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Student Support

Volume 541: debated on Monday 5 March 2012

3. What steps his Department is taking to support students who suspend their studies due to illness. (97690)

It is important to support students who become seriously ill. Those whose illness or disability causes them to suspend their studies with the agreement of their college may be eligible for disability living allowance, which has a three-month qualifying period. A student in receipt of DLA can also claim employment and support allowance. However, those who are terminally ill are not subject to the qualifying period and can claim DLA and ESA immediately.

My constituent Ian Leech sadly lost his daughter Melissa to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008, while she was a student. It was six months before Mel received any financial support from the Government. I am proud that last year the Government removed an important barrier to seriously ill students receiving support, by ending the rule that said that those who had to suspend their studies would be treated as having received their student loan. However, those students cannot claim ESA unless they qualify for DLA, even though they might be suffering from a disease such as cancer. Will the Minister look again at what more can be done to help students?

I am very much aware of the case that my hon. Friend raises and pay tribute to Mr Leech, who has been a tireless campaigner for change in this area. Employment and support allowance is an income-replacement benefit; therefore, students are eligible only under limited circumstances, because their main source of financial support is the education system. However, I understand my hon. Friend’s point that a three-month qualifying period for DLA means that some long-term sick students might have to serve a waiting period before they become eligible for ESA. I am taking the opportunity presented by the introduction of PIP— the personal independence payment—to reconsider the position, and I can tell him that I am looking closely at it.

A constituent of mine, Mr Ollie Evans, had to interrupt his studies owing to a serious illness. He was unable to claim the various benefits that the Minister has outlined; at the same time, the Student Loans Company was clawing back all types of support that it had given him. Will she commit to working in collaboration with the Minister for Universities and Science to put in place a more flexible system of support for students who have to interrupt their studies?

The hon. Gentleman will already be aware that if students fall ill they are eligible for student finance for up to 60 days—I am sure that he will have advised his constituent of that. I can assure him that as PIP is developed and we consider the issue further, we will be talking to colleagues in other Departments. The important thing is that we have the right support in place for long-term sick and disabled students.