HC Deb 14 February 1966 vol 724 cc984-98
Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 9, to leave out "may" and to insert shall within a period of five years from the passing of this Act". We debated a similar Amendment to this in Committee at some length. I quite understand that we are circumscribed in our debate today, but I wonder whether, in addition to the arguments which we then adduced, my hon. Friend, in the light of the recent incident at Glasgow University in the case of the expelled students, has had any reason to change her mind.

My hon. Friend will know from the arguments then put forward that some of us were not quite satisfied with the wording of the Clause, in that the word "may" appears, making it permissive for the older universities to apply for a charter. Some of us thought that this should be mandatory and that they "shall" apply for a charter within a period of five years from the passing of the Bill.

I do not think that there is any great need to expand or to go over the same argument, except to point out to my hon. Friend that she, in reply to that Amendment, said that it was desirable that the constitution of a university should be set out clearly in one acceptable document rather than in a mass of enactments spanning a century. Perhaps it should be explained that the 1889 Act, which governs the four traditional universities in Scotland, was itself an amending Act of those of 1825 and 1823.

My hon. Friend went on to say that it was equally desirable even from the universities' own point of view that the power of each component of a university should be explicitly stated and that from the Government's point of view it was clear that it would be a good thing for future relationships between the Government and the traditional universities that the relationships between the Secretary of State and all universities in Scotland should be on a par. My hon. Friend made it quite clear that this was not to suggest uniformity in what was taught within the universities, but that the relationship between the Secretary of State and the universities should not be, as it were, divided into two classes with some universities based on the 1889 Act and the newer universities based on charters.

The present Bill governs the internal government of St. Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, while the newer universities of Strathclyde and Herriot Watt and the university to be at Stirling are and will be under charters. But the one big question at Glasgow University has drawn into relief serious defects in the Bill, in the sense that much of the machinery, as we have said before, is archaic whereas charters would afford the traditional universities the opportunity to have a new look at this matter, instead of going on building on past laws and organisations. They would be able to review their procedures and bring them up to date in accordance with opportunities which charters are affording to their younger brethen.

The church hymnary is described as "Hymns Ancient and Modern", but we have no desire in Scotland to have universities ancient and modern. By means of the Amendment we wish to bring the older universities into line. We believe that sufficient reasons can be adduced—although I shall not go into them now—to suggest that the older universities should now be asked to take their place along with the newer ones.

My hon. Friend advanced in Committee as one of the arguments for not accepting the Amendment the question of what would be done if the older universities did not move and what sanction we proposed. She said that the only one that seemed open to her was the withholding of money, but I suggest that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Second Reading proposed the sanction that if no move was made by the older universities the Government could introduce a Bill at a later stage. It seemed to me that, if that was merely a promise deferred for the bringing in of a Bill at a future date, it might well be done now in this Bill when we have the opportunity.

As my hon. Friend knows, it is only the Bill that matters. Whatever the intentions of the universities may be, and whatever their promises, it is very difficult for some of us to accept that they will, in fact, move. They intended the Bill to be, as it were, a substitute for charters. They meant the Bill to go on for 60, 70 or 80 years, if need be. We think that the times are moving too fast.

In view of the new circumstances in Glasgow recently, can my hon. Friend give me a further assurance to substantiate the statement which she made in reply to the Amendment in Committee?

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

I do not support the Amendment and I hope that the hon. Lady will resist it. I have no personal views on whether a charter is better for the Scottish universities than the present system by which they operate under Acts of Parliament. There is something to be said for both systems. My objection is based on the conviction that, in a matter such as this, Government interference is not welcome and the choice should be for the universities themselves. This is eminently a case in which the universities should make up their own minds in the light of their experience and the circumstances of the day. They are by far the best judges of what is best in each individual instance.

As a subsidiary objection, I am opposed to writing a time limit into a Bill of this nature. Legislation in general should be kept to the minimum, where possible, and it certainly should not be detailed. None of us can foresee the future, and it would be bad practice in a case like this to put in a time limit.

While on the question of charters, I should like the hon. Lady to clear up a point which arose in Committee, but which was never satisfactorily explained. It concerns the Church of Scotland and the Church chairs in the universities. At present, these chairs and the arrangements with the Church are protected under the Universities (Scotland) Act, 1932 and under the present Bill, if it becomes law. But, if a university seeks a charter, neither the 1932 Act nor this Bill will apply. What, then, will be the position of the Church of Scotland and the chairs? What is the Church to do? I realise that it has powers and will have every opportunity of appealing to the Privy Council, but, supposing that the Privy Council does not heed its representations or does not agree with them, what then? Can the hon. Lady say why a provision cannot be written into the Bill—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I let the hon. Gentleman make the point briefly, in passing, but we are discussing now whether the word in the Clause is to be "may" or "shall", with a time limit. The hon. Gentleman must link what he has to say to that now.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

Yes, Sir. May I just complete the point by asking what would happen if the Church's representations were not needed?

On the question whether there may be or there shall be a charter, if the word is "shall", the Church is put at a great disadvantage. I want to hear the Government's answer on this point. Again, on the same question, the hon. Lady will know that there is the agreement of 1951 between the Church of Scotland and the universities. If a charter is made compulsory, will this agreement override the charter? Will it have to be accepted? I want an answer "Yes" or "No" to this question.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will reject the Amendment, for three reasons. First, it would be wrong to lay down in a Bill such as this that universities must have charters although this might well be against their wishes. It would be most dangerous to make it mandatory. The success of our Scottish universities over the past few years has largely stemmed from the fact that in academic matters and matters of organisation neither the Government nor any outside body has tried to force on the universities something which might be against their wishes. I hope that there will be no question of insisting that charters be adopted.

The most objectionable feature of the Amendment is the time limit. As the hon. Lady herself said, it would be very difficult to enforce such a provision. What sanction could be brought to bear on them? One possible sanction here would be something approximating to a period of direct rule, in other words, the Secretary of State insisting that a constitution be prepared and that a charter be brought in for all universities. This would be thoroughly dangerous. The other possibility is the withholding of grants or some way of detracting from the academic progress of a university. This, also, would be highly objectionable.

I was not much impressed in Committee by the arguments for the five-year time limit. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) has tonight adduced the argument that the events spotlighted in the recent individual case of Glasgow University should be used as a ground for general revision. To base any legislation, and particularly a Measure of this significance, on an individual case would be very dangerous. We ought not to countenance any attempt to interfere with the freedom of action of the universities in such matters.

When I think of my own University of Glasgow, the enormous progress which has been made there and the wonderful reputation it has throughout the world, I am utterly opposed to any such dangerous step as attempting to make changes for Glasgow and other universities arising out of what took place in one individual case within that university.

I hope that there will be no question of introducing charters for any of the Scottish universities until such time as the Government have created a situation in which the universities can see the advantages and will co-operate fully. No good can come from imposing charters on the universities, and I hope that, before pursuing the matter further, the Secretary of State will ensure that our universities are ready for such a change, can see the advantages of it and are prepared to co-operate in any new arrangements which are proposed.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

I endorse the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) when commenting on the new argument put forward tonight by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) in support of his Amendment. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is deeply and sincerely concerned about the Glasgow University incident, but I join with my hon. Friend in hoping that the hon. Lady will not accept that as sufficient reason for adopting the Amendment. We are later to consider several Amendments which deal with the problem of discipline to which the Glasgow University case called attention, and I hope that that question can be left until then and not be brought forward as an argument for accepting this Amendment.

When we debated this Amendment in Committee, there was some disagreement between the hon. Lady and me about the time that would be required by one of the older universities for the proper preparation of a charter. I do not propose to open that argument again. I think that we can both be in agreement that the preparation of a charter is a large task—it may take one year or two or three years, perhaps—probably a greater task than the preparation of the ground for the present Bill, which has occupied the minds of the older universities for a considerable time.

The older universities in Scotland are only now emerging from a long period of discussions about the Bill. I am sure that they are now looking forward to a period of freedom from constitutional debate so that they can concentrate on more pressing problems, the administrative and other problems which accompany their rapid expansion.

I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Maryhill—the hon. Lady made it previously—that if the four older universities were to proceed to charters, that would then put all the Scottish universities into the same relationship with the Secretary of State for Scotland. But I suggest that this is not an argument for pushing the universities back into the constitutional swamp, particularly as we are approaching the final stages of a Bill which modernises the constitutions of the older universities and brings them more into line than before with present conditions.

One might well ask what a charter could do for the universities that the present Bill, and particularly its Schedules, would not do. Surely, if there is a large movement for charters within the four older universities, it is unthinkable that any university court would oppose the demand for charters.

I think it right to say that a purpose of the Bill is to improve the freedom of action of the universities, and it would be contrary to the spirit of the Bill to introduce a time limit, as the hon. Member for Maryhill suggests. If a time limit were introduced, what sanctions—my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart made this point—would there be if one of the universities failed to observe it? We have had some indication already of the difficulties which are encountered in consultations within a university. What would happen if a university court was unable, as the closing date approached, to obtain the agreement of the various elements in the university which Clause 1 requires the court to consult? I remember asking the hon. Member for Maryhill during the Committee stage if he would then put the principals and the courts into the tolbooth. If the Amendment makes sense, there must be some sanction. I cannot believe that it is right that we should introduce into the Bill a provision which might well require a future Government to introduce sanctions because the older universities had not been able, with the best will in the world, to meet a completely arbitrary time limit.

I suspect that some of the reasoning behind the Amendment is a feeling that there is some deep academic resistance in the older universities to the idea of introducing charters. I do not believe that that is the case. Certainly, the information that I have is to the contrary. I believe that the older universities will move towards charters—certainly before the 60 years or so which the hon. Gentleman suggests—when they themselves judge it to be necessary. I suggest that it would be right for us to wait and see how the older universities progress under the new and extensive freedoms of the Bill. Let them now get on with their task of expansion free from the preoccupation of further constitutional worry, and in the light of that experience themselves determine whether and when to proceed with charters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) referred to the position of the Church of Scotland in these matters. If I am in order, I should like to make a passing reference to this. As was pointed out, if a charter goes through the previous enactments will be abolished. I understand that the position in regard to the Church of Scotland will be continued under the Bill, but—whether we use "may" or "shall" about the time limit—what will be the position of the Church of Scotland in future in relation to its rights under the Act of 1932 and the agreement of 1951 to which my hon. Friend referred? I am sure that the hon. Lady recognises that there is deep concern in the Church of Scotland about tins question, and I hope that she will be able to put our doubts to rest when she replies.

Returning to the Amendment, I recall that when we debated this previously in Standing Committee we had a long debate, and at the end the hon. Lady made it clear that she did not propose to introduce any compulsion whatsoever on the older Scottish universities. I hope that that is still her position, and that she will resist the Amendment.

7.15 p.m.

Mrs. Hart

First, I want to clear up any doubts that remain about the position of the Church of Scotland in relation to any possible future move towards charters. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) raised the subject, and the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) has just alluded to it.

The position has been discussed with officials of the Church of Scotland, and I think that we have allayed any anxieties they might have had. It is a quite straightforward position, that should the Bill be replaced by charter, the formal agreement between the universities and the Church which deals with theological chairs and is incorporated in ordinance will remain in force. The agreement will remain in force until it is altered or revoked by the parties to it even though the Act under which the ordinance was made and the ordinance itself ceased to have effect. So there is no reason for the Church to feel anxious about it. The agreement which it has at the moment, which governs the appointment of boards of nomination to certain chairs, will remain whether or not there is a charter.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

Is the hon. Lady referring to the 1951 agreement between the Church of Scotland and the universities?

Mrs. Hart

Yes, Sir. This is an agreement which would apply under whatever constitution the university was promulgating its ordinances. I believe that that clarifies the point.

On the question of charters, I appreciate why my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) has again tabled his Amendment. He is anxious to explore all the possible repercussions on the issue that there might be from the disciplinary case in Glasgow recently. The charters—whether or not the universities go towards charters—and the statutes which form part of them are unlikely to include detailed provisions governing disciplinary procedures. Matters of discipline are normally dealt with in fairly general terms, leaving the details to be spelt out in ordinances. So from that point of view, whether we are dealing with charters or with the Bill, there is very little effect upon the matter about which my hon. Friend is concerned.

I think that we have to understand that, whereas there may have been concern in the last few weeks about one instance, we cannot in this Bill legislate on that ground alone. We have to consider the general point that is arising.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrew, West)

Would not my hon. Friend agree that there are many other very valid arguments for charters quite apart from the one so far mentioned?

Mrs. Hart

I am just beginning to reply. I was trying to deal specifically with the new point raised since Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill. I hope that he is satisfied that there is no great advantage in a charter as against the Bill.

I turn now to the general issues. In Committee, one hon. Member suggested that a possible sanction might be the withholding of money from the universities by the Government. I want to disclaim any suggestion that it was I who put that out even as a remote possibility.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) talked about the wishes of the universities. Those hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee will remember that I dealt very fully with "the university" and what "the university" meant. We are all clear that when we talk about "the university", we mean everybody in it—the principals, the staff, the students and everyone concerned with running it and with its functions. If we talk, therefore, about the wishes of "the university" we are talking about the wishes of all those people who compose its various elements.

Of course, as I emphasised in Committee, we are anxious to give complete freedom to the universities to choose what they should do—whether to go forward to charters or not and at what stage they should do so. I said in Committee that we expected the universities to be taking their first steps towards charters in the next three or four years. I pointed to the discussions within the universities of the shape their future constitutions and the charters were likely to have.

I rejected, as I must continue to reject, any question of writing a time limit into the Bill. It is not our intention to compel the universities if their members do not want charters. The situation can be summarised as follows: that we know that there is, within the universities as I have defined them, an opinion which would seek for the universities to move towards charters fairly soon. It will depend on what course that opinion takes. Just as many minds in this House have been somewhat urgently considering these matters in the last few weeks on this Bill, so also opinion outside has been moving.

It is my impression that there is no disinclination or great reluctance on the part of the universities to think of opening up discussions on charters. It would be a mistake to suppose that there is any hostility to the idea of charters in the minds of most of the people in the four universities. So it will be a question of opinion in the universities, in freedom of choice, deciding when they go towards charters.

The point I sought to make in Committee, and which I make again, is that, if there should be any profound disagreements within the universities about whether or not there should be a move in the direction of charters, the Government would feel it appropriate to take the advice offered by the Robbins Committee, when it pointed to other examples of dissension within universities on vital issues, and set up an inquiry into what should be the future of the universities. But it is clear that they have total freedom to choose—and one defines "them" as meaning all the people in the universities.

Thinking, as we do, that they will wish to move towards charters within the next three or four years, should there be—and I do not expect it—any disagreements within universities, clearly the Government would need to consider what inquiry they should set up to clarify the position for the future. But I do not expect such a situation and I think it is clear that this is the right attitude to safeguard the academic freedom of the universities and, indeed, their freedom of decision in this matter.

I believe that, as I said in Committee, there is some advantage to this House in the universities proceeding towards charters. I pointed out then that we are giving some time of this Session to the Bill. I think that perhaps the experience of recent weeks would reinforce what I said on that occasion—that the amount of time and mental skill that many people here have devoted to considering what should or should not be in the Bill intensifies the conclusion that it would be in the interests of Parliament itself if the four older universities were on the same footing in this regard as the newer universities.

I trust I have made it clear to my hon. Friend that I hope that the universities will move towards charters. I believe that the thinking within them is in that direction. But they have freedom to choose. It is only if there should be dissension within them about the step they should take that any further Government consideration of the matter will be involved. In these circumstances, perhaps my hon. Friend will agree that it is best that we do not attempt to circumscribe this by writing in any time limit.

Mr. Hannan

My hon. Friends and, I am sure, hon. Members opposite, know that other reasons were given by me upstairs for seeking this Amendment. It is not quite correct of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) to say that there was really only one reason—the one isolated incident at Glasgow.

For some time, it has been obvious that, in various aspects, the 1889 Act gives all the powers to the universities while the Secretary of State has no powers at all. It is only in Clause 1 of the Bill that it is suggested that permissive powers should continue to be given to the universities. I am seeking to have this in statutory form because one of the principal recommendations of the Robbins Committee was: We have no hesitation, therefore, in recommending that the Act be repealed… It would have been a big enough sanction simply to have had one Clause in the Bill saying that the 1889 Act "shall be repealed in five years", or words to that effect.

There are other reasons for wanting, in this Bill, to put legitimate pressure on the universities to do something. We are all in sympathy with the hard work of the administrators of the universities. They have done very hard work on the 10-year expansion programme, and that sort of thing makes one hesitate to enforce discipline on them. But, even taking that into account, we should remember that their policy avoids inconvenience now perhaps at the cost of a succession of intractable problems over the next 15 years or more.

The labour of having to find a new constitution or charter in three or four or five years' time would at least get them to think about it and afford them an opportunity to look at themselves. The Robbins Committee suggested that Oxford, London and, I think, Cambridge should look at their futures, as should the Scottish universities. But the only universities of those mentioned by the Committee which are not doing so are the Scottish universities. That is the principal reason for the Amendment.

Mrs. Hart

Would not my hon. Friend agree that there has been some change in attitude since the publication of the Bill, and as a result of the reflections upon it? Is not opinion in the older universities moving definitely in favour of going for charters?

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Hannan

I will say this to my hon. Friend, that if it had not been for the explosion in this House and many of the criticisms made prior to 6th January and what happened in Glasgow, there would have been no attention paid to some of them. There is a later Amendment on the Paper as a consequence of that.

Sir Myer Galpern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

I wonder if my hon. Friend could give us some real, solid facts to confirm the statement he has just made?

Mr. Speaker

He would be out of order if he did so, unless it were to have something to do with the Amendment he is seeking to make to the Bill.

Mr. Hannan

In any case, I was about to conclude by saying that we know that the attitude of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, both on Second Reading and in Committee, was perfectly fair on this point. I accept her statement of principle tonight. My purpose was to elicit whether, in the aftermath of what has occurred, there was a new move. I am satisfied with the spirit and purpose which animate the Government proposing this Clause. They satisfy me, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Hart

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 17, after "Council," to insert "the Students' Representative Council."

Mr. Speaker

I think that it will be convenient to discuss with this Amendment, Amendment No. 3, in the name of the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur), in page 1, line 19, after "staff", insert "and students".

Mrs. Hart

The Government accepted in Committee the principle of this Amendment subject to drafting adjustment. This Amendment gives effect to the substance of the one which was moved in Committee and lists the students' representative council in its proper place among the statutory bodies of the universities.

Mr. MacArthur

I am sure that it would be the wish of the House to thank the hon. Lady for considering this point as successfully as she has done, and I am sure that it would be right, above all, to congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) who proposed this point of view with such success, with the support of hon. Members on this side.

The point which our own Amendment, No. 3, tries to meet, and which, of course, we are happy to debate with the Government Amendment, is simply that in Scotland students have a particular rôle in university life, a rôle which is different from that of students in English universities. Indeed, their position in the universities is emphasised by a statutory recognition which is given to the students' representative councils.

Clearly, any move to a charter would affect the students intimately. Indeed, it would affect them as closely as any other part of university structure. It is right, in our view, that they should have the right of consultation as now proposed to be provided for in Clause 1. We welcome the Amendment and thank the hon. Lady for considering it as she has done.

Amendment agreed to.