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4.51 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. For various reasons, the Queen's Speech is turning out to be more interesting than some commentators acknowledged last Wednesday.

I oppose the Opposition amendment and, in doing so, will focus on a very welcome piece of legislation, the children Bill. I do that from the perspective of a Member of Parliament who represents a constituency in Wales, which already has a Children's Commissioner in place. However, the proposal to introduce top-up fees, a subject that is identified in the amendment, in a higher education Bill concerns me and, as we have heard, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, although we do not share the Tories' critique of the proposal and certainly not their alternative policies for higher education.

For my part, I speak as a representative of a seat in Wales where the Labour party did not only fight the general election on a pledge not to introduce variable tuition fees, but fought the National Assembly elections in May this year on the same commitment for Wales. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said about trust in our party if we continue on the same road. If top-

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up fees are introduced for England, it will inevitably have a direct impact both on Welsh people going into higher education and on universities in Wales.

The arguments are becoming increasingly well rehearsed and will continue to be reiterated in the weeks and months ahead. It cannot be denied that the Government face a real challenge. They want to pump into our colleges the resources that they undoubtedly need and of which they have been starved for too long. They also want to increase the number of people who will benefit from higher education in the years ahead. Most Labour Members would sympathise with and support both those objectives—it is the chosen method of delivery that causes us concern.

We are told that after assessing and costing dozens of different models for achieving their goals, Ministers have decided that the only one that fits the bill is the one that allows universities to charge different levels of tuition fees for different courses. To pay for that, students will be required to make repayments once they have graduated and reach a certain income. The Government have also proposed measures that I could only welcome if variable fees go ahead, such as scrapping up-front fees, which has been mentioned, introducing grants and bursaries for the less well off and establishing fair access protections.

Those of us who are worried about the Bill have both practical concerns and concerns that relate to matters of principle. I fear that top-up fees will act as a deterrent for people from lower and middle-income families when they consider what courses to take and at which university. We already have evidence that predicted debt under existing arrangements is a major consideration for people deciding whether or not to go on to higher education. It is difficult to see how even generous bursary and grant arrangements will prevent universities that have higher fees—presumably based on academic reputation—from disproportionately serving the better-off. I fear that top-up fees will lead to the entrenchment of multi-tiering in the higher education sector, creating greater difficulties in most colleges' efforts to develop and grow.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recognise that we already have a multi-tier system? In reality, someone who attends a public school is 14 or 15 times more likely than someone who does not to go to Oxbridge, or to universities like Exeter and Bristol. That is a fact, so it is not a question of entrenching a multi-tier system; one exists already. Given that one third of the variable tuition fee has to be spent on increasing access, does he agree that the consequence will be to increase significantly the number of kids from working-class and ordinary backgrounds going to the elite universities, and would not that be a good thing?

Mr. Caton: It would be a good thing if that were to happen. I accept my hon. Friend's point that we already have multi-tiering—it would be nonsense to deny that. My fear is that we will entrench it. Under the current arrangements, different universities are rising in esteem and the quality of their provision. I fear that variable fees would lead to entrenchment of an Ivy League.

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I wanted to talk in the main about the children Bill, but to finish my remarks on top-up fees, my main objection is founded on my disagreement with one of the basic premises of the Government's argument. They say that people who benefit from higher education will, in most cases, earn considerably higher incomes, so it is right that we should ask them to pay towards that education. To be frank, I go along with only part of that argument—the part that people who have higher incomes should make a greater contribution to the cost of public services. The easiest, best, most honest and straightforward way of doing that is through progressive banded income tax, whereby high earners pay the most irrespective of whether they received a university education. The problem with the Government's proposal is that it is a tax or charge—whatever one prefers to call it—on higher education, not on income. I hope that they rethink that.

I warmly welcome the proposed children Bill. I shall concentrate on the provision regarding the children's commissioner, but I support the general approach to improving the protection of children and our ability to listen to what children tell us about their needs and wishes. I am sure that the UK Government here in London and the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff share those aims, but the precise approach does not have to be identical in England and in Wales. I therefore welcome the Government's commitment to work with the Assembly to ensure that the Welsh Government can have input into the Bill where a related, but distinct, approach might be appropriate for Wales.

Wales led the way in the UK with the establishment three years ago of this country's first Children's Commissioner post. In 2001, the role of the Welsh commissioner was extended to responsibilities beyond the regulated services. The commissioner now has the power to review the effect of policies on and the delivery of services to children. His remit extends well beyond services that are directly provided to children, such as social care and education; it also covers policy areas such as transport, the environment, economic development and agriculture.

The commissioner's powers cover all the policies and practices of the National Assembly, but he does not have powers of review and investigation in respect of non-devolved or reserved matters. He can make representations to both the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly on matters such as Home Office-run juvenile offenders institutions, family courts or the social security system, but he has no powers of investigation and no right to enter premises or require documentation from relevant agencies and ministries.

I shall return to that matter, but first I suggest that an excellent working model that has been established in Wales that should help the shaping of the new legislation. In only three years, Peter Clarke, the Children's Commissioner for Wales, and his team have done an enormous amount to gain the trust of children and young people and the respect of the wider community throughout Wales. He has set as his primary task the safeguarding and promotion of the rights and welfare of children and young people in Wales, but his approach and that of his team is to work with children and young people rather than simply for what he

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perceives their best interests to be. In fact, the National Assembly made it a requirement that the commissioner's office ascertain the views of children and young people as it carries out its work.

That is the excellent foundation on which the commissioner has built his role. Not only does he consult children about all aspects of his job, but he actively promotes children's participation in decisions that affect them, from family to national level. His team make a special effect to ensure that the voices of marginalised young people are heard and their views acted upon. That is working. The commissioner's office has played a valuable part in ensuring that the views of children and young people are heard in policy debates in Wales on child poverty, intergenerational respect, the provision of facilities and services by local government, education, school exclusions and a range of other matters.

While not required to do so under the Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001, the commissioner must make children and young people aware of their rights under the UN convention on the rights of the child. The Assembly included that requirement in the commissioner's job description, which brings me back to the opportunities for improvement in the new children Bill. Our commissioners should be required by statute to work within the rights-based framework set out in the UN convention on the rights of the child. They should have the power to review the effects of policies and the delivery of services by any Government Department or agency, whether UK-wide or devolved, that impact on the rights or welfare of children, and that should include the power to enter institutions and carry out investigations. For us in Wales, that would mean extending the powers of the Children's Commissioner beyond devolved issues to include UK Government responsibilities.In connection with the joint approach outlined in the Bill, we may need to make provision for children's commissioners in the different countries of the UK to work jointly where an issue crosses borders.

I am sure that the children Bill will take forward our children's rights and protection. As for children's commissioners for England and other parts of the country, I hope that we will be prepared to provide all the powers that they need to be first-class children's champions. I am sure that we will.

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