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Dr. Pugh: The hon. Gentleman began his speech by saying that its entire thrust is to examine Liberal Democrat policy on tuition fees. Is he aware that the subject for debate is in fact top-up fees, which are not Liberal Democrat policy?

Mr. Duncan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observation. I am aware of the substance of the Liberal Democrat motion—indeed, I referred to it in my opening remarks. I am also aware that we are also debating the Government's amendment to the motion, which does refer to tuition fees. In analysing the Liberal Democrats future education policy, it is particularly relevant to their prospects to establish how reliable they are in implementing manifesto commitments. That will be the thrust of my examination in the next few minutes.

The Liberal Democrats' main message to the people of Scotland in 1999—in fact, it was one of very few messages—was that if elected and put into power, they would abolish tuition fees. The simple fact, as I shall explain, is that they did no such thing.

The proceedings of the Scottish Parliament do a lot to crystallise exactly how the Liberal Democrats failed to act. During two separate votes in the Scottish Parliament, they had the opportunity to support the Scottish Conservative party and the Scottish National party, which sought to abolish tuition fees full stop. In the light of their 1999 manifesto commitment—

one would have thought that they could support such a proposal. However, things do not always work that way in Liberal Democrat circles. Instead, they voted with the Labour Executive to force through the graduate tax and to continue with tuition fees in Scotland. The graduate endowment liability looks like tuition fees, breathes like tuition fees and feels like tuition fees; indeed, it is tuition fees.

Mr. Rendel: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that tuition fees pay for tuition and go to the universities, and that none of the money from the graduate endowment goes to the universities?

Mr. Duncan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but the simple fact is that the Liberal Democrats undertook to abolish tuition fees as part of their manifesto commitment and blatantly failed to do so. Such behaviour is bringing politics into disrepute. It is, I regret to say, an inevitable consequence of proportional representation and gives politicians a very bad name. The Labour-Liberal Executive—

Mr. McCabe: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and happy to hear his

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exposition of the inconsistencies of Liberal-Democrat Front Benchers. However, could he explain how the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) could say in January 2002 that he did not

Does not the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) find that slightly inconsistent with the policy now espoused by his party?

Mr. Duncan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but we are talking about two separate matters. I was talking about a manifesto commitment written in black and white in "Raising the Standard". Ongoing consultation as a means of developing Opposition policy is not the same: we are talking about two significantly different matters.

What has the Liberal Democrat about-face in Scottish education policy left us with? Obviously, we have the continuing failure of the Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive, who have failed Scotland, but they have also failed Scottish students. I mentioned in an earlier intervention on the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) that Scottish students face, on graduating, a marginal tax rate of 42 per cent. How can a party that has sought to increase access contemplate the unfairness of such a marginal tax rate for Scottish students who find themselves in a job with an income of £10,000 a year? My other major criticism of the Liberal-Democrat volte-face is that they forgot about the Cubie report and the £20,000 minimum income level, and did a deal in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors—the appalling circumstances in which Liberal Democrats frequently find themselves throughout the country.

Scottish students at English universities still face the £1,000 tuition fees, which I find unacceptable, particularly when my constituency is so near the border at Carlisle. Many of my constituents have family who attend universities in England, and they face having to pay that tuition fee. It is a position that the Scottish Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament would have rectified by awarding a Saltire scholarship, which would have given Scottish students the ability to have the fees reimbursed at the time wherever they chose to study.

I should like briefly to raise an issue brought to my attention by a constituent, which I believe is particularly significant in respect of top-up and tuition fees—namely, the effect on longer running courses. My constituency was devastated two or three years ago by the foot and mouth outbreak, which highlighted a shortage nationally of veterinary surgeons or others able to undertake immediate research into outbreaks and epidemiology. Those are exactly the sort of courses that require longer study and an in-depth follow-up degree. In some cases, a degree course can take many years longer than the average short-term degree, which the Liberal Democrats would have us accepting throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Scottish degrees are often four years in comparison with the three years of English universities. What we are seeing amounts to a disincentive to

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continuing study, and the result of those policies will be truncated education and consequent worsening economic benefits being passed on to my constituents and others throughout the UK.

Andrew Selous: Does my hon. Friend agree that for many young people, the prospect of accumulating up to £20,000 in debt is bad enough in itself, but when we align that with the fact that they will also take on significant liabilities in respect of a mortgage, it will be far too much for many?

Mr. Duncan: I am happy to acknowledge that. It is ironic that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough criticised the Government for deferring top-up fees, but then said that it would not do any good in any case. He said that research—an ever-lengthening list of research were, I believe, his actual words—shows that those fees create debt and disincentive. Absolutely! That is why giving in, doing the deal in Scotland and continuing to levy tuition fees has been revealed as a shameful abrogation of the responsibility to implement what appears in manifestos, when given the opportunity to do so. Saying time and again that tuition fees have been abolished in Scotland does not make it so, and will be exposed for the falsehood that it is.

I make no apology for focusing on the past record of the Liberal Democrats in implementing manifesto commitments. If they insist on continuing their proposal to reverse Government policy on top-up fees, I trust that their past record in Scotland will be held in no small measure as a predictor of how likely they are to reverse that policy in future at UK level.

6.25 pm

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Before I start, I should like to mention something close to my heart, which I have mentioned previously: the debate has run for two hours, but mine will be only the third contribution from a Back Bencher, which I believe is disgraceful. The House should provide more opportunities for Back Benchers to participate in debates.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): The hon. Gentleman might consider raising that matter with the Leader of the House, who told us last Thursday that he would make his best endeavours to ensure that Government statements would not be allowed to eat into Opposition time. He has failed in those endeavours at the first opportunity that he has had to protect the time allowed for Back Benchers to speak.

Paul Farrelly: I would prefer to encourage Front Benchers to keep their remarks briefer.

I, too, welcome the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education to his new ministerial post. I start by congratulating the Government on abolishing upfront tuition fees and on raising the payback threshold for student loans, which are both welcome. I also congratulate them on increasing university funding and on recognising that we need to maintain our universities as among the best in the world.

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Today, however, I particularly congratulate the Government on tabling an amendment that makes no reference to top-up fees whatever. It is a masterpiece of drafting. If the omission is a hint that the Government are having second thoughts about top-up fees, it would be the most welcome development since we started the debate last autumn. It would show that the Government were sensitive to concerns and that they had not lost their political antennae. It would also show that the Government were listening to the Labour party, both in the country and in the House.

If I may correct the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), not 139, but 180 Labour Members—a clear majority of our Back Benchers—have put their names to motions that say that top-up fees should not be introduced and that the genie must certainly not be let out of the bottle to allow different universities to charge different prices.

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