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Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that
Mr. Yeo: I have never had a role speaking on education issues from the Front Bench[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Five years ago[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will have to reference his allegations.
Is the Secretary of State now clear about his own policy? Each time[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. The House is far too noisy.
Mr. Yeo: I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) would actually source the statement that he alleges I made, and if by any chance he finds that he has made a mistake, I hope he will have the courtesy to withdraw his remarks.
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): Perhaps it would help the House, Mr. Speaker, to say that the source is Hansard on 20 December 1988[Interruption.]
Mr. Yeo: Hansard on which day?
Mr. Yeo: 1988! I have campaigned at three general elections since 1988. I have been returned by my voters on pledges that I am proud to honour. The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are seeking to dishonour a pledge that they made only two years ago. If he wants my researchers to dredge up what he said in 1988 about a range of Government policies I shall be happy to ask them to do so.
Debating the Government's policy
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Yeo: In a moment[Interruption.]
Debating the Government's policy on top-up fees[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. The House is far too noisy.
Mr. Yeo: Mr. Speaker, I have just been reminded that the hon. Member for Ilford, South said that my comments were made five years ago, so I hope he will acknowledge that he misled the House at that moment.
Debating the Government's policy on top-up fees is made harder by the fact that each time a few more Back Benchers sign the early-day motion, the details of the policy change. Last Wednesday, the Bill was the first in the Queen's Speech but seven days later it has dropped back down the list. When will it actually see the light of day? Does the delay prelude a complete withdrawal? Will the Secretary of State clarify the position?
This time last week, the income at which graduates must start repaying their loans was said to be £15,000. By Friday, on Radio 4, the Solicitor-General thought that the amount was to be raised to £18,000, and now we hear reports that it may be £20,000. No matter how far the income threshold is raised, the burden of repayment will remain. Indeed, because interest is charged, the debt will increase and it will bear especially heavily on those graduates who go into less well-paid public sector jobssuch as, for example, the NHS radiographer who will still have a debt of more than £10,000 10 years after starting work. Deferring repayment also carries a cost. That cost will have to be paid either by universities receiving less money or by the taxpayer covering the shortfall, or both. I hope that the Secretary of State will explain those figures and say how much he expects top-up fees to raise for universities, and how much he thinks the universities will charge.
Mr. Allen: Did the hon. Gentleman catch the remarks of the chairman of Universities UK this morning? He assessed the result of the Conservative policy not to pursue tuition fees as resulting in 480,000 students not going to university. Does he think that the chairman of Universities UK is right or wrong? What is the real figure that would result from the implementation of Conservative policies?
Mr. Yeo: I think that the chairman of Universities UK is wrong about that. I will set out how we intend that universities should be funded, and how the students who go to university should be chosen, in due course. However, I am clear that the Bill's approach is fatally flawed. Whatever the sums show, and whatever tinkering is done to the Bill, three facts remain. First, this is a policy on which Labour misled the voters two years ago. If the Government press on with it, families up and down Britain will find it hard to trust anything that the Secretary of State says in future.
Secondly, the Government will burden future generations of students with bigger debts than any students have ever faced before.
Tom Levitt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Yeo: In a moment. At the very time that concern is already mounting about the level of debt that many
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), so long as she does not dredge up quotations from 1988.
Shona McIsaac: No, I am not going to dredge up quotations from 1988, as we have plenty more recent ones that we could use. Conservative party policy would deny 800 talented young people in my constituency the right to go to university. How would the hon. Gentleman explain that to them? Given that the Opposition would get rid of the new deal as well, he is basically consigning hundreds of talented and skilled young people to the scrap heap. That is his dishonesty.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I would not say that the hon. Gentleman is dishonest. Perhaps the hon. Lady will consider withdrawing that word.
Shona McIsaac: I certainly withdraw the word "dishonesty". Perhaps I could use the phrase "failure of policy" instead.
Mr. Yeo: I am sorry that I gave way to the hon. Lady and allowed her time for such an extended rant, but I want to place it on the record that it is Conservative party policy that every young person sufficiently qualified to go to university should have the chance to do so, without paying tuition fees or top-up fees. It is the policy of the Labour party to burden young people with such huge debts that many who are talented and qualified will be deterred from taking a university course by the prospect of the enormous burden of debt that the Secretary of State will place on them.
The third reason why the Bill is fundamentally flawed is that it will establish the office for fair access, the new access regulator. For the first time ever, the regulator will have the power to take away from individual universities the right to decide who should study there. No amount of tinkering with the Bill will stop it being bad for students and for universities.
Mr. Robert Jackson: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as I want to be helpful to him. I listened with great interest to what he said on the "Today" programme this morning about the need for an all-party approach to this matter. He may remember that I raised that point with the Prime Minister last week, in an intervention in the debate on the Queen's Speech. That was the approach at the time of Dearing, and it is the right approach now. However, does my hon. Friend accept that an all-party discussion of the matter must be without precondition? That must mean that the Conservative party is prepared to abandon its opposition to top-up fees.
Mr. Yeo: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose views are well respected in the higher education community. He speaks about wanting a cross-party consensus. There is a cross-party consensus on one thing: a majority of Labour, Conservative and Liberal
Before we can start, there must be two absolutely clear assumptions. First, there should be no access regulator and no attempt by Ministers to take from universities the power to decide who studies at universitiesI hope that I can carry my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on that point. Secondly, there should be no centrally set top-down target for the number of people who go to university. It is quite wrong for the Prime Minister to pluck a figure out of the air50 per cent. of young people to go to universitywhen it has no reference to the needs of employers. I have just finished 18 months of shadowing the Department of Trade and Industry. During that period, no employer told me that having more graduates would solve their recruitment problems.
The premises on which we can have a cross-party discussion are therefore threefold: one is that we have rejected the Bill; the second is that there should be no interference with the freedom of universities to choose their students; and the third is that no artificial target should be imposed by Ministers in relation to the proportion of young people who go to university.