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4.15 pm

Paul Farrelly: On the point of principle, does my hon. Friend accept that the effect of her amendments would be exactly the same as that of amendment No. 128, because they would remove variability from the Bill? If either were accepted, the effect would be the same—the Bill would be withdrawn.

Mrs. Campbell: I spent a great deal of time carefully constructing amendments that would leave the Bill intact. They would not only leave the Bill intact, but strengthen the role of OFFA, the regulator. I would have thought that many Labour Members would want to achieve that, rather than taking the teeth out of OFFA completely.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend received any indication from the Government of what their attitude to her amendments would be if they were accepted? Have they said that they would withdraw the Bill?

Mrs. Campbell: I answered that question earlier. The Government have not given any indication to me, but I understand that the Whips have been talking to people about the consequences of their support for my amendments, although I do not know what that might be.

A further problem for Labour Members is that the consequential amendments to amendment No. 128 would turn OFFA—the mechanism by which we will increase access for students from non-traditional backgrounds—into a toothless tiger. We would keep OFFA, but there would be no incentive for universities to increase access, so what would be the use of that?

Let us suppose that sufficient Labour Members vote for amendment No. 128 and then the Conservative amendments relating to schedule 6. What would happen next? I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has threatened to withdraw the Bill if that happens, and I take his threat seriously. However, he probably would have no need to do that. Given that

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he would have the powers but not the duty, all that he would have to do would be to make it known that he would not exercise his powers to require universities to charge a regulated fee. Universities could thus charge whatever the Secretary of State deemed acceptable—irrespective of what the House thinks. Hon. Members should also remember that OFFA would have no bite and remain totally immobilised, so universities could thus charge huge fees, have no effective access plans and take all their students from the well-off classes so that they would have no need to dispense bursaries. Is that really what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North is trying to achieve?

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): My hon. Friend is outlining a doomsday scenario that she envisages if amendment No. 128 were passed, so it is only fair to ask whether she shares the touching faith that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) seems to have that certain universities would play ball and go ahead with an access programme, not least given that many in the Russell group take an alternative view.

Mrs. Campbell: I am heartened by the way in which universities have responded to even the mere mention of OFFA by introducing much better access and outreach plans than they have ever had. I know that that applies to my own university as well as many others. Removing the teeth of OFFA would not lead to an immediate withdrawal of such plans, but I believe that they would wither on the vine in time.

Mr. Barnes rose—

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP) rose—

Mrs. Campbell: I give way to the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing).

Annabelle Ewing: Given what the hon. Lady said earlier this afternoon, if next year's Labour party manifesto contains a commitment or undertaking not to introduce primary legislation to lift the cap on top-ups, does she expect anyone to believe it?

Mrs. Campbell: I understand the Liberal Democrat position—[Hon. Members: "She is not a Liberal Democrat."] I apologise; I meant the Scottish nationalist position. The hon. Lady has to accept that the situation is difficult. Universities are in severe financial straits. In those circumstances, it is necessary to look hard at what we can do to raise finance for them. As someone who has been in opposition, I can say with confidence that it is easy for Opposition parties to say anything and promise everything. She will never be put in the position of delivering on her promises.

Mr. Barnes: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Campbell: I am about to finish.

I cannot possibly support amendment No. 128 and I hope that my hon. Friends will not do so either. I hope that amendments Nos. 129 and 130 will receive support, and that if there is a chance to vote on new clause 6 that it, too, will be supported.

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Mr. Robert Jackson: I want to explain briefly why I shall vote with the Government to secure the Bill's passage, which in contrast to the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), I want to succeed.

I do not want to rehearse the arguments, which have become familiar. Instead, I want to address a word or two of explanation to my party—[Hon. Members: "Where are they?"] I am sorry that so few of my hon. Friends are in the Chamber. My interpretation of their absence is that this is a case of bad conscience.

Both as a democrat and a Conservative Member of Parliament, I am delighted by the renewed will to win that we have seen in the Conservative party since the change of leadership. I salute the leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Our two-party system requires both an effective Opposition and a serious alternative Government. However, I am concerned about the collateral damage that will arise from too bald-headed a pursuit of that will to win, which in itself is a good will to have. I am reminded of a remark by Stanley Baldwin about Lloyd George. He said that he was a dynamic force, and a dynamic force is a terrible thing. What I have is a choice between party interest and national interest. It is right, in such a situation, to take the national view.

Let me say a few words about the collateral damage that will arise if the amendments are carried and the Bill collapses. The effect on universities would be the postponement of the issue until after the next general election, which gives us two possible hypotheses. The first is that the Conservative party wins. In the process of trying to score points against the Government, it has got into a position from which it cannot escape making a manifesto commitment to oppose the principle of paying university fees. That would be the basis on which it would have to conduct its policy in government. There could be no question of a Conservative Government introducing fees in the next Parliament, and it is likely that it would not happen in the Parliament after that. So we would have at least 10 years in which university fees would not be possible.

We do not know anything about the alternative policy of the Conservative party. I do not think that there is a serious alternative, for reasons that I set out on Second Reading. What we do know about Conservative policy is what my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Chancellor, has said, which is that universities are not a priority. They fall outside the priority for schools and health, and training and universities will be cut. We definitely know that about Conservative policy. I have to ask myself: what will be left of our university system after a further 10 years of starvation during which a Conservative Government forbid what are in law private institutions from charging fees to their customers?

I turn to my second hypothesis, and that is that the Labour party wins the next general election. I think that we can exclude the hypothesis of a Liberal Democrat win. I assume that the Prime Minister will continue to lead the Labour party. I assume also that the present Secretary of State for Education and Skills will be an important contributor to the Labour party manifesto. I think that the Labour party would commit itself at the next election to introduce fees. Incidentally, I think that

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it was a great mistake not to have been more honest with the public during the last election. But there is a saying in the Bible about the "sinner that repenteth".

If the Government lose today, I think that there would be such a commitment in the Labour party's next manifesto. Listening to the debate within the Labour party, it is clear that there is broad consensus for that. People have heard the arguments and have taken them on board. I think that Labour would probably enact such a reform after the next election, but that would mean either a two or even a three-year delay, and our universities cannot wait for that long. Concessions would probably be involved, which would constrain the future of our universities even more than this Bill would do. I regret those constraints but I accept them as being politically necessary. It would probably also lead to an increase in the cost of concessions and subsidies to students, which I and the Select Committee consider unnecessary. For example, there is the interest rate subsidy, which the Select Committee has said is not justified. I do not think that it is justified even though it was introduced by a Conservative Government.

Clare Short : Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he supports the proposal for a cap on raising the top-up fee or whether he supports the Russell group's position of allowing prestige universities to charge what the market will bear?

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