Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Tope: I shall not contribute further to the indisposition of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, whether or not it is self-imposed. I shall be brief. Amendment No. 86 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Maddock is identical to Amendments Nos. 85, 87 and 88 in the name of my noble friend Lord Russell. As so often happens, my noble friend has said all that I wish to say in pursuing his identical amendments. I wait to hear the Minister's answers to the points that he put so well.

Lord Peston: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for saying that this set of amendments is the same as the single amendment. I worked out that to go from Amendments Nos. 24 to 28 and then to Amendments Nos. 29 and 30 to 33 was the same as going directly from Amendments Nos. 24 to 33. I would have thought that even my honourable friend the other Minister in the Department for Education would be able to do that much arithmetic. I am glad to have that reassurance.

If it is believed that there should be regulations as a method of dealing with these matters, then surely the Committee agrees that regulations of precisely this kind must be in the Bill. There must be regulations in the Bill which enable one to decide who should get grants and loans and all the other bits and pieces. I take it that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, seek to repeat that they do not want it done by regulation. I agree with the noble Earl that the decision as to what is substantial and what is technical is not an easy one. Since he did not say anything about the actual content I took it that he did not want this to be done by regulation.

Earl Russell: It is not quite that simple. If one concedes the need to have regulations--I concede it in principle but have an open mind in relation to this clause--one must still consider whether it should be done by these regulations. Until I have an answer to that I have no opinion on the question.

Lord Peston: If it is conceded--I do not suggest that those who do not want regulations should concede it--that it is to be done by regulation, I am not persuaded

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1629

that these should not be the regulations. If I were writing regulations I believe that I would need regulations that covered precisely this ground; otherwise, I would not end up with a scheme for grants and loans.

I look forward to hearing what my noble friend says. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, rightly said that there is an enormous amount of documentation. I have read the documentation. I find it very hard to say that a suitable background has not been given to us for debating the matter without seeing the precise regulations. In trying to be both sensitive to the views of others and supportive of the Government, the simple logic is that if it is to be done by regulations, given that we have been informed about the content of some of these regulations, and if these amendments are carried--although I am sure the noble Earl is merely seeking clarification--we will have to have regulations of this kind conditional on having regulations.

Earl Bathurst: On the way home last night my cab driver told me that in London a cab driver had to undertake three years' training, which is not far off a period of higher education, with no vacations. There is no financial assistance given to those who train for such professions. Would the amendment of the noble Earl--perhaps the noble Baroness can deal with the existing arrangements within the Bill--provide financial help to cab drivers for such training?

Lord Glenamara: The simple fact remains that this Bill, when it becomes law, will be the means by which tuition fees are imposed on very large numbers of young people. A considerable financial burden will be imposed on graduates at work. There is no mention of that in the Bill. I have been in Parliament for 47 years. This is the most skeletal Bill I have seen in that time. It tells one nothing at all. This morning I obtained from the Library every word that is available from the Department for Education and I am still no wiser. We are legislating for something which we know nothing about. It is a lunatic situation. It is really a contempt of Parliament to legislate on something so important which will affect many young people and place on them enormous financial burdens at the beginning of their working lives and for there to be no mention of it in the Bill. I protest about the way the Government are proceeding.

The Earl of Limerick: The problem raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, is known to most noble Lords. I am quite familiar with the dilemma of detailed regulations and the difficulty of producing them at a certain stage. Whether or not students read detailed regulations, there is one group of people who will certainly do so with great care and attention. I refer to the governing bodies responsible for the maintenance, solvency and good management of universities.

I am always prepared to accept that I am dimmer than others, but I have shared this problem with others. I have so far received no enlightenment as to how cash will flow as a result of the fees--a point I was intending to raise later, but it is as well to do it on the Floor now.

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1630

We need enlightenment on that point. There is a Motion later on the Marshalled List, that Clause 18 do not stand part. I am sure that we shall receive all sorts of information on the way to reaching that Motion, but how we can be informed is a serious point. If the Minister were able to comment positively on the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Renfrew, that the first time regulations, which will govern the way all universities will behave for many years, are brought forward, they should be subject to the affirmative procedure, that would be helpful. If that were conceded, we should all find it easier to make progress.

Baroness Blatch: During the debate on the 1992 Act, which introduced student loans, there was this kind of spirited debate. I remember the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, making an important point, and it took me until Third Reading before I was able to convince my department that it was something that we should concede to her. It was the Government's intention at that time, when introducing the loan scheme, that it should never go beyond the point of 50 per cent. grant and 50 per cent. loan.

The noble Baroness gained the support of most of this place, and indeed myself. The department accepted that that should be the case, and that if there were to be any deviation from that principle and intention Parliament itself should take a view about it. There are two major introductions for students which will impact on every student in the land, neither of which will be on the face of the Bill. We are therefore, as I said earlier, having to debate in a vacuum.

The first proposal is complete abolition of the grants for maintenance system, and the second is that students should contribute to tuition fees. It is unfortunate that, given the tradition of this place, we do not vote against secondary legislation: we cannot properly debate those two major changes which will materially affect students.

I apologise for what might be irksome to many Members of the Committee who are listening to this pedantic debate. We are frustrated by being unable to discuss in detail those matters, because the Bill just takes powers to the Secretary of State to do what he will following the Bill. We shall be discussing later whether tuition fees should be pegged. There is nothing in the Bill about that. Tuition fees could go the way of Australia, where they just go on rising as a percentage of the average cost. The matter is important. Many of us feel a genuine frustration, because we should be having a fundamental debate about the introduction of those two policies.

Lord Quirk: Could I add to the pedantry briefly, and echo, in particular, what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, said. I am one of those who has been frustrated by being unable to find what I want in the Bill, but at least there is reference in departmental papers to some relative scale of tuition fees to be charged; that they should bear a relationship--as yet unspecified and as yet to be agreed--to the average cost of courses.

A couple of the amendments that the Committee will be discussing later use that phrase which derives from a DfEE document. I hope the Minister can at some point

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1631

explicate what is meant by, "average cost of courses"; whether it is an average on the individual fees in the whole range of fees, or whether it is an average of the total cost of courses to institutions. The difference is obviously vast, depending on the number of students taking the course. That kind of average is extremely sensitive to variation.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: We are at the moment discussing a group of amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope. It is difficult to make sensible progress if Members of the Committee keep coming up with issues that will be debated on later amendments. We have to be orderly and have a sensible discussion, otherwise we cannot make progress. I want to be helpful. We shall be all over the place. There is no point in having a system in which Members of the Committee are asked to put down amendments in advance if, when we come to the Committee stage, they take no notice of the programme we have before us for discussing those amendments.

We are coming to a discussion on the whole issue of the affirmative procedure, and my noble friend Lord Whitty or I will answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, when we get there. The same applies to issues raised by the noble Earl, Lord Limerick. We shall try to deal with the point when we reach the appropriate amendments.

I return to the amendments tabled by the noble Earl. I shall begin by answering a question he put about the power under which we can charge tuition fees. It is in the Education Act 1962. Fees were means tested from 1962 until the 1970s. Many of us may have forgotten that, but that is the case.

The noble Earl has tabled a number of amendments which would have the effect of removing key regulation-making powers from the Bill. Amendment No. 86, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, would have the same effect. The noble Earl explained that his purpose in tabling the amendments is to challenge whether it is appropriate to use secondary legislation for the purposes envisaged in the Bill, and to seek to establish what are the limits of the powers; that is, what use a future Secretary of State might, in theory, be able to make of them. Those are important points. I hope that I can reassure the noble Earl.

In order to do so, I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I am somewhat longer than usual. It is probably worth being a little longer than usual so that we can all be clear. I acknowledge that the powers in Clause 16 are drafted in fairly general terms. There is no getting away from that. We have taken that approach to allow flexibility to respond to changing circumstances, including, in particular, the changing nature of post-compulsory education; for example, as the Dearing Committee made clear, we face a challenge to become a genuine learning society.

As the system adapts to meet that challenge, the distinctions, for example, between different modes and levels of study, will become increasingly blurred, as

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1632

Members of the Committee have already said. It would not make sense to refer to those concepts on the face of primary legislation which we intend to be on the statute book for a number of years. That is why Clause 16(2) provides, for example, for the rules determining eligibility for support to be set out in regulations.

Similarly, we must remember that we are dealing with maintenance as a long-term loan. It would be shortsighted--would it not?--to imagine that technical changes will not be needed to the administrative mechanisms over the next 30 to 40 years. It is inevitable that changes will be needed from time to time, not least to keep pace with any changes in the administration of the tax system. For example, any move towards greater self-assessment would have a knock-on effect on the arrangements for repaying student loans. It would clearly not make sense to amend primary legislation every time there was a technical change to procedures of this kind. I believe that that is well understood in this Chamber.

In addition, it would be wholly impractical to include on the face of the Bill all the detail of the new arrangements. By definition, any system of financial support embracing large numbers of people needs to take account of a wide variety of individual circumstances. The new repayment arrangements will need to be linked into the tax system and make separate provision, for example, for the employed, the self-employed and those not liable for UK tax. The result will be detailed and complex provisions which are precisely the kind of thing which it is appropriate to set out in regulations. The current mandatory awards regulations, for example, are 36 pages long. It would be quite inappropriate to incorporate all this detail into primary legislation, even if one could be confident that no changes would be required for a number of years. In practice, of course, changes are needed annually--not least to uprate the levels of support available--as I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will confirm from experience.

The noble Earl is concerned about the possible misuse of these powers. I should like to make two points here. I am not sure whether I can reassure him. It is difficult because he feels strongly about the matter. First, flexibility is not necessarily a bad thing. The current drafting of the Bill would enable either this Government or a future one to make more generous provision for students than is currently envisaged; for example, to extend the loans scheme to part-timers, postgraduates or further education students; to increase the level of support available; or to reduce the repayment burden on graduates. That is surely not the kind of flexibility which the noble Earl would wish to curtail.

I accept that a future Secretary of State could, on the other hand, make less generous provision. He could not stop providing support to students altogether, since Clause 16(1) requires him to make regulations governing the payment of grants or loans to students. But he could, for example, reduce the level of that support or restrict the categories of students to whom it is available.

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1633

This is where my second point comes in. The fact is that these powers are no more open-ended than the powers under which the current student support system has been operating for over 35 years. The 1962 Act requires local authorities to make grants to certain students, but it says nothing for example about the level of those grants. And the Student Loans Act 1990 does not even require the Secretary of State to arrange for the making of loans: it merely enables him to do so, as I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will confirm.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page