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Disabled People: Student Loans

Volume 714: debated on Thursday 5 November 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to investigate the problems caused to disabled students who are not receiving their support through the student loans system.

My Lords, as part of widening participation, the Government give generous financial support to disabled students, and are aware of concerns expressed about delays in providing that support this academic year. These will be investigated in the Student Loans Company’s review of lessons learnt, which has external scrutiny, expertise and challenge. Government-funded arrangements are in place to ensure that universities and colleges can support disabled students if there are delays in their assessments or payments, so no disabled student should be prevented from starting their course.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but is he aware that there is overwhelming evidence from various bodies that students are not getting their support? Exactly who is responsible for breaking the commitments made in numerous Acts, many of which were passed by this Government? Whose head is ultimately on the block here and how many commitments have actually been broken?

My Lords, I think that we should keep this in perspective. More than 855,000 students have been paid by the Student Loans Company this year, more than ever before at this time of the year. We should acknowledge that a significant number of students seem to practise through lastminute.com., in that they do not apply until shortly before the start of term. A very large number have been dealt with, but it is clear that there are lessons to be learnt from this year’s processing cycle. I have asked for a review to ensure that those lessons are learnt and customer service is improved. It is a little premature to talk about such extreme measures as execution and decapitation.

My Lords, will the Minister explain why 250,000 phone calls went unanswered from students worried about not receiving their loans? Of those waiting, how many managed to start their courses?

My Lords, in relation to the phone calls, frankly—or so I have been told—there were not enough phone lines to deal with the situation. There were an unprecedented number of starts this year but, nevertheless, that clearly needs to be remedied. As the noble Baroness knows, there is also an online system, so people are perfectly capable of processing their applications online, and many do. However, as soon as things start to go wrong, phone calls are made. There was a deficiency there that is being investigated and lessons will no doubt be learnt.

My Lords, that is all very well but SKILL, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, of which I am the president—and I declare my interest—has evidence of the Student Loans Company refusing to accept applications by e-mail. SKILL has a fat file of evidence of students receiving no response to their applications for disabled students’ allowance. Access centres have reported that they have no bookings for assessments at what should be their busiest time and medical evidence has been lost, which means that students have to pay for it a second time—and much more besides. All those things increase the likelihood of course deferral and drop-out. When does the Minister expect the Student Loans Company to have in place a disability equality scheme that is fit for purpose?

My Lords, first let me endeavour to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Low, that we have appointed somebody to investigate that. Deian Hopkins, an ex-vice-chancellor, will be investigating and he has already been in contact with SKILL, so I hope that that will be established. On disabled students, again, we should put this in perspective; this is a great success story, inasmuch as we have a huge increase in students generally, but the number of disabled student allowances has increased steadily since 1997-98. There were 10,770 disabled student allowances paid to HE students in England and Wales, and the total DSA expenditure was £13.3 million. I remind the House that those are non-means-tested, non-repayable grants for disabled students, so the contribution that we are making to those students is huge. We have a seen a 146 per cent increase in the number of disabled students enrolled in UK higher education. That is a success story.

My Lords, the Minister is right to say that the scheme has been a success until this year, but is he aware that since the Student Loans Company took it over, which was this year, only 2,500 out of 14,000 applications have so far been processed? As the noble Lord, Lord Low, mentioned, it is a scandal. They had to be sent through by post rather than online; they were sent to Doncaster, but processed in Glasgow. The scanning equipment in Doncaster broke down; they were not sent properly to Glasgow, and many have gone missing. Can he explain why this is so, and why students should have been so disadvantaged as a result?

I do not think that I can explain all of those reasons; that is the whole purpose of the review and the investigation. We do take this seriously, but as for being disadvantaged our main concern is that disabled students are able to start their courses and that there should not be financial barriers. I agree that we will have to deal with the question of the assessment process, and ensure that that is able to take place on time. My information on HE students in receipt of the disabled student allowance was that there are 41,000 of them and a total expenditure of £90 million, so that the average DSA expenditure per student was £2,210. While there is money going through, we need to improve the assessment process and we will be working on that.

If the noble Lord calls this a success story, how does he describe a failure? He has had criticism from all parts of the House. We need an urgent inquiry and an urgent report to this Chamber on exactly what is happening.

I think that I would describe as a failure the higher education policies that we inherited. That would be my description of a failure.

My Lords, what advice is being given to students who just have not been able to access courses, given that there will be an unprecedented number of students applying for courses in the new academic year?

I believe that I have already answered that question. This year, more students than ever before have been dealt with. There are some outstanding loan applications that require to be dealt with but, if you take into account the 855,000 students who have been paid by the Student Loans Company this year, it is more than ever before at this time of the year. We still have some to process and there were mistakes made, which will be investigated.

My Lords, why does the Minister exude such complacency, given that there have been expressions of alarm and despondency from all sides of the House on this issue? He really must indicate to the House that he will make this a number one priority.

I do not think that I have exhibited any complacency. I have merely endeavoured to put the matter in context. We have freely admitted that mistakes were made. We have said that there will be a full investigation and have appointed somebody of significant status to preside over it. We will be dealing with the organisations that represent students with disabilities. There is no complacency. I merely wanted the House to understand that, while mistakes have been made, there is still a great success story in the number of students attending university.

My Lords, in asking the Minister a question I thank him for admitting that mistakes have been made, but also ask him not to say for one minute that, after 12 years of this Government, they were the result of Conservative government policy.

To assure the House that there is a sense of urgency, will the Minister tell us the timetable for the results of this investigation? When are we going to know and when will action be taken?

I make no apologies for my comments on the 12 years of success in ensuring that 40 per cent more students with a disability are receiving a full grant payment and that 2 million more students are entering higher education in England, a rise of more than 20 per cent from 1997. Should the Opposition ever get into power, we will praise them if they can match that.

I will not play the blame game. Does my noble friend recall, as I do, that throughout the 18 years of Conservative Administration there were frequent references to the problems of the 1970s and the difficulties, according to them, associated with the previous Labour Government? Given that we are now only 12 years into this Government, will the Minister continue the policy of blaming the previous Conservative Government where it is justified until 18 years have elapsed—that is, in 2015—and at that point, by all means, review the policy?

My Lords, the time has come for a ministerial rescue on compassionate grounds. Let us forget our party politics for a moment. All that the House is asking for is an assurance that, with thousands of careers on the line, there is real urgency and that a report which will correct the situation is coming forward as soon as possible. That is all we need.

I have given that assurance, but I cannot let it go when the noble Lord says that thousands of careers are on the line. They are not. Disabled students are able to start their courses. We have processed more loans than ever before. However, I give the noble Lord an assurance that we treat this seriously and that there will be timely investigation.

My Lords, the noble Lord is wrong about that. Students are starting their courses, which are dependent upon this assistance that they are not receiving. Will the noble Lord kindly tell us correctly, ignoring the report, what will be done about this and when the Government will correct it for this year?

My Lords, I have no information that disabled students are not able to start their courses. However, if the noble Lord gives me any information, I will ensure that we deal with the situation.