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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the very generous way in which she introduced this debate on the Motion. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and other noble friends of the Minister who have worked with us on the Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and their colleagues on the Liberal Benches, who have worked so hard. Of course, it would be wrong for me not to include my own colleagues. I have in mind in particular my noble friend Lord Pilkington for whom this was his first Bill. I am reminded of the tragic loss of his wife at the early stages of the Bill and the way in which he stalwartly saw through the work on the legislation.
I should also like to thank my noble friends Lady Seccombe, Lady Park of Monmouth, Lady Young, Lady Byford and my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding whose thanks and gratitude to the Minister I mentioned earlier today. There is also my noble friend Lord Renfrew to thank and my noble friend Lady Carnegy. Indeed, I join with the Minister in thanking her for fighting the corner for Scotland. I should also like to thank the people who advised her with regard to amendments for Scotland. I express my thanks also to my noble friend Lady Perry, who came to our debates with great experience, as indeed is the case with my noble friend Lord Renfrew, and to my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking and my noble friend Lord Butterfield, who has worked so long and hard for his general teaching council which he now sees coming into fruition. Of course, I should not forget my noble friend Lord Beloff.
Having said that, I am afraid that Third Reading debates are also for putting on the record our views about the legislation overall. It has been a sorry saga and very unedifying. The Dearing report was commissioned with all-party agreement. Before the election, the Prime Minister and his right honourable friend Robin Cook both claimed that there were no plans to introduce tuition fees. However, within 100 days of saying so, tuition fees have been proposed and the Prime Minister said in Parliament quite specifically that, on student finance, the Government would accept the Dearing proposals. We know that the Government did not accept those proposals which relate specifically to student finance.
The Government claimed that these proposals were in response to the Dearing report, yet details of them were leaked the weekend before publication; and, on the day of publication, the proposals were announced within hours. The proposals have the hallmark of the Chancellor of the Exchequer all over them. Within a day or two those students who had accepted places following a year out--a gap year--queried the unfairness of being trapped by the
The Scottish Office Minister then announced a concession for Scottish students on the grounds that degree courses were usually four-year courses in Scotland and that its school system was different from that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was then realised that EU citizens had to be treated equally with Scottish students, which gave rise to a preposterous situation; namely, that students from EU countries, including Southern Ireland, would enjoy the concession while students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland would not. The point was also made that there were many four-year courses in England and Wales. But that point was lost on the Government.
As for the Scottish school system being different from the school system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, I should point out that it is also very different from that in France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece and all the other EU countries. Noble Lords took a different view and voted for equality of treatment for all EU students. There can be no defence whatever for disadvantaging English, Welsh and Northern Irish students within the European Union. Any attempt to overturn that amendment will be received with incredulity.
The Bill was introduced with indecent haste; it was skeletal and it lacked detail. It had poor information backing it and we were given confusing answers to the many questions posed on Second Reading and in Committee. Consultations on many of the measures contained within the Bill are either to be carried out yet again, are not yet completed or have yet to be undertaken. There are no drafts of regulations and none has been prepared. Therefore, we have had sight of none of that information while discussing the Bill. For example, I have in mind information on the GTC, induction arrangements, the professional qualification for head teachers and inspection for teacher training. We have not been able to discuss any of the background information which will appear in the regulations. Therefore, much of the Bill has been discussed in a vacuum.
Clauses 23 and 24 place an unfair burden on business. My comments in that respect were well recorded at earlier stages of the Bill. Clauses 16 to 22 have been nothing short of a fiasco, as regards gap year students; the Scottish students' concession; specific promises by the Prime Minister and Mr. Robin Cook; precipitate publication of proposals following the Dearing report; and the broken promise over the introduction of tuition fees.
The proposals regarding the rejection of the Dearing Committee's carefully thought-through recommendation that 50 per cent. of maintenance grants to students from lower income families should be retained have not been thoughtfully considered. For a Labour Government to
The student from a low income family today pays no tuition fees, receives grant to cover up to 50 per cent. of maintenance costs and repays not one penny of that loan until he or she is earning just under £16,000 a year. The debt is written off at the age of 50 or after 25 years, whichever comes first. Under these proposals, the same students from low income families, who possibly pay no tuition fees depending on the means test, will have to borrow the whole of their maintenance. Following a three-year degree course, they will go from a debt of approximately £4,600 under the present system to more than double that level of debt under these proposals. They will begin to repay the loan at an income of £10,000 a year, albeit over a longer period; and, if the loan remains outstanding, it will continue until they reach the age of 65.
On the issue of repayments, I should point out that, at an income of £16,000, a student under the present system who borrows £4,600 (the maximum amount of loan for a student) will repay it at £76 per month over five years. However, at an income of £16,000, a comparable student under the proposed arrangements would have to borrow at least £10,000 and repay it at £45 per month for 18 years.
I turn now to Clause 18. Officials at the Department for Education really must be shaking with excitement over the inclusion of Clause 18, albeit with modifications. Clause 18 powers go much wider than top-up fees. Over time, I predict that the effects of this clause will run the risk of some universities going independent. For the Secretary of State to take a power, which will hang like the sword of Damocles over universities and colleges, does very little to sustain the autonomy of what are, after all, "free-standing chartered institutions".
When this or any future Chancellor of the Exchequer is much less generous to the funding of higher education, given the sword of Damocles represented by Clause 18, the only course for survival will be to cut staffing and/or courses of study. The only alternative source of funding will be for the Government to raise further tuition fee income from students.
We are in the process of passing legislation in this House with an unprecedented raft of consultation and regulations to follow, which will expose much of the detail that we have tried to elicit during the Bill's passage. Opposition amendments have been made to the Bill; for example, on the general teaching council, which has had the effect of turning what was an expensive talking shop into a body that will now concern itself with professional standards, on equality of treatment for all students throughout the European Union and on the retention of 50 per cent. maintenance grant to students from lower income families.
As the noble Baroness has said, it is of course for the Government in another place with their overwhelming majority to consider accepting amendments or to revert to the proposals which disadvantage English, Welsh and Northern Irish students within the European Union, and to remove maintenance grant from students from low income families against the recommendations of the Dearing Committee and against the wishes of Members from all sides of this House. If this amendment is reversed in another place, these students will leave university with the greatest burden of debt. How can that be justified? We have fought throughout for fairness and justice for students, and for students from low income families in particular.
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