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6.28 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): In 30 minutes we shall vote on a Bill which the Labour manifesto specifically and categorically pledged not to introduce. That is the most unequivocal and important fact before us, as was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short).

Today sections of the Government have offered concessions of which other sections apparently know nothing. The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) told television viewers earlier today that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had made new concessions this morning. He spoke about those concessions in part in this afternoon's debate, and said that they were why he was switching his vote. However, the press office at the Department for Education and Skills has denied that any new concessions have been made. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), appeared on the BBC earlier today to reply to the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend, and said not once, not twice, but three times that no new concessions have been made. Someone, somewhere is being conned. It is clear that the Bill remains deeply flawed and is being sold on a false prospectus.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Collins: In a moment. The Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) both said that the Government are proud to propose the abolition of up-front fees, but who introduced up-front fees? They did.

Mike Gapes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. While we are discussing people being conned and empty vessels, will he tell us his party's policy for funding higher education?

Mr. Collins: I must say to the hon. Gentleman that it is a little bit rich for someone who speaks on behalf of a party whose Secretary of State did not know at 10 o'clock this morning what the Government's policy was going to be at 11 o'clock to ask for clarification from anyone else. I will tell him one other thing: the policies

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that we will fight the next election on will be in our manifesto and they will be kept and will not be broken, like those made by his party.

The Bill and the strategy behind it were sold as being essential for our economy, but the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce disagree. It was sold as being good for our professions and public services, but the British Medical Association opposes it, as does the Royal Society—as the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) pointed out. It was sold as being good for students, but although the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons), a former president of the National Union of Students, supports it, today's NUS is emphatically against it. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) all pointed out that people of high ability but ordinary income will be deterred from choosing university courses.

The Bill was sold as fixing fees at no more than £3,000 a year, and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) said that he believes those assurances. The Secretary of State has proposed what he calls "truth proofing", in other words, a guarantee that primary legislation would be needed to break that promise. However, we are debating primary legislation designed to break a promise—how does that get us anywhere?

The Bill has been sold as being good for universities, but the representatives of those who work in universities, the Association of University Teachers and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, are against it.

Dr. Palmer: A Conservative Member told me a few days ago that he believes that the Bill is in the national interest, but his party has told him that he must vote against it because party interests come first. What is the hon. Gentleman's advice for that Conservative Member?

Mr. Collins: If the hon. Gentleman is proposing a free vote for all hon. Members, I have no doubt whatsoever that on conscience the Bill would go down, and that it would go down crashingly—as he well knows.

Today, the Secretary of State once again failed to deny that the money raised by fees would be clawed back by the Treasury. The concessions announced by the Government will cost more than the total amount raised by fees. Although higher education needs more money, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) rightly said, there is a real chance that universities will not be a penny better off even if this Bill passes. A lot of pain, perhaps for no gain at all.

The Bill will be very bad for academic freedom, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) pointed out. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that his Select Committee had opposed the Office for Fair Access, but he had changed his mind. I gently suggest to him that he was right the first time.

The right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth) said that he was troubled by the creation of OFFA and hoped that it would operate with a light

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touch. But that is not what is proposed, for the Secretary of State said that he wants an OFFA "with teeth", not without them. That sounds the death knell for academic freedom.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said something extremely important, that he understood that some on the Opposition Benches were being instructed that the issue was now one about the survival of the Prime Minister. Let me make this very clear: it is not at all. The issue tonight is not whether the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State will still be in their jobs tomorrow morning. They have both said that they will not stand down whatever the result of this vote, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that we would not use defeat of the Bill as a reason to call for resignations.

The issue, rather, is what attitude the Prime Minister will take from now on. The right hon. Gentleman has led Labour Members into a war they did not want, arm-twisted them into voting for foundation hospitals in which they do not believe, and now says that they will be guilty of betrayal if they do not vote for the very top-up fees he told them to promise to block.

Whatever happens, the present Prime Minister wakes up tomorrow morning in Downing street. But does he wake up a chastened man, ready to listen more to his party and his people, or a man filled even more with a fervent belief that he is always right and that his critics do not have the same courage as his? If the Government win tonight, do Labour Members think Downing street will brief reporters that the Prime Minister has learned a lesson and is resolved to listen more carefully in future, or that he has once again faced down his critics?

This is not a motion of confidence in Her Majesty's Government, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, it is an issue of confidence in the word of Members of Parliament. Both the Labour and Conservative manifestos, on which the vast majority of Members of this House stood in 2001, contained six unequivocal words. Labour said and we said:

This side of the House will stand by its pledge and vote accordingly. Will Labour hon. Members, many of whom genuinely take their pledged word seriously, do the same? Let Labour Members ask themselves this final question when it comes to justifying their conduct before their voters and in their own consciences: "Which will carry greater weight, that we stood by Tony or stood by our word?"

I urge hon. Members in all parts of the House to show that firm and unequivocal promises still have meaning in British public life and vote down the Bill.

6.38 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): By and large, this has been a calm and measured debate, reflecting the seriousness of the issue and of the decision that we are about to take.

Before I came here mid-morning, I thought that the major questions that we would address in this very important debate were as follows: do we need investment in higher education? Do we need expansion?

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Should graduates contribute, and if so how? And—the issue regarded on the Labour Benches as crucial—should it be a fixed or a variable fee?

Listening to the debate, I have come to the conclusion that there is one other question: what on earth is the policy of Her Majesty's official Opposition? We are now at the first anniversary of the publication of the very important White Paper.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Do not kick the dog. [Interruption.]

Alan Johnson: I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that postmen are always very nice to dogs.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) accused us of not having a plan B. I never heard a plan A from those on the Conservative Benches. If one looks back to last January, one sees that they have changed their policy on higher education more frequently than they have changed their leader, and that is a lot of changes. I can only conclude that it reminded me of being back in my flares and tank tops in the 1970s, watching the programme that Hughie Green used to front—opportunism knocks.

There were however some very important contributions, and some very interesting and thoughtful speeches, by Opposition Members. I particularly enjoyed the speech by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—he would not want to be confused with the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) at the moment. I also enjoyed the contributions by the hon. Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), because they really did have a thoughtful approach to resolving this problem.

I start by asking: do we need investment? There seemed to be agreement on both sides of the House that our higher education sector needs investment. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who asked why we need it now, that a lot has changed since the turn of the century. [Interruption.] Well, I shall come to the past two years in a second, but this is an important point. There were 5 million higher education students in China in 2001; that figure has tripled in three years. India is churning out 1 million graduates a year and is recruiting our researchers, lecturers and postgraduates.

Dearing identified a funding gap of £8 billion. Some hon. Members have said, "Yes, we need investment, but this will not bridge the gap," so it is important for me to make this absolutely clear. I remind hon. Members that we have been putting in £2.9 billion of public money since Dearing published his report. We have £800 million from existing fees and we shall raise about £1 billion from these new proposals. That is almost £5 billion. The £8 billion funding gap is not an annual amount; it is a total amount in the infrastructure. We shall make enormous progress towards bridging that funding gap.

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