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Earl Russell: I thank the Minister for that long and careful reply. I hope it will not seem ungenerous if I ask for just one more piece of information which I do not believe will cause her any trouble; that is, the section and subsection of the 1962 Act under which tuition fees are imposed.

The noble Baroness talked throughout about flexibility. I am reminded of the story of the American who received a gas bill for 0 dollars and 0 cents. He explained to the gas board that he could not possibly pay that; there was no way he could do it. After the umpteenth exchange he was told, "Yes, we see your point but we hope you will send us a cheque for this amount because our computer won't take 'no' for an answer". Therefore, he sent a cheque for 0 dollars and 0 cents. He then received a letter from his bank saying, "This cheque may well have satisfied their computer but it has caused real chaos in ours". Therefore, the flexibility may satisfy the noble Baroness while causing real chaos for us.

There is a balance to be struck here. I take the point about changes in the tax system but I hope that the noble Baroness also takes the point about parliamentary control.

The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, about the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of the maintenance grant was well taken. If it took us outside the technical wording of the amendment, that is because, on both sides of the argument, we have had to address general questions about the regulation-making power.

The view of the Renton Report and the Hansard Society Report Making the Law from Lord Rippon of Hexham is that the broad general principles must be in primary legislation so that the House can address them.

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1637

Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, I am not certain that that principle has been observed in this Bill.

There is a long history of tension between this House and this department on this subject. We shall get on a great deal faster in future if some attempt can be made to improve communication between us on this point. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 83 not moved.]

Baroness David moved Amendment No. 84:

Page 11, line 23, at end insert--
("( ) prescribing the administrative arrangements for the payment of grants or loans to eligible students;").

The noble Baroness said: In speaking to this amendment, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 89. Amendment No. 84 is a probing amendment, the purpose of which is to enable the Minister to make an announcement on the new administrative arrangements for the new system of student support.

The Bill does not describe the detailed arrangements for the administration of the new student support arrangements. LEAs currently administer the system of mandatory and discretionary awards in England and Wales and in the short term will be responsible for implementing the new student support system in HE in 1998-99 and 1999-2000. On Second Reading, the Minister indicated that an announcement would be made shortly about those administrative arrangements in the light of discussions with representatives of LEAs, the Student Loans Company and other interested parties.

The Government are now understood to have made a decision in relation to the arrangements for 1999-2000. The Minister is expected to confirm that for that year the LEAs will have a continuing role in administering student support arrangements alongside the Student Loans Company and a new central unit established within the DfEE which will take over from the LEAs the means-testing of EU students wishing to study in England and Wales.

The Government's position regarding subsequent years--that is, from 2000 to 2001--is rather less certain. This issue needs to be clarified as a matter of urgency. It would be helpful if my noble friend the Minister could confirm how and when any decision could be anticipated in the area.

Is it correct that the DfEE will be establishing in February a steering committee to manage the introduction of the new arrangements which will draw on the expertise of a committee which will advise on the precise allocation of responsibilities between LEAs, SLC and DfEE's central unit? Will the committee be making a thorough review of the current means-testing arrangements with a view to simplifying the system wherever possible? The review is expected to be completed by the end of September.

To a limited degree the announcement which is anticipated from Ministers on administrative arrangements for 1999-2000 can and will be welcomed

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by LEAs and others. An announcement about 1999-2000 only will not, however, enable the 172 LEAs in England and Wales to plan effectively for the future. It would appear that the present uncertainty for current and prospective students, their parents and families will continue in the short term at least pending any clarification by Ministers of the process they anticipate for reaching decisions on the administrative arrangements beyond 2000-2001.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister realises the importance of resolving uncertainty as soon as possible, and indeed the real advantages and value of opting decisively for continuity of service through locally accountable LEAs. LEAs are pleased to work in partnership with the Government in implementing the significant changes to the current system of student support and also in helping to determine what other improvements might be progressively introduced from 1999-2000 onwards. It is far from satisfactory that uncertainty is expected to continue in this critical area in relation to 2000-2001.

I turn now to Amendment No. 89. Its purpose is to seek clarification of the progress made in establishing the ministerial advisory group on the new arrangements to replace discretionary awards. The enabling approach in the Bill, which gives very wide-ranging powers to the Secretary of State, is also noteworthy in relation to the powers which LEAs currently have to make discretionary awards. The Government are taking the opportunity in this Bill to discontinue discretionary awards made under the 1962 Act, as they feel that the current arrangements are inadequate and need reforming. In December 1997, the Minister invited Councillor Graham Lane, Chairman of the Education Committee of the LGA (the Local Government Association) to chair an advisory group to provide advice on what new arrangements might be introduced to replace discretionary awards.

The Further Education Student Support Advisory Group has so far met on two occasions and a detailed programme of meetings has been agreed on a fortnightly basis up to the end of March when the group is required to report back to the Minister with detailed recommendations. Although the Minister may not feel it appropriate to comment on the detailed discussions in the advisory group, particularly since they are evidently still at an early stage, it might be helpful if she could confirm for the official record details of the group's membership and terms of reference, and set out what work the group has already initiated in terms of collecting information and comments from interested parties to inform its deliberations. If that is too much for my noble friend to do today, perhaps she could place a note in the Library about it.

The Minister has already indicated that she would not intend,

    "to leave LEAs without a power to make awards to students in exceptional circumstances and at their own discretion",

in the future. Could the Minister confirm that that is still part of the department's policy pending further consideration of the recommendations of the advisory group and subsequent consultation by Ministers on

22 Jan 1998 : Column 1639

detailed proposals before any new changes to student support arrangements in this area are implemented for the future?

The point of both amendments is to find out rather more about what is going on for the sake of the LEAs. They have a certain amount to do at the moment and they very much want to know how much they will be expected to do in the future. After all, they have to make arrangements about the number of staff they employ and so on. The process of means testing for grants is really quite a considerable job. I beg to move.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: I rise to express my support for the plight of LEAs in particular. I believe that they are at a very real disadvantage. There is one aspect of means testing which I know is taxing their minds very much. I know that there is a sentence in the latest progress report which says that the Department for Education and Employment will give substantial help in means testing European students from other EU countries.

Means testing a young Italian applying to come to a university in this country with the added complication of applying to study in Scotland rather than in England, will be most difficult. Unless one is automatically and entirely to rely on what the family puts in the application form, any verification system will be extremely bureaucratic or even costly. For example, will we have DfEE officials going on interesting trips around France, Italy, Spain or Germany? It will make it the most incredibly difficult task.

However, for the moment, the responsibility will rest with local authorities. If that goes wrong and we discover that there is a great deal of malpractice going on, it will be exceedingly difficult for local authorities to deal with it. I have singled out only one element, but there will also be a twin-track system. I make the assumption here that any second-year, third-year or fourth-year student in the system at present from 1998 will in fact receive the larger maintenance grant. Although I know that they will not have to meet any tuition fees, my understanding is that they will receive the 50-50 split of loan and grant. In other words, local authorities will be means testing for the existing system and means testing for the £810 maximum amount of grant for new students, in addition to means testing families for the degree to which they pay all, part or none of the tuition fees. There is a real job and a real challenge here for local authorities. For that reason, I wish to support the noble Baroness, Lady David, in her amendment.

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