I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and my Back-Bench colleagues on the strong, forceful and continuous way we are pressing the Government on these issues. I do not want to repeat the arguments that have been made, but I want to offer a couple of observations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne talked about the effect this will have on thousands of students’ loan agreements. She and I both represent north-west constituencies, and one thing comes across powerfully when we look at the impact of these changes. I am not suggesting that they are simply restricted to affecting adversely a particular part or region of the country. Nevertheless, if we look at average earnings for graduates in the north-west, the east midlands or other parts of the country outside the south-east and London—graduates who have sweated hard and laboured to get their degrees and taken out loans—those are the people who thus far have been shielded from the effects of this change because they have had only modest salaries in the first two or three years of their employment. This change has a disproportionate impact on graduates on modest incomes. It is not only a socially regressive move but a geographically regressive one.
On freezing the threshold as a principle, there is little more one can say to shame the Government over this process, except to remind them of one thing. I have sat on many Bill Committees over the years, but I have never seen a witness speak truth to power with quite so much force as when Martin Lewis came before us and comprehensively condemned the Government on this. It is not often we hear such strong comments from witnesses, so it is worth repeating what he said:
“Looking at students as consumers, if they had borrowed money from a commercial lender, the Financial Conduct Authority would have struck out in a second the idea that, five years after announcing that the repayment threshold would go up from £21,000 in April 2017 with average earnings, that would be frozen.”––[Official Report, Higher Education and Research Public Bill Committee,
That is the point. I do not want to get outwith the narrow clause, but Martin Lewis also said that this is not only a question of trust of a particular group of people; it is a question for our democracy. The students we are talking about are people we want particularly—I am not saying exclusively—to play a strong part in our democracy and electoral process in the future. If they come away feeling they are being treated by the Government of today with less consideration than that of a fabled second-hand car salesman, we cannot be surprised that the turnout in certain elections is not exactly what all of us would wish. Those are fundamental and central points that should be considered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, with great passion and eloquence, dealt with virtually all of the reasons why we believe it is so important to bring forward the reversal of the Government’s decision to replace maintenance grants with loans. I have only one further point: as the Government’s own impact assessment showed, it is precisely those disadvantaged groups of young people who will suffer the most from this policy. If the Government are concerned not only about the social justice and social mobility that would be improved by restoring maintenance grants, but about our economic performance, particularly in those parts of the country they are still waxing so lyrical about devolving powers to, they really must take this argument sensibly. It does not make sense economically or socially to replace maintenance grants with loans.