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Mr. William Cash, supported by Mr. John Redwood, Mr. Peter Lilley, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. Bernard Jenkin, Mr. Graham Brady, Sir Peter Tapsell, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. John Whittingdale and Mr. Brian Binley, presented a Bill to reaffirm the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament; and for connected purposes.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to review and report to Parliament annually on the support provided to armed forces veterans across the United Kingdom in respect of access to health services, access to welfare schemes and access to other support; and for connected purposes.
We ask a lot of our armed forces, and it is appropriate that in this House we should regularly acknowledge our debt of honour to the brave men and women who put their lives at risk on our behalf in many different parts of the world. I am happy to do so again today. As our country has been embroiled in different conflicts in recent years, it is also right that at the beginning of Prime Minister's questions each week, it has become the custom to pay tribute to those who have died serving our country-as we did again today, following the sad news of the death of Captain Daniel Read, of the Royal Logistic Corps, in Afghanistan. I should like to add my condolences to those already expressed by the Prime Minister and others.
The support given to the armed forces is actively debated in the House and rightly so, but today my focus is on the veterans-the millions of people who have served our country over many different decades and have returned to civilian life. In our own constituencies we come across them every day, contributing immeasurably to local communities while modestly playing down the roles that they had and the risks that they took.
I have been delighted in recent years to assist more than 400 constituents in obtaining their veterans badge. I have been honoured to present many of them and to listen to the experiences of the people who have earned them. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have been approached countless times to help veterans in their civilian battles as they try to get assistance with the health, financial or other problems that now confront them. Through Armistice day and other initiatives, we will not forget the sacrifices of those who have died, but it is equally important that we do not forget those who have survived but who need our help to cope. High levels of war fighting over the past decade have created a new generation of veterans with specialised needs at the same time as earlier generations who fought in the second world war and subsequently move into old age and experience the extra problems associated with their service.
In helping our constituents, we are given invaluable support by all kinds of organisations. My constituency includes the historic home of Earl Haig, whose eponymous charity plays a huge part in supporting veterans and their dependants and in raising awareness of the challenges facing them. There are countless others, such as the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, whose networks of volunteers across the United Kingdom tackle some of the most complex welfare issues imaginable.
The demand is great and I acknowledge that it is recognised by the Government. Beyond the introduction of the veterans badge, we have seen the establishment of
the Veterans Agency, the publication of the service personnel command paper and, more recently, the pathway initiative. The shortcomings in the support available to veterans are obvious from the awareness campaigns undertaken on their behalf. Research on health services by my hon. Friends the Members for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) has established that 80 per cent. of local health authorities in England and Wales and 57 per cent. in Scotland have no idea how many veterans they have treated under the priority access scheme. Local health services do not understand the scheme and so veterans are losing out.
The British Medical Association has suggested simple changes that could transform the situation, including better training for NHS personnel on clinical matters affecting veterans and requiring a patient's veteran status to appear on the front of his or her medical records. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People points out that a veteran in the UK has to endure hearing loss of 50 dB-twice that of their United States counterparts-before they will be considered for compensation in the UK. As many of my father's generation found out to their cost, the five-year time limit imposed for applications for compensation is too restrictive and excludes many from accessing the support that they should have.
Away from health issues, Poppyscotland's recent research shows that the second most common problem facing veterans after mobility issues was financial difficulty, yet as it points out, there is no single point of delivery for financial advice for veterans in Scotland. Research from the Royal British Legion has shown that many veterans have been forced to wait an unacceptable amount of time before receiving grants to which they are entitled and homelessness remains a real blight, with the charity Veterans Aid taking around 2,000 calls per year from veterans who are homeless or at risk of being homeless through debt and other problems.
Looking after veterans is complex and demanding, and it is made more so by the fact that the responsibility for care and support is divided among different agencies and Departments and between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. I accept that the Government's 2008 Command Paper, "The Nation's Commitment", has sought to bring Departments together. It also seeks improvements in the ways in which local authorities and devolved Administrations consult the Ministry of Defence on veterans issues. Despite the myriad Government measures and voluntary schemes, however, assistance provided to veterans across the United Kingdom remains too fragmented. Organisations working with veterans keep reminding us that they are often reluctant to claim their entitlements and none of them wants preferential treatment.
We must recognise that we owe veterans a duty of care. We must spell that out. We must do better to make veterans aware of their entitlements and how to access them. We must transform the way in which health and other service providers fulfil their obligations to veterans and take care of their specialist needs. To help us achieve all this, we need urgently to reform the way in which we gather information about the needs of veterans and how they access help. In Parliament, we should debate a Ministry of Defence report on these issues every year.
This Bill seeks to address such issues and to allow Parliament to fulfil its scrutiny role more effectively. It would establish a legally binding code on veterans' welfare, setting out a duty of care to veterans. That veterans covenant would include the right to an individual needs assessment, spelling out the services in which they should have priority or other access. It would also provide for monitoring reports on individuals' experiences at appropriate points in their lives. The Bill would place a duty on the Ministry of Defence to implement the veterans covenant by maintaining a register of veterans, co-ordinating the work of UK Government Departments and liaising with the devolved Administrations. Finally, the MOD would be required to report to Parliament annually on the implementation of the code.
That Mr. Michael Moore, Nick Harvey, Willie Rennie, Bob Russell, Mr. Alistair Carmichael, Mr. Paul Burstow, Julia Goldsworthy, Malcolm Bruce, Danny Alexander, Sir Robert Smith, John Mason and David Cairns present the Bill.
That this House notes with concern the increase in the number of young people not in employment, education or training and the fall in the number of apprenticeship starts; further notes that there will be a shortage of university places in 2010 and that the continuing problems with the Student Loans Company will impact on those students beginning their studies this year; calls on the Government to clarify its position on university places after the annual Higher Education Funding Council for England grant letter and on imposing fines on those higher education institutions that take on more students to meet the 50 per cent. participation target; further calls on the Government to consider proposals for the rapid expansion of apprenticeships and to free further education colleges from stifling bureaucracy so they may meet the needs of young people; and urges the Government to offer 10,000 additional university places in order to build aspiration, opportunity and a competitive economy.
The basis for the motion is very simple: sadly, it is a widely recognised fact that young people in our country are the first and worst victims of this recession. The shocking figures are all too familiar. The number of young people not in education, employment or training is now more than 1 million-it is 1,082,000. The rate of youth unemployment in Britain, with 950,000 young people unemployed, is one of the worst in Europe. In fact, it is a sad irony that the Government were first elected in 1997 on a pledge card that they would reduce youth unemployment by 250,000. Under their watch, it has risen by more than 250,000 since then. That is a very serious challenge to us all.
This is not just about youth unemployment or the fact that young people have been the first and worst victims of the recession. It looks as though the higher education and training budget has proved to be one of the first and worst victims of the fiscal crisis that the Government have created. The Opposition understand the need for tough measures and for public spending to be brought down, because that is the mess that the Government have created and that has to be tackled. However, we have called this debate because we want to hear from the Minister what measures the Government are taking to tackle the crisis, and a full explanation of how he believes the cuts that have been announced in stages over the past few months will impact on universities and colleges. I have to say to the Minister that the suspicion is that the Department that he represents has fallen victim to the political arguments in the Labour Government between- [ Interruption. ] The Minister denies it, but not with an entirely straight face. The arguments are between the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, who famously said on 20 September 2009,
"I said...that I wanted to see us carrying on with real terms rises in our key public services"-
"spending in some areas will be reduced".
"Everything is going to have to be examined."
The First Secretary of State is making an example of his Department in a strategic debate that he is having with some of his Cabinet colleagues about what approach the Government should take to the fiscal crisis. If that is what he is arguing as part of Labour party strategy, we should not be surprised that it looks like, so far, by far the biggest cuts have fallen within the budgets of higher and further education.
It is worth being clear about what those cuts are, so it would be helpful if the Minister explained them properly. Our understanding is that a £180 million efficiency saving was announced in the 2009 Budget; a £600 million further reduction was announced in the autumn statements; and a £135 million further reduction was announced in a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 22 December. That adds up to what is believed to be a £915 million cut. What steps is he taking to deliver those reductions and what does he think they mean for the numbers of students and the quality of the student experience? We want to hold him to account, and universities need to know exactly what the cuts will entail.
Buried at the end of the letter to the HEFCE, was a revealing figure that brought home the scale of the reductions. At the beginning of this period, in 2007-08 prices, the planned unit of funding-the amount of teaching support for students-was £4,140. According to the letter to the HEFCE, that will fall to £3,950 in 2010-11 in constant prices. That looks to be the key figure, and it is contrary to all the assurances we have had that teaching would be protected as part of this exercise. How does the Minister plan to deliver those significant reductions in the higher education budget?
We also hope to hear from the Minister about what the reductions mean for the number of student places. We are close to the 15 January deadline for applications-we understand that it was extended by a few days because of the weather-but can he indicate to the House how many university applications he expects this autumn? From provisional figures collected earlier in the year, we know that we were already looking at a 12 per cent. increase in applications for 2010 on top of applications in 2009-and 2009 was itself a record year.
We understand the reasons for those big increases in applications. With high rates of unemployment, many more young people apply to go to university, and of course there was a mini baby boom in the early '90s, which means that there is now a large number of 18 and 19-year-olds in that cohort. We want to hear from the Minister how many places will be available at universities for this further surge in the number of applicants. The fear is that there will be an increase in the number of young people applying and an absolute decline in the number of places available for them.
That would be an extraordinary position for the Government to have got themselves into. They have an official target of getting 50 per cent. of people into university. First the Government set the target, and then last year universities offered extra places for those students. Now, however, we are told that institutions will be fined for taking on those extra students. This must be the first time a Government have fined an
institution for taking the steps necessary to reach the Government's own announced target-in this case, of more people going to university.
"courses of higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so".
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is talking about targets and pooh-poohing the idea behind them. He talked earlier about units of funding, but does he not acknowledge that the lack of targets under Tory Governments in the 1990s led to one of the lowest ever units of funding for university students?
Mr. Willetts: I accept that in that period we saw a big increase in student numbers but not a comparable increase in the unit of resource per student. Labour Members used to make that criticism, but now they are presiding over a reduction in the unit of resource per student. That is why, this time, we have a specific proposal for 2010 that avoids the problem identified by the hon. Gentleman. We have cautiously and prudently identified an extra source of cash that could go to universities in the crisis likely to be faced in the summer of 2010 of so many university applications with a possible reduction-on the Government's plans-in the number of places. We have said that there should be a bonus-a special discount-for people who repay their student loans early, which would bring extra cash into the system now, before Lord Browne of Madingley has a chance to report.
The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): The hon. Gentleman has raised that point before. He said that it is a practical proposal, but will he tell us how he has costed it and what its cost is, including the dead-weight cost of giving a discount to those who would repay anyway?
Mr. Willetts: We have made a simple and cautious assumption that by summer 2010, there will be £30 billion of outstanding student debt. We believe, from looking at similar but not identical schemes in New Zealand and Australia, that it is reasonable and cautious to assume that 1 per cent. of that debt will be repaid early-£300 million.
In order to avoid the problems now faced by Ministers, which the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) mentioned, we have fully costed university places. We have not used places costing less than the average-if anything, we have costed them slightly more highly than we believe is the average. We have said that a university place costs £10,000 a year in total public funding, which includes maintenance and teaching support. Over three years, therefore, the full cost in public expenditure of a student place is £30,000, which means that the £300 million that we have identified would provide an extra 10,000 places.
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