I beg to move,
That, at the sitting on Thursday 9 December, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Secretary Vince Cable relating to Higher Education Higher Amount and, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents), on the Motion in the name of Secretary Vince Cable on the draft Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations not later than five hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first motion, or at 5.30 pm, whichever is the earlier; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.
The motion is sharply focused on the timing of tomorrow’s debate. It allows for the motions in the name of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills relating to higher education to be debated together and for the Questions to be put after five hours or at 5.30 pm, whichever is earlier.
I want to make a bit of progress and then I will give way.
When I announced the business for tomorrow at business questions last Thursday, no Member on the Opposition Benches raised objections to the timing or the process of the motions. The process that we are using for the debate tomorrow is set out in section 26 of the Higher Education Act 2004, under which the regulations are to be made. The Opposition will be familiar with that process, given that it is their Act that allows us to make these changes by secondary legislation.
We had an Opposition day debate on the subject, when the right hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to debate the matter at some length. We are using the procedures set out in the legislation introduced by the Labour Government. We are following those procedures to the letter and allowing more time for the debate than was originally planned.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is simply not the case that no concerns have been raised about this procedure. I raised them in a point of order last week, if you remember, and they have been highlighted by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) in an early-day motion. How can the House correct the record?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman, first, that as far as he is concerned, he has just done so. Secondly, I do indeed recall his point of order, which was in fact on Monday night. I would have serious problems with my short-term memory if I did not recall it, but I do.
For the convenience of the House, the Divisions will be taken together at the end of the debate, as specified in the motion. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has set out previously, it is right that we bring forward the motions now, to give prospective students and universities certainty before the 2012-13 application round starts.
It has been reported in the press that Thursday was selected as the day for debating the motions because of the hope that Scottish and Northern Irish MPs might not be present. Is there any truth in that? The Leader of the House can take great comfort from the fact that we will be here, and we will be voting against the motions.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman will be here. I announced last Thursday that the debate would take place tomorrow, and no one objected once during business questions to the day that we chose for the debate.
A slower process would have been not only unfair to prospective students and their families but irresponsible, because of the need to tackle the fiscal crisis that the previous Government left behind. My intention in bringing forward this evening’s motion was to allow adequate time for tomorrow’s important debate. I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will support that intention, and I commend the motion to the House.
I rise to oppose the motion. I must say to the Leader of the House that I had been expecting a better justification to the House of the thinking that lay behind this timetable motion. Perhaps he is embarrassed by the shambles of the past two days. Those who read The Guardian newspaper, as many of us do, will have read with great joy about the reference to the Liberal Democrats’ hokey cokey when it comes to voting. Perhaps he did not want to be outdone and decided to have his own hokey cokey on this motion. The timetable motion was on the Order Paper for Monday and was objected to. It was on the Order Paper for Tuesday and the Government did not have the courage to move it, and it is back again tonight.
The Leader of the House says that he has not received any representations about the time that will be allocated. I have news for him: he is about to get a lot of representations, and the most important one of all will be when Labour Members all go through the Division Lobby to vote no to this motion.
The content of the motion is not surprising, even though it has changed a little since the version of yesterday and the day before. It is clear that the Government want one thing and one thing only: to spend as little time as possible on this matter, and to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.
Is not my right hon. Friend’s point completely proved by the motion itself, in that the Government chose 5.30 pm as the time for the debate to end when the moment of interruption for a Thursday, voted for by this House, is 6 o’clock? Votes should take place after 6 o’clock on a Thursday, not before. That shows that the Government are not providing enough time.
I agree completely with my hon. Friend. That raises this question: what are the Government worried about in that extra half hour? The truth is that they do not want to listen to any more arguments. Given the problems that they have faced over their handling of tuition fees and their broken promises, that is not surprising. However, it is outrageous—I use that word deliberately—that the Government propose to allow the House of Commons only a few hours to discuss and consider the most fundamental change to student support and the funding of higher education that we have ever seen in this country. It is also breathtakingly disrespectful.
For proof of that, we need only to consider the fact that the debate on this business motion can continue until any hour. In other words, the Government are prepared to spend more time debating the allocation of time than they are prepared to give the House of Commons actually to debate, discuss and vote on their proposals.
My right hon. Friend might wish to know that I have been informed that the Government Chief Whip has told the dining room not to bother to put on any extra food tonight, because this debate will be over in an hour’s time.
I do not presume to comment on the powers of the Chief Whip to see the future, except to say that clearly, in view of the problems we had on Monday evening, his powers are not all they are cracked up to be. The truth, as you will know, Mr Speaker, is that the debate will go on for as long as it takes—it depends on how many right hon. and hon. Members seek to catch your eye.
To be honest, I have no idea what the Leader of the House was talking about. It is for him to explain his words. The truth is that the procedure that the Government are proposing to use to give the House time to discuss their proposals is completely inadequate.
If great-grandparents are concerned, we must be talking about very young students indeed, but my hon. Friend makes a forceful point about the large number of people in this country who are profoundly concerned about the proposals that we are being asked to debate tomorrow. I am sure that they will share the concern that we are expressing at the lack of time that we are being given.
Was it not terribly unfair of the Leader of the House to imply that last week’s Opposition debate revealed that there was ample time? Had he looked at that debate, he would have seen that far more people wanted to make a contribution than the time allowed. He is now making it impossible for hon. Members to represent their constituents.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in 2004, when the House had before it a seven-part Bill, containing 15,000 words, 50 clauses and seven schedules, there were many, many hours for debate? Given that the Government’s proposals are more profound—they introduce a market, which we have never had before in higher education, and the withdrawal of teaching—should we not have more time? Should our democracy not have more time to debate those changes?
Is it not important that we have more time to illustrate the importance of the issue, support for which, as has already been pointed out, is not confined to students? We are proud of those students who are marching and demonstrating, but in tonight’s Evening Standard reference is made to a 105-year-old person who has sent a letter to the Deputy Prime Minister to say that she wants to march with her 72-year-old daughter but is unable to do so because she is blind. Does not that illustrate that up and down the country adults are supporting the students because they know that the students are right?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there could not be a greater contrast between the way in which the coalition Government are handling this and the way in which the Labour Government handled it seven years ago, no matter on what side of the argument one stands? Then the 105-page White Paper was published a whole year before the debate and the changes were introduced only after a general election, so the British public had the opportunity to vote on them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that these are wide-ranging proposals that will completely restructure our university system and that five hours is simply not enough time to discuss these issues? Does this not also show that the opposition are running scared of a proper debate on this issue?
Last week in business questions, the Leader of the House said that on Wednesday next week there would be a Second Reading of “a Bill”, demonstrating some indecision on the part of the Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows that the excuse that the Leader of the House has just given to Members from Scotland and Northern Ireland about avoiding a Thursday is paltry, because the Government could have scheduled the debate for Wednesday next week?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that students from Plymouth and the south-west have a 10-hour round trip to come up to London tomorrow, they deserve more than five hours for an explanation from the Liberal Democrats of why a pledge to the electorate is worth less than a pledge to the Conservative party in the coalition agreement?
They do indeed, and—given the inclement weather conditions—those students will probably spend more time travelling than they will having the chance to listen to the House of Commons debating the motion.
There are three principal reasons—to do with time—why the House should vote down this motion. The first is the importance and the consequence of the decision on tuition fees. When one compares the time allocated to the House when previous changes were proposed—and they were much less extensive changes to student support and the funding of higher education than those that will be before us tomorrow—we can see just how inadequate the time that is being offered is. The second reason is the fact, referred to in a point of order earlier, that this debate and vote are being arranged before the promised White Paper on higher education is published and when a whole series of fundamental questions remain about how the new world that the Minister for Universities and Science and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills propose will actually work. I shall come to some of those questions later.
The shadow Leader of the House waxes eloquent tonight. Would it not be more credible to be honest with the House and say that stopping free education is not a smaller issue than the one we will debate tomorrow? That is what his Government did.
The shadow Leader has just told the House that what we are debating tomorrow is of greater consequence than the reneged promise that his Government delivered upon, which abolished free education altogether. That is a wrong thing to tell the House. Will he explain himself?
The point is this: there is a profound difference between the previous system, which was a way of raising additional finance for our universities, and the enormous reduction in funding for our universities that this increase in fees is based upon. That is why it is completely different.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that five hours is hardly enough time for the Liberal Democrats to explain their four different positions?
My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right. She anticipates a point I will make later. Of all the issues facing the House at the moment, it is clear that on this issue—for the reasons she has just pointed out—lots and lots of time will be required, so that Members can explain their positions. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, four different positions, at the last count, will have to be explained. There is huge public interest in the matter and, in the light of that, the time proposed is wholly inadequate.
I want to quote what Lord Browne had to say in his foreword to the report, “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education,” which runs to 64 pages. Lord Browne wrote—[Interruption.] Hon. Members will see in a moment. I quote:
“In November 2009, I was asked to lead an independent Panel to review the funding of higher education and make recommendations to ensure that teaching”—
Lord Browne went on to state:
“Over the last year, we have consulted widely and intensively. Our recommendations are based on written and oral evidence drawn from students, teachers, academics, employers and regulators. We have looked…at every aspect of implementing them – financial, practical and educational – to ensure that the recommendations we are making are realistic for the long term.”
The most important words in that quotation are these:
“Over the last year, we have consulted widely and intensively.”
As I said, the quote from Lord Browne is:
“Over the last year, we have consulted widely and intensively.”
[Interruption.] If hon. Members will be patient, they will see what this has got to do with the business motion before us tonight. Let us compare the length of time that Lord Browne took in preparing his proposals to what is before the House tonight. The Browne committee had a year to consider what it recommended; the House is to be given five hours to consider the recommendations and dispose of them. Everybody else was consulted at length, but MPs are to be given just five hours to express a view.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can help me. I have been pondering whether any measure of comparable controversy has ever gone through this House with so little debate and in such a short space of time. Can he help me? Is there any example of that?
In preparing for the debate this evening, I, too, asked myself that, and I struggled to think of another example of when the House had so little time to consider something so profound.
Nobody can be under any misapprehension about the scale of the change that is being proposed. Lord Browne said:
“What we recommend is a radical departure from the existing way in which HEIs”—
higher education institutions—
“are financed…Our recommendations will lead to a significant change”.
The plain truth is that the Browne report, which is radical and significant in its implications, has not even been debated in the House yet. Since the report was published, on 12 October 2010, there has been one urgent question, when the Secretary of State was forced to come to the House and explain what was going on, and one ministerial statement, on 3 November. However, there has been no debate at all on the Browne report in Government time—none.
I had been watching and listening closely, and I was conscious—I was about to comment on the fact—that a rather animated and protracted exchange seemed to be taking place between the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Whether some sort of private salon was taking place I do not know, but it must not do so. We must listen to the debate, so no taunting should take place at all. Let us listen to Mr Hilary Benn.
Let me point out to my right hon. Friend that there is indeed a precedent for curtailing debate, and that is where a great deal of consensus exists across the Chamber. Perhaps he can illuminate for me whether there has been some magic movement on the Government Benches in the past few hours, and whether Government Members now agree with us—and with Wales and Scotland—because then we can indeed have a shortened debate.
It would be very nice if that were the case, but I fear that on this occasion the amount of time that the Government want to allocate is in inverse proportion to the consensus. That is the difficulty that we have. The truth is that if the Government could get away with it, they would much prefer the House of Commons not to debate and discuss the proposal at all, so that they could try to get it through on the nod. I can think of no other change in student support that has been put before the House with so little scrutiny or debate.
I have to say that I find it deeply ironic that so many Members opposite are now raising concerns about the amount of time for debate. I remember that when I was president of Reading university students’ union and was raising concerns with the National Union of Students about the value for money of our affiliation fees, many Members opposite would set the fire alarms off.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are ahead of me, because I was given the impression that the culprits were present tonight. If that were the case, I was going to ask you to give them the opportunity to stand up and own up to that heinous crime.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
The sense of outrage that is certainly felt on this side of the Chamber is of course shared by those on the Liberal Democrat Benches. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) is not in his place tonight, but he has tabled an early-day motion, which many Members have signed, that makes an eloquent plea for more time.
I do not think that that is the kind of injury time that the Standing Orders would cover. I am beginning to think that my time at university was somewhat sheltered in comparison to the revelations being made on the Floor of the House this evening. The hon. Member for Leeds North West is making the point that he does not think there has been enough time. He thinks that the proposal should be put to one side so that it can be properly considered.
Earlier, the Leader of the House made the claim—I think it was simply a mistake on his part, rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead the House—that Members on this side of the House had had the opportunity to table amendments to the proceedings. Given that the motion was not taken last night, and appeared on the Order Paper only this morning, am I right in thinking that there has been no opportunity for us to table amendments?
What happened last night was certainly extremely unusual, and the Leader of the House did not seek to enlighten us this evening as to why the Government pulled the plug on their own proposal. Perhaps he anticipated the debate that we were going to have this evening, and the opposition to the motion that was going to be expressed on this side of the Chamber.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend really wants to help the Leader of the House to find some additional time, so I refer back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). We were given an indication last week that an unspecified Bill was going to come before the House next Wednesday. The rumour is that it is the long-awaited and much-heralded localism Bill. There is a further rumour, however, that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is more enthusiastic about that Bill than some of his Cabinet colleagues. If that is the case, can my right hon. Friend give us any more information about whether the Bill has been lost in the fog of Whitehall, and whether there might after all be time to debate this business next Wednesday?
Order. That is at the very least extremely tangential to the matter that we are supposed to be discussing, and I know that the shadow Leader of the House would not for one moment seek to dilate on the subject of the localism Bill. I know that he is going to proceed with his speech in an orderly way.
As one of the new Members of this House, I am uniquely placed to offer my experience of student debt, as one of the people in the House who still carries such a debt. How many people are likely to be able to speak in a five-hour debate? Newer Members are more likely to be carrying student debt, and they would like to offer their own perspectives on the matter.
The fundamental issue at stake here is that there are genuine arguments for and against tuition fees and for and against the level at which the Government want to set them. I accept that there are arguments on both sides. It is not only Members who should have an opportunity to debate the details that genuinely concern us all; the public have the right to see their legislators spending a decent amount of time doing so. This is not a partisan point. On an issue as important as this, why must we restrict the time for debate? Why can we not have, purely and simply, more time to debate an issue that Members of all parties and the public are both fascinated and worried by?
It seems to me that my hon. Friend makes a powerful case. I would gladly give way to the Leader of the House for an explanation. He did not explain in his speech why so little time has been allocated, so perhaps he would like to explain that now. No, he is not inclined to take that—[Interruption.] Oh, well.
No, I do not accept that. The hon. Gentleman will discover how awake we are on this side when he has to troop through the Lobby to try to vote in favour of this wholly inadequate allocation of time. The really telling comparison is between how this change is being dealt with and how the two previous changes were dealt with. That is why I shall move on to deal with points raised by Members of all parties about how these matters were handled in the past.
The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, the Dearing review, was set up in May 1996 by the last Conservative Government. It deliberated for 15 months and published its report “Higher education in the learning society” in July 1997. There was then a Government statement and a White Paper “Higher Education in the 21st Century”, followed by the publication of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. That became an Act in 1998 having been debated at proper length. Six hours were allotted to Second Reading alone—an hour more than we are to be allocated tomorrow. There were seven Committee sittings and two days on Report. There is the first comparison.
The second comparison is with the Higher Education Act 2004, which the orders that we will discuss tomorrow are designed to amend. It, too, had six hours on Second Reading—an hour more than we will get tomorrow—and there were 15 sittings in Committee, plus a Report stage.
Are not the proposed changes as significant as the Robbins report and the transformation of universities during the second half of the 20th century? To put through the marketisation of our entire university structure within five hours is absolutely shameful.
My right hon. Friend refers to the orders under the previous legislation, which had to be debated by both Houses on the affirmative basis, following a review, before any decision could be made on future levels of tuition fees. The Leader of the House has suggested that the reason for this debate is entirely encapsulated in that particular piece of legislation. Incidentally, I was involved in assisting with the drafting at the time, so I remember it well. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the intention behind the drafting of those clauses at the time was wholly different from what is being put forward this evening, in terms of what should come up first for discussion, what evidence should be placed before Members to debate before any decision is taken, and when any decision should be taken according to the two resolutions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The usual order is that we have a committee of inquiry; the Government make a statement; they publish a White Paper, then a Bill; the Bill is considered and then regulations are made. In this case, the process has been reversed. We are being asked to approve the statutory instruments tomorrow in just five hours, before we even know the framework for the future of higher education, because the White Paper will not be published, we are told, until the new year. The cart has truly been put before the horse.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I have been consistently against tuition fees, and voted against them the last time they were debated in the House of Commons. More importantly, I have signed a pledge with the students union that I will not vote for them to be raised, and I will honour that pledge. Surely we need the kind of debate that we had previously for a Second Reading, so that all those Liberal Democrats who will be breaking their pledge will have the opportunity to explain to students across the country why they are doing so.
My right hon. Friend has explained the normal Bill process, but is he aware that, as a new MP, I have not seen my postbag filled on any other issue as it has been with concerns about tuition fees? I am concerned to raise those points, so that people in Wirral can have their voice heard. Is he aware of the level of concern in Wirral?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the media have reported tonight that, despite the Deputy Prime Minister saying that all Lib Dem Ministers will support the proposals, two of them will not be present for the vote? Apparently, however, it is all right, because they will be paired—
Has my right hon. Friend noticed, as I have, the large number of Liberal Democrat Members who are prevaricating and indicating that they may abstain on the issue? Is there not a danger that abstention could be perceived as voting for the motion? Is that not a good argument for extending the time for debate, so that they can come to a decision?
Is it not the case that the proposals before the House tomorrow radically redraw the relationship between the state and the individual? Are they not predicated on an 80% reduction in funding for teaching? Is it not appalling that an SI should be used for such a radical shift in Government policy?
What is a member of the public switching on the Parliament channel to make of this? We could spend more time tonight debating how much time we should be allocated than we will spend debating the proposals tomorrow. How ironic is that? By making petty points about how we should have tabled an amendment here or there to extend the time, Government Members show how out of touch they are. Mothers watching television tonight, desperately worried about their children’s future, will feel that we should be ashamed. Why do we not spend tonight debating this matter, and tomorrow as well?
Some of us have universities in our constituencies, and many students will be coming down here tomorrow. It is no wonder that students are adopting an angry attitude in the streets when they find out we will have only five hours for the debate. When the Government were in opposition, they used to complain about our guillotines, and we always gave way on time. I am surprised that the Leader of the House, who is usually a reasonable man, has taken us down this road.
Will we have an opportunity, in such a limited time, to raise issues that constituents have raised with us, particularly the withdrawal of funds in July next year from the excellent Aimhigher programme, which will pull up the ladder of opportunity? [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Tipton, who is shouting derisory comments—[Hon. Members: “Taunton.”] I mean the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), but perhaps he will be tipped on tomorrow. Anyway, given the limited time allotted to tomorrow’s debate, I do not believe that we will have an opportunity to raise valid concerns, such as the fact that children from disadvantaged backgrounds such as those in the area that I represent will be disadvantaged further.
My hon. Friend has made a powerful point. Judging by the attendance in the Chamber tonight, and because so little time has been allotted, I fear that there will not be time for all the Members who will want to participate in tomorrow’s debate to have a chance to express their views to the House.
Although on the face of it the issue at stake is tuition fees in England, the proposal will have profound effects on students from Northern Ireland—and, indeed, those in Northern Ireland. Given the restricted time that we will have in which to debate it, it is unlikely that those of us who represent those students will be able to make our case fully tomorrow. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be wise to allow us to do so, in the light of the profound implications both for students from Northern Ireland and for those who study there?
In view of the anomalies that the Bill will throw up west of Offa’s dyke, north of Hadrian’s wall and so on, does my right hon. Friend think that there will be enough time for us to deal with the subject of the potential migration flows as students and their families—who know that there have always been cross-border issues over health—suddenly realise that there will also be cross-border issues over tuition fees, and that whereas Scotland and Wales are doing the right thing, the tripling of tuition fees will be rammed down the throats of students in England because of the unholy alliance on the Government Benches?
My hon. Friend has made a powerful point, which I am sure that he and other Members will seek to put to the Minister tomorrow. As he says, time is required for us to be able to consider all the ramifications of the proposals, and the plain fact is that we are not being given enough time to do that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that members of all generations up and down the land will think that giving the House five hours in which to discuss the denial of access of whole generations, from whole communities, to the higher education that could change the life chances of millions of people is a complete disgrace? Should we not hasten the electrification of the railway line to Wales, so that people can have a proper opportunity to benefit from higher education?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would you kindly give the House—and me, as a new Member—guidance on how many important debates were curtailed to five hours by the last Government, so that we can introduce some balance to this evening’s debate?
I believe that I heard a Labour Member refer to a Member on the Government Benches as “the hon. Member for Tipton”. Just in case there is any confusion among my electors, may I make it clear that I represent the beautiful town of Tipton, and that I will be supporting my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and the Opposition tomorrow?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that just as this House is being denied a full debate, the Minister responsible for universities, who is on the Front Bench now, has been invited to sit-ins at the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies but has not attended? Is it my right hon. Friend’s expectation that the Minister will go and talk to the students who will be gathering in this House and outside before the debate and after it tomorrow—
Many Members have tonight mentioned the fact that constituents of theirs—students and potential students—will be coming down tomorrow to lobby their MPs. Is my right hon. Friend aware that under the “#” tag “name and shame” on Twitter there is a growing list of names of MPs from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties who have refused to meet the students coming down tomorrow? I suspect they are refusing to meet them tomorrow because they will be too busy attending tomorrow’s debate. Does that not suggest that we ought to postpone tomorrow’s debate so that they have time to meet their constituents who are coming down tomorrow?
Order. There is mounting evidence that Members are referring to matters outside the Chamber as a not very subtle ruse to try to get their point across in the House, but unfortunately they are then almost always outwith the terms of the motion. We have had a few examples of that, but I hope we will not have any more. Mr Hilary Benn.
As my right hon. Friend knows, thousands of students from places throughout the country, including Nottingham, will be arriving in London tomorrow. As we shall debate this issue for only five hours, which I think most of those students and their families will find simply incredible, has my right hon. Friend had any discussions with the Leader of the House about informing all those students how this House arrived at that five-hour limit? Have any special arrangements been made to inform them about the decision that has been made to curtail the debate, so that they are properly informed?
I had hoped that in moving the motion this evening the Leader of the House would have enlightened us on that very point, but I am afraid no elucidation at all was offered as to the amount of time given to us.
I want to come on to one of the problems that we may face tomorrow. Although what is on offer now—
Will my right hon. Friend give way? I have an important point to make.
I have a specific point I want to make about time. In three minutes’ time, constituents in the frozen Lanarkshire district, which includes my constituency, will be donning several layers of clothing and getting their ice picks and shovels out to dig their way out of their homes, so that they can meet up at their selected departure points and travel down for tomorrow’s debate. They will be leaving Lanarkshire on the M74 at about 9 pm—if they get there in time, given the horrendous weather conditions. They will be travelling overnight to get here, and they will arrive to find that, having spent over 21 hours getting here and knowing that they are going to face the same journey back, this subject will be debated for only five hours. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an outrage to our democracy?
Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, to whom I listened courteously, but there must be no further dilation on the subject of the motorway network. I do not think that that will aid our debate. I know that the shadow Leader of the House will respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point briefly, and then develop his further arguments.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is an outrage, as I indicated earlier.
I wanted to say something about the amount of time that we may actually get tomorrow to debate this subject. Although the five hours that we have been offered is a 30-minute improvement on the previous period allocated, it is not absolutely guaranteed. That is because although the Leader of the House has just told us that the Government do not intend to make any statements tomorrow, it is possible that some matter may arise. You, Mr Speaker, may receive a request for an urgent question, and if that is granted we would lose time, as we will if Government Back Benchers suddenly decide they want to raise numerous lengthy points of order. If either of those eventualities arose, the British public and Members of the House would be denied even the paltry five hours being offered by the Leader of the House.
We have all noted the restraint that the Speaker has exercised as people have strayed beyond the terms of this motion. But does he not share the concern that my constituents, and I believe his, will feel when they see the House debating what they see as a technical matter and not debating what they wish us to debate, which is the principle of whether education should be the business of the state or a purely private matter, which it will become as a result of the debate tomorrow?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point; indeed, she anticipates something that I am going to refer to a little later in my speech. It is about the nature of the debate that we may find that we are allowed, or not allowed, to have because we will be debating a statutory instrument rather the White Paper, which has not been published.
Many of the students who have been in touch with me recently have expressed their concern about the fact that the withdrawal of the state from education is directed particularly at people studying the arts, social sciences and related subjects. Does my right hon. Friend believe that there will be time tomorrow to discuss not only the impact of tuition fees, but the very nature of the kind of higher education that we as a society want to value?
Notwithstanding the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister has just said on Channel 4 that his conscience is clear—so he would presumably like to debate this subject at length—does my right hon. Friend agree that the reason why this debate is being curtailed is to protect the Liberal Democrats? The clue to that lies in what Chris Davies MEP says in his blog:
“Splits weaken parties, and sometimes destroy them. The reputation of the Liberal Democrat brand is being undermined with each passing hour as the impression grows stronger that on the issue of tuition fees we are not only divided but clueless…In short, we are creating the impression not just of being weak, but of being a joke.”
We should share that joke with this House, if we had sufficient time to debate this issue properly.
Is there not a wider and more profound issue at stake here? It relates to legislation, or changes in the law, that are railroaded through this House without adequate time for debate, and what happens when the public outside do not believe that this House has been doing its job properly and scrutinising those changes in the law. When such legislation—the classic example of which was the poll tax—is carried, it will never command the support of the public and the public will never believe that it is being instituted for the right reasons. Are the Government not in real danger of repeating the disaster of the poll tax with this ill-conceived, railroaded piece of legislation on tuition fees?
My right hon. Friend speaks with unique authority and force on that subject. He is giving the House a very clear warning, because if people do not feel that the House of Commons—their elected representatives—has been given adequate time to debate this very profound change, they will be even more angry than they are already.
I was the principal of a sixth-form college until recently, and I have spent my lifetime working with young people—16 to 19-year-olds. The message being given to young people about how decisions about their future are made in this House disturbs me. What does it say if we cannot give the right amount of time to this, and cannot give them the right message that this really matters, that we care about them—and care enough to share our views in full fashion, over as much time as it takes to make the right decision?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one reason why it is dangerous for Back Benchers on both sides of the House, and particularly on the Government side, to allow the Executive to truncate debate or the consideration of a Bill is that it limits the scope of Back Benchers to influence Front Benchers? He will recall that when we were setting the cap that we will discuss in the debate tomorrow—the debate—which we are now debating, it was Labour Back Benchers who threatened not to support their Government, and made them set it lower. We are not hearing anything of that sort from those on the Government Benches tonight. If the desire is there to make a change, it is up to Government Back Benchers, especially Liberal Democrat MPs.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As the Leader of the House has ignored the moment of interruption in his motion, by setting 5.30 as the time for the end of the debate tomorrow, is there any procedure by which a manuscript amendment could be tabled during the course of this debate, to extend tomorrow’s debate up until the normal moment of interruption, when any debate on a Thursday should end?
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is that it is open to any Member to table a manuscript amendment. Whether the amendment is selected is a matter for the Chair. The Chair would consider a manuscript amendment if and when it were submitted. That is the situation.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that one of the greatest achievements in recent years has been extending participation to young people from disadvantaged communities? Salford university takes 45% of its students from the local area, and that includes many young people who otherwise would not have the chance to go to university. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the curtailment of the debate tomorrow will mean that the voices of those particularly disadvantaged young people will not be heard?
That is the case. With five hours, there will be an opportunity for only a relatively small number of Members to participate in the debate. The number of Members who have sought to intervene in this debate tonight is a pretty good indication of the number who will want to speak tomorrow.
I am new to this House, Madam Deputy Speaker, and it is therefore difficult for me to differentiate between posturing and principle, but I think I am getting a lesson in it tonight from the right hon. Gentleman. The idea of debate is not only to make one’s own point but to listen. Too frequently in debates, right hon. and hon. Members make their points and then leave the Chamber. Will the shadow Leader of the House assure us that the Opposition speakers in tomorrow’s debate will be in their places for the entire five hours of the debate? Or will there be a lot of popping in and then popping out when they have made their posturing points?
I am grateful yet again to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and for the generosity that he has shown in doing so. I am following his speech with great interest. I look forward to taking part in the debate tomorrow, if I should catch the eye of Mr Speaker or of one of the Deputy Speakers—and, indeed, if there is time. Does my right hon. Friend wish to comment, however, given the short amount of time that will be available, on how much time—should I be able to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair and make my point, along with other colleagues—the occupants of the Government Front Bench will have to respond to the points made by Opposition Members? How will the Government be able to answer the points that we raise, given that there is such a short time for the debate?
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who expressed the concern that she has many potentially disadvantaged students in her constituency; I do too, and I should like to have the time to represent their concerns tomorrow. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Leader of the House was disingenuous in suggesting that we had sufficient time—
I apologise to the Leader of the House. He said only moments ago that we had sufficient time to debate these issues in the Opposition day debate, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the Government made a statement on that day, tomorrow will be the second time they have tried to curtail the time allowed to debate this issue?
In my right hon. Friend’s considered opinion, what would have been the chances of the Deputy Leader of the House supporting this programme motion had it been moved by a Labour Government? Should not this Damascene conversion to the value of the programme motion at least be counted in the top-10 Liberal Democrat U-turns of 2010?
There are many U-turns fighting to get into that top-10 list, but my hon. Friend makes a good point. Had the roles been reversed, the Deputy Leader of the House would have been fulminating from the Dispatch Box about how outrageous it was. He could have the opportunity to do so now, but I see that he simply wants to remain in his place.
I should like to make a suggestion about how we could guarantee even the inadequate amount of time given so far. We have just had very helpful guidance from the Speaker about making manuscript amendments, and the Leader of the House could amend his own motion to ensure that there would be injury time if an urgent question were to be granted or if extensive time were taken up with points of order. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is not a fan of injury time and I suspect that is because the coalition Government are not terribly keen on having a full and open debate on the matter in hand.
There is another reason why more time is required. The measures we are being asked to vote on tomorrow cannot be described as the original proposals of Lord Browne. That is why my earlier quotation was relevant. When Lord Browne produced his report, he said that his proposals had to be considered together, but we now know that the Government’s plans differ from those of Lord Browne. That is very pertinent to the argument about why more time is required, especially when one bears in mind that the Government have had no debate in their own time on Lord Browne’s proposals.
Further to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) made, would not a greater amount of time and a longer process allow Back Benchers on both sides and the official Opposition to make alternative proposals so that at the end of the process there would be much greater consensus, as there was in 2004?
Does my right hon. Friend share my frustration that the Deputy Prime Minister came to my constituency the day before the election to reinforce his pledge not to raise tuition fees, but that because of the lack of time tomorrow I will not have the opportunity to challenge Liberal Democrat Members on why they are breaking that pledge?
I did not hear any remarks myself, and there is quite a lot of noise in the Chamber, which makes it difficult for all Members of the House to hear. It would be best at this time if we could proceed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing this matter to my attention, but I do not think that it is a point of order.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you please clarify something for me? Are Government Whips entitled to take part in debate? My understanding is that they are not. If they are not entitled to take part in debate, why is that happening?
As I understand it, any Member is entitled to speak in a debate in the House. There may be conventions that are normally followed, but remarks, comments or shouting across the Chamber from a sedentary position in order to disrupt the debate are not permitted. I am sure that nobody will do that.
Thank you very much indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was about to respond to the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham. Yes, many people in the country have watched the video that the Deputy Prime Minister made in which he uttered the pledge. [Interruption.] It has to do with the time because we need to hear from Liberal Democrats—perhaps we will be lucky and hear from the Deputy Prime Minister in tomorrow’s debate, but who knows?—and we need time for an explanation of what exactly happened between the making of that pledge and the U-turn that he has performed in introducing these proposals tonight.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need more time to get the information about the various proposals that have been trailed through the press this week, which the Government suggest would justify to the House and to the public an increase in fees? Tomorrow’s debate would enable that if there were time. A number of suggestions have been made—for example, on those students who might get financial assistance. Do we not need time to hear the details of that before the House is asked to vote?
We do indeed. One of the big problems that Members will face tomorrow is that we do not yet have a lot of the information, and a lot of the questions that have been asked have not yet been answered. How on earth is the House meant to make up its mind on a fundamental part of these proposals in the absence of all that?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Liberal Democrats will never be knowingly understood? If we locked two Lib Dems in a room, we would get three political opinions coming out. Five hours is not nearly enough time to try to work out what the Lib Dems think.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Pursuant to the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), may I ask you to explain the tabling of a manuscript amendment? There are many new Members here in the House, and people will be watching and listening to the proceedings. Not everyone will be familiar with the tabling of a manuscript amendment, so it would be of great benefit to the House to know how difficult or how simple it is.
I am grateful for that point of order, but rather than take up time in the debate I suggest that any Member who needs clarification on how to table a manuscript amendment should go to the Clerk to ask for guidance. Perhaps we can return to the debate.
I think I heard the Leader of the House correctly when he appeared to indicate earlier that the Government Front Bench might be prepared to restrict the amount of time they take when opening tomorrow’s debate. The concern that many Opposition Members will have, however, is not only that the Business Secretary will not have time to use his fancy footwork to explain exactly how he has made such a U-turn, but that Opposition Members will not have the opportunity to tease out of the Government exactly what their policies mean. It is simply unacceptable to use that substitute in order to avoid difficult questions.
My hon. Friend is, indeed, right. The Leader of the House could indicate now what self-denying ordinance or otherwise Ministers will adopt in order to give Members as much time as possible for debate. There is a fundamental problem, however, because Ministers want to say a lot on the matter, and they should rightly have that opportunity, but Members want to raise a lot of points, too, and we cannot fit it all into the five hours for which the motion provides.
On the issue of time, and for the 10,000 students who live in halls of residence and attend university in my constituency, I should like to put it on the record that I sat all the way through the previous Opposition day debate, hoping to be called, and would very much like to be called tomorrow.
My right hon. Friend will recall that before the election the then Opposition objected very strongly to non-English MPs voting on matters such as tuition fees. Has he had any indication or representation from the Government on whether they still hold the same position?
Perhaps one reason why there is no objection to Welsh and Scottish Back Benchers debating the issue is that we in Wales, through the Assembly Government, have not only ensured that students do not suffer the draconian decrease in university course funding, but very importantly decided to cut the teaching grant not by 80%, but by only a very small 38%, improving Welsh universities and providing opportunities at them for higher degrees and research.
Time is indeed flying. I think that I have worked out how we will have enough time. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) said earlier that if all hon. Members were to speak, we would have roughly 50 seconds each. From the showing tonight, there is no indication that Government Members want to take part in the debate. We will therefore have about one and a half or two minutes each. Does my right hon. Friend consider two minutes to be adequate to reflect the postbags of Opposition Members?
Further to the points of order made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), Madam Deputy Speaker. If the Chair were to accept a manuscript amendment, how much time would be allocated to debating that change, and would that time be added on to the time that we already have for tomorrow’s debate?
A moment ago, I was pointing out that the proposals that the Government have decided to adopt are different from those made by Lord. He said that student numbers should rise by 10% over the next three years, that there should be clawback to deter unnecessarily high fees and that there should be the right to go to university, determined by academic qualifications. We need more time to discuss the report, precisely because the Government have not adopted all his recommendations. We have not had a chance to debate that matter.
Is it my right hon. Friend’s view that five hours is enough time to address the points that have been put to me by staff and students at the university of Glasgow, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin)? Indeed, I believe that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was a lecturer at that institution some years ago. I am not sure that he would get a very warm welcome if he went there tomorrow. The staff and students put important points to me, such as the cut of £400 million in the Scottish block grant, the increase in the number of EU students and the hugely damaging effects that there will be on social mobility for a generation of Scottish students. Does my right hon. Friend think that five hours is enough time to discuss those important points?
Will my right hon. Friend enlighten me on whether we will discuss student bursaries in tomorrow’s debate? I believe that should be the subject of its own debate and not be crammed into the five hours that we will have tomorrow. If bursaries are paid for by universities, universities that draw from the poorest people in the population, such as the university of Bolton, will be badly disadvantaged. There will be no similar effect on universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.
I will respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) before I take any further interventions. She raises precisely the type of matter that needs to be explored properly and fully in the debate tomorrow. The fact that we will have inadequate time means that we run the risk of its not being addressed.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As most of us do not have the benefit of having the time to look at “Erskine May” during the debate, may I ask for your guidance on whether a manuscript amendment would have any impact on any attempt by the Government to move the closure of the debate?
I have already explained to Members that if they want specific advice on the tabling or effects of a manuscript amendment, they should speak to the Clerks. Then they will get the answers to their questions about how such an amendment may or may not affect the debate.
As the debate goes on, does it not become obvious how grotesquely short five hours is? It took the Liberal Democrats an hour and a half in Committee Room 11 yesterday to narrow down their voting options to four. It will take five hours for the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to explain the different positions that he has taken in interviews over the past week. My constituents want us to get on to the real issue, which will not happen in a five-hour debate.