HL Deb 03 February 2000 vol 609 cc343-6

3.16 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

asked Her Majesty's Government: What steps they propose to take to remove any discrimination which will be experienced by English, Welsh and Northern Irish students at Scottish universities over the payment of fees.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I answer this Question for the same reason that my noble friend Lord Bach answered the last. The arrangements for student support and tuition fees in England and Wales are working well, and will be made even better by the additional financial help announced last week for mature students and young students from the least well-off families. Devolution means that the arrangements in Scotland will be different, but differences do not amount to discrimination.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can be forgiven for believing that they have equal rights within the United Kingdom and with students throughout the European Union? Therefore, how can the Government defend disadvantaging English, Northern Irish and Welsh students in favour of, for example, Greek and Spanish students?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, students everywhere can be forgiven for believing that they have comparable rights, as they do. The arrangements in both England and Wales and Scotland are compatible with European Union rules.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, whether or not the arrangements are compatible with European Union rules, they are a clear example of discrimination against English, Welsh and Northern Irish students attending Scottish universities which has been forced upon us by the European Union? To double, or even treble, the insult—which it is—to our right to decide our own affairs, at the same time we are forced positively to discriminate in favour of any student from the European Union who will receive the same benefits as a Scottish student. This is insupportable. What are we doing about it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend, no doubt inadvertently, is illogical in his reasoning. I said that the provisions were compatible with, not determined by, European Union rules. I have said that the provision for student fees and higher education generally in this country is justified and generous. The same may well be said of the provision in Scotland.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, far from what he said, the present arrangements for student finance are not working well? Real poverty is being experienced by many students at our universities and harm caused to their studies by having to combine full-time education with part-time work. Given the Government's anxiety to increase access to higher education for a large number of people who are less well off, has the Minister given consideration to whether Cubie-style arrangements should be adopted in England?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Education was able last week to announce a £68 million package of improvements in student provision, in particular for mature students and those from the most deprived backgrounds. It includes greater access to funds, better access to hardship funds and loans, childcare and school meals provision for mature students and an increase in the threshold of payments from £17,370 to £20,000. That indicates that the noble Baroness may well have been right: that our student provision was not adequate until now. However, we can claim that we have made significant improvements to that provision by the package we announced last week.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, whatever the status of Northern Ireland may prove to be before the end of the week, will the Minister ensure that the legitimate concerns and hardships of students from Northern Ireland will not in any circumstances be disregarded by Her Majesty's Government? The position was set out by the noble Lord, Lord Shore.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in so far as it is within our power, I am sure we would wish to give the assurance the noble Lord seeks.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, if the Minister is right and the discrimination referred to in the Question is not determined in the final analysis by European Union rules, why do not the Government remove that discrimination? Do they approve of it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I said that the provision made for students of this country in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland is determined because we think that that provision is right, not because of European rules. We have no desire to change it.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the Minister remind the noble Lord, Lord Shore, and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, that the original King Charles' head was not the property of Charles de Gaulle?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not reply to noble Lords' jokes, when I cannot match them.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the Minister remember my grandchildren?

Noble Lords


Lord Mackay off Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the noble Lord believe that it is fair and not discriminatory that my Italian grandchild can now have a free university education in Scotland whereas my grandchild in Kent will have to pay £4,000 despite the fact that her parents are taxpayers in the same United Kingdom?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am trying desperately to remember the Italian and Scottish towns to which the noble Lord referred. I think that it must be Ecclefechan but I cannot remember the Italian town.

No. The provision made for European students is in accordance with European Union rules. The provision made for students resident in England and Wales is in accordance with the decisions of this Government, and no one else.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in certain policy areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament there will be differences in policy pursued by the Scottish Parliament from those of the Parliament at Westminster? It is a matter of diversity rather than discrimination. This House welcomed the concept of devolution. It should be encouraged as a strengthening rather than a weakening of the Union.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have sought to persuade noble Lords opposite of that point for some time. The fundamental point underlying this debate is that governments of England and Wales, and Scotland, have recognised that our responsibilities to students extend beyond the full-time young students to mature and part-time students. That is what the package covers.