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Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): If we are to accept the right hon. Gentleman's argument that there should be an anomaly for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, given that we have debated the matter on several occasions and that it is important that the facts are laid before the House, will he take us through, country by country, the anomaly of why the education systemsof France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Portugal, Spain,

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Belgium and the rest of them make them eligible for a means-tested tuition fee, but not England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Mr. Blunkett: The hon. Lady misses the point. We are not talking about the education systems of France or Portugal but of Scotland.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Ask for a better briefing.

Mr. Blunkett: I have a perfectly good briefing. To carry through the recommendations of Dearing and Garrick, because the United Kingdom is part of the European Union, we must reflect on what happens in the home countries in terms of European Union entitlement. It ill becomes the Liberal Democrats, who are great enthusiasts for Europe, to use as a stick to beat us the inevitable outcome that we must acknowledge students from Europe. I want to explain to the House just how big an anomaly it really is.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I shall, when I have explained just how many students are affected by what our opponents describe as the European anomaly.

In 1996-97, there were precisely 350 students in their fourth year in Scottish universities from other European nations. Is it worth overturning the European issue, which is exercising Opposition Members and the House of Lords, in order to create a much bigger anomaly, whereby we would inevitably be accused of discriminating in favour of a young person doing a four-year degree course in Scotland, rather than in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?

We cannot afford as a nation to create a new anomaly that would inevitably cost us at least £27 million to take account of four-year degrees in the remaining countries of the United Kingdom. We simply could not do it. Twenty-seven million pounds is a convincing sum in terms of opening up access to students throughout the UK who are currently being encouraged to take up university places.

10.30 pm

Mr. Beith: Will the Secretary of State explain to students and potential students in Northumberland why what is perceived as a potential unfairness in relation to students from other European Union member countries is not recognised by the Government as an unfairness in relation to the inhabitants of Northumberland when they find themselves, not in two different universities, but in the same university as students who are paying £1,000 less in tuition fees for the same course--who, in some cases, would be students with whom they had gone to school, and who lived only a few miles from where they lived?

Mr. Blunkett: Because to do otherwise than we propose would result in the anomaly of which the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly aware--that exemption would apply to a student from his constituency who went to Edinburgh or Dundee, but not to a student who went to Newcastle. It is as simple--[Interruption.] It is as simple

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as that. I shall repeat--[Interruption.]--I shall repeat it again, because Opposition Members are so intent on shouting out after a good supper that they cannot understand the point: to do other than we propose would result in the right hon. Gentleman's constituents in Northumberland finding themselves able to be exempt from fees if they went north of the border, but not if they went to Newcastle.

That would create an entirely new anomaly affecting all four-year courses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. If the House believes that that is an anomaly when it affects 350 students from Europe, what about the anomaly affecting 60,000 students from the rest of the United Kingdom? That is what it amounts to.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I shall in a moment.

Precisely because we have had so much difficulty explaining to Members of this House and of the House of Lords why one tiny anomaly relating to European students should not be replaced by a very substantial anomaly relating to all four-year degrees throughout the country, and precisely because we do not appear yet to have managed to get the message across that, in any case, those who are not so well off will already be exempt from, or will have ameliorated, the fourth-year expenditure in Scotland if their income is insufficient to meet it--for those reasons, I want to offer a way forward tonight.

Mr. Rendel: Will the Secretary of State give way now?

Mr. Blunkett: The hon. Gentleman must have been in the House long enough to know that intervening on me at the moment when I am about to say something that might be of interest to him is not the best way of encouraging me to deliver it.

We have said throughout the proceedings on the Bill that we are prepared to monitor the impact of the changes that we are introducing. That is why, to enable Members of this House and the House of Lords to reflect on the alternatives and the anomalies that they would probably create, I offer, with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland, the opportunity to have an independent review early next year to examine how our proposals for the Scottish fourth-year exemption are working. That review would monitor the impact--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. The House must listen to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Blunkett: I am giving hon. Members a little time so that the wine and whisky can quieten them a little.

We propose to offer an independent review to take account of those entering Scottish universities this year and early applications for next year. It could also take account of the views of Opposition parties--if they so wish--the Scottish higher education principals, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and others on the alternatives that they consider might be better. That is not rubbish; it is not to be dismissed. It will give the

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other place and Opposition parties in this House the chance to state what action they want to be taken and to acknowledge what would be the impact of that action. That review would take place far in advance of any student reaching the fourth year under the new system.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Will the Secretary of State's acknowledgement that there may be some merit in the opposition to the proposal lead the Government to say that they will not try to reverse the Lords amendments, but accept them unless and until they are convinced that they are right and everybody else is wrong?

Mr. Blunkett: No, I shall not say that, for several important reasons. The most important reason is that, when an unelected House attempts again and again to overturn the declared will of an elected Chamber, it is always the democratic elected Chamber that must succeed in putting through its policies. In the end, whether or not the House of Lords believes that it is right, that its wisdom is greater than ours and that the anomalies that it would create are fewer than the ones that it criticises us for creating, this House must account to the British people.

This House must stand or fall by what it does. This House will, in the end, have to take responsibility for the outcome. That is why this House, on behalf of the democratic constitution of our country and the people who elected us, has to succeed in having its way. That is why we shall overturn the Lords amendment, and, if the Lords send it back to us again, we will overturn it again. That is why this House must always prevail over the unelected House next door.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): I begin by welcoming the Secretary of State, because so far he has not played a conspicuous role in the debate on this matter. We hoped that, as he had deigned to contribute to the discussion of the Scottish anomaly, we might have a prospect of making progress. The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, has come to the Chamber several times with feeble and unconvincing arguments, and we hoped that the Secretary of State could come up with something better. That hope was further encouraged when we read some briefing--I do not know whose ministerial office it was faxed from--in last week's Financial Times. The journalist wrote:

He has under-performed, has he? This issue led to the second biggest rebellion in this Chamber since the election, apart from the single parent vote, and the biggest defeat for the Government in the Lords since 1913, which, come to think of it, was a year after the Titanic under-performed as well.

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