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Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 2nd February 2012.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 3:15 pm, 2nd February 2012

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, who put the nub of the issue facing the Government and the Committee very forcefully and clearly. Once more in this Committee, the noble and learned Lord is caught in a pincer movement between my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. Yesterday I was in conversation with a Scottish broadcast journalist, who shall remain nameless. He suggested that they were rapidly becoming the Chuckle Brothers of Scottish politics. No doubt as our deliberations go on the divisions between them will become apparent, although many of us know where they lie in any event.

In raising this issue, my noble friend Lord Foulkes brings to your Lordships' House a matter that is perceived by many in Scotland and, indeed, in this Committee, to be a cause of great unfairness. There can be no doubt about that. There are large numbers of people in Scotland who do not think that this is a fair way in which to treat students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for good reason, because Scottish people pride themselves on the progressive nature of their thinking and on their values. Instinctively, they think-and they are right-that it is unfair that students who come to Scotland from England, Wales or Northern Ireland are treated differently from Scottish students or students from the European Union. The difference is obvious. We have the benefit in our deliberations of the summary by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, of the short history of this difference.

It is undoubtedly true that the fact that there are different systems of student support and student fees in different parts of the United Kingdom means that there is discrimination. While it has existed for some time, that discrimination has, by recent decisions of the UK and Scottish Governments, been driven to new heights, and consequently it is now much more apparent than it was. As my noble friend's amendment and the support for it show, it raises real issues about whether within the United Kingdom we can continue to operate such a discriminatory regime without addressing its inherent unfairness. To that extent, my noble friend is to be congratulated because he focuses his arguments very sharply, and it is clearly right to debate them, as the contributions we have heard thus far make clear.

Whether it is appropriate to have this amendment in this Bill is a matter that the Minister will no doubt address. In one view, having devolved education, including higher education and student support, to the Scottish Parliament, it is a matter for it, and we should live with the consequences, which should be reflected in the political circumstances in which it operates. Whether there is some strong constitutional reason for leaving this to the Scottish Parliament, the amendment proposed by my noble friend raises real practical issues, and the debate that took place in the committee in the Scottish Parliament on the order that set out the specification of these fees encapsulated that. These practical issues will be reflected in the budget for Scotland. I do not think that any noble Lord who has contributed to this debate seeks to set the budget for the Scottish Government or, indeed, the Scottish Parliament but, effectively, that might be what we were doing if we dealt with this issue.