Clause 3 - Expenses of Council
Higher Education Bill
2:30 pm

Amendment moved [this day]: No. 9, in

clause 3, page 2, line 18, leave out subsection (5).—[Mr. Collins.]

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Mr Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale, Conservative)

May I put on the record how much I am looking forward to serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood? I am sure that your wisdom and forbearance will be appreciated by all hon. Members.

In that connection, I wonder whether you would permit me, although it is slightly unorthodox, to make a point of order before I proceed. There has been a dramatic development during the three hours since the Committee adjourned. A Labour Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford), issued a press release this morning entitled ''MP gagged by Whips on top-up fees''. The hon. Gentleman said that he was promised membership of this Committee by the Labour Whips until last week—

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Mr Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale, Labour)

Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair. Will the hon. Gentleman please speak to the amendment?

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Mr Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale, Conservative)

Very well, Mr. Hood. We shall pursue the matter elsewhere.

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Mr Alan Johnson (Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills; Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, Labour)

Interesting.

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Mr Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale, Conservative)

Indeed. When the Minister reads the press release I think that he will find that his majority is three and not five.

Government amendment No. 9—[Interruption.] I was getting excited because of that press release, but perhaps a little too excited. Opposition amendment No. 9 would delete subsection (5), which states:

Programmes and estimates under subsection (4) must be given—

(a) in the form required by the Secretary of State, and

(b) at the times required by the Secretary of State.''

We had an amicable discussion this morning and some hon. Members went off to make various inquiries. In the constructive spirit that was on display this morning—[Interruption.]

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Mr Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale, Labour)

Order. Government Front-Bench Members should come to order because it is important that I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, as it is for other hon. Members.

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Mr Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale, Conservative)

I am most grateful, Mr. Hood.

I was merely saying that this morning we had a generally constructive debate, as both sides of the Committee will acknowledge, and in moving my amendment I was keen to be equally constructive and helpful to the Minister. The Bill may have been drafted in advance of knowledge of the Government's latest initiative that we learned about this morning, which seems inconsistent with the wording of subsection (5) that we propose in our amendment should be deleted. In The Guardian this morning—I suspect that it is regarded with almost as much affection on the Labour Benches as it is on the Opposition Benches—the lead story was entitled ''Labour in retreat on targets'' and it stated:

''The government will today signal a change of direction . . . promising to release the energies of state schools and hospitals by lifting the dead hand of central control.''

That is a wonderful and welcome U-turn. It then stated that the Prime Minister wishes

''to escape the reputation for control-freakery that became established in the early years of his administration.''

In that new spirit of liberating the public sector from control-freakery and excessive control, we turn to subsection (5) which states:

''Programmes and estimates . . . must be given—

(a) in the form required by the Secretary of State, and

(b) at the times required by the Secretary of State.''

One begins to see that that is not entirely consistent with moving away from control-freakery and some may say that it is a classic example of control-freakery taken to a great extreme. Given that the earlier subsections of clause 3 sensibly require that the arts and humanities research council should report to the Secretary of State on how it spends public money, which is an entirely sensible and worthwhile objective, I shall be interested to hear from the Minister why it is that instead of setting out those reports in ways that are mutually agreed or that are in accordance with certain times of the financial year, the council should be required to do so in a manner and at times specified by the Secretary of State. Does not that give the Secretary of State rather too much arbitrary power in such matters and unnecessarily reduce the autonomy of the council? Does not it risk leaving the council with the status of supplicant to and servant of the Secretary of State rather than esteemed adviser to him, which we would all prefer?

I understand that the article in The Guardian is not an isolated report and that the Secretary of State for Health has been explaining the change in direction at the heart of the Government's new approach to the public services. I gather that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will make announcements along the same lines either today or tomorrow. The

amendment was drafted in ignorance of what The Guardian would say this morning and the new direction that the Government would set out. None the less, I wonder whether the Government might accept that it has turned out to be unusually prescient and helpful to the Minister. By embracing our amendment, he can demonstrate even more so than we had ever suspected that he is at the cutting edge of new Labour and the new transformation, that he is one of those who will wield the sword Excalibur to chop off the head of control freakery. I invite him to do that by accepting the amendment.

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Mr Alan Johnson (Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills; Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, Labour)

I join the welcome to you, Mr. Hood, to fabulous Committee H—H for happiness and humour. I, too, am delighted to serve under your chairmanship.

While the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) quietly sits down with a glass of water and a tablet to help him calm down after that wonderful peroration, I should explain why the Government believe that clause 3 is an important element of the Bill.

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Mr Jonathan R Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend agree that history provides a warning to Tory MPs who suggest using swords in Parliament or in the press, whether or not they seek to represent South Thanet?

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Mr Alan Johnson (Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills; Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, Labour)

I agree with that. I shall turn the sword into a ploughshare and try to plough on with the debate. I refute the allegation that Labour Members treat The Guardian as some kind of tribune of the people. I believe that the phrase

''dead hand of central control''

was actually a journalist's phrase rather than that of any Minister this morning. The Government are keen to remove unnecessary restraints.

If I could just bring the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale back to earth, clause 3 requires that the arts and humanities research council give the Secretary of State programmes and estimates of its expenses. The amendment seeks to remove subsection (5), which says that the programmes and estimates must be provided in the form and at the times required by the Secretary of State. The reason for the requirement is simple: it is consistent with the arrangements for the seven other research councils, which are governed by terms that I believe stem from the Science and Technology Act 1965. I am not certain about the legislation, but the requirement has been in place for some time. As all the research councils submit their programmes and estimates—there is no question about that—it makes sense for the Secretary of State to ensure that they are delivered in a uniform and coherent manner so that we can ensure that they are all governed by the same arrangements.

I am advised that research councils are requested to provide, on a monthly basis, financial estimates against their budget for the year, and, in addition, they provide more detailed information on a quarterly and annual basis. They set out in their individual operating

plans for each year the intended distribution of funds against budget objectives, and, where significant, against specific research programmes. Rather than simply allow the research councils to submit that information in any way they like, it is sensible for the Secretary of State to set out a coherent pattern so that all the research councils submit the information in the same way. In terms of the monthly requirement, that is the arrangement that exists at the moment, and that is the arrangement that will extend to the arts and humanities research council.

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Mr David Rendel (Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills; Newbury, Liberal Democrat)

Can the Minister give us further information about what happens to the reports when they reach the Secretary of State? What does he do with them?

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Mr Alan Johnson (Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills; Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, Labour)

I should think that he studies them carefully. I believe that they are published for the benefit of the House, but perhaps I will write to the hon. Gentleman and let him know the exact details of what happens.

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Mr Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale, Conservative)

The Minister just said ''he'' studies them carefully. Surely the Secretary of State in question would be the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and therefore she.

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Mr Alan Johnson (Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills; Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is also the Minister for Women, I should like to record the fact that we are talking about her. However, the arrangements will apply to future Secretaries of State, and the gender may well change at some time in the future.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment, which he made an entertaining speech in support of, and if he does not, I ask the Committee to reject it.

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Mr Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale, Conservative)

I am disappointed that the Minister did not feel able to take the opportunity to race ahead with his new Labour credentials when it came to this matter. Since he is perhaps slightly out of kilter with his Government, I register my disappointment, but I see no great necessity for pressing ahead with the debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.