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Tory MPs queue up to protest Cable's decision to ignore Select Cttee and appoint Les Ebdon to university access post

By Tim Montgomerie
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Some extracts from yesterday in Parliament are pasted below. The exchanges occured after Business Secretary Vince Cable had decided to go ahead with the appointment of Les Ebdon as university access tsar. Michael Gove, David Cameron and the BIS Select Committee had all expressed doubts about Mr Ebdon's suitability. On ConHome last week Jill Kirby explained why. Mr Ebdon does not seem convinced that the root causes of social mobility need to be tackled first and universities do not need more state inteference in who they admit. Supported by David Willetts, universities minister, Mr Cable decided, nonetheless, to go ahead with the appointment. Channel 4's Gary Gibbon interpreted Mr Cable's decision as a sign that, post-Huhne, he wants to lead the Lib Dems' awkward squad.

ClappisonJames Clappison MP expressed his concern at Mr Cable over-ruling the advice of the Select Committee: "Is the Secretary of State aware that this is only the second time that a Select Committee has been overruled in this way? The first such occasion did not set a particularly happy precedent. What effect does he think his decision will have on the authority and standing of Select Committees of this House, and on the confirmation processes that they carry out? Although he may technically have the power to overrule the Select Committee, is it not deeply unsatisfactory for him to have done so with this appointment?"

Mr Cable responded: "The obligation on me, as Secretary of State, was to establish whether any new evidence had emerged from the hearings, and I found that none had. Had the report been unanimous and based on cross-party consensus, we might have responded differently to it, but it was not."

Brian Binley, a member of the BIS committee, tried again: "Given that the Committee was unable to endorse Professor Ebdon’s appointment and instead called for a new recruitment exercise, is it not deeply regrettable that Ministers have been so unwilling to engage with its concerns? Does this exercise not prompt serious questions about Ministers’ approach to higher education, especially as training appears to have been given more priority than the views of Parliament?"

Mr Cable's reply: "We went through two rounds of applications in order to attract a high-quality applicant for this important post, and Professor Ebdon and the other two gentlemen who made the final shortlist were regarded as eminently appointable by independents on a completely non-political basis."

Peter Bone tried a third time: "This is a case of Parliament v. the Executive. On only two occasions have Select Committees not endorsed a senior appointment, one of which was under Labour. When we were in opposition, we created merry hell about it and said that the Executive were ignoring Parliament. What is different this time?"

Mr Cable's answer was not convincing: "What is different is that the Executive are not ignoring Parliament. We are aware of the criticisms that were made of Professor Ebdon’s interview and we have asked him to appear on a regular basis before the Select Committee to demonstrate that he has its full confidence. That is what is different."

MAIN ANNE MPAnne Main continued to complain about Mr Cable's treatment of the Select Committee and asked for reassurances on university selection procedures: "It is notable that, having defied the Select Committee, there have been no comments about why a minority report was not produced in the event that some people did not concur with the findings of the Select Committee. I therefore suggest that, by ignoring the Select Committee, we are doing a disservice to those Members who spent time considering the representations to the Committee. May I urge the Secretary of State to give the House an assurance that we will not allow the nuclear option to discriminate against pupils from high-achieving schools such as mine in St Albans?"

Mr Cable: "I have already made it clear that there is no question of discriminating against people with ability. My constituency has two of the most successful independent schools in the country. I fully support their activities, and frequently visit them and work with them, so there is no question whatever of discrimination. Access is a much broader concept: it is helping people to realise their potential, and what can possibly be wrong with that?"

More in Hansard.


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