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Labour Party 2001 manifesto

Did Labour mislead over tuition fees?

12 April 2005
The party has a defence but it's semantic and contradictory

"In 1997 you said Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education. You then introduced tuition fees ... In 2001 you said: 'we will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them'. You then introduced top-up fees."
Michael Howard to Tony Blair, Prime Minister's Questions, 6 April 2005
"Top up fees was what we legislated against. No university can charge more than that £3,000".
Former Higher Education Minister Alan Johnson meeting young voters. Today programme, 8 April 2005
We will hear Mr Howard's claims repeated by Tony Blair's opponents throughout the campaign because they believe they demonstrate Labour's promises cannot be trusted.

Just a few hours after Mr Howard threw them at Tony Blair in the Commons, Tory deputy leader Michael Ancram was putting them to former Education Secretary David Blunkett on BBC1's Question Time.

Two days later a group of young students, known as "Citizen Sane", cornered former Higher Education Minister Alan Johnson. He tried to convince them Labour hadn't gone back on its 2001 manifesto, and even if it had had done, it was all for the best.

Amid allegations and denials over promises made years ago, recollections of what was actually said can become blurred.

So FactCheck has consulted the archives to see exactly who promised what on tuition fees.

1997 - few clues

As the 1997 General Election approached, some newspapers were complaining that both main parties were engaged in a "conspiracy of silence" about higher education.

Labour's manifesto gave the voter few clues. It said only that Labour had sumitted proposals to a committee led by Sir Ron Dearing (now Lord Dearing).

This is what the Manifesto said, under the heading "Higher education": "The improvement and expansion needed cannot be funded out of general taxation. Our proposals for funding have been made to the Dearing Committee, in line with successful policies abroad."

No pledge about fees there, then, but perhaps a hint at what was to come with the reference to the impossibility of finding funding from general taxation.

Mr Howard's claim of a broken promise actually rests on an article in the Evening Standard a couple of weeks before polling day in 1997. The Standard had published a list of 50 questions for Mr Blair and on 14 April it published the answers.

Question six was "Will Labour introduce tuition fees for higher education?"

Mr Blair's answer was: "Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education."

His reply has been thrown back at him ever since.

It is possible to argue that he never said he would not introduce tuition fees, only that he had "no plans" to do so at that time, and any plans came after the publication of the Dearing report in July 1997.

And when pinned down on the quote, Mr Blair generally responds that he was following the recommendations of the Dearing committee, which were not known in April 1997.

For instance, when asked in the Commons by former Tory leader William Hague if he regretted the reply, Mr Blair said on 29 October 1997: "No. I made it clear throughout that we should abide by the recommendations of the Dearing committee, which was set up by the Conservative government."

Mr Blunkett adopted the same line of defence when confronted with the issue on BBC1's Question Time this month.

2001 - a question of definitions

The manifesto in 2001 was far more specific about top-up fees than it had been in 1997 about the original introduction of fees.

On page 20 it said: "We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them."

This is the substance of Mr Howard's accusation of a second broken promise, which, on the face of it, seems all but impossible for Labour to rebut.

Labour has two rather contradictory lines of defence, based on two points; the definition of "top-up fees" and the period of time covered by a manifesto.

Labour ministers argue the charges that have become known as top-up fees should really be called "variable fees".

They say top-up fees - in which a university can add whatever fee it likes with no top limit - were outlawed in the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998.

So Mr Johnson, when he was Higher Education Minister in January last year, argued that the Government's scheme allowing fees of up to £3,000 could be described as variable fees.

In that light, the Government has broken no manifesto pledges, but how many people reading the manifesto understood the distinction?

The other line of defence is that the manifesto pledge refers only to one Parliament. The extra fees will not come into force until next year, so Mr Blair argues they have not been introduced in the time covered by the manifesto and no pledges have been breached.

But if the introduction had to be delayed to avoid breaching the manifesto pledge - as Mr Blair told the Commons on 22 October 2003 - that implies an acceptance that the Government scheme can indeed be described as top-up fees, contradicting the first argument that they are variable fees.

Most recently, Mr Johnson initially tried to fend off "Citizen Sane" by using the first defence, insisting that "top-up fees" as he defined them had not been introduced.

When that failed to impress, he appeared to adopt a third line, telling the students that even if they were correct and the manifesto pledge had been breached, sometimes it was necessary for governments to change course: "There will be occasions when politicians do have to do something different to what they said they'd do because circumstances change," he told them

Evening Standard, 14 April 1997
Hansard Col 892, 29 October 1997
Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998
Labour Party manifesto 2001, pg 20
Hansard Col 635, 22 October 2003
BBC1 Question Time, 6 April 2005
Alan Johnson interview, Financial Times, 10 January 2004
Today programme, 8 April 2005

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