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James Purnell: I take collective, but not individual responsibility, for the incident, and I want to apologise after all these years.

I also want to apologise because at the time I thought that his proposals were not motivated by a desire to increase access to university. Anyone who listened to his speech today could see that his intentions were extremely well motivated. I only wish that Conservative Front Benchers had had the courage to carry through what he started in the 1980s. The Conservative Government undertook the task of increasing access, and when parties that we do not agree with the rest of the time do something that is correct, we should have the courage to say so. In turn, I wish that the Tories had had the courage to say today that they agree with the Government—agreement was clearly written across the faces of many Conservative Members when the hon. Member for Wantage was speaking.

Unfortunately, after making a start on increasing access, the Conservative Government decided to cap numbers entering higher education, and the right hon. Members for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) decided to cut off the money that was necessary to increase access. The cap stayed at around one third of pupils until this Government took power.

I am extremely proud of the fact that we have increased access and of the fact that access has risen to 42 per cent. I would be even prouder if we got it up to 50 per cent.

I want to nail one dishonesty that has been put about in the debate—that this is not about meritocracy. If anyone says that this is about social engineering rather than meritocracy, he or she cannot have looked at research by the Sutton Trust and others showing that of two children of equal academic ability, with equal results at A-level, one from a working class family and

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one from a middle class family, the working class child is less likely to go to university. What is fair about that? What is meritocratic about that? Giving children the grants that they need to go to university is the only thing that can make that meritocracy real.

We on this side of the Chamber should never agree that we are not being meritocratic. We are doing what is fair. It is not social engineering; it is giving people the right to go to university when they get the A-levels required.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: If it is true—and I accept that it may well be—that giving grants is a great help for working class people to get into university, why was that not part of the Bill initially?

James Purnell: Grants were part of the Bill. Thanks to the work that has been done by people on this side of the House, the Bill is even better than when it was launched; and it was better than the White Paper then. This is much better than the original proposal. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said that it had come from the bowels of Downing street. I know that he thinks that the proposal is a load of excrement, but I find that an over-harsh description. The proposal is significantly better than before the last manifesto. One thing that my colleagues have achieved is to ensure that the lesson has been learnt. The Government clearly recognise that proposals must be consulted upon and have to go through the party. We never want to get into this mess again.

Mr. Barnes: As the Bill has been significantly improved, is it possible that it could be still further significantly improved? I propose a debt holiday after graduation to last during a difficult time for all graduates, when they are starting families and obtaining mortgages. If we could knock off payment for a number of years, that would be a distinct advantage over the present proposal.

James Purnell: I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister was listening carefully to what my hon. Friend said. It is not for me to say whether it will be possible.

If we vote the Bill down tonight, what am I supposed to say to the children in my constituency who are obtaining better results? I think of Ashley high school, where the results leapt by 17 per cent. this summer, and of Hyde technology school, where 70 per cent. are achieving five good GCSEs—for the Bangladeshi community the figure is over 70 per cent., which is hugely better than the national average. The results have gone through the roof in the last two years. What am I supposed to say if we decide to put a cap back on university numbers?

I shall have to say to those pupils "Yes, the results have got better. Yes, those schools have got better. But you will not be able to go to university. Ten years ago you would have been able to get there with these A-level results, but now you won't." That would not be fair to my constituents. The only people that it would help are those who come from leafy suburbs, who go to schools that are already over-funded and are represented on the Opposition side of the House.

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I should like to look quickly at the worries of hon. Members on the Government side of the House about the Bill. I know that some are worried that it will increase inequality. I think that it will reduce inequality, by helping more people to go to higher education.

First, will people be frightened of debt? Of course, if the debt attracted mortgage interest rates or credit card interest rates, that would be a consideration. If people had to pay it back whatever their income, that would be a consideration. If, as a Liberal Democrat Member said, our system was like the American system, that would be a consideration. But in America, people are taking on debts of $40,000 every year; the annual fee is $40,000. It is no wonder that no one from a poor background goes to Harvard. That fee is what we are legislating against today.

Dr. Pugh: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bangladeshi community. He is now talking about the Americans. The Bangladeshis are very different from the Americans. They are very debt-averse. Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that there are cultural differences?

James Purnell: My point is that the difference between a $40,000 annual fee and a £3,000 annual fee makes the systems completely different. When a loan is income-contingent, when it has to be repaid only after one earns £15,000, that is reasonable. If Porsches were on sale in my constituency on an income-contingent basis, so that one did not have to repay anything if one earned less than £15,000, there would be an awful lot of Porsches in Stalybridge and Hyde.

Secondly, should we oppose variable fees in principle? If the fee could vary upwards and it was unlimited, and there was nothing that we could do to prevent higher education institutions from increasing it to £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000 a year, as they do in America, of course we should oppose variable fees, but the Bill would cap fees at £3,000. Should we therefore say that everyone should pay £3,000? If we vote down variability, who suffers? The only people who suffer are those who would otherwise have paid £500, £1,000 or £2,000. If the Bill falls and the Government want to increase the fee, they can do so, but then everyone would pay £3,000. The people who are helped by variability are the very people who come from poorer backgrounds who may be able to get on to a course that costs less. That helps equality; it does not increase inequality.

Mr. Patrick Hall: Will my hon. Friend give way?

James Purnell: I have already taken three interventions.

Thirdly, does the Bill marketise the system? The point of the Bill is to make the market work better. We already have a market in higher education, as we must accept, but at the moment it is grossly unfair. People have to pay a fee up front. When I was going around my constituency during the 2001election campaign I met a mother in Newton who was desperate for her kids to go to university. She said that she was having great difficulty in finding the necessary £1,100. The Bill will mean that she will never have to find a similar sum for her younger children. It means that those children will

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pay the bill only when they are earning enough money to be able to do so. In my constituency, about 50 per cent. of people earn less than £18,000 a year. Therefore, broadly, in my constituency, only ex-students who are in the top half of earners will have to pay anything back, and at about £18,000 year it will be about £5 a week. I think that that is affordable and fair.

I was wrong about the motivation of the hon. Member for Wantage in the 1980s; I do recognise that he was trying to increase access. However, I think that the Conservatives made one mistake, and that was getting rid of grants. I got a grant. I got to go to Oxford, the first person in my family ever to do so, because I had a grant, and I am immensely proud that the Bill will bring back grants so that people from poorer backgrounds can go to university. I urge my colleagues to vote with the Government tonight. If we do not get the Bill, we shall lose the grants; we shall have to campaign on up-front fees at the next election and we shall lose the increased access to higher education. The people who will suffer will be those in our constituencies; those who will benefit will be the people on the Opposition Benches, who do not want their children to have greater competition for university places. As the results in schools in our areas improve, we must give those children the chance to enter higher education, and that is what the Bill delivers tonight.


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