Students of England, the NUS has failed you

After the passing of the tuition fee legislation through the Lords, many students in England feel abandoned and voiceless. They should remember the initial betrayal of their interests in 2004, when the undemocratic decision to impose tuition fees on English students went unchallenged by the NUS.

The Lords have passed the Government's plans for a raise in tuition fees. Anthony Barnett complains that this secondary legislation has been "whisked through parliament with one three hour debate and a quick vote in the Lords". Anthony makes a good point on a wider issue, legislation does suffer from inadequate scrutiny in the House of Commons (a problem that an English parliament would alleviate), but in this case the legislation was rushed through as a matter of political expediency, and because it was secondary legislation. The primary legislation that enabled student tuition fees was passed by Tony Blair's government, imposed undemocratically upon English students using the votes of Labour's Scottish MPs. The present government's legislation is the thick end of Labour's wedge. No ideological line has been crossed. There is no point of principle. It is simply a matter of how much they should pay, not whether they should pay.

If there was ever a correct time for students to desecrate national monuments and storm a political party's headquarters it was back in 2004. Unfortunately the NUS, in their wisdom, decided not to take a particularly partisan stance or make an issue of MPs voting rights. In doing so they betrayed the students of England.

There follows a series of emails from Jan-Feb 2004 between myself and two members of the NUS National Executive. To this day I believe that the reason they did not listen to me is because the NUS was led at the time by a Scot, Mandy Telford, and there was no NUS England (despite the fact that there was a separate NUS Scotland). If they had listened to me and raged against those hypocritical Scottish Labour MPs in the same manner that they now rage against the "Tory bastards" and the "Lib Dem liars", things would now be very different indeed.

I was extremely disappointed by the strategy adopted by the NUS during the top-up fees debate. Not once in the acres of coverage that NUS representatives and members received did I hear anyone mention the fact that this English legislation was only passed by the actions of Scottish MPs voting with the Governent. The majority of English MPs voted against the Government.

Why does the NUS not make its members aware of this constitutional anomaly and, more to the point, why does it not call into question the ethical legitimacy of the result? It seems that the NUS is doing its members a disservice by not attacking the Government on this point of principle. The moral high-ground is there for the taking. The democratic will of English MPs was overturned by Scottish MPs voting with the Government. English have no commensurate right to vote on Scottish education bills because that is a matter devolved to MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. What really makes this perverse is that the Scottish Labour party is against tution fees, yet their Westminster MPs voted to impose tution fees and now 'top-up fees' upon English students in contradiction of their manifesto pledge and the will of the English body politic.

I hope that one of you will be able to respond to my concerns and challenge the Government on this affront to democracy.

Dear Gareth,

Thanks you very much for your email, you are dead right about the Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs. However, this is a bit of a double edged sword as the SNP, Plaid Cymru & (both sets of) Ulster Unionists all voted with us. The SNP vote was a big one, as they have NEVER voted on a 'solely English issue' since devolution. I do agree with you however that it is not right that any MP from outside of England should vote on purely English issues (not matter how parties dress it up, saying changes in England will effect the rest of the UK) and will pass your comments on to the National President.

Cheers,
Joe Rukin

Date: Sat February 14 2004, 14:09
From: Chris Weavers
To: 'gareth@xxxxxxxx, 'joe rukin'
CC: Mandy Telford
Subject: RE: [Fwd: FAO Joe Rukin]
Message:
Dear Gareth,

Many thanks for your email about the NUS Funding the Future Prioirty Campaign and specifically the current debate about the future funding of higher edcucation.

The reason NUS did not challenge either the government or individual Scottish MPs abour their right to vote on this debate is beacause the governments' proposals will very clearly have a large impact in Scotland as well as in England and Wales. It is therefore the right of Scottish MPs to vote on this issue as it will have a significant impact on their constituents.

There was therefore no constitutional anomaly in them participating in the debate and vote.

Yours,

Chris Weavers
Vice President Education
National Union of Students

Dear Chris,

the method of funding that is imployed in Scotland affects English students, yet English students and their parents have no say - through the will of their democratically elected representatives - on education in Scotland. How you can therefore claim it is a *right* of Scottish MPs to impose tuition fees and top-up fees upon English students against the will of English MPs is beyond me.

You are doing your English students a huge disservice by not challenging the Government on this issue. This constitutional iniquity has, on this occasion, been detrimental to English students. Therefore it is the responsibility of the NUS to challenge the Government, on behalf of English students, on this issue of democratic principle : any other course of action would be a dereliction of your duty.

Regards

Dear Gareth,

Would you like to write an article on this issue for the student news website www.educationet.org ?? You could base it on the original letter and add things that have happened since if you like. You can say what you like- no editing. What do you think?

Cheers,
Joe

The resulting article can be read here.

Dear Gareth,

I agree that it is a fact that English MPs could not influence the funding system employed in Scotland in a post devolution situation, though this was always understood when a Scottish Parliament was advocated. I did not argue that it was the right of Scottish MPs to impose tuition fees on English students, merely that they could choose to vote either way. As it was some voted in favour, some against and one abstained.

It is notable that Tam Dayell, the architect of the "West-Lothian Question" voted onthis issue because of it's cross-border implications. While I agree that the fact those MPs voted in this debate allowed the government to win on this occasion, we can not challenge a constitutional settlement merely to win one debate.

The arguements you put forward may jusitfy the establishment of an English Parliament which could decise such issues, but does not present a case for removing the democratic rights of Scottish MPs elected to Westminster.

Yours,

Chris Weavers
Vice President Education
National Union of Students

Dear Chris, the fact that Scotland is affected by decisions taken on English education is neither here nor there. The Republic of Ireland is affected by England's abortion law yet we don't invite them over to sit in Westminster to vote on abortion legislation. When Scotland chose devolved government on such issues as education, to exclude the rest of the UK from any input into Scottish legislation, they cannot have expected to still have the a say in the de facto English parliament that is Westminster.

I did not advocate the wholesale removal of Scottish MPs' voting rights at Westminster, I was merely saying that the NUS should insist that Scottish MPs refrain from imposing unwanted legislation on English students, and that Scottish MPs should refrain from voting on English only legislation. If Scottish MPs had not voted the Government would have been defeated as was the will of English students, the English people and English MPs.

You mention that an English parliament is the answer and I absolutely agree, I am a member of the Campaign for an English Parliament ( www.thecep.org.uk ). However, I must point out that an English parliament is an issue for a future date as at this present time we are dealing with the Status Quo. Here and now the issues are these: firstly it is a matter of principle, that Scottish MPs should not vote when English MPs have no commensurate right to do so in Scotland; secondly, it is the pragmatic approach for the NUS is to fight the Government using whatever valid tactic it can including pointing out abuse of the Government's own flawed constitutional arrangement; and thirdly, there is the moral issue of English students having the will of their elected representatives overturned by the Scottish Labour party who are against the system for Scotland (and against it in the Labour manifesto).

I understand that the NUS may not feel confident about locking swords with the Government on constitutional matters but when a flawed constitution is being used to disadvantage students, by the very Government that flawed the constitution, I feel it is time for you to act.

regards

This piece was originally published by Gareth Young here, at Toque, a blog on English politics and culture, devolution and nationalism.

About the author

Gareth Young (alias Toque) is a member of the Campaign for an English Parliament and convener of What England Means to Me and Anthem4England. He lives in Devon with his wife and daughter.