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Column 389Stern, Michael
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Timothy Wood and
Mr. Timothy Kirkhope.
Question accordingly negatived.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Before we move to amendment No. 27, I have to say that I understand that there was a slight technical hitch earlier in that a small Government amendment, amendment No. 1, which should have been moved formally, was not. With the concurrence of the House, I shall put that now.
Amendment made : No. 1, in page 4, line 11, after institution', insert
(i) made by either of Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors of Schools, or
(ii)'.-- [Mr. Boswell.]
No. 29, in page 14, line 18, leave out or more frequently'.
Mr. Foster : With this group of amendments we move on from part I of the Bill to part II. Part I was characterised by legislation hastily put together with a considerable lack of consultation and an unwillingness by the Government to listen to the wide range of views and expressions of concern put to them. There is always an exception to the rule and part II of the Bill is that exception.
Following the ebullient remarks of the Secretary of State at the Tory party conference and the original proposals for part II, the Government have expressed a willingness to listen to the widespread concerns and anxieties put to them. As a result they were willing significantly to reduce the size and complexity of part II, notwithstanding some of the worries expressed, even by Conservative Members, not least the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and some of his colleagues.
The amendment arises because the Government, having sensibly listened to the views of many people who are concerned about part II, added a number of bits and pieces to that slimmed-down part of the Bill in Committee. They
Column 390have tacked on a number of matters that seem incredibly petty. The legislation has sprouted a range of bureaucratic amendments in Committee. It seems ironic that those additions were made in Committee at the very time that we were debating in the House the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, the purpose of which was to set business free from wasteful and time-consuming bureaucracy. It is sad that the reverse of that has happened as a result of the amendments tabled to part II.
My amendments refer to just one part of the additional bureaucracy that has been tacked on, particularly in terms of the requirement in the legislation for reports to be brought forward possibly more frequently than once a year. Such a requirement is out of all proportion. If annual reports are all that is required from large commercial companies, it seems peculiar to make it a statutory requirement for a small part of one cost centre out of many in each university to report more frequently.
It would be largely impossible to produce union accounts more frequently than once a year without extra cost and bureaucracy. Similarly, more frequent information about affiliations--possibly leading to balloting more than once a year on the continuation of affiliations--would be time- consuming and expensive, and would almost certainly lead to a low turn-out and lack of student interest. It would be a shame to include what are, after all, nit-picking requirements that will serve no useful purpose, but could lead to significantly increased costs at the expense of other more valuable student activities. It is difficult to understand the Government's apparent obsession with wanting to determine in such detail how universities should conduct their internal affairs.
Only today the National Union of Students, in conjunction with the National Westminster bank, has produced a survey, which reveals that nearly 40 per cent. of students in higher education institutions face hardship and poverty. The Government would be far better off tackling the real difficulties faced in higher education at present rather than wasting their time with tokenist bits of legislation to deal with a problem that does not exist.
There has been a great welcome on both sides of the House and, more importantly, outside the House for the Government's willingness to listen to the many criticisms about their earlier intentions in respect of student unions. It is a pity that, having done that, the Government have tacked on a number of unnecessary bits of bureaucracy. I hope that the amendments will be accepted, thereby slightly reducing the number of unnecessary additions.
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : The amendment reflects the concern of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. The committee did not have the courtesy to send me a copy of its brief for the Report stage of the Bill, but I have seen a copy of it and I know that the committee has expressed concerns.
The provisions mentioned by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) relate to the financial report, the report listing affiliations to external organisations and the frequency with which current lists of affiliations can be submitted for approval to members. The Bill does not state that those events must take place more than once a year. It simply provides the option so that if the institutions, the students union or the members decide for some reason that they want to report more than once a year, the Bill allows that possibility.
Column 391The letter sent by the chairman of the CVCP to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education complains about the level of detail being inserted into the Bill, particularly into clause 22. The hon. Member for Bath has reflected that concern. The model is not the model of voluntary student union membership that many hon. Members--and, indeed, I think, the Government--would have preferred. But it is the one that the CVCP, through its disproportionate representation in the House of Lords, has managed to insert into the Bill.
Hon. Members want to ensure that the model will fulfil the objectives that we seek. The overriding objective of the Bill and Conservative Members is to introduce the idea of voluntary membership of student unions. Another clear and important objective is to stop the abuses that have occurred over the years.
Subsection (2)(j), (k) and (l) of clause 22, which the CVCP describes as unnecessarily repetitious, actually makes the activities of student unions more transparent. The majority of students might actually get to know what the student union is doing in their name. For example, in one term Essex university students union affiliated or sent donations to the campaign against racist laws, the baby milk action campaign, the campaign against the war in the Gulf, the campaign against oppression in Iraq and the national abortion campaign. If more students had known about that sort of nonsense, they might have acted to stop it.
In December 1993, Swansea university students union passed a motion to affiliate to the national abortion campaign. In the same year, Lancaster university spent £100 affiliating to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Again, students and the governing bodies should have every opportunity to get to know about that sort of behaviour. What beggars belief is that in most cases the money that is being used to affiliate or give donations to such organisations comes from the public purse ; it is provided by the taxpayer. That is iniquitous.
Perhaps the most blatant example of political campaigning on taxpayers' funds comes from the National Union of Students itself. As many hon. Members know, at the last general election the NUS set up a campaign called Target 70. The aim was to target 70 key marginal seats with the clear intention of unseating Conservative candidates.
Mr. Riddick : I have to tell my hon. Friend that after the election the then president-elect of the NUS, Ms Lorna Fitzsimons, boasted of victories in Birmingham and Cambridge. It is important to ensure that that sort of campaign never happens again. The NUS, which is currently trying to promote itself as a moderate and sensible organisation, is actually still involved in that sort of left-wing nonsense.
The chairman of the CVCP wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister saying :
"As we have already said to your office we consider these amendments to be a long way from the spirit in which the Bill left the House of Lords."
He was referring to a number of amendments passed in Committee. The CVCP should recognise the fact that the Bill that left the House of Lords was a long way from the
Column 392spirit of the Bill that the Government wanted, which the 50 Members of Parliament who were present during my Adjournment debate two years ago wanted, and which the 200 Members of Parliament who signed an early-day motion calling for voluntary membership four years ago wanted.
The CVCP and their Lordships should be aware of the fact that many Members of this House who do not have a vested interest are unhappy with the way in which their Lordships have changed the Bill. If, in practice, this model of student union does not provide genuine voluntary membership and genuine freedom of association, the CVCP and their Lordships will be responsible. If the abuses by student unions and the misuse of public funds continue, the CVCP and their Lordships will be responsible. They should not complain too much if this House tries to tighten up the provisions of clause 22.
If the Bill fails, at some stage in the future Parliament will have to consider withdrawing public financing from student unions. In the meantime, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will recommend rejection of the amendments.
Mr. Boswell : My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) has, not for the first time, spoken with great passion of his concerns for and experience of student unions. I assure him that I shall not recommend acceptance of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).
My hon. Friend, in his perceptive way, spotted the underlying flaw in the amendments. He quoted from a letter I received from the chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Dr. Ken Edwards. In fact, the concern that he expressed in that letter is mirrored in the amendments. It is based on a misconception, as I shall explain in a moment.
First, I must make it clear for the record that the provision to allow information to be issued more than once a year was not added in Committee. That flexibility was present when the Bill came to this House from another place and had been considered there. Therefore, we have added nothing new in that respect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley raised wider concerns. We have sought to introduce a Bill under the constraints within which we operate, in a way that embodies the firm principles set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his statement to the House 12 months ago. We strongly believe that the amendments made in Committee--a number of them in response to concerns expressed by my hon. Friend--have strengthened and improved the Bill. They will not involve any excess of or increase in bureaucracy.
The hon. Member for Bath referred to the tangential matter of the hardship survey published by the NUS and others today. I remind him that the authoritative survey carried out every three years by our Department, with the co-operation of the NUS, was last published in December and, not to put it too highly, its findings and the drop-out rate, which has been broadly stable, are not consistent with the assertion in the new survey that there is widespread hardship and a greater propensity to drop out. That needs to be put on the record because we continue to provide uninterrupted funds, which we believe are sufficient for the purpose.
The effect of the amendments, if not the intention of the hon. Member for Bath, would be to restrict to an annual
Column 393basis the publication of student union financial reports, details of external union affiliations and approval of the current list of affiliations by union members. That would be restrictive and there would be no advantage in it. The existing provisions in the Bill, which were inherited from another place, give governing bodies the choice of when to publish financial reports of student unions and details of their external affiliations and when to submit current lists of external affiliations for approval of union members, provided that it is done at least once a year. There are special provisions for fresh affiliations, which were discussed during an earlier stage of the Bill.
There is one practical difficulty with the amendments, which is germane to the reason we wish to reject them. If an institution and a union wished to alter their accounting period by having a short catch-up period--so that they could alter their reporting year end in the way that a company can from, say, the end of the fiscal year in April to the end of the academic year in July--they could not do so because, under the amendments, there would be some rather wooden provision requiring them to continue for a whole year.
We envisage the annual publication requirement as the minimum necessary, but the actual frequency of reporting should be a matter for local determination. To put it another way--and those hon. Members who served on the Committee will remember my reference to modal verbs--the issue is whether the particular conjunction is disjunctive or conjunctive.
Mr. Don Foster : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way because it may help to save time. Will he give an assurance that the Government will at no stage place a requirement on institutions to provide a report more than once a year ?
Mr. Boswell : I was asked to give an assurance that there would be no such power, and I give that assurance. I also give the assurance that there will be no pressure. It is entirely a matter for the institution. Our proposals provide the necessary and maximum flexibility in the requirement that there should be an annual publication. It is up to institutions whether they wish to report more frequently in the light of local circumstances. Student attendance may differ from the conventional academic year and it might be appropriate, therefore, to report in a different cycle. Whatever the hon. Gentleman's intentions, which I appreciate were honourable, the effect of his amendments would be not to reduce, but to increase bureaucracy and not to increase but to reduce flexibility. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw them in the light of my assurances.
Mr. Foster : I am delighted by the assurances that have been given. I would like to take issue with the Minister's comments about the two surveys to which he referred, but I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would rule that out of order. I welcome those assurances and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn .
(2A) The union should return to students who are not or have ceased to be members any fees or grants paid by them or on their behalf or by the institution, in proportion to the part of the academic year for which the student is not a member.'.
The choice that the Government have extended to so many areas of life has not been extended to students. Student unions remain a closed shop--a fact that has been adequately debated in Committee--and the opt-out that has been granted to students is inadequate. The absence of choice is an insult to students and it would be compounded if this little, simple amendment were not passed today.
At the beginning of any academic year, a grant is made per capita to the student union, but if, in the exercise of his opt-out, a student were to withdraw his support for the student union, there is no mechanism for the return of any part of his subscription to the source from which it came. If the student were to cease to be a student, he still would not receive such a rebate. Once the subscription is made to the student union, it is there for the whole academic year, regardless of whether the student wants to opt out of membership of the student union or leaves the university altogether. That is inequitable.
This simple straightforward amendment would provide a pro rata rebate for the period in which the student did not wish to be a member of the student union or did not attend the university and it would remedy the situation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who is a sensible Oxford man, will accept the amendment.
Mr. Enright : Is it not interesting that the Secretary of State, whom we all saw preening himself on television declaiming to the Conservative party conference what he would do about student unions, has not been present for a single part of the debate on the National Union of Students ? That is shoddy and disgraceful. I do not just keep my thoughts to myself but say them openly.
The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) should be withdrawn at once. It is a disgrace. One needs to tidy up institutions from time to time and no institution is perfect, but it is wrong to suggest that the things that the NUS has done wrong are of such an order that a Bill is required to crush it--I pray to the Lord that it will be turned down.
What lies behind the hostility of the hon. Members for Rutland and Melton and for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) is worrying. I have already examined in Committee the problems of the hon. Member for Colne Valley. He used to like people when he came here--it says so in his Who's Who entry--but he does not like people any more ; he has taken that out of his entry.
Mr. Enright : I am attempting to look into the psychology of hon. Members who would table such petty amendments to what is already a rather petty Bill. I am trying to suggest that their motives are unworthy and not consistent with the aims of hon. Members.
Column 395The hon. Member for Colne Valley is a strong and unashamed supporter of the Economic League, yet he and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton talk about choice. Choice for students
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I think that I can deal with this without further assistance. The purpose of the debate is to discuss the merits or otherwise of the amendment or amendments under consideration. I do not believe that an investigation of the psychology of hon. Members who may have tabled the amendments falls within that category.