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Mr. Beggs: I am pleased to hear about that excellent co-operation between parents and schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I say with regret that the Department of Education in Northern Ireland would require such expensive modifications to vacant existing accommodation in primary schools that similar provision would not be possible there. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, given that children grow up in homes that do not have special toilets or hand basins for them, that massive adaptations to primary schools offering vacant accommodation are not necessary and that we should welcome provision in such locations?

Dr. Hampson: That is a valid point in the context to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and no doubt it will be taken on board by the appropriate Ministers in operating a system with which I am not au fait.

My final point concerns the higher end of the education system. A modern economy must offer the widest possible range and real excellence. If Labour had done anything about reforming and expanding higher education, the country's economy would be much stronger. I remind the House, and the shadow Chancellor, who has just returned to his place, that the only time since the war that the proportion of the age group entering higher education fell was under the last Labour Government. It was not high then--only 12 per cent. The figure has increased from one in eight 18-year-olds entering universities to one in three today. That target was set for 2000, but has already been achieved.

No other Government have ever expanded opportunities for young people on such a scale. The only Administration that came anywhere near was that of Harold Macmillan, who created the last major expansion in higher education provision. The Government need to boast more about their achievement.

Part of that expansion process involves giving financial assistance to students. The increase in their numbers could not have been funded by the traditional maintenance grant--there had to be a loans scheme, for which I argued over many years. However, I do not believe that the present scheme is operating effectively. The proposals in the Gracious Speech will help, provided that the banks are willing to participate in a generous way. Some of us called for the scheme to be operated initially through the private banking sector. That would have had the inestimable advantage of allowing the student to walk across the street to the local branch, where he probably deals with the manager about an overdraft anyway, to arrange a loan tailored to his needs. Instead, students have to operate at arm's length with a huge bureaucratic operation in Glasgow that has cocked up time and time again.

The new head of the Student Loans Company is doing a fine job of improving it, but only 55 per cent. of eligible students are taking up loans and that is not enough. The scheme must be expanded, and I trust that the banks will be given enough freedom to allow that. Will the banks be allowed to exercise discretion over the repayment period? One disincentive of the present loans scheme is that

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students must make repayments at a steady rate over five years. The worst time for any young person to repay a loan is when he has just entered into a mortgage or started family commitments, when he is at the low end of the income scale--yet faces the prospect of starting repayments at that front end. If the banks can have more freedom on repayments, we shall be on our way to funding properly the finest expansion of student opportunity that the country has ever seen--and one achieved by a Conservative, not a Labour, Government.

As with all the education reforms that the country desperately needs, if the economy is to compete effectively, that expansion has been overseen by a Conservative Administration but frustrated year in, year out, by Labour--whether in or out of Government. The sooner the people of Leeds recognise that fact, in a city in which Labour has its dead hand on the school system, the better. A Leeds university independent report published some years ago clearly proved just what a dead hand on the primary school sector Labour had. It was nothing to do with resources, and everything to do with expectations set by the LEA and with the nature and quality of teaching in those schools. Both locally and nationally, the country must recognise that Labour has done an enormous disservice.

6.45 pm

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley): I share the reservations of the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) in regard to the curious timetable in the early weeks of each new Session. That timetable, and the reasons for it, become more bewildering every year. The only advantage is that one can indulge in tendering advice to the Treasury Bench in regard to the Budget, which I shall try to do with restraint in the brief time available to me.

In two major debates a year ago, my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and I reiterated the consistent views of our Ulster Unionist party on key aspects of the economy. They were that there should be no fixed exchange rates, which view is gaining great popularity throughout Europe; that the national debt should be repaid, which ought to be an admirable principle for individuals as well as for nations; that the Government's excellent achievement of lower inflation, on which all else depends, should be maintained; and that there should be a steady reduction in the public sector borrowing requirement, with consequential beneficial effects in many areas of our national affairs--a point made well by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce).

Those objectives will not be achieved if the Chancellor yields to demands for tax reductions, which will really mean a reduction in revenue. Another serious loss of revenue resides in the expanding smuggling industry, which is reaching alarming proportions. There must be an early crackdown on those illegal activities.

Tax reductions in particular would jeopardise the present enviable position, in which Britain's long-term fiscal prospects are the strongest in the world--although that remark may be at variance with the comments of the shadow Chancellor. A curious feature is that investors, particularly overseas, do not seem to recognise the truth of that. The Chancellor reported a significant increase in investment but much more is needed. Perhaps potential investors are paralysed by the spectre of a general election

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that, with a bit of luck, is more than 18 months away. [Hon. Members: "We agree."] Get the crystal ball out. Investors should take heart from the knowledge that we are all monetarists now.

Some months ago, the Chancellor was correct to overrule excessive caution by the Bank of England with regard to interest rate cuts. Modest further reductions would give a much greater boost to the economy than a confetti-like scattering of tax cuts, which would have only a short-term effect. A reduction in interest rates, on the other hand, would bring lasting benefit to the construction industry, for instance. Expansion in such areas would have beneficial knock-on effects on unemployment and social security, and would soon help to reduce the PSBR.

Not surprisingly, I found my feelings in tune with those of the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Biffen), who has just left us, especially during his broadcast of this morning. I reflected as he spoke that he and I are the only true guardians of the right-of-centre faith left in the House.

I shall now deal with the report by the president of the European Court of Auditors of 14 November, which commented on the amount of public moneys lost through fraud or in other ways--at least 400 million ecu, with probably more to be discovered. Careless citizens may shrug off such losses in the belief that it is all Brussels money anyway, but they are unaware that it is mainly British and German money. Losses through fraud touch directly on the very reasons for the existence of Parliament: accountability and the control of supply. A substantial cause for concern lies in the considerable errors found elsewhere when payments have been made to recipients whom the court considers ineligible for them under the programmes concerned. The errors take place in member states, where tens of thousands of national, regional and local officials are involved.

Improved financial management and control are clearly required at all levels, but essentially responsibility for policing and disbursement of public moneys lies with national Governments--a point emphasised in the long-running saga of a certain beef scandal concerning one of Northern Ireland's close neighbours. [Laughter]. I am trying to be delicate. It is therefore extremely important to change the behaviour of member states, which should attempt not to maximise the funds that they can obtain but to gain the maximum value for money from them.

Nowhere in the United Kingdom is this more important than in Northern Ireland, where we hear much about proposed partnerships and accountability, especially in the context of the programme for peace and reconciliation. Her Majesty's Government have a heavy responsibility to ensure that the commendable objective of partnership does not supersede the vital issue of accountability. Nor must officials usurp the authority or functions of Her Majesty's Ministers. In his exchange with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) made a relevant point in this regard.

I remind the House that new and ad hoc structures do not necessarily have the in-built safeguard of long experience in meeting the close scrutiny of, say, the local authority audit. Our sound traditions and practices in those areas are worth preserving if we are not to degenerate into the laissez-faire methods that we find so unacceptable in other places.

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Commissioner Liikanen said in Strasbourg recently:

I entirely agree with that proposition.

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