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Division Details - Lords House of Lords

17:26, 08 March 2017, Division 1: Higher Education and Research Bill

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Preamble

Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

Pre Vote

My Lords, with the agreement of the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and in the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, I will speak to this group. We understand that their Amendment 135, which we support, has been overtaken by events. It may be subject to an announcement that would remove the requirement for it, which I am sure we would all be grateful for. I have read through the Regulators’ Code and looked in detail at what it does. It can do nothing but good for the sector. It is an effective and useful guide. It will be extremely helpful to all those who will have to deal with the OfS as it moves into its new role. It is to be welcomed that the Government have seen the sense of the amendment we tabled in Committee and have decided to move forward in this way.

Amendment 136 is a slightly different beast. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who always seems to get stuck at the end of debates and has to hang here to make her very valuable contribution. That situation will change when we next discuss amendments that have her name to them. This one concerns an issue that has been growing in impact as we have been discussing and thinking about the issues raised in the Bill.

There is not, as might be implied by the drafting of Amendment 136, any sense in which we would resile the authority of the CMA regarding the work that will be done by the OfS and its associated committees and structures. The CMA has statutory rights to engage with anything consumers do in the public and private realms. Therefore, it will from time to time no doubt take an issue and respond to complaints. All these things are set out in statute in the ERR Act and the Consumer Rights Act 2015. However, there clearly are operations under the whole umbrella of the CMA that will have a resonance and possibly an ability to be dealt with by the Office for Students. It would be more appropriate for it to do these as part of its regulatory functions.

This is a question we have asked before and have not had a satisfactory answer to, which is why we are bringing it back tonight: what exactly is the boundary between the Office for Students in its regulatory mode and the CMA? At the moment the CMA has taken quite a serious first step into discussions with higher education providers. It has carried out a survey of the way they treat their consumers: students. It has drawn certain conclusions from that and is currently obtaining undertakings from a range of providers, many of which are well-known household names. This is a dog that barks and bites. We have to be very careful where it might go. We would not in any sense wish to constrain it, but it will introduce a completely new sense of engagement between those who respond to offers from higher education institutions to go to them and study, the results they obtain, and their attitudes to and relationships with such institutions.

However, the detailed work of that will necessarily fall to the Office for Students, so there really are questions. Where does the boundary lie? What are the parallel powers that the Government are setting up in this area? Will the OfS have the same powers that the CMA has, as defined in the two acts that I have already mentioned? Are there new and additional powers that are not being mentioned? If so, could we have a note about these? Where exactly are we on this? I think there is a danger that this ground will be rather trampled over. I have said this was a dog that not only barked but bit, but I think there are other worries that there may be some sort of competitive urge between the two bodies to be more regulatory than the other, and I hope there will be powers available to make sure that that does not happen. We do not want too many dogs, and we certainly do not want them biting. We want to make sure at the end of the day that the true interests here, which are the interests of the students, are not curtailed or in any sense hampered by the fact that regulators are exercising functions in a lot of different ways. I am speaking to this amendment but there is a previous one in the group, and I will respond to mine once the noble Baroness has responded. I beg to move.

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