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Mr. Collins: The bulk of the comments to be made from this Dispatch Box this afternoon will be made by my estimable hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), but I did not want to miss an opportunity to reunite the happy band of brothers and sisters who served on the Committeethat was a very convivial timeand to exchange views once again with the Minister. I hope that he will forgive me when I say that I am confident that he will be in the Cabinet after the next reshuffle. I can think of no member of Her Majesty's Administration more deserving of being in the Cabinet, after the way in which he has handled our deliberations on the Bill. I promise him that I do not intend to ruin his career by saying that, and I am sorry if I just have.
The amendments tackle a number of issues, and I shall begin as the Minister closed by considering those that deal with the provision of an appeals procedure against decisions reached by the director for access. We welcome the proposals for the appeals procedure that were introduced in another place, and the fact that the Government have been gracious, both here and in another place, in conceding the need for such a procedure.
I should like to place on record that our preference would have been to have a procedure that was wholly independent of the Secretary of State rather than one
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involving people appointed by him, and we would like to ensure that the procedure will be robust. None the less, the Government have made a concession on this, and it has been welcomed by the universities. The Government are to be commended for listening to the arguments that were advanced on that issue both here and in the other place.
Generally, the Bill has come back from the other place a better Bill than it was when it departed from here. I hope that that will still be the case even after we have voted on various issues, because the Government have accepted some amendments but not others. The Bill is better than it was, but, lest anyone should be concerned, we remain opposed to its fundamental underlying principles. We are merely seeking to ameliorate provisions that would otherwise be damaging.
I smiled wryly to myself when the Minister referred to the undesirability of one of the amendments introduced in another place, which he said would lie "in perpetuity" on the face of the Bill. We shall disagree on whether this legislation is going to last even 12 months beyond the next general election, and, even though I am sure that it will be regarded in future years as the Johnson memorial Act, I am not sure that it will lie "in perpetuity", whether amended or not.
Mr. Allen: I share the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the conduct in Committee. It was an extremely helpful and rational exercise. Since he occupies the position that he does for his party, however, and having raised the spectre of abolition if his party were to come to power, it is incumbent on him to make it clear to my constituents, many of whom will benefit from a £3,000 a year grant, whether that grant would then have a question mark over it. Will he make it absolutely clear what his policy is on that?
Mr. Collins: I was merely making it clear that the position has not altered. The hon. Gentleman will remember what was said from this side of the House in previous stages of our deliberations, which was that we would publish our full alternative proposals later this year, and that they would provide clear answers to every question that the hon. Gentleman might have. In parenthesis, I would like to point out that, while it is true that his Government are giving some of his constituents £3,000 a year in grants, they are also requiring them to pay £3,000 a year in fees. Some people would regard that package as not entirely generous, overall.
Mr. Clappison: Would my hon. Friend also find it helpful to remind the constituents of the right hon. GentlemanI mean the hon. Gentleman; he should be a right hon. Gentlemanthat the £3,000 grant to which they are entitled will taper out at a family income of the grand total of £22,000. Beyond that level, families will still have the £3,000 in fees to find?
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an extremely powerful case. I am not sure that he and I will immediately be leafleting the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) to make that point, although there might be an opportunity to do so at some point. By the way, I do understand his other point. Without seeking to prejudice decisions that are in
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the hands of the Prime Minister, I cannot think of an hon. Gentleman on the Labour Benches who would more befit the title of right hon. Gentleman than the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, and perhaps that will be corrected in due course.
Peter Bradley: I want to correct the impression that the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) just created. It is not the families who will be required to pay back the £3,000 a year in fees, but the graduate, once they are earning above a certain threshold, and on an interest-free basis. That is a fairly generous settlement. Perhaps when the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend understand that, they will agree.
Mr. Collins: I am sure that that is what the hon. Gentleman believes, but we shall see, at the time of the next election, whether that is what students, parents and others believe. He might find that his view, which is held by only a narrow majority in his parliamentary party, is not held by a majority in the country as a whole.
I want to discuss Lords amendment No. 5. One reason for my praising the Minister earlier is that he is good at departing from an official brief, putting points in his own way, listening to debates and answering responsibly, so this failing on his part is uncharacteristic. He advanced what sounded like a bureaucratic argument against the amendment, which is, in effect, "It's not that we think there is anything in the civil service code that should not apply to the appointment of the director of OFFA. It's just that, since he is not technically a civil servant, we don't think that that is the right code to apply to him. It should be another code."
In addition to the welcome general sentiments expressed in the other place and by the Minister this afternoon in terms of the appointment being made on the basis of merit and proper accessit would be rather ironic if the director for fair access was appointed following a procedure that did not involve fair accessit would be helpful if the Minister explained whether there are any specific requirements in the civil service code that he would not want to apply to the Secretary of State's appointment in this instance?
I leave aside the question whether the post is purely that of a civil servant or that of a regulator. Are there any specific points that the Minister thinks it would be damaging, unwise or unacceptable to the Government to apply? If he clarifies whether this is simply a bureaucratic point, we can argue about whether it is an important bureaucratic point. It would be helpful to delve below the surface to see whether there is more to be found there.
The meat of the debatein fairness to the Minister, the meat of his remarksrelates to Lords amendments Nos. 15, 16 and 17. We had an interesting debate
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involving a number of the Minister's Back Benchers. It struck me that a review of proceedings in the other place shows a reverse of the pressure being put on Ministers there compared with that being put on the Minister here. In the other place, not only Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, but Cross-Benchers and, indeed, the majority of Labour Back Benchers who spoke around the subject of the powers, functions and role of the regulator, put overwhelming pressure on the Government to recognise the need for academic freedom and the need to reduce the burdensome nature of what many in higher education fear will come from OFFA.
As a result of that, a very significant and welcome concession was madethe Minister did not refer to it, but it is certainly welcome on this side of the House, although it may not be universally welcome on histhat the Government should write into the Bill specifically a requirement that the director of OFFA will not have a role in the criteria for admissions.
We talked around that issue during debates in Committee, and the Minister would go only so far as saying that admissions policies would not be a matter on which the director could intervene. Moving beyond that to say that admissions criteria shall not be a matter for the director is a welcome concession. I hope that we have an opportunity to talk about it, although I am not sure that we will.
The point about Lords amendments Nos. 15, 16 and 17 from the other place is that they pushed the Government a little further in that direction. What became clear from our debate earlier is that the majority of those who intervened from the Government side of the Housethere was one exceptionare arguing that the director of OFFA should have more teeth, be more interventionist, be more activist and deploy, to use terminology used earlier, sticks as well as carrots. It was also suggested that there should be no question of any further removal of tooth or gum. I think that that was another analogy that was used.
I do not envy the Minister in this respect. He is trying to balance not only the interests of higher education and the interests of those of his Back Benchers who are concerned to try to persuade higher education that its primary duty is to get people in on some basis other than academic merit, but what Labour Back Benchers are saying in one House of this Parliament and what they are saying in the other.
The point about Lords amendments Nos. 15, 16 and 17 is that they would not have the damaging effects that the Minister set out. I understand why he does not like them, but he is slightly overstating the case, if I may say so, in saying that they are as absurd as he suggests. They would further put in place some protections for higher education institutions against the director of OFFA. That is explicitly the intention of the other place.
The Minister slightly gave the game away when he said that the Government want to move away from the current situation in which wider participation agreements are made between universities and the Higher Education Funding Council. The amendments would take things back much closer to the current system in which HEFC, acting as something of a barrier
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between the politicians in Whitehall and universities, can try to ensure that proper participation strategies are pursued, but in a way that does not interfere with universities' freedoms.
Although it is pretty clear from what the Minister said that the Government are not minded to accept the amendments on this occasion, I hope that they may be prepared to be persuaded to look again at the matter, were the other place to return to it in similar vein. They have made welcome concessions on OFFA, and the logic of those concessions is that we ought to have a genuinely light-touch OFFA regime.
The Minister saidthis, again, is the balancing act that he is trying to preservethat he wants a light touch, not a soft touch. It almost goes without saying that we on the Conservative Benches want an OFFA with no touch, because we do not want an OFFA at all. However, if we are to have an OFFA, it should be as non-interventionist as possible.
It is important to leave time for others to contribute to this important debate, so, in conclusion, I hope that the Minister recognises the fact that the Government's attitude in the other place was very welcome as they were prepared to concede ground on a number of points. They will do themselves even more favours, with the higher education world in particular, if they are prepared to reconsider the spirit behind amendments that they have said this afternoon that they cannot accept.
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