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12.32 pm

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution to the debate. I wish to raise two issues that are of particular concern to my constituents in Harlow and to apologise for the fact that I will not be able to stay for my hon. Friend the Minister's summing-up because I have a constituency engagement, but I have already spoken to him.

First, I wish to raise the crucially important issue of access to university education. I know from my own experience--I was the first member of my family to go to university--how enormously beneficial a university education can be in offering opportunities, broadening horizons and genuinely empowering people. It is to the Government's enormous credit that they want greatly to expand the proportion of our young people who have the opportunity of a university education.

The target to get 50 per cent. of the under-30s into higher education by 2010 is long overdue. The fact that, for the first time in a generation, funding for universities will be increased by 11 per cent. in real terms during this Parliament is to be welcomed. The fact, which was not much commented on at the time, that the per capita funding for students will increase, instead of decrease, under the comprehensive spending review is especially welcome. All of that is enormously beneficial, and none of it would have been possible were it not for the tough and difficult decision to introduce tuition fees that the Government took when they came to power.

I was a university manager for nine years before being elected to the House, and that decision gave me pause for thought. At the time, I had some qualms and concerns about it, but I eventually became convinced that there is genuinely no alternative way in which to get the funds that we need to expand the higher education system. I say that because the figures show that dealing with the problems that the Government faced in the university sector when they came to power--such as the per capita cut in student funding, student poverty and the cap on access at 30 per cent. of the eligible age range that the previous Government instituted--would have cost the equivalent of three or four pence on the standard rate of income tax. I, and many other Members, were persuaded that no Government of any party would levy such a tax increase and spend all the proceeds on the universities and their students.

By 2002, 50 per cent. of students will not be paying tuition fees. The Government have introduced a fairer and more progressive loans system. That difficult decision, which was made to fund expansion, was taken in the fairest way possible.

However, I am raising this issue today because I believe that the recent proposal in the Greenaway report, on behalf of the Russell group of universities, to allow universities to charge differential top-up fees would blow that compromise apart and be a significant step too far.

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The Russell group universities already regard themselves as the elite institutions of this country. I used to work for one of them. Many of them are determined to charge increased fees and, in the process, increase their perceived exclusivity. That would be enormously damaging.

It is worth looking at the evidence around the world. Australia has gone through an experience similar to ours. In 1989, the then Labour Government in Australia introduced a tuition fee system similar to our current one. It did not impact on access, just as ours is not impacting on access. However, in 1996, the then Conservative Government in Australia introduced differential top-up fees and seven Australian universities now charge full fees of more than £8,000 a year. That change has had predictable results: a drop in overall applications; a slump in applications by mature students; and, particularly worrying, a significant narrowing of the social backgrounds of students attending those universities.

The United States of America has a two-tier system based on differential top-up fees and allows universities to charge whatever the market will bear. Proponents of the American system here argue that bursaries and scholarships are available to support the poorest students. I am not convinced that that works. Even if one accepts the argument that bursaries for the poorest students are the way forward, that scenario is based on a system of philanthropic private donations to universities, which this country is light years away from achieving. I am not convinced that a system of charitable postgraduate donation would ever be fully accepted in this country, because we have a different social model and a different attitude, rightly, to welfare, taxation and spending.

Thus the evidence around the world shows that top-up fees have been damaging. Were we to introduce them in this country, we would run the huge risk of creating institutions that were accessible only to students from the most prosperous backgrounds, and everyone else would be denied access and be forced to go to universities regarded as second rate. We would also force institutions to choose what kind of university they wanted to be. The choice would be between having a socially inclusive student population and not receiving additional funding, or receiving additional funding through top-up fees.

I refuse to accept the implication of the Greenaway report on behalf of the Russell group of universities that the best in higher education is limited to a small group of elite institutions--Oxford, Cambridge, University college London and the rest--and that those are the only ones that need additional funding.

When the proposals were first made, about a year ago, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, while making clear his opposition to top-up fees, challenged the Russell group to engage in an open and honest debate and to justify how top-up fees would be consistent with expanded access. I welcome the challenge that he laid down because it put the ball firmly in the Russell group's court, and the Greenaway report is the group's response to that challenge. I have read and reread the report, and the only real suggestion that it comes up with to deal with that challenge is the scholarship proposal, but it gives no detail whatever of how that would genuinely meet the challenge of giving poor students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds a university education.

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It is clear from the report that the universities have not even reached first base in terms of meeting the Secretary of State's challenge. The silence from the Russell group since the report's publication makes it plain that the universities are split. I think that, having noted the lack of substance in the proposals, many are resiling from the proposition that top-up fees are the answer.

I approve of the Government's present stance. The Secretary of State has made it clear that the Government still oppose top-up fees, as the Prime Minister did here on Wednesday. Yesterday, I tabled early-day motion 1049, which opposes the Greenaway proposals and which was signed by 100 Labour Members. I put it together in about a week: I have never found it easier to obtain support for an early-day motion. That demonstrates the strength of feeling in the Labour party.

I think it right to oppose the Russell group's proposals, not just in principle, but politically. Opposing them creates either clear blue water or clear red water between us and the Conservative party. We oppose top-up fees, while the Conservatives have a different view. The Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 created the present system of tuition fees. At an early stage in the passage of the Bill, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), the then Opposition spokesman, made it abundantly clear that the Conservative party wanted to retain the option of top-up fees.

The second issue is pensions. I do not think that, since April, so much concern has been expressed on doorsteps in my constituency, and elsewhere, as has been expressed about the pensions increase. There was a perception on the part of some pensioners--a false perception in my view, but nevertheless a perception--that the 75p a week increase indicated the Government's disregard for pensioners' needs. I fear that that perception has obscured the Government's real achievement.

Since the general election, we have added £6.5 billion to pensions. We have done far more for pensioners than the last Government ever did. The winter fuel allowance, the free television licence, the reintroduction of free eye tests--which has led to 3,000 additional eye tests in my constituency--and, crucially, the minimum pension guarantee targeted at the poorest 20 per cent., are significant measures. The Conservative party had 18 years in which to introduce them, but it did not do so.

This is worth saying, in view of the Conservatives' false protestations. Pensioners, and people generally, do not judge politicians by their words; they judge them by their actions. During its longest uninterrupted period of peacetime office, the Conservative party had the opportunity to do something about pensions, but it did nothing.

Pensioners in my constituency have criticised the Government with regard to pensions over the past few months, but in all that time not one has said to me, "We believe the Conservatives would do better." They know from their experience that that is not true. Nevertheless, I believe that we must do more for pensioners. We said at the last election that we wanted them to share in growing prosperity. We have made a start--indeed, I have never known such prosperous times in most of my adult life--but we have the opportunity to do more. Let me give three examples.

First, I welcome the Government's review of the minimum pension guarantee, and the attempt to taper extra income to pensioners above income support levels.

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That is crucial, because it deals with the widespread perception among pensioners that people who play by the rules and save are penalised because they get no additional state help.

However, I urge the Government and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to go further and raise the basic state pension substantially this year. That is the right thing to do, but it is also necessary politically: we must convince pensioners that we are on their side.

In addition, I urge the Government to consider restoring the link between pensions and earnings as soon as possible. That is not a fashionable view in the House. The Conservative party opposes the restoration of that link, which the then Conservative Government broke in 1980. The present Government are not yet convinced about restoring the link, and although the Liberal Democrats talk a lot about pensions, the detail of their record is revealing.

The Liberal Democrat general election manifesto did not call for the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings. Although the party has attempted to rewrite that and say that matters have moved on, its alternative Budget submission this year contained no costed commitment to restore the link. That was puzzling, given that leaflets pushed through my door in Harlow stated that the party was in favour of restoring the link.

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