HL Deb 24 September 2002 vol 638 cc198-201WA
Earl Russell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many days after withdrawal from their courses students become eligible for social security benefits other than crisis loans, and [HL5376]

Whether they accept the objective of the Social Security Housing Committee that all intercalating students should be eligible either for education support or for social security support, and [HL5372]

Which recommendations of the Report of the Social Security Advisory Committee on the draft Social Security Amendment (Students) Regulations 2000 (Cm 4739) they have now adopted; which they have not adopted; and what would be the cost of adopting those recommendations, and [HL5388]

Whether they consider that students who are single parents and whose youngest child reaches 16 before the conclusion of their course should remain eligible for social security benefits until the conclusion of their course; and what the likely cost of such eligibility would be, and [HL5389]

Whether the concept of "last day of course" (as referred to in paragraphs 43–46 of the Report by the Social Security Advisory Committee (Cm 4739)) is one which cannot easily be applied to postgraduate students, and [HL5390]

Whether they accept the view of the Social Security Advisory Committee (Cm 4739, paragraph 36) that "the Government should recognise the wide variety of circumstances which can give rise to necessary breaks in full-time study, switches to part-time study or examination failure", and [HL5391]

Whether they accept the view of the Social Security Advisory Committee (Cm 4739, paragraph 48) that those who lose exemption from council tax should thereby acquire liability for council tax benefit; and, if they see any justifiable exemptions from this principle, on what grounds. [HL5392]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

A student becomes eligible to claim an income-related benefit immediately they have abandoned, completed or been dismissed from a full-time course of study. Students studying part-time are not excluded from claiming income-related benefits whilst studying. All students may claim other social security benefits subject to their satisfying the normal conditions of entitlement for the benefit concerned.

In March 1998 the Social Security Amendment (Students) Regulations 2000 were formally referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee. The regulations amended social security legislation to make clear the policy intention that full-time students are not eligible for income-related benefits (income support, jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit) until they complete, abandon or are dismissed from their course. This is because support for students should come instead from the educational maintenance system, which is designed for their needs. However, in recognition that some students have costs unassociated with their study, certain students, such as disabled students or lone parents, can claim income-related benefits.

In reporting their views on the proposed 1998 regulations to the Secretary of State, following the referral, the committee made three recommendations. We were unable to accept the recommendations in full and it is not possible to estimate the likely cost of adopting those recommendations we did not accept. However, we did make the following concessions.

We recognise that there are a number of reasons why a student might interrupt their course of study, but we believe that students have a responsibility to progress as quickly as possible with their studies and for this reason students who interrupt, but do not abandon, a course of full-time study remain ineligible for the income-related benefits and may not have access to student support. In cases of illness however, although there is no mandatory requirement to determine that support is payable where a higher education student is absent after 60 days, the Department for Education and Skills is committed to ensuring that such students continue to receive their support whenever appropriate. Guidance has therefore been issued to educational institutions requesting them to be sympathetic to students in this position and to local education authorities asking them to consider exercising their discretion to extend student support payments.

In addition, students who have, with the permission of their educational establishment, interrupted their course because of illness or caring responsibilities, and who have recovered from that illness or whose caring responsibilities have ended can claim jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit, or council tax benefit as appropriate. They may claim from the date of recovery from illness or the date their caring duties ceased until such time as they have permission to return to their course. However to ensure that the student returns as soon as practicable the period of such a claim is limited to one year.

We also agreed not to amend the definition of "last day of the course" as we had proposed in view of the adverse effect it would have had on some post-graduate students. (Command Paper 4739, government response, paragraphs 21–23). Guidance was issued to decision makers to make clear that post-graduate students who have completed their course of study should not be treated as full-time students. These students will therefore be eligible for council tax benefit unless, in the opinion of the decision maker, they are engaged full-time in writing a thesis or doing associated work such as research.

Students who change from a full-time course to a part-time course and who have had to abandon one to begin the second are able to claim the relevant income-related benefits, as they are no longer full-time students.

In recognition of the additional costs unassociated with their studies that lone parents who are full-time students may have, they continue to be eligible for income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. However this eligibility ceases when the youngest child reaches age 16 for income support purposes or when the child reaches age 19 or is no longer in full-time relevant education for housing benefit and council tax benefit.

At age 16 for income support purposes, the child is no longer treated as dependant to the extent that the parent is required to register for employment and is therefore no longer considered to be a vulnerable group student. It would be unfair on other single students, who also have no dependants, if these students remained eligible for income support.