Higher Education Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that accounts come under clause 6, not clause 4.

Alan Johnson: Thank you, Mr. Hood.

My final point is that we are talking about an established principle for the non-departmental public bodies, re-established as recently as 2002—if we do not want to go back to the rather ancient legislation that established the Office of Science and Technology and the research councils—when Parliament agreed in the Communications Act 2003 that Ofcom would be governed by exactly the same procedure. It is a sensible procedure, and the hon. Gentleman, having raised his questions and got his assurance, can quite safely withdraw the amendment. If not, I hope the Committee defeats it.

Mr. Collins: I found it quite useful that the Minister was able to give the assurance about the phrase that he and I have now both used—the unvarnished nature of reports—and on the basis that I am happy, on this matter at lest, to take his word for it, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5


Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I want to touch briefly on the issues in clause 5. In this morning's sitting the Minister was very helpful in clarifying the situation as regards the transfer of employment rights between the Arts and Humanities Research Board and

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the arts and humanities research council, and certainly managed to put on record a good reassurance for employees of the council.

I ask the Minister to spend a moment addressing the issue of the pension arrangements for the board—and, subsequently, the council—employees, given the uncertainties that currently exist surrounding pension provision and retirement ages in particular. I know that there is a degree of anxiety in the public services at the moment about retirement ages, and I would be surprised if the Minister had not come across similar concerns in his own constituency. I seek an explanation from the Minister of the structure and nature of the current schemes, given that the board, as it is currently constituted, is a company and charity, established after the Dearing report in 1997. It does not, as I understand it, currently have formal governmental status. Subsequent to the changes that have been discussed today, and the final enactment of the royal charter, it will become a non-departmental public body.

I want to establish for the record in this debate whether the pension provision that existed up to now is separate from that which would normally apply to people within the civil service, to people who fall under the Government employment umbrella. Will that change as a result of the transition to the new status of the organisation? Are the employees of the board, and subsequently the council, likely to be affected by the review currently taking place across many parts of Government about retirement ages—whether the age should be 60 or 65—given the uncertainty that this is causing for a number of employees? I should be grateful if the Minister could take a moment to clarify those points.

Alan Johnson: My understanding of the situation at the moment is that nothing changes. The employees concerned are already members of a public sector pension scheme. Therefore, all we are doing in clause 5 is ensuring that employment by the arts and humanities research council is included among the kinds of employment covered by the Superannuation Act 1972. That Act provides Ministers with the power to make the necessary contributions toward employee pensions under the various civil service pension schemes. The employees of the AHRB are already covered by the Superannuation Act 1972 and this clause will ensure that once they are transferred to the AHRC their pensions will transfer and be unaffected. This is a belt-and-braces job—my understanding is that the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 would cover them anyway, but this is an extra reassurance necessitated by the terms of the Superannuation Act 1972. Nothing changes for the employees, including their pensionable age. It may change through negotiation and discussion in the future, but when they transfer to this new arrangements, they do so with all their existing pension entitlement.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

<<52>>Clause 6

Accounts and records of Council

3 pm

Mr. Collins: I beg to move amendment No. 124, in

    clause 6, page 3, line 8, leave out

    'give the Secretary of State'

    and insert 'provide to Parliament'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 123, in

    clause 6, page 3, line 10, leave out subsection (3).

No. 129, in

    clause 6, page 3, line 14, leave out from 'General' to end of line 16.

Mr. Collins: The Minister and other members of the Committee may have a small sense of Groundhog Day on seeing the amendment because it is similar to some that we have just debated. I am sure that the Minister will reiterate that he is not in a position to accept the amendment, which relates to changing reporting requirements from a report being made to the Secretary of State to a report being made to Parliament. We also seek to delete the strong language relating to things being prepared in the form required and at the time required by the Secretary of State.

Now that we are discussing amendments to clause 6, which deals with the form in which the Secretary of State is likely to require accounts to be presented, I wonder whether the Minister will take the opportunity to let us know a little about the expected accountancy requirements and specifications that are likely to be laid upon the arts and humanities research council. Are they likely to differ significantly, or at all, from those that presently apply to the Arts and Humanities Research Board? Given that the explanatory notes set out that one of the purposes of the provisions is to streamline the research councils and enable the arts and humanities research council to benefit from the structures that have been put in place for the other research councils, is there a particular template or a preferred accountant? Does Research Councils UK have a collective accountant who operates for them?

Later on in clause 6, not least in the provisions that would be subject to amendment No. 129, there are references to the Comptroller and Auditor General, whose role is to look after the public interest and to be accountable to Parliament, but what is the Minister's expectation of the accountancy arrangements that the arts and humanities research council will put in place? Would the Minister explain whether his Department—or the Department of Trade and Industry, which in future will have responsibility for such matters—intends to use the arts and humanities research council and other research councils as a means of demonstrating best practice? That would encourage universities, with which the research councils would undoubtedly have many dealings, but which are somewhat more independent than the research councils, to follow a particular template.

The Government have an opportunity to establish whether they believe that there is a preferred accountancy model. Is there a preferred accountant

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that the Minister is encouraging research councils to do business with? Would there be a joint letting of a contract to one or more accountants, or would the research councils be expected to make their own separate arrangements? What is the current position? Perhaps the Minister will be able to clarify that.

Does the Arts and Humanities Research Board, which we established this morning has an observer position at the moment on the board of Research Councils UK, have different accountancy arrangements from the other research councils, or has there already been a degree of integration, consolidation and consistency in that field?

Given that amendment No. 123 suggests that the Opposition have some reservations about the requirements relating to the form and the time being required by the Secretary of State, it might be convenient to point out to the Committee that there is a reference in subsection (4) to 30 November, a date to which the Minister made reference earlier. He pointed out that, on past precedents, that was when the Secretary of State receives a report on the previous financial year.

Subsection (4) states that the accounts must be

    ''given . . . to the Comptroller and Auditor General on or before 30 November''.

Amendment No. 129 would remove that specification. Does the Minister hope that that date would move forward? His earlier remarks established that material comes to the Secretary of State on or around 30 November. It is conceivable that material might go to the Secretary of State and to the Comptroller and Auditor General on the same day. Is that sensible? What has been past practice?

Under current practice, the Secretary of State receives the material on 30 November. The Comptroller and Auditor General could therefore have the report on the same date, without comment from the Secretary of State. The Minister has pointed out the potential advantages of the Secretary of State or his officials making a commentary on that material before they receive it.

What is the Government's view on the accountancy practices of research councils? How do they expect things to change with the transition from the board to the council? Can the Minister reiterate why there needs to be such a prescriptive format for the presentation of those matters and why he wishes to reject amendment No. 123. Can he develop his argument about the importance of 30 November?

Mr. Rendel: I wanted to carry on from the point where I was interrupted earlier, Mr. Hood. You directed me to come in on clause 6, although I notice that clause 4(1) also mentions accounts.

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