HL Deb 14 July 1998 vol 592 cc116-29

123HD In subsection (6), leave out ("may") and insert ("shall")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 123HD I want also to respond to the major points made by the noble Baroness and the amendment that she moved. As there was going to be such a major change in the Government's position it might have been for everyone's convenience if this matter had been held over until tomorrow. We have not spent a very edifying hour since 20 minutes to three when the proposed Motion appeared in our hands. However, one must look on this as a little bit of progress and that, after all these months, somebody somewhere is doing some listening—perhaps not quite enough but at least some.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, on being a little closer to the Government than I am, despite the fact that I have been leading on this issue for many months. However, I can understand why the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, had his amendment taken over and re-worked by the Government. It would be churlish of me to do other than congratulate the noble Lord on being with me in this successful operation—not completely successful, but nearly.

I welcome the noble Baroness to the Dispatch Box. On every occasion that we debated this matter—I believe this is the seventh time on the Bill itself and the Commons reasons—it has been the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, who has had to come to the Dispatch Box and defend what we considered to be indefensible. I am not sure what one reads into that. Does the noble Baroness come as the gods bearing gifts? In that case, I am not sure whether or not she supplanted the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. I am not sure that it is not a little unfair to the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, who has been beaten about the head for weeks now in relation to this issue, that he cannot come with at least a small olive branch to your Lordships' House.

I am not surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has not done that because I received a letter, as did many other noble Lords, from no less an organisation than the University of Aberdeen, in which the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, was a distinguished academic. That letter makes it absolutely clear that it would be, absolutely unfair to choose courses or universities dependent on where people live in the United Kingdom. We consider the issue to be one of equality and the Government's failure to recognise this is angering and worrying students across the United Kingdom". I do not know whether Claire MacBride was an ex-pupil of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, but clearly she has not been convinced by his argument.

The noble Baroness made a half-hearted attempt—I do not blame her for that—to defend the Government's position over those many months. She attempted to revisit the question that Scottish education is somehow different and that Highers courses last a year. However, she moved away a little from that and conceded that most students in Scottish schools spend two years after 16 in education and therefore the reality is that they are in exactly the same position when they go to university as students from elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

I do not want to lecture your Lordships on Scottish education, but the fact is that one needs a fair clutch of Highers in order to achieve university admission. The cleverest youngsters achieve them by the end of their fifth year—I grant that—but the great majority of youngsters go to university after the sixth year. It is worth saying that more youngsters go to university from schools in Scotland than in England. The Scottish education system therefore has something to say to the rest of the country in that regard.

Most youngsters need two years to take one of the Highers in order to reach the necessary standards. Therefore, many youngsters need the two years in secondary school after 16 in order to achieve the entrance qualifications. As I said, and as the honourable Member Dennis Canavan, who was also a principal teacher in mathematics, as I was, said to the other place, most youngsters, even the cleverest ones, stayed on for an extra year when they did the sixth year of studies when he and I were teaching.

The idea that somehow Scottish youngsters went off to university at the end of the fifth year is simply not true. In recommendation 81—I say this as charitably as I can—the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, got it wrong, or the Government did not read it properly. They should only have used the argument for those few youngsters who went immediately after the fifth year. There is, therefore, a difference in Scottish education and I am glad to hear the noble Baroness accept that this afternoon. Indeed, that is a great deal more charitable to Scottish education than our right honourable friend David Blunkett was last night, when my most un-Scottish nationalist hackles were raised by the way he suggested that Scottish students need another year at university to make up for their school education. As I say, considering we send more youngsters to university than they do south of the Border, we do not need to take lectures in that regard.

The noble Baroness also talked about the anomaly that English students who take four-year courses—they are in the minority—might expect their fourth-year fees to be paid. But that is not the anomaly. As I explained, the anomaly is this. In the same queue in Scottish universities in their fourth year will be youngsters from Scotland who are only paying £3,000 and not paying at all for the fourth year; there will be youngsters from European Union countries—dare I mention Italy?—who will not be paying at all for the fourth year, and there will be youngsters from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who will pay £1,000 for the fourth year. That is at the centre of the inequity.

If we look to an English university, there will be no anomaly in the queue. All the youngsters in the queue will be paying for the fourth year, if that is the queue they are in, wherever they come from. I am amazed that the Government have not been able to understand the huge difference between the Scottish and the English positions. However, they are beginning to show some understanding.

I notice that neither here nor yesterday in the Commons was much made of the anomaly of the European Union students, except that they were dismissed as just a few. I know it is hard for new Labour to understand, but principles do not involve the number of people affected by something; they are actually principles. If we consider Ireland, about which we are all worried at the present time, it is indefensible that a youngster going to the university of Abertay—which is 14 per cent. down on its applications this year—coming from Limerick will only be asked to pay for three years, but a youngster coming from Limavady will be asked to pay for four years. That does not send out the right picture and I was not surprised therefore that the noble Baroness made no attempt to defend that.

I turn now to my amendment. I am happy to hear from the noble Baroness that this will be an independent review; I am glad about that. I hope it is undertaken by somebody who knows about Scottish education and the British education system and will be aware of what is happening. I understand the Northern Ireland point; I thought that was it and I am grateful to her for spelling it out from the Dispatch Box. When it comes to, such other bodies as he considers appropriate",

I take it that that means bodies and persons. It is not just bodies; it is persons as well so that individuals can give evidence. I will be grateful if I can have that assurance.

I wonder also whether, when the Scottish parliament is set up as it will be next May, I am right in thinking that the question of university fees will become a matter for that Scottish parliament and that the Scottish parliament will be able to revisit this issue and decide what it wants to do. In the manifesto which my party shall write for the Scottish parliamentary elections, whatever the outcome of this review, we will pledge to deal with this anomaly and find the £2 million.

However, accepting the independent review, accepting the evidence, the information I have indicates that bodies such as the Scottish Higher Education Principals, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the National Union of Students, the Association of University Teachers, all the teacher unions, I suspect, in Scotland, the Education Institute for Scotland and other unions, will all come and present overwhelming evidence along the lines of the speeches that I have made to your Lordships over the past few months. The only people coming forward with a contrary view will be those who give evidence for Her Majesty's Government. If the body is independent it will conclude that something should be done and that the fourth-year anomaly should not exist.

It is not that I distrust government ministers but I know a lot about them. I have had experience of them. I can see that if I get a report from the commission saying, "Yes, it is an anomaly. We do not believe that you should charge fourth-year fees to students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We think you should sort it out", the Government will say, "Very kind. Thank you for your advice. We will not sort it out because the Bill just says 'may.'" That is why I am putting in "shall". If the Government have confidence in the case that they can present to the independent committee and believe that they can persuade all these bodies to change their current view and come forward with evidence to say that there is no problem, then they should be confident enough to accept my amendment and incorporate "shall".

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard)

My Lords, I thought the noble Lord had given way. I hoped he had subsided finally but he obviously has not. Perhaps the noble Lord can help me with this question. Can he think of any instance in which a government, in advance, have agreed to be totally bound by the decision of an independent committee which has not yet been set up and which has not started considerations? I cannot.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I see the point that the noble Lord the Leader of the House is making. As the amendment is only an hour and 20 minutes old, I cannot answer that question. He has the power of government behind him. Even in 20 minutes I have no doubt that he will answer it for me.

Lord Richard

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the insertion of the word "shall" into the amendment as he proposes has that effect? If it does, and if I am right that there is no precedent that I know of for that, he is embarking on constitutionally thin ice.

Noble Lords


Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, many happy hours have been occupied by committees in this place and the other place discussing "may" and "shall"—whether "shall" means "may" or "may" means "shall". I see the point that the noble Lord is making.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal if I heard him right, said that he could not think of any case when government agreed to be bound in advance by the decision of another body. Does that not happen every time a government go to court?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I must say that I find it more comfortable to have the noble Earl batting on my side than against me. I was about to say that the noble Baroness should take that on board. When she replies perhaps she will give me some comfort that the word "may" is a little bit stronger than "maybe" and that the Government will commit themselves to taking very seriously what the commission says and to enacting its recommendations unless there are compelling reasons for not doing so. I need some words of comfort.

I do not want to go on because we have been over this issue many times. We have made a little progress. It would have been much wiser for the Government to have made the progress some time ago—perhaps when the Bill was in this House or in the other place—instead of digging in their heels. They have discovered today that your Lordships are indeed a revising chamber. We have been at least partially listened to. I thank the Government and the noble Baroness for that. I thank also the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. No doubt he has reported back to his colleagues that he has been drubbed something dreadful on a number of occasions on this issue. I thank the Government as far as it goes. I would like them to go further. I look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness has to say about "may" and "shall". I beg to move.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, the immediate response from these Benches is to express our gratitude to the Government for accepting the amendment that we tabled earlier today and for adapting it, through the technical resources available to them, to improve the terms of it. The Government and the Minister have certainly taken the House by surprise. We have rarely had so much pleasure—we have had it twice this afternoon—as a result of the Government having to act without more notice to the House. It is a welcome surprise.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, that it does not solve the problem of the principle of equal treatment of tuition fees for students who come from other parts of the United Kingdom to Scottish universities. On that point both the Official Opposition and ourselves are in agreement. The government action today, coming so swiftly after the events in the other place last night, shows what we can all regard as sensible flexibility over what is a difficult issue for both sides. It shows a willingness to allow the issues to be examined before the final arrangements are formally in place.

Our role is to be a revising Chamber, to give the government of the day the opportunity to think again. That is what we have been seeking to do during the long game of ping-pong over these provisions. The independent review body proposed orally last night in the other place and to be enshrined on the face of the Bill here provides that opportunity for thinking again.

This was never a great constitutional issue, although, on reading some of the speeches, one would have thought that there were some who sought to make it a conflict between Lords and Commons. No-one in your Lordships' House—certainly no-one on the Front Benches—denies the legitimacy of the elected Chamber, especially when it involves raising money through taxes. But the Government have stubbornly refused to recognise adequately over quite a long period—in your Lordships' House and, certainly, in another place—that, particularly on educational issues, your Lordships' House has a special right to be listened to. This House contains within its membership a wide range of people with great experience of education gained during their professional lives. The Government would have been wise to have given much greater weight to the doubts expressed in this House at a very much earlier stage. I beg the Government at this stage not to under-estimate the all-party opinion outside this House that is on our side of the argument rather than theirs over Scottish university tuition fees.

I had to miss the previous game of ping-pong last week because I was in Scotland. I was attending the degree ceremony of the University of Dundee, with which I have had a long association. During that ceremony the principal of the University of Dundee, Professor Ian Graham-Bryce, used these words: Whatever rationalisations arc put forward, the practical effect is discriminatory. If this leads to a decrease in the diversity of the student body"— which has been enjoyed in universities like Dundee where there is a very significant group of students from outside Scotland— it will he Scottish higher education and ultimately Scottish interests which will he the losers". The principal of the University of Dundee reported that he was already experiencing a fall in applications for places—a 14 per cent. fall this year—and that the outlook was not good at present.

A great many conflicting figures have been given about whether the provisions of the Bill are already having an effect on applications to Scottish universities from other parts of the United Kingdom. One of the useful purposes of the proposed review may be to clarify this situation because the effect of the provisions will become clearer and clearer as the review body sits—and that may greatly help to make the debate as cool and as rational as possible.

I welcome the Minister's assurances that this is to be a truly independent review. It is not to be a "cosmetic operation", to use her phrase. The implication is that we are entitled to assume that the Government will approach the review in that spirit and will ensure that the members of the review are truly independent people and that the review is able to tackle the problems that lie before it ab initio with an open mind. For that reason, I do not propose to follow the example of the noble Baroness the Minister, who seemed to be rehearsing the evidence that presumably she will in due course give to the review; nor the example of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, who was either rehearsing the evidence he will give in the future or was going over the evidence he has given frequently in these debates in the past. I do not think much is to be served by doing that at this stage.

The Government have made a very important concession. I recognise that it is not easy for the Government to make such a concession at this stage of a Bill that has aroused passions as deep as this one has aroused. Therefore, I welcome the fact that the Government have done so; I welcome the proposal for the review; and I welcome the way they have taken our amendment and incorporated it onto the face of the Bill. I am a very happy man this afternoon.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, during the passage of the Bill I have become accustomed to accepting chastisement from the noble Earl, Lord Russell; the noble Lord, Lord Beloff; and no less from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, although I invite the noble Lord to read Clause 81 again and to change his mind. While I have become used to that chastisement, I was perturbed when during our previous debate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon described me as a man without principle. Being of a certain age, and thinking that in the fullness of time, like perhaps several other noble Lords, I shall be moved to yet another place, I thought that I would write him an epistle—an epistle of five pages—lest I be condemned to a purgatory of everlasting ping-pong. I am glad to tell your Lordships that the right reverend Prelate was kind enough to ring me this morning, fearing yet another even longer epistle, to authorise me to say that I was forgiven.

I welcome the initiatives that have been taken to relieve us of a difficult problem. We all need time, just as the National Union of Students told me that it needs time when I asked for its position on a certain matter which was very relevant and to which I referred on another occasion. I am delighted to support the government amendment. I agree that "may" is the better word, but with an edge of "shall" about it.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I believe this is the fourth time that we have discussed this matter. I apologise for the fact that I have not been present on earlier occasions. However, I have followed all the arguments and on the whole have agreed with most of them. So I came here this afternoon, assuming this was the fourth time and that we were thinking of sending the Bill back, to make a great constitutional speech, but somehow the air seems to have gone out of the balloon.

I had intended to say that this unelected and unaccountable Chamber was unrepresentative and, therefore, with a clear conscience, I could vote with the Government. Now that I am reduced to voting apparently between "may" and "shall", I feel rather as though I have been let down by the Government's concession. However, I think they have done the right thing. I think your Lordships can retire with honour from the major constitutional battle. The Government have listened. They have gone the extra mile.

From my close experience over a period of 10 years with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, I have no doubt that it will approach this from the point of view not only of the interests of the universities and the higher education institutions, but also from that of the students. It is a great pity that we did not have a solution to this problem when the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, considered it. But we did not. So I think now that we can safely leave it to the review to make recommendations that will certainly be realistic and practical and will get rid of as many difficulties as possible.

With regard to "may" and "shall", I can see the hands of the parliamentary draftsman in this. As anyone who has been a Minister knows, no parliamentary draftsman would ever agree to "shall" if he could get away with "may". I do not blame him either. As noble Lords on both sides of the House know—a number of former Ministers are present—although one may be in full agreement with whatever a committee of outsiders—and they are outsiders—proposes, it is for Parliament to take the final decision on what form legislation should take. That is how it should be. I do not think that Parliament can hand over the final responsibility for this matter, even to a committee as eminent as my friends, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and all those associated with it. Now that the Government have gone the extra mile, on which I congratulate them, it would be a great pity if we were to send the Bill back to the Commons again and say, "We insist on 'shall'", when it is well known that this is not the way in which legislation is normally drafted.

I would also say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that if the committee came back with a recommendation which was seriously interfered with, which was weakened by the Government or which was not accepted by them, a number of us would find it difficult to support them. It should weigh with all Members of your Lordships' House that in this place we think as independently as we can even though we try to follow the Government Whip and to do what we can. Nevertheless, having committed themselves to this course of action, the Government are morally bound to accept all the major conclusions that follow from it. If they could not, it would put some of us in a great deal of difficulty.

On that basis I hope the House will agree that we have achieved something on the Bill. It has now been considered so many times by this House and it has gone through the Commons. It contains a number of measures on which many hours have been spent by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and my noble friends, who have worked very hard this Session. I feel sorry for them, having seen them come here day after day to consider all the amendments. I hope the House will agree that we need not send the Bill back to another place and can accept that what has happened reflects well on the persistence of this House.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, I am sorry I could not be present when we discussed the Bill on 7th July, but I had an accident and I needed five stitches in my head. Noble Lords now see me standing here and I am all right.

Shakespeare said, A plague o' both your houses!". If I were an outsider and had seen the debate I would think that a very apposite comment. But we are not outsiders but insiders. We cannot take comfort in what happened in Shakespeare's day.

There is one point which has hardly been mentioned by anybody; namely, what would have been the effect if the Government had succeeded in getting their Bill through and what would have been the effect on Scotland in particular? I am quite clear that the only people who could have benefited were the Scottish Nationalist Party, because they seek independence. What would have happened? When the first election came up we would have heard the cry, "Remember the poll tax and the Scottish Education Bill!" Luckily, that second part need not arise now in the light of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, which we are considering today. Without it, we would have suffered the very real danger that both students and principals, and indeed the whole of Scotland and the other parts of the country, would have good cause for resentment. I cannot stress enough how much I believe that that could have affected the whole issue of the Union with Scotland.

I had prepared a good, long speech but it is not going to be spoken. I say, "thank you" to the Government for having met our points. As I see it, as regards the question of "may" or "shall", I hope that the Government will remember the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, because it is a very real one. It would be very helpful if the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, can help us in the way the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, suggested and give us some extra comfort on that particular issue.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, my difficulty is not with the words "shall" or "may". My difficulty is much more fundamental and with the word "independent" as describing the composition of the body which is to make recommendations. After all, we have listened to debates on this Bill on several occasions, as we have been reminded. I have found no one in this House who can be called "independent". They take one view of the issue or the other. If one went outside this House into the country at large, I believe that it would be almost equally difficult to find people who genuinely began with an open mind on an issue of principle of this importance. I believe that the only conceivable independent body would be one nominated by, let us say, the president of Harvard or the Collège de France. The nomination would have to be from outside this country; outside Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Therefore, I cannot regard the offer of a commission—which would be selected by the Government which must have some bias in the people they look to—as a concession on the main issue of principle.

Lord Peston

My Lords, perhaps I may say a word in support of my noble friend's statement. She and the Government have behaved in a most conciliatory fashion. They have done all they can to move us forward on this matter. I say en passant that until the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, spoke, it had never occurred to me that anyone would query the question of independence. I have not the slightest doubt that this Government are as capable in this field, as in others, of appointing a body which is able to come to a reasonable conclusion on the facts.

We do not want to debate the matter this afternoon because we have other business before us, but the four-year degree question in England and Wales is the same as the four-year degree question in Scotland. I believe that my noble friend said that and on straight education grounds I believe that she is completely right. It does not mean that there is not an interesting question there, but it is not the same question.

I enter a plea. There is no one more obsessed in your Lordships' House with the "may-shall" question than I. However, when I sat on the Front Bench where the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, now sits, I constantly raised the question, as regards the legislation of the then government, as to why "may" instead of "shall'. Very frequently the only word that would make any sense was "shall". It was often said that. "The Secretary of State may lay regulations". The point is that if he did not lay them the whole Bill failed. But I often asked why "may" and not "shall". The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and his friends had no difficulty in telling me that "may" was the right word and that it sort of meant "shall", as my noble friend Lord Callaghan said.

Beyond that, I find inconceivable—should this independent body query the arrangements and say that something different must be done—the notion that the Secretary of State would not then do it. That is preposterous. Of course he or she would do it. I do not say that I shall abandon my own "may-shall" interventions in future because when I am short of an argument those two words tend to pass the time away when I cannot think of anything substantial to say. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has handled this matter extremely well. He has been helpful to your Lordships in moving the matter forward. However, I hope he decides that we do not need to spend any more time on this issue by dividing the House, although it is his decision and not ours. I believe that we have taken the "may-shall" matter as far as it can go, at least for today.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I believe that I would not be alone in saying that while we are pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has brought forward this amendment, she has done so at a very late stage in the day. If it had come to us earlier it would have been infinitely better. The argument of principle has not changed at all. I reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, said on this matter: that there is no organisation—I believe my noble friend Lord Mackay also made the point—outside concerned with university education that does not believe that the Government's position has been totally inequitable and wrong. Many of us went outside the university world in the course of the weeks that this matter has been under consideration, and all kinds of representations were made by people who have never considered these matters before. They were astonished at the inequity and unfairness that has been presented. It is not just a question of university courses; there are also very important questions concerning the purposes of universities and the unity of the United Kingdom.

In looking at this matter we need a very strong assurance from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, that she takes on board the very important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. I do not believe that it is good enough for us to say that we will accept this committee. As far as I can see, it is going to take nearly two years to report and cost a great deal of money. It will occupy the time of many people who could well be employed doing something else in the universities of direct benefit to the students. We can accept all of that, but the provisions will not come into effect until the year 2000. That means that for two years students will be caught in the trap described.

I agree that there has been a concession, but it is not a very big one from the students' point of view. We need very much to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, that her interpretation of the matter is our interpretation; namely, that there is an independent body giving independent advice and that the Government will come to the right conclusion when they receive the report. I hope that it will not be left on the shelf and that it will not just be overruled. If there is any danger of a decision being reached which appears to us not to meet the very real concerns expressed time and again in this House, I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate and go over the issue again.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, before the House descends into sweetness and light, I should like to point out that the setting up of this committee is entirely unnecessary. It is a concession and an admission that the Government have made a mistake. We are grateful for that. It is very much better than if the Government had stuck to their position and not set up this committee. But this matter could be sorted out now by the Government agreeing that the Scottish Office should fund students in their fourth year at Scottish universities. When the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, appeared, this anomaly was pointed out. Referring to the way in which that anomaly should be dealt with, the noble Lord said that it would be a matter for the Secretary of State for Scotland. He did not refer to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. If that advice had been taken and the Government had agreed to spend £2 million from the Scottish Office Vote—it would have had to come from somewhere else in the Scottish system—the problem would not have existed.

The Scottish system in both law and practice is quite different from the position in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, a four-year degree is the norm; South of the Border, it is the exception. There is no need for this great committee to consider whether £29 million—it will be more in future—should be spent in order to achieve equity as between English and Scottish students who attend courses in England and Wales that last for four years and those who do so in Scotland. The system is separate. By the time all of this takes place, the Scottish parliament will be in existence and Scotland may have made different arrangements. I regard the setting up of the committee as entirely unnecessary. However, the House may wish to accept it because at least the Government have confessed that they have made a mistake.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it appears to be the wish of the House that I now respond. I am grateful for the general welcome that has been given to the Government's proposal to have a review on this matter. I shall follow the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and not engage in debating the issue again. This is now a matter for the review. However, in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, in proposing this review the Government do not admit that they are wrong. The Government are responding to the concerns that have been expressed. There is a difference. I believe that that is the right approach to take.

One or two specific questions have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, sought reassurance that "bodies" included "persons". I confirm that the review should take evidence from individuals who want to make representations.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, questioned whether the review would be independent. The Government are utterly committed to an independent review. On that point, I am grateful for the comments of my noble friend Lord Peston. I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that the Government have every intention that the review should be completely independent.

To deal with one matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I do not believe that the review will cost a great deal. I am sure that all noble Lords agree that the money will be well spent since such a review is welcome and we all believe that this is the right step to take.

I turn now to the issue of "shall" as opposed "may". I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff. He spoke with all the authority of a former Prime Minister and from his immense experience. I do not believe that any Secretary of State can properly fetter his discretion if the word is changed to "shall". The Government will take this review seriously. Therefore, this will be about the strongest "may" that Members of your Lordships' House have ever seen. The Secretary of State will consider the recommendations of the independent review very carefully indeed. But I believe it is agreed that it is not right to bind the Secretary of State and his successors to follow automatically any recommendation that a review may make. Circumstances can change. No government can write a blank cheque cashable by an independent body in this way. I believe that that is widely understood by noble Lords this afternoon. Although the Government are unable to accept "shall", I reiterate that this is a very strong "may". When the review is completed, Ministers will have to explain themselves to Parliament in the usual way if changes are to be made to arrangements which are found to be unsatisfactory. Any changes would have to be implemented by regulations which Parliament could debate if it wished.

Finally, I return to the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. I assure the noble Lord that the review and the Government's response to it will be carried out in a cool and rational way. I shall not rehearse any of the arguments on this issue. However, I am grateful to Members of your Lordships' House that an agreement has been more or less reached and that we shall not be condemned to the everlasting ping-pong to which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, referred.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I owe it to the House to make clear our position on the question of "may" or "shall". We considered this matter very carefully in drafting our amendment. We took the view that has been expressed by the Government Front Bench. Speaking for myself, I know of no case where any government would be ready to be mandated on a compulsory basis to accept the financial and taxation consequences of the recommendations of any independent review, however distinguished. That is our position on this matter. I very warmly welcome the way in which the noble Baroness has finally put this matter to rest by using the warmest possible "may".

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on dealing with the issue with considerable skill. I do not believe that when I had to back-off or climb down before your Lordships I ever thought up such an elegant phrase as "responding to the concerns that have been expressed". I congratulate the noble Baroness on that. Regardless of the elegance of that phrase, this represents a considerable climb down on the part of the Government. We and, I am sure, students are grateful for that.

The noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal challenged me to quote some precedents. In a few minutes' research I have discovered that my right honourable friend John Major undertook to implement the recommendations of the Nolan Committee when that committee was set up. The Lord Privy Seal may say that that was not in legislation, and I accept that. However, I also understand that under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill that is now before the House the Secretary of State must release a prisoner if the commission says so. So I do not believe that this is absolutely without precedent.

The important point about this Chamber is that all noble Lords listen to the debate. Your Lordships clearly listened to the debate on previous occasions and agreed with me overwhelmingly when I argued that the Government were wrong. I am sure that noble Lords have listened with care this afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, has pointed out that we can have—and we have had—happy hours discussing "may" and "shall". When the lawyers told me what those two words meant I was never entirely sure why it should not be one, but should be the other.

The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, spoke, I think, for most of us when he said—I hope that I have him right—that if the committee's recommendations were not accepted, many of us would be in a great deal of difficulty. The one organisation that would be in great difficulty would be Her Majesty's Government.

I was grateful for the noble Baroness's comment that this is the strongest "may" your Lordships have ever seen. A Minister cannot get much closer than that; and Ministers would have to explain themselves if they did not follow a very firm recommendation of the committee.

I accept those assurances in the spirit in which they were given. I look forward to the commission hearing the evidence. And I look forward in two years' time to the Government having to say, "Yes, we were wrong." With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 123HD, as an amendment to Amendment No. 123HB, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 123HE, as an amendment to Amendment No. 123HB, not moved.]

The Chairman of Committees: (Lord Boston of Faversham)

My Lords, the Question is, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 123E, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 123H, but do propose Amendment No. 123HB in lieu thereof.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 123J and 123L not moved.]

Bill returned to the Commons with an amendment.