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Sale of Student Loans Bill

Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2008

Read a third time.

Clause 2 [Sales: supplemental]:

1: Clause 2, page 3, line 4, at end insert—

“(5A) In subsection (5) the reference to loan regulations includes a reference to regulations under section 186 of the Education Act 2002.”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this group of amendments completes the drafting of provisions relating to the possible future change to terms and conditions and to loans. As I stated on Report, the drafting of two amendments accepted into the Bill at that stage required an addition. The power to give undertakings in Clause 2(5) as currently worded encompasses only undertakings about loan regulations as defined in the Bill. However, just as Clause 2(4) enables compensation arrangements about both loan regulations and Section 186 regulations, so we need also to enable the Secretary of State to give undertakings about the power to make or amend regulations under Section 186 of the Education Act 2002. Without this power, the Government could give undertakings not to amend various repayment terms and conditions but would not be able to guarantee that they would not cancel the loan outright—a power included in Section 186. Amendment No. 1 would rectify this.

Amendment No. 3 makes the equivalent addition to Clause 4(6). This will mean that when making or amending regulations under Section 186 of the Education Act 2002 as well as in amending loan regulations, the Secretary of State must seek to ensure that borrowers will not be in a worse position as a consequence of their loan being sold. Amendment No. 4 is consequential on Amendment No. 1. Welsh Ministers do not have the power to make or amend regulations under Section 186 so the Bill cannot give them the power to make undertakings on that subject.

The amendments to the drafting in this group of amendments are important in that, were a government to be using undertakings in a sale transaction, it would be essential to cover the Section 186 regulations as well as the loan regulations. I believe I flagged this up on Report and hope the noble Baronesses opposite will understand. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for explaining the purpose of these amendments. She has made it clear that there is nothing contentious in them. We on these Benches are happy to accept them.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister. She has assured us that these are by and large technical amendments that are essential to the functioning of the Bill. If this is true we see no reason to object to them.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

2: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—


(1) After entering into transfer arrangements the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament a report about the arrangements.

(2) The report must include information about the extent to which the arrangements give good value; and for that purpose the report must reflect any guidance given by the Treasury about assessing value for money (including guidance to the accounting officer of the Secretary of State’s department).

(3) The report must be laid during the period of 3 months beginning with the date on which the Secretary of State enters into the transfer arrangements.

(4) This section does not apply to further transfer arrangements (despite section 3(2)).”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 2 deals with value for money, which has rightly been at the centre of our debate. We have listened carefully to the arguments put forward by the noble Baronesses, Lady Verma and Lady Sharp, on this matter and have been persuaded that we should strengthen the commitment we have already given in debate.

Amendment No. 2 places a statutory obligation on the Secretary of State to report to Parliament within three months of each transaction. That report must inform Parliament about the assessment of value for money his department has made leading to the transaction going ahead. It should also reflect any guidance the Treasury had given to his department to ensure the required procedures used across the public sector for assessing value for money are adhered to.

The amendment would ensure that, throughout the long-term programme of sales, Parliament will receive prompt and transparent information to help it to exercise scrutiny over the sales. As I have said at earlier stages of the Bill, the Government will welcome that parliamentary scrutiny, and that of the National Audit Office, as it will help to ensure that the programme of sales develops over time and yields good value for money over the long term. At the same time, the process will preserve the essential flexibility that we need to retain to alter or supplement the exact criteria applied to each sale, for which we have argued in your Lordships’ House.

Amendment No. 5 ensures that the obligation to report to Parliament is confined to the Secretary of State and to sales for which he is responsible. Welsh Ministers and the Welsh Assembly Government, should they go ahead with sales, will be determined to fulfil their obligations to obtain good value for money and will account appropriately to the National Assembly for Wales.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Verma and Lady Sharp, for their thoughtful and constructive approach to value for money. I am pleased to be able to move the amendment. I beg to move.

My Lords, the amendments are a version of something that we called for on Report, and it is pleasing to see the willingness of the Government to listen to this side of the House. Indeed, that has been a marked feature of every stage of this process, for which the Minister deserves our gratitude. The willingness of the Minister to respond to our scrutiny is testament to her open-mindedness and is an example of the way in which the parliamentary process is meant to work. I still feel that there are a few questions that need to be answered, and I will get straight to the point.

First, this is a minor point, which I hope will be taken up in the other place if I cannot get an adequate answer today. How will the independence of the report be guaranteed? Is there any way to ensure that the Treasury does not give guidance to make a sale look like there is value for money, when a more independent source would have disagreed? What is the precise nature of the guidance that is expected?

This morning, I listened to the segment on the “Today” programme about the sale of QinetiQ to the Carlyle Group, which the National Audit Office claims lost the taxpayer £90 million. The Government seem to defend the sale to the hilt, claiming that there was in fact value for money for the taxpayer, despite independent evidence to the contrary. That seems to me to be a gloomy foreshadowing of where we might be with the student loan sale. In fact, what I heard on the radio was precisely what I warned against on Report.

I repeat for the record that, if the report intimates that the taxpayer has lost out in any way and the Government try to persuade the public that this was the best deal in the current climate, or that in fact it was better than expected, that would be wholly unacceptable and deeply discouraging. It would annihilate any trust that taxpayers may cling to when it comes to safeguarding their money. I do not want to be the student loan Cassandra, but I have grave suspicions that I will be hearing a similar argument on the radio about the student loan book in the all-too-near future.

That leads me to my second question, which is about the fact that the Government have already spent the £3.4 billion that has been budgeted. It is my understanding that the sale of student loans this year must yield something near to that amount. Is that inaccurate? Was the projected revenue just a guess appended to the Comprehensive Spending Review, or was it factored into government spending? Will the Government have to sell more loans to generate this sort of money?

The assurances have been in the form of the repetition of the claim that the Government are committed to a vigorous value-for-money framework. My overriding question is how, considering the current market, it would be possible to give such a guarantee. Are there any investment analysts who think that now, or even soon, would be the best time to sell? I understand that the Minister took advice from Deutsche Bank regarding ways to make the loans more commercially attractive. At any time in the discussion, did it indicate that this was the best possible time to sell the debt? The answer to that question is extremely important.

In the interest of establishing how ready the Government would be to wait to sell the loans to guarantee value for money, I should like to hear the answer to a final question. What would happen if the Government waited two years to sell the loans? Would the Government have to find the £3.4 billion from somewhere else? While a report is a welcome step in the right direction, it is by no means close to the destination—real confidence that the taxpayer is not going to be hurt.

My Lords, I should like to echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, in saying how much we welcome the co-operation we have had from the Government Benches, particularly the attitude of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, to the Opposition Benches. We are very grateful to her for bringing forward various amendments, a number of them at our behest.

I too have a few reservations. I was slightly surprised that the Opposition accepted this amendment without question although I realise now that the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, is asking a few questions. We are now getting a quick report after the transfer arrangements have been put into effect. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, explained to us, these transactions have to be simultaneous so that the sale takes place simultaneously with the clinching of transfer arrangements. Inevitably, the report is ex post rather than ex ante, whereas we were asking for an assurance that procedures would be gone through that meant that the Treasury and those involved in the sale were having to ask questions before they entered into these transactions to make sure that they were succeeding in getting value for money.

We were all agreed that there was a Catch-22 in this. In so far as the Government revealed their hand as to how they were going to proceed with the sale, it made the commercial transaction itself difficult to carry through because they would, to some extent, be revealing their hand. In some senses this is a second best. Again, we were agreed that the process of the National Audit Office and the report to the Public Accounts Committee—as happened with the sale of the Defence Research Agency and Carlyle—can point up where value for money has not been obtained. The difficulty is that by that time the deal will have been done. If it is bad value for money, the taxpayer suffers. Although there will be a quick report to Parliament here, the very fact that the Treasury guidance has to be revealed makes it the more likely that we shall see the Treasury looking for and wanting to gain value for money. Nevertheless, we are looking at whether we are succeeding in getting value for money after the event rather than before the event.

My final point, which I made again at Report, is that the present time is not a good time to try to securitise any loans. The noble Baroness was talking about listening to the “Today” programme this morning. I was listening to the “Money Programme” over the weekend and it was talking about the complete collapse of the securitisation of loans on both the American stock market and our own stock market. This is not a good time to try to securitise any set of loans. As I said last time, I wonder why the Government are determined to go ahead with the sale of a £3.4 billion tranche of the loans in the year 2008-09 rather than going for a smaller tranche of the loans to see how things would proceed, or even leaving it completely this coming year and proceeding when the market is more likely to be a good one. It seems to me that it would be sensible for the Government to begin by piloting a relatively small sale rather than going straight into a very large sale of £3.4 billion of the loans.

My Lords, I shall do my best to respond to the questions of the noble Baronesses. I shall start with the question of the valuation of the student loan book. We have consistently said that the valuations that we referred to, including the £3.4 billion that was alluded to as a first tranche of the sale programme, were estimates for preparation for the CSR—the figures are not anything other than estimates for budgeting purposes. I make it absolutely clear that we have said all the way through the passage of this Bill that if the conditions for sale are not right, the sales will not be made. There are very strong duties on the accounting officer—in this case, the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—to ensure that value for money is obtained on behalf of the taxpayer.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, asked about the independence of the report and the nature of the guidance. There will be a government report on value for money, as we have discussed. We expect the National Audit Office to report on the initial sale or sales and, I would imagine, perhaps on further sales thereafter. The guidance involved covers all government expenditure and asset sales and will rightly apply to the sale of student loans portfolio.

I want to clarify the situation regarding the stories on the “Today” programme. As I said, the Government will welcome scrutiny of the sale of student loans by Parliament and the National Audit Office. That will help us to ensure that the programme of sales develops over time and yields good value for money over the long term.

I do not wish to comment particularly on the QinetiQ sale but that has created a leading FTSE 250 company. As the Public Accounts Committee highlighted, it has raised significant proceeds for the taxpayer and protected the viability of a business of strategic importance to UK defence. I understand why the noble Baroness drew attention to this question. The sale of student loans is very different from the sale of a defence company; it involves a long-term programme and the Government will seek to build on the advice that they receive, including that from Parliament and the National Audit Office. We are taking expert advice—the noble Baroness asked about this—from our sales adviser, Deutsche Bank, and are working very hard to make the most of that advice.

The noble Baroness generously accepted that we have tried to make practical sense of the concerns raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Verma and Lady Sharp. We will bring forward what we see as a workable option for a report for the very long term.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 4 [Loan regulations]:

3: Clause 4, page 4, line 30, at end insert—

“(7) Subsection (6) also applies to making or amending regulations under section 186 of the Education Act 2002.”

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 8 [Wales]:

4: Clause 8, page 6, line 27, after “2(4)(a),” insert—

“(aa) section 2(5) in so far as it has effect by virtue of section 2(5A),”

5: Clause 8, page 6, line 33, at end insert—

“(6) Section (Report) does not apply to Welsh transfer arrangements.”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

I want briefly to thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Verma and Lady Sharp, for their positive contributions to our debates. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part in debates on this important Bill and the officials and the Bill team, who have worked with me very professionally throughout the Bill’s passage through your Lordships’ House.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Morgan of Drefelin.)

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.