Night of passion and farce

June 12, 1998

LIKE a racy farce, the report stage of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill had lots of loud characters jumping in and out of bed together, politically speaking that is. One minute Conservatives were with the Scottish Nationals and Liberal Democrats on the Scottish tuition fees anomaly, the next it was the Conservatives and Labour rebels on maintenance grants.

The political confusion was exemplified in the vote for retaining maintenance grants. Here Bell (as in independent Bell), Benn (as in socialist Tony) and Bercow (as in former right-wing student leader John) appeared in that order on the division list backing an amendment to keep maintenance gants.

On the anomaly, there was natural accord between the one-nation Conservatives and the Scottish Nationalists, who view charging English, Welsh and Northern Irish students for the fourth year at a Scottish university while exempting Scots and other Europeans as so discriminatory as to perhaps be illegal.

The Liberal Democrats see the Scottish anomaly as inherently unfair and they do not believe in tuition fees anyway. But Labour rebels withheld support because they had a new clause to the bill that said, well, exactly the same.

Later, the Labour rebels proposed two amendments seeking to retain maintenance grants for undergraduates. The Conservatives supported these because they believe scrapping grants will be a disincentive to the poor, as Sir Ron Dearing claimed. But, still true to Dearing, the Conservatives would not mind charging poor students Pounds 1,000 tuition fees.

The Liberal Democrats could not support the Labour rebel amendments because they think students should pay maintenance by taking loans. The party was saving itself for a debate on its grants-for-fees amendment, but loyal Labour back-benchers talked so much that the debate was guillotined before the House reached that amendment.

No wonder then that, despite the threat of the biggest backbench rebellion since the single-parent benefit debacle, the Labour front bench was happy to let the opposition divide themselves and be conquered. It was left to loyal back-benchers to field most of the opposition attacks.

Only Scottish minister Brian Wilson looked likely to lose his cool. After a heated exchange with Andrew Welsh (SNP Angus) and Donald Gorrie (Lib Dem Edinburgh West) in the anomaly debate, Dundee University honours graduate Mr Wilson called Scotland's four-year honours degree a "bogus tradition".

Then, secretary of state David Blunkett entered the Commons in time to witness Labour's Dennis Canavan (Falkirk West) break ranks by moving amendments to keep maintenance grants.

Tony Benn (Chesterfield) backed Mr Canavan: "The principle at stake is that of the welfare state: that we benefit collectively from the health and education of the nation. The idea that the only beneficiary of education is the person who receives it is an illusion."

None of this washed with the government. Mr Blunkett reminded MPs that they were discussing an amendment about maintenance grants, not the principle of free post-16 education. His call to reject the amendments was duly heeded.

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