Higher Education Bill

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Mr. Boswell: I am asking for this issue to be clarified in schematic terms. If the alleged offence takes place, or is apparent, at a certain time, the student complainant has six months to take it through the academic institution's internal procedures, and then must have filed suit with a court in order to obtain redress. However, that can be stayed while, at the same time, he is pursuing the parallel issue of an investigation by the student adjudicator. Is that broadly what the Under-Secretary is arguing?

Mr. Lewis: No, not really. This is complex, but it is important that we get it right. I do not know how long it takes to exhaust university internal procedures, although obviously we hope that it will be as short a length of time as possible. It is only at the point when all of those processes have been exhausted that the six-month period begins and, having gone to court, the student can make it clear that the OIA is considering the matter. Until the adjudicator has adjudicated, the court will not say that the six-month limit to the DDA legislation has begun.

Mr. Collins: I recognise that the Under-Secretary is genuinely trying to help here, but I wonder if I may tease out from him the potentially significant difference between the provisions of new clause 4 and what he is saying. As I understand it, he is saying that a disabled student, who therefore has an awful lot of other things to worry about, needs to flag up that they are going to the OIA right at the beginning when they first go to court, in order for the court to stay the start of the stopwatch. If for whatever reason the student does not do so, then the stopwatch starts and runs to the normal six-month timetable. Surely that is inferior to the automatic two-month extension provided by new clause 4.

Mr. Lewis: As long as the court is informed at any stage within the six-month period that the OIA is considering the matter, the court will suspend its consideration and will not be able to argue that the time period has elapsed.

Mr. Willis: That is not clear.

Mr. Lewis: I am trying to clarify the position, which I hope offers reassurances to disabled students, their representative organisations and hon. Members, and addresses the anxieties they have outlined.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful, and if I may say—as I did not earlier, and it would be most churlish not to—I am most grateful for the Under-Secretary's remarks personally.

Will he make it clear to the Committee that there is no handle within the Bill in any sense regulating or constraining the operation of the university's internal procedures? I do not want to debate that now, but if the university is carrying out an internal inquiry there

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is no time limit on that. There is no way of reducing it to a reasonable time if it is clearly unreasonable for the student who has made the complaint.

Mr. Lewis: There will be a debate later on in this Committee about time scales and clarity of parameters in respect of the OIA, but this Bill does not deal with institutions' complaints processes and procedures. With that, I respectfully request that the amendment be withdrawn.

Mr. Collins: I welcome the fact that the Under-Secretary has recognised that there are serious issues here. However, there is a distinction on this matter between his response to amendment No. 184 and his response to new clause 4. His response on amendment no. 184 was extremely welcome because he indicated that, although he could not accept the amendment at the moment, the Government would undertake to look at these matters again. He asked us to withdraw the amendment on that basis, and we would be happy to do so. However, I look to you, Mr. Gale, for guidance on this point. Given that I was not entirely satisfied by what the Under-Secretary was able to say about new clause 4, may we have a Division on that?

The Chairman: It will be possible to divide on clause 4, but not at this point in the Bill. We will reach the appropriate point later in our proceedings, and I am sure that I will consider the matter then if I am given notice.

Mr. Collins: I am grateful to you, Mr. Gale. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.45 am

Mr. Thomas: I beg to move amendment No. 210, in

    clause 12, page 5, line 21, at end add—

    '(3) In this Part ''complaint'' means an expression of dissatisfaction with services provided or actions taken.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 211, in

    clause 20, page 8, line 4, at end insert—

    '''complaint'' has the meaning given in section 12;'.

Mr. Thomas: Such Bills are usually stuffed full of definitions, but the definition of a qualifying complaint is not terribly convincing. I was more taken with that proposed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, which is set out in amendment No. 210. We could argue for a long time about the definition of a complaint, but it might be a bit more useful if the Under-Secretary could give us an assurance that the Bill adequately defines a qualifying complaint and that those who feel aggrieved have sufficient grounds to make a complaint. The purpose of the amendment is to probe the arguments behind the definition in the Bill.

Mr. Lewis: Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I am not going to get into a long debate the definition of a complaint—[Interruption.] Some are disappointed, and I am sorry about that.

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The problem with amendment No. 210 is the principle. When defining a complaint or a grievance, it is sometimes better not to be too prescriptive. Otherwise, we may end up trying to achieve something that is simply not possible. The hon. Gentleman says that the amendment would capture

    ''dissatisfaction with services provided or actions taken.''

That is perfectly reasonable, but it would rule out other matters that might form the basis of a valid complaint. To take just one example, the amendment would not capture an institution's failure to take action. We would, therefore, find ourselves in great difficulties if we sought to prescribe the definition of a complaint too clearly, too closely and too narrowly. We would also give lawyers yet more excuses to make lots of money, although I am very fond of some of the lawyers on the Committee.

Mrs. Campbell: Will my hon. Friend clarify whether the definition of a qualifying complaint would include a complaint about discriminatory questions or attitudes during the interview process? He will be aware that several complaints have been made against universities whose interview processes students have judged not to be completely fair.

Mr. Lewis: That is a very fair question, but the answer is no, because those circumstances relate to admission. The student would have the option of going to the courts to seek judicial review or of turning to discrimination legislation.

Jonathan Shaw: On a point of further clarification, will my hon. Friend clarify whether the clause would cover a student who complained about inappropriate comments that a lecturer may or may not have made?

Mr. Lewis: I assume that my hon. Friend means inappropriate comments made during the student's time at the institution rather than during the process of applying to that institution.

Jonathan Shaw: Yes.

Mr. Lewis: That would be a legitimate source of complaint. If a lecturer made an inappropriate comment or asked inappropriate questions, the student would be able to make a complaint under the institution's procedures. If they were not satisfied with the outcome, they could go to the OIA.

Mr. Boswell: Given that the clause also relates to former students, will it bind institutions that provide such students with academic references?

Mr. Lewis: I doubt it, but I will seek clarification on that and write to the hon. Gentlemen.

Mr. Thomas: I want to clarify one thing. The Under-Secretary has explained why the clause is worded as it is. Does he expect the OIA to develop its own guidelines on what constitutes a complaint?

Mr. Lewis: Yes, and it is important that the process is, as far as possible, transparent and clear. The OIA should make the bounds of its jurisdiction clear to

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potential complainants, but there will always be areas of ambiguity; that is where we must be clear about the role of the reviewer, or adjudicator.

Jonathan Shaw: I wish to press my hon. Friend on a point that I made earlier, which I am grateful to him for allowing me to make, to which he replied that a complaint made by a student about an inappropriate comment in a lecture would qualify. If a student were to make an allegation that a lecturer made a sexist or racist comment, surely it would not fall within the remit of academic judgment?

Mr. Lewis: Absolutely not. If that kind of remark or comment were made, it would first be a matter for the institution's complaints process. If the student were not satisfied with that process, it would definitely be a matter for the independent adjudicator. There is no doubt whatever about that. With that, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Mr. Thomas: I thank the Under-Secretary for clarifying what constitutes a complaint. That was my purpose in tabling the amendment. However, his response to the hon. Member for Cambridge introduced another issue: the whole aspect of what the independent adjudicator will do, and the remit of that job. We will need to return to that issue, probably on Report, to discuss whether complaints made by university applicants should also be covered by the OIA. Following the Under-Secretary's explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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