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Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for her comments about our teachers and lecturers. I share the view that in most schools, colleges and universities, to which the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) referred, an excellent product is delivered to our young people, and we should celebrate that rather than always try to find reasons to denigrate.
I welcome the admission by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) that the Conservative Government made a fundamental error in introducing compulsory competitive tendering for school meals. I am sure that he was referring to that fatal mistake of saying what matters is how cheaply school meals can be provided rather than their quality. The hon. Gentleman has always been honest enough to admit the huge mistakes that the Conservatives made during their 18 years in office.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North made a powerful and thoughtful contribution, as he does to any education debate. However, I wondered when he would get to several elements of Government policy that move us in the opposite direction. The recent publishing by the Office for Fair Access of the universities that are to charge so-called differential fees reveals that the full £3,000 top-up fee will be charged for 91 per cent. of courses. I do not believe that that is a differential. That means that there is a new flat-rate fee of £3,000 in our universities. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would say what impact that will have and how it will detract from the ambition to attract the young people whom we want to go to university. Are we to retrench a middle-class higher education system, which he and I would decry?
I also wanted the hon. Gentleman to say something about the letter from the Secretary of State to the Open university and to Birkbeck. During our debate on higher education last year, we were promised a review of part-
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time students and funding, which would start with work at the Open university and Birkbeck. The review, however, concluded that they will not receive a single extra penny to support part-time students, and both institutions will regard that as a betrayal. As we move towards a higher education market in which more students study part-timethey will be earning and learningeveryone, whatever their political party, must address the issue.
Peter Bottomley: While the hon. Gentleman was speaking, the Secretary of State was shaking her head. Would he allow her to intervene and explain that all the reports that the Government would not help Birkbeck and the Open university were wrong?
Ruth Kelly: We are working with the sector, and I believe that the Higher Education Funding Council is working with the Open university to look at the widening participation premium available to part-time students. We want to see if we can promote that agenda. As a consequence, I am hopeful that the Open university finances will improve, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes that into account.
Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) will note that rather than having found a solution, she is hopeful of finding one. To be fair to her, the OFFA letter to the Open university and Birkbeck rules out any additional resources to support part-time students next year. That is the starting point.
In response to the hon. Member for Norwich, North, after the general election, all hon. Members must revisit the issue of higher education. I do not believe that our debates on the Higher Education Act 2004 resolved anything; they merely fudged the funding issue. We did not address the purpose, function and shape of higher education and its relationship, not only with further education but with the 14 to 19 sector. If we are to meet the 21st-century challenges that the hon. Gentleman identified, we must undertake a radical review of post-14 education through to higher education and level 4 provision. I find that an exciting, not a negative, concept, and I hope that all political parties will support it.
No one knows what will happen to them after the election or what role they will have in the House. For the past eight years, however, I have attended the annual ritual of the Chancellor's Budget. I was very impressed the first year, but less impressed the second. I may have become a little more cynical and a little less gullible. [Interruption.] I am grateful for the confidence of the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education that I am not a cynical person. I am not Welsh either. However, after 50 successive quarters of growth and the proud boast that our economy is now outperforming virtually every other economy in the world, why do our students have to incur massive debt to finance their university education? Why do the elderly
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have to pay for care in their old age, why do we all have to pay for simple health measures such as eye checks and dental checksif one can get a dentistand why is it not possible to guarantee our poorest children a simple nutritional meal at lunchtime unless a celebrity chef intervenes? Why, when our country was infinitely less wealthy, were all those services free? I am often asked that question by my constituents, but it is extremely difficult to answer.
It is not until one sifts through the fine print of the Red Book that one realises that all is not as it appears. The Chancellor has created a sophisticated illusion that we are all winners, but in reality he has produced a Budget in which, to pay for the increases for pensioners, schools, child care, stamp duty relief and next year's bus passes for the elderly, he has assumed income that will be hard to guarantee and even harder to sustain.
I shall give one example. The Chancellor has assumed a £2.825 billion tax receipt over the next three years by clamping down on fraud and tax avoidance. Considering that this is the ninth Budget presented by the present Chancellor, one could be forgiven for asking why he has not already dealt with such massive tax fraud if it is so obvious.
Mr. Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case. It has been estimated that there is a tax gap of some £37 billion. The Chancellor could go much further with more tax inspectors and more rigorous tax inspection, and draw in much more revenue than he is doing with his current proposals.
Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but if it is so straightforward to recover all the money being lost through tax avoidance, why has it taken nine years to do so? If it had been done sooner, we might not have had to impose fees on university students. And if there is another £35 billion out there, we would not need the James review, would we? We could pour that sum into the coffers.
What happens if the Chancellor is not successful? He has not been successful yet in driving down that fraud. Presumably, that is why pensioners are getting a £800 million rebate for only one year, and why taxes will have to rise to meet any shortfall. We should not assume that any of the proposed benefits announced last Tuesday can be sustained without extra borrowing or increased taxation. Equally, we should not assume that all the benefits that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced today or that were announced in the Budget are as transparent as they first appear.
The Liberal Democrats support and applaud extra investment in education. On the surface, the Budget is brimming with extras. As a trustee of the e-Learning Foundation, I particularly welcome the additional £300 million contribution from the Treasury to the e-Learning Foundation. That is a significant and welcome sum. It will help lever additional funds from parents and business to tackle the huge digital divide that exists in parts of the country.
There was an impression that the introduction of IT in schools had been completed, yet in 2004 one third of our secondary and primary schools failed to meet the target for the number of computers they should have, and half of all computers in our primary schools are at
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least three years old. The New Opportunities Fund money that went into providing much of that equipment was seen as a one-off, but unless we can sustain that technology and get head teachers to continue to invest in it, all we will do is build in obsolescence, which will do nothing to bridge the digital divide. The stark realisation has dawned, and the Chancellor admitted in his Budget speech that we need to provide laptops for children to take home and use there.
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