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Flaws highlighted as peers debate Bill

The Lords have been kept up late as the new education legislation wends its way through Parliament. Many of them are not happy with what it proposes. Frances Rafferty reports

When the House of Lords sits up beyond half past midnight it is a fair bet there are a number of peers who are not content.

So, when Baroness Blackstone, education minister, closed the proceedings at twenty to one last week on the second day of the committee stage of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, it was clear the arguments had not been won. The Government had not actually been forced to a vote but the Opposition was keeping its powder dry for the next stage of the Bill's passage - the report - next month.

Senior Labour peers admit they are vulnerable on more than one issue. The debate during the three days of committee was tetchy. Those on the Opposition benches say the Bill contains no detail and leaves too much for the Secretary of State to decide in secondary legislation, which will not be debated in Parliament.

Lady Blackstone was accused of stonewalling and admonished by Lord Mackay, Conservative, for not observing the etiquette of the House by blocking interventions from fellow peers.

The Bill creates a general teaching council and introduces a probationary year for teachers and a compulsory qualification for heads. It also puts in place the notorious Pounds 1,000 tuition fee and abolishes the maintenance grant for higher education students, and gives young employees a day off for study or training.

Lord Tope, leading for the Liberal Democrats, wants the general teaching council to have more teeth. He says it should be more than an advisory body and the Bill should stipulate that teachers have the most members. However, he is unlikely to go to the wire on the GTC.

The most contentious issues are the introduction of fees and the new arrangements for student loans.

Baroness Blatch, leading for the Conservatives, said there was not enough detail on the Government's scheme to help students applying for courses this September to enable them to work out the financial consequences.

A Liberal Democrat amendment said that students should be treated as independent adults, and means-tested fees should not take into account their parents' or spouse's income. Baroness Perry, Conservative, said there were men who refused to support their student wives, despite their income being taken into account: "It does give enormous power to the man in question if he is able to say, 'If you are nice to me, I might pay your Pounds 1,000 for you; if you are not, I will not'."

Amendments were also used to probe anomalies in the Bill. At present Scottish students will pay only Pounds 3,000 for their four-year degree courses, as will students from other parts of the European Union. English and Welsh students studying north of the border will have to pay the full Pounds 4,000.

Lord Mackay asked why one of his grandchildren who lives in Italy will pay Pounds 3,000 if she follows him to the University of Glasgow, but his granddaughter from Kent will pay Pounds 4,000.

The Conservatives support tuition fees, but propose a limit on the amount they can be increased by, and also want safeguards on the maintenance grant - so that students from low-income backgrounds will have half paid by the state. The Liberal Democrats oppose tuition fees. But the parties may agree to work together to defeat the Government.

Another contentious issue is the new power for the Secretary of State to withdraw public funding from universities who charge top-up fees. The Vice-Chancellors, who enjoy a powerful presence in the Chamber, are concerned this will be extended to undermine the independence of universities. Despite Lady Blackstone's attempt to assuage their fears, they could force a defeat on her Government.

The last part of the Bill, which gives 16 and 17-year-olds one day a week off work to study or train, at their employer's expense, was opposed by Lady Blatch. She said it imposed a burden on small businesses and will lead to discrimination among youths being employed. Some, she said, will arrive with the bounty of Pounds 60 from the Welfare to Work scheme, others will arrive with the burden of expecting time off to study.

The Government was pressed on the legality of introducing tuition fees by the Liberal Democrats. Earl Russell later said: "I am completely amazed at the events in the House of Lords. The Government were unable to explain where the powers were in the Bill to start charging students for their education. Finally, Lord Whitty, for the Government, conceded he would have to obtain detailed advice and write in due course."

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