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Power Supply (Compensation for Erroneous Transfer)

David Cairns accordingly presented a Bill to require electricity and gas suppliers to compensate customers whose supplier is erroneously transferred; and for connected purpose: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 18 June, and to be printed [Bill 45].

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Points of Order

12.41 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I refer to the report that has been delivered to 10 Downing street, as shown on our television screens. If that report—we Back Benchers will know about it tomorrow—says that the Prime Minister, any Minister or any hon. Member has in some way misled the House or lied, I seek your ruling on how we can respond to that report, either in debate or on a statement—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is a saying in Scotland, "The cares of tomorrow are for a day still to come."

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, I received a letter from No. 10 that states that only two Opposition parties will have early access to the Hutton report. The Conservatives and the Liberals will see the Hutton report some six hours before publication, yet that privilege will not be extended to all the parties in the House. What can you do to ensure equality for all Opposition parties in the House?

Mr. Speaker: I tell the hon. Gentleman that the leader of his party wrote to me, and I responded. Perhaps he should get in touch with the leader of his party.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On any day, let alone this day, is there anything whatever that you can do to protect us from bogus points of order by creeps? [Laughter.]

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman's point of order was bogus in a sense.

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Orders of the Day

Higher Education Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that it is not a day for Back Benchers to come to the Chair to ask where they are in the list, and also on the question of applications to speak that there is a limit of eight minutes on Back-Bench speeches. I also inform the House that I have not selected either of the reasoned amendments on the Order Paper.

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

A year ago, the Government published the White Paper on the future of higher education. It set out a wide range of proposals and, today, we reach the point of decision on those proposals. Our decision today in the House—the vote of every single Member of Parliament of every party—will determine the future of our universities and so determine the future ability of this country to prosper in the increasingly competitive global economy. In that world economy, the existence of the high-level intellectual and skilled talents of all our people will be decisive. Our success in that economy will determine the economic strength of this country. That was the reason for the White Paper; that is the reason for the Bill; and, despite all the entertainment of all the different forms of political speculation, we should all acknowledge today that the outcome of the debate will be real and substantial for this country's universities and for the future welfare of this country.

Let me begin with some aspects of the Bill that have received less attention but are nevertheless important. The Bill will create an arts and humanities research council—the first new research council since 1994 and a major step forward for the arts and humanities community, giving those disciplines their proper status. Some might call that measure the revenge of the mediaeval historians.

The Bill gives statutory underpinning to the office of the independent adjudicator, and thus provides a common and transparent means of redress for student complaints, in place of the often archaic arrangements with so-called visitors and other mechanisms—more appropriate to the novels of C.P. Snow than to modern university life.

The Bill transfers to the National Assembly for Wales student support for students living in Wales, wherever they study in the United Kingdom, from the academic year 2006–07 onwards, together with higher education fee levels for higher education institutions in Wales. That will enable the National Assembly for Wales to create a consistent structure of policy to govern higher education in Wales.

The Bill will simplify current arrangements for applications for higher education by enabling relevant information about student support to be shared between relevant institutions.

The Bill has three aspects of even greater substance, which I shall now address in turn: first, increasing levels of funding for universities; secondly, the establishment of an Office for Fair Access; and, thirdly, the creation of a fairer system of student support.

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I shall deal first with university funding, and begin with the facts. Since 1980, academic salaries have increased by an average of only 20 per cent. compared with a rise in average earnings of 60 per cent. and of average graduate earnings by still more. The average salary of a professor or head of department is well below comparable salaries in both the public and the private sectors. At the same time, university student-staff ratios have worsened, from 10:1 in 1983 to 17:1 in 2001. Similar stories can be told in respect of books, equipment and other essentials for academic excellence. Between 1989 and 1997 under the Conservatives, planned public funding per student fell in real terms by more than 36 per cent. By comparison, the United States spends 2.3 per cent of its gross domestic product on tertiary education institutions, whereas we spend just 1.1 per cent.

We need to take account of the fact that many of the countries with which we need to compete in the global economy have significantly higher levels of participation in higher education than we do here. I cite Australia with 65 per cent., Finland with 72 per cent., Netherlands with 54 per cent., Norway with 62 per cent., Sweden with 69 per cent., and so on. The OECD average of 47 per cent is higher than the figure here. I put it to the House as strongly as I can that it is our bounden duty to do what we can to address that state of affairs. We cannot simply let it continue.

Through general public spending, we have already made great steps. From 1997–98 to 2005–06, we have increased publicy planned spending on universities by a total of about £2.9 billion. For the current spending period of 2002–03 to 2005–06, we have increased unit funding by 7 per cent. in real terms. In the same period, capital funding for teaching and learning is increasing by 185 per cent., and research capital funding by 77 per cent.

We have given and will continue to give substantial resources, particularly to modern universities, to widen access. For example, Manchester Metropolitan has received £7.5 million; London Metropolitan, £7.5 million; Leeds Metropolitan, £5.9 million; and so on. Continued access is important and we shall continue to address funding by that route.

Although the lion's share of spending will always come from the public purse—at least under Labour, though not I think under the Conservatives—that will not be enough. We cannot continue to rely on the taxpayer alone to solve these matters. The reason is clear. There are and always will be strongly competing demands for public resources. The annual cost of a nursery place for a three to four-year-old is about £1,775, or about £3,550 for a four-year-old. The annual cost of a secondary pupil is about £4,000; £4,200 for a further education student; and about £5,000 for a university student. Those are striking figures, and I contend that any Secretary of State looking at those figures is bound to say that if extra resources are available for investment, it should be directed at the under-fives and primary level. That is the area where we must target resources.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): If the Secretary of State really feels that such resources as are available to the public sector should be spent in areas other than higher education, surely what will happen in the near

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future is that the extra funding that is coming in from tuition fees will be removed by the Government from the Government grant and spent on the things that the Government apparently think should receive a higher priority.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I have said on many occasions that is simply not the case. Extra resources are needed for the reasons that I have given. The Liberal Democrats have difficulty allocating the product of their 50 per cent. tax rate in so many different ways. What would they do for under-fives education? What would they do for primary education? They would have no resources left. If the Liberal Democrats were honest, they would face up to that fact and say that more resources are needed.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): In that case, will the Secretary of State tell the House what has fundamentally changed since three years ago, when the Labour party said that it would not introduce top-up fees? What makes universities' funding needs so significantly different? What makes the unacceptable level of tens of thousands of pounds of debt so much more acceptable to a Labour Government now?

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