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The report was wide-ranging and substantial. I welcome the spirit in which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made his remarks, although I detected a slight difference in tone in the Chamber this afternoon from when the report was initially announced. I hope he recognises that since the Committee published its report, the Government have published their own framework for the development of higher education over the next 10 years, which is called "Higher Ambitions". I hope he will also acknowledge that we have taken on board
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some of his Committee's proposals, especially in relation to the student experience, about which much has been said today.

The student experience is not about driving students to be solely consumers of education. That is not the right fit; education is far more than just a consumer interest. But against a backdrop of widening participation and of seeking a student contribution to ensure that students are centre stage for that experience, the thrust of the report was spot-on and we sought to reflect that in "Higher Ambitions."

I did not fully recognise the bleak picture regarding quality that was presented in the report, and obviously there was tremendous concern across the sector-and some incredulity-at the way in which the report was reflected in other parts of the world, with items turning up in China, Malaysia and other places. The breadth of experience for students in higher education-the fact that it is not just about the end grade, but the range of experiences that students have-is reflected in the thrust that the sector is placing on the higher education achievement record. That is important for employers who want to understand fully the soft skills that students have, but it is also a virtue of our system. Many countries in the world recognise that the undergraduate experience in the UK is part of the cultural circumstances that surround the student and what the student engages in; it is not just about the end achievement.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said much about the proportion of firsts and 2:1s that appear in the system. With widening participation and more students in the system than ever before, is it not right to look at that as a percentage rather than pure numbers? If he does that, he will see that the proportional increase is not as large as it first appears. The proportion of 2:1s has increased from 45.5 per cent. to 48.1 per cent. over the last period. That is not as significant a rise as has been suggested. The proportion of firsts has gone up from 8.2 per cent. to 13.3 per cent.; a larger rise but, measured against the success that we are seeing at A-levels, not an overly significant one.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of the QAA in ensuring standards. The QAA-under the new leadership of Anthony McClaran, to whom I spoke this week-is conducting an extensive review of how it quality assures and, in doing so, has already sought to put students at the centre of that process. We will have student auditors for the first time from January. A student is on the board of the QAA now as a result of concerns about the student voice. I hope the hon. Gentleman is pleased also that the QAA, in that public-facing role-it is more than public relations-is seeking to make its work student-friendly and is revising much of its literature, using YouTube and other places where students go. I hope that that meets much of the concern raised by the hon. Gentleman.

There needs to be a further firming up of the external examiner system. I thought that the work done by Professor Colin Riordan was very good and I was pleased to be at his presentation to the HEFCE board. That work is being taken forward by UUK over the next year under the leadership of Dame Janet Finch. It is hugely important that we ensure that the external examiner is the voice of that standards agenda within
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the system-that they are not isolated by working in a particular institution, but can join up in a more collective and cohesive way to communicate the importance of standards. It is right to say that the Select Committee's work has contributed to that progress.

Members have raised the issue of the pre-Budget report and it is important that I put the following comments on the record. The economic downturn that followed the banking crisis has been the most severe since the second world war. The Chancellor's main task is to put the public finances on to a sound footing, while at the same time continuing to promote economic growth. The PBR is not a spending review, but it does set out where efficiency savings will be needed by 2012-13. The savings will amount to 4 to 5 per cent. of the total Government spend on higher education, science and research. When Members reflect on how hard families are finding this downturn and the sorts of savings they are having to make, I hope we will recognise that 4 to 5 per cent. is reasonable. When the Government have received the report following Lord Browne's review of higher education funding and student finance in the summer of 2010, we will make the necessary decisions about where and how these savings can best be met, and, as always, we will do so in close liaison with the relevant funding council.

The Government remain committed to our higher education system and to continuing to pay a significant share of the costs of educating each student, but the current economic situation is difficult, and as higher education institutions have benefited significantly over the last period, with some receiving funding increases of almost 50 per cent. over the last decade, it is right that they should make their contribution now.

Mr. Boswell: On the student support package, can the Minister give the House the simple assurance that students who are already receiving a particular level of support will not suffer?

Mr. Lammy: I can confirm that I do not anticipate there will be any changes in respect of students who have already entered the system. May I also put on the record our commitment to the science ring fence, and to our framework?

On the Student Loans Company, Members have described the difficulties that students have experienced with the system this year. I have previously apologised for that, and I am happy to do so again today. It is entirely right, however, that my focus should have been not on scapegoats or scalps but on setting up the review, which I did promptly, and on acting promptly in other ways when this situation was first brought to my attention in September, as well as on ensuring that the SLC got extra resources at that time to deal with the problem. I also focused on ensuring that there was an extra contact centre and that a greater volume of calls were answered, and I joined with Sir Deian Hopkin in saying that the No. 1 priority was to ensure that the lessons are learned, so that there can be significant progress as we move forward to next year's cycle.

The SLC chair has already said that its senior management team will be strengthened and reorganised. As it was the Administration of the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) who set up the SLC, I hope he will recognise that it is a private organisation, so these
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matters must be for the new chair-he is a new chair-and the board to consider. Over the next short while, they must, through due process, determine how best to strengthen and reorganise the body. It is right that that should not be within the purview of Ministers.

We must look forward, and my Department must learn from this exercise in relation to its responsibilities. I am absolutely clear about that. That is why we are happy to consider more closely both risk management and the escalation of such problems up the SLC to the board and on to the Department. There have been problems, but it is clear from the strategic framework document that governs the SLC that the Department's ambit is strategic. It cannot be right for Ministers to micro-manage the processing of student loan claims. Of course I will act in relation to that one recommendation of the report, but the most important thing Sir Deian recommended was that stakeholder management and the customer experience should be much more centre stage in the SLC's operation. We have set up a new stakeholder forum on which Universities UK and the National Union of Students is represented. We want to ensure that we do not have again the problems we have had this year, and that those interests have a voice and are communicating with the board and senior management.

I remain particularly concerned about the situation for students with disabilities. It is always the case in a post-qualification application process that students with disabilities take longer to go through the assessment process, having presented their medical certification and other things, and to be assessed for the equipment they need. I was at the London assessment centre yesterday, and I spoke to staff there about the nature of that process. We currently have many such students-5,000-in the system, and there is an onus to take matters forward, but I have asked the SLC to ensure that universities are ringing around and that it is making contact with those students to ensure they move through the system.

Mr. Willetts: I am encouraged by what the Minister has just said about disabled students, as this issue is a particular source of concern, but will he explain two points to the House? First, when does he expect the backlog of current cases to be cleared? Secondly, when does he expect the SLC to be able to start the new cycle and to offer assessments for future claims?

Mr. Lammy: The chief executive of the SLC assures me that he will have got through the backlog by the end of this weekend. However, the hon. Gentleman will realise that, as up to 5,000 students are still applying for student loans week by week, there are still a number of applications to get through that are effectively new applications. On the backlog, it is important to emphasise the issues regarding students who applied within the appropriate time, and students for whom the SLC had lost material, including students with disabilities. The system has been delayed by such problems, but we should get through the backlog, and I hope to start the cycle shortly. I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that it was important that we did not start the cycle before
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we got the report, and before I could make sure that any newly formed management team-and, indeed the new chair and his board-have reflected on the report and taken action to ensure that we will not have the same problems next year.

Mr. Willis: In his discussions with the SLC, has the Minister received an assurance that all of the second tranche of the loans, which are payable on 27 or 28 January, will be paid?

Mr. Lammy: I have received full assurance from the chief executive of the SLC that students in the system who will have got their cheques can expect to continue to receive those payments as normal. Therefore, there will be a further payment in January, which we would expect to go appropriately.

I am encouraged by the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, and he can be assured that of course I treat this matter as a top priority. I am working with the SLC to ensure that the board and chair are doing all they can to drive the matter forward, so that we have a better system next year. I assure the hon. Gentleman too that we absolutely put customers first over this three-year period. We have eradicated from the system the need for parents to submit passports or P45 forms: people can now apply online, and calls are answered without the problems that arose this summer.

This has been a good debate, and I am delighted to have had another opportunity to talk in the House about the importance of higher education.

Mr. Martlew: My hon. Friend may be coming to this, but in my speech I asked whether I could meet him early in the new year to discuss the situation regarding the university of Cumbria. Will he deal with that before he concludes his speech?

Mr. Lammy: That is a very good way for me to end my speech. I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that I am happy to have that meeting. I recognise the historic challenges in Cumbria, and particularly his championing of the area.

Mr. Rob Wilson: Earlier, I asked the Minister about the views he had given to Demos. Will he say what his comments were, and whether they were reported accurately in the press?

Mr. Lammy: As always with these things, they were reported accurately in some of the press. My position with regard to a national civic service has been absolutely clear for many years, and, indeed, the Prime Minister has made his commitment to it plain. However, that is completely different from funding such a service by effectively billing and charging students. I made it clear that I do not support that, as I think Demos fully understands. The hon. Gentleman should not confuse think-pieces with the position of the Government.

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54 (4)).

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Department for Communities and Local Government

Central and Local Government

[Relevant Documents: The Sixth Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, HC 33, Session 2008-09, on The balance of power: central and local government, and the Government response, Cm 7712.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Before I call the Chairman of the Select Committee, may I just observe that there is less time available for this debate than there was for the former debate? I will not impose a time limit but, given the numbers of hon. Members who I know wish to take part and in an effort to be as inclusive as possible, a rough tariff of about 15 minutes per person will apply.

3.47 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall try and moderate what I say to make sure that there is ample space for other Members.

I want to begin by setting the scene for the report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on the balance of power between central Government and local government. Over several decades, the pattern in this country seems to have been that of a pendulum swinging backwards and forwards. First it lurches towards centralism, then it swings back in the other direction towards localism before swinging back towards centralism again. The overall trend in the past century has been towards a reduction in the numbers of elected people, if one takes all levels together and excludes MPs, and there has also been a substantial reduction in the powers of local government. However, although that has been the overall trend, the pendulum has undoubtedly swung the other way too. Those of us who were in local government before we came to this place will certainly have experienced times when local government was even more constrained than it is at present.

I think that we need to be aware that the pendulum that I have described exists. At the moment, it seems to me that there is a willingness-or at least an expressed willingness-among all the political parties to lurch towards localism, and away from centralism. The Select Committee's report is therefore extremely timely, in that it looks at what it considers to be appropriate ways to give more power to local government and ensure that we have a much less centralised process.

Those hon. Members who have read the report will be aware that, in coming to our view, we took evidence from a number of witnesses, and that we also visited Denmark and Sweden. We made that visit because local government in those countries has a lot more freedom than is the case here, and also runs a wider range of services. It was interesting to see their system in operation
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and to discover that it was not quite as localised and free from central control as perhaps one might have thought from looking from the outside.

I also ought to make the point that we have received the Government's response to many of the recommendations in our report, but we agreed with the Government that we did not want their response to all of them, because at that point they were still consulting on some of the changes that they had proposed. We felt it would be inappropriate for the Government to say either that they had not come to a view and would do so at the end of the consultation or that they had come to a view when the public consultation was still going on-that would have looked somewhat odd. We have received only a partial response, but that was by agreement and we hope that the final response, including the Government's response to the public consultation, will be given at the end of this month.

I wish to go through a few of the main points in the report to set the scene. First, I wish to restate that, notwithstanding the swings back and forth in the relationship between local and central Government in England-of course, the report was considering only the arrangements in England-we have one of the most centralised systems in the whole of Europe. We discovered as we were undertaking our investigation that this is not simply a matter of local government and central Government imposing controls; it is about a whole culture in this country of centralism. We feel that that manifests itself in the way in which even though there has been a lightening up of the controls, some councils have been backward about pushing the margins and taking on the freedoms that they have. It is as if they have got into a culture of waiting for direction from the centre, even when they have the freedom to do more.

The culture of centralism certainly affects the public at large. If they were asked whether they would like more decisions to be taken locally, they would generally speak in favour of that, yet they complain if there is any variation between the service delivered by their own council and that delivered by the one next door-this is the so-called 'postcode lottery'. Of course, there cannot be increased freedom and flexibility for local councils without variations in outcome. Therefore, the public are in a bit of a schizophrenic mood about whether they really want their local council to have the freedom to decide on the level and standard of services or whether they would prefer central Government to lay down standards and their local council to be held to them.

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