Chancellor appeals to MPs for unity in vote on top-up fees

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The chancellor Gordon Brown issued a new appeal to Labour MPs yesterday not to wreck plans to bring in university top-up fees, an issue on which the Government faces another knife-edge Commons vote next week.

The chancellor Gordon Brown issued a new appeal to Labour MPs yesterday not to wreck plans to bring in university top-up fees, an issue on which the Government faces another knife-edge Commons vote next week.

Government whips are worried that the Higher Education Bill could be scuppered by an alliance of Labour rebels, Tories and Liberal Democrats who oppose the proposal to bring in variable fees for different universities and courses.

In January, Tony Blair survived his biggest backbench revolt, when 72 Labour MPs voted against the measure, cutting his 161 majority to just five. Another close shave is expected on Wednesday next week, when the Bill is due to complete its final stages through the House of Commons before being sent to the House of Lords.

What worries the Labour whips is that some MPs who did not rebel in January when the measure won a second reading were holding their fire until next week's report stage and third reading debate. Last year the Government's majority on its plans to set up foundation hospitals was smaller during the later stages than in the second reading debate.

Mr Brown told the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party yesterday that universities needed the revenue that would be generated by top-up fees.

"We have the right policy," Mr Brown said. "When it comes to the vote next week, we need to be a united and disciplined party."

Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, has tabled an amendment to the Bill removing the provision that would allow universities to charge up to £3,000 a year in tuition fees. It would leave intact the concessions that ministers have announced, including extra help to students from poor families, and hold tuition fees at their current flat-rate level of £1,125 a year.

Dr Gibson insisted that rebels did not want to see the Bill fall. "We want a Higher Education Act," he said. "This is a chance to do it but we want it to be right."

Downing Street signalled that the Government would withdraw the Bill rather than lose variable fees. "This is not a pick-and-mix Bill. It stands as a whole and variability is a key component," Mr Blair's official spokesman said yesterday.

"We won the day in January and we will continue to work hard to ensure that position holds when the Bill returns. There has been genuine dialogue but we believe this Bill is the best way forward for students and the higher education sector."

Tim Yeo, the shadow Education Secretary, said that there were "deep divisions" in the Labour Party over the Bill. "The majority of MPs oppose top-up fees. The only way that the Bill will pass is if Government whips carry on using strong-arm tactics to force their MPs to vote against their consciences," he said.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, said: "This Bill remains bad for students, bad for universities, bad for taxpayers and bad for the future of our country as a whole."

Mr Willis added: "Next week's third reading of the Bill gives Labour backbenchers a last chance to honour their manifesto pledges, on which people voted, and save our universities from becoming a market lottery for any future students."

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