Amendment 38

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 2:20 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Lord Storey:

Moved by Lord Storey

38: After Clause 37, insert the following new Clause—“Implementation period negotiating objectives: Erasmus+(1) It is an objective of Her Majesty’s Government to secure an agreement within the framework of the future relationship of the United Kingdom and the EU before the end of the implementation period that enables the United Kingdom to participate in all elements of the Erasmus+ programme on existing terms after the implementation period ends.(2) A Minister must lay before each House of Parliament a progress report on the objective in subsection (1) within six months of this Act being passed.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would require the Government to seek to negotiate continuing full membership of the EU's Erasmus+ education and youth programmes.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, the referendum on Brexit shows that young people in particular want to remain in Europe. Now that we are leaving, it is important that young people’s opportunities to learn, study and exchange in Europe are an opportunity to bring young people back together again. Nobody can doubt the value and importance of Erasmus+. Every year, through the Erasmus programme, 17,000 UK university students, plus hundreds more college students and apprentices, study or work abroad. The opportunities that Erasmus offers to UK students, particularly young people, to study, work, volunteer, teach and train abroad are irreplaceable.

For school pupils, the scheme offers the youth exchange programme and volunteering opportunities, and volunteering is something that the Government have always been very keen on. Erasmus+ has paid out tens of millions of pounds in grants to UK schools for exchanges, collaborative programmes and professional development. If we want to be an outward-looking country that realises the importance of friendship, sharing ideas, culture, language, education and opportunities, and brings people together, this is not a programme that you would consider watering down or dispensing with.

As my colleague Layla Moran has said about her amendment,

“what people remember most about studying abroad normally isn’t that they increased their employment prospects”— which of course they do—

“They recall learning a new language, falling in love with the culture and building new friendships.”

I am somewhat confused about the Government’s stance or policy on Erasmus+. Is it that of the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, who said:

“We do truly understand the value that such exchange programmes bring all students right across the United Kingdom, but to ensure that we are able to continue to offer that we will also develop our own alternative arrangements should they be needed”?—[Official Report, Commons, 14/01/20; col. 912.]

Or is it that of our Prime Minister, who said:

“There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme, and we will continue to participate in it. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will be able to continue to come to this country”?—[Official Report, Commons, 15/01/20; col. 1021.]

Perhaps the Minister would be good enough to tell me which version it is. The amendment that we are moving certainly supports the Prime Minister’s view that the Erasmus scheme is under no threat.

Currently the in-phrase in government is “levelling up”. We want to ensure with this amendment that there is no levelling down for students and young people across the UK, whether they be from the south or the north. By staying in the Erasmus+ scheme, we can keep that level playing field. UK universities are clear that Erasmus is not broken and so does not need fixing, and they warn that a UK replacement would find it impossible to match the reputation, brand awareness and sheer scale of Erasmus+. I beg to move.

Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench

My Lords, I have added my name to this important amendment. I will be brief.

The Government should have a fairly good idea by now of the views of academics, universities and other institutions. Hopefully, they will have taken note of the strong views of students and former participants in the Erasmus programme that have been expressed in the press and on social media in the last week or so, and their huge concern about the potential loss of this programme.

In terms of projects, Erasmus is now about more than learning and higher education. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, has pointed out, there are schemes for apprentices, adult learners, schools, youth programmes and entrepreneurs. On that point, what is less heard and discussed is the implications of Erasmus for business. The Russell Group has spoken of the considerable opportunities in industry that Erasmus opens up for students on their return to the UK. If we are also to maintain our business links with Europe, it will become more important, not less, that young people learn and use languages such as French and German, an issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, will no doubt expand on.

I hope the Government will look at this objectively and understand that the loss of Erasmus would represent a significant overall loss in terms of the choices that students will have to study abroad. In those circumstances, where the choice remains it will be at a considerably greater cost, to the extent that for students from poorer backgrounds, that choice would disappear. That is an important point. Erasmus favours those from less privileged backgrounds, a point that has been well made by former participants.

One of the arguments that is put is that we can replace Erasmus with a global arrangement. We have such arrangements already, which Erasmus does not preclude. The loss of Erasmus would be a net loss for students, and a reduction of opportunities to study abroad and to broaden horizons. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that the loss of Erasmus would, in the Government’s own terminology, be a levelling down, not a levelling up. I earnestly hope that the Government will do everything to maintain our meaningful membership—that is, programme membership —of Erasmus. Surely this being an intention endorsed by Parliament will only strengthen our hand in negotiations with the EU. I fully support the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, I too have added my name to Amendment 38. Last week, after the vote in the House of Commons to reject a similar amendment, I was semi-encouraged by the statement issued by the Department for Education:

“The Government is committed to continuing the academic relationship between the UK and the EU, including through the next Erasmus+ programme if it is in our interests to do so.”

I hope I can offer some information and arguments today that will convince the Minister to go back and persuade the Government that it is indeed very much in our interests, and that they should think again and put their commitment to Erasmus+ in the Bill. As we have heard, the Prime Minister said only yesterday that there was no threat to Erasmus. If that is a genuine commitment, fantastic—there can be no reason why that cannot be irrefutably placed in the Bill. Otherwise, all that we actually know we can be sure of is that Erasmus is secure only until the end of 2020.

I have spoken several times before in your Lordships’ House on the importance of Erasmus in the context of the teaching and learning of modern foreign languages, but that is neither the whole picture nor the whole reason for needing to stick with the programme. It is also in the far broader interests of the UK, its economic resilience, its competitiveness and the employability of young people—and I do not just mean relatively privileged students. I understand from a press report in last Saturday’s Times that one of the Government’s reservations is that Erasmus is viewed as mainly benefiting middle-class students and that the money might be much better directed towards the schools budget. If accurate, this view shows a misunderstanding of the breadth, purpose and benefits of the Erasmus programme. I hope I can now shed some light on this, to assist the Government in looking again and changing their mind out of sheer self-interest.

Let me recap very quickly on the value of Erasmus as far as language skills are concerned, then put that into a broader context. Despite some recent improvement in GCSE take-up, the UK currently faces a serious crisis of lack of language skills, which costs our economy an estimated 3.5% of GDP every year. Employers are not happy with the foreign language skills of school leavers and graduates and have been relying increasingly on overseas recruitment to meet their needs. Yet 100,000 fewer GCSE language exams were taken in 2015 compared to a decade earlier and, since 2000, more than 50 of our universities have scrapped some or all of their modern language degree courses. Erasmus+ plays a crucial role in the supply chain of MFL teachers in our schools, where we are already looking at a critical shortage unless levels of recruitment from the EU can be sustained after we leave.

All this is happening against a background in which the UK will be seeking to redefine its place in the world, establish leadership in international relations, security and soft power, and negotiate many new free trade agreements. It is a world, contrary to the popular but completely mistaken myth, in which 75% of the global population does not speak English, and young people need languages more than ever to compete in a culturally agile, mobile and interconnected jobs market. The Government are rightly committed to retaining a close relationship on all fronts with our European neighbours after we leave the EU, and so should be aware that English will almost certainly have a declining influence as an EU language, as native English speakers shrink from 13% of member state population to a mere 1%.

Another very telling statistic is that young people who have spent a year abroad with the Erasmus programme are 23% less likely to be unemployed than those who have not. This goes for students of all disciplines, not just linguists. Employers have repeatedly said how much they value candidates who have taken a year abroad to not just acquire language skills but develop an international and cross-cultural mindset. One study reported that employers rated these skills even more highly than expertise in STEM subjects.

It is also important to correct the misunderstanding that the scope of Erasmus+ is restricted to university students: as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned, it also covers schools, including primary schools, adult education, the youth sector and vocational training for apprentices and associated staff. Since 2014, the vocational provision has funded around 24,000 UK apprentices, other young learners and staff to participate in accredited mobility placements.

Erasmus+ gives opportunities to young people to work together and make a difference on issues that matter in their daily lives. Activities include running a project in their own community, meetings with decision-makers and volunteering abroad. Benefits include improved access to employment, as well as new experience and skills as active citizens. Youth workers benefit from job attachments, training and other professional development. Erasmus+ has an important role in supporting diversity and inclusion and is especially relevant to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable young people, including those in care, those with disabilities, refugees and migrants.

I respectfully ask Her Majesty’s Government to consider very carefully the timing of decisions on Erasmus+. To come out of the programme now, or even just cast doubt over our future participation by default, would be unnecessarily damaging to our national interests, for two key reasons: first, because the current uncertainty is one of the reasons given for the further drop we have seen in the past year of applications to study languages at university. The year abroad, supported by Erasmus, is the jewel in the crown of an MFL degree, and without it more universities will be under pressure to cut courses, which will further threaten the supply chain of language teachers. If we do not guarantee our full commitment to Erasmus now, this uncertainty will be compounded and very hard to turn around and recover from.

Secondly, the European Commission is about to double the budget for Erasmus+ to €30 billion for the next funding period from 2021-27, with €25.9 billion for education and training, €3.1 billion for youth provision and €550 million for sport. This will support three times as many people as the current budget. Why would we want to turn our back on our share of all that? What bad timing indeed if we were to cease being full, continuous members of the programme right now, just as we could have access to this expansion, which could help Her Majesty’s Government fulfil some of their core objectives on social mobility, social justice, regional inequalities and global competitiveness.

Therefore, I implore the Minister and through him the Government to please think again about cutting our ties with Erasmus+, especially right now when so much else is still up for negotiation over the next year. Let us at least hold on to what we know we already have access to, which provides excellent value for money and sends an important message to our young people that we have their future opportunities front of mind. Other non-EU countries which subscribe as full participants in Erasmus+ are Iceland, Liechtenstein, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia and Turkey. I hope the UK will also be one of these after the end of 2020. I honestly believe that this would be the most straightforward, non-controversial, popular tweak to this Bill that the Government could adopt, whether in its current wording or perhaps in the Government’s own name on Report. As long as such an amendment provided for a solid commitment to continued membership of Erasmus+ and eliminated uncertainty, with absolute clarity on the future, I am sure it would be welcomed and appreciated across all sections of society.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 2:30 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for missing the first half minute of his speech in rushing into the Chamber for this debate. I am delighted to support the amendment, which is one of the most important that we have before us. I welcome the speech of the noble Baroness, which brought in the whole dimension of multilingualism and our responsibilities towards the wider world, to show that our minds are open in that way.

A good friend of many of ours in Brussels, Hywel Ceri Jones, was one of the instigators of the original Erasmus programme, which, as has been mentioned, has been developed so that it now reaches and is relevant to far more people. It can therefore exert its influence in a much more beneficial way.

Over the period since the referendum, the Government have stressed that we are—sadly—leaving the European Union but not Europe. Having the Erasmus+ programme available sends a signal that we still want our young people to engage with Europe. That is a two-way process: equally, we want to see the Erasmus+ programme enabling young people from European countries to come to the countries of the United Kingdom. This is a very modest amendment, but it sends a very strong signal and I urge the Government to accept it or at least to come back with some statement or amendment of their own that shows that Erasmus+ will certainly be part of our future.

Photo of Baroness Blower Baroness Blower Labour

My Lords, I was going to make exactly the same point as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley: we are indeed leaving the EU—much to my regret—but not leaving Europe. As a former teacher of modern foreign languages, I am very well aware of the great benefit that students derive from speaking the target language in situ in the country, rather than in the classroom or—heaven forfend—a language laboratory. Speaking a language in the country where it is spoken necessarily involves all those aspects of culture that are so much more difficult to bring into the classroom, where they will sometimes appear slightly artificial. Even though all the points have already been made eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, I wish to associate myself, as a former teacher, with all those remarks.

As I said in my maiden speech, I work extensively with teacher organisations across Europe, not in just the 27 countries that will remain in the EU but also in the other countries mentioned that subscribe to Erasmus+. My colleagues across Europe wonder what is going on in Britain and why we are leaving, but they are also at great pains to say that they are very keen to continue to work with British teachers, and to ensure, in so far as they can—although it is not in their purview—that we remain closely engaged with the Erasmus+ programme.

The budget is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, an enormous amount of money and a huge increase. It would simply be folly for the Government not to remain in this programme to access all those opportunities—at school level, at university level, with apprentices and, indeed, to assist the recruitment of teachers of modern foreign languages, as the noble Baroness said. I know more teachers of modern foreign languages who are no longer in the classroom than I do who are actually teaching. It is a very big problem and I hope the Government will listen to all the wonderful speeches that have been made today, make the very slight amendment to the Bill and determine that we will remain full participants in the Erasmus+ programme.

Photo of The Duke of Somerset The Duke of Somerset Crossbench

My Lords, I too would like to support this amendment. Erasmus has been a most successful EU scheme and benefited 800,000 people in 2017, which seems to be the last year for which statistics are available. It has existed for three decades, benefiting 9 million people in that time. In 2015, the UK received funds of €113 million to implement the scheme.

As we know, it funds students and staff on vocational courses, voluntary work and sports programmes throughout the 28 EU countries. I should declare an interest: one my daughters attended the University of Naples for a year on the scheme and she has gone on to live and work there. In general, the scheme is hugely influential in broadening the education and cultural values of our young, including introducing them to foreign languages, which is not a natural skill for us Britons, as we have heard. When they return home, this knowledge helps them obtain more challenging jobs that benefit our own UK economy. Vice versa, EU students who study here learn to appreciate the British way of life and its values, which they spread back home in a positive manner.

It is hard to overestimate the often life-changing benefits Erasmus has bestowed on those who have participated—from all walks of life, as we have heard. We all gain from this programme and to refuse to commit to trying to continue our participation after IP seems unworthy of this Government and a kick in the teeth for so many aspiring young people.

Photo of Baroness Kingsmill Baroness Kingsmill Labour

My Lords, I started my career living in France in my early 20s, and for the last 10 years I have earned my living in Europe in several different countries. Living and working in Europe has been a very educative experience.

The Erasmus programme is amazing. I have met several young people who have had the opportunity to learn about other countries, and to spread their knowledge of English while acquiring other languages. At a time when we are, through this unfortunate Bill, restricting the abilities of young people to experience living and working abroad, blocking this amendment would be very petty on the part of the Government. They have such a large majority and can do whatever they like, but to penalise young people in this way and to restrict their ability to experience Europe in all its glory is a great pity.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Opposition Whip (Lords) 2:45 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for tabling Amendment 38 and affording me the opportunity to probe the Government’s intentions with regard to excellent Erasmus+ scheme.

As we have heard, the current Erasmus+ scheme has benefited thousands of our young people and given tens of thousands of EU young people the opportunity to spend time in the United Kingdom. Despite previous statements that the UK will consider options for continued participation, the Government may be tempted to make a clean break. That would be a mistake. If we were to leave Erasmus+, current participants would be able to wind up their placements but other young people would be denied the opportunity to study, to work and to volunteer, which has become so commonplace. We on these Benches very much hope that this will not be the case. It would be a huge mistake to walk away from a scheme that has led not just to better employment outcomes but to an increase in the participants’ confidence, independent thinking and cultural awareness.

The Prime Minister has indicated that the UK will seek to continue participating in Erasmus+. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and others who have participated in this debate have said, we support the Prime Minister in that position. I hope the Minister can confirm that this is definitely the Government’s intention, as well as outlining what discussions—if any—have already taken place with the EU 27.

If I may abuse my position for just a second, could the Minister also confirm whether any progress has been made on our continued participation in the Horizon research programme, which is similar in many respects?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, I am pleased to respond to this amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and I will try to respond the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord McNicol, the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins and Lady Blower.

I appreciate that in recent days there has been a great deal of interest in, and confusion about, the UK’s participation in the next Erasmus+ programme. International exchanges are strongly valued by students and staff across the education sector. That is why we published our international education strategy in March 2019, setting out our ambition to increase the value of education exports to £35 billion a year, and to increase the total number of international students hosted by UK universities to 600,000 by 2030. The numbers of international students and EU applications are at record levels. The total number of international students, EU and non-EU combined, studying in the UK increased from 442,000 in 2016-17 to 458,000, and the most recent figure is 486,000 for 2018-19.

The most recent mobility analysis shows that Erasmus accounted for less than half of all mobility activities. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble Lord, Lord McNicol: there is evidence that students who have spent time abroad as part of their degree are more likely to achieve better degree outcomes, improved employment prospects, enhanced language skills and improvements in their confidence and well-being. I must gently point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, however, that it was a Labour Government who removed the requirement that modern foreign languages be a compulsory subject. As soon as that happened, participation collapsed and we have fought hard over the last nine years to increase it.

I would like to clarify the Government’s position and explain why the proposed new clause is unnecessary. As several noble Lords have said, the Prime Minister made it clear at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday that we will continue to participate in the existing programme. Our future participation will be subject to our negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship, but we have in our elected Prime Minister, almost uniquely, a person steeped in European culture. He was educated in Brussels for part of his childhood, at the European School, and is bilingual in French. This is not a person who is going to turn his back on European education and its institutions.

We believe that the UK and European countries should continue to give young people and students opportunities to benefit from each other’s best universities. Our exit from the EU does not change this. As several noble Lords have said, we are not leaving Europe. The withdrawal agreement ensures that UK organisations, students, young people and learners will be able to continue to participate fully in the remainder of the current programme.

On the question of future participation in the next Erasmus programme, which runs from 2021 to 2027, we have been clear that we are open to continued co-operation on education and training with the European Union. We remain open to participation in the programme, but the amendment is not necessary. The next generation of EU programmes, including the proposed regulation for Erasmus 2021-2027, is still being discussed in the EU and has yet to be finalised. How can we comment on something that does not yet exist? The existing scheme is nearly seven years old and as the noble Baronesses, Lady Blower and Lady Coussins, said, the new programme will be different. It will be bigger and, until we see the substance of those proposals, we simply cannot be sure what the next stage of the Erasmus programme will look like. On this basis, it is not realistic for the Government to commit ahead to participation in a programme yet to be defined.

As set out in the political declaration, we have said that if it is in the UK’s interests we will seek to participate in some specific EU programmes as a third country. This includes Erasmus+ but this will of course be a matter for upcoming negotiations arising from our future relationship with the EU. We are considering a range of options with regard to the future of international exchange and collaboration on education training, including potential domestic alternatives. This is a significant moment in our history. In two weeks’ time, we will begin to pivot to become a more outward-facing country. We do not need just an EU university scheme but a much wider one.

I hope that we will have a global programme, encompassing all continents. We have many small schemes. Time is too short here to list them all but I will ask officials to attach an addendum to Hansard. I shall mention one: the Chevening scholarships scheme, which offers some 1,600 postgraduate scholarships and fellowships for potential future leaders. Last year, we doubled the number of scholars coming from Argentina. To celebrate this, I held a dinner for them in Lancaster House and was joined by the Argentinian ambassador—and before noble Lords worry about a taxpayer-funded junket, I can reassure them that I paid for this myself. I did this because I want Britain to have a wider window on the world.

This Government will look carefully at all available opportunities to fund international co-operation on education matters, including with the EU. I hope this explanation demonstrates why the proposed amendment is not necessary and I ask that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, withdraws it.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

The Minister put a lot of emphasis on the Government’s wish to see the offer to students be much broader than just European and to encourage students to go worldwide as well. Does he not acknowledge that the whole point of Erasmus+, as opposed to the original form of Erasmus—without the plus—now means that the programme includes the opportunity for UK students to take up their placements in their year off in countries that are outside the EU, as well as inside it? This is precisely because it is acknowledged that some students may well benefit from a placement in China, Brazil, Turkey or wherever. That is exactly what has been happening with Erasmus+.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I entirely accept what the noble Baroness says but the key principle here is that we cannot offer a blank cheque in the withdrawal Bill to say that we will automatically join a new programme where the details have still not been agreed. However, none of the mood music coming out, including what the Prime Minister said only 24 hours ago, suggests that we are going to turn our backs on the educational institutions of Europe. We want to be part of it. We are in a rapidly globalising world but the point that I want to make to everyone is that we cannot continue to slavishly focus on the EU. This is why we had the referendum and why, at the 2017 election, the manifestos of 85% of MPs supported leaving. We then had three years of chaos in Parliament and now we finally have a decent mandate to do it. That does not mean that we flounce out of Europe, or that we leave the culture and institutions of Europe. I am sure that we will work proactively to maintain close links.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Independent Labour

Does the Minister accept that the Chevening scholarship scheme has absolutely nothing to do with Erasmus? As a former Minister responsible for all post-school education, I am familiar with these schemes. The Chevening scheme is for master’s degree-level programmes and for students coming to the UK; it is not for British students going out to other countries, whether in Europe or elsewhere. Why the Minister’s officials have put this in his speech, and why he does not realise that it has absolutely nothing to do with Erasmus, I simply cannot imagine.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I can answer that. The point is that nearly every Peer who joined the debate on this amendment was mourning the leaving of Europe. Many of them just said, “We are very sad to be leaving the EU”, but we have got to get beyond that. In two weeks’ time, we are going to be an outward-facing country looking to the rest of the world. The reason that I mentioned Chevening—I put it into the speech, not officials—is because I had direct experience of it recently. I was sent to the OECD conference on education in Argentina about 18 months’ ago. I met the Education Minister, and it is those sorts of contacts which will help the future of this country. I accept that Chevening is a master’s degree programme and that it is for high-potential future leaders, but it is about the connection between institutions in our country and other countries.

Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench

The point I made in my speech was that Erasmus does not preclude these arrangements. My nephew was at Swansea University, which had an exchange with Arizona that had nothing to do with Erasmus. Losing Erasmus means that students would lose choices overall; that is the point.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The reassurance that I can give the noble Earl is that we support the value of Erasmus. We are not signalling that we are going to come out of the next version of it, but we cannot offer a blank cheque on a scheme that has yet to be agreed. It will be part of the far wider withdrawal agreements that we foster with the EU over the next 12 months.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. I am sure that he will want to reflect on the comments made by Members in this debate, particularly on the importance of Erasmus to languages and inclusion. I am pleased that he has told us that we are committed to staying in the current Erasmus scheme, as that is important. I would also point out that regarding our ability to engage with—in the phrase the Minister uses—the wider world, these things are not mutually exclusive. There is already a whole host of schemes where young people can go to non-European countries to study; those exist currently. I hope that we can build on those as a nation over future years as well.

The key issue is that while, to some extent, the Minister is right that we do not yet quite know what the new Erasmus programme will look like, if we can give a commitment to be part of it we can be part of forming that new programme, which will, I hope, do some of the things that he has been espousing. I will reflect on what he said and I hope that he will consider what Members have said. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 38 withdrawn.