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Teaching and Higher Education Bill [H.L.]

8.55 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 16.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 96:

Page 12, line 30, at end insert--
("( ) Regulations under this section shall ensure that any arrangements for the payment of grant in respect of tuition fees for the fourth or any subsequent year of study at a higher education institution in England or Wales apply equally to a student whose parental home or normal place of residence for purposes other than attendance at that institution is in Scotland or Northern Ireland as they do to a student whose parental home or normal place of residence for purposes other than attendance at that institution is in England or Wales.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 96 and speak also to Amendment No. 128. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, intends to reply to this debate. I am sorry about that for two reasons. I would have preferred the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, to reply but I am happy to see that she is at least in her place. First, before dinner I attempted to intervene in the speech of the noble Baroness and she declined to allow me to intervene. I attempted to intervene to draw her attention to the handbook on the procedures of this House. She had just refused to allow the noble Earl, Lord Russell, to intervene. An hour or two prior to that she had refused to allow my noble friend, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, to intervene. I should like to say in the gentlest way to the noble Baroness that the Companion states:

I admit that it goes on to say:

    "It is, however, recognised that a Lord may justifiably refuse to give way: for instance when he is in the middle of an argument, or to repeated interruption, or in time-limited proceedings when time is short".

Clearly, these are not time-limited proceedings. In the period when I was a Minister on the other side of the Chamber I cannot recall once having refused to allow a noble Lord to intervene during a speech, certainly in Committee; nor can my noble friends Lady Blatch and Lord Howe.

Baroness Blackstone: I am sorry that the noble Lord believes that I did not give him an opportunity to ask his question. I did so. I was in the middle of an argument. Although we needed to move on, I offered the noble Lord the opportunity to put his question when I got to the end of my argument, but by then he had left the Chamber.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I understand that. I simply make the point that that is what the Companion says. In addition, the three ex-Ministers sitting here cannot in their memory ever recall refusing to give way. I am sorry that the noble Earl is not here. On many occasions I felt quite tempted to refuse to allow in the noble Earl, but I always did so. I cannot recall ever

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having seen a Minister do that--I may be wrong--but to see it three times in one afternoon is, I believe, going beyond what is provided for in the Companion.

The second reason I am sorry that the noble Baroness is not to reply to the debate is that this is her business, not the business of the noble Lord at the Scottish Office. I move this amendment because it affects Scottish universities. It does not affect Scottish students at Scottish universities but students who come from the bailiwick of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone: England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those are the students who are affected by the proposal which these two amendments try to make fair. I am sorry that the noble Baroness is not to reply to the debate because it is her department that refuses to take any steps to act in a fair and just way towards students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

9 p.m.

Baroness Lockwood: I do not want to become involved in the Scottish argument, but does the noble Lord appreciate the difference between Committee and Report? In Committee, it is often convenient for the Government and Front Bench to put its arguments so that they can then be taken up by different Members in different parts of the Chamber. I suggest that that is what my noble friend was doing.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: First, this is Committee; and, secondly, I still cannot recall ever doing at any stage what the noble Baroness suggests could be done on Report or Third Reading. Perhaps that was my idiosyncrasy and folly.

Baroness Blackstone: I am afraid that it is not an idiosyncrasy, because I can recall many occasions in Committee when Ministers in the noble Lord's party put their argument in the hope that it would answer the question. At the end of putting their argument, they were willing to answer any question that had not been answered. That is all that I was doing. We are much further behind than we wanted to be. It seemed to be helpful to get on. I am prepared to go back to Hansard where I can give examples of where many Ministers in his party have done the same.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We will have to agree to differ about that. I cannot recall not giving way to anyone. I had some fairly mammoth Committee stages which at this moment make this look a pretty short Committee stage.

I return to my principal argument. It is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, is to answer a question which should be answered by the DfEE which is responsible for students from outside Scotland but within the UK. The Committee will be aware of the position: in Scotland, honours degrees are, by tradition--a tradition which is greatly valued--of four years' duration. The government policy of charging fees of £1,000 per annum means that students going to a Scottish university for a four-year degree would be paying £4,000.

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Interestingly enough, from my previous experience I know that the Government rely heavily on their manifesto to justify their policies. So I had a look at their manifesto. There I discovered that the costs of student maintenance should be repaid by graduates on an income-related basis from the careers success to which higher education would have contributed. Clearly, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, had some hand in writing at least that sentence of the manifesto if none of the other sentences. There is not one word about fees. Then along comes this proposal for fees.

Lord Desai: I assure the noble Lord that I am not lucky enough to be party to that bit of power.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The economic policy might be a good deal more sensible if the noble Lord were involved. Therefore we are entitled to ask for a full and proper justification about the decision on fees. I can fully understand that were I to be arguing about maintenance grants the noble Lord would merely point me, as he did over many weeks in the summer, to the manifesto as the only argument that was necessary and leave it at that. This evening he will have to try to do a good deal better.

A student going to a Scottish university would have to pay £4,000, whereas a student going to an English university, where the degree length is three years, would be asked to pay £3,000 only. That was manifestly unfair to Scottish students. So after a great deal of coming and going in Scotland, a bit of rotation and so on, the Government announced that they would, sort of, ignore the fourth year, and students in Scotland would be asked to pay only £3,000 for the four years. That of course leaves students from outside Scotland paying £4,000. Well, yes, it does and it does not! Because due to the influence of the EU, students from EU countries will have to be dealt with in the same way as Scottish students not English ones. So children of EU countries coming to Scottish universities will be charged £3,000 only.

I find that particularly galling, because I happen to have two grandchildren.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel): Hear, hear!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I do not wish to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, about that. I have actually got more than that, but we will just take two at the moment. One of them lives in Italy.

Noble Lords: Ah!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Yes, Members of the Committee have heard about that before. One lives in Kent. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, and the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, in their places. They will appreciate this. One hopes that those grandchildren may follow their grandfather and their parents and find their way eventually to the University of Glasgow. I was going to say the Irish thing--there is an Irish dimension to this also--but the daft thing is that the young lady

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from Italy, if she does that in the fullness of time, will be charged £3,000. The young lady from Kent will be charged £4,000. That is bluntly illogical.

Mr. Brian Wilson, who is responsible for these matters at the Scottish Office, was being interviewed about this issue on one of the UK programmes. The interviewer was not using Italy as an example; he was using France. He said, "Why is the student from France going to be asked to pay only £3,000 and the student from England £4,000?" Brian Wilson--a man with a razor sharp mind it has to be said--said, "It is because France is in the EU". The interviewer then came back very quickly and said, "Isn't England?" That is my point: are not England, Wales or Northern Ireland in the EU?

Northern Ireland is even dafter, because a student from the Republic of Ireland--we get many of them in Scotland--and a student from Northern Ireland will have the same differential applied. One will pay £3,000 and the other £4,000. I could not defend that, even if I were paid the princely salary that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, is being paid to make that defence this evening.

I have a serious point to make about this. If the Government believe that they could not sustain a case in the European Court of my Italian granddaughter paying £4,000 while a Scottish student is paying £3,000, how on earth do they think that they will sustain a case brought by an English student who can surely go to the same European Court if necessary saying, "I am a member of the EU, can I not be treated on the same basis as the students in Scotland?" Have the Government taken legal advice on these matters? Do they believe that they have a watertight case in law? If so, the law must be as big an ass as the policy is unfair.

In order to reduce the fees to £3,000, it requires only the Department for Education to be prepared to pay the £1,000 for every student who goes to a Scottish university. The same applies to students from Wales and to Northern Ireland. What will the cost be to the department's budget? What would it be for England, and how many students from England go to Scottish universities? How many students go from Wales and what would the cost be? How many students go from Northern Ireland and what would the cost be? I cannot believe that it would break the bank, and it will be less than it will cost the Government in legal fees when they are taken before the courts and found to be in the wrong, as I am certain they will be.

Scottish universities, especially those which take many students from south of the Border and from Northern Ireland, fear that the numbers from those areas will decline. It is interesting to note that there has been a decline in the number of students applying to Scottish universities this year, but we do not know why. I was pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, acknowledged that during the past 18 years there has been a significant increase in the number of students going to university. I feel justifiably proud of that, as a member of the previous government. I also heard the noble Baroness give statistics showing that there has

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been an increase in the number of students from disadvantaged families, although perhaps not as large as we would like.

I wish to read from col. 805 of yesterday's Hansard of the House of Commons, giving the statistics for the past three years at the same time of year. At the turn of the year in 1995 there had been 340,711 applications; in 1996, 347,037 applications; in 1997, 326,220. There may be many reasons for the decrease, but I am allowed to say that perhaps it is as a result of the change we are discussing tonight. I wonder whether the Minister has a breakdown of the statistics, giving a table of Scottish students and a table of those from outside Scotland. I do not expect that he has, because it would be a complicated collection.

I have made my point, but perhaps I may add to it. For the first time in a long time I have been written to by students' unions throughout Scotland in a polite manner. In fact, I could probably visit universities in Scotland without being booed. After tonight, I hope that I might even be cheered. I am not sure that the Minister could visit universities there with safety. However, I wish to quote from a letter I have received from Shamin Akhtar, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland. She writes:

    "We are most concerned that this benefit",

that is, the benefit of study in higher education in Scotland by people who do not live in Scotland,

    "which was recommended in the Garrick report, is not to be extended to students domiciled in other parts of the UK".

The Scottish Students' Association wrote to Mr. Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, stating,

    "Natural justice demands that students, wherever they reside in the UK, receive the same assistance as Scottish and other European Nationals. We do not accept arguments that avoid the central issue, namely, that domicile should not determine difference in treatment or restriction of choice. The chance of benefiting from Scottish higher education should apply equally to all applicants in the UK".

I do not greatly approve of the Government's policy of charging fees, but I appreciate that they responded to the demand that Scottish students should not be disadvantaged by having to take four-year degree courses. The Scottish Office recognised that and have been prepared to accept that they must pick up the tab for the £1,000 for that extra year. I believe that in all honour the Minister's colleagues in government should accept the same moral responsibility. It may not be the biggest issue in the Bill, but it is a very serious one. If the Government do not follow the lines that I suggest we shall certainly return to the matter. Furthermore, whatever their legal advice, they will be unable to sustain the position in court. I beg to move.

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