The reactionary changes made by the Tory Libdem government are now becoming clear. I am going to look very briefly at four recent comprehensive reports that show the fruits of the coalition government are bitter indeed. Do read the reports.

The changes in tax and benefits
Research by Paola de Agostini, Holly Sutherland, John Hills of the University of Essex and the London School of Economics, Were we really all in it together? The distributional effects of the UK coalition government’s tax-benefit changes (November 2014), has looked at the impact of the changes in direct taxes, tax credits, and pensions (but not indirect taxes such as VAT) on different income groups in Britain since May 2010, the last general election.

The verdict is clear: money has been shifted from the poorest to the well-off. “The reforms had the effect of making an income transfer from the poorest half of households (and some of the very richest) to most of the richest half” (page 19) – without improving the deficit.
No, we are not all in this together. The Tories and Libdems have beaten up the poor.

Tax and benefit changes #fail

The failure of the coalition’s student fees scheme
The Higher Education Commission has just published Too good to fail – the financial sustainability of higher education in England (November 2014), its report on the sustainability of the present funding of higher education in England, including student tuition fees. The quick verdict: “the current system is unsustainable” (page 63).

The Libdems before the 2010 election had loudly and flamboyantly promised to abolish student fees. Once in government they tripled them.

On student loans for the fees the report produces some startling statistics of failure:
“According to the Institute for fiscal studies (IFS) students will graduate with an average of £44 035 of student debt” (page 11)
“The IFS estimates that 73 percent of graduates will not repay their debt in full, compared to just 25 percent under the old system” (page 11)
“For every £1 lent by the government to students for HE [higher education], 45 pence will not be repaid” (page 12).

And the really bad news is that the Financial conduct authority (FCA) now insists that student loan debt is taken into account when people apply for a mortgage. The dismal effect will be to prevent many former students getting one.

The report has sixteen recommendations to make the system sustainable. The rustling noise you hear is the Tory Libdem government squirming.

Student fees #fail

Child poverty and low pay

The Commission for social mobility and child poverty has published two reports: Escape plan on low pay (by the Resolution Foundation, November 2014); and State of the nation (second annual report (October 2014).

On low pay Alan Milburn, the Commission chair, comments on Escape plan: “The majority of Britain’s poorest paid workers never escape the low pay trap. Too many simply cycle in and out of low paying jobs instead of being able to move up the pay ladder. Any sort of work is better than no work but being in a job does not guarantee a route out of poverty”.

I’ve written about child poverty several times. The latest report shows that the Tory Libdem government has not built well on Labour’s struggling achievements. On child poverty State of the nation says the present policy and ambitions are failing, the child poverty target will be missed. Policy and implementation should be recast and it advocates the progressive aims of closing the school attainment gap between poorer and better off pupils – a majority of poor children do not get five GCSEs; ending youth unemployment; achieving a universal living in Britain wage by 2025; and in the private housing sector making longterm tenancies the norm for families with children.

The Commission calls on all the parties to explain how they will protect the poor from damage by austerity and further cuts.

Child poverty #fail and low pay #fail

The four reports make bleak reading for bleak November.


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A LITTLE FEES HISTORY

7 December 2010

2001

Labour’s 2001 election manifesto said: “We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them”. Top-up fees meant the increasing of university tuition fees payable by students.

2004

Despite its manifesto promise, Labour introduced increased tuition fees as part of its Higher education bill (Commons second reading 27 January 2004, third reading 31 March 2004). The then current £1000 a year tuition fees payable upfront became up to £3000 a year, available on loan and payable after graduation. The second reading was won by Labour by 316 -311 votes with around seventy Labour MPs voting against the government. Forty six Labour MPs for Scottish constituencies voted to increase fees.

Higher education was a devolved matter in Scotland and after second reading Tim Yeo (Conservative) asked whether it was not “completely wrong that a bill that imposes higher charges on students attending English universities should be carried by this House only by using the votes of Scottish members of parliament, given that the constituents of those Scottish members do not have to pay these higher charges” (Hansard 27 January 2004 column 275).

At both second and third readings Candy Atherton, Labour MP for Camborne and Falmouth, voted for the bill; the four Cornwall Liberal Democrat MPs (Colin Breed, Andrew George, Matthew Taylor, Paul Tyler) voted against.

Andrew George is the only Cornwall MP who was in the House of Commons in 2004 and there now.

2010

The 2010 election manifesto of the Liberal Democrats said: “We will scrap university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree” and “We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years so that the change is affordable, even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university incomes” (page 39 of the manifesto).

Before the general election current Libdem MPs individually signed a pledge that said: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament…” All the three Cornwall Libdem MPs (Andrew George, Stephen Gilbert, and Dan Rogerson) signed this pledge.

Both the Labour (3.7) and Conservative (page 17) 2010 election manifestos said the party was awaiting the John Browne report on the fees and university funding. Neither spelt out whether the party would or would not raise fees though Browne was widely expected to recommend an increase. According to this list ninety Labour parliamentary candidates and three Conservatives also signed the no-rise pledge.

In the 2010 vote England MPs voted 311-209 in favour of the increases in fees, with eight abstentions/absences and including tellers [this sentence added 17 December 2010].
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It will be an interesting time next week in parliament.

Monday 6 December: the Lords have their second committee day on the Parliamentary voting system and constituencies (PVSC) bill.

Wednesday 8 December: the Lords have their third committee day on the PVSC bill. In the Commons Sarah Newton (Conservative MP for Truro and Falmouth) introduces a ten-minute-rule bill “to require the secretary of state to begin negotiations with certain local authorities with a view to those local authorities leaving the current national housing subsidy system and becoming Council Housing (Local Financing Pathfinders) by April 2011”. The “certain local authorities” include Cornwall Council. [Added 9 December 2010: You can read her introduction of the bill in the Commons here, Hansard 8 December 2010 column 320]

Thursday 9 December: the Commons decide about raising the tuition fees cap to £9000 a year.
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SHOULD PROMISES BE KEPT?

18 October 2010

First, look at this. It is a film of Nick Clegg, the Libdem leader, promising the party will vote against a rise in tuition fees for university students.

Clegg video

Did you catch the bit where he said, “I believe it’s time for promises to be kept”? And “We will resist, vote against, campaign against any lifting of the cap” on fees?

The Libdem promise on tuition fees before the general election was unmistakable, inflexible, crystal clear and with no get-out clause. I’m not here looking at how we should best pay for university education but only at a very clear party promise that was made and that is now to be broken.

Making the promise
Around the general election the National Union of Students (NUS) organised a pledge among parliamentary candidates about these tuition fees. It read: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament…”

Libdem candidates signed as did many Labour and other candidates. There is a list of the signatories here (Full vote for students list).

The Libdems did not merely promise to vote against increasing fees. They made a public show of it, physically signing, many being photographed – and the NUS has the photos to show us. That probably went down well among student voters and their families.

Breaking the promise
The details have not been worked out yet but following the Browne Report
the Tory Libdem government is intent on abolishing or significantly raising the present cap on tuition fees (£3290) and thus allowing universities to increase these fees. It was the Libdem business secretary who told parliament. Fees are likely at least to double to £7000 a year and possibly more. Future students from Cornwall and future students at Falmouth university college are going to be affected.

The official explanation for this volteface is the financial situation. Unfortunately for the Libdems the difficulties of the UK were known before the election; the Libdem explanation won’t do. In fact the financial position turned out to be better than the forecast.

Of course it might well be unwise to make a solemn, well-publicised promise at an election unless you mean that come hell or high water, you’ll stick to it and see it through.

Sticking to the promise
Having pledged to vote against any rise in fees, the Libdems as a parliamentary party will most likely now officially vote in effect for a rise in tuition fees or abstain to allow a rise. A few individual Libdem MPs have already said they will stick to their pledge and vote against any rise. For example, Menzies Campbell, former Libdem leader, has said, “My credibility would be shot to pieces if I did anything other than to stick to the promise I made” (here and reported in the Guardian 14 October 2010). Additionally, Charles Kennedy, also a former Libdem leader, has said in the Commons that he did not agree with “the thrust and direction of government policy” on fees (Hansard 14 October 2010 column 469).

Now to Cornwall…
Among those who signed the NUS pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, according to the NUS list, were Andrew George, Stephen Gilbert, and Dan Rogerson, now Libdem MPs for Cornwall constituencies. None of the current Tory MPs for Cornwall signed. Several other non-Libdem parliamentary candidates in Cornwall signed – the NUS list is here again (which wrongly records Labour’s Charlotte MacKenzie as the UKIP candidate for Truro and Falmouth).

Libdems appear divided on the issue of the abolition or raising of the cap on fees and a rise in fees. What will George, Rogerson, and Gilbert do when the fees vote comes? Will they stick to their pledge and vote against a rise in fees?