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11.45 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): About once a fortnight, the House assembles to hear the Government marshall their arguments for this policy. Every time, their arguments become weaker, less plausible and more desperate. Tonight, we have seen the start of the Government's retreat.

The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) said that it came as a surprise to him that the Minister was offering this half concession. It came as no surprise to me because, characteristically, a journalist had phoned me some hours ago saying that the Secretary of State would offer it and asking what our response would be. As ever, it had been leaked to the press hours before it came to the House.

We should pay tribute to hon. Members in the other place for their commendable insistence and for producing a reasonable and narrow amendment, which the Government would accept if they had any sense. I urge their Lordships to keep going until the Government's U-turn tonight becomes the headlong retreat that this policy deserves.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), a former Secretary of State for Education, honoured the Secretary of State by saying that he had two arguments. I suggest that basically he had one--that two anomalies are possible and thatthe Government are choosing the easier of them.

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That argument does not bear the faintest examination. If one accepts, as the Government do, that the Scottish and English education systems are different, one could accept that the fee structure should be different. If one does not accept that, as the Government appear not to, two students doing identical courses will pay different fees. That is unfair, and if the Government do not recognise it, they are being wilfully ignorant and deliberately pig-headed.

Let us be generous to the Secretary of State. If there are two anomalies, which is the easiest to swallow? The Lords amendment would introduce fairness to Scottish university courses at a cost of £2 million. That is slightly more than three times the cost of the Lord Chancellor's wallpaper. We could pay for it out of the extra budget allocated to political advisers and spin doctors by the Government. We are told that the Scottish Office already has the £2 million in its estimates. Only the arrogance of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment stands between the Government and a welcome outbreak of common sense on this policy. [Interruption.] He has blustered away, and continues to do so from a sedentary position. I invite him to consider the effect that he has had on his colleagues in the other place.

We have already heard some of what Lord Shore of Stepney said, but it is worth repeating to the House another of his remarks. He said that his colleagues in the other place,

He emphasised the word "repugnance" and he was right to do so. I hope that, this evening, there are once again some men and women of principle on the Government Benches who are prepared to vote according to their conscience.

The Secretary of State has not convinced Britain's students either. Tonight, I am happy to give a plug for The Guardian, which tomorrow will feature a full-page advertisement asking the crucial question:

The advertisement has been placed by the National Union of Students, whose representatives tell me that a ring round enabled them to raise, in one afternoon and in voluntary contributions from member unions, the money to pay for the advertisement, such is the strength of feeling against the Government's policy in universities throughout the country. The NUS makes the key points:

    "We know it doesn't make sense. The House of Lords knows it doesn't make sense. Is it so hard to admit a simple error?"

It is clearly too hard for the Labour Government and for the Secretary of State.

The NUS addresses itself directly to the Prime Minister, asking:

I hope that, for once, Education Ministers will listen to those most involved in the process of education--the students who are going through it.

What arguments we have heard from those few Labour Back Benchers whom the Government have managed to get on their feet tonight have been straightforward, old-fashioned class warfare, in which vein they have been

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encouraged by the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson). In a recent article for The Scotsman, he wrote:

    "the most conspicuous beneficiaries of the concession demanded by the Lords would be the products of private education outside Scotland who opted to pursue the four-year Scottish honours degree."

In new Labour, class warfare is the last refuge of the scoundrel. If they have nothing else left, they revert to their atavistic instincts.

In this case, to do so is not only cheap, but inappropriate. First, if the Minister has great objections to gilded youth from English public schools, what about gilded youth from Scottish public schools? For some reason, Fettes springs to mind. Secondly, and more to the point, what about the many students from Northern Ireland who choose to pursue higher education in Scotland? The president of the NUS in Scotland says that he has been

That is what the students from Northern Ireland are saying. The Government's attack on them as a privileged elite is completely inappropriate.

Let us look at the real figures relating to the students about whom the Minister talks. I shall quote from another article by the Minister--I have been assiduous above and beyond the call of duty in reading all the Minister's words--in The Times Higher Educational Supplement. He wrote:

The Minister might regard a £16,500 family income as enormous or as signifying fat cats, but I should point out that that is only just over £8,000 per parent. Are such people really fat cats? Are they worthy of the sneers of the Minister and those sitting behind him, desperate to do the Whips' bidding? No, they are exactly the people whom we should be encouraging into higher education, many of whom are the first from their families.

I agree that the Minister has made his case worse than he needed to, because the Government's own figures state that, if a student's gross family income is less than about £23,000 a year, the students and the student's family will not have to pay anything towards fees. The Government seem to regard any family on more than £11,500 per year per parent as a fat-cat family that does not deserve any help to get into higher education. That attitude is completely disgraceful.

Then there is the legal case. How much do the Government expect to pay in legal fees when the decision is challenged? It certainly will be challenged. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) mentioned advice from Edinburgh university. He will know that there is advice from many distinguished lawyers from Scotland and elsewhere that the European convention on human rights will leave the Government wide open to challenge. Quite apart from the wider issue of equity, they should not waste the education budget in this way.

The one interesting point that the Secretary of State made was that, in all cases, this House must prevail. That is the true arrogance of power. No revising Chamber in

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any circumstance will be listened to by this Government, not even when, as in this case, it is supported by students, vice-chancellors, the Scottish universities, legal experts and every Opposition party. Not one Labour Back Bencher who is keenly involved in this issue has made any plausible case in favour of the policy. Where are the former presidents of the NUS when students need them?

The Secretary of State has tonight started the long retreat, but his offer of a review is completely inadequate. Why does he not offer Labour Members a free vote on this issue? That would be a proper concession. If he does not, we shall know that it is only the payroll vote, the ambitious-for-a-job vote and the Whips' lackeys' vote that are pushing through this absurd policy. We have won the intellectual argument and we have won the moral argument. I urge hon. Members on all sides to go into the Lobby against this miserable policy and save the Government from themselves.

Mr. Wilson: Perhaps I can help the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) with his intellectual argument because he obviously has difficulty distinguishing between £16,000 and £23,000. I shall help him because I know that he is anxious to secure the intellectual basis of his argument. One figure is net and the other is gross. I appreciate that those are difficult concepts.

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