We are developing a new system of courses and assessment—"Higher Still"—to give all young people from age 16 the opportunity to stay on and gain relevant qualifications to the highest standard they can reach. Financial support is available in Scotland for this age group through child benefit of £40 million and, with bursaries and other allowances, to more than £91 million in total.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the staying-on rate has risen to an amazing 43 per cent. since the Government took over? What does he think would be the effect on the staying-on rate if the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) were ever to have the opportunity to put into effect his proposal to remove child benefit from this group of people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the teenage tax proposed by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East would hit Scotland hardest of all parts of the United Kingdom. Because of the Government's outstanding success, more 16-year-olds opt to stay on in school in Scotland than in any other part of the land. Therefore, Scottish families would be hardest hit by that learning levy—that tax on learning.
Did the Minister see the report in The Herald yesterday about the Scottish student who was forced to pay £20 a week to live in a broom cupboard under the stairs because he could not afford to pay a higher rent? Bearing it in mind that the maximum student grant is now only a fraction of what it was when Labour was in power, will the Government take urgent action to eradicate student poverty and to help build better opportunities for all our young people?
Madam Speaker, it is for you to work out the procedures of the House, but, surely, during Question Time, we should now distinguish between new Labour and more traditional Labour, because what the hon. Gentleman has just said is not what the rest of his party is saying. He is talking about student grants, but Opposition Front Benchers want to abolish grants and ensure that students subsidise themselves and pay back grants over 20 years. He should know that, under our proposals and our system, grants and loans together now amount to more than they did when his party was last in government.
As more children than ever before are sitting highers this summer with a view to going to university, does my hon. Friend agree that their hopes would be entirely dashed if they were penalised in the support that they receive to stay on in full-time education? Does he agree that the teenage tax would kill opportunity, whereas the Conservative party provides opportunity?
May I tell the hon. Gentleman that Opposition Members passionately believe in encouraging children to stay on in full-time education? Does he realise that his half-baked—even sinister—plans for mandatory national testing will do nothing to keep young people in the education system? Does he realise that, by alienating parents and teachers with this hidden Thatcherite agenda for selection and for vouchers in schools, he offers no hope to young people who want to stay on in full-time education? Before the Government damage more irreparably the Scottish education system by trying to breathe some life into the Thatcherite corpse, will they think again and abandon their dangerous plans?
I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) will take kindly to being called Thatcherite. He said:
It's absolutely vital that parents get as much information as possible. I certainly want that for my children; I want to know exactly how they're performing at school; I want to have a proper assessment of them.
Why is it right for the Leader of the Opposition to have those rights and that information, but it is not right for the hundreds of thousands of Scottish parents?
Does my hon. Friend agree that that major difference of between 9 and 10 percentage points shows that Scottish children would be disproportionately affected were there a teenage tax of £560 a head in lost child benefit? Would not that be devastating for teenage education in Scotland?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. To abolish child benefit for pupils staying on for higher and further education would be equivalent to levying a tax increase of 5p in the pound on the average taxpayer with one child aged 16 to 18. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) says that Labour is only reviewing the proposal, but will he tell us whether he will be supporting or opposing it?
Is the Minister aware that one source of income for families whose children are staying on at school is the higher school bursary? Is he further aware that, since the abolition of Strathclyde regional council, many authorities in the west of Scotland are, for financial reasons, unable to give bursaries to children who go outwith their own boundaries? In such circumstances, will the Minister consider providing additional finance for all authorities so that they can provide bursaries for children going outwith their area, or will he introduce legislation to make it compulsory for all children from any education authority to be treated equally, no matter whether they go outwith their authority's boundaries?
We are now spending some £45 million on further education bursaries, which in real terms is 188 per cent. more than was spent in 1979. We spend some £6 million on school bursaries, which is 123 per cent. more than was spent under the previous Labour Government, so we will take no lectures on our support for bursaries.