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Clause 19

Volume 978: debated on Wednesday 13 February 1980

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4.10 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 19, line 21 after 'certain', insert 'other'.

With this we may take the following amendments: No. 81, in page 19, line 21, leave out from 'courses' to end of line 17.

No. 82, in Schedule 5, page 41, line 38, at end insert—

'(e) other such courses as the Secretary of State shall prescribe by regulations'.

Amendments Nos. 80 and 81 simply pave the way to the amendment of the schedule by amendment No. 82.

The House should be aware that the system of discretionary grants to students in higher education is chaotic. A farcical situation exists, where students apply to various colleges and are selected on a competitive basis. When some students are awarded a place, they attempt to obtain a grant. Many students fail to get a grant, but often some students who fail to obtain a place manage subsequently to obtain a grant. It often happens that the least attractive students, as far as the colleges are concerned obtain a grant and a place in a college, and sometimes a student who appears to the college to be more worth while fails to get a grant.

The problem that I should like to highlight is one that has been brought to my attention by the British Association of Social Workers and the directors of social service departments, because it concerns the certificate of qualification in social work, where the problem is particularly acute. There are several ways in which people can gain a qualification in social work, some involving a mandatory award and some involving a discretionary award.

I ask the Minister to make a modest provision in the Bill so that if and when money is available he can change a discretionary award to a mandatory award. I should prefer the Minister to make that change immediately, but I suspect that if I were to press him his answer would be "Absolutely, No". However, in simply asking him to make the regulations, I hope that he can do something about it as soon as resources are available. I am asking for a very modest measure, which I hope the Minister can accept.

In Committee the Minister went some way to indicate that he was sympathetic to the problem. I stress that although I emphasised the certificate of qualification in social work I am aware that the problem exists in many other qualifications, particularly for people who have a degree and who then want to obtain a professional qualification. I hope that the Minister can give an assurance that either here or in another place he will accept the amendment.

May I add my support to the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett)? This is not a party matter, but it is a very serious matter for many students who, in the old days, would have automatically qualified for discretionary awards when a reasonable amount of money was available. Now that money available to local authorities is so limited, it is incumbent upon the Minister to take more seriously the national needs when fixing mandatory awards.

The Minister will be aware that the Select Committee is currently studying the matter. One conclusion that I have reached is that the pattern of mandatory awards fixes what happens in our higher education institutions more than anything else. I hope that the Minister—whatever the final outcome of these amendments—will be as helpful as possible. I assure him that it is a real problem for qualified manpower, which the nation needs. It is absurd to waste qualified manpower in this way, simply because the Department has not assembled the machinery to add the social work qualifications, and perhaps others, to those awards which qualify as mandatory.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) about the difficulty of mandatory and discretionary awards. There is a need for a clarifying and strengthening measure.

Similarly, I take the point made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) that where mandatory grants are automatically paid it obviously conditions the courses that are retained and expanded. The whole matter will have to be examined at some stage. I welcome the fact that the Select Committee on education, science and arts is examining the matter. The problem has grown up over the years, and, particularly at a time when local authorities are under pressure due to lack of resources, there is a risk that courses that should exist could be cut back.

The amendment would empower the Secretary of State to designate any course for a mandatory award at whatever level and whether part-lime or full-time, the only condition being that it would be provided as mentioned in subsection (2) (a), at a university, a college or an institution.

Clearly, to designate all such courses would be prohibitively expensive at the present time, but presumably the intention is for my right hon. and learned Friend to be selective in regard to the courses that he chooses to designate. I appreciate that. Nevertheless, the amendment would raise the expectations of many groups. Reference has been made, for example, to social workers, particularly in view of the fact that some courses are mandatory and others are discretionary in regard to the awarding of grants. The training procedure for lawyers is expensive, and there have been a good many letters on that question. We have to consider the Open University students. We have to remember all these matters when we are thinking about mandatory and discretionary awards. The problems of part-time students will also have to be examined.

There is also the question of what is called lifetime or continuing education. This is a non-party matter. The whole question of part-time students and how they are to be financed must be examined. I hope that the Select Committee is looking at this question.

In view of the present need to restrain rather than expand public expenditure, there is not at the moment any possibility of meeting such claims. Our estimate is that it would cost about £8 million to accept the amendment. Some people might suggest that it is a negligible amount. Perhaps so, but such sums, taken together add up in the end to a considerable amount.

We are aware of and concerned about this matter. It is being made more acute because of the problems associated with the resources of local authorities. I am aware that some people accept that at present the resources are not available to enable additional courses to be designated for mandatory awards but who nevertheless—I am sure that the two hon. Members who have spoken come within this category—wish to see a reserve power in the Bill, to be used only when resources can be made available.

I cannot say any more at the moment than I said in Committee. I am aware, as we all are, of the strength of the case on this issue. I listened carefully to the arguments put forward in Committee. I acknowledge, as do other hon. Members, that genuine cases have been put to us. The Government will take due note of the views expressed in Committee and this afternoon. Note will also be taken of the discussion when the Bill is dealt with in another place.

In view of that assurance from the Minister—it was a fairly small one, but it was something—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.