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Russell Group Universities

10. Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): What percentage of young people from England and Wales gained entrance to courses at the Russell Group of universities in 2003. [147875]

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Come in No. 10.

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): Your time is up. [Laughter.]

In 2003, 6 per cent. of the 18-year-old population gained entry to full-time undergraduate courses in Russell Group universities. We want the best young people, whatever their social background, to apply to the top universities and we are encouraging all universities to reach out and find talented young people from all backgrounds who have the potential to benefit from higher education.

Mr. Connarty : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. He knows that I told his Parliamentary Private Secretary that I have been speaking to vice-chancellors from Russell Group universities—though not Oxford or Cambridge, I might add. They told me

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that they would charge £3,000 for every course at their universities and also told me that they would support a fixed universal graduate repayment scheme, if it were proposed, but that they had been told that they must support the Government's variable scheme or get nothing. Surely my right hon. Friend sees the merit in further exploring a fixed graduate repayment scheme, which would stop misleading students about what it would cost them to attend university courses and stop the Government bullying the universities. It might even save the seats of several Labour Members at the next election.

Alan Johnson: I should tell my hon. Friend, who is a friend of long standing, that I simply do not understand that argument. According to it, were we to fix the fee at £2,500—the accepted figure in terms of bringing in the same amount of revenue—all our problems would dissolve overnight. The idea is that poorer youngsters would be put off by £3,000, but not by £2,500. The simple fact is that none of the Russell Group universities will be able to charge anything above £1,125, which is the current standard fee, unless they satisfy the access regulator that they are doing everything they possibly can to encourage youngsters from non-traditional backgrounds—to use the jargon—to come to their university. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, Cambridge has already responded with an incredible £4,000 per year grant for youngsters whose families have an income of up to £31,000 a year. That is on top of the £2,700 we are providing centrally.

This is an opportunity at last to close the social class gap that actually widened when higher education was free, through generous maintenance grants. So I do not understand the philosophy behind the fixed versus variable argument.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): If we are to accept the Government's premise that graduates, particularly from prestigious universities, should pay back more to society for their university education, why should that principle apply only to new graduates? Why should it not also apply to former, high-earning graduates, particularly those earning more than £100,000 a year? Almost 90 per cent. of such high-earners are graduates, who acquired their degrees in the days when they were more exclusive and more financially remunerative.

Alan Johnson: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Dearing report—a national committee of inquiry that was comprehensive, greatly appreciated at the time, and supported by Members on both sides of the House. Dearing set out six arguments as to why a graduate contribution scheme, which is what we are suggesting, is superior to a graduate tax, not least because he foresaw the difficulty of applying legislation retrospectively. However, he did point out that we need a culture in which individuals who have benefited from higher education are more willing to put money back in, in endowments and other forms. So I invite any Member of this House who feels a sense of guilt at not having paid enough for their university education to send their former university money. That would be very much appreciated.

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School Insurance

11. Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): What support he gives to local education authorities which face a shortfall in insurance payments to cover the cost of the replacement of school buildings after fire damage. [147876]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): Authorities and schools are expected to take out adequate insurance for their school buildings, in accordance with good practice. Significant capital resources are allocated by formula to all authorities, enabling them to respond to the needs of their schools according to their priorities, including the covering of emergencies. Therefore, we generally do not provide exceptional capital support to local authorities to meet the costs of fire damage.

Colin Burgon : My question comes about as a result of the experiences of Brigshaw high school, which is in my constituency. At Christmas, the gymnasium block burned down—I am glad to say that it was an accident—but in April 2000 virtually the entire school burned down. The Government and Leeds city council came together efficiently to ensure that the building work, costing some £8 million, went ahead. Under the leadership of their head teacher, Peter Laurence, the staff responded brilliantly to the crisis. Will the Minister assure me that he will give the school the same help and support through this current difficult period?

Mr. Twigg: I am aware of the tragic circumstances at Brigshaw high school that my hon. Friend describes. I am certainly happy to give him a commitment that we will work with Education Leeds to ensure that the school can be rebuilt as soon as possible; I know that considerable damage has been caused on this occasion. Our preference is very much that these matters be dealt with at local level. We have increased fivefold the availability of capital funds to local authorities in the past six years. We hope that, in the first place, Education Leeds will work closely with the school and with my hon. Friend to bring about its rebuilding.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): While we are on the subject of support to local education authorities, given that an LEA thinks that it is doing well if 87 per cent. of its budget is passed on to schools and only 13 per cent. kept back, which in the case of Norfolk still means that more than £50 million is kept back—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has wasted a supplementary; the question is about insurance.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): In view of the huge chaos caused by fires in schools and especially in the light of the fact that the cost of fitting sprinklers and other fire protection systems can be greatly offset against the reduction in insurance premiums, should we not make it mandatory, or give strong encouragement, for all schools, in new build and in retrospect, to fit sprinkler systems?

Mr. Twigg: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I give him an undertaking that I shall explore what the Department can do to support such common-sense solutions.

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The Solicitor-General was asked—

Professor Sir Roy Meadow

21. Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): If she will review family court cases that involved evidence from Professor Sir Roy Meadow. [147843]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): I have met my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children to discuss family law cases involving evidence from Sir Roy Meadow. We await the written judgment of the Court of Appeal in the Angela Cannings case, which we expect within a fortnight, and when we receive that judgment I shall tell the House what action we shall take on criminal cases, and my right hon. Friend will tell the House what action she will take on family cases, that involved evidence from Sir Roy Meadow.

Mr. Osborne : Professor Meadow's flawed evidence was instrumental in two massive miscarriages of justice, in the case of my constituent, Sally Clark, and in the Angela Cannings case, and was also instrumental in the collapse of the conviction of Trupti Patel. All those cases aroused massive public interest. Will the Solicitor-General confirm that she has still not actually started to review criminal cases where Professor Meadow's evidence was instrumental, and will she also confirm, perhaps on behalf of the Minister for Children, that there has as yet been no attempt to review all the family court cases? In those cases, too, there may have been great miscarriages of justice—children may have been taken away from parents and families broken apart—because of the same kind of evidence from Professor Meadow.

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is right to identify different cases, different issues in different cases and different jurisdictions—criminal and family. I recognise both his interest in such cases and also that of other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) with whom I know he has discussed the matter.

I shall try not to take too long to reply, Mr. Speaker, so stop me when I run over my time—[Interruption.] These are quite difficult and complex issues and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) has raised a very important point. In the case of Sally Clark, she was convicted and freed on appeal, and when the Court of Appeal gave its written judgment on that case it said that its concern was about Dr. Williams. The Attorney-General then set up an interdepartmental review of all criminal cases where the mother is still in prison, where the offence was of killing the child and where Dr. Williams's evidence was material. We have started that review and hon. Members might think that it would be an easy process, but in fact it is quite difficult. In many cases where Dr. Williams gave evidence that would have been crucial to the conviction we are not even sure whether it related to a man or a woman, because there is no indication of the Christian name. In some cases, there might have been other evidence that was crucial, rather

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than that of Dr. Williams. I can say only that I am liaising closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children about the family jurisdiction and we are already at work on the issues in the criminal jurisdiction. We are not sitting around while miscarriages of justices are not dealt with.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Sir Roy Meadow cases throw up disturbing indications that expert witnesses are not always as expert as they should be? Does she also agree that witnesses who give expert advice to the courts should be registered with the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners?

The Solicitor-General: The Home Office has responsibility for forensic pathology, which is often at issue in cases such as this. In the Angela Cannings case, the Court of Appeal gave a verbal decision to free her, and made it clear that it was concerned about expert witnesses. We expect the court's written judgment shortly, but at present we do not know whether it will open up the whole issue of expert evidence in cases that otherwise might have been regarded as involving sudden infant death syndrome, or whether it will keep its conclusions in respect of Sir Roy Meadow. How wide our action is will depend on the court's findings, but we are working with the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Home Office and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children to ensure that no stone is left unturned in this matter. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and any other colleagues to keep them abreast of progress in these very important cases.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I am pleased to hear what the Solicitor-General has to say about this matter, but I want to press her a little further. I appreciate that her Department's responsibility in respect of family court cases is very different from its responsibility in respect of criminal cases. Nevertheless, the view taken by the Attorney-General and the right hon. and learned Lady of what has happened in criminal cases is likely to have a marked impact on whether people who have had their children taken away can have their cases reviewed in the family court. It will also affect the amount of public aid that might be made available to those people in order to have their cases re-examined. Will the right hon. and learned Lady bear those points in mind and ensure that the advice of the Law Officers is given to the Minister for Children and to the Lord Chancellor's Department if it is concluded that there are serious flaws in the expert evidence that has been advanced?

The Solicitor-General: It is already clear that serious flaws exist, and that is why we are taking the action that we are taking. I have met my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children already, and the Attorney-General is in correspondence with her. I do not want to trespass on my right hon. Friend's jurisdiction in this matter, but a particular difficulty exists: that is, that many cases will not have come to court, as the expert evidence and advice might have been that a person did not stand a cat in hell's chance because the evidence was overwhelming. The advice might also be that giving up

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one child for adoption might mean that the person involved could keep her other children.The matter might seem straightforward, but it is very difficult to track back in these cases. However, I assure the House that all efforts will be made, across both the criminal and civil jurisdictions, and that I shall keep hon. Members informed.

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