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House of Lords

Wednesday, 14th June 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.

Royal Assent

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Financial Services and Markets Act,

Railtrack (Waverley Station) Order Confirmation Act.

Mature Students: Financial Provision

2.36 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to increase financial provision for mature students wishing to undertake degree courses at universities.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, we have made mature students, especially those with children, a priority. We are introducing measures to give them more financial support, including bursaries of up to £1,000, paid according to need, a means-tested school meals grant and, from September 2001, a childcare grant based on actual costs. All of these will be disregarded for benefits purposes. We are also this year raising the income threshold at which mature students have to contribute towards their tuition fees.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful and promising reply. Can she confirm that the extra money made available earlier this year for mature students was directed towards those universities offering part-time courses with a vocational focus? I do not disagree with such a policy, but does my noble friend accept that many people wish to undertake full-time university courses over a wide spectrum of study. Can she confirm that the policy I mentioned in my first supplementary question will not be implemented at the expense of the kind of course I have just mentioned?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, in my initial Answer I referred to the position as regards support for full-time students. After all, it is full-time students who gain full access to the student support regime. However, the Government have decided to make it

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possible for part-time students also to gain access to the loan system. Part-time students on low incomes will be able to take out a loan of up to £500 a year.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, why is it that students undertaking Bachelor of Education degree courses are treated so unfavourably when compared with those undertaking a PGCE course after completing their first degree? It seems only fair that B.Ed students should qualify for at least equal treatment with anyone else who chooses to go into teaching.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has asked about this on previous occasions. The reason for treating PGCE students in a particular fashion is to tackle the problem of shortages of secondary school teachers in certain subjects. Most students studying for a Bachelor of Education degree will in due course become primary school teachers, where the shortages are not as acute as in secondary schools. That is the reason for the different treatment.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I was pleased to hear the Minister mention in particular the costs of childcare. Does the Minister agree that women returning to higher education after having children often face difficult problems as regards childcare because many institutions do not have creches where young children can be looked after? Does the Minister have any solutions that would address this problem?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. We must do all that we can to help women with children, in particular single parents, to secure the qualifications they need in order to get well-paid jobs. They will then no longer be dependent on the state. For that reason, among others, we have introduced these improvements for mature students, with a special emphasis on mature students with children. So far as concerns creches, it is for the universities themselves to decide on their arrangements for the provision of on-site daycare facilities. However, I think that the vast majority of universities now provide creches and give priority to students with particular needs, such as single mothers or, indeed, single fathers.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether the disabled student's allowance has been assessed as regards its effectiveness in assisting disabled mature students?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I do not believe that a specific study has been carried out into the effectiveness of the disabled student's allowance as it affects mature students. However, the Government have expanded the provision of DSAs to include part-time students because many mature students study part time. This is the first time that that has happened. I can also tell my noble friend that the Government are making DSAs available for postgraduate students.

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Toll Charges: VAT

2.43 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to introduce VAT on toll charges.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the issue of whether to charge VAT on toll charges is presently the subject of proceedings before the European Court of Justice. HM Customs understands that the judgment of the court is not due until 12th September.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, has the Minister noted the judgment of the Advocate General to the effect that, because the United Kingdom failed to impose VAT on tolls, it has as a result failed to meet its obligations under EC treaties? The Advocate General has ordered that the outstanding VAT should be paid retrospectively back to 1994, together with interest charges. Does the Minister appreciate that when I raised this issue a few years ago--I was concerned about the grave effects the imposition of such charges would have on the Severn bridges, the lifelines of Wales--I was told by the then Transport Commissioner, Mr Neil Kinnock, that the fears I was expressing were part of the Euro myth? Does the Minister agree that the reality is now a little different? Furthermore, is it not time for us to stand up to those faceless bureaucrats in Brussels?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend uses language that I am more used to hearing from the Benches opposite. The Advocate General delivered his written opinion to the court on 27th January, but the final decision is before the court. We understand that it will be delivered on 12th September. My noble friend is right: the opinion of the Advocate General was that all toll charges should be subject to VAT, but that, because of delays in consideration of the matter by the Commission, arrears should be paid over a period of only four years rather than over the full period from the time the matter was first raised by the Commission.

Lord Renton: My Lords, do the Government believe in freedom of movement for workers, holidaymakers and tourists? Is the Minister aware that the imposition of these charges would mean interference with freedom of movement and would add to its cost?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the only tax imposed in this country which is subject to European law is value added tax. Consistency between countries in the way in which value added tax is imposed is a matter of European directives, to which we have signed up in the form of primary legislation.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I could not possibly better the splendid denunciation by my noble friend Lord Islwyn of the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels? Is it true

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that the Government have merely expressed disappointment at the Advocate General's ruling? Would it not be better if they expressed outrage? Would it not dish the Commission, the Advocate General and the European Court if we used some of the new telephone licence money to abolish toll charges, not only on the Severn Bridge but on every other bridge and road in the United Kingdom?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government have done a great deal better than object to the opinion of the Advocate General--it is an opinion, not a ruling; the final decision is with the Commission. The Government argued strongly before the European Court in November last year when the issue was before the court that VAT should not be charged on tolls. We did so on the basis that nearly all the tolls in this country are operated by local authorities as a statutory duty and, therefore, should not be, and never have been since 1973, subject to VAT. A difficulty arises with tolls such as those on the second Severn crossing which are privatised. The argument is much more difficult to sustain in those circumstances.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, if the Government are faced with an adverse judgment in the European Court, will they consider lowering the charges, because traffic levels on the Severn crossing are rather higher than expected, and in view of the fact that, as the noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, said, this is Wales's lifeline?

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