Sadly we didn’t manage to defeat the Government on Tuition Fees last night but there is no doubt that the sustained campaign against the imposition of Tuition Fees of up to £9000 was instrumental in reducing the Coalition’s majority to 21 (usually they have about 80). Even a few Tories had been influenced to speak against the proposals. Clearly the sight of 50,000 demonstrators and the targeted contact with MPs by letter and email did put pressure on a number of Lib-Dem MPs to honour their pre-election pledge.
Sheila Gilmore and Ian Murray with Edinburgh Uni campaigners
Unfortunately a good few more stuck to their governmental posts. One Scottish Lib Dem MP is till posting on her website her view that ‘ideally’ at some unspecified time in the future her party should abolish all Tuition Fees! How to reconcile that with voting for the hike to £9000 (creating a potential debt of £70,000 in courses such as medicine) I cannot understand. Because this had less to do with ‘reducing the deficit’ than a fundamental change of direction to move the cost of higher education from the taxpayer entirely to the individual. And as Shadow spokesman John Denham said the savings may turn out to be illusory because of the cost of borrowing and ‘bad debt’. John made a comprehensive demolition of many of the Government’s claims in his speech and outlined what Labour would have done (see http://bit.ly/ev9YI1).
Like many of my colleagues I spent a long 5 hours yesterday ‘bobbing’ up and down in the effort to ‘catch the Speaker’s eye’ without s success. This showed why 5 hours was just not long enough especially in the absence of detailed proposals for many aspects of the change. Vince Cable added no substance to the various ‘carrots’ thrown out in the media since the original statement eg :the ‘scholarship fund’ to relieve some students of fees
- Who will pay (universities probably although many get no extra income from the change unless they charge more than £7000 – so ’slightly less poor ‘ students may end up with larger debts to provide scholarships for others.)
- Who will be eligible – we are told free school meal pupils – but at what time – just before going to Uni or at any time during schooldays? And only ‘out of work benefits’ qualify people for Free School Meals – so those in low paid work miss out. Further many people in low paid work go in and out of work so a ‘fixed date’ eligibility could be misleading.
Questions like this simply haven’t been answered before we were being asked to vote!
The Government has tried to argue that these measures are ‘fairer’ than the current arrangements but:
- What is ‘fair’ about tripling the potential indebtedness? The monthly payment for some may be less – but payment will go on for much longer.
- The very rich will simply pay upfront – and thus pay less than many who take the loan – after all for many of these £9000 is actually less than they were previously paying in school fees!
- Much is made of no-one paying till they earn £21,000 (at 2016 earnings levels) as if graduates on low earnings will stay like that. Most would hope to get over that level after the first few years at the very least – so will still pay. Cameron said at PMQs this week that graduates would not pay until they were ‘successful’ – I’m not sure on what basis earning £21,000 in 2016 is rated as being hugely ‘successful’ unless he means that getting a job at even ‘graduate entry level’ is going to be seen as a big success in 2016 due to high unemployment levels!
If you have been watching the news recently you will surely have seen how busy things have been in London.
Ian Murray and I with Edinburgh uni protestor
One of the most notable events in Westminster in the past two weeks was the NUS demonstration against the increase in English top up fees. Those who turned to violence were wrong to do so. As well as causing unnecessary damage to private buildings (not just Tory HQ) they distracted the public from the whole purpose of the well-organised demonstration. On the day I met with tens of students who came from Edinburgh University. Whilst Scottish students will not be directly affected by the increases unless they study in England, the changes will affect the funding to Scottish Universities. On the day I asked Nick Clegg about the increases during PMQs (see http://bit.ly/cnCoUn) and was later interviewed on Sky News.
Also that week I criticised plans to cut housing benefit. I asked why the Government was making blanket cuts to Housing Benefit in places like Edinburgh to solve a problem of very high rents which only applies in London. (see http://bit.ly/9Zcfg9).
Last week I spent a substantial amount of time debating the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill which will set the next UK General Election to be held on 7 May 2015, and every five years after this date. In the House of Commons I mentioned the difficulties that all devolved parties will face as they effectively are fighting two ‘General Elections’ in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Minister later told Parliament that he will be writing to devolved administrations for their input on the process with the possibility of the devolved elections taking place earlier or later than the General Election (see http://bit.ly/c28CcK). This movement in the Government’s position represents a small triumph that the nations are finally being considered, but we will have to await the results of any consultation. The Minister’s concession came at the very end of the debate and there was no time to ask questions about the details.
Another week when the Coalition Government’s ideology became even clearer! The big announcement was on the funding of Higher Education – I asked a question of the Minister (http://bit.ly/9iiIoT).
Basically this means that the State is largely withdrawing from the funding of higher education (except in some courses – mainly science & engineering where it is being reduced but not eliminated) with the cost being transferred to graduates.
(In a similar way the Government is proposing to transfer the cost of building new ‘affordable’ homes to new tenants)
Earlier in the week a considerable time was taken up with the final stages of the Parliamentary Constituencies and Voting Systems Bill. My efforts to speak in this debate were unsuccessful. It all may sound abstract but as well as setting up the referendum on the Alternative Vote, this Bill will reduce the number of constituencies in Edinburgh to four, and lead to boundary changes all over. See http://bit.ly/ca9wLO.
Much of my time this week was spent sitting on a Committee on the Bill which abolishes the Child Trust Funds, the Health in Pregnancy Grant and the Savings Gateway proposals – a subject I spoke on at second Reading (http://bit.ly/9WhFbZ). It seems a bit odd that the Tories should be abolishing savings mechanisms ! Bill Committees sit intensively so we had four sessions this week averaging three hours each.