Higher Education Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 2nd March 2004.

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[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 9:10 am, 2nd March 2004

The Committee will be aware that the Programming Sub-Committee met last evening, when an amendment to the programme order was moved and carried. It is now necessary to put that proposal to the Committee; it can be considered 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,

1. That the Committee recommends that the Order of the House of 27th January (Higher Education Bill (Programme)) be further amended by the substitution in paragraph 2 (time for conclusion of proceedings in Standing Committee) for the words 'Thursday 4th March' of the words 'Tuesday 9th March'.

2. That the Order of the Committee of 10th February 2004 be further amended by leaving out paragraphs (4) and (5) and inserting the following paragraphs—

'(4) the remaining proceedings on Clauses 21 to 29 and Schedule 5 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 8 pm on Tuesday 2nd March;

(5) the proceedings on Clauses 30 and 31 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 5 pm on Thursday 4th March;

(6) the proceedings on Clauses 32 to 38 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 11.25 am on Tuesday 9th March;

(7) the remaining proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 6.55 pm on Tuesday 9th March.'

In effect, we shall have an extra sitting this evening, from 6 pm to 8 pm. We shall have a full extra day on Tuesday 9 March, and the afternoon sitting will continue until 6.55 pm. In essence, we have changed from the original intention of having 12 sittings to having 15 and a bit.

The programme motion also provides that by the end of today's sittings, we shall have dispensed with all items up to schedule 5; by 5 pm, at the end of this Thursday's sittings, we shall have disposed of all items up to clause 31; and by 11.25 am on Tuesday 9 March we shall have completed all business up to clause 38.

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

It goes without saying that Her Majesty's Opposition look forward to the opportunity to debate this important matter further; indeed, we look forward to debating it under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and that of your co-Chairman, Mr. Hood.

The official Opposition originally took the view that it was sensible to have at least 16 sittings or the equivalent, so we are delighted that the recommendations of the Programming Sub-Committee will result in the equivalent of 16 sittings—

or not much short of it. However, it is worth noting why it was found necessary to extend our deliberations.

We had a lengthy debate, but appropriately so, on the first group of amendments to clause 23, during which pretty much every member of the Committee spoke, and all views were expressed. Not only the views of the four political parties were fully aired, but those of at least three different factions in the governing party. It was therefore entirely appropriate that we should have spent some time debating those amendments. However, it is important to ensure that the time for subsequent debates is properly preserved.

As a result of the Programming Sub-Committee's recommendations, we will have a degree of extra time, but we will still be constrained by the imposition of knives at various points. You, Mr. Gale, will be familiar with the fact, as will other members of the Committee, that the official Opposition do not support the principle of knives being artificially imposed on debates. Clearly, there must be an end to our deliberations, but it seems unfortunate that some debates may be truncated in order to fulfil a still restrictive timetable.

Even with the additional time provided by the programme motion, we are concerned that we may end up with further clauses and schedules being entirely undebated. It is a matter of record that that occurred earlier in our deliberations, and it would be regrettable if it were to happen again. The Opposition will certainly do their best to ensure proper debate and deliberation of those clauses that we are able to debate, and that we make sufficient progress to debate some of the other clauses and schedules. However, I fear that even on the revised timetable it is highly likely that a number of clauses, and possibly some schedules, may pass out of the deliberative eye of the Committee after little or no debate. That is particularly regrettable as I imagine that our common cause, in Committee and outside it, is that the Bill is more significant, more important and more controversial than most.

There is an abnormal amount of interest in the discussions and deliberations on these matters and, as the Minister has been candid in admitting, a number of elements of the policy embodied in the Bill were in flux, to put it delicately, as recently as four or five weeks ago. It seems to me that, particularly because of those factors, there is a danger that without adequate deliberation and discussion we may end up placing legislation on the statute book that is in some ways defective.

It would be particularly regrettable if the lack of time provided for deliberation in Committee meant that the Government ended up having to bring forward a number of amendments when the Bill was considered in another place. That has occurred very often since 1997 and may well occur again.

As a result of the motion of the Programming Sub-Committee, we are certainly likely—as previously we were unlikely—to be able to deliberate on the Government amendments to clause 24. I welcome that, because there was a severe danger that those would have passed through Committee without any

discussion or debate whatever. However, it remains possible that further Government amendments may prove necessary, either during the remaining stages of consideration in this place or during consideration in another place. The whole point of the Committee system in the House of Commons is that it allows much more detailed consideration than any other stage of the parliamentary proceedings—certainly so far as this part of the Palace of Westminster is concerned.

Would the Minister be prepared to undertake—either later in the debate, later in our deliberations or in writing as appropriate—that, should we prove again to run out of time during the course of our deliberations, the Government will be prepared to come back for a further allocation of time? Secondly, given that by their own admission they effectively underestimated the amount of time required for the Committee stage by about 50 per cent., will the Minister undertake that we will have at least two days to debate these matters on Report?

I cannot think of a Bill that has been discussed in Parliament in the past two or three years that is of greater significance than this one, or that meets all the criteria fulfilled by it. It was the flagship Bill of the Queen's Speech, because it was the first one mentioned, and the Prime Minister has personally and publicly attached his future to it. It has seen the largest rebellion on Second Reading faced by any Government in half a century, it has produced demonstrations in the streets and it involves the most significant aspects of the future education and economic performance of our nation. If ever there were a case for the allocation of too much time in Committee and for deliberation on the Floor of the House, this surely is it.

I implore the Minister to go away and discuss the matter. In an interesting exchange at the end of our sitting last Thursday—I forget whether you were in the Chair, Mr. Gale, but I am sure that you will have studied Hansard—we learned from the Minister that there had been discussions about the handling of the Bill that involved the Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), about which the Minister had not previously known. There may be discussions about the timetabling of the Bill to which the Minister may not be privy, and we look for guidance from any Government Member who may have had a quiet word with the Prime Minister. However, if we assume—accurately or inaccurately—that the Minister is more in charge of the timetable than anybody else, we look to his good will and good offices to ensure that, were he to decide that there was not enough time in the motion, he would come back to the matter.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Does my hon. Friend accept that one drawback of the Government's choice to use knives is that it removes from the Committee the opportunity to decide—this evening, for example—to carry on after the appointed time? There is no practical reason why the Committee

should not sit all evening, but the knife makes it impossible for us to continue after 8 o'clock, so all matters must drop at that point regardless of the willingness of Members and the Chairman to continue.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. It would be impossible to continue the same debate after the imposition of the knife, but the Committee may choose to sit until midnight if the Chairman is prepared to undertake that arduous duty.

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

I am grateful to you, Mr. Gale. When we were talking about knives, there were daggers in the looks that you, and some of those near to you, directed at my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). However, his issue of principle is correct.

I welcome the fact that we have managed to persuade the Government, or rather the Programming Sub-Committee, that we should sit later than the usual 5 o'clock finish this evening and next Tuesday. I also appreciate the fact that you, Mr. Gale, your fellow Chairman and the Committee staff have agreed to that, as I know that it will involve a degree of inconvenience for several people. I should also point out that the official Opposition were prepared to continue to sit the usual hours if one or two additional sittings could be allocated to the Committee, but it was decided—not at our instigation—that it was more important to finish considering the Bill on a particular day.

There may be a particular practical consequence of the new timetable, which I shall advance as no more than a suspicion because I have no evidence, but it will be interesting to see whether the Minister reacts to what I am about to say, or is able to retain his enormously creditable stony face. The fact that our consideration of the Bill will now conclude on Tuesday 9 March has led one or two of us to suspect—perhaps entirely unworthily—that the Government intend to bring this matter back to the Floor of the House one week after that, which would be Tuesday 16 March: an interesting date. The Minister shakes his head. That date is interesting because it is the night before the Budget, and we know that the Government like to deliberate this matter on the Floor of the House before matters of great import: Second Reading took place the night before the Hutton report came out.

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

In the interests of completeness, my hon. Friend should add that if that were the date on which Report stage were to be initiated—I will not say conclude—the matter would be debated not only on the day before the Budget, but on the day after the Ides of March. I hope that Ministers will reflect on what happened—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. The hon. Gentleman may want Ministers to consider that, or even to think about it, but I will not allow him to talk about it because it has nothing whatever to do with the resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee—to which I should be grateful if we could now return.

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

I am grateful, Mr. Gale, and I shall avoid speculating on whether my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) is Brutus or Cassius.

The importance of the programme motion is that we have had a relatively—I do not say absolutely—unprecedented concession from the Government. I was unable to check the entirety of practice since 1997, but I think that I am safe in saying that it is pretty unusual for them to accept that additional time is required for a Committee to consider a Bill. We therefore reflect on and welcome the fact that the Government have decided to depart from the usual practice of their seven years of office. In part, that reflects the Bill's importance, which hon. Members in all parts of the Committee have repeatedly stressed, here and outside.

The Government's recognition of the case for additional time is welcome, but we still think that what is being offered is not enough. The Minister is an honest man, so if later today or later this week he honestly thinks that the Committee has not had the time fully and properly to debate some of the important matters that relate, for example, to clauses 39 or 31, I hope that he will reflect carefully on whether to propose a further sitting of the Programming Sub-Committee.

I conclude by reminding the Minister that the official Opposition will support any and every motion that involves giving the Committee the maximum flexibility, but we are sorry that the motion involves the imposition of knives and for that reason cannot support it. However, we welcome the provision of additional time and we hope that, with this, the Government will start to reflect on the need for more rather than less time for proper deliberation on the important legislation that the Ministers of the Crown choose to put before Parliament.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I am torn between the desire to move on, which my Whip is indicating we should do, and the temptation to refute the tripe that we have just heard. I am afraid that I shall succumb to the temptation.

The contribution on the programme motion that we have just heard is the sort of thing that brings Parliament into disrepute. Our proceedings are being broadcast, there are many interested people in the Gallery, and there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of people who take note of what they read in the Committee Hansard with regard to how hon. Members perform. Regardless of the various positions that were taken on clause 23, hon. Members from all parts of the Committee did us great credit in an extensive and thorough discussion in our first debate on that clause. Anyone reading that debate would say that Members of Parliament, regardless of their positions, took their duties seriously and did the right thing by their constituents, their parties and the country. People will also read the contribution that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) made this morning, in which he clearly tried to suck up additional time, taking 15 minutes or so on a programme motion, which, frankly, is a formality.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

If I may continue—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has his orders on wasting time later, when he can take up as much as he wishes.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I should like the Committee to note that I have no instructions on such matters. To judge from the interest in this debate, it is unlikely that I shall be called, despite wanting to put something on record about the personal difficulties in which I find myself as a result of the measure.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. Happily, that is not a point of order for the Chair, but it is now a matter for the record. [Interruption.] Order. While I am on my feet, I should perhaps reiterate the indication that I gave at the start of this sitting, which is that half an hour is allocated for debating the programme motion, should the Committee wish to take it.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Perhaps the hon. Member for Daventry operates by osmosis and has not been given instruction, but we shall see the Opposition's tactics unwind as the debates progress. That is a pity, because there are serious issues to be discussed, and many of those will not be reached by the Committee if Conservatives decide to waste time.

When the matter returns to the Floor of the House, many of us will not hesitate to point out that time has been wasted when there could have been valuable debate on issues, and that an inordinate length of time was deliberately wasted in the run-up to clause 22. For someone who has tabled many amendments and who wants to have them aired and to hear the Minister's reply, it was baffling that time was taken on relatively minor aspects of the Bill.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

The hon. Gentleman spoke at great length on details of the Bill. I am sure that he feels that he did a good job, and feels quite smug about his performance, but we reached the substance of the Bill only after four sittings. That stands as condemnation of the way in which the Conservatives have conducted themselves in this Committee.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the old adage about pots and kettles? He has made by far the longest speech in Committee.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Indeed, I hope that all the speeches on clause 23 will stand reading from any political point of view. They were serious speeches. Some were short, some were long and there were many interventions. However, I hope—although I doubt—that if the hon. Gentleman cares to look over his contributions prior to clause 23, he will feel a sense of slight embarrassment about having wasted a great deal of time. There was a filibuster up to clause 22. There has been one this morning.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. The Chair would not allow a filibuster. Everything that has been said in Committee to date has been in order unless the Chairman has indicated otherwise.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

There have been no filibusters up to this point in the proceedings, Mr. Gale, but there have been some quite long speeches. We are all very clear why they have been made. The fact remains that those members of the public who expect better of us will have been sorely disappointed.

I could wax lyrical—no doubt, so could my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East—on programme motions and the Opposition parties' failure to capitalise on what was intended when such motions were instituted, which was to give them the power of internally programming proceedings. By the ineptitude of various hon. Members, not least the Conservative Chief Whip and the shadow Leader of the House, that opportunity has been passed up. It is almost a criticism of them that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has spoken at length about the failures of programming. The failure to see the opportunity on offer has led to today's situation.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Opposition Whip (Commons)

Before the hon. Gentleman starts to insult past Conservative Chief Whips and shadow Leaders of the House, I want to know why, if he was such a smart Chief Whip, he got the sack.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North has made the point that members of the public read the accounts of our proceedings. We are embarking on a level of acrimony that does the Committee no credit.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

What the Conservative party is up to is now on record. Although the Conservatives protested in Committee and on the Floor of the House that they were not allowed enough time, I hope that it will be clear to readers of Hansard that the Conservatives were deliberately wasting time. I hope that, now that what they are up to has been revealed and made transparent even to those who cannot see our proceedings, they will think better of the matter and return to serious debate of extremely important issues. If they fail to do that, I hope that parliamentary colleagues and the public will judge them on it.

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

The past 25 minutes have been the saddest of the Committee. There had been a debate of real quality, from the beginning, on very serious issues, but the descent into a party political slanging match is sad. The Liberal Democrats supported the original programme motion and we support the new one. We are grateful for the additional time; we can now deal with some of the issues other than variability and OFFA, and particularly that of part-time students, which could have been totally ignored had we not got the additional time.

Part 4 deals with the key issue of bankruptcy, and an important issue of principle surrounds that. When we reach the Ides of March, all we that we need are

vampires and ghouls to complete the process. That will not do the Bill any favours at all. People seriously interested in it know that if it is passed, it will change the face of higher education for ever, and we need to give it good service. We support the new motion. We are grateful to the Minister for the extra day, and we hope we can now debate some of the issues that actually mean something.

Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Labour, Stalybridge and Hyde

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) has been very gracious in accepting this motion, and it is a shame that the official Opposition did not do the same. It was clear from the beginning that they intend to repeat their protests on Report. It has been quite clear from the outset that they want to be able to say that they have not been given enough time. That explains some of the goings-on in the first week.

The facts, however, are clear: we will have more than 15 sittings in terms of time. I think the Opposition wanted 16 sittings, so they will, in effect, have the time that they wanted. The debates have been good. There was a speech of at least an hour and half from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East, and there have been long speeches on both sides of the debate, both within and between the parties. Anyone who has read or been watching these proceedings will agree that it has been a remarkably good Standing Committee with a high level of debate, genuine disagreement and interventions, and the argument has been moved on.

I am particularly delighted that we will be sitting later today. It is my birthday, and there is nothing better than sitting under the chairmanship of you, Mr. Gale, and that of Mr. Hood. I only wish that we were sitting even later; I was looking forward to sitting until 10 o'clock this evening, but unfortunately I will have to repair to a bar downstairs. If anyone would like to buy me a drink to console me, I shall be in the Strangers' Bar from 8 o'clock.

I am particularly glad to conclude by welcoming the fact that we will, I hope, be able to debate regional variations and the amendments on that issue at a later stage. That is another important topic that raises differences between parties as well as within them. I look forward to that debate.

In the spirit adopted by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, I shall not detain the Committee any longer, other than to say that I hope people reading this debate will recognise the contribution from the official spokesman for the Opposition for exactly what it was—slightly graceless and disingenuous.

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

I should like to begin, if I am not accused of time wasting, by briefly congratulating the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) on his birthday.

I am troubled, though unsurprised, by this programme motion. One of the results of such a knock-on lack of planning is that it creates difficulties for those of us who have other commitments. It may well be that, at a later stage of consideration in this Committee, I shall be empanelled in parallel on the Gender Recognition Bill. I shall then have to consider

my duties to protect the rights of a small but sensitive minority as against the rights of a very large constituency of students. I would have chosen not to have this dilemma, which is of the Government's making.

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

I wish a happy birthday to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde. If we join him tonight, a Standing Committee will soon turn into a falling down Committee, so we will reject his invitation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said a lot of what I was going to say, although perhaps I would have used different terminology. I was surprised and disappointed by the Opposition's response, given the discussion we had yesterday of the motion in Sub-Committee. The motion now gives Her Majesty's official Opposition almost the number of sittings that they originally asked for, and this is only a 50-clause Bill. It certainly contains important elements but, as we said at the beginning, the real issues do not cover all 50 clauses. It is unusual to have almost 16 sittings on a 50-clause Bill and an eight-hour debate on the main issue—that of fixed versus variable fees.

We have given enough time and the Sub-Committee is dealing with these issues properly. I hope that the Committee will support the programme motion.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 17, Noes 5.

Division number 4 Adults Abused in Childhood — New Clause 7 - Regional assemblies

Aye: 17 MPs

No: 5 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

Before we proceed, I must tell the Committee that because my co-Chairman and I allowed what I hope the Committee will believe was a generous and broad-ranging debate on the principles arising from clause 23 on the first group of amendments, we do not expect a re-run of those discussions on the remaining amendments. I expect the Committee to address those amendments very specifically.