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Lord Peston: My Lords, my noble friend the Leader of the House might tell us whether it is out of order for anyone to speak in favour of the Minister or of the Motion before the House. I am somewhat appalled at those who say they are sticklers for our rules but they still felt able to make Second Reading speeches in connection with the former Motion before the House. However, it is for them to reflect on that.

I spoke at Second Reading but I do not recall most of my noble friends and noble Lords opposite being present. At that time I made it clear that I did not care for tuition fees. But it seemed to me from that point on it was up to the Opposition to put up some opposition at the Committee stage. I have forgotten which noble Lord said that it was an appalling performance but I agree, it was. That appalling performance was not down to my noble friend the Minister, it was down to the fact that we discovered afterwards that the Opposition had not the faintest idea about the Bill or about university and higher education finance. I remember making this point not long ago. It did not seem to be my job to give them lessons on the subject. It was clear that they totally bungled the Committee stage because they did not know what they were talking about. They now seek to blame my noble friend the Minister because somehow she did not do their job for them.

I do not have a copy of the letter with me, but my last point is that it did not seem to me, when the noble Lord, Lord Tope, read it out, that he was for one moment suggesting that my noble friend was proposing that we break our rules. She was simply saying that she thought she had behaved reasonably. If she had consulted me purely on a friendship basis I should have said--and this is my whole attitude--"Never behave reasonably when you are dealing with the unreasonable". She is now being attacked for behaving reasonably. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, is being attacked for trying to respond to a reasonable offer, it seems to me.

I hope that my noble friend will now say: "Enough's enough; the whole thing is preposterous". She should suggest to noble Lords opposite that they start doing their job of tabling meaningful amendments and arguing the case. Some of us would be rather interested in taking part in that argument, but not to have this constant crying: "Oh, we bungled it, but it's not our fault".

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief point. By what authority does a Minister of the Crown offer flexibility affecting the rules of procedure of your Lordships' House? To me this is almost beyond credibility and belief. What did the noble Lord, Lord Tope, imagine he was getting other than a pig in a poke? There is absolutely no power, no sense and no force in an undertaking to use flexibility if it means in any way changing the procedures of this House on Report.

I came here to support the amendment. The essence of the problem was that we required the seriousness of debate at Committee stage where one can speak more than once and entertain discussion. That is what we needed, but

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it has been given away in accepting an undertaking which, whatever the noble Baroness said, is worthless. It is a worthless, sterile, useless undertaking by which a kind of compromise has been accepted between the two parties so that the right action--to recommit the Bill--has not been taken.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I sat through the Committee stage of the Bill till late at night because I cared about higher education. If other people had cared about it, they would have been here and not asked for what is called "prime time". Prime time is when a Bill is being discussed that you care about you should be here to discuss it and not ask for special concessions. I should also add that we have now wasted 45 minutes of prime time.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords--

Noble Lords: Order!

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I wish to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for not moving his Motion for re-committal. He and I have had a couple of constructive discussions recently and I can assure your Lordships' House that I shall be happy to allow maximum debate on Clauses 16 to 18 during Report stage within the rules of the House.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I believe that I am within the rules of the House to intervene when the noble Baroness is speaking. I wish to ask her this: since when has it been the lot of a Minister to allow maximum debate at any stage of a Bill? The Minister gave a hint that somehow this Report stage would be different from any other Report stage. I come to this House, whether it is to the Committee stage, the Report stage or Third Reading, and expect to have the maximum opportunity within the rules of the House as an individual Member of the House. I do not expect to be condescended to, and I do not expect the Minister to be condescending about allowing us to have maximum debate within the rules of the House.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I feel that I am in one of those "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situations. I am trying to respond to some of the concerns that Members opposite, both in the Liberal Democrat Opposition and in the Conservative Opposition, have expressed about the Committee stage. I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, but since he was out of the country last week--and this is in answer to one of the questions put by a Member on the opposite Benches--he only received my letter this morning. I hope that that is a helpful explanation of the timing.

Perhaps I need to repeat what I said in the letter. I said that I would stick to the rules of the House and would also try to make it possible--because this question was also raised--to deal with the crucial clauses, Clauses 16 to 18 in the second part of the Bill, at first business. That is the Government's intention.

It is also the Government's intention to allow two-and-a-half days for the debate, if that is the time taken up by the amendments that are tabled. Of course, I accept

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what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said. The exact length of time will depend on how many people speak and how many amendments are put down; but the Government will stick to what we agreed.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, again with the leave of the House, is the noble Baroness suggesting that we could negotiate more time, if there are sufficient amendments? We are talking about a very short time today, a relatively short time on Thursday and one day on Monday. Does the Minister suggest that that is the offer, over and above what we have at the moment? We do not have two-and-a-half days at the moment.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, this is a matter for the usual channels and not for debate across the Floor of the House. I have simply said that I have made an offer to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that there would be two-and-a-half days available. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, queried whether that was the case. I wish to provide the reassurance that it is the case and we will make the time available.

I was asked whether we had consulted the Table. The answer is no. We did not need to consult the Table as there was no attempt or no wish in any way to relax the rules of the House. I simply said that I wished to be flexible. It is perfectly legitimate for any Ministers speaking in this House to be flexible in the way they interpret the rules. That is the issue. It is a matter of how many interventions--

A noble Lord: No!

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am sorry, but I have heard many debates in the House at Committee and Report stages and Third Reading where, when Members of your Lordships' House rose to elucidate a point, the Minister speaking said that that Member had already spoken and it was not right at Report stage to take further questions of elucidation. That is all I am trying to do.

I found the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, a little offensive, if I may say so. He accused me implicitly of lacking both humility and good manners. I say this in all humility. I do not wish to be rude or not to display good manners. I am attempting to find a way round the issue. In responding to the debate I hope that noble Lords will accept that it would not be right for me to become involved in the substantive matters raised as though it were a Second Reading debate; that is, on questions of policy. This is a procedural debate and we should stick to procedural matters.

I accept that the policy concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and many other Members of your Lordships' House will not be met by the Bill. We have different views on what should be the right policy. However, those noble Lords who have suggested that the higher education sector does not accept some of the principles behind the Bill are not right in making that claim. Of course, there will be

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some members of the higher education sector who take that view. However, today I received from the CVCP briefing a statement which said:

    "Vice Chancellors broadly support the principles of the new funding scheme".

That is an important point which we need to take on board. However, we are not here to debate that.

I should remind the House that the Companion to the Standing Orders provides for two situations in which re-committal may take place: where important amendments were tabled too late in Committee for that stage; or where amendments on a subject which had not been considered in Committee were tabled at a later stage and required detailed examination. Neither of those two situations applies in this case.

I have not heard any arguments which would lead me to believe that the House had not had sufficient opportunity fully to debate the provisions of the Bill and that it should not pass now to Report stage. I find it extremely difficult to understand how it can be argued that the Government have not been clear about the legal basis for the new fee regime. Both the Explanatory Memorandum and Notes on Clauses published on the same day as the Bill made clear that Clause 16 gives the Secretary of State power to provide substantial support to students in respect of fees. Clause 18 gives the Secretary of State power to make it a condition of grant from the funding council that institutions charge certain students fees at the level of the maximum support payable under Clause 16; that is, it gives him a reserve power to control top-up fees.

Again, I understand that some noble Lords do not agree with the Government's decision to take that reserve power. But we shall debate that at length on Report when further amendments have been tabled to Clause 18. Indeed, we have already had a debate about it in Committee. The Government believe that it is right to take that reserve power because of their commitments to parents that they would not have to pay any more than they do at present and also the commitments they have made to students.

I return to the issue on which there is confusion. Fees have been charged by universities, not the Government, for years and the Bill does nothing to affect that position. Moreover, exactly the same device has been used to secure contributions from students and their parents as is planned under this Bill; that is, the means-testing of government support for fees from 1963 to 1977 under the 1962 Act.

Our Second Reading debate on 11th December did not indicate any misunderstanding of our plans. At the end of that debate there was nothing to indicate to me that there was a misunderstanding on the charging of fees. Moreover, I said in relation to the Bill:

    "It does not give the Secretary of State power to set university fees".--[Official Report, 11/12/97; col. 257-8.]

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The noble Earl, Lord Russell, seemed to indicate his understanding of the status of universities when he said:

    "Universities are not nationalised industries. They are private corporations".

Later, when referring to fees, he said:

    "I appreciate that the noble Baroness is technically right that the university is still free to set its own level".--[Official Report, 11/12/97; col. 286.]

In view of that, I was genuinely unaware that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, believed that the Government thought that they had power to charge directly. I can only apologise for the fact that I was unaware of that. The noble Earl's misunderstanding, which first came to light in Committee, seemed to have stemmed from his misinterpretation of my department's memorandum to the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. Before that time, I did not know that there was a misunderstanding. Had I done so, I should certainly have agreed to meet the noble Earl to try to clarify the position. When the misunderstanding became apparent, the noble Earl will recall that I took the first opportunity, at about five o'clock on 26th January, to meet him and his noble friend Lord Tope, together with the senior legal adviser from my department, to clarify the matter. Of course, any misunderstanding is always regrettable and I know that the noble Earl was grateful to my officials and thanked them for their assistance in trying to put the matter right.

From the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee memorandum, the noble Earl came to the conclusion that the Government believed that they had the power to charge fees. I do not wish to go into more detail about that because it would not be particularly helpful at this stage.

I shall now deal with one or two points raised by other noble Lords. I am rather puzzled by what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said. During our Second Reading debate she asked some 37 quite specific questions but none of them related to the charging of fees. I should certainly have responded before the Committee stage had she raised a question on such an important point. But again I had no idea that there was any misunderstanding of the provisions of the Bill on her part until the noble Earl, Lord Russell, intervened on that point in Committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, will forgive me if I do not become involved in the issue of college fees at Oxbridge. That is quite a different matter. It is not an issue for this Bill. No legislation is required for the Government to respond to the recommendation made by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, and his committee of inquiry but it is a matter that should be looked at by the Government. The Government have referred it to the HEFC.

The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, my noble friend Lord Glenamara and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, have objected to what they consider to be skeletal provisions. However, we have had extensive debate about the nature of those provisions during the passage of the Bill. I have tried to explain that it is right that we should put much of the detail of a Bill of this sort into regulations.

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I believe that that is right so that when the higher education system changes, as it may well do, we do not have to come back with primary legislation.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that there really can be no doubt that the Government have made quite clear what they intend to do. I do not believe that the noble Lord took part in the Committee stage of the Bill, although he spoke on the Second Reading. We have provided extensive documentation in relation to our intentions and have set out at length what is likely to form the vast bulk of the regulations. We have done that in language which is rather easier to follow and understand than draft regulations would be.

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