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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. She is right to point out that Ministers have now made several assurances that they are addressing the problem. At this stage I very much look forward to hearing how the Minister plans to do so.
Clearly, there is an issue. I have found it difficult to get my brain round the difficulty that arises from the replacement of the visitor system for student complaints on the grounds that it does not satisfy the Human Rights Act 1998 and Article 6 of the ECHR, yet apparently the Government are prepared to allow the loose end
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whereby staff are expected under the Bill to continue to use the visitor system. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her persistence on this matter. She certainly has our support in pressing the Government to resolve it now.
Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe: My Lords, noble Lords will be aware that Universities UK, of which I am chief executive, and as such declare an interest, has opposed amendments in this House and another place that seek to bring all staff complaints within the remit of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. We have done so for a number of reasons, which I shall briefly outline.
I want to make it clear that opposition to these amendments does not mean that we do not recognise that there is a small number of staff complaints in pre-1992 universities which still fall within the jurisdiction of the visitor. Indeed, in Committee I made it clear that there is an issue that warrants further discussion, not least because of the ruling of this House in 1993 that, where the visitor acts within his jurisdiction, that jurisdiction is exclusive and complainants are prevented from seeking redress from the courts. As I think I made clear, there is a question over whether the right way to address that is to remove the visitor's jurisdiction or to remove the immunity from judicial review.
Following the report of the Nolan committee, Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals established a group to devise guidelines on procedures for higher education institutions in dealing with public interest complaints. Those guidelines included a final stage for independent appeal against the findings or penalties concluding the internal procedures. The group recommended that all institutions should adopt such procedures.
UUK is committed to reviewing the guidance, so this is an area that we can find an early opportunity to revisit. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has been disappointed with the time that it has taken to respond to concerns raised during the passage of the Bill relating to such complaints. Those are now being taken forward. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, will be reassured to know that I have written to the general-secretary of the Association of University Teachers to invite her to meet me and other interested parties to discuss the issues raised by the debates in this House and in another place. Although I remain opposed to the idea that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator is the appropriate forum for all staff complaints, I hope that through discussion we can find a satisfactory way forward.
The amendment includes all staff complaints. Noble Lords will be aware that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator already operates as a voluntary scheme. It was established to deal with student complaints alone. Its establishment was the result of consultation with
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the sector as to the best way forward. It would not be right at this stage, and in this way, to extend its remit so dramatically.
Notwithstanding the areas in which the visitor retains exclusive jurisdiction in pre-1992 universities, we should not lose sight of the fact that staff and students are in essence and in law very different categories. The relationship between higher education institutions and their students is distinct from the relationship between those institutions and their staff. That said, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, will agree that the passage of the Higher Education Bill has thrown light on that subject. I join other noble Lords in congratulating her on her dogged pursuit of the issue.
I hope that the noble Baroness will appreciate that we accepted during the debate in another place and in Committee that the current position was far from ideal, particularly the visitor's jurisdiction over staff complaints. As noble Lords have pointed out, there is an inconsistency in removing the visitor's jurisdiction over student complaints but not that over staff complaints. There is also an inconsistency between staff rights in chartered universities and those in new universities.
We accept that we should address those problems now; therefore we have tabled an amendment today to remove the exclusive jurisdiction of the visitor over academic staff. If it has taken us a little while to get to this point, it was in the effort to ensure that we got the right solution rather than just a solution. However, it is clear that the student complaints scheme as currently proposed would not be appropriate for staff, as it relies on institutions accepting the recommendations of the reviewerwithout the consensus at present on the coverage of staff, they are unlikely to do so.
It is for Universities UK, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and the staff unions to consider whether separate independent review arrangements need to be put in place. I was very pleased to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, indicate that Universities UK will be willing to discuss the problems and the current arrangements with the Association of University Teachers, and others. I am sure that that will be welcomed and encouraged by your Lordships' House. Should the parties want the Department for Education and Skills to be involved in these discussions, which would consider the merit of alternative arrangements and the benefits of applying those across the sector, we would obviously be willing to offer our support.
I stress that once the visitor's exclusive jurisdiction is removed he or she will still be able to act in a non-visitorial capacity as an independent reviewer on staff complaints on, for example, matters of academic freedom. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp,
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will accept that in the timescale available in this Bill it is not possible to achieve a complete resolution of the issue. However, we have made some progress, and we can use the Bill to address the anomaly
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister; I am a bit of a new boy here. He said that he had tabled an amendment today. Could he point out where it is? I am not aware of the text of the amendment, or where it has been tabled.
Lord Triesman: My Lords, the amendment, which removes visitorial jurisdiction, comes relatively late in the order, and I will ensure that its precise identification is available to the noble Lord as quickly as possible.
For the moment, while we have made progress, we can use the Bill to address the anomaly that we all accept exists in the visitors' jurisdiction. We also welcome the point that has been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, to offer discussions to the staff unions, and we hope that those discussions will progress well. Apparently the amendment is before Clause 43. I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister. I was unaware that the new amendment had been tabled. Am I right in thinking that it is Amendment No. 52A? No, that is on the right of appeal. The amendment is not on the Marshalled List, so I take it that we shall be considering this amendment at Third Reading. The Minister indicated to me in discussions that we had outside the Chamber that he was likely to be fairly forthcoming on this issue, so I was expecting a fairly benign answer from him, as indeed we have had. I take it that we will see an amendment at Third Reading.
I am grateful to those noble Lords who have supported me, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for the good news that Universities UK and the Association of University Teachers will be getting down to talks on this matter. As I indicated in Committee, my main purpose in tabling this amendment was to try to get some movement on this issue
Lord Triesman: My Lords, I owe the House an immediate apology. My belief was that the amendment was tabled today, but I understand that in fact it is being tabled, and it will be available for the debate in your Lordships' House next Monday. If I have caused any misapprehensions, I entirely apologise, but the material will be there, and it will precisely meet the specifications that I have identified.
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