Hurst backs Government in key vote

AN East Anglian MP has told how he changed his mind and decided to back the Government in last night's vote after meeting with the Prime Minister twice in personal interviews.

AN East Anglian MP has told how he changed his mind and decided to back the Government in last night's vote after meeting with the Prime Minister twice in personal interviews.

Alan Hurst, who has represented Braintree for Labour since 1997, said: “I became convinced that this is a matter of confidence in the Government and there is no way that I could vote with the opposition.”

But Mr Hurst said he still had major doubts and concerns about the Government's plans for variable top-up fees and added he would raise these when the details of legislation were debated by MPs in the spring.

“From 2009, variable fees will be introduced and it will then become open house for universities to charge the maximum. If we have to have fees, a flat rate would be much better,” said Mr Hurst.

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The MP's main concern was the impact on middle class families who wanted their children to have the opportunity to go to university without being saddled by huge debts at the end of their courses.

“The Government's plans offer virtually no assistance for households where joint parental income is between £20,000 and £35,000,” said Mr Hurst.

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“There is a tapered amount up to a £31,000 cut-off figure, but it is not very generous. This is a small concession, but does not amount to very much and does not make the concept any more palatable.

“For many families in my constituency, endless amounts of money go out all the time. It is natural that they want to help their children, but they should not have to struggle with the burden that these proposals will bring.”

South Suffolk MP Tim Yeo branded last night's five vote majority an “utter humiliation” for the Government. He said it had only been carried because Scottish Labour MPs voted to impose charges on English students which would not apply north of the border.

Simon Burns, the Conservative MP for Chelmsford West, said when the fees come into effect, students would leave university with a debt that would be a millstone around their necks.

“It is a hammer blow and a disgrace that the Government are pressing ahead with this when their election manifesto in 2001 pledged that they would not introduce top-up fees,” he added.

Chris Mole, the Labour MP for Ipswich, backed the Bill, which he believed could provide a boost to Suffolk's hopes of gaining a university.

The extra money made available could be invested in additional higher education places for students, with Suffolk as a priority for a new higher education institution.”

In the Commons debate, Tory former Education Secretary Gillian Shephard (Norfolk South-West) said admission to universities should be on merit and capability and it should not be based on Government-set targets for what was politically desirable.

“Quite what kind of blow the Government believes will be struck for higher participation from the three lowest socio-economic groups by the Bill's proposals is not clear,” she added.

“The proposals will deter not encourage people from less well-off homes to enter higher education and they will strike a fundamental blow at the independence of universities.”

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