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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Social Security (Students Responsible for Children or Young Persons) Amendment Regulations 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Bercow
Banks, Gordon (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley) (Lab)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
MacShane, Mr. Denis (Rotherham) (Lab)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Plaskitt, Mr. James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 11 June 2008

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft Social Security (Students Responsible for Children or Young Persons) Amendment Regulations 2008

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Students Responsible for Children or Young Persons) Amendment Regulations 2008.
Good afternoon, Mr. Bercow. It is a pleasure to serve on a Committee under your chairmanship for the first time.
The regulations were laid before the House on 14 May. I believe that the proposals are relatively straightforward, and I hope that they will be widely welcomed. They will apply to jobseeker’s allowance and income support. The intention is for single students with children to be entitled to claim the appropriate benefit during the summer vacation of their course.
Benefit provision is not usually available to full-time students during an advanced course of education, as they are funded through educational maintenance channels. However, during the summer vacation, certain students with children are entitled to benefit, such as couples with children if both parties to the couple are full-time students. They can claim jobseeker’s allowance or income support during the summer vacation of their course, provided that they meet all the other conditions of entitlement to the benefits.
Currently, however, there is no such provision for single students with children or a dependent young person to claim jobseeker’s allowance during the summer vacation. Single students with children under 16 can claim income support throughout their course of study on the basis of being a lone parent, but once their child reaches the age of 16, they are not classed as a lone parent and therefore cannot claim income support. In comparison, couples with children or a dependent young person who are both full-time students are entitled to claim income support, in specific circumstances, during the summer vacation.
By making this change to jobseeker’s allowance and income support regulations, we will remove the disparity in the treatment of single and coupled students. We will thereby prevent the children of single parents from being put at risk of child poverty. The change will remove the discriminatory effect of the current regulations, and it is compatible with the European convention on human rights. I hope that the Committee will agree that the changes in the regulations are worth while and necessary to ensure that all students with children have the same opportunity to claim jobseeker’s allowance or income support during the summer vacations of their course.
2.33 pm
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): As the Minister said, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Bercow. I shall not detain you and the Committee long.
As the Minister said, the proposals are uncontroversial, and we shall certainly not vote against them. I would go so far as to say that they will plug an important gap, and I am pleased to see them in their present form.
Having said that, I hope that you will permit me, Mr. Bercow, to ask the Minister a couple of questions to seek clarification, so that we are clear about exactly what we are talking about. The first is about the phrase “the summer vacation”. We all know that just about all universities have three terms and a long summer vacation, but is there a definition of “summer vacation”? Is it a minimum number of weeks?
In your constituency, Mr. Bercow, you have the fine university of Buckingham, which I happen to know has four terms, rather than three. No doubt it therefore has a rather shorter summer vacation. I would not want students in your constituency to be unable to benefit from the regulations. I have not done exhaustive research, but I know that the three-term system is almost universal and that there is a long summer vacation. Will the minimum period be six weeks? What will happen if a university has a long Christmas break and a short summer break? Could students not claim the benefits then, or will there be some flexibility? In case universities change the way in which they operate, it would be useful to know exactly what we are talking about.
It appears to me that the regulations will not apply to Northern Ireland. Being a member of the Conservative and Unionist party, that always concerns me, because Northern Ireland is a valid and important part of this great United Kingdom. Those measures might be covered in other delegated legislation, but given that no Northern Ireland Members are with us today, it falls to me, as the first Opposition Member to speak, to raise that issue. I would be pleased, therefore, if the Minister, or his officials through him, could assure us that the situation in Northern Ireland is covered, and that our fellow citizens there are not still being discriminated against.
Paragraph 7.4 and other paragraphs of the explanatory memorandum use the words,
“single people with responsibility for a child or young person”.
In 99 per cent. of cases, it will be entirely clear what that means and, presumably, if a child is in care, it would not apply because the student would not have responsibility for them. Nevertheless, is there is legal definition of that phrase?
Finally, on a general point, regulation 2(2)(c)(i) uses the word “partner”. These regulations will remove discrimination. I certainly have one or two constituents, as, I am sure, does the Minister, who would prefer to be referred to as a husband or wife. I am not asking him to change these regulations, but, in general, would the Department be averse to using the phrase, “husband, wife or partner”? I am of the school of thought that we should call people what they would like to be called. If people want to be referred to as a “partner”, fine by me—I have no problem with that. However, given that some people have freely chosen to marry, they might prefer to be referred to as a “husband” or a “wife”. That is a small point, but language is important, and given that the regulations deal with discriminatory matters, a more general approach might be preferable. If he could give a commitment to raise that matter with his colleagues in future discussions, it would be very welcome.
2.37 pm
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, albeit rather briefly—I shall be even briefer than the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire.
This is an equality matter that I am glad to see addressed. I am possibly slightly saddened in that it has been forced on the Government, rather than introduced of their own free will. It struck me as I read about the matter that those who will benefit are some of the most vulnerable people in society—teenage mothers, for example, who, if they have made the effort to get themselves back into full-time education, need every bit of support that we can give them. I imagine that carers of young people could include young carers—another very vulnerable group. The measure is overdue and very important, although the groups that I have mentioned need much more support.
2.38 pm
Mr. Plaskitt: This has been a short, but helpful discussion, and I shall try to clarify the points that have been raised. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole for expressing her support. She is quite right: the measure relates to a particularly vulnerable group of people, and it is right that we assist them. The regulations are possibly overdue, but I am pleased that we are now in a position to introduce them.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire raised several points. The point about summer vacation will depend largely on the defined vacation of the education institution in question. Individuals making a claim for either of the benefits under the regulations will have to provide proof to their jobcentre that, during the specified period for which they are claiming the benefit, their institution is in its summer recess. Proof will be needed that the term has finished, that the new academic year starts on the specified date and that what is in between is the summer recess. It will be different for different institutions. The individuals who are claiming should be able to prove or demonstrate the length of the period, when it began and when it will end.
The arrangements do not include other recesses, such as Christmas and Easter, because the educational support that full-time students receive is designed to cover their support during that time. However, it does not run over and include summer recesses. That is not part of the definition of educational support.
Andrew Selous: I am a little puzzled by the Minister’s reply. If we are not talking about a minimum period, why exclude the Easter and Christmas holidays? Vulnerable groups need money all year round so, if there is not a minimum period, why not do any vacation?
Mr. Plaskitt: The reason is, as I have just said, that outside the summer vacation, full-time students are deemed to be supported by educational maintenance support. That extends over the whole academic year, including the other vacations, but educational support does not run across the summer vacation. Separate arrangements need to be made for that. That is where the issue of benefit entitlement arises.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Northern Ireland. We are working closely with the Northern Ireland Administration and, as is customary with such benefit changes, they are taking forward their own separate arrangements to parallel what we are doing here. I understand that they will have something similar to us, but they will make provision for it separately. They are on the same track.
Responsibility is cited in the regulations, which borrow a phrase that the hon. Gentleman will find throughout social security legislation. The existing definition of responsibility is designed to ensure that the issue is genuine, that the obligation on the parent is genuine and that the child is truly in need of support. We have simply replicated the terminology used throughout social security legislation.
Finally, and ingeniously, the hon. Gentleman referred to the use of “partner”. That reminds me of the rebuke that I receive when I occasionally write to a constituent and address her as Ms. I receive a strongly worded letter back saying emphatically, “I am Miss and do not wish to be addressed in any other way.” I accept that people have sensitivities about such matters. The only reason that “partner” is used in the regulations and elsewhere is to encompass all the arrangements that exist. It is simply easier to say “partner” rather than keep spelling out all the possible permutations. The term is used for ease of reference and for the sake of completeness. I hope that my response has been sufficient to reassure the hon. Gentleman, and that the Committee will accept the proposals.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I apologise to you, Mr. Bercow, the Committee and the Minister for not being here at the start of the Committee. I merely want to know the definition of a full-time student. I ask that because a number of young people who have gone to university have come to me and, contrary to the prevailing prejudice against them, they actually want to study hard and to receive a lot of tuition, but find that they are receiving little tuition and are expected to attend very few lectures. For some of them who complain to me, 16 hours a week would be a welcome increase, not a decrease. Under the rules of jobseeker’s allowance, is someone who is given an inadequate period of study at university deemed to be available for employment? [Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order.
Mr. Plaskitt: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. If I have misunderstood his point, I hope that he will intervene on me again. The period of 16 hours relates to the time of work that an applicant may be asked to undertake as a means of qualifying for jobseeker’s allowance during the summer recess. It does not relate to the period of study. The 16-hour rule that the right hon. Gentleman might be thinking of is a separate issue. Conditionality is attached to the JSA claim in such cases. Unlike the usual requirement that might require someone to be available to work full time—40 hours a week—the stipulation will only be 16 hours because the person has care of a child. It relates to the amount of work that the person might reasonably be expected to do while in receipt of JSA, not the amount of time involved in study.
For benefit-claiming purposes, an individual will have to demonstrate the educational institution’s definition of the course to which they have signed up; the institution will specify whether it is a full-time course. It is then for the educational institution to determine the studies in which the person engages. The benefit system simply needs to establish that it is technically defined as a full-time course. There are many ways to deliver a course that is defined as full time, but those issues do not concern the benefit system.
Mr. Plaskitt: It was an ingenious intervention and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has achieved the objectives that he had in mind.
With that established, I hope that the Committee will accept the regulations.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Students Responsible for Children or Young Persons) Amendment Regulations 2008.
Committee rose at fourteen minutes to Three o’clock.

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