HC Deb 14 February 1977 vol 926 cc163-99
Mr. Orme

I beg to move Amendment No. 15, in page 12, line 1, at beginning insert: '() The Secretary of State may by regulations make such modifications of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 as he considers are appropriate with a view to securing that, for the purposes of that Act or of such provisions of it as are prescribed—

  1. (a) the resources of a person under pensionable age who is attending a course of full-time education are treated as including any prescribed contribution notwithstanding that the contribution is not actually made; and
  2. (b) any such contribution and any grant or ward made to such a person by a Minister of the Crown or a prescribed authority in connection with the course is not disregarded;
but nothing in this subsection or in any regulations made in pursuance of this sub-section shall be construed as prejudicing any power conferred on the Supplementary Benefits Commission otherwise than by virtue of this subsection. () Regulations may specify the courses which are courses of full-time education for the purposes of the preceding subsection and the circumstances in which a person is or is not to be treated for those purposes as attending such a course'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment we may discuss Government Amendment No. 16, and No. 18, in page 12, line 9, at end insert: '(2) Nothing in the above subsections or in any regulations made in pursuance of those subsections shall prejudice the position of handicapped students and, notwithstanding the above subsections. regulations shall authorise the payment of benefit in circumstances in which physical sensory or mental disability would be likely to preclude the obtaining of temporary employment during any vacation.'

Mr. Orme

This amendment seeks to reintroduce into the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provision) Bill a clause dealing with students' entitlement to supplementary benefit which the Government introduced on amendment in Standing Committee, where it was lost by the Chairman's casting vote. In reintroducing the clause I should emphasise that it is a completely different provision from that which was debated by this House on 2nd December last. I should also make it clear that the clause deals only with supplementary benefit for students. As my right hon. Friend and I explained during the Second Reading of the Bill, we are proposing to deal with the question of unemployment benefit for students during the short vacations by means of regulations which will be submitted to the National Insurance Advisory Committee.

I remind the House that the original clause proposed that students should lose their eligibility for supplementary benefit during the two short vacations and that a special scheme should be introduced to help those for whom the denial of supplementary benefit would be likely to cause serious hardship. On Second Reading there was a general feeling that, in the present difficult economic circumstances, students should not be disadvantaged by getting in some cases less than their supplementary benefit requirements and that there would be no point in virtually duplicating the Supplementary Benefit Scheme with a new Hardship Scheme in order to achieve that result. I therefore agreed to reconsider the clause, in consultation with my colleagues. This matter was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) during Second Reading. I looked at the principle and discussed it with my colleagues, and it was accepted that we should drop that clause. I moved an amendment to that effect in Standing Committee.

The original Clause 13(1) has accordingly been dropped. However, it is important that I should re-affirm at this point that the Government agree in principle with the views expressed by the Supplementary Benefits Commission in its recent annual report—namely, that supplementary benefit is not an appropriate form of income support for students. But to change the student support system so as to make recourse to supplementary benefit unnecessary in every case would not be possible without unacceptable implications for public expenditure. In these circumstances—and the Commission fully agrees with this—the principle cannot be realised.

The purpose of the amendment is to provide statutory backing for the Commission's long standing practice of taking account of the parental contribution and allowing no disregard on the student award. The Commission takes full account of the parental contribution because provision has already been made under the education legislation for a student support scheme which places responsibility on parents to contribute towards the cost of their children's maintenance while they are in higher education in so far as they have been assessed as able to do so. If the Supplementary Benefits Commission made good any shortfall in the parental contribution it would be acting in contradiction of the student grant scheme and taking on a liability which Parliament has placed elsewhere. This would undermine the whole concept of parental responsibility as reflected in the education legislation.

This is not the place to argue the question of the general student grant and general student support. What has happened is that much of the pressure has come on the Supplementary Benefits Commission because of the problems that many students face. This cannot be resolved by the Supplementary Benefits Commission, which is an independent body under Professor Donnison and which looks sympathetically at these matters. It feels that this matter cannot be resolved by the Supplementary Benefits Commission in the long term, but in the short term we are not making the amendments originally proposed.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill, as amended, stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill may be proceeded with at this day's sitting, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Stoddart.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee), further considered.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

I think that the Minister of State may have answered my question in his last three or four words. Is it right to say that the scheme that he now has on the Notice Paper is still properly described as an interim scheme?

Mr. Orme

The amendment is to put into legislative form what has been the practice of the Supplementary Benefits Commission over a number of years, which has taken into account a certain amount of disregard on the parental contribution. That is the position. I am coming to an explanation that might meet the right hon. Gentleman's point. I shall, of course, give way if he wishes to take the matter further.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Why is it necessary now to put this in legislation if the practice has been going on all along?

Mr. Orme

I shall explain that if my hon. Friend will be patient with me.

During the debate in Committee, reference was made to the survey carried out by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys which suggests that 73 per cent. of students with assessed parental contributions—that is about half the student body—do not get all the money their parents should pay them. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science will be able to deal more fully with this, but I think I should make it clear at this point that the survey took no account of help given in kind, for example, by the provision of free board and lodging, nor of the probability that some of the students would have chosen not to accept the full amount because they were working in vacations and earning good money. In any case the principle remains that the parental contribution is payable under educational legislation and the Commission could not feel justified in making good any shortfall.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission allows no disregard on the students grant because it considers that to ignore any part of the assessed award—whether from local authorities or from parents—would be to provide twice over for the same need.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

Is there not an inconsistency when the Minister of State says that this is not the place to debate parental responsibility for students when, in fact, that is now the argument that he is putting? In other words, it is parental help in kind which allows the Government to get off the hook in proposing this.

Mr. Orme

The hon. Gentleman argued that at great length in Committee, in a verbose speech. He may want to return to the matter later, but he might hear out the argument.

Hitherto, the Commission has applied these policies by making use of its wide discretionary powers—I come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett)—to deal with exceptional circumstances. But its use of these powers in this way has now been challenged in the courts. The Commission's practice was no doubt acceptable when the numbers of students claiming benefit were small, but the dramatic increase in claims in the vacations over recent years makes the exercise of such powers for this purpose less appropriate. If the time came when in the absence of statutory authority the Commission could no longer exercise its discretion in these ways, the additional burden on public funds could amount to some £11 million per annum.

Furthermore, the administrative implications for DHSS offices would be extremely serious. The numbers claiming would increase enormously and the difficulties for the staff of determining whether or not a parental contribution had been made, whether in cash or kind, and placing a value on it would be quite intolerable. In fact, it would be open to widespread abuse. Valuable staff savings would be lost, and, indeed, additional staff resources might well be needed.

There seems to have been some misapprehension as to the effect the amendment would have. I cannot emphasise too strongly that it would make no difference to those students who have been able to get supplementary benefit in their vacations. The sole purpose of the clause is to give statutory backing to the Supplementary Benefits Commission's existing practices. It would make no difference to the terms and conditions under which the students concerned can claim supplementary benefit.

Mr. Cyril Smith

The Minister said that the clause would make no difference to the existing position because of the way that the Commission is now exercising its discretion. Does he agree that the clause takes away from the Commission the discretion that it now has?

Mr. Orme

The Commission has exercised that discretion right across the board. It is interesting that the National Union of Students has not challenged this point. The challenge in the courts has been made by an individual without the support of the NUS as such. The Supplementary Benefits Commission, which takes a very liberal view and has a very good reputation for dealing with this matter, operates the disregard which has generally been accepted for the reasons which I have explained.

Dr. Hampson

I must correct the Minister—

Mr. Orme

No, the hon. Gentleman will not. I shall not give way. Therefore, he must wait his time.

If the students have needs which are not covered by the vacation element in their grant—for example, unavoidable rent commitments—they can claim supplementary benefit in the short vacations. It is worth adding that in the long vacation those who cannot get work can claim supplementary benefit in full beclause there is no vacation element in the grant for this period. I particularly emphasise that disabled students and those students who are lone parents would not be affected. They would continue to get supplementary benefit on the same conditions as at present.

Mr. Gerry Fowler (The Wrekin)

My right hon. Friend was at pains to explain the acute difficulties of the Supplementary Benefits Commission if it had to assess payment in kind as well as in cash during the two short vacations. How is it that those difficulties mysteriously disappear when it comes to the larger sums which are at stake in the long vacation?

Mr. Orme

It is much easier in the long vacation for students to obtain employment. It is pressure in the short vacations which creates the administrative problems to which I have referred. My hon. Friend will give some further details in that regard.

Dr. Hampson


Mr. Orme

I know that the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) is an expert. We shall no doubt hear from him. Meantime, perhaps, I may continue.

During the debate in Committee it was suggested that students should be paid supplementary benefit if they could produce evidence that they had not received the parental contribution. That, I am afraid, is not really a practicable suggestion. It would put an impossible burden on the staff of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. However, if in a particular case a parent was suddenly prevented from paying the contribution during one of the short vacations, the Supplementary Benefits Commission would be able to use its discretionary power to prevent hardship pending the local education authority's reassessment of the award.

I commend the amendment to the House as the best way of ensuring, first, that students whose needs are not fully met by the vacation element in the grant can get supplementary benefit on exactly the same terms as at present and, secondly, that the Supplementary Benefits Commission need no longer rely so heavily on its discretionary powers in dealing with the vast majority of student claims in the short vacations.

Dr. Hampson

I apologise to the Minister for Social Security, but the fact that I rubbed him up the wrong way is symptomatic of the weakness of his case. He responded angrily to a perfectly reasonable and proper point.

I want to come to the point that I intended to make had I been able to intervene while the right hon. Gentleman was speaking. He totally misled the House when he said that the NUS was not supporting the appeal by Mr. Atkinson. The union is looking at the case with inordinate interest, because it is fundamental to the whole structure of the grant system. There is no difference between us. This is the centre of the case that the Minister is putting forward for this amendment.

Mr. Orme

I met the NUS, including the President, Mr. Clarke, last week. The union is watching the case, but it has not sponsored it, nor is it giving any financial support. In fact, until Mr. Atkinson took the case to court the union was not aware of it.

Dr. Hampson

With respect, the Minister is playing with words. When I talked to the NUS and local union officers, they said that they were basically in support of this case. This is fundamental to the whole situation and is precisely what the debate is about.

Mr. Cyril Smith

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, whether or not the union supports this case, it is opposed to this clause and has written to scores of Members, including myself, stating its opposition?

Dr. Hampson

That was the reason for the Opposition voting against this proposal in Committee. It seems proper that as this case is in the courts the legitimacy of the procedure should be tested. The whole nature of student maintenance is getting to a chaotic and lunatic state. This is what the debate is all about.

It was the Minister who brought up all the arguments about parents giving help in kind, which allows the Government to go on perpetuating this mythical sum of money. In other words, one does not help students through the Welfare State because one says that they are getting money which they are not. That is an indefensible position. It might be practical politics if the Government were trying to save money, but that has to be taken in context with every other aspect of student maintenance.

I do not intend to dwell on this matter at the length that I did in Committee. One of my hon. Friends has the Adjournment debate and does not want to be here for half the night. At a time of high inflation, it is becoming difficult for the Government to maintain the real value of the grant, which is being eroded. The last increase was only 18 per cent., when the rate of inafltion was much higher.

This matter has to be considered also in the context of the increase of fees policy and the effect that that has on a whole range of students. It has to be taken in the context of the whole nature of the education policy, which is to encourage certain categories of students to come back into the system—for post-experience courses and vocational training. Many of them are on discretionary awards, now being cut.

There is a whole range of problems about student support, and in Committee we asked the Government to show us some sign of pulling together all the pieces and getting together all the Departments involved, which range from the Department of Education and Science to Industry, to the Minister's Department and to Employment. It was the Minister in the last-named Department who announced in the House the change in the vacation element—the change in the right of students to claim for Christmas and Easter. All the various elements should be brought together.

As I said in Committee, every three years the Department reviews the structure of the grant and in between tops it up or changes the level. This sequel of events began well over a year ago. What has been happening during the past year? In Committee we pleaded with the Government to let us know. What has the Department of Education and Science said since the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) made the commitment to raise £15 million from students? I welcome to our debate the Minister of State, Education and Science. This is the first time in this debate that we have had an Education Minister here, and this debate is confined to the higher education service. 1 hope that when the Minister replies we shall hear about this. I want to know whether the Department is in favour of these changes.

10.15 p.m.

We do not mind whether students are denied the right to claim supplementary or unemployment benefits provided that they are compensated or maintained in some other way. We do not want them to live on the Welfare State, and we do not believe that students want to live off the Welfare State.

It is time—indeed it is long overdue—for a fundamental overhaul of the whole system of student maintenance. Since the Government began with social security proposals they have had well over a year to think about this. We pleaded with them to come back at this stage with something to say about it. We have had nothing. The Minister stuck slavishly to his brief and got more and more nettled as he went on. He reiterated word for word the various points he made in Committee. There was no fresh thinking on this matter.

The Minister said in Committee: In the long vacation we do not intend to take away any benefit—in fact, students will be entitled to slightly more in the summer vacation,… the benefits to which students may be entitled are enhanced during the long vacation."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 25th January, 1977; c. 358.] He went on to say that the savings were now £8 million. Will the £8 million come from the change in regulations? Will it be because of the extra being paid in the vacations, or is it also because the transfer from the unemployment account would have fallen on to the supplementary benefit—

Mr. Orme

The hon. Gentleman is getting two issues mixed. The amendment makes no public expenditure saving If it were not carried it would add £11 million to public expenditure in a full year. The regulation that we are talking about regarding unemployment benefit has first of all to be submitted to the National Insurance Advisory Committee and then brought to the House. That is completely separate. The amendment is not about saving but is about maintaining the status quo which is operated by Professor Donnison and the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

Dr. Hampson

That overlooks the murky history of this clause. When the Government found that they had got into total confusion about the situation they decided to change it. The Government have admitted time and again that there was to be a transfer from unemployment pay to supplementary benefit. That will cost a lot of money. In addition, because of the change that the DHSS made in February, there will be more claims on the supplementary benefit account.

I asked in Committee, and I ask again, whether the National Union of Students' campaign, and other general factors such as the difficulty of getting jobs for students, will result in the Department spending more. What are the estimates as to the level of claims and what are the costs involved?

The Government are now saying that we have a convention which the Supplementary Benefits Commission is to legalise. The Minister said that the activities of the Supplementary Benefits Commission were appropriate to deal with those exceptional circumstances. Apparently because of the increased numbers of students now claiming, this is no longer appropriate. The Government accepted the principle so long as the numbers were small. Because of the situation these days, with the costs facing the student community, the whole inflationary question and various other disincentives —particularly for older people with families—such as hire purchase and mortgages, there will be increased claims. If there is a need and it is legitimate to pay needy cases in the first instance, why stop because there is an increase in numbers?

Mr. Orme

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to confuse the House. The student grant has been brought to the level of the supplementary allowance in the short vacation. What we are saying is that any student who, over and above that, gets his supplementary benefit allowance if he is a married man, or if he has certain obligations, will be able to work in the long vacation and get qualifications, which I understand the hon. Gentleman wants to encourage. There will be no difficulty in that respect.

Dr. Hampson

That is the point I am trying to make—that all of this jiggery-pokery, this fiddling with notional amounts, ignores the fact that the Government have acknowledged the inadequacy of the present formal educational support system. The right hon. Gentleman is saying that he does not expect the present grant system to support students in vacations. He is saying that they will either get a job, which is unlikely at present, or they will be entitled to claim on his Department, and that will be—

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)

The hon. Member is completely confusing different threads in the argument, and it is a great pity, because there may be a valid case to be made. Can he not see that the question of the re-arrangement of the vacation element so that it falls entirely on the short and not the long vacation is a perfectly sensible thing to do so as to save administrative trouble in DHSS offices? Can he not accept that and go on to make any other points he may have which are valid? Let us hear the gist of his argument.

Dr. Hampson

If the hon. Lady has read the speech I made in Committee she will know that I have given the reason put forward by the Department. It was to do with unclogging the system. I accept that. I am trying to show Labour Members that they are focusing on a narrow front when the whole question concerns the problem of student maintenance generally.

Mrs. Wise

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that in Committee he objected to students getting extra supplementary benefit during the long vacation—presumably because he did not understand the re-arrangement—and suggested that students who could get work preferred to stay at home—thus paving the way to people calling students scroungers?

Dr. Hampson

I thought that the hon. Lady was more perceptive than that remark suggests. That was a total distortion of the record. The vehemence with which she has made her comments is, presumably, no reflection on what I assume to be her general capacity to understand these matters. I made it perfectly clear that I was not advocating what she suggests. I was saying that the Government were building in incentives for people to claim supplementary benefits. Does the Minister deny that? They have built in positive incentives for students to live on the State. I agree that students are an easy target for the charge of scrounging. The public do not understand that the vast majority of students are not entitled to claim supplementary benefit and thereby live on the State during Christmas and Easter. This applies only to certain special categories.

All I am trying to do is to highlight the inadequacies of the whole student maintenance system and argue that this is not the way to make a change. I would much prefer that this subject be left to the discretion of local authorities. The Government are not keen to remove discretion from local authorities on other subjects. If the courts go against this and decide that this linked situation in which 73 per cent. of students are not getting the full contribution and about 35 per cent. are not being paid about £100 by their parents, is an inadequate system., that should force the Government to re-appraise matters and produce a different system. They have had a lot of time to think about this. Why have they gone ahead and taken the easy way out? The easy way is to ignore the anomalies and abuses in the system, the hardship which is apparent in the student community, and simply reinforce that inadequate system. I should like it all to be thought through afresh But we have had no sign of contribution, no sign of new thinking, and no sign even of consultation with the Department of Education and Science. I hope that the Minister from the Department of Education and Science will enlighten us a little tonight.

Mr. Orme

Has the hon. Gentleman finished yet?

Dr. Hampson

I had almost finished, though there are several other points to be made. [Interruption.] The Minister is in a strange mood tonight. As I said before, I think that the reason is that his case is weak, and I hope that some of his hon. Friends will follow me in highlighting how weak his case is.

We are arguing that at this stage, until the court case is decided, it is inappropriate, inadequate and unnecessary for the Government to take these measures. On the last occasion when the matter was discussed, the junior Minister referred to the possible outcome of the court case—this is col. 404 of the Official Report in Committee—saying that one "must consider possibilities here". Indeed, so one must, here and now in the context of this Bill. Why not see what the court's decision is? For my part, I should not mind if it went the other way. I do not want to spend more money, but it would then be on the Government's shoulders to readjust the whole system so that we had a fairer system for encouraging students to take up education at the higher level.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

I have no sympathy whatever with the political stance of the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson). He rightly recognises that the root of the difficulty in this clause lies in the parental contribution system. He appears to suggest that he or his party would change that system. Listening to the hon. Gentleman, one would never guess that the report which was the basis of the present student grant system, the report of the Anderson Committee in 1962, was initiated and implemented under a Conservative Government. One would never guess that in the period from 1970 to 1974 all proposals for the eradication or transformation of the parental contribution system were resolutely resisted by Conservative Ministers.

I have, in contrast, a great deal of sympathy with my right hon. Friend. I hope that he will forgive me if tonight I say "I told you so". I am rather relieved that he saw fit to withdraw the original clause, and I am relieved not least because, in a previous incarnation, I repeatedly said to colleagues "You may wish to put that forward, but you will never get it through the House of Commons". I was right, and certain other people were wrong. That gives me considerable pleasure.

I recognise my right hon. Friend's acute difficulty here. I shall not now refer at length to the Atkinson case, because it is still before the courts, but, as my right hon. Friend has rightly said, it is the doubt about the ruling of the courts which puts the Supplementary Benefits Commission in an extremely difficult position.

Mr. Orme

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said and for the manner in which he is saying what he has in mind. His experience is well known to the House. I must tell him, however, that the Government changed their mind, on my recommendation and that of my hon. Friend, not on the basis that we could not get it through the House—we could have got it through the House—but because we felt that the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) and others, including, not least, those put by my hon. Friend himself, were correct.

Mr. Fowler

I do not think that we are basically dissenting. I used the phrase "You will not get it through the House", and I think that hon. Members on both sides will be familiar with what I mean. It does not necessarily mean that the Government cannot command a majority if they put the Whips on. It means, if they are a rational Government, that they recognise that they have lost the argument and that it would be unwise to push their luck.

As I was saying, it is the Atkinson case and the doubt about the legality of the ruling which has always been given by the Supplementary Benefits Commission which makes my right hon. Friend's amendment necessary. One must have every sympathy for the Supplementary Benefits Commission within the present grant structure, while there is the parental contribution system. It would be difficult for it to assess need. Repeatedly it would not know whether the action of the student and his parents was collusive, or whether the claim was genuine. Indeed, there would be a temptation to collusion, to "cheating and scrounging", as Conservative Members have described it, which some weaker members of the community might find irresistible—though I hope that they would resist it. We would not want to encourage cheating and scrounging—least of all Conservative Members. I therefore assume that they will be supporting the amendment.

10.30 p.m.

Nevertheless, the basic difficulty remains, that if we decree that people shall be treated as adults for all other purposes at the age of 18, there is bound to be an anomaly when we also decree that for this one purpose they are dependent on their parents. My right hon. Friend in a sense recognised this when he said that the parental contribution was "payable" under education legislation. In a Finance Act, the word "payable" means that something is bound to be paid and that there are sanctions against those who fail to pay. In this context, however, it means that the son's or daughter's income is docked whether or not the parents pay.

It is sad that, because of the doubt about the law in a particular case, my right hon. Friend has had to bring forward an amendment which all of us on this side will regret. It withdraws the safety net provision of the Welfare State from one group. What disturbs me, and no doubt many of my hon. Friends, is that once that net is withdrawn from one group there may be a temptation for a subsequent Government, not necessarily of the same political persuasion, to withdraw it from others. The principle has been breached, and it is sad that it has had to be breached in this way.

Dr. Hampson

Does the hon. Gentleman now feel that it is time to reappraise the whole system of student support? Has he not argued in the past that there is ambiguity in combining an attempt to give greater educational opportunities to people of all classes and backgrounds with what he once described as the element of "prize-giving" in the notional £50 which is there even for those who are not deserving? Does this not show that the philosophy of the system is not clear and should be re-examined?

Mr. Fowler

I am always flattered by the accuracy and detail with which the hon. Gentleman remembers my former pronouncements. It must be a mark of my former wisdom—whether or not I still manifest it.

I was going on to say that I hope that the Government will learn from this experience and will fundamentally reexamine the grant structure. Various ideas are worth considering. A standard one, which I have put forward many times myself, is that the grant should be paid in full and the parental contributions recouped through the tax system. Every time that suggestion is made the Inland Revenue objects. I sometimes think that one could start a blank piece of paper with the note "Inland Revenue objects" and then think of one's proposal, because its objections are all too frequent. There are real difficulties about it, and not simply the objections of the Inland Revenue. The parental contribution scale does not match with any precision the scale used in the deduction of income tax. It would be necessary, therefore, to revise the parental contribution system substantially if we were to operate in that way.

But there are other ideas worthy of examination. One could reduce the age of independence, which might have the effect of inducing students to take work before they take higher education and then receive a full grant. Similarly, one could reduce the qualifying period for a full grant by the time spent in full-time work. That would have the same effect. I hope that the Government will be attracted by both notions, for the simple reason that by encouraging students to undertake work before undertaking full-time study we might help bridge the gap between education and industry, to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister drew attention in his speech at Ruskin College some time ago.

There are possible solutions, or half-solutions. I hope that the Government will examine them with care. In the meantime I support my right hon. Friend, but with regret because of the breach of the principle. I simultaneously warn him that when he or others of my colleagues on the Front Bench breach another principle, the contributory principle in unemployment benefit, with the order to which he referred there are those on the Labour Banches on whose support he may not be able to rely.

Mr. Cyril Smith

One of the things that I find nauseating about this place is the number of long speeches we must listen to from hon. Members, on both sides of the House, in which they explain why this or that should happen but go on to say why they will vote in the opposite direction to that in which their speeches take them. I shall be consistent in my opposition to the amendment. I opposed the principle as contained in the Bill on Second Reading, and I moved an amendment on the matter in Committee. I tabled an amendment to this amendment, and I regret very much that the Chair could not allow a separate vote on it, for procedural reasons that I fully accept and understand. I believe that there would be much more support in the House than in the Committee for my amendment, which was to delete: notwithstanding that the contribution is not actually made"— that is, the parental contribution. It seems to be that that is now the crux of the argument.

As we cannot vote on my amendment, I shall have no alternative but to vote against Amendment No. 15, although if it is carried I very much hope that Amendment No. 18 will be carried as well. I gather that the official Opposition will not vote against the Government amendment. It does not surprise me unduly that the official Opposition are not voting against the amendment or the clause. They made clear on Second Reading that they were not the friends of the students in this matter, that they did not take the students' view. They made clear then that they virtually supported the Government's proposals. What surprises me about the Opposition's decision tonight is that in Committee they voted against the very amendment that the Government have now proposed. I do not understand their lack of consistency, but no doubt it will be explained in due course.

I am disappointed that the Government intend to press on with the amendment, because in my view it is grossly unfair to students. So that it is clearly on the record, particularly in view of the Minister of State's earlier statement, I would make it absolutely clear that the NUS is opposed to the amendment. Indeed, I have a letter in which it states: We would urge you to oppose the Government if it resubmits this amendment for reconsideration to the House". The letter is signed by Mr. Charles Clarke, President of the NUS, to whom the Minister referred earlier. The Minister smiles. I am not sure for what purpose. Perhaps it is a poor thing for me to pray him in aid but not the Minister's senior colleague who chose to pray him in aid earlier.

The amendment seeks to take away from the Supplementary Benefits Commission the discretionary power that it now has; that is to say, its discretion to regard or disregard parental contributions made to students in assessing entitlement to benefit or the amount of benefit to be paid. It is perfectly reasonable for the Minister of State to argue, as he did, that the Supplementary Benefits Commission has exercised that discretion in a particular way as envisaged in the amendment. I accept that as a statement of fact. But what matters is that in future that discretion will be taken away.

Therefore, even if the Supplementary Benefits Commission in future chose to exercise its discretion the other way in a particular case it would no longer be able to exercise it in any case whatever because we are taking away that discretion.

Let us assume that the case now before the courts were to go against the Government's point of view. By having passed this piece of legislation we shall be making sure that, whatever the courts say about the existing law, we can reply "we ain't allowing that to happen again in future". That is what this is all about. It is to make sure that in future parental contributions to students are taken into account whether or not the student has received that parental contribution.

Mr. George Cunningham

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the Supplementary Benefits Commission would want to exercise its discretion favourably in one case and unfavourably in another case? He is suggesting that that is a desirable thing and that we are removing it. The Supplementary Benefits Commission has never operated on an inconsistent individual basis, nor would it think it right—nor would we—that it should do so.

Mr. Smith

My view is that that could happen in particular cases. I shall try to explain why. I said in Committee—I intended to make this point later—that if the Government were to introduce an amendment that placed the onus of proof on the student I would have considerable sympathy with that amendment, But they have chosen to ignore that suggestion by the amendment they have re-submitted this evening.

Let us assume that a student can prove conclusively to the Supplementary Benefits Commission that he had not received parental support. Despite that fact, the Supplementary Benefits Commission will be required to assume that he had received it for the purpose of assessing benefit if the amendment is carried. What I am arguing is that if the student can prove that he had not received it it would not be improper for the Commission to exercise its discretion in favour of that student.

Mr. Orme

That is the point. The Supplementary Benefits Commission has taken the decision it has because it is fair to all students. There would be collusion and administrative chaos if the amendment were defeated tonight. It is basically to protect the Supplementary Benefits Commission, and its operation, as much as anything else that the Government are moving this amendment.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Smith

With respect, I am saying that there are cases where students can prove conclusively that, although they have been assessed as having to receive parental contribution, such contribution has not been received. In Committee I referred to two cases which came to me as Chairman of the Rochdale Education Committee. In one case, with the headmaster of the girl concerned, I had to plead with her father to fill in the form so that she could get a grant. He filled it in, but we knew that we could not get him, no matter what the amount he was assessed to pay, to make his contribution. He had no intention of paying it and no one would drive him to do so. That is a statement of fact. There were two such cases.

Mr. George Cunningham

Then why did not the hon. Gentleman table an amendment to change the law so that parents were obliged to make parental contribution? That surely is the logical answer to the problem.

Mr. Smith

I bow to the hon. Gentleman's experience because I respect his ability, but I suspect that such an amendment would not be in order on this Bill and that it would be a matter more for an education Bill. I must admit that I had not considered such an amendment, but my conclusion is that it would have been out of order on a social security Bill.

I admit that Amendment No. 15 is a vast improvement on what the Government originally proposed. But what I object to strongly is the bit which says that even if the parent did not contribute, although he had been assessed to pay a contribution, that contribution will be taken into account in assessing the benefit. I submit that that is grossly unfair.

A man and wife with one child on an income of £54 a week are expected to make a parental contribution to the child at university and are assessed for the purpose. But, with inflation and the cost of living, that figure of £54 is very low. The level affects many workers and not only those for whom the Government would not have much feeling. It affects manual workers, skilled workers, engineers and miners—people who earn their living with their hands as well as those who earn it with their brains. The clause affects children in all classes of our society. It does not only affect children of the better-off classes.

Equally, it affects younger people because of the very stringent regulations which apply to students before they can be assessed as being of independent means—and even then one has to be 25 years old. The Department of Education and Science says that it accepts that more than 70 per cent. of students do not receive from their parents the amount of money which the student assessment says that they should receive. It is no use the Minister wriggling on this matter and saying that the statistics do not take account of payments in kind, or talking about students who decline to accept contributions, and so on. If 70 per cent. is an exaggeration—and I am prepared to accept that it may be high—it does not alter the fact that a large number of students are not receiving parental contributions at such a level

I believe that there are working-class people who are unable to make the contribution for which the Department believes they are liable, because those parents cannot afford to do so. Therefore, some of us argued in Committee that we should have Education Ministers present so that we could consider a reshaping of the assessments to enable parents to make a lower contribution or to earn higher incomes before they were caught for contribution. However, the Department of Health and Social Security seems to ignore that argument.

Dr. Hampson

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, as a matter of educational priority, an extra figure of £11 million should be spent in getting rid of the present contribution?

Mr. Smith

I should like to see the country move towards a system in which young people of 18, who are considered for any other purpose to be adults—for example, they can vote at 18 or go into the Forces at that age—would be treated as adults for assessment purposes in respect of grants. I accept that for economic reasons we cannot move overnight to a situation in which parental contributions are abolished. but there is much to be said for a gradual movement.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman is fond of speaking in favour of gradual movements that cost a great deal of money. He has already voted for extra expenditure of £138 million in a gradual movement in respect of the earnings rule. Will that matter have a higher priority than the parental contribution?

Mr. Smith

What that intervention demonstrates is that there is a great deal of difference between the economic policies of the Tory and Liberal Parties. [Interruption.] Although we believe in the reduction of wasteful expenditure, we do not go along with reducing public expenditure merely for its own sake. We are concerned with the abolition of waste. If we were to banish waste, we would have much more money available.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to point out to his tormentors that it was during a Conservative Government in 1960 that the Anderson Committee recommended the total abolition of the parental contribution and that, although the Conservatives told us that we had never had it so good, they did very little about the situation.

Mr. Smith

Yes, certainly. An hon. Member opposite made that point earlier and it is relevant.

It is scandalous and dangerous to legislate in matters of social security payment not on the basis of the payments being paid in relation one income but on the basis of what one's income ought to be if only one had the income that someone else had said one was entitled to receive. That is what the amendment does. It says that whether or not a student has received from his parent that sum that a third person says he ought to have received, that sum must be deducted from any benefit to which he ought to be entitled. That was not the purpose of the National Insurance Acts. The purpose of those Acts was to ensure that nobody should fall below a certain standard of income or living. The amendment says that nobody's income should fall below a particular level whether the basis of arriving at that level has been achieved or not.

I said earlier, in reply to an intervention, that I would have accepted that the onus of proof should be on the student. That would be fair and reasonable. But as the amendment stands it should not be acceptable to the House. It is grossly unfair to students.

I want to deal with the suggestion that has been made tonight that if the rule referring to parental contributions is excluded it will lead to parents conniving to ensure that benefits will be payable to their sons and daughters. That is grossly insulting to thousands of parents in this country. It is saying to parents that they cannot be trusted and that they are potential liars. I reject that argument and the basis of that argument.

The Government amendment would have been acceptable if the words that I have suggested should be removed had been deleted, but because we are unable to force a vote on that point I shall vote against the amendment. Students are entitled to a fair deal, and if the amendment is carried they will not get a fair deal but a grossly unfair one. They will be treated in a way that will not be equitable to any other recipient of benefit under the National Insurance Acts of this country.

Mrs. Wise

Many of us on this side are pleased that the Government withdrew their original proposal that would have debarred students from receiving supplementary benefits during the short vacations. I am personally particularly grateful for the references made by the Minister to the force of the arguments which I and my hon. Friends put forward. It is gratifying to see that the Government can occasionally respond to the force of argument, and I am sure that the Minister can understand my pleasure.

However, I am also sure that the Minister does not expect us to forgo our right and duty to give an equally rigorous examination to any other proposals that the Government seek to bring before us. I am sure that he expects us to look carefully at all the arguments regarding this and any other new clause.

11.0 p.m.

It is unfair and a pity that my right hon. Friend's Department is carrying the burden of this discussion, because it is not really about his Department. It is about the Department of Education and Science, and the scheme introduced by the Conservatives. I am not surprised that hon. Members opposite are apparently going to maintain a reasonably gracious silence in this debate since it would ill become those who constantly call for reductions in public expenditure to challenge the principle of parental contributions.

Dr. Hampson

The Opposition have stated repeatedly that we do not approve of the anomalies in the grant system. This is a matter of policy. When the resources are available, we shall change the system. That is why we have asked the Government to tell us their thinking on the subject.

Mrs. Wise

The trouble with the hon. Gentleman's intervention is that this is not a matter of anomalies. The parental contribution is wrong in principle. It is wrong that adults should be regarded as dependent on their parents and wrong that they should be means-tested on the basis of incomes to which they have no legal claim. We who resist calls for cuts in public expenditure have the right to take part in the debate on this important point of principle. The Opposition do not have that right. They exposed their ignorance and their underlying feelings when they suggested that giving students the right to full supplementary benefit during the summer vacation was building into the system an incentive to stay at home. The fact that the right was given as a quid pro quo for students losing full benefit during short vacations apparently escaped hon. Members opposite.

There is a great danger in people being means-tested on income to which they have no legal claim, and I urge the Minister, and trade unionists, to consider the situation which would arise if that principle were applied to all young people. Many young people who are unemployed have never had the chance to build up a record of contributions, but they can claim supplementary benefits in their own right. If the principle of parental contribution to their upkeep were accepted, we should be back in the days of the 1920s and 1930s and the assessment of family income. As long as the principle is in existence, it is a danger not just to students but to all young people.

As I said, it is a pity that the DHSS is taking the burden of this debate. Its part in the affair is comparatively small. I am more concerned at the possible nonpayment of parental contribution during term times than during vacations because terms last longer. Whatever we do on this clause we shall not remedy the position of students during term time.

While the parental contribution system exists, I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that the practical difficulties facing this Department may be insuperable when trying to decide whether, in most cases at least, a student is in receipt of a parental contribution. That will put the Department's officers in an invidious position.

But some cases are clearer. What will be the situation in a case where the parent dies or becomes ill?

Mr. Orme

Exceptional cases such as where a parent dies can be dealt with because other circumstances are brought into play. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) was dealing with the principle of the grant, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State will reply to that part of her argument.

Mrs. Wise

I appreciate that reply, but I wish to challenge my right hon. Friend further. The amendment states that the resources of full-time students: are treated as including any prescribed contribution notwithstanding that the contribution is not actually made". There is nothing in the amendment which says "except in exceptional circumstances" or "except in cases of death or illness". The amendment appears to be categoric.

Mr. Orme

I can assure my hon. Friend that these circumstances are covered. If possible, technical details to explain the situation will be given tonight. If not, I shall write to her.

Mrs. Wise

I thank my right hon. Friend. But will be understand that I must press this matter because we are dealing with what is on the paper and it is important that it is crystal clear. How far does discretion go? Does it cover the death, illness or unemployment of parents? On what basis will discretion be operated? Nothing is on paper, and I have a predilection for actually seeing things in black and white. I am not looking for difficulties but I wish to be reassured.

Mr. Orme

I now have a form of words which might help my hon. Friend. I was sure of my case before. The words are: "The discretionary powers of the Secretary of State are not affected to deal with exceptional cases".

Mrs. Wise

I again thank my right hon. Friend. It has been worth pressing to receive that reply. My many friends in the National Union of Students will take note of that reassurance. I am afraid we are stuck with the amendment. I regret that, but hon. Members on this side of the House can listen to arguments and I am afraid that we cannot solve the prob- lems brought by the parental means test by merely objecting to this clause.

The question of unemployment benefit regulations on students has been introduced repeatedly into the debate, although rather mysteriously, on Second Reading, in Committee and tonight. I am very much of the view, having given the matter the customary rigorous examination to which I referred earlier, that many Labour Members will be quite unable, when those regulations come before us, to accept a principle that anyone who actually has a contribution record which entitles him to unemployment benefit should be denied that unemployment benefit. Therefore, I trust that my right hon. Friend will not seek to assume from the somewhat conciliatory tone of my remarks tonight that this conciliation extends further than this amendment. However, once again I thank him for the withdrawal of the previous very objectionable clause.

Dr. Glyn

The hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) has succeeded in extracting from the Minister one very important point—that he has a residual power of discretion. That is not at all clear from the drafting of the amendment.

I take issue with the Minister on one point. At the beginning of his speech he said that this had nothing to do with parental contribution. It must have something to do with that, because the whole thing is to cover parental contributions. A child who reaches the age of 18 can vote and do almost everything, except conveyancing, but yet the parents have a responsibility. Where I quarrel with the Minister is on the point that this is not the right place to deal with this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) was quite correct. The proper way of tackling this matter is through education channels and not social services.

It is curious—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that Clause 12 is the only clause which refers to supplementary benefits. Every other clause refers to social security. I wonder whether the Title of the Bill ought to be altered to "Social Security and Supplementary Benefits Bill", because they come under different Acts.

Be that as it may, this is not the right place for this provision to be put in. It must be being put in simply for the convenience of the Government. Anything could have been slipped in here. We could have had all sorts of clauses. It could have been said that nothing should be available to strikers. All sorts of things could have been put in. This is quite the wrong place to make an amendment of this type.

Whatever may be the arguments about parental contribution, I hope that in the future the whole of university education and futher education can be dealt with by one Department only. That would be in the interests of both students and the administration.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Gordon Oakes)

I vey much welcome the opportunity to intervene in the debate, and to do so fully in support of the amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security. I know that in Committee criticism was expressed that no Minister from the Department of Education and Science was present. Alas, Department of Education and Science Ministers are not responsible for choosing the composition of the Committee. Being a law-abiding citizen, I, and my Department, chose to intervene on the Floor of the House on Report. It would have been entirely wrong of me imperiously to go into a Committee, the composition of which had been decided by Mr. Speaker and his staff, attempting to give that Committee a Department of Education and Science view, which ought to have been well known to experienced Opposition Members. However, the opportunity is now here. I take this opportunity to repeat fully my support of the amendment.

Let us look briefly back at the purposes of the Bill and at its Second Reading in a paragraph. What we were concerned to do in the Bill, among other things, was to look at public expenditure. That is something of concern to the whole House—not only Labour Members but Opposition Members, I presume, because Opposition Members talk of almost nothing else but public expenditure, especially on the social services. We were concerned to look at ways in which we could possibly save public expenditure without doing harm or damage.

11.15 P.m.

The original Clause 13 dealt with students and their rights to supplementary benefit in the Christmas and Easter vacations, not the long vacation, because, in fairness, it is a matter of doubt whether they are truly available for work in the normal sense.

We considered that matter when the Bill came before the House on Second Reading. My right hon. Friend listened to what was said both in the House and in Committee, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) and others, and to voices outside. As a result the Government felt that it was unfair to deal with students in the way proposed originally. I should have thought that hon. Members on both sides of the House would say "What a good, democratic Government, because they listen to what is said and they try to implement what they hear".

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security was rightly praised by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith)—we are from the same part of the world—because he does indeed understand students. My right hon. Friend understands not only working-class students but all students, because one of the finest universities in the country is, if not in his constituency, at least in the metropolitan district. My right hon. Friend listened not only to the students but to the voices raised both inside and outside the House, and as a result produced this amendment, the effect of which is "We restore the status quo and enshrine it in legislation in case of any difficulties which may result to the detriment of students." That is what the hon. Member for Rochdale missed.

Mr. Cyril Smith

The hon. Gentleman does not know what he is talking about.

Mr. Oakes

The hon. Gentleman comments that I do not know what I am talking about.

Dr. Hampson rose

Mr. Oakes

I shall not give way. We enshrine it in legislation so that the discretionary power of the Supplementary Benefits Commission is preserved by statute.

Mrs. Wise rose

Mr. Oakes

I am sorry. I shall not give way. I want to intervene only briefly. I shall deal with my hon. Friend's point shortly.

Mr. Cyril Smith

The discretion is not enshrined.

Mr. Oakes

I want to deal only with the education arguments. The social security arguments will be dealt with by my right hon. Friend or the Under-Secretary of State.

I was intrigued to listen to the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), but I found his arguments difficult to follow. I admire many of the hon. Gentleman's contributions on education—I pay more regard to what he may say about education than I do to the divergent views which I hear expressed from the Opposition Front Bench—but tonight he made some remarks which I found intriguing. He wanted to know the Government's view on students' grants in general. I hesitate to go too far in that respect, because you, Mr. Speaker, would rightly point out that I should be out of order on Clause 12.

The hon. Member for Ripon wanted to know the Government's attitude towards the very different system that he wanted to establish. Then in an intervention he said that Conservative Party policy, particularly with regard to parental contribution, was to present a completely new system and to deal with it when resources were available. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I should love to deal with the situation when resources are available. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that resources are available to deal with it? If he is, I do not think that that is the view of his party, or of the House generally. We should love to deal with this issue when resources are available, but I tell the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Rochdale that to abolish parental contributions would, under the present system, cost £120 million of public money. Even to allow for the child benefit allowance would cost £55 million of public expenditure.

That could be one of the results of the hon. Member for Rochdale's theoretical amendment. I can see his point that if a student is not paid benefit by his parents he is entitled to claim that benefit from the State. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman must agree that to allow an open-ended scheme like this would be a temptation to abuse. If someone who could afford to pay deliberately did not so do, the honest parent who paid would become a laughing stock. How can my right hon. Friend allow an open-ended commitment like that? What would Conservative Members say if we left a situation that could be exploited in such an indiscriminate way?

Dr. Hampson

We are not asking that. We always dissociate ourselves from the Liberal position on this. We do not regard it as an immediate priority for spending. But does the hon. Gentleman accept that what has happened is that another Department, without consultation with his Department, has decided to tinker with part of the system by adjusting and trying to find savings? Is it not better to look at the whole package of student support rather than make cuts in one aspect of it?

Mr. Oakes

It is not true that my right hon. Gentleman and his Department did not consult my Department. Of course they consulted us. We were looking at public expenditure. We were looking at the position with regard to the long vacations as well as the short ones. If public expenditure savings had to be made without imposing undue burdens on students we were determined—and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree with this—to preserve the right to supplementary benefit during the long vacation, especially at a time of high unemployment. There was consultation between the Departments, and after listening to the voice of the House and to voices outside the House my right hon. Friend decided to amend the Bill to the benefit of students—something about which I should have thought the hon. Member for Ripon would be delighted.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ripon that in Committee he did not vote for the Liberal amendment on this matter, and that brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale. Of course the hon. Gentleman has been consistent, as the Liberal Party so often is, but it has been a consistency of total irresponsibility. It is easy for someone in the hon. Gentleman's position to say that public expediture does not matter, but, as I pointed out. the figures could be £120 million, or £55 million, of public expenditure, even given the child benefit scheme.

It is easy for the hon. Member for Rochdale to say that his party did not introduce this scheme, that his party was not in power in 1962 and it was the Conservatives who did it, and that what is happening now is being done not by the Liberal Party but by a Labour Government. If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were in office they would have to have regard to public expenditure, and it is a cheap way out to make the point about consistency. I give the hon. Gentleman credit for being consistent, but it is a consistency of complete irresponsibility with regard to public expenditure.

Mr. Cyril Smith

In view of the Minister's earlier statement that all the amendment does is to enshrine the existing situation in legislation, and as I merely want not to enshrine it in legislation by voting against the amendment, why is that reckless, and why does it increase public expenditure, and so on. There is something illogical in the Minister's argument.

Mr. Oakes

It is because the hon. Member could put £11 million of public money at risk by the pursuit of his amendment. That is quite apart from the open-ended nature of the amendment, which must be regretted from an accountability point of view. The hon. Member also commented on the figures that had been given about students not receiving their full grant from their parents. I regret this very much. The figures were worked out very carefully.

It does not follow that if a student is not in receipt of the full grant he is not getting any money from his parents. There may be a small shortfall. He may not be suffering hardship. The parents may well be contributing in other ways, by help during the vacations or by providing food I know that this happens. Many parents pay the full contribution and also provide such assistance. It does not follow that a person not getting the full parental contribution is suffering such hardship that he has to claim social security benefit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) asked the hon. Member for Rochdale whether it would not be better to introduce legislation which would make parents pay the grant. I do not think that is a good idea. We would have sons and daughters bringing actions against their parents in the courts. That would be entirely wrong. No one would like that. Although I adjure parents to pay for the benefit of their son or daughter at university or college I would be reluctant to ask the House to introduce legislation aimed at such family type actions.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler)—my distinguished predecessor—made the point that students are counted as adults for other purposes but when it comes to grants they are treated as dependants. Regrettably this is so. Like him, I would like to see this provision changed as soon as economic circumstances permit. My hon. Friend said that this withdraws the safety net provision. That is not so. It reinforces that provision.

Mrs. Wise

Will my hon. Friend substantiate his claim that the safety not provision is reinforced? I cannot see one word which reinforces anything on behalf of students.

Mr. Oakes

I hesitate, as would any prudent Minister, to enter into a long argument on a subject which relates to a colleague's Department. At the moment the Supplementary Benefits Commission has a purely discretionary power, and the proposal before the House will give statutory reinforcement to its right to exercise that discretionary power.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

I think that my hon. Friend would do better to rephrase that and say that the amendment will reinforce legislatively the manner in which the Supplementary Benefits Commission has interpreted its discretion. In other words, it will now say that by law it does not have to pay supplementary benefit, whereas previously it was merely by convention. How that is supposed to help students is utterly beyond my comprehension, I must confess.

Mr. Oakes

But my hon. Friend must take that in the context of the whole scene and the right of the Supplementary Benefits Commission to exercise its discretion in favour of the type of students to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West referred, in circumstances where in the interim a parent has died, where eventually the grant system will be changed, but where in circumstances of immediate need the commission can exercise its present discretion to make a payment.

I do not want to delay the House further. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members may say that, and I agree with them, but they asked that my Department should enter the debate to deal with the education matters. I have tried to do that, without going in depth into the matters which are the concern of my right hon. Friend's Department, although of course, I have touched on them. I fully support the amendment moved by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

I shall not detain the House long at this hour, but, having heard the Minister of State for the last 10 minutes, I am beginning to understand why the Minister for Social Security felt that he could do without his assistance in Committee. The right hon. Gentleman has been rather like the Grand Old Duke of York—he really has led the House up the hill and down—but at least the Grand old Duke of York did not have somebody standing at the bottom of the hill to say that the object of the exercise was to reinforce the bottom of the hill, which is what the Minister of State has done. His suggestion that somehow the Government's amendment reinforces a student's right to supplementary benefit is absurd, and I am surprised that he put forward such an argument.

I think it a great pity that the Minister of State, coming here from the Department of Education and Science, did not use the opportunity to give his Department's reaction to the very firm recommendation of the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission that the financing of students should not be the function of the commission. This is what Dr. Donnison said in a paragraph 5.11 of his annual report: it considers that the needs of students should be looked at as a whole, in an integrated grant system designed to provide for students' vacation as well as term time maintenance. In this way, responsibility for student support would rest wholly with the Department of Education and Science, the Scottish Education Department and the local education authorities who, unlike the Commission, are expert in the education field and are in a far better position to make judgments about the particular needs of individual students. We have come back to that recommendation time and again and asked the Government to give some indication of their reaction to it, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. If it is the Secretary of State's view that it is a wholly impractical suggestion and that the Supplementary Benefits Commission must go on in perpetuity providing a safety net for students the Minister of State should at least have had the courage to say so. Or if the Government accept the recommendation in principle and will now work towards implementing it, he could have said that. But all he did was give us a great deal of flannel which added nothing whatever to the debate, and I very much regret that in Committee I ever suggested that he should come, for I honestly believe that he has been wasting everyone's time.

What position have we now reached? The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) suggested that, as I should be advising my hon. Friends that we do not oppose the amendment—[HON. MEMBERS: "0h."] Yes, of course, and I shall explain why. This is a different stance from that which we adopted in Committee. I can only suggest that the hon. Member for Rochdale did not read the very clear exposition of the point of view of the official Opposition that I set out at column 414 of the Committee proceedings on 27th January. I took the view that we had to react to the recommendation of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, not so much in the interests of the Commission—the point made by the right hon. Gentleman—but in the interests of the generality of the clients of the commission. They are the ones who suffer if during the Christmas and Easter vacations offices are filled with hundreds of students seeking to eke out their grants by drawing supplementary benefit.

The Bill—not as originally intended—goes some way to try to meet that case. For that reason we regard half a loaf as better than no bread. Therefore, we do not oppose the Government's new clause. But we still want to make it absolutely clear that in our view we need a very much better response to Dr. Donnison's recommendation than we have had from the Department of Education.

There are two other matters to which I wish to refer. With this amendment is being taken Amendment No. 18, which concerns disabled students. We have tabled the amendment again because, although assurances were given upstairs in Committee on the question of disabled students, it would be absolutely right that handicapped students whose disabilities are likely to prevent their being able to obtain employment at all in the Christmas vacation should be able to obtain supplementary benefit.

We think that it would be added protection if a clause on these lines could be included in the Bill. If it is not, if the Government feel that it is unnecessary, at least they should give us, on the Floor of the House, a reassurance in favour of handicapped students, who deserve the utmost sympathy. We do not wish to deprive them of the protection that they should have, because, as well as being students, they are handicapped, by definition, and therefore, the resources of the Welfare State should be available to make sure that their passage through their careers as students is made as easy as possible.

The other point is one that I raised briefly in Committee. It concerns the story that appeared in The Guardian on 27th January, saying that The Department of Health and Social Security confidentially ordered all its regional offices to 'actively discourage' tens of thousands of students from claiming supplementary benefit at Christmas—when they were legally entitled to do so—it was disclosed last night. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who was on the Committee, might like to put down a Question because he was also interested in the answer. I shall not read the entire answer that the hon. Gentleman received on 28th January. I shall read just one sentence, which leaves me floundering.

No instructions have been issued specifically for the last Christmas vacation, but operational guidance was given on ways of handling claims."—[Official Report, 29th January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 788.]

That is quite absurd. I do not necessarily say that it was wrong, because the change in the grant arrangements was made as long ago as last February and was intended to apply to this Christmas and Easter vacations. But it would have been wrong for the Government to attempt to tell the commission that there was statutory authority for treating the parental grant as having been paid even when it was not. As I understand it, however, the Department did not try to do that, but to try to hide behind the disclosure by saying that these were not instructions but operational guidance seems jejune. Perhaps the Department would like to explain that.

Broadly, by the amendment, the Government are going part of the way to try to meet the recommendation of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. I accept the argument that it would be inconsistent and impracticable to leave the Supplementary Benefits Commission to determine the whole question of parental contributions. If that is the basis on which the Liberals propose to vote against the amendment, they are being even more irresponsible than usual and totally leaving out of account the impossible problems for clerks in supplementary benefit offices. The matter should not be dealt with within those offices at all—it should be a matter for the Department of Education—but while it has to be dealt with there I see no alternative to the Government's proposal. Therefore, if the matter goes to a vote, I would not advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 116, Noes 23.

Division No. 69] AYES [11.40 p.m.
Anderson, Donald Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Cunningham, G. (Islington S)
Archer, Peter Buchanan, Richard Davidson, Arthur
Armsrong, Ernest Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)
Ashton, Joe Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Deakins, Eric
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Carmlchael, Nell Dean, Joseph (Leeds, West)
Bates, Alf Cocks, Rt Hon Michael de Freltas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Bean, R. E. Cohen, Stanley Dempsey, James
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Coleman, Donald Dolg, Peter
Bidwell, Sydney Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Dormand, J. D.
Bray, Dr. Jeremy Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Douglas-Mann, Bruce
Brown, Hugh (Provan) Cryer, Bob Dutty, A. E. P.
Dunn, James A. Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Silverman, Jullue
Eadle, Alex McElhone, Frank Small, William
Ellis, John (Grigg & Scun) MacFarqunar, Roderick Smith, John (N Lanarkshlre)
Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Magee, Bryan Snape, Peter
English, Michael Mallalieu, J. P. W. Spearing, Nlgel
Ennis, David Marks, Kenneth Spriggs, Leslle
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Stallard, A. W.
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Meacher, Michael Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
FauIds, Andrew Mendelson, John Stoddart, David
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E.)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Tinn, James
Forrester, John Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Urwin, T. W.
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekln) Newens, Stanley Varley, Rt Hon Erlc G.
Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w d) Oakes, Gordon Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Ogden, Eric Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
George, Bruce O'Halloran, Michael Ward, Michael
Grant, John (Islington C) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Wellbeloved, James
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Park, George White, Frank R. (Bury)
Hardy, Peter Pavitt, Laurie Whitlock, William
Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Price, William (Rugby) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swanaea W)
Hooley, Frank Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Hunter, Adam Robinson, Geoffrey Wilson, Rt Hon Sir Harold (Huyton)
Jackson, Colin (Brighouse) Roderick, Caerwyn Wise, Mrs Audrey
Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Ryman, John Woof, Robert
Lamond, James Sandelson, Neville
Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Sedgemore, Brian
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Selby, Harry TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Lomas, Kenneth Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South) Mrs. Ann Taylor and
Lyon, Alexander (York) Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich) Mr. Ted Graham.
Bain, Mrs Margaret Mikardo, Ian Thompson, George
Canavan, Dennis Ovenden, John Thorpe, Rt. Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Crawford, Douglas Penhallgon, David Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Henderson, Douglas Reid, George Watt, Hamish
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Richardson, Miss Jo Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Skinner, Dennis
Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Smith, Cyril (Rochdale) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
MacCormick, Iain Steel, Rt Hon David Mr. Clement Freud and
Maynard, Miss Joan Stewart, Rt Hon Donald Mr. A. J. Beith

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 16, in page 12, line 1, leave out 'the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976' and insert 'that Act.'—[Mr. Deakins.]

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