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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I am sure doors matter to people who are over 2 metres—usually it is 6 feet 6 inches—but I cannot see the connection between the Bill and where we are being led, so I am sure the hon. Gentleman would like to bring us back now to the Bill.

Mr Nuttall: I will indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker. The point I make is where do we draw the line? I will leave—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. To help the hon. Gentleman, I have drawn the line at doors.

Mr Nuttall: I entirely accept that, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I will leave that point there.

The new positive action provisions make it clear that employers must not adopt policies or practices designed routinely to favour candidates with a certain protected characteristic of whatever nature, even where there is evidence of under-representation or disadvantage. All suitably qualified candidates must be considered on their individual merits for the post in question. Current positive action provisions in employment relate only to training or encouragement—for example, mentoring schemes for ethnic minority staff where they are under-represented in senior roles, or open days to encourage women applicants in male-dominated sectors. This merely serves to upset and discriminate against all those who are not allowed to take part in such training. Why should they not receive the same training just because of their racial background, sex or particular individual characteristics?

The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 was originally presented on 17 October 2001. The key objective of the Act was to enable a political party, should it wish to do so, to adopt measures that regulate the selection of candidates for certain elections in order to reduce inequality in the numbers of men and women as candidates in that party. In south Yorkshire in the 1980s I was regularly involved in the selection of parliamentary candidates. Of, say, 50 applications that we would typically receive for a seat, there would be on average 45 from men, three from women and two from ethnic minority candidates. It follows, therefore, that with 90% of the applications being from white males, very often a male was selected, but we were selecting purely on merit.

There were many examples, and there continue to be many examples in the Conservative party, of women who have succeeded on their merits. I know from Mrs Nuttall that she feels extremely patronised whenever there is any talk of special treatment being given to women.

Chris Bryant: By you?

Mr Nuttall: Mrs Nuttall does not mind special treatment of her from me—I think she expects it—but as a general rule that reflects the view of many women. If they are given special treatment, they feel that they are being patronised and that they can make it on their own merit without it. That applies equally to those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Many Members of this House have made it on their own strength without special treatment.

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Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Given the changes that his leader has instituted in his party, is he saying that there are Members on the Conservative Benches—women or members of ethnic minorities—who have not got here purely on merit?

Mr Nuttall: I am not saying that at all. There is a risk that others might regard the winner from an all-women shortlist as not having succeeded against the whole field of candidates, which is self-evidently true.

Mr Campbell: Is that the hon. Gentleman’s view? If so, would he care to name any of them?

Mr Nuttall: As far as I am concerned, all Members on the Government side of the House have got here on merit, but there are plenty of Members who succeeded in their applications as a direct result of the all-women shortlists that the Labour party introduced.

Mr Campbell: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the changes instituted by his leader to try to make his party more representative have been a waste of time?

Mr Nuttall: I believe that all selections should be open to all candidates, regardless of their race, sexual gender or any other merits, that political parties, wherever they are in the country, should be free to choose who they want on merit and that the 2002 Act should be repealed, which the Bill seeks to do. The key objective of that Act was to enable a political party, if it so wished, to adopt measures to regulate the selection of candidates, but I do not believe that that is the right way forward. According to the explanatory notes that accompanied the Act, in the 1996 case of Jepson v. the Labour party an employment tribunal held that section 13 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 covered the selection of candidates by political parties, which therefore constrained their ability to take positive action to increase the number of women elected to this House.

Damian Green: For the avoidance of doubt, given the interventions from the Opposition, I am happy to confirm that the Conservative party has never used all-women shortlists and that they fell into disrepair in the Labour party after an all-women shortlist produced a male candidate who happened to be the leader of a trade union.

Mr Nuttall: I am most grateful to the Minister for that intervention. The Opposition say that they support all-women shortlists, but as Members on both sides of the House will be aware, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) was selected as a candidate despite his gender. It is perhaps one of the biggest ironies that he was selected even though his wife, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), seems so keen to have all-women shortlists in all constituencies.

Philip Davies: Is it not also ironic that the Labour party has brought in all these massively talented women, apparently, through the use of all-women shortlists, but when it wanted to select a new leader it seemed to bypass all that talent that had been brought into the House and plumped for a man?

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Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and perhaps the Labour party will consider selecting its leader on a rotational basis, with a male leader being followed by a female. As far as I am aware, the Labour party, unlike our party, has never had a female leader; perhaps it is time for half a dozen consecutive female leaders.

Chris Bryant: We have actually had two women leaders: my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) was briefly leader after John Smith died; and we had an interim leader in the form of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the current deputy leader. More to the point, however, considering the trump card to which the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) referred—Baroness Thatcher—is it not surprising that not a single other woman has chosen to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party since?

Mr Nuttall: That is not surprising; it is just a matter of fact. The two examples to which the hon. Gentleman refers from the Labour party were of course simply temporary leaders, who held the post until they could be replaced by a man. We should read nothing into the fact that, since the great lady ceased to be leader of our party, we have not produced a further female applicant for the leadership. I am sure that in years to come females will apply and be candidates in such elections.

Chris Bryant: I do apologise; I misled the House. Ann Widdecombe stood, but she was voted off quite fast—as she was off “Strictly”.

Mr Nuttall: I will leave that there. We do not want to go into “Strictly Come Dancing”. I will not be tempted down that road.

It has been suggested that the most effective way to attract female parliamentary candidates is to introduce a new system of flexible parental leave, so that aspiring female politicians do not have to choose between a career and family life. But, as we know from experience, Margaret Thatcher entered Parliament when her two children, Carol and Mark, were just six years old. That did not put off Margaret Thatcher, and there is no reason why it should put off anyone else some 50 years later.

Those who consider putting themselves forward to become a Member of Parliament have to make a choice, as we all do, men or women, and it would be sexist if that choice did not apply to men, too. Hon. Members, surely on both sides of the House, recognise that participating in running our country is no ordinary job.

What started in the 2002 Act as a temporary measure that would last only until 2015 has been extended by an enormous 15 years, so the use of all-women shortlists will be permitted right up to 2030. It has been suggested that this debate provides a suitable opportunity for the House to consider whether all-women shortlists have been effective, and perhaps it is time for us to do so. They have produced women MPs, but that is quite obvious. What we do not know is how many good male candidates have been prevented from getting to this House as a result of the application of the Act.

The Leader of the Opposition, on the subject of all-women shortlists, recently said:

“People were sceptical about all-women shortlists but I think they have actually made an enormous difference to the numbers of women in Parliament.”

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If that is not a statement of the blindingly obvious, I do not know what is. If all-women shortlists are employed, by definition that can have no other effect than to produce more women candidates and, if applied across the board, that would inevitably lead to an increase in the number of women MPs. That is hardly a great achievement to cite.

It has also been suggested that we need to take action to increase female representation on boards of companies, but it should be up to companies themselves to determine whom they have on their boards. I have no reason to believe that they do not choose the best person for the job. I read the other day that there has been an enormous increase in the number of women directors in the City of London. However, the percentage of the total has hardly increased at all, because what tends to happen is that companies appoint female directors to tick a box. We have almost reached “token woman syndrome” again.

The positive action in recruitment provisions in the Equality Act 2010 are entirely voluntary. There is no requirement for an employer to use either the general provisions or those relating to recruitment and promotion. I may not want to see any legislation to ban discrimination, but equally I would not wish to legislate to encourage discrimination. The Bill would even things up. It is not clear that we have seen any improvement in how companies operate, but at a time of increased difficulty for public spending we have to look at ways of cutting back, and pruning the whole area of equality and diversity legislation would be a good starting point.

Mention was made earlier of the “Not In My Name” section of the Campaign Against Political Correctness website, and I have one or two other quotes from people who do not feel that the whole equality industry has helped them. Mark Grohen said:

“As a gay man I’ve always thought myself rather lucky...I do not need to be told by politicians and do-gooders that I’m either vulnerable or incapable of looking after myself. I really dislike people’s obsession with what I do in the bedroom: I prefer it not to be the reason why I’m hired for a job.”

Chris Bryant: But unfortunately people are still murdered for their sexuality, as happened in public only a couple of years ago in Trafalgar square. That is why we need to ensure that the police services ensure that everyone is protected, not just the mainstream and the majority.

Mr Nuttall: The shadow Minister makes a perfectly valid point. I entirely agree that the police have to protect everyone equally, regardless of the colour of their skin, whether they are gay or straight, wherever they come from in the world, male or female. However, the existence of all the equality and diversity legislation runs the risk of upsetting those sections of society who feel alienated and discriminated against by that legislation. It does not help—in fact, it is counter-productive—for the Act to remain in place.

A lady—a female—who is half Chinese, said:

“For those of us who have pursued equality for so many years, it is disheartening to see how little has been achieved. Equality is not political correctness. In a truly equal country, the best candidate gets the job even if it is the Anglo-Saxon chap. There is a still long way to go.”

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Paolo Fragale, who is a gay man of mixed race, said:

“As a gay man of mixed race I vehemently oppose positive discrimination and quotas. Apart from the fact that I find them patronising, I feel they are counter productive and only serve to further segregate people.”

Rachel Watts summed up the feeling of many women when she said:

“The majority of women in favour of ‘helping hands’ and special treatment are the ones who will gain the most from them.”

Perhaps the most difficult and sensitive area is those who are disabled. Frederick Bird said:

“As someone registered disabled, I would not object to not being given a job that I was not able to do due to my disability. Being realistic there are things that I cannot do and no p.c. rubbish can alter the fact.”

Mention was made earlier of the help that disabled people need. I am pleased to say that the Government, under the Work programme, are dealing with this as it should be dealt with—on an individual basis. It is simply not right to write off great sections of the community, whether they are blind or disabled in any other way, and say, “I’m sorry—you’re not able to work because of your disability.” We should do all we can for those who have a disability to give them tailored, specialised, individual help to get them back into the workplace, but that cause will not be helped by some artificial means of employing quotas.

My final quote comes from Denise O’Brien, a disabled female person who is also a lesbian. She said:

“Political correctness is making artificial differences between people unnecessarily. Special treatment for minority groups in a lot of cases breeds resentment from those not included who have genuine need of help.”

The Bill is a good start on a very long road that we have to go down. It perhaps says something about where we are with the equality and diversity agenda that in the recently published new edition of “The Solicitor’s Handbook”, chapter 2 is on equality and diversity, and it comes before the chapters on client confidentiality and conflicts of interest. I am sure that when someone goes to consult their solicitor they are more interested to know that their business is being dealt with confidentially and that there is no conflict of interest than whether the company in question has the right sort of tick-box approach to equality and diversity. This is a burden on small and medium-sized enterprises. It is no business of the Government to interfere in this way in how businesses are run. It provides an unnecessary burden in terms of the training that they have to do on a yearly basis in order to be able to demonstrate that they are complying with the diversity agenda.

In conclusion, this matter is perhaps best summed up by the quotation from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”:

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

It cannot be right that we need this legislation in the 21st century. Everybody should be treated with respect and tolerance. I have no objection to using the word tolerance. If it is used in its normal, everyday meaning, everybody knows that it means tolerating people and treating people from different backgrounds with respect. By starting along the road of removing some of the politically correct nonsense legislation, we would be doing our constituents a great service. I warmly commend the Bill to the House. I trust that it will receive resounding

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support on Second Reading, have a smooth passage through this House and the other place, and reach the statute book, much to the delight of my constituents.

12.35 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): This debate has been even more educational, informative and entertaining than I had hoped and expected when I learned that I would be responding to it. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for the absence of my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities, who is a greater expert on these matters than I am.

This debate has stimulated a discussion on the use of positive action in our society, particularly by public authorities and political parties. It provides me with an opportunity to explain the principles and the practice of positive action as it is used by the Government, and to clarify how it can be lawfully and helpfully used in different situations by public and private organisations, service providers, and political parties, which are specifically raised in the Bill.

I will start by correcting two small errors that have crept into the debate. First, my hon. Friend said that no one cares about any form of apparent discrimination against men. He raised the interesting and relevant subject of midwives. However, there is currently a debate about the paucity of male teachers in primary schools and that is a serious issue. I am sure that many hon. Members from all parts of the House have had the experience that I have had of going into a small primary school in their constituency and finding themselves the only adult male on the premises apart, usually, from the caretaker. We all recognise that that does not necessarily contribute to the quality of education. My colleagues in the Department for Education are concerned about this issue. It gets to the nub of the debate, because if a head teacher in such a primary school were faced with two candidates of equal merit, one of whom was male and one female, a lot of us would think it sensible for them to pick the male candidate. No doubt, the female candidate would feel that that was unfair and unnecessary discrimination, but in many ways it would be common sense.

The second correction is, again, purely factual.

Chris Bryant rose—

Damian Green: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman before correcting one of the mistakes that he made.

Chris Bryant: I thought that the Minister might be about to do that.

I remember on one occasion a bishop saying to me that he was very worried because he had to appoint a clergyman in a deanery where all the clergy were gay, and he thought that it might be discriminatory if he did not appoint a gay vicar to the parish just because all the other vicars were gay.

Damian Green: I think that it would be foolish to enter into Church politics in that way from this Dispatch Box, so I will merely note what the hon. Gentleman has said. I wanted to correct him on a point that was perhaps not central to his argument. In referring to my

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former neighbouring MP for Maidstone and the Weald, Ann Widdecombe, he said that she had been voted off “Strictly” very early. That is not true. She went a very long way in “Strictly”, and indeed the BBC was panicking that she was going to win.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Not being an entrant of “Strictly”, I can be strictly authoritarian on this—we are going to stick to the Bill.

Chris Bryant: And I didn’t say that.

Damian Green: You did. I will very happily return to the Bill, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The aim of the Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is to prohibit the use of positive action by public authorities in recruitment and appointment processes, and to repeal the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. I shall start with the principles behind what the Government do.

Our approach to equality is built on two principles—equal treatment and equality of opportunity. I entirely share my hon. Friend’s dislike of equality of outcome as a political project. He said that it was misguided, and I certainly agree. However, the Government’s approach is built on the principles of equality of opportunity and equal treatment. That means building a society in which no one is held back because of who they are or where they come from. It means not uniformity but, rather, giving everyone an equal right to be treated fairly as an individual.

In our society, people can face discrimination and disadvantage because of who they are and where they come from. The Government need specific action to deal with such problems. However, the key to taking forward our equality strategy is to demonstrate that equality is for everyone by making it a part of everyday life. It is about changing culture and attitudes and tackling the causes of inequality rather than introducing more legislation. That is why we are working with business, local communities and citizens to promote good practice, transparency and accountability.

We can look at the history and concept of positive action. It is, of course, not new in UK legislation. The general positive action provisions have been in use for more than 30 years, having first been introduced in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976. Those provisions, which are sometimes called the training and encouragement provisions, have ever since allowed employers, both public and private sector, to take a range of voluntary—I cannot emphasise that word strongly enough—positive action measures to address disadvantage and under-representation in the work force.

There are many examples of such training and encouragement measures by employers, including the provision of mentoring and shadowing opportunities, the targeting of advertisements at particular groups by encouraging them to apply for advertised jobs, and the holding of open days solely for people with a particular protected characteristic that is under-represented in the workplace, in order to offer them an insight into the selection process that they would have to go through when applying for employment with that employer.

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Over the decades since those provisions were first introduced, they have become both well understood and well used. The Equality Act 2010 simplifies and harmonises them, so that unlike previous legislation, under which positive action applied in slightly different ways to different protected characteristics, it now applies in the same way to all of them as long as the relevant criteria for their use are adequately met. For those who are confused by the jargon, a reference to “protected characteristics” means a reference to someone’s age, disability, marital or civil partnership status, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation or gender reassignment if applicable. What is new under the 2010 Act is that it extends positive action provisions to the limits permissible under EU directives, which allow member states to adopt specific measures to prevent or compensate for disadvantages linked to any of those protected characteristics. It introduces new provisions specifically related to recruitment and promotion, not recruitment and appointment as suggested in my hon. Friend’s Bill. He is slightly off the mark with that.

There is a real need to tackle under-representation and ensure that everyone takes part in key areas of our society, in civil, economic and political life. One could cite a range of statistics to show why positive action can be helpful in tackling the under-representation and disadvantage that are suffered across the board in some of the more desirable strata in our society. For example, there are only three ethnic minority High Court judges. There was much discussion this morning about the composition of Parliament and how the political parties approach it. Only 22% of MPs are women, but more than half the population are women, so that is a huge disparity. More widely, only one third of public appointments are held by women, and only 0.8% of local councillors in England are black and minority ethnic women, which is an extraordinarily low figure. In terms of active discrimination, one in five lesbian, gay and bisexual people say that they have been harassed at work because of their sexual orientation. Although progress has been made—[ Interruption. ] I will not respond to that sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the shadow Minister, for his sake. Although progress has been made, clearly more needs to be made in future.

Positive action can also be used to support the delivery of the equality duty, which requires public authorities to consider the needs of people with various protected characteristics, some of whom may be at a considerable disadvantage. In a bid to address such needs, public bodies could choose—I emphasise choose—to use the positive action measures to target those disadvantaged groups.

Before I respond further to my hon. Friend’s Bill, it might be useful to set out what positive action is, what it can be used for, how it can be legally used in different scenarios, and most importantly, what it is not. In this morning’s interesting debate, many hon. Members were sliding between attacks on specific legislation and examples of positive action, and a general dislike of political correctness. There is an interesting and genuine debate to be had both on the meaning of political correctness and on what it has meant in practice, and we could ask whether it has gone too far in some ways and not far enough in others, but that does not have much to do with my hon. Friend’s Bill—I will therefore stick to the terms of the Bill.

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Positive action is a term used to describe a range of measures that organisations can use when people who share a protected characteristic—I have listed them—experience some form of disadvantage because of that characteristic; have particular needs linked to that characteristic; or are disproportionately under-represented in a particular activity. In the second scenario, the Bill would make it illegal for people to install a wheelchair ramp, because that would be positive action to help a particular group. I do not believe that my hon. Friend intends that, but as I understand it, that would be the effect of one of the clauses. It is important to look at the detail of what positive action can involve when we assess whether the Bill should make further progress.

When any of the three conditions apply, proportionate action can be taken to overcome that disadvantage—I again emphasise that the action must be proportionate, and that action “can” rather than “must” be taken. Action can be taken to overcome a disadvantage, to meet particular needs, or to encourage and increase participation in the related activity.

Positive action can be taken in relation to a wide range of activities covered by the Act as well as employment, such as education, training, service delivery and activities undertaken by associations and other organisations. Positive action is not about woolly-minded thinking, political correctness, reverse discrimination or sidelining men. My hon. Friend was both entertaining and in large part correct in attacking what he described as lentil eating, woolly minded, Guardian reading characteristics.

Chris Bryant: That’s you in the Tory party.

Damian Green: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I really do not eat lentils—nor do I own a pair of sandals, nor do I for pleasure read most of The Guardian. I find The Guardian extremely useful for one thing. If I ever wake up and feel my political energy flagging, I read the letters page of The Guardian and that reminds me why I am a Conservative and why there needs to be a Conservative Government in this country—if only to keep people such as that out of power. So The Guardian serves a tremendously useful purpose in my life.

Positive action is about counteracting the effects of historical discrimination and disadvantage by providing opportunities for those who are disadvantaged or under-represented to gain skills that would enable them to compete fairly and openly for jobs and to reach their potential. There are practical benefits for businesses attached to the use of those measures and I shall return to them later. However, I very much take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall); we need to consider the needs of businesses, particularly small and medium-sized ones, although as I say there are the practical benefits.

A common misconception confuses positive action and positive discrimination; some people talk about the two interchangeably. It is important to establish that there is a clear distinction between them. Positive discrimination is treatment that favours a person solely because they have a particular protected characteristic, irrespective of whether there are special circumstances. In other words, the treatment discriminates in their favour whether or not they experience a disadvantage connected to that protected characteristic or have particular needs that are different from those of people without that protected characteristic.

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Positive discrimination is generally unlawful in this country and will remain unlawful in most cases, although we should note that it is not unlawful to give more favourable treatment to a disabled person than to a non-disabled person. The intention behind that is to provide a level playing field for disabled people, who have been widely recognised to be disadvantaged in the field of employment, in society and in accessing services, without being open to legal challenge by non-disabled people.

Positive action, as I outlined, is about ensuring that any action taken has to be a proportionate means of achieving the aim of tackling or addressing disadvantage, encouraging participation in activities and meeting the specific needs of people with protected characteristics. It is essential for any organisation using positive action to ensure that the measures being taken do not unlawfully discriminate against people outside the group that they are seeking to help. The provisions in the Equality Act 2010 that relate to positive action make that very clear.

I am sure that my hon. Friends who have spoken in favour of the Bill would agree that many in our society have experienced historical disadvantage and under-representation in numerous sectors and professions, including in economic and political life, and many still do. Of course, significant progress has been made in recent decades to improve things.

Philip Davies: No doubt what my hon. Friend said about historical disadvantage is true, but does he think that just because black people, for example, have been discriminated against in the past, white people should be discriminated against now as some kind of reparation? Channel 4 has training courses that are open only for people from ethnic minorities. Why should somebody who happens to be from a white working class background and wants to get into the industry be deprived of doing so just because of discrimination that took place in the past?

Damian Green: I return to the point I have been making for the past couple of minutes about the distinction between positive action and positive discrimination. Specifically on the training courses my hon. Friend mentions, if a job were open only to people with a particular characteristic, that would be discrimination and would be unlawful. However, saying that one is finding it very difficult to attract a particular group of people even to think about applying for a job, and perhaps having an open day or some training aimed specifically at those people is positive action. At the relevant point—at the point of offering a job—everyone should be treated equally and there should not be any discrimination. Positive action is about trying to ensure that nobody is excluded from operating on their own merits or from applying for a particular job or position.

There was a debate a few minutes ago about the different measures used by different political parties in attempting to encourage more women to come into the House of Commons. I think there was a very neat dichotomy in that the Conservative party adopted measures short of all-women shortlists such as encouraging, mentoring and training, which resulted in a large number of new women colleagues for my hon. Friend and I in this Parliament, which we both welcome. The Conservatives did not go down the very crude route of the all-women shortlist that the Labour party introduced in the late 1990s, so there are different ways of achieving what is a

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desirable thing—equality of opportunity. Some ways are discriminatory and some are not, and the Government’s policy seeks to ensure that we maintain that very important distinction and continue to have positive action so that everyone can be treated equally, but that we do not inadvertently fall into the trap that my hon. Friend rightly warns us about of discriminating against those who do not have the particular protected characteristics. In many ways, that is at the heart of the debate: we need to maintain that distinction.

One of the Government’s aims is to speed up the rate of progress in achieving gender equality in various sectors, particularly by promoting gender equality on the boards of listed companies and by increasing female representation in politics. Progress on those fronts can be attained using the wide range of measures that are available to companies and other institutions under positive action. My hon. Friend and others will have heard the Prime Minister recently acknowledge in the House that the use of positive action is necessary on occasions to redress gender disparities in boardrooms and in politics.

In any case, lest we forget and think that using positive action places huge regulatory or financial burdens on bodies—my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North made that point—the use of any positive action measure is entirely voluntary and there is no mandatory requirement for any organisation to use positive action. If an organisation thinks there will be no real benefits to it from taking positive action measures, it does not have to do so. The voluntary nature of positive action means there are no associated mandatory burdens on organisations if they do not take such measures. That point is significant but is often missed in these debates.

Before I address the use of positive action in matters of recruitment and promotion, I should like to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to clause 2 of his Bill, which would make it unlawful to use positive action for any of the listed protected characteristics as well as for socio-economic status. The current positive action provisions do not permit measures to be taken to address issues solely relating to socio-economic inequality. He might be aware that the Government were not persuaded by the arguments for a public sector duty relating to socio-economic inequalities in the 2010 Act and that they have already decided not to commence those provisions, which will be repealed at a future date. I hope that he and I can agree on that point if on no other.

I turn specifically to the effect of the Bill, the aim of which is to prohibit the use of positive action by public authorities in recruitment and appointment processes. The Bill would, as drafted, create a two-tier system under which it would be lawful for private organisations to continue to use positive action measures in recruitment and appointment processes, but not for public authorities. That would mean that public authorities would not have the same benefits of opportunity open to them in recruitment as private sector organisations. Not only does this disparity seem unfair, but it could be confusing for employers, especially private organisations that deliver services under contract to or on behalf of a public authority, but which may not normally be considered public authorities themselves.

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I make it clear that the provisions in the Equality Act 2010 contain explicit built-in safeguards to ensure that they are not misused. The provisions allow the use of positive action specifically in the process of recruitment and promotion in limited circumstances. Positive action can therefore only be used in the process of recruitment and promotion for specific purposes: to overcome or minimise a disadvantage, or to increase participation in activities, or where the candidates are as qualified as each other to carry out the job under consideration, or where the action is a proportionate means of addressing the particular disadvantage or under-representation, and where the employer does not have an automatic policy of treating people who share a protected characteristic more favourably than those who do not have protected characteristics.

To help employers who want to use positive action to do so lawfully, a step-by-step practical guide to using positive action when making appointments is available on the Government Equalities Office website. It will help an employer to ask all the relevant questions and ensure transparency at every stage of the recruitment and appointment process.

Remedies are available to possible victims of positive action. Any participant who deems that the positive action measures used by an organisation in its recruitment and promotion process have not been fair to them, or a person who believes they have been deterred from taking part in such a process, could bring a claim against the organisation. It would ultimately be up to any employer using positive action in recruitment to ensure that the assessment process is proportionate to achieving the aim of addressing a disadvantage or under-representation, that it is transparent and that they can sufficiently justify how they make a choice between candidates.

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that the principle of merit should always apply in any recruitment or promotion process that uses positive action measures. As I have already said, under these measures, a person cannot be appointed solely because they possess a certain protected characteristic that is disadvantaged or under-represented in the workplace. That would constitute unlawful discrimination.

An employer faced with making a choice between two or more candidates who are as qualified as each other to undertake the post in question can take into consideration whether any of the candidates possesses a protected characteristic that is disadvantaged or disproportionately under-represented in the work force. However, this does not mean that the candidates under consideration have to be identical in every respect. Any consideration of merit should take into account the relevant facts of their competence, ability, experience and any formal qualifications that may be relevant to the particular job.

Among other things, the Bill would put a stop to the setting and pursuit of targets in relation to recruitment and promotion. Targets are not quotas, nor are they the same as positive action. Targets are the end that an organisation wishes to achieve, while positive action is, essentially, the measures that an organisation can take in order to achieve its aim. Targets allow organisations to direct a range of programmes, initiatives, products and services at particular groups of people who are under-represented in certain activities, or because of poor take-up of services or activities. Such action would

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enable these groups to acquire the necessary skills to compete for jobs or to access services tailored to their specific needs. It is perfectly permissible in the UK to set targets that are intended to provide an incentive for people to improve and achieve certain goals.

Of course, targets are not limitless; they either evolve as an organisation’s priorities change over the years, or they come to their natural end. I think there is a fear that this is an endless path going in one direction. Clearly, an organisation may decide that it has done what it needs to do to meet a target that it has set itself for representation within its work force, or its boardroom, or its parliamentary party or whatever, and at that point the existing legislative framework entirely permits the organisation to get off the track and continue its normal business as it would have done if it had never introduced those measures.

As I mentioned, an important priority for the Government is to increase the number of women in the boardroom and in civic and public life. The key to achieving that is not through the setting of strict employment quotas such as reserving a number of posts only for women, which would in any case be unlawful—I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and the House that the Government have absolutely no intention of changing that position—but through the use of voluntary measures and initiatives.

The difference between the targets that I have been talking about and the quotas that my hon. Friend is rightly sceptical about is that the target can be worked towards naturally over a period spent developing people in order that the organisation can hit the target, whereas a quota must be filled whether or not there are suitable people available to fill it. That is the absolutely crucial practical distinction. If we tried to force organisations to fill quotas, less qualified people would be appointed to positions, which would be unfair on those who were better qualified, and in the long term damaging for the institution concerned. If the legislation currently in place had that effect, or indeed that intention, I would share all my hon. Friend’s worries about it, but it does not, and just as the distinction between positive discrimination and positive action is key, the difference between targets and quotas is absolutely key. We have a sensible, practical set of measures that can allows organisations to improve themselves, not something that is over-burdensome.

Philip Davies: I am interested in what the Minister has to say. Will he clarify this point? I understood from what I have read in the media—I concede that one should not always believe everything one reads in the papers—that the Government have let it be known that if boardrooms do not hit the target set by Lord Davies, if they do not go themselves voluntarily to hit that target, the Government will act. Can the Minister assure the House now that if they do not hit the artificial, arbitrary targets that Lord Davies set in his report, the Government will not act?

Damian Green: I do not accept that the targets are necessarily arbitrary or artificial. We are very keen that organisations should hit their targets for women in boardrooms; the Government strongly welcomed the Lord Davies report and we are now at the stage of working with business and others to ensure that the

21 Oct 2011 : Column 1232

recommendations are implemented effectively without recourse to some of the measures that my hon. Friend would regard as draconian.

I am happy to report to the House that good progress has been made in implementing the recommendations. In May, the Financial Reporting Council launched its consultation on changes to the UK corporate governance code. The headhunting industry has agreed a voluntary code on diversity, which was launched in July 2011. The Association of Executive Search Consultants will champion the code to its members, and there is an increasing and strong sense of ownership and action in FTSE 100 businesses, including company secretaries, who will in many cases be the key figure in the organisation.

Philip Davies: I really must press the Minister on this, because some things are more voluntary than others. If the Government say to organisations, “This is what we expect of you; if you don’t do it, we will force you to do it,” and the Government then start reporting progress, that is not voluntary—at least not in my eyes. It is a very curious definition of “voluntary”. If businesses do not hit the artificial target in Lord Davies’s report, will the Government act? From what the Minister says, it sounds as if the Government will not act and force businesses to take action if they do not do so themselves.

Damian Green: What I am saying is that the bodies are already acting themselves, so the undesirable outcome of which my hon. Friend is fearful will not happen. I have talked about various organisations; let me mention specific companies. Centrica, BT and Barclays have all provided programmes or initiatives to assist in the recruitment, retention, development and advancement of women and persons from other protected groups in the workplace, and to broaden their career aspirations. That makes the point that I alluded to earlier: good and constructive use of positive action is not woolly-minded, or political correctness gone mad, or whatever the cliché du jour is; it has practical benefits for the organisations that voluntarily opt for it.

I refer my hon. Friend to a report published in 2008 by the CBI, the TUC and the Equality and Human Rights Commission entitled “Talent not Tokenism: the business benefits of workforce diversity”. It showed that diversity in an organisation promotes productivity and efficiency, and increases market opportunities. Several UK employers recognise the benefits of positive action; it fills skill gaps while generating a more diverse work force. That added diversity in turn gives employers a better understanding of customers’ needs, opening up new markets and attracting new business.

More businesses than ever, including FTSE companies at all levels—those in the FTSE 100, FTSE 250 and FTSE 350—are using voluntary positive action measures to improve the diversity of their top management and boards of executive and non-executive directors. Lord Davies’s report, to which my hon. Friend referred, acknowledged that corporate boards perform better when they comprise experienced people with a greater range of skills, perspectives and backgrounds. His report indicated that there is a business case for increasing the diversity of corporate boards, and especially for gender-diverse boards, so that businesses can draw on the full range of available talent and achieve effective governance and performance.

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To address my hon. Friend’s point directly, Lord Davies’s report ruled out the setting of mandatory quotas to compel businesses to appoint female directors to their boards, so my hon. Friend is right not to believe everything that he reads in the media. The statistics are stark. The proportion of women on FTSE 100 company boards is 14.2%, and the figure is 8.9% for FTSE 250 companies. Previously, almost half the FTSE 250 companies had no women director on their board. A recently published report by the Cranfield School of Management on the progress made on some of the recommendations outlined in the Davies report shows that, for the first time, a minority of FTSE 250 companies have all-male boards. Moving down the size scale, FTSE 350 companies face an even greater challenge in increasing female representation on their boards.

My hon. Friend may have heard of the 30% Club, which comprises a group of UK company chairmen, if I am allowed to use that word, who are voluntarily committed to bringing more women on to UK corporate boards. The 30% Club supports a voluntary target to ensure that every UK corporate board has at least 30% female representation by 2015.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I think that the Minister is going slightly wider than the Bill, so could he perhaps drag it back to public authorities?

Damian Green: I shall certainly drag it back to public authorities, and indeed specifically to the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to repeal the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, in which I know you have a particular interest, Mr Deputy Speaker. The effect of the Bill would not be what I think my hon. Friend intends, because the majority of that Act has already been repealed by the Equality Act 2010. I urge him to look at schedule 27 of that Act—the repeals and revocations schedule—which repeals most of the Act that he seeks to repeal. The 2002 Act has largely been repealed because the provisions relating to elections in England, Scotland and Wales are now contained in the Equality Act 2010. Repealing what remains extant of the 2002 Act would not achieve what I assume to be the aim of the Bill, as the provisions relating to the selection of election candidates would continue to be permissible for registered political parties in Scotland, England and Wales if they chose to use them.

What remain extant of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act are provisions that relate solely to Northern Ireland. The 2002 Act amends the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, permitting political parties to adopt single-sex shortlists when selecting candidates for elections to certain bodies. Repealing the 2002 Act would only create further confusion and disparity, as the provisions relating to electoral shortlists could continue to be used in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland.

In any case, we consider that the provisions relating to the selection of election candidates remain a legitimate tool for parties that wish to use them. The provisions enable registered political parties to take action to address any disparity in their representation of men and women in elected office, including the use of women-only shortlists.

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We have had a great deal of discussion about the under-representation of women elected to the House—only 144 of 650 Members are women, equating to about 22% of MPs—and it is widely agreed across the House that although progress has been made, it is not yet complete and there is a need for political parties to make the House more representative of the diverse population in this country, because that will enable us to deliver better governance.

I should point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and to the House as a whole that the use of those provisions is time-limited, as they are due to expire in 2030 when, we hope, the representation of women in political or other elected office will have increased significantly. The provisions do, however, contain a power to allow a Minister to extend their use beyond 2030 if insufficient progress has been made in increasing female representation. Given the fact that we have given ourselves two decades to achieve that aim, I hope that we can do so without requiring that extension.

By attempting to prevent the use of positive action under what I hope I have persuaded hon. Members are entirely appropriate circumstances, the aims of the Bill contradict Government policy to promote fairness, equality and diversity and to tackle under-representation in targeted areas such as “women on company boards” and “elected office”. Many public authorities have long used forms of positive action in relation to matters connected to recruitment and promotion, and they strongly support the continued use of those provisions. Some registered political parties have successfully used these measures in recent years and, as far as I am aware, there is no opposition from any of the major political parties to using positive action to redress gender representation.

The key thing to remember is that the use of any form of positive action in our country is entirely voluntary, whether it is in providing services, in employment-related matters, in increasing participation in particular activities, or in politics. Organisations will use the provisions only if there is a real benefit for them in doing so. Without the use of positive action, it would not be possible to develop the initiatives outlined in the coalition programme for government to tackle the numerous barriers to social mobility and equal opportunities that exist in our society in relation to age, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation. It is not possible to build a fairer society without being able to take the necessary measures to end discrimination in the workplace; to promote gender equality on the boards of listed companies; to promote improved community relations and opportunities for people of black and minority ethnic backgrounds; to provide internships for under-represented groups; and to fund targeted mentoring schemes to help under-represented groups to start businesses. It is clear that my hon. Friend’s Bill would remove this voluntary but important opportunity for organisations and political parties to make strides in tackling the continued disadvantage and under-representation experienced by persons with protected characteristics in work forces and in civic, public and political life across the UK. To stop the use of positive action would cause a major setback in the progress already made in addressing disadvantage or under-representation in our society. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to withdraw his Bill.

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1.20 pm

Philip Davies: With the leave of the House, may I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate, those who supported my Bill—I particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) for their typically robust comments on my behalf—and those who contributed to the debate even though they did not agree with me?

It is sad that in this age it is so difficult to persuade Members of the merits of the principle that people should be given jobs on merit, and merit alone. It is like pushing water uphill to try and make the case for that basic and, I should have thought, obvious proposition. On that note I shall conclude the debate and press the motion to a Division.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 3, Noes 39.

Division No. 371]

[1.21 pm


Bone, Mr Peter

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Tellers for the Ayes:

Philip Davies and

Mr David Nuttall


Ali, Rushanara

Austin, Ian

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Bryant, Chris

Campbell, Mr Alan

Creagh, Mary

David, Mr Wayne

Eagle, Ms Angela

Fallon, Michael

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freer, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Gauke, Mr David

Gilbert, Stephen

Grayling, rh Chris

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Damian

Hamilton, Mr David

Hendry, Charles

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Glenda

Kawczynski, Daniel

Leslie, Chris

Loughton, Tim

Milton, Anne

Neill, Robert

O'Brien, Mr Stephen

Paice, rh Mr James

Penrose, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Seabeck, Alison

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Willetts, rh Mr David

Wright, Mr Iain

Young, rh Sir George

Tellers for the Noes:

Greg Hands and

Jeremy Wright

Question accordingly negatived.

21 Oct 2011 : Column 1236

Master’s Degrees (Minimum Standards) Bill

Second Reading

1.35 pm

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill would resolve a straightforward question—should some universities have the right to award a free master’s degree, while at every other university hundreds of thousands of students have to work hard to earn theirs? It is difficult to believe, but the practice of converting a bachelor’s degree into a master’s without exams, extra study or tuition fees still exists. Only some 3,000 lucky bachelor’s degree graduates of only two universities—Oxford and Cambridge—are able to list an impressive-looking postgraduate qualification on their CVs each year, for nothing more than a £10 administration charge, and without even the £10 fee at Cambridge.

In what must rank as one of the most byzantine relics of a bygone era—other than private Member’s Bill Fridays—these complimentary master of arts degrees require nothing more than a 21-term period to elapse after matriculation before these fortunate few graduates have their bachelor’s degrees automatically upgraded. Neil Dodgson, a Cambridge professor, says that

“many find it offensive that we should award a degree for doing nothing more than being able to breathe for three years.”

In contrast, the vast majority of ordinary postgraduate students have to earn their degree the hard way, often paying a £4,500 or higher tuition fee, studying for a year or more, completing coursework, exams, dissertations, and so on. Many of those who earn their master’s degrees are completely unaware that they could be competing for future employment with candidates declaring their MA(Oxon) or MA(Cantab) at the head of their CV. Is that really fair? Clearly not.

Eleven years ago, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said:

“The Masters title causes much misunderstanding...most employers think it always represents an award for postgraduate study”.

A survey the agency conducted found that more than 60% of recruiters were unaware of the honorary nature of this so-called higher degree.

The time has come to end this anachronism, and a growing body of opinion believes it is time to draw a veil over these arrangements. I should state for the record that I do not blame anyone from Oxbridge for taking the opportunity presented to them—chance would be a fine thing. But if we set aside the cheeky sense of privilege, even the most battle-hardened defenders of elitism have to admit that the total and utter lack of merit behind this apparently great award is unfair. Indeed, it is now surely in the best interests of modern and open Oxford and Cambridge universities for them to voluntarily relinquish this privilege and prove that they are beacons of genuine learning and earned distinction.

I have written to both universities challenging them to reconsider voluntarily and phase out these arrangements without the need for legislation. Unfortunately, they are gambling that no one will disturb their long-standing privileges. But there is still time and I hope that the Minister will join me in urging Oxford and Cambridge to take seriously the palpable objections to these give-away

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degrees. They undermine valid qualifications from other universities. They entrench an artificial distinction between students and higher education institutions. They confuse employers and create the risk that genuine achievements are misrepresented. They demoralise those who spend years of their lives to achieve something that others get for nothing. They risk devaluing the genuine calibre and reputation of British higher education. Some will argue that this is a harmless practice and that everyone knows that it is not really a masters degree. Unfortunately, however, not everyone is in the loop, and plenty of people will be hoodwinked by the free degree.

I could argue that one solution is to allow everyone with a bachelor’s degree the same chance to get a free master’s thrown in, but that would be daft. Instead, I propose a simple, and surely uncontentious Bill. It would require the Quality Assurance Agency to report within three months on the measures necessary to establish a minimum standard—a very minimum standard—of academic achievement for all master’s degrees awarded by higher education institutions in England. Hon. Members may be surprised to learn that there are no basic or fundamental yardsticks of that sort to ensure academic rigour across the board, but sadly that is the case. A simple threshold would ensure that future postgraduate degrees are all awarded on the basis of the proven hard work of students who have undertaken a course of study. Basic standards and fair play should not be too much to ask. The time has come for us to end this unmerited and confusing patronage once and for all.

1.40 pm

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): As always, it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie). I seem to recall that I was in the Chamber some months ago when his Bill was introduced by way of the ten-minute rule process, and as a consequence of that, we are here today debating its Second Reading. I am sure that he is pleased that it has reached this stage so swiftly.

In most United Kingdom universities, the MA—master’s of arts—degree is a free-standing graduate degree awarded by examination. I should say at the outset that I approach this subject entirely without any prejudgment of the case, because I did not attend either Oxford or Cambridge, or, indeed, Dublin university. I did a rather unusual thing, in many ways. I think I am probably in a minority in the House in that I obtained my bachelor of law degree by correspondence through the university of London.

It had always been my intention to try to go university after I had completed my secondary education, and most people thought that that would happen, but in those days, 30 years ago—I hardly dare say it—the number of universities and the application process was rather different from today. One had to apply to various universities and was given grades that one had to achieve in order to meet the requirements of the course that one had applied for. I had applied for law degree courses, which usually came back with quite a high requirement in terms of the grades that had to be achieved in order to attend. In the event—it is a matter of record and widely known—I did not get the grades that I needed to be able to attend such a course.

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Thirty years ago, much like today, the economic situation put unemployment high on the national agenda. It seemed to me that the purpose of education was to get a job. In the summer of 1980, I was therefore faced with a dilemma: did I sit around, unemployed, and hope for something to turn up, did I take an alternative further education course, or did I look for a job? As luck would have it, I got the job that I applied for as a trainee legal executive. I accept that I am very fortunate because I have applied for only one job in my life.

I make that point not to digress, but because it leads on to what happened a few days later. I was offered the opportunity to go to Hull university, not to do a law degree, but to do a degree in economics, philosophy and sociology, or some other three-study degree. I thought long and hard, and had many sleepless nights thinking about whether I should give up the job that I had just got and do a course that I did not really want to follow at university. I was told that it might be possible to swap courses, but I decided not to go to university in the conventional way, but to stay at the small firm of solicitors that I had joined. I was forced to continue my legal education at night school, studying in the evenings and at weekends. I started at Richmond college doing the trainee legal executive exams, as they were in those days, for the Institute of Legal Executives.

It was only after I had been doing those studies for a couple of years that I realised that if ever I was to achieve my long-term ambition of becoming a solicitor, I needed to obtain a law degree. In those days, it was far less common than it is today to obtain a law degree by correspondence. In a nutshell, it meant that one had to do the same exams to the same standard as everyone who had attended the university of London as an internal student, without the benefit—although some might think it a disadvantage—of living in London and attending the lectures. It required a degree of rigour and self-denial, because at evenings and weekends it was necessary to stay in when ones friends were going out and doing the things that 18 and 19-year-olds do. Actually, I was probably in my early 20s by the time I had started the degree. I had to persevere down that route.

Chris Leslie: I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman’s personal history, but he will be aware that time is pressing and that the sitting finishes at 2.30. It would be useful to hear from the Minister and others on the specific issue of the integrity of the master’s degree. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman was swift with his remarks.

Mr Nuttall: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I will address that point in detail shortly. I just wanted to make the point that I am in no way biased about the merits or otherwise of someone having an MA from Oxford, Cambridge or Dublin after their name just because I did not go down that particular route. In fact, the first time I came across the practice—I had not known that such things were possible—was not until I was at the firm of solicitors that I mentioned. One of the partners who had joined after me had been to Cambridge, and he had a law degree. Upon paying whatever the requisite fee was, he became a master of arts. It was only through chatting with him at that time that I discovered the practice. I hope the House will

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therefore accept that my comments are made in the light of that background, and that I am completely neutral.

I understand that the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin award BA graduates MAs without postgraduate work after an allotted period. At the university of Dublin, those who have a bachelor of arts degree may proceed to the degree of master of arts after a period of three years and payment of a fee of €637.

I accept that concerns have been raised about the practice in previous years. They were perhaps first noted in the House back in 2000, when Jackie Lawrence, the Labour MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, tabled an early-day motion. I understand that it was signed by more than 50 right hon. and hon. Members, and that it proposed, I believe for the first time, that the Oxbridge MA be phased out. In the same year, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education—the university standards watchdog, if I can call it that—reviewed the issue as part of its attempts to create a uniform system of master’s degrees for employers in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. One can well understand the need for some form of standardisation across the universities sector, so that employers know what they are dealing with.

The practice of what might be called the ancient universities—I think that is the correct term for Oxbridge—actually dates back to mediaeval times, when study for a liberal arts degree typically took seven years and the degree was awarded in two parts. The bachelor of arts degree was awarded at the end of undergraduate studies, then the master of arts degree was undertaken, which gave the student the licence to teach. Until the 17th century, the Oxbridge student completed the study of the BA and then usually remained at the institution for a further three years. As is the case today, the student became a full member of the university after being awarded the MA degree. I understand that that is one reason why most students take up the opportunity to move from a BA to an MA. I would be interested to know whether anyone has the precise statistics on that.

By the end of the 17th century, for reasons that are not known nowadays, the system had completely changed and the MA was awarded to candidates without the need for them to continue their studies any further. I should briefly add that American universities developed the doctorate course, with the effect that the MA began to hold a place above the baccalaureate and below the doctorate. The university of London adopted that model, moving away from the mediaeval practice. Newer universities followed that lead, with the result that the practice at Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin, which might be called the Oxbridge and Dublin model, is now considered by some to be an anomaly.

At Cambridge, the MA is conferred by right on all those who have obtained a BA degree not less than six years from the end of a graduate’s first term of residence, providing that they have held their BA for at least two years. An MA degree is not available at the university of Cambridge as a postgraduate qualification.

On the other hand, the Oxford MA degree, following long-standing tradition, like at the university of Cambridge, is a mark of seniority within the university that may be conferred after a period of 21 terms—seven years—after matriculation. An MA is not available at the university of Oxford as a postgraduate qualification. Oxford’s guidance to students on the Oxford MA states that

21 Oct 2011 : Column 1240

“the Oxford MA is about reaching a new status within the University and not an upgrade of your BA or an additional qualification.”

It is perhaps worth mentioning a couple of the comments that Oxford and Cambridge made following remarks by an academic at Cambridge university’s computer laboratory in May last year. Cambridge university’s council said that the degree was valuable. It stated:

“The council believes that the (MA) degree continues to serve valuable purposes which outweigh any negative external perceptions of it. The QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) is well aware of the degree’s status and has not expressed any concerns about it.”

According to Cherwell, an independent student newspaper at the university of Oxford, a spokesman from the Oxford university press office said that the issue had been raised by an MP, and that it was therefore difficult to gauge public opinion on whether the system should be changed.

I understand that the universities have concerns about how up to date the research was on which the QAA has based its findings. Although there are concerns about the nature of Oxbridge MA degrees, they are not widespread. I have met dozens of employers over the years, and I have never heard one of them say that they are confused by the Oxbridge and Dublin system of awarding MA degrees. I am also not aware that any business has been duped or suffered any loss as a result of employing someone from Oxbridge or Dublin who has gone down the route of having their degree upgraded in that way.

In the same way, when speaking to graduates of other universities who have undertaken a course of study for their MA degree, I have never come across any ill-feeling towards Oxbridge graduates because of how they have achieved their MA award. One has to ask whether it is such a problem that it warrants the abolition of the long-standing and traditional practice of those two ancient universities. In many ways, it marks them out as special; today most people would still accept that having an Oxbridge degree is different and more special than having one from other universities.

The fact that the Oxbridge MA is awarded in replacement of, and not in addition to, the award of a bachelor’s degree is particularly noteworthy. To me, that strongly makes it clear that it is based on academic rank rather than academic merit. The four ancient universities of Scotland—St Andrew’s, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh—award MA degrees as first degrees in certain subjects, as do Dundee and Heriot Watt universities. How Trinity College Dublin awards MA degrees is similar to how Oxford and Cambridge do.

Oxbridge MA degrees are distinct in purpose and nature. For example, they give the right to vote in elections for the chancellor of the university. The universities and the QAA make it absolutely clear that the MA degrees are not academic qualifications. The granting of master of arts degrees is, I believe, a matter for the universities themselves to consider as autonomous institutions primarily responsible for academic standards. I wonder to what extent they would welcome what one might call the intrusion into their affairs by the House.

UK universities have thrived under the existing system; recent statistics show that only the United States of America boasts more institutions than the United Kingdom in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education world university rankings for 2011-12. In the light of that

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evidence, there is nothing to suggest that the qualification is damaging their world-class reputations. Both Oxford and Cambridge offer a range of taught master’s degrees, none of which is called an MA. We must not lose sight of the fact that there are real inequalities of opportunity in education. In the last year for which figures are available, just 40 of the 80,000 pupils eligible for free school meals made it to Oxbridge.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. The hon. Gentleman is now going wider than what is in the Bill. He should go back to talking about master’s degrees.

Mr Nuttall: It is certainly essential that qualifications awarded by higher education institutions meet national academic standards to ensure that the world-class reputation of our United Kingdom higher education institutions is maintained. I will listen closely to the rest of the debate, but, on balance, I am probably minded to follow my normal instinct—“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

It is probably right that the issue should remain primarily within the remit of those individual universities. However, I can well see why folk might think it rather strange that in this day and age this ancient anomaly is allowed to survive. However, it does not seem to cause anyone any great problem, concern, upset or loss. I would need to be convinced by yet more evidence, which I have not seen so far in the debate, that this is an appropriate time to end this long-standing practice. I shall listen closely to the remainder of the debate.

2.4 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I am honoured to have my first run out at the Dispatch Box in my new role as shadow Minister for competitiveness and enterprise on the seventh anniversary of my maiden speech in the House, which I delivered from the other side of the Chamber. I have to say that I much preferred it on that side of the House and I hope, for the good of the country, that we will change places with the current Government very soon.

I was enthralled by the speech of the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and I am grateful to him for saving me the cost, expense and trouble of buying his political memoirs. I shall just look at today’s Hansard to learn about his political upbringing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) on bringing the Bill before the House. He mentioned during his ten-minute rule speech on the Bill in February and again this afternoon that most postgraduate students who hope to receive an MA will often undergo further intense study, will have their knowledge and application tested by examination and will often pay substantial tuition fees for the privilege. He is right to suggest that we should question whether it is right and fair to have a dual system of obtaining MAs under which some people work hard for a substantial period and others simply attend a particular institution and pay a £10 admin fee. It is also right that we pay tribute, as he did, to the hard work and dedication of tens of thousands of postgraduate students.

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It is important to say at the outset—and the hon. Member for Bury North alluded to this—that the relevant framework for England, Wales and Northern Ireland published in 2008 states categorically:

“The Master of Arts (MA) granted by the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge are not academic qualifications.”

Similarly, the Scottish credit and qualifications framework published in 2009 states that in a small number of universities in Scotland the Scottish bachelor’s degree is entitled “MA”, although that, too, in most cases, is not a master’s degree.

I shall address the reputation of UK universities and the importance of overseas students in a moment. First, let me say that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East is right to suggest that many students who are thinking of coming to study in our ancient universities might be unclear about the status of an MA from one university to another. Of course, they would undertake research—and perhaps they should not think of undertaking an MA if they cannot do such rudimentary research—but I stress, as I think my hon. Friend would, that clarity, fairness and transparency would be beneficial to all concerned.

There has been much discussion in recent months about the future shape of the UK economy and how we will pay our way in the world in the face of intense global competition. It is clear to me that this country needs to play to its strengths and provide help and support to those areas of economic activity where Britain leads the world and has an ambition to continue to lead the world in future. One of these world-beating sectors is undoubtedly higher education. Britain has led the world and has an enviable reputation on higher education institutions. As the hon. Member for Bury North said, the Times Higher Education world university rankings for 2011/12 show that three of our universities are in the world’s top 10, with the only other country in the top 10 being the United States. Of the world’s top 200 universities, 32 are British—a figure that is again surpassed only by the US. This broad base of excellence in higher education should be celebrated and nurtured as much as possible. For the particular discipline of science and engineering—an academic discipline in which we should aspire to lead the world, and one that should have considerable marketable commercial opportunities in the modern global economy—three British universities are in the top 10.

We have seen a real success story for higher education institutions in this country in the past decade. The sector educates about 2.5 million students annually, with a 28% increase in student numbers in the past 10 years. Some 400,000 overseas students attend our higher education institutions each year, largely because of this country’s leading reputation in higher education, particularly postgraduate education. This provides the national economy with an additional £2.5 billion each year. It is particularly interesting, and relevant to the subject under discussion, that full-time postgraduate numbers have increased during the past decade by almost three quarters, largely due to the increase in non-UK students, who tend to study at postgraduate level.

Our higher education institutions are true incubators for innovation, undertaking research and development at master’s and PhD level. Postgraduate students at our higher education institutions are undertaking research,

21 Oct 2011 : Column 1243

and providing the learning and knowledge that will be applied commercially to supply modern products that British companies can then sell to the rest of the world. We should be celebrating and supporting them.

In those circumstances, it is important that there is clarity and transparency to ensure that students who wish to study for a master’s qualification are fully aware of its requirements and standards. In March 2010, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education published a new reference point, “Master’s degree characteristics”. The QAA states that the

“landscape for master’s degrees in the UK is flexible and diverse”,

which is something that the Opposition certainly want to encourage and develop.

One of the reasons the higher education sector in the UK is appreciated throughout the world is its flexibility and diversity, and the Opposition do not want to put that at risk. We fear, however, that the Government’s changes to HE will hinder choice, reduce the subjects on offer at postgraduate level at our HE institutions and ultimately undermine Britain’s global competitive advantage in higher education.

As has already been said, HE institutions are autonomous, and they will do as they see fit, based on what they wish to achieve for themselves and their students. I do not want to propose anything that would put that under threat. I also do not want to burden the sector with additional or excessive regulation, particularly when it is enduring the biggest upheaval in its funding arrangements for many years. The Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East is not particularly bureaucratic or excessive. It promotes transparency and clarity, and does nothing to undermine either the reputation of our higher education institutions or the unique historical shape and culture of our ancient universities. We believe that some of the issues raised could be best explored further in Committee, so I hope that the House will give the Bill the fair wind it deserves and allow it a Second Reading.

2.12 pm

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) on driving the House to focus on an interesting curiosity in our higher education system. I declare a kind of interest as one of the people who did indeed shell out—eventually—to buy my MA, in order to vote in the elections for the chancellor of the University of Oxford and for the professor of poetry. I declare that interest.

Let me describe briefly exactly what the Oxford and Cambridge MAs are. The Oxford regulations set out clearly their understanding of the degree of master of arts: in essence, the holder of the degree of bachelor of arts or bachelor of fine art may with the approval of their college apply for the degree of master of arts after the 21st term from his or her matriculation. The current fee for admission at Oxford is £10, and the qualification confers membership of convocation and the right to vote for the chancellor and the professor of poetry.

Membership of convocation is part of the argument. As Oxford’s regulations suggest, it is a means whereby all graduates of the university

“have an opportunity for some continued formal involvement in the life of the university, supplementing…the links that colleges develop with their old members.”

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Chris Leslie: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister at the beginning of his speech. Is there a particular reason why use of the title master of arts is needed to confer those rights? Surely, he must admit that the university could confer the rights without the confusing mark of master of arts.

Mr Willetts: I will turn later in my remarks to the challenge, which the hon. Gentleman has raised again, of whether the arrangement is confusing, but, historically, the way in which membership of the convocation has been conferred is through the MA. Obviously, it provides those rights to vote that I mentioned. Of course, it has been considered from time to time, both in Oxford and Cambridge, whether that arrangement should continue. For example, in the Franks review of Oxford, its anomalous nature was noted, but it was decided that it was overall a feature of the system that should be preserved.

The Government of course attach great importance to rigorous national academic standards, and I agree with what the hon. Member for Nottingham East said and with the remarks by the shadow Minister, whom I welcome to his new post and to the debate. We share pride in the world-class reputation of higher education in the UK, and we have a shared recognition that that international reputation depends on confidence in the standards of our universities and confidence that they are properly regulated through independent quality audit. Higher education councils have a statutory responsibility to ensure the quality of the higher education provision that they fund, but primary responsibility for academic standards and quality rests with individual universities and colleges, each of which is self-governing and has its own internal quality assurance procedures, complemented by the external quality assurance carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. The QAA is the key agency in ensuring that quality control, and we support and value its work.

The QAA has itself tried to engage with the issue from time to time. Its 2008 framework for higher education qualifications includes the following statement:

“The Master of Arts (MA) granted by the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge are not academic qualifications. The MA is normally granted, on application, to graduates of these universities with a Bachelor of Arts (BA). No further study or assessment is required, but the recipient may be required to pay a fee.

At the University of Oxford, the MA may be granted during or after the twenty-first term from matriculation and at the University of Cambridge the MA may be granted six years after the end of the first term.”

So that is the position, which the QAA has set out very explicitly.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge have been clear themselves about the status of the MA. I quote from a letter from the University of Cambridge that was actually sent to the hon. Member for Nottingham East:

“It has always been well recognised that our M.A. is not a qualification obtained by postgraduate study but, rather, is a mark of status and experience which gives its holders certain rights within Cambridge, particularly in their participation in our democratic governance structures”.

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Chris Leslie: It might have been well recognised by the closed circle within Oxford and Cambridge themselves, but the rest of the world does not recognise that, so surely the Minister would have to acknowledge that clinging to the pretence of the title Master of Arts degree is a complete and utter nonsense.

Mr Willetts: Perhaps this is the moment to engage that point. The hon. Gentleman has to offer evidence that the arrangements are causing widespread confusion. We have seen no such evidence. All the material that is available on the websites of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge makes it absolutely clear that their MAs are not qualifications obtained by postgraduate study. The QAA’s documents make clear the status of these qualifications, and we are not aware of the widespread confusion and misunderstanding that the hon. Gentleman claims to have identified.

Chris Leslie: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he has been extremely generous. On the evidence point, in 2000, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education undertook an opinion poll survey of recruiters. It reported that 62% of employers thought that MA Oxon. or MA Cantab. was a genuine, hard-earned postgraduate award. Surely that is sufficient evidence.

Mr Willetts: The hon. Gentleman has cited that evidence in the past, but the evidence from 2000 predates the work that I have described. It was because of that point that the QAA engaged with the subject. It has made explicit in its publications what the Oxford and Cambridge MAs are, and Oxford and Cambridge prospectuses and websites are now very explicit on that point. He needs new evidence; he cannot simply rest on evidence from 2000, given that so much more is now done to be explicit about the unusual characteristics of these MAs.

The challenge set by that research in 2000 has been addressed by Oxford and Cambridge, and it is hard to imagine that anyone who had done a minimal level of research could be in any doubt about the nature of the MA from Oxford and Cambridge. It is not an academic qualification; it replaces the BA as the holder of the BA develops a longer relationship with those universities. The hon. Gentleman has to provide further information than he has so far been able on the argument that there is confusion for employers.

A related argument is that somehow the system undermines the value and standing of MAs awarded by other universities. Is it therefore the case that the victims are not employers, but people who have MAs from other universities? I freely accept that those MAs are genuine academic qualifications for which further work is required after a BA has been secured. Again, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that we do not have any evidence. I have letters on a wide range of issues in higher education, but in my 18 months as Minister responsible for these issues I have not had a single letter that I can recall saying, “I got my MA from some other British university and I find that it is not respected, because people think that I got it only because I was trying to elect the chancellor of the university, or the professor of poetry.” The hon. Gentleman has a theoretical argument that is not borne out by the practical evidence on confusion for employers or for people who receive

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their MAs from elsewhere. I commend to him the formulations now explicitly used by the QAA and set out in statements from the universities in question: the MAs that we are talking about are “not academic qualifications.”

For us to act, we would not only have to be persuaded of the problem of confusion, but would have to take a significant step towards intervening in the internal arrangements of the universities in question. That is where the position of the shadow Minister rather surprises me, because my view is that intervening in such a way in the autonomous decisions of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge would go contrary to what I thought was the shared view of both Front-Bench teams—the view that the autonomy of our universities was one of the reasons for their success.

The shadow Minister may have thought that it would be easy to turn up and attack this apparently anomalous situation, but if he wishes the matter to go further, he has to explain why he would be so willing to interfere with the autonomy of the institutions that we are talking about, including autonomy over their academic awards, which was most recently protected and laid out explicitly in legislation that his party passed when in government in 2005. That protects universities’ powers to award their own qualifications. In many of my exchanges with the shadow Minister’s predecessors, they have gone out of their way to say that they value the autonomy of our institutions. Government Members believe that trying to intervene in well-established practices at Oxford and Cambridge would be an interference with their independence that would undermine the Government’s wider approach to their autonomy, and would be inconsistent with the principle of institutional autonomy enshrined not just in the legislation that his Government passed, but in section 63(3) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.

Chris Leslie: The Minister is very generous in giving way. The whole point of a quality assurance agency is to have some level of quality assurance across the university network. He would not allow universities to confer any old title—perhaps PhD or MP—on a smaller or unworthy qualification. There must be some quality assurance across all higher education degrees.

Mr Willetts: That is the role of the QAA. I will be frank with the hon. Gentleman. This is where I have to reveal myself to the House as a Conservative. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I welcome the support from my hon. Friends. If Oxford and Cambridge came to us today and said, “We’ve got a smart idea. We wish to invent MAs for Oxford and Cambridge that can be secured with no further academic study and will be different from the established conventions for creating an MA,” the QAA would be wary of that approach. However, those MAs have been around for hundreds of years, and they are a well-established pattern. They are well understood, and they are an established part of the history of these institutions.

Autonomy comes partly from historical experience. The autonomy of those institutions is not simply a result of the rational assessment of what they do today but, in the case of Oxford and Cambridge, it has partly been secured by their history and traditions. Part of respecting their autonomy is about respecting their history and traditions. The MAs at Oxford and Cambridge

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go back to the mediaeval universities where, after a time securing a BA, people then secured an MA. Perhaps the Opposition’s rootless rationalism means that they have no taste or love for those conventions and traditions that have developed over centuries, but we rather like ancient traditions. The hon. Gentleman has not established that they actively do any damage, because his argument about confusion is not supported by the evidence, so I see no reason for interfering with the autonomy of those institutions simply to remove an historical feature that they have enjoyed for centuries. I rather like the fact that we have centuries-old traditions.

Chris Leslie: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that, under the rules of the House, if the Minister is still speaking at 2.30 pm, the Bill will fall and will not complete its Second Reading? If he wants to explore the issues in more detail in Committee, he must stop speaking before then. I want to clarify exactly what his intention is.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I think that the hon. Gentleman has been here long enough—indeed he is a former Minister—to know exactly how the rules work. At 2.30 pm, I shall ask on what day debate on the Bill is to be resumed.

Mr Willetts: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for making clear what we all understand on both sides of the House. I have accepted many interventions from the hon. Member for Nottingham East, and perhaps if I had not done so I might have been able to get even further in my remarks, but I wanted to ensure that at least I engaged with the points that he made.

He has enabled me to set out my beliefs as a Tory in protecting those institutions and traditions when they do not do anyone any damage. It is clearly the Oxford and Cambridge connection that excites Opposition Members, and they have not focused on the fact that MAs are a widespread feature of Scottish universities. We have heard very little about Scotland’s ancient universities.

St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, as well as Dundee and Heriot Watt, award a master of arts as a first degree as a consequence of their history. The proposal would have to be introduced on a consistent basis, applying also to Scotland, but some people would note that to attack an ancient tradition that is enjoyed by some universities in England, and at the same time to ignore a similar tradition that has developed in the ancient universities of Scotland, would be an example of the hon. Gentleman attacking the traditions of some English institutions but not showing a similar degree—

2.30 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 20 January 2012.

Business without Debate

Common Fisheries Policy (Withdrawal) bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 25 November 2011.

21 Oct 2011 : Column 1248

Fire Safety (Protection of Tenants) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (19 November), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 20 January 2012.

Contaminated Blood (Support for Infected and Bereaved Persons ) Bill [Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 25 November 2011.

Sale of Tickets (Sporting and Cultural Events) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (21 January), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on F riday 20 January 2012.

Kinship Carers (Parental Responsibility Agreements ) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2012.

House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (9 September), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 25 November 2011.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. When I moved the House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) Bill, I believe it was objected to by someone who would be personally affected by the Bill. Was it in order for that person to object?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): That is not a matter for the Chair. Any Member may object. That is up to them.

21 Oct 2011 : Column 1249


Sentencing (Knife Crime)

2.33 pm

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to present a petition from the residents of Enfield. For too long the borough of Enfield has witnessed the deaths of young people. Tragically, the most recent was that of a young man with a very bright future, Steven Grisales, who in September became the victim of a fatal stabbing by teenagers. Youngsters get into knife crime for a number of reasons. The signatories to the petition ask the Government to introduce amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that will allow a mandatory custodial sentence for those under 18.

The petition was raised through the efforts of many of my constituents and with the loyal support of the Enfield Independent local newspaper. The petition states:

The Petition of residents of the London Borough of Enfield,

Declares that the creation of a new offence of using a knife to threaten or endanger a person is welcome, as is the proposal to introduce a mandatory six month custodial sentence for those convicted of this offence; further declares that the new offence and sentence is only set to apply to those over 18 years of age, despite serious knife crimes being committed in this borough and elsewhere by people younger than 18.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for Justice to give urgent consideration to amendments to ensure that the new offence also applies to under 18s.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Concessionary Coach Travel

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

2.36 pm

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): May I start by saying how grateful I am for the opportunity to raise concerns about the potential reduction in services and increase in fares that will result from the Government’s decision to withdraw the coach concessionary travel scheme? At the outset I would like to thank the organisations, including Mencap, Age UK and National Express, for the help and advice they have given on preparing for the debate. I congratulate and thank my colleagues who have worked hard on this issue, including my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who tabled early-day motion 2181 on the matter, my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), who has led a formidable campaign against the cuts to the scheme as Labour’s transport spokesperson, and the many Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who have campaigned hard on behalf of the many constituents who have written to say what a huge difference the scheme has made, enabling them to stay active and see friends and family. I also commend the Express & Star, Britain’s leading evening newspaper, for the great campaigning work it has undertaken to highlight this important matter and fight for a fair deal for pensioners and the disabled.

The House will know that the coach concessionary travel scheme provides half-price coach travel for disabled people and those aged over 60 in England and Wales. The bus service operators grant allows some operators of coaches and local buses in the UK, as well as community transport schemes, to reclaim some of their fuel costs. Excluding concessionary travel, it represents the main source of bus support currently funded by the Department for Transport. The provision of travel concessions on coaches does not come under the general concessionary fares legislation that applies to local bus routes. Instead, there is a non-statutory arrangement that enables long-distance coach operators to claim the grant for offering concessionary fares to all passengers aged over 60 and those who qualify as disabled.

The concessionary fare is available on selected coach services to destinations within England and Wales, and to Edinburgh or Glasgow from England and Wales. It is calculated as up to 50% at off-peak times and up to 30% at peak times. Disabled passengers should always be offered a concessionary fare, but they may be asked for proof of eligibility. More than 11 million people are eligible for the concession and around 3 million concessionary journeys were made on coaches across England in 2009-10 alone.

It was announced in the Government’s comprehensive spending review that the grant will be maintained at current levels until 2012 and then reduced in phases between 2012 and 2015. The cuts apply only in England, as the Welsh and Scottish Administrations have pledged to retain their provision of the scheme. The total reduction will be 20%, with savings amounting to approximately £17 million, forming part of the Government’s £254 million cuts to the bus service operators grant overall. As a result, the current non-statutory arrangement that enables

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long-distance coach operators to offer concessionary fares to older and disabled people will cease at the end of this month. Pass holders will still be able to benefit from the scheme, but they will have to book their journeys before midnight on 31 October and travel on or before 31 August next year.

Let me turn to the impact of the reductions. The Department for Transport acknowledges that the funding enables bus operators to provide more services and at lower fares than would otherwise be possible, and its own equality impact assessments show that the proposed changes to the bus service operators grant could result in operators increasing fares and/or cancelling routes deemed no longer financially viable due to declining users. The Department acknowledges also that cuts to the grant would adversely effect the equality of opportunity for, and discriminate directly or indirectly against, disabled people.

Despite that, the Department defends its decision, claiming that disabled people will be “insulated” from fare rises, as they will still be entitled to local concessionary fares, but the truth is that the cut to coach services comes on top of significant reductions in Government funding for local bus services, so many of those pensioners and disabled people with free bus passes will no longer have a bus on which to use them in their local areas.

At the same time, coach operators face some of the largest financial challenges that they have encountered in years. The DFT is looking to coach operators to continue to offer the concessionary fares increase on a commercial basis, but fuel prices mean that many operators are unlikely to be in a position to continue to offer concessionary coach fares at their current level once the grant is reduced.

National Express, for example, the biggest long-distance coach provider benefiting from the grant, with at least 30% of passengers receiving concessions on 18 routes, has drawn up plans to replace the scheme by introducing a £10 concession card that will enable passengers who are more than 60 years old or disabled to qualify for one third of the cost of coach travel, but they will not be able to use it to travel to or from an airport. That new scheme is obviously welcome, but the company itself points out that it will not match the terms of the Government-funded half-price concession, and, if a company such as National Express struggles to offer an equivalent concessionary scheme, it seems unlikely that smaller providers will be in a position to do anything like maintaining existing concessions, so passengers are bound to see increased fares and reduced services as a result of the changes.

As I said earlier, more than 11 million people are eligible for the concession, and about 3 million such journeys were made in 2009-10. As the Express and Star showed, 1.2 million pensioners and disabled people in the west midlands, including 77,000 in my borough of Dudley alone, will lose their half-price travel if the cut goes ahead. But it is not the statistics that make the impact of the cut clearest; the truth is that if pensioners and disabled people lose their right to half-price travel, their ability to get out and about, visit family and friends, go shopping or have a day out will be severely restricted.

Ken McClymont, a disabled constituent, told me:

“Taking a coach is usually the best value and most flexible means of public transport for me to use. Any changes to local services or ticket prices will have an impact on my ability to travel.

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I should be very grateful if you would encourage the Department for Transport to work with the coach industry to fully understand and reduce the impact of the scheme’s removal or at least delay the scheme’s withdrawal until the full impact on people like me is understood.”

Mike Nicholls from the Wolverhampton pensioners convention said:

“Rail travel is already escalating out of our reach and now coach travel will as well.”

One woman contacted me to explain how the concession enabled her to visit her granddaughter in Sussex and great-granddaughter in London several times a year. Now, those trips will cost her several hundreds of pounds more every year.

Mencap has warned that the proposal will have

“a significant and disproportionate impact on people with a learning disability. The introduction of a concessionary fare for the disabled and elderly people is recognition of the additional financial barriers individuals face... This could leave many people in the situation of choosing between stretching already tight budgets or not travelling at all. For many people with a learning disability, this could be the only means of getting out and about to visit friends and family, go shopping or generally exercising their own independence.”

The charity says that the proposal will have a

“major impact on many aspects of disabled people’s lives”

because transport

“helps to achieve greater mobility and independence.”

“However,” it says,

“most people with a learning disability do not drive and half of all families with a child with a disability do not own a car. This means that people with a learning disability are reliant on public transport. A lack of access to transport denies people with a learning disability the right to a basic level of independence, choice and opportunity, which many others take for granted.”

Age UK says:

“Making longer journeys is about to get more difficult for many older people. Removing the concession will mean higher prices and some people will think twice before travelling. People in later life that are at risk of facing loneliness and social isolation will be further put off from leaving their home.”

And look at the comments from their members. One lady wrote:

“I travel a lot by National Express as with the concession it was affordable and as a widow I felt safer and more comfortable on the coach and don’t have to worry about my luggage...looks like that will soon be coming to an end”.

Another said:

“Bearing in mind that most of the National Express coaches that I get to go down to babysit in the school holidays are mostly full with concessions I can see buses running half empty or even complete services being taken off. I think that this is a really bad decision and very short sighted. This is the tip of the iceberg and if they get away with this we all know what will go next.”

We all know that the deficit has to be tackled and savings have to be made, but all these organisations and elderly and disabled people across the country are asking the Prime Minister to honour the promise he made before the election when he said:

“Labour are trying to frighten old people by saying we’ll take away bus passes, or winter fuel payments. Well I can tell you we’re going to keep those things.”

Age UK, Mencap and coach operators across the country are all asking the Department to think again or at least to delay the plans. Age UK got it right when it said:

“There has been no public consultation on the change to coach concessions, which means disabled and older people have been excluded from the debate and decision-making process. The government should seriously consider delaying plans to cut the

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concession to allow enough time to consult properly with both concession pass holders and operators. With proper consideration an alternative solution could be agreed.”

Mencap is urging the Department for Transport to delay the proposed cuts and to consult coach operators and pass holders to determine a way forward that protects the scheme. Mencap believes that a more desirable solution could be reached by balancing the savings that are required with mitigating steps to preserve concessions for people who rely on the scheme so that they can remain independent and be able to make essential journeys. National Express is still asking whether the Government would consider its offer to maintain the existing scheme at a lower rate of public subsidy.

Even at this late stage, will the Minister agree to delay this cut and commit to proper discussions with organisations such as Mencap and Age UK and the elderly and disabled people they represent? Will she meet me, representatives of these organisations and operators such as National Express to discuss how these vital services for some of the UK’s most vulnerable people can be saved?

2.47 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I thank the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) for raising this issue in the House today and I congratulate him on securing this debate on concessionary coach travel, which is a very important issue. From 2003, the coach concession has entitled the over-60s and eligible disabled people to half-price travel on many long-distance coach services, but the coalition has made it clear that our priority has to be reducing the budget deficit we inherited from the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member. In order to achieve this, several difficult decisions have had to be taken, including this one on concessionary coach travel.

The deficit crisis we inherited has inevitably meant that some funding streams have had to be ended. But the consequences of failing to deal with the deficit would be worse, including spiralling interest rates and the kind of crisis enveloping other European countries; more and more taxpayers money being spent servicing debt; and a massive legacy of debt left for future generations. Given the scale of the crisis we inherited from Labour, it simply was not possible to insulate concessionary travel completely from the measures needed to reduce the deficit. Funding for bus and coach travel had to take a share of the cuts that we have to make, and so the decision was taken in the spending review to end the coach concession scheme from October this year.

I recognise the concern this decision causes to those who valued the coach concession and I welcome this opportunity to respond to some of the points made by Age UK and Mencap. We are listening carefully to what they have said, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), will be happy to meet them to discuss this matter further.

I want to emphasise that our decision does not in any way reflect our wider view of the importance of coach travel as a mode of transport. Coaches provide an important choice on many inter-urban routes, with

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services that offer good value for money in vehicles that increasingly offer a very high-quality and excellent environmental performance. However, taking a difficult decision to end the coach scheme has meant that we have been able to protect higher priority programmes, including the national bus concession. Even in these times of austerity, the coalition Government have been able to continue the national concessionary travel scheme for local buses, despite all the scare stories that were circulated by our opponents during the election. This support for the national bus concession scheme is contained in the coalition agreement, and it was reconfirmed by the Chancellor in the spending review.

The local bus concessionary scheme benefits about 11.5 million people every year, allowing free off-peak travel anywhere in England. In 2010-11, 1.6 million concessionary bus trips were made by pass holders in England—34% of total bus trips. This generous concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom and independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables pensioners and eligible disabled people to have access to facilities within and outside their local area, and helps them to keep in touch with family and friends. That is why it has been a priority, despite the deficit, to protect this concession. However, a deficit reduction programme inevitably means making tough choices between competing priorities. The Government believe that keeping the local lifeline provided by free local bus travel had to be given priority over the coach concession scheme.

The hon. Gentleman complained about the lack of consultation. He will recognise that there was an urgent need to provide a credible deficit reduction plan at a very early stage of the coalition Government. If we had not done that, we would be facing the kind of crisis that has beset some of our European neighbours, who arguably have less serious deficits than we do. The only reason we have achieved the stability that we have in relation to the deficit crisis is that we have produced a credible plan. That required prompt work, which meant that it was not possible to carry out a consultation on this decision. However, an equalities impact screening assessment was carried out, and it was published on the Department for Transport’s website in November 2010. My ministerial colleague the hon. Member for Lewes recently wrote to the chairman of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee about the issue. When the funding for the scheme formally comes to an end on 1 November, a full regulatory impact assessment will be published and copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

As with all decisions in the spending review, we have sought ways to ease the process of implementation. This is one of the reasons the Government gave participating coach operators, and the public, 12 months’ notice of the scheme’s coming to an end. We recognised that a period of notice was very important to give operators sufficient time to plan for the removal of the grant and to give their customers reasonable notice of the changes to concessions that we had unfortunately had to make.

It is also important to note that coach operators are, of course, free to continue to offer concessionary travel to older and eligible disabled people on a commercial basis. Another advantage of allowing a period between the announcement that the Government scheme was coming to an end and this decision being implemented was to give coach operators the time to develop new concessionary travel products. Indeed, the Government

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were pleased to learn this week that, as the hon. Gentleman said, National Express will be offering a replacement concessionary coach scheme from 1 November this year. I understand that it will give those aged 60 and over and eligible disabled people a third off the price of coach travel in England when they buy a concession card.

Although the concessionary coach travel scheme had to go, I emphasise that the Government are still working hard to encourage more people to use buses. We fully appreciate how important they are for a range of groups in society. Bus services contribute to both of the Government’s key transport priorities: creating growth and cutting carbon. By providing an attractive alternative to the car, we can not only cut carbon, but unclog the congestion that can choke our local economies and hinder jobs and growth. Throughout our decisions in the spending review, we were determined that buses and public transport should continue to receive their fair share of funding, within the constraints of the deficit that we unfortunately inherited from the previous Government. A range of programmes aimed at making bus travel more attractive is under way. Again, that is despite the constraints on budgets.

The latest estimates show that in the last financial year, local and central government spent more than £2.5 billion on support for local bus services. That includes more than £1 billion on concessionary travel and £420 million in bus service operators grant. Reductions in that grant are to be implemented next year, but they are far less severe than many predicted and there is reason to believe that the bus industry will absorb them without a major impact on local fares. It is true that reductions in local authority budgets are having an impact on supported bus services in some areas, but by no means in all.

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In addition to the formula grant that goes to local authorities to support bus services, the Government have paid almost £47 million to local transport authorities and bus operators to purchase 542 low-carbon buses across England. We are particularly keen to build the capacity of community transport organisations and have provided local transport authorities with £10 million of extra funding to support that sector. That money was found from savings made at the Department for Transport in the coalition’s first year in office. Lastly, we have established a £560 million local sustainable transport fund to support our transport goals of supporting growth and cutting carbon. Many of the successful bids to that fund are providing improvements to local bus services and facilities.

In conclusion, this Government have had to take difficult decisions to deal with the deficit that we inherited from Labour—a deficit as serious as anything that we have seen in this country’s peacetime history. Ending the concessionary coach travel scheme is one of the many melancholy consequences of the economic mismanagement of the previous Government, who borrowed heavily during the boom years and left us in a disastrously weak position when the lean years arrived. Although the coach scheme has gone, we have continued to protect free travel on local buses for older people and eligible disabled people, providing them with vital access to employment, health care and other essential local services.

Question put and agreed to.

2.59 pm

House adjourned.