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Education (Student Support) Regulations

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 7 February 2008

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (John Denham) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I have today laid amended Education (Student Support) Regulations, making changes in the way we support prisoners undertaking full-time higher education courses.

The education of offenders is an integral part of strategies to reduce reoffending. Improving the skills of offenders, helping them to move into jobs, is likely to help break the cycle of reoffending.

Offenders are encouraged to study at all levels, including courses offered by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). We estimate that about 590 prisoners are currently studying on part-time distance learning courses, usually provided by the Open University. A smaller number of students study full-time in higher education. They must satisfy attendance criteria agreed by the HEI and the prison governor by, for example, securing release on temporary licence (“day release”). All prisoners released on temporary licence are subject to regular and rigorous risk assessment by the governor.

Financial support for students attending full-time higher education courses is provided through the Student Loans Company (SLC), in conjunction with relevant local authorities which assess entitlement in accordance with the student support regulations. Support comprises loans for tuition fees and loans and grants for maintenance. Payments for tuition fees are paid by the SLC directly to HEIs.

It has been brought to Ministers’ attention that there is a long-established but unjustifiable provision in the student support regulations that has allowed prisoners on full-time courses in higher education to receive financial support in the form of loans and grants for maintenance.

Payments properly made under the student support regulations will have been in compliance with the law. However, I do not believe that it has ever been the intention of Parliament that prisoners, who are accommodated at public expense, should receive any additional form of financial support for maintenance. Nor do I believe that it is an appropriate use of public money.

Last week, I suspended all student support payments to prisoners with immediate effect. While I am examining this further, I am laying amended Education (Student Support) Regulations today to enable me to prevent any further payments of maintenance support being made. These regulations will come into force on 28 February 2008.

I have taken a number of further immediate steps to ensure that no further successful applications for maintenance support can be made by prisoners.

The Permanent Secretary of my department is today writing to higher education providers, requesting that they immediately inform the SLC when offering a prisoner a full-time place at their institution. With the support of the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the Deputy Director-General of the Prison Service has instructed prison governors to identify all prisoners currently undertaking full-time higher education and to inform any such prisoners that they must not apply for maintenance support. In addition, as soon as the amended regulations come into force, all prison governors will be instructed to inform the SLC if an offender within their establishment is offered a place to study full time in higher education, or is currently a full-time student. These measures will enable the SLC to identify all future applications from prisoners, and assess them in accordance with the amended regulations.

I have also instructed the SLC to continue to identify and review all current and past applications, as well as live cases. We will then provide a complete estimate of the number and cost of payments and our investigations will ensure that all legal requirements were properly complied with.

The decisions of HEIs to accept prisoners as students, and the decision of prison governors to allow their attendance, are taken at local level. The student support regulations do not require an applicant to identify themselves as a prisoner. Nor do regulations provide explicitly for the circumstances of a student who is subsequently subject to a custodial sentence. Individuals may also successfully apply for student support while in prison for courses that they take up on release. In addition, since full-time student support was introduced in 1962, prisoners have not been specifically excluded from these regulations. As a result, there is no central list of offenders studying full-time HE courses. Current estimates of the amount of support received are therefore provisional. We have identified 91 prisoners who have received a total of £250,000 of repayable maintenance loans, and £120,000 in maintenance grants in the 2007 calendar year.

Our preliminary investigations suggest that, since current SLC operational systems were put into place in 1998, approximately 250 prisoners have received up to £250,000 in maintenance grants. Where prisoners have received loans, these will be repayable in the usual way. These cases will be examined on a case-by-case basis.

I am minded to conclude that support for offenders studying in higher education, which remains a proper government objective, should be provided through regulations made specifically for that purpose. In consultation with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, I have asked the Permanent Secretaries of my department and the Ministry of Justice, drawing on the wider resources of the Civil Service, to oversee the SLC’s review of cases, in conjunction with relevant local authorities, officials from my department, the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service, and to make recommendations to me about the management of support for offenders in full-time higher education.

Although this long-established anomaly applies to full-time higher education in England, I have also informed the devolved Administrations, further education providers and the Learning and Skills Council on a precautionary basis, in case there are implications for them.

I will endeavour to make further relevant information available to the House prior to any debate on the revised regulations.