§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
I had a few words with the permanent secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Department earlier today and he told me that the Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education would be replying to the debate. It may be that, following the previous debate, the Lord Chancellor's Department is chicken, but the subject I wish to raise is of great interest to the Department for Education and the Lord Chancellor's Department.
It is a commonly held perception that entrants into the legal profession come from a financially privileged background. Historically. that is true, but that damaging imbalance was addressed during the latter part of this century with welcome results.
I am a solicitor by profession and, by happy coincidence, if a little stage managed, I am wearing the Gwynedd Law Society tie today. I am proud to wear that tie as a past president of the society, but I come from anything but a financially privileged background.
I hasten to say, however, that I do come from a privileged one since I was brought up to respect all members of society, irrespective of colour, creed, religion or one's place in the peculiar class structure that is perpetuated in the British. Isles. I was taught that there is good and bad in everyone and, if nurtured, the good will prevail. That thought has helped me immensely during my years in practice.
My late father was a police sergeant who left school at 15. I recall many an occasion when he told me, with a degree of touching embarrassment, that he had no formal qualifications because his parents could not afford o keep him at school. That angers me. I find the notion offensive. That unfortunate chapter in my late father's life made him determined that his children would receive a full education, come what may. My late father and my mother ensured that I went to university and law college, for which I am eternally grateful to them.
The problem that I wish to highlight in this debate is the absence of mandatory grants for students attending vocational courses to quality as solicitors and at the Bar. When I attended law school in the mid-1970s, the situation was far from rosy. Even in those days, grant funding was somewhat hit or miss.
As I have mentioned previously, my Machiavellian nature got the better of me and between university and law school I married a young teacher. In all honesty, I am not that ruthless. That was 20 years ago and that teacher is the ever-caring mother of my children and a long-suffering wife since I entered the hurly-burly of this place. Seriously, however, I know that without her salary at that time I should never have been able to enter the legal profession and I would have harboured a great sense of loss as a result.
Two weeks ago I tabled an early-day motion on the subject. It states:That this House notes the findings of a survey by the College of Law into students' funding and finance on the Law Society's final course 1992–93 at the College of Law showing that 48 per cent. of the respondents have less than £25 per week to spend on food, books and incidentals; further notes that the percentage of students receiving final course funding from local authorities has declined from 64 per cent. of students in 1989–90 to 24 per cent. of students in 1992–93; 1096 believes that cutbacks in local authority discretionary grants to final course law students enforces students to either self-finance their coursses or seek sponsorship from firms in the middle of a severe recession; further believes that local authority discretionary grants were and are vital to ensure that prospective law students from less well-off family backgrounds can embark on final law courses; recognises that the demise of local authority discretionary grants to final course law students may lead to a narrowing of the social class base for prospective members of the legal profession currently at law colleges; and calls on the Government to make increased funding available to local authorities to ensure that such discretionary grants are paid to final course law students.That early-day motion bears 72 signatures drawn from all Opposition parties. A similar motion tabled recently by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) was also well supported by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House.
There are numerous arguments for mandatory grants. Over the past three years, discretionary grants for solicitors' final examinations have fallen more than 70 per cent., and currently 80 per cent. of students have to self-fund, using their own, their parents' or their firms' resources. As a result, students incur large debts.
The Trainee Solicitors Group recently surveyed institutions offering solicitors finals courses to determine levels of student debt. The group circulated 3,500 questionnaires and received 2,201 replies—an extremely large response, and indicative of student concern. Of those surveyed, 709 had debts of more than £5,000, with 145 having debts of between £5,000 and £7,500, and 147 had debts of more than £10,000. Only 61 respondents had no debts.
Another argument in favour of mandatory funding is that the current situation denies access to justice. Without adequate finance, students will be unable to practise in non-commercial areas of the law, typified by work qualifying for legal aid. Firms which practise in such areas are unable to offer salaries high enough to service or pay off large loans. Consequently, fewer new solicitors will practise in such firms, and the workload of those who remain will increase, leaving them less time to concentrate on each case. The public will have fewer firms from which to choose, and less attention will be paid to their individual cases. In my view and that of the TSG, that will deny the public access to justice and to their rights—and we cannot tolerate that in a democratic society.
The prospect of large debts will make it more difficult for those of modest means to enter the profession. Without independent finance, many students will be unable to secure the loans that they require in order to undertake professional courses and may in effect face a pre-qualification test. The legal profession must be representative of the public that it serves, but a financial pre-qualification will promote the mediocre rather than the best.
I ask for equal treatment with other professions. Doctors, architects and veterinary surgeons are guaranteed payment of their university fees during training—but not lawyers, whose funding ends after their undergraduate studies, as a consequence of the Education Act 1962. Under that legislation, all undergraduates were guaranteed payment of their fees, but postgraduate work was made the subject of discretionary local education authority grants.
Barristers' and solicitors' finals after graduation, therefore, do not qualify for mandatory grants. That 1097 militates in particular against ethnic minorities and those who want to enter the profession in maturity. Recently, the TSG lobbied Parliament and I was privileged to be one of the Members of another place who addressed that group. It is clear that the Council for Legal Education and the College of Law are desperately concerned about the issue, and rightly so. The tendency to draw lawyers from privileged backgrounds will be not only perpetuated under the current system but accentuated.
The Lord Chancellor's Department is working hard to appoint the judiciary from across the social spectrum and among ethnic minorities. However, it is painfully clear that its efforts are bound to fail in the prevailing circumstances. The pool from which it can draw members of both branches of the profession has already been subjected to a process of selection, in that many potential entrants simply cannot afford to undertake legal training.
A gentleman from the Crewe area wrote to me recently, saying that he was desperate. He had obtained a master's degree in law, and had arranged to take articles with a local firm of solicitors. However, although a sparkling career doubtless lay ahead of him, he could not afford to attend college, and was therefore unable to proceed any further. I find that appalling, and I feel that I owe it to that person, and to the tens of thousands of others who have been denied their vocation in the same way, to raise this all-important shortcoming in the grant system.
Martin Wedge of Brighton is 40 and married with a small baby. He spent 15 years as a British Telecom engineer before obtaining an upper second-class law degree at Sussex university. Sussex county council refused him a grant, and the banks refused him a loan. Having failed to fund his final course, he returned to his job, but has recently secured a new job in the industrial relations department of a local firm. He writes:Sussex County Council has a rule that anyone above the age of 22 who has received the mandatory first degree grant should not get any further money. I wouldn't mind if the position was the same all round the country but it's down to where you live. I didn't manage to get articles, though I applied to 30 medium-sized firms … I wanted to be a solicitor specialising in helping people with their industrial relations problems—giving the benefit of my expertise. I feel that I myself haven't failed, but the required financial help wasn't forthcoming. Out there there are other people who, like me, have put in a lot of time and effort. Not to get help at this last stage is a bit hard to take. Perhaps there could be a four-year package whereby the whole degree including the College course was included in the grant.My local authority, Gwynedd county council, has a policy of paying £792 per annum towards tuition fees or 50 per cent. of the fees, whichever is the higher. It also pays a maintenance grant of £1,500 per annum, means tested on the basis of parents' income, with a £200 weighting allowance if the college is in London. The council tells me that it is constrained owing to a lack of Government funding. I have a sense of déjà vu when I utter those words. I could relate a hundred case histories involving people who, having excelled at university and obtained excellent degrees, wished to become lawyers and could not do so. The position is intolerable and unacceptable; the Government must think again.
Why should entrants to the medical profession be treated differently? Why should not lawyers have a guaranteed four years of grant funding? What is the rationale that prevents that? Is the Treasury once more 1098 wreaking havoc on the lives of thousands of people in the British Isles? If so, it behoves the Minister to tackle the Treasury and put paid to this gross injustice.
We in Wales have a highly developed sense of social justice, as well as a high regard for the benefits of education. We are always ready to make sacrifices for our children. I remind the House that no less a parliamentarian than Mr. David Lloyd George came from an ordinary background, and was in no way financially privileged. The sacrifices made by his family, particularly his brother, ensured his entry into the profession and, ultimately, the House. I had the privilege of serving as an articled clerk with Lloyd George's nephew—I nearly said, "My father knew Lloyd George", but that would be rather misleading.
I am making a serious point. I am sure that many parents are willing to make sacrifices, but, owing to severe cuts and other financial pressures, they simply cannot do so. That angers me. Parents whose children are set on a legal career, but whom they must deny that opportunity, are heartbroken and demoralised. This is clearly a retrograde step. We are back in the days of my father's youth. God forbid that legal education should be denied to the poor and open only to the well off. If that is where we are heading, the legal system will soon be brought into disrepute. The administration of justice will falter, and the rule of law itself will be threatened.
I ask the Minister to re-examine this serious problem in the interests of many thousands of people in the British Isles. If the Treasury is not forthcoming, I urge him to tackle it on the matter because that is his responsibility and that is what he is here for.
If, after liaising with the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Minister concludes that he cannot deal with the problem, he will be doing a grave disservice to the public at large. I urge him to discuss the matter with the Lord Chancellor's Department and I sincerely trust and hope that he will be able to find an answer to this extremely serious problem.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on his good fortune in the ballot and on the clear and forceful way in which he put his arguments. He has recently been active in the subject of financial support for law students and he has now had a reasonable chance to expand on his concerns.
Before I get into my reply, perhaps I can clarify two points. First, although I am answering for my Department, we have been in close touch with the Lord Chancellor's Department and I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to its attention.
Secondly, and perhaps rather unusually from these Benches, I must properly declare a personal interest in the subject because my elder daughter is currently taking a law degree course. However, because it is her second such course, as I shall explain in a moment, she is not personally eligible for a mandatory award. She intends to go on into the legal profession.
I begin with the legal position and record, for the hon. Gentleman's benefit, as he has already acknowledged, the fact that a number of other hon. Members have recently shown a considerable interest in the subject, both in the 1099 early-day motion and in -correspondence, with particular reference to the vocational training that law students must undergo before they can practise as solicitors or barristers.
It would be helpful and fitting, given the subject, if I began with the current legal position on support for law students from England and Wales. There is an important distinction to be drawn at the outset in the support arrangements for students in higher education. In general, personally eligible students on full-time and sandwich courses at first-degree level are entitled to a mandatory award from their local education authority and can apply to the Student Loans Company for loans. These entitlements arise from the Education Act 1962 for mandatory awards and the Education (Student Loans) Act 1990 for loans. They apply to students on full-time courses leading to the so-called degree comparable qualifications—the diploma of higher education and the higher national diploma—and to all courses of initial teacher training. For both awards and loans, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State makes national regulations that govern the rates and conditions.
Other students in higher education—those on courses above first-degree level, most of those on part-time courses and students in further education—do not have those entitlements. Students who, after their first degree, take professional law courses—the Law Society finals, the legal practice course for those intending to practise as solicitors and the vocational course for intending barristers at the inns of court school of law—come within the latter broad category. Students taking higher degree courses at masters level and beyond can apply for a competitive postgraduate award from one of the national award-making bodies, such as one of the research councils, depending on subject. For courses not covered by these national selective schemes, which include professional law courses, students can, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, apply to their local education authority for a discretionary award.
Students on post-graduate courses at institutions that receive recurrent grant from public funds can apply for help if they are in serious financial difficulty from the post-graduate access funds held by the institutions.
There are no national regulations for local education authority discretionary awards. It is for each of the 117 LEAs in England and Wales to decide its own policies on which students and courses to support and the amount of support to offer in each case. Hon. Members will recall that these are, after all, discretionary awards. Ministers do not, as a matter of principle, seek to influence LEAs' decisions or policies on them; they would cease to be discretionary if we did.
I have explained the current legal position in some detail so that the House can see what is the practical scope for action within it. Of course, I concede that it would be open to the Government to contemplate bringing the necessary legislation before Parliament to change the current position. We would, however, need to consider the substantial cost to the taxpayer of extending mandatory awards and student loans across the whole range of students taking postgraduate courses. Clearly, any such extension could not be confined only to postgraduate law students. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we have no plans to make such a costly change.
There are some very important points which I should like to make about mandatory support. First, it is available to eligible students on first degree courses, irrespective of the subject they are studying. Secondly, it is 1100 available in accordance with the relevant regulations until the course has been completed, regardless of the course length, but it is aimed at enabling each eligible student to undertake one higher education course up to first degree level. It is not intended to finance students to undertake a succession of courses to reach the level of education or qualification which is needed to enter their chosen profession. As I said in my opening remarks, my own daughter is affected by this policy.
It is misleading to suggest—as I am sorry to say that the Trainee Solicitors Group seems to be suggesting—that law students are somehow singled out and do not have the same entitlements to mandatory awards and student loans as first degree students in other subjects. Let me say clearly that that is not the case. Students taking first degree courses in law are treated absolutely on a par with their peers in other subjects. Most of the law students who go on to take postgraduate law courses of the types that I mentioned earlier will have already benefited from their entitlement to mandatory support while taking their first degree. However, like some other professions, any professional training that they undertake after their first degree falls outside the scope of the mandatory scheme.
I know that some universities and the Law Society itself are currently looking at new structures for first degree law courses. More widely and in the longer term, the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct is reviewing the structure and funding of training for barristers and solicitors. Universities are considering new four-year integrated degree courses which will include the vocational training element currently taken as a separate course after graduating.
As the regulations currently stand, such courses will attract mandatory awards and student loans in the same way as medical courses, which incorporate some professional training en route to the first degree. While acknowledging that it is for universities to decide which courses to offer and how to construct them, I make two points.
First, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has often expressed his concern about the trend towards longer degree courses. It is a trend which reduces the number of people who can enter higher education within the available resources. He has asked the Higer Education Funding Council for England to advise him on funding measures which would remove any incentive to lengthen degree courses at the expense of student numbers. The council has recently issued a circular to institutions indicating that it proposes to put in place from 1994–95 an element of output-related funding to discourage the lengthening of courses.
Secondly, we would be concerned if these integrated degree courses in law—or, for that matter, any other subjects—became widespread as a device to obtain mandatory support for postgraduate vocational training. That would be contrary to the intentions of the current legislation and it would replace private or discretionary funding for vocational training with automatic Exchequer support. I am not convinced that such a switch is a desirable use of taxpayers' money.
Concerns have been expressed by the hon. Gentleman and others about the narrow social base for law students and the low numbers of students from ethnic minorities on postgraduate law courses. These are primarily matters for the profession itself to tackle. While I understand the 1101 concerns, there are other and better ways of resolving them than through the national arrangements for student support.
I deal now with discretionary awards. There have been recurring press reports in the past two or three years that LEAs have cut, or even stopped, discretionary awards. The hon. Gentleman mentioned some evidence from the Trainee Solicitors Group. I have not yet seen it, and I should be grateful if he would submit it to us for consideration. There have already been surveys and reports by a number of interested bodies, including the Law Society and the College of Law, which have highlighted the effect of cuts in support for their students. I am bound to say that a somewhat different story is told in the figures which my Department routinely collects each year from local education authorities. They show a steady rise each year in LEAs' expenditure when one looks at the national aggregate totals. And there was a sizeable rise in expenditure nationally for the academic year 1991–92.
I accept that the Department's figures are, in the nature of things, collected after the end of the year to which they relate. It is true that national statistics can conceal wide variations at local level. The position on the ground at the moment is varied and unclear. There is anecdotal evidence that some LEAs are reducing their discretionary awards provision generally. Others are said to be selectively withdrawing support from more expensive courses, including perhaps postgraduate law courses. In contrast, some LEAs are actually increasing their overall awards budgets, while others are continuing to grant awards at about the same level from year to year. We have yet to see firm evidence of the overall picture.
I am pleased, therefore, that the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Sir John Cass's Foundation, with financial support from my Department and the Further Education Funding Council, have commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research to conduct a survey of local education authorities' discretionary awards policies and practices. It will provide up-to-date information about the full range of their discretionary awards provision, including that for postgraduate law students. The results of the survey should be available to the foundations later in the summer and I look forward to seeing them.
Concern has been voiced that some LEAs may be withdrawing entirely from making discretionary awards. We shall continue to monitor the situation. In my view, it would be unlawful for an LEA to adopt such a policy because this would amount to fettering its own discretion. A policy of "no awards come what may" is not acceptable. Nor, in the Government's view, should there be any need for such a policy in a properly managed authority and I shall explain why.
It has been suggested that, in some way, Government funding—or the absence of it—has forced LEAs to cut back drastically on their discretionary award provision. I cannot accept that. The Government already contribute large sums from taxation to local authorities for them to use throughout the educational field, including discretionary awards.
Taking my responsibilities for education in England, the 1993–94 local authority finance settlement allowed for a 2.6 per cent. increase over the previous year's settlement 1102 after changes in functions have been taken into account. The figure for Wales is somewhat different, representing an increase in provision of 20 per cent. over the two years 1991–92 and 1993–94. Given the prospect of low pay settlements and low inflation, it is a fair increase.
Of course there are many pressures on the education service at present, and an endless succession of bids for more funding. However, any authority which manages its affairs well and achieves efficiency in its administrative costs should be able to continue to provide a high quality education service which meets the needs of the people of its area, including their needs for an appropriate range of discretionary awards.
Within the national funding framework that I have just described, it is for each LEA to set its own budget and to decide how to allocate it between the various elements of the service, including discretionary awards. If some see fit to alter their priorities and redeploy funds from one area to another, that is their decision, but in considering restructuring their spending they must consider where economies may best be made, taking account of the likely effect on pupils and students.
Let us also not lose sight of the fact that support for students is not confined to cash from the public purse. There are other sources such as charitable foundations, professional bodies and grant-making trusts which are prepared to help students. Some commercial organisations offer sponsorship and bursaries to those, including their employees, on certain courses. High street banks are often prepared to help, and there is the possibility of career development loans sponsored by the Department of Employment.
Of course, I am sure that the law profession itself—the Bar Council, the Law Society and the practitioners—will want to do as much as it can to help law students, if only from enlightened self-interest. I understand that both branches of the profession have already demonstrated their concern that young lawyers at the start of their working careers should have an adequate income.
Even so, it is interesting to note the findings of a survey by the College of Law earlier this year into its students' finances. It found that only a minority of respondents received support from their potential employers. It also found, tellingly, that the majority of students applied for help to their LEA and that almost half of them received some assistance.
I believe therefore that there is proper scope for public and private funding to continue to work together to help law students to undertake the vocational training for entry to the profession. I have taken careful note of what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I can assure him and the House that I shall keep a careful watch on developments in that important area.