HL Deb 15 May 1991 vol 528 cc1692-707

8.1 p.m

Baroness Blackstone rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order (S.I. 1991/827) be annulled.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the reason for praying against the new regulations on mandatory awards is that the changes to them which involve the abolition of the vacation hardship allowance will leave some students in very considerable financial difficulty this summer. The vacation hardship allowance is the only safety net for summer vacation hardship cases, as access funds have not been geared to cover that part of the year. Secondly, there must be strong objections to the new regulations, on the grounds that they represent a total reversal of commitments made by Ministers in this House and in another place less than a year ago. As such, they are yet another U-turn with the Government reneging on promises that they have made. In the circumstances, why should anyone any longer believe anything Ministers in this Government say?

I remind the House of what has happened. During the passage in 1990 of the Education (Student Loans) Act and the Social Security Act and ensuing regulations, Ministers in both Houses pointed to the vacation hardship grant as a way of ensuring that a safety net had been maintained for students who were facing hardship but who were no longer able to claim benefits. For example, in another place the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People said: The committee"ߞ that is, the Social Security Advisory Committee— said that, during the long vacation, some students might be particularly hard hit, and that they should have recourse to a safety net. There is already a safety net— the power for local education authorities to pay hardship payments".— [Official Report, Commons, 9/7/90; col. 102.] The Minister reiterated that when he said: Of course, a safety net is necessary in these circumstances…As I said earlier in response to an intervention, local education authorities have the discretion to award vacation hardship allowances during the long vacations". He went on to say: Those can be worth more than £50 a week to the student. The costs to the education authority are fully reimbursed. In those circumstances we do not believe that there is a case for retaining a social security safety net".— [Official Report, Commons, 18/7/90; col. 1101.] In this House, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Social Security— I see that he is in his place— said that LEAs can make severe hardship awards to undergraduates in the long vacation.

As recently as March of this year, in an answer to the Labour spokesman on higher education in another place, the role of the vacation hardship allowance was acknowledged by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the DES. He went on to note that from 1988 to 1989 some £40,000 had been claimed. At that time there was absolutely no indication from the Minister of plans to abolish the allowance until an unsuspecting world learnt from the very same Parliamentary Under-Secretary— only three weeks later— that the allowance was no longer needed. There was no warning and no consultation.

The argument that the vacation hardship allowance is no longer needed is simply not true. Resources available to students have not been substantially increased and there is an unprecedented need for the vacation hardship allowance to remain available to students. I shall give some figures. The mandatory award for 1990–91 is £2,265 outside London. Had its value simply kept in line with inflation since 1979, the grant for this year would have been £2,803— in other words, £538 above its present value. The real value of the maximum loan of £420 currently available to students outside London, which is meant to make up this difference, is therefore minus £118.

Moreover, the mandatory award provides support for 38 weeks of the year. Student loans are meant to provide additional support for 52 weeks of the year. This means that during the summer vacation a student in London would have a weekly income of £8.50 and a student outside London a weekly income of even less than that. Post-graduates and part-time students are not eligible for loans. Is there anybody in this House who can live on £8.50 a week? I rather doubt it.

The vast majority of students have lost entitlement to welfare benefits, to housing and unemployment benefit and to income support. According to government statistics, at least £68 million— and probably nearer £100 million— has been lost in benefits by students this current academic year.

A recent survey on student financial support undertaken by the National Union of Students found that more than one-third of student unions stated that the average student in their institution had lost more than £400 in housing benefit during the academic year alone. The survey also showed that many students are finding it quite impossible to survive solely on the grant and student loan.

A number of students have found themselves with a weekly income well below the income support level. For instance, a student in London in receipt of a mandatory award and a loan from the Student Loans Company, with a weekly rent of £45 which is not a particularly high rent in London these days, will be left with £18 per week to meet all his or her other expenses. Again, could any of us manage on such a small amount? How are students meant to survive on that? Many other students outside London whose income is comprised of the mandatory award and student loan are having to live on a weekly income that is near or just below income support level.

I turn now to access funds. I know it is the case that the Government are making something of the fact that access funds can make up for the abolition of the vacation hardship allowance. Where students find that they cannot survive on this money during the vacation — that is, what they receive in mandatory awards and student loans— because, for example, of unemployment, we are told that college administered access funds will be adequate to prevent undue hardship. They will not be adequate. Research by the National Union of Students shows that colleges have not geared the access funds towards providing support over the summer vacation. That has been confirmed by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. By February of this year, it was found that most colleges were distributing their funds on a three-term basis. Of the rest, many were allocating the funds over an even shorter timespan— usually two terms only— rather than the longer period which would encompass the summer vacation.

Moreover, guidance by the Department of Education and Science encouraged colleges to discount the summer vacation. Further education colleges were instructed to return to the DES any access fund money held in excess of the original 15 per cent. allocated by the 31st March. That had to be returned by the end of the academic year. The recall date has caused immense problems in providing for support during the third term, let alone the summer vacation. When the DES issued new guidance, stating that institutions could now retain money earmarked for the third term and summer, it was far too late to help the institutions in their planning.

Guidance to higher education colleges, as opposed to FE colleges, has been even more confusing. Originally the institutions were told to return any unspent access funds to the funding councils by 31st July, thus making it quite impossible to cater for hardship over the summer. The DES then caused severe disruption in January when it announced that any money held in excess of the original 15 per cent. now had to be returned by 31st March. That ruling had to be dropped due to representations both from college administrators and the National Union of Students. The DES finally stated that unspent money did not have to be returned until 31st August. What an appalling shambles! I say that as the head of a higher education institution. I know the trouble to which my colleagues are put by this sort of disgraceful administrative cock-up.

As a result of all that, college administration procedures do not provide for extra support for students during the long vacation. I suggest that the Government must accept responsibility for this and recognise that the vacation hardship allowance must be retained in those circumstances, at the very least for this corning year, assuming that clearer guidance and increased resources are given for the future.

Aside from the difficulties caused over the return dates, a more worrying finding from the NUS survey on access funds is that the funds will be totally depleted before the vacation even begins. If that turns out to be the case, the access funds will be unable to provide a safety net— which the Government claim they can provide— over the long vacation, assuming that the DES was willing to issue further guidance allowing colleges to do so. But, in any case, the higher education institutions have found that the sums available for access funds are hopelessly inadequate to meet the needs in term time, let alone cover the long vacation. That is what the CVCP and also, I believe, the polytechnic directors are saying.

In the light of previous government statements, it seems to me that the Government are obliged to accept the principle of the safety net and not go back on the promises that they made. Previously, students were able to fall back on the benefit system if they were facing undue hardship in the long vacation. That option is no longer available. The loan system and access funds, as I have already made clear, fail currently to compensate for the freezing of the mandatory grant or for the loss of benefit. Yet again, our students are being left much worse off than they should be.

In the long-term a full review of student financial support is needed so that we can have a clear system which is both easily administered and understood. Such a system will need to target extra resources where living cost are higher— that was the great merit of housing benefit— and where needs are greatest. However, in the short term, vacation hardship allowances must be maintained to ensure a safety net is available for students, or the Government must come forward with an alternative way to ensure that students in genuine need can avoid destitution this summer.

Everyone in this House is fully aware of the fact that there are now over 2 million unemployed. The figures are increasing every month. In those circumstances, can the Minister tell us how she thinks students will be able to get jobs this summer? I suspect that very few of them will be able to find employment.

Finally. both the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities recognise the continued need for the vacation hardship allowance. They have invested a great deal of time and resources investigating ways of finding a straightforward system for administering the allowance. The AMA and the ACC have both asked the DES to issue more detailed guidance to LEAs in recommending as simple a system as possible for administering the claims for the allowance, based on the grounds of fairness and equity. Instead, the Government have absolved their responsibility by bringing forward an amending regulation to abolish the allowance at a time when it is most needed. To abandon their responsibilities to students in that way is a national disgrace. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Order (S.I. 1991/827) be annulled.—(Baroness Blackstone.)

8.16 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, like Winnie the Pooh, we do not want to be greedy. We do not want to ask the Government to annul all these regulations. Parts of them are excellent. We on these Benches have no objection to the privileges of membership of the European Community being extended to citizens of the former German Democratic Republic; indeed, we welcome it warmly.

However, our anxiety, like that of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, is confined to the student vacation hardship allowance. For that reason, if I had managed to get this topic on the Order Paper before the noble Baroness, I should not have put down a prayer to annul; I should have put down a Motion inviting the Government to withdraw the regulations and amend them. I should have asked the House to divide on the matter because it seems to be a matter of that magnitude.

It disconcerts me somewhat that we are now debating regulations which came into force on 17th April. They were tabled on 27th March, which was immediately before a Recess and, as some of us will remember, that was a day upon which we were much occupied with another piece of business. Those Recess days count towards the days for the regulations coming into force; but they do not— very properly — count towards the days for praying to annul. I believe that we have here a procedural point and one which might be given some attention.

As a university teacher, I must declare an interest. If these regulations are not withdrawn, I shall not be able to do my job to the standards which I find acceptable. That is a strong statement and one which calls for justification. The basic point is that in this country, unlike anywhere else, we have a three-year degree. I have taught elsewhere in a country which had a four-year degree. The students there did approximately the same amount of work in four years that we do in three. This is a very intensive system. From the Government's point of view it is cheap. However, it is only possible if students can first work full time during term; and, secondly, can afford to do academic work for something like 50 per cent. of the university vacation. If they cannot do so, they simply do not get through the work. In that case, we cannot give a degree of equivalent quality to that which is given in other countries overseas.

This is a matter of some significance. Of previous forms of student support, the only one which was geared to vacation and which therefore made it possible for undergraduates to do the sort of vacation work upon which good degrees have always been based, was the social security entitlement. The noble Baroness and I have had many exchanges on the matter. I shall not go over the arguments in detail. However, she will be familiar with the fact that practically everyone in the academic world from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to the National Union of Students agreed that, in relying on the survey carried out by Research Services Limited, the Government considerably underestimated the extent to which students were dependent upon social security. They therefore considerably underestimated the amount of money that was being lost, and considerably undercalculated the amount of money that needed to go into the access funds. I agree with everything the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said about the access funds. In effect, they are maundy money. Of course, they are not geared into the long vacation. The need for the long vacation is far too big for the access funds even to begin to meet it.

In his letter to Mr. Twigg of the NUS, Mr. Howarth explains the sudden decision to withdraw the allowance by saying that there was reason to expect a flood of claims. I do not see why Mr. Howarth was so surprised. Of course there will be a flood of claims. I was just about to forward 20 myself, all from members of my special subject class. I was going to tell them that they could not do the work necessary to obtain a good degree unless they could, as always before, read their texts during the long vacation. I do not believe that I was being irresponsible. I was trying to fulfil what, in the face of all ministerial discouragement, I still regard as my duty— to get my pupils the best degree possible. Without that, I and they will be in severe difficulties.

It is a little curious to withdraw an entitlement because there are a flood of claims for it. It sounds a bit like closing fire stations because there are too many fires. This year it is early in the year to see what has happened. Mr. Howarth relied upon the low level of take-up of student loans. From what I can learn from regular conversations with my pupils, Mr. Howarth's figures may be a little out-of-date. There seems to have been a sudden flood in the take-up of loans in the past six weeks or so. I do not know whether that is a general picture, but I think it extremely likely. I have discussed the taking-up of loans with all my personal pupils, and I find that they share the fears of going deeply into debt expressed in the House by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and many others when we debated the Bill.

Mr. Howarth also relied in that letter on the claim that the grant was up by 25 per cent. If we accept that figure, we have to put it beside the Government's own figure in the White Paper on student loans that in the years to 1982 the grant had fallen by 21 per cent. It has gone right down, and come up to somewhere which, by my calculations, is still rather below what it was in 1979. Of course that is where it is in an election year. Not many people expect it to stay at so high a level thereafter. It is not a sufficient explanation for a permanent abolition of an entitlement to say that the grant for this year is at a slightly less disastrous level than usual.

What seems to me to be happening is that, first, a great many people are relying, if they can— not all of them can — much more heavily on their parents than they have done hitherto. The other thing that I suspect is happening— I do not always get to hear about this because it is against college regulations and incompatible with obtaining a good degree— is that people are taking jobs during the term. It has been proved this year that a great deal less work is being done by undergraduates than in any previous year I have been teaching. That is threatening the standard of the degree. Financial hardship is worrying, but I know of only one case of someone driven to obtain a job during the term. That is someone who had to wait three months to obtain a grant from the London Borough of Wandsworth.

We have here something which is threatening and I believe has already produced a real loss of quality in the degree. I said on 1st May that we can no longer match the best degrees offered in the United States at Harvard and Yale. Changes in the level of student support are one of the most important reasons for that. When I said that, I was aware of meeting a good deal of resistance in the House. It felt rather like talking to a brick wall. By contrast, when some of my colleagues saw that speech, the only comment they passed upon it was a slightly bored, routine congratulation, which indicates only a desire to be courteous. They did not see that I had said anything particularly wrong. In fact I believe that they thought that practically everyone had known for years that that was true.

We have here a pretty big communication gap. I have been trying for a good many years to find a way to cross it, because if we cannot get across I do not see how we shall carry on. It tempts one on occasion to behave like Mr. Plimsoll on a memorable and not especially admirable occasion in another place slightly over a century ago. It sometimes makes one feel a little like Cassandra, but of course if one starts talking like her, one only makes the problem worse. I am constantly reminded of a former family doctor who was asked whether he made it his practice to discount half his patient's symptoms. He replied yes. That doctor, by following that practice, failed to diagnose an acute gall bladder condition for several years. Anyone here who served under Sir Anthony Eden (as he then was) may appreciate how serious that can be.

I am trying to say that something on that level of seriousness is going on now. That is not exaggeration. In my view the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the NUS are gravely understating their case. It is a good deal worse than they say it is. The inability to get through the point that we cannot manage to keep up quality on the amount of money available is extremely frustrating. If noble Lords opposite find it difficult, it may help their imagination if they stop to think what it feels like to work in the City under Labour. They might then understand what we are talking about.

8.28 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and my noble friend for doing most of the hard spade work on this measure. They have done a good job of pulling apart the nuts and bolts. I shall try to explain what the action means from the undergraduate point of view. I am using a fast-diminishing advantage of being rather closer to that undergraduate point of view than other noble Lords. The noble Baroness will no doubt be glad to hear that I do not intend to use it much longer as I do not fed that I can.

The last safety net of the old social security system is being removed from undergraduates. It was something upon which they relied if they could not obtain jobs during the summer. The vast majority of them wanted jobs during the summer. No one likes managing on 20-something pounds a week. There is not a great deal of fun to be had anywhere on 20-something pounds a week. If one happens to be a masochist and likes eating oatmeal and being dependent upon one's parents, that is what one looks for.

Fortunately most students have parents who can support them. The parents tend to be middle-class although the trend is changing. Because they have nice houses they can usually support their children even if it is only by guaranteeing a loan. The Government said that they were trying to expand the student base — where they came from and their social background — and that we needed to increase the number of students.

However, the Government are withdrawing the provision in the regulations to allow students enough to live on, to eat and nothing more during the holidays. We are encouraging people from traditional working class backgrounds who are not used to debt, for example, to take out student loans. I gather that my not le friend Lord Russell is quite correct that students will now take out loans; they did not wish to do so previously because no one likes being in debt any more than they have to. Most undergraduates have managed to cotton on to interest payments so that the shorter the time they are in debt, the less interest they pay, even if it is only equal to the rate of inflation.

The situation is that these students will be hit far harder. Word gets round and we suddenly have a huge new pra3lem of convincing more people to go through a financially insecure period for what they regard as a risky training. They are not guaranteed any occupation at the end of it.

Through this regulation, the Government have basically removed the last safety net available to people— the hardship allowance. In addition, they are doing it before they know the results of the student loans scheme. I described student debt and student hardship as snowballing. In the first year students are in the halls of residence, they get most support from their parents. As I suggested, they receive extra spending money from their parents in their first two terms bemuse everyone is glad that little Johnny has gone to university. This is a trend, as most people would agree. Students become more of a nuisance and more expensive as years go by. The levels of grants are now and they were even in 1979 pitifully small in real terms. Students find this level of income so low that they get more into debt, they have to borrow more and everything builds up. That is why they look for jobs in the first place.

Seeking jobs is nothing new. That is why it was so important for there to be some support in case they did not get a job. I pointed this out previously, repeating myself for the umpteenth time, but we have been asked the same question so we give the same answer. If a student is looking for a job he may not find one for the first three weeks of the 14-week vacation. He will probably have to leave the job two or three weeks early to get back to college. Thus there is a period when his ability to take a job is only for about ten weeks— a maximum of 12 weeks in the best case scenario. There are still two weeks at either end of the vacation during which students have no money coming in, and on top of which there are travelling expenses. It is worth considering that the travel allowance has been removed from English students; I am not sure about the Scots but I hope that it has not been removed.

The snowball of debt is growing. We do not know the effects of the Education (Student Loans) Act 1990, how many people will come in and what is the take-up rate. There is effectively a system which most people agree is built on a shaky foundation. It has not been given enough time for us to see whether it is working. I do not believe that it can work, but nevertheless we shall not know during the first year. People are only just starting to take out loans at this stage of the year. From previous academic years, because we have not encouraged a social spread for our students, there may still be those who are just able to get by on their parents' support. Students coming in for their first year and relying on debt will be the best off; they always will be because the majority will be in student accommodation. However, even that has been under hideous pressure at the start of this academic year. We all remember the pictures of students living in sports halls.

Thus the last safety net has been removed. My noble friend Lord Russell expressed the feeling of virtually everyone involved in this when he said that the behaviour patterns of this House were rather restrained in the amount of emotion generated.

I finish with a technical point of which I have only been able to give a little warning to the noble Baroness. If she has no specific answer at this time, I shall be quite happy if she would write to me. When we discussed disabled students being accorded special allowances, including deaf students, we were successful in bringing about one of the Government defeats during the whole of the proceedings on the student loans Bill. We also discussed dyslexic students and I remember describing how dyslexic students are in a bad situation when it comes to employment. Most types of employment available to students require literacy skills. I described how one cannot be a waiter if one cannot write accurately. Dyslexia manifests itself most strongly in the written skills and sequencing is bad. In other words, direct, accurate memory is bad.

Most of the minor clerical positions in times of full employment or close to it are available to students. I discount the diminishing number of manual jobs because the average student is not suitable for them. Of course, I had one slight advantage over some students in terms of employment. Dyslexic students will not be able to take up these jobs and thus they are in a bad position. The Government ultimately refused our proposals because they could not find a good enough definition of dyslexia as a disability. I wonder whether the Government have managed to come up with a good definition. This group has real disabilities and is classed as disabled for work. I have a green card which states exactly that and dyslexics are classified as disabled when they are in school. Before that government legislation, such people were counted as being disabled. For example, before the regulations came in I received an extra grant to allow me to dictate my essays to a typist so that the tutors could read them. I conclude with this question. Will there be a definition to allow dyslexics to come into the disabled category?

8.37 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I add my voice in protest against the amending regulations. What the Government have done is monstrous, and it has been done in a most dishonest way. If we look at the Explanatory Note at the end of the amending regulations, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, first it explains that the regulations come into force on 17th April. It seems to me dishonest not to have provided us with these regulations before that date. Seven-eighths of the explanatory note is taken up in describing proposals for the students from the former German Democratic Republic. I agree with the noble Earl that we have no objection to any of that. However, slipped into the last line is that the vacation hardship allowance has been abolished. That is a peculiar way for the Government to go back on everything they said earlier. Ample proof of that has been given by my noble friend Lady Blackstone and the noble Earl.

Students are now getting into debt in a big way. I was speaking to the noble Lord, Lord Lewis of Newnham, yesterday. He told me that he had been talking to a number of students who came from varying backgrounds. The average amount of debt that they had at the end of their first or second year was £2,000. That is a bad situation for students, and they do not like it. The thought of getting into debt will prevent some students, whom we should like to see in higher education, from doing so. No wonder the loans are taken up rather more rapidly if that is the situation; but it will not make much difference. Anyway, the loans must be repaid in the end. I hope the Minister will say that these regulations will be reconsidered. It seems to me that they are both dishonest and unfair.

8.40 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the subject of our debate is the Education (Mandatory Awards) (Amendment) Regulations 1991 which came into force on 17th April 1991. These amending regulations made a number of significant changes to the arrangements for mandatory awards in England and Wales.

First, they gave effect to the arrangements for architecture students announced in another place on 6th February. Following the redesignation of architecture courses, these regulations provide for a mandatory award this year to any eligible student who has not already received a bursary under the temporary scheme established last autumn.

Secondly, they provided for awards for certain students whose ordinary residence included periods spent in the territory of the former German Democratic Republic before its unification with the Federal German Republic. This puts those students on the same footing as students whose qualifying residence has been in the European Community. It fulfils our responsibility to our European partners.

Thirdly, the amending regulations dispensed with the allowance which has hitherto been payable, at the discretion of local education authorities, to students who in the opinion of the authority would otherwise suffer undue hardship during a vacation.

The amending regulations also made some changes of a technical nature which as they have not been referred to during the course of the debate I do not think I need detain the House by describing.

It has been on the third provision, the abolition of the vacation hardship allowance, that the debate today has centred. The essential thing is to see this change in the context of the Government's overall policy on student support. The White Paper, Top-Up Loans for Students (Cm 520, November 1988) described our intention to share the cost of student maintenance more equitably between students themselves, their parents and the taxpayer. We have since then introduced student loans and established the access funds while removing most full-time students from eligibility for income support and housing benefit. We have announced our intention to freeze the main rates of mandatory grant and to hold steady in cash terms the contribution expected from parents, as from the start of the next academic year.

In doing these various things, we have not only reshaped and improved on the previous arrangements but we have actually increased the resources available to students. In that light it can clearly be seen that the need for a separate vacation hardship allowance is no longer the same. In the current year the resources available to students from grant and loan together are 25 per cent. higher than the grant alone in 1989ߝ90. Moreover, most eligible students have yet to draw on their loan facility this year. Substantial extra resources are available to help support these students in the summer provided that they enter into a loan agreement before 31st July.

I said that the need for this allowance is no longer the same. All except a very few students hitherto have had no need of it at all. We believe that that will now apply to the minority of students whose needs may not be met entirely from grant and loan. First, we have set up the access funds to help those in particular difficulties. How and when these funds are allocated are matters for the judgment of the institutions which control them. We have made clear to institutions that access funds can be made available to help students in financial difficulties at any time during the academic year, including the summer vacation.

Secondly, we have taken care to protect the position of certain groups of students. The disabled, lone parents and the partners of students have retained their eligibility for housing benefits and income support. This shows that, against this background, our decision to withdraw the vacation hardship allowance is fully justified. But there are some further points that I ought to make.

The withdrawal of vacation hardship allowance in no way affects those students who have to attend their course for part of the summer vacation. For those students, there has always been the extra weeks allowance of between £33.15 and £63.15 a week depending on whether they live with their parents or study in London. It will continue to be available.

Another factor in our decision was the clear sign that there was likely to be a flood of unnecessary claims for vacation hardship allowance this summer amounting virtually to an abuse of the system. Had that happened, local education authorities would have been burdened with processing these extra claims when they were busy assessing next year's grants. They would have had to satisfy themselves that applicants were suffering undue hardship, and that other sources—

Earl Russell

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the words "an abuse of the system", or is it an abuse of the system to try to get one's pupils good degrees?

Baroness Blatch

No, my Lords. I shall not withdraw my remarks because there was an expectation of a campaign to flood the system with applications. All the historic evidence shows that the kinds of numbers of applications we were expecting to receive were not made on the basis of hardship but rather on the basis of working the system.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. It seems to me extraordinary to use the term "abuse of the system" when that is based merely on an expectation of what will happen. It was not long a go that a Minister in another place could not even say how many students had applied for vacation hardship allowances last summer. Therefore I do not know how the Government can predict in advance that the system will be abused.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as regards the number of applications made last summer, I can tell the noble Baroness that it was 300. I believe the cost to the country as a whole was £50,000. As regards the speculative statements that have been made by the noble Baroness and the noble Earl, they were clearly making guestimates of sums vastly in excess of £50,000. If that had not been the case, there would be no significance to this debate.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I beg the House's pardon for intervening again but the point is of importance. Do the Government accept or do they not accept that undergraduates must do a substantial amount of academic work in the vacations or their standard of degree will fall?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is a matter for the individual student to determine when he does his studying. Some students will study in the vacations; but it is not for me or for governments to prescribe specifically when students will study.

As I have said, local education authorities would have had to satisfy themselves that applicants were suffering undue hardship and that other sources of public support and any scope for temporary employment during the vacation had been exhausted. Given what I have said about the increased level of resources for students and the availability of access funds, it was our view that the overwhelming majority of such claims would ultimately have been rejected. We judged it right to avoid if we could the waste of time and effort which a flood of rejected claims would mean, and— importantly for students— the delays which this would have caused to next year's grant payments.

Finally, play has been made of past references made in both Houses to vacation hardship allowance, and attempts have been made to portray those references as committing the Government to retention of the allowance as some form of safety net. Such a portrayal misunderstands the context of those past statements and takes no account of the current position. The earlier references to the allowance were made simply as a matter of fact because at the time those statements were made the allowance was then available. No commitment was made— indeed, how could it have been?— to its continued retention.

I shall reply to a number of points that were made during the course of the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked why we had decided to abolish the hardship allowance. We decided to do so because we judged that it was no longer needed in the same way it had been previously. The total available student grant was increased by 25 per cent., if one includes the facility for loans. We have set up the access funds this year to help students.

Most eligible students have yet to draw on their loan facility. That suggests that many students are managing on the up-rated grant alone. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to the loans take up. It is true and encouraging that the take up of loans has increased as the year wears on. But even now the take up is very much less than 100 per cent. Even though the loans are available on much more favourable terms than commercial loans, which students still seem willing to take up, the low take up hardly suggests that students are as financially disadvantaged as noble Lords opposite suggest.

As I have already said, it is open to institutions to help students during the summer vacation from their access funds, if the institutions judge that to be appropriate. We have made it clear that access funds can be made available at any time during the academic year, particularly in the summer vacation. While most full-time students are no longer eligible for income support, unemployment benefit or housing benefit during term time or the vacations, it needs to be said that students who are lone parents or are disabled continue to be entitled to income support and housing benefit if they meet the normal criteria for those benefits. Students' spouses will continue to be able to claim benefits in their own right or on behalf of the family unit if they meet the normal criteria. Students' entitlement to other social security benefits, for example child benefit and refunds for medical or dental charges is unaffected.

Students with dependants or other special needs can still claim the relevant supplementary allowances as part of the student grant; for example, the disabled students' allowance or the supplementary grant for extra weeks of studying during vacation. Part-time students may still be eligible for relevant social security benefits if they meet the usual criteria. I believe that these provisions, coupled with the new student support arrangements, should enable the range of these to be tackled.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, referred to the access funds. Again, I say it is true that the Department of Education and Science altered the guidance on the retention or surrender of unused access funds. But this was in response to representations from the higher education institutions themselves, and I believe that the changes were made in time for students to benefit from them if they wished to do so. The Government would, on the contrary, have been criticised if they had not introduced this greater flexibility, which was requested, and given institutions greater scope to exercise their own discretion in the interests of their own students.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, was worried about the definition of dyslexia. For the purpose of student support, there is no definition of dyslexia. But what I can say to the noble Lord about the degree of difficulty presented to a local education authority by a student, is that there is access to specific grant which enables him either to have support in the form of technology— in other words, technological support for somebody who has particular difficulties— or even personal support. It may well be that somebody needs personal support and there are grants available. It was part of the new system that that should be so.

Finally, I should like to refer to the criticism made by the noble Baroness, Lady David. I found it extraordinary that anything should be read into the Explanatory Note. The Explanatory Note is exactly what it says. The particular changes that had to be made to accommodate the young people from eastern Europe were very complicated, very technical, and required a technical explanation. The particular change that needed to be made for archaeology students was relatively small and is only one short paragraph. On the abolition of vacation hardship, there is nothing to say other than that it was abolished, because this is an Explanatory Note about the technicality of the order itself.

These amending regulations are now in force, and most of their provisions will I am sure have been positively welcomed by those directly affected. For example, architecture students and those studying here who became members of the European Community when the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist, and so on. The only thing that has been missing from this debate was something to match the exaggerated quantifications of what was required for student support by all noble Lords opposite, by pledging specific funds on their behalf to spend. I have to assume that, in the absence of that, the sums that were not quantified but certainly were exaggerated by noble Lords opposite, are to be spent.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again. Can she give me chapter and verse of what these exaggerated claims were? I simply quoted the figures that are currently.in existence so far as concerns student grants and loans.

Baroness Blatch

No, my Lords, I was referring to all the speculative statements about what would be required to give us these vast numbers of students, who hypothetically would qualify for vacation hardship allowance in very large numbers which have been mentioned by both the noble Baroness and the noble Earl. All I am saying is that I have listened very hard and long to Mr. Straw, who has not pledged these vast sums of money to meet this quantification that has been mentioned by the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, when the noble Baroness reads the report of my speech, she will not see any quantification of either the amount required or the numbers. All I said was that I think that in the circumstances, when we have a totally new system of student loans being introduced and a freezing of mandatory grants, at least in this transitional period we ought to have maintained the existing vacation hardship allowance. I do not know how many students will apply for it, and I made no claims about the numbers. It is the Minister who has been saying that there will be an abuse of the system in very large numbers. I suspect that only those students who are destitute and in very considerable need will apply, but I do not know what the numbers are.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I referred to 300 students being helped at a cost of £50,000. Very much more than £50,000 has been put into the system to compensate, to cover that number of students who may have been in difficulties. I have taken it from what the noble Baroness and the noble Earl said that they are referring to many more students who might have been in difficulties.

The withdrawal of vacation hardship allowance has, naturally enough, not been welcomed in the same way, and I hope that these few words today have shown to the satisfaction of this House— though I doubt it now— that our decision was carefully considered and is soundly based. We shall of course keep under review the financial needs of students and the arrangements for meeting them. I hope that the regulations will have a safe passage through the House.

8.55 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for what she said, but I will not pretend to be convinced or other than disappointed. I know that she has not denied the fact that members of this Government on repeated occasions both in this House and in another place said that they would maintain a safety net. They have not kept to that promise and that is very regrettable.

But may I go on to say that the noble Baroness argued that we must look at the situation, so far as vacation hardship allowances are concerned, in the context of the Government's overall policy on student suppont. She made a great deal of the fact that this year there has been an increase in resources or funds available of up to 25 per cent. But that is, as the noble Earl has already said, on the basis of an incredible decline in support for students over the previous 11-year period. I have already mentioned in my speech that the position of students this year will be worse, even with the advent of student loans, than it was in 1979.

I make one other point which relates to access funds. In her reply the Minister made much of the fact that higher education institutions would have discretion and they should judge what is appropriate. Of course, I welcome that and it is desirable that they should have discretion, but they want a little more than discretion. They want adequate funds to make it possible to avoid some students being in real hardship this summer. What the institutions are reporting back is that they have had to spend all the funds available to maintain students because of the abolition of social security and welfare benefits.

I am glad that the Minister said that the system will be monitored and that what happens will be examined. I have absolutely no doubt that the Government will find that there are many students suffering severe hardship this summer. I hope that in the light of that the Government will think again. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, may I intervene before the noble Baroness sits down? She said that I did not deny that reference had been made to keeping and maintaining the grant. I repeat what I said in the course of my speech. The earlier references to the allowance were made simply as a matter of fact because at that time the allowance was available. No commitment was made— indeed, how could it have been made?— to its continued retention.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.