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Mr. Green: The Government are already spending £5.3 billion on the learning and skills councils, so a very large pump is priming money—

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): The figure is £8.5 billion.

Mr. Green: I am grateful to the Secretary of State. Somebody on the Learning and Skills Council board told me that it has a budget three times that of the Royal Navy. I do not know whether that is true, but if it is, or if the sum is anything like that, the pump is big enough. We need to spend money effectively and attract private sector money, because that sector will put money into things that it finds useful. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education would describe that as blindingly obviously, but Government policy appears to ignore it.

The Government are trying to push more and more people into something called degree courses, which are of no benefit to the student and have no merit in the eyes of private industry. We are therefore not improving the life chances of the young people who go on those courses. That is a mad route from the viewpoint of the Treasury, students, the university sector and the country.

I said that I would deal with serious educational critiques, notably that of Professor Barr. He is a distinguished economist, but his analysis reminds us that all economists are wrong some of the time, and most economists are wrong most of the time. The first problem in Professor Barr's analysis arises when he states that higher education is a general good for the economy and society and must be regarded as such. However, he also says that it is unfair to ask the general taxpayer, who may be a non-graduate, to bear the cost. One can hold one or other of those views but one cannot coherently hold both. If higher education is a general good, the taxpayer should subsidise it. The second problem arises when Professor Barr claims that student loans do not lead to debt, because they are paid back as a payroll deduction. One has to be a really clever economist to believe something as silly as that. If

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someone leaves university knowing that they have to pay back £20,000 or £25,000, they will feel that they have a very large debt to repay, whether it is going to a credit card company or coming out of their pay packet.

Mr. Hendrick: Earlier, the hon. Gentleman referred to mortgage debt, but most people would regard a mortgage as an investment. Clearly, debt is a bit like crime—the fear of debt is quite a lot worse than debt itself. Why does the hon. Gentleman not pursue his own analogy with mortgage debt and call student debt an investment?

Mr. Green: Millions of graduates want to pay off their student debt and take out a mortgage to buy a house. The fact that the Government are imposing on them a colossal burden of debt prevents them from taking out a mortgage, often into their late 30s. It is not a question of choosing between the two—the choice to take out a mortgage is being taken away from people.

The third problem in Professor Barr's analysis arises when he claims that the universities need money, but ignores the effect of the fees. I would urge him and Government Members to read the HSBC study published earlier this week which says that fees could tip poorer, less prestigious universities over the edge into bankruptcy by making it harder for them to attract students. It is therefore not obvious that fees will attract more money into the sector. The fourth problem in Professor Barr's analysis is his claim, which Ministers like to repeat, that students get their higher education free—it is graduates who make repayments. That is sophistry. People cannot become graduates unless they have been students. To claim that students are a completely different group from future graduates is plain nonsense. I am afraid that the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education attempted to repeat that canard on Monday, but I hope that he spares the House today.

Professor Barr's analysis is based on a series of deeply questionable assumptions, and I simply disagree with it. If it is the best that the Government can come up with—Professor Barr's analysis occupies five or six pages of the document that they handed out prior to the debate—I am afraid that they are skating on thin ice.

Students and their parents have been let down by the Government's proposals. Universities have been leaned on to meet political, not academic, priorities. We have tried tuition fees and they failed to give a fair deal to students or universities. Our policy of scrapping fees and making this vital part of our education system once again free for everyone offers them the fair deal that they need and deserve. I commend the motion to the House.

1.20 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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I welcome the debate, as it gives us the opportunity to scrutinise the proposals of the Conservative party. It is necessary to scrutinise those proposals, as Conservative Members have refused to attend the Select Committee to discuss the proposals in detail, as I and my ministerial colleagues have done and, to give credit to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), as he and his colleague in the upper House have done, so that there is proper full debate of the issues at an important time.

Mr. McLoughlin : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that Select Committees are appointed to examine the Executive, not to examine other parties' policies? It is the Executive that the Select Committee is appointed to monitor. For the Secretary of State to make the accusation that he has just made shows his lack of understanding of the function of Select Committees.

Mr. Speaker: It is up to a Select Committee to interpret the rules of the House, so it would be up to a Select Committee to decide what it would examine.

Mr. Clarke: I understand that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) declined the invitation of the Select Committee to discuss his proposals in detail. As I said, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough deserves credit on behalf of his party for accepting.

Mr. Green: I should put on the record what happened. At 2 pm on the relevant day, an e-mail arrived in my office inviting me to appear the following morning. Before I had even seen that e-mail, my office was rung up by the press, asking why I had declined. By any standards, the procedure was disgraceful and I have not yet had a satisfactory explanation of it from the Select Committee.

Mr. Clarke: That clarification is helpful. I am grateful for it, though the Liberal Democrats deserve credit for coming to the Select Committee and discussing their proposals, even though I acknowledge that that gave rise to the comprehensive and forensic demolition—

Michael Fabricant : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you advise me and other hon. Members whether it is normal practice in the House that when a Member accuses another Member of doing something, which is

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then proven to be wrong, and is acknowledged to be wrong, that person shows good behaviour in the House and withdraws the accusation that he made?

Mr. Speaker: The whole point of a debate is that hon. Members can rebut any case that is made against them. There will be an opportunity to do so.

Mr. Clarke: I began my speech by saying that I welcomed the debate because it gave us the chance to scrutinise the proposals of the Conservative party.

Mr. Rendel : Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways in which a Select Committee may be able to test out the policies of the Government would be to compare them with other, alternative policies?

Mr. Clarke: I agree, but the comprehensive and forensic demolition of the Liberal Democrat proposals by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education last Monday showed why the debate is so important.

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