We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 2nd February 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 2:45 pm, 2nd February 2012

My Lords, I speak to my Amendment 24. Just to make sure that people realise that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I agree only on some things, I respectfully remind him that it was the Labour Government who introduced tuition fees.

I remember that particularly well because the only time I have taken a Bill through this House was when the much missed late Lady Blatch was our Front-Bench spokesman. She was ill and asked me to take the Bill through the House. The rather splendid noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who has sadly been taken from us to other duties, was leading on the Bill. I said to her, "Look, I have a problem". There was an issue about gap year students having to pay more. I said, "If you will amend the Bill and allow for gap year students, I won't waste your time and be unnecessarily difficult, but there is another thing I need you to do. I need you to help me to make sure that we do not get a vote on the principle of tuition fees"-which the Liberals were very keen to achieve-"because I'm being told by the powers that be in our party that we have to vote against tuition fees and most of the people on my side would be in the wrong lobby". So we attempted to avoid having a vote because most of my colleagues rightly recognised that the future of universities depended on having tuition fees.

This is not a debate about the principle of tuition fees. Indeed, my amendment does not mention tuition fees. The Bill is about the exercise of power-we have taken back Antarctica; we are giving other things-and it defines the powers of the Scottish Parliament. The new clause in my amendment is intended to make clear that the Scottish Parliament is free to exercise its powers, but it cannot exercise its powers in a way that discriminates against people from England, Wales and Northern Ireland relative to people in other European states. That is the real wickedness involved in what is happening now: Greeks, Germans, Poles and French all get the same deal as the Scots, but English, Welsh and Northern Ireland people do not. When I say Northern Ireland people, Welsh people and English people, this is not about nationality but about the place where you live.

As I said to someone from the BBC the other day, "You work for the BBC. You get posted to Glasgow. You've got three children who are aged, say, 14, 15 and 16 and they want to go to university. You get rung up by the director-general and told that you have to move to Manchester. That could cost your children £100,000 in fees because they will no longer be eligible to go to some of the best universities in the country"-I declare an interest as a graduate of St Andrews-"such as St Andrews, Edinburgh or Glasgow for free. The moment you move to England, they will have to pay. This is just a complete nonsense. Of course, you could accept a job in Madrid, or Paris or anywhere else in Europe-but not in England, Wales or Northern Ireland". It is an absurdity.

The real wickedness comes when you say in a reasoned way to Alex Salmond, "This is not fair". The response you get is: "If Scotland is independent, the English will get the same deal as the Greeks, the French and the Germans". That is not good enough. I hope that my noble and learned friend is not going to get up and give the same, lame arguments about how this is what devolution is about. No, it is not. Devolution is about making decisions in Scotland in the interests of Scotland. It is not about discriminating against people from the rest of the United Kingdom in a way which was never envisaged during the passage of the Scotland Act through this House.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, is not in his place. Last week, when we were discussing the Bill, he came up with a brilliant image when, in trying to explain the apparently irrational behaviour of the First Minister and his separatist colleagues, he said that it is a bit like tenants who want to get a move from a bad estate to another estate: the first thing you do is upset the neighbours. This is about upsetting the neighbours, and upsetting the neighbours it is. There is real anger about this.

I stood recently in a rectorial campaign in St Andrews-I only got 900 votes, which is actually not bad for a banker and a Tory these days. The winning candidate was very good indeed. I spent a week in St Andrews with the students. There you have, side by side, students working very hard, much harder than I ever did when I was at St Andrews, in a university which has been transformed. A third of the students are English, a third are Scottish and a third are European or international. The Scottish students will pay nothing. The fees are going up to £9,000 a year and it is a four-year degree, so that is £36,000 if you are English. The European students are paying nothing. They are all working side by side.

The other thing that struck me was that St Andrews just looks the same as it did-most medieval towns do. The restaurants and the pubs are the same. The students are certainly much more focused. However, whereas in my day there were no students working in the restaurants and the bars, there now are. They need to do so in order to make ends meet. It is quite divisive and wrong to have students from different parts of the United Kingdom faced with substantial borrowing and debt, or no debt, simply because of which part of the United Kingdom they live in. I believe that this is a deliberate policy to create anger. There is genuine anger and resentment, not least on the part of those students who feel that they are being given a better deal relative to their colleague than they perhaps deserve.

There is also anger on the part of parents. I suggested to someone who shall remain nameless who was at St Andrews with me that they might like to make a contribution to the university in its 600th anniversary year. She said, "Not on your life! Not while my children are not able to go to St Andrews without having to pay these enormous fees".

So it is quite wrong. It would be entirely appropriate for the Government to restrict the powers of the Scottish Parliament so that it cannot operate in this way on any area of policy. As the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, a former Secretary of State for Scotland, pointed out, the Barnett formula is extremely generous. The spending per head on education is about 20 per cent higher. It really is adding insult to injury to ask the English to send more money per head north of the border on education for the privilege of seeing their children treated less generously than people from Greece.

If the Prime Minister says that he will defend the union to the last fibre of his being, here is a test. I ask my noble friend to ask the Prime Minister to look at this, and ask him seriously whether we can go on allowing this to happen. This is very timely. Hitherto, the fees have been at levels of £3,000 a year, so it would be £12,000. Now they are going up to £9,000 a year, so it is a huge imposition upon these students and is building enormous resentment. I hope that my noble and learned friend will give this some consideration.

A third party is very angry about this: the universities. I am delighted to see in his place the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, with all his experience of higher education in Scotland. The universities are the poor mugs who have got to set the fees with this difficult and divisive position for their students, and who take all the flack for its consequences. I am not going to press this to a vote today, because I want to give my noble and learned friend time to think about it and come back at a later stage, but I hope that he will take it seriously. This is the first opportunity that we have had since the introduction of tuition fees and top-up fees to debate this matter. It is widely resented around the country. It is a deep, deep injustice which needs to be put right.