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Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey): It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate, especially as I was involved in Committees yesterday and could not attend yesterday's Supply day debate on women. I note that, for two years
Column 285running, we have had debates in Opposition time on the extremely important subject of the position of women in society, and what kind of progress is being made.
Today's debate has been won by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), and I congratulate her on having secured it--but we still await a debate in Government time. If the Conservative party is really so interested in the progress of women and wishes to spend time demonstrating to us how central the issue is, the Government might at least condescend to give the House time to discuss it at length. I certainly hope that they will, but in 16 years of Conservative rule we have yet to see it happen.
Women constitute the majority of those in low-paid and insecure employment, and in the deregulated labour market insecurity is growing and wages have been falling, ably aided and abetted by the Government's abolition of the wages councils two years ago. As a result of that, in the affected sectors 42 per cent. of the part-time vacancies overall--and 75 per cent. in some sectors--are for jobs that still pay less than the low wage rates stipulated by the wages councils when they were abolished two years ago.
Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) said that almost 75,000 people, most of whom are women, now earn less than £1.50 an hour. How on earth can anyone keep his or her life together, try to support someone else or have any kind of dignity in the world earning such a wage? There are 200,000 people who still earn less than £2.70 an hour. Again, most of them are women.
We must abolish such low wages in our economy. Working for such low wages does not aid dignity, and is unlikely to allow for training or to lead to career prospects. It is merely exploitation, and we should see it for what it is.
There is an interesting discussion that always takes place about the minimum wage. Of course, the minimum wage and the arguments about it are at the core of the pretty fundamental disagreements between the main political parties on such issues. We believe that a minimum wage will help to banish exploitative jobs from the economy.
Mr. Spring: The hon. Lady is right to say that that is a fundamental point, and I invite her to examine other European countries in which the minimum wage exists. For example, in Spain 35 per cent. of young people are unemployed, and in France the proportion is 25 per cent. The hon. Lady talks about exploitation, but there is nothing more cruel than the exploitation of having no hope, no job and no prospects. That is the tyranny of the minimum wage, where it exists, right across Europe.
Ms Eagle: I fear that the hon. Gentleman is mixing up different economic effects. I do not think that the existence of the minimum wage has created that high youth unemployment in other countries, or that it would create it here.
In the lower income sectors in this country wages are so low that the Government now subsidise, via top-up benefits to the tune of billions of pounds, the employers who pay those low wages. Some recent parliamentary answers have demonstrated how much taxpayers' money is paid to employers to exploit their work forces, and that is neither economically efficient nor morally acceptable. A Labour Government would certainly get rid of it.
Column 286The argument that a minimum wage would destroy jobs has been demonstrated to be false this side of the second world war. In the early 1970s, there were discussions about introducing equal pay legislation, and the Conservative party--which, by the way, opposed equal pay legislation all down the line, and also opposed the introduction of the Equal Opportunities Commission, which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) praised--told us all that millions of women's jobs would be destroyed and that women would be forced back into the home.
Conservatives said that the paradoxical effect of the Labour Government's pushing for equal pay legislation to improve some of the low wages, and of their trying at least to ensure equality between men and women, would be to push women back into the home. But what has happened since the legislation was put on the statute book?
There has been a massive increase in the number of women entering the work force. Because of the Government's economic incompetence, there has also been a massive decrease in full-time male employment, which has been partly replaced by part-time female employment. It is estimated that nine out of every 10 jobs created between now and the year 2000 will be part-time and will be taken by women. Whatever has happened as a result of equal pay legislation, it has not been the destruction of women's jobs in the economy. The opposite has happened.
I now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell).
Mr. Gunnell: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and for not showing the discrimination against males shown by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, who also spoke about equal pay. I do not think that my hon. Friend will recall the time when equal pay for teachers was won, but is she aware of the enormous opposition to that proposition by the male teachers union that was afterwards absorbed into another union? It put up a tremendous fight on the ground that equal pay would depress the wages of males because women teachers' earnings were merely a second wage.
Now we see the pattern repeating itself. The Labour party puts legislation on the statute book and argues for the further advance of women in our society, against discrimination where it exists and in favour of equal treatment, whereas the Conservative party spends all its time and resources opposing those moves every step of the way. Yet, when the legislation is on the statute book, Conservatives later claim that they supported it all along.
We must realise that there is always a fight to enable women to take their rightful place in society. Where there are areas in which women have not yet arrived, the Conservatives will always oppose any change. I read
Column 287yesterday's debate in Hansard , and there was nothing but carping about the quota system and the way in which the Labour party is seeking to integrate women into political life. Of course that is relevant to today's debate, because the more women we have here and in other decision-making areas, the more likely we are to be able to combat the low pay and discrimination that currently exist for women throughout their working lives, and even in the shape of the pensions industry.
The Labour party, by introducing the state earnings-related pensions scheme, gave women equality in pensions provision for the first time, but the Conservative Government have now made two attacks on that, which have reduced the value of SERPS to one quarter of what it would have been had it been left undisturbed.
The Conservatives destroy women's opportunities and oppose any attempt to make progress and to create equality. Because those things are so popular, they realise that they must pretend to be in favour of equality, but they do nothing about it. The first woman Prime Minister did nothing to help women make their way in society, except by the pure example she gave as the first ever woman Prime Minister. That was a powerful example, but she did nothing in legislation to help women. She showed contempt for the idea of allowing women to make progress in society.
Mr. Spring rose --
One final thing which we must get right is affordable child care for women who wish to go to work. I am a member of the Employment Select Committee, which has been looking carefully at child care, and a report is due next week. The Committee has been overwhelmed by the sheer logic of the case to provide decent and affordable child care for women who want to go out to work. We were particularly concerned about the plight of lone parents. Fewer lone parents now work because of unacceptable benefit traps than worked 10 or 20 years ago. The Opposition are addressing the issues of social policy seriously, and that is shown by the fact that we keep having debates in Opposition time--
Ms Eagle: The hon. Gentleman may say that the debates are endless, but, frankly, the Government provide us with no time to discuss the issues. The hon. Gentleman has just wandered in at the end of the debate, and he has not even deigned to grace us with his presence. At least the Opposition provide time in the House to discuss issues which are important to 51 per cent. of the population.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge on securing the debate. We shall continue to push the issues because we know that justice must be done for women through the political process. We will fight to gain that justice, and we will not stop until we have equal opportunities and a proper place in society--whether the Conservative party likes it or not.
Column 28812.41 pm
Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I also spoke in yesterday's debate, when Madam Speaker was in the Chair. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on introducing this debate. The issues which we are debating go to the heart of the difference in values between the Tory party and the British Labour party. We are approaching the end of a failed economic experiment known as Thatcherism. The experiment encouraged a belief that inequality is good for people and for the economy and a belief that one had to remove all protections for low-paid workers and let the market rip. Workers had to find their rate, no matter how low it might be. One had to stop taxing the wealthy, so that they could get rich and not pay taxes.
The moral contradiction at the core of the experiment is that the rich have to get richer to get more efficiency while the poor have to get poorer. Those are the core values of Thatcherism. The Opposition have always said that the Government were demonstrating a morally bankrupt set of values which was causing great pain to the British people. Galbraith said that Britain would do a service to the people of the world by testing those ideas to destruction in a fairly homogeneous and stable society. We have paid the price, and we have proved that those values are economically incompetent. Enormous damage has been done to the British economy by the present Government while they have conducted an experiment which has promoted inequality and inefficiency in the economy.
Conservative Members suggest that women Opposition Members do not realise that women's lives have improved. It is incredible to suggest to my generation that we are not aware of that. I am deeply aware that I am part of the luckiest generation ever to grow up in Britain. I thought that the generations who came after me would do even better, but that has not happened as yet, and it will not happen until we get a Labour Government.
I am a product of the post-war settlement. I am a product of that proud Labour Government who dealt with the previous terrible recession, and who brought in a comprehensive welfare state, full employment and expanding educational opportunities. I had all that. I am part of the first generation of my family to have had a university education. I have always been employed, and I have worked in a whole series of senior positions. I have always had the same pay as men, and I have always been at least equal to my male colleagues. I realise how lucky I am, and I am massively grateful for the opportunities which were given to me by that fine Labour Government. We now have a Government who have ripped up those opportunities for current generations. I appreciate--unlike the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland)--that not all women in my country are as lucky as me. I see it as a part of my duty in politics to make life more just for everyone, and not just to be happy that I am okay whereas others can go and rot while working in low-paid jobs. I am aware that there is an ever-growing number of women in Britain working in part-time and very low- paid employment. There is nothing wrong with part-time work. In the future, both men and women will work part time and will have careers in part-time work. They will
Column 289therefore be able to share the care of their children, and of their parents as they become older. We can then all be civilised, and be all the things we wish to be. We can care for our families, use our brains and abilities, operate in the economy and care for the people we love and are responsible for.
Mr. Nigel Evans rose --
The model to which we should aim will be the model which the next Labour Government will seek to bring about in Britain. We will create a more just, generous and comfortable quality of life for everybody. The present Government have failed, in that they deliberately and positively encourage low pay. They have absolutely and deliberately stripped away all the protections which exist for low-paid workers, and they have deliberately created a lower national insurance threshold to encourage the trap in which 3 million low-paid workers find themselves. Those workers are not even earning enough for their national insurance entitlements.
Secondly, the Government provide the lowest quantity of publicly funded child care of any European Union country. The consequences of that are that half the women in Britain who care for their children--that has been their traditional role--have to work part time. Their work is therefore extremely badly paid. Part-time work in Britain is so organised at the moment that it goes with poor pay, no training, no access to promotion and no pension rights, and leads to poverty in old age. Half the women in Britain are trapped in such a position.
That is not good for British men, for whom employment has dropped massively during this failed economic experiment. Some 93 per cent. of men were in employment in 1971, while just 75 per cent. of men were in employment in 1992. Men have been squeezed out of the labour market because employers are using the cheapness of women to damage women and to push men out of the labour market.
Ms Short: I am sorry, but I have only three minutes left. The Government's third failure is that their experiment leads to poor economic performance. Competition by wage-cutting leads to poor investment, poor training, a high labour turnover and, therefore, a poor performance in the British economy.
The Government's fourth failure is the massive benefit bill. There is the high cost of unemployment--by God we are paying a high cost in benefit expenditure--and also the high cost of subsidising the worst employers in the land who pay rotten wages on which people cannot live. Therefore, we have a £1 billion family credit bill, plus an additional £1 billion in housing costs. The Government's economic and labour market strategy is disastrous, and it is a part of the Government's ideological commitment to free market forces and inequality. It is damaging British women, British men and the performance of the British economy. It is a disaster.
Column 290The Labour Government will soon replace that failed economic experiment, and we will steer forward in the way which I have just described. We will produce a more comfortable society in which to live and a more efficient economy. The issue of where women sit in our society is a core issue. We must decide whether we wish to take our economy forward and modernise it to be successful, or whether we want to be held back--as the Government are doing.
Mr. Nigel Evans: The hon. Lady may be coming to the national minimum wage. I suspect that she will not give us the rate of that wage, but I would be delighted if she did so. Does the hon. Lady think that the deputy leader of the Labour party was wrong to say that any old fool knows that the national minimum wage would bring with it a "shake-out" in employment?
Ms Short: The national minimum wage, full-time rights for part-time workers, a national child care strategy--all those are part of the new economic settlement that I mentioned. One of the differences of morality, principle and economic understanding between the Opposition and the Government centres on the value of the national minimum wage. It is part of preventing employers from using women as cheap labour to push men out of the labour market, and using cheap labour instead of training and investment and thus holding back the British economy. We proudly put the national minimum wage at the centre of our economic strategy.
The Conservative party attacked us when we introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970, but Conservative Members are now boasting about how women have made some progress in their pay levels as a consequence of our Act. They said that we would put up women's wages and that women would be pushed out of the labour market and would lose jobs--that there would be massive unemployment among women. There was not, so they are wrong, as the international example and the example of our own history prove. They want to attack the minimum wage because they hate the idea that market forces will not be let rip and that lots of British workers will not be used as cheap labour by rotten employers. A Labour Government will not permit that.
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe): Today, we witnessed the second wasted opportunity in two days. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on her choice of subject, and that is about as far as my congratulations extend. For the rest, we have seen exactly what we saw yesterday--the massed ranks of the Opposition sisterhood, with a token man from time to time. Women speakers only and tokenism personified--that is what we have witnessed in the past two days. What do the Opposition do? Do they welcome the great improvements in the way in which women live their lives? Do they welcome the great improvements for women in the labour market and in education? No, they whinge and whine, and moan and groan. Every time that a single good fact for women is produced, they look as glum as owls. The truth is that they want bad statistics, proof of suffering and low pay so that they can say, "Look, it's all the Government's fault." They will not welcome one good fact.
Column 291I am going to give them some good facts. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) said, "Hear the research." I am going to let the Opposition hear the research as well. First, we will start with the good facts. Since 1979, which, in case the Opposition missed it, was the year we came to power, women's pay--hourly, weekly, full-time and part-time--has increased faster than that of men. There are 1.5 million more women at work than 10 years ago, which is a 16 per cent. increase. That is the product of a Conservative Government.
The Opposition whinge about child care, by which they mean publicly funded child care. They discount all the rest, because if one is not spending public money, one is not doing anything according to their policy. Yet the greatest increase in the work force has been among women with children under five--from 27 per cent. in 1984 to 46 per cent. in 1993. That has been done under a Conservative Government. There has been a rise of nearly 80 per cent. in the number of self-employed women since the Conservative party came to office. Of course there has been, because we are the party of the self-employed and of the women self-employed. All that has been done under a Conservative Government.
In the decade 1984 to 1994, the proportion of women in management and professional occupations increased from 25 per cent to 30 per cent., but the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), in what was otherwise a fairly thoughtful speech, criticised the lack of women at managerial level. He picked on training and enterprise councils and said--
Miss Widdecombe: I am sorry--the Opposition picked on TECs and it was said that there were too few women on their boards. Another fact is that there are 12 women chief executives of TECs, but only four women general secretaries of trade unions.
During the 1980s, women moved into new occupations. The number of women lawyers trebled, and they now account for one third of the profession; the number of women accountants doubled, and they now make up one quarter of chartered accountants; and nearly 30 per cent. of doctors are women. Those are achievements from which our country will receive lasting benefit and of which we can be proud. In comparison with other European countries, we have done remarkably well. The United Kingdom has the second highest female participation rate in the European Union and that has been achieved by a Conservative Government with a flexible labour market. There are more women in employment in the United Kingdom than in any other EU country, except Germany. Only the UK, among the EU countries, has a lower unemployment rate for women than for men.
Column 292Those are the facts. Now for the research. According to the hon. Member for Ladywood, we do not hear about that. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development studies acknowledge that statutory minimum wages have an adverse effect on employment prospects, especially among the young and in low-productivity regions. How about the International Monetary Fund's "World Economic Report", which called on the industrial nations, especially those in Europe, to lower their minimum wages and to institute a wide range of other policies to make labour markets more flexible.
We have heard a lot about what is going on in the United States and how the minimum wage there has led to increased employment. Let us have the facts on the minimum wage in the United States--the way in which the hon. Member for Cambridge analysed the workings of the minimum wage there did not do justice to the name of Cambridge. The federal minimum wage has fallen from more than 50 per cent. of the average wage in the late 1960s to 36 per cent. in the late 1980s. The freezing of the nominal wage in the 1980s led to a dramatic fall in its relative value, so the national minimum wage that the hon. Lady trumpets as an example is now at a 20-year low. We all know that President Clinton came into office promising that he would uprate the national minimum wage, but he found that he could not do so because, as his Labour Secretary said, of its adverse impact on jobs. May we also have the answer that the hon. Member for Ladywood--the hon. Member for Cambridge can relax on this occasion--did not give, when we asked her about the deputy Leader of the Opposition and his clear admission that a national minimum wage would result in shake-outs? What will be shaken is people and what they will be out of is jobs. Many of them will be women. That is what the Opposition are promising women.
Dr. Lynne Jones rose --
Miss Widdecombe: I shall give way in the last two minutes only. We have heard much spurious analysis about low pay today. The low pay network's attempts to show that pay has fallen since the final abolition of the wages councils in 1993 are a complete failure and are based on flawed surveys that study unfilled job centre vacancies, not the pay that workers get. It is not surprising that unfilled vacancies offer significantly lower pay than people really earn, because the higher-paying jobs are filled more quickly and are therefore under-represented in such surveys. It would be the economics of the kindergarten not to be able to work that out. We have also heard the usual adverse comments about part-time workers, but 87 per cent. of those who work part time do not want a full-time job. I have, of all things, the Trades Union Congress on my side--I do not usually quote the TUC, but I am delighted to have this opportunity--which has carried out a survey that says that part-timers are more than twice as happy with their jobs as full-timers. That is not very surprising, is it?
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring) and for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) on their pertinent interventions. I am delighted that, on the Conservative side, men took part in this debate, because women's rights, and pay and equality for women, concern all society and not just
Column 293women. That is why the restriction of speeches to women on the Opposition Benches yesterday was one of the most shameful aspects of the debate--as if only women should be concerned about that. The Labour party boasts that it is the only party concerned to have such debates, but, since 1979, it has initiated only two debates on the subject. Labour Members should not castigate us when, at the last moment and as a token gesture, they have suddenly realised that they can do something by instituting Supply day debates on the subject. Are we to understand that, from 1979 until last year, they did not think that the subject was important because they had no Supply day debates on it?
Dr. Lynne Jones: When the Minister has a chance to look at the Hansard record of yesterday's debate, I hope that she will withdraw those remarks, because a number of men participated early in the debate. What she said was therefore completely untrue and--
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): I am grateful to have an opportunity to raise a problem that occurs in the funding of higher education. The problem occurs with the system not of mandatory but of discretionary grants. Even with mandatory grants, which are basically those for which people apply when they want to take a degree course, everyone can think of ways in which the system could be improved. I certainly would not come here today to say that the mandatory grant system is perfect, but essentially it works. What has become increasingly obvious in recent years is that the discretionary grant system simply does not work.
For the most part, discretionary grants are given to people for further education but not necessary for a university degree. The effect is that they are given a grant under section 2 of the Education Act 1962, and it is entirely at the discretion of the local education authority whether a person is given a grant. One way or another, that system must be brought to an end.
The problem has become more obvious in recent years, because people now do more than one job in a lifetime and are encouraged to return to education and training. The difficulty is that, when they do that, they cannot demand a grant as of right but must apply for that grant, and whether they get it lies entirely at the whim of the local education authority.
Today I shall mention just two areas where that system can cause real injustice and bring about a state of affairs that nobody on either side of the House would want. Other examples exist, but I shall deal simply with the problems that affect, first, those doing A-levels and, secondly, those doing dance or speech and drama courses.
If someone takes A-levels at a time when most people do--at school--the system works, and no great problem arises. Students are at home being looked after by their parents, so their subsistence is taken care of and the school pays the fees.
The problem arises for people who do not take A-levels in that way. They may have failed them at school and then gone out to work; perhaps they did not go to a good school, or left school early with no intention of taking A -levels. Subsequently, however, a variety of people without A-levels decide, for whatever reason, that they want to go to university. At that stage, they realise that they must get some A-levels in order to do so.
I have now discovered, through numerous cases that have been drawn to my attention at my constituency surgeries, that people then follow a well-worn course of action. Such people are usually quite committed, have identified the university that they wish to attend and know which course they want to do. Having established that, they want to take their A-levels.
People with that amount of get up and go will usually have gone to a local college and satisfied themselves that it can take them on and provide the A -level courses they want. Then the problems start, because, when they apply to the local education authority, they invariably find--it happens increasingly in Devon--that they will not get the support they need.
Obviously, it would be easier to give a knee-jerk reaction and say that people should work their way through college, as that is how it used to be done. That is
Column 295easy to say, but it does not answer the case. Usually, people who do A-levels in that way do them intensively-- perhaps three A-levels in one year.
The idea that one should be able to do such a concentrated course and work sufficiently to provide accommodation, food and sustenance and pay for college fees is too much to expect. There may be one or two exceptionally brave individuals out there, but I did not have to get my education in that way, and I doubt whether many other hon. Members did. I pay credit to those who can cope, but many cannot. Why should we expect more of our constituents than was demanded of us? The problem for many people at that stage is that, although they have shown commitment by working out what they want to do, which university they wish to attend and which college can take them on, they are suddenly hard up against the problem of receiving no grant. If all else fails, they must simply drop out if they cannot raise the money for their fees or maintenance, and their hopes are blighted. In practice, it means at the very least that people will not fulfil their potential. In reality, it means that people who could have passed A-levels and gone on to get a degree, which does not guarantee them a job but gives them a better chance of a getting a fulfilling job and contributing back into the tax system, have to drop out. Everybody then loses.
Alternatively, some people live dangerously within the "21-hour rule", as it was until recently. There is no doubt that some local DSS officials take a relatively broad and academic view of those matters, but we cannot base a further education system on local officials turning a blind eye. If a full- time A-level student maintains himself on social security benefits, ultimately he is skirting close to breaking the criminal law, and we do not want that to happen.
The third option is that potential students--in a sense, this is how I come into the debate--may take the matter to their local Member of Parliament.
Over the years, I have developed a format for dealing with the problem. I have identified 10 or 12 charities that are prepared to consider a case put up by an A-level student. I provide a list of those charities and tell people, based on experience, which charities are more likely to offer a grant. It is a sticking plaster operation, and I hesitate to mention it on the Floor of the House lest I suddenly receive applications from not one constituency but 650. I am not in a position to give that list to anyone but my constituents. In any case, it is not a satisfactory way to deal with the problem. I make no apology for dealing with the problem as a constituency Member of Parliament, but the problem goes far wider than my constituency. It is well summed up by the principal of the excellent South Devon college, Dr. Keen. I shall quote just one paragraph from his long letter, which sets out far better than I can the essence of the dilemma:
"I am pleased to be able to provide some of the information which came to light in our discussion earlier today . . . The following information is drawn from Devon County Council's Citizens Charter indicators for 1993/94, and you will be interested to note that they issued 1,075 discretionary awards, representing 65.02 per cent. of applicants. What was not mentioned in that report is that discretionary awards were provided for subsistence only, no fees
Column 296were met. We have evidence at South Devon of over 400 adult applicants for mainstream full-time further education courses, including A-levels, where the failure on the part of the local authority to provide a discretionary award has prevented the individuals concerned from attending. As a College we have reacted to this concern by waiving 100 per cent. of the fee element of such courses for all applicants who are eligible for a discretionary award but for whom no award has been given."
Dr. Keen goes on to explain:
"This contribution on our part has had adverse effects on cash flow, as we have had to survive on the units of funding derived from the Further Education Funding Council which, without a fee element, are below cost levels. Nevertheless, of 400+ applicants only 203 were able to accept under these terms. The other group (in excess of 200) had received neither discretionary award for fees or subsistence and remained unable to follow any study at the College at all." That shows, in a crisp way, the dilemma that faces students of that sort.
I said a few moments ago that it is not only those who are studying for A- levels in their maturer years who fall into that category. What about those people who want to do speech and drama? Anyone who has any personal acquaintance of the dedication of a student who expects to be able to make a living in fields such as that will realise that they do not offer themselves lightly for such an award.
I quote from a letter that I received from the Royal Academy of Dancing, south-west region, on February 23 1995. A Miss Walker writes:
"As I am sure you are aware discretionary grants for dance and drama students have been abolished by Devon County Council. This will obviously mean that our most talented youngsters in the region will be unable to take up their places at Vocational colleges, from where many of them would go on to perform in the West End or in ballet companies world-wide. Eventually, it could lead"--
I would say, would lead--
"to the smaller local dance schools in the South West closing if there is nothing for our students to work towards . . .
We must not let our talented dance students lose out". Those people show a high degree of commitment and dedication even to have got themselves that far, and everything collapses when they cannot obtain funding.
What is the answer? My hon. Friend the Minister, with his usual generosity, will admit that I have not tried to take him unaware. I have pestered him with specific constituency problems during his entire time as Under- Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education. I guarantee to continue to pester him and any successors, and I have also supplied the notes for my speech today and the material on which I draw.
I hope that my hon. Friend finds that helpful, because otherwise he will be reduced to saying, "What the hon. Gentleman says is very interesting; I shall pause and reflect on it." I hope that my hon. Friend feels that I have been extremely helpful in providing him with the information in advance, so that he can say something to us about it.
Obviously, it would not be the answer--I do not think that my hon. Friend the Minister would even try to do it--to say, "The answer is that we have already done a great deal." Indeed we have. An all-time record number of people attends further education, and we can derive satisfaction from that, but it does not solve the specific problem. It is only a temporary answer to say that the social security system should be altered so that people can live on social security while undertaking education
Column 297courses. In all conscience, the social security mechanism does not exist to underpin the education system; it is there for an entirely different reason.
In no sense is the position the Government's fault, but in a sense it is the Government's problem, because ultimately only the Government can solve it. What is the answer?
I have always held the opinion, on the Back Benches and at the Dispatch Box, that it is a Back-Bencher's job to come up with problems, not solutions. It would be unfair if my hon. Friend the Minister, with his considerable expertise and the serried ranks of experts behind him, were to pick off any solution that I might offer and say, "That one will not work." The problem needs to be brought to the House, so that my hon. Friend can respond to it. Having said that, I acknowledge that old habits die hard. Perhaps I may suggest two ideas that occur to me that would solve the problem.
The first way in which the problem might be solved would be to make, in addition to a mandatory grant for a degree course, a mandatory grant for a course immediately preparatory to a degree course. That would mean that, if one took a bona fide A-level course--safeguards might be built in to ensure that it was bona fide--one could obtain a compulsory grant for so doing. That is one possibility. However, it would not encompass speech and drama students.
Therefore, a second solution might commend itself to my hon. Friend--to take away that part of the rate support grant that goes to a local education authority and give it to the Further Education Funding Council, so that the funding council can disperse it, and do so 100 per cent.
Dr. Keen draws attention to the reason why that would be a good idea. Dr. Keen sounds a caveat, and I have not been able to check that it is correct, but I guess that it is. He says:
"Although I am unable to provide specific sources at the moment, I am led to believe that that element of the Rate Support Grant which should reasonably be expected to be spent on discretionary awards in Devon is in the order of £7M, and yet I am told that in the present year the actual expenditure is likely to be in the order of £3M". It would appear, therefore, that, at the very least, the moneys that might be said to be available are not being spent 100 per cent. It is obvious--and obvious if one considers the antics of the Devon local education authority in recent days--that decisions of that type are too crucial to be left to the whims of local education authorities. If we are to respond to changes in educational patterns and life patterns; if we are to accept and adjust to the fact that people live longer, stay younger longer, stay healthier longer and move from job to job in a way in which in our parents' and grandparents' generation would have thought impossible, we must say that the group of students that I have mentioned can no longer depend on the whims of a--perhaps even maverick--local authority.
The number of potential students affected may not be great. I do not have the resources to ascertain the number, but I do know that, even in one rural constituency, a steady trickle of people find themselves in that position. Ultimately, if I cannot help, or others cannot help, there will be blighted expectations and blighted lives.