HL Deb 14 June 2004 vol 662 cc608-12

The age of a student may not be included in regulations as an eligibility criterion for access to student loans."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, perhaps it is inevitable but regrettable that issues concerning the later stage of life are considered at a later hour. However, I shall be brief as many of the points were discussed in Committee in some detail. I should like to thank noble Lords for their support.

Having now had the chance to consider more fully what the Minister said in Committee last month, there are still a couple of matters to which I should like to return. That is why I have retabled the proposed new clause.

First, I remain of the view that the Government are rather strangely fixated on the age of 65 as a cut-off point for student loans. Such a cut-off point will be increasingly anachronistic in our changing society. That point was echoed very well in the report on the economics of an ageing population produced by the Economic Affairs Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Peston.

In my view the 25-year write-off provision is sufficient. A student would have to be over 40 before the age 65 cut-off superseded the 25-year write-off period. Can the Minister tell the House what percentage of students complete their courses after the age of 40? Even with our changing demography, it will be many years before it is the norm to retrain or begin education in one's fifties, or even older.

I hope that the Government can at least commit to reconsider the age 65 cut-off point as it lies at the root of the ageism regarding student loans. Such a review would also have to consider the impact of the death of a student before the 25-year repayment period is complete, and should take account of the implications of our rising longevity, as the Cabinet Office report, Winning the Generation Game, highlighted in 2000. That was four years ago. It is now time for action to be taken.

Secondly, with respect, the Minister seems to be burying her head in the sand regarding the impact of the EU directive on equal treatment in employment and training after October 2006. The courts may indeed have found in the Government's favour so far, but it seems a great shame for government to be forced to do something by the courts after 2006 when they could, and should, begin to tackle this now.

In Committee the Minister mentioned costs but without being specific. I understand that it is a question of priorities—it always is for any government. However, can she at least give me an indication of the potential and realistic costs of my proposed new clause?

In conclusion, I hope that my proposed new clause will be a way of getting joined-up government. The DWP is trying to remove barriers to continued employment for older people. The DfES should do likewise in education and training, which would help to make that a reality. I beg to move.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Greengross, as, indeed, I did in Committee. Like the unfair treatment of part-time students and their institutions, this is another issue on which I feel strongly.

As a former mature student when I graduated from LSE in 1985, aged 53, I am acutely aware that I was not far from the cut-off point at which, had I needed it, I would have been ineligible for a loan. Some 20 years later I feel even more strongly that no such cut-off point should exist. We should also not forget that in those days higher education fees were considerably lower than they are today and will be in future.

I shall not repeat the details of points made previously in Committee, but there are three points that I wish to reinforce as to why having a cut-off point is wrong. First, the lifelong, ladder learning approach is increasingly part of our embedded culture and is warmly supported by the Government. If, as a citizen, a student is entitled to take an undergraduate university degree, the age at which that person takes such a degree is immaterial if he has been accepted by his chosen university. Any government grant, loan, or other kind of financial support that goes with the course should be available regardless of when the student wishes to take up that option.

Secondly, we have already heard that age discrimination will be outlawed by 2006, so how do the Government justify what they are doing in the light of that law? I believe that I alerted the Minister a few weeks ago to the existence of the report by the Select Committee on Economic Affairs, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, which was published some seven months ago and has still not been debated on the Floor of this House. It is not just a question of equal opportunities. Our life expectancy increases daily, there are clear signs that a retirement age for the purposes of any pension will have to be moved increasingly upwards and, therefore, the need—not just the wish—to continue in employment will increase. A degree, even at such a later age, might be just the thing to help one gain the new skills that will enable one to start a second or third career or set up a new business.

Thirdly, taking a degree course in one's latter years for the first time, even if it is purely for self-gratification and enjoyment, is an acknowledged way of keeping the brain active and engaged. That point was made earlier from the Benches opposite. The individual would, therefore, be less likely to be an early NHS user or an early entrant to a long-stay hospital or an old people's home.

The Select Committee's report, to which I referred, concluded that the restriction of student loans to people below the age of 54 was blatant discrimination. I should be grateful to hear the Minister's reaction to that.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, we on these Benches support the amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, is correct to say that keeping the mind active helps to keep the body healthy and there is every reason to encourage people to continue their education as long as they wish to. We mouth the concept of lifelong learning and we often talk about how, with an ageing population, all of us shall have to carry on working longer. Yet it is incredible that we are writing into legislation discrimination that by 2006 will be outlawed by European legislation.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships' House is a good example of—something.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, the noble Baroness is the youngest person here.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am getting older by the minute. In Committee, I paid tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, in promoting a culture of lifelong learning, and I emphasised my commitment and that of the Government to that objective. I am happy to repeat that here. I also said that we accepted that there was further dialogue to be had on the subject of age limits, and we shall continue to listen to representations. Whatever the time of day or night when it is debated in your Lordships' House, it is an important issue, and I am mindful of the passion with which noble Lords have spoken.

It is worth saying that the age limits apply only to loans. All students, including those aged 55 and over, are eligible for the full range of non-repayable higher education grants. Of course, elements of the student support package specifically help older students. Notably, under our proposals, eligible students of any age will be eligible for the maintenance grant of £2,700. Therefore, as I said, the only element of financial support that older students cannot receive is loans.

We have discussed—I shall not reiterate them—the issues which come down to a question of financial resources. If the age limit were to be abolished, the cost to public funds would be significant. As I indicated, it is an issue of resources.

I shall not say much more, other than that I recognise that we make difficult choices in our efforts to provide funding to a wide range of people who are in need. We believe that the current limit is set so as to ensure that the great majority of loans are repaid. That, of course, is necessary for the sake of public finances. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, that the costs involved depend on the implications of a change, and those are difficult to quantify.

Having said all that—I have cut my response considerably—I know that my right honourable friend the Minister with responsibility for higher education understands the depth of feeling on this issue and that he is determined to keep an open mind on the possibility of change. He has agreed to the establishment of a joint working group to consider proposals in this area. I cannot guarantee the outcome, but I expect that the process will facilitate at least a shared understanding of the issues and that it will be helpful in underpinning further consideration of these issues. It will look precisely at the issues of cost, and so on, which the noble Baroness indicated needed to be considered in greater detail.

Through your Lordships' House, I shall ask that the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, joins that working group. We also have it in mind to invite representatives from Age Concern, NIACE and other bodies which have a particular concern for older students. I shall be very happy to take any views from your Lordships on future, and further, membership of such a group, and especially from the noble Baronesses, Lady Greengross and Lady Howe.

I shall be happy to discuss with the noble Baroness how the working group will operate with the representation that I have indicated. I am also happy to consider who else might participate in it. On the basis that the working group will be set up, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I wonder whether she can answer the question that I specifically asked about the recommendations contained in the Select Committee report, which has been published but not yet debated.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I indicated, the reason that I am suggesting a working group is that not only can it consider this question but it can also take on board the recommendations put forward. Noble Lords will know that the Government's position has been taken through the Court of Appeal. It has been accepted that, as a financial, and scarce, resource, education loans can be treated in the way that I have indicated. I am mindful of the report of my noble friend Lord Peston. However, I think that, in order to progress on these issues, what I have suggested to the noble Baroness and to my right honourable friend will take us further and will enable us to have the kind of detailed discussions that we clearly need to undertake.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's commitment that her department will undertake further work on this issue in the coming months. I know that NIACE, Age Concern and others, including myself, will be delighted by that commitment and will want to be involved. I thank the noble Baroness and her right honourable friend in the other place for the attention that they have given to this issue. I understand that we need to know the facts before changes are made to the law, and I accept that this is a very welcome step forward, for which I thank the Minister most sincerely. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Triesman moved Amendment No. 55B:

Before Clause 43, insert the following new clause—