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Mr. Cook: I share my hon. Friend's recognition of the importance of manufacturing industry and its significance for the whole economy. That is why we are pleased that manufacturing exports have increased by 25 per cent. since 1997. I assure him that the Government remain fully committed to building on that success.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): Following on from the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), may I urge the

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Leader of the House to seek from the Chancellor a firm date for the autumn statement, given the £5 billion black hole in the Chancellor's spending plans found by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Home Secretary's announcement on the "Today" programme on Monday that things look bleak on the spending front?

Mr. Cook: In fairness to the IFS, the hon. Gentleman would wish me to tell the House that, of course, we are dealing with figures that can only possibly arise in 2003, and even then we would dispute them. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will, of course, make an autumn statement during this parliamentary term.

Mr. Prisk: When?

Mr. Cook: I cannot recall us having an autumn statement before November, and we are not yet into November.

Mr. Forth: No?

Mr. Cook: If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to dispute that fact and to hold a debate on it, I cannot promise that a ministerial statement will be made, but I do not think that we are into November. When the appropriate times comes, there will be a statement.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): The Leader of the House may remember that on 5 July hon. Members voted to allow survivors' benefits to be payable to unmarried couples, whether straight or gay. Indeed, he and his Front-Bench colleagues voted for that measure, and I expressed my gratitude to them the last time that we spoke about the issue. However, is he aware that the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) sought to extend those benefits through civil partnership to non-Members of Parliament under a private Member's Bill that she introduced yesterday, but that no Minister, whom we assume would be given a free vote, voted for that measure?

Does the right hon. Gentleman think it seemly for Ministers and other Members to be seen to grab benefits for themselves and their unmarried partners, but not to agree that the wider population should have them? In the light of that, will he consider providing Government time for that private Member's Bill, or will the Government introduce their own policy to end the discrimination against people who are not married or who cannot be married?

Mr. Cook: First, by convention, Ministers do not take part in ten-minute Bill Divisions for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman suggests—it is important that Government approval, or disapproval, is not read into the actions of individual Ministers. On the other issue that he raises, perhaps in a spirit of humility, I gently remind him that it was his amendment that extended to Members of Parliament the right to pensions for their unmarried partners, and it does not lie well with him to accuse the rest of us of having double standards now.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate this autumn on the principle of ballistic missile defence? He will remember that in

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response to a question asked yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), the Prime Minister said:

The Leader of the House will be aware that a large number of Labour Members have signed early-day motion 23, which opposes ballistic missile defence.

[That this House expresses concern at President Bush's intention to move beyond the constraints of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in developing missile defence; and endorses the unanimous conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which recommended that the Government voice the grave doubts about NMD in the UK, questioned whether US plans to deploy NMD represent an appropriate response to the proliferation problems faced by the international community and recommended that the Government encourage the USA to explore all ways of reducing the threat it perceives.]

May we have such debate so that those Government Back Benchers can put their views to those on the Government Front Bench, and those of us who, on this issue, support the Prime Minister—indeed, we would like him to go further—can express our views, too?

Mr. Cook: I am sure that my hon. Friends will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his solicitude in suggesting that they should have an opportunity to express their views. May I remind him that no decision on the matter has been taken, that no decision can be taken until a question is asked of us and that, in those circumstances, it would be rather odd for us to debate it?

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Opposition Day

[3rd Allotted Day—first part]

Student Finance

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the main business—the first part of the third allotted Opposition day. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.24 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I beg to move,

May I begin by saying how pleased I am that my right hon. and hon. Friends have chosen to debate student finance today and that they have asked me to move the motion in our names? May I make it plain that I have nothing to gain personally from the abolition of tuition fees, although I do have considerable personal experience of paying them? I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), and, I understand, with the previous Secretary of State, the experience of having a child who was, unfortunately, involved in the first year of tuition fees. I have another son at university now, and my youngest son hopes to go to university in 2003, which, if all goes well, should be the last year of tuition fees.

So it is not for reasons of personal benefit that I am pleased that my party has given this issue the highest priority for debate today; rather it is because in June this year two issues stood out as being uniquely Liberal Democrat issues: free long-term care for the elderly and the abolition of tuition fees. We received massive support from the public on both issues, and they represent the two greatest errors that the Labour Government made in their first term in office. We said that tuition fees were "a tax on education", and we were right.

A sensible Government choose to tax things that they want less of; they avoid taxing things that they want more of. Liberal Democrats believe in education. We believe that education is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society. We believe that the best possible education for each individual in our nation is valuable not just for that individual, but for society as a whole. We also believe that education is not just about equipping the individual with the knowledge and skills that he or she needs for the

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jobs of the modern world, but about giving that individual the opportunity to make the most of his or her natural talents and abilities in every aspect of his or her life.

However, the student support system acts as a barrier to young people who want to go to university, particularly for the poorest students. First, there is the upfront payment of tuition fees—the tax on education. The Government have tried to argue that tuition fees are no disincentive. After all, they say, the poorest 50 per cent. or so of students will not have to pay them. But, of course, it is really nothing to do with whether the student is rich or poor. Almost all students are poor, and if it was only rich students who paid tuition fees, they would never have been worth collecting. No, the means testing is done, not on the student, but on the parent.

Some parents pay, but many see no reason why they should continue to subsidise their adult offspring, just because those offspring happen to be intelligent enough to be offered a place at a university. So the sons and daughters of comparatively well-off parents usually end up paying the tuition fees. Often such students end up even more deeply in debt than other students whose parents happen to be less well-off.

Where is the logic in a student finance system in which a graduate who enters a comparatively low-paid but socially useful job may have to pay off greater debts than a graduate who earns hundreds of thousands of pounds in the City, but whose parents happen to have been in less well-paid jobs? What is fair about that? Let there be no doubt that worries about debt are very real. Students can now expect to graduate with an average debt of £10,000, and often more. Of course, tuition fees make up only a part of that debt, and it is true that many students will not have to pay tuition fees.

I must confess that I too was at first taken in by the seductive argument that tuition fees cannot possibly be a disincentive to those who will not have to pay them. However, I visited Durham university recently, and there I spoke to a first-year student who had come up only a month or so before. She described herself as coming from a working-class background. She told me that no less than four of her friends had decided not to go to university because they did not want to get into debt. They had heard about tuition fees, and they were frightened.

It does not matter whether the fear of debt is soundly based; it is the fear itself that produces the disincentive. So will the Government now finally admit that tuition fees and the perception of tuition fees constitute a barrier to young people who want to go to university? How long before the Government stop monitoring and wake up to the crisis in our higher education system? Students are fed up with monitoring—they want tuition fees to be abolished. A sensible Government levy taxes for education and not on education.

Tuition fees are of course only a part of the debt problem. Students must also maintain themselves. The Government fought the election saying that there was not a problem. They apparently saw no contradiction between their target of 50 per cent. participation and the system of student support that they introduced in 1998. During the campaign, however, the Prime Minister apparently woke up to the fact that young people and their parents do see a problem.

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In the review of student funding announced at the Labour party conference, one stated objective was to

The Secretary of State has explicitly recognised that debt is a barrier to access. On 4 October, she was quoted in The Guardian as saying:

The following day, the Chancellor was quoted in The Times Higher Education Supplement as follows:

I suggest to the Minister for Lifelong Learning that if she has the Chancellor's backing, she has a much better chance than most of getting some extra finance into the system.

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