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Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government did not publish their suggestions on how loans are to be paid back until the last day of the Labour party conference? To obtain that information on the day of the conference, Labour Back Benchers had to access it through the internet. The proposal was that, as soon as people earn £10,000 they will have to pay 9 per cent. of their income towards their loan. A student who has been on a four-year course will probably be paying back the loan for 30 years.

Mr. Dorrell: My hon. Friend is right about the timing of the publication of the details of that proposal. He is a trifle grudging in his representation of the Secretary of State's political skills. I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman was right to conceal that information from his party conference if he wanted to get the motion passed on the floor. It was a straightforward exercise in political management.

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More important, my hon. Friend could have pointed out that not only was that information published at the very end of the Labour party conference, but it was denied to people whose opinions were being sought following the publication of the Secretary of State's recommendations at the end of July.

It is important to understand why this shambles arose. When he took office, the Secretary of State thought that he knew what Dearing intended to propose, and it was supposed to be relatively straightforward. All parties in the House supported the continued development of higher education. One of the aspects of our record in office of which I am most proud is the improved access to higher education between 1979 and 1997. I agree with Sir Ron Dearing and with the Secretary of State that continued development of higher education should be an objective of Government policy.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Is the shadow Secretary of State also proud of the Tory Government's record of a 40 per cent. reduction in spending per student in higher education?

Mr. Dorrell: The most important thing is to focus on the number of people who have had the opportunities afforded by high-quality higher education. One of the findings of the Dearing review was that the expansion of higher education allowed a dramatically increased number of people to take part, and, furthermore, that they had done so without undermining the quality of the system. That is a Dearing finding with which I agree.

The Secretary of State thought that this matter would be straightforward, and that there would be support for continued development of higher education. He also recognised that the financing of that continued growth required a contribution from students. He expected the Dearing committee to recommend the end of the maintenance grant as the means by which the student contribution to the growth of higher education would be financed. He hoped to be able to present it to the House and to the world as an uncomfortable but unavoidable fact.

The right hon. Gentleman expected the support of the Dearing report for that recommendation, and what he and his right hon. and hon. Friends said during the election campaign were weasel words. They made it clear that they would not introduce tuition fees. They were not expecting to do so, as they were hoping that Dearing would let them off the hook by recommending the ending of the maintenance grant.

The problem that the Secretary of State found when he came to office and actually read the Dearing report was that the Dearing review team did not perform their part of the bargain. They looked at the subject in depth, and concluded that the superficial analysis--to which the Secretary of State is still working--was wrong. The Dearing review is very explicit on that. At paragraph 20.66, it says:

the process of review of the options--


the members of the Dearing review--

    "all changed and developed our views: we did not end up where we started."

It is a great pity that the Secretary of State did not allow himself and his colleagues in the Government sufficient time to go through the same process. In his anxiety to get

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to the Floor of the House and announce a quick conclusion, the Secretary of State denied himself and his colleagues the opportunity to consider the evidence that led the Dearing team to a different conclusion from the one that they, the right hon. Gentleman and--probably--we expected when the Dearing review was established.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I share the right hon. Gentleman's criticism of the new Government's change of position and the misleading nature of their comments before the election. Just for the record, can it be made clear whether it is Conservative party policy that students should make a contribution to their fees?

Mr. Dorrell: I have already said--I was slightly surprised by the quiet in the House as I said it--that it was not a subject of dispute between the Government and Opposition Front-Bench teams that, if we are to see the continued growth of higher education, students need to participate in the financing of that growth. The question is how. The Dearing review examined the central options, which the Government have examined, and recommended against the conclusions that the Government reached. Let us examine why the Dearing review reached the conclusion that it did.

Dearing said that he was concerned about the problem of equitable access to higher education for students from a low-income background. When the Secretary of State came to the House in July, he said that he was also concerned about that subject. It is therefore strange that he should have rejected Dearing's recommendation to continue the means-tested maintenance grant, because Dearing recommended that it be continued precisely in order to address the problems of equitable access for students from low-income backgrounds.

There are some fairly startling figures in the Dearing report. Let us consider equivalently qualified students with two A-levels prior to entering higher education. Of people taking A-levels and securing two, 77 per cent. of those from high-income backgrounds go on to higher education. The equivalent figure for students from low-income backgrounds is 47 per cent. It is a responsibility of the taxpayer, through the Government, to seek to ensure that the playing field is made as level as it can be for students from low-income backgrounds, yet the Government have set their face firmly against that Dearing recommendation and analysis.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): All that the right hon. Gentleman has said is quite correct. I think that Dearing was absolutely shocked to discover that, although there had been a great increase in the number of people going into higher education, the number of those from lower socio-economic groups had hardly gone up at all. Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore accept that it was a mistake for his Government to move from full maintenance grants to 50 per cent. loans?

Mr. Dorrell: The issue is not a great inquiry about what happened over the past 18 years, but what the Government are going to do now. From the point of view of the hon. Lady's question, what the Government are going to do is take the record they inherited and make it

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a great deal worse. The Secretary of State's proposals will make it £2,265 more expensive for a student from a low-income background to do a three-year undergraduate course in England than it was on the day that the right hon. Gentleman took office.

The hon. Lady should address her question to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, whose proposals will make it more difficult for a student from a low-income background to finance a course of higher education than it is for a student from a middle or higher-income background.

That is the central charge against the Government. A high-income student will face a cost increase of £3,000 for a three-year course, but a low-income student will face a cost increase of £5,265. That is an extraordinary testament to the new Labour Government, and it is the central point that the Secretary of State must explain to his right hon. and hon. Friends, the student body and those who are responsible for managing the university sector, who do not share his analysis.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking): The right hon. Gentleman has been on his feet for more than 15 minutes, and we have no idea what policy he would follow if he were Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Does he support the introduction of tuition fees, and does he believe that they should be means-tested?

Mr. Dorrell: I thought that I had made it clear that I do not support the Government's proposals, which are the subject of our debate today. It is an old tactic for Government Back Benchers--and the hon. Lady is a skilled exponent of it--whenever the Government are in difficulty, to ask the Opposition what they would do. This Parliament has four and a half years to run, and the hon. Lady should inquire of the Secretary of State how he will deliver the combined objectives of improved access to higher education and equitable access for students from a low-income background.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) rose--

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