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Student Grants

Volume 884: debated on Monday 13 January 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

9.14 p.m.

The issue I want to discuss tonight could not be a more appropriate one for a debate on the Adjournment. The case is one which bears particularly harshly on individuals and at the same time raises general issues of fundamental importance in our society. I shall first discuss the individual case, and then the matters of principle to which it gives rise.

I have living in my constituency a Mr. and Mrs. Mann who have been married for 15 years and who have a 5-year-old daughter. Cyril Mann is a painter: and perhaps in view of what I shall be saying later I should say a little now about what sort of painter he is. He has a name which is widely known in professional art circles in this capital city which is, as I am sure hon. Members are aware, probably the world's centre for dealing in works of art. He is a hard-working and prolific painter and, most important of all—I have seen some of his work—he is an unquestionably talented painter. So he has both name and reputation, and there is no doubt whatever of the talent which supports that reputation.

Nevertheless, in our society it is only too easy for a creative artist, whether he be a painter, poet or composer, to have an established reputation and still earn scarcely anything at all from his creative work. So it is in the case of Cyril Mann. He works hard. He works all the time. He delivers the goods. But the goods do not—as yet—sell. I hope—indeed, I am sure—that one day his ship will come in.

Mr. Mann is fortunate enough to have a wife who believes in his talent. When they married he was earning some money as a teacher of art, but after their marriage Mrs. Mann urged her husband to give up teaching and devote himself entirely to his creative work. I emphasise that this was done at her request. Paradoxically she herself wanted to teach, but there was not time for her to qualify as a teacher since money was needed immediately to support the family, so she went into a different walk of life. She was very successful, and is now earning a comfortable living for herself and her family.

However, she still felt this unfulfilled desire to be a teacher; and finally, last year, she decided to take the plunge that she had always wanted to take. She and her husband had been married for 15 years. They had paid off the mortgage on their house. The years were going by. She was beginning to see the age of 40 looming ahead, and she thought that it was time for her to qualify as a teacher if she was to follow that qualification with a worthwhile teaching career. Like her husband, Mrs. Mann is a person of unusual energy and industry. Although she left school at the age of 15, she went to evening classes, got two A levels, then two credits at the Open University, and these qualifications exempted her from one of the three years which, as hon. Members know, is the normal period of training at a teacher training college. She applied for a place in a teacher training college and was accepted.

Then she applied for a grant—and it was at this point that the gross anomaly which I want to discuss arose. She discovered that the maximum grant she could be given was £695 a year, this to be made up of the married woman's grant—that is to say, a married student living in her husband's home—of £475 a year, plus a mature student's grant of £220 a year.

If all the family circumstances that I have outlined in detail had been identical but only the sexes had been different—that is to say, if it had been the wife who painted and the husband who wanted to teach—the husband would have been eligible for a grant of £1,335. That is almost twice what Mrs. Mann is eligible for. It would have been made up of the fully basic grant for a student living in London, £665; a grant for his dependent spouse—she gets none—of £315; a grant for their dependent child—which again, because she is a woman, she does not get—of £135; and, as in her case, the mature student's grant of £220, making a total of £1,335.

My first response to these facts, as would have been the first response of most hon. Members, I believe, was to see whether I could find in the regulations a loophole through which it would be legitimate to enable Mrs. Mann to achieve her aim. My first thought was that the husband might be described as being dependent upon her, but the regulations say only that an incapacitated husband who is dependent on his wife will entitle her to the additional grant—and Mr. Mann could in no sense be said to be incapacitated.

I then thought of the possibility of Mr. Mann drawing supplementary benefit. But as a painter he is categorised as self-employed. Moreover, as a painter who has earned little money for several years he has not been buying stamps and, therefore, is not entitled to benefit.

I approached the local education officer in the borough of Waltham Forest, the redoubtable Dr. Stephens, one of the comparatively few local education officers in the country who have a nation-wide reputation. Dr. Stephens confirmed that the position was precisely as I had found it to be. In a letter to me of 30th July he said:
"Mrs. Mann is right: a man would get £1,335, whereas we cannot give her more than £695."
Dr. Stephens made no secret of his own views in the matter. As the local education officer he had no choice but to apply the regulations as they exist, but he does not regard those regulations as justified. Indeed, later in that same letter—I quote this with his permission—Dr. Stephens made the simple statement:
"It certainly is unjust."
I discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and on 29th July I wrote him a letter about it. I received a reply from my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler), then Minister of State though no longer at the Department, in which, to my utter astonishment, I read the phrase:
"No question of sex discrimination in this case."
That is simply astounding, because the facts cannot be denied. It has been admitted by the Department under another hat, and it has been forcefully stated by the local education officer, that a man would get £1,335 and a woman £695, if all other circumstances are the same and only the sexes different. I cannot see how the Department of Education and Science can maintain, or how any Minister can maintain, that there is no question of sex discrimination in this case. I challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), the Under-Secretary of State who is to reply to this debate, to acknowledge that sex discrimination does exist in this case, and to say what the Government propose to do to eliminate it.

In parenthesis I may add that this is not the only example of sex discrimination in the awarding of education grants. An equally odious one springs instantly to mind. If a male student whose grant before his marriage is assessed on the basis of his parents' income gets married, he is then automatically entitled to receive the full grant as a married man. On the other hand, if a female student marries and continues to be a student her grant remains assessed on the basis of her parents' income—not on the basis of her husband's income, be it noted, but on the basis of her parents' income.

It is peculiarly ignominious for many married women to have the grant which they receive determined by their parents' income after they are married. Moreover, in many unhappy family circumstances—as has been said, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—that position can be especially humiliating, and the financial help which should be received by the student is quite commonly not received.

I then finally, to conclude my account of this unhappy battle that I fought on behalf of this constituent, put down a Question for Written Answer and received an entirely stonewalling reply on 29th November. Why the stone-walling? Why the denying of the undeniable by the Department? It seems clear that the Department will do and say almost anything rather than admit that sexual discrimination exists in this case, because it does not see how it can admit that discrimination exists and yet refuse to take action. Action in this matter will cost money, and in the present circumstances of the country anything which is likely to cost money is likely to be resisted by Government Departments—

I have said before in this House in a different context: if a genuine problem exists it is entirely wrong, especially in the present climate of opinion and feeling in our society, to use sexual discrimination as a way of solving it. If a problem exists, only defensible means should be taken to deal with it.

I remind my colleagues in the Government of the first sentence in the Labour Party's election manifesto in the section concerned with women:
"Changes in our society over recent years have emphasised the importance of providing practical equal opportunities for women rather than making polite noises about equality."
The case of students' grants seems to be an outstanding example of the need for the practical application of equality between the sexes. It is only in the case of married students that the inequities apply. The number of students involved is not very great. The sums of money involved in putting the injustice right would not be great. There are these injustices, and I have given examples of two separate kinds which occur in the case of married students. I now ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State what the Government plan to do to remove them.

I realise the practical difficulties of putting into effect the ideal of equality between the sexes. It will not only cost society money. The difficulties extend beyond that. Inequality between men and women is built into the fabric of our society in multitudinous ways. It is built into the fabric of institutions, and into the small print of legislation. The education regulations are an outstanding example of the way in which quite detailed regulations in a specific area embody these inqualities. I realise that they are so closely woven into the warp and woof of our legislation that there will be a lot of fine work involved in picking out the threads. But that is one of the things we are here for. In this case it is not a job which would take up the time of the House. It is a job which our colleagues in Government must be called upon to do.

I come, therefore, to the request that I wish to make to my colleagues in the Government. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State whether he will be willing to have a close look at the education regulations to see how—not if—sexually discriminatory elements can be removed. I am not a parliamentary draftsman, nor a lawyer, but I can imagine one possible way in which they might be removed. In addition to words like "husband", "wife", "male", and "female",—words indicating the sex of the person being referred to, other words like "spouse" and "breadwinner" also occur throughout the legislation. The important thing is that words such as "spouse" and "breadwinner" refer specifically to the rôle of the individual without regard to sex. Students' grants and similar matters should be dealt with by the appropriate authorities—whether national or local—solely with regard to the real life situation of the student concerned, a situation with which the sex as such of the student has nothing to do.

If many people were involved the new regulations would have to be vetted at the local level to see that they were not abused. I have consulted my local education officer as to whether that is practicable, and he assures me that it is. It is a task in which he for one would willingly and happily co-operate. If the number is smaller, the task might even be carried out effectively by the Department. But it is a task that must be carried out, because one of the things this House must do over the coming very few years is to make equality between the sexes a practical reality in our society. The task I have outlined, the request I have made, is a concrete example of how that can be done.

9.31 p.m.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee) for the reasonable way in which he has put to the House a genuine hardship case. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said, and congratulate him on having brought out the circumstances of the case which concerns his constituents. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the subject, which, as is clear from the letters and representations we have received from students, parents and others throughout the country, is causing great concern.

There is no dispute over the facts of the case as my hon. Friend put them, except that when he accused the Department's regulations of containing sex discrimination he said something about the difference between a man student and a woman student who undertook marriage. As I understand it, if a man student's grant is subject to parental contribution a marriage during the course will not affect that contribution. There is no sex discrimination there. Men and women are treated the same. The parental contribution is still required. It is only on that matter that I wanted to correct my hon. Friend, who I know will forgive me for putting the record straight. On all other matters there is no dispute about the facts as he presented them.

A fundamental principle of the student support system is that grant levels should be determined on the basis that, as far as possible, they relate to the students' requirements, income and responsibilities, and reflect the costs incurred in attending a course of study. The House will agree that last year's grant settlement was a step forward. I give the assurance that we intend to go on reviewing the application of the regulations to achieve an equitable and just system.

We want to deter no student. On the contrary, Government policy is to encourage those capable of pursuing courses in higher education to undertake such courses. As my hon. Friend reminded the House, our manifesto committed us to that, and my Department is willingly committed to ending sex discrimination in opportunities offered in the education service. We welcome the mature students, and particularly those who are determined to enter the teaching profession. For a long time they have played a significant part in our schools and we look forward to their continued support.

I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that generalisations about the needs of certain categories of students have to be borne in mind when framing the regulations if the scheme as a whole is to be administratively feasible. Even with some built-in allowance for flexibility, it is not always possible to ensure absolute evenness of treatment in individual circumstances.

Will the Minister admit that the case argued by the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee) is not an isolated matter but a general case? I wish that I could say "We on this side of the House", but I, who have the humility not to stand at the Dispatch Box representing the Opposition, am saying that the argument is being dealt with on the basis that this appears to be an isolated incident and an isolated example.

We have had a great many representations about various aspects of the regulations. I would not say that this is a general case. That does not diminish its importance in any way. I assure the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton that, if they will be patient and allow me to deal with the case, I shall indicate that we intend to review the matter and similar cases—of course, there are other cases—in the light of the assurances which my right hon. Friend gave when we presented the grant settlement.

I wish to explain the background to the regulations. We have found generally that the financial requirements of single men and single women students appear to be much the same. There is no difference in the way they are treated for awards purposes. However, when we come to deal with the family situation we have regard to a basic principle underlying the grants system—namely, that the husband is generally responsible for the maintenance of his wife and family. That principle has applied for a long time.

I am well aware that every Member could give me examples where that principle does not apply, but generally the husband is responsible for the maintenance of his wife and family. That means that we have different rates of grant for husbands and wives living in the marital home unless both are students. Normally only student husbands have the right to claim for dependants. That is no more than a recognition of one of the fundamental principles that has governed our society for a considerable number of years. It is now being questioned by many folk, and we are bearing that in mind.

The grant system is not by any means inflexible. We gave some regard to the need for flexibility when drawing up the regulations. Where a student wife has to live away from home to pursue her studies, she receives the same rate of grant as a man. Where they live together, a student wife can receive the same benefits if her husband is incapacitated and dependent upon her.

I am not pursuing the merits or demerits. I am trying to give the House the background to the regulations. A student wife in the circumstances that I have outlined would receive the same rate of grant on the basis that she would have no choice but to carry the burden of maintaining the family.

In respect of the constituency case which my hon. Friend has properly and forcefully raised tonight after pursuing it forcefully with the Department, the issues are somewhat different. Mr. Mann has pursued a career which carries little financial reward. The burden of family maintenance has clearly fallen upon his wife. That is the choice that the family has taken. It must inevitably have affected their freedom of action in a number of ways. In particular, it makes it difficult for Mrs. Mann, under the present grant arrangements, to fulfil her ambition to qualify as a teacher.

The current regulations do not permit us to recognise Mrs. Mann as the breadwinner and, therefore, I cannot intervene at this stage and award a larger grant. Nevertheless we are considering the representations we have received indicating various anomalies and grievances. In this case, where inability to maintain the family arises from factors other than disability, we will certainly have another look at the regulations. I give the House that assurance.

There is considerable difficulty in defining the precise circumstances to meet all special cases, and I assure the House that these matters will be carefully considered in our on-going review. Cases such as Mrs. Mann's, which may be seen as exceptions to the existing general rules, give rise to very strong feelings. We are in no doubt about that from the representations we have received and from the way in which my hon. Friend has put his case tonight. I give the assurance that we will bear in mind the points he has made when we consider any possible amendments to the rules for the year 1975–76.