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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, will my noble friend agree that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, is failing to draw the fundamental distinction between the supply of lethal equipment and non-lethal equipment? Will he further agree that no lethal equipment was supplied and that the non-lethal equipment was supplied under Guideline 3 which had an in-built discretion?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He highlights a point that is often glossed over in the debate. The Government at no time licensed the export of lethal weapons to Iraq. No arms were exported to that country from the UK from 1980 onwards.

Privatisation of Parliamentary Operations

3 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

Earl Howe: My Lords, the only other service currently provided to Parliament by OPS bodies in the course of privatisation is the supply of stationery and office equipment by HMSO. There are currently no plans to privatise other OPS agencies having a direct bearing on services to Parliament.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I note that he says "currently". Will he give a categorical assurance that, if the Government consider further steps towards privatisation, there will be the earliest possible consultation with the House? Will he agree that it was constitutionally improper to set towards privatisation areas that are covered by the Palace of Westminster and its operations? Does he accept it as incompatible with the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty and constitutionally subversive of the proper balance between Parliament and government?

Earl Howe: My Lords, it would be impossible for me to commit the Government, or successive governments, indefinitely. As I acknowledged during our debate the other day on Recruitment and Assessment Services, it was indeed unfortunate that the Answer given in another place was not also repeated in this House. Parliamentary scrutiny of any privatisation is possible, as recent debates in this House and in another place proved. But it is equally important that Parliament should be consulted in its role as customer. The privatisation of

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HMSO depends on the House authorities agreeing a satisfactory contract. That in itself may involve a debate and a vote. I suggest to the noble Lord that the legitimate interests of Parliament are fully protected.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will the noble Earl give the House an assurance, in the light of the debate that took place in this House comparatively recently, that the Government will now abandon any question of the privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am aware that terms of reference have been recommended for a Select Committee on the public service, and that it has been suggested that such a committee might first report on the Government's plans for the future of Recruitment and Assessment Services. The Government will wish to consider further their response to the opinion expressed by the House on this matter in the light of that. We have undertaken to come back to the House with that response and we expect to do so shortly.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, given the interest expressed in leasing various palaces and various sales of government property, will the Minister assure the House that any proposals from companies interested in the purchase, or even the lease, of property of the Palace of Westminster itself will be dismissed out of court?

Earl Howe: Yes, my Lords, I can give that assurance.


3.3 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.45 p.m., my noble friend Lady Cumberlege will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on the health aspects of BSE. This will be followed by my noble friend Lord Lindsay, who will, again with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement on the agricultural aspects of BSE.

City of Westminster Bill [H.L.]

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the Commons Message of 21st March be now considered; and that, notwithstanding anything in the Private Business Standing Orders or practice of the House, the promoters of the Bill, which originated in this House in Session 1993-94, and which has passed all its stages in this House but not in the Commons, may proceed with the Bill in the present Session;

That the Petition for the Bill be deemed to have been deposited;

That all Standing Orders applicable be deemed to have been complied with;

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That the Bill be deposited in the Office of the Clerk of the Parliaments not later than 3 p.m. on Thursday 28th March next with a declaration annexed, signed by the agent, stating that it is the same in every respect as the Bill passed by this House;

That the proceedings on the Bill in the present Session be pro forma and that no new fees be charged.--(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and it was ordered that a Message be sent to the Commons to acquaint them therewith.

Education (Student Loans) Bill

3.4 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Subsidy in respect of private sector student loans]:

Lord Peyton of Yeovil moved Amendment No.1:

Page 1, line 8, at beginning insert ("Subject to section 1(3) of the Education (Student Loans) Act 1996,").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the debate that we had in Committee on similar points to those to be raised today was rather lost in the wash of a Statement. I think that not all noble Lords who were present that evening had the opportunity to hear any explanation of what it was about.

To begin on a friendly note, my noble friend has earned the gratitude of the House, and certainly my own, on two particular points. First, he provided us with a print-out of the 1990 Act as it would be with the present Bill superimposed upon it. Secondly, he gave the appearance of taking very seriously the points that were raised about parliamentary control. With private sector institutions taking part for the first time, Parliament ought at least to know the quantity of public money that those institutions will be handling in any one year, subject to what general terms funds will be made available to students, and what arrangements will be made for repayment.

As my noble friend has said on a number of occasions, the Bill is enabling legislation. It is therefore bound to attract--and ought to attract--some measure of critical examination, and particularly in this respect. As I understand it, the Bill enables the Government to make such arrangements as they think fit--and so far as I can see they have made few, if any, arrangements for telling Parliament what they have done.

I accept--or rather, I think I accept (I should like my noble friend's advice on this point)--that the amendments tabled in the name of my noble friend Lady Park and myself could have the effect of making it very difficult, if not impossible, either for the Government to finalise arrangements with those private sector institutions that are showing an interest, if there are any, or even for arrangements to be reached with individual students. It is no part of our purpose either to frustrate those negotiations or even to make them difficult. What we should like is an opportunity for Parliament to be told precisely what those arrangements are.

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I do not particularly want to press this amendment to a vote. I did not want to press the amendments to a vote the other day in Committee. It was partly due to my increasing awareness that the department was not taking this point at all seriously. Then, if I may weary the House with one brief quotation, we reached the stage when my noble friend used these words:

    "I mentioned the detailed information that will be available in the department's annual report. That, as I understand it, is always published and made available to Parliament. Parliament has a chance to scrutinise that annual report and"--
mark the words--

    "certainly can find time to do so".--[Official Report, 12/3/96; col. 784.]
If I were seeking safe custody for some piece of sensitive information, I could not think of any more intelligent thing to do than to include it in a departmental annual report. It would be safe from reading by anyone, save perhaps a few eccentrics or those of unsound mind. There is no way that Parliament can be satisfied with facts which should be made available to it being made available solely through the medium of a departmental annual report.

I am most grateful to my noble friend in that since the vote the other day he has moved his position. He was kind enough to write me a letter promising a separate Statement to Parliament. He has not yet said precisely what that Statement would contain, but I take it that at the top of the list would be a clear indication of the total cost of the moneys spent during a financial year.

Let me again make it absolutely clear to my noble friend that I do not want in any way to add to his difficulties. We have no desire to frustrate the Government in achieving the purposes which Parliament has given it the authority to pursue. We want to be told in general terms what the Government are up to. Am I right in thinking that, with the Bill as drafted, there will be no need for further regulations and that therefore any reference to affirmative resolution is by the way? There is no point in it. That is one of the reasons why I am a little unenthusiastic about my amendments.

I want to make it abundantly clear to my noble friend, whose courtesy and attention I greatly appreciate, that in my view, at a time when the Government are to provide private sector institutions with substantial sums of money to enable them to grant loans on favourable terms to students, we need to know how much money is involved and for what period in general it is being given. In his letter to me my noble friend said that he is perfectly prepared to let us have sight of the general contract but not of particular cases. That we accept totally. But I believe that Parliament has every right to know the sums of money that are being made available, on what general conditions and what arrangements will be made for their repayment.

As I said, I am not at all anxious to divide the House this afternoon. I very much hope that, as a minimum, my noble friend will take back this matter--I do not expect him to accept the amendments--and give it serious thought before Third Reading. I hope he will then bring forward some alternative arrangement for

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giving to Parliament the information for which it is entitled to ask and set out the form of the Statement which he would make to Parliament in pursuance of that new arrangement. I beg to move.

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I support the amendments. I recognise that the Minister is trying very hard to move in our direction and allay some of our concerns about what will still be a blank cheque. Also, because we are not dealing with regulations, the application of the affirmative resolution procedure is not appropriate. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his very helpful text showing what the full, amended Bill looks like. Nevertheless, I believe it proper and necessary to reiterate in this debate the provision already contained in the 1990 Act and repeated in our amendment.

I recognise that in this Bill there are genuine problems about commercial confidentiality, once we are talking about private money secured by competitive tender. But I want to know from the Minister when and in what way Parliament will be told once the contracts are signed; who is doing the lending, if anyone; what the total administrative and other costs will be compared with the costs of the existing system of the public borrowing facility through the Student Loans Company; and what is the length of the contract. Maybe we cannot be told all that but I certainly should like to know most of it. My right honourable friend the Minister said in another place on at least one occasion that in due course the Student Loans Company would probably fade away, presumably meaning that all loans would be paid through the private sector. That makes my curiosity even greater.

In the debates on the original 1990 Act, the Government spoke about top-up loans. The White Paper made a commitment that the maximum top-up loan would be 50 per cent. of the original maintenance grant. Is that still the policy? Will that policy apply to loans from the private sector? I continue to be unhappy also about the permissive nature of the provision for making payments to governing bodies. Will those be negotiated directly by the private institutions? It is already a scandal that the universities are paid only £4 for each student application processed instead of the £8 which it costs them, and they are thus subsidising the student loans system to the tune of £2 million per annum. That is a fact that has caused considerable concern in the Public Accounts Committee, which rightly points out that the money is being paid out at the expense of higher education priorities.

Thus, I believe that it is absolutely essential for the Government, once the contracts have been concluded, to make an early Statement to Parliament saying what the scheme is to cost in the round so that it can be compared with the cost of the existing public sector arrangements; telling us which institutions are participating--after all, students themselves will need to know that in good time; the duration of the initial scheme--for instance, is it to be reviewed after an initial period of five or 10 years; and the arrangements, as they are called, as they affect the universities--indeed, I hope

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that, having failed utterly to consult the CVCP when the Bill was first brought forward, the Government will talk to it now at least about the financial and administrative implications of the scheme for it. After all, it is one more task being placed on its already overloaded and underfunded administration.

In view of all that, I should not be at all happy--any more than the House was happy in 1990--unless a method of informing Parliament which offers a proper opportunity for debate on the Floor of the House is envisaged. For that reason I should have wished to make the debate on the report of the first year of operation of the scheme subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. But, as they are not regulations but presumably orders, that cannot be. I do not believe that a technicality of that kind should be allowed to negate Parliament's power to consider properly the cost and effectiveness of the new arrangements once the requirements of commercial confidentiality have been satisfied and the contracts signed and respected.

I wait with interest to hear from my noble friend the Minister how it is proposed to ensure that the necessary information on which to base a judgment of the value and propriety of the new arrangements can be obtained and the blank cheque justified.

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