HL Deb 11 July 1990 vol 521 cc278-82

1 After Clause 2, insert the following new clause:

("Income support: disabled students

. The following paragraph is inserted at the end of paragraph (c) of section 20(3) of the 1986 Act— (cc) he is a disabled person and he is participating in a course of higher education and he fulfils the conditions in paragraphs (a) to (c) of this subsection;".")

The Commons disagreed to the above amendment for the following reason—

1A Because it would affect charges on public funds; and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason 1A on the Order Paper. With your Lordships' agreement, at the same time I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 with reasons numbered 2A and 3A.

The intention behind these amendments agreed to by your Lordships in Committee was to widen the definition of a disabled student for income support and housing benefit purposes, since disabled students are among those who will retain entitlement to income support and housing benefit under the new student funding arrangements.

The Commons have now considered these amendments and have disagreed to them. The reason for their disagreement is a privilege reason. Erskine May states: This hint of privilege is generally accepted by the Lords, and the amendment is not insisted upon. I cannot go further, and it would not be right of me to go further and repeat the government arguments against these amendments as they were put in Committee. It is entirely a matter for the authorities in another place, and not a matter for the Government, as to whether one of our amendments returned to them touched on financial privilege. I do not believe that it would be appropriate for this House to attempt to look behind the wording of the reason.

In no way would I suggest it was wrong for this House again to air its views on the merits of these amendments, but in the end the matter must be decided on the single point of the financial privileges asserted by another place. Having said that I well understand the concerns underlying the amendment, and of course the House will be aware that the Government have responded positively to those concerns.

My right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Disabled announced in another place that we proposed to consult the local authority associations on draft regulations which will preserve the income support and housing benefit entitlement of students who are entitled to a local education authority disabled students' allowance by reason of deafness. Incidentally, under these arrangements we would include any student who has such an additional requirement indicated on his notice of award even if, because of the means testing of the disabled students' allowance, the student was not actually entitled to payment of that allowance.

That criterion will be additional to those that we have already proposed and we will aim to have it in place for the start of the next academic year, subject to consultation with the local authority associations. To allow adequate time for the consultation it is proposed to lay the necessary regulations, which will be subject to the negative procedure, after the main body of regulations relating to students' benefit entitlement.

We believe that an extension of the present proposed arrangements to include deaf students for entitlement to a disabled student's allowance recognises the needs and anxieties expressed both in this House and elsewhere. In view of the Government's willingness to meet the concern voiced on behalf of deaf students. I beg to move that the House do not insist on these amendments which the Commons have disagreed with.

Moved, that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 1A.—(Lord Henley.)

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, as I moved these amendments in Committee, perhaps I may briefly make one or two points and ask one or two questions. I stress that I certainly would not argue upon matters of privilege.

First, I warmly welcome the decision to allow deaf students to retain social security benefits, as does the RNID and all other organisations concerned with deaf people. I applaud the decision to use the disabled student's allowance criterion, which is easy to administer and is very workable. I welcome the decision announced by the noble Lord to include deaf students who would otherwise miss out on the disabled student's allowance because of means testing.

The Minister said that the Government will consult local authorities. If they write to local authorities perhaps they will phrase the letter in positive terms. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, in particular, will know to what I refer having regard to a certain letter written to local authorities regarding Section 6(3) of the 1986 Act relating to another Bill that has just gone through this place.

Secondly, the Minister said that he hopes the scheme will be in place before the start of the next academic year. Perhaps he can give an assurance on that point. If not, perhaps he can assure us that the benefits will be backdated: otherwise considerable hardship may be caused to deaf students.

I regret that a small number of disabled students, particularly those with dyslexia, will not be eligible. At col. 90 of Hansard of another place, when this matter was debated on Monday, the Minister for disabled people said that dyslexia is more difficult to define than deafness. If dyslexia was also tied to those students in receipt of the disabled student's allowance, I cannot see what the problem would be. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will have more to say on that topic.

Perhaps the Minister can indicate whether the definition will now be used to entitle deaf students to separate provision for payment of their student loans. I appreciate that this is not his department's responsibility, but he may be able to give me an answer or undertake to ask the question of his honourable friend in another place, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science.

I make a plea for better monitoring of participation of disabled students in higher education to enable us to understand how the scheme is working. I end where I began by thanking the Minister for his announcement and saying that I, along with all the disabled organisations concerned with deaf people, find it extremely welcome.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House wishes to congratulate the noble Baroness Lady Darcy (de Knayth) upon having persuaded this House to agree with her original amendment and bringing about a change of heart by the Government. Since the arguments in favour of extending benefit entitlement to deaf students are and were so strong, we cannot understand why the Government did not accept them in the first place. However, this is a welcome concession and we congratulate the Government on their change of heart.

As the noble Baroness said, it is a pity that the concession could not be extended to dyslexic students. I understand that the number of students affected is around 300, which is around the same number of deaf students who will now benefit. As we heard in the debate in another place, it appears to be a problem of definition. If the Government can find a satisfactory definition, can they then, by regulation, extend benefits to dyslexic students? Do the Government intend to investigate the problem to find a satisfactory definition?

Perhaps one could point out that all these problems could be overcome if we had a system for a comprehensive disability income and a comprehensive disability costs allowance. The Government have always rejected that but, as the Minister will be aware, the disability organisations are in favour of it, as also, I am pleased to say, is the party behind me.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I should like briefly to say a few words on this matter. I spoke at some little length about dyslexic students when these amendments were initially moved and accepted at Committee stage. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said regarding the reason why dyslexic students, who are regarded as being disabled when at school and in the workplace—they are given green cards—are not regarded as being disabled when they are students. Why is there a three-or four-year period when they stop being disabled? Some of their disabilities—reading and writing—are probably felt at their most acute level at that time. Their extra costs may be higher in that period than at any other period. Perhaps the Minister will give us some insight into why this great hole in reasoning has been allowed to occur.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I should like to say two things. First, I join in the congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth) and also to the Minister's right honourable friend the Minister for the disabled. This is a very welcome concession.

I should also like to say, in one sentence, that I agree with what my noble friends Lady Darcy (de Knayth) and Lord Addington said regarding dyslexic students.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I should like to add a word to what has been said. My initial word is a brief comment on what the noble Earl has just said. He referred to Mr. Scott in another place as the "Minister for the disabled". He has recently—and happily—changed his title to the Minister for disabled people.

I join in offering my thanks to the Government for having listened to the arguments put forward, though, like the noble Lord, Lord Carter, I cannot understand why it was so difficult to persuade them of what seemed so obvious to all quarters in this House. I do not wish to be curmudgeonly; it is a remarkable occasion. It gives us all a great deal of heart that the Government listen to what we in this House say and make arrangements which are even more satisfactory than the terms of our amendment—except in respect of dyslexia.

Lord Henley

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly respond to some of the points raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked why we were unable to accept the original amendments. After listening to concerns expressed in this House, we were able to come forward with a concession. I am advised that the original amendments were totally defective and would have led to consequences that I do not believe noble Lords opposite intended. It might possibly have taken the rest of the population out of benefit. That would not have been the intention of the noble Lord.

Lord Carter

My Lords, that was not the argument advanced for rejecting the amendment when we debated the Bill.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I appreciate that. I have since been advised that that is the case.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth) for her welcome of this concession. I assure her that I hope the letter that goes out to local authorities for consultation will be as clear as is necessary. Regarding backdating, we see no reason why the new arrangements should not be in place by September. I prefer to write to her on the question of payback arrangements being extended to deaf students. My understanding is that students will not have to make any repayments unless their earnings exceed 85 per cent. of national averaging. Any disability benefits received by the ex-student will be totally disregarded in calculating that 85 per cent. If my understanding is not correct, I shall write to the noble Baroness and correct it.

The noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Addington, who spoke on this matter at Committee stage, my noble kinsman Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, all asked about extending this scheme to dyslexics. Any attempt to make special provision for specific groups of disabled people is bound to leave room for debate regarding where the line should be drawn. I do not believe that it would be possible to extend it to dyslexics, because there are problems of definition. However, having said that, I can add that, since we were able to respond to this matter by means of regulations, my understanding is that the implication must be that it is possible to extend to dyslexia, though, as I said, definition is one of the problems.

I hope I have answered some of the points made, but I should now return to what I said in opening. The Commons have raised the matter of financial privilege and I do not think that we can go behind that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.