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Tuesday, September 21, 1999 Published at 12:19 GMT 13:19 UK

UK Politics

Lib Dems rebel on student benefits

Lib Dems would give students income support and housing benefit

Liberal Democrats have embarrassed the party's leadership by voting to restore benefits for students in a conference motion.

Student finance is already a key issue for the party, which is committed to abolishing tuition fees for further and higher education.

The party's spokesman on the subject, Phil Willis, had urged delegates in Harrogate to refer the motion on benefits back for further consideration.

But his pleas were ignored and the conference representatives passed it by 269 votes to 224.

When it moved on to the conference floor, the number of hands raised in support showed it had the overwhelming backing of delegates.

[ image: Party spokesman Phil Willis: Shrugged off the rebellion]
Party spokesman Phil Willis: Shrugged off the rebellion
The motion proposed by Liberal Democrat Youth and Students called for students to have access to income support and housing benefit.

Geoff Payne, of LDYS, described the current financial situation for students as a "national badge of shame".

Much of the anger expressed in the conference hall was directed as tuition fees.

Jo Swinson, also of LDYS, said: "No-one ever voted for tuition fees. The Labour government has no mandate for introducing a tax on learning."

The strength of feeling demonstrated will serve as a warning to Scottish Liberal Democrats would may be forced to decide between remaining in a coalition with Labour or sticking to their principles on this issue.

Mr Willis later described the vote as a minor irritation. "We don't believe the motion goes far enough," he said.

"We believe the timetable is significantly flawed and that predicating the student support system on the current benefit system was really not the best way of proceeding.

"But we can work from that as the basis for what we want to achieve."

Liberal Democrat social security spokesman Steve Webb also said the motion did not go far enough and student poverty needed tackling now.

The motion called for benefits to be restored in two stages, with access to housing benefit in the first two years of the next Parliament and entitlement to income support in the first two years of the next-but-one Parliament.

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