HL Deb 06 December 1984 vol 457 cc1463-70

4.6 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the consequences in Scotland of the decision announced by my right honourable friend yesterday on students' awards. As my right honourable friend indicated, the minimum grant will be discontinued and the contribution to students' maintenance from better-off parents will be increased in 1985–86. This will not however extend to tuition fees, as originally proposed.

"The changes now proposed will involve additional expenditure on students' awards in Scotland of about £5 million in 1985–86. Just over £2 million of this additional expenditure will be met by an addition to the Scottish block following from the changes by my right honourable friend in his department's budget and the operation of the formula adjustment to the Scottish block. The remainder will be found from within the block.

"Once final decisions have been taken, I shall announce the full details of my public expenditure programmes for 1985–86 to the House. I expect to do this in the course of the next week. Subject to further scrutiny of priorities within my overall programme, it still remains my intention that additional resources will be made available to the Scottish central institutions to increase the output of engineering and technology graduates. Meantime, I am not in a position to give firm figures.

"As regards the proposed review of the students' awards system, I can assure the House that it will take full account of the Scottish higher education system, and that my department will be closely involved".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord the Minister for his courtesy in repeating the Statement to the House. I think the only thing we can really thank him for is his continued courtesy. He is always very courteous. The Statement itself is very thin, disappointingly vague, and really raises more questions than it answers. Yesterday, many Members of your Lordships' House went to the other place to hear the Statement by the Secretary of State for Education and Science in which he said that his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland had also decided this matter, implying that he had been involved in the decision making and the ultimate decisions on increasing the parents' contribution and abolition of the minimum charge.

What people in Scotland want to know—because education is so vital and of such importance to us—is this: "Was the Secretary of State involved?" According to all the press reports, the Statement yesterday was cobbled together between 10 o'clock and 12 o'clock, when the Secretary of State was certainly not part of the group. In fact, I believe he was reading a lesson in the Crypt during the period when this Statement was made.

It is a very serious Statement for Scotland because student grants in Scotland are really the only involvement that the Scottish Office has with the universities. I welcome what little has been given to the colleges of technology. But student grants are the only point at which the Scottish Office is directly involved with universities. Therefore, as my honourable friend in another place anticipated yesterday, the idea of taking this money from the Scottish block is really not good enough. We need more information. We need to be able to compare how the Scottish grants will be affected en bloc in relation to the £21 million savings which, as the Secretary of State for Education and Science outlined yesterday, will be taken from the English block.

It is important to remember that the £6 million reduction in additional grant for equipment that the Secretary of State for Education and Science announced yesterday includes the Scottish universities; so also of course does the £3 million for the extra Science Council research grants. This is all part of the general British university system and therefore it is important that we get more information.

I represented a university constituency for over 20 years. In the past five years I have seen the real value of student grants decline; I think the figure is something like 14 per cent. This is of great concern in Scotland where a much higher proportion of students than in the rest of the country come from lower income families; the proportion is much higher than in the United Kingdom as a whole. The future of the lad o'pairts and the lass o'pairts is going to be much bleaker under this Government—and has been much bleaker under this Government—than it has ever been before.

Finally, may I say that we welcome the proposed review of the students' award system. The Minister says—I am sure with the authority of his own Secretary of State—that full account will be taken of the Scottish higher education system, and that the department will be closely involved. Does the Minister honestly believe, after the fiasco of yesterday when the Secretary of State was obviously not consulted anything like sufficiently, that the people of Scotland will be greatly impressed by that last statement?

4.13 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, for the Statement that has just been made. The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, has made reference to his university constituency. The university constituency concerned is now represented by a distinguished member of the Social Democratic Party and therefore it is of some interest to these Benches that we should pay some attention to the Statement that has just been made.

We welcome very much the second thoughts of the Minister with regard to tuition fees. We recognise that this may have been caused by Back-Bench revolt, and I am only sorry that the Back-Bench revolt in the Conservative Party, which has now become highly sensitive, is not employed in other worthy causes like the abolition of regional grants or the reduction of heating for pensioners; but perhaps we can look forward to some activity on this front.

May I ask the Minister whether he can define more clearly the part of the Statement which says: The remainder will be found from within the block"? Can he tell us how that remainder will be found within the block? What will be the priorities within the block, and what will be cut? May I also say that we welcome very much the assurance that there will be increased resources available for engineering and technology? An examination of incoming investment in Scotland, particularly in the high technology industries, indicates that availability of skills and trained personnel is vital to investment decisions; and considering that we have just had a cut in regional aid perhaps this assurance may compensate a little the companies which now occupy Silicon Glen or are likely to come there.

I should like to try to be helpful to the Minister. In his review of the expenditure of the universities will he look at the possibility that instead of having four or five business schools in various universities in Scotland, there should be a central business school for Scotland which would be an effective instrument in business management training and might save some cash in the process? May I also suggest that he might look at the example which has been given by Stirling University in utilisation of the campus for industrial development with the establishment of the wine laboratories? Perhaps we might look at real estate in the universities in Scotland with a view to their maximum utilisation, and perhaps they might generate some revenue. On the whole, we welcome the assurances on engineering and technology but we deplore that cuts will be enforced overall.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for the comments which they have made. I shall try to answer briefly some of the points which they highlighted. First of all, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland was kept fully in the picture as to the thinking of the Secretary of State for Education, and when he decided to make his Statement my right honourable friend was made aware of his intentions and the Statement was made with the full authority and approval of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I must of course take issue with what the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said in his early remarks—that the students of this country were suffering very badly under this Government. I would remind him that many thousands more students—I think I am right in saying 60,000 more students—are now in higher education than was the case in 1979. That would hardly reflect the sort of suggestions which he was making. Both the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, asked me how the savings were to be made. That point is being considered at the present moment. As noble Lords will recall, each autumn after the Chancellor makes his Autumn Statement the Scottish block is made up in accordance with a formula which applies to the various departments over which the Scottish Office has responsibility.

In 1982 my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made his Statement some five weeks after the Chancellor's Statement. In 1983 he made his Statement three and a half weeks after the Chancellor's Statement, on that occasion by a Written Answer. As I indicated today in my reading of the Statement, my right honourable friend hopes to make his Statement within the next week outlining how the Scottish block allocation has been made.

Since that allocation has not yet been made public, it is of course for my right honourable friend to decide where he finds the additional £3 million by the substitution of various sums from one department to another. In reply to the point which was of particular concern to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, I would say that it does not necessarily follow that there would be any reduction in what will be made available to engineering and technology, as was originally-outlined by the Secretary of State. There may be a slight reduction, but that will be for my right honourable friend to decide in due course.

I note the welcome which the noble Lord. Lord Taylor of Gryfe, gave to the proposed review, and I take his point when he suggested that we should look at the possibility of a central business school in Scotland. That is a constructive suggestion which, of course, I shall pass on to my right honourable friend. Moreover, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education has, of course, confirmed that the Secretary of State for Scotland will be fully consulted in this process.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, will the Government pay particular attention to the very constructive suggestions made by my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe? May I also ask whether some sympathy is not due to the Secretary of State for Education in trying, as I understand it, to tackle a problem which is very obvious? The problem is that the comparatively rich or middle classes have a much better chance of reaching universities than do the poor, or what are called the working classes, and, having got there, they are to a large extent supported by the taxpayers, many of whom are poorer than they are. Bearing in mind that there are many large claims upon the taxpayer—the claim to help Africa, the claim of the National Health Service and the claims of all the social services—is there not a real problem as to how we are to finance universities? I think the situation is recognised by the Government.

Will the Government not agree that it is at present somewhat unfair that those who come from homes which are comparatively affluent and have a better chance in life get a better chance still by going to universities and being supported by those who may have a worse chance? Will the Government ask the universities, which are in a very good position to tackle this matter on the broadest scale—namely, the different claims upon the resources of the country—to recommend how they think that students should be supported, bearing in mind the greater claims of other parts of the welfare services and, indeed, of education? Will they also ask the universities how, within those universities, they would propose that the funds available should be allocated?

It seems to me that this is eminently a matter upon which the universities, with their wide view of matters, should have a view; and as I understand that there is to be a general inquiry into the financing of universities, this is the moment at which they should take the widest possible look at the whole question of the demands upon the welfare state and all the other services. They should also look at the very important matter of giving more of the working class and poorer children a chance of further education. At the moment it is the middle classes who are increasingly filling further education places, in particular in the universities.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, for his comments, and, of course, he has hit upon a very sensitive issue. It is true that there are many families in the land whose offspring, for one reason or another, do not make use of the facilities available at university, and yet, of course, they contribute substantially to the funding of those facilities. However, we have to get the balance about right, and I think that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education made a very courageous Statement yesterday. It is not easy for a Minister to eat humble pie, and I think that my right honourable friend made a very tasty meal of it. He did very well, and I think that we must all recognise and acknowledge that. Moreover, the fact that he did so highlights the fact that, despite what our critics may say, the Government do listen and do take notice of pressures from the Back-Benches, and we must all recognise that.

The noble Lord suggested that we should perhaps ask the universities how they consider they might best be funded. I would say to the noble Lord that, in the review which is to take place and to which my right honourable friends will be contributing, it would be the intention that as wide a body of opinion as possible should be consulted, and that the views represented by the various bodies should be considered. So if any of the universities have thoughts on this matter there is no reason at all why they should not submit their thinking to the Government.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, before the Minister takes too much credit for the intentions of his right honourable friend, may I point out—and this point has been so rightly and properly drawn attention to by my noble friend Lord Grimond—that the intention to help the sons of those with poorer incomes to go to university has not been carried out by his right honourable friend? He has, in fact, cut the student grants by a percentage in real terms this year.

Would the noble Lord not agree that, obviously from the Statement, plans have had to be changed? I know that the Minister has not made his Statement yet, but he says here: It still remains my intention that additional resources will be made available to the Scottish central institutions". Does the noble Lord not think that if his right honourable friend is eating humble pie he should pay for it? If he made a mistake, surely it would have been far, far better simply to accept that he did not know the feeling of his own party; and, instead of upsetting every calculation and every Ministry throughout the land, he should simply say that they will pay the £21 million. Is it not an example of real pettiness to say, "Right; we shall give way on one point, but we shall take it back on something else"? Would the noble Lord not agree that it looks like incompetence?

Lord Gray of Contin

No, my Lords, I would obviously not agree. Indeed, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, I think that he really is being a little churlish this afternoon. After all, the Secretary of State for Education did respond to the pressures which were put upon him and the arguments which were placed before him, and I think that we would be doing him less than justice if we did not acknowledge that. I do not think I can really add further to what I have already said on this point, but I would not agree with the noble Lord.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I should like to endorse the very constructive suggestion which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, made about the possibility of a single business school in Scotland. There is a crying need for us to concentrate our business education in one place and to get a really high standard for people who want this type of provision. There is a great need, and I hope that, as a result of this discussion, the Minister will follow it up.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I shall certainly note the comments of the noble Baroness in giving her support to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, in this matter. I am sure that my right honourable friends will give special consideration to the views that have been expressed.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister to clarify the matter of the review. I understood from the Statement which we had yesterday from the department of the Secretary of State for Education and Science that the review was to be of student support, of awards and grants. From the questions which have been asked today, there seems to have been some assumption that the whole of university funding is to be reviewed. May we have that point cleared up?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, my understanding is that the terms of the review are still under consideration. I do not think that they have been finalised yet, and therefore I felt it worth endorsing or having recorded any suggestions which were made by noble Lords so that they could be considered in due course. Whether or not the review is to be as wide as the noble Baroness suggests, I am afraid I am not in a position to confirm. But I shall certainly pass on the comments which have been made.

Lord Drumalbyn

My Lords, will my noble friend accept from this side of the House that we are very glad indeed that special consideration is being given to Scottish problems? There was some danger in the Statement yesterday—and I do not lay any blame whatever on my noble friend who repeated the Statement—that the needs of Scotland were going to be settled at the same time as, and in identical terms to, the needs of England. That has never been so, and I hope that it never will be so, especially as regards education, where the problems are so different. I hope, therefore that my noble friend will take comfort from the way in which this Statement has been received today. He has made it quite clear that Scottish problems are going to be tackled in a way that meets the needs of Scotland.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, for highlighting that point. Of course, it is correct that in his initial Statement yesterday the Secretary of State for Education and Science indicated that my right honourable friend would be dealing specifically with Scottish matters in due course. I am grateful to my noble friend for his comments.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, may I briefly make one or two points to the Minister which I think are very important? The Secretary of State for Education and Science was able to make very detailed statements about exactly where his savings would be. The noble Lord the Minister in this House said that he had been courageous and he referred to his having the courage to eat humble pie. I think that many people in Scotland now believe that he has put a very awkward humble pie in the oven for the Secretary of State for Scotland to digest at some point, because when the grants for Scotland are reduced we will have it on the block grant. Does this mean that housing, social work, and education will all need to be considered in order to save the little bits to which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, referred, instead of saying, "We have made a mistake. Let it go"?

If this examination of the block grant is to be made, will there be any consultation before the cuts are made? Because it is right across the board it could affect very much more than just the university student grants in Scotland. It could also affect other parts of Scottish life. It really is rather important that we know whether there will be any consultation before the Secretary of State decides on the question of the money from the block grant in order to look after this mistake which was made and which he tried to retrieve yesterday.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I cannot accept the reference (which the noble Lord continually makes) to "this mistake". It is a matter of judgment as to whether it was a mistake or not. So far as the Secretary of State for Education and Science is concerned, in the light of the views expressed to him, he has reassessed the position and made the necessary alterations. So far as the Secretary of State for Scotland is concerned—and the noble Lord I am sure realises the position quite clearly—it is a totally different situation. We are talking about the Scottish block, the allocation of funds within which has not yet been announced; so whatever readjustments the Secretary of State may make will be entirely at his discretion. I can give the noble Lord the assurance that they certainly will be after consultation with the other Ministers who have departmental responsibilities within the Scottish Office. The Secretary of State will certainly discuss these matters with the other Ministers, but there is no need for any further outside consultation, because the Secretary of State had not finalised his figures within the Scottish block. He will now do so.