Threat of revolt in Lords on college fees

THE "HAUGHTY manner" of Baroness Blackstone was being blamed last night for contributing to the risk of an embarrassing government defeat in the Lords which could throw into chaos its plan to introduce pounds 1,000- a-year student fees.

Some senior peers were blaming the "arrogance" of the education minister in the Lords, for the Government's difficulties. They are upset that Lady Blackstone has failed to provide assurances about the level of the fees that will be imposed on students by the universities, and the practicality of introducing means testing in time for the autumn term.

"There is some very bad blood about Baroness Blackstone in the Lords," said one leading House of Lords source. "She has always been bad in the Lords. She has this arrogant, haughty manner. She always looks as though she is looking down her nose at you. She doesn't seem to like it in the Lords. She gives you the impression she would prefer talking to Fellows of All Souls."

The Liberal Democrat peers and the Conservatives led by Baroness Blatch, the former minister, are threatening to join forces to defeat the Government on Monday in the Lords on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which puts the plans for student fees into effect.

Both opposition parties have complained that the Government is proposing means- tested fees of pounds 1,000 a year, but the legislation fails to spell out the details, because the universities are covered by private law. A motion has been tabled to force the Government to retable the two main clauses at the core of the legislation, with a fuller explanation. That could cause a delay, putting the timetable into fresh doubt. A Liberal Democrat source said: "Unless there is a substantial concession, the Government will be defeated."

A Tory spokesman said: "We are planning to vote with the Liberal Democrats, which means the Government will be defeated. The Government's main clauses on fees would have to be tabled again and debated again."

Baroness Blatch will be leading Tory opposition to the Bill with four key amendments, including one insisting on the existing maintenance grant for students being continued alongside flat-rate fees.

A number of left-wing Labour MPs are also threatening to rebel when the Bill goes to the House of Commons to complete its passage through Parliament. One leading leftwing MP said the rebellion could be as big as the vote against the Government's cuts in one-parent benefits.

The universities are also unhappy with the Government's handling of the introduction of the fees. A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: "Strathclyde University told me all their means testing goes out to an agency. We don't think they will be able to finish it in time. They won't know what to charge students."