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Mr. Jackson: It is probably necessary that there should be a cap if the Bill is to get through Parliament. I think that in due course that cap should be raised. I believe that that experience will show that it will be possible to raise the cap without any of the adverse consequences that many Labour Members, and even Conservative Members, affect to fear.

My conclusion, based on the hypothesis that Labour wins the next election with a manifesto committing itself to this legislation, is that there would be a delay and there would probably be constraints and concessions that would make the deal for the universities rather less satisfactory than the deal that the Bill offers.

Mr. Gordon Marsden: The hon. Gentleman is even-handedly and fairly describing potential hypotheses. He rightly talks about the need of the universities for funding now. Has he heard Members on either side of the House at any stage advance a coherent and cohesive argument for an alternative form of funding that would ring-fence and guarantee the universities the money that they need over the next two to three years?

Mr. Jackson: This is a problem of any system of co-payment, but we must start facing it because co-payment is part of the future of our public services. Co-payment involves co-operation between the private and public sectors. It can be objected to any system of co-payment, that as private income rises, public income will be cut. But we must find a way of trusting one another to make such systems work. They work perfectly well in many countries throughout the world and there is no reason why they should not be able to work in Britain.

I turn to a second area of collateral damage. I am also concerned—some people may say it is a bit above my pay grade—about collateral damage to the interests of

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the Conservative party. If the amendment is carried, I think that it will be bad news for my party because it will mean that its behaviour will be noticed. If it is not carried, I rather hope that people will soon forget what we have been doing.

It is generally agreed that the battleground at the next election will relate to public services. Speaking with a certain detachment as someone who does not propose to stand again, I am struck by the enormous convergence of views in these matters that has emerged between the parties in this place. All or most are agreed on the need for reforms in our public services and the way in which they work. All or most are agreed that these reforms should involve decentralisation and that they should, above all, involve more choice and more tailoring of the service to individuals who use the service. There is also a general consensus about levels of taxation, and that we are reaching the limits of the tax burdens that we can put on people. Even the Liberal Democrats now accept that.

The Government's proposals for universities draw the logical conclusions from those facts and this convergence of views. What depresses me is that the Conservative party, which makes all the arguments for reform, decentralisation and tailoring services more to users' needs, flinches from drawing the appropriate conclusion. That will not go unnoticed by serious people.

4.30 pm

We are living in a post-ideological age. The ideological mountain ranges have collapsed. We have a flat political landscape. People are much interested in competence, leadership and consistency. There will be collateral damage to the Conservatives' reputation among many thinking people because of the line that we are taking on this matter, which a lot of people regard as simply disreputable. I salute the animal spirits and the revived will to win in my party. I like to see the Conservative party with its head down and its dander up, rushing at the goal. The trouble is that today it is rushing at its own goal.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a life of ups and downs as a so-called Labour Back-Bench rebel trying to stick to the manifesto. It is important not to become paranoid. When I saw the headline in The Guardian this morning—"the Government cracks down on persistent offenders; surveillance will be used"—I was momentarily alarmed and, in preparing my defence, was anxious to say that I have rebelled against the Government on only one other issue. I was then mightily relieved to see that the Home Secretary was planning to crack down on violent criminals, rather than Labour rebels.

There are carrots as well as sticks, and the night before the House previously voted on the Bill, I was invited to dinner by three Cabinet Ministers. That has not happened before. Seriously, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the way that he has conducted this whole debate. I have tried to attend as many of his seminars as possible. I now appreciate a little better how Maoist re-education worked all those years ago, but I thank him for his courtesy throughout this process.

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I want to talk briefly about a deal about which the House may be interested. We have heard a lot about deals, but only one deal matters in this process: the deal that we all solemnly made with the electorate at the last election. All three major parties said in their manifestos that they were against variable top-up fees. We said that for very good reasons.

Alan Johnson: As I understand the logic of my hon. Friend's argument, a fixed fee set at a level that we choose—let us say £3,000—would not break the manifesto commitment. Indeed, we would be welcomed with open arms on the streets. However, if we say that less than £3,000 can be charged, it is somehow a great betrayal. I am confused by that argument.

Mr. Grogan: I have never said that I support £3,000 fees. I am glad that my right hon. Friend is thinking about the circumstances if amendment No. 128 is passed, because I always suspected that there is a plan B. He is obviously putting his considerable intellectual powers into considering what will happen if that amendment or those tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) are passed. I am pleased that, under those circumstances, as a responsible Minister, he will not throw the toys out of the pram and that he will return with proposals on what the fee should be.

Why have we gone back on that pledge? Some interesting arguments have been advanced. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the rapid pace of economic change since the last election. We have heard an awful lot about the increased number of Korean students. None of those are fundamental reasons why we should change our mind on this very important issue.

We have heard a lot about concessions, but let us remember that some concessions have not been made. I well remember my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saying on television—I think that it was on "Newsnight"—that he would bet his mortgage that fees would not rise above £3,000 for 10 years. We are now told that it is a marvellous concession that fees will not be raised beyond that level until 2009—three years after the system begins. We were told at one point that there would be a universal bursary scheme, which would apply to every university equally. That offer was made to Universities UK, apparently. Throughout this process, Universities UK has made the parliamentary Labour party look like a great democracy. Ivor Crewe and the leaders of Universities UK have suppressed dissent. They did not even put that offer to the rest of the universities.

The grants are welcome. Under the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and amendment No. 128, the grants would remain. Let us not forget that the son or daughter of a postman and a nurse would get no grant or fee remission. Those are the very people whose choices would be distorted if the fee level were raised, as it inevitably would be. All the Russell group of universities are not talking about £3,000 or £4,000. The logic of the system is that fees would rise rapidly to £9,000 or £10,000 by 2009.

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Peter Bradley: Does my hon. Friend not accept that the only way the cap can be lifted to any amount—£9,000, £10,000, £6,000 or £7,000—is if he and his colleagues in the House consent that it should be changed? Does he not have any confidence in himself and his colleagues to control the cap?

Mr. Grogan: I have seen how the debate has gone over the past three or four months. I assume that in 2009 we will have an intellectual debate and we will all be able to make up our own mind. There will be no talk of supping with the devil, colluding and so on. We all know what sort of atmosphere the debate would take place in. We have only to listen to the Russell group and Professor Nicholas Barr.

I do not want to take up too much of the time of the House. I end by appealing to my colleagues. We are discussing a matter of principle. If the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge is called, I urge support for it. However, it is unlikely to be put to the vote because of the absence of parliamentary support, so we shall be down to amendment No. 128. It is spurious to argue that because the consequential amendments were signed by a particular person, we should not vote for the main amendment. Either we are colluding or we are not. On a matter of principle, I urge all hon. Members who have spoken so long and so loud from the Labour Benches against top-up fees to take courage and vote with their convictions. Vote for amendment No. 128 if it is put to the House tonight by the Speaker.

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