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We set up the Youth Sport Trust so that it could look after school sport and youth sport. Sport England dealt with community sport through national governing bodies
and whole sport plans, and UK Sport dealt with elite-level sport, which we hope will lead to a further medal haul in 2012 that will be the envy of the world.
The Secretary of State should also consider the added value of participation in school sport. Nobody has yet mentioned the sports leaders who volunteer to go from their secondary schools into primary schools. Primary school heads say that if the money is devolved, they will not have the time or the expertise to commit themselves to competition in school sports. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, those young sports leaders will come to London next week under the leadership of Debbie Lute, who was herself a sports leader. The programme has given them self-confidence and self-esteem, which read across into their academic life. The issue is not just sport for sport's sake, but what sport can do and the value it can add.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that year 5 pupils are involved in volunteering and starting to achieve qualifications as playground leaders and sports coaches? People become involved in the volunteering process from a very early age.
The structure is important. We tend to view bureaucracy and infrastructure as all bad and to be disposed of, but the structure in this case is important. We were careful to ensure that the sports infrastructure met the requirements. There was resistance from some sports to get involved in school sports, and one of the things that we were able to do was widen the choice of sports available to youngsters. Traditionally and stereotypically, boys played cricket, football and rugby and girls played netball and hockey, and that was it. Children did not get an opportunity to do any other sports, which left lots of people out of sport. Through the Youth Sport Trust, and through work with the governing bodies, we opened up opportunities to try archery, fencing and a wide range of sports. It was not a question of participation at elite level, but about the opportunity to take part.
Many of my friends, and I still have a few- [ Interruption. ] I always include the hon. Member for Bath. Many of my friends became my friends through school and other sports that I have been involved in over the years, so the partnerships should not be thrown away. Urgency is now the name of the game.
Angela Smith: My hon. Friend mentioned the range of sports now practised in schools. Some areas of the country are also developing specialisms, such as mountaineering and orienteering in south Yorkshire, which, thanks to the partnerships, is having a huge impact in schools.
I agree, and it has been great to see smaller sports being experienced in schools, which has been achieved through the network, through the school sports co-ordinators and through the opportunity to get involved in coaching. The Secretary of State said that we need to look at how we use sports throughout the school day, but the link between school sports and
clubs was the opportunity to bring clubs into the schools and try to use the schools to the fullest extent in passporting people to participation. We have the route right for elite sports-if someone shows potential, they have a route to elite participation-but we also have a route for those who just want to enjoy their sport for the sake of it.
As sports Minister, a big issue for me was disability sport. The hon. Member for Bath was right to say that participation in disability sport should have been a lot better than it was, and there was a need for reform. Disability sport in school is also vital, although there is a transport issue. Some of the good practice in school sport partnerships was in developing ways forward for disability sport. We should be able to offer those with disabilities the same chances as other children to be involved in sport.
I am passionate about sport and I could go on for hours-although of course you will not let me, Mr Deputy Speaker-about what sport can do for our society. We must not miss this opportunity and I hope that the Secretary of State will take up the offer from my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State. If I can be of assistance in any way-I am sure that the hon. Member for Bath and the Minister for Sport and the Olympics would also help-I offer my services to try to find a way through this. If we lose this infrastructure, it will be lost for ever, and we do not want that to happen.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I am pleased to speak in this debate on an issue in which I am very interested. I had many positive experiences in school sports. Indeed, I lost many competitive games, which stood me in good stead in my political life. I was also the lead member for leisure on Swindon borough council and councillor for a new development ward. I support 100% the positive role that sport can play in encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle, and improving behaviour, team work and enjoyment. I want to focus on some constructive points, especially because I am so biased in favour of sport.
Before the debate, I took the opportunity to visit many of my local schools, and the school sport partnership organised some events to showcase exactly what it was doing, working with Swindon borough council's leisure department. That gave me an opportunity to discuss the matter directly. From my visits in my constituency, I can draw not only many positives, but-crucially-lessons to ensure that we can secure for young people the maximum sporting opportunities.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): There have been positive experiences in this process, but it has been patchy. One deputy head teacher whom I spoke to this morning said that the local school sport partnership had taught those involved what they had forgotten, but that it would not be a complete disaster if it disappeared, because they would be able to continue through other mechanisms. There is good and bad, and we should move forward and give head teachers the powers they need.
People involved in the school sport partnership I saw were understandably extremely positive, as were Swindon borough council and some of the head
teachers I met-although not all of them-so my hon. Friend raises a fair point, which strengthens the case for giving head teachers more choice. I want to be positive and constructive, but I am biased, because I have seen first hand the benefits that sport can bring.
I return to what I have seen in my constituency. Clearly we have in place a greater range of activities than would typically be offered. Many Members have mentioned that point already-in particular, I noted the speech by the hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman). One sport I saw was street dancing, which is extremely popular, especially among females-probably off the back of the inspirational "Pineapple Dance Studios" television programme. The crucial message is that it goes beyond the core traditional sports. I am a great believer in competitive sports-I was sporty myself-but trends change, and we need to capture the imagination of children to get them active.
We have to sustain engagement post-event. We have to ensure that, after children enjoy a taster session of external sports clubs, they continue to engage long term. In Swindon, we are good at that, because we have a successful sports forum of 60 sports groups working with the council to promote its activities.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I want to associate myself with my hon. Friend's positive comments, because based in my constituency is an effective school sport partnership working with 74 primary schools, nine secondary schools and two specialist schools. He made the point about links with clubs. In a remote, rural area such as Cornwall, it is very difficult for young people who develop a passion for sport to find fixtures and opportunities to expand and develop-
Justin Tomlinson: I fully agree with my hon. Friend's excellent intervention. In the 10 years I was a councillor, the achievement I was most proud of was setting up the sports forum to get sports groups to capture children's imaginations and take them beyond. I welcome her intervention.
We have to improve and increase the provision of high-quality physical education and school sport, especially through training. A number of PE teachers have said to me that, through the school sport partnership, they were equipped with a broader range of skills. We also have to increase the number of healthy and active pupils. We have all been quoting statistics today, and I will quote some relevant to my constituency. In Swindon, the number of schools doing two hours of sport a week has risen from 33 to 68. I was most inspired by a gentleman called Dave Barnett of Robert Le Kyng primary school, which, I must confess, is in the neighbouring South Swindon constituency. He has worked to deal with children with behavioural issues, and to get students active and-crucially-enjoying it. That is a major factor that we should not overlook.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab):
We are all enjoying the hon. Gentleman's contribution-it could be replicated around the House. My Salford
school sport partnership is equally good and has equally impressive statistics. I invite him to vote with the Opposition tonight, because he clearly supports school sport partnerships.
Justin Tomlinson: That is a kind intervention. However, I will finish my speech, and then the hon. Lady will see where I sit on this. There have been many successes in Swindon, but that is not necessarily the case throughout the country-I conceded that point to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)-so we should look at the broader picture.
I want to mention some positive Government measures to which hon. Members have not referred, for example the Troops for Teachers programme. One of the lessons I have learned is that there is not a sufficient pool of teachers confident enough to deliver a broad range of sporting activity. If ever there was a new wave of teachers who could fill that gap, it is soldiers, so I welcome that initiative. I also welcome the measures to protect playing fields and support the principle of the school Olympics and the plans to invest in leisure infrastructure as part of the Olympics legacy.
I also have my own brief wish list. I would like greater provision of accessible open space in new developments. I touched on this matter in my maiden speech and in a number of Westminster Hall debates. I know, from when I was younger and from having represented a new development ward, that when someone is inspired by sport on the television and wants to go and use jumpers for goalposts, they need somewhere to do it, but too many new developments are concrete jungles and do not provide those opportunities.
We should encourage local authorities and schools to open up their buildings and facilities to local sporting groups and organisations. We also need to work with the youth service. There is now a crossover between traditional sport and youth provision: things such as street dance and cheerleading fall into both categories, because they are traditional sports and are what the youngsters want to do. We also need to tackle the issue of insurance. A number of PE teachers raised with me the point that inter-school competitions require students to be driven to schools, but in some cases it costs £1,000 to insure a teacher to drive a minibus. That proves to be one of the biggest barriers.
In conclusion, it is essential that schools understand and support sporting activity and opportunities. As an MP, I will continue to lobby on this locally in my own small way, and I will continue to visit my schools. Given that schools will effectively now commission this work, I echo the need to have in place a basic framework, as suggested by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster). Those opportunities must continue. Schools themselves can then judge whether the relevant activities are being offered to inspire and increase participation; whether we are working to link with local sports clubs and organisations to sustain engagement; and whether they are receiving the training ultimately to deliver more of their own tailored sporting opportunities that their pupils want. I hope that school sport partnerships can, as in the case of Swindon, prove to their local schools that their work should continue to be commissioned, and I urge the Minister to set out how he will encourage that.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who made some very positive comments. I can fully understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) invited him to join us in the Lobby tonight-he seemed to agree with our motion. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe), the former sports Minister, who is highly regarded across the House for what he achieved in that post.
Last week, it seemed clear that the Government believed that school sport partnerships did not work, despite the facts and the completely opposite view of many of those involved. They believed that partnerships did not deliver and fell short of expectations, and that the investment in them did not result in a commensurate outcome. However, the same message is not coming across today, especially in the comments of some Government Members. I sense a more open approach, so I will be interested to hear the Minister's winding-up speech.
The Government's view was at odds with the opinions of individuals and organisations immersed in the world of sport, as we have heard already. Mr Chris Willets, the Tower Hamlets school sport partnership manager, has advised me on the impact of the partnership locally. In 2006, the average number of timetabled minutes for physical education was 99, but is now 127; the number of newly qualified teachers supported to deliver PE was nil, but is now 55; the number of teacher and sport training courses was nil, but is now 73; the number of pupils involved in inter-school sports competitions was 9,000, but is now 15,000; the number of primary inter-school competitions was one, but is now 37; the number of secondary inter-school competitions was three, but is now 25; the number of young people playing sport outside school was 4,000, but is now 11,000; the number of young people involved in representative sport was 31, but is now 237; the number of young people coaching, leading and volunteering was 1,700, but is now 5,100; and the number of professional coaches working in schools was nine, but is now 57. That trend applies to many other statistics that I will not quote.
Those might only be statistics, but they are powerful numbers and they do not-nor can they-convey the huge benefit to young people that sport brings. They do not convey the pleasure, joy and character building that sport delivers, and they cannot explain what a school sport partnership means to young people in a borough such as Tower Hamlets. It helps not just with health, but academically, as I am told by the excellent head of Langdon Park community school, Mr Chris Dunne, whose school was designated a sports academy in 2008. The question being asked in my constituency is: how much longer is Tower Hamlets to bear the brunt of cuts dressed up and designated by the coalition merely as changes designed to make funds "more targeted" or "more effective"? The abolition of the education maintenance allowance has been similarly dressed up, ultimately being dispatched by the Government to make way for "more targeted support".
I agree that all Members of the House believe that sports in all parts of the UK create added value, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that
the important thing is the mechanism for delivering that sport? There is a college not a million miles away from my constituency that receives part-funding for a teacher, not for sport but for arts and design. That is why we need change.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), the shadow Secretary of State, made it quite clear that we are prepared to engage in trying to ensure that whatever system we have works for the benefit of young people. Last week we were told that the whole £162 million budget would be completely lost-or replaced by £10 million-and that the school sport partnerships would be deconstructed. The Secretary of State, for whom I have the highest regard, asked today by how much we would cut the budget, and in response my right hon. Friend said, "Let's talk about it." Let us try to ensure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, so that we can protect the good and improve that which can be improved. That is the way forward.
The abolition of the education maintenance allowance has been dressed up, ultimately being dispatched by the Government to make way for "more targeted support". However, as with the school sport partnerships, that rings hollow and is unfathomable to young people locally. All they have are the realities: school sport partnerships delivering unprecedented interest, involvement and achievement in sport among children and young people in Tower Hamlets, just as the EMA helped them to strive to achieve their potential in further and higher education. Many young people in Tower Hamlets do not approach sport from a position of privilege, any more than they approach further or higher education from a position of privilege. As noted by others, the Government know that the money must be protected. It is to their great discredit that they cannot be honest about what they are doing to communities such as mine.
However, as I have said, I detected a change in tone from the Secretary of State. I hope and pray that he takes up the invitation from my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State to engage in talks with Members and advisers to see whether we can arrive at a better solution than that which the Prime Minister suggested last week when, in answering questions, he completely dismissed everything about school sport partnerships. Last week the coalition was for eliminating the funds and abolishing the structure. Today I sensed the Secretary of State acknowledging that there was merit in many of the schemes across the country. I hope that I am right, but I fear that I may not be.
Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State's listening mode, and I assure him that I appreciate the need to evaluate school sport partnerships. It is important to be clear in that evaluation about the difference between inter-school sport and intra-school sport. It has been said that 80% of children do not take part in inter-school competition, but that is hardly surprising, as it is representative sport at that level. Very few schools will enter competitions with anything other than their best team. Clearly, it cannot be the case that everyone can take part in inter-school competition or that it will replace intra-school activity.
The Secretary of State said that he was concerned that schools were now advocating activities such as rock climbing and dance rather than rugby or football. It is important to find the right sport for the right person, whether it is a more traditional team game, an individual sport or two hours of aerobics every week. Nothing gives me more pleasure than visiting a school and witnessing pupils who would probably never want to participate in competitive sport, but who do participate in street dance, for example. As long as young people are active and are enjoying sport and learning all the lessons that come with it, it should not matter whether they are cross-country runners, table tennis players or stars of the first XV rugby team. That is where school sport partnerships have come in, helping to deliver a wider PE curriculum than a PE teacher could manage on their own.
In principle, I agree with non-ring-fenced budgets and with more decision taking by individual schools, so I ask myself: why do I have reservations about schools making their own decisions, especially if the £162 million really is distributed among schools? If all schools pooled their money-and if it is definitely in their budgets for that purpose-life would be perfectly straightforward, as long as the local authority can provide the leadership. However, as I pointed out earlier, that works only if everyone signs up in advance. The feedback that I am getting locally is that head teachers are so uncertain about their budgets that they will not commit in advance until they see their budgets. There is uncertainty about what the pupil premium actually means, about the ending of extra grants for specialist schools and about much more. I am aware that the Secretary of State has gone out of his way to reassure people, but sadly there is still uncertainty. That is why I feel that we should not just stop the initiative dead. We should evaluate and make improvements, but we also have to move at a timed pace and put steps in place, rather than just saying, "This scheme will come to an end by April 2011."
I would like to refer briefly to some comments made by one of my constituents. In part, we have focused on some of the bad experiences with school sport partnerships, but I want to celebrate some of the good experiences. In east Dorset, school sport partnerships have given all school children access to high quality coaching in a number of sports and, by organising festivals and tournaments, have allowed children the opportunity to compete and co-operate with children from other schools, as well as giving them access to facilities at the larger venues. It is through such initiatives that children become enthused by sport and develop life-long habits and skills. In addition to the more traditional sports of football, netball and rugby, children have had the opportunity to discover sports such as karate, basketball, archery, badminton and athletics that might not otherwise have been on offer. Thus, all children have the opportunity to find a sport that will interest them.
Sport plays a vital role, and it should be an integral part of a child's education. It has obvious health benefits, but it is also important for personal development, communication skills and giving children self-confidence. It is impressive to see young sports leaders from middle and upper schools who have been given the chance to organise events, referee matches and do coaching, giving them skills that will be useful in any chosen career. With that responsibility comes more mature attitudes, and
older children become role models for the younger children they lead. I am concerned that, without the work of the partnerships, the current level of participation in sport will not be maintained. The smaller schools will have difficulty offering the variety and quality of sporting activities possible at present, and the provision of sport could become patchy and piecemeal. I make my remarks in a constructive manner, and I urge the Secretary of State to give the issue a thorough review.
David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): I want to use my few minutes to tell the House what the decision means in my constituency, in Tameside and Oldham. Both the New Charter academy in Tameside and Failsworth school in Oldham have made remarkable progress since they attained sports college status. The improvement in results and the progress made by students at both schools have been tremendous, and that applies right across the curriculum, not just to sporting achievement. Those two schools are the basis of school sport partnerships in their boroughs, each covering a group of secondary schools, colleges and 30-odd primary schools. The SSP funding pays not only for the partnership development managers, but for their teams of part-time sports co-ordinators and primary liaison teachers-all teachers, not bureaucrats.
In the Failsworth partnership, regular participation in competitive sport stands at 45%, and in Tameside the figure has reached 62%, the third highest participation level nationally last year. In Tameside and Oldham, physical education and school sports have been transformed by school sport partnerships, and it is a tragedy that all this hard work and achievement risk being blown apart by this ill-conceived and spiteful cut. While the most noticeable progress has been made in the sports colleges, it is in the primary and special needs sectors that the cut will have the cruellest impact. In the words of Emma Heap, the Tameside development manager:
"These measures will take us back ten years."
The loss of dedicated SSP funding, of infrastructure and of facilitation and partnership work will inevitably lead to piecemeal, patchy sports provision in the primary sector. Talent will not be spotted at an early enough age for children to become Olympians or sports professionals, and the opportunity to develop transferable skills such as teamwork, leadership and volunteering-all of which can be developed through sport-will be lost. Some of our greatest sporting achievements in recent years have been in the Paralympics, and I wonder what thought the Secretary of State has given to the potential damage he is doing to our ability to spot and nurture sporting talent among students with disabilities by doing away with SSPs.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab):
Does my hon. Friend agree that the lives of even some of the most disabled young people, such as the pupils of Abbey Hill school in my constituency, have been enhanced
through the school sport partnerships? Those young people are now going to lose those opportunities because of the Government's decision.
One of my constituents, Jade, is 13 years old and she has spina bifida. She did not take part in PE very much and, being a quiet girl, tended to sit and watch the others. Thanks to a national scheme piloted in Tameside, however, school sports co-ordinators spotted Jade's potential at a talent academy, an Active 8 session. She tried her hand at a wheelchair event, and quickly progressed to win a race at county level. Next, she took part at regional level and won again. She had another win at national level. The SSP introduced her to the local athletics club and generated support around her. She tried the javelin, again with much success. Her first throw was 5 metres. The Paralympic record was 11 metres, and Jade was only 12 years old at the time. She has great potential and, at an athlete identification day, UK Athletics identified her as a potential Paralympian.
Jade is just one of 400 pupils who have been through the Active 8 academy in the past four years, many of whom have moved on to sports clubs and ever greater levels of achievement. Jade's parents are overjoyed at how far she has come, from being shy and retiring to being confident and successful. Her family put this down to the role of the SSP, the school sports co-ordinator and the competition manager at her school, without whom none of this could have happened. This is what the Secretary of State is putting at risk with his ill-conceived proposal, which will smash the infrastructure that makes all this possible for Jade and thousands of others like her. It really is not good enough to look to hard-pressed head teachers to provide the funds to maintain the skills, experience and infrastructure of the SSPs. Mainstream education budgets are being slashed, and difficult decisions will need to be made.
Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government do not seem to understand that it is in deprived areas, where parents do not have the money to pay for their children to have coaching or to join expensive sports clubs, that the cuts will take us back more than a decade to when sporting opportunities were the preserve of the well off?
The heads of both the sports colleges in my constituency have promised to do everything possible to continue the present level of support, but when they are battling to balance their books, it will be increasingly difficult for them to prioritise sport over maths and English. Head teachers and leading sporting figures are calling for a rethink, and even the Daily Mail describes the proposal as "idiotically destructive" and a
"false economy on a staggeringly grand scale",
I want to end by urging Government Front Bench Members to heed those calls. I really hope that the Secretary of State will take up the offer from those on our Front Bench, but I am not optimistic. I am afraid that this is what happens when public schoolboys are running the country. This Government, and these Ministers,
have not got a clue about the schools that are attended by 93% of this country's children. Not only have they not got a clue, but, by scrapping school sport partnerships, they are showing that they have not got a care either.
Mr Ivan Lewis (Bury South) (Lab): This has been a timely debate on an issue of great importance for the future of our country. It is telling that, today, Members on both sides of the House have recognised the value of school sport partnerships. As the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), made clear in his excellent opening speech, we will continue to support the growing grass-roots campaign that is uniting head teachers, teachers, parents, young people, coaches and elite athletes across our country in defending school sport partnerships because of their past success and their capacity to transform the future for hundreds of thousands of young people. We will do so until the coalition reverses a decision that can be justified neither by the deficit nor by the performance of the Youth Sport Trust and school sport partnerships. Let us be clear, however, that we are willing to work with the Government to find a constructive solution. The speeches by the hon. Members for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and for Bath (Mr Foster) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) demonstrated that there are people on both sides of the House who can play an important part in finding a solution.
As we have heard time and again since this ill-conceived decision was announced, youth sport can and does transform the life chances of so many young people, building confidence and self-esteem, which are pre-requisites to educational attainment. It supports the development of leadership and teamwork skills that are so beneficial in the modern world of work. It helps young people to stay healthy and to avoid the curse of obesity, which is our greatest public health emergency-a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) made so well. Youth sport also ensures that some young people find a positive alternative to drifting into a life of crime and antisocial behaviour. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, these are all reasons why dismantling support for school sport would be both reckless and short-sighted.
It is also a decision that thus far displays breathtaking arrogance at the highest levels of Government. The Secretary of State for Education wants to be viewed as an intellectual radical reformer and the man to restore the education system to the halcyon days of a mythical glorious past. Yet in the seven months since the election, he has sometimes shown himself to be too clever by half, even for a man of his undoubted intelligence. On this occasion, he has also shown himself to be uncharacteristically discourteous, imposing this draconian cut without ever visiting a school sport partnership, without ever having the decency to meet representatives of the Youth Sport Trust, and showing an astonishing determination not to allow the facts to get in the way of his decision.
It is bad enough to dismantle an infrastructure that has been the catalyst for so much progress, but it is unforgivable systematically to rubbish its achievements, distort its aims and write off sports teachers and coaches as bureaucrats. This has been low politics from people
who claim to be the promoters of new politics. I genuinely say to the Secretary of State that true leadership means sometimes having to say, "I got it wrong," or, at the very least, being willing to change direction. If he fails to do that, he will be a diminished, not an enhanced, figure in this House.
It will not be the kids and grandkids of many of those on the Government Benches who will suffer if the Secretary of State persists with this policy. Private schools have the best facilities, the most expansive playing fields and the best qualified sports coaches. Why should not the vast majority of pupils who attend state schools in our country have the same opportunities? I would have thought that that was a non-negotiable guiding principle for the Lib Dems.
How can the Prime Minister talk of his belief in the big society when the Government he leads are dismantling partnerships that have supported an increase of 800,000 young people acting as sports volunteers and leaders since 2007? That point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (David Heyes). This Government do not seem to understand that a big society is often dependent on an active state.
Five years ago, on that historic day in Singapore, Britain was engulfed by a wave of pride and patriotism. Against all the odds, we won the Olympic bid on the clear prospectus that we would use the greatest sporting event in the world to inspire a generation of young people through sport. That commitment was made in the knowledge that we had the means and the ambition to transform an aspiration into a reality. Against that background, I ask the coalition, "Do you want your legacy, and our Olympic legacy, to be a generation of young people lost to sport, not because there is a better way or no alternative but simply because one Minister is hell bent on pressing ahead with an ideological approach to education?"
"I am devastated to witness the potential demise of this legacy with the sweep of Mr Gove's pen. I wish that he had spoken to me, the teachers in our partnership, our students, our parents and our local sports clubs and providers before telling us that competitive sport in our schools was non existent."
Those are the words of Jo Phillips, a school sports co-ordinator in the Prime Minister's constituency. They should be a wake-up call not only to the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, but to every Member of the House of Commons.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): We have had a very good, if truncated, debate, to which passionate and genuine contributions have been made by many hon. Members. I have to say, however, that I think the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) attended a different debate, and certainly did not listen to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
Let me make one thing clear at the outset. This Government, this Secretary of State and this Minister are absolutely committed to promoting sport in schools
and outside schools, and to all ages, as beneficial, positive, healthy, team-building, socialising and a fun thing to do. Some of us actually play it as well. The hon. Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts), who is no longer in the Chamber, might like to turn out next Wednesday for the parliamentary hockey team. I shall be leading it in Wapping. I note that his interests include watching rugby and football, but apparently not participating in sport himself. Above all, we want to see more young people engaged in high-quality sport, more often and more competitively, starting younger, for longer and, most important, sustainably into adulthood.
No one is talking about taking sport away from schools, and no one is talking about downgrading sport as an important and exciting part of school life. Head teachers have been responsible for ensuring the delivery of PE and sport in their schools ever since it was made a compulsory part of the national curriculum in 1992, and we have no plans to change that. The Government are not closing down school sport partnerships; what we are doing is ending the ring-fenced funding for them beyond the summer of 2011. Funding was never expected to be of unlimited duration-and, of course, we have still not heard from Labour Members what they would have been able to sustain given the disastrous economic legacy that they bequeathed to the country.
If schools choose to use their own sports funding to buy in the services provided by the school sport partnerships, they will be free to do so. Indeed, if they have been such a success in the eyes of schools, surely that is what those schools will want to do. However, we believe that that should be offered without the bureaucratic, costly, top-down infrastructure that school sport partnerships involve.
Despite the best intentions of the last Government and the best endeavours of many school sports co-ordinators and teachers, we simply are not aiming high enough or achieving nearly enough in return for the massive investment of £2.4 billion in public funding since the partnerships started in 2003. The question, therefore, is not "if" but "how". It is about how we achieve more, how we get more young people involved, and how we change the whole ethos of sport in schools and ignite a spark in our young people that is sustained into adulthood-and not just because it is offered on a plate by a generously funded but highly prescriptive central Government offer.
Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way at this stage. Let me briefly echo his points. The co-ordinator in my area has worked extremely well, but the difficulties were highlighted by a head teacher in my constituency who said that
"the strategy was both ineffective and also a perfect example of how 'ring-fenced' initiatives can be inefficient and bureaucratic."
The network of school sport partnerships did help schools to raise participation rates in a range of areas targeted by the previous Government, and schools should be given credit for that. I pay tribute to the Youth Sport Trust and to Lady Campbell, whom I have met three times in the last six months and with whom I have played extreme frisbee in Sheffield. The fact remains, however, that the proportion of young people taking
part in competitive sport has remained disappointingly low, and definitions of what count as participation levels are hardly ambitious. I will not repeat the figures now.
What we need to do is enable schools to exercise innovation and autonomy. What interests me is how many inspirational men and women wearing tracksuits are motivating our young people on the sports pitch, not wielding clipboards and filling in forms back in the office. We firmly believe that the ideals of the Olympic and Paralympic games can be an inspiration to all young people, not only to our most promising young athletes. They embody the ethos of achievement and self-improvement that the best schools manifest in their sports provision for all pupils. That is why we want to see a new focus on competitive sports. Truly vibrant, sustainable sporting provision does not depend on a continuous drip-feed of ring-fenced funding, trickling through layers of bureaucratic structure with multiple strings attached. Instead, it must be integrated into the core mission and organisation of each school.
Our Government will get behind schools and teachers and help them to do what they do best: decide for themselves, individually and in collaboration, how to teach and develop their young people. The time for a top-down, centrally driven school sports strategy has passed. The days of a bureaucratic, top-heavy programme that saw extra funding soaked up by management, reporting and form-filling are, happily, passing into history.
What is important is delivering more high-quality sport for more children for longer, not a dogged attachment to the past structures of delivery. This motion from an opportunist and failed ex-Government is not the way in which to achieve that, and I urge Members to vote against it.
That this House believes that the Government should publish a White Paper on higher education in England, setting out the full detail of its plans for higher education funding and student finance before asking Parliament to vote on whether to raise the fee cap; is concerned that major questions about how the Government's market in higher education is intended to work remain unanswered; is concerned that recent graduates will be responsible for repaying loans for up to 30 years because the teaching grant is being cut by 80 per cent.; and urges the Higher Education Minister to bring forward publication of the White Paper.
The motion's aim is clear: the coalition wants this House to vote to increase university fees before Christmas, but we say that the House should not vote before the Government publish their promised White Paper and before they answer the many crucial questions about how the new policy is meant to work. Can there ever have been a debate like tonight's? When was the last time that a Minister-a Secretary of State and a member of the Cabinet-came to the House to defend a policy that he drew up on the same day on which he told the BBC that he might not even vote for it? And the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is clearly an advocate for the duvet strategy, as he tells his Lib Dem colleagues, "Let's pull the bed clothes over our heads and stay there until this nightmare is over." It is humiliating for the Secretary of State, but it takes the arrogance and cynicism of this Government to new depths. Millions of parents and millions of future students are desperately worried about the cost of degrees, but all the Secretary of State is concerned about is saving face for the Liberal Democrats. Now the Deputy Prime Minister is at it, too; he has written today blaming the National Union of Students for putting students off university. This is the man who, in his own contribution to widening participation, said in April that fees of £7,000 a year would be a "disaster". He has no shame.
The coalition will make English students and graduates pay the highest fees of any public university system in the industrialised world; they will pay up to £39,000 in fees and maintenance loans for a three-year course. This is the biggest change in university funding since the University Grants Committee was set up in the 1920s, and it will end funding for the vast majority of undergraduate degrees; there is to be an 80% cut. The Government want a crude higher education market in which student choice and student choice alone shapes the universities system. They have used the excuse of a limited contribution to deficit reduction in the short term to bring in a profound change of funding for the long term. But last week the Minister for Universities and Science admitted that £28 in every £100 loaned to students would have to be written off, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Higher Education Policy Institute have both questioned whether the policy will save any money in the long run. Will the Secretary of State admit that, as the Office for Budget Responsibility report published yesterday said, the cost of borrowing to fund student loans will rise from £4.1 billion a year this year to £10.7 billion in 2015-16, leading public sector net debt to increase by £13 billion by 2015?
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman and I might have our differences and our arguments, but will he make it clear that the policy that his Government introduced and the policy currently proposed by this Government have in common the same core issue, which is that there are no fees up front? He has not said that clearly so far, and the NUS tried to pretend that it is not the case. If we are going to have a serious debate, it must be on the basis that there is agreement that no student, full-time or part-time, will pay any fees up front. Can he be absolutely clear about that?
Mr Denham: I will come in a moment to the core issue that divides us. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the fees system that we introduced has no up-front fees -[Interruption.] No, the fees system introduced by the previous Labour Government has no up-front fees. The proposals introduced by this Government do not have up-front fees, but let me explain to him what the fundamental difference is between the policy of the previous Labour Government and that of this coalition Government. We took higher education public funding of universities to record levels, and the fees that we introduced brought extra money to the universities on top of record levels of public funding. The coalition Government's proposals are based on an 80% cut in public funding to higher education, and the fees that graduates will pay under their plans merely replace the money that has been cut from higher education; they do not generate additional money. That is a massive difference between the policy of this Government and the policy of the Labour party.
Mr Denham: Mr Deputy Speaker, you know me well enough to know that I enjoy debating in the Chamber and I enjoy taking interventions. I am well aware of the huge number of Members on both sides of the House who want to speak, so I will take some more interventions, but just not now. I will make a little progress before I take the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because I am going to make a point that is relevant to him. These plans have huge implications for the devolved Administrations. The cuts will lead directly to reduced funding for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, making their decisions on university funding far more difficult.
This is an enormous decision with profound long-lasting implications. It must not be taken lightly and it should not be taken without all the relevant information being placed before the public and this House, but that is just what the Government want hon. Members to agree to; they want us to vote for a huge rise in fees while they keep every hon. and right hon. Member in the dark about key details of the policy.
Before I set out the key questions, may I say a few words about Lord Browne's report? He was asked to write his report by the previous Labour Government and we should be grateful to him and his team for the diligence with which they set about their work. However, Lord Browne had two central presumptions with which we do not agree. First, we do not agree that 80% of university teaching grants should be cut or that the cost
of most degrees should fall entirely on the shoulders of graduates, with it being relieved only if after paying for 30 years they still cannot clear the debt. Secondly, we do not agree that the university system should be shaped by student choice alone.
By common consent at home and abroad, England enjoys a world-class higher education system-not just in the disproportionate number of the world's leading research universities but in the richness and diversity of provision across more than 100 universities and many further education colleges. That did not happen by accident. Successive Governments have been prepared to invest in higher education, but they have also allowed a high degree of institutional autonomy. It is the willingness to trust the academic and professional leadership of universities that has produced the excellence England enjoys today. It should not be lightly set aside.
Mr MacNeil: As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Conservatives and Liberals want to increase tuition fees. Labour introduced tuition fees and the Scottish National party abolished them. On St Andrew's day, will he tell us whether he wishes that when he was in government he had followed the example of the SNP?
Mr Denham: No, I do not. As I have already said, this party put record levels of funding into English universities and the fees raised extra money on top of that. The strategy that has been followed in Scotland has been one of systematically under-investing in universities, to the long-term damage of the university system in that country. I believe that that is a mistake.
In defending the current system, let me say that it is not perfect. Student choice should be one, but only one, of the means by which it can be improved. On these key points, we do not agree with Lord Browne. There is nothing in the immediate economic circumstance that justifies betting the whole house on a higher education market for which there is neither justification nor evidence.
Of course, the coalition says, "You set up Browne, you should support him." Let us be clear, however, that the coalition is not implementing Lord Browne's proposals either. He says that his proposals are a complete package to be taken as a whole, but in significant respects the Government's plans differ from his. He said that student numbers should rise by 10% over the next three years, that fees should not be capped and that there should be a clawback to deter unnecessarily high fees and that the right to go to university should be determined by academic qualifications. He proposed higher grants for middle income students. On all those things, the coalition has said no to Lord Browne. Last Thursday, at the Universities UK conference, Lord Browne signally failed to endorse the Government's plans, although he was given every opportunity to do so. The coalition's proposals are not Lord Browne's. They are a bastardised, compromised, coalitionised parody of the Browne report.
What are the Government planning to do? Beyond the cuts in teaching grant and the huge rise in fees, it is far from clear. So two weeks ago, I sent the Business
Secretary a series of questions that needed to be answered. I copied that letter to every Member of this House. I thank him for replying last night, but if his reply is the best he can do, he would have been better sending it second class without a stamp. He has failed to answer almost every important question. He says in his letter that waiting for the White Paper would be "unfair" to prospective students and their families, but students need to know exactly how they will be expected to pay back their debt. He says that universities need certainty, but they do not just need to know what the fee levels will be. They need to know what the access rules will be, what their responsibilities will be to fund outreach activities, how many students they will be competing for and how many institutions can offer degrees. None of those questions has been answered.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Has he seen the Business Secretary's comments in the autumn 2010 edition of the Lib Dems' "Scottish News Extra"? The Business Secretary likened tuition fees to the poll tax and said that they were an unfair weight around students' necks. He went on to say:
"It surely cannot be right that a teacher or care worker or research scientist is expected to pay the same graduate contribution as a top commercial lawyer."
Mr Denham: As it happens, I am familiar with the autumn edition of "Scottish News Extra". My hon. Friend, wanting brevity, left out the best bit. They are still at it. The next bit of the article says:
"The Lib Dems want to scrap tuition fees across the UK".
Let me return to the questions that the House has a responsibility to have answered before the vote. Last week, the president of UUK, Professor Steve Smith-I have summarised his speech, I hope accurately-said:
"Students, their families, and our universities, deserve to know the full details of what is planned.
The Government has promised a White Paper. But this has already moved back in its planning from before Christmas to next March. We then expect an HE Bill in 2011. But this is too long to wait for critical details...First, what does the Government plan to do about student numbers?"
"The second unanswered question is the future of the teaching grant. How much will there be left in the budget and how will it be targeted...Thirdly, what provision will there be to support programmes such as widening participation?"
"rush to judgement on the sorts of issues outlined in"
"such as the future regulatory landscape and the parameters for supply side reform."
Those issues will determine the market in which fees must be set. They are crucial to the decisions that universities have to make in the next three months. Although the Secretary of State does not want to rush to judgment, he wants this House to rush to judgment on introducing the highest fees of any public university system in the industrialised world.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that the Liberal Democrats stood at the last election on a policy of abolishing tuition fees over a six-year period. After legislation, that would have taken us well into the next Parliament-way beyond the period that the coalition has set for dealing with the deficit. Does not that demonstrate that their volte-face on tuition fees is purely political opportunism that means that they completely misled the British people during the election?
Mr Denham: I would have more respect for the Liberal Democrat position if they had not signed up to a total change in the philosophy of funding higher education. As I made clear, this is not a short-term measure because of budgetary pressures while the deficit is dealt with. It is the ending of the public funding of most university degrees. Surely if there was one principle that the Liberal Democrats were defending when they made that pledge, it was the idea that undergraduate higher education should be publicly funded.
Mr Sheerman: Has my right hon. Friend seen last week's article by Sir Peter Lampl in The Times? He is a man who has done more for higher education than almost anyone in this country and who is totally unbiased in his politics, and he describes this double hammer blow to higher education as a disaster in a sector where we were world leaders.
Mr Denham: I did see Sir Peter Lampl's article in The Times. It was a devastating critique of what is being proposed and it is all the more significant coming from somebody who supported the Labour Government's introduction of top-up fees a few years ago. He is not a blind opponent of graduate contributions but somebody who has assessed the evidence of what enables students from poorer backgrounds to get to higher education and believes that this change will be damaging. Let me be quite clear: universities need to plan for 2012-13. Decisions will have to be taken by universities in the early months of next year, but only the Secretary of State's indolence stands in the way of a full White Paper and draft legislation in January that would allow the House to consider the changes as a whole.
"we have put our costings and calculations in the public domain",
but I had to submit a Freedom of Information Act request for the models before the Government published a so-called ready reckoner. The Library has now discovered that BIS uses a more complex model that has not been published. The Library told me:
"The ready reckoner version which has been published is a simplified version".
For all the talk of fairness, it is clear that middle-income graduates will pay the most. Library analysis shows that graduates repaying fees of £7,000 a year and a maintenance loan who work in middle-income graduate jobs will have to pay back 84% of a whole year's gross earnings whereas those in the top 10% of earners will pay back less than half a year's gross earnings. Million Plus reports today that the changes will leave between 60% and 65% of graduates worse off with middle-income earners being hit the hardest.
The coalition says that the threshold for repayment will be set at £21,000, but that is in 2016 prices. In real terms, that is the same as the £15,000 threshold that started in 2006 and is due for review next year. That is not generous: it is sleight of hand. Lord Browne said the threshold should be uprated every five years in line with earnings. The ready reckoner published by the Department assumes that it will be uprated every five years in line with earnings, but the Minister for Universities and Science, the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), says only that there will be periodic uprating. I asked the Secretary of State whether that uprating would be laid down in law, but his letter is silent on that point. Even the dubious claims made about fairness depend on regular uprating in line with earnings, but if it is not in law it means nothing. The House must see draft clauses, not vague promises, before it is asked to vote on the fee cap.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I have always been opposed to tuition fees, including when they were introduced by the Labour Government. Does the shadow Secretary of State recognise that people such as he and I are in a particularly difficult position? We can do one of two things: play this issue for shameless politics or attempt to come up with an alternative. It is his job to ask questions, but when will he tell us his alternative?
Mr Denham: We have made it very clear that there are choices to make about the pace of deficit reduction. We would deal with the deficit but would not choose to make the reckless cuts across public services that the hon. Gentleman supports. There are also choices to make within Departments and we would not cut higher education funding by 80%. Neither would we want a system of graduate repayment that put all the burden on middle-income graduates. There are choices to be made and the hon. Gentleman should consider these matters carefully.
Let me address fair access. The proportion of students coming from lower-income backgrounds has steadily increased, but education maintenance allowances are being scrapped for 600,000 students and Aimhigher is being ended. The ladders of opportunity are being chopped down as we debate tonight. What will happen to the widening participation money that institutions receive because it can be more expensive to support students from non-traditional backgrounds to successful graduation? Will they still get it or will they have to take it from their fees?
The Government want universities to fund outreach. How much of that is meant to come from increased fees, essentially charging students extra for the privilege of being encouraged to go to university? The Government say that universities can charge £9,000 in exceptional circumstances; will the Secretary of State tell the House tonight what "exceptional" means? Will universities that currently do well on widening participation be able to charge £9,000 or will it be only those that do not? Will universities be punished for failing to meet their access agreements?
How will the national student scholarship work? Is the £150 million for one year or for three? Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many students it will cover and at what income level? Will it even cover the students on low incomes who are already in the system? The House needs to know the answers to these questions. If it pays for a free year, will that be just for the most expensive courses in the most expensive universities? If so, why should a student taking a £27,000 course get their fee cut to £18,000 while a student taking a £24,000 course will still have to pay £24,000? Where is the fairness in that? If it is available only for some universities, where is the fairness for poorer students in other places?
We all want the Government to ensure fair access, but until these questions are answered all this is only warm words-and the Secretary of State will not answer. All that he will say is that if the fee cap is raised, he
"would expect to write a letter of guidance to the Director of Fair Access."
Shuffling off responsibility like that will not do. He must know what exceptional circumstances means-he just will not tell us. But if he wants to hide behind the director of fair access, let him write to Sir Martin Harris today asking him to bring forward proposals in the new year so that the House can consider them before the fee cap comes to a vote.
Universities are over-subscribed, so it matters to students how many places there are. The fees that universities charge will depend on how student numbers are controlled and distributed. The Secretary of State says:
"We will need to continue the type of student number restrictions that the previous government imposed in order to control public spending costs".
That is an extraordinary response because student numbers are tightly controlled both overall and by institution. If that does not change, they will not get their market. There will be no competition and no incentive to change. It will be the worst of all possible worlds with the highest fees, little or no new money for universities and no change. It makes a nonsense of everything the Government have said and we need to know what they really have in mind.
"We will set out proposals on new providers of higher education in the White Paper",
"we estimate that around two thirds of part-time students will not be eligible for fee loans. At the same time, the withdrawal of teaching grant might mean that fees are increased across the
board (including for students not eligible for fee loans). This could have a negative impact on part-time participation overall."
Is this what he means by a fair deal for part-time students? What about universities that train teachers? Their funding will be cut and their MPs will be asked to raise fees before Christmas, but the Department for Education's proposals on funding teacher education will not be published until after Christmas.
We have no guarantees on fair payments, no guarantees on fair access, no guarantees on fairness for part-timers and no guarantees on student numbers. There are all these unanswered questions but the Secretary of State wants to push the vote through so that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark can come out from under the bedclothes. These questions could all be answered by a White Paper before we vote, but the Business Secretary does not have a good record on White Papers. He promised us a growth White Paper in October, but it did not happen. It was then promised for November, but it did not happen. Yesterday, the Chancellor confirmed what officials had already told the Financial Times-that it was not going to happen because there was nothing to put in it.
With higher education we do not know whether the Business Secretary does not know what to put in a White Paper or does not want to tell us. He could publish the White Paper, produce draft legislation on repayments and have the vote on fees all in January. We all have plans for Christmas, but this is the day for him to tell the House that he cares more about the future of our great universities and our young people than he does about the chance to appear in a celebrity edition of "Strictly Come Dancing".
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): I urge the House to oppose the motion. I agree with the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) that this is a very serious and big issue. It arouses strong emotions-there are people out on the streets protesting about it-and I think we deserve something a little better than this anticlimactic procedural motion about whether to proceed with a vote before or after a White Paper. Surely, this is an opportunity for him to set out alternatives.
The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen gave a revealing answer to an intervention from one of my colleagues, in which he acknowledged that there are alternative ways of allocating funding in my Department and in the Government. He did not tell us what they were, but we should examine those choices in detail. The House could reasonably expect, in this massive issue that arouses massive emotions, to hear some indication of what the main Opposition party envisages as an alternative to what the Government are doing.
It has never been explained in the House, but we hear on the grapevine that an alternative idea-the graduate tax-is doing the rounds. Personally, I was instinctively quite attracted to that idea, and we had it very carefully examined. I do not know exactly what the proposal is-whether it is what has been called a pure graduate tax or a system of graduate contributions of the kind we are introducing, which relates payment to the ability to pay. I do not know what the Opposition propose. What is their alternative?
The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues set up the Browne commission process to examine the options in detail and in general principle. It roundly condemns the alternative that I believe he favours-although I am not quite clear. His Government were in power for 12 years, overseeing student financing and acting on the basis of the Dearing report, which comprehensively demolished the arguments for the alternative the right hon. Gentleman now says he favours, so what is that alternative? What is it?
What is the Opposition's alternative? It is perfectly legitimate to ask questions and we shall try to deal with them. What is not legitimate is to create this enormous moral furore, with absolutely no alternative strategy whatever.
I remind the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen that Members from all parties are skating on thin ice when it comes to student financing. He was in the House at the time, so he will remember the pledge on which he campaigned. The right hon. Gentleman quoted our pledge, so I shall quote the pledge on which he campaigned:
"We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them."
There was no coalition agreement. The Labour Government had a majority of 167. There was no financial crisis. At the time, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was going round telling us that Britain was outperforming every Government since the days of the Hanoverians. There was no economic crisis, yet the Labour Government introduced a system that transferred the burden of paying for universities from the state to individual graduates. They introduced it. We are now dealing with a real crisis and we are trying to deal with it in a coalition context. That is the issue the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen has to address.
Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman want to withdraw that last statement? It is wrong to suggest that the current arrangements withdraw funding from the state. He knows that his cut of 80% does that.
There is a problem, and before I move to the specifics, I shall deal with where the Opposition are coming from, particularly their new leader. Last week, he told the press that he was "tempted" to join the student demonstrations. He has had three days praying in the wilderness, dealing with the devil and deciding whether he wants to succumb to temptation. I do not know whether he has, but if he does, and if he addresses the students, I have been trying to imagine what he will tell them. I think the narrative would go something like this: "We feel your pain. We feel your sense of betrayal by the Government and the Liberal Democrats. We have applied our socialist principles, and we are going to produce a fairer system and lead you to the promised land. What are we offering you? What is our policy? Our policy is delay." The policy is delay-procrastination. There is a new mantra for the National Union of Students executive: "What do we want?" "Delay." "When do we want it?" "Well, maybe next year-probably." That is the alternative on offer.
I shall now deal with the core issue-the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen himself identified it: how do we finance higher education? The last line of his motion is the only one with any substance; it relates to money and the 80% cut in the tuition grant. That is a serious issue, so let us try to deal with it.
The right hon. Gentleman was an education Minister so he knows perfectly well that there are three separate funding streams for higher education: student support, research and tuition. When we look at the picture as a whole, we see that at the end of the Labour Government about 60% of all student funding came from the state and the other 40% came from the private sector, from graduates and overseas students. As a result of the changes we propose, approximately 60:40 will become 40:60. It is a mixed economy and the state contribution is being reduced.
The question is whether that number is right. Should it be more or should it be less? If the state is to contribute, where should the money come from? The issue we all have to face is this: when we came into government, and I came into this job, I knew that my predecessors were going to cut the Department that I lead by between 20% and 25%. That was the Institute for Fiscal Studies' analysis, which has never been denied. It is clear from the logic of not having protected Departments that that would have happened. That was in a Department, 70% of whose funding goes to universities. If the Labour Government were not going to cut the tuition grant for universities, we have to ask where the money would have come from.
I shall set out the range of alternatives. A 50% cut in further education was one possibility; another was a 40% cut in science and another was a 45% cut in the
innovation and enterprise budget. We know that the previous Government would not have gone down several of those routes; they committed themselves to increasing the science budget by even more than us. I think the Labour spokesman on science made that very clear at our Question Time last week. The Opposition were not happy that we had maintained the science budget; they want to go even further. At BIS questions, they constantly raise the issue of regional development agency funding-they want to spend more money on that. Where will the money come from? Is it from the cuts they were committed to?
There is a choice. We understand that. What could have happened, although the Opposition have been very quiet on the subject, is that instead of raiding the universities, they could have made drastic cuts in the further education budget. That was the real choice: the further education budget for vocational training for young people who do not go to university. It is almost certain-indeed, it was being put in place when I joined the Department-that cuts in further education were already in train. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen has quite properly spoken of the substantial increase in funding for universities under his Government, but he did not point out that the further education budget did not increase at all. I think it actually fell in real terms. That reflects Labour's priorities.
Mr Denham: That last point is wrong. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that this whole argument is a farrago of nonsense because it is based on a premise about the level of the BIS budget that is wrong, as has been set out clearly by my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor- [Interruption.] I do not want to prolong the intervention. The problem is that the coalition Government insist on denying what they are constantly told. The vote on fees will be a vote not on the policy of the Opposition but on his policy. Why will he not answer the questions that I properly put this evening? Why is he spending all his time doing anything other than answering the questions that I put?
Vince Cable: I will explain in a few minutes why I do not think delay is the sensible option. The right hon. Gentleman acknowledges, and his Opposition motion states, that this is essentially an issue about money and priorities. That is why I am persisting with the question.
It is possible that the Labour Government were not intending to cut further education. There were other options available. They could have cut universities without cutting the tuition grant. How could they have done that? They could have done so by drastically reducing the number of students, a course of action that, I believe, the National Union of Students prefers. But clearly it would be wrong, and the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well from experience and research that increasing the number of university students is one of the best ways of promoting social mobility. So I assume that that is an option that the previous Government would not have taken.
We are left with one other basic option. What we could have done-it would have been an easy way out and we would have avoided many of the difficulties that we are having politically-is to have taken the money out of the budget and let the universities get on with it, not raised the cap. The student representatives might
well have applauded that. We would have avoided all the difficulties that we are discussing tonight, but the effect would, of course, have been to starve the universities of funding, and our world-class universities would have been undermined.
Given the funding constraints, which the right hon. Gentleman faced as well, we had no alternative but to ask well-paid graduates to make a contribution later in life to the cost of university education.
Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): I do not need to remind the right hon. Gentleman about the pledge to scrap tuition fees, but perhaps I do need to remind him that the Liberal Democrats' manifesto said that policy
"is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university expenditure".
The right hon. Gentleman is widely regarded as an expert on economic affairs and the downturn. Did the Lib Dem manifesto get its economics so very badly wrong, or would a lesser policy of maintaining the status quo be affordable?
Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten, but I think he was a Member of the House when his party committed itself to not increasing tuition fees, under conditions where there was no financial pressure at all. We face severe financial constraints. That is the reality.
We were driven to the logic of the Browne report, which the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen and his colleagues set up. In responding to it, we have done two things. First, one of the questions that I asked Lord Browne, which it never occurred to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to ask, was how do we make the system more progressive? I had to ask Lord Browne that because it was not part of his terms of reference. As a result, the Browne report has come out with a series of recommendations, many of which we have accepted, that make the system significantly better than the one that we inherited.
Let me deal with one of those measures, which relates to part-time students. The right hon. Gentleman talked about part-time students, but he forgot to mention that their fees were left unregulated by the previous Government. He has not mentioned that two thirds of part-time students are postgraduates. That explains the anomaly and his question. For part-time students reading for their first degree, under the changes that we are going to introduce, there will be no up-front fees, which was the arrangement left behind by the previous Government. Part-time students get a significantly better deal under our proposals than they would have done under the Opposition.
The second point that Browne adopted at our request in order to make the system more progressive was significantly to raise the threshold. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen asked legitimate questions about the pricing of the threshold and what that means in real terms. Those are valid points, but he did not point out that when the Labour Government introduced their threshold they did not increase it at all. So we are making a perfectly valid comparison between £21,000 and £15,000, whether those are in today's prices or 2015-16 prices. It is a significantly better system in which large numbers-roughly 25%-of low-paid graduates will be better off under our proposals than under the system that we inherited from the Labour party.
Vince Cable: The arrangements for second degrees under the existing regime are quite different, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, from the arrangements for first degrees. The proposal is that we treat first degree part-time students considerably more favourably than they are treated under the existing arrangements. If he checks back with Birkbeck college and with the Open university, he will note that those universities regard our proposals as a significantly better arrangement than the one they currently have.
Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): The Secretary of State is obviously having a difficult time answering questions about his policy in any detail. Let us try a straightforward question-yes or no. Is he going to vote for it? [ Interruption .]
Shabana Mahmood: I am happy to repeat the question. The right hon. Gentleman is obviously having a difficult time answering any questions about this policy. I am asking a straightforward question-yes or no. Is he going to vote for it?
Vince Cable: I have made it absolutely clear in all the interviews that I have given today that my wish and strong inclination is to vote for a policy that I believe in passionately- [Interruption.] This is a policy that I believe in. It is a significantly better policy than I inherited. It is right.
The hon. Lady knows, because it operates in her party as well as in mine and in the Conservative party, that decisions on who votes are taken collectively. We
will take a collective decision- [Interruption.] The hon. Lady asked me a question. I am trying to give her an answer. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) want an answer or not? We will make a decision based upon the coalition agreement as it affects my colleagues and our Conservative coalition partners. That is how we will vote, and we will do it in a disciplined way, but my own views are clear. [Interruption.] This is a significant-
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Would hon. Members now please be quiet? I am finding it incredibly difficult to listen to what the Minister has to say, and if I cannot hear him, neither can they.
We will decide how we are going to approach the matter, under the coalition agreement. I am clear that the policy is significantly better than the one that we inherited. I am responsible for it and I have every intention of continuing to promote it.
The issue of the Browne commission was raised, and I have made the point that I asked the commission to produce a policy that was significantly more progressive than the one that we had, and Lord Browne has done so. We have not accepted the commission's report in its entirety, however; we have made significant changes to make it a better policy.
The Browne report-a report commissioned by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen and his colleagues-recommended no limit on caps. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman remembers that. No limit was proposed, but we have proposed to limit the cap to a manageable and reasonable level that reflects the costs of universities. The report also suggested that-
The report also suggested that caps should be lifted without appropriate conditions for universities, but we are going to introduce those conditions. Let me explain
them. We have responded in the circumstances that I have described to the need to make financial decisions; we have produced an outcome that a Labour Government would almost certainly have followed in very similar terms; and we have produced a policy that is more progressive than the one we inherited and better than the Browne report.
The right hon. Gentleman poses a question about delay. What are the merits of delay as opposed to proceeding immediately? There are several reasons why it is desirable to make progress. First, the Browne commission was itself an extensive consultative process, and the right hon. Gentleman knows because he helped to set it up. There was substantial discussion and public hearings, and he probably deserves some credit for having established an extended process that was so open. Many of those debates have already been had, therefore, and the evidence is available on which to make decisions.
The second point is a practical one, which I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands. If the cap is going to be introduced for the academic year 2012-13, it has to be introduced quickly. There is a practical reason, and that is why we have to proceed, but there are a series of issues-he has listed some-on which we clearly need to consult and reflect further. He quite rightly says that we need more detail on the national scholarship scheme, and we have suggested that an arrangement could be used to benefit students from low-income families by providing free tuition through, let us say, the first year of their university career.
There are different ways of approaching the problem, and we would like to talk to the National Union of Students and to university bodies about the best way of giving incentives through the scholarship scheme to low-income families. The current arrangements do not work well, as the right hon. Gentleman knows because he presided over the policy for some years. We have not achieved the level of participation in higher education by families from that background that we should have. After his period in office, 57% of all pupils in higher education came from advantaged areas, and only 19% came from disadvantaged areas. Surely, after the failure of programmes such as the bursary scheme, it is right that we reflect on and consider the best way of using Government money to achieve higher participation.
The right hon. Gentleman asks also about the access conditions, and again it is surely right that we consider all the evidence available. I will write to the regulator about how the situation can be improved, but, if the right hon. Gentleman's party has anything to tell us from its experience in government, I shall be very interested to hear it, because his Government set up the regulator six years ago, I think. As a result of that experience, the relative position of low-income students trying to get into the top third of universities has deteriorated. Their conditions of access failed as a matter of policy. Surely it is right that we consider further how we can make the policy work, and we shall do so.
Before the right hon. Gentleman moves further beyond the Browne report, I must note that he referred to one issue that was at the core of the report: the uprating of the threshold. He and the Minister for Universities and Science have not yet said whether Browne's proposal to uprate the threshold every five
years in line with earnings will be made a statutory commitment. The Secretary of State has published figures that, he claims, show the system to be progressive-based on uprating by earnings every five years. Will he now tell the House whether that will be a statutory commitment?
Vince Cable: I can confirm that it is our firm intention to do exactly that. Whether the measure requires embedding in a statutory instrument is a matter on which we will seek advice, but I am very confident and very happy to have that commitment-the uprating by earnings of the threshold-made firm by law. How it is done-through a statutory instrument or subsequently-is a matter on which we clearly need advice. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to ask the question, but he should perhaps remind Labour Members that he had an opportunity to uprate thresholds and never did so when in government, despite the fact that his Government's financial position was more comfortable than the current one.
Clive Efford: The right hon. Gentleman is missing one important point in this debate. Throughout the country, students are demonstrating not because of his technical arguments, but because the Liberal Democrats made a point of saying one thing to them at an election and started to say something completely different within hours of the ministerial cars turning up. Students are listening to what he says tonight, and what they want to hear is, is he going to vote for the proposal, yes or no?
Vince Cable: I thought that that intervention might be worth waiting for, but the hon. Gentleman merely echoes his next-door neighbour on the Opposition Benches, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), to whom I have given an answer.
I have sought to answer in correspondence some of the questions that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen has asked, and I am happy to debate the technical points and to correspond further with him, because my colleagues should rightly have as much information as possible. That is how we intend to approach the debate. He said that the costings and calculations were not made available, but they have been made available-to him, his colleagues and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The models are very complex ones that produce different outcomes depending on assumptions, and we are very happy to share them. We could have hidden them in a black box and pretended that the outcomes were true, but we have shared the assumptions and analysis and are happy to continue to do so.
Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): Debates at elections and the Browne report's methodology have been mentioned several times, but is not one of the fundamental flaws in the deliberative process that Lord Browne went through the fact that, although the report could have been published before the general election, the then Secretary of State, Lord Mandelson, deliberately made sure that we could not have a constructive debate during the campaign, because the Labour party knew that the report paved the way for a rise in fees?
Vince Cable: Well, my hon. Friend knows the background, as he was shadowing the portfolio at the time and spoke to the individuals involved. He makes that point, and it is useful that I finish on this note-
The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends commissioned the Browne report knowing perfectly well that what would follow from it was a recommendation significantly to increase the cap level for universities. That is what they were committed to, and that is what they would have done. We know, because of the financial position of the country and the commitments made by the former Chancellor and by my predecessor, that there would have been deep cuts in this Department resulting in a very substantial reduction in the support for universities, the consequences of which were inevitable.
It is sheer dishonesty and opportunism- [ Interruption. ] It is dishonest and opportunistic for the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to pretend that they would have done anything other than introduce recommendations to increase the graduate contribution, but with one significant difference from what we have done, because it never occurred to them that the graduate contribution should be made significantly more progressive. That is what we have done, and that is the proposition that I will be putting to the vote before Christmas.
Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Spending money on universities is not wasteful or unnecessary public expenditure. We need universities because they drive economic growth through the skills they impart to students and the new knowledge they unlock through research. The UK has some of the best universities in the world. One of the reasons the UK experienced stronger economic growth over the past decade than other countries in the European Union is that we have better universities and so a better knowledge base for our businesses.
York has two exceptionally good universities, and they have helped to drive economic growth in the local economy. Between 1997 and 2009, the number of jobs in York grew from 44,000 to 60,600-a 38% growth, far outstripping the national or regional average. Many of those jobs are high-tech, high-skill jobs, but they bring lower-skill jobs in their wake. The importance of universities is not lost on our economic competitors. State investment in universities grows apace in India, China and many other countries. Indeed, other OECD countries, which, like the UK, are having to cut their public expenditure, are also, almost without exception, increasing spending on higher education because they know that it will aid recovery.
Only the UK and Romania are cheese-paring their universities. I have first-hand experience of cheese-paring, because I was an academic at the university of York in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the last Conservative
Government cut funding. Two years ago, Chris Patten, a former chairman of the Conservative party, made a speech in which he said:
"In just over a decade we doubled the number of students and halved the investment in each",
"poorer pay, degraded facilities, less money to support the teaching of each student".
I did not sign the National Union of Students pledge before the last election, even though I am a former vice-president of the NUS, because I knew that universities badly need extra money. I thought that a modest increase in what students pay after graduation would have been fair had there also been an increase in Government funding, but I cannot support the Government in increasing fees by some £5,000-almost £6,000-and cutting the tuition grant to universities by 80%.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the announcement made by the Welsh Government that fees will not be at full or near-full cost for Welsh-domiciled students, which achieves one of the key pledges of the One Wales agreement between his party and mine?
I cannot support the Government's plans because they are reducing state funding for universities. That is a betrayal of the country's future and a betrayal of the future of this country's young people, especially young women. The Liberal Democrat manifesto pledged:
"We will...Tackle the gender gap at all levels of scientific study and research".
The Library's research paper on higher education funding, published on 23 November, reveals that women make up more than 80% of the bottom half of graduates by lifetime income and just over 1% of the top 30%. Yet the same paper says that average repayments as a proportion of lifetime income are more than twice as much for the bottom 50% as for the top 10%. That reveals how regressive and unfair the Government's proposals are to women.
Under Labour, higher education funding increased by 25% and undergraduate numbers increased by 20%. The number of young people from York going to university for the first time increased from just over 2,000 in 1997 to more than 3,000 in 2008. York's two universities received more than £150 million in capital from the Government between 2000 and 2010, rising from £500,000 a year at the start of the period to £28 million at the end. Now that legacy is being swept away by Lib Dem and Conservative spending review policies. It is no surprise that there is anger on the streets of this country-the big society seems to be finding its voice.
Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con):
I welcome Lord Browne's report and the six principles on which it was based, in particular those of increased student choice and of everyone having the potential to benefit from higher education, no matter what background they come from. It was an excellent piece of work, and was set up by the previous Labour Government, but it has apparently been rejected by Labour in favour of a
graduate tax-although I have difficulty understanding what the Labour party's policy is, because it seems to be using a blank sheet of paper, and I am not sure what is on it at any given time.
Lord Browne specifically rejected a graduate tax, and the case against a pure graduate tax is damning. The shadow Secretary of State complained that graduates will be repaying loans for up to 30 years, yet they would pay his graduate tax for the rest of their working lives, resulting in some graduates paying the cost of their courses many times over. In addition, most graduates would have to repay separately any debt incurred for living costs while studying.
There are serious questions about the ability of a graduate tax to produce the necessary revenue to fund higher education. Faced with the record budget deficit left by Labour, a graduate tax would mean the Government having to spend an additional £3 billion a year for at least the next five years. According to the Browne review estimates, a graduate tax would not produce enough revenue to fund higher education until 2041-42. Importantly, a graduate tax would not give universities any additional incentive to focus on the quality of the teaching or student experience that they offer. The Browne review concluded that
"the graduate tax significantly weakens universities' independence"
"create a market in which solely student choice, shapes the size of universities and courses on offer."
I wonder what he fears from a model under which students are fully empowered and can make informed decisions about the type of higher education that is best for them. Labour has always disliked personal choice because it instinctively prefers command and control structures, operated from the centre. Is the Labour party really suggesting that successful and popular universities should continue to ration places, forcing ambitious students to settle for their second or third choice? Universities are at their best when they are not dependent on Government for too much of their funding. Without some sort of market, there is no pressure for universities to improve their teaching quality or their student support to attract more students.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the reforms must not be half-hearted. If we are continually to drive up quality throughout the sector, there must be no student numbers cap for individual institutions. We must not be in a position under the new system where the state steers students into university courses that they do not really want to do and forces them to settle for second best. In the past, that has been done for the best, if misguided, intentions, but it is wrong to keep underperforming universities in their current form at the expense of the quality of the higher education that the student receives.
Facing up to the reality of higher education finance involves very hard choices, which the Opposition do not seem to want to take. It also provides a great opportunity to reform our university system for the benefit of all students and society in general. Faced with higher contributions after graduation, students should demand more from their university. Prospective students will rightly think much more carefully about their choices and demand more information about their university, such as its teaching quality, student support and the employment destinations of other graduates. That will force universities to ensure that their courses really offer value for money and provide evidence of that fact. Once some universities start to account for their performance, if others fail to follow suit students and parents will ask what they have to hide. That will be an incentive for universities to become more innovative, for example by offering shorter degree courses.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Seven years ago, I helped to co-ordinate the Labour Back-Bench opposition to variable tuition fees and a market in higher education, both before a White Paper that was published a whole year before the vote and subsequently. I did it on a point of principle. I felt that I had not come into politics to make it more difficult for people like me, from my sort of background, to go to university, or to put young people who were qualified and determined to go to university, as I was, in a situation in which the price of a university course became just as much a part of the equation as what to study and where to go.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor may not quite be on that wavelength, but I hope that the leader of the Liberal Democrats will realise that today there are still many young people in Sheffield, as in areas such as mine, on whom there is pressure to go out and work and contribute to the family income at 16. That is why the prospect of debt is important. It is another argument used to put pressure on young people not to go to university.
Labour Back-Bench pressure had real results on the market in higher education, which Liberal Democrats in particular might heed before rushing for an early vote on fees. First, right up until Labour's White Paper went to print, the Russell group had expected fees of £5,000. It was no magical typesetting fairy that secured the cap at £3,000, it was simply Back-Bench strength and Government fear of defeat. As everyone was charged £3,000, no real market was created.
Mr MacNeil: As a student in the late '80s and early '90s, I followed people who are now Labour MPs in marches against loans, and then I saw those same people move on from the National Union of Students, become Labour MPs, get on television and advocate tuition fees. Was it a mistake for Labour ever to introduce tuition fees, and is the argument about whether they should be £3,000 or £6,000 just a matter of scale?
The second thing that we achieved was to secure better student support, through grants and new bursaries. Those changes to support were vital in offsetting the deterrent effects of higher fees on less well-off students. That is why anyone on the Government Benches who has concerns-not just Liberal Democrats-should insist on seeing the whole package in a White Paper before rushing to a vote on fees alone.
Thirdly, we gave MPs an opportunity to debate the matter by securing as part of the compromise the democratic handle that now exists, so that the cap could not be raised by the stroke of a Minister's pen or by a Committee upstairs, hand-picked by the Whips. Instead, we ensured that there had to be a vote on the Floor of the House, so that we were all accountable for our votes.
Those days seem rather distant now, but after 2001, we had an enormous majority-I think about three times the size of the coalition's majority now. Yet on Second Reading, 74 Labour MPs, including myself, still opposed the proposals, which is 17 more than there are Liberal Democrats in the House now. Every Liberal Democrat joined us in the Lobby, as well as all but one Conservative, and the Government scraped through by five votes, such was the level of concern.
I am rehearsing this trip down memory lane not to make myself popular with Whips with long memories but to prick the consciences of every Liberal Democrat, in particular, and to show what can be achieved by standing up and being counted. If most of the 57 Liberal Democrat Members who signed their election pledge stuck to their guns, we would once again prevent a market in higher education. They have much more leverage than we did, but seven years ago, Labour Back Benchers changed the policy enormously by taking up the battle.
I shall talk about the evidence later-anyone who cares about equality of opportunity will know that sound evidence should underpin sound policy-but as a slight detour, I shall shine some light through the fog of excuses that the Lib Dem leadership have been using to cover themselves. They said that the financial situation they found in government was worse than they expected when they made their manifesto pledge, but that is patently untrue, because the Treasury's own numbers showed a movement of £5 billion to the better in projected debt from April to May this year.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): What did the hon. Gentleman expect when Lord Browne produced his report, because it was set up by Lord Mandelson, who I understand is becoming more and more popular in the Labour party? What did the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends think Lord Browne would say?
Paul Farrelly: I would have expected Lord Browne's report to be put to the House, so that hon. Members could make their minds up on whether they agreed with it or not. I certainly did not expect a report that was not totally independent. It was shaped by the new coalition because the expectation was for an 80% cut in teaching grants. The notion that the report was truly independent is a fallacy.
The Liberal Democrats also said that we face Greek contagion, and how the promise of not 25 or 50% cuts, but 80% cuts in teaching must soothe the bond markets.
They have tried to shift the goalposts. At Prime Minister's questions recently, the Deputy Prime Minister, in a there-you-two-go-again moment, said:
"We all agree...that graduates should make some contribution"-[ Official Report, 10 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 281.]
The trouble is that the Liberal Democrats never agreed that there should be a contribution. When the Business Secretary announced the U-turn, the Lib Dem website was still advertising, in the "What we stand for" section, their six-stage plan to abolish fees entirely. We know through leaked documents that the Lib Dem leadership planned to ditch the pledge all along if the coalition dream came true-as the first casualty, with no hard bargaining. I am sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats is not in the Chamber because that is not new politics; that is time-dishonoured, old-fashioned cynicism. The only thing that has changed is that the Lib Dems are finally in government. No wonder students are demonstrating and no wonder that Lib Dem voters feel betrayed.
The new policy is not only a breach of faith, but according to the evidence, a large leap in the dark. Under Labour, the participation of people from less well-off backgrounds at university did not decrease, but frankly, neither did it rise dramatically. What seems to have occurred is common sense: improvements to student support helped to offset the deterrent effect of fees, debt and its perception. It has also become more normal for young people to want to go to university. There is similar evidence from overseas of what happens when fees are introduced-from Australia, Canada and New Zealand -yet there is also plenty of evidence of the harmful effects on participation from big increases in fees.
At some of our universities, participation has a shockingly low base, likewise in some of our professions, including medicine-the same is true of the US Ivy league-yet those are the places and courses that will charge the highest fees. Comparatively, our fees will be more than the general level in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, yet when Canada lifted the fee cap on courses such as medicine, there was a large fall in participation. It is hard to see what in the coalition's policy will improve participation, but I fear that much of it will make the situation worse.
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this Opposition day debate. When I heard that it would be on the important issue of the future of higher education funding and the contribution that graduates will be expected to make, I thought that we would finally get to hear what the Labour policy on that is. The Leader of the Opposition supports a graduate tax, and the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer does not support that, so this was Labour's first opportunity to make it clear how it would fund higher education. What a disappointment the Opposition motion is. It is bluster and waffle, and contains absolutely no policy. It is yet another example of shameless opportunism and opposition.
The coalition Government should take no lessons on tuition fees. It is worth reminding the House time and time again that it was the Labour Government who introduced tuition fees, after making an explicit manifesto commitment that they would not do so, and with an
enormous Commons majority. It was also the Labour Government who were responsible for setting up the Browne review, with the explicit intention of increasing fees. But because they knew that it would be unpopular, they cynically delayed the outcome of the review until after the election to avoid losing votes.
Nobody should be duped into believing that Labour would not be proposing increasing tuition fees if they were still in government. The only difference would be that a Labour Government's proposals would be an extension of the unfair and regressive tuition fees introduced by the previous Labour Government. All graduates would have been worse off, and we would not be expecting our wealthiest graduates to pay a reasonable contribution.
This evening, I want to make it very clear that I do not support a rise in tuition fees, and I have made it clear publicly that I will vote against any attempt to lift the cap on fees. Call me old-fashioned, but unlike the Labour party, I actually support free education and I believe that a first degree should be free. That is why I supported our policy to scrap tuition fees. The House should be clear that things would have been different under a Liberal Democrat Administration, rather than a coalition Government, but we have to face the fact that 66% of people voted in the election for parties that were committed to increasing tuition fees, so in coalition discussions it was always going to be difficult to win the argument on tuition fees and force them to be scrapped.
Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): It is forecast that 30 cm of snow will fall tonight in my constituency. That is relevant because Lib Dem members are delivering the leaflet I am holding. Will the hon. Gentleman call off the leafleters until we see where the Secretary of State's intentionometer settles?
Mr Leech: I am not sure how to respond to that. I do not even know which constituency the hon. Lady represents. In any event, I will vote against an increase in fees, even though I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has worked incredibly hard to come up with proposals that will make the system fairer than the current fees system. Nobody will pay back any fees until they earn more than £21,000, there will be no up-front fees for part-time students and additional support will be made available for poorer students.
I will vote against tuition fees simply because I believe that an increase in the cap will discourage some young people from going to university in the future. Under these proposals, the 25% least well-off graduates will be better off than under Labour's current system, but the flaw in my right hon. Friend's proposal is that no one goes to university thinking that they will be among the least well-paid 25% of graduates, so it will put some off.
I certainly will not support this lazy Opposition motion. It does not offer any alternative to an increase in tuition fees. It is not about any need for the Government to clarify its position-it is simply about party political point scoring. It is the Opposition who need to clarify their position, not the Government. The Labour party needs to come clean on its plans for higher education funding and student finance, so that its sudden cynical conversion to opposition to increased fees can be exposed for the sham that it is.
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