The National Union of Students says it expects at least 30 Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against a rise in university tuition fees. Forty-two would have to oppose fees in a parliamentary vote for the Government to be defeated.
The NUS says that before the May General Election, every Lib Dem candidate who was subsequently elected signed its Vote for Students pledge, promising to vote against any rise in tuition fees in the next parliament.
The Lib Dem manifesto said the party would scrap tuition fees – and the front page of their website says it’s still their policy. When Nick Clegg joined hands with the Conservatives after the election, the coalition agreement allowed the Lib Dems to abstain in any vote on fees.
There are 57 Lib Dem MPs – 15 in the government, 42 on the backbenches.
FactCheck contacted the backbenchers’ Commons offices today to find out if they would vote against a rise in fees.
Julian Huppert (Cambridge) said he would stand by his promise to fight a rise in fees. “Forcing students to take on huge amounts of debt is not the way. It is a disincentive for people who wish to go to university and it is inappropriate. It is important to realise that the perception of a 17-year-old preparing to enter university education is very different from that of a 50-year-old economist.”
John Leech (Manchester Withington) would also vote against. He said: “I signed the NUS pledge and supported our manifesto, which promised to vote against any rise in tuition fees. I am going to keep that promise. This is a political red line for me.”
Bob Russell (Colchester) told FactCheck: “I will not be voting for the increase in tuition fees.”
Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) used the Twitter website to say he would vote against.
When we called the office of the former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife), we were told that he had said in the past that he would vote against.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) has also said he would oppose any increase, while Stephen Williams (Bristol West) has said he would find it very hard to support a rise.
John Hemming (Birmingham Yardley) told FactCheck he could vote against a rise. He said: “I am hoping the system will change to be one which is more like a graduate tax than tuition fees in which the situation then is that there isn’t a vote as to whether or not tuition fees go up. I am not expecting to have to vote on a rise in tuition fees. If it were to be simply that I should vote against.”
Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) was undecided. He said there were “good things” in Lord Browne’s proposals. “But we are telling students from low-income backgrounds that they are going to leave university with £35-45,000 of debt. It could be a major disincentive.”
On signing the NUS pledge, Mr Crockart said: “It is obviously a difficulty, but there are a lot of difficult things we are having to do at the moment.”
Lorely Burt (Solihull) said: “I cannot give a straight answer because I don’t know what will be presented, what the package will be.”
Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley) and Duncan Hames told us they were undecided. But Mr Hames issued a warning: “I will decide how to vote when I can see the proposal that is put before me. I think I can see serious holes in Browne’s proposals that I will be looking for the government to plug.”
We were told that Lib Dem Deputy Leader Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) was waiting for the Government’s response to Lord Browne’s report – while former Leader Charles Kennedy wasn’t prepared to comment at the moment.
For Jo Swinson, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Business Secretary Vince Cable, it was a matter of “wait and see”.
FactCheck heard from about a third backbench Lib Dem MPs today. Of those, seven Lib Dems will probably vote against a rise in tuition fees. Others were still undecided.
The prediction by the NUS that 30 Lib Dem MPs will oppose an increase seems far-fetched. Signing its Vote for Students pledge before the election is no guarantee they will oppose a rise now, particularly as it will be part of a package that offers concessions to Lib Dem MPs.