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5.29 pm

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I remind the House of my interests as recorded in the register.

There is always something to welcome in the Queen's Speech and I certainly welcome proposals on domestic violence and the modernisation of child protection law. I was hoping to welcome a Bill to speed up banking and payment transactions because that seemed to appear in the publicity that surrounded the Queen's Speech, but I cannot find a reference to it in the speech. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten me about whether that measure will be introduced because such a Bill would certainly be good news for small business and it is some time since it was recommended by the Cruickshank report.

The rest of the Queen's Speech, as has been said, lacks a clear theme. It is hard to understand how several of the measures will help my constituents. I hear few calls for the urgent reform of hereditary peers or the update of legislation on same-sex couples. In all my time in Parliament, I have not received letters complaining about those things.

I want to talk about measures to improve the quality of life and behaviour and also tuition fees. I must tell my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—my former Secretary of State—that I do not wholly agree with his remarks on tuition fees. I shall come to that in a moment, although I fear that that may mean that he will have to listen to the end of my speech.

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Quality of life matters to all our constituents, as does their total environment. I wish that there were more evidence of joined-up thinking behind measures to improve the planning and housing system and those that are being introduced to try to tackle criminal behaviour yet again. Huge swathes of doughnut housing have been pressed for by developers and built around our towns because people want to move out of the centres to escape drugs and high crime rates. There is less of a problem in inner cities because a lot of regeneration is going on there. The housing and planning legislation that the House constantly passes must be considered alongside the need to improve policing and security inside our town centres or constant pressure will be caused by those who can afford to do so moving out of town centres while more deprivation and disorder is left in such centres.

Those of us who represent high-cost areas in the south-east experience specific problems with security and policing. The Government have had to wrestle with those problems and much of what they have done has been a mess. Police officers are resigning in droves from West Kent and North Kent police because they can continue to live in their houses yet earn an extra £3,000 or more by crossing the border to do exactly the same job for the Met. We experienced the same problem with nurses. After a long campaign, Ministers eventually listened and our health authorities were given more money so that the subsidies offered in London were equalled. The problem needs to be tackled more broadly. My constituents should not be underpoliced, so I would have liked to hear about genuine measures for police reform to allow chief constables to vary local rates of pay so that it could be ensured that high-cost areas—even those within county constabulary borders—would be able to pay the necessary amount to recruit and retain the police whom our constituents need.

Similar reform for schools is not contained in the Queen's Speech. We all welcome specialist schools, of course, and I especially welcome the fact that almost all the non-selective schools in my constituency enjoy specialist status. However, status alone is not enough because it has not yet been accompanied by genuine reform and deregulation to promote more performance-related pay and to encourage schools to deploy their staff better and compete at the edges in the way in which they deliver and design the education that they offer. I would like more of the regulatory reform measures that were promised at the end of the Queen's Speech to be applied to the Government themselves so that some of the nit-picking regulation that applies to schools could be swept away to allow head teachers and governors to get on with designing the public service that they believe their local communities need.

That is equally true in the national health service. I now read that Ministers are going to get rid of half the quangos that they set up in their first three or four years in government to regulate, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe said, and to provide accountability. Quangos are to be merged or abolished. There is an equal failure on the part of Ministers in the Department of Health to measure the effect of the legislation to which they are signing up.

My hon. Friends will have read in the weekend press of the long-term effect of the working time directive, which will hit junior doctors and those NHS trusts that

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employ them particularly hard. But it will hit even harder those trusts, like my own, that have multiple sites. In the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS trust, for example, we have two hospitals, the Kent and Sussex and the Pembury hospital, both of which serve my constituency. It will be financially impossible to meet the demands of the working time directive if they are not ameliorated to deal with the particular circumstances of trusts with two or three sites.

I turn now to what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) in a debate the other day called "the politics of behaviour". We need to think more radically about behaviour. I am struck by the increasing numbers of my constituents who, in their letters or in the advice bureau that I, like all MPs, hold, complain about the unreasonable behaviour of other people, such as their neighbours. I notice that slowly but surely in this House Ministers are trying to get to grips with that. We are now to consider a third Bill dealing with antisocial behaviour orders, and we see in the Queen's Speech the suggestion that there should be more and more fines, including on-the-spot fines. There is also a proposal for identity cards, to identify people who are behaving badly. Those policies require more and more Acts of Parliament.

We need to think a little more deeply about how we tackle the politics of bad behaviour. It seems to me that we have not yet quite realised that if everything is legislated on and regulated, and the gap narrows between what is compulsory and what is forbidden, there is less support for the norms of public behaviour that used to apply. I do not mean the fashionable causes of private behaviour that we are all enjoined to support; I mean behaviour in public space, towards one another and towards those who serve us, whether in the public services or the private sector.

The Queen's Speech has picked out one aspect of that. It says that more powers will be given to head teachers and schools to deal with difficult children and so on. Head teachers do not talk to me about difficult children; they now talk to me about difficult parents: parents who are unreasonable, who take their children out of school without notice, who park unreasonably and all the rest of it. As well as passing all these laws—none of which ever seems to quite do the trick, so every Queen's Speech must contain another one—we need to look again at what we can do to re-establish the private contract.

One of this Government's biggest mistakes was not to make the home-school contract legally enforceable and give head teachers the power, which would apply in the independent sector, to reject children whose parents are not prepared to conform to the contract that they have signed. In other words, it is not so much the relationship between the state and the individual that applies here, but the contract between the individual and the service to which he or she is contracting.

Finally, in order not to detain my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, I move on to tuition fees. He is right: we should call this a student tax because that is what it is and that is how it should be labelled. However, I do not think that the argument about the level of fees that will rage throughout the House over the next few weeks and months, and the balance to be struck between individual and general advantage from going into higher education, should obscure the equally important issue of institutional

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freedom. With great respect, I do not think that my right hon. and learned Friend attributed sufficient importance to that.

Universities in the United States, some of which, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, are of a high standard, flourish; they manage to educate a higher percentage of the age profile than do ours; and they certainly are able to attract much more money into higher education.

Why is that? In essence, it is because they are not run by the Government. In this country, all such institutions are, in effect, run by the Government—or, as my right hon. and learned Friend implied, mis-run by successive Treasuries. We must get away from the one-size-fits-all Government idea of a university. If that is no longer the right model for secondary schools, it seems odd to continue to insist that it is the right model for universities.

I offer the House a lesson drawn from practical experience—a rather rare experience for a former Minister. In 1993, I was made a board member of the Higher Education Funding Council, so I had the unique experience of being one of the Ministers—not the primary one—in the Department that drew up the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, and then, outside the House, of being one of those who had to live with its consequences.

The HEFC for England was set up to fund higher education, but we ended up not simply funding it, but directing it, homogenising it, and centralising it. It was a fallacy of the 1992 Act that all the new universities that my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues created were somehow immediately equal with the old ones. We were encouraged to believe that and we responded to that belief. Sure enough, in the fulness of time, almost all the 100 universities, new and old, made their various research proposals and treated themselves as though they were as good as the university of Cambridge, to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred. Ultimately, that was a deception—a deception perpetrated above all on the students who followed the path into those universities that all degrees are of equal academic rigour and practical usefulness, and all will be equally acceptable to future employers. I do not believe that they are, or that they can be, or that they necessarily should be.

If we continue on our present course, we will have a university system in which overall—of course, the best will always survive—standards will continue to decline. Rather than apply to the great universities of this country, more and more of my constituents will apply to universities elsewhere—to Princeton, Harvard and Brown—as they are already beginning to do. Our universities will fail in competing for the staff they need. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, the market for university staff is increasingly international, and he concedes that academic salaries are important.

It is up to Ministers now to explain how the very limited fees that they currently propose—each time I read my newspaper, the level seems to have dropped—will put our university system on what was described in the Queen's Speech as "a sound financial footing" given their ambitions for expansion, given other pressures for public spending, and given that, as I think we all agree,

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universities are already underfunded. Ministers have to explain how equal, common, single tuition fees at the low level they propose will do the trick. Equally, it is for my Front Benchers to explain how their policy—even if we were to stop expansion in its tracks, as I think is being suggested—will deliver the type of devolution and differentiation that we seem to favour almost everywhere else.

One cannot argue that hospitals and schools—which are, after all, public bodies—should have more freedom, but not be in favour of more freedom for universities, which are private institutions. One cannot on the one hand promise to be in the business of trusting professionals—head teachers, doctors and police superintendents—but on the other say that one is not prepared to trust a university vice-chancellor. I do not believe that a political party can advocate localism and difference in provision and simultaneously suggest that all universities, from the university of Abertay in Dundee to the university of Oxford, should be exactly the same.

In other words, I believe that the level of tuition fees is not exactly the issue. Students are paying already, and they will probably have to pay some more. I agree with those who say that there is probably a better way of ensuring that that extra payment is secured to a graduate tax or whatever. The real issue is how we encourage a university system that fosters diversity and benefits from difference, in which students—properly funded and properly bursaried, if they have not the means—have a real choice of courses and can know the outcome if they stick to them.

I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench will rise to the task of explaining all these matters to me in due course as our debates unfold. I have no doubt that they will do so far more successfully than Ministers have so far defended their own proposals.

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