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Mr. Dalyell: May we hark back to the persistent, pertinent, but unanswered questions put by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs)? It is part of the business of the House of Commons to think policies through, and I want, first, to ask a direct question of my hon. Friend the Minister. What happens in court when a student from Belfast--they are a litigious lot there--decides to take court action in relation to that student from Dublin who is paying £1,000 less? That is not a possibility whipped out of the air; as certain as certain can be, there will be legal action. When I interrupted his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Minister said, "I would not be at the Dispatch Box unless all those things had been taken care of," but I fear that I have experience of too many Ministers of different parties going to the Dispatch Box and saying, "Yes, we are legally watertight--all is well," and, some time later--usually sooner rather than later--coming back, with the proverbial egg on their face. I repeat the question: what is the legal advice?

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), a former Minister with responsibility for higher education, knows very well that there is massive Government lawyer legal

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advice available to any Minister. Are we to take it that that advice has not been forthcoming? Either it has not been forthcoming, or the House of Commons deserves to be told tonight what that advice is. Many of us, from different angles, think that we are going to get into great difficulty with the European, and possibly the UK, courts. Will the Minister say something about that?

Secondly, on the question of elitism, 30 per cent. of the students at Heriot-Watt come from England. That is not elitism--it is a very real problem for the Scottish universities. Thirdly, among many letters that I have received is one from a Labour party member in Kirkby Lonsdale, Mrs. Rodd, who says:

That is the view of a prominent Labour party member from the north of England. How are we supposed to answer that?

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh) alluded to a number of organisations, including the Association of University Teachers. The last paragraph of a letter that it sent to all Scottish Members of Parliament states:

That is the considered view of the AUT.

10.45 pm

Finally, as I see the Whip looking at his watch, I should like to say that I was taught by the late Aneurin Bevan, as were many of my generation, that one should always take the strongest argument against one. In this case,it is the figure of £27 million. I put that case toStewart Sutherland, vice-chancellor of the university of Edinburgh, for a considered opinion, which was this:

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have told the hon. Gentleman on previous occasions that I do not want him to read letters from outside organisations in full. He knows how to paraphrase a letter better than I do, so I hope that he will not get into the practice of reading them into the record.

Mr. Dalyell: I would disagree with you on only one thing, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that is that I could do that better than you. I am sure that you would do it better.

The gist of the letter is that the vice-chancellor of the university of Edinburgh, who has some say in the matter, is convinced, along with his colleagues--I think that he is speaking for the vice-chancellors--that we should reflect carefully before going ahead.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): At the end of this debate, there is only one real question left: what was the

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exact mixture of incompetence, malice and pig- headedness that put the Government in their current hole? Just look at the coalition that is assembled against them. It is not merely my right hon. and hon. Friends, but the Liberal Democrats, the nationalists, the Cross-Bench peers and men and women of principle on the Labour Benches.

Outside this House, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Scottish universities and the National Union of Students are all lined up against the Government. Outside the Government ranks, no one thinks that their policy is fair and right.

The reason for such an all-embracing coalition opposing the Government is richly illustrated by the appalling mess that the Prime Minister and other Ministers have got themselves into when trying to argue that the measure is not making Scottish universities less attractive. First, the Minister says that applications are down; secondly, the Prime Minister says that they are up; thirdly, the Prime Minister says that, when he said up, he meant down, but not down as much as other applications. Truly, that is Orwellian; it is "Nineteen Eighty-Four", new Labour newspeak--up means down and black means white.

Behind that--whether one believes what the Minister said last week, what the Prime Minister said last week, or what the Prime Minister said this week--there is even greater confusion. When I asked the Department for Education and Employment for its projected application figures, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), said that the Department did not publish them. When asked a straight question, the Government answers "Yes," "No," and "We do not know." Any student applying to a Scottish university will have to do better than that.

It is important to nail some myths that the Government have propagated this evening. The first is that their policy is having no effect on applications. The Universities and Colleges Admission Service has said that applications from England to Scottish universities are 4.1 per cent. down on last year. The trend has been steadily rising, but it is now going down because of the Government's policy.

Let me nail another myth--that English students can easily, after A-levels, pick up a Scottish course in the second year. There are various problems with that, not least the fact that they do not and cannot. Last year, 8 per cent. of English students at Scottish universities started their courses in the second year. The Association of University Teachers has said that, even at that manageable level, anecdotal evidence from its members and from students shows that many students find the transition too difficult and either drop down into the first year or have to retake the second year. The idea that English students are sufficiently capable to swan in in the second year without needing the four-year course is completely at variance with the facts.

Even if it were true that English students could easily begin the course in the second year, that assumes that English students will all have done A-levels. From a Government who are supposed to be encouraging vocational qualifications and different types of learning, that assumption is particularly perverse. What about students from other European countries, many of which also have completely different education systems? Why are those students entitled to privileges that students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland do not have?

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The Minister was reduced to complete absurdity when he tried to defend the policy on the "World At One". He was asked why a youngster from France would pay £3,000 when a youngster from England would pay £4,000. "Ah," said the Minister, "it's because France is in the European Union"--to which the interviewer responded: "Isn't England?" That sums up the Government's confusion as well as anything.

Among the opposition that is clear, concise and principled is that from the National Union of Students. I pay tribute to the current leadership, because it consists of that increasingly rare breed--independent-minded Labour politicians. I dare say that many of them are ambitious to sit in the House with their Labour colleagues. Indeed, the principled Labour Members who will vote against the Government tonight should include former presidents of the NUS, of whom there are five on the Labour Benches. I ask them which way they will vote. Will the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy), for example, defend the interests of students or the interests of his career?

I contrast how I suspect many of the ex-presidents of the NUS will vote with the principled stance taken by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). I do not want to embarrass him by complimenting him too much; I merely observe that, in return for his principles, it has been decided that he is unfit to be a Labour candidate for the Scottish Parliament. The Labour party is right in that--men and women of principle are not what it requires on its benches in the Scottish Parliament.

The Minister said that he is acting on the best legal advice. He should consider the European convention on human rights; the Human Rights Bill has not yet been enacted but, when it is, it will have a serious effect on the Government's policy.

In The Scotsman today, Dr. Dennis Farrington, a law lecturer at Stirling university and the author of "The Law of Higher Education", said that a student would be able to challenge the Government's policy through the British courts. If the lawyers are telling the Minister that everything is okay, my friendly advice to him is to go and find some new lawyers. One can always find lawyers to give a new opinion, and the advice from Government lawyers is probably wrong.

The Minister made palpable his dislike of many of the most distinguished Scottish universities. He had gone to the trouble of researching where the students came from so that he could sneer at them. It is a matter for him whether he dislikes English public schools so much that he wants to denigrate them and the students they send to Scottish universities, but if he sneers at English public schools he may end up sneering at Scottish public schools such as Fettes, which might prove disadvantageous to his career.

It is ill advised to sneer at well-off students from England but to assume that well-off students from all other countries are okay. The Minister had a go at alliteration. Why is his policy okay in Motherwell or Munich, but not in Manchester? The hon. Memberfor North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) presented an extraordinary argument on Europe. He was right to say that the Scottish system is fundamentally different. That is why the Government's argument that the change would cost them £27 million, rather than the £2 million for the purely Scottish exemption, is completely spurious. The Government picked that figure of £27 million out of the air and cannot justify it in any way.

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The heart of our argument is not statistical: it concerns fairness. Students from North Berwick and from Berwick-upon-Tweed should be treated on the same basis in the same universities, be they in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Both the changes that the Lords want to make would achieve that equality--the first for students at English and Welsh universities and the second for those at Scottish universities--and would not commit the Government to that spurious £27 million.

The Government have made no case at all. Hon. Members can vote against the Government, safe in the knowledge that they are on the side of both justice and rational argument. If they have a spark of decency and a sense of fairness--whether they are old Labour, new Labour, Liberal Democrat, nationalist or Conservative--hon. Members will vote against the Government's mean-spirited little proposals.

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