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Students (Housing Benefit)

Volume 176: debated on Wednesday 18 July 1990

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. These regulations should be withdrawn because they are technically flawed and defective. It is centred around the allocation of access funds and the moneys will be disbursed under section 100 —[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman is trying to engage my attention and that of the House, and he deserves to be heard.

As I have said, the regulation is centred around the access fund and the moneys will be disbursed under section 100 of the Education Act 1944 and section 73 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1945. No regulations have been produced by the Government under those sections. How can the House reach a decision before it has sight of the regulations which will determine how the access funds are to be distributed?

It may be that the Government do not intend to produce any such regulations. That would be worse still. Either way, it would be an abuse of Parliament for the regulations to be voted through tonight when they are technically flawed and deny the House the information on which to reach a proper decision. Will you, Madam Deputy Speaker, use your good offices with the Minister to see that the regulations are withdrawn until they are properly drafted?

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. In the view of the Chair, the regulations are perfectly in order. That is a matter for debate, and I am sure that the Minister will have something to say about it.

9.56 pm

I beg to move,

That the draft Social Security Benefits (Student Loans and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1990, which were laid before this House on 13th July, be approved.
The contents of the regulations have already been the subject of much debate in the Chamber and in another place. Only last week the House reiterated its support for the Government's policy of withdrawing students' entitlement to housing benefit. However, hon. Members will know that the regulations do not simply remove students' entitlement to housing benefit, income support and unemployment benefit: they define those vulnerable groups of students who will retain entitlement to housing benefit and income support—with one exception, which I shall come to later. They also provide for the treatment of top-up loans and payments from the access funds in the income-related benefits.

The regulations providing for this apply not only to students who retain entitlement to income support and housing benefit but to the partners of students who will continue to have access to benefits as now, including income support, housing benefit, community charge benefit and family credit. The regulations also provide for the new rate of student rent deduction and allowances for the next academic year.

Will the Minister explain how the difficult regulations affecting community charge benefit for Scottish students in their fourth year at universities will apply? This is a difficulty that has been raised with the Department.

The hon. Gentleman might care to raise that matter later in the debate. I want to set out what the regulations are designed to achieve. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to deliver his remarks.

Two weeks ago the Government took what I believe was a helpful—

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Should there not be a Scottish Office Education Minister present for this debate? It may be unreasonable to ask the Minister to be aware of the details of Scottish education, but a Scottish Office Minister should be present.

It is not for the Chair to determine which Minister moves regulations.

Whatever worries the hon. Gentleman may have about Scottish students, I made the point during our debate recently that, in the last academic year—it will almost certainly be the same in the coming academic year—a record number of students in England and Wales applied for places in higher education. The same applies in Scotland. If the difficulties were so great, it is unlikely that we would have such a record both north and south of the border.

Some two weeks ago we took what I hope was the helpful, if unusual, step of placing in the Library proof copies of the Social Security Advisory Committee's report on the draft regulations so that hon. Members could study them and use them in our discussions. The Committee's report was published with the regulations. Hon. Members will therefore have had ample opportunity to examine its findings and will be aware that, far from the Committee denouncing the Government's proposals, as recent press reports may have led us to believe, most of them have been accepted by a majority of its members.

It is fair to say that much support was expressed in last week's debate for the general principle that students should be funded by the education maintenance system and not by social security benefits. That is the crux of our policy, as enshrined in the regulations. It was never intended that students should resort to the benefits system to the extent that they do. As I said last week, that was an unplanned outcome of developments in social security in recent years.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that applications for advanced education show a substantial increase this year, even though students are well aware of the changes proposed? Is he further aware that, for the forthcoming academic year, student support will be increased by about 25 per cent.? That includes the student loan of £420, which is interest-free.

My hon. Friend outlines points which were made strongly in last week's debate and which underline this evening's debate. Were everybody terrified about the prospect of student loans being the main thrust of support for students, I do not believe that record numbers of people would be applying for higher education.

In essence, I said last week—I reinforce it without apology tonight—that the objectives of social security policy are not the same as those for educational maintenance policy. The needs and expenditure patterns of students are not necessarily typical of the population as a whole. They have particular needs and are supported for a particular purpose—further, higher and postgraduate education. Through the education system, they will have access to a range of resources, including grants and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) said, top-up loans. In addition, access funds will be available to assist students who experience financial difficulties.

The details of the access funds for further, undergraduate and postgraduate education have been announced.

I hoped that it was obvious that I meant the details for students who, if the regulations are passed and their social security is withdrawn, will be in hardship—some in dire hardship. They cannot know, because the figures have not been announced for the allocations to institutions or the details of how those institutions will act as mini-local social security departments.

We are still some way away from the beginning of the academic year. The access funds will be distributed to the institutions concerned, but the thrust of the policy for their use is not that they should be unduly prescriptive but that there should be the maximum flexibility, so that those administering them at the institutions concerned can recognise hardship in individual cases and respond through them. That is the thrust of the policy, and it is right that it should be so handled.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the access funds have doubled from some £15 million to £30 million? Does he agree that that substantial sum will go a considerable way to alleviating student hardship?

I very much accept and welcome my hon. Friend's point. As he said, not only have funds been increased, but my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Education and Science have said that they will carefully monitor their adequacy.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is extremely important to monitor the effects on disabled students? I appreciate that my right hon. Friend has gone a long way in that direction, but will he keep a careful eye on the access of disabled students to universities?

My hon. Friend will recognise that, wearing my other hat as the Minister with responsibilities for disabled people, I am particularly concerned about the needs of disabled students. They are recognised in the underlying system, but I am sure that education institutions will take particular care to monitor the effects of the changes on disabled students.

If it is no longer any part of the social security system to support students, why is it any part of an education institution to judge hardship?

In a sense the hon. Gentleman has put his finger exactly on the point. It is much easier for the institutions of higher and further education to assess what amounts to hardship in the student population than it is for the social security system across the country, which is addressing an entirely different client group. That must be absolutely manifest. I said last week, and I underline today, that I believe that it is much better and will be more flexible and sensitive to the needs of students for education institutions rather than the social security system to do that, however much admiration I have for the social security system that I play a modest part in administering.

In the context of the range of resources that I was outlining, the Government are proposing to withdraw students' entitlement to income support, housing benefit and unemployment benefit. As I have argued in the past few minutes as well as last week, the alternative provisions available through the education system will provide adequate resources for students to live on. We accept that some students will have financial needs beyond the level provided by the grant and loan. That is why we have been exploring the role of the access funds in meeting any residual hardship. However, I do not believe that it is necessary for the generality of students to fall back on the social security system.

Can we have just a few facts? When the Minister talks about the generality of students, what figures are available to the Department of Education and Science or to his own Department about the number of students from the lower income groups? There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that great universities such as Edinburgh are not getting the students from relatively low income groups which they would have expected a decade ago. I have no reason to believe that the experience of Edinburgh university is any different from that of a number of other great universities.

Surveys are carried out by the Universities Central Council on Admissions and other bodies into the social backgrounds and income levels of students.

It is clear that young people from low-income backgrounds are under-represented in higher education.

Despite the usual sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), we survey these matters. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Education and Science are concerned that entry into further and higher education represents a broad spectrum of income and social background. That monitoring and surveying will continue. However, I repeat what I have said at least twice already: we have record applications in England, Wales and Scotland that are not confined to those from the higher income groups. I am satisfied with that.

I imagine that a number of those who have intervened will want to make their own speeches. As this is a limited debate, I should hate to talk out the motion.

I imagine that the House will be somewhat relieved to hear that I do not intend to go through each of the regulations in detail, but I should like to describe some of their main features.

Regulations 2 and 3 relate to community charge benefit and family credit respectively. They deal entirely with the way in which top-up loans and payments from the access funds are to be treated in the calculation of these benefits. I should perhaps remind the House that registered students are entitled to a special relief and have to pay only 20 per cent. of the community charge. Subsequently, they are not entitled to claim community charge benefit. These regulations are needed to ensure that these payments are taken into account when claims are made by a non-student partner of a registered student. Similarly, single students cannot normally claim family credit because they cannot satisfy the requirement to be in employment for at least 24 hours a week. The provisions of regulation 3 are required to cover claims from families where one of the partners is a student and the other parent is in work and satisfies the 24–hour condition.

The rules for the treatment of top-up loans and access fund payments similarly apply to housing benefit and income support and are covered by regulations 4(9) and 5(7). Essentially, top-up loans will be apportioned as a weekly amount for the full year. Existing regulations mean that the maximum amount of loan available to the student will be assumed even where the student has chosen to take up a lower amount of loan or no loan at all. However, we also propose that the weekly amounts of loan will attract a disregard of £10, and that means that the vast majority of students will enjoy the full value of their top-up loan in the first year of the new scheme. I believe that that responds positively to the recommendation made by the Social Security Advisory Committee.

However, the disregard will apply only for so long as the recipient remains a student. I hope that the House would agree with that. If a student leaves a course before its conclusion, the actual value of any loan taken out will be taken into account in assessing benefit entitlement for the remainder of the academic year covered by that loan.

Our intention, which we clearly stated in our response to the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee and in our letter consulting the local authority associations, was that the disregard on top-up loan income should be subjected to the overriding disregard of £10 on all unearned income within the income—related benefits. That would mean that a student in receipt of a top-up loan and other income attracting a disregard would only benefit from a total disregard of £10 on the whole of his income.

However, I must confess that the regulations as currently drafted do not achieve that intention. This omission came to light only after the draft regulations were laid before Parliament. We therefore intend to correct the position at the earliest opportunity by including the necessary amendments in the separate regulation to cover the concession on deaf students which I announced last week and which we will be laying before Parliament shortly.

The Minister is asking us to pass the regulations, which presumably have received careful scrutiny by parliamentary draftsmen and by legal opinion. If he is now saying that they are defective—I will suggest further reasons why they are defective and should be withdrawn—should he not take them away and bring them back to the House only when they have been correctly drafted?

It is fairly typical of the hon. Gentleman to go over the top in responding to what is a modest error in the regulations. We will shortly have another opportunity to implement the concession on deaf students. I am sure that it is right that we should make that modest amendment at that time.

The regulations before us tonight also specify that payments for hardship, made from the access funds, are not to be treated in the same way as the grant.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I ask for the opinion of the Chair on the following point: is it proper that the House should be asked to pass a verdict—that is what we are being asked to do tonight—on legislation when we hear from the mouth of the proposer of that legislation from the Dispatch Box that it is apparently defective? This is entirely new. If it is considered defective by the parliamentary draftsmen, is it not an insult to the House to bring it before us?

I attempted to deal with that point of order at the beginning of the debate. It is a matter for debate, not a matter for the Chair. It is the responsibility of the Government, and for the Minister to answer those points in the debate.

We all know that regulations affecting social security matters are complex. However, it was right for me this evening to acknowledge that there had been a small error in the regulations and to explain how, having an early opportunity before us, we intend to correct it.

We need to know when, especially as some Scottish universities and institutions will commence their academic sessions in September.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not present when we debated these matters last week. I made it absolutely clear then that everything would be in place in good time for the new academic year, not just in England and Wales but in Scotland. They will be in place ready for institutions and authorities to be able to make the necessary arrangements. I give the hon. Gentleman that clear undertaking.

I began to explain that payments for hardship made from access funds are not to be treated in the same way as the grant. The payments are discretionary, and it is intended therefore that they be treated in the same way as voluntary payments. That means that regular payments will attract a disregard of £10, and one-off lump sum payments will fall to be treated as capital. In practice, however, we do not expect benefit recipients to be a priority group for the receipt of access fund payments.

The regulations relating to the treatment of income provide for the annual increase in the element of the student grant allowed for books and equipment. The allowance for those items is disregarded in calculating a student's grant income.

Regulation 4 deals with housing benefit. That regulation excludes full-time students from eligibility, on the basis that they are deemed not liable for housing costs. However, the regulations also provide for a partner of a student to be treated as liable for rent. That measure ensures that the partners of students will have access to housing benefit, even when the student is in fact the tenant.

Hon. Members will wish to note that the majority of the Social Security Advisory Committee members have accepted the Government's proposal to remove students' entitlement to housing benefit.

I am sure that, whatever the differences between us, the Minister would not wish to mislead the House. The majority of the committee accepted removal on condition that there was a fall-back right for the Government to give people a grant in the summer if they would otherwise be in distress. The Government have not accepted that condition, so the majority of the committee do not support the Government.

I have considered the committee's recommendations with some care. I do not think that it took account of the availability of access funds when hardship existed or of the ability of local education authorities to give grants to students during the long vacation specifically if they were experiencing hardship.

The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) made was that the Minister was possibly misleading the House. He is now attempting to cover himself by saying what the social security commissioner should have said. He has not told the House what the Social Security Advisory Committee actually said.

The Social Security Advisory Committee is just that—an advisory committee. The Government and Ministers have a responsibility to listen to its advice and to assess it against the reality of the situation and the totality of help that is available to students in the circumstances. That is why the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee and the response by my right hon. Friend have been published with the regulations.

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will have a chance later to make those points, and I shall seek to respond to them. I am not in the least attempting to deceive the House. I am stating the situation as it is and what resources are available to students in response to the situation in which they are removed from entitlement to housing benefit.

Regulation 4(6), as well as excluding students from housing benefit, sets out those categories of students who will retain entitlement. Those categories also apply to income support and include lone parents, disabled students, pensioner students, student couples with dependent children and students under 19 in further education.

We had intended that the definition of a disabled student—for benefit purposes—should be on the basis of those who meet the criteria for the disability premium, together with a transitional provision to ensure that those disabled students who had previously received income support as students on the basis of their disability should remain eligible for income support and housing benefit. That transitional provision will also apply to those who received income support as disabled students while in relevant education up to the age of 19.

Hon. Members will be aware that we now propose to extend the definition of a disabled student to include students who are eligible for the local education authority disabled students allowance by reason of deafness. However, as I implied, it is first necessary to consult the local authority associations on the proposal. It is for that reason that we have decided to introduce this measure by a separate set of regulations which will be laid before Parliament at the earliest opportunity. The regulations will be drafted to embrace students who are excluded from receiving actual payment of the disabled students allowance on grounds of parental means, and also students who fall within the discretionary award arrangements and who receive an award akin to the DSA, by reason of deafness.

Finally, the regulations relating to housing benefit provide for the annual increase in the student rent deduction. This takes account of the uprated element in the student grant for accommodation costs.

Regulation 5 excludes most students from entitlement to income support on the basis that they are not available for work during the period of study. The regulations redefine the period of study to include the long vacations falling within the student's course, but not the long vacation following the student's final year. Similarly, regulation 6, dealing with unemployment benefit, prevents students from being treated as available for work for any day on which they are a student.

The Government believe that students have made a conscious decision to follow a course of study and are not therefore unemployed in the normal sense of the word. Nor can it be said that students following a full-time course are in any sense available for full-time work. Unemployment benefit is intended to provide financial support for people who face the unforeseen contingency of unemployment, not those who have opted out of the full-time labour market. Similarly, income support, other than for those in vulnerable groups not required to be available for work, is intended to assist only those people who are available for, and actively seeking, full-time work.

Currently students are ineligible for these two benefits during term time and the short vacations. We are now making extra resources available through the education system to ensure that students have sufficient alternative support for the long vacation.

Doubtless Opposition Members will remind me that the Social Security Advisory Committee is opposed to the Government's policy on unemployment benefit. It argues that, if the contribution condition is met, unemployment benefit should be paid.—[Interruption.] Well, I shall put what I hope is an equally reasonable response to that argument.

Full-time students do not meet the necessary conditions of entitlement. I do not accept that students are unemployed in the same way as other claimants. Moreover—as I am sure the House will recognise—an adequate contribution record alone has never been sufficient justification for receiving unemployment benefit. There have always been additional conditions to be satisfied. In a previous report, the committee did not adopt its current line on the contributory principle. In 1986, it accepted that unemployment benefit should not be paid to students in the short vacations since educational provision covered those periods. To pay unemployment benefit, the committee accepted, would be to duplicate provision for personal maintenance. The Government believe that this argument remains a compelling one, and thus reject the committee's finding in its current report.

Does the Minister agree that one problem is that the provisions seem to open the way dramatically to changing the position of part-time seasonal workers? It could be argued that, although they are in a different position from students, they have deliberately opted into that way of life. Many people in my constituency have seasonal employment.

This is a debate about students, not seasonal workers. We have made certain adjustments to the way in which seasonal workers are treated for unemployment benefit. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt find other opportunities to raise that subject. However, tonight we are discussing student maintenance and whether they may be maintained through the education maintenance system or through the social security system.

Before I leave this issue, I draw the House's attention to the fact that the majority on the Social Security Advisory Committee accepted the Government's proposal to remove students' underlying entitlement to income support—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Ladywood would like me to give way, I shall of course do so.

By a majority of 8:6, the committee agreed on certain conditions. The Government have not met them, so the committee is not with the Government.

I have spoken about the role of the Social Security Advisory Committee. We do not have to accept every word and condition that it puts forward. The broad thrust of the committee's recommendations was in agreement with what the Government are doing. Anyone who knows about the social security system will recognise that it would not be logical for us to say that students are not entitled to unemployment benefit but are entitled to income support. Broadly the same conditions apply to the receipt of both benefits.

Of course, a safety net is necessary in these circumstances. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is establishing the access funds, about which we had some exchange of views earlier, to assist students in financial difficulties. As I said earlier in response to an intervention, local education authorities have the discretion to award vacation hardship allowances during the long vacations. Those can be worth more than £50 a week to the student. The costs to the education authority are fully reimbursed. In those circumstances, we do not believe that there is a case for retaining a social security safety net. The existence of such an arrangement could only provide an incentive for the access fund administrators and local education authorities to withdraw from their responsibilities. Our policies are clearly set out and they are that students should be maintained by the education maintenance system. We believe that both the access funds and the LEAs are up to the task.

I should like to explain one other provision. Although the regulations are intended to come into force on 1 September, many students will still be on their long vacation at that time. It would obviously not be right tc take benefit away from students before they were in a position to call on the new support arrangements—loans and access funds—which will be open to them. Regulation 7 specifically addresses that point: no students will have their benefit entitlement withdrawn this year until they resume their course of study.

The regulations give effect to the Government's proposals on student entitlement to benefits. The issues that they raise have been debated only recently in this House and at length in another place. I am pleased to present them, and I commend them to the House.

10.26 pm

Madam Deputy Speaker, I raised with you at the outset of the debate the point that the regulations are technically flawed and should be withdrawn. You advised me that that was a matter not for the Chair but for the House. Therefore, I seek the wider agreement of the House that these defective regulations should be withdrawn and brought back only when they have been rectified. They are defective because in large measure they deal with the distribution of the access funds. The Minister spent a fair amount of time talking about the access funds. They are to be distributed under section 100 of the Education Act 1944 and section 73 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1945, yet the regulations under those sections that will govern the distribution of access funds have not been made available.

I repeat my question. How can Parliament reach a proper judgment on the regulations until it has prior knowledge of how they will be carried through? That is exactly the point made earlier in an intervention in the Minister's speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). The Minister simply did not seem to understand the thrust of the question. It is a very serious question, and I hope that the House understands it. The Minister has already been arrogant. He admitted that the drafting of the regulations was defective but did not even apologise for it. He simply said loftily that he would correct the error at some future date.

If the Minister admits that the drafting is defective, and if there is considerably more serious defective drafting such as I suggested, will he consider that the right course is to withdraw the regulations and redraft them so that the House can consider proper regulations? Perhaps the Minister might like to answer that question. I am not asking a rhetorical question, but asking the Minister whether he will do so.

I have no intention of withdrawing the regulations. I shall make the modest amendment when we lay the regulation about deaf students before the House.

I am not merely making a point about deaf students. I am asking how the House can reach a decision about access funds, which are at the centre of this debate, when hon. Members have no idea how they will be distributed to relieve hardship.

There is no question of the regulations being withdrawn. The access funds will be distributed to the institutions from the three different funds, and it will be up to the institutions to administer them flexibly and sympathetically, according to students' needs. It has never been intended that the access funds should be controlled by regulation.

That is exactly what I suspected. It is an important point, which the Minister had not previously admitted. I am glad to have it out of his own mouth.

The statement that the Secretary of State is required to make to the Social Security Advisory Committee says at page 3, paragraph 14:
"Although some central guidance will be given on the administration of the Funds, it is not the Government's intention to fetter the discretion of institutions in determining how the Funds are used."
That is exactly the point—either the guidance is significant, in which case Parliament has a right to prior sight of it before it is asked to pass this legislation, or it is so insignificant as not to fetter the discretion of institutions, in which case Parliament should not pass the regulations if they give such blanket and untrammelled financial powers to the Secretary of State.

It is a serious point because within the past month Parliament has already been admonished by the courts for its carelessness in nodding through—I think the judge's phrase was "Homer nodded", which refers to Parliament, rather than Homer—such vague and open-ended powers to the Secretary of State. That was Mr. Justice Purchas' complaint about the unfettered powers voted to the Secretary of State over the administration of the social fund. However, one month later, we are being asked to do exactly the same again. That is why I ask every hon. Member who cares about the rule of law and having a check on the powers of the Executive—[Laughter.] I know that it causes great mirth to Ministers, but it is a serious matter. If Parliament is to exercise proper control over the Executive, it must reject the regulations until they have been redrafted so that they are genuinely accountable to the House—which at present they are not.

A further absurdity about the regulations, if they are not amended, is that if access funds provided under sections 100 or 73 are to be excluded from income taken into account under the regulations relating to income support or family credit, that requires specific regulations. If the Government do not propose to make such regulations under those sections, which is what the Minister said, access funds will be taken into account and will diminish student benefits. It is wholly unacceptable that Parliament should be asked to pass the regulations tonight when the crassly defective drafting leaves open such perverse consequences.

I make no apology for the time that I have spent talking about whether Parliament should pass the regulations, but I am obliged to speak briefly on the issue of substance. I shall immediately disabuse the Minister of a canard that he continues to peddle—he did so again tonight. The issue is not whether students should continue to be supported in part by the social security system. The Opposition accept, as do the National Union of Students and others, that social security benfits are not the ideal means of student financial support. The issue is whether the proposed alternative form of support is adequate, and in our view it patently is not.

The Government's whole case is that the average benefit received by students is about £315 a year, while the student loan is £420, so the average student will be better off. That argument is flawed on at least three counts. First, the research was undertaken by an organisation called Research Services Limited in May 1987, and is now more than three years old, so the figures are badly out of date. Secondly, it is an average figure, which fails to take account of huge urban and regional variations in cost. Private rents for students vary between £25 a week outside London, £45 a week in greater London and £60 in inner London. The beauty of housing benefit is that it is what the Government are always looking for—a targeted benefit. It alone takes into account these huge variations, while the Minister is deliberately switching to a scheme that does not.

Thirdly—by far the most important point—the figure is simply wrong. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, in its evidence to the Social Security Advisory Committee, said that in the south-east a student stands to lose £560 in housing benefit during the academic year. We may accept some leeway in the precision of that figure. But the Government's figure of £315 is not merely low, it is ridiculous, and it is absurd that the Government base their whole case on that.

The Government say that access funds will be set up to meet hardship. The Minister repeated it tonight. The total of access funds for undergraduates will be only £14 million, which works out at the equivalent of only £27 per student. Such sums clearly cannot even begin to compensate for the shortfall through loss of benefit. That is the key point which the Minister has simply failed to address. It is perfectly clear that a significant number of students will suffer serious hardship if the regulations go through. However much the Minister tried to wriggle when my hon. Friends were pressing him, that is contrary to the strongly stated intentions not merely of a minority of the SSAC, but of the united committee.

Since the Minister was so unwilling to state the view of the whole committee, let me now mention it to the House. The SSAC said:

"We believe unanimously that there must be a safety net which ensures that students are not left destitute".
When my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East raised the issue with the Minister a week ago, he gave this interesting response:
"The committee said that, during the long vacation, some students might be particularly hard hit, and that they should have recourse to a safety net. There is already a safety net —the power for local education authorities to pay hardship payments."—[Official Report, 9 July 1990; Vol. 176, c. 102.]
He said much the same again tonight. Tonight we want to know what guidance will be sent to local education authorities to encourage them to exercise this role and, more importantly, what funding will be made available to local education authorities to meet this hardship, and what guarantee can the Minister now give the House that all students will be catered for. Until he can answer those questions, I submit that his solicitude on this matter is not worth more than a pinch of salt.

Finally, for postgraduates the Government have clearly established a link between the provision of loans and the loss of benefits. On those grounds, we strongly contend that extension of the loss of benefits to those who are not eligible to loans—postgraduates—is outside the scope and intentions of the Education (Student Loans) Act 1990, and there is no other provision or primary legislation on which to base this sweeping disentitlement. That is another clear legislative reason why these regulations should be rejected.

It is not enough for the Minister to say, as he has, that the DES recently announced a £400 increase in postgraduate support. The current studentship awards were set in place in October 1989; no increase is planned until April 1991. With inflation touching 10 per cent., the £400 represents not an increase in resources over the 18 months but a reduction for postgraduates.

These regulations will cause severe hardship for a large number of students. They will remove postgraduates from entitlement to housing benefit, without offering them loans in replacement. They will narrow the whole basis of recruitment to higher education in the next generation, particularly among working-class students—a point that the Minister carefully omitted.

I call on the House to reject the regulations.

10.40 pm

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) began by accusing my right hon. Friend the Minister of arrogance. Front-Bench spokesmen may well occasionally display some intellectual superiority, but no one could accuse my right hon. Friend of arrogance. It would be difficult to find a more courteous, patient or sympathetic Minister.

This debate is similar to the one that we held about a week ago on the Lords amendments to the Social Security Bill. Indeed, I heard the expression "Homer nodded" last week: Homer has been wheeled out again and has nodded again tonight. There is actually a common theme running through last week's and this week's debates: does it make sense to focus student support on one Department or two? It was clear from the Opposition interventions in my right hon. Friend's speech, and from the contribution of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, that there is a strong case for having one Minister in charge of student support. Many interventions in the Minister's speech were about the education system, not about social security. The sooner we can put a stop to debates in which social security Ministers have to answer questions about education issues the better.

Each time the Opposition are confronted by the principle of focusing support on the DES they say that they agree with it; but when confronted with the consequences of that principle they refuse to jump. They always vote to retain the present system. They claim to prefer it because they say that the Government will not be generous to students under the new regime—so they prefer to stay with the regime they know.

Now, if the Government were minded to be mean to students, they could be so perfectly well under the present regime, but under the new one another £100 million will be available for students. Against that background, it is wholly illogical to adopt the attitude that the Opposition have adopted. Yet tonight I suspect that the Opposition will vote against the consequences of a principle that they have readily accepted.

If the Opposition are sincere, instead of harking back to the present system, they should seek reassurances on the sort of issues raised in this debate. Are the access funds adequate? The Government have already shown flexibility on that. They have already shown a willingness to increase the funds when it is argued that they need to be more generous. I have no doubt that if they are confronted with future evidence that the access funds are inadequate, pressure will be brought to bear by both sides of the House to ensure that the new system is flexible, generous and meets the purposes for which it was constructed.

On what principle was the amount of money in the access funds calculated?

I do not know. What I do know is that the amount has been increased in response to representations from educational interests to the effect that they are inadequate.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the access funds have increased from £15 million to £30 million? If the Government are so mean with student support, how come there are 200,000 more students in higher education now than under the last Labour Government?

My hon. Friend provides eloquent force for my argument. The premise on which the Opposition's case is founded—that the Government are minded to be ungenerous to students—does not stand up to the available evidence. If access funds are deemed to be ungenerous, there will be pressure to increase them.

Basically, the regulations continue the disengagement of mainstream students from the social security system, but there is a residual entitlement to benefit if a student has a partner. If a student is a tenant but shares accommodation with a partner, the partner can apply for housing benefit. That is a sensible, but perhaps overgenerous, regime. What assurances can be given that this provision will not be abused by students claiming that their accommodation in a university town is shared by a partner, with the partner getting housing benefit in circumstances that may not have initially been intended by those who drafted the regulations? I am sure that there will be a straightforward response—

—to avoid "abuse", which is a better word, of the system.

The disregards are generous. If a student with a partner receives a loan, the loan does not affect the partner's entitlement to benefit up to the limit of £10, which covers the existing student loan. That is a welcome regime. As my right hon. Friend the Minister explained, regular payments will have a disregard of £10, but one-off lump sum payments will be treated as capital. Where there is a benefit claim, whether the payment is regular or is a one-off lump sum obviously matters. It is advantageous for it to be treated as a one-off lump sum payment. I hope that my right hon. Friend will explain how recipients of benefit will have those payments defined, either as regular payments or as one-off lump sums.

The Opposition are wholly inconsistent tonight, as last week, in conceding the principle but failing to accept the logical and welcome consequence of the principle by supporting the regulations.

10.47 pm

The regulations pose the wrong question in relation to the student population. I shall pay particular regard to Scotland, and I declare an interest in that I am a member of the court of Stirling university. The purpose of the regulations is to reallocate resources between the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Social Security. It is understandable that, in the interests of good housekeeping, the Government want support for students to come within the vote of the Department of Education and Science.

Like other Ministers, the Minister pleads in aid the increased numbers coming forward to receive the "benefits" of higher, or tertiary—a dreadful word—education. That is not the point. I shall speak not for England, Wales and Northern Ireland but for Scotland. To make headway in becoming a leading industrial nation, we cannot possibly be satisfied with the numbers coming forward. That is a basic consideration. Do the regulations and the general thrust of Government policy make it easier or harder for the broad mass of young people from, say, the age of 17 to enhance their educational potential? They will make it harder, although it will be easier for those whose parents have a reasonable income. Such parents will persuade their children to seek a loan because in theory it is a good option, when inflation is allowed for, at zero interest. Parents who practise good housekeeping in their own interests, although it may not be in the interests of the nation, will persuade their offspring to take a loan.

Matters are different for young people from working-class families, which is another term that I dislike although I do not abjure it because I know the class to which I belong. Such young people do not have a cushy background and will look at the figures. We have talked generally about student loans, but many hon. Members spend £50 or more on one dinner and that is more than a student receives to keep himself for a week. [Interruption.] All right, let us say that that is the amount that some hon. Members could spend on two dinners. I cannot speak for people in another place, but my comparison is reasonably fair. The onerous nature of the grant loan provision will deter many students from continuing further education.

A few weeks ago I went to Glasgow with some people whom one might loosely call rectors—to use the old Scottish term—of Scottish universities, to see Mr. Harrison of the Student Loans Company plc. The Minister suggested that we might go to Edinburgh. I hope that all hon. Members know that there is a difference between Glasgow and Edinburgh and that it is not just in relation to football teams. In the Student Loans Company plc the Government are erecting a massive debt collecting agency. Eventually, teams of snoopers will be employed to collect the debts that will arise if students are forced into loans.

Our nation—I am talking about Scotland—has been living on its intellectual capital for the last 20 to 25 years. Fundamental research in our universities is decreasing at a time when it should be increasing. Now universities are to be forced to undertake the onerous task of assessing hardship. There are eight Scottish universities. Will there be eight criteria for hardship? What criteria will Ministers lay down or what guidance will they give to universities? Will those institutions have to think up schemes for themselves? That is no way to administer the public purse.

Will students be willing to saddle themselves with financial difficulties or will they be attracted abroad to carry out postgraduate work or fundamental research? That is the cost-benefit analysis that the nation must make. The thrust of the Government's policy is to tidy up matters between Departments. That may look good in bureaucratic terms, but it is entirely wrong for the long-term cost benefit of the nation.

I am speaking for Scotland. If there were a Scottish Parliament, it would place a high priority on education and it would tell the Scottish people that they had to pay for it. They would recognise their responsibility to attract more people into further education because of the underlying support for it.

I must be careful not to bore the House with my personal background. I left school at 14, but I have been a student all my life. I took my last degree part time at the London School of Economics in 1986. I accepted the challenge that we should not just talk about students, but should actually find out what they are like. I must beware of giving a random sample of one, but when I went to the LSE it was packed not with British, but with foreign students. It was full of Americans. We are forcing our universities to attract students from overseas so that they can pay their way.

The overseas students obviously regard our universities as good value.

I accept that our universities are good value, but they have to bid to a central bureaucracy on the basis of their good housekeeping. That is the quasi-market structure that the Government are trying to introduce.

The thrust of the regulations and their priorities are wrong. The Government are deterring people from working-class backgrounds from going on to higher education, so that their gifts can be used for the benefit of the nation. I am not suggesting that students should live lin the lap of luxury, but onerous burdens are being placed upon them.

I shall give another example from my direct experience at Stirling. There is a proposal to put up the rents for accommodation. We are asking the students—and for reasons that I will not go into now I am resisting this—to enhance the accommodation for disabled students. It involves the paltry sum of £60,000. The university wants to expand, but constraints are being imposed on it albeit by its short historical experience.

To constrain universities and students is to the long-term detriment of the nation. I ask the Government not to be parsimonious and not to think of the well-heeled student or his well-heeled parents. We should be attracting into education those who do not have financial help from their parents.

10.58 pm

I, too, only recently left full-time undergraduate life. I reinforce what has been said about the experience of undergraduates who, in many universities and colleges, are absolutely dependent upon some form of benefit. That is a reflection of, for example, the housing costs in the surrounding areas, and there is little that can be done about that.

The impact of the regulations and the removing of the benefits will be dramatic, at least for some universities and for some students. The Government's action fails to recognise the reality of life, at least for some students. Nor does it address the position of postgraduate students. The Minister's replies on that subject were inadequate.

It is ironic that this debate immediately precedes one on the assisted places scheme. There is a sharp contrast between the Government's attitude to the provision of basic maintenance for ordinary students on difficult courses throughout the country and their willingness to push ahead with pet schemes to support tiny numbers of privileged young people under the assisted places scheme.

The regulations, which will remove students' entitlement to housing benefit and income support, have met with rejection from several bodies. It should hardly suprise the Government that they have been rejected by the National Union of Students or even, these days, by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. The Minister's response to the criticisms of the Social Security Advisory Committee was not only weak but deliberately misinterpreted its observations. It is extraordinary to find the Government using in their support a report that is damning of their actions, as is that of the SSAC.

It is all very well to argue that the committee would have been in favour of the Government's proposals if they were to be implemented in a different way, but the fact remains that the SSAC is against them as they stand. Nothing that the Minister said responded adequately to the SSAC's criticisms.

The Government are failing to make available sufficient alternative finance to meet the students' needs. I am not among those who believe that—

In just a moment, but I have little time.

I do not accept that it is preferable to operate a system whereby all students receive the same amount, but which incorporates a tiny safety net—as is suggested. A scheme tied to the real cost of being a student in certain areas would be advantageous. The Liberal Democrats would move towards a common scheme, whereby the benefits system would be used to meet the differing needs of students throughout the country.

I hope that the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) does not intend to repeat the point that he made earlier.

The alternative finance to which the hon. Gentleman referred already exists in the form of the £420 interest-free student loan. Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that student support in the United Kingdom continues to offer the highest benefits in the western world? If the Government were as cavalier as has been implied, there would not be 200,000 more students in advanced education today than when Labour was in office.

By comparison with other countries, we are not devoting sufficient resources to higher and further education. Nor are we turning out the numbers that we should. The Government are culpable of a paucity of provision that they should be embarrassed to have mentioned in such debates. The theory that the loan scheme will broadly compensate students for the loss of housing and social security benefits ignores the fact that in many parts of the country many of them will be substantially worse off—even if one does not allow for the fact that there are to be no increases in student grant with the introduction of the loan system.

The Government, together with the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, appear to be ignoring graduate students, as they will not be eligible for student loans. It is extraordinary to find the Government introducing a system that will deprive graduate students of a large measure of the support that they currently receive. It is inappropriate that we should be debating this matter. The Government are abusing their powers, but that question will have to be dealt with elsewhere rather than here. One might be forgiven for wondering whether the Government care about the adequacy of the provisions. The increased grants for postgraduate students do not allow sufficiently for inflation. That is quite separate from the loss of benefit.

The Minister has totally failed to answer the Social Security Advisory Committee's criticisms. It pointed out correctly that if a student has made the relevant contribution and meets the usual criteria, there is no obvious reason why his unemployment benefit should be withdrawn. I referred earlier to seasonal workers; there are many of them in my constituency. To reverse the position, if the long break for students were in the winter instead of the summer, they would be in an almost identical position to that of seasonal workers. It would equally be possible to argue that they were deliberately going to an area where they knew that they would be out of work for a time. I hope that the Government are not suggesting that benefit should be withdrawn from them. The reason why those people are eligible for help is that they need help. However, the Minister seems to be completely uninterested in that fact.

The SSAC also said that it believed unanimously that there should be a safety net to ensure that students are not left destitute, and that they should receive income support. The Government say that the access funds provide the answer to that criticism. Unless, however, much more money is provided, I do not believe that the access funds, when compared with the benefit support that is being withdrawn, can be considered in any sense to be adequate. Even after it has been uprated, the amount works out at only £116 for each postgraduate and £27 for each first-degree or other higher education student. However, the average student outside London gets £6·23 a week and a London student £14·38 a week under the present benefit arrangements. This is, therefore, a considerable cut in student support.

The Social Security Advisory Committee also said that it is impossible to judge at this stage whether the amount being put into the access funds is adequate. The Government's commitment to ensuring that the access funds are administered fairly and properly is revealed to be wholly lacking, since no guidelines have been provided to the institutions that administer them. Social Security Ministers are responding to the debate. They know well that under the social security arrangements one treats individuals who are in the same circumstances in the same way. That is one of the most important principles of any support system.

The Government appear to be creating a system under which no student can be sure of his treatment by any institution. He can be virtually certain that an entirely different set of rules would apply in another institution. It is a complete and utter mess that people will be entitled to support not on the basis of what they need but purely on the basis of what the Government have allowed to a particular institution and what it feels on a particular day and at a particular time about that individual. That is a disgraceful way in which to operate a system of support and it is disgraceful that the House is being asked to agree to it.

11.8 pm

The order is the final part of the Government's package in their move from student grants to student loans. We are removing the right of students to claim unemployment benefit—for which they paid—housing benefit and income support. It means that some students' standard of living will be below that laid down in social security legislation.

We have heard that the regulations are defective. The Minister says to us, "I am putting something that is totally defective before you, but we expect you to vote it through and we shall put it right later." That says something about the Government's respect for the House of Commons.

The regulations provide that those who have to pay rent are not deemed to be paying rent and that those who are available and looking for work are deemed not to be available for and looking for work. That is what we are talking about.

The move from student grants and the availability of means-tested benefits for those who need them to student loans is deeply mistaken. It is a backward move. Compared with other countries, Britain is backward educationally. It is no good for Conservative Members to say that the numbers in higher education in Britain are increasing when we are starting from way behind and the number is increasing less rapidly than in other countries. Even South Korea has more of its young people in higher education than Britain. That is an enormous cost to the life opportunities of talented people who are not being given the chance to participate in higher education and is massively damaging to the future of Britain's economy. We are failing to nurture the talent of our people and thus slipping ever backwards relatively in our economic performance.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Robert Jackson)

The hon. Lady is factually incorrect.

I am not factually incorrect.

The Minister for Social Security has perhaps some excuse—he is not an education Minister—for pretending to the House that there is not low participation in higher education among people from low-income backgrounds.

The statistics show that if one comes from a family with a manual background the chances of participating in higher education are very low. I am sure that the Minister knows that.

We are massively wasting the talent of many people from low-income backgrounds—

I have made it clear that I do not intend to give way, but the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) is harassing me. Time is short. He is disrupting the limited remarks that I have time to make and I ask for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I can make them.

As I said, we are wasting the talent of people from low-income backgrounds and this move will make things fundamentally worse.

The Government's excuse for the move is that students should not be supported by the social security system. That is uncontentious across the House. But it is a big fib. If one wants to remove students from the social security system, one gives them grants that leave them above the means-tested standards. The Government are removing their eligibility for means-tested benefits so that some of them will fall to a level of income lower than those who live on means-tested benefits.

The present system is that we have means-tested grants backed by access to unemployment benefit if it has been paid for and housing benefit and income support if they are needed. It is an efficient system in that the money is targeted and goes to those in need. People who are not in need are not eligible for means-tested benefits and those who do well as a result of their higher education and earn a higher income will pay back through the tax system. We are moving to a system that will penalise people on low incomes.

Less than 20 per cent. of students claim income support in the summer vacation. To be eligible for income support they have to be available for and actively seeking work. Under this Government those tests have been made harder and harder. This provision will penalise students who come from areas of the country where there is high unemployment. Only 11·5 per cent. of all students claim housing benefit and 2 per cent. claim housing benefit in the summer. They are the students who do not have another home to go to. Those are the groups that will be penalised by the move that we are making tonight.

It is ideology run mad. The lunacy is that it will be less equitable and efficient and will cost more. Those who already have more will be better off under the new scheme and those with least will be worse off. That is what the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) did not understand. The Government are making available more money but are distributing it in such a way that the poorest will have less than they have now. Those are the facts of this new, ridiculous structure, which will cost more but be less equitable and efficient. The principle of the Thatcher years is that for those who have more, more will be given, but for those who have less, it will be taken away. That is how the regulations will apply to students.

The Government recognise that the regulations will create hardship for students from low-income households and therefore have introduced access funds—they tell us to prevent hardship. The funds will be distributed by the Government to education institutions on the basis of a formula about which we know nothing which will then distribute them to people in need. The Minister tells us that universities and polytechnics know which of their students are in need. That is not true. When a student goes to a university or polytechnic he or she does not fill out forms on income but participates in education. Being aware of the quality of a student's work tells one nothing of his or her income or maintenance means. It is an inefficient way of getting money to those in need. The Minister has not answered the point, but the legality of this move is questionable. Given that he will not answer the point, it is likely to be contested in the courts.

The Minister misled the House—I am surprised that he did so—about the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which was set up to replace the previous committee and to make it more favourable to the Government's social security policy. Officials appointed to it by the Government were split eight to six. The majority said that they were willing to accept the removal of housing benefit, but only on one condition. They were worried that some students would become destitute—their word, not mine—because of the provisions of the scheme. They expressed an overriding concern about that and recommended that the Government should follow the principle that they adopted for 16 and 17–year-olds and that to avoid hardship the Secretary of State for Social Security should have discretion to authorise payment of income support for a limited period during the summer vacation.

The Government refused to accept that recommendation and therefore have the support of no member of that committee. It was wrong of the Minister to call the committee in aid when the Government are not complying with its recommendations.

As the committee said, the effect of the regulations is that destitute students will be running round our cities in the summer. Another badge of the Thatcher years is the many young homeless and destitute people in our cities. In future, highly talented qualified young people who are studying will be destitute in our cities.

The proof that the Government's claim that the purpose of the regulations is to avoid students being dependent on the social security system is a big fib are their provisions for postgraduate students, who will not have access to loans and will be deprived of the right to claim housing benefit. They will simply be worse off. The Government are increasing their grants by less than inflation and taking the extra money from the pool available for postgraduate students. We shall have fewer postgraduates in the future than we have at present.

I am the first member of my family to have had a university education. I received that education because full grants were available. When I was 17 years old and was getting 2s. 6d. pocket money, I would not have contemplated the loan that is envisaged. I now know that I could have paid it back, but at that time I would not have dared. The effect of the regulations is that future generations of people like me will not have access to higher education. That is what the Government are doing tonight.

11.18 pm

The regulations cover several provisions across five separate benefits. I shall seek, in as co-ordinated and orderly a manner as possible, to respond to the points that have been made.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is not it a courtesy that the Minister should ask the permission of the House to speak a second time?

The Minister does not need the leave of the House on this occasion. He moved a motion.

I try to take advice on those matters and I thought for one moment that the hon. Gentleman had caught me out. I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Much of this evening's debate, not least the opening speech by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), has circulated round the issue of the adequacy of and the reasons for the access funds. I want to address that issue at the outset.

In response to an intervention, I said that the regulations do not in any sense relate to the distribution of the access funds. They give effect to withdrawal of benefit entitlement from most full-time students except those in vulnerable groups and the treatment of income of those in vulnerable groups who will retain entitlement. I repeat what I said: there will be no regulations covering the payment of access funds. They will be operated by the Secretary of State for Education and Science under powers in the Education Act 1944.

The point about there being no regulations covering the access funds is that large sums of taxpayers' money will be handed over for the unfettered discretion of education institutions. We have no idea how that money is to be used, how it will be allocated, how many will get it and how much they will get. I submit that it is improper for the Government to ask Parliament to pass legislation as open ended as that. The courts will disagree with such legislation as they have disagreed with previous legislation.

In a sense that is surprising. I seem to remember being urged by the Opposition on more than one occasion to further enhance the resources available to the independent living fund, which provides substantial sums of taxpayers' money to be distributed at the unfettered discretion of the trustees of the fund in order to meet need. Perhaps what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander according to the hon. Member for Oldham, West. Flexibility and funds distributed by people with particular expertise in and sympathy for the needs of individual groups of people in need of help is not a principle against which I would argue. The hon. Member for Oldham, West can pick and choose the issues to which he wants to apply that principle. I believe firmly in it.

Will each institution of higher or further education devise its own criteria? Is that what we are being asked to support? Surely the Minister's colleagues will tell him that that cannot be right and that guidance will be given by the Department of Education and Science.

I shall try to address the various points that have already been raised, and how the access funds should be administered is one of them. I have just made the point that they will be operated under the powers of the Secretary of State for Education and Science under the Education Act 1944.

Allocations have already been made to the funding councils and their allocations to individual colleges will be announced in the next few weeks. There was some criticism that that was all a bit late in the day. The 1989 student number data upon which the allocations will be based will not be available to those in the DES administering the access funds until later this month. The beginning of August is therefore the earliest date by which allocations can be notified to colleges. However, I believe that that still gives them adequate time before the beginning of the next academic year to make their dispositions.

The Scottish colleges of further education to which the regulations apply start in the middle of August.

Even so, they will have a number of weeks at least in which to make their dispositions. In practice, I estimate that it will be some weeks before students come forward and ask for help from the access funds. They will have their loans and top-up grants. The access funds are, as it were, a residual—

Is the Minister aware that the student loans scheme does not apply to Scottish FE colleges?

Of course, I understand that. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was making a general point about further education within Scotland. I believe that the access funds will be better administered by each individual education institution. Institutions will be given guidance, but that guidance will be largely in terms of accounting procedures and how the institutions account for the money that they get from the funding councils. They will be much more finely tuned to the needs of individuals.[Interruption.] I ask the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) to pause for just a moment. I cannot believe that the existence of access funds will not become more well known in institutions of further education.

I anticipate that the National Union of Students, if no other body, will make it well known that access funds are in existence. It will he in the interest of institutions themselves also to make it known that such funds are available. They will get to know the students, and will be much better equipped to meet and assess the needs of individual students than the social security system could possibly be. The funds will be much better focused on students' needs than the generality of social security claimants could ever be. Higher education institutions will be much better informed.

There are some advantages of that system compared with the other system. For example, no student who is living in hall in any university or institution of higher education can claim housing benefit at the moment. However, a student who is in hall might be eligible for help from the access funds if he runs into particular hardship, That will certainly be an advantage of the new system.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science have already said that they intend to monitor carefully the operation of the access funds and to make sure that they are adequate to meet students' needs in the new circumstances. For example, they will reflect different rent levels in different parts of the country. That will be an important flexibility for the funds. They will become well known among students and among those who are responsible for administering them. The institutions will be able to administer them in a much more flexible manner than we possibly could through the social security system.

There is no disincentive, as the hon. Member for Oldham, West alleged, for local education authorities to make hardship payments. They are fully reimbursed by the Department of Education and Science for any payments that they make. There is no disincentive whatever for them to make special hardship payments. The payments are made entirely at the discretion of local education authorities in order to prevent hardship.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) raised several points. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) alleged that students might pretend to cohabit to get housing benefit under the new scheme. It is, of course, up to local authorities to satisfy themselves that the conditions for entitlement to benefit are being met. If both partners are students, they would not be entitled to housing benefit unless they had dependent children, otherwise one partner must not be a student. Although I am sensitive to my hon. Friend's point—we are always conscious of the need to protect public funds—I do not see that that need be a major problem.

My hon. Friend mentioned that he saw the disregards within the present system as very generous. I certainly agree with that—they are generous. They are best targeted on those who need help most. He asked also how we would check whether the payments made from the access funds were regular or lump sum payments. I see no difficulty about that. Already within the income-related benefits system charitable payments can be assessed, whether they are regular or lump sum payments. Exactly the same criteria will apply in the new system of access funds as apply to charitable funds already.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West was critical of the Government because of the percentage of students in higher education, and implied that we are performing less well than other countries. The number of 18–year-olds in higher education has steadily risen since the Government came to office. When they came to office, 11 per cent. of 18–year-olds were going into higher education. By 1990 the figure had risen to 15 per cent. We estimate that, by the end of the decade, the figure will be up to 23 per cent. When we came to office in 1979, we pledged that, by 1990, we would have achieved 1 million students in higher education. We achieved that by 1988, and the figure is still rising. As I have said, this year we have a record number of students in higher education and next year it looks as if the figures will be even better. A lot of distorted statistics have been pushed backwards and forwards across the Floor of the House this evening, but the fact is that this country's percentage of the 18–year-old cohort who graduate is one of the highest in the world—

It is absolutely true, beyond peradventure. The percentage of the 18–year-old cohort who graduate is higher in this country than anywhere else in the world.

That is perfectly true.

I am delighted that the provisions make special arrangements for disabled students. As the Minister for disabled people I have a particular interest in them. The fact that the basic disability allowance for students has been increased from £765 to £1,000 per year and that new allowances have been introduced to help them with the cost of helpers and special equipment—

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business).

The House divided: Ayes 267, Noes 141.

Division No. 306]

[11.31 pm


Alexander, RichardBoswell, Tim
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelBottomley, Peter
Amess, DavidBottomley, Mrs Virginia
Amos, AlanBowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)
Arbuthnot, JamesBowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Bowis, John
Arnold, Sir ThomasBoyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Ashby, DavidBraine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Aspinwall, JackBrandon-Bravo, Martin
Atkinson, DavidBrazier, Julian
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)Bright, Graham
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Baldry, TonyBrown, Michael (Brigg & CI't's)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Browne, John (Winchester)
Batiste, SpencerBruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Bellingham, HenryBuck, Sir Antony
Bendall, VivianBudgen, Nicholas
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Burns, Simon
Bevan, David GilroyBurt, Alistair
Biffen, Rt Hon JohnButcher, John
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir PeterButterfill, John
Bonsor, Sir NicholasCarlisle, John, (Luton N)
Boscawen, Hon RobertCarlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)

Carrington, MatthewJackson, Robert
Carttiss, MichaelJanman, Tim
Cash, WilliamJessel, Toby
Channon, Rt Hon PaulJones, Robert B (Herts W)
Chapman, SydneyKellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Chope, ChristopherKey, Robert
Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Kirkhope, Timothy
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)Knapman, Roger
Colvin, MichaelKnight, Greg (Derby North)
Conway, DerekKnight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)Knowles, Michael
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Lang, Ian
Currie, Mrs EdwinaLawrence, Ivan
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Davis, David (Boothferry)Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Day, StephenLester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Devlin, TimLightbown, David
Dicks, TerryLilley, Peter
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesLloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Dover, DenLloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Dunn, BobLyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Durant, TonyMacGregor, Rt Hon John
Eggar, TimMacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)Maclean, David
Evennett, DavidMcLoughlin, Patrick
Favell, TonyMcNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Fenner, Dame PeggyMajor, Rt Hon John
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)Mans, Keith
Finsberg, Sir GeoffreyMarland, Paul
Fishburn, John DudleyMarlow, Tony
Fookes, Dame JanetMarshall, John (Hendon S)
Forman, NigelMarshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir NormanMates, Michael
Franks, CecilMaude, Hon Francis
Freeman, RogerMawhinney, Dr Brian
French, DouglasMayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Fry, PeterMellor, David
Gale, RogerMeyer, Sir Anthony
Gardiner, GeorgeMiller, Sir Hal
Garel-Jones, TristanMills, Iain
Gill, ChristopherMitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Goodhart, Sir PhilipMitchell, Sir David
Goodson-Wickes, Dr CharlesMoate, Roger
Gorman, Mrs TeresaMoss, Malcolm
Gorst, JohnMoynihan, Hon Colin
Gow, IanNeale, Gerrard
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)Needham, Richard
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Nelson, Anthony
Gregory, ConalNeubert, Michael
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Grist, IanNicholls, Patrick
Ground, PatrickNicholson, David (Taunton)
Grylls, MichaelNorris, Steve
Hague, WilliamOnslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)Page, Richard
Hampson, Dr KeithPaice, James
Hanley, JeremyPatnick, Irvine
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')Patten, Rt Hon John
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Harris, DavidPawsey, James
Hayes, JerryPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hayward, RobertPorter, David (Waveney)
Heathcoat-Amory, DavidPowell, William (Corby)
Hind, KennethRaffan, Keith
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Holt, RichardRathbone, Tim
Hordern, Sir PeterRedwood, John
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Howe, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyRoberts, Sir Wyn (Conwy)
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)Roe, Mrs Marion
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)Rowe, Andrew
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Hunt, David (Wirral W)Ryder, Richard
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)Sayeed, Jonathan
Hunter, AndrewScott, Rt Hon Nicholas
Irvine, MichaelShaw, David (Dover)
Jack, MichaelShaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)

Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')Townend, John (Bridlington)
Shelton, Sir WilliamTownsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)Tracey, Richard
Shersby, MichaelTredinnick, David
Sims, RogerTrotter, Neville
Skeet, Sir TrevorTwinn, Dr Ian
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)Viggers, Peter
Soames, Hon NicholasWakeham, Rt Hon John
Speller, TonyWalden, George
Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)Waller, Gary
Stanbrook, IvorWard, John
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir JohnWardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Steen, AnthonyWarren, Kenneth
Stern, MichaelWatts, John
Stevens, LewisWells, Bowen
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)Wheeler, Sir John
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)Whitney, Ray
Stewart, Rt Hon Ian (Herts N)Widdecombe, Ann
Stradling Thomas, Sir JohnWilkinson, John
Sumberg, DavidWilshire, David
Summerson, HugoWinterton, Mrs Ann
Tapsell, Sir PeterWinterton, Nicholas
Taylor, Ian (Esher)Wolfson, Mark
Taylor, John M (Solihull)Wood, Timothy
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Tebbit, Rt Hon NormanYeo, Tim
Temple-Morris, PeterYoung, Sir George (Acton)
Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Tellers for the Ayes:

Thorne, Neil

Mr. Alastair Goodlad and

Thornton, Malcolm

Mr. Tom Sackville.

Thurnham, Peter


Alton, DavidFields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Anderson, DonaldFlannery, Martin
Armstrong, HilaryFlynn, Paul
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyFoster, Derek
Ashton, JoeFyfe, Maria
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Galloway, George
Beggs, RoyGarrett, John (Norwich South)
Beith, A. J.George, Bruce
Bell, StuartGolding, Mrs Llin
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Bermingham, GeraldHardy, Peter
Blunkett, DavidHeal, Mrs Sylvia
Boyes, RolandHinchliffe, David
Bradley, KeithHogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)Howells, Geraint
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Buckley, George J.Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Caborn, RichardHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Callaghan, JimHughes, Simon (Southwark)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Illsley, Eric
Campbell-Savours, D. N.Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)
Carr, MichaelJones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Clay, BobKennedy, Charles
Clelland, DavidKilfedder, James
Clwyd, Mrs AnnKirkwood, Archy
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Lamond, James
Corbyn, JeremyLeadbitter, Ted
Cousins, JimLewis, Terry
Crowther, StanLivingstone, Ken
Cryer, BobLloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Cunliffe, LawrenceLofthouse, Geoffrey
Dalyell, TamMcAllion, John
Darling, AlistairMcAvoy, Thomas
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)McFall, John
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Dewar, DonaldMcKelvey, William
Dixon, DonMcWilliam, John
Doran, FrankMadden, Max
Douglas, DickMaginnis, Ken
Dunnachie, JimmyMahon, Mrs Alice
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs GwynethMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Eastham, KenMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Evans, John (St Helens N)Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Fatchett, DerekMeacher, Michael

Meale, AlanSmith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Michael, AlunSmith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)Snape, Peter
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)Spearing, Nigel
Morgan, RhodriSteel, Rt Hon Sir David
Morley, ElliotSteinberg, Gerry
Mullin, ChrisStott, Roger
Murphy, PaulStrang, Gavin
Nellist, DaveStraw, Jack
O'Brien, WilliamTaylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Paisley, Rev IanTaylor, Rt Hon J. D. (S'ford)
Patchett, TerryTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Pike, Peter L.Turner, Dennis
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)Walley, Joan
Prescott, JohnWardell, Gareth (Gower)
Primarolo, DawnWatson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Quin, Ms JoyceWelsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Redmond, MartinWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Reid, Dr JohnWigley, Dafydd
Richardson, JoWilliams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Robertson, GeorgeWinnick, David
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Wise, Mrs Audrey
Ross, William (Londonderry E)Worthington, Tony
Ruddock, Joan
Short, Clare

Tellers for the Noes:

Skinner, Dennis

Mr. Frank Haynes and

Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)

Mr. Robert Wareing.

Question accordingly agreed to.


That the draft Social Security Benefits (Student Loans and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1990, which were laid before this House on 13th July, be approved.