Higher Education Bill

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Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Mudie: I am giving way to my other hon. Friend after I have finished this sentence, so there will be a queue.

The other objective is something that was raised by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, and it needs to be discussed. We might obtain more answers on this in Standing Committee than on Second Reading or in Select Committee.

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend faces a double whammy from Bury. If the objection to variability is a matter of

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principle, he did the job that I now do, in a very distinguished way, and further education and skills were at the heart—

The Chairman: Order. I had to call one Back-Bench Government Member to order the other day for not addressing the Chair. It would be quite improper of me not to apply the same restrictions to the Front Bench.

Mr. Lewis: Can I have another go, Mr. Gale? I have been sitting on the Bench for so long that I am forgetting the rules of the game. In the context of further education, where variability has been the norm for as long as we can remember—the issue was never raised by hon. Members nor, so far as I know, by my hon. Friend when he did this job—why is there now such an objection to variability as a matter of values and principles? That is apparently a contradiction of the social justice and widening participation objectives that Government Members certainly view as central to our aspirations and ambitions for higher education. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough failed to answer that question this morning. I ask my hon. Friend to try to tell me what the difference is, and where the values and principles are that divide us.

Mr. Mudie: The next question, Mr. Gale, comes from the other hon. Member from Bury: they come not to praise you but to bury you.

Mr. Chaytor: I hope that my hon. Friend's answer to me will be a little more developed than his answer to the Minister. My hon. Friend and I accept that we have fundamentally different understandings of the role of the market in post-compulsory education. Can he tell us how, at any time during that whole long post-war period, when there were no fees, and when grants were freely available, and even into the 1990s, when there was a part-loan, part-grant system, and even up to 1998, when there was a fixed fee system, that helped to widen participation as of right? Does he not accept that when higher education was wholly, or almost wholly, funded out of general taxation, it functioned entirely as an extension of the middle-class welfare state, and kept working-class young people out of university, because there was not enough investment to provide them with places or to encourage enough of them to continue education beyond the age of 16? What evidence is there that the system that he is defending—

The Chairman: Order. It is time the hon. Gentleman gave way.

2.45 pm

Mr. Mudie: I enjoyed that speech; it was better than mine. I was always surprised at my hon. Friend's support for this policy, as I know his distinguished record, and his long history of keen interest in the post-16 sector of education, and I have to live with that. There is an old joke about someone in a certain country—I dare not say which one for race relations reasons—asking for directions and being told, ''Well, if I were you, I wouldn't start from here.'' That is exactly the point I made earlier, but obviously I was not clear enough.

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I hope my speech will be even more impassioned that that of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). If the objective is widening participation, I totally support it, because that is why I am in politics. Education is the only way to get youngsters on board, away from the fight for survival of life in the inner cities and into prosperity. I cannot reconcile that with variable fees, starting at £3,000. I have already raised the level of fees with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins)—

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con) indicated assent.

Mr. Mudie: It is reassuring when you nod. It is when the fellow to your left looks up that I worry.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is in danger of digging his own grave. If he has already raised the matter, it is repetition, and he does not need to raise it again.

Mr. Mudie: I accept that advice. I raised the matter as an intervention, and I was advised to raise it with the Minister; it was good advice, which I shall take. The present fee was settled, with great assurances, and that will hang around our neck. I am not going to quote the manifesto, as I have got too much time for my colleagues, but I urge them to read the then Secretary of State's speech on Second Reading, when he proposed tuition fees for the first time. The present Secretary of State made exactly the same speech and gave exactly the same assurances. A fee of £1,000 was introduced in 1998, and we said, ''This is it. We will not revisit it.'' The present Secretary of State made concessions in terms of legislative powers and even offered to hold an all-party discussion on the subject of further safeguards, but it never took place because he won the vote on Second Reading—but there you are, that is politics.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with a good deal of sympathy. Does he agree that not only did the then Secretary of State say, ''£1,000 and that's it,'' but the inference was that funding for the universities would be adequate and secured? That is where the problem arises.

Mr. Mudie: Here we are in 2004, introducing a fee of £3,000. I hope no one will jump up and say, ''But they are not up front and the starting point for repayment is higher,'' because I accept that. But we are proposing a fee of £3,000, without shame, without even blushing—never mind variability or anything else. I think we live too comfortable a life in here if anyone on the Labour Benches can stand up, without blushing or apologising, and propose a fee of £1,125 that will increase in two years' time to £3,000, as a starting point. That is an increase of 130 per cent. We are all getting too comfortable in here if we can think that a 130 per cent. increase can be explained away by a later starting threshold for repayment that does not have to be made up front. That is £9,000, rather than £3,300. Let me put that in some context.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

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Mr. Mudie: In a second; I am on a good point here and I do not want my hon. Friend to spoil it. Let us put that 130 per cent. into perspective. What if the Government, in a fit of generosity, decided to pay us what we are worth? What if MPs' salaries were increased from £56,000, which some think is too low and others think is too much, to £120,000? That is an increase of only 130 per cent. How would that play in the streets? It would be considered obscene. I find it obscene.

I have registered my hon. Friend's anxiety to spoil my point, so I shall keep going. I will give way to him when I need a rest. We are so out of touch. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend sighs. On services such as housing, police, education, social services, the Government currently insist that local authorities have a 5 per cent. cap on increases. Good. At the same time they do not see a connection with the increase of 130 per cent for their new policy. That is why I raise the matter.

Too often in politics—it is an old Thatcher trick, I am told—a fight is started elsewhere, everyone is distracted and the policy slips through. It is then too late. We realise that now. We are so worried about variability, with some reason, that we are taking our eyes off the fact that we have moved from £1,100 to £3,000.

2.52 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.7 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Mudie: I was making the point that at the same time as introducing this increase, the Government are tying local authorities, with equally valuable public services at risk, to a 5 per cent. cap. I am sad that they have made no connection. That leads me to what needs to be said in this Committee about university funding.

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend is concerned about the increase in the fee, but talks about it purely from the perspective of it being an impost. Has he had the chance to talk to his local universities about how they might use the additional revenue that they will gain as a result of this change? I have spoken to mine. This will create a fund of £5 million to my local university to spend entirely on bursaries to help exactly the sort of young people that he and I want to help to get to university for the first time.

Mr. Mudie: As always, my hon. Friend makes a valid point. That leads me immaculately to the point that I was about to make. I am a bit impatient with the universities. The ink was not dry on the 2002 public spending review when this matter surfaced. I was corrected by the Minister this morning because I was being less than generous to the Government, which is not my fashion. I said that £2.5 billion was put into the universities under that review, when it was actually £3 billion. Other sums were given for research. Because of those villains who sit on the other side in the Chamber, for 18 years universities were demoralised. Investment was slashed. Whichever part of the public service one looked at it was under siege. When the

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Labour Government came in, they had a tremendous job of rebuilding to do in the public sector, both of morale and infrastructure.

Some members of the Cabinet have been too critical of the public sector. They were still at school or at university on grants when people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington and I were defending the public sector from Mrs. Thatcher. In contrast to the past six years, we had 18 years of investment being run down. I cannot think of any part of the public service that I go to that would not thank me for having doubled its money or given it a big cheque. We all therefore get understandably upset when such criticisms are made.

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