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Student Finance

4. Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): What discussions he has had with the Chancellor regarding the implications for the block grant of the Scottish independent inquiry into student finance. [104930]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid): I have regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on a wide range of issues.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that not entirely informative reply. Tonight is Burns night and, like Scots around the world, the Secretary of State and his Ministers will be praising Robert Burns for his poetic eloquence and adherence to the cause of equality. However, as usual, the Government say one thing and do another. Their shabby deal with the Liberal Democrats to share power in the Scottish Executive has meant that they have taken steps on tuition fees in Scotland that shatter

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completely any idea of equality of opportunity in education throughout the United Kingdom. I appreciate that the Secretary of State--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is losing the ear of the House; she is almost losing my ear, too. I must have a question from her. She has made enough statements.

Mrs. Laing: Thank you, Madam Speaker.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State, in his discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has asked him whether he can justify the fact that my constituents will have to pay fees if they attend Scottish universities whereas the Chancellor's constituents in Dunfermline, East will not? Where is the equality in that?

Dr. Reid: I thank the hon. Lady for her informative question. I was not aware that Burns had spoken of any deal apart from the one that went away with the excise man in his literature. However, I bow to her greater knowledge on this subject.

The hon. Lady is commenting on press speculation. I understand that there may be an announcement this afternoon. After that, I think that it will be legitimate to comment on its text. It is rather difficult to comment on the detail before that has been announced. I would say--[Interruption.] As it happens, there will also be an announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Both that announcement and that of the First Minister in Scotland will be made today. These announcements are designed to promote access by less well-off and disadvantaged students to further and higher education. That is of interest to those on the Government Benches and, I hope, to those who occupy some of the Opposition Benches--but obviously not the Conservative Benches.

The Scottish Executive must find its own way to implement the objective. That is its right, and along with that goes the responsibility both to explain its decision and to say from where the finance to fund the changes will come. Tough decisions will have to be made by the Scottish Executive and by the House.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the bard, on this Burns day, may have given the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) a simpler answer? He wrote:

Dr. Reid: Yes.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I am reluctant to get drawn into any more analogies with Burns. I thank the Secretary of State for recognising that spending decisions by the Scottish Parliament are a matter for that Parliament. Therefore, does he welcome the fact that any decision by the Scottish Executive to abolish tuition fees will be a decision of the

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Executive to recognise the wishes of the Scottish electorate as implemented through the Scottish Parliament?

Dr. Reid: It is in the nature of devolution that the power and the right to make these decisions goes to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive. It is therefore inherent that they must say and explain where the money is coming from and to remove that money from some other area of spending within the block grant. That will mean tough decisions for the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament.

The prerogative of demanding power without responsibility lies historically, I think, with organisations such as the Scottish National party, which does not want to take responsibility for making tough decisions and which will approach these matters with only a critical mind. As I have said, there are tough decisions to be made, and the First Minister will make them. When that is done, and when the Government make announcements, the objective will be to see whether we can promote access by the less better off--those from a less well-off family background--to further and higher education.

It is long overdue that we promoted that through the Government and the Scottish Executive. The previous Conservative Government and Conservative Members were never remotely interested in such access, and they are not remotely interested in it now.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be unacceptable to expect constituents in Exeter--indeed, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland--to pay for a system for which they have not voted and from which they cannot benefit? Will he give the House a categorical assurance that the costs of the new student finance arrangements for Scotland will be met by Scottish taxpayers, through the council tax if necessary?

Dr. Reid: There will be no extra costs above the block grant. My hon. Friend may not understand that, so I shall explain it. Money that is allocated to any new scheme for student fees, or any other aspect of education, will have to be taken from some other item in the block grant which has already been agreed. No additional expense will arise from any of the decisions. The First Minister in the Scottish Executive will have to make tough decisions about the source of the money. That is the nature of Government and of making prudent choices. It applies in the House, and it will apply in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): As the Government and the Executive have ducked and wriggled to try to keep their coalition together and to fulfil European law, they have created anomalies for English students in Scotland and now for Scottish students in England. Does not the Secretary of State fear that such decisions, together with the separate but related issue of research selectivity--which operates differently in Scotland--may threaten the integrity and unity of the British higher education system?

Dr. Reid: If Conservative Members can attack Europe and the idea of joining others in the same question, they will do so. The majority of people in this country want the Union that is the United Kingdom to be modernised. They are at ease with the fact that some decisions may be

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passed to the Scottish Parliament, with the proviso that power is accompanied by the responsibility for finding the money from its existing budgets, even if that means hard choices. The Government, like the majority of people, are at ease with that. It will enrich the United Kingdom.

The unity of the country was undermined by the divisions, fractions and splits caused by 20 years of a Tory Government who did not give a damn about what happened in large areas of the north of England, Wales and Scotland, where our industries were decimated and so many of our people thrown into poverty.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I listened carefully to the Secretary of State and I agree that one of the consequences of devolution is that we have to accept that the Scottish Parliament and Executive may decide to do things differently from this place and the Government. However, in those circumstances, would not it be iniquitous if, after the Scottish Executive decided to defer payments for Scottish students tuition fees, the Government blocked their ability to do that for students who attend universities south of the border? That is completely contrary to the spirit of devolution, a fetter on the Scottish Parliament's discretion and, if it happens, a complete disgrace.

Dr. Reid: I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman was calling for or how much he was prepared to spend. I can assure him that some people behind me will be tabulating the public expenditure cost to which he has committed the Conservative party. [Interruption.] We should not make decisions and promises unless we are prepared to pay for effecting them. The Government will not do that. I note that the hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that his party is committed to abolishing fees in English universities.

On the hon. Gentleman's general question, it is the Scottish Parliament's right to meet the objectives that the Scottish Executive has set out. They are the same as the Government's objectives--to promote, by the mechanisms that they determine, access to higher and further education for people from less well-off backgrounds.

Along with that right goes the responsibility to find the money from other areas and budgets. That is a perfectly equitable solution. I have already said that accompanying the First Minister's statement will be an announcement by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment later today, which will be aimed at exactly the same objectives.

Mr. Grieve: The Secretary of State has completely contradicted himself. Earlier he said that this matter is for the Scottish Executive to determine out of the block grant. We are talking therefore about an exclusively Scottish matter. It appears that the Scottish Executive's desire to extend those concessions to Scottish students--paying for it out of the block grant--at English universities has been stopped by the Government. What is the justification?

Dr. Reid: It is nothing of the kind. The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the newspapers. In reality, the proposals being discussed by the Scottish Executive, the details of which will be announced in the near future, must of course be subject to the laws of Europe as well as of this country. If that is a novelty to the hon. Gentleman, I suggest that he starts

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reading briefs again. It is an elementary fact that we have to abide by our treaties and treaty obligations. The decisions on this have been made by the Scottish Executive and will be announced later today. I am making the point that along with the power to make those decisions goes the responsibility to explain them and to find the money to finance them.

Mrs. Laing: On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: I cannot take points of order until later.

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