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Student support: restricted modification of repayment terms

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 21st November 2016.

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Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 6:45 pm, 21st November 2016

I rise to add a brief footnote to new clause 10, which is in my name, and to say things that other people in the room possibly cannot say.

Liberal Democrats hesitate, for some reason, to talk about university fees. I have no particular embarrassment—I voted against top-up fees under Labour, and I voted against the increases under the coalition. In both cases, though, I made dire predictions about take-up, which certainly were not fulfilled, and take-up in both cases carried on. Unfortunately, I was right in my predictions about the political consequences of breaking our contract with the electorate. I believe we were tricked into that by a very clever Chancellor, and there was very little saving in the end to the Exchequer, contrary to what some of my colleagues supposed at the time.

It was a painful process, and Wes Streeting, who introduced this section of the debate, pointed out that it involved a certain number of concessions to the Liberal Democrats. What we are looking at now is the elimination bit by bit, piece by piece of those concessions, starting with grants and moving on to access and so on. So the policy has clearly worsened, and what we have currently, with the raising of the threshold, is nothing short of a scandal. A contract has been broken; there has been a one-sided redefinition of the terms of the loan. In any other context, as Martin Lewis quite correctly said, that would lead to legal action. The only reason legal action is not possible in this case is the small print, which, as far as most undergraduates are concerned, was very, very small indeed.

New clause 10 is simply an attempt to avoid a repetition of that bad situation by defining a minimum level of earnings and a mechanism for adjusting it in a rational, open way. It would avoid partiality, exploitation, misunderstanding and—the hon. Gentleman mentioned this briefly—the lack of trust, which is absolutely crucial. That, surely, is the way to go.