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Higher Education

9. Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the funding of the higher education sector beyond 2007. [31317]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): Government expenditure on higher education is increasing by about £2 billion between 2004–05 and 2007–08, to almost £9.5 billion. Higher education institutions are also benefiting from increases in research funding. Government funding beyond 2007–08 will be decided as part of the comprehensive spending review. Institutions will have an extra income from variable fees that is estimated to reach £1.35 billion in steady state by 2010.

Alison Seabeck: I thank my hon. Friend for that detailed response, but I must press him a little further. Will he allay the concerns raised with me by Plymouth university—a popular new university that is growing fast and attracting students—that post 2007–08 there could be a reduction in funding in direct relation to the increase that universities receive in fees, as happened in Australia and New Zealand? Were that to happen, it would be very damaging to universities such as Plymouth.

Bill Rammell: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I certainly share her view about the good work that Plymouth university is doing. Vice-chancellors regularly raise the issue with me and I highlight to them, as I do to my hon. Friend, the fact that we are currently maintaining the unit of teaching resource, which is a reversal of the policy that we inherited from the Conservatives. No Government can make a commitment beyond the current spending review; however, in discussing that review we shall very much keep in mind the priority that universities give the issue.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): Given the benefits that universities have as a result of the tuition fee system introduced by the Government, can the Minister assure me that he will look favourably on proposals to allow universities to lift the current cap on
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their tuition fees, and on proposals by universities to retain more of those sums rather than having them centralised in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Bill Rammell: This is a matter of balance, but I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's question as I thought that the Opposition opposed variable fees. Clearly, things are moving swiftly. I remind the hon. Gentleman of our policy position, which has not changed since we took the Higher Education Bill through Parliament: by law it will not be possible to lift the cap before January 2010 at the earliest; no decision will be taken until the independent commission has reviewed the introduction of the first three years of the system; and after 2010 the cap can be lifted only if approval is given by both Houses of Parliament.

School Finance

11. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): If she will revise the funding formula for schools to take greater account of the mobility of school populations. [31319]

The Minister for Schools (Jacqui Smith): In developing our proposals for the new dedicated schools grant, we considered with our partners whether there should be a mobility factor in the distribution of funding for local authorities and decided against it. Of course local authorities can already take account of pupil mobility in their local funding formulae. We will announce in the near future our final decisions on the distribution of the new dedicated schools grants for 2006–07 and 2007–08.

Simon Hughes: The Minister will know that, in boroughs such as mine, in most of inner London and in much of the rest of the country, people will be extremely unhappy with that answer. Given that some schools have a 60 per cent. turnover in classes in the same year and, in many, a third of the pupils change between the first and second sets of tests, will she look again at what the Prime Minister's strategy unit said only two years ago and at what the Association of London Government report said in June this year, both of which make it clear that a fair funding formula to reflect rapidly changing pupils in classrooms is necessary for equal educational opportunity?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman rightly makes the case that the challenge with respect to pupil mobility rests on the individual schools in which a large proportion of pupils are mobile. That is why it is absolutely right that local authority funding formulae can and should take account of differential funding for schools with high mobility. Given the wide spread of mobility across a range of local authorities, the effect of distributing between authorities on the basis of mobility would have been to flatten and reduce the extra contributions to those authorities with additional educational needs on the basis of deprivation, not to benefit authorities such as the hon. Gentleman's. That is why the decision was taken.
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The Solicitor-General was asked—

Witness Initiatives

21. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the Merseyside "No Witness, No Justice" initiative. [31301]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Under "No Witness, No Justice", the pilot witness care unit opened in Sefton in March. It helps to increase witness attendance at court by about 20 per cent. As a result of that success, a new centralised witness care unit is being set up in Liverpool to cover a wider area, and I understand that it will open next Monday.

Ben Chapman: I very much welcome both the opening on Monday and the increased attendance of witnesses that the scheme has brought about. Given that the MORI survey that was commissioned to look at the issue also found an increase in both witnesses' and victims' confidence in the criminal justice system, how does my hon. and learned Friend assess the scheme's potential, when it is rolled out in Merseyside and elsewhere, to bring about more speedy and effective justice?

The Solicitor General: The aim is to ensure that we encourage witnesses to attend court, give evidence and help to secure justice. The Liverpool centralised unit is intended to cover the Wirral and Merseyside, and it aims to provide a better service for witnesses and victims. Victims will have a single point of contact to ensure that they get information about how their cases are proceeding. The unit will keep them informed of progress, offer help with issues such as child care, transport to and from the court or referral to witness support if they need it. We will also seek to ensure that, when people attend court, the witness service meets them and looks after them while they are there. The aim is to get a better deal for witnesses and victims, and a better deal for the public because more offenders are brought to justice.

Sentencing Policy

22. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): If he will make it a requirement for sentencing in all road traffic cases where a fatality has occurred to be made at the Crown court. [31302]

The Solicitor General: Currently, offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while unfit because of alcohol or drugs are triable at the Crown court. Careless driving is dealt with at magistrates courts. The Government intend to create two new imprisonable offences of causing death by careless driving and causing death while driving while disqualified, unlicensed or uninsured. Magistrates will decide the appropriate venue for sentencing, taking into account all the circumstances of the case, including the driver's culpability.
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Bob Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for that very encouraging response, but does he not accept that, on some occasions when a guilty plea is made at a magistrates court for careless driving, the magistrates are not made aware of the fact that there has been a fatality? Does he not agree therefore that, on every occasion where there has been a fatality, the court needs to know and, preferably, the case should go to Crown court for sentence, even on a guilty plea?

The Solicitor General: It is certainly my view that if a fatality has occurred following a traffic incident, magistrates should be informed. It is then for the court to decide the appropriate venue for sentencing. The court is, to a considerable extent, best placed to make that decision. The sentence depends on the culpability of the defendant, rather than the consequence. Obviously, the death of someone is a horrendous consequence, but    culpability inevitably varies according to the circumstances of a case. Cases involving a momentary lapse of concentration are different from those involving consistent erratic driving. Magistrates will have to judge whether they are able to deal with a case, or whether it should be dealt with at the Crown court, but they should certainly be aware of the fact that a fatality has occurred.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I am pleased that the Home Office has decided to create the new offence of causing death by careless driving, which is being put into the Road Safety Bill [Lords]. The offence will carry a maximum sentence of five years, so it is likely that most cases will be dealt with in the Crown court, provided that the prosecution charges manslaughter—at the worst—death by dangerous driving, or the new offence. Will my hon. and learned Friend give me a commitment that he will issue guidance to prosecutors throughout the country to ensure that one of those offences is charged in every case of death for which there is some culpability?

The Solicitor General: It will be for the CPS to assess the appropriate charge in individual circumstances under the code of practice and based on the evidence. Clearly, guidance will be provided. I cannot give entirely the undertaking that my hon. Friend wants. I want to examine the way in which the guidance should be drawn before I reach a decision. However, I will certainly write to him as soon as a decision on the nature of the guidance is taken.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The Solicitor-General will be aware that historically in our country we have been reluctant to criminalise a consequence when the cause of that consequence is inadvertence or negligence. Certainly, draconian penalties have not been imposed. I was thus pleased to hear him say that there will be cases in which death by careless driving can be dealt with in the magistrates court. Does he agree that there will be cases in which although the consequence might have been tragic, the extent of culpability will be such that the matter should stay in the magistrates court? Moreover, can he tell the House anything further about how a distinction will be made between dangerous driving and careless driving, given that the maximum penalty of five years for careless
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driving that is contemplated is a very substantial sentence indeed and well in excess of the majority of sentences imposed for death by dangerous driving at present?

The Solicitor General: We must carefully examine the way in which the courts will deal with the new offences in practice. That was why I was careful when I responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) about the guidance. Following the consultation that was completed in May, we took account of the views of hon. Members and people outside the House who thought that we needed to introduce the new offences in the Road Safety Bill. During the consultation, it was clear that the initial suggestion that the matter should be dealt with primarily in the Crown court was not viewed by the professionals as the right approach—they thought that it should go either way. There will thus be circumstances in which the magistrates court can appropriately deal with cases, so we must look at the detailed guidance for prosecutors on how they address magistrates on the matter.

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