HL Deb 02 March 1982 vol 427 cc1175-8

3.2 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what they intend should be the effect on the entitlement to supplementary benefit of those unemployed persons who take up or who wish to take up part-time courses of up to 21 hours a week.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Elton)

My Lords, the Government's policy is reflected in Regulation 7(2) of the Supplementary Benefit (Conditions of Entitlement) Regulations 1981. These continue the practice of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. They provide that an unemployed person engaged in courses of up to 21 hours a week continues to be entitled to supplementary benefit, provided he is prepared to terminate the course immediately if a suitable job vacancy becomes available and he fulfils the other conditions set out in that regulation. The detailed provisions of this regulation are under review at present.

Baroness David

My Lords, is the Minister aware that advice has gone out to some regional DHSS offices saying that, for those unemployed persons studying under the 21-hour rule, the 21 hours must now include the lunch break and private study? Is that DHSS policy and has the DES been consulted about this? Why has this instruction gone out if the matter is still under review?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the chief supplementary benefits officer is, I understand, about to publish guidance on the interpretation of the regulation. This will advise that the 21 hours should be interpreted as including all the time spent on the course; that is, time spent on project work, on private study and on lunch breaks, as well as actual teaching time. I should explain that his earlier advice, that only actual teaching time should count towards the 21 hours, would have had the effect of bringing within the scope of the concession, for example, sixth formers taking a full set of A-levels. Having taken further legal advice, he took the view that this was inconsistent with the original spirit of the concession, as I am sure your Lordships will agree. I should perhaps add that the chief supplementary benefits officer is independent from Ministers and is not required to consult with other departments.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that some time ago I asked a similar Question? If the matter is now receiving special attention, will the Minister see to it that the position is clarified as soon as possible? My information is that educational practice is being cut down so that the education and feeding time come within 21 hours. The matter certainly needs clarifying. It will do good for the country if this matter is clarified and made clear to the public.

Lord Elton

My Lords, of course I will take note of what the noble Lord has said. If the noble Lord will cast his mind back to the day when he was a student he will recall that 21 hours of study is quite a long time.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister would agree to have a look at the special case of refugees, in the light of a case which I have drawn to the attention of his department concerning three young Cambodian refugees who wanted to take a course which would have been beneficial to them in adapting to life in England? They were young ladies from Cambodia, who wanted to acquire skills which would enable them to make a positive contribution to life in the United Kingdom. Is the Minister aware of the particular difficulties which generally arise in the case of refugees, because usually they do not have any relatives who would be able to make any contribution to their living costs? Therefore, it is essential for the refugees to be able to remain on the full supplementary benefit rate because the small allowances they would receive from LEAs would be totally inadequate to survive on.

Lord Elton

My Lords, this Government are well aware of the difficulties of refugees and we conduct ourselves towards them in a very humane manner. I will certainly take on board what the noble Lord has said and will take it back to the department with me.

Lord Alexander of Potterhill

My Lords, if one deducts from the limit of 21 hours five hours, say, for lunches and, say, 10 hours for private study one is left talking about one hour of study a day; that is what it reduces to, and this makes a nonsense of it.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I cannot say that I entirely agree with what the noble Lord has said, although deeply respect his experience in the field of education. The length of a lunch hour is something I should not be prepared to prescribe, nor the scattering throughout the timeable of an institution of private study. As I understand it, when a person is required to be at an institution in order to pursue a course like this, all the time he is there counts towards the course and his qualification to supplementary benefit. If the person conducts private study at home or elsewhere, as I understand the regulations, that is nothing to do with it. It is not, therefore, a question of one hour of study a day but a question of enough study to do a part-time course as opposed to a whole-time course, because if it were a full-time course, the student would not benefit.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord the Minister two questions which occur to me. First, has he any idea of the numbers involved? Secondly, would he not agree that it is very unwise to persecute those who are striving to make the best of a bad job and to improve their prospects, pending the introduction of a fairer and more rational system of education maintenance allowances?

Lord Elton

My Lords, no assessment can be made at this stage of the number of cases. We are considering ways of monitoring. On the other question, I cannot accept that excluding all sixth form students from the area covered by supplementary benefit is in any way harrying part-time students who want to pursue a part-time career.

Baroness David

My Lords, may I ask the Minister what is the policy in respect of day release trainees and apprentices who are made redundant or whose firms go bankrupt? Will they be allowed to continue their courses and to draw supplementary benefit, or will the whole value of the training they have had be lost?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady David, is referring to the 12 months' unemployment requirement. This does not apply to people under the age of 21, and therefore if their courses amount to less than 21 hours a week and in other respects are in accord with the requirements of Regulation 7(2) then they will be able to continue their courses.

Baroness David

My Lords, may I ask the Minister if he will reply to an earlier question I asked him to which he did not respond: was the DES consulted before advice was sent out to DHSS offices?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I must re-emphasise that the advice does not originate from the Ministers of the department. It originates from the chief supplementary benefits officer, who is not a Minister and who does not operate under the direction of Ministers. I am not aware of whether he consulted with the DES or not, but that is his affair.

Forward to