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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Social Security Amendment (Students) Regulations 2000

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 12 July 2000

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Draft Social Security (Students) Regulations 2000

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security Amendment (Students) Regulations 2000.

The command paper comprises four elements: the draft regulations that we referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee in 1998, which sought to clarify the definition of full-time students for social security purposes; the report that the committee produced following its public consultation; our response to that report; and the draft regulations now before us.

The regulations improve the interface between the education maintenance and social security systems by introducing new provisions for students who are recovered ill or former carers, and who want to resume their studies but are required to wait until educational institutions permit them to do so. At present, those groups fall between the two systems. The regulations also tighten the definition of full-time students for social security purposes, to reinforce the policy intention that, in general, full-time students are not eligible for benefit. We are also taking the opportunity to introduce a better alignment of definitions across the income-related benefits. Those changes are technical.

Part-time students are eligible to claim social security benefits, as is anyone else. However, full-time students are in the main not eligible for social security benefits. That is for the good reason that they are supported by the education maintenance system, which is designed for their needs. The regulations confirm the policy, ensuring that full-time students are not eligible for social security benefit until such time as they complete, abandon or are dismissed from their course of study. We already make an exception to that rule for prescribed vulnerable groups of full-time students, such as the long-term sick and lone parents. That is not because they are students, but because they are vulnerable and need additional support.

The advisory committee's report focused on the interface between social security and education maintenance provision. We made it clear in our published response that we were grateful for its observations, which we considered carefully. The committee recommended that we should not proceed with the draft 1998 regulations, but that we should review the interface between social security and education maintenance provision. The Department of Social Security and the Department for Education and Employment have now done so, and the draft regulations are the result.

I have explained that the regulations clarify the existing policy that full-time students are not in general eligible for social security, but that there are exceptions. We now propose to introduce another exception to tackle an issue that needs to be resolved. Some full-time students have to interrupt their studies because of illness or caring responsibilities. In some cases, when they are in a position to resume their studies, their educational establishments may not allow them to do so immediately. They often have to wait until the beginning of the following academic year. In those circumstances, the recovered ill or former carers do not receive education maintenance, and they are not currently eligible for social security, because they have not finished their courses of full-time study.

The draft regulations change that by providing that those people will be eligible to claim jobseeker's allowance and, where appropriate, housing benefit, subject to the normal rules. More specifically, they will be able to claim the benefit from the date of recovery from illness or the end of their caring duties, or until they can rejoin their courses at the start of the next academic year, or earlier if they can. That is positive support that will help the individuals to help themselves, and is in line with the importance that we attach to education.

The report of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which is published with the draft regulations, makes several additional points about full-time students who interrupt their studies for other reasons. The Government have already acted in relation to sickness. Mandatory support from the education maintenance system has been more than doubled, from 28 days to 60 days. If sickness should continue, the relevant education authority has discretion to extend support further. If sickness lasts more than 28 weeks, the student becomes eligible to claim social security benefits as a vulnerable group student, as prescribed in existing regulations.

The advisory committee referred to full-time students who interrupt their studies for other reasons, from academic difficulties to personal or domestic problems. In those cases, support is available from the education maintenance system at the discretion of the relevant education authority, but my officials will keep them under review with the Department for Education and Employment.

The committee also expressed concern that a full-time student who switched to part-time would continue to be treated, virtually for ever, as a full-time student for social security purposes, and would not be able to claim benefit. That is not the case in practice. If a student wants to change from full-time to part-time study, he or she has to abandon the full-time course, and is therefore eligible to claim social security because, under our policy, part-time students are eligible.

We originally proposed that, for social security purposes, postgraduates should continue to be treated as engaged on their course full-time after the formal part of the course has ended but they are writing up a thesis or awaiting an oral examination. After the reconsideration for which the committee asked, we are not proceeding with that amendment.

This piece of legislation is not the end of the story, because we continue to keep student provision under review, and hon. Members will be happy to know that we are in the process of preparing further regulations. They will provide for the disregard, for social security purposes, of new education maintenance support for students—in particular, mature students' bursaries meeting the costs of child care, and grants for school meals. Those arrangements will apply for the academic year 2000-01.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is introducing for 2001-02 a new child care grant for mature students with dependent children based on actual costs of up to £100 per week. That grant will replace the child care element of the mature student bursaries offered in 2000-01 and, for lone parents, the existing flat rate lone parents grant. We propose fully to disregard the new child care grant in the calculation of income for benefits purposes. That will ensure that mature students and lone parents get the full benefit of the extra help.

The regulations make positive progress in maintaining the interface between social security and education maintenance. They will enable the recovered ill and former carers to claim jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit until they are able to resume their studies. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

4.37 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I know that I am supposed to keep the Government in eager anticipation as to whether there will be a Division, but the hon. Lady will have to be abusive to me beyond the point of physical violence to force me to seek a vote. There is practically no difference between the Government's and the Opposition's policy on the regulations. We have read carefully the recommendations of the Social Security Advisory Committee, and we join the Government in rejecting several of its suggestions. The Government have been measured in their response.

We have been fortunate enough to have a high-quality briefing from the National Union of Students and, especially, from the university of Sheffield branch. They would clearly like to return to the position of 10 years ago, when students were more able to get benefits. Unfortunately, that is not possible—things have moved on, and there are student loans. However, the union in Sheffield says that it does not want the regulations to be rejected.

I have a couple of points of substance to make. The first relates to the Government's response. In paragraph 30, the Government say that, although they thought that there was merit in the changes, they felt constrained to stay within guidelines for public expenditure. I do not expect that it will be all that much, but will the Minister tell us what the proposals will cost?

I know from constituency experience about the need for such changes. I recall two cases, one of which concerned a person who took a year off to look after her mother who was dying of cancer. The young girl obviously went through a traumatic year and it was difficult to find support for her. The second case was that of a young man who suffered a substantial mental breakdown, but who has managed to rebuild himself and, I am pleased to say, graduated with a very good degree last year.

Point 19 of the Government's response refers to ``substantial caring responsibilities''. Proposed paragraph (3D)(a)(i) of the regulations deals with a student being

    engaged in the caring for another person.

What is the meaning of ``substantial''? It will be good if an explanation of substantial caring is on the record.

The proposed paragraph (3D) also contains the words

    any time during an academic year, with the consent of the relevant educational establishment, he ceases to attend or undertake a course because he is—

    (i) engaged in caring for another person; or

    (ii) ill.

I am not clear from the Secretary of State's notes or the various briefings exactly whether the student would have to overcome a one or two-hurdle obstacle course. Clearly, the person must obtain consent from the relevant authorities. Will that consent be conclusive or will the claimant have to overcome another hurdle with regard to whether the caring is substantial?

It will be a burden on educational establishments for them to have to gather all the necessary information to determine whether a person is undertaking substantial caring responsibilities, so it would be as well to clear up such matters now. I have no doubt that the hon. Lady can respond to my questions, because last night, under the shadow of a former Liberal Prime Minister's statue, she managed to satisfy me completely on those points. I should be most grateful to hear her response.

4.43 pm

 
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