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Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Lords at 2:33 pm on 2nd February 2012.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 2:33 pm, 2nd February 2012

My noble friend and former boss as Secretary of State for Scotland has just stolen the second plank of my argument, but she put it very well indeed. It is a serious matter, because the parents of potential students at Scottish universities from London, Belfast and Cardiff are paying money into the UK Exchequer and that money, through the Barnett formula, subsidises Scottish universities, whereas parents of students from Berlin, Lisbon or Madrid are paying nothing to the UK Exchequer. That is an astonishing position to take.

This has been recognised as an unfair anomaly and discrimination not only by Members of this House. Today's Glasgow Herald states that legal action is already being taken by Phil Shiner on behalf of Public Interest Lawyers. Let me quote directly:

"Lawyers will launch court action as early as next month to stop the SNP Government's controversial policy of enabling Scottish universities to charge English students up to £9000 a year in tuition fees while home students pay nothing, The Herald can reveal".

That action is taking place, but how much better it would be if, instead of having to defend that action-in practice, defending the indefensible-the UK Government were to accept my amendment and the Scottish Government were to agree to stop that discrimination.

To quote from the Guardian-no, it was the New Statesman, which is even better than the Guardian-the point has been made that,

"The resentment felt by English students, who will soon pay the highest public university fees in the world, will further destabilise the Union".

One wonders whether the First Minister of Scotland has an interior motive, because it is alienating people in England. Lots of people from south of the border, when they find out about that, say how disgraceful it is. I am glad to say that I have also been approached by lots of people north of the border who think it is disgraceful: students, parents and others who are really concerned.

The New Statesman continues:

"The growing disparity between the two countries is a reminder of the incomplete nature of Britain's constitutional settlement".

That is absolutely right, and something that I propose to deal with in other amendments to the Bill and which I have raised elsewhere. It continues:

"The UK is now neither a unitary nor a federal state and its largest constituent group-the English-feels increasingly unrepresented. For too long, politicians have complacently ignored threats to the Union; they must now act to repair our disunited kingdom before it is too late".

I say to that hear, hear. This may be being done for some positive reasons, but in my view, it is for ulterior motives as well.

I hope that we will consider passing the amendment. It is important that we send out a strong call from this Chamber, from Westminster, to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive that they should reconsider this. I must be honest: I know that one or two of my colleagues in the House of Commons, one or two here and one or two in the Scottish Parliament have had some reservations about me pushing ahead with the amendment. To them, I cite Claire Baker, who is the Labour spokesperson on education in the Scottish Parliament. When the order went through the Scottish Parliament, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Members did not vote against it for interesting reasons. Claire Baker said:

"I remain to be convinced that the order provides the right answer"- she did not believe that-

"but I accept that action must be taken. After this morning's evidence I remain concerned about the introduction of a variable fee and the lack of regulation and access arrangements, and I have wider concerns about the £9,000 fee level that has been set. However, I will support the order, which I realise is important if we are to manage cross-border flow and protect student places. I will return to the fee level, the regulator and other issues of concern when primary legislation is being considered".

So there is deep disquiet. People in the Opposition in the Scottish Parliament feel that they are being given Hobson's choice: they feel that they are being forced into this. Otherwise, universities, including my former university of Edinburgh, will be squeezed even further in their income and find it more difficult. The members of the Opposition in the Scottish Parliament have been placed in an impossible position by the sky-high fees imposed by the United Kingdom coalition Government and by the discrimination imposed by the Scottish Administration. That pincer movement is making it very difficult for people.

Finally, I return to the main point. Whatever the detail of the argument, whatever the facts and figures-I know that the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, and others will give more facts and figures about what is happening in the Scottish universities-it is deeply disturbing that such blatant discrimination should be taking place against students and potential students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I hope that the House will send that message very strongly to Edinburgh today.