Grants

Orders of the Day — Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 5th February 1992.

Alert me about debates like this

Amendment proposed: No. 6, in page 27, line 9, leave out subsection (2) and insert— (2) The terms and conditions referred to in subsection (1) above shall not be expressed so as to affect the provision of financial support by the Council in respect of activities carried on by any particular institution.(2A) Such terms and conditions may, in particular, impose requirements to be complied with by all institutions or all institutions falling within such class or description of institutions as is specified in the terms and conditions and, notwithstanding subsection (2) above, may be such as to require that, before financial support of any amount or description or any part of such financial support so specified is provided by the Council in respect of activities carried on by any particular institution, the institution shall have complied with such requirements.'.—[Mr. Michael Forsyth.]

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington , Clydebank and Milngavie

I beg to move, as an amendment to the proposed amendment, amendment (a), leave out subsection (2A).

As the Minister will know, this clause and clause 48 have a great deal of history behind them, constituting what Lord Simon of Glaisdale called a double-barrelled gun. We are discussing the importance of academic freedom, the conditions under which grants can be given and the directions that can be given to institutions or the funding council.

We all agree that a strong element of accountability is necessary in the spending of public money and that some conditions need to be laid down by the Secretary of State. We have just discussed medical students and medical schools, and we should certainly know how many people are training to be doctors. Similarly, however, there needs to be a hands-off approach by the Government so as to secure academic freedom.

The Minister kindly agreed to have another look at clause 36. Inevitably, we compare the Scottish legislation with that for England and Wales, and we find that part of what the Government propose is acceptable. Hon. Members on both sides are determined that the Government should not be able to issue instructions that affect the financial support for one particular institution. That would be interference. We set up the funding council to prevent that.

In subsection (2), proposed in amendment No. 6, the Government have honoured that obligation and in general subsection (2) has no problems for us. Unfortunately, the proposed subsection (2A) brings in difficulties to which I shall address myself. The first difficulty is that some institutions could be in a class of one; an institution in Scotland could be unique. I mention, for example, the school of architecture in Scotland. There is only one and I mention that because the Secretary of State for Education and Science said that the Government would not want a school of architecture to lengthen its degrees to seven years. The school of architecture would be in a class of its own, and, according to the proposed subsection (2A), it would be legitimate for the Secretary of State for Scotland to intervene.

10.15 pm

The second and more substantial objection is that amendment No. 6 uses the words "notwithstanding subsection (2) above". It seems that the Secretary of State, if it suited him, could ignore subsection (2). It would be possible for the Secretary of State to lay down a condition that would affect individual institutions. That is why we propose that subsection (2A) should be withdrawn.

However, that is not our final position, and there is still some distance to go on the issue. As the Minister will know, in the other place, Lord Beloff moved an amendment, which was accepted, which said: such terms and conditions may not be framed by reference to particular courses of study or programmes of research including the contents of such courses or programmes and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assesed, or to the criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff and for the admission of students. We are gradually on our way to the solution here. The Opposition object to the words "notwithstanding subsection (2)", because they seem to invalidate subsection (2), in which the Government have said that financial support cannot be interfered with to affect any particular institution.

Lord Beloff's proposition in the other place was valuable, because it clearly said that there were areas of academic freedom in which one must not interfere. In the spirit of the Government and the Opposition looking for a formula, I ask the Minister to respond.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I advise the House that amendment (a) should not be made.

There is not a great deal of difference between the Government and the Opposition on the matter. Amendment No. 6 fulfils my commitment in Committee to redraft clause 36(2) to make it clear that institutions' specific conditions on grant are not permitted. The amendment achieves that admirably and I hope there will be less confusion about the Government's policy in the area from now on. I will spell it out. The Secretary of State's powers to attach terms and conditions to his grant to the council have not been, are not and will not be capable of allowing for institution-specific conditions.

The wording in subsection (2A) is necessary to ensure that the general terms and conditions that the Secretary of State may impose are capable of taking effect. The hon. Gentleman is concerned about that wording, and his amendment seeks to remove it. We need the wording to ensure that institutions that comply with the general conditions benefit, and that those that do not comply do not benefit—[Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is following this. I am sure that the conversations taking place are to the benefit of us all, but he should be clear on this matter because it is a difficult point. It is a matter of legal wording, and I spent some time considering it.

I shall repeat what I said. We need the wording in subsection (2A) to ensure that institutions that comply with the general conditions benefit, and that those that do not comply do not benefit. For that reason, I cannot accept amendment (a), as it would prevent the powers from being used effectively in practice.

I told the Committee that I had discussed these matters with Professor Forty, the chairman of the Committee of Scottish University Principals. I am glad to report to the House that he regards our amendment as a significant and helpful clarification of the Government's policy in this area, which he considers establishes an appropriate framework for the relationship between the Government, the funding council and the institutions.

The hon. Gentleman has fulfilled his purpose; I am grateful to him for the constructive way in which he approached this matter and for his helpful suggestions. We now have a form of wording that meets what the Committee required.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

Can we take it that the Minister is speaking on behalf of all the seven other Scottish vice-chancellors, and that there are no reservations among any of them? That is correct, is it not?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I do not think that I could speak for the principal of Stirling university in his capacity as chairman of the Committee of Scottish University Principals. What I told the Committee was that I would consult him. I met him, and he tried to help to frame a form of wording that would meet the anxieties expressed by his colleagues. I think that he would be cross with me if I were to suggest that he was necessarily speaking for all of them. To be able to speak for all the university principals on any issue would be quite an undertaking.

Photo of Mr Nicol Stephen Mr Nicol Stephen , Kincardine and Deeside

The Minister chose his words carefully in describing the chairman's view. Does he believe that the chairman approves of the wording in the amendment and that all his concerns are satisfied? The Minister said that the chairman thought that the wording made a useful contribution—or words to that effect. We should be clear whether he is or is not satisfied with the amendment.

As a lawyer, my view is that subsection (2A) is very difficult, verging on the incomprehensible, and certainly would not get a plain English award. Parliamentary drafting is at its best when it is simple, lucid and clear, and this subsection certainly is not. From what can be discerned about the wording, the phrase "notwithstanding subsection (2)" tends to suggest that it could apply to a single institution. As subsection (2) is about ensuring that the terms and conditions cannot be applied to specific institutions, the amendment fails the very test that the Minister set himself in Committee.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I do not wish to become involved in an argument about the quality of the drafting. I accept the hon. Gentleman's complaints about the difficulty of the wording. At the time when the Committee was seeking to change the wording, I was advised that the process would be rather difficult and clumsy. I agree that the wording is not—I was going to say crystal clear, but that would have implied that it was not clear. I am advised that the meaning is clear, although I accept that it needs to be read carefully.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) seemed to feel that the words "notwithstanding subsection (2)" would allow the Secretary of State to ignore the subsection. They do not mean that; they mean that the Secretary of State can impose general conditions that impact at institutional level. The hon. Gentleman asked about the position regarding the university principal, John Forty. I understand that he has told the Department that he thinks that his colleagues would find the provision acceptable, and that he is happy with the wording as it stands.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about classes of one. Classes of one are possible, but, if the Secretary of State knew in advance that a class had only one member, he would fall foul of subsection (2) and the ban on institutions' specific conditions. If, however, a general condition in the event proved to apply to only one institution, that would be allowed.

I am sure that that is very clear to the hon. Gentleman. I can only say that it was the Committee that asked us to deliver; we have delivered, and I hope that its members will not complain. I believe that we have a measure that should satisfy the Committee and the university principals, and, more important, provide a basis for future funding that will command consensus support.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

I do not think that hon. Members should lightly try to advise those in the other place. I trust, however, that I will be permitted a reaction which I hope will not be in any way offensive. I hope that the measure will be subjected to the eagle eye of Lord Wilberforce and his colleagues the Law Lords, and that they will scrutinise it carefully. It is obviously a pitch for the lawyers in the other place, and I hope that the Minister's words pass the test.

Mr. Robert Hughes:

I express my appreciation to the Minister, who has at least attempted to make clear in the legislation that which the Committee sought. I make no complaint—I am not carping—when I say that the Government amendments are far from clear to me, and I am not sure that they are clear to anyone. The principle of what we are trying to achieve, however, is entirely clear. It has not been possible for me to consult the principal of the university of Aberdeen to find out whether he is satisfied with the amendment, but I suspect that, even if I had been able to do so, he might not have been able to give us categorical advice.

In Committee, the Minister said that it would be difficult to draft an amendment to make clear the issues about which we were concerned—academic freedom, for instance. I think that he has made it clear that he accepts the principle. Although we have not had much time between Committee and Report, I hope that the Minister will assure us that, between now and discussion of the Bill in the other place, the Government will look closely at the provision with the parliamentary draftsmen and that, if any tidying up proves necessary, it will be done. I should be content with that.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

Of course I give that assurance to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington , Clydebank and Milngavie 10:30 pm, 5th February 1992

I think that we are making good progress on this issue. One of the advantages of accepting that both the Minister and Opposition Members are still looking for a solution is that we could clarify the attitude of the vice-chancellors. There is ambivalence about this issue. I know that the Minister met Professor Forty to discuss it and I accept the Minister's assurance about what Professor Forty said. I know, too, that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals at national level is not happy about the proposal and feels that it needs to he looked at again.

If the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Stephen) can read this and impose upon it the same reservations, as a lawyer, that I have, it is clearly open to misinterpretation. We do not even have to take into account the credibility of the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside as a lawyer. The test of the clause is whether it can be understood. We have heard doubts expressed about whether it can be reasonably well understood.

I accept the Minister's assurance about a class with only one pupil. He made a valuable point. I still think that there would be value in looking at the amendment that was accepted, although against the Government's wishes, in the other place—about it being made absolutely clear that the terms and conditions that are applied to grants cannot be framed by reference to particular courses of study, or by reference to particular programmes of research, and that they cannot be about the criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff or for the admission of students. Those are valuable additions to the clause in order to make it absolutely clear that what the Government and Opposition are attempting to do is to make it clear that conditions that interfere with academic freedom cannot be imposed.

On the basis of people not being backed into corners, of not being confrontational and of still looking for an improvement to the wording, I am willing to withdraw the amendment. We do not say that the Government's amendment is the best solution. We accept the Minister's assurance that they have taken steps forward but that they will see whether they can take further steps forward by introducing absolutely clear-cut wording into the clause. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment to the proposed amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 6 agreed to.