Clause 13 - Designation of operator of student complaints scheme

Higher Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 12th February 2004.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 32, in

clause 13, page 5, line 24, leave out 'corporate'.

No. 174, in

clause 13, page 5, line 28, after 'a', insert 'person or'.

No. 175, in

clause 13, page 5, line 29, after second 'the', insert 'person or'.

No. 176, in

clause 13, page 5, line 37, after 'a', insert 'person or'.

No. 177, in

clause 13, page 5, line 39, after first 'the', insert 'person or'.

No. 178, in

clause 13, page 5, line 43, after 'a', insert 'person or'.

No. 179, in

clause 13, page 5, line 45, after 'the', insert 'person or'.

No. 180, in

clause 13, page 6, line 2, after 'the', insert 'person or'.

No. 155, in

schedule 1, page 24, line 8, leave out 'body corporate' and insert 'person'.

No. 133, in

schedule 1, page 24, line 8, leave out 'corporate'.

No. 156, in

schedule 1, page 24, line 9, at end insert

'and is appointed Higher Education Ombudsman'.

No. 157, in

schedule 1, page 24, line 11, leave out 'body corporate' and insert 'person'.

No. 134, in

schedule 1, page 24, line 11, leave out 'corporate'.

No. 251, in

clause 18, page 7, line 12, leave out 'specified person' and insert 'body corporate'.

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

You will be delighted to hear, Mr. Gale, that I am not going to speak to every amendment individually. [Interruption.] Well, if the Under-Secretary insists, I can do.

With these amendments, I seek to know why the Government are to introduce an Office of the Independent Adjudicator, rather than an ombudsman service. I have the support of the National Unions of Students, NATFHE and the Association of University Teachers, all of which are interested in exploring the idea of having an ombudsman for education services, rather than simply an Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Our discussions on clause 12, particularly those about applications, clearly lead us toward the introduction of an ombudsman service rather than the very limited OIA. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North is not in his place, because the debate will deal with the issue that he raises in amendment No. 186, which would amend clause 14.

The advantages of introducing an ombudsman service are simple. First, it would be provided outside the university system, and would be financed by the Government rather than the universities. Secondly, it would be in line with other ombudsman services in local government, Parliament, and the financial services. Thirdly, it would have widespread support from the public, students and academic staff.

I want to explore why the Under-Secretary refuses to go down that road and why the Government have turned themselves against it. Whether we like it or not, higher education is entering a ''commercial market''. I did not invent that phrase; it was first used by the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) when she was Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education. She proudly announced that she wanted to see a market in higher education. She also said that some universities would go to the wall. That is what happens in a market—and the services provided by those universities disappear. It seems strange that we should have an independent ombudsman for financial services who deals with a complicated market

reasonably well. We are now moving to an educational services market, and I suggest that we ought to go down the same road. Admissions problems would clearly fit neatly into an ombudsman service.

A potential undergraduate contacted me recently to say that Cambridge university would not offer her a place to read medicine because she could not find the £50,000 necessary to guarantee her a place. It is appalling that a person who is entitled to student support funding and dependent on it should be turned away at the door because of her poverty. Allegedly, the master of the college said that he could not risk having students from a poor background reading medicine in case they were distracted by their poverty and because they might ask the college for financial assistance.

I cannot say whether that is a realistic position, or whether it is borne out by the facts. As a result of the Bill, however, that person will have no recourse other than to go to court or to apply for judicial review. By definition, if she is not on a course because she is poor and does not have the resources to do so, how on earth can she afford to go to court? An ombudsman service would be able to deal with that complaint easily and without cost to the individual or to the institution, and the result would be satisfactory for both parties.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

Without questioning the veracity of the hon. Gentleman's statement, I wonder what attempts he has made to check the information with the college. In defence of the university, which I represent, it probably has one of the best student support schemes for deprived students. Those from a low-income background who want to go to Cambridge university will be extremely well supported. It is a myth that Cambridge is an expensive university for such people; I find it difficult to accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. The Committee will know that it is my custom always to allow a reasonably wide-ranging debate, but even by my generous standards the debate is beginning to get a little wider than this large group of amendments.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 11:00 am, 12th February 2004

The hon. Lady will remember that I made the specific comment that we cannot do anything unless we have all the facts. The purpose of raising that example was to explore the idea of having an ombudsman rather than an independent adjudicator. I look forward to the Under-Secretary's response.

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

This is an important group of amendments. The point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough deserves a considered ministerial response. Why have the Government decided to create an Office of the Independent Adjudicator rather than an ombudsman? We all deal with local government ombudsmen and the parliamentary ombudsman. I am sure that there will be no party political difference on the matter; the ombudsmen are regarded as having operated successfully.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in making his case, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough took the example of the £50,000 for Cambridge at face value? We all like to use examples to advance our causes, but there is no evidence that there is any truth in that case.

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

I am extremely keen to stay in order, Mr. Gale, so all that I shall say is that there will be discussions and possibly an exchange of correspondence between the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough and for Cambridge. I would welcome the provision of that correspondence, when it is completed, to all Committee members. We should like to know the facts.

To return to the amendment, I was trying to build on the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough about the case for an ombudsman model rather than the model that the Government have chosen. There may be detailed, sensible and thought-through reasons for the Government having chosen the latter. I suspect that, in part, they will relate to their legitimate wish to build upon the arrangements that are being put in place by the university sector. This might be an example of their genuinely seeking not to be over-prescriptive and over-interventionist, but to put on to a statutory basis the arrangements that the universities have established.

The model that the Under-Secretary advances has the warm support of Universities UK but, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough rightly pointed out, other groups and organisations with a great deal of involvement in higher education would prefer a different model. It would be welcome if the Under-Secretary could explain why the Government have gone for one model rather than the other. Could he go beyond that and indicate that they are prepared to keep the matter under review?

The Government are understandably unlikely to introduce a new higher education Bill in the next six months or so—I suspect that that would not commend itself to the Cabinet or to Education Ministers—so we can safely assume that this will be their only piece of higher education legislation for some time. Therefore, I suggest that they review the matter not after six or 12 months, but in the short period beyond 12 months and before the next election. After that, they will not have to worry about such matters.

If, during that short period, the Government were able to assess whether their model were working successfully or whether the ombudsman model would have proved superior, that would be welcome. We know that, to an extent, we are legislating on the basis of hope rather than of knowledge. I hope that, if the model is put in place, it will work. It is not in anybody's interest for there to be a period, however brief, in which something relating to higher education is less than wholly successful. If the provisions do not work, it would be helpful for the Under-Secretary to say at this stage that the Government would keep matters under review and would be prepared, should they want to introduce further legislation, to amend anything that might prove—however surprisingly—unsuccessful.

Finally, I want to refer our amendments, which are along the same lines but not identical to those tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. Our amendments would delete the word ''corporate'' from ''body corporate''. That is in part designed to tease out why the Under-Secretary has decided to go for the corporate body model.

There are a number of respects in which it is sensible for the OIA to be an organisation with several people working for it. We understand that it is therefore likely to be a body as opposed to an individual, although the ombudsman model demonstrates that it is possible to have an individual with named responsibility with researchers and others working for him. However, if it is to be a body, why do the Government feel so strongly that it needs to be a body corporate? What are the implications of that phraseology, with its well established role in commercial and practical law?

What do the Government expect the office to do initially or down the line? Do they have proposals that would enable or expect the OIA to get involved in other activities over a period of years? In other words, is the provision intended to leave the door open for other measures in due time, is it being introduced because it is standard phraseology, or has it been specifically requested by the existing voluntary arrangements set up by the universities? It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary could clarify that point.

Our amendments are largely intended to be probing amendments. It would be interesting, however, to see whether the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough wishes to press his amendment to a vote. We shall wait and see. I am sure that he and other members of the Committee will wait with anticipation for the Under-Secretary's reply.

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

I shall not detain the Committee and prevent it from hearing the Under-Secretary's response, except to say that I am attracted by what might be termed an evolutionary approach. I do not in principle bristle at the way in which the Government are handling the matter. I am mindful of the phrase of the Chinese political leader who said that he did not mind what colour cat it was so long as it caught mice. We want this body to work and to be as effective as possible.

I simply flag up to the Under-Secretary—he may not be able to respond in detail to all the concerns, and I sense that time means that he will not be able to respond at all in a few minutes—my strong wish that the OIA should be adequately resourced for the work load that is undertaken and that it should be timely in its conclusions. To return to the previous debate, if it is necessary to sling out a complaint because it is not within scope, that should be made clear to the student as soon as possible.

May I add a further point that in a sense hangs on the schedules? Deliberations and explanations should be given in writing, but there should also be an account of the step process that has been taken so that—for example, in relation to our debate on whether the issue regarding disability involved an academic or another

kind of judgment—it should be made clear in the adjudicator's thought process why he reached his conclusion.

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

My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is just conceivable in the remaining 11 minutes that we may not get through all the remaining clauses and schedules before the Government's knife comes down. He has made it clear that it would be helpful to all members of the Committee and to many others outside if on this point—and I think he would join me in saying that it would also be helpful on the other points that we may not get to—the Government could publish and circulate the guidance that they would have been able to make available had there been sufficient time for the debate.

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

May I conclude my remarks by endorsing what my hon. Friend said? I think there is a consensus in the Committee that we should proceed with the body and give it a fair wind, but that it should work effectively. The last thing we want is to be messing about in 12 months' or two years' time because there are doubts about its ability to discharge the role that the Government have given it.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

This is my first substantive contribution to the debate. Like others before me, I should like to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale, and say what a great pleasure it will be to serve under you.

This is going to be a brief contribution, because the Committee wants to hear the Under-Secretary's response, but I should like to add my voice in support of what has been said so far. I also support the spirit of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, which, as he put it, would have the merit of clearing up a lot of the current misperceptions.

We shall discuss cost and expense in due course, but I can endorse and add to the hon. Gentleman's example from Cambridge university, with an example from the Royal Veterinary college. Its students in my constituency face considerable debts as a result of undertaking a five-year course and are worried that poorer students will be deterred.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

It is probably helpful if I make a commitment to ensure that all members of the Committee have a copy of the guidance relating to the scheme. Because of the time factor, we shall not be able to cover all the clauses.

In response to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, I would ask him to provide evidence when he cites individual cases, so that we can investigate the veracity of the allegations. That is important, because people might otherwise be unreasonably deterred from going to university, which is not what he wants. Such claims should be supported by evidence.

The hon. Gentleman referred to marketisation and suggested that the fact that we are establishing a body corporate to act as the body considering complaints is an illustration of the marketisation of higher education. Not only is that nonsense, but the OIA or any successor organisation would not be able to make

any profit on its activities, and would have the capacity only to recover costs for performing its role. His claim about markestisation is extremely wide of the mark.

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

The Under-Secretary is proceeding under a total misapprehension, as that is not what I said. My point is that we are having a market in higher education, not that the adjudicator will be marketed, which would be ridiculous.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

We were discussing the adjudicator and the nature of the body corporate when the hon. Gentleman went on about marketisation, so I am entitled to draw the conclusion that he was trying to make that link, which he often does, and not always with justification. He also alluded to the National Union of Students and its views on the proposals, but the NUS is part of the board, has significant representation on it and actively supports the model that we are seeking to enshrine in legislation.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked why we have chosen the route that we have, but in a sense we have not done so. The Government have responded to the higher education sector's reaction to the pressure that has been applied and to the reports that have been produced by establishing a self-regulatory framework. I would have thought that the Opposition, with their ''I believe'' stuff, would welcome the fact that the Government seek to build on a self-regulatory framework that the entire sector supports, rather than intervening to create a different model that the Government might regard as more appropriate. We simply seek to reflect the progress that the sector has made.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to my commitment and that of my hon. Friends to a future higher education Bill. I have had a positive and pleasurable experience over the last few days, so I am sure that we would be delighted to consider such a Bill. However, it is all very well for him to talk about that, since his party would not be able to introduce such a Bill because it does not even have a policy on higher education, other than to abolish all fees, cut public expenditure and spend more than us on the national health service. Now there's a credible manifesto for the next election from the Conservative party.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale 11:15 am, 12th February 2004

I want to stay in order, Mr. Gale, so I ask through you whether the Under-Secretary believes that it was entirely wise for him to talk about manifesto commitments when discussing the amendments.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

Yes, Mr. Gale. I have every confidence that when the people of this country make the choice that they will have to make in the next 18 months, that choice will be clearer than ever. [Interruption.] I am told by sources close to the Prime Minister that it is likely to be in the next two years.

The choice of model builds on the choice that the sector has established. I want to make it clear that the Bill contains powers to enable us to ask the designated operator to review the existing model to see whether it

is still appropriate if the processes that we seek to establish are not working satisfactorily. However, we do not expect that to be a problem. Given the calibre of the board and its representative nature, as the hon. Member for Daventry confirmed, as well as the splendid choice of adjudicator, members of the Committee should express their confidence that this is the appropriate structure at this stage to handle complaints.

Importantly, the board has the power to choose the adjudicator, and the operator will decide membership of the board. Therefore, day-to-day interference by the Secretary of State in the activities of the organisation will be minimal. A considerable amount of work has been done across the sector to ensure that this model is appropriate. The Bill contains provisions to enable us to revisit the issue if hon. Members or others become extremely dissatisfied with the way in which the model is working, but we do not believe that there will be any need to change the model in the foreseeable future. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough to withdraw the amendment.

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

I thank the Under-Secretary for his response. Sadly, he did not explain why there should not be an ombudsman service. He gave reasons for setting up this service, so why not set up an ombudsman service? Not to do so is a pity. This is the last time that we can speak on part 2, and Members will leave the Committee rather dissatisfied with the Under-Secretary's responses to concerns about the complaints system. Many types of student and staff complaint will go totally unnoticed as a result of this Bill. I am sure that we will revisit these issues on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 33, in

clause 13, page 5, line 26, leave out subsection (2).

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 34, in

clause 13, page 5, line 28, leave out 'or the Assembly'.

No. 35, in

clause 13, page 5, line 29, leave out 'or the Assembly'.

No. 36, in

clause 13, page 5, line 37, leave out 'or the Assembly'.

No. 37, in

clause 13, page 5, line 40, leave out 'or the Assembly'.

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

The amendments relate to matters that we debated when my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) was present at our sittings earlier this week. They deal with issues such as including in the Bill provisions relating to the transfer of responsibilities to the Welsh Assembly. The arguments advanced then are still worthy of the Government's consideration.

In passing, I must say that I am concerned that we are unlikely to have the time, however briefly I speak now, to consider seven more clauses and two schedules. That reiterates the wisdom of our concern about the Government's decision to timetable only 12 sittings.

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

I take it from the hon. Gentleman's intervention that Plaid Cymru does not support our amendment. I suspect, however, that there will be a growing momentum of support for many other amendments tabled from time to time in this and other Committees as the arguments are advanced. Indeed, had it been possible for me to speak for more than another 30 seconds—

It being twenty minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman put the Question necessary under the terms of the programme resolution to complete the business.

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

Can we take the clauses and schedules individually, Mr. Gale?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

No. Perhaps I should have explained that this is one question. It may be voted against in its entirety, but not in part.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clauses 15 and 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clauses 17 to 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Derek Twigg.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Eleven o'clock till this day at half-past Two o'clock.