§ 1. Mr. Rooker
To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many inquiries have been made to his Department's freephone service from persons asking about benefits available to students in the latest convenient period for which figures are available.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt)
Freeline managers estimate that about 1 per cent. of their calls are from students; it is not possible to say how many inquiries might be about student benefits.
§ Mr. Rooker
I am grateful for that answer. Would the Minister pass on to the freephone staff the thanks of mature students, potential students and access co-ordinators, certainly in Birmingham and the west midlands, for a very helpful service when students who are not the normal 18-year-olds ring up? However, will he have a word with the staff in the offices? When unemployed, mature people ask at the offices what is available for mature students, they are sometimes met by a knee-jerk reaction. They are told that no benefits are available, which is not the case for the unemployed, single parents and disabled mature students, who can sometimes retain housing benefit and income support. That area is not dealt with as well in the offices as it is on the freephone.
§ Mr. Burt
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said about the freeline service; that will be passed on. I am also grateful for his courtesy this morning during his telephone call. I hope that he has received by now a reply to his letter. The local area director makes it clear that the Benefits Agency has a number of different types of student with whom to deal. We try to ensure that all information is available to all students. In the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, there is an officer with particular technical expertise who can deal with the issues. There is a district information officer available in all districts to deal with the issues. However, in view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, I will, of course, make inquiries at the Benefits Agency to ensure that its information for students is as good as it can be.
§ Mr. Brazier
Can my hon. Friend confirm, however, that with the huge and welcome expansion in the number of students, the best way to cope with the difficulties in the long term is not to return to the widespread availability of 536 benefits for students, but to do what almost every country in the developed world does—ensure that the majority of students go from home to local universities?
§ Mr. Burt
Some of those matters are for the Department for Education rather than for me. I can confirm that my hon. Friend is right about the expanding number of students, and that expansion can be paid for only by asking students to pay an increasing contribution themselves. That is why students were moved out of the benefits system. It must be best that students look towards the education maintenance system for support rather than to benefits. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that an increasing number of students continue to want access to university and higher education. That is welcome and is something for which we can pay.