It is a very serious matter for a Member of Parliament to vote against his own party, especially when that party is in government, as we are. Some have said that I didn't have the heart to rebel in the second-reading vote on top-up fees on Tuesday evening. They are wrong. I most certainly did have the heart. I decided that with the concessions made by the Government, I should vote for the Bill in order for it to proceed to the next stage of the legislative process.
The Higher Education Bill contains some very good measures: abolishing upfront fees; better terms of fee repayment; widening access; more financial help for those from poor backgrounds; more money for universities; and the establishment of an Arts and Humanities Research Council.
I would have been reluctant to throw all of these measures out. It is particularly important for me, because many of the people I represent are less affluent than the general population. Many of my constituents' children will benefit from an improved settlement for higher education. This Bill could provide the foundation. But there is still some way to go.
My objections to the Bill are about the increased burden of debt that will be placed on graduates of ordinary means; our manifesto pledge not to introduce top-up fees; and, above all, the introduction of a market to higher education. In addition, it is also the case that the Government's present proposals still leave a funding gap in higher education.
Progress has been made on addressing each of these objections. To begin, there will be a new inquiry into how the increased debt burden on graduates will affect recruitment to less well-paid public service careers. We can and should do more to offer youngsters of ordinary means a gateway into the professions, and I am pleased that the Treasury will set aside additional funds in the next spending review to meet the recommendations of the inquiry.
Separately, an independent, long-term commission will examine all issues in the next Parliament. This will include re-examining the principle of variability of fees charged by universities and an examination of alternatives to the proposed scheme. This independent inquiry will allow those of us who favour a graduate tax-approach to reopen that issue.
In any event, following the Government's own logic, there is a need to look further into these matters, because the current proposals still leave a major funding gap for universities. The Labour Party's national policy forum will have an input into the policy-making process that it was denied in the drafting of the current Bill.
The most serious of my objections relates to the marketisation of higher education. Markets in public services favour the rich at the expense of those of ordinary means. As fees go up, access is accordingly denied.
My fear is that variable fees capped at £3,000 would be the thin end of a very fat wedge. There is no shortage of vice-chancellors of élite universities who believe that £3,000 is just a transitional stage towards £5,000, £10,000, even £15,000 a year.
Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, has behaved creditably throughout our discussions. He made it explicitly clear to the House that the cap would be maintained throughout the next Parliament. The Government, consequently, has indicated that it would introduce an amendment at committee stage to ensure that there could be no increases in real terms before 2010. Any increase after 2010 will require a vote on the floor of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The commission has to report before any such vote, having considered the alternatives. If the commission looking at the impact of variable fees recommends changes to the system, a new universities bill would be required in order to implement them.
The second reading of a bill is only the first of many tests it faces in Parliament. With a majority of just five in Tuesday's vote, the future stages of the Bill will be hotly contested. In particular, the report stage will see some very, very tight votes because (unlike at second reading) those with specific objections to the Bill - for instance, on variability, or on the fee cap - will be able to table focused amendments and force votes on the floor of the House.
More than 70 of my fellow Labour MPs voted against the Bill. It will not have been an easy decision for any of them to vote with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, to risk endangering a government that has done so much to improve the lives of the people we represent. But I understand the strength of feeling that led them to do so.
There is a great deal of unhappiness in the Parliamentary Labour Party about the position we find ourselves in. Everyone has lessons to learn. We should treat the Labour Party with respect. We should explore policy options before decisions are made, not the other way around. We should keep discussions focused on the merits of the issue. Loyalty cannot be commanded, it must be earned.
Nick Brown is the Member of Parliament for Newcastle East and Wallsend