Labour rebels pressured to defend stance on fees

January 23, 2004

As the higher education bill reaches its second reading on Tuesday, THES reporters weigh up the opposition and analyse the last-minute manoeuvring

Labour rebels came under pressure from colleagues this week to justify their continued opposition to top-up fees.

In a detailed analysis of the government's proposals that was sent to all Labour MPs, former rebels Peter Bradley and Alan Whitehead argue that poor students will be significantly better off as a result of major concessions.

Mr Bradley, MP for The Wrekin, said: "Poor students going to universities such as Cambridge will get £7,000 a year and have to pay back £3,000 post-graduation. This is a considerable improvement on the current situation and the original white paper proposals."

Mr Whitehead, MP for Southampton West, said: "The bill incorporates some important safeguards against the adverse impact of variable fees. In our view, it will no longer introduce the market variability we have strongly opposed so much, but a fee that can be discounted from an upper limit."

Graham Allen, MP for Nottingham North, initially opposed top-up fees, but he came out in favour last year.

He said: "I have the fewest number of kids going to university of any constituency in the country. If this bill goes through, almost every kid in Nottingham North will get a full grant.

"This is an incredible step forwards. If colleagues rob my constituents of this, they will have some explaining to do."

But Mr Allen indicated that while a number of former opponents of the policies had now decided to support the government, there could be a significant number who would still be prepared to vote against the higher education bill at next Tuesday's second reading.

He said: "On policy terms, most MPs who want to be convinced have been convinced."

The government should have consulted the Parliamentary Labour Party at an earlier stage, he argued. "This is policy by collective break-down rather than proper pre-legislative debate," he said.

In a packed meeting of the PLP on Monday, Tony Blair warned Labour MPs that if the bill failed, it would pave the way for the Conservatives to introduce variable fees without the safeguards of the Office for Fair Access.

Pushed on why the party was breaking a manifesto commitment, Mr Blair said that the underfunding of universities was too serious to ignore and that the proposals were highly progressive.

Several other former rebels said they would vote with the government at the second reading. They felt that the government had listened to their concerns and acted sufficiently to address many of them.

Geraint Davies, MP for Croydon Central, said: "I wrote a paper calling for a time limit on fee repayments, and the government has agreed a limit of 25 years. This will mean that a graduate on £17,000 a year for 25 years would pay a total of £4,500, irrespective of the level of fees she or he faced."

He said that he would vote for the bill and continue to push for the time limit to be reduced to 20 years.

Hilton Dawson, MP for Lancaster and the Wyre, said: "I am pleased with the movement the government has made so far - it is particularly important that they go ahead and ensure that the fee-remittance is turned into an upfront grant."

Diana Organ, MP for Forest of Dean, told the PLP that she had gone from being against the government proposals to being "evangelical" in her support.

But many rebel MPs are standing firm and insist that they will defeat the government in next Tuesday's vote.

Former whip George Mudie, MP for Leeds East, said: "I still say 104 MPs will be voting against the bill. On top of that, there will be abstainers.

"If Tony Blair thought he was going to win next week, he wouldn't be spending so much time trying to persuade MPs now."

Lynne Jones, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, put a statement on her website insisting that she was still firmly opposed to the government proposals.

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