HC Deb 29 April 1999 vol 330 cc463-5
6. Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

What discussions he has had with the Secretaries of State for Social Security and Environment, Transport and the Regions about help with housing costs for students. [81520]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. George Mudie)

My Secretary of State is in regular and continuing contact with colleagues on issues relating to student support. The Government will take steps to support students in the greatest need as and when opportunities arise. For students in higher education, help with housing costs is provided in grants and loans through the student support system. Help for students who have financial difficulties is also available from the access funds of their institutions.

Dr. Jones

Will my hon. Friend and his colleagues consider the plight of my constituent, Susan, who is on a 16-hour-a-week access to health studies course? She is caught by the 16-hour rule, which makes her ineligible for housing benefit. She is also ineligible for more than a small amount of access funding. She works as many hours as she can as a care assistant, but her income is still insufficient to meet her £45-a-week rent in full. Surely the system should do more to help people such as Susan to get out of low pay and benefit dependency and into worthwhile careers such as nursing.

Mr. Mudie

I am aware of the case raised by my hon. Friend. No matter how flexible the system is, however, there will always be individuals or groups with particular circumstances that it does not address. The Secretary of State is continually aware of that problem, and we constantly move to try to help individuals or vulnerable groups when particular cases arise.

For the individual concerned in this case, the immediate answer would be her institution's access and hardship funds. The amount that she has received from the institution is insufficient, but there is a possible solution, which I should like to discuss further with my hon. Friend. The course concerned is an access course that does not usually give any support to the student. It is a pre-statutory service—I hope hon. Members understand what I mean by that. We might, therefore, discuss with the institution involved why the course does not take 15¾ hours, as that would open housing and other benefits to the student concerned. Why 16 has been chosen as the magic number of hours is an interesting point, particularly when it comes to access funds.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

The Minister will be aware that many students live in houses in multiple occupation. The Government's recent Green Paper on HMOs exempted university accommodation from inspection. However, universities are getting rid of more and more of their own accommodation. Does that not mean that more and more students will be at risk in HMOs?

Mr. Mudie

The hon. Gentleman may not know this, but I believe that an all-party parliamentary group is conducting a dialogue with the Minister for Local Government and Housing and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. A policy document or a White Paper on multiple occupation will be issued soon because it is a particular worry. The question whether universities will be included is a matter for discussion, consultation and decision. I am delighted that individual Members with strong university bases in their constituency have raised this because it is a growing problem that affects localities and even relationships in cities where universities have great numbers of students.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

May I share with my hon. Friend the experience that I had this week of meeting a young woman called Hazel who is leaving care to go into higher education? Not only has she shown tremendous intelligence to get herself qualifications and tremendous resilience to battle through the disadvantages of a disrupted life and a number of years in care, but she has shown the supreme good judgment to go to Lancaster university on a social work course. Does my hon. Friend agree that help with housing costs is essential if we are to help ever more bright young people cast off the disadvantages of being in care and make it into higher education?

Mr. Mudie

I do not think that there is a Member in the House who would disagree with my hon. Friend. Hazel indeed deserves congratulations. Her achievement in gaining a university place is no mean feat, given the normal background of a youngster in care. I know that my Secretary of State is particularly concerned about that group. All hon. Members, to be fair, would welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health's moves to help youngsters leaving care. The attention given to youngsters leaving care was greatly welcomed and long overdue and it is a wonderful example of this House responding to something which has been a disgrace for years.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I have experienced personally the deep sorrow that a family in my constituency had when their daughter, a student living away from home, died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Does the Minister agree that in principle no public funding for housing costs should be awarded to students or others living in a property, whether in multiple or single occupancy, where health and safety checks have not been carried out?

Mr. Mudie

This matter will be dealt with by the DETR White Paper, and deservedly so. The hon. Gentleman has raised the case from one perspective. The other perspective concerns how youngsters are treated and the conditions in which they have to live in many university towns. The hon. Gentleman's remarks have a resonance which we hope will be reflected in the White Paper.