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5.51 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab): Most of the measures announced in the Queen's Speech are desirable and necessary. I especially commend the

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proposals for children's bonds, pension protection funds, the registration of civil partnerships, legislation on domestic violence and the establishment of a children's commissioner for England—who will, I presume, have oversight of the welfare of the children of asylum seekers. I commend, too, proposals for the reform of the House of Lords. I hope that we shall complete consideration of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, and I very much hope that it will include provisions to regulate car boot sales.

I strongly support the Home Secretary's proposals for draft legislation on identity cards. At least one phantom Bill is lurking—on hunting—and I look forward to that. I very much welcome the fact that gender recognition legislation is to be debated.

Like most speakers today, however, I want to address only one main matter: top-up fees, which are neither desirable nor necessary. As I understand the Government's intention, it is to raise more resources to bail out our universities and to raise more of those resources from graduates and less from general taxation; but for the life of me I cannot see why top-up fees are necessary to achieve either of those ends. Indeed, as I hope to explain, they could well achieve the opposite.

I cannot support the Government's proposals for top-up fees. I take no pleasure in opposing my Government, which may make me fairly unusual on the Labour Benches. I regard with trepidation the possibility of being formally confronted with the legislation early next year. Voting against it would certainly not be a badge of honour; rather, it would be an admission that many of my hon. Friends and I had failed to persuade the Government that they have got the proposals wrong.

When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was Secretary of State for Education and Employment, he introduced up-front top-up fees in 1998, and I supported him, although with regret. I did so because I did not believe that my constituents in Skelmersdale should be asked increasingly to subsidise expansion in higher education through their taxes. That was because they themselves had almost no tradition of taking advantage of such education and, for well understood socio-economic reasons, they had very poor access to it.

I have nothing but praise for my local further and higher education colleges, and for my Government, in the massive efforts that have been made to address that problem in recent years. The former Secretary of State for Education also assured us that, although available Government money was limited, it would be steered towards the FE sector, which was very much the Cinderella of the education system and which is still comparatively neglected.

Overall, the decision on tuition fees in 1998 has had reasonably acceptable results, although difficulties have been caused for some families and individual students. Many of the changes proposed for higher education by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are to be applauded. For example, the Government recognise that the quality of teaching in higher education teaching institutions is of the first importance, and that it is as important as research.

A few weeks ago, hon. Members received a briefing on this subject from the Association of University Teachers. I note that the first section is entitled

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"Teaching in a Research Environment". Why could it not be "Research in a Teaching Environment"? Until now, the system has never recognised the quality of research performed by individual teachers in higher education, which is specifically aimed at enabling them to teach well at a high level. That research is not necessarily for publication or part of separately funded projects. The value of that research could be recognised through the development of so-called "teaching-only" universities, but a great deal of work would have to be done on parity of esteem. If that work were not done, that development could have a significant effect on the implementation—or otherwise—of top-up fees.

Like everyone else, I welcome the fact that debts will be repaid after graduation, and not partly on entry to university. I welcome too the widening of access, and the further assistance to be granted to people from low-income groups. The Robbins principle has always been right, but the Government's 50 per cent. target is unfortunate, to say the least. The target drives the system to recruit students, but that often leads to vastly increased drop-out rates and to the appearance of courses that can be described only as poor contributors to our national well-being. I am too polite to say so, but they were formerly known as Mickey Mouse courses.

I turn now to top-up fees. Universities will be forced to maximise the top-up fee level, or they will be

according to Malcolm McVicar, the principal of the university of Central Lancashire. He very much did not want to implement the top-up fees proposal, but now says that he feels he must if he is to maintain the reputation of his university.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) noted, we must also take account of the nature of working-class households, whose members traditionally do not enter higher education. For them, going to university is often very challenging and daunting. It is new and frightening, and they have a fear of debt. The size of the debts being spoken about in the Chamber today are enough to frighten many people's imaginations. Students from working-class families may decide to look at lower-cost courses and institutions—if they exist. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) is right to say that it is likely that all institutions will charge the maximum amount that they can get out of students. We are all in danger of forgetting what life is like in many working-class households on our estates. We must be mindful of the difficulties, tensions and anxieties that people face when they look at what the future holds for them and their families.

In addition, the abolition of up-front fees—a good thing—will reduce higher education income in the present because it will postpone the extra income from top-up fees until 2006, at the earliest. In party political terms—I put the problem no more grandly than that—we will experience in our constituencies all the pain, opposition and aggro that will result from the proposal before the next general election. The benefits of the cash that will come from top-up fees will not be felt until after 2006. The concessions that the Secretary of State has made to blunt the opposition to top-up fees mean that there will be a significantly lower and slower income

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stream when the cash comes in. We are therefore making a mess of this, even in the Government's terms. The postponement of the Bill's publication gives the Government time to do what early-day motion 7 suggests: look at a range of acceptable alternatives and come up with something that is more acceptable to the majority of Members, certainly on the Labour Benches.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says in his briefing that students do not pay, graduates do. That is not true—I do not pay. His briefings do not address the proposal that I and others have made previously that current graduates should contribute through a graduate tax. They criticise a graduate tax as it would apply to future graduates, but they do not address the possibilities of raising a supplementary tax from people such as me, Neil Kinnock and scores of my colleagues on the Labour Benches who were the first in our families to go to universities and benefit from free higher education—in my case for four years—at the expense of the taxpayer. There is no reason why I and the other 12 per cent. of the population who benefited in that way should not be asked to fund higher education further through a graduated taxation system. Apart from the equity of that, such a measure would have the merit, if hypothecated, of producing resources for the universities sooner rather than later.

6.1 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): It is a pleasure, as a fellow Lancastrian, to follow the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). I felt that he made a measured speech containing many good points.

I would like to speak later on top-up fees, if I have few moments to do so, but I want to start by looking at what one might term the other end of the scale—the provision of special needs education. A few years ago, I served on the Standing Committee that considered a Bill introduced by the Government in relation to special needs education. Its objective was, in the Government's words, to secure inclusion and enable more children with special needs to attend mainstream schools. I was told at the time, because I was concerned about the matter, that the legislation should in no way lead to the wholesale closure of special schools. Those exact words were used—it was not a green light for closure.

My experience, however, has been somewhat different. In Gloucestershire—I must point out, not for party political purposes, that Gloucestershire county council is run by an unholy Lib-Lab pact, with the Conservatives, even though they are the largest group, completely excluded from the executive—the policy is without doubt to close the special schools in the county. One at Bonnham Park in Stroud has already been closed, two in the Forest of Dean are being merged, and a school called Alderman Knight in my constituency near Tewkesbury is under threat—there is consultation, but there is no doubt that a threat exists to that school. In Gloucestershire, therefore, it seems that the Minister's words that the policy should not lead to a wholesale closure of special schools are not being heeded.

Of course, many pupils are included in mainstream schools, should be so included and are doing well. Mainstream schools, however, are not appropriate for all children with special needs. Many children who go to

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Alderman Knight school are even physically handicapped—they have great difficulties. The teachers there know that those pupils could not cope in mainstream schools, and their parents know that they could not cope in mainstream schools. What is even more important, however—it is an emotive issue when it is discussed with them—is that the pupils themselves know that they could not cope in mainstream schools, and are fearful of being sent to those schools. They have broken down in tears when they have explained the situation to me. One or two have even been brave enough to attend public meetings to speak against forced inclusion.

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