HC Deb 12 November 1991 vol 198 cc892-4
10. Mr. Bowis

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will review the criteria for student grant eligibility.

Mr. Alan Howarth

The Education (Mandatory Awards) Regulations are reviewed annually. Extending them to a substantially wider range of courses or students would, however, require primary legislation. We have no present plans for that.

Mr. Bowis

Is my hon. Friend aware that in many local education authorities, not least in London, it is a prerequisite for a discretionary award that a student lives for at least three years within the borough concerned? Will he give at least gentle guidance to LEAs suggesting that it is not reasonable for students to be excluded from discretionary grants merely because their parents have moved home? Or will he try to find some other way of funding such students?

Mr. Howarth

The regulations do not impose any specific requirements on how local education authorities should treat people ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom when considering their applications for discretionary awards. It is for each LEA to construct its own policies in respect of discretionary awards. "Discretionary" means what it says: it is not our policy to intervene or even to lean gently on authorities in this matter.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does the Minister accept that it is no good being eligible for a mandatory award if it is then not paid? What steps is he taking to ensure that this year local authorities such as Southwark, which a week or two ago had paid less than one fifth of its mandatory grant cheques to eligible students, pay up, so as to minimise student hardship? And what will he do to ensure that in future years the system pays up at the beginning of the year, not a third of the way through it or later?

Mr. Howarth

We have a student support system as generous as any in the world, but under long-established arrangements local education authorities administer the award system, and students depend absolutely on those authorities playing their part. We have substantially increased resources for students, providing more money for more of them. It is a disgrace if students are in difficulty on account of administrative failures by local education authorities. I have already made my views clear: officials have written to every education authority about which we have received evidence of a failure to carry out its statutory duties—and we will continue to pursue the matter vigorously.

Mr. Hannam

Is my hon. Friend aware of the problem that some mature students, particularly women with home commitments, have to take their degree courses in the form of part-time courses and that they are therefore not eligible for mandatory grant? Will he look into that?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the changing pattern of higher education. There has been a dramatic expansion of participation, and there are more mature and part-time students and more people working their way towards qualifications on the basis of credit accumulation and transfer. We shall keep our administrative and financial systems under review in the light of these trends.

Mr. Cryer

Does the Minister accept that a local authority such as Bradford, which tries to provide a wide range of discretionary awards, is inevitably limited by the amount of money that it can give? If central Government provided more assistance, the Minister may rest assured that such LEAs would provide more students with the opportunity of further and higher education through the application of discretionary awards.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman would do well to go back to Bradford and ask the authority one or two questions. The assumption on education spending that underlies the revenue support grant to local authorities this year allowed for increased spending on discretionary awards of 15 per cent. in 1991–92. If authorities are failing to increase their spending on discretionary awards commensurately, that is their decision.