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12 Jan 2010 : Column 662

But she went on to say:

You will understand, Mr. Speaker, that both Ian Leech and myself were disappointed by that. After further correspondence with Ministers I was grateful that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property agreed to meet me, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington.

10 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-( Mr. Blizzard.)

Mrs. Dean: After the meeting in March 2009, the Minister wrote to the Department for Work and Pensions in support of changes to the benefit rules for those who are absent from their course because of long-term illness, but who remain enrolled at their university so that they would not be classified as being in full-time education for benefit purposes.

In June 2009, better news came from the Treasury in a letter from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which said that

This was confirmed to me in a letter from my hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Minister in August 2009 in which she says:

Sadly, changes were not announced in the pre-Budget report, even though I know that my hon. Friend the Minister pressed the Treasury for the funding to implement this much-needed change following our meeting early in November.

Students who become seriously ill are still suffering because the current system lets them down. As Mr. Leech said to me, a student should not be expected to have to endure a long-term illness and use money to live on that they then have to repay. As he says, that does not apply to the employed, the unemployed or the retired. Students are being singled out and persecuted. He also believes that the human rights of students with long-term illnesses are being violated because they are treated differently from other members of society.

Because of Ian Leech's campaign, students contacted him from around the country through the Lymphoma Association, and one such student, Blair Ward, wants her story told. Blair says:

I believe that she means employment support allowance. She continues:

Thankfully Blair has now returned to university, but her experience describes how it can be more costly to be ill, with expenses such as travel and personal items, such as clothes.

Serious ill health is difficult to cope with at any age, but for young people and their families it is particularly tragic. It is bad enough coping with the stress of diagnosis and treatment without the added pressure of the unfairness of the benefits system for students. All Departments now accept that unfairness.

No one seems to know how many students have to suspend their studies because of serious illness; however, numbers are likely to be small. It is likely that the numbers who have to suspend their courses is less than those who abandon or are dismissed from their courses and have been helped by the Social Security (Students and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008. The proposal from the DWP is that employment support allowance for students who suspend their studies because of serious ill health be treated in a similar way. I welcome that proposal and urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that a way is found to achieve justice for students with serious illness. It would be immoral, unfair and unjust not to address the problem.

10.4 pm

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) on raising this issue and I thank her for allowing me an opportunity to make a brief speech. I appreciate the fact that she has persevered and persisted with the issue-she has spoken eloquently about it on a number of occasions, including tonight. I also acknowledge the contribution of Ian Leech, who has campaigned admirably and with great foresight.

As my hon. Friend said, she brought Melissa's case to me when I was responsible for this area of the benefits system in the Department for Work and Pensions. I initially took the official line, as Ministers invariably do, which she quoted. However, after she came to meet me to discuss Melissa's case in some detail, I came to the conclusion that the regulations were quite simply wrong and indefensible. That is how the process of trying to remedy and correct the situation began. Unfortunately, I left the DWP before the task was completed.

In my view, this has been a story of a completely justifiable reform repeatedly getting up to the last fence before for some reason falling. I hope that we do not have to persuade the Government that the reform needs to take place-the research has been done and the case has been made. It is simply a matter of having the will to get over that last fence to remedy this clear injustice, which I hope will happen before this Parliament ends.

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When I had a go at trying to resolve the problem, it suffered a bit of ping-pong between the DWP and the education Department. There was an argument over who was going to pick up the tab, and for a while there was an argument over the numbers, but those are not critical issues and they can be resolved with continuing commitment from the two Departments.

I have three brief points to make before the Minister responds. First, I agree that the numbers are small. Therefore, the cost of making the adjustment that is required is also small. Will she commit to trying to determine the numbers? Universities UK probably has the information, but neither my hon. Friend the Member for Burton nor I have managed to flush it out. If the Minister undertook to make that inquiry, we could establish the numbers. In that way, we would be certain about the potential cost of the small change that is required.

Secondly, I do not believe that a solution is difficult to find. I hope that the pass the parcel between the two Departments comes to an end. All we need is to agree in regulations a specification of serious illness, which I do not think is too difficult to establish. We would then have to make the necessary regulatory alteration to allow students who have had to come off their courses because they have been diagnosed with such illnesses access to income support benefits. I am confident that that can be worked out.

Thirdly, I welcome the 2008 regulatory change, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Burton, but I think it odd to make that change, which was a concession within the benefits system for students who decided for some reason to leave their course, or who were ejected from their course, so that they could access the benefits system, yet not make the change for students who leave their course not through their own will, but because they have been diagnosed with a serious illness. They have been given no choice medically but to come off their course, yet we say that there is no benefit support for them. At the same time, we say that there is benefit support for someone who comes off their course for some arbitrary reason. That has made the situation still less defensible than it was before. The 2008 changes in the regulations were a wholly understandable reform, but they have had the slightly perverse effect of making the injustice we are talking about even more stark.

Let me conclude by saying that I wish that I had managed to get the problem sorted out. I have great admiration for the fact that my hon. Friend has persisted with her campaign. I have tried to help as she has gone along, but this is essentially an issue on which she has taken the lead, and in an admirable way. The problem is not difficult, and I think that the solution is obvious. We have got close to implementing it on two or three occasions. I hope that before this Parliament ends we will hear from the Minister that there is a commitment from the Department to getting what is a justifiable and urgent reform over the last hurdle and actually implementing it.

10.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): I, too, would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) on securing the debate. Let me say how much I appreciate her concern and the effort that she
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has expended in taking up the issue, which stems from the particularly distressing case of Melissa Leech. As my hon. Friend said, Melissa's father Ian has also campaigned vigorously for students who suffer from severe illness that causes them to halt their studies. My hon. Friend outlined the details of Melissa's case and subsequent death, and made an eloquent case, which deserves the fullest understanding. She has also been persistent in pressing the issue of support for students who find themselves in such circumstances. I was also pleased to hear the perspective of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt). I had not realised how long the discussion had been going on, so I was pleased to have his input into this debate.

Let me begin by explaining what financial support is currently available for students, including those who fall ill and are unable to continue their studies because of their illness. As hon. Members will know, the social security regulations were changed in 1990. The automatic entitlement of full-time students of 19 or over to jobseeker's allowance, income support and housing benefit was removed at that point. The Government believe that those who want to take the route of full-time study should become the responsibility of the education system and should therefore not normally be eligible for income-related benefits. That is to avoid duplication of financial support.

That policy happened to coincide with the introduction, by the then Department of Education and Science, of top-up loans for students and student access funds, which allow colleges to give discretionary payments in cases of hardship. More recently, the Government have introduced the maintenance grant and the special support grant, which are available to those who need help with accommodation and other living costs. They are grants, not loans, that have to be repaid. The special support grant is available to those who receive income support or housing benefit. The Government have concluded that the education system is best placed to provide the primary financial support needed for the entire period of a student's course of study. Such support is designed specifically to meet the needs of students, unlike the welfare system. However, in recognition of the fact that some students have expenses unconnected with their study, those in vulnerable groups retain an entitlement to benefits. They include student couples with children, lone parents, disabled students and people aged 60 or over.

When a student falls ill, they can be absent from their course for up to 60 days and remain eligible for student finance. If they need extra help, their university or college can make payments from its access to learning fund during that period. If a student is ill for more than 60 days, their local authority can choose to continue paying them student finance, as long as they remain enrolled on their course. However, they may be too ill to continue their course and may need to abandon it. When a student has to abandon their course and needs to apply for welfare benefits, we treat them just as we are required to treat any other person. We must take into account their financial resources and any resource that may be available to them. In the case of a student, that is usually a student loan, which is the main means of financial support for the majority of students. We take into account the period for which the loan has been
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made, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burton pointed out, is not the whole year, but the quarter during which the request for welfare help has been made. We introduced that change in August 2008 in order not to penalise those who had had to give up their courses. At the moment, this applies only if the student ceases to be a student; if they do not cease to be one, they are not under current rules able to claim benefits. This is what my hon. Friend wants to see changed.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of deeming income. We have a deeming rule for all customers who wish to access benefits. Let me explain why we need to deem available income when it might not have been taken up. Benefits are payable only when no other income is reasonably available, so there are strict rules covering the availability and use of income. For example, someone who has money but disposes of it may be disallowed from benefit because they are considered to have disposed of it in order to claim benefit. Similarly, someone able to obtain financial support from elsewhere but does not do so and then claims benefit may be disallowed because they have other resources available. Anyone who wishes to receive benefits must first show that they have taken up any available financial support. In the case of students, this will be the student loan.

I do appreciate that a student faced with the appalling knowledge of a possibly fatal illness may want to keep their status as a student in order to hold out some hope for the future. The difficulty at the moment is that there are clear rules covering students, the clearest being that full-time students are not entitled to benefit, including during the vacation period.

Let me turn to what we could do to improve the situation for students in these difficult circumstances. As a start, I feel we can go a long way to alleviating the problems for students who find themselves in such difficult circumstances by making sure, as far as we can, that they get the right advice at the right time. If students and those who advise them are better informed about the financial support available to them in a range of circumstances, students will be better placed to deal with the financial issues, should they fall seriously ill.

My officials have been working with their opposite numbers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to improve guidance to universities so that students receive clear and consistent advice. They have also taken advice from the National Association of Student Money Advisers. I would stress the importance of students contacting their college advisers and their student union as soon as possible, and Jobcentre Plus if the student feels that they may be able to claim welfare support. There is a good deal of useful information for students on the Directgov website.

I appreciate that arrangements for supporting full-time higher education students can be far from clear and straightforward. For example, we make exceptions in the benefits system for certain groups that are considered to be vulnerable, whether they be students or not. Each of those exceptions brings its own particular circumstances that have to be taken into account. This inevitably adds to the complexity of the financial support system.

Particularly in the light of what has been said this evening, I think it is an appropriate time to consider whether there is any way that we can simplify and improve the transparency of the arrangements. I will
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explore ways forward with BIS, education providers and student representative bodies.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's case for dropping the deeming principle in some cases, and I understand that additional costs to the Exchequer are not likely to be large, as such cases are few and far between.

Mrs. Dean: I am grateful to the Minister for saying that she is going to look at how we can move this forward, but does she accept that it is likely that there will be far fewer students who have to suspend because of illness than there will be those who give up or are dismissed from their courses, who can claim benefits more or less straight away? Does she see the unfairness? Does she accept that students who want that hope of going back to a course-indeed, in most cases, they probably do-should not have to give it up, but should be able to suspend it for a year?

Helen Goodman: I do understand the unfairness to which my hon. Friend refers. I was about to say that the number of cases like this are so small that we probably
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do not need to explore in great detail how many there actually are. I do not think that the cost to the Exchequer would be a significant barrier to securing the change.

I want to make positive progress without complicating the system. If a change to the current deeming provision is to work properly, we must have a clear understanding of which types of illness-mental or physical-genuinely prevent someone from continuing their studies for a period of time, and we must be able to define those circumstances clearly so that both our customers and our benefits advisers understand the regulations.

I will ask my officials to speak to our medical colleagues and lawyers, and to seek their help in setting out clear criteria for an easement of the rules. We will also ensure that the representative student bodies and university authorities have an input, and will use the time available to us to spread awareness of the issues as widely as possible. I want to be sure that if we make a change we get it absolutely right, and avoid in future the kind of distress caused in Melissa Leech's case.

Question put and agreed to.

10.21 pm

House adjourned.

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