Clause 36 - Enforcement of plans: Wales

Higher Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 9 March 2004.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Chris Grayling: I belatedly add my pleasure at seeing you in the Chair this morning, Mr. Stevenson. Thank you for standing in at such short notice.

After virtually the entire Committee process, we finally reach a point at which we can discuss Wales. It is a pleasure to see the spectre at the feast, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who has been a regular attender but who has not yet had the opportunity to debate the issues that concern him. We arrive at this issue rather belatedly, because we have already had guillotined the whole process of the devolution of powers to Wales, as well as the issue of the likely reality of English students in Wales paying higher fees than, for example, students from elsewhere in the European Union. We have an opportunity here to discuss OFFA's role in Wales, and whether there should be separate arrangements for Wales.

I shall be brief, as I want to hear the Minister's perspective on this. It is clear, and inescapable, that several issues will arise in respect of OFFA's powers in Wales. For example, having separate arrangements for England and Wales will create

an additional bureaucracy, which will inevitably mean a further cost to the taxpayer.We must consider, too, which students will be covered by the plans that the relevant authority will have the power to enforce in Wales under clause 36. Generally speaking, Welsh universities do not provide an education only for Welsh students; for example, 75 per cent. of students at the university of Wales, Aberystwyth are from England. The key question is where the plans will be applied and how the arrangements will work. If there is a regulator with a remit based on regulations passed in this House, and a regulator with a remit based on regulations passed by the Welsh Assembly, will enforcement of the plans apply in the case of activities in Wales to those students from England who attend Welsh universities? How will Welsh universities that draw a substantial part of their student cohort from England be treated? Where will the responsibilities stop and start?

There will also be issues in relation to the powers of the relevant authority to dictate through regulations, conditions and guidance in respect of the charging of fees, but there may be a huge disparity between the fees charged in England and those charged in Wales. How will that work? Entirely different fee regimes may operate on either side of the border, which will give rise to concerns about the differential treatment of English students and Welsh students at Welsh universities. How, therefore, will the access regulator be able to define and enforce plans that operate in such a confused and difficult environment? We have no sense of how the Government will address those issues, and it is time we did.

I hope that you, Mr. Stevenson, and your co-Chairmen will refer to the Speaker the fact that so little time has been available for the Committee to debate Welsh issues. Let us take advantage of the couple of minutes left to listen to the Government's views on the matter.

The Chairman: In respect of the hon. Gentleman's request, my co-Chairmen and I are constrained by the Committee's decision on the programme resolution.

Mr. Allen: If you take up that offer to talk to the Speaker, Mr. Stevenson, I hope you will bring to his attention the time wasting that occurred in four or five of our sittings.

The Chairman: We are nearly there now. I could drag it out, if you like, but I am sure that is not what you like. I repeat: the Chairs of the Committee are constrained by the programme resolution, which has been agreed, and have a responsibility to apply it, and that is what we shall do.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson.

I say to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) that it is not true that we have guillotined discussion of the transfer of student support in Wales—it is in clause 41. I hope that we shall have a full debate on the matter later today. He referred to my presence in the Committee. He may recall—perhaps he prefers to forget—that the Opposition moved an amendment to clause 21 and made a hash of it, so perhaps that is why they do not want to remember that we discussed Welsh matters earlier.

Clause 36 and the associated clauses provide flexibility for the Assembly to require institutions to have plans to regulate the use of the new powers, should the Assembly decide that it will introduce variable fees in Wales. It will be important to take account of clauses 25 and 26, which are part of the package to enable the Assembly to have the powers that we are giving to the Secretary of State in England, so that should a decision be taken to have variable fees, the mechanisms will be there to regulate the package.

The Assembly Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning has announced a review to be carried out by Professor Teresa Rees, which will report by April 2005. If—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman proceeded, pursuant to the Sessional Order D [28 June 2001 and 6 November 2003] and the Orders of the Committee [10 February and 2 March], to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Question agreed to.

Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that time.

Clauses 37 to 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.