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Lord Lucas: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the regulations and to raise further points, one of which concerns the grants to be made available for students who have left care. I welcome that as a concept, but I am puzzled by the detail in the regulation which affects such people. At page 48 it states that to be eligible it is necessary that the person should have been in care,
The following words seem strange for the opposite reason: that students must not have been back with their parents in the three months before the beginning of the course. Why? Does it mean that a student who has been in care and wishes to take advantage of the regulation has to avoid association with his or her parents in the three months before the beginning of the course; or has to avoid seeking reconciliation in order not to lose his grant? The regulations as drafted seem to contain somewhat strange aspects.
I wish to raise the question of lone parents. The regulations seem rather harsh towards lone parents. If someone is to attend a course properly, he or she may be paying out substantial amounts for babysitting or childminding. He will find life extremely hard under the regulations as drafted. I do not expect a clear answer from the Minister today, but perhaps he can write to me later. I refer to paragraph 1(1)(a) on page 43. Why do lone parents not have the disregard which other students have?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords perhaps not for their reception of the regulations but at least for the evident care with which they have studied them and the attention they gave to asking questions on them.
Perhaps I may say, first, to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that it is a pleasure for me to face her across the Dispatch Box. As the noble Baroness knows, my noble friend Lady Blackstone is in South Africa this week. If there has been any failure of communications through the usual channels, I apologise for that.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, for her reception of what I said about disabled students between 50 and 54. Of course there are not many. We are talking about perhaps 4,000 students, able and disabled, and perhaps 200 disabled students in that category. However, the noble Baroness is right to say that it might have been better if we had anticipated the problem without it having to be brought to our attention by SKILL. We are grateful to her for the understanding and the co-operation which her organisation is giving to resolving the issue. I do not know how it will be resolved, but we are keen that it should be.
The noble Baroness asked me about previous study rules. The removal of the previous study rules from disabled student allowance is universal. There is no qualification to that. Students will be eligible for disabled student's allowance for any second course designated under the regulations, whether for HNCs, HNDs, or first degrees, regardless of the nature of the previous course. I hope that she will accept that that is as widely drawn an exemption from previous study rules as it can possibly be.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked so many questions that I hardly had time to write them down, let alone answer them! However, I shall do my best to do so. On a wider issue which is not contained in the resolutions, I simply do not agree that there is a greater burden of debt on students from low income families than on those from better off families. On the contrary, the qualifications for exemption from charges, for eligibility for loans, and the repayment conditions are fairer than they were previously.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does the noble Lord accept that a student from a low income family shares the full burden of the whole maintenance grant irrespective of the tuition fees, whereas a student from a more affluent family is responsible personally only for paying back half the maintenance grant?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not know that the Government can be responsible for the internal household arrangements of better off students. We can ensure that the provisions for loans and the repayments of loans are properly tailored between families of different backgrounds.
I will deal with the noble Baroness's questions in the order in which I have notes rather than the order in which she asked them. I cannot reconstruct her speech. She asked about students from the European Union and correctly said that the cost was £327,000. She will recall that the department, of its own volition, volunteered to take over the responsibility for the assessment from local education authorities because it was believed that the conditions in so many European countries with so many different regimes would be difficult for local authorities to deal with. They would have to learn about small numbers and 96 per cent. of applications from the European Union countries were dealt with by the central unit.
The department has processed about 10,000 applications from European Union students for fee support. The noble Baroness can draw what conclusions she wishes about value for money, but it is more expensive in the first year. I will have to write to the noble Baroness detailing how many students did not qualify for fee support as a result, but the cost relates to the application.
The noble Baroness asked about guidance to higher education institutions on the application of Regulation 9 about tracking student addresses. Both the LEAs and the Student Loans Company will contact students by any available route if we are aware that the address is no longer valid. However, it is a failsafe device in the sense that it is in the students' interest to allow their addresses to be tracked successfully.
Of course, the noble Baroness had the benefit of the briefing from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which I did not have. She asked at what point an applicant becomes a borrower. The answer is when the first instalment of the loan is received by the student. A number of questions were raised by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about the performance of the Student Loans Company and about targets. The Minister in another place was able to say--and I know that it caused some queries--that 97 per cent. of completions were satisfactory. Of course, the ability of the LEAs and the Student Loans Company to achieve targets which are on a calendar basis depends on the proportion of students who complete their applications accurately and on time. But we have set targets. They are that there should be a turnaround for applications for new style loans within 14 days and for hardship payments within 7 days. Our fundamental target is that the first cheque should be available from the higher education institution on the first day of the first term. Those are tough targets. The improvement of the performance of the LEAs and the SLC in the past year leads us to have some confidence that it will be achieved. However, if there are problems we will be prepared to ask for a full review.
We have closely involved the major players in the design of the overarching system of administration. It makes clear the roles and responsibilities of each player, which are much more rational than under the preceding system, and it sets out a schedule which enables each of them to make their contribution at the right time. We have deadline dates and turnaround times for each stage of the process and the SLC has developed staffing plans so that it can meet its new responsibilities.
It is important for us and for the regulations to ensure that everyone is clear about their roles and responsibilities. Formal definitions and agreed business processes are being backed up by information and advice from the department. The Student Loans Company is rolling out a comprehensive training strategy for its staff on the changes. Nevertheless, we have contingency plans. We are developing monitoring systems to ensure that we receive early warnings of any problems. Representatives of the LGA and the CVCP have been involved in the development of the systems.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked about my phrase, "a maximum of at least £500". I confess that I added the word "maximum" because I wanted to provide for the possibility that part-time students would want less than £500. At the same time, Ministers have decided that there will be payments to part-time students. The maximum has not yet been determined, but it will not be less than £500; in other words, it could be more. I am sorry if my wording is somewhat elliptical and misled her. The noble Baroness also asked me whether the omission of disabled students was purely an omission. I can confirm that that was the case. There was no sinister intent.
I have already replied about the previous study rules. I hope that the noble Baroness will agree they are a good deal more user-friendly than they were. Of course, it is still the case that a student will not be eligible for fee support if he or she has previously attended a full-time course of higher education lasting one academic year or more. But that will not affect the student's entitlement to maintenance support. It means that, for the first time, a student will not be disqualified from receiving supplementary allowances, such as disabled student allowances or dependent allowances, on the ground of the previous study. I hope that goes some way towards reassuring the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who asked me about lone parents for whom dependent allowances are made. I can confirm that the previous study rules will not affect initial teacher training courses or people continuing from a higher education course that does not lead to a degree; for example a higher national diploma. After all, that is the purpose of access courses which carry with them the right to credit transfer.
The noble Baroness asked me about the liability of students to pay tuition fees on transfer between institutions. The collection of tuition fees is essentially a matter between higher education institutions and the students, but we are aware of the issue and we will be discussing it with the CVCP in order to agree guidelines. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, we do not intend to define "educational" in any narrow sense. The Minister in another place referred to the person's best
The noble Baroness asked me about the impact of the changes on part-time initial teacher training courses and she referred specifically to the Open University. I am grateful to her for that. The changes will simplify them while ensuring that students are no worse off than now. They will promote access to the teaching profession. The regulations accommodate a range of patterns of part-time ITT study and start dates, as they have in the past. I would not imagine that there are special implications in respect of ITT start dates, but we are providing full and comprehensive guidance for LEAs, higher education institutions and the Student Loans Company. Of course, we cannot be completely flexible and allow students to dip in and dip out at will, but we recognise that there are some occasions, particularly for part-time students, when there must be breaks. I am sure that the regulations can be interpreted sympathetically from that point of view.
The noble Baroness asked me about the removal of the assisted students rule. A simple means test ensures that European Union students are treated no less favourably than UK students. I do not know whether that means that they are European Commission funds or national funds, but we shall provide further guidance to assist with interpretation.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked me about field trips. That is more complicated. Field trips have always been excluded from the fees payable under mandatory awards and we did not change that in the Teaching and Higher Education Act. Had we done so, there would have been pressure to meet the cost of those field trips, which were not met previously, within the funds available. Therefore, on balance, we believe that it is right for those and certain other fees to continue.
I have dealt with the issue of transfers on educational grounds and delivery by the principal players. Perhaps I may say a few words on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about part-time students and the lapsed time for a course. The time for completing a course is that which the institution sets, whatever the mode of attendance. There is discretion to extend it, which can be exercised in the light of all the circumstances.
If the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will forgive me, I shall answer his question about the definition of the dates of eligibility for the carer's allowance in writing. The point which occurs to me immediately is that if we have the three months' qualification for having been in care, it is right that there should be the same qualification for not having been back living with parents. It would be wrong if there were any asymmetry between those periods. However, I do not quite know what is the justification for specifying three months rather than one month.
I have taken too long, and I am sorry. I have tried to answer as many questions as possible. I shall write to noble Lords on those matters that I have not covered.
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