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5 July 2007 : Column 1104

Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman follow the proper channels, as advised by Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is important that we make sure that we do not cross the line in using publicly funded House of Commons facilities for anything that might be party political.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May I add my congratulations to my right hon. and learned Friend? That is how she told me to address her when I first came to the House. May we have a debate on the benefits of the national health service, as reflected in early-day motion 1842?

[ That this House pays tribute to Nye Bevan and the radical, reforming Labour governments of 1945 to 1951, for establishing the National Health Service (NHS) on 5th July 1948, thereby removing the fear of ill health from hardworking families; and pays tribute to NHS staff throughout the United Kingdom, who provide health care free at the time of need, 24 hours each day, 365 days of each year. ]

On this day in 1948, a radical, reforming Labour Government established the national health service. For the first time ever, the fear of ill-health was taken away from hard-working families. Will she join me in congratulating NHS staff on providing health care free at the point of need? Is she as surprised as I was to learn that there is no hospital in the United Kingdom named after Nye Bevan, the man who created it?

Ms Harman: I join in my hon. Friend’s congratulations to NHS staff. He is a great champion of the national health service and he makes an important suggestion, which I will draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Like everyone else, I have rarely been more joyous than on seeing the new leadership team in the Chamber, defending the rights of Back Benchers like myself and our newest addition, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). I add my support to him during his no doubt short respite on the Back Benches to call for a full debate in Government time on the proposed constitutional changes. I do not believe that the regional representatives or spokesmen on behalf of the Government are the answer to the West Lothian question. My constituents are concerned that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, being Scottish Members, can vote on health and education in my constituency, but I cannot do the same with respect to theirs. If English votes for English MPs is not the answer to the West Lothian question, let us have a debate on what is.

Ms Harman: I should have thought that as a fellow English Member of Parliament the hon. Gentleman would welcome the notion of regional Ministers appropriately accountable to the House, and the possibility of regional Select Committees to give a greater focus on the English regions. I know that he is a supporter, as I am, of the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those of us who support the Union do not see how it could work sensibly for Members elected from constituencies throughout the Union to come into the House, but for some not to be
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able to vote on some legislation. Having been elected from the various parts of the Union to the House, all Members must be entitled to vote on all legislation, whether they are from Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland or London.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): It is good to see three good women on the Front Bench— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. At the risk of sounding churlish, I think the Leader of the House may not mind too much if we do not have any more congratulations today. Every Member is offering congratulations, which is taking a considerable amount of time out of the time available.

Ms Stuart: At this week’s Hampton Court Palace flower show, the growing schools garden, which was sponsored by what is now the Department for Children, Schools and Families, won the gold medal. After the flower show the garden will be moved to the Birmingham botanical gardens in my constituency, where it will be accessible to all the schools in Birmingham and the area. May we have a debate in the House on the way in which our schools use outdoor facilities and available allotments, particularly in our big cities, for educational purposes so that such gardens, like outdoor classrooms— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Leader of the House has sufficient material to reply.

Ms Harman: I congratulate the work of all those involved in the outdoor classroom in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and acknowledge the wider point that she makes about outdoor work between schools and on the land held by schools. May I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not to stop Members congratulating me? It might be the last time they ever do so.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): May I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, and take the opportunity to remind her gently that there are more than three parties in the House when she comes to represent its views. May I ask for a debate on airport security and use the opportunity to pay tribute to John Smeaton, the one-man scourge of international terrorism at Glasgow airport, the hero of Abbotsinch airport. I am sure the Leader of the House would agree that he and other members of the public showed immense courage and bravery in tackling the terrorists at Glasgow airport. Will she use her new office to convince the Prime Minister that honours should be winging their way to Glasgow?

Ms Harman: The whole House joins in the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, which were also expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) during Prime Minister’s questions. I send my best wishes to the responsible official whose work the hon. Gentleman brought to the attention of the House, but whose name I did not catch.

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Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I congratulate the Government on the document “The Governance of Britain”, which is an exciting and ambitious programme. When may we have a debate on the section entitled “Making Parliament more representative”? It is a huge achievement that we now have a woman deputy leader of the Labour party, but we still need more women on these Benches.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for raising the question of all-women shortlists, which was the vehicle by which we have managed to get more Labour women Members of Parliament into the House. When I was first elected to the House 25 years ago, I was one of only 10 Labour women MPs. We now have 97 Labour women MPs. Then, the House of Commons was 97 per cent. men and only 3 per cent. women. We have changed that, but we still have a long way to go. I know that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who is both shadow Leader of the House and shadow Minister for Women, will want to increase the number of Conservative women MPs from only 17 at present.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Yesterday I had the unforgettably sad privilege of attending the military funeral at Dover castle of Corporal John Rigby, who was killed defending his men just outside Basra palace. Having met his parents, Doug and Liz Rigby, and his twin brother Will, I can understand from where he derived his character, his courage and his reputation as one of the finest soldiers in the British Army. Today, on the “Today” programme, I heard a spokesman from Hizb ut-Tahrir saying that it was acceptable for British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, like Corporal Rigby, to be killed. I do not know if that spokesman is a British citizen or not. If he is a British citizen, may we have a statement from a Home Office Minister explaining why he should not be put on trial for treason? If he is not a British citizen, may we have a statement from a Home Office Minister explaining why he is allowed to reside in this country?

Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing two very important issues to the Floor of the House. I know that he is extremely assiduous as a Back Bencher in the House and a strong protagonist of the rights of Back Benchers, and I look forward to working with him. May I express my sincere condolence and sympathy to the family and friends of Corporal John Rigby. It was a tragic death and we all express our sympathy. I, too, heard the comments of Hizb ut-Tahrir this morning on the “Today” programme. I know that my colleagues in Government are extremely concerned to enforce rigorously the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 in respect of those who promote terrorism. They will have heard what was said. The matter is under continuous review. I had the bizarre experience of Hizb ut-Tahrir coming to see me, as a woman parliamentarian, in my constituency surgery and arguing to me that they would prefer to see a caliphate rather than a parliamentary democracy. They do not believe in women doing anything outside the home. We must be very concerned to make sure that subversion and support for terrorism are not fomented in this country, and my colleagues in Government are very much concerned with that.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): May I refer to a matter of business that the Leader of the House has announced—I know that that is an unusual practice during these questions—which is the debate on forced marriages, which is to occur on 10 July? I congratulate the Government on taking over the private Member’s Bill and look forward to legislation to tackle forced marriages. However, because it started as a private Member’s Bill, there has not been the kind of preliminary discussion and debate that we usually try to have about new legislation, and that, following the very welcome statement by the Prime Minister, will clearly happen more in future. Can the Leader of the House use the summer to try to initiate a widespread debate about what is in the legislation and what should be added to it, so that by the time it comes back to the Floor of the House for Report and Third Reading we can ensure that all the communities have been properly engaged in a debate on this very important subject?

Ms Harman: What my hon. Friend says is important for two reasons. Obviously, the House needs to be sure that we get the legislation right and that there is proper scrutiny. Also, what she proposes is important because it will be part of reinforcing the message that we want to go out to all communities in this country—that forced marriage is not acceptable. Women and men must be able to choose their own partners in marriage and not be forced. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Lord Lester, who introduced the private Member’s Bill in the House of Lords, and my colleague Baroness Cathy Ashton, who took it through. As my hon. Friend said, the legislation has been introduced in a rather unusual way. I will consider how we deal with that, but the Bill, and its principle, is very important.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I echo the views expressed on both sides of the House that we should have an early debate on the constitution? Bearing in mind that we have Scottish-only votes for Scottish business, Northern Irish-only votes for Irish business, and Welsh-only votes for Welsh business, is it not a constitutional and democratic scandal that Members representing Scottish constituencies, and Ministers too, vote on matters and drive them through when they have no democratic authority and are in no sense accountable?

Ms Harman: I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is, like me, a supporter of the Union. It is curious, is it not, that when parliamentary colleagues complain about this they always mention Scotland and Wales but never mention London? If he is concerned about the asymmetry of our devolution arrangements, perhaps he can think about London and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland and Wales, and then he will come back to my answer, and my view, which is that I am a strong supporter of devolution and a strong supporter of the Union and this House.

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Higher Education (Student Support)

12.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement on reforms to support for students in higher education.

I am delighted to make my first statement as the first Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. In establishing my Department, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister charged my colleagues and I with the twin aims of providing a strong, integrated permanent voice across Government for effective investment in research, science and skills at all levels and ensuring that research, higher education and further education serve their wider purposes—supporting social mobility and inclusion for the disadvantaged, and cultural growth. Success in higher education will be one key measure of my Department’s work. The skills and talents of our people are our greatest natural asset, and our universities and colleges must offer world-class standards of teaching and research.

Since 1997, the number of home and overseas students has increased by over 400,000, and the funding of higher education institutions has risen by over 20 per cent. in real terms. Before 1997, funding per student had declined by 36 per cent. in less than a decade. In today’s global economy, we cannot afford to stand still. The growth in the number of graduates being produced in India and China is dramatic. Around the world, countries are increasingly investing in the high-level skills and the cutting edge research that universities provide. To compete and prosper in this world—to respond to the needs of leading global and national businesses—we must enable many thousands more people to study and graduate each year. To become a world leader in skills, as Lord Leitch recommended, we must aim for at least 40 per cent. of adults to have higher level qualifications by 2020.

Everyone who has the potential and qualifications to succeed in higher education, whatever their family background, should have the opportunity to participate. No one should be held back from realising their potential. That is fair, and it is right for our economy. We cannot be satisfied when only 28 per cent. of students come from low-income backgrounds. We are wasting the talents of too many young people for whom university study should be a realistic ambition, not out of reach. We recognise, too, that hard-working families on modest incomes have concerns about the affordability of university study. They have high aspirations—rightly so—and we should help them to fulfil those aspirations. To meet the challenges of achieving world-class skills, and to make the most of the talent and ability of every individual, we need to be willing to change.

That is why I propose four major changes to our system of student support. First, we will increase substantially the number of students entitled to maintenance grants. These changes will take effect for students from England entering higher education in 2008. More students will receive full grants worth £2,835. From September next year, full grants will be available to new students from families with incomes of
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up to £25,000, compared with £18,360. We estimate that 50,000 more students each year will receive full grants once the system is fully up and running. With the addition of £310 bursaries from higher education institutions, these students will be guaranteed £3,145 a year.

Moreover, eligibility for maintenance grants will be extended to many more students from families on modest and middle incomes—hard-working families who are doing the right thing by encouraging their children to go to university. Students whose families have household incomes of up to £60,000 a year will in future benefit from eligibility to a grant. More than 100,000 extra students at any one time will be entitled to a partial grant once these proposals are fully implemented. More than 250,000 students will gain from our proposals once fully implemented. Of those, 35,000 will gain by more than £1,000 a year and a further 125,000 by more than £500. For a student from a household on £25,000 a year earnings, that will mean an extra £1,100 a year in maintenance grant. For a family on £50,000 a year with two children at university, it will mean that each student receives a grant of £560 a year. Today, just over half of students who entered higher education in 2006 received a maintenance grant. From 2008, two thirds will do so. A third of students will get a full grant, compared with 29 per cent. now, and a further third will get a partial grant, compared with 22 per cent. now. To fund this improvement and the other measures that I am announcing today, we will be investing over £400 million a year when the system is fully in place. That is a major increase in support to students.

Secondly, able young people from low income homes should aim for university, confident of the financial support they will receive. From the 2008-09 academic year, a 16-year-old who qualifies for an educational maintenance allowance will be guaranteed a minimum level of maintenance support at university. This 16-year-old will be guaranteed at least five years of maintenance support for their studies—through school, college and university. The guarantee will support aspirations for higher education. It will provide certainty about the financial support to fulfil their potential. Young people starting their studies at sixth-form or college will see a clear route into higher education. More than 250,000 16-year-olds a year will get the guarantee. Of course, in developing that package, I will work closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that support goes to those students who are qualified and demonstrate their rigorous compliance with the system.

Thirdly, for students whose parents have not attended university, the support of others can be crucial in deciding to go to university. We want to give new emphasis to students acting as role models and mentors for young people who might not otherwise go on to higher education. I propose to double the number of such mentors on our popular and successful student associate scheme from 7,500 to 15,000. That means one generation of students supporting the next generation of children towards college or university.

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Finally, we also want to offer graduates more choice about the repayment of their loans. Students starting in 2008 will have that option once they complete their degree. When graduates face significant new out-goings in their lives, such as buying their first home or starting a family, they will have the option of taking a break from their loan repayments. They will be able to take a break of one year, two or more, for up to five years. That will help graduates make flexible choices about their finances at key points in their lives and careers.

In the next three years, the reforms will help us meet growing aspirations for higher education within the comprehensive spending review settlement and allow us to fulfil commitments that we have already made. The proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds who go on to higher education will continue to increase and universities will receive the same funding for teaching each student in real terms, so that excellence in teaching and learning can be maintained.

The reforms promote aspiration, offer opportunity and provide support to students from hard-working families. They promote the world-class standards of our colleges and universities and help deliver the skills and knowledge that business and society need in a global economy. I commend them to the House.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Let me begin, alongside all the other welcomes that you have already heard, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by welcoming the new Secretary of State to his post. I look forward to debating and questioning the Government on the important issues that he raised today.

We agree with the Government about wanting the greatest possible access to higher education of good quality. We also recognise that, contrary to some of the fears that were expressed, it looks as if top-up fees have not so far made the problem of access to university worse. However, it must also be acknowledged that we do not appear to be making significant progress in improving access, as the figure for students from modest backgrounds has been stable at about 28 per cent. over the past few years. We therefore welcome any measures that the Government can take to improve access to higher education in future. However, I should like to ask the Secretary of State for more information about some of his proposals and their scope.

First, what about part-time students? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that many students from modest backgrounds who go to university are looking for part-time study? Progress has been made in more modular courses. Will any of the provisions that he announced today make it easier for part-time students at university?

Secondly, will the Secretary of State tell us a bit more about who will be responsible for delivering some of the measures that he announced? Aimhigher is an excellent programme, which involves links between universities and schools. Is not it a pity that we now have two education Departments when, in the past, the programme was clearly in the Department for Education and Skills? Which Department will be responsible for Aimhigher?

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