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1.26 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): This is one of the most important debates that we will have during this Parliament, and I very much regret that neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor of the Exchequer intend to remain for it. In view of the disreputable way in which the Government's policy has emerged, it may be that they do not wish to listen to what the Opposition have to say.

The debate started in extraordinary circumstances. Not only was the publication of the Bill delayed for several weeks, but in the two and a half weeks since it was published, the goalposts have been moved again, most recently this very morning. Late last night, the Secretary of State made a written statement describing the commission that will review the impact of variable tuition fees. This morning, further concessions on the workings of the commission have been made following discussions—from which the Secretary of State was apparently excluded—between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown).

In his statement, the Secretary of State said:

If that is when the baseline data begin to be established, how on earth can the commission draw any conclusions about anything in one year's time, as opposed to the three years that the Secretary of State said last night would be needed for its work to be completed? Furthermore, the review is supposed to consider the impact of the new policy, but variable fees do not start until 2006, so what conclusions can the commission draw in 2005? If that is the concession that persuaded

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the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend to give up his opposition to the Bill, he is not the man he was as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Claire Ward: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: Presently.

The issues that the Bill tries to address are profoundly important for the future of our universities, which have been underfunded by successive Governments for many years and, as a result, are at risk of losing talent and status. Restoring adequate funding in a fair and sustainable way is one of the most urgent challenges facing the Government.

Claire Ward rose—

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Yeo: I shall give way in a moment.

The Bill is crucial for students. It will have a deep impact on their lives, not only while they study, but for many years afterwards; and it will affect whether some young men and women who are qualified to go to university feel able to do so.

James Purnell rose—

Mr. Yeo: The hon. Gentleman should not be over-eager—I shall give way to him presently.

What matters about this debate and the vote that follows is not how it leaves the standing of the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State or the Labour Government. A more important issue is at stake—how we are to shape higher education and our investment in the human capital of the nation. Unfortunately, it has become clear in the past month that the Bill is deeply flawed. We are opposed to it because it attacks university independence, damages students, and fails to solve the long-term funding needs of universities. It does, however, confirm yet again to the British people that they cannot trust this Government.

James Purnell: Did the hon. Gentleman, like me, hear the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) say on "Question Time" that under Tory plans fewer people would go to university? How many fewer would it be—100,000, 200,000, 300,000, or perhaps even 400,000?

Mr. Yeo: I did not have the pleasure of hearing my hon. Friend on "Question Time", but I am delighted to deal with the hon. Gentleman's query. Conservative Members are indeed concerned about the numbers of people going to university. That is why yesterday's written answer by the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education is so relevant. He said, in relation to those pupils who are qualified to go to university by achieving two A-level passes, that one of the main reasons why they do not go is the expected costs involved. That is the evidence from the research that was commissioned by the Government, but, unfortunately they ignored it, because the Bill will raise the costs of going to university for those very pupils who

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are qualified to go, but are deterred by the costs. The result of the Bill will be to threaten the numbers who go to university in future.

Let us trace the history of the Government's approach to funding higher education. [Interruption.] I am not surprised that Labour Members do not want to hear this part. Let me remind them of what the Prime Minister said during the 1997 general election campaign:

One year later, the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 introduced tuition fees for the first time. In 2001, the Labour general election manifesto said:

On 22 January 2003, the Government published their White Paper, which broke all those promises.

Claire Ward: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: I shall give way presently.

A couple of weeks ago, on 14 January, the Prime Minister spoke to the Institute of Public Policy Research about his new policy of top-up fees. He said:

He went on to say:

and that they

That is quite a shift from the election manifesto that promised that those same changes would never be made. I doubt whether the Prime Minister's words will be much help to Labour Members of Parliament when they are on the doorsteps seeking re-election and trying to explain to their voters why they went back on their word. It is no surprise that many people inside the Labour party resent being accused of betrayal when they refuse to break their election pledges.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): Can the hon. Gentleman tell us how many vice-chancellors support his party's stance?

Mr. Yeo: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on reading out the Whips' hand-out.

Hon. Members: Answer.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The House listened with respect to the Secretary of State, and it should do the same for the spokesman for the Opposition.

Mr. Yeo: Of course, many vice-chancellors—

Claire Ward: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: I shall deal first with the intervention made by the hon. Lady's colleague.

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Many vice-chancellors want the Bill to be given a Second Reading today, because they know that it will unlock the door to top-up fees not of £3,000 but of £6,000, £10,000 or £15,000. I shall quote one of the many vice-chancellors who have made this point. Richard Sykes of Imperial college has said:

The vice-chancellors want the Bill because they want fees—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Hon. Members who are seeking to catch the eye of the hon. Gentleman who is speaking must not remain standing for any length of time if it is obvious that he is not going to give way. We cannot have Members standing up all over the Chamber.

Mr. Yeo: Let me remind the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) that, for every vice-chancellor who supports the Bill, there are thousands of students at his or her university who oppose it. Thousands of members of staff in higher education also oppose it, including 111 in the Secretary of State's own constituency who wrote to the Eastern Daily Press last Friday to say so. I wish the hon. Gentleman luck on the doorstep when he explains to voters that his reason for breaking his promises to them was that he was so impressed by an advertisement placed in The Guardian by the vice-chancellors. I would prefer to be in the position of the Conservative candidate who will oppose him, who will be able to say that we listened to the thousands of students and staff, and that that is why we are keeping our promises.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Yeo: I shall give way in a moment.

Before I examine the Higher Education Bill in more detail, I want to dispose of one of the Secretary of State's more bizarre assertions, namely that there is no plan B. The number of changes that he has made to his own policy in the two months since the Queen's Speech shows that, far from there being no plan B, the Government are already on about plan F. Last night, with the announcement of the independent review, they finally admitted that there were indeed alternatives to their own policy. They have finally conceded that the principle of variability is up for grabs. At least, that is what they have told their own rebels; we shall find out in due course whether they have said the same thing to the universities. I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward).

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