The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that there were 231,400 students from overseas in English higher education institutionsan increase of nearly 40 per cent. compared with eight years ago. The Department has taken steps to encourage higher education institutions to attract more international students through the Prime Minister's initiative. We recognised in the Department's international strategy the importance of the initiative and emphasised our commitment to continue to expand the numbers of international students.
Stephen Williams: The 3,200 international students in Bristol contribute more than £28 million in fee income to the two universities in the city, inject millions more into the local economy and contribute greatly to the city's intellectual and cultural life. Given the Government's decision to increase entry visa fees by 136 per cent. from 1 July, does the Minister agree that that sends the wrong signal to students who are considering whether to come to this country or go to one of our competitors? Will he ask his ministerial colleagues, perhaps even the Prime Minister, given the initiative that the Minister mentioned, to reconsider the decision?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest in the issue. I understand institutions' concern but I am sceptical about the contention that a visa fee of less than £100 for an overseas student's course that probably costs £7,000 or £8,000 a year is the critical factor in determining whether students come to this country. Nevertheless, given the importance of the overseas student sector, we must ensure that we consider
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all the issues that affect the attractiveness of this country. I therefore regard setting up the joint education taskforce, which will be involved in the sector, as an important step forward. Let us examine the evidence and consider what has happened since the introduction of the Prime Minister's initiative. There has been a substantial increase in the numbers of overseas students, in marked contrast to what happened previously.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know, as a former entry clearance Minister, that it is not simply a question of an increase in the visa fees. The Home Office's proposal to abolish the right of appeal for those who want to come here as overseas students will have a massive impact on several universities. What discussions has he had with his Home Office colleagues about the proposals? Will he give an undertaking that, if any impact study shows that the number of overseas students will decline as a result not only of the proposals for entry clearance fees but the abolition of the right of appeal, he will try to persuade his Home Office colleagues to think again about these absurd proposals?
Bill Rammell: I am in regular discussions with the Home Office on those issues. It is critical to get the judgment right in the first instance through the entry clearance system about whether an overseas student is eligible for a visa. The clear advice from the Home Office is that an appeal process often means that the time lag is too great and the course has been completed. I have dealt with such issues and I know that to be the case. It is important to get the judgment right in the first place. The fact that we have set up a taskforce to oversee those issues should enable us to keep on top of the matter.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The Minister knows that, of the many welcome overseas students in the country, 40,000 from other European Union countries are entitled to access to the student loan system. Unfortunately, the Government appear to have no recourse for getting the loans back from them when they return home. Is it not perverse that we appear to have a grant system for some overseas students in our universities but only a loan system for British students? What will the Minister do about it?
Bill Rammell: We are bringing back student grants for British students, but we will have a robust process to ensure that we recover debts from other European Union students. We especially anticipate relying on European Council regulation 44/2001 for the recovery of debt from borrowers who live in other parts of the EU. We are already working on the process and we will ensure that, by 2006, we have a robust system in place to recover the money.
The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell):
I believe that we have made good progress with language teaching. We have trained more than 1,200 new language teachers for primary
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schools. Our key stage 3 strategy continues to have a positive impact on pupils' attainment. Alternative qualifications and vocational options at key stage 4 allow pupils more flexibility in their studies. In universities, there has been a growth in recent years in the number of students who study languages.
Chris Bryant: Does the Minister worry that Britain is developing a terrible tendency to achieve an effortless English language superiority and to think constantly that, if only we speak English louder, Johnny Foreigner will understand? Does he also worry that the number of students learning modern languages at primary and secondary schools is falling, which is leading to fewer going on to university to study them? Finally, does he worry that we are still obsessed with learning languages that are becoming increasingly irrelevant, such as French, as opposed to languages that might be more important for our international competitiveness, such as Mandarin and Arabic?
Bill Rammell: As a former French graduate, I will not take umbrage at my hon. Friend's last comment, but this is a critical issue. We need to do more to encourage young people to study modern languages and students to take up modern language teaching through the postgraduate certificate of education scheme.
The most significant thing that we can do is to fulfil our commitment to ensuring that, by 2010, every primary student, from the ages of seven to 11, gets access in the classroom to modern languages teaching. Many, many years ago, I was part of a pilot project in a state school that enabled me to start studying French at the age of eight. That is one of the things that enthused and interested me in modern languages. I ended up studying French at university. That is the way forward and it is what this Government are committed to.
I disagree with the views of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on studying French. The Minister will be aware of the 8.5 per cent. fall in the number of 15-year-olds taking GCSE French. The numbers have fallen from 316,000 in 1994 to just 289,000 last year. Given Britain's very special relationship with France, does he regret that trend? If so, does he also regret the Government's decision to end the requirement to study a modern foreign language from the age of 14?
I am not saying that everything in the garden is rosy. We have a significant challenge in interesting young people in the study and applicability of modern languages. On the post-14 situation, we will not encourage young people to take an interest in modern languages by forcing 14 and 15-year-olds with no aptitude for or interest in studying those languages to undertake such courses. We must start at a much earlier age, which is why our commitment in primary schools is so important.
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17. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What interaction takes place between local police officers and local lawyers of the Crown Prosecution Service in Nottinghamshire on improving mutual understanding of the process from arrest to charge; and if he will make a statement. 
The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The new charging scheme in Nottinghamshire brings CPS lawyers into police stations to work closely with the police from the start of the case. In May 2005, a joint CPS-police liaison group was established to improve CPS-police working relationships in Nottinghamshire. An action plan has been drawn up following a post-implementation review. It aims to identify and resolve issues, and the group is helping to take the plan forward.
Mr. Allen: Will my hon. and learned Friend take time to thank the CPS in Nottinghamshire for some very successful prosecutions, which are only now entering the public domain? They have provided great relief and pleasure to the people of Nottinghamshire. Does he accept that the experiment of having prosecutors in police stations has been a success? Nottinghamshire was a pilot area for that scheme. Does he also accept that there is still much more that could happen informally, with prosecutors, the police, magistrates and members of the public interacting so that they all understand each other's problems? That would lead to more successful prosecutions.
The Solicitor General: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and will convey his thanks to the CPS in Nottinghamshire. It is indeed carrying out successful prosecutions and what appears to be a successful experiment in bringing together the police and the CPS, but these are early days and we need to see how things develop. There is a lot of training going on to build the better relationships that he mentioned. I see from my notes that, in September, courses will start on training lawyers in inter-personal skills. You might feel, Mr. Speaker, that many lawyers would benefit from such training.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Solicitor-General will acknowledge that the magistrates courts play a key role in the process. He will be aware of the report published by the Public Accounts Committee today, which blames much of the delay on lay justices. Will he take this opportunity to reject that as complete and utter twaddle and will he acknowledge that lay justices are the cornerstone of British justice and give them his full support?
The Solicitor General:
Lay justices are an enormously valuable and important part of our criminal justice system, particularly in local areas where they have local
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knowledge. Stipendiaries also play a vital role, particularly in our larger cities. It is therefore important to ensure that we have a criminal justice system that delivers for the victims of crime and that ensures that the guilty are punished.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): As my hon. and learned Friend said, it is early days, but the co-operation in Nottinghamshire has led in the past 10 days to the first successful jailings of people in my constituency for breaches of antisocial behaviour orders. Will he examine how the Nottinghamshire experiment is working so that those of us who have been demanding that we name, shame and jail the neighbours from hell can see that kind of success continuing?
The Solicitor General: One of the key changes that the Government have introduced is ensuring that we focus on dealing with the issues that concern people in areas such as Nottinghamshireissues of antisocial behaviour. It is crucial that we link together the work that the police are doing, and that many community groups are doing, and that we ensure that the courts deliver on this issue. I shall certainly take account of the work done in Nottinghamshire, and ensure that it continues to be successful.