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Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the winding-up speech that we have just heard, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), said that the press release on the advocacy fund, issued by my party, mentioned that the fund was short term. I have conferred with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the shadow Chancellor and nowhere in the press release on the advocacy fund do the words "short term" appear. I appeal to you, Mr. Speaker, that that should be put straight. The commitment is long term and sustainable, to provide expert advice through proper funds to help developing nations negotiate with rich nations[Interruption.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Let me deal with the point of order. It is not a matter for the Chair; it is more a matter for debate[Interruption.] Order. I am sure that these matters can be looked at in the fulness of time, when the truth will come out.
The petition is signed by 320 pupils of Ashdown school in my constituency. The petition was promoted by Jacob Waters, aged 12, after watching his head teacher on television talking about the funding crisis in his and other Poole schools. Jacob was assisted by Catherine, also aged 12.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to provide, through legislation, adequate funding for all children, regardless of school or area.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
The Petitioners request that the House of Commons urges the Government to reject the recommendations of the Office of Fair Trading Report, so allowing community pharmacies to continue their valuable role in providing local healthcare in an accessible way.
The Petitioners remain etc.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to urge the police and RSPCA in Bridgwater to take action to return the geese.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to ask the district council to seek amendments to the current plans for the Severn terrace field housing development.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): I am very pleased to start a debate tonight on rural affairs and access to agricultural education in Devon. I confess to being slightly surprised that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will respond, as I had thought this a debate on education, but I very much welcome him to the Front Bench and congratulate him on his new position. I have no doubt that he will answer fully because I know that he has shared some of the concerns about Plymouth university's actions in the past, as he has an art college in his constituency that is facing closure, along with Seale-Hayne and another art college at Exmouth in Devon.
The university took the decision to close the Seale-Hayne campus and move the students to Plymouth at the end of last year. The university decided that it would have a one-month consultation, so that it could fully appraise itself of the views of the local population and the students. One of my arguments is that a one-month consultation is not adequate, and I shall come to that again later.
The college first opened in 1919, after Charles Seale-Hayne, who had been a Member of Parliament, stated in his will that a college should be established for the benefit of the people of the Newton Abbot area and to promote skills in Devon. The college currently has 180 hectares. It was originally run by a charitable trust. Although Plymouth polytechniclater Plymouth universitytook over running the main campus, the college still maintained its charitable status. Plymouth university only bought the campusI believe, for a sum of about £850,000in 1999. It said that it needed to do so because it needed to own the freehold so that it could invest in the campus to protect its future. That was obviously a very hollow gesture. I have every reason to believe that the university was actively considering closing the college when it was giving statements to the public that it wanted to buy the freehold to preserve it.
After I heard that the college would close, I arranged a meeting with the deputy vice-chancellor, Peter Evans. I was told that the vice-chancellor was not then available, as he was away on other business. I found it rather odd that, having decided to close three campuses, the vice-chancellor should disappear all of a sudden and not be available to contact local representatives. However, within a few days, I was able to see the deputy vice-chancellor, who assured me that the closure was necessary, that it needed to be done for academic "symbiance" and that it was for the good of all concerned.
Peter Evans went on to say in local papers that there were only four agricultural studentsout of 700-odd students at the collegeand that only 10 were studying agriculture part-time. I did some research, and a lecturer at the university has assured me that 521 students within the university study land use or food sciences in one way, shape or form, which is rather more than the deputy vice-chancellor suggested.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On the point about food sciences, he will be aware that I have supported his campaign. As a former Minister with responsibilities for food, I opened the technology transfer centre at Seale-Hayne, which is a very important facility for those studying food sciences and of great interest and importance to the wider agricultural community that the college serves.
Richard Younger-Ross: I take the point. I also thank the hon. Lady and other Devon and Cornwall Members who have supported the campaign to keep the Seale-Hayne campus open. The faculty that she opened is important, and a local food processing business in Newton Abbot, Uniqe, has told me that it might be interested in talking to the college about food sciences and using those facilities. Sadly, that will not be possible if the college is closed.
When I talked to Peter Evans, he said, "We'll look at what we can do. We haven't really decided yet. Maybe we'll open a conference centre there." That was about as vague as it was possible to be. There was progress as the weeks went on, but I did not think that it had been thought about fully. What he did not sayin the same way that he was misleading about the student figureswas that in February of that year the university had put in an objection to the district council about the lack of development status for the land. It had applied for housing, industrial and leisure useeverything. It strikes me that if it was applying for everything in that way, and it was looking to open up all those possible options, it must have thought at some point that it would want to develop the land for a non-academic use. Therefore, when he said, "We might open a conference centre," again, he was not necessarily telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as I understand it, because, clearly, the college was considering other options for the land.
The university also put great store in the fact that many students do not like going to Seale-Hayne. Seale-Hayne is a land use facility in a rural area, and it therefore strikes me as an ideal location for the students. The students to whom I spoke all like it. Indeed, the Seale-Hayne future group, which has been set up to discuss and oppose the proposals by the university, did some research, including a study of students at Harper Adams college in Shropshire. It asked the question, "Would students consider going on to Seale-Hayne for academic studies?" When that question related to the rural campus, 95 per cent. said yes. When it was put to them in terms of a move to Plymouth, however, only 70 per cent. said that they might be interested and would consider it. The impact of moving and closing the college could therefore be that even fewer students attend the college than at the moment. That must put in doubt the viability of some of the courses that are currently being studied.
The former governors of Seale-Hayne college who oppose these moves got together and went to see the vice-chancellorthey actually managed it. They had letters of support from a number of peopleSir Donald Curry, Lord Clinton, Lord Plumb, the president of the Royal Smithfield club, two former regional directors of the former Ministry of Agriculture, county councillors, district councillors and town councillorsall of them
Eventually, the vice-chancellor agreed to meet me. Today's Western Morning News said that some people consider him to be a bully-boyapparently he has a reputation for that; I cannot really comment. The newspaper has run a lively campaign to try to keep the college. In today's edition, the vice-chancellor says that if he does not get his way, he will mothball the college. I do not know what sort of negotiating tactic that is but it is strong-arm and I rather resent it. I asked the vice-chancellor what modelling he had done on the effect of keeping Seale-Hayne campus open. Apparently, none had been done, so he could not say.
One of the reasons why there are fewer students at the campus than there should be is that it has not marketed itself. It was represented at the two county shows in Devon and Cornwall this year but not in previous years. When my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on higher education, visited the college with me at the end of last year, the first thing that he said to me was, "Oh, they've got a marketing opportunity. There are very few foreign students here." Indeed, I am told that only 24 of the 561 people studying land-use studies are foreign studentsall the rest are from the UK. It is absolutely amazing that the college cannot attract more people. I put that point to the vice-chancellor and he said, "Well, I wouldn't encourage them because the student union is a hot bed of racists." If one has such a problem, one deals with it. One does not use it as an excuse for not taking the college forward.
In my meeting with the vice-chancellor, he continued, without any prompting, to try to denigrate members of the student union in my eyes. He said that he had heard the rumour around the college that one of the student union leaders was going to stand in the local election for the British National party. I might be appalled by the idea of a person standing for the BNP and by all that the party does, but it is up to students to stand for any party that they like. It is not for the vice-chancellor to tell me such tittle-tattle to try to put down my view of the