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The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, as somebody who has never in his political career been guilty of personal, sharp or provoking speech, I am sure that the noble Viscount on the other side of the House has equally never been guilty of sharp or provoking speech; nor indeed, I am sure, has the noble Earl, Lord Russell, ever provoked anybody in any way, shape or form.
I was not present in the Chamber when this took place and therefore cannot pass judgment one way or the other on what occurred. It strikes me that perhaps it might be for the general convenience of the House if we were to adjourn during pleasure for 15 minutes so as to allow matters somewhat to cool down. I move that we adjourn during pleasure until twenty minutes past seven.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I support the Motion put by the noble Lord the Leader of the House. It is wise counsel which the House would do well to heed. Perhaps it would be worth the usual channels having a quick exchange during the course of the 15 minutes. I am sure that the House will then be able to resume and proceed with due expedition to dispatch the remainder of the business this evening.
Perhaps I may continue from where I was 25 minutes ago. In view of the circumstances, I shall also refrain from responding to some of the wider constitutional points about hereditary Peers which were made by various noble Lords in the context of the debate and concentrate instead on the text of the amendments before us.
First, perhaps I may repeat that the Government accept the need for limits on the level of fees for home and EU full-time undergraduates. That is why we are already offering safeguards under Clause 16(8) to ensure that the Government cannot increase grants for fees and hence contributions towards fees by more than the level of inflation without seeking the approval of both Houses of Parliament. I was going to make my constitutional points there, but that is an adequate safeguard for any increase above the level of inflation.
All three amendments take us further than that. Amendment No. 42 seeks to introduce an independent review before the Secretary of State may increase grants for fees. I accept that Dearing recommended that the proportion of tuition fees to be met by students' contributions should not be increased without an independent review. But that commitment, that view by Dearing, as I explained at Committee stage, was made in the absence of any mechanism or any self-imposed restraint on government such as Clause 16(8)(a) now provides. That clause prevents the Government, without the approval of both Houses of Parliament, going above the rate of inflation. That was not proposed by Dearing and is in a sense a tighter restriction than referring to an independent review which the Dearing Committee foresaw.
The noble Baroness's amendment appears to seek an independent review, even when the increase proposed will be below the rate of inflation. The provision in Clause 16(8)(a) is adequate to ensure that, broadly speaking, the 25 per cent figure would be maintained. In any case, there would be no increase above the level of inflation without the approval of both Houses.
The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, would go somewhat wider, as he acknowledged. It would extend not just to the reasons for increasing the level of financial support for fees but also to the whole question of the total strategy towards the financing of students, covering maintenance grants, student loans and so on. Frankly, this is a pretty wide-ranging amendment and it would require the whole of the Government's strategy on student support in effect to be referred to the independent committee when a very small change, possibly even below the level of inflation, was being proposed. That is bureaucracy gone a little beyond what is required by the situation.
I repeat that the provision in Clause 16(8)(a) is a clear commitment to the students of this country and one which did not exist in the Australian equivalent. It has perhaps been obscured in the campaigning and guidance given by students on what the provisions mean.
While Amendment No. 44 does not refer specifically to an independent commission, it offers absolutely no flexibility on increasing fees. On the one hand, it requires parliamentary approval through the affirmative resolution procedure for any increase, even if it were significantly below the rate of inflation. On the other hand, it also prevents any increase even with parliamentary approval, if it were above the level of inflation. Whether or not that is the intention of the amendment, it is what the drafting means.
The restrictions which the Government have put upon themselves in Clause 16(8) are adequate guarantees to students that the proportion will not increase, that these amendments are superfluous to that requirement and that what students seek is already reflected on the face of the Bill.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I rise, not posing as the students' friend, but to argue that the whole House has become the friend of students in the context of the Bill. Before the election students were approached informally by the government in waiting who persuaded them--and they acquiesced in the face of the proposition that was put to them--that they would stand by the Government if the Government decided to phase out the maintenance grants for students. They did so for two reasons. They accepted that there was a problem in funding higher education. They had no idea that it was in the context of abolition in one fell swoop; nor did they know at the time that the context in which they were answering the question was that tuition fees were to be introduced. Students can be forgiven for believing it, having heard the Prime Minister say in April that there were no plans to introduce tuition fees. Again, when speaking directly to students, the right honourable Member in another place, Robin Cook, also said that there were no plans to introduce tuition fees for students.
So students believed that there might be some diminution of maintenance grants over time. They also believed that there would be no introduction of tuition fees. Both those understandings on the part of students have been shattered as a result of the Bill. The Bill professed to be a response to Dearing. It was leaked the weekend before Dearing was published, and it was out before the ink was dry on the Dearing Report on the very day it was published. Therefore, the confidence that students have in what is happening has been badly dented.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, mentioned the affirmative resolution requirement. Incidentally, it was only due to the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and the amendments that I put down in the House that we now have a commitment that should there be an increase beyond the rate of inflation, the matter will go before both Houses under the affirmative resolution procedure.
What can be healthier for open government and in support of the Government's declaration that they have no plans (we take with a pinch of salt what they mean by "no plans") to increase student fees beyond the level suggested in the Bill? What better support for the Government than to have an independent review? If they do not intend to break that declared intention, there is no problem. They can say that there will be an independent review should, in the mists of time, some government determine to break with the proposals in the Bill and increase the fees beyond the rate of inflation.
What do the Government have to lose? No costs will be incurred. They will not need to invoke the review. It will be neutral, but will give huge reassurance to students. On the other hand, if the Government, in the course of this Parliament or some other Parliament, wish to go against the declared intention, what better than to have an independent review? The review could listen to the case from the Government for increasing beyond the £1,000 or 25 per cent. level. What is wrong with their taking an independent view? They need not be bound by it. They could present their case, which would be considered taking into account also the case for the students and the institutions. The advice from the review would be made public and would be given to the Government. But, at the end of the day, it would be for the Government to make the proposal for Parliament to decide.
I can see no argument whatever for refusing the students' request. It would be consistent with the Dearing recommendation; consistent with the recommendation of the Select Committee; consistent with the wishes of students; and consistent with the wishes of those who spoke in support of the amendment that there should be a review providing independent advice to any government in the future that wish to break with the declared intention that there should be no increase above the level of inflation of tuition fees to be paid by students.
My final comment relates to references made to Clause 18 and the so-called "inconsistency". There is no inconsistency at all. This is a skeletal Bill which does not allow us to properly debate the policies which underpin it. We use mechanisms so that debates can be considered by way of amendment and there is nothing inconsistent in that. This is an inoffensive amendment. It is a modest request on the part of students to reinstate the recommendation of the Dearing Committee and the Select Committee report that there should be a review to consider any rises over and above the rate of inflation. I commend it to the House.