How the fees decision is being legislated so quickly without debate - so much for democracy

How could parliament ram through the fees increase in three hours plus a short session in the Lords tomorrow?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
13 December 2010

The tripling of fees alongside the huge announced cuts in the grant for high education has been whisked through parliament with one three hour debate and a quick vote in the Lord tomorrow. How is this possible? I asked one expert. His answer:

"The increase in the limit on fees is only secondary legislation. It requires the support of both Houses of Parliament which is higher than that required for much secondary legislation - often there is no debate or vote on such changes at all.

"But this does indeed mean that what is a substantial shift in policy (a near-trebling of the cap) will not be subject to the degree of scrutiny and approval that primary legislation would have (ie: multiple readings and votes in each House with Committee stages in each House and the possibility of amendments at various points).

"The technical justification is that the statutory instrument for the increase is issued under authority provided by an Act of Parliament (the HIgher Education Act 2004), and Parliament had the full chance to debate the creation of the power to vary fees by statutory instrument when it scrutinised the Bill that became the Higher Education Act 2004.

"But when this Bill was being discussed, Parliament could not know that a future government might try to raise the cap to £9,000 and was then focused on the then proposed cap of £3,000.

"On the broader democratic issue - Parliament is being required to approve the creation of powers that are potentially very broad in their scope. How can our representatives know how they are going to be used when they are being asked to provide approval?

"To make the problem worse, the quantity of secondary legislation is in long-term increase, both in absolute terms and relative to primary legislation. In other words, there is evidence of a shift towards broadly drawn enabling acts, that reduce the level of democratic accountability for government."

What about the withdrawal of 80 per cent of the university teaching grant? This is arguably even more important than the increase in fees. Well, "this will presumably be part of the Finance Bill. Parliament has not amended one of these since the 1920s and the Lords is forbidden to do so."

Thus the transformation of higher education is taking place with only the ghost of the democratic process the Westminster once glorified as an example to the world.

By the way, if it is suggested that the reason for this is the dire financial emergency created by deficit, then take a look at the letter of 15 Vice-Chancellors in the Telegraph, who note

The Office of Budget Responsibility has calculated that by 2015, the public net debt requirement will increase by £13 billion in order to fund the higher student loans that will be required.

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