HC Deb 15 July 1998 vol 316 cc539-44

Lords amendment in lieu of an amendment to which the Commons have disagreed: in page 15, line 40, at end insert— ("(4) The Secretary of State shall, not later than six months after the passing of this Act, appoint an independent body to review the arrangements for England and Wales relating to the payment of grants in respect of fees payable in connection with attendance on the final honours year of first degree courses at higher education institutions in Scotland. (5) The Secretary of State shall invite—

  1. (a) the Scottish higher education principals,
  2. (b) the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and
  3. (c) such other bodies as he considers appropriate,
to make representations to the body established under subsection (4); and the report of that body shall be laid before each House of Parliament not later than 1st April 2000. (6) If that body recommends that the arrangements referred to in subsection (4) should be modified in accordance with this subsection, the Secretary of State may modify those arrangements so as to secure that they are no less favourable than the arrangements made by regulations under section 73(f) of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 for the payment of allowances in respect of fees payable as mentioned in subsection (4). (7) In subsections (4) and (6) any reference to the arrangements for England and Wales is a reference to arrangements made either under the Education Act 1962 or under section 19 of this Act.")

11.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Dr. Kim Howells)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

I inform the House that the Lords amendment in lieu of the words so left out of the Bill involves privilege.

Dr. Howells

I pay tribute to the constructive approach adopted by the other place yesterday in seeking a resolution to the disagreement between the two Houses. That approach was shown by peers of all parties, and I hope that it will be replicated here.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Sweetness and light.

Dr. Howells

It is always sweetness and light from me.

We have discussed many times the arrangements for financial support for fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the fourth or final year of an honours degree course in Scotland. When the House last considered the Bill, on Monday evening, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave an undertaking, with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland, to set up an independent review of those arrangements early next year.

Following a helpful proposal from the Liberal Democrats in another place, my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone tabled the amendment yesterday to give effect to the independent review proposed by my right hon. Friend. The amendment requires the Secretary of State to set up an independent body within six months of enacting the Bill. Its report is to be laid before both Houses of Parliament by 1 April 2000. In practice, as my right hon. Friend made clear on Sunday, we expect the review to take place early next year. That is in line with our stated intention to monitor the effect of implementing the new policy of means testing grants for tuition fees.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Has my hon. Friend a date for the choice of a chairman for the review body?

Dr. Howells

No. The composition of the committee has not yet been agreed by the House, but, as soon as it is, we shall seek an appropriate chair extremely quickly.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus)

The Minister said that the report would be laid before both Houses of this Parliament, but responsibility for higher education in Scotland will lie with the Scottish Parliament. Will the report be laid before the Scottish Parliament? Who will be in charge of the results of the review?

Dr. Howells

I take it that that would be a decision at that time for the people of Scotland. Until then, we have to lay before this Parliament the details of the amendment, and that is what I am trying to do. I do not intend to engage in a constitutional debate with anybody at this time of night.

The amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State to invite representations from the parties most closely concerned, most notably the principals of Scottish higher education institutions and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, but also such other bodies as he considers appropriate, perhaps including political parties. The bodies invited to make representations will no doubt include the full range of interests, including, of course, students. However, it will be open to anyone, including any individual who has a relevant interest in the matter, to make representations to the review body.

We intend the review to be fully independent. Of course, it will be for the body itself to decide how to conduct its business, but clearly its purpose will be to review the arrangements for fee support for students in the fourth or final honours year of first degree courses at higher education institutions in Scotland. We envisage that the review will want to take particular account of evidence on applications and admissions to four-year and longer courses in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom in 1998–99 and the early evidence on applications to such courses for 1999–2000. That will allow for all the evidence to be assessed, including the impact on Scottish universities.

As my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone made clear yesterday, it will be a serious and fully independent review. We believe that it offers a way forward through the impasse that we were facing in the other place, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Willetts

This may be the end of the intense debate in both Houses on this subject—we do not have the same intensity tonight because, thank heavens, a compromise has been reached, and I will not delay the House with a post-match analysis of exactly how that happened.

It is a pleasure to have the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) speaking on this subject. Perhaps if he had been handling it, in place of the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, we would not have got into quite such a mess.

Now that the Under-Secretary of State is here, perhaps he can clarify three points. First, will he say what he means by the independence of the body? We understand the assurances that have been given on independence, and it would be helpful to know how, for example, he will set about selecting the chairman, as there was a pertinent intervention on that point. If he can tell us any more about the chairman, the composition and the proposals for setting up the body, we shall be grateful.

Secondly, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will repeat the assurance given in the House of Lords by Baroness Blackstone, which was crucial in securing the compromise, that, even though the amendment stated that the Secretary of State "may" change the regulations, in practice this will be about the strongest 'may' that Members of your Lordships' House have ever seen…I reiterate that this is a very strong 'may'."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 July 1998; Vol. 592, c. 127–28.] If the Minister catches your eye again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will he repeat the words that had such an effect in the debate in the other place and which are so important? They establish that the Secretary of State will not merely have a theoretical power to deal with the Scottish anomaly. If the independent commission shows—as we and hon. Members representing many other parties believe that it will—that the anomaly is affecting student applications to Scottish universities, in the light of the words used by the Minister in the House of Lords we will regard the Government as under a clear moral obligation to act on that evidence.

Finally, can the Minister confirm that the issue remains live, because he has the power—it will be in the statute—to end the Scottish anomaly? If evidence is compelling that it is affecting behaviour, as we fear it will, and if the universities and students of Scotland carry on campaigning on the issue, the amendment will give him the power to get rid of that anomaly.

Mr. Dalyell

I have no doubt that the Minister, like the Secretary of State, has acted in good faith. It is clear from what he said tonight, and from what the Secretary of State said to a group meeting, that they are serious. However, may I impress on the Minister that the matter is urgent? At the university of Dundee, a distinguished university with five-star ratings for biochemistry and other subjects, applications are down by 14 per cent. It is late, so I will say no more.

12 midnight

Mr. Willis

The Liberal Democrats are also pleased that common sense has prevailed, and that some of what we want has been achieved. The amendment does not go far enough, and we would rather that an unacceptable proposal had been defeated. However, once Lord Cranborne had made it clear that Conservative peers were not prepared to defeat the Government, a settlement had to be found, and an honourable settlement was found. The universities—in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom—required certainty before the summer recess about how to deal with fees in October. At least they can now begin to plan.

The whole battle was entirely unnecessary. If the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, had not taken such an aggressive stance in and out of the House, the matter could have been settled some time ago. There was no reason why we could not have included the amendment on Report when it became clear that the Scottish question would not be easily resolved.

The Minister's opposition became more and more bizarre as time went on. He became more and more desperate, attacking vice-chancellors and rich English students. He accused Scottish universities of running a bogus system. When all else failed, we had to resort to the constitution. Tonight, the Minister is undoubtedly in Scotland, having a wee dram and relaxing while the rest of us deal with the matter.

I cannot believe that the committee that will hear evidence will do anything other than confirm the feelings of the House and of the other place that the Government's proposal would do irreparable damage to the structure of Scottish universities, particularly by affecting the broad spectrum of students who go to Scotland from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the rest of the European Union. Lord Callaghan made the most telling remark yesterday, when he told Baroness Blackstone that, if the committee says that the proposal will do damage, the Government had better listen. We hope that that message has got through, and that whoever replaces the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office in the reshuffle will be a listening Minister.

Mr. Welsh

It is after the midnight hour, and the tuition fees issue is sneaking through late at night after all the votes and speeches. Perhaps that is appropriate.

I have asked before that the situation be monitored because I was concerned about it. The Government's view meets that need, although it comes after the damage was done. I should prefer the tuition fees measures to be dropped altogether, a case that I have argued consistently. However, the Government have been reduced to offering us a review, which is better than nothing. I am glad to say that the issue will eventually be decided by the new Scottish Parliament.

Will the review be extended to cover further as well as higher education? The effects on applications will be felt throughout the system. If the Government are going to the trouble of gathering personnel, giving administrative back-up and taking evidence from all over Scotland, why not extend the review's scope to cover the effect of student loans on admissions and the lives of students? All those factors will be at play in Scotland's education system because of the Government's policy.

I maintain my view that the Government are fundamentally wrong on the issue. They are out of step with people in Scottish education and with the general public in Scotland. Only time will tell who is right and who is wrong. I hope that no damage will be done to Scotland's higher education system. I remain opposed to this unnecessary discrimination by the Government against English, Northern Irish and Welsh students who want to do Scottish honours degree courses. Happily, the issue will be passed to the new Scottish Parliament, whose decision will be final. I am sure that it will be fairer and more enlightened in wishing to end such discrimination. The issue should never have arisen. A sensible Government would never have allowed it to happen.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Compromise is not an activity in which Ulster Unionists readily engage, but I am happy to welcome this solution on behalf of my colleagues. I am confident that those who engage in the review will eventually arrive at a solution that we could have arrived at a long time ago.

Mr. Dalyell

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm the rumour that it is likely that a court case will be initiated by people in Belfast angry that they will have to pay £1,000 more than those coming from Dublin?

Mr. Beggs

The hon. Gentleman makes an appropriate intervention. With the ease of access to legal aid that has been abused so well in Northern Ireland, such litigation is not unlikely. I am confident that the review will reach a satisfactory conclusion that will ensure that students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland are treated equitably compared with those in Scotland. I await the outcome of the review.

Dr. Howells

I found the comments of the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) helpful and constructive, as were those of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and, in their way, the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh). I do not think that, by any means, we can say that this is being sneaked through. It may be late, but that is to do with the daft way in which the House works. It is nothing to do with a lack of debate. As the hon. Member for Havant said, the subject has been debated more intensely than any other that I can recall in recent times.

I sense from what was said not only a constructive attitude but a determination to get it right. We will try to get the committee right and to make it representative, and we will try to do it quickly. That is vital.

Mr. Dalyell

Before litigation, if possible.

Dr. Howells

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) is not aware yet that litigation hangs over us like a sword, so I shall wait until he tells me before I start worrying about it.

The key words are "may" and "shall". Lord Callaghan was right. Any Government who did not listen to the recommendations of the committee which will look seriously at what is, after all, revolutionary legislation, and its effects, would rightly be condemned as insensitive and uncaring, and we would deserve those titles. [Interruption.] We will accept it. We will not be tied to anything, because no Government should agree to that. We will look very closely at the recommendations of any committee, and we will take it seriously.

Lords amendment agreed to.[Special Entry.].