Police braced for more student protests over fees

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The Independent Online

Police and Parliament were today braced for further student protests as the House of Lords debates the Government's controversial plans to hike university tuition fees to as much as £9,000.

Scotland Yard last night revealed it was in talks with Northern Irish police over the possible deployment of water cannon to deal with possible violence in future demonstrations, after ugly scenes last week when a car carrying the Prince of Wales was attacked.

But it was not thought likely that water will be used if unrest breaks out today as Home Secretary Theresa May yesterday said her approval would be required and made clear she did not think the tactic necessary.

"I don't think anybody wants to see water cannon used on the streets of Britain," Mrs May told MPs, after giving a statement to the House of Commons in which she revealed that a police report on the attack on Prince Charles' car was due by Friday.

The head of the Metropolitan Police public order branch, Commander Bob Broadhurst, later said it would be "foolish" not to consider whether water cannon were appropriate for policing protests in London, but stressed there were "no current plans" to use them and promised there would be no "knee-jerk reactions" to last week's violence.

The National Union of Students and University of London Union said they had no demonstrations planned for today.

But a group calling itself the Education Activist Network said that hundreds of students plan to "kettle" the police by linking arms around New Scotland Yard in support of 20-year-old Alfie Meadows, who needed brain surgery after allegedly being struck by a police truncheon at last Thursday's protest. Demonstrators will then move on to Parliament for this evening's Lords vote.

EAN spokesman Mark Bergfeld said: "The student protesters on the previous demonstrations have been kettled over and over, denied their right to protest and their basic human rights.

"They've been kept in freezing temperatures for eight and even 10 hours at a time. What we're saying is that we have the right to protest in the face of attacks by a Government that is making the deepest cuts since the Second World War."

Labour has tabled a so-called "fatal amendment" designed to stop the tuition fees hike in its tracks in the Lords today.

But with the coalition enjoying a 40-seat majority over Labour in the Upper House, the opposition needs the support of Liberal Democrat rebels or crossbenchers to stand a chance of blocking the university funding proposals.

There were signs of divisions among Lib Dem peers, with the party's higher education spokeswoman in the Lords, Baroness Sharp, admitting she faced a "dilemma" over which way to vote.

Lady Sharp told The Guardian: "I face a dilemma. I have a lot of reservations, and I am in the same position as many Liberal Democrat MPs. I have not decided how to vote."

She said that, by Government calculations, £2.7 billion of the £10 billion due to be lent annually to students was not expected to be repaid - almost equalling the £2.9 billion being cut from university budgets.

"That makes me question whether the whole exercise is worthwhile," said the Lib Dem peer.

"The proposals will hit middle-income groups and burden young families with a household debt of £60,000 to £80,000 at an interest rate of 9%, just at a time when they are trying to raise a family and start a home. That is a serious disincentive."

The increase in tuition fees - approved by MPs last Thursday - is being taken through Parliament not in a Bill but in a regulation, of a kind which the House of Lords conventionally does not reject.

But Labour's leader in the Lords, Baroness Royall, said that the special circumstances gave the opposition the constitutional right to try to block it.

If successful, Labour's amendment would require the Government to delay any increase in fees until after wider public consultation and a White Paper on higher education funding.

"Labour opposed the Government's policy in the Commons last week, and Labour will oppose the Government's policy in the Lords this week," said Lady Royall.

"Regrettably, we were not successful in the Commons last week in preventing the Government pressing ahead with its proposals for draconian cuts in the funding of higher education and a consequent massive rise in students' tuition fees.

"We will have a tough fight in the Lords to prevent the Government from going ahead with its plans - but we will fight to the last to do so."

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