9 Dec 2010

Government wins student tuition fees vote as protests grow

As the Government wins a vote to treble university tuition fees, violence flares across Whitehall. Alex Thomson says that nine police officers and scores of protesters are hurt.

There were ugly scenes in Westminster, where police were pelted with bottles, placards and paint and roadwork barriers were uprooted by protesters. One group tried to smash the windows of the Treasury building and there were attempts to set fire to the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.

Nine police officers and scores of protesters have been injured in the clashes, says our Chief Correspondent, Alex Thomson. A total of 22 offences have been reported – mostly for violent disorder – and there is talk of “turning up the intensity of protest and disruption”.

A spokesman for Clarence House confirmed that a car carrying Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall to the Royal Variety Show was attacked by protesters, but said they were unharmed.

With thousands of students protesting outside Parliament, MPs voted 323 to 302 to raise fees from £3,290 a year to a maximum of £9,000 – a Government majority of 21.

A total of 27 Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the Government – 21 Lib Dems and six Conservatives, including the former leadership contender, David Davis.

Two former Lib Dem leaders – Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy – and the party president Tim Farron were among the rebels on the Lib Dem benches as the party split three ways. A total of 27 Lib Dems supported the Government motion and eight did not vote – including the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, who was allowed to remain at the Climate Summit in Cancun, and the party’s deputy leader, Simon Hughes, who abstained.

“I know we have to explain it better to the country, but I don’t regret the decision that has been made and I certainly don’t regret my own role in it.” Business Secretary Vince Cable

‘No regrets’

The Business Secretary Vince Cable told Channel 4 News that he recognised there was opposition to the plans and that the Government had to do better to get its message over to the public – but he insisted it was the right policy.

“I would love to be Father Christmas and hand out lots of favours and be popular,” he said. “But the position the country is in, with this enormous deficit we have inherited was bound to lead to difficult decisions.

“I know we have to explain it better to the country, but I don’t regret the decision that has been made and I certainly don’t regret my own role in it.”

A seasonal detail here on today's proceedings: the implement of choice for some protesters has been the Christmas tree bauble filled with paint. I have seen scores of these thrown today at riot police over several hours of disturbances in Parliament Square, writes Alex Thomson.

Up the road there was certainly an attempt to set fire to the famous Norwegian Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square. But that has been put out.

Close by, a group of protesters has invaded the National Gallery. They remain there in what must be the best-decorated student sit-in in history.

Behind me, opposite Parliament, a concerted attempt to smash windows and batter down the door of the Treasury.

In a square bordered by Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court and the Treasury, if you attack a building, you are bound to hit comething of national significance.

Latest figures: Nine police injured - three seriously. And the protesters? Well, there will be scores of injuries and, as I write, at least 22 offences, mostly for violent disorder.

But what now? Well, speaker after speaker at the beginning of this rally stressed the importance of turning up the intensity of protest and disruption should the vote go against them. Now it has.

Demonstrators clash with police during the tuition fees protest in London (Reuters)

The build-up to the vote was fraught for the Liberal Democrats, whose MPs signed a National Union of Students pledge before the election saying they would vote against a rise in fees.

Ministerial aides resign

Before the vote, Mike Crockart and Jenny Willott resigned as ministerial aides so they could vote against the Government.

The Conservative MP Lee Scott, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, also stood down.

Greg Mulholland was the first Lib Dem MP to speak out against the plans in the Commons. He told the House: “Sometimes Governments are wrong and sometimes you need the courage to say so and I am doing that today.

“I am voting against the Government today because I simply cannot accept that fees of up to £9,000 are the fairest and most sustainable way of funding higher education.”

His colleague John Leech said: “I take no pleasure in voting against the plans put forward by the Business Secretary and in fact, in many ways, I welcome some of the proposals being put forward.

“Sometimes Governments are wrong.” Greg Mulholland MP

“But I will be voting against an increase in tuition fees simply because I think an increase in the cap will discourage some young people from going to university.”

Conservative MP Andrew Percy, a former teacher, said: “I can only think about the impact these fees would have had on myself and my family when I was growing up.

“Would my parents have encouraged me to attend university had they thought I was going to come away with debts of about £40,000 or £50,000? I don’t think so.”

But his colleague David Evennett said that, although it was a “difficult and emotional issue”, he would be supporting the Government.

Labour introduced fees

Labour introduced top-up fees, but is opposed to the Government’s plans to treble them.

Former Higher Education Minister David Lammy said: “We should reflect that on fees of £9,000, if you total that up and complete university with debt of between £40,000 or £50,000, that is substantially more than the annual incomes of many of our constituents. That is substantially more than the £3,000 we introduced.”

Tory Ben Gummer said: “The thing that worries me most about this debate is the entire tenor of it is doing more at the moment to put off aspirant students than anything that is contained in these proposals.”

“More progressive system than we inherited.” Business Secretary Vince Cable

Business Secretary Vince Cable, who is responsible for universities, said the Government had opted for a package that reduced the budget and introduced a “significantly more progressive system of graduate payments than we inherited”.

But his Labour Shadow John Denham said: “The vote technically today is on a very narrow issue: the fee cap. But behind it is the most profound change in university funding since the university grants committee was set up in the 1920s.

“It is the ending of funding for most university degrees. It is a huge burden of debt on graduates. It is an untried, untested and unstable market for students.”