Alan Bennett was right on tuition fees

This week I received a letter telling me that “The Student Loans Company can advise you that the outstanding balance on your Income Contingent Loan(s) should now be repaid in full.”

Recently I have been paying over £100 a month back towards my student loan, and it’s great to have it finally paid off, but it’s taken me until the age of 30 to do so. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I earn above the national average salary, don’t have any dependents and, crucially, my loan was for living expenses only (1999-2002), not tuition fees.

So, my loan was approximately £10k.

Current students will have to pay back approximately £20k (£10k tuition fees plus £10k living expenses).

Under the system proposed by the coalition, graduates may have to pay back around £45k (£35k tuition fees plus £10k living expenses).

How long is this likely to take them? Well it all depends how much you earn and what happens to interest rates. But if it took me that long, it’s going to take the majority of graduates thirty plus years. This is at a time when many of them will be raising families, buying houses, etc.

I’m afraid I simply don’t accept that it’s fair to ask new graduates to pay back this huge amount of money while the rest of us, who were lucky enough to graduate under previous systems, get off scot free.

I appreciate that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have been trying to make the Browne Report proposals fairer than the Tories would have done. However, they have done a huge disservice to the Liberal Democrats by giving the impression that they support the raise in tuition fees, despite having the abstention opt-out secured in the coalition agreement. This has dealt a massive blow to our credibility. Our policy remains that decided many years ago at conference, and confirmed repeatedly, most recently in the 2010 manifesto. We are against tuition fees as a way of funding higher education and want to phase them out.

Alan Bennett’s comment, made after the Labour Government introduced higher tuition fees in 2003, was right then and remains so now.

“A proper education should be free at the point of entry and the point of exit.”
(Preface to The History Boys, 2004)

The manifesto should have had a disclaimer

With attacks in the media about Lib Dem U-turns and “going back on our promises”, it seems obvious that we should have had some kind of disclaimer in the manifesto, such as the following.

This manifesto contains policies that will be implemented if a majority Liberal Democrat government is elected following the 2010 general election. In the event of a coalition government in which the Liberal Democrats form a part, then compromises with the other coalition party(ies) will have to be reached, and it will not be possible to deliver every policy exactly as outlined in this document.

People just don’t seem to understand that a coalition government is all about compromise and that if the Tories and Lib Dems promised different things in the respective manifestos, then clearly one or both parties will have to go against what they promised prior to the election.

Autumn conference: Equality and diversity

This post is rather belated due to work, holidays, Lib Dem meetings, council meetings and my new toy – but I’ve finally found time to sit down and write about Autumn conference in Liverpool, and type up my brief intervention (1 minute speech).

It was great to be back in the city where I lived for four years, although a lot had changed. I got lost in the big new shopping centre in the city centre, and generally things are looking smarter, but I went for a drink in the Lisbon with a few friends and it was good to see that some places are still the same.

Anyway, back to conference. Apart from the airport-style security and presence of lots of big name journalists – I spotted Huw Edwards being photographed with a couple of kids – the conference was much the same as in the past. Liverpool was my fourth autumn conference, and the atmosphere was just the same as it had been in Brighton and Bournemouth. Stalls from all the Lib Dem groups, fringe meetings with big queues for the sandwiches (no one does queuing quite like Liberal Democrats), speeches and debates.

So, the debates. For those who aren’t aware, Lib Dem policy is made at conference. Not decided by the leadership, but democratically debated and voted on. That means that real members get to debate with the MPs, Lords and anyone who wants to have their say generally gets their chance.

This seemed to take the media slightly by surprise. “Splits” they cried, “Activists arguing amongst themselves”. Yes – that’s what we always do. It’s all about having an open discussion, and in the end taking a vote on it. Relatively few policies go through unamended, and sometimes they are thrown out altogether.

I attended three major debates this year. The education debate, held bizarrely when all the teachers were back at school, was a shot across the bows about academies. I voted for the compromise amendment, but the original motion was passed in the end, with an amendment about faith schools proposed by my local colleague Nader Fekri.

The other two debates were related: Equality (Equal Marriage in the United Kingdom) and diversity. The equality motion, which was passed overwhelmingly, calls for the extension of Civil Partnerships to straight couples and Marriage to gay couples – we thus become the first UK political party to call for full gay equality, which is great news.

The diversity motion was more complicated. It aimed to increase the proportion of black and minority ethnic Lib Dem parliamentarians and councillors, which is an important issue. However, it didn’t consider other minorities. An amendment from Jo Swinson et al added in women, but it still didn’t seem complete to me. My intervention (one minute speech) was as follows.

Conference, let’s not forget that black and minority ethnic is not the only under-represented group in the various parliaments.

I welcome amendment one which will help address the lamentably small number of women Lib Dem MPs, but what about LGBT candidates, disabled candidates and other groups.

I would suggest that if we’re going to have reserved places, they should not be for a specific minority, but could be for any under-represented group. Anyone could apply for one of these places, but they would have to be from a minority group, which I think would be fairer and avoid excluding potentially excellent candidates from the “wrong” minority.

Getting this right is so important, so let’s make sure we have a really diverse set of candidates, particularly for the Lords elections when (not if) the coalition government introduces an elected House of Lords under a proportional system.

It clocked in at 55 seconds so I didn’t have the embarrassment of having the mike turned off! The speech says it all really – I agreed with the sentiments of the motion, but it seemed poorly drafted and rather one sided. In the end, a complicated series of votes saw the compromise amendment going through which watered down the original motion. However, everyone is now aware that the issue needs urgently addressing, and I was pleased to read Tim Farron including it as one of his six commitments if he wins the party presidency. I suspect he will win, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with.

A brave decision by Clegg

Today’s announcement that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are to form a coalition government represents a very brave decision by Nick Clegg.

The Labour party have taken the easy way out. They have made it clear that they weren’t interested in working with us in a progressive coalition, and they have opted for opposition at a time when the country needs a stable government to deal with the financial crisis. Labour already seem to be descending into infighting and disagreements and look to be stuck in the wilderness for years.

Once Labour were out of the picture, the only remaining options were a minority Conservative government, or a Lib-Con coalition. Clearly the latter is preferable in the interests of the country. It will lose us many votes at future elections, but the prospects of getting Lib Dem policies into law is exciting.

Initial indications are that we will get the basic level of income tax raised to £10,000 so that no one earning less than this pays any income tax at all. That is a fantastic achievement. We should also get a nation-wide referendum on AV (transferable vote), and ID cards should be scrapped. So far so good.

But of course there will be compromises. I’m not keen on George Osborne as chancellor. It will be interesting to see what cabinet posts Nick and Vince get. Beyond the initial policy agreements, we could be in for a rocky ride over the next few years – if indeed the coalition lasts that long.

Let’s be clear. As a liberal social democrat, I have an intense dislike of the Conservative party, but I have no time for New Labour either. Nick Clegg made it abundantly clear during the election campaign that he would work to deliver Lib Dem policies with whoever was willing to talk to him. It will be interesting to see how it all works out.

I wish him the very best of luck.

Gems from the manifesto

My mornings have started with leafleting sessions at 6.15am twice more this week, to get our local election address out in my ward. But last thing at night my reading material has been our manifesto for the general election.

I bought a paper copy to read in bed, and reading through it has reminded me exactly why I’m a Liberal Democrat. What a fantastic set of policies, many of which have been well publicised.

But I spotted half a dozen gems which aren’t so well known. Some of them I wasn’t even aware of and I’ve been to every national conference for several years now.

So, ignoring the big promises, here are my favourites:

  1. Encourage community-owned renewable energy schemes (p.28) – It goes without saying that these would be brilliant in Calder Valley, harnessing the water power that was used by industry here 200 years ago.
  2. Cut red tape for putting on live music (p.46) – Why have Labour made it harder to put on a small gig in a pub or church hall. Seriously. Why?
  3. Strengthen the Youth Service by making it a statutory service (p.51) – Youth services have been cut severely by Tory-run Calderdale council this year, there is now no council-run youth provision in central Hebden Bridge. As a non-statutory service, it is an easy target for cuts.
  4. Change the tariffs used by energy supply companies so that the first energy you use is the cheapest (p.53) – I have changed to a gas supplier that charges the same price per unit for every unit used by every customer. I’ve spent hundreds of pounds insulating my house. Why should someone who hasn’t bothered get cheaper and cheaper energy the more they use. This is the case with all the major suppliers.
  5. Fight to stop MEPs having to travel to the Strasbourg Parliament every month (p.66) – What a waste of time, energy, and money. Surely this is a no-brainer.
  6. Protect free speech […] through reform of the English and Welsh libel laws (p.93) – The case against Simon Singh may have been dropped, but it should never have been allowed to be brought in the first place. Our libel laws need urgent reform.

How good would it be to get all these through parliament?

Speaking of manifestos, Lewisham Liberal Democrats have published their local government manifesto which is an extremely impressive document for a local party to produce, with lots of excellent but serious policies. I wish them all the best in their campaign to elect a Lib Dem mayor and take control of the council, and I hope we can produce something similar, if maybe not quite as slick, for the local elections here next year.

Free to be young – and other great stuff from Spring Conference

I made the trip to Birmingham yesterday, getting up at some ungodly hour, for the Lib Dem Spring Conference. Unfortunately I could only stay for the one day, but what a great day it was.

The highlight of the day was our policy paper on young people, entitled Free to be Young. This policy is overwhelmingly positive, focusing on why we should celebrate our young people, and help them to make a positive contribution to society. I know loads of teenagers who are brilliant role models, and get so frustrated when certain sections of the media portray them as nothing better than ‘hoodies’ hanging round causing trouble. Of course there are a few people of all age groups that cause trouble – but the Labour government spend vast amounts of money locking up young offenders, and hardly anything on schemes to prevent them offending in the first place. Where’s the logic in that?

But what else went on…?

I got to hear the main speech by Vince Cable, which was extraordinarily competent as ever. The prospect of George Osborne being our next chancellor of the exchequer, frankly, fills me with dread.

I also attended the Q&A session with Nick Clegg. Which other party leader is brave enough to offer himself up for open questions from the audience? Nick does this up and down the country, and was grilled just as hard (if not harder) by Liberal Democrats in Birmingham. He answered all questions well and showed just how well he has grown into the role of leader since his election.

At lunchtime, I attended a fringe meeting by ALDES with no particular agenda, but speeches by the great Evan Harris and also Julian Huppert from Cambridge. Two excellent speakers, and real assets to the party. There are not enough scientists in the House of Commons. Hopefully that will change come May!

Unfortunately I missed the debate on Freedom, Creativity and the Internet this morning, being back in Yorkshire, but I needn’t have worried. After a slightly embarrassing episode in the House of Lords a couple of weeks ago, many technologically-minded Lib Dems were up in arms. This motion, passed overwhelmingly, puts us back on the right course to develop some sound policy on IT and the Internet, which is sorely needed.

Conference is a great place to meet people. I bumped into my old friend Jane Brophy, who was preparing a speech against the main environment motion, saying it didn’t go far enough. As a regular dissenter myself (only the Liberal Democrats will let people like us stand on the main stage and speak against party policy) I tried to give a few pointers. In the end, her speech came across very well.

Overall the conference reminded me why I’m a Liberal Democrat. Not only do I agree with the overwhelming majority of our policy, but the very way we make it is completely different from the other parties. I simply can’t imagine having anywhere near as much freedom to discuss, debate and disagree in either Labour or the Conservatives. I’m now looking forward to the main conference in Liverpool in September and, of course, the general and local elections in May (or whenever!).

The only down side to the day was the train journey home. Not only was Birmingham New Street station gruesome as ever, but my train back from Manchester to Hebden was packed to overflowing. We were literally crammed in like sardines. This is partly due to the reduction in trains to Rochdale following the Oldham Loop Line’s conversion to Metrolink – however Northern Rail have shown precious little enthusiasm for actually doing anything about it.