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The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): Fair access to higher education is one of the Government's top priorities. That is why, from 2006, no full-time student in England will have to pay fees up front, nor will they repay anything until they are in work and earning more than £15,000 a year. It is also why we are restoring student grants. Alongside this, we have the Aimhigher programme, which seeks to raise aspiration and attainment levels among those currently under-represented in higher education.
Mr. Jones: Does the Minister agree that the sole criterion for admission to university should be academic ability? Does he also agree with the chairman of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference that the best method of testing academic ability is the use of the A-level, and that it is essential that we have an A-level that we can trust? If necessary, will he speak to the heads of private and state schools to ascertain whether A-levels should be made harder?
Bill Rammell: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that he is up to speed with what is happening with A-levels. We are seeking to make them tougher through the requirement to complete an extended project and other measures. In response to the views[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. If I may interrupt the Minister, it is becoming quite common for mobile telephones and other devices to go off in the Chamber. Hon. Members should be careful to switch those devices off before they come into the House.
In response to the Heads of Public Schools Association, I would say that I am certainly not against any young person with ability from an independent school going to university, and academic excellence should be the criterion. However, I want that opportunity for every child in every kind of school in every part of the country. Young people from state schools are under-represented in higher education. We need to tackle that issue, and the Government are right to focus on it.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister has just mentioned under-representation. Is he aware that the 7 per cent. of young people in this country who are force-fed education in private schools have hugely disproportionate access to the Russell group universities? What does he intend to do to remedy that situation, particularly in relation to universities such as the London School of Economics, which takes a high proportion of privately educated students as well as taking students from foreign countries, because of the extra money that those students bring in, and for whom the level of qualification required is often lower than that required of our own students?
If my hon. Friend looks at the evidence from the past five or six years, he will see that the proportion of young people from state schools going to all classifications of universities has increased. I certainly want that trend to continue, which is why we
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are introducing a better and fairer student financial system. We are also consulting on a fairer admissions system, and if we can achieve consensus on that, we shall move towards a post-qualification system. Undoubtedly, however, institutions need to work with us to ensure that the admissions system is as fair as possible. From all the discussions that I have with university institutions, I am confident that that is also what they want to do.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that two important principles are involved? The first is the entirely desirable wish to encourage people from either socially disadvantaged or educationally unconventional backgrounds to go into higher education institutions. The second is the right of those institutions to select their students on the basis of their academic suitability. If I am ready to concede the first principle to the Minister, will he in return concede to me the principle that the academic freedom of choice of those institutions is paramount and will not be tampered with by Ministers?
Bill Rammell: The Government most certainly do not tamper with university admissions[Interruption.] The Government do not do that. Universities are autonomous. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who used to hold the post that I now hold, that academic excellence and success in qualifications are the key criteria. However, the problem for the country is that too many suitably qualified young people do not have the aspiration or the opportunity to go on to higher education. That should be the key issue that makes us all determined to do an awful lot better.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope): Forty per cent. of apprentices are female, but we recognise that there are some major imbalances in different occupations. One of the ways in which we are addressing that is by working with the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Learning and Skills Council and other sector bodies to improve information, broaden choice and explore more flexible apprenticeship learning opportunities. Those include new entry arrangements into apprenticeships to help young people develop skills before they find an employer. We are also trialling apprenticeships for more mature workers.
Julie Morgan: I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure that he would agree that this skill segregation at the apprentice stage leads to the unacceptable pay gap later in life. What could the Government do, for example, to encourage older women, rather than just school leavers, into apprenticeships such as electronics or plumbing, as such women could then be role models for younger women?
My hon. Friend has made an important suggestion. I agree that we must do more to tackle stereotyping at work and in training, and I look forward
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to the Women and Work Commission report, which is to be published soon. We are evaluating now how successful trials of adult entry into apprenticeships are in addressing under-representation of men and women in various shortage sectors. We are also preparing some detailed responses to each of the recommendations of the EOC investigation into occupational segregation in work and training. One example that I can quote to her is of a young woman, Michelle Jones, who was last year's apprentice of the year, and technician of the year, at BAE Systems.
The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, a strict liability contempt is committed where a media report creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in proceedings will be seriously impeded or prejudiced. The Law Officers are guided by case law when deciding what factors to take into consideration when assessing whether reports constitute contempt, such as the passage of time between publication and trial, the effect reporting had on the trial and the ability of a trial judge to ensure a fair trial despite the reporting.
Steve McCabe: I have no desire to muzzle the press, but surely when a case is actually before the courts members of the media and Members of the House have a responsibility to exercise some restraint.
The Solicitor General: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The right to a free press is an enormously important part of our democracy, but so is the right to a fair trial, and those rights need to be balanced. Freedom brings with it responsibilities, one of which is to abstain from saying things that might prejudice or impede a fair trial. It is therefore right that, when proceedings are pending, we should exercise restraint. The position is different after a trial, when people can comment with greater freedom.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Where the courts have ordered that the place of residence of a defendant or of someone who has been found guilty of a crime should not be made known, would it constitute a breach of that order to make it known where that person is not resident?
The Solicitor General:
I hesitate to give general legal advice from the Dispatch BoxI suspect that any lawyer would be cautious. It would depend on the circumstances, to use a good lawyerly phrase. Clearly, however, it is a matter of some seriousness if a court
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order is breached, and it will be for the judge in the case to take a view as to whether that constitutes something on which the court wishes to act.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The Solicitor-General will be aware that as well as the reporting of court proceedings and of material that might be in contempt of court, another issue that is a growing cause for concern is the reporting of matters that might prejudice a trial between the time of a person's arrest and the time that charging takes place. The hon. and learned Gentleman might well agree that the press previously exercised a considerable degree of self-restraint in that respect but no longer seem to do so. What steps are being taken by the Attorney-General's Department and the Home Office to consider that problem and to see whether legislation might be necessary?
The Solicitor General: When the matter is serious charging can usually take place fairly quickly, shortly after arrest and some questioning, but there are cases in which an arrest is made, the person is bailed for a period and the charge takes place after that. During that process, there is more freedom for the press. We are watching the position closely, and we are keen to ensure general press freedom, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there must be a balance between the right to freedom of the press and the right to a fair trial, and the press must be sure to act properly. It has its freedom, but it must also recognise the right to a fair trial.
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