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The government's plans for English votes for English laws get worse the more you look at them

The government's plans for English votes are undemocratic, bad for accountability, and bad for the United Kingdom. Other than that, they're great, says Ian Lucas MP.

The keystone of a democratic nation’s legislature is that its elected representatives have an equal voice. On Thursday 2 July 2015, in the United Kingdom Parliament, that principle was set aside. The Government’s proposals to give additional rights to MPs from England, compared to MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland abrogates that principle and, as a consequence, the future of the United Kingdom is threatened.

The creation of a separate English Grand Committee with exclusive, real powers also introduces English devolution by the back door. It means that, from next week, the Tories will, for laws deemed English, increase their majority from 12 to 105. This makes the Tories’ majority unassailable, transforming them from a marginal majority government, into one with a landslide majority.

When, in 1997, Labour legislated to introduce devolution, it introduced the Additional Member System in the devolved legislatures to mitigate the impact of its-then-overwhelming majority. The Tories have no such qualms, retaining the First Past the Post voting system to preserve their majority in the new English Grand Committee.

And they will do so without legislation, simply by amending Standing Orders of the House of Commons. This means that the House of Lords will not consider the change.

Conservative MPs from England say repeatedly that there are already two classes of MP – that they are second class MPs because there are devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is wholly untrue. All MPs in the UK have, in practical terms, the same standing as regards matters devolved to the nations’ legislatures. Thus, as an MP from Wales, I have the same rights as an MP from England to ask questions on devolved matters: none, because Parliament has decided to devolve responsibility for these matters to the devolved institutions.

If England would prefer to have a devolved legislature, it is entirely open to it to create one, or a number of devolved legislatures, if it so wishes. That it has not done so is a matter of choice of Parliament. If one is to be created, it should be done using the law of the land to effect constitutional change. It beggars belief that an English jurisdiction is being created without legislation.

In the Commons, I asked the Leader of the House of Commons to name one power that I, as an MP from Wales, have that he, as an MP from England, does not have. He could not do so. If these proposals go through, he, on the other hand, will have powers that I do not have: the keystone of equality for MPs within the House of Commons is gone.

It is extraordinary that a Secretary of State who professes himself a Unionist cannot see the danger of this proposal. Giving additional rights to MPs from England, as distinguished from those in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, gives additional impetus to the nationalist arguments that they are being treated unfairly. For, as the Democratic Unionist MP from Northern Ireland, Nigel Dodds, has highlighted, the Government is refusing to give the same rights to MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in non-devolved areas that he is giving to MPs from England.

What is even more bizarre is that the Government does not propose that this rule should apply in the House of Lords. I have a working peer living in my constituency. In future, my rights to take part in legislative proceedings, as an elected member, will be limited in a way that his will not be.

The implications of this policy are immense: it is likely that MPs from outside England will be unable to be Ministers on those bills that are deemed to be England only as they will be excluded from relevant committees. The question arises whether it will be possible to have a Prime Minister from outside England as he will be unable to participate fully in England only legislation.

Those of us who love the United Kingdom, from whatever party, must act now. The Government’s proposals pose an immediate threat to the Union. They must be withdrawn and replaced by a considered, open process to address the challenged posed by constitutional change.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.