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Huw Irranca-Davies: When the hon. Gentleman refers to weaker candidates, does he mean the type of students whom I frequently taught in my six years as an academic, who were from traditionally low-achieving families, but who, when they entered higher education, because our entry requirements were more flexible, far exceeded the performance of those who had come through with higher A-level scores?

Mr. Collins: What I was trying to point out to the hon. Gentleman is that his policy, if he is supporting his Government, and he is in a distinct minority among Labour Back Benchers if he is, is that academically qualified candidates from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds should not go to university, whereas academically weaker candidates from wealthy families should. That is what his policy will produce, and that is plain wrong. It will threaten independence because there will be wholesale intervention by the Government in the way universities admit students, and it will destroy the concept of admission solely on merit. Indeed, we would go back to the bizarre 19th century

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system, where admission to university was determined not by the candidate's ability but by the candidate's family. That is what the Government are going to recreate. Indeed, it is the ultimate insult to students from disadvantaged backgrounds that, under the Government's proposals, they would know that they had got in not on merit but by means of an artificial quota as part of social engineering.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Collins: I give way one last time.

David Taylor: Just to correct the hon. Gentleman, in my contribution I was referring not to any flaws there may be in the Government's higher education policy but to the obsession with targets and league tables, which were inherited when the Prime Minister got into 10 Downing street on 1 May 1997. There was a failure to shred those targets and league tables. They are the bequest of the Major Government.

Mr. Collins: It is sweet of the hon. Gentleman to say that he is in a minority among Labour Back Benchers. Perhaps it was six in a row rather than seven, but I assure him that, having sat through the whole debate, precious few Labour Back Benchers were prepared to support the Prime Minister's policy.

There is no guarantee that any of the money raised from tuition or top-up fees will be additional for universities. There has been no guarantee at all from the Treasury that it will not take the view, as it traditionally does, that if there is a new funding stream less needs to come from the Exchequer, rather than more.

We must bear it in mind that not one Government Front Bencher had to pay university tuition fees or top-up fees. Not one of them can answer the simple question being asked by millions of parents across the land: if it was good enough for them when they were young, why is it not good enough for today's young people as well?

One Labour Back Bencher is quoted in The Guardian today as saying:

I bet Labour Back Benchers do. Old Labour believed in free state education—new Labour does not. Old Labour believed in academic freedom—new Labour does not. Old Labour had principles and decency and new Labour has none of the above. Labour Members have broken their word to the voters, broken the principles with which they came into politics and broken the hearts of their most loyal supporters.

Just last week, the higher education Bill was at the front of the queue. This week, it is in the middle of the queue. Let us drop it from the queue altogether and have a genuine cross-party discussion on a better way forward. I commend the amendment.

6.47 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Dr. John Reid): It is always greatly amusing when Conservative spokesmen talk in their representative capacity for the whole of society, particularly the working class. It should not surprise us, but I cannot see one woman on the Conservative Front Bench. Indeed, as Conservative Members look around desperately, it is just as well that

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the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) has turned up, or there would not be one woman on the Tory Benches—so much for representative democracy.

This has been a wide-ranging debate. It is common to say that, but may I pull together the threads and give the view of the Government? We have been trying to do three things, which mark the whole of our approach to the public services. The first is to invest massively, on a historically unparalleled scale—indeed, it has not been matched by any comparable industrial country. Secondly, to go with that substantial investment, we have in every element of our public services embarked upon a massive programme of reform. Thirdly, we are endeavouring, not with complete success but, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said—his contribution was a lot more balanced and serious than that of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who opened for the Opposition—nevertheless with a degree of success, testified to by most objective observers, to match excellence to equity, to introduce to our public services, which are intrinsically fair, a degree of personal service to meet the ambitions and expectations of modern working people.

That takes us to the question of whether or not there have been any improvements over the past few years. I shall leave aside those who say that there have been none, or that it has been "reverse gear", to use an "in" phrase. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) was of that extreme ilk. The truth is that, in education—the focus of today's debate—things are changing for the better. One need look only at the number of teachers; an increase of 10,000 by 2006 was our target, and it has been met three years early. UK education spending will rise to 5.3 per cent. of gross domestic product in 2003–04; the figure when we took office was 4.7 per cent. Investment in school buildings is huge, and has increased fivefold. Since 1998, we have invested over £1 billion in creating an information and communications technology infrastructure in schools in England.

That massive investment is showing a faith in the future of the children of this country, not just a pride in the past. We are attempting to improve on a scale hitherto not even contemplated, and it has delivered results. There is no doubt about that. The results are not always 100 per cent. of what we aimed for, nor are they by any means 100 per cent. of what we want to achieve in the long run. However, they are significant results. In 1997, almost half of all 11-year-olds were unable to read, write or do basic maths to the expected standard. About 84,000 more 11-year-olds are now achieving the expected level for their age in maths and about 60,000 more are doing so in English.

Those are not just statistics. They are real achievements by real, little human beings: the people of the future—who will be the basis of the wealth of this country—and their parents. When exam results show increases and improvements, perhaps instead of claiming that that shows a deficiency, an amelioration, a mitigation or a reduction in standards, we should say for once, "Thank you and well done" to the teachers and parents.

Of course there are huge challenges left, one of which was raised by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs): learning disabilities. That is why the

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Government will be publishing plans and a strategy to build schools' capacity and ability to meet the needs of those with special learning difficulties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who chairs the Education and Skills Committee, pointed out not only the achievements—in the balanced fashion for which the Opposition have asked us—but the deficiencies. He referred to the road that we had to take to achieve improvements—not just in higher and further education but in the earliest years—to provide the beginnings of a course and pathway that will mean lifelong educational opportunities for all of our people.

I have to say—without being parti pris, I hope—that the dreadful lack of ambition shown by Opposition Front Benchers for the people of this country in terms of education objectives is staggering and out of all proportion.

Several Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) and the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk, raised the question of the protection of children. The right hon. Lady spoke with an authority and knowledge that is respected on both sides of the House and even more sharply put into contrast the rather cheap and nasty contribution from the hon. Member for South Suffolk, the Opposition spokesman. This is a serious subject, as the right hon. Lady pointed out, and I hope that on one of the central aims of the Bill—the co-ordination of services for the protection of children—we will continue to listen, as we have done before and after the publication of the Green Paper.

Obviously, the main topic tonight was the question of how we fund higher and further education. Too many Members raised this matter for me to respond individually to all, but my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), for Gower, for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), as well as the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) and many others, spoke on that subject. Had some of the commentators listened to the debate today, they might have been surprised. Those colleagues who are not supportive of the Government's position were constructively critical, in a way that they perhaps were not a few months ago.

I have one reservation, however. I wish that those outside this Chamber and outside our party discussions who are loudest in volume could sometimes contribute, if only in a modest fashion, to our discussions. They would find that our contributions and our discourse prove mutually beneficial, by which I mean that the Government are listening. It is becoming obvious just how far we have travelled in the months since this issue was first discussed. As people begin to understand just how far we have come, there will be every opportunity for us to find a satisfactory solution.

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