Labour rebels to press for top-up fees rethink

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Labour MPs plan to defy the party whips in the first Commons protest at proposals to bring in top-up fees for university students.

Around 140 Labour backbenchers have signed an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to abandon its policy, which would enable universities to charge differential fees of up to £3,000 a year for higher education.

Though they await Secretary of State for Education Charles Clarke's response to consultation on the White Paper that suggested the introduction of the fees, large numbers of Labour MPs intend to show that their hostility is serious by failing to back the Government in two Commons votes on the issue this week.

Tomorrow, the Liberal Democrats will force a vote on their simply worded motion calling on the Government "not to allow universities to introduce top-up fees". And on Wednesday, the Tories will follow suit, pledging to end what they call "Labour's tax on learning". They propose to abolish tuition fees and to reverse the imposition of any further fees.

If all sides joined forces and voted together, the Government's plans would suffer their first Commons defeat. But the Labour rebels have signalled they will stop short of voting against their leadership on an opposition motion - until they have given Mr Clarke a chance for a rethink. "There is no point in getting all worked up before we have had that response," one said.

The Tories, however, have vowed to pursue any Labour MP who has signed the motion but then votes with the Government or fails to vote. Conservative sources said: "There have been too many occasions when Labour MPs have signed various bits and pieces but when the crunch comes suddenly, like lemmings, they appear unable to upset Tony. We will be letting constituencies know about MPs who signed against fees but don't vote against them. We will go for them big time."

Opponents of the Government's policy on all sides agree that only a defeat in Parliament will halt the plan. Ministers have indicated that there will be no compromise on the subject.

Critics claim the introduction of top-up fees will jeopardise the Government's own goal of widening access to university and getting 50 per cent of all young people into higher education by 2010.