HC Deb 25 May 1999 vol 332 cc143-6
1. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

If he will make a statement on tuition fees for tertiary education in Scotland. [84126]

The Secretary of State for Scotland(Dr. John Reid)

The policy on tuition fees, announced in July 1997 by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, remains throughout the United Kingdom. From 1 July, education—and so the conduct and outcome of the review being conducted at the Scottish parliamentary level—will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Fabricant

First, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion to the Scottish Office. I hope that it will not be too long before he is promoted to the position of Secretary of State for Defence—which is where, I suspect, his true interests lie. However, before he gloats too much at the victory of his right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar) over the fawning Liberal Democrats in Scotland, does he think that, while the United Kingdom is still the United Kingdom, it is fair that some students studying at United Kingdom universities should be disadvantaged in comparison with other students studying at United Kingdom universities?

Dr. Reid

I think that we strengthen the unity of the United Kingdom by recognising our diversity, which is precisely one of the reasons why we have devolved decision making to Scotland and to Wales, and why we are on the verge of doing so to Northern Ireland and to London. Perhaps, in future, we shall do so also to other areas. I think that the vast majority of people across the United Kingdom will be gratified that the Government are ensuring that local decisions affecting local people are being taken at a more local level.

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

I join in welcoming my right hon. Friend to his first Question Time in his new role as Secretary of State. Will he confirm that it is estimated that as many as 40 per cent. of students will pay no tuition fees at all?

Dr. Reid

I thank my hon. Friend for her congratulations. I can also tell her that although it was estimated that about 40 per cent. of those entering Scottish higher education would not pay any tuition fees at all, according to the latest figures that we have, more than 50 per cent. will pay no tuition fees at all. She will know that the entire purpose of our policy is to extend higher education in Scotland to a far greater number of people than has hitherto been the case. Moreover, the fact that more than 50 per cent. will pay no tuition fees demonstrates that a greater number of people from low-income groups will now have access to education, which surely must be one of the priorities of any decent, civilised Government.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

On behalf of the Scottish National party, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment to Secretary of State. He will be aware that there is a partnership document involving the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament. Is it his understanding that, when the inquiry on tuition fees reaches its conclusions, the Liberal Democrats will have a free vote on the matter—or will they just take the Labour Whip?

Dr. Reid

You will know, Madam Speaker, and the hon. Gentleman will know that matters of procedure within the Scottish Parliament, and within the parties in the Scottish Parliament, are entirely for that Parliament and those parties. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. I also urge him to consider whether the main aim of any civilised party in modern Scotland should not be to ensure that educational opportunities are extended to the maximum number of people so that young people are able to liberate their talents and achieve their full capabilities—especially those on lower incomes, who will benefit from the arrangements introduced by the Government.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State for Scotland. Traditionally, the debate has focused on the ancient universities in Scotland and on those attending them. Is my right hon. Friend today able to provide specific figures on the participation in higher education of those who are from low-income backgrounds, and on the participation of those attending further education colleges in Scotland, where the majority of Scotland's students study? Our policy will succeed or fail on that type of measurement.

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend is quite right. I have already mentioned that, this year, more than 50 per cent. of entrants to Scottish higher education will pay no tuition fees. As he will know, because of the arrangements that we have made, anyone whose parental income is less than the average will pay nothing at all in tuition fees. The figure of more than 50 per cent. is not only much higher than estimated, but indicates that, for the first time, we are increasingly providing people from low-income backgrounds with the opportunity of higher education. Moreover, the figure in Scottish further education colleges will be 70 per cent.

We should be proud of those figures, and of the fact that more than 47 per cent. of young people in Scotland now go into higher education. I am not as old as some people may think I am, but 20 or 30 years ago—30, actually—when I went to university, the proportion of people in Scotland attending higher education was only one in 20; now, we are achieving a proportion of one in two. That is to the credit of this Government.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

The Secretary of State is in fact older than I thought he was before he gave that reply.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post. He arrives there with an advantage over most Secretaries of State, in that he has the genuine affection and good will of many hon. Members, which many Secretaries of State do not begin with. However, does he believe that, leaving aside the legality, it is fair or desirable for Members of this place who are also Members of the Scottish Parliament to come here to vote to apply tuition fees to English and Welsh students, but then to go to the Scottish Parliament to exempt Scottish students from those fees?

Dr. Reid

I think that people who vote in different ways in two different areas will have to resolve that problem themselves, irrespective of their parties. The purpose of devolution is to give the power of decision making to another tier of government within the sovereignty of this Parliament and the unity of the United Kingdom. Therefore, we have to countenance the possibility that, on occasions, the Scottish Parliament will give certain issues different priorities. There are two ground rules to enabling that partnership to develop.

First, when we or the Scottish Parliament take decisions, we must have regard not only to the direct interests of our constituents, but to the wider implications. Secondly, when either Parliament allocates resources to one area, it has honestly to tell people from which area it plans to take those resources and to answer for that to its electorate.

Dr. Fox

I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for the first reasonably thought-out response to the implications of devolution that we have heard in the House for some time. Does he agree that the fiasco over the Liberal Democrats' position on tuition fees in Scotland exposes what an absolute sham the whole concept of proportional representation is? Is there not a lesson in that for the House to bear in mind when we are engaged in discussing issues with those who are in the bargain basement of principles and who will give up any promise whatsoever for the mere sniff of the inside of a ministerial Mondeo? Does he further agree that when politicians decide policies after an election, rather than people being able to vote on them, it is unhealthy for a democratic system? Perhaps the Secretary of State will take this opportunity to tell his colleagues on the Back Benches what effect what happens in Scotland will have on policies here at Westminster.

Dr. Reid

Proportional representation was deemed to be suitable in Scotland because it was the form of electoral system that was judged best to meet the consensual discussions that were taking place in Scotland. It is no more complicated than that. The hon. Gentleman is a bit churlish about the constructive way in which the parties in the Scottish Parliament have dealt with issues, given the arithmetic that was thrown up by proportional representation. When the arithmetic suggested an overall majority, two parties—the Labour party and the Liberal Democrat party—faced up to that problem, discussed it, engaged in dialogue, reached a compromise and came up with a solution. When the problem of tuition fees came up, they discussed it, engaged in dialogue, reached a compromise and came up with a solution.

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the feeling of the Scottish people, who often ask why politicians cannot work together. Surprisingly, he and the Leader of the Scottish National party, with their cries of no compromise, betrayal, no surrender and no discussions, display an attitude that is nearer old Westminster and old, ultra-left Labour than the new politics of Scotland.

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