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Baroness Byford: My Lords, further to the Minister's response, the only people getting fleeced at the moment, sadly, are our sheep farmers, whose situation is extremely serious.

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Can the Minister respond to the announcement of the £50 million cut in the sheep premium? Also, how quickly will the Government respond to the study being examined by the Scottish Agricultural College which is to be presented to the EU Commission in June?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the rate of sheep premium is set in relation to the levels available and will be lower this year than it has been in the past as a reflection of higher levels and prices on the Continent and the strong pound-euro exchange rate. I shall certainly read the report from the Scottish Agricultural College and consider what action to take. But the noble Baroness should be careful of commenting on reductions in support to the sheep industry, given the record of her government.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I know that noble Lords opposite do not like to be reminded of the facts in terms of support for hill livestock and compensation allowances, which were reduced by the previous government; but if it is fact, it is fact.

Lord Haskel: My Lords—

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords—

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I may be wrong, but I do not believe anybody from this side has asked a question of my noble friend on this point. Perhaps we could hear the noble Lord, Lord Haskel.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, spoke about the export of sheep. Would it be straying too far from the Question if I asked my noble friend whether she can tell us what the Government are doing to help the export of beef?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, this is another sector that is experiencing difficulties. As my noble friend will be aware, the Prime Minister asked my colleague Joyce Quin to take a lead in this area. Following the lifting of the export ban to everywhere in Europe, apart from France, which is now completely isolated in this respect—I see that noble Lords opposite are not interested—both Malta and Ghana have lifted the ban on the export of British beef. I should have thought that noble Lords opposite would be pleased to support that development.

University Admissions

3 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to promote a reduction in the proportion of children from independent schools who are admitted to United Kingdom universities.

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The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): The Government are committed to widening participation in higher education. The university funding system has been changed to give additional support for those students who are likely to need it most. We are financing summer schools to encourage young people to raise their sights, and we are supporting a variety of schemes to improve access to higher education. We want all young people with the potential to benefit from higher education to be admitted to university, whatever their background.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, does she agree with me that, in general, it is an infringement of academic freedom for the Government to interfere in university admissions? I say this particularly because every university in the country has said that it wants to admit able pupils of every class and from every school and has given great attention to widening the entry process. Therefore, why make the universities responsible for the weaknesses of a state education system?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government have been working with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and with the top research universities for some time to widen participation in universities. Our agenda is the same. I believe that it is accepted by many of my former colleagues in the CVCP that this is a challenge to all of us. There is no question of interference. The Government are perfectly well aware that admissions policies, their detail and how they are implemented are matters for the universities. Indeed, it was your Lordships' House—I remember the occasion well—that, rightly, made it absolutely clear that the details of the way in which students are admitted to universities is a matter for those universities. However, in the interest of promoting equal opportunities, it is perfectly right and appropriate that governments should provide incentives and encouragement to universities to deal with access problems.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister agree with me, and confirm, that 65 per cent of all students who gain three As at A-level come from the state sector and only 35 per cent from the independent sector, whereas figures for entry to Oxford are 53 per cent and 47 per cent respectively?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I can confirm the figures just given by my noble friend. Indeed, they have been widely available in the public domain over the past few days. I applaud the work that Professor Colin Lucas, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, is undertaking in order to widen participation. In a report produced by the University of Oxford last year, it was made clear that this was a problem and one which the university wished to

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crack. The Government will continue to work with Professor Lucas and his colleagues in attempting to widen participation.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, Section 68(3) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 forbids the Secretary of State to fund institutions on the basis of the "criteria" that they use for "the admission of students". In the light of the description of the Chancellor of the Exchequer of admission procedures at Magdalen College in Oxford as a "scandal", can the Minister say whether it is the Government's intention to reform the law in order to use funding to reward or punish universities?

Baroness Blackstone: No, my Lords.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister not aware of the inconsistency of the Government's stance on this particular issue? If the Government are genuinely anxious to widen participation and to reduce the access barriers to our top universities, why have they pursued a policy of imposing tuition fees and abolishing maintenance grants? And why do they now seem to be acquiescing in plans for top-up fees?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, perhaps I may begin with the point about top-up fees. The Government are not acquiescing. We have made the position absolutely clear; indeed, we legislated and took reserve powers to make it impossible for universities to charge top-up fees. We also made it clear that, if they did so, we would reduce their grants.

On the noble Baroness's wider point, I should point out to her—I am surprised that she is unaware of this—that there has been no reduction in the number of applicants and, indeed, in the number of students going to university from lower-income groups as a result of the changes in the student support regime and the introduction of tuition fees. Tuition fees are not paid by over one-third of young people; indeed, they pay no fees whatever. When the threshold is raised next year, that figure will rise to 40 per cent.

Lord St John of Fawsley: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree—

Lord Desai: My Lords, does my noble friend agree—

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord Carter: My Lords, I should remind the House that the time limit of 30 minutes for Questions has now expired.

Lord St John of Fawsley: My Lords, I wish to ask this question. It is a point of order. Is it in order to

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have premature interventions from the Front Bench which prevent Back-Bench Members of this House having a say on a vitally important Question?

Railtrack (Waverley Station) Order Confirmation Bill

3.6 p.m.

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and (pursuant to the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936) deemed to have been read a second time and reported from the Committee.

Business of the House: Debates this Day

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debates on the Motions in the names of the Earl of Carnarvon and the Lord Bridges set down for today shall each be limited to two hours.—(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Transport Bill

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to whom the Transport Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clauses 1 to 27, Schedules 1 and 2, Clauses 28 to 30, Schedule 3, Clauses 31 to 33, Schedule 4, Clause 34, Schedule 5, Clauses 35 to 60, Schedule 6, Clause 61, Schedule 7, Clauses 62 to 89, Schedule 8, Clauses 90 to 94, Schedule 9, Clauses 95 to 141, Schedule 10, Clauses 142 to 149, Schedule 11, Clauses 150 to 179, Schedule 12,

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Clauses 180 to 187, Schedule 13, Clauses 188 to 192, Schedule 14, Clauses 193 to 199, Schedule 15, Clauses 200 to 203, Schedule 16, Clause 204, Schedule 17, Clause 205, Schedule 18, Clause 206, Schedule 19, Clause 207, Schedule 20, Clause 208, Schedule 21. Clauses 209 to 215, Schedule 22, Clauses 216 and 217, Schedule 23, Clauses 218 and 219, Schedule 24, Clauses 220 to 227, Schedule 25, Clauses 228 to 236, Schedule 26, Clauses 237 and 238, Schedule 27, Clause 239, Schedule 28, Clauses 240 to 242, Schedule 29, Clauses 243 to 247, Schedule 30, Clauses 248 to 253.—(Lord Whitty.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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