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Student Loans

Volume 175: debated on Tuesday 3 July 1990

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10.14 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I gave notice of this point of order to Mr. Deputy Speaker, who I thought would be in the Chair. As you will be aware, Mr. Speaker, the Education (Student Loans) Regulations 1990, which we are due to discuss now, were originally laid before the House on 13 June, but were subsequently withdrawn and had to be relaid and redrafted on 25 June, following advice by counsel to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The Committee has produced a helpful note for the benefit of all hon. Members, which is available in the Vote Office. At the end it says:

"Oral evidence from the Department of Education and Science is printed in the Minutes of Evidence of 26th June 1990."
That oral evidence is important for the purpose of ascertaining why the regulations were laid in their original form, and why they were subsequently changed. After two inquiries, the Vote Office told me that the evidence was not available to hon. Members in printed form. Is it acceptable for hon. Members to debate those matters without the evidence of the Committee before us?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I remind the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—and you, Sir—that when in this Session—through no personal fault—the House has not had relevant papers, whether on the Floor of the House or upstairs in Committee, you or your colleagues have held that that offends the best procedures of the House, and on occasions have allowed the debate to be delayed until the papers are in front of us. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether Ministers and the House authorities can be asked whether this matter can be put back until later in the week.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Robert Jackson)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are to have a debate about these matters; I am here to explain about the regulations, and I do not believe that it is necessary for the House to have the minutes of evidence given by my officials. It is perfectly feasible for the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to press any point that he wishes with me, and I shall answer it.

With respect to the Under-Secretary of State, that is not good enough. The Joint Committee made its decisions in the light of oral evidence from officials at the Department of Education and Science. Moreover, in its notes to the House it said that oral evidence from the Department of Education and Science is printed—not "is going to be printed"—in the minutes of evidence of 26 June. Nevertheless, it is not available to the House. The Joint Committee evidently thought that it would be available before the regulations were considered by the House. I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes): it is unacceptable for the House to be expected to consider the matter in this way, and, with respect, there is no reason why the matter should not be deferred until the minutes are available.

Order. It would be sensible for us to proceed. Let us hear what the Minister has to say about the matter. Before I can hear a dilatory motion of this kind, we should hear what the Minister has got to say.

With respect, Mr. Speaker, my point is one for you, as protector of the rights of hon. Members in respect of the Executive. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments said that those minutes were printed—not "going to be printed". However, they have not been printed. I do not know, and, with great respect, neither does the Secretary of State, whether the evidence given by his officials to the Joint Committee on an occasion when he was not present is relevant to the proceedings of the House. Only the minutes can tell us, but we do not have them before us. Why can you, Mr. Speaker, not suggest to the Government that the debate be deferred until we have the minutes before us?

I call the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments.

I was not aware that the minutes were not available. The aim of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments was that the minutes should be available to the House. The Committee took evidence from representatives from the Department of Education and Science specifically because one instrument was laid and withdrawn that was badly wrong on a number of counts. We wanted the House to have the information from the evidence that we arranged to have printed and published for the use and convenience of the House. It is not the Committee's fault of course, but I apologise to the House because the Committee intended to provide the information in the knowledge that the debate was to take place this evening.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before debating these important regulations it is vital to have some insight into the thoughts of the officials. The regulations deal with officialdom and bureaucracy. If we do not have the officials' views in a manner that is acceptable to the House, surely the usual channels should be allowed to discuss the matter so that we can meet when the information is available. I hope that that suggestion meets with the approval of all hon. Members.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. When these regulations came before the other place last week they were not in a form that enabled them to be debated. Proceedings were adjourned until the relevant papers in properly printed form came before the other place. I realise that the other place is not in your domain and that, like hon. Members, you are independent of the other place. However, I hope that what I have said will encourage you to the view that it would be proper for all the relevant papers to be before us. In other cases in the recent past you and your colleagues have said that we should have such documents.

I understand why hon. Members are making a fuss. The officials who went to the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments were speaking on my responsibility. I am here to take part in the debate and answer questions on these matters. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) is a member of the Committee and knows that the argument being developed is fictitious.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Minister has suggested that I raised an entirely false point. I was informing the House that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments carried out the instructions contained in the Standing Order of the House. That Standing Order charged us to give an opportunity to the Department of Education and Science before reporting anything to the House. At short notice, the Committee went out of its way to allow officials to give evidence if they chose to do so. We did that as a service to the House and not in any way to raise fractious points. The Minister is wrong. The Committee, which contained hon. Members from all parts of the House, was doing the job that the House entrusted to it. I have no idea why the evidence is not available. It was not the intention of the Committee that it should not be available. The evidence given by officials to the Committee was recorded in the usual way and was expected to be printed as a service. That is in line with the Standing Order, which is an instruction to the Committee to provide that service to the House in order to illuminate the debate.

The problem is that I am not certain who is responsible for the document, which states:

"The oral evidence from the Department of Education and Science is printed in the minutes of evidence of the 26th of June."
If the Government are responsible for providing this information, then that evidence should be available, but I am not certain whose responsibility it is.

My understanding is that the House is responsible for printing the minutes. I assume that that is the case because the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments is a Committee of the House. There is always great anxiety about issues relating to delegated legislation. That is because of the great power that is in the hands of the Executive to legislate under powers given in principal Acts. For that reason the Committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) is Chairman, was charged with clear duties to ensure that regulations brought before the House were consistent with the principal Act. In this case, counsel advised the Committee that in three important respects the regulations were not consistent with the principal Act. The regulations were then changed.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South made clear, assumed that the minutes of evidence, including evidence given by officials, would be brought before the House. The Under-Secretary may explain away the changes, but that is not good enough. We need to know the evidence of the officials who, on the whole, possess greater detail than the junior Minister, about why the regulations were defective in three important respects—one of which affects Scottish law—and why they were subsequently changed.

As it is the responsibility of the House to have the minutes before the Chamber, I respectfully suggest that it is your responsibility, Mr. Speaker, to say that the debate cannot proceed until we have them.

If the House does not have the full information, it puts it in a difficulty. Has the Minister anything to say on the matter?

This is a matter for the House authorities. When the House has the opportunity to see the evidence, I think that it will wonder whether it was worth making an issue of it. If the House feels that it would like to see this information, I should be perfectly willing to postpone the matter until it has seen it. That will give the House authorities an opportunity to circulate the information, as is their responsibility.

I think that what the Minister has suggested is the right course to take. I shall suspend the House again today for five minutes because it is unfair if the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), who has the Adjournment debate, is not present for it. The House will resume at half-past 10 o'clock for the Adjournment debate.

10.25 pm

Sitting suspended.

On resuming