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Commons Chamber

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2003

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 25 June 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Assets Recovery Agency


If he will make a statement on the work of the Assets Recovery Agency. [120566]

I have been informed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Office that the Northern Ireland branch of the Assets Recovery Agency has six cases that are currently under active investigation. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the agency has been granted investigative orders, including search warrants, by the High Court in two cases on 13 June and 23 June. Indeed, search warrants were executed yesterday at three premises in County Down by Assets Recovery Agency staff, with the support and assistance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the progress that the Minister reports. May I underline how important it is that the agency produces results, in particular with regard to the leading godfathers of paramilitarism and racketeering, because they are largely the same? I do not need to go into names, but the agency needs to target very quickly leading paramilitaries who we know control the major rackets. I hope that the agency will go after them and not just go around gathering up smaller fish.

On accountability, because the body does not exercise police powers, it is not subject to inspection by Her Majesty's inspectorate. Will it come under the purview of the inspectorate of criminal justice? In that respect, we welcome the appointment of Lord Clyde as inspector. Will he have a supervisory role, because it would be wrong if that body turned out to be the only element in the broad spectrum of criminal justice that is not subject to an inspection arrangement?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's words about the good work that the agency has undertaken in Northern Ireland. However, on accountability, the Northern Ireland branch of the Assets Recovery Agency is part of a UK-wide agency. Along with other partners of the Organised Crime Task Force, its accountability is often to Ministers and other Departments outwith Northern Ireland Office responsibilities. In this case, I believe that the current accountability arrangements are appropriate.

May I assure the Minister that support for the Assets Recovery Agency comes not just from the small parties in Northern Ireland, but from Northern Ireland's largest political party as well?

Is the Minister aware of the concern that the bulk of the cases considered by the Assets Recovery Agency involve loyalist paramilitaries, whereas the largest amount of money has been obtained by republican paramilitaries? Is there any step she can take to ensure that there is a proper pursuit of republican paramilitaries? Does she think that the Assets Recovery Agency could give any assistance to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to recover some of his recent lost assets?

I am grateful to receive support for the Assets Recovery Agency, from whatever quarter it comes. On the selection of cases, it is important to remember that that is pursued by the agency and it is entirely for its director, supported by the assistant director of Northern Ireland, to determine. She must act in accordance with her statutory duty to use her powers in the way that she considers best calculated to reduce crime. However, we know of the clear links that exist between paramilitary organisations and organised criminal networks in Northern Ireland. We are very conscious of those links and pursue all organised criminals, whatever their political persuasion or complexion.

In the context of assets recovery, is there not a danger that the IRA will not disarm, not because it still believes that it can bomb its way to a united Ireland, but because it needs its arms to sustain the menace of its criminal activities?

That does not apply just to the Provisional IRA, but to all paramilitary organisations that we have established are clearly engaged, or associated with, organised criminals who operate not simply within localities in Northern Ireland, but with organised criminal networks across the UK, Europe and the world. We must oppose those groups. The hon. Gentleman is right that they use their ill-gotten gains for the pursuit of terrorism. It is precisely because of that link, and the Government's recognition of it, that we established the Organised Crime Task Force in the first place.

Peace Process


If he will make a statement on the peace process. [120567]

We are pursuing with the political parties how the devolved institutions might be restored and the remainder of the Belfast agreement fully implemented. It is essential to such advance, however, to have clarity on both the future of paramilitarism and the stability of the institutions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that following recent developments in the Ulster Unionist party, a significant majority remains in favour of the peace process in the Ulster Unionist party and in the Unionist electorate, and an overwhelming majority is in favour of it in the electorate at large? Will he take the opportunity to work with those who favour the peace process and marginalise the fringe groups that do not?

I cannot agree with what my hon. Friend said in his last sentence about marginalising groups that do not agree with the Good Friday agreement. It is my job to talk to all political parties in Northern Ireland, irrespective of their political standpoint. However, I very much agree that the vote at the Ulster Unionist Council last week indicated that a majority of its members are still in favour of the Good Friday agreement. I agree with my hon. Friend that the majority of people in Northern Ireland believe that the best way forward is through the Good Friday agreement, and I also agree that the polls suggest that that includes the Unionist community. I believe that people in Northern Ireland want an end to paramilitary activity, and want the stability of the institutions that will be achieved through the Good Friday agreement.

Would the Secretary of State tell the House how an amnesty for on-the-run IRA terrorist suspects can contribute to the peace process? Does he understand the growing public anger at the continuing persecution of former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and those who served in the security forces in tribunals such as the Bloody Sunday inquiry, where millions of pounds worth of taxpayers' hard-earned money is being squandered?

I would not agree that money is being squandered. However, I agree that it is important for us at some stage to draw a line under what has happened in the past 30 years in Northern Ireland. There will come a time when we want to achieve a normal society in Northern Ireland, and I believe that we are going in that direction. As for the on-the-runs, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the proposals discussed at Hillsborough do not include an amnesty for on-the-runs, but they do make provision for a proper judicial process. He will also be aware that that process is linked in to acts of completion by the IRA, so it is entirely conditional on what happens in that area.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the peace process, which has now stalled, cannot be put back on track until there is firm, verifiable demilitarisation and destructuring by the paramilitaries, both republican and loyalist? Does he also agree that Government policy and attitudes to date have not created common ground among nationalists and Unionists who support the Good Friday agreement, so it is essential that the Government undertake a drive to ensure that paragraph 13 on decommissioning, destructuring and the cessation of violence against the community is immediately implemented in its entirety, particularly by the Provisional IRA, so that we can re-establish the devolved institutions of partnership.

My hon. Friend is entirely right that progress on restoring the institutions of the Good Friday agreement rests on the confidence and trust that need to be built up between political parties in Northern Ireland. That can be done only if the issues addressed in paragraph 13 about paramilitary activity are dealt with. My hon. Friend is entirely right about that, and his personal history in Northern Ireland is such that we listen to him with great respect. I believe that in the months ahead we will resolve these problems, which are extremely difficult at the moment. However, it is important that the House realises that unless we resolve the problems first, of paramilitary activity, and secondly, of the stability of the institutions we will not get a properly restored Executive in Northern Ireland.

Paragraph 8 of the validation, implementation and review section of the Good Friday agreement states that

"the two Governments and the parties in the Assembly will convene a conference 4 years after the agreement comes into effect, to review and report on its operation."
It is now more than five years since the agreement was signed and four and a half years since the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was passed, but that review has not even started yet. Why not?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that we have had reviews of the Good Friday agreement under paragraph 7. A review under paragraph 8, which makes provision for a more general, deeper and intense review, will take place before the year is over. It is important for political parties and the two Governments to get together to look at the issues that divide us and ensure that the Good Friday agreement is implemented in full. However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that if that is to happen we must rebuild confidence between parties, and to do so we have to address the issues that I referred to earlier.

I went to Belfast last week on a cross-party visit and was struck by the positive changes since I first visited many years ago, with the development of the city centre and the work of those such as the East Belfast community partnership to promote regeneration, jobs and skills. I also found considerable good will towards implementing the Good Friday agreement and returning to a normal life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the priority must be to rebuild trust and move back towards an effective power-sharing Executive and Assembly?

My hon. Friend is right. We must rebuild that trust in order to move forward in the process. She is also right to draw the House's attention to the improvements in the life of people in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. She is aware that there are now 34,000 unemployed people in Northern Ireland, which is the lowest figure since 1975; that the increase in economic activity in Northern Ireland is such that it is the fastest-growing region or nation in the whole of the United Kingdom; and that there has been a 25 per cent. increase in tourism in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement. She is particularly aware that the security situation in Northern Ireland is much improved on what it was in 1998.

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), to the Northern Ireland Front Bench. He and I are old sparring partners, and we look forward to his contributions on this important subject.

As it is clear that the peace process has been paralysed since the Government decided to cancel the elections, and the parties have turned in on themselves, and as there continue to be murders by loyalist paramilitaries and attempted murders by republican dissidents, and the Garda Commissioner and the Chief Constable have both expressed their concern about the security position over the past few days, would it not be sensible to shelve all plans for any reductions in intelligence gathering or security capability in Northern Ireland, including the plans to dismantle the observation towers in south Armagh?

The hon. Gentleman knows that any actions that are taken with regard to security installations are dealt with on the basis of the level of threat. He also knows that the normalisation paper that was discussed at Hillsborough, and which appears in the joint declaration, is entirely related to acts of completion by the IRA. The hon. Gentleman is right that, towards the autumn, it is important for us to engage in intensive discussions and negotiations with political parties in Northern Ireland so that we can have an Assembly in Northern Ireland. In addition, we want the Executive governing Northern Ireland, so that people who are from Northern Ireland can govern the people in Northern Ireland.

Is not the whole point that there have been no acts of completion, so reductions in our capability are inappropriate? Even if the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding were prepared to countenance the dismantling of those towers, is it not rather foolish to give away that card for nothing, in advance of the comprehensive negotiations that we all hope can resume before too long?

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that the decision to dismantle the towers is entirely in line with the wishes of the GOC and the Chief Constable. I repeat that acts of completion by the IRA, particularly with regard to paramilitary activity, are linked to the rest of the normalisation paper, which is in the joint declaration. All our efforts are bent on ensuring that in the autumn we resolve our difficulties, we have an Assembly and we have an Executive, so that the process can move forward.

Does the Secretary of State agree that for the first time in history, the vast majority of the people of Ireland north and south have voted together on how they wish to live together, by overwhelmingly voting for the agreement? For that reason, it is the duty of all true democrats to implement the will of the people. Certain Opposition parties that wish to overthrow that agreement are overthrowing the principle of consent, which was the fundamental principle of Unionism. If they do that, what damage are they doing to their own people?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. In 1998, people north and south voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday agreement, and the institutions of that agreement are the only way forward. I know that my hon. Friend is also aware that for us to move forward and to ensure that those institutions are restored, we have to restore the confidence and trust between parties in Northern Ireland, and that is based on ensuring that there is an end to paramilitary activity and that the institutions in Northern Ireland are stable.

Terrorist Links


If he will make a statement on the links between (a) Sinn Fein and (b) the Provisional IRA and (i) Batasuna and (ii) ETA in Spain. [120568]

The political and ideological relationship between Sinn Fein and Batasuna are well attested, as evidenced by recent press statements from Sinn Fein.

The Minister will surely be aware, if she listens to her intelligence advisers, that ETA-Batasuna and IRA-Sinn Fein are identical and integrated organisations. In the case of our home-based IRA-Sinn Fein organisation, the Sinn Fein president and chief negotiator sit in the army council. The Minister should also be aware that under the definition of proscription of organisations in the Terrorism Act 2000, Sinn Fein should be on the list of proscribed organisations. Is it not time that the Government had the same courage as the Spanish Government and put Sinn Fein on the proscribed list until it acts as a democratic party?

The hon. Gentleman is right that Sinn Fein is the IRA's political wing and as such the two are inextricably linked. However—it is important for us all to bear this in mind—the Spanish do not regard Batasuna as supporting the peace process. Sinn Fein does support the peace process. Unlike ETA—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may disregard that if they wish, but unlike ETA the IRA is on ceasefire, and it is worth bearing in mind the difference in the behaviour of the two organisations. However, hon. Members will know, and will have heard the Government state many times, that ceasefires on their own are no longer enough to restore trust and confidence and to allow the re-establishment of the institutions. The IRA has to make it absolutely clear that all paramilitary activity, as set out in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments, will come to an end.

The Minister has admitted that Sinn Fein and the IRA, a terrorist group operating in part of the United Kingdom, are inextricably linked. Why, then, do the Government persist in trying to insert into all accountable Executive positions in part of the United Kingdom a group linked to and inextricably part of a terrorist organisation? Despite the Secretary of State's determination to close his eyes to reality, if he looks along this Bench in the House of Commons today he will see the reality—that the policy of supporting Sinn Fein in Government in Northern Ireland is supported only by a rump of the Unionist party as led by—

I repeat that, unlike ETA, the Provisional IRA remains on ceasefire. The cost to Spain in terms of ETA's continuance of its terrorist programme has been 46 deaths since 1999. The comparisons with the Provisional IRA deserve scrutiny. The Provisional IRA, in our assessment, remains on ceasefire. However, as I said earlier, and it bears repeating, ceasefires on their own are no longer enough.

The Minister will be aware that all the structures to deal with terrorism must work properly, whether in Northern Ireland or outside it. Will the Minister confirm that, as of now, necessary investigations into the criminal activities of loyalist paramilitary groupings cannot be properly processed by the police ombudsperson for the very good reason that the Government will not fund those investigations? Will the Minister take the opportunity now to tell the House that the Government will fund at least three investigations into not just serious irregularities, but murders?

I am afraid that I do not agree with my hon. Friend on the point that he has made. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland received the whole of the budgetary requirements that she put forward in the case that she made. We met her request in full. The cases that she takes forward are a matter for her to prioritise within the budgets that she is required to manage.

The Minister may maintain that the IRA "remains on ceasefire", to use her words, but the reality is that the current problems in Northern Ireland politics are caused by the IRA's failure to complete and the Government's repeated concessions to it. Is she aware of the recent poll conducted by Millward Brown Ulster, which clearly states:

"If the IRA was to disband, 76 per cent. of Unionists would support the Good Friday agreement"?
Is it not crystal clear where the Government's efforts must lie?

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's comments. The complete transition to exclusively peaceful means is the contribution that all paramilitary organisations could make and which the people of Northern Ireland deserve. As I have said previously, statements or words on their own are not enough. The people of Northern Ireland, in order to have the confidence that all parties engaged in the peace process are fully wedded to democratic means, need to see actions that follow through on the words that they say.



If he will make a statement on the criminal activities of Northern Ireland paramilitary organisations outside Northern Ireland. [120569]

The Organised Crime Task Force's most recent assessment is that two thirds of the organised crime groups in Northern Ireland have links to paramilitary organisations. Clearly, a number of those groups undertake their criminal activities both across and outside Northern Ireland.

Good operational links already exist between law enforcement agencies nationally and internationally, as my hon. Friend has good reason to know in his constituency—[Interruption.] I will continue to work with. Organised Crime Task Force members with UK-wide responsibilities to assist in the fight against national and international organised crime—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the House, and it is unfair to those who are in the Chamber for Northern Ireland questions.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Given her very heavy work load, I am sure that she is unable to read the Dundee Evening Telegraph and Post or The Courier and Advertiser, but she will be aware from last week's reports in the Belfast News Letter and The Irish Times of the 26-year sentences handed down to five members of a Protestant paramilitary organisation, the Red Hand Commando, for their armed robbery at a Dundee public house last year. On speaking to the chief constable of Tayside, I was told that there was little consultation between the authorities in Northern Ireland and the police force in Tayside and Dundee. Given the statements that she has made today, I hope that she will do all that she can to ensure that greater efforts are made to improve liaison between the two organisations on the mainland and in Northern Ireland.

I am surprised to hear my hon. Friend's comments and I shall look into the case that he raises. I had understood that the Police Service of Northern Ireland indeed provided written statements and that an officer testified in the court case. I had concluded on that basis that there were good relations. I know that such relations exist on an operational basis between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other police forces throughout England and Wales and, indeed, Scotland. Where such good links need to be developed, they are developed and built upon, and they are to be commended.

The Minister will be aware that a very good Bill, the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill, has just completed its Standing Committee stage. What discussion has she had with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland about the implications of that Bill for tackling paramilitary organisations in the Republic of Ireland?

As the hon. Lady knows, I regularly meet the Chief Constable to discuss a range of issues. No concerns as such have been raised directly with me about the implications for Northern Ireland of the Bill to which she referred. I am aware of the very good relationships that exist between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the law enforcement agencies in the Republic of Ireland, and I will do all in my power to foster those good relations so that we can continue to see successful joint operations of the sort that recently led to interception of the vehicle bombs that were thankfully intercepted at the border at the weekend and in Londonderry.

Is the Minister aware of the increasing concern, particularly in border areas in Northern Ireland, about paramilitary groups in the Irish Republic, including the various factions of the IRA, who are making preparations for further bombs like the one to which she alluded? Thankfully, that was intercepted in Londonderry, but there are many more. Is she aware of the concern of people in Northern Ireland regarding those preparations?

I am indeed aware of such concern in Northern Ireland. The dissident republicans continue to pose a serious threat. However, as I have said, due to the very good co-operation that exists between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana in the Republic of Ireland, there has been a large degree of success in dealing with dissidents in both the north and the south of Ireland. That success will continue, and I will continue to do all that is in my power to foster good co-operation between those law enforcement agencies.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked


Q1. [121372]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 June.

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join with me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in Iraq. The Royal Military policemen do an extraordinary and heroic job in trying to bring normal and decent life to people in Iraq, and the whole country and their families can be immensely proud of them, even as they mourn them. Our thoughts are also with those who were wounded after they were attacked in Iraq yesterday.

May I also express on behalf of Members on both sides of the House our deep sadness at the death of Paul Daisley? He was a conscientious Member of Parliament who represented his constituency well, and he will be sadly missed. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

I echo the Prime Minister's sentiments.

May I ask the Prime Minister about a report that was submitted to this House by the health service ombudsman earlier this year, which revealed the scandal of elderly people being means-tested and charged for their health care? When will the Government act to compensate the thousands of elderly victims and reassert the principle that health care is free on the basis of need, regardless of a person's bank balance or age?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have already introduced free nursing care for certain people. To extend that right the way through all types of care would cost well over £1 billion, possibly £1.5 billion. We believe that that money is better spent on trying to provide support for people in their own homes. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that as a result of that support, around 40 per cent. more people get support in their own homes today than did a few years ago.

Q2. [121373]

Many MPs will have received hundreds of letters and cards on fair trade, and many will attend fair trade rallies in their high streets this Saturday. What message of hope and support can my right hon. Friend offer the fair trade movement; and what actions can he take to ensure that developing countries have the right to protect their vulnerable people and traders and to sell their products to rich countries, and that they are given assistance to regulate transnational companies?

First, we will carry on with the most substantial increase in aid and development assistance that this country has seen. This Government are committed to continuing that support. Secondly, we will carry on trying to write off the debts of the most highly indebted countries, which are often prevented by the servicing of those debts from giving the assistance to their people that they need. Thirdly, we will make sure at the world trade round in Mexico in September that we get the action to move world trade forward so that we liberalise world trade and do not ask those poorer countries to stand on their own two feet, then deny them access to our own markets.

May I join with the Prime Minister in sending our condolences to the family of Paul Daisley, the former Member for Brent, East?

The Prime Minister is right that on today of all days we should pay tribute to the dedication and bravery of our armed forces on active service in Iraq. As the Prime Minister said, our deepest sympathies are with the families of the dead and wounded. There are those who will say after this news that we should back away from our obligations to Iraq. Does the Prime Minister agree that this instance should serve only to reinforce our resolve to bring peace and the rule of law to Iraq and to enable the Iraqis to take care of their own future?

Yes, I agree completely. It is worth pointing out that despite yesterday's terrible events, the people of Iraq now have the prospect of hope for the future, and of a proper, prosperous and indeed democratic country. The work of British servicemen and women there is of immense importance not just to that country, but to the whole region and the wider world. Even at this moment in time, it is particularly important that we redouble our efforts to bring stability to that country, which is the surest way of bringing stability to the rest of the world.

Clearly the security situation in Iraq remains difficult. There are reports that remnants of Saddam Hussein's army are still active and I understand that some non-Iraqis are involved in terrorist activities. Reports today indicate that British soldiers at al Majarr al Kabir may well have been the victims of an armed mob. Given all that speculation, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to give a personal and candid assessment of the security situation in Iraq today?

First, we should know far more about the incident in the next 24 hours. This is the background; in the al Maysan province, the people liberated themselves from Saddam but British forces have attempted to make sure that the local population—who regularly carried machine guns and small firearms—were disarmed of those weapons. There had been problems which may form part of the background. However, it is simply too early to say. We should be in a better position within the next 24 hours to know the origins of the group that attacked our forces.

I should point out that there are some 14,000 British troops in theatre, with 10,000 in Iraq. We are also bringing in forces from other countries; over the next few weeks, 19 or 20 countries will be participating, with a total force of several thousand men. We are trying to make sure that, at every level, we have the troop requirements that we need. I spoke to the Chief of the Defence Staff this morning, who said that local commanders believe they have sufficient troops on the ground at present. Should they require more troops, we will make sure that they are available.

As I have said, I believe that we must see this through. Given what the Prime Minister has just said about the security situation, what time scale does he envisage for the restoration of order in Iraq and, perhaps, for the eventual return of British troops?

Already, we have reduced the British troop requirement; there were some 46,000 there during the conflict, and there are now 14,000 in theatre. I cannot be sure exactly when those troops can come home. However, we shall replace the troops that are there with others.

I would assess the security situation like this: it is still obviously serious because, at present, former Ba'athist elements are trying to regroup and may pose a threat to our forces and particularly to the American forces in Baghdad. However, as a result of the work of British, American and other troops inside Iraq, a couple of thousand civilian policemen are back patrolling the streets of Basra. Many towns have now reinstituted proper political local councils. There are tremendous problems—as inevitably there will be—but it is important that we get a balance. There are also real improvements. Progress is being made in public services, with the reopening of hospitals, oil refineries and schools. The job, literally, is to rebuild the country and that will take time; however, it is necessary to take the time to get the job done.

My right hon. Friend will share the concerns of many in this country about the deteriorating political and human rights situation in Burma and, in particular, the continued unwarranted arrest of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Will the Government press strongly for her immediate release, the release of all political prisoners in Burma and the restoration of democracy? Does he agree that in the circumstances, now is the time to stop British trade with Burma?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We have made the strongest possible representations in respect not merely of the release of the leader of the opposition, but of the restoration of proper human and democratic rights in Burma. The European Union also issued a strong statement at the European Council. On trade, we are making it clear to British companies that we do not believe that trade is appropriate when the regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of its people.

On behalf of my colleagues, may I also extend my sympathy to the family of Paul Daisley, following his sad passing? Our sympathy also goes, of course, to the grief-stricken families of the six murdered British soldiers and to those who have been so seriously injured, whom we wish Godspeed and a swift recovery. We link that to the shock that is being felt at the Colchester barracks, where the six lost soldiers came from. Let us hope that the authorities, or those responsible for these atrocities, will see sense and respond to the British field commanders' request this morning by handing over the culprits within the next 48 hours.

In line with what the Prime Minister has just told the House, based on his conversations this morning, the armed forces Minister has indicated the desirability of internationalising the coalition. Will the Prime Minister tell the House which other countries would play a predominant role? For example, has he taken the opportunity to discuss with President Putin, during his state visit this week, what contribution Russia might make?

I am sure that all those countries, particularly those represented on the Security Council, will want to play their full part. The assistance that Russia might give us is, of course, a matter that I can discuss with President Putin this week. As I said a moment ago, about 19 or 20 countries have pledged additional assistance. There are already soldiers of other nationalities in the British sector in Iraq, and that is set to build in the next few weeks. I have no doubt, particularly after the passing of the UN resolution, that we shall have a good response to our calls for assistance. I repeat, however, that at the present time the local commanding officers believe that they have sufficient troops for the job.

On a related topic on Iraq, the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that, when the February dossier was approved for publication by the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister himself had assumed that its contents had come through the normal channels. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, at the point at which he authorised the publication of that dossier, he was not aware that sections of it had been lifted from a student thesis on the internet?

I can confirm that. I would also say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is important, amid all this coverage, to realise that the contents of that dossier—and, indeed, of the first dossier which I presented to the House—are accurate.

The Leader of the Opposition asked a question about time scales. Listening to Northern Ireland Questions earlier, I was reminded that that Province was still directly ruled from this place, more than 30 years after direct rule was put in place. We desperately require an exit strategy for Iraq, and some idea of the time scale for our troops remaining in that country.

I think that there are better analogies in regard to what is happening in Iraq. If we look at Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan, we see that—as is the case in Iraq—at the height of a conflict there is a very large troop requirement. But the number of British troops now in Afghanistan, Kosovo or Bosnia is significantly reduced. Our exit strategy must be based on making sure that we maintain our pledge to help Iraq to be rebuilt as a stable and prosperous country, because if it is not rebuilt in that way, and if it were to continue under the type of regime that Saddam Hussein represented, it will continue to be a threat to the region and to the wider world. Even before this conflict began, during the 10, 11 or 12 years since the previous Gulf war ended, thousands of British troops have been patrolling the no-fly zone; so British troops have not been absent from Iraq since the end of the first Gulf war.

Q3. [121374]

What does the Prime Minister have to say to the Kimber family in my constituency, who, like many thousands in this country, have been wrongly assessed under the child tax credit system? They have now been told to repay £2,447.70 by tomorrow and, if necessary, to remortgage their house to do so, because in the words of the collections adviser at Reading, "Gordon Brown wants his money back." Is it any wonder that so few people are taking up this benefit?

Of course I apologise to the hon. Gentleman's constituent for any mistake that has been made. He says that very few have taken up this benefit, but I think that somewhere in the region of 4 million people have done so. Whatever the circumstances of his constituent, for which I have already apologised, I think that most of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who are in receipt of this benefit will be appalled to know that the Conservative party is opposed to it and would take it away.

As the Prime Minister is aware, I have written to him on several occasions about the dangers of Sellafield. Now that he has clear research evidence of the serious damage that Sellafield is doing to the Irish sea, does he not think that the time has come to close it down?

I am afraid that I must say to my hon. Friend that I do not think that that is the case. I should point out to him that all these issues are governed by international rules that we are obliged to abide by, and by an international authority that determines whether we are obeying our international obligations properly. I should also point out that on each occasion this issue has been looked at, the allegations made in respect of Sellafield have turned out to be wrong.

Has the Prime Minister ruled out any more increases in national insurance?

The national insurance changes that we have put through are sufficient to make sure that we raise the money for the national health service. Any decisions are taken in the Budget, but the decisions that we have taken on national insurance are adequate for the health service rise in spending.

Last week, the Prime Minister was forced to give a pledge not to raise the higher tax, but that pledge is worthless if he does not rule out increasing national insurance as well, because under Labour it is a tax on income that goes all the way up the income scale. So will he now pledge not to raise national insurance again, or do we have to get the Leader of the House to make a speech on that, too?

What I have said to the right hon. Gentleman is that the national insurance rise is adequate to fund the health service spending that we have. He is right to say that that rise goes all the way up the income scale—we thought that the fair thing to do. The fact is that, as a result of that rise, there is money going into our national health service, there are 50,000 more nurses, inpatient and out-patient lists are far below what we inherited in 1997, and we have the largest ever hospital building programme under way.

The plain fact of the matter is that we make no apology for having introduced that tax rise: it was the right thing to do to fund the national health service. The right hon. Gentleman, by opposing it, is opposed to that investment, and I assume from what he has just said that he would reverse it.

Now we know that the Prime Minister's pledge of last week, like all his other tax pledges, is meaningless. Let me remind him that he is the man who said:

"We have no plans to increase tax at all"—
and who then took an extra £5,500 from every household in Britain. He is the man who said that people "shouldn't" suppose that he planned to increase national insurance—and who then increased it by £8 billion. When the Leader of the House confessed last week that
"too many middle-income employees"
have been hit under Labour, was he not right? Was not his real crime that he committed new Labour's cardinal sin: he told the truth about Labour and tax rises?

The tax take as a percentage of national income this year will actually be lower than in eight of the 11 years that Margaret Thatcher was in power. Secondly, we have given a lot of help to families through the working families tax credit and the child tax credit. It is correct that we have raised national insurance by 1 per cent., for the reasons that we have given. But I should also point out that as a result of the stable economy, we have more people in work today, living standards are up by 10 or 15 per cent., and we have more support for families and the lowest mortgages for 40 years.

As for the extra money going into our schools and hospitals now, we make no apologies for that. It is the right thing to do, and the right hon. Gentleman has made it very clear today that, at the next election, people can choose either extra investment in health and schools with us, or 20 per cent. cuts across the board with him.

Every year more than 2,000 children in Greater Manchester have their teeth taken out under general anaesthetic. Is it morally right to allow them to go through that pain when we know of a safe and effective measure to reduce it? Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Water Bill will clear up and sort out the law on water fluoridation, giving communities in this country the power to choose it?

As my hon. Friend knows, there are proposals to ensure that local people are properly consulted on issues connected with water fluoridation, but he also knows that there are strong views on both sides of the argument. The matter should be left with local people, as we have described. If the arguments in favour are as powerful as my hon. Friend says, I have no doubt that they will win the day.

Q4. [121375]

Yesterday the Foreign Secretary described the dodgy dossier as "a complete Horlicks", so is it time to say "night, night" to Alastair Campbell?

As I said earlier, that part of the dossier was entirely accurate and the mistake of not attributing it was accepted at the time. I would simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in respect of that dossier and the first dossier, not a single fact in them is actually disputed.

Q5. [121376]

Will the Prime Minister condemn again the terror tactics that ruin Israeli lives? Will he also condemn the terror tactics that ruin Palestinian lives? In the west bank and Gaza strip, I saw widespread arbitrary detention and torture, expulsion from land and property, access denied to health care and water, and now a wall that will seal off Palestinians—in some cases, from their own families, farmland and livelihood. Does the Prime Minister believe that the humanitarian consequences of those policies are grave and that they undermine moderates at a time when we should all support the road map for peace?

There is a lot in what my hon. Friend says. It is true that the very purpose of terrorism is to undermine the moderate voice of the Palestinians. The difficulty is that it is also right to say that literally scores of Israeli citizens are being killed in these appalling terrorist acts. That is why I tell my hon. Friend that we have made our position clear on extra-judicial killings by Israeli forces and on terrorism.

It is important to recognise that unless we manage to get a security position in the Palestinian Authority whereby the terrorist attacks can at least be minimised, the Israeli Government will inevitably come under huge pressure to take retributive action. The only way through it, I am afraid, is to make sure that we get a proper process going with a security plan in place. That is what we are working for. To be quite honest, we can condemn as much as we like, but unless we have a viable security plan in place, it will be very difficult to make progress. That is why I hope that it will be in place as shortly as possible.

Did I hear the Prime Minister correctly when he described a plagiarised document with words and meanings altered as "factually accurate"? When exactly did he first realise that the dodgy dossier was a complete Horlicks? Was it after Colin Powell told the Security Council that it was a fine document with exquisite detail of deception? Why did he not tell the rest of us before taking this country to war?

The reasons we went into this conflict are well known, as is the hon. Gentleman's position. He was opposed to it then, and he is opposed to it now. As to the facts set out in the dossier, they are correct. Whatever their provenance, it does not alter the fact that they are correct. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may disagree with the action that we took. That is his right, but I defend that action because it was the right thing for this country to do. I simply tell the hon. Gentleman that removing Saddam from power and making sure that that country and region are stable and successful for the future is right for Iraq, right for the region and right for the wider world.

Q6. [121377]

May I turn the Prime Minister's attention to premium bonds? Does he think that it is right that many of my constituents are barred from entry to premium bonds, given that the minimum amount that can be purchased is £100? That might be all right in the leafy suburbs, but could not that massive price be reduced, with the help of new technology, to allow all our constituents entry into that worthwhile savings scheme?

It is certainly something that can be considered, but my hon. Friend will know what the problem is. If the minimum is lowered to too low a level, the bureaucratic costs of making the transactions are too great. He will know that the average purchase of premium bonds is some £4,500, so we would have to be sure that any change we made was not outweighed by disproportionate bureaucratic costs.

Q7. [121378]

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our forces in Iraq and in sending our sympathy to the bereaved families? Will he join me in paying tribute to the continuing work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which faces difficulties locally but continues to serve this country abroad, including training police officers in Iraq?

I certainly do pay tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and to all those police officers in Northern Ireland who do a superb job on behalf of their local community and—as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out—who provide their services in different parts of the world, where their particular expertise and experience is invaluable.

No, I am satisfied with the Government's tax plans, as my hon. Friend would expect.

Q8. [121379]

Why are teachers being made redundant in Poole this year—and many more facing redundancy next year—when education is meant to be the Government's priority?

Let us be clear that overall there have been some 25,000 extra teachers. As a result of the funding issues with which we are familiar, a small number of teachers have been made compulsorily redundant. In fact, some teachers are made redundant every year. Overall, however, we have had a massive increase in the number of teachers over the past six years and the funding per pupil in our schools has risen significantly. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that whatever the problems of funding with schools in his or any other area, they cannot be improved by cutting back on education spending, which is the policy of his party.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the proposals by the EU tax Commissioner to put VAT on stamps. That would be a backward step for our postal services and would have a disproportionate effect on the poor and elderly. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to veto any such proposal and send a letter back to the EU marked "return to sender"?

I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. I thank the Prime Minister for his warm words of condolence. It was announced within the last hour that the six military policemen who lost their lives yesterday were all from the Colchester garrison. This is the darkest day for the garrison in the past 60 years, and I am sure that the whole House would wish to convey our condolences to the families of those six people.

I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am sure that he is right when he says that he speaks for the whole House.

My right hon. Friend will know that it is two years since we had the disturbances on the streets of Burnley. Last week, we celebrated the first annual general meeting of the building bridges project that was set up between the Muslim and Christian faiths in Burnley. Does he agree that it is communities working together, and the Government working with local councils, that will solve the problems of towns such as Burnley, and not the extremists who cause division wherever they go?

I am sure that my hon. Friend's words will be echoed by the whole House. He is right that the building bridges project has been successful in trying to achieve better community relations. He is also right to say that those who advocate extremism, or who want to turn their anger on people who are immigrants to this country, do nothing for community relations or for their own local communities and peddle disastrous misconceptions and misrepresentations. The way forward is good, solid community relations between people of all faiths and backgrounds, and I believe that that vision is supported by the vast majority of people in the country.

Q9. [121380]

The head of MI5 has talked about the inevitability of a major terrorist threat. Whatever confidence we may have in our security services and emergency services, is it not the case that our civil preparedness is not as good as it should be? Why has it taken more than two years to produce even a draft Bill on civil contingencies? Why was the major exercise in London cancelled? Why have the Government no plans for an emergency broadcasting system? Are we really prepared?

First of all, the head of the intelligence services was simply drawing attention to what has been said on many occasions, in respect not just of this country but of any western country. Indeed, we can see from the terrorist acts of the past few weeks that not only western countries are at risk from such attacks. These people will attack Muslims or people from any part of the world where they can perpetrate their terrorist atrocities. In relation to preparedness, the Government have spent literally hundreds of millions of pounds making this country more prepared. I pay tribute to the work of our intelligence services and of those in our public services. I believe that they have prepared this country as well as it possibly can be prepared for any such terrorist eventuality.

Points Of Order

12.30 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order relates to you, as you are responsible for the accuracy of the Official Report, according to "Erskine May". On 12 June, the Prime Minister, in answer to a question from me, attributed words to me that were wrong. I took up the matter with the Editor of Hansard, who explained that he accepts the word of 10 Downing street as to the accuracy and origin of quotes supplied to Hansard. However, I now have a letter from the Prime Minister that fails to substantiate the words attributed to me, or their origin. Instead, it refers in general terms to a pamphlet on the European constitution that I wrote, which again does not contain the words attributed to me that were recorded in inverted commas in Hansard.

May I ask, Mr. Speaker, that you instruct that the Official Report be amended and corrected to make it clear that I did not use those words? More importantly, may I ask you to ensure that in future Hansard does not accept at face value assurances, quotes and information from 10 Downing street that are clearly—in this case and in others—designed to confuse and mislead?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of that point of order. If he feels that he has been misrepresented, he must take the matter up with the Prime Minister. Hansard must report what is said in the House. It is for the hon. Member concerned, and not for Hansard, to take responsibility for remarks that are made and for any quotations that are used.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At Scottish Question Time yesterday, in the full hearing of the House, the Secretary of State for Scotland described the Scottish Parliament as an "assembly". The matter has been taken up substantially in the Scottish press today, the suggestion being that the Secretary of State is too busy to be in command of his brief. However, if we look at column 847 in the Hansard report for yesterday, we see that the word "assembly" has been deleted and the word "Parliament" inserted. Hansard staff are excellent, but that is a material change of meaning, as detailed in "Erskine May". Will the Secretary of State for Scotland have the opportunity to tell us whether any of his staff, or the parliamentary secretary, had a hand in seeking that change? Will the Official Report be altered to reflect what actually happened, as opposed to what the Secretary of State for Scotland might want to have happened?

I understand that yesterday the Official Report did edit the reference by the Secretary of State for Scotland to the "assembly" in Holyrood, and that it used the word "Parliament" instead. As "Erskine May" makes clear, it is normal practice for Hansard to correct obvious mistakes. That is what happened on this occasion.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You, of course, are the guardian not only of the House but of each Member of the House. Am I right in saying that it is normal practice, if one Member of the House misrepresents another, deliberately or inadvertently, for the Member who had committed that inadvertent misdirection to correct themselves on the record? That would be an even-handed approach from one Member to another. The Prime Minister is a Member of this House; surely you, Mr. Speaker, have the right and—dare I say it?—the responsibility, in regard to the Prime Minister as a Member of this House, to exercise the same evenhandedness that, as we know, you exercise with other Members. I simply ask, Mr. Speaker, whether you would like to ponder this as an issue, with regard to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said a moment ago. If not, there may be a suspicion among Members that the Prime Minister can get away with anything in this House and that he is not expected to meet the same standards of probity as other Members, rightly, are expected to do.

Past events have shown that the Prime Minister knows that he does not get away with anything in this House. I am being asked to be a referee in these matters. I cannot instruct an hon. Member to withdraw in these circumstances. The Prime Minister will be able to note the right hon. Gentleman's point of order and my response; it is up to the Prime Minister then to decide what he might do about that matter, but it is not for me to instruct.

Further to my earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. Your reply was excellent, as usual, but may I seek your advice? Is there any way, in parliamentary terms, for me to find out whether the staff of the Secretary of State for Scotland or the parliamentary secretary sought that change, which is of considerable moment and interest in Scotland?

This is a matter for the Editor of Hansard, not the staff. As the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have said, Hansard gives us an excellent service that is second to none.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I refer you to business questions last Thursday, when I posed a question to the Leader of the House? In reply, the right hon. Gentleman said:

"The vote for the Welsh block comes to the Secretary of State, and I then make a subvention for the purpose of running the Wales Office—that will continue"—
The words "that will continue" are important, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman went on:
"and the remainder goes to the National Assembly."—[Official Report, 19 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 513–14.]
However, today, The Western Mail, the national newspaper of Wales, states:
"The Wales Office confirmed last night that it had not yet been decided whether Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, or Leader of the House of Commons Peter Hain would be responsible for 'top-slicing' the cost of the Wales Office from the Assembly's budget allocation."
On Thursday, the Leader of the House cum Secretary of State for Wales cum Lord Privy Seal said that he would be responsible. Last night, his office told The Western Mail that it had not yet been decided who was responsible. As that money comes from the House's allocation, is top sliced by the Secretary of State and only then goes to the National Assembly of Wales, how can we clarify this matter and how can we ensure that there is cross-examination?

That was not a point of order, but I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. Every week, Thursday comes around and we always have business questions; so perhaps, if he catches my eye, he can seek clarification tomorrow.

Further to the points of order made by my right hon. Friends the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and the shadow Leader of the House, Mr. Speaker. It is a rather old-fashioned concept, but one that I value, that all Members of the House are honourable Members and that is at the core of our procedures. You would, therefore, reprimand any Member who suggested that another Member had misled the House—that is something that we try not to say in our proceedings. However, Mr. Speaker, the counterpoint is that if a Member, including a Prime Minister, says something that, on examination, proves not to be the case, it must—if we are all honourable Members—be incumbent on the person who is found to be guilty of misleading to come to the House voluntarily to put the matter right on the record. Unless that honour is upheld, there will an increasing demand from Members that it should be the norm to identify when a Member has misled the House, because it clearly happens.

I have nothing more to add to the previous statements that I have made, but, once again, I say that I cannot be the referee in these matters; it is up to the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and the Prime Minister to sort this matter out.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Most Members of Parliament have experience of using quotations and of being asked, absolutely properly and in accordance with precedent, by the Hansard writers to provide the source of those quotations. In absolutely accepting your ruling, as all Members do, may I simply ask for confirmation that it is the responsibility of a Member who quotes another to prove that the quotation is correct, not the responsibility of the Member aggressed against to disprove it?

Once again, I say to the hon. Gentleman that I cannot be drawn into these matters.

Historic Counties (Traffic Signs And Mapping)

12.40 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law so as to require the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to mark the boundaries of the historic counties on its maps; to require traffic authorities to cause traffic signs to be placed on or near roads for the purpose of indicating the location of historic county boundaries; and for connected purposes.

We live in an era when so much of our heritage and traditions seem to count for nothing and when, seemingly on the whim of those who find history an irrelevance, institutions can be dispensed with, without so much as a by your leave. Yes, I will unashamedly admit that I am in favour of traditions. However, sad though it is to admit, I have to acknowledge that things move on. To me and to many others, the historic counties of this country have a real significance.

I am not trying to turn back the clock for counties to become the administrative authorities once again. I am not even attempting to get self-rule for Middlesex, however tempting that might be—I hope, perhaps, to return to that another day. All that I am asking is that those historic counties' place in our heritage is recognised. They have played a prominent role in our national life for more than a thousand years, and their names and areas are widely used in tourism, sport, business, local and family history, military history, literature and the arts. They are a source of identity and affection for many people, and they have been the basis for an unchanging, recognisable and stable geography.

Now, all that is at risk. The link between local government and the historic counties has been broken throughout much of the country. Quite frankly, some of the names of the more modern administrative areas have not really got the same ring to them. In Scotland, for example, in my opinion the title "Central Region" is not exactly evocative. Goodness knows what the bureaucrats will come up with in the future. They will probably number the counties, so I might live in region 3B.

My Bill would introduce just two of the measures that have been proposed by the Association of British Counties, under the admirable chairmanship of Mr. Michael Bradford. Those aspirations are shared by many other county trusts, such as mine in Middlesex, where Mr. Russell Grant is such a champion, not just for us Middle Saxons, but for all the counties. All I ask is that signs, such as the brown and white tourism signs, be placed to mark the county boundaries and a duty be placed on the Ordnance Survey to mark those boundaries on larger-scale maps.

Perhaps it is unfashionable to be proud of our past and our heritage. I am self-evidently not cool, and some Labour Members—and even people outside the House—may say in today's parlance that I am quite sad. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Sad I may be, but I am immensely proud of the history of my county and my country. That is why I ask the House to support the Bill today.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Randall, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. David Curry, Mr. Nigel Evans, Mr. Adrian Flook, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Hugo Swire, Mr. David Wilshire and Sir Nicholas Winterton.

Historic Counties (Traffic Signs And Mapping)

Mr. John Randall accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law so as to require the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to mark the boundaries of the historic counties on its maps; to require traffic authorities to cause traffic signs to be placed on or near roads for the purpose of indicating the location of historic county boundaries; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 July, and to be printed [Bill 134].

Opposition Day

11Th Allotted Day

Tuition Fees

We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.45 pm

I beg to move,

That this House notes the views of the National Union of Students about university tuition fees; and believes that the consequence of the Government's proposal relating to tuition fees will be to act as a severe deterrent to many students from hardworking but less well-off families, who will not be eligible for the £1,000 maintenance grant, from applying to university.
As Conservative Members believe in inclusiveness, I should point out at the start that we are happy to mention in our motion the views of the National Union of Students, which has come out strongly against the Government's plans to make university education much more expensive. We also welcome the support of Members on both sides of the House who signed the early-day motion supporting the NUS campaign against fees. I am sure that, having publicly supported that early-day motion, they will welcome another chance to make that stance of principle clear to their constituents.

This is also my first opportunity to welcome formally the new Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education to his post. The Times Higher Education Supplement described his purpose as reinforcing the Prime Minister's assault on ivory towers. To continue the spirit of inclusiveness, may I plead with him not to go down that route? Our world-class universities deserve congratulation and support, not the sniping that they have occasionally received from parts of this Government, notably from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am confident that the Minister will not follow that ill-advised way of proceeding.

I shall divide my remarks between the effects of the Government's policy and those of our alternative: on students, on the issue of how to make access fairer and, finally, on the universities themselves. I also want to deal with some of the more serious critiques of our policy, as they deserve a considered response. There are some less considered critiques around, including one from the Labour party political communications unit, copies of which seemed to be widely available around the House yesterday. I am grateful to the large number of Labour Members who wanted to share their copies with us.

Let me first remind the House of the key difference between Conservative Members and the Government on this issue. The Government's proposals amount to a new tax on learning: £3,000 a year for students at some universities, leaving them with debts that will hang over them for many years to come. That, of course, is one in a long line of betrayals. Just before the 1997 election, Labour said:
"we have no plans to introduce tuition fees".
Just after the 1997 election, Labour introduced tuition fees. Just before the 2001 election, Labour said:
"We will not introduce top-up fees."
Just after the 2001 election, Labour introduced top-up fees. Now, the Government are saying that £3,000 will be kept as the upper limit for the next Parliament. With form like that, I am afraid that even the Secretary of State for Education at his most charmingly eloquent will not be believed.

I sympathise with those Labour MPs who have unwittingly deceived their constituents. They should stick to their convictions, however. They should not even be worried—if they are—about being branded as rebels. In a recent interesting speech on public services, the remark was made:
"The essence of our reforms is to keep true to the principle of your citizenship—not your wallet entitling you to decent services."
That quote sums up the Conservative approach to higher education and the approach of many on the Labour Back Benches and, I suspect, on the Liberal Democrat Benches. What it does not do, however, is reflect the Government's approach. It is therefore noteworthy that it is a quote from the Prime Minister in his latest relaunch of the Government. The gap between words and action is breathtaking. I agree with the Prime Minister's sentiment that it should not be our wallets that entitle us to decent services. I just wish that he would apply that to his own policy on higher education, with which he is marching firmly in the opposite direction.

By contrast, the next Conservative Government will scrap all tuition fees—not only the Government's new top-up fees, but all fees. We will save students £9,000 of the debt burden over the period of a normal university course. We will scrap the arbitrary 50 per cent. admission target. We will scrap the access regulator, which is the latest piece of bureaucracy to drain independence away from universities. The best way to make access to university free and fair is to make education free and for admission; to be fair and decided on merit and potential alone.

The hon. Gentleman says that he will scrap all tuition fees, but he knows that the majority of students in the United Kingdom study at further education colleges. Would he scrap tuition fees for further education colleges?

I shall deal with vocational education later in my speech, because I agree that it is important. One of this country's historic failures has been not to take vocational education sufficiently seriously for almost 50 years. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would agree with one of the problems that I lay at the Government's door: the 50 per cent. target and overemphasis on higher education has had the precise effect of devaluing vocational qualifications and further education.

I shall give way to the hon. Lady, who I believe signed the early-day motion on which our motion is based.

I want to comment on the hon. Gentleman's proposal to abolish tuition fees. Is he aware that almost 50 per cent. of students do not pay tuition fees because they come from families with such a low income that they do not have to? Does he agree that his proposal is designed to benefit the better-off in society and not the poorer students whom he purports to support?

I agree with my hon. Friend: it was slightly perverse of the hon. Lady to sign the early-day motion if she opposed the sentiments behind it. She will know that there is some doubt about the Government's position on the top-up fees element. The Secretary of State wavers between saying that poorer students will be exempt from all fees and that they will be exempt only from the existing £1,100—noises have suggested one thing or another. If it turns out that even the poorest students must pay a top-up element, the hon. Lady should agree that her point becomes invalid. I hope that we will receive some reassurance from the Secretary of State during the debate.

The Secretary of State and the Government as a whole will be aware of the large and growing coalition that they have assembled against them on tuition fees. Let me explain why, first from the students' perspective. Barclays bank estimates that the average debt for students in 2002 will be £12,000, which is a rise of 28 per cent. on the previous year. A UNITE survey shows that debt among third-year students has increased by 61 per cent. The consequences of that are shown in a NatWest survey that says that the number of sixth formers who considered not going to university purely because of fees rose from 34 per cent. in 2000 to 50 per cent. in 2002. Half of all sixth formers consider not going to university only because of fees. That is the situation before the Government put up the fees even more.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the debt that he is quoting is to a large extent incurred on credit cards issued by the very banks that conducted the surveys?

That might be true, but a debt is a debt if a student has to pay it. The body to which the debt is owed does not especially matter to a student, although clearly different interest rates are involved. The essential point of the debate is that, irrespective of to whom students owe debt, they will owe £9,000 more under the Labour Government's proposal than under ours. That is the key fact that students and their parents and families will face when they decide at the next election.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) rose—

Clive Efford (Eltham) rose—

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that his party would pay for eradicating fees by reducing the number of people who may go to university?

I have already said that we would abolish the 50 per cent. target—I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is paying attention. The university sector would be smaller and better focused under a Conservative Government than under the Labour Government.

I do not think that we should be apologetic on this point. Back in 1979, one in eight people went to university. By the time we left government in 1997, the figure was one in three. Our party has an incredibly good record on widening access. We should provide access for those who deserve the education.

Absolutely. We need fair access based on merit alone. I shall deal later with problems of access for poorer social groups that have persisted throughout the long period of expansion under both Governments. Those problems deserve serious attention. I know that the Government are trying to solve them simply by expanding the rate of participation and I shall demonstrate to the House that that is not working.

The hon. Gentleman is arguing that the main reason for abolishing tuition fees and top-up fees is that they discourage people from wanting to go to university. He also admitted that under his scheme there would be fewer university places than there are now. Surely it is perverse to encourage more people to go to university but to provide fewer places for them.

We will encourage everyone who has the potential and who will benefit from it to go to university. The rising drop-out rate makes it clear that some people being enticed to university do not benefit from it. It does not need politicians and planners to tell them that, because they drop out in rising numbers and know that they are not benefiting.

I half agree with the hon. Gentleman that the growing debt crisis is the reason why the Government have assembled such a powerful coalition in opposition to their proposals. Penny Hollings of the National Union of Students said:
"The Conservative Party has correctly identified just how unpopular tuition fees have been and the catastrophic effect that top-up fees would have".
A spokesperson for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said:
"We would welcome the abolition of university tuition fees, which are particularly problematic for low-paid graduates going to make their careers in the public services".
Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers said:
"The Conservatives' proposal to scrap university fees is a welcome move in the right direction".
I was especially delighted to receive a measure of support from the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is sadly not in the Chamber. He said in The Times that our policy was
"one that many people in the Labour party agree with".
I am grateful for that support.

Does my hon. Friend realise that this goes further? Is he aware of studies undertaken by Loughborough university, Warwick university, the university of London and many others that show that although the number of people from poorer middle-class backgrounds who go to university is increasing—I am sure that the Secretary of State will point that out—the number is decreasing as a percentage of the whole student cohort? As a percentage of the total number of people who go to university, people from poorer backgrounds are being deterred because of the debt that would arise.

My hon. Friend is right, and common sense suggests that that would be true. People who come from families that are not used to dealing with large debt are more likely to be discouraged by the prospect of long-term debt.

The Royal Academy of Engineering, which speaks for many of the professions, commented on the Government's proposals:
"There is a fear that proposals contained within the White Paper regarding student cebt and the setting of course fees will deter students from undertaking courses in more expensive subjects, including, particularly, science, engineering, and technology."
Although Ministers say that part of the reason for expanding the higher education sector to meet their 50 per cent. target is precisely to make British industry more competitive, they should listen to the experts. They are deterring people from undertaking more expensive courses: not only important courses for industry but, of course, medicine and other courses.

Why does the hon. Gentleman not include in his list of quotes what Professor Nicholas Barr of the London School of Economics said in May 2003:

"If places are rationed, then the middle class with their sharp elbows will monopolise them, so it is inequitable. If middle-class students go to university proportionately more than they do now, then they will be paid for by poor people"?

I am glad that we are joined by visitors from Scottish constituencies, to whom the debate does not apply. I am also glad that the hon. Gentleman got as far as page 20 of Labour's document. I shall deal with Professor Barr later on. His critique is serious and interesting, but it is also almost completely wrongheaded.

The debt problem is real, but the Government's response has always been that it is worth getting into debt because graduates earn so much more. In that context, the previous Minister for higher education, now the Minister for Children, whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber, came up with the risible figure of £400,000 extra. I would advise her successor to pay serious attention to a number of pieces of work carried out over the past few months, some of it by the Government themselves. The latest edition of an annual survey by High Fliers Research of 15,000 students graduating this summer shows that starting salaries, which have risen for the past decade, are now falling. The typical starting salary expected by a graduate has dropped from £18,700 in 2002 to £18,500 this year.

The Government's own Higher Education Statistics Agency says that more than a third of graduates last year could not find a job at all or had to settle for a low-skilled job. Some 40 per cent. of 2002 graduates thought that their degree was more or less a waste of time, money and effort. As I am going through Government publications, Ministers might also want to take a look at "Labour Market Trends" to see the variation in earnings of students who left school with two or more A-levels. Those with degrees in some subjects, like law, maths and economics, can expect earnings about 25 per cent. higher than average, but returns on other subjects are sharply lower. Social studies brings about a 10 per cent. premium, but education and languages have returns close to zero. On average, arts degrees show a negative return. Those graduates earn less than if they had not done a degree at all.

It seems likely that Government policy, which has pushed up the proportion of young people going to university—as I said, they plan to increase that by 50 per cent.—has also had an effect. At present, students leave university with debts on average of £12,000. If the Government have their way, that average debt will rise to £27,000, but if the returns on higher education continue to fall as the price of higher education rises, will people want more of it or less? The Government's policy is perverse even in their own terms. The idea that graduates should be uniquely penalised for their learning because a degree always and everywhere leads to future riches is nonsense.

Our policy is justified not east by its effect on reducing the burden of student debt. I was interested to read the work of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which is publishing a report today showing that the average graduate with no career break would be relieved of the burden of debt three years earlier under our proposals than under the Government's proposals. That in itself will act as an encouragement to potential students from less well-off backgrounds to apply for university.

But is it not the case that that IFS report also criticises wholeheartedly the Conservative party's proposals precisely because they shift responsibility for financing higher education on to poorer people?

Is that on the basis of the assumption, which the IFS is clear about, that poor people will not be deterred by the extra burden of debt, because I disagree with the IFS on that? As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) explained, and as common sense would suggest to the hon. Gentleman, people who come from families with no tradition of dealing with mortgage debt or large debts are more likely to be deterred. I agree with some of the IFS report, but not all of it.

We need not believe my hon. Friend on that matter. We can take the advice of the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who said in her news release:

"for many lower income families"—
I am quoting, Mr. Speaker, so Hansard can take note—
"the fear of debt is a real worry and"
"act as a bar to higher education".
She made that very point before resigning.

The hon. Gentleman states the blindingly obvious.

I am glad the Minister agrees with us. In his new role, he has a chance to change his Government's policy so that it recognises the blindingly obvious.

I have given way enough.

The second issue that concerns me is access. One matter that unites hon. Members on both sides of the House is that anyone with the potential to benefit from a university degree should not be denied that because of their social or economic background. The question is whether the Government's policy of simply expanding the sector is the best way to achieve that.

If the Government were right in their contention that higher numbers mean wider access, they would have a case, but the evidence is absolutely plain that higher numbers do not change the social mix of universities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said, there has been a huge expansion of numbers under successive Governments, but the social mix in universities, as the Secretary of State recognises, has not changed much over that period, despite the expansion in student numbers from something under 10 per cent. to something over 40 per cent.

Indeed, over the past six years, expansion has continued at a headlong rate under this Government, who are specifically committed to solving the problem, yet the participation rate among the poorer social groups has not changed. However, the key to that—and the key mistake that the Government are making—is that it is a problem not of our universities, but of our schools. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education himself made the crucial point on Monday when he said:
"once youngsters from working-class backgrounds get to the stage of acquiring two A-levels, nine out of 10 of them go on to a university education."[Official Report, 23 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 738.]
That is exactly the right point to make. There is no point in fiddling with university admissions to allow fairer access; what we have to do is improve our secondary schools so that wherever people come from, they have a chance of getting A-levels and aspiring as high as they like.

The facts are plain, but the Government are choosing to ignore them and go off down the road of a new access regulator, who will tie universities up in red tape, make them sign agreements before they can charge the top-up fees, and generally threaten them until they replace admissions on academic merit with admissions on the grounds of political ideology. That is a gross interference in the freedom of universities and a straightforward attack on the principle of fairness. Indeed, that is already happening. I am sure that Ministers and many hon. Members on both sides of the House will have seen article inThe Sunday Times headlined "Top universities offer poor students lower entry grades". It says:
"Top universities are lowering A-level grade demands for
certain students
"to meet government targets, according to confidential papers."
The report reveals that a number of universities
"have responded to ministerial pressure with schemes that allow students to win places with as much as two grades below standard offers."
Ministers should consider what effect reading that story in the Sunday papers has on parents, students and sixth-formers in particular, from all social backgrounds. They know that ministerial intervention means that their entry to university is not on the basis of hard work and academic potential, but on the basis of what suits a Government who are trying to hit their targets. That political interference in university entrance is disgraceful. We all agree that university is one of the most important ladders for many people. I agree with Professor Alan Smithers, who said:
"Universities should be looking for students with potential and it is patronising to suggest they are more likely to be found in particular postcode areas."
The third thing that is worth noting is the effect on the university sector itself. The Government have a novel approach to university education: pile it high and sell it expensive. The effects of that are already becoming apparent. Drop-out rates are getting higher. Some universities are seeing more than 40 per cent. of their students drop out. Can those few Labour Members who support their Government's policy say how that is fair or compassionate? To encourage young people to get into debt and to start on a course that they rapidly realise is not going to do them any good is yet another example of the harmful effect of arbitrary targets in the education sector. Successive Education Secretaries have become addicted to those targets. The 50 per cent. university admission target is one of the most harmful, which is why we will get rid of it.

We need a university sector that is properly focused, offering degrees that mean something to those who can benefit from them. Bigger does not necessarily mean better. Does every current course provide proper value for the student? The previous Minister with responsibility for higher education made a notorious insult about "Mickey Mouse" degrees—a phrase that I have never used except when attributing it to her. The Secretary of State has cast aspersions on mediaeval history and classics, although on both occasions he retreated sharply and wisely in the face of opposition. We need proper, objective criteria for judging whether a course is worth while or not so that prejudices, whether against medieaval history or media studies, do not become the basis of policy. It is clearly sensible to look at drop-out rates, the qualifications required to take up a course and a range of other factors. However, it is clear that the university sector needs to be better focused.

We need to pay more attention to vocational qualifications, a point made in one of the multitude of interventions by the non. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). I suspect that he and I would agree that this country has an historic problem in not taking high-level vocational education seriously enough and that there is not enough of it on offer. In many cases, vocational education will give people a better start in life and a better chance to realise their full potential than what the Minister for Children referred to as "Mickey Mouse" degrees. Professor Barr and others have asked how that vocational education is to be provided, a point that the hon. Member for Bury, North also made in an intervention.

The choice for many children who are left behind every year by the system is not university or vocational education but vocational education or nothing. The relevant financial calculation is not university versus vocational education costs but vocational education costs versus the cost of unemployment benefit, the new deal for young people, police and judicial actions, the impact of crime and economic dependency on others. On 9 June, David Bell, the head of Ofsted wrote wisely in the New Statesman that at 16
"you're looking at one in five people that we know really do not go anywhere at the end of compulsory schooling—neither to further schooling nor education."
The idea that all the money for vocational education has to come out of the higher education pot is therefore mistaken.

My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Would he further agree that the figures that he gave earlier on graduates show that in many areas the economy does not need extra graduates? By contrast, the building industry and many other industries desperately need more trained tradesmen.

My hon. Friend is right, and I am grateful to him for allowing me to make the point that the CBI and the TUC estimate that the cost of the skills shortage to the British economy is £10 billion a year or about £170 for every man, woman and child. The idea that a lack of graduates is undermining skills is nonsense—the problem is actually poor vocational education. I want to address the point about money directly because business spends £23 billion of private sector money a year on training, more than three times the amount that the Government spend on equivalent education through the Learning and Skills Council. A change in the mix so that more importance is given to vocational education would greatly increase the potential for private sector money. The funding mix in higher education is 60 per cent. public: 40 per cent. private. If we increased the importance of vocational education in the educational mix, we would attract much more private sector money. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made the point that by doing so we would improve the skills base and address directly a problem that has dogged our economy for years. It does not relate to the number of graduates but the long tail of completely unskilled people. That is not a charge against the present Government, as the problem has dogged us for 50 years. However, it is an area where the education system is still failing badly, and where the economy has failed badly. We should therefore pay attention to the long tail of completely unskilled people in this country.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the need to attract further private sector resources, an initiative for which there would be a cross-party welcome. However, evidence suggests that that needs to be pump-primed by public sector resources, which would require an uplift. Is the hon. Gentleman planning for that in his programme?

The Government are already spending £5.3 billion on the learning and skills councils, so a very large pump is priming money—

The figure is £8.5 billion.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State. Somebody on the Learning and Skills Council board told me that it has a budget three times that of the Royal Navy. I do not know whether that is true, but if it is, or if the sum is anything like that, the pump is big enough. We need to spend money effectively and attract private sector money, because that sector will put money into things that it finds useful. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education would describe that as blindingly obviously, but Government policy appears to ignore it.

The Government are trying to push more and more people into something called degree courses, which are of no benefit to the student and have no merit in the eyes of private industry. We are therefore not improving the life chances of the young people who go on those courses. That is a mad route from the viewpoint of the Treasury, students, the university sector and the country.

I said that I would deal with serious educational critiques, notably that of Professor Barr. He is a distinguished economist, but his analysis reminds us that all economists are wrong some of the time, and most economists are wrong most of the time. The first problem in Professor Barr's analysis arises when he states that higher education is a general good for the economy and society and must be regarded as such. However, he also says that it is unfair to ask the general taxpayer, who may be a non-graduate, to bear the cost. One can hold one or other of those views but one cannot coherently hold both. If higher education is a general good, the taxpayer should subsidise it. The second problem arises when Professor Barr claims that student loans do not lead to debt, because they are paid back as a payroll deduction. One has to be a really clever economist to believe something as silly as that. If someone leaves university knowing that they have to pay back £20,000 or £25,000, they will feel that they have a very large debt to repay, whether it is going to a credit card company or coming out of their pay packet.

Earlier, the hon. Gentleman referred to mortgage debt, but most people would regard a mortgage as an investment. Clearly, debt is a bit like crime—the fear of debt is quite a lot worse than debt itself. Why does the hon. Gentleman not pursue his own analogy with mortgage debt and call student debt an investment?

Millions of graduates want to pay off their student debt and take out a mortgage to buy a house. The fact that the Government are imposing on them a colossal burden of debt prevents them from taking out a mortgage, often into their late 30s. It is not a question of choosing between the two—the choice to take out a mortgage is being taken away from people.

The third problem in Professor Barr's analysis arises when he claims that the universities need money, but ignores the effect of the fees. I would urge him and Government Members to read the HSBC study published earlier this week which says that fees could tip poorer, less prestigious universities over the edge into bankruptcy by making it harder for them to attract students. It is therefore not obvious that fees will attract more money into the sector. The fourth problem in Professor Barr's analysis is his claim, which Ministers like to repeat, that students get their higher education free—it is graduates who make repayments. That is sophistry. People cannot become graduates unless they have been students. To claim that students are a completely different group from future graduates is plain nonsense. I am afraid that the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education attempted to repeat that canard on Monday, but I hope that he spares the House today.

Professor Barr's analysis is based on a series of deeply questionable assumptions, and I simply disagree with it. If it is the best that the Government can come up with— Professor Barr's analysis occupies five or six pages of the document that they handed out prior to the debate—I am afraid that they are skating on thin ice.

Students and their parents have been let down by the Government's proposals. Universities have been leaned on to meet political, not academic, priorities. We have tried tuition fees and they failed to give a fair deal to students or universities. Our policy of scrapping fees and making this vital part of our education system once again free for everyone offers them the fair deal that they need and deserve. I commend the motion to the House.

1.20 pm

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

"rejects any proposal to abolish the existing fee of £1,100, which would lead to substantial reductions in the numbers of places in higher education and, as a consequence, fewer lecturers and a lower quality higher education experience; 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; welcomes the 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; condemns any proposal to withdraw the funding that is already being spent on widening participation, which would lead to fewer students from deprived backgrounds entering higher education and completing their degrees; and supports the continued expansion in participation planned by the Government and the part to be played by foundation degrees designed in collaboration with employers as an appropriate strategy to equip the UK workforce with the high level skills needed to compete in the global marketplace."
I welcome the debate, as it gives us the opportunity to scrutinise the proposals of the Conservative party. It is necessary to scrutinise those proposals, as Conservative Members have refused to attend the Select Committee to discuss the proposals in detail, as I and my ministerial colleagues have done and, to give credit to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), as he and his colleague in the upper House have done, so that there is proper full debate of the issues at an important time.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that Select Committees are appointed to examine the Executive, not to examine other parties' policies? It is the Executive that the Select Committee is appointed to monitor. For the Secretary of State to make the accusation that he has just made shows his lack of understanding of the function of Select Committees.

It is up to a Select Committee to interpret the rules of the House, so it would be up to a Select Committee to decide what it would examine.

I understand that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) declined the invitation of the Select Committee to discuss his proposals in detail. As I said, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough deserves credit on behalf of his party for accepting.

I should put on the record what happened. At 2 pm on the relevant day, an e-mail arrived in my office inviting me to appear the following morning. Before I had even seen that e-mail, my office was rung up by the press, asking why I had declined. By any standards, the procedure was disgraceful and I have not yet had a satisfactory explanation of it from the Select Committee.

That clarification is helpful. I am grateful for it, though the Liberal Democrats deserve credit for coming to the Select Committee and discussing their proposals, even though I acknowledge that that gave rise to the comprehensive and forensic demolition—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you advise me and other hon. Members whether it is normal practice in the House that when a Member accuses another Member of doing something, which is then proven to be wrong, and is acknowledged to be wrong, that person shows good behaviour in the House and withdraws the accusation that he made?

The whole point of a debate is that hon. Members can rebut any case that is made against them. There will be an opportunity to do so.

I began my speech by saying that I welcomed the debate because it gave us the chance to scrutinise the proposals of the Conservative party.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways in which a Select Committee may be able to test out the policies of the Government would be to compare them with other, alternative policies?

I agree, but the comprehensive and forensic demolition of the Liberal Democrat proposals by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education last Monday showed why the debate is so important.

With reference to the Conservative spokesman's invitation to the Select Committee, is it not the case that following the original invitation, which was on the same terms as that to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, there was a subsequent invitation, inviting him to come at a time of his choosing?

Order. We should go back to the main point of the debate. The Select Committee and who gives evidence is nothing to do with the debate.

The answer to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) is no. He is—inadvertently, I am sure—seeking to mislead the House.

Let us move on. The main point that I sought to make is that it is critical that the whole House—all parties—Faces up to the issues concerning the future of higher education, as the Government tried to do in our proposals.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Given that he is all in favour of information and scrutiny, would he care to tell the House why, in the opinion poll conducted by ICM, 36 per cent. of respondents said that education and schools had got worse under Labour, and the trend over the past three months represents a 17 per cent. deterioration? Is it his fault, or would he care to blame it on someone else?

I do not intend to blame anybody. I intend to debate the higher education question, which I thought the Conservative party wanted to debate this afternoon.

If we are looking for an authoritative assessment of the alternative proposals, we need to look no further than the report published today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I quote from its press release, which sets out the situation clearly:
"New research from the IFS compares the reforms proposed by the two parties"—
meaning the Conservative party and the Government—
"looking at the effect on student and graduate finances, the distributional impact on households with different incomes, and the cost to the Exchequer and taxpayers in general. We"—
that is, the IFS—
"find that:
Under both proposals, students would be better off while at university than under the current system."
That is important.

The press release goes on to state that, secondly,
"The overall cost to the taxpayer would be about the same under both systems";
"For a given amount of government spending, more students"—
more students—
"could go to university under the White Paper proposals because graduates would be contributing extra money";
and fourthly,
"The Conservative proposals"—
again, the words of the IFS—
"would benefit the richest households more than the Government proposals, while the poorest households would be worse off."
Same old Tories.

The press release goes on to say that if the Government's White Paper proposals were adopted, there would be
"A redistribution of income from poorer to richer households"
"Households in the poorest income decile would lose 1.5 per cent. of their income on average, while households in the top income decile would gain by around 0.4 per cent. from this switch in funding regimes."
It goes on to explain why. That is an authoritative assessment of the two proposals in terms of distribution and equity.

Apart from the fact that the Secretary of State omitted the middle paragraph, which he might like to share with the House, would he like to clarify his status in the matter today? Was it, for example, the IFS study that persuaded him to change his mind when, in common with five other right hon. and hon. Members who grace the Government Benches, he is a former president of the Nation al Union of Students? Was he wrong then and is he now persuaded, or why is there the difference now?

I shall come to the National Union of Students, but if the hon. Gentleman would like me to read out the middle paragraph of the IFS document, I shall do so. It deals with financial effects on students and graduates. It states:

"The financial impact on students while they are at university would be essentially the same under the two proposals. However, once they finish studying, the effects on graduates could differ significantly."
The document goes on to make the point that the hon. Member for Ashford made in his speech, that the IFS research indicates that what it calls the "average" graduate would make loan repayments for seven years under the current system, eight years under the Conservative proposals and 10 years under the White Paper proposals. [Interruption.] The figure on my press release is 10 years. Mine is the printed version.

The core point that I make in citing the analysis is that the explicit purpose of the Conservative proposal, as confirmed by the IFS, is to benefit the richest householders, while the poorest householders would be worse off. We should never forget that.

I now come to the National Union of Students. I was very interested—almost flattered—that the NUS was cited in the motion.

What is the NUS's view of the Conservative proposals. The NUS president, Mandy Telford, says:
meaning the NUS—
"cannot endorse proposals that would shut the door on future generations and return higher education to the preserve of a privileged few. Nor should we accept a scheme that will continue to leave institutions bereft of cash and struggling to give students the quality of education they deserve."
She went on to say:
"The Tories would pay for abolishing fees by simply axing thousands on thousands of courses up and down the country. Further, they would abandon all the laudable attempts to reach out to people from backgrounds chronically under represented in further and higher education."
Those are the views of the NUS on the Conservatives' proposals, and I find it slightly extraordinary that they cite the NUS's views in their motion as the NUS is so bitterly critical of their proposals.

The truth of the Conservative proposals is that they mean less students, less resources for universities and less independence for universities from the state.

Would my right hon. Friend also agree that a reduction in graduates has an impact on the economy, and that fewer graduates mean that future economic growth will decline rather than increase?

My hon. Friend, characteristically, is correct. That is the situation and that is why the investment in this population is so critical.

As the right hon. Gentleman has quoted the NUS president, Mandy Telford, he might like to know that, according to the BBC today, she has also said:

"Neither the government nor the Conservatives have got it right with their plans to fund higher education. Neither of them are providing students with the support that they need to get through university."

She has indeed said that. She has criticisms of the White Paper, as she has made clear. What I wanted to point out as clearly as I could was that her criticisms of the Conservative party's proposals are very sharp and very direct.

The Secretary of State has just confirmed his view that the more graduates there are the more growth there is in the economy. If that is the case, will he explain why, using his own logic, he wants to restrict the target to 50 per cent.? Why not 60 per cent., 70 per cent. or even 100 per cent.?

The comparisons with other countries are instructive. New Zealand is on 70 per cent., Sweden is on 67 per cent., and Australia and Norway are on 59 per cent. Those are the investments that other countries are making because of the knowledge economy and the world to which we are moving. That is why we have to address the matter.

The key point that has not been appreciated enough in the country and which I want to ram home today is the impact of the Conservative proposals on the number of students. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said it in his subtle way last Monday when he said:
"Some of our less successful higher education activity might be curtailed."—[Official Report, 23 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 748.]
The hon. Member for Ashford was rather blunter on 13 May. He said:
"The number of students will be reduced…Under the Conservatives the university sector will be smaller."
According to The Guardian today, he said:
"If the sector needs to be a bit smaller then it is no bad thing. We are not dogmatic about that".

Because I am making my speech and I shall continue to do so. We are going to get into an interesting logical philosophical debate about the nature of never and the meaning of meaning, which I look forward to. I shall discuss the meaning of hair and where it is.

There is no doubt that under the Conservative party's proposals there would be a significant reduction in the number of students in this country. Professor Barr, whose statements the hon. Member for Ashford does not like, estimated a figure between 79,000 and 150,000 less students. [HON. MEMBERS: "Fewer."] My estimate is that the effect of his proposals would be a reduction of about 90,000 places in higher education in Britain. That means about 50 places for every sixth form or sixth form college in the country. Every sixth form or sixth form college will have young people coming through unable to go to university if the hon. Gentleman's proposals were to be carried through. I would like to know whether the hon. Gentleman has the courage to go to the four sixth forms in his constituency in Ashford and say that in each there will be an average of 50 less people going on to university as a result of his proposals.

The hon. Lady says that she is happy to make such proposals, but she will not be in Ashford. She should go to her constituents and say that in each of her sixth forms less students will go to university. That is a key aspect of the debate that needs to be understood. It is the Labour party that wants to extend opportunity and give people the ability to move forward. It is the Conservatives—back to the old Conservatives—who say, "We are not going forward."

The Secretary of State is building a huge amount of his case on the importance of widened access to the university sector. Could he quote the evidence that leads him to the conclusion that the right number in terms of school leavers going on to university is 50 per cent.? What leads him to the conclusion that that is the right number, rather than some of the people in sixth forms in Ashford to whom he has just referred going into further education or other forms of tertiary education that may be more valuable to them and to the economy?

There has been a wide range of studies on the matter, as the right hon. Gentleman with his great experience very well knows. The one on which I draw most of all is the view that eight or nine jobs out of every 10 in the future will go to people with this level of skill, ability and talent in the knowledge economy. That has been carried through by a series of serious analyses. The 50 per cent. figure first arose some decades ago while the right hon. Gentleman was in Government, I think from the CBI first, saying that if we wanted to compete in business with other countries, we needed that level of university education—its assessment, not mine. We came to the view that that was where we should go, and I think that it is right. Its effect is right for the economy, for people in the economy and for young people coming through, and the effect of the Conservative Front-Bench proposals will be to cut out that opportunity for literally thousands and thousands of people in the country.

Is it not closer to the truth to say that it is politically convenient, particularly in view of some of the international comparisons that the right hon. Gentleman quoted, to dub a particular form of tertiary education as a degree and university education rather than addressing more accurately the needs of individuals and society at large?

No, that is not right. The fact is that there is substantial academic research about what is a degree and what is quality assured to obtain international comparability, and so on. Of course, arguments can be made, as he says, about whether those academic assertions are right, but the core point, which I need to come back to again and again because it needs to be understood in every household in this country with children, is that the Conservatives want to take away the chances of young people going to university, and that is their explicit policy.

Shall we do that one-two again? I will make a pledge that later in the debate I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but at my convenience, not his, if he does not mind.

The key point that needs to be understood is that it is not simply a question of the Conservative policies reducing opportunities in the way that they do, but of them explicitly reducing opportunities for people from the poorest and most disadvantaged backgrounds. The Conservatives have said that they will take away the access proposals for support for poorer students, adding up to over £100 million, dealing with child care grant, travel, books and equipment, school meals, disabled students. They will just strip it all out. They will not simply take away opportunity for all students, but take them away specifically for students who most need the help in order to get into university and have the chance of such an education. That is why, as the hon. Member for Daventry announced in the House last Monday, they will also abolish the Office for Fair Access. They do not want fair access. They do not want people to have the right to go to university.

Could the Secretary of State please explain, as he has already told me in answer to questions, that as the Office for Fair Access is about the procedures in determining fair admission, why anything whatever to do with the access of disabled students, for example, or other disadvantaged, groups, should have any concern or remit in that office? Is that not an entirely different matter, and has he any evidence whatever that we are making a proposal, for example, as he suggested, to wind up the disabled students allowance?

All I can say is that the hon. Gentleman is quite right. They are two different things. The various funding channels that he wants to cut, and which were explicitly referred to by the hon. Member for Ashford, are those funding streams that encourage people to go to universities. The specific parallel approach for getting applications from all backgrounds is the Office for Fair Access, which is the right way forward. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to confirm absolutely that there will be no criticism or modification of the schemes for access by people with disabilities, I shall be delighted to hear it. Perhaps he can give that confirmation in his speech.

In the same way, the Opposition attack foundation degrees. The release given today in the interview in The Guardian made that clear. The hon. Member for Ashford said that the Tories' proposals on vocational training were due to be unveiled in the next few weeks—I am glad about that, as our skills White Paper is about to be issued and we will have another debate about that—setting out their belief that apprentices and practical courses will attract more private money than degrees. He can express that view, but the truth is that wide sections of those in industry, whether they are engineers, chemists or automotive specialists, want a foundation degree approach. They want universities to work with them to get the sort of skills that are necessary, but the Conservatives' approach is to take those away.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, by socially engineering university intake and setting quotas for the numbers of people who go to university, he is creating serious difficulties for employers? For example, the Engineering and Technology Board—I must declare an interest as an unpaid director—as well as Rolls Royce and many other employers have raised a problem in identifying which universities and courses are good and bad. A bachelor's degree no longer has the status that it once enjoyed, as a direct consequence of his Department's actions.

The whole presumption on which that intervention was based is wrong. We are not trying to socially engineer—I use his phrase—access to universities. What we are doing is completely the other way around. We are saying that people from all backgrounds in this country should have the opportunity to have a university education, and we seek to promote that.

The Conservatives do not, however, simply propose that there should be less students; they also propose that there should be less resources.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Secretary of State for Education and Skills not to realise that the word "fewer" goes with the plural and that "less" goes with the singular?

The hon. Gentleman should keep his hair on—[Interruption.] I have no hair to share with anyone; perhaps shared hair is something for the future.

We also have to remember the state of affairs in respect of the universities themselves. Under the Conservatives, student-staff ratios went from 10:1 to 13:1 to 17:1; funding per student fell by 36 per cent. between 1989 and 1997; and an infrastructure backlog of almost £8 billion built up in universities. The Conservative proposals are equivalent to sacking 13,000 lecturers and taking out a further £740 million or more—money that the universities need to fund future growth and excellence.

Loth as I am to become involved in debating English-only legislation, may I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that there is an impact and consequence for Scottish education funding? If the Government take the route of charging students for funding, there will be a lower increase from central funding, which will have a significant impact on the Scottish allocation of education funding through the Barnett formula. Will he confirm that that is the case? Has he made any assessment of the cost to Scotland?

The funding of education in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Parliament and Executive. None the less, I acknowledge that, as there is a UK system of higher education, whatever we do has very significant implications for universities in Scotland, as well as Wales. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that I am discussing with Scottish Executive colleagues and others precisely how we can do these things in the most effective way.

Does my right hon. Friend remember that it was a Conservative Government who cut the budget of my university, which trains scientists and engineers, by a massive 42 per cent. in a single blow?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The Conservatives' proposals would mean not only fewer resources and students, but less independence for universities, as they are saying that they will remove the independent funding stream that universities want in order to develop their operations in an effective way. That is why the Conservative proposals are opposed by almost every university leader in this country; those people know that the proposals are an arrow at the heart of their independence and their academic freedom in deciding how they move forward. It is extraordinary that the Conservatives should have made those proposals. Perhaps that is why so many Conservative Back Benchers and Members of the other place do not support what their Front Benchers are about.

The fundamental issue is equity. I shall give the House the figures. When we look at the amounts of money per student that we spend at different levels of education, we see some very revealing figures. In nursery education, the annual cost of a three-year-old place is about £1,750; for a four-year-old, the cost is about £3,500. In primary education, the figure is £3,230; in secondary education, £4,060; in first and second-year further education, £4,350; and in higher education, £5,360. That hierarchy of spending has been very well established for many years. It is based on saying that we should spend more money on people who are higher up the system in the educational hierarchy and less on those who are at the bottom.

That policy is socially divisive in many ways, which is why this Government have been trying to spend more on under-fives and primaries. As we make those spending commitments, we are putting more positive effort into allowing children from all backgrounds to succeed and move forward. The Government have made that commitment and we will continue with it. The very important appointment of my hon. Friend the Minister for Children is a recognition of the priority that we attach to that issue.

Every Secretary of State, whether from the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats or elsewhere, will face resource allocation choices in deciding whether money should go to the youngest or oldest end of the age range. The fact is that the arithmetic that I have just given leads to a conclusion. The difference between what the state spends on a student who leaves school at 16 and does not do anything further in education and on somebody who graduates is almost £25,000. That is what the state puts in. I defend that position, as I think that the state should support it, and the overwhelming majority of support is for teaching costs. However, is it really so inequitable that individuals who have benefited from that education and will be able to earn on that basis later in life should make some contribution towards it?

The Conservatives propose to increase that differential even more, so the issue is whether a graduate should contribute to that situation. Our proposals say that parents do not have to pay, because the fees are going back afterwards. Students do not have to pay while they are in college. Graduates have to pay—this is what our proposals have in common with a graduate tax—from the extra resource that they have. If the hon. Member for Ashford thinks that it is inequitable that the state should pay the cost per student that is currently paid by the taxpayer and that it is unfair to ask graduates to contribute to the costs, I ask him how much more unfair it is for that money to be contributed by non-graduates for the education of those very same graduates. Is it just or fair for us to say that a non-graduate should pay for the education of such people, but that graduates themselves should not? I do not think that that is fair or that it is the right way for us to proceed.

I turn now to debt—a very serious issue to which the hon. Member for Ashford devoted some time. As I have said from the outset, there are genuine concerns about the fear of debt, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) pointed out. It is a fair subject of discussion; we have discussed it with the Select Committee and we will continue to take it forward. As Professor Barr argues, the issue is one of payroll deduction, but that does not mean that it is any less frightening. None the less, it is important to put the matter into some sort of perspective. Over a 40-year period, a current graduate will pay about £850,000 in income tax and national insurance contributions. That is a lot of money. They will also spend about £500,000 on food, and they pay those costs in a very direct way. Alternatively, somebody who stopped paying for 20 cigarettes a day would pay off £10,000 of student debt in 11 years with that money. Survey data show that single householders on average earnings spend an average of £36 a week on recreation and culture, which compares with the £8 or £9 a week that we are talking about in relation to the repayment.

I do not deny that the debt is a serious and frightening thing for some people, but it is important to get it into perspective in terms of lifetime costs and to ask whether such an investment is worthwhile. It is also important to put it in the context of the range of protections that we have placed in the system. The repayments are income-contingent, so nobody pays if they are earning less than £15,000 a year, and that moves up in a direct process. We have put in protections for students from the poorest families, for whom we are waiving the fees at their current level. We are discussing offering bursaries as part of the project for universities that charge higher fees. The hon. Member for Ashford would abolish that. We have established a £1,000 grant on top of the loan to enable students from the poorest families to go to university. There is no up-front fee. We have moved the situation forward. In a pretty substantial contribution, we have said that there is a zero real rate of interest on the debt, which means that, unlike a mortgage or a car loan, it does not grow. Will the hon. Member for Daventry clarify the Conservatives' position on that? The hon. Member for Ashford was reported inThe Guardian—I do not take it as gospel—as saying that they are going to remove the subsidy on the interest on student loans. In other words, the Treasury would no longer—

I can happily confirm to the Secretary of State that that part of the report was inaccurate.

Meanwhile, may I ask him to clarify his own position? He said that the poorest students will not pay the existing part of the fees. Does that mean that they will pay the top-up part of the fees?

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I have never been misquoted in The Guardian myself, so I do not quite understand his problem, but I am grateful for his clarification. I was not sure what the policy was, and I thank him for setting it straight.

As for our position on fees, I repeat that it is our policy to waive the fees at their current level of £1,100 for students from the poorest families. That will continue. Through the Office for Fair Access, we are discussing with universities bursaries that would enable the balance between that £1,100 and a higher fee, if it were charged—say, £3,000—to be paid through a bursary regime. I am not in a position to make an announcement about that yet, but i t is an important and positive development that meets many of my hon. Friends' concerns.

We are observing a Tory policy shambles of the most extraordinary kind. Only just over a year ago, the hon. Member for Ashford said on the GMTV programme:
"I don't mind the principle of charging differential fees."
Why has his position changed? The only explanation comes in remarks by the vice-chancellor of Buckingham university, which is a private university set up by the hon. Gentleman's friend Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. The vice-chancellor asked:
"why are the Tories now sinking into louche popularism?"
That is the truth of it. They came up with a little stunt and thought that they would campaign on it, but they did not think it through or imagine that anybody would analyse it. I welcome the debate, as we want to analyse it. The truth is that the Conservative record is one of never facing up to the challenges that the British university system faces. We are facing up to those challenges. Although they involve difficult choices—I acknowledge that absolutely—we are laying a foundation for universities to expand and develop and to play their role in our national society and economy. The Conservatives are utterly failing to do so.

1.53 pm

The motion is something of an anti-climax. We thought that the debate was supposed to be on Conservative proposals for student finance. The provisional title that was supplied to our Whips Office—"A fair deal for students and parents"—is the very title that the Conservatives use for their proposals, yet the motion makes no mention at all of Conservative policy. Indeed, it does not even call for the abolition of tuition fees. The National Union of Students is in line with only one Conservative policy. Whatever the Conservatives may claim, the NUS certainly does not agree with the rest of their policies, whereas the policies of the NUS and the Liberal Democrats are remarkably close.

This is the third occasion on which the Conservatives have ducked an opportunity to deploy their thinking. First, they cancelled an Opposition day debate, then the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) refused to appear before the Select Committee on Education and Skills, and now we have today's motion. What on earth are they trying to hide? Could it be that they are worried that as soon as we get a real chance to take their new policy to pieces, as I hope to, it will be shown up as the unprincipled opportunism that it really is?

Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to clarify an aspect of Liberal Democrat policy about which I am a little uncertain? In January, I read in The Guardian that Liberal Democrat policy was to abolish maintenance grants for the first two years of a university course, thus forcing poorer students to live and study at home. Is that still Liberal Democrat policy?

It is not, and it was not. As we have already heard today, it is perhaps unwise to believe everything that one reads in The Guardian.

Liberal Democrat Members at least have had a consistent and principled record of opposing all fees for tuition ever since they were first proposed, including top-up fees.

In a speech just two weeks ago, the Liberal Democrats' leader made it clear that under Liberal Democrat proposals an increasing proportion of students would study nearer to their homes. Is not the Liberal Democrats' budgeting based on that assumption?

We certainly believe that in future more people will choose to study closer to their homes as a result of the trend towards part-time studying. We do not intend to force that on anybody: it is happening naturally already.

Neither the Conservatives' nor the Government's proposals will work, because one cannot have a serious policy of widening participation to include more students from non-traditional backgrounds and charging for tuition, which places serious financial and psychological obstacles in the path of participation. Recent research by Professor Claire Callender of South Bank university could not be clearer. She says that
"one of the most significant findings of this study is that debt aversion deters entry into higher education…Debt aversion had the greatest impact on the participation of the very groups the government most wants to attract into higher education".
Of course, top-up fees, as a result of which debts will soar to £21,000 or more on graduation, will make the situation far worse.

We will support the Conservative motion—one could hardly do otherwise; there is nothing exceptionable in it—but the Government are right on two key points that the Conservatives have got badly wrong, and this is where Liberal Democrats part company fundamentally with the Conservatives. First, the Government are right that we need to increase participation. There is no doubt that that is what the British economy needs and what social justice demands. The Government are right to stress that objective and the Conservatives are wrong to oppose it. Liberal Democrats oppose fees because they are an obstacle to increasing participation. The Tories want to scrap fees at the cost of increasing participation.

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the missing part of the jigsaw is what is to be done with vocational and technical training? My party will shortly introduce plans on that. He cannot criticise supposed reductions in participation without considering the vocational and technical sector.

All the Tory costings are based on there being no money for such an expansion of further education, so I do not see how his party would manage to increase participation in that way.

Research by Professor Barr shows that the Conservative proposals would not only end the proposed expansion of 182,000 additional places by 2010 but would lead to a cut of at least 79,000 existing places over five years. The research shows that if the Conservatives were to get their way, participation would fall from its current rate of 43 per cent. to, at the very best, 38 per cent. by 2010. Professor Barr concludes:
"The Tory proposals are also offensive to anyone who cares about fairness."
Far from increasing participation, the Conservatives would stop a quarter of a million young people—mainly from the least well-off families—going to university. Meanwhile, they are planning to cut £193 million earmarked to improve the recruitment and retention of poorer students, and they make no mention at all either of grants or—to take the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)—of funding for vocational courses, despite saying that they expect many of the students who are denied a higher education place to take up vocational alternatives. Perhaps they have forgotten that a place on a vocational course is often more expensive than a place in higher education. The Conservatives' proposals could, in this area at least, be even more expensive than the Government's.

We should never forget that the Conservatives substantially cut the value of grants when they were in office. Interestingly, the hon. Member for Ashford pressed the Government to
"keep the maintenance grant in order to increase access to higher education, rather than damage it"—[Official Report, 19 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 1097.]
Perhaps he would like to use this opportunity either to commit his party to reintroduce grants or to explain why it no longer supports them.

The second point is about funding. There is no question but that the universities need more money. The Government are right about that and the Conservatives are wrong. After all, the Conservatives presided over a 40 per cent. real-terms drop in funding per student.

Neither fees nor top-up fees can solve this funding problem. When the then Secretary of State introduced tuition fees, he said that the entire objective in taking the difficult decisions had been to put higher education on a firm footing for the next two decades. He also said that the new arrangements were introduced precisely to avoid the universities levying additional charges.

In reality, tuition fees have merely plugged the gap left by a cut in public funding, as was confirmed by the chairman of Universities UK at a meeting this morning. Why should the outcome of top-up fees be any different? Good government implies working out first what slice of the national cake should be spent on each public service, and only then working out how much of that slice can be financed from charges and how much must be met from taxation. Top-up fees will not expand the higher education cake; they will merely change the balance between the public and private ingredients.

In his reply to the debate on Monday, the Minister claimed that that would not be the case. He said that income from top-up fees
"will be additional money going into universities"—[Official, Report,23 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 766.]
First, he must explain what provisions will be included in legislation to ensure that that happens. I cannot see how any provision could ensure that, but I should be interested to hear whether he has any of idea of the provisions he intends to include.

Secondly, the Minister must tell us why the Government are prepared to allow the universities, which have a very obvious interest in the matter, to determine how much of the national wealth should be spent on them, instead of retaining that decision in the hands of the Government, to be taken on behalf of all the citizens of the country. What an abrogation of good government that would be if we allowed that situation to be maintained!

At least the Government accept that there is a funding problem. The Conservatives are promising not more money for our universities, but less. Professor Barr's research identifies a cumulative deficit in the Conservative proposals, amounting to £1.6 billion over the first five years. Even taking the Conservatives' claims at face value, they are talking about merely a standstill position for our universities. In the face of all the evidence, they claim that funding at the status quo level is just fine, and that the universities can simply go into hibernation, unchanged in any way for the foreseeable future.

The reality is that the Conservative plans do not add up and their costings have been rubbished by Universities UK. In fact, the Conservatives had to withdraw the first version of their press release to announce their new proposals because they discovered, shortly after its launch, that they had completely misunderstood one of the figures that they had taken from a UUK report and used to support their costings.

Once they had been denied the cloak of credibility that they had hoped the vice-chancellors could provide, the Tories dreamt up an entirely different justification for the size of the saving that they claimed their policy would achieve. Sadly for them, their new calculation has been rubbished by the House of Commons Library, which has "difficulty understanding the logic". I do not know about you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have seldom heard the Library be quite so damning about anything as to say that it has difficulty in understanding the logic of the proposal.

Written parliamentary answers and the Library confirm that the Conservatives cannot possibly cost the Government's expansion plans with accuracy, for the simple reason that the figures are not yet available. We have asked the Government to cost their expansion plans, and we have been told that assessments of the costs for increasing and widening participation beyond 2005–06 will be made as part of the 2004 spending review, work on which "will commence shortly."

Even the £700 million price tag that the Conservatives place on abolishing all fees is open to question. They have hardly based the figure on a rigorous source—an online interview with the Secretary of State, in which he gave a range of figures, £700 million being the lowest. It is interesting that the Tories should pick up on the lowest figure. As the Library points out:
"There are very few figures in this area until the exact scheme and level of fees by individual institutions are decided."
The Tory proposal to scrap the Office of Fair Access is not a bad idea; it is one of the few with which we agree. How much does the Tory press release claim this will save? Oh dear, Madam Deputy Speaker; all I can see is a question mark. The Tories have no idea whether the saving will be significant or not; their figures simply do not add up.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have not estimated OFFA's running costs, so it is impossible for us to provide an authoritative estimate. Furthermore, the university sector would incur substantial compliance costs in respect of OFFA, and no one has even made a start on calculating them.

The hon. Gentleman has just made the exact point that I was trying to make about his policies. He has come up with a proposal that he has not costed, partly because he cannot cost it. He simply does not know, as the figures have not yet been produced. His proposals cannot be relied on; the figures simply are not there.

The Conservative's figures do not add up. There are simply too many question marks, some of which are provided by the Conservatives themselves. Their analysis is based on shoddy research, incomplete data and a confused analysis. There is one thing of which we can be sure: we cannot trust the Tories. If we want to know whether the Tories are serious about the issue, it is not good enough to listen t