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6.19 pm

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): In preparing for this debate, especially in relation to tuition fees, I tried to heed the advice of H. L. Mencken on dealing with political opponents, which is always to assume that they are just as honest and decent as oneself, and that they sometimes may even be right. However, I must confess that on this particular issue I have struggled to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, and I have failed so far in trying to do so.

The strapline on the higher education Bill in the parliamentary Labour party's information was

I hope that the Secretary of State can confirm that there is no read-across from education to health. To me, that statement sounds like a retreat from the principle of universal and comprehensive access to public services. I accept the Government's argument that they are sincere about the proposals that they are making and that they want to widen participation and access, but I hope that they will also reflect on the sincerity of hon. Members on both sides of the House who fear that the changes could make a bad situation worse in terms of the inequality of opportunity that currently pertains in our higher education system. In fact, those inequalities could be reinforced between institutions, between different parts of the UK and between students themselves.

It is very interesting and instructive to reflect on the fact that the person who first came up with the idea of income contingent repayment—that is, paying not out of current income, but out of future income, as in deferred tuition fees—was none other than Milton Friedman. He came up with the idea of deferred tuition fees in a paper published in 1955. The argument that he used is the very same one that is being used now. Indeed, he returned to the theme in "Free to Choose". Who can forget that piece of Thatcherite propaganda? In that book, he said of higher education:

That was Milton Friedman's argument, but it is now being replayed by the Government. Perhaps that is no surprise.

Dr. John Reid: Let us set things in the broad sweep of history. The idea of taking from everyone according to their abilities and giving to everyone according to their needs did not commence with Milton Friedman. It commenced a long time ago. Keir Hardie was saying it 110 years ago.

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Adam Price: I think that the phrase:

is a quote from a certain Mr. Karl Marx. I am not sure that he would be a supporter of the Government's policy on tuition fees, but I am prepared to be corrected by the Secretary of State.

I accept that the Government are putting their arguments in terms of social justice. We are having an interesting debate about different notions of equity. The Government are advancing a plausible argument by asking why today's poor should fund tomorrow's more affluent people. That is the notion of equity that they are putting forward, but there are other competing notions of equity as well. For instance, there is equity between the generations. Should we be placing a huge burden of extra taxation on the young, especially at a time when an ageing population means that public services already have to be funded out of a smaller taxation base?

On equality of opportunity, I believe that the nub of the argument in terms of equity is the dynamic effects of the changes, rather than their static effects in terms of who pays which segment of the population. What are the dynamic effects? What effect will the proposals have on people's ability and opportunities to realise their potential? That is where the interesting argument lies, and there is contrary evidence. Evidence from Australia and New Zealand suggests that there has not so far been a hugely negative impact on accessibility. In Canada, however, where the state has withdrawn from direct funding, the results are different. In the United States of America, which has a vastly deregulated tuition fees system, the result has been disastrous in terms of accessibility. In Canada and North America, high-quality education is increasingly the preserve of the privileged—people are buying not skills, but a passport to the upper echelons of society. The fear of that animates several hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Aversion to debt among people from working-class backgrounds is a significant factor. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has pointed to the effect of the introduction of tuition fees on accessibility for the working class in Wales. There is plenty of evidence in international research to suggest that we should take cognisance of that issue.

Marginal rates of taxation were mentioned. The marginal rate of taxation for graduates earning £15,000 to £30,000 will be 42 per cent., yet the Prime Minister's marginal rate of taxation is only 41 per cent. How can that be equitable?

The wider point is that this goes to the heart of what education is about. The Government's proposals seem to present education in the purely individualistic sense that it is, per se, a personal investment decision in the relevant marketplace, but it is more than that. John Rawls—a philosopher who is, I hope, closer to the Government than Milton Friedman—said that

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If we reduce education purely and simply to a matter of sustaining and strengthening income differentials, we all lose out as a society.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) is absolutely right—the Government need to think through the political consequences for themselves. In 1989, the Government of the Australian Labor party were the first in the world to implement Milton Friedman's idea when they introduced income-contingent loans. They lost to a rejuvenated Conservative party in 1996. I should not like that to happen to the Government as a result of their proposals. They should listen carefully to the wise counsel that they have heard from Members on their own Benches.

6.27 pm

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): It has been an interesting seven hours. For all but a few minutes' pit stop, I have been here since Prayers. Although I cannot recall the Speaker's Chaplain telling us that the first shall be last, I am none the less blessed that that has been borne out.

I had not expected the debate to be, in effect, a Second Reading debate on the Government's proposals on higher education instead of a broader debate on the Queen's Speech. I certainly wish to have my say on the education proposals, but I shall do so after the Bill is published later this month.

I want to focus on an issue that connects health and education, and which will need far greater attention and investment in future—obesity, which is a national time bomb whose fuse is almost burned through. It already costs the country £2 billion a year, and it is estimated that in 20 years' time the entire current budget of today's NHS will be consumed in paying for the costs of sedentary lifestyles, diabetes, coronary heart disease and other obesity-related diseases—not to mention the days of work lost to our economy. Creative and innovative policies are required. We need a massive shift in the balance of funding from treating disease to preventing it—and we need it fast. The Department of Health currently spends £886 per head each year on treating sickness. If we compare that with the figure of £1 per head each year that the Government spend on sport and physical activity designed to prevent disease, it is apparent that prevention is the underfunded element of the Government's strategy.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a role to play, but it does not have the budget to achieve the required change. That should be the responsibility of the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills. The Government have accepted the importance of the agenda and their policies to date signal a good start. There are currently 1,200 school sports co-ordinators and 6,000 primary and special school link teachers. That means that 30 per cent. of schools in England belong to one of the 222 school sports partnerships.

The Government have set a target of 75 per cent. of school children doing two hours of school sports a week by 2006. However, in the long term, we must set our sights higher. Seventy thousand 10-year-olds—one in 10—are already obese. By the age of 15, one in six

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children are obese. Society has the responsibility of preparing young people for life—that is the point of an education system. It must be our schools' primary function to prepare young people for every aspect of their future, not only in literacy and numeracy, but in knowing how to lead a healthy lifestyle.

With one in six obese 15-year-olds, we are not paying sufficient attention to ensuring that young people have learned healthy habits of regular physical exercise. Not only the quantity but the quality and variety of sport in schools needs to increase. The staple diet of the same old sports engages some but alienates thousands. If we ask people why they do not enjoy sport and do not participate in it now, the reason is usually that they were forced to do specific sports at school. We need a smorgasbord of physical activities and sports in the school environment so that children can find a sport that they enjoy and want to continue in later life.

Sports governing bodies should work in partnership with schools to deliver a broad range of choices for young people, with clear coaching pathways to achieve excellence for those who are most able. Every school should be furnished with the basic minimum of sports equipment, including fitness facilities and gym equipment that older pupils can use independently.

A young person's commitment to physical fitness and sporting achievement should be formally recognised, with Step into Sport extended to every secondary school. Just as we encourage endeavour in academic and literary pursuits, a national award scheme should encourage endeavour and excellence in active pursuits. We need an army of coaches to motivate and inspire young people. The Government are to be congratulated on their community coaches scheme; the first wave of coaches will be in action next year. The scheme needs every available resource to make the necessary impact.

Such schemes need to be a Department of Health priority and a cornerstone of its preventive work. The Department's financial clout can create the necessary investment. The 3,000 coaches that the Government originally promised are to be part time, with some full-time coaches. The modification was right in that there should be many part-time coaches, but we should have 3,000 full-time equivalents. We should not have cheese pared to make the Departments' savings and economies.

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