Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement.

Despite the orchestrated support for the Secretary of State, Labour Members should be ashamed of themselves and of the statement. If they vote for the policy, they will be breaking a solemn manifesto promise. To say that it was for one Parliament will not wash with the electorate, who were told categorically that they would not have to pay top-up fees. Labour Members will vote for the policy knowing that they are pulling up the ladder of opportunity for thousands of poorer students in generations to come.

8 Jan 2004 : Column 424

If Labour Members vote for the policy, that will fly in the face of everything the Labour party has stood for since its inception. This is a policy born out of Thatcherism. It has been adopted by a party that has lost its way—a party that has sold its principles to a Prime Minister who has led it elsewhere. Perhaps Labour Members think it is okay to say one thing to the electorate and something else when they are in government. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. The House should give a hearing to the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman, in the same way as the other two spokesmen have been heard.

Mr. Willis: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Hon. Members do not like the truth. The electorate will not be allowed to forget. We will not allow them to forget.

I have told the Secretary of State on many occasions that as a party we share the objectives that the Government are trying to achieve, particularly to encourage more students who are currently excluded from university to go there, and to provide greater resources to our universities. We are the only party that is offering a viable, sensible and costed alternative to the Secretary of State's policies.

It is no good members of the Tory party crying crocodile tears. This morning on the "Today" programme, when asked what the alternative was, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said that the Tories did not have one; they are simply against what the Government say. That is not a sensible debate. The Secretary of State may not appreciate our policy to fund higher education with a 50p tax rate, but it is a viable alternative to the Government's policy.

We will examine the Bill carefully. We support many of the proposals that the Secretary of State has put forward today. We support the up-front tuition fees; the increase in the repayment threshold; the raising of the threshold for maintenance loans and the 25-year limit on payments. We particularly welcome the increase in support for part-time and mature students. But for the Secretary of State to say that the Government will increase grants to £1,500 for our poorer students and then tell them to keep that in the bank for three years so that they can use it to pay off their tuition fees, is really hypocrisy of the greatest sort. That is exactly what has been said today.

The Secretary of State said that the £300 bursaries would be the minimum. What will happen in universities such as South Bank? How will our poorest universities get the funds together to support increased top-up fees? Perhaps the Secretary of State will enlighten us on how they will be supported.

The statement is a dog's breakfast. It is over two years since the Prime Minister launched a review of student funding. Two years ago he said that one of his objectives was

How on earth can one treble students' debt and achieve that objective?

The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister may believe, from their privileged backgrounds, that debt should be seen as an investment, but in reality, many of

8 Jan 2004 : Column 425

the kids on the estates of Moss Side, St. Paul's in Bristol or Seacroft in Leeds would laugh in the face of anyone who made that comment. It is a middle-class comment perpetrated on working-class kids.

What in these proposals will support students with disabilities? Where is the support for students on four-year courses and sandwich courses? Will they all have to pay top-up fees? Where will our universities get the resources? Too little, too late, was the response from the chairman of the Russell group this morning. It expected, like most hon. Members, that £3,000 would be only for starters for the universities; it would not be where they finish. The regulator is simply a sop to Labour Back Benchers and is a bureaucratic nonsense for our universities.

What is the funding gap that these proposals are trying to bridge? The Secretary of State must have an estimate, because on page 6 of the DFES paper "Student loans and the question of debt" the average student debt in 2006 was estimated to be £15,000. What are we trying to do? Does he agree with the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the money coming in from his proposals will be only £500 million?

The Secretary of State has been uncharacteristically disingenuous. He has tried to move the debate between fixed fees and variable fees. The real question is whether we have fees at all. The Conservative party has sold its principles long ago. The Labour party is about to do the same. The Liberal Democrats will oppose this measure on principle, not simply as opportunists.

Mr. Clarke: First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his Christmas card this year. It contained as much information about Lib Dem policy as what we have just heard.

The Government's position is not to pull up the ladder of opportunity, to use the hon. Gentleman's metaphor, but to build a staircase whereby people from the poorest communities in Britain can have a chance. It is a staircase that involves better school education, better college education, better skills education and better university education, and that is something that we, and I believe the hon. Gentleman, are broadly concerned to do.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman said that he would examine the Bill carefully, but the point that I make in all candour to him and his colleagues is that when they consider whether to support the Bill on Second Reading, they must decide whether they want to carry through his mis-statement, when he said that he supported up-front fees. [Interruption.] It was a mis-statement; I acknowledge that his policy is the opposite. But the effect of voting against the Bill on Second Reading will be to ensure that up-front fees stay; to ensure that grants do not happen; and to ensure that the threshold is not increased. So the choice that he and his colleagues have to make is whether to vote for the Bill on Second Reading and then consider the various improvements that they would like to see made during the Bill's passage, or whether to try to vote the Bill down on Second Reading.

8 Jan 2004 : Column 426

The £1,500 grant to which I referred today is on top of the student loan, not in place of it in any respect whatever, and it can be used immediately, if so chosen, to pay off any fee that arises; it is not saved for three years and then used.

The new universities are very positive about the proposals, for the important reason that they are precisely the universities that have been most effective, most entrepreneurial, at developing courses that deal with the economic problems of our country, building relations with our different institutions—the sandwich courses and the four-year courses, the foundation degrees—and they want the flexibility to decide how best to do that, which is one reason why variability is important.

We have taken measures to assist students with disabilities. The disability student allowance is a good case in point. We do encourage the sandwich courses through our sector skills approach, and we will continue to do so.

All kinds of assertions have been made on the funding gap, but I shall rest on what Lord Dearing said in the report in 1996. He estimated a funding gap of the order of £8 billion. In order to deal with that, he proposed that we should ask graduates to contribute: a policy that the hon. Gentleman opposes. Lord Dearing proposes today, in an article in The Guardian that the hon. Gentleman may or may not have seen, that the variable fee approach is a way to attack that funding gap. He acknowledges, as he should, that from the Exchequer, from taxpayers' money, we have already put £3 billion in towards that £8 billion funding gap, and, as I said to the hon. Gentleman, we will continue to invest from the Exchequer, from taxpayers' money, in universities. So, yes, the hon. Gentleman is right that there is a funding gap; the question for serious politicians and serious political parties is how we close it. Our proposals are about doing just that.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The House will be aware that there is some interest in this matter, but I must protect later business, so once again I ask for the co-operation of right hon. and hon. Members in not making statements but putting precise questions to the Secretary of State. That would be most helpful to everyone concerned.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that I appreciate and support much of the Bill because, as he said, it moves back to the principles of the Dearing report. Does my right hon. Friend believe that there can be some refinements in Committee and on Report, because there is still room for change and improvement? Has he an open mind on change during the Bill's passage through the House?

Next Section

IndexHome Page