Video: Decision to abolish Student Maintenance Grants is tragic and mean

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): We have had a lively and extremely interesting debate, with contributions from 17 Back-Bench speakers, by my calculation. I will not mention them, because time is short as a result of the interest in the debate.

I have some sympathy for the Minister for Universities and Science, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), because we all know that the decision to scrap maintenance grants for the less well-off students in favour of loans was really made by the Chancellor and not by him. I know that he and the Chancellor are old friends—this goes back to the days when they were penniless students together, having to scrape by on their student grants and meagre Bullingdon club dinners—but I find it hard to believe that he went to his old friend the Chancellor and said, “Having been appointed as Universities Minister, I have suddenly decided that we were wrong to have maintenance grants for the less well-off students and it would be a great idea for the worse-off students to have the most debt after they have been to university.”

I might be wrong about the Minister, but he does not strike me—he has not until today—as the kind of person who would think it right to change the system so that, as the British Medical Association points out in its briefing for this debate, medical students from the poorest backgrounds could graduate with £100,000 of debt. Nor does he strike me as the kind of person who thinks that it is all right to go back on promises made by Tory Ministers when the new system was introduced. It was David Willetts after all who said that the tuition fees increase was progressive precisely because of the higher education maintenance grant. That was the argument made. The Minister does not strike me as the kind of politician who would cynically pursue policies that penalise younger people who are less likely to vote Tory, or even to vote at all, than others.

Despite what was said today about page 35 of the Tory party manifesto, I do not think that the Minister for Universities and Science would think it was really okay to carry out this kind of major change of policy direction without explicitly putting it into the party’s manifesto, so that the public, including young people, could see what they were voting for or against. Is he really the kind of politician who, having done all this, would then slink away from debating such a major change openly and properly on the Floor of the House in Government time? I may be wrong, but I never thought that he was that kind of politician, or that he was that cynical.

Simon Hoare rose—

Kevin Brennan: However, I think we know someone who is that cynical. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Simon Hoare: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was referring to me. Will he flick back through his archives and find where, in the 1997 manifesto, the Labour party had the introduction of student loans in the first place, because I cannot remember seeing it?

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman told us in his speech how hard he has worked. Given that he is from Cardiff and that he has such an accent, I can absolutely acknowledge that he is a very hard-working individual. He will know that a general election was fought following that decision being taken and before they were introduced.

We all know that the Chancellor prefers governing from the shadows, and this shameless betrayal of previous promises and the shabby manner in which this has been handled in Parliament bear all the hallmarks of the current Chancellor of the Exchequer. Being young in Britain should be a time of opportunity—a time when opportunity knocks. Instead, we have the Chancellor introducing an opportunity tax. His proposals are an assault on aspiration, on opportunity and on those who want to get on in life. That is why we oppose them and also why the Welsh Government, under Labour First Minister, Carwyn Jones, is keeping maintenance grants. By the way, those who say that these proposals affect only England should think again—I say this to Welsh Conservative MPs as well: of the 30,000 students studying at Cardiff University, nearly 9,000 are from England.

Graham Stuart: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the shadow Minister would not wish to mislead the House, but he has just said that tuition fees were introduced not after the 1997 election, but after the following general election. That is not true. They were introduced in 1998. Having said that they would not introduce them, the Government started the process 12 weeks later.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): The hon. Gentleman is making a point of debate, not a point of order for the Chair. We have very little time.

Kevin Brennan: I would have been happy for the hon. Gentleman to intervene. Actually, I was asked about student loans, not tuition fees.

Students in constituencies such as Cardiff North are registered to vote in Wales, but, subject to the decisions that will be taken after this debate, local Welsh MPs can have their votes nullified under the constitutional monstrosity that is the English votes for English laws procedure, which the Government have foisted on this House.

Who will be affected by these measures today? This is what the IFS says:

“The poorest 40% of students going to university in England will now graduate with debts of up to £53,000 from a three-year course, rather than up to £40,500. This will result from the replacement of maintenance grants”.

Of course, as I just pointed out, it is about not just students going to university in England but students who are attending university and who are registered to vote in Wales, a thought that will not be lost on students in Cardiff North during next May’s Assembly elections.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): I would be very encouraged if the hon. Gentleman would also note that as universities in Northern Ireland have had the number of students they can take capped, hundreds and hundreds of very able students from Northern Ireland take up places in English universities, and are happy to do so. It is an absolute disgrace that this measure should be deemed exclusively English because it affects my constituents and many parents and students from Northern Ireland.

Kevin Brennan: I am happy to acknowledge that.

It is not as if this policy will save that much for the public finances in the long run, despite the claims made by the Government. The IFS says that the replacement of maintenance grants by loans from 2016-17 will raise debt for the poorer students but do little to improve the Government’s finances in the long run. The truth is that the Chancellor is fixing the figures, not the roof.

I am pretty sure that I would never have gone to university had no maintenance grant been available, let alone have been the first from my family and from my comprehensive school to go to university and to go to Oxford. There are many others in this place for whom something similar is also true. The Government must accept that that is still the case for many thousands of young people. Indeed, that is why, as David Willetts said, maintenance grants were part of the structure when fees were tripled to £9,000 per annum under the previous Tory-led Government.

The decision is mean in spirit and underhand in execution. It will be tragic in its consequences for many young people, and I urge the House to reject it by supporting our motion.