Miliband would cut top tuition fees to £6,000

Labour pledges to reduce top university fees by scrapping cut to corporation tax.

Labour would lower the cap on tuition fees if in government, Ed Miliband has announced.

Continuing his strategy of aligning himself with the "squeezed middle" -- the ordinary people suffering from the fall-out of the economic crisis -- he has said that if he was in government, he would cut the maximum tuition fee from £9,000 to £6,000.

The move is one of the biggest policy decisions Miliband has made during his year in leader, and is a clear attempt to attract some of the student vote that the Liberal Democrats lost when they broke their promise on tuition fees. Speaking to the Observer, aides implied that it may not stop there: "This is what we would do now. But in three and a half years' time we might be able to do even more." However, once the new fees are ensconsed, it is difficult to see Labour promising to reduce them further.

Given all the murmurings about his party's "economic credibility", Miliband has emphasised that this cut is fully costed -- it would be funded by charging more interest for the highest paid graduates, and by scrapping a planned cut in corporation tax.

This last is a canny political move. Directly equating hikes in living costs for ordinary people with cuts for those who precipitated the crisis is likely to strike a chord with a public already angry at this double standard. The coalition has already criticised the proposal, with Lib Dem MP Gordon Birtwhistle telling the BBC that companies affected are potential employers of students. However, this does not ring true as it is not a hike in corporation tax, merely the reversal of a cut. It is a bold move, and sends a potentially powerful message about where Miliband believes the burden should lie.

However, he did not refer to the huge cuts to university funding that the coalition plans. These cuts of up to 80 per cent mean the crisis in university funding -- which the Browne Review was created to address -- has not been solved, as transferring costs from the state to the student does not address university's shortage of cash. Miliband's move is an effective piece of positioning and a potentially popular policy -- but it does not address this funding gap.

This announcement comes on the same day as YouGov/IPPR poll found that 70 per cent of people said they might be prepared to vote Labour, versus 64 per cent for the Liberal Democrats and 58 per cent for the Tories. Just 30 per cent say they would "never" vote for Labour, as opposed to 36 per cent for the Lib Dems and 42 per cent for the Tories. While this has yet to be translated into actual concrete support, it suggests that Labour is not seen as the most toxic party, despite concerns about their handling of the economy. As the conference opens, this reiterates that there is a big opportunity there for Labour. It remains to be seen whether they will capitalise upon it.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.