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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, makes a very important point. There is a great deal to learn, not only for the Government, but also for Capita, which administered the scheme for us. As I said, 91 per cent of people had a good experience, but we have a number of lessons to learn.

There is much to learn about how to make a scheme as unbureaucratic as possible without making it so unbureaucratic that fraud can occur. We need to make sure that we have the proper registrations in the process, and we need to make sure that we have a scheme that does precisely what this scheme attempted to do and was successful in doing—to attract those who would not go through the normal learning routes. We are looking very carefully at those lessons, and I am sure that the scheme which comes forward will be to the benefit of those whom the noble Lord would wish to benefit.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, is Capita liable for any of these losses since it was administrating the scheme? Will the Government again use Capita to administer a new scheme?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, decisions on who will administer such a scheme will be for a tendering process at the point at which we move forward with that. We are in discussion with Capita, particularly about the robustness of some of the systems it has in place. That is all that I am able to say to the noble Lord at this stage.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, why is it that, in view of the failure by Capita in this matter, the Government have given a contract for criminal record checks to the same company?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the decisions on Criminal Records Bureau checks were taken by the Home Office, and taken on the basis of the right kind of proposals being put forward in the normal tendering process. The Department for Education and Skills has a number of contracts with Capita which are running very successfully. There are particular lessons to learn in this case and we should all learn them.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that there are more teachers in training than there have been at any time in the past 12 years, and that, this year, there has been a 7 per cent increase in

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the number of teachers in training? Does she, in the face of this very sad episode, take some consolation in those facts?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I do indeed take comfort in the number of teachers in training. I am sure that noble Lords across the House would welcome the fact that there are more teachers in training. This scheme was not applicable to teachers, but it was important because of the number of those who were consequently able to develop their skills.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, we are now well out of time, I am afraid.

University Top-up Fees

3 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How far they consider the imposition of top-up fees, as proposed by some universities, to be compatible with the Government's objectives of widening participation and promoting social inclusion.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the Government have promised to publish a strategy document setting out a 10-year vision for higher education in January. I assure noble Lords that the Government remain absolutely committed to widening participation in higher education and are determined to reduce the traditional barriers that have prevented able people from benefiting from it.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, the Government cannot have their cake and eat it. The current crisis is entirely of their making, because they failed properly to implement the recommendation of the Dearing report to invest new funds in higher education. Instead, they milked universities of the extra funds raised and heightened the crisis that they now face. Is the Minister aware that if they concede to the demands of some of our top universities to charge substantial top-up fees, they will perpetuate in our universities the damaging and class-ridden two-tier divide from which we already suffer in the public/private school system? Is that really what the new Labour Government want?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, this new Labour Government do not want further widening of the divide. It is worth noting that we have allocated 1.7 billion to university funding for the six years to 2003–04. That is a 37 per cent increase in cash terms and an 18 per cent increase in real terms, so I do not accept that we are not investing.

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However, noble Lords who had the good fortune to read the article written by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the Sunday Times will understand the issues as he set them before us. He recognised the existence of the funding deficit—a backlog estimated by him at 5.3 billion. Noble Lords will be aware that my right honourable friend has asked for a little more time to consider all the proposals buzzing around the press—if I may put it that way—but wants to reach a conclusion. I hope that I have made clear some of the fundamentals about that conclusion.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, can the Minister tell us exactly what is government policy on top-up fees? If not, will she tell us exactly how and why the Government will arrive at such a policy and express it publicly?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the Government made a manifesto commitment not to introduce top-up fees. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear last week, he stands by that manifesto commitment. On future university funding, noble Lords will be well aware that we have spent considerable time considering how to balance university requirements, which are substantial and recognised, with the requirement to ensure that students are able to go to university, recognising the substantial benefits that they will receive from doing so, but not preventing them doing so because of fear of debt.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords—

Lord Morgan: My Lords—

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, perhaps we should hear from the noble Lord, Lord Morgan.

Lord Morgan: Diolch yn fawr, my Lords, thank you.

When the reappraisal of university finance takes place, will the Minister note that many universities are not in favour of top-up fees—including Cambridge, which I suppose would be considered a top university, and all of the Scottish universities, that cradle of the democratic intellect? Scotland does not have top-up fees, other fees or a poll tax but the much fairer system of a graduate tax based on the ability to pay.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, for explaining the position in Scotland. I am clear that there are many differing views—in your Lordships' House and far beyond—on how we should approach the matter. The debate has now reached an interesting point. We are reviewing all the options to ensure that

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when we return to your Lordships' House in January we can present a policy that can receive the benefit of your Lordships' scrutiny.

Earl Russell: My Lords—

Baroness Blatch: My Lords—

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, perhaps we may hear from the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there is confusion. Who should we believe: the Prime Minister—and the manifesto—who says that there are no plans for top-up fees, or education Ministers, who are using radio, television and the newspapers to tell us that they are actively considering top-up fees? If they are actively considering them but the Prime Minister is also right, does that mean that nothing will be done for universities for at least four years?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I agree with final implication of the noble Baroness of the need to do something for universities as quickly and efficiently as we can. I reiterate: there is a manifesto commitment; we shall of course stand by it. That is important. In considering the future for universities, short-term and longer-term issues are involved. It is right for my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to consider the full range of views advanced by many universities, institutions and individuals.

Earl Russell: My Lords, will the Minister consider the effect of top-up fees not only on student entry but on graduate employment? Is she aware that, both in the United States and here in the 1990s, the introduction of loans produced a massive movement of graduates into high-paid lawyers' firms and management consultants? In the light of that, what does she think will be the effect on the recruitment of teachers? Please will she not give me an answer in terms of entry to teacher training which, as today's edition of The Times confirms, is a poor guide to teacher recruitment.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I shall not give the noble Earl an answer in those terms. One issue that must be addressed when considering the future of education and higher education is indeed the recruitment of teachers and people with the skills that we need.


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