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I hope that the Secretary of State reads the Select Committee report, but I shall repeat what she told us. She said that ILAs would be frozen; there would be a period of suspended animationto take up the point made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker)then they would be re-energized pretty quickly. That is what I understood, and I hope that it is true. However, the Department issued a press notices, which stated,
I heard "File on 4". It was an excellent programme, and very funny in parts. It told the story of a man who had been convicted of selling supposedly leather sofas at £6,000 a time. When people complained because the furniture was in fact plastic, he moved into the ILA market and sold worthless CD-Roms, presumably creaming off the £175. The programme was hilarious in some respects, although I doubt whether the UnderSecretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), found it funny. However, let us not obscure the fact that a small percentage of forgeries have been found in a very big programme, so the argument for reinstating ILAs quickly is made.
From everything that I have heard in this debate, I conclude that ILAs should be back on trackalbeit modifiedand celebrating innovation. We should say to the Opposition that innovation sometimes brings problems, that those problems must be recognised and fixed, and that innovation should not be abandoned. Not
One other chord has been struck in this debate: let us be real about the difference between what Ministers think is out there and what really is out there. I realised during the election campaign that if one does not let the people who are to deliver the vision construct that vision, they will not be keen on delivering it because they will not understand it. There is still a gapI have said this to the Secretary of State on the recordbetween what the Government think they are achieving and what is translated to teachers, head teachers, support workers and others on the ground. I ask the Secretary of State to launch a campaign to reach out to those people. She has the right policies, and most of them attract more pluses than minuses, but she has a job in explaining them in order to deliver on her ideals.
Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood): I want to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) in two respects. First, as one of the more short-lived predecessors of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), I, too, welcome him to his responsibilities on the Front Bench. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he opened the debate. He focused the attention of the House in particular on the question of teachers' morale and the absurdity of the policy on individual learning accounts as it has turned out in practiceand did so extremely effectively.
Secondly, I follow the hon. Gentleman into another aspect of education policy, which my hon. Friend mentioned relatively briefly but which did not merit a single complete sentence in the Secretary of State's speech: the shambles of the Government's policy on the financing and structure of higher education. The hon. Gentleman said that when we have a policy that does not work, we should acknowledge that fact. There are few better examples of a policy that does not work for which this Government are responsible than that which they introduced in the first weeks of the previous Parliament on the financing of students and on higher education more generally.
Perhaps I should begin my remarks on higher education by stressing that although there are sharp differences between the two major parties on the way in which we are likely to deliver policy objectives in higher education, there is no major distinction between those objectives. It is a truism that higher education is hugely important in the modern world. If we are to earn our living in the globalised economy, we must be a knowledge-based society. I hope that we also agree that the case for a vigorous and expanding higher education system is not purely utilitarian, based on earning one's living. It is also based on providing people with the opportunity to lead more fulfilling lives. We should always restate those objectives in parallel, not seeking to emphasise one to the exclusion of the other.
However, we must then address the question of mechanisms. I suppose that there is no surer sign of problems in the evolution of this Government's policy than that old staple of a Government looking for a way out of trouble that is the planted press story which appears on August bank holiday Monday. I have seen the inside of a Whitehall Department, and boundless though my admiration is for Sarah Womack, the political correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, I very much doubt whether she picked up the following story on the grapevine on Bank holiday Sunday.
The article was clearly the result of the Government asking themselves what story they could place in the empty newspapers on Bank holiday Monday. The headline reads: "Blair plans a U-turn on university tuition fees". If one is to manage a good plant on a bank holiday Monday, one must first identify the problem that one is going to solve and, secondly, state in unambiguous terms, so that headline writers on duty over a bank holiday weekend can understand, what one intends to do about it.
On stating the problem, an unnamed senior Minister was wheeled out with a quotation for the article. He told The Daily Telegraph that the policy introduced by Labour in 1998 was a "total shambles". The quotation goes on:
Then the briefing machine went quiet until the week of the Labour party conference. They use their material, these people in the briefing machine; one has to give them that. Kenneth Baker used to be told when Secretary of State for Education that he was never knowingly undersold. That principle could be applied more generally to this Government, as the story rode again.
I invite the House to remember the days on which those two stories appeared. The first sighting of the story was on 27 August, and the second on 3 October. Eight days later, on 11 October, the review had obviously been completed because we found in The Independent:
On 22 October, 11 days after the results of the review had been announced, another staple of ministerial life took place: a keynote speech to vice-chancellors. It was a perfectly unexceptionable speech; indeed, it contained some points with which I agreed, and to which I shall return. Of course, the real purpose of the press release does not become clear until one gets to the notes to editors. The first note to editors reads:
Given the history of the past four and a half years on student finance, and given the fact that the Government have acknowledged that that was a shambolic failure, can we not learn from the mistakes of those four and a half years, and give ourselves more than 11 days from the announcement of the review to the announcement of its conclusions? In particular, perhaps we could have the 11 days the right way round, with the review announced before the conclusions. It is an absurd way to carry out the process of policy making in an area of vital importance to our national life.
Having made those points about the way in which the issue has come back on to the policy making agenda, I shall be slightly less confrontational. I go back to my starting point: the policy objectives are largely shared by the two sides of the House. The Secretary of State's speech to the assembled company of vice-chancellors on 22 October set out two key issues, and I shall dwell on both in the course of my remarks. On both subjects, I wholeheartedly agree with the policy objectives that she set. I also agree with the implied criticism in her speech of her own Government's record. I do not believe that we have succeeded in delivering either of those policy objectives in the years since 1997. That is due in significant measure to the funding structure set up by the Government in 1998.
The first issue that the Secretary of State highlighted in her speech to the vice-chancellors was equity of access. When she responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford at the beginning of the debate, the right hon. Lady made a powerful and emotional case that the Government had stood alongside pupils and students from low-income backgrounds and had sought to improve their life chances by using the power of the Government to improve the education opportunities available to them.
I do not deny that the Government have taken significant steps in some places to improve the school opportunities available to children from low-income backgrounds. I do not take that away from them, but I sought to intervene on the Secretary of State in order to remind her of the words that she used in respect of the higher education sector and the same social policy issue, and to ask her whether she was as pleased with the record of her predecessor as Secretary of State in improving equity of access to higher education as she clearly was with the improvement of the literacy and numeracy records for pupils from low-income backgrounds.
The problem is not that that is new or unpredicted, or that no one knew that that would be the result of the policies introduced by the Government in 1997. We knew ahead of the event that that was likely to be the consequence of the policies that the Government introduced in 1997 and 1998. It was not just the Opposition who were arguing that that would be the consequence. It was one of the central findings of the Dearing report that if the Government followed the policy prescription that they ended up following in 1997-98, that would diminish the opportunity for equitable access, in particular for students from low-income backgrounds.
Dearing's version of the statistic that the Secretary of State quoted on 22 October is more compelling than hers. As far as I know, it has not been updated, but perhaps it should be. Dearing examined the participation ratio of students with equivalent A-level qualifications. He looked at students with two A-levels, and reported that 77 per cent. of students with two A-levels from middle and upper income groups went on to higher education. The corresponding figure for students with the same intellectual qualification but with a low-income background was not 77 per cent., but 47 per cent. Dearing addressed the issue head-on, and it was one of the principal motivations for the policy mix that he recommended, which was not the policy mix for which the Government ended up legislating.
The failure of policy in the past four and a half years was identified by Dearing, and he made specific recommendations on how to address it. Before we go rushing into the Prime Minister's latest attachment to the graduate tax, perhaps it would be sensible to spend a few days at least, and preferably much longer, looking again at the Dearing report to see whether the things that have happened were predictedI believe that they wereand whether the findings of the Dearing report should now inform our policy making in a way that they were not allowed to do four and a half years ago.