My hon. Friend makes a striking point. That is only one of a series of delinquencies that I want to move on to.
The Conservatives have shied away from the light of debate, challenge and scrutiny on this issue, preferring instead to use a legislative sleight of hand to ensure that the sweeping changes were made in Committee in the hope that no one would notice. All the way through this process, they have been defensive. They have been less than candid and they have systematically resisted the path of openness. There was little detail to be had when the Chancellor first mooted this change in the summer, and not much more in the autumn statement. It was only when the National Union of Students raised the alarm about the impact of the process and threatened a judicial review over the lack of consultation and the failure to publish the interim equality assessment—which the Government have still not done—that a separate equality impact assessment was slipped out.
My hon. Friend Ms Eagle, the shadow Secretary of State of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, wrote to the Business Secretary explaining our concerns and asking for a full debate on this matter. This was reflected in early-day motion 829, which attracted a number of cross-party signatures. However, the Business Secretary’s reply largely ignored the issues. The issue of failing to bring the matter to the Floor of the Commons was raised by the shadow Leader of the House in December, and at that time the Leader of the House intimated that there should be a debate on the Floor of the House, but no such debate has taken place. A question from my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield was ducked by the Prime Minister last Wednesday. Colleagues raised the issue again in last week’s business questions, and I put a series of detailed questions to the Minister in the Delegated Legislation Committee. I and the other members of the Committee would like to see the responses to those questions in due course.
It is perhaps no surprise that The Independentled today on the way in which this Government have been using statutory instruments systematically to force through profound and controversial changes to the law without proper debate and scrutiny. Nor is it surprising that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey told the newspaper:
“This is arbitrary rule that massively decreases the power of the Commons to effectively scrutinise the Government.”
The equality impact assessment was slipped out with a relative lack of ceremony at the end of November. As I said last week, this is the document that almost dare not speak its name, not least because the detailed evidence of the negative impact was tucked away in its central pages, to which I will refer later, and was rather belied by the bland conclusions appended to the front of the document. What is driving these panic measures from the Government—the £1.5 billion raid on grants and the threshold fees—is their belated recognition that the whole set of financial assumptions about repayment that underpinned their trebling of fees in 2012 is producing a black hole for them and for future taxpayers.