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Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 2nd February 2012.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lords Spokesperson (Attorney General's Office), Lords Spokesperson (Wales Office), The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Scotland Office) 3:30 pm, 2nd February 2012

My Lords, the Committee owes a debt to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and my noble friend Lord Forsyth for introducing this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, there can be no doubt as to the mood of the Committee on this issue, and views were expressed with great passion and sincerity. I think that I have some common ground with the noble Lord, Lord Browne, but I want to read his remarks carefully. I accept the sympathy that he offered me.

As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said in moving the amendment, we have to be conscious of the sensitivities of relationships between the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the respective Governments of the United Kingdom. He said that we ought not to appear to be imposing something on the Scottish Parliament, albeit that is what the impact of the amendments would be.

I am in a slightly more difficult position for a number of reasons, not least because it would not be appropriate for me as a member of the UK Government to express an opinion about policies of the Scottish Government. Others have had the freedom to do that, which I could perhaps envy, but it would not be appropriate for me to do so other than to make some more general points.

My noble friend Lord Forsyth said that the debate should not be about the principle of tuition fees; on the other hand, it leads to a question of choices. A choice was made back in 1999-2000 by the Scottish Parliament not to charge tuition fees for domiciled Scottish students, whereas a choice was made by the Westminster Parliament under the previous Administration and continued by the present Administration that there would be tuition fee charging. The problem, which has given rise to such passion, would not have arisen at all if the United Kingdom Parliament had made a different choice.

Likewise, if I may pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, the Scottish Government had a choice as to whether they should fund universities in the way in which they have done, with the fee structure that they are proposing, or to make more money available to the funding council, as did the Administration which I was proud to serve back in 2004. Then, we made the deliberate choice, from among all the priorities competing for government funding, to give additional funds to the further and higher education sectors in Scotland. That in some respects is what devolution is about: allowing the Scottish Government to make these choices. A part of what this Bill is about is making sure that there is greater accountability for the way in which money is raised. That is the background against which we should look at these issues.

Two strong issues emerged in the debate: one was the £9,000 fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the other, perhaps drawn out more in the amendment of my noble friend Lord Forsyth, related to the fact that European Union students do not pay fees if they study in Scotland. I fully recognise why the latter is seen as being very unfair to students in the rest of the United Kingdom. I make no bones about the fact that it is a result of European Union law, which, if it was to be changed, would require action far beyond this House.