Government wins top-up fees vote

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Indy Politics

The Government won the crucial Commons vote on university top-up fees tonight with a majority of just five.

Victory for Tony Blair and his Cabinet, by 316 votes to 311, came after a day of high drama at Westminster which began when rebel leader, the former Chief Whip Nick Brown, switched allegiance to the Government.

But despite the relief the Prime Minister and Education Secretary Charles Clarke will be feeling, they still face a tough battle getting the Higher Education Bill over the rest of its parliamentary assault course.

And before that, Mr Blair, having suffered easily the biggest backbench rebellion of his leadership so far, has to survive the second of this week's make-or-break set-piece events.

Tomorrow, Lord Hutton's report into the circumstances surrounding the death of Government weapons expert David Kelly is published.

If Mr Blair gets through that, MPs and peers opposed to giving universities the ability to vary their fees between nothing and £3,000-a-year could still attempt to overturn this aspect of the legislation in later Commons and Lords debates.

Mr Blair and Education Secretary Charles Clarke will know they have won an important, perhaps decisive battle.

But the fees war is not yet over.

And while today's result may help to shore up Mr Blair's position, tomorrow is likely to be an equally difficult day for the Prime Minister.

Opening the debate on the Bill, Mr Clarke told MPs that that allowing universities to charge more than the proposed £3,000 maximum "forms no part of this Government's agenda".

Mr Clarke, with Mr Blair sitting beside him, attempted to ride the momentum generated by Mr Brown's decision, telling MPs that a vote against the Bill would deny working class students a generous package of financial support.

Defeat would also deprive middle class people the right to pay their fees back after they graduate, not while they were at university, and to have outstanding debts written off after 25 years.

Mr Clarke said allowing universities to vary their fees was a "key component" of the Bill.

Many Labour MPs are worried that elite universities are already lobbying ministers to have the cap raised or scrapped altogether as soon as possible, leaving students to pay fees of £10,000 or £20,000 a year.

The Government could probably have saved weeks of trouble getting top-up fees past the Commons if it had agreed to drop variability in favour of an increase in the current £1,125-a-year flat rate fee.

Mr Clarke acknowledged: "I know that many colleagues have expressed the fear that this is the prelude to fee levels rising to much higher levels in later years.

"I want to assure the House that fees at this level form no part of this Government's agenda."

That sparked a burst of jeering from opposition MPs as it echoed the Government's manifesto pledge not to allow universities to charge top-up fees at all.

Mr Clarke declared: "I can provide a three-fold assurance to this House that fee rises on this scale will not happen."

First, the £3,000 cap would apply for the whole of the next Parliament, he said. The Government would amend the Bill to ensure that no vote on lifting the cap could take place until 2010.

Secondly, raising the fee would require a debate and vote in the Commons.And before any vote could take place, an independent commission would report on the impact of fees in 2009, he went on.