House of Lords
Tuesday, 14 December 2010.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.
EU: Repatriation of Powers
My Lords, our priority has been the European Union Bill, but we have begun initial work on the balance of the EU’s existing competences and what they mean for Britain. This complements our ongoing activity with the Commission to reform the EU institutions. All this work needs to be undertaken before we can determine the way forward, but we are also taking some action now. We will want to limit the application of the working time directive in the UK and we are deciding whether to opt into legislation on criminal justice on a case-by-case basis with a view to maximising our security, protecting our civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice system.
My Lords, the acquis obviously embodies an accumulation of powers. We are now in the 21st century and I suppose that we would all wish to see, if I may use a domestic analogy, a bit more localism in the management of our affairs. However, we are reviewing the situation. The work is at a fairly early stage and I cannot make any further detailed comments on that matter now.
My Lords, will the Minister not come clean and admit that not a comma can be changed in the treaties, nor can the smallest power be repatriated, without the unanimous consent of all 27 member states, and that therefore the repatriation of powers is really not possible?
I understand exactly the noble Lord’s concern on this, but I think that he is being a bit defeatist. It seems to me that there is a very widespread will throughout the European Union to reform it and indeed, if I may borrow a phrase, to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century. That certainly involves a sensible pattern of competences between the nation member states and the central institutions. Therefore, I think that, by gloomily saying that nothing can happen until everyone agrees, the noble Lord is taking a very negative approach to an area where European reform is perfectly possible.
My Lords, it is obvious that the Government are up a gum-tree with their policy. An example of their prejudices is the working time directive. When he was a Minister in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, pointed out that the absence in the United States of the famous 48-hour limit for doctors, which is often quoted, costs many thousands of lives there a year, so how can the Government stick to these dogmas when the facts are against them?
I just do not recognise what the noble Lord is saying. On the question of health administration and working hours in the medical profession, constructive discussions are going on with our fellow EU members about ways in which we can go forward. On the working time directive, we want to limit its particular application in a number of areas, which we intend to do. I do not understand all the talk of dogma and gum-trees. They may be trees that the noble Lord lives with, but they do not come into my bailiwick.
My Lords, the Minister has been very good at explaining what he would like to do but rather less good at explaining how he would do it. The question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, was what mechanism would bring into effect all this work that he has described the Foreign Office as undertaking, or is the work really pretty pointless because there is no way of bringing it into effect?
I am not sure why the noble Baroness was intervening, but I was trying to answer the question when she interrupted. We are working on this now. I confess that our priority has certainly been the European Union Bill, which places new reassurances on the transfer of further competences to the EU, but nevertheless we have begun initial work on the balance of the EU’s existing competences and what they mean for Britain. When we work that out, we shall proceed constructively to see how those things can be implemented and adjusted. I see no difficulty in that procedure and in following that process, which I hope will lead us in a constructive direction.
Now that my noble friend is a senior member of the coalition team, will he promise at long last to be a little bit enthusiastic about our membership of the European Union? Would it not be a good idea from now on to give a lead? Does he agree that the Lisbon treaty is an ideal basis and balance for all the things that we want to do with the other 26 member states to take the European Union forward for the good of the public?
As my noble friend is getting a bit personal, I shall say that I have always been a very enthusiastic European and advocate of sensible reform of and working with the European Union so that it goes forward in a constructive way. I do not deny that, in the past, some of the overload at the centre and the extensive acquisition of competences have tended to slow down the best kind of Europeanism. I believe that in our coalition—of which, I hasten to say, I am a very junior member—we are all united in wanting a European Union that is constructive, goes forward positively and meets the challenges of the 21st century. That is what we are all working for.
First, my Lords, I pay tribute to all service personnel, past and present, who have so admirably served this country. It is our duty to remember and honour the fallen. Remembrance Sunday provides us with that opportunity and I hope that this custom will remain for all time. Large retail premises—those with more than 280 square metres of trading space—are already restricted to opening for periods of only six hours on any Sunday. The Government have no plans to further restrict the opening times of shops on Remembrance Sunday.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that on 10 March this year Sir Patrick Cormack—who is coming to this House next Tuesday to sit on the coalition Benches—supported by Dr Vincent Cable, introduced in the other place a Bill to provide for the extension of Christmas Day restrictions on the opening of retail premises to Remembrance Sunday? Is she aware that the Bill’s Second Reading would have taken place on 23 April 2010 if the general election had not been called? Finally, will she introduce a Bill accordingly to ensure that those benefits apply to Remembrance Sunday in 2011 and, if not, will the Government support a Private Member’s Bill from this House?
Yes, I understand that the Bill was introduced in the other place in March this year and that it ran out of time before it could have its Second Reading. It was of course Sir Patrick Cormack, then an MP in the other place, who introduced the Bill and, yes, he will be taking his seat in your Lordships’ House next Tuesday. I am sure that, as very often happens in this House, he will form common cause with the noble Lord. As to the second question—whether we will support a Private Member’s Bill on the same subject—the Government cannot commit to support a Bill that would prevent large shops from opening on Remembrance Sunday. It is not the place of the Government, and never has been, to regulate in an effort to enforce observance of important national commemorations. We leave observance of such occasions to the individual. Remembrance is a matter of conscience and a desire to show respect for the fallen; it is not, in the Government’s view, related to a particular activity or business, such as shopping and retailing.
My Lords, when we have a defence Question, we often have the names of those who have fallen recited to us. Will the Government consider including the names of the fallen in the Prayers that we have at the opening of our sessions? Secondly, could not a message from Parliament be sent to the bereaved families of those who sacrificed their lives for us?
My Lords, would the Minister agree that Remembrance Sunday and associated events are a matter not just of individual conscience but of national policy and for society as a whole? While it would perhaps be unreasonable to restrict shops to fewer than six hours, could consideration be given to delaying the opening of shops on that day, because so many ceremonies occur at 11 o’clock in the morning on Remembrance Sunday?
The right reverend Prelate brings an interesting question and I am very happy to answer it. There is no Act that says that anybody has to trade on a Sunday and no reason why a shop cannot be closed. The hours that shops have are between 10 am and 6 pm for six consecutive hours. They do not have to open for six consecutive hours. If they wish to, they are free on any Sunday to open from any time during those hours. They could possibly open in the afternoon rather than in the morning of this important event.
My Lords, this is a national matter. I urge on my noble friend the idea that we need to establish certain national standards and a certain national consciousness in matters of state such as this. It seems not right that it should be left entirely to individual conscience. The Government have a duty to tell people what being British is and this is part of it.
My Lords, I can only give the answer that I gave before. In this country, we are very fortunate that so many of our citizens choose to observe Remembrance Sunday and Armistice on 11 November. The Government take the view that remembrance is a matter of personal conscience and is not something that should or can be legislated for.
I concur with what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has just said. I suggest that the laxity in terms of respect for Sunday and for people who believe that Sunday is a special day, not only for our servicemen, is something that this Government should look at critically. I hope that they will seek to bring about amendments, at least, to legislation that might give some rights to those of us for whom Sunday is special.
I should perhaps speak of the military covenant, of which the noble Lord will know. The Government welcomed the publication last week of a report by the independent task force on the military covenant led by Professor Strachan. The Government have already announced that they will be taking forward the work to implement the recommendations in the Armed Forces community covenant. This will involve encouraging the nation to identify ways of supporting local Armed Forces communities in ways that reflect their particular circumstances. We will look at these recommendations and report next year. I hope that the noble Lord will find that helpful.
British Indian Ocean Territory
My Lords, the £1.5 million allocated to the British Indian Ocean Territory Administration was used to offset some of the costs of running the territory’s patrol vessel. The patrol vessel has helped to enforce the fisheries regime, and now it will enforce the marine protected area. It is also an important tool to help ensure the security of the territory and to enforce environmental and other regulations which apply in the British Indian Overseas Territory. The vessel has hosted groups of Chagossians in recent visits to the outer islands of the territory.
I thank the Minister for that very detailed Answer. Can I ask him about two further economies? Now that what the Times has described as “petty manoeuvres” by officials to keep the Chagossians from their home have been exposed, could not Her Majesty's Government be brave enough to save the legal costs of the European court case—about £5 million, I think—and start the process of return for these unfairly exiled people? Secondly, does he agree with me that the vast majority of the world’s marine protected areas have allowed the original inhabitants to remain there to help with the conservation work?
The noble Baroness, who follows these matters very closely, has raised a number of important issues. I think that one has to reject the talk of manoeuvres to keep Chagossians from their home. Fundamental and very difficult dilemmas must be faced by those who have the responsibility, or who want to take on the responsibility, of deciding how to solve this problem. The matter is before the European Court of Human Rights at the moment, and remains before it, and that is our position. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said that we continue to examine this policy in detail, and that is what we will do, but the fundamental position that we take was, I think, taken exactly by the previous Administration as well and is based on some very difficult but hard realities about both our needs for defence and the rights of those concerned.
My Lords, will my noble friend ask the Americans to agree to the publication of the minutes of the politico-military discussion with US officials in October 2009 in so far as they covered the return of the Chagossians to their outer islands? Does he agree that, despite attempts by the FCO to ventriloquise the Americans into making a statement that even a small number of Man Fridays—as they contemptuously refer to the inhabitants—would jeopardise military operations at the base, the Americans have said nothing official on that subject since President Obama took office?
I declare an interest as the vice-chairman of the all-party group that was described by a foreign official in WikiLeaks as being persistent but non-influential. The Minister mentioned defence. In our last meeting with Mr Henry Bellingham on 15 November, I mentioned to him a letter that we had had from Mr Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defence in America, who said that there was no good national security reason for not allowing the Chagossians to return to Chagos, including Diego Garcia. Is that the view of the Foreign Office as well?
The view of the Foreign Office is embodied in the fact that we are involved in the case at the European Court of Human Rights, and we are really not in a position to comment further except to say that we stand by the arguments and the justifications that lead us to remain in that position in the legal process. As I said, my right honourable friend has said in another place that we continue to examine this in detail and to look at the policy, but I cannot offer the noble Lord anything other than to say that the case is before the European Court of Human Rights, that the arguments are on the table there and that this matter has to be resolved there.
As another member of that non-influential parliamentary group, I ask the Minister whether he is not concerned that it appears that Foreign Office officials have managed to irritate both the Mauritian Government and the United States Government by using the marine protection agency as a cover for denying the Chagossians the right to return.
I do not know where my noble friend gets this concept of a cover from, except presumably from WikiLeaks. There is no question of a cover; they are completely separate issues. However, when it comes to handling them, we are concerned because we have inherited a situation in which there was certainly a lot of misunderstanding and even ill feeling between us and the Mauritian Government. We are very anxious to talk to the Mauritians again and to try to handle this matter better than it has been handled in the past.
There are ongoing discussions with the United States Government about this and other matters related to broad defence needs and to the particular problems we are discussing today. So the answer is yes: discussions have been ongoing at various levels.
Does the noble Lord agree that the European court is likely to decide in favour of the Chagossians and that it is high time that the Foreign Office prepared for the massive compensation scheme which will arise and to forecast where the money will come from? The money cannot come from Mauritius, and we have the responsibility.
Houses of Parliament: Access during Demonstrations
My Lords, the position relating to access to Parliament by Members during demonstrations does need clarifying. With the agreement of the other party leaders, the Convenor and the Lord Speaker, I have asked the Clerk of the Parliaments and acting Black Rod to report back as soon as possible on, first, what the current effect is of the sessional order passed in the Lords and, secondly, how the House authorities input into the police operations around Parliament specifically to seek to ensure access for Members and staff.
I very much welcome that Answer, because there was considerable concern in all parts of the House about the Answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, to the Question asked last Thursday. The main problem was that he seriously understated the constitutional importance of preserving access for Members of both Houses in order to discuss, vote and decide on the affairs of the nation. It would not be the first time in the history of this country—or, indeed, many other countries—that mobs have prevented people from accessing Parliament when it needs to carry out its fundamental duty to protect our constitutional democracy. I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for answering today, but will he make sure that that point is given high status when we discuss this issue? I would be happy to give my views. This is not in any way a criticism of the police, whom we all go out of our way to help in these profoundly difficult situations. Frankly, however, this is not just about the right to demonstrate; it is about the right of a free Parliament to meet, decide and vote on the affairs of the nation.
My Lords, I warmly agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has just said. It is extremely important that at all times Members of this House and another place have unhindered access to go about their business in Parliament. However, the police have a very difficult job. While they do everything that they can to make sure that the entrances are not overwhelmed, very occasionally that happens. As Members of this House, we need to be aware of alternative routes so that we can still get here to do our duty.
Does my noble friend agree that part of the business of Parliament is to respond to the lobbying of Members of Parliament and that maximum practical access to the Palace for lobbyists is desirable, first, so that they can make their points and, secondly, so that parliamentarians can respond? Last week, those of us who saw it would have realised that there were far fewer lobbyists here than the House could comfortably accommodate, which was a pity. Part of that was a product of the problems in Parliament Square. Does my noble friend agree with the point made by my noble friend Lady Trumpington yesterday that one of the real problems is the permanent encampment in Parliament Square, which occupies a lot of space and is therefore an obstacle to democracy?
My Lords, I certainly agree that part of the role of Parliament is to accept those who wish to lobby Parliament and parliamentarians in this building, which is why we support the peaceful right to protest. I also agree with what my noble friend Lady Trumpington said. It is a view shared by many people in both Houses that what seems to be a permanent encampment in Parliament Square is no longer necessary, if it ever was. That is why the Government have published proposals to try to tackle the problem.
My Lords, I welcome the report called for by the noble Lord from the Clerk of the Parliaments and acting Black Rod. On the theme of Parliament Square, in his response to the Statement yesterday the noble Lord referred to what he described as the,
“disjointed ownership of different parts of the square”.—[Official Report, 13/12/10; col. 423.]
Will the overall work of the Government in this area produce a solution to that disjointed ownership?
My Lords, we are trying to find a solution that will suit both the owners of Parliament Square. The problem is not so much one of ownership as the way in which the law is applied to the areas under different ownership. We believe that, under the proposals that we are about to publish, we will have an opportunity to solve the problem.
My Lords, concentration is inevitably on access to Parliament when it is physically difficult to get here, but access is important at all times, a view that I know the House is very enthusiastic about. Will the Leader of the House look again at the notices at the entrances to Parliament? They state:
“Trespass on this Site is a Criminal Offence. This is a protected site under Section 128 of the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005”.
Will he consider whether it is necessary to have such aggressive notices around a democratic place of work?
My Lords, there is a view that some of the violent acts that we have seen perpetrated in recent weeks need to be dealt with strongly and that the police, who do a difficult job, need to have a clear role in catching the perpetrators, arresting them and charging them. As for the signs around the buildings, I think that it is also fair enough for the public to be well aware of when they are about to commit an act of criminal trespass so that there is no excuse and no defence if they are caught doing so.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is quite impossible to get into the road that surrounds the Liberal Democrat headquarters? It is now almost like a fortress. Could he use his efforts, along with those of his colleagues, to try to get the road open to the public?
My Lords, the road is closed completely on occasion, although I am well aware from my own experience that residents are able to gain access to the street where the Liberal Democrats have their headquarters. I hope that we can move on from this episode of violent demonstrations by a student group. Perhaps what happened last week has had a salutary effect not only on those who organise these marches and the National Union of Students, but also on the colleges and institutions of higher education that these students attend.
Post Office Network Subsidy Scheme (Amendment) Order 2010
National Minimum Wage (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2010
Motions to Approve
That the draft order and regulations laid before the House on 2 and 10 November be approved.
Relevant documents: 6th and 8th Reports from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and 12th and 13th Reports from the Merits Committee, considered in Grand Committee on 8 December.
Public Bodies Bill [HL]
Committee (4th Day)
Schedule 1 : Power to abolish: bodies and offices
Amendment 24 not moved.
My Lords, I move Amendment 25 because I want to give the Minister an opportunity to describe what the Government envisage will happen to the powers, duties and assets of BRB (Residuary) Ltd if, or rather when, that body is abolished. The Committee may be aware that this company is all that is left of the once mighty British Railways Board, which oversaw the running and ownership of the entire state-owned railway from 1962 until privatisation. BRB (Residuary) Ltd was formed in 2001 to manage most of the remaining property, rights and liabilities of the BRB. These included a diverse property portfolio and the settlement of industrial injury claims submitted by former British Railways employees. The residuary company looks after 148 non-operational sites, many of which were bought in the 19th century to facilitate railway construction. It would like to sell these when market conditions are right. Therefore, my first question to the Minister is: what organisation will be responsible for selling these sites if BRB (Residuary) Ltd is abolished? Secondly, does he feel that this is the right time to get rid of a body that has operated successfully and profitably, at least until there was a revaluation of its assets in 2009?
I should also like to ask the Minister about the property held at the discretion of the Department for Transport for future operational use, such as the platforms and other structures at Waterloo International station, the North Pole international depot in west London, the Old Dalby test track, the Temple Mills bus depot and Glasgow Eastfield depot. What does he envisage will happen to those?
Perhaps most significant and difficult are the 4,000 bridges, tunnels, viaducts and other structures throughout England, Scotland and Wales which no longer form part of the operational railway but still have to be maintained. This is called the “burdensome estate”. It includes structures such as the Thornton Viaduct in Bradford, which no longer carries a railway but is an important part of the Great Northern Trail cycle route. There has been speculation in the media about where these matters will reside once BRB (Residuary) Ltd has disappeared. It has been suggested that the Highways Agency might take over the burdensome estate, such as the redundant viaducts and stretches of land, and I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify that.
Finally, BRB (Residuary) Ltd is also responsible for handling compensation claims from former railway employees who suffered illnesses as a result of their working conditions. Many of these have been related to working with asbestos and other dangerous materials. At 31 March 2010 there were 459 disease and injury claims outstanding against the company. Who will take on the responsibility for the requirement to look after the industrial injury claims of these former railway employees? There are a number of issues here and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answer. I beg to move.
My noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester has raised a number of important points about the role and responsibilities of BRB (Residuary) Ltd and what the Government’s intentions are in relation to those activities, not least its operational and non-operational property—its estate of some 4,000 bridges, tunnels, viaducts and other structures—and the management of industrial injury claims. I, too, look forward to the Minister’s reply to the points raised by my noble friend.
As he said, BRB (Residuary) Ltd is a residuary organisation staffed mainly by former employees of British Rail who have a detailed and specialist knowledge of the assets and liabilities now managed by the organisation. The company is committed, for so long as it exists, to ensuring that the knowledge held by the former BR staff is retained for use by those who might be responsible for the management of the long-term assets and liabilities in the future. In the light of that, can the Minister say what will happen to the staff of BRB (Residuary) Ltd if it is abolished? Can he give an assurance that any information currently accessible through a Freedom of Information Act request will still be accessible through such a request following any transfer of BRB (Residuary) Ltd’s duties and responsibilities elsewhere?
The criteria against which the Government said their review of public bodies would be carried out were: does the public body have a precise technical operation; is it necessary for impartial decisions to be made about the distribution of taxpayers’ money; and does it fulfil a need for facts to be transparently determined independent of political interference? A public body would stay if it was deemed to have passed one of the three tests.
In June this year, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that the Government wanted to cut the number of public bodies to increase accountability and cut costs. Can the Minister explain why the Government have apparently decided that the BRB (Residuary) body does not carry out a technical operation, does not have to make impartial decisions and does not need to establish facts independent of political interference, when one of its roles is managing industrial injury claims supported by former BR employees and its staff have the detailed and specialist knowledge of the assets and liabilities that BRB (Residuary) Ltd manages?
Finally, since the Cabinet Office Minister has said that one declared objective of this exercise is to cut costs, can the noble Lord tell us what the contribution will be to the reduction in costs made by abolishing BRB (Residuary) Ltd?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, missed from his list of public sector burdens the stretches of track which still exist and belong to the residuary body. He might have mentioned that—perhaps I did not hear him—but, as he is nodding, I think that he missed it out.
It is very important that some stretches of track should remain within the public sector in some way or other, pending the glorious day when the railway is returned to those lines that were closed down and had their tracks removed. Obviously, I refer to the Colne to Skipton line, much of which belongs to the county councils of Lancashire and north Yorkshire because it was transferred from the old West Riding county council. However, the track between the old county boundary and Colne was never transferred to Lancashire, so it is very important that, at the very least, it remains in public sector ownership. I declare an interest as a patron of the Skipton East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership, or SELRAP. I merely add that point to the very important list of issues. Of course, because the Colne to Skipton stretch includes lots of bridges, the county council is reluctant to take over responsibility for the former line because it claims that liability for the bridges would cost a vast amount of money, although the residuary body has not spent much on them at all in the 15 years since privatisation.
I merely add that little pebble into the pond.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for tabling Amendment 25, because it gives the Government an opportunity to put on record the decision to include BRB (Residuary) Ltd in the list of bodies to be abolished.
As the noble Lord may know, consultations on the decision have been ongoing for some time. Many historical obligations associated with railway structures continue to rest with BRB and cannot be transferred with title through the normal property conveyancing process but must be transferred to someone else, such as the Secretary of State or some other public body under a transfer scheme. That can be done only by primary legislation, which is why BRB is mentioned in the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said, BRB is also liable for the industrial injury claims from former railway industry employees. It would be more difficult to transfer BRB to the Secretary of State for those claims to be dealt with without having a statutory transfer scheme, which is again why the body has been included in this Bill.
BRB (Residuary) Ltd is a public limited company that was created in 2001 to manage and dispose of British Rail’s commercial property assets, to manage historical liabilities for industrial injury claims and to maintain some 4,000 or so railway structures that are no longer used for railway purposes—to which the noble Lord referred as the burdensome estate.
The intention to abolish BRB once it has achieved its objective of maximising money from the disposal of its assets has been in place for some time. The inclusion of the body in Schedule 1 is necessary in order to wind up the body fully, as otherwise it would not be possible to transfer certain liabilities relating to the burdensome estate. Its inclusion in Schedule 1 will also facilitate the transfer of residual assets and liabilities to other parts of the public sector in the most cost-effective manner. For example, the conveyancing of the individual structures alone would cost approximately £6 million in the absence of a statutory transfer scheme, which the Bill provides for.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the cost implications. Savings on staff costs, premises and accounts, audit et cetera are expected to be around £6 million in 2013-14 and £6.9 million per annum thereafter. On the number of jobs that may be involved, we currently envisage that roughly 30 posts would be made redundant as a result of these changes.
Although I have not provided detailed information on some of the structures that the noble Lord asked about—I hope that he will allow me to write to him when I have found out any detail on those that is available to me—in the light of the information that I have provided, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister very much indeed for that helpful reply. A number of issues that remain unresolved were mentioned by myself, my noble friend Lord Rosser and, indeed, by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. If, on reflection, the Minister feels that he is able to give some more information in writing, that would be very welcome.
The decision to abolish BRB (Residuary) Ltd is not controversial—indeed, it was taken by the previous Administration—but I was anxious to ensure that things were not done in a rush or in a way that might result in the assets being sold for much less than is possible. I am satisfied by the Minister’s response, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 25 withdrawn.
26: Schedule 1, page 16, line 17, leave out “Chief Coroner, Deputy Chief Coroners, Medical Advisers to the Chief Coroner and Deputy Medical Advisers to the Chief Coroner.”
My Lords, this amendment seeks to ensure that the long-awaited chief coroner, as set up in the Coroners and Justice Act, is not abandoned. I shall explain, first, why an independent chief coroner is essential for national functions to be adequately discharged and, secondly, why the cost basis of the decision to list the chief coroner, medical advisers and deputies is flawed, as dispensing with leadership to reform the coronial system will stack up costs, not save money. This amendment is strongly supported by all the experts in the field with whom I have had contact and by many from the voluntary sector, including INQUEST and the Royal British Legion.
The current system is not fit for purpose, being based on the 1887 Act. Even the 1988 Act was only consolidating, ignoring the Brodrick committee report. Repeatedly, fundamental reviews have been commissioned and, repeatedly, their key recommendation has been for a chief coroner with appropriate medical advice. In 2003, the fundamental review of death certification and investigation, the Luce review, was quickly followed by the third report of the Shipman inquiry. Both called for radical reform and leadership. As the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment on the Coroners and Justice Bill said:
“The Shipman Inquiry … and the Fundamental Review of Death Certification and Investigation”—
the Luce report—
“found the level of service provided to bereaved people was inconsistent; family and friends were not always involved in coroners’ investigations; there was a lack of leadership and training for coroners; and insufficient medical knowledge in the system as a whole”.
Luce’s headline recommendation was for a chief coroner from the higher judiciary to oversee standards and handle appeals.
Dame Janet found that to a large extent coroners are left to their own devices, with no guidance to coroners, no appeals system by which unsatisfactory decisions can be set aside, no job description and no appraisals. She proposed that leadership for coroners should come from a chief judicial coroner, with senior medical advice as appropriate, independent of the Government. Indeed, she said:
“In my view, it would no longer be satisfactory for the coroner service to be administered from within a Government Department”.
Four weeks ago we had the Redfern report, again calling for co-ordination and leadership.
The Coroners and Justice Act took three years of review and consultation and was supported across all parties. It made provision for such leadership. Dame Janet has noted that, with no appeal mechanism, the only route to challenge decisions is judicial review, but that a quicker and cheaper means of appeal could and should be provided whereby decisions, whether in a report or at inquest, that are wrong can be set aside, and that such an appeals system should be run by the chief coroner.
Coroners themselves have estimated that there might be up to 1,000 appeals per annum but a better local complaints procedure would decrease these. Currently, however, with the only recourse being to judicial review, there are about 25 judicial reviews a year. Each costs somewhere around £40,000 to £60,000, although no one can provide me with a good costing on it. So our current inadequate system is costing at least £500,000 to £750,000, and with such an unmet need the numbers will only rise.
The coroners need leadership that they can respect to bring about change. Where a coroner has written a rule 43 recommendation to try to avoid further deaths, without a chief coroner, where are the levers to look at the public safety issues across the UK? Military deaths deserve an inquest by a coroner with military knowledge. Inquests into child deaths require specific skills. Inadequate post-mortems, as evidenced by the 2006 NCEPOD report, need an on-going audit to drive up standards. To do that, leadership is needed.
Freddy Patel did many post-mortems—many coroners used him, not just one—but, with no leadership from a medical adviser to the chief coroner, substandard practice goes largely undetected. A poor post-mortem can result in a wrongful conclusion, a lack of justice, miscarriages of justice and a failure to prevent avoidable deaths. Coroners have such a duty to prevent further deaths. The rule 43 recommendation can be issued but, without a national overview to map trends, outliers go unnoticed. We know that they have gone unnoticed for years.
Accurate data on deaths are essential. Deaths classified as drowning are sometimes due to an inherited heart problem that results in the heart stopping on hitting cold water. With that undetected, the wrong conclusions are drawn and the relatives of the deceased are left at risk of sudden death themselves.
The training of coroners is a major problem. Participation is purely voluntary. Training instigated by the Coroners’ Society, and now supported by the Ministry of Justice, remains patchy, with some coroners, as Dame Janet said, never undertaking the voluntary training that is available because they believe that they know all there is to know. Leadership is needed for accountability and oversight to make the delays in inquests a thing of the past and ensure that inquests into complex cases such as military deaths, child deaths and incidents with multiple victims are conducted by coroners with appropriate expertise.
At a time of financial stringencies it seems sensible to disband as many costly organisations as possible, so I turn briefly to the cost basis for the decision. Set-up costs were estimated to be almost £11 million, of which almost £4 million was for IT and £2.5 million for recruitment, publications, additional coroners and transition costs. Transition from what? There is a yawning gap at present. The Ministry of Justice team has four people working on coroners’ issues; by transferring them to the chief coroner, their costs would be offset, as would the training spend by the Ministry of Justice at the moment. Indeed, training could be more cost-effective by using simpler venues and local resources. Having consulted widely, I estimate that the whole set-up cost and per-annum cost could come within a £500,000 envelope. The deputy chief coroner and medical advisers can be drawn from respected senior coroners and local medical advisers already in post, therefore not incurring the costs of new appointments. Further developments can come later; it does not all have to happen at once.
Similarly, the estimated running costs were astounding. They contained a 20 per cent contingency fund of almost £1 million—more than I have estimated it would cost to set up the proposed system. By contrast, no estimate has been taken into account of the cost to the NHS of the morbidity in these bereaved people. They often end up with complicated grief needing NHS support, and the majority have periods when they are unable to work. Consider, too, the cost of bereaved children, who live feeling that justice was never done. They have a high risk of suicide, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and acquiring a criminal record. These are all costs that are mounting against this so-called efficiency.
I am grateful to the Ministers and officials who met me and in particular for the time that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, has spent with me on this. But even officials were unable to explain some of these budget lines. For want of a chief coroner, we are stacking up costs and problems that will cost far more than a chief coroner and medical adviser, who could even be a part timer. We ignore the numerous reports at our peril.
I am sure the Minister will say that the majority of functions will be undertaken by the Ministry of Justice, that the Lord Chancellor will oversee, that the only thing being abandoned is the appeals mechanism and that even that will be covered in part by a charter for the bereaved, which is going to be modified. He may even suggest that unless we remove the chief coroner and medical adviser, nothing can happen. But with no chief coroner to drive up standards and ensure training and no route of appeal for the bereaved to have justice, these problems will continue and the costs will escalate.
The Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment concluded that a chief coroner was the preferred option as this would make the best use of resources to improve service delivery. It would provide leadership to meet both the interests of bereaved families and the wider public interest in terms of the quality and effectiveness of investigations, and optimum understanding about the causes of unexpected deaths, ensuring that knowledge is applied to prevent avoidable death and injury.
To abandon having a chief coroner is to deny long-awaited improvements to the coronial system to those who deserve justice. It will leave us with a system that is unfit for 21st century society. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly to Amendment 26, to which I was very happy to add my name. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, was speaking, I was thinking that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, may have been very clever in putting these provisions in the Bill in the knowledge that the House would want to consider them very carefully. Perhaps this was a clever ruse on his part because really, in his heart, he supports us.
The creation of the post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales was at the heart of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. The role was designed to ensure judicial oversight, enforce national standards and increase accountability. Introducing national leadership under the chief coroner’s post was a crucial step towards tackling the unacceptable delays, inconsistent standards of service delivery and lack of accountability which plague the current system.
The NCEPOD report of 2006 reviewed, in detail, autopsy reports in hospitals and in the community. There had never before been a comprehensive review of the autopsy process and reports of death at the request of coroners. It was the first time that data had been requested directly from coroners. Indeed, 88 per cent of them contributed data to this report.
The report was a major contribution to the discussion about changes in the coronial system. It recommended, among other matters, that there should be nationally uniform criteria and standards for the investigation of reported deaths and made recommendations about training and the independent review process, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred. In many ways this was the final evidence that was needed to bring forward the reform to the coronial system proposed in the 2009 Bill, which had cross-party support.
The chief coroner is needed to act as a counterbalance, as it were, to the weight of the Chief Medical Officer. Does the Minister really think that a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice will have the necessary authority to operate at the highest quasi medical/judicial level which might be required from time to time, to say nothing of ensuring that a modern, compassionate and timely coronial system for families and relatives exists, given that it is absolutely necessary? The answer to that has to be no. That is why this amendment is so important, why these Benches will support it and why we think that it is very important to get on with reforming this system by appointing the chief coroner.
My Lords, I put my name to this amendment for two reasons: disappointment and respect. I am disappointed about this decision, given all the hours that we spent discussing the various stages of the Coroners and Justice Bill last year. The one constant throughout that process was a hope that, 109 years after the previous reform of the coronial system, a chief coroner would be appointed to lead us out of this morass. I say that because experience tells me that until and unless you have a named person with responsibility and accountability for actually making things happen, things do not happen. It is all very well saying that the Government intend to do this and the Government intend to do that, but that had been the situation for 109 years and it is not working. Only if a chief coroner is in place will there be a hope of leadership, consistency, drive and oversight of all the things that are listed. I refreshed my memory by reading the speeches of the late lamented Lord Kingsland, who I respected and who was so strongly in favour of the chief coroner in all our discussions. He, too, appreciated that at last this post constituted a way of reforming something that needed reforming.
At an earlier stage in the Committee, I mentioned that I was extremely disappointed in the impact assessment accompanying the Bill as it says that nothing that is proposed has any impact on either human rights or the criminal justice system. However, here we are, at Amendment 26, with goodness knows how many amendments to come, and already we have something which is driving terrible coaches and horses through both human rights and the criminal justice system. Then I looked at the so-called savings. They reminded me of a phrase that we used to use in the Army—“situating the appreciation”. An appreciation comprises examining a subject and then deciding what you are going to do about it. Sometimes people know what they are going to do and write a report to suit their solution. The maths ruthlessly exposed by my noble friend Lady Finlay shows that these costings are a sham. There has been no attempt to say how much more it would cost to have a chief coroner than to have all the improvements allegedly to be made by the Ministry of Justice which will achieve the same end. Until and unless we have an honest appraisal, it is dishonest to overturn the ruling of Parliament that something should be done to put right a system which has affected us for so long, and to endorse the decision of noble Lords in all parties to put bereavement at the heart of the process. That will be the case only if someone is responsible and accountable for seeing that it happens.
I am not going to rehearse all the cases that we dealt with affecting military inquests and inquests involving prisoners, delays, training of staff, consistency and the fact that you cannot obtain establishments in which to hold inquests because you are not a member of the court system. We have all been through all that. To risk throwing all that away is very dangerous, and I very much hope that the amendment will be supported.
My Lords, as you might expect from these Benches, I should like to offer a pastoral word in support of the amendment.
One of the recent features of the discourse around bereavement has been closure, and the number of times that people now say, “All I want is closure”. There may be numerous reasons for that. It could be to do with the fact that we are now a society which is rather more distant from sudden and unexpected death than previous societies were, and therefore coping with those eventualities becomes that much more challenging. Closure becomes a significant dynamic in handling those kinds of bereavements. The need for closure could also relate to the culture of accountability in which we find ourselves, whereby people seem to need to be able to apportion not only a reason for why something happened, but perhaps a degree of blame and responsibility. That seems, rightly or wrongly, to be part of the culture of closure that matters to people these days.
I also have to say, of course, that another reason could be due to the declining reliance on the consolations of religion at the time of death, and therefore the search for other consolations would include a clear sense of what happened, why and at whose hand. If the amendment can enable the office of the chief coroner to add another dimension to the potential for people in their bereavement and sorrow to feel a sense of justice being done and, therefore, achieve a degree of closure, on those pastoral grounds, if no other, the amendment deserves support.
My Lords, I have also put my name to the amendment. If we look back at Second Reading of the relevant Bill on 18 May 2009, there was, as has already been said, broad cross-party support for the approach taken to bring better oversight, management and direction to the coronal service. The establishment of an independent chief coroner with such specific responsibilities was a key step that was widely welcomed, most particularly by organisations such as the Royal British Legion, which was concerned that there had been inadequate arrangements for the inquests of service personnel killed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Assurances were given then that the new chief coroner would issue guidance and set standards in relation to certain types of deaths, including standards in relation to deaths on active service. Handling and investigations of highly sensitive and emotive deaths due to “friendly fire” always need special care. Coroners must have clear and considered guidance when inquiring into such tragedies.
Proper oversight and training in the holding of military inquests were also promised. That is all the more important, given that such inquests are now more frequently held near the homes of the deceased, so that the relatives can get there more easily. Those who followed these aspects of the Bill were reassured that improvements would be made and that the need for them had been fully accepted.
I am not clear what alternative arrangements are contemplated. If the chief coroner, his supporting staff and the accommodation that they would have occupied are all to be scrapped to achieve a saving, we shall be back where we were before the 2009 Act came in. I hope that the Government are not seeking to go down that road. It would be a deep and cavalier betrayal of bereaved service families. It would fly in the face of the Government’s stated intention of strengthening the military covenant by statute, and would make a mockery of their assurances of greater support for the military and their families. Surely that is not contemplated. I hope that the Minister will confirm that today.
If the plan is to pass these responsibilities to others in the Ministry of Justice, or even to the Lord Chief Justice, they cannot take them on without additional staff and the IT and other support already contemplated for the chief coroner and his office. Where, then, would be the significant savings? Surely it would not be acceptable for an independent coronial service to direct responsibility to the Lord Chancellor or his Ministry of Justice. This would not, for example, provide an independent and transparent appeals process, which was to have been one of the roles of the chief coroner.
The three tests set by the Government for a public body to survive and continue in its role are whether it performs a technical function, whether it has political impartiality and whether there is a need for a body to act independently to establish facts. On these grounds, and having heard the excellent arguments produced by others in the debate, will the Minister signal the Government's intention to withdraw from the Bill the post of chief coroner and the associated posts listed in lines 17 and 18 of page 16 on Schedule 1?
I have not been able to take part in this Committee since the first day, when I stood on my head and managed to vote against my own amendment. My good and noble friend Lord Pannick managed to win my amendment while I loyally supported the Government. I do not intend in the rest of these debates to stand on my head again, and I have made that clear to the Minister. I took part in the debate that led to the creation of the chief coroner and I agree with everything that has been said on the subject, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
There is a further reason why the amendment is very important: I refer to our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, which have been referred to. We have been told again and again by the European Court of Human Rights that we need an effective and independent system of investigating deaths, especially the deaths of alleged agents of the state. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made it absolutely clear why, during the passage of the legislation under the previous Government, he, I and many others pressed for the creation of a chief coroner and an effective investigation process independent of the state.
I am now in a position where I have to act under some party constraints, which other noble Lords do not. However, I could not support the Government were they to resist this amendment and I very much hope that the Minister will show the wisdom and sense of proportion required on an occasion such as this.
My Lords, I support the amendment from the point of view of a layman who unexpectedly found himself consulted—if that is the right word—on an inquest. I suppose that all of us hope never to be the subject of an inquest, and very few of us wish to have any reason to be directly involved in one. The case was brought to my attention a couple of years ago—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has a file on it in his office containing evidence from myself, the complainant and the Member of Parliament for the poor man who was deceased.
It was, in my judgment, a disgraceful occasion. The death was tragic and, because of the number of agencies and parties involved, the case had taken several years to come before the coroner. As a reasonable person looking at what was done by the coroner at the inquest, it seemed to me that he did not do his job properly. He allowed evidence that seemed irrelevant to what had been said before and that was hostile to the complainants, and he did not disclose what he knew: namely, that the parties involved in the actions that led to the death had admitted their role and made a settlement. That evidence was not allowed before the jury. As I said, I had never had any previous involvement of any shape or form with an inquest but it seemed to me that something was not right in the state of Denmark. However, the solution that has come from earlier discussions on the Bill in this House seems to offer some hope that things will be put right.
I understand that New Zealand, which, like many in our erstwhile empire, followed in our steps with its coroner system, has for some time had precisely what is sought in this Bill. I understand that a coroner from that country was here recently and was amazed that we have not gone down this route. It is appalling that ordinary people who may not be satisfied with the results of an inquest can only, as the noble Baroness said, have a judicial review. There is no other avenue for them to complain effectively.
Lastly—this may be of some comfort to the Minister—having looked at this particular case, I believe that some way can be found of dealing with the situation rather more economically. Where there are a number of official agencies—using that term in the broadest sense—it may well be possible, through the good offices of a senior coroner, to find a way of ensuring that inquests take less time than they do today, as that, again, is pretty disgraceful.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former assistant deputy coroner—something that I did for as short a period as I could. Coroners, like judges and judicial officers, sit alone and quite often become isolated. If they always sit in the same place, there is a danger that their arrangements will not be consistent with those of adjoining coroners or indeed of coroners in other parts of the country.
Coroners receive a certain amount of training, as did I. As far as it went, it was good but it was not sufficient. The advantage for judges and judicial officers is that not only do they have the Judicial Studies Board but, infinitely more important, at the top of the ladder is the Lord Chief Justice, and under him are senior judges who keep the standards up and give very important guidance. That is absolutely essential. The purpose of the chief coroner and the deputies beneath him or her is to give important guidance to individual coroners right around the country who sit on their own and are isolated, and to offer guidance and keep the standards up, as the standards also vary. Losing a post not yet filled would leave coroners to carry on without that necessary help. It would also deny the public a sufficiently good coronial system.
In answer to a Question asked at Question Time some weeks ago, the Minister said that the guidance would be given by the Ministry of Justice. Like judicial officers and indeed judges, coroners are independent, and it is just not good enough for the Ministry of Justice to offer guidance to those who sit in a judicial or semi-judicial capacity. It just will not do. The Minister clearly did not understand—or perhaps, rather more importantly, the Ministry of Justice did not understand—that the sort of guidance it would give would not be good enough. Judges would not accept it, and why on earth should coroners accept it when it is possible to have a much better system? It is clear to me that the roles of chief coroner and the deputy coroners and so on are essential, as set out so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and that this amendment absolutely deserves to be carried.
I declare an interest as patron of The Compassionate Friends, which is a support group both for parents whose child has died and for their families. I should have liked to put my name to Amendment 26, but three others got there before me. I support everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, said.
I feel that the charter for the bereaved being offered by the Government will be a fob-off if it is not backed up with meaningful changes in the Coroners and Justice Act, so I do not think that what is being proposed is acceptable. What was striking when that Act went through was the degree of political consensus. Indeed, your Lordships’ House was particularly important in pushing the Government to give a concession on the timeliness of inquests because, up until that stage, the chief coroner was not going to have the power or duty to enforce timeliness. That is an important issue not only for the bereaved but for witnesses, because when years have passed, it is much harder to recall the circumstances of what went on. I also echo the comments made on the costings. My noble friend Lord McNally gave us the costings on a previous occasion, but the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has explained that those are the Rolls-Royce costings. All that we are asking for is a trustworthy car to get us from A to B, not a Rolls-Royce.
My second point concerns the independence issue. As your Lordships will remember, from time to time the Government come into conflict with coroners. For example, sometimes the Home Secretary might think that a secret inquiry would be better, as happened under the previous Government and under Governments before that—perhaps the most notorious being the so-called “death on the rock” case—and as I am sure will happen again. If such cases do not promote the need for an independent coronial system, nothing does. That is the reason why this House has a duty to stand firm and why I shall be supporting the noble Baroness’s amendment.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the advisory panel on deaths in custody. That is relevant because the panel made recommendations on the back of the legislation that created the role of the chief coroner that were endorsed by the ministerial board on deaths in custody.
There are a number of reasons why Amendment 26 should be supported. The first relates to process. Whereas the passage of the Coroners and Justice Act involved a very long process in this House that included a considerable period of debate on what was a major piece of legislation, the Public Bodies Bill seeks to overturn by means of what is almost a footnote—one line in Schedule 1—all the work that was done in both Houses, which considered the issues in great detail. In addition, the Coroners and Justice Act was regarded by many people as long overdue. The process point is whether it is right and proper that such a major piece of legislation should be dismembered by a single line in the Bill.
The second process point is that we have had no adequate explanation of why the Government regard the proposed abolition as being able to produce significant savings. I am aware that every death in custody costs the taxpayer, on average, £500,000 or so for the investigation process and all that goes with it. A good and effective coronial service that picks up the lessons from deaths in custody could easily save substantial sums of money. One of the problems, on which my panel made recommendations about the role of the chief coroner, is the need to draw out at national level the material that emerges from narrative verdicts and from Rule 43 reports and to identify the best practice that emerges from those.
Another reason why my panel felt that the role of the chief coroner is important is—as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has just referred to—the impact that delays can have on families. One issue that concerns me and the panel that I chair is the very long period that can elapse before a proper hearing or inquest is held into the deaths of people who die while in the custody of the state. Sometimes there are good reasons for such delays, but sometimes the reasons are extremely obscure. There is certainly a problem in the allocation of work among coroners. The appointment of a chief coroner provided the possibility of being able to allocate work more rationally by perhaps creating specialist coroners who could look in detail at particular types of death and thereby build up a body of experience. The chief coroner could also draw attention, where necessary, to the fact that some coroners might be inadequately resourced by local authorities, which is the mechanism by which coroners are funded.
Picking up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about the charter for bereaved people, I understand that the coalition Government have said that they wish to make the charter even stronger. However, the key point about the charter is that, if a bereaved person feels that their charter rights have not been met, there is a mechanism or route that they can go to, which involves the chief coroner. Exactly how will that mechanism be strengthened in future?
We are assured that, by some magical process, civil servants in the Ministry of Justice will be able to fulfil the role that will now not be fulfilled by the chief coroner. How exactly will that be done? I hope that, when the Minister responds, he will give us chapter and verse on how that will happen. Like all other government departments, central administration in the Ministry of Justice is being reduced by 20, 30 or 40 per cent. Perhaps some of these things could have been done by Ministry of Justice civil servants before those reductions, but given that that has not happened, why should we believe that somehow, with reduced resource in future, the benefits that would have accrued from a chief coroner will magically be delivered from within the Ministry of Justice? The noble Baroness’s amendment deserves the support of the House.
My Lords, I, too, share many of the reservations that have been expressed about what is a pre-emptive strike against the chief coroner and the centralised medical functions set out in the Coroners and Justice Act. Although, having been brought up in the days when we had to consider public expenditure cuts, I know that it is often a wise strategem to abort projects that have not been undertaken rather than to remove those that have become established, nevertheless I do not think that it is just my personal and extensive involvement in Committee on the Coroners and Justice Act in another place that leads me to the conclusion that we should have at least some unease about the Government’s proposal. I will listen very carefully to my noble friend's justification of that.
As I understand it, the argument for a centralised chief coroner was essentially that, although coroners have performed their functions for centuries at local level, the demands of a more modern, more mobile society for a more technically and legally accountable service require a measure of concentration of effort, a perceived professionalism and—to paraphrase the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham—declared leadership in a single figure, such as the chief coroner. Those requirements seem to me to be very difficult to discharge by committee. In that legislation, exactly the same argument resonated across the parties about whether there should be a coroner for treasure, which is a specialist area that also had to be considered.
The House needs to remember that, although coroners have little day-to-day impact on the bulk of the population, coroners have an intimate and dramatic impact on those who are bereaved, particularly in the case of a sudden death. That is the more enhanced whenever there is any suspicion—whether or not it is justified—that the authorities may have failed in their duty of care under Article 2 of the European convention. That is probably often, but certainly by no means always, an issue in military inquests.
I can imagine that some of the centralising functions that would have been otherwise attributed to the chief coroner or to his medical adviser under the Act could be carried out administratively within the Ministry of Justice—although if that happens, I hope that Ministers will get a grip in ensuring that the outturn administrative costs are less than those that are attributed to the chief coroner under the present schema—but I come up against the basic problem about whether it is wise to remove the judicial function of detecting the need for an appeal and to have that function carried out in a way that is not perceived as being independent of government. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said in her introduction, the outcome will almost certainly be more expensive judicial review and more cases going to Strasbourg because of the apparent lack of integrity in the process.
Finally, we all accept that the need to tackle the Government’s deficit means that some bodies—even those for which there is some justification—may need pruning or abolishing, but this process of pruning should never be a one-way street of unrequited losses. From time to time, it will still be necessary for us to introduce a modest but effective social advance. I regret that this particular initiative provided under the Coroners and Justice Act seems to be in any kind of danger.
I spoke in one of the previous debates on this issue. I think most of us had some hope that the previous Administration would change their mind and agree to the position of chief coroner. We had a tough debate and actually defeated the Government of the day. We were hopeful that the previous Administration had seen some sense and we felt that they would, eventually, give us a chief coroner. I have seen one or two new faces on Front Benches and in your Lordships' Chamber and I want to, if I may, for a few minutes come a little closer down to earth. After any military action, it is a fairly awesome job—not a pleasant job and a very moving job—to gather one’s dead who have made the supreme and final sacrifice for King or Queen and country. They are dead. Dead is dead. Why then does it take one, two, three or more years to declare such a person, man or woman, officially dead? What about the grieving widow? What about the mother? What about the family waiting, not really understanding what a coroner’s inquest is, not being told, not being supported, not being moved to the inquest, not being paid for, not being looked after? That is one of the reasons why we need a chief coroner.
We need a leader in this outfit somewhere. We need someone who can administer, speed the process and make certain that everything is done more speedily and correctly. The chief coroner must be rather special. He must be a leader and an administrator. I do not mind whether he is a judge or not, but he must be competent. He must grip these coroners who are scattered around the country, a little lethargic and not necessarily working every day of the week. There needs to be a little bit of cohesion here. The chief coroner is vital.
Is an unproven, newly constituted Ministry of Justice good enough to do this? I do not think so. Who is the leader who will emerge from this legal morass? I wonder. I do not think that this is possible. Surely the Government have heard enough today to realise that they are on the wrong track and that there has to be a chief coroner.
My Lords, I offer a somewhat different point of view. What worries me particularly about the speech given by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, is that the way in which the chief coroner is set up in the Act of Parliament will not deliver the things that this House so far in this debate seems to believe are within the power of the chief coroner to deliver. I am somewhat surprised when it is said that the problem is with officials. Surely if there is a problem, it is with the Lord Chancellor of England and not his officials. Why do we elect Secretaries of State and the Lord Chancellor, now that we elect the Lord Chancellor? We elect them presumably because we believe that they can deliver, not that they cannot.
I think that there is very general agreement across the House about the objectives. The situation has not been satisfactory, and that has been exposed at great length. When I reread the proceedings on that Bill at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, my very strong impression was that the arrival of the chief coroner was a given; it was not debated in any depth or detail. That illustrates that we have got into the habit of believing that if we have serious problems, we cannot rely on our existing institutions. We must have a new one, a silver bullet institution, to solve problems.
I urge noble Lords to read Chapter 6 of and Schedule 8 to that Act. I have had quite long experience of having been on public bodies. I have been chairman, chief executive and vice-chairman on all sorts of public bodies. In fact, one of my noble friends said to me the other day, “I’m glad you’re taking part in proceedings on the Public Bodies Bill, because there are hardly any bodies in it that you have not been on”. As I think I told the House the other day, I once got a letter thanking me for being on a body that I had never been on. So I have had experience of advisory bodies, executive bodies and even a public corporation—an endangered species of which there are very few left.
The way in which the chief coroner is set up in that Act is more advisory than executive. It in no way puts the chief coroner in such a position that John Humphrys will wish to interview him or her, rather than the Lord Chancellor, if something goes wrong in the future. The accountability chain has not been changed in a way that dilutes the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. All that has happened is that another step has been put into it, so I say to my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill that the chief coroner does not have the independence that my noble friend is looking for. There is some space within which the chief coroner can operate, but there is no independence.
I give noble Lords only one illustration. The Lord Chancellor can decide how many staff the chief coroner shall have and what each member of staff shall be paid. In my submission, this is not just a done deal or a solution for doing the things that need to be done to improve the performance of the coronial system, to achieve consistency and to do all the things with which we would all agree to make sure that things are done in a timely fashion. If one reads that debate, and what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said at the time, one will see that they qualified what they said very carefully all the way through. They talked about the problem of expense and the problem of it taking two to three years to set up the Chief Coroner’s Office. They did not promise this House that the office would have executive authority, which I think is what people are looking for. I am not an expert on appeals, but it seems to me that even in that matter, the chief coroner is not the final word. I hope that he is not, or would not be. The final word is in the Court of Appeal.
As the noble Viscount was good enough to refer to me, does he accept and agree that under the European Convention on Human Rights we have an obligation to ensure that there is an effective, independent system of inquests, independent of ministerial interference, and that the previous Parliament, in creating the system that is now threatened, believed that it was giving effect to that convention obligation?
My Lords, I fully agree that the separation of the powers of the Executive from those of the legal profession and our courts is absolutely central to our constitution. Unfortunately, this Bill does not affect that separation because the chief coroner does not have that independence. If one reads the terms under which he is employed and what he has to do to satisfy the Lord Chancellor, the real power has been left with the Lord Chancellor.
My Lords, I am puzzled by the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. As I understand the Act, the chief coroner will enjoy considerable independence. He or she will be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice and will report to the Lord Chancellor. If the Lord Chancellor were to tell the chief coroner how to perform the substance of the duties, I have no doubt whatever that the courts would uphold the independence of the chief coroner under the Act.
The other point made by the noble Lord—
On that point, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is correct. But the appointment can be made by the Lord Chief Justice only with the approval of the Lord Chancellor. All my experience of public appointments has shown that the power of appointment rests with the Lord Chancellor.
I remind the noble Viscount that the same is true of judges of the Supreme Court. There is no suggestion that people cannot be independent in their judicial role because the Government have a responsibility for their appointment or for the appointment of their staff. The performance of the function is what matters. The noble Viscount said that we elect Governments so that they can deliver. I suggest to noble Lords that there are some functions that can be delivered to the satisfaction of the public only if they are delivered by an independent body. The reason for that is that the decisions they are making are either judicial decisions or quasi-judicial decisions which often concern the relationship between the individual and the state.
These points were made with great power by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in opening this debate. She referred to the support given by Dame Janet Smith in the Shipman report to the creation of the office of chief coroner. Dame Janet put her finger on the fundamental point which has provided the recurrent theme in the debates in this Committee so far and will continue to be the recurrent theme of the debates in this Committee unless and until the Government change their general approach. The point was made by Dame Janet at paragraph 19.22 of her third report on the Shipman inquiry. She said that,
“if coroners and the Coroner Service are to command the confidence of the public, they must be and must be seen to be independent of Government”.
That applies also, as the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said, to the views of the bereaved. They must have confidence in the coronial service if it is to perform its function. Dame Janet added:
“Although coroners investigate on behalf of the state, they might well reach verdicts and make recommendations unwelcome to Government”.
That point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Dame Janet went on to say that,
“it would no longer be satisfactory for the coroner service to be administered from within a Government Department”.
But that is precisely what the Government are now proposing.
There are many functions under this Bill which the Government are seeking to bring within the Ministry of Justice, of which the role of the chief coroner is just the latest. These roles can effectively be performed only by bodies that are independent and are seen to be independent. The man or woman from the ministry simply does not know best and cannot be seen to know best. This core principle is being trampled on by the Bill. I have great sympathy for the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, because the Government’s position in relation to the chief coroner is quite indefensible.
My Lords, I rise to speak briefly. Having supported my noble friend Lord McNally as loyally as I could last night, I find myself in a slightly more difficult position today. I really do think that we need some sensitive answers to the questions that have been raised in this debate. I have a peripheral historic interest in that when I was chair of the Council on Tribunals, late of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, I was consulted in the course of the review which started off the whole process of reforming coroners. There may have been some thought at that time of making the coroners’ court arrangements a tribunal. We have not gone down that path, but it leads me to what I want to say.
Whether it is a tribunal, a court or sui generis, it is essentially part of the judicial process. That is why I think that the key issues in the debate are those that were raised by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and a number of others, including the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about the need for independence. We are just seeing the full establishment of a Tribunals Service, part of whose merit was that it was led, for the first time, by a senior judge. We had the Lord Chief Justice as President of Tribunals, to whom the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, referred, and judicial leaders in different ways from all parts of the judicial system. Why is this being taken out and left to civil servants in the Ministry of Justice? I cannot see any answer to that question and, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Harris, with most of whose remarks I agree, I do not believe the Ministry of Justice could do it however much money and officials it has. It is an issue of principle.
I will not go quite as far as my noble friend Lord Lester and say that if the Government will not accept the amendment, I shall vote against them. However, if we are just given an intransigent response that says that we will not even take this away and look at it, I shall be in great difficulty.
We should be very grateful indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for raising this matter. We on this side of the Committee support her amendment because we think it is sensible and right. As the Minister, along with my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe, who took the Coroners and Justice Bill through this House, we understood clearly that reform was considered vital and not before time. The coronial system had failed to keep up with the demands of this century. There were flaws that were evident from the Shipman inquiry and other reviews. Both the inquiry and the reviews recommended a fundamental overhaul of the current arrangements and everyone agreed that reform was essential and urgently needed. After some time listening to evidence and considering the options, a consensus emerged and the Bill came to Parliament. The roles of the chief coroner and the chief medical adviser to the chief coroner sat at the heart of the reforms to which Parliament agreed. The chief coroner is intended to provide the necessary oversight, training and, above all, leadership for the coronial system and to be at the head of the appeal framework for people affected by the decisions that coroners make. While there was substantial debate in this House on many aspects of this part of the Bill, whether there should be a chief coroner or a chief medical adviser was, frankly, not an issue. Indeed, there was strong support on all sides of the House for these reforms.
The Government’s decision to abolish these positions came as a shock to all those involved in the coronial reforms. Considerable concern has been expressed by bereaved service families and those who have lost loved ones who have died in custody, and many noble Lords will have received correspondence from groups and individuals. On behalf of everyone, I thank those who have bothered to write to us, including the Royal British Legion—I declare an interest as an individual member—and the organisation INQUEST for making the issue clear to the House in considering the Bill.
It is worth putting on record what the distinguished director-general of the Royal British Legion said when hearing of the Government’s decision. He stated:
“We believe this decision would be a deep betrayal of bereaved Service families … The Legion campaigned long and hard as part of its campaign to honour the Military Covenant for reforms to the inquest process—to guarantee bereaved Service families a modern, thorough and transparent investigation”.
“The Chief Coroner’s Office and role are absolutely central to this”.
Will the Minister clarify whether it is really argued by the Government that people’s concerns, which are centred on having inquests that are fair and just, will be assuaged by taking in-house the role of the independent chief coroner? The argument that the responsibilities of the chief coroner can be taken inside the Ministry of Justice and somehow, at the same time, be perceived to be independent of government is, frankly, fatuous; it is a laughable argument. Coroners are intended to be judicial officers, independent of government and impartial. The leadership of these bodies obviously warrants similar independence. The public of course expect justice to be done, but also justice to be seen to be done. Indeed, it is for this reason that a distinguished judge had been appointed as the prospective chief coroner before the Government’s edict was announced.
There was a clear consensus about the role of the chief coroner and his team during the passage of the Bill and everyone looked forward to the start of the new framework in 2012—and now this. Surely, at the very least this proposal must leave a bad taste in the mouth; at the most, it is surely constitutionally inappropriate for important legislation, passed as recently as November 2009, having been through both Houses—a great amount of time was spent on it in this House—to be abolished by a mere affirmative order in council. That is what the House is being asked to approve today.
Why? It surely cannot be only a matter of costs. The noble Baroness skilfully took apart the alleged costs, as did the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in his contribution. Moreover, as I understand it, the Government have already made it clear that this Bill is not really about cost savings and the chief coroner comes well within the Maude test for public body reform. My noble friend Lord Harris referred to the charter for bereaved people. The Government say that it will survive, but the powers of the chief coroner were central to the satisfaction and comfort of people who had been bereaved. And now, if the Government have their way, there will be no chief coroner.
We all know that Governments of all colours sometimes latch on to a policy and will not come off it when it is obvious to the world and even to themselves that it is wrong. Indeed, the more sensible the criticisms, the more likely are the Government to stick to their guns. Sometimes it is the role of Parliament to step in and save Governments from their own macho tendencies. This is one of those occasions. We support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, because it is so obviously right and so obviously common sense.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken for expressing the Committee’s views so clearly. I thank particularly the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for putting the creation of the post of chief coroner in its historical and political context. Above all, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for tabling the amendment and giving the Committee the chance to debate this hugely important issue.
Throughout the passage of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the noble Baroness demonstrated her absolute commitment to improving the coronial system. Her amendment is another strong demonstration of that and provides a welcome opportunity for the Government to reaffirm their commitment to that same aim. I acknowledge that it seems counterintuitive for a Government to state on the one hand their commitment to improving the coronial system and, on the other, their plans to abolish the post of chief coroner. However, I reassure the Committee that when the detail of the Government’s proposals are examined it will be seen why in the current economic climate we have no choice but to abolish the office and transfer its key functions. It represents the best and most cost-effective option for realising many of the improvements that were envisaged in the creation of the post.
The noble Baroness and other noble Lords have given eloquent testimony as to some of the weaknesses of the current system. It is an analysis with which we agree, and we are absolutely committed to addressing those weaknesses. Paradoxical as it may first appear, that is precisely why we must abolish the office of chief coroner, thereby allowing the Government to transfer key functions away from an office which is currently unaffordable and facilitating genuine improvements to the coronial system. It is right that we should justify our doing this and, in bringing forward the amendment, the noble Baroness has acted as the Government’s conscience, but the debate has shown that a consensus exists about the need to improve the coronial system. I am grateful that the noble Baroness’s amendment has established such a consensus on reform within the Committee, and I would seek to be a part of it.
The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 envisaged these improvements being led by a chief coroner. The Government are not suggesting that this is necessarily a bad model, although we do not believe that it is the only one. For the chief coroner to have achieved these improvements would have required substantially new investment, as indicated by the noble Baroness herself, of some £10 million at start-up and £6.5 million each year thereafter. The Government are facing severe cutbacks, meaning that the office is not financially viable in the current economic climate. Let me reiterate that this is new funding and a significant amount of money that must be found. In the current environment, there is simply no prospect of that funding being available. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, asked about this. An experienced resource dealing with coroner’s policy exists within the Ministry of Justice. We accept that it means that some work, such as guidance, may take a little longer to produce without the dedicated resource provided by the office of chief coroner. The actual functions that we propose to take forward will be deliverable within the existing resource of the Ministry of Justice. It should be recognised that setting up a new office always entails costs that are not there when the existing resource is being used.
In conversations with noble Lords, I have been asked whether we should leave the chief coroner on the statute book until such time as funding was available. Indeed, that was a question that I asked myself when I first considered the issue. However, I can tell the Committee that this is not a viable option. Many of the improvements that we wish to make are vested in the office of the chief coroner. Therefore, if we want to make real improvements to the coronial system, it is absolutely necessary and right to transfer those functions to another body. The abolition of the office through the Public Bodies Bill does precisely this. Not to do so will prevent a number of improvements to the system. This amendment, leaving the role latent, would mean that the service would continue to operate with many of the same flaws that noble Lords have highlighted.
We have a good set of proposals to improve the coronial system and address those issues that noble Lords have raised. We will consult on a new charter for the bereaved in the new year. It will set out standards of service that coroners are expected to deliver to bereaved families and others, including the right to be kept informed and participate in the inquest process. The charter will also set out how people may complain if these services are not delivered.
I refer to comments made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It is worth noting that the only statutory guidance provided for in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was to be issued by the Lord Chancellor. That is the provision under which a charter will be produced, so it is not clear that this House felt that it was inappropriate for the Lord Chancellor to issue guidance.
I turn to the whole issue of judicial independence, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and many other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Bach. There is a suggestion that judicial independence is compromised by the involvement of the Ministry of Justice, but the chief coroner was envisaged to have a number of functions that included some of a judicial, leadership and administrative nature. Discussions are ongoing with the senior judiciary as to which functions of the chief coroner should be transferred to whom. The Government fully recognise that judicial independence and functions, including rule-making and deployment, are a matter for the judiciary and not necessarily for the Ministry of Justice. In the same way, discussions are also ongoing with the senior judiciary on whether cost-neutral judicial functions may be transferred from the chief coroner to another body. However, the key reason for not proceeding with the national leadership office remains that no additional resource is available to fund the office of chief coroner.
As my noble friend Lord Eccles pointed out, the chief coroner would have had few powers of direction and those he would have had we intend to take forward. I confirm that discussions with the senior judiciary about where these powers should reside are ongoing. The important leadership functions include: more efficient arrangements for the transfer of cases from one coroner to another; transferring inquests in the case of service personnel deaths overseas to Scotland—at present, as noble Lords will know, all such inquests must be heard in England and Wales—and any deaths overseas to Northern Ireland; the making of regulations about the training of coroners and their staff; and, the strengthening of statutory monitoring of coroners’ caseloads and backlogs, including the deaths of military personnel.
The main function of the chief coroner that will not be taken forward is that of a new appeals system. I know that a number of noble Lords have concerns about a lack of accountability and transparency in the absence of an appeals system operated by a chief coroner. In the current economic climate the costs are, I am afraid, not justifiable but it is important to note that people may still challenge the outcome of an inquest by judicial review and that an application to the High Court for a second inquest to be held can still be made by or with the authority of the Attorney-General. Complaints about the conduct of the coroner will continue to be made to the Office for Judicial Complaints.
My noble friend Lord Lester is greatly interested in the human rights implications of measures under the Bill and I respect him greatly. The coronial system has developed and will continue to be in compliance with human rights requirements, especially Article 2 on the involvement of the state in death. The absence of the chief coroner will not undermine this.
Perhaps I may return to a particular point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Findlay, when she questioned where the leadership might lie to look at public safety issues. Tackling public safety is delivered directly through reports from coroners to authorities, which can then take action to address problems. These rule 43 reports, as they are called, are sent to the Lord Chancellor, collated and published to promote public safety and they require a public response. The Act brings rule 43 from subordinate to primary legislation, promoting the importance of action to prevent other deaths.
I turn to my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. I thank her for referring to Section 16 of the new Act. That is in fact a provision requiring the chief coroner to report investigations not completed within 12 months, not an enforcement power.
The important changes that the Government want to take forward currently sit with the chief coroner and his office. In order for the functions that I have outlined to be taken forward in the most practical way, we must abolish the office of the chief coroner. With no prospect of funding to enable the position to function, this amendment will prevent the improvements to the coroner system by keeping the body on the statute books. Today’s debate has clearly demonstrated that we agree improvements are necessary. We consider that, given current financial restraints, taking this approach offers the best value for money for the public if we are to deliver significant improvements to bereaved families and other interested people. I have met—
I am grateful to the Minister. I am also grateful for the kind remarks that he has made about me personally, which are excessive, but would he accept that public expenditure problems are no justification for any undermining of the independence and effectiveness of the inquest system, whatever the cost, because we have international obligations to secure that? Does he also accept that that is the result we thought we were achieving during the last Parliament when we passed the Bill?
I thank my noble friend for that intervention. Nothing that I have said talks about the undermining of the inquest system; we are talking about enhancing it. We are seeking to improve the service. We recognise that it is currently inadequate, and we need to find mechanisms within the Government’s current financial restraints to take this matter forward.
I was just saying that yesterday I met Mr Chris Simpkins of the Royal British Legion. I said to him that I hoped that between now and Report we would have an opportunity for further discussions about this proposal, and I say the same to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who referred to the discussions that we have had on the proposal in the Bill. I think that noble Lords will understand that it is likely to take some time. We know that the Ministry of Justice has plans and proposals to bring forward in connection with the coronial service. This is an opportunity for the Ministry to demonstrate its determination to deliver what it is talking of.
The Minister mentioned a figure of £10 million that would be required to set up the office of the chief coroner. Has the Ministry of Justice consulted with the judge who was to be appointed as chief coroner about whether he thinks that he could perform a useful role with the amount of money that is available? I say “is available” because many of these functions are to be performed, so we are to be told, from within the Ministry of Justice, which obviously will cost additional funds.
I cannot reassure the noble Lord on precisely that point because I do not know whether the question of the budget has been discussed in detail. I can say that the whole question of the continuation of the responsibilities vested in the chief coroner have been discussed with the distinguished judge appointed to the post.
I was about to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay—if I may, I shall say it now—that I hope she will consider withdrawing her amendment so that we can indeed return to this issue on Report, having had the opportunity to continue these discussions.
I do not want to go beyond my brief but I know the answer to that question. The Lord Chief Justice is in discussions with the Ministry of Justice, and the proposal is that regulations would be issued under the auspices of the Lord Chief Justice in order to require coroners to train and maintain a training and professional skill base, which, I think that we in the Committee all agree, is extremely variable at present. The best should not be an exception; they should be the rule. That is the process that the senior judiciary are currently discussing with the MoJ.
Before my noble friend sits down, I would like to get this clear. Is it right that the Government’s proposal is not that officials in the Ministry of Justice should take the place of the chief coroner if the chief coroner’s position is removed but that the judicial role of the chief coroner, as was proposed in the Coroners and Justice Act, will in fact be discharged, after discussion with the senior judiciary, by an existing member of the independent judiciary? Is it right that the instructions or guidance given to coroners will be given under the statutory provisions of the Coroners and Justice Act? Am I right that there is no question of the judicial functions of the chief coroner, so far as they were provided for, being discharged by Ministry officials and that, rather, they will be discharged by the judiciary that is presently independent? Am I right in thinking that from time to time coroners’ functions are performed at present by members of the judiciary? I think that one of the most important functions is performed at the moment by a senior judge of the Court of Appeal.
I thank my noble and learned friend for that question. It gives me the opportunity to make it clear that to the extent that the chief coroner’s functions are judicial, they will be carried out through direction from the Lord Chief Justice, not the Ministry of Justice. Therefore, the independence of the judiciary in respect of the coronial service is preserved.
My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in support of this amendment. However, I fear that we cannot throw away in 109 minutes—we have two to go—what we have waited 109 years for, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said.
The Coroners and Justice Act was duly taken through Parliament; we all miss Lord Kingsland, who led on the Bill from the then Conservative opposition Benches—now they are the coalition Government. I appreciate the Minister’s response, but I am not convinced. I remain convinced that we need leadership; we cannot betray the bereaved, particularly where people have died on active service for this country. There must be complete independence and there must be consistency among coroners. As for judicial review, I just do not know how people can afford it. That is why there are not more of them taking place—people would have to sell their house to go for it.
As we come up to 109 minutes of debate, after 109 years, I beg to test the opinion of the Committee.
Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2010
Motion to Approve
My Lords, I will speak also to the second Motion in my name, on the higher amount, to the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and to the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I will explain why the House should not support either the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, or the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria.
The subject that we are considering has aroused strong feelings. I will talk about the package of measures that the coalition Government are proposing, but will start by describing factually the Motions before the House. The Higher Education Act 2004 allowed publicly funded higher education institutions to charge for their tuition costs, subject to conditions. It created the concept of a basic amount and a higher amount for these charges; there are effectively two caps, a basic cap and a higher cap. Any higher education institution can charge below the basic amount, and the Act sets no conditions for this. An institution that wishes to charge above the basic amount can do so only if it has first agreed an access plan with the Director of Fair Access. No publicly funded institution can charge above the higher amount.
More than six years after the Act was passed, the Motions before the House today propose increases to the basic amount and to the higher amount. For the basic amount, the proposed figure is £6,000; for the higher amount, it is £9,000. The basic amount of £6,000 is not a minimum figure; it is a cap, beyond which any institution looking to charge more requires an access agreement. There is nothing to stop any provider of higher education charging less. I should also explain how this translates into the Motions on the Order Paper today.
Changes to the basic cap on tuition charges, set at £1,200 by the 2004 Act, can be made by statutory instrument subject to an affirmative resolution. A Motion to approve draft regulations raising the basic amount is therefore the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper today.
The amendment to my first Motion, tabled late yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, would, if carried, prevent the regulations being approved and is consequently fatal. I should remind the House what fatal means. There is absolutely no mechanism for the Commons to address or put right a defeat in these circumstances, and accepting one or both of the noble Lord’s amendments would therefore, in practice, be a veto. There is no ping-pong in this case.
During the passage of the Higher Education Act 2004, concern was expressed in this House and in another place about the arrangements for increasing the higher level for tuition charges. There was concern that Ministers should not be able to make new regulations, setting new higher levels, without a debate on the Floor of both Houses. The solution agreed is set out in Section 26 of that Act. Regulations that would increase the higher level can be made only if both Houses have previously passed a resolution specifying what the new higher level should be and the date from which it applies. Only once that resolution has been passed can regulations be made to increase the higher level to that amount.
A resolution under Section 24 of the Higher Education Act 2004 raising the higher amount is therefore the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper today. I should stress that the amendment to my second Motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, is also fatal. If the amendment were carried, my resolution would no longer meet the requirements of the Higher Education Act 2004. My two Motions, which have been approved in similar terms by another place, are part of a package and they are linked.
The Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, is a free-standing resolution. Although it will be debated alongside my two Motions and the amendments thereto, it will be decided separately and independently at the end of our debate if the noble Lord decides to move it. The Motion calls on the Government not to implement increases in the higher level or basic level in 2012. The Government believe that that course of action would damage our higher education system, and I will consequently be urging the House not to support the noble Lord’s Motion.
The backdrop to our proposals is the huge fiscal deficit that we inherited. We can no longer ask the taxpayer to continue the current level of higher education funding. In tackling that deficit, we want to maintain a high-quality university sector that is more responsive to the needs of students and is underpinned by a progressive system of graduate contributions.
We have carefully studied the independent review of higher education funding and student finance undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Madingley, who reported in October after months of consultation. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for that report, in which he made a powerful case for reform. We have also listened to representations from universities, students and parents. I cannot accept the suggestion that appears in the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, that there has not been enough discussion of these issues.
In essence, we are changing the way that funding flows to our universities and colleges. From 2012-13, we will start to reduce the amount of funding that we provide to the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support university courses. This is in line with our announcements in the October spending review. The council will still get funding for the highest-cost subjects and for those that are strategically important and vulnerable.
We are correspondingly increasing the public money that we will make available as loans for students who want to attend higher education. In all, we do not expect the overall income of the higher education sector to reduce. We are also maintaining, in cash terms, our spending on the science budget with resource spending of £4.6 billion a year by 2014-15.
The regulations and resolution that we are proposing today enable those universities and colleges that can attract students to get the funding that they need to offer high-quality teaching. Universities will decide what charges they make for which of their courses. They will need to estimate the value that students place on what they are offering and adjust their charges accordingly. We believe that having to consider carefully what potential students want and need will benefit universities as well as students. Crucially, no full-time undergraduate student studying for their first degree will need to pay any of their tuition costs up front. The tuition loans from the public purse will not be means-tested and will cover the full costs of the courses. We will, for the first time, be giving part-time undergraduate students a similar entitlement to tuition loans as full-time students, on a pro rata basis. Following representations from universities with large numbers of part-time students, we are extending the entitlement to tuition loans to students studying for at least one-quarter of their time, rather than one-third of their time as was originally proposed.
A core part of our proposals are the repayment arrangements, which are a significant improvement on the current situation. We have already promised to increase the repayment threshold—the income at which graduates start to repay their contribution—from the current £15,000 a year to £21,000 in 2016. Raising the threshold reduces the monthly repayments for every single graduate. That £15,000 threshold figure was introduced by the previous Government as part of their 2004 Higher Education Act changes. It has never been uprated. We propose to uprate it annually from 2012 by RPI, subject to discussions with the devolved Administrations. From 2016, when the £21,000 figure starts to apply, we will uprate not by inflation but annually by earnings. Therefore, students who enter higher education in 2012 or beyond and complete a three-year degree can know that they will not suffer if they do not get high-paid jobs. That cost will be carried by the public purse.
The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, call for an impact assessment of the effect on students. We have published an equality impact assessment, and bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies have also examined our proposals. We estimate that around a quarter of graduates will be better off under this regime than under the present regime. We know that, for example, women taking time out to bring up a family will not need to repay their graduate contribution if they are not earning £21,000. They, in particular, are likely to benefit from any outstanding graduate contribution being written off after 30 years. On the other hand, graduates who earn the higher salaries will be paying back more. That is a progressive system. Those who benefit the most from their higher education pay back the most.
We have been asked what safeguards there will be against all universities simply charging £9,000, just as they all charged £3,000 in 2006. The first difference from 2006 is that we are empowering the student and not simply giving extra money to the university. Under our proposal, universities and colleges that cannot attract students will immediately lose money and will have to change their approach, so they will have to think very carefully about the value for money of their offer to a potential student. Secondly, and also different from 2006, we are toughening the access plan requirements enforced by the director of the Office for Fair Access. In 2006 some institutions levied the maximum possible charge and gave blanket, untargeted bursaries to almost all their students. They were giving discounts on their published charges at public expense. That gave a spurious impression of uniform charging across higher education.
We are now asking the director of OFFA not to approve this sort of proposal. In 2006, the Government required access plans to be renewed every five years. Under our proposals, they will have to be renewed each year, so there will be a hard and regular look at what institutions are doing under their access agreements. If a university or college does not do what it has promised, the director can refuse to renew its agreement the following year. But we know that there is still a problem in securing fair access to some universities. Institutional bursaries by themselves have not worked. Instead, we want universities to concentrate on improving their outreach work with schools and colleges, and to support our new £150-million national scholarship programme—for instance, by universities offering a second year’s free tuition to the most disadvantaged students. A national programme of that type will provide a more visible and understandable offer than institutional bursaries to potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Secretary of State has published, on his department’s website, the draft letter of guidance that he envisages writing to the Director of Fair Access. This sets out in more detail the way that we expect the access plan arrangements to work. He has said he will listen to comments before finalising that letter in early January.
The regulations and resolution being considered today form only part of our higher education proposals, but they are an urgent part.
There are two Motions. The second one is not secondary legislation at all, but it is a Motion that we have to pass under the 2004 Act, which the noble Lord’s Government passed. As I explained, they passed the concept of the Motion, because there was a concern both in this House and in another place, where I think that the noble Lord was at the time, about proposals for increasing fees. That is the proposal before us and that is why we are discussing it.
As I was making clear before I was interrupted by the noble Lord, the regulations and the resolution form only part of our higher education proposals, but they are an urgent part. We bring them forward today because students, their families, and universities all need to know what the arrangements will be from the 2012-13 academic year. The fatal amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, would put a halt to that, while the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, asks us to delay, but these decisions are needed now. We also plan to issue a White Paper early in 2011, to deal with the equally important but less urgent higher education questions. As I said, today’s proposals are part of a progressive package that will put higher education on a stronger footing for the future, and I commend them to the House. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
Leave out from “that” to the end and insert: “this House regrets that the Government has failed to consult adequately with parents, students, higher education bodies, employers and local authorities on raising student tuition fees and to convince many people of the fairness and sustainability of its proposals for funding higher education; urges the Government to undertake more public consultation on the issue, including consultation with future graduates and their families who did not contribute to the consultation over the Browne review; further considers that there should be an independent impact assessment on (a) the financial consequences of the proposed fees on students from both lower and middle income families, and (b) the financial consequences of the proposed fees on women, including a full assessment of the impact of the fees on equalities and fairness, and further calls on Her Majesty’s Government to commission new research to analyse the probable impact on demand for university courses of fees being increased to the range of £6,000 to £9,000 per annum from students from lower and middle income families and women; and further considers that, prior to contemplating any increase to the basic amount specified in section 24 of the Education Act 2004, the Government should publish a White Paper on reform of higher education funding, allowing for consultation and for consideration of alternative proposals”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for his clarity on the Government's propositions. We have not heard them put with that level of clarity before. It is unfortunate but necessary to move the amendments to the regulation and the resolution which follows it. Like the noble Lord, I will do so in one speech; I think that that will be welcomed by the House.
The consequences for the future of higher education policy and the damage which we believe that the Government's proposals will do cannot go unchallenged. The House has heard before my declarations of non-remunerated interests: fellowships at Cambridge and Warwick universities and at the LSE. I should add that I also served—and met a number of noble Lords on the other side of the House as education Ministers—as the general secretary of the Association of University Teachers. My regret about today's circumstances flows above all from a long connection with, and even a great love of, the United Kingdom's higher education system. I know that that is true for a great many of your Lordships, who have had at least the same contact or feel the same contact. I take no pleasure in this at all. None the less, I hope to persuade the House that what we are saying is vital.
It has been put to the side of the Chamber on various occasions that the Government’s proposals flow from the report of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, commissioned by a Labour Government. As we all know, commissioning a report does not imply agreeing with it. Indeed, I hope that I will be able to demonstrate that it was commissioned in circumstances so different from those obtaining today that we, as a House of Parliament, would be foolish not to consider whether it is today right for our universities.
May I also be clear—as clear as I can be—about what this regulation and resolution together do? It is no ordinary proposal. It is not simply an adjustment of fee levels. This proposal is the game changer. Of all the issues raised, but never fully or properly discussed in the past six weeks, this proposal changes everything. It is the most profound of the policy proposals. It doubles the starting threshold fee for students and trebles the basic student fee, with only sketchy conditions to be met. The House will not need to be reminded that no student will pay upfront—that is not a new provision —or that repayment starts at a higher level of income, which I welcome, of over £21,000 per year, but that repayment will also occur at an additional rate of 9 per cent of income and will attract an increasing, sliding rate of interest which, at the top, is 3 per cent above RPI.
The House will know that it has been pleaded in aid that there are some compensating factors said to lessen the blow to students. If a student’s parents are out of work and the student has received free school meals—that is, fortunately, a very small group in our society—there may be a fee-free period for the student to study paid for, by the way, by other students whose parents had been in work but who, nonetheless, may not have any considerable salary to dispose of. The increase in maintenance grants for lower-income students, consistently described by the Government as generous, in fact amounts to £6.70 per week. The compensating factors may give comfort to some people whose consciences may be pricking and who will, perhaps, still support the proposals today, although I hope they will not, but I would have had a sizeable bet a year ago that they would have described these arrangements as parsimonious.
Stripped back to the realities, this is a 200 per cent starting fee hike and, for most, it will be 300 per cent increase. It will, in all probability, result across the board in about a 300 per cent increase in student debt. The independent Higher Education Policy Institute predicts that £9,000 will be “the going rate” because universities must charge “all that they can”. Indeed, since these proposals are joined at the hip with an 80 per cent cut in the teaching unit of resource—90 per cent in universities without significant medical or engineering departments—the cut has imposed an average of £7,500 per student per year in university teaching income. Any institution charging less than that will lose money on teaching when compared with its current position. These are not proposals about gaining administrative efficiency in a university or unwarranted overheads that we should all properly address; they are an attack on high-quality teaching in our universities, which is a central function of our universities. That is quite simply what they are. One vice-chancellor, urging me to vote for the increases today—and I shall not—has written saying:
“The nightmare scenario would be the retention of the cuts but no means of restoring the balance through the higher tuition fees and the modified graduate tax that the Government is proposing”.
When the Government plead in aid the support of some vice-chancellors for these measures, let us, at least in this House, be candid. It is Hobson’s choice. They feel compelled to get the students to pay privately the sums that have been cut by the Government on a scale and at a rate that no other country has contemplated. Judging from my mailbox, and I cannot believe that it is particularly different from the mailboxes of others in this House, no other higher education system believes we are sane. Nobody else would contemplate introducing so blatant a division between the rich and the poorer.
I said, I think advisedly, that this is game changing. This afternoon’s decision will switch the concept of universities from being a public good, as they have always been in modern history and as they were rightly described by my noble friends Lord Giddens and Lady Blackstone on 22 October, to, in essence, a private-sector market that is driven by personal-private investment. Noble Lords might like that, or they might hate it—I am in the latter camp. Some might want to advocate it, some might want to fight it, but everyone must acknowledge that, as a concept for our universities, it has never once been debated and analysed in this House. Everyone must also acknowledge that we cannot have a monumental change of that kind on which the House has never focused.
I have suggested that the noble Lord, Lord Browne, may have intended this outcome. Perhaps he discussed it in private meetings with Cross-Benchers, but I have not had the benefit of any such luxury. Let us turn to what has happened in your Lordships' House. I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, three times in a month a question that is fundamental to the candour with which the Government treat the House. Did the noble Lord know in advance the scale of the government cuts for which his report has come to provide an alternative source of private money? If he did, he must have intended to make our universities private in so many crucial respects of their lives. However, as I say, we have never debated that or that outcome. If he did not, his plan must have been to grow university resources and the opportunities that universities provide, and then we would have a wholly different discussion. I hope that the latter is true.
For those who are intrigued by the concept of the big society, this is of real consequence. Is this a strategy of building resources that would have spoken to greater inclusiveness, breaking down individual barriers to what people can achieve for themselves, their families and their communities and building their personal capacity for the greater good? Is it a strategy of building resource that would have spoken to a policy of growth in our economy, investing in the excellence that fuels an advanced economy, generating great science and great engineering and renewing its arts, its culture, its creativity, its understanding of the social realm of life, and building the next generation of high-spec manufacturing that we all crave for our country? That would at least have been compatible with the growth White Paper. I had thought that these were the lodestones of government thinking, but obviously not.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, said that the cuts were intended irrespective of the circumstances which the Government describe and with which I disagree, and then clung to what the report by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, had said: that this was simply the strategy to raise the money that had gone by another route. This is the strategy of replacing money from the Exchequer with money from students’ pockets. It is, straightforwardly, the undeclared privatisation of universities. It has nothing to do with strengthening our universities as a vital national resource. Will it achieve the policy objectives that are set out in such detail in nearly 122 words in the Explanatory Memorandum, because that appears to count as policy these days? Who knows whether it will? We have not debated it. I doubt it. Will the trebling of debt increase social mobility, a fundamental of the big society? Hardly. Will the policy take account of student debt? Self-evidently, that is the least of the considerations. Will it ensure a properly funded university sector? Only if you can survive an 80 per cent cut and you do not care too much about non-core subjects at the heart of the United Kingdom’s culture. Will it improve teaching quality and advance scholarship? No authoritative body in higher education anywhere in the world anticipates that outcome from these proposals. Students may become customers in this system, but I tell noble Lords this: it will not give them the power to walk around switching providers as often as they feel dissatisfied—it is not that kind of supermarket. Will it attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds? There are no first-class honours for getting that answer right; there is no prayer of it.
Let me return to the position of those from lower-income families. The raising of the repayment threshold may help, albeit to a limited extent. What we lack is an answer to the question that I asked three times—and it is an answer for the House, not just for me: where is the specific research on the appetite for debt in these poorer families? It is the question which my noble friend Lady Kennedy asked so eloquently in late October. No impact research on this is provided. I honestly do not believe that the Government know how to find this out. With respect, there may be too little experience here of growing up in a poor community, too little experience of places in which even the small-ticket items have to be bought on the never never and there is always some neighbour in your street facing repossession. People in these circumstances hate debt. You suffer it, but you do not embrace it. Big debt is as welcome as a broken leg. Of course some people may have a wealthier future, perhaps to achieve a fruitful and professional life, but overall I cannot believe that many people in this position will consider a future with major debt alongside their aspirations to own their home and to better their own family, and then face a tax rate for their working lives plus 9 per cent. Goodness knows what the position will be of those who decide to enter higher education but who drop out without even a degree and the chance of additional earnings.
In past discussions on Statements, these questions have been asked repeatedly of Ministers right across the House. I ask noble Lords seriously to judge for themselves what light is shed in the background papers. The honest answer is just about none. I have been concerned about middle class, middle income families because they are ineligible for any of the very modest compensating factors. Again, I asked three times about the impact on them. What is the probable length of their debt repayment? How does it compare with a period of repayment that is available to the wealthiest families? Will it be fair? The answer might lie with the ready reckoner that has been provided, if anyone in the House can make sense of it. Incidentally, if anyone wants to volunteer for that, I will nominate them for the Fields medal for mathematics. It is unintelligible and it does not answer these points. These families are entitled to little or no relief, and they will probably pay the higher rate all their working lives. They will certainly pay it when their own children embark on a university course of study, repeating the cycle of debt. They will never be in the position of wealthier families who can pay it up front, perhaps in much the same way in which people pay public school fees. We are entitled to detailed information on this, and it has not been provided.
And so to the impact on those who are most likely to experience career breaks: mainly, but not exclusively, women. Where is the full study of their repayment profile? Where is the basis for a judgment on whether these proposals are discriminatory? I sought this information three times, and my heart leapt when I saw a link to the statutory equality duties impact test in the supporting papers. Would this finally be an answer to the question? There are days when I regret that we cannot use visual materials in debates in the House. I have the test here in my hand. It just says that you should make an impact assessment and that this,
“relates to policies of the previous government and may not be up to date”.
The test, which is apparently now redundant, is available, but no evidence is available. The success criteria in the document outline the achievement of policy objectives but say not a word about overcoming this potential source of discrimination. If any of this is a sustained commitment to fairness, I am at loss to see how. I know very well that no one on the Front Benches of the previous Government would have tolerated a lack of evidence of this kind as a base for so fundamental a change in policy, much less one to transform our most cherished institutions: the universities.
The whole vacant space of real evidence is capped by the missing cornerstone of any market analysis alongside the policy. Will the pricing attract more students, sustain current numbers, or diminish numbers? Is the demand for university places wholly inelastic or not? Could you charge whatever you wanted without affecting demand?
I know that there are many successful business people in this Chamber and I make one assertion about each and every one of them: no one, no sane person, would wholly disregard price as a critical factor when trying to compute demand. No one would operate without market intelligence on price. Anyone today asking this House to invest in “student fees 300 per-cent-up shares” or “student debt-for-life shares” would ask whether there is basic information on what is likely to happy in the marketplace. It does not exist.
Certainly, there is evidence out there. The inestimable Sutton Trust, on which many of us have frequently relied for excellent, objective analysis, has concluded that there will be a significant decline in demand because of pricing. Peter Lampl describes the proposals of high fees and deep cuts as toxic and rash, as going far too fast and as going much too far. The Higher Education Policy Institute, on which many of us have relied for depth and independence of study over a long period, concludes that a £9,000 fee,
“would reduce demand for HE by about seven percentage points … There must be a prospect that some students will baulk at paying a fee of up to £9,000 for a course that is likely to lead to rather uncertain financial benefits”.
So I put it bluntly: this proposal lacks the rudimentary science on which policy should be based. The Government invite you—no more or less—to lick your finger and to put it in the air and see whether you like the feel of the breeze. If, as seems wholly likely, you get it wrong, the damage is done for ever. It is unacceptable.
The House Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee could have hardly written more coolly about these proposals. It commends that we should consider the Government’s assumption that student numbers will not change as a result of the proposals and consider whether the Government have made an assessment in the light of the submissions made to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, of the possible consequences of a rise in personal debt for society at large and what the real impact will be on social mobility. Clearly, the committee cannot have discovered the answers any more than I believe we have. In this light, a full, independent study is sought by these amendments—nothing less—because that is the information on which we should make policy. It should not be made on guesswork and hoping that it turns out all right. There should be no guesswork about the future of our universities and students.
Then the committee turned to process and timing. What are the reasons for bringing forward the package now when on the timetable we could work it out and reach consensus so long as we do it by 2012? It has asked us to examine the robustness of policy development, the process behind this instrument, which is as damning a question as could possibly be asked.
My concluding argument is that, by insisting on an amendment to the original Labour legislation introducing fees—Section 28 to which the noble Lord referred in his opening speech—this House insisted that it, as well as the Commons, had the right to vote on the decisions. The case was made by some of those in the coalition who I see sitting on the Benches opposite. With an inbuilt government majority, it said, in another place, once introduced, any harsh Administration might come along and raise sharply the fees to the detriment of students. It sought and won the right to have a decision taken here, because in the past no one party could dominate this place and consequently get a decision at will.
It is right that the option is sought today and agreed, because it was agreed in primary legislation in the 2004 Act. On the grounds that the Act put it into primary legislation that that right existed for this House, it cannot be objected to. The House of Commons gave its assent to that very arrangement. It cannot be wrong then to exercise the power that you sought and you achieved.
So we do, but what a decision. I have emphasised the times when we sought and failed to get answers to the fundamentals. When I asked about the Government’s response to the game-changing shift signalled in the Statements we heard repeated in October by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, the noble Baroness told us that in order to understand the policy, we must wait for the White Paper. I was disappointed, but I understood the point. When replying to the major debate on 27 October, addressing the same issues, the Minister said:
“I welcome the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, but I am sure that he will understand that I cannot pre-empt the Government's full response, which will be announced shortly”.—[Official Report, 27/10/10; col. 1302.]
That was referencing the much heralded White Paper. I was again disappointed but I can appreciate that Governments do not start with decisive legislation before they have set out their thinking in a Green Paper and/or White Paper. The White Paper is still to be produced.
Now, alongside the absence of evidence on which noble Lords are asked to take these decisions, we have an astonishing reversal of what any of us might think was the right way to treat Parliament. We now have the game-changing legislation as the first step, to be followed by the White Paper. Who knows, as we discuss that policy, we may on that occasion be promised a Green Paper and we might then, I suppose, be promised some form of consultation before that.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, said that this was all part of the Government’s proposals. Noble Lords have been given a jigsaw—
I sense that the noble Lord is coming to the end of his speech. Indeed, he has made a powerful case to the House, as he always does. To what extent that turns out to be a cogent case will be seen no doubt in the debate which follows. He asked for fundamentals. Perhaps I may ask him to address this one: is it not the case that the Labour Party acknowledged before the general election that there would be a sharp shortfall in the basic funds provided to universities? If not by these means, by what means would the Labour Party fill this gap?
A question has been asked and it is right to hear the whole of the answer. It was never contemplated at these kinds of levels. In general, it has been felt that, like all other countries which make a significant and major contribution to the education of their university undergraduates, that responsibility should continue to fall to the state because universities are emanations of the state and not supermarkets.
Mr Vince Cable in another place said that he was proud of the legislation. I think he said that a couple of days after he said that he might abstain on it, and then decided that he would vote for it. I do not know what constitutes pride in a piece of education legislation. I am sure that the 1944 Act must have been thought by those who introduced it—Lord Butler certainly—to be legislation to be proud of. The Education Reform Act 1988 steered through by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, would have been legislation of such sweeping importance that people would have been proud of it. But I wonder whether history will look on a sequence of tripling fees, cutting the EMA, and stopping funding for the arts, culture, studies of society and many things which we think are fundamental to the quality of our life in this country as being the great reforming moments of an education process of which anyone should be proud.
The noble Lord’s leader described those who oppose or, in his view, do not understand the proposals of the Government as dreamers. I do not think that people out there should be insulted in that way. Dreamers often are not people with their heads in the clouds; they are people who have an aspiration. They want opportunities in higher education and they want to be included, not excluded. I hope that the House will support the amendments, most of all because I believe that the House will want to demand the right to decide the policy by the means cherished in Parliaments over the decades, and then decide how to implement the policy, and not do it by a blind guess.
My Lords, a little over two months ago, I published a report outlining a sustainable way forward for higher education funding. Our conclusions are now generally well known, and I have expounded upon them in detail in your Lordships’ House on a previous occasion. Today, I will speak as directly as I can on the narrower issue of raising tuition charges, but I do not wish to mislead your Lordships that the argument rests there. The Government have accepted many of our proposals and have made a strong argument for tackling tuition charges first to ensure certainty for students and universities. Let me be clear that, although the Government’s proposals for higher charges deviate in some important ways from our own, I will support the government Motion today.
Under our system, we recommended removing the fee cap and introducing a levy mechanism that would kick in at £6,000 to ensure that institutions shared the cost of supporting their students; the Government’s proposals are for two caps—a basic cap of £6,000 and a higher cap of £9,000 for institutions that agree to tougher standards on access and widening participation. While I remain a supporter of our proposals, the Government’s plan replicates the benefits of our approach in some important ways by allowing institutions to gain increased access to private sources of finance at a time of necessary fiscal austerity, by enforcing different behaviour for institutions charging higher fees and by allowing the Treasury to budget accurately for the cost of student loans. Those are powerful arguments in favour of passing today’s Motion.
Higher charges are just one part of the proposed system, as the overarching philosophy of our report was guided by three distinct but related principles: quality, participation and sustainability. I want to outline very briefly how tuition charges fit into our approach to those three important principles. On quality, we recommended lifting the cap not only on tuition charges but on the number of students admitted to individual courses. That is a critical element of our reform package. We cannot expect institutions to change unless we first allow them to change. The panel’s view was that students, as the people who experience higher education, are best equipped to judge its quality. Allowing institutions to grow, expand and adapt according to student needs will be critical to ensuring that our universities remain the best in the world.
On participation, the panel was keen to ensure that no student felt compelled to avoid higher education for financial reasons. We should begin by drawing a distinction between tuition charges, which are paid back after graduation, and living costs, which must be paid during study. The evidence that we received was very clear that, for poorer students, having adequate cash in hand for living costs makes a big difference to whether they feel able to participate in higher education. However, on tuition charges, the panel received no evidence that higher fees have so far had an impact on participation. Most likely that is because education remains free at the point of access. We determined to maintain that important principle. That is why we recommended that all students continue to receive generous loans to cover their tuition costs. That is also why we recommended that loans be extended for the first time to the 40 per cent of students who choose to study part-time. As for the repayment of loans, we wanted to make the system much more progressive than it is at present. By increasing the graduate repayment threshold to £21,000, and raising it annually in line with earnings, that is exactly what will be achieved.
Turning to the final principle of sustainability, we wanted to create a system that could evolve organically rather than by painful contractions every five years or so. Our system—I stress again that it is a system—would achieve that by putting students very firmly in control of shaping the university landscape. Their choices would become the key variables to which everything else would respond. However, for that to work, the concept of student choice must be supported by the practical measures that bring it to life. School pupils must receive adequate information, advice and guidance from the age of 13 to ensure that they fully comprehend their choices. We recommended that money be set aside to create a professional career service for exactly that purpose. We recommended that all universities develop student charters to spell out what students will receive in return for their investment. We also recommended that a new, independent regulator be created to target funding on expensive subjects and to ensure that students can continue their studies in the rare event of institutional failure.
I hope that it is clear that what we have presented is not just a series of recommendations but a systematic approach to reform—a system in which the pieces fit together for a reason. Today we are debating the question of tuition charges, but soon we will be back to discuss the further elements of reform. I believe that these reforms are essential for this nation to maintain its hard won pre-eminence in higher education, and I therefore strongly support this step.
My Lords, the human tendency since time immemorial is for us often to take things for granted. I do not think that we stand back and appreciate enough how excellent the higher education sector in this country is. We always punch above our weight. The benchmark for excellence in higher education is the United States, yet as a country six times smaller, we consistently produce four or five of the top 10 universities in the world, the others being American. Again, I do not think it is highlighted enough that the United States spends as a proportion of GDP nearly three times as much on higher education as we do, almost 3 per cent versus 1.1 per cent. What is more, government expenditure in the United States is 1.2 per cent of GDP, higher than our combined expenditure on higher education, both public and private.
There is no question but that we need to increase overall expenditure on higher education. The ideal situation is when we get to the same place as the United States, where two-thirds of the provision is private and one-third comes from government. The two-thirds provision should come from student fees, benefaction, endowments, scholarships and sponsorships. In this light, my noble friend Lord Browne was asked how we could improve higher education. So much of his report is good and there are many excellent suggestions, but instead of moving towards what I have just outlined, the cat was let out of the bag in the last sentence of his report. It states:
“These measures create the potential to allow the numbers of student places to increase by 10% and enhance support for living costs while still allowing public spending reductions to be made”.
Here we are, on the one hand with the Government actually proposing to cut teaching support by 80 per cent to try to save £3 billion over four years, and on the other hand by almost tripling tuition fees in one go in 2012.
We all know that the finances in this country are in a dire position. We all know that cuts need to be made, and we all know that public expenditure is far too high as a proportion of our GDP. But to get out of this predicament, we do not necessarily just have to make cuts; we also have to grow as an economy, and to do this we need the elements of our economy that are our unique selling proposition—our core competences—and there is no better example than our higher education sector.
There are cuts and there is carpet bombing. We need to be selective and to cut effectively by pinpointing. There are big-ticket items where billions can be saved, such as inefficiencies and administrative savings in the NHS. It is possible that tens of billions could be saved. The Department for Work and Pensions budget is nearly £200 billion. That is where big savings can be made. But to try and save £3 billion in an area where we are the best of the best in the world, and in such a blunt way, does not make sense.
This is combined with an immigration cap. Every day I hear from businesses that say that they are hurting because of the immigration cap. I hear every day from our higher education sector, where 10 per cent of our academics are foreign and where it is estimated that foreign students bring up to £8 billion of direct and indirect income into this country. We must learn that when the United States clamped down on immigration, it lost out; we benefitted. We have competition—10 EU countries spend more on higher education as a percentage of GDP than we do.
The higher education sector has been hit from both sides. If the Government were proposing to maintain their spending on higher education and to raise tuition fees, that would be another case altogether; but the Government are trying to have their cake and eat it too, and this has caused a great deal of grief and upset across the country. None of us approves of the violence that is taking place in the protests—it does not help anyone’s cause—but the vast majority of the country sympathise with those students who will have to suddenly pay up to three times more for their higher education.
The impression is, I understand, that the cuts in the CSR budget are a fait accompli—that is it; they are irreversible; we cannot change them. What would we say if tomorrow, suddenly, we had to pay three times the amount for our petrol or for our rent? Noble Lords should consider how hard it will be for students who have no tradition of university in their families to convince their families that it is right for them to move to a future guaranteed with debt. Are we really encouraging our nation to have young people moving forward to live their lives with a noose of debt tied around their necks for 30 years?
We need to increase fees, but to do it so drastically and all in one go is too much. We need to move towards the American model of a more balanced approach to higher education funding, which puts more power in the hands of the students to create a world market, but we need to do so gradually; we need to phase it in over a period of years—whether that be three years or five years. The way we are going, it is inevitable that some of our universities will break away from government funding altogether and become completely private, as many American universities are. However, again, this move will happen gradually and will be carefully considered.
This is all being rushed through. As the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, said, we have not had the chance to consider and debate White Papers—and haste makes waste. It is only a few years since we moved to a system where £3,000 fees and loans were put in place—in fact, there are some medical students who have not yet completed their five-year courses through that system. Most of us here have benefited from free higher education in this country. The concept of students paying fees and taking on loans was a step change; however, what is now proposed is a step too far. We should increase in small steps and build towards where the report of my noble friend Lord Browne recommends we should go.
As has been pointed out, this is especially so when our country and our economy are in a fragile situation, where global uncertainty still abounds. This is not a time for sledgehammers; it is a time to nurture, care for and protect our country’s most competitive advantage, not destabilise and disrupt it. Quite frankly, in the bigger picture we are being penny wise and pound foolish.
Over the past decade our higher education industry has moved in the right direction of benefaction, with Cambridge University raising more than £1 billion and with Oxford following suit. With other universities trying to raise their own income streams—Thames Valley University, where I was chancellor for five years, has appointed a director of development—we are moving in the right direction, but we need to time to nurture it. Fifty years ago, 5 per cent of school leavers in this country went to university; today it is 45 per cent.
What the Government are trying to do now has opened up a whole host of questions. People are questioning the purpose of higher education, the use of our degrees and the quality of our institutions. They are asking why the majority of people who do not go to university should pay for those who go to university—why we should subsidise them. These debates have gone on and will go on for ever, but the bottom line is that higher education is a crucial part of the foundation of our economy which benefits not only those who go to university but the whole of society and the whole of the country.
As a country we do not have large tracts of land or large natural resources like Canada, Australia, Russia and the United States; all we have is our people, our brains and our capability. These are driven by our high-class, world-beating higher education institutions and I beg the Government not to throw the baby out with the bath-water. As the Browne report states, higher education institutions safeguard knowledge, catalyse innovation and strengthen civil society; they bridge the past and future and the local and global.
In my Motion I am saying that, yes, tuition fees need to be increased if we are to maintain and improve higher education in this country; however, that is not what is happening, because these multi-fold fee increases are there to compensate for drastic cuts in government funding for higher education. If we are to have increased fees, surely they could be phased in over a period of years and not in the blunt and cruel way of bringing them all in at once in 2012.
In its 2010 spending review the Treasury rightly states that our higher education institutions are the jewel in our crown. I welcome many of the elements of what the Government are proposing—the ring-fencing of research and science; the inclusion of part-time students; helping and encouraging lifelong learning and learning at all ages; the increasing of the income threshold to £21,000 before loans have to be repaid—but, in the rest of the G20 countries only one other country, Italy, is cutting its higher education budget, and that, too, by 19 per cent by 2012.
The coalition Government talk about their three tenements—freedom, fairness and responsibility. With their hands on their heart, can they truly say that to treat our wonderful higher education institutions, academics and students in this way is fair? I implore the Government to listen, to show compassion, to be just and to be fair.
My Lords, I should declare my interests: I am the Visitor of King’s College, Cambridge, and of Lincoln and Brasenose Colleges, Oxford, and I am on the governing body of the Bishop Grosseteste University College. However, I speak principally as the chair of the Church of England’s board of education, which, of course, has a significant responsibility for the affairs of higher and further education in this country.
It is clear that there are no doubt many ways by which higher education can be funded—direct funding, grants, loans, public/private partnerships and so on—and the Government are largely following the recommendations of the review of the noble Lord, Lord Browne. They have opted for the principle of loans, as promoted by the previous Government. As we have heard, the task of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, was to trim the burgeoning financial commitment of central government to higher education while maintaining and improving current levels of participation in higher education across all socioeconomic groups, including those from the most deprived backgrounds. It remains to be seen whether the trick can be done using the means now before us.
Will the public purse be relieved of higher education costs? Only if loans are repaid and the recent financial crisis teaches us that policies predicated on debt and its repayment are speculative to say the least. As for maintaining and improving participation in higher education, it is surely counterintuitive to believe that students will commit to this size of future debt in anticipation of a benefit which is by no means guaranteed. Surely, even if they are prepared to so commit, we must ask whether the normalising of debt in this way is morally defensible or socially sustainable.
Even if the policy delivers on those objectives, it is still legitimate to challenge aspects of the reasoning advanced in support of it and to expose the extent to which fundamental principles in relation to education in general and higher education in particular are being compromised. Let me try to lay to rest oft repeated arguments which really should not be allowed credibility in your Lordships’ House. One can by all means argue that a high price must be paid for any recovery in the health of public finances so that even the commitment of the state to deliver an enhanced quality of education to the next generations is put on hold, or even that the prevailing government ideology is for low taxation and small government so that the state must be rolled back in relation to higher education as in relation to so much else. I personally would struggle to sign up to those arguments, but at least they have the merit of being honest when it comes to motives driving the measures promoted by the Motion before us today.
But, by and large, these are not the reasons most commonly advanced in support of this policy over recent days and weeks. Those reasons offered indicate an attitude to higher education which is radically different—the phrase “game-changer” has been used—from anything that we have known before and is deeply troubling to those of us who see education as a key component in human flourishing; that life in all its fullness which Jesus came to bring.
We hear it argued that it is the individual student who benefits from higher education, so it is reasonable for the student to pay, albeit not up front—thank goodness—but eventually, through a repayment of loans. But that flies in the face of everything that we believe and cherish when it comes to what higher education is all about and why it matters. Surely it is for the sake of the common good that the state uses taxpayers’ money to fund higher education, because that is precisely what a progressive taxation system is designed to deliver. It is the mechanism whereby the common purse funds what is for the common good. Even John Stuart Mill in his distinctly small-government manifesto, Principles of Political Economy, asserts that education,
“is one of those things which it is admissible in principle that a government should provide for the people”.
It is a masterly understatement if ever there was one. So let us hear no more of this idea that higher education is a privatised commodity to be bought and sold on the open market.
That leads on to a further point. John Stuart Mill also said:
“In the matter of education, the intervention of government is justifiable, because the case is not one which the interest and judgment of the consumer are a sufficient security for the goodness of the commodity”.
So let us hear no more about the choices of the student determining which courses will and will not be on offer in the higher education sector. No Government can abdicate their responsibility to plan for the development of such knowledge, skills and aptitudes as will be necessary for the future well-being of the nation and its people. Students can certainly exercise influence to drive up standards by having a choice as to which courses on offer they are minded to pursue and where. But the free-market model cannot extend to them determining by their choices whether certain subjects or courses will continue to be taught at all. I may well derive some satisfaction from all students opting to study theology, but I rather think that sufficient numbers of students studying engineering, medicine, English literature, foreign languages and so on to a high standard would be a good and necessary thing, and only Governments governing can ensure that balance for the common good.
Here, a further fallacious argument needs to be examined: the idea that certain subjects should attract government funding while others, especially those associated with the humanities and social sciences, should not. It is argued that all subjects will be funded equally from tuition fees, and then additional funding will be available for those courses utilising expensive laboratory and other infrastructure facilities. But, as I understand it, it has already been conceded that study of foreign languages should be grant-aided over and above the tuition fee. So what about the humanities and social sciences, which are vital to the development of rounded human beings rather than mere economic units? Surely the Government do not subscribe to the view that higher education is essentially about economic rather than human development—that most crass form of instrumentalism which I have to say to the dismay of some others in the House seemed to lurk around the corridors of power during the dying days of the previous Administration. But reasoning advanced in support of current policies seems by implication to reinforce that instrumentalist approach to higher education, so it needs to be said yet again that human development is about history, geography, philosophy and theology as much as it is about physics, chemistry and applied mathematics. Can we hear no more about the state needing to fund only courses which are believed to prepare people for work and serve the economy? Joanna Bourke of Birkbeck College recently referred to this stance as,
“vulnerable to the swaggering philistinism of management science”.
Perhaps I would not put it quite that way myself—although on further thought, perhaps I would.
What we need to challenge in relation to this legislation is, first, the elevation of individual benefit over the claims of the common good; secondly, education as a commodity subject to the vagaries of market forces, when it is truly to be for the common good—in relation to higher education, the individual student may not always know what is best for the good of all; and, thirdly, the need for higher education to celebrate and resource the widest range of subjects if graduates are to emerge as fully rounded human beings. That was precisely why our forefathers endowed universities and, in this regard at least, their wisdom has not been eroded by the passage of time.
If we are all in it together, it would appear that this and subsequent generations of students will be in it more than most. It is an issue of justice when some of the poorest young people in our society are deterred from contributing through further and higher education to the common good of all by withdrawal of, as has been referred to, the education maintenance allowances for further education and, as is the subject of this debate, the hiking of tuition fees to pay for a higher education. For all these reasons, this proposed way forward for the funding of higher education in this country is deeply flawed. The long-term costs of such a short-term gain are hardly to be countenanced, even in the most straitened of financial circumstances.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, taunted those of us on these Benches with the fact that, in the 2004 debate, we argued for, and gained the right for, Parliament being able to debate any change in the level of fees and fee regulation. This is precisely what we are doing today.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, I regret the degree to which the present debate over fees has ignored the wider cultural and social benefits that stem from our much praised universities. “Learning is for earning” was one of the headlines that followed the report issued by the noble Lord, Lord Browne. We have to some extent lost the carefully balanced and nuanced approach taken by the late Lord Dearing in his report 13 years ago. The Dearing report suggested that university education has three beneficiaries: society as represented by the Government, the student and industry. That report also suggested that the costs of such an education should be shared among the three.
I have some sympathy with the package of proposals being put forward by my honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the other place. The proposals have a number of distinct advantages over the present situation. First, what is on offer is undoubtedly more progressive than the current system in that the less well-off—those coming from poor households and earning low salaries—will get a bigger maintenance grant and more advantageous loan conditions than under the present fees system. The richer students, specifically those earning higher salaries, will pay more than under the present system. Therefore, as my honourable friend has claimed, the proposed scheme is more progressive than the current scheme.
I also welcome, as all noble Lords have done, the extension of loans to part-time students, which rights a long-running and major inequity in our system. For much too long, the system of loan and maintenance grants has favoured and given a very positive incentive to students to study full time. The reforms open the way to make our higher education system much more flexible, so that the student can mix part-time and full-time courses and mix distance learning with campus-based studies. In the long run, those changes will transform our university system and make it much more like the American system, which many people wish it to be. In that sense, I agree wholeheartedly both with the Minister, who said that the measure will, in essence, change how universities will move, and with the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, that the measure is a game-changing proposal.
As is now well known, I have some substantial reservations with the package being put forward. Although the new package is, as I have said, undoubtedly more progressive than the current provision, we cannot get away from the fact that, with the rise in fees possibly to as high as £9,000 a year, the size of the outstanding loans on graduation will be larger. With maintenance loans as well as the fee loans, most students will be looking to debts of between £30,000 and £40,000 a year. If two graduates set up household together, the total debt will be from £60,000 to £80,000. Whatever people say about students now being used to debts, the work undertaken by the Sutton Trust and Sir Peter Lampl shows clearly that such a sharp hike in fees may well make students very uncertain about whether they wish to go through to university.
Because the loans will be larger, they will also be less likely to be repaid. Indeed, any person earning less than £41,000 will not even be paying off the interest due on the loans. Only graduates earning more than about £50,000 will pay off substantial amounts of capital. It is estimated by a number of organisations, such as HEPI and the IFS, that something like 50 per cent of graduates will never pay off their loans. Disproportionately, those will be women, who earn less and are more likely to go part-time or to take a period out of earnings.
One good thing about the package being proposed is that, unlike credit card debts or mortgages, when a graduate’s earnings go down the payments will also go down. However, the debt will not go away. For anyone earning more than £21,000, 9 per cent of anything that they earn will be subtracted through PAYE on top of their income tax and national insurance—and that will last for 30 years. If you do not repay your debt, 9 per cent on top of your income tax and national insurance will be extracted from your pay package on anything you earn over £21,000. In effect—my honourable friend has said this—the loan will become a graduate tax of 9 per cent. Personally, I feel that that is a very high level of graduate tax. I feel very strongly that those of us who benefited from having no tuition fees and generous maintenance grants in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, are landing on young people of today—the next generation—quite disproportionate costs in that respect.
My second objection is an arcane point that relates to the financing mechanism. Loans do not come for free and substantial loans will be needed to back up the payments being made to the students. The Student Loans Company is funded by the Exchequer, which in turns borrows the money that it lends to the Student Loans Company. The Student Loans Company will then sell the debt on, on the grounds that one person’s debt becomes another person’s asset. However, because so many students will never pay off their debts, the value of those loans when sold on has to be discounted. The Treasury figure for that discount is 28 per cent, but HEPI, the IFS and London Economics all think that that underestimates the repayment issues. Even if we accept the Treasury figure, the annual cost of fee loans and maintenance loans combined to the Treasury will be roughly £2.8 billion for every £10 billion tranche, so the cost to the Treasury down the line will be just about the same as is being taken out of the higher education budget—£2.9 billion. I find myself asking why we are taking that money out of the higher education budget if down the line we will need to meet that cost, which will be more or less exactly the same. The answer, of course, is that doing so conveniently takes the sum off the current account and, through the Student Loans Company, switches it into part of the capital account that is not part of the national debt. Therefore, the cost is in effect taken off the books. That is very convenient, but it will come back on to the national debt at a later point.
Those are my reservations about the package. For all the merits of the proposed system, I end up thinking that it will be unfair to low and middle income students, who will have to pay 9 per cent on top of national insurance and income tax for a very long time. However, I have very little sympathy with Labour’s position, which I find somewhat hypocritical. The Labour Government introduced student fees after a pledge not to do so back in the 2000s. Not only did the Labour Government set up this loans system that is now being extended, they commissioned the Browne report and set its terms of reference while deliberately ducking from taking any decision on what they would do with the report until after the election. Having rejected the idea of a graduate tax when it was put to them in 2004, they are now arguing that a graduate tax would be a fairer system.
I do not hide the fact that I find myself in a dilemma. There are elements of this package that are very fair, very right and very proper. My honourable friend has lent over backwards to make it into a fair package. However, I end up feeling that there are other elements in it that I do not understand and that are unfair.
My Lords, I speak in this debate not primarily as a Labour Peer but as an educator and a former director of the London School of Economics. I have worked in universities the whole of my adult life and in a considerable diversity of universities. I believe that the Government’s legislation will be highly damaging for the university system and, as an educator, I should like to explain why.
The flaws in the legislation come from two sources. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, will forgive me, but the first is the erroneous view of the Browne report that higher education is a private benefit rather than a public good. The right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Lincoln, rightly drew attention to that in a forceful fashion. In contributing to the values of good citizenship and civic culture, the public role of universities ranges far beyond the areas identified in the report. Secondly, the decision to cut the teaching grant by 80 per cent is way in excess of what is necessary or sensible. I do not feel that Labour is being hypocritical in saying that, because the Government must be obliged to look at the proposals again.
No other university system in the world will charge students such a high level of fees with such inadequate safeguards to protect those from poorer and middle-level backgrounds. Comparison has been made with the American system, but the system that is proposed is not like that. We will get the worst of the American system without the safeguards that US universities have. Perhaps I might list those briefly, because they are very substantial and show that the public domain is far more representative in American universities than will be the case in the system that the Government seek to introduce.
In the American university system, first, there are state universities that charge fees a long way below those of private universities. Secondly, there is a credit system for degrees that means that it is far easier for students to drop in and out of university courses than is the case within the British system. In turn, that means that it is much easier for students to work their way through university. Thirdly, in many states, community colleges form a conduit for students from poorer backgrounds to get into elite universities. I have seen for myself, while teaching in California, how important that is. For better or worse, that is not the case in the relationship between further education colleges and universities in this country, although it should become so.
Finally, the top universities in America—the elite or private universities, to which reference has been made—are able to run a needs-blind admissions system because they have such massive endowments. There is no chance whatsoever that our top universities—barring maybe one or two—could ever achieve such endowments within the medium term. That system is not feasible here. I repeat, therefore, that we will get all the downside of the American system without the public benefits which that system provides. For this reason, I strongly endorse the amendment because the Government should be forced to think again. This legislation is ill thought through, corrosive and socially divisive.
I intend to make very brief comments because a lot of noble Lords obviously wish to come in and a lot of arguments have already been aired. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, as I have not had the chance to welcome him to his present position. I note that the same silky tongue is at work and I am certainly one of those who in the past had very cordial relations with the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, when he was in his trade union situation. Indeed, it extended to him sending me Christmas cards but I do not think that he will send me one this year. Well, he might; yes, he is telling me that he may.
I must declare three interests: I am chairman of the council of the Royal Veterinary College, chairman of the Institute of Education and chairman of the Oxford University Society. This debate is being conducted against cries of outrage from the Opposition but those cries cannot and must not conceal the facts of the matter—the situation in which we are. The Opposition, when in Government, introduced the fee system and the mechanism for uprating which we are debating. We have been castigated for doing this in a hasty manner but that mechanism was put in place by the Opposition. As Steve Smith has said, writing in the Times on 6 December, the coalition Government,
“has chosen a system that builds on the logic of the one introduced in 2006”.
The Opposition, when in Government, set up the Browne review which recommended, among many other things, the lifting of the fees cap. It was a great pleasure and a great illumination to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Browne, today. Liam Byrne, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, left office with the previous Government uttering the immortal words, “There is no money”. I have sympathy with a number of the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, because self-evidently the Opposition have no solution for the problem that they have created and it is down to the coalition Government to find the solution. It is obvious that they have no solution because when the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, asked the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, for his own policies the noble Lord threw no light. We remain in darkness in that respect.
In contrast, the coalition Government have promised a White Paper—I believe that it will be in the New Year—so that the many detailed complexities and implications of the fees decisions can be examined and consulted upon. I look forward to that White Paper because there are questions that need answering about, for example, the funding of students who are already graduates. We do not have those answers at the moment. I should have thought that almost everyone in this House would be able to produce other questions for which we need the clarity that a White Paper would provide.
The Government have proposed help with fees for the least well-off students for the first year of study and, possibly, for the second. They will invest £150 million to provide a national scholarship programme. Universities which charge fees of over £6,000 will have to demonstrate how they will attract students from the least advantaged backgrounds. The income threshold for the repayment of fees is to be raised from £15,000 to £21,000, which will make around a quarter of graduates better off than with the threshold left in place by the Opposition—not that, from listening to this debate, you would have guessed that—while for the first time, part-time students will be eligible for loan support for tuition costs on the same basis as full-time students.
I believe that the Government have made the best possible fist of the situation bequeathed to them by the previous Government. That is why I will most certainly be supporting the Government today. However, if the fee rise is rejected today, Universities UK has calculated that some 59 per cent—that is its figure, not a government figure—of current higher education places will be lost. I do not see that as fair, inclusive, or socially advantageous but it may be that some of the contributors from the party opposite will explain how they see that as fair and advantageous.
There are also those who advocate delay today. I suggest that if they have ever run an institution, an organisation or a business, they ask themselves how they could make any attempt at planning staff numbers, course numbers or student numbers if they do not know the most basic thing: what the income will be of the institution that they run. By rejecting the fee increase today, we will be imposing on all our higher education institutions the chaos of confusion and uncertainty. Everyone in this House supports higher education. Many of us are the beneficiaries of it. But I would not want to impose that uncertainty on those institutions that we hold dear by withholding a decision today.
Will the noble Baroness not concede that part of the reason why Universities UK and other institutions that are not members of that organisation are worried about the possibility that this regulation may not go through is that they know that the Government propose to withdraw the teaching grant? That is what will make their financial situation so unpredictable, not the question of whether fees go up.
I declare an interest as vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich. Like my noble friend Lord Giddens, I have worked in other higher education institutions, and at one time, as many noble Lords know—I shall return to this as one or two things have been said about the earlier introduction of fees—I was the Minister responsible for post-16 education.
I support my noble friend Lord Triesman in this amendment. I do so not in a spirit of outrage; I am not outraged—I am disappointed, saddened and worried. There is a real danger that we are walking into a trap, which we have made for ourselves and which we will later regret. It is important when making fundamental changes of this kind that we do so in a considered way, and my noble friend’s amendment asks that we should give more consideration to these serious issues.
I do not want to repeat everything that has been said before, nor to go into a great deal of detail, but I want to focus on three or four of what I consider to be the fundamental points before we go down this route. There are many issues of detail where I believe that the proposals are in fact flawed, but those are for another time.
First, I shall focus on what a number of other speakers have already touched on—the abolition of all funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The value of these subjects is enormous. In any civilised society, we invest time, effort and money in ensuring that our young people become well educated in these subjects. This is an investment, not a subsidy. One of the things that I found regrettable in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Madingley, was that he referred to higher education in terms of a subsidy. It is in fact an investment in our futures, our economy, our society, our well-being and the quality of our lives, and these subjects are fundamental to all that.
I cannot tell noble Lords how much misery and despair the decision to stop all teaching funding in these subjects has caused among academics right across the country and among students, both undergraduate and postgraduate. No country in the world has stopped public funding for a major part of the work that is done in teaching in its public universities, and I deeply regret that it looks, unless we can make a different decision today, as though this country will be the first to do so.
On the question of the cut in the teaching grant from £3.5 billion to only £0.7 billion, I am perfectly aware of the need to tighten our belts and to reduce public expenditure but no other part of the public sector—no other institution in receipt of public funding—has been asked to cut by 80 per cent. Why should we be asking our universities to do this?
My second point has not been given enough consideration so far today—the enormous cost of the tuition loan scheme when these new fees are introduced. Instead of fee loans for a three-year degree at less than £10,000 under the present system, the Government will have to borrow to fund loans of up to £27,000 per student. That will mean billions of extra borrowing by the Government because many universities are going to charge the full amount, as my noble friend Lord Triesman has already said, and because the Government have seriously underestimated the levels of repayment that are likely to be achieved. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, referred to the fact that the RAB costs will be much higher than the Government have claimed.
We are thus faced with the absurdity that the taxpayer will end up by paying more for the new system than for the present one. Every reputable think tank that has looked at this comes to the same conclusion, so it is not just my view; it is the view of those who have carried out careful analyses, in an objective way, of what is being proposed.
We might ask: why has the Treasury accepted these proposals? It is because of the arcane rules that it employs in public accounting so that grants to universities count as public borrowing but loans to students to cover their fees do not. As the Higher Education Policy Institute has said:
“It is smoke and mirrors, and it provides an extraordinary reason for changing the whole basis for the financing and organisation of the university system”.
I ask noble Lords opposite what their views are on this and whether they really believe that it is right that we shall end up with taxpayers having to pick up a bigger bill. Do they also really believe that the market will be bamboozled by this particular con trick? I do not believe that they will.
I turn to what the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, said; the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, also touched on this. There was a suggestion that we on the Labour Benches were being hypocritical. I resent that charge. I feel that I am saying everything with integrity, not with hypocrisy. I speak as the Minister who introduced tuition fees in 1998. I do not believe that it is wrong for students to make a contribution to the cost of higher education, otherwise I would not have been involved in that major policy change at the time. Nor do I believe that it was wrong in 2004 to increase the contribution from students, although we did so on a rather different basis.
However, we should not assume, because there was no reduction in demand when fees were first introduced and when they were increased somewhat in 2004, that this means that there will be no reduction in demand today. On the contrary, I fear that these huge increases that the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and others have referred to will have a deleterious effect on many young people. They say—and why should we not believe them?—that they do not wish to contemplate the sort of debts that they are going to have to face. It was interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said that this was a more progressive system but then went on to contradict herself by describing the problems that lower-income and middle-income young people, perhaps both of them graduates, will face when they are buying their first houses and having their first children. I fear, particularly if we are talking about young people who come from ethnic-minority communities and from low-income backgrounds, that they will be hugely put off by the size of this debt.
There has been very little reference so far in the debate to mature students. We have to remember that more than 25 per cent of students coming into British universities are over 21, and that within that 25 per cent about 8 per cent are over 25 and another 8 per cent are well into their 30s. For these people, taking on this kind of debt will mean that many of them will be paying it off into their retirement. Do we not think that that will have some impact on their decisions about whether to come back into higher education? These are people who lost out earlier and were not able to go when they were younger.
There has been a certain amount of cloud-cuckoo-land talk among Ministers in suggesting that there is likely to be no impact on demand because there was none in the past. I quote from another think tank, London Economics, which says:
“There is undoubtedly a real risk that participation in higher education and in particular participation by those from lower socioeconomic groups and mature students will be undermined as a result of the significantly higher fee levels that will be required from 2012”.
I want to associate myself with the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria; I have sympathy with what he says. In many ways, it is the steepness of the rise that has led to so much anger on the part of students and so much concern on the part of their families. Doing all of this in one go is a very odd piece of public policy-making. I can think of no other example where we have introduced an increase in charges and trebled them. I would love to know why the noble Lord, Lord Henley, thinks that that is a sensible route to go down. It cannot be. It leads to huge inequities within families. One child who goes to university in 2011 will pay a fee of £3,000 or repay a loan of £3,000 as a graduate, while his or her younger siblings, who may be 18 months or two years younger, will pay three times as much. I know families who cannot understand this and feel that it is immensely divisive.
Let me turn to something that I referred to in the debate on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Browne. The Government should reconsider what I see as a rather crude market approach in which they claim that students will have greater freedom to choose universities based on quality and that the new arrangements will “drive up quality”. For the life of me, I simply cannot understand how they think this will happen. Again, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Henley, can explain it to me.
I do not believe that this approach will work for the following reasons. First, the information is not there and will always be imperfect. Young people do not get access to this kind of up-to-date information and, even if we provide it for them, I regret to say that it is unlikely that they will read it. In any case, measures of quality are extremely difficult and can often lead to misleading conclusions. Secondly, students are not paying up front but over many years, long after they graduate. Therefore, this market principle does not work in that they are not having to find the money and then spend it where it will produce the best value for them. Thirdly, student numbers have to be controlled anyway because of the public expenditure cost of the loans which I have already described. This economic orthodoxy of a perfect market simply does not exist.
Let me conclude by returning to where I started. Perhaps I can help the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, regarding his perfectly legitimate question. I have an answer, and I think that it would be shared by many of my colleagues. If the Government were to consult and do a little bit more listening and rethinking, the first thing they would do would be to restore some of the teaching grant for the arts, humanities and social sciences. That would be strongly supported by the Labour Party as something that we would have done had we won the election; we would have had to cut the teaching grant but not by 80 per cent. If that were to happen, the Government could then set fees at a considerably lower level which would be more acceptable to young people. We must remember that the very high fees are to replace an 80 per cent cut in grant so that universities can continue to operate with the facilities and staff they need to meet the standards expected of them in this country and internationally.
I passionately believe that were the Government to do that, students, their families, graduates, universities and the taxpayer would, as a result, have a better outcome but the deficit would still be cut. In turn, the Government would be congratulated on listening, on thinking again and on putting forward proposals which sustain the long-term future of higher education in the UK as a public good, as it is perceived everywhere else in the world.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the principal of Jesus College, Oxford, and as somebody who has spent much of his career teaching undergraduates in this country and in north America. I have to say that I have changed my mind about the view I take on the Government’s proposals. The view you take, I think, depends on where you start from. The vice-chancellors, in their view, have their feet in the coals of the fire and are looking for a way to get them out, and the only way to do that is to support a whopping great hike in student fees. If, however, you stand back and ask some fundamental questions about the justification for the proposals, I believe that you come to quite a different view.
I asked myself three questions. Are the proposals justified and fair? Do they make the funding of universities more sustainable? Do we understand the consequences of this radical change? No doubt noble Lords are on the edge of their seat waiting to hear the answers to those questions. We have heard many of the things that I am going to say already, so I will take a short cut to save anxiety and stress and give the answers in summary form. No, the proposals are not justified and fair. No, they do not make the funding of universities more sustainable. No, we do not understand the consequences. Let me explain briefly why I have come to this view and why I therefore support the Labour amendment to the Motion.
We have already heard, and I do not need to dwell on this, that a university education is partly a public good and partly a private good. Individuals benefit but the nation needs doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists—even civil servants and economists, it is sometimes said. The state should therefore pay part of a university education. I think it is reasonable that students should pay something themselves, so the debate is about how much it is fair to ask them to pay. These proposals represent, as we have already heard, a dramatic shift in responsibility for payment for an education from the public purse to the private purse.
We must not forget, as has been hinted at by other speakers, that the United Kingdom already invests a significantly lower proportion of its wealth in tertiary education than most other countries. The latest OECD figures, published this year, show us at 30 per cent below the OECD average in public investment in tertiary education and at nearly 40 per cent below the EU average. Will the Minister tell us how he can justify cutting public support for universities when we are already spending less as a proportion of our GDP than countries such as Hungary, Mexico, Poland or Brazil? Do not tell us that this is about reducing the budget deficit—it is actually about priorities.
The Minister tells us in his letter that no one should be put off from participating in higher education as a result of the changes. People have already asked where is the evidence to support that assertion. Certainly, the Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes in its report that students from the poorest 30 per cent of families will have more to pay back than they do at present. How do we know that this will not put them off? My conversations with the students I am responsible for suggests that it will.
We are also told—and this point has been raised already—that there are details of access arrangements, some of which are spelt out in the draft letter from the Minister for science and universities to Sir Martin Harris. But normally, when you want to understand the details, you turn to the fine print. I did so, and the print was so fine it was almost non-existent.
My second point was about the sustainability of universities. In his letter to noble Lords, the Minister states that the Government believe that this package offers a more sustainable future for our universities. I have always held the notion that belief should be reserved for matters of faith; no doubt the right reverend Prelates will comment on that. But when it comes to the sustainability of universities, I would prefer something more substantial than belief. We have already heard that in effect this proposal takes money with one hand and gives it back with the other, so the proposed fee increase—if we go to £9,000 a year—would barely exceed, and perhaps only just match, the amount of money that is removed in the cuts elsewhere. Therefore, universities such as my own, Oxford University, will be no better off, even if we charge £9,000 a year, and perhaps even worse off. How does this make the system more sustainable?
Thirdly, and finally, do we understand the consequences of this huge experiment? As we have heard, the proposal turns university education, to a large degree, from a public good into a private benefit. What do we know about the outcome? What do we know about its effect on the balance of students choosing to study different subjects? Do we know that it will encourage social mobility? Do we know what kind of restructuring it will result in in the university sector? I believe that the university sector could benefit from restructuring but I do not think that it is sufficient to leave that to the market. A university education is not like toothpaste or a fizzy drink; the market will not necessarily deliver what the nation needs. That can be delivered only after deliberation and consideration by Government and by Parliament.
As we have heard, universities in the UK are an outstanding success story; in fact, they are one of the very few areas in which we still have world pre-eminence. Let us not conduct a massive experiment and leap into the unknown with this success story without first understanding the outcomes and the possible consequences. For those reasons, I urge noble Lords to support the amendment and vote against this proposal.
My Lords, I disclose an interest as the Chancellor of the university of which Jesus College is a distinguished part. However, on this occasion, I am afraid that I do not agree with Jesus, and for reasons which have made me for 20 years a passionate believer in a bigger contribution by students to their education. I say with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that his speech was a triumph of hope over experience because for years, under Governments of both political persuasions, and one that I recall of no political persuasion whatever, we have spent substantially less on higher education as a proportion of GDP than almost all our competitors, and certainly less than the OECD average. The latest OECD comparisons, published in 2010, show that in 2007—the latest authorised figures—we spent 1.2 per cent to 1.3 per cent of our GDP on higher education. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, that British taxpayers spent less on it than did American taxpayers. We also spent less than the OECD average, and considerably less than the United States, which spent 3.1 per cent of GDP on higher education—and that was before the cuts of £1 billion which were introduced by the former Lord President. I am sorry that he is not in his place today to explain to us exactly what he intended when he asked the noble Lord, Lord Browne, to undertake his review of tuition fees.
There are only four ways in which you can get money for higher education. You can get it through research income, endowments—we know very well that only three universities in Europe would get into the top 150 in the United States in terms of the size of their endowments—the taxpayer or tuition fees. We know from the experience of the past 10, 20, 30 or 40 years that the taxpayer will not provide the money, so the only revenue stream that is left is the student. I totally agree not with the spiritual authority of the right reverend Prelate, but with almost as great a spiritual authority—I agree with what Mr Blair had to say about the social equity of students making a contribution to what will make such an impact on their lifetime earnings. It seems to me a wholly defensible proposition.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that what the former Prime Minister Tony Blair said was that it should be a contribution? He used the words himself. He did not say, and never did, that students should pay the whole of the cost of their higher education.
No, as I shall explain in a moment, they will not be doing that in the case of the university that I know best. I remind the noble Baroness that the former Prime Minister wanted to introduce fees in 2004, not of £3,000 but of £5,000. He could not get that through the House of Commons largely because of the views of his honourable friends in the Parliamentary Labour Party, so let us not rewrite history. I suggest that the noble Baroness should refresh her memory by reading Mr Blair’s autobiography.
My Liberal Democrat noble friends have been teased about changing their mind. As my noble friend Lady Sharp pointed out, there are very strong reasons for their change of mind. It was slightly ironic that in his flirtation with the Liberal Democrats yesterday, the leader of the Labour Party, in a less than bravura performance, offered them the opportunity of talks with Liam Byrne. That must have set their pulses racing with excitement. But what makes it particularly ironic is that it is the same Mr Byrne who, as my noble friend Lady Shephard pointed out, gave the game away and told us after the election that there was no money left—zilch. I am not sure that it is the right moment to follow the right reverend Prelate in questioning why public debt is so terrific but private debt is such a bad thing. At some stage we could seek the authority of the New Testament on that proposition, but perhaps this is not the right moment.
When we consider changes to what one has promised the electorate, I seem to recall what happened in January 2004, after the then Labour Government had changed their position. When asked,
“Is the party open to the charge that it has broken a manifesto commitment?”,
Mr Alan Johnson replied yes. When asked:
“Is that crime of a century for a government to do?”,
he replied no. If one is to believe what is said about the public accounts under Labour, Mr Johnson did not have the excuse then of the bank having been broken.
I want to make a couple of points about the proposals themselves, not going any further into the seam of intellectual integrity which has underpinned the Labour Party’s position. I have a couple of questions. First, I think that all of us want to see an increase in the endowments for our universities, which are well behind our American competitors in that regard, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, pointed out. Can we be sure that the Government will look at how they can encourage philanthropic donations in the future, not just to charities in general but to our university sector in particular because it is of considerable significance?
Will the noble Lord also address how Sheffield Hallam University, of which I have the privilege to be chancellor, will secure endowments? Many good universities contribute hugely to the local economy and educate people who would never normally have gone to university in the past. They will not now be able to raise the volume of endowments or charitable funds that the noble Lord has mentioned.
The noble Lord may be aware that in this country about 2 per cent, perhaps rather less, of alumnae give to their old universities. That is far less than the figure one would find at even the least well endowed university in the United States. We have to change our attitudes to supporting our old universities.
The other question that I want to ask is about the cap. I ask this not least in the interests of the Opposition, who will, I am sure, want to consider which policy they change next. Are the caps of £6,000 and £9,000 set in stone, or can we be assured that they will be revisited in due course? I ask that, not least because of my concerns about the position of the Leader of the Opposition, who said, when asked what the Labour Party’s position was, that he was not going to fall into the trap of making a promise to scrap what we have put forward, because it was a promise that he might not be able to keep.
If what the Government are proposing—which, as the IFS has said, is more progressive than the existing system—is so noxious and is worse than anything since Herod’s slaughter of the firstborn, I should like to hear from the Opposition that they will either reject or accept the proposal, because their present position is, quite simply, irresponsible.
My Lords, I declare two non-pecuniary interests. The first is as a governor of the University of Chichester, which I should not say has for many years had the highest level of student satisfaction—although I did say that. My second interest is as a Bishop with an obviously direct interest in anything which might impact negatively upon the teaching of theology, particularly for those who are to be ordained. In fact, it is neither of those matters that I want to comment on; nor do I wish to rise to the challenge made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, about belief and faith; nor do I want to comment even on what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said about looking for New Testament comments on debt.
The noble Lord probably would not regard this as coming from a higher authority than the New Testament but, by one of those interesting quirks of history, it is almost exactly 150 years to the day—it is actually tomorrow, 15 December—that Palmerston wrote to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gladstone, warning him in relation to economic policies that the debt of citizens was by no means the same thing as the debt of states. That was a remarkably prescient comment.
What we have here is, at least in part, an attempt to deal with national debt by transferring it to individuals. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, talked about something corrosive. The socially corrosive effects of this measure go far beyond the particular educational instincts that are at its heart. My point is therefore not really about education or the impact of this measure upon our higher education institutions, but about the potentially socially corrosive effect of high levels of individual debt in relation to national debt, which is a different matter altogether.
My Lords, I am in a rather unusual position of representing four universities. I am chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, which is a new university that contributes hugely to the local economy and teaches people who would not normally in the past have had an ambition to go to university. I am chairman of the Royal College of Music, which is a specialist conservatoire, representing an entirely different skill base. I am a professor at Imperial College, London, which is one of the world’s top 10 universities and is research-rich. I am also on the council of Surrey University, which has aspirations and an extraordinary portfolio that extends from the area of public services right through to nuclear physics, and is increasingly engaged in excellent research.
Because of time, I want to make two brief points. It is very unwise to think of universities as one body. The point about my portfolio and the thing that all those universities have in common is that each is entirely different. There are special problems, for example, in the conservatoires. If we lose the exceptional funding for them, there will be an unparalleled crisis in the arts that we have not seen before. There is much in the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, that is worthy of serious consideration and is clearly very clever. However, much more time is needed to allow the issues between the different areas that we need to look at to be considered.
It is also true that increasing the fees will make the specialist conservatoires increasingly elitist, and we will end up with increasing numbers of Chinese students—excellent though they are—and poorer British students will not be able to study music, for example. It is also worth bearing in mind that 85 per cent of musicians probably do not earn £21,000 a year through music, even at the height of their powers. Will they be paying back fees for some other skill which was not developed in the higher education system?
The other brief point that I want to make is the question that I raised with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, at the very beginning—on the day that the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, were first debated in this House. I said that, as I spoke, students in Sheffield were walking the streets protesting at the increased higher education fees. They did not understand what was going on, and I asked the noble Baroness how the Government intended to engage with the students. The Government have still not engaged with the students. This is a highly dangerous situation. This is a very complex measure and the idea of having this vote on fees before we have seen the White Paper is nonsense. It is not good government, and I have to say to the Government that it may be extremely dangerous to the coalition if they insist on driving this through.
My Lords, it seems to me that those of us on this side of the House who will vote in favour of the Government’s proposals have to answer four questions. The first is directed—fairly or unfairly, you may think—particularly at the Liberal Democrats, and was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Patten: “Why do you not honour your election pledges?”. Let us put it in the stronger terms used outside this place: “Why are you betraying the promise that you made to us?”. Let us for a moment examine that promise. It was a promise that if there was a Liberal Democrat Government, we would then seek to get rid of tuition fees. Whether that policy was wise for my party is a different matter. When I was its leader, I tried to persuade my party out of that policy in 1998, but I signally failed in a democratic party. That policy was democratically arrived at. However, the truth is, I am sad to say, that there is not a Liberal Democrat Government—there is a coalition Government. In order to put that Government together, we had to come to compromise deals with another party, which gave us some of the things we wanted and some of the things which we did not want. How else could you put a coalition deal together?
I shall certainly give way to the noble Lord in just a moment.
I remind the Labour Party that it had an opportunity to do a deal too, but it ran away. It did not want to participate in taking the responsibility for clearing up the mess that it left behind. It is important for the House to understand that. I agree that we have had to amend the view that we took, but we did so in order to put together a coalition Government in what we believed to be the national interest at a time of crisis. The Labour Party, too, has changed its policy, but it did not have to. I know that harsh words fall uneasily on the ears of noble Lords in this House, and I understand that, but this is a piece of naked opportunism. The truth is that Labour went into the election proposing tuition fees and is now against them. In the previous election, Labour was against tuition fees, and then proposed them. What is its policy now? Frankly, we do not know. The Leader of the Opposition says that there should be a graduate tax. Mr Johnson says he thinks that a graduate tax is unworkable—precisely the position of the noble Lord, Lord Browne—but he is then persuaded to say yes. Then, in answer to my question, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, seemed to tell me that the Labour Party was in favour of fees. What is its policy? I do not know; but at least, if we are asked, “Why did you not fulfil your election promises?”, that question should be asked of Labour too. It did not have to propose an amendment for any reasons of national interest; it did so for reasons of an opportunistic ability to attack the Government.
The noble Lord puts forward the proposition that if a party is not elected to government, the promises that it made and on which it sought votes in the election are no longer binding. If that is the case, every minority party can renege on any promise at any time.
I will make it very clear to the noble Lord. The deal that was made was a coalition deal between two parties. I remind my Liberal Democrat friends that the coalition deal was endorsed unanimously by the parliamentary party and by the party at its conference; it has the democratic endorsement of the party. Where we are at present is uncomfortable, but we would be much more uncomfortable if, having accepted the coalition deal and passed it by the internal mechanisms of the party, we now ran away from it. If the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, will forgive me, I would like to make progress; I have spoken for about six minutes already.
The next question that we have to address is whether this is necessary. In order to say that it is not, one would have to say that, uniquely, the higher education sector of this country should be excused from carrying the burdens that everybody else has to carry, and should be excused from the cuts. If the noble Baroness will allow me to make a little more progress, I will happily give way.
The noble Baroness makes exactly the point that I would have gone on to, had she given me the opportunity to do so. When we consider university cuts, we may do one of two things. We may institute those cuts or ask graduates—not students—to bear a proportion of the costs. The right reverend Prelate who spoke earlier said that students should not be required to pay for higher education. They are not being required to pay; they are being asked to share in the payment. Under these proposals, universities by and large will have the same amount of funds as they had before, because graduates will pay their contributions. That is perfectly right. I cannot argue the case that the higher education sector should be removed from the burden that the rest of the nation has to carry. Those such as the right reverend Prelate seem to propose that somehow higher education should be free. It was free for my generation. I never went to higher education; my university was Her Majesty's Corps of Royal Marines. Free higher education is possible for 7 per cent of the population, but is impossible for 50 per cent. One has to find a mechanism to fill the gap.
The next question is whether it is fair. I will deal with the issue of debt. I accept that the consequence of these proposals will be to raise debt to the order of £27,000, £30,000 or perhaps more. I regret that; it is the consequence of the age in which we live and the economic position in which we were left. However, we do not complain when young people have to take out a mortgage debt of £150,000 or £200,000 to buy their house. This is not like a credit card debt; it is much more like a mortgage. There is a fixed system of repayment and a fixed mechanism for repayment. Frankly, I do not find it offensive; if one can take out mortgages for physical property, why should one not take out a mortgage to improve one's intellectual property, from which one will benefit in future? I know that I am testing the patience of the House and I am keen to make progress, but I will give way.
On the question of personal debt, did the noble Lord see the figures released earlier this month that showed that personal debt in this country is now £1.5 trillion and that, out of 2,000 families surveyed, more than half said they were already in trouble with the debts that they had incurred? Is this any way to go into working life—with this albatross round your neck?
I understand the point that the noble Lord is making. However, we accept that it is reasonable for people to borrow huge sums to get themselves on to the property ladder. I see nothing different in following the same broad system. This is equivalent not to a credit card debt but to a mortgage. It is perfectly reasonable that we ask people to pay a significantly smaller amount of interest on a debt that will improve their life chances. There is nothing odd or strange in that.
My final question is that of fairness. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, made the case that somehow or other—
I apologise to the noble Lord. I have already been speaking for 11 minutes and if I were to take his intervention, I would be testing the patience of the House, so I will finish. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, painted a Dickensian picture of the poor family who cannot afford to pay the fees. However, it will not be poor families who pay, but graduates when they are earning more than £21,000. The question is; are these proposals fairer or less fair than the present system? The answer is that instead of starting repayments on a salary of £15,000, students will start them on a salary of £21,000. The level of their repayment will be about half what they are paying at present. The rich will pay more than the poor; that is not the case under the present system. Part-time students will not pay up front; that is not the case at present. The fact that students will be repaying the costs for longer will mean that they will be able to repay when their salaries are higher. Many students have told me that one consequence of the present system is that they are repaying in their mid-30s, precisely when it is most difficult. They will now be repaying in their mid-40s, when it will be far easier.
When I vote tonight in favour of the proposals, I will vote not out of defensiveness but because I believe that they are progressive, that they will be followed elsewhere in the world, that they are right for higher education and, above all, that they are fairer for students, especially students from poorer families.
My Lords, I will speak briefly about medical education. Undergraduate medical students currently receive NHS bursaries in their fifth year, and graduate students in their second, third and fourth years. The proposal to end NHS bursaries is also under consultation. Medical studies are full-time—45 weeks a year—and leave no opportunity for part-time employment. At St George's, University of London, where I am on the teaching staff, we pride ourselves on making progress in widening participation. I should like to know what the cost will be for a student who has to take out a loan for the full five years, and a large loan to cover their living costs, and whether the Government agree that this degree of debt will discourage prospective doctors from all but the wealthiest families. I will need assurances before being able to support this proposal that if the proposed increases in fees go ahead, at least NHS bursaries for medical students will not be stopped.
My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of these regulations. I do so after spending 10 years validating the polytechnic sector on the Council for National Academic Awards. My experience is unusual; I am a non-academic who spent 10 years close to higher education. That experience leads me to suggest that if the Government's plans result in the closure of a large number of courses in the humanities departments of the former polytechnics—in particular teacher training courses—that would be a considerable achievement. It would save a lot of money that could be channelled to serious courses, and it would stop the short-changing of many thousands of students who attend humanities courses and find themselves ill equipped for the world of work, or indeed for making any useful contribution to wider society. The students themselves will be the best judges of the courses and will not enrol on those that they consider to be a waste of their time—indeed, perhaps even a waste of their lives.
I also congratulate the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, on his attempts substantially to raise the quality of teacher training. I believe that these regulations will do much to help him to achieve that.
Beyond that, and finally, I believe that these regulations will start to create something which has been sadly missing in our system of higher education—a system of quality control. I know that there is a system of quality assurance but that is not at all the same thing. The quality control brought in by these regulations will be manned by the students with the teeth to make it effective, and I cannot think of anyone better to do it. Therefore, I support the regulations.
My Lords, it is wonderful to be so welcome. I noticed the declaration of interests that the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, made at the beginning of his somewhat lengthy speech, although it was none the worse for that. My noble friend Lady Shephard described him as having a silky tongue. I had better declare another interest in that I was one of those higher education Ministers who saw him, and I declare the interest that I greatly enjoyed the lunch that he gave me some 13 or so years ago. I am not sure that I ever declared it at the time but it was a very useful meeting, as he explained to me just how many members of his union were in both Houses. I think he claimed that he had more than any other trade union leader in the history of trade union leaders having members in this House.
I listened with interest to the somewhat lengthy speech of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, but I heard no coherent argument in it whatever. It was a mere rant, with no solution put forward by the party that got us into the mess that my noble friend Lady Shephard described. He claims that there is no evidence and that there was no consultation, but does he not think that the report produced by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and commissioned by the Government of whom he has been a member, provided just that? In that report there is evidence, and in the production of that report there was a great deal of consultation.
A great number of points have been made during this debate and I want to deal with some of them in order to knock the myths that are growing up. The first one—addressed, first, by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln but brought back to us again and again—is the idea that the poorest will be deterred. The right reverend Prelate referred to the removal of the education maintenance allowance for 17 and 18 year-olds. I understand that the removal of the EMA was examined in a report by the party opposite when it was in government. The report showed that some 90 per cent of the money was being wasted, and it was not encouraging the children involved to stay on at school, as they would have stayed on anyway. I think that my right honourable friend did exactly the right thing in suggesting that that money could be moved and made better use of.
In terms of the poorest being deterred, many of us made that argument when student fees were introduced. It started, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said, in 1998 and was then enhanced by the 2004 Act. On both occasions we saw an increase in those from less well-off homes going into higher education, and I do not see any reason why that should not happen again. We will certainly continue to examine what happens after these changes come into force.
The next point—put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs—is that our decision to increase the upper cap to £9,000 is purely a political choice and that we have made it for no other reason than we want to save money. I must make it clear that in their Pre-Budget Report of 2009 the previous Government identified some £600 million of cuts to higher education and science to be made by 2012-13. The department responsible for universities, BIS, was not protected in Labour’s public expenditure plans, so it is hard to see what protection a Labour Government would have produced over the spending review period if they had not been able to cut departments’ budgets by some 25 per cent, which is exactly what we have done.
That deficit exists—we inherited it—and the Government are responsible for the interests of all taxpayers in meeting it. At a time of real financial hardship, we believe it is right to make cuts across public spending, but we do not believe that it is right to ask those on low incomes to pay additional taxes to prop up an unaffordable university funding system from which they do not benefit directly. Obviously there is a benefit to all of society—I accept that—but there is a greater benefit for the individuals going to university and I do not think that we can get away from that.
The second point that I want to address is the idea put forward—again, by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone—that the new system will not save any money. She quoted the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Higher Education Policy Institute, which have both questioned whether the policy will save money in the end. I say to the noble Baroness that our proposals contribute directly to paying down the deficit because they replace grants with loans, of which about 70 per cent are expected to be repaid in due course by those on higher earnings. We are reducing the direct funding of universities via the teaching grant—
I shall give way when I have finished this point and then the noble Baroness can spring to her feet. However, it is up to me to decide whether I give way. We are reducing the teaching grant and increasing the loans, and therefore universities’ funding will not be affected.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that HEPI has carried out substantial analytical work which suggests that the Government have been over-optimistic in their assumptions—I do not want to go into all the detail now—about how much of the loans will be repaid? It has come up with a figure much closer to 50 per cent than 70 per cent.
This is not the time or place for the noble Baroness and me to go into these matters. The noble Baroness and I have been arguing points for 14, 15 or even 20 years and we have never necessarily agreed, so I do not suppose that we would agree if we argued for a bit longer about this. The simple fact is that we are confident about the robustness of our assumptions, and HEPI obviously takes a different view.
Those were the two principal myths that I wanted to stress. I also make it clear that we have considered all these issues carefully. However, as I said in my opening remarks, we recognise that very strong feelings have been aroused. I underline and re-emphasise that our proposals mean that when graduates come to pay—and they will not pay until they earn more than £21,000, and in due course that £21,000 will be uprated in line with earnings—they will pay less per month than they do at the moment. I also stress that that will be needs-blank and that in many cases they will not be paying anything at all, particularly if they have taken a career break or are not earning up to that limit.
These regulations will also allow us to provide a funding stream which enables our universities to attract a flow of income to sustain their world-class position. I am very grateful that noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, stressed the global status of our universities. There is unprecedented global demand for higher education and we cannot let our HE sector drop behind our international competitors. I think that the number of people coming from overseas indicates that they are maintaining their position. However, in this current fiscal climate, that requires significant changes to higher education funding and student finance.
The next thing that I want to stress, which is contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, said, is that we greatly value the autonomy of our higher education sectors. They are not emanations of the state, as the noble Lord put it. Each university and college is autonomous and each will be free to decide what contribution it sets for its courses. As we know, a number of vice-chancellors in England have indicated publicly that the Government’s proposals for university funding are reasonable and retain fundamentally important progressive elements. Again, I am grateful for all those who have stressed, like the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, the progressive nature of our proposals.
I thank the Minister for giving way and I declare an interest in that I hold a chair with Liverpool John Moores University and am a visiting fellow at St Andrews. I want to test the Minister on whether the proposals are progressive, as has been asserted all the way through this debate, even though the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that they are regressive. The IFS says that those who will be hit the hardest are not those coming from the free-school-meals category but those in the 30 per cent category of the lowest income earners in this country. Does the Minister agree with that assessment?
I do not agree with that assessment because no one will be paying anything until they earn £21,000 or whatever the figure will be after it has been increased. That figure of £21,000 is roughly the average wage. Thereafter, we go on up to about £42,000 before people pay the maximum, which is RPI plus 3 per cent. I do not think that that is the credit card levels of interest that the noble Lord and others seem to imply. That is not a heavy repayment to ask of someone on £30,000, £40,000 or even £50,000 or £60,000. If we take medical students as an example, a GP now earns in excess of £100,000. When one thinks of their investment, that is not a bad return.
I now want to deal with timing, as it has been alleged that we are rushing this through too fast. I want to stress again that we have a responsibility to give students, their families and the universities certainty about what arrangements will be in place for the 2012-13 academic year. One has to remember that, although the White Paper will not come out until early in the new year, already by then students will be beginning to visit the universities that they want to apply to for 2012. They will be starting to apply in the summer of 2011 for some courses, so everyone, including the institutions, need to know where they stand and when they can plan ahead.
Finally, I come back to the nature of the amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has sought to reassure the House that his amendments are merely an invitation to the Government and another place to think again. I make it clear in no uncertain terms that this is not an occasion when we can think again. These two amendments are fatal and, if carried, would negate and override the vote in another place last week.
They will have an appropriate place in the curriculum. Universities will be able to charge fees to students and will receive them up front without the students having to repay anything. The fees will then go to the universities. That is what this is all about. In the end, the good universities will flourish and good courses will also flourish.
Has the noble Lord given thought to the fact that, although a vote against the regulations would cause chaos in its immediate wake, as he just mentioned, it would prompt immediate action, whereas the alternative of embracing these regulations will set in train something that will persist for years and arguably inflict huge damage? How does he weigh the two?
Voting against the regulations would inflict huge damage for the reasons that I have explained, given the nature of the loans and the fact that they will not be repaid until the individual is earning a reasonable amount. If the individual never earns anything or takes a career break, he will not have to repay. I do not believe that the regulations will inflict that damage. I am making it clear that for the House to reject the Motion would be fatal.
The Minister is reminding us that the difficulties on the consumer side are not as great as some noble Lords have suggested. I accept that this is an ingenious splice of a graduate tax and a graduate loan system that is highly protective of the poorest. I think that many noble Lords are asking the Minister to address the question of damage to the supply side produced by moving too rapidly. I hope that, before the Minister finishes his speech, he could say a bit about the Government’s assumptions on the range of closures, mergers, bankruptcies and disproportionate patterns of damage to certain courses but not others. That will give the House a better basis for understanding what the Government anticipate than continual harping on an issue that I accept is of great concern to prospective students and their families but has not been sufficiently well explained. The students are well protected, but the institutions may not be.
I believe that the institutions themselves can benefit from this, as I made clear in my opening remarks. The institutions are autonomous; they are not, as the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, put it, emanations of the state. Those autonomous institutions can make decisions on what courses they offer in seeking to attract appropriate students and on matters such as the length of courses and in what fields they are offered. There will be changes, but it is not for the Government to predict what will happen. We believe that we are making provision for students and those from less well-off families and we are providing opportunities for the institutions themselves. We also believe that it is necessary to put the measures in place so that everyone knows what is happening for the academic year starting in autumn 2012. That is why I stress again, as I have done two or three times, that the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, are fatal.
Does the Minister recall that, on 17 January 2007, the elected House gave this House the right to vote on statutory instruments when they might prove to be fatal, when it debated the all-party report on the conventions between the two Houses? The other place gave us that right without dissent and this House did the same the day before.
We have always accepted that this House has a right, if it feels appropriate, to vote down orders. However, this House should consider that very carefully before doing so. That is why I am warning the House that it ought to remember that these two amendments are fatal. For that reason, I recommend that the House rejects them.
I shall be brief. If I made points at length before, I apologise but I thought them important. I certainly do not apologise for the links that I have had with former Ministers responsible for education. That was always part of the consultative process. In those days I always thought that they were welcome, as I welcomed the opportunity as well. As a consequence they will make no difference at all to my Christmas card list. In those conversations we always agreed that one of the most cherished things about universities was their autonomy. It is certainly true that because some of the money that goes to universities flows through the Exchequer it was always the case that they were emanations in that sense, unless you can move it off the books, which is the cunning mechanism that is being described this time.
Of course they are fully and proudly autonomous organisations. Has there been change and reassessment on this side of the House? I hope so. There were always reasons for thinking about whether the proposals that we made were the right ones, and if you lose an election—and we did—it is essential that you think again about what you proposed, to consider whether it was most appropriate. I have no doubt that that has been the case for every party that has lost elections, including the previous one—including the Liberal Democrats, who lost that one as well.
I want to make only one or two specific comments. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, because it has been illuminating for me. I promise you, I could not do justice to what has been said; I would speak for too long and that would probably meet with your disapproval.
First, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that I am not chiding anyone about using the right. It was plain that the right to vote or speak against such a proposal was put into primary legislation for good reason. That is not chiding: I welcome it, I applaud it, and those who pushed it were right to push it.
Secondly, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, that I read documents and understand that students will not be repaying while they are at university. I hope that everyone in the House will do each other the credit of believing that they have read and understood the fundamental documents, without patronising one another.
I should declare an interest as chancellor of the University of Essex, of which the noble Lord is a distinguished graduate. He says that he has read all the relevant documents. Has he read the document issued yesterday by Universities UK, which is the umbrella body for all the universities in the United Kingdom? It states that, the cuts having been decided on,
“we recognise that the government's proposals are the best option in the current circumstances, and in many respects are more progressive than the current arrangements … Universities UK urges the House of Lords to support the raising of the tuition fee cap”.
My Lords, I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, knows perfectly well that I have read it. Not only have I read it but I understand what motivates it. If the ship is going down, you get in the lifeboat. That is a simple matter. You do not quarrel about the painted colour of the lifeboat; you get in the lifeboat.
I wanted to complete my point about the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. It is simply this. There is no question in my mind, and it is not a Dickensian point, that people who are in the lowest-income families do not set off to attract massive debt. There is a huge dissuasion in that. Anyone who has come up through one of those families or one of those areas will know it.
I completely share the noble Lord’s view about families with the poorest incomes, but why is it that his party—and, indeed, many of the demonstrators—consistently override the fact that the offer being made by the coalition would help those in the least well-off families by increasing the level at which they repay, by lengthening the period over which they repay and by recognising that they, including part-timers, should pay nothing up front? It is time that we had candour on both sides of this argument, not just on one.
I can only say to the noble Baroness, for whom I have genuinely huge respect, that the reality in those families is that they have to have confidence to believe that university is for them, despite the fact that there has often never been a history in those families of going to university. They have to believe that it will work for them and that they will not, through the rest of their lives, regret having made that change.
I think that we are coming towards the end, and I promised that I will be brief, so let me finish.
I ask the House: please study the facts, establish the evidence and take your decisions based on the knowledge that we have, not on hopeful guesses about what may take place. If you do not think that the evidence is there, set in motion a means of achieving that evidence, so that decisions can be taken on the evidence.
Many in this House with great distinction have argued over the years that we should always go for pre-legislative scrutiny and that we should spend t