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Mrs. Fitzsimons: I accept the genuine interest and expertise of the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesperson on this issue, but does my hon. Friend share my concern that, over the past 40 years, social engineering has kept able, bona fide candidates out of higher education, as is evidenced by the fact that for 40 years only 20 per cent. of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds entered higher education?

Mr. Allen: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Labour Members should stop being defensive about the idea that intervention takes place in a market. That is exactly what this party is about, if we are about anything. The Conservatives practised intervention for decade after decade to the benefit of the people whom they represent. I do not quibble with them for doing that, but Labour Members must accept that, as John Smith used to say repeatedly, a market is a good servant but a bad master. By using methods such as those that OFFA will use, we can intervene to ensure that the market is properly regulated so that talent is allowed to flourish.

I return briefly to the point that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made. We do of course need to take a comprehensive view of the whole issue. For that reason, I implore my hon. Friends, whatever their views on particular aspects of variability, to vote with the Government tonight. If things do not go as I hope that they will, we might lose the other part of this vital package. The key is to ensure that, now that we have a higher education system in which youngsters can flourish, we allow them to get there.

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The biggest problem faced by young people is not the prospect of paying back a fiver a week when they are on £18,000, or —25 a week when they are on £30,000, as a graduate; the biggest obstacle to kids in my patch, and in the constituencies of hon. Members on both sides of the House, is their fear that if they go to university with no money in their pocket, they will be unable to keep body and soul together. I have already written to the eight secondary head teachers in my constituency to tell them that, if the Bill is passed, they should spread the good news at their assemblies and other places and say, "You can go to university and we will pay you £3,000 to do it, because that is available"

Mr. Willis: And charge them.

Mr. Allen: And they will not be charged. The hon. Gentleman repeats that assertion over and again. It needs to be refuted, even if it is only made from a sedentary position.

Mr. Willis rose

Mr. Allen: I must answer the hon. Gentleman's sedentary point, and then I may give way to his standing point.

The scare that is put about that poor students, poor families, rich students or rich families will have to pay back under this scheme, is nonsense. It will be graduates earning a wage earning £18,000—who will start to pay back at £5 a week, and those earning £30,000 will pay back £25 a week. What the hon. Gentleman does he does it so often that I begin to doubt that he is doing it inadvertently is frighten the very youngsters in my constituency whom I want to grasp this opportunity. It is an easy point; it is an easy misrepresentation. This morning I met a number of people who have lobbied us in the House. I corrected them, and they were amazed because they had swallowed the propaganda and thought this was a great debt burden rather than a very modest repayment that will be made only once graduates earn sufficient repay.

Mr. Willis: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that poorer students currently pay no fees, so when they leave university they have to pay back their maintenance loan, whereas under the new system they will get a £3,000 grant, including the bursary, as they go into university, but they will have a £3,000 tuition fee to repay at the end? So they will actually get a grant of £3,000 and then have to pay back £3,000 in fees. How on earth is that an advantage?

Mr. Allen: The hon. Gentleman is wrong on almost every particular. I wish that I could take more time to refute the arguments that will be made in the later debate. I will be present in the later debate to do that, as I did repeatedly in Committee. Not every youngster will pay a £3,000 fee [Interruption.] I am sorry, not every university will charge

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Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your protection. How can you help Members who represent Wales in the House, who, it is now clear, will have no opportunity to debate the important issues, which are currently non-devolved, about how the Bill affects Wales? In its ignorance or with its disinterest, the House is about to legislate on Wales without allowing any Member from Wales to speak on that issue. Can you do anything to protect our interests?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman is raising, but the House has decided the programme motion that we are now working under, and as far as I am concerned in the Chair I have no control over that.

Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) makes a strong point, and all that I can say to him is that this matter was covered extensively in Committee. I know that is of little consolation to him

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): I have enjoyed listening at great length to my hon. Friend. Given the length of his contribution and in recognition of his efforts, OFFA should perhaps be renamed the Allen key to improve access.

Mr. Allen: I believe that several colleagues wish to speak and I shall bring my remarks to a close. I simply emphasise that we are creating an instrument for intervention in a highly imperfect market, and we should give it the necessary teeth. Unfortunately, this will not be the opportunity to do that, but I hope that perhaps under the auspices of the Select Committee we shall revisit this matter and ensure that OFFA is a regulatory body worthy of the name.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has just taken a third of the entire debate. I shall certainly be briefer, not least to try to allow some Welsh Members into the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) described amendment No. 1 as consequential. It may be, but I think that it also reflects amendment No. 268, which he tabled in Committee, in that it removes from the Bill the clause that allows the Secretary of State to give guidance to the regulator. That is the issue that most concerns me, because it allows the Secretary of State to give the regulator guidance, so the regulator will not be independent of the Secretary of State or of Government.

One can make a case, when dealing with rail, water or other issues, for the regulator to be directed or guided by the Secretary of State or the politicians of the day, but higher education is not the same as energy, water or railways. On the contrary, universities—even if Labour would wish it otherwise—are not public institutions. They are private institutions, and what is studied at universities and those who are admitted to them should, in the final resort, be matters for universities themselves. That is the principle of academic freedom, which I have yet to hear addressed, on Second Reading or today.

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Peter Bradley : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fallon: No, I have very little time.

The Minister was brutal on that point in Committee. When he answered the debate on amendment No. 268, he said that the Government wanted the powers because

He made no bones about it: he wants the powers so that the Secretary of State can direct the regulator.

We have heard today Labour Members say—as they are entitled to do—that they want a regulator with teeth. Indeed, that was the gist of the 20-minute speech by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. That is fine, but the Bill will mean that we will have a regulator with the Government's teeth. It is wholly wrong of the Government to interfere in the operation of the regulator.

I shall lay my cards on the table and confess that I do not think that we need a regulator. Better practice could be spread in different ways, and there is no case for a regulator. However, if there is to be one, it should be independent of the Government and of the Secretary of State. It should carry out its duties, subject—of course—to the law and perhaps to review by the courts, but free from political interference.

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) rightly said that we do not want an either/or situation: we want to promote the opportunities for young people from working-class backgrounds to fulfil their potential and gain access to higher education institutes. We have heard a lot of scaremongering from the Conservatives about what OFFA will do, but the idea that it will involve social engineering is ridiculous—[Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) greets that with incredulity. OFFA will, with a light touch, spread good practice to ensure that institutions reach out to communities that are less well represented in higher education. OFFA will not be a punitive weapon that the Secretary of State can use, and that suggestion was clearly rebutted in Committee—and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) knows it. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) nods, but we remember the language that he used. He said that OFFA would be used if the Secretary of State took offence at an institution and that he could use OFFA in a vendetta against it.

The Opposition said that OFFA would be the Secretary of State's plaything, but that is ridiculous. Universities UK has been clear about the powers that OFFA will have, especially on the plan that will allow universities to charge fees of £3,000. If the plan is altered, it will be on the say-so of the institutions, not OFFA. It is important that OFFA is not involved in admissions, but the Conservatives want people to think that it will be. The universities know that OFFA will not be involved in admissions, the Labour party knows that and so do the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, the Tories know it, but they choose not to articulate it because it does not suit their opportunism. They constantly use emotive words, talking about social engineering, to create a pernicious impression.

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