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Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not entirely sure that what I am about to say will be the most popular of words uttered in your Lordships' House. While I might agree with much of what the noble Baroness has said, we have to respect the democratic right of people to make their protests and views felt. The Baroness makes a very important point. We shall of course consider the implications of the report issued today.

Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, who owns the square? Would it not be worth while for the Government to purchase Parliament Square? They could then take action themselves when it is vandalised in this way.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the square is the responsibility of the Greater London Authority. Policing it is a matter for the Metropolitan Police. They obviously keep the situation under careful review

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but, as long as there is no obstruction to the Houses of Parliament, those who choose to use the square for the purposes of protest can do so.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister agree that demonstration placards and pamphlets in Parliament Square are an expression of our tolerance and democratic values? Should we not protect the rights of those who wish to protest in this way? All the visitors that I have met have marvelled at the patience of the British people in tolerating the situation in Parliament Square.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Lord has said.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, with all deference to what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has said, whose democratic rights are we talking about? Is it reasonable to protect the rights of one individual to the detriment of the well-being of the community at large? Is there not an enormous difference between exercising democratic rights in a spontaneous way—we must all protect freedom of speech—and the quasi-permanent residential situation that we all have to endure at the moment?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I had thought that the noble Baroness was a member of the more tolerant part of the Conservative Party opposite. While she may find it disagreeable to look upon protesters—

Noble Lords: No!

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is how it sounds to noble Lords on these Benches.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, why should we feel embarrassed to show the world that a vibrant democracy can manifest itself in inconvenient and ugly ways? The exhibits of the demonstrators are not manned overnight. If we want a little order on the site, all we have to do is to ensure that if they cannot be manned they are taken away. This would mean that the site would then remain for demonstrating radical opinions and we would preserve the very democratic nature of the ongoing debate.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is a sensible way to address the issue. Perhaps it would be a better way of doing things. But it is not for us to determine. The land is not ours. Responsibility for it rests with the Greater London Authority. Westminster Council has sought action on this and has failed so far.

Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the situation has arisen, in part, because two police forces are involved and neither wishes to take responsibility?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as far as I am aware, that is not the issue.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, while I support my noble friend's proposal, is the Minister aware that

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posters with the message that "The end of the world is nigh" have been allowed in prominent places in London in the past, although the passage of time has proved the message to be inaccurate at the least?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not sure that that requires a ministerial response.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, seems to have the answer. It is not people protesting that is objectionable but the permanent camp, which is unoccupied at night. I cannot see any reason why the impedimenta should not be removed when abandoned in the evening, either by the people who have got it, by the police or by other authorities. Is the Minister aware that the report of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, published this morning, recommends that the Government should introduce appropriate legislation to prohibit long-term demonstrations? There may be one or two of us on this side of the House who would support such legislation.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as I made plain earlier, I am aware of the report. I also made plain that we will keep the situation under review. We have not had long to absorb the full import of the report. We have recently addressed some of the issues raised by passing the anti-social behaviour legislation, certain features of which will enable action to be taken when a static demonstration becomes a nuisance. So there are statutes and statutory opportunities available should they be required.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, why could not a public-spirited citizen, of his own accord, go to the site when it is unmanned and remove the litter? Would he not be performing a service for the public rather than committing an offence?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, these matters are best dealt with in a quiet and sober manner. While the noble Lord's suggestion may have some attraction, it could create further difficulties.

Student Loans

2.47 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What public financial assistance is available to students applying for admission to university.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, eligible students receive means-tested student loans which in 2003–04 range from 3,165 for students living at home to 4,000 for those living elsewhere and 4,930 for those living away from home in London. From September 2004 around 30 per cent of students will be entitled to a grant of

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1,000 per year. In addition, grants and bursaries are available for part-time students, student parents and those with disabilities.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I appreciate the Government's attempts in this difficult matter, but does my noble friend agree that having to borrow money from the state to undertake a degree course, which is the present situation, is a considerable deterrent to poorer families? That is one of the most important aspects. Have the Government given any thought to changing the system? Are they giving full consideration to the objections that have been made, and are being made, by the National Union of Students in this matter?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, we do not consider this a difficult matter. There has been a wide-ranging debate, over many months, involving many Members of your Lordships' House who have a real interest in higher education, as well as those outside, to enable the Government to bring forward firm proposals and conclusions on what we might do. The present situation does not deter people from coming to university; numbers are increasing. We are committed to ensuring that there is an increase in student numbers of those who are able to go to university and benefit from it. We have made clear the system we plan to put in place. We have dialogue and discussions with the National Union of Students. It has its views and we have ours.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the increase in those going into higher education has fundamentally, over the past 15 years, consisted of middle-class girls catching up with the proportion of middle-class men and that there is still a major deficit from the working classes? Now that the Government are taking over so many aspects of the education policy of the previous Conservative government, could they not consider an assisted places scheme targeted on the more disadvantaged to help them go to university?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am delighted that girls are catching up with and—dare I say it?—overtaking some of the boys in many situations in our society. The system we are proposing is a very good one. It is about ensuring that our higher education institutions play their part—which many are willing to do—in ensuring that the communications they give to our young people about the benefits of university life, graduation and entering the labour market as a graduate are well known. That is the way we should go within an education system that we are striving to make excellent for all children in all schools at all times.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, is it not the case that according to the department's own figures, average student debt levels increased two and a half times between 1998–99 and 2002–03 to nearly 9,000? Is it not also the case that the poorest undergraduates

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are saddled with the greatest debt? Indeed, the figures suggest that they carry 44 per cent more debt than those better placed.

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