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Commons Chamber

Volume 407: debated on Monday 23 June 2003

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House Of Commons

Monday 23 June 2003

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked

Gulf War Syndrome

1.

If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on Gulf war syndrome. [120541]

The Government continue to accept that some veterans of the 1990–91 Gulf conflict have become ill, and that many believe that that ill health is unusual and is related to their Gulf experience. The Government's policy is to ensure that Gulf veterans have ready access to medical advice and all relevant information, while continuing to pursue appropriate research into the subject.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position and congratulate him on it. He will be aware of the recent ruling of the High Court on Mr. Shaun Rusling, which determined that he was suffering from a range of symptoms directly attributed to his Gulf war service. Although that does not provide evidence of the existence of Gulf war syndrome as a single disease entity, it certainly provides recognition that people have suffered from a range of debilitating symptoms as a result of serving in the Gulf. Whether or not one accepts that Gulf war syndrome is a single entity, is it not the case that veterans suffering from such symptoms, so attributed, should be compensated appropriately without having to resort to the High Court?

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcoming words. I am very pleased to be here this afternoon—[Interruption.] I told the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that I would say that.

Some commentators have suggested, since the High Court ruling, that the judgment will pave the way for thousands of new war pension claims. I must tell the House that that is wrong. In response to my hon. Friend's further question, compensation is provided by the war pensions scheme, and I can tell the House that, as at 31 December 2002—the latest date on which statistics were published—approximately 2,330 Gulf veterans were in receipt of a war disablement pension.

How many veterans with Gulf war-related illness have fallen victim to so-called manning control by the Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency, and what will the Minister do to remedy the injustice that they have suffered?

I thought that we were having questions on the Government's policy on Gulf war syndrome. Let me say, however, that manning control points are an essential tool for controlling the manning structure of the Army, as the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will know.

May I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box, and in doing so pay a compliment to his predecessor, who dealt with this subject very conscientiously? If what the press reports say is true and people are already admitting that they are suffering illnesses as a result of the second conflict, will he assure the House that those will be studied carefully in comparison with the previous cohort, so that we can narrow down the possible causes of those illnesses?

I reassure my hon. Friend that those involved in the recent conflict will of course be treated in exactly the same way.

May I, too, warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post as Under-Secretary of State for Defence? He is a great asset to the Department, and it is far better that he is in the Ministry of Defence than in a jobsworthy place such as the Department for Constitutional Affairs. May I also thank his predecessor and pay tribute to him for all the hard work that he did in that post? We are also grateful that the Secretary of State for Defence is still in place and not at the Department of Trade and Industry, where, as I understand it, a press release that was not released was going to put him.

Will the Under-Secretary confirm that it is still the view of the Ministry of Defence that there is no such thing as Gulf war syndrome? Will he provide an estimate of the amount of compensation so far paid out? In addition, how much has research into Gulf war illness cost the Ministry of Defence?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. May I say, as I said earlier, how pleased I am to be in the Ministry of Defence? My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State are also very pleased to be in the Ministry of Defence and not in any other Department.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's initial question is yes. I want to go further by saying that the judge in the Shaun Rusling case was very clear about the matter. He did not rule on whether Gulf war syndrome exists; his judgment was very clear about that when he said:

"This court is not in a position to express any views on the merits of the dispute as to whether, according to current medical research, Gulf War Syndrome is or is not a 'single medical entity'. It has not done so by this judgement."
On the hon. Gentleman's other question about the amount spent on medical research, I do not know the exact details but I undertake to write to him in due course.

Weapons Of Mass Destruction (Iraq)

3.

What progress has been made by British troops in Iraq in finding weapons of mass destruction. [120543]

I begin by welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) to his new responsibilities at the same time as thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), both personally and on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, for his excellent work as a Minister, especially his work as the first Minister with overall responsibility for veterans.

There are some 54 United Kingdom servicemen and women attached to the Iraq survey group. Over the next few weeks, the UK's contribution of military and civilian personnel will increase—[HON. MEMBERS: "Wrong question."] I thought that the House would like to know, in terms of the progress being made—the subject of Question 3—the number of United Kingdom personnel attached to the Iraq survey group. By coincidence, that is the subject matter of Question 2.

Investigation into Iraq's programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction remains a high priority for all coalition forces in Iraq. Elements of British forces are committed to this task as part of the Iraq survey group. Their priority—between 90 and 100 personnel—will be the search for weapons of mass destruction.

The Secretary of State may know that I considered the action in Iraq to be justified on the grounds that the regime of Saddam Hussein was both illegitimate and barbaric. However, it was the Government who made weapons of mass destruction such a central plank of their policy. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that he has undermined the success in Iraq due to the lack of discovery of weapons of mass destruction? Those of us who want the action to be vindicated ask him to instigate a full judicial inquiry so that we may be quite certain that British troops were not sent to their deaths on a false premise.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House of that fact. He implies that we are somehow responsible for our failure to find weapons of mass destruction. As I said in my answer a few moments ago, coalition forces are making a determined effort. I remind him that even by September 2002, having had many years in which to hide weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein rather surprisingly—as far as the international community was concerned—indicated that he would allow UN inspectors back into Iraq. There were approximately seven months between then and the start of hostilities during which he had plenty of opportunity to hide weapons of mass destruction. Since that time, about two and half months have elapsed, much of which has obviously been devoted to the initial aftermath of the conflict.

Significant coalition forces are now in Iraq with a specific responsibility to investigate evidence of weapons of mass destruction. The hon. Gentleman would only be fair by recognising that Saddam Hussein had many more months in which to hide weapons of mass destruction—in an country with which he was familiar, after all—compared with the situation faced by coalition forces.

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that that argument is losing credibility very quickly and that many people wonder why the UN weapons inspection team was not allowed back into Iraq at the end of hostilities and must be run by the United States and Britain? They also wonder why, if there were all these weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi regime never used them.

On my hon. Friend's last observation, clearly one of the reasons why the Iraqi regime did not use its weapons of mass destruction was that it was not given the opportunity owing to the excellent and rapid advance of coalition forces. I am slightly surprised to hear his observations because he is someone who, to his credit, consistently criticised Saddam Hussein's regime. I assume that he is not saying that the weapons did not exist and did not provide a threat to the security of the region and the wider world. That remains the reason why action was taken in support of the United Nations efforts.

Does the Secretary of State accept that those of us who regret that Saddam Hussein has not yet been found believe he exists?

I am always pleased to hear a quotation from my friend the Secretary of Defence for the United States.

Does my right hon. Friend sometimes get the impression from the critics that because weapons of mass destruction have not yet been found, we should apologise to Saddam and ask him to come back and rule the country again? There are those of us who believe that what was done was absolutely justified, and evidence of terrible atrocities has now been found. Is it not time for both Britain and America to get a firmer grip on the situation in Iraq, ensure that essential services are restored and tell the people of Iraq—after all, it is their country—what we intend to do in the immediate future?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His approach to Saddam Hussein and the regime in Iraq is always forthright and robust. He is right that we need not only to continue the process of rebuilding that country but to make determined efforts, as we are doing, to restore that country to the control of its own people.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is the potential for far quicker discovery of weapons of mass destruction if many of the troops currently deployed by the coalition, and by us in particular, are replaced to some extent by civilians? I have just returned from the Basra region in southern Iraq, which is largely safe. Does right hon. Gentleman regret the lack of progress made by, for example, the Department for International Development in deploying people there? Does he regret the failure of the Secretary of State for International Development to go there? I appreciate that I may be more expendable than a Secretary of State—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It's the way I tell them. Does the Secretary of State not think that the civilian side of our Government should approach the work that it should he doing in southern Iraq with a little more urgency to free up military personnel to do military jobs?

I am delighted that the hon. and learned Gentleman attracts so much support on the Opposition Benches. It might be regarded as yet another leadership bid.

On the suggestion of changing coalition forces, had I been given a greater opportunity earlier, I would have said not only that the Iraq survey group is a military group, but that it consists of a number of civilians with particular investigative skills. In a sense, therefore, the process that the hon. and learned Gentleman outlines is occurring as we reduce the number of military personnel in Iraq, especially those who have had recent combat experience, and replace them with fresh troops and, in particular, civilians who are dedicated to the task of reconstruction, as he advocates.

Does my right hon. Friend give any credence to the suggestions of President Bush about weapons of mass destruction and looters? If he does, should we not, at least in British-controlled areas, be urgently seeking the assistance of the UN inspectors to try to reduce the risk of black market sales to terrorists?

I am aware of at least one incident in which equipment thought to contain the elements of a biological or chemical weapon was looted, although the looters were clearly more interested in the fridge than in its contents. So there is some evidence for what the President has set out, but such incidents largely relate to the early days and the immediate aftermath of the conflict. As hon. Members said, the situation in the southern area in particular, for which the United Kingdom has responsibility, is largely calm at present.

May I tell the Secretary of State that we believe that it is too early to say whether weapons of mass destruction will, or will not, be found? However, that search has exposed issues relating to the presentation of the Government's intelligence material on weapons of mass destruction that go to the heart of the debate about the integrity of Government. Now that we have seen a dramatic climbdown by the Government in this morning's announcement that Mr. Alastair Campbell will, after all, give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, does not that serve only to strengthen the case for the full and independent judicial inquiry that the Prime Minister continues to resist?

Moreover, in three weeks' time the House will rise for a two-month summer recess. Wi11 the Government come to the House before then to give a full account of progress in the search for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? If there is nothing to add by that time, will not the case for a full inquiry be even stronger? How else can the Government restore public faith in their handling of the security services now that no one believes a word they say?

I was curious about the hon. Gentleman's opening proposition that it is too early to say—perhaps it is too early to say what his policy is on these matters, as he seems to change it according to circumstance. I must tell the House, in case it escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice, that I do not have ministerial responsibility for Mr. Campbell, so I am not in a position to deal with that matter. As for the hon. Gentleman's final observation, I was slightly surprised by his suggestion that he would prefer a judicial inquiry to one conducted by right hon. and hon. Members in the House of Commons. If that really is his position, he needs to articulate it more clearly.

Us Defence Procurement Policy

4.

If he will make a statement on the impact of US defence procurement policy on the UK defence industry. [120544)

The United States is the second largest market for United Kingdom defence products, and US defence procurement policy impacts very directly on the UK defence industry. At present, the US spends only about 2.5 per cent. of its procurement budget overseas, and UK industry has succeeded in securing half of that business, worth £1 billion a year. We are working with UK industry and the US Government to widen the scope for the involvement of our industry in American procurement, and we believe that that will be to the advantage of both. A more open and transparent defence market will serve our joint goals of better value for money and developing an efficient and innovative defence industry.

I thank the Minister for his expansive answer, but he will be aware that a Bill on defence authorisation is quietly slipping through Congress. Its provisions, the White House says, are

"burdensome, counterproductive, and have the potential to degrade U.S. military capabilities."
Moreover, it threatens the joint strike fighter programme if passed.n its current form, affecting £200 billion-worth of the programme and thousands of jobs both here and internationally. Will my right hon. Friend make representations to the US Administration to make sure that that Bill is amended accordingly?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. My earlier answer showed the importance of US defence procurement to UK industry, and we are always trying to improve our export capabilities, not just into that market but elsewhere. Because of those important considerations, we do make representations of the type that my hon. Friend asked about, but it is not just about selling equipment; it is about ensuring that there is interoperability between NATO's defence forces, and the open market is the best way to achieve that.

May we, too, add our welcome to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin), in his new ministerial post, and add our tribute to his predecessor for all his work? We also congratulate the Government on the progress that they have made with the US Administration on supporting defence sales between our countries. However, with only one major domestic defence contractor left, does the Minister agree that it is important that the Government ensure that BAE Systems continues to be independent and is not vulnerable to an international takeover or merger, thus ensuring that true international competition will continue?

It is not strictly true, whatever the hon. Gentleman says, that there is only one major defence company left, as 150,000 jobs in this country are tied up in defence. I do not know whether he was ruling out Rolls-Royce or whether it is the company that he was referring to. I do not know whether he was ruling out Thales, a major defence presence in this country. I do not know which major company he was referring to. However, I welcome his recognition of what we are doing to ensure that we fully exploit our relationship with the US in the marketplace to the best advantage of our economy and the US economy as well. However, we must also bear in mind the need to ensure that our equipment has an interoperative capability, which serves us all well in NATO and elsewhere.

One organisation that successfully secured American procurement work is the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, which repairs components for Apache helicopters. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that that organisation attracts more work, especially in the run-up to the completion of the Red Dragon project, and will he agree to meet me to discuss ways of achieving that for DARA?

I fully recognise the strong role played by my hon. Friend in promoting the, cause of DARA. As the sole owner, in technical terms, of that organisation, I well understand the points that he makes. DARA has been successful in securing commercial contracts. The establishment of the trading fund provided that opportunity, and I pay tribute to the management and staff of DARA for all that they have achieved. The Red Dragon project represents a clear commitment to the future, and I was pleased to be able to agree to those proposals. Yes, I will meet my hon. Friend to discuss these matters, if he wishes, sooner rather than later.

Given British Aerospace's view that the Government's defence industrial policy does it few favours, and last week's warning from the Society of British Aerospace Companies that that world-beating industry faces a further 15,000 job losses on top of the 20,000 that it suffered last year, what has the Prime Minister done to use his influence to secure a dividend from the United States for British support for the US on Iraq, by obtaining better access for British defence exports to the US? Is not the least that we can expect that he should resist the legislation mentioned by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)? While we are speaking of defence procurement, can the Minister tell us what the Government will do in the event that British Aerospace decides that its only future is to be swallowed up by a US company?

We shall have to take each step as it comes in responding to any change in the defence marketplace in terms of individual companies and possible amalgamations. The national interest would, of course, be uppermost in our mind in any future restructuring. That must be considered when assessing any future relationship. The hon. Gentleman should know that the measure to which he referred is known as the ITAR—international trade and arms regulations—waiver. Considerable progress has been made on that, but not as much as we would have liked, because matters intervened: first, the change of Administration and the need to build new relationships; secondly, the Afghanistan conflict; and then the Iraq conflict, which tied up a significant number of people. However, four of the seven key principles have now been signed off, and I have no doubt that the Prime Minister will continue to bring whatever influence he can to bear with the US Administration to ensure the future of the British economy.

Shoeburyness Ranges

5.

If he will make a statement on the future use of the new ranges in Shoeburyness. [120545]

The Shoeburyness ranges are included in the long-term partnering agreement that has been negotiated with QinetiQ for the delivery of a long-term test and evaluation capability to the Ministry of Defence.

I offer my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on his appointment. Has he had time to consider the impact of the many changes that have occurred in Shoeburyness recently, including the privatisation of the range facilities, the removal of MOD police from Foulness and the proposed house building on part of the site? Would he consider making time available in his busy diary to meet the military and civil defence staff there, and also representatives of the local community, in what I think he will appreciate is one of the most unique and significant MOD sites in the country?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcoming words. I can tell him that QinetiQ security service now oversees site security and may work, where necessary, in conjunction with both Essex police and Ministry of Defence police. As for a meeting, I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, but I cannot undertake to do so in the immediate future because of the pressures on my diary in these first few days.

Territorial Army

6.

How many Territorial Army soldiers were deployed on Operation Telic; and how many are still in Iraq. [120546]

A total of 4,592 Territorial Army personnel have been deployed on Operation Telic, both at home bases in the United Kingdom and in the Gulf region. Currently 1,400 TA personnel remain in the Gulf region.

I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the outstanding contribution that the Territorial Army made to Operation Telic—a contribution that can only be enhanced by the arrival of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who was called out today.

When I was in the region last week, one brigade commander told me that during Operation Telic 14 per cent. of his troops had been TA troops. That level has now risen to 25 per cent., which must be evidence for the fact that TA soldiers are being kept out there for longer than their regular counterparts. The Secretary of State will know that, under the Reserve Forces Act 1996, if a TA soldier has been called up for six months or longer, he may not be called up again for a further three years. Given that that is the case, what will he do if he requires those soldiers' skills again before 2006?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generous and appropriate tribute to members of the TA, who made an outstanding contribution in Iraq and continue to do so. We anticipated that contribution in the strategic defence review and it has fully vindicated the policy that it set out.

As to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that TA personnel were remaining in theatre for longer than their regular counterparts, with one or two notable exceptions, that is simply not the case. The exceptions are largely in the medical field. When regular forces have returned to the United Kingdom, the associated TA soldiers have done so as well. As to the future, we obviously did not call out all members of the TA for the operation. Should there be a requirement for a major operation in future, we will obviously have plenty of people to call upon should it be necessary to do so.

I have a constituent who was called up by the TA on 21 January and is currently serving in the Gulf. He has yet to receive his £1,200 annual bounty and neither he nor apparently any of his regiment have received their £150-a-month separation allowance. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an unacceptable way of treating our troops, and that it is bringing undue financial pressure on their families? I have passed on the individual details and I hope that he will investigate the matter urgently, but can he inform the House whether it is a general problem?

I am not aware that it is a general problem, but if my hon. Friend lets me have the particular details, I shall ensure that they are investigated as a matter of urgency.

In praising my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who is on his way to the Gulf, I should declare an interest to the House, as I shall be eating a dinner on his behalf in October.

Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne), does the Secretary of State accept that the best way of ensuring healthy reserve forces is for the Ministry of Defence to deal with the units concerned in organising its call-out arrangements, rather than sending out central memorandums like some sort of credit agency? Does he accept that, in organising those arrangements, there is a huge difference in standards between different parts of the Army and the other two forces? For example, the Royal Marines and Royal Engineers get it right, while the infantry directorate is arguably the worst.

I am certainly willing to consider those arrangements. If the hon. Gentleman has specific details about where he believes there were problems, they will be investigated as part of the process that we are undertaking to learn lessons from this deployment. In preparing for the conflict in the Gulf, I had the opportunity to visit Chilwell, the centre for call-out. In speaking to a great number of people from the Territorial Army and the reservists, I did not come across the sort of complaints that he mentions. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by Chilwell on behalf of the TA and reservists. I look to the future and to ensuring that, if there are problems with the arrangements, we get them right.

Will the Secretary of State consider sending some of the Territorials to look at the mobile labs in the form of two trailers in northern Iraq? A report in The Observer on 15 June said that the system was originally sold by a British company, Marconi, as a command and control system. If any Territorials investigated the trailers, would they find a "Made in Britain" stamp on them? If this is a smoking gun in terms of weapons of mass destruction, why did we apparently sell them?

I do not think that anyone suggested that this was an example of a smoking gun. It has rightly been suggested that this was a gun and that the mobile laboratories were wholly consistent with the description of mobile laboratories given by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his evidence to the United Nations Security Council. That remains the position as far as coalition forces are concerned.

May I warmly endorse the words of the Secretary of State and my hon. Friends about the distinguished and admirable service of which the TA have yet again proved themselves capable in the Gulf? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that however good the TA and the rest of our soldiers are, unless there is a very significant improvement in the internal security situation in Iraq, all the hopes we have for the improvement of the lives of ordinary people living in Iraq will come to naught? Must we not reassess whether there are enough troops on the ground; whether we need to put some more troops into Baghdad; and whether we should call Lord Ashdown back from Bosnia and ask him to sit alongside Paul Bremer to see what he can do to help?

As I understand it, Lord Ashdown is to meet Paul Bremer in due course, and no doubt they will have some interesting conversations about the similarities between the situation in the early days in Bosnia and the current situation in Iraq. I counsel the hon. Gentleman against assuming that the isolated incidents in certain parts of the suburbs of Baghdad mean that there is widespread disorder right across Iraq. That is simply not the case. There are obviously elements who are continuing to resist coalition forces, and they are being dealt with, but it is by no means a generalised problem across Iraq. Indeed, the security situation in Iraq is largely good and improving.

How many members of the Territorial Army are engaged in the search for weapons of mass destruction? If it is the Government's case that those weapons have been hidden, have they engaged in any estimate of the number and type of vehicles necessary to transport such massive armaments?

I do not have the figures on whether any members of the Territorial Army a re currently engaged in the search for weapons of mass destruction, but if so they will be very small in number. Nevertheless, it is important that we continue that search.

I would counsel my hon. Friend against the suggestion that we are necessarily looking for a massive stock of, for example, chemical or biological weapons. A very small quantity of a biological agent could easily destroy the population of a major city. We are searching not for a large weapon, but for an enormously dangerous one. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that.

I join in the tributes paid to the Territorial Army, especially to the TA call-out centre at Chilwell. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that there were many problems with the call-out, and that he will wish to address them rather than to dismiss them.

Last week, a TA commanding officer told me that one third of his battalion would remain fully mobilised for the foreseeable future. That perhaps reflects the comments by Major General Freddie Viggers—the senior officer serving in the US military command headquarters in Baghdad—who said that British forces would be in Iraq for at least another four years. Given that, and the increased demands on the TA for security measures at home, has not the Government's decision to cut the TA by 18,000 soldiers in 1998 turned out to be reckless, short-sighted and irresponsible, as we warned at the time?

Not only did I not dismiss the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) earlier: I said that I would consider them. It is important to get it right. As for the suggestion that British forces will be there for as long as four years, various people have made various estimates, but the Government's ambition is to be able to remove British forces from Iraq as soon as the security situation allows it and as soon as the Iraqi people can take responsibility for their own affairs. I paid my tribute to the TA, and I want an expanding TA to continue to provide that kind of contribution to our regular forces.

Missile Defence

7.

What recent discussions he has had with the Governments of (a) Canada and (b) Denmark about UK policy on strategic missile defence. [120547]

I discussed a number of issues, including missile defence, with my Danish counterpart in Copenhagen on 8 April. I have had no recent discussions on missile defence with my Canadian counterpart.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern that is being expressed by people in Denmark and around RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire about the environmental consequences of missile defence, especially the medical consequences of phased-array radar, which have been widely reported in the local media in Yorkshire and on the BBC's "Look North"? Can my right hon. Friend tell me what advice he has sought from the National Radiological Protection Board about those risks and what advice he can give to people in North Yorkshire about their nature?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I am aware of the claims to which he refers. We have not seen any evidence that phased-array radar emissions at levels below those considered safe by the relevant scientific and medical authorities can harm the health of human beings or livestock. The claims are apparently based on material emanating from the United States, and we await the results of studies being made there. However, the weight of current scientific and medical evidence does not in any way support those claims.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it makes better sense to have a missile defence system in place in an era in which we are concerned about rogue regimes with potentially small numbers of missiles than it might have done during a cold war confrontation when we were dealing with a superpower with very large numbers of missiles? When he discusses these important issues with our NATO allies, what consideration does he give to the financing of any such project in the future? Is it a question of discussing with them how best to co-operate with our American allies on a project that they will finance, or would we have to make a significant financial contribution—and if so, could we afford to do so?

We have not come to any specific decisions on whether to pursue missile defence for the United Kingdom, but at the Prague summit last November, all our NATO allies clearly demonstrated that we were committed to examining options to address the increasing missile threat. The question of finance has not yet been specifically addressed, and it need not be until there is agreement as to how to go forward in this area. We have, however, been able to agree a framework memorandum of understanding with the United States, which sets out the guiding principles governing co-operation between the United States and the United Kingdom on missile defence. Obviously, one of the aspects that we have to consider further is the cost, and who should meet that cost.

Machrihanish Raf Base

8.

If he will make a statement on his Department's plans for the former RAF base at Machrihanish. [120548]

The base is being retained on a care and maintenance basis, pending a review of possible military requirements for the site.

I thank the Minister for that answer and congratulate him on his appointment. May I draw to his attention the fact that, if the plans to cease to support military training at Machrihanish in September go ahead, high-quality training facilities will be lost? As Kintyre is a remote peninsula with high unemployment, it would be very difficult for the civilian workers who would be made redundant to find alternative employment. In view of these factors, will the Minister reconsider the penny-pinching decision to stop the training at Machrihanish? Will he, for example, discuss with the local enterprise company the possibility of putting together a financial package to save the training facilities? I noticed the Minister's willingness to meet people from Shoeburyness; may I invite him to make the trip to Machrihanish to see for himself the excellent facilities there?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcoming remarks. He will be aware that the Ministry of Defence is continuing to work closely with the local authority and the local enterprise company to develop the capacity that might become surplus to requirements at Machrihanish, including any land or buildings, for alternative uses. The site was originally declared surplus to military requirements and transferred to Defence Estates for disposal on 1 April 2000, but a decision on whether the site is surplus to future requirements remains some way off; it is too early to say.

Iraq

9.

If he will make a statement on the contribution which the armed services based in the south-west of England (a) made and (b) continue to make to coalition operations in Iraq. [120549]

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to the good work that was and continues to be done in Iraq by armed forces personnel based in the south-west of England, and by all our servicemen and women.

From Plymouth, HMS Ocean, with supporting vessels from the amphibious task group, was instrumental in supporting the crucial early landing of 3 Commando Brigade on the al-Faw peninsula. In addition, Royal Marine commandos were involved in securing the port of Umm Qasr, through which all subsequent seaborne aid has been channelled. HMS Chatham remains in the Gulf. Other units based in the south-west of England also played an important role in Iraq, including Royal Marines from Taunton, and Royal Naval air squadrons from Culdrose and Yeovilton.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He describes a number of roles of which the service personnel and their families can rightly be proud. In respect of those families, he might recollect that, during questions on the statement to the House on Iraq on 21 March, I raised a question about media intrusion at the time of the first casualties arising from the conflict.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had time to note that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport published its report last week on its investigation into privacy and media intrusion. The recommendation at paragraph 72 says:
"We recommend that the PCC, under its new Chairman, considers the case for taking a more consistent approach to foreseeable events that herald intense media activity and people in grief and shock; and for acting as soon as possible after unexpected disasters have occurred."
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that he plays his part in ensuring that that recommendation is fully followed through?

I do indeed recollect my hon. Friend raising that particular matter. A number of servicemen connected to the south-west lost their lives or were injured while deployed on operations in Iraq. Our thoughts remain with them and their families. Sadly, there were too many examples of the press stepping over lines of common decency, or failing to respect the feelings of those who had just lost loved ones. I have read the recommendations in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report published last Monday. That is an interesting comment. It is also interesting that Christopher Meyer, the new chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, has indicated that that is the type of case that he would be open to dealing with. If anything can be done to ensure that the press act responsibly at all times when they deal with victims and those who may lose their lives in conflict, I think we will all applaud it.

No mention of the disproportionate part played by the armed forces in the south-west would be complete without acknowledging yet again the professionalism and dedication of the staff at commando training camp Lympstone. Equally important is an acknowledgment of the very important part played by the Royal Marines Reserve, 150 of whom were deployed recently in Iraq. However, there seems to be some discrepancy among public sector employers in releasing royal marine reservists for their annual training, which is critical if they are to play their part fully as we call on them to do from time to time. As part of his review following recent events in Iraq, will the Minister look carefully at how we can convince public sector employers throughout the country to approach the release of Royal Marine Reservists in the same way, without discriminating against some of them, which unfortunately has been the case in the past?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. I was not aware of the specifics, but in the recent debate on personnel matters we dealt with the impact on individual reservists and those in the Territorial Army, and the relationship with their employers, and I stressed the importance of ensuring that employers are fully aware of the role that reservists play and engage with it. It is in their interests as well as in the national interest that those actions are taken. I will ensure that those sentiments are expressed to them. If there are any particular problems, I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman brought them to my attention and that of my hon. Friends. We will do what we can to ensure that that is fully complied with. I echo his sentiments about the crucial role played by training encampments and the Royal Marine Reserves.

Procurement

10.

If he will make a statement on the procurement orders for (a) tanks and (b) combat aircraft. [120551]

The Challenger 2 is a world-class battle-winning tank which performed successfully in operations in Iraq. It is planned to remain in service until at least 2025. No replacement programme is yet under consideration.

Current combat aircraft procurement programmes are those for the joint strike fighter, the Typhoon and the attack helicopter. While no final decisions have yet been taken, we expect to purchase 150 of the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the JSF. The Typhoon is in production and the UK will receive 55 aircraft from the first tranche. Orders from the second or third tranches will be made in due course. There are 67 Apache attack helicopters on order. In addition, on 10 June, the Royal Air Force took delivery of the last of its 142 Tornado GR4s—a major upgrade programme—which performed extremely well in recent operations in Iraq.

In view of the need to reshape the armed forces to take account of the changing military and terrorist threat, and of the need to acquire new equipment such as the proposed two aircraft carriers and the joint strike fighter, how confident can we be that Government will continue with and complete the purchase of equipment originally planned for the defence of the central plain of Europe in the 1980s?

A White Paper will be published in the autumn. Of course, many of these issues have to be addressed as we look to the future, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman await publication of that White Paper, which will undoubtedly spark his interest and that of many other Members.

Given the history of cost overruns on the helicopter contract and other contracts, why is the Department proposing to disregard the advice of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury that it could save £1 billion if the forthcoming contract for training jets were opened up to international competitive tendering?

We recognise that the Hawk has an excellent track record and remains a world leader in its field. We have spent the past few weeks assessing the BAE Systems proposal and consulting others across government, including the Treasury. We need to determine whether the proposal meets our military requirements and offers value for money for the taxpayer. There is great awareness of the importance of our decision and its impact on jobs and manufacturing in the United Kingdom, but we have undertaken to reach a decision by the end of this month, which is not far away. That remains our intention.

Democratic Republic Of The Congo

11.

What (a) inoculations and (b) preventive medicines have been given to UK troops deploying to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [120552]

In my oral statement to the House on 12 June, I said that we would finalise the exact number of engineering personnel to be deployed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the basis of further detailed analysis of the engineering tasks required in Bunia. I can now tell the House that this work has been completed, and we intend to send about 70 Royal Engineers to assist in improving Bunia airfield. With support staff and headquarters-based officers, total deployment will be in the region of 85 personnel.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's specific question, all troops deploying to the Democratic Republic of the Congo are to be inoculated against vaccine-preventable endemic diseases such as hepatitis A, tuberculosis and yellow fever. Appropriate anti-malaria tablets and any necessary booster vaccinations will be provided before deployment. In addition, deploying troops will be briefed on preventive measures that they should take when in theatre.

I thank the Minister for that answer, which he has clearly thought about very carefully since last week, when he was a little more vague in what he was telling us. Will he now make it very clear that he knows exactly what the troops' mission is?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I made my statement last week—I made it the week before. On the question of being vague, did tell the House that there was a requirement for a recce team to report back. It has now done so, and I have given a response. If the hon. Gentleman were truly interested in this issue, he would surely have read United Nations Security Council resolution 1484, which sets out the precise nature of the mission. It is

"to contribute to the stabilization of the security conditions and the improvement of the humanitarian situation in Bunia, to ensure the protection of the airport, the internally displaced persons in the camps in Bunia and, if the situation requires it to contribute to the safety of the civilian population, UN personnel and the humanitarian presence in the town".
That will be the role and the mission of the EU-led troops.

I am grateful to the Minister for his earlier reply and reference to the 70 or so Royal Engineers being deployed to the Congo. However, a cursory look at history shows what a hugely dangerous theatre this part of Africa is, particularly for British soldiers. Is it wise that our soldiers should be going without any combat elements themselves, particularly given that they have to depend on French forces to defend them?

I would not want to rise too readily to that last comment. Given the hon. Gentleman's military background, he surely ought to know just how highly our armed forces rate the French armed forces and their capabilities. This is a very specific mission for our Royal Engineers, who will have supporting troops; in any case, all are trained in self-defence and the use of their own weapons. The mission will take place over a specific time scale in order to achieve the objective of opening up the airfield, which will hopefully allow other support to come in from the United Nations. That will lead to what we all hope will prove to be the eventual stabilisation of an undoubtedly very troubled region.

Wind Farms

12.

What assessment he has made of the impact of offshore wind farms on MOD radar systems; and if he will make a statement. [120553]

Ministry of Defence officials are involved with the Department of Trade and Industry, the Civil Aviation Authority, National Air Traffic Services and the British Wind Energy Association in a group that is addressing the effects on radar of both onshore and offshore wind turbines.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but how long is it likely to take before that group reaches a firm conclusion about the impact on radar of offshore wind farms, and why does it not seem to be a problem for other European countries? What is the difference between British radar systems and those of other European countries?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long history of asking questions on these matters. I can assure him and the House that every proposal received by the Ministry of Defence is given a full appraisal by at least seven separate technical advisers, each with their own specialism. The test is case-by-case consideration of the effect of proposed developments on the ability to train our pilots safely and also their effect on operational capability.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, but is he aware that both the Crown Estate and the Atomic Energy Authority have made applications for many offshore wind turbines on the Wash and off the Norfolk coast. What evaluations have been made of the potential impact of those turbines on Ministry of Defence radar and on the RAF bombing range in the Wash?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all those matters are taken into consideration. That is why we are making assessments. I can also tell the House that, of the 200 applications for offshore wind farm proposals received between November 1996 and last month, the Ministry of Defence only objected to 37 on safety grounds.

Procurement

13.

If he will make a statement on the procurement of ordnance by the armed forces. [120554]

The majority of conventional ammunition is procured under a framework partnering agreement with Royal Ordnance Defence, which covers the supply of ordnance and ammunition sub-systems, including propellant. Other weapons are procured on the basis of smart acquisition procedures to obtain the best value for money for the taxpayer, meet the requirements of the armed forces, and ensure security of supply.

BAE Systems faces a situation in which General Dynamics and other companies are looking to acquire ordnance provision. What will the Minister do about the security of supply of the procurement of ordnance in this country, given that it could be owned in future by an American company? Are there any plans to deal with the problem if that were to happen?

I have given an earlier indication about how we would have to deal with such matters. We would have to look into the likely arrangements in the event of a merger, amalgamation or takeover and its consequent impact on the national interest. Matters would have to be dealt with at that time, based on the new relationships between the companies.

Strategic Technologies

14.

If he will make a statement on the technologies which his Department has assessed as being of strategic importance to the future effectiveness of the UK's defence forces. [120555]

The Ministry of Defence has well-defined processes for identifying key technologies to support the United Kingdom's military capability. Examples of these have been enshrined in the defence technology centres, which involve collaboration with industry and will be used to bring technology forward. The MOD is continuously reviewing wider science and technology to assess the impact for defence.

May I express disappointment in the Minister's answer? He did not expressly state that the maintenance of a UK aerospace capability was central to our future defence needs. In the light of discussions said to be taking place about the future of BAE Systems and an American partner, what steps would the Department take, in the event of such a marriage occurring, to ensure that Britain maintained a proper military aerospace capability of its own?

That is the third time I have been asked that question, and I have nothing further to add to what I said earlier.

Security Threats

15.

If he will make a statement on the armed forces' military preparedness to deal with security threats to the UK. [120556]

The involvement of the armed forces in counter-terrorism and civil protection was reviewed following the events of 11 September 2001 and enhanced as part of the development of the new chapter of the strategic defence review. Their role is to act in support of the police and other emergency services. A range of robust contingency plans for responding to a wide range of terrorist threats continues to be regularly exercised, tested, reviewed and refined in the light of changing domestic and international circumstances.

Reports in the press at the weekend suggest that we are not prepared to deal with the security threats. Would the Minister care to deny or confirm those reports?

I do not know which reports the hon. Lady is referring to, but if she cares to pass me copies, I shall be able to comment on their accuracy or otherwise.

European Council

3.31 pm

With permission, Mr Speaker. I shall make a statement on the European Council, which I attended in Greece on 19 and 20 June. I should like to offer my thanks to Prime Minister Simitis and the Greek Government, who have conducted an effective presidency in a particularly difficult period.

The European Council took delivery of the draft constitutional treaty prepared by the European Convention under the expert chairmanship of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. We agreed that the draft is a good basis for starting the intergovernmental conference in October. The 10 countries joining the European Council will participate fully alongside the existing member Governments. The aim is to conclude it in time for a new treaty to be signed after 1 May next year.

The Convention sets out clearly what Europe is for, its aims and objectives, the rights of its citizens, the powers and responsibilities of its institutions and the way it takes forward its policies. It recognises expressly that what we want is a Europe of nations, not a federal superstate, and that issues to do with taxation, foreign policy, defence policy and our own British borders will remain the prerogative of our national Government and Parliament.

The draft makes clear in the very first article that the Union only has those powers that member states give it. It introduces a Chair of the European Council to prepare and follow through the European Council agenda. It will bring an end to the present system of six-monthly presidencies, which is no longer feasible in a Union of 25. It will provide a greater role for national Parliaments, which will be able to vet all new legislation and make the principle of subsidiarity work at the political level.

There are of course areas where there is continuing negotiation—for example, over enhanced co-operation, the structure of the presidency and the role of qualified majority voting—but above all the new draft treaty offers the prospect of stability in the way in which Europe works.

I should like to pay tribute to the work done by Ministers and to other hon. Members, for the contribution that they made to the work of the Convention. In addition to the Convention outcome, reflecting the work of its 200 members, Mr Giscard d'Estaing also referred to a minority report put forward in the Convention, including by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), the representative of the Conservative party. That report would turn the existing treaties into an association of states that would replace, and dismantle, the existing European Union.

The European Council agreed a range of actions to secure our frontiers, to ensure better co-operation with third countries on migration issues and to enable us to take the action we need to deal more effectively with asylum claims. Among the issues that we discussed was one on which we have been working closely with the European Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The aim is to strengthen the protection of refugees in their regions of origin so that, in a crisis, it is possible to offer effective and accessible sanctuary to refugees closer to their homes. To test whether such a scheme can work, we—with the support of the Commission—proposed pilot projects, which had widespread support. While the unanimity requirement in the Council prevented the idea from being specifically endorsed, that will not prevent the pilot projects from being taken forward by a number of member states and the Commission will report back on them within the year.

The Council discussed a paper by the EU High Representative, Javier Solana, for an overall strategy in the field of foreign and security policy. He proposed a comprehensive approach to dealing with the global problems of poverty, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction, stressing the importance of the relationship with the United States, the need to improve our military capability and the necessity, in the last resort, for preemptive military action. The Council endorsed a comprehensive plan for tackling the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This will be a particular theme of this week's EU-US summit as we take forward our joint work on curbing the export of WMD. The summit will also focus on the trade and economic agenda, especially the need for a successful meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Cancun, and foreign policy cooperation, notably in the middle east.

President Chirac and I had proposed, following the G8 summit, that the EU should match the US by contributing up to €1 billion in 2004 to the global health fund to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Although this had majority support, some member states objected and, because of the unanimity requirement, we could not secure agreement at the Council to that sum, but we did agree that the Union would determine the extent of its contribution at the pledging conference on 16 July.

There was a strong focus at the meeting on the EU's relations with the wider world. Putting our support behind the middle east peace process, we called on Hamas and other groups to declare a ceasefire and endorsed an urgent examination of the case for wider action against Hamas fundraising. We expressed serious concern at aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme and our full support for the International Atomic Energy Agency in its effort to conduct a comprehensive examination of Iran's nuclear programme. We made it clear that the way in which Iran behaves on human rights, terrorism and the middle east peace process is crucial to the future development of EU-Iran relations.

Finally, we held a positive discussion about Iraq. The European Council affirmed the European Union's readiness to take part in the reconstruction of Iraq within the framework of UN Security Council resolution 1483. We commissioned further work on the details of the help that the EU can provide.

The Council took stock of the economic situation following the spring summit on economic reform. It set a clear agenda for action in line with the objectives, which Britain and a number of other member states have been advocating.

The Council also endorsed the appointment of Jean-Claude Trichet as the next President of the European Central Bank, in accordance with the agreement reached during the last UK presidency.

What is clear is that Europe at 25 nations will be very different from Europe at 15. In the coming years, Europe will expand still further to welcome Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and possibly others. Plainly, this means that Europe must change the way it works. There are several areas in which the Convention proposes moving to qualified majority voting, including on trade in services and in the fight against terrorism, drugs and illegal immigration. We should not, however, fear every extension of qualified majority voting as hostile to Britain. In some areas, we need QMV. The only reason we have any hope of achieving reform in, for example, the common agricultural policy is that decisions in the Agriculture Council are determined by QMV. It was thanks to QMV that we opened up energy markets. If we want to drive through economic reform, liberalise markets, and break down state subsidies, then, in a Europe of 25, QMV on such issues as trade in services and mutual recognition of qualifications is essential for the British national interest. Britain needs Europe to work and, for Europe to work, it needs to change.

That is not all that will be different in a Europe of 25 or 30. The new nations joining the EU share, in many ways, the British perspective. They are firmly in favour of the transatlantic alliance. Freed from communism, they do not fear economic reform; they welcome it. Freed from subjugation by the former Soviet Union, the central and east Europeans have no intention or desire to yield up the nationhood for which they have fought so hard. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Convention so explicitly ruled out a European federal superstate.

It is not only the new members that will sign up to that vision of Europe. Increasingly, Europe knows that the focus for its economy and for its security has to be outward, not inward. The danger for Britain is that, at the very time when Europe is moving closer to the view of Europe with which we are most comfortable, and which we can advocate so well, we should lose the chance to take our proper place in Europe by fighting battles long since over, and by turning away at the very point when Europe is turning towards us.

There are real battles, of course—for example, over tax or defence—but they are battles that we can win. At this point in time, with Europe at a crucial point of evolution, this nation, Britain, has to have the confidence to stride forward in Europe, not hang back.

The next year will determine the shape of Europe of which we are a member. There will be critical alliances to be made and choices to be faced, but I have no doubt that a Europe that now stretches from Finland and the Baltic states to the shores of the Aegean sea, Cyprus and Malta is a Europe that should have, and will have, Britain at its heart.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and congratulate the Greek Government on their hard work. I welcome the recent signing of the accession treaty in Athens. I also welcome the statement of support for the middle east road map for peace.

There were, however, three failures arising from Thessaloniki. First, yet another European summit has passed with no commitment to, or even discussion of, real reform of the common agricultural policy, despite the Prime Minister's QMV. Secondly, the Prime Minister failed to obtain EU backing for his offshore asylum centres; his pilot projects will not hide his failure. Thirdly, we got the European constitution.

The Government have claimed that the proposed European constitution is just "a tidying-up exercise"; yet is it not the case that the constitution will set up a European president, transfer asylum and immigration policy to Brussels, establish a binding charter of fundamental rights and create an overarching constitutional settlement in which the EU can expand its powers without the approval of national Parliaments? The Government have completely understated the all-embracing nature of that constitution.

Recently, the German Foreign Minister said that the constitution is
"the most important treaty since the formation of the European Economic Community".
At the same time, our Prime Minister says that the constitution
"does not involve a fundamental change to the British constitution".—[Official Report, 18 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 352.]
What nonsense! The constitution will fundamentally change the way in which every country in Europe is governed. Everybody else sees that.

The Prime Minister always talks about his red lines in the debate on the constitution, so will he tell us why they keep moving? Will he tell us why he opposed a binding charter of fundamental rights, but now accepts it; why he opposed an EU Foreign Minister, but now supports one; why he wanted to limit QMV, but now, apparently, wants even more of it; and why he rejected the need for a written EU constitution, but now embraces it?

The Laeken declaration rightly stated that
"the European institutions must be brought closer to its citizens".
Is it not the case, however, that the constitution is top down and even more centralising?

The Prime Minister wants to hide his Government's failure by setting up a false debate about staying in the EU or leaving it. The real debate is not about staying or leaving. The Conservative party does not want Britain to leave the EU; we want to make it work. I remind the Prime Minister that he is the one who wants to make Europe a superpower—that is his policy. That is the real debate and he will do absolutely anything to avoid it.

The President of the Convention, whom the Prime Minister was lauding during his statement, said that
"constitutions are created by citizens and adopted by them in referendums".
A growing number of European countries are committing to a referendum on the matter, and 88 per cent. of the British people say that they want a referendum. So, if the Prime Minister believes that he is doing the right thing, why does he not hold a referendum and let the British people decide?

First, let us deal with the common agricultural policy. The right hon. Gentleman says that it was a great failure that the policy was not dealt with at the Counci—[Interruption.] Let me deal with the CAP first. The reason why we did not deal with the CAP at the European Council is simple: it would have been quite disastrous to have transferred discussion of the CAP from the Agriculture Council, where there is QMV, to the European Council, where there is unanimity.

For that very reason, everyone who was in favour of common agricultural reform asked us not to take it at the European Council, but to leave it at the Agriculture Council.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that other member states objected to the pilot projects and that, because of the unanimity requirement, we cannot get them through on the basis that we originally anticipated. However, because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees supports the projects, we are able to undertake them and the Council agreed that the European Commission should report back on those issues.

The full-time president of the Council, whom the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, is good for this country because it allows us to make sure that we have the Council with an agenda that is driven through, rather than 25 nation states having a rotating six-monthly presidency.

I am sorry; it was our proposal. Our proposal is to replace the rotating six-monthly president with a full-time chairman; otherwise, we will not be able to get a consistent agenda, driven by the Council—the intergovernmental body that covers all the work of Europe.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned QMV, on which our position is that if it is in our interests, we accept it; if it is not, we do not. It is quite wrong to say that every extension of QMV is always hostile to Britain. May I simply remind him that, under the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty, there were massive extensions of qualified majority voting, for entirely sensible reasons to do with the British national interest? Indeed, most of those on his Front Bench, though not him, voted in favour of those extensions.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say, however, that the divide between the parties is very clear. The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has published his alternative convention document, which the Conservatives say is very good and effective.

Thank you. That is now the Conservatives' policy, but let me tell them what it says. Let us look at the document that is now being endorsed by those on the Conservative Front Bench. It says:

"We propose to transform the EU into a Europe of Democracies … which shall be a treaty association of free and self-governing European states".
[Interruption.] Fine: they are all in agreement with that. It goes on to say:
"A national parliament shall have a veto on an issue it deems important."
So that is an end to any concept of any issue being driven through by Europe in that way. The right hon. Member for Wells may be right, he may be wrong—many Members are nodding and saying that he is right—but let us be quite clear that that is effectively redrawing Britain's membership of the European Union.

If Conservative Front Benchers endorse that policy document, their policy is wholly inconsistent with Britain's present membership of the European Union. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, it is not."] Yes, it is, and it would mean that we would have to redraw and renegotiate Britain's membership of the EU. That is now the position of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Wood Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), and it is fundamentally opposed to everything that even the Conservative party has stood for up until now.

We have already given the reasons why we do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the referendum, but let me just say that it is now absolutely clear what the dividing line is. There is no way that that document—signed, I think, by only eight other members of the Convention—is anything other than a plea for a new type of British membership of the EU. That is what it is, and it would mean renegotiating our membership, and that is why the dividing line between our two parties is: this side, constructive engagement in the EU; that side, withdrawal from the EU.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I certainly welcome the acceptance of the Convention's proposals in principle, and it is worth reminding ourselves that, not that many years ago, it would have been unthinkable that 15 existing member states and 10 accession countries could reach even this degree of consensus for sensible co-operation over the development of the EU.

There will be an intergovernmental conference later in the year, albeit that we do not know how long it will last, and I gather that the Government now acknowledge that there will be an opportunity for a further debate before the recess on the Convention proposals.

We obviously welcome that, but do the Government acknowledge that it would assist the House's capacity to discuss these matters in even more detail if they were to publish a White Paper outlining with more specific intent their approach to the forthcoming negotiations and their position on the relevant articles?

It was good to hear the Prime Minister make the positive case, where appropriate, for the relevant extensions to qualified majority voting and for the relevant applications of that process, and to begin to destroy some of the myths attached to that by opponents of the process.

The Government have described the proposals as they stand as a "good basis" for discussion. Surely, a dividing line must be drawn between what is a good basis for the ensuing discussion and allowing the unravelling of the basis of the Convention proposals, which is what some of the wreckers want to happen. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge the inherent dangers in that?

The Prime Minister mentioned the minority report that was issued by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and six other members of the Convention. In an article in last wee's The Wall Street Journal, the right hon. Gentleman referred to foreign and security policy and mutual solidarity, as it is described. That goes to the central issue, which the Prime Minister may want to address. The right hon. Member for Wells argued:
"Since this solidarity requirement will be enshrined in a constitution, it will be legally binding."
Does the Prime Minister agree that it is incumbent on him, the Foreign Secretary and all those involved to make the case for a strengthened conduct of EU external relations based on the institutions of the Union, which remain emphatically intergovernmental under these processes? Does he also agree that that will provide sufficient safeguards for independent foreign policy making by member states, including any British Government coming before the House of Commons?

In that respect, the proposed Foreign Minister role is to be welcomed, as is the solidarity shown over Iran and the middle east peace process. Does the Prime Minister agree that if that solidarity could be extended to Iraq it would assist the cause against weapons of mass destruction?

The proposed intergovernmental agency for defence issues, not least research and procurement, is to be welcomed. Many a Committee of the House has examined this area, and we all know about the excessive wastage on procurement measures over the years. Equally welcome is the fact that taxation policy is to remain within the ambit of nation states, Governments and Parliaments.

On asylum, immigration and cross-border crime, not much progress seems to have been made on the first two. The Prime Minister said that the European Commission will report back on the pilot projects that did not command unanimity. What is the time scale for that report back, and what force will it have?

The whole point of a constitution for Europe is to codify the relevant levels of responsibility and competence. That should satisfy Euro-supporters and Eurosceptics alike. In the House and in the debate in Britain, we must identify and make clear the difference between reassuring those who are constructively sceptical about aspects of Europe and those diehards who can never be satisfied. The leader of the Conservative party talks about a false debate. Is it not important that for the first time we have a voluntary exit clause for EU member states, which will place an obligation on each and every political party in British politics to make it clear whether it would ever wish to avail itself of such a clause?

In so far as the Convention moves us forward towards a Europe that is more democratic, more accountable and more transparent, it is to be welcomed. As a country, only inside Europe can we continue to make that case constructively—not increasingly destructively outside it.

First, in relation to how we proceed from now, the issue of a White Paper is being discussed by the usual channels, and that is one possible alternative.

It is important to emphasise that, in a Europe of 25, it must be in our interests—except in vital sets of circumstances such as foreign policy, defence or tax—to extend QMV, without which we cannot make Europe work effectively. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely about that, although it is important that we do not unravel what was seen—not always here, but certainly abroad—as essentially a good deal for Britain.

It is important to retain unanimity on the common foreign and security policy. We want Europe to develop a better and more effective common foreign and security policy, which is why, for example, we are backing France in the Congo through the EU mission, which is very important. We expect reports on the pilot projects in June 2004.

On the whole, most aspects of the Convention have been seen, elsewhere but not here, as a substantial retention of the concept—indeed, perhaps for the first time, a proper elaboration of the concept—that as Europe co-operates more it should be on the basis of nation states and not on the basis of a federal superstate.

May I commend the important progress made at the European summit and congratulate my right hon. Friend on safeguarding so effectively Britain's important national interests? Is it not clear from the Leader of the Opposition's suggestion that agriculture reform should be taken at the summit that he is abysmally ignorant of the processes of the European Union? Will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts to end the serious dislocation between the European Union and the United States of America? If we do not do so, summits will come and go, but in the middle east and Africa, famine, war, pestilence and death will gallop ahead unchecked.

First, I thank my right hon. Friend for what he says about the Agriculture Council, which is very important. Clearly, if we had to take matters related to agriculture in the full European Council, it would prevent any prospect of reform or change.

In respect of the dislocation, as he describes it, between Europe and the United States of America, some signs exist that, whatever the differences over Iraq, people are coming together, which is welcome. I hope very much that at the European Union-American summit this week we will be able to take significant steps forward again for the re-establishment of good relations. The truth is that on issues related to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, the middle east peace process and global poverty, the EU and the US are on the same side and share the same values. Working together, we can achieve a great deal. The general mood of the Council was to make sure that we repair the transatlantic alliance and make it function effectively.

The Prime Minister was rather coy about the list of red line issues that he wants removed from the draft constitution. Will he agree, however, that it is rather a long list now, including majority voting on criminal laws and procedures and on aspects of tax and foreign policy, all of which are in the present draft, as well as the compulsory co-ordination of national economic and employment policies, which he did not mention, plans for a European public prosecutor, harmonisation of social security measures, and late plans for a wholesale transfer from national veto to majority voting, without any reference back to national parliaments or people? As he is now diverging from his absurd claim that this is just a tidying-up exercise, will he put in a public document where and what his red lines are? If he is so confident that he can overturn all of them, why does he not have the confidence to put the result to the British people in a referendum?

I have explained on many occasions why I do not believe that this is a proper subject for a referendum. I repeat once again that neither the Single European Act nor the Maastricht treaty was put to a referendum by the then Conservative Government.

In respect of the right hon. Gentleman's other points, issues remain, of course, in relation to tax administration. Let us not forget, however, that, for example, on tax, we have effectively won that battle in Europe. In respect of common foreign and security policy, we have effectively won that battle. Surely there will still be issues that we need to get right, but let us be quite clear about the situation.

There are, of course, issues that we must debate here, but the right hon. Gentleman will accept that his ideas on the Convention, which I think have been effectively agreed by his party today, would mean that Britain would become a different type of member of the European Union. That is exactly what he wants; it is a perfectly honourable position but a position of which people should be aware. We could end up effectively in a situation in which, for example, as he says, a national Parliament could effectively veto the application of any issues in its country. People might agree with that but there is no way that single market measures could be driven though in those circumstances. If we ended up with associate membership of the European Union, which he is advocating, it would effectively result in a complete change in our relationship with Europe. I think that he has the intellectual honesty to admit that and, if it is the case, it represents a fundamental dividing line between the two political parties.

Will my right hon. Friend tell me the gains and losses, in democratic terms, of the draft treaty proposals both for United Kingdom citizens and the totality of citizens of the European Union? If his answer requires a couple of volumes by way of response, perhaps it could be placed in the Library, but a brief, taut and penetrating reply would be welcome.

I do not think that my answer will require a couple of volumes. The principal gains for our own involvement and that of national Parliaments, for example, will be involvement in legislation for the first time. Powers of co-decision will also be extended for the European Parliament. The basic issue is that there were those in Europe who argued that we should effectively move to some sort of federal superstate. That argument has been decisively rejected, which is why it is so important that, apart from the British Conservative party—which is, let us say, eccentric on the issue every—other country in Europe has accepted that this is indeed a strike against federalism and in favour of a Europe of nations. The Conservative party might explode with indignation about that but it represents literally the only part of Europe in which that is being said.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that the draft constitution is unacceptable in its current form, so why has he so undermined his negotiating position at the intergovernmental conference by pre-emptively ruling out a referendum?

Because I do not believe that that undermines our negotiating position at all. Indeed, the very reason why we have got as far as we have is that we have negotiated sensibly, built alliances and shown—as Britain does when it puts its mind to it—that in Britain we can win.

On the common agricultural policy, my right hon. Friend reminded the House that decisions taken at the European Council require unanimity, but decisions taken at the Agriculture Ministers Council use qualified majority voting. In view of that, can he give us some hope that before long proposals for substantial reform will come from the Agriculture Ministers Council and that that will happen in good time before world trade negotiations in the autumn?

I think that I can give at least qualified hope on that. The Agriculture Council meets again on Wednesday. I think that it secured significant advances last week. There is every hope that we will get agreement there and, of course, it is the only place where we will get agreement precisely because QMV applies.

When the Prime Minister brought this Mary-Anne back through the nothing-to-declare channel at the weekend, had he spent any time discussing the British interest in terms of European fraud, accounting systems, the way in which European accounts are audited and Neil Kinnock?

I do not agree with some of the hon. Lady's remarks. She talks about discussing the British national interest, which is precisely what we have represented throughout. Our disagreement with her and her colleagues is that we believe that the British national interest is best served by being in Europe and inside the European Union, not by moving towards associate membership that would leave us without any influence on issues relating to fraud or anything else.

Can I refer my right hon. Friend to the reconstruction of Iraq? When I visited Iraq about a week ago, I was impressed by the work of our forces to reconstruct Basra. Water and electricity supplies are better now than they were before the war, 15 schools have been refurbished, medical centres have been re-equipped, police stations are being painted and decorated, and new Iraqi police officers are being trained and are out on the streets. However, I raise with my right hon. Friend UN Security Council resolution 1483 and the EU's reaction to it. It is clear to me that if we are to make a success of reconstruction in Iraq, it is no use leaving it simply to our troops and the UK taxpayer. Successful reconstruction needs a much bigger input from both the EU and aid agencies across the world.

First, I echo what my hon. Friend says about the contribution of British troops and, indeed, British aid workers and people from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. They are making a huge difference to the reconstruction of Iraq and work is proceeding. As he rightly says, many schools have reopened and many businesses and homes are being rebuilt. There is an atmosphere, whatever the difficulties, of real hope for the future.

My hon. Friend is also right in saying that 1483, the new United Nations resolution, calls on everyone to develop as secure a programme as possible in giving greater amounts of help. I hope very much that over the coming months we can get that help under way in Iraq. The prospects are extremely good if we can lever in the right expertise and change from the outside.

Does the Prime Minister think that the structure of the six-monthly European jamborees has largely outlived its usefulness? If, as reported, he came home halfway through the Council to see his children, who, frankly, could complain about that? Why does he not appoint another Minister to go to the meetings, take a few notes and report back on the personalities? He could consider the Leader of the House, who has now gone plural. As Secretary of State for Wales, he might also have time, in addition to reforming the tax system, to report back to him on European junketing.

First, I attended the whole of the European Council. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman's idea that I should not go to the European Council but instead send someone to take notes for me is slightly strange. It would mean that 24 nations in the European Council would be represented by their Head of Government or Head of State and we would have a notetaker. That would be a really good thing for Britain, wouldn't it?

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the ratchet clause in the treaty will not consistently remove from national Governments their right to veto any legislation that is not in the interests of their nation?

It is precisely because of our concerns about the so-called passerelle clause that we believe that we need fundamental change to ensure that national Parliaments cannot be bypassed in that way. Such a thing could only be agreed by unanimity in the European Council, but I think that we need further protections for national Parliaments, too.

I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in welcoming the new countries into the European Union—places such as Malta, Cyprus, the Baltic states and Slovenia—to become part of something that will now be a union of member states.

Does he agree that that union will be characterised by member states that tend to be of a smaller size than those that joined in the past? Many of them will be the same size as Wales and Scotland and have similar economies. What did the right hon. Gentleman do in the European Council over the weekend to protect the needs of Wales and Scotland, especially with regard to their ability to gain direct access to structural funds and other funding?

We have protected, in so far as we possibly can, the structural funds through the deal that we secured at Berlin a few years ago, and it is important that we continue to do so. However, it is also important to recognise that this country, as a major contributor to the European Union, needs an effective and efficient way of limiting the overall budget for Europe. In respect of Wales and Scotland, I believe the procedures in place offer the best protection for their interests.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that expansion of the EU to 25 nations provides a great opportunity for British businesses, especially those in the north-east of England which rely on 78 per cent. of their exports going to the EU? Does he also agree that future business opportunities and job creation are put at risk by those who advocate either withdrawal from the EU or associate membership of it?

What is absolutely extraordinary is any position that says that we should renegotiate our basic terms of membership of the European Union when 10 countries that are essentially supportive of the British point of view are coming into Europe and we have a better chance of winning these debates in Europe than we have probably ever had since we became members. To end up, when we are about to create literally the single biggest economic market in the world, redrawing our essential terms of membership would be an act almost of extraordinary folly for this country. The fact that the Conservative party now takes that position says a great deal about its present state.

Does the Prime Minister agree that to make the European Union work, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, we will have to make changes? Increasingly, there are decisions that cannot be made by nation states alone. Was the Prime Minister aware how Thatcherite he was when welcoming the extension of qualified majority voting? In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher made it quite clear that qualified majority voting was in the national interest, as it would overcome the protectionist instinct of other member countries. Was there a chance at the summit to discuss Europe's economic problems and the reform programmes that Germany and France need to put in place because of the consequences of a single monetary zone?

There was a lot of discussion of the basic economic situation and the importance of reform programmes. As for the point that the hon. Gentleman made about QMV, of course that is right. Any country that seriously adopted the position that the Conservative Front-Bench team is now taking would inevitably, because of its total unreasonableness, have to renegotiate its essential terms of membership.

The shadow Leader of the House is nodding. The debate is beginning, and we will have an opportunity through the workings of the Convention to have that debate in the House. It is extraordinary that today the Conservative party is taking a more extreme position than Margaret Thatcher used to take.

Did the foreign affairs discussion include the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan? Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is great concern, particularly among women, that the Constitution Commission may not be able to carry out its work effectively because of the lack of security? How will he respond to the pleas of Presidents Karzai and Musharraf and 80 non-governmental organisations working in Afghanistan for real security to be provided by the international community outside the capital of Kabul?

We want to respond positively to those claims. Obviously, I had an opportunity to discuss that with President Karzai a few weeks ago, and it is worth pointing out that when I told him that it is often said here that Afghanistan is in no better shape than it was when the Taliban were in charge, his response was that anyone who seriously believed that could not have been to the same country that he had been in. There have been huge strides forward, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify the fact that the problem with security is outside Kabul, which is why we are in discussion with Germany and other countries to try to make sure that we extend the remit of the security force. We will be taking part in some of the regional teams that will try to make sure that the Afghan army is built up sufficiently so that it can operate in all areas of Afghanistan and so that its writ runs from the centre to all those areas.

The point that my hon. Friend made about the constitution is right. I believe that we can safeguard the position of women and other minorities in terms of the ethnic mix in Afghanistan—[Interruption.] The different ethnic mix of minorities has to be protected too. There is also a great deal of recognition of the importance of getting the right co-operation on the drugs issue, but I am satisfied that we will be able to make progress in all those things.

On Iran, does the Prime Minister agree with President Bush that the students on the streets of Tehran deserve our support?

I think people who are fighting for freedom everywhere deserve our support, but the exact nature of the support that we are able to give is an open and different question. However, people in whatever part of the world who are trying to achieve basic human rights and civil liberties deserve support from all of us.

I am surprised that the Prime Minister, when referring to the middle east peace process, did not join the United States Secretary of State in denouncing the sabotaging by the Israeli Prime Minister of the peace process with a policy of targeted assassinations, which inevitably bring on Palestinian terrorist suicide bombings of innocent Israeli civilians, whose blood rests on the head of the Israeli Prime Minister as much as on their murderers. Will my right hon. Friend now make it clear that this rogue elephant Sharon must be reined in and, if he will not assist in the peace process, sanctions and an arms ban must be imposed on him?

At point 85 of the Council conclusions, we made clear our opposition to extra-judicial killings and to aspects of Israeli policy with which we disagree. I know my right hon. Friend will also want me to say that it is important that we deal with all aspects of the violence. We should recognise and remember that many innocent Israeli citizens are dying in the most appalling terrorist acts. In the end, if we want to play a part in resolving that situation, it will be incumbent on us less to condemn people and more to get the situation sorted out.

The House will know that one of the advantages of European Council meetings is not only the formal sessions, but the opportunity that they provide for informal and private discussions between Heads of Government. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that he took those informal opportunities to make clear to fellow Heads of Government the urgent need to reform the common agricultural policy? We understand his point about the need for formal discussions to take place in the Agriculture Ministers Council, but if the World Trade Organisation is to succeed at Cancun, as the Prime Minister said when he came back and reported on the G8 summit, reform of the CAP is vital. There is not much time between now and Cancun, and we should like to hear him assure the House that he took every opportunity informally to impress upon his colleagues the need for action to be taken on reform of the common agricultural policy.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we take every opportunity we can to press the case for CAP reform. The one hope that we have is that at Cancun in September the WTO must reach an agreement, and we must have a proper offer from Europe in place by that time. That is concentrating minds. I am not saying that we will reach agreement in the Agriculture Council, but it is fair to say that we have come a significant distance in the past few days. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we lose no opportunity whatever to tell people what we think. Essentially, we are in a majority on the issue, but obviously we need to move others too.

In the discussions on enlargement, was any mention made of the early-warning letters that have been sent by the Commission to some of the members-designate? As the champion of enlargement, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that his Government will work as closely as possible with countries that have received such letters to ensure that all outstanding points are dealt with before 1 May, to avoid the possibility of infraction proceedings being issued against some of them as soon as they become members?

The matter was not discussed at the European Council. There are issues that still have to be resolved in respect of that, and it is important that all the countries coming into the European Union abide by the rules of the EU. I am hopeful that these issues will be resolved. The implicit assumption of the entire meeting, which was the first time that we had met from the beginning as 25, was that the issues would be overcome and countries would be able to accede to the European Union in the way anticipated.

The Prime Minister is refusing the British people the right to vote on the future European constitution, on the ground that previous treaties have been signed without referendums. Does he not understand what is blindingly obvious to the British people: that the changes and the process of handing over power to European institutions are cumulative? The British people take the view that the process has gone far enough. They want an opportunity to say no. Why is he depriving them of that right?

The hon. Gentleman certainly let the cat out of the bag at the end of his question. The difference between us is that I do not believe that unless there is a fundamental alteration of the essential constitutional arrangements, a referendum is the proper way to proceed. The reason why we have said that we will have a referendum on the single currency, should we recommend it, is that it does represent a fundamental change in our constitutional arrangements; these proposals do not. Therefore, I do not agree that we require a referendum. The reason why I point out that previous Conservative Governments did not hold a referendum in those circumstances is to show the difference between being in government, where one has to take some responsibility for getting these things right, and in opposition, where one does not.

Did the European Council consider the need to amend the stability and growth pact in order to give member states greater freedom to stimulate their economies while maintaining fiscal discipline?

There was not a specific discussion at the European Council on that matter, but as my hon. Friend knows, discussions are going on about how the stability and growth pact can be made more flexible to take account of the different economic conditions through which countries live. The ideas that we have put forward on that meet with a certain amount of approval.

The Prime Minister has simply failed to answer the very direct question about a referendum. Let me remind him that, before 1997, he made a personal pledge to hold a referendum on European integration if it was not in the manifesto. The European constitution was not in his manifesto. Will he please stop avoiding the issue and tell the House why he really will not have a referendum on this constitution?

I have said why—it is for the reasons that I have given today. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has got up for a second time, because he was saying earlier that it was no part of the Conservative party's desire to leave the European Union, but I have his quotes from the Frost programme a couple of weeks ago—[Interruption.]

This is what the right hon. Gentleman said:

"It's not us leaving Europe, it's actually the others making this finally something which we don't want."
That is the true dividing line. The reason why the right hon. Gentleman wants a referendum is so that he can say no, paralyse the European Union and get out. That is the real dividing line between the two political parties and it has been made even more clear today. I suggest that he gets up another time.

Point Of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you been approached today by any Minister seeking to clarify the position on tax? Since the astonishing revelations by the tax-raising Leader of the House and the statements by the right hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), have you had any request from a member of the Government to clear up this very important matter, as it now appears that there is a secret agenda to raise tax among members of the Government?

Perhaps that is something that the right hon. Gentleman can raise in business questions.

Opposition Day

10Th Allotted Day

Student Finance

I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.22 pm

I beg to move,

That this House calls on the Government not to allow universities to introduce top-up fees.
I welcome the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education to his place and wish him well in his post, which has so far claimed five ministerial lives. It seems a poisoned position, but we wish him well.

My father was a Burnley postman who was prevented from taking his place at the grammar school in Burnley in 1917 on the basis that his family were too poor to buy him a uniform. That was the reason why he did not go to the school. However, my father, who has since died, knew only too well the true value of education and it was his proudest moment when I was not only the first in our family not to leave school at 15—that is what people did in working-class Lancashire mill towns in those days—but the first to go on to higher education. If this debate is about anything—

I am sorry.

If this debate is about anything, it is making sure that no student with talent is denied access to university on the basis of poverty or fear of debt. Access for students from under-represented groups must be one of the core issues that we address in this debate. It is one of the fundamental reasons why the Liberal Democrats, some Conservatives and, I suspect, the vast majority of Labour Members oppose the introduction of top-up fees and the escalation of student debt. It is why 139 Back-Bench Labour Members have voiced their opposition by signing early-day motion 2, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), and why four Cabinet members, including two former Secretaries of State for Education and two other Ministers, went on record condemning the very thought of such an idea.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department, who was then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, said in answer to a question about top-up fees—

I shall just finish the quotation first. On 23 March 2000, the then Secretary of State said:

"I, and the House, have specifically ruled out top-up fees."
He continued:
"Anything that discourages open access to all universities and their departments in this country is, in my view, wrong."—[Official Report, 23 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 1105–06.]
His successor as Secretary of State, now the Minister for the Arts, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), wrote in The Guardian on 4 October 2001:
"I recognise that for many low-income families fear of debt is a real worry and could act as a barrier to higher education."
During the Government's first term of office, Baroness Blackstone, the Minister responsible for higher education, told the Select Committee on Education and Employment:
"It is no part of our policy to promote or introduce top-up fees. I cannot make my position, and that of the Government, clearer."
In this Parliament—within the past year—the Chancellor of the Exchequer was quoted at a breakfast meeting with journalists as deriding the idea of top-up fees as a "ridiculous idea". In November 2002, in The Guardian, the former Secretary of State for International Development said that in her view university top-up fees are "a really bad idea".

Even the current Secretary of State for Education and Skills said on the day that he was appointed that he was "generally anti" top-up fees and that
"I prefer a graduate tax myself".
So what has changed? Why is he now so determined to push through a policy that he must know is not only deeply unpopular in this House, but is likely to be counterproductive for the core objectives of the Labour Government? The Times Educational Supplement affectionately refers to the Secretary of State as a rhino. It is time that he stopped charging and listened to those who describe the effects of a policy that will be quite disastrous.

The hon. Gentleman is explaining how various members of the Cabinet have expressed their opinions on the matter. May I take him back to his reference to the early-day motion and the number of Labour MPs who signed it? Will he be surprised if those Labour MPs do not vote in the Lobby in which he intends to vote? Is he aware that two weeks ago, when we had a debate on post offices, several Labour MPs who had signed an early-day motion on that subject nevertheless voted against the motion under debate?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I will of course be equally surprised when the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who speaks for the Conservative party, and who said on 19 January,

"I don't mind the principle of differential fees",
jumps camp and votes in favour of the motion.

I am still trying to deal with the previous intervention.

I believe that those 139 Labour MPs signed that EDM as a matter of principle—that is, the principle of their opposition to top-up fees. I hope that they do come into the Lobby tonight to vote with us. If they fail to do so, they will have failed on that issue of principle.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, since he purported to represent my views. I feel that I should draw his attention to Liberal Democrat News of 30 May 2003. It is a publication that I read sporadically. This edition is particularly interesting because it makes the following thoughtful point:

"Damian Green's idea of getting rid of tuition fees, and financing the move by scrapping plans to extend the number of students even further, has a lot to be said for it."
I always welcome support from Liberal Democrat News, and I hope to get it from the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen, as well.

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that that was a most unfortunate intervention, because I shall now put into my speech a section on his policy? I know that he searches far and wide for policy initiatives, but Liberal Democrat News was one place to which I did not think he would go.

My colleagues and I will support the hon. Gentleman's motion tonight, but I am interested to know where his party is now going on tuition fees. In Scotland, it has followed the path of an endowment-type scheme. In Wales, before the coalition came to an end, there were different thoughts on the issue. Mention has also been made of a graduate tax. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us exactly what alternatives are available, because universities in Wales, in particular, are faced with a funding bind?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Our existing policy is based on what we have done in the coalition in Scotland. We are very proud of our achievement in getting rid of up-front tuition fees—[HON. MEMBERS: "Up front?"] If Conservative Members read Liberal Democrat News as avidly as their Front-Bench spokesman says they do, they will know that no student in Scotland pays tuition fees, full stop. [HON. MEMBERS: "Up front."] Neither up front nor back front. There are two elements to student finance in Scotland: the tuition fee, which is free, and the maintenance grant, which is contributed to by an endowment for all students. That is a fair policy, and I compliment my colleagues in Scotland and the Labour Members of the Scottish Executive on having introduced it.

In answer to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), there is quite rightly a debate taking place in Wales on what is right for Wales. When I gave evidence to the Select Committee—which the Conservatives refused to attend because, of course, they have no policy to discuss—I suggested that, given the Secretary of State's proposal in the White Paper of a £1,000 grant, we should consider rolling that grant into our grant arrangements in England. If the hon. Member for Ceredigion will be patient, I will come to that issue later.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is incredibly courteous to me on all occasions.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is offering a typically spirited denunciation of the Government's ill-thought-out policy. Given, however, that his own party's internal briefing document—reproduced, appropriately enough, in The Guardian on 17 January this year—hints that Liberal Democrat policy will be to provide maintenance grants to people only if they study close to home and preferably take only two-year foundation courses, does the hon. Gentleman not see the narrowness of the ambition of Liberal Democrat thinking? Why does he not recognise that people ought to be able to decide their courses on the basis of personal choice rather than financial affordability?

My goodness, the hon. Gentleman is sinking to new lows! His Front-Bench colleagues say that the Conservatives want to deny 150.000 students the opportunity to go into higher education and that, by 2010, they want another 250,000 to be denied that opportunity, yet the hon. Gentleman says that we should not be considering how to deliver higher education policy. The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the newspapers because, if he does, he will be a very disappointed gentleman. One in two of our students—1 million students—study part-time and, virtually without exception, they study locally. The offer that they get locally should be as good as the offer that they get anywhere else in the United Kingdom. If they wish to go away and spend three years at a distant university, they should have the right to do that.

However, that does not negate the fact that the Government and indeed the political parties should be fighting to ensure that every local university has a first-class offer to make to its students. The origins of the great civic universities of Leeds and Manchester were based in their local students. That is where we should be looking, rather than replicating a public school boy-type education of three years for everyone.

I shall seek to intervene only once. The hon. Gentleman can perhaps clear up a confusion that has been worrying me for some time in relation to the graduate endowment liability, or whatever it is going to be called, in Scotland. If he were to go on holiday this summer and to pay for his holiday with, say, a Barclaycard or whatever—I make no particular endorsement of that card, although I have one myself—he would not pay until he came back home, so does he think that he would not have to pay at all?

The hon. Gentleman seems to have difficulty understanding—and I understand that—that there is a fundamental difference between two elements of the university charge, if I may call it that. I will explain carefully. As a party, we have always steadfastly believed that tuition should be free at the point of delivery up to level 4.

We accept, and indeed we accepted in 1997—[Interruption.] The Minister for Children must stop getting so excited. We accepted in 1997 that students would have to make an increased contribution towards their living costs, apart from poorer students who obviously need support—we think that that is the right distinction.

I am going to make progress. I am sorry to disappoint my colleagues.

In 1997 our universities suffered a funding crisis following year-on-year cuts by the Conservative Government. Per student funding fell from £7,720 in 1989 to £5,080 in 2002, a reduction of £2,500 per student. That shortfall is the basis of the crisis in our university system, so the House should not forget those year-on-year cuts.

Even more stark is the decline in the element of gross domestic product spent on higher education: down from 1.33 per cent. in 1981 to 1.16 per cent. in 2002–03, despite a doubling of student numbers. There is not a company anywhere that could deal with that sort of funding differential and still be able to maintain quality and standards. During Labour's first term in office, we saw a further 7 per cent. real-terms cut in expenditure, despite the introduction of tuition fees.

Of course, there is a funding crisis, but getting the Government to quantify that crisis is near impossible. The former Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education was asked on numerous occasions, particularly by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), to quantify the higher education funding gap that we needed to bridge. She declined to answer. We asked the Secretary of State the same question at a sitting of the Select Committee on Education and Skills. He, too, declined to answer. How on earth can one have a funding system that is based on filling a gap that the Government themselves will not identify?

Universities UK has made a compelling case for investment in university infrastructure, teaching and research facilities, and huge investment in science and technology and information technology. Many Labour Members would accept that that investment is needed, although the sum in their mind might not be the same as that identified by Universities UK. In the absence of Government figures and analysis, however, the £9.94 billion funding that Universities UK has called for is a good indication of the shortfall, of which roughly £1.5 billion is recurrent revenue expenditure.

We also have evidence, from the Bett commission, that academic salaries and conditions are in need of a drastic overhauling. In fact, our academics are some of the worst paid people to be found anywhere in the education service. And of course, the Government have set an ambitious yet arbitrary target for expansion, through to 2010.

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what Liberal Democrat higher education funding plans are predicated on, in terms of a target for the number of students in higher education?

I will be perfectly frank with the hon. Gentleman—we do not accept the arbitrary target of 50 per cent., but we have predicated our spending figures on it because the Government have indicated that their spending will be based on it. I say quite straightforwardly that we hope that it will be exceeded; indeed, research presented to the Select Committee last week suggests that by 2010, the Government will achieve their 50 per cent. target with absolute ease. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) says from a sedentary position that this is the first time that we have had that information, but that is what the independent research suggests and I hope that it is right.

We must also consider—[Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) is desperately interested in listening to my response, rather than in just muttering. We must also consider the product that we are delivering to our students. As I hope that the hon. Gentleman and certainly the Labour Front Benchers will agree, the product that we offer to students must be more relevant to this millennium than to the 1960s and the post-Robbins era, for example. The real challenge for all the political parties is not simply to provide more funding, but to re-engineer a product that is fit for the 21st century.

No, I want to make some progress; I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman later.

If we are to have a world-class higher education system and to meet the expansion that everybody, with the exception of the Conservatives, says that the country needs, the investment has got to be paid for. The issue at the heart of today's debate—the stark choice—is: who should pay for tuition, the students or the state? Sorry, I am wrong—there is a third way: the Conservative way, which was devised during a recent bonding session in Chesham, in Buckinghamshire. [Interruption.] I did say "bonding", not bondage. [Interruption.] I thought that it was just Conservatives who got excited about that. It appears—

May I confirm, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I think that the hon. Gentleman was right the first time?

Order. Thankfully, that is not a matter for the Chair.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) is wasted, as ever. It appears that the Conservative policy—[Interruption.] This is worth listening to. It would appear that by reducing student numbers to 1993 levels, by not allowing any expansion of student numbers from poorer backgrounds, and by keeping funding for universities constant at 2003 levels, the Conservatives can create a world-class higher education system. No wonder the hon. Member for Ashford refused to attend the Select Committee, or that, when we asked the House of Commons Library to comment on the Conservatives' proposals, it said:

"We couldn't understand the logic".
Nor is it any wonder that Professor Barr, of the London School of Economics, said the following in calculating the loss of 150,000 university places in his latest research:
"The Tory proposals are offensive to anyone who cares about fairness".
That is the truth: it is offensive to say that we are going to pull up the ladder and not expand places. The very people who will be denied access to university are young people from poorer backgrounds.

The Conservatives now have to answer, in the debate, the question of what will happen to the 150,000 people who would be denied a university place.

I want to make some progress.

If those young people are going into vocational programmes, where is the money? We cannot simply say that we are not going to allow them to go to university because we want them to go into vocational programmes—and then not provide the money. In view of the highly controversial research, published this week, by Libby Aston of the Higher Education Funding Council, what will happen to the additional 250,000 young people who will have level 3 qualifications by 2010, but, under Conservative proposals, will not be allowed to go to university? I hope that the Conservative spokesman explains the position. Still, enough of that.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, albeit somewhat belatedly. He mentioned fairness, but does he believe that his party's policy in Scotland is fair when a graduate who achieves the massive income of £10,000 a year, pays a marginal tax rate of 42 per cent. on incremental pounds beyond that level?

The hon. Gentleman is a unique Conservative, coming from Scotland, but let me tell him that I am proud of what my colleagues achieved in Scotland. In all honesty, I tell him that when Andrew Cubie first made his proposals—he said at that time that we needed a high threshold of repayment, suggesting £20,000—I would have supported them in their totality. I am sure that all hon. Members would recognise, however, that the cost of that proposal would have been exorbitant. Every Executive, including the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government, have to live within the means at their disposal. Interesting proposals were produced and I compliment those who produced them; I am delighted that we were part of that.

The Liberal Democrats' fundamental objection to top-up fees is threefold: first, because the income cannot be regarded as additional income; secondly, on account of the increase of student debt and its adverse effect on all students; and, thirdly, for their effect on access. The issue of additionality is important. There is a belief that the Government will simply use the new income from students as replacement income, as we have seen since the introduction of student tuition fees. At a recent Select Committee, on 19 March 2003, the Secretary of State said that
"the fees give more of a guarantee to universities of their future funding than any other alternative of money going to universities."
That is what the current Secretary of State said. However, some of us recall that the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), said to the House on 23 July 1997 on the subject of introducing tuition fees that
"the entire objective in taking our difficult decisions has been to put higher education on a firm footing for the next two decades."—[Official Report, 23 July 1998; Vol. 298, c. 958.]
Yet what has gone into our universities since 1998 is not additional funding, but replacement funding. The Government grant has been reduced, virtually pound for pound, in relation to the student contribution. Will the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education make it clear, now or in his summing up, that all income from top-up fees will be additional? We need to know whether it will be additional or replacement money. If he cannot or will not confirm that top-up fees will offer additional revenue to universities, he should realise that that will inevitably mean all universities charging the full fee of £3,000, because if they do not, they will actually lose grant. The Minister must respond to that point. Whenever I visit universities—and I am sure that the same applies to other hon. Members who visit them—I find out that they intend to charge the full £3,000.

The second principal objection concerns debt. The average debt at present is £12,000, but that would rocket to £21,000 with even the poorest students having to find £2,000 a year in top-up fees. Our concern about debt is shared by university vice-chancellors, who see more students struggling with it. Indeed, a recent NUS survey showed that the principal reason for students dropping out of university is debt. Professor McKenna, from the university of Ulster, said in his written submission to the Education and Employment Committee that
"the white paper has failed to find any remedy to the situation where many thousands of students have to work thirty hours a week to fund their education, yet are still deemed full time students."
He adds that
"it is a recipe for second class citizenship, inside and outside higher education."
It is important, too, to consider the impact of debt on the future economic decisions graduates will make, on careers, family, mortgages, pensions and their ability to go into business. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House if he has had any discussions with financial institutions to discuss how student debt will impact on graduates' financial status.

Our third and deepest concern about top-up fees remains their impact on access. The White Paper on higher education openly admits:
"The social class gap among those entering higher education is unacceptably wide."
I am sure that we would all agree, irrespective of our political beliefs. The question for the Government is how the introduction of top-up fees will improve that unacceptable situation. The Secretary of State's argument is that deferring the fee to after graduation will be sufficient to remove the disincentive to study, but there is an ever-lengthening list of research that says otherwise.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's report "Socio-economic disadvantage and experience in higher education" concluded that
"Students from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to prematurely reduce their levels of participation within Higher Education, by dropping out of courses or by forgoing the opportunity to progress to more advanced courses."
Factors identified as lying behind that difficulty included
"A fear of debt".
Prof. Claire Callendar at the South Bank university, in her report "Attitudes to Debt" came to almost the same conclusions:
"Debt aversion deterred entry into HE and had the greatest impact on the participation of the very groups that the government most wants to attract into HE."
What more needs to be added to that damning analysis of the Government's policy?

The Secretary of State is right to challenge the effective Opposition as well as the Conservative Opposition to say how we would do things differently. We have laid out clearly, in our policy document "Quality, Diversity and Choice", that we believe that higher education should be paid for through a tax rate of 50 per cent. on taxable incomes over £100,000. We believe in redistribution: those who have the most money should make the greatest contribution. We reject the farcical idea that graduates earn £400,000 extra during their lives. That figure is based on a work force survey in 2001 that made no direct comparisons with people with level 3 qualifications. The Government are trying to get 50 per cent. of people into higher education, but they persist in the nonsensical notion that all graduates become high earners. The research demonstrates that students coming out of Oxbridge with arts degrees have no higher an earning capacity than students who left education with two A-levels. The situation is different for different groups of students.

David Beckham might not be a graduate, but he is one of the most highly paid individuals. Yet without graduates who are able to mend his foot when it gets broken, look after his money, design his wife's clothes, deliver his children and complete his transfer to Real Madrid he would be the poorer. Put simply, this is a debate about whether or not we want to encourage a world-class education system or to return to a class-based education system where students choose universities based on their ability to pay, and universities are judged by the level of their fees. If the latter is the vision of the future of higher education after six years of a Labour Government, God help students coming through our schools at present.

4.55 pm

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"congratulates the Government on its plan to abolish up-front tuition fees and to raise the threshold for repayment of loans from £10,000 to £15,000; endorses the Further steps that the Government is taking to widen participation amongst students from deprived backgrounds—the establishment of the Office for Fair Access, the introduction from 2004–05 of a £1,000 grant for students from the poorest backgrounds and better support for part-time students; welcomes the sustained investment in higher education through annual increases of 6 per cent. in real terms over the next three years; and recognises the need to maintain UK universities at the forefront of world research and to equip the UK workforce with the high level skills needed to compete in the global marketplace."
I thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for ensuring that I have this opportunity to celebrate my first week in my new job at the Dispatch Box, and for his kind comments. He is a fellow Yorkshire MP, and he has a great heritage—I have found out that his father was a postman—so I hope that the debate will not be the end of a beautiful friendship.

We have the prospect, in fact, of a further debate on the same topic on a motion from the Conservative Opposition on Wednesday. May note that it is always comforting for a Johnson to stand opposite a Boswell? Historically, the two clans have got on, and I look forward to working in my new brief and to jousting with the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) over the coming—I hope—months and years.

The Liberal Democrats at least accept the need to increase investment in higher education, but they are not willing to accept that the graduates who benefit from university education should make any contribution whatsoever. Meanwhile, the Conservative Opposition oppose extra investment, deny any need for expansion and wish to remove £430 million of existing revenue, thus abolishing up to 80,000 university places and 13,000 lecturers. We accuse both Opposition parties of ducking fundamental issues at the heart of the debate, because those issues are too difficult and too controversial.

The principal issue is how we can ensure that our world-class universities—ancient and modern—are properly equipped to succeed in the increasingly dynamic and competitive international environment in which they operate today. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough argues that with 43 per cent. of the relevant age group now in higher education, we can finance the sector in the same way as we did 40 years ago when only 6 per cent. of students enjoyed a university education. The Liberal Democrats say that we should fund existing numbers through higher taxes, that we should fund future expansion through higher taxes, and that, for good measure, we should provide housing benefit and income support to students during the summer holidays—also, I presume, through the same higher taxes.

I take issue with a number of detailed points made by the hon. Gentleman about the figures and with some of the misinformation emanating from the Liberal Democrats. For the moment, however, let me deal just with the issue of principle at the heart of the debate.

Lord Dearing chaired the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education that was set up by the previous Government, with bipartisan support, in 1996. His report, published in 1997, was probably the most comprehensive examination of the subject since Robbins in 1962. On funding, Lord Dearing said that there should be a balance. Funding should come from society through taxation, from employers through the cost of continuing education and training for their employees, and from those who benefit from higher education. Specifically, he said:
"There is widespread recognition of the need for new sources of funding for higher education. We have concluded that those with higher education are the main beneficiaries through improved employment prospects and pay. As a consequence we suggest that graduates in work should make a greater contribution to the costs of higher education in future."
I know Lord Dearing; he was the chairman of the Post Office, and I jousted with him on many occasions. He is by no means an elitist who does not want to expand higher education to youngsters from working-class backgrounds. After the most rigorous examination, analysis and appraisal, conducted by an esteemed committee, he made that very fair assessment about future funding.

The Government do not argue that the taxpayer should not make a significant contribution; we do not argue that students should meet the cost of their tuition. We are increasing funding to the sector by 6 per cent. in real terms in each of the next three years. We have halted, and begun to reverse, the 36 per cent. real-terms fall in funding per student that the previous Conservative Government presided over between 1989 and 1997. By 2005–06, we will be spending £10 billion a year on higher education, which is equivalent to £400 a year paid by every income tax-payer in England—whether they went to university or not. We are not proposing to change the situation: the labourer will continue to subsidise the lawyer; the postman will continue to subsidise the philosopher.

Does the Minister accept that there is no correlation between the introduction of tuition fees and the expansion of funding for higher education?

No, I do not accept that; nor do I accept that the evidence shows that the introduction of tuition fees has put children from working-class backgrounds off entering higher education—a point that I shall discuss later—just as, if we look back 30 or 40 years, when there were full grants and no tuition fees, I do not accept that there is any indication that it was easier for children from working-class backgrounds to go into higher education.

UK public-supported financial aid to students is the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and that will remain the case if our new funding proposals are adopted. With a record like that, and given the political minefield that we need to cross, the temptation is to do nothing.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, especially as I missed his opening remarks owing to my attendance at a Standing Committee.

Many Labour Members accept the need to get extra finance into the higher education sector, but will my hon. Friend consider the proposal, set out in my early-day motion 994, that tuition fees should be raised across the board instead of being differentially charged by universities? That would certainly achieve his objective of raising money and would do away with the differential aspect of top-up fees.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's interest in this matter and her contribution to the debate. After all my seven days in the job, my assessment is that we broke through a voodoo curse in January, because we accepted in our White Paper and in our statement that universities vary, that the quality of their courses varies and that there is a diverse system out there. To introduce a flat-rate system would be unfair, especially to students who may be following a less expensive course, and it would create more problems than it would solve. However, I appreciate that my hon. Friend's argument is different from that being pursued by the two Opposition parties and I shall certainly consider all the points carefully.

In the light of what the Minister has just said, if a situation were to arise—as I anticipate it might—where the majority of higher education institutions wanted to charge top-up fees in order to support their finances and the differential element were to occur in practice, would he be concerned about that and would he feel the need to look into it?

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised a similar point when he talked about all universities putting a £3,000 fee on all courses. We should be extremely concerned about that, but we do not believe that it will happen. We believe that the proposals will create a marketplace, but the situation outlined by the hon. Member for Daventry would be a matter for concern.

The Minister says that it would be unfair if students paid more than was spent on their courses. Does he accept that less money is currently being spent on some social science courses than is being taken from the students in their tuition fees and that that will get worse under the Government's proposals?

I am advised by colleagues who know much more about such things than I do that that is simply not true, but doubtless I shall be able to respond when I have been longer in the job.

We are also convinced that higher education must expand to meet the rising skill needs of the knowledge-driven economy, and we therefore plan to work towards a seven percentage point increase in the participation rate of young people in higher education by 2010.

My hon. Friend mentions the fact that the White Paper recognises the variable quality of universities. Can he explain how introducing top-up fees will close the gap between the best and the worst of those universities; or is that not the purpose?

I was responding to a specific suggestion to have a blanket increase in tuition fees, and I was making a point not only about the variable quality of universities and courses, but about the greatly varying amounts that graduates can expect to earn having gone through university. There is a huge gap in earnings between students who take degrees in medicine and architecture and those who take arts degrees. That is the principal point about variable fees.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Will such differential fees involve charging more for courses such as medicine, where we are desperate to get more students?

We will not set the fees; that will be a matter for the universities. That is exactly the point of introducing funding that the universities can use to deal with their problems and needs, rather than using the Liberal Democrat proposal, where the money would come from the taxpayer and be distributed centrally, so higher education would have to take its chances in getting a proportion of that money.

What unites the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives is their opposition to our proposals to provide long-term financial certainty for higher education by giving universities greater freedom to gain access to new funding streams, principally through the graduate contribution scheme from 2006.

I do not believe that the Liberal Democrats support expansion at all. Indeed, their leader suggested that there should be a small reduction in the number of people going to higher education. Whatever the level of expansion and the need for additional funding, they certainly believe, as a point of principle, that the taxpayer ought to provide every penny and that graduates should make no contribution whatsoever.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was not present when my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) made his speech, but he was making the point that the distribution of students in higher education will change and that there may be a reduction, for example, in students taking honours degrees, as more students take vocational routes, with the Government's proposals for foundation degrees. That seems perfectly reasonable, and it would be found in any market, about which the Government seem so keen.

I have not detected wild enthusiasm in the Liberal Democrat party for expanding higher education. We want 50 per cent. of student-age youngsters to be in higher education. The Liberal Democrats have not given a figure, although the Select Committee asked them to give a figure for the expansion in higher education that they want. We are absolutely committed to expansion, and I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman will clarify whether his party supports such expansion, given the moveable feast that is its policy on the issue.

The Liberal Democrats certainly believe, along with Her Majesty's official Opposition, that none of the money that goes into university education should come from graduates. They believe that graduates should make no contribution whatsoever, but I believe that that ignores two central issues. First, given that we will soon be spending £10 billion a year on higher education, if any additional taxpayers' money were to be available, it would surely be better spent in pre-school and early years education and in other parts of the sector, where the social inequalities that have been mentioned—I will come back to them—take root.

Secondly, the money would be distributed from the centre. It would not give universities the financial freedom that they need to fund their plans and unleash their power to drive world-class research, innovative knowledge transfer, excellent teaching, high-quality, greater and more flexible provision and fair access.

For those reasons, we propose to give universities the freedom to set their own tuition fee between £0 and £3,000. That will provide a direct and predictable source of additional revenue. Universities will set the level of the fees, and will have more control over the additional revenue. The arrangements that we propose, including the graduate contribution scheme, are progressive rather than regressive.