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Student support: restricted modification of repayment terms

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 21st November 2016.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 6:30 pm, 21st November 2016

The Minister briefly addressed new clause 8, although in anticipating it, he understated and, to some degree, misrepresented the actual position. Let me therefore explain the new clause, for which I think there is support on both sides of the House—I think there was some discomfort on the Government Benches in Committee when it was voted down.

New clause 8 would allow all refugees resettled to the UK, as well as those young people who, having made an application for asylum, are granted a form of leave other than refugee status, to access student finance and home fees. It would be of particular benefit to Syrian refugees resettled to the UK under the Government’s own policy, so it is perhaps not surprising that there is support for it on both sides of the House. Only small numbers of people would be affected, but as those of us who have dealt with such cases know, it would have a huge impact for the individuals.

Let me explain the context. Currently, individuals with refugee status can access student finance and qualify for home-fee status from the moment they are awarded their protection. That is where the Minister was economical with the truth in his comments about the new clause, because those with a slightly different status—that of humanitarian protection—are treated differently: they have to be able to show that they have been ordinarily resident for at least three years at the start of the academic year to be able to receive financial support.

The group most affected by that different definition are those Syrian refugees currently being resettled to the UK under the vulnerable persons resettlement programme, as they are granted not refugee status but humanitarian protection. The result is that a young Syrian refugee who arrives in the UK today would not qualify for student finance until the start of the academic year in 2020. The only exception is if they are resettled to Scotland, where the Scottish Government—I commend them for this—have introduced a special fee status for resettled Syrians, allowing them immediate access to student finance.

Subsection 2(a) would ensure that all resettled refugees, no matter what status they are given, and no matter where they live in the UK, could access student support immediately. Subsection 2(b) would make student finance available for those who are granted humanitarian protection after making an application for asylum. As set out in the immigration rules, humanitarian protection is granted to people who face a real risk of suffering harm if they return to their home country. That includes the risk of facing the death penalty, torture or inhumane treatment, or their lives being at risk due to armed conflict. Now, the future of those who are granted humanitarian protection after applying for asylum is clearly in the UK. If their future is here, they should be enabled to build their lives here. They should be allowed to access university education not simply to build their lives but to contribute fully to our society.

Subsection 2(b) would also provide access to student finance and home-fee status for people who have applied for asylum and then been granted another form of immigration leave. Again, in these cases, the Government have accepted that the immediate future of these individuals is in the UK, so they should be given every opportunity to contribute and develop, yet they face significant hurdles in doing so. The reason is that, in 2012, the last Government changed the rules so potential university students in this situation could no longer access student finance. They would also have been reclassified as international students, meaning they would face higher fees.

Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court found that the Government’s rules were discriminatory. I realise the Government have not been doing very well in the courts recently, but this is a slightly earlier case—the Tigere case. As a result of the Supreme Court ruling against the Government, the Government changed the rules and introduced the new criterion of long residence. What that means is that young people who have gone through the asylum process—including children who arrived as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—and who are unlikely to meet the long residence criterion, will have to watch their school peers go off to university, leaving them behind.