4 Mar 2011 : Column 547

4 Mar 2011 : Column 547

House of Commons

Friday 4 March 2011

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

9. 34 am

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 163).

The House divided:

Ayes 0, Noes 34.

Division No. 213]

[9.34 am


Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr Philip Hollobone and

Mr Peter Bone


Brokenshire, James

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clark, rh Greg

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Crabb, Stephen

Cunningham, Tony

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Duddridge, James

Dunne, Mr Philip

Fallon, Michael

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Gauke, Mr David

Gibb, Mr Nick

Harper, Mr Mark

Hendry, Charles

Hurd, Mr Nick

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jones, Graham

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Lucas, Ian

Penning, Mike

Randall, rh Mr John

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, Hugh

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Julian

Vaz, Valerie

Webb, Steve

Wiggin, Bill

Tellers for the Noes:

Jonathan Lord and

Jacob Rees-Mogg

The Speaker declared that the Question was not decided because fewer than 40 Members had participated in the Division (Standing Order No. 41).

4 Mar 2011 : Column 548

Sports Grounds Safety Authority Bill

Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

9.48 am

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

As there have been no amendments and as the Bill received good and quite thorough debate in Committee, I do not intend to speak for long.

The Bill is an important measure that allows the Football Licensing Authority to provide advice about sports ground safety to other sports and organisations. The authority was set up in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster and over subsequent years the FLA and its key personnel have gained an extremely high reputation for their expertise and experience in football ground safety. They are the authors of the “Green Guide”, which has rightly been described as the leading publication in the world on sports ground safety. Indeed, there is no other organisation quite like the FLA in the world; yet despite building a world-class reputation, and with expertise that is relevant to all sports grounds, the authority remains restricted by statute to offering specific advice and guidance for domestic football stadiums only. Over the years, several sports bodies, organisations and clubs, and other countries, have approached the FLA to get the benefit of specific safety advice, but have had to be turned away.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): If my hon. Friend’s Bill becomes law and the authority takes on a wider remit, will it change its name to reflect that?

Jonathan Lord: It will indeed; it will become the Sports Grounds Safety Authority. I will mention that later.

Most important at present, the organisers of our 2012 Olympics would like to benefit from the full range of expertise and advice that the FLA has to offer.

The Bill will not change the safety regime that relates to football or, indeed, other sports grounds, and the authority’s licensing functions will continue to relate only to football grounds. It will simply allow other sports and organisations to seek advice should they wish to do so, and to reflect that wider remit the Football Licensing Authority will be renamed the Sports Grounds Safety Authority.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I know of the excellent work done by the authority and its expertise, because there is an excellent football ground in my constituency at Gillingham, whose team will be promoted this year. Have the other bodies to which my hon. Friend refers been consulted to ensure that they want to continue such work?

Jonathan Lord: Yes, there has been a lot of consultation, and that was covered thoroughly in Committee. Indeed, I should like to thank colleagues for the cross-party support that the Bill has received so far.

I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and other hon. Members from Merseyside and Sheffield for their support,

4 Mar 2011 : Column 549

given that the FLA was originally set up to try to ensure that a Hillsborough-type tragedy could never happen again at one of our football grounds. The grief that resulted from that terrible day can never be fully assuaged, and even now, after more than 21 years, we continue to salute the fortitude of those who survived and those who lost loved ones.

It is entirely fitting that other sports should henceforth be able to access the good practice and improved safety that the authority has helped to ensure for football over the past two decades.

As we prepare to welcome the nations of the world to London and our other venues for the Olympics and to host the most prestigious sporting event in the world it is surely only right that we take every measure possible to ensure the safety of our guests and spectators. This Bill will help in that endeavour, and I commend it to the House.

9.52 am

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) on his Bill. To legislate so early in his parliamentary career is indeed a step that he has undertaken effectively, well and eloquently. I am pleased to say that, bearing in mind of course the emphasis that he gave to safety, which must override all our approaches to such matters, the Opposition are very happy to support the Bill.

I have discussed the Bill with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), and I believe that he has discussed it with the hon. Gentleman. Of course, all such legislation is coloured by the dreadful events at Hillsborough. I should like to align myself with his comments about the Hillsborough families, their continued fortitude and their importance in all considerations that relate to sports grounds, as we must now say—not just football grounds—and, of course, it makes good sense to use the expertise and experience that we have acquired over the years to the benefit of sports grounds not just in the UK but anywhere.

It is important that the sporting lead that this country will show in the next year and, we hope, beyond will bring experience to bear for all those countries across the world that can learn from our strong sporting tradition. So I say well done to the hon. Gentleman for proposing the Bill and for speaking this morning. The Bill has our full support.

9.54 am

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) on promoting the Bill. He has made a terrific effort in coming to Parliament with the idea to improve safety and taking it forward. I have played a lot of sport, including cricket for Kent schools and in football trials for Chatham Town and Sittingbourne amateur teams.

Sport plays a key part in our history and culture, and it absolutely right that the safety of those who go to watch it is of paramount importance. In my constituency, there is a fantastic football club, which is in division two, and about 5,000 people attend every match. The authority’s first-rate safety work is of the utmost importance.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 550

It is only right and proper that other organisations and sporting groups can share its skills and expertise, especially, as my hon. Friend said, given the upcoming sporting events such as the Olympics, cricket test matches year on year and a host of others.

The key thing is people’s safety. Ensuring that people can attend such events safely is of the utmost importance. This is about making sport a family event—and it is becoming that. It is a key part of our culture that families go to watch sporting events, and people want to know that, when they do so, their loved ones will be safe. Therefore, when an organisation has a proven track record of providing such safety expertise, it is completely illogical to have a statute that stops it sharing that expertise. It is right and proper to deal with the issue with the utmost importance and swiftness. On that basis, I fully support my hon. Friend and will do everything that I can to support the Bill, because it provides a good way to move forward.

9.56 am

The Minister for Sport and the Olympics (Hugh Robertson): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) for his leadership and hard work in progressing the Bill. As other hon. Members have said, it is quite an achievement to get legislation on to the statute book inside one’s first year in Parliament. Most of us fail to do that in any way, shape or form over a considerably longer period. It is a remarkable achievement, and I say well done to him.

May I put on record our thanks to the Opposition? The Bill has its genesis in the previous Government, who tried with private Members’ Bills and a Home Office Bill to get such legislation on to the statute book. I am grateful to the Opposition for their help and support in achieving that for this Bill.

Unsurprisingly, the Government strongly support the Bill, as we want to allow the FLA to build on its important role in football ground safety, without compromising the safety function in any way.

I want to make a few quick comments about the FLA. It has played a crucial role in transforming spectator safetyat football grounds over the past 20 years. It receives grant-in-aid funding of just under £1.2 million a year—a relatively small sum for such an important task—to carry out its statutory functions, including advising on spectator and venue safety issues at football grounds in England. It is a pretty lean and efficient organisation, and it offers excellent value for money. It has nine inspectors, who are based in the regions and who work tirelessly with football clubs and local authorities. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House will have come across them in some way, shape or form. It is a world leader in sports ground safety. Indeed, it is the author of the world’s leading sports safety publication, which I imagine you regularly take to bed with you,Mr Speaker, called the “Green Guide”. In short, its expertise is valued and respected nationally and internationally.

Governments of all colours have accepted, however, that it is important to recognise and, vitally, to build on that success. The Bill gives us an opportunity to raise the profile of the FLA’s work. Crucially, it is also gives us the opportunity to share that knowledge and experience with other sports and other nations. We are absolutely

4 Mar 2011 : Column 551

committed to maintaining the services and standards provided to football, but there is a unique opportunity to extend the FLA’s reach and remit for wider benefit. Of course, the London Olympics will be upon us in 18 months’ time, so it is important and timely to do this today.

I am glad that the Bill has enjoyed wide cross-party support. It has been about 10 years in the making. It is greatly to my hon. Friend’s credit that he has brought it to fruition, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 552

Estates of Deceased Persons (Forfeiture Rule and Law of Succession) Bill

Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

10 am

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This modest Bill seeks to amend the law of succession in England and Wales in three instances: first, where a person disclaims—that is, rejects—an inheritance, or secondly, where a person is disqualified from receiving an inheritance by virtue of the forfeiture rule. The rule is defined in section 1 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 as meaning the rule of public policy that, in certain circumstances, precludes a person who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit in consequence of the killing. Thirdly, the Bill addresses the anomaly in the present law whereby the children of a minor who is entitled to inherit an interest in the estate of an intestate person, but who dies unmarried and without entering a civil partnership before the age of 18, are unable to inherit their parent’s interest in that estate.

The Bill is not expected to impose any additional burden on the Consolidated Fund, and no change in the work load of any Government Department or agency is anticipated on its implementation.

Clause 3, as I said, corrects an anomaly in the law that discriminates against certain minor children. At present, children who are alive when their grandparent dies intestate will not inherit any share of their grandparent’s estate if their parent dies unmarried or uncivil-partnered before reaching the age of 18. Under my Bill, the children will be able to inherit their parent’s share. However, I wish to make it clear that the clause is narrow in its impact.

The minor grandchildren who will benefit are those who are alive—that includes any child en ventre sa mère—at the death of the intestate grandparent. I do not think the Bill is in any way ambiguous, but I wanted to place it on the record that the change in the law being made by clause 3 merely corrects an anomaly. It does not rewrite the policy of the statutory trusts, which limit beneficiaries to those alive at the date of death. Therefore, a child conceived after the death has no entitlement under the intestacy rules, and my Bill does not seek to alter that position. If it were to do so, it could create a new anomaly in attempting to resolve an existing one.

I am most grateful for the support that I have received from all parts of the House, particularly the courteous and helpful assistance that I have received from the Minister and his departmental team. I would like to mention a few people to whom I am most indebted: Mark Ormerod, the chief executive of the Law Commission; Joel Wolchover, who is also with the Law Commission; Paul Hughes and his team from the Ministry of Justice; Sarah Davies in the Public Bill Office; my hon. Friend the Minister; the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who led for the Opposition thus far; the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), who is with us today in his stead; and my own researcher, Matthew Thomas. I am indebted to them all and I am grateful to the Justice Committee, which has indicated its support for the proposal.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 553

The Bill is intended to make our law fairer by removing technicalities that run contrary to the general policy of the law of succession. It will allow direct descendants to inherit ahead of more distant relatives on intestacy. I commend the Bill to the House.

10.4 am

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) on his presentation of the Bill throughout. As he said, I come late to it, but having read the earlier proceedings, I know that it was extensively and fully debated on Second Reading, but that the Committee stage lasted some eight minutes. Both of those are testament to the fact that the Bill has been thoroughly and professionally presented, in a way that avoided controversy. The important point, as was said at those stages, is that 200 people a year will be affected by the changes. For those people, it will make the law fairer. As has been noted, its provisions will do so at a time of great tragedy for some people.

The merits of the Bill have been sufficiently discussed, so I shall not restate them. My colleagues in the shadow Ministry of Justice team, my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who supported the Bill from the outset, and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who helped ensure its smooth passage through the Second Reading and Committee stages, have reminded me of its merits, and I am in full agreement.

The Bill introduces provisions that the previous Government had intended to introduce following the 2009 Law Commission report, which highlighted the unfairness of the current law. I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, who said that we were disappointed that the civil law reform Bill that we had intended to introduce was abandoned by the Government in January this year. It incorporated similar recommendations to those that we are now passing. In that sense, the Bill has done what the Government would not do, but I note that it has the Government’s support, which I welcome.

In conclusion, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his success with the swift passage of the Bill so far. It is a timely Bill, supported on both sides of the House, and it focuses on an issue in the law with great skill, making it a template for the successful private Member’s Bill.

10.7 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) on his success in steering his Bill to Third Reading without amendment, and clearly with considerable support from all parts of the House. I hope this success continues.

The Bill, as has been said, is a narrow but worthwhile piece of technical law reform that will make the law fairer. It overcomes the problem that, where an inheritance has been disclaimed or forfeited, people claiming through the person who disclaimed or whose inheritance was forfeited cannot inherit. The Bill allows them to do so by introducing a deemed predecease rule. It achieves a similar outcome where a person loses a benefit on intestacy by dying a single parent under the age of 18. In this case the Bill allows his or her children living, or at least conceived, at the death of the intestate to inherit

4 Mar 2011 : Column 554

the benefit that he or she, their minor parent, would have received, had he or she lived long enough.

These changes will bring the law of succession more into line with the general policy that, in the absence of a clear intention in a will, descendants should be preferred over remoter relatives. The Bill implements, with modifications, recommendations of the Law Commission. I am grateful to the commission for its work in developing the reforms and for its continuing support for the Bill.

Let me consider the Bill in a little more detail. Clause 1 applies where a person dies intestate or partially intestate. In these circumstances, after the deceased person’s debts have been paid, his or her estate or, in cases of partial intestacy, such part of it as is not distributed by the will, is passed by the personal representatives to the persons entitled to inherit under the intestacy rules. These rules, which have been amended from time to time, were introduced by the Administration of Estates Act 1925. They are intended to give effect to what it is thought the deceased person would have specified in his or her will had he or she made one. This is clearly a very general aspiration, as no one can know what the deceased person would have specified had he or she made a will, but we can be reasonably confident that closer relations are generally more likely to be left something than more distant ones and that direct descendants are likely to be preferred over collateral descendants.

Therefore, the general policy on intestacy is that, once the interest of any spouse or civil partner has been satisfied, the property of the deceased should pass to closer blood relatives before more distant ones. The children of the deceased, for example, should be preferred to siblings of the deceased. This general policy is overridden if a person is convicted of the unlawful killing of another, or of aiding, abetting or counselling another to do so. In such cases, he or she is automatically disqualified from inheriting from the victim under the forfeiture rules. This is a rule of public policy that states that a person cannot inherit property from someone whom he or she has unlawfully killed. It applies in murder and manslaughter cases. However, persons convicted of lesser offences than murder may be permitted relief to inherit the victim’s property by the court under the Forfeiture Act 1982.

Clause 1 is necessary because in 2000 the Court of Appeal decided in re DWS deceased that where a person forfeits an inheritance on intestacy because he or she has killed the person from whom he or she would have inherited, his or her children will also be disinherited. This is because the relevant intestacy rules provide that a grandchild can inherit from a grandparent only if his or her parent—the grandparent’s child—has already died. In that case, the parent had not died but had forfeited his inheritance by murdering his parents. The decision in re DWS deceased is inconsistent with the general policy underlying the law of intestacy. It is unfair that the grandchild should be disinherited in these circumstances. The same situation arises in relation to disclaimer, which is the legal term used to describe the situation where a beneficiary under a will or intestacy rejects an inheritance. The children of a person who disclaims an inheritance on intestacy cannot inherit through him or her because he or she is still alive.

Subsections (1) and (2) of clause 1 solve these problems by introducing a deemed predeceased rule into the intestacy rules. The rule is set out in new section 46A. The effect of the new section is that where a person forfeits an inheritance because he or she is convicted of

4 Mar 2011 : Column 555

murder, for example, he or she is deemed, for the purposes of the intestacy rules only, to have died before the victim. Similarly, new section 46A deems the person who disclaims an inheritance to have died before the intestate. The legal device of deeming a person to be dead, which is set out in new section 46A, enables the children of the person who has forfeited or disclaimed the inheritance to inherit their intestate grandparent’s property in accordance with the intestacy rules.

Before moving on to the remainder of clause 1, I will comment on subsections (3) and (4) of new section 46A. These make it clear that the deemed predeceased rule is not intended to prevent the offender from inheriting where the court, in the exercise of the discretion it is given by the Forfeiture Act 1982, decides that an inheritance is not to be forfeit. Section 2 of the 1982 Act, to which subsection (3) of new section 46A refers, gives the court the power to modify the effect of the forfeiture rule where the offender has not been convicted of murder, for example by allowing the killer to inherit all or part of the estate.

Mr Knight: Does the Minister agree that the reason for that discretion is to cover cases, other than murder cases, where it is felt overall that justice does not require the person to be disinherited, such as mercy killing?

Mr Djanogly: My right hon. Friend makes a fair remark that gets us back to the core of what we are debating: introducing fairness into the process.

The rule introduced by new section 46A gives way to any order made by the court under section 2 of the 1982 Act. Subsection (4) of new section 46A defines what is meant by the forfeiture rule for the purposes of the Bill. It does so by adopting the definition of the forfeiture rule in section (1) of the 1982 Act, which provides that the forfeiture rule means the rule of public policy, which in certain circumstances precludes the person who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit in consequence of the killing. For these purposes, references to a person who has unlawfully killed another include a person who has unlawfully aided, abetted, counselled or procured the death of the other person.

Subsections (3) and (4) of clause 1 make two consequential amendments to the intestacy rules. Subsection (3) amends section 47(1) of the 1925 Act, which is quite a complicated provision defining the statutory trusts for descendants on intestacy, because section 47(1) currently provides that no grandchild or more remote descendant may inherit under the statutory trusts if his or her parent is still alive when the intestate grandparent dies. This is perfectly sensible in the generality of cases, but it would frustrate the intended operation of new section 46A, which, where it applies, treats the offender as having died before the deceased so that the offender’s children—the victim’s grandchildren—can inherit. Clause 1(3) removes this potential inconsistency by making section 47(2) of the 1925 Act subject to new section 46A.

Clause 1(4) also amends section 47 of the 1925 Act by inserting new subsection (4A), which states that subsections (2) and (4) of section 47 of the 1925 Act are subject to new section 46A. The change is necessary because subsections (2) and (4) of section 47 cover some of the same ground as new section 46A. Section 47(2) provides that where no descendant of the intestate attains a vested interest by reaching the age of 18, or marrying or entering a civil partnership under that age, the estate is to be distributed as if the intestate had died

4 Mar 2011 : Column 556

without issue. Section 47(4) applies a similar rule to the statutory trust for siblings of the intestate or issue of such siblings, so that only those members of that class who achieve the age of 18, or marry or enter into a civil partnership under that age, will be included.

The new subsection (4A) of section 47 of the 1925 Act, inserted by clause 1(4) of the Bill, ensures that any duplication with section 47(2) and 47(4) is avoided. Clause 1 implements the recommendations of the Law Commission in its 2005 report on the forfeiture rules and the law of succession. The clause does not, however, contain exactly the same provisions as the equivalent clause in the draft Bill that was published with the Law Commission’s report in 2005, and indeed replicated in large part in the draft civil law reform Bill published for pre-legislative scrutiny by the previous Government in December 2009.

The difference is that those earlier draft Bills contained specific provisions intended to ensure that in forfeiture cases the killer was prevented from gaining any benefit from the inheritance that would, under the terms of the draft Bill, pass to his or her children. Those special trust provisions attracted a good deal of criticism from witnesses to the Justice Committee and from people who replied to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on the draft civil law reform Bill, including the Bar Council and the Law Society, which represent the majority of legal practitioners likely to have to advise on that area of the law. The overall view of those two respondents was that legislation already exists to protect an infant beneficiary’s inheritance in forfeiture cases if such protection were needed.

Both organisations referred to section 116 of the Senior Courts Act 1981, which provides the court with a discretion to pass over any prior claims to a grant and to appoint someone else if, by reason of any special circumstances, it appears necessary or expedient to do so. The Bar Council also mentioned section 114(2) of the 1981 Act, which provides that, wherever a minority interest arises under a will or on intestacy, a grant should be made to a trust corporation or to two individuals, unless it appears to the court to be expedient that there should be a sole personal representative. The Bar Council concluded:

“On balance we consider the [provisions safeguarding an infant after forfeiture] to be unhelpful, and likely to lead to an increased expense in the administration of estates in circumstances which are bound to be tragic but are otherwise unpredictable.”

We considered those criticisms carefully and discussed them with the Law Commission and chief chancery master Winegarten, who would, with his fellow judges in the chancery division, have to administer the provisions. We concluded that the special trust provisions would be unnecessary, problematic and expensive to operate. The existing law, which already imposes a trust for the benefit of minor children and gives the court power to supervise the administration of estates, gives effective and adequate protection.

Both the Law Commission and chief master Winegarten were content with the omission of the special trust provisions from the Bill, and we welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to remove them from it. Clause 1 will, as he said in his earlier intervention, make the law fairer, and we wish that part of the Bill very well.

I thought it might be helpful for hon. Members to have some idea of how clause 1 will work in practice. We are dealing with forfeiture on intestacy. In this particular situation, John has murdered his father Bob

4 Mar 2011 : Column 557

and is disqualified under the forfeiture rule from inheriting his estate. Bob did not leave a will, so his estate will be distributed under the intestacy rules. John is one of three children whom Bob had with his late wife, Janet. In this situation, John would have been entitled to a third share of Bob’s estate, but the operation of the forfeiture rule in succession prevents him from inheriting.

John has two children, Rosie and Ben. Under the current law, Rosie and Ben cannot inherit John’s share of their grandfather’s estate, because although John is disqualified from inheriting under the forfeiture rule, he is alive, and the intestacy rule provides that, for a grandchild to inherit from his or her deceased grandparent, his or her parent must have pre-deceased the intestate. Clearly, in the forfeiture situation the offender is still alive when the killing takes place.

As a consequence of the interaction of the forfeiture rule and law of intestacy, John’s interest will go back into the estate and pass to Bob’s other blood relatives or, if there is none, to the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duke of Cornwall as bona vacantia, under the law relating to ownerless goods. Under the proposed new rule, however, John will be deemed to have died immediately before his father, enabling his children, Rosie and Ben, to inherit his share of his father’s estate. A similar outcome will be achieved when an interest on intestacy has been disclaimed or rejected.

So, if I can, Mr Speaker, I shall move on to clause 2, which amends the Wills Act 1837. The amendments make analogous provision to clause 1, which deals with intestacy in the cases where the deceased leaves a will and an inheritance is disclaimed or forfeited by the intended recipient. Clause 2 is necessary because section 33 of the 1837 Act provides that, where a child of a testator dies before the testator, leaving grandchildren who are alive at the death of the testator, the gift to the child takes effect as a gift to the grandchildren. To give effect to the testator’s wishes, which is the paramount principle of the law of wills, clause 2 inserts new section 33A into the 1837 Act. In all those cases, however, if the will indicates that the testator had different intentions, it will prevail.

Having explained in some lesser or more detail clauses 1 and 2, Mr Speaker, I think it appropriate now—

Mr Speaker: Order. The House is attending very closely to the development of the Minister’s thesis and is, I think, indebted to him. If, however, he were under the impression that there was an obligation upon him to treat in detail each component clause, I would want to dispel any such misapprehension. He is not obliged to do so, and if he felt inclined to move towards a conclusion to his thesis I do not think that there would be vociferous objection in the House.

Mr Djanogly: I am very pleased, Mr Speaker, to hear that the House would have no objections to my moving on. In some ways, you have pre-empted my thoughts on the matter, and to that extent I am delighted to wind up my speech. Just to say, finally, that from the Government’s point of view we wish the Bill very well on its further progress.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 558

Further and Higher Education (Access) Bill

Second Reading

10.28 am

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a Bill to make provision to require all institutions of further and higher education in receipt of public funds to allocate places on merit, something that I understand my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for universities and higher education very much supports. I hope, therefore, that the Government will support the Bill today; and if they do not I hope that the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who I am pleased to see on the Front Bench, will spell out in detail exactly why not.

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): I am delighted that my hon. Friend has given way at this early stage. There is no doubt about our shared commitment to the principle that people should advance on the basis of merit. It would clearly be precipitous for me to say more about the Bill, but I give him the absolute assurance that that principle guides all that we do in the Department, and that it is a view shared by all Ministers who have responsibilities in this area.

Mr Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is obviously demonstrating that he has an open mind on this subject, which is more than I can say for the Government in relation to another Bill that I have on the Order Paper, the Minimum Wage (Amendment) Bill. Yesterday, before he had even had a chance to the listen to the arguments for that Bill, the Leader of the House said that the Government would be against it. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has an open mind on this issue.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there is a lot of confusion at the moment, among universities in particular and other institutions of higher education, because the Government seem to be at sixes and sevens in developing their policy in this area. Originally, the Government said that they would publish guidance to the Office for Fair Access by the end of January to enable it to give guidance to universities by the middle of February on their admissions policies for the academic year starting in 2012. Despite full guidance having been issued in the middle of February, with the Minister for Universities and Science saying in a press statement at the time that OFFA would be able to advise universities by the end of February, as of now, in the first week of March, there is still no information from OFFA on the principles that universities should apply for next year’s admissions.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): On the subject of guidance, may I ask why my hon. Friend has, unusually, not published explanatory notes and guidance to his Bill?

Mr Chope: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. The reason is that I thought that my Bill was exemplary in putting forward an argument in simple language that everyone should be able to understand,

4 Mar 2011 : Column 559

and that it did not need any guidance. I will come to the detail of the Bill shortly. I hope that, having read the Bill, he accepts that it is plain about what it seeks to achieve.

Mr Knight: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. My point was that if he had issued guidance, the House might not need him to make such a long speech explaining his Bill.

Mr Chope: My right hon. Friend has just succeeded in getting his Bill through its Second Reading, Committee stage and Third Reading very fast. I hope that my Bill will make similarly rapid progress. That is why I look forward eagerly to hearing what the Government’s attitude to it will be. As a general rule, I am not sure that the length of the explanatory notes, or the fact that there are explanatory notes, is a good guide to whether a Bill will make progress. If I recall correctly, the Wreck Removal Convention Bill, which was brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and which we will discuss in a fortnight, has quite extensive explanatory notes. I am not sure that that is necessarily an indication of how much time will be spent discussing it.

I return now to one of the principal reasons for my concern about the guidance. The full guidance that was issued by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Minister for Universities and Science to the director of fair access in February was based on the draft guidance that was issued on 7 December 2010. Paragraph 6.1 of the draft guidance was very clear:

“There have been no changes in the legal constraints on your powers as Director of Fair Access. You are not empowered to interfere in institutions’ decisions about the admissions of students and you may only set conditions that clearly relate to promoting participation and access.”

When the final guidance was issued last month, that paragraph was omitted. I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Universities and Science, asking why it had been omitted. Unfortunately, the fact that I received a holding reply rather than an immediate substantive reply makes it obvious that he had to think about why it had been omitted. Eventually, he came back with an answer pursuant to the holding answer of 16 February:

“Paragraph 6.1 was unnecessary as it provided no new information.”—[Official Report, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 981W.]

I am not convinced by that and remain very suspicious. Indeed, the full guidance is more extensive than the draft guidance. The full guidance is some seven and a half pages long, whereas the draft was only five and a half pages long. That clearly expressed paragraph is omitted from the final guidance.

I share the concern of many people in universities that the Government are trying to increase regulation and interference to tick boxes on social engineering and social mobility, and that that is ill conceived.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): In the guidance—I am not sure on what date the guidance I have was published—have not the Government directed OFFA that it must be “fair, transparent and evidence-based”

4 Mar 2011 : Column 560

in all that it does? Does my hon. Friend have an issue with that? It seems quite clear from the guidance that I have read.

Mr Chope: Well, we will have to see what happens. If one looks at the detailed guidance—I do not have the paragraph to which my hon. Friend is referring to hand—one can see that it is full of contradictions. The director of fair access said that, based on the guidance, he would issue advice to universities before the end of February to meet their tight time scales. The fact that he has not yet done so perhaps indicates that he is finding it a bit problematic.

This issue even appears in today’s newspapers. In The Times, there is a letter from John Foster, a former chairman of the council at the university of Leicester, expressing strong concern about the Government

“digging itself into an ever-deeper hole”

over universities and student fees. In particular, he states that the Government

“now proposes to penalise some universities that wish to charge the maximum level by cutting their student numbers and diverting thus-frustrated applicants to lesser institutions.”

He states:

“Many will regard this as confirmation that the Government is viscerally opposed to students in general and to higher education in particular. Others will interpret it as a deliberate discouragement to excellence and a reward to mediocrity. I have no doubt that it will weaken the international standing and competitiveness of some of our finest universities.”

Such comments are coming thick and fast from people on the front line in higher education, and they reflect the concerns of, for example, the Russell group of leading universities. It issued a press release on 10 February commenting on the Government’s guidance to OFFA, which made a number of good points and emphasised that

“admission to university is and should be based on merit, and any decisions about admissions must also respect the autonomy of institutions and maintain high academic standards.”

That is four-square with my Bill, because clause 1, which is headed “Duty to allocate places on merit”, states:

“It shall be the duty of all institutions within the further or higher education sectors in receipt of public funds to consider applicants domiciled in England for any course of study below post-graduate level on the basis of merit alone unless the circumstances in section 3 apply.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain why that applies to people domiciled in England, but the Bill would have effect in England and Wales?

Mr Chope: Yes, I will explain that to my hon. Friend. It is because under our conventions, it is not possible to have an Act that applies exclusively to England. Acts have to extend either to England and Wales, to England, Wales and Scotland or to Northern Ireland as well. Although my Bill has to extend to England and Wales, it would actually apply only in England, because the issues that are the subject of it are reserved matters for the Welsh Assembly. I did not think it would be right for the House to interfere with the Welsh Assembly’s discretion on them.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 561

Jacob Rees-Mogg: But does that mean that a Welshman who applied to Oxford could be admitted not on merit, but an Englishman who applied would have to be admitted exclusively on merit?

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend is very good at interpreting the words in the Bill, and that is obviously a factual situation. He will know from his constituents who apply to universities outside England that they are sometimes concerned whether they will be accepted purely on merit or whether, for example, a different set of criteria applies to students from Scotland compared with those from England applying to Scottish universities. I recognise that that is a potentially contentious matter, and I thought it would be better to limit the scope of the Bill in the way that I have.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): As vice-chairman of the all-party group on universities, I hope to speak a little later.

Does my hon. Friend feel that a higher, philosophical question that should be uppermost in our consideration of the Bill is the importance of underpinning the freedom of our universities? It seems to me that they are crucibles of free inquiry, free speech and the freedoms that we as a society cherish. Although I recognise the intent behind his Bill, I worry about any Bill that places more burdens on our universities. Does he agree that the principle of freedom should be sacrosanct?

Mr Chope: Absolutely, and my Bill is designed to promote the freedom of universities to decide the issues in question for themselves and to restrict the Government’s ability to interfere in the governance of our universities, many of which are international institutions of high repute. They are expanding and raising their standards in the global higher education context, and they are highly respected. They do not need an interfering Government, who are pledged to reduce regulation, increasing the regulatory burden on them. However, that, of course, is exactly what the Government’s current policy seems to be.

Julian Smith: As I understand it, one of the biggest problems that the Government are trying to solve is that people of merit from socially disadvantaged backgrounds have not been getting to good further and higher education institutions. Does it not concern my hon. Friend that the Bill could restrict such people’s ability to get into our universities?

Mr Chope: Looking at the Bill, I do not see how that can be the case. I define merit in clause 2 as

“academic ability, potential and aptitude as assessed by the institution of further or higher education”,

thereby emphasising not just academic ability as reflected in exam results but potential and aptitude, to be assessed exclusively by the institution in receipt of an application. That emphasises the importance of giving institutions the freedom to make the judgment themselves.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman explain what would happen if, once the Bill had been passed, an institution did not admit students on the basis of merit?

4 Mar 2011 : Column 562

Mr Chope: That institution would be in breach of a statutory duty, so all the remedies that flow from such a breach would be available to anybody who wished to challenge it. Putting a mirror to what the hon. Gentleman says, I believe that the same problem is writ large in the guidance to OFFA. It looks as though it will tell universities that are considering charging more than £6,000 a year in fees from 2012, “Unless you come forward with an access agreement that we support, you will not be able to charge those higher fees.” What will happen if a university applies to charge fees above £6,000—we have read in the newspapers in recent days about some that intend to do so—and OFFA tells them that they cannot? What will the sanction be? Ultimately, the less interference there is in the process, the better.

It is a pity that it is necessary to encapsulate in a Bill such as this something that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science has said is already as plain as a pikestaff in legislation—the idea that the Government cannot and should not interfere in universities’ access arrangements. My problem, and the problem of a lot of people involved, is that although the Government say that, the whole rationale of OFFA’s director seems to be to interfere rather than leave judgments to the universities themselves.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): One must consider the concept of interference alongside the concept of fair access to universities for people from less privileged backgrounds, because there is a difference between the two. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that such people can go to the highest-performing universities, and if we can assist in that through legislation, it is right and proper to do so.

Mr Chope: The essence of what my hon. Friend says is in the phrase “if we can assist in that”. I do not believe that the Government can assist in that. The premise of what he says is that the universities themselves do not want to facilitate wider access or ensure that the best people can gain access on merit. All the evidence that I have seen suggests that they want to achieve that aim, but they resent the fact that the Government are using OFFA to try to impose additional criteria on them. That is certainly the view of the Russell group and other universities.

Mr Hayes: My hon. Friend’s perspective and the Government’s are close. We have a perfectly proper desire to widen access in the way that has been described, but we differ on the admissions system. I shall speak at some length about that when I reply, but he needs to address it too.

Mr Chope: I shall certainly address that, and I look forward to responding at the end of the debate to the Minister’s comments.

Perhaps one way to address the issue is to look at what the Russell group says. It states:

“We share the Government’s commitment that every student with the qualifications, potential and determination whatever their background has the opportunity to gain a place at a leading university”,

but emphasises that

“the most important reason why too few poorer students even apply to leading universities is that they are not achieving the required grades at school.”

4 Mar 2011 : Column 563

If the main reason why students do not apply is that they do not achieve the required grades, why do the Government, who are responsible for almost all primary and secondary education in the country, not concentrate on that problem, rather than interfering in an area of education in which they have not hitherto interfered? That is a typical approach of the Government: rather than focus on their failure to undertake their responsibilities, they try to introduce more regulation for things that run perfectly adequately. That is the difficulty.

Rehman Chishti: I was here for the universities debate when the Government made it quite clear that through the pupil premium and other support, they will help to ensure that students from less privileged backgrounds get access to universities and improve their grades. I agree with my hon. Friend that we must ensure that those from less privileged backgrounds are given the opportunity and support they need to ensure that they get those results. I was the first in my family to go to university and I went on to become a lawyer and an MP. People like me need such help, but the Government have already committed in the universities package, which includes the pupil premium and other support, to support those from less privileged backgrounds.

Mr Chope: It is one thing to make a commitment and another to deliver on it. I hope the Government can deliver on that one, but my response to my hon. Friend is that if they concentrate on delivering on it through the pupil premium and other measures, they will not need to interfere in the right of the universities at the other end of the system to choose people on merit.

My point remains: there is something desperately wrong with how many our schools operate. They do not allow the full potential of their pupils to be realised in the form of exam results, which is one barrier to access.

The Russell group states:

“The main problem is that students who come from low-income backgrounds and/or who have attended comprehensive schools are much less likely to achieve the highest grades than those who are from more advantaged backgrounds and who have been to independent or grammar schools”,

and points out that

“this gap in achievement according to socio-economic background is getting wider. Too many students don’t choose the subjects at A-level which will give them the best chance of winning a place on the competitive courses at leading universities.”

That is why everyone in the House, including the Minister and the shadow Minister, will be pleased with the Russell group’s informed choices initiative. It tries to ensure that students choose the right subjects at A-level for the courses they are thinking of taking at university.

My daughter is studying veterinary medicine at university. Had she not discussed her preferences with her teachers before choosing her GCSEs, she might not have made the right subject choices. She made those choices on the basis of information provided to her, but quite often people who aspire to take veterinary or medical courses at university do not take the hard subjects in their preceding exams to enable them to do so.

Mr Hayes: My hon. Friend once again hits on a key reason for the failure of many students to achieve their potential—the lack of advice and guidance. I hope he

4 Mar 2011 : Column 564

will take this opportunity to welcome the Government’s commitment to an all-age career service to deal with some of the disparities he describes.

Mr Chope: Absolutely—I am not pouring cold water on that initiative. The Government have demonstrated over the past several months that they share many of our concerns about the failure of the education system to deliver.

The statistics show a desperately serious situation. In the last 15 years, the proportion of A-level students at comprehensive schools who achieve three A grades or more has increased from 4.2% to 8.2%, while the proportion at independent schools has increased from 15.1% to 32.3%. That is a commentary on the previous Administration’s lack of achievement. Anything that can be done to put that right would be a good thing.

Ian Lucas: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but the statistics that he has presented are grossly misleading, because they take no account whatever of the restrictions on admission to many fee-paying schools, which do not apply to schools in the comprehensive sector. He should at least recognise that when he presents such figures.

Mr Chope: They are not my figures—they are from the Department for Education, but they speak for themselves. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants more figures to confirm what a miserable failure the previous Government were in that respect, I should tell him that 29.9% of all students who got three A or A* grades at A-level in 2009-10 were at comprehensive schools, which was 8.2% of the total taking A-levels at comprehensives, but that those comprehensives accounted for 46.7% of all A-level students. That shows that the comprehensive schools just did not deliver on the potential of the students whom they taught.

Mr Hayes: I recognise, and indeed acknowledge, that prior attainment, as well as advice and guidance, is a key factor in subsequent achievement. My hon. Friend might remind the shadow Minister that, as C. S. Lewis said:

“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

It is a long road for the Opposition and many finger posts.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend the Minister is great with quotes, and I notice that the shadow Minister does not wish to respond to that one yet—he will have the chance to do so later.

Let us not think that the universities are doing nothing. They are trying to encourage people to apply and are engaging in outreach initiatives. The Russell group alone is investing £75 million a year in initiatives designed to help the least advantaged students to win places at university, which is quite a lot of money.

George Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. Does not the fact that the universities, whose only interest is in academic excellence, find it necessary to make such investment, tell us everything we need to know about the lack of need to regulate them further?

4 Mar 2011 : Column 565

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend and I are on the same side. The universities are taking such steps voluntarily, so we do not need more regulation.

George Freeman: I am sorry; I did not make myself clear. I meant regulating universities further through my hon. Friend’s Bill, which would further complicate the matter and require them to be guided by the words in the Bill. If it became law, it would place on them a duty to choose only on the basis of merit, as he has defined it. Can we not just trust them to work with the Government? Does not the fact that they already invest such sums in outreach give us all the reassurance we need that they believe that it is important and that therefore it must be?

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend is trying to attack my Bill as a regulatory measure, when in fact it is a deregulatory measure. It aims to prevent the burden that the Government are trying to place on universities in a less than transparent way—using the Office for Fair Access—and which is increasing regulation on universities. That would be prevented by the Bill, because it would be at odds with the duty to allocate places on merit other than in accordance with the exemptions set out in clause 3. He stands four-square with me in saying that we want to reduce the burden on these universities. However, at the moment the burden is being increased by the Government under their measures to try to bring about social engineering in a rather partisan way.

Julian Smith: Is the key fact not that, whether it was the fault of universities or the previous Government, there has been a failure to get people from disadvantaged backgrounds into our better universities? A piece of research by Martin Harris concluded that

“while there have been substantial increases in participation among the least advantaged 40 per cent of young people across higher education overall compared to the mid-1990s, the participation rate among the same group of young people at the top third of selective universities has remained almost flat over the same period.”

Is it not morally right that the Government are trying to address this issue?

Mr Chope: There might be an issue there, but Sir Martin Harris has a vested interest; he is the director of the Office for Fair Access and obviously has to keep himself in a job. He is saying that there has been an increase in admissions to universities from people from poorer backgrounds, but that that has not yet percolated through to the top universities. He is therefore seeking a mandate to have more powers to interfere in those top universities. I am trying to put the point of view of the Russell group, which is a representative sample of those top universities. It points out that it has made enormous progress without that sort of interference. Indeed, it thinks that the Government’s ideas—and, by implication, Sir Martin Harris’s ideas—on this will be dangerous and counter-productive by being too prescriptive.

The Russell group has commented on the question of how we are going to measure success in improving access. It is the same with all these principles: if we cannot measure it, we cannot control it. It says:

“Any measurement of universities’ progress in improving access must be undertaken with great care. The investment of Russell Group institutions into outreach activities benefits the sector as a

4 Mar 2011 : Column 566

whole, with many students being inspired to study at other institutions as a result of our widely targeted work with potential candidates of many ages and backgrounds. We believe our universities have a role in helping all students to fulfil their potential, not simply widening access to our own institutions.”

That demonstrates how difficult it is to judge an individual university’s outreach programme solely on the basis of how many students it has brought into its own university as a result of that outreach programme, because that programme might have enabled students from poorer backgrounds to apply to, be accepted by and go to other universities. Obviously, the next question that arises is, how will we possibly measure that? It would be very complicated. That takes me back to the point that we do not need to have all this regulation. Why can we not trust these universities to carry on doing as they have been doing up until now.

Rehman Chishti: My hon. Friend referred to the Russell group’s saying that £70 million will go towards ensuring that people from less privileged backgrounds can go to university, but if I remember correctly—from the universities debate—the Government were looking at providing £150 million for widening access. Surely it has to be a good thing that more money is made available to allow more people from less privileged backgrounds to have hope and aspiration.

Mr Chope: Absolutely, but the £150 million is going towards scholarship funds. At the moment, the Russell group, which represents only about 20 universities, is already investing more than £75 million a year. Pro rata, it is already investing more than the Government are promising to invest in the future, yet the Government are saying that if a university wants to raise its fees to anything beyond £6,000, the Government will, through the Office for Fair Access, interfere in its ability to do so and exercise their own judgment on the level of the fees because they are concerned about improving access. I am saying that these universities should be trusted. Many of them are international centres of excellence and should be trusted to make their own judgments. There is no reason to criticise anything that the Russell group universities have achieved, or indeed what some other universities have achieved.

I suspect that at the heart of all this is a feeling on the part of some elements of the coalition Government—I will not spell out, following the Barnsley by-election, which elements I have in mind. [Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) says, it is the part of the coalition not represented in the House today.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): They came sixth.

Mr Chope: The hon. Gentleman obviously wants to put it on the record that they came sixth in the Barnsley by-election.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I think we should get back to the subject, rather than discus the Barnsley results.

Mr Chope: Certainly, Mr Deputy Speaker. It would ill-behove either you or me to bask in any glory as a result of that by-election result. It is a pity, however,

4 Mar 2011 : Column 567

that there is no Liberal Democrat representative in today’s debate to discuss these very important issues.

I turn to the measures being taken already to improve access. There is going to be a measurement system under the proposals for assessing the ability or willingness of OFFA to allow universities to charge higher fees. The system for measuring the success in improving access needs to include—it does not at the moment—access to other institutions as a result of the work carried out by a particular university. The Russell group welcomed

“the Government’s guidance that institutions should set their own targets and measures of progress”,

but was concerned that

“existing…widening participation benchmarks are unsuitable as targets against which institutions’ progress can be meaningfully measured.”

It quotes Lord Browne—the guru on this issue, who produced his report last year—who found that

“the benchmarks do not provide a sophisticated enough picture of the student population actually qualified to meet the entry requirements of many courses. For example, they take no account of the fact that someone with 4 A*s at A-level might have a high tariff score but would not have a strong chance of being accepted on a Medicine course if these A-levels are in the wrong subjects…Moreover, financial penalties for not meeting these targets would be unfair and unhelpful to our aim of investing in ways to help poorer students win a place at our universities.”

Mr Knight: We are having a very interesting debate, but underlying it is the question of whether we should support the Bill. I have to say to my hon. Friend, however, that the more I look at his Bill, the less I think of it. I do not see how it can achieve anything, because clause 3 on exemptions blows a hole in clause 1, under which a decision has to be made on the basis of merit alone. Clause 3 states that a course can be advertised where there are

“criteria additional to or in substitution for the criterion of merit”.

To use an extreme example, if this Bill was the only arbiter that universities have to follow, they could advertise a course for aspiring gentlefolk where the only requirement is that someone can pay the high fees.

Mr Chope: Exactly, but my right hon. Friend fails to appreciate the transparency of the measure. If an institution of higher or further education is going to give places on a particular course on criteria other than merit, it should make that clear when people are considering applying to that university. For example, if it offers a sports science course, and welcomes in particular people who are proficient at playing soccer, it should say so in the application so that people who cannot kick a ball at all will not apply, or understand that if they do so it is unlikely that they will be accepted. Clause 3 tries to make sure that where universities give places on criteria other than academic merit those criteria are spelt out openly and transparently. I am surprised that my right hon. Friend is concerned about that. Perhaps he will accept that his interpretation of the clause is incorrect.

Ian Lucas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he has been generous in accepting interventions. Does he believe that the current system of university admissions is transparent?

4 Mar 2011 : Column 568

Mr Chope: I believe that it is pretty transparent, although some academic work has been done that shows that, inevitably, subjectivity is involved in assessing people’s suitability for going to university. There is no way in which someone who has been refused a place at a university can find out the specific reasons for that decision, although it is normally possible for them to obtain informal feedback from the university through their school or college.

I am not suggesting that the current system is completely transparent, which is why it would be better for it to be plain as a pikestaff that admissions should be made on the basis of merit. There is a feeling, borne out in research for Oxford university, that some admissions tutors for that university are inclined to choose pupils who do not come from independent schools, because they believe that independent school pupils have an unfair advantage and they wish to discount that advantage. They do so on the basis of subjective judgments, which very much runs against the principle of transparency. I hope that the Minister will deal with that point. A problem with the speech by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science on 17 February was that he misquoted some of the evidence from the Ogg, Zimdars and Heath report for Oxford. He used that evidence to suggest that there was a bias in favour of pupils from private schools, when a proper reading shows quite the reverse, with a bias against pupils from private schools.

With all these issues, the problems that concern me are problems of definition. If we are going to try to categorise schools, whether they are independent or private on the one hand, or state schools on the other, how do we categorise those pupils who move from the independent sector into the state sector in the last two years of their course, or perhaps leave an independent school and go to a tertiary college to resit their exams and apply to university? There are quite a lot of independent schools with pupils who came originally from the state sector, often with bursaries. Will those pupils be penalised when they apply to university—or do the universities accept those pupils?—because their last place of education was an independent school, even though they started off in the most difficult circumstances? Many pupils at independent schools are in receipt of education maintenance allowance, which may surprise the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), and it may cause some people to say that that is another reason why EMA is ill-targeted. However, there are many pupils at independent schools whose backgrounds would be regarded as poor or disadvantaged in the context of the higher education access arrangements that the Government are discussing.

Mr Knight: I am afraid that my hon. Friend has not convinced me. It is quite clear that clause 3 is so wide as to blow a hole in clause 1. In response to my earlier intervention, he appears to accept that it would be quite possible, if the Bill were the only arbiter, for a university to decide that it wanted to take unintelligent people with money. It could advertise a course for aspiring gentlefolk when, to use a colloquialism, all that it is interested in is money from rich thickos.

Mr Chope: I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has read today’s press reports about the London School of Economics and one of its erstwhile postgraduate

4 Mar 2011 : Column 569

students from Libya. I am not sure whether his remarks would apply to that particular happening. If a university chooses to have a closed scholarship arrangement, as some do, there is no reason why that should not continue under the Bill, provided that it is set out transparently. Ultimately—this is why the desire for ever more Government regulation is ill conceived—why can we not trust those universities to do what is best for them in the great marketplace? No self-respecting institution wants a reputation, to use my right hon. Friend’s example, for taking on a lot of thickos who will not perform at university, because that will push the university down the league tables, and will affect its ability to attract research grants and the brightest and the best. The Government cannot second-guess all those decisions—they have to be made by universities or other higher education institutions themselves.

George Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. Everyone in the House will agree that the educating of thickos, rich or otherwise, is not the role of our universities. However, does he believe that an important role for universities is to develop leadership? In that education sector, are we not sometimes in danger of over-emphasising purely academic criteria? Would we want clause 3 to be used by universities to encourage a wider definition of leadership in society? That is something that our universities have always done, and it is not purely academic.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend makes a good point. My view is that we should allow universities to do that if they want to, and clause 3 would enable them to do so, and would give them that freedom. The debate centres on the overt desire by the coalition Government for more bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to the top universities. It is likely, however, that the consequences of the access arrangements that they are seeking to impose will be counter-productive and certainly discriminatory.

Someone said to me the other day that merit is almost the last taboo in terms of discrimination; that we have outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, gender and all the rest, but we still allow discrimination on the ground of merit, and the Government are really keen to do away with discrimination on the ground of merit. The Bill is designed to ensure that that does not happen, and that the Government’s arrangements for access to further and higher education will not be allowed to be at the expense of merit.

Rehman Chishti: My hon. Friend talks about various forms of discrimination, but the recent education legislation tackled another form of discrimination. For a long time there was discrimination against part-time students, who were unable to get funding on the same scale as full-time students, and who often tended to be mature students. On that basis, it was absolutely right and proper for the Government to put that package through, so that mature students could have their aspirations fulfilled. The Office for Fair Access guidelines mention

“the scale and nature of outreach activity to be undertaken to attract mature students—including work with local communities”.

That must be absolutely right and proper, and this Government have already committed to it.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 570

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend implies that that is at odds with my Bill; I am not saying that it is.

Rehman Chishti: If my hon. Friend is saying that he does not agree with the Government’s regulation and the OFFA guidelines, some of which I have just read out, and if his Bill goes against giving OFFA a number of different guidelines and the option to make sure that more mature students can go to university, then of course it is at odds with his Bill.

Mr Chope: If those students are going to go to university on the basis of something other than merit, or on some basis other than the exemptions that are set out in clause 3, but my understanding is that the Government want to open up opportunities for part-time students but not on the basis of anything other than merit. If I am wrong about that, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will correct me.

I have been speaking for longer than I intended, so I shall briefly outline how I think the problem can be dealt with more effectively. Hon. Members will be aware of the Social Mobility Foundation. Sir Terry Leahy, the outgoing chief executive of Tesco, has now joined the board as a trustee. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said:

“The Social Mobility Foundation provides an exemplary service to help academically-talented disadvantaged students achieve their potential. I and many other Cabinet Ministers have been delighted to host SMF students”

and he encourages others so to do. It seems to me that that is the way forward. If we want to encourage the brightest and the best to be able to get access to our universities, we can give support to worthy organisations such as the Social Mobility Foundation.

What is interesting is that even the Social Mobility Foundation has to set eligibility criteria for those who apply to it for assistance. To join the aspiring professionals programme, students have to be in year 12, in receipt of education maintenance allowance or free school meals, and, significantly, in possession of at least five A grades in five different subjects at GCSE and predicted to obtain at least an A grade and two B grades at A-level. Even the Social Mobility Foundation is accepting that academic performance has to play a part in deciding whether people are appropriate to be taken on for help from that foundation.

Julian Smith: My hon. Friend must know that leaving this issue to institutions such as the Social Mobility Foundation will not have anywhere near the same effect as the Government taking a stand and saying that we will select young people on merit, and we must get more people of merit from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. He must know that Government involvement is the only way to deal with that.

Mr Chope: I am afraid that I am completely at odds with my hon. Friend, because I think that getting the Government involved will be—even more so than it is already—a disastrous policy, and it would be much better to improve the quality of education in our mainstream schools.

I want to quote a final statistic. In 2009, only 232—4.1%—of students in maintained mainstream schools who are known to be eligible for free school meals

4 Mar 2011 : Column 571

achieved three or more A grades at A-level. It is a matter not of trying to get more of those students into higher education but of trying to increase that cohort of students, from 4.1% to maybe five times as many. That is the problem. I am not sure that anything that the Government are proposing to do in interfering in this area will help that problem; instead, it will exacerbate it.

There is a mass of literature on all these matters. I was looking—some hon. Members may say, surprisingly —at a couple of articles in The Guardian. One was headed, “Grammar schools do not improve social mobility for working-class. Study shows little difference in work prospects for poorer children who attend grammar schools and comprehensives.” Earlier this week, on 1 March, there was an interesting article by Mr Owen Jones, headed, “Social mobility is a dead end. Our society relies on working-class jobs—dangling a narrow ladder for moving up is a diversion from tackling inequality.” I do not know whether those are articles on which my hon. Friend the Minister intends to comment in his response.

Mr Hayes: I had not intended, given the breadth of the material that I shall have to address, to deal with that matter particularly, but I will do so in the form of an intervention, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to allow me to do so. Grammar schools pertain in my Lincoln constituency. I went to a grammar school myself and I hope that my young sons, if they are bright enough, will go to one too. I think that explains my views on grammar schools pretty clearly.

Mr Chope: Good. I am glad that I have given my hon. Friend the opportunity to put that firmly on the record.

I was looking at the access agreement 2010-11 for the university of Exeter. The university has been criticised in some quarters for announcing, this week, that it is going to charge £9,000 fees—subject, of course, to being able to get approval for that. Yet that university has achieved an enormous amount in recent years in increasing access to those who are from less-favoured backgrounds. I cannot understand why the Government wish to interfere in the right of that university to charge whatever level of fees it wishes up to the maximum, when it already has a very good record of increasing access to the university. There has been a significant increase in the number of students from state schools and from lower socio-economic groups.

The problem, I think, is that the Government realised that it would not look good if they allowed some universities to have no limit on the fees that they charged, so they introduced a ceiling of £9,000. They then allowed the loan system backing that scheme to be fixed in such a way that it is actually adding significantly to the potential burden on the Exchequer. The Minister for Universities and Science has said that if universities charge more than £7,500, that will add to the costs to the Exchequer, given the generous loan scheme and the fact that the Government expect a third of loan applicants never to pay anything back.

As the Treasury has looked at the figures, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has realised that it has to try to put the brakes on allowing universities to increase their fees to £9,000. It is using the threat of access restrictions and sanctions against those universities to try to get them into line. However, courageous universities,

4 Mar 2011 : Column 572

such as those in the Russell group and the university of Exeter, are saying that their first duty is to maintain academic standards in their universities and that if students pay higher fees, it is because they want more investment in the services that they receive. Those universities are not prepared to allow the Government to threaten them with sanctions if they exercise their freedom to take such decisions. My Bill would prevent the Government from interfering in universities any more and effectively forcing them to put quotas on the numbers from different backgrounds who should be admitted. The Minister has told the House that quotas are illegal, but ways short of express quotas are being used to threaten and cajole universities, and the Bill would prevent that from happening.

11.32 am

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I am an enormous admirer of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who usually speaks the greatest sense in the House. I often find myself in agreement with him but, on this occasion, I am sorry to say that I do not.

Let me start at the beginning on access as it has been for many years. Let us think of a young man: the son of a butcher in a country during a time of civil war who goes to his local school, wins a scholarship to Oxford, goes to Magdalen college, gets to the top of his profession, and sets up his own college—now arguably the greatest Oxford college. That man was Cardinal Wolsey and the civil war was the wars of the roses. He went to Magdalen college in the 1480s and then set up Cardinal college, which was later turned into Christ Church by an envious and jealous King.

From the 15th century onwards, although I am sure that we could go back even further, it has been possible for people of great ability to get to our country’s highest and grandest universities, and to have the basis of education that allows them to go on to achieve great things. Cardinal Wolsey could have become Archbishop of Canterbury or Pope, but other than that, he had every great job that was open to him. He was the King’s First Minister, the Lord High Chancellor, a cardinal and the Archbishop of York. We see throughout our history that there has been social mobility through education and that universities have been free in the way in which they admit people for most of that time.

As an aside, I mention the admissions process of my own college—Trinity college, Oxford. It kindly admitted me, although it knows better than I do whether that was on merit or for any other reason. In the 18th century, Trinity managed to admit our greatest Prime Minister and our worst. It admitted Pitt the Elder, who founded a great empire and won all those wars—mainly against the French, actually—in Canada and India, and it later admitted Lord North, so admissions policies do not necessarily work. We might wish that Lord North had not been admitted to Trinity and that we still had the American empire.

Mr Hayes: While my hon. Friend was describing universities in an earlier age, I was reminded of “The Concept of a University” by Kenneth Minogue, with which he might be familiar. The book states:

“the prestige of universities in the Middle Ages was enormous, and rested on an admiration for education.”

4 Mar 2011 : Column 573

The book states that that admiration, in our present age of universal literacy, is difficult to recapture. It says that mediaeval men seem to have thought of universities in a way an impoverished craftsman regards a brilliant child for whose education he is making sacrifices.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: The Minister makes an absolutely brilliant point. The prestige of universities ought to be great. In fact, it should be very difficult to get into the best universities because they provide such opportunities and a career path for the ablest in our society.

Let me move on to more modern times and come to the great lady—perhaps the greatest peacetime leader of this country in the past 100 years or more—Margaret Thatcher. She was not the daughter of a butcher—unlike Cardinal Wolsey, the son of a butcher—but the daughter of a shopkeeper who was born and who lived over a shop. She got a scholarship to Oxford and transformed this country. It was not only in the 15th and 18th centuries that university admissions policies allowed great people to get to university, to be enormously successful and to transform their nation’s success as a result. That is a thoroughly good and worthwhile thing, and it was all done without the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I have agreed with everything that my hon. Friend has said thus far, but does he not agree that all that happened without the Bill because the Governments at those times did not try to stop universities from recruiting people on merit?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: It is very depressing when we get to a state at which there is a bit of legislation that we do not like, about which we have doubts and that we think ought to be changed, and yet instead of arguing to get rid of that legislation we say that the clever thing to do is to have yet more legislation. We go on and on legislating so that the British people are weighed down with a mass of rules, regulations and complications that mean that they do not know where they stand. If the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is that we should scrap the controls in place, he should argue for that and his Bill should be a repeal Bill, which might then be supported by other hon. Members.

Mr Chope: If the Bill was amended in Committee to clarify that it was effectively a repeal Bill, would it then command my hon. Friend’s support?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I think the Bill should have said that in the first place. I am even more suspicious of the new Labour approach of a Bill that says one thing initially and then does something completely different.

Ian Lucas: The Liberal Democrat approach.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I stand corrected, but I am not quite sure that I can go along with that monstrous slur on our coalition partners.

We must have Bills that do what they say, not ones that set off in one direction, hare off in another in Committee, and then say something that was never intended or given a Second Reading by the House.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 574

Let us consider the question of merit. My right hon. Friend for a Yorkshire constituency—I forget precisely which—talked about how clauses 1 and 3 operate.

Philip Davies: It was my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight).

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thank my hon. Friend. Yorkshire is a big county. It is almost as good a county as Somerset, but Somerset is particularly favoured by God.

If we are considering the basis of merit alone, how do we define merit? The Bill defines it as

“academic ability, potential and aptitude”,

but that is desperately woolly. Ability can be measured, but do we think that all exams correctly measure a student’s further success? I knew, as I completed my physics O-level, that I knew no more physics than that and that that was the limit of my ability in physics. I actually got an A grade in my physics O-level, of which I am rather proud, but if I had gone on to do physics at A-level, I would have sunk like a stone. I am sure that that is true of people doing other examinations. They might apply to university, but the university has to determine whether he or she has taken the subject to the limit of their ability and whether they would therefore find that they could go no further.

Mr Hayes: Is there not, though, some virtue in those constraints on understanding knowledge? T.S. Eliot said:

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”

At least my hon. Friend knows exactly how tall he is, with regard to physics.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I absolutely accept what the Minister says in his helpful intervention. I know how tall I am, or was, in terms of physics. Just as many people shrink as they get older, I feel that as I get older I begin to shrink in my ability to do physics, and cannot remember much of it. Universities need to take in people who can go further, and do better than the ability yet measured. To consider the Minister’s comparison and talk about how high people grow, we do not necessarily know how high a 16-year-old will be at 18. One has to make a judgment on it, and that judgment becomes subjective—it has to be, by its very nature.

Is it not always dangerous to put legislative constraints on subjective judgments? How does one then take them through the courts? How do they become justiciable? It is simply replacing one person’s judgment with another’s, and we cannot tell who was right until after the fact. I therefore have my doubts about the early definition of merit. Potential is even more subjective. We may think that the person whose height we are considering will grow to be a giant; we may be wrong. We cannot guess the qualities that we are talking about from an interview or a series of examinations.

We can, however, get a broad feeling or understanding, and a tutor can understand whether a person is someone whom they can teach. That is obviously important, because some dons at Oxford—I tend to stick to Oxford because I know it, but I am not speaking to the exclusion of all other universities—want to be able to get on with the people whom they are to teach. If a person comes

4 Mar 2011 : Column 575

for an interview and the tutor dislikes them at first sight, they may find that teaching them for three years would be neither to the pupil’s nor the tutor’s benefit, because it will be a constant battle of wills, with hostility and difficulty, without the tutor being able to express their knowledge to the pupil, or the pupil being able to learn from the tutor. The question of potential is even more deeply subjective than that of ability, and aptitude is, in a sense, the same.

Ian Lucas: The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech, and I speak as an Oxford graduate, so my experience is, in that respect, somewhat similar to his. He has touched on an interesting issue as far as the attitude of the tutor, and his resistance to someone different, is concerned. Does that not support a transparent admissions policy, in which the student, and the institution presenting the student to the university, are aware, before the student applies, of the criteria that will be used?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. That is absolutely right. Transparency is, in a sense, everything. As long as people know where they stand, they will be able to see what they ought to do. It is a tremendously beneficial reform for the Russell group to have said which subjects it views as being proper subjects, because now pupils from across the country can say, “If I do history, classics and double maths, I have a really good chance of getting in, if I do well; but if I do knitting and photography, I won’t have a very good chance of getting into the top-rate universities. My chances and opportunities will be limited.” It is absolutely right to let people know at an early stage the way that they ought to be going. Understanding the interview process when one applies to a university is also extremely helpful. If one is going from a public school to Oxford, one will be very well trained in what to expect in the interview, and that should be made as widely available as possible to people from other schools and backgrounds. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on his point on transparency.

We have, I think, established that in terms of merit, the Bill has a lot of waffle in it. What it says is fundamentally subjective, cannot work in practice, and, if taken to the courts, would be impossible to adjudicate on. It is hard to see where the Bill is going, in that respect. The exemptions are glorious, because they are so splendidly old-fashioned. By and large, I rather like things being old-fashioned, and I do not normally use it as a term of disapprobation, but in this case it means that one could reintroduce the closed scholarships. At New college, Oxford, which has a close connection with Winchester, places could be reserved for Wykehamists. People may think that that is all fine and dandy, but as an Etonian, I would feel that I was being prejudiced against, and that it was wrong to give places to Wykehamists rather than Etonians—or, more seriously, to deny them to people from all over the country. Allowing the reintroduction of a system of closed scholarships cannot be what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is really trying to do. That cannot be an advance for universities, and it does not make this a sensible Bill to pass.

Mr Chope: The Bill applies only to places that are funded by the taxpayer. Does my hon. Friend not accept that if a university wishes to give closed scholarships,

4 Mar 2011 : Column 576

at its discretion, to students who will not be funded by the taxpayer, it should have the freedom so to do?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: We should always deal in the realms of reality, and not assume that people would be so barkingly eccentric as to run off down that route. Universities want to be places of great academic excellence, and they want to be able to have a system that admits people fairly and freely. We are sometimes too suspicious of people’s motives. I accept that the Bill applies to publicly funded universities, but most universities receive public funding of one kind or another, if only via their charitable status.

That helpfully moves me on to another point—the key point of money. Money is always relevant to our discussions, but it is one of the most dangerous things with which Governments have to deal. We give money to an independent institution—great universities—and say, “Now we’ve given you some money, we must decide how you spend it,” and then, “Now we’ve decided how you should spend it, we must take a little more control”—and it becomes more and more control, until independent bodies become agents of the state. The Bill continues that process. Instead of our saying that the money will now come from students, and universities will become more independent of the state, the Bill is an effort to claw back state control. We see in the charitable and university sectors that when Governments spend money, they always want their pound of flesh, and the pound of flesh is interfering in the day-to-day running of organisations, denying them their freedoms. In some cases, that does not really matter, but it is crucial that academic freedom, as a fundamental good, be maintained as an absolute priority.

Let me carry on dealing with the details of the Bill. I raised this matter in an intervention: I am very much against passing Bills that are slightly absurd—I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for being so harsh as to use that term. To have a Bill that applies to England and Wales only, and also only to people domiciled in England, does not seem to work. Surely, the universities in England should admit on the same basis anyone who comes along. To say that they will admit English people on merit but that they can admit the Scots, Irish and Welsh and people from the Commonwealth or European Union not according to merit does not make any sense. If we are to pass laws of this kind, there must be the same principle of application and entry for everyone who is eligible to enter subject to public funding. One might say that it is a good idea to take some overseas students because they can pay a vast fee that will subsidise some of the rest of the university’s operations, although after the Gaddafi affair one might not think that quite such a clever idea, but one really does not want to say that people from Scotland can be taken in on a completely different basis from the people of England.

I am also concerned about the term “domiciled in England”, because I am not quite sure, legally, where it comes from. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will explain it. I understand that with tax laws for which domicile is relevant, it is United Kingdom domicile that matters, although that may change with the Scotland Bill. I am not convinced that there is an agreed English domicile classification.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 577

I want to elaborate a little more on academic freedoms. What is it that allows thought to develop? What allows us not just to produce people who can go into the workplace, fill jobs and earn a living, but allows that great development of thought that we have had in this country for hundreds of years? Whom should we go back to as our earliest notable philosopher? One could argue for Shakespeare or go back even further and argue for Chaucer, although one might think of them more as literary figures. One could start with Hobbs and Locke and the development of thought in which this country has been so powerfully involved. When talking about science, one could mention Boyle and Newton, both of whom had strong associations with our great universities. How did they achieve that? Yes, they sometimes got Government money: Chaucer was sponsored by the King and so was Shakespeare. Newton was the Master of the Mint and got an income from his service that allowed him to afford his academic studies. So, there is a connection between the state and academic excellence, but it is not a control: it is not the state saying, “You may do only these things or you must educate only these people.”

We must be very wary of putting constraints on our institutions. I hope that the Minister will consider this point in relation to the current state of legislation rather than just in regard to this Bill. Our institutions need to be free to take in the people whom they think best even though we might not agree that they are the best—indeed, they might seem to us not quite up to the mark. Our institutions might decide to take a bet on someone who has no academic qualifications, because they have been failed by their secondary school—such failure has been a problem—but who appears absolutely genius in quality. They might decide to take people who have that spark of intelligence and thoughtfulness that makes them interesting and exciting and means they can push on the great development of thought.

Many areas of university life are not covered by the academic subjects that are done up until A-level. There are developments that people need to take with a philosophy, politics and economics qualification.

Mr Hayes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. Is not that the paradox that lies at the heart of the paradigm set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch? He argues that universities should be free to select on the basis of merit but not free to select otherwise.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am in complete, almost sycophantic, agreement with the Minister on that. We really do not want to put on such constraints. Freedom is tremendously important.

I return briefly to the insidious argument that once one takes the Government’s shilling, one has to do what the Government say. It is very hard, as the recipient of the shilling, to say, “No, I am not going to do what the Government say.” It is much easier for a Government who love freedom, who believe in our ancient freedom and who see how strong this country has been because it is a free nation, to say, “We will give you this money—we will allow it to come to you through the students—but as we do so, we will take the shackles off and allow you

4 Mar 2011 : Column 578

to stand or fall by your own brilliance—your own success in admitting people.” We must assume that universities want to take the cleverest, the brightest and the best—those who will give the university glory when they go on to their future careers, those who may stay and ensure that its research is of the highest quality, or those who will become, like Cardinal Wolsey, so rich that they can establish new parts of the university.

In that way, our universities can have the freedoms enjoyed by some of the American universities, which have endowments running into tens of billions of dollars, allowing them a freedom from the American state and a freedom to take the best and the brightest from around the world and to fund them through their studies. Surely, that is what we must aim for. We must aim for an ambition that returns our universities to the status they had in the middle ages when they were places that people looked at with envy and when people who went to them, who could be supported in doing so, felt that attending them was the highest possible achievement.

Rehman Chishti: I always follow my hon. Friend’s speeches with interest; they are fantastic. He was making a point about students wanting to meet their aspirations. In line with that, the policy of the previous Government that 50% plus should go to university was completely wrong, because we all have different skills and abilities that need to be nurtured. That is what our Government are pushing; those who want to go to university should have the right support, but the previous Government’s 50% plus policy was wrong.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Yes and no, if I may sit on the fence. We should aim for excellence for everybody, and for as many people as possible to go to university, but university will do different things for different people. Not all higher and further education needs to be the same; we want to get the most from everybody, but the 50% target became a bit of a box-ticking exercise. Box-ticking exercises are a mistake. They do not lead to what we ought to focus on, which is not ad hoc bits of legislation that deal with—

Mr Hayes: Before my hon. Friend draws his introductory remarks to a conclusion and moves to the main thrust of his remarks, would he reflect on this? He calls for a return to a mediaval view of universities, but the truth is that in the middle ages illiterates were seduced by the mystery of book learning, because most people were illiterate. It may not be possible for us to return to that spirit, given the state of our age.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thank the Minister for that intervention, although I must say it was rather depressingly negative and uncharacteristic of him. What we really want to be thinking about is lifting people’s spirits. In the middle ages, people saw the joy and virtue of learning.

Ian Lucas: Most people did not. Many people did not achieve, not because they were stupid but because there were not enough scholarships. I went to Oxford, but I did not have a scholarship and if I had not received a grant and had my fees paid I could not have gone to Oxford and I would not have achieved. That is progress, and although I am a great admirer of the past, I think the hon. Gentleman needs to see that sometimes progress can be made.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 579

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I am sorry that we appear to be confusing two things. I am not for a moment suggesting that we ought to go back to the standard of living of the middle ages, or the level of literacy. That is not what we should aim for. It would be bonkers. What I was saying, and I thought I was agreeing with the Minister, is that I would like the status of education to be as high as it was in the middle ages, and to be something that people love and rejoice in. Of course, we want it to be open to everybody rather than only to the narrow, broadly clerical, class that it was open to in the past.

To think of education as a great and exciting thing is tremendously important, and we do that best by allowing the universities their freedom. The less control the Government have, the better. One of the great things about tuition fees is that they will follow the student. Although the Government will provide the money initially, eventually it will be paid back. The Government are beginning to retreat from the financing of the universities, so universities will have greater freedom because they will not be so subject to the Government’s interference.

Mr Chope: I am concerned that my hon. Friend accepts too much at face value what the Government say. In paragraph 5.4 of the “Guidance to the Director of Fair Access”, the Government make the point:

“The subsidised loans that Government offers students represent a significant cost to the public purse.”

That is then used as justification for interference. Surely, that is inconsistent with my hon. Friend’s vision, which I share, that universities should be free to charge whatever fees they wish.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: We have to evolve. We have to move to a position where freedom is re-established. We are going from a position where most university funding is state-controlled to one where a large proportion of it will come from individuals. The Government would be in a ludicrous position if they were getting students to pay what was the Government’s money. That would not make sense. We have a wise, good and forthright Government, made up of some of the best brains ever born in this country. We are lucky. We know where we are going in terms of tuition fees; we have a well-thought through plan that will aid the independence of universities, particularly once we move through it and we find that the money is being paid back, the loan book can be run profitably and a major cost can be taken off the Government’s balance sheet. I am all in favour of student loans, which will help to achieve the Bill’s aims—the admission of people whom universities want because they have the ability to attend them.

Let me draw broadly to a conclusion.

Mr Hayes: Before my hon. Friend does so, I wonder whether we can bottom out the issue of the mediaeval attitude to university. The point that I made—I hope that I can make it a little more clearly now—is that it is hard to reproduce the magic of learning that prevailed in the middle ages because of the secrecy of literacy that then prevailed, too. That is not a pessimistic view—I believe in the power of learning, as he does—but in celebrating the middle ages’ perception of university, we must be realistic about how that magic has changed.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 580

Jacob Rees-Mogg: The Minister says, “hard to reproduce”, and I accept that, but hard is not the same as impossible. We really ought to aim for learning to be held in the highest regard, because it will lead to our fundamental success and prosperity as a nation.

I should like to broaden the debate for a moment. We are facing decades of competition from countries that we could ignore for hundreds of years—countries that were so corrupt and broken that we could ignore them as we grew rich on manufacturing and services. Now, those nations—China, India, Brazil and Russia—are at the forefront of economic development. Their costs are lower than ours, and we see ourselves as a nation being overtaken. We can compete only if we have the best education in the world—an education that inspires millions of people and leads them to do great things with their lives and to come up with productive ideas.

Mr Hayes: Now we are finding common cause—are we not?—as my hon. Friend eloquently makes the case for the power of learning to change lives by changing life chances. Perhaps he might add to that by acknowledging what I think we share: a reverence for the past, for only the past can change the prism of our memories.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am in complete agreement with the Minister on the remark that we learn so much from the past. It gives us an understanding of what we ought to do in the future, and it helps us to avoid making mistakes. Many mistakes were made in the past, and we can sensibly avoid repeating them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is noble in his principle. He is noble in wanting to ensure that education is free from the dead hand of state control, but I am sorry to say that his Bill goes about it the wrong way. Instead of getting the dead hand of state control and throwing it on the bonfire, he has severed the dead hand from the arm of state control and is leaving it lying, rotting on the university funding scheme. I say, “Get rid of this dead hand! Remove this dead hand. Get rid of it, finger by finger. Bury it a 1,000 feet deep. Free up our universities; free up the British people!” Let us have a system that is free from state control, where students and universities can do brilliant things, so that our country can be the success that it deserves to be.

12.3 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is always a delight to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who is, without doubt, one of the finest orators in the House. I find myself in the familiar position of being equally persuaded by him and by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). It is a familiar position because they are usually on the same side of the argument, and it is therefore easy to be equally persuaded by them both. Today, I am in the unfamiliar position of being equally persuaded by them when they appear to be on different sides of the argument. That can be explained by the fact that they both seek the same or, at least, a very similar outcome, but appear to differ on how best to achieve that.

Notwithstanding the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, I support the thrust of what my hon. Friend the Member for

4 Mar 2011 : Column 581

Christchurch is trying to achieve, which is extremely important. It is quite depressing that the dead hand of political correctness has become so entrenched in society that we must argue, in effect, about whether or not people should be given places at university based on merit.

I apologise for arriving slightly late for the debate, which is partly explained by the fact that I could not see how anybody could argue with the principle that people should be given jobs or allocated places at university on merit. I had assumed that that was so self-evident that everybody would readily agree and there could be no controversy about it. It is depressing that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has to work so hard to make the case for something that most people in the country would consider blindingly obvious—that such things should be determined on merit.

Mr Hayes: After the Reformation, hard work became more fashionable, as my hon. Friend may know. No one has to work hard to persuade the Government of the case for allocation on merit; it is already the Government’s view.

Philip Davies: As the Minister knows, I am his greatest admirer, which probably has not done a great deal for his career prospects. However, it has been widely reported in the media, whether or not there is any substance to the reports, that leading universities will be encouraged or forced, one way or another, to take quotas of students from state schools in exchange for the power to charge tuition fees of £9,000. That seems to fly in the face of the assertion that the Government have a policy based on merit, and merit alone. It appears to be the exact opposite.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made clear, the problem arises from the fact that our state education system is failing far too many people. Rather than addressing the root cause and dealing with the problems of the state education system, perhaps because the Government think that will take too long now that those problems are so entrenched—in other words, instead of going for the real issue, which might be more difficult but is the most important one—they have filed the problems of the state education system under “Too difficult” and gone for the easy solution.

The true way to get more people from state schools and more people from poorer backgrounds to go to the best universities is to raise the standard in state education so that they can get there on merit. But the Government know that that is very difficult and that the problems in the state system are deeply entrenched, so they go for the easy solution, which is to circumvent all that and force universities to take people from those backgrounds, whether or not they have earned their place on merit. Then the Government can say, “Look, isn’t the world marvellous? There is now X proportion of people from state schools or X proportion of people from deprived backgrounds going to university,” hoping that everyone will turn a blind eye to the fact that those people have not got there on merit. That is the depressing situation in which the country finds itself.

All the typical arguments are trotted out as to why we should not give people places on merit. We are told that one of the reasons why getting rid of grammar schools was such a good idea is that certain people do not peak

4 Mar 2011 : Column 582

at the age of 11, so it is unfair on those who mature a little later to judge their performance at the age of 11. It seems that the argument has moved on. Now we are told that it is unfair to judge people’s academic performance at GCSE level because they may not have peaked at the age of 16: it is unfair to test them at 16, so we should not look at their GCSE results.

To be honest, it is now utterly pointless to look at people’s GCSE results because one has to work pretty hard to fail at GCSE level. The idea that everybody passes means that nobody passes, so GCSEs have become a worthless qualification. We are getting to the stage where we are told that we cannot judge people’s performance at A-level at the age 18, because there are those who have not yet peaked at the age of 18. These are arguments for scrapping exams altogether. We have to make some kind of judgment at some point and although there are imperfections in all these things, somebody’s performance at A-level is one of the best guides to whether they have a chance of succeeding at university. If we completely ignore people’s A-level results, the whole A-level system becomes utterly pointless. My problem with the idea that people’s exam results do not really matter because they will be given university places irrespective of how well they perform is that it demeans people’s hard work and their achievements.

Why would we want to send the message to people in state schools and from deprived backgrounds that they should not worry about how hard they work for their GCSEs and A-levels or about spending every hour they can becoming an expert in a particular subject, and that if they do not get the best possible grades they can the state will ride to their rescue anyway, saying that it is not their fault they went to a state school or came from a deprived background, and that we will rig the rules to get them into a particular university? That seems the most appalling message that this House can send. Surely the only message that we should send to young people is that it does not matter what their background is, what school they go to, what race they are or what orientation or gender; if they work hard and get the best possible results, they will be first in line for a place at the university they want to go to. It seems obvious to me that places should be given on merit.

As a country, we are trying to impose some kind of social engineering on university education, the same social engineering as was introduced in the state education system when grammar schools were abolished. Let us be absolutely clear: grammar schools were not abolished and replaced with comprehensive schools in order to increase attainment in state education; it was simply a form of social engineering, and it has proved a disaster. I am appalled that the Government seem to be following the previous Government in wanting to introduce that same kind of social engineering into our university system, where it will prove just as disastrous.

Mr Hayes: I have already put on the record on one occasion my personal views about grammar schools, but let me make a broader point. While my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) is Prime Minister, while my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is Secretary of State for Education, and while I live and breathe, grammar schools in this country will be under no threat whatever from this Government.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 583

Philip Davies: I do not particularly want to get sidetracked—I am sure that you will not allow it, Mr Deputy Speaker—but the Government’s position on grammar schools, which is pertinent to my point about merit, is frankly a nonsense. Basically, they are saying, “If you’re lucky enough to have grammar schools in your area, that’s fine and you can keep them, but if you poor swine in Bradford want a grammar school system, you aren’t allowed it.” The Minister’s support for grammar schools extends only so far as those areas that already have them, and those of us who would like them cannot have them. That is lukewarm support—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has been sidetracked. I am sure the Minister did not want that because I know that he is very interested in higher education in this debate, rather than grammar schools. I am sure that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), as he suggested, will want to come back to the topic of the debate.

Philip Davies: I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker; I was indeed tempted by the Minister to go down a route that neither you nor I want us to go down.

I will keep my remarks brief because I am intrigued to hear what the Minister has to say. I want to hear some kind of confirmation, not only that while he lives and breathes he will support grammar schools, but that while he is the Minister and while our right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) is the Prime Minister, he will ensure that universities recruit people on merit alone and that people are not allocated places simple because of their background, the school they went to, the socio-economic environment in which they live or the wealth or otherwise of their parents. If we started going down that route, it would be a disaster for this country. The idea of positive discrimination, which lies behind such proposals, is a disaster. Positive discrimination is discrimination, and we should not advocate it, because it demeans people. Many parents make terrific sacrifices to send their kids to private schools. People who cannot ordinarily afford to do so make the most amazing sacrifices, because they understandably want their children to have the best start and opportunities in life.

My parents made terrific sacrifices to enable me to go to a boarding school that they really could not afford to send me to, and I am immensely grateful to them. I do not see why this Government, in particular, or anybody for that matter, would want to say to such parents, “Well done. You’ve made these sacrifices to help your children get the best possible start in life. What we’re going to do now is rig the rules to make sure that all your sacrifices have been in vain, because we’re going to stop your daughter or son having the opportunity to go to the university they deserve to go to, based on the hard work that they put in, as you don’t meet the criteria, you’re not from the right socio-economic background or they didn’t go to the school we would have preferred them to go to.” What an appalling message.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Does he share my concern that the Government, in their desire to bring about social engineering, are going to penalise people who pay off their loans early—

4 Mar 2011 : Column 584

perhaps with the help of their parents making the sort of sacrifice to which he refers? Does he condemn that as a gross interference?

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As it happens, I voted against the Government on tuition fees for the simple reason that I did not want people from poorer backgrounds to be denied the opportunity to go to the best possible universities. Tuition fees are being increased to pay for more and more people to go to university, and the argument is that if we want more people to go to university, students are going to have to pay a higher price. That is a perfectly logical argument, but I do not want more people going to university. Too many go to university; I want fewer to go. I want universities to be the bastion of high standards again.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) inadvertently touched on that point when he asked, “Shouldn’t people who want to go to university have the opportunity to do so?” My answer to that is no. It should be a question not of whether someone wants to go to university, but whether they have the aptitude and have reached a high enough mark to do so on merit. That should be what determines whether they go.

Otherwise, it is like asking athletes whether they would like to compete in the Olympics—I am sure they all would, but surely nobody is advocating that any athlete who happens to fancy a crack at the 100-metre sprint should be allowed to compete at the Olympics. Most people accept that athletes have to reach a certain level before they are even considered for the Olympics, and the same should apply in education: people should not go just because they want to; they should go because they have reached the level in their education that allows them to go. That is the whole point of merit and, as I see it, of this Bill.

All the other factors that people are trying to introduce into the system can only devalue our education system—dumb down the standards. Then the Government will say, “Isn’t it marvellous? Haven’t we been good for education, because now X% of people have a degree?” Well, no it would not be marvellous—not if the result had been achieved only by dumbing down standards.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): My hon. Friend notes that fees have gone up to £9,000, and I, like he, opposed that measure. He says that they are going up to allow more people to go to university, but are they not going up, at least in part, to pay for students from the European Union to go to university? EU students go to university for free in Scotland, while students from England have to pay. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) supports loans, but 46% of EU students who take out such loans are not paying them back when they should be. What does my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) have to say about that?

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As he knows, I share his robust opinion on the merits of being in the European Union—that is, that there are no merits of being in the European Union. One problem with allowing more and more people to go to university and increasing tuition fees is that the people who go

4 Mar 2011 : Column 585

there on merit end up paying over the odds to subsidise those who do not go there on merit and who will not end up paying back their loan. That is, in effect, the system that the Government have introduced. I think that that puts a penalty on merit. I do not see why people who go to university on merit should subsidise those who are not going on merit.

Jacob Rees-Mogg rose—

Philip Davies: I sense that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is cranking into action.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thank my hon. Friend. I do not accept his description of the Government’s loan programme, because one would not be able to get the interest rate that will be paid by students in the market for an unsecured loan. Therefore, there is no penalty for those who get to university on merit.

Philip Davies: I take my hon. Friend’s point, but my point is that people who go to university on merit would not be expected to pay £6,000 or £9,000 if it were not for the fact that the Government want to get more people to go to university. They are being penalised in that sense. If the Government restricted the proportion of people going to university to 30% or 40%, there would be no move to increase tuition fees. It is in that sense that people are paying over the odds, or more than they would if the Government were not pursuing this strategy.

Mr Hayes: I wonder whether, in developing his argument with his usual penetrating insight, my hon. Friend might reflect a little on the need to balance the magic of exclusivity, which he seems to be attracted to, with the absolute need to ensure that people from humble backgrounds get their chance for glittering prizes. He seems to be making the case that exclusivity is more important than that social mission. That is not the case for me, because I am a Conservative.

Philip Davies: This is rare, but I do not follow my hon. Friend’s logic. I am as committed as anybody to ensuring that people from the poorest backgrounds have the opportunity to go as far as they can within the education system. My view is that the education system should allow them to do that on merit, not that the Government should rig the selection criteria so that they can go to university whether or not they have achieved that objective on merit. The challenge for this Government is to undo all the damage that has been done to the education system in this country over the past 40 years or so by both Conservative and Labour Governments—neither side has a great track record on the state education system. The Government should concentrate on that and not be seduced down the easy route of trying to achieve the same outcomes by more dodgy means.

Mr Hayes: I understand that point, but my hon. Friend made a second case. I have freely accepted his first case about merit. The second case he was making was about exclusivity. As I understood it, he was arguing that too many people were going to university and that fewer people should have the opportunity to do so. That

4 Mar 2011 : Column 586

is the case that I was beginning to explore with him. I wonder if he would expand on it, because in practice it would mean limiting opportunity for some of the people who have the merit that he celebrates.

Philip Davies: I do not accept that, because we have ended up with a system whereby people go to university because they have been put on a conveyor belt to university by the state, which has encouraged people to go down that route. Many people go to university who are not best served by doing so, and who would be far better served by vocational education. We seem to be obsessed with education in this country. One of the places where one can learn an awful lot is at work. I learned more in my years at Asda than I ever did at university or school. Rather than spending three years at university, many people would be better served by getting three years’ work under their belt and learning the skills that are learned in the workplace.

I object to the idea that everybody should be on the conveyor belt of university, because I do not believe everybody is best served by it. That is demonstrated by the fact that I believe 20% to 25%—I am sure the Minister will know the figures better—drop out of their university courses. They have clearly gone to university and discovered the hard way that it was not the best thing for them. How many more stay on their degree course while probably realising in their heart of hearts that it is not right for them? They are stuck on a conveyor belt, when better alternatives for them exist.

It is a mistake to think that going to university is a panacea for everybody. For some people it is absolutely the right thing to do, and we should allow those people to go to university irrespective of their background and where they have been educated. We should say to others, who are not best suited to university, that that is no disgrace at all. We should raise the value of vocational qualifications and careers and allow people to pursue what they are good at. Everybody is good at something, and we need to find out what people are good at and allow them to develop in it. That does not always mean that they have to go to university to develop their expertise.

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that even if people choose to go into business to pursue their ambitions, there is now a suggestion that we should select directors based on their sex rather than merit? Does he agree that we should put an end to such creeping social engineering?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We are not going to go down that line. We are going to stick to the subject in hand. As tempted as Mr Davies will be, I know he will restrain himself.

Philip Davies: I will follow your guidance as always, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is fair to say that you know my opinion just as much as my hon. Friend does. We can leave it there. I must say in passing that my hon. Friend is probably the best person in the House to speak about job opportunities, because of his marvellous work in his constituency helping with jobs fairs and trying to get people into work. He will have seen at first hand in his constituency the skills that people need to get jobs, and he will know that a university education is not always

4 Mar 2011 : Column 587

essential for a person to get the right job. He should be commended for what he has done, and we should listen to his advice, because he knows more about the matter than most.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, because he has raised an important matter, notwithstanding what I would describe as the technical opposition to the Bill offered by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. Whether or not we agree with the Bill, I think we all agree that the Government should not feel it necessary to stick their nose into university recruitment. They should allow universities to do what they have always done, which is to recruit people on merit, and merit alone, irrespective of their background, gender, race or any other factor. Those things should be irrelevant, and people’s ability alone should be decisive.

12.28 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): First, I commend the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for initiating this interesting and wide-ranging debate by introducing his Bill. I agreed with him at the beginning of his speech when he said that the Government’s higher education policy was mired in confusion and that the Government were at sixes and sevens. I also agreed with him at the end of his speech when he talked about the difficulties that the Government are having because of the decision by an increasing number of universities to charge £9,000 a year for fees under the rules passed before Christmas. That is causing the Government increasing financial difficulties, because their approach to higher education was predicated on the basis that the fees would be rather less than that. Perhaps that explains why, as we have heard, the higher education White Paper, which should be a framework for discussion, has been deferred again. The opportunity for us to discuss the matter has therefore been delayed. More importantly, those students who are in what I still call the lower sixth who are planning to go to university in 2012 will be looking at a menu with no price list, and no description of the dishes on offer, which is a great abdication of responsibility by the Government.

Mr Hayes: The hon. Gentleman is being a little unfair. The previous Government, of whom he was a member, commissioned the Browne review, agreed its terms of reference and fixed the timetable. The hon. Gentleman could hardly have expected this Government to come to office when the Browne review was still considering its recommendations and immediately introduce a White Paper, still less legislation.

Ian Lucas: The Government told us initially that the White Paper would be published in March this year, but made the decision not to abide by their timetable—the timetable was theirs, not that of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

The Bill states that admissions to universities should be on the basis of merit, but frankly, that is a truism with which no hon. Member would disagree. The difficulty is that there is so little agreement on what constitutes merit in a student. That lack of agreement exists not only among hon. Members, but among universities, which use very different admissions criteria.