The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) interestingly focused on A-level grades, which are an important

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reflection of the academic ability of those who are seeking to go to university. In very many cases, universities look at those to determine whether someone will be a successful applicant for a course, but they are not the only criterion that universities currently use. The advantage of the A-level is that it is transparent. The student is aware when he applies and is given an offer of what he needs to achieve to gain admission to a university course. However, the grades that are now expected of applicants are extremely high. For example, I am personally aware that the leading universities in the country offer mathematics applicants two A* grades and an A grade, or two A grades and a B grade or three A grades.

That is a transparent process, but some universities have a standard offer—an offer made to all applicants, no matter what school or further education college they come from or their background. The standard offers are also high. One university makes an offer of two A* grades and an A grade for the subject in which it has a very high reputation.

The sixth term examination paper exam, which is additional to A-levels, is increasingly being relied on by universities when they consider whether to admit candidates. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware of that, but the Minister should take note of it. STEP exams require a particular type of teaching, and commendably, some universities have recognised that and are providing support for students who come from institutions that do not provide such teaching, to give a fair chance to individuals who have the academic ability to achieve the results they need. Many schools, particularly those from the fee-paying sector, provide preparation for STEP exams that is not provided in many state schools, and that prejudice is, I am afraid, working against the chances of talented individuals—including today’s Cardinal Wolseys—achieving admission to universities on the basis of their A-level and STEP-level results.

The system as it stands disadvantages applicants from schools and institutions that do not have good provision for the teaching of STEP exams. STEP exams are a very recent innovation—I happen to know something of them because I have children at the age when these applications are made. I would like to hear whether any consideration has been given to introducing STEP exams into offers made to individuals, and whether the Minister has looked at the provision in place in institutions and schools for teaching in that area. It is an area of great concern to me.

Philip Davies: What puzzles me is that the hon. Gentleman seems to feel that after 13 years of a Labour Government pumping so much money into the state education system, people in the state system still cannot compete equally with people who go to private schools, and therefore an adjustment is needed. If what the previous Government did to the state education system was so marvellous and raised standards so high, why cannot we just have fair and free competition between the state and private sectors?

Ian Lucas: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is bringing party politics into the debate, because I am trying to approach it in a measured way. I am talking about offers made by universities to talented students, including in his constituency, who happen not to have

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the provision in their own institution, whether in the private sector or public sector, to support their applications to university. I think that the Government should be looking at support for that.

This is relevant now, as opposed to when the Labour Government were in power, because back then the requirement for STEP exams when university offers were made had not been implemented. This year, there is a particular issue relating to university applications: an enormous number are being made to universities owing to the prospect of fee levels next year. There has been a huge rush of applications, but fewer offers are being made by universities. Furthermore, higher offers are being made this year than I think will be given next year, because so many more people are applying.

I also want to touch on issues of transparency and merit. I raised this point in interventions earlier. Transparency is a great quality, particularly when one is looking at the very complex process of applying to universities. There are lots of different universities and lots of different courses, and it is a big job for any individual student, or parent advising a student, to deal with the complexities of the university admissions system. It is particularly difficult when the admissions system is not transparent. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) at times suggested that the current system was transparent. In my view, it is not transparent when not based on admission by academic performance, and it is not based on academic performance when it is based not on A-level or STEP results, or any other exam results, but on an interview. The disadvantage of an interview process is that, if a student achieves the required grades, passes the exam and is called for an interview, but is then rejected, they do not find out why they have been rejected.

Mr Hayes: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. What is emerging is a certain unity of view between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). He seems to be saying that he wants to curtail universities’ freedom to take into account other circumstances that might prevail in precisely the same way as my hon. Friend. The freedom of universities, which we cherish, is under assault.

Ian Lucas: How profoundly ironic that the Minister, who has proposed the restrictions to which the hon. Member for Christchurch vociferously objects, should suggest that I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I agree that admission to university should be made on the basis of merit, but I disagree with the assumption that the system is currently based on merit. In fact, the system discriminates against students from non-fee-paying schools.

The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) made an interesting aside in his very interesting speech. He raised the subject of individuals at, for example, Oxford university, who conduct the interviews that I have just discussed, and who meet applicants who challenge them. They may feel uncomfortable with discussions at interview, and they may not like the prospect of teaching them, not because of their academic potential or achievement but because of their own

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preconceptions. The disadvantage of the interview process is that it allows that to happen.

It is therefore important that we have a transparent admissions process. It is very important indeed that we have independent universities and that we use all the potential that we have in our schools, whether fee paying or in the state sector. What is the best thing for Britain is that everyone with potential should realise their potential through school and bring it to fruition at university. The tragedy is that, for too long, too many people with the ability and the potential have not been taken through university because of the ivory towers and walls that exist.

Mr Hayes: I should like to elicit from the hon. Gentleman his precise position. On the one hand, he says that he believes that universities should be “independent” and that people should be able to fulfil their potential but, on the other, he seemed to suggest—and we need this on the record—that he was against universities interviewing candidates. Would he make it illegal? Is he suggesting that it would be entirely forbidden were he ever to hold the position held by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science?

Ian Lucas: The Minister, having given his personal views on grammar schools at the Dispatch Box, even though he speaks as a Minister, could not possibly tempt me to make binding commitments from the Front Bench in a way that I might have done had I been on the Back Benches.

There was a great expansion of the university system under the Labour Government, and there was great investment in it. The continued independence of the university system was cherished under the previous Government, and that sat alongside the fact that there was increased state investment in the system. I am afraid that as fond as I am becoming of the hon. Member for North East Somerset, we part company on the important role that the state plays in our university system. I think that it is a good thing that more people go to university. It is a good thing that people who have the potential to go to university should realise that potential. I do not believe that if the state stood aside entirely and did not provide support, either through a grant system or another form of system, that would be a good thing for the United Kingdom, because fewer people with the potential to go to university would do so. That is why the grant system was originally introduced, and that is why I went to university. I went to Oxford university—and my father left school at 14, as did my mother. If I had been limited, as Cardinal Wolsey was, to securing a scholarship, I am afraid that my intellectual capability would not have enabled me to go to Magdalen college, and indeed to found my own college. That may be something for the future.

The issue that sits between those who support the Bill and myself is merit. No one disagrees on what constitutes merit. Our difficulties lie in how we define the procedure by which that is identified in applicants. The hon. Member for Shipley talked solely about A-levels. Some universities are currently choosing systems that are not transparent, and which do not disclose the criteria that apply. When one couples that with the fact that the price list on the menu is very unclear for students who want to go to university, particularly for the year after

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next, it is virtually impossible for students to make sensible, informed choices about their future.

When I speak to business people in my role as shadow industry Minister, they often tell me that they want more engineering graduates. They also want apprentices, and I defer to no one in my admiration for apprenticeships and foundation degrees, but they do want graduates of the highest quality, in science, maths and engineering. We need a system that ensures that everyone who has the potential to secure a future—to expand and extend their skills as far as possible—achieves that potential. That clearly requires a role for the universities, who have their own skills in identifying those candidates, but it also requires a role for Government, because the Government invest in the university sector, and it is important that public money is used in a positive way and for the benefit of the country as a whole.

It is at that stage that I disagree with the hon. Members for North East Somerset and for Christchurch, because I believe that means we have a responsibility in the House to hold the Government to account on the use of public money. I want as many young people and students as possible from my constituency to go to the best universities. I happen not to have a private school in my constituency, so if a young person living in my constituency wants to attend some of the best universities in the country, the facts and figures show that they are less likely to be admitted to those universities than if they went to a fee-paying school. I regret that. The current system is not fair. We need to devise a system that takes into account and re-establishes the position of the universities as independent institutions, but also recognises the legitimate role of Government in ensuring fair access to them.

Rehman Chishti: In terms of the responsibility to ensure that those from different backgrounds can go to university, the role of OFFA and the criteria that it applies to ensure that those universities—the top end, the Russell group—can get people from less privileged backgrounds have to be right. The hon. Gentleman said that some people from schools in tough catchment areas may not have the right experience for the interview process at Oxford, but in the OFFA criteria,

“the scale and nature of outreach activity to be undertaken (singly or in partnership) with local schools and colleges—such as mentoring,”

will be taken into account, as will targeting schools in tough catchments. Therefore, what the Government have put forward in the wider package for higher education, along with the role of OFFA, which will certainly help to ensure that people from less privileged backgrounds get that assistance to go to some of the high-performing universities, have to be right.

Ian Lucas: I am very confused about the Government’s rules that will allow a university to charge £9,000 rather than £6,000. The criteria for universities are extremely unclear.

Rehman Chishti: The hon. Gentleman refers to the figure of £9,000, but he needs to consider the overall package. He must accept that it is right and proper that there are no up-front fees, which would have deterred a

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lot of people from less privileged backgrounds—I put myself in that category. It must also be right to increase the threshold from £15,000 to £21,000.

Ian Lucas: There have not been any up-front fees since the Higher Education Act 2004 was passed under the previous Labour Government, so that is a complete red herring. The existing system is being continued, but the difference is that this Government are tripling the debt that students will take on, with which I profoundly disagree. I voted against the 2004 Act—I was a Labour Back Bencher at the time, and I continued to be a Back Bencher as a result—because I disagreed with the concept of fees.

Rehman Chishti: The hon. Gentleman talks about finance, but he must accept that we are in a difficult financial situation. The Government have inherited one of the worst financial situations in the G20 and one of the worst structural deficits in the G7. He responded to my point about up-front fees. The fact is that the Government could have considered introducing up-front fees, but they ruled them out categorically. The overall package is good for part-time students and helps mature students. He must accept that there is a real problem with discrimination against children with disabilities and learning difficulties who wish to go into higher education, and the package will improve their situation, too.

Ian Lucas: The Government are tripling student debt in the years ahead, but that is profoundly wrong. Their policy will deter individuals from poorer backgrounds from going to university, so I shall continue to disagree with it.

I am with the hon. Member for Christchurch on the question of merit, but I am against him on exemptions, so I will not be able to support his Bill. The existing situation is unsatisfactory because insufficient students are admitted to university on the grounds of merit. Many people are frustrated because some universities are sending them the message that if they do not go to the right schools, it is not worth their applying, so as a consequence they do not apply. That is why there has not been the progress that should have been made. Young people should be able to achieve their potential, but they need support. We need a fair system that supports individuals who want to go to university and, above all, ensures that every individual achieves their full potential.

12.53 pm

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): Benjamin Disraeli, the greatest Tory Prime Minister, said:

“A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.”

Our debate, albeit a short one, has given us the chance to explore some of those concepts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for bringing forward the Bill because it has provided the opportunity to debate an extremely important topic.

Further and, in particular, higher education have attracted a great deal of debate in the House in recent weeks and months, and indeed they have been debated elsewhere, too. Key to that debate was the central issue,

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which the Bill addresses, of university access and admission policies, and learners’ opportunities for progression from further to higher education.

Let me say this, for if I did not, the House would wonder why, given the publication of the Wolf review yesterday: we should not confuse higher education with higher learning. It is absolutely right to say that our society and economy need people to aspire to higher learning. Britain’s future chance of success lies in being a high-tech, high-skilled nation, and because of that, we need to invest in the human capital of our work force through higher learning, although that may not always take place at a university. Opportunity may be found in the workplace and in our further education colleges to obtain the higher learning that will fuel economic success, which is the component part of our chance for growth and prosperity.

The short time available to me does not give me the opportunity to speak on that subject at as great a length as I would like, but I want to put on record that spreading that kind of opportunity—an opportunity to which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch drew the House’s attention—will necessitate, in my view and that of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science, teaching more higher education and higher learning in our further education colleges. FE colleges are the unheralded triumph of our education system. They do immense good work, and of course they teach a great deal of higher education already. Their cohorts typically reflect the communities of which they are a part and are, by and large, more widely drawn than the cohorts that one typically finds in our universities. The private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, inasmuch as it deals with access to those kinds of opportunities for higher education, draws our attention to where and how that might be provided, as well as to how people might obtain it.

I think that it is a matter of public record that I am no more a social engineer than my hon. Friend. Social engineering was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies); I almost rose to intervene on him, but I did not want to interrupt the flow of his oratory, so I shall take the opportunity now to say that social engineering is on neither my agenda nor that of the Government of which I am part. I am a firm believer in meritocracy and the principle that people should be rewarded according to their efforts and abilities, whatever their circumstances or background. That principle is at the heart of the Government’s approach.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that merit is the driver of access, in the Government’s view. The reason for that is both practical and philosophical. The principle that people should prosper on the basis of their assiduity and talent lies at the very heart of the philosophy of the party to which we both belong—it is a bigger philosophy than that, though, and I will speak about that in a few moments. However, it is also a practical matter—a matter of ensuring that we harness the best talents in the interests of the nation—for also central to our mission is the promotion of the common good and the national interest. The national interest would hardly be served if we let any Giotto remain among the hill shepherds, to use Ruskin’s words. Every

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talent must have its opportunity to shine, and every kind of person must have their chance of glittering prizes.

That takes me to the middle ages, which we heard a great deal about earlier in this short debate, courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). We enjoyed a brief exchange, but what did not emerge from it was the fundamental feature of the feudal and mediaeval appreciation of universities. That has been lost to some degree, because we have largely come to regard “feudal” and “mediaeval” as pejorative terms, but in fact my hon. Friend shed light on the interesting elements of the opportunities available then, which found their form in universities. Universities were then broad, liberal, rather radical places to which many people from many backgrounds were able to go. Far from being exclusive, they were rather inclusive. My hon. Friend mentioned Wolsey, who was a butcher’s son. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is the son of a butcher, but I had my chance to go to university and I am from a family for whom universities had previously been almost unknown—a distant and detached thing. Though that was certainly the case in the middle ages, later, universities became rather different things, but at the time, which might be described as a golden age, they were inclusive in the way that he described.

The other important philosophical principle to which I want to draw the House’s attention is something that is at the very heart of conservatism but is sometimes neglected—the elevation of the people. Benjamin Disraeli, whom I am determined should get at least two mentions in my short speech, laid out the tenets of conservatism in his Crystal palace speech and identified the elevation of the people as being central to them. That is why I am driven by a desire for social mobility and social justice, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is. When considering the elevation of the people, we should properly consider their chance to gain learning as a way of progressing.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will know, Alan Milburn was commissioned by the previous Government to consider these matters in considerable detail. He produced a report that looked at a series of inhibitors to social mobility, one of which, interestingly, was graduate recruitment. He observed that there was a time when someone could join a firm of lawyers or accountants and rise from being the tea boy to the top of the firm, but that is no longer so. It is interesting that graduate recruitment has, arguably, inhibited the social mobility that we all wish to see. It is certainly true that under the previous regime little was done to improve social mobility.

In those terms, the Milburn report is something of an embarrassment to the Labour party. It identifies access to education and educational opportunity as being critical to the mission I have described, but makes the point clearly that prior attainment limits people’s chance to progress into further and higher education. That point has been made at length. We cannot discuss admissions to universities without looking at applications, and all the evidence suggests not that the admissions system is prejudiced against people from under-represented groups but that too few of those people apply to university because of their prior attainment. We really have to get our schools system right if we want to drive the kind of social justice that lies at the heart of the Conservative

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party’s mission. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has put in place a wide range of plans to do just that—to drive up standards, create opportunity and deliver the kind of outcome that I am describing. However, you would not let me speak about those too much, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it would be going a little off the subject. As part of our mission to elevate people, it is absolutely right to consider how we can get more people whose tastes and talents take them in the direction of higher learning to achieve their potential.

Now, let me draw attention to the core of what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has said today. It is not just the Conservatives who are committed to social justice, although we are peculiarly committed to it. The whole coalition Government completely support the admirable principle that universities and colleges should offer places solely on merit. The Government seek to make far-reaching reforms of the further and higher education sectors, but there are some elements that we do not seek to change. Like other nations with outstanding higher education systems, we recognise that universities and colleges must continue to recruit on merit.

When I look at the issues that the Office for Fair Access must take into account in respect of access, I see no dichotomy between that commitment to merit and the list of considerations that universities are asked to take into account in respect of admissions. They are few but important and it is worth exploring them, because they are salient to our deliberations. The first is

“the scale and nature of outreach activity to be undertaken (singly or in partnership) with…schools and colleges—such as mentoring, school visits, student buddying”—

Not a word I would have used, Mr Deputy Speaker, but there we are—and

“master classes in schools.”

Is any of that incompatible with the principle of merit, I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch? It does not seem so to me.

Secondly, universities are asked to look at

“the scale and nature of outreach activity to be undertaken to attract mature students—including work with local communities.”

Can that be reconciled with the desire to see merit as the key determinant of admission? I think it certainly can.

The third component is

“the scale and nature of summer school programmes”

or similar initiatives in which universities are asked to engage. Is that an unhappy marriage with the nature of merit as a driver of access to university? Certainly not.

The fourth consideration is the number of financial waivers the university will offer, and the fifth is the requirement

“to participate in the new national scholarships programme, with bids match funded from…a university’s own resources.”

That will build on the long-standing tradition in our universities of bursaries, exhibitions and scholarships that have done a great deal to allow people from less advantaged backgrounds to achieve what they wish. None of that seems outside the scope of what the Bill seeks to secure.

The sixth consideration is

“targeting pupils with potential (use of contextual data, targeting low achieving schools) and improving aspiration and attainment through outreach.”

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Let me say a word about that. I understand why someone might think that such targeting would be incompatible with the objectives of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, but I disagree. Universities have always used interviews, for example, to determine someone’s potential. Many hon. Members are university graduates, and a number of them will have been interviewed before obtaining their place. Those interviews have for a long time been used as means for a university to get a more rounded impression of an individual’s potential, tastes and personality. Is that unreasonable? It does not seem unreasonable to me. It is certainly time-honoured, and you will understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, for you know my instincts and sentiments as well as anyone, that anything that is time-honoured holds a special place in my heart.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I share the Minister’s sentiment about things being time-honoured, but does he agree that interviews are central to a tutorial system, because the tutor and pupil need to be able to work with one another over an extended period?

Mr Hayes: The symbiosis between the teacher and the taught lies at the heart of all good education. My hon. Friend describes the essential relationship—the relationship that Socrates enjoyed with Plato and that our Saviour enjoyed with His disciples.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: To continue, Diogenes did not enjoy that relationship with Alexander, which is why he was unwilling to talk to him.

Mr Hayes: Now my hon. Friend encourages me to go down a classical road, which might be of interest to the House but certainly would not necessarily be relevant to the Bill, and I will not be encouraged to do that.

A consideration of potential has always been at the heart of the relationship between the teacher and the taught in the business of deciding where a person might go, having been admitted to an institution. I will not say that I was shocked—it is hard to be shocked in the House—but I was surprised by what the shadow Minister said. He might want to correct this—I do not want to damage his career unreasonably, although it will be in opposition of course—but he at least appeared to suggest that the Opposition’s policy was hostile to the very business of universities interviewing students. That would require unprecedented prescription over independent universities. It would be a curious Government and a curious Minister who told universities that they were forbidden to use what they had used successfully, perhaps for generations, as a means of choosing who was best suited to their institutions.

Ian Lucas: That is exactly why I did not say it.

Mr Hayes: I am pleased to hear that helpful correction.

Ian Lucas: I would be grateful to the Minister if he did not misrepresent what I said to the House.

Mr Hayes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that correction. I will not say that it was a U-turn—that would be too strong—but he seemed to clarify his remarks in a way that is helpful to us all in considering these matters in a balanced and measured manner.

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The principle that I have described in respect of merit linked to a consideration of potential is time honoured. The other things that OFFA suggests that universities should take into account are no more frightening than those that I have already identified:

“progress towards benchmarks…published by HESA and others more immediate targets and measures agreed”

in respect of those less well represented groups. Targets agreed and measures suggested and agreed do not form the frightening perspective that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch described in his opening remarks, although, of course, I celebrate the fact that he has given us the chance to explore these matters because I want to put on the record what I have told him previously: I agree with him about merit.

Mr Chope: How can the percentage of students admitted from state schools, from lower socio-economic classes or from low-participation neighbourhoods directly have a bearing on merit? Surely, they are irrelevant to merit.

Mr Hayes: They would be irrelevant were it not for the fact that we know—do we not?—that many high-performing students from state schools do not get to some of the universities that they might get to if they had the wherewithal that is available to people such as he and I and will be available by proxy to our offspring. I have not finished my list, but that brings me conveniently to advice and guidance.

We know—do we not?—from what Lord Browne and Mr Milburn said in their reports that part of the problem in matching the abilities of the under-represented in higher and further education to the institutions that might best serve their tastes and talents is that they do not have the wherewithal to get to where they might want to go. What I mean by that is this: we know that social networks and familial understanding are the basis on which those who are already advantaged cement their advantage. It is not aspiration or ambition but wherewithal that limits working class people from achieving what they might.

This is a difference between the two sides of the House. There has been a bourgeois left misunderstanding of working class culture. Lord Mandelson is a case in point—he felt that there was lack of ambition. Aspiration, we are often told, is what the working classes lack. That is completely untrue. Working class parents and grandparents seek exactly the same for their children and grandchildren as middle class people. What they lack is the means to achieve those ambitions because of a gap in wherewithal. They do not have the social and familial networks that understand the process by which their talents might be turned into actuality through higher learning.

That is why the Government are introducing an all-age careers service from this autumn that will balance the advice that it gives in an empirical and independent way. The Education Bill that is going through the House will place a duty on schools to secure that independent and empirical advice because we know that learning is a key driver of social mobility, and social mobility is a critical component of social justice. I would go as far as to say that a free society, which is by its very nature an unequal society, can be legitimised only when social

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mobility prevails. The inequalities that are the natural bedfellow of freedom can be ethically justified only by social mobility. That is why social mobility and social justice are so central to our mission.

I return to the requirements published by OFFA in respect of access and admissions, which universities must take into account, as that is a subject that has been raised repeatedly in the debate. The list of requirements goes on to identify

“the support offered to students once enrolled on courses—for example additional study support, mentoring, pastoral support, help with basic skills; and the range of programmes the university will offer which could be easier for under-represented groups, particularly mature students, to access—part-time courses, distance learning, two-year degrees, intensive, accelerated degrees, supported foundation year.”

Why is all that so important? We know that when the rhythms and patterns of study match the rhythms and patterns of many more kinds of people’s lives, they are likely to engage in learning, and that for a mature student, for someone working to fund their study, for someone with caring responsibilities, the traditional three-year degree course, full time, at a leafy campus is not an option. By being more creative about modes of learning and access points to learning, we can engage many more kinds of people.

I gave a speech on broadening access to higher education—I know that you will be familiar with it, Mr Deputy Speaker, but others in the House may not be—some time ago at Birkbeck college in London. I have a copy for anyone who would like one. I am prepared to sign them for particular fans and admirers. Birkbeck college is the embodiment of the principle that I have just outlined. At Birkbeck, the idea of taster courses, first years which allow people to move on to a degree, and the very business of part-time study are intrinsic. It is central to the college’s mission, as it is to the Open university. I was with the Master of Birkbeck college and the vice-chancellor of the Open university briefly yesterday, as I was anticipating this debate. The Open university, too, shows us that by changing the way people study we can change the level of engagement of those who are typically under-represented in higher education. I have mentioned further education, where part-time study is generally the norm, rather than the exception, which is one of the reasons why we want to expand HE in FE.

To return to the Bill and the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, the real issue is that OFFA’s requirement that universities must use a range of programmes, including distance learning, part-time study and taster and foundation courses, far from being malevolent, is extraordinarily virtuous in achieving the mission that he and I share, which is that those who have the ability should be able to access higher education.

Mr Chope: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hayes: I was just about to say something about Pope John Paul II, but I will give way before doing so.

Mr Chope: I do not want to get between my hon. Friend and Pope John Paul II, but if a university court, for example, is to have the freedom to decide what is

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best for its university, why can we not trust the universities themselves to do what is best? Why are the Government prescribing this set of requirements through OFFA?

Mr Hayes: My right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science, when dealing with those issues in the House, has made it clear that universities are indeed independent institutions that will make their own judgments on precisely how they deal with those matters. It seems perfectly reasonable, based on our desire to spread good practice as far as we can, to draw to their attention those salient matters that might affect their ability to give opportunities to those people with merit who typically do not do as well as those with equal merit from advantaged backgrounds. I do not think that that is unreasonable. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would not want to inhibit in any way those who are under-represented in higher education, but who have talent and merit, from prospering. I give him absolute assurance that merit is the basis on which universities should choose students, and we are not in the business of dictating to independent institutions on how they go about meeting the requirements, which seem to me very reasonable, set out by OFFA.

We believe that freedom is central to the concept of a university. Indeed, a free university linked to academic freedom and freedom of thought seems to me to be important elements of a civilized society, as was mentioned earlier. I qualify that, however, by noting that John Paul II said that freedom has its merit when it is exercised to pursue truth. I do not want to leave on the record any misunderstanding that freedom is intrinsically of value, separated from truth, because that could misrepresent my views on the character of freedom.

That takes us to Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University”, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will have read before the debate. Newman’s idea of a university was that by definition it should be distinct from instruction, vocation or a profession. That is one of the tenets he sets out in his discourses concerning what a university should comprise. That is no longer the case in Britain. Pursuing a university career in Britain might, indeed, still be about studying something peculiarly—solely—academic, but it might also include studying something that is highly vocational or practical in character, and so it should. I admire Cardinal Newman immensely, but on that matter I disagree with him, which might be because we live in different times. For that reason, however, the business of access to university, tied to what is studied and how, needs to infuse all we do regarding admissions and access. That is why I take a rather more lateral view about the character of higher study: how, where and what people study all seem to be linked when we consider the matter of access.

My hon. Friend fears that we are engaged in social engineering, but I can absolutely assure him that, far from that, the independence vested in universities by their very nature remains unaffected by the Government’s determination to pursue an agenda that will widen access as I have outlined.

My hon. Friend will know, and it has been discussed today, that the Government have been looking at how universities are funded. The changes in fees and funding will put universities on a more sustainable footing, and, as he argues, part of that will involve universities deciding what they charge their students. There are those who

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think that that will inhibit our plan to widen access, but I absolutely believe that it is not admissions or fees that are central to spreading opportunity in that way, but, as I have said, prior attainment, advice and guidance, what people study, access points to learning and modes of learning.

For example, the Government’s response to Browne, which accepts his recommendations on part-time funding, will, I believe, in a short time have a more dramatic effect on widening access to higher education than any change to the admissions system could ever have. We already know that part-time learners tend to be drawn from a wider cohort than full-timers, and the change has been widely welcomed by the universities sector, in particular in the House yesterday by the Open university and Birkbeck college and, indeed, by others. I know that it is welcomed also by the Association of Colleges, Universities UK and the Million+ group, and it is going to be an essential component in allowing us to achieve our objectives to broaden access.

My hon. Friend seeks to prescribe in law the circumstances by which people might be admitted to university, but my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset suggested—and I was able to help him through an intervention in making the point, I hope, even more clearly—that in doing so my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would prescribe not merely what universities chose to do, but what they chose not to do, because universities that use interviews as a way of assessing students would, I guess, be prevented from doing so.

Mr Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, but why does he say that? In my Bill, there is no restriction on universities being able to assess academic ability, potential and aptitude by interview if they so wish.

Mr Hayes: That is a helpful intervention, because a student with less prior attainment, for all kinds of variables that we do not need to expand on now, might well be admitted to a university as a result of an assessment of their potential at interview, whereas a student who had achieved strong results and so had strong prior attainment might not be. I am glad that my hon. Friend is not saying that there is rigidity in these principles. He displays an understanding of merit that is rather more liberal than I had imagined. I assure him that the Government’s understanding of merit is equally liberal. I do not usually like to use the word liberal in a positive way, but we are now in a different world so I will do so. The Government are absolutely clear that it is for universities to make decisions about who will best benefit from their provision, and not for us. We do not want to dictate that any more than I have now learned my hon. Friend does. Universities are, as the Minister for Universities and Science has made perfectly clear in this House, independent institutions, and long may they remain so.

The principle of institutional autonomy is enshrined in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which I happen to have with me. My hon. Friend will know that that Act—from memory I think that it is in section 62 or 63—makes it absolutely clear that universities are autonomous institutions. That limits the power of the Secretary of State. The Act, which I hasten to add is

4 Mar 2011 : Column 601

unchanged by this Government, limits the Government’s power, subject to certain terms and conditions. For the benefit of the House, I will read the provisions because I do not imagine that everybody has the Act to hand. Section 68(3) states:

“Such terms and conditions may not be framed by reference…to the criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff and for the admission of students.”

That could not be clearer. It could not be more plain that the Government, in leaving the Act unaffected by any changes that we are making to fees and funding, are absolutely confirming the independence of our universities in those terms. That principle has been observed for a very long time and we do not wish it to be challenged or amended.

Institutional autonomy, whether in further or higher education, remains a central tenet of our system, and it is a key theme in our current considerations. Perhaps I should add that in respect of further education colleges the Government are going even further. We are determined to lift much of the bureaucratic burden that they have endured for too long. To unleash the human capital in our further education colleges and to build on their excellent work, we will free them from some of the target-driven, centrally micro-managed and directed edicts that emerged from the previous regime. In those dark days, further education was undervalued by Government; it is not now. As we have moved from the shadows into the light, so has further education in the United Kingdom. The Education Bill that is currently making its way through this House rescinds some of the requirements that were placed on further education colleges late in the previous Government’s life. It will increase their powers to borrow and invest, and make various other changes. The principles of institutional freedom that I have described will be retained.

Although I understand the reasons for doubts about what OFFA has said about admissions, I do not believe they are well founded. I have given a firm commitment on behalf of the Government to the principle of merit, but I wish to say a little about how we might move ahead in agreement.

To help identify individuals with the greatest potential, institutions may want to use data about the context in which a young person has achieved their qualifications. The Government believe that that is a valid and appropriate way for institutions to broaden access while maintaining excellence, as long as individuals are considered on their merits and institutions’ procedures are fair, transparent and evidence-based.

That is not a change from previous good practice, it is what universities and colleges have always done. Many universities already take into account a range of such contextual information in considering whom to admit. The sector has taken steps further to develop its use of such information, and the sector-led supporting professionalism in admissions programme already has as one of its key themes the use of contextual data to support fair admissions. Good practice principles on the use of such data have been developed.

Comments have been made about the proportion of private school pupils who go to university. We have no policy view on the number of privately educated students entering HE. The Government’s policy view is that

4 Mar 2011 : Column 602

access should be on the basis of merit, irrespective of background. It would be wrong for the Government to suggest that the number of people from private schools going to our universities should be limited, and we have no intention of doing so.

There is no chance of the Government interfering or setting quotas. Our recent guidance letter to the director of OFFA makes that point, stating that universities will select their own performance measures and set out, in their new access arrangements agreed with OFFA, the progress that they expect to make in widening participation and access. The Government are quite clear not only that quotas are undesirable, but that as I have explained, legislation simply does not permit us to interfere in university admissions in such a way.

I am inclined to move to my summary now, although I know the House would like me to speak at greater length. The Government fully support the principle that universities and colleges should admit students based on their academic ability, potential and aptitude, as assessed by the institution in question. That is precisely the aim of the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch articulated with his usual flair. We believe that his concerns about accessing educational opportunities on merit do not need legislation. I hope that given my firm assurances from the Dispatch Box, he agrees with that, particularly as I have illustrated the legislation that already exists to protect the very interests that he has mentioned.

Chesterton—we have heard too little about him in this debate, have we not?—said:

“Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”

In passing on the soul of society, we need always to be conscious of the fact that the relationship between learning and opportunity is profound. It would be inappropriate, but worse than that unethical, for a Government not to focus on how we can spread opportunity as widely as possible. That is one reason why I championed vocational education so vociferously in my time as a shadow Minister and now as a Minister. Many people’s tastes and talents will take them down a vocational pathway, which must be as navigable, progressive and seductive as the academic route. Notwithstanding my support for apprenticeships, to which the Government are devoting unprecedented levels of funding, the tastes and talents of many other people from the kind of backgrounds that I come from will take them towards an academic career in a university. Our duty is to ensure that they too get their chance of glittering prizes.

We believe that my hon. Friend’s objectives do not need legislation, as I said. We know that good sense and good government demand that universities remain free to make those judgments about their future. Accordingly, while recognising the worth of his intentions and admiring his ambitions, and frankly, being envious of his perspicacity, the Government are bound to oppose the Bill.

1.41 pm

Mr Chope: With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to thank everybody who participated in this debate, which has now extended beyond three hours. This fraught subject commands enormous interest both outside and inside the House, and I hope that as a result of the debate, we have collectively flushed out a bit more of the Government’s thinking.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 603

My hon. Friend the Minister, whom I thank and congratulate on his contribution to the debate, identified section 68(3) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 as the reason my Bill is not needed. Under that provision, the Secretary of State is not allowed to interfere in the role of universities in deciding their admission policies for students.

On the face of it, that is the end of the matter, but of course, clever Governments try to find alternative means of achieving their objectives. Using the Office for Fair Access, this Government have come up with a clever scheme. They are saying, “We will allow universities to increase their fees to up to £7,500 or £9,000 a year, but we will give OFFA a veto over them if they wish to increase fees beyond £6,000. The veto can be exercised on the basis of advice that the Government give to OFFA.”

That is an attempt to control access arrangements. Obviously, the Government can say ultimately, “It’s nothing to do with us that university X or Y has decided to increase its fees to £9,000, but in return for the privilege”—as it is seen—“of doing that, there will be restrictions on its ability to admit students purely on the basis of merit.” There is a subtle agenda behind that—the policy is designed to put pressure on universities that want to charge the highest fees, and to introduce constraints on their admissions policies, which they cannot freely decide. Whether as a result of intended or unintended consequences, undoubtedly universities that wish to be able to increase their fees to £9,000 a year in exercise of their sovereign power will not be able to do so unless they get the permission of OFFA. However, OFFA will not give permission unless the conditions set out in the regulations are met and complied with. That is why a lot of universities are worried about this meddlesome interference and increased regulation in the system.

During the debate, I was attacked by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) for being far too left wing and interventionist. I am prepared to take the criticism on the chin. However, I pray in aid my plea in mitigation, which was in a sense anticipated by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies): if there was not already interference by the Government in the freedom of universities to decide their own admissions arrangements, and if they were free to chose the level of fees that they charge without interference from OFFA, there would be no need for this measure. The Bill is a response to the Government’s meddlesome regulatory interference in higher education and in the ability of HE institutions to set fees at the level that they want. I accept that criticism, therefore, but my mitigation is that the Bill has been made necessary by the Government’s attitude.

When one listens to and analyses what my hon. Friend the Minister has said, and if one reads paragraph 6.1 of the Secretary of State’s new guidance to OFFA, it is clear that

“In the new Access Arrangements, institutions should agree with”

the director of fair access

“a programme of defined progress each year… The access performance indicators relate to the percentage of students admitted…from state schools or colleges,…from lower socio-economic classes, and…from low-participation neighbourhoods.”

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What is the purpose of introducing such criteria, if ultimately the Government do not want to interfere in universities’ freedom to choose their own students? Ultimately, if we trust our universities—my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset and for Shipley made this point—they will come up with the right results, particularly if we set them free, and leave them accountable to themselves, their student bodies and the wider public. We have seen in today’s news about the director of the London School of Economics an example of the exercise in practice of such accountability, independence and freedom. There was no interference from the Government. That institution took responsibility for the consequences of its own decisions, and I am sure that that will be widely welcomed.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for his contribution. We agree about a lot of these issues, although perhaps not interviews. My daughter’s experience when undergoing interviews for veterinary medicine showed that there is more to going on some of these courses, whether veterinary medicine, medicine or other courses, than academic qualifications alone. Students also have to demonstrate an aptitude, and the people who conduct the interviews are good at identifying that aptitude. For example, an aspiring veterinary or medical student who does not like the idea of going to an abattoir or seeing a dead body is probably not heading in the right direction for their career, however good their exam results. That sort of thing can be found out in an interview, but it cannot necessarily be ascertained on the back of an exam paper.

There is an important role for interviews in the admissions process, but I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Wrexham about the delay in putting the higher education White Paper before the people. I share universities’ concern about the fact that time is running out if they are to be able to draw up access arrangements so that students can know where they stand in relation to fees and other things from the 2012 academic year.

I hope that, in the spirit of belt and braces, the Bill is given a Second Reading so that it can go into Committee. If, in the end, we find that I am wrong and my hon. Friend the Minister is right, and there is no covert interference in university admissions policies through OFFA, the Bill will be nugatory, but I fear that the Government’s agenda, egged on by the minority party in the coalition, is one of interference and trying to achieve social engineering. If one wants evidence to back up that suspicion, I can do no more than cite the fact that the Government are intent on penalising people who pay back their loans early. What could be more ludicrous than that? I hope that the Bill receives a Second Reading.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The House divided:

Ayes 3, Noes 33.

Division No. 214]

[1.51 pm


Chope, Mr Christopher

Davies, Philip

Reckless, Mark

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr Philip Hollobone and

Mr Peter Bone


Brokenshire, James

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Chishti, Rehman

Clark, rh Greg

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Crabb, Stephen

Davey, Mr Edward

de Bois, Nick

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Eustice, George

Freer, Mike

Gauke, Mr David

Gibb, Mr Nick

Green, Damian

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Hayes, Mr John

Hendry, Charles

Hurd, Mr Nick

Lord, Jonathan

Mundell, rh David

Neill, Robert

Paice, rh Mr James

Penning, Mike

Pound, Stephen

Randall, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Julian

Stewart, Bob

Truss, Elizabeth

Webb, Steve

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr Philip Dunne and

Bill Wiggin

Question accordingly negatived.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 605

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury appears to have made an announcement this morning on seeking a 5p reduction from Europe in the cost of rural fuel. Will you give advice on that, and say whether the Speaker’s Office has received representations from the Treasury on the subject?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I thank the hon. Gentleman for notice of that point of order. I have not received notification that any statements are to be made today, but I am sure that if Members on the Treasury Bench wished to give such notification, they would do so through the normal channels.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 606

Parliament (Amendment) Bill

Second Reading

2.5 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill follows on from a ten-minute rule Bill that had the support of the House earlier this Session. Although I say it myself, the timing of this Second Reading is perfect, because it follows Royal Assent being given to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill; the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is still being discussed in the other place; and the Government have not yet produced their draft Bill on reform of the other place, although they keep saying that such a Bill will be introduced imminently.

My Bill would ensure that the number of people sitting and voting in the other place did not exceed the number of elected Members in this place. As a result of the passing of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, from the next general election, anticipated to be in May 2015, there will be only 600 Members in this House. That reduction was made not least to save public money. I see no case whatever for the other place having more than 600 unelected Members.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about the timing of his Bill. He referred to the Government’s proposals on House of Lords reform, which are being drafted and which we will publish shortly. Is it not therefore premature of him to have brought forward his proposals about numbers? Given that his Bill has no mechanism for achieving those numbers, would it not be better for him to participate fully in the scrutiny of our draft Bill to achieve the effect that he desires?

Mr Chope: I hope to be able to do that as well. My hon. Friend will not have failed to notice that my Bill would come into force on 1 May 2015, so it is forward looking, like much of the material that I bring before the House. I do not think that his is an adequate objection to the Bill. I hope that the measures in clause 1 will be in the draft Bill that the Government talk about bringing forward; I would have thought it unconscionable for the Government to propose that the other place have more than 600 Members. I hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will be prepared to accept clause 1.

Clause 2 deals with the number of Ministers in the House of Commons. Under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, the maximum number is 95. As has been accepted by the Government—this point is supported strongly on both sides of the Chamber and in the other place—if we reduce the number of members of the legislature, we should also reduce the number of members of the Executive; otherwise, the balance between the Executive and the legislature gets out of kilter. Indeed, that was a recommendation of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, of which I am privileged to be a member, in our report last October. We said:

“It is self-evident that a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament will increase the dominance of the Executive over Parliament if the number of Ministers sitting and voting in the

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House is not correspondingly reduced. This is a matter of constitutional importance that goes to the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the House.”

This very day the Government have responded to the Committee’s recommendations. Cmd 7997 states:

“The Government remains committed to strengthening Parliament in relation to the Executive…We have been clear that we accept the principle that there is a link between the legislature and the size of the executive.”

So we are making progress.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a sound argument, which I totally support. May I draw his attention to the business listed for Wednesday 7 September 2011? It includes the Second Reading of my House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) Bill, which would remove a number of Ministers at a stroke, and they happen to be in the Whips Office.

Mr Chope: I had the privilege of listening to my hon. Friend when he made a very powerful speech introducing that Bill under the ten-minute rule. Nothing in my Bill cuts across or undermines anything in his Bill, which I hope will make swift progress when it comes before the House.

The Government’s argument against clause 2 of my Bill is given in paragraph 91 of today’s Command Paper:

“There is no immediate need to resolve this issue, since the provisions relating to a reduced number of MPs will not take effect until 2015. The Government therefore intends to reflect on the arguments made during the passage of this Bill”—

the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill—

“and set out its plans once there is greater clarity on the composition of the second Chamber, including how many Ministers could be drawn from there.”

It seems as though the Government are moving in the same direction, but clause 2 of my Bill would be a bit more of a nudge in that direction. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm that the matter will be resolved during this Parliament. I certainly remain concerned about that.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Government and now the Boundary Commission are pressing on speedily with reviewing the legislature. Indeed, the Boundary Commission has, also today, published its new electoral quotas and confirmed the numbers of seats for each of the countries in the United Kingdom. It has also said that it intends to produce its provisional recommendations this autumn. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Government are pressing on so quickly with the reduction in the legislature, they should at the same time look at the Executive?

Mr Chope: I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. This is very important because we do not want the issue of how large the Executive will be to be left to the Executive to decide after the next general election. I think that the balance between the size of the Executive and the size of the legislature should be for the legislature to decide. If we are to have a smaller legislature, we need to impose a smaller Executive well in advance of the next election.

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Mr Bone: Is not one danger of having a smaller number of MPs to scrutinise the Government while also having an ever-increasing Executive that there will be more and more demand from people to split the powers and take the Executive out of the House of Commons? That would be a wrong move, but it is a danger because of the direction in which the Government are heading.

Mr Chope: As so often, my hon. Friend is probably on to a good point; one can almost read between the lines of the Command Paper to which I referred, which seems to suggest that the Government might increase the number of Ministers in the other place as a quid pro quo.

We need to put limits on the number of Ministers in this House. I suggest 80. At present, the maximum is 95. If we can have a leaner civil service and public sector, we can also have a leaner Government in terms of the number of Members who hold ministerial office, so I commend clause 2 to the House.

Clause 3 deals with Parliamentary Private Secretaries. At present, there is no limit on their number. Bearing in mind that they are used as lobby fodder, have responsibilities to their Ministers and are appointed by the Prime Minister and that if they step out of line by so much as supporting one of my Bills on a Friday their career as a PPS is at an end, we should give them recognition in statute and limit their number. I suggest that

“no more than 25 persons being the holders of the office of Parliamentary Private Secretary shall be entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time.”

That would be roughly one PPS to each Secretary of State, which would be more than ample.

The provision would not stop the Government doing what they do at the moment, which is to appoint people who are not given the title of Parliamentary Private Secretary; they are advisers, deputy chairmen or vice-chairmen of the party or they have a special responsibility in this or that Department—all part of the patronage system. The Bill would not stop that, but it would at least prevent the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries from increasing as it is at the moment. A side-effect of my proposal is that we would have to put on the public record who the Parliamentary Private Secretaries are and where they are; at the moment, that information is not easily available.

Clause 4 deals with ministerial office in the other place, to try to ensure that we do not end up with a bloated Executive there after any reforms that may be introduced. Although the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, tells us that there will be a draft Bill, who would be so bold as to put their money on its being enacted before the next general election? I suspect the odds might be similar to those on Ireland beating England at cricket the other day.

Clause 4 is important because the provision that states that

“Not more than 10% of those persons who are entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords at any one time shall be the holders of Ministerial offices”

will apply even if there has been no reform of the other place before the next general election. I thought 10% was a generous quota; if there were 600 Members, there would be a maximum of 60 Ministers in the other place.

4 Mar 2011 : Column 609

Of course, there is no point in limiting the number of Ministers if we cannot also limit the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries in the other place, so clause 5 would provide that not more than 3% of those

“who are entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords at any one time shall be holders of the office of Parliamentary Private Secretary.”

This is a short, straightforward, easily understood and transparent piece of legislation.

Mr Bone: I think my hon. Friend is about to reach a conclusion. Before he does so, will he tell us whether he has had a letter of support for the Bill from the Prime Minister? The measure is entirely in line with the Prime Minister’s very powerful speech of 26 May 2009—“Fixing broken politics” .

Mr Chope: I have not got a copy, but I am sure that if we give the Minister a chance to speak he will quote from the Prime Minister’s letter of support. I am sure that the Prime Minister is on our side. We are members of the legislature; he is, for the time being, the leader of the Executive, but he recognises the importance of the legislature having a bigger role in holding the Executive to account, and the Bill is designed to achieve that.

2.25 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to speak to the Bill, which has many interesting features and merits. It originates in its recent form from a new clause that was proposed to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. [ Interruption. ] Yes, it is now an Act. I am being heckled already, which does not bode well for the rest of these proceedings.

Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and I voted for that new clause, which was moved by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on 25 October last year. Speaking for the Opposition on that occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said:

“if the Government plan to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons and do not plan to cut the number of Ministers, surely that will increase the influence of the Government—the Executive—over Parliament. I wholeheartedly support the argument that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) made this evening.”

Indeed, he added quite eloquently that

“if we are going to cut one group, we should cut the other. That is entirely in line with the new clause.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 114-117.]

Unfortunately, despite the assistance of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and a number of his colleagues, that new clause was defeated by 241 votes to 293, and it led the next day to his proposing his ten-minute rule Bill, in which he commented on the Government’s attitude towards the new clause and, indeed, his Bill. I found it quite distressing to read that he talked about his hon. Friends who supported the new clause being

“dragged away to the Whips Office to be dealt with.”

I am glad that that sort of thing would never happen in the Labour party.

I realise that the Bill would go further than the original new clause, but the spirit of that new clause is

4 Mar 2011 : Column 610

in the Bill. If changes are to be made to the legislature—we strongly disapprove of those changes—it is only right that we address the issue of the Executive at the same time, and I note in reading the Library paper on limiting the number of Ministers and the size of the payroll vote that, over the past 13 years, Government Members have made several attempts to do so. Whether it is significant that they made those attempts when they were in opposition I do not know, but they include figures as illustrious as the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): While the hon. Gentleman is developing his point, will he include in his remarks the view that the Labour party took when it was in government about those attempts to shrink the Executive?

Mr Slaughter: The Minister is tempting me, and we only have relatively few minutes left. I am sure that the House would wish to hear the Government’s response to the hon. Member for Christchurch, so I will not go through the list of attempts and Bills and the response to them, as I am not sure whether that would profit us much. I thought that it would be uncontroversial to say that the hon. Gentleman is following an honourable tradition of Government Members who have addressed this issue. I, like him, would be surprised if the Minister does not warmly welcome the Bill and, indeed, say that it has the Prime Minister’s support.

This certainly is not the time to revive the discussions about the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, save to say that the basis of that shoddy constitutional legislation and compensatory gerrymander was a tawdry deal done between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives when they asked, “How many seats are we getting off you? How many seats are we going to take off them?” But that Bill had, as all such pieces of cloak and dagger legislation are likely to have, consequences, whether intended or unintended. When the boundary commissions for the four constituent countries publishes their target seats, excepting the little favours being done to Liberal Members in the north of Scotland and Conservative Members in the Isle of Wight, it is likely that we shall have reduced numbers, and the necessary measures for that are to be rushed through in great haste, so it seems only fair and logical that the issue of the Executive is addressed at the same time.

I referred to the speech that the hon. Member for Christchurch made on his ten-minute rule Bill on the subject, when he alluded not only to the overall reduction in the legislature—that is, this House—but to the plans by the Government to go on increasing the number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers. By the hon. Gentleman’s estimation, that would mean that it was the coalition’s

“policy to increase the number of Members of the House of Lords by no fewer than 250, which is absolute lunacy”—[Official Report, 26 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 201-204.]

Again, it is a method of increasing by unstraightforward measures the influence that a party or parties have in the two Houses. From the Opposition’s point of view, that seems to be grossly unfair, and the consequences should be addressed.

I could go on a lot longer, but in view of the time, I shall allow the Minister to start his remarks, although I

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expect that he will not finish them today. It would be useful for him to say why he would not be prepared at least to allow the Bill into Committee so that we could have an open discussion about the power, the role and the size of the Executive, as he and his colleagues forced the House to have about the legislature.

2.27 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on bringing this Bill, as well as the Further and Higher Education (Access) Bill, before the House on one Friday. Thinking back to the time when he and I were in opposition, I do not remember him being as keen for private Members’ Bills to make progress as he is when his own name is attached to them. I seem to remember that he was keen for them to make little progress.

The speech from the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) was probably the shortest Friday speech that I have ever heard from him. He used to wax lyrical on Fridays.

One of my hon. Friend’s key points in his opening remarks on the Bill was how widely those views were shared. I note that his Bill has 11 supporters on both sides of the House. I looked carefully around the House as my hon. Friend was setting out his case. He may correct me if I am wrong, but I did not manage to spy a single one of the 11 supporters of the Bill who had troubled themselves to attend the House today to lend their support in person. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is looking at me askance, but I look carefully at the names on the Bill and I do not see his name among them.

Mr Bone: I and other Members were eager to sign our names to the Bill, but unfortunately there was no space. We would probably have had about 100 names on it otherwise.

Mr Harper: I take my hon. Friend’s point, but if he is correct—I have no reason to think otherwise—about the incredible support for the Bill, it is surprising that of the 11 Members who beat him in getting their names attached to the Bill, none of them have troubled themselves to be here. Given that my hon. Friend has taken the

4 Mar 2011 : Column 612

trouble to be present, he might want to have a conversation with some of those who supported the Bill.

Mr Chope: Is that my hon. Friend’s best point?

Mr Harper: No. Those were simply my opening remarks. I have many excellent points of substance, to which I shall now turn.

I will start by picking up on the points that my hon. Friend made on these exact subjects during the progress of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. He started very generously by referring to the number of Ministers in this House and accurately quoted the Government’s view, which is that we had said—

2.30 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 28 October.

Business without Debate


Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 November.


Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 10 June.


Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March.

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False Self-employment Status

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

2.30 pm

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): Before starting my speech, I should declare an interest: before being elected to this august House, I practised for more than half a decade as an employment law solicitor, and advising on these issues was very much my bread and butter. I thank the GMB union, of which I am a member, and UCATT, a construction workers union, which I am proud to say is headquartered in my constituency, for providing me with valuable information and assistance in my preparation for the debate. I also thank the fine national newspaper, the Daily Mirror, which is running an excellent ongoing campaign against false self-employment. It, too, has been most helpful.

At the outset, I ought to explain for the record what I mean by self-employment. The law makes a distinction between contracts of employment and contracts for service: in the former, the individual is, obviously, employed, and in the latter they are not. There is no set test in law for an employment relationship to exist—I know this because it has created a huge amount of litigation that has kept my profession in practice for some time.

The courts take into account a number of factors, some of which are given more credence than others. First, of particular importance are features in the relationship that are consistent with there being employment—for example, an obligation on the individual to do the work personally and exclusively and the obligation on the employer to pay wages. Secondly, the degree of control exercised over the worker by the other contracting party is also quite significant—for example, control over when, how, where and to what standard the service is provided. Finally, one factor that has become increasingly important is the mutuality of obligation between the contracting parties; there is an obligation on the employer to provide work and on the worker to do it.

Why does this all matter? It is hugely important, because employment is an individual’s passport to a plethora of protections and rights that have been put in place over the years to afford people protection in our market-based economy so that it works in a more balanced way, not just for the rich and powerful, but for everyone. Many of those rights and protections were introduced at the behest of the Labour movement. When people talk down our trade unions in this country, they would do well to reflect on how they have helped deliver for working people over the decades.

Some of the key rights and protections include the right to claim unfair dismissal; the right to a redundancy payment; the right to maternity, paternity and parental leave, which various Prime Ministers have taken advantage of in the past couple of Parliaments; the right to a minimum period when leaving employment; and the right to protection on the insolvency of an employer, which has been particularly relevant during the recent recession. I cannot emphasise enough just how important these rights and protections are—I know that from practising employment law—but many people take them for granted.

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In my experience, the majority of employers running businesses do not wish to deprive employees of the rights and protections that I have discussed, yet one attraction for employers, in avoiding the employment relationship, is that they as an employer avoid all the accompanying obligations. Furthermore, financially, if they avoid the employment relationship, they avoid having to pay employer’s national insurance.

Admittedly, there are employees who seek to avoid employment, and historically some have sought to do so to avoid paying income tax, but in my experience they are very much the exception to the rule. What is becoming clearer by the day is that we in this country have a problem with a substantial minority of employers falsely declaring their staff to be self-employed to avoid their obligations to them. That is why I call it false self-employment. Others refer to it as bogus self-employment, but I do not like the phrase, which is why I prefer to refer to it as false self-employment.

The problem is particularly pronounced in the construction industry, and I know that partly through practice, I suppose, but also through the information and evidence that UCATT has given to me. About 50% of construction workers are self-employed in this country, about twice the proportion of workers in the construction industries of other western industrialised countries. In fact, self-employment in construction in this country is between two and three times higher than that in any other advanced country’s building industry, including in the famously flexible US labour market. UCATT estimates that about half of those employed in construction in this country—possibly up to 1 million workers—are in false self-employment.

Other sectors in which false self-employment features highly include retail, cleaning and aviation, and in factory and agricultural workplaces. Last year, the previous Government estimated that the Exchequer could be losing up to £350 million in taxes as a result of such practices. In fact, research by the university of Essex suggests that that is a gross underestimate. It thinks that in reality the fiscal loss is far in excess of £1 billion per year, and that is extremely relevant in the context of the Government and hon. Members on both sides of the House wanting to reduce our public sector debts.

Let me give just one example: Ryanair. I have no doubt that many Members will have travelled on a Ryanair flight. I have, and perhaps I should not go into my other views on the airline, but the Daily Mirror reports that up to half of Ryanair’s pilots are not on the staff roll but are hired by an agency called Brookfield Aviation International, based in Epsom, Surrey. One self-employed pilot there tells of how he spends all the 900 hours that he is legally allowed to fly for Ryanair in the cockpit, how he works when he is told to, and how he has to take holiday when the airline lets him, but the company treats him as self-employed, and he says that he is afraid to challenge that state of affairs, because in his words:

“If you rock the boat you can be shown the door.”

A more widespread example, which we see all around us whenever we are out and about in London, is that of courier drivers. Daniel, who goes under a different name in the Fair Work Coalition’s paper on the issue, which I urge the Minister to read, is one such courier. He is married with two children, and until his job finished abruptly he was a driver for a courier firm

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making deliveries throughout the UK. He was dependent on the firm for his vehicle, and the company dictated the hours that he worked, but he was told that he was self-employed and responsible for his own tax and national insurance. His hours were long, unpredictable and unsociable, and he was often paid at well below the minimum wage rate that he was promised.

There is so much that I could go over, because this is a massive topic, but I do not have the time. I should be grateful, however, if the Minister could respond to a few questions. Generally, what is the Government’s approach to the issue? What is their assessment of the current situation, and what action, if any, are they willing to take to end false self-employment in Britain today?

More specifically, in relation to the enforcement action that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs takes against employers seeking to avoid their tax and PAYE obligations as I have described, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury said in answer to a parliamentary question in January that HMRC employs just 39 employee status inspectors. Given the scale of the problem, surely that number has to be increased drastically. I imagine that the extra revenue would more than cover the associated costs of doing so. If the Government had that extra revenue, perhaps they would not have to impose all their austerity measures. Does the Minister agree?

The previous Government consulted on proposals to introduce legislation so that workers in the construction industry would be deemed to be in receipt of employment income for income tax and national insurance purposes, unless certain criteria were met. Will the Government take forward those proposals? If not, why not?

The previous Government set up the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in 2005 to protect and enforce workers’ rights in the agricultural, horticultural and shellfish industries. Its functions include ensuring that false self-employment in those sectors does not proliferate. Are the Government prepared to explore an expansion of the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to include other industries such as construction?

Many people think that the employment agency standards inspectorate, which exists to protect agency workers, is an inefficient regulator. What is the Government’s view of that, and what action will they take on the matter?

This issue is of such importance because many of those who are forced into false self-employment work in low-paid professions and need the protection and rights that are afforded by employment. Many of those people are my constituents. It is also in the interests of businesses, in particular small and medium-sized enterprises, to clamp down on this practice, because false self-employment gives an unfair competitive advantage to businesses that disregard their PAYE and national insurance obligations by engaging workers in this way. Of course, there is a corresponding disadvantage for businesses that properly engage their workers and employees.

Before I wrap up, I want to say something to the Minister. When discussing almost any issue, Government Members and Ministers raise the point with Labour Members that the previous Government did not take sufficient action in a certain area. Although the previous Government achieved a lot, I will not pretend that they fully resolved this issue before losing power. However, I

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think the Minister will agree that what my constituents and working people up and down the country who are listening to this debate will want to know is what the coalition Government who are now in power will do about this problem. I urge this Government to get a grip of the situation.

2.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): I thank the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) for raising this important issue. Like him, I think it is important that we debate this matter, so I congratulate him on securing the debate.

I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman and to the House at the outset that the Government do not condone false or bogus self-employment. If an individual is wrongly categorised as self-employed when they are a worker or an employee, it has implications for the individual, the employer and the Exchequer, as the hon. Gentleman explained. As self-employed people effectively pay a lower rate of tax and national insurance, and because engagers pay no employers’ national insurance, there will always be those who try to present an employment relationship as self-employment.

The terms and conditions of any employment should reflect the reality of the employment relationship. The true economic activity undertaken by an individual should determine how they are taxed. Those who are working under employment terms should be taxed as such. That ensures that people receive the appropriate employment rights and contributory benefit entitlements, and that they pay the right tax and national insurance. It is not a matter of making a choice about someone’s employment status; their status should reflect the reality of the relationship between the parties.

Employers should be aware that anyone who incorrectly treats a worker as self-employed is liable for that worker’s tax and national insurance contributions, and may be liable to penalties. An individual worker can also pursue a claim for employment rights through an employment tribunal or an enforcement body, as appropriate.

Of course, there is guidance on employment status in relation to tax on the website of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and guidance on employment rights on the and Business Link websites. The website includes pen pictures of key groups, to help people understand their own status. We have also made information and guidance available through the ACAS helpline. I believe that greater awareness of obligations, penalties and rights for both workers and employers is the best mechanism to avoid abuse, along with an effective enforcement regime.

I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is for businesses to decide the most appropriate arrangements for engaging workers. The Government should not promote a particular approach but should ensure that they have the right enforcement mechanisms in place.

Mr Umunna: I completely agree with the Minister’s points about public awareness of the issue. One of my questions to him should have been what the Government were doing about that, and I am encouraged by what he has said.

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In practice, I was aware of the existence of much of what the Minister has talked about, but I found that clients often were not. Will the Government consider advertising in newspapers and magazines and on the television the information that is available? Although it exists, I believe there is a lack of awareness of where it is.

Mr Davey: I have to say that people who want to find it can find it very easily, but I think some people may want to avoid finding it. Indeed, that was the message of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. There is great availability of information—I have mentioned a number of websites, but there are other sources of information for people to turn to. I agree with him, however, that raising awareness is important.

It is essential that we do not lose sight of the fact that legitimate self-employment is a key part of the UK labour market. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not disagree with that. Nearly 4 million people in the UK are self-employed, which reflects the UK’s tradition of entrepreneurship. The legal and institutional features of the UK, including its competitive markets and employment framework, have delivered diversity and dynamism in the labour market, which allows more people to find a job that suits them. That has contributed to the UK having higher employment, at 70.6% of the total working-age population, than most other OECD countries, whose average is 64.8%, and still lower unemployment, at 7.8% compared with an 8.6% OECD average.

Like all other forms of employment, self-employment consists of a wide variety of individuals with a range of activities and capacities. The spectrum ranges from individuals working for themselves to people running multinational businesses and employing a substantial number of employees. The self-employed are not generally covered by employment legislation, because they are their own boss. They do, however, benefit from key protections such as the right to work in a healthy and safe environment and protection under discrimination legislation. The rights and responsibilities of the self-employed are governed by the terms of their contract with their client or customer.

Self-employed people are usually identified by the fact that they are in business for themselves and provide a service to multiple clients. They are generally more independent workers than others, and they have far greater control over how and when to deliver a service and who delivers it. They are usually better able to protect their own commercial interests, although they bear any financial risk from the business that they operate.

A self-employed person must register with the tax authorities, submit an annual tax return and account for their own tax and national insurance payments. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of such requirements from his previous work. Taxation is clearly a matter for the Treasury and HMRC, but as I said earlier, any employer who incorrectly treats a worker as self-employed is liable for their tax and national insurance contributions. If they do not meet those liabilities, they could be subject to penalties. That is the law at the moment, and it is a strong one.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Government recognise that false self-employment exists—it is difficult not to do so. As I think he said, in July 2009

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the previous Government undertook a consultation, through the Treasury and HMRC, on the problem in the construction sector, to which it is considered particularly relevant. Officials are currently in the process of reporting back to Treasury Ministers, so I do not have an announcement for the hon. Gentleman, but I know that those Ministers are examining the matter.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government should extend the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to cover construction. We had a long debate a few months ago on the Gangmasters Licensing (Extension to Construction Industry) Bill, which the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) promoted as a private Member’s Bill, in which I explained to him that the Government did not think that such an extension was a good idea. Licensing bodies should be considered only when certain conditions are met. There must be evidence that existing regulation is inadequate and evidence of significant abuses of employment rights; confidence that the licensing system would be a proportionate and effective way of tackling the problem; and any scheme must be practical, enforceable and affordable. In that long debate, I set out why the proposals for extending the GLA to the construction industry did not meet any of those key conditions.

The hon. Member for Streatham suggested that the employment agency standards inspectorate is not seen as an effective regulator, but I think it does a good job—it is a key part of regulatory safeguards. Employment agencies, as other businesses, must comply with the national minimum wage regulations, which are rigorously enforced by HMRC. As an indication of that, I can tell him that in 2009-10, HMRC identified more than £4.4 million in arrears for more than 19,000 workers. It is making full use of new penalty powers to fine businesses that are in breach of the regulations. In the first 10 months of this financial year, HMRC issued 761 penalty notices, which is an average of 76 each month—HMRC is playing its role.

Employers must adhere to the special employment agency regulations enforced by the employment agency standards inspectorate of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which both responds to complaints from agency workers and undertakes proactive, risk-based inspection, increasingly in partnership with HMRC. The agency has powers to prosecute and prohibit individuals from running agencies. Since April 2010, nine individuals have been prohibited from doing so, and more cases are in the pipeline. The regulatory framework, therefore, is active and working, and it is bringing bad employers to book.

Mr Umunna: The Minister spoke of my request for the remit of the GLA to be extended to cover construction. I sense from his comments that there is a problem in that industry. If he accepts that the status quo is not particularly satisfactory—he has made the Government’s position on extending the GLA’s remit clear—what does he propose to do about that industry?

On HMRC, does he think that 39 inspectors are sufficient given the scale of the problem? Will he expand on the Government’s assessment of that? Does he think that the £350 million fiscal loss estimate given by the previous Government is correct, or does he believe that it is a gross underestimation, as many trade unions do?

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Mr Davey: When we debated the extension of the GLA to the construction sector—I urge the hon. Gentleman to read the Official Report for that debate—I explained and set out how there had been an awful lot of health and safety and other improvements in the construction industry. I am aware that false employment status in the industry is seen as a problem—that is why the Treasury is considering responses to the earlier consultation— but I believe that extension of the GLA would be disproportionate given that record of improvement.

Let me be clear, however, that the Government are not complacent—further improvements to the EASI and other enforcement bodies are possible—which is why I announced, as the hon. Gentleman may be aware, a review of the Government’s workplace rights compliance and enforcement arrangements. I want to establish what further scope there is to streamline such arrangements and make them more effective. The arrangements for enforcing the national minimum wage and the 48-hour average week are within the scope of the review, along with employment agency regulation and gangmaster licensing. I expect to publish a statement of initial findings and intended next steps later this year in the context of the rolling employment law review that I am co-ordinating on behalf of the Department.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the number of inspectors focused on employee status, and referred to a parliamentary answer given by the Exchequer Secretary

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to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke) in which he noted that there were 39 employee status inspectors. However, we need to be clear about where they fit in to the overall compliance regime. HMRC status inspectors provide technical support in more complex cases to a larger number of HMRC compliance staff, who are responsible for reviewing whether employers have complied with their tax and national insurance obligations. It is wrong, therefore, to see the status inspectors by themselves. In addition, technical support is available to both HMRC staff and employers via the online tool, the employment status indicator. One needs to see those 39 inspectors in that context.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue, and I can assure him that we take it very seriously: the Treasury takes seriously the loss-of-tax issues, on which he rightly focused, and BIS takes seriously the employment rights issues, which is why we are reviewing workplace rights compliance and enforcement arrangements. I know that, with his experience and knowledge, the hon. Gentleman will continue to contribute to this debate. I welcome that, because we have very similar objectives.

Question put and agreed to.

2.56 pm

House adjourned.