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Mr. Chaytor: I think that the word the hon. Gentleman was looking for was ousted, not outed.

Mr. Willis: I should choose my words carefully. I apologise profusely if I got the hon. Member's orientation wrong.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire spoiled his contribution by making an unresearched attack on Liberal Democrat policies, especially costings. He may deride the fact that we went into a general election with a costed manifesto, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies examined it and made it clear that every costing stood up to scrutiny. It was disingenuous of him and other Conservative Members to attack the cost of our policies when the Conservatives went into the general election without a costed manifesto, but with a commitment to cut public expenditure by £20 billion. That is the declared objective of the new leader of the Conservative party:

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in time, the Conservatives want to cut public expenditure. There has to be some honesty about the way in which the new Conservative Front Benchers tackle student debt and poverty.

In his passionate defence of further education, as ever, the hon. Member for Bury, North spoke a lot of sense. We will disagree about tuition fees. He has always held that position; we have always held a principled view and will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) hit the nail on the head: it is investment that is needed, and the most effective and fairest way to provide it is through a direct tax system.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) made an uncharacteristic intervention. She said that those who do not go to university do not benefit from those who do. That is wrong. We all benefit from the skills of people who go to university, irrespective of whether we have had that opportunity ourselves.

Valerie Davey: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman recalling my comment and I would like to clarify what I said. It has to be recognised that those who do not go to university pay tax, to the advantage of those who do. I said not that people at university have all the benefit, but that the contribution to our society of people who are working should be recognised, as the tax they pay benefits those at university.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Member for Luton, North answered that point. First, graduates pay significant additional taxation throughout their lives and, secondly, the whole of society benefits from graduates.

I should also mention the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who demonstrated a real commitment to resolving the issue. I was interested in the way in which he pursued the Tory party's proposal to raise the threshold immediately. Perhaps the financial ramifications of that proposal should be made clear. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the costings calculated by the House of Commons Library show that a medical graduate leaving university with a debt of £27,000 would have a debt of more than £50,000 after five years. I am sure that was not what the hon. Gentleman had in mind.

The debate has shown that the House is committed to resolving the problems—Liberal Democrats certainly are. That contrasts with the uncharacteristically puerile remark by the Secretary of State to the vice-chancellors on 22 October. She said:

That is a disingenuous statement. It is not an either/or situation. We are not fighting a class war over whether some kids should go to university and others should not. We want a meritocracy in which everyone, including students from poorer backgrounds, has the chance to go to university.

The facts speak for themselves. The Government, like their predecessors, have failed to attract students from poorer backgrounds to university. The significant difference is that the present Government admit it. Between 1994 and 1999 only 870 additional students from

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the lower socio-economic group went to university. The fact that we have been unable to break down that barrier is a huge slur on our education system and our society.

In Labour's first two years in office, the number of students from poorer backgrounds declined. I believe that that was a direct response to the 1998 Act and the furore over student finance.

Other factors also affect poorer students, most of whom go to local universities, which inevitably are cheaper. That is wrong: students should be able to choose the course that is right for them at the university that is right for them. They should not always have to consider the local option. UCAS statistics show that students from more affluent backgrounds are prepared to travel an average of 82 miles to university, whereas those from poorer backgrounds travel an average of 42 miles. An analysis of the mosaic database reveals that students from poorer backgrounds tend to apply for low-cost courses—those that do not require a large supplementary income.

Medical students are a special problem because they cannot earn additional income. The point about whether it is good for students to go to work is academic for medical students, because most of them are on their course for 50 weeks a year. They cannot exist at university without huge parental support. The sad fact is that 80 per cent. of all medical students are from the top two socio-economic groups, and virtually none from the poorer groups. That is not right and we need to tackle it.

A recent analysis of the funding of medical students shows that 48 per cent. of those who come from semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds receive no parental support at all. People cannot exist at medical school without significant extra support. Once the loans have run out, where do they go?

The Minister and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire laughed at the work done in Scotland and the post-Cubie arrangement. I found that, and the response to the Reece report, rather sad. Not once in the debate did the Minister cite any of the research undertaken in Scotland following Cubie or Pamela Reece's research in Wales. We achieved a coalition with our colleagues in Scotland to do something about student finance. We achieved consensus when the Deputy First Minister, Jim Wallace, and the late Donald Dewar buried the hatchet and reached a compromise. The blind obstinacy of a Government who say that Andrew Cubie's findings and the Reece inquiry have no part to play is staggering.

Now there is to be a review. Interestingly, it was announced on a fringe of the Labour party conference. It was not announced to the House, there is nothing in the Library about it and no hon. Member knows any details. What are its terms? Can any of us become involved? Can we present evidence? Surely we all have a part to play.

We know that the hon. Member for Luton, North is a key player, because he has influenced the review. How long will it take? The papers say that it might conclude in December or January. Will Parliament have a say? Will there be a debate? Will the Education and Skills Committee be asked to undertake an inquiry? Ministers are asked to speak to the Committee but it is not currently undertaking any inquiries. Surely there is an opportunity there.

No doubt when Conor Ryan and Andrew Adonis decide the outcome and report to No. 10, the details will be revealed to the House—sorry, I mean to the "Today"

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programme or The Guardian, which today informs us that the matter has already been resolved. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have had a meeting with their political advisers, to which the Minister and the Secretary of State were not invited—and neither were you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and suddenly The Guardian is called in and, in order to trump us, all is revealed on the day of the Liberal Democrat debate on student finance.

What is the truth? Is the story in The Guardian today absolute nonsense? Is it true that the Secretary of State's plan for a grant and a graduate tax for everybody was her preferred option, but that it has been kicked into touch?

What a way to run a review. It was announced at the Labour party conference, but there has been no debate in the House on a matter of such importance and with such a consensus of view. The policy for the whole country has been decided by a little coterie of friends late at night at No. 10 and then leaked to The Guardian. Do the Government ever learn? The Secretary of State told me that it was pointless to speculate about specifics, but The Guardian has revealed the whole policy for the next 15 or 20 years.

We will sign up to the principle that students have to pay for part of their stay at university. In fact, in 1995 at our party conference in Nottingham, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) ensured that it became party policy that students had to make some repayment because they benefit from that education, as do employers and the state. That remains our position. We accept that students should make a significant contribution to maintenance costs. That is what Cubie said, and we do not have a problem with it, but we will not compromise on our principles about tuition fees.

The state invests in its people through the tuition fees. If the state is not prepared to do that, the Government cannot be serious about creating a knowledge economy. We have to make that investment, and that is our bottom line. This debate has revealed a consensus in the House to make progress. We will willingly take part in the Government's review: will they have us?

3.47 pm

Margaret Hodge: With the leave of the House, I wish to respond to the debate.

We have had an interesting debate and some hon. Members have chosen to address some of the real challenges that we face in developing a strategy and policy to meet our ambitious targets for higher education. The debate was initiated by the Opposition—

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