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Baroness Young: My Lords, I believe that I would not be alone in saying that while we are pleased that the

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noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has brought forward this amendment, she has done so at a very late stage in the day. If it had come to us earlier it would have been infinitely better. The argument of principle has not changed at all. I reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, said on this matter: that there is no organisation--I believe my noble friend Lord Mackay also made the point--outside concerned with university education that does not believe that the Government's position has been totally inequitable and wrong. Many of us went outside the university world in the course of the weeks that this matter has been under consideration, and all kinds of representations were made by people who have never considered these matters before. They were astonished at the inequity and unfairness that has been presented. It is not just a question of university courses; there are also very important questions concerning the purposes of universities and the unity of the United Kingdom.

In looking at this matter we need a very strong assurance from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, that she takes on board the very important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. I do not believe that it is good enough for us to say that we will accept this committee. As far as I can see, it is going to take nearly two years to report and cost a great deal of money. It will occupy the time of many people who could well be employed doing something else in the universities of direct benefit to the students. We can accept all of that, but the provisions will not come into effect until the year 2000. That means that for two years students will be caught in the trap described.

I agree that there has been a concession, but it is not a very big one from the students' point of view. We need very much to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, that her interpretation of the matter is our interpretation; namely, that there is an independent body giving independent advice and that the Government will come to the right conclusion when they receive the report. I hope that it will not be left on the shelf and that it will not just be overruled. If there is any danger of a decision being reached which appears to us not to meet the very real concerns expressed time and again in this House, I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate and go over the issue again.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, before the House descends into sweetness and light, I should like to point out that the setting up of this committee is entirely unnecessary. It is a concession and an admission that the Government have made a mistake. We are grateful for that. It is very much better than if the Government had stuck to their position and not set up this committee. But this matter could be sorted out now by the Government agreeing that the Scottish Office should fund students in their fourth year at Scottish universities. When the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, appeared, this anomaly was pointed out. Referring to the way in which that anomaly should be dealt with, the noble Lord said that it would be a matter for the Secretary of State for Scotland. He did not refer to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. If that advice had been taken and the Government had

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agreed to spend £2 million from the Scottish Office Vote--it would have had to come from somewhere else in the Scottish system--the problem would not have existed.

The Scottish system in both law and practice is quite different from the position in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, a four-year degree is the norm; South of the Border, it is the exception. There is no need for this great committee to consider whether £29 million--it will be more in future--should be spent in order to achieve equity as between English and Scottish students who attend courses in England and Wales that last for four years and those who do so in Scotland. The system is separate. By the time all of this takes place, the Scottish parliament will be in existence and Scotland may have made different arrangements. I regard the setting up of the committee as entirely unnecessary. However, the House may wish to accept it because at least the Government have confessed that they have made a mistake.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it appears to be the wish of the House that I now respond. I am grateful for the general welcome that has been given to the Government's proposal to have a review on this matter. I shall follow the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and not engage in debating the issue again. This is now a matter for the review. However, in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, in proposing this review the Government do not admit that they are wrong. The Government are responding to the concerns that have been expressed. There is a difference. I believe that that is the right approach to take.

One or two specific questions have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, sought reassurance that "bodies" included "persons". I confirm that the review should take evidence from individuals who want to make representations.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, questioned whether the review would be independent. The Government are utterly committed to an independent review. On that point, I am grateful for the comments of my noble friend Lord Peston. I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that the Government have every intention that the review should be completely independent.

To deal with one matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I do not believe that the review will cost a great deal. I am sure that all noble Lords agree that the money will be well spent since such a review is welcome and we all believe that this is the right step to take.

I turn now to the issue of "shall" as opposed "may". I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff. He spoke with all the authority of a former Prime Minister and from his immense experience. I do not believe that any Secretary of State can properly fetter his discretion if the word is changed to "shall". The Government will take this review seriously. Therefore, this will be about the strongest "may" that Members of your Lordships' House have ever seen. The

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Secretary of State will consider the recommendations of the independent review very carefully indeed. But I believe it is agreed that it is not right to bind the Secretary of State and his successors to follow automatically any recommendation that a review may make. Circumstances can change. No government can write a blank cheque cashable by an independent body in this way. I believe that that is widely understood by noble Lords this afternoon. Although the Government are unable to accept "shall", I reiterate that this is a very strong "may". When the review is completed, Ministers will have to explain themselves to Parliament in the usual way if changes are to be made to arrangements which are found to be unsatisfactory. Any changes would have to be implemented by regulations which Parliament could debate if it wished.

Finally, I return to the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. I assure the noble Lord that the review and the Government's response to it will be carried out in a cool and rational way. I shall not rehearse any of the arguments on this issue. However, I am grateful to Members of your Lordships' House that an agreement has been more or less reached and that we shall not be condemned to the everlasting ping-pong to which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, referred.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I owe it to the House to make clear our position on the question of "may" or "shall". We considered this matter very carefully in drafting our amendment. We took the view that has been expressed by the Government Front Bench. Speaking for myself, I know of no case where any government would be ready to be mandated on a compulsory basis to accept the financial and taxation consequences of the recommendations of any independent review, however distinguished. That is our position on this matter. I very warmly welcome the way in which the noble Baroness has finally put this matter to rest by using the warmest possible "may".

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on dealing with the issue with considerable skill. I do not believe that when I had to back-off or climb down before your Lordships I ever thought up such an elegant phrase as "responding to the concerns that have been expressed". I congratulate the noble Baroness on that. Regardless of the elegance of that phrase, this represents a considerable climb down on the part of the Government. We and, I am sure, students are grateful for that.

The noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal challenged me to quote some precedents. In a few minutes' research I have discovered that my right honourable friend John Major undertook to implement the recommendations of the Nolan Committee when that committee was set up. The Lord Privy Seal may say that that was not in legislation, and I accept that. However, I also understand that under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill that is now before the House the Secretary of State must release a prisoner if the commission says so. So I do not believe that this is absolutely without precedent.

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The important point about this Chamber is that all noble Lords listen to the debate. Your Lordships clearly listened to the debate on previous occasions and agreed with me overwhelmingly when I argued that the Government were wrong. I am sure that noble Lords have listened with care this afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, has pointed out that we can have--and we have had--happy hours discussing "may" and "shall". When the lawyers told me what those two words meant I was never entirely sure why it should not be one, but should be the other.

The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, spoke, I think, for most of us when he said--I hope that I have him right--that if the committee's recommendations were not accepted, many of us would be in a great deal of difficulty. The one organisation that would be in great difficulty would be Her Majesty's Government.

I was grateful for the noble Baroness's comment that this is the strongest "may" your Lordships have ever seen. A Minister cannot get much closer than that; and Ministers would have to explain themselves if they did not follow a very firm recommendation of the committee.

I accept those assurances in the spirit in which they were given. I look forward to the commission hearing the evidence. And I look forward in two years' time to the Government having to say, "Yes, we were wrong." With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 123HD, as an amendment to Amendment No. 123HB, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 123HE, as an amendment to Amendment No. 123HB, not moved.]

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