HC Deb 05 February 1992 vol 203 cc405-10

Amendments made: No. 14, in page 57, line 44, after 'for', insert 'the Scottish Further Education Funding Council or'.

No. 15, in page 58, line 32, after 'for' insert 'the Scottish Further Education Funding Council or'.

Mr. Worthington

I beg to move amendment No. 77, in page 59, line 22, after 'Act', insert ', in section 51, of this Act'. Do the Government accept the amendment?

Mr. Michael Forsyth

Much as I would like to assist the hon. Gentleman, I cannot as I do not accept that transport for students at boards of management colleges should remain with education authorities. Therefore, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman withdraws the amendment. However, guidance will be given to boards on the exercise of their powers and I shall monitor the position to ensure that the present level of provision is at least maintained.

Mr. Tom Clarke

I remind the House of the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) that, at present, under section 51 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, local authorities have a responsibility to ensure that transport is provided where necessary. It is obvious that, not only is it necessary for students with disabilities to have reasonable transport, but that their transport often has to be specially adapted. As there is a clear obligation on the local authorities which is not, under the Bill, being given to the boards responsible for further education, that could cause difficulties for such people.

I am sorry that the Minister has not found it possible to agree with the reasonable amendment. I do not want to add to the controversy that we had earlier by saying that, yet again—and I congratulate them on this—our colleagues have obtained more in the English legislation than we have— [Interruption.] The Minister indicates dissent, but I won the last argument and I am not sure whether he wants another one at this late hour. But as he was profoundly unconvincing, and as another place is at present still considering the English position, I would not wish to force the point on the House.

I hope that another place will have a perhaps more inspired attitude to these matters.

Mr. Forsyth

As to winning the argument, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has grasped the difference in structure between the Scottish Bill and the English Bill. The duty in the Scottish Bill to provide further education remains with the Secretary of State; in the case of the English Bill it is transferred to the council. That is why there is a difference in provisions. The hon. Gentleman is confusing duties which remain with the Secretary of State and with the council.

11.15 pm

Under clause 8(2)(c) boards have power to provide to students of the college such assistance of a financial or other nature as they may consider appropriate. That will enable them to respond flexibly to the transport needs of their students, including students with learning difficulties. As I said to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), I propose that guidance will be given to the boards on the exercise of that power. I will monitor the position to ensure that the present level of provision is at least maintained.

The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) has nothing to fear from the provisions. I understand his anxiety about the matter, but the Bill will ensure that the provision of transport is at least as good as is provided at present and may very well be improved.

Amendment negatived.

Amendments made: No. 82, in page 59, line 34, at end insert— '() In section 65B (provision for recorded children who have ceased to be of school age) after subsection (6) there shall be inserted the following subsection— (6A) Without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (c) of subsection (6) above, the reference in that paragraph to any other body shall include a reference to the board of management of a college of further education (within the meaning of Part I of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992) making provision from which, in the opinion of the authority, the child might benefit.".'.—[Mr.Lang.]

No. 57, in page 60, line 10, at end insert—

'Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984 c. 36

. In section 11(1) of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984 (training and occupation of the mentally handicapped)—

  1. (a) after the words "operation of" there shall be inserted "(a)"; and
  2. (b) after the word "mind)" there shall be inserted the words 'or

(b) section 1 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992 (which imposes a duty on the secretary of State to secure the provision of adequate and efficient further education in Scotland),":.—[Mr. Michael Forsyth.]

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent signified.]

11.16 pm
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill introduces fundamental reforms to further and higher education in Scotland and has been widely welcomed there. The Committee stage was marked by co-operative and constructive debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for his sensitive and skilful handling of the Bill in Committee and to Opposition Members for their positive approach to many aspects of the Bill. I feel sure that it is a better Bill than when it started. Of course, parallel debates in another place have informed our deliberations.

The Bill is an important measure of devolution. In further education, it devolves power from local authorities to local self-governing boards. The Government have met much of the anxiety of Opposition Members through the provision for a possible further education funding council to be established at a later date. In higher education, it introduces devolution from a United Kingdom funding council to a new Scottish body, something that has been universally welcomed by universities and others.

It is also an important measure to remove the artificial binary line in higher education. It introduces new arrangements for degree-awarding powers and for achieving university status. Scottish higher education is expanding rapidly and achieving new heights. As I said on Second Reading, there is an explosion of opportunity for our young people. The Bill matches the needs of the times, and I commend it to the House.

11.18 pm
Mr. Worthington

Briefly, I should like to respond to the Secretary of State and to express my thanks to my hon. Friends who have contributed positively to improving the Bill. I am glad that the Secretary of State paid tribute to the co-operative spirit in which we approached the Bill.

The Bill is in two halves. The further education part is virtually friendless in Scotland. There has been no sentiment for it. The only body of people who have been behind the Bill have been the principals of the colleges, and what did they say? They said that something had to be done to put right the mess which the Government had made of the Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Act 1989. They said that difficulty had been created because of the uncertainty of poll tax funding and of the regime laid down by the Government.

The Opposition welcome the transfer to Scotland of responsibility for higher education and the ending of the binary divide. Many apprehensions about academic freedom have been expressed, but we are moving towards a solution of that problem. We are still worried about quality, however—the change in the nature of the relationship between research and teaching. We are not convinced that the Government pay enough attention to quality.

I thank the Minister for delivering every one of the pledges that he gave us in Committee. The Bill is considerably the better for that.

I thank all who have assisted the Bill's passage through the House.

11.20 pm
Mr. Dalyell

I echo the words of my hon. Friend—

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

Get on with it.

Mr. Dalyell

I will not. On second thoughts, I am always obedient to the Whips.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), I thank the Minister for his courtesy to the Committee. His civil service team put in considerable efforts. The Minister is fortunate indeed to have such high-quality civil servants at the Scottish Office.

I fear that the Secretary of State was not right to claim that the Bill is universally welcomed. Count me out of that. More importantly, count out many of the science, engineering and medical professors in Scottish universities. There is considerable scepticism about the measure, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. Of course, there may be widespread approval in certain circles, but it is far from widespread in other circles of important people who will have to make the Bill work.

I do not concede for a moment that this is a devolution measure.

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) will recollect very well that, in 1980, he piloted the Wildlife and Countryside Bill through the House. Some of us said that we would keep an eye on what happened to that Act in the years that followed. In the past 11 years, some of us have done precisely that, justifiably sending endless letters to the Department of the Environment.

I shall certainly keep a beady eye on this development, which I do not welcome. If some of those who proposed it are proved right in several years' time, I hope that I will admit as much, but I have grave doubts nevertheless, and they are shared by a large number of heavyweight people in the Scottish universities.

I hope that my colleagues will be able to effect what they say they will in respect of part I of the Bill. I believe in local authorities; their relationship with further education was extremely valuable.

I hope that I will prove to be wrong about the Bill. In the meantime, I am always obedient to the Whips, so I shall leave it at that.

11.23 pm
Mr. Stephen

It was interesting to be given an insight earlier this evening into the Minister's attitude to his own brief. At times he was clearly not too pleased with the words he was reading out.

If the House will bear with me, I too can give hon. Members an insight into the words on my brief by reading them out: I should begin by saying that the Report stage was dominated by Government amendments, which I believe is rare. This was because of the number of concessions made by the Minister, who on the whole gave a sympathetic response to many of the concerns expressed by members. Everyone is grateful for that. I can bear to say that, and I am happy to do so sincerely. The discussion in Committee and on Report has been positive and good natured.

We welcome the fact that provision for special needs is included in the Bill for the first time. Part I, with the inclusion of some form of commitment to a funding council, is an improvement, but we cannot support the removal of further education from local authorities. I remain firmly convinced, as does almost everyone in Scotland, that the Bill is a centralising measure which was brought about as much by the Government's hostility to local authorities and by the difficulties of the poll tax as by anything else. Where else did the great idea come from? Was it a Government commitment which was part of their manifesto? It was not. It was totally unexpected, and there was little if any warning for the local authorities involved. It is no great exaggeration to say that an accountable and integrated further education system is yet another victim of the disastrous poll tax.

Part II is far more welcome. We support a separate funding council, although we should prefer to see that under a Scottish Parliament. We also welcome the abolition of the binary divide. On a personal basis, I very much welcome the commitments given to RG1T in Committee.

There are aspects of the funding council which we shall seek to change in the other place. The council should have strategic planning powers so that the distribution of funds can be more firmly tied to the needs and shape of higher education. There remain concerns that academic freedom is not as entrenched as it should be. Although I appreciate the difficulties in wording, that remains an area of real concern to many principals in Scottish universities.

The failure to include some provision for the welfare of students is also deeply regrettable. Although the Bill in its present form is a significant improvement on its first form, it remains seriously flawed. I hope that we can see further improvements to the Bill in its later stages.

11.26 pm
Mrs. Margaret Ewing

It seems but yesterday that the Bill was given its Second Reading on 26 November, yet there has been a great deal of debate of its contents. At that stage, the Secretary of State said that the Bill was a tremendous step forward for Scottish education, and suggested that it was almost home rule being delivered in one fell swoop. That was a slight overestimate of the position, because all that the Bill involves is the transfer of very limited powers to organisations in Scotland.

The debate in Committee has taken place against a background of what the Chinese, who are celebrating their new year this week, would call "interesting times". The matters first raised in Committee will be discussed further in the general election, as we move towards far larger constitutional changes.

The Bill has been a step in the right direction. I have consistently supported the idea of a higher and further education council for our institutions in Scotland. I also place it on record that I very much welcomed the Minister's attitude in Committee. At times, he seemed to have to cope single-handedly with everything that came from the Opposition. The Committee was conspicuous for the fact that Conservative Members made few contributions; the majority came from the Opposition.

Although I have fundamental disagreements with the Minister on many issues, I acknowledge that he made many concessions to the logical arguments of hon. Members from the three Opposition parties involved. That is to be much encouraged and welcomed by us all.

I also pay tribute to those who wrote to us, including the principals of the colleges, the regional authorities which were deeply involved and various organisations—not least the voluntary organisations, which were concerned about particular issues such as students with special needs. It is valuable that their contributions have been so accurately recorded, both in Committee and on Report.

During our discussions, we have raised many issues that need deeper and further explanation if we are to achieve the right results for Scottish education. I think especially of our debate tonight on new clause 15, when there was an inadequate response from the Government, who appeared to have inadequate knowledge of the points being raised. That, in itself, is an argument for the establishment of a Select Committee on Scottish affairs, which could consider in more detail an education system that we all value highly.

I hope that when the Bill goes to another place the words recorded in the Official Report, spoken both in Committee and on the Floor of the House, will be examined carefully and that what we have started will be built upon to make the Bill even better than it is.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.