The government will face more defiance from the House of Lords as the Teaching and Higher Education Bill returns to the Upper House after completing its passage through the Commons this week.
Commons amendments to the bill, which started in the Lords, must be approved when the bill returns to the Upper House between June 15 and June 30. The Lords may reject them or send new amendments back to the Commons. Starting in the Lords means the bill does not fall under the Parliament Act, which limits the Lords' delaying powers. With a busy legislative programme, the government wants to avoid delays.
Lords education front-benchers are now preoccupied by the committee stage of the Schools Bill, which will be completed on Tuesday. But there are indications from the opposition that the Lords' sparingly used right to challenge the government more than once on legislation could be invoked. The likeliest target is the Scottish anomaly, under which students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to pay tuition fees for all four years of a Scottish degree while Scots and other European Union students will pay for just three years. Less likely, but still possible, is an attempt to restore maintenance grants for students from low-income families.
Baroness Blatch, Conservative education spokeswoman, said: "Most Commons amendments are accepted fairly readily by the Lords. But both of these come into the category of issues likely to be taken extremely seriously by the House." Of the Scottish anomaly, she said, "It is unfair, ill-judged and quite possibly not legal."
It is also a cross-party issue. The opposition majority when the Lords voted by 134 to 89 to eliminate the anomaly during the Bill's committee stage included crossbench, Liberal Democrat and some Labour peers. Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat spokesman on further and higher education, said, "We hope to see the Lords reinstate their amendment to treat all students equally, and send the bill back to the Commons."
Opposition in the Lords to ending grants was almost entirely Conservative. But Baroness Blatch said this week's Commons rebellion - when 33 Labour members voted with Conservatives and Scottish and Welsh Nationalists against the government - made another challenge likelier. "There is little doubt who won the debate in the Commons. The package remains unacceptable because it places a disproportionate burden on students from low-income families."
Baroness Perry, who spoke in favour of the original Lords amendment to restore grants, said she would support the Conservative front bench if it pressed the issue again, but is concerned about the further uncertainty this might impose on next year's students.
Leader, page 11