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Alan Johnson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I accept, because he is an honourable man, his assurance that he has not colluded with the Conservative party and does not consider the amendment as seeking to wreck the Bill. Did he hear the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the Opposition spokesman, say on the "Today" programme of the amendment:

He said that it takes away the powers that the regulator has to impose any kind of sanction on universities. Does he accept that that is the view of Her Majesty's official Opposition?

Dr. Gibson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that contribution. I am very glad that I am not associated with that particular view. I do not agree with that view at all, as that is not my reason for tabling the amendment.

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, in Parliament, we are supposed to respond to proposals that come from the Government, and we often find ourselves voting with the Opposition on issues such as peace in Northern Ireland? It also happened on the war in Iraq. The suggestion that those of us who want to adhere to our manifesto commitment and ensure equity in access to higher education are playing games with the Opposition is a dishonourable attack.

Dr. Gibson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention.

I am told that the restoration of student grants and the proposed repayment scheme that will be introduced by secondary legislation" again, this comes from the Public Bill Office—would not be affected by the

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amendment and should not be dependent on the introduction of variable fees. I am told that the office for fair access would still be able to monitor access. These are progressive measures that only our Government, a Labour Government, could put forward. The already rising amounts of student debt and increased hardship, as well as widening access, all need to be addressed. I feel that introducing variable fees is a heavy price to pay for these measures that counteracts any improvements that can be made.

I am told that the Bill would not have to be withdrawn if the amendment were passed. That would be a travesty because of the positive things that it contains. The issue of variability has been presented as non-negotiable from the start. If any issue needed and was crying out for negotiation, variable fees would be it.

Ultimately, a decision needs to be made on whether variable fees are essential for developing our universities into a truly national system based on excellence where innovation and scholarship flourish. On balance, I believe that the Government would be making less of a compromise if they were to support the amendment, scrap variable fees and prevent a divided and divisive university system.

Mr. Willis: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

I wish to speak to a series of amendments. In particular, new clause 8 would remove all fees in exactly the same way as new clause 5, which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) tabled. New clause 9 is consequential on new clause 8 and would remove fees in Wales. Amendments Nos. 53 to 58 and 71 to 86 are also consequential on new clause 8 and new clause 9. New clause 10 deals with age discrimination, and new clause 12 relates to public services.

One of the saddest sights in the past few weeks since the conclusion of the Committee stage has been the witch hunt that has been conducted against the hon. Member for Norwich, North because he happens to disagree with those on the Government Front Bench. For any member of the Government party to be called disloyal for supporting his own manifesto seems the most absurd piece of skullduggery from those on the Government Benches that one could imagine.

May I also say to the Secretary of State and the Minister that the disingenuous comments made on yesterday's "Today" programme, which have been repeated today, suggesting that amendment No. 128 would open the floodgates in allowing universities to charge fees in excess of £10,000, are absolute nonsense. In reality, two amendments have been tabled—[Interruption.] The Minister will have to contain himself. Amendments Nos. 10 and 12 would restore to the Bill those elements of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 that the Government wish to take out and replace. Nevertheless, the Minister and the Secretary of State should be honest enough—I believe that they are honest gentlemen—to say that there is no evidence to show that, before 1998, any university in the United Kingdom charged either tuition fees or differential fees. They did not do so, because measures in the Education (Schools) Act 1992 and the Education

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(Student Loans) Act 1990 prevented them from doing so. Of course, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and its predecessor bodies had powers allowing them not to give grant funding to universities that misused their charter. Those powers were put into the 1998 Act primarily as a result of Labour Back Benchers' concerns that there was nothing in the measure to limit the powers top-up fees or further fees. That was the reason for it. I suspect that HEFCE's powers will be exactly the same as those before 1998, and I expect the Minister to address that specific issue when he winds up the debate.

3.30 pm

New clause 10 addresses age discrimination, which was briefly addressed in Committee, and many organisations that work with older people such as Age Concern and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education support it. The Government have recognised that, for a variety of reasons, people will work longer in the workplace than was assumed 10 or 15 years ago. When I was working in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we all assumed that we would have so much leisure time that we would scramble around and not know what to do with it. In reality, many people will certainly work until the age of 65 and beyond, and to deny them access to the same conditions as under-55s is fundamentally wrong.

In October 2000, the UK Government signed the EU directive on equal treatment for older people, and they are committed to implementing age legislation by 2006, but if the Bill is enacted in its current state, it will directly contradict that intention. The Government have moved on supporting students over 55 years of age, and I hope that they agree to examine that issue in their review of the funding arrangements. Although I will not ask for a separate vote on new clause 10, I trust that the Minister will address that issue in his winding-up speech.

New clause 12 is the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) new clause, and it is the direct response to what he claimed he had achieved when he decided not to support those who oppose top-up fees by voting for the Second Reading of the Bill. On Second Reading, he said:

In the round of broadcasts conducted by him, it was assumed that he had received a concession from the Secretary of State that there would be legislation, or certainly regulation, to allow those people going into the public sector to have preferential treatment on fees and the interest paid on those fees.

The issue is serious: however income-contingent repayment of debt is presented, we want many of the students who graduate from our universities—the Government anticipate that 75 per cent. of universities will charge the maximum top-up fee—to go into the public services. We want graduates to become policemen, social workers, teachers and health professionals, which is right and proper. As an employer, the Government are right to ask, "What should we put in place to support those people?"

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If somebody who works in the public sector moves into the private sector, however, it is not the taxpayer's responsibility to support them by contributing to their fees and associated costs, which private sector employers should support. The Secretary of State was bold to state in the White Paper that he and his colleagues must get to grips with that issue. Whether the Home Office pays the costs of graduate policemen, whether other Departments pay or whether the Secretary of State for Education and Skills pays, is not an issue for this debate, but it must certainly be addressed.

Jonathan Shaw: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Government support people who go into public service? For example, teachers engaged in postgraduate training receive £6,000. Indeed, support for the public services in the south-east has been enhanced, and there has been a further announcement on the keyworker initiative, which assists front-line public sector workers with the expensive cost of housing in the south-east—it is all money.

Mr. Willis: Before the hon. Gentleman gets excited, I have always conceded that the Government assist in many of those areas, but that is not the point of my argument. My point is that after the Bill is enacted, top-up fees will result in significant debt from 2006 onwards, which will be a whole new ball game. We should not cherry-pick the way in which we support people who take certain subjects—

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