A last-ditch move to halt this year’s university tuition fees hike has been launched by Labour in a bid to embarrass Tory and DUP MPs into backing students.
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has found a way to force what Labour claims is a binding Commons vote on the planned rise on Wednesday, HuffPost UK can reveal.
If the £250 hike is stopped in its tracks, it could save up to a thousand pounds for those on a four-year course, or £750 for most standard undergraduates.
And with students facing a new 6% interest rate, it would amount to a saving of thousands over the average graduate’s lifetime.
Theresa May has avoided holding a vote on the rise until now and the Tories are searching for ways to appeal to younger voters who flocked to Jeremy Corbyn at the general election.
Labour secured Wednesday’s vote by tabling a special motion to revoke the Parliamentary regulations that raise the cap on top-up fees.
Ministers dispute that Labour’s use of the little-known Parliamentary device would amount to a ‘binding’ vote, but the issue could end up in the courts.
The DUP, on which the Tories rely for their wafer-thin majority, has previously voted against top up fees in Parliament and campaigned against them in elections.
A number of Tory MPs - including Brexit Secretary David Davis - rebelled against fees when they were introduced - and Chancellor Philip Hammond is expected to try to offer students some extra help in the autumn Budget.
Ministers brought in the latest rise, of up to a thousand pounds for an undergraduate course, through so-called ‘statutory instruments’, rather than primary legislation.
They had avoided a previous Commons vote by dissolving Parliament before the debate could be held, and then refusing to allow time after the election, in defiance of parliamentary convention.
The Government had also failed to meet previous commitments that the repayment threshold – the income at which graduates must start to repay their student debt – would rise with inflation, despite fees going up.
Opposing a statutory instrument normally requires a parliamentary process known as ‘laying a prayer’, in which an Early Day Motion is tabled ‘humbly praying that Her Majesty revoke’ the proposed legislation and Ministers by convention allow a vote.
Before the general election, the Tories refused to grant a vote and after it they said that the 40-day deadline for such moves had passed.
But this week Labour was told by Commons officials that it is in order to table a combined motion of revocation as an Opposition motion, scheduling a debate and vote in Opposition time.
Rayner said: “The Tories are ripping up the rules of democracy in their desperation to cling to power. They’re not taking back control, they’re trying to take it away.
“They won’t even trust their own MPs to back their latest hike in student fees, so they’re trying to stop us voting on it at all. They may be afraid of debating this issue but we aren’t, so we will now provide the time and the vote using Opposition time.
“This latest tuition fee rise could cost students up to a thousand pounds more over a university course, yet they are refusing to keep their promise to graduates that the repayment level would go up with inflation. Every MP who votes against us on Wednesday will have to answer to the people they represent if they back ever high student fees and ever worsening terms for graduates.
“In stark contrast, a Labour government would abolish tuition fees entirely and restore maintenance grants.”
Even if the Government wins the vote on Wednesday, a close result may make ministers think twice about next year’s rise.
A Department for Education spokesperson said that the Statutory Instruments Act made clear that only a ‘motion to annul’ would be binding, not a ‘motion to revoke’.
“This motion has no legal effect. Our student finance system ensures that graduates only start paying back their loans when they are earning over £21,000 and debts are written off after 30 years.
“This approach ensures that costs are split fairly between graduates and the taxpayer, and does this while helping more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university than ever before —up 43% since 2009.
“We are continuing to improve the university system and ensure that students get value for money by creating a new regulator, the Office for Students, and holding universities to account for teaching quality and student outcomes through the Teaching Excellence Framework.”
Labour points out that when it was in Government, it made clear that any future rise would have to be voted on the floor of the Commons, and not in a Committee.