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Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Does the Minister know what Antony Gormley, Mary Quant, Damien Hirst, Bridget Riley and Sam Taylor-Wood have in common? They are all past students of Goldsmiths college in my constituency- [Interruption.] I am sorry; it was not a joke. All have become leaders and innovators in their chosen field and brought honour to the arts in the UK. It is what Goldsmiths college, which has been part of the university of London for 100 years, is good at.
Today Goldsmiths college has more than 5,500 undergraduates, more than 3,000 postgraduates and close to 1,000 members of staff, and it is one of the top five employers in Lewisham. But for how long? Goldsmiths' focus is on the arts, humanities and social sciences, and because of that, it can expect to lose most, if not all, its teaching funding-a staggering £16.5 million. Even as I say it, I can scarcely believe it. I say that as a science graduate who has always championed the cause of greater science funding.
It cannot be a question of either/or. Institutions such as Goldsmiths and the Trinity Laban conservatoire of music and dance, of which I am a director, have no options. Even now, they are unable to calculate the precise implications of the Government's draconian spending cuts on their future funding or the fees they will need to charge.
The Higher Education Funding Council cannot give these institutions the answers to those questions, and no doubt the Minister cannot tell them either-although I invite him to prove me wrong when he responds. These colleges' fees structures will need to be decided by March next year, which is a mere four months away. [Interruption.] The Minister can clearly change the timetable, because it is his timetable that means that they have to decide in four months. How does an institution cope with the requirement to make up the loss of possibly all its teaching funding? What significant changes will it have to make to what it offers and how it offers it? It will have to rethink its whole modus operandi.
Yesterday, I spoke to constituents of mine who attend a variety of colleges making up the University of the Arts London. They told me of their own experiences. Some had been able to go to sixth form colleges and do A-levels in arts subjects only because they received the education maintenance allowance that the Government now intend to abolish.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern, which a lot of young people have also expressed to me, that the scrapping of Aimhigher and the EMA and the terrifying prospect of £9,000 a year of debt will put off thousands of young people even thinking that university is for them?
Joan Ruddock: My hon. Friend is correct, and I am sure that in her constituency, as in mine, there are many young people who really believe that all their hopes and aspirations have already been dashed because those ladders of opportunity have been cut away.
The students of whom I was speaking are today doing part-time jobs, which are increasingly difficult to find, in order to purchase many of the materials they need for their specialist courses. They already feel the burden of current levels of student debt, and told me that they could not possibly contemplate paying three times the current fee levels. The same is true for the students of Goldsmiths and for the many school children in my constituency who now despair of getting a university education.
Goldsmiths is known internationally for its creative and innovative approach to teaching, being ranked ninth in the UK for its world-leading, four-star research. I can only guess what fees of £9,000 a year will do to the aspirations of today's young people. I cannot comprehend what the loss of teaching funding could do to Goldsmiths college. Frankly, I am astounded that coalition Ministers can propose such action and that Lib Dem Members could vote for it.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the right hon. Lady agree that those who graduated and got their degrees in previous years would not have been able to do so if the tuition fees proposed by the coalition Government had been in place?
Have the Minister and his Front-Bench colleagues no understanding of the long-term cultural benefit to society that comes from the arts, humanities and social sciences? Do Ministers not even comprehend the economic value of the cultural industries that thrived and grew so much in the past decade? Under coalition plans, university education will become the preserve of the rich, diminishing the diversity and talent of our creative and cultural sectors, and impoverishing us all. Ministers should hang their heads in shame.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): In the few minutes available to me, I want to focus on two aspects of the debate that are of critical importance, but which are often overlooked in the heat-rather than light-generated by the Opposition. They are support for part-time students, and the Government's wish to make the higher and further education sectors more flexible.
Both the Open university and the new University Centre Milton Keynes are close to my constituency, so I, too, have a strong local interest in the issue. Both institutions have welcomed the Government's broad approach. In a speech to the Universities UK conference last week, the vice-chancellor of the Open university, Martin Bean, said:
"I believe we are on the brink of creating a more diverse, flexible and open system of higher education in this country which will provide greater choice and opportunity for young students and adult learners alike and which will have a strong focus on quality. This is a significant step forward."
Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are talking about an ideological decision that is not based on reducing the deficit? Repayments will not start until 2015, thereby not reducing the deficit during this Parliament.
Iain Stewart: I am not going to take any lectures from the Opposition about cutting money to universities when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's predecessor, the noble Lord Mandelson, cut some £900 million from the university budget just before the election.
What we are focusing on is what will be relevant for our higher and further education sectors. We must develop higher education options that respond to the fast-changing global economic environment. Long gone are the days when people got one degree that set them up in a job for life. People will have to retrain and reskill many times through their working lives. People will have more portfolio careers and will need more flexible training options to engage with our fast-emerging economic competitors. Improved support for part-time students is critical to encouraging people to study at lower intensities, combining work and studies in different proportions. I welcome the move to put in place a single, integrated system of finance and support.
I would like to raise one or two points of detail that my friends at the Open university have raised with me. The first, and most significant, is the definition of the intensity of a part-time course. The Government have announced that they will reduce the current level to the equivalent of one third of a full-time course, and that is a huge step forward. I must point out, however, that the Open university has more than 100 courses-they involve 25,000 students, mainly in science, technology, engineering and maths-that have an intensity level below one third. The Open university would like the intensity level to be set at about a quarter. I appreciate that that might be difficult to attain in a single step, but I hope that the Minister will at least consider averaging out the intensity level for the duration of a course, because students often want to start off at a lower intensity level until they become more comfortable with the subject, after which they can increase the proportion as the course progresses. I hope that that is a constructive comment that the Minister can take on board.
The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): I will of course undertake to look at the specific point that my hon. Friend has raised on behalf of the Open university. Will he also accept from me that, contrary to what we were told by the Opposition, it is already the case that we will be helping two thirds of first degree part-time students with our proposal to extend access to fee loans to them? The only way in which the Opposition can attain their figures is by including, for example, part-timers doing a second degree, and the only reason that they are not included in the policy is that it was the Labour Government's ELQ-equivalent or lower qualifications-policy that excluded them in the first place.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to join me in asking the Minister whether he will clarify a point about the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which this year is getting targeted funding of some £71 million to support part-time students and another £142 million to widen student participation? Will he ask the Minister whether those targeted allocations will be continuing at the same level over the course of the comprehensive spending review period? Is not the Open university, for example, entitled to some clarity on those questions as well?
The second point that I wish to make relates to the national scholarship programme, which has already been mentioned. I very much welcome it as an incentive to help students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, but will my right hon. Friend clarify whether, when the details are firmed up, it will explicitly encompass part-time students on lower incomes, and mature students as well a school leavers, within its scope? I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify that as well.
Time prohibits me from exploring some of the other points that I would wish to raise. I shall conclude by making a few observations about making the higher and further education sectors more flexible. The University Centre Milton Keynes, which the Minister has visited, is based on the new concepts of cloud higher education, or University 2.0. These are exciting and innovative concepts, based on a partnership model that involves further education, a variety of universities, the civic community, the third sector and local business. There is much interest locally in taking this project forward and making it work.
I strongly commend the Government for setting out to make this sector more flexible and responsive, and I hope that by addressing some of the points of detail that I have raised tonight, we can make that vision a reality.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I should like to start by saying just how proud I am that, in Scotland, under a Scottish National party Government, we will not be introducing these pernicious tuition fees. We will not follow the example of the Conservatives, the Liberals or Labour by burdening our students with crippling debt. We will do all that we can to ensure that in Scotland, education remains free. It will remain free to us because it is important to us. Scottish education was built on the foundation of being free, and our universities were built on that principle. It is a tradition, a history and a culture that we cherish, and we will not give it away lightly. Tuition fees, introduced by Labour and taken up with relish and aplomb by the Conservatives and their Liberal minions, are something that we will not-
Let me compliment the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on the start of his speech. Will he comment on the massive amount of communication in which he has engaged with the Scottish people, which is similar to the communication in which the Liberal Democrats have engaged? Would he, too, lie to students at a general election by saying that he would write off all the student fees? Would he lie to students to get elected, and then turn his back on that pledge as well?
Pete Wishart: It will not surprise you to learn, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am disappointed by the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I expected a little contrition on Labour's part, even if it consisted only of the words "We are sorry for introducing tuition fees". If you were a student in Scotland and you had a choice, who on earth would you support? Would you support the Labour party, which introduced tuition fees, wanted to increase them exponentially and initiated the Browne report, or would you consider the SNP, which had nothing to do with tuition fees and even went as far as abolishing Labour's graduate endowment? That was our commitment to free education in Scotland, and I make no apologies for it.
How do we differ from the London parties? We believe that education should be based on the right to learn, not on the right to pay. We do not share their view that funding higher education should be a matter for the student. We believe that higher education makes a valuable contribution to our communities which enhances our societies, and we therefore believe that higher education funding should come from the state.
I see that some Members are beginning to twitch. They are all thinking, "If Scotland is not going to introduce these pernicious fees, what is Wishart going on about?" They are thinking, "Surely the SNP only votes on Scottish issues, and is leaving this legislation alone." That is true, but these pernicious fees will have a significant impact on Scottish higher education. They could have disastrous consequences for our universities. It is the job of every Scottish Member of Parliament in the House of Commons to defend and protect the Scottish interest, and I make no apologies for doing just that job.
I see that some Liberal Democrats are present. Do they realise-do they understand and appreciate-the impact that tuition fees will have on their higher education? In case they do not know what will happen, I will tell them. Because English universities will be awash with tuition fees-appropriations from their students-we will be at a competitive disadvantage. The fact that we will not have the same development and resources to provide research facilities to attract international students could have disastrous consequences. Moreover, because tuition fees come from the students themselves, they will not be subject to the departmental Barnett
consequentials. As the budget for English education rises, our share, determined through the Barnett consequentials, will fall. Of course English students will see Scotland as an attractive prospect.
Hugh Bayley: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has read the note from the Library, but it tells us that in the five years since top-up fees were introduced in England, the number of applications to English universities has increased by 16%, whereas in Scotland it has increased by only 8%. Why does the hon. Gentleman think more students are choosing English universities?
Pete Wishart: I was going to give a figure myself. I would be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's view on it, although I am not able to give way to him again. Because the SNP Scottish Government have rejected the idea of tuition fees, fee refugees from England are going to Scotland to take places at Scottish universities, thus denying university places to Scottish students, and that will increase. That is because students who might otherwise be facing a lifetime of Clegg debt will, of course, look at Scotland as an attractive option.
I want to be as generous as possible to all the other political parties represented in this House, as I always take what they have to offer in debates very seriously. We know the Tories' position. The Minister for Universities and Science is described as "Two Brains" and it is Tory thinking that runs through those two brains. Of course tuition fees is a Tory idea. We know that; that is the sort of thing they do-they hurt the poor and they make sure students will have to pay for their courses-but Labour, for goodness' sake, introduced tuition fees and voted to increase them exponentially, although, thankfully, they were defeated in that. Labour also initiated the Browne review, but now in opposition they let out a howl of protest about what the Tories are going to do, yet we have no idea what they would plan to do.
The Liberals are the comedy act in this turn. Breaking this pledge might be the biggest suicide gesture in modern political history. We have seen the leaflet that was handed out in Scotland opposing tuition fees just at the point when they are going to introduce them, but we should not mock the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) because he is the good guy now. We have to get the Liberals with us to ensure this measure can be beaten. It is up to them; they can ensure that this is seen off. It is up to the Liberals to make sure they do that.
The Scottish Government will not be cajoled or bullied into following this course of action. We are going to have to consider our response, given what this Government are going to do. We have ruled nothing out other than these tuition fees. We must defend our universities by making sure they are protected and they remain world class, but we will oppose this. We make no apologies for
ensuring that Scottish universities are maintained and protected, and that we have the best universities in the world.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I do not deny for a minute the passion of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), but as was pointed out in an intervention, his party promised it would abolish student debt. There was no coalition; there was a minority Government. Yet within a week they said, "We only promised this because we didn't think we'd win the election. We couldn't afford it; it was uncosted and it was undeliverable."
I also want to make it clear that, interestingly, the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland was delivered by the Liberal Democrats and Labour working together, and the abolition of the graduate contribution was delivered by the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats working together. We are not at all a party that comes to this issue embracing the principle of tuition fees; we are a party that has engaged with genuine integrity in a coalition, which has led to our being faced with deep and difficult decisions that none of us finds easy or comfortable, and we are not pretending that we do.
I also want to make it clear that as a result of devolution and the Calman reforms that are coming, the Scottish Parliament and Scottish politicians can decide to have free university education in Scotland for as long as we can prioritise that within the budget. There is not an obligation upon the Scottish Parliament to follow suit. As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire rightly said, it is equally true that we will have to ensure that we can maintain our universities to world-class standards and fund them, as is also the case for the universities in England and Wales. The difficult question to be faced is that we must consider not only how we can fund them today, but how we can fund them in five, 10 and 15 years' time. I completely accept that we can take a decision to do this for free, but if we do I doubt whether we will be able to maintain our universities' world-class status, or 40%, 50% or 60% participation. Most importantly, if the Liberal Democrats were to disengage from this process I doubt that the students would welcome the consequences of our not having been there.
Ian Paisley: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the doubting Thomas performance from those on the Government Front Bench that we have witnessed tonight has done nothing to convince the students outside-or, indeed, the ordinary public-that this Government actually have a policy on fees that is fit for purpose? Does he also agree that it is the duty of the Government not merely to attack the Opposition policy, but to come up with a policy that they are convinced of themselves-that has the conviction of the Government and that takes this House forward on a note of conviction, not of attack?
Malcolm Bruce: What is clear is that the Government have a policy, whereas the Labour party absolutely does not. I have the utmost respect for the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who spoke with genuine commitment and sincerity, and I take the point that she is making. But what does she say to people who tell her that under this system they will not be able to go to university, that they could not have gone to university or that their children will not be able to go? Does she say, "You are absolutely right. You should despair. Just despair"? Does she not say that they should have a proper look at what is actually being proposed? I accept entirely the cultural fear that people have of debt, but there are no fees to be paid up front, increased maintenance support-grants and loans-is available and people pay the money back only as and when they earn salaries that are rising. People from poorer backgrounds should seriously reflect that that gives them more opportunity to go to university than ever was the case before.
Joan Ruddock: Frankly, the right hon. Gentleman insults the intelligence of my constituents, who understand very well that there are to be no up-front fees to pay, as indeed there are not at the moment. It is the overall burden of debt for a lifetime that they are afraid of, and rightly so.
Malcolm Bruce: What I would stress to the right hon. Lady and to the students if they will engage and listen-the ones that I have spoken to have done so and have accepted this-is that this is a much more progressive arrangement than exists at the moment and than the Labour Government set up. The repayments are generally lower-for 20 to 25% of people they are significantly lower-but for the higher earners they are higher. Consequently, this is a much more progressive system. The truth is that if a parent or young person is considering going to college or university, they face no up-front fees. If they come from a poorer background, they can obtain a higher maintenance grant than is currently available and larger loans than are currently available, on a fairer rate of exchange, and repayments start only when they are earning-
Malcolm Bruce: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I had the privilege of going to a privately funded school and university, but I did not get the opportunity to go to Oxford or Cambridge because my father was not prepared to pay further fees for me to do the entrance exam, to delay further and then to pay for me through one of those universities. I have no regrets about going to the very good Scottish universities from which I have graduated, but the point is that if I was in that situation today, I could decide for myself that I could go to Oxford or Cambridge because I could get the funding and I would pay it back when I had got the benefit of that education.
This is simply a matter of calculating that an education is a benefit to the entire state-the state should therefore facilitate it, support it and maintain its quality-but it is
also a benefit to the individual. Some individuals will use that benefit in ways that are less commercial-they will do things that do not earn them a great deal money-but they will therefore not pay anything like the whole of that investment back; they will not be required to do so. They would be if there was a graduate tax-
Malcolm Bruce: I am not going to give way. Secondly, people can also make the calculation, "I made the investment, I made the repayment and if I choose to seek commercial benefit from it, it is only reasonable that I should pay a contribution back." In one way or another-this argument applies even if we opt for free tuition and free fees-the individual pays it back through general taxation. The difference here is that we are trying to connect it to the actual education.
I suggest that our approach has an implication for quality. Two things will drive university quality up: the demands of students and competition from other universities, nationally and internationally. It is fair enough to criticise our policy, with which many of us are not entirely comfortable. However, I suggest to Opposition Members that to be credible in doing so it behoves them to come up with a viable alternative as to how they can ensure that our world-class universities will continue to have access to the funding that will maintain them as such and ensure that the students who go to them will have enough influence to ensure that they get the quality of education that they deserve. That is what this is about; this is a difficult decision, but Opposition Members need to engage much more intelligently in the debate.
Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow two fellow Scottish Members, although we had a rather delusional performance from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). It is understandable-he is still feeling a bit dizzy after the economic crisis in Ireland, on which they are modelling Scottish independence.
Let us return to the debate at hand. Anyone who has witnessed the huge and largely peaceful demonstrations against the coalition's plans will appreciate just how important the issue we are debating is for thousands of students, school pupils, teaching staff and parents. I shall surprise hon. Members by saying that I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister. Before the election, he said:
"If we have learnt one thing from the economic crisis, it is that you can't build a future on debt."
The future prosperity of our country depends on the UK's being a skill-based economy. To drive that, we must invest in higher and further education, not cut teaching grants by up to 80%. The plan is, in effect, a Tory-led privatisation of our higher education system.
Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): My hon. Friend raises the important point of the 80% cut in the teaching grant. Does he agree that that is a profound retreat from state funding of the British university system?
The question is who benefits from a university education. Is it, as the coalition believes, only the student who benefits, which means that they should pay most, if not all, of the costs? Or does the country as a whole benefit from a well-educated work force driving our economic prosperity? That is the ideological debate we need to have in this House.
No matter where one goes in the world, unrivalled importance is attached to education. When the Business Secretary and the Prime Minister had their bonding session in China, they might perhaps have learned the Chinese proverb: "If you are planning for a year, sow rice. If you are planning for a decade, plant trees. If you are planning for a lifetime, educate."
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): On investment, will my hon. Friend join me in asking the Minister why only his Government, along with the Romanian Government, are cutting university spending at a time when every other OECD country is increasing investment in its higher education system?
Right hon. and hon. Members may be forgiven for thinking that this issue solely affects England, but that could not be further from the truth. The proposals will have profound and far-reaching consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom. I have two universities in my constituency in Scotland and 80% cuts in higher education funding in England mean that Scottish universities stand to lose at least £400 million a year. It also has consequences for Scottish students who wish to study in England and English students who wish to study in Scotland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention but I will take no lectures from a Scottish Government and an SNP who stood at the election promising to scrap student debt for every student across Scotland and who failed on every single promise. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire asked why young people would ever vote for the Labour party in Scotland, but he should look at the polling data for the general election and the opinion polls for the Scottish
elections that are coming up. We outpolled the Scottish National party in the youngest bracket-18 to 24-year-olds-and I think that that will be reflected in the results in May.
Mr Willetts: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intrude on this Scottish argument. Do we not have here a very clear comparison of the two systems? Does he accept that we have fees and loans in England and a very different system in Scotland? Contrary to what we heard, will he confirm that it is therefore very significant that we have 4,900 English domiciled students going to Scottish universities but 11,500 Scottish students coming to English universities? What does that tell us about the two systems?
Anas Sarwar: Indeed. The Minister does not recognise that the decisions taken by his coalition Government will have a massive impact in Scotland. We cannot have this dithering from the Scottish Government; we cannot allow a situation in which students go to university in Scotland without knowing how they will pay for that education when they leave. Even the most hardened right-wing Government Members have to admit that far from being fair and progressive, these plans are some of the most unthought-through, unfair and aggressive that the coalition Government have announced so far.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The point that my hon. Friend is making about the cuts of 80% in teaching grant is the important issue of the day. If our students are to have quality education, they must have quality teaching. Cutting the teaching grant is not the way to encourage people to stay in university teaching or to encourage our universities to expand. In Wales, the university teaching grant will be cut by only 35% to ensure that good academics stay in our universities.
Anas Sarwar: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and agree wholeheartedly. Under the coalition's plans, a couple with three children and one income of £35,000 could save £100 a week for 20 years and still not be able to pay for their children to go through university. It is not wealthy people who will be penalised; instead, the firefighters, teachers, police officers and small business owners will suffer.
It is time that the Liberal Democrats stopped being so shameless on this issue. As we have heard already, in the past few days, the Business Secretary has been delivering leaflets-not personally, but he has been quoted in them; perhaps he should go out and deliver them and then he might get the reaction in the Scottish streets. A headline on the leaflet reads "Cable attacks unfair UK university fees", and the text goes on:
"Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable has launched a scathing attack on...unfair tuition fees which still have to be
paid by Scottish students studying elsewhere in the UK. He likened tuition fees to the infamous poll tax, as the fees are seen as an unfair weight around students' necks...The Lib Dems want to scrap tuition fees across the UK, as they did in Scotland in 1999".
Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): May I declare an interest in this fascinating debate? Like the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), I represent two universities and I want to lead the debate on to them.
Lancaster university is a multi-million pound business that reached the top 10 of English universities; indeed, last year it was top in performance in physics. It makes a massive contribution to Lancaster and the wider Lancashire economy and it hopes to develop and proceed in what it perceives as a global market. That point has not been mentioned tonight. It wants to provide the best tuition and facilities.
Before the election, the pressure for an increase in fees came from universities. The previous Government faced that issue by cutting a certain amount, which Lord Mandelson did, and, to be fair to them, by setting up the independent Browne review. There might be an argument about whether that was kicked into the long grass to prevent Lord Browne from saying anything before the election because Labour needed to compete in so many university seats, but I would not suggest that. Labour set up the review and waited for the report. As a result, the whole of the previous Cabinet did not sign up to the pledge, although many Labour MPs-116, I think-did. I went to university debates in my area and I did not sign the pledge, but every single opponent of my candidature did-except the British National party, but I do not think that it was offered the opportunity to sign, thank God.
Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that 40 years ago there were 600,000 students in higher education, 20 years ago there were 1 million and today there are 2.4 million? That is a very good thing, but when there are such fundamental changes we have to think again, as we have on pensions and social care and as we are doing now on higher education.
As an ex-teacher, the test for me is how we can increase social mobility. I shall repeat points that others have made, because they are important and they are being lost in the issue of marches and the encouragement by some Members of what they call direct action-something from the old days of the 1980s. That is the hypocritical line they are selling some students. At least we have maintained no up-front fees-as has been said by previous speakers. More important, a lot of students will pay far less in the future because the threshold has moved to £21,000, which is about £540 less.
It seems to me that what has been left out of the debate is the Government's commitment to finding £150 million for a national scholarship scheme, and I congratulate Ministers on that. The coalition has been trying to do what the Labour Government talked about but never achieved-joined-up government, through our proposals for the pupil premium and for the national scholarship scheme. We are going even further, by demanding that universities that want to charge the highest rate should do much more-not just through scholarships, but through the work being done by charities and voluntary groups, such as the Social Mobility Foundation-to encourage pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds at least to try to aim a bit higher.
The coalition is trying to deal with disadvantage not just in higher education, but in secondary and primary education. In these difficult times, we are attempting to make links between them and provide a world in which we have top-class education. Our top universities will still be competing with the best universities in the world, but with the increased involvement of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That includes part-timers. Unlike the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), I do not believe the scare stories about kicking down the ladders. We are trying to put up ladders in very difficult times.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Having enjoyed the irony of being lectured about dishonesty by the Business Secretary at the outset of the debate, I congratulate the Minister for Universities and Science on his honesty in setting out the context for consideration of this issue in his response to questions following his statement to the House on 3 November. He made it clear that the Government's response to the Browne review was only partly driven by the need to deliver the cuts demanded by the Chancellor. He said that it was about
"delivering reform as well as saving public money."-[ Official Report, 3 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 944.]
However, as with the decisions being made on the economy, it does not have to be like this. There are choices, and the Government are making the wrong choices. The choice is not just about funding; it is a fundamental remodelling of our university system, which follows a worrying ideological trajectory that was perhaps best described by the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), who is no longer in the Chamber. It will transfer the cost of teaching from the state to students themselves. It will make our universities some of the most expensive in the world. It will withdraw all public funding from the majority of courses in the majority of our universities and will send a statement to all those who are teaching or studying the arts, humanities and social sciences that their courses are not worthy of
support. It will introduce a market that encourages the best universities to charge up to 50% more for their courses.
What will be the impact of that new model? We know from research and from experience in the States that debts of up to £50,000 for fees and maintenance will deter those who cannot easily contemplate huge debts, those from families without experience of higher education, those from the poorest families and those from families on average incomes. The impact will be felt strongly in areas where we already need to do more to widen participation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) highlighted the case of medicine. The BMA's modelling suggests that medical students will graduate with debts of about £70,000 and that the proposals will hugely damage efforts to encourage those from lower socio-economic groups to study medicine.
Greg Mulholland: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I opposed the introduction of fees under the previous Labour Government. I would be interested to know if he did, too. He represents many students, as I do. Away from party politics, does he agree that whatever the merits of the different cases that have been argued here, the Government have not convinced people that their arguments are the right ones, and that it is important that there should be a delay in the process so that whatever is eventually proposed, students, academics, universities and all of us can support it?
Paul Blomfield: I certainly agree that there should be a delay in the process. We are on the verge of the most fundamental reform of our higher education system in more than 50 years, and it is an outrage that we are putting the cart before the horse by being asked to make a decision on the financial framework for our universities before we have had a debate on the higher education White Paper to conclude what sort of university system we want.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I signed the pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees. Unlike my neighbour, the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), I do not regret it. I did not make the decision lightly, but I made it with the intention of keeping it. On 12 October the Business Secretary casually dismissed the pledge with some obscure reference to "skid marks", but let me remind Lib Dem Members that their pledge was no manifesto small print.
"Before the election, we couldn't get the Deputy Prime Minister out of our Union . . . now we can't get him in."
"The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good . . . Use your vote,"
"to block unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all."
I accept that most Lib Dem Members who were kept out of the loop by the Orange Book faction that now leads their party signed that pledge with honest intention, and I urge them to keep to that honest intention. If they vote in favour of the proposals, not only will they be dashing the hopes of thousands of young people, but they will be destroying the confidence of those young people in democratic politics. This was the election in which the Liberal Democrats tried to seize the moral high ground, talking about honesty, trust, integrity-
Voting in abstention, knowing that Conservative votes will push the measures through, will also be seen to be deeply cynical, so I urge Liberal Democrat Members to honour their pledge, join Opposition Members and vote down the proposals.
David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): We should be very grateful to Opposition Members for showing us the difference between opposition and naked opportunism, because tonight we have had more naked opportunism than we would get at a convention of lap dancers. Opposition Members know perfectly well what the problem is, because they caused it. It is a debt of £1 trillion, which doubled long before the banks crashed, and a deficit of £168 billion a year. That is the problem we face.
None of us, from either side of the House, wishes to penalise students, but students join a long list of people who are lobbying us at the moment: the police, the armed forces, pension policyholders, Equitable Life policyholders and people with infected blood. They and many others all have a good case, and to all we note the same problem: we simply do not have the money, because, as Labour's former Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, "The money has all gone."
Susan Elan Jones: The hon. Gentleman seems to forget that in Wales the Labour-led Administration are already leading the fightback against the disgraceful policy that his party proposes. He often forgets what the majority consensus is in Wales, so will he please acknowledge that point this evening?
David T. C. Davies: The hon. Lady and I are both well aware that the Welsh Assembly Government had nothing to do with the £1 trillion debt, and I shall make it my business to ensure that they never do have any such responsibility.
The NUS could do itself a favour if it gave a few lessons to its students before encouraging them to negate their life chances by bunking off school. It should tell them about the £1 trillion debt, stop scaremongering and inform them that nobody will pay a penny up front. It is worth making that point again and again, because when I went to Monmouth comprehensive recently I found that the pupils who had taken time off from school were not all aware of that fact. No one on the Government Benches, or anywhere else, wishes to penalise people who want to go to university. That is why there will be no fees up front-I say it again. Not only that: we will not expect anyone to pay back a single penny until they earn £21,000 a year.
I do question-it is a personal view, with which I often find myself expressing in this House-whether it is wise for more than 50% of the population to go to university to do degree courses of three and sometimes four years when some of them will receive lectures, as one young lady told me, of only five hours a week. I question that. Not many others do, it is true, but, as long as we have that situation, it has to be paid for.
I take issue with one other point that the NUS makes. I do not disagree that it benefits all of society when people go to university, but it benefits all of society when people leave school and go and get a job, as I did. I did not go to university; I paid my taxes after I left school, and I did not disbenefit society by doing so. Some Opposition Members might sneer, but let me tell them that at the age of 21 I decided that I needed extra qualifications, so I went off and got a heavy goods vehicle licence, which cost me £1,000 of my own money in 1992-and that was a lot of money. It cost me a lot, so I made sure that I turned up on time, did not have a hangover and worked hard for those two weeks, because I knew that nobody was going to help me out if I failed.
One consequence of the scheme before us, which nobody wants to bring about, is that everyone will now ask themselves such questions: "If I'm going to pay for tuition, is this going to get me a better job? Can I afford to go out to the student union bar tonight? Can I afford to miss that important lecture? Because, at the end of the day, this is my money, not just taxpayers' money." That is an important point.
None of us wanted to see this situation, but it has been forced upon us. The coalition Government are made up of people of many different political hues, let us not pretend otherwise, but one thing unites all Government Members. We are prepared to face up to the difficult decisions that Opposition Members will not face. We are not prepared to allow tomorrow's generation to pay for the mistakes of yesterday's politicians.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): This has been an interesting debate, but what is clear at its end is that the Government are set to railroad through this House and the other place their plan to treble fees for students and their families. As my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Hugh Bayley), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) have underlined, it is now clear that Ministers lack the political courage to spell out the full implications of the Chancellor's unprecedented 80% cut in university teaching grant.
Each time there has been a major change in the way in which universities are funded and students supported, there has been a full and proper debate in this House, with Government having set out their proposals in full before a vote. Parents are surely entitled to expect Parliament to have considered in detail the arrangements for student maintenance, yet we have merely a pencil sketch before us, as opposed to the painted canvas that a White Paper could have offered. The Deputy Prime Minister worries that potential students are being confused and put off. Well, let him publish the Government's White Paper and clarify once and for all what is intended.
Such a White Paper might be able to answer some of the many questions that students, their parents, universities, and now even MPs on the Government's own side, such as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), are asking. As my hon. Friends and, in his own sweet way, the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), who is no longer in his place, pointed out, how student numbers are controlled matters, because it sets the boundaries of the market. Draft those measures wrongly, and the pressures pushing fees higher will be even more considerable. On what basis will universities be allowed to set the so-called exceptional fees of £9,000? We have been told by the Deputy Prime Minister that these plans are a great leap forward because of the national scholarship fund, the more equal treatment for part-time students and the increase in the threshold for starting repayment being lifted from £15,000 to £21,000. Yet we do not know what is being cut to fund the national scholarship fund. Aimhigher has gone already, and other "widening participation" money is set to go too, perhaps. The fund is not looking quite so generous now. While equal treatment for part-time students might be a good thing, many vice-chancellors are now predicting that fees for part-time courses are set to increase dramatically, so I hardly think that part-time students will be jumping for joy either.
Is not the truth, as the Higher Education Policy Institute and the 2010 global higher education rankings confirm, that if these proposals go through, English students will be taking on levels of student debt not seen in any other country in the world, and England will have the most expensive public higher education system in the world? Is not the truth also, as Sir Peter Lampl of the excellent Sutton Trust, which has done so much to try to widen participation in higher education, put it, that
"we are about to embark on a university funding regime in England that is totally out of line with that of any other higher education system in the Western world"?
The Chancellor tells us that debts are a very bad thing. He says that we should not borrow too much and that we should see the national finances as being like the family budget. Then the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) comes along and says that any family with ambition who wants a university place, or any 16 or 17-year-old or mature student who wants to better themselves, will have to burden their future family finances with years of higher debts. You really do not need two brains, Mr Speaker, to see that these proposals seem set to discourage extraordinary students from families on ordinary incomes from going to university. We know the penchant of Conservative Members to join exclusive
university clubs, and now we know that they want to do to universities what the Bullingdon club used to do to restaurants.
Then there are the Liberal Democrats. We knew before today that their leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, had knowingly hawked his tuition fee pledge from one constituency to another, while all the time he and the other Orange Book Liberals wanted to ditch it. We now know, as of today, that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is willing to abstain-in an unprecedented scenario, to put the interests of his MPs before those of students and their families and our universities. In short, he is willing to put his party's interest before the national interest.
In families and across universities up and down the country, these unanswered questions mean the difference between whether the brightest and the best will be able to go to the university of their choice to do the course that they want and is most suited to them. The Government should publish a White Paper to end this confusion. I commend our motion to the House.
The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): We have learned a lot about Labour's approach in this debate. We have learned that it wants delay; we have learned that it wants careful consideration; we know that it needs more information; and we know that it wants to go slow. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would put it, it wants to go slow, slow, slow-slow, slow. That is the only thing that Labour is offering. That does not just reveal the inadequacy of Labour's approach to education; it matters, because if the changes that we propose were not in place in 2012, there would be a real financial challenge for our universities. The Secretary of State has made clear our commitment to delivering those changes.
We heard from the shadow Secretary of State that the speed of deficit financing is a matter of choice. He hinted that he would be willing not to make the public expenditure savings and to borrow the money instead. If he is willing to borrow the money instead, we know what Labour's approach is-it is willing to impose debts on future generations. There is one difference between our approach and Labour's: Labour's approach is indiscriminate and would hit everybody, rich or poor, male or female, and ours means that people will start paying back only when they are earning more than £21,000 a year. That is why our approach to university financing is progressive and Labour's is indiscriminate and unfair.
Of course, the £21,000 threshold that we propose is far higher than the £15,000 threshold that we inherited from Labour. That is not the only feature of our proposals that is fair and progressive. We are increasing the maintenance grant so that it helps families that earn up to £37,000 a year. The national scholarship programme is worth £150 million. Two thirds of first-time students who study part time will also benefit from our proposals.
Labour is completely disingenuous. It is not carefully waiting for more information or a White Paper, but simply playing for time while it tries to work out what on earth its policy is and whether its leader has the guts to follow the advice of his own shadow Chancellor:
"Oh, and for goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax. We should be proud of our brave and correct decision to introduce tuition fees. Students don't pay them, graduates do"-
"when they're earning more than £15,000 a year, at very low rates, stopped from their pay just like a graduate tax, but with the money going where it belongs: to universities rather than the Treasury."
We know what Labour does when it is under pressure. In its last public spending document before the election, it proposed £600 million of savings from higher education. There was no waiting around for a White Paper then, no consultation and no careful consideration; just one paragraph on £600 million of cuts. By contrast, we have a proper set of proposals to reform higher education, which, contrary to what the Opposition said, will not mean catastrophic losses in funding for universities. Money can get to universities in many ways, and under our proposals it will get there through the choices of students. We will provide them with the extra money to make those choices, and that is-
That the draft National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 25 October, be approved.
This draft order amends the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007, which makes provision for the conduct of elections to the National Assembly for Wales- [ Interruption. ]
Mr Speaker: Order. May I gently interrupt the Minister? This matter is of very great interest to Members representing Welsh constituencies, so I appeal to the House to come to order. If Members do not wish to listen to the debate, they are of course welcome to continue their conversations elsewhere, but I am keen to attend upon every word of the Minister.
Mr Jones: Thank you, Mr Speaker. The order makes provision for the conduct of elections to the National Assembly for Wales and was made under powers in the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Government of Wales of Act 2006. The draft order makes a number of modest policy and technical changes to the 2007 order, which comprehensively reflected changes made to electoral law since the previous order in 2003, in particular by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The 2007 order runs to 273 pages, and I am sure that you will be relieved, Mr Speaker, to hear that I do not intend to speak in any great detail about its contents. I will, however, outline the main changes that would be made to it by the amending order before us.
Article 3 amends the definitions of "Assembly constituency", "Assembly electoral region" and "elector" in the 2007 order to ensure that they are consistent with the Government of Wales Act 2006. The relevant provisions in that Act did not commence until after the 2007 order was made. The definition of "elector" also reflects changes to the Representation of the People Act 1983 made by the Electoral Administration Act, and this includes references to anonymous voters.
Article 4 amends the 2007 order in relation to registration appeals. Where decisions on appeals about entries in the register in respect of postal votes are determined before the election, these decisions will take effect and the register altered. The article also clarifies the relevant provisions under which an appeal can be made and a notice of alteration issued.
Article 5 makes an important change to the 2007 order. Currently, the election agent for a candidate in an Assembly regional election must have an office in that region. A number of political parties raised concerns about this requirement during the 2007 elections, because a party might wish to appoint only one election agent to represent all its regional candidates in an Assembly election. The previous provision, which required the election agent to have an office in the region, prevented it from doing so. Following a recommendation by the Electoral Commission, made after the 2007 Assembly election, this requirement is to be relaxed so that an agent's office must be located within Wales, but not in every region of Wales.
Articles 6 and 7 make minor changes to the 2007 order to reflect changes made by the Legal Services Act 2007. Article 6 expands the definition of bodies capable of exercising regulatory functions over the legal profession. If a legal professional is found guilty of a corrupt practice during an election campaign, an election court must inform these bodies. Article 7 amends the relevant part of the 2007 order which requires the Director of Public Prosecutions to attend election courts, expanding the definition of whom the DPP may send as a representative. Articles 8 and 9 amend references in schedules 1 and 3 to the 2007 order respectively which we subsequently found to be incorrect.
Article 10 makes the most substantive change to the 2007 order by changing the design of the constituency and regional ballot papers. In October 2009, the Electoral Commission published its guidance on designing voter materials-it was called "Making Your Mark"-having consulted political parties, electoral administrators and disability awareness groups. This guidance highlights best practice when designing voter materials such as ballot papers to ensure that they are as accessible and intelligible as possible for voters. It is clearly in the interests of democracy that every eligible elector is able to participate in elections, and that the voting process is as clear and simple as it can be. In designing the new ballot papers, we have worked closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that we adhere to both the spirit and the letter of the guidance.
Apart from the design, the key change is the removal of the names of those on the party list from the regional ballot paper, as is also the case in Scotland. Hon. Members will know that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which is currently before the other place, provides for the referendum on the alternative vote system for electing Members to this House to be combined with the elections to the National Assembly on 5 May next year. The provisions within this draft order are not affected by the combination provisions.
The Government and the Welsh Assembly Government are committed to working together to ensure that the polls next May are a success. Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission and the chief counting officer for the alternative vote referendum, who will have the lead role in the combined polls, said earlier this month that the commission believed that
"enough progress has been made...to allow the National Assembly elections and referendum on 5 May to run smoothly".
In preparing the order, the Wales Office worked closely with electoral administrators, including the regional returning officer for Wales, the Electoral Commission, the Welsh Assembly Government and the four major political parties in Wales. The provisions of the order are modest but necessary for the efficient running of next year's Assembly elections, and I commend it to the House.
Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to follow the Minister. As he said, the order is largely uncontroversial. The principal amendments are to article 39 of the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007, which stipulates that the office
for an election agent for a regional election should be within that region; articles 114 and 133, which relate to the Legal Services Act 2007; and schedule 10, which relates to the format of the ballot papers for the constituency and regional lists. We are content that the amendments in articles 6 and 7 of the draft order, which expand the description of bodies regulating the legal profession that must be considered by election courts and describe the duties of the Director of Public Prosecutions therein, are entirely reasonable and appropriate, and we will be supporting them. We are also satisfied that the changes to schedule 10 described in article 10 of the amending order, which relate to the nature of the ballot papers, are also rational and evidence-based changes, based on consultation with all parties and the Electoral Commission. We will be supporting those, too.
We welcome, too, the change proposed in article 5 of the draft order, which amends article 39(2)(b) of the 2007 order and which, in keeping with suggestions made by the parties, the National Assembly and the Electoral Commission, allows election agents for the regional elections to have their offices anywhere in Wales, not solely within that region. That, too, is a sensible and practical change that reflects the realities of how political parties organise themselves for elections, with both regional and constituency bases. In fact, the changes to the constitutional law described in the draft order are all reasonable and sensible amendments. They have all been drafted after respectful consultation with the devolved Administration and are free of party political taint. As such, they stand in sharp contrast to all the other constitutional legislation that we have been debating in this House in recent weeks.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): My hon. Friend talks about consultation. Does he know whether any research has been undertaken on the propensity of voters to go for the top name on the list? If so, does he know whether any thought been given to the fact that, with party names rather than individuals' names appearing on the list, there will perhaps always be a tendency for a certain party to be at the top?
Owen Smith: I do not know whether there has been any research on that. I confess that I suspect that there has been none, and I doubt whether many of the provisions in either this order or, more importantly, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill have been adequately tested, as it has been rammed through with such unseemly haste.
As the Minister said, several of the reasonable amendments in the draft order are predicated on recommendations made by the Electoral Commission for Wales in its report on the conduct of the elections to the National Assembly in 2007-an election that was described in the commission's document as having been
"alright on the night, but...by the skin of our teeth".
"The management of elections in Wales, with significant levels of postal voting, is a substantial exercise requiring strategic investment...project planning and risk management".
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): My hon. Friend referred to how costly things could be. The funding given to local authorities for electoral registration officers is not ring-fenced, so what guarantee can he give-or, indeed, the Government of the day give-that this money will not only be ring-fenced, but be spent by local authorities on what it is supposed to be spent on?
Owen Smith: I am afraid that I cannot give those guarantees, but I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to give us further reassurances about that; I shall cover that point further in a moment. We are deeply worried that, with the combination poll and all the complications that will attend on that, this election has the prospect of being a very difficult one. I fear that we have probably not tested the possibilities or made provision for all the complications that could ensue.
Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister would be wise to listen to the professional election administrators in Wales, who have warned of the potential for huge voter confusion next year when we hold different types of elections on different franchises using different voting systems?
Owen Smith: Absolutely. That is an extremely important point, very well made. We have a significant problem ahead of us next May, with the combined poll. It is going to be complicated, and I fear that due consideration has not been given to our concerns.
I would therefore like to ask the Minister what dialogue he or the Secretary of State have had with the First Minister and other Welsh Assembly Ministers to satisfy themselves that the necessary planning and resources are now in place. The omission of any measures to address these concerns in the order, or in any related legislation, suggests that the Minister is wholly confident that, once again, it will be all right on the night. That is despite the fact that, as many Labour Members have pointed out, this time around, thanks to the disrespectful placing of the complicating referendum on AV on the same day, along with the cuts to the Assembly budget and consequently to local government budgets in Wales, there will be far more to handle at this poll and far fewer resources with which to do that.
We remember the chaos in many polling stations earlier this year, with people being ignominiously turned away from the polls. We also remember the chaos in Scotland in 2007, when more than 100,000 ballots were spoiled. Thankfully, Wales was exempt from both those instances, but is the Minister certain that there is no possibility of this happening in 2011 in Wales? He will know that it is much easier to destroy trust in the democratic process than it is to build it up. These ballots must go through without a hint of the problems that we have seen elsewhere. I can only assume that, in his response, he will be able to give us an absolute assurance that he is confident that the ballots will go off without a hitch
Notwithstanding the fact that we will not oppose the order tonight as its passage was not assumed in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, as was the case with the associated orders for Scotland and Northern Ireland, is it not instructive that we are debating it after that Bill, which will fundamentally undermine the Welsh elections, has already been hustled
through this House? Is this not also illustrative of the high-handed party political approach that this Government have taken to dealing with all constitutional issues in recent weeks, given that such things are usually treated with far greater respect and given far more even-handed deliberation?
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I should like to comment on the point made by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Plaid Cymru normally comes at the end of the list, following the British National party, the Conservatives, the Greens and everyone else. But, as the good book says, the first shall be last- [ Interruption. ] Or is it that the last shall be first? I say that as a Williams.
I am glad to be discussing these issues on the Floor of the House, although I am surprised that we are discussing them here, given that the order is of a technical nature, and that the more historic agreement to hold a referendum on transferring part 4 powers was held in Committee. The most important change in the order is that the names of regional list candidates will no longer be on the ballot paper. That makes sense, because it will make it clear that the electors are voting for parties rather than for individuals. Of course, some people might say that electors should have the right to know for whom they are voting, but the list vote is essentially done on a party basis.
Previously, there have been only four possible seats on the list and no party so far has won more than three regional seats, but some parties have taken the liberty of adding rows and rows of names to the ballots. My own party has adopted the sensible provision that we have only four candidates on the list. However, there was one party in South Wales Central that had 11 names on the list. I am not sure whether the number of votes that it received equalled the number of candidates.
Another change, which I welcome, is that election agents for regional elections will no longer need to have offices in the regional constituencies, but will be able to be based anywhere in Wales. That makes sense. I would expect the central party to be responsible for the administration, and that is a very positive change.
The changes in the order are essentially technical. It has been consulted on with major stakeholders and agreed to, and I am sure that we will agree to it again tonight. I look forward to an orderly election.
Mr David Jones:
I am grateful to the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) for what appeared to be a broad welcome for the order, although the welcome from the hon. Member for Pontypridd was somewhat well camouflaged. He asked whether a guarantee could be given that expenditure by local authorities would pass to electoral registration officers. The Welsh Assembly Government are responsible for that. In response to his request for an assurance that the process will run without a hitch, I remind him again that the professionals, namely the members of the Electoral Commission, have said that enough progress has been made to allow the elections and the referendum on 5 May to run smoothly. However, the Government will
of course continue to work with the Welsh Assembly Government in the run-up to the elections to ensure that that happens.
The hon. Gentleman asked what consultation we had had with the First Minister and the Assembly. We have engaged in extensive consultation with both the Assembly and the First Minister, and the Presiding Officer of the Assembly has written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State stating:
"Constitutionally, I have no objection to the proposed UK AV referendum and the NAW general election coinciding. I am strongly in favour of voter convenience, and rationalisation of expenditure on polling arrangements."
That the draft Double Taxation Relief and International Tax Enforcement (Belgium) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 September, be approved.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief and International Tax Enforcement (Georgia) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 September, be approved.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief and International Tax Enforcement (Cayman Islands) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 September, be approved.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief and International Tax Enforcement (Federal Republic of Germany) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 September, be approved.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief and International Tax Enforcement (Hong Kong) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 September, be approved.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief and International Tax Enforcement (Malaysia) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 September, be approved. -(Bill Wiggin.)
That the draft National Minimum Wage (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 2 November, be approved. -(Bill Wiggin.)
That Mr James Arbuthnot, Mr Adrian Bailey, Margaret Beckett, Sir Alan Beith, Malcolm Bruce, Fabian Hamilton, Paul Murphy, Richard Ottaway, Mark Pritchard, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Keith Vaz and Mr Tim Yeo be members of the Select Committee appointed to join with a Committee of the Lords as the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy.-( Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
Mike Wood (Batley and Spen) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise important issues relating to the estimated 4 million adults in the country who have some form of mobility impairment. Given that figure, it is not surprising that there are some 300,000 mobility scooters in use here, and that the number is growing by up to 25,000 each year. They obviously provide an invaluable aid for those who are elderly and/or suffer from a disability, enabling them to maintain their independence and ensuring that they are less marginalised in our society than they would be otherwise. They are crucial in helping people suffering a disability and others to realise the rights to access that I think most people in our society accept should be a reality for all our citizens. After all, 15 years have gone by since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
This evening I want to explore some aspects of safety in the use of such mobility aids, specifically, but not wholly, in regard to the transporting of these vehicles and their users. I also intend to look at the treatment of mobility scooter users and at whether they are being afforded the protection under the law to which they are entitled.
The local authority that serves my constituency, Kirklees council, licenses 249 taxis, 55 of which are able to carry wheelchairs. There are a further 1,520 private hire vehicles, of which 120 are designated for wheelchair access. Unlike nearby Calderdale authority, Kirklees makes a distinction between wheelchairs and mobility scooters, but it seems evident that the two classes are becoming blurred and that scooters are on occasions being transported as if wheelchairs. It seems-largely, I accept, on anecdotal evidence-that sometimes this is happening without the user being relocated to a standard seat within the motor vehicle for the journey or the appliance being anchored adequately, if at all. The situation is no doubt complicated by those scooters that fit within the dimensions of the reference "wheelchair" as used in previous deliberations on this topic by the Department for Transport, but, for whatever reason, this appears to be a growing practice, at the discretion, obviously, of the driver and his employers. Indeed, the National Taxi Association accepted that there was a great deal of confusion about this matter in its evidence to the consultants MVA, which compiled research for the Department.
The NTA also accepted that it has no existing policy about scooters being transported and left it to the discretion of the driver, based, it said, on health and safety considerations. It appears to share the view of many in the trade that it is waiting for a lead from the Government. Perhaps the Minister will want to use this opportunity tonight to provide such a lead. [Interruption.] He shakes his head, and I am encouraged.
In the meantime, perhaps tonight the Minister can supply us with the up-to-date figures for the number of wheelchair and scooter users injured while being
transported. Whatever the figures are, perhaps he can tell us whether his Department is content for this high potential for accident to remain the case, and if not, what it intends to do to cure, or at least ameliorate, the problem.
I accept that the Minister has been in post for only a matter of months, but he will be aware that research commissioned by his Department in 2006 suggested there was the potential for 180 serious accidents a year involving vehicles transporting such users and their appliances and 16 fatalities. I should add that many scooter users, such as my constituent, Mr Lawrence Conlon, also feel that the loading into and out of any taxis is fraught with danger. In a letter to me, Mr Conlon said:
"I would invite the Minister or any of his officials to take a test and allow themselves to mount and dismount one of these vehicles in a wheelchair, either being pushed or guided on and then dismounted backwards on runners on many occasions not much wider than the wheels of the chair."
That danger was also raised in the MVA research, which recommended that the Department institute trials so as to be in a better position to judge the danger itself. Can the Minister tell us if such trials have been undertaken in the four years since this report, and have the Government looked into the lack of uniformity in respect of anchoring points on the various appliances?
I realise-and I expect the Minister will tell me this-that the Department's default position is that mobility scooters are not safe to be transported on public transport at all, not least taxis. But the situation in the country has moved beyond that point and we need the Government to act to help regulatory and licensing authorities make sense of the situation on the ground. At the very least, we have to be assured that all journeys involving such passengers are health and safety compliant and that the drivers are trained and aware of the safety needs of this group of passengers, not only while installed in the cab, but also at the point of their being loaded into or dismounted from the vehicle. Is it appropriate, as Mr Conlon suggests, to compare the process with the same procedures when they are carried out by ambulance service staff? If so, is the Department happy with the apparent disparity in safety levels between the two?
So far I have examined the potential problems relating to access to a vehicle and safety while someone is being carried. I wish now to discuss the issue of scooter users who have little access to a taxi; such access is apparently only at the whim of a licensing department and the local taxi owners. Lawrence Conlon, like his father before him, has given a lifetime of service to my local community. Now in his 80s, he uses a motorised wheelchair to maintain mobility, but rarely can a taxi be supplied to provide transport for him. The size of his wheelchair means that it cannot be loaded into a taxi unless that vehicle has a hydraulic facility, and not just ramps or runners. No such vehicle is licensed by my local authority, which tells me that it cannot require local taxi owners to provide such a facility in even one of their hundreds of cabs.
The Minister will recall that he confirmed to me in his letter of 7 October that section 160 of the Equality Act 2010 required taxis to be wheelchair accessible, but there remains no date for the enactment of this provision. May I press him to proceed with that enactment as speedily as possible and ensure that when the provision is enacted it takes on board the need to include scooters
and motorised wheelchairs, as used by my constituent and, I suspect, many others, who are currently being discriminated against?
Finally, I wish to discuss a slightly different point relating to scooters. I have before me an Office of Fair Trading press release from a fortnight ago, in which the OFT announced its intention to launch a market study into mobility aids, including wheelchairs and scooters. It says that the sector was worth £500 million to UK companies in 2008. Apparently, however, the level of complaints from customers is growing at 20% a year and now tops 5,000 per annum.
I wish to outline to the Minister just such a complaint, as raised with me by my constituent, Mrs Crossland, a scooter user who earlier this year received an unsolicited visit from a firm called New Life Mobility Ltd of Kirkgate house, Shipley, West Yorkshire. It agreed with Mrs Crossland to replace two small scooters with a more highly powered one, and in total she has parted with £1,650, in addition to the two perfectly serviceable scooters that were taken in part exchange. Six months later she still has no scooter that she feels safe using. West Yorkshire trading standards department, which I have always found very effective, has been involved but is now at the point of advising her to go to law to recoup her cash. As she has spent her life savings on this venture, she is of course not in any position to do that. I know that trading standards officers have met two directors of that company, a Wayne Patrick Allen and a Jimmy Rodgers, but apparently none of the actions it was agreed that they would take to make good the problems they have caused Mrs Crossland have taken place. May I therefore ask the Minister whether he and his colleagues in government will introduce more robust provisions that afford protection for the likes of my constituent from those who seek to take advantage of their age and infirmity to rob them of both their life savings and their mobility? An OFT investigation might help provide industry solutions to the problems that mobility aids users face, but, again, I feel that we need a strong lead from Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) on securing a debate on a matter that is clearly important and that is increasingly of interest to many people. He raises some germane and perfectly fair points that I will do my best to try to answer.
All the evidence suggests that the use of mobility vehicles is growing and that trend is likely to continue as our population ages. The Department for Transport continues to seek to improve access and safety for all people, including those who are disabled and elderly, to help enhance their quality of life. As part of that, we have been considering the issue of mobility scooters and their use.
There are three main areas of concern that the hon. Gentleman raised and I shall try to take each of them in turn. First, let me put on the record that there are concerns about the safe use of mobility scooters. There are occasional reports of people being injured by them when they are used on pavements and of users being hit by other vehicles when they are used on the road. My
Department is considering all those issues with a view to balancing the mobility needs of disabled people with their own safety and that of others.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically how many accidents had been caused. There are no national statistics on this matter, so I am unable to give him a figure, but I can tell him that from 2013 the police will be able to record whether a mobility vehicle has been involved in an accident. However, as the vehicles are used in public places other than roads and pavements it is unlikely that the database will provide a comprehensive picture. Other routes for data collection are being explored, but I hope that it is helpful that we are at least taking the matter forward. I recognise that there is an issue to be dealt with.
Let me turn to the question of the lack of provision to carry scooters in taxis and private hire vehicles, which overlaps with the point about health and safety. First, the legislation governing the accessibility of public transport does not cover the carriage of mobility scooters on public transport vehicles. Part 12 of the Equality Act 2010, which incorporates part 5 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, sets out the provisions for accessible public transport. I should point out that since mobility scooters are primarily designed for outdoor use by people who can walk only short distances, and therefore as an alternative to public transport, they are quite intentionally not covered by the provisions.
Regulations that have already been made under the provisions of the original DDA require space to be provided on buses, coaches and trains for a "reference wheelchair" but are silent on the carriage of mobility scooters, as they are in the case of taxis. Scooters continue to come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and evidence suggests that some modern mobility scooters are in fact getting taller and heavier. As a result, many models are frankly unsuitable for carriage on many forms of public transport, including in taxis.
As for other transport vehicles, research has also shown that increasing numbers of the most popular mobility scooters on the market will now fit into the so-called "reference wheelchair" space. That has resulted in confusion as to whether they can be used on public transport since operators have adopted different policies for dealing with them. I want to ensure that we end that confusion. It has been done for wheelchairs, so we can do it for scooters.
I recognise the challenges that that presents since not only are there a large number of scooter models on the market, but the type of public transport vehicle also varies. Nevertheless, my Department is considering how we might adopt a more consistent approach on the general carriage of scooters on public transport.
On the specific point about taxis, one of the main concerns about the carriage of scooters in taxis is whether they can be safely secured, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his introductory comments. I cannot give him an answer tonight to his question about anchorage points, but I shall write to him after this debate and give him the information he seeks. On the MVA research, I can also tell him that no trials have taken place since that report was completed.
The issue about whether scooters can be safely secured is due to the design of scooters, which do not always have appropriate anchorage points. There is a danger that the scooter may tip up and cause injury. Guidance
published by the former Disability Rights Commission advised users of mobility scooters that they should transfer into the standard vehicle seat and that, if possible, scooters should be carried in the boot of a vehicle, but, if they are carried inside the main body of the vehicle, they must be safely secured. We take the view that a driver would be entitled to refuse to carry a scooter that cannot be secured as it would constitute a serious safety hazard. It is for the driver or operator to decide whether to transport an unoccupied mobility scooter as an item of luggage.
The hon. Gentleman will be interested in a feasibility study commissioned by the Department for Transport in 2006, which considered whether scooters can be safely carried on public transport and made recommendations as to the types of scooters that could be carried, including their dimensions and weights. It suggested that smaller and lighter mobility scooters could be safely carried on public transport in the right circumstances. The study also identified a number of safety concerns, focusing particularly on the conditions for mobility devices on public transport vehicles. They included the securement and stability of the devices, laden weight and the lack of manoeuvrability.
The ability to access public transport vehicles was also highlighted as a safety issue. There was insufficient evidence to take a view on the safe use of mobility scooters in taxis, so this was left to the discretion of the operator. Some transport operators have already put in place arrangements to accommodate scooters and their experience may yield lessons for other operators. We hope so. I have asked my officials to discuss the carriage of scooters on public transport with interested parties, including transport operators, manufacturers, health authorities and users, and to come up with possible options as soon as possible in the new year.
I want my Department to explore whether some form of kitemark system could help users and operators alike to understand which scooters could be safely carried on public transport. I do not intend to impose any new regulations or burdens on operators, but the work will seek to identify, working alongside manufacturers and operators, which scooters currently on the market could fit into a reference wheelchair space. Some operators already publish acceptance criteria and I want my Department to explore whether a similar approach could be taken nationally. If that can be achieved it would be a good result for users who would then be rather more certain about whether scooters are likely to be accepted on public transport. That should, in turn, help to inform purchasing decisions. It would also help public transport operators, which currently have to deal with a bewildering array of models, some of which are suitable for carriage but many of which are not.
The hon. Gentleman asked about protection for scooter owners, particularly Mrs Crossland. When purchasing a scooter, it is important to get the model that will suit the purchaser and their circumstances best. We are aware that the Department of Health and the charitable organisation Motability have funded a database to enable people to choose a mobility scooter or wheelchair that meets their needs. As medical devices, mobility scooters will have to comply with regulations that give some protection to users regarding the technical safety of the vehicle and instructions for use. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which is an
agency of the Department of Health, has responsibility for ensuring that this is the case.
Consumer protection legislation applies to mobility scooters as to any other products on the market. Those regulations are enforced by the Office of Fair Trading and local authority trading standards services through criminal prosecutions and civil enforcement orders. The hon. Gentleman might know that the OFT will be launching a market study into the mobility aids market. We have expressed an interest in this study, which will include wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment on the actions of individual companies that have affected his constituent, but he has put his remarks on the record and I very much hope that the company concerned will respond sensibly to him and his constituent in the light of his comments. I hope the debate will help to bring about a satisfactory resolution to Mrs Crossland's situation.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of taxis and wheelchair accessibility. Before long, I hope, we will announce our plans regarding the taxi sections of the Equality Act 2010 that have not yet commenced relating to wheelchair accessible vehicles. We have already taken preliminary action on driver training and we are also looking at the quota of taxis. We are giving local authorities incentives to increase the quota of wheelchair accessible taxis in their area, so we are already taking action to increase the number of such vehicles in local authority areas.
We recognise the important role scooters play in the lives of disabled people, giving them the freedom that enables them to continue to participate in everyday life, which we very much welcome. The increase in the number and use of mobility scooters, and the public interest in them, presents us with an opportune time to look again at the feasibility of the carriage of mobility devices on public transport. The hon. Gentleman is right to chivvy us along on that matter, and I am grateful that he has done so.
I have not been in office very long, nor have the Government, but in the past the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee-DPTAC-has commented that it was concerned about the lack of co-ordinated information. DPTAC sought an interim measure and some formal guidance from the Department for Transport. We are doing what we can to take the matter forward, because I am concerned that the present arrangements have led to a plethora of different solutions that sometimes cause more problems than they solve. I am determined to try to sort that out.
Correct information is crucial, and we shall explore how best to make it available both to people who want to take scooters on public transport and to transport operators. In particular, we want to make sure that when someone buys a scooter they have clear information about whether the scooter is accessible for public transport. People are entitled to that information at the point of purchase.
Finally, it will be important to ensure that in our considerations we balance the needs of disabled people and their ability to maintain independence with the operating constraints of the transport industry.