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Dr. Howells: Will the hon. Gentleman do the House and the country a favour by naming that company?

Mr. St. Aubyn: There are several such organisations, and I shall give the Minister their details later.

Such organisations pose a problem and have to be checked out. The question is whether we should regulate or offer guidance. The case against regulation is that volunteers are, as I said, a group of school leavers who are self-selecting. They have a self-awareness, and a "get up and go" that will stand them in good stead. Moreover, if they are to go abroad, they will have to have their wits about them. The problem with regulation is that it would create an extra cost for the best organisations, without providing any better value in the experience they offer.

The United Kingdom regulates similar organisations.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Regulation is one of the most important aspects of the

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hon. Gentleman's speech and of the point that he is trying to make. Does he accept that the appalling situation that developed after Louise Woodward went to the United States to take up a post without supervision, regulation or training shows that we have to include within guidelines not only traditional, university gap year students, but all young people who participate in a gap year experience?

Mr. St. Aubyn: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I shall certainly deal later with the Louise Woodward case.

The decision whether to regulate should be based on our experience in the United Kingdom. Until quite recently, expeditions in the UK were not regulated. Only the previous Government introduced the requirement that expeditions be regulated and use qualified staff. When those regulations were introduced, after a canoeing accident in Lulworth cove, there was a sharp drop in the number of applicants to all organisations, however well established and reputable, which put their futures at risk.

Senior and responsible organisations offering overseas gap year projects have serious concerns that, if regulations were to be introduced, a hiatus would be created during which they would suffer serious effects. Developing a specific project can take a very long time, and, once the project is up and running, it is important that the flow of able and committed volunteers continues. If the Government were to interrupt and jeopardise that flow by announcing the need for regulation, many organisations would have a difficult time keeping their show on the road.

Most of the most reputable and longest-standing organisations are charitable, and are consequently run on a very tight budget.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): The points that my hon. Friend is making are extremely important, very serious and valid. However, I am sure that he will agree that parents who are releasing their children into organisations that will send them to foreign lands have a very big responsibility to check out those organisations to which their children will be consigned.

Mr. St. Aubyn: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which leads on to the main point of the debate.

If parents are to investigate programmes with due vigilance, and if schools are to allow organisations into their career evenings and access to children--often the point of contact is the school's careers officer--they must have guidelines on what to expect and consider. Issuing such guidelines is the role that I think should be played by the Minister and the Department for Education and Employment--not only to ensure that the best organisations thrive, and that those that do not offer a fair deal fall by the wayside, but to endorse the idea, if the Minister is prepared to do so, of the gap year experience.

Organisations such as Project Trust and Gap Action tell me that they often visit a school to find that the school's head and teachers have no concept of a gap year. Issuing guidelines to schools would raise consciousness of gap years, and broaden the group who think that the gap year experience might be for them.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Issuing guidelines is an interesting idea. However, further to the point raised

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by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), I should like to tell my hon. Friend of my own experience when my son wanted to go to Vietnam for his gap year. As a responsible parent, I sought to discover as much about the programme as I could, and found the Foreign Office extremely helpful. I suggest to my hon. Friend that he might include as one of his proposals to the Minister that the Foreign Office should itself investigate some of the organisations, and make its knowledge available to parents before their children go abroad.

Mr. St. Aubyn: My hon. Friend also makes a very good point. Perhaps I should say how much the organisations involved in sending school leavers abroad appreciate the back-up they receive from Government--not only from Foreign Office officials in the countries involved, in helping them to identify people living locally who are prepared to help; but, in extreme situations, from the Foreign Office in performing its general role of protecting all United Kingdom citizens in political hot spots. The Foreign Office has a role to play in all those circumstances.

The Department for International Development also is very much aware of the positive aspects of the organisations, and should have an input to the Minister's Department in drawing up helpful and constructive guidelines.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned the case of Louise Woodward. I am told that, when the phrase "gap year students" is mentioned to the Prime Minister, he immediately thinks of Louise Woodward. I have deferred mentioning her case until now, because I wanted to emphasise to the House that a much wider group of people is involved in the gap year experience. However, an unknown number of school leavers, who may not be going on to university, nevertheless want the gap year experience. They are being sent overseas without appropriate assessment, training or back-up, and thus run the risks which tragically led to the case involving Louise Woodward in the United States.

I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for the following figures. Although the official estimate is that about 20,000 to 30,000 school leavers take a gap year,in the current year 137,000 18-year-olds, 55,000 19-year-olds and 20,000 20-year-olds entered a university course. Clearly, a much larger group is entering university education later, perhaps having changed their minds after leaving school. They would benefit from guidelines about where they are going and with which organisation.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Most of the hon. Gentleman's remarks have focused on the gap year experience overseas. Does he agree that, before entering university or teacher training college, most students would benefit from a gap year even within the United Kingdom, and that steps should be taken to encourage that, because of the confidence that students gain from experience of the real world?

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have deliberately focused on the experience of school leavers going overseas, because it is with them that all the factors I have outlined come into play. School leavers doing voluntary work in this country will probably stay at home and do something in their own locality. However, I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question.

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The Government plan a programme involving millennium volunteers, and I believe that they hope for 100,000. Over the past six months, the Government have been asked many times--most recently in the House of Lords by Baroness Hooper--whether they will include overseas volunteers in the category of millennium volunteers. Millennium volunteers are contributing to their community, and overseas volunteers are contributing to the wider international community. I believe, as do the organisations involved, that overseas volunteers should also be allowed to wear the badge of the millennium volunteers, thus highlighting a very special opportunity for those involved.

I would not want to conclude without stressing the support that students receive for the gap year, not only from employers but from universities. I have here one of the many letters that I have received on the subject. The vice-chancellor of Loughborough university today wrote:

I represent a university town--it contains the university of Surrey--and I know that my vice-chancellor supports the idea of well-structured gap year experiences.

A year ago, the Department for Education and Employment was barely aware of gap year students. We know that, because of the hiatus caused for gap year students when the Government's plans for tuition fees were first announced. On that occasion, the Government performed a U-turn which might have done credit to a certain football team last night. They certainly performed a valuable service in recognising that there needed to be an exception for those students, but several thousands were still caught by the change in policy. I think that the Department is now much more aware of the nature of the gap year experience, the wide range of school leavers who take part, and of the importance of answering this call for them to be given guidelines.

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