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University Funding

9. Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab): What alternative proposals for closing the funding gap in university expenditure to those contained in the White Paper on higher education he has assessed. [141765]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): The four principal alternative options for student finance and university funding are an increase in flat-rate fees, a graduate tax, an increase in general taxation, and real rates of interest on student loans. We have placed in the Library and supplied to the Select Committee information and analysis on each of those. Our conclusion is that variable deferred fees are the best option for securing the investment that our universities need, while giving them the freedom to respond to student demand, and providing for fair repayments for graduates.

Mr. Foulkes : Does the Secretary of State agree that in order to get the extra money into universities, the principal alternative to the Government proposal is an increase in general taxation on the public, 83 per cent. of whom did not go to university? Many of them—people such as waiters and chefs—[Hon. Members: "What about cleaners?"]—and cleaners, too, earn a great deal less than £15,000 a year. Is the system that the Government are proposing not by far the fairest, as well as being very similar to the system already agreed by the Liberals for Scotland?

Mr. Clarke: I wholly agree with the implication of my right hon. Friend's question. I add to his attack on that particular solution the point that, in respect of income from either general or graduate taxation, any Secretary of State has to face choices in priorities between

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university education and, for example, under-fives or primary education. There will always be pressure, which I personally welcome, to invest in the younger ages where we can make the greatest impact on reducing educational deprivation.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): In examining the options for plugging the funding gap, has the Secretary of State thought of making variable top-up and tuition fees retrospective to the 1960s and 70s, when he and his Cabinet colleagues went to university, paid absolutely nothing for it and even received grants? Does he not understand the anger of parents in this country who look at him and his mates and wonder why people who received their university education for nothing are so keen and hungry to clobber today's children?

Mr. Clarke: I know that the modern Conservative party has made a study of retrospection, as indeed it should. I also know that the modern Conservative position is retrospection—to go back to the elitist education of the 1960s. I believe that the country needs to look forward to the future rather than backwards, which means creating a university system that truly creates a competitive economy and strong society for the future.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Before my right hon. Friend publishes the higher education Bill in January, will he undertake not just to knock down the alternatives but to engage in an open discussion about alternatives from first principles, starting with his own estimates—not some vice-chancellor's estimates—of university funding?

Mr. Clarke: Yes, I will. As my hon. Friend will know, we have already had many discussions—directly and with others—on precisely those matters and from first principles. I have found all the discussions exciting and illuminating, though I am not sure whether he felt the same about my responses. I agree that a proper discussion of these issues, based on proper assessments, is right. I will say, however, as an important qualification, that many assumptions depend on what modelling is used for different sources of income for fees and so forth. That is not a particularly productive area of debate. The productive area is to examine the real alternatives from first principles, precisely as he suggests, in a direct and frank manner. We will do precisely that.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): British universities look with some envy on the endowment income that universities abroad, particularly in the United States, receive. What long-term attention is he paying to finding imaginative incentives at this stage in order to help British universities to begin the process of building up their endowment income? At some stage in the future, it must play a larger part in funding than it does now.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. We do need to build the tradition that exists in some other countries. To that end, we have set up a working party—led by the vice-chancellor of Bristol university, Eric Thomas, and including a range of individuals with

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substantial experience of how other countries have operated in that respect—to establish what sort of encouragement we should provide. It will consider whether we should make any changes in our taxation regime. Off hand, I cannot recall the precise timetable of the report, but we are close to being able to do so. I have just been advised by my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), that the detailed report on encouraging endowments should be published in April. Such endowments are important for universities' independence, as well as their funding.


10. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): When he will conclude a new software licence agreement for schools with Microsoft. [141766]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): I am pleased to announce that the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency and Microsoft have today signed a memorandum of understanding that, when implemented, will reduce the cost of Microsoft products to schools in England by as much as £46 million over the next three years. The new arrangements will come into effect from 1 January 2004. I believe that such an agreement demonstrates the advantages of co-ordinated procurement for schools across the country in respect of several different products, and I want to pay personal tribute to my hon. Friend for his campaigning on that matter over a considerable period.

Mr. Blizzard : I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and his kind words. I also thank him for the close interest that he has taken in this matter. This is really good news for schools. It was wrong that schools, which now have so many more computers because of the Government funding that enabled them to buy them, had to pay so much in licence fees to Microsoft. It was wrong that schools paid a higher rate than universities. I thank my right hon. Friend again for his fine announcement.

Mr. Clarke: I thank my hon. Friend and I express my appreciation to both Microsoft, which worked well with us to try to find an agreement, and BECTA, which is negotiating effectively. As there are 25,000 schools in England but only a small number of suppliers, there is a powerful case in market terms for a more co-ordinated policy for the procurement of a number of different products. The case is strong both in terms of value for money for schools and in releasing more resources.

Top-up Fees

13. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): What estimate he has made of the total level of debt of students following the introduction of top-up fees. [141769]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): The level of student loan after the introduction of variable fees will depend on a number of factors: the level of fee charged by the student's higher education institution; how much loan they take out to

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cover the cost of that fee; how much maintenance loan they choose to take out; and the level of any bursary made available by the university. Those will all be decisions for higher education institutions and individual students.

Sir Sydney Chapman : Surely, the Secretary of State has made an estimate of what the increase in student debt will be. Is not it true to say that it will probably double, and that that is most likely to lead to a graduate brain drain, whereby people go abroad to avoid having to pay considerable debts? Has he made any assessment of that?

Mr. Clarke: I certainly do not accept the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question. On the first part, one can make a series of assessments based on different positions, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly). Such assessments can be produced. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education said earlier, our current estimate is just under £9,000 of debt, and it will go up under our proposals—of that there is no doubt—but not to the level indicated in some of the reports. As I said earlier, what is really important is to discuss the fundamentals of the scheme and to understand how it will impact.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service

20. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the recruitment and retention of staff, with particular reference to prosecutors. [141776]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): The Crown Prosecution Service has taken a number of steps to improve recruitment and retention of staff, particularly lawyers, which has resulted in a 26 per cent. increase in the number of lawyers in the CPS since 2001.

Mr. Kidney : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Will she accept my sincere tribute to her personally for her hard work and the committed attempts that she has made to raise working-life standards in the CPS? I especially draw attention to her commitment to the training of non-legal staff so that they can obtain qualifications that enable them to aspire to go on to become prosecutors. Is not that the best way to improve working conditions in the CPS and to aid recruitment and retention?

The Solicitor-General: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments and I will pass them on to those in the CPS who have worked on the CPS law scholarship programme. We want to ensure that administrative and clerical employees in the CPS have the prospect of becoming lawyers if they have the interest, potential and capacity to do so. That is what the CPS law scholarship scheme will do. We originally planned to have 213 CPS law scholars; this year—the first year of the scheme—we

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have 231. That is good not only for the CPS but for the legal profession, as it will reform the profession from the bottom up.

21. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What progress has been made on improving the co-ordination between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. [141777]

The Solicitor-General: Proper co-ordination between the police and the CPS is vital at all levels. At ministerial level, the Attorney-General and I work with our ministerial colleagues in the Home Office. In Essex, the chief crown prosecutor, John Bell, and the chief constable work together as part of the local criminal justice board. The police and the CPS work together on the front line as a prosecution team in Essex.

Bob Spink : The right hon. and learned Lady is having a very good morning, as I, too, shall congratulate her on her answer. I thank her for her answer and congratulate the Government on their initiative. The CPS in Essex is running the only whole-county pilot and has shown how valuable such a scheme can be. Will she join me in congratulating Essex CPS, and will she roll out the pilot scheme across the whole country so that other areas can benefit from it.

The Solicitor-General: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations, which are justly deserved by the prosecution team in Essex. The team warmly welcomes his interest in its work. I know that he has been to Southend and Chelmsford and paid close attention to that work. It is important that everyone works together in the criminal justice system. The police, the CPS and the courts all have their separate roles, and each is independent, but they must all work together.

As hon. Members are being so nice to me, I am getting worried that people might think this is turning into something of a resignation session, so may I invite the next questioner to launch an attack on me?

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): I will not take up my right hon. and learned Friend's request to launch an attack on her.

The new justice centre being built in my constituency will house the police, the CPS, and the probation and victim support services. That is the way things should be in the future. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will come and have a look at the centre. What input is her Department having into that exciting new scheme?

The Solicitor-General: As my hon. Friend knows, we very much support the new all-in-one justice centre in Nuneaton, and the CPS is very much part of it. I visited the centre at the very outset, but I should like to keep up with progress there. It is important that people do not have to go from pillar to post, as it is sometimes quite difficult for them—and especially for victims and witnesses—to find their way around the system. If we want to deter people from committing offences, and to know that the justice system is working properly, that is the way to do it.

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Is the CPS working with the police to develop clear guidelines on prejudicial publicity, given the impact that it might have on failed prosecutions or the fairness of trials? That applies particularly to the police, and perhaps to members of the Home Office ministerial team. Why does the Attorney-General intervene so rarely in matters of prejudicial publicity? When is he going to do a better job in that respect?

The Solicitor-General: When complaints are made that reports or comments might prejudice a fair trial, the Attorney-General always acts on them. He always investigates such complaints, and the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that he always makes the right decision about what to do. In each case, a balance has to be struck between the need for free speech, an open press and a right to know, and the need to ensure that defendants can have a fair trial. That is the ring that the Attorney-General holds. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns about how the Attorney-General has acted in any individual case, perhaps he will let me know.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that CPS staff are based in Cardiff's Rumney police station? Does she agree that that means that there is a much better chance that charging standards are got right, especially in cases of assault?

The Solicitor-General: I agree with my hon. Friend that it certainly does. In the past, the problem has been that the police have investigated a matter and charged someone, after which the case has been sent to the CPS. A CPS lawyer has then looked at the case and reviewed it, and decided either to change or downgrade the charge, or to drop the case altogether. That process built disappointment into the system for people who thought that their case was going ahead, only to discover that there was not sufficient evidence. The work that my hon. Friend has described means that CPS staff are able to advise the police right at the start of the process, and will ultimately bring the charges themselves. Right from the outset, therefore, the system will be fairer—for both defendants and victims, because a case will either be going to trial in court, or not.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I was going to say that I intended to treat the right hon. and learned Lady far more gently than has been the case with the Home Secretary and his spin doctors over the past 24 hours, but in view of her earlier anxieties about what might happen to her career if she is not treated more harshly, that might not be the right thing to say.

I return to the important question about the Home Secretary and his expressions of view when arrests take place. It is not merely a question of whether that might be a contempt of court, or prejudicial to a fair trial. The problem is that it could lead to the embarrassing possibility that it is suggested in court that a fair trial

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might be prejudiced. Does the Solicitor-General agree that every Minister, and the Home Secretary in particular, ought to have that very much in mind before they express any view on a matter that is subject to police investigation?

The Solicitor-General: Everyone—that includes absolutely everyone—must have in mind the issue of whether it will be possible for somebody to get a fair trial. That is the case. The role of the Attorney-General is to ensure that that happens and to enforce the law of contempt if a fair trial is not possible because it has been prejudiced.

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