Ministers have "softened" and delayed publishing proposals to cut child benefit in order to fund a unified national student-support system so as to avoid alienating voters in this month's local council elections, a chief government adviser claimed this week.
Graham Lane, chairman of the government's advisory group on student support, recommended earlier this year that ministers end child benefit for 100,000 wealthy parents of sixth-form students and divert the Pounds 600 million saved into a fund for direct student support. The government has not yet published Mr Lane's report.
This week Mr Lane said that the child-benefit proposal had been "softened" by spin doctors in the Department for Education and Employment. "Ministers got frightened about the spin and feared that the wider student support argument would be hijacked by the child-benefit debate," he said. "They also delayed until after the local elections."
Mr Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, is furious that his report, which was submitted to ministers on March 31, has been held up. The latest publication date is June 17.
A DFEE spokesman said the report had not been delayed. "Ministers asked the advisory group for advice, and it is being considered. The government is busy, but the report will be published in June."
Mr Lane said: "I was asked to finish the report by March, and I did. It is time the government produced it so we can get the consultation started. They should stop worrying about the spin on child benefit."
He believes the government's delay has distorted his message and damaged the plans. Mr Lane insists that the child-benefit proposal - which is now only one sentence in a 20-page report - was never the central part of the report. The main thrust of the report, he insisted, is a plea to the Treasury to match-fund the Pounds 200 million spent by local authorities on support for students in further education.
Mr Lane wants to create a Pounds 400 million budget to fund a unified national student-support system, in which local authorities lose their discretionary powers to administer support, and each student gets a minimum entitlement to cash. "The Treasury can come up with the Pounds 200 million, and this is the issue ministers should concentrate on," Mr Lane said.