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Higher Education Bill (Programme) (No. 4)

– in the House of Commons at 12:45 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Votes in this debate

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education) 12:45 pm, 31st March 2004

I beg to move,

That the programme order of 27th January in relation to the Higher Education Bill shall be further varied as follows

(1) Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.

(3) The proceedings shown in the first column of the Table shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the second column.

TABLE
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses relating to the general duties of the relevant authority for the purposes of Part 3; new Clauses relating to exercise by the National Assembly for Wales of functions relating to student fees and student support. One hour after the commencement of proceedings on consideration.
Remaining new Clauses, amendments to Clauses, new Schedules, amendments to Schedules. Five hours after the commencement of those proceedings.

(4) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion six hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration.

The motion will allow a full debate on the parts of the Bill on which amendments have been tabled. I look forward to listening and responding to the points that are raised, and I expect that we will continue the high quality of debate that was consistently demonstrated by representatives in all parts of the Standing Committee.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale 12:46 pm, 31st March 2004

It is surely a matter of agreement in all parts of the House that, in allocating time, it is sensible to provide the most time to the most important and most controversial legislation. There can be no doubt about the importance of the Bill. The Prime Minister himself said that it is

"a very major flagship reform of the Government."

There can surely be no doubt about the controversial nature of the Bill either, given that it scraped through on Second Reading with a majority of only five. Opposition Members therefore regret that the motion will permit only four hours' debate on the most important and controversial elements of the Bill. We believe that two days should have been provided for Report and Third Reading, just as two days should have been provided for Second Reading, given that a large number of hon. Members in all parts of the House want to speak.

As far as the Bill's consideration in Committee is concerned, I agree with the Minister. I am happy to repeat on the Floor of the House what I said at the conclusion of the Committee stage. The Minister was a model of openness and candour in his deliberations in Committee, and he provided information in advance on draft regulations, genuinely answered points that were raised in the debate and listened to views expressed from all parties. He established a precedent that it would be highly desirable for Ministers to follow on all future legislation. He is right to say that we had lengthy and high-quality debates in Committee, not least because, unusually, Government Members took a full and active part throughout. I appreciate, too, the fact that, no doubt owing to decisions made by the Minister, the Government provided some additional time in Committee.

However, the Minister himself acknowledged in response to a parliamentary question that 25 clauses and seven schedules were not debated in Committee.

Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Labour, Stalybridge and Hyde

If so many Opposition Members want to speak in this debate, how come so few of them are sitting behind the hon. Gentleman? How come Mr. Yeo is not on the Front Bench?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

I am sorry to have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that this is the debate on the programme motion. It had been my intention to be brief, but he is prolonging the debate. In common with many others, I want to get on to the substance of the Bill. I am more than halfway through my remarks, but if he or others wish to continue to prolong them, that is a matter for them.

The Bill has reached Report stage with large parts entirely undebated, and, as was confirmed in the exchanges in Prime Minister's Question Time, without any significant amendments having been made. Essentially, this is the same Bill to which the House narrowly gave a Second reading. We registered objections at the time I do not intend to dwell on this point, Mr. Speaker about the balance of the Committee. In our view, all those things strengthen the case for allocating more time, not less, in the programme motion. A large number of hon. Members in other parts of the House said because I wish to be brief, I shall not quote them all at length, that they permitted Second Reading on the basis that the Bill would be altered in Committee. That did not happen, and we need plenty of time on the Floor of the House to examine why.

That is why the Opposition are disappointed about the allocation of time, and we will therefore oppose the motion.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 12:49 pm, 31st March 2004

I associate the Liberal Democrats with the comments made by Mr. Collins and echo his remarks about the exemplary way in which Ministers dealt with the Bill in Committee. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education and his team addressed and engaged with the core issues in an outstanding way.

The Bill will not only change the face of higher education but set the future standard for the delivery of public services throughout the country. It is important and all of it should therefore be debated properly. The significant number of new clauses and amendments on Report are worrying, and some of the issues were not aired in Committee. The debate will last for five hours, which means that a significant number of those issues will not be voted on. Over the past few days, significant time has been spent on Opposition days and Adjournment debates in the House, and that could have been devoted to the Bill. For those reasons, we oppose the programme motion.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 12:51 pm, 31st March 2004

Sometimes I read a report in Monday morning's paper of a match that I attended on Saturday and think that I went to the wrong ground, because the report is different from my experience of the event. Apart from two serious and extremely important debates in Committee, for which I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, in which variability and the new office for fair access were discussed at length, I must say, I do not say this lightly, that about 20 more issues were not given the serious consideration that we expect as parliamentarians. That may have been, in part, because of time, but I must say that it seemed on occasions to Government Members that filibusters were going on. I know that filibusters are out of order, so that could not possibly have happened, but there was certainly a degree of time-wasting, and I understand that tactic.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Does the hon. Gentleman recall which hon. Member made the longest speech in Committee?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I do not, and I would be pleased if the hon. Gentleman were to inform the House, because modesty prevents my doing so. I am sure that he will concede that that speech was made during the serious debate on variability that I have already mentioned.

If we examine the programme motion, we can see that the conduct in Committee did no one any favours. Some may pretend that proclaiming, "We did not have enough time, and we are being squeezed out" will influence thinking in the other place, but too many wise heads there realise that those who accuse others of wasting time themselves committed that offence. It is a great shame that Opposition Members chose to waste time when there are so many important issues.

Photo of Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Labour, Rochdale

My hon. Friend strongly advocates modernisation of House of Commons procedures. Is there a correlation between how the Opposition handled the Bill in Standing Committee and a wider debate about programming? The Opposition filibustered in Committee, then erroneously claimed that there was not enough time for scrutiny in order to make a point about programming.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

The Procedure Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Nicholas Winterton, is already examining the programming and timetabling of business, and I am sure that that matter has been brought to its attention. A number of distinguished hon. Members have already given evidence to the Committee as witnesses.

My criticism also extends to the Government, and the use of Government amendments.

Photo of Mr Jon Owen Jones Mr Jon Owen Jones Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff Central

Will my hon. Friend consider that he is talking in the only time available to discuss the devolved aspects of the Bill?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

My hon. Friend makes my point. Inadequate time has been allowed for proper debate of all the clauses, but he should not criticise those who point out the problem; he should criticise the process, in which we are all complicit, that does not allow a proper programme motion both in the House and in Committee, where there was insufficient time to discuss key issues.

If we are to have proper pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills, which is a point that Opposition Members discussed in Committee, many issues that take up Government time would not require Government amendments on Report.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, the Annunciator states that I have been speaking since 12.49 pm, and I would hate the record to show that I had been filibustering.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made many telling contributions in Committee, and I must exonerate him from the charge that I laid against certain Opposition Members of wasting valuable time when we were Upstairs.

The question of pre-legislative scrutiny, as it applies to the programme motion, is important.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

The hon. Gentleman has now spoken for twice as long as anybody else on the subject of time-wasting. Since he has set out the reasons why the programme motion is not, in his phrase, "a proper programme motion", will he join Opposition Members in opposing it?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I will not waste the House's time by answering that question.

I have put on the record the annoyance of many Labour members of the Committee, who felt that there was not enough time Upstairs to debate many serious issues I could list them, because of the Opposition. For example, although Ofsted applies to every nursery, primary school and secondary school in all our constituencies, universities somehow avoid it. The issue is important because we are putting billions of pounds of public funds into universities, but there are no proper inspections such as those suffered by nurseries and other parts of our education system.

I hope that my hon. Friends who follow me in this debate will not have to make the same points, and I hope that Opposition Members, particularly those who serve in the Whips Office, realise that Her Majesty's Government have done a gracious and generous thing by ensuring that a Bill has a start date and a finish date Upstairs. [Interruption.] A number of the main offenders are chirping from sedentary positions. Her Majesty's Government allowed the Opposition to use the time in Committee to best effect, and that they chose not to do so and continued to play ridiculous, time-wasting games reflects badly on Parliament as a whole, and particularly badly on Her Majesty's Opposition.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 12:59 pm, 31st March 2004

I wish to say only one thing. We used to have a Parliament in which the Opposition had of right the power to speak; now, we evidently have a Parliament in which the Government give us that right. That is what is wrong with this Government. This is contempt of Parliament, as Mr. Allen showed all too clearly.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee 1:00 pm, 31st March 2004

I, too, oppose the motion. I am glad that aspects of the Committee went well, but of course not all of us were able to serve on it. It is extremely important that a higher education Bill should be properly debated, not least because such Bills are fairly rare—they come round only once every 10 years or so—and, by their nature, have several other issues swept up in them, which in this case have not been properly debated.

Furthermore, Mr. Speaker, you have selected a very large number of amendments. It is inevitable not only that those amendments will not be divided on if the House wishes it, but that they will not be properly responded to by the Minister. How could he possibly deal with the catalogue of amendments in the third group? That is extremely regrettable.

Finally, I oppose the motion because, as the Father of the House reminded us when he talked about the standards of 20 or 30 years ago, this is exactly the kind of Bill that used to be given two days on Report. We would have had a full day followed by two thirds of a day, or even a second full day, to allow all hon. Members to explore all the issues, as we should be doing. I understand that the House is taking substantive business tomorrow, so it would be perfectly possible for the Government now to agree that as so many amendments have been selected they could not have known that that would happen—the debate should continue tomorrow.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere 1:01 pm, 31st March 2004

Having served on the Committee opposite Mr. Allen, I cannot recognise his description of it. He said that only two serious debates took place, but I remember him putting the case for his constituency, in what I took to be a serious way, in many more than two debates. I listened to all his speeches, some of which were longer than others, and thought that they were all serious; I do not know which were the non-serious ones. As far as I am concerned, the Committee gave serious consideration to the Bill, but there was not enough time then, as there is not enough time now. The limited allocation of time—six hours to debate all the issues—means that it is impossible for the whole House to have its say. Many of our constituents will think that a crying shame.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport) 1:02 pm, 31st March 2004

I acknowledge that the Government were flexible in Committee, and I think that we had enough time to go through the Bill. On occasion, some of that time could have been better used by all Members, but that is true of all Committees. My beef with the programme motion is that we do not have enough time for proper debate on the Floor of the House.

This is an important Bill that changes the face of higher education and affects the whole cohort of the young generation whom we are seeking to support in achieving the Government's targets, which I support in principle. It is therefore right and proper that we have enough time to debate it in detail. Specifically, the first group of amendments includes several that relate to Wales tabled in the name of the main Opposition party. If we do not debate them, we will not address on the Floor of the House—although I accept that we did in Committee—the Welsh aspects of the Bill, which are important in relation to what the National Assembly does, how that may differ from what is done in England, and the impact that that might have on English students or students from Wales going into England.

Such a Bill should not be timetabled at all when it is debated on the Floor of the House, but we should at least have two days to consider it properly. Even at this stage, it is worth saying those words to give the Government the opportunity to listen to them and perhaps even think about them.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education) 1:03 pm, 31st March 2004

I want briefly to respond to a couple of the points that hon. Members raised. I thank Opposition Members for their kind and generous remarks. Their comments reflect the spirit in which they approached the Committee, on which it was a pleasure to serve.

Let me say a few words about the Committee. Mr. Collins said, correctly, that we did not reach 25 of the clauses. However, the Bill is quite short, with only 50 clauses. Mr. Fallon harked back to a previous time—I am not sure how long ago—but in my experience, and from my experience of watching Parliament under the previous Government, it is not unusual to spend this amount of time on a 50-clause Bill. As regards the clauses that we did reach in Committee, the debates on fees provision, which lasted for seven sittings, or a total of 11 hours, principally concerned the big issue of fixed fees versus variable fees. The debate on the office for fair access, which is extremely important, particularly to Conservative Members, and very controversial, lasted for a further three sittings.

Of the clauses that were not debated, 10 covered technical, interpretive and commencement provisions. Amendments were not tabled to several other clauses, so it is not surprising that we did not debate them. The debates were wide-ranging, and those on a number of clauses—notably fees, as I said—spanned a few sittings. If I remember rightly, the Opposition wanted 16 sittings, and we just about achieved that.

As for today's debate, I was surprised that Mr. Willis—who should now be renamed Phil O'Buster—remarked on the absence of amendments passed in Committee; indeed, the leader of his party raised the same point in Prime Minister's questions. I remind Liberal Democrat Members that one of their amendments was accepted in Committee, to great rejoicing throughout the land—it added to the gaiety of the nation—and that a Government amendment was also passed.

We have put the right emphasis on issues relating to fees and student support. Although there is a large number of amendments, many are consequential and relatively few deal with substantive proposals. That justifies the time that we have allocated in the programme motion, which I hope that the House will support.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 354, Noes 206.

Division number 120 Higher Education Bill (Programme) (No. 4)

Aye: 354 MPs

No: 206 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Orders of the Day