Clause 21 - Meaning of ''plan'' etc.

Higher Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 12th February 2004.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest 2:30 pm, 12th February 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 255, in

clause 21, page 8, line 27, leave out

'or a Welsh approved plan'.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 256, in

clause 21, page 8, leave out line 29.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

May I say in the traditional way, as it is my first opportunity to do so, what a pleasure it is to serve on a Committee under your excellent chairmanship, Mr. Hood? I will say from the outset for the avoidance of doubt that, if one reads clause 21 as amended by amendments Nos. 255 and 256 it does not quite hang together. Therefore let me explain that these are probing amendments.

My concern is that in clause 31, to which clause 21 refers, the wording clearly—and rightly—states that it is the clause's intention to promote,

''equality of opportunity in connection with access to higher education''.

Everyone on the Committee and concerned with the Bill would agree that that is an important and honourable intention. However, it seems to my hon. Friends and I that clauses 21 and 22 take us away from that. Clearly, there is to be a difference between the way that matters are administered in England and in Wales. [Interruption.] I hear Labour members from sedentary positions muttering ''devolution''. I am well aware of the effects of devolution.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. I would say to hon. Members that I do not want to hear any whispering when a Member is moving an amendment. I hope that the Member speaking will be given the best attention.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

Thank you, Mr. Hood. We are all aware of the effects of devolution and it would not be in order for me to discuss them here. But I am concerned, as are my hon. Friends, about the fact that these matters are to be treated differently in Wales from in England. Indeed, already a consequence of devolution is that students in Scotland and students from England, Wales and other places who attend universities in Scotland are treated differently from students who attend universities in England and Wales.

I suppose I should declare a retrospective interest as a graduate of Edinburgh university, which I still support. [Interruption.] Actually, it runs a rather good alumni scheme and manages to squeeze money out of us; it does so very well. Of course I am totally in favour

of free enterprise in the raising of funds for universities in so far as alumni schemes go, if not in other ways, and that is why I support mine. But that is not the point; the point is that it is clearly unfair that matters are dealt with differently in Scotland and England. That is an accepted fact, but I appreciate that it is not one for debate here. Before you call me to order, Mr. Hood, I shall not go further down that line. I accept unreservedly that it is a consequence of devolution that matters should be different in Scotland from in England. But it need not be a wrongful consequence if we are to consider that this important issue in clause 21 and, later, clause 22, can separate people in Wales from those in England. It cannot do what clause 31, to which clause 21 inherently refers, says that it intends to do in promoting equality of access.

Therefore, we suggest that the Minister should reconsider the matter. I am sure that there must be a technical explanation—which of course I accept—for why some matters are dealt with in relation to Wales and some in relation to England, and that they should be different from one another.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Is my hon. Friend aware that my reading of the relevant parts of the Bill pertaining to the issue she addresses is that in reality the Welsh Assembly would have the power to set a higher level than the Secretary of State in London, so on that basis, the issue she is addressing of the differential structure for plans for England and Wales

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. We are not discussing the levels of fees at present; we are discussing the plans. I ask the hon. Gentleman to stay in order.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

Thank you, Mr. Hood. I am aware of the point that my hon. Friend makes so well. I shall be careful not to stray on to the issue of fees, but the plan itself paves the way for the difference to which my hon. Friend refers. Therefore, when we come to discuss fees, we shall not be discussing that issue on the right foundation if we have not thoroughly explored this issue first.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I note your guidance, Mr. Hood. In the case of the establishment of plans I refer to the flow of students across borders, which I am sure my hon. Friend would recognise. For example, 74 per cent. of the university of Aberystwyth's students are from England. I am certain that that would cause great complications were we to have differential plans between England and Wales for the targeting of those who are sought for the goal of levelling and equalling access to university.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

My hon. Friend is correct. As a general principle, if we are talking about equality, and especially equality of opportunity, throughout our country, to create artificial boundaries between England and Wales, England and Scotland and across the water into Ireland also, is not the right way forward. That is why my hon. Friends and I have tabled the amendments.

It does not make sense to treat those two groups of potential students so differently. It is possible, while still honouring the spirit of devolution and recognising

the power of the Welsh Assembly, to ensure that there is no anomaly, if we construct the Bill correctly. That way we would not have to deal in future with the complaints that will undoubtedly come to the Minister if it turns out that the equality of opportunity he seeks is destroyed by the provisions in his own Bill.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) made her case clearly and powerfully. I am asking the Minister to say whether he believes that there could or should be a difference between England and Wales in the application of the principle of equality of opportunity in access to higher education, in theory or in practice. I hope that it is common ground between all Members of this Committee that equality of opportunity of access is a universal principle that should be interpreted in the same way in all circumstances across the United Kingdom. If that is the case, though, it is difficult, as my hon. Friend says, to see why there should be a difference between plans for institutions of higher education in England and those in Wales.

If, on the other hand, the Minister expects these provisions, which my hon. Friend's amendments would remove, to have bite and to have any effect, presumably he thinks that there should be different interpretations of ''equality of opportunity'' in different parts of the United Kingdom. If the Minister will clarify this issue, it will be widely welcomed because—to pick up a comment from earlier proceedings regarding who outside these Committee Rooms might be interested in establishing uniformity on these matters between England and Wales—I have not heard any organisation or any individual outside our Committee arguing that ''equality of opportunity'' should be interpreted differently on different sides of the border between the Principality and England.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Does the hon. Gentleman think people in Wales are capable of making a decision in their own interests in this matter?

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

Of course, they are perfectly capable of making those decisions. What I am trying to say to the hon. Gentleman is that if the principles are universal, they should be interpreted and applied universally. I hope that he takes the view that equality of opportunity ought to apply in all parts of the United Kingdom, not just on these matters but across the board. I am not suggesting that either the English or Welsh interpretation would be superior, but agreeing with my hon. Friend's point—that the interpretation ought to be the same. That is the issue on which I am seeking clarification from the Minister: why does he think there may be circumstances in which the interpretation would be different?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

So, the hon. Gentleman would be quite happy if these powers were vested in the Welsh Assembly, and they could tell all the English what they should be doing in these circumstances? Surely he must have some faith that they can interpret the

universal principles he is talking about for their own benefit and in their interest?

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

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, the logic of my position is indeed that it would be equally as acceptable for the Welsh Assembly to apply these principles universally in England as it is for the Secretary of State to apply them in Wales. However, the hon. Gentleman's position is that there has to be a distinction on either side of the border in England and Wales as a matter of principle, and so logically he thinks there could be a significant difference of interpretation of the principle of equality of opportunity.

Photo of Hywel Francis Hywel Francis Labour, Aberavon

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the discussions recently in the Welsh Assembly concerning this matter, and that the Welsh Assembly Government have invited a distinguished academic, Professor Theresa Rees, to lead an inquiry into the consequences of tuition fees in Wales? If that is the case, should he not await the results of that inquiry?

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

The only honest answer is: no, I was not aware of that. However, it does not materially change my argument. There are many other measures in this Bill involving the transfer of responsibility to the Welsh Assembly on a whole range of matters, including those to which the hon. Gentleman referred. In anticipating the possibility—it is a little too early to say ''likelihood''—that this legislation may reach the statute book, it is right that the Welsh Assembly should be making provisional arrangements to conduct analysis and research into the impact of, for example, the variability of top-up fees in Wales, should the new measures come into force. That is an entirely responsible step to take.

My point is rather different and narrower, and relates only to the amendment and the provisions to which it relates, rather than to the entire Bill. Although we have had two welcome interventions from the Government Benches, I am yet to hear the argument that equality of opportunity for access should be interpreted differently in different parts of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Hywel Francis Hywel Francis Labour, Aberavon

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the manifesto commitment by the Welsh Conservatives during the last Assembly elections to

''Lobby the UK government to devolve the power to determine policy on tuition fees to the National Assembly and ensure that Welsh universities are not disadvantaged financially''?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale 2:45 pm, 12th February 2004

I am always intrigued when Labour Members quote from manifesto commitments on that topic, because I would not have thought that to be the strongest ground on which to propose their arguments. However, I am happy to do the hon. Gentleman a deal: if he stands by the manifesto on which he stood at the last general election to this institution, I shall be happy to comply with the provisions to which he referred, which my colleagues set out when they stood for election to an entirely different institution.

As I said, we are not having a debate across the board on whether it is sensible to devolve

responsibility for top-up fee policy to the Welsh Assembly. Rather, we are having a narrow debate about equality of opportunity. The hon. Member for Aberavon has intervened twice, while the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has done so once, but I am yet to hear an argument from the Government Benches—perhaps the Minister will give one—for why equality of opportunity for access should be interpreted differently in different parts of the United Kingdom. I do not think that that case can be made, but of course the hon. Gentleman might be about to make it.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Is the question not whether people should be allowed to interpret things as they wish—they may choose to interpret things in exactly the same way as anyone else—but whether they have the choice to interpret under their own lights and their own values, rather than being given an interpretation by other people?

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

Now we are beginning to make some progress. The hon. Gentleman referred to people making decisions under their own values, which is an important and interesting turn of phrase. Of course there are distinctions between Welsh and English circumstances: there are distinctions between the Welsh and English political climates, which are reflected by the different structure of parties. However, the key point is, as he said, about values—principles or adherence to political beliefs. I do not believe that anybody in any mainstream political party in either England or Wales has a different interpretation of what equality of opportunity to higher education means. That is a shared universal value, not a national value that differs from England to Wales. That is the point that we are trying to address and on which Labour Members have now made four attempts.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

The hon. Gentleman has chosen to dance on the head of a pin for this debate about the principle of equality, which he rightly said is a universal principle. In England, as in Wales, the plans will vary from university to university. He should bear in mind that in Wales we have only two universities: the university of Wales, which is a collegiate university, and the university of Glamorgan. He should understand that the ways in which the plans will work out in detail will differ. It is right and proper that the National Assembly should control that process in Wales, in line with the process of devolution, which I hope the hon. Gentleman's party now supports.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention because, by saying that I was dancing on the head of pin, he was, I think, suggesting that I am an angel. That was sweet of him and much the nicest thing that anyone has said to me in Parliament for a long time. Indeed, it is probably the nicest thing anyone ever will say to me here. His other point was also interesting. Of course I agree with him that the individual plans, whether they are for universities or otherwise, must reflect the differing circumstances for each higher education institution. We will come later when we debate those matters to a

number of amendments tabled by different parties that would seek to maximise the extent of the discretion.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD) rose—

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

I shall finish my response on that point after taking the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

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

I, too, accept the principle that the hon. Gentleman has established, although I do not understand his amendment. If we take into account amendments Nos. 255 and 256, clause 21(b) would simply read:

''any reference to an English approved plan is a reference to a plan approved under section 32 in relation to England''.

So what happens to Wales?

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

I am happy to take that intervention. When my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest introduced the amendments, she explained that they were technically defective. They are probing amendments, and the hon. Gentleman may be reassured that we do not intend to press them to a vote for precisely that reason. He is correct that as drafted they are technically unsatisfactory.

I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), who was arguing that there are effectively two universities in Wales, and any plans produced under the Government's proposals by the Welsh Assembly or under our proposals by a united English and Welsh decision-making process should reflect the different circumstances in those two universities. I entirely agree, but I hope that his starting point of our principles, values and guiding lights—to use the phrase of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North—of the importance of equality of opportunity for access would not differ, either between those two universities or between those universities and universities in England. So I think that the hon. Gentleman's argument helps rather than hinders me, but I am happy for him to intervene and show me how he is trying to hinder me.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

The hon. Gentleman is slipping down from angel status. [Interruption.] He is indeed a fallen angel. He needs to bear in mind that the part of the Bill he is seeking to amend refers not to the principles, but only to the plans. Therefore, the Bill devolves control over the plans to the National Assembly for Wales, but not over the principles. Therefore the architecture of the Bill is not devolved. As a devolutionist and Welsh nationalist, perhaps I would want it devolved even more, but on this occasion the Government have got it about right.

The principles remain the same for students in both England and Wales, because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly makes out, students study in both countries and there is a lot of exchange over the border, but the detail of the plan will be worked out by the National Assembly, the Higher Education Funding Council in Wales, the universities in Wales and by OFFA in Wales to meet needs in Wales and also the needs of English students coming into Wales. Surely that is the best way forward.

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

We are debating amendments to the earlier part of clause 21 which directly refers to

clause 31, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest pointed out, contains the language relating to equality of opportunity for access that we have been debating. Therefore, by debating references to a plan it is relevant—particularly when a clause refers specifically to another clause—to consider what the other clause describes the plan as being about. But it has been an interesting debate—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

Just to clarify a matter, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North asked why ''they''—referring to the Welsh Assembly—cannot make up their minds for themselves how they do things in Wales, as if people in Wales are not part of our decision-making process; whereas the very presence here of the hon. Member for Ceredigion who has put his case so well and eloquently in speaking up for Welsh interests shows that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in his nomenclature. We should not use ''we'' and ''they'' and ''us'' and ''them''. It is all ''we''; we are the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

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

My hon. Friend makes, as ever, a powerful case. Of course, each hon. Member must be responsible for the language that they choose to use, but given that—as my hon. Friend will know—on Second Reading there was such a strong argument that Scottish MPs should vote because this is the Parliament of the United Kingdom, it seems rather odd that when we come to Committee we are told that there is a distinction between different parts of the United Kingdom and it is implied that certain people are not represented here at all.

I do not intend to prolong the debate. Having heard four attempts from Labour Back Benchers and a couple of amusing attempts from the Plaid Cymru Benches, we are interested in whether the Minister can say whether a case can be made for interpreting equality of opportunity of access to higher education differently between England and Wales.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a short contribution. I apologise to the hon. Member for Epping Forest for missing her opening remarks. That was partly because I was writing down from the internet an interesting quote on the provision by a Conservative Assembly Member.

The amendments must not be taken out of context. They are part of a series of Conservative amendments, all of which would remove Wales and the devolution of powers from the Bill. The present amendment removes the devolution of powers over plans for fair access to higher educational institutions.

To be fair, Conservative Members have already admitted that the amendments are technically flawed, but they are even more flawed than they have said. If they were to be accepted—I hope that the Government will resist them—there would be no relation between the amount of tuition fees that may be charged in Wales and the fair access policy. In other words, if the amendment were to be acceded to, the link between tuition fees—I am opposed to them, and I intend to stick to my manifesto commitment—and fair access, a link that has been much discussed in the House

particularly on Second Reading and which is a core part of the Bill, would be broken in Wales but not in England. That is more than technically flawed. It is philosophically and politically inept.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Could the hon. Gentleman explain how the university of Wales in Aberystwyth, which takes 74 per cent. of its students from England, can put together a Welsh plan for widening access—unless the intention is to cut the number of English students and increase the number of Welsh students?

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

Cutting the number of English students will not widen access, and I would not support it. I look forward to English students coming to Aberystwyth, as a great number vote for me. They have the opportunity to vote for Plaid Cymru for the first and perhaps the only time in their lives.

The plans for each of the constituent parts of the universities of Wales and of Glamorgan take account of the whole range of access, not just for students domiciled in Wales but for students from elsewhere. The specific answer is that the National Assembly and the funding council has already decided that a certain proportion of students applying for places in higher education institutions should come from the Communities First 100 poorest and most deprived wards in Wales. That causes pragmatic and practical problems, but the principle is obvious and can be read across. It will inform the plans differently in Wales from in England. That, in itself, does not change the fundamental principle referred to by the hon. Gentleman about equality of access. That is about detail, not principle. The hon. Gentleman is mixing them together.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was not here for the first few minutes of our debate. I said for the avoidance of doubt that if one reads clause 21 as amended by amendments Nos. 255 and 256, it suggests that nothing should happen in Wales and that the process should occur only in England. The amendments are technically deficient, but they are probing amendments. My hon. Friends and I have no wish to put people in the universities of Wales in a worse position than those in England—quite the opposite.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. Interventions should be a little shorter than that.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

Thank you, Mr. Hood. Again, I acknowledge what the hon. Lady said. I accept the technical flawedness of the amendments—all the amendments that I have ever put to Committee have been technically flawed or at least that is what the Government always told me—but in moving these amendments the hon. Lady and her colleagues have failed to address the gap that is left. It is fair enough to say that these are probing amendments, but these are serious matters that deserve some explanation. If one part of the United Kingdom is to be treated differently from another part, that might lead to a rise in the Plaid Cymru vote, but I suggest it is not something in which this Standing Committee wants to get involved.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education) 3:00 pm, 12th February 2004

Let me then ask the hon. Gentleman a specific point. He has talked about different plans for England and for Wales. Take the example of the north-east Wales institute of higher education and the college of higher education based in Chester, which are relatively close to each other and both of which will be focusing, in a similar area, on people in the category of those to whom we need to widen social access. Does he therefore accept that they could be operating to different plans and different rules in trying to attract those same students?

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

Even if the amendments were agreed that would be the case. It is not different plans for England and for Wales, it is different plans for each higher education institution.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

That is the architecture of the Bill that we are discussing and that is what we are amending here.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. The hon. Gentleman should be addressing the Chair and not having a conversation across the Floor of the Committee. Twice I have had to ask Members to remember that.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

The hon. Gentleman has brought me back to the point in which I was originally interested. From his knowledge of these matters—which unfortunately I do not share to the same extent—can he give us some indication of the proportion of students who will be coming from the scheme he referred to, Community First?

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

If I can be of any help, from the top of my head, the figure is something like 8 per cent. I think the National Assembly have set a target of something like 11.5 per cent. That is a rough figure, but when we get to the relevant part of the Bill I will want to talk in more detail and hope to have more precise figures, which may be illuminating.

In conclusion on this part of the Bill, it is perfectly honourable to oppose the imposition of variable tuition fees, whether it is in Wales or in England. It is perfectly honourable to be opposed to tuition fees, but I note that the Conservatives have not tabled amendments addressing that issue. What they have tried to do instead, in a curious way, is to take Wales out of the Bill. That leaves the impression that for the Conservative party it is more about stopping Wales having more power than about making sure that this Bill does not impose variable tuition fees in Wales.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

In a moment. If I can just quote from what I heard earlier on, because the view in the National Assembly has been somewhat different. There the Conservative AM, David Davies, has said very clearly that the Conservatives are opposed to the devolution of powers on tuition fees. He said that they were opposed to them and, what is more, they wanted to keep the powers in Westminster in order to enable a future Tory Government to scrap fees in England and

Wales. For a start that suggests that the Conservatives recognise that they will never be in power in Wales, so will never have the opportunity to use those powers if they have been devolved to Wales. Secondly, I would not want to put all my eggs in that particular basket. I want to make sure that this Bill does not bring variable tuition fees into Wales. That is my standpoint. I do not want to do that by not devolving the powers. Let the people of Wales decide these matters.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I can help him. In his diary, the BBC Wales correspondent says,

''Shadow Welsh Secretary Bill Wiggin has been in touch to explain the Conservatives' latest cunning plan. The Tories have tabled amendments to the Higher Education Bill, the effect of which would be to wreck UK Government plans to allow the Assembly to scrap university tuition fees. This is not anti-devolution at all, Mr. Wiggin tells me.''

I do not know whether that helps.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

It does not necessarily help, but it brings to mind a previous Conservative faux pas over higher education. Hon. Members may recall an earlier Conservative proposal to privatise Channel 4 in order to pay for higher education. Unfortunately, they did not consider what that meant for S4C, the public service broadcaster in Wales, which we do not want privatised, thank you very much.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

The hon. Gentleman speaks eloquently from the Welsh viewpoint. However, this is not only an attempt to prevent the people of Wales from deciding on their own futures, this whole seam of Conservative amendments would prevent every university from deciding on its future.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

Thank you, Mr. Hood. I sense that I should not go too far down that avenue now. However, I accept the principle of what the hon. Gentleman said.

I accept that the Conservatives have genuine concerns about the workings of the Bill. I remember that, on Second Reading, some of those concerns were spread across Opposition parties and, indeed, throughout the House. It is right for any of us to seek to amend the Bill in order to highlight such concerns and to drive forward the arguments around them. However, I find it curious that the way in which Conservative Members have chosen to do it seems always to take Wales out of the equation—that starts here but continues through a series of amendments. One is left with the impression that they are driven by a lack of support for the devolution process, rather than by questioning what the Bill is about. On this matter, the Conservatives should concentrate on the principles lying behind the clauses rather than on the devolution detail. It is the principles with which I have problems, and I should think that they should do so too.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there are times when duplication of bureaucracy, organisation and process between England and Wales represents bad value for the Welsh taxpayer?

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

No, I do not accept that. What the hon. Gentleman calls duplication, I would prefer to call specialisation—[Interruption.]—devolution even. If that delivers a public policy that is more acceptable to the people of Wales and better meets their needs, then if there is a price to it—we can argue about that—the price is worth paying. For example, in the context of transport in Wales, we have devolved free public transport for the over-60s. It could be argued that that was a duplication. Why should transport be devolved; why should it not be—

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. The hon. Gentleman tempts me to bring him to order.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

I do not want to tempt you too much, Mr. Hood. I shall leave the point there. It is a matter of principle. Devolution attracts costs on occasion, but the benefits have to be weighed as well. I do not think that the Conservatives do a cost-benefit analysis on every occasion.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

I am disappointed that Conservative Members feel it necessary to table these amendments, although, when the hon. Member for Epping Forest refers to devolution as a technicality, perhaps I should not be disappointed. We have already referred to the importance that we place on the devolution settlement. It is a pity that there have been yet more amendments that can be interpreted only as an attack on the devolution settlement that has been agreed by Parliament and by the people in a referendum. It is entirely right that if we are taking new powers in primary legislation for England, we should give parallel powers to the National Assembly for Wales.

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

Am I right in saying that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales believes that if all the devolution powers are included in the Bill, as he and I would like to see, the National Assembly for Wales could decide not to have any fees or top-up fees in future, even if they were imposed in England?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I hear what the Under-Secretary says about devolution. However, if different rules are applied in different parts of the country and people are treated differently because of where they live or where they come from, how can he ensure the equality of opportunity that is the essential part of clause 31? We thoroughly support equality of opportunity. Will he ensure it?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

I shall come to that point in a moment. There is a great distinction between Labour Members and the hon. Lady's party. We believe that going to university is an opportunity that can benefit people. They believe that it is a privilege for the privileged.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so that I can utterly and totally refute that. We believe in equality of opportunity. That is why access to university education is so important for everyone in every part of this country, applied with equality. We do not believe in privilege—I certainly do not.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying that point. She may care to pass that on to the shadow Secretary of State for Wales who, in the Welsh Grand Committee on 16 December said that

''Opposition Members''

—meaning the Tories—

''believe that the number of available places should be reduced.''—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 16 December 2003; c. 49.]

The Government of Wales Act 1998 allows the National Assembly to make secondary legislation. It is, of course, for the Assembly to determine how it wants to use the powers that it is given by Parliament in that context. It is essential and appropriate that the framework that we set here should be available for the National Assembly.

Members will be aware that the Assembly has not yet decided whether to introduce variable fees. In this place we are charged with a duty to determine primary legislation for Wales. If the Assembly were to decide to introduce variable fees in the future, we have a responsibility to ensure that it could do so sensibly and in a regulated way: in the way that the Bill allows for England. That means that institutions would be required to produce plans before they are allowed to charge more than the basic amount for any course. The Bill, as drafted, provides the Assembly with the flexibility to do that in an appropriate way for Wales. The hon. Member for Ceredigion made a point on this: I do not know whether the National Assembly will decide to have variable fees at the end of the day. However, as Parliament legislates for Wales, it is right that a Bill providing further devolvement of responsibility for education policy in Wales should provide the Assembly with the freedom to act within the borders of that policy in determining its own policy.

I do not oppose the amendments simply on principle. In practice, the amendments are unworkable. Without a definition of a ''Welsh approved plan'', as provided under clause 21, future references in the Bill make complete nonsense. For instance, let us take clause 26, which would give the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales powers to impose conditions on the governing body of an institution that require it to comply with the provisions of any Welsh approved plan. However, what is a Welsh approved plan and how do we have one if we remove the provisions in clause 21?

Clause 34 would give the Assembly powers to make regulations enabling

''a Welsh approved plan to be varied''.

What would a Welsh approved plan be, if we do not have a Welsh approved plan as agreed in clause 21? Under clause 36, the relevant authority may notify a governing body that they will refuse to approve new plans for Wales. Again, if we do not define an approved plan, what is it? The answer comes in clause 38, which states that a

'' 'Welsh approved plan' has the meaning given to it by section 21''.

That section is clause 21, which the hon. Member for Epping Forest is now trying to remove from the Bill.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport) 3:15 pm, 12th February 2004

In July 2003, in its submission to the Richard Commission, the Assembly's Education and Lifelong Learning Committee recommended, and requested, that more powers be devolved to the Assembly in the areas of student grants, teachers' performance pay and the strategic planning of post-16 education. Did the Conservative members of that Committee oppose those recommendations?

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

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving way, not least because it enables me to recall my chagrin at having missed some of the debate, having come to it late. As he knows, I have an interest in the Principality through my family connections.

Will the Under-Secretary tell us about ambiguous situations involving institutions that might be said to have a foot in both camps? I am thinking about a past situation, in which Gwent—alias Monmouthshire—was not defined as being part of the Principality. Of course, it is now, and I do not intend to reopen that debate. More particularly, if an institution were to have an interest over the border, would it be in one plan only? I take it that it could not possibly be in two plans simultaneously.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

I think that that would be the case. We are talking about plans in Wales; the rest of the Bill deals with plans in England.

I do not wish to prolong this debate, Mr. Hood, as we have devoted a considerable length of time to discussing opportunity, yet nothing in the amendments relates to opportunity. The hon. Member for Epping Forest said that the clause treats plans in England and Wales differently. It does not: English and Welsh plans will both have to comply with clause 31 and be approved under clause 32. I am at a loss to understand how the hon. Lady has developed that argument.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said that the principles should be the same in England and Wales. They are: the principles are set out in clauses 31, 32 and 34, which we will debate later. Of course, it is for the National Assembly to decide how that policy will be applied, as that power has been devolved to Wales.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I have a question about hypothetical, would-be students living in a council house, perhaps, with relatively deprived means, just over the bridge to the west of Chester, which the Minister will know well, just over the border with Wales. Would they be subject to a Welsh-approved plan in Wales or an English-approved plan in England?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

This is an education Bill; I suppose that God has given Labour Members a mission to educate. The answer is that it would depend on which institution they wish to attend, not on where they live—that would not apply at all. I do not wish to prolong this any further, Mr. Hood.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the Under-Secretary for that clarification. Is not he saying, therefore, that the Welsh Assembly will set parameters whereby Welsh universities will seek out would-be students in England? Does not that make a nonsense of the whole thing?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

That question has nothing to do with the amendments that we are debating. We are talking about the meaning of a plan. We have had our levity on this subject. In the interests of supporting devolution—God help us and protect my sanity—I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I have listened carefully to the Under-Secretary, and the lawyer in me agrees entirely with everything that he says about the Bill. As I have said, the amendment is technically deficient. In tabling these amendments, my colleagues and I did not intend to disadvantage universities in Wales—far from it. We wanted merely to probe this issue, and to ensure that the Government have considered all aspects of maintaining and encouraging equality of opportunity in access to universities. The Under-Secretary has answered some of our serious questions on that issue; he answered our technical questions on Wales very well. I have no wish to press a provision that I know to be technically deficient, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.