HC Deb 15 March 1993 vol 221 cc10-1
10. Miss Lestor

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many people between the ages of 16 and 21 years are in receipt of benefits.

Mr. Lilley

It is not possible to give a single figure since some young people receive more than one benefit. But in 1991 there were 490,000 claiming income support, 143,000 claiming either housing benefit or community charge benefit, 49,000 claiming unemployment benefit, 34,200 on severe disablement allowance and 9,200 receiving family credit, plus small numbers on other benefits.

Miss Lestor

When does the Minister intend to do something about what amounts to a penalty on education and training for the large number of young people who are trying to continue in some form of education? They cannot find a job, yet they are penalised because they cannot get benefits. I remind him of the case in my constituency—I am sure that it has been repeated all over the country—of two young men serving apprenticeships who, when their firm went bust, tried to continue a college course to gain qualifications over a period of a year or two. They were denied benefits and thus became a burden on their families. Surely that is a penalty on education and training.

Mr. Lilley

As the hon. Lady knows, there is an allowance for those aged 16 to 17 on training schemes, but benefit has never been paid to those in school or further education. If there is a choice between spending money on maintenance or on increasing and improving education, we have opted for the latter. I am pleased to say that the number of people staying on at school and going on to further and higher education has increased enormously. If the hon. Lady thinks that there is a penalty, happily the vast majority of people are ignoring it and recognise the benefits of education, which is the important thing to get across.

Mr. Willetts

Does my right hon. Friend accept that since 1979 the number of people in the 16 to 21-year-old age group going into higher education has more than doubled and that there has been an enormous expansion in the number of training places? Was not the story of the 1980s a significant extension of public responsibility for people in that age group?

Mr. Lilley

My hon. Friend puts it clearly and that is the case. On training alone, nearly 300,000 people are on youth training courses provided by the Government, compared with only 7,000 in 1978 when the Labour Government were in power.

Mr. Frank Field

As the Government's cuts in benefits for young people have directly resulted in large numbers of them sleeping rough on the streets, what are the Government going to do about it?

Mr. Lilley

I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question. Far from cutting expenditure on that age group, we have substantially increased it through our increased spending on youth training. It was right to move away from a system in which people automatically had access to income support on leaving school and to replace it with the opportunity to stay on at school or to go to further or higher education or on a youth training course. The important thing is to activate and implement the guarantee. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has seen to it that every training and enterprise council has the money to implement that guarantee and see is vigorously ensuring that they do so. If young people do not have a place on a guaranteed training scheme, income support is available, even though they are aged only 16 or 17.

Mr. Brazier

Does my right hon. Friend agree that millions of taxpayers think that it is absolutely right that 16 and 17-year-olds who are not at school or in a job should be required to do youth training if they want to get assistance from the state? It is right that benefits are available only in the most exceptional circumstances to people in that age group.

Mr. Lilley

I am sure that that is the widely held view of the majority of people, especially of parents and young people, who want to make productive use of their lives rather than go straight on to benefit. I believe that 7,000 people are having to wait more than eight weeks for a place on a youth training scheme and that 3,000 have been offered a place, but it was not satisfactory.