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Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Brown: If I remember the new rules correctly, only two goes are allowed—but I will give way.

Mr. Hall: Does my right hon. Friend accept that the £1 billion a year that it is estimated will be raised by variable fees will represent 68 per cent. of the revenue shortfall identified for English universities? Is that not a significant contribution?

Mr. Brown: It is a significant contribution, but much depends on who we listen to. There is indeed a shortfall, as everyone accepts. According to some, it is a significant shortfall. The shortfall will have to be dealt with, but I think it wrong that the market-based solution was sold to the universities as the only solution on offer. There are other ideas, good ideas, that are worth exploring—and now at least we have the opportunity to do that.

Let me make myself perfectly plain. I favour a graduate contribution based on earnings—the earnings of a youngster who has benefited from higher education—rather than on the financial position of that youngster's mum and dad. That is my view, and it is comparable with what is in the Labour party manifesto. I do not think there is anything wrong with continuing to argue for it, and there will be an opportunity for those of us who hold it to put it to the commission.

Of course I realise that that is a double-edged sword. As with any argument, it will be perfectly possible to lose this argument—don't I know it? But at least we have a chance to make the case again. Indeed, there are

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elements of just such a scheme in the Government's current proposals. We are not as far apart as it may seem.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brown: You will put me right on this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Am I allowed to take a further intervention?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Whether or not the right hon. Gentleman takes an intervention is entirely a matter for him.

Mr. Brown: I am relatively new to this. Despite all the things I have done in this place, the experience of being a Government Back Bencher is entirely new to me—although I think I am getting the hang of it. I can tell the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) that his intervention would take time from my speech, and that he will be able to make his own speech later. I cannot take any more interventions.

On the question of how we treat our manifesto pledges, there is the separate issue—although this point is, of course, addressed to the whole House, it particularly concerns my hon. Friends—of how we treat our party. The issues that we are discussing today should have been discussed in the Labour party policy forum. We would be in better shape—and so would the proposals—had we gone through that exercise first to test the ideas in front of our hon. Friends and colleagues whom we expect to support us before rallying behind the agreed proposals. Instead, the proposals were presented to us first, there was a demand that we should agree with them and we put up a fight to try to amend them so that they could be agreed. One of the concessions is to put the commission's work through the party's policy-making process, which will allow us in the Labour party an opportunity to argue our points of view.

The heart of my objection to the original proposals, which have now been circumscribed, is the remorseless march towards the market. I passionately believe that the "marketisation" of higher education is wrong—for me it is a matter of not only economics and funding but social justice and social cohesion. I shall treat the House to a quote from the "University College Record" by Lord Butler of Brockwell in October 2003:

That argument is perfectly logical if it is taken in its own terms, but some of my constituents do not earn £20,000 a year, and we must stand up for them.

I want universities to soar, but if they are to do so our people must come with them. These proposals box in the cap and the move towards the market, and I take the Secretary of State at his word when he says that this is not a transitional move to a marketplace and that the proposals are as they stand.

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2.17 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): We took the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister at their word when they said in their last manifesto that they would not introduce top-up fees—sadly, top-up fees are being introduced. I was looking forward to a principled debate, but we have had a shabby charade. Labour Member after Labour Member will line up tonight to go into the Aye Lobby to support a Thatcherite policy in direct opposition to what they said during the general election campaign, betraying the principles on which the Labour party is built.

It is no surprise that the British Market Research Bureau, which conducted the latest opinion poll on the issue, says that 70 per cent. of the public are against top-up fees. The general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, Sally Hunt, described top-up fees as

The grand old Duke of York, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), led his troops to the hill, and we have seen him lead them back down again—what a shabby performance!

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: No, I will not.

The Bill is bad for students, bad for families, bad for lecturers, bad for universities, bad for taxpayers and bad for the country. It is not bad for the Liberal Democrats, because at the next general election we will remind voters of the promises and what should have happened.

The sadness is that the debate about the future of higher education should be one of the most engaging that this House has ever had. It should be about how we tackle the current inequities between academic and vocational pathways into higher education. The Secretary of State did not mention the unacceptable fact that 45 per cent. of young people who obtain vocational qualifications at level 3 do not end up in university, yet 92 per cent. of those with two A-levels do. That inequity should be debated and tackled. We should debate how we could offer a climbing frame of opportunity to attain higher skills and higher education throughout life, rather than just for students with two A-levels.

Instead, the debate has become little more than a sordid trade-off, with the Secretary of State acting more like Del Boy in "Only Fools and Horses" as he tries to sell dodgy goods to his own Back Benchers. We all know that the Bill is not simply about higher education—the Prime Minister has been at pains to point that out. It is about changing the way in which this country pays for its public services. That is at the heart of it. The Bill is stage one of a process that will see responsibility for paying for child care, transport, and health and social care shift from general taxation to the individual. If hon. Members do not believe me, they should read the Institute for Public Policy Research report when it is published tomorrow. It describes Government policy and thinking on the issue.

Hon. Members should not be fooled into thinking that the Bill is only about higher education: it is not. Why else would we have seen in the past few days

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Labour Whips running around Westminster threatening to hand out redundancy notices? They have cajoled and even offered dinner with Cabinet members to ensure that sufficient MPs break their promise to the people of Britain. In an act of sheer desperation, the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee even resorted to sending out pictures of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in brown paper envelopes to recalcitrant MPs to frighten them into submission. How desperate is that?

Hugh Bayley: The hon. Gentleman made the point that students in further education have poorer opportunities than those in higher education. Those in further education face variable fees. Why does he not propose getting rid of variable fees in further education, and why does he propose to spend on universities all the Liberal Democrats' tax increase, rather than spending it on further education?

Mr. Willis: I shall come to the second point that the hon. Gentleman raises—I consider him as more than just a political neighbour—later in my speech, and I assure the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) that I will not do so too late. On the first point, I agree, and our policy is to achieve that objective. It is unacceptable for students in further education to be burdened with differential fees at a time when the whole debate in this House is about higher education. I remind the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) that the Bill is about higher education. The Secretary of State makes no proposals to tackle any of the issues that the hon. Gentleman feels so strongly about. As Labour Members seem so keen on reviews, I suggest that he ask Ministers to set up another review to consider those important issues.

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