November 2010

Tuition fees or graduate tax?

One of our Lib Dem MPs, John Hemming, has an interesting analysis of the proposals for tuition fees.

It seems that 54% of students will not have to pay back the full fees, and will instead be paying what is, in all but name, a graduate tax.

On top of that, the lowest-earning 25% of graduates will end up paying less than they do under the present system.

You can read the article in the Comment is Free section of the Guardian website.

Kingston Liberal Democrats

It's been difficult to find a direction for my blog since I stood down from the Council in May. I've tried to comment on national issues, but, like many other bloggers, have been overwhelmed with the almost daily announcements of new strategies. No sooner have I digested a new policy than another one grabs the headlines. I've looked at local issues, but am no longer on the inside track so don't always know the background.

But, as of yesterday, I now have a clear purpose for this blog. At the AGM of the Kingston Borough Liberal Democrats I was elected Chair of the local party. 'Elected' is stretching it a bit, since no-one else was nominated, but I'm pleased to take on the role from our previous Chair, David Walter, who had decided to stand down after doing the job for four years.

So I'm going to try to do two things here - look at national issues through a local filter, and look at local issues in the light of Liberal Democrat principles.

Of Lords and Ladies

Warm congratulations to Susan Kramer on being made a member of the House of Lords!

That might explain why she was looking so cheerful at the Kingston Borough Liberal Democrats AGM last Monday, even though she had narrowly lost the election to be the national President of the Lib Dems.

By coincidence, our guest speaker at the AGM, John Sharkey, was also in the list of new peers. He was the party's election supremo in May and is now involved in the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign.

Another newly enobled Lib Dem has local connections as well. Dee Doocey first stood (unsuccessfully) for the South West London area for the London Assembly in 2000. She was elected next time round as a London-wide member, and since this May has been Chair of the London Assembly.

In fact, these could well be the last people to be appointed to the House of Lords. Their job is to reform the Lords and get rid of themselves! It is possible that the legislation for this could be as soon as next year. It's not clear yet whether they will go for a 100% elected House or whether they will retain a proportion of the existing expertise. Whatever happens, it won't be that long before we will get the chance to vote for the members of our Upper House.

I do hope they keep the name 'House of Lords'. That term, together with 'House of Commons', reflects the long history of democracy in our country and it would be a shame to lose it. Although the working arrangements in Parliament have been modernised to fit with family life, they do still retain some quirky traditions which set the present in the rich context of the past. Last month I caught sight of the pink ribbons that are tied to each named coatpeg. They are provided so MPs can leave their swords safely when they go into the chamber.

After the reform, will they still use the titles Baron or Baroness, which are currently conferred on life peers? As it happens, Liberal Democrats don't use titles between themselves, so Susan will remain Susan to everyone who knows her. One suggestion is that the elected members will be styled ML.

The committee that has been tasked with coming up with recommendations for constitutional reform of the Lords should be reporting by the end of this year (accoprding to the coalition agreement) so I'll look for to readng what they suggest.

Just when you thought MPs' expenses had been sorted out ...

... it seems that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which was set up after the scandal in the last couple of years, has said that it won't, after all, publish all the details of MPs' expenses in the future.

This is an extraordinary about-turn. After all, IPSA was set up precisely to correct all the faults with the old system. Remember how MPs were able to claim for all kinds of inappropriate second home expenses, and these had been kept secret until the story blew up in their faces?

We were promised that all the expenses would be published in future, and yet they are now saying that they will not be publishing the receipts, only the totals under various sub-headings.

I was alerted to this by Unlock Democracy. They are urging people to write to the Chairman of IPSA, Sir Ian Kennedy on [email protected]. They give a sample letter on their website if you need inspiration.

Both our local MPs at the time, Edward Davey and Susan Kramer, were completely exonerated by the investigations, and the Daily Telegraph even referred to them as 'saints'. Neither made any claims for second homes, even though technically they were entitled to.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Investing in trains? - the green economy demands it

Thameslink - note that the Kings Cross stop  has now been switched renamed St Pancras International, but I couldn't find a current map anywhere!Thameslink - note that the Kings Cross stop has now been switched renamed St Pancras International, but I couldn't find a current map anywhere!With the country heading towards the earliest snowfalls for many years, it is not perhaps the right time to think about those 'wrong type of snow on the line' excuses. Which is why I'm hoping that the £8 billion improvements to the rail network announced today might actually ensure that our trains continue to run when they are most needed.

Still this is good news. The green economy, which the Lib Dems are championing in the Coalition, is dependent on efficient - and sufficient - public transport. So 2000 new carriages have been ordered to reduce overcrowding and cope with expected demand, and some platforms will be lengthened to take longer trains.

I'm was intrigued to read that the Thameslink line will receive some of the investment. Thameslink is a bit of a mystery, especially the section known as the Wimbledon loop. The Trainline doesn't seem to know that it exists, and yet it provides a neat route through London that avoids having to travel between mainline stations via the Tube. It is unknown and unloved, but should be neither.

Thameslink consists of two related lines. The main one runs from Bedford to Brighton via Luton Airport, St Pancras, City Thameslink (on Ludgate Hill), London Bridge and Gatwick. Attached to this is the Wimbledon loop, which joins the main route at Blackfriers and continues through St Pancras on to Luton Airport. So from South West London we can access Thameslink at Wimbledon and travel directly to the City or Luton Airport. Trains run every 30 minutes.

Hopefully the investment will see it better known and better used.

Of course, there is a price to be paid. Ticket prices will inevitably go up. A balance needs to be struck here, because raising ticket prices could be counterproductive. And we do need to recognise the fact that the whole population benefits from greener forms of transport, not just those who use it most.

Why I've signed the petition against increases in tuition fees

I've signed the petition against increases in tuition fees, which has been set up by a local student on Kingston Council website. So has the Leader of the Council, Derek Osbourne, and a number of other Lib Dem councillors. Derek has promised to have a debate on the petiton at Full Council, if 500 people sign it.

By the way, you do have to live, work or study in the Royal Borough if you want to sign it.

So why are local Lib Dems signing this, apparently against the position taken by the Coalition Government?

You've probably realised that this subject is causing deep anguish among Liberal Democrat members. Our broad aim is to remove tuition fees altogther, as was done, with our support, in Scotland. Before the General Election we were campaigning specifically against any rise in tuition fees. And every one of our MPs signed a pledge to vote against an increase.

All that was turned on its head by the Coalition agreement. What that actually said was this:

We await Lord Browne's final report into higher education funding and will judge its proposals against the need to increase social mobility, take into account the impact on student debt, ensure a properly funded university sector, improve the quality of teaching, advance scholarship, and attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If the response of the government to Lord Browne's report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.

So the agreement only allowed for abstention, not for voting against, which was what the MPs had pledged.

Of course, the Coalition agreement was a triumph of pragmatic politics, and, as such, I was generally supportive of it. Liberal Democrats are the junior partner in this Government, but we actually saw far more of our policies in the agreement than I would ever have dared to hope for.

But the negotiation on the Education section of the agreement showed us at our weakest. (It also produced free schools, unfortunately.)

Lib Dem Ministers are now arguing that the economic situation is far worse than expected, so funds have to be found somehow to keep the Universities afloat. They are also pointing out that most students will not, in fact, pay back the full amount of their loans over their lifetimes.

I have also heard that if a graduate tax were to be introduced instead of a loan, there would be a real problem over charging fees to EU students.

The fact remains that a pledge is a pledge, and the MPs are in a real quandary. Ministers, in particular (such as our own MP, Edward Davey) are bound by government corporate responsibility, so any rebellion on their part could risk the end of the Coalition and trigger a General Election.

But Liberal Democrats in local government are not bound by the agreement and can express their views freely, perhaps seeing themselves as the conscience of the party.

And non-elected members like me can do exactly as we please!

Published by Mary Reid, 126 Clayton Road, Hook Chessington KT9 1NJ
Printed and hosted by Office Network Systems, 106a Tolworth Broadway, Surbiton, KT6 7JD