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)

Tuition fees – I must be missing something

We are being told that we must increase tuition fees because otherwise there won’t be enough money for higher education.

But even if the increased fees are introduced next year, students starting then won’t graduate for three years. So the income from the increased tuition fees won’t start to appear until September 2014 – and that will only be a trickle. The real money will only start rolling in once those graduates have progressed to big-money jobs, probably well into the 2020s.

So how on earth are we going to be funding higher education for the next decade?

Shed Your Tears and Walk Away

Instead of watching the football this evening, I was at the cinema in Hebden Bridge watching Shed Your Tears and Walk Away, Jez Lewis’s documentary film about people growing up in Hebden Bridge and being drawn into a vicious circle of drink, drugs, and the eventual spiral to overdose and death.

There has been much discussion locally about how much of a drink/drugs ‘problem’ the town has, but it’s clear that there is or has been a problem with kids growing up and ending up in this cycle. The film covered people who’d grown up in the 70s and 80s and were still abusing drugs and alcohol today, as well as those much younger.

What struck me was that the people in the film kept raising the same issues when trying to explain how they’d ended up in their situation. There seemed to be three main problems.

Lack of opportunities

People in the film commented on the lack of jobs in Hebden, and to a certain extent that’s true, but the real problem seemed to be the lack of ideas of what they could do and how to go about doing it. The lads admitted to truanting from a young age, and many of them probably left school with few qualifications at sixteen and little idea about what they were good at. I hope that careers advice is better at Calder High these days but one thing I think is critical is to get vocational subjects into our education system much earlier. Many boys are completely turned off by academic study when they reach their teens. So instead of forcing them to sit in lessons, why don’t we get them learning practical skills for part of the day. How to repair a car. How to build a wall. How to fit a kitchen. I don’t mean we should give up on English and Maths completely, but secondary school should be an opportunity to find out what you’re good at – and not just those who are good at studying for exams.

Unaffordable housing

It’s true that house prices in Hebden have rocketed over the last few years, fuelled by a combination of Gordon Brown’s property boom, and the popularity of Hebden for people like me who live here but commute elsewhere to work – in my case Keighley, 10 miles away. There is a desperate need for more affordable (for purchase) and social (for rent) housing. Derelict land like that opposite my house needs redeveloping and the percentage of affordable housing in each development needs to be much higher. The government really needs to develop the necessary criteria and regulations so that new housing can be developed which is affordable to buy in the first instance, and remains affordable when it is subsequently sold on.

Easy access to drink and drugs

The iconic image of the film was the can of Special Brew, present in somebody’s hand in almost every scene. Heavy drinking is a real problem. When I had visitors from Germany a couple of weeks ago, we came across a youth lying in the street too drunk to get up. I offered to help but their friend was calling an ambulance. So what’s to be done?

For a start I think we should have minimum pricing for alcohol. My libertarian friends tend to be against this but we make cigarettes expensive to dissuade people from buying them, and we make petrol expensive to stop unnecessary journeys. I think the same needs to be done with alcohol. Certainly we should ban selling below price and all of the heavily advertised special promotions that you see so often in supermarkets. I think this would help, but of course the best thing is for young people to have something to do other than just hang around and drink.

I hope that the “fair for youth” organised a few weeks ago by local youngsters together with Hebden Royd Town Council will be a real turning point for the town. It took place on Calder Holmes park, where much of the film was set, but instead of hanging around drinking, there were bands, dance, art, skateboarding, and all sorts. The kids weren’t just getting involved, they were running it. That’s the sort of thing that gives me real hope for the future.

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.

Labour letting down our teenagers on sex education

This week’s shocking U-turn by the Labour Government, to allow religious schools to put their own slant on sex and relationship education, will let down thousands of teenagers (and younger children) across the country. Ed Balls’ amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill will almost certainly lead to state-funded religious schools teaching that contraception is immoral and that having a gay relationship is wrong.

At the Liberal Democrats Spring Conference last year, I summated the Calderdale motion on faith schools. I made the point that someone growing up lgbt in a religious school will have a much harder time when teachers are allowed to say that a relationship with someone of the same sex is wrong. Also, some religions are against contraception. With 21st Century Britain having such a high teenage pregnancy rate, and many developing countries struggling with overpopulation, I believe that such a position is indefensible.

Speaking on the amendment was an interesting experience as I had to persuade a couple of thousand Liberal Democrats to vote against Vince Cable, who had spoken against our amendment. The end result was – as it so often is – a compromise. The resulting Liberal Democrat policy is that faith schools can continue to exist, but must demonstrate the diversity of their intake, ie. not just fill up with children of one religion. I believe very strongly that growing up with people who are of different religions, races, and sexualities, is essential to overcome prejudice, which is caused by the fear of the unknown.

The Accord Coalition, made up of people from many religions and none, has strongly criticised Ed Balls’ amendment, drawing parallels with the infamous Section 28. It is shocking that a Labour Government, who scrapped Section 28 and introduced civil partnerships, is taking such a backward step on lgbt issues. Equally worrying is the fact that youngsters across the country may not be properly taught about contraception, potentially leading to STDs and hundreds of unwanted pregnancies. Whilst I respect the right of any religion to have its own views, children in state-funded schools need to be taught the basic facts of life in an unbiased way.

It is clear that the once-radical Labour Party have given up any hope of improving things for lgbt youngsters. The Tories have always been hopeless, so it is now left to the Liberal Democrats – with our promise of full marriage between any two consenting adults regardless of gender, and our sensible policies on faith schools – to carry the lgbt flame.

Youth in Hebden Bridge – not all bad news!

The young people of Hebden Bridge have not had the best of press recently. This week, The Times published an article alleging (without statistics) that the town has one of the highest suicide rates in England. This follows a previous article in the Independent on Sunday, and a general perception amongst certain sections of the population that youngsters in the town spend most of their evenings drinking and taking drugs, leading to dependency, social meltdown, and eventually death.

Whilst there certainly are young people drinking and taking drugs in Hebden, in my experience it’s not much worse than anywhere else. The smell of grass on the town’s streets – and I don’t mean the freshly mown variety – is no worse than in suburban Cheshire where I lived before moving here.

However, there is a bit of a problem with things to do for under-18s. There is very little provision in terms of live music, as the local live music club (Trades Club) has a policy of not hosting performances by young rock bands or DJs, and not allowing under 18s to Friday or Saturday night gigs. There is not really anywhere for young people to go with lighting and shelter. There is a youth club one night a week but that’s not for everybody. We do have an excellent cinema but on the surface of things that’s about it.

It’s important to say that the drugs issue is not being ignored, with Calderdale MBC working together with other organisations like Lifeline Calderdale / Step 2 to help address these issues.

Back to young people, though. Just before I was elected 18 months ago, the Town Council set up a Young People’s Working Party. One of the campaigning Focus leaflets for my election (see pic) focused on the issue of youth provision and I was pleased that Hebden Royd were doing something about it. Unfortunately that incarnation of the working party didn’t really get anywhere. However, in late 2009, things started moving again. The indomitable Lesley Jones resurrected the working party and we held a small meeting with Calderdale MBC Youth Workers and a few other organisations providing young people’s services.

One of the ideas that was raised was that of auditing youth provision in Hebden Royd, and getting everyone together for a big youth day on Calder Holmes Park later in the year. The second meeting was held this week, and I was expecting the same small bunch of people. I was surprised and extremely pleased when the committee room filled up… and people kept arriving. People were literally sharing chairs and sitting on other items of furniture. Not only were there representatives of loads of local organisations, as well as Hebden Royd Town Councillors and Calderdale MBC Youth Workers, but around a dozen young people as well. I wish I’d had my camera to take a photo for the press release!

Lesley somehow managed to keep the meeting on track and we heard from the young folk there as well as the adults. They raised issues like a lack of access to gigs and sports, as well as a general lack of things to do and places to hang out. A separate steering committee – led by the young people – has been set up to plan the event in Calder Holmes Park, and will invite anyone and everyone working with young people in the area, from skateboarders to the woodcraft folk, to be a part of it. The main working party will continue to review and hopefully move forward other youth provision.

One of the groups represented at the meeting was Project X, a social enterprise recently formed to work with young people in the Upper Calder Valley. On Friday, they held a fund-raising gig at the Trades Club (no under 18s allowed!) featuring local North-African band Maghribibeat. I went along and had a great time. The main band were good but they were followed, unexpectedly, by Recorded Filth, a group of local youngsters who were much more interesting. Their performance ranged from performance poetry through rap (in both English and French) to R’n’B/soul, including a stunning version of Bring It On Home to Me. And where else but Hebden Bridge would a group encore with a comic rap about Necrophilia?!

It was a great night, and goes to show that local youngsters do much more than just hang round on street corners smoking and drinking. I am hopeful that, with the involvement of local young people, Hebden Royd Town Council can help improve youth provision in the area and hopefully prevent future generations from going off the rails.

Edit 16 February 2010: Anthony Rae has dug out some official suicide statistics for the area which do not support the sensationalist headline in The Times, although it must be stressed that the figures are so low that drawing any kind of serious conclusion is impossible. Also, they presumably don’t include any deaths due to accidental drug or alcohol overdoses.