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Alistair Burt: Do you remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, a wonderful game some years ago in which a child would ask a magic robot questions and it moved around to point at the answer? One might try to confuse it, but the magic robot always spun round to give the answer. I suspect that, upstairs in the Liberal Democrats' room, there is a magic robot and they ask it a different question every time. "How can we pay for improvements to the health service?" Unerringly, the magic robot replies, "A penny on income tax." "How can we pay for improvements to schools?" "A penny on income tax." "How do we pay for improvements to our universities?" "A penny on income tax." The remarkable way in which that one penny can be used so many times pays great testament to the number of times that the Liberal Democrats must play that game upstairs in their room.

Mr. Rendel: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alistair Burt: No, I must make some progress.

It is vital that, as far as possible, we draw on the knowledge and expertise of those involved in higher education when we start to make decisions on changes to student finance. For that reason, I was particularly surprised that the Secretary of State said that she was reviewing the policy purely internally. She has disappeared back to the Department to produce another system devised by the same people who created the one about which we are all complaining.

I read this morning in The Guardian—my newspaper of choice—a number of things that No. 10 and the Treasury are concocting to foist upon the Department. I appreciate that the Minister will not comment on unsubstantiated newspaper stories, but this one has worried us all and has the ring of truth about it. We will look carefully at what comes out of the review, but it is disappointing that the public's participation in the

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Government's review of student financing is through the pages of the newspapers, rather than through a more open process.

That will not be the Conservative way. Over the coming months and years, we will go out and talk to organisations such as the National Union of Students, the Association of Colleges, Universities UK and others, and we will draw on the experiences of university vice- chancellors, lecturers and students. We will listen to the views of the people who matter in our universities and FE institutions.

Certain core principles will inform our policy-making process. First, we agree with bodies such as Universities UK that there is a real need to ensure that any system of student support focuses on those potential students from less well-off backgrounds. It is vital that we make a university education a realistic goal for every talented young person. It is also vital that young people from less well-off backgrounds are reassured that the financial cost of getting a degree does not put that beyond their reach. Access must not be prevented by cost.

Secondly, any additional provision for students must not come at the expense of university funding. There is a real funding crisis in our universities and they cannot be expected to bear the additional burden of bailing out the Government on student support. The Government must look at ways of giving universities more freedom and allowing them greater scope to harness funds from the private sector. Development must be helped and not hindered by any state involvement.

Finally, it is vital when looking at the entire sector that we do not become focused on higher education to the detriment of further education. The FE sector provides the kind of education that young people and employers want. Some of the more exciting and innovative courses, particularly vocational courses, are being offered by FE students. We must not allow FE to be squeezed out by the university sector, and the current crisis in teaching and recruitment—as revealed in this week's survey by the Association of Colleges—suggests another fine mess for the Minister to uncover to add to her burdens.

In entering post-school education, whether straight from school or later, prospective students deserve the fullest knowledge of what courses are available. They need to know where and how good the courses are, the true value of the qualifications and what society thinks of them, what financial support is available, and when that support needs to be repaid. In that way, they will make their choices on the basis of what is right and appropriate for them in a culture where there is parity of esteem between the vocational and the academic, and where their choice of course, place and sector will enable them to reach their highest potential and not simply to fulfil Government quota or the financial necessity of an institution.

The House knows that, with the best of intentions, any Government can go wrong. The alarms could not have been ringing louder in higher education over the past few years. The Government have ignored too many of them, at the cost of misery and disappointment to students and their families. It is time to listen and maybe—just maybe—to say sorry.

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2.36 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I am in two minds about the debate. I welcome the fact that the Liberal Democrats have chosen this subject. The motion includes the important reference to student support outside higher education, although it is unfortunate that the focus so far has been almost entirely on the university sector. However, the issue has been presented in a way that exemplifies the worst forms of Liberal Democrat opportunism and hypocrisy. As long as Liberal Democrat Members continue to argue that there should be a massive expansion in the money available for student support without committing themselves in their spending plans to finding that money, the party's credibility will be zero.

Earlier, I discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) the Liberal Democrats' latest use of their proposed 1p increase in income tax. The Liberal Democrats have committed themselves to a radical increase in support for students in higher education, and the motion implicitly commits the party to some sort of expansion in support for students in further education. However, my hon. Friend told me that as recently as Friday the Liberal Democrat social services spokesman put in a bid for the 1p on income tax to fund in full the cost of residential social care.

Where will all the money come from? I have to agree with the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) that the proposition is no longer credible.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Does the hon. Gentleman consider that the commitment given by the partnership Government in Wales to £40 million in education maintenance bursaries and financial contingency benefits next year is opportunism, or that it will benefit Welsh young people from poorer homes by giving them the opportunity to enter further or higher education?

Mr. Chaytor: I welcome that commitment, although I am not familiar with the details. The hon. Gentleman had to consult his notes as he asked the question, which suggests that he is not entirely familiar with them either. However, we are talking about a comprehensive programme of reform of student finance, which must apply to students aged 16 and upwards. Whatever proposals the Government make will be funded, so whatever proposals other parties make must also be funded. The experience of the five years since 1997 is that the other parties will not say how that funding will be managed. Liberal Democrat Members believe that, one day, their party will be the second party in the House. I very much hope that that might happen, but I suspect that it will not as long as the Liberal Democrat party continues to promise the earth without putting its money where its mouth is.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman knows that I normally have great respect for what he has to say, but will he accept that we provided the British electorate with a costed list of all our proposals at the last election? If he does accept that, will he apologise to Liberal Democrat Members for his scurrilous remarks about uncosted proposals?

Mr. Chaytor: What the Liberal Democrats are arguing for now is not what they were arguing for on 7 June. If the

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hon. Gentleman gives me a revised version of the costed proposals, I may reconsider my remarks. [Interruption.] Their position shifts as the months go by.

Dr. Pugh: If there is a clear distinction, will the hon. Gentleman explain in what respect it exists? Will he give us figures and details? He cannot simply allege that there is one.

Mr. Chaytor: The Liberal Democrats originally supported the Government's recommendations on reforming student support. Their only point of difference was on student fees, and they fought the election on the abolition of such fees. As the months go by, they are gradually shifting their position and calling for a more radical transformation of student finance. I am in favour of a radical transformation of student finance, but I am prepared to argue for it, as are the Government, only when the money goes with it.

There is no doubt that the Government's move in the last Parliament to grasp the nettle of student finance in the United Kingdom was brave and courageous. With the abolition of mortgage interest tax relief and the reform of company car taxation, the Government showed enormous courage in tackling the central planks of what is traditionally called the middle-class welfare state. They deserve credit for introducing their important policies to extend and redistribute opportunities for people in the United Kingdom.

A number of parents and students have written to me and visited me in my surgery over the past four and a half years, and although there is concern about the level of debt in which some students find themselves, I have also detected a complete understanding of the importance of the general principle that those who benefit from a university education ought to contribute to it. I am not surprised at the comparatively low level of objection to the fundamentals of the system.

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