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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2000

Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 8 June 2000

[Sir David Madel in the Chair]

Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2000

4.30 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2000 (S.I., 2000, No. 1120).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2000 (S.I., 2000, No. 1121).

Mr. Boswell: Should the Under-Secretary not move a motion? You must forgive me for asking that question, Sir David—one occasionally gets caught up in a procedural incoherence. It is probably as a result of long experience in Standing Committee that one expects Ministers to move more amendments than one moves oneself.

I am reminded of a maxim that was advertised during the Vietnam war as a serious strategy for the United States Government: declare that one has won and terminate the war. On the material issue of the regulations, we could fairly claim that we have won a significant point, and I give the Under-Secretary fair credit for listening to us. His concession is a considerable advance and itself justifies our proceedings. Although my understanding of the complexities is perhaps imperfect, I shall explain the way in which he has conceded.

One of our major concerns relates to the point that, until now, mortgage interest relief at source has been regarded as a permitted deduction against income for the purposes of calculating the student support package. By withdrawing that relief a year in advance of withdrawing MIRAS, the Government acted in a manner that was not exactly consistent. The Under-Secretary might want to discuss the matter when he explains his proposals, but my understanding is that some people would have been disadvantaged by those arrangements. As I hope to point out in my remarks, which will not be extended, there may be wider implications for the tuning and fit of student support regulations with tax regulations. The Under-Secretary might want to comment on that as well, but we should acknowledge that a useful concession has been made, and move on.

The Under-Secretary will remember another debate, in which I introduced in a somewhat different context the concept of the Under-Secretary as a one-legged Santa Claus. [Interruption.] I am sorry to see that the Government Whip is so distressed by that image. The Under-Secretary has not made a comparable concession in respect of withdrawing the allowable deduction against certain insurance premiums, and I see no reason why one concession should be made but not the other. Perhaps there is no real effect, or no one is disadvantaged, but if the principle of no detriment applies to MIRAS, I would have expected it to apply to insurance contributions. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will explain.

As Frankie Howerd would have said, let us move to the prologue. These regulations, particularly No. 1121 of 2000 and the supplementary regulations, are substantive and important, as are the amendments to the regulations that the Under-Secretary is trying to introduce. I concede that they are not formally before the Committee, but I doubt whether we shall want to create difficulties about them, given the concession that the Under-Secretary announced.

If for no other reason, the complexity of the student support regulations makes them deserving of a little parliamentary time. They involve about 1 million students who are in receipt of some form of statutory Government support, and—by implication, given that we are considering qualifying incomes—their parents or dependants, so there is considerable interest in getting the matter right. To be a little more churlish than I was a moment ago, I point out that the Government's priorities may be revealed by the fact that, although we have previously debated the arrangements for loan recovery from students, it is only as a result of our motion that the substantive student support regulations are now being debated. It is for Committee members and history to decide whether that is a sign of the Government's priorities, although we should bear in mind that they have abolished maintenance awards in most cases.

A cursory perusal of this hugely complex document raises some concerns. Officials have thoughtfully arranged for amendments to it to be printed in bold. It is possible, with a wet towel and a following wind, to work out more or less what is going on. I hasten to add, in an attempt to be fair and balanced, that not everything is negative, although none of its provisions trips off the tongue.

The Under-Secretary will know that I held his job at one stage. Student loan regulations, or student grant regulations as they were then known, were hugely complex and the prerogative only of experts. I am reminded of the Schleswig-Holstein question, which was understood by perhaps only three people at any one time—but perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not need to be reminded of that.

The Under-Secretary has to read but a page or two of the regulations to appreciate how complex they are. That is instanced by the amending regulations, SI 1120, which mention the ``disabled person's tax credit'' and state that in the definition of ``high cost country'', for

    the words ``countries of the former Soviet Union'' substitute the words ``the Commonwealth of Independent States''.

Political circumstances may change again next year, at which point we shall need another set of amending regulations to amend these amending regulations. I make a prediction—I suspect that it is a dead certainty—that we shall need a fresh lot of amending regulations next year, when we may have to have another debate. The Under-Secretary shrugs his shoulders. In view of the structure of the regulations, it is hard to avoid having to amend them continually.

One problem—as a Conservative Member, perhaps I should not complain about this—stems from the fact that the original legislation is the Education Act 1962. Even those Committee members who are not paying much attention will recognise that that was enacted 38 years ago. If they did a bit of elementary deduction, they might work out that I was an undergraduate at the time. I shall share with Committee members a resentment that I have nurtured since then—I used to be in receipt of a state scholarship. That was received by public payment, which meant that I had to receipt it with the imposition of a tuppenny stamp before paying it into a bank. After 1962—my second year of full-time undergraduate study—a good many students received a mandatory award from their local education authority by cheque, which had already been pre-paid. Those who had state scholarships were disbenefited to the tune of 2d per term—less than one new penny.

It may be instructive to Committee members to learn how venerable I am, how venerable the regulations were and how deep my resentment was. This venerable old concept—I put this point in all seriousness to the Under-Secretary, who may want to respond to it—like a ship, has been gathering barnacles, as anomalies or hard cases are found over the years and, every so often, Ministers come along and knock a few off. However, others are inevitably collected en route and the delivery and clarity of the regulations become more difficult with the passage of years.

I want to put on the record my appreciation of the fact that the Department circulates helpful and clear advice to students who live in the real world and must decide what they will do and what they are entitled to. They are unlikely, unless they are gluttons for punishment, to read the regulations. The fact remains that they are of considerable complexity.

My first substantive point is to ask the Under-Secretary, bearing in mind the initiatives being taken in the Treasury on tax law simplification, to appoint a group of experts to consider whether the provisions can be made more straightforward. There may be ways of expressing matters differently and more flexibly without permanent amendment. Mortgage interest relief had to be dealt with specifically and a decision had to be taken. The Under-Secretary originally made the wrong decision but has now changed that, which we welcome. However, a simpler formulation might have been to map MIRAS on to other tax reliefs against income tax. I mention that only in passing, but the Under-Secretary should try to clarify the matter for the public weal.

My second point concerns the overall economic effect of the regulations. I am sure that the Under-Secretary has a speech prepared to explain what they do and it may be easier to listen to his speech than to read the regulations. One important matter is the provision of loans for part-time courses, which we welcome. Many other points add up to the package and it would be helpful if the Under-Secretary would explain the overall effect . We know that MIRAS was to be disqualified a year early and that is now being changed, but will the Under-Secretary state the overall cost to the Department of the change from the 1999 regulations and the 2000 regulations, whether it is material and what effect it will have?

The third issue, which occupies the majority of students, is that, whatever the details of the regulations, we cannot overlook their overall impact. We must take account of the radical changes that the Government have introduced in the substance of the student support package in 1998, which will become reality for almost all students from the next academic year. Students have had their maintenance grants withdrawn and must now rely on loans. When tuition fees must be paid, they may be rebated according to income and there is an element of income contingency in the loans and the repayments, as we discussed earlier.

The Government have tried to explain the details, not always plausibly, to the House, but it would be helpful if the Under-Secretary would refer to the wider issues that concern students. Will he tell us what is happening—whether as a result of these changes or otherwise—to student numbers and to applications to universities, especially when seen alongside the numbers of places being provided in higher education? I am worried that, even if the numbers are stable and not expanding, the fact that additional places are being created means that the utilisation of capacity is being reduced.

I would also like the Under-Secretary to comment on mature students. They appear to have been a major concern—to which he responded under some pressure earlier this year by introducing a student support package—especially in relation to bursaries. I would like him also to say something about the balance to be struck in dividing those bursaries between bursaries to specific students and access funds. What guidance is being given through the funding council to individual institutions in administering the access funds and the additional money? Has he established the criteria on which that should work, and will he assure the Committee that it will be absolutely fairly apportioned between different classes of students, having regard to their needs? We do not want a further set of anomalies to be created because some institutions are able to fund some classes of students more generously than other institutions can.

Will the Under-Secretary also comment on the overall economic situation of students? I am sure that he visits higher education institutions from time to time, as do I and other members of the Committee. I say advisedly, rather than with a deep political intent, that I have heard stories of student hardship over the years, to which I accorded more or less plausibility, but I hope always a degree of sympathy, when I had responsibility for these matters. Those voices are now more organised, more intense and more plausible than I have ever heard them before. That is in relation not only to the total amount on which a student has to live, but to the underlying background to a student's studies.

It is all very well for a student to work for two or three hours in the union bar to pick up a little supplementary income to help his or her studies along, or to pay for a holiday, but I hear stories of students who are, in effect, working full-time alongside what is meant to be a full-time academic course. It is difficult to do that. It is difficult, for example, to go to meet one's tutor if one is supposed to be serving in a supermarket at the time. That is not the intention of the student support package that we have established over the years.

These are difficult questions. Students' incomes and needs vary hugely. They have to operate within a package that cannot necessarily respond sensitively or precisely to the needs of the individual. The word on the street is that there is great concern about student hardship. The last thing that the Under-Secretary or I want is a further increase in the drop-out numbers, which are tending to edge upwards. That shows the pressure that students face. We do not want that to get out of hand, but there is real concern that it might.

When we look at this document of great complexity, and some comparatively minor amendments and adjustments this year, we are reminded of the old saying that we are rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. They may look tidier for a while, and they may even be in a more logical order, but the danger is that the ship is holed and sinking. The pattern of expansion of student participation and of university numbers over the years—with which we have grown up and which all hon. Members would feel is positive—may be coming to an end and beginning to run the risk of falling backwards, disappointing both the rhetoric of Ministers and the aspirations of future generations of students.

4.50 pm


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