Sharp talk ahead of third Lords defeat

13th March 1998 at 00:00
The Upper House was adjourned for 15 minutes but members were still in a bad mood. Frances Rafferty reports

The House of Lords was adjourned for quarter of an hour to allow peers to "cool down" after angry exchanges during debate on legislation this week, which saw the Government defeated for the third time on education.

Tempers were already ragged when Lord Whitty, Labour whip, accused opposition peers of a "hypocritical attitude" and as posing as students' friends. Lord Russell, Liberal Democrat and professor of history at King's College, London, asked him to withdraw his remarks and, when he refused, evoked a vote on the rarely-used "asperity of speech" - the equivalent of being read the parliamentary riot act. The Government was defeated by 168 to 99 votes.

A clerk read the order, dating from Charles I's reign, saying "all personal, sharp or taxing speeches be forborn". Lord Richards, Leader of the Lords, then proposed the peers take 15 minutes to cool off.

It was the second defeat of the night. Earlier, during the third reading of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which establishes a general teaching council and new loan arrangements for students, an amendment by the Conservative Baroness Young, which increased the powers of the teachers' council, bringing it in line with the General Medical Council, was won by 137 votes to 112.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats said the legislation created an expensive talking shop. Lady Young said its members would have to pay a subscription "therefore it should be a body with power, which can take decisions".

Her amendment gives the council powers to determine standards of teaching and standards of conduct for teachers. The Government said it would reverse the decision in the Commons.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, said the amendment, "undermined the role of the Teacher Training Agency and the newly-qualified teacher status and will fragment a coherent child protection system and give highly-sensitive powers on child protection to an untried and untested body".

Baroness Blackstone, education minister, had made a concession and agreed practising and newly-retired teachers would form the majority of the council. But in answer to crossbencher Lord Baldwin's amendment, giving it powers to de-register teachers, barring them from the profession, she said incompetence procedures had just been agreed by teacher unions and employers and these should be given time to bed down. Lord Baldwin was defeated.

The next vote was on an amendment by Lord Tope, Liberal Democrat, to block the introduction of tuition fees until the next election. He said: "The Government has no mandate to introduce tuition fees. They did not feature in the manifesto or at the Labour conference, therefore we feel any action taken on tuition fees should stand the test of a general election."

The amendment was lost, with the Conservatives voting with the Government. A Tory amendment from Lord Renfrew establishing an independent committee to review student finance arrangements, was also defeated. And, surprisingly, the Government also survived an attempt to ensure that all money raised by tuition fees went directly to higher education and was calculated as additional money by the Higher Education Funding Council when awarding grants. The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives had supported it, but it was getting late and some of their troops had left.

One Lords' staff member summed up the peers' mood and their determination to force division after division. "They've all got the hump now," he said.

The Bill now goes to the Commons where ministers will attempt to reverse the three defeats inflicted - the training council powers, poor students to receive half their maintenance costs and English students paying the same as Scots for taking four-year Scottish degrees.

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