Higher Education Bill

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Jonathan Shaw: That is right.

Mr. Mudie: My hon. Friend is a distinguished member of the Select Committee. He sat through the evidence, I am sure with a straight face. He is now implementing, with great gusto, an end to communism. This is what Mr. Barr saw as the present university system. He saw ''central state funding''. I do not object to that. If the universities lost central state funding they would be in a bad way. He saw ''control of courses'' and ''uniform fees'', both of which have existed in the universities for 100 years, as communism.

The problem is ensuring that communism stays dead, after we introduce this. We know from Lenin, Stalin and Labour party battles in the '80s, that we must not let them fight back. Mr. Barr told the Select Committee:

    ''Ensuring communism stays dead includes ensuring that the fees cap does not stay in place so long that central planning returns through the back door''.

Later in his evidence—the architecture that we on the Labour Benches are putting in with gusto—he said:

    ''The fees cap can be raised in stages, bringing in the benefits of competition and increasing resources.''

I tend to agree with him. I know that it is communism, but I can live with central state funding and the control of fees. It might be seen as eastern Europe in some places, but it brought us to what the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and others were saying about the university system. The university is not a profit cow. The university system is vital to this country's prosperity, if not necessarily the prosperity of individuals. The Government must have a great involvement. We will keep that involvement, but I do not know why on earth we want to bring in the market. I certainly do not see it as communism.

Mr. Chaytor: In view of my hon. Friend's opposition to variable fees, the increase in fee and the method of repaying the fee, if the proposal in the Bill were for a graduate tax, would he support it?

3:30 pm

Mr. Mudie: That is an excellent question, and I wish that the Minister had asked it. However, I am glad that my hon. Friend has given me the opportunity to put the issue on the table. I have referred to the negotiations that have been and gone. At one stage in the negotiations with the Prime Minister, no less, it was agreed that there would be a commission—not a tame review of the effect that variable fees for three years would have, but a commission, which was to involve the Labour party policy process. It was named to report, in a sensible period of time, on the future funding of universities and to consider all the options. I agreed with the Prime Minister, and still do, but this policy was sprung on Members with a lack of consultation that we all regret.

I look seriously at my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), and at all my hon. Friends. I have already put down my marker in

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terms of my expertise in this field. I look to other Members for their expertise, and to their being allowed to play a part in the policy and decision-making processes. I am not going to dive in and say whether I agree with the proposals. I would like the opportunity—both as an ordinary Labour party member and as an ordinary Member of the parliamentary Labour party—to discuss what we are doing. I do not like reading in The Guardian that a new policy, which we have fought against for years, has suddenly become something that I must defend in this building. I think that the commission is an excellent suggestion. I am putting on the record what is kicking around: that one concession from the negotiations was that a commission would be set up, which would take time and great care to consider the options.

I will push the matter even further than my hon. Friend, and say that I hate the snobbery in the education world, particularly that in higher education as compared to further education, which has been treated disgracefully. We have simply put a bit more money into it, and have done things at the margin. I think that further education is almost more relevant to my kids and my city than universities, and I would have liked the commission thoroughly to study higher and further education. The matter should go through our policy process machinery; there should be real discussion and we should all have a part to play. We could refuse to allow higher education to be treated as a special case and to grab all the money. When will further education's turn come?

I will continue with my comments about the market.

Mr. Chaytor: May I clarify one point? Is my hon. Friend saying that he might have been prepared to support a graduate tax had there been a different kind of policy consultation on it? Does he accept that the effect of a graduate tax would be identical in that individuals' payments would be variable?

Mr. Mudie: I did not realise that my hon. Friend was trying to tease out inconsistencies. I said that I came to the matter with an open mind and that I did not think that the House, let alone our party, has had sufficient opportunity for a real discussion. We have been given variable fees as the way forward.

I am a straightforward fellow, who has been in the Labour party for 43 years, and I do not expect to be treated in that way either as an MP or as a Labour party member. This legislation will disfigure higher education, but we have not been given the option to argue the case. At one stage in the negotiations, the Government were prepared to do that, but certain Members crossed the line and some concessions were dropped when the Government had a majority. That is a pity.

I accept in good faith what was said about the regulated market, but hon. Members must be aware of the damage that may be done once the market process has started—I am reading, so I will go very quickly. As hon. Members said, some universities, because of their history, tradition and so on, are more attractive and, in theory, youngsters have an equal chance of going to those universities. But those universities will want to

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charge at the market level. As so many hon. Members have said, that will introduce a new factor into—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Mudie: I do not blame hon. Members, Mr. Gale. Reading is not good.

The Chairman: Order. Reading is not only not good; it is not permitted.

Mr. Mudie: Do not tempt me to wander off, Mr. Gale. I shall attempt to follow your guidance surreptitiously.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I am listening very attentively to the hon. Gentleman's speech, which is extempore and to the point. Every member of the Committee should bear in mind his extremely important point that the principle of our higher and further education system is that everyone, whatever their economic, social or scholastic background, should have the same opportunity and the same chance.

Mr. Mudie: That is like saying that rich and poor both have the chance to dine at the Savoy; it is a free country. The Savoy is very nice.

Mr. Lewis: Based on some of the things that my hon. Friend said about further education, does he not acknowledge that that sector is getting an increase in real terms of 19 per cent. in the current three-year period? He expressed reservations about the principle of variability, but he did not respond to my request to explain why he objects to it. He also expressed a reservation about the way in which the issue was handled, and hon. Members unkindly pointed out that my hon. Friend had been deputy Chief Whip.

My hon. Friend referred to the time when he had to take ultimate responsibility as leader of Leeds city council. During those difficult years, hard choices had to be made and he will have had to put those choices to the Labour group on the council. There must have been many occasions when that group felt uncomfortable with some of the decisions that had to be taken. Was he tolerant of those people who, at the time, said, ''We will not be supporting your leadership and we cannot support you in taking these difficult decisions because of the way the process has been conducted''?

Mr. Mudie: That is an interesting question. I can only answer factually and my hon. Friend will be able to check with his chief executive, who knows my record in Leeds. I was leader of the Labour group throughout the 1980s, which were troubled times, and it contained a spectrum of views, but the whip was not taken away from one member in those years. I think that answers my hon. Friend's question. I am merely making the point; I wish this Bill to succeed, but I fear that if we do not address the matter of variability, it may fail.

I was interested in the apposite contribution on Second Reading of the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who raised a matter that I would have expected my Prime Minister to raise. The Prime Minister introduced many

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hon. Members to Mondeo man to explain his political philosophy. He said that when he walked down the street before the election that we lost in 1992, he found aspiring working-class people who did not support or identify with Labour. He said, ''There is something wrong. We have got to stop being a narrow, sectional interest and be the party of aspiring people.'' The right hon. and learned Gentleman made the same relevant point.

I was delighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North said that he was worried about this issue, had raised it in the proceedings, and that it might be revisited. I do not make this point because of the Under-Secretary's history. However, when the Prime Minister addressed the parliamentary Labour party, he was asked a question by a very good MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). The question was simple: what does this offer the children of the postman and the nurse? Their joint income takes them over the £33,000 threshold. I subsequently asked the Prime Minister if he realised the reason for the question, because he skated around it in the meeting.

Some people in the Labour party believe that £33,000 is a lot of money, but it is not if people are raising kids and buying a house. I have already applauded the move to up-front fees, and have made my point. I accepted up-front fees and that the movement at the threshold was an improvement. However, I made the point earlier about the £9,000 debt. Someone—it could have been my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North—said that he had not received many letters about this. I do not believe that many Members received letters about the poll tax when the Conservative party introduced it. Indeed, we fought a general election and neither side mentioned it. However, we all know what happened when the bills started to land on the doormat.

As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said, letters about student debt have not come from our working-class estates. The issue is not on their radar. They have come from the postman, the engineer, and the people who are buying their house and who say, ''What on earth are you doing to our kids? We have worked and tried to better ourselves. We have moved out of our council house and bought another home. We work hard, and what do you do? Our kids go to university, but instead of having a £3,000 debt, they will have a £9,000 debt.'' The Prime Minister wrote my script on that. I believe that one thing that will be agreed in this Room is that no one in this Committee has bettered the political astuteness of the ex-Chancellor who raised the matter in the Chamber on Second Reading. That was his contribution.

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