PMQs: A points draw amidst chuntering, Morrissey and Mornington Crescent fun

Vince Cable lined up as a “bookend” for the Prime Minister at his question time today. One had a feeling, then, that university funding would be high on the agenda. And so it was.

In the first section of Q&A (with Ed Miliband) I think Miliband edged a points win – perhaps in decimal places. A “Rizla” win – a fag paper’s width between them.

Cameron failed to pick up Miliband on some obvious points. The opposition leader referred to English students likely to have the “highest tuition fees” in the world. But presumably that involves a comparison with tuition fees paid during study in other countries – rather than after graduation as in the case of the government’s proposals, which suggest “graduate contributions” rather than fees.
Miliband also referred to the system causing debt for graduates, but the system really can’t be described as instilling “debt” in the conventional sense. Cameron missed that one also.

In fact, Cameron only seemed to be warming up with Miliband but went on to score some corkers when Labour backbenchers asked further university funding questions.

Quite rightly Miliband highlighted the “80% cut” figure. He seemed more on top of his game this week and made an excellent joke:

Things are so bad that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) is offering his own unique solution to the votes tomorrow. He says that if you run quickly, you can vote both ways. I have to say that if the Kremlin were spying on the Liberal Democrats, we would know why: they want a bit of light relief.

Miliband quoted back David Davis on social mobility and the university funding plans. He also quoted back Cameron from last week “not so much waving but drowning”.

Cameron then gained a bit of composure with this rally (yes, it’s like tennis):

We are introducing a situation where nobody pays fees up front, including part-time students—which is 40% of students—and nobody pays anything back until they are earning £21,000. Under the new system, everyone will pay back less than they pay under the current system—They will pay back less every month; that is the case. The poorest will pay less, the richest will pay more. It is a progressive system, but the right hon. Gentleman has not got the courage of his convictions to back it.


Cameron pointed out the disagreement between Alan Johnson and Ed Miliband on the graduate tax, and that Ed Miliband actually wrote the manifesto which suggested the Browne review. He said Miliband was displaying “total opportunism” and, rather gratuitously, accused Miliband of “behaving like a student politician”.

This took us down the road of bread roll throwing and restaurant trashing as Miliband smashed the glass marked “In emergencies throw in the Bullingdon Club embarrassment”. It sounded quite convincingly impromptu.

Miliband had Cameron swotting an imaginary fly in frustration. Quite animated, he was, was our PM. Miliband accused him of having it in for young people and pulling ladders away.

The PM then had a good final rally with:

The fact is that if you introduce a graduate tax, you are going to be taxing people on £6,000, £7,000 and £9,000. Where is the fairness in that? The truth of the matter is that we examined a graduate tax and we know it does not work; the right hon. Gentleman’s party examined a graduate tax and knows it does not work; the Liberal Democrats had a look at a graduate tax and they know it does not work. The only reason he is backing it is because it gives him a political opportunity.

Later on, as I say, the PM fired some superb retorts at Labour backbenchers on the same subject.

He seems to be good on the ropes against planted Labour whips’ questions. For example, he slammed David Hanson with this zinger:

The people who are actually behaving in a way that I think drags politics through the mud are people who introduced tuition fees, introduced top-up fees and commissioned the Browne review, and who then, as soon as they are in opposition, behave irresponsibly and run away from it.

Then, during an answer to Nigel Dodds (DUP), when Labour members started pointing, he let loose this excellent salvo, which, for me, was the best retort of the session, and evened up the scores:

Before Labour Members all start pointing, we should just remember who it was who said, “We will never introduce tuition fees.” Who said, “We will never introduce top-up fees?” Who said “We will back the Browne review”? Who is now an organised hypocrisy?

The “organised hypocrisy” bit was good. A bit of Disraeli for you – previously used by the grand old Victorian about the Tory party.

Other snippets were:

  • There appears to be a parliamentary equivalent of the “Mornington Crescent” game which has sprung up recently (it appears to me – I suspect I am wrong and it has been around since Cromwell).It’s called the “closed question”. The Speaker loves it. Everyone looks bemused as we go through it. You get a written question (In this case about Voluntary Service Overseas), which is answered. Then there is a supplementary from the same member who asked the written question – which, confusingly, isn’t closed, by the way (Well I thought closed questions demanded “yes” or “no” answers, or at least short answers. The alleged one today didn’t). And then we got the Brucie bonus. Malcolm Bruce was allowed a stab on the same subject. The format is totally baffling to my tiny mind.
  • Angus MacNeil, the questioner for the closed/open question won today’s Eric Forth Memorial Lookalike competition.
  • There were two questions about the severe weather. One from David Crausby (Labour) and the other from Gregg McClymont (Labour).
  • Big society watch – Anna Soubury asked about everyone helping our neighbours during the inclement weather.
  • Music trivia question. Kerry MacCarthy (Labour) couldn’t resist the temptation to say that both Morrissey and Johnny Marr have banned Cameron from liking them. Was it me or did Cameron blush a bit? We certainly got lots of song titles bandied about.
  • The UK is falling behind Poland and Estonia in international league tables of educational attainment standards.
  • Christmas crackers are now allegedly category 1 fireworks and cannot be sold to anyone under 16 without the risk of imprisonment. Is this Health and Safety gone mad? Discuss.
  • Livid Tory right wingers watch: Anne Main (Con) brought up prison sentences for knife crime, given Ken Clarke’s apparent/alleged U turn on the subject.
  • George Eustace (Con) asked about the project to create a new modern mine in Redruth. Hurrah!
  • Nigel Dodds (DUP) asked a funny question. It was to do with FIFA and Nick Clegg.
  • Ian Swales (LibDem) asked about a cancelled educational project in his Redcar constituency.
  • Jack Dromey asked a question about Nick Clegg and was given an hilarious put down by Cameron: “I have to say that the hon. Gentleman has the unique qualification of being one of the brothers who was selected on an all-women shortlist—next time he comes in he should dress properly.”
  • During Dromey’s question, the speaker complained about members “chuntering”. ‘Nuff said.
  • Don Foster asked about freeing up MOD land for affordable homes in Bath and received this “No Shit Sherlock” admission from the PM: “Sometimes the wheels can turn quite slowly when it comes to Defence Estates”
  • Stella Creasey (Labour) made sure the PM’s apparent U turn on School Sports Partnerships was not forgotten. Miliband asked Cameron a question about this a few weeks ago and received an adamant reply that the partnerships would go. It is a bit of an embarrassment for Cameron and a bit of a win for Miliband.
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27 Comments

  • Anthony Aloysius St 8th Dec '10 - 9:54pm

    Curiously, every other report I’ve seen of PMQs has described how Lib Dem MPs listened uncomfortably to Cameron claiming that “One party had the courage of their convictions to see this through” and accusing Labour of “breaking their pledge” on university fees.

    But then again, if the Kremlin had been spying on Lib Dem Voice, we would know why: to pick up some tips on news presentation.

  • You state that “The opposition leader referred to English students likely to have the “highest tuition fees” in the world.”

    He actually said “Can the Prime Minister confirm that after his changes are introduced, English students will pay the highest fees of any public university system in the industrialised world?”

    Key word being public. Also I think it really is playing semantics to state when in opposition they were fees but now in government they are contributions. I await the time when Cable states they didn’t break the pledge as they raised contributions not fees !

    They are paid up front on the Students behalf and therefore it is a debt, barring set circumstances (like earning less than 17.5K in todays money) it will be paid back over time. If it’s not a debt surely you can choose not to repay….

    As for Camerons “The fact is that if you introduce a graduate tax, you are going to be taxing people on £6,000, £7,000 and £9,000. Where is the fairness in that? ”

    That depends on the way the graduate tax is established. As we are assured the income tax threshold is to be £10,000 I think we can all assume that any graduate tax will be at least as high and probably considerably higher.

    Personally I think Cameron floundered a lot and now has a tendancy to move to insults too early in the questions. It makes him look weak. Again he failed to answer just about any questions but at least hehad his “New Tory” lapdogs to each side cheering him on.

  • Oh come on, you must include the question put by the DUP’s Nigel Dodds. It was th best question of the day. (Miliband’s were poor, I thought)

    Mr Nigel Dodds (in a Northern Ireland accent)

    “In light of his experience of the World Cup bid in Zurich last week – can the Prime Minister tell us what his view now is of an organisation that engages of the most convoluted and bizarre voting arrangements – which says one thing and then votes exactly the opposite way – and who has a leader that seems more interested in power and prestige than accountability – and after he’s finished with the Lib Dems, can he tell us what he thinks of FIFA?”

  • Can anybody explain the rationale behind Miliband’s question that English students will pay the highest fees in the industrialised/developed world. I’m not an expert on tuition fees, but I thought the fees in USA were much higher. There was probably a qualifier in there somewhere, but I missed it.

  • Hove Howard 8th Dec '10 - 10:42pm

    In other, perhaps more significant news … Lib Dems drop to 8 % in YouGov.

    One poll, but who can now deny the downward spiral? When are you going to wake up and realise what the present leadership is doing?

  • The repeated claim by Cameron (and Clegg, Cable, Alexander, et al) that “Under the new system, everyone will pay back less than they pay under the current system” is a blatant lie. Graduates may “pay back less every month” but they will clearly pay back for many more months, so that under the new system graduates will, in totality, pay back far more than they pay under the current system. This is obvious because overall the new system MUST raise more money from graduates than does the current system in order to fill the funding black-hole produced by the Coalition’s slashing of university funding.

    Cameron continues with the highly disingenuous claim , “The poorest will pay less, the richest will pay more”; yes, but these “richest” are not ‘rich’! They are predominately middle-earners who will be burdened with paying back a huge debt for virtually their entire working lives. For the genuine “richest” (people like Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Cable, Alexander, et al) the tuition fees will not be a burden – they will just repay them at the earliest opportunity without a second thought. The new system is NOT “progressive” in any meaningful or practically useful sense of the word. The very poor and the very rich will not suffer unduly under the new system, however the vast majority of students from modest (‘average’) backgrounds will suffer hugely.

    Speaking as someone who has voted Lib Dem at the previous four or five general elections (in a marginal West Country constituency currently held by the Lib Dems) I am sick and tired of hearing Clegg, Cable and Alexander (and now even Paddy Ashdown) telling blatant untruths about the ‘benefits’ of this new system. I am disgusted by all of them.

    All Lib Dem MPs should honour their pre-election pledge to the electorate and vote AGAINST the rise in tuition fees. To merely abstain is pathetic and unacceptable.

  • NoitaLibDem 8th Dec '10 - 11:32pm

    @RichardSM

    Fees are higher in the Private university system in the USA. Not the public univesities.

  • Jack Dromey asked a question about Nick Clegg and was given an hilarious put down by Cameron: ”I have to say that the hon. Gentleman has the unique qualification of being one of the brothers who was selected on an all-women shortlist—next time he comes in he should dress properly.”

    Hysterical. The blood hasn’t even dried from your betrayal of the students and now you’re having a good old belly laugh at a nasty bully’s sexist and transphobic jokes. As Riki Wilchins wrote in Genderqueer, “Men in dresses” isn’t the next hit movie: It’s a punch line in the next joke.”

    I expect better of Liberal Democrats.

  • Ian Sanderson (RM3) 9th Dec '10 - 8:01am

    Since Nigel Dodds (a fellow alumnus of my old school) sits for a party who for years tried to keep Sinn Fein out of normal politics (boo!) and now sits in a coaltition government with them in Stormont (hurrah!), I don’t think he can claim the moral high ground on consistency.
    He like, many of his fellow DUP elected representatives, built his support base by telling the people that they had complete opposition to deals or working with Catholic or Irish Nationalist parties.

  • Paul Walter Paul walter 9th Dec '10 - 8:02am

    Sorry. It was the reference to the shortlists & the strange method of Dromey’s election that I found amusing, not the end bit about cross-dressing.

  • John Roffey 9th Dec '10 - 8:35am

    @ Hove Howard

    I find it astonishing that NC cannot see that by breaking a pledge given in the L/D manifesto for the last GE he is on impossible ground. Virtually everyone would condemn such action – even a five year old child. All the spinning in the world will not change the public’s view that the Party, and NC in particular, is simply a scheming politician, devoid of all morals, who would do anything to achieve their own personal political ambition.

    This policy might have been possible if handled in a different way [with no L/D’s involved and all of whom abstained – making it clearly a Tory policy] however it now seems clear that NC is going to tough it out throughout the life of the Coalition lowering the Party’s popularity as each month goes by. Will the remainder of the Party accept wipe out?

  • @ Paul Walter
    “Miliband also referred to the system causing debt for graduates, but the system really can’t be described as instilling “debt” in the conventional sense.”

    I don’t know who you bank with but if, after graduation, I owed £30-40,000 which had to be paid back over most of the rest of my working life my bank manager would be telling me that I was deeply in debt in every sense. Such comments show just how out of touch your party is and why you are in such a mess politically over the tuition fees issue.

  • @RichardSM

    Can anybody explain the rationale behind Miliband’s question that English students will pay the highest fees in the industrialised/developed world.

    The average tuition fees in the State Universities in US was $7,020 (£4,387) in 2009-10. This is the rate charged to the State’s residents/taxpayers. If a student from another State wants to study there (kind of like English students wanting to study in Scotland or vice versa), then the average rate is $18,548 (£11,592). So, the truth of the matter is that both Milliband and Cameron were right, but each was using the figures that were convenient to each.

    The real truth, from my point of view, is that the difference between the two rates, £7,205, is the State Governments’ contribution to the higher education of each student in the US. According to the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), the British Government currently contributes £9,363 per student (which is 74% of the University costs). The Government’s bill reduces this to £5,567 (which is 44% of the University costs). So, shame Cameron!

    What is worse is that the Government’s contribution in the proposed system will be mainly for research. The funding for teaching will practically come down to zero. So, the research-intensive Universities will continue to get Government funding, but teaching-focused Universities will get practically none. The Government cuts will be felt very disproportionately across the University sector.

  • daft ha'p'orth 9th Dec '10 - 1:30pm

    @Matthew Lambert

    “It is not debt in the conventional sense that it is not paid back no matter what, if you don’t earn you don’t repay.”

    Pardon? If I max out my credit cards, mortgages and loans, and then can’t earn, I can always declare bankruptcy. I mention this only to demonstrate that very few debts are to be paid back ‘no matter what’; most debts have a get-out clause. The escape method for standard debt is bankruptcy. The escape method for this debt is either to get the money out of Mater and Pater’s petty-cash kitty, or find a job that pays far in excess of the sum required to achieve repayment (not many of those around in the real world) and then wait for a few years, or pay out interest for an entire generation.

    I’ve done the maths, and found that on my current salary – which is pretty good by academic standards – I would have no hope of paying back even my first degree. The worst thing about this? By the end of my generation of debt I’d have paid the best part of a hundred thousand quid. True, I still would not have succeeded in paying back my debt – but I’m paying out a lot of money for the privilege of not managing to do so! For many of us, this system enforces precisely what they tell you not to do with credit cards; paying out your whole life without ever clearing the debt.

    Here’s a life lesson that the less fortunate amongst us have had to learn through unhappy experience. Just because this debt is described by a bloke in shiny shoes as “Buy Now, Satisfaction Guaranteed Or Pay Nothing Yet” doesn’t make it any less of a ‘real’ debt. It is money you owe. If there is the slightest chance of retrieving it from you within some pretence of legality, then the well-shod bloke’s tame debt-collection goons (for whom this policy represents a job for life) will do so. It is money, people, money that you owe, and you will be expected to pay it throughout your working lifetime if you are at all able to do so. It is therefore a debt, which you will pay, in most cases without ever getting much further than interest payments, throughout your entire working lifetime.

    I would be a lot more comfortable with this whole debate if those who back this policy would make an effort to sound slightly less like the sleazier type of sofa salesmen.

    Politics in this country is like the La Brea tar pits; dredging into it reveals the remnants of long-forgotten species, whilst anything that blunders into it is sucked down, leaving behind only a noisome stink. Proof: the Lib Dems have only just fallen in, and already they’re on the brink of extinction.

  • @daft ha’p’orth

    The escape method for this debt is either to get the money out of Mater and Pater’s petty-cash kitty, or find a job that pays far in excess of the sum required to achieve repayment …

    Not really. The escape method is to pay the statutory payment (9% of income over 21,000 pounds) for 30 years after graduation. The rest is written off. If you are never able to pay off the debt, then your payments are just like a tax.

    This is not like a credit card debt precisely because of such an escape clause and, secondly, the payments are income-contingent. The payments for credit card will not be income-contingent, and they don’t get written off after 30 years.

    The credit card debt also carries something like 15% interest, whereas the interest rate for this debt is 3%. As far as student loans go, this is about the best in the world. Please don’t shoot it down!

  • daft ha'p'orth 9th Dec '10 - 3:51pm

    “the interest rate for this debt is 3%”

    Odd. I seem to recall reading that Browne recommended that “Student loans will accrue 2.2 per cent interest above the Government’s rate of borrowing.” What’s more, Paul Crossley’s web site tells me that: Interest rates will vary according to earnings. Nobody with earnings below £21,000 will pay a real rate of interest. And above this level the interest rate will increase gradually until at £41,000 the maximum interest rate of 3% above RPI will be charged.

    I understood that the 21k was a 2015 (2016?) number, thus meaning that Paul Crossley’s page ought to read “If we were doing this today, nobody with earnings below say £17k will pay a real rate of interest, and above this level the interest rate will increase gradually until at about £34k the maximum interest rate of 3% above RPI will be charged.”

    RPI plus 3% (or some portion of it) is not necessarily an astonishingly good deal. We’re used to RPI behaving itself, but it’s been above 5% for much of this year and historically it has been known to reach for the heights. That’s why people pay extra for the security of a fixed-rate mortgage. For many types of student, especially postgrads and those looking to retrain, the rates on this offering are no better than a career development loan… and far harder to predict. CDLs at least are generally fixed-rate.

  • @Uday Reddy

    “..whereas the interest rate for this debt is 3%.”

    3% is not the interest rate; it is the premium which will be charged on top of RPI inflation. (Note: RPI and not CPI which they use for benefits/pensions)

    The interest rate will be variable, and is likely to be in the range 8% -12%. A graduate progressing in his/her career with a debt of £50,000 will be running up interest charges of around £5000 per year, which gets added to the debt. I believe Browne pointed out in his report, and estimate around 70% of graduates will default. This will impact on their chances of obtaining credit elsewhere.

  • @NoitaLibDem
    @Uday Reddy

    Thanks for your replies.

  • @daft ha’p’orth

    Odd. I seem to recall reading that Browne recommended that “Student loans will accrue 2.2 per cent interest above the Government’s rate of borrowing.”

    Indeed, the Government has changed the real interest rate to 3%, one of the many decent Browne recommendations that was overridden by the Government. They seem to have done it in order to squeeze the higer-earning graduates a bit more so that they can reallocate the money for lower earners. This is considered “progressive”.

    Sorry that I didn’t mention the “above RPI” bit. I generally think in terms of real real interest rates, i.e., above inflation. But the fact that it is RPI rather than CPI is significant. It works to the advantage of graduates.

    I have noticed that the BIS web site says that the real interest rate “varies” between 21,000-41,000 annual income, but it doesn’t explain how exactly. My guess is that it is just a way of explaining how things work in practice. The interest rate remains the same. However, since the Government has committed to charging a maximum of 9% of the income over 21,000, the lower earners will not have to pay the total interest that is due. Instead, the Government pays the remainder on their behalf.

    That is exactly why it is better to think of the repayments as a form of tax rather than as payments towards debt. The scheme was devised by well-reputed academics over a period of time, especially Professor Nicholas Barr of LSE. It is a good system. Comparisons with credit card debt are far-fetched and fallacious. We all have a responsibility of explaining it properly to the youngsters so that they are not scared off by the idea of “debt”.

  • @RichardSM

    A graduate progressing in his/her career with a debt of £50,000 will be running up interest charges of around £5000 per year, which gets added to the debt. I believe Browne pointed out in his report, and estimate around 70% of graduates will default. This will impact on their chances of obtaining credit elsewhere.

    Where have you seen the idea that the interest gets added to the debt? This is not the Browne Report’s system. The Report says:

    Students earning below the repayment threshold will pay no real interest rate. Their loan balance will increase only in line with inflation. Those earning above the threshold whose payments do not cover the costs of the real interest will have the rest of the interest rebated to them by Government.

    So, the “real interest” (the portion of 3% that the graduate cannot pay) is paid off by the Government. It is not added to the debt. Only the inflation adjustment is added to the debt. The BIS web site does use the term “rebated”. But it uses the different explanation in terms of lower interest rate, as mentioned in my previous response.

    You are right that 70% of the graduates are expected to “default”. That is the whole idea of the system! The more people that “default” in this way, the better! But “default” is not a good term to use for this. The graduate pays as much as he/she can afford. And, the benevolent Government pays the remainder. For all the graduates that “default” in this sense, the repayment scheme will be exactly like a tax. When you go to get credit from elsewhere, you just count it as a tax. It simply does not matter how much debt balance you have on your account, because the Government guarantees to pay whatever you can’t pay.

    This is a clever system designed by an LSE Professor. So, please take the time to think it through. It defies all the normal expectations of debt and payments etc.

  • @Uday Reddy

    You’re way out of date. Vince Cable has modified the recommendations of Browne considerably. Browne proposed the interest rate should be “the low rate that Government itself pays on borrowing money” – currently less than 1%. Cable wants a real interest rate closer to “commercially available sources of finance” based on RPI plus a premium of 3%. So, instead of Browne’s 0.7% interest rate, the interest rate will be around 8%. This will rise as inflation goes up. Interest will be added to the loan. By the way, RPI is worse not better. It does not work to the advantage of graduates. Its another disadvantage.

    The debt accumulates interest

  • @RichardSM

    You’re way out of date. Vince Cable has modified the recommendations of Browne considerably.

    If so, tell us where you got your information from and I will look into it. In particular, where did you find that the interest will be added to the outstanding balance?

  • @RichardSM

    Browne proposed the interest rate should be “the low rate that Government itself pays on borrowing money” – currently less than 1%.

    Quoting directly from the Browne Report, (Chapter 5, the same paragraph that I quoted earlier):

    Students with higher earnings after graduation will pay a
    real interest rate on the outstanding balance for the costs
    of learning and living. The interest rate will be equal to
    the Government’s cost of borrowing (inflation plus 2.2%)

    So, it looks like you are using really dubious sources of information.

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