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The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): My Department has continued to receive correspondence on issues relating to variable fees from a range of organisations and individuals. In addition, I have had meetings with a number of MPs, vice-chancellors and representatives of interested groups to discuss and clarify the proposals set out in the Higher Education Bill. We have listened to
Mr. Amess : How will the Minister reply to those people who have written to him to remind him that the Labour party manifesto said that the Government would not introduce top-up fees and had legislated to prevent them? How has he replied to constituents who have reminded him that, according to Barclays bank, under this rotten Government students will face debts of more than £33,000 by 2010?
Alan Johnson: On the first question, we will not introduce variable fees until after the next general election. Let me just remind the hon. Gentleman of the days, which are becoming increasingly distant, when his party was in government. Government is about looking at serious problems, which we should address, not duck. I make no apology whatever for realising that the university sector requires additional fundingand extremely soonfor the economic success of this country.
On the second question, I would patiently remind anyone who wrote to me or to any Member of the House saying that the Government's proposals mean a £33,000 debt that the biggest threat to students going on to university is well-meaning people plucking figures out of the air for what student debt will be. I remind those people that the average debt recorded by the student income and expenditure survey, which the National Union of Students has more to do with than we have, is £8,666not £30,000, not £33,000, not £25,000.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Why cannot we be frank about what the debate before us involves? The current fees produce £450 million out of a £9 billion budgetabout 5 per cent. The debate is not about the small amounts of extra finance, which would be rather slow to come, or the expansion of opportunities for working-class students; it is about marketisation. Why cannot we be frank about that?
Alan Johnson: Because it is not about marketisationit is about getting rid of up-front fees, reintroducing a maintenance grant of £1,500 and making it easier for graduates to repay not just any fee, but their loans. The amount that they will pay back goes down substantially under our proposals. [Interruption.] It goes down £18,000 a yearfrom £13.85 a week to £5.90. That is the reality of our proposals.
In relation to marketisation, we are bringing in an extra £1 billion on top of £800 million from fees and a £3 billion investment from the taxpayera 34 per cent. increase since 1997. We are doing that because we read very closely the report of the Dearing national committee of inquiry, which said that if we do not go down this route we will never properly fund our university sector.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I do not think that any of us, on this side of the House at least, is surprised that the Government are breaking their promise. What we would like explained is why they made the promise in the first place.
My right hon. Friend wrote an article, as well as the manifesto commitment, and he pointed out the terms of the debate in 1997 and 1998, following the Dearing report. Top-up fees meant that the Government set a fee and universities were allowed to top them up to whatever level they liked. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend reminded us of the true terminology that we were debating, and we will not allow that to happen. We did not allow it in 1998 and we will not allow it now. If anything, the proposal that £3,000 or less can be charged is top down rather than top up.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the removal of the up-front element in the proposal before us will have a significant impact to the benefit of the students coming from poorer families?
Alan Johnson: That is a crucial point. Even though 40 per cent. of students did not have to pay that fee, there was the impression in youngsters' minds that if they want to go to university it will cost them or their parents money up front. The other interesting point is that from the student income and expenditure survey we now know that 26 per cent. of students are themselves paying an average of £700 towards that up-front fee. In fact, abolition and a move to an income-contingent repayment system after they have graduated is not only more helpful for those applying to university, but will help students to manage the cost of being at university.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): The Minister referred in his opening answer to meetings with Members of the House. How many of those meetings were held at the suggestion of Lords Commissioners to the Treasuryin other words, Government Whips?
The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge): From parliamentary sports to schools sports, Mr. Speaker, we are implementing a range of measures to improve the links between schools and sports clubs. With an investment of more than £1 billion, we are enhancing sports facilities, creating 400 specialist sports colleges, funding partnerships between schools to increase
Tony Cunningham: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. To put this subject in context, about 20 per cent. of school leavers in this country continue their sport with a sports club; in France, that figure is about 70 per cent. I am therefore delighted about the investment. Will she talk to colleagues in other Departmentsthe Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Ministerso that we can have a co-ordinated approach to this matter?
Margaret Hodge: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he is doing to encourage not just sports in schools but young people to carry on their sporting activity beyond school. I assure him that in this area of policy, as in many others, we work extremely closely not just with colleagues in DCMS but with colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): In the light of the Minister's encouraging reply, will she consider the application made by St. Bede's high school in my constituency for a specialists sports facility? It is the only high school of its type without a sports facility and it wishes to link with local sporting clubs, thus achieving the Minister's objective. Will she assure me that she will consider carefully that application, which is supported by the county council and is much needed?
Margaret Hodge: I am delighted to note the right hon. Gentleman's support for our specialist schools programme. I hope that he acknowledges, as we do, that they raise achievement among children[Interruption.] In response to the comment made from a sedentary position, the Conservatives may have had the spark of an idea, but we provided the funds that they now intend to cut.
Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my right hon. Friend has had the opportunity to read the Adjournment debate on grass roots sports that we had on Tuesday. She will realise that to increase mass participation right across the age range, especially as people get older, the school-club link is crucial as there is a drop-off rate, particularly among girls and women. Will she work closely with the DCMS and others to ensure that as well as having specialist sports colleges and sports co-ordinators, we get coaches into schools through those links, possibly even in after-school hours? We must make sure that we use the facilities in schools and make a real effort to drive up the participation rate.
Margaret Hodge: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the Adjournment debate the other night, and I agree entirely that creating those school-club links, across the range of sports, is crucial. Not only do I hope that the school-club links project in which we are investing £4.5 million will support that, but that our extended schools programme, in which we hope to open up schools to provide extra-curricular activities, will
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): In encouraging sports pros to come into schools, to try to alleviate the problem about which we are all worriedobesity in our youngstersand to get those young people off their couches and on to sports fields and facilities, will the Minister examine carefully the problem of the long school summer holidays? In terms of opening up those sports facilities, the schools tell us that part of the problem is insurance: they are afraid that youngsters will get injured while using the facilities. Will she consider opening those facilities this summer for all our youngsters?
Margaret Hodge: I am delighted that there is cross-party agreement on this matter. I have always believedand I imagine from what the hon. Gentleman said that he agreesthat schools and their facilities are a most precious asset in our communities and are valued by everybody. For them to be closed for much of the day and much of the year is a terrible waste of a valuable asset. Any step that we can take to open them up so that they can be used not just by the school community but by the wider community must be of benefit to all.