Public Services, Health and Education

– in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 3rd December 2003.

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Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health 12:35 pm, 3rd December 2003

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the Address, at the end of the Question to add:—

'But oppose the proposals in the Gracious Speech that massively reduce the independence of universities in their admissions policy;
deplore the inclusion of measures likely to burden the average student with £33,000 debt on graduation by 2010;
regret the violation of the Government's 2001 manifesto pledge not to introduce top-up fees;
call on Ministers to concentrate on raising standards, improving the credibility of qualifications and ensuring access to higher education on the basis of merit, not ability to pay;
further regret the absence of measures to reduce the bureaucracy faced by school governors, head-teachers, teachers, doctors, nurses and NHS managers, and to extend patient choice and reduce the use of centrally-set targets, which prevent the NHS responding effectively to the needs of patients;
further deplore the lack of progress on the Mental Health Bill in a form which would protect the rights of people with mental health problems and promote their access to treatment;
further regret the lack of prior consultation on a draft of the Human Tissue Bill;
and further deplore the absence of measures to promote freedom and decentralisation in the NHS.'.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.

Our great public services, and in particular education and health, feature prominently in this year's Queen's Speech, and they remain at the heart of the concerns of every family in Britain. Only a Prime Minister who is losing touch with reality would need a great conversation to discover the dismay of millions of people at the fact that a Government who promised so much improvement to our schools and hospitals have in the end delivered so little.

Despite spending record sums, taking more in tax than ever before, and despite the commitment and hard work of thousands of professional staff to whom I gladly pay tribute, the Government are still letting people down. They are letting children down when far too many 11-year-olds leave our schools unable properly to read, count or write. In some schools, far too many children fail to pass a single GCSE. Despite endless Government initiatives, thousands of children truant every day. The Government are also letting teachers down by failing to control violence in the classroom: a teacher is attacked every seven minutes of the school day. They are letting young people down because more and more of them are not in education, employment or training. Less than half as many Britons as Germans reach intermediate skill levels. It is a dismal record for a Government who have been in charge for almost seven years and who boasted in advance that their priorities would be "education, education, education".

The Government are also letting patients down with hospitals cancelling more than a thousand operations every week less than 24 hours before the patients are due to go into theatre. It is no wonder that the number of people forced to pay for operations out of their own pockets has increased threefold since 1997. Is that what the Prime Minister had in mind when he claimed that there were 24 hours in which to save the NHS?

I readily acknowledge that much that goes on in our education and health services is good—[Interruption.] Much of it is good, but for a country claiming to have the fourth largest economy in the world, far too many services remain unacceptably bad.

Let us start this afternoon with the Government's flagship Bill on top-up fees.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

The hon. Gentleman is kind to say that some good things are going on in the public services. Let me tell him that when I was a teacher under a Tory Government, what we had was cuts, cuts, cuts. That is his party's reputation, and that is what would happen if the Conservatives ever got into power again.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself for a while, he will discover that the Conservative party has plenty of good ideas to improve the education system—and, crucially, to stop the process of Ministers telling teachers what to do every school day.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that I have received letters from head teachers in my constituency and throughout Leicestershire, who almost certainly voted Labour in the last election, specifically saying—

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

I will show the hon. Gentleman the letters if he wants. The head teachers ask me whether the current funding settlement is what the Government mean by "education, education, education" when teachers are being sacked and classrooms are empty as a result.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and his experience is reflected in that of many of my hon. Friends.

To return to top-up fees, has there ever been a Queen's Speech in which the very first Bill to be mentioned was not a Bill that honoured an election pledge but one that specifically dishonoured such a pledge? What did the Secretary of State for Education and Skills think when he read the Labour party manifesto on which he campaigned two years ago? That manifesto said:

"We will not introduce 'top-up' fees".

It did not say, "We are not going to introduce them until after the next election." It did not say, "We are about to reverse the policy." It said:

"We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them".

Two years later, we discover that in fact the Labour Government have exactly the opposite intention.

Is the Secretary of State proud that the first Bill he will attempt to put on the statute book in his current job breaks the clear promise that he made to his voters two years ago? Can we be surprised that politics and politicians are held in low regard when Ministers behave with such breathtaking cynicism?

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that

"since graduates generally enjoy above-average incomes it is entirely fair that they should contribute directly to part of the cost of their higher education, especially as there will be protection for graduates on below-average incomes"?—[Hansard, 20 December 1988; Vol. 144, c. 276.]

Those are his words five years ago. Does he agree with them?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I have never had a role speaking on education issues from the Front Bench—[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Five years ago—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will have to reference his allegations.

Is the Secretary of State now clear about his own policy? Each time—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I should be grateful if Mike Gapes would actually source the statement that he alleges I made, and if by any chance he finds that he has made a mistake, I hope he will have the courtesy to withdraw his remarks.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

Perhaps it would help the House, Mr. Speaker, to say that the source is Hansard on 20 December 1988[Interruption.]

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

1988! I have campaigned at three general elections since 1988. I have been returned by my voters on pledges that I am proud to honour. The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are seeking to dishonour a pledge that they made only two years ago. If he wants my researchers to dredge up what he said in 1988 about a range of Government policies I shall be happy to ask them to do so.

Debating the Government's policy—

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

In a moment—[Interruption.]

Debating the Government's policy on top-up fees—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

Mr. Speaker, I have just been reminded that the hon. Member for Ilford, South said that my comments were made five years ago, so I hope he will acknowledge that he misled the House at that moment.

Debating the Government's policy on top-up fees is made harder by the fact that each time a few more Back Benchers sign the early-day motion, the details of the policy change. Last Wednesday, the Bill was the first in the Queen's Speech but seven days later it has dropped back down the list. When will it actually see the light of day? Does the delay prelude a complete withdrawal? Will the Secretary of State clarify the position?

This time last week, the income at which graduates must start repaying their loans was said to be £15,000. By Friday, on Radio 4, the Solicitor-General thought that the amount was to be raised to £18,000, and now we hear reports that it may be £20,000. No matter how far the income threshold is raised, the burden of repayment will remain. Indeed, because interest is charged, the debt will increase and it will bear especially heavily on those graduates who go into less well-paid public sector jobs—such as, for example, the NHS radiographer who will still have a debt of more than £10,000 10 years after starting work. Deferring repayment also carries a cost. That cost will have to be paid either by universities receiving less money or by the taxpayer covering the shortfall, or both. I hope that the Secretary of State will explain those figures and say how much he expects top-up fees to raise for universities, and how much he thinks the universities will charge.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Did the hon. Gentleman catch the remarks of the chairman of Universities UK this morning? He assessed the result of the Conservative policy not to pursue tuition fees as resulting in 480,000 students not going to university. Does he think that the chairman of Universities UK is right or wrong? What is the real figure that would result from the implementation of Conservative policies?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I think that the chairman of Universities UK is wrong about that. I will set out how we intend that universities should be funded, and how the students who go to university should be chosen, in due course. However, I am clear that the Bill's approach is fatally flawed. Whatever the sums show, and whatever tinkering is done to the Bill, three facts remain. First, this is a policy on which Labour misled the voters two years ago. If the Government press on with it, families up and down Britain will find it hard to trust anything that the Secretary of State says in future.

Secondly, the Government will burden future generations of students with bigger debts than any students have ever faced before.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

In a moment. At the very time that concern is already mounting about the level of debt that many families have incurred, it is grossly irresponsible for the Government to introduce a policy that makes the debt problem much worse.

I shall give way to Shona McIsaac, so long as she does not dredge up quotations from 1988.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

No, I am not going to dredge up quotations from 1988, as we have plenty more recent ones that we could use. Conservative party policy would deny 800 talented young people in my constituency the right to go to university. How would the hon. Gentleman explain that to them? Given that the Opposition would get rid of the new deal as well, he is basically consigning hundreds of talented and skilled young people to the scrap heap. That is his dishonesty.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I would not say that the hon. Gentleman is dishonest. Perhaps the hon. Lady will consider withdrawing that word.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

I certainly withdraw the word "dishonesty". Perhaps I could use the phrase "failure of policy" instead.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I am sorry that I gave way to the hon. Lady and allowed her time for such an extended rant, but I want to place it on the record that it is Conservative party policy that every young person sufficiently qualified to go to university should have the chance to do so, without paying tuition fees or top-up fees. It is the policy of the Labour party to burden young people with such huge debts that many who are talented and qualified will be deterred from taking a university course by the prospect of the enormous burden of debt that the Secretary of State will place on them.

The third reason why the Bill is fundamentally flawed is that it will establish the office for fair access, the new access regulator. For the first time ever, the regulator will have the power to take away from individual universities the right to decide who should study there. No amount of tinkering with the Bill will stop it being bad for students and for universities.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as I want to be helpful to him. I listened with great interest to what he said on the "Today" programme this morning about the need for an all-party approach to this matter. He may remember that I raised that point with the Prime Minister last week, in an intervention in the debate on the Queen's Speech. That was the approach at the time of Dearing, and it is the right approach now. However, does my hon. Friend accept that an all-party discussion of the matter must be without precondition? That must mean that the Conservative party is prepared to abandon its opposition to top-up fees.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose views are well respected in the higher education community. He speaks about wanting a cross-party consensus. There is a cross-party consensus on one thing: a majority of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament believe that this is a very damaging Bill. It will be easier for us to have the debate if we at least accept that there is a cross-party consensus that utterly rejects the Government's proposals. I am happy to assure my hon. Friend, however, that if the Secretary of State announces in his speech that he is withdrawing the Bill, we will gladly discuss with him and the universities how the funding needs of universities can be met. I hope that my hon. Friend will join in that discussion.

Before we can start, there must be two absolutely clear assumptions. First, there should be no access regulator and no attempt by Ministers to take from universities the power to decide who studies at universities—I hope that I can carry my hon. Friend Mr. Jackson on that point. Secondly, there should be no centrally set top-down target for the number of people who go to university. It is quite wrong for the Prime Minister to pluck a figure out of the air—50 per cent. of young people to go to university—when it has no reference to the needs of employers. I have just finished 18 months of shadowing the Department of Trade and Industry. During that period, no employer told me that having more graduates would solve their recruitment problems.

The premises on which we can have a cross-party discussion are therefore threefold: one is that we have rejected the Bill; the second is that there should be no interference with the freedom of universities to choose their students; and the third is that no artificial target should be imposed by Ministers in relation to the proportion of young people who go to university.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour, Ogmore

For six years, I was a lecturer in higher education. I witnessed not only massive expansion in participation but an under-investment in the sector. Will the hon. Gentleman guarantee to me that, under his proposals, which would restrict the numbers going into higher education, none of my constituents' families and children will suffer from not being allowed to go to university, particularly those in the most deprived communities, in respect of whom the Government have enjoyed great success by increasing participation?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I am happy to guarantee the hon. Gentleman that any student who is qualified to enter a university and whom that university wishes to take will be able to go. My concern is precisely about those students from the poorer communities to which he refers. According to Barclays bank, they will face a debt that, by 2010, will exceed £30,000. That is frightening for many people who may be contemplating a degree course; it is also worrying for their parents. If young people are deterred from going to university altogether, they will be predominantly from poorer families—the families about whom Ministers always claim to be concerned, but who in practice are often damaged by the policies of this Government.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the Russell group of universities student admissions from among the 7 to 8 per cent. of young people who go to public schools are seriously disproportionate? On his drive from South Suffolk to Damascus, has he thought of other ways of improving that deplorable position, or is he going to plough down the path of reducing even further the number of academically talented working-class young people who go to university?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

Let me say first that I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has signed the early-day motion that criticises the Government's policy. I hope that he will take the opportunity to vote in support of his views when the Bill's Second Reading takes place in the new year. The right way for universities to decide who to accept on to their degree courses is for them to set the criteria, publish the criteria and make their own selection. The wrong way is for Ministers to tell them that they want to embark on some social engineering experiment to manipulate university intakes.

Is the Secretary of State pleased that, as a result of his policy, the next generation of school teachers will start their careers with a debt equivalent to their gross annual salary? Because of him, after 10 years of work, a teacher will still have to devote 7 per cent. of his or her take-home pay to servicing that debt. It will take 15 years of hard work in the classroom to pay off that debt completely. Does he think that his top-up fees policy will make it easier or harder to attract graduates into teaching? Does he think that he will make it more or less likely that those teachers who start work will be able to afford a mortgage while in their 20s or 30s?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

No, I must make some progress.

Another offensive aspect of this Bill is the access regulator. Will the Minister say which universities support the idea of such a regulator? One would hope that after years of telling teachers, nurses and doctors how to do their jobs—with disastrous consequences—Ministers might have learned their lesson, although, sadly, it does not look like it. Ministers apparently know better than universities too, so they are going to tell them who to let in and who to exclude. That will not be on the basis of who is best qualified to benefit from a university course; instead, we are embarking on an expensive new experiment that is not in the interests of the young people whom Ministers will use as guinea pigs, not in the interests of employers, none of whom is calling for more graduate recruits, and not in the interests of universities, who do not want more students with fewer qualifications, especially when drop-out rates at some universities are already as high as one in three—a failure rate that constitutes an appalling waste of human and financial resources.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I do not doubt his good will, that of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench or indeed that of previous Governments. The truth, however, is that over the last 40 years the number of working-class kids going to university has been stable at around 20 per cent. It is incumbent on the Opposition to come up with some answers to tackle that disgrace, rather than wash their hands of it and say that they will leave it to university vice-chancellors, who have had their chance over the past 40 years.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is up to the Government to come up with some answers. They have been in power for seven years, and have produced a Bill that does not carry the support of the majority of hon. Members. The evidence that Ministers know better than teachers or other professionals does not stack up. The truth is that it is better to rely on universities to judge who will benefit from the courses provided.

I want to turn to another Bill in the Queen's Speech—the child protection Bill. It is almost a year since the Laming report was published, and almost four years since the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, so the Bill is not appearing a day too soon. We look forward to seeing the details of it, and we hope to give it our broad support. Before that can happen, one important change must take place—the Minister for Children must be replaced. No Member of the House is less suited to the task of introducing a Bill to improve child protection than her. It was astonishing enough, given her disgraceful record as leader of Islington borough council, that the Prime Minister should have appointed her to this sensitive and important job in the first place; the fact that she remains in place now, however, is beyond belief.

I hope that the Secretary of State will make it clear in his speech whether he has full confidence in a Minister for Children who tried to prevent the BBC from exposing her record on child protection issues; a Minister who branded a totally innocent victim of child abuse as a seriously disturbed person; and a Minister who made this extraordinary and totally unfounded attack—the victim of which could not reply because he was unaware of what she was doing—not because she believed that it was in any way justified but solely as a shoddy and ultimately futile attempt to save herself from embarrassment. She then tried to prevent the attack from becoming known, and, when all these disgraceful circumstances finally came to light she refused to give any explanation or apology until she was forced to do so by the threat of legal action. Anything less than a forthright condemnation of the Minister for Children by the Secretary of State in his speech in a few minutes—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and he is going too far in this matter. Any criticism of the nature in which he is indulging should be on a substantive motion of the House. I therefore hope that he will move on.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

The child protection Bill is mentioned in the Queen's Speech. As far as we know, the Minister for Children will be responsible for taking it through the House. I am worried that the Secretary of State, like the Prime Minister and the Minister—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Gentleman should take my advice. I like to give good advice. Of course he can talk about the Bill, but he is referring to an individual Member of the House, which requires a substantive motion. I let him make his case to an extent, but it must now stop. It must cease.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Speaker. What worries me is whether the Government are more concerned about protecting Ministers or children.

The Government's plans to end free school transport will be set out in what appears to be an innocent draft Bill. According to the Queen's Speech, the Bill

"will enable some local authorities to pilot new arrangements for school transport".

At the moment, families with children who live more than three miles from their school are entitled to free school transport—a right that the Government want to remove but do not want to say so. With that in mind, the Bill will refer to road congestion and giving local authorities discretion. As most of the families who will lose their right to free school transport as a result of that policy live in rural areas, no doubt the Secretary of State for Education and Skills does not care about the suffering he will cause. As with top-up fees, however, the children who will suffer most at the hands of the Secretary of State are from the poorest families.

On health matters, after the mangling that the Government's flagship health Bill received in the last Session, the legislative programme is, not surprisingly, much lighter this year. As that Bill imposed a two-tier health service in which a few hospitals will enjoy the privileges denied to the many, most hon. Members will breathe a sigh of relief that there is not more legislation. The absence of a mental health Bill, however, is a serious omission. Although we have repeatedly said that the Government's draft mental health Bill is not the answer, we desperately need an update to the 1959 and 1983 mental health legislation. Unfortunately, that appears to have fallen victim to the turf war between the Home Office and the Department of Health. The failure to introduce a mental health Bill will heighten the stigma faced by people with mental health problems. They need legislation to protect their rights as well the ability to gain access to treatments. The lack of a Bill means that mental health remains a poor relation to the rest of the national health service.

The national health service chief executive published his annual report this morning. We welcome the progress that he describes. We congratulate those NHS staff who have contributed to that achievement, but as usual the report tells only part of the story. Although spending on the NHS is up by 37.5 per cent., activity is up by only 5 per cent. Although fewer patients are waiting for very long periods, overall patients are waiting longer. The average waiting time is now nine days longer than it was four years ago.

Despite the fact that in certain respects the NHS clearly has improved, the trouble is that too often the experience of individual patients, nurses and doctors does not bear out Ministers' claims. The Prime Minister likes to boast about falling waiting times, but he does not mention the fact that the average waiting time for 12,000 patients with chronic renal failure has tripled since 1999. He does not mention the fact that the average waiting time for 19,000 people suffering from atrial fibrillation has increased by a half since 1999. He does not mention the fact that 50,000 children waiting for paediatric surgery now wait a third longer than they had to wait four years ago. He does not mention the 28,000 people who are waiting a third longer for neurosurgery than they would have done in 1999.

The Prime Minister boasted only last week of the Government's progress on cancer, although he had no answer to my hon. Friend Mr. Brazier, who explained that the Government are running down and partially closing a cancer centre in his constituency for the first time in a generation. The Prime Minister did not mention the lung cancer specialist whose patients have suffered such an increase in their waiting times that some patients who were curable can now only be treated but not cured. He did not mention how the target for seeing urgent cancer patients has led to what one surgeon calls

"unacceptable delays in seeing non-urgent patients".

He did not mention how the number of patients starting radiotherapy treatment within the Government's target time has fallen by more than a half in two years.

The claims in the Queen's Speech that the Government will give more freedoms to NHS staff are likely to produce a hollow laugh among hard-pressed doctors, nurses and managers. Which targets do the Government intend to abolish? Do they include the one that has led to patients going blind because the Secretary of State set a target for hospitals to see new glaucoma patients instead of treating existing sufferers, or is it the one that forces accident and emergency departments to leave patients waiting in ambulances or inflatable tents instead of allowing them inside the hospital?

Against that background, is it any wonder that the number of nurses leaving the register last year was almost twice as high as that for the previous year? Is it any wonder that more than half of family doctors report that recruitment is harder this year, with more than two out of three vacancies for family doctors remaining unfilled after six months?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

Are the hon. Gentleman's comments on the NHS a result of his personal experience of life? Does he use the NHS? I know that none of his children uses the state system of education. [Interruption.]

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

It is because of my children that I know rather a lot about the NHS. They were both cancer patients in NHS hospitals and, for the most part, received excellent treatment. I have also been the chairman of a hospital that treats very sick children, so I speak on the issues with experience and, I hope, authority. The hon. Gentleman's intervention was not worthy of him. [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Something is troubling hon. Members, but they must be quiet. Mr. Sheerman was in order and Mr. Yeo rebutted his comments. That is the end of it.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When an hon. Member makes a remark about an hon. Member's family, that is in order, but when an hon. Member makes a remark about an hon. Member, that is out of order. Will you help me because I do not understand the distinction that you have drawn in your rulings?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Perhaps hon. Members should come to the Chair from time to time and I will educate them on the rules of the House, but I am not going to do that during a debate. They must take my word for it. The hon. Member for Huddersfield was in order and the hon. Member for South Suffolk had the opportunity to rebut his remarks. It is a matter for debate.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

As for bureaucracy, the Government have recruited administrators at three times the rate of doctors. There are more administrators than beds in the NHS. It is no wonder that the Secretary of State talks of cutting quangos, but has his plan been revealed to primary care trusts? Last week I was sent a cutting from The Gazette in Basingstoke. It is a half-page advertisement no less, under the banner heading of "The North Hampshire Primary Care Trust". It proclaims:

"A new partnership is being built to co-ordinate workforce development strategy across the health community", a process that

"will be delivered through a workforce development team, which is being created to facilitate workforce modernisation."

Not surprisingly, previous NHS experience is not essential for any of the six posts advertised: three work force design project managers, one "Agenda for Change" manager, one work force planner and one project manager for the competency and appraisal framework. Let me warn any Labour Members who are wondering whether they will need a new job in two years' time that the latter post requires

"a good working knowledge of job design and appraisal systems, well developed facilitation skills and a sound understanding of continuous professional development".

So there is no point the Secretary of State applying.

The advertisement, which was sent to me unsolicited, was accompanied by a plaintive note asking simply:

"Is this where all the national health service money goes?"

I wish I could say that the answer to that question is yes. Unfortunately, however, that is only part of the story. Health Ministers have treated themselves on their own offices to spending that has risen by a staggering 70 per cent. since 1997—a horrifying £1.3 million more than when Labour came into power. Spending on plane and train travel has rocketed by £2 million a year, and while they relax in ever-greater comfort, Ministers have approved the spending of £900,000 on NHS Magazine, only 220 copies of which have actually been sold; the other 61,000 had to be given away. At least, I suppose, we can be pleased that the magazines were distributed; that is more than can be said of "Kismet Road", a medical soap opera in 13 parts made at a cost of £350,000 by the Bradford health action zone, which has been unable to find a single television channel willing to show it.

Reverting to bureaucracy, I do not wish to stigmatise the North Hampshire primary care trust. In one recent issue, my local paper, the East Anglian Daily Times, carried advertisements for posts at the Ipswich hospital that included a health and safety adviser, a waiting list co-ordinator, an information analyst, three personal assistants—one for the chief executive, one for the director of human and corporate resources, and one to be shared between the directors of finance and performance management and of strategy and service improvement—and two more posts in the smoking cessation department, one an administrative assistant. The bad news for the Secretary of State is that experience of office systems and a polite telephone manner are essential.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

No. I wish to finish.

No doubt, there is useful work to be done in those posts, but is it work that hard-pressed doctors and nurses consider a priority? Is it work that will directly benefit patients? Is it work that will improve health outcomes for the people of Britain? Or is it, as many of us suspect, work the need for which arises mainly from the target culture imposed by the Minister and his colleagues—a culture that means that the national health service, after seven years of Labour meddling, has not so much been saved, as the Prime Minister promised, as been swamped by a mass of bureaucrats and red tape? Would it not benefit patients a little more if, instead of all those jobs advertised in Basingstoke, Ipswich and elsewhere for people who will have little or no contact with NHS patients, one, two or three of the posts had been for nurses?

The Queen's Speech is not just another opportunity missed by a Government who are taxing and spending and failing. It is a speech that breaks Labour's election promises, attacks university independence, threatens families in rural areas, and damages students from poorer families. I urge the House to support our amendment.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have heard clearly in the intervention by the Secretary of State for Health that Mike Gapes misled the House in a serious way. Why has the hon. Gentleman slunk away and not apologised to the House for what he has done?

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

You will recall that the hon. Member for Ilford, South intervened on my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo and gave a quote of some length, apparently from Hansard, that he said was from five years ago. In fact, when we were trying to clarify when it was, the Secretary of State helpfully intervened to explain that the quote was from 1988. You will realise that 1988 is much more than five years ago, so the hon. Member for Ilford, South completely misled the House. Subsequently, the hon. Gentleman consulted civil servants in the box over there and the Health Whip—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has been able to make a correction—[Interruption.] Order. The matter has been corrected.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek clarification. Is it not normal when a serious mistake has been made, no doubt based on information given by the Whips Office, and the House has been seriously misled, that the Member who made it should come here to correct it, and it should not be left to other Members such as me, through you, to do so? Where is the hon. Member for Ilford, South, who made the intervention? Why has he slunk away?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

I do not see that any breach of the rules has occurred in this instance.

Photo of Francis Maude Francis Maude Conservative, Horsham

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You and your predecessors have often, rightly, told the House that Members have to take responsibility for what they say in this Chamber. I hope that the hon. Member for Ilford, South will do exactly that.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. To bring some calmness to our proceedings, I undertake to read Hansard to find out whether there has been any breach of the rules. A point of order has been raised by Mr. Mackay and I shall investigate the matter.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

It is a separate but related point of order, Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell made it plain that the hon. Member for Ilford, South had consulted the civil servants in the box. Is it in order for Back Benchers to make use of the facilities in the civil servants' box?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you are studying Hansard will you also study the lengthy comments made by Mr. Yeo about my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and the personal remarks to which you, rightly, brought the House's attention at that time?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills 1:16 pm, 3rd December 2003

I was going to welcome Mr. Yeo to his demanding role shadowing both the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. I was slightly concerned that the rival for the title "titan of East Anglia" might give us a lot of difficulty, but I advise him to pay a lot of attention to detail and to speechwriting and to put a bit more focus on the real policy debates facing the country as a whole.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

No. I shall not give way at this stage. I shall do so later.

In his winding-up speech, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will deal with the points relating to health made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. The Gracious Speech contained three relevant Bills and I shall spend a couple of minutes discussing two to which the hon. Gentleman rightly referred: the children Bill and the draft Bill on school transport.

In our Green Paper "Every Child Matters", we indicated that we would seek to legislate quickly in several areas to help to secure better outcomes for children and to ensure that support services are designed around their needs. The Bill will include key measures such as bringing together the planning, commissioning and delivery of all services that affect the lives of children and young people and their families; clarifying accountability for children's services—a key recommendation of Lord Laming; strengthening arrangements for child protection by making local safeguarding children's boards statutory; and requiring all agencies to have a responsibility to promote the welfare of children and young people. The Bill will support joint working by seeking to remove legislative barriers to information sharing, and it will support an integrated inspection framework. It will establish a children's commissioner as a voice for all children.

We regard the Bill as an extremely important measure and I was grateful when the Leader of the Opposition, in his response to the Queen's Speech on the day it was made, indicated general support across the House for the provisions it contains.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I will give way shortly.

We welcome all-party support for the Bill, but let me respond to specific comments made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children not only has my total confidence and that of the Prime Minister, but the confidence of all the people working in the field with whom she has been working since her appointment to fashion the Bill and take it forward. In her responsibilities, she has focused on ensuring that we can take major steps to make sure that vulnerable children in our society are protected. Those are the issues facing us in the Bill. To be frank, I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman took such a partisan view, since I know that many Opposition Members—I could name them, but will not do so—think that the policy embodied in the Bill is critical and do not believe that gutter-raking is the right approach to take to such questions.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I warmly welcome the child protection Bill that is referred to in the Queen's Speech. I welcome especially the proposal to establish a children's rights commissioner, which has been argued for by many Members on both sides of the House for a long time. Bearing in mind the fact that the issue of domestic violence has caused concern to Members for many years—I welcome the Bill that is to be brought forward to tackle domestic violence—will the child protection Bill address another aspect of domestic violence, which is the number of children who die at the hands of their parents or carers? At least one child a week dies in that way. Will the Bill seek to remove the reasonable chastisement defence, which is used to the detriment of child protection agencies?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. We have discussed this matter both informally and formally. My hon. Friend has a long and distinguished tradition and record of campaigning on these issues. I can confirm that the Bill will address the general issues that he is mentioning. I am confident that we will have a full debate on the issue of reasonable chastisement and on how we address such matters in a proper way during the passage of the Bill. We will continue that dialogue. I acknowledge that my hon. Friend is raising these important matters in a correct and responsible manner. They are matters that are legitimately to be considered within the framework of the Bill.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Secretary of State is right to say that there are important issues to be discussed when we consider the child protection Bill. Is not that all the more reason why it should be piloted through the House by a Minister who is not sullied, who is not tarnished and does not have such a dreadful reputation in this area? Will the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to deprecate the comments made earlier by Mr. Sheerman, when he so scurrilously attacked the children of my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I shall not deprecate any remarks made anywhere. People will make their own judgments on the basis of those remarks. However, I say in all seriousness that there are Opposition Members who think that the children's Bill is important, who respect the work that has to be done and who say that the issues involved—how we protect vulnerable children in precisely the way suggested in the intervention of my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe—should be debated, rather than focusing, as the hon. Gentleman has just done, and as the hon. Member for South Suffolk did from the Opposition Front Bench, on a scurrilous series of attacks from history.

I move on to the draft school transport Bill to which reference is made in the Queen's Speech. There has been a degree of misleading reporting, at least on the front page of The Times the day after the Queen's Speech. I shall summarise quickly our approach. First, we hope that the Bill will be published in draft during the third Session, and will then be the subject of substantial debate throughout the country in a variety of different ways. Secondly, it comes from local government of all parties, which have expressed serious concern about how we address the matters that will be raised by the Bill. The Churches have been worried, too, that current legislation is not working quite as it should. That is why we thought that we should take the issue forward in a non-partisan way by means of a draft Bill for wider consideration.

The approach that we have suggested in the draft Bill is that we shall free up to 20 local education authorities—that will be by their own choice, by the way, so Suffolk, for example, need not be a pilot if it does not wish to be so—from existing legislation to trial new ways of getting pupils to school. It is a deregulatory measure to allow local government to decide how it wants to deal with these issues. The primary objective of the schemes will be to reduce car use in the school run. The aim will be to encourage schemes that provide better alternatives for pupils who live one to three miles from school and are not entitled to free school transport, for pupils attending denominational schools, for those in rural areas and for those who want to participate in extracurricular activities, including sport.

We are seeking to address what I think most people acknowledge is a serious issue of road congestion at times when pupils are travelling to and from school, with its implications for the health of our children, along with a variety of different issues. I say to the hon. Member for South Suffolk in a genuinely open spirit that we desire to address these matters in a bipartisan or tripartisan way, in a cross-party way, with our colleagues in local government of all parties and with our colleagues in the Churches, to see whether we can move forward and allow trialling to find better ways of dealing with the issues.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is entirely possible to campaign on the basis that we have a secret agenda of the type that was described by a headline in The Times the day after the Queen's Speech and by what the hon. Gentleman has had to say. However, that is not a correct reading of where we are. I offer him publicly, in the House, the opportunity to discuss these matters fully before the draft Bill is prepared, to see where we can go in addressing any legitimate concerns, and of course he and his colleagues will have such concerns

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am sure that we welcome the approach that the Secretary of State has described, although I know that The Times has impeccable sources for discovering these things. Will he explain why it is necessary to have legislation at all when there are provisions in the Education Act 2002 for local authorities and schools to propose innovation, which the Secretary of State may by regulation agree, unless he proposes to introduce something which neither schools nor local authorities would wish to propose?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

The reason is simple. When there has been previous legislation—for example, I think, in 1988, but I am open to correction—there has been controversy in both Houses about these matters arising from rural interests, local government and sometimes the Churches. It seemed to me that rather than simply saying that the power to innovate, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, could apply, allowing me to overrule legislation in some specific way, it would be more appropriate to have a proper parliamentary discussion and to hold discussions with all interests to see whether there is a consensus on what can be achieved. I have had discussions with, for example, all parties in local government, with the Churches and so on, to see whether there is a will to move, and I have to report to the House that there is, provided we can reach agreement. Perhaps we will not be able to get to an agreement. My approach is to seek to see whether we could introduce reform to improve things.

Anyone with children will know that in many parts of the country the congestion that surrounds school runs is such that we should be working, in my opinion, to encourage children to the extent that we can to walk, cycle or go by bus, including yellow buses, when they go to school.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Lawrence Mrs Jackie Lawrence Labour, Preseli Pembrokeshire

We are talking about primary legislation, which I welcome. I represent a large rural area, which has pockets of congestion that raise safety issues. I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that if Welsh local authorities apply as part of the 20 authorities they will also be considered as part of the pilot project. It is an important issue for areas such as mine.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I appreciate that intervention. I am happy to confirm to the House that it is a matter that we can discuss with the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Executive. If appropriate, and if it is felt to be supported, it could cover England and Wales. We could proceed by the draft route. The nature of the Bill is consultative, which we consider appropriate.

I turn to the main piece of education legislation in this Session, which is the Bill to reform higher education. The Bill is vital for the future of our economy and society, in a world of global economic competition where the success of our economy, as well as that of our main competitors, will rest upon our ability to ensure that our population is highly educated and highly skilled.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I shall give way in a moment. I shall give way freely throughout the discussion.

One aspect of this approach is our policy for skills; we set out in our White Paper one dimension of the means to address the issue. I believe that it is even more important to understand that the future of our universities is central to that ambition and that the reforms that we propose are vital to make that succeed.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I shall give way in a moment.

The arguments for the Bill rest on three central pillars, which I intend to articulate. These are, first, that universities need more money; secondly, that it is reasonable that graduates should make a contribution towards the education from which they benefit; thirdly, that that contribution should be levied and repaid in a fair way. That is the structure that I intend to follow, but before doing so I shall give way first to Mr. McLoughlin, and secondly to my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

There seems to be some confusion. The Prime Minister says that only three options are available. He says that there is the Government's option, the Opposition's option and the Liberal Democrats' option. There are rumours that the Department for Education and Skills has studied more than 40 different options, and there is an early-day motion asking the Secretary of State to put all this information into the public domain. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a big conversation and a true debate on these matters, will he put the 40 different options into the public domain, plus the back-up work that has been done by his civil servants?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

We shall continue to put more information into the public domain. However, it is worth establishing what an option in this context is. In each of the areas that we talk about, whether it is the graduate tax idea, the variable fee idea, the flat fee idea or the tax increase idea—whatever it may be—there is a vast range of different options about how one does it. There is the Liberal Democrat approach of introducing extra tax for those earning more than £100,000. Another option would be to apply that to those earning more than £90,000, £110,000 or whatever.

There is an enormous range of approaches to each of the main options. We are quite happy to contribute information to the public debate, and have already done so. Many think-tanks working on these issues have produced information, which is also fine. The Library, too, does excellent work in making information available. However, there are relatively few main options, about which we have already published a great deal of work, and I commend the Education and Skills Committee on its work on trying to draw the issues out. We have no inhibitions whatsoever, as the Prime Minister said, about publishing more information, but it is a question of the value of information as people go into increasing detail about the options that need to be pursued.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

In all the debate on variable fees for full-time undergraduates in the past few months, has anyone, whether inside or outside the House, suggested to my right hon. Friend that we end the variable fees that have always been charged to part-time undergraduates, postgraduates, undergraduates studying directly in further education colleges, undergraduates on courses franchised by universities to further education colleges and students on any other course in further education colleges? If not, why not—[Interruption.]

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

Or, indeed on apprenticeships. I must tell my hon. Friend that such a suggestion has not yet been made, but I am confident that in the course of our forthcoming discussion a number of such proposals will be made. However, that underlines the answer that I gave the hon. Member for West Derbyshire—there is an enormous range of options. I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend, and I shall return to it when I come to discuss variability.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and for his willingness to engage in a conversation with Government and Opposition Back Benchers. If a university feels that it cannot charge the full top-up fee, but continues to charge the current fee of £1,125, how will it get extra money so that it can pay its staff what they deserve?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

That is a judgment for the university. When we discuss variability, I shall use the illustration of a Russell group university that is considering charging a zero fee for people doing a physics course, because it wants to encourage people to study the subject and knows that, under the arithmetic of the funding regime administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, that is a better option than closing the course. Those choices will be made by the universities, and it is critical that we appreciate, as my hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell does, that a university's income comes not only from the fee that we are proposing but from the HEFCE and a wide range of other sources. The judgment that each university makes on each course will depend on balancing those factors.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I shall give way to my hon. Friend David Taylor, but shall then develop this part of my argument. I am happy to give way later as I make progress.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Earlier, the Secretary of State justified the proposal that graduates contribute at higher levels towards their academic courses by saying that on average they earn more than the national average wage. Does he not think that it is logical to increase the trigger for repayment from £15,000 to £25,000—the national average wage which, he says, graduate earnings will generally exceed.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I shall come to that point later, but it is certainly reasonable to raise the threshold from the current £10,000 to £15,000 for the reasons that my hon. Friend gave. The figure of £18,000 has been widely circulated, but one could pick another one. Graduates earning that salary would be paying £5 a week towards their university education, and that is not a ridiculous amount to ask anybody to pay at that time. There is a perfectly legitimate discussion about pushing the threshold up or down a bit and the consequences of doing so. However, I think that we have got it about right in our proposals.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Health

In his answer to his hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell, the right hon. Gentleman gave the example of a Russell group university proposing to charge no fee for someone wanting to study physics. He said that that might be a way of attracting people to such courses. If he believes that, why does he not believe that charging a much higher fee will deter people?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

There is a balance between those two issues. I repeat to the Opposition what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge—the level at which the fee is set is a factor that will determine whether or not people take particular courses. It is only one factor in my opinion, but it is certainly a factor.

Those are the issues that every university and every individual student will have to assess. There are a number of factors to consider, but I am trying to point out—I was happy to do so when replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge—that universities would be able to vary their fees both upwards and downwards as they saw fit. They cannot do so under the current system.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

No, I shall not give way now, but shall do so later, as I want to make a little progress.

I want to address the central argument that the universities need more money to expand so as to meet the future needs of our society and offer young people genuine opportunities. The fact is that, despite rising student numbers, between 1989 and 1997, universities experienced a 36 per cent. cut in real terms in their funding per student. Since 1997, we have started to reverse that decline, with funding per student increasing by 7 per cent. between 2003 and 2006. Moreover, the backlog in university infrastructure is estimated at about £8 billion, and university salaries have increased by only 20 per cent. since 1980, against 60 per cent. for employees at large. We still need more resources to fund the world-class research on which the international standing of our universities rests. More students are seeking university places at the same time as we, with the country's industry, are developing foundation degrees that tie our universities more closely to the UK's economic needs.

I conclude that universities need more money. At this very first stage of the argument, unless the hon. Member for South Suffolk reversed policy in his interview this morning, we part company from the Conservatives. Their policies completely ignore current funding problems and deny the existence of a problem. Even more amazingly, they want to remove even the existing money from universities. They want to abolish fees altogether, immediately robbing the sector of up to £430 million. The direct effect of that reduction is that the sector would shrink by, we estimate, about 100,000 places. Moreover, in the long term, without the income from variable fees, a further 150,000 potential students—a total of 250,000 altogether—would be robbed of aspiration and opportunity. That is not fair, and it would create great bitterness and alienation in the younger generation.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has resiled from his previous remarks, and said that since graduates generally enjoy above-average incomes it is entirely fair that they contribute to part of the cost of their higher education. I wonder whether his colleagues will do the same. After the last general election, the new shadow education Minister, Chris Grayling, said in the House of Commons on 25 October 2001:

"To call for the scrapping of tuition fees just makes a cheap headline."—[Hansard, 25 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 452.]

Rather more sharply, the former Secretary of State, Lord Baker, described the Tory position in The Daily Telegraph on 7 October as

"morally bankrupt and totally cynical".

The former Conservative party chairman, Lord Patten, described the Conservative position on top-up fees as "intellectually disreputable and pusillanimous".

Those Tories understand the meaning of Conservative policy. I must tell Tory Members of Parliament in all seriousness that, if that policy is retained, it is their duty to explain to their constituents that hundreds of students who want to go to university from every school in their constituency will not be permitted to do so as a result of the policies of the hon. Member for South Suffolk. We are therefore clearly divided from the Conservatives at the outset. If they want policies that address the issues of the future they need to think a good deal harder.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Is the Secretary of State prepared to concede that, if top-up fees are introduced in England, there will be a negative impact on the university sector in Scotland? Does he not think that it would be a disgrace for Labour Members such as his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who is sitting next to him, to support a measure that has been rejected in Scotland in the full knowledge that it would have a negative impact there?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

First, all Members of this House are equal and should be treated as such. Secondly, and even more importantly, when the Scottish Parliament took its view on these matters, as it is entitled to do, it did not hear people from England saying that it could not do this, that or the other, because we accepted the logic of devolution. I say to those in the Scottish Parliament and to those who support it, as I do, that it is necessary for it to acknowledge that, in precisely the same way, it is the responsibility of this Parliament to take the decisions that it needs to take on these matters.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Bearing in mind the fact that we are going to broaden the A-level base, possibly to five subjects, and especially taking into consideration the fact that this Government signed up way back in 1999 to the Bologna agreement on harmonisation of higher education across Europe, which will probably result in a three-year plus two-year plus three-year bachelors, masters, doctorate degree structure, how does he propose that the Government should fund four-year or even five-year degree courses? Will not that result in even more debt for students?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend is correct to make that point. The Bologna process was most recently discussed in September at a conference in Berlin, at which the Government were represented by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis. There was very substantial discussion at the conference about the points my hon. Friend makes. It is appropriate to point out that the conclusion of the Bologna process is that other European countries are looking at our higher education system and its relative efficiency, and thinking about how they can move in our direction. For example, the average student in Germany does not graduate until they have reached the age of 28 and four months, which is an extraordinary state of affairs. Other countries look at the three-year, two-year, three-year system that my hon. Friend describes and ask how they can get to that position and achieve this country's levels of course completion, which are high by comparison with those of many universities elsewhere.

I agree that the Bologna process is important and that we need to consider it, but the twist that I put on the point that my hon. Friend makes is the acknowledgement by other European countries that they need to be moving towards our system, rather than the other way around. A number of other countries, including Italy and France, have variable fees, so they also face issues that they are considering in the same way.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Does my right hon. Friend share my confusion about Conservative policy? Given that the Conservative party continually reiterates the importance of devolving management to schools, hospitals and universities and refers to the autonomy of the managers of those institutions, how can it seek to take away from the management of universities the key decisions and the key ability to raise their own revenue? Why are the Tories supporting a command economy?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I am confused by the Conservative position. There is a serious point about what he said: I do not believe that the Conservative position is sustainable even within that party and on its Back Benches. I believe that it will have to address the issue in a very serious way.

I come now to the second pillar of the Government's case. It is reasonable that, in addition to resources for university courses that come from taxation, including from graduates, it is also necessary to have a direct contribution from graduates. The lion's share of resources for universities will obviously come from taxation, which is right, since society as a whole benefits from the quality of our universities, but I think that it is right that graduates should also contribute.

The reason, in fairness, is very simple to state. We already spend an average of £5,300 a year on every university student, compared with £1,800 a year for every three-year-old student or £3,200 a year for every primary school child. Universities already get the largest share of the taxpayers' money that is spent on education. The Government believe that priority for new investment must go to areas in which we can make the greatest impact on promoting equality and social justice, which I believe are in under-five and primary education. That is where any extra resources that we have should be focused, so as to equip our country for the future.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

I firmly endorse my right hon. Friend's final point. Does he agree that it is not the size of the fee or even its variability that will open doors to access as far as this policy is concerned, but its deferral? I echo the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor, who said that that principle should be extended to further education as well. Indeed, I said the same thing in a speech in this place last Wednesday night.

Does my right hon. Friend also agree that debt repayment really would be an issue if people faced the same interest rates that they faced under previous Tory Governments? The fact is that our plan will work because our management of the economy, unlike that of the Conservatives, will keep interest rates low.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I agree and I shall return to those points in a moment.

It is on the second pillar that we part company with the Liberal Democrats. I believe that no Secretary of State faced with the choice to which I have referred in spending on education—even a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State, should there ever be one—would say that universities had to come ahead of every other demand, educational or not. That is where the Liberal Democrats are quite wrong, as they say that it is wrong in principle for the student to make any contribution. They state that, in principle, the bus driver should pay for the barrister, and they assert that no choices need to be made and that the taxpayer can fill the gap as they seek to abolish fees.

Ironically, the Liberal Democrats have been helpful enough to confirm that real choices have to be made. They have pledged to introduce a 50p-in-the-pound rate of income tax for those who earn more than £100,000 a year. Their Treasury spokesman at the time, Matthew Taylor, made it clear on 2 April that that money would have to be spent "to abolish the burden of student fees". In the same speech, he said that it would have to be spent on cutting council tax by £100 for everyone. In September, he said that the same money would be used to scrap charges for personal care. In the same speech, he said that it would also be used to cut taxes for the lowest paid. The Liberal Democrats stated in their 2001 manifesto that the same money—again, it is the money generated by a 50p-in-the-pound tax on incomes of more than £100,000—would be used to provide a "substantial and immediate increase in pensions". The same manifesto said that the same money would be used to increase investment in the national health service.

I shall be generous and not cite the more than 60 other spending commitments that the Liberal Democrats have made on the basis of the same pot of money. They all confirm, however, that any Chancellor or Secretary of State faces competing demands for whatever resources come from taxation. That is why, in my opinion, resources from taxation alone offer no guarantee to universities.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

The right hon. Gentleman should review what he has just told us, because in fact, it is not true, and I suspect that he knows it. I want to ask him a serious question: why is it fairer to tax young people earning between £15,000 and £20,000 a year than to tax people earning £100,000 a year, who may also have benefited—indeed, they probably have—from university education?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I have addressed the argument on the fairness of asking people who earn more than £15,000 to pay for some of the benefits that they have received, and I think that that is entirely reasonable. On the separate argument about how one deals with people earning more than £100,000 a year, there is a debate to be had about the appropriate level of taxation at any given time. However, I do not accept—this shows the misleading nature of the Liberal Democrat proposition—the argument on increasing taxation to 50p in the pound for everybody who earns more than £100,000. If that were to happen—I do not want to argue about the merits of the case now—I do not believe that it would fund the long Liberal Democrat list of substantial spending commitments, including the abolition of fees. The authority for what I have said is on-the-record speeches by the former Treasury spokesman, the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell, on 2 April and in September, and on-the-record commitments in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been moved from that position for being a bit of a soft Liberal and that others have been put in his place because of their hard and clear position, but I say to the Liberal Democrats genuinely, in the spirit of the big conversation, that they have an obligation to face up to the choices and to stop claiming that the same money can be used for an enormous multiplicity of different purposes, misleading electors throughout the country.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I will respond in my speech to the issues that the Secretary of State raises. Will he explain for the benefit of the House the difference in principle between saying, as the former Secretary of State—now the Home Secretary—and the Prime Minister did in their 2001 manifesto, that Labour has ruled out top-up fees and legislated against them and the comments that he just drew from our manifesto?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

The difference is clear. As the Prime Minister said, our manifesto position was, in effect, that we would not introduce top-up fees before the next general election. That is what we said, and that is the position. Before top-up fees are introduced, the people will have the chance to vote on the hon. Gentleman's proposals, my proposals and Conservative proposals.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

Is the Secretary of State saying that his manifesto makes the statement on top-up fees with the qualification that it would not be done before the next general election? The manifesto says:

"We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them."

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

That is exactly what I have said. The point has been extremely well rehearsed, and that is the position.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

The Secretary of State spoke in warm and glowing terms about the level at which a graduate will start to repay a loan being raised from £10,000 to £15,000, £18,000 or £20,000. Will he remind the House that that level was reduced from £14,000 to £10,000 under the Labour Government?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. I am happy to say that the changes that we introduced in 1998 are precisely those that we reviewed in order to arrive at the package of measures that we have put before the House.

I have tried to argue that there are three pillars to our proposals. First, universities need more money, which is where we part company with the Conservatives. Secondly, it is reasonable that graduates should make some contribution towards the costs of their university education, which is where we part company with the Liberals. The final pillar is the need to ensure that graduates' contributions are made fairly. That is the issue about which several of my hon. Friends have expressed concern, as in the early-day motion to which there has been much reference. I want to address those concerns.

The fairness of our proposals can be set out in several ways. First, I believe that university should be free at the point of use. That is why parents or students who have to pay £1,125 of the entry price to study will no longer have to find that before or during their studies. The recent student income and expenditure survey shows how much of a problem that payment is: a substantial number of students have had to find nearly £700 a year towards fees because their parents were not making the assessed contribution. That inequity should end, and under this proposal it will. As it is a central part of the Bill, it would, of course, fall if the Bill were to fall.

Secondly, I believe that graduates should have to pay back only the cost of their own higher education: that is a form of individualised graduate tax that is fair. The figures used in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for South Suffolk are highly tendentious and bear no relation to any that exist in any assessment that has been made by a serious organisation.

Thirdly, I believe that it is fair that graduates should make a contribution that is based only on what they earn, not what they owe. It is therefore right that graduates should contribute to costs once they are earning more than £15,000. That is fairer than the current level of £10,000, which is why it is important that the Bill allows us to raise the threshold. The progression is reasonable. For example, it is not unreasonable to ask a person who is earning £18,000 to contribute £5 a week. Again, that proposal would fall if the Bill were to fall.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Liberal Democrat, Newbury

I think that I understood the Secretary of State to say that repayment will be based on what a person earns, not what they owe. Does he accept that in practice it will be based on what they owe, and that if they earn less it will simply be stretched over a longer period?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I concede that point: the hon. Gentleman is correct. Obviously, there is a relationship between the amount that one pays and the time in which one has to pay it. The point that I am trying to make is that at any given point, the burden of the repayment being made should reflect the individual's income at that time, not the size of the debt. That is why it should be done through the tax system rather than by any other means. It is not like any other kind of debt, because it is directly related to earnings. If one has, for example, a mortgage or a loan for a car, one has to pay off that debt in regular amounts according to what one owes, leaving aside the issue of the real rate of interest. By contrast, under our system, because it operates through the tax system, a person's payments will depend on what they earn at any given time.

Fourthly, graduates are never charged a real rate of interest: the Government pay the cost of borrowing for the individual, so no one is penalised for taking longer to pay the money back or—this is an important point—for taking career breaks or dealing with family responsibilities, for example.

The final aspect of the fairness of the proposals that I want to emphasise is that students from lower-income backgrounds will get significant extra financial support from the Government. Money to cover all or some of the first £1,125 of the university fee will continue to be paid, and around one third of full-time students will benefit from a grant of up to £1,000. Those significant contributions to students from such families go a long way towards my being able to claim that the system of repayment is indeed fair.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Will my right hon. Friend comment on a situation that has arisen in other countries whereby the rate of interest on student loans for tuition fees was initially set at a very low level but was increased over time to commercial rates of interest?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

There is a wide range of international examples. I think that my hon. Friend has in mind New Zealand, where a new Government decided to change the rate of return in that way. Other countries with a system similar to that which we propose—it is worth emphasising that most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries have such systems—operate it not on the basis that my hon. Friend criticises, but on the basis of our type of system. It may be helpful to the House if we place in the Library a summary of systems in other countries to assist hon. Members in analysing such questions.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Will my right hon. Friend take it from the Member of Parliament who represents the constituency in which the least number of young people go to university that working-class kids fear not having to repay minor amounts of fees, but that they may not be able to keep body and soul together to get to university in the first place? If he wishes to give any leeway to anybody, will he resist those who want concessions on fees and ensure that any assistance that he has at his disposal goes towards increasing the student grant so that those young people can get to university in the first place?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There are two ways of addressing it: first, we can consider the level of student grant, as he suggests, and secondly, we can consider the level of maintenance that students are entitled to receive to ensure that they have enough money to survive while at university. We are looking at both those issues to see how we can assist people in his constituency and others.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

My right hon. Friend makes a persuasive case. I am fully with him in relation to the first two pillars that he outlined, but I have some difficulties in relation to the variable fee. Does he accept that higher costs for individual courses deter people from poorer backgrounds from going to university to pursue those courses?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

That is a legitimate point, which, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall address when I reach that part of my speech.

Further to what I have said about fairness, our proposals for the office for fair access, which will have any kind of bite only in a world of variable fees, will ensure that universities have to make available a wide range of bursaries as a condition of charging a higher fee. I have say to the hon. Member for South Suffolk that the office for fair access does not tell universities whom they must or must not admit. He was wrong about that in the House and on the "Today" programme. If he takes time to study our proposals in the course of his busy day, as he deals with both education and health, I hope that he will withdraw his comments and acknowledge that that is not what we are about. We are trying to ensure that universities have fair systems that can operate properly and provide bursaries in order to do so. Let me give an example. As a direct result of our decision to take the approach that I outlined, Cambridge university has confirmed that one in three students could be awarded up to £4,000 a year in addition to Government money. That is a substantial amount. One of the most significant universities in the country has said that a third of students will get that sort of money on top of fee remission and the grant. That means that for the first time in many years—I do not know if it has ever happened previously—there is a genuine incentive for people from the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Allen to look to Cambridge rather than other universities on financial grounds, leaving aside the merits of any other case.

Cambridge university's policy flows directly from our approach, and I applaud its action. Many people would never have believed that such universities would offer such incentives to poorer students. It is a great step forward. Moreover, I believe that others among our great universities are likely to follow that example. That will deal with some points about which some hon. Friends have expressed concern.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

I welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks. I agree that the Cambridge university bursary scheme is excellent and will help enormously to alleviate the poverty that students experience. However, Cambridge university is in a relatively privileged position and it has fewer students from lower-income backgrounds than many other universities. It will be difficult for other universities to try to match Cambridge because they will not have the financial security.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. Nevertheless, it is significant that Cambridge university has taken such a step, and I believe that other universities of that order are considering precisely the same action. That makes a strong case for the existence of an office for fair access that tells any university that considers charging higher fees, "You'd better come up with a case for ensuring that students from working-class backgrounds can get to university." That is an important element of our proposal. I congratulate Cambridge university on getting ahead of it. It does not mean that such action stops there. I am simply trying to show that our policy approach has led to major universities, such as Cambridge, taking major steps that will give people from working-class families major advantages in getting to some of the best universities in the country. The action will spread.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire

It is worth putting on the record the fact that every Cambridge and Oxford college gets an extra £2,000 a year per student from the Treasury. That has happened for many years. I know that the Government are putting that on to a sliding scale, but the universities of Cambridge and Oxford have immense advantages over others.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

The issue that my hon. Friend raises about Oxbridge colleges is a long-standing soap opera, in which I am perhaps disappointed not yet to have participated seriously. Although his point has weight, it should not detract from the significance of Cambridge university's decision and the measures that it is prepared to take to do something different.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

Does my right hon. Friend accept that even if the access regulator improves the relative performance of some universities when compared with others, specific universities that already have many disadvantaged students will continue to have to confront the problem of immediately putting the money that comes in through the front door out through the back door in bursaries? The more élite universities will not feel the same effect, even if they improve their performance, according to the access regulator. Does my right hon. Friend accept that a case might be made for a maintenance system that starts centrally, before the money is distributed to universities rather than afterwards?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I shall comment on the good work of my hon. Friend and other colleagues later. I accept that there is a problem, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education has been discussing the matter with universities throughout the country to ensure that we do not have the sort of disincentive that my hon. Friend described. I hope that when we publish our proposals we will be in a position to deal with the issue in the most effective way. However, I accept the legitimacy of his point.

Variability has caused great anxiety to hon. Members of all parties, especially Labour Members. I believe that it is a critical driver of fairness and equality. I appreciate that it is controversial and that some Labour colleagues want a flat fee of, for example, £2,500 across the board. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead and other colleagues for their detailed work, but I remain of the view that it is necessary to vary fees from zero to a maximum of £3,000 for different universities and courses. I believe that that reflects the reality of our diverse higher education system. It would be unfair to insist that every student on every course at every university paid the same amount. Every university would be forced to charge the same amount across the board, irrespective of demand or the nature or quality of the course and the potential rate of return for the student. Anyone who examines our university system knows that variations exist, and students understand that when they apply to university.

Let me consider some disadvantages of a flat-fee system. First, it would remove flexibility. Earlier, I mentioned the possibility of even leading Russell group universities charging zero fees for specific courses to encourage people to join them. Those who try to develop foundation degrees want to give people an incentive to join their courses. They could not do that if they were required to charge a fee at the suggested levels.

Secondly, it would be unfair to students not to take account of different courses and different universities in terms of the return in employment. Thirdly, a flat-fee system would remove the mechanism for access requirements from the office for fair access. The earlier exchange about Cambridge university suggest the potential power to change matters, not only after the mechanism's existence but as a result of thinking about it beforehand.

Fourthly, when universities are given a choice of a course at £2,500 or not having the course, their only option might be to end a course that they want to continue because they cannot reduce fees to attract people to it. That is an important issue for universities when they plan.

Variable fees will allow a much stronger guarantee of value for money and quality of courses because they relate the course to the student more directly and specifically. It is ironic that a flat rate of £2,500—the figure that many colleagues suggested—would distribute money from the poor to the affluent.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

How does my right hon. Friend square matters in a university community? He gave the example of a physics course getting a zero fee rating. How does he square that with university management finances? A creative writing course might charge £3,000 because it is popular. Would the money be reflected in physics courses? Science courses are notoriously expensive because of technicians, equipment and all the money that has to be spent on experimentation and so on. Indeed, experimenters carry out most of the teaching and take money from research grants to aid teaching. That cannot be right.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

The Higher Education Funding Council mandates money for specific courses to provide encouragement in the way we discussed earlier. I say in all friendship to my hon. Friend and neighbour that he should talk to the vice-chancellor of the university of East Anglia, of which he was dean, and which is in my constituency, about managing money. If he does, he will find that the proposals are welcomed because they provide the capacity to raise money and plan far more effectively for creative writing, as well as for maths, physics and so on. That is a better way for the vice-chancellor of managing the resources to improve the quality of the university.

The reforms are a package, not a pick-and-mix solution. They are generous to students and fair to universities and the taxpayer. We will publish the Bill and our detailed proposals at the beginning of January so that, as the Prime Minister said, Second Reading can take place before the end of that month. The future of the country's higher education system is at stake. We must have the courage to reform it in a way that is steadfastly based on the Labour party's values of opportunity and fairness. We need a policy for the future, and I commend our policy to the House.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 2:09 pm, 3rd December 2003

Before moving on to what, inevitably, is the main topic of debate today, may I make one or two remarks on other aspects of the Gracious Speech? First, however, I make common cause with the Secretary of State in saying that I get increasingly tired of our public services being painted as third-world public services. The reality is that that is not the case.

There are significant problems in health, education and other areas of public service, but for most Members the public services delivered in their constituencies are of a very high order. Continually denigrating the staff who work in those services does a disservice to our arguments and to the work of the House.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I know, but will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that Members on the Government side of the House thank him for his remarks. Does he accept that the fact that those public services are in good shape is largely due to the increased investment that has been put in since 1997?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I cannot possibly go that far for the hon. Gentleman, because he and I know that between 1997 and 1999 a huge opportunity was lost by the incoming Labour Government. They stuck to Conservative spending plans for those two years, seeing our public services continue to be denied the resources they needed. However, there has been significant spending in a number of areas since then, and the Liberal Democrats are very supportive of it. I hope that he will accept that as a halfway house.

I say to the Secretary of State that the draft school transport Bill is very interesting. We hope to be able to get a number of assurances from him before hares start running. First, there needs to be an assurance that the current arrangements, particularly in post-Education Act 1944 terms respecting Cowper-Temple and the Church schools situation, will be guaranteed. Secondly, we need an assurance that students who live more than 3 miles away will continue to get a form of free transport to the school of their choice. Having an education policy that offers parents choice for their children across borders, especially after the Greenwich judgment, but which then introduces ring-fencing for local authorities—which does not bring those considerations into play—could do a huge disservice. I hope that the Secretary of State, early on in the consultation, will make some parameters clear.

On the school transport Bill, may I also ask the Secretary of State not to neglect 16 to 19-year-olds? One of the huge problems for young people in that age range, particularly in rural areas, is access to further education. There may be a local school at which they may be able to get 16 to 19 education, but if we are to develop opportunities we need to be able to offer them transport. One of the huge deficiencies in the system—it is a real shame that the Learning and Skills Council has not tackled this—relates to how we guarantee young people who want to access a course in an institution other than their local school from 16 to 19 that they can have it. I hope that that will be taken up.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

The Select Committee is considering admissions policy. I do not say this in a party political sense, but on the "Any Questions?" programme last week one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues seemed to want to change the situation in terms of community schools and the Greenwich judgment. Is the hon. Gentleman singing from the same hymn sheet and does that accord with what he has just said?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I do not want to get into a debate about the "Any Questions?" programme, but I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr. Davey was talking about the Greenwich judgment and a long-standing party policy, which is to reverse the Greenwich judgment. Those Members who were present when we discussed the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 will know that I proposed an amendment, with my hon. Friend Mr. Foster, that would have dealt with that issue. The Greenwich judgment and, indeed, the Rotherham judgment are key issues in terms of dealing with access. I am sure that Mr. Sheerman will take that on board.

The second point that I want to make before going on to the substantive issue of higher education relates to the proposed children's Act and the establishment of a children's commissioner. I say to the Secretary of State that we are delighted at the speed at which the Government have moved from producing a document to going for legislation to ensure that the recommendations are put into law. We are grateful for that. However, we are concerned that it appears that we are to have a one-size-fits-all solution on how local authorities have to respond to amalgamation and the one-stop shop in local authorities. I hope that the Minister who responds to the debate can allay the fears.

It is important that local authorities are allowed to have bottom-up solutions on how they provide the service. For instance, authorities such as Surrey, which is not a Liberal Democrat authority, have done remarkable work on integrating children's services and they should not have to unpick all that and suddenly start again. To do that would be a great shame.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

Perhaps I might offer clarification. I am extremely sympathetic to the point that the hon. Gentleman is making and I acknowledge the need for flexibility in putting the proposal into effect in local authorities throughout the country, but as we do that we must not lose the drive and impetus towards a single clear responsibility that is properly operated. Provided that that imperative is acknowledged, I accept what he says.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I accept that as an imperative. It is right and proper that the Secretary of State should provide the framework. The commissioner should report to Parliament, but the local authority should be able to get local solutions within that framework. I hope that we will see that.

From time to time, all parties put the slogans "No child left behind" and "Every child matters" on their documents, but every child does matter in terms of child protection and the broader issues involved in how we protect minorities in our schools. Looking at the recent exclusion figures, it causes enormous sadness to me that Afro-Caribbean boys continue to be three times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts. It is enormously sad that children with special educational needs are seven times more likely to be excluded. I hope that the commissioner will also deal with those minorities to ensure that local authorities produce good solutions rather than simply tokenism.

May I include two other groups of children in that? The first is traveller children. A growing number of traveller children in our society—those of new age travellers and of traditional Romany travellers—are often neglected. Ofsted has drawn the Secretary of State's attention to the problems of traveller children and I hope that we can include in the commissioner's remit a real commitment to doing something for those youngsters.

On the issue of asylum children, I am delighted that the Government have abandoned their policy of taking away children and putting them in care. That was a horrendous policy and we are delighted that whichever Secretary of State, or whichever Minister, was going to go down that road has changed it.

Moving on to the central focus of the Gracious Speech, it is interesting that its fourth paragraph said:

"A Bill will be introduced to enable more young people to benefit from higher education."

That laudable aim is shared by Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but what we have heard today and what we have seen from Ministers ever since the publication of the White Paper is not a commitment to that, but a desire to shift the balance of funding for our universities from the state to the individual. That is really what we are talking about today and it is the whole emphasis of what the Secretary of State said.

The Secretary of State did not produce a shred of evidence to show how we will encourage students from less traditional backgrounds to aspire to—let alone go to—university by charging the poorest students and by increasing the debt burden to mortgage-style amounts. He has oft repeated that that aspiration is something that we have to tackle, because at 16 many youngsters who should be going on to study post-16 and at university drop out of the system.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why, through that long period when university education was entirely funded out of general taxation, the proportion of working class young people going into higher education remained at virtually zero?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Of course I can. One of the great opportunities that we have in these debates is to tackle that very issue. I was a working-class child, and I was the first in my family to stay on in education when I went back to school after I had failed as a footballer. My father had aspirations for me, but opportunities were few and far between. Under the grammar school system, only 10 or 20 per cent. of youngsters went to schools with the aspiration of putting pupils into post-16 education and beyond. Fortunately, successive Governments—not just Labour Governments—have moved away from that and opened up opportunities for pupils post-16. The hon. Gentleman must realise that the whole basis of our working society has changed. His hon. Friend Mr. Illsley will know from his pit communities that the aspiration was for their young men in particular to leave school at 16 and go down the pit like their fathers had. That was the culture in many of the old industries of Britain, but that has all changed for the good. Aspirations have changed, and it saddens me that we are pulling up the ladder of opportunity behind us.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Department of Health, The Secretary of State for Health

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I come from the same background as he does, and I noticed all those changes. Like him, I was fortunate enough to have parents who went to great lengths to ensure that I got to university. All the changes that he mentions, including changes in aspirations, are one thing, but he has not answered the question that my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor asked. Despite all those changes, despite people's aspirations and despite the structural changes, for the past 50 years the percentage of people who come from my background and that of the hon. Gentleman and who go to university has not changed at all. He must not speak as though great progress has been made and huge numbers of people from our background go to university, and that that trend has suddenly been abandoned and reversed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Our proposals are designed to break the deadlock, because that percentage has not increased.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am arguing that the impact of tuition fees since 1998 has been to reverse the trend that was at least going in the right direction, especially after 1989 and after the incorporation of the universities. [Interruption.] The Minister should refer to his own documents, because he has told me in a parliamentary answer that that is the case. If he is saying that loading additional tuition fees and differential fees on to poorer students will encourage them to go to university, then he and I live in different lands.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education)

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that when the leader of his party said in a speech last July that the percentage of university students from the bottom social classes had decreased since the introduction of fees, he had got his facts wrong and his comments were misleading? What the right hon. Gentleman said was a 7 per cent. fall was actually a 1 per cent. increase. That was corrected by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in a letter, but that correction has never been acknowledged.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I acknowledge that now on the Floor of the House. It would be quite wrong of my right hon. Friend or me to provide statistics that are incorrect, and I have no wish to do that. The statistics that I shall provide later in my speech have come from the Department, so I think we would both agree on those.

We should study the analysis of the impact of the policy of differential fees on student participation and institutional direction. Nothing in the White Paper or in what the Secretary of State has said today allays fears. There is no guarantee that universities will not have state funding removed in proportion to their fee income, as has happened since the introduction of the tuition fee in 1998. It is all very well for the Secretary of State to talk about increased resources since 1998, but virtually pound for pound has been taken away in grant from the Higher Education Funding Council as has been put in from students. That is not acceptable, and if that happens to top-up fees universities will be short-changed.

Seldom do I agree with Conservative policy on education, but the Tories are right about the introduction of the new regulator that we call Oftoff. Artificially skewing intakes to universities by some glorified plan of social engineering will merely add a layer of bureaucracy, and increasing student debt will be the major deterrent.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

The hon. Gentleman will know that two-thirds of all the students in the United Kingdom who obtain the highest A-level grades come from state schools. He will also know that only half the students in Oxford and Cambridge come from state schools. Does he accept that that is the result of hundreds of years of social engineering? Is it not about time that we had a better balance between the grades obtained, the pool of talent coming out of the system and the places reserved in our leading universities? Is not that the most powerful argument for some intervention in the admissions process?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, and do not disagree with the figures that he presented. However, I disagree with the bureaucratic solution to that problem. When the Chancellor made his ill-timed remark about Oxford university two years ago, and when we had the debate last year on social engineering in the admissions policy at Bristol university, the issue involved was how to choose which students to take from among the candidates with the same or similar grades. If the Government are proposing that Oftoff must require that a proportion of students from particular socio-economic backgrounds are chosen to enter a university on the basis of those grades, my goodness we are looking at our universities in a totally different way. That is the debate that we must have. At the end of the day the hon. Gentleman may be right, but at the moment I believe that universities do not need this layer of bureaucracy. We should challenge vice-chancellors and the courts of universities, and those of us who are on those courts, to get their act together and find solutions that satisfy the Secretary of State.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I shall make a little progress.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall make a little progress.

Photo of Francis Maude Francis Maude Conservative, Horsham

It is on the point with which the hon. Gentleman is dealing.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

The right hon. Gentleman can go first and I can go second.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

No, no.

We want students to choose courses because they have a desire to study in a specific area, not because those are the courses that they can afford. We want them to leave university with a desire to contribute where they feel they are most needed, not where they will get the most money to repay their debts. Sadly, today's debate, like most of our debates on higher education over the six years that I have been in the House, has been about balancing the books and not about higher education.

The current debate is about stage two in the Government's grand plan to move the burden of paying for our universities from the state to the individual. The Secretary of State said in the House that

"the entire objective in taking our difficult decisions has been to put higher education on a firm footing for the next two decades."—[Hansard, 23 July 1997; Vol. 298, c. 958.]

Who was he trying to mislead? It was simply not true at that point. It was not for the next two decades—it was for the lifetime of that Parliament until the Government introduced the next ratcheting up to ensure that students paid more. He was clearly not trying to mislead his master at No. 10, because the 2001 manifesto pledged not to introduce top-up fees. The Government are now legislating again, so that was either deceitful or cynical. The reality was that there was no intention to maintain that pledge. I would have more time for the Government if they said that they got it wrong; that they made a mistake and now have to do things differently, because that is grown-up politics.

Where is the Government's vision in their proposed Bill? There is an assumption that our university system, which has mushroomed from the highly elitist pre-Robbins structure to the current mass higher education product, is somehow fit for the purpose in the 21st century. The only question to be answered, as in 1997 following publication of the Dearing report, is: how do we pay for it? Neither the White Paper nor the proposed Bill attempts to engage with employers or the new generation of students about the future of the system.

Regional universities are to be downgraded to teaching-only universities, ignoring their crucial role as economic generators and their relationship with regional development agencies, sector skills councils and the future regional assemblies. "Corporate universities" hardly get a mention, despite the success of the National Health Service university and corporate higher education institutions run by Motorola, IBM and others. The FE sector, which already delivers a significant amount of higher education at foundation level, is almost sidelined. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has made huge strides with the e-university, but the virtual university appears to have been lost in the ether. The growing army of mature students who increasingly study part-time, in the workplace or using bite-sized units are given scant consideration, with proposals for credit accumulation and transfer being left to the vagaries of individual institutions.

The Prime Minister talks about creating a market in higher education, with different products attracting top-up premiums. The reality is that the proposed legislation will not create a market that offers students choice. It will merely reinforce a hierarchy of institutions that will be able to perpetuate their current positions on the back of a top-up fees structure. That is the reality. We are creating a hierarchy by law, rather than the market that the Prime Minister wants. I hope that, when the Bill is eventually published, it will seek to broaden its narrow remit, so that we can enthusiastically engage with the re-engineering of the whole higher education product.

However, we are where we are, so let me make some common cause with the Government on some issues. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills mentioned three significant planks to his argument. Liberal Democrats accept the need to increase opportunity for more students with the relevant qualifications to access higher education. Mr. Yeo, both on the "Today" programme this morning and in the debate today, said exactly that. He said that Conservative policy is to provide a place for all those with the relevant qualifications; I think that those were his words.

We agree with the Government's analysis that the United Kingdom will need to rely increasingly on its human capital to succeed in a global market. Indeed, as the recent Machin report, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills and the London School of Economics, emphasised, the biggest impact on productivity and competitiveness by region and sector is made by graduates. However, the 50 per cent. target is distinctly unhelpful. In reality, that level of participation has already been reached in Scotland—it is 53 per cent.—and it will be reached in England and Wales given the current level three trends. The challenge is not simply to enlarge the number of students to meet a target but to encourage entry from less traditional routes.

Currently, 90 per cent. of 18 to 19-year-olds with two A-levels go into higher education, yet fewer than 50 per cent. do so with an equivalent vocational qualification. The need to encourage more students with vocational backgrounds to enter higher education is a real challenge, particularly given the changes to the 14 to 19 curriculum and the way in which vocational education will have a much larger part to play.

Another area of common cause with the Government is the need for universities to access increased funding following a 40 per cent. real-terms cut in per student funding under successive Conservative Governments and a 7 per cent. cut during Labour's first term in office. Universities UK made a compelling case to the comprehensive spending review for increased investment but received £1.8 billion less than it sought. Its bid for a further £8 billion to £10 billion for the years 2005–06 to 2007–08 reflects the continuing decline in university resources. If we are to produce world-class research, significantly to improve the infrastructure of the sector and to invest in high-quality teaching, resources must be forthcoming. We as a party accept that and, indeed, have tried to find a solution to it.

Most of our competitors have increased the percentage of GDP spent on higher education, but ours has reduced from 0.88 per cent. in 1997–98 to 0.78 per cent. in 2003–04. We are now 16th out of 28 in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league table of expenditure per student on higher education, so let us not say that our investment in higher education is generous. It is not.

I ask the multi-tasking hon. Member for South Suffolk to defend Conservative policy. Expenditure on higher education should, according to his party, be lower than that of Turkey, Mexico, or Slovakia—we are below them in the league table at the moment. I ask him how he can support a policy that, by the year 2010, would see 450,000 fewer places in higher education—the equivalent of 850 places for each of the current English constituencies. Those are not my figures; they are from the Higher Education Policy Institute. That is the estimate. If hon. Members go away with only one fact from the debate, let it be how many children currently at school will lose their place under the Conservatives' proposals—let them put it in a news letter.

Incidentally, not a single penny is allocated to the new so-called vocational vision. It is all right transferring youngsters from an academic university route to some other route that is called vocational, but it has to be paid for and it is very expensive. However, last Wednesday on Sky's lunchtime programme, Mr. Blunt came up with a solution. He suggested that British business would find the £1 billion shortfall. That is a new tax going on to business.

Surely no sensible member of the Conservative party would support such a regressive and economically illiterate policy. I take my hat off to Mr. Jackson, who is not in his place, for his honourable stance in arguing the case for at least increased investment in the higher education system.We know that Tory Front Benchers do not support that policy. It is purely political opportunism—that is what it is all about. He and most of his colleagues, including the leader of the Conservative party, supported the imposition of a flat-rate tuition fee as proposed by Lord Dearing: they voted for that in their amendment on 16 March 1998. They tabled two early-day motions supporting their policy. Early-day motion 24 has 25 signatures and early-day motion 124 has 23 signatures. They cannot even get a fifth of their party to support their policy in an early-day motion, which hon. Members only have to sign.

When Mr. Howard was elected leader, the first thing he said was that he doubted that the higher education policy would remain. I am sure that the hon. Member for Huddersfield will confirm that Conservative members of the Select Committee on Education and Skills have all supported a policy of tuition and top-up fees. Mr. Green, the predecessor of the hon. Member for South Suffolk, said on 19 January 2003 on GMTV:

"I don't mind the principle of differential fees . . . If it's true the Government is going to abolish up front fees and say that everything should be paid back by individual students . . . that's fine by me".

One could not have a clearer statement of where that party is actually at.

The Conservative party's conversion to an anti-fees policy is as unbelievable as its policy to confine future asylum seekers to an unknown island somewhere in the world. Lord Baker was right when he wrote in The Daily Telegraph on 7 October that the policy was

"morally bankrupt and totally cynical".

What a fitting tribute from a former Secretary of State to the shadow Secretary of State and the policy.

The sadness of the debate is that the Government have taken the lead from the Conservatives in the development of their higher education policy. The proposals in the White Paper, and those that will be in the Bill, are classic 1980s thinking from the Thatcher-Joseph school of social justice, the only difference being that Baroness Thatcher did not believe that she could get the proposals through her party. That shows how far we have come in the juxtaposition of two great parties. [Interruption.] I shall rephrase that; one great party.

When the declared intention of the Government is to enable more young people to benefit from higher education, how can Ministers justify an increase in fees that will place severe financial and psychological barriers in the paths of participation? The evidence is clear. Since 1998, the Government's policies have widened and not narrowed the social gap. The UNITE-MORI research shows that the proportion from the lower socio-economic classes—C2, D and E—going into higher education has fallen from 20 per cent. in 2000 to 17 per cent. in 2002. The White Paper, written by the Government, acknowledged on page 17 that the gap has widened. The National Audit Office has said that, since 1998–99, the final removal of the means-tested grant is likely to have widened the gap between the social classes.

In her research for the DFES on student income and expenditure, published a few weeks ago, Professor Callender concluded that the shift in student support had benefited wealthy students and not those from poorer backgrounds. There is clear evidence that debt deters students from poorer, non-traditional backgrounds, yet student debt will increase dramatically if top-up fees are introduced.

The Secretary of State poured scorn on the figure of £33,708 as the average debt in 2010 and said that it did not come from a reliable source. I presume that Barclays bank is now an unreliable source. [Hon. Members: "It is."] I hope that hon. Members do not bank with Barclays. However, they will admit that one of the most valuable sources of statistics on student debt has been the Barclays student survey. Without it, we would be all the more impoverished. [Interruption.] That was a pun.

The Callender report showed that the poorer students were 43 per cent. more in debt than the richest ones. Professor Callender, who wrote the report for the Secretary of State, finished it by saying that

"top-up fees of £3,000 will put even more students off university."

There is clear evidence that poorer students are not only the most in debt, but the most likely to have to work. Already, poorer students are not applying for particular courses in medicine and other long courses because they cannot sustain the debt. The British Medical Association concluded recently that

"top-up fees would deter poor students from studying medicine . . . would move away from and not towards the Government's and the universities' policy of widening access into higher education."

The Government are saying that they will put in place mechanisms to support poorer students and that no student will have to pay up-front fees. We have argued that case ever since the introduction of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. My colleagues and I tabled an amendment to the Bill that was dismissed as nonsense by the Secretary of State and his Ministers. I say to them that they have to get out of their ivory towers and meet real students on real council estates—the sort of kids I taught all my life, who look at debt as a huge burden. It is no answer to tell debt-averse students and those from particular ethnic minority backgrounds that they will be able to pay three years later or that debt can be racked up and paid over a lifetime.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

May I drag the hon. Gentleman away from one of his myths? Were he to come to some of the estates in my constituency and offer young people an interest-free loan of £9,000, he would be trampled in the rush. None of us would like to see that. Will he concede that we are talking not about poor students, rich students or parents paying back the money, but graduates from all socio-economic classes at certain levels of income paying back the money? He must concede that £5 a week is less than a couple of pints of Guinness down the students' union for someone earning £18,000 a year.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman. I do not know his constituency, but I should be delighted to visit. I am sure that if he went to any part of Britain and offered a £9,000 interest-free loan, even those who do not understand the language would bite his hand off. That would be a generous offer, but this country is in so much debt because of offers of interest-free loans.

We must knock on the head the business of the £5 repayment. The reality is that, at that level, students will not even pay the interest on the debt. If we are talking about serious loans after the introduction of top-up fees, and if those are rolled into the maintenance loans that are paid back through the same system, we will be talking about a figure in excess of £20,000 in 2005–06 or 2008, as the Secretary of State and the Minister have been honest enough to accept. The idea of paying back £5 a week is nonsense.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

Does the hon. Gentleman regard mortgages as debt, especially when one ceases to have to make repayments when one loses one's job, which would have been welcome in the 1980s and 1990s? If he does, is the Liberal Democrat message to potential homeowners that they should not take on that responsibility because they may have to pay it back?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman has got to get—[Interruption.] Sorry, I was going to say something uncharitable. Of course people will have mortgages and other borrowings but, if we are to believe the Barclays survey, in 2010, it will not be the poorer students but those from families who constantly get knocked by the Government—those just above the level at which the remittance of fees applies—who will have £33,000 of debt. They will then go into adult life and will need somewhere to live, which means renting or buying. The hon. Gentleman and I may have bought properties in London because it is cheaper to buy than to rent in some parts. The burden that will fall on young people will be absolutely massive.

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he is comfortable with young people starting out in adult life in that way and that Cabinet Ministers, professional footballers and other multi-millionaires should not pay more tax, the Labour party will have moved to a point that I thought I would never see in terms of social justice, equity and progressive taxation.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I certainly do not agree that that level of debt is acceptable or will be contemplated by people from council estates. I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman appeared to agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Allen on this point. People offered a £9,000 interest-free loan will not accept it if, as a quid pro quo, they must refuse any benefits to which they might be entitled and forgo any full-time work that might give them a substantive income.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am indebted to the hon. Lady for the completeness of the response I should have given to the hon. Gentleman. I was referring to the nonsense of saying that there is a strings-free £9,000 interest-free loan, when clearly there is not. Anybody would accept a strings-free £9,000 loan, but the strings attached to this one are quite significant.

The Government say that they have put in place mechanisms to support poorer students, and that no student will have to pay up-front fees. That is just not so. The reality is that poorer students will have to increase their debt by £1,875 per annum if they want to go to a top university. They will have some £5,625 worth of extra debt when they leave university. The first £1,125 will be paid for them, but they will have to find the rest. However, the Government have come up with a solution. They say that they will give our poorer students £1,000 in grant. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education recently said that they can use that £1,000 to pay off their fees. If that is not at least a sleight of hand, I am afraid that it is deceitful, because at the end of the day such students will still have that debt.

The Government are telling universities that they must use £875 of every top-up fee to provide bursaries for poorer students. That is great for Cambridge, and I am delighted that it will be able to give £4,000 to every poor student. But the reality is that 80 to 90 per cent. of students at Nottingham Trent university, Sheffield Hallam university and certain universities in south London are already on fee waivers. How can those places charge a top-up fee? How will they be able to provide bursaries to support poorer students? And if they cannot raise the top-up fees, how will they pay the academic salaries, infrastructure costs, and so on? This policy is divisive. It is creating different tiers within our higher education system that are based purely on one's ability to pay.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, West Renfrewshire

The hon. Gentleman has spent in excess of 40 minutes criticising the Government and the official Opposition. When he intervened on the Secretary of State, he said that he would spell out in detail the Liberal Democrats' policy on funding public services. Is that still his intention?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I have enjoyed the interventions that I have taken, and in my view the whole debate has been good. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not enjoyed it.

I turn to our policy. The Government say that the only way to fund our universities is through differential fees, and Jim Sheridan may accept that that is so. The Liberal Democrats are saying that that is not so—that we can support our universities and students through direct taxation. Through such taxation, we can recoup the costs from those who gain the most, and who have the highest levels of disposable income. By taxing incomes of over £100,000 at a 50p rate, we would pass the burden of taxation from students to those with the most significant incomes. Surely Labour party members would accept the basic premise that such a tax is at least part-socialist, given that it is fair, progressive and redistributive.

According to the Library, such a tax would raise £4.5 billion, of which £2 billion would be allocated to higher education. That £2 billion would be used to meet the £450 million cost of abolishing existing fees; some £300 million of it would be used to support a £2,000 grant—the Government are already putting in £300 million—and approximately £1 billion of it would be spent on university infrastructure.

We have three pledges—and only three pledges—in respect of our 50p rate. The first call on that money is the spending of up to £2 billion on tuition fees and higher education. Secondly, £1 billion is earmarked for free personal care for the elderly, thereby introducing in England what Scotland already has. The third pledge is to lessen the impact of the transition from an unfair council tax to a local income tax.

That is the policy, which is on the record. Any other funding commitment made by my Front-Bench colleagues would have to be met through savings made elsewhere. If such savings cannot be made, such proposals will not be implemented—I cannot be clearer than that.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

No, I will not.

This has been an interesting debate. We have heard the three main parties explain three different positions. At the end of the day, it is up to Labour Back Benchers to decide whether they have signed the early-day motion because they believe in a fair and equitable system, under which those who can most afford to support our students do so, or whether they want to vote in favour of this unfair, regressive policy. I know in which Lobby my colleagues will be on the day.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I must remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee 2:56 pm, 3rd December 2003

Mr. Willis has made some interesting remarks, as he always does, and at inordinate length. He is the single-handed destroyer of Back-Bench time, especially during education debates. It has come to something when we each have to squeeze our contributions into 10 minutes. An increasingly small number of people are getting the opportunity to speak. I thought that Parliament was about not only Front-Bench opinion, but Back-Bench opinion.

I have got to be brief, but I shall try also to be succinct and not too party political. For me, becoming the Chairman of a Select Committee never meant that I should also become a political neuter. I did not accept the position on that basis, and I shall continue to be outspoken. I should point out to those whom I may have offended when I asked a certain question of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman that in more than 20 years as a Member of this House, I have always asked Ministers and Opposition spokesmen who comment on state education whether they invested in such education by sending their children to state schools. I am not going to apologise to the House for that—it is a perfectly legitimate question to ask.

I always try to be reasonably objective in assessing the Government's record. Indeed, as the Ministers who appeared before the Education and Skills Committee this morning know, they were subjected to some pretty tough questioning. I stand by the reports that my Committee has produced in the three years of my chairmanship; they made some pretty stinging criticisms of the Government when they got things wrong. But I have to say that the Government's record in tackling the central theme of the underperformance of children from less well off, working-class backgrounds is second to none in our history. Let us look at the facts. Let us remember the percentage of gross domestic product that has been poured into pre-school; into free nursery education at the ages of three, and now four; into upgrading our school buildings; and into our nursery, junior and secondary schools. Money has been spent throughout the system.

Those who want to criticise this Government can do so, because they have priorities that people may not agree with. All parliamentarians—on either side of the House—can legitimately criticise a Government's priorities, but we should not underrate the fact that an enormous sum has been spent on pre-school and the entire education system, in order to tackle the central problem that the Government were sworn to tackle on taking office in 1997.

It gladdens my heart to see that education is mentioned three times in the Queen's Speech, in three different and important Bills. I shall not discuss the children's Bill, although I do have a great interest in it, as do the Select Committee and the Minister for Children. However, I should at this point mention Huddersfield's great education pioneer, Brian Jackson. He was one of the leading education reformers of the 1960s and 1970s, and he campaigned continually for a children's commissioner. Thank goodness we are now going to have one.

I should like to say a few words about school transport in this country, which is in a mess. Members of the Select Committee had one of their exotic freebies on Monday when we all went to Slough for the day. We took evidence in a good local authority, which is coping with the admissions policy that it inherited—with all that that means for the variety of schools in the area. The authority does not wholly control the schools because its neighbours want to send their children into the borough and a quarter of residents want to send their children out the other way. In every town and city in the country can be seen mass movements of children being bussed miles and miles to particular educational institutions. It is a mess, and I hope that some of the pilot schemes in the Bill may do something to help tackle it. Anyone who has been involved in education—on either side of the House—knows that it a difficult problem. Thank goodness, there is an element of pragmatism in the pilot schemes, which are about trying to sort something out. However, it will take much more than what appears in the present Bill to get it right.

One problem that is always evident is the dearth of community schools in the country. Everybody seems to leave the community and very few schools have only their local population attending them. Many of the people who gave evidence to the Select Committee deplored that fact. How can we have community schools when the whole community is on the move to other communities? Overall, however, I welcome the three Bills and the priority that the Government still accord to education.

I should also mention that evidence given over the years during the Select Committee's production of four reports on higher education shows time and again that when children reach the age of 18, it is too late to encourage them into higher education. The really important work is in Sure Start and the early years, in nursery education and in education maintenance allowances. All the evidence shows that that was a brave policy, which is now being rolled out from one third of areas to the whole country. What a wonderful scheme. It was an excellent idea to pay poorer students to stay in education from 16 to 18. We never receive proper acknowledgement from Opposition Members, particularly the official Opposition, for making that real change. Members with an interest in education know that it has been a pioneering piece of policy—and that it works.

The Select Committee frequently stresses that if substantial moneys are being spent on education, there must be checking for value for money and monitoring to ensure that a policy works. If it does not work, it should be scrapped and something else attempted. That amounts to a refreshing pragmatism about the current Administration, who are not driven by a bankrupt ideology whereby everything has to be run like a nationalised industry. We experimented very unsuccessfully with that idea in the past. On access, evidence suggests that early intervention is necessary.

I have to tell the House, including some of my hon. Friends, that in respect of retention, much of the evidence coming before the Select Committee readily showed that debt and debt aversion are not the major considerations at the top of people's minds. The reason why students drop out of higher education in their first year is that, having been given bad advice, they are on the wrong course in the wrong town. Debt was right down on the list, so rather than deal with myths, let us be honest about that.

In my remaining few minutes, I want to point out that the Select Committee was often concerned about the long-term. The most regrettable aspect of what Mr. Yeo said in the "Today" programme this morning—and repeated in the Chamber today—was that all the employers that he had visited said that there was no call for more higher education. Anyone who heard the lecture by Larry Summers, president of Harvard and former US Treasury Secretary, knows that current research shows clearly that if we want to be a competitive country with wealth creation and able to fend off enormous competition from India, China, Brazil and Mexico—in the changing global world—the key factor is how many highly educated and trained people a country's economy produces.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is essential that people be highly educated and trained, but it does not necessarily have to happen at university.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

Indeed, it does not. However, we should not pat ourselves too much on the back. People talk about a 50 per cent. target. I was rather reluctant about it, but the fact remains that only 16 per cent. of the population in the average constituency go into higher education. Only 16 per cent., leaving 84 per cent. to do something else. We should inscribe that on our hearts. Out there, 84 per cent. of potential is still wasted, with so many young people denied the opportunity to make the most of themselves through higher education.

We should not forget that higher education today is very diverse. We need a diverse system of education and I believe that a flexible fee structure will help to deliver it. It will not deliver everything, but without a secondary or independent income for higher education in this country, we will not be able to grow at the necessary pace. It has to be complemented by more moneys from the Treasury, but we must keep to the Dearing principle that those who benefit from higher education should contribute to it. Society, individuals and employers are relevant. Employers have long neglected investment in higher education, research and development in this country. They should not be let off the hook by the present Government or any other.

I finish by saying that we should be visionary and long term. We should remember that the most important single factor that will deliver the good life to our constituents will be investment in higher education. The Government proposals will, in my view, deliver that.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk 3:06 pm, 3rd December 2003

I am glad to contribute to the debate on the Gracious Speech and I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee, who always has something interesting and lively to say. I should like to draw the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I add that I serve in a voluntary capacity as parliamentary ambassador for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

I shall direct my remarks to the children Bill. As my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo said today and my right hon. and learned Friend the leader of the Opposition said last week, we look forward to working constructively on the proposals, in the spirit of the words of Lord Laming in his inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. In his report into the tragic death of that ill-starred child, he said:

"If some good is to come out of this tragedy, lasting change must come out of it too."

The Green Paper and the Bill propose serious structural change in the management and delivery of children's services at every level. Among the objectives of both Green Paper and Bill was the principle of co-ordinated and integrated working between professionals in all disciplines concerned with children. One of the truly scandalous features of the as many as two deaths from abuse of children that take place in this country in each and every week is that subsequent inquiries or analyses almost always reveal that there has been a lack of co-ordination between professionals. No one should underestimate the difficult and sensitive work undertaken by social workers, the police, the medical professions and teachers. Lord Laming recognised just those features, but he said:

"Even after listening to all the evidence, I remain amazed that nobody in any of the key agencies had the presence of mind to follow relatively straightforward procedures about how to respond to a child about whom there is concern of deliberate harm."

So one of the tests that we shall apply throughout the passage of the Bill is its effectiveness in respect of achieving closer co-ordination. That is the intention of the Secretary of State and the purpose of the Bill, which explains the proposal to oblige local authorities to create the post of director of children's services accountable to local authority education and children's social services. I also welcome the important intention to have a lead elected member with the responsibility for such work. I doubt that such a post would be sought after, but it is none the less important that there should be elective responsibility and accountability in that essential sphere.

Those sensible proposals are exercising the collective mind of local authorities up and down the land, as Members on both sides of the House know. I listened with interest to the assurance given by the Secretary of State that the Government would not insist on a single solution. I was glad to hear that reassurance, but can the Secretary of State for Health give us some clarification later about the suggestions currently abroad among local authorities that the Government's intention is that all education and social services should be dismantled in order to start again from scratch to achieve their ends? I do not think that is the Government's intention, but the suggestion is being bruited so it would be sensible if the Secretary of State were to allay all those fears in his concluding remarks.

Some authorities, such as Hertfordshire and Essex, have already gone a long way down the road of closer co-ordination. Others, such as Norfolk and similar rural shire counties, are wrestling with the problem of achieving co-ordination where services are sparsely spread—although some useful pilot work is being undertaken in Norfolk, in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn.

I agree with the Government's intention that there should be timely action, but to achieve that they will have to retain some diversity of solution. It is essential that genuine knowledge and local expertise should not be wasted. Furthermore, the task is much more complex where primary care trust and police authority boundaries are not coterminous with those of the local authority, and the considerations are much more difficult for far-flung rural authorities. I hope that Ministers will spot councils that try to solve other difficult management problems by making the Bill the excuse. Work to protect vulnerable children is obviously much too important to be a camouflage for other problems.

I hope that there will be increased accountability. The "nobody was to blame" syndrome is another regrettable feature in the all-too-many cases of child abuse. I hope that Ministers will set up firm tests to check the effectiveness of accountability.

A useful start to closer working could be made by effective information sharing. One of the features of the tragic case of Lauren Wright in my constituency was that if there had only been effective sharing of information between Hertfordshire and Norfolk social services, and between education and social services in Norfolk, her life might have been saved. Where judgments are, literally, about life or death, there is surely all the more reason for strong and reliable procedures that can be checked and counter-checked and that can act as a support framework, giving confidence to professionals faced with extremely difficult decisions.

When the Secretary of State for Education and Skills introduced the Green Paper in September, he recognised its limitations. He accepted that two key services, the police and the health services, are, in a way, outside the legislative remit. The Green Paper does the best it can—neither it nor the Bill would want to plunge every public service into wholesale reorganisation at once—and that is welcome. I am glad that the Secretary of State for Health will reply to the debate, as only health visitors, among all the professionals involved, have legal licence to enter a home and demand to examine a child, which is useful in certain cases. If the right hon. Gentleman has time at the end of the debate, it would be helpful to hear his thinking about how health professionals might be used to greater and more direct effect in that work, despite their absence from the actual reorganisation proposals.

In a debate in this place on 16 July, I hesitantly suggested that the old-fashioned role of the school nurse might be reconsidered. It was an impertinent suggestion and retribution came fast in the form of a letter from Mrs. Jenny Atterwell, a member of a school nursing team based in Wymondham, in Norfolk. She pointed out that my understanding of the current school nursing service was "slightly out of date". She described her work and that of her colleagues—especially that of school health advisers, who have a child protection role. I was impressed by Mrs. Atterwell's description of what she was doing and of what was going on in Norfolk and shall ensure that Ministers see a copy of her letter.

My point may be sounding a bit laboured—it probably is—but it is that there is a wealth of practical knowledge, good will and experience in all the professions concerned with child protection. I hope that local authorities will not be so preoccupied with setting up their reorganised systems—although I understand that it is a big task—that they fail to consult all those with practical and relevant experience, even if it is beyond the scope of the Bill.

That is my final point. When the Secretary of State introduced the Green Paper, he said that

"nothing less than fundamental reform will address those issues. No single change alone is enough. National standards, inspection, information sharing, training, national and local structures, all need to change if we are to achieve real changes in culture and practice."—[Hansard, 8 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 21.]

That is true, but we are talking about practicalities—about working together, sharing professional expertise and getting together to solve a common problem. The seriousness of the task must not blind us to the abundance of simple, practical, commonsense measures that can immediately be taken by the skilled professionals concerned. The will is there and the cause could hardly be more vital.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 3:16 pm, 3rd December 2003

I am one of the Labour Members who have significant and severe reservations about the principle of variable fees, and it is to that that I shall devote the majority of my remarks. First, however, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for the thoughtful and detailed way in which he has approached the debate and in which he has engaged in dialogue with people who take a view different from his. That is in marked contrast to the rant that we heard from the Opposition. I am still trying to work out how their figures add up; as Mr. Willis observed, we shall perhaps find the answer on the island where the Conservatives plan to put asylum seekers. We certainly did not hear it today. What we do know is that if their policies hold together at all, which is extremely doubtful, they will mean a huge and severe restriction of opportunities for many, many thousands of our young people.

I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for taking an important step in higher education policy through the proposal to abolish up-front fees. That is long overdue, and it is welcome. Whatever else comes out of the debate, I hope that that proposal will remain and will influence future policy. In giving that welcome, however, I ask my right hon. Friend to consider the following point, although it may be covered as debates on the Bill proceed: if we abolish up-front fees, the issue of fee waivers must be reassessed. Whether the fees are to be variable or flat-rate, we do not need fee waivers if we abolish up-front fees because students will not be paying them. Graduates may pay them but students will not, so that aspect needs to be rethought.

I also urge my right hon. Friend to consider carefully the paper produced by my hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) and for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), which discusses whether the network of bursaries and the other things that we are proposing is the most effective way of achieving the important objective of ensuring access for students from lower-income backgrounds. Could that be better achieved by moulding a grant system targeted at those from less well-off backgrounds?

My first problem with the principle of variable fees is two-tierism. Hon. Members are right to point out that we already have a multi-tiered university system. It is true that universities are multi-tiered in terms of the type of course and the type of teaching that they offer. Sadly, they are sometimes multi-tiered in teaching quality and, even more sadly, in terms of institutional status. If we do nothing else, we need to confront the latter point.

We need to do something about all the things that I have listed, but we must not do so by putting in place a price tag for students or graduates, which would follow them into their working lives. It is self-evidently true that courses in biochemistry, medicine, sociology, modern languages and so on cost different amounts to teach, but do we want students to calculate which course to select according to whether the job that they get at the end will allow them to repay the cost of their teaching? That seems to me to be the wrong approach.

I do not think that the poorest students will be the worst affected, if we get right the questions of access, grants and so on. The students worst affected will be those who are not well off, who are nearly poor, or who are at or just below average income. That is where the problem will be felt. We are talking about repaying a fee of about £3,000 a year, but once the principle of variable fees is established, that will probably turn out to be the thin end of the wedge. I do not know how broad the wedge will be, but it will exist. I am loth to embark on a journey whose end we cannot foresee.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that a university in the Russell group was talking about getting rid of fees for undersubscribed courses, such as physics. I have heard similar reports, and I consider that the possibility is highly dangerous and would have two consequences. First, such a course would be subsidised by other courses for which fees are paid, with variable fees rising as a result. Secondly, if no fee is payable, there will be no relationship with the graduate's ability to pay when the course is finished. Graduates from such courses will have no fees to repay, because no fees were charged. Therefore, if we allow universities not to charge fees for certain courses, the link between the proposed system and graduates' ability to pay will be destroyed.

My second problem has to do with people's trust, both in what we have said and in what we will say. We have to admit that we went into the last election saying that we would not introduce top-up fees. Technically, it is true that the legislation need not be enacted until the next Parliament—that is, until after the next election. However, will constituents make that equation, or will they think that we said one thing and did another?

I do not dispute the fact that difficult choices have to be made. We must confront those choices—as must the other parties, sooner or later, if their policies in opposition are to have credibility. We are embarking on the big conversation project, which I think is exciting. We want to engage with people outside and look at the big issues. As part of that discussion, we should look at whether our traditional position in respect of variable fees should be retained or whether it should change. We should also look at flat-rate fees.

Another past manifesto commitment was never to raise the top rate of income tax. We need to consider whether that needs to be reviewed. Those are difficult matters, and they need to be discussed.

We need to consider the appropriate balance between the contributions made by individuals and by society as a whole. We have to make a judgment about the training that a teacher gets. How much of the benefit goes to that teacher, and how much to society as whole? The same applies to doctors and to people in other professions. We should discuss such matters among ourselves, with others in different parts of the political world and with the people whom we represent.

Given what I have heard so far, I do not believe that the proposal to introduce variable fees is right. However, even if it is right, it is certainly wrong to introduce it now. It should be discussed and introduced later.

It may be claimed that we cannot wait and that universities' financial needs are so severe at the moment that the cash injection is needed now. If so, such a claim has consequences. If fees have to go up, how can we remain true to what we have said in the past? We should abolish up-front fees, but that can only mean an increase across the board. I do not think that that is the only option, but it may be the speediest. Again, that is why I commend the proposals put forward in their pamphlet by my hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin and for Southampton, Test.

Finally, I turn to student debt. Regardless of whether fees are variable or flat-rate, we have not yet grasped the full significance of the impact of debt on students. We need to do so. Students must repay loans as well as fees, and they face other expenses as well. We need to link up our policies. At the same time as we are telling students in their early 20s that they will need to incur very substantial debts as a result of their education, we are also telling them that they must think about providing for their security in retirement by contributing to pension schemes.

It was difficult enough to interest young people in pensions 10 years ago, let alone now. However, we are trying to get them interested in what their circumstances will be at 60, 65 or 70 at the same time as we are asking them to incur debts that will restrict their income in the period immediately after graduation. We should do that only very reluctantly, and only after much thought—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee 3:26 pm, 3rd December 2003

It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful and courageous, if not career-building, speech by Richard Burden. I am sure that he was right to say that the Government will suffer a loss of public confidence if they pursue their policy on top-up fees, as that policy sits very uneasily with the commitment in their manifesto. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House will forgive me if, in the short time available, I focus my remarks on the Opposition amendment to the Loyal Address, which relates to the health service.

I welcome to the Front Bench my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who now have responsibility for health service matters. I can think of no two people better able to dismiss the absurd allegations made by Labour Members from time to time about Opposition policy on the NHS.

When the Conservative Government were elected in 1979, we were able to stick to the spending levels that we inherited from the previous Labour Govt. At a stroke, that demolished some of the absurd claims made before that election. I hope that we will be able to do the same again. I hope that our policy will be to stick to the core values of the NHS and to build on its strengths but address its weaknesses.

I confess to having, from time to time, a moment of sympathy for the Secretary of State for Health. He has extracted record sums for the NHS from the Treasury, yet he finds himself besieged by colleagues highlighting areas in which the NHS could do better. However, the moment of sympathy passes quite quickly. Ministers must largely bear responsibility for the frustration, because they have let the rhetoric run ahead of reality, stifled the initiative and skills of those who work in the NHS, and overwhelmed it with endless and misguided legislative reforms. People are less interested in new laws than in what is actually happening. I want to spend a moment looking at what is happening.

I recognise that the problem of declining NHS dentistry precedes the advent of this Government in 1997. This Government said, however, that they were going to address it. Six years on, people who have had NHS dentistry all their lives are now losing it. I received an e-mail on 19 November from Mr. Cull of Tadley:

"I have recently been told by my local Dental Practice . . . that they no longer accept NHS patients . . . If it were possible, I would now choose to opt out of paying tax and national insurance, and pay for any services as and when my wife and I need them. I want the Government of the day to recognise that those who pay are entitled to something back!"

Another constituent wrote on 18 November:

"I discovered yesterday that my family has been taken off the NHS register at our local dental surgery and my children cannot get treated unless we the parents register as private patients."

And that is happening under a Government who accuse us of having a secret agenda to promote private medicine.

A third constituent was told that he had to join Denplan at £14 a month. He wrote:

"Both myself and my wife are in our 70s and we find that we cannot afford this level of charge from our pensions. We both only have nine teeth remaining and therefore find this situation is very poor. Can anything be done so that pensioners are not faced with these excessive charges in the future?"

At £18 per tooth per year, those are expensive possessions for them to insure. Some people feel betrayed on NHS dentistry.

The situation with general practitioners in Andover, the main town in my constituency, is not much better. A member of my staff recently moved to Andover. All the GP lists near where she lives are closed. Another constituent e-mailed me on this subject on Monday to say they had attempted to get onto books throughout Andover, but had been informed that the only surgery available is somewhere else. My constituent wrote:

"I would invite your comments on the current state of medical provisions in your constituency when, despite Andover being chosen as an area for expansion, 99 per cent. of all surgeries have closed their books."

There is therefore real pressure not only on NHS dentistry but on primary care and GPs.

Moving upwards to hospitals, we have a popular hospital in Andover with dedicated staff struggling to provide modern services. The building in which the out-patients department is located, however, is straight from "Carry on Nurse" in the 1950s, with people standing in long queues waiting for blood tests on a Monday morning. I ask the Secretary of State, who is chuntering away on the Front Bench, why that is happening and why it is tolerated. In a nutshell, it is because Hampshire gets about £85 per person for every £100 that the rest of the country gets. That is simply inadequate to provide the quality of service that my constituents expect.

We just have to look at the accounts for one of the two three-star hospitals that serve my constituency for the year ended in March to see the pressures. It brought forward an underlying deficit of £3.5 million, and had unfunded commitments of £3.9 million, a cut in primary care trust income of £1.4 million and unfunded cost pressures of £600,000, leading to a deficit of £8.6 million. Of that, £6.1 million was found by savings and income plans—code for increasing car park charges and looking hard at service provision. The balance of £2.5 million was found from the strategic health authority.

Like most of the NHS in south-east England, the local primary care trust has similar structural problems. It had a deficit of £1.5 million last year, made good by capital-to-revenue transfers. In the current year, it can balance the books only by either land sales or capital-to-revenue transfers of £2 million. If we go on transferring from capital to revenue, the position that I have just described at Andover hospital will remain.

I know what the Secretary of State will say—that he has given a record cash increase this year. Yes, the trust that runs the largest hospital in my constituency has had a 9 per cent. cash increase this year over last year. I asked it how much of that was swallowed up by increases over which it has no control. The answer was 6.5 per cent.—national insurance, nurses' pay, doctors' hours and pharmaceutical prices. Therefore, 6.5 per cent. out of 9 per cent. disappeared. Of the 2.5 per cent. remaining, 1.5 per cent. was applied to the deficit that was brought forward, and the 1 per cent. of growth was ring-fenced for a number of specific services. Therefore, virtually no money was left over to develop all the other services that were not ring-fenced.

That pressure feeds through to individual constituents. Mr. S of Andover saw his GP in January and was referred to a neurologist. The appointment was on 10 June. He was told that he needed a brain scan. He wrote:

"After two months, I had not heard so I phoned Southampton Hospital; imagine my anxiety when I was told my scan was classed as routine. My appointment would be in June 2004".

I had a letter on 19 November from Southampton university hospitals NHS trust about this case with more bad news:

"At present our wait is now 8 to 9 months, but unfortunately this waiting time is currently rising as we are suffering staff shortages due to a scarcity of trained radiographers nationwide."

An eight-year-old boy in the village where I live has been assessed and approved for a cochlear implant in Southampton. His parents tell me:

"Unfortunately due to the NHS allocation of funds for this year having already been exhausted, the operation is currently delayed until April next year at the earliest."

Until the formula for allocating resources is changed, the position in Hampshire and other counties in the south-east will always be difficult. The problem is compounded this year by revenue support grant pressures on social services. Education money has been passported through, leaving social services to take the strain of a difficult settlement. Since 1998–99, three nursing homes have closed, with the loss of 88 nursing beds, and five residential care homes have closed, with the loss of 90 residential care beds. During that time, only one home has opened, offering 60 beds, none of them available at the Hampshire rate.

To address the problem, Conservative-controlled Hampshire county council plans to develop an extra 4,500 nursing home beds in the county to help to overcome the shortage—a much more constructive response, dare I say it, than the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Act 2003. However, Hampshire county council is threatened with capping if it attempts to deliver the quality of service that the Government want.

My advice to the Secretary of State is this: first, stop constantly interfering; secondly, moderate the rhetoric; thirdly, allocate resources fairly. If he does all that, he will begin to bridge the gap between expectation and reality in Hampshire.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North 3:35 pm, 3rd December 2003

I shall speak specifically about the higher education Bill. Although many interesting and important Bills announced in the new legislative programme are worthy of debate, for the best part of 20 years I have given considerable attention to higher education, in particular HE funding and student support. I have thought about the subject in enormous detail and have anguished over it. I also have some experience of higher education, which I think helps me to make a useful contribution.

Throughout that period, I have been convinced that a graduate tax, or a form of graduate tax, is the only fair and reasonable way to finance the expansion of higher education. To all intents and purposes, the Government's proposals are a form a graduate tax, so I support the Bill wholeheartedly as the fairest, most efficient and most effective way of putting our universities on a sound foundation for the future and of widening access to those universities.

In one sense, the issue is simple. There are just four questions that we have to ask ourselves. First, do we want a series of world-class universities in the United Kingdom? Outside the Conservative party, the answer is universally yes, which means that we must get more money into those institutions. Secondly, do we want to move even more quickly to a mass higher education system in which every young person and mature student has the opportunity to go to university if he or she can benefit from it? Again, outside the Conservative party, the answer is universally yes.

The third question concerns the balance of the individual contribution to the expansion of higher education as against the contribution from general taxation. The idea that it is an either/or question has clouded and confused the debate so far, but it is not a matter of whether it all comes from general taxation or from the individual. Dearing made that point in his landmark report a few years ago. At the time, the report attracted an all-party consensus, which has now been ripped up. The vast majority of young people in my constituency who have a reasonable expectation of going to university and the vast majority of parents understand that the funding of higher education will be made up of a balance of contributions from the individuals who benefit from it and the general taxpayer, who also benefits.

The entire debate is about working out the balance. Should it be 50:50 general taxation and individual beneficiary? Should it be 25:75 one way or 75:25 the other way? The issue is comparatively simple. Once we have worked out how the balance of contributions should fall, we have to deal with the timing of contributions. The decision to abolish up-front fees is one of the boldest and most courageous decisions that a Government could make. It will be welcomed by parents across the country in 2006 as they finally understand that the burden of paying the university fee will no longer fall on them when their son or daughter reaches the age of 18 or 19, but will be transferred to their son or daughter as they enter their working life a few years later.

Every parent understands the logic of that.

Many parents—especially the 84 per cent. of the population who are not graduates—who are struggling to find the £1,125 per year per child, or even part of that fee if their annual income is below the £33,000 a year threshold, will see the fairness and reasonableness of transferring the contribution from their modest income to the income of their sons and daughters, which will be vastly enhanced as a result of their university degree.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

Will my hon. Friend go further? If tuition fee repayments are to be income contingent post-graduation, will it remain logical to provide waivers for students from low-income backgrounds—based on their parents' low income? Would not that money be better spent on proper maintenance grants, which would overcome the real disincentive to university access by school leavers from such backgrounds?

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I would agree with my hon. Friend that that would be the way forward if we lived in a sane, rational and entirely logical world, but given that we are dealing with symbols and perception, some compromises have to be made.

I would dearly like to be able to talk at enormous length about the policies of the two main Opposition parties, but the significance of their policies is that they are the policies of parties that have already given up any prospect of winning the next general election. We need no clearer indication of that than the policies on the future of our universities that they are advancing.

The Conservatives have reneged on the Dearing consensus, and that has aroused some controversy among their own Members. We heard earlier in the debate many authoritative Conservative voices—probably most of the voices that retain their authority with the general public—speaking out against that new policy. I welcome it, because the Conservatives' announcement of their new-found commitment to the abolition of tuition fees has helped to clarify the argument, certainly among Labour Members. What the Conservatives did some months ago was to spell out the consequences of going into reverse gear and abolishing tuition fees—an immediate cut of 100,000 university places and the loss of the additional 150,000 university places that will be needed as a result of natural demographic processes and the gradual increase in attainment in our secondary schools. It is now clear to everyone in the United Kingdom that the cost of abolishing tuition fees is a loss in the next decade of 250,000 university places.

My question for every Conservative MP who has at least one child with the prospect of going to university is simple. Are they prepared to tell one of their children that they cannot go to university in order to guarantee free tuition for another of their children? If so, which child will they tell, and will they tell that child now? I suspect that if any parent on the Conservative Benches did that, they would get a pretty fierce reaction from the son or daughter not chosen.

The Conservatives have done the nation and this debate a favour by clarifying the options before us. It seems to me that over the past few months a consensus has emerged among Labour Members that there has to be some increase in the basic tuition fee—there has to be more money going into our universities and that must come from an increase in the fee. The debate now is entirely about variability. Some of my colleagues will still resist the increase in the fee, but the debate is largely about variability.

Time is running out, so I shall make only a few points on variability. We must recognise first and foremost that the whole post-18 education and training sector in the United Kingdom is now and has always been based on the principle of variable fees, except for full-time degree courses. Why, I should like to ask my colleagues in particular, do variable fees function perfectly well in further education colleges? In part-time undergraduate courses variable fees function perfectly well, as they do for postgraduates and Open university students. We must concentrate on the fact that most of our existing post-18 education system operates in a regulated market, and there is no evidence whatsoever that students have been deterred from taking those courses because of the variability of the fee.

Every provider of education wants, for its own survival, to recruit both the best students that it can get and the most students that it can get. There is an inbuilt incentive for every college and university to recruit the best students that it can get, so no institution will deliberately prejudice the recruitment of its students or, these days, deliberately narrow the social basis of its student body. The Government are bold, courageous and radical in introducing a plan that represents a major redistribution of educational opportunity in this country, and I welcome that.

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim 3:46 pm, 3rd December 2003

I welcome the inclusion in the Gracious Speech of the Government's main priority of delivering

"a world class education system that enables individuals to achieve their full potential".

I also welcome the fact that a draft Bill will be published

"responding to a review of the law relating to disabilities as part of the Government's programme to extend the rights and opportunities of disabled people."

I should like to draw the attention of the House to the problems facing children with learning disabilities, mental health problems and self-development problems. I should like hon. Members to reflect on the needs of children who make the least progress in school during their formative years. Too often, inadequacies in the education system, such as late identification of individual differences and difficulties and limited individual support in early years, prevents many of those children from making progress after primary school and going on to further and higher education. The suffering experienced by children with a learning disability has a lifelong impact on the families and individuals concerned. If learning difficulties are addressed in childhood the negative impact that they can have on adult life is reduced. Only by providing targeted and strategic support can we enhance the quality of life of people suffering from learning disabilities and mental health problems, and that must be the Government's aim.

I encourage the Government to fulfil their commitment to promote better understanding in the education sector and provide better facilities for children with special needs and learning disabilities. The Government's agenda should aim to remove the stigma of having a learning disability at school and promote positive mental health awareness throughout the education system. Far too many children suffering from such conditions fail to fulfil their academic potential and drop out at 16 because they are not given the targeted support that they require to progress. Sadly, many never realise the productive contributions that they could make to society.

In Northern Ireland, a disturbingly high number of children and teenagers in schools and higher education suffer from mental health problems and learning disabilities. All too often, children suffering from a wide range of disabilities, from dyslexia to depression, go unnoticed or become victims of stigmatisation and bullying. That leads to children covering up their problems and failing to deal with them and, in the most extreme cases, to suicide. Of course, the problem that affects the British Isles as a whole. I remind the House that the Office for National Statistics reported in 1999 that, in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, two people between the ages of 15 and 24 took their lives every day. I hope that the Government and hon. Members across the House will agree that the place to address that problem is the classroom, not the accident and emergency wards of hospitals around the country.

Bullying at school can often be a contributory factor in suicidal behaviour among young people. Cases of depression leading to suicide are increasing among students in higher education, especially young men. The figures on school bullying are disturbingly high. According to ChildLine Northern Ireland, one in every five of the calls that it received last year was from a child suffering such abuse. It is clear that mental health problems and bullying in the education sector are closely associated with suicidal behaviour. The Government must improve awareness among teachers and parents of that escalating problem, while providing the facilities and infrastructure to ensure that the human rights of all children are respected in schools.

Children who need special help and guidance to come to terms with their learning difficulties often suffer further for their difference and have their potential suffocated in the very environment that should provide the solution. Bullying and stigmatisation restrict the rights of all children, and the Government must address the problem with renewed conviction in this legislative Session in order to stamp it out.

We must develop a social culture in which children suffering from learning disabilities and mental health problems feel free to talk about the issues and deal with them in their schools. We need to establish a culture in which teachers, nurses and student counsellors are proactive in destigmatising those problems and in normalising their existence in the education system.

The Government must also continue to aid the principal carers of those who suffer learning disabilities. I want to bring to Members' attention the fact that hundreds of people with such disabilities remain in Victorian asylums. The Government have promised to close those institutions and have accepted that all people with learning disabilities have the right to a home in their community. It is the Government's responsibility to ensure that there is sufficient funding to address that problem and to provide suitable care for children suffering long-term problems.

According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, disabled children are at least three times more likely than other children to become victims of physical or sexual abuse and are less likely to get support from child protection services. The shift from an institutional approach must be continued, and communities, schools and families must have adequate facilities to give children suffering from learning disabilities or mental illness an equal chance successfully to benefit from their education and to progress into higher education.

A pilot scheme in Harpers Hill primary school in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, has helped almost every pupil to feel safe and secure in the school environment. A pilot scheme run by the North Eastern education and library board, in which pupils from a consortium of controlled and maintained post-primary schools work closely with their further education college, has reduced secondary school absenteeism and developed self-esteem for each individual. Each individual has achieved success through attending vocational courses one day a week at a further education college. Many of the same pupils have moved through work placement into permanent employment.

Schools and colleges must be given the right to develop more appropriate and relevant courses to meet children's needs. I hope that the Secretary of State will agree that when examples of good educational practice and successful pilot schemes have been identified in any part of the United Kingdom, funding should be made available to ensure widespread dissemination of the results and to make possible wider application of good practice throughout the country.

Finally, I appeal to the Secretary of State to extend educational opportunities at special schools or in sheltered units for children between the ages of 16 and 19 with special needs and learning difficulties, many of whom have a mental age that is far below that of young people of average ability, and whose immaturity is such that further education at the age of 16 is quite inappropriate. All children with learning disabilities are unique individuals with unique needs who therefore require unique support. The Government must ensure that that support is forthcoming and that the outcome of the current schemes is that increasing numbers of children with learning disabilities progress towards leading full and normal lives, to their benefit and that of society as a whole.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, West Renfrewshire 3:55 pm, 3rd December 2003

I shall be relatively brief. I never had the opportunity to go to university, so I have not yet mastered the art of taking 10 minutes to do what can be done in five.

I congratulate the National Union of Students on its effective campaigning to promote the best interests of its members. That is a perfect example of good, pragmatic trade unionism, and I would welcome further campaigning by it and by other organisations in order to raise other issues. For example, many people have benefited from quality education paid for by taxpayers who, in years gone by, could not afford to send their own children to university, and are rightly angry when those who have gained expensive qualifications choose to use their skills elsewhere by working abroad, often in tax havens. That means that they not only fail to pay back any taxes that they have received, but deny many vulnerable people who have paid their taxes to send them to university and are expecting their hard-earned tax contributions to bear fruit in our public services. I should like to hear what the NUS has to say about that practice and whether it has any proposals to discourage it. I am just as interested to hear the Government's view. After all, it is common practice in private industry to claw back any money that was invested in employees' education should they decide to leave for pastures new.

My major concern in relation to education and skills is the lack of attention that this House gives to the established apprenticeship system that used to provide quality training for our indigenous industries, but is sadly lacking today. Perhaps that says more about the imbalanced makeup of the House than it does about the demand for such skills that is required if we are to remain a manufacturing country that produces something—although that is not to say that the Government are not addressing the skills gap, especially in the indigenous industries that were abandoned by the Conservative party during its term in government. I am extremely concerned about the under-representation of and lack of importance attributed to manufacturing requirements and the tools that are needed to deliver the quality goods for which this country was once renowned.

Many of my constituents do not possess the academic qualifications that are required for entry into university, but are more than capable of producing with their hands and minds the goods that many of us use in our everyday lives and often take for granted. That is why I call on the Government to work with the universities and organisations such as the NUS, while listening to the genuine concerns of Back Benchers, to ensure that whatever conclusion they reach on education and skills—on top-up fees, or whatever—they take a balanced approach that does not exclude the non-academics in our communities, many of whom do not have the campaigning skills of the NUS but are equally important to the long-term prosperity of our country.

In conclusion, I am proud to be a member of the Labour party and the Labour Government. In Scotland, especially the west of Scotland, there is great deprivation in many of our communities. In the pubs, clubs and communities, I relish the fact that the discussion now centres on education and people attending university. People of my era never thought about going to university and I am deeply proud of the Government's achievements in education. That applies not only to Westminster; I am also proud of the Scottish Parliament's record in promoting education, lifting people out of poverty and giving them aspirations.

In the west of Scotland, we are talking about people going to university rather than redundancies and factory closures. I want to get involved in the debate. The people of Scotland want to get involved in it, too. I am deeply proud that the Government are enabling us to engage in it.

Photo of Francis Maude Francis Maude Conservative, Horsham 4:00 pm, 3rd December 2003

It is a pleasure to follow Jim Sheridan. I commend him especially for doing what he said he would do and speaking for five minutes. That is remarkable; I am not sure that I shall manage it.

I want to concentrate on higher education and tuition fees, which several speakers have mentioned, especially Mr. Chaytor, who made a powerful and thoughtful speech. I am sorry that he has disappeared. Given that he supports the Government and is therefore in a minority, and that his speech was powerful and articulate, it is a miracle that he speaks from the Back Benches and not the Treasury Bench, where he clearly deserves to be.

I declare a personal interest in that I have five children of school age. I calculated that my eldest daughter would be going to university when the Government's proposals for top-up fees came into effect. However, I hasten to add that that is not my reason for objecting to the Bill. As I shall make clear, I do not oppose in principle shifting the burden of paying for that public service from the general taxpayer to its beneficiaries.

I accept that there is a problem with Britain's university sector. We have some of the best universities in the world, and that is important and good for Britain. They are a priceless asset, based on what has been invested in them, both financially and, more important, in human commitment over the centuries. We must ensure that we do not squander that. I want to make some suggestions about how we deal with the problem because I do not believe that the Government have got it right.

It is in Britain's interest to have world-class universities that can attract and retain the most outstanding academics and students, and the economy prospers best when everybody is educated to the top of their potential. I also believe in personal responsibility—there is merit in those who seek to benefit from higher education accepting some personal, direct financial responsibility for it. I do not find it objectionable if the burden of paying for public services switches to some extent from the general taxpayer to the user. The hon. Member for Bury, North made similar comments.

I do not have a problem with a price mechanism in the higher education sector that helps to inform students' choices when they consider courses and where to study them. As a matter of principle, I strongly support the idea that universities should be as independent as possible from the state. That is highly desirable for a range of philosophical and practical reasons that we shall not have time to explore fully today.

The question is, do the Government's proposals meet those principles? The Labour rebels seem to think that they do, which is why they object to the Government's Bill, although I think that they are largely, but not absolutely, wrong in that assessment. However, I too propose to oppose the Bill, because the proposals do not meet these principles.

Let us take those principles in turn. Will the Government's proposals make the universities fully funded and therefore able to compete with the best in the world? I do not think so. Why? Because the extra money raised through top-up fees will be spread across the extra students who will be recruited to the higher education sector, so spending per student is likely to remain static.

On top of that, we have the extraction of a third of the proceeds from top-up fees, which will be taken within each university or higher education institution and spread across in bursaries. Again, that money will not be available for the purposes of teaching in those universities. The proposals do not meet the first desirable objective, which is to increase the resources available to universities to enable them to remain among the best in the world.

The second desirable principle is that everyone should be educated to the top of their potential—whether that is academic or vocational I leave on one side for the time being—but I do not believe that these proposals will achieve that. That is largely to do with the set of issues involving numbers and access. I reject the idea that there should be a top-down imposition by the Government of a specific target for the number of young people who go into higher education. That seems to me to be simply wrong. Frankly, I say to those on my own Front Bench that that applies to saying that the number should be either less or more than it is. The record of politicians in and out of government in making those judgments correctly is appallingly bad. The one thing that people can say we unfailingly do is get it wrong, so that whole approach is wrong.

Universities should be independent institutions running their own admission policies and, if they think it appropriate, they should expand to meet the demand from qualified applicants for the courses that they offer. They should not be meeting rigid quotas and targets set from above, which happens now and is likely to happen even more under the Government's proposals.

The numbers set out in the White Paper in terms of the 50 per cent. target are pretty bogus anyway. Conservative Members and others express concern about whether we need to have 50 per cent. of our young people going through university, but this issue is not just about universities. The White Paper sets out the fact that, in any event, 10 per cent. of higher education is delivered not by universities, but by further education colleges.

The Government say in their White Paper that the higher education expansion that they propose should largely be in non-conventional degrees—foundation degrees as well as other courses and qualifications—delivered largely through FE colleges. I do not think that there should be a rigid division or apartheid between academic and vocational education, but it is clear that those numbers are pretty bogus.

On access, it seems to me entirely appropriate that universities should take into account educational potential in applicants as well as their attainments. There are clearly issues with some schools being better at preparing kids for university than others. On the numbers and the history here, it was said that 50 per cent. of Oxbridge entrants for 40 years have been from public schools. That is not quite the case as I understand it.

When I was lucky enough to be at Cambridge 30 years ago, at the same time as the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, two thirds of Oxbridge entrants came not from public schools, but from the state sector in one form or another. That has changed to a 50:50 balance because the direct grant schools have been abolished and grammar schools have been whittled away. That has caused the current proportions to come into effect. It is not correct that there has been a static situation for so long; it has, in those terms, got worse.

Photo of Francis Maude Francis Maude Conservative, Horsham

I give way to my old school companion.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

Ever the gentleman. I just want to help the hon. Gentleman out with some statistics. Some 86 per cent. of students in higher education are from state schools, whereas the figure for Oxford and Cambridge is closer to 52 per cent. More revealing is the fact that the proportion of students at Oxford and Cambridge from lower income backgrounds is 10 and 9 per cent. respectively.

Photo of Francis Maude Francis Maude Conservative, Horsham

It is a pleasure to give way to a fellow product of a direct grant school, and I hear what he says. Universities have a vested interest in attracting bright and qualified students, from whatever background and whatever their schooling, if they have the potential and the ability to benefit from the courses that are on offer. They do not need all this regulated, costly and complex apparatus of social engineering to make that happen.

On the third issue I mentioned, the proposal clearly shifts the burden away from the taxpayer to the user, but does it do it fairly? I doubt it. I particularly refer to the position of someone from a family of relatively modest background but whose income is above the cut-off level for remission of fees. The son or daughter of a teacher who also wants to become a teacher will go into a profession in which they will never be high earners, but they will be above the level for remission of fees and will have to repay what could amount to a considerable loan. They will have that debt hanging round their necks possibly for decades. That is a concern.

Do the proposals introduce a price mechanism? The issue of variability exercises many Labour Members. I hope that I can allay their fears. There will be little variability. The Select Committee took evidence that showed that there will be minimal variability. The extent to which choice is informed by cost will be extended barely at all. The principal factors of size and location of courses will continue to be decided by top-down diktat. That suggests that the fifth issue about independence is not met either, because universities will not have significantly greater independence.

I hope that the Bill will be defeated on Second Reading, and that there will then be discussions between Front Benchers and others such as have been referred to, with as few preconditions as possible. I was encouraged by what my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo said when he set out the preconditions. I agreed with all he said, and was pleased that he made no stipulation that top-up fees should be excluded—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman's time is up.

Photo of Hywel Francis Hywel Francis Labour, Aberavon 4:12 pm, 3rd December 2003

This has been an interesting debate, particularly on higher education. I was especially impressed by the contribution of Mr. Beggs, who is not in his place at the moment. He spoke about special needs education for children and young adults. I am sure that the Government will respond to his perceptive observations.

I draw the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I warmly welcome a Bill on higher education so that we can urgently address the twin questions of chronic under-investment in our universities and the social justice challenge of widening and deepening as well as increasing participation. Universities should mirror the diversity in society, rather than accentuate the divisions. I hope that the Bill will address that vital principle.

I want to focus on the Government's vision of widening participation through lifelong learning and part-time study, and how the proposals for variable fees might have an impact on that vision. Five years ago this month, as a member of the new Labour Government's lifelong learning advisory group, I was co-author of its first report "Learning for the 21st Century". At the beginning of that report, we said:

"At the centre of the new strategy must be a clear commitment to widening and deepening participation and achievement in learning . . . The new strategy should give increased emphasis to the home, community and workplace as key places of learning".

Tellingly, it went on to say:

"The principles informing access to public funds should be the same for part-time and full-time students, and the Government should move towards equalising public investment for the same 'episode of learning' irrespective of sector, mode or level of learning."

I believe that the Government and the Secretary of State are still inspired by that early vision.

Since those early days, some impressive progress has been made by the Government, from Sure Start to work-based learning and the union learning fund, paid education leave, the launch of learndirect and the National Health Service university; and last summer came the first ever commitment to support for part-time learners. In my Adjournment debate on part-time students, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis, made a commitment to ensure that

"The Open university will have a key role in the delivery of the entire White Paper agenda."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 30 April 2003; Vol. 404, c. 100WH.]

I hope that that will be the case in the Bill. The Government's current emphasis, however, on what has been called the 18 to 30 club, a sector of full-time, implicitly residential 18 to 31-year-olds incurring graduate debt, does not make for an enabling culture of lifelong learning. One vice-chancellor said to me today that he feared that we were legitimising a new culture of permanent graduate debt.

The typical student today does not go from school straight to full-time residential higher education. The typical student is already part-time. Forty-two per cent. are officially part-time, and of the remainder, large numbers work part-time regularly.

Some people may say that what is proposed is not a radical reform but a reaction—a return to an age that has long disappeared. There is a danger that this narrow and inaccurate characterisation of higher education, influenced as it is by the Russell group and Oxbridge, will not only destroy the present diversity of participation but prevent a future widening of that diversity. Why do we not embrace and strengthen that diversity of part-time and full-time participation? We need a new and different funding model that takes account of and mainstreams the innovative strategies of, say, the Open university, Magee college in Ulster, the Summer university in Dundee, London Guildhall's work with ethnic communities, the Community university of the south Wales valleys and the tens of thousands of continuing education students in virtually every university throughout the United Kingdom. We should build on those widening participation strategies.

If the Bill is to be seen as truly radical, it will need to deal with three questions that the adult learners body, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, has posed to me and which I will share with the House. I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with those questions. First, will the Bill better meet the needs of part-time students, given that they are to be found in almost all universities, already paying unregulated fees and having less access to loans and other student support? Secondly, will the Bill make the higher education system easier to access for mature students, given that the 18 to 30 club deprioritises them and given that over-54-year-olds studying full time cannot even take out a loan? Finally, will the Bill ensure that higher education students in further education colleges are not disadvantaged? Those are fair questions for the Government, who wish, I believe, to build fair and equitable opportunities for all.

Labour Members are rightly proud of the many social and educational achievements in post-war Britain, but two stand out: the NHS and the Open university. We have the opportunity in the Bill to achieve a third major radical development, taking the principles of equality and lifelong learning enshrined in the Open university and many other higher education institutions and spreading them comprehensively throughout the higher education sector, underpinned by a graduate tax, rather than variable fees. My fear is that thousands of part-time and mature students will not even enter the second tier but will inhabit a bottom third tier of higher education, receiving an under-resourced, low-quality service. Disadvantaged students—full time or part time—inevitably will end up in a disadvantaged sector.

I urge the Government not to seek a solution in an Americanised-style market. Our Chancellor urged us recently to take pride in our homegrown national health service and not to look elsewhere at other inadequate and inequitable models. I believe that we should do the same in higher education and look to Magee, Dundee, the Open university and London South Bank as our models; and that we should incentivise wider access through mainstream funding rather than marginal bursaries.

If variable fees were introduced, the additional moneys would accrue mostly to those universities with large numbers of full-time students, giving such students a major advantage over those from universities with large numbers of part-timers, most of whom do not or will not have access to fee remissions or bursaries. It will be one of the great ironies of the Bill that those higher education institutions that have done most to widen participation in the past and at present will be those disadvantaged by the variable fees of the Russell group.

The Open university, Birkbeck and many other UK universities are world-class leaders in teaching, e-learning and widening access. Those should be our models. We need new Government proposals that take a holistic view of higher education so as to create a structure in which potential learners can mix full-time and part-time studying in a landscape of lifelong learning, taking account of work and family life without the fear of lifelong debt.

The leading authority on student debt, Professor Claire Callender of London South Bank university, predicts that the proposed variable fees will increase debt further as students will have to take out larger loans to cover fees. Her research reveals that fear of debt is greatest among low-income groups and that such debt-averse students are four times more likely not to go to university because of the £3,000 fees.

I conclude on a personal note. Some 22 years ago, the brightest student that I ever taught—the late Charlie White of Kenfig Hill—said in a speech on a miners course at Swansea university that

"if we are to educate our fellow trade unionists, we must use all the resources available to us. We must be taught the importance of conveying a message. But more important, there must be people who are capable of doing it."

The message from this House today is this: universities must be accessible to all.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Liberal Democrat, Newbury 4:22 pm, 3rd December 2003

I am delighted to have the chance to take part in this debate, not least because it may surprise some Members to learn that there is a measure of agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Government on what the Government claim to be their aims. It is on how they try to achieve them that we have significant differences.

The Secretary of State said today that he was basing his proposals on three main themes, two of which we are entirely in agreement with. The first is that there should be more money for universities. There have been huge cuts in university funding during the early part of this Government and under the last Conservative Government. Universities badly need more funding to get more places; expanding participation is another area on which we would be largely in agreement with the Government. Not having enough places is a waste of talent and having more places would help to reduce the divisions in society between the rich and the poor, which have been highlighted recently as some of the worst in Europe. We agree that universities need more money and that it will benefit our economy in the long run if we have more people educated in higher education.

The second point was that there should be some contribution from graduates where they have gained financially from going to university. I agree with that, too. But the significant point is that that should happen only where such graduates have indeed gained financially from going to university. The Secretary of State said that the contribution due from graduates should be calculated in a fair way, but we do not believe that his proposals have provided a fair solution in that regard.

Before I elaborate on that point, I want to mention one or two other issues that have been raised. The Secretary of State said that one reason why the new fee of £3,000 should be acceptable is that those from the poorest backgrounds will get grants of £1,000. Of course, that grant was explicitly intended to help those people to pay their maintenance costs at university, in order to reduce somewhat the fear of getting into debt and being unable to afford to pay for food and housing. But if that grant is to be used instead to help offset the cost of fees, its original point is lost completely. Indeed, it is rather hard to see how a young undergraduate from a poor background, who will presumably be paid that grant at the beginning of the academic year, is supposed to put it into a building society, for example, save it for three years and use it to pay the fees when they are due, on graduation. That does not seem a sensible policy, and the suggestion that the grant could be used to pay off part of the fees is unrealistic.

Secondly, as has been pointed out, the Secretary of State said that the Liberal Democrat policy of raising income tax on the highest earners in no way guarantees that such money will be used for universities, and I accept that point. Of course, it is not possible to guarantee that particular funds will always be used for a particular purpose. But when we said that we would cancel tuition fees in Scotland and raise the money through general taxation, we were indeed able to implement that policy, upon gaining at least a share of power in the Scottish Parliament. So it is fair to say that our record in implementing such change, as based on an idea in our manifesto, is very good.

Of course, it is also true that one cannot guarantee that the money that universities raise in tuition fees will make them better off and provide more funds for teaching undergraduates. What happened in the past is only too likely to happen again: the money raised in fees will be used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the next comprehensive spending review to reduce the amount of money coming from general taxation to those universities that are able to raise fees. So the very argument that the Secretary of State is using against our policy can be used against his own.

Thirdly, as has been said, although the new policy is to some extent a form of graduate tax, the important point is that it has all the characteristics of a graduate poll tax. Sadly, the Government seem not to have learned the lesson of the poll tax introduced by the Conservative Government. Poll taxes are deeply unpopular because they are seen to be unfair. The Secretary of State says that he wants the contribution to be calculated in a fair way, but he has introduced a contribution that is effectively a poll tax. It has a very important characteristic of a poll tax, in that exactly the same charge is made to graduates, irrespective of their level of wealth.

If the argument is that graduates ought to pay more towards the cost of their education because they have gained financially from graduating, surely the extent of that financial gain should form part of the calculation in assessing how much they should pay back. But that is not the case. Even under the variable fees policy, a graduate on a given course at a given university will have to pay back exactly the same amount, regardless of their level of income and the financial benefit that they have gained. Some will pay over a longer period and others over a shorter one, but exactly the same amount will be paid, regardless of income and of the financial benefit derived from gaining the degree.

There is a further important point in respect of the unfairness of the method of calculation that has not been mentioned so far. Let us assume that, as expected, the threshold for the repayment of the graduate loan is raised to £20,000. If we assume, as Barclay's predicted, that the average debt from now onwards, or from 2010 onwards, will be about £33,000, and if we assume, as the Government have predicted, that inflation will remain at about 2.5 per cent., the amount of money that has to be repaid each year merely in order to keep the debt level at £33,000—not to reduce it, but not to allow it to increase—is some £820 a year. It requires a salary of £9,000 above the threshold before one can even begin to pay off part of the debt.

If we assume a debt of £33,000 and that someone wants to pay off at least £1,000 a year in order to reduce it to nothing over 20 years—even 20 years is a pretty long time to be repaying debt—being able to pay an extra £1,000 a year would require a salary of a further £11,000 above the threshold. Adding on to the threshold of £20,000 the sum of £9,000 to pay off the inflationary increase, and £11,000 to pay off £1,000 of debt, a salary of £40,000 would be necessary to pay off that debt over 20 years.

That, of course, takes someone well into the higher rate of income tax—currently 41 per cent.—and a further 9 per cent. has to be paid on top of that in repayment of the graduate loan. Even under the Government scheme, then, repaying a debt of £33,000 over 20 years means repaying the last £5,000 of the £40,000 salary at a marginal income tax rate of—guess what—50 per cent. I stress that even under the Government's own scheme, paying off a loan over 20 years requires payment of tax at a 50 per cent. rate. Under our scheme, however, people do not pay at that 50 per cent. rate until the salary reaches £100,000—very different from a mere £40,000. That demonstrates clearly why the Government scheme is so unfair.

A new graduate with a salary of £40,000 paying a 50 per cent. tax rate in respect of the last £5,000 compares with a graduate of 40 earning £100,000 plus—perhaps £110,000—whose marginal rate is only 41 per cent., or a new graduate earning only £22,000 whose marginal rate is 42 per cent. The man who graduated some years ago and earns £110,000 will, under the Government scheme, pay a lower marginal rate than a new graduate paying at 42 per cent., or perhaps a new graduate with higher earnings paying at 50 per cent. The Government believe that that is a fair way of charging graduates for their student loans.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central 4:32 pm, 3rd December 2003

I greatly welcome many of the Bills announced in the Queen's Speech, but I shall confine my remarks this afternoon to where I have the greatest difficulty—top-up fees, of course. Anyone who listened to Mr. Rendel must be shocked to reflect on the figures that he calculated. It is on account of such debt levels that I believe students in areas such my own constituency—a low-income area and a former mining community—will be deterred from attempting higher education courses.

My plea is for the Government to publish the options that have been mentioned in the debate, to establish whether there might be another way of balancing funding between the student or graduate and the Government, through taxation. I believe that the Government still have a responsibility to meet a certain proportion, if not a large proportion, of the costs of higher education. I do not believe that we should thrust on to future students the consequences of historical underfunding and the historical debts of universities. Why should the many of us in our places today who have benefited from a university education vote in favour of students having to pay £30,000 in fees for an education that we enjoyed at universities that now demand extra funding? That is wholly wrong.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

Because we were the few, and they will be the many.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

But will they be the many? That is another question that we need to answer. The Government's target is that 50 per cent. of students should go into higher education. That is a massive expansion; I welcome it and would like to see many, many more students going into higher education, especially from my area and background. However, it worries me when a Government who propose a 50 per cent. target talk about students taking Mickey Mouse degree courses. Will the 50 per cent. target really be valid if a portion of that 50 per cent. study for degrees that are of no benefit?

I know of graduates in my constituency who will not be able to find employment in the discipline of their degree; they may never find employment related to their chosen subject. I am worried that we shall push students into taking degrees that are not good enough, yet when they graduate they will face debts of between £15,000 and £30,000—a conservative estimate—and they may not obtain the type of employment that they need to repay the debts. The hon. Member for Newbury told us about the salary that will be needed to pay back the fees, but some graduates will be unable to find employment that pays that much. We are making a circular argument: we say that universities need extra funding to meet the target of 50 per cent., yet the costs will deter students from entering higher education. That seems wrong.

It is also argued that many should pay for education because a thriving higher education sector benefits us all. Graduate professionals benefit commerce and industry, and that benefits the whole country, so why should not we all contribute?

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

No, I am sorry. I have given way once already and time is limited.

Why should not industry and commerce contribute to higher education? Why should not people such as me, a graduate—several years ago, obviously—contribute through some form of graduate tax? Why should the students of the future be landed with the historical costs?

I have heard the arguments about the dustman subsidising the barrister, but we already do that in the national health service. If we have the same pride in our education system as we do in our health service, we should apply the same principles to both. The arguments are the same. It is as if we were to say that people who have never been in hospital should be exempt from paying national insurance contributions. The same principle applies to the argument that because only one person benefits from their degree, they should pay for it. There is no reason why we should not have different methods of taxation. Certainly, there should be contributions from graduates—as there should be from a wide range of people—to cover fees.

In view of the comments of the hon. Member for Newbury, I shall not say much more about thresholds. Using the hon. Gentleman's lower estimate of a £25,000 debt, let us consider the situation of two young people who meet at university and marry. At graduation, they have a joint debt of £50,000. How will they plan for a life and a family? At the age of 22, how could they plan for a mortgage with a joint debt of £50,000? It is ridiculous. How would they afford to pay for the rest of their life? That is not lifelong learning; it is lifelong debt.

When I intervened earlier, I referred to a story that I heard a few years ago at a conference in Canada. One evening, I was talking to the MP for Prince Edward Island who told me that he had been celebrating because he had just paid off his student loans and fees. That MP was in his 40s and a general practitioner, yet he had only just managed to pay off those debts. I said to him, "Well, you've taken some time because surely those loans, like the ones that we are about to introduce in the UK, were at the minimum rate of interest and there must have been thresholds". He replied, "Yes, we started at a zero interest rate. Now our student fees and loans are subject to a commercial rate." The Government say now that the repayments will be made at low interest rates, but those rates could rise in two, three or four years. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills said that the interest would be subsidised by the Government. That is interesting, but future Chancellors of the Exchequer will look at what is being paid in interest rate subsidies to support the cheap loans. They could well be tempted to increase interest rates and take the burden away from Government. The personal anecdote that I have related has stayed with me for many years. I have great concern about what will happen in respect of top-up fees.

It has been argued that the fees could be variable, with some universities charging £3,000 and others nothing. That is ridiculous. Which university would turn down the possibility of charging each student £3,000 per annum, given—so we are told—that they are strapped for cash to pay off their historical debts and to fund an increase in student numbers? The chances are that most will charge fees at the highest level. A recent survey suggested that the vast majority of universities will go straight to that level.

It has already been noted that, if variable fees are introduced, the result will be a system with two, three or four tiers. People will opt for cheaper degrees. The Bill will create a marketplace in further education, and people will choose their higher education on the basis of what they can pay and afford.

It seems strange that the Government should want a big conversation so that they can hear people's views, when 140 Labour Members have said that they oppose the policy on student fees. However, the Government are pressing ahead with the policy, and it seems that no alternative will be offered.

I plead with my Government to think again. The cost of higher education should be spread more broadly. Everyone should pay for it, and the cost should not just be dumped on future students.

Photo of Mr David Atkinson Mr David Atkinson Conservative, Bournemouth East 4:42 pm, 3rd December 2003

I shall comment on two proposals in the Queen's Speech that relate to my constituency, before enlarging on health and education issues.

I welcome the inclusion of a housing Bill in the Queen's Speech. I assume that it will be based on the draft Bill published in April, which includes a national licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. That would undoubtedly assist the regeneration of Boscombe in my constituency, where poor housing conditions and unscrupulous private landlords continue to exist.

I hope that the Bill will also include reform of the law on travellers, as I have urged on the Deputy Prime Minister. I hope that the reforms will be along the lines of my private Member's Bill, which the House has allowed me to introduce during the last two Sessions of Parliament. Many hon. Members of all parties believe that such provisions are necessary to resolve the never-ending problems that unauthorised encampments cause, not least in Dorset.

I hope that the housing Bill will also include reform of the management of home parks, which are the sites of so-called mobile homes. Sadly, the management of two such sites in my constituency—Iford Bridge park and Hengist park—have long caused concern to their residents, the local neighbourhood, the council and me. The site owners have failed in their duty of care, and that amply demonstrates the need for reform of the licensing system for mobile home parks.

The Queen's Speech refers to the publishing of further draft clauses of a Bill on gambling. The draft Bill includes much of what I called for in my Adjournment debate on casinos, which was held seven years ago on 28 February 1996. We in Bournemouth have two rather modest casinos. I want Bournemouth to realise its full potential as Britain's premier seaside resort of world class. There is no reason why more casinos cannot contribute to our local economy. I do not want Blackpool to grab the market in casinos when the reforms become law. I therefore urge the Government to introduce the Bill.

I turn now to the provision of public services. I fear that what is proposed in the Queen's Speech and in next year's local government finance settlement will do nothing to help the beleaguered hospitals and schools of Bournemouth. Last week, I attended a meeting of the board of the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch hospital trust. Also present were Mrs. Brooke and my hon. Friend Mr. Chope. We heard of the continuing problems posed by bed blocking. There simply remain insufficient beds in the local community for frail, elderly patients awaiting discharge from hospital. As a result, operations are being postponed. In October, Bournemouth's Daily Echo reported 60 operations cancelled in a week because of delayed discharges. What is proposed in the Queen's Speech offers no new encouragement. The hospitals serving Bournemouth, Christchurch and east Dorset will continue to face a critical situation arising from bed blocking, which is bound to increase waiting lists.

Turning to education, I want to tell the House of the crisis currently facing the schools of Bournemouth. All of us in Bournemouth welcomed the restoration of unitary authority status in 1997. As well as being our own education authority once again, we also looked forward to a better deal on funding. Unfortunately, that has not proved to be the case. Since 1997, Bournemouth has received the lowest percentage increase of any local education authority. Funding for schools in Bournemouth continues to fail to take account of the constant fluctuation of the population and the significant number of pupils coming into our schools with little knowledge of English. It fails to reflect the pockets of social deprivation in the town, which contains four wards in the highest 20 per cent. and two wards in the highest 10 per cent. of national deprivation figures. That was confirmed by last year's Ofsted-Audit Commission inspection of the LEA in which Bournemouth was judged to be one of the best in this country—on grade 1—but was more poorly funded than those LEAs on grade 5.

Despite this discouraging situation, some of our schools had managed since 1997 to build up revenue balances to allow long-term planning for their continuing improvement. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Under the new methodology introduced on 1 April, in which Bournemouth received the minimum grant with an increase of 3.2 per cent. per pupil, those balances have been reduced by more than £1 million, and many schools are being forced to look for support through licensed deficits.

In response to several letters that my hon. Friend Mr. Butterfill and I received from local heads warning us that teachers would have to be made redundant and class sizes would rise because they were facing budget deficits, we wrote to every head to ask to learn of the situation that they face. Their ready responses have made sorry reading, and represent the clearest possible confirmation of the disaster that has been the Government's funding of schools for this year. Concerning those primary schools that responded to our survey, one school that did not want to be named has made redundant three excellent teachers—two of them assigned to pupils with special needs. It can no longer afford to send teachers on training courses. Stourfield junior school has reduced staffing by the equivalent of 2.5 teachers. It has put the replacement of computer equipment on hold, and its head teacher tells me that it is

"back to the bad old days of hand to mouth survival".

The current budget shortfall facing King's Park school is £10,000. Its head has taken a cut in pay, and it cannot afford to build a new reception and year 1 building, as recommended by Ofsted. The Epiphany school, which has always lived within its budget since it opened in 1987, faces a deficit of £130,000 this year. That is a school whose finances, says Ofsted, are "very well managed". Its head teacher's appeal to me is that he needs not jam tomorrow but bread today.

Regarding our secondary schools, Bournemouth school faces a budget deficit of £150,000. Unless funding increases significantly, its governors will face a recommendation to place part of the school on part-time education. The Bournemouth school for girls has not replaced its deputy head teacher, who has retired. It desperately needs to replace four dilapidated mobile classrooms, which students cannot use on health and safety grounds, and for which two capital fund bids for a new replacement block of £60,000 under targeted funding have been unsuccessful. And Avonbourne school faces a deficit of £70,000 this year unless it makes redundancies and increases class sizes after having cut GCSE music altogether and abandoned its proposed upgrade for computers that are five years old.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West has asked me to record the experience of Oakmead college of technology, which faces an £80,000 deficit this year. It is not replacing teacher assistants when they leave. The loss of its standards fund is having an enormous impact on the most vulnerable pupils, as is the reduction in anger management classes. Winton school faces a deficit of £144,000. Class sizes have increased from 25 to as much as 38. Training projects have been cancelled, and a stop has been put to taking in more students with visual impairment. Glenmoor school in my hon. Friend's constituency faces similar problems.

That is the experience that Bournemouth schools have of a Government who, according to the Queen's Speech, are committed to:

"Delivering a world class education system that enables individuals to achieve their full potential".

Will the situation that I have described improve for Bournemouth in the light of the Secretary of State's statement to the House on 28 October? No, it will not. The deficits of all the schools that I have mentioned total nearly £1 million, but the transitional grant allocated for Bournemouth for 2004–05 is £670,000. So Bournemouth's schools will remain in the red.

To help to remedy our situation, the director of education for Bournemouth has asked me to tell the Minister to move from the formula spending share methodology to a fairer, activity-led resourcing model—ALR—which our LEA uses. He has also proposed the inter-LEA recoupment for mainstream school places, which is already done for special school places.

If the Government do not repair the damage that they are doing to Bournemouth's schools—indeed, to schools everywhere—they will have no one else to blame when parents, teachers and governors demand freedom for their schools to set their own policies, to run their own budgets and to give every school a fair deal on funding, which is what the next Conservative Government will do.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower 4:51 pm, 3rd December 2003

I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. For various reasons, the Queen's Speech is turning out to be more interesting than some commentators acknowledged last Wednesday.

I oppose the Opposition amendment and, in doing so, will focus on a very welcome piece of legislation, the children Bill. I do that from the perspective of a Member of Parliament who represents a constituency in Wales, which already has a Children's Commissioner in place. However, the proposal to introduce top-up fees, a subject that is identified in the amendment, in a higher education Bill concerns me and, as we have heard, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, although we do not share the Tories' critique of the proposal and certainly not their alternative policies for higher education.

For my part, I speak as a representative of a seat in Wales where the Labour party did not only fight the general election on a pledge not to introduce variable tuition fees, but fought the National Assembly elections in May this year on the same commitment for Wales. I agree with what my hon. Friend Richard Burden said about trust in our party if we continue on the same road. If top-up fees are introduced for England, it will inevitably have a direct impact both on Welsh people going into higher education and on universities in Wales.

The arguments are becoming increasingly well rehearsed and will continue to be reiterated in the weeks and months ahead. It cannot be denied that the Government face a real challenge. They want to pump into our colleges the resources that they undoubtedly need and of which they have been starved for too long. They also want to increase the number of people who will benefit from higher education in the years ahead. Most Labour Members would sympathise with and support both those objectives—it is the chosen method of delivery that causes us concern.

We are told that after assessing and costing dozens of different models for achieving their goals, Ministers have decided that the only one that fits the bill is the one that allows universities to charge different levels of tuition fees for different courses. To pay for that, students will be required to make repayments once they have graduated and reach a certain income. The Government have also proposed measures that I could only welcome if variable fees go ahead, such as scrapping up-front fees, which has been mentioned, introducing grants and bursaries for the less well off and establishing fair access protections.

Those of us who are worried about the Bill have both practical concerns and concerns that relate to matters of principle. I fear that top-up fees will act as a deterrent for people from lower and middle-income families when they consider what courses to take and at which university. We already have evidence that predicted debt under existing arrangements is a major consideration for people deciding whether or not to go on to higher education. It is difficult to see how even generous bursary and grant arrangements will prevent universities that have higher fees—presumably based on academic reputation—from disproportionately serving the better-off. I fear that top-up fees will lead to the entrenchment of multi-tiering in the higher education sector, creating greater difficulties in most colleges' efforts to develop and grow.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk West

Does my hon. Friend recognise that we already have a multi-tier system? In reality, someone who attends a public school is 14 or 15 times more likely than someone who does not to go to Oxbridge, or to universities like Exeter and Bristol. That is a fact, so it is not a question of entrenching a multi-tier system; one exists already. Given that one third of the variable tuition fee has to be spent on increasing access, does he agree that the consequence will be to increase significantly the number of kids from working-class and ordinary backgrounds going to the elite universities, and would not that be a good thing?

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

It would be a good thing if that were to happen. I accept my hon. Friend's point that we already have multi-tiering—it would be nonsense to deny that. My fear is that we will entrench it. Under the current arrangements, different universities are rising in esteem and the quality of their provision. I fear that variable fees would lead to entrenchment of an Ivy League.

I wanted to talk in the main about the children Bill, but to finish my remarks on top-up fees, my main objection is founded on my disagreement with one of the basic premises of the Government's argument. They say that people who benefit from higher education will, in most cases, earn considerably higher incomes, so it is right that we should ask them to pay towards that education. To be frank, I go along with only part of that argument—the part that people who have higher incomes should make a greater contribution to the cost of public services. The easiest, best, most honest and straightforward way of doing that is through progressive banded income tax, whereby high earners pay the most irrespective of whether they received a university education. The problem with the Government's proposal is that it is a tax or charge—whatever one prefers to call it—on higher education, not on income. I hope that they rethink that.

I warmly welcome the proposed children Bill. I shall concentrate on the provision regarding the children's commissioner, but I support the general approach to improving the protection of children and our ability to listen to what children tell us about their needs and wishes. I am sure that the UK Government here in London and the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff share those aims, but the precise approach does not have to be identical in England and in Wales. I therefore welcome the Government's commitment to work with the Assembly to ensure that the Welsh Government can have input into the Bill where a related, but distinct, approach might be appropriate for Wales.

Wales led the way in the UK with the establishment three years ago of this country's first Children's Commissioner post. In 2001, the role of the Welsh commissioner was extended to responsibilities beyond the regulated services. The commissioner now has the power to review the effect of policies on and the delivery of services to children. His remit extends well beyond services that are directly provided to children, such as social care and education; it also covers policy areas such as transport, the environment, economic development and agriculture.

The commissioner's powers cover all the policies and practices of the National Assembly, but he does not have powers of review and investigation in respect of non-devolved or reserved matters. He can make representations to both the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly on matters such as Home Office-run juvenile offenders institutions, family courts or the social security system, but he has no powers of investigation and no right to enter premises or require documentation from relevant agencies and ministries.

I shall return to that matter, but first I suggest that an excellent working model that has been established in Wales that should help the shaping of the new legislation. In only three years, Peter Clarke, the Children's Commissioner for Wales, and his team have done an enormous amount to gain the trust of children and young people and the respect of the wider community throughout Wales. He has set as his primary task the safeguarding and promotion of the rights and welfare of children and young people in Wales, but his approach and that of his team is to work with children and young people rather than simply for what he perceives their best interests to be. In fact, the National Assembly made it a requirement that the commissioner's office ascertain the views of children and young people as it carries out its work.

That is the excellent foundation on which the commissioner has built his role. Not only does he consult children about all aspects of his job, but he actively promotes children's participation in decisions that affect them, from family to national level. His team make a special effect to ensure that the voices of marginalised young people are heard and their views acted upon. That is working. The commissioner's office has played a valuable part in ensuring that the views of children and young people are heard in policy debates in Wales on child poverty, intergenerational respect, the provision of facilities and services by local government, education, school exclusions and a range of other matters.

While not required to do so under the Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001, the commissioner must make children and young people aware of their rights under the UN convention on the rights of the child. The Assembly included that requirement in the commissioner's job description, which brings me back to the opportunities for improvement in the new children Bill. Our commissioners should be required by statute to work within the rights-based framework set out in the UN convention on the rights of the child. They should have the power to review the effects of policies and the delivery of services by any Government Department or agency, whether UK-wide or devolved, that impact on the rights or welfare of children, and that should include the power to enter institutions and carry out investigations. For us in Wales, that would mean extending the powers of the Children's Commissioner beyond devolved issues to include UK Government responsibilities.In connection with the joint approach outlined in the Bill, we may need to make provision for children's commissioners in the different countries of the UK to work jointly where an issue crosses borders.

I am sure that the children Bill will take forward our children's rights and protection. As for children's commissioners for England and other parts of the country, I hope that we will be prepared to provide all the powers that they need to be first-class children's champions. I am sure that we will.

Photo of Richard Taylor Richard Taylor Independent, Wyre Forest 5:01 pm, 3rd December 2003

I am relieved that I am not the only. Member speaking on health issues, and I am particularly pleased that the Secretary of State for Health is in the Chamber.

Only one sentence in the Gracious Speech refers to the national health service, but it includes four crucial words—"reform", "choice", "freedom" for staff and "control" for communities over hospitals. As I have just a few minutes, I shall speak only about choice and reform. When considering choice, we must ask what patients want. When considering the needs of hospital in-patients we must look carefully at two issues—elective services and emergency services—as the choices in each case are quite different. If someone has an extremely painful hip, the time that they have to wait is crucial. If it is less painful, the timing and place of the treatment, as well as the consultant who will carry it out, all become more important in their choice of elective services. However, things change utterly in the case of emergency admissions. Patients do not have time to make any plans because they will mostly be suffering from medical conditions that nobody can predict, such as heart attacks, strokes and pneumonia. Their care has to be as close as possible to home because of the problems, such as unexpected journeys, for families, friends and relatives.

If it is impossible to keep full emergency services for every community, there must be a local assessment facility, which will prevent patients from being moved unnecessarily far from their area. That will become even more essential with the constraints put on the service by the European working time directive. I am delighted that pilot trials are under way, but I am distressed that 135,000 people in my area are not being considered for a local emergency centre. I am looking forward very much to the results of a wide-ranging national consultation on choice, responsiveness and equity. It asked for the opinions of patients, users, carers and everyone running and providing health and social care, as well as the voluntary and independent sectors, patient organisations and, not to miss anybody out, the public. I hope that the Government will not only listen to the comments, but act on them.

On reform, almost 20 major changes have been made to the national health service in the past 20 years. Both major parties have obviously taken a hand in the reforms. The service is almost punch drunk from reforms and needs to be left in peace for some time to get on with them. I remind hon. Members of John Stuart Mill, a philosopher and economist who wrote almost 150 years ago:

"A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life."

My question is, which of the existing parties is the party of order or stability? I think that now is the time when the Government could step back and become that party.

The time is particularly ripe because of the recent publication of the Nuffield Trust report entitled "The Quest for Quality in the NHS". In the report, there is at least the beginning of an attempt to defuse the argument in which all Labour Members say that everything in the NHS is wonderful, while other Members tend to say that things are not so good. A British Medical Journal leader referring to the report asks this question about current Government action:

"Is this more than an uncoordinated orgy of reform driven by panic?"

The Nuffield Trust's report answers that unequivocally, describing the action as

"the most ambitious, comprehensive and intentionally funded national initiative to improve health care quality in the world."

That is high praise, but there are problems, the biggest of which is data quality. The report also states:

"The unrelenting and distracting problem of inconsistent and highly contested data throws the whole of the quality agenda into a confusing fray."

Despite that encouraging report, some of us have severe worries about the NHS in our own patches; indeed, hon. Members have already referred to such concerns. In Worcestershire alone, county health services are heading for a deficit of between £15 million and £20 million. There are items that are not affordable, including necessary equipment for sleep apnoea, inhalable antibiotics for children with cystic fibrosis and developments in the vital field of sexual health. The trust is struggling with a bed occupancy of 94 per cent.

My own primary care trust, which deservedly won three stars, is now, unfortunately, red-lighted for eight key targets, six of them relating to problems with the acute trust. The Government have made the welcome announcement of 170 extra trainee doctors with national training numbers in obstetrics and gynaecology—but without the necessary funding, will the PCTs be able to afford them? There are worries about funding a consultant contract and emergency GP care under the new contract.

The 2002 patient surveys of GP and hospital in-patients were long hidden from view and appeared on the Department of Health website only earlier this year. The Nuffield Trust report cogently states:

"The delay in publishing the results . . . and the reluctance to make them available . . . represents a triumph of political caution over commitment to a patient involvement strategy."

The Nuffield Trust also warns:

"The greatest threat to the sustainability and progress of the quality agenda is likely to be the unrelenting and often damaging politicisation of the NHS."

I end by joining the Health Service Journal and the British Medical Journal in asking the Government to take note of this warning and to become John Stuart Mill's

"party of order or stability" by giving NHS staff and managers some freedom and some time for the existing reforms to take effect.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin 5:10 pm, 3rd December 2003

I am sorry that Mr. Maude has left his place, because, as he disclosed to the House, our deep and dark secret is that we attended the same independent school. There are some significant differences between us, however. He became the chair of governors and I have never been invited back; those two facts may be connected.A more profound difference is that when he left school he joined a party whose central tenet is that the privileges that we enjoyed should be the province of the few, but paid for by the many to whom they are denied; and I joined a party that believes in equality of opportunity.

I welcome the delay in the publication of the Bill. On the one hand, that gives the Government an opportunity to persuade people with reservations about certain aspects that the Government are right; on the other, it offers those people an opportunity to persuade the Government, through constructive criticism, that they may be wrong.

I commend the Government for grasping the nettle of higher education funding, although it might have been better had they worn thick gardening gloves in doing so. They are to be commended for the twin principles that underpin the White Paper—the principle of raising standards and quality in all our universities and the key principle of expanding access to prospective students from lower-income groups to whom it has previously been denied. However, although the ends are well intentioned and to be welcomed, the means are flawed. Yes, the proposals in the White Paper will admit more students to our universities, but the gaps between those universities in terms of income, quality and, ultimately, the career opportunities that they offer to their graduates, will be widened, not narrowed.

I agree with many of the Government's proposals. It is right that graduates should be asked to contribute to the cost of their education and the advantages that they derive from it. On leaving university, graduates enjoy an immediate differential of £3,000 to £4,000 between their salaries and those of people without degrees, and that widens as their careers progress. I welcome the Government's enlightened view that graduates, not students, should repay their tuition costs.

I do not subscribe to the widely held view about debt-aversion that was cited by Mr. Willis. I would liken the debt that students will accrue to an investment that bears a dividend, such as a mortgage. Indeed, the repayment terms are rather better for tuition fees than for mortgages, because someone who loses their job still has to pay the mortgage, whereas if a graduate loses their job, their loan repayments cease. The system will remove significant obstacles that deter students from lower-income households from attending university.

Too little attention, however, has been paid to the severe problem of living costs, which can deflect talented young people from low-income groups from university, where they would be better off, into work for the short-term advantage of earning wages. If they overcome that obstacle and enter higher education, they tend to try to save on living costs by attending universities that are close to home, but do not necessarily offer the courses that are best suited to their abilities, aspirations and interests.

In my view, the problem is not tuition fees but variable fees. I do not believe that they will work or create the market for which the Government hope, not least because I have not heard of a university that does not propose to charge the full £3,000 for its courses. Other hon. Members have also made that point. Why would universities forgo the income that they desperately need? Why would they want to signpost to students the fact that their courses are low value and low premium? That is not the smartest move in marketing.

Even if the access regulator obliges the Oxbridges of the world to double their intake from lower-income groups from 10 per cent. to 20 per cent., they will derive the enormous credit of fee income over the bursaries that they have to give to those students. However, other universities, including Wolverhampton, which is closest to my constituency and already has a 75 per cent. intake from lower-income groups, will derive tuition fee income from only 25 per cent. of students while disbursing bursaries to 75 per cent. That is only a modest credit.

It is strange for the Government to suggest that we give incentives to universities that default on access for lower-income students and penalise those that deliver the Government's commitment to expand access to people from those groups.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

I declare an interest in that one of my daughters attended the university of Wolverhampton. Does my hon. Friend believe that a possible outcome of the plans is that the existing two tiers of Russell group universities and others will expand so that third and fourth divisions emerge from the murk?

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

I agree with my hon. Friend. I concede that there is already a two-tier—and probably a multi-tier—hierarchy among our universities. I hope that the Bill will give us an opportunity to narrow the gaps and not widen them, which I fear will happen through variable fees. The rich will get richer, the poorer universities will get poorer and some will struggle to survive. The elite will continue to get the best education and career prospects but the rest will simply get access. That is not a price that people should be asked to pay; everyone should have the same opportunity for quality and enhanced career prospects.

Things do not have to be that way. It is possible to reconfigure the Government's proposals to expand access and improve standards without establishing or entrenching inequalities in the system and within the Government's proposed spending limits. In my view and that of my hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead, with whom I have collaborated on our proposals, the first step is to replace variable fees with a flat rate of £2,500. That would produce more income for higher education—to the tune of some £200 million to £250 million—than the £3,000 variable fee that the Government propose.

Secondly, we must be clear and logical about student support. As I suggested in an intervention, if fee repayments are contingent on income after graduation, what is the relevance of parental income before the student goes to university? It is not relevant. We should therefore abandon the tuition fee waivers and put the money into maintenance support, where it is needed. If we do that within the Government's financial model, we could provide up to £5,000 a year for the poorest 20 per cent. of students in London and £4,000 for those elsewhere. For the next 13 per cent., we could provide up to £3,000.

But then we need to remove the burden of maintenance costs from the universities with high intakes of people from low-income backgrounds. It is essential to equalise the funding mechanism so that those universities are no longer penalised for the maintenance costs represented by high intakes of low-income students.

We propose that fees be collected centrally, that grants be distributed from the centre and that the remainder be allocated in core funding to the universities. That is progressive and redistributive and means that all universities, not only some, will have additional income. Our approach is principled, practical and equitable. It will make the investment that higher education needs, but it will distribute it to all rather than simply to the elite universities. It will lift standards for all students, not just for some. It will remove the hurdle of living costs and go a lot further than the Government's proposals—their proposals go a great deal further than those of any other party and tribute should be paid to them for that—in making university accessible and ensuring that all those who qualify will be able to attend. That means being able to go to the university of their choice, not simply the one closest to them, without the fear of accumulating unmanageable debt.

We are not proposing that all universities are or should be equal. We seek not equality, but equity. It is not our purpose to say that all universities should be the same. They are not, they will not be and it would not be to our advantage if they were. We will still need research-driven universities, which have a key role to play in our economy and our competitiveness, but I want to see a levelling up of the gap between the richer and the poorer universities—the prestigious universities and those with lower status—and, crucially, of the career prospects of the graduates who emerge from them.

The Government have challenged us to produce alternative proposals. I hope that they regard these proposals as a constructive contribution to the debate.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton 5:21 pm, 3rd December 2003

It is a pleasure to follow Peter Bradley, particularly as he attended a grant-aided school. The party he decided to join took that opportunity away from people of my generation.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

I am younger than I look. When the Labour party leaves office, those interested in our education system may well look back over its years in government and lament not universities' admissions policies, but how little was achieved in raising standards in our schools and in changing the attitudes and views in the profession as well as among education academics.

The Gracious Speech includes this sentence:

"Educational reform will continue to raise standards in all schools."

I wish to focus on that aspect. I hope that the Government's reforms will begin to raise standards, because there has been no genuine rise in education standards since 1997, as there has not been for 30 years, during which our state education system has been in permanent decline.

The problem that both parties face in government is tackling and challenging the dominant viewpoint on teaching methods expounded by the education academics. Like experts in so many areas, from MMR to global warming, no dissenting opinion is tolerated by that group. Perhaps that would not be of enormous concern in education if our schools were the envy of the world, but 23 per cent. of adults in Britain cannot read properly compared with just 7 per cent. in Sweden. According to the trends in international mathematics and science study, Britain lies a poor 20th out of 41 developed nations, behind countries such as Latvia, Bulgaria, Malaysia and the Czech Republic.

The quality of education in our schools remains the No. 2 political concern in opinion polls, but among parents of school-age children it is not only their No. 1 political concern, but their overwhelming anxiety. That issue forces parents to move house, paying up to 33 per cent. more in the catchment area of a relatively good school.

However, so strong is the grip on policy of the education academics that they devote considerable resources to trying to convince Ministers and the public that standards are improving. They cite, for example, the programme for international student assessment survey—a new international survey of 15-year-olds in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which puts Britain's education system fourth in science, seventh in literacy and eighth in maths. This flatly contradicts other international surveys, including TIMSS.

The PISA survey says:

"PISA assessed young people's capacity to use their knowledge and skills in order to meet real life challenges."

Unlike TIMSS, it did not test knowledge of the school curriculum. It is, in effect, more of an IQ test. Thus, our position in the international table will depend solely on who makes up the sample. There is ample evidence that the UK sample was skewed to exclude weaker schools and weaker pupils.

The literacy figures show that in 1996 just 57 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieved level 4 or above in the SATs. The Government now claim that that figure has risen to 75 per cent. It is still not a good figure, but that dramatic improvement is questioned by the leading authority in this area, Professor Tymms of Durham university, who said that

"the children are getting no better. It's just that our staff are better at teaching to the test."

Professor Tymms's department tests 5,000 year 6 children in the same 122 primary schools each year, and he has found no statistically significant improvement in children's literacy since 1997.

My own view is that there has been some marginal improvement due to the literacy hour, which forced schools, initially in the face of fierce opposition, to address some of the weaknesses in the teaching of reading in our schools. But literacy teaching remains a cause for concern.

There is also the question of the pass mark used to grade SATs tests, which the 1999 Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report said was exaggerating SATs results by between 5 and 10 per cent. That report remains unpublished. I have been assured by the Minister responsible in a written answer that it will be published before the end of this year. Perhaps the Minister will say in his winding-up speech, after receiving a note from his officials, when that will be, because we are getting awfully close to the end of the year.

Similar issues arise regarding GCSE results, such as grade inflation and the increasing proportion of marks given for coursework. There is strong evidence that the rise in GCSE pass rates can be explained in part not by rising standards but by including GNVQ results in those statistics, which means that we are not comparing like with like.

If none of this convinces hon. Members, they should ask business and higher education what they think about standards in our schools. A report by the Engineering Council, based on diagnostic tests taken in 60 university departments, showed

"strong evidence . . . of a steady decline over the past decade of fluency in basic skills".

A report by the Institute of Directors states:

"The labour market cannot . . . overcome some very fundamental basic skills deficiencies in literacy and numeracy. . . . We see variable and, arguably, declining standards along with endemic grade inflation within the secondary school system".

I could go on. The point is that the pretence that standards have risen is just that: it is a pretence. There has been no serious attempt to tackle the deep-rooted causes of declining standards in our state schools.

I shall give just one example in the time available: mixed-ability teaching. The 1997 Labour manifesto said that it would increase the amount of setting in our schools because children

"are not all of the same ability, nor do they learn at the same speed."

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

The hon. Gentleman has leapt from the assertion that standards in our schools are not rising to the contention that standards are therefore falling. Surely the two are not necessarily linked.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

There is no evidence that standards are rising, despite masses of claims made by Ministers and others that they are. It is important that politicians study the data honestly and give them detailed scrutiny to ensure that we are not being fed misinformation about what is going on in our schools. If we do not do that, we cannot develop policy based on what is really happening.

The Labour manifesto clearly said that the Government would increase the amount of setting, but six and a half years later there is no increase in the amount of setting in our schools. Some 62 per cent. of lessons in our comprehensive schools take place in mixed-ability classes. The response from the Department for Education and Skills has been to argue that the evidence on setting is mixed. That is the view that one would take if one merely read the summary of the literature prepared by the state funded National Foundation for Educational Research. The actual literature shows clear and strong evidence in support of setting or streaming.

The two key protagonists in this debate are Robert Slavin, who is against setting, and J.A. Kulik, who is pro setting. Slavin argues that setting works against egalitarian, democratic ideals by sorting students into categories from which escape is difficult or impossible, whereas Kulik argues that setting results in significant increases in educational attainment, especially if the curriculum content is tailored to ability levels. I think that it is absolutely clear from the data that setting works and that it particularly helps children from non-academic backgrounds and ethnic minorities.

The DFES's response is to say that most core subjects are setted in our schools and that the 62 per cent. of lessons taking place in mixed-ability classes are just for non-core peripheral subjects. Is the DFES saying that 62 per cent. of lessons are non-core and peripheral? Does it mean that history and geography are peripheral? Just 26 per cent. of history lessons are setted; just 24 per cent. of geography lessons are setted. Therefore, three quarters of lessons in those important subjects take place in mixed-ability classes.

The vast majority of maths lessons are setted—the figure is 80 per cent.—but in science the figure is only 60 per cent. In modern foreign languages, it is only 59 per cent. What about English? Is not that a core subject? In English, just 45 per cent. of lessons are setted. In 13 per cent. of schools, there are no setted lessons at all. No one should be fooled by the claim that specialist schools are changing all that. The proportion of lessons that are setted is precisely the same in specialist schools as it is in non-specialist schools.

There is no doubt that Ministers face enormous difficulties in challenging the status quo and the dominance of education academics, whose influence flows deep into the veins of our state education system, but it is time that politicians started to represent the genuine concerns of parents, to tackle the controversial issues that lie at the root of the poor performance of British education, and, particularly Ministers to apply themselves to challenging the false statistics and surveys that are designed to conceal that failure from policy makers. That failure remains glaringly apparent to parents.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington 5:31 pm, 3rd December 2003

I want to return to the issue of university and student funding. When the Secretary of State concluded his remarks, he said that the Government had the courage to reform. In my short contribution I will try to encourage them to be even more courageous than they intend to be.

I support the Government's moves to grasp the nettle and to address what is an important issue. I fully support many of their objectives. They want to increase provision for the sector, which is essential. I know from first-hand experience of the universities close to my constituency that it is easy to see the signs of underinvestment. The capital backlog in our universities needs to be addressed. Teacher:pupil ratios have been deteriorating. Urgent issues of academic pay need to be addressed, so it is right to get additional resources into the sector—it is right for universities, for students and, of course, in the long term, for our country.

The Government want to improve access and participation levels. That, of course, has to be right. They want to plan to meet rising demand for universities. That also has to be right. The principle of asking graduates to contribute more to help to meet those costs is also right. That principle was established in Dearing. I have heard no serious approaches or suggestions that go against that.

I welcome the Government's intention, in embarking on further reform, to abolish universal up-front fees, because there is evidence that that has placed strains on family budgets. I also welcome another objective: in the longer term, the Government want to begin to shift the distribution of taxpayers' subsidy towards those in younger age groups in the education system. That is an important long-term investment and will help us to address the access issue.

Having said that I support all those objectives, I suppose Ministers may wonder why I have signed early-day motion 7. It is because there are some problems with the proposals as formulated. As I say, I want the Government to be more courageous.

My view of what the problems are largely comes out of the big conversation that I have had on that very subject in my constituency with Warwick and Coventry universities, their vice-chancellors, senior administrators, staff and students unions, who have helped me to think about all the issues involved in the reform. I want to acknowledge the help that I have received from sixth form students at Aylesford, King's High, Kinglsey, Myton, North Leamington, Trinity and Warwick schools in my constituency, whose valuable input helped my thinking on this important subject. Following my discussions with those groups, four main concerns have emerged.

The first is the 50 per cent. target, which has got in the way of a proper focus for the debate. It is too blunt and, if anything, too modest. Currently, we have 43 per cent. participation and we know from trends in the numbers getting two good A levels and in demography that another 250,000 places will be demanded shortly in any event, taking us close to the 50 per cent. target. Getting that figure into the debate has blunted the argument. We need to be clear about what we are trying to achieve in the longer term and to be more ambitious, although not with a target in mind. We must then be prepared to put funding in place to help deliver that ambitious growth.

The second area of concern has come largely from the universities and concerns displacement. If the additional income comes in from top-up fees, there is concern that the Government might at some point in the future claw back the taxpayers' contribution; not within the current comprehensive spending review, but beyond it. Universities will be looking for a long-term contract with the Government if we continue in this general direction of reform, which is the right one.

The third area of concern is variable fees, which have been addressed by many hon. Members this afternoon. I accept that we have a multi-tier university system already; the issue is whether we are to mitigate or aggravate it. The evidence I have is that most universities will go straight for the full £3,000. After all, the real range for them is under £2,000, as they are already getting just over £1,000 from fees that are currently in place; the lift in income is not even £3,000.

I have a suspicion that many in the Russell group are settling for £3,000 to get the principle of top-up fees established and will want to move to higher fees quickly after that. We must be more confident that the scheme that comes in will be sustainable and will not be a staging post towards the creation of an inaccessible British Ivy League.

The fourth area of concern is debt. Evidence as to whether there is a debt deterrent is inconclusive, but it is clear that students of today and tomorrow see it as a growing problem. We need to bear in mind the fact that we are talking not just about tuition fees, but about maintenance costs.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

I am not going to have the time to do so.

I want to run through some proposals and suggestions. First, the Government could do more to bring in certainty. Students anticipating the scheme want to know what the full fee element of their entire course is to be and want that to be transparent from the outset. If we have that, might we also have some payment flexibility? I welcome the abolition of universal upfront fees—it is better that they be replaced by fees payable after graduation—but many students would like flexibility and to retain the option of paying as they go to pay down the debt that they will face at graduation. Many would prefer to make ongoing contributions to the cost while they are at university, rather than face it all as a debt at the end.

If we set up a system whereby an account is opened for the student when the course starts and they or their parents can pay down the debt, whatever debt remains at graduation will be what is payable afterwards. I urge the Government to consider that issue.

We could consider another area of flexibility, which offsets the area that I have just mentioned. We should perhaps allow a period of deferral after graduation, before debt repayment starts. Many students have expressed to me their concern that the debt will become repayable as they start work—at just the time when they are perhaps buying a house and incurring all manner of other expenses. The Government should be prepared to consider deferral for a period of years, on the understanding that the debt will accrue a real rate of interest while deferred. It is not realistic to expect deferral free of charge.

I urge the Government to look again at the proposed reintroduction of grants to see whether they can be raised to a more realistic level. As has been suggested, some funding for that would be available if we did away with fee concessions. We should also look again at the link with the education maintenance allowance, which will be set at £1,500. Many youngsters who qualify for it will, on entering university, discover that their grant is only £1,000. That is a step down in educational support, and we need to smooth out that difference.

I urge two long-term reforms on the Government. The British university sector is very bad at raising income from endowments, which is currently running at 1.8 per cent. of total university income. We need to get that figure higher. May we discuss with the universities, and perhaps with the Treasury, introducing tax concessions to help build up sizeable endowments in the long term? The bare bones of the second long-term reform that I urge on the Government are already there. Can we not consider allowing people to convert into education trust funds the child trust funds that we are introducing? Where parents or youngsters want to do that, the Government could make a further contribution at the point of conversion. When such funds finally matured—I accept that this is a long-term reform—many youngsters would have in their possession a nominated fund that would meet the full extent of the cost of their university education.

These are, I hope, constructive suggestions that the Government will take on board. If the Bill can be improved and made a little bolder and more courageous, they might find that it commands the support of the House.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere 5:41 pm, 3rd December 2003

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the financing of higher education. It is a particular pleasure to follow Mr. Plaskitt. He made a very thoughtful speech, and I share many of the concerns that he expressed. Indeed, they were also expressed by each of the four preceding contributors from the Labour Benches. Like me, those Members are concerned that the Government's proposal runs against the principle of access according to ability.

The contribution of Mr. Illsley struck a particular chord with me, not least because I know his part of the world quite well. His constituency is perhaps much less affluent than mine, but even so, there are many families in leafy Hertfordshire who will be worried about the effect that the additional demands being placed on their children will have on their access to higher education.

There is another group of parents in Hertfordshire who probably could afford to pay the fees demanded of them. They will be worried for a different reason: that their children will not be treated according to their ability because of the type of school that they chose to attend. Some of the remarks made by certain Members will have done nothing to lessen those parents' concern about the implications of the proposed office for fair access.

However, I want to discuss the first group of families to which I referred, who are worried about whether their children will be able to attend the university of their choice.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

I promise that I will give way later on, if I have time.

The Government have not assisted their case by doing precisely the opposite of what they promised to do in their manifesto. I do not want to discuss the issue of trust and credibility, which has been explored already, but a related issue springs to mind. So far as I can judge, it is the concerns expressed by many Labour Members this afternoon that gave rise to the clear pledge made by the Government in their manifesto of just two years ago. If I am wrong, perhaps the Secretary of State for Health—I realise that this is not his subject, but he has no shortage of views—will enlighten me as to the factors that led the Government to make that pledge. Were they not the same concerns about access and attending top universities that have been expressed by his colleagues this afternoon? I look forward to his answer.

Can the Secretary of State tell us, for example, whether anything happened in the past two years to justify this change of course? I listened to the speech of his colleague, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, this afternoon and to the pillars that he advanced in support of his argument, but surely the Secretary of State for Education and Skills who made the promise in 2001 would have been equally aware of those factors. None have arisen only over the past two years, so why has there been such a change from the concerns that the Government were aware of back in 2001?

My concerns in respect of lower and middle-income families and their children's access to university are threefold. First, there is a wealth of evidence, including some from the Government's own researchers, to suggest that top-up fees will have an impact on access. That is strongly felt by the present generation of students, even though they will not, in the main, be directly affected themselves. The Government argue that that is misplaced because fees will be paid not on entry to university, but on graduation, and will be contingent on the amount of income that the graduate earns.

As Government Members have pointed out, however, the Government are not wholly confident about that, because they concede that the fees might be remitted according to the student's family's present income. Government Members have debated whether that is inconsistent; it certainly seems to cut across the Government's own thinking that any amount of fees can be requested because they will be paid by high-earning graduates in the future. To follow up the Secretary of State's comparison, I was not aware that barristers earned any less in their professional careers because their father happened to be a bus driver.

The Government seem to accept that there is a connection between present family income and the question of access. That problem cannot be fully addressed by the modifications that the Government have mentioned. Even if assistance is given to families at the lower end of the scale, there will never be enough to help the families who are just a little higher up on the scale, and who, in my submission, will be equally affected. That includes many families in constituencies such as my own who will very likely lose out, as they often do under such schemes, because incomes in the south-east tend to be higher to meet the higher cost of housing and the higher cost of living. They often find themselves falling below the relevant threshold and I fear that they will also do so in the present case.

Secondly, variable fees will have an obvious effect on student choice, student aspiration and, ultimately, on the character of universities themselves. It will take a lot to persuade me that permitting Russell group universities to charge high fees while other universities charge lower fees will not result in some students choosing the cheaper option—not the option that meets their aspirations, but the one that is less of a burden on them and their families.

Leading universities such as Oxford and Cambridge—and, to give them credit, the Government themselves—are at pains to say that our children and students should aim high, but the message that they receive from the current proposals is that if they aim high, they will have to pay for it. It may well be that the universities charge an even level of fees, as some hon. Members have suggested, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington may be on to something when he suggests that the current proposals will be just a staging post for the Russell group universities. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that earlier this week the rector of Imperial College, London—perhaps our premier scientific institution—quoted the figure of £20,000 a year in tuition fees. Does the Secretary of State really believe that if students are faced with the prospect of paying back £60,000 or more of debt, it will not have an effect on the choices that they make in trying to meet their aspirations? If the Minister pooh-poohs that and says that the Government will not allow the universities to do it because there will be a cap on the level of variable fees, I have to say that such a claim will not have much credibility, given that the Government promised not to introduce top-up fees at all.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

I have one more point to make, if the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, and then I shall give way to him.

Another aspect of the distorting effect of top-up fees is their impact on students' choice of career. If graduates are leaving university with debts of £20,000 to £30,000—it will probably be much more in the fullness of time—they will surely think about how to pay them off as quickly as possible. Is that not likely to result in high-quality graduates in shortage subjects such as maths and science deciding not to take jobs in the public sector, especially teaching, and opting instead for higher-paid jobs that will at least enable them to pay off their debts?

The Library has helpfully given me an estimate of how long it will take a teacher to pay off the student debt that will accumulate under the Government's current proposals. If the Government stick with their £15,000 threshold for repayment, it will take a teacher 14 years to pay off his debt. If the Government move, as has been suggested, to a threshold of £20,000, it will take nearly 17 years of that teacher's career to pay off his debt—the years when he is likely to be trying to buy a house, start a family and set up some pension provision. That is a long, long commitment for that teacher, taking him almost to the age of 40 faced with a pile of debts.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Like my hon. Friend Mr. Plaskitt, I, too, signed early-day motion 7 and I am not entirely in agreement with my Government over variable fees. However, I am perplexed as to how the Conservative policy of scrapping the expansion of university places will help to give the constituents of the hon. Gentleman a better opportunity to go to university.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

There is obviously a debate going on between Labour Members about different ways of financing university expansion. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that since the Robbins report there has been a massive expansion in student numbers, because if this debate had been held at the beginning of that period, today's students would have been encumbered with much higher debts. However, I share the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues: the proposals cut across the principle of access based on ability and that has worrying implications for the future. The Government will have to think again about their proposals if they are to keep faith with those of us on both sides of the House who want the children of bus drivers and barristers to leave university alongside each other, if they have the ability to go there in the first place.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire 5:51 pm, 3rd December 2003

Most of the measures announced in the Queen's Speech are desirable and necessary. I especially commend the proposals for children's bonds, pension protection funds, the registration of civil partnerships, legislation on domestic violence and the establishment of a children's commissioner for England—who will, I presume, have oversight of the welfare of the children of asylum seekers. I commend, too, proposals for the reform of the House of Lords. I hope that we shall complete consideration of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, and I very much hope that it will include provisions to regulate car boot sales.

I strongly support the Home Secretary's proposals for draft legislation on identity cards. At least one phantom Bill is lurking—on hunting—and I look forward to that. I very much welcome the fact that gender recognition legislation is to be debated.

Like most speakers today, however, I want to address only one main matter: top-up fees, which are neither desirable nor necessary. As I understand the Government's intention, it is to raise more resources to bail out our universities and to raise more of those resources from graduates and less from general taxation; but for the life of me I cannot see why top-up fees are necessary to achieve either of those ends. Indeed, as I hope to explain, they could well achieve the opposite.

I cannot support the Government's proposals for top-up fees. I take no pleasure in opposing my Government, which may make me fairly unusual on the Labour Benches. I regard with trepidation the possibility of being formally confronted with the legislation early next year. Voting against it would certainly not be a badge of honour; rather, it would be an admission that many of my hon. Friends and I had failed to persuade the Government that they have got the proposals wrong.

When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was Secretary of State for Education and Employment, he introduced up-front top-up fees in 1998, and I supported him, although with regret. I did so because I did not believe that my constituents in Skelmersdale should be asked increasingly to subsidise expansion in higher education through their taxes. That was because they themselves had almost no tradition of taking advantage of such education and, for well understood socio-economic reasons, they had very poor access to it.

I have nothing but praise for my local further and higher education colleges, and for my Government, in the massive efforts that have been made to address that problem in recent years. The former Secretary of State for Education also assured us that, although available Government money was limited, it would be steered towards the FE sector, which was very much the Cinderella of the education system and which is still comparatively neglected.

Overall, the decision on tuition fees in 1998 has had reasonably acceptable results, although difficulties have been caused for some families and individual students. Many of the changes proposed for higher education by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are to be applauded. For example, the Government recognise that the quality of teaching in higher education teaching institutions is of the first importance, and that it is as important as research.

A few weeks ago, hon. Members received a briefing on this subject from the Association of University Teachers. I note that the first section is entitled "Teaching in a Research Environment". Why could it not be "Research in a Teaching Environment"? Until now, the system has never recognised the quality of research performed by individual teachers in higher education, which is specifically aimed at enabling them to teach well at a high level. That research is not necessarily for publication or part of separately funded projects. The value of that research could be recognised through the development of so-called "teaching-only" universities, but a great deal of work would have to be done on parity of esteem. If that work were not done, that development could have a significant effect on the implementation—or otherwise—of top-up fees.

Like everyone else, I welcome the fact that debts will be repaid after graduation, and not partly on entry to university. I welcome too the widening of access, and the further assistance to be granted to people from low-income groups. The Robbins principle has always been right, but the Government's 50 per cent. target is unfortunate, to say the least. The target drives the system to recruit students, but that often leads to vastly increased drop-out rates and to the appearance of courses that can be described only as poor contributors to our national well-being. I am too polite to say so, but they were formerly known as Mickey Mouse courses.

I turn now to top-up fees. Universities will be forced to maximise the top-up fee level, or they will be

"perceived as a lower class of institution", according to Malcolm McVicar, the principal of the university of Central Lancashire. He very much did not want to implement the top-up fees proposal, but now says that he feels he must if he is to maintain the reputation of his university.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Illsley noted, we must also take account of the nature of working-class households, whose members traditionally do not enter higher education. For them, going to university is often very challenging and daunting. It is new and frightening, and they have a fear of debt. The size of the debts being spoken about in the Chamber today are enough to frighten many people's imaginations. Students from working-class families may decide to look at lower-cost courses and institutions—if they exist. I suspect that my hon. Friend Mr. Plaskitt is right to say that it is likely that all institutions will charge the maximum amount that they can get out of students. We are all in danger of forgetting what life is like in many working-class households on our estates. We must be mindful of the difficulties, tensions and anxieties that people face when they look at what the future holds for them and their families.

In addition, the abolition of up-front fees—a good thing—will reduce higher education income in the present because it will postpone the extra income from top-up fees until 2006, at the earliest. In party political terms—I put the problem no more grandly than that—we will experience in our constituencies all the pain, opposition and aggro that will result from the proposal before the next general election. The benefits of the cash that will come from top-up fees will not be felt until after 2006. The concessions that the Secretary of State has made to blunt the opposition to top-up fees mean that there will be a significantly lower and slower income stream when the cash comes in. We are therefore making a mess of this, even in the Government's terms. The postponement of the Bill's publication gives the Government time to do what early-day motion 7 suggests: look at a range of acceptable alternatives and come up with something that is more acceptable to the majority of Members, certainly on the Labour Benches.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says in his briefing that students do not pay, graduates do. That is not true—I do not pay. His briefings do not address the proposal that I and others have made previously that current graduates should contribute through a graduate tax. They criticise a graduate tax as it would apply to future graduates, but they do not address the possibilities of raising a supplementary tax from people such as me, Neil Kinnock and scores of my colleagues on the Labour Benches who were the first in our families to go to universities and benefit from free higher education—in my case for four years—at the expense of the taxpayer. There is no reason why I and the other 12 per cent. of the population who benefited in that way should not be asked to fund higher education further through a graduated taxation system. Apart from the equity of that, such a measure would have the merit, if hypothecated, of producing resources for the universities sooner rather than later.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Treasury) 6:01 pm, 3rd December 2003

It is a pleasure, as a fellow Lancastrian, to follow Mr. Pickthall. I felt that he made a measured speech containing many good points.

I would like to speak later on top-up fees, if I have few moments to do so, but I want to start by looking at what one might term the other end of the scale—the provision of special needs education. A few years ago, I served on the Standing Committee that considered a Bill introduced by the Government in relation to special needs education. Its objective was, in the Government's words, to secure inclusion and enable more children with special needs to attend mainstream schools. I was told at the time, because I was concerned about the matter, that the legislation should in no way lead to the wholesale closure of special schools. Those exact words were used—it was not a green light for closure.

My experience, however, has been somewhat different. In Gloucestershire—I must point out, not for party political purposes, that Gloucestershire county council is run by an unholy Lib-Lab pact, with the Conservatives, even though they are the largest group, completely excluded from the executive—the policy is without doubt to close the special schools in the county. One at Bonnham Park in Stroud has already been closed, two in the Forest of Dean are being merged, and a school called Alderman Knight in my constituency near Tewkesbury is under threat—there is consultation, but there is no doubt that a threat exists to that school. In Gloucestershire, therefore, it seems that the Minister's words that the policy should not lead to a wholesale closure of special schools are not being heeded.

Of course, many pupils are included in mainstream schools, should be so included and are doing well. Mainstream schools, however, are not appropriate for all children with special needs. Many children who go to Alderman Knight school are even physically handicapped—they have great difficulties. The teachers there know that those pupils could not cope in mainstream schools, and their parents know that they could not cope in mainstream schools. What is even more important, however—it is an emotive issue when it is discussed with them—is that the pupils themselves know that they could not cope in mainstream schools, and are fearful of being sent to those schools. They have broken down in tears when they have explained the situation to me. One or two have even been brave enough to attend public meetings to speak against forced inclusion.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

The hon. Gentleman says that two special schools in the Forest of Dean are to be merged, and he expresses the concern of parents and pupils about what will happen to them as a result of the policy of inclusion. Why did he fail to admit that a new special school, with 65 places, will open in the Forest of Dean at a cost of £3 million? There is hardly a loss of provision for children with special needs in the area.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I did not imply that there was to be a loss of provision. I said that schools were merging. I am sure the hon. Lady is not suggesting that special needs education in Gloucestershire is being downgraded. She must accept, however, that people would not go on marches, come to the House or sign petitions if they did not believe that the special school of Alderman Knight was under threat.

There is a great danger that those special needs children will be forced into mainstream schools against their will. That does not suit them or the pupils and teachers at mainstream schools. Again, hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. They should talk to them as I have done. My opinion does not matter. What matters is what the pupils, teachers and parents think. If pupils are forced to go to schools where they cannot cope, their right to a good education will have been removed. We call it inclusion, but they will not be included in society if they do not have the appropriate education or the appropriate care, which they can receive only at special schools.

What is the choice for parents if those schools are closed? If they do not have the option of sending their children to them, they will have to send them to a mainstream school. That is no choice. Why are the changes being made? Is it because of party political dogma or for financial reasons? In Gloucestershire, it is both. There is party political dogma—there is no question about it—but there is also the problem of finances.

The county council is thinking of changing sixth-form provision in the city of Gloucester and its outskirts, some of which also fall into my constituency. Are those changes motivated by financial constraints? We keep hearing from the Government that more and more money is going into education, yet I find that special schools and sixth forms are under threat. One of the wards at Tewkesbury hospital was also under threat, again because of money, yet we are told that the health service is receiving more money. Where is it all going?

I do not want to dwell on finance, however. If the Minister doubts my word, he should come to Alderman Knight school. It would be delighted to receive him. He should look those children in the eye and tell them that he supports proposals to close their school. I do not think he would do that. I certainly hope that he would not.

On top-up fees, if anyone is advising a couple who are about to get married—although it is probably unwise to do so—the advice should be to avoid debt. My grandfather had a saying, "When you are in debt, you are in danger." We should not be sending graduates out into the world of work with massive debts hanging around their necks. We hear that they are likely to earn much more money because they have university degrees, something that I do not own. However, hon. Members have missed the point: if graduates earn more money, they will pay more tax because it is a percentage of our income. That seems very simple to me.

I am proud that I was part of the education team that decided that the Conservatives would scrap tuition fees when we returned to government. Nothing in our policy would prevent students from going to university, as has been suggested. Our aim is to stop what was graphically and well described by Mr. Illsley as the circle whereby many people go to university, but some cannot get a job on leaving and do jobs that do not require degrees, yet this country has a skills shortage, many people drop out of university because they took the wrong course, and we have a massive bill that we cannot pay. Why not reduce the bill? When I speak to representatives of industry in my constituency and to health service workers, I hear about the skills shortage, but sending more people to university will not redress that shortage. If it could, the skills gap would not exist.

It was a Conservative Government who increased the number of students going to university from one in eight to one in three. Perhaps we should now consider educating and training people in a different and more appropriate way. I would have liked to speak further about that issue, but I fear I have run out of time.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire 6:11 pm, 3rd December 2003

I declare an interest as a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Performance indicators, monitoring, auditing, assessing—call it what you will, but gauging the performance of the services on which the public rely and which it is the duty of Government to provide is essential, not only as a means of reporting back to the electorate à la plastic card on which Labour Members were elected in 1997, but as a potentially useful tool in improving those services. Regrettably, like so much that emanates from the secret and unelected elite of advisers who shape our party's policies, the theory too often fails to square with the real world. Corrupted by a stream of sub-marketing jargon, a potentially useful tool has become a self-serving one. It seems ultimately to concentrate on moving the macro-debate on the improvement of public service performance towards micro-squabbles over the latest set of key performance indicators. After Marshall McLuhan's

"the medium is the message", we have Milburn's "star rating is the only game in town" and Adonis's "League Tables 'R' Us".

A reform or bust mantra is being used to threaten Labour Back Benchers, our traditional supporters and the wider public. We are in essence told that changes that nudge us towards a market ethos or that rate activities in tables that would be more at home in Consumers Association magazines are the only legitimate forms of modernisation, on which service quality and thus electoral success depend. Yes, one alternative is a Tory Government slashing public spending and sending the NHS and schools back to the doldrums in which they languished in the 1980s and early 90s, but that is not the only alternative to the target and market culture that we are being encouraged to embrace.

It is clear to many right hon. and hon. Members that public service performance will be a critical issue at the next general election. To fulfil my role as a helpful Back Bencher, I propose to offer the Government some advice on the processes and procedures they have in place to measure the effectiveness of public service performance.

Let me start with the NHS—the most comprehensive, technologically advanced and accessible public health care system in the world. The Government and Labour Members are rightly proud of the record extra investment that has been diverted to the NHS. The problems arise if the award of some public money to hospitals depends on the satisfaction of arbitrary targets and the subsequent award of glittering stars. Even the Government's top statistician says that targets can be naive and impossible to deliver. Indeed, it is now recognised that the star system has little to do with the quality of health care, and more to do with the political outlook of individual hospital managers. Are they prepared to go along with the targets and produce the figures that Government advisers want to read, and thereby reap the star reward; or are they willing to allow the hospital to deliver to a different, and perhaps more relevant agenda, but see the stars denied?

The star system has not been successful and is seriously damaging to the morale of many NHS staff—the very people who pulled that national asset through the funding famine and bureaucratic morass of the Tory years. The star system may be a valid way of improving the behaviour of boisterous primary school children, but it is a wholly inappropriate way of shaping the policies and finances of huge hospital trusts that are straining to deliver services. To give a local example, the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS trust includes three hospitals—Leicester royal infirmary, Leicester general hospital and Glenfield general hospital—and had a two-star rating until this year. The trust recently had a successful review by the Commission for Health Improvement that praised many aspects of its work, and was given an overall score of 15 for different aspects of clinical governance—the highest score in England was 17. As for other performance indicators, it performed 98,300 elective procedures within 12 months, and 89 per cent. of patients were on a waiting list for less than six months. Staff numbers were up by 4 per cent.; staff turnover was down from 14 per cent. to 11 per cent.; and sickness absence fell from 5.3 per cent. to 4.6 per cent. However, in the star rating system it went from two stars to no stars. It achieved six of the arbitrary targets, but an administrative error led to some in-patients waiting longer than normal, and there were problems in accident and emergency. What a way to treat a magnificent hospital trust with some of the finest hospitals in the east midlands.

In local government, we await, not very eagerly, the publication and inherent simplification of the best value league tables. Yet again, complex public services will be distilled to a starkly simplified, tabulated structure—beware the positions that lead to relegation. In education, no amount of key performance indicators could prevent the engineering firm W.S. Atkins from adding to the financial and administrative burden on schools in the London borough of Southwark. Following the statutory intervention of the Home Secretary, taxpayers effectively paid an engineering firm to ruin further the system of education delivery in Southwark. The Andrew Adonis formula of

"investment plus reform equals results" is misleadingly simple. What are the desired results under that root and branch logic? Increasingly, money tied to reform is for the benefit of investment banks in the City, the metropolitan media and home counties constituencies, but those groups do not rely on public services.

The underlying tenet or holy grail that underpins that deeply flawed approach to the measurement of public service performance and unites some MPs in subservience to it is competition, which apparently keeps the private sector lean and mean. I do not dispute that and would go further—the survival of the fittest keeps all markets trim and free of excess. Without wanting to demean the efforts of small and medium-sized business enterprises, the harsh realities of the marketplace are appropriate to the opening of a sandwich shop or carpet fitters, for example, but have no application or use in health, education or law enforcement. Recourse to the language, practices and forces of the marketplace in the provision of essential public services shows the fundamental intellectual bankruptcy, not just of the proponents of that theory, but of the wider political system. Hospitals are not shops and patients are not customers. To tell the public that their money cannot be spent on services that they want to work, such as the NHS, schools and police, without a gratuity payment to the private sector is breathtaking chutzpah and disingenuousness on a scale previously seen only in the literary efforts of Jeffrey Archer.

There is a role for private contractors in the delivery of public services—there always has been—but its scale and location have to be controlled. There is a place for comparative quality tables of public services, but only when pre-existing distortions to the delivery environment are removed. Only last Friday, a press notice issued by the National Audit Office said that its recent report recommended that the Department for Education and Skills

"should produce and make publicly available performance information for maintained secondary schools that takes into account academic achievements adjusted not only for pupil prior achievement, but also for other external influences".

We have to build those adjustments into every set of tables, if they are to be used, when measuring the quality of public service delivery.

The NAO also recommended that the DFEE

"use this adjusted performance information as a tool, amongst others, for assessing school performance and evaluating the effectiveness of policies that impact on schools".

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad. Governments whom the gods wish to destroy, they first put into the hands of unelected advisers with few contacts with ordinary people, after which they add a sprinkling of accountants, star systems and league tables, light the pink touch-paper and retire. I fear that we are heading in that direction. The consequent electoral explosion in autumn 2005 is too dire to contemplate.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr 6:19 pm, 3rd December 2003

In preparing for this debate, especially in relation to tuition fees, I tried to heed the advice of H. L. Mencken on dealing with political opponents, which is always to assume that they are just as honest and decent as oneself, and that they sometimes may even be right. However, I must confess that on this particular issue I have struggled to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, and I have failed so far in trying to do so.

The strapline on the higher education Bill in the parliamentary Labour party's information was

"free at the point of use and fair at the point of repayment".

I hope that the Secretary of State can confirm that there is no read-across from education to health. To me, that statement sounds like a retreat from the principle of universal and comprehensive access to public services. I accept the Government's argument that they are sincere about the proposals that they are making and that they want to widen participation and access, but I hope that they will also reflect on the sincerity of hon. Members on both sides of the House who fear that the changes could make a bad situation worse in terms of the inequality of opportunity that currently pertains in our higher education system. In fact, those inequalities could be reinforced between institutions, between different parts of the UK and between students themselves.

It is very interesting and instructive to reflect on the fact that the person who first came up with the idea of income contingent repayment—that is, paying not out of current income, but out of future income, as in deferred tuition fees—was none other than Milton Friedman. He came up with the idea of deferred tuition fees in a paper published in 1955. The argument that he used is the very same one that is being used now. Indeed, he returned to the theme in "Free to Choose". Who can forget that piece of Thatcherite propaganda? In that book, he said of higher education:

"In this area, those of us who are middle and upper-income classes have conned the poor into subsidising us on a grand scale".

That was Milton Friedman's argument, but it is now being replayed by the Government. Perhaps that is no surprise.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Secretary of State, Department of Health, The Secretary of State for Health

Let us set things in the broad sweep of history. The idea of taking from everyone according to their abilities and giving to everyone according to their needs did not commence with Milton Friedman. It commenced a long time ago. Keir Hardie was saying it 110 years ago.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

I think that the phrase:

"From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" is a quote from a certain Mr. Karl Marx. I am not sure that he would be a supporter of the Government's policy on tuition fees, but I am prepared to be corrected by the Secretary of State.

I accept that the Government are putting their arguments in terms of social justice. We are having an interesting debate about different notions of equity. The Government are advancing a plausible argument by asking why today's poor should fund tomorrow's more affluent people. That is the notion of equity that they are putting forward, but there are other competing notions of equity as well. For instance, there is equity between the generations. Should we be placing a huge burden of extra taxation on the young, especially at a time when an ageing population means that public services already have to be funded out of a smaller taxation base?

On equality of opportunity, I believe that the nub of the argument in terms of equity is the dynamic effects of the changes, rather than their static effects in terms of who pays which segment of the population. What are the dynamic effects? What effect will the proposals have on people's ability and opportunities to realise their potential? That is where the interesting argument lies, and there is contrary evidence. Evidence from Australia and New Zealand suggests that there has not so far been a hugely negative impact on accessibility. In Canada, however, where the state has withdrawn from direct funding, the results are different. In the United States of America, which has a vastly deregulated tuition fees system, the result has been disastrous in terms of accessibility. In Canada and North America, high-quality education is increasingly the preserve of the privileged—people are buying not skills, but a passport to the upper echelons of society. The fear of that animates several hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Aversion to debt among people from working-class backgrounds is a significant factor. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has pointed to the effect of the introduction of tuition fees on accessibility for the working class in Wales. There is plenty of evidence in international research to suggest that we should take cognisance of that issue.

Marginal rates of taxation were mentioned. The marginal rate of taxation for graduates earning £15,000 to £30,000 will be 42 per cent., yet the Prime Minister's marginal rate of taxation is only 41 per cent. How can that be equitable?

The wider point is that this goes to the heart of what education is about. The Government's proposals seem to present education in the purely individualistic sense that it is, per se, a personal investment decision in the relevant marketplace, but it is more than that. John Rawls—a philosopher who is, I hope, closer to the Government than Milton Friedman—said that

"the value of education should not be assessed solely in terms of economic efficiency and social welfare. Equally if not more important is the role of education in enabling a person to enjoy the culture of his society and to take part in its affairs, and in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his own worth."

If we reduce education purely and simply to a matter of sustaining and strengthening income differentials, we all lose out as a society.

David Taylor is absolutely right—the Government need to think through the political consequences for themselves. In 1989, the Government of the Australian Labor party were the first in the world to implement Milton Friedman's idea when they introduced income-contingent loans. They lost to a rejuvenated Conservative party in 1996. I should not like that to happen to the Government as a result of their proposals. They should listen carefully to the wise counsel that they have heard from Members on their own Benches.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North 6:27 pm, 3rd December 2003

It has been an interesting seven hours. For all but a few minutes' pit stop, I have been here since Prayers. Although I cannot recall the Speaker's Chaplain telling us that the first shall be last, I am none the less blessed that that has been borne out.

I had not expected the debate to be, in effect, a Second Reading debate on the Government's proposals on higher education instead of a broader debate on the Queen's Speech. I certainly wish to have my say on the education proposals, but I shall do so after the Bill is published later this month.

I want to focus on an issue that connects health and education, and which will need far greater attention and investment in future—obesity, which is a national time bomb whose fuse is almost burned through. It already costs the country £2 billion a year, and it is estimated that in 20 years' time the entire current budget of today's NHS will be consumed in paying for the costs of sedentary lifestyles, diabetes, coronary heart disease and other obesity-related diseases—not to mention the days of work lost to our economy. Creative and innovative policies are required. We need a massive shift in the balance of funding from treating disease to preventing it—and we need it fast. The Department of Health currently spends £886 per head each year on treating sickness. If we compare that with the figure of £1 per head each year that the Government spend on sport and physical activity designed to prevent disease, it is apparent that prevention is the underfunded element of the Government's strategy.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a role to play, but it does not have the budget to achieve the required change. That should be the responsibility of the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills. The Government have accepted the importance of the agenda and their policies to date signal a good start. There are currently 1,200 school sports co-ordinators and 6,000 primary and special school link teachers. That means that 30 per cent. of schools in England belong to one of the 222 school sports partnerships.

The Government have set a target of 75 per cent. of school children doing two hours of school sports a week by 2006. However, in the long term, we must set our sights higher. Seventy thousand 10-year-olds—one in 10—are already obese. By the age of 15, one in six children are obese. Society has the responsibility of preparing young people for life—that is the point of an education system. It must be our schools' primary function to prepare young people for every aspect of their future, not only in literacy and numeracy, but in knowing how to lead a healthy lifestyle.

With one in six obese 15-year-olds, we are not paying sufficient attention to ensuring that young people have learned healthy habits of regular physical exercise. Not only the quantity but the quality and variety of sport in schools needs to increase. The staple diet of the same old sports engages some but alienates thousands. If we ask people why they do not enjoy sport and do not participate in it now, the reason is usually that they were forced to do specific sports at school. We need a smorgasbord of physical activities and sports in the school environment so that children can find a sport that they enjoy and want to continue in later life.

Sports governing bodies should work in partnership with schools to deliver a broad range of choices for young people, with clear coaching pathways to achieve excellence for those who are most able. Every school should be furnished with the basic minimum of sports equipment, including fitness facilities and gym equipment that older pupils can use independently.

A young person's commitment to physical fitness and sporting achievement should be formally recognised, with Step into Sport extended to every secondary school. Just as we encourage endeavour in academic and literary pursuits, a national award scheme should encourage endeavour and excellence in active pursuits. We need an army of coaches to motivate and inspire young people. The Government are to be congratulated on their community coaches scheme; the first wave of coaches will be in action next year. The scheme needs every available resource to make the necessary impact.

Such schemes need to be a Department of Health priority and a cornerstone of its preventive work. The Department's financial clout can create the necessary investment. The 3,000 coaches that the Government originally promised are to be part time, with some full-time coaches. The modification was right in that there should be many part-time coaches, but we should have 3,000 full-time equivalents. We should not have cheese pared to make the Departments' savings and economies.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that local authorities should be encouraged to open all the facilities that are available in schools in the summer? There appears to be a problem with insurance, which is why youngsters are not allowed to use the equipment. We should consider ways of solving the problems and ensure that the facilities are available for our young people.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I am grateful for that intervention and I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Insurance and other matters must not be allowed to stand in the way of opening up access. I shall deal with that point later.

We are not the only country that is having to think out of the box to tackle the issue. In Austria, the social affairs spokesman has put forward the idea of a fat tax, suggesting that social insurance contributions should be linked to body mass index. I can see that one or two colleagues are rather worried by that suggestion, but I do not think that we should pursue it—at least not yet.

The Government have set a target of 70 per cent. of the population engaging in regular physical exercise by 2020. It is right for them to set high standards. Just as they intervene to stop us smoking and to encourage safe sex and sensible drinking, so they must intervene to fight obesity by removing the hurdles that prevent people from being more active.

A key element in making the nation more active is access to facilities, which is the very point that Mr. Evans mentioned. Membership of a private gym is often expensive and quality sports pitches and leisure centres are in limited supply. Consequently, affordable, good-quality facilities are out of reach for far too many people. We must open up access and make the best facilities available to the whole community.

Based on schemes in Wales, Glasgow and Newham, and along with London Assembly Member Diana Johnson, I am in discussion with fellow London MPs and with boroughs to see whether we can make swimming in London free for all children. Of course, to use the facilities we must first have them. Germany has 92 50-m swimming pools. In France, the city of Paris alone has 20. In the UK, we have just 17. Many 25-m pools, which should be standard facilities for every community, are in a state of disrepair, if they exist at all.

We must complete a national needs analysis for each nation and region and work with their sports governing bodies to put the necessary facilities in the right place. That means, in practice, that housing should not be built without consideration being given to the availability of sports and recreational facilities. The public should consider having such facilities in easy reach the expected norm and the Government should be ready to embrace partnership with the private sector in all areas to get those facilities in place.

In the last minute available to me, I want to touch on children's trust funds. I am concerned about the necessary information for parents, and now for children in schools, who will have a real interest in acquiring the financial skills to manage their own funds at maturity. The Government information campaign beginning in 2005 is too late. Parents need to be made more aware of these issues in good time. The Government need to clarify whether the additional tax-free contribution of £1,200 a year can be made by parents in respect of the years between September 2002, when the first child qualifies, and 2005, when the first fund is opened.

I am concerned that a policy designed to increase social inclusion and to help children out of poverty will see wealthy parents take full advantage of the provision to make the £1,200 additional payments each year while poor parents cannot. The projection for a fund with a £500 initial contribution but no additional annual contribution suggests a real-terms value of £900 at maturity. However, a £250 initial contribution in respect of a rich family with just a £50 a month additional contribution going in would have a real-terms value of more than £18,000 at maturity.

That would have the perverse effect of ensuring that the gap between rich and poor would widen as a result of the child trust fund. I believe that the Government must offer parents from poor families an extra incentive to make additional payments so that that does not happen.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale 6:38 pm, 3rd December 2003

The bulk of the debate has been about higher education and my speech will reflect that, but first I shall say a word or two about other matters that have been discussed.

We on the Conservative Benches will be constructive on the children Bill and we welcome what the Secretary of State for Education and Skills said about the school transport Bill, so far as it went, but he will recognise that until and unless he can guarantee that no child currently entitled to free school transport will lose that entitlement he will face unhappiness and opposition.

On the national health service, let us recognise that the truth is a mixed picture. The Government have poured in more money and recruited more doctors, but they have also hired three times as many extra administrators. They have recruited more nurses, but they have presided over the complete disintegration of NHS dentistry, as my right hon. Friend Sir George Young said, and there is not a single NHS dentist in either Kendal or Windermere, for example, in my constituency.

The Government have presided over a record number of operations, but a record number of people have been killed by hospital-acquired infections. The truth of the matter is that some parts of the NHS are getting significantly better, but others are getting very much worse. It would help us all if the Secretary of State for Health felt able to acknowledge both parts of that picture.

The Education Secretary seems confused on three issues to do with higher education. First, will top-up fees deter students, especially those from low-income families? He denied that outright, but then demolished his case by praising a university for deciding to set a zero fee for a physics course in order to attract more students than it would get if it set a higher fee.

Secondly, will the Government's office for fair access tell universities whom to admit? The Secretary of State got hot under the collar with my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo for having said that it would. He said that it was wrong for my hon. Friend to say that, but minutes later he contradicted himself when he told one of his hon. Friends that Offa's job would be to tell universities to come up with policies to admit more working-class kids. If that is not interfering with admissions, I do not know what is.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman seemed confused about the manifesto on which he stood two years ago. He claimed that the pledge was not to introduce top-up fees before the next general election. My hon. Friend Mr. Clappison blew a hole in that argument by pointing out that the full quote is simply:

"We will not introduce 'top-up' fees" full stop.

The Education Secretary tried to have some fun with a few quotes he had found. Two can play at that game, and I had a productive 15 minutes in the Library earlier. The right hon. Gentleman quoted a couple of Conservatives who left office more than a decade ago. I shall quote someone who served in the present Government until just six months ago. Mr. Brown just yesterday said that he did not think social justice comes from loading young people of ordinary means with a large amount of debt.

The Education Secretary got excited about a 15-year-old quote from my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk. It turns out that the quote was about student loans, which both sides of the House now support, not about fees. I think that the right hon. Gentleman was trying to say that my hon. Friend has been less than consistent. I checked the right hon. Gentleman's own record for consistency, and I did not have to go back 15 years. In December 1997, just six years ago, he voted for the Government's cuts in lone parent benefit. On the very same day, he wrote to the then Social Security Secretary to say that those plans, for which he voted, were "fundamentally wrong". He said that

"everyone in the PLP is outraged by what the Government is doing."

The right hon. Gentleman must have a sense of déjà vu. Seven Labour Members—the hon. Members for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), for Gower (Mr. Caton), for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor)—made speeches in which they attacked the Government's proposals and made it clear that they could not support them.

Conservative Members have three priorities for higher education: excellence, independence and admission solely on merit. Each of those is threatened by the measures in the Queen's Speech. Excellence will be undermined because the Government's proposals will drive away many academically outstanding candidates from low-income families who are fearful of debt, but at the same time the Government will throw open the doors to academically weaker candidates from families wealthy enough not to have to worry about high borrowings. That is an odd definition of social inclusion, and it can only further water down standards and drive up already soaring drop-out rates.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour, Ogmore

When the hon. Gentleman refers to weaker candidates, does he mean the type of students whom I frequently taught in my six years as an academic, who were from traditionally low-achieving families, but who, when they entered higher education, because our entry requirements were more flexible, far exceeded the performance of those who had come through with higher A-level scores?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

What I was trying to point out to the hon. Gentleman is that his policy, if he is supporting his Government, and he is in a distinct minority among Labour Back Benchers if he is, is that academically qualified candidates from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds should not go to university, whereas academically weaker candidates from wealthy families should. That is what his policy will produce, and that is plain wrong. It will threaten independence because there will be wholesale intervention by the Government in the way universities admit students, and it will destroy the concept of admission solely on merit. Indeed, we would go back to the bizarre 19th century system, where admission to university was determined not by the candidate's ability but by the candidate's family. That is what the Government are going to recreate. Indeed, it is the ultimate insult to students from disadvantaged backgrounds that, under the Government's proposals, they would know that they had got in not on merit but by means of an artificial quota as part of social engineering.