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Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have not estimated OFFA's running costs, so it is impossible for us to provide an authoritative estimate. Furthermore, the university sector would incur substantial compliance costs in respect of OFFA, and no one has even made a start on calculating them.

Mr. Rendel: The hon. Gentleman has just made the exact point that I was trying to make about his policies. He has come up with a proposal that he has not costed, partly because he cannot cost it. He simply does not know, as the figures have not yet been produced. His proposals cannot be relied on; the figures simply are not there.

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The Conservative's figures do not add up. There are simply too many question marks, some of which are provided by the Conservatives themselves. Their analysis is based on shoddy research, incomplete data and a confused analysis. There is one thing of which we can be sure: we cannot trust the Tories. If we want to know whether the Tories are serious about the issue, it is not good enough to listen to their warm words; we have to look at their record.

Andrew Selous: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, in the debate on Monday, the House learned that his party leader had made a fundamental mistake about the number of students from the bottom two social classes who go to university, and had said something that the Labour and Conservative research departments confirmed was wrong?

Mr. Rendel: I am unable to answer that at present, as the Government and my party leader are still corresponding about the issue. I have not been party to that correspondence, so I cannot answer the question.

If we want to know whether the Tories are serious, we have to look at their record. What did they do in government?

Alan Johnson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but this point is important to the debate. Is his position the same as that of his party leader—that the proportion of students from the two lowest economic groups going into higher education has fallen since the Government came to power? Is that still his party's position—yes or no?

Mr. Rendel: If the Minister looks at the UNITE-Mori survey, he will see that the proportion of students who come from the C, D and E groups has fallen from 20 per cent. three years ago to 17 per cent. in the latest figures, which, I believe, come from last November.

Alan Johnson: This is important to the hon. Gentleman and to everyone else in the House because it is about widening participation. His party leader said that the number of students going into higher education from the two lowest groups, D and E, had fallen since 1997. Is that correct or not?

Mr. Rendel: As I have already said, I understand that that is still a matter of some argument. I cannot answer that question, but the Minister has now given me the chance to look up the relevant figures. The graph makes it absolutely clear that the figures for the C2, D and E groups have fallen as a proportion of the total. Those are MORI's figures. I am not sure what figures he is referring to, but those are the figures that I have. They are absolutely plain in the MORI report; if the Minister wishes to check them, I have them here.

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

Mr. Rendel: Not again. I am sorry, but I really must make some progress.

When I was interrupted, I was about to look at the Conservatives' record in government. In 1981, they abolished the repeat grant. In 1984, the minimum grant

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was halved, and in 1985 it was abolished. In 1986, students lost their entitlement to supplementary benefit or unemployment benefit, and to housing benefit for university halls of residence. In 1989, the equipment allowance was abolished. In 1990, vacation hardship allowances were abolished, student loans were introduced and the entitlement to state benefit was withdrawn. Also in 1990, the grant was frozen at £2,200. In 1994, the grant was cut by 10 per cent. In 1995, it was cut by another 10 per cent., and the mature student allowance was abolished. In 1996, the grant was cut by a further 10 per cent., and student loans were increased by 10 per cent. Finally, in 1997, just before the election, grants and loans were both increased, at last—but only by 1.2 per cent.

What have the Conservatives done more recently? They have tabled early-day motion 264 in the name of the hon. Member for Ashford, calling on the Government to stand by their manifesto pledge not to introduce top-up fees. Interestingly, six months on, only 47 out of the 166 Conservative MPs have signed it. Come to think of it, perhaps that is because the early-day motion also demands that

yet the Conservatives' proposals do nothing to solve current funding issues. Why has the hon. Member for Ashford produced proposals that do not even meet the minimum requirements of his own early-day motion?

In July 2002, Conservative members of the Education and Skills Committee voted unanimously in support of top-up fees and tuition fees. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who I am delighted to see in his place, was the only member of that Committee to oppose fees, and he issued a minority report in order to do so. It will be very interesting to see whether the three Conservatives on that Committee back my hon. Friend if he again supports the abolition of all fees in the Committee's next report, which I understand is due in a few days' time. Meanwhile the hon. Member for Ashford himself is on record as saying:

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the presence of Liberal Democrats in the Government has ensured the abolition of tuition fees—no thanks to the Conservatives. The Scottish Conservative education spokesperson said on 31 October 2002 that the need for more income

Mr. Boswell: I want to make a point that might even be mildly supportive of the Government. If the hon. Gentleman continues to argue that Liberal participation in government in Scotland has led to the abolition of tuition fees, and if the Government in this country are going to abolish immediate tuition fees and collect them after graduation, why does he object to Government policy?

Mr. Rendel: I did not think that I had objected. I have always said that it is better to collect fees after the event, if they are going to be charged, but it has been our policy all along that they should not be charged at all. There

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should be no tuition fees, either before or after the event. In Scotland, we have stuck by our word and abolished tuition fees, both before and after. No tuition fees are charged at all in Scotland now.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: I might have got this wrong, but in Scotland do not students who graduate pay £2,000 towards an endowment, which pays for other students to go to university? What is the difference, from a student's point of view, between paying at that point and what the Government are now proposing?

Mr. Rendel: We have had occasion to explain this many times in the past, and I am sorry to have to do it again. Let me see whether I can make it plain, even to those who find it difficult to understand. I might go into a grocer, buy some bread and butter and pay for it. If, when I came out, someone said to me, "Ah, I see you've just paid the council tax", I would say, "No, I have just paid for the bread and butter." Council tax is paid to the local authority. In the same way, tuition fees have to be paid for tuition. We cannot pay tuition fees to settle our council tax, or to buy bread and butter. We pay tuition fees for tuition, and the places that provide the tuition are the universities, so we pay the tuition fee to the universities. Not one penny of the £2,000 that graduates pay in Scotland goes to the universities.

Mr. Damian Green rose—

Andrew Selous rose—

Mr. Rendel: Let me finish. I think that this will finally answer the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). I do not want to take any further interventions on this, because it is so clear and obvious that I cannot believe that hon. Members do not understand it.

The Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) (Scotland) Act 2001 states explicitly:

It would be illegal for that money to be used for tuition fees. By law, it has to be used for student support.

We can welcome one fact at least, which is that, when the time comes, the Conservatives will join the Liberal Democrats in seeking to defeat top-up fees in this House. But if they were ever to be introduced, the Conservative policy would result not in a fairer and more inclusive higher education system but in a system that was less equal, less fair, and even more poorly funded. This is one bandwagon that the Tories are not only seeking to jump on, but doing their best to destroy, since their policy is simply not credible. Perhaps most significantly, their plans are so, well, Conservative. They have no positive vision of what our higher education system should look like in the future, or of the purposes it is there to serve. Instead, they hark back to a past age of elitism in which higher education was the preserve of the few. As ever, it is left to the Liberal Democrats to provide the only real and effective opposition.

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