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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, with respect to my noble friend, is his speech on the Motion that this Report be received in order?

Lord Richard: My Lords, it is not for me to be the arbiter of what is or what is not in order in this House. However, I can only tell the noble Lord who asked the question and the noble Lord who is on his feet that I am advised that the latter is veering very much in the direction of being out of order, and very shortly will be, if he continues as he has in the past.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, I am disconcerted by the remarks of the noble Lord the Leader of the House. If I am permitted by the House to do so I should like to take just two minutes to outline why this is a very difficult Bill to debate. It is precisely because the substance is not in it. Therefore, it is very difficult to amend the Bill. I make the point--I shall make it from the proper position--that the Bill may impact directly on the standing of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge in a manner which it is not possible to amend because there is no statement to that effect in the Bill. With the permission of the House, I shall take perhaps two or three minutes to conclude the point.

The statutes of some of these colleges, for example Trinity Hall, not only empower them but require them to charge fees for tuition and other facilities that are offered to students. What are the intentions of the Government in respect of college fees? Since the colleges are not in receipt of grants from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which go directly to universities, how are college fees to be controlled under the mechanism of the Bill? There are

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moments when it looks as if the Government regard college fees as falling under the new anathema that they have pronounced upon top-up fees. But have not college fees been charged with government approval for centuries?

I have been shown a draft government amendment to Clause 20 that seeks to include college fees within the definition of "fees" as set out in that clause, but that particular element does not appear in Amendment No. 67 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. Is the whole future of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge to be determined by the vagaries of what is or what is not set down in the definition of "fees" at Report stage by the noble Baroness? Do the Government have a policy on this matter, or are they writing a Bill and inventing the policy afterwards?

That is an example--it is my only example--of why the amendment that has been withdrawn would have been welcome. Our problem is not simply that we disagree with government policy but that we are not sure what the policy is, and the Bill certainly does not tell us. There is no way in which this nebulous Bill, with its sweeping yet ill-defined powers, can profitably be amended to deal with such matters, because it is not at all clear whether or not it refers to them. We cannot effectively discuss these matters at Report because they are not in the Bill, yet the Bill is so sweeping that if the Government so choose they are covered by it.

That is all I have to say. I simply draw to the attention of the House my grave misgivings about a Bill which comes to Report stage when many of the policies which it allegedly contains are not at all clear.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I rise to speak to the Motion that this Report be now received. I found the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, extraordinary in the extreme, although not surprising. The love-in between the Liberal Democrat Party and the Labour Party is almost complete. There is no doubt that there have been high level discussions and the Labour Party has said, "Keep the Liberal Democrats off our backs. We want this legislation quickly". Therefore, there has been a capitulation over the weekend.

I ask the noble Lord--perhaps it is an answer that he owes this House when he comes to sum up--what the noble Lord knows today that he did not know on Thursday. I shall answer for him. Nothing. The noble Baroness said in a meeting that I had with her--I know that the letter had already been written to the noble Lord, Lord Tope--that the rules of debate during Report stage could be relaxed. I ask the Minister directly: on what authority can the Minister in this House determine that the rules for Report stage should be relaxed? My understanding is that rules govern Report stage, Committee stage and Third Reading and that no Minister alone has the unilateral power to relax those rules. If noble Lords want to ask questions with the leave of the House it is not for the Minister gratuitously to say that she will give way to those. Noble Lords have the right to ask questions under those rules.

Beyond that, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is easily pleased if he has accepted that as a concession. If it is a concession the noble Baroness should explain to the

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House on what authority she has made it. The other reason for the remarkable about-turn of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, having had an amendment on the Order Paper for 27 days, is that he has said that noble Lords have two-and-a-half days for the Report stage of this Bill. That is simply not true. This Bill will be curtailed at about five o'clock this evening. The reason the proceedings have gone into a third day is that we are giving way to the Competition Bill today. I readily agreed to that because I understood that the Government were in difficulties over timetabling. We were offered part of Thursday. It is my understanding that this is not first business on Thursday. I understand that first business on Thursday is the Third Reading of the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Bill. We also share the day with the Unstarred Question of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. Therefore, we have part of Thursday, not all of Thursday, and finish on Monday.

Lord Carter: My Lords, the Unstarred Question is in the dinner hour, and Third Reading of the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Bill will be brief.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, when I was talking to the usual channels about how the Bill could be accommodated, I was told that it had a short time today. That is not half a day. We also have a Statement this afternoon. I was told, secondly, that we have a short time on Thursday, and that we would be given time on Monday to complete the Bill. That does not add up to two days, let alone two-and-a-half days. That is not a good reason for accepting what has been offered. The reason for accepting it is that Mr. Ashdown has been told by Mr. Blair that he must capitulate or else.

I do not know this, because I have not had an opportunity to ask my noble friend Lord Renfrew, but I do not know whether he has been shown the discourtesy that I have been shown. I had not been told that the intention was not to move the amendment. I heard it informally. I heard it rumoured around the place. One Liberal told me that it was not to be moved, another told me that it was to be moved, and the Liberal Chief Whip just shrugged his shoulders and said, "I do not really know what is going on". That is a discourtesy.

I shall further explain why it is a discourtesy. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, knows that my name would have been on the amendment. I was happy to support him and his colleagues on the Liberal Benches in pressing the amendment, because he knows that I believe strongly that we have had the most unsatisfactory Committee stage of any Bill in my experience since I entered the House in 1987. I understand that there is a technicality. I was not allowed to add my name to the amendment, because only one name is allowed on such an amendment. I think there should have been at least the courtesy of telling me this morning, or making some attempt to contact me this morning, to say that the amendment was not going to be moved. I repeat my question: what do we know today that we did not know on Thursday?

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My noble friend Lord Renfrew has attended to put his amendment to the amendment. I suspect that he was not aware that that was going to be the case until he arrived here. In speaking to the Motion, That this Report be now received, my noble friend made the point most powerfully that we are still in the process of asking questions about the Bill; students are asking questions about the Bill; I receive letters daily asking me questions about the Bill; students are ringing up their colleges and their local authorities. They are being told that the Bill is only part way through its passage through Parliament. It still has to go to the House of Commons. Until it has gone through both Houses, we cannot pre-empt with certainty the outcome of the Bill. That is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

We have exhausted the Committee stage. That is a more relaxed stage of a Bill which the House enjoys and which enables there to be discussions on amendments. Instead, we have had to use every kind of device to elicit information from the Minister. In fact we received a letter from the Minister, after the Committee stage, setting out in more detail the answers to some, but not all, of the questions that had been posed in Committee. We have now reached Report. I ask the Minister again: on what authority is she promising to relax the rules of the Report stage? If she is asking us to behave within the rules, that is not a concession. Nothing changes. We always act within the rules of this House. It is a matter on which the whole House should take a view, or at least the Procedure Committee should make a recommendation to the House.

The very fact that the Minister has written a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, suggesting that there would be some relaxation of the way in which we conduct ourselves on Report, and that we would be given two-and-a-half days--it does not add up to two-and-a-half days--is because she is conceding that we need more time, and need a more relaxed stage of the Bill during which to conduct our discussions on the Bill. The Minister has, in principle, conceded the argument, but, in practice, she is going to stick to the promise she has given to her leader, that she wants to deliver the Bill and that she will not be thwarted by the Liberal amendment.


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