§ Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)
I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, leave out lines 19 to 26 and insert—'No Order in Council purporting to bring into force a scheme of student loans for Northern Ireland shall be made under paragraph 1(I)(b) of Schedule I to the Northern Ireland Act 1974.'.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
With this we shall take amendment No. 3, in clause 4, page 2, line 38, leave out 'except for section 2'.
§ Mr. Stott
We now move to the part of the Bill which deals with the provisions for Northern Ireland. It is becoming a habit to do so at such a late hour. I would that it were different, but it seems to be an established pattern.
As we are dealing with Northern Ireland, may I, on behalf of my colleagues in the Northern Ireland team and my right hon. and hon. Friends, offer our deepest condolences to the wife and family of Harold McCusker, the late hon. Member for Upper Bann, who died on Monday and was buried yesterday? He will be sorely missed by those of us who knew him and respected his integrity.
This clause is extremely controversial, for two reasons. First, it deals with a constitutional issue, which I will touch on in a moment. Secondly, it will have an adverse effect on students in Northern Ireland, a Province that is quite different from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The constitutional arguments were forcefully brought out in Committee by my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) and for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). I have read the Hansard transcript of that debate and the Minister's response to my hon. Friends' points and—if I could have the Minister's attention for one moment—I have to say that the procedure by which this scheme is being introduced in Northern Ireland is wholly unacceptable.
It is unacceptable because, only recently, we had before the House the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, which changed the system of education in Northern Ireland very dramatically. It was almost a mirror image of the Education Reform Act 1988 in the rest of the United Kingdom. But all that Northern Ireland's representatives had was a three-hour debate in the Chamber, at this time of night, which ended at 2 o'clock in the morning. There were no amendments and we could not interrogate the Minister on his proposals. The order was put forward wholly undemocratically.
Provisions for Northern Ireland are difficult. There is no devolved Assembly. Once again, from the Dispatch Box, on behalf of the Opposition I make the plea to the 517 elected representatives of Northern Ireland to find a way, with the Secretary of State, to achieve agreement so that these and related matters can be dealt with properly, not by the House of Commons, but by a properly constituted, devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. That might be asking a little too much, but at least in my innocence I ask that, so that we do not have to repeat these arguments time and time again.
I am pleased to see the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in his place this evening as we discuss this important matter.
§ Mr. Mallon
I take it that the hon. Gentleman is implying that, if there were a devolved administration in the North of Ireland and if this matter were being considered there, the North of Ireland would have arrangements with regard to its education budget that would not be tied by legislation here. I assume that that is what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If so, it should be put on the record, especially when we anticipate what may happen after the next election.
§ Mr. Mallon
I certainly do not want to delay the House. Surely the hon. Gentleman cannot ask Northern Ireland representatives to create an administration in the North of Ireland to deal with this ourselves, but not put it on record that, if we create such an administration, we shall be given the power to deal with it ourselves. I want to see that on record from the Government and the Opposition.
§ Mr. Stott
I have no doubt, Madam Deputy Speaker, that my hon. Friend will try to catch your eye a little later. As I understand it, under the Northern Ireland Act 1974, there were provisions for certain matters to be determined by the Northern Ireland Assembly, of which education was one. As the Assembly does not exist, the Secretary of State can make Orders in Council to do what he wishes on education. Had the Northern Ireland Assembly still been in existence, I should have thought that this matter could have been referred to it and could have been dealt with there. I shall expand on that point a little later if my hon. Friend will allow me to proceed.
Even listening to previous debates, I have realised that there is a consensus that the Order in Council procedure leaves much to be desired. The Bill makes it worse. The 1974 Act is the basis for government in Northern Ireland. Transferred matters are defined as issues that are within the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly, the Secretary of State can exercise the powers of the Assembly. The logic of the 1974 Act is that transferred issues, of which education is one, should be handled in such a way as to take local conditions in Northern Ireland into account. I stress the words "local conditions" because they are very important in the Northern Ireland context. They should not be subsumed into United Kingdom law.
§ Mr. Stott
I will not give way again.
Clause 2 not only makes the already unsatisfactory Order in Council procedure worse, but undermines the concept of transferred matters. I understand the arguments about devolution in Northern Ireland, but in regard to the principle, the 1974 Act should not be tampered with until agreement is reached on a new system of government for Northern Ireland. Clause 2 seeks to put the nonsense in the Bill into operation by the use of the negative procedure rather than the affirmative procedure.
§ Mr. Mallon
We must be precise about this. I take it that the import of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is that, in matters pertaining to Northern Ireland, any future Northern Ireland Assembly would have power to legislate on reserved matters. Would that apply not just to education but to social security, health and agriculture? We have to be consistent, or the hon. Gentleman's case falls very quickly.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. Interesting points have been raised by the hon. Gentleman, but they go beyond the amendment.
§ Mr. Stott
I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman raising the issue when the debate is confined to education. Education was a transferred power. I do not know why the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) is giving me such a hard time, because I am on his side on this. I share his view that the procedure being adopted in the Bill is unacceptable. I have outlined for the record what should have happened.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I am on the side of the hon. Gentleman on the negative resolution procedure, as he knows, but the point that is being put to him is that more than education was transferred to the Assembly. He must go through all the matters that were transferred and say exactly the same about them as he is saying about education. I am not on the side of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) on that, but we are dealing with the facts of the 1974 legislation.
§ Mr. Stott
I have outlined the position on this measure, and I think that I have done that forcefully.
I have already acknowledged the presence of the Secretary of State. I am sure that the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland has read in Hansard the debates in Committee. He wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) about the points that were made. I want to read out one paragraph. This is the nub of the issue:Orders in Council by negative resolution are used sparingly. We only proceed by this route when, first, the matter concerned is transferred and should, therefore, be on Northern Ireland's own statute book; second, the Government wants parity throughout the United Kingdom (the provisions of the Order have to correspond to the provisions of the Bill); and third, when it is necessary for the provisions to apply in Northern Ireland soon after the GB Act comes into effect. Affirmative Orders, on the other hand, tend to take about two years to complete.He goes on to make several other points. By using the negative procedure rather than the affirmative procedure, 519 the Government are attempting to avoid constitutional scrutiny of a measure that has no support in Northern Ireland.
We were wholly justified in raising the matter because of the special circumstances that apply in Northern Ireland.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
The fact that it is left to negative resolution means that it does not come before the House at all. Therefore, discussion in the House is abandoned.
§ Mr. Stott
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that that was the point that I was making. He has simply reinforced the point for the record. When we discuss Northern Ireland matters, which are difficult and complex, Northern Ireland elected Members on both sides of the House genuinely feel that this is an unsatisfactory way of passing legislation that has a profound effect on the lives of people in Northern Ireland. That was the point that I sought to make.
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science is not present. That is regrettable, but I recognise that he has been there for a long time. In Committee, in response to points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Hillsborough and for Derbyshire, North-East, he said:I must tell the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) … that I found his remarks bordering on the offensive when he implied that the Government are introducing discriminatory legislation in Northern Ireland. That is not so. The hon. Gentleman constructed the argument that women and Roman Catholics will be discriminated against by the operation of student loans. I do not accept that argument; it is speculative, and does not support the accusation of discrimination. Neither do I accept the premise on which it is based."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B. 18 January 1990, c. 365–66.]My hon. Friend was commenting on statements and written articles by people in academic circles in Northern Ireland who have studied the potential impact of this legislation on students in Northern Ireland.
The Minister should understand that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are wholly different from those anywhere else. The proposals will impact adversely on the entrance into higher education of women and Roman Catholic students and the already significantly underrepresented Protestant working-class groups.
The Minister should be careful about his language when he deals with Northern Ireland matters. He should not accuse my hon. Friend of basing his arguments on a flawed premise. If he does, he will show his complete ignorance of the complexities that are special to Northern Ireland.
My colleagues gave many examples in Committee of the way in which the legislation will have serious and long-term implications for Northern Ireland students. I do not intend to rehearse those arguments tonight, although I have no doubt that others may wish to do so.
One group that will be disadvantaged by the legislation are mature students. The introduction of loans will restrict educational opportunities for older students. According to the White Paper, students over 50 will have no facilities to borrow finance and they will be expected to find the top-up portion from their own resources. Although the 1990s will witness a declining population of 18 to 20-year-olds, and the Government have accepted the need to attract greater numbers of mature students and other non-traditional 520 entrants, mature students under 50 will certainly be deterred by the prospects of substantial repayments spread over a shorter working life.
It is a gross discrimination to exclude those over 50 from the proposed scheme. It is deplorable that mature students, often with long records of national insurance contributions, will be prevented from claiming social security benefits, including unemployment benefit, while at college. What then is the incentive for mature students to return to college and retrain and re-educate themselves?
The other problem that is pertinent to Northern Ireland is that the Northern Ireland institutions suffer a loss of high-quality students through migration to institutions throughout the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Furthermore, the salaries in the south of England are probably better than those in the Province, graduates will be able to pay back their loans more easily if they take work outside Northern Ireland rather than return to Northern Ireland to put their time, effort and skills into the economy there.
I am conscious that it is late and that many other hon. Members may want to speak, but I advise the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—I would say this to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science if he were present—that evidence relating directly to Northern Ireland tends to reinforce the view that the proposed loans scheme will increase public expenditure, provide a disincentive to potential entrants to higher education and force students into further debt.
At the very least, the Government should postpone the implementation of the scheme in Northern Ireland until its impact has been adequately researched and considered. If they do not, I genuinely fear that they will be doing a singular disservice to students in Northern Ireland, and the long-term consequences could be disastrous.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
This is a big and serious issue. I am glad that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is on the Treasury Bench to hear the debate and, we believe, to answer it. We from Northern Ireland welcome that, because this matter goes right down into the depths of our society.
I should like to make it perfectly clear that I regret that religious discrimination has been brought into this matter, because I believe that the provisions affect the Protestant working classes just as much as the Roman Catholic working classes. I am also afraid that some Republican elements are trying to drive this issue as a wedge between both working classes and to put certain people off supporting the grants. I made that point perfectly clear to the students when I met them.
I also made it perfectly clear that at our party conference we unanimously adopted a resolution opposing the legislation, because we felt that the students of Northern Ireland needed all the help and encouragement that they could get. I feel strongly about that.
My party believes that this issue goes right across the board and that it will have equally detrimental effects upon, womenfolk and on the Protestant and Roman Catholic working classes. It will affect how students make their choices, because they will choose those professions that will bring them more money quickly in order to pay off their loans. That means that arts students and others in similar educational and professional spheres will not be in abundance. That is sad, and it will be detrimental to Northern Ireland.
521 There is a constitutional issue involved in this. I am delighted that the House, after many years, is convinced about the undemocratic nature of the Order in Council procedure. I have been in the House when nearly all the Benches have been vacant, with perhaps two Labour Members, two Conservative Members and the rest Northern Ireland representatives. We always protested as we stood up that once again the Order in Council was being put through the House in an undemocratic manner.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made an eloquent speech tonight. I hope that the issue will be carried on to the Northern Ireland constitutional debate, because we feel strongly that it is entirely unfair to the elected representatives of Northern Ireland to have no say about the laws that govern the Province.
It seems a great anomaly that I can stand up in the House and move an amendment to the laws that govern England, Wales and Scotland, but cannot move an amendment for the people I represent. The House must come to grips with that anomaly eventually, because we cannot continue to govern Northern Ireland by Orders in Council. Sooner or later, the system will come unstuck. We are now seeing the extent to which the Executive are taking the powers of the House and using them in far-reaching regulations that should be discussable, amendable and debatable in the House.
I have been in the House 20 years and I remember very few prayers coming to it. If there is such opposition from the Government of the day to having them debated, there is little chance of them being accepted, so the procedure is a disgrace to the democratic structures of the House.
These far-reaching regulations will not even be subject to one and a half hours debate. When we talk about one and a half hours or three hours, we have to take out the time that the Government take to present them. They are entitled to present their business, and the Opposition have to do their job and give their view. When that time is taken out, there is not much left for the elected representatives of Northern Ireland to discuss the matter, and other Members are also entitled to speak.
§ Mr. Flannery
I do not want to rehearse all that I said in Committee, but I want to reiterate something that the hon. Gentleman has said. The last time that we debated an Order in Council, I had sat for three months on the Education Reform Bill. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends remember that, after all that time, the Education Reform Act 1988 was applied to Northern Ireland by an Order in Council with 202 pages, 10 schedules covering 36 pages, and 167 clauses. On that occasion we had three hours for debate. Under clause 2 of this Bill, we cannot even do that. That is such a violation of democracy on the sensitive issue of Northern Ireland that it shows a complete lack of any proper feeling among Conservative Members about the problems of Northern Ireland.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
The hon. Gentleman and I are poles apart politically and we have often crossed swords on a Northern Ireland issue, but on this issue we are at one. These matters should be discussed in a proper manner, amendments should be moved and there should be an opportunity to vote on them.
522 No Government, no matter how good they may be, can bring an Order in Council to the House and say, "This is it. You can't amend it. We couldn't improve it. It's so good, it is infallible and you must accept it." Such infallibility is not the democracy that we need. We need discussion on every matter.
Even the Secretary of State must admit that the Government now see the weaknesses in the Orders in Council that they have brought to the House, but what can they do about them? If it takes two years to get an Order in Council through the House, would it not be far better to introduce a Bill?
§ Mr. Harry Barnes
One of the Orders in Council that has been referred to, and which we found particularly obnoxious, was the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) described as a replica of the Education Reform Act 1988. It was not quite a replica, because it contained matters such as education for mutual understanding, matters that were appropriate to Northern Ireland. If it had been a replica, it would have been dealt with under the negative resolution procedure, and we would have been unable to debate that.
According to the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), one of the conditions for the negative resolution procedure is that the measure achieves parity throughout the United Kingdom. If a measure is a replica of what has happened elsewhere, there will not be an opportunity to debate it under the affirmative resolution procedure in the House.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
These are serious matters, and they need thorough discussion. The hon. Gentleman will remember that we did not get a proper reply from the Minister on the education order. Some of the things that he said could not have stood up if they had been challenged in debate. He misled the House on many things in that debate. That is why representatives from Northern Ireland felt angry and frustrated. That order changed the structure of our schools. Northern Ireland has excellent schools, and before the House pulls something down it should put something better in its place. However, we never had an opportunity to discuss that matter.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) said that the education order contained arrangements for education for mutual understanding, which was applicable in Northern Ireland. Does my hon. Friend agree that education for mutual understanding is equally, perhaps more, applicable to many areas of Great Britain?
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
We all need to understand one another mutually. Having sat in the House for 20 years, I know that each and every hon. Member needs educating on that. We cannot say that Northern Ireland needs it and nobody else does. Mutual understanding goes to the heart of a parent's right to say what way his or her child should be educated. Yet a child can be directed by a teacher not to tell his or her parents where he was taken on a particular day. I tried to raise that matter on the Floor of the House in our previous debate. It needs to be discussed.
§ Mr. Mallon
We should agree that there is a problem with the way in which legislation is dealt with here, but that surely should not prevent us from debating legislation when it does come before us.
§ 12 midnight
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
People hold differing views on that subject. I believe that such matters should be debated in a proper devolved Assembly. I was interested to hear what was said tonight about the powers that will be given to that Assembly. No doubt the Secretary of State will be reminded of those remarks. As a politician, the right hon. Gentleman knows that, if he is in the kitchen, he must take the heat—and the heat is usually pretty severe when it comes from Northern Ireland and from both sides of the Northern Ireland divide.
In no way am I, as a public representative from Northern Ireland—any more than my Northern Ireland colleagues, no matter of what particular hue—in a position to influence the legislation that is being passed tonight. It rests with the infallable pontiff, the Secretary of State, to make his decree—and all must abide by it. That is obnoxious to me religiously, and it is certainly obnoxious to me politically.
§ Mr. Beggs
I thank the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) for his tribute to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker), whom we all greatly respected and who will be much missed from the House.
I do not believe that the student loans scheme will provide adequately for students generally—and certainly not for those from low-income families in England, Scotland and Wales or Northern Ireland. The scheme will create worries and concerns about debt. Some students struggling to stay outside the debt trap may suffer impaired health because of the sacrifices that they will no doubt make in order to live within the resources available to them without incurring debt through the loans scheme.
The scheme will deny many students from low-income families across all sections of the community the opportunity to enjoy a college or university education. Mature students also will he denied that opportunity, and many young women students will be deterred from entering higher education. In Northern Ireland, we believe that, when an educated young woman becomes a mother, she can be a tremendous influence on the next generation, which she will bring up to respect and appreciate the education opportunities for self and family improvement. All elected representatives from Northern Ireland firmly believe that education represents the best investment that we can make for our young people's future.
A consequence of the scheme will be that students from many families will decide privately not to embark on a course of education that will necessarily require them to enter into debt and perhaps become a greater burden on their families. It is not in the best long-term interests of the United Kingdom as a whole for any of our young people who are capable of successfully completing college and university courses not to realise their full potential.
Northern Ireland has an increasingly aged population, and it is the young who will help to ensure a reasonable standard of living for our pensioners in the years ahead. We must support them adequately during their courses of study, whether they last for three, four or five years—or more. They should not be compelled to accept second-best courses so that they may start earning money sooner.
524 Within Northern Ireland, there are areas where more than 40 per cent. of the male population are unemployed. In the continuing absence of Northern Ireland unemployment figures from the statistics covering only Great Britain parliamentary constituencies that are placed in the Library, I trust that right hon. and hon. Members accept that fact. The loss to students of unemployment and housing benefit will be felt more acutely in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. There are fewer opportunities for the young to find employment, and the number of unemployed there is already high.
In keeping with our opposition to Northern Ireland business being debated by Order in Council procedure in the House—whether it is by negative or affirmative resolution, my colleagues and I are completely opposed to the business of legislation going through the House by unamendable Order in Council—we shall vote for the amendment.
§ Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)
Time is short, so I shall confine myself to a few remarks, but I should like first to pursue the constitutional matter of democracy in Northern Ireland.
Autocracy is crumbling in eastern Europe, but we have had confirmation tonight in the Chamber that we do not have full democracy in Northern Ireland, because the Secretary of State rules by decree, and that is not acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland.
The Order in Council procedure is unacceptable, and that has been stated time and again in the House on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. The answer has always been that that is the way that Northern Ireland must be governed, since the people there cannot agree.
Tonight in the House, representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, from all political parties, are in total agreement that the scheme is unacceptable and ought to be rejected. Since all the Northern Ireland Members are in agreement on that score, surely the Government should heed our united plea that the scheme should not be pursued there.
I adopt what has already been said about the Order in Council procedure—it denies the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland an opportunity to debate thoroughly legislation for the Province. That is why I shall welcome the day when we can have a Northern Ireland Assembly once again so that such matters can be put before representatives there. I know that they would decide to reject the scheme. It will cost the United Kingdom more than the existing grants. Whether the Government wish it or not, it will be so costly that grants will be in real danger of being abolished. I think that in due course the Government will impose a means test for loans.
One of the criticisms is that the Education (Student Loans) Bill will transfer resources from those who need help the most to those who need it least. I think that many deserving students, who should have access to further and higher education in Northern Ireland, will decide to forgo that training and experience rather than be saddld with a debt that they fear they will not be able to repay within the foreseeable future.
§ Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the philosophy, "Spend now, pay some time later", is a dangerous one to encourage young people to adopt?
§ Mr. Kilfedder
I agree. The people of Northern Ireland like to pay their bills when they fall due. It goes against the grain for most people there to contemplate a system whereby they accept a loan and it is hanging over their head. They worry about whether they will ever be able to repay it in full. A student whose family is affluent will have no such anxieties, and will be able to accept any burden of debt regardless of potential—although that does not necessarily mean that he will repay the debt. The scheme will penalise the less well-off, and I find such discrimination intolerable and unacceptable.
We must invest in our young people by ensuring that they are encouraged to enter further and higher education. Although a small percentage of students may act irresponsibly, the vast majority, at least in Northern Ireland, are eager not only to improve themselves educationally and to secure greater opportunities, but to make a worthwhile contribution to the community in which they live.
The scheme will harshly affect many students in Northern Ireland, and in my constituency in particular. Ulster's future depends on its young people: we must encourage them to pursue education opportunities, rather than deter them. At the weekend, one of my constituents—a student—told me that the prospect of incurring a £2,000 debt was frightening, especially as that was an enormous sum for him and his family. I agree with the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Scott): many young people will leave the Province for the affluent south-east to secure a job that pays enough to help them to pay off the loan.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
Is it not unrealistic to talk of loans as small as £2,000? Many, if not most, students nowadays are having to borrow large sums from banks at commercial rates to complete their education, and the extra loans could well be the straw that breaks the camel's back—particularly in Northern Ireland, where wages are lower.
§ Mr. Kilfedder
I agree; I was merely quoting what one student said to me.
I think that all Northern Ireland Members agree that the loans scheme will rob Northern Ireland of its talent. Some people will leave, never to return; others will be deterred from pursuing further education by the thought of enormous debts hanging over their head. A brain drain would be detrimental to the Province: we need all the talent that we can get to rebuild it and make it into the prosperous place that it ought to be.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has said that any scheme for student support must be adequate, certain, simple and socially just. The scheme fails all those tests abysmally, and it ought to be rejected.
§ Mr. Mallon
Let me refer briefly, in connection with what was said by the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), to what is becoming the constitutional aspect of the debate.
Sometimes we Northern Ireland Members become slightly impatient: we are continually being exhorted to do certain things, and it is continually implied that if we do those things certain consequences will derive from our actions. As the Secretary of State is present and will be able to give a definitive reply, may I ask him whether, in the event of devolution, powers relating to agriculture, social security and education could be exercised if they were at variance with the primary legislation applying in England? 526 It is a good time in the political life of the North of Ireland for the Secretary of State to take the opportunity to clarify that point. We await his reply with interest.
I feel particularly strongly about this piece of legislation because I probably came from a vintage that was too late for the advantages of the old system of education and too early for the advantages of the new. The point that was made earlier in an altercation with the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) was valid because I see this whole issue in two terms, especially in Northern Irish life. The scheme will pose a question to the person from a less affluent background. He or she has two choices, either to borrow or to go out to work to get the money. I know from personal experience of building sites in this city—I have more than a passing acquaintance with loft deep trenches in which I laid cables—that once we put people in that position, we are taking from them something important in educational terms, and that is student life. It is a crucial part of education.
It is not simply a question of what is learned in the classroom or at lectures. The whole being of student life is part of the learning process. The Bill will take that away, certainly in Northern Ireland, because people will have a choice. They can do what I had to do—come here and work for three months in the summer on building sites or laying cables—or, under this legislation, borrow money. It is estimated that, after a three-year course, they will owe at least £6,000.
Imagine entering a career owing that amount of money. That will be a big millstone around the neck of a young person starting out, especially in the North of Ireland, where few ever reach the 85 per cent. of national average earnings on which consideration of the repayment of loan is based.
We keep missing the crucial point, that we are damaging the education system by taking away that aspect of student life from young people. We are—if I may be permitted a flight of fancy at this hour—replacing the tranquillity of the groves of academe with the stress, noise and bustle of the Rialto. We are replacing Hamlet with Shylock. I stretch the metaphor further, to when Hamlet was debating this very point with Horatio. He said:There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.I make that point seriously, because it is crucial in any discussion of the educative process as opposed to the learning process.
I am opposed to the Bill for other reasons, including the fact that it brings the market mentality into the education system, where it should never be. I am opposed to it because of the damage that it can do to the individual and, through the individual, to society. It is the creation of rolling privatisation within education. It is the creation of a debt culture at a crucial age which, in many cases in the North of Ireland, could remain with people for the rest of their lives. It is happening in youth training programme schemes in Northern Ireland. The courses change when market forces are imposed upon them. That is crucial in the context of Northern Ireland.
In earlier discussions with the hon. Member for Wigan, I was trying to make the point that Northern Ireland does not have parity with the rest of Britain. In almost every respect, it is parity minus. We have the highest unemployment, the lowest average wage, the highest social 527 security dependency and the highest costs of basic materials such as food, energy, heating, electricity and transport. When this measure bites in Northern Ireland, it will intensify the differential between social security arrangements here and in Northern Ireland. Because of that differential, the majority of parents whose children go on to third-level education are one third poorer before they start.
It has been a bee in my bonnet ever since I came to the House that there has never been any attempt to redress that differential in terms of education or social security legislation. Yet we were told that, if we were good boys and agreed to devolution, we would be able to take those decisions for ourselves.
Does anyone believe that we would be in a position to create a social security structure for Northern Ireland, an agricultural arrangement which depends on the EEC or an education system which would be antipathetic to this one? We should be honest about what devolution means for us. The Bill is brutal in terms of Northern Ireland, because we start off one third poorer and the further we go the poorer we get.
§ Mr. Stott
I have listened intently to my hon. Friend. Although we had a slight problem in our interpretations of the constitutional question, I put it on record that my two hon. Friends who were members of the Standing Committee pointed out the special differences that apply in Northern Ireland and the disingenuous way in which the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). My hon. Friend will recognise that I said at the Dispatch Box that the special circumstances of Northern Ireland make the legislation even worse.
§ Mr. Mallon
Of course I accept that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising it today and in Committee.
Parity is of no use to people in Northern Ireland. Parity is an injustice, because invariably it is parity minus the advantages that exist in England, Scotland and Wales. I am not making a political or ideological point, but to talk about parity for Northern Ireland is to do an injustice to the people there.
§ Mr. Mallon
Electricity is about 33 per cent. dearer, and there is no mains gas at all. We all know the advantages of mains gas over electricity.
On the cost of administering the loans scheme, we have two sets of figures—the Price Waterhouse figures, and others that dispute them. There can be no dispute that Price Waterhouse did not allow for the default rate of about 10 per cent. and for interest subsidy which, in Northern Irish terms, probably comes to about £150 million. There is also the fact that there will be no ultimate cumulative saving to the Exchequer until the year 2092. The Minister is smiling. No doubt he will contradict what I have just said, but if what I have said is taken as a starting point, it has to be admitted that many people are right to say that it would be much better to give students grants than to squander such an amount of money over such a period on administering a system that is doubtful in the first place.
528 What will the cost of borrowing mean to people? The Minister shook his head when I quoted the figure of £6,000 in the case of a person doing a three-year course outside London. Perhaps the Minister, when he sums up, will be able to confirm that the cost, in terms of loans, to a person studying medicine in London, from start to qualification, will be about £14,000. That figure should be confirmed.
If the Minister disagrees with it he will certainly be in dispute with Dr. Nicholas Barr, a very senior economist at the London School of Economics. When Dr. Barr's analysis is set against that of Price Waterhouse, there is no doubt about whose figures I accept. However, the Minister will have an opportunity to enlighten us.
The point has been made that the proposed scheme will have a tremendous effect on access to higher education. Cormack, Osborne and Millar, writing on behalf of the Policy Research Institute in Belfast, say:Our estimate, based on extensive survey research, is that the proposed loans scheme will diminish participation rates, particularly among those Mr. Baker has targeted for special attention.Who are those people? To start with, they are females. The Policy Research Institute has produced the figures. According to the institute, 49.1 per cent. of females take up and participate in higher education. But in the case of those in the manual work sector—the less well-off—the figure is 30.6 per cent. By contrast, in the non-manual work sector—those who are much better off—the figure is 69.3 per cent. That is the root of the problem.
These proposals will hurt most where people, whether Protestant or Catholic, slot into the manual work sector. A problem has arisen as a result of religious labels being applied to economic definitions—manual or non-manual. Let me remind the House of the figures: 39.6 per cent. compared with 69.3 per cent. That is the injustice of the system. People without financial status are being asked to borrow heavily in a way that is totally alien to their experience and their cultural background. Places will not be taken up, and the manual group figure will go down substantially. The less well-off will be most vulnerable. That is a euphemism; what I am really saying is that the less well-off will be frightened off by the system, and the number of people from that background in higher education will fall substantially.
The system will also force Northern Irish students to study in Northern Ireland. That is inevitable, but it is a very bad thing. For 20 years I was involved in education, and I constantly advised young people, "Go somewhere. Go anywhere. There is a different world out there. There are different values. It is an exciting world, compared with what you will see daily in the North of Ireland." It would be a tragedy if, because of the loss of income support and especially because of the loss of housing benefit, students had to remain in the North of Ireland, where the education system would become increasingly introverted, which must be bad.
Another bad feature will be inflated university admission figures. If more people stay at university, admission levels will increase artificially and people at the lower end of the education scale will be unable to take advantage of higher education.
The loans scheme will be a problem in England, Scotland and Wales. It will be a nightmare in the North of Ireland because of students' different levels of ability to pay when they have finished their degree or higher education courses.
529 12.30 am
The touchstone is that 85 per cent. of students graduate in Great Britain, whereas the percentage in the North of Ireland is 69.2 per cent. Those figures are readily available from the Department of Education in the North of Ireland. Of that 69.2 per cent., 58.2 per cent. are male, which shows the discrepancy between male and female achievement. To extend the argument, using not religious but social and economic terms, the figure for the Protestant community is 69.8 per cent. and for the Catholic community 75.2 per cent. The reality is that that 69.2 per cent. will not receive 85 per cent. of the average wage in England, Scotland and Wales. Is that just? One can keep asking whether there is any element of justice in any of these things.
The repayment scheme will be a nightmare in the North of Ireland. Debt will determine the destination of graduates. At present, 9.3 per cent. of students graduating from Queen's university, Belfast, which is one of the best universities anywhere, and 17.7 per cent. of students graduating from the university of Ulster, another excellent university, either take short-time work or become unemployed. The figure for the university of Ulster is the same as the overall figure for unemployment in the North of Ireland. They are not getting the full-time, stable jobs which would offer some justification for introducing loans instead of grants.
Earlier in the debate—it seems many hours ago now—the Secretary of State for Education and Science mentioned what the loss of housing benefit means to a student. I understand—the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may be able to confirm these figures later—that a student aged between 18 and 25 in the North of Ireland who pays rent of £30 a week will lose £139.46p a year in housing benefit. A student over 25 paying £30 a week will lose £267.52. That is out of very little to start with. These are people who have to borrow the money, yet this is what they will lose in housing benefit.
The loss of income support falls into the same category, because it is not compensated for by the amount of loan allocated for the summer vacation. People in the 18-to-24 age range have £27.40 income support for 14 weeks, which is £383.60; so with the loan working out at £110, that is a loss of £273.60. For the over-25s it is even worse—a loss of £378.60.
The figures speak for themselves. The Minister and the Secretary of State earlier gave global figures about the millions of pounds going into the system to replace this and that, but that is what young people in Northern Ireland will lose.
One can say cynically that those people should spend the summer working to get money to help them to continue their studies. That is quite true and many young people now feel it necessary to do so. But can anybody tell me where they will find that work in Northern Ireland? Where can a male student get any kind of work in summer in the North of Ireland? It simply is not possible. In the North of Ireland, education has always been the only alternative to the emigration boat or the dole queue. Now the student finds that, to cope with that loss in the summer months, the only thing for him is the emigration boat.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to the dabate. I listened with 530 great interest to the eloquent contributions by hon. Members from Northern Ireland, who know the situation there so intimately.
It seems to me that two main points arise in this part of the debate. The first is the increased detriment that the student loans scheme brings to young people in Northern Ireland. We have heard that described with great clarity, in particular by the hon. Members for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) and for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). Those of us who have children who are going through those vital teenage years when we wait anxiously for their examination results and look at other people's throughout the country, look with some envy at the results achieved in Northern Ireland, where secondary education standards are extraordinarily high. But those children in Northern Ireland are faced with a particularly difficult decision at the age of 18, when they ask themselves whether they can go on to higher education.
I notice from the statistics that I have read that, for every 350 children in England and Wales who are asking that question and who could not expect any parental financial contribution, there are 450 children in Northern Ireland who cannot expect any parental contribution. Putting it another way, although perhaps with a little hyperbole, poverty already contributes to the education deficit in Northern Ireland faced by young people who might wish to go on to higher education.
We know that there are, historically, political differences between England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as social and economic differences. All those differences contribute to making the student loans scheme much harsher for young people in Northern Ireland and, of course, for their parents in advising them, than for students in England and Wales.
My particular concern and interest in clause 2 is in the constitutional aspect. It is rightly clause 2, for it provides second-class legislation for Northern Ireland. I had always understood—and I think that we all agree—that Northern Ireland is entitled to its own legislation on major issues. It has its own legal framework and its own constitutional conventions. One of those conventions is that it has its own legislation.
The Government are indulging in a constitutional swindle against the people of Northern Ireland. They are producing, time and again, second-class legislation for those people. Why should the inhabitants of Northern Ireland put up with such second-class legislation? Why do the Government consider that Northern Ireland Members—and English, Scottish and Welsh Members who, like myself, are interested in the affairs of Northern Ireland—are not qualified to consider clause by clause and line by line legislation such as the student loans scheme for Northern Ireland? There seems to be a logical fallacy in what the Government have done in the Bill.
I had hoped to see devolved government coming quickly to Northern Ireland—a devolved government to enable hon. Members in the House and others to go line by line through legislation such as this in Committee. They do not have that opportunity. What should the Government logically do? It is clear. Unless there is a new constitutional theory about the quality of Northern Ireland legislation, a theory that gives only such second-class legislation, surely the Government should have either included the Northern Ireland legislation in full in the Bill or brought in a 531 separate Bill for Northern Ireland, so that Northern Ireland Members would be able to amend, debate and consider the legislation fully.
We know what happens in Committee compared with what happens on the Floor of the House. If, under the negative resolution procedure, there is a debate on a Northern Ireland order, it is taken in the spirit of a Second Reading debate. The Government issue a three-line Whip, the Opposition parties issue a three-line Whip, we all troop through the Lobbies, and it becomes just another part of the sacred political drama in which we indulge night after night in the House and which often does the House little credit.
If we were to have the opportunity of this legislation for Northern Ireland being considered in Committee, the nuances of debate in Committee would enable Ministers to make concessions that they cannot make in a procedure such as Second Reading. Committees enable them to fine-tune the legislation to the particular conditions under discussions.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes
That might be the normal process that one would expect to operate in Committee, but it did not operate in the Committee on the Bill. There were no amendments apart from three technical amendments, which prompted a debate of one and a half columns in the 580 columns of debate on the remaining issues. The Government put on the Whips, battened down the debate and pushed through the measure because of its nature.
§ Mr. Carlile
There should have been separate consideration, line by line of provisions affecting Northern Ireland. Conditions are quite different in Northern Ireland, and so are the considerations for Committee stage. I apprehend that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, whom we all regard as a kind and reasonable man, might have responded to an analysis such as the Committee might have offered.
For me and my hon. Friends, the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made about the constitutional issues in relation to the previous series of amendments, which received praise in his absence from Conservative Members—-in which I share—applies even more strongly here. We should be allowed to consider this legislation for Northern Ireland as legislation, not just as a statement. In clause 2, we have a statement of immutable Government policy, which is not acceptable.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes
There are three main reasons for welcoming the debate. First, more Back-Bench Members have been here for the debate than are usually here for debates late at night on Northern Ireland issues. Debates on Orders in Council usually take place between hon. Members on the two Front Benches, some Northern Ireland Members and one or two other hon. Members. Tonight, other hon. Members have been listening to the debate.
Secondly, I welcome the fact that there is fantastic unity in the Province on the issue being debated. Members of the four political parties from Northern Ireland have spoken with a common voice. The representative of the fifth party, who chooses not to be here, would speak in the same way. The trade unions, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Fair Employment Commission, universities and other 532 bodies, as well as the political parties, probably with the exception of the Conservative party which is trying to emerge in Northern Ireland, adopt a common position both on the fact that there is something wrong with the procedure and on the substance of the student loans proposal. They are all adamant that the measure is incorrect for Northern Ireland. That point has been made clear in the debate, as it was in Committee.
Thirdly, I welcome the fact that all hon. Members who have spoken have taken a common position. That must make it awkward for the Government to respond, especially when other hon. Members have expressed the same view as Northern Ireland Members. To introduce elements of the enterprise culture and cash nexus in an area where there are such strong divisions, and where we need to encourage unity and co-operation, is disgraceful. There is a host of measures which are problematical for England, Scotland and Wales which should not be introduced for Northern Ireland without proper consideration and scrutiny by Northern Ireland Members.
In Committee we were not fortunate enough to have a Minister from Northern Ireland present. When we came to clause 2, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), who speaks on education in Northern Ireland, should have been present temporarily to respond to the points made. The best endeavours were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), who is very knowledgeable about these matters, by our Front Bench spokesmen and by myself, but because we do not have day-to-day experience within Northern Ireland, it was a case of the blind leading the blind, especially as the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, who did not have experience of Northern Ireland matters either, was responding to the debate.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
Is it not a fact also that no Northern Ireland Member was a member of the Committee?
§ Mr. Barnes
I argued that in Committee. That further illustrates the problem. There were no Northern Ireland representatives, just as there were no Ministers with Northern Ireland experience to respond to the debate. We had as good a debate as we could and drew on what experiences we had but by its very nature, it was a second-class debate. That has altered tonight. There has been full involvement in the debate. Having the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland here has meant that at least we have concentrated minds on the issues.
§ Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)
The hon. Gentleman will recall that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) described Northern Ireland legislation as second-rate legislation. Does he agree that one of the reasons why it is second-rate or second-class legislation—I take the two to be the same thing—is that Ministers and indeed the whole House, are deprived of the educational process that takes place in any Committee? Only by that educational process on Bill after Bill will there be a full understanding of Northern Ireland circumstances and their nuances in the House.
§ Mr. Barnes
Clearly that is the case for everyone involved. It would be of benefit for Northern Ireland Members to be involved in that process, to put forward arguments and to receive answers so that a growing understanding could emerge from the dialectics of debate.
533 An illustration of the problems that we faced is that, following the contributions made by Opposition Members in Committee, we received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Peterborough. In my case, it was three pages long. It defended the Government's position on positive and negative resolutions on Northern Ireland measures. About the procedures, it said:I think both sides of the House would agree that they are not ideal.That implies that something needs to be done, although what needs to be done is not clear. It goes on to say why and in what circumstances there are negative and affirmative resolutions. A similar version to the one that I received was read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott).
Mr. Robert Cormack, Mr. Robert Osborne and Mr. R. L. Miller were contributors to the documents of which I made use in Committee. Ministers argued against what they said by saying that they could not establish the things that they were claiming, and that estimates were involved. The estimates were based on an analysis of information.
§ Mr. Mallon
That may be the position. Now is the opportunity for the Secretary of State to put it on record whether those figures are right or wrong.
§ Mr. Barnes
Interestingly, part of the other evidence that I used was a survey that had been conducted among sixth formers. Again, I was told that that survey did not prove what I claimed, and that the Government had conducted the research. The letter failed to mention—I have researched the matter—that Cormack and Osborne were involved in the production of that information. Cormack and Osborne and their associates produce regular documents about education in Northern Ireland, and about higher education developments. Presumably their expertise was used by the Northern Ireland Office to draw the relevant information forward.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is ridiculous for Departments in Northern Ireland to criticise any figures presented by those who conduct surveys when they cannot give figures, for example, on the number of disabled young people in Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Barnes
I agree that the whole basis on which we had the discussion was inadequate.
The letter to which I referred showed in what a nonsensical way we were proceeding. There we were in Committee with Ministers who could not respond to us because they did not have the relevant experience. When the Committee was over, we all received a letter. Letters are not the ideal way to sort out details of arrangements. The points contained in the letters should have been part of a Minister's brief, which we could have argued and discussed, so that the dialectics of the debate could take place.
The arguments that show that there are extra problems in Northern Ireland that make the student loan scheme inappropriate have been fully ventilated. In addition, there are special characteristics and problems about the participation rate in higher education of working-class Catholics and Protestants—problems which are greater 534 than those in the rest of the United Kingdom. There are also more women in education in Northern Ireland. The legislative element also comes into this.
It will be more difficult for graduates in Northern Ireland to reach 85 per cent. of average wages and so to begin to pay back the money. Perhaps, when the Government reflect on these things, they will decide that that they will have a different percentage for Northern Ireland from that which operates elsewhere. If that is the case, they will be putting forward different measures for Northern Ireland, in which case they should do so under its own rules of the affirmative, rather than the negative, procedure.
§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Brooke)
I join the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) in what he said about our late colleague, the hon. Member for Upper Bann, Mr. McCusker. I have paid tribute elsewhere to his courage in discharging his constituency duties most notably when in the grip of a terrible illness, and I repeat those words tonight.
At the end of his speech in which he moved the amendment, I heard the hon. Member for Wigan say that he hoped that the Government might postpone the implementation of the Bill in Northern Ireland, I detected from those observations that he was seeking to exclude Northern Ireland from the Bill, by means of his amendment. It will not affect my response to the debate because we have had a good debate, but in practical terms the amendment would not have the effect that he has described. It would mean that the scheme would apply and be operated in Northern Ireland—he will see references to Queen's university, Belfast and to the university of Ulster in clause 1—but it would have been administered by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), and his Department rather than by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland.
Therefore, perhaps inadvertently, the hon. Member for Wigan was putting an argument which, in the constitutional jargon of the Northern Ireland debate, might have been described as "integrationist", which is a novel thing to emerge from the Opposition Benches.
I said that I would respond to the essence of the debate regardless of the terms in which hon. Members have spoken. The hon. Member for Wigan quoted what the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) wrote to the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith): a letter which the hon. Members for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) have also received, although perhaps not in exactly the same terms.
My hon. Friend stated the circumstances in which we use the negative procedure in these matters. The essential issue was that the provisions that we would be deploying in Northern Ireland were the same as those deployed throughout the United Kingdom; that there would be parity throughout the United Kingdom, so the wording of the Order in Council that we would bring in from the Northern Ireland Office would closely follow the wording deployed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, who took the Bill through Committee.
I shall come back to this issue, but I believe that there are—and have been over the years—considerable advantages to Northern Ireland in having the same grants and other procedures for the maintenance of higher 535 education as those that have obtained throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. I shall not go into precise detail on that, because I should not wish to be greatly on the record in a place where Her Majesty's Treasury might see my words, but there would be reasonably common agreement that Northern Ireland has benefited considerably over the years from being part of a national scheme.
The hon. Member for Wigan raised the issue of discrimination, which had come up in Committee. It arose from a letter that Mr. Cooper of the Fair Employment Agency wrote to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough, last year, to which he received a reply. My hon. Friend sought to dispel the suggestion that the legislation was discriminatory.
I shall return to some of the implications mentioned by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Wigan also referred to the academic articles, and the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East came back to them. I pay tribute to the valuable work done by Mr. Cormack, Dr. Osborne and Dr. Miller. I have had the opportunity of seeing the extensive work that has been done.
I think that there will be agreement, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said in his letter to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, that in the end the forward prognostications have to be speculative. We can work from the data that we have, but precisely what the effect will be is something that we shall be able to test only by results. The Government's position, in terms not only of Great Britain, but of Northern Ireland, is closely and consistently to monitor what is happening. The trends in Northern Ireland towards participation in higher education. which are considerably higher than those in the United Kingdom as a whole, do a great deal of credit to the Province, and I hope that they will continue.
Alarming observations were made by various hon. Members during the debate, suggesting that dire and apocalyptic consequences would follow from the measure. Having once held the position held by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, I must say that Conservative Ministers have listened to warnings of all the apocalyptic things that were supposedly going to happen during the past decade in this sphere. Consistently, the age participation rate and the qualified participation rate have continued to rise, and increasing numbers of students have come into higher education.
In the context of Northern Ireland, the observation was made when we changed the regulations governing travel arrangements for students in 1984—a measure in which I played a part—that this would reduce the number of students travelling to universities in Great Britain. However, the numbers of students going to Great Britain have continued to rise during the subsequent six years.
The hon. Member for Wigan spoke about mature students above the age of 50. I acknowledge that there is a cut-off point at 50, but for mature students below that age the proposals provide a considerable incentive. Their present commercial borrowing will be substituted by borrowing with a zero rate of interest.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) gave me a warm welcome to the debate, but towards the end of his speech offered me the poisoned chalice of describing me as an infallible pontiff—a phrase which, I fear, will haunt me. He talked of the constitutional and general legislative position. The length of time spent on 536 Northern Ireland concerns in Committee—I had the pleasure of reading the proceedings—and tonight's debate contradict the claim that Orders in Council by negative resolution do not allow Northern Ireland concerns to be aired.
I sympathise with hon. Members for the fact that tonight's debate started at 11.30 pm, but the debate has already lasted 90 minutes. I agree, and the Government accept, that the temporary legislative provisions for Northern Ireland are far from ideal. We should like such matters to be considered in a devolved Northern Ireland administration, as has been apparent.
In the meantime, I repeat what has been said before from this Dispatch Box, that I shall gladly meet Northern Ireland Members of Parliament and discuss Northern Ireland's legislative procedures with them.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I may not have caught it correctly, but I think that the Secretary of State said that tonight's debate illustrates how we can discuss matters under the negative procedure. We are not under such a procedure tonight. We are on the Report stage of a Bill. That is entirely different from the negative procedure.
§ Mr. Brooke
We are on the approach road to a negative procedure. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point.
§ Mr. Brooke
Of course I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point. I sought to do that in the observation and the offer that I made earlier. I should be the first to acknowledge that there are unsatisfactory features, but at present one Parliament is being asked to do the work of two, and that creates complications.
§ Mr. Brooke
I shall not give way again.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North then came back to the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, as did other hon. Members. The consultation on that order was allowed a significantly longer period than a normal order because of its wide implications for the schools system. A large number of responses were received, and they led to a significant number of changes in the Government's proposals. I advance that not as a rationale for the Order in Council procedure, but just to show that it is possible to amend legislation in advance of its presentation to the House.
The hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) came back to the issue of mature students. I repeat my observation about the benefits of the proposals to mature students below the age of 50. I agree with him on the admirable trend in the participation of women in higher education in Northern Ireland, which again exceeds that in Great Britain, and in a sense sets an example to the rest of the country. The number of graduates obtaining employment on leaving Northern Ireland universities to all intents and purposes matches the number of such graduates in Great Britain.
The hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) sits on the Government Benches but occasionally, as this 537 evening, does not wholly agree with the Government's proposals. I thought that I caught him saying that we would soon have a means test for grants. We have had a means test for grants since my father, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, introduced the 1962 proposals, to which Opposition Members referred.
The hon. Gentleman showed an undue lack of confidence in the people of Northern Ireland in his remarks about saving and borrowing. Again, Northern Ireland leads the rest of the country in the capacity for savings on the part of those who live there.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) made a seductive siren suggestion, that I should be taken right outside the terms of the debate in the same way as he was seeking to involve the hon. Member for Wigan. I would be offending the spirit of the House if I were to get into that at this time of night, but I repeat my remarks about monitoring and parity. Where he got the year 2092 for the year when savings would begin to accrue to the scheme, I am not quite sure, since annex E of the White Paper has the year 2002, but I acknowledge that, if one adds administrative costs, it will take a little longer.
I shall be happy to correspond with the hon. Gentleman on his point about 69.2 per cent. not reaching the 85 per cent. figure. Our figures show that, in the first year after graduation, the average earnings of those graduating from universities in Northern Ireland reach 85 per cent. of the national figure. Our figures and his could be mutually compatible, but we need to exchange further correspondence. The critical thing is that there is an 85 per cent. cut-off in the legislation. The maximum debt for medical students at 1990 prices will be about £7,500, at five times the £1,500 a year when the scheme is mature.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) was using the same statistic that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) used in Committee—35 per cent. as against 45 per cent. The figure for England and Wales is 29 per cent.—although I am the first to acknowledge that that simply strengthens the hon. Members' case.
In return, I point out that, as conditions in Northern Ireland have been the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom, the fact that the participation rate has increased so much more sharply, and is so far in advance of that for Great Britain—I am not sure that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey took that point in Committee—demonstrates the thirst for education within Northern Ireland, which has overcome some of the grant regime difficulties to which reference has been made in other places over the past 10 years.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East introduced a dangerous theory when he said that it was the common position of all who had spoken in the debate to disagree with the Government. If I had arranged for various of my right hon. and hon. Friends to contribute to the debate in support of the Government, I should be rising at 1.40 am instead of closing at 1.10 am.
As to the remarks of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East concerning the enterprise culture, I am proud to have with me on the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with responsibility for the economy, the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), because it is by reducing 538 unemployment and creating jobs that we shall make a contribution to resolving the problems of Northern Ireland.
Overall, Northern Ireland has a proud record of participation in higher education, embracing many of the disadvantaged groups that have been described in the debate and referred to in academic research. I salute that achievement over the past decade, and the Government have committed themselves to monitoring closely the effects of the legislation. I repeat: in the past we have been told that dire things would happen. In fact, good results have consistently flowed from measures that the Government have introduced.
§ Mr. Stott
I thank the Secretary of State for his presence and for the way in which he has responded to tonight's interesting and mature debate. The right hon. Gentleman must now be aware, as I am, that the consensus among hon. Members in all parts of the House representing Northern Ireland constituencies signals a message to all right hon. and hon. Members and to the Government.
I say to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Mr. Beggs) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), who tried to kebab me in the kitchen, that I am prepared to stay in the kitchen for as long as it takes, and if necessary to lock horns with them again over important constitutional issues.
The Secretary of State said that amendment No. 2 is technically defective. I have faith in the expert draftsmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is a lawyer, but in view of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, I will, with the leave of the House, withdraw it. But I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends, and any other right hon. and hon. Members who care to join us in the Lobby, to support amendment No. 3. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.