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Student Loans Scheme

Volume 268: debated on Wednesday 20 December 1995

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To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the operation of the student loans scheme in Scotland. [5196]

That is not what the Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment said on Thursday in Committee when he announced that the whole scheme had had to be postponed until October 1997 because the banks had difficulties over mergers and because of difficulties with information technology. That is in spite of the whole thing being hustled through in the Queen's Speech at great speed. Will the Minister extricate himself from this mess or will he be tied into his hon. Friend's shambles and share the blame for the mess that no one in Scotland needs or wants?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her consistency. She disagrees with the Government's approach and with that of her Front-Bench spokesmen to student support. We announced a postponement of the scheme after discussions with the banks and building societies to ensure a proper and smooth transition a year later. As always, the hon. Lady is scaremongering on student numbers and on student support. She cannot accept, and will not admit, that there are more students in higher and further education in Scotland than ever before in our nation's history.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that parity between grants and loans will be achieved in 1996–97? Secondly, does he agree that parity will be maintained thereafter? Thirdly, does he agree that recent debates in the House have shown that the Opposition have no policy whatever?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I can give him the assurances that he seeks. As I have said, we have more students than ever before in higher education and the last survey showed that for the first time students from less well-off backgrounds are now in the majority in our universities and colleges.

The Government have been forced to walk away from the student loan privatisation proposals. They would earn my respect and that of my hon. Friends if they would also walk away from the ill-conceived plans for nursery vouchers. Make no mistake about it, Labour is opposed to nursery vouchers. We will get rid of them when we are elected and will make sure that all three and four-year-olds get nursery education when their parents wish it. However, we have said—

Order. I have to bring two points to the hon. Lady's attention. First, I have not yet heard a question from her: that is most important. Secondly, we are dealing with student loan schemes and not with nursery vouchers.

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I was just coming to my substantive question. We have put a number of questions on education to the Minister and have failed to get replies. Why are we not getting a response to our request for an independent assessment board in relation to nursery vouchers?[Interruption.] Why is the Minister not prepared to respond to detailed questions about student loans and student accommodation and about other aspects of education policy? Will he give us a substantive reply rather than the bluster that we are used to when he is flummoxed?

What does the hon. Lady have against those from less well-off backgrounds? Yesterday she was at every media outlet criticising our scheme for assisted places, which helps children from less well-off backgrounds. Today she is ranting about student loans and nursery vouchers, which are designed to help everyone in society but particularly those from less well-off backgrounds. Over the recess she should take a long hard look at what she has been saying since she joined the Front Bench because some of it has been quite shameful.