The National Union of Students (NUS) has said it is “outraged” with the result of a vote to scrap maintenance grants for over half a million of England’s poorest students just hours after protesters blocked Westminster Bridge in a day of protests.
The demonstrators had gathered in Parliament Square in support of an opposition day debate in the Commons which was launched by the Labour Party following significant cross-party opposition to the proposals and lobbying from students’ unions from across the UK.
Police were reportedly forced to close the bridge southbound for more than an hour-and-a-half from 1.21pm on Tuesday after the demonstrators spread out onto the road. They were later moved back to Parliament Square and the bridge was reopened again at 2.56pm.
A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said officers were in attendance at the time and spoke with the protesters. She added: “An appropriate policing plan is in place,” reported the Evening Standard.
The protest was organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and Hope Worsdale, a member, said: “This is not only a direct attack on working class students, but it also shows the Government’s flagrant disregard for the most basic democratic processes.
“The Tories are clearly scared of having their policies scrutinised and exposed to public anger.”
MPs, on Tuesday, ended up voting down the opposition day motion to annul the Government’s plan by 292 for and 306 against. The vote on the praying motion to annul the regulations also narrowly fell by 292 for and 303 against.
The NUS said the lack of transparency around the entire process was “appalling” and the result of the Government’s “underhanded tactics,” and added: “The Government refused to release their original equality impact assessment - the document that should explore and explain the true impact of scrapping grants on the poorest and most marginalised students - and pushed the plans through an obscure ‘Third Delegated Legislation Committee’.”
Several MPs have spoken out against the Conservatives’ decision, including Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland who described how the poorest students will be hit hardest by the ending of maintenance grants.
He said: “Trying to do this through the backdoor shows, not only their contempt for students, but also their families. The Liberal Democrats utterly oppose this move.
“The abolition of grants will increase graduate loan repayments of the poorest. It will also increase the likelihood that graduates will not repay in full. It is unfair and economically illiterate.
“This hurts people the Tories talk about the most; those who strive and go to university to better themselves.”
Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South, paid tribute to a “great NUS campaign and strong speeches against the Government, while Labour MP for Ilford North, Wes Streeting, couldn’t hide his disappointment at the day’s events. He tweeted: “Grants for poorest students abolished. Doesn't feel any better being beaten on student finance on the inside than it did on the outside.”
The NUS said the plan to scrap maintenance grants lacks public support and that its research shows over 50 per cent of students’ parents believe scrapping grants undermines the Government’s objective to increase access to university for poorer students.
NUS national president, Megan Dunn, said: “The vote to scrap maintenance grants today is condemnable. This is the latest attack on students by the Government. It is unbelievable a decision affecting hundreds of thousands of students has been made in this way.
“The Government has repeatedly tried to avoid scrutiny over this issue and has denied us the chance to have a proper debate. The move to exclude Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs is another underhand tactic used to force these changes through.
“The process was a shambles - from the approach, to the Delegated Legislation Committee to a lack of clarity about how English votes for English laws would operate - leading to points of order being raised after the vote.”
Dunn thanked the lobbying efforts of students’ unions across the UK, adding: “Today’s debate has brought attention to the extremely unfair process leading up to this devastating result for future generations of students.”
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