Higher Education Bill

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Mr. Chaytor: No one is denying the significance of regional differentials, but any solution that depends on putting more taxpayer's money into making it easier for people to handle the effect of excessive house prices in certain regions will result in the opposite effect to that which is intended. That is pouring petrol on the fires of house price inflation. We must get to the root cause of the problem and shift the levels of collective investment in the regions, not compensate individuals for high costs in certain regions.

Alan Johnson: I accept my hon. Friend's point. The independent commission will report to Parliament on the success, or otherwise, of this policy three years after it is introduced. I am not trying to turn that into a forum to discuss the regional problem. I think that if there are specific concerns about this package, it makes sense for the independent commission to consider those problems, if they exist. However, the main aim of that commission will be to look at the effect of variable fees on the success of attracting widening participation and people not dropping out of university courses. That is the crucial element. The other issues are, to some extent, peripheral.

Mrs. Campbell: Can I take it from what the Minister said that he would be prepared to refer this point to the independent commission, so that it can be asked to consider how regional variations have affected the intake of universities?

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Alan Johnson: That sounds like a good idea, but I want to reflect before giving a positive response and I should like to consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I should be able to do that before the meeting with the delegation tomorrow. I hope to give a final answer then. I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw the amendment.

Mrs. Campbell: I want to answer a few of the points that have been made in the debate, which has turned out to be more interesting that I anticipated. Far from being born and brought up in the south and living there all my life, I was born in Dewsbury and brought up in Huddersfield. My daughter and two of my grandchildren live in Stoke-on-Trent, which is one of the cheapest housing areas. My family does not stand to gain personally from such an amendment.

I agree with those people who have said that regional discrepancies are not economically healthy. We need to ensure that there is a more even spread of jobs and prosperity. I hope that will, in time, lead to more equal distributions in house prices, but I am concerned that that may take some time with the sort of discrepancies that currently exist. I shall not stray far in this direction, Mr. Gale, and I know that you will not allow me to do so. However, it is important to say that one of the reasons for spending money in areas like mine is that we need more affordable housing. Not everyone can take the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North and move out if they find it too expensive. Some have jobs and families. It is not always possible to move, and moving could make things difficult. It is bad enough now trying to recruit teachers, bus drivers, postal workers, refuse collectors and others on low pay in areas such as mine.

Mr. Chaytor: I was not advising people to get on their bikes. I was pointing out that wealth comes in two forms—income and capital. Would my hon. Friend not agree that the worst thing that could be done to increase house price inflation would be to use more public funds to make houses more affordable in high-cost areas? That is the central issue. Raising the public

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subsidy to enable people to buy excessively priced houses is the best guarantee of house price inflation, and regional differentials will thereby increase.

Mrs. Campbell: That, of course, is not what is being suggested. Other Government policies have encouraged house price inflation. For instance, I was in favour of the starter home initiative, but it affects house prices. However, the amendment would not do so, because it would not contribute directly to housing costs. It would support students from those families who live in the high-cost housing areas, but who have low to modest incomes. It would not have the effect suggested by my hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend the Minister said that the amendment would benefit those who live in areas that already have a high university uptake. Unfortunately, uptake varies. My constituency has pockets of severe social deprivation. I illustrated that earlier by mentioning two schools in my constituency that I visited during the autumn term. At one school, I asked 40 or 50 young people aged between 13 and 15 how many intended to go to university, and about 15 per cent. put up their hands. I asked the same question in the other school, only two or three miles away, and 85 per cent. of the children put up their hands. That illustrates the difficulty of trying to categorise and target young people.

We want to raise aspirations and to ensure that more people go to university. That brings me back to the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale: it is difficult to decide whether we should be talking about regions, areas, counties or wards. I can see difficulties with all of those. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take up the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North about an independent commission. That might be the best way forward. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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