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2.59 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I am grateful for the chance to take part in this debate, in which the Education Secretary made a number of detailed points and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) made some powerful points of detail.

Throughout today and before it, it has been fascinating to watch negotiations and concessions unfold; and I have no doubt that that has been as fascinating for the Education Secretary as it has for the rest of us. It is not unusual for a Minister to make concessions when he has said he will not make concessions—that is part of the normal negotiating process of politics; it is quite unusual for a Minister to make concessions he did not wish to make; and it is wholly extraordinary for a Minister to make concessions that he was not aware he was making. That is what appears to have happened in the negotiations—the joviality of the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) rather confirms that that has happened—between him and the Chancellor. Whether those concessions amount to anything is a matter for debate, but one thing is not really a matter of dispute, and it is the central point on the basis of which I am opposed to the legislation. We all said—the entire House of Commons said—that we would not introduce such legislation. It is not just something the governing party said it would not do; it is not just something the Labour party said it would not do; extraordinarily and most unusually, the manifestos of the three main political parties said that they would not introduce such a measure—[Interruption.] And, indeed, other political parties such as Plaid Cymru. With the agreement of my colleagues, I wrote in the Conservative manifesto:

The Liberal Democrats made an even grander claim, as parties do when they are more distant from office. "All fees will be abolished," they said grandly. The Labour party said:

What an extraordinarily categoric and emphatic thing to say. It is most unusual for the same promise to be made by all parties. Normally, manifestos contain contrasting promises for the electorate to choose from. But this was the same from every political party, and by my calculation it means that 635 or more of the 659 Members of Parliament stood on a platform of not introducing top-up fees.

Mr. McLoughlin: When the Secretary of State was asked about that, he said that things had changed since the election. Can my right hon. Friend think what those things are?

Mr. Hague: That was one of the weaker parts of the Secretary of State's speech. When asked, he said that the

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pace of economic growth was unexpected—something that did not amuse the Chancellor, who was sitting three places away from him at the time. The Secretary of State appeared to have no faith in the Chancellor, whereas the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend only has faith in the Chancellor and, extraordinarily, the two have come together in support of the legislation. What happened in the intervening period—the two and a half years of economic growth that the Chancellor predicted—to take the Secretary of State so much by surprise that he had to break a manifesto commitment was not adequately explained in his opening speech.

It is not just the Government who are breaking faith with the electorate—the body politic is breaching their faith. We all go to schools and universities and say, "Politics matters, and your vote matters." We are all ashamed in the House, or we jolly well should be, that only 59 per cent. of people voted in the general election. We tell people that their participation counts, but what are we supposed to say if we pass legislation that the entire House of Commons said it would not pass—if within two and a half years of the election it is passed through the House of Commons in direct defiance of all those pledges? I went to a primary school the other week to talk to the children about Westminster and what MPs do. An 11-year-old put up their hand and said, "But Mr. Hague how do we know, if you are going there for five years, that you are going to do what you said you would?" I said, "We all try." In fact, in that rare spirit of cross-party generosity that comes across us all when we talk to people who do not have a vote for another seven years, I even said, "Mr. Blair tries. We all try. Sometimes it doesn't work, aspirations are unfulfilled, targets aren't met, but we try to keep the promises that we made to the people." What will we say in future?

Mr. Allen rose—

Mr. Hague: Will the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) be able to say that the Labour party kept its election commitment?

Mr. Allen: I shall say it in my speech, if I am lucky enough to catch the Deputy Speaker's eye. Does the right hon. Gentleman know what the Conservative policy is on the issue? If so, would he tell all the parties present and all those who are watching his entertaining speech at home?

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman knows that the great virtue of being an ex-leader of a party is that one does not have to explain the policies for the future. I am responsible for the past, not for the future. My hon. Friends will explain their policy before the general election, and it will then be the job of every Member of Parliament elected to support that future Conservative Government and every Member of Parliament elected to any party to hold them to account when they are in office to keep whatever commitment they make at that general election. That should be the job of all Members of Parliament in the House.

That is why, even though the Prime Minister has looked them in the eye and asked, "Are you going to be loyal?", it would be better for the health of our democracy if Labour Members were loyal to the voters, kept faith with the country and were true to their word

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than if they were loyal to a transient Prime Minister. I have always said that people regard the Prime Minister first with fascination, then with admiration, then with disillusionment, and then with contempt. We are well down that process now. As the waves of contempt close over him in the future, we will still want a healthy democracy. We will still want people to believe that their vote counts, and that what Members of the House of Commons say they will do is what they will do in practice.

Let us not try to claim in the House that none of us has ever made a U-turn or changed a policy. Usually when any party changes a policy, it is because circumstances have changed in some way—there has been a war, there has been a recession, or some new information has come to light. There is nothing that we know now about the state of our universities that we did not know two and a half years ago. There is a serious problem in our universities with academic salaries. There are many serious problems in our universities, but we knew all that at the time of the last general election and we all knew it when we wrote our manifestos.

We did not write those manifestos casually. We are not talking about something that was slipped in by some junior official who went to the printers while the leaders of the parties were not looking. Our commitment went into the manifesto because in each party we had a meeting about it. I was leader of the party when we wrote it into our manifesto, and we had a meeting about it. We asked, "Is everyone responsible for this policy sure that this is right—that this is what we are happy to do if we win the election?" We knew that was an unlikely event, but we still took it seriously. Presumably the same thing took place in the party of Government, which did expect to win the election.

That was a premeditated promise, a categoric commitment, and it is a shameless and ruthless breach of that commitment that the Government are engaged in today. That is why it is a bad day for our democracy if the Bill goes through. It may be a bad day for higher education, or it may be a good one. I do not think it is, but even if it were, it is an overriding argument that when the entire House of Commons has pledged itself to a particular policy, it should do its utmost to keep faith with the country, rather than breach faith with the country.

I know it might be advantageous in a narrow party sense—I am talking about my party—for the Bill to be passed by a small majority tonight, or to be passed by any majority. Then the great agony of negotiating, deciding and voting on it on Report and so on will begin. The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend will continue to make his trips to the Treasury and will become an even more central and powerful figure in the Labour party, and what an awful process that will be for so many of his colleagues. All these things will go on, and Labour Members will parade around at the next election as though they had a placard round their neck that read, "These people do not keep their word." In many ways we are happy for them to parade around with that placard, but it is not good for our democracy or our democratic values.

There are many other objections to the Bill. Although it is presented as a way of escaping further increases in taxation, it is tantamount to an increase in taxation, and

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a particularly harsh, arbitrary and unfair increase in taxation, because it will particularly hit people on middle incomes who have bright children. The man who said to me a few weeks ago—[Interruption.] I will not give way again because I only have 28 seconds left. As for the man who said to me the other day, "I've saved a bit, I'm not going to get any help, I've got three bright children, and I want them all to go to university," what will the Government say to him? Are they sure that the third child is not going to be discriminated against because they are the third child wishing to go to university? It is a bad policy that is bad for democracy in this country and it should be rejected.

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