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House of Commons

Tuesday 23 June 1998

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Undergraduate Course Applications

1. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): How many applications were made to Scottish universities for undergraduate courses starting in the 1998-99 academic year by students whose principal residence is in England, Wales or Northern Ireland; and how many such applications were made for courses starting in the 1997-98 year. [45570]

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): According to recently released figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the number of applicants to Scottish higher education institutions from the rest of the UK in 1998 was 33,081 by 16 May 1998; that compares with 34,527 on the same date in 1997.

Mr. St. Aubyn: As the figures suggest, there has been a significant fall in the number of applicants from the rest of the United Kingdom--and, of course, they have not yet taken up their places. Is it not time that the Government acknowledged the unfairness of the extra year's £1,000 tuition fee being charged to students from the rest of the UK? Do the Government recognise that they are driving a wedge between Scottish students and those from other parts of the country and, in doing so, yet again playing into the hands of the independence movement that they claim to oppose?

Mr. Wilson: From the point of view of the hon. Gentleman, who composed--or received--that question, I imagine that the fall I have reported is disappointingly small. I wonder how he squares his thesis with the fact that the reduction in applications from Scotland to the rest of the UK is greater than the reduction in applications from the rest of the UK into Scotland. The reduction obviously has nothing to do with tuition fees; applications have held up extremely well. If we take account of the fact that there has been a substantial increase in admissions to Scottish universities in the current academic year, there has been no drop-off at all in applications to university from any part of the UK.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): Is the Minister aware that in a speech yesterday Lord Dearing

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indicated great concern about the public funding of universities and warned of overcrowded classes, declining standards and soaring student failure and drop-out rates? Will the Minister take this opportunity to give an unequivocal undertaking that any sums raised from the payment of fees will be ring-fenced and put right back into higher education?

Mr. Wilson: With respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, he must explain his position as well. We can say exactly where additional money will come from for universities and for further education because we have had the courage to take decisions about funding. The Liberal Democrats, nationalists and Tories have resisted those difficult decisions in terms of their own policies. I can say with confidence that, as a result of our changes--based on the Dearing recommendations--substantial additional money will go to higher education.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that university education was regressive and did not help to increase participation by young people from working-class families? Does not the new system still take account of three quarters of the cost of tuition? Is not it much fairer, in the sense that the individual and society benefit, while sharing the cost?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At present, there is 11 per cent. entry into higher education in Scotland from the two lower socio-economic groups, whereas there is more than 80 per cent. entry from the two highest socio-economic groups. That is the status quo which all Opposition parties appear anxious to defend. On the contrary, we have said that on all grounds access must be extended. That is why people from households with below average earnings will pay absolutely nothing in tuition fees and why we have abolished fees for part-time students from lower income backgrounds in Scotland. All those measures are aimed at widening access, and there is nothing in the proposals to limit higher education access for people from less well-off backgrounds--quite the contrary, and potential students, whose life prospects depend on decisions taken now, understand that. That is why applications have held up so well, in spite of the efforts of some Opposition Members.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I am sure that the Minister will shortly receive the cool Britannia medal from the Prime Minister for the calm way in which he responds to his figures. Will he give the House a firm assurance that he will at no time during this Parliament increase the tuition fee in Scotland?

Mr. Wilson: I welcome the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) to the Dispatch Box; I am sure that he will join me in wishing Scotland well tonight. Opposition Members must live with the basic fact that, despite the changes in student funding, applications for higher education in Scotland have held up extremely well. The systems of higher education in Scotland and in England are different--school qualifications are different and university degree courses are different--and cannot be matched perfectly. Addressing that anomaly would create a much greater anomaly for people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, for example.

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Road Deaths

2. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): What representations he has received about the level of road deaths in Scotland. [45571]

The Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office (Mr. Henry McLeish): I am aware that the number of road accident casualties is a matter of great concern to a great many people. The Government share that concern and are committed to bringing about further reductions in the toll of people killed and injured on our roads.

Mr. Stewart: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the recent investigation by the statistical office of the European Commission shows that 118 people per million are killed on roads in the highlands and islands--the highest proportion in Scotland? The Automobile Association argues that one factor is the number of single-track roads. Will he undertake to end the folly of single-track trunk roads in Scotland and to aid road safety in the highlands and islands?

Mr. McLeish: I am aware of my hon. Friend's concerns about the recent statistics, but there is no one simple reason for the problems in the highlands. To put the figures in perspective, every day in Scotland 62 people are injured, 11 people are seriously injured, one person dies and there are 22 proven drink-driving charges and 250 speeding offences. We live in a dangerous situation, where people act irresponsibly. I should like to think that we will be taking further steps not only in the highlands, but across Scotland, to tackle this evil on our roads.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What comparison has the Minister made between the Scottish and English statistics, and what reason does he give for the discrepancy?

Mr. McLeish: I have made no comparison with the English statistics.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Will the Minister confirm that the current roads review will take cognisance of safety issues and not be purely Treasury driven? There are still too many accident black spots in my constituency--as he will see when he visits it later this year--and in others that have gone unremedied for far too long.

Mr. McLeish: The trunk roads review is based on a number of criteria, of which, of course, efficiency, the environment, the economy and safety are very important. I have met, in London and in Edinburgh, many hon. Members from both sides of the House to discuss their concerns, and I have committed myself to an exhaustive programme of visits in August to ensure that I receive the information at first hand. We are determined to make roads safer and to get over to drivers the message that they can kill. The bigger message is: do not drink and drive; do not speed; and be careful in a motor car around children.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): My hon. Friend may be aware that a soldier is seriously ill in

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hospital following the most recent collision on the single carriageway A1 trunk road in south-east Scotland. Will he acknowledge the need for safe and efficient communications between Scotland and England? As the Government are in favour of strong communications between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, will he please press ahead with the dualling of the A1 trunk road?

Mr. McLeish: I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend was one of the Members of Parliament whom we visited to discuss, as part of the roads review, the problems of the A1. We shall issue criteria for the review soon and I shall have the final report at the end of the year. We intend to ensure that safety is the greatest consideration, not only on the A1, but on every trunk road in Scotland. That will, of course, apply equally to the cross-border flows.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): Why did the Minister duck the question from the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) about single-track roads in the highlands? Is he not aware that literally thousands of miles of such roads, through the most beautiful parts of Scotland, draw in visitors who are used to driving on the right and that the statistics about accidents, including deaths, in the highlands are disturbing? Have the Government no policy to deal with such roads in the highlands?

Mr. McLeish: My response was not intended as a ducking of the central issue. In the past few years, a number of measures have been taken to improve road safety in the highlands and islands, such as improvements on the A82 between Tarbert and Inverness, and signing, lining and anti-skid surfacing. For foreign drivers, especially during the summer season, who have difficulty moving from dual to single carriageways, we are trying not only signposting but are having multilingual leaflets printed. We appreciate the problem and are trying to ease the plight of foreign tourists to the highlands and islands. The right hon. Gentleman can be reassured that everything that can be done is being done to improve road safety.

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