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Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): I speak in this debate as the first person from my family to enter higher education and as one who spent a long time representing students in post-16 and post-graduate education.

I praise the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), who encapsulated the lessons that I learnt the hard way by representing students and the real politics that faced us when we gained office and read the Dearing report. Those who advocate swallowing all of Dearing forget that that report suggested that every student, regardless of his or her socio-economic background, should pay a flat tuition fee. [Interruption.] I do not find that funny. The reality for students under your Government was debt because of the way that you whittled down the student grant.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. The Chair does not have a Government.

Lorna Fitzsimons: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the passion carries me away.

Under the previous Administration, the student grant was whittled down to such a small amount that debt was a way of life for the majority of students. Therefore, I think that it is fickle for the Opposition to talk about student debt in relation to the maintenance grant. They had plenty of time to address the problem of debt among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Labour turned honestly to the Dearing report before the last election--as did all three main parties. We recognised that we had a limited amount of money and a crisis on our hands and we considered how we would spend those funds.

As my colleagues have pointed out eloquently, the Government's priority was ensuring that the barrier to higher education was not at the point of access. I am disappointed that hon. Members have confused students with graduates in this debate. Students will pay off loans for tuition fees or maintenance grants only after they have graduated and their incomes have reached a certain level. Under the previous Administration, we had the most expensive student loans system that was ever manufactured. Despite all the economic expertise of the banks, London school of economics graduates, professors and so on, it would have been cheaper to give students the money than administer the old student loans system. We must be honest about the plight that many students face.

The other argument I wish to nail is the claim that we have enjoyed free state higher education and that this Government are somehow responsible for its abolition.

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As has been said in the Chamber tonight, that denies the fact that many students have been responsible for meeting their own fees for years--only a minority of students were privileged to receive the state subsidy. That fact is swept under the carpet. The Opposition are not bothered that those students have had to shoulder the load; they have had to pay their fees and it has been hard. The reality, however, is that new Labour is about principles.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lorna Fitzsimons: No, I will not; I have limited time.

With limited money and with the crisis that we inherited, we had to ensure that there was no barrier to access for those poor students who, we believed, would have been more disfranchised by having to pay a tuition fee. That is where we put our subsidy. We are putting our policies and principles into practice. I am sad that some of my colleagues cannot see the reality of the system that we inherited.

In a perfect world, of course we would like everyone--

Mr. Allan: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lorna Fitzsimons: No; I have limited time and I am trying to let more hon. Members speak.

In an imperfect world, it is necessary to prioritise. We have prioritised, ensuring that poor students do not have to pay fees. If there is one message that must go out of the Chamber to the students of the future, it is: "If you come from a low-income background, you will not have to pay a fee under the present Government's proposals."

Yvette Cooper (Pontefract and Castleford): Tonight, we have heard many arguments about access--especially access for people from low-income and low-skill backgrounds. Labour Members passionately agree about that. We all believe in that, we all want to achieve it and we are all passionately angry about the previous Government's failure to do enough to get children from lower-income backgrounds into higher education. However, we must be hard-headed about the way in which we act to pursue that goal.

In my constituency, the problem is not only the low number of people entering higher education, but the low number of people who stay on, after age 16, in any form of education. Nationally, 77 per cent. of 16-year-olds stay on in full-time or part-time education. In my constituency, only 50 per cent. do. From some schools, only 25 per cent. do.

Mr. Swayne: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Yvette Cooper: I shall not give way. I am sorry, but I have little time and it has been a long debate.

In my constituency, 30 per cent. of teenagers leave school at 16 and go into unemployment or into a job with no training. That is the problem that we must face if we are to improve access to the crucial skills and education that, at the moment, are the key to prosperity in life. To tackle inequality in this country--

Mr. Corbyn: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Yvette Cooper: I am sorry; I must make progress, because it has been a long debate and I want to finish to allow other hon. Members to get in.

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To tackle inequality in this country today, we must do so through education. If we leave those 16-year-olds in my constituency without access to further or higher education, we are failing to tackle inequality. Faced with a choice between a continuation of the existing maintenance grant system, a return to the 1990 maintenance grant system, as suggested by amendment No. 36 and a new, fair, loan system that liberates hard cash to do something radical for the 16-year-olds in my constituency, enabling them to stay on and have a chance, I shall go for the fair loans and the cash, to do something more substantial.

It is a fair principle that graduates who earn more--

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Yvette Cooper: I am sorry; I shall not take interventions.

It is a fair principle that graduates, as they earn more--because they do earn more--should pay something back. Even taking into account the three years that they may spend not earning, they still earn more. They earn masses more than the people in my constituency who are not going into any form of further or higher education--some figures say 10 per cent. more, others say 25 per cent. Either way, a degree is the key to getting on in life, and to higher earnings throughout life.

Of course, society also benefits from higher education, so society must continue to contribute to it. That is a central part of the Secretary of State's higher education funding proposals. Society must continue to pay, but it is fair that people who earn the most pay something back.

I have been very lucky. I have benefited not only from higher education and an undergraduate degree, but from being able to take a master's degree at the London school of economics. As a result of the latter, my earning power--my salary--doubled. I took out a career development loan to pay for that, and I have only just finished paying it back. I think that it was fair that I should take out a loan, rather than asking people in my constituency who have been taxpayers in low-income jobs to pay that subsidy to my higher earnings.

Of course, post-graduate education is different from undergraduate education. I do not say that the same principles should apply, but the underlying principle that if one earns more and is benefiting more, one should pay something back is surely right.

I ask the House, having listened to the debate this evening, not to vote for the status quo, which has not helped my constituents, but to take the radical approach, to go for the new, fair student loan system and to give us the cash to do something far more powerful to help my constituents to get a better chance in life.

11 pm

Mr. Green: Behind much of the passion that we have seen this evening lies a good deal of sadness. I share that sadness because the House will take an historic decision this evening if it votes against the amendment and votes with the Government today and tomorrow, and it is a historically wrong decision.

The maintenance grant has served many thousands of people well since it was introduced, and I see no reason why it should not continue to do so. Like many hon.

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Members on both sides of the House, I benefited from it. I was educated at a state school, and my sister and I were the first generation of our family to go on to higher education. We benefited from maintenance grants.

Clearly, we cannot continue with the previous system if the expansion of higher education is to continue; we all accept that. That is why the previous Government introduced a mixed grant and loan system, and we can be proud of that. I am extremely proud of the massive expansion in higher education over the past 18 years. When we came to power, one in eight went into universities; when we left, the figure was one in three. That gave many thousands of young people the opportunity to go into higher education--an opportunity that they would never have had in any previous decade.

We should be proud of that expansion, and we should recognise that we achieved it through a balanced financial system which mixed grants and loans for those students. Many Labour Members pointed out that access did not diminish after loans were introduced, and we can all be proud of that. One Labour Member noted that since the loan system was introduced, not only did the numbers go up, but the range of those going into higher education increased. There can be no hon. Member who does not believe that we must do better in extending the range of those who have access to higher education.

The objection to the Government's proposals, and the reason why we support the amendment, is that their proposal will move sharply in the opposite direction. Many Labour Members are embarrassed about it because they feel that they are breaking their election pledge. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) observed that his constituents did not think that they were voting for the introduction of tuition fees if they voted for a Labour Government. He can go further than that.

A month before the election, in his 50 answers to the Evening Standard, the Prime Minister was asked in question No. 6:

He replied:

    "Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education."

Perhaps the Secretary of State could argue that something has happened since that has changed the situation.

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