Student Maintenance Grants: Protesters Block Westminster Bridge As Parliament Debates Axing

19/01/2016 16:19 | Updated 19 January 2016

Students blocked Westminster Bridge on Tuesday afternoon in protest at the government's decision to axe maintenance grants, on the same day Labour MPs took the floor in the Commons to debate the issue.

The move to axe the grant, which will affect around half a million of England's poorest students, was met with anger when it was announced in George Osborne's Summer budget. However the news the proposal would not even be debated in the Commons, and instead would be passed by just 18 MPs in a "third delegated legislation committee" proved even more unpopular.

In the wake of the news, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) group, organised a demonstration outside Westminster to demand a reversal of the "disgraceful attack on working class students".

In a blog on HuffPost UK, student Hope Worsdale, a member of NCAFC, wrote: "The scrapping of maintenance grants will force the most disadvantaged students into thousands of pounds worth of extra debt in comparison to their peers, as a result placing a disproportionately high financial burden on those who can least afford it.

"But what so many students have found shocking about the cutting of grants, is the fact that it is such an unashamed and direct attack on working class students. This decision sends young people the clear message: if you're from a low-income family, you will be singled out and made to pay for it."

The protest was co-ordinated to coincide with the Labour Party's opposition day debate, which called on the government to abandon its plan to scrap the grants.

Gordon Marsden MP, the shadow universities minister who tabled the debate, told MPs: "The government [has] ducked and dived to avoid further debate on this.

"We have brought this debate today to hold them to account.

"The government has refused to bring the changes to the floor but preferred to sneak them through where it could be debated and voted on by a handful of MPs.

"The government has shied away from the light of debate,e challenge and scrutiny on this issue and has chosen to use a small group of MPs in the hope no-one would notice.

"It was only when the NUS raised the alarm about the process and threatened a judicial review - that [it] slipped out. These students will graduate with substantially more debts than their better-off peers."

During the debate, Nick Boles, minister for business and skills, invoked the ire of the NUS and several MPs, after accusing the union of being "shroud wavers" - a term used for those who exploit "sad events or figures" to draw attention to issues or to gain a political advantage.

Megan Dunn, president of the NUS, said the grants had been a "lifeline" for poorer students.

"They have a real sense of having had this snatched away from them," she said, of the students starting university this September.

Jo Johnson defended axing the grants, which will be replaced with loans, saying: "This government is extending the benefits of higher education to more students than ever before.

"These were not sneaked in. They were included in the Chancellor's summer speech."

Regarding the protest, a Scotland Yard spokeswoman said: "Police were aware of a protest due to be held in Parliament Square from 12:30hrs on Tuesday, 19 January.

"At approximately 13:15hrs, the group headed towards Westminster Bridge where they entered the carriageway. The bridge remains closed southbound.

"Officers are in attendance and are speaking with the protestors.

"An appropriate policing plan is in place."

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