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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

A matter of interpretation

There are times in politics when faced with a difficult question a politician will go off onto their own agenda and answer a question he or she has not been asked. The First Minister produced a perfect example of that yesterday when I questioned him on top-up fee. I asked:

Will the First Minister make a statement on the meaning of the term ‘demand-led’ in relation to the Assembly learning grant? (OAQ39626)

The First Minister (Rhodri Morgan): It means just what it says on the tin. All students who apply for the Assembly learning grant and meet the eligibility criteria will receive the appropriate level of award. The same will apply to the education maintenance allowances announced last week, which will also be demand-led.

Peter Black: I always understood, in terms of the budget, that ‘demand-led’ meant that where you had an increase in demand, you had to provide the money for it. However, despite a 13 per cent increase in demand for Assembly learning grants, the budget has been cut. Do you not believe that it would be better to use any surplus in the budget to increase the amount of grant payable to students and to widen the eligibility for it?

So far so good. Rhodri gave a reasonable answer to that supplementary but then he went off the rails a bit:

You must remember that you do not set a budget in the same way with regard to demand-led services. What you have, in essence, is a guesstimate and not a budget. You do not set the amount that you will spend, saying that you will not spend any more. It is a guess of what the demand will be. When we introduced the Assembly learning grant, we wildly overestimated the number of people who would apply for it. The reason for that was that, in higher education, people were used to applying for student grants, but the same was not true in further education. We have struggled to market the scheme to eligible students in further education, but it is starting to come through now. We believe that we have made an accurate estimate but, in the end, it is no more than that.

So a large part of the Assembly budget-setting process is guesswork? To top it off he concluded by interpreting my plea to widen the eligibility for Assembly Learning Grants and to increase the amount of the grant as an attack on students.

However many students apply, they will get it. Do not worry about that, and do not worry students about it either.

I think that even under Jane Hutt's health service it is possible to get your ears syringed now, Rhodri!

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