Relationships, Sex and Health Education: Statutory Guidance

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Excerpts
Thursday 16th May 2024

(2 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am not quite sure what to say about parents with weird views. As long as they are legal, I guess we have to roll with it—’twas ever thus.

It is possible that the noble Lord misunderstood what I said in the Statement about year 8. Year 8 is the age from which most children have the emotional maturity to learn about suicide prevention. There are different age limits in the guidance, which I know the noble Lord will enjoy getting familiar with.

In relation to menstruation, as I said in response to the initial question from the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, children should not be taught about menstruation earlier than year 4. Most children will be taught from the age of eight or nine. For the vast majority of girls that will be, as the noble Lord suggests, before they start menstruating.

On the limits being dangerous, I feel that the noble Lord used quite a strong word. I do not think for a second that the Government are trying to second-guess the ability of teachers to judge what is age-appropriate for their class. As I said earlier, in a circumstance where a teacher feels strongly that it is important to teach something, as long as they are transparent with parents about it, and as long as there is transparency around the materials and they are age-appropriate, then there is a degree of flexibility for teachers to do that. Many schools and teachers asked us for clarity around age-appropriate boundaries, and that was also the advice of the expert panel.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I will turn to that, but first I would like to ask a question in my personal capacity. It is to do with the guidance and the comment that refers to contractual obligations of companies which provide training material. I think the Minister told us that those clauses will not be enforceable. Recognising that commercial interests are engaged in the enforceability of some aspects of those clauses, could she elaborate on how they intend to clarify that?

Turning to the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, there seems to be some confusion in this Chamber. To save public servants time and money, perhaps I could explain to some quarters of this Chamber that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has a statutory duty under the Equality Act 2010 to advise the Government. However, as far as I know, on this occasion it has not yet engaged. It looks forward to doing so in response to the consultation.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for clarifying that point. In relation to contractual obligations, she is aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has written twice now to schools clarifying the position on copyright and intellectual property. The simple way through this is that schools should not engage and use third-party providers of materials where copyright presents an issue or where their perception of their copyright rights is a block to transparency with parents, which we believe is the overriding principle.

Student Loan Interest Rates

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Excerpts
Wednesday 27th March 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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As my noble friend touched on, the Government are trying to balance, or triangulate, a number of things. One is affordability for students, hence the freeze we have had for seven years on fees. Another is addressing poor-quality provision—at the other end of the issue from the one my noble friend raises—through the new Office for Students regime. In relation to motivation, reward and recognition for the highest-performing institutions, a review of allowing indexation of fees based on the TEF is not under consideration currently, but I will say that having a high-quality teaching framework does allow for strong recruitment and research income.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, has the Minister considered the level of graduate earnings currently and the threshold she refers to? Leading on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, in light of those two parameters, have the Government thought of increasing the level of fees so that those who go on to very high earnings can pay a proportionate amount, making it more progressive than the flat rate that now applies?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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Of course, those who go on to much higher earnings end up repaying much more than those on lower earnings, but no additional consideration is currently being given to the suggestion from the noble Baroness.

Russell Group Universities: Foreign Student Admissions

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Excerpts
Thursday 1st February 2024

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Asked by
Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine
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To ask His Majesty’s Government, following reporting by The Sunday Times on 28 January, what assessment they have made of admission policies for foreign students at Russell Group Universities.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, I was concerned to see the allegations of bad practice by recruitment agents and unfairness towards British students. The Department for Education has launched an urgent investigation into university admission practices, including the behaviours of agents involved in recruiting international students. We will take action to ensure fairness between domestic and international students. Every student should be able to benefit from a world-class education.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I am speaking in a personal capacity, but I also serve as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is responsible for compliance with the public sector equality duty. This seeks to prevent discrimination and to ensure equality of opportunity. The Sunday Times investigation has revealed that as many as 15 of our 24 top universities are accepting through the back door foreign students at lower grades than those applied to UK students for the same courses. In effect, they are accepting cash for access. This is unfair at best, and discriminatory at worst, as UK students do not have those choices. I am extremely relieved to hear the noble Baroness’s response about ordering an urgent investigation. Can she give the House a timeline and say what measures they might take to penalise the institutions that are creating this lack of a level playing field for domestic students?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The noble Baroness makes important points. To be clear, our work will focus particularly on the unscrupulous behaviour of recruitment agents, and whether it is genuinely easier for international students than for domestic students to get places on undergraduate courses. However, there is no evidence that international students are displacing domestic students in England, where UK students make up 85% of the total population. We will be working on this as a matter of urgency, but I do not have as yet a definite timeline to give the noble Baroness.

Schools: Transgender Guidance

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Excerpts
Wednesday 25th January 2023

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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If my noble friend or any Member of this House has specific examples, it would be really helpful for them to share these with the department so that we are able to respond. Certainly, if one looks at the data on, for example, children who have been referred to the NHS GIDS clinic, it shows that there are very, very few children as young as seven. I appreciate there are a number of other issues involved, but the more we can have practical examples, the more we are able to respond effectively.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I need to declare an interest as chairwoman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I completely endorse the department’s intention to consult widely on this; it is important that it does so. The Minister will also be aware that this matter has been tasked to her department since 2021, and parents, who are incredibly anxious, as well as children affected, really need her department to come to a speedy resolution. It cannot be right to let it stay out there in the ether, year after year.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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By my calculations, it has been only a year and a bit since 2021. More seriously, I say that one of the important elements in our considerations is the work that Dr Cass is doing in her review. Her interim report did not touch on the implications of these issues in relation to education, but we want to draw on important resources such as her work.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Excerpts
Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I intend to intervene very briefly. I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The EHRC generally supports this clause so perhaps I need to add a caveat that I am not taking its advice but speaking in a personal capacity on this issue—perhaps “hybrid” is the best way to describe it, because I will lean on some of its arguments.

I broadly support the Bill. The importance of this clause is less to do with freedom of speech for individuals or visitors, and more to do with academic freedom. Academic freedom is profoundly important in terms of this clause. In the cases that have been mentioned, particularly on previous days in Committee, people have suffered real loss. At the commission, we carried out a very discreet and small piece of work—which is why it is not published yet—in a niche attempt to get under the skin of what was happening to academics in the daily course of their work in terms of a chilling effect and being able to express academic freedom. It was a small piece of work; nevertheless, we found clear evidence of a chilling effect in universities. This could extend to promotions or publications—it is very hard to get certain opinions published—or simply being welcome or having collegiate support in your faculty. There is a problem with the freedom of academics to research and publish what they do in certain areas that refer to some of the cases that have been mentioned here. I do not think the clause is designed to penalise those who offend who are just visiting speakers. It is much more about the people who have to do this day in, day out.

I want to address some points made by noble Lords. The reason this Bill is here is because we know that the Office for Students has been found wanting. The Office for Students has not been able to do what it should be doing, which is why we have the number of cases that have come to the courts. They have not come to the courts under employment law. They have had to come by different routes to get there because the Office for Students perhaps does not have the right powers. I do not wish to criticise another regulator, but perhaps it does not have the powers and that is why we are debating this Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, made a very powerful speech and I am convinced by a lot of what he said, which is why I am not in full enthusiasm supporting this clause. I will wait until Report for that. He made an important point that individuals, on the whole, do not have the resources to go to court. I think this point was picked up by other noble Lords as well. Welcome to the world of crowdfunding: anybody who has a gripe these days can crowdfund and will find somebody who is prepared to dip into their pocket to pursue that litigation. A lot of regulators and smaller bodies which are not fabulously well funded, as well as individuals, are having to face this blight of non-expert people reading an article in a paper, feeling outraged and getting on to PayPal and sending money. Charities know all about that. I do not support the clause but, on litigation, there are people who are endlessly willing to go to court, so I do not see this as a particular deterrent.

I will ask the Minister two questions. The first is on academics who come under extreme pressure in their departments, as was the case with Professor Stock, who has been mentioned. In order to resolve the situation, they are perhaps pressurised to agree—or perhaps they willingly agree, but at a time of huge distress—a departure with the institution. I do not know the detail of Professor Stock’s case, but that is sometimes done through confidentiality agreements and sometimes through non-disclosure agreements. The Strasbourg court has in some cases overridden those on the basis of Article 10, but in other cases it has not. Therefore, there is ambiguity in the defence of Article 10 rights when you have had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with an institution in haste at a time of great emotional distress: later on, you do not know whether you can get those rights upheld.

Finally—here I address the Minister directly—Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 created a legal duty for higher education providers to take “reasonably practicable” steps to ensure freedom of speech within their institutions. There has also been subsequent legislation, the last being as recent as 2017. Would not those protections be adequate if Clause 4 were not to stand part? If they are not adequate, the Committee needs the Minister to explain why, because we return to this issue every few years. I am rather swayed by the very knowledgeable opinions expressed today urging the Government to be cautious in this regard, although we generally support the Bill.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, we on these Benches share the view that we do not need the Bill, as held by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and, I believe, the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington—I apologise if I have taken his name in vain.

In order not to engage in Second Reading again, I will start with the point from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack: with any piece of legislation, ask yourself whether it is necessary. There seems to be a strong sense that there are serious questions about Clause 4 among all speakers across your Lordships’ House, from noble and learned Lords to academics to retired politicians—or rather retired MPs: people in your Lordships’ House may or may not think of themselves as politicians; on the Cross Benches they probably do not, but on some other Benches “retired MPs” may be the appropriate phrase. But there is almost unanimity across your Lordships’ House in opposition to Clause 4, or at least in doubt about it. The only Member who seemed keen to try to support Clause 4 was the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, but she did not seem to have been quite persuaded by it. Could the Minister be persuaded to think again? As noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, have eloquently pointed out, this clause is not fit for purpose or desirable.

It is not clear that the clause will even work in its own terms. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, sought to point out that academics are particularly mischievous and that they can debate until the cows come home. However, whether you hang a portrait or how you design your gardens in an Oxbridge college are not things that we would normally take to litigation. That might be the sort of activity that engages academics, but this debate is much more profound. Here I declare my interest as a Cambridge academic; I declared it at the start of Committee stage, but I reiterate it on the record as we are currently in the main Chamber. What we are talking about here is not the sort of debate that people might have over dinner, or in the Oxford Union or the Cambridge Union; these debates are about very serious issues of freedom of speech. Yet it is not clear how Clause 4 will, in any way, strengthen freedom of speech, because, as we have heard from several noble Lords—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts—there is a danger of a chilling effect. The Government have not adequately thought this through, including the law of unintended consequences. Already, with something like the Prevent requirements, academics or students considering whether they will invite people to speak will think, “Is it worth the effort? Is it worth going through all these procedures to invite a controversial speaker?” Very often, the answer will be no. Bringing in the civil tort will only make that danger even more severe.

Yes, we need a way of ensuring that free speech can be guaranteed, but as the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Marylebone, suggested, surely that is the job for the regulator. Trying to bring in lawyers is a recipe for even more hours of debate than an economics faculty or the synagogue of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, might engage in. It will be costly, but will it benefit anybody apart from the pockets of the lawyers? It is not clear that it will.

This clause seems to be deeply unwelcome, and it is unclear that it is necessary. Can the Government think again and consider removing it by Report stage?

Higher Education Reform

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Excerpts
Monday 28th February 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

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Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I welcome the lifelong learning and other measures that will improve social mobility, but the higher education sector needs a root-and-branch review of the business model of our universities. Perhaps I need to declare that I have a family member who works in higher education and I have been associated with several universities in the past.

We are in another week when UCU members are on strike because of a broken system, where their pensions and working conditions are under attack, while managers pay themselves such astonishing amounts as to make even the private sector blush. USS administrators are using valuation scenarios so risk-averse as to lack any credibility, and the world-class system that the Government rightly applaud is in real danger of being depleted of future academic talent as rewards fall further behind, and the taxpayer’s interests are ignored under the pretext of university autonomy. When will the Government address these blatant anomalies in a sector that seems to have lost its sense of purpose? I associate myself with the remarks of the Labour Front Bench about vision.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The noble Baroness asks a number of important questions about the funding model for our universities but, as she acknowledged, they are incredibly successful in attracting international students, with over 605,000 of those students coming to our universities. In the other place the other day, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State quoted the figure that of every four international students, two go to the US, one comes to the UK and the rest of the world shares the last one.

We are aiming to build on that success; the investment that we announced along with this package aims to focus on both teaching and facilities to make sure that the highest-quality future-facing education is offered in our universities. My right honourable friend the Minister for Universities and Higher Education has been extremely active in stressing her concerns about how students’ experience has suffered over Covid and the responsibility of universities to respond, get back to face-to-face teaching and meet their needs, but I am happy to pick up in writing some of the wider points that the noble Baroness raised.

Education: Vocational Education

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Excerpts
Monday 26th November 2012

(11 years, 7 months ago)

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Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine
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My Lords, given that the German system was mentioned, is my noble friend aware that German schools are highly selective academically and that it is also possible to move between the vocational and academic sectors within the German framework? The system is very different and the selective part is not, I believe, a route that this country wants to go down.

Lord Hill of Oareford Portrait Lord Hill of Oareford
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What we are increasingly seeing in some of our own institutions—for instance, the UTCs to which I referred—is that it is possible in those where non-selective entrance is open for young people to study both academic and rigorous technical qualifications.