HC Deb 21 October 2002 vol 391 cc6-8
2. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

If he will make a statement on the benefit entitlement of student nurses. [73060]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

Full-time students, including student nurses, are not generally entitled to receive income-related benefits while studying unless they are in a vulnerable group, such as people with disabilities or lone parents. Student nurses receive a non-repayable bursary which in many cases is more generous than the help available to full-time students in mainstream higher education. All students may claim other social security benefits, subject to their satisfying the normal conditions of entitlement for the benefits concerned.

Tom Brake

I thank the Minister for his response. I understand that next year there will be changes to child care benefits for student nurses, and I welcome that. However, I press the Minister to tell us the advice that he would give today to a constituent of mine who is studying but who cannot afford to pay for her child care costs and whose housing association property is at risk of repossession. Should she abandon her course or risk the financial consequences of pursuing it?

Malcolm Wicks

I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about that case, about which we have corresponded. I think that there has been a recent development whereby Sutton council, I assume, has been rather more helpful with housing benefit.

In the national health service, we are now spending more than £300 million a year on NHS bursaries, and the first three rates increased by 10 per cent. last year. The NHS has its own child care strategy on which it will spend £100 million by 2004. As part of that strategy, there will be 150 on-site nurseries, which means that about a further 7,500 subsidised places will be available by 2004. However, I repeat that I am happy to talk about the particular case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Does not my hon. Friend agree, however, that it is anomalous, not to say unjust, that in many cases the loan that students receive is treated as income for the purposes of deciding whether they are eligible for benefit? Does he not want to take steps to rectify that injustice in view of the fact that it has some of the consequences mentioned by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)?

Malcolm Wicks

It is appropriate that the help provided through loans and the non-payment of university tuition fees for low-income families is regarded as separate from the help we give people through the provision of income support and jobseeker's allowance when they are out of work. As I said, however, vulnerable groups have access to income-related benefits. It has always been the case that, subject to certain disregards, income sources are subtracted from income support entitlement. That is the case with student loans and it remains the policy.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Is the Minister aware of the serious problem of the number of student nurses who are abandoning the profession simply because of the high cost of rentals in London? Is he aware in particular of the big problem at Barts, which many nurses are leaving because of the closure of the residential unit at Mile End? If he is interested in holding on to nurses, would it not be helpful to find a way in which the hospitals can assist with the provision of accommodation for student nurses at reasonable rents?

Malcolm Wicks

We are certainly interested in retaining nurses and are sensitive to the issue of housing, not least in my city of London. Housing developments are proceeding for key workers, who include nurses. Both housing policy and national health service policy are sensitive to that important issue.

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