have to be considered handicapped. Once one has a proper hearing aid or proper spectacles, one is not handicapped.

I do not for a moment turn aside from the enormous and permanent difficulties that the profoundly deaf will always face. Even if, perhaps, that a large proportion of people who are partially hearing—or course, that includes those with a decibel loss above 45 decibels—have the correct hearing aids, they will need additional aids also. If we identify the need for income support and for housing benefits, additional money is required, because, to wake up in the morning, they need a different alarm clock. One may need something unique and special under one's pillow to bump one awake. One may need help with one's doorbell or telephone.

The great problem with being a student—I recall it so well from my time in the Royal Academy of Music—is that one never has any money. To get additional helps and aids, one must find the money somewhere. The rest of the world may not be able to supply them. How excellent it is that this new proposal will give the funds to provide additional aids for students.

As other hon. Members have already mentioned, the great problem is finding employment. As we all know, finding employment for the disabled is excruciatingly difficult throughtout their entire would-be working lives. I say "would-be working lives" because, when students stop studying and seek work, whether they are leaving school, higher education, college or university, they have four or five times the difficulty of able-bodied students with no handicap. That is why it is so difficult for deaf students and many other disabled students to find work. It is really tough for them to try to earn their living during vacations, even though people with some form of deafness are marvellous employees, just as any other student is a good employee. Society's bias against disabled students, rather than the students themselves, is at fault.

Is it not true that one cannot look upon a human being as someone who is disabled? One sees a human being who has one or more than one motor function that is functioning at a lesser level than that of other people's, and that is all there is to disability.

We need money for disabled students who have a degree of deafness, in particular until proper hearing aids are readily available on the high street to people who need them. We shall always need additional help for deaf students because of their great difficulties in finding employment until employers throughout the British Isles are prepared to set aside their biases, use the grants that the Government have put forward for adapting their workplaces, and make employment more generally available.

The difficulties of definition have already been referred to. It has been suggested that graphs of hearing loss might be available to authorities, which could then decide who was aurally disabled. The great problem is that only a tiny fraction of those who need hearing aids obtain them. That means that only a fraction of those who need aid will receive a grant. Therefore, I beg my right hon. Friends and anybody else who is concerned about this matter to concentrate hard on considering how on earth we can get those readily available gadgets to everybody who needs them. All who need such aids would then have the appropriate graphs, which would be relatively easy to study and to define.

I do not believe for a moment that we are talking about 300 students—because there is such a pool of undefined hearing loss, we are talking about many more. The pity is that, if they do not catch what is going on, some of our brightest people may under-achieve. Deaf students, deaf youngsters and deaf older people significantly under-achieve, which is why we must think hard about this whole area.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People most sincerely. I thank also the chairman of the all-party disablement group, the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for his unremitting work at all times for all categories of disabled people. He is a most remarkable colleague.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

It is difficult for me to speak now, because I appreciated that compliment from the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), but I do not agree with some of her points. She is well-meaning and does a great deal for deaf people, but when she speaks about hearing aids being available in the high street, I must warn the House that we do not want deaf people to have to pay the price of private hearing aids. We want good hearing aids to be provided free of charge all the time to all deaf people. I am worried by the idea of hearing aids on sale in the high street. I know that the hon. Lady is seeking to help, and I admire her aims, but the private hearing aid industry must not be allowed to make a profit out of deaf people.

I am glad that the Secretary of State and the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People are present. I give them clear notice that many deaf people would object violently to any incursion into the provison of free hearing aids. I am sure that they will accept and understand that point.

The hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West said that deafness should not be regarded as a serious handicap. Again, I appreciate her intentions, but the fact is that deafness is a grave and serious handicap, and it must be recognised as such. It is a devastating disability. Although it is true that a hearing aid can correct a slight hearing impairment and that those who are hard of hearing can be helped, a hearing aid is not a magic wand that can restore full facility to all deaf people.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will accept that there are many people who, like myself, are totally and irreversibly deaf and who have no hearing at all. I cannot even hear my own voice. No hearing aid can help me. Many other people like me cannot be helped by hearing aids, either. It is therefore wrong to imply that deafness is not a serious handicap; it is a grave and serious handicap. Even those who are hard of hearing find that that is a difficult handicap. I warn the House and the hon. Lady that deaf people must not be discriminated against because they can deal with and handle their handicap. I think that that is the thrust of what the hon. Lady meant.

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I had prepared a speech, but I do not have the time to deliver it now, because I have taken up too much time on that problem. Nevertheless, I thank the Minister for what he has said this evening. I welcome the concession that the Government have made, because it is important for deaf and disabled people.

I should like to put on the record a disturbing figure that is a reason for helping deaf people. Each year, only 100 deaf and hearing-impaired students enter higher education, of whom only 10 are profoundly deaf, yet in the years when those students were born, about 700 profoundly deaf babies would have been born. The fact that only 10 out of 700 of those young people enter higher education is a shocking and terrible indictment of our university system. Profoundly deaf people are being denied the opportunity of an education.

I do not have the time to describe the Bill's many flaws. However, in his usual precise way, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) will attack the Bill with all due vigour over a wide area. Although I have been critical of the Government and the Bill, I welcome the concession that they have made. I thank them for their recognition of the problems of deaf and disabled people. Therefore, although there will be more criticism of the Bill, for now I thank the Government very much.

Mr. Scott

I begin by expressing my gratitude to the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for the warmth of his welcome for the concession that I was able to announce. I was mildly surprised that some other hon. Members did not seem to recognise that we have, in practice, solved the problem for deaf students. I hope that, on reflection, the whole House will warmly welcome the steps that we have taken.

Consultation with the local authorities will not delay the introduction of the provisions in any way. If they are in place at the beginning of the academic year, that will meet the need. We are under a statutory duty to consult the local authorities on housing benefit matters.

I explained earlier that the Lords amendments are defective. My advice is that if the House were to follow the advice of some Opposition Members and pass their Lordships' amendment, they would effectively exclude all claimants, other than disabled students, from income support and housing benefit. I am sure that that was not their Lordships' intention, but I cannot possibly advise the House to support their amendment.

However, I did not want to dwell on that aspect, I should rather deal with the intention behind it, and as I have said, I have some sympathy with their Lordships' intention and well recognise the difficulties that deaf people face. I welcome also the growing awareness in society of the problems faced by deaf people. For too long, the problems of disabled people were a subject for amusement. There is now increasing recognition of and an increasing response to the needs of deaf people in society. I am sure that we have further to go, but we are making progress.

The Royal National Institute for the Deaf has set up a new company, Sound Advantage, to ensure that, at the frontiers of technology, facilities are available to deaf people to improve the quality of their life and—perhaps most importantly—to enable them to enter employment and to enjoy the independence and self-respect that holding down a job can provide to those who suffer from disabilities of one sort or another.

On a trip to the United States last year, I was impressed when I visited the California Relay system. It is a telephone exchange for the deaf, which enables all the deaf and hard-of-hearing people throughout the state of California to have access to the state telephone system. Other states in the United States are developing such a provision for deaf people. I am happy to say that, as a result of my visit, and of subsequent consultation with Oftel and British Telecom, the development of a national service along similar lines for deaf people will begin here in the autumn.

I was most struck not that California and its telephone system provided a social service for the deaf and hard of hearing but that they enabled many thousands of deaf people in California to enter employment, hold down jobs and acquire independence. We are making progress, but we do not underestimate the difficulties that deaf people still face in our society. We must all do more to help them.

I appreciate the points made by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) about the difficulties that face deaf students. It is precisely because we recognise those difficulties that we have introduced the concession to enable them to receive income support and housing benefit. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that we might have a medical test to establish entitlement to benefit. We already stretch the medical manpower resources severely in assessing other types of disability. I should be reluctant to accept the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion, particularly as a much better method is available to us.

When students who suffer a disability through deafness apply for an award from a local education authority to enter higher education, they will also apply for disabled students allowance. The form on which the notification is made will state the cause of their disability. Deafness will be defined as one of the disabilities that qualifies them for the allowance. That will be a passport for the student to income support and housing benefit. That method is simpler and clearer. It avoids the requirement for a medical examination and it will be in the interests of deaf students.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

So good for deaf students. Will the Minister advocate extending the concession to mobility and attendance allowance?

Mr. Scott

I have considered the matters in the light of the introduction of disablement allowance in 1992. We could not do away entirely with medical assessments for attendance allowance and mobility allowance. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the tremendous increase in take-up of those two benefits in recent years. I am anxious that we should make the common assessment in the adjudication process for the two components of disability allowance as simple and straightforward as possible, with only one assessment for both components if someone is entitled to both. That method will be easily understood and, in an overused phrase, as user-friendly as possible. An element of medical assessment will remain an essential part of protecting the public purse while responding to the needs of those who need help because of their disability.

I was asked earlier why, if we are making a concession for deaf people, we cannot do so for the dyslexic. Whenever one makes a concession, a line must be drawn somewhere. There will always be some who will urge us to go further. I have family experience of dyslexia. My son suffers from the condition. It is more difficult to define dyslexia than to define deafness, as we have done in making this concession. On balance, the concession that I have announced establishes a proper balance between the various needs. I am glad to have been able to announce that concession.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) for welcoming the concession. We believe that the improvements in the disabled students allowance announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science acknowledge the extra educational costs incurred by deaf students. But we were convinced of the case for extra help through the income support and housing benefit system. I recognise the point that my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) made. They urged that we should monitor the effect of the changes. Of course, the Department of Education and Science will carefully monitor the overall effect of the new system of student support. I shall talk to my colleagues at the DES about making sure that the needs of disabled students are not overlooked.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire asked about Scotland. If we had implemented the initial proposal, we could not have properly recognised and met the needs of disabled students in Scotland. In our consultations with local authorities we shall include local authorities in Scotland. I am advised that there is no problem in extending the concession to Scotland if we accept the proposal that I suggested to the House. In a sense the whole purpose of the new proposal is to meet the needs of Scotland, as well as the rest of the country.

I do not propose to enter into the dispute between my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West and the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South about hearing aids. Increasingly, deaf people are looking for choice and flexibility in the provision of hearing aids, so private provision might play an important role in future. I ask the House to overturn the three amendments.

Mr. Alfred Morris

With the leave of the House, I shall give the Opposition's response. We are not unappreciative of the Minister's endeavours to help, but, as I said earlier, he appears to have lost at least part of a battle with the Treasury. In supporting the Lords amendments, we were seeking not only a promissory note for all the disabled students to which the amendments refer, but a definite decision by the House tonight. As to definition, we already have a wholly objective definition. It is the one approved by the British Society of Audiology. The Minister spoke about the shortage of medical manpower, which I fully appreciate. I know that there are difficulties; indeed, I experienced them myself as a Minister. But I must stress that a definition is already available. Is the definition of deafness approved by the British Society of Audiology not good enough for the Government?

We intended to demonstrate our support for the amendments in the Lobby. But there is little enough time left to debate other important amendments even now. We shall not divide the House, therefore, but I hope that the Minister will make a further statement to the House soon on progress concerning the matters that we have discussed tonight. If he can agree to do so, I am sure that it will be a welcome undertaking to all the organisations of and for disabled people.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3 disagreed to.

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