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Student Finance

3. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Assembly Secretary of Education concerning the funding of student support for students from Wales attending English and Scottish universities in (a) 2006, (b) 2007 and (c) 2008. [148352]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I have been working closely to ensure that, subject to Parliamentary approval, we have the best possible deal in place to enable the Assembly to take over responsibility for student support in Wales from 2006–07.

Ian Lucas : Does my right hon. Friend agree that a university education should be about extending choices and experience? I have been informed by a senior academic in Wales that nationalist Members of the National Assembly for Wales have called for financial incentives to be given to students from Wales to attend universities in Wales rather than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Will he assure me that he will not countenance support for any such policy?

Mr. Hain: Yes, I will. At the moment, some 18,000 students from Wales study in England. It is their right to study where they wish, and we want to increase opportunities, not put up barriers. If the new policy of the Welsh nationalists is that they want Welsh students to study only in Wales, that is typical of their narrow, parochial, nationalist vision of Wales, instead of an internationalist vision. We want a modern, confident Wales in the world, not an isolated, narrow and nationalist Wales in the world. I hope that they vote on Tuesday to devolve powers over student finance to Wales and support the Higher Education Bill. Otherwise, those finances will not be devolved.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Government want to raise student grants from £1,000 to £1,500 and to provide loans to help students to pay top-up fees. Given that both measures would increase public

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expenditure, how much extra money would the Welsh Assembly get for them as a Barnett consequential, so that Wales is not short-changed even if Assembly Members choose to reject top-up fees for Wales?

Mr. Hain: There is no question of the Welsh Assembly being short-changed on that. Discussions have been going on to agree the figure for the money that would flow across the border to Wales if the powers were devolved. However, I make the same point to the hon. Gentleman that I have already made. If he wants decisions about student finance in Wales to be made in Wales by the National Assembly for Wales, he should vote for the Bill on Tuesday. Otherwise, that will not happen.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op): If the Higher Education Bill is passed on Tuesday as it stands, will not the likely consequence be that English students in Welsh institutions will be subsidised from money intended for Welsh schools and hospitals? Will the Secretary of State make a statement on the consequences of the devolved settlement before we are asked to vote on Second Reading?

Mr. Hain: As I have explained, funding for Welsh students, currently held in London, will be transferred following the devolution of power if the Bill is passed, which means that it must receive its Second Reading on Tuesday. If it is passed, the necessary funding will go to Wales. If the National Assembly decides in the end not to permit universities in Wales to raise extra money from fees, that extra money will have to be found from somewhere. As my hon. Friend says, that is a decision for the Assembly, but I am sure that it will not want to short-change any other budgets. The Assembly will want to find a solution that puts Welsh universities in a competitive position to gain world-class status, which is just what we want to achieve for English universities.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Secretary of State has just said that it is up to students to decide where they want to be educated and whether they want to go from Wales to England. Does he not realise, however, that thanks to tuition fees and variable top-up fees students will increasingly be in debt and thus unable to afford to go from Wales to university in England or Scotland? When I went to Swansea university, I paid no fees and I received a grant, but now students are being clobbered with huge debt—even now, the average debt for students is £8,000.

Mr. Hain: I remind the hon. Gentleman that his Government cut funding for students, while the Leader of the Opposition was in government, by a third per student. We are bringing back grants and providing a package that will benefit an enormous number of students throughout Britain by up to £3,000. What does the hon. Gentleman propose? He proposes cutting grants and cutting the number of students. His successor as shadow Secretary of State for Wales told the Welsh Grand Committee that the Opposition hoped to reduce

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Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): Whatever one's views on top-up fees, is not it a welcome development that the UK Government, following the lead shown by the National Assembly, have reintroduced maintenance grants for poorer students? On another matter related to cross-border student movement, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to condemn the practice of some universities in England that reject A-level Welsh as a qualification for entry?

Mr. Hain: I am very happy to reject that practice. In fact, I wrote yesterday to the vice-chancellors of Bristol university and Nottingham university, as those universities had apparently barred from consideration a Welsh student with an A-level in Welsh. An A-level is an A-level whatever the subject. A Welsh A-level is just as valid as an English A-level or an A-level in any other language, and I hope that every university in England and, for that matter, Scotland, will recognise that. The A-level is of high quality, academic standards are strong and it is important that Welsh students are not discriminated against.

Holiday Homes

4. Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): What assessment he has made of the likely change in the number of holiday homes in Wales as a result of the Chancellor's proposals regarding changes to self-invested personal pensions schemes. [148353]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): The Government want to simplify the tax rules governing pensions, and we are consulting on proposals to do that. No assessment has been made of potential implications for holiday homes, but if the hon. Gentleman has a view—I am sure that he does—he may wish to submit his evidence and comments to the consultation, which is open until 5 March.

Hywel Williams : I thank the Minister for that answer. I certainly have a view. The proposal is an outrageous tax perk for the super-rich, as AJ Bell said in the Financial Times. The proposal will be very good for second homes, of which there are 4,500 in the county of Gwynedd. Will the Minister and his colleague, the Secretary of State, resist these outrageous proposals within the Government?

Mr. Touhig: I have made it clear that the matter is under consultation and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will put his views. There are 15,000 holiday homes in Wales, which account for less than 1.5 per cent. of the total number of homes in Wales. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no proposal for a new incentive to purchase holiday homes for private use, but I urge him to submit his evidence to the consultation.

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Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Holiday homes and second homes cause tension in many communities throughout Wales, including in my constituency of Ynys Môn, predominantly due to the lack of affordable housing in those areas. Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to increased economic activity, there is a need for planners and developers to set land aside for affordable homes to ensure that we build tolerant and cohesive communities in which local people can work and live—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I appeal to hon. Members for quiet. The House must allow Members to put their questions and Ministers to reply.

Mr. Touhig: My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) made some valid points, and it is important that they are part of our discussions on those issues. My colleagues in the Assembly are making available £56 million under a social housing grant to improve the provision of affordable housing. Added to the funding from registered social landlords, we anticipate that that will generate more than £90 million to provide about 1,000 extra homes for rent at low cost. I think that will have an important impact on the area that he represents.

Miners (Retirement)

5. Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): If he will make a statement on the arrangements for retirement on the ground of ill health for miners in Wales. [148354]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Mining has been an extremely important industry in Wales for generations, and miners deserve a decent retirement. It is a dangerous occupation, and I am very concerned that proper benefits are paid to miners when they retire, especially if retirement is due to ill health.

Mr. Williams : I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He will be aware that the serious ill health scheme, which has supported miners who have to retire through ill health, has run out of cash. The Government recently received £51 million arising from a 1993 revaluation of the investment fund. That was before the Government took the responsibility of acting as a guarantor for the scheme. Will the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry meet with coalfield MPs and National Union of Mineworkers officials to see whether we can release the £51 million so that miners can have that support during their most testing time?

Mr. Hain: I am very happy to meet with coalfield MPs—indeed, I am one myself, so I shall be meeting with myself—to see whether we can resolve this matter. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government paid to the mineworkers compensation scheme £400 million last year in order to boost its opportunities. We should try to resolve this matter together.

Mr. Speaker: I call Michael Fabricant—[Interruption.] Order. Once again, the House is far too noisy.

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