Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Leeds North West and chair air of the Liberal Democrat Backbench Group who led the party’s backbench rebellion on tuition fees, Greg Mulholland, has welcomed the apology from Lib Dem Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, praising his courage in doing so, but has once again highlighted that the mistake was not signing the NUS pledge, or what was then in the coalition agreement, but the failure to deliver a proposal that did not involve breaking it.
Mulholland, who led a Liberal Democrat backbench rebellion of 21 MPs in the vote on the hike in fees in 2010, has welcomed the apology from party leader Nick Clegg, but believes that the damage that has been done to the party as a result of the vote could have been avoided had the leadership listened to proposals put forward during intense lobbying from Lib Dem backbenchers and the NUS that included the argument for a system without fees including a genuine capped graduate tax.
Mulholland has highlighted that the system in place now is basically a capped graduate tax, which is fairer and more progressive than the upfront fees introduced by the last Labour government. At the time, backbenchers pushed to see a system with a genuine capped graduate tax, without any fees, which would have ensured MPs did not have to break the pledge.
Greg Mulholland MP commented:
“I welcome Nick’s apology for what was a mistake, this took courage and I hope people give him credit for saying that publicly.
“Let’s be clear that what we now have is basically a capped graduate tax, which is fairer and more progressive than Labour’s upfront fees. The real tragedy was failing to implement this properly, with no fees, which would have meant no breaking of the NUS pledge.
“This was done because the Conservatives wouldn’t accept a graduate tax, even though that is what we now have, but also because calling the payment from “Government to university a fee means it doesn’t count as public expenditure, but rather as a loan, which is merely financial sleight of hand. It wasn’t necessary and could and should have been done properly and this is the tragedy and the fundamental mistake that was made.
“There were 21 Lib Dem MPs who have nothing to apologise for and indeed who were cajoled and pressurised into also breaking the pledge. The responsibility for the decision to break the pledge lies solely with those who supported it, not with the MPs who did not and certainly not with the Liberal Democrat party as a whole. Those MPs who voted against the proposals are now owed an apology from the leadership and from Whips for doing this.
“The actual system of graduate repayment, without the misleading and unnecessary fee element, is fairer than the previous system introduced by Labour, so the biggest apology is not to students, it is too Liberal Democrat activists, members and supporters who were badly let down and who have suffered as a result of the decision that has done so much damage to the party.
“The reality is that so called fees are paid from the Government and from the taxpayer, direct to universities. These sums have very little relation to or effect on what graduates pay back, which as with income tax, is based on how much they earn in their career post degree.
“There was intense lobbying from Lib Dem backbenchers and the NUS that included the argument for a system without fees, including a genuine capped graduate tax, and Lib Dem Ministers should have listened. This is the most realistic and fairest way to pay for student tuition and the Liberal Democrats should now adopt a proper capped graduate tax, without any tuition fees, as policy in the run up to the next general election.”