Rebel MPs refuse to give up in fees fight

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Indy Politics

MPs have warned that Tony Blair will face renewed threats to university top-up fees even if he secures a temporary reprieve in the Commons later this month.

Rebels said yesterday they would throw out controversial proposals for variable fees of up to £3,000 later this year if the Higher Education Bill wins a second reading on the eve of the publication of the Hutton report. Leaders of the back-bench revolt insisted that they still have the support of more than 100 MPs, enough to defeat the Government when the Bill is debated in principle on 27 January. And they threatened fresh problems for the legislation in its crucial stages in the event of a Blair victory.

Ministers hope that potential rebels will rally round Mr Blair to avoid the humiliation of a confidence vote. But one rebel leader warned that even a defeat for anti-fee MPs would not mend Mr Blair's problems. He said: "At the report stage and so on the battle will be on. The Bill has to get through the Lords as well, and some of them will object to the access regulator. The end of the Bill is not at second reading."

Liberal Democrats are already drafting amendments, to be introduced during committee and report stages, to remove variable fees and ensure that a future Government cannot use top-up fees to cut grants to universities. Amendments designed to win the support of Labour rebels include measures to set a fixed-rate fee while allowing universities to offer discounts.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "We still have fundamental objections to the Bill. But if the Bill gets a second reading we will campaign pro-actively to pursue the best aspects of the Bill and limit the aspects to which people object."

Peter Bradley, the Labour MP for The Wrekin and a campaigner for concessions on the Bill, said he was studying the proposals before deciding whether to back the legislation at second reading. He said: "There is absolutely no doubt that the Bill unveiled last week was not a package of concessions at the margins. It was radically different to what was expected and all the changes were changes for the better."

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, intensified his campaign to persuade the rebels in a speech to Labour activists yesterday, lambasting the Tory leader, Michael Howard, for opposing the Bill.


The rebel: Ian Gibson MP for Ipswich North and sponsor of the Commons motion criticising top-up fees: "The variable fees could set up an Ivy League-type system in higher eduction which the richest will be able to access but the poorer members of society will not."

The switcher: Stephen Pound MP for Ealing North, changed his mind after signing the rebel motion: "The Government has listened and done exactly what we asked in Paul Farrelly's early day motion. They haven't just tried to bully us. We have to write cheques that get cashed."

The supporter: Graham Allen MP for Nottingham North, who has supported the reforms since their publication: "This package is a massive improvement in up-front support and anyone who has got to university is bright enough to know it is a fantastic interest-free deal."