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Lords fear Blunkett's new powers

It's not everyday that David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, is compared to Hitler and Henry VIII, but fears about the new powers he has given himself have prompted colourful comparisons.

Peers were concerned that important details of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which introduces tuition fees and establishes a General Teaching Council, would only be known when regulations set by Mr Blunkett were seen.

Speaking during the Bill's second reading, Lord Pilkington, a Conservative, said: "We are dealing with shadows in the sand. We do not know whether they are sinister or beneficent.

"So many powers are reserved in the Bill to the Secretary of State that, in contrast, the dictatorial Statute of Proclamations of Henry VIII looks like an almost amateur effort in control."

The Lords were particularly disappointed at the paucity of detail on, for example, the extent of powers and membership of the teaching council. But Lord Tope, a Liberal Democrat, had read enough to decide the new body could become a "toothless poodle". He said teachers would resent paying subscriptions, mooted at Pounds 10, if they felt it had no power. The Bishop of Ripon was concerned to find no mention of Church representation. Others said the English council had inferior powers to the Scottish and Welsh ones.

Education minister Baroness Blackstone outlined the intentions of the Bill, which also includes a compulsory qualification for heads, a probationary year for teachers, the right for the Office for Standards in Education to inspect teacher training institutions, tuition fees for higher education and a new student loan scheme, powers for the Secretary of State to penalise universities which introduce top-up fees and paid time off for young people to study or train.

The Bill, in parts, received cross party support. Lord Baker, (the former education secretary), praised the Government for succeeding where he had failed - namely in persuading the Inland Revenue to recover student loans.

There was a discussion about the extent to which students would be deterred by the fear of accruing large debts. Lord Pilkington said three banks had told him that a new teacher earning Pounds 16,000, with a student loan debt of Pounds 12,000, would find it hard to get a mortgage. Lord Tope described the tuition fees as a "student poll tax" and said the Liberal Democrats remained implacably opposed to them.

By far the most controversial part of the Bill is Clause 18 which gives the Secretary of State powers to withdraw funds from universities charging top-up fees. This is seen as an attack on the independence of the sector. Baroness Perry, a Conservative, did not mince her words: "...the first acts of the Nazi government in Hitler's Germany were to take control of the universities. The first act of the cultural revolution in China was to take control of the universities."

Lady Blackstone had some words of comfort. Clause 18, she said, was not an attack on academic freedom or university autonomy. Andfollowing advice from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals the clause may be redrafted for clarification.

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