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Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, we need to strike a balance between ensuring value for the money spent on higher education--a great deal of public money is involved, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, well knows--and that the burden of scrutiny is as light as possible. It is also important that prospective students and employers have accurate information about the quality of the work carried out by universities with regard to both research and teaching. Perhaps I can reassure the noble Lord that the new arrangements that the QAA will be putting into place will allow universities and colleges of higher education to work jointly with the QAA to try to reduce that burden of scrutiny and to produce a programme which links in with an institution's internal scrutiny arrangements.
Lord Beloff: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one reason for the excessive bureaucracy to which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, refers is that the standards of a number of institutions are so low that it is necessary to control them in great detail, but that the price that we pay for that is that perfectly respectable universities which, for decades or centuries, have managed to look after their own standards are penalised by their staff being engaged in unnecessary form-filling when they should be either teaching or engaged in research?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I do not entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has just said. Indeed, I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear that. I am glad to say that the QAA has found that
Lord Peston: My Lords, I am surprised at the answer of my noble friend the Minister. Certainly my experience has been that all that such scrutiny does is impose a burden on academics who are trying to get on with their job. I know that one should not dwell on the past, but one cannot help but reflect on the time when an academic really engaged in academic work. Does my noble friend have any evidence about the amount of time that academics are now required to spend on filling in such forms? I have seen no evidence to suggest that it achieves anything, but I do know that it occupies a great deal of people's time when they could at the very least be doing some teaching.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, perhaps I may point out to my noble friend that my experience is slightly different to his. I actually believe that this sort of external scrutiny can be most helpful to institutions and, indeed, to academics who are working in them. However, at the same time, it should not be so burdensome and so onerous that it prevents them getting on with their work. There is a sensible balance to be obtained. I repeat what I said earlier: universities are in receipt of a great deal of public money and, like everyone else who is in receipt of such moneys, they have obligations to ensure that what they are doing is of the highest possible standard. They should welcome those who come in to check on this.
Lord Elton: My Lords, in the hope that the weight of inspection can be varied with the quality of the work being inspected, can the Minister say whether she accepts that the whole edifice of our education system--including higher and further education--depends on the quality of teaching in primary and secondary schools? Therefore, can the noble Baroness say with what weight and care inspection of the teacher training institutions, which are responsible for the level that that teaching eventually achieves, will be carried out?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, what happens in primary and secondary education is vital. It is primary and secondary schools which will deliver good students to our universities and to our colleges of further education. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is well aware, Ofsted is responsible for the inspection of the teacher training element of education courses. But the QAA--the Quality Assurance Agency--is responsible for other aspects of the work of education departments and their quality in terms of what they
Lord Glenamara: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the quality control in British universities now is tougher and more stringent than it has ever been? Indeed, if nothing else, this has placed the University of Northumbria well up in the top section of "Division One" of all British universities.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I entirely accept what my noble friend said about the University of Northumbria. Indeed, I am delighted to say that there are many new universities, which were formed recently following legislation earlier this decade, that are similarly performing extremely well in terms of the quality of their teaching.
Lord Islwyn: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. I am glad to hear that some progress is being made. However, does he appreciate that over 30 Welsh miners who were seeking compensation have died in recent weeks? Therefore, does that not indicate that a speedy settlement is vital? Will the Government now concede the principle that those miners who have had medical examinations and been awarded industrial injuries benefit should be given compensation without a further medical examination?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, clearly we are acutely aware of some of the tragedies regarding those people who have died while this complicated process has been going on. However, as it is an area of considerable uncertainty to many people, I must make clear the exact situation. The court settlement was solely concerned with chronic bronchitis and emphysema; it did not cover pneumoconiosis, which is a separate disease. In the case of those people who are receiving benefits under the Industrial Injuries Disablement
However, for people who are receiving benefits under the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit Act we are not able to make payments because we do not know the extent of the chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Moreover, we have no records stating how long the miners worked underground. That is why we brought forward the spirometry testing programme to provide us with more information. In those cases we can make settlements as soon as possible.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, may I take it from the reply of my noble friend the Minister, which I found most encouraging as far as concerns those cases which are being dealt with, that the Government are fully implementing the pledge given by me from that Dispatch Box on the issue--namely, that the Government would, under no circumstances, act as if they were a company of insurers taking advantage of every weakness in a claimant's claim?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I would certainly like to say that we are carrying out that pledge. Without wanting to cast any aspersions on insurance companies, our aim has always been to make payments as speedily as we can, subject to the need to do so fairly and in line with the very specific High Court settlement. Of course, we have to agree every step with the Plaintiffs' Solicitors Group. We are proceeding as fast as we can in this complicated case, though not as fast as we would like.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, having had to deal with the problems of pneumoconiosis during my time in the coal industry, and having witnessed now the problems associated with emphysema and related diseases, I believe that the Government have made good progress in dealing with a complicated situation. However, in view of the improvements made in mining technology, does the Minister think that such problems can be avoided in the future?
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