The HE Bill in the Lords: Once More, With Feeling

Previously on the HE and R Bill… – I’ve been following progress with considerable interest, but the coverage has been so good that I’ve not felt inclined to write anything here. The text of the bill passed through the House of Commons without any changes, despite significant issues with both the drafting and the underlying policy. After some feisty exchanges in the Lords the bill has been substantially altered, both by the government and – on six occasions so far – by others. A small government majority in the commons means that these could be overturned again during “ping-pong” (the adorably named process by which the commons and lords come to agreement via conflicting votes and all-night sittings). But this is neither the most urgent or most visible legislative matter the government are trying to manage….

As the House of Lords spend another afternoon going through the motions, it is interesting to consider our own Higher Education and Research Bill alongside the wider work of the upper legislative chamber as we speed towards the Easter recess.

As I’ve hinted in previous weeks on Twitter I’ve got a theory that pressures on parliamentary time will prove to be a defining factor in the shape of the future Act. If peers are together in continuing to block key aspects we need to ask how willing the government are to spend the time needed to push through their own vision, and to throw the various opposition and cross-bench amendments – if they don’t cut the mustard – out.

Since the Commons stages – where, lest we forget, not one single amendment was made to the text of the bill – we have seen significant government climb-downs and alterations. Pressure from peers is beginning to realise the kind of government rethink that was asked for in the commons committee and third reading. No longer under the spell of Jo Johnson’s draftsmen, we can never tell quite where the line will be drawn as regards what initially appeared to be essential parts of the policy framework.

At this point one has to step back and consider what it is that the Bill is actually trying to do, and why. Which – in all honesty – is surprisingly little. Some regulatory changes, based more on a wish to remove HEFCE and tidy up a powerpoint slide than any new possibilities offered? Changes to sector entry and exit tickets – and of course the TEF! – as yet another attempt to make HE work like a market? In many arguments, most notably those made in independent HE, this is sold as a revolutionary policy package – but after this is complete will the sector honestly get to rest in peace for a few years?

As the the dawn of prorogation approaches, there may be cause to for the government to lament this lack of vision. The Higher Education and Research Bill is just one of many bills the Government are shepherding through the Lords at the moment, and may not be what they feel is the most pressing legislative issue currently standing.

The Criminal Finances Bill, for example awaits further committee sessions, and a report. The Third Reading of the Digital Economy Bill on 29th March may not run sweetly. Bills exist around Lords Reform that could become more important to the government after recent “rebellions” – votes on the HE Bill have been just one part of a series of votes that have left Lords walking closer to the fire. Following issues around business rates in the budget, Sajid Javid’s Local Government Finance Bill could be resurrected and forced through before May – his Neighbourhood Planning Bill (with a third reading this week in the Lords) could be equally controversial. A Prisons and Courts Bill is currently in the Commons but could be progressed with haste if the increasingly clear problems in that system continue to make headlines. Closer to home the Technical and Further Education Bill has a committee report in the Lords at the end of March. All this alongside numerous debates, committee reports and other parliamentary business.

And, of course the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. This, more than anything, is the clear government priority currently. Amendments in the Lords gave a lot of people something to sing about last week but when “ping-pong” beings – and may be seen on both Monday and perhaps Wednesday as interventions throughout the HE Bill report – no-one can be sure at what point consensus will be realised. Lords will be keen to demonstrate their value as scrutineers in a de-politicised second chamber on this one-in-a-generation constitutional issue, but will be anxious not to be seen as defying the will of the people. It’s a difficult line to walk.

If that bill is delayed – or if other means are found to delay the Prime Minister’s Brexit timetable – this could mean further work for peers. Couple this with an already packed last 25 or so days of sitting (we don’t know for sure exactly how long, but this is a best guess) and something will have to give.

If that something is the HE Bill (either losing it entirely, or mollifying the Lords with even more substantial amendments than were introduced before the report stage) then where do we go from here? It would be an ignominious coda to Johnson’s first substantial legislation, and a sorry end to a project that was perhaps more concerned with messaging and effect than genuine regulatory improvement.

Honestly, if Daniel Hannan can – with a straight face – compare Brexit to the Lord of the Rings I see no reason why I can’t compare the HE Bill to an episode of Buffy…

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