Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Which side are you on? Vince Cable and student fees

Today, we learn the extraordinary news that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat and Business Secretary with responsibility for universities, may abstain on a bill he has recommended to the House of Commons. Readers will be aware that a recent review recommended a lifting of the cap on student fees. Students would no longer pay the ca. £3,200 per year at present and would instead pay fees of up to £9,000 per year. Many students have been angered by what they have understood as a broken election promise: Liberal Democrats campaigned only this past spring against tuition fees, but now they find themselves proposing that annual fees treble. The situation has been difficult for the party and support for the party has dropped significantly in recent weeks with current public support a mere 10%.

Now we learn that Cable is considering abstaining on this vote. The BBC reports:

"[. . .] Mr Cable, a senior Lib Dem whose party had opposed raising tuition fees before the election, is now the minister responsible for universities. He told BBC Radio 5 live his "personal instinct" was to back the rise but he was "willing to go along with my colleagues" if they chose to abstain. Labour called his comments "extraordinary and appalling".
[. . .] The coalition deal allowed for Lib Dems - who during the election campaign pledged to oppose any rise in tuition fees - to abstain in any vote on an increase in fees.  Mr Cable told the Victoria Derbyshire programme: "My own personal instinct, partly because I'm the secretary of state responsible for universities and partly because I think the policy is right, my own instincts are very much to vote for it but we want to vote as a group." He said discussions were continuing about how that would happen and he was talking to Lib Dem MPs individually about the policy, which he said was more "progressive" than the one that had been inherited from the previous government. He acknowledged that the issue had meant his party was "going through a difficult period" adding: "We want to support each other, we try to agree these things as a group as other parties do. [. . .]"
 
It is one thing for a member of the Government to abstain on a vote: this would be bad enough and might merit sacking. However, it is quite another for a member of the Government with responsibilities for a certain brief to abstain on votes directly relating to his brief. This might suggest a lack of confidence in bills that relate to a minister's portfolio which might also make continuation in post untenable. Of course, Cable has repeatedly stated his clear support for the bill.
 
The most remarkable aspect of this case is that the Liberal Democrats are considering abstaining as a party. Of course, they have thsi right under the coalition agreement. However, as a member of the coalition Government, it would be extraordinary for several members of the Government including the Deputy Prime Minister and relevant minister to fail to support a Government bill, especially when these persons support the bill.
 
Cable says he works as part of a team, as part of his political party. Perhaps he should be reminded that his party now shares power and he is in Government. They said they came together in the public interest, but when they felt heat it was party politics once more. So much for "no more broken promises" . . .

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