HL Deb 10 May 2004 vol 661 cc58-87

5.55 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 8 [Activities outside United Kingdom]:

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn moved Amendment No. 9: Page 3, line 29, at end insert "nor prevents the Council from making grants in response to applications from properly accredited and publicly supported British research institutions operating overseas, including those institutes and research schools, which are funded principally by the British Academy

The noble Lord said: Unlike Amendment No. 8, this amendment is tightly focused and does not address the generality of an issue. It seeks to rectify a serious anomaly which falls squarely within the scope of research councils, in particular the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It would put right an anomaly in the funding for research carried out by British research institutions overseas, and specifically by those overseas institutes and societies which are represented on the British Academy's Board for Academy-Sponsored Institutes and Societies, generally abbreviated to BASIS. These include the research schools in Ankara, Athens and Rome, as well as the Egypt Exploration Society, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, the British School of Archaeology in Iraq—currently in eclipse—the British Institute of Persian Studies and other such bodies. At this point I declare an interest as chairman-elect of the British School at Athens.

First, perhaps I may remind noble Lords of the splendid gaffe committed by my right honourable friend Kenneth Clarke when he had recently become Secretary of State for Education and Science and about which, with refreshing candour, he told me himself only a couple of days later. Noble Lords will be aware that these research institutions are active in the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and study of the history and geography of the lands where they are situated, and so forth. The British School at Rome also has an excellent and well respected scholarship programme for visiting artists. In general they are used by British research scholars.

When the secretary of the British Academy raised with my right honourable friend the matter of the parlous financial position of the British schools overseas at the time—he had not been terribly well briefed by his officials—his bluff and well meaning reply was, "Well, can't they put up the fees?". Noble Lords will realise that these institutions do not charge fees. Their work is based on research; they do not run courses such as those organised by the British Council in various countries.

The institutions are used in the main by research workers from British universities, including doctoral students and academic staff, but they do have some highly qualified personnel of their own. The director of such an institute has roughly the status of a university professor. It is thus highly anomalous that the current regulations of the research councils apparently prevent those councils receiving grant applications from such staff or then awarding research grants to them in the same manner as they are able to do for the staff of all British universities. I am told that they follow this negative practice on the grounds that these institutes are based overseas, even though they are funded principally by the British Academy in London and so, ultimately, by the Office of Science and Technology. This is a serious matter, for research is the lifeblood of such institutions. Most postgraduate research in Britain is funded through the research councils.

I should stress that this is not a matter just for the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It would apply with equal force to the Economic and Social Research Council or to the National Environmental Research Council. Perhaps the Minister can reassure the Committee that if the amendment were carried, so that it applied to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, its effect in eliminating the present restriction could apply with equal force to the other research councils.

Indeed, perhaps the Minister could inform the House—I hope she received my fax saying I would ask her this question—precisely where the objection lies to the British institutes overseas, and personnel such as their directors, receiving such funding from the research councils. Is there really some obscure law preventing research councils dispersing grants to suitable applicants with alpha-grade projects in the same manner as they would to applicants from UK universities? That is the message the British Academy gets from the research councils when they raise the matter on behalf of BASIS.

This may therefore be regarded as a probing amendment. If the Minister would inform me that the amendment is entirely unnecessary, and that a simple instruction from herself or the Office of Science and Technology would set the matter right—and if she will give an assurance that such an instruction will be rapidly forthcoming—I shall happily withdraw the amendment.

Perhaps I might ask the Minister in passing whether there is the possibility of some additional funding, once the situation is calmer and safer, to set the British School of Archaeology in Iraq on its feet again. These institutions can create a great deal of good will in the countries in which they operate, and do so in a way which is entirely non-political and which respects and often enhances the cultural heritage of the countries concerned. I beg to move.

6 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

I offer this amendment my support. As this is the first time I have spoken in Part 1, I would like to add my welcome to that of many other noble Lords to the establishment of the AHRC. My own experience was as a member of the Economic and Social Research Council, which has many areas of overlap with the humanities, particularly in areas such as geography and economic history. It was often very difficult to have them operating under two different kinds of legislation.

I would like to support what my noble friend Lord Renfrew has said, because this was drawn to my attention some time ago. There is a real problem in research councils being able to fund applications for grants from very distinguished people, working in institutions of very high international repute. I hope that, as we put our probing amendment to the Minister, she will be able to tell us that what is already on the face of the Bill will be sufficient to cover the points we make.

Lord Morgan

I would hope that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, is, as he says, superfluous. It is an enormously worthy cause. I am a fellow of the British Academy, so—if I have to—I declare a kind of interest.

First, the value of these British schools abroad goes far beyond the purely academic. They have been an enormous factor in establishing a British cultural presence, particularly in the Middle East, in a way that has been wholly beneficial for this country. Secondly, if we do not support these areas of research—which are very often very meagrely financed as the noble Lord explained—many areas of study, such as Egyptology and papyrology, might actually disappear. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister does not wish these important subjects to disappear, and I am sure she will be supportive.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve

I too declare an interest as a fellow of the British Academy. I believe that these are astonishingly economical programmes, which have a very high cultural impact and a high impact on cultural diplomacy. When I was on the council of the British Academy, it was breathtaking to see how little money was available to run these programmes. One of the important things about them is that they are very long term, ensuring that we have experts and scholars in this country who have spent long periods of time in the relevant places, and who understand not merely their own subject, but the cultural politics of those societies. They understand the ways in which research can be most usefully conducted and how it can be focused, as well as the delicacies of conducting certain kinds of research. It is not only the scholars in the various schools, but also those who visit them occasionally who benefit from that expertise and sensitivity. I hope that the Government may be disposed to support this amendment.

Lord Walton of Detchant

Is the Minister aware that the Medical Research Council has funded research overseas for many years? There have been a number of units funded by the MRC, and there is currently a very active one in the Gambia. Is giving grants different from actually funding established units? Surely the principle is the same?

Lord Stewartby

I would also like to add a word in support of my noble friend Lord Renfrew. I share the privilege with him of being a member of the archaeology section of the British Academy. As the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve, has just said, there are many people, including myself, who have been able to take advantage of the facilities provided by the British schools abroad during their student days. I do not think there is any doubt about their value—there is a doubt about their price. We need to ensure that they can get this sort of support.

I suppose it is not outside the realms of possibility that the Minister will be so sympathetic to this amendment that she will accept it on the spot. But, just in case that is not the situation, I hope she will be swayed by the power of the argument which has been put forward by many distinguished Members of your Lordships' House. We shall see that the purpose of my noble friend's amendment is achieved, even if not by this precise route.

Baroness Blackstone

The Arts and Humanities Research Board, which is being replaced by the AHRC which is still being set up, and indeed the British Academy before that, funded these institutions abroad. I cannot understand quite what the need for this amendment is, since Clause 8 allows the AHRC to do just the same.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

Perhaps I might respond to that point. It is the case that BASIS, which is the group of these research institutes operating with the British Academy, has on many occasions sought to persuade the research councils, and the Arts and Humanities Research Board, to take applications for research projects in just the same way that they take applications for research projects by scholars in universities. Again and again, the British Academy has been advised that the research councils cannot take such applications because the British institutes overseas are not UK universities, and they receive the response that they are prevented by regulation or by law—and I am looking forward to clarification from the Minister as to just where the impediment lies.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, I am bewildered by the situation, but I can assure her that it is the case. I believe I am right in saying that no member of staff based at one of the British schools or institutes overseas under the umbrella of the BASIS board at the British Academy has ever had an application for a research grant accepted for consideration.

Lord Winston

Will the Minister not agree that this amendment is useful in that it allows a certain amount of reciprocity? A number of us in this country have been in receipt of grants from the American Government to pursue research under the National Institutes of Health, for example. The other advantage of this approach is that it allows a degree of mutual interaction and collaboration between academic units which may not be primarily based in Britain. That must be, in the long term, an advantage to our academic system.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

I rise to support this amendment, if it is needed. Having read the clause, nothing in this part restricts such activities, and I would hope it is not needed. There is a sense in which, although I am happy with the amendment up to a point, the amendment itself could be a hit restrictive. Therefore, I hope the Minister can tell us it is not needed and that these opportunities exist.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for that. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, that my intention in responding is to make him a happy Peer. I am grateful to him for writing to me. I know he is a keen advocate for British research institutions overseas; that is obvious from his contribution. I pay tribute to his distinguished record in supporting and championing those bodies. I understand that he is due to take on the chairmanship of the British School at Athens later this year. I wish him all the best in that role.

I understand the noble Lord's concern about the position of these institutions as regards access to UK public funds for arts and humanities research. At present, because of restrictions on the use of funding from the UK funding councils, the AHRB is unable to fund the British overseas research institutions. However, I can reassure the noble Lord that his amendment is entirely unnecessary. Indeed, while trying to clarify the scope of the AHRC, it is possible— as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, indicated—that the amendment might inadvertently restrict its activities outside the UK.

As the AHRC will no longer be funded by the UK funding councils, but—as we discussed in earlier amendments—by the Office of Science and Technology, it will no longer be subject to the same restrictions. As noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Blackstone, have pointed out, Clause 8 already makes it quite clear that nothing in the Bill restricts the AHRC's activities to the UK or to any part of it.

It is our intention, as I have indicated, to establish the Arts and Humanities Research Council on an operational basis and underpinning framework that are broadly similar to those of the science research councils. That will extend the range of organisations and institutions eligible to apply for support. The noble Lord will not be surprised that it will be for the AHRC to determine the eligibility criteria for institutions applying for funding, consistent with enabling it to deliver its strategic objectives and research priorities. This funding will be allocated, I am sure, on the basis of merit and excellence, irrespective of the institution that applies.

Once in operation, the AHRC will establish a transparent process for determining, on a case by case basis, whether organisations such as the British institutes referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, should become eligible to apply for AHRC funding. I understand that the British Academy has not yet approached the Office of Science and Technology or Research Councils UK. However, the British Academy has indicated to the Office of Science and Technology that it is considering raising this issue when it is appropriate to do so.

As I have already emphasised, nothing in the clause as it stands will prevent the AHRC from determining where in the UK or overseas it is most appropriate to fund research activities in fulfilment of its objectives and priorities. I hope that that offers the reassurance that the noble Lord is seeking and that he is able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

I find myself in the unusual position of being a happy Peer, and being made a happy Peer by the noble Baroness opposite. At first perception I find her remarks very helpful and very constructive. I am very grateful to all of the very distinguished noble Lords who spoke in the debate and gave such warm support for the British schools and research institutes overseas. As I understand the noble Baroness's comments, she has given a response which seems entirely satisfactory and will be entirely satisfactory to the British Academy. I shall check that with the British Academy. On the basis of that, unusually, for me, happy experience, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Research in arts and humanities]:

Baroness Seccombe moved Amendment No. 10: Page 4, line 3, leave out paragraphs (d) and (e).

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 10 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 12, 13 and 14. This group of amendments removes the ability of the Secretary of State, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Executive and the Northern Ireland Department to set up, advisory bodies for the purpose of assisting the department in matters connected with research in the arts and humanities". appointing the members, and organising the technical details that that would require.

These subsections within Clause 10, along with the aspects of the White Paper and the Bill's regulatory impact assessment, make it obvious that the Government are intending to, or "may", create more bodies and organisations that are designed to play a role in the higher education arena. In the case of Clause 10, those would be within the area of arts and humanities. The AHRC is a welcome and overdue body that has cross-party support and its creation addresses all the necessary needs. Its remit is to advise on the support of research and to identify academic excellence. However, can the Minister please explain to the Committee why we need yet more bodies?

6.15 p.m.

This issue raises a whole range of concerns. Not only does every new organisation that is set up require a building, a secretariat, IT equipment and accounting support, it has to produce publicity material and an annual report. In short, it results in a proliferation of administration, and the costs of that administration, even for bodies that have the relatively informal status, would be substantial. Where does the financing for these extra costs come from?

The Bill as it stands enables advisory bodies to be set up in a blanket way, with no restrictions and no financial limitations placed upon them by the Secretary of State and the three devolved institutions. I recognise that these are but enabling powers, and no doubt it can be argued that they may not be taken; but to that I respond simply that there is nothing to stop them being taken. I am particularly concerned as we are dealing with a Government who, we can safely argue, have a track record for pushing up spending on central units, task forces, teams and advisory bodies.

No doubt the Minister will, in her reply, give such deserving examples of advisory bodies as the Scottish Science Advisory Committee or the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission. I am the first to admit that an increasing number of ethical issues have arisen in the past 10 years on which the Government and indeed the public have sought detailed guidance. However, does the setting up of such bodies simply delegate responsibility to the research councils under which these bodies will fall? They add another layer in the decision-making process. It can be all too easy to set up organisations of experts to think about questions and so delay the answers.

It has been argued in another place that such work could just as easily be achieved by a simplified streamlined system without a proliferation of organisations. Issues such as changes of technology, knowledge or ethics within the different councils could and should be addressed by them. That way the additional layers of cost imposed by the creation of a multiplicity of organisations are not incurred and the costs are kept to a minimum. I beg to move.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

In speaking to Amendments Nos. 10, 11, 12 and 13, I should like also to refer to Clause 10 itself. This is the clause that also says that the Secretary of State may carry out and support research, disseminate and so forth. It is worth putting that in the context of the clauses to which my noble friend Lady Sharp referred in speaking to Amendment No. 2 onwards. She was rightly trying to achieve an arm's length council that is not pushed around. This provision, however, almost ought to say that, regardless of setting up that body, the Secretary of State can still do something that is not appropriate for that council or tell it to do something that he wants it to do although it does not particularly want to do it.

We do not oppose the fact that the Secretary of State, a Scottish Minister or Northern Ireland Minister or one of the devolved institutions may decide to do a certain piece of work. However, I should hope that that would be a largely one-off objective. If advisers are needed to do that work, it might help some of those with depleted salaries to serve on those bodies—but perhaps not. It seems right that if it is appropriate for there to be advisory bodies—in some circumstances it will be and in others not—it may be appropriate for them to be paid. We do not believe that there is any harm in leaving this matter there. It is worth stating that this would be direct work carried out by the Secretary of State alongside the arm's length work carried out by the council.

Lord Morgan

These amendments are unnecessary. I hope that the Government will not accept them. It seems to me that they are not in place of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, but a supplement to it. I can think of all kinds of matters in the humanities—for example, the history of architecture—where research has been fostered directly by departments. I also hope that advisory bodies will be allowed to remain. They will almost certainly consist of academics and from what we have heard they will, therefore, come cheap. They will not be paid; they will give their expertise in the way that I did for many years in Wales on the Board of Celtic Studies. I do not recall becoming rich out of that kind activity, of which there are many. I hope that the Government will simply adhere to the terms of the clause as it stands.

Lord Baker of Dorking

I understand the argument against setting up another scattering of quangos, but on the other hand, when one establishes a new research council., it will not have many friends at court. I remember my days in the department. Of course there were civil servants who had studied humanities and the arts, but they were overwhelmed by those in the department who had responsibility for science, engineering and medicine because there were huge research councils with huge amounts of money—hundreds of millions of pounds a year was spent. Therefore, there was a solid flank of support for or criticism of or doubts about the proposals that came from the various bodies. In the case of the humanities and the arts, the voices were not raised because the sums involved were exceedingly modest.

I would not want the disposition of research funds to be entirely in the hands of the Secretary of State. One thing that we know about the present incumbent of the office of Secretary of State is that he is against medieval history. I studied medieval history and found it a fascinating and immensely worthwhile subject. I recommend to anyone who wants to embark upon a political life that a close study of the Wars of the Roses is invaluable. I do not want the Secretary of State to be able to strike out something and say, "I don't support that", or the Welsh Assembly to be able to say, "We don't actually approve of that in Wales", or "we have no research on castle building", or something of that kind. While the councils get going, they will need a body of support to guide them in the right way and to marshal the various lobbying groups in the various humanities and arts and so on. I think that would be quite a useful body.

I do not know whether such bodies will be paid. Nobody knows yet. Perhaps some research can be done on that. The noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches said that this may be one of the few ways in which academics can receive a little more in the coming years, which will please the noble Lord. Lord Renfrew. On the whole, I think it will be helpful.

Lord Walton of Detchant

They are paid an attendance allowance and expenses. I believe that that is the policy that should be pursued throughout the research council structure.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

The Bill applies only here and there to Scotland. Curiously the part of the Bill that affects Scotland most—we shall come to it later—is Part 3 Universities are devolved under the Scotland Act and so the legislation in Part 3 of this Bill relating to fees does not apply to Scotland. Yet it will have an absolutely devastating effect on Scotland. Scottish students who want to study in England will find it extremely difficult to do so because they will not be supported in the way that English students will be. English students who want to study in Scotland will find universities will be greatly depleted of funds compared with the universities that they have left at home. Every university in Scotland will suffer. That is a point to which we shall turn later and it is a very big matter. At an earlier stage, the Minister said that her Secretary of State was at that moment discussing the matter in Scotland. It is pretty strange that it had not been discussed before that. That is very worrying indeed.

The clause applies to Scotland, as it does to Wales and Northern Ireland. Research councils under the Scotland Act were left to Westminster. I was one of those who fought for that before the Scotland Act came into being and my late noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish laid great stress, from the Opposition Front Bench, on the fact that research was a UK matter, a UK market and an international market and that it should not be devolved.

I do not understand why it is necessary to have this clause. Is there anything to stop a Scots university, if it wants, conducting some research on a matter that is in the hands of the research council? The noble Lord on the Front Bench, who understands this matter very well, is shaking his head. There is no reason why they should not. Why is this clause in the Bill? I do not understand.

The idea that someone could prevent there being a committee of academics in Scotland to advise the Scots Parliament on research is very strange. The research councils are reserved—not research itself. No one knows where research begins and ends anyway. Surveys are often claimed to be research when they are simply surveys carried out by the Scots Parliament to find out something. I do not understand why the clause is in the Bill. If it has to be in the Bill, and if the Scots Parliament can set up only a committee of the kind described in the Bill, I would have thought that that was rather strange too.

As my noble friend on the Front Bench said, this is a very expensive way to do things. It should be for the Scots Parliament to deal with such matters without necessarily setting up a committee. I hope that the need for the clause will be explained by the Minister. If it is necessary, then I certainly support my noble friend.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

Will the Minister take this opportunity to explain the possible relationship between the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and the areas of devolved government—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? It is somewhat strange to see that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are to have the same duties of carrying out research in the arts and humanities, but they are optional as far as the devolved assemblies are concerned. Surely, there must be a connection that has not been defined at all between the UK council, with its entire UK remit, and the regional governments with similar duties.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

By the time we conclude this Committee stage we will all know each other extremely well. That is based on a number of exchanges which have already occurred. I have realised that this is the third speech I have made in Committee and I have not yet declared my interest as pro-Chancellor of the University of London. I do not propose to make that declaration again, but I should have done so earlier.

My noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking asked the Minister whether such people would be paid. I suspect that the Minister may have identified my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking as being a potential ally on this Bill and, therefore, in her reply she may not draw his attention to the fact that subsections (1)(e), (2)(e), (3)(e), and (4)(e) of Clause 10 indicate that they will be paid and therefore we shall carry on in exactly the same way as the noble Lord, Lord Walton, indicated. As my noble friend asked the question without indicating whether or not he approved of it, but simply commented that no one seemed to know, I hesitate, in view of his relationship with our noble friends on the Front Bench, to indicate that they are against subsections 1(e), 2(e), 3(e) and 4(e). However, I do not know whether or not that will irritate my noble friend.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Perhaps I should seek to clarify for the benefit of all noble Lords that, even at this late stage in my career in the Chamber, I find it very difficult to know how I am supposed to answer a question when I am not actually replying. Therefore, trying to reply silently, I gave the noble Lord, Lord Baker, the wrong impression, for which I apologise.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, quite rightly said, under the provisions of subsections (1)(e), (2)(e), (3)(e) and (4)(e), the appointed members of such bodies "may" be paid, as the noble Lord, Lord Walton, clarified for us, and as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has just reminded me. Thank you so much for that intervention in my ear. The option for payment is therefore available, though many noble Lords will know that they have served on such bodies and have not received payment. However, the noble Lord, Lord Walton, is right that, in the nature of such bodies, payments are made in the form of attendance allowances and so on.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, set out the purpose behind the amendment, which is to limit the power of the Secretary of State and the devolved administrations to establish and fund any advisory body that is needed on issues associated with the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Noble Lords have queried from the beginning the way in which the amendment is tabled in the Bill. I should point out—I hope that it will help the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy—that these measures were based on legislation passed in 1965. Of course, there was no devolution in 1965. Under the 1998 devolution legislation, the other seven boards were covered. The amendment is therefore tabled in that way to mirror what has already occurred with the other seven boards.

To link to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, the research councils are UK-wide and have been put together, as the noble Lord knows, with the support of the Welsh Assembly, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They will operate in that way. We need to enable those bodies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to carry out additional, complementary research of the kind that I shall describe. That is why the amendment is tabled in this way, which I hope will clarify the matter for the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy. I hope to clarify more points as I continue.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

Will the Minister confirm, first, whether or not there will be a positive connection between such bodies that are set up in the regions and the UK council? Secondly, will the devolved administrations be expected in any circumstances to contribute financially to the UK body?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

It depends on what the devolved administrations think. It will become clear as I explain what kind of bodies I am talking about. For example, if the Welsh Assembly wanted to undertake sonic research, I am sure that it would consult with the UK-wide Arts and Humanities Research Council in order to establish whether it was necessary and appropriate. I hope that the noble Lord will be assisted when I come to explain the kind of body that we are describing, and I am sure that he will come back to me if I fail to do so. We have established, I hope, the purpose behind the clauses, why they are there and the fact that they mirror what we have done within the devolution legislation.

It will come as no surprise to any noble Lord that the Government and the devolved administrations receive scientific advice from a variety of sources. Their powers have already been put to good use so far as science and technology is concerned. For example, the premier scientific advisory body for the Government is the Council for Science and Technology, originally established in 1993 to provide independent, high level advice on science and technology policy. It was re-launched in March of this year after review, with new terms of reference and a new membership, to include, according to my brief, "more softer sciences". I shall have to seek an indication of what a softer science is. I would interpret it to mean social sciences. Even in a previous incarnation, of course, the body took an interest in arts and humanities research, considering in its report in 2001, which I found very interesting, the question of the division between the arts and the sciences and how it could be reduced, which, of course, included the recommendation for the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, indicated, there are a number of highly valuable, strategic scientific bodies. The Human Genetics Commission and the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission were specifically mentioned by the noble Baroness. The membership of those bodies, which is also important and partly addresses the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, concerning the differences and synergies between those bodies, consists of consumer, green and other interest groups, media experts, social scientists, lawyers, philosophers and scientists. They consider the bigger picture issues of ethical and social questions as well as the sciences. I believe that they are very important. In another place, Mr Thomas drew attention to the specific role that the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission has played in advising the Government on GM crops, which I know is a matter of great significance in your Lordships' House, in another place and elsewhere. Those are some examples of very important bodies that have played strategic roles in offering advice on some very big questions that face both the Government and the scientists.

Neither the Government nor the devolved administrations have any intention of creating bodies for the sake of it. As my right honourable friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education indicated, we would not have thought a decade ago that genetically modified crops, cloning, ethical issues and post-mapping of the genome would have become such important issues in our economy. I believe that it is appropriate for those powers to exist in order to have the kind of strategic advice that I have indicated.

I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, is anxious that we should not create unnecessary bodies with additional resources. However, I think that there would be some undesirable consequences of the amendment. It would remove the opportunity from the Secretary of State and the devolved administrations to secure the kind of strategic advice that I have indicated is very important. I also believe that it would undermine further our intention to set the Arts and Humanities Research Council on the same footing as research in science and technology and to create the best possible framework for it.

It is probably also worth saying that the Office of Science and Technology has just published guidelines that address the role of government departments in the process of obtaining and using scientific advice. Those draw on key principles enunciated by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, in his BSE Inquiry report and are consistent with those underlying the Government's drive for evidence-based policy. Though primarily aimed at individual departments, those principles have applications in wider fields and to issues beyond science.

To reassure further the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, among the key messages is that the department should actively seek a wide range of advice from the best sources to support policy making and development; namely, that reliance should not be placed on a single source. It would be too easy simply to go to the research councils, important, valuable and critical institutions though they will be. I believe that it is important to have an ability to look beyond them and to involve the kind of groups that I have indicated have been used previously.

I have attempted to explain, first, why the clauses are expressed in the Bill in the way that they are; secondly, the critical role that some of the advisory groups have played in the past; thirdly, the principles that resulted from the findings of the BSE inquiry under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips; and, fourthly, the critical relevance of having flexibility within the devolved administrations, who are very supportive of this part of the Bill, and within the Secretary of State's cross-government to be able to achieve the kind of strategic advice and support that is needed. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Walton of Detchant

I hope I shall be forgiven for intervening further. I again apologise for using a medical analogy, but the Medical Research Council is a UK-wide body that gives programme, policy and project grants to anyone from the United Kingdom. In addition, the Department of Health in England, the Scottish Home and Health Department and the relevant departments in Wales and Northern Ireland each have research programmes to which individuals can apply for research grants of particular relevance to those countries. Similarly, the new research council will have a UK-wide role and each of the devolved administrations may, if they wish, promote research in the field of humanities and so on, which may, for instance, be relevant to the culture and history of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Surely, that is a comparable situation to that which exists in the other research councils and is framed in exactly the same way.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

The noble Lord, Lord Walton, is absolutely right, and I endorse his example. This is about setting up this research council on exactly the same basis, and that flexibility is very important.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I do not remember ever before being told that the Government were putting something into a Bill which did not have to be there in order to make it match another piece of legislation. Subsection (3) simply repeats what the situation is under the Scotland Act 1998. The noble Baroness has said that; when the universities became a devolved matter, Scotland could do all these things. The research council was not devolved but all these things became possible for Scottish Ministers, and I expect they are doing them.

I am not saying that the provision should not be in the Bill. However, it seems rather strange to repeat a part of the Bill simply to remind people that under the Scotland Act, the Scots Parliament can make these provisions. That is how I see the matter. In fact, if paragraphs (d) and (e), the subject of a further amendment, were removed, it would make not the smallest difference because the Scots Parliament can do this anyway.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I shall clarify my understanding of this and am happy to write further and clarify it again if it is not right. In 1965, when the research councils were established, there was no devolution. In 1998, the research councils already in existence were covered in the Scotland Act to make sure that this would apply. Because we are creating a new research council, it is not covered by the 1998 Act. Therefore, this provision is to give it parity with the other research councils. It is not an unnecessary provision; it is necessary to ensure that we make this clear. The noble Baroness is right that this provision exists for all the other research councils. However, it does not exist for this one, and it would not if we removed this part of the Bill.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

Does that mean that the research councils are all listed in the Scotland Act?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

The noble Baroness defeats me regarding exactly how this was done. I know that it was done in the legislation but I do not have it to hand and I will write to her on that point.

Baroness Seccombe

The proliferation of quangos is one of my concerns. Does this mean that four advisory bodies will be set up countrywide, one in each of the devolved administrations and one in this country? It seems to me duplication gone mad to have four bodies, perhaps discussing the same thing. I should have thought that one body, the research council itself, could have done it all.

How many advisory bodies are working within the DfES at present? What is the total cost of running these quangos, and where does the money come from?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I think the noble Baroness is asking a slightly wider question about advisory bodies and whether they are quangos. As always, I am happy to write to her with the details. However, the point about the Bill is not that each devolved administration has to set up anything; it is for them to choose. If the devolved administrations feel it is necessary, they should have the right and the power to do so, as they have with the other research councils. I am quite sure that on a number of these issues, as the noble Baroness has indicated, the work will go through the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which will be a key player in determining what happens.

As I have indicated, there are very good examples where people beyond the research community—consumers, for example—could be involved in bodies that help to determine the future of policy and some of the big questions to which I have already referred. That is the flexibility we are seeking in the Bill.

Baroness Seccombe

It seems to me that setting up ad hoc advisory committees does not mean that one has to set up another quango. I shall read with great interest all the contributions on this, and I am grateful to those who have contributed. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy moved Amendment No. 11: Page 4, line 10, leave out "may" and insert "shall

The noble Lord said: The amendment would appear to be comparatively minor, making it obligatory upon rather than optional for the National Assembly for Wales to support research in the arts and humanities. But a considerable number of similar amendments could be put down throughout the Bill, not only in relation to Wales but to Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. At this point, I think I had better declare my interest as president of the University of Wales College of Medicine.

There are some 14 clauses and three schedules in the Bill which relate to Wales. In effect, they set up separate systems and separate bodies from those proposed for the UK, or England, to achieve exactly the same ends. As we noted in the previous debate, Clause 10(2) relating to Wales replicates Clause 10(1) relating to England, and so on.

Similarly, later the Bill provides that there "may" be a Welsh corporate body to deal with students' complaints and there "may" be a separate system of approved plans on which student support will be based. I stress "may" because the Bill is largely permissive rather than prescriptive as far as the National Assembly is concerned, and I believe that that is generally true of Scotland and Northern Ireland as well.

My noble friend Lady Seccombe is absolutely right that multiple duplication of this kind always comes at a cost. So let us be clear that the Government's justification for that extra cost is devolution rather than education or any of the real subjects of the Bill. I am bound to say that much of the unity of the higher education system in the UK will go out of the window in the process of implementing the Bill.

Some of the clauses relating to Wales are straight copies of English clauses. For example, Welsh Clause 26 is almost a straight copy of English Clause 23, except that the power to impose conditions for student fees is derived in Wales from the National Assembly and in England from the Secretary of State. At the end of the day, I suppose, it all comes from the same Treasury pocket.

Because the funding of higher education in Wales comes from the National Assembly it is, I suppose, understandable that the Government should seek to implement their principles in the dualistic fashion proposed in the Bill. However, there is a complication, as I have implied. Under the Bill, the National Assembly is not bound to implement its provisions and there is evident reluctance in the Assembly government to do so. The Assembly has decided that it will have its own independent review of higher education funding under Professor Teresa Rees, and her report is not due until April of next year. An interim report is due in February. Let us assume that they will eventually toe the central government line. The consequences will be that differences will inevitably emerge in the support given to students depending on where in the UK they come from.

The Explanatory Notes tell us on page 11 in paragraph 61: The Assembly intends in practice to make regulations affecting students who have a prescribed connection with Wales when they start their course, regardless of the location of the institution at which they are studying and of their place of residence after graduation". In short, there are to be special measures to support students who have the good fortune to have the prescribed connection with Wales, however that connection is finally defined. That will not be an easy task.

There is nothing new in such geographical differences in student support. Some of your Lordships, like myself, will remember the old county scholarships, whose plenitude and value depended on the wealth and generosity of the county where people received their secondary education. Although the National Assembly's intentions may be to favour Welsh students, the extent to which it will be able to do so will depend on the resources available, which may not always be as copious as they appear to be today.

The underlying question is whether this geographical consideration is appropriately placed in the UK scheme of things in relation to educational merit and the ability to benefit from higher education. The same applies to access, which appears to have supreme pre-eminence in the Government's thinking.

A substantial proportion of higher education students in Welsh institutions—over 40 per cent—are from outside Wales. How will the Bill affect them? My noble friends on the Front Bench have put down a new clause to prevent discrimination against them in the charging of fees. Whether the Government will accept the new clause remains to be seen.

There are to be no variable fees in Wales until 2007—a year later than England—and an undertaking to that effect has been given by the Welsh Assembly government. Will there be a sudden influx of students to Wales from the rest of the United Kingdom for that reason? One of the reasons why Professor Rees is not to report until next April is to enable her to take account of the effect of variable fees in England. That was said by the Minister for Lifelong Learning in Wales.

If variable fees are not introduced in Wales and an alternative stream of alternative funding is not provided, Welsh higher education institutions will be financially disadvantaged compared with their counterparts in England. The Ministers on the Front Bench opposite look a little mystified, but I can tell them that that fear was expressed in a report by the Council and Academic Board of the University of Wales to a meeting of the University Court on 16 April.

Will there be an exodus of the best academics to better-paid posts in top-up institutions in England as is feared in Scotland, as we have already heard?

The blatant fact is that there will be differences in the extent and method of support for students and institutions, and where there are differences, discrimination will creep in.

We are assured on page 17 of the Explanatory Notes that, "There is no discrimination", at least within the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights. But I suspect that that will not be the end of it.

I am bound to tell the noble Baroness that there is a great deal of confusion, not only within the terms of this Bill, but in attitudes towards it, particularly in the devolved administrations. Its practical implications and consequences have not been thought through, and this is as apparent in Wales as elsewhere. Great uncertainty prevails. If I may mix my metaphors, this Bill has all the hallmarks of a dog's breakfast.

I have given a foretaste of debates to come, and your Lordships have been very tolerant. With regard to this specific amendment, can it be right that arts and humanities research has the imprimatur of statute and Royal Charter in the UK, but appears to be optional—it is a "may" situation—in parts of the UK?

We have not had a clear answer to the question of what the relationship is going to be between the regional bodies established for arts and humanities research and the UK body. It seems odd that all the Minister can say is that she would expect the regional bodies to consult the UK council. I would have thought that there would have been a closer connection than that, and that that connection would have been defined in the Bill.

Once again I ask her whether she can amplify on what she said about the proposed interconnecting arrangements between the regional arts and research bodies—which may, or may not, be established depending on the institution concerned—and the UK council with its UK remit. I beg to move.

Lord Morgan

The amendment—

Lord Baker of Dorking

The amendment—

Lord Skelmersdale

I think it would be appropriate to let the Lord Chairman put the question first, before my noble friend gets questioned.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Carter)

Amendment proposed, page 4 line 10. Leave out "may" and insert "shall".

Lord Baker of Dorking

My noble friend ranged rather widely, but could he give us the benefit of his views in one matter? He pointed out the disadvantages that Welsh universities have in the new regime. In view of his presidency of the University of Wales College of Medicine, does he favour the introduction of variable fees in Wales?

Lord Roberts of Conwy

I certainly do. But at the moment we are prohibited from having variable fees, and therefore we are going to be at a considerable disadvantage to England. That situation is inevitable, because there is a pledge given by the Assembly government that variable fees will not be introduced before 2007.

Lord Morgan

I would like to confine myself rather narrowly to Amendment No. 11. This may seem parochial and pedestrian, but my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, built up a mighty edifice of Welsh eloquence about this and ranged over practically the whole of the Bill. He succeeded in eliciting my disagreement the more he went on.

The point he makes concerns something that is constitutionally improper. It is a devolved matter. It is a remit of the National Assembly to handle all aspects of education, and that applies to research in the humanities as it does to everything else. Therefore to propose it is constitutionally improper, if not illegal.

The noble Lord raises the important point of the essential need to have research in the arts and humanities fostered in Wales, and on that basis there is no reason for concern. There is every sign in every organisation that I know that the National Assembly takes its duties—in history, in archaeology, in the social sciences—extremely seriously. One reason for that is the Welsh language. It is a prime consideration of the Welsh Assembly to foster study of the culture and language and literature of Wales, and, necessarily, research in those areas follows.

The noble Lord raises the question of the interconnection of research in Wales with other parts of the United Kingdom. Of course they will interlock and collaborate, because—and I speak for myself—Welsh historians do not only work on Wales; they work on collaborative matters. History and other subjects know no boundaries, so necessarily there is a community of operation within Wales and the other parts of the United Kingdom.

Broadly speaking, we should not discuss Amendment No. 11 at all.

7 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

It appears to me that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, is trying to introduce compulsion. "Thou shalt carry out research in Wales". That is what the amendment is about, regardless of the speech that he made. Whichever way one looks at it, the proposal is either a backstop or an opportunity. If a Member of the National Assembly for Wales was contemplating research in this area, the research council may well undertake that research—or it may not. It may be that the Secretary of State in this Parliament decides to undertake some research. The backstop is that if there is a burning desire for that research to take place in Wales, the proposal would permit it to take place. We have been told that, although we have devolution, this little bit has not been devolved yet. That means that it can be done in that way. I should have thought that the National Assembly for Wales would be more appreciative of legislation that says that it "may" do things rather than legislation compelling it to do something.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

I was rather against devolution, and I must say that the impact of devolution has exceeded all my expectations. Listening to my noble friend move his amendment, I was struck that he ranged a little beyond the focus of Part 1.

Incidentally, I may have misheard the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, but, given that he suggested that we were discussing devolved matters, he may want to take a look at the Explanatory Notes. In the summary of Part 1, they say: As with the existing research councils, the new council will operate throughout the UK and will be a reserved matter for the purposes of the Scotland Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998". One difficulty is that we have different degrees of devolved power throughout the United Kingdom, with Wales probably having the least. When I was in the Scottish Office as Secretary of State, I operated very closely with the Secretary of State for Education. That was essential, because we recognised that it was important to have a common policy on research and students throughout the United Kingdom. I do not want to follow my noble friend into subjects that are matters for later debates in the Bill, but that does not seem to be happening. Even at this late stage with the Bill, we do not know what the arrangements will be for Scottish students. The Minister answered some of my questions about what will happen to Scottish students who go to English universities with the statement that that is a matter for the Scottish Executive.

I have sympathy with my noble friend's amendment, because he is trying to tease out what is happening. We are going to have a whole set of new bodies. In my experience, if one tells a bureaucracy that it may set up a new bureaucracy, it tends to do so. If a whole new range of bodies is competing with a body that has United Kingdom responsibilities under charter, a whole load of people will argue for their research to separate bodies, playing one off against the other. In the end, the authority of the United Kingdom body will be damaged.

My noble friend is wise to put the proposal down as a probing amendment. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response, although the response to the probing question from my noble friend Lord Baker did rather give the game away. The situation is an odd one. We have one party in power in Wales and England, using the votes of people throughout the United Kingdom but apparently pursuing different policies and justifying them out of conviction.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

Half my blood is Welsh, and my grandfather played scrum half for the principality, so I am delighted to speak in support of the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Roberts. He seems to me to be a harbinger crying in the wilderness. He has given us a clear indication of where his logic will take him at a later stage, and has achieved the remarkable accomplishment of tabling a probing and a paving amendment simultaneously. It will be very interesting to hear what the Minister has to say—and I am quite certain that my noble friend will take it down to use in evidence against her.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood

The debate has brought out an infelicity in the wording of the Bill, and asked whether it should say "may" or "shall". I should perhaps share with Members of the Committee the amendment that I had thought of tabling. Transferring the logic of this amendment to subsection (3) and the Scottish Ministers, it might read: The Scottish Ministers shall … carry out … research in the arts and humanities". With all due respect to the Scottish Ministers, some of whom I know very well, I cannot really conceive that they should be required to carry out research, other than in their spare time, on Sunday mornings or after retirement. Even suggesting that they "may", other than on Sunday mornings or after retirement, that seems to be going a bit far. I presume that there is some dreadful legal reason that I do not understand for the clause being worded in such a way.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am sure that there is some dreadful legal reason, but I fear that it escapes me at this precise moment. Clearly there are Ministers and representatives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and indeed, there is the noble Lord, Lord Baker—who would be perfectly capable of carrying out research on that basis, and I would not wish to suggest otherwise. However, I believe that the noble Lord is right in saying that legally that is the way the legislation must be written. I shall confirm that in writing if I feel the need to.

I am very mindful of the arguments put by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, which ranged widely across the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, expressed his concerns, too. I do not propose to broaden my response very far this evening, mainly because I want to read with great care what the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said and ensure that when we get to the areas of the Bill when there is a need to discuss those issues in detail, we are able to do so. However, I do not want to underestimate the strength of feeling within the Chamber about addressing these issues. I am very keen that we should have a full and wide-ranging debate on them as the opportunity arises. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has indicated through his amendment the aspects that he wishes us to consider. I will ensure that I am able, when we get to later parts of the Bill, to respond to the points that he has made.

The noble Lord was very keen that we should talk about interconnectivity. I clearly have not put my remarks on the matter very well, so I shall endeavour to do so again, always with the proviso that if I fail I shall put them in print. That works sometimes when I fail to get things over in my speaking.

Lord Skelmersdale

Only sometimes.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I think that is a hit off. Sometimes I am very capable of putting things well in my eloquent prose.

There are no Welsh equivalents to the Arts and Humanities Research Council. There are advisory bodies to the Secretaries of State for the devolved administrations. The administrations may choose, or not, to set up bodies that they feel are appropriate. It is not as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, described it—that if one tells a bureaucracy that it can set something up, it automatically does so. There are good examples over the years of research councils, when those bodies have been set up. I have not heard anyone involved in those research councils say, nor have I seen anything to suggest, that the process has been in any way contradictory or inappropriate. The focus of the bodies is on different issues, working closely on specific and wide-ranging points of interest, not only to the Government but to society at large. An acknowledgement should be given that the Welsh Assembly should be able to do that, if that were what it wished to do.

It is appropriate for the Arts and Humanities Research Council to ensure that there is interconnectivity in the United Kingdom, with the Welsh Assembly in discussion with the UK body. The matter is now reserved, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, indicated. The process should take place with the support of the devolved administrations to ensure that research is carried out in the right way and that the advisory bodies work appropriately in advising the Welsh Assembly. There would be no need for interconnectivity between a body considering a specific issue of concern to the Welsh Assembly and a body considering a specific issue that concerned the Scottish Parliament. The interconnectivity would not exist in that way, but would exist in the role of the strategic Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The purpose behind the provisions is to enable each of the devolved administrations to fund the work that they consider important in promoting research into cultural aspects of their parts of the UK. As I have indicated, that will be different in each devolved administration. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, is aware that his amendment makes that mandatory rather than discretionary. We believe that that cuts across the discretionary powers of the National Assembly to determine priorities and activities. If this were on the face of the Bill, it would be obliged to put activities in place, regardless of the need for such activities and in the face of changing strategic requirements. I appreciate the intention, but it is important that the Assembly should be able to prioritise resources as it sees fit.

For example, the Arts Council of Wales is responsible for funding and developing the arts in Wales and advises the Welsh Assembly on issues associated with the arts. Through the council, the Welsh Assembly has demonstrated its commitment to the furtherance of the arts and, of course, it is very committed to maintaining a strong cultural identify for Wales and has a strong commitment to the Welsh language, as my noble friend Lord Morgan indicated. This is an area in which it might be very appropriate for the Welsh Assembly to wish to do further research or work.

So, on that basis, we can recognise the importance for the individual administrations of being able to set up appropriate advisory bodies. As I have indicated, this works extremely well with the other research councils and I see no reason to suggest that it would work any differently. On that basis, and with the proviso that, as I have indicated, we will be looking at the broader issues raised by the noble Lord as we proceed with the Bill, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

I am very grateful to the Minister, not least for appreciating the point I was making: that my simple amendment, which substitutes shall" for "may", could be inserted into the Bill at any number of points, converting a permissive attitude, as far as the regional assemblies are concerned, into an obligation. I am very grateful to her for appreciating that point. I am sure that she also appreciates the point that if we do not impose an obligation upon the regional bodies to act in accordance with the Bill we shall have a very variegated pattern of higher education in the United Kingdom. That has all kinds of implications.

The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, is well aware of the point that is often made in devolution circles: that it is all very well now when we have the same party in government in Cardiff as in London. In fact, even when the same party is in government in both places, differences of view can occur—I see the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, smiling. That is the case as far as higher education is concerned. As far as I can judge, the whole system suggested by the Bill is being set aside for the time being by the Assembly, pending further researches by itself. It may be that the Government in Whitehall are happy with that situation but I dread to think what the consequences may be.

With regard to this specific area of the arts and humanities, I also appreciate what the noble Baroness said about the anxiety in Wales to conduct research on their own on specific Welsh matters that have caused concern, such as BSE and the Welsh language. I am sure that this is right, but I am also sure that such advisory bodies as are established in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland would be very well advised to develop a formal connection with the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 12 to 14 not moved.]

Clause 10 agreed to.

7.15 p.m.

Clause 11 [Qualifying institutions]:

Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 15: Page 5, line 10, at end insert— () any institution offering further post-16 education

The noble Baroness said: With Amendment No. 15, we move on to Part 2 of the Bill and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. The purpose of Amendment No. 15 is to extend the powers of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to cover further education as well as higher education. I am tabling this amendment as a probing amendment because, although it was discussed in Committee in the other place by my honourable friend the Member of Parliament for Harrogate and Knaresborough, the discussion was cut short and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State was able only to provide a very limited answer to the question raised. There is a real issue that merits debate.

Within the further education sector student complaints are handled in the first instance by internal college procedures, just as in the higher education sector. If the complaint is not satisfied the appeal may go first to the local learning and skills council, which is the financing organisation for the college, and then, if still unsatisfied, to the national Learning and Skills Council. If still not resolved, the student may finally raise the complaint with his Member of Parliament and the Member of Parliament may, on behalf of the student, take it to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

The second two stages—to the local learning and skills council and then to the national Learning and Skills Council—are not, strictly speaking, independent because the Learning and Skills Council is the funder of the college sector. But resort to the Parliamentary Ombudsman does satisfy the requirement of Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 that there should ultimately be an independent arbiter of disputes. In raising this issue, I am in no way impugning these procedures. The Association of Colleges rightly points out a very high degree of satisfaction with the current position among its students. When questioned, 95 per cent of its students said that they were satisfied with the complaints procedures as they exist at the moment.

But there are ambiguities about the position of students who undertake higher education courses within the further education sector. Given the Government's plans, the scope of these ambiguities is likely to increase. The present position is that 11 per cent of those who are studying for degrees are already in the further education sector, not the higher education sector. As we know, the Government are planning a very substantial expansion in these numbers. An extra quarter of a million students are likely to be taken on between now and 2010 and, if the Government's plans are fulfilled, quite a number of these will not be studying for a three-year degree at a university but for a two-year foundation degree, many of which will be taken within the further education sector and many on a part-time basis. So we are likely to see a considerable increase in the number of students who are studying for a higher education qualification within the further education sector.

The present position is that any further education institution that has more than 55 per cent of students in the higher education sector comes under HEFC and would therefore be covered by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Clause 11(d) says: A designated institution, as defined by section 72(3) of the 1992 Act", applies to these institutions. In discussion in the other place, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State revealed that there were already some 23 such institutions covered by Clause 11(d). Clearly, given government plans for expansion, there may be an increase in the number of these organisations. Otherwise, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State said, If someone is studying an HE course in a further education college, and the complaint has to do with the actions of the further education institution, it would not be a matter for this"— in other words, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator— complaints procedure, but if the complaint referred directly to the course of study which is the responsibility of the higher education institution, it would be covered by this complaints procedure".— [Official Report, Commons Standing Committee H, 10/2/03; col 77.]

The problem arises if there is a dispute or, indeed, uncertainty about whether the issue is about the quality of teaching within the further education institution, or whether it derives from the content of the course set by the higher education institution. There is, indeed, much room for dispute on such issues.

In addition, it seems to me that there is a wider issue here. What I have been saying illustrates the increasing blurring of boundaries between higher and further education, but it also highlights the degree to which tertiary education, comprising both higher education and further education, is expanding, and is likely to go on expanding fast. Indeed, it is big business. It is one of the most profitable export businesses that we are running in this country. With the increasing "marketisation" of the sector, we can expect consumers to be more demanding and complaints to increase. We must have a robust complaints procedure and that is one of the reasons we are seeing the setting up of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator instead of relying on the archaic visitor system within the university sector.

But given the expected size of this sector, the increasing blurring of boundaries between divisions in the tertiary sector, the fact that we now have a separate ombudsman for health, local government, financial services, and we are looking at one, indeed, for children in the context of the Children's Commissioner, is there not something to be said for having an ombudsman for this whole sector? I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

I must confess that I am slightly confused by this amendment, but before I explain why I should say that I had a vocational education. All afternoon I have been surrounded by noble Lords who are either currently connected with universities, or have had a university education. I am not one of them. The further education system, as opposed to the higher education system, indeed conducts research. I remember at college years ago conducting research into naturally occurring root-producing hormones in willows and poplars. Therefore, the moment that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, raises the question of further post-16 education, I immediately take notice.

This amendment opens the possibility of appeal by further education students to an independent adjudicator. That is fine. The White Paper states at paragraph 4.11: Reforms to give students a greater voice must include providing them with a fair, open, and transparent means of redress when things go wrong". That clearly is an unexceptionable statement with which we all agree. Paragraphs (a), (b), and (c) of Clause 11 cover universities and constituent colleges, schools or halls in universities and, an institution conducted by a higher education corporation". We must be clear about our use of terms. The second page of the White Paper states that, the word 'university' is frequently used, for reading ease as a substitute for 'higher education institution'". It is important that students are clear about whether they are to have access to this new complaints procedure or not.

My confusion with the noble Baroness's amendment concerns the Association of Colleges which made a clear statement that further education colleges have established effective complaints procedures and that the scheme, as the noble Baroness said, is approved by the Learning and Skills Council. It also says that, it would be extremely unsatisfactory for FE colleges offering HE to be subject simultaneously to two different complaint regimes". It argues basically that if it is not broken, why fix it? As I understand it, that is what the noble Baroness's amendment proposes, unless, of course, she is proposing the removal of the system currently in place in further education colleges. I am sure that the noble Baroness will tell me that in a moment.

However, the amendment allows me to ask the Minister various questions; namely, whether the Government wish the provision in the Bill to relate to higher education and all higher education students, including those who are pursuing higher education courses in further education colleges. What we need to know, and, indeed, what I believe is important, is that whatever the new system is, it should be well publicised. The whole of the further and higher education sector—students, staff and everyone else—should know all about it at the soonest possible moment. Will the noble Baroness explain what steps will be taken to publicise the new complaints arrangements once, as I assume will happen, they are given Royal Assent? Will she also assure us that clarification will be provided to students and practitioners about who is and is not to be covered by the new arrangements because clearly neither the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, nor I is clear on this matter as we stand, or, indeed, sit, at the moment?

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

It might help the noble Lord if I were to clarify my position. Under the Human Rights Act an independent appeals procedure is required. Within the Association of Colleges within the FE sector at the moment that independence is given by appeal to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. What this suggestion would amount to is that rather than the ultimate appeal to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, through the college sector students should apply to what in effect would become a tertiary education ombudsman.

Lord Dearing

I seek clarification. I was not clear whether in all further education institutions a student pursuing a course of higher education would have access to some independent person. I have the impression that in the great majority of cases someone pursuing an FE course would have that access. In certain FE institutions where there is a high proportion of higher education, that would apply. However, the noble Baroness left me unclear whether a small minority of HE students in FE institutions would have access to an independent person. If they do, I should be content with matters as they are. If that is not the case, it is essential under the human rights provisions that they have such access. I wonder whether the noble Baroness can clarify the position.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

I shall see whether I can help the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, on this issue. Two slightly separate issues are raised here. Later, in the group of amendments beginning with Amendment No. 19, I shall talk about the possibility of an ombudsman for the sector as a whole.

As I understand it, where more than 55 per cent of the students in a college are studying for FE courses, that is covered by paragraph (d) of Clause 11. Therefore, it would be covered by the office of the independent adjudicator. However, there are potential problems. If the student is pursuing a higher education course in an FE college, it depends whether the complaint is about the quality of the teaching—which is the responsibility of the FE college—or about the quality of the curriculum—which is usually the responsibility of a higher education institution because it is usually subcontracted from a higher education institution. If the complaint is about the quality of the teaching, it goes through the college procedures. If it is about the way in which the subcontracted university has set the thing up, it would go through the office of the independent adjudicator.

I was making the point that there is already room for ambiguity here. Given the expected expansion of foundation degrees and the role that further education colleges are likely to play with regard to foundation degrees, there is likely to be much more room for ambiguity. Perhaps the simplest solution would be to have just further education covered by the same procedures.

Lord Dearing

The noble Baroness undermines her case by explaining the matter with absolute clarity. I thank her.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Triesman

I should start by following the convention of the House in declaring past and present interests. I shall do that only once for the duration of the Bill and that should save time in the long run. I worked as an academic for many years at universities in the United Kingdom, where I was poorly paid, in the United States where I was rather well paid and, briefly, in India where I was hardly paid at all, but it was a wonderful experience. Like my noble friend Lady Warwick, I have also served as General Secretary of the Association of University Teachers, from 1993 to 2001, and I currently hold unpaid posts as Visiting Fellow in Economics and Fellow of Wolfson College at Cambridge University. I am also Senior Associate Fellow in the School of Engineering at the University of Warwick.

This amendment would extend the scope of the reviewer, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has said, to consider complaints from students at further education colleges. It is common ground that the noble Baroness and, mostly, everyone else, agree that the present position on student complaints in higher education is thoroughly unsatisfactory. That is why we are seeking to give legislative underpinning to a scheme that has already been established in the higher education sector for the review of student complaints. It is not as though the sector has been inactive on this question.

We have made clear that we intend to designate the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education—the OIA—which has the support, not just of the sector but the National Union of Students, as the approved operator. I pay tribute to the NUS, because its support and assistance has meant that this has been launched in probably as effective a way as possible. Our aim is to give a better right of redress to current and former students of higher education institutions.

The amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, proposes that students in further education should also have access to the same independent reviewer. There was, as noble Lords have already mentioned, an interesting discussion in the other place on the complaints procedures for further education students and whether the independent reviewer's remit should be extended to cover such students. One of the key arguments that was made by Mr Phil Willis in the other place was that it would be helpful if there was some connection between the two. He described the connection as "a scaffold", but which was an unfortunate term. None the less, he argued for a link.

Noble Lords will be aware that students at further education institutions have an established means of redress when things go wrong. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, mentioned that a few moments ago and he is right. Local learning and skills councils are the appropriate route. They have procedures in place to deal with and resolve issues that are brought to their attention about the learning providers that they fund. Of course, the Learning and Skills Council is not an independent body. It falls under the Parliamentary Ombudsman's jurisdiction and that is why there is a further recourse beyond its own machinery, where a student can take a complaint to the ombudsman.

Both the NUS and the Association of Colleges support the view—strongly, I understand—that it is inappropriate for the arrangements that are being underpinned in this Bill to be extended to cover further education students. There are fundamental differences between the further education and higher education sectors. For example, unlike most higher education institutions, further education institutions are learning providers and are not awarding bodies for qualifications. It is also true that where students at FE colleges have a complaint about the franchising or validation arrangements of a qualifying institution, say a university awarding their degrees, then they will have access to the reviewer.

I shall briefly dwell on that point, because it is about the point of redress and the distinctions, which have been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. I do not think that Ivan Lewis, in another place, could have made the point more clearly. The scheme that is envisaged will straightforwardly ensure that where a complaint relates to a university's degree, which is being taken in a further education college, the student will have recourse to this complaints system. I can understand that it might be argued that there could be ambiguities around some marginal issues—and they would be relatively marginal—but the LSC and the OIA would be able to advise students on the most appropriate route and they are fully prepared to do so.

That brings us back to the important point about publicity, made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. Of course, none of this would be of any use at all if people did not know about the scheme and did not know how best to use it. The scheme will require higher education institutions to inform students about their right of access to the OIA when they have exhausted the internal procedures. There will also be publicity through the NUS, which is developing a sophisticated scheme to ensure that everyone is in a position to act appropriately.

If we added the further education system into that system, there would be a sea change. There are currently about 1.8 million students in higher education. There about 3.9 million more students—on a head count—in further education. There are 109 relevant institutions in higher education and 347 relevant institutions in further education. If we were invited to extend the system to ensure that it was as seamless as possible, I suppose that we would look, as we have been invited to, at tertiary education and begin to look at sixth form colleges—and the relations that sixth form colleges often have with sixth forms in mainstream schools. I do not know where that boundary would ever then be drawn. I do know that the system would be inoperable. It could not cope with that. In the other place the Official Opposition pointed out that it would be likely to break the system before it ever had the chance to establish itself.

I can see that there may well be further work required on how to reach a consensus about the handling of complaints from students in further education colleges and that is a matter which I am sure needs to be addressed—and will be; but not in this context and not without doing insurmountable damage to the complaints procedure that is envisaged. In that, I hope, sympathetic light, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

I thank the Minister for his sympathetic response. There is a problem of ambiguity in this matter. He said that what the Minister said in the other place could not be clearer: if' it was a higher education course it would be dealt with by the OIA and if it is further education it would go through their own procedures. However, as I pointed out, he also said that if someone is studying a higher education course in a further education college and the complaint related to the actions of the further education institution, it would not be a matter for the OIA. But if the complaint referred directly to the course of study, which is the responsibility of the higher education institution, it would be covered by the OIA. So there is room for ambiguity because of the problem of whether it relates to the quality of the teaching or the curriculum set by the higher education institution—which is the point that I raised.

On the wider issue, the Minister said that we could not possibly cope with 3.5 million people. But we have a health ombudsman who copes with at least that number of people. We have a Financial Services Ombudsman who deals with that number of people. This matter relates to a subsequent group of amendments that I will speak to later. As we shall be returning to this issue, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 agreed to.

Lord Triesman

I beg to move that the House do now resume and that we do not resume consideration in Committee for one hour and 30 minutes.

Noble Lords

One hour.

Lord Triesman

I beg the House's pardon: in one hour. I was hoping to escape for longer.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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