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Historic Counties (Traffic Signs and Mapping)

Mr. John Randall accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law so as to require the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to mark the boundaries of the historic counties on its maps; to require traffic authorities to cause traffic signs to be placed on or near roads for the purpose of indicating the location of historic county boundaries; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 July, and to be printed [Bill 134].

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Opposition Day

[11th Allotted Day]

Tuition Fees

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.45 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I beg to move,

As Conservative Members believe in inclusiveness, I should point out at the start that we are happy to mention in our motion the views of the National Union of Students, which has come out strongly against the Government's plans to make university education much more expensive. We also welcome the support of Members on both sides of the House who signed the early-day motion supporting the NUS campaign against fees. I am sure that, having publicly supported that early-day motion, they will welcome another chance to make that stance of principle clear to their constituents.

This is also my first opportunity to welcome formally the new Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education to his post. The Times Higher Education Supplement described his purpose as reinforcing the Prime Minister's assault on ivory towers. To continue the spirit of inclusiveness, may I plead with him not to go down that route? Our world-class universities deserve congratulation and support, not the sniping that they have occasionally received from parts of this Government, notably from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am confident that the Minister will not follow that ill-advised way of proceeding.

I shall divide my remarks between the effects of the Government's policy and those of our alternative: on students, on the issue of how to make access fairer and, finally, on the universities themselves. I also want to deal with some of the more serious critiques of our policy, as they deserve a considered response. There are some less considered critiques around, including one from the Labour party political communications unit, copies of which seemed to be widely available around the House yesterday. I am grateful to the large number of Labour Members who wanted to share their copies with us.

Let me first remind the House of the key difference between Conservative Members and the Government on this issue. The Government's proposals amount to a new tax on learning: £3,000 a year for students at some universities, leaving them with debts that will hang over them for many years to come. That, of course, is one in a long line of betrayals. Just before the 1997 election, Labour said:

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Just after the 1997 election, Labour introduced tuition fees. Just before the 2001 election, Labour said:

Just after the 2001 election, Labour introduced top-up fees. Now, the Government are saying that £3,000 will be kept as the upper limit for the next Parliament. With form like that, I am afraid that even the Secretary of State for Education at his most charmingly eloquent will not be believed.

I sympathise with those Labour MPs who have unwittingly deceived their constituents. They should stick to their convictions, however. They should not even be worried—if they are—about being branded as rebels. In a recent interesting speech on public services, the remark was made:

That quote sums up the Conservative approach to higher education and the approach of many on the Labour Back Benches and, I suspect, on the Liberal Democrat Benches. What it does not do, however, is reflect the Government's approach. It is therefore noteworthy that it is a quote from the Prime Minister in his latest relaunch of the Government. The gap between words and action is breathtaking. I agree with the Prime Minister's sentiment that it should not be our wallets that entitle us to decent services. I just wish that he would apply that to his own policy on higher education, with which he is marching firmly in the opposite direction.

By contrast, the next Conservative Government will scrap all tuition fees—not only the Government's new top-up fees, but all fees. We will save students £9,000 of the debt burden over the period of a normal university course. We will scrap the arbitrary 50 per cent. admission target. We will scrap the access regulator, which is the latest piece of bureaucracy to drain independence away from universities. The best way to make access to university free and fair is to make education free and for admissions to be fair and decided on merit and potential alone.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): The hon. Gentleman says that he will scrap all tuition fees, but he knows that the majority of students in the United Kingdom study at further education colleges. Would he scrap tuition fees for further education colleges?

Mr. Green: I shall deal with vocational education later in my speech, because I agree that it is important. One of this country's historic failures has been not to take vocational education sufficiently seriously for almost 50 years. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would agree with one of the problems that I lay at the Government's door: the 50 per cent. target and overemphasis on higher education has had the precise effect of devaluing vocational qualifications and further education.

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Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Green: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, who I believe signed the early-day motion on which our motion is based.

Mrs. Campbell: I want to comment on the hon. Gentleman's proposal to abolish tuition fees. Is he aware that almost 50 per cent. of students do not pay tuition fees because they come from families with such a low income that they do not have to? Does he agree that his proposal is designed to benefit the better-off in society and not the poorer students whom he purports to support?

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): So why did you sign the early-day motion?

Mr. Green: I agree with my hon. Friend: it was slightly perverse of the hon. Lady to sign the early-day motion if she opposed the sentiments behind it. She will know that there is some doubt about the Government's position on the top-up fees element. The Secretary of State wavers between saying that poorer students will be exempt from all fees and that they will be exempt only from the existing £1,100—noises have suggested one thing or another. If it turns out that even the poorest students must pay a top-up element, the hon. Lady should agree that her point becomes invalid. I hope that we will receive some reassurance from the Secretary of State during the debate.

The Secretary of State and the Government as a whole will be aware of the large and growing coalition that they have assembled against them on tuition fees. Let me explain why, first from the students' perspective. Barclays bank estimates that the average debt for students in 2002 will be £12,000, which is a rise of 28 per cent. on the previous year. A UNITE survey shows that debt among third-year students has increased by 61 per cent. The consequences of that are shown in a NatWest survey that says that the number of sixth formers who considered not going to university purely because of fees rose from 34 per cent. in 2000 to 50 per cent. in 2002. Half of all sixth formers consider not going to university only because of fees. That is the situation before the Government put up the fees even more.

Mr. Chaytor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Green: I shall give the hon. Gentleman one more chance.

Mr. Chaytor: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the debt that he is quoting is to a large extent incurred on credit cards issued by the very banks that conducted the surveys?

Mr. Green: That might be true, but a debt is a debt if a student has to pay it. The body to which the debt is owed does not especially matter to a student, although clearly different interest rates are involved. The essential point of the debate is that, irrespective of to whom students owe debt, they will owe £9,000 more under the

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Labour Government's proposal than under ours. That is the key fact that students and their parents and families will face when they decide at the next election.

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