Higher Education Bill

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Clause 4

Returns, reports etc. by Council to Secretary of State

Mr. Collins: I beg to move amendment No. 11, in

    clause 4, page 2, line 25, leave out

    'give the Secretary of State'

    and insert 'shall submit to Parliament'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 10, in

    clause 4, page 2, line 28, leave out subsection (3).

No. 12, in

    clause 4, page 2, line 30, leave out subsection (4).

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Mr. Collins: The amendments, all of which have broadly the same effect, address an issue that is similar to those we have just discussed, although not exactly the same. The Minister may well tell us that, once again, these are the arrangements that are in place for all the other research councils and therefore that they are, by definition, the best of all possible solutions in the best of all possible worlds.

The present arrangements require various reports to be made to the Secretary of State. Our amendments propose that that information be submitted to Parliament instead, because we believe that it is important that Parliament's role as the primary guardian of the interests of the taxpayer is respected and understood. It is for Parliament, collectively, not through powers subordinated or transferred to the Secretary of State, to be in full possession of all the facts relating to the functions, efficiency and operations of what Members on both sides of the Committee agree will be an extremely important new creation: the arts and humanities research council.

The work done by the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General is widely welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. For their purposes, and to strengthen their role, it would be helpful for it to be clear, whenever Parliament has the chance to debate these matters, that we think that we should steadily but consistently increase the amount of material that is reported to Parliament, rather than simply to a Secretary of State.

Subsection (3) states:

    ''The Secretary of State must lay a copy of any report''

he receives before each House of Parliament, but that is not quite the same as the council reporting to Parliament in the first instance. That is why our amendments would delete subsections (3) and (4) and ensure that the report goes direct to Parliament in the first instance.

2.45 pm

We also note—this is the purpose of amendment No. 12—that, under subsection (4), the copy of a report that is laid before Parliament may include any comments that the Secretary of State may have on the report. Again, the Minister may tell us, and I am sure that he will do so in all sincerity, that the Secretary of State would merely wish to register items of interest, express the odd opinion or perhaps draw to the attention of his or her fellow Members of Parliament matters of special interest or concern. However, we perhaps all believe that it is helpful if Parliament reaches its conclusions on the basis of an unvarnished report from the arts and humanities research council, so that it can then consider and deliberate. The Select Committees of the House might wish to call the Secretary of State before them to express opinions at that point. If we ensure that the Secretary of State will control the timing of the presentation of the report, will be the recipient of the report and will publish it only when he has had a chance fully to consider it and to append comments, there is a danger that the clarity of the relationship between the council and

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Parliament, and therefore with the taxpayer and the electorate, may become blurred in a way that could prove to be unsatisfactory.

I am sure that the Minister will say that in this, as in many other aspects of the Bill, the Government are merely seeking to mirror and reproduce the arrangements for other research councils. It is far from the purpose of Opposition Members to allege that other research councils are mismanaged or inefficient, but when we have an opportunity to consider these matters in Parliament, we may want to see whether we can make things even better than they are now. That is not to say that things are unsatisfactory, merely that they could perhaps be improved still further.

Therefore, I would welcome the Minister's comments on the question of reporting to Parliament as opposed to reporting to the Secretary of State. While he is considering that, perhaps he can give the Committee a little more information. How frequently, for example, would he expect the Secretary of State to lay a report before Parliament? Subsection (2) refers to the report being generated as soon as possible after the end of the financial year. Does the Minister therefore expect the presentation of the report to Parliament by the Secretary of State, perhaps with his comments, to take place within one, two or three months of receipt of the report from the council? Should we expect the council to produce a report only once a year, or might it produce a report more frequently in some circumstances? Can the Minister give an undertaking that, if the Secretary of State asks the council to produce reports more frequently, such reports would be laid before Parliament under the procedures set out in the clause? Finally, does the Minister take the view that it is unnecessary to review the research councils' present reporting structures because they have proved to be so successful, or would he be prepared to consider reviewing them perhaps not immediately, but over a four or five-year rolling period?

It would be helpful for all those concerned with what I am sure will prove to be an extremely successful entity—the arts and humanities research council—if the Minister can offer us clarification on the questions that I have raised. If he can, at that point I shall sit down.

Mr. Rendel: I join the welcome to you to the Committee, Mr. Hood.

I got a little lost when the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was asking all his questions, so I may be repeating one that he has already asked, but I do not think that I am.

Will the Minister also tell us, if he can, how many times over the past year a Secretary of State has added comments to any of the reports that have presumably been given to them by all the other research councils, before laying them before the House?

Alan Johnson: I shall argue that we want this research council to be consistent with the other seven, and that the procedures should be consistent with other non-departmental public bodies. The

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procedures in the clause, including those in the two subsections that the amendments would remove—the lead amendment would amend another subsection—are entirely consistent with those policies. The research councils do not distribute research funds in their own right; they distribute them on behalf of Government under the auspices of the Office of Science and Technology.

The amendments would leave the arts and humanities research council in a different position from the rest of the research councils, but I take the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that that is not a total argument for rejecting the amendment. However, the onus is on my hon. Friend to give a good reason why we should leave the arts and humanities research council in a different position.

This is not a bureaucracy argument; reports will always come before Parliament, but at the moment can they do so via the Secretary of State, with any comments attached that the Secretary of State might wish to add. In answer to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), no Secretary of State has ever added any comments to research by the research councils. That is not to say that they will never want to. At the moment it is—to use the term used by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale—the unvarnished report that goes to Parliament, but it comes to the Secretary of State first. What would happen if it went direct to Parliament? Surely it is sensible for the Secretary of State to receive the report and then to be obliged, as the clause requires, to lay that report before Parliament with any comments, if there are any, and so far there has not been the need for any.

I cannot understand why my hon. Friend thinks that that procedure is inefficient, improper or bureaucratic, and that point comes up in later amendments, too. It seems perfectly reasonable for a Government of whatever persuasion with responsibility for the distribution of funding by research councils to report to Parliament.

Mr. Collins: It may well be that the Minister can offer an assurance to many people on that point. He has explained that successive Governments have hitherto always produced the report, and so far there has been no precedent of which he is aware of producing commentary on that report before doing so. Is he prepared to give the Committee an undertaking that, in future, under the arrangements, the Secretary of State will always produce the report without amendment, deletion or insertion, apart from the comments that we have already discussed?

Alan Johnson: Yes. I hesitate for a second, but I think that I can give that assurance. My understanding is that those reports have gone to Parliament, and my understanding of the Bill at the moment is that the Secretary of State must lay before the House a copy of any report. Subsection (4) says that the report ''may

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include any comments''. Parliament will see the unvarnished report, together with some comments by the Secretary of State.

I can also give the hon. Gentleman the answer to several other questions. The reports are submitted annually. The requirement is that it is submitted by 30 November; that is the period after the end of the financial year by which the research councils have to submit that information.

Mr. Rendel: What the Minister says raises some memories in my mind of the arguments that came up at the time of the Sharman report, when there were questions about how the accounts of various non-departmental bodies should be audited. The idea that the Sharman report came up with was that, since the money was originally voted by Parliament, all such bodies should report back through the National Audit Office to Parliament, rather than report back through their own private auditors. The situation that we are discussing seems similar, in a way. I am therefore surprised to hear the Minister argue as he does.

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