Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Student support: restricted modification of repayment terms

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 21st November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North 6:15 pm, 21st November 2016

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why the student loans system should be brought within the scope of the Financial Conduct Authority. Had a high street bank or a payday lender behaved in such a way, there would be outrage everywhere, including in this House. The Financial Conduct Authority would mount an investigation. The Treasury Committee, of which I am a member, would ask questions. It seems that a Chancellor can just decide to save a few quid in the autumn statement and make retrospective changes that would penalise existing students and graduates.

This is an issue not just of fairness and equity for existing borrowers, but fundamentally of trust. What is to stop future Governments from making changes further down the line about all manner of things, including interest rates, repayment periods, tapers and thresholds? On that basis, how can current or prospective students have confidence that promises being made today will be kept tomorrow? To be honest, this is a very personal issue for me. Some years ago, Martin Lewis, from Money Saving Expert, and I agreed to work with the coalition Government on an independent taskforce on student finance information. Martin was invited to take part because of his widespread reputation as one of the most trusted people in the country when it comes to financial advice and saving consumers money. It was felt, quite rightly by Lord Willetts— then the higher education Minister—that Martin would be an independent voice on those matters and someone whom people could trust. Martin then asked me to work with him as his deputy, with Lord Willetts’ agreement, on the basis that I had recently completed my term as president of the National Union of Students.

Although I opposed the decisions that had been taken by successive Governments around higher education funding and student finance, I believed that it was critical to take part. I thought it would be appalling if a single student was deterred from applying to university on the basis of misunderstanding the information. If students look at the information and the student finance system and decide to make a different choice, that is for them, but I thought that it would be a travesty if a single student was deterred on the basis of misunderstanding and misinformation.

We went round the country visiting schools, colleges and universities and we appeared in the media, promoting the Government system—not on its merit, but on the facts of the system. We served what I thought was an important public duty and purpose, but we were misled—inadvertently—which means that we therefore misled students and graduates up and down the country. We told them that the repayment threshold would go up in line with earnings from April 2017; that is what we were told by Ministers at the time. That is what students, teachers, parents, family members and advisers were also led to believe.

The Government need to reflect very carefully on what message it would send to each of those groups if future Governments can come along and retrospectively change the system to suit the Treasury. It is a terrible, terrible precedent that undermines trust not just in the student finance system, but in politics as a whole. We are not so far from a general election, or indeed from a referendum campaign, to know that trust in politics in this country is at rock bottom. People do not trust politics and they do not trust politicians. From my experience of this place in the past 18 months, I can say that, for all our disagreements, I have great pride in our political system and in the way in which it works. However, when it comes to decisions such as these, I completely understand why politicians are held in such low regard. On too many occasions, politicians have said one thing and done another. On higher education and student finance, politicians have said one thing and done another. Since the coalition Government put their reforms through, with cross-party agreement and with—to be fair to them —concessions to the Liberal Democrats in government, every single concession has been undone. Student grants have been scrapped. The emphasis on widening participation in a number of respects is now weaker. Now we find that many of the actual repayment conditions, which Mr Clegg would argue were some of the more progressive elements of the system, are also being undone. This is an issue about trust not just in the student finance system, but fundamentally in politics as a whole. Martin Lewis says:

“If you sign a contract, both sides should keep to it. If you advertise a loan, the lender should be held to the terms it was sold under.”

It is a total disgrace that, although the UK is widely regarded around the world for its excellent laws and regulatory environment, there seems to be one exception, which is student loan contracts. That is why I hope that, this week before this change kicks in, the new Chancellor will take the opportunity to reverse the decision in his autumn statement. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister could go some way to rebuilding trust in politics. I also urge the Government to support new clauses 2, 3 and 6, which would ensure that no Government could be tempted to behave in this way again. It is scandalous and unjustifiable and it sets a very dangerous precedent. That is why I hope that we will see some progress on this today.