HL Deb 17 November 2003 vol 654 cc1767-9

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why students who become disabled during their period of study are denied access to disability benefits available to students who are disabled at the outset of their studies.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, it is not the case that students who become disabled during their period of study are treated differently from those who are disabled at the outset.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but can she explain the catch-22 situation that arises for some students? For example, a student who gets a bad sports injury and is out of studies for a year, or perhaps a little longer, is not eligible to claim student benefit because he is not studying. Equally, he is not eligible to claim income support; he is still classed as a student because he wishes to return to study. He is not eligible to claim job seeker's allowance because he is not in a position to seek work; nor is he eligible to claim incapacity benefit because he has no contribution record. The student is eligible to claim disability living allowance but, due to the assessment process in such situations, it may take a year before he is assessed. Therefore, there is a real problem about on what the student should live in the mean time.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to say that the source of funding for students who become disabled while at university will change. Certainly, for the first 60 days of their temporary withdrawal from university, they would be eligible for their student support to continue to roll over. For the next 60 to 195 days, they would be eligible for discretionary or hardship funding from local authorities and may be able to tap disability living allowance. After six months, they are eligible for income support and housing benefit if they meet the qualifying means tests.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, would not the situation be improved or rectified if assessment for disabilities was made at the earliest opportunity after disablement occurs?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Yes, my Lords, there is no dispute about that. At present, a student who becomes disabled while at university can qualify for funding from disability living allowance, disabled student allowances and so forth. Perhaps one half of all disabled students are able to benefit from additional funding, which is about £20,000 a year beyond student educational loan support.

The difference between disability and sickness is that there is a longer period of dependency on forms of support, whether financial, physical or personal help. That is why, inevitably, there is—in my view, properly—a period of assessment in order to make that distinction.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as I understand the problem, disabled full-time students can claim income support only if they qualify for disability premium or severe disability premium when they have been incapable of working for 28 weeks, as the noble Baroness said; or—this is odd—they qualify for disabled student allowance because they are deaf. Why are the deaf especially singled out? I repeat, deaf.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Lord has made his point well. Students generally look to the educational system, not the social security system, for financial support while at university. However, in addition, there is a range of financial allowances for disabled students, which include DLA at £100 a week, disabled student allowances that can go up to £15,000 per year, as well as travel funds and additional hardship funds. The point about deafness is that an immediate assessment can be made, particularly if it is a permanent disability.

The problem remains that students meet the same criteria for assessment for disability as all other disabled people. Students are discriminated against neither positively nor negatively, whether before or after university, or within or outside university. All are asked to meet the same rules of eligibility for disability living allowance and income support.

Lord Addington

My Lords, is it true that students who are over the age of 25 who become disabled have no rights to incapacity benefit if they have not paid two full years of National Insurance contributions? That must be very difficult for those late entrants who move straight on from undergraduate to postgraduate studies.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, to be eligible for incapacity benefit, a person must have the appropriate National Insurance credits. When your Lordships discussed these issues a couple of years ago, we decided—encouraged by the noble Lord, Lord Rix—to ensure that people starting university with a long-standing disability would receive youth incapacity benefit rather than the old SDA; that is, if the disability was incurred before the ages of 16 or 18. That was regarded as very helpful for young people.

If someone has never qualified for incapacity benefit by virtue of having no National Insurance credits, he or she would be entitled to income support in the usual way.