MP to sue over claim she backs top-up fees

November 21, 2003

A Labour backbencher is so incensed at a national newspaper's suggestion that she supports her own party's plans to introduce top-up fees that she is suing for libel.

The move demonstrates the uphill struggle the government faces to win over its backbenchers to the higher education bill, expected at the start of next month.

Helen Clark, Labour MP for Peterborough, said she would take the Daily Express to court to make it absolutely clear that she had long opposed the plan to allow universities to charge tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year.

She has employed libel law firm Peter Carter Ruck and Partners on a no-win, no-fee basis.

Ms Clark, who began her parliamentary career as Helen Brinton, is also fighting a de-selection battle after she clashed with local activists.

In July, the Daily Express ran two articles as part of its campaign against the government's top-up fees plan.

The first said that dozens of Labour MPs in marginal constituencies were likely to lose their seats over their support for top-up fees, which were being mooted despite a 2001 Labour manifesto pledge not to introduce them.

The article singled out Ms Clark's Peterborough seat, reporting:

"Peterborough Tory candidate Stewart Jackson, who is gunning for the 2,854 majority of MP Helen Clark, added: 'This is another Labour assault on the middle classes and ordinary families.'"

Ms Clark said this clearly implied that she was among the Labour supporters of top-up fees, when in reality she opposed the policy.

A subsequent article claimed that the Daily Express campaign against fees had led Ms Clark to switch from supporting top-ups to opposing them. It named Ms Clarke as one of "two successes among six Labour MPs" who had decided to oppose fees as a result of the campaign.

The paper said: "Peterborough MP Helen Clark said she was against top-up fees and only voted against a Liberal Democrat motion opposing them because she voted against all Lib Dem motions on principle."

Ms Clark is incensed at the claim that she had changed her mind. "I have been on the record with my opposition to top-up fees for well over a year, visiting colleges and talking to students," she said. Her daughter is at university in London. Ms Clark added: "Despite working all the hours God gave, she still faces debts of between £24,000 and £30,000."

She described the top-up fee policy as "completely and utterly unfair - it will disadvantage young people from less financially well-off backgrounds".

She said that no concession from the government would win her round: "I don't accept concessions on matters of principle."

Ms Clark added that it was particularly important that her constituents were aware of her real views. She failed to be automatically readopted as candidate after losing a "trigger ballot" in her constituency recently.

The Daily Express is contesting the action. The paper has applied to have the claim dismissed as lacking any merit.

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