HL Deb 01 July 2004 vol 663 cc377-81

4 Clause 27, page 13, line 32, at end insert— () Student fees paid to relevant institutions pursuant to this Act shall in principle be additional to and not in replacement of state funding provided for and in respect of the teaching of undergraduate students at such institutions which funding will be at an annual real level per student not less than the average provided over the previous three years.

4A The Commons disagree to this amendment for the following Reason—

Because it involves a charge on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 4, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 4A.

The amendment raises the issue of parliamentary privilege, which is why those in another place have chosen to reject it. For that reason, I hope that it will not be pressed. Nevertheless, the issues raised are important, and I am glad of the opportunity to refer to them again. We debated the issue at some length during the passage of the Bill in Committee, on Report and again at Third Reading. It was a wide-ranging debate, which reflected well on the expertise of noble Lords who spoke. In particular, there were valuable and heartfelt contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Phillips, Lord Dearing, Lord Baker and Lord Forsyth, the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady O'Neill, and my noble friends Lady Warwick and Lady Blackstone. I am grateful to them all and to all other noble Lords who made contributions to this important debate.

The key issue, and the reason that this amendment was rejected in another place on grounds of privilege, is the fact that we believe that it would be inappropriate for legislation to tie the hands of future governments and prevent them determining their spending priorities in the light of circumstances at the time. However, I recognise the strength of feeling in your Lordships' House that this fee income should be genuinely additional. I have said quite clearly that the Government are committed to that. But primary legislation is not the right place for such commitments. Noble Lords will appreciate that that is a precedent I do not wish to set.

While I do not believe that the amendment should be pressed, I hope that I can again go some way to assuring noble Lords that we are doing all that we can to meet their concerns. When we discussed this matter previously, I said that, following discussions with Universities UK and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, my right honourable friend the Minister responsible for higher education had written to Universities UK proposing the establishment of a working group to produce a new definition of unit cost. I am pleased to say that the first meeting of that group will be on 5 July. That definition would, of course, be published in the annual departmental report, which is laid before Parliament in the usual way.

I can also confirm that I shall be meeting the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, and the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, on Tuesday 20 July with colleagues from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to discuss how information about the levels of funding can be presented in the most helpful and transparent way for the benefit of both institutions and their students. I know that that is what the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, was seeking when she spoke at Third Reading.

It is important that we have had a further chance to reflect on those issues. The Government have done so. So, too, have the other place. On grounds of privilege, they have decided that they cannot accept this amendment. In view of that, for the reasons that I have set out and with the reassurances that I have given, I hope that the amendment will not be pressed.

Moved, That the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 4, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 4A.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, this amendment was moved by my noble friend Lord Phillips, who is unable to be here today and asked me to speak in his place. He is sad that the Government have not seen fit to support this amendment in the Commons and that it has not been passed. The amendment reflects a very deep anxiety on his part and on the part of other noble Lords from all Benches in this House that in the Bill the Government would be giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The guarantee incorporated within the amendment would have ensured that that did not happen.

We are delighted that the Minister has continued to maintain, in what she has said today, the assurances that she has given to the House that it will not be a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The other aspect that arose during our debates—that is, a definition of what is meant by unit funding per student—is being clarified. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, is not in her place today. but her amendment carried this issue forward. We did not pass it, but nevertheless it was agreed that she would participate in discussions. I am delighted to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, and the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, will participate in discussions to identify a clear statistic that we can look at and measure.

On these and other Benches, I am sure that we shall follow in considerable detail and keep a very eagle eye on precisely what happens to the funding for universities. It is vital that the moneys that are promised through the Bill are additional to other moneys, which was the fundamental purpose of the amendment. There should be clear additionality. I very much hope that the Government live up to those promises and that, from now onwards, we shall see universities benefiting from the extra moneys that will be flowing into their coffers.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, I do not wish to be too controversial or too ungrateful at this point, given that the Minister was so helpful on gap years. I am not particularly surprised that the Government have rejected the amendment on additionality. After all, we have been here before. We did this last time around when fees were introduced. This House passed an amendment stating that funding which came from fees for universities should be additional. That was rejected in the other place on the grounds that it would be additional. Ministers gave great assurances that the funds would be provided. I shall not bore your Lordships by reiterating what happened in detail again. We know what happened; that is, that the money was taken and was not additional.

We know that the Government's explanation is that if the Tories had won the election, their spending plans would have meant that there would be a reduction. But a Government that was elected on a platform of "Education, Education, Education", and on not introducing tuition fees, introduced tuition fees, took the £1 billion and put it in the Treasury's pockets, and it was not additional. So we have the Government's recidivism to consider against the assurances, however well intentioned, from the Minister that that will not happen.

While being controversial, I have to say that Universities UK—which, it has recently been drawn to my attention, sent an e-mail to all its supporters or possible supporters in this House telling them that there was a plot between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to have an amendment reopening the fees debate and urging them to make sure that they went through the Lobbies to do so—has, so far as I am aware, not gone out with the same eager enthusiasm to get people to give support to this principle of additionality.

If noble Lords believe the Government, that is up to them. Personally, I think that the same will happen again. The Treasury does not change its spots whichever administration is in power. Universities UK has been—to use the colloquial expression—sold a pup. It has gone around telling universities that this will be additional money and that this is the only way to get that additional money. Here we are, at this stage, with the Commons claiming privilege in response to our amendment, which simply seeks to put in the legislation the promises being made by the Government and being reiterated by the Minister.

I know that there is an important principle here. I know that the Treasury hates it. But I do not, for the life of me, see why making it explicit in the Bill that the income from fees will be additional is impossible, when it is possible to do so in respect of, for example, income from congestion charging in London. The principle that the Treasury has always fought to prevent being enshrined in legislation—of pre-empting its resources—has been included on a number of occasions. Given that the sums of money involved are so important to the universities—albeit that they are inadequate—and given that the cost to the taxpayer of providing that additional income of £900 million is at least £200 million more, it is disappointing, to say the least, that the Government have not accepted the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, who I now see in his place, which had support in every quarter of this House.

So I have a prediction. If the Government win the next election and this Bill continues in force, at some stage in this House we will be contemplating the fact that the additional money that came from fees has somehow not been added to the grant; just as we did before. The universities, of course, will be in even more dire straits than they are at present for the Bill does not measure up to the scale of the problem that they face.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, I was one of the supporters of the Phillips amendment. I feel very strongly about this matter because we were concerned with increasing the resources going into universities, not with changing the basis of university funding. It is a matter of conscience for us all that this money should go towards improving education that people will get from our universities and to remedy some of the past inheritance. I cite, for example, academic salaries which have fallen very severely in real terms.

In the other place when discussing this matter, the Minister, Alan Johnson, referred to a "very interesting debate" in which the Government had joined with Universities UK on defining units of resource. I say to the Minister that we shall take an equal interest in the outcome of that debate and in seeing that the unit of resource is maintained.

I have perhaps more confidence than the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that the undertakings will fructify in the way we would both wish, and I trust that I, rather than he, am right on this occasion.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I am sure that when the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, is able to tell noble Lords about the spending commitments made by the party on the Opposition Bench, we shall see the commitment to the growth of our universities made by this Government. The noble Lord has spoken with great passion about his concerns, so I hope that he is successful in making sure that that passion is translated into the kind of commitments made by his colleagues in another place that keep politicians true to their word in all senses. That is important We need to see it happen on all sides of the House.

I am aware of the strength of feeling and the desire of noble Lords to ensure that this is pushed forward. However, I believe that the pledges I have given, in particular on the definition of unit costs, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, will be kept to, thus ensuring that noble Lords will be able to see what happens. We have debated many times the history of what has developed post-1997 and I do not propose to re-enter that argument, but I can state categorically that unit funding will rise by 7 per cent between 2002–03 and 2005–06. Universities should be aware of and recognise that commitment.

On the basis of my argument about the Commons and their privilege, and on the basis of my commitments, not least to those noble Lords who feel most passionately about this, I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.