Peer vows to clarify minister's powers

January 23, 1998

THE government drew first blood in a battle over the controversial Teaching and Higher Education Bill this week, but peers have warned ministers that they may yet lose the war.

Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone succeeded in having a crucial amendment by academic Earl Russell withdrawn during the first day of the bill's committee stage on Tuesday. Earl Russell warned: "She should not count on being so lucky again."

The earl's amendment, only the third in a list of 138, had sought to weaken the power the bill would give the secretary of state to prescribe the nature and responsibilities of the proposed General Teaching Council (GTC).

Earl Russell, professor of history at King's College London, said that there were similar fears about later clauses on student loans and tuition fees. "We cannot decide whether we need a regulation-making power until we decide: a power to do what?" he said.

Conservative peers, led by Baroness Blatch, agreed with Earl Russell. Lady Blatch said: "Because this is a skeletal bill ... it is important that we know what is in the government's mind when they legislate."

Baroness Blackstone, backed by Labour peers, said that she could not predict what the "outer limits" of the secretary of state's powers might be under the bill.

She said that the government envisaged the GTC as a body that might start out with less direct responsibility for the teaching profession than some may wish but that could evolve to become a proper professional body.

The government would consult extensively with teachers before setting out the GTC's responsibilities.

However, she warned: "The amendments would remove the power of the secretary of state to make regulations about how the GTC should be constituted. If we remove that power we will not be able to make any progress whatsoever in developing the GTC."

Peers took more than seven hours to consider all amendments relating to part I of the bill concerning teaching. None of the amendments came to a vote as all were either withdrawn or not moved. The house began its consideration of clauses 16 and 18, covering student loans and tuition fees yesterday, after The THES went to print.

Earl Russell's amendment to delete clause 18 in the bill was likely to be the focus of dissent for both Liberal Democrat and Conservative peers. The government has tabled its own amendments to clause 18 in response to university claims that it would give the secretary of state unprecedented power to interfere in their affairs. Crucially, the bill does not receive the protection of the Parliament Act because it was introduced in the Lords. This means that the government cannot overturn Lords' amendments in the Commons and so push the bill through to law.

The only option in the event of a defeat in the Lords would be to drop the bill in the upper chamber and, after renaming or numbering it, reintroduce it in the Commons. It could only do this in the following parliamentary session. Then the government could pass the bill for Royal Assent.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said that a delay would almost certainly not prevent the introduction of tuition fees and the new loans system this October.

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