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Mr. Allen: May I drag the hon. Gentleman away from one of his myths? Were he to come to some of the estates in my constituency and offer young people an interest-free loan of £9,000, he would be trampled in the rush. None of us would like to see that. Will he concede that we are talking not about poor students, rich students or parents paying back the money, but graduates from all socio-economic classes at certain levels of income paying back the money? He must concede that £5 a week is less than a couple of pints of Guinness down the students' union for someone earning £18,000 a year.

Mr. Willis: I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman. I do not know his constituency, but I should be delighted to visit. I am sure that if he went to any part of Britain and offered a £9,000 interest-free loan, even those who do not understand the language would bite his hand off. That would be a generous offer, but this country is in so much debt because of offers of interest-free loans.

We must knock on the head the business of the £5 repayment. The reality is that, at that level, students will not even pay the interest on the debt. If we are talking about serious loans after the introduction of top-up fees, and if those are rolled into the maintenance loans that are paid back through the same system, we will be talking about a figure in excess of £20,000 in 2005–06 or 2008, as the Secretary of State and the Minister have been honest enough to accept. The idea of paying back £5 a week is nonsense.

Peter Bradley: Does the hon. Gentleman regard mortgages as debt, especially when one ceases to have to make repayments when one loses one's job, which would have been welcome in the 1980s and 1990s? If he does, is the Liberal Democrat message to potential homeowners that they should not take on that responsibility because they may have to pay it back?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman has got to get—[Interruption.] Sorry, I was going to say something uncharitable. Of course people will have mortgages and

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other borrowings but, if we are to believe the Barclays survey, in 2010, it will not be the poorer students but those from families who constantly get knocked by the Government—those just above the level at which the remittance of fees applies—who will have £33,000 of debt. They will then go into adult life and will need somewhere to live, which means renting or buying. The hon. Gentleman and I may have bought properties in London because it is cheaper to buy than to rent in some parts. The burden that will fall on young people will be absolutely massive.

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he is comfortable with young people starting out in adult life in that way and that Cabinet Ministers, professional footballers and other multi-millionaires should not pay more tax, the Labour party will have moved to a point that I thought I would never see in terms of social justice, equity and progressive taxation.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): I certainly do not agree that that level of debt is acceptable or will be contemplated by people from council estates. I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman appeared to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on this point. People offered a £9,000 interest-free loan will not accept it if, as a quid pro quo, they must refuse any benefits to which they might be entitled and forgo any full-time work that might give them a substantive income.

Mr. Willis: I am indebted to the hon. Lady for the completeness of the response I should have given to the hon. Gentleman. I was referring to the nonsense of saying that there is a strings-free £9,000 interest-free loan, when clearly there is not. Anybody would accept a strings-free £9,000 loan, but the strings attached to this one are quite significant.

The Government say that they have put in place mechanisms to support poorer students, and that no student will have to pay up-front fees. That is just not so. The reality is that poorer students will have to increase their debt by £1,875 per annum if they want to go to a top university. They will have some £5,625 worth of extra debt when they leave university. The first £1,125 will be paid for them, but they will have to find the rest. However, the Government have come up with a solution. They say that they will give our poorer students £1,000 in grant. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education recently said that they can use that £1,000 to pay off their fees. If that is not at least a sleight of hand, I am afraid that it is deceitful, because at the end of the day such students will still have that debt.

The Government are telling universities that they must use £875 of every top-up fee to provide bursaries for poorer students. That is great for Cambridge, and I am delighted that it will be able to give £4,000 to every poor student. But the reality is that 80 to 90 per cent. of students at Nottingham Trent university, Sheffield Hallam university and certain universities in south London are already on fee waivers. How can those places charge a top-up fee? How will they be able to provide bursaries to support poorer students? And if they cannot raise the top-up fees, how will they pay the academic salaries, infrastructure costs, and so on? This

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policy is divisive. It is creating different tiers within our higher education system that are based purely on one's ability to pay.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has spent in excess of 40 minutes criticising the Government and the official Opposition. When he intervened on the Secretary of State, he said that he would spell out in detail the Liberal Democrats' policy on funding public services. Is that still his intention?

Mr. Willis: I have enjoyed the interventions that I have taken, and in my view the whole debate has been good. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not enjoyed it.

I turn to our policy. The Government say that the only way to fund our universities is through differential fees, and the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) may accept that that is so. The Liberal Democrats are saying that that is not so—that we can support our universities and students through direct taxation. Through such taxation, we can recoup the costs from those who gain the most, and who have the highest levels of disposable income. By taxing incomes of over £100,000 at a 50p rate, we would pass the burden of taxation from students to those with the most significant incomes. Surely Labour party members would accept the basic premise that such a tax is at least part-socialist, given that it is fair, progressive and redistributive.

According to the Library, such a tax would raise £4.5 billion, of which £2 billion would be allocated to higher education. That £2 billion would be used to meet the £450 million cost of abolishing existing fees; some £300 million of it would be used to support a £2,000 grant—the Government are already putting in £300 million—and approximately £1 billion of it would be spent on university infrastructure.

We have three pledges—and only three pledges—in respect of our 50p rate. The first call on that money is the spending of up to £2 billion on tuition fees and higher education. Secondly, £1 billion is earmarked for free personal care for the elderly, thereby introducing in England what Scotland already has. The third pledge is to lessen the impact of the transition from an unfair council tax to a local income tax.

That is the policy, which is on the record. Any other funding commitment made by my Front-Bench colleagues would have to be met through savings made elsewhere. If such savings cannot be made, such proposals will not be implemented—I cannot be clearer than that.

Dr. John Reid: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: No, I will not.

This has been an interesting debate. We have heard the three main parties explain three different positions. At the end of the day, it is up to Labour Back Benchers to decide whether they have signed the early-day motion because they believe in a fair and equitable system, under which those who can most afford to support our

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students do so, or whether they want to vote in favour of this unfair, regressive policy. I know in which Lobby my colleagues will be on the day.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I must remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

2.56 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) has made some interesting remarks, as he always does, and at inordinate length. He is the single-handed destroyer of Back-Bench time, especially during education debates. It has come to something when we each have to squeeze our contributions into 10 minutes. An increasingly small number of people are getting the opportunity to speak. I thought that Parliament was about not only Front-Bench opinion, but Back-Bench opinion.

I have got to be brief, but I shall try also to be succinct and not too party political. For me, becoming the Chairman of a Select Committee never meant that I should also become a political neuter. I did not accept the position on that basis, and I shall continue to be outspoken. I should point out to those whom I may have offended when I asked a certain question of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman that in more than 20 years as a Member of this House, I have always asked Ministers and Opposition spokesmen who comment on state education whether they invested in such education by sending their children to state schools. I am not going to apologise to the House for that—it is a perfectly legitimate question to ask.

I always try to be reasonably objective in assessing the Government's record. Indeed, as the Ministers who appeared before the Education and Skills Committee this morning know, they were subjected to some pretty tough questioning. I stand by the reports that my Committee has produced in the three years of my chairmanship; they made some pretty stinging criticisms of the Government when they got things wrong. But I have to say that the Government's record in tackling the central theme of the underperformance of children from less well off, working-class backgrounds is second to none in our history. Let us look at the facts. Let us remember the percentage of gross domestic product that has been poured into pre-school; into free nursery education at the ages of three, and now four; into upgrading our school buildings; and into our nursery, junior and secondary schools. Money has been spent throughout the system.

Those who want to criticise this Government can do so, because they have priorities that people may not agree with. All parliamentarians—on either side of the House—can legitimately criticise a Government's priorities, but we should not underrate the fact that an enormous sum has been spent on pre-school and the entire education system, in order to tackle the central problem that the Government were sworn to tackle on taking office in 1997.

It gladdens my heart to see that education is mentioned three times in the Queen's Speech, in three different and important Bills. I shall not discuss the children's Bill, although I do have a great interest in it, as

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do the Select Committee and the Minister for Children. However, I should at this point mention Huddersfield's great education pioneer, Brian Jackson. He was one of the leading education reformers of the 1960s and 1970s, and he campaigned continually for a children's commissioner. Thank goodness we are now going to have one.

I should like to say a few words about school transport in this country, which is in a mess. Members of the Select Committee had one of their exotic freebies on Monday when we all went to Slough for the day. We took evidence in a good local authority, which is coping with the admissions policy that it inherited—with all that that means for the variety of schools in the area. The authority does not wholly control the schools because its neighbours want to send their children into the borough and a quarter of residents want to send their children out the other way. In every town and city in the country can be seen mass movements of children being bussed miles and miles to particular educational institutions. It is a mess, and I hope that some of the pilot schemes in the Bill may do something to help tackle it. Anyone who has been involved in education—on either side of the House—knows that it a difficult problem. Thank goodness, there is an element of pragmatism in the pilot schemes, which are about trying to sort something out. However, it will take much more than what appears in the present Bill to get it right.

One problem that is always evident is the dearth of community schools in the country. Everybody seems to leave the community and very few schools have only their local population attending them. Many of the people who gave evidence to the Select Committee deplored that fact. How can we have community schools when the whole community is on the move to other communities? Overall, however, I welcome the three Bills and the priority that the Government still accord to education.

I should also mention that evidence given over the years during the Select Committee's production of four reports on higher education shows time and again that when children reach the age of 18, it is too late to encourage them into higher education. The really important work is in Sure Start and the early years, in nursery education and in education maintenance allowances. All the evidence shows that that was a brave policy, which is now being rolled out from one third of areas to the whole country. What a wonderful scheme. It was an excellent idea to pay poorer students to stay in education from 16 to 18. We never receive proper acknowledgement from Opposition Members, particularly the official Opposition, for making that real change. Members with an interest in education know that it has been a pioneering piece of policy—and that it works.

The Select Committee frequently stresses that if substantial moneys are being spent on education, there must be checking for value for money and monitoring to ensure that a policy works. If it does not work, it should be scrapped and something else attempted. That amounts to a refreshing pragmatism about the current Administration, who are not driven by a bankrupt ideology whereby everything has to be run like a nationalised industry. We experimented very unsuccessfully with that idea in the past. On access, evidence suggests that early intervention is necessary.

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I have to tell the House, including some of my hon. Friends, that in respect of retention, much of the evidence coming before the Select Committee readily showed that debt and debt aversion are not the major considerations at the top of people's minds. The reason why students drop out of higher education in their first year is that, having been given bad advice, they are on the wrong course in the wrong town. Debt was right down on the list, so rather than deal with myths, let us be honest about that.

In my remaining few minutes, I want to point out that the Select Committee was often concerned about the long-term. The most regrettable aspect of what the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said in the "Today" programme this morning—and repeated in the Chamber today—was that all the employers that he had visited said that there was no call for more higher education. Anyone who heard the lecture by Larry Summers, president of Harvard and former US Treasury Secretary, knows that current research shows clearly that if we want to be a competitive country with wealth creation and able to fend off enormous competition from India, China, Brazil and Mexico—in the changing global world—the key factor is how many highly educated and trained people a country's economy produces.

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