HL Deb 10 May 1982 vol 430 cc111-2WA
Baroness David

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have yet completed their review of the "21-hour rule", given effect by Regulation 7(2) of the Supplementary Benefit (Conditions of Entitlement) Regulation 1981, and whether they will make a statement.

Lord Trefgarne

The Government have been reviewing the terms of the "21-hour rule", against the background of the advice recently promulgated by the Chief Supplementary Benefit Officer to the effect that under the present regulation the time spent in private study and lunch breaks, as well as actual tuition time, should be taken into account in determining whether a course falls within the 21 hour limit.

The question of what elements in a course should count towards the 21 hours under the present regulation should be clarified by the decision of the Social Security Commissioners on an appeal case which is at present under consideration. We have decided that, whatever the decision on that appeal may be, the regulation needs to be recast to reflect more accurately the Government's continuing objective of providing the maximum scope for unemployed people to occupy their time usefully while seeking work, but at the same time excluding from benefit people who have withdrawn from the employment field to devote themselves primarily to study.

We believe it is right to ensure that the regulation should make it clear that, as previously generally understood, the 21 hours should be interpreted as including only hours of actual classroom instruction, and not lunch breaks or private study. This in itself however would make it possible in some cases for, for example, young people staying on at school to take two or three A levels (or their Scottish equivalent) with a view to going on to higher education to be entitled to supplementary benefit. This would not be a proper use of the supplementary benefit scheme.

We have therefore decided to introduce a modified form of the additional qualifying condition which already applies to people over 21, who are at present only eligible for the concession after 12 months' unemployment and in receipt of benefit. This qualifying period will be reduced to three months, and applied equally to people of all ages.

I should stress that during the three months qualifying period—or, indeed, at any time—it is, and will remain, open to any unemployed person, under the general rules governing unemployed people's entitlement to benefit, to undertake a certain amount of part-time study provided he is able to demonstrate that he remains available for work.

It is our intention to introduce these new arrangements with effect from the next academic year. We are sending today draft regulations to the Social Security Advisory Committee, who in turn will be consulting a wide range of interested bodies.

Meanwhile, claims for benefit which have been disallowed in the light of the Chief Supplementary Benefit Officer's recent interpretation of the 21-hour limit will be looked at again when the outcome of the appeal to the Social Security Commissioners is known. If it proves necessary in the light of the decision on the appeal, payments will be considered in these cases to anticipate the effect of the new regulations, except that under these transitional arrangements the requirement for a three-month qualifying period will be waived.

House adjourned at five minutes past ten o'clock.