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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that helpful reply. Can he tell the House who was responsible for the authorisation of agents to seek out such properties?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister with responsibility for citizenship and immigration would have overall responsibility for pursuing the policy of creating a range of induction centres across the country. That policy was set out in a White Paper which this House considered a year ago. Specifically, the operational practice of the policy would be dealt with by the director of NASS itself. In terms of exactly who said what to whom and at what point in time, I do not have those details here. If the noble Lord would care to specify the question, I would be pleased to write to him.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that induction centres are the first stage in the dispersal policy and that no one is expected to stay in them for longer than 10 days? Yet, by the Minister's own admission, NASS has cocked up the whole process of consultation with local authorities and communities. Is it not time that he took into account the serious criticism by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in regard to the work of NASS and involved the voluntary refugee agencies in the consultative process to a much greater extent?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Lord asked a string of important questions. The noble Lord is absolutely right that people stay in induction centres for no longer than 10 days. That is part of the process of managing the asylum system. Induction centres in the South East are able to disperse asylum seekers to other parts of the country so that the South East does not bear all of the burden. We recognise that the processes that were in place were not satisfactory and that local communities and the relevant MP should have been better consulted. Therefore, we commissioned an urgent review of the situation to decide the best way forward. My honourable friend has also said that she will commission an independent review of procurement processes within NASS to try to ensure that we perform better in these respects in the future. As to the wider point about NASS, a process of regionalisation is under way, as we signalled clearly when we discussed the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord said that the Government were consulting local authorities about what houses, including country houses, were available. Do local authorities have lots of empty country houses and, if so, why?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am not certain whether the noble Earl was making an offer. To my knowledge, local authorities do not have a large number of empty

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houses although all suitable offers would be seriously considered. Having considered the Sittingbourne situation, we intend to delay sending asylum seekers to the hotel there until we have talked through the issue with local people, the local MP and the local authority. We shall be holding talks for as long as is necessary properly to address the issues.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, would Dorneywood and Chequers be considered suitable?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, to my knowledge, they are not empty.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, is there a risk that some people who are considering asylum may be encouraged to think that they will be put into a three or four star hotel?

Lord Filkin: No, my Lords, that is not the case for two reasons: we are not using four star hotels and people who come to this country applying for refuge under the 1951 convention are in most cases desperate to seek refuge in this country. They are in most cases grateful for whatever level of support the country is able to provide. It is a calumny to suggest that we are extravagant or lavish in our treatment of asylum seekers while properly respecting our international obligations.

Undergraduate Debt

3.3 p.m.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the maximum level of debt they consider reasonable for a British undergraduate to be expected to accumulate in the course of obtaining a degree from a United Kingdom university.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, a reasonable debt for an undergraduate is one that will fund a high quality education, give him or her the opportunity and skills to progress in their career and can be repaid at a reasonable rate over a reasonable time and in a reasonable manner.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, is not the Minister ashamed to be a member of a Labour government who have abandoned the principle of free access to higher education, who plan to saddle undergraduates with debts of more than 20,000 to pay for their degrees and who are undermining the independence of universities by forcing them to change their entrance administration procedures to discriminate against middle-class students of proven ability?

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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the answer to the question is "No". The noble Lord has asked the most topical of topical Questions as shortly I shall repeat the Statement made by my right honourable friend and we shall debate those issues. I am conscious that most noble Lords have not yet had the chance to hear the detail of that Statement. However, if the noble Lord looks at the full range of the proposals that we have put forward, particularly in regard to students from poorer backgrounds, he will see that we have introduced grants and that we have increased the threshold at which university graduates will repay the money from 10,000 to 15,000. We are working closely with universities to ensure access for students who are capable of undertaking higher education. We are ensuring that we fund universities to provide that.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the policy of moving from grants to loans, thereby increasing student debt, is shared between the two major parties which have formed governments over the past decade? We should all be concerned about the effect of indebtedness. Has the extensive research conducted at Exeter University on the effect of indebtedness on students' life expectations and view been considered by the Government in arriving at their conclusions? Do the Government feel that they are responsible for the changes in social attitude which are brought about by requiring students to be in debt at an age when they cannot possibly work out what they will be able to afford? Do the Government agree that a whole generation is being encouraged to carry into later life an attitude that debt is absolutely normal? Do the Government further agree that the student debt situation is, frankly, out of control?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, in the course of our deliberations on these issues we have indeed considered all the evidence that has been put before us. We have had many and extensive discussions, some of which have been reported in the media, others of which some noble Lords have been party to. We must recognise who needs to make a contribution and ensure that that is handled appropriately. We believe—we shall debate this matter when we discuss the Statement—that we have found a balance that enables students to make their contribution. They will repay the money when they earn a salary that is sufficient to enable them to make the repayments. We recognise that we need to give our poorer students some support. We believe that our solution is the best that we can achieve.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that there is increasing evidence that bright, talented young people who come from families with a tradition of going to university, or attending schools of which the Government disapprove, are suffering reverse discrimination in order to widen access? Will the Minister put hand on heart and say that standards

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of entry will never, but never, be compromised in order simply to widen access to young people whose families do not have a tradition of going to university?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, what the noble Baroness and I need to debate is what we mean by standards of entry. I recognise that we must ensure that our universities are filled with the brightest and best students who can undertake a university education. There is no doubt on that point. As regards access we recognise that the concept of going to university does not form part of the background of many of our young people. Their families do not have a tradition of going to university. It is not something that they contemplate. Therefore, we must ensure that we work hard to give those young people opportunities. We must also recognise that, unfortunately, not all our schools give young people the best possible education. Many of our universities have already undertaken work, and will continue to do so, to recognise the breadth and potential of young people. I wholeheartedly agree that universities should accept those young people who will benefit from a university education.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, taking the Question at its face value, what advice has the department received from banks and building societies about the implications of high levels of student debt on mortgage loans? Do student debt repayments take precedence over mortgage repayments? As an unsecured debt would the financial sector regard it as a substantial prior obligation and limit the availability of mortgage lending accordingly?

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