Higher Education Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 10th February 2004.

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[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 9:10 am, 10th February 2004

I have a few housekeeping announcements. Hon. Members may remove their jackets, and that rule will stand when I am in the Chair. I cannot speak for my co-Chairman.

For the benefit of those beyond the Bar, I should say that it is conceivable that there might be mild interest in later proceedings, so the Public Gallery may fill up, in which case I propose to do what I have done in the past, which is to rope off the far end of the Committee Room to enable members of the public to use the seats on each side. If we reach that stage, hon. Members will need to use the centre Door, including for Divisions. For the comfort and security of all concerned, I also propose to ask the Officials of the House to issue those who are present this morning, who may be presumed to have an interest in all the Bill's proceedings, with some identification or ticket that I shall sign. If we find it necessary to expand the space available to those in the Public Gallery, those with the ticket will be the people asked to sit in the body of the kirk.

I remind the Committee that debate on the programme motion may continue for up to half an hour.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education)

I beg to move,

That—

(1) During proceedings on the Higher Education Bill the Standing Committee (in addition to its first sitting on Tuesday 10th February at 9.10 am) do meet on that day at 2.30 pm, and thereafter on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9.10 am and 2.30 pm, except that the Committee shall not meet on Tuesday 17th February or Thursday 19th February;

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clauses 1 to 13, Schedules 1 and 2, Clause 14, Schedule 3, Clauses 15 and 16, Schedule 4, Clauses 17 to 29, Schedule 5, Clauses 30 to 45, Schedule 6, Clause 46, Schedule 7, Clauses 47 to 50, new Clauses, new Schedules;

(3) the proceedings on Clauses 1 to 13, Schedules 1 and 2, Clause 14, Schedule 3, Clauses 15 and 16, Schedule 4 and Clauses 17 to 20 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 11.25 am on Thursday 12th February;

(4) the proceedings on Clauses 21 to 29, Schedule 5 and Clauses 30 to 38 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 11.25 am on Thursday 4th March;

(5) the remaining proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 5 pm on Thursday 4th March.

I am delighted to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. You have already demonstrated in your opening remarks the sagacity for which you are renowned. When the other four Bills that I have piloted through the House as a Minister started, I had some certainty that we would end up in

Committee, but it is with a particular sense of elation that I open the Committee proceedings today. At one stage, it might have been moderately questionable whether we would reach this stage. I am glad that we have, because it enables us to give the Bill the line-by-line scrutiny that it deserves.

On the programme motion, we believe that with a Bill of 50 clauses, 12 sittings will do justice to the arguments that we need to have. You referred to public interest in the Bill, Mr. Gale, and whereas there have been demonstrations about some aspects of the Bill, there have been none to my knowledge against the arts and humanities research council or the office of the independent adjudicator. This is a good opportunity to concentrate on those issues, although it is fair to say that the real controversy surrounds the fees and the regulator. We have tried to ensure that there is sufficient time to deal with those arguments.

We have also tried to ensure that the devolution of student support to the Welsh Assembly is given time for debate, as it is important to the people of Wales. It is right that the programme motion gives sufficient time for debate, and we think that half a day is sufficient.

I have behind me the creme de la creme of Labour Back Benchers, and I see on the Opposition Benches people of equal esteem, including the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). I have said on many occasions that it is always comforting for a Johnson to have a Boswell opposite. I look forward to our deliberations, and I hope that the Committee will accept the programme motion, which is a sensible attempt to ensure that all the major issues are debated.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

I begin by joining the Minister in saying how much we look forward to proceedings under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and to what will be a lively set of debates. Both you and the Minister were right to note that the Committee might attract slightly more than the usual interest from the wider public in our parliamentary proceedings. That reflects the fact that the Government chose to make the Bill their flagship measure in the Queen's Speech. It was the first piece of legislation that Her Majesty mentioned and, as the Minister said, it caused great speculation outside the House about whether it would receive a Second Reading.

Our problem with the programme motion is that it does not reflect the importance of the Bill or the interest in it that exists outside the House. As an Opposition, we asked for the Committee stage to be taken on the Floor of the House, but we were unable to persuade the Government to do that. We requested, following precedent on very controversial legislation, two days of debate on Second Reading, but we were unsuccessful in persuading the Government of that. We requested full and adequate time for debate in Committee, and our view continues to be that 12 sittings spread over only six days is inadequate. We have on many occasions established that we are not in favour in principle either of programme motions or of knives within them. They inevitably stifle debate and make it difficult to hold proper and full debates on

subjects that may not easily be foreseen as attracting many submissions from outside interest groups, and we are saddened by that situation.

I register our continuing concern and disappointment that the composition of the Committee does not, on the face of it, reflect properly the ruling of ''Erskine May''. The 1997 edition, page 693, states that

''the Committee will always ensure that standing committees reflect the party political composition of the House''.

I am sure that the Government would say that the Committee does so. ''Erskine May'' goes on to state that it should be ensured that

''in the case of bills which divide the House on cross-party lines''— it is difficult to argue that this Bill is not such a Bill—

''the strength of opinion as expressed in any division at second reading is properly reflected''.

You will recollect that the majority on Second Reading for the Bill was only five, Mr. Gale. Pro rata, therefore, the Government should have a majority of only one on the Committee. Depending on how one defines the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who abstained on Second Reading, the Government have a majority of either four or five, which is four or five times greater than ''Erskine May'' states that they should have. I do not intend to prolong the point.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to place his view on the record, but I am sure that he would not want to quarrel with Mr. Speaker's ruling. The composition of the Committee is entirely delegated to the Committee of Selection, which has done its job, and Mr. Speaker has ruled on the Floor of the House that that job was done to his satisfaction. That, I am afraid, must be the end of that matter.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

I am grateful, Mr. Gale. I had not intended to refer to the matter further, and I will not do so.

I recognise that the Minister has enabled us, within the 12 sittings that are provided for by the programme motion, to have the vast majority of our proceedings on what he rightly described as the meat of the legislation, which is the provisions on top-up fees and all the surrounding issues. Although we are not happy with the idea that there are only 12 sittings, I applaud the Minister for having recognised that such issues comprise the bulk of the Bill and the point on which we want to have most discussion. Having registered our general concerns about the programme motion, I am happy to see if other hon. Members wish to comment.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I, too, take the opportunity to welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Gale, and to pass on our congratulations to Mr. Hood who will be your co-Chairman during the proceedings. We have enjoyed working with you before, and I have no doubt that your background in light entertainment will stand you in good stead as you try to direct this hand-picked cast to debate this crucial Bill. We will miss the multi-talented hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) but we look forward to the hon. Member for Westmorland

and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and his hon. Friends putting some flesh on the bones of Conservative policy as we progress through the Bill.

It is interesting that, having complained about the composition and political balance of the Committee, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale conveniently neglected to say that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) was not selected by the Conservatives to be part and parcel of their group. We will miss the views of that hon. Gentleman.

What has emerged from the Labour casting couch is interesting. I understand that they were going to run ''I'm a celebrity, get me in there'' to choose people for the Committee. I am sure that the three Ministers, one Whip and 10 would-be future Ministers will offer something equal to the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown). The hon. Member for Cambridge has not burnt her boats by abstaining on Second Reading, but the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) will have to reappraise his career options after daring to be loyal to his party.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Even by my standards, which are pretty low in light entertainment, the hon. Gentleman has gone off the script. We are discussing the programme motion; I have already ruled on the composition of the Committee.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

You are always so wise on such matters, Mr. Gale, and I will obey your every instruction.

We accept that 12 sittings are probably sufficient to debate the Bill. We accept that the real decisions will sadly not be made in Committee; they will be made on the Floor of the House on Report and Third Reading. We want an early assurance from the Minister that we are not wasting our time in Committee. The Secretary of State's statement, made on the Floor of the House, that this is an everything or nothing Bill makes a mockery of having a debate in Committee, and I hope that the Minister will put us right on that.

We accept that the emphasis of the Bill is the issue of differential fees and the future of the university system. We are grateful to the Minister for recognising that and putting aside the bulk of the time for a thorough examination of the effects of top-up fees on the future of the higher education system. However, other key elements of the Bill are important. We welcome the new arts and humanities research council, and particularly the huge grant from the Secretary of State for the research of medieval history. We are also interested in student complaints. That has been regarded as a non-contentious element of the Bill, but it has significant effects. We hope that the Minister will keep an open mind when considering some of the amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and I have tabled.

Having said that, we are anxious to start debating the Bill. We intend to co-operate with the Government, and hope to improve this bad Bill. We hope that by the time the Bill has passed through the Committee, under your excellent leadership Mr. Gale, it will be worthy of debate on the Floor of the House, to be ultimately defeated.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Constitutional Affairs)

I echo the remarks already made by members of the Committee about your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I will not abuse your wisdom by speaking at length about the following matter when I would much rather debate the substance of the Bill. However, instead of intervening on my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, I wanted simply to record one point about the timing. The problem with the breakneck speed of Government legislation is that it provides scant time for reflection and preparation by the excellent bodies that prepare work, amendments and arguments for members of the Committee. It provides even less time for members of the Committee to reflect on that work. For this to be a real process, and not merely a shallow appearance of one, Ministers require time for the arguments to sink in.

I respect the Minister, who has been personally kind to me, for his attention to the arguments. Ministers, and all members of the Committee, must be able to consider what is said and to allow the debate to evolve. I can tell hon. Members, including Government Members, who may firmly support Government policy—there will be a few—that there will be points of difficulty worthy of consideration in all clauses, including those that appear non-contentious. I think that the common wish of members of the Committee, whether or not they like the legislation, is to ensure that it works as well as it can. We have to work within time constraints, as has happened on other Bills, but that will probably unnecessarily constrict the process in this case. In the manner of the serpent that swallows the chicken, if an issue is not dealt with immediately, it will have to be stored for further consideration on Report or perhaps in another place. I am not sure that that is the best and most efficient way to do business.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale, and I am grateful for the chance to make a brief contribution. I am slightly concerned because the Minister, in saying that he believed that the last half-day would be sufficient to consider the remaining clauses, mentioned that he thought that the important part of that would relate to Wales. I should hate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who is on the Front Bench, to think that I thought that Wales was in any sense unimportant, but it was our feeling that the issue to do with Wales was comparatively non-controversial and therefore might not take up too much time, important though it is.

If the Minister really thinks that most of the last half-day will be taken up purely with the Welsh clause, that will mean that we cannot spend much time on the bankruptcy clause, which is also important, on other clauses to do with information, to which we have tabled amendments, and on the three new clauses, all of which also come under that part of the knife. I hope that he will reassure us that he does not expect to spend all that time on Wales; otherwise, we might need to extend the time.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education)

I do not accept the point made by the hon. Member for Daventry that we are moving at breakneck speed. The Bill has 50 clauses and involves controversial issues, but I think that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have agreed that we have allowed enough time for them to be considered. We published the Bill on 8 January, a year after we published the White Paper that contains virtually every element of the Bill. Nothing has changed in that respect, so we cannot be accused of moving at breakneck speed. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) comment from a sedentary position. He has asked me a parliamentary question, the answer to which will detail how much has changed from the White Paper since January 2003. The answer will be ''zilch'', but will be couched in much more elegant terms.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

The regulatory impact assessment says explicitly at a number of points that measures in the White Paper have been dropped.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education)

I delete ''zilch''. There are a few minor issues, which will be fully explained in my answer to the hon. Gentleman's written question.

No one from our ranks who opposed the Bill applied to be on the Committee. I will not take that point any further, because I respect your ruling, Mr. Gale, but we needed to make that point in response to the points that were made with regard to ''Erskine May''.

On the points made by the hon. Member for Newbury, I emphasised the position of Wales, but we have allowed half a day for the whole of part 4 of the Bill, which includes the issue of bankruptcy. I fully accept that that is an element and I suggest that we will not spend that full half-day purely on Welsh issues. The hon. Gentleman is probably right that little controversy surrounds those issues, although we shall see when we reach that part. I should have mentioned that the bankruptcy issue is equally important, as are other clauses in part 4. Half a day is sufficient to debate the whole of that part.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 18, Noes 6.

Division number 1 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 3 - Creation of combined fire and rescue authorities: supplementary

Aye: 18 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill; copies of the resolution are available in the Room. I also remind hon. Members that adequate notice must be given of any amendments. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call any starred amendments, including starred amendments that may be reached in the course of an afternoon sitting of the Committee.Clause 1 Arts and Humanities Research Council