Tuition Fees

Part of Opposition Day — [7th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:40 pm on 30th November 2010.

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Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme 8:40 pm, 30th November 2010

The scale is certainly important. The level of debt that students acquire is fundamental to the argument about where the Government are going.

The second thing that we achieved was to secure better student support, through grants and new bursaries. Those changes to support were vital in offsetting the deterrent effects of higher fees on less well-off students. That is why anyone on the Government Benches who has concerns-not just Liberal Democrats-should insist on seeing the whole package in a White Paper before rushing to a vote on fees alone.

Thirdly, we gave MPs an opportunity to debate the matter by securing as part of the compromise the democratic handle that now exists, so that the cap could not be raised by the stroke of a Minister's pen or by a Committee upstairs, hand-picked by the Whips. Instead, we ensured that there had to be a vote on the Floor of the House, so that we were all accountable for our votes.

Those days seem rather distant now, but after 2001, we had an enormous majority-I think about three times the size of the coalition's majority now. Yet on Second Reading, 74 Labour MPs, including myself, still opposed the proposals, which is 17 more than there are Liberal Democrats in the House now. Every Liberal Democrat joined us in the Lobby, as well as all but one Conservative, and the Government scraped through by five votes, such was the level of concern.

I am rehearsing this trip down memory lane not to make myself popular with Whips with long memories but to prick the consciences of every Liberal Democrat, in particular, and to show what can be achieved by standing up and being counted. If most of the 57 Liberal Democrat Members who signed their election pledge stuck to their guns, we would once again prevent a market in higher education. They have much more leverage than we did, but seven years ago, Labour Back Benchers changed the policy enormously by taking up the battle.

I shall talk about the evidence later-anyone who cares about equality of opportunity will know that sound evidence should underpin sound policy-but as a slight detour, I shall shine some light through the fog of excuses that the Lib Dem leadership have been using to cover themselves. They said that the financial situation they found in government was worse than they expected when they made their manifesto pledge, but that is patently untrue, because the Treasury's own numbers showed a movement of £5 billion to the better in projected debt from April to May this year.