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3.20 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I pay tribute to the candour and honesty of the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). I also declare an interest. I have three children at university—who, I hope, are working assiduously even as I speak—and I am very familiar with the telephone requests for extra money and the constant need to reach for the cheque book. My problems, however, are nothing compared with the problems of those on low incomes. Many have testified to that, and the evidence, such as it is, is not contested in any part of the House. We all agree that there is a high drop-out rate, that there is a high cost, and that there is high debt. Those are statistical facts, and statistical facts are not really open to argument.

What I will say, however, and what I will blame on both Conservatives and Labour and their disastrous systems of student finance, is the radical change that has taken place in the whole atmosphere of universities. The relationship between university and student has changed—the line is often "If you cannot pay on time, get out"—as has the relationship between students and all the other people with whom they have to deal. Imperious demands from landlords are part and parcel of student life, as is working in cafes late at night and working at weekends.

The Government's policy is an acknowledged disaster. It would have been welcome if the Minister had said "Yes, there are glaring flaws in the system as it stands. Yes, we have established focus groups and spoken to people on the doorstep, and we have found that this is a

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very unpopular Labour policy". For that is what it is, as research shows. The Minister, however, pretended that things were otherwise. She said that this was part of good practice. She was not altering things because things were wrong; she was simply embarking on a procedure of good practice.

If that is Government policy, and if good practice means revising each piece of legislation every three years, may I ask what other examples of good practice will be forthcoming? How many other pieces of legislation will be subject to the same treatment? Will every education policy now have a dust-over every three years?

Mr. Andrew Turner: The hon. Gentleman speaks of good practice, implying that there is some kind of bad practice. Is he suggesting that it is wrong for students to work in cafes or bars occasionally in the evenings?

Dr. Pugh: I am not suggesting that it is morally wrong. I am suggesting that it imposes an extra burden on them, which they might not need to bear if they were adequately financed. That is, I think, pretty evident.

Let me be fair to the Minister; I might otherwise be accused of being a little unfair to her. Towards the end of her speech—having delivered the form of words, and said that this was just good practice—she read out a litany of flaws and errors in the current system, to which I listened very carefully. That is something that the Minister can own up to. It is not surprising: Governments make mistakes, and Governments can admit to them. It is also not surprising that there is to be a rethink, which I welcome. As I said, I was grateful for the honesty and candour displayed by the hon. Member for Luton, North. I wish that the Minister would show the same degree of honesty and candour, and I wish that we could agree on a review that would advance the position significantly and produce a better dispensation for students.

Caroline Flint: It has been said that students with low-income parents are worse off than their counterparts. It has always been true that those with better-off parents receive better Christmas presents, and get the backhanders. I spent summers working in a baked-bean factory when I was at university while some of my more affluent fellow students were touring Europe, and I found that hard; but that is life. We must have a fair funding system, but we cannot constantly compensate for inequalities that we face every day. I would like to feel that my experience in the baked-bean factory had stood me in good stead in terms of character building, and understanding how others worked outside the ivory towers of university.

Dr. Pugh: I am not in favour of sending all students off to baked-bean factories. The hon. Lady has identified a fault—a social inequality—and a problem that we have in society. I rather thought, however, that the object of the Labour party was to do something about social inequality.

Mr. Hopkins: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that working in a baked-bean factory through the summer vacation is an admirable thing to do, but having to work nightly in a bar when one should be studying is a very different matter?

Dr. Pugh: I quite agree; the hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head with his usual candour and refreshing insight.

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I do not want to talk at length about the Scottish experience, but whatever has been decided in Scotland will not be followed by this Government. They will do anything but that, basically because they did not think of it themselves. Whatever the Government may say about the Scottish experience, there are three hard facts that I do not think anyone here will dispute. Fact No. 1 is that the take-up of students in Scotland is better than it is in England. That is indisputable.

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

Dr. Pugh: No, I want to make three points, and I will give way after that.

My second point, to which the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) might also want to respond, is that his colleagues in Scotland voted for the proposals. Unless Labour Members are going to argue that their colleagues in Scotland are either particularly dim or weak willed, it must be the case that their colleagues see some serious merit in that system. The third fact about the Scottish system is that it is financed, because it is impossible in Scotland, as in any corporate or Government body, to set an illegal budget.

By all means, let us have the rethink. Let us have the review. At the end of the day, the battle might not be between anyone here in the Chamber but between the Minister and the Treasury. That is where the serious aggravation might begin. However, if we are to have a review, and some serious consideration of how things are going—I think we would all be up for that—it would be helpful in clearing the ground if the Government would say to the universities, to the parents and to the students, "Sorry."

3.26 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): This has been an interesting debate. We have had magic robots and we have had bean factories. What we have not had is the former Conservative Front Bench, which resembled "The Magic Roundabout"; all of its members jumped off at the last election when the Prime Minister said, "It's time for bed."

Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham): Boing!

Mr. Willis: Thank you for the sound effect.

I am delighted to see that the House has been so consumed by the Liberal Democrats' election manifesto. It is quite rewarding that people have taken it to their hearts, and that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) actually takes it to bed with him and reads it in such detail that he can memorise so much of it.

The debate affects every Member's constituents, irrespective of which part of the United Kingdom they represent. Those of us who represent English constituencies sense that we have been left out of any real debate about student finance over the past two years. Whatever we might think about what has happened in Scotland, the reality is that the devolved Scottish Parliament grasped a fundamental issue and dealt with it. Whether MSPs dealt with it rightly or wrongly is clearly a matter for them and not for this House.

It was interesting to see Conservative Members display the politics of envy about the Barnett formula. If the Conservatives' new policy is to abolish the Barnett

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formula, they ought to tell their friends in Scotland, who would find it very difficult to determine their policy in those circumstances.

I thank the Minister for the candid way in which she exposed the real inequities experienced by students from poorer backgrounds when they try to get into our universities. It is refreshing to hear a Minister expose the real problem in detail, and Barking is clearly no different from many other parts of the country, especially areas such as Leeds and parts of the north-east where I worked as a teacher.

What emerged from the debate was the sad fact that, unless we tackle the issue of post-16 youngsters staying on at school or college, we shall have this debate in 10 years' time and nothing will have changed at all. It was therefore incredibly sad when on 13 October the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council launched an appalling attack on standards in FE colleges on the "Today" programme. He said that 40 per cent. of their work was poor and that 5 per cent. was appalling.

That statement undermined every further education facility and sixth form college in Britain. How can we possibly expect to encourage young people to go into forms of education other than school when the chief executive makes such comments? If nothing else comes out of the debate, I hope the Minister will do all she can to take the chief executive to one side and make it clear to him that he owes every FE college in the country, other than those that have been inspected, an apology. Only five colleges were inspected, and that was the basis on which he made his remarks. I hope that, in her usual candid way, the Minister will respond to that directly in her winding-up speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) made a powerful and convincing case, as did other Members, about the effects of student support arrangements following the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. There is no doubt that the level of student debt and poverty is beginning seriously to damage not only participation but the fabric of our university system.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), in his first Front-Bench speech since he was outed by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), made a measured and well-researched contribution.

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