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BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),


Question agreed to.

10.15 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I know that you are sensitive to the rights of Back Benchers and of Parliament. May I draw your attention to the fact that statutory instrument 1998 No. 1673, which is on today's Votes and Proceedings, is not available in the Vote Office? You will agree that that is, to say the least, unfortunate, and an unforgivable omission by the responsible Department. Members of Parliament are entitled to be able to go to the Vote Office to obtain papers listed.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The instrument was laid on Friday, and "Erskine May" tells me that, when such drafts or instruments are laid, copies should be made available as soon as possible. Perhaps the Government will see to it that the instrument is made available.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: I have dealt with that point of order.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have for some years been trying to get Departments to answer letters from Members of Parliament within a sensible time. A week ago, I put down a series of questions to all Ministers asking how long it was taking them to reply, what targets had been set, and how often targets were being achieved. Seven days later, I have had answers from several Departments to the effect that they will write to me shortly.

The more complicated matter on which I seek your advice is that several Ministers have referred me to an answer given today by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. However, it is 10.20 pm and I have yet to receive that answer. Neither the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster nor his deputy knew that they were supposed to be answering that question. Members of Parliament are being referred to an answer that is not available. Can you help the Minister or me by saying how Ministers should reply to parliamentary questions and letters from Members?

Madam Speaker: I think that there is a further point of order.

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The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) has just brought the matter to my attention. I will look into it, and I will let him have a reply within 24 hours.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory rose--

Madam Speaker: Is this a separate point of order to the previous one, on which I gave a ruling?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: It is about the statutory instrument, which names a constituent of mine. A point of order has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), but it relates to my constituent, and this is the second time that the same thing has happened.

Madam Speaker: The point relates to the Food (Cheese) (Emergency Control) (Amendment No. 2) Order 1998 (SI, 1998, No. 1673).

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Yes, and it is my constituent's livelihood that is at stake. In May, when the order was first laid, there was the same failure to notify the House or me. An apology was given by the Minister of State, Department of Health, who said that that failure resulted from the urgency of the matter. That was two months ago.

The Government have had plenty of time to work out whether the matter is urgent. The second order that is laid pursuant to this should be notified to me as the constituency Member of Parliament and to the House. I put it to you, Madam Speaker, that this is not simply a discourtesy, but a contempt of the House. I suggest also that it is a discourtesy to you that this continues to occur despite verbal apologies from the Department concerned.

Madam Speaker: It is hardly contempt of the House. If the right hon. Gentleman claims that it is contempt of the House, I must have that in writing. I hope that I have given something of a reprimand in making the point that, as the statutory instrument was laid on Friday, "Erskine May" tells us that it should be available in the Vote Office. I ask for that to occur before the rising of the House tonight.

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Orders of the Day

Teaching and Higher Education Bill [Lords]

Lords amendment considered.

Clause 25

Imposition of conditions as to fees at further and higher education institutions in Scotland

10.20 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): I beg to move,


Madam Speaker: I inform the House that the Lords amendment in lieu of the words so left out of the Bill involves privilege.

Mr. Blunkett: I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and his hon. Friends for the enormous patience that they have shown in recent weeks during the to-ing and fro-ing between this place and the House of Lords. It has been a travesty to see in the newspapers and hear in debates in the other place signs of the failure to understand the Government's proposition in terms of four-year degree courses in Scotland. Intelligent people should understand clearly why we have introduced the measure. They signally fail to understand that we have done so precisely because there are different education and legal systems in Scotland, and then criticise us for taking action that underpins and underlines that distinction. It is frankly breathtaking.

The House listened to the views of the upper House when we returned again and again to this aspect of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. For that reason, I do not intend to detain the House for long tonight. [Hon. Members: "Shame."] However, I must clearly detain the House long enough in order to explain to those Opposition Members who are shouting, "Shame," why we are carrying through this proposition, and why the motion carried by the House of Lords would create anomalies that would be much worse than those claimed in relation to our proposition.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I will when I have made some progress.

If the Scottish education system is different--and we all accept that it is--if four-year courses are the norm because highers last for a year, as opposed to A-levels, which last for two years, and if, therefore, there is a different system that takes account--

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): You have lost the House.

Mr. Blunkett: I fear not; the only person that I have lost is the hon. Gentleman.

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If there is a programme of four-year degrees in Scotland in order to reflect the situation in terms of highers, if our proposition reflects the need to take account of that difference--which was picked up by Sir Ron Garrick in the report that he produced at the time of the Dearing inquiry--and if Lord Dearing has said, including in speeches in the House of Lords, that his report recommends that the distinction should be recognised and built into law, is it surprising to anyone that the Government should reflect the Garrick inquiry and Lord Dearing's recommendations, and act upon them?

Does it surprise anyone that we took action to ensure that the fourth year in Scotland was seen as different from that in England, Wales or Northern Ireland? I would have thought not, but as Opposition Members are clearly unconvinced, and want to pass something different, I would like to explain why we shall not accept that.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The right hon. Gentleman started his explanation by noting that the university system is Scotland is different from that in the rest of United Kingdom, and in one sense it is. Why were my constituents, 2 per cent. of whom end up each year in Scottish universities, given the same application form to cover Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland? The same Universities and Colleges Admissions Service system processes their applications. If the systems are so different, why has there always been a common system for application to university, allowing students to choose their courses on the basis of their suitability?

Mr. Blunkett: That explains why we are having some difficulty in outlining the difference to Opposition Members. It is not a question of the simplicity of the administration of application, but of the extent, level and timing of tuition. That is the difference between the English, Welsh and Northern Irish and the Scottish systems. We are talking about an historic difference in education systems, and narrowing the differences in respect of the likely expenditure that students will have to incur. That was the difference that the Dearing and Garrick committees wanted to be reflected, and it is the difference that we are reflecting. To do otherwise would create other anomalies.

If someone from Northumberland went to Newcastle with an amendment passed to reflect the fourth year in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, we would create an enormous anomaly. It would result in 60,000 people taking four-year degrees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland complaining that the anomaly affected them rather than a small number of students who go to Scottish universities from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.


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