HL Deb 09 November 1988 vol 501 cc632-45

3.40 p.m.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The Statement is as follows: "With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about future arrangements for student support.

"Two years ago I set up a review of student support to examine how the maintenance needs of students may be met. We have the most generous system of student support in the Western world, yet fewer of our young people enter higher education than in other European countries.

"In our 1987 election manifesto we said that the purpose of the review was to improve the overall prospects of students so that more are encouraged to enter higher education. We specifically mentioned top-up loans to supplement grants as one way of bringing in new finance to help students and to relieve pressure on their parents.

"The review has now been completed. We believe that the cost of student maintenance should be shared more equitably between students themselves, their parents and the taxpayer. The Government are therefore today publishing a White Paper which sets out our proposals to introduce a scheme of top-up loans for students. We propose that from 1990, in addition to their grant, all home students in full-time higher education, except postgraduates, will be eligible for a top-up loan averaging over £400 in a full year.

"This top-up loan facility will not be means-tested. Students will be able to take up as much or as little of it as they wish. The present grant arrangements will continue, but the overall levels of grant will be frozen in cash terms at their 1990 levels. As the grant also incorporates in most cases a parental contribution this means that over time the average parent will be paying less in real terms. From 1990, students' total resources in grant and top-up loan will continue to be reviewed annually. Any uprating to reflect cost increases will be applied only to the top-up loan facility until the top-up loan has risen to the same level as the grant and parental contribution taken together.

"The top-up loans will not bear a commercial rate of interest. Under the Government's proposals, top-up loans will be offered at a real interest rate of zero. The principle to be repaid will be uprated each year in line with inflation. Repayments will not start until the April after students complete their courses. Furthermore, repayments will be deferred when a graduate's income is low for any reason.

"In 1985 the Government announced their intention to remove students from the social security system. Accordingly the Government will end the general eligibility of students for social security benefits whether or not they qualify for top-up loans. Benefits will, however, continue to be available for students who are disabled or single parents, and for student's dependents.

"The level of the top-up loan will more than compensate the great majority of students for any loss of benefit. We estimate that the average level of social security benefit which would otherwise be claimed in 1990–91 is about £150: that compares with our loan facility of £420 in that year.

"I recognise, however, that there may be local circumstances where some further help may be needed; and postgraduate and further education students will not have access to loans. I will establish therefore three access funds, each of £5 million, to provide support on a discretionary basis to students in special financial need. The funds will be for postgraduates, other students in higher education, and students in further education. Their operation will be reviewed after three years. They will be administered by the colleges, central institutions, polytechnics and universities throughout the United Kingdom: they are best placed to understand the circumstances of their students.

"The terms of the top-up loan scheme we are proposing are much more favourable than those of the borrowing on which many students rely at present. And instead of students having to rely on a social security system which was never designed for them, we shall be providing appropriate discretionary arrangements to help those in real need. This is a major step forward to achieving our target of more young people going into higher education.

"In the Government's view, the top-up loan scheme is best administered by the financial institutions. I am now embarking on discussons with them. I shall also consult the funding councils and representatives of the local authorities and the higher and further education institutions about other aspects of my proposals. The Government will bring forward a short Bill to allow the new regime to be introduced from autumn 1990.

"These proposals represent an important step away from the dependency culture. Students will have a financial stake in their own future, and this will encourage greater economic awareness and self-reliance. The burden of student support on taxpayers and parents will be reduced, For the first time there will be a guaranteed extra source of income for students over and above their grants and parental contributions. By introducing top-up loans, we fulfil the undertaking we gave in our manifesto at the last election."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement which is being given in another place by his right honourable friend. The Statement on the financing of students in higher education, for which we have been waiting for two years, has clearly been a very hot potato to handle.

Our first reaction is that access to higher education will not be encouraged by the Statement. Students, even with loans not bearing a commercial rate of interest, will be building up debt to be repaid at the beginning of their earning careers. Moreover, as the loan becomes larger and the percentage of grant less as the years go by, that debt will increase. There will be many young people from working class families, many women, and many family men and women who will be highly nervous of taking on the burden of debt involved.

It seems that parents will have their contribution reduced and that the burden will be put on the young person. At present, the richer the parents the higher the parental contribution. But, under the proposed plan, the richer the parent the more they will benefit from the new system, because instead of paying their child the young person will take out a loan.

It seems that costs in year one will be £120 million. The savings to the public purse will be £200 million in future years. Is that sum to be used elsewhere in higher education?—because there seems to be no evidence of that. I ask the Minister whether that is correct. Further, what will be the position of those on discretionary grants from LEAs? Is the £5 million in the access fund supposed to cover students on discretionary grant, because surely it is totally inadequate for that?

My final comment is that the Statement seems to fit in with the Government's philosophy of getting rid of the "dependency culture", as they say, and especially with that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—as we have seen in the last few days—that money should be targeted. The result will inevitably be that the poorer members of the community will come off worst and the better off will come off best.

The need for more people in higher education is recognised by industry, the professions and the commercial world; but not, it seems, by the Government. What is there to encourage greater access and to create new places? Why is there nothing to encourage 16 year-olds to stay on at school or further education colleges? It is the wastage here that must be faced if the numbers in higher education are to be substantially increased.

Finally, can the Minister reassure us that tuition fees will remain as they are at present?

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches also wish to thank the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. We do not take a doctrinaire view of the question of loans for students, but our test is whether in fact it will have the effect of increasing access to higher education for a larger proportion of the population than at present. Of course, that means increasing access for people from working class families, especially social classes four and five, who are greatly unrepresented in the universities at present. It also means increasing access for women and girls and also for mature students.

In the future, because of the backlog of people who are capable of benefiting from higher education in this country, but who have not had it, we must pay a great deal of attention to mature students of both sexes. The question is: does the scheme make it more or less likely that people from those categories will go into higher education? If it does, we welcome it; but, if it does not, then we do not welcome it. I must say that I am not convinced that the scheme, as it stands, will have that effect.

As the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, that inevitably means that students will build up a burden of debt. It is all very well to say that more money will be available from the loan than from social security, which is another aspect of the matter. Of course the loan is a loan, and the grant, whether it came from social security payments, the DHSS, the Department of Education and Science or the parent, did not have to be repaid. A greater amount of the money will be a loan.

The Government say that the loan has to be repaid but that it will be deferred if the graduate is earning below a certain amount. Deferred implies that the loan must ultimately be repaid. Is that the case if the graduate never reaches the higher levels of payments implied by the scheme? In particular, how will that provision apply to a woman who takes a university course, builds up a debt, works for three or four years in a low-paid job, and then spends five or six years at home bringing up a family and not earning? Has she at some future date still to repay the money? If that is the case, there will be fewer and not more women entering higher education. That is the question to which we need an urgent answer before we can give any support to the scheme.

I should like to ask about the exclusion of postgraduates. We in this country have a shorter period of higher education than any other comparable country. We compress undergraduate work into three years. If we are to have the level of trained people for the higher grades that we increasingly need, we must encourage and not discourage a variety of postgraduate work; and yet the Statement says that postgraduates are not to have access to the loan scheme. The postgraduate will have access to a total of £5 million which has to cover a large number of people. As outlined in the Statement, access to that money will be means tested. That is what the Statement means. That surely implies that the large number of people who are capable of doing postgraduate work but whose incomes are not at such a low level that will justify a loan or who may not at that stage wish to take a loan, will not take the postgraduate courses which the economy will require them to take.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady David and Lady Seear, for receiving the Statement in the manner that they did. I am not sure that I shall be able to answer all the questions here and now. Most of the answers to the noble Baronesses' questions are contained in the White Paper.

I shall take one or two points. The noble Baroness, Lady David, asked about fees. The loan system relates only to student maintenance. There is no proposal to change the present system by which fees are paid as part of the mandatory award. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, asked about the responsibility of spouses. The repayment will be individually calculated on the basis of personal earnings. A spouse's income will not be taken into account. A woman or a man who interrupts her or his career while raising children may make no repayments during that period until income rises to the repayment threshold on return to employment.

The postgraduate grant is not affected. Postgraduates will still receive grant and will have access to the access fund in addition.

The need is for an extra form of support. The present system cannot meet students' needs without burdening parents and taxpayers unreasonably. More money in grant is not an option. We are offering extra money. For most, the £420 loan facility in 1990–91 is over and above the present grant. It will be a substantial net addition to students' resources, especially in the 35 per cent. of cases where parents do not pay their full contribution.

By sharing the cost we shall relieve the burden on parents and taxpayers. The parental contribution will come down by nearly half over time, and if the noble Baroness looks at the White Paper she will see that in chart 8 on page 15.

For 30 years Britain has had the most generous student support system in the world, but participation in higher education continues to be relatively poor. A smaller proportion of our young people (32 per cent.) enters higher education than in the countries of many of our main competitors. The socioeconomic groups C2, D and E constitute 61 per cent. of our 18 year-old population, but supply only 21 per cent. of university entrants and 27 per cent. of polytechnic entrants. Therefore, they are considerably under-represented in higher education. Our plans are that they will be better represented in higher education in the future.

The Government aim to expand higher education, which has already risen by 180,000 students since 1979. We need a more flexible student support system to underpin that expansion and the broadening of entry which we seek. Loans will be available to all full-time higher education students, except postgraduates who will be covered by the other scheme, irrespective of their entitlement to grant. Students will also be able to seek help from one of the three access funds.

As my right honourable friend said in the Statement, he is establishing three new access funds totalling £15 million to be administered by the institutions. It will he up to the institutions to decide how to target the money. The funds will provide discretionary bursaries in cases of special financial need. All students, including those without grants, will be eligible. That will enable institutions to attract more students.

I cannot go further than that at the moment, but I commend to your Lordships the White Paper which contains the answers to many of the points that have been raised.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in taking this decision, has consideration been given to the possibility that the fact that graduates will start their working life with an obligation to repay a debt may be an inducement to some of them to work abroad, from where it may be difficult to recover the debt?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, that point has been considered. It will be up to the financial institution providing the loan to ensure that the loan is repaid.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we too should like to thank the noble Viscount for repeating that important Statement. The urgent need in higher education, as has been said by all speakers so far, is to widen access and to increase the age participation rate. Despite its relative generosity compared with other countries, the present grant system has not succeeded in encouraging participation by lower income families. The parental contribution element often causes family friction in higher income groups. To restore the eroded value of grants and expand higher education at the same time would be enormously expensive. We therefore accept that some reform is necessary.

If the desired expansion is to take place it will clearly have to be through some system of contribution by students to their own careers. The question is: what system? Which is the fairest? At first sight, the Government's proposal does not seem to do anything to encourage the student from the poorer family as the basic grant element is to be frozen from 1990, leading presumably to a larger loan element which will eventually form 50 per cent. of the complete package. Is my interpretation correct? In the long run, will it be 50 per cent. grant and 50 per cent. loan? I should be grateful if the noble Viscount would let me know if that is correct.

The Statement also mentions that further repayments will be deferred when a graduate's income is low for any reason. Will the noble Viscount define "low"? What does he mean by that term? Does he mean that the person is on unemployment benefit, on the national average wage, or will there be some other measure? That point is crucial to the system.

Finally, have the Government completely ruled out the Australian Government's plans for a more generous grant to be partly recouped by a postgraduate tax? Under that scheme, the repayment would be deferred when the graduate's income falls below the national average. Has that scheme been completely ruled out?

I repeat access is the main consideration. The access funds do not seem to be generous. The effect of the Statement will be judged by its effect upon access in the long run.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the Australian scheme has been considered, but, as the noble Lord said, the repayment will be liable to tax. I think that I shall have to write to the noble Lord as regards the amount of the build-up and the discharge of the debt of the student commencing a three-year course in 1990. I recommend the noble Lord to look at Chart 9 on page 16 of the White Paper which sets this out. I do not know whether the noble Lord has a copy of the White Paper. It sets out the answer in a much better way than I can.

As regards the 50 per cent. grant and the 50 per cent. loan, the answer is yes. If the income is low, that will be defined in discussion with the banks. I repeat that there still have to be discussions with the banks as to the details of the loans and how they are to be worked out. My right honourable friend will be holding discussions with the financial institutions over the next year.

4 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, the noble Viscount has not answered my question about the repayment. If at no time people reach a high or adequate level of earning in order to repay the loan, is the debt ever cancelled? Do they carry the debt to the grave? That is the point I am trying to get at.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, it is deferred, I think, until the age of 50.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I am probably one of the few and maybe the only Member of your Lordships' House who went on to college on a local authority loan instead of a grant? I can tell your Lordships that I was impoverished for the first few years of my working life. That is what this Government will re-introduce.

Has the noble Viscount really considered the financial burden that this will place on new graduates, especially those going into poorer paid jobs such as teaching and social work? All the Minister can offer is to extend the misery for a longer period. Has he considered—because he has not replied to the question—the extremely valid and important point put by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, about the negative dowry? There is the case of the woman graduate who, for very good family reasons, cannot stay in continuous employment. What about her? She will be burdened with this negative dowry for many years.

Does the noble Viscount deny the evidence from other countries that student loans are a greater deterrent to young people from poorer families entering higher education than to those from better off families? Does he deny that? All the evidence points to it.

Who ultimately will pay the cost? These loans will increase the demand and increase the pressure for higher graduate salaries in commerce and industry. The noble Viscount may find this a joke. It is not a joke to the young chap leaving education and having to pay for it. It is not a joke at all. It is not a joke to the thousands of students who cannot make ends meet now because of this dreadful Government. Ultimately this will lead to higher pressure on salaries which will add to the costs of commerce and industry. It will distort the labour market by driving graduates from socially necessary but less well paid jobs such as teaching into better paid jobs. This appalling, dreadful, discredited and miserable Government are once more putting the clock back 50 years.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, had to pay interest on his loan. The point about these loans is that they are interest free. It is nothing new for students to borrow money. One important finding of the survey of undergraduate income and expenditure was that almost half the students covered expected to have debts outstanding at the end of the year surveyed. The average amount which those students owed was £341. About 40 per cent. of the students had overdrafts; 15 per cent. had credit card debts; 6 per cent. borrowed from friends or relatives; and just under 2 per cent. had commercial loans averaging £662.

The whole point of the scheme is that these will be top-up loans. They will average £420 per year, with repayment of the capital after the graduate has found a job. If he cannot afford the repayment immediately, that repayment will be deferred until he can afford it. It must surely be right that those who receive the benefit of higher education should at some stage pay back to the country what they have derived from that higher education.

Lord Renton

My Lords, can my noble friend assure us that the contents of the Bill will not be decided upon by the Government until the White Paper has been fully discussed in both Houses?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am quite sure that there will be an opportunity to discuss the White Paper in both Houses. Of course I cannot speak for another place and indeed I cannot speak for this place. The matter has to be decided through the usual channels. However, I shall make my best endeavours to ensure that it will be discussed.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Viscount for not being in my place when he rose. I got here as soon as possible. I shall read his opening remarks in Hansard with the greatest of interest.

Have the noble Viscount and the department in their thinking taken into account a most remarkable publication by Barr and Barnes, two academics at the London School of Economics, under the title of The Alternative White Paper? They have worked out an extremely closely reasoned scheme of a mixture, according to the heart's desire, of different ways of going about the problems with which we are faced. When I read the publication, it seemed to me to open new horizons in my own thinking. I wish to ask the noble Viscount whether he has had any regard to this publication. If not, I shall be delighted to provide him with a copy in order that his department may look at it.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am sure that my right honourable friend and the department will have read this publication. I personally have not; I shall be very happy to receive a copy from the noble Earl.

Lord Parry

My Lords, as the noble Viscount knows, I had no intention, when he and I exchanged words earlier, of speaking this afternoon. I had not then heard the Statement. I had no means of knowing its significance. I believe that the noble Viscount is old enough to remember the post-1945 era in education in this country. It was the period when the bipartisan development of an education scheme for the country had produced a wholly new mood in education. We went into our classrooms—those of us who were in education—with joy and with a commitment because the country had borne the expense (not a very great expense either in relative terms) of our education. We were being given the opportunity to pass it on to others. Some of us, for all our lives thereafter in the classroom, tried to improve that education. It was a positive bipartisan approach to the education of the children of this nation.

At this time, when we know that the classrooms are in chaos and that the people in the staffrooms are feeling miserable about their future, is there really any need to make the situation worse?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the simple answer is that we are not planning to make it worse. We are planning to make it better.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, even at this early stage of the matter could I ask the Minister to be more specific as to why he thinks it will encourage the children of weekly wage earners to go into higher education? That is one of the most crucial issues in higher education. I am not totally opposed to loans in all circumstances. However, I fail entirely to see why they should encourage a working class family to send its children into higher education.

Secondly, when, on his own evidence, people are already heavily in debt, does the noble Viscount think that this is the moment to encourage them to get even further into debt? Surely, we are a debt ridden society. We do not want to encourage people to think that debt is a normal feature of life.

Thirdly, can the noble Viscount say a little about the extra burden that will be placed on universities' administration? The universities are already heavily burdened with administration. Are the Government going to pursue the laggards who do not pay? Are the universities going to be responsible in any way for these loans? Who is going to undertake the whole burdensome business of collecting the loans and organising the entire scheme which the noble Viscount has outlined?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, as regards the last point of the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, I have already said that discussions are taking place with the banking institutions to see how the scheme can best be administered by them. There is no evidence that use of loans in student support systems elsewhere has in practice had the effect of reducing the representation of lower social and economic groups. In any case, like others they will be protected by the income-responsive repayment scheme. Loans will reduce the dependence of less advantaged children on parents who are hard pressed to help them.

I must repeat that these are interest free loans. They will not be liable to means testing. Therefore they should be acceptable to all students in higher education. They do not have to be taken up in full; they can be taken up in part. It will be up to the individual student to decide on his financial future with this advantage to start him off.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not doubt that some changes are needed in the system of student support, if only because a great many students are now living in very considerable hardship. I say that both as a principal of a higher education institution and as a parent trying to discourage the bank overdraft. We cannot continue with a situation in which students cannot afford to buy enough books and sometimes cannot even afford to eat properly.

The noble Viscount speaking on behalf of the Government admitted in the Statement that, fewer of our young people enter higher education than in other European countries". I see absolutely nothing in the Statement which will alter that disgraceful situation. Where are the proposals to use the longer-term savings that will eventually be derived from the proposed changes to expand the overall numbers in higher education? Where are the proposals to provide access and return-to-study courses? Where are the proposals to support the 16 to 19 year-olds staying on in full-time education whose parents have to bear the cost despite being extremely hard up? Where are the proposals to help those on courses which do not benefit from mandatory awards at present? I assure noble Lords that many students on such courses are currently struggling because they cannot obtain discretionary grants.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said, why should postgraduate students be omitted from these proposals? It is increasingly difficult for talented young people who want to come back to do a postgraduate course to obtain a grant. Where are the proposals to make it easier for mature students to study? There is nothing in this document about that. What is to be done to help part-time students who appear yet again to be excluded? Part-time students make very considerable sacrifices to come back into higher education. They have to bear the costs of their travel, their books, their examination fees and other things, as well as paying fees for tuition out of taxed income. Will they benefit from the access funds? It appears not.

Instead, we have here a scheme which seems to be kowtowing to the Conservative Back-Benchers in another place, allowing well-off parents with children in higher education, such as myself, who are paying the full parental contribution, to pay a reduced parental contribution because of the availability of loans. Is that really justice or fairness? It seems to me to be highly regressive. Is it conducive to expanding opportunities and the creation of more qualified manpower in this country? I submit that it is not. Will the noble Viscount please answer my specific questions?

Viscount Davidson

No, my Lords, I cannot. There were far too many of them. I believe the noble Baroness knows that. I can tell the noble Baroness that part-time students are not covered by the scheme. Access funds will help those on courses for which there are no grants available. The postgraduate grant will continue unchanged.

Three access funds will provide additional support for full-time students in further education, higher education, and postgraduates in the form of discretionary bursaries. Those will be available in cases where access to further and higher education might be inhibited by real financial difficulties. From that point of view loans and bursaries will be available.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I share with the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, considerable admiration for the paper produced in the London School of Economics. It offers, I believe, the possibility of an advance from a system of student funding which sooner or later, in one way or another, will be reformed. However, that enthusiasm does not spread to the scheme before us this evening. As this is an educational occasion, perhaps Latin may be permitted: parturiunt Jackson nascetur ricliculus mus.

We have here an alteration in the way the existing student body is to be financed. One could say that it is an improvement for parents or even for students, but nothing has been said by the noble Viscount to infer that any additional students will be brought into the system. This is not an access move: it is simply a recasting of the current form of student finance. That, after two years, is a very great disappointment.

We had thought that two years of the employment of Mr. Jackson's ingenuity would produce something really interesting in the way of an expansion, which this country badly needs, at both the undergraduate and the postgraduate level. To take one particular point, after two years we are told that the Government are now going to ask the banks how they propose to administer a scheme. Questions have already been raised about how the Government propose to get people to pay back. We know of the experience in other countries. One would have thought that if the scheme is to be administered through the banks, the Government might have asked the banks before they produced their White Paper. How do we know that the banks will not say that they are not accustomed to interest-free loans? They may say that it is not a normal part of their high street business. They may tell the Government to go away. Where will the Government be then?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I take note of everything my noble friend says. All I can say is that I shall make sure that his remarks are drawn to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Annan

My Lords, I have no intention of making a speech. I merely wish to ask a question, or perhaps two. Will the noble Viscount tell us whether there is any encouragement in the Government's programme for students to be able to earn money in addition to receiving loans? Or will they, if they earn money, find that they are not eligible for loans? I say that because it is well known that in America it is perfectly customary for students to—as it is put—work their way through college. Students hold jobs in libraries, and in administration; they wash up dishes. They do not regard that in any way as derogatory to their status.

Will the Government bear that in mind and, if necessary, hold consultations with the unions concerned—with ASTMS, NUPE and NALGO? Will the noble Viscount also reply to the point about postgraduates which has been made by a number of noble Lords? The point is simply this: is there not a contradiction between what the noble Viscount said about savings to the taxpayer and this desire for more access to higher education?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, in answer to the latter part of the question of the noble Lord, I said that postgraduate grants would not be affected. Postgraduates will still receive the grant, and they will get the access fund on top of that. As regards students who work during the long vacations, that situation will not change in any respect whatever. They will all be entitled to borrow up to £420 a year, on top of any other earnings that they might make. I know that the Government will encourage that, as they have done in the past.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, may I presume that the noble Viscount is not aware that I share with my noble friend Lord Glenamara the somewhat dubious distinction of having gone to university in part funded by a loan—in my case from a local ironmaker rather than from a local authority. Does the noble Viscount accept my view that far from making me feel that I thereby escaped the dependency culture, it made me feel very dependent indeed? It made me feel more of a second-class academic citizen compared to those who had come from local authorities where funding of a more generous character was available. Does not the noble Viscount agree with me that the best way to recoup the value to the individual of a university education is by a more progressive income tax structure than we have at the present time?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, that last point is, I think, another question. I am not surprised that the noble Lord agrees with his noble friend Lord Glenamara. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he paid interest on his loan when he was studying. The whole point of the scheme is that the loans are interest free and available to everybody.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, has the noble Viscount noted that all the remarks made so far have been either critically questioning or downright hostile and that no spark of enthusiasm has been aroused in any part of the House? Will he make that clear to his ministerial colleagues?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I think that I am usually quite observant and I shall certainly report to my right honourable friend who I am sure will read this exchange in Hansard with interest. I shall make sure that he is aware of it.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, before the noble Lord opposite gets up—and I shall not ask him not to—I should point out that we have been debating this issue for 35 minutes. Your Lordships are masters of your own procedures and have recommended through your Procedures Committee that questions on Statements should last for 20 minutes. We have now gone on for 35 minutes. I wonder—if the noble Lord opposite asks his question and makes his point—whether the House would consider that it was then time to proceed with the rest of the business.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I am indebted to the Government Chief Whip. He was not here earlier and did not hear the suggestion that we might debate the subject in its entirety.

Perhaps I may introduce a slightly acerbic note into our proceedings by asking the noble Viscount whether he realises how insulting some parts of the Statement are, in particular the sentence in the concluding paragraph about students and the dependency culture.

Many noble Lords were once students. Some of us were students from very poor backgrounds. When I received my full grant—which I seem to recall was £100—I was not under the impression that I was a parasite. I am also not under the impression that I have failed to repay to our country everything I received when I was a student. I believe that those remarks are extremely insulting.

In relation to the remark that students will "have a financial stake", what does the noble Viscount believe students have done for years? They have met a large part of the cost of their education for a great many years. They are perfectly well aware of the costs and the economic aspects of this matter.

To suggest that students lack self-reliance is also insulting. How does the noble Viscount think that we achieve such extraordinarily high standards in our higher education in this country if our students lack self-reliance? It seems to me that this is a most insulting document and one the Government would do well to withdraw.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am not quite sure to what the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is referring when he talks about an insulting document. Is he referring to the White Paper or to the Statement in another place which I have repeated?

Lord Peston

My Lords, I was referring to the final paragraph of the Statement which seems to me to set the tone of this whole business, as other noble Lords have pointed out.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord on that point. I repeated a Statement which was made in another place and I do not agree that it is insulting. I am surprised by the reaction on the Benches opposite. I should have thought that any scheme which allows any person in higher education to borrow £420 per annum over five years without paying any interest is something that should be welcomed and not thrown away.