Section 5 — Short title and commencement

Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 10:45 am on 29th March 2001.

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Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Many of my points have been made previously by Dennis Canavan, Tommy Sheridan and indeed Robin Harper, not only in his role as an MSP but in his role as rector of Edinburgh University. This is also a matter of principle. The question of the restoration of benefits does not simply go back to the principles of the Cubie inquiry, which indicated that the lack of benefits was a clear factor in student debt; it goes back to the principles of the welfare state and of Beveridge, whom the members of agricultural Labour will recall was a Liberal. This issue is all about having the opportunity to receive a benefit as a citizen's right and entitlement if that individual is unable to gather or obtain any money.

When I was a student—which was many years before Tommy Sheridan was a student—benefits were available. It was not a licence to scrounge, but an opportunity for a citizen to receive his right and entitlement. If he cannot earn, he should be able to make such a claim.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I ask members to keep the background noise down when other members are speaking.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Restoring benefits would not cause a deluge of claims by students, many of whom would obviously not be eligible if they were employed. However, those who are unable to obtain employment—which I hope would amount to a few—should be able to obtain a citizen's rights as a member of our society. Such principles were enunciated by the Labour Government when it set up the welfare state, and were adhered to by the Cubie committee.

The Executive has acknowledged that the problems of student debt and of students' disinclination to continue their studies are not down simply to tuition fees or graduate endowments, but to many other matters, particularly the lack of benefits such as housing benefits and social security benefit at key times. As Dorothy-Grace Elder, Dennis Canavan and Tommy Sheridan have pointed out, students are under substantial pressure. Amendment 2 provides a limited opportunity for a student who does not receive a grant or has no income at summer or Christmas to benefit from society's assistance, as is their right and as, when I and other Labour members were students, we had the opportunity to make a claim for benefit if we could not obtain employment.

We acknowledge that the Parliament does not have the power to deliver that, as social security is reserved. However, the very least that we can do and that our students are entitled to expect is for the Parliament to tell Westminster that social security benefits should be restored to students, as the Cubie committee and others have recommended. If Westminster refuses to do so, all we can do is return to Scotland and decide whether we should have power over social security instead of having to go cap in hand south of the border. I have no hesitation in moving this amendment not just because of the principles of the Cubie committee, but of the principles of the welfare state.

I move amendment 2.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Before calling the next speaker, I appeal again to members to keep the level of background noise down in the chamber, as it is very distracting.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

In supporting amendment 2, I want to give the chamber some food for thought for the future. In the Parliament, a group led by Stuart Duffin is researching a basic birth-to-death income scheme that would replace the whole system of benefits. I will not to go into all the details of the scheme just now, but I will say that introducing such a scheme for all young people from 16 to 24 would remove many of the complications that we have been debating this morning. This is a simple plea to members to start thinking about a basic income stream. The Irish are considering that possibility. It would simplify all the problems that students face if we introduced a basic income stream for all students aged 16 to 26. Future consideration should be given to that.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP 11:00 am, 29th March 2001

I ask all members to consider what amendment 2 is inviting them to do. We are being asked to support representation being made to Westminster to reinstate the right of students to social security benefits. Most Labour members, at some time in their previous employment, supported those calls and opposed the removal of the right of students to social security benefits. Even the Liberal Democrats at Westminster support the reinstatement of benefits for students. All that amendment 2 is asking is that representation is made.

I hope that there will be unanimous support for the amendment. It is asking for a minimum level of income to be set for students—that is what income support is: a minimum level of income. If we continue to refuse students that minimum level of income, we continue to condemn them to a life of poverty while they study.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

When amendment 2 was discussed at stage 2, it was pointed out to Mr MacAskill that it proposes to give Westminster a veto over legislation in the Scottish Parliament and that the right way in which to tackle the situation is for SNP members to turn up at Westminster and, along with the Liberal Democrats, lobby to get it changed. I suggest that that is the right way in which to achieve what the amendment seeks to achieve, instead of holding up the Scottish Parliament in doing its work.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

As George Lyon says, amendment 2 was lodged at stage 2 and was rejected. As I explained to Kenny MacAskill then, the payment of benefits is a reserved matter.

It is especially surprising that amendment 2 has been lodged by an SNP member. Let us be clear about what the amendment sets out to achieve. The bottom line is that it would make legislation that was passed by the Scottish Parliament dependent on the actions of UK Government departments. I can say categorically that it is not appropriate that the Scottish Parliament should delay its legislation pending action by the UK Government in a reserved area. That is not the way in which the Scottish Parliament should work, and it is not how it is going to work.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

Will the minister guarantee that that will never happen while the present Executive is in office?

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

I am delighted that Mr Wilson has made such a devastating intervention. I am at a loss as to how to answer it.

It is apparent that Kenny MacAskill and his nationalist colleagues think differently about the way in which the Scottish Parliament should work. Amendment 2 appears to suggest that we should give the UK Government a veto over legislation in the Scottish Parliament. However, it would be highly inappropriate for us to pass power back to Westminster. If the SNP and other members want to raise the matter of social security benefits for students, they should do so through the appropriate channels. As George Lyon pointed out, the proper way in which to do that would be to lobby Westminster directly, as social security is a reserved issue. We all appreciate the fact that Scottish National Party members have great difficulty in turning up for any debate in the House of Commons—only this week, they failed to turn up for an important debate on the Scottish economy.

We are not ignoring the issue of the interface between student support and the benefits system. In implementing our new student support system, we have ensured that the relationship between student support and benefit entitlement is as smooth as possible. For example, the new school meals grant will ease the transition from benefits to full-time study and help all student parents on low incomes. We are ensuring that the new assistance, such as the mature students bursary fund and the school meals grant, will not affect benefit entitlement. I therefore invite the Parliament to reject amendment 2.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I am surprised that the minister and Mr Lyon have not read the amendment. The word veto is not mentioned. It says that representations are to be made, and thereafter, in part (b), that Scottish ministers must have

"laid before the Scottish Parliament a written report of the response made by Her Majesty's Government to those representations."

If Her Majesty's Government was not prepared to restore eligibility for social security benefits to students, that would not impede an Executive of any political hue in proceeding in the matter. It would, however, raise the opportunity of inquiring whether social security benefits should continue to be run from south of the border. People would have to make their own judgment on that. What we are asking for is the minimum amount to which we think that students are entitled.

The bottom line is that the Executive should be prepared to go down to Westminster and at least ask for benefits to be restored to students. That is what its members agreed with and supported when they were in opposition, although apparently they are now not even willing to go to Westminster to ask for that. We are not asking anyone to go cap in hand; we are asking the Executive to restore what we believe is the right of every individual citizen. Given that 50 per cent of our young people are now becoming students, the Executive is preventing 50 per cent of young people from obtaining benefits although they cannot work. That is why we have no hesitation in adhering to principle once again and in urging the Parliament to support amendment 2.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

The question is, that amendment 2 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

There will be a division. [Interruption.] There is a problem with the electronic voting system. Members who are just entering the chamber can relax, as we are having to delay the vote. The clerks are now resetting the system.

Division number 8

For: Adam, Brian, Campbell, Colin, Canavan, Dennis, Crawford, Bruce, Cunningham, Roseanna, Elder, Dorothy-Grace, Ewing, Dr Winnie, Ewing, Mrs Margaret, Fabiani, Linda, Gibson, Mr Kenneth, Grahame, Christine, Hamilton, Mr Duncan, Harper, Robin, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Mr Adam, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, MacDonald, Ms Margo, Marwick, Tricia, Matheson, Michael, McGugan, Irene, McLeod, Fiona, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Reid, Mr George, Robison, Shona, Sheridan, Tommy, Sturgeon, Nicola, Swinney, Mr John, Ullrich, Kay, White, Ms Sandra, Wilson, Andrew
Against: Aitken, Bill, Alexander, Ms Wendy, Barrie, Scott, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Brown, Robert, Butler, Bill, Chisholm, Malcolm, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Ms Margaret, Davidson, Mr David, Deacon, Susan, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Fergusson, Alex, Finnie, Ross, Gillon, Karen, Godman, Trish, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Gorrie, Donald, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Gordon, Jamieson, Cathy, Jamieson, Margaret, Jenkins, Ian, Johnstone, Alex, Kerr, Mr Andy, Lamont, Johann, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Mr Kenneth, MacKay, Angus, MacLean, Kate, Macmillan, Maureen, Martin, Paul, McAllion, Mr John, McAveety, Mr Frank, McCabe, Mr Tom, McConnell, Mr Jack, McLetchie, David, McMahon, Mr Michael, McNeil, Mr Duncan, McNeill, Pauline, McNulty, Des, Monteith, Mr Brian, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Mundell, David, Munro, John Farquhar, Murray, Dr Elaine, Oldfather, Irene, Peacock, Peter, Radcliffe, Nora, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Rumbles, Mr Mike, Scanlon, Mary, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Iain, Smith, Mrs Margaret, Stephen, Nicol, Stone, Mr Jamie, Thomson, Elaine, Tosh, Mr Murray, Wallace, Ben, Watson, Mike, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

The result of the division is: For 32, Against 74, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 2 disagreed to.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

That concludes consideration of amendments to the Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) (Scotland) (No 2) Bill.