Amendment 16

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 20th January 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Lord Storey:

Moved by Lord Storey

16: After Clause 30, insert the following new Clause—“Parliamentary oversight: Erasmus After section 13B of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (certain dispute procedures under withdrawal agreement), insert—“13D Parliamentary oversight: ErasmusAny arrangements for Parliamentary oversight of progress in negotiations on the future relationship must include negotiations on UK participation in Erasmus 2021–27.””

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

My Lords, this amendment would ensure that there is parliamentary oversight of the UK’s participation in the next Erasmus programme. In Committee, I was taken with the strength of feeling from Members across the House about this jewel in our education system. I think the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, made the point that it is really important to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it is also important for volunteering, studying, apprentices and so forth.

There was concern that there seemed to be mixed messages coming from the Government. On the one hand, we had a comment I think in Schools Week from the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson; on the other, we heard from our Prime Minister that there was no threat to the Erasmus programme. The Minister himself, in the wind-up to the debate, played a very straight bat in that he acknowledged the importance of this programme. He reminded us that those students who are engaged spent some time abroad as part of this programme; they are more likely to achieve better degree outcomes, to enhance their language skills and to improve their employment prospects. That is not something to throw away lightly.

The Minister also made the point that while we are committed to the current Erasmus programme, the next Erasmus programme will be part of negotiations. He reminded me recently that we are net contributors to the programme and so have some leverage in this. We understand that there are going to be discussions, that the Government support this programme and that they want to get the best possible deal for young people. We also understand that there are other programmes involving not just European countries but countries throughout the world. However, it would be helpful if the Minister indicated that your Lordships would give some sort of oversight to the work that goes on in securing the successor to the Erasmus programme. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, this is a very slimmed down amendment compared to what we debated in Committee last week. Nevertheless, it provides some degree of certainty that Erasmus would at least be a prominent and visible issue on the Government’s agenda as we negotiate the details of our departure from the EU over the next year. That should provide some comfort, especially to universities and all the young people aspiring and hoping to become students or apprentices over the next few years.

In Committee, the Minister put forward a couple of specific reasons for his caution about signing up as full members to the next stage of Erasmus+. One was that not enough information was yet available about what the next phase of Erasmus+ would look like, between 2021 and 2027. However, in my contribution to that debate I set out detailed information about exactly what the budget for the next phase would be. There is already an agreed budget with minute details of exactly how much would be allocated to specific areas of education and training, and to vocational activities. This is good enough for the 27 EU member states and for the six other countries that have signed up as non-EU members of Erasmus+, so I am still rather puzzled as to why it is not good enough for us, when we know that Erasmus has been so beneficial up to now.

The second reason advanced by the Minister was that the Government want to expand their mindset from being just Europe-focused to being more global. Absolutely right, but again, as I said in Committee, Erasmus+ does precisely that. The “plus” refers to the fact that the programme now enables students and other young people to take up placements, activities and projects across the world, not just within the EU. Erasmus+ is already completely in line with the policies and statements of Her Majesty’s Government as expressed in the last week by the Department for Education and the Prime Minister. Conversely, without Erasmus, we will do measurable and serious damage to education, trade, diplomacy, defence and security over the longer term. These are all areas where language skills are increasingly vital.

Erasmus+ and this amendment do absolutely nothing to frustrate this Bill or our departure from the European Union. Again, I ask the Government to be consistent with their own statements, and to be magnanimous and adopt this very modest amendment.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, I will not repeat what I said in Committee, but I support the amendment. More than that, I want to ask the Minister whether he can give a firm assurance that if a reasonable deal can be reached in the negotiations—I realise that no Government can give the ultimate commitment until the ink is dry—it would be the Government’s ambition to make the maximum possible part of Erasmus+ available to young people in the United Kingdom and to welcome young people from other parts of Europe and the rest of the world to the United Kingdom under the auspices of Erasmus+. It would reassure the House if a fairly firm indicator could be given tonight, and it would give us some comfort as we move ahead.

Photo of Lord Smith of Finsbury Lord Smith of Finsbury Non-affiliated

My Lords, I declare my interest as Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge. I support the amendment for the principal reason that parliamentary oversight will be a constant reminder to the Government of the importance of participation in the Erasmus programme. Over its 30 years, Erasmus has helped some 3 million students across Europe in all. It is enormously valuable. For our students who have the opportunity to take part in exchanges across Europe, it enriches their education and fulfils their desire to have the best possible experience of life and the world.

One of the things that distresses me most about the Brexit process we have embarked upon is that it fundamentally undermines what I thought our country was all about: having an international spirit and opening our arms to the rest of the world. We are abandoning that. If our politics abandon it, please do not remove that spirit from our students—who are, after all, the hope for a better future than the one we are currently imposing on them.

Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench

My Lords, I want to address a few of the things said by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, in his reply to last week’s debate on Erasmus in Committee.

First, he spent some time talking about the UK’s global programme. Great; let us have more such partnerships. But those partnerships are irrelevant to this debate for the simple reason that Erasmus does not affect those independent programmes in any way. Erasmus does not stop us having such partnerships, so I hope that the Minister does not go down that route again in his reply.

Secondly, perhaps the most worrying thing that the Minister said was that

“it is not realistic for the Government to commit ahead to participation in a programme yet to be defined.”

I agree with what my noble friend Lady Coussins and the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said: just on the basis of its proven record over 33 years, we can be 100% sure that the next iteration of Erasmus will also provide immense opportunities for British students. So why the doubt? Perhaps the Minister can tell us. He said:

“We do not need just an EU university scheme but a much wider one.”—[Official Report, 16/1/20; col. 872.]

That is fine, but does the Minister not believe that that is what we already have—and, indeed, that it can continue to expand on a global basis without losing Erasmus? Erasmus should be part of that global network.

Lastly, I stress again that it is the misconception of some that Erasmus is for richer students. As I said in the debate last week, former participants in the programme testify to how important Erasmus was for them as students from poorer backgrounds. It is clearly a great privilege to be an Erasmus student, but you do not have to be from a privileged background to be one.

In last week’s debate, the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, summed up perfectly what the loss of the programme would mean, saying that it would be a

“kick in the teeth for so many aspiring young people.”—[Official Report, 16/1/20; col. 870.]

I hope that the Minister can assure us that negotiations on Erasmus will be backed on our part by a serious intent to stay a member of a programme that opens up horizons for so many of our young people.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Further & Higher Education) 8:45 pm, 20th January 2020

My Lords, in Committee my noble friend Lord McNicol joined in the general support for the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. That support remains today from these Benches.

I shall not repeat the arguments that noble Lords have more ably made in this short debate, but I read the debate on the amendment carefully. The Minister probably feels he went as far as he could in trying to reassure the Committee that the Government were not about to pull the plug on support for Erasmus+. I am not sure that he has. First, the Prime Minister made a commitment that:

“UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/1/20; col. 1021.]

However, that commitment seems qualified by the comments made by the Secretary of State for Education, who has talked of developing

“our own alternative arrangements should they be needed.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/1/20; col. 912.]

That rather suggests that our participation is still very much in flux, a point that the Minister underlined when he said that participation would be

“subject to our negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship.”—[Official Report, 16/1/20; col. 871.]

The Minister also repeatedly reminded us that the outline of Erasmus+ for 2021 to 2027 has yet to be finalised, so that there is not yet a programme to sign up to, but we know that the programme is set to double its expansiveness and cost over that period. In Committee, the Minister set out the Government’s ambition that by 2030 the UK would be hosting 600,000 international students and that the value of educational exports would by that point reach £35 billion a year.

Exactly how does the Minister expect to achieve those objectives and that ambition if we are not participants in the Erasmus+ programme? The start date for the next programme is 2021. We are now less than 12 months away from it kicking off. This is precisely when institutions make programme commitments and students begin to plan their study schedules. Both my daughters began to plan well in advance of their university exchange schemes. I hasten to add that they were not Erasmus+, but were programmes involving US universities. I know from experience that these things take time to set up and carry through and that the last thing that participants, whether they are institutions or students, want is uncertainty. It is the same with business: business wants certainty.

I think the Minister could this evening give a firmer commitment without compromising the Government’s negotiating position, not least because we are net beneficiaries from the scheme overall. Can he at least advise the House whether the Government have made financial provision for the next Erasmus programme and, if not, whether it will be included in the upcoming Budget? Can he at least give the House an outline of the Erasmus negotiation timetable so that universities and students have some idea of when these issues will be resolved?

Finally I take this opportunity to tweak the Minister on a point which my noble friend Lord McNicol raised in the previous debate about the Horizon 2020 research programme. To my way of looking at things, it is in a similar state of limbo with a fast- approaching cliff edge. Can we please have some news on progress on that programme? It is in many ways part of Erasmus+, because research and study travel are very much linked. I think the House deserves to know exactly where we are heading with both those policies.

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 the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Amendment 16 seeks to introduce parliamentary oversight requirements that the Government feel are unnecessary. I will try not to go over all the points we discussed last week in Committee.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that the Prime Minister has already given a strong commitment at Second Reading in the Commons on 20 December. He said:

“Parliament will be kept fully informed of progress of these negotiations.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/12/19; col. 150.]

That is extremely important.

I shall address the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Smith, about oversight. In the past few years both Houses have demonstrated that they have a wide range of tools at their disposal to scrutinise the Government, including through Ministerial Questions and debates. Indeed, as I am relatively new to these procedures, I asked my office to tell me how many tools were available for the oversight of a Government by Parliament and I was given a list of over 20. They might not all be applicable here but we heard some useful statistics on Amendment 15 from my noble friend Lord Bridges, and the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, made a similar comment—that there is a tremendous ability for oversight. I am sure that both Houses will continue to use these scrutiny tools to hold our Government to account and will pay close attention to the negotiation process, not least as the Government’s vision for the future relationship with the EU is already set out in the political declaration. There is therefore no need to set out in this Bill bespoke oversight requirements specifically for Erasmus+.

The Government have already been clear about their position on Erasmus+ and have stated that they remain open to future participation in the next programme. However, there are a number of important uncertainties that prevent them making firm commitments at this stage—not least that, until we see the final substance and text of the Erasmus+ programme and the regulations that are still under discussion in Brussels, we cannot be sure what the next stage of the programme will look like.

I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, a timetable because the cake is still in the oven—there is still a lot of uncertainty. Several noble Lords mentioned the sum of money involved. I was briefed that the amount could be anywhere between double and treble, and that is in the context that some €14.5 billion has been spent on the current scheme in the last seven years. Therefore, these are colossal sums of money.

I fully recognise that the UK’s potential participation in the next programme is of particular interest and importance to noble Lords. I assure the House that its voice and views are being, and will continue to be, heard. I reiterate our reassurance that this Government strongly value international exchange and collaboration in education as part of our vision for global Britain. We believe that the UK and European countries should continue to give young people and students opportunities to benefit from each other’s world-leading universities. I mentioned last week the increase in the number of foreign students coming here over the last three years. However, as mentioned, we are waiting to see the full details of the new arrangements.

On a personal level, my son attends a foreign university and is looking at his own exchange arrangements as we speak. We discussed last week the power of these exchange programmes for young people. I do not think that we are arguing about very much. The difference in the debate is that noble Lords are seeking stronger commitments to bind the Government than we believe we can agree to.

I trust that that explanation and our wider reassurance demonstrate why the amendment is not necessary at this time. I therefore ask the noble Lord, Lord Storey, to withdraw it.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Further & Higher Education)

Can the noble Lord address my budget question? Is money in the current Budget committed to the future Erasmus+ programme, and is this something that the Chancellor will address in the upcoming Budget?

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

I am sure that noble Lords will not be surprised to hear me say that that is a matter for the spending review, which will take place in the summer. However, I would be very surprised if there were not a commitment to that kind of expenditure.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Further & Higher Education)

In that case, perhaps the noble Lord would care to write to me on the budget that is currently set aside for Erasmus+ in the next financial year.

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

I am certainly very happy to share with the noble Lord any information that I get on the spending review when it is available, but I suspect that I will not be privy to that any sooner that he will be.

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

My Lords, as Universities UK, or UK universities, have said, it would be impossible for a replacement for Erasmus to match the reputation, brand awareness and sheer scale of the current programme. Therefore, we lose Erasmus at our peril. I hear what the Minister says and understand that his hands are tied to some extent, but I do not think that young people in particular will forgive us if we lose Erasmus. I was interested to hear about the oversight tools and scrutiny, and the Minister can rest assured that your Lordships will use them to the full. I hope that he can keep us up to date and informed of progress. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 16 withdrawn.

Consideration on Report adjourned.

House adjourned at 8.55 pm.