My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on securing time for a Second Reading of his Bill. I know this is not the first time he has tried to bring forward legislation in this area, and I applaud his long-standing interest in combatting the scourge of cheating services. The Government are also grateful for his continued work with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s academic integrity advisory group on this important issue.
I am also grateful to other noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon. Although only a few people have taken part, I know that this is a matter of interest across your Lordships’ House—the noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, as one example. There is also great interest in another place, where my right honourable friend Chris Skidmore introduced a Bill last Session. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Storey, has seen Mr Skidmore’s article in the Times today expressing his support for his work and for the Bill.
Her Majesty’s Government welcome the Bill and sympathise with the issues it highlights. As the noble Lord noted, it is a government manifesto commitment to improve the quality and standards of higher education, which includes upholding academic integrity. The growing availability of cheating services, which, as noble Lords have noted, often use sophisticated and insidious online advertising, puts vulnerable students at risk and threatens the reputation of our world-class higher education sector.
As noble Lords have powerfully expressed, it is reprehensible for essay mill companies to profit from a dishonest business that exploits young people’s anxiety and can undermine our world-class institutions. In some cases, the consequences can be widespread and long-lasting, for example, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, pointed out, where it can lead to graduates entering a profession in which they have not demonstrated competence to practise. I concur with the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that I would not want to cross a bridge that had been designed by an incorrectly qualified engineer. She is also right to highlight the threat of blackmail of the students who use these services. People should graduate from university having learned to apply their knowledge and skills to a high and genuine standard. Circumventing that not only is immoral, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, but devalues the hard work of those who have succeeded on their own merit.
The Government have consistently made it clear that using these services is unacceptable, and we have worked with the sector to clamp down on them. We are clear that a multifaceted, collaborative approach is required to tackle this growing and global problem. Since 2017 in particular, the Government have been working with the sector on a series of actions to deal with cheating services. We challenged companies from the tech sector to identify how anti-cheating software can tackle the growth of essay mills, and we have worked alongside the QAA, Universities UK and the National Union of Students to produce guidance for providers and students. Despite that work, cheating services remain prevalent. I have not read the paper that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, cited, but she is right that the QAA reports an increase in the number of academic writing sites in operation, with nearly 1,000 websites now listed on one particular access site.
It is clear that there is a strong case for supporting institutions to address this matter robustly. We have much sympathy with the noble Lord’s aims through his Bill and would welcome further discussion with him about it. I am also happy to meet to talk about the specific concerns he raised about ongoing abuse in this area.
Some of the Bill’s provisions need careful attention. My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes mentioned just a couple when she raised the question of the definition of “higher education providers” and “provision of services”, and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss those with the noble Lord, but I appreciate that he has brought forward the Bill in the spirit of seeking to find a solution to the problem, which concerns noble Lords from right across the House. It has the potential, particularly as part of a wider approach, to reduce the number of essay mills in operation. It would also send a clear sign to students and the companies themselves that this activity is illegal.
My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes asked whether it was right to focus solely on higher education. We think that at present we need to target where there is clear evidence of a problem, and the evidence suggests that higher education is the area of highest risk.
Some noble Lords mentioned the international action that has been taken. Similar legislation has been introduced in several countries, including the Republic of Ireland in 2019 and Australia last year. Emerging evidence in both those jurisdictions suggests that those laws are deterring essay mills from providing services to students, and regulators there have reported that having the legislation has provided them with more tools to engage students, higher education providers and cheating services, and that it has given them additional routes to tackle the problem.
I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his work in bringing the Bill forward and allowing your Lordships’ House the opportunity to consider these matters again today. It is an important and timely Bill that needs to be considered carefully to maximise its effectiveness but, alongside a continued and collaborative effort with the sector to deter, detect and address contract cheating, it is one that could enable us to face the problem head-on.