Higher Education Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not debating the Chairman's ruling.

Mr. Rendel: Not for a moment, Mr. Hood. I would not dream of ignoring your ruling, which is why I sat down as soon as you made it.

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There is an interesting, if rather nice, constitutional point here about the precedents between the Government and Parliament. The Sharman report made it clear that Parliament votes the money for everything that the Government do, so reports on how that money has been spent should come back to Parliament. Clearly, Parliament may then question the Government about the way in which that money has been spent and how they handled the vote they were given. There is an argument to be made in line with the Conservative amendment. As that money has also been voted by Parliament—albeit indirectly—the reports should come back to Parliament in the first instance. Can the Minister comment on that matter?

Alan Johnson: I shall try to cover the points raised. The hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale and for Newbury have strayed into wider areas, but I should like to return to the amendment.

Amendment No. 124 would remove the requirement for the AHRC to provide a statement of accounts to the Secretary of State and transfer that line of reporting to Parliament. That is the Groundhog Day element of the matter. It is sensible that the AHRC—like any other public body—should be accountable to the Secretary of State and provide statements to him. We have established that it is cheap to provide the money in that way.

Mr. Collins: The Minister advances an interesting and radical constitutional doctrine. He has just said that all public bodies should be accountable to a Secretary of State, not to Parliament. Is that his view?

Alan Johnson: I hesitate to point out that, ultimately, the statement will come to Parliament via the Comptroller and Auditor General. That was the hon. Member for Newbury's point. It is right that it should be provided to the Secretary of State first.

Similarly, in the case of amendment No. 123, as the Secretary of State will be allocating the funding, it is only appropriate that the AHRC provides statements of accounts for each financial year in accordance with the specification from the Secretary of State that we discussed in a similar amendment.

Amendment No. 129 would remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to transmit to the Comptroller and Auditor General a statement of accounts in a specified time period. As specified in clause 6, that time limit is there because it is consistent with the wording of the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000. That Act requires Departments to send their accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General by 30 November each year, and there is no intention of changing that requirement, which is governed by an act that governs all non-departmental Government bodies.

That does not differ from the AHRB arrangements. That is exactly how the AHRB operates, except that it has to go through a convoluted bureaucracy, because it is a company limited by guarantee. It reports as a company and to the Charity Commission as a registered charity. The provision will avoid making them go through that process. There will only, therefore, need to be a single report. In the

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Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000, 30 November is the latest date set out in statute, but best practice is to lay accounts before Parliament before the summer recess, and that is what the AHRC will be expected to do. That answers the point: the latest date that accounts can be submitted is 30 November, but best practice is that they are submitted much earlier.

Mr. Collins: The Minister is elucidating the point very helpfully. As we all know, technology—in particular, information technology—is marching along rapidly. In the world of e-mail, it is much quicker to produce most documents than was the case some years ago. He referred to 30 November as being written into legislation in 2000. Is it his understanding that Government might be prepared to consider—not immediately or as part of this legislation, but in due course—the case for bringing the date forward? That would reflect the fact that it is now easier to produce reports than was the case some years ago?

Alan Johnson: My radicalism has run out. I do not think that I can go that far, but it is sensible for any Government to keep arrangements under review. If there is any technology that enables us to improve the accounting arrangements, we should use that.

The other question that the hon. Gentleman asked was about which accountants are used. The AHRB has its own accountants. That will be the arrangement that will apply after it has converted to a research council. Those accountants work with the National Audit Office.

Mr. Collins: The Minister has answered that part of the question. The other part of it was whether—either now that the AHRB is part of the research councils' family but not itself a research council, or in future when it becomes a research council—he would expect that the research councils collectively, including the arts and humanities one, would share the same accountant or, at least, the same accounting arrangements?

Alan Johnson: That would not be an expectation. That they use the same accounting arrangements is important, but I do not feel qualified to comment on whether they should use the same accountant. I am not sure whether there is sense in that arrangement, but I will pass the hon. Gentleman's comments on to the DTI.

The hon. Gentleman again asks us to make changes. It is a probing amendment, but I hope that I have given some answers. Making the changes would be inconsistent with the operation and accountability of the existing research councils, all of which have the same requirements. It would also be at odds with the well-established framework of accountability for non-departmental public bodies where public money is concerned. It is right that the statement of accounts be laid before Parliament, as would happen under our proposals. The amendment would prevent their submission to the Secretary of State first. The previous set of amendments removed the Secretary of State altogether.

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The set of amendments under discussion does not provide for the Secretary of State to receive the statement of accounts, instead it goes to Parliament; it removes him from asking for the accounts in a form and at a time when he requires; but it reintroduces him into the process to transmit each statement of accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General. That is slightly illogical, but for no other reason than that it would be inconsistent with the current sensible arrangements.

Having given the assurances and the information that hon. Members requested I hope that they either withdraw the amendments or that the Committee rejects them.

3.15 pm

Mr. Collins: The Minister has once again been able to provide several important assurances and clarifications. I am not sure that we agree with him that our amendments were entirely illogical; after all we would not wish to make the post of Secretary of State entirely redundant. None the less, on the basis of his assurances and considering that he has advanced arguments that he has already used persuasively, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Northern ireland: reserved matters

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

Mr. Collins: I have two brief questions, as this is a relatively straightforward clause that relates to the inclusion of references to the arts and humanities research council in schedule 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which deals with reserved matters. Can the Minister offer the Committee some clarification of the status of the reserved matters under the 1998 Act? Does he imagine that the inclusion of the AHRC will be permanent alongside the other research councils, or will the British and Irish Governments and the various parties in Northern Ireland discuss it as part of a review of the Good Friday agreement? Are the provisions likely to be on the statute book for a very long time, or are they to be provisional and temporary?

Alan Johnson: I think that they will be permanent, not least because the devolved Northern Ireland Administration participated in the consultation on and examination of the issue. When we framed the legislation, we took into account that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), had written to me in July last year to inform me that he was content to make the AHRC a reserved matter in Northern Ireland. That is with the complete agreement of all those interested parties in Northern Ireland, and particularly the higher education community and local

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politicians who were involved in the original process. With that, I hope that the Committee will allow clause 7 to stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Charter of council

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

Chris Grayling: Again, I have a quick point for the Minister to clarify. The clause deals with amending or revoking the charter of the AHRC. As the Minister made clear in the debate this morning, the measures that we are discussing do not formally enact the charter; it is a matter that goes beyond this place. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain that framework to the Committee so that we can understand the context of the clause.

The clause deals with the powers to amend or revoke the charter and the operation of any amendment made. Although the creation of the charter is a separate process from the debate on the Bill, it is, none the less, a matter of concern and interest to Parliament, when mechanisms exist to amend the charter of the AHRC, if it is not necessary to bring amendments, changes or the ultimate decision to revoke back before Parliament as part of a further piece of primary legislation.

Therefore, I should be grateful if the Minister would take a moment to explain the legal framework and the relationship between the Bill and the charter, and say how any future changes might be made at a parliamentary level as opposed to a level that goes beyond this place and is represented by the charter's royal dimension.

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