HL Deb 18 July 1994 vol 557 cc97-103

12 Page 14, line 16, at end insert 'and shall include in any information which is generally made available to persons considering whether to become students at the establishment,'.

12A The Earl Russell to move that the House do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 12

Earl Russell

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 12.

Amendment No. 12 reads: shall include in any information which is generally made available to persons considering whether to become students at the establishment". My objection is not to the objective, but because I do not think that it is possible. It is a requirement imposed on the Bill by another place to include in the prospectus exactly what will be done for opted out students. The point that we wish to make is that one cannot know exactly what arrangements one has to make until one knows how many people one has to make arrangements for. The point is fundamental.

If we include all the information in the prospectus and then find either that we have twice as many opted out students as we expected or that we have half as many opted out students as we expected we shall have to change the prospectus. We may then be accused of misrepresentation. Again, there is room for a great deal of trouble.

I have a great affection for lawyers, but it is not the chief purpose of this House to provide outdoor relief for lawyers. They have quite enough work to do already and it should not be the prime object of legislators to impose extra work on lawyers. Where possible, legislation should be clear and unambiguous. I do not think that we are achieving that here because I believe that we are imposing a requirement that simply cannot be met.

Moved, That the House do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 12.—(Earl Russell.)

Lord Judd

My Lords, I support the noble Earl in the Motion. It seems to me that there are several points that should be underlined.

As we come to the end of our consideration of the Bill, this particular amendment encapsulates much of what is wrong with the whole direction of this legislation. We are now talking about the information that will be made available to potential students at a particular institution of higher education. What is the picture that will be put before them? Will it be the dream, as we used to have it, of the ideal of higher education, of a community of scholars in which all share and to which all belong, with the richness of belonging and exchange of dialogue between academics and students? Or will it be a heavily regulated institution suffering under a weight of injunctions from the Government, who apparently do not trust academics, administrators or even students to make a success of their institution? This is a sorry reflection on the Government's whole approach to the potential of higher education in our society.

I make the point again that it is paradoxical that this Bill comes in a year dedicated to deregulation. The Bill will produce a bureaucratic nightmare. It is a petty Bill, well illustrated in what will now be put before students, negative rather than positive in intent. I am very sad to see it go forward from this House.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I fear that I too must support the Motion. It does not take a neanderthal or a liberal, as I understand the honourable Member who was responsible for the amendment defined us, to understand that this is nor. a workable amendment. That is my chief concern.

The only way in which universities and institutions generally could give such information would be through the undergraduate prospectus. As we all know, the deadlines for the prospectus this year are February for the copy and May for it to be issued so that it can reach in time people who will apply for admission at the end of this year but who will not enter university until next year. How on earth can the institution provide information nearly two years in advance? There is no way that it can reasonably expect to provide information for an unknown quantity of possible opt outs. How can it possibly do that under the terms of the Bill as it stands relating to students who opt out? Such provision would have to await the decision of students once registered and would very much depend on the size of the problem, which will vary from year to year and from place to place.

There are other important aspects of the union membership which could never be provided by the institution. A simple example is the access to cheap travel which the holder of a union card enjoys. Travel discounts are negotiated by the NUS at national level and no institution could secure similar terms through individual negotiation for a small number of students. Members of the AUT in a university enjoy similar concessions negotiated by the union at national level. Members of the university who are not members of the AUT do not benefit from those negotiated concessions, but nor do they expect to do so.

I hope very much that my noble friend the Minister, who has shown such statesmanship—or perhaps I should say seamanship—in her earlier navigation of the troubled waters of parts of the Bill, will look hard at the amendment. It is simply not practical. It is not merely that it will impose yet further heavy bureaucratic and administrative burdens and a drain on resources in institutions which are already overworked and which welcomed the good sense, the reasonableness and readiness to listen to practical problems which have characterised my noble friend's approach to this legislation so far. It is also that it simply cannot work. I cannot see how it could be made to do so.

I shall spare the House everything else that I had intended to say except to say that I think that the Bill already provides for an excellent complaints procedure and an independent investigator appointed by the institution. It includes provision for fair application of the rules, and it requires institutions to take steps that are reasonably practicable to secure them.

Surely a government as committed as this one to deregulation should trust universities and unions to work together to solve any problems that may arise. And surely the Government could proceed on the excellent principle contained in the words of Mr. Boswell, the Minister, during the proceedings of Standing Committee E in the other place (quoted in col. 388 of Hansard of 21st June.) He was discussing codes of practice, but what he said is applicable. He said: It is essential for the individual institution, together with its student body and the student union, to decide what should happen".

Lord Addington

My Lords, I have considered how this situation might be achieved. One would have a prospectus with a code beside all the activities of the union. The code would indicate that if x number of people opt out next year this activity will be available; if there are x number more people, that activity will be available; if there are none, the activity will not be available; and if there is a change half-way through the year, the situation will have to change again. One could continue like that for ever. I suggest that the Minister takes the opportunity to take this message back to another place. The student unions are not the unpleasant bodies that they might have seemed. Some of the provisions regarding the student union bodies remind me of someone who as a small child had their sweets taken away from them and has come back 30 years later to wreak a terrible vengeance. Such measures run totally counter to any organised life for students outside their academic activities.

Lord Elton

My Lords, if I may follow the nautical analogy, perhaps I may ring a bell, sound a hooter or give a sounding. The requirement is not to announce to intending students what the arrangements will be. The requirement is to give details of any arrangements that the body has made. The provision is a historic not a prospective requirement. In the first year there may be no arrangements. The Bill refers to "any arrangements it has made". Perhaps we may leave aside the tone and emotion which noble Lords have taken from the provision, having perhaps ill-advisedly read comments about your Lordships made in another place which are perhaps less than complimentary. I am happily spared that aggravation because I have not read them. However, I have read the Bill. It simply requires an announcement of any arrangements that have been made. That is an announcement of historic fact and of no bureaucratic difficulty whatsoever.

Lord Addington

My Lords, the point that we have made will become relevant in the second and third year of the Bill's enactment. Referring to what will happen and what has changed may once again apply. The situation will become a nightmare.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I do not accept that. At the end of a year one states what the arrangements in place are for the benefit of those who will come. It is like one's annual accounts which deal with matters up to 31st March in the year concluded. It is not up to date. That may not be a good or useful thing—I make a narrow point—but it is perfectly easy to do.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, with regard to the description put forward by my noble friend Lady Park and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that will only transpire if the institution wishes that to be so. If the institution, as I believe it should, determines the framework for treatment of members and non-members of the union, it will provide standard information which will go out with a standard pack just as all other information goes out. Information going to students ought not to be a year out of date but as current as possible. Treatment of members and non-members ought to be part of that information. Therefore information will be part of a standard pack.

My noble friend Lady Park gave a specific example about travel. If that is what the institution has determined, it would be entirely reasonable that it was not including the negotiated advantages of travel arrangements for students. But for students to partake of offers made by British Rail, Eurotravel or whatever it might be, it will be for the student to prove that he is a student. In many instances that is the only requirement; there would simply be verification of that fact.

The principle of giving information to students is important. Clearly the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is against that because he would cancel the requirement. He thinks that it is malign and malicious and that we should not give information to students. If the principle has now been established for both opting out or remaining members of the union, it is important that students understand what that means. The increased choice that goes with that principle should be extended as far as possible to intending students as well as to those who have already committed themselves to a specific institution.

I have listened carefully to the arguments put forward by all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate against the provision in Amendment No. 12 for information about services to students outside the union to be provided not only to current students but also to those considering studying at the institution. I have not heard anything to dissuade me from the view that I expressed earlier: that it is entirely right for an intending student to know in advance about the availability of provision of services and facilities should that student choose not to belong to the union. Once the institution has determined a framework for membership and non-membership, it must be ensured that students know about it.

If a minutiae of detail would flow from that, it is entirely possible for the pack of information which goes out to students to contain the fact that the updating of the information can be checked. It could give a contact number so that at least potential students are given access to a source of information which would help them to make an informed judgment about whether they wished to be part of that institution. I therefore ask the House not to agree with Motion No. 12A but to accept Commons Amendment No. 12. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 12.—(Baroness Blatch.)

Earl Russell

My Lords, of course I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that it is good that students should know what facilities are available to opted-out students when that is possible. It is good that noble Lords should agree and know what is to be the timetable of this House when that is possible. In both cases unpredictable things may occur. We cannot give a firm undertaking that we will reach a specific piece of business at a specific time. In just the same way, if we are to provide food to opted-out students, we simply cannot know what facilities are needed, how many seats, how much cooking or how many staff are required until we have some idea of how many people will require it.

The noble Baroness puts before us a perfectly good idea. But I regret to say that it is Utopian. Throughout the Bill the noble Baroness has been outstanding in her concern for the practicalities of the matter. On this occasion, I regret to say that that concern has let her down. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for drawing my attention to yet another ambiguity in the Bill as it will ultimately emerge. In the Bill, as he says, the reference is to, arrangements that the college "has made" for services. In the amendment the reference is to, information which is generally made available". We have slipped from the past tense into the present tense. There is room for even further confusion.

It would be perfectly possible for this House to pass a law that I should fly. That does not mean that I would fly. If the House passes a law requiring universities to do what is stated, we cannot do it. There is only one way in which I can put that view on the record. It is to move that this House do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 12.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, the two examples that he gave are absolutely flawed. First, with regard to feeding students there is no guarantee that student union members will eat in the dining-room. Therefore it is a day-to-day operation for people feeding students to make judgments about how many people will come in and how many tables or chairs are needed.

With regard to the analogy of the flawed notice of the timetable of this House, as potential Members of the House who know that we shall come but have not yet arrived, we know what the rules are for Members and non-Members of this House. For example, until I am sworn into the House, I am not allowed to pass by the Bar of the House. We also know that rules pertain for husbands and wives of Members of this House. All that information is made available to us. That is simply all that we say: that the rules available to members and non-members should be made available before students become full members of the universities and colleges.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I cannot help wondering where the noble Baroness was on 4th November last when the Railways Bill came back from another place. The Commons amendments were scheduled for consideration the next day; and we were suddenly told that we were to consider them that night. If the noble Baroness wishes to condemn what the Government did on that day, she can keep her position consistent. If not, then she cannot. I commend the amendment.

7.30 p.m.

On Question, Whether the Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 42; Not-Contents, 95.

Division No.3
Addington, L. Lester of Herne Hill, L.
Airedale, L. Lockwood, B.
Ardwick, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Avebury, L. Mayhew, L.
Beloff, L. Mishcon, L.
Butterfield, L. Nicol, B.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Carter, L. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Plant of Highfield, L.
Craigavon, V. Redesdale, L.
Darcy (de Knayth), B. Russell, E. [Teller.]
David, B. [Teller.] Seear, B.
Dean of Beswick, L. Sefton of Garston L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Shepherd, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Skidelsky, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Howie of Troon, L. Taylor of Gryfe, I,.
Jeger, B. Tordoff, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Williams of Crosby, B.
Judd, L. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Addison, V. Henley, L.
Annaly, L. Hertford, M.
Arran, E. Holderness, L.
Astor, V. Howe, E.
Balfour, E. Jeffreys, L.
Barber, L. Kenyon, L.
Blatch, B. Kinnoull, E.
Blyth, L. Lauderdale, E.
Boardman, L. Leigh, L.
Brentford, V. Long, V.
Butterworth, L. Lucas, L.
Byron, L. Lyell, L.
Cadman, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Caithness, E Mackay of Clashfem, L. [Lord Chancellor.]
Carnock, L.
Chelmsford, V. Macleod of Borve, B.
Chesham, L. Marlesford, L.
Clanwilliam, E. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Clark of Kempston, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Colwyn, L. Mersey, V.
Craigmyle, L. Miller of Hendon, B.
Cranborne, V. Monteagle of Brandon, L.
Cumberlege, B. Mottistone, L.
Dean of Harptree, L. Mountevans, L.
Denham, L. Moyne, L.
Denton of Wakefield, B. Munster, E.
Dixon-Smith, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L
Downshire, M. Napier and Ettrick, L.
Elles, B. Northesk, E.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Parkinson, L.
Elton, L. Pender, L.
Ferrers, E Perry of Southwark, B.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Rankeillour, L.
Gilmour of Craigmillar, L. Renton, L.
Goschen, V. Rodger of Earlsferry, L.
Gray, L. Rodney, L.
Harding of Petherton, L. Seccombe, B.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Sharples, B.
Harmsworth, L. Skelmersdale, L.
St Davids, V. Trumpington, B.
Stewartby, L. Tugendhat, L
Stockton, E. Ullswaler, V. [Teller.]
Strange, B. Vivian, L
Strathclyde, L.
Strathmore and Kinghorne, E. [Teller] Wade of Chorlton, L.
Wakeham, L. [Lord Privy Seal.]
Sudeley, L Wise, L
Teynham, L. Wotfson, L.
Thomas of Gwydir, L. Wynford, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Commons Amendment No. 12 agreed to.

7.37 p.m.