Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Gorman: My hon. Friend has raised an important point about altruism and participation in voluntary activity. Is not the Labour party's continual harping on the claim that unpaid or lowly paid work is invalid, and its insistence on minimum wages for people over the age of 19--an age at which we still expect people to volunteer--a factor in the changing attitude of young people? The issue is becoming political. Constant harping about slave wages and people being ground into the dust by wicked employers is undermining the spirit of altruism, which once encouraged young people voluntarily to give up their time.

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend tempts me on to the interesting subject of the interaction between voluntary work and the minimum wage, but, as time is short, I shall resist that temptation.

1 Jul 1998 : Column 289

The central question that the Minister must answer is whether the Government are taking action to encourage young people to take gap years and widen their experience. Considering objectively the Government's actions over the past 15 or 16 months since they came into office, they are not improving the situation; they are making it worse.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough pointed out last year's funding arrangements fiasco. We have to put that in the wider context of the Government having rejected the Dearing committee recommendations on the preservation of the maintenance grant, which has had a series of deleterious effects on student funding--one of which we shall debate this evening, with, I suspect, rather more hon. Members present on both sides. I shall not use this debate to rehearse my arguments on that subject.

The gap year problem is simply one of a range of problems into which the Government have stumbled because of their proposals for funding arrangements. I am sure that they regard it as a relatively minor problem, but they have sent an important signal about how they regard the gap year.

The lack of maintenance grants will, for many students, mean larger debts when they leave university. Those of us who are involved in the minutiae of that subject have argued about it at great length, and will continue to do so, but the one fact that students thinking about their time at university have grasped about the new funding arrangements is that many of them will leave with large debts. The net effect is that fewer will consider taking a gap year, and more of those who want to do so will feel impelled to take a paying job rather than do any low-paid or unpaid voluntary activity.

Far fewer students are likely to take gap years after they have finished their main university course, because they will have a large debt and the bank manager will be breathing down their neck. Perhaps most importantly, they will have noted the Government's attitude when it was discovered that the introduction of tuition fees would cause a specific problem for gap year students. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has pointed out, weeks passed before the Government dealt with the problem, because, although it was a serious and immediate problem for those involved, the Government clearly did not regard it as such. They simply had not thought about guidance for gap year students in that case, or at all.

That sent gap year students the clear message: "Forget about the warm words, and the Foreign Secretary making nice comments in brochures for organisations that promote gap years. Look at our deeds. The Government do not care all that much about gap year students and the activities they promote." I hope that the Government have learnt from that lesson, and that the fiasco will not be repeated. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government have changed their deeds, and words, on gap years.

Moving on to what I should like to hear from the Minister, the first action the Government could take is to change their message and take practical action, or gap years will become unfashionable. I am indebted to

1 Jul 1998 : Column 290

The Guardian--not a phrase one often hears at this Dispatch Box--for summing up many people's thoughts on gap years in an article last year. It said:

    "The convention wisdom is that it's best to do something 'worthwhile', whether that's working in a shelter for homeless people or backpacking in the Punjab with nothing but a bottle of diarrhoea medicine and a Kula Shaker album for company."

That may well be the traditional, popular view of a gap year, but in this age, students who are thinking of taking a gap year will think that it is impractical, and will be put off. The first practical action the Government could take, for example, is to give us more information on the millennium volunteers.

Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford said, the Government could produce guidelines for gap courses that are available. I shall not ask for registration or detailed regulation--that would be inappropriate and wrong. However, the Government could issue guidelines so that students know that they are taking reliable, decent courses, and that they are not simply spending a year doing something life-enhancing while listening to Kula Shaker or anyone else. They would then know that they will benefit from their gap year activities, and so will other people.

Thirdly, the Government could collect some decent figures. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford has pointed out that even the unparalleled resources of the House of Commons Library cannot find any accurate figures about the numbers of people taking gap year courses or what they are doing. I take it as read that, if the Library cannot find those figures, they do not exist. Clearly, policy would be better informed if there were decent figures. For example, do the Government have a target for numbers of students taking a gap year? If not, do they think that more students should take gap years? If so, what will they do about it?

The overall message is that the pressures on students are increasing, and it is possible that gap years will disappear altogether. That would be extremely damaging for the health of the education system, the personal growth of the students involved, and Britain's image around the world, where many gap year students have done much good over the past few decades. That would be a step back from the idea of lifelong learning, and I hope that the Minister will provide reassurance on all those points.

10.45 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Dr. Kim Howells): I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Guildford(Mr. St. Aubyn) for bringing this important subject to the attention of the House, and for his thoughtful speech.

On statistics, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) knows that I too am very concerned about how we collect statistics in this country. We are not very good at it; we spend a lot of money on it, but do not get very good value. We prepared some calculations for the debate, which show that currently just over 19,000 students have been offered a deferred place. The hon. Member for Guildford mentioned between 20,000 and 30,000 students, and I suspect that he is not far off the correct figure. They are students who said that they were interested in taking a gap year or a year off.

Mr. St. Aubyn: One has to distinguish between those who had a gap year lined up by the time they left school

1 Jul 1998 : Column 291

and those who made a conscious decision to apply to university after they knew their A-level results. They are certainly in addition to the 19,000, and they are the several thousand students who, last year, sadly still suffered because of the way in which the Government dealt with the problem induced by their new rules on student funding.

Dr. Howells: I am sure that those statistics are not far wrong, and I would not argue with them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates my giving the figure of 19,000 so that he has a baseline from which to work, because I know that he is interested in pursuing the matter.

On volunteering, I was interested in what the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) said--I am always interested in what she says, although she has lost her radical edge these days. I used to love listening to her old philosophical stance, but I fear that it has mellowed somewhat.

Mr. Willis: Sweet reason, but not on Europe.

Dr. Howells: Yes, sweet reason.

Volunteering is not exclusive to would-be students. I know many volunteers who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. We are all sure of the virtues of volunteering, and know that we must encourage it in every way, but we must pay tribute to everyone who volunteers. It is not only the student cohort, but many other people who volunteer--indeed, society depends on volunteering in many different ways.

As the hon. Member for Ashford said, VSO has been of enormous importance to the image of this country. In addition, it has touched many families: my brother was a VSO volunteer in New Guinea, although he did not have a Kula Shaker album with him, and his anti-diarrhoea medicine did not do much good; after spending about four years abroad, he returned to this country with some awful bacterial disease.

As the hon. Member for Billericay says, guidelines and safety are key issues. The Government recognise the advantages to society and to individuals of young people undertaking enriching activities such as voluntary work, cultural exchanges, educational visits and work experience. We are keen to encourage volunteering by students, especially before they take up courses in higher education, if that is what they intend to do.

Our manifesto commitment to develop proposals for a national programme of citizen's service for young people is being fulfilled through the millennium volunteers programme. That programme's aim is to support young people between the ages of 16 and 25, and encourage them to make a sustained commitment to volunteering in a way that benefits the community; £15 million has been made available for the programme in this country. Decisions on the availability of future funding for millennium volunteers will be taken after this month's announcement of the outcome of the comprehensive spending review.

A consultation document was issued last October. We received 500 responses to the separate consultation exercises in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was strong support for millennium volunteers, and widespread recognition of the fact that

1 Jul 1998 : Column 292

volunteering helps young people to develop as responsible citizens. We have made the criteria for the programme as flexible as possible, without losing the requirement of a sustained personal commitment from the young person, which is the key to making millennium volunteers distinctive.

We recognise that the investment of time alone is not a measure of quality--that point lay at the heart of the speech of the hon. Member for Guildford. We have developed the idea, proposed in our consultation exercise, of a volunteer plan, which sets out the voluntary activity and the learning opportunities for the young person. I was glad that the hon. Gentleman emphasised the importance of having such a plan, and of knowing that quality training will be offered and that the experience will be of value; and that the young person will not be exploited to enrich the sponsoring organisation, or, in a more barefaced way, used as cheap labour.

National delivery of the programme will not be carried out by the Government; instead, a new organisation will be set up in England to deliver millennium volunteers. We are currently advertising in the national and voluntary press for the chairperson of that organisation. On 24 June, voluntary sector partners hosted a national conference to discuss the implementation of the programme in England, and to publish the document "Setting the Framework". Several demonstration projects in England are being set up over the next few weeks, and the Department intends to publish a millennium volunteers guide, which invites organisations to apply for funding, after the summer.

The consultation document expressed explicitly an expectation that activities undertaken by participants should

We are not yet convinced that volunteering overseas can achieve that result on its own. We have to widen the consultation to take into account some of the arguments that have been advanced, not least by the hon. Member for Guildford today.

Next Section

IndexHome Page