Tuesday 26-01-2016 - 09:31
After weeks of students’ unions making sure maintenance grants have been at the heart of the House of Commons agenda, it was finally time for the House of Lords to have its say on the Government’s plans to abolish grants for the poorest students.
MPs voted to scrap grants last week by just 11 votes, and because the Government introduced their plans through a statutory instrument, they did not need the approval of the Lords to push them through. However, working with NUS, members of the Lords have forced a ‘motion to regret’ the Government’s proposals to be debated. This debate could not block the Government’s plans, but it was still an incredibly important chance for the Lords – who have until now been cut out of the discussion – to hold the Government to account.
The vote on whether the House of Lords should ‘regret’ the Government’s decision was lost by 138 votes to 155.
During the debate, the Government was challenged by members of the Lords from all parties, including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and ‘cross-bench’ (independent) peers. Many peers had been contacted by students’ unions in the days before the debate and many mentioned the work of students, students’ unions and NUS in exposing the Government’s outrageous attempts to avoid scrutiny. Lords spoke about their concerns that the Government was excessively using statutory instruments to ‘govern from the shadows’ rather than giving important issues the debates they deserved, and they raised serious concerns about the impact that scrapping grants would have on the participation of the poorest students, as well as women, mature and BME students, in higher education.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab), who brought forward the motion, said: “My first point is that a change of this magnitude, which could affect more than 500,000 people, ought to have been made by primary legislation. My second point is that this measure was not included in the Conservative Party manifesto. This U-turn comes just four years after grants for students from disadvantaged backgrounds were hailed by the Government as an essential element in their higher education strategy.
“It was only when the National Union of Students raised the alarm about the impact of the policy and threatened a judicial review over the lack of consultation and the failure to publish the equality assessment that we began to see what was going on.
“The generation of students entering further and higher education from September 2016 are going to be saddled with even greater debts—or ‘income-contingent tax liabilities’ as the Government like to call them—than they were already likely to be from their course fee loans of £9,000 per annum going up.
“The cumulative impact of the rise in tuition fees, the scrapping of maintenance grants and the freezing of the repayment threshold all point towards a more hostile environment for those thinking about higher education.”
He also raised the question of the equality assessment because “this policy will impact heavily on women, the disabled, black and ethnic-minority students and older learners”.
Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD) said: “The Government should be facing up to skills shortages in the population and tackling the increasing divisions between rich and poor. We need to encourage learners to improve their skills and knowledge, to be ambitious, to fulfil their potential and thus to make a greater contribution to the economy and to the well-being of themselves and the country.
These regulations will do nothing to encourage those from less advantaged parts of society to work hard and achieve. The Government did not need to do this. It was not a manifesto commitment. As the National Union of Students rightly said, the decision is ‘undemocratic and ill-considered’. There has been no effort at thorough consultation with those people and organisations most affected by the changes.”
Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, the Government representative on this issue in the Lords, repeated the arguments heard in last Tuesday’s debate that the Government was making great progress on widening participation and students will get more money in their pocket because of the Government’s changes, without acknowledging the eye watering levels of debt the poorest students will be forced to leave university with.
Regardless of the result of the Lords vote, this was yet another debate that the Government did not want to have that students forced them into holding. It was yet another opportunity to criticise their disregard for students’ wellbeing and mobilise opposition to their decision in Parliament. Students across the country, through lobbying their MPs and Lords, have made sure that they have not been ignored.
The full text of the debate and voting record can be found here.