HL Deb 25 November 1997 vol 583 cc861-4

2.51 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour asked Her Majesty's Government:

What legal advice they received before making their decision on tuition fees for non-Scottish United Kingdom students taking honours degrees at Scottish universities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel)

My Lords, it is not the practice to reveal internal legal advice on any matter.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, with due respect, I did not ask the noble Lord where the legal advice came from; I asked whether the Government had had any legal advice. It is a Question that I asked on 4th November. I received no reply then and I have had no letter since. Is it possible for the Minister to tell us now whether the arrangements we are discussing are legal under the Maastricht Treaty, the equal opportunities Act, the Race Relations Act and the European Convention on Human Rights?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I recognise the interest that the noble Baroness takes in this matter, which she has raised before. I regret that I am forced back to my original Answer, that it is not the practice to reveal the internal advice that the Government receive. The Question the noble Baroness asks specifically says, What legal advice they received". I must stick by the terms of my original Answer.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether it would be right and proper for other organisations, such as the National Union of Students, to take this matter to the European courts? In addition to seeking legal advice, has the Minister taken the opportunity to discuss with his colleague in the other place the expression of view, which was universal in this House, condemning this specific practice?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I do not believe that the view was universal. When I participated in that debate in your Lordships' House, contributions came from both sides of the question. On my noble friend's first point, it is clearly open, and rightly open, to any organisation or individual to take action in any court that is available to them to challenge the decision of government.

Lord Rawlinson of Ewell

My Lords, am I correct in believing that it is acceptable for the Minister to say whether or not he sought advice from the law officers of the Crown in Scotland on this matter? Yes or no?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am back to the conventional position that was accepted by previous governments. The Government do not reveal either the content of advice or whether or not they have sought it.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister recall, in the days of the previous government, when challenges were made to some of the immigration legislation on the basis that it contravened the European Convention on Human Rights, the reply from Ministers was that they were satisfied that an adequate answer would be brought to the court if litigation occurred? Can the Minister at least say that in relation to this question?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I can say that if there is a challenge in the court, the Government will be in a position to make their case to the court.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the Government received any advice, legal or otherwise, before deciding to impose this tax of £1,000 a year on all undergraduates?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the Government did indeed receive advice; what he may dispute is its quality.

Baroness Young

My Lords, does not the noble Lord recognise that his Answer is incredibly unhelpful to the House? After all, this is an extremely serious point. When this matter was raised by my noble friend Lady Carnegy in an Unstarred Question, the difference and the unfairness of treatment between English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students in Scottish universities compared with EU students—when we had all assumed that England, Wales and Northern Ireland were in the EU—was shown to be unbelievable. This stonewalling hardly contributes to settling what is an extremely worrying issue.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I regret that the noble Baroness feels that I am stonewalling. I am bound by the conventions and practices in that the tradition is that the Government do not reveal either whether they have sought advice, whether they have received advice or the content of that legal advice. I recognise that the positions of both the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Carnegy, are deeply and sincerely held. Every opportunity will be available for noble Lords to make their contributions on this substantive issue when the Bill is before us.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, will the Minister answer a question of policy? Is it correct that Scottish students in turn are being discriminated against in the extent of the disallowance for parental income in awarding maintenance grants and in the disallowance of their right to a loan to meet costs when they go to English universities? Is that simply a way of separating Scotland from England once and for all?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising that issue, though it may be slightly wide of the Question. I am grateful to be able to resolve the question and, in doing so, declare something of an interest in that one of my children may be attending a Scottish university next year.

I was slightly put off by the report that I read in one of the Scottish papers saying that the parental income figures would be different in Scotland than in England. When I investigated the matter, it became clear that the paper concerned had failed to distinguish between net and gross when looking at parental income. I can therefore assure the noble Lord that the figures in Scotland are the same as the figures in England and Wales. There will be no difference between Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, has the Minister taken anybody's advice on this subject, lawyer or otherwise? Am I right in thinking that, whether they be Scottish or non-Scottish students, on top of the £3,000 or £4,000 they will have to pay in fees, if they come from modest backgrounds they will also run up a debt of £14,000 by the end of their four year honours degree course? Is the Minister and his party comfortable with that?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, of course the Government take advice. We have taken the advice of experts in higher education in coming forward with these proposals. We believe the proposals to be fair. We believe that they address the basic and fundamental issue that we cannot have a mass system of higher education paid for purely out of taxation. Those who benefit from higher education should be expected to make a fair and reasonable contribution. That is the aim of our proposals.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the provisions of the Human Rights Bill, which includes a clause to the effect that, when a Minister introduces a Bill into this House, he should make a statement to the effect that in his view the provisions of the Bill are compatible with convention rights. Can the Minister assure the House that when he introduces the legislation relating to these proposals, he will be in a position to make such a statement?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I do not know who will be introducing the Bill, but I am sure that whoever does so will do whatever is necessary in the terms that the noble and learned Lord outlines.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, in view of the fact that the noble Lord said that the Government took advice, why did they reject in such a cursory manner the Dearing recommendations which did not suggest a policy the Government follow?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, in Scotland it was the Garrick Report rather than the Dearing Report. We took what we thought were the best and strongest parts of the Garrick Report and built upon them.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, would it not be easier for the Government to avoid any threat of legal challenge by spending the £1.5 million required for the English students and the £45,000 required for the Welsh students entering into these four-year degree courses? After all, these are very small sums relative to the total education budget.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, the Government are clearly prepared to withstand and rebut any legal challenge on this issue. The noble Lord again goes into areas of wider policy. He will have an opportunity to make his point when the Bill is before us.