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Social Security (Students Responsible for Children or Young Persons) Amendment Regulations 2008

Volume 703: debated on Monday 7 July 2008

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14 May be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these regulations are being introduced for jobseeker’s allowance and income support so that single students with children will be entitled to claim the appropriate benefit during the summer vacation of their course.

Benefit provision is not usually available for full-time students during an advanced course of education because they are funded through educational maintenance channels. It is available during the summer vacation for certain students with children. This includes couples with children, where both members of the couple are full-time students. They can claim jobseeker’s allowance or income support during the summer vacation of their course, provided they meet all other conditions of entitlement for the benefits. There is presently no such provision for single students with children or a dependent young person to claim jobseeker’s allowance during the summer vacation.

Single students with children aged under 16 can claim income support throughout their course of study on the basis of being a lone parent. Once their child reaches the age of 16, they are not classed as a lone parent and cannot claim income support. In contrast, couples who are both full-time students and have a dependent child or young person are entitled to claim income support in specific circumstances during the summer vacation.

By making this change to the jobseeker’s allowance and income support regulations, we will remove disparity of treatment between single and couple students and we will prevent putting the children of single students at risk of child poverty. This change removes the present discriminatory effect of these regulations and is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

I hope noble Lords will support the regulations and agree that the changes are worth while and necessary to ensure that all students with children have the same opportunity to claim jobseeker’s allowance or income support during the summer vacation of their course. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14 May be approved. 20th report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Lord McKenzie of Luton.)

My Lords, I regret that I cannot be quite as quick as the Minister has been in responding to what he has said. None the less, we are again grateful to him for explaining the regulations to us. They add another exception to the jobseeker’s allowance rules as far as students with children and young persons are concerned. From now on, they will also be deemed available for work during vacations and will therefore be able to claim jobseeker’s allowance, even though they may be unavailable for work.

Rather curiously, the regulations also allow the vacationing student with a child or young person to claim income support. I may have got my ideas in a slight muddle, but I should be grateful if the Minister could tell me how this juxtaposition will work. Has the general rule that no two benefits can be claimed for the same reason been broken, or is it just the additional child income support that is claimable? Or is it to be one or the other? During our discussions on the Pensions Bill, the Minister uttered the expression “it isn't fair” more than once. I am afraid that he will say it again in response to my comment that the Government are set to miss their target on the number attending university courses. Rather than half the young adult population attending such courses, new figures from the DIUS tell us that the proportion in higher education has scarcely risen over the past eight years—39.8 per cent of 18 to 30 year-olds were at university eight years ago compared with 39.2 per cent in 1999-2000. At that rate, it will take more than a century to achieve the Government's objective. In any event, thousands are not suitable for such courses, so how was the target arrived at?

I suppose that the regulations will help a little in encouraging some students either to start or continue at university, which cannot be a bad thing. But how many of them does the Minister anticipate taking up jobseeker’s allowance with or without income support? By how much will the 39.8 figure rise? Does the Minister anticipate any of them actually coming into employment during their vacations? The Minister must surely agree that all Jobcentre Plus operational staff and decision-makers must be made aware of the changes made by these regulations. How does he intend to achieve that? Indeed, given that the regulations are an anti-discrimination measure pointed out by an appeals tribunal because student couples with the care of children and young persons already get the advantages now being given to single students in the same position, has the Minister calculated how many student couples under the existing regime have been able to start or continue their studies?

My last thoughts on the regulations, welcome as they will be for some, is that the new deal for young people is not very successful. Frank Field MP even went so far as to describe it as “woeful,” no doubt because half of them end up back on benefit within the year—the so-called revolving door syndrome. The regulations will do nothing to help the situation. Indeed, they will make it slightly worse, so how do the Government intend to correct that depressing fact?

My Lords, from these Benches we welcome this change to the student regulations, which removes the discriminatory element in jobseeker’s allowance and income support available during the summer vacation so that single people who are students with responsibility for a child or young person are not treated differently from student couples in the same circumstances.

I have three questions for the Minister. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said, will all Jobcentre Plus frontline staff be issued with guidance and training to ensure that the change can be made available to students as soon as possible? Secondly, will Jobcentre Plus contact university welfare services to notify them of the change? Thirdly, will the changes be made in time for students to take advantage of them for the upcoming summer vacation?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was fairly wide ranging in his contribution. It went somewhat outside the bounds of the specific and, I hope, welcome regulation that we are dealing with tonight. He asked about duplication of benefits. Most single students will claim income support if they have a child. If they are not able to claim income support, they can now claim jobseeker's allowance provided that they meet all the conditions for the benefit, but it is not a duplication of benefit. They cannot have both.

The noble Lord asked about conditions for claiming jobseeker's allowance. Claimants need to be available for work to claim jobseeker’s allowance during a vacation, which is an important condition. They obviously need to meet the other normal conditions of entitlement. He referred to the new deal for young people. We could debate that endlessly, but if you look at the data you will see that the new deal for young people, together with other labour market policies and economic policies of the Government, have meant that youth long-term unemployment is at an all-time low and has dropped dramatically, so the new deal has worked for young people. It is right that the new deal is refreshed, which is why the focus is now on a flexible new deal which focuses much more individually on the needs and support of the young and not-so young, particularly in matching the skills that they need. But I do not accept the criticism that the new deal for young people has not worked.

The noble Lord asked how many student couples have benefited from the current arrangements.

My Lords, not quite: I asked how many couples had ended up in work, which is a rather different question.

My Lords, again, I do not have the data to hand. I will see what is available from the DWP and write to the noble Lord. In terms of the provisions before us, we believe that the number of students who will be affected by this change is very small. The number of single students receiving a parental grant for the academic year 2006 was 16,200. That figure was used in the Social Security Commissioner's decision. Information from the labour market survey on the number of full-time students with responsibility for a child or young person is under 10,000 and is therefore not reported because it is likely to be unreliable. It is estimated that the numbers for which this change will apply is small at less than 0.1 per cent of all single students with responsibility for a child or young person.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked whether all Jobcentre Plus staff will know what is happening. The answer is yes. They will be provided with information and support. On whether Jobcentre Plus staff will contact university welfare staff, the answer is yes. Student unions are already aware of the change. She asked whether the changes will be available for this summer vacation and the answer, I am pleased to say, is also yes. I hope that that has dealt with the relevant points noble Lords have made. Again, I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.