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Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): How does my right hon. Friend square matters in a university community? He gave the example of a physics course getting a zero fee rating. How does he square that with university management finances? A creative writing course might charge £3,000 because it is popular. Would the money be reflected in physics courses? Science courses are notoriously expensive because of technicians, equipment and all the money that has to be spent on experimentation and so on. Indeed, experimenters carry out most of the teaching and take money from research grants to aid teaching. That cannot be right.

Mr. Clarke: The Higher Education Funding Council mandates money for specific courses to provide encouragement in the way we discussed earlier. I say in all friendship to my hon. Friend and neighbour that he should talk to the vice-chancellor of the university of East Anglia, of which he was dean, and which is in my constituency, about managing money. If he does, he will find that the proposals are welcomed because they provide the capacity to raise money and plan far more effectively for creative writing, as well as for maths, physics and so on. That is a better way for the vice-chancellor of managing the resources to improve the quality of the university.

The reforms are a package, not a pick-and-mix solution. They are generous to students and fair to universities and the taxpayer. We will publish the Bill and our detailed proposals at the beginning of January so that, as the Prime Minister said, Second Reading can take place before the end of that month. The future of the country's higher education system is at stake. We must have the courage to reform it in a way that is steadfastly based on the Labour party's values of opportunity and fairness. We need a policy for the future, and I commend our policy to the House.

2.9 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Before moving on to what, inevitably, is the main topic of debate today, may I make one or two remarks

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on other aspects of the Gracious Speech? First, however, I make common cause with the Secretary of State in saying that I get increasingly tired of our public services being painted as third-world public services. The reality is that that is not the case.

There are significant problems in health, education and other areas of public service, but for most Members the public services delivered in their constituencies are of a very high order. Continually denigrating the staff who work in those services does a disservice to our arguments and to the work of the House.

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

Mr. Willis: I have only just started.

Mr. Chaytor: I know, but will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: Yes.

Mr. Chaytor: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that Members on the Government side of the House thank him for his remarks. Does he accept that the fact that those public services are in good shape is largely due to the increased investment that has been put in since 1997?

Mr. Willis: I cannot possibly go that far for the hon. Gentleman, because he and I know that between 1997 and 1999 a huge opportunity was lost by the incoming Labour Government. They stuck to Conservative spending plans for those two years, seeing our public services continue to be denied the resources they needed. However, there has been significant spending in a number of areas since then, and the Liberal Democrats are very supportive of it. I hope that he will accept that as a halfway house.

I say to the Secretary of State that the draft school transport Bill is very interesting. We hope to be able to get a number of assurances from him before hares start running. First, there needs to be an assurance that the current arrangements, particularly in post-Education Act 1944 terms respecting Cowper-Temple and the Church schools situation, will be guaranteed. Secondly, we need an assurance that students who live more than 3 miles away will continue to get a form of free transport to the school of their choice. Having an education policy that offers parents choice for their children across borders, especially after the Greenwich judgment, but which then introduces ring-fencing for local authorities—which does not bring those considerations into play—could do a huge disservice. I hope that the Secretary of State, early on in the consultation, will make some parameters clear.

On the school transport Bill, may I also ask the Secretary of State not to neglect 16 to 19-year-olds? One of the huge problems for young people in that age range, particularly in rural areas, is access to further education. There may be a local school at which they may be able to get 16 to 19 education, but if we are to develop opportunities we need to be able to offer them transport. One of the huge deficiencies in the system—it is a real shame that the Learning and Skills Council has not tackled this—relates to how we guarantee young people

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who want to access a course in an institution other than their local school from 16 to 19 that they can have it. I hope that that will be taken up.

Mr. Sheerman: The Select Committee is considering admissions policy. I do not say this in a party political sense, but on the "Any Questions?" programme last week one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues seemed to want to change the situation in terms of community schools and the Greenwich judgment. Is the hon. Gentleman singing from the same hymn sheet and does that accord with what he has just said?

Mr. Willis: I do not want to get into a debate about the "Any Questions?" programme, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) was talking about the Greenwich judgment and a long-standing party policy, which is to reverse the Greenwich judgment. Those Members who were present when we discussed the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 will know that I proposed an amendment, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), that would have dealt with that issue. The Greenwich judgment and, indeed, the Rotherham judgment are key issues in terms of dealing with access. I am sure that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) will take that on board.

The second point that I want to make before going on to the substantive issue of higher education relates to the proposed children's Act and the establishment of a children's commissioner. I say to the Secretary of State that we are delighted at the speed at which the Government have moved from producing a document to going for legislation to ensure that the recommendations are put into law. We are grateful for that. However, we are concerned that it appears that we are to have a one-size-fits-all solution on how local authorities have to respond to amalgamation and the one-stop shop in local authorities. I hope that the Minister who responds to the debate can allay the fears.

It is important that local authorities are allowed to have bottom-up solutions on how they provide the service. For instance, authorities such as Surrey, which is not a Liberal Democrat authority, have done remarkable work on integrating children's services and they should not have to unpick all that and suddenly start again. To do that would be a great shame.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Perhaps I might offer clarification. I am extremely sympathetic to the point that the hon. Gentleman is making and I acknowledge the need for flexibility in putting the proposal into effect in local authorities throughout the country, but as we do that we must not lose the drive and impetus towards a single clear responsibility that is properly operated. Provided that that imperative is acknowledged, I accept what he says.

Mr. Willis: I accept that as an imperative. It is right and proper that the Secretary of State should provide the framework. The commissioner should report to Parliament, but the local authority should be able to get local solutions within that framework. I hope that we will see that.

From time to time, all parties put the slogans "No child left behind" and "Every child matters" on their documents, but every child does matter in terms of child

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protection and the broader issues involved in how we protect minorities in our schools. Looking at the recent exclusion figures, it causes enormous sadness to me that Afro-Caribbean boys continue to be three times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts. It is enormously sad that children with special educational needs are seven times more likely to be excluded. I hope that the commissioner will also deal with those minorities to ensure that local authorities produce good solutions rather than simply tokenism.

May I include two other groups of children in that? The first is traveller children. A growing number of traveller children in our society—those of new age travellers and of traditional Romany travellers—are often neglected. Ofsted has drawn the Secretary of State's attention to the problems of traveller children and I hope that we can include in the commissioner's remit a real commitment to doing something for those youngsters.

On the issue of asylum children, I am delighted that the Government have abandoned their policy of taking away children and putting them in care. That was a horrendous policy and we are delighted that whichever Secretary of State, or whichever Minister, was going to go down that road has changed it.

Moving on to the central focus of the Gracious Speech, it is interesting that its fourth paragraph said:

That laudable aim is shared by Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but what we have heard today and what we have seen from Ministers ever since the publication of the White Paper is not a commitment to that, but a desire to shift the balance of funding for our universities from the state to the individual. That is really what we are talking about today and it is the whole emphasis of what the Secretary of State said.

The Secretary of State did not produce a shred of evidence to show how we will encourage students from less traditional backgrounds to aspire to—let alone go to—university by charging the poorest students and by increasing the debt burden to mortgage-style amounts. He has oft repeated that that aspiration is something that we have to tackle, because at 16 many youngsters who should be going on to study post-16 and at university drop out of the system.

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