The Office for Students

Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education) 9:25 am, 13th September 2016

I beg to move amendment 131,  in schedule 1, page 65, line 3, at end insert—

“( ) Remuneration, allowances and expenses as determined under subsection (1) must be made publicly available.”

This amendment would ensure transparency of OfS members costs.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 132, in schedule 1, page 65, line 10, at end insert—

“(4) Compensation as determined under subsection (3) must be made publicly available.”

This amendment would ensure transparency of OfS members costs.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

It is indeed a sunny morning, Sir Edward; it is also a rather airless one, so I am happy to see that the window is open. That leads me, reasonably effortlessly, on to the subject of transparency, covered by the amendments.

Without straying outside the narrow confines of the amendments I would just pause to reflect that when any new organisation is set up in government, it should reflect the mores of the time. The mores of our time are those of transparency. Transparency is an interesting word. When I was growing up it had a slightly different meaning. If someone was said to be transparent it meant they were trying to conceal something—or one might say “His arguments are transparent.” Now the English language takes it to mean, “Let a thousand flowers of information bloom.” That is an interesting development in the language.

Today the specific focus is on the office for students as a new organisation. We now conduct our proceedings in this place with transparency, and we believe in public transparency in the matter of remuneration, allowances and expenses. I do not need to remind you, Sir Edward, that we had our own trenchant discussions of transparency in Members’ expenses some time ago. That revealed much about what the general public thought about the lack of transparency on those issues in this place. I do not see why new Government bodies should be exempt, and I think transparency would strengthen the image of the OFS.

Similarly, with respect to amendment 132, there should be transparency on compensation. The other day we had a debate about the reasons why the Secretary of State might think it reasonable to discharge a member of the OFS. There are perfectly reasonable circumstances in which people might leave or settlements might be reached, or in which there might be no particular reason for the Secretary of State to have a person continue in their post. In those circumstances, subject to the civil service code, among other things, it might be perfectly reasonable for some forms of compensation to be made available. However, again, the same principle should apply: subject, obviously, to there not being undue private intrusion, the details of the compensation and what it is for should be made publicly available.

That is an important principle for the Minister to effect. If he agrees with the amendments but considers them defective and tells us that he will present something later, we will accept that. If not, we would like to hear some strong reasons—other than the usual “Well, it is inconvenient”—why there should not be transparency in the two key areas I have outlined for a newly appointed public body.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

It is indeed a beautiful day. However, it is tinged with some poignancy and sadness because the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Cameron, was a great supporter of transparency in everything he did in his last role. He was also a great supporter of this Bill. It was presented by the then Secretary of State and supported by the former Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister, reflecting the commitment across the two Administrations that have followed the general election to push forward these reforms and to transparency as a great driver of quality and choice in our higher education system.

Amendments 131 and 132 relate to the disclosure of the remuneration and compensation of OFS board members. I welcome transparency, which is a vital element in the effective functioning of the sector, and the Bill champions transparency from universities by requiring them to publish information on their records. Although we do not oppose the intention behind the amendments, we do not accept them on the grounds that such specification is unnecessary in the Bill.

I can confirm to the hon. Member for Blackpool South that once they are appointed, and in the usual way, the OFS chair and chief executive’s salary will be included on a list of senior civil servants and senior officials in Departments, agencies and non-departmental public bodies that is made publicly available on an annual basis.

On the transparency of expenses, allowances and compensation, ultimately the chair and chief executive will be responsible for accounting for OFS expenditure and the finer details of their approach to transparency will be for them to determine. However, the Government are committed to greater transparency, and we expect that, in their annual reporting, NDPBs will publish data on board member remuneration, allowances, expenses and other payments, such as compensation, in line with guidance in the Treasury’s financial reporting manual. I fully expect that the OFS will follow this practice.

Therefore, as the amendments refer to approaches to transparency that are already common practice among NDPBs through successful delivery of the Government’s transparency agenda, the provisions are unnecessary and would restrict future flexibility. If legislation starts to stipulate specific provisions of this type for public bodies, they will inevitably soon become out of date as the transparency agenda progresses. That may then require further primary legislation to deal with any inconsistencies or anomalies that arise. The Government therefore do not propose to accept the amendment and I respectfully ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the Minister for responding in the spirit of the amendment, even if he did not feel able to respond in the letter. It is a pity that we cannot have the provision in the Bill to send out the message I have talked about, but I accept the Minister’s points. It is important that agreements in the terms of the chief executive and chair are made public in a public fashion, if I can put it that way, and not just tucked away at the end of a list of things that might not attract the attention of Members of Parliament on an off day. I accept the Minister’s assurance.

When I hear Ministers or civil servants talking about flexibility, I sometimes feel that I should reach for my reach for my revolver, because flexibility can cover a multitude of sins. On this occasion, not least because the Minister has made it very clear on the record—that will obviously form part of these proceedings—and because I welcome and respect his commitment to transparency, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

I beg to move amendment 158, in schedule 1, page 65, line 31, at end insert—

“(1A) A joint committee shall be established by UKRI and OfS, which must—

(a) consist of representatives of both UKRI and OfS, and

(b) produce an annual report containing details on—

(i) the health of the higher education sector,

(ii) work relating to equality of opportunity,

(iii) the health of different academic disciplines,

(iv) research funding,

(v) the awarding of research degrees,

(vi) post-graduate training,

(vii) shared facilities,

(viii) knowledge exchange,

(ix) skills development, and

(x) maintaining the public interest.

(1B) The report must be sent to the Secretary of State who shall lay it before Parliament.”

This amendment would ensure that the two major bodies, UKRI and OfS, do not work in silos and that the work of each organisation is complementary to the other.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Edward. It is a beautiful day, but I can assure you that for someone from northern climes, these temperatures present quite a challenge.

Amendment 158 is a probing amendment that will hopefully elicit from the Minister some more information about how oversight of the whole sector will work, particularly with regard to the OFS and UK Research and Innovation. As the Committee knows, a great many witnesses, including MillionPlus, the University Alliance and almost all of the research bodies that gave evidence, were concerned about how the OFS and UKRI will work together. It is essential that there is overarching oversight to guarantee the continuing success of the sector. This amendment would require the OFS and UKRI to establish a joint committee that would produce an annual report each year about the higher education sector in its totality, which would be reported to the Secretary of State and be put before Parliament. The amendment would add an additional layer of scrutiny and give parliamentary oversight to the whole sector.

When Pam Tatlow from MillionPlus gave evidence to the Committee, she said:

“I think we should be looking at the Bill in a holistic way. There is a real risk that we look at the Bill in terms of a silo—the office for students, and then UK Research and Innovation. What we have got at the moment through the Higher Education Funding Council for England is some holistic oversight over the whole of the sector”.––[Official Report, Higher Education and Research Public Bill Committee, 6 September 2016; c. 9, Q6.]

That is the point that people are making. There is additional concern that the separation of responsibilities for research and teaching could mean that the interests of postgraduate research students, in particular, are lost.

I would like the Minister to reassure us about where PGR will sit, and about some of the other issues on the list, including the health of the sector, work relating to equality of opportunity, research funding, shared facilities, knowledge exchange, skills development and maintaining the public interest. Where will those issues sit, and how will they be reported on?

As I said, this is largely a probing amendment. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Public Services and Education)

We support this amendment in principle but, because the research element of the Bill has implications for Scotland, a copy of any report that is produced should also be made available to the Scottish Government. More generally, any report produced as a result of this Bill should also be made available to the Scottish Government.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

I rise to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, and I commend her for her argument. I would spare her blushes, but as chair of the all-party universities group she is in an admirable position to take soundings from across the sector on this matter, which are of considerable concern. Before I address some of them, I endorse what the hon. Member for Glasgow North West just said about the Scottish dimension. When we debate part 4 of the Bill, we will discuss the new structure of research, about which there was rightly some sharp questioning in the evidence sessions. Given what I called in the evidence session the variable geometry of the Bill in relation to UKRI, the OFS and the research councils, it is essential that there is co-operation to ensure confidence and good relations between the devolved Administrations and the Westminster Government. I entirely endorse what the hon. Lady and her colleague, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, have said.

On committees, again they can be set up to be what we want them to be: a token, a sop, or something that does some useful good. In the modest but nevertheless substantial way in which my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham has phrased her amendment, she has struck the right balance.

I will not be outwith the subject of the Bill when I refer to the situation that occurred in 2007, because it is relevant. I will not get into the issues relating to the machinery of government today, because we will debate them properly under part 4—the implications for this and the issues to do with research in connection with the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as opposed to the Department for Education, are complex, and we will want to discuss them later.

To go back to the machinery of government changes that took place in 2007, before what became BIS and the Department for Education were set up, I was on the Select Committee that questioned David Bell—Sir David Bell, as he is now—the chief executive officer about the relationship between the two organisations was to be. He said that he would continue as chief executive of DFE, Ian Watmore would continue as chief executive of BIS and they would have regular discussions. I said that sounded as if they would have two or three pleasant but meaningful lunches during the year to chat about things, and they would get on very well.

The crucial thing, however, is what happens lower down the food chain, if I may put it that way. Unless there is co-operation and collaboration between the people who do the day-to-day work in the two Departments, the co-operation will not work properly. That is directly relevant to my hon. Friend’s amendment. If the committee is established, it is important that it is not simply two or three agreeable lunches between the high-ups, but a meaningful, continuing and regular communication between UKRI and the OFS.

As I have said, the views of what I might describe as the higher education fraternity and sorority are pretty strong. My hon. Friend has already referred to the evidence given by Pam Tatlow of MillionPlus. Cambridge University, in its written evidence to the Committee, stated:

“The Bill in its current form gives some recognition to the relationship between teaching and research”,

and this is the other broad issue, apart from the desirability of getting the new research structures right and in co-operation; it is also important to get the relationship between teaching and research right.

Cambridge University’s evidence went on to state that

“the Office for Students…and UK Research and Innovation...must work together if required to do so by the Secretary of State, and must also share information”, with an important caveat:

“However, this provides no burden of responsibility for collaboration outside of any specific request from the Secretary of State. There is also little indication of how oversight will be given to the entire university…portfolio… This risks creating an artificial separation of functions”.

As my hon. Friend also touched on, the university declared that it had

“a particular concern regarding oversight of postgraduate students. Although there have been some assurances from Government that UKRI will have responsibility for funding and OfS will be responsible for their regulation, this is unclear in the legislation.”

Universities UK has offered similar concerns in its note to Committee members and, more widely, on 25 August, when it stated that there was a “substantial need” for collaboration between the OFS and UKRI, and that there was a “lack of clarity” as to which one would lead on cross-cutting institution or sector-wide issues, such as knowledge exchange. Also, since science and education are in separate Departments for the first time—this goes back to the point I made about the machinery of government changes—there is particular need for strong planning. The document that Universities UK circulated expands on that further.

Other organisations have also commented. It is particularly important to look at what some of the key research bodies have said. The Wellcome Trust expressed its concern that the separation of the functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which is what will happen in the process of setting up UKRI and the OFS, could break the links between teaching and research if not well handled. There is no suggestion that that is the deliberate policy of the Government—why would it be?—but you and I, Sir Edward, have been in this place for long enough to know the perils of unintended consequences. When new structures are set up with lots of grand words and gestures, the peril of the unintended consequence is not putting in place the safeguards and the detail that would allow the two newish departments to co-operate. We are trying to be helpful to the Government by flagging up the concerns from the various bodies that have written to us all.

Whatever the Minister says about the specifics of the amendment, I hope that he will go into some detail—if not today, perhaps in future weeks with a letter to members of the Committee—spelling out what he has said today and reassuring all those who want the new structure of UKRI and the OFS to work. We will talk about the broader issues with the research structure in part 4, but we would like some reassurance now that the image of the two agreeable lunches and not much else happening further down the food chain, which I evoked in 2007, will not be replicated in the relationship between the OFS and UKRI.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education) 9:45 am, 13th September 2016

I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham for allowing me this opportunity to explain further how the office for students and UK Research and Innovation will work together on a range of issues relating to their respective remits. Clause 103 proposes safeguards to ensure joint working, co-operation and the sharing of information between the OFS and UKRI, which reflects the Government’s commitment to the continued integration of teaching and research within the HE system, and the clause goes far beyond the image that the hon. Member for Blackpool South conjures up of two or three meaningful lunches between the high-ups, agreeable though that sounds in some respects—I hope I might receive an invitation to one of them.

Both organisations also have a statutory duty to use their resources in an efficient and effective way, which means that they will look for all opportunities to collaborate and share information. As the new organisations are created, we will develop appropriate governance arrangements that embed joint working principles and practice in the framework documents for both organisations and in the informal agreements between them, such as a memorandum of understanding. Those framework documents will provide the hon. Member for Blackpool South with the clarity that he is looking for and will set out the working arrangements between the two bodies, which are highly likely to include regular senior level meetings that could be akin to a committee.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the Minister for his response thus far, which is encouraging. On the subject of the framework documents, we know that the process of merging HEFCE into the OFS, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and so on will be a complex one that will probably take two or three years. Where does the Minister envisage those framework documents coming in that process, as that will be crucial? It would be helpful if he could give us some timeframe for that.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

We envisage publishing the framework documents once the Bill has received Royal Assent, but I intend to write to the Committee to provide more detail about the co-operation arrangements that we envisage coming into existence as a result of the co-operation and information-sharing provisions in clause 103. For that reason, I believe it is undesirable and unnecessary to be prescriptive in the Bill. As I have said in relation to other amendments, the legislation must remain sufficiently flexible for the Government and organisations to be able to respond to the circumstances of the time. We would not want to restrict the areas in which the OFS and UKRI should work together, and the list proposed by the hon. Member for City of Durham of the important areas raised by the community is not actually comprehensive now, and nor is it likely to be at points in the future.

Let me turn to some of the points raised by hon. Members, the first of which was about postgraduate students. As now, the councils, through UKRI, will fund doctoral students, while the OFS will be the funder for masters courses, providing, for example, top-up teaching grant for high-cost subjects only. The OFS will be the regulator for all students, including all postgraduate students. As I have said, the Bill proposes safeguards to protect joint working, co-operation and the sharing of information between those two bodies, reflecting the integration of teaching and research at all levels.

Each organisation will be required to produce an annual report detailing its activities that will be laid before Parliament. To ask them to produce an additional annual report would, I believe, be duplicative and unnecessary. The Secretary of State also has powers to request any further information from those organisations if such reporting does become necessary.

Let me turn to the changes to the organisation of HEFCE and to the machinery of government. The OFS and UKRI will have distinct missions and it would not be workable to create one large body responsible for all the regulatory functions, as well as a specific focus on the student interest, while simultaneously acting as a funding body for the full range of research funding. The research funding role that HEFCE played now sits better with UKRI, a body explicitly tasked with bringing a coherent approach to funding research, than it would with the OFS, an economic regulator for the student interest.

Higher education and research policies are no strangers to changes in the machinery of government. Prior to 2007 they were also in separate Departments, with higher education in the Department for Education and Skills and research and science in the Department of Trade and Industry. Our partner organisations are already adept at working across departmental boundaries. For example, HEFCE has effective relationships with the Department for Education’s own National College for Teaching and Leadership and Health Education England as well as with the devolved Administrations. The OFS and UKRI will be no different.

Turning to the devolved Administrations, the White Paper is clear that it is our policy intent to ensure that Research England, as part of UKRI, can work jointly with devolved funders. That will mirror the effective working relationship HEFCE currently has in respect of the operation of the research excellence framework, for example, which it runs on behalf of the devolved funding bodies.

Research councils and Innovate UK will continue to operate throughout the UK. We will work closely with the devolved nations as UKRI is established to ensure that the UK’s research and innovation base remains one of the most productive in the world. I welcome the opportunity to provide assurances on joint working. I will write to the Committee to provide further detail ahead of the publication of the important framework documents that will formally govern those relationships. In advance of that, I call on the hon. Lady to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

I thank the Minister for his response. I would point out that clause 103 states that the OFS and UKRI “may co-operate”; it does not actually direct them to do so. I heard what the Minister said about providing the Committee with more information about the nature of the framework and what might underpin an MOU.

There is one other point that I want to make to the Minister. I do not see any reason why UKRI or the OFS cannot work together to produce a single report that would really help the sector at large to understand what is happening across the whole of it. It would be helpful if he could consider that when putting the framework together. On the basis of what I have heard, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 133, in schedule 1, page 66, leave out lines 9 and 10.

This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State’s representative from taking part in any deliberations of meetings of the OfS or any of its committees.

I have already spoken this morning about setting out guidelines and principles for the OFS. I know that the Minister is keen for the OFS to be seen as having independence under broad direction from the Secretary of State. If it is to function effectively and correctly, it is extremely important that it is seen as independent—after all, it is an arm’s length body. It is worth looking at this in context, because there is a section on procedure on page 66. It states:

“A representative of the Secretary of State is entitled...to attend any meeting of the OfS or of any OfS committee”.

The practicalities of that and how it would work out are obviously a matter for the parties concerned, so I have no problem with someone attending a meeting.

However, parts of meetings fall into different categories, as they do in Select Committees when we have a public session and a private session. I am not sure about the representative of the Secretary of State taking part in OFS deliberations, even though there will be a veto over the decision. I do not know whether this Government are fans of nudge theory—we have not heard the new Prime Minister pronounce upon it yet—but the previous Government and the coalition Government were greatly in favour of the principle of nudge. They believed that people should be nudged towards things rather than legislating on matters. I have observed on occasions that there is nudge and nudge, and sometimes there is iron nudge.

I would not want it to appear, either for the Secretary of State’s reputation or for the subsequent independence of the OFS, that a functionary of a Secretary of State—if I may be so crude as to put it that way—sitting there quietly in the best traditions of Whitehall and observing the deliberations of the committee might cast aspersions on its ability to make judgments independently. I am genuinely curious to know why the Minister feels it would be necessary for a representative of the Secretary of State to take part in deliberations. I think that it would be wholly otiose and that it would send out the wrong signals. Therefore, in the spirit of transparency that we talked about earlier, and the need not to apply undue pressure to the new body, I hope that he will be able to give us a favourable response.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but this needs clarification. We have not sought to stop either the deliberations of the board or having the representative at a board meeting. We have said—this applies to other committees and organisations—that when the board is deliberating on things as opposed to receiving reports and so on, the Secretary of State’s representative should not be present. I beg the Minister not to misinterpret or to allow officials to misinterpret the situation and set up a straw man by saying that we do not expect the representative to be in any shape or form at the board meeting. That is not the case.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

I understand that difference, although it does not change the substance of what I am saying. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire to ensure the independence of the OFS board, I do not believe that his amendment, well intentioned though it is, is the right way to achieve that, because it would effectively make the representative a silent observer of the deliberations. It takes us a step back from the arrangements that have worked successfully for the HEFCE board for more than a quarter of a century and it risks the OFS not having access to the Government’s latest policy thinking when it considers how it should act.

Schedule 1 to the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 allows the Secretary of State to send a representative to take part in meetings of the council—in practice, that is the HEFCE board. The arrangement has worked well. It has allowed the HEFCE board to discuss, normally with a senior civil servant, the Government’s latest policy direction. Those discussions have routinely been two-way, with the HEFCE board able to feed its operational expertise into ministerial thinking. During all of this time, no one has seriously questioned the HEFCE board’s independence or suggested that it is in any way inhibited by the Secretary of State’s representative taking part in its meetings. That is because the existing legislative framework gives the Secretary of State’s representative no voting powers or formal influencing right over HEFCE board decisions. The Bill replicates those arrangements for the OFS board. There is absolutely nothing in our approach that will inhibit the OFS board’s independence or stop it from taking impartial, objective decisions.

The amendment risks damaging the quality of the OFS’s decision making. It would deprive the OFS board of access to the Government’s latest thinking on HE at the very time it needs it most: when it considers how to act. In short, the amendment would unpick arrangements that have worked well for a long time, would add nothing demonstrable to the OFS’s independence and would put the efficacy of its decision making at risk. While I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s good intention in tabling the amendment, I do not believe it would achieve the policy outcomes he desires. I therefore ask him to withdraw it.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education) 10:00 am, 13th September 2016

I am disappointed by the Minister’s response, not so much for the detailed and no doubt carefully looked-up examples of precedents from the 1992 Act, which he used in support of his position, but—if I can say this without being rude—for the slightly naive view he takes of the ways in which people can be influenced. I do not wish to stray outwith the amendment, but I can think of numerous occasions in bygone years—not so bygone in some cases—when Government pressure was allegedly applied on HEFCE, so I do not share the rosy view of the Minister or his officials. It is always dangerous to assume that everything in the past was perfect and that we should continue with that. That is an issue for all Administrations, whatever their political shade, and since 1992 we have had both sides of political shade. I am not impressed with that argument.

I am sorely tempted to put the amendment to a vote because I do not think we have had satisfactory reassurance. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the concerns and on the potential reputational damage to the OFS. I have said before and I will say again that we legislate here not for the best circumstances in the affairs of the body but for the worst and to put in safeguards for those circumstances. That is why we tabled the amendment. I will not press it to the vote, but I do not think the Minister has heard the end of this issue. It will probably reappear in other forums. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 135, in schedule 1, page 67, leave out line 31.

This amendment would prevent the OfS from accepting gifts of money, land or other property.

I move from a part of the schedule that caused me some bafflement to one that causes me substantial bafflement. The Minister was talking about good lunches earlier, so in that vein I was surprised to see on page 67, line 31, the list of things the OFS may do. It may do anything except borrow money, but, slightly curiously in that context, we are told that it can acquire and dispose of land and other property, enter into contracts and invest sums. I assume that the Minister will elaborate on some of those examples so that we can be clear that the OFS will not go into offshore investments or anything similar. The serious provision concerns the acceptance of

“gifts of money, land or other property.”

I am by training a historian. We talk about Henry VIII clauses in this place, and when I read this I had an idea of the Tudor way of doing things and of getting things done. The idea that the OFS, which is supposed to be a reputable and even-handed body, would be accepting

“gifts of money, land or other property” without some aspersions—or nasturtiums, to use the old phrase—being cast on the motives for those acceptances is one that I fail to understand. I look to the Minister to reassure me as to why paragraph 15(2)(d) is included. What sort of gifts of money, land or other property is it envisaged would be accepted? Is he concerned that they would inhibit or influence future decisions, which at that stage the OFS might not be able to foresee, involving the people who had given the gifts? I will simply conclude—going back to our lunch analogy earlier—by reminding the Minister of the saying “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”, or in this case, free

“gifts of money, land or other property”

and I look forward to his further explanation.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

I am very happy to explain the provision. The amendment would remove the OFS’s ability to receive

“gifts of money, land or property”.

Although I think I understand the motivation behind it and even though we can sympathise to some extent with the hon. Gentleman’s underlying concern, we will resist the amendment. In practice, it would remove from the OFS an ability HEFCE has always had—an ability that would allow the OFS to manage any issues raised by the public ownership of some of the land and property of some existing HE institutions if those institutions merged or ceased to operate, and to ensure that the assets were managed effectively. I accept that it may seem odd for any public body—particularly an independent regulator—to be empowered to accept gifts, but there is a specific reason for the existence of this ability in the current legislative framework, and for why we need the OFS to continue to have it.

HEFCE was created at a time when a Conservative Government were implementing substantial reform to the HE sector. Central to that was allowing our polytechnics to become full universities—the single biggest institutional expansion of the sector ever. Before this, as the hon. Gentleman knows well, polytechnics had been owned by local education authorities. Some of the property and land used by some of these institutions was owned by the local authority, meaning that it was public property, so the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 gave HEFCE powers to accept this public property to ensure that if any of the institutions failed or merged into new forms, then HEFCE would have the powers to manage these changes effectively.

As we now know, the former polytechnics have thrived as universities and made a huge contribution to our sector as a whole over the intervening decades, and no one is suggesting that any of them are at any sort of risk of collapsing or even merging, but the fact remains that the public retains some ownership rights of some of the land and property that these institutions use, and no responsible Government can simply give those rights away—indeed, Government need to retain the ability to manage these assets effectively should that ever prove necessary, and the most effective way to do this is to give the OFS the power to accept those assets on behalf of Government.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the Minister for his explanation, which I assume he has not concluded. I entirely understand the context of HEFCE and the 1992 legislation. We could have an interesting discussion about whether HEFCE and the OFS are ultimately the same sort of beast, but I do not intend to pursue that argument. I merely say that I do not think that the analogy between what HEFCE did and what the OFS will do is entirely accurate. The OFS will be doing all sorts of things that HEFCE did not do, but we will let that pass.

If I heard the Minister correctly, this is essentially what one might describe as a reserved power, to be exercised in the limited circumstances that he has described—and he described them very accurately in the context of what needed to be there post-1992. I understand the context of making the provision, but I remain concerned that the terms of reference are extraordinarily wide. If I am not to press the amendment I would therefore urge the Minister to put his explanation in writing to all the members of the Committee, so that everybody—not just those here today—can clearly understand the circumstances in which the Department intends that the OFS should use this power, so that there is no doubt that it could not be used for, for the sake of argument, a group of people who wanted to set up a new organisation—

Is this an intervention? It is very long.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

I got the gist of the hon. Gentleman’s point. I would like to provide him with some additional reassurance on one of the other aspects of his earlier remarks in relation to individuals within the OFS taking gifts or money, and that sort of concern. This power only enables the OFS as an organisation to accept gifts. It will obviously be for the OFS to set the terms and conditions of employment for its staff, but we see absolutely no reason why these would not include the standard public sector rules on gifts and hospitality, which set out that a public servant may only accept gifts or hospitality of a purely nominal value. I hope that that provides some reassurance about the seemingly wide scope of this provision. Of course I am happy to set out in writing many of the points I have just made if that would provide reassurance, and I commit to doing that now.

To sum up, in these respects the Bill replicates the arrangements in the existing legislative framework for precisely the same reasons as those arrangements were first put in place. As I said, the amendment would unpick those arrangements. If at some point in the future, for example, one of the former polytechnics were to want to merge, or if it faced a collapse—obviously we hope that would not happen—the OFS would be unable to accept any part of the assets that the institution held over which the public had any ownership rights. This is a failsafe power. We do not anticipate that it will be used frequently, if ever, but it is an important power because in its absence there is a risk of loss to the public purse. For that reason we resist this amendment, and I respectfully ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

On the basis of the Minister’s extended explanation of the circumstances and his promise to put this in writing for the members of the Committee, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 2