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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 4:15 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, this group of amendments deals with whether and on what basis the powers of the OfS should be strengthened to ensure that it takes over responsibility for many areas which are currently the responsibility of the Privy Council. I should like to make it clear that I have no particular brief for the Privy Council. I am not a member of it; I have never aspired to it, and I do not know how it operates, although I know it operates in relative secrecy. Having experienced some of the debates around the BBC charter renewal and press standards, I want to make it clear that I am not arguing for the Privy Council. It is probably sufficiently devalued—in the public mind at least—and fallen from grace so as not to be considered the way forward in future. I am arguing in this group of amendments for some level of scrutiny and oversight, reflective of what the Privy Council does at present, to be reinserted into this Bill.

Amendments 339, 340 and 341 reinsert the words “Privy Council” where they have been deleted. In Amendments 342 and 343 and in the whole of Clause 52, there are issues that need to be addressed by the Government in promoting the Bill further on this basis and which I hope will be picked up in debate and discussed.

The correspondence on this matter has been flowing. An issue raised by the Constitution Committee resulted in a letter being sent to the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, on 6 January. It raised questions, the response to which I assume is still in preparation. I have not seen a reply, although the noble Viscount may be able to tell us when he responds to this debate. It asked why a number of powers have been transferred from the Privy Council to the Office for Students. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has also expressed concern about this and the degree to which the exercise of these powers will, or will not be, subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, we have discussed these thanks to the interventions of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, and other noble Lords on a number of occasions, and there are more to come.

Common to all who have commented on this issue is how removing powers from the Privy Council will, in effect, remove them from the oversight of a body that is independent of and separate from Parliament. In some senses, it can be regarded as being cross-party. It behoves those who wish to support the line of argument that I am taking to make suggestions as to how this might be resolved. It seems that the Office for Students is to be the all-singing, all dancing regulator, both validator and remover of degrees—as we have just discussed—guardian of the flame and operator of all the functions relating to higher education. If this is so, it must not be given responsibilities which cannot be checked and covered if decisions are taken which are not appropriate. There must be some sort of appeals system. Its advice to the sector and to Ministers should, on occasion—and this will be relatively slight—be subject to the will of Parliament. The question is how.

The Privy Council stands as a surrogate for a process which requires Ministers and their advisers—in this case, the Office for Students—to defend the decisions they take in a way which at least opens them to wider scrutiny. I do not see—and it will be for the Minister to convince us if this is wrong—any position within the arrangements currently laid out in the Bill which will satisfy the high standard that the Privy Council is intended to confer on this mode of scrutiny. I beg to move.