HL Deb 09 July 2002 vol 637 cc645-9

8.5 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th June be approved [32nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, like the previous measure, these regulations are benign and I hope will be welcomed. As I say, this change is entirely beneficial. These regulations are being introduced as part of our ongoing review of student provision within the income-related benefits and to meet a commitment we made when we introduced the Social Security Amendment (Student) Regulations in June 2000.

At the moment part-time students are eligible to claim social security benefits just like anyone else. But students undertaking a course of full-time study are not able to receive the income-related benefits—income support, jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit. As your Lordships know, this is because support for students comes from the student support system, which is designed for their needs, and not the social security system, which is not.

We made an important change, however, in June 2000. On that occasion we introduced regulations which, among other things, entitled certain full-time students, who had interrupted their course—usually due to illness—with the permission of their educational establishment, to claim jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit as appropriate. The students concerned were those who had had to interrupt their course because they were ill or because they had caring responsibilities, but had recovered from that illness or their caring responsibilities had ceased, and were not able to return to their course immediately.

However, we limited the period during which these students could claim the relevant benefit until the shorter of either their return to the course or the start of the next academic year. This was to ensure that students returned to their studies as soon as practicable. When we introduced these regulations we agreed to keep them under review, and have done so.

The National Union of Students, among others, has drawn to our attention the fact that, by restricting these students from claiming beyond the start of the next academic year, hardship may be caused for some who are prevented by their educational institution from returning until later in that year—perhaps because they are not permitted to return until the anniversary of the point at which they interrupted their studies.

I give an example that I am sure will be familiar to the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Someone may have completed two terms of a three-term preliminary course. He or she then becomes ill. Even when they recover, it is not necessarily appropriate to rejoin the non-preliminary course one term or two terms after it has started. It makes sense for them to rejoin the university at the end of the preliminary course and start the non-preliminary course as a beginner for the full term. At the moment that would not be possible under the regulations. However, as a result of the benign changes that we propose, it would. That is why I hope that your Lordships will welcome them.

We are therefore proposing that, where students are not permitted by the educational institution to return to their course until after the start of the next academic year—it might be two terms after that start—they will be able to claim the relevant income-related benefit until such time as they are permitted to return to their course. However, in order to ensure that they return as soon as possible, the period during which they may claim is limited to one year. I cannot conceive of any circumstances in which it would need to go beyond one year.

As I say, we work closely with colleagues throughout government and elsewhere to ensure that we provide that support in the appropriate way. We believe that the regulations will help those who are recovering from illness and those who have been carers to claim JSA, HB and CTB and that they will not find themselves caught between our regulations and the requirements of the institution. I hope that your Lordships will welcome the concession. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th June be approved [32nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Earl Russell

My Lords, I remember once asking the Minister, as being learned in both points, to act as interpreter between government and educational institutions. I am tempted to think that we see here the first fruits of her acceding to that request.

I entirely welcome what is in these regulations. Although I have a fair amount to say, it is almost entirely about what is not there because the interface between social security support and education support is a very ill-constructed jigsaw—the sort of thing that used to drive me absolutely screaming mad when I was four.

The immediate concession is of course entirely welcome. The fact that one often cannot return until the beginning of the next academic year is very like the fact that one cannot introduce a new parliamentary Bill in August; there is a calendar from which we cannot get away. That arrangement produced a period during which people have been without any support at all. The Social Security Advisory Committee in 2000 enunciated the principle that everybody should be eligible to receive either educational support or social security support. That is a good principle but we are still a fairly long way from achieving it.

The Minister said that she cannot imagine any circumstances in which people might want the provision to extend for more than a year. I can imagine such a situation—I currently have a relevant case before me. The problem is that of intermittent mental illness from which the man made a recovery, relapsed and is now again unfit. That problem exists and will recur.

The NUS welcomes the consultation that the Government have undertaken with it and so do I. I do so in my capacity as a life member of my college's students' union, so I have a special entitlement to do so.

Some, but not very many, people will be worse off as a result of the changes. I refer, for example, to students with disabilities who are in halls of residence. It is also good that courses can be recognised as not always being done in strict multiples of one year. In further education in particular that is welcome.

There is still a problem with postgraduates writing up. The department's concept of education is still based on the notion of the course and assumes that everybody is always engaged in classwork. That is not at all the case with postgraduates who are writing up. The Minister's special skills in communication—she is, if I may say so, doctor utriusque juris; that is, doctor in either law—might enable her to do something rather useful. There is still a problem with lone parents whose entitlement to social security benefit ceases immediately that the child reaches 16. That could, without undue profligacy with Treasury money, be allowed to continue until the parent finishes the course. There are cases of lone parents in the middle of a degree being required to go to work-focused interviews because their youngest child has reached 16. That was not the intention of work-focused interviews and I hope that the arrangement will stop.

There is also a problem about the time when support stops. Social security support stops under the regulations on 1st September but the terms of many colleges do not begin until quite a bit later than that. Local authorities are by no means always prompt in paying grant cheques. A good deal of my time each year is taken up dealing with that problem. There is apt to be a period of three or four weeks during which the person is absolutely without support, and that is not a good thing.

I turn to another point that is worthy of some thought. On average rents, as the NUS has found by survey, and on an average loan of £3,815 a year, £29 a week is left over for everything else. The applicable amount under income support would be £42.70, so there is a shortfall of £13.76. That, for most people, is made good by parents; in fact, it is more than made good by parents. The Government rightly concern themselves with the small proportion of children from poorer families who are going to university arid they should consider those figures. Frankly, I would advise those who cannot get support from their parents not to go to university at present in their own interest. I should advise them to save up money for several years and to go to university as a mature student. If the Government find that universities are not getting a larger intake of working class students, they might, before they try to cast out the mote in universities' eyes, try to cast out the beam in their own eye.

I am afraid that I have asked the Minister to do quite a lot of work. She has done a good deal already and she has done that well. I hope that she will be as successful with the rest.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, the noble Earl and the noble Baroness know more about this matter than I do. I shall detain the House for just a moment or two.

I have one point which I hope the noble Baroness will clarify. As I understand it, the powers relate largely to lone parents and disabled students who become unwell and interrupt their studies. The Minister is shaking her head; in which case, I misunderstood the situation. It is not clear why in the circumstances that are understandably covered by the regulations, those people may be entitled to jobseeker's allowance, when, presumably, they will eventually resume their studies. It would appear to be more appropriate if they had some benefit other than jobseeker's allowance, which presumably relates to only a short period.

Earl Russell

My Lords, what normally happens if people are away from university for six weeks or so is that they cannot come back and they get a temporary job; they seek jobs, and if they seek jobs they should be allowed the jobseeker's allowance.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, in that case, I need not wait for a reply from the Minister.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, that is exactly right. The assumption is that JSA will kick in when the student was well but unable to re-enter university. I shook my head because lone parents can now be eligible for benefits in certain circumstances. In these regulations, we are seeking to ensure that we do not artificially time-limit someone's eligibility for JSA in the situation in which one is past the point of the beginning of the academic year and the educational institution said that the person may not return until later in the year. I gave the example of the prelim course.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, is right: there are still issues involving the need for seamlessness between the support that is offered by my department and that offered by DfES in those circumstances. The noble Earl gave me a shopping list of matters that are not in the regulations, which I need to look at. I shall take that away and come back to him to explain where we are in relation to any of those points and to establish whether I can help. We are dealing for the most part with very small numbers of students in those circumstances. One piece of news that he might find of interest is the fact that any lone parent or any full-time student who, in terms of his or her hours of work, qualifies for WFTC—for a lone parent, that is only 16 hours a week—will be eligible for WFTC. That may be of interest in particular to postgraduates who are writing up, to use the noble Earl's example, where there is some autonomy or flexibility of hours. Anti-social hours in particular may be involved.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I was hoping that the Minister would say that. I thank her very warmly for doing so.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, for lone parents the figure is 16 hours; a single person over 25 would involve the 30-hour rule. None the less, there are opportunities in that regard that have not been available previously, which may help some students in future.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, was right; I will have to take some of these points away. They are not part of the regulations; they are at the interface of our relationship with the DfES. Many of those issues are currently under discussion. If we have any movement on them, I shall be the happiest person to write to the noble Earl. With that, I ask the House to accept the regulations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.