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The row goes on:
Barry Sheerman and Nick St Aubyn on BBC Radio 4's Today
 real 28k

Thursday, 8 February, 2001, 00:32 GMT
Row over university report
Dr Evan Harris
Oxford MP Evan Harris: Dissenting report
The Laura Spence affair has caused a party political row over a Commons committee's report on higher education - the first report of its kind for 20 years.

Liberal Democrat Evan Harris said the credibility of the select committee system had been brought into question.

Tory Nick St Aubyn accused Labour whips of putting pressure on their MPs on the education select committee to produce a favourable report.

One of the most craven acts of government backbench fawning ever witnessed

Evan Harris MP
The row turns on remarks by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, last year that it was "scandalous" that comprehensive school student Laura Spence had been turned down for a place at an Oxford college.

His comments sparked a fierce debate on perceived elitism in some universities and a public examination of the steps being taken to attract students from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds.

'Recent evidence'

The select committee's inquiry had begun shortly before that.

Its report said: "We decided not to examine in detail the individual case of the young woman cited in the chancellor's remarks."

Nick St Aubyn
Nick St Aubyn: Critical of Labour MPs
It added that "the most recent evidence" from Oxford showed a subsequent rise in the number of applications from state school pupils and in the number of offers to applicants from the state sector.

This dispelled "any notion that the chancellor's remarks were unhelpful", said the report.

The figures did show a rise - of 24 - in the number of state school applicants for this year. But there had been a rise of 202 the previous year, before Mr Brown had spoken out.

Amendments rejected

Minutes of the select committee's meetings show that Labour members voted down attempts by Nick St Aubyn to introduce amendments criticising Mr Brown's remarks.

He had wanted to say that the committee had heard no evidence supporting the chancellor's accusation of "the old boy network and the old school tie" operating at Oxford.

They first accepted then voted to delete a phrase saying it was "not the most apposite example" of bias Mr Brown could have chosen.

Mr St Aubyn claimed as the report was published that Labour had brought "undue influence to bear on its committee members".

"I have written a minority report because the chancellor has failed in its duty to Parliament, its duty to higher education and its duty to students," he said.

"The reputation of both the chairman and the committee has been severely dented by the clear breakdown in cross-party consensus on the committee. It's the first time in my four years as a member that Labour members have put party interests so blatantly ahead of all other considerations."

'Cabinet worship'

Dr Evan Harris, whose constituency includes Oxford University, said: "Overwhelming testimonial and statistical refutation of Gordon Brown's mis-directed outburst was put before the committee.

"But the failure of the report to act on this evidence leaves what would otherwise have been a useful contribution to the access debate a castrated testimony to the worship of Cabinet by government backbench MPs whose job should be to scrutinise.

Barry Sheerman
Chairman Barry Sheerman: Rejected complaints
"The late deletion of what were compromised paragraphs, seemingly under instruction from the Cabinet, bring shame on the committee and leaves a question mark over the credibility of the select committee system."

The committee's Labour chairman, Barry Sheerman, said Dr Harris should consider resigning from the committee.

Another Labour committee member, Gordon Marsden, said Labour members had not been pressurised by government whips to come up with a favourable report.

"Most members of the select committee would deeply resent any such suggestion," he said.

Dr Harris is angry also that the committee did not report on "the single biggest factor preventing suitably qualified young people from poorer backgrounds entering higher education - that is, the extent of debt and aversion to it".

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