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The Higher Education and Research Bill: we're off (finally)

Nicky Old

Nicky Old

Director, Communications and External Relations
Universities UK

After a frenetic period, when in less than a month it feels like we've had a lifetime's worth of political machinations, Westminster is finally settling back into its normal groove. So in the final week of parliament before MPs break for summer on 21 July, the Higher Education and Research Bill resumes​​ its parliamentary journey.

Some in the sector – although not Universities UK – had been calling for the bill to be pulled or delayed in the wake of the Brexit result. Others thought they might be able to pack the 110-page document in the suitcase for summer reading. But it has been confirmed that we will have the second reading of the bill on Tuesday 19 July, with the first session of the Public Bill Committee pencilled in for early September.​​​

So what happens now and how can the sector influence the final legislation? Tuesday's second reading will be a high-level debate, focusing on the principles of the bill, rather than more granular issues. We will start to see and hear the MPs who will be most closely involved in scrutinising the bill, and the emergence of the main areas for challenge.

Following this, the programme for the bill will be announced. This will include the names of up to 18 MPs (likely to be ten Conservative, 6 Labour and 2 SNP) who will form the committee, and whose job it will be to painstakingly scrutinise the bill, clause-by-clause, and also the 'out' date for the bill: the date by which it must have completed the committee stage and move on to the final stages in the House of Commons.

Interested parties can submit written evidence to the bill committee about the main issues of concern, or the areas which should be protected in the course of amending the bill. A call for evidence will be published in the parliament website in due course.

Committee stage (which is usually around two days of parliamentary time) is where the magic happens. Finessing legislation is a words game, where the meaning – or interpretation – of every line matters. In committee, every clause in the bill is agreed to, changed or removed, although this may happen without debate. The purpose of this stage is not only to achieve amendments. It is also a route to get non-legislative agreements, concessions and an explanation on particular areas of the bill from the minister.

The dates when the committee meets, and which parts of the bill it will look at, are often only made public days before the scheduled meeting, so the HE bill section of the parliament website will become your new favourite page to make sure you don't miss the window for briefing committee members.

With the clock ticking for the end of term, the bill committee will inevitably continue its work again in the autumn (MPs are back again from 5 September, but break two weeks later for party conferences).

Then the proposed legislation goes back to the floor of the Commons for report stage and third reading (which can happen in a single session in the Commons). This stage is another debate, like a second reading, where any MP can take part and where we may see government rebels put forward amendments not discussed or passed by the committee. It's another opportunity for the sector to change the bill, or use an amendment to raise awareness of a concern as well as potentially a commitment from the despatch box before the bill passes to the Lords for their scrutiny.

All UUK's briefings and information on the bill will be available on the Our work in parliament section of the UUK website.  

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