Selected ones cut their teeth on Dearing

8th August 1997 at 01:00
Sir Ron braved the Education and Employment Select Committee lions. Ben Russell reports.

The historian Lord Dacre once said "in interrogation, pressure must be uninterrupted".

He learned his skills questioning senior Nazis after the Second World War. But he might have been referring to the process of holding ministers to account.

The new Education and Employment Select Committee chose a high-profile target to practise on when it met for the first time last week. Sir Ron Dearing, whose report on higher education came out earlier this month, is a master of diplomacy - a skill essential in his role as Mr Fixit for successive education secretaries.

The majority of the 17 members took their seats on May 1 and were champing at the bit.

They wanted answers to education's $64,000 questions: would Sir Ron's idea of charging students at university deter young people from poor backgrounds? And has David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, made matters worse by planning to abolish student grants against Sir Ron's advice?

MP after MP fixed the chairman of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education with their gaze. Margaret Hodge, the committee chairman and a Friend of Blair, set the tone with the first variation on the theme.

Her fellow chairman - the committee has a second chairman for employment issues - took up the baton. Labour's Derek Foster, MP for Bishop Auckland, described the "great unease" at the potential problems for low-income groups.

Gerry Steinberg, Labour member for Durham and one of the few remaining old stagers, was also on the attack, wanting to know what the report meant for people on the deprived estates in his constituency.

Sir Ron replied that he was not to blame; his inquiry rejected means-tested fees and wanted to keep grants.

Was he goaded into criticising new Labour? Certainly not.

Instead he told them that David Blunkett was the one to compromise, shifting his position from Labour's manifesto pledge to abolish grants alone, and towards Sir Ron's position of charging fees - while increasing maintenance loans for cash-strapped students.

A question about his opposition to selling off debts accrued under the student loan scheme, won a classic Civil Service answer. Given the Treasury's cashflow problems Sir Ron had "sympathy and understanding" for the Government's plan to press ahead with the sale.

The questioning did, however, expose hair-line cracks in the argument over fees. A particularly steely look accompanied a missile from Yvette Cooper, the new Labour member for Pontefract and Castleford, and a former adviser to John Smith and Gordon Brown. She wanted to know why Sir Ron had ruled out a graduate tax.

Sir Ron said it was unfair to impose a tax in perpetuity; an answer which highlighted the crucial debate about whether arrangements for repaying fees would themselves be fair.

There was another thorn buried in his disquisition. Sir Ron insisted that special measures in his report designed to increase participation were essential to offset the effect of fees - lest the Government be tempted to ignore these too.

Sir Ron stuck to his guns throughout. He was charged with providing options, he said. All political parties had said there was no more money; his task was to find cash from another source.

The crunch came when Sir Ron strayed on to the topic of how much cash should come from the individual and how much from the state. That's something for society, and by implication the Government, to decide, he said.

Therein came the rub for the new select committee: all the right questions, but the wrong man on the stand.

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