Page last updated at 20:15 GMT, Sunday, 20 September 2009 21:15 UK

Kennedy warning over tuition fees

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, Lib Dem conference

Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy is concerned about cuts proposals

Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has warned successor Nick Clegg the party is in danger of losing its "heart" over proposed spending cuts.

He said party members were concerned when they heard "words like 'savage' being bandied about".

And they were against Mr Clegg's proposals to drop a pledge to scrap university tuition fees in England.

Mr Kennedy was speaking in Bournemouth on the second day of the Lib Dem's annual conference.

He told the BBC News Channel: "We have got to keep our head and make sure the numbers add up, in terms of public policy, but we have to show particular groups in society we haven't lost our hearts as well."

Mr Clegg said the pledge could cost £12bn and he had to be "realistic" about whether it was affordable right now.

The possibility of scrapping one of the party's flagship policies has risked putting Mr Clegg on a collision course with activists and influential figures on the left of the party.

The party's Federal Policy Committee, which has the final say on the party's programme for the next election, voted earlier this year to keep the policy.

We want to deliver that policy but it is a policy which has significant financial implications
Nick Clegg

Many Lib Dem supporters are worried that the policy, which they say distinguishes the party from Labour and the Conservatives, is being downgraded from a concrete goal to a long-term aspiration as all parties compete to identify spending cuts.

Earlier Mr Kennedy said the party should be "careful" about ditching policy promises such as tuition fees and free care for the elderly that are at the core of its values.

"I think that's served us well but I think those are also defining features, if you like, of a Liberal Democrat society," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme.

Asked if the tuition fees pledge should be retained, Mr Kennedy replied: "Well, I think so. I think you should do so in terms of principle.

"And I think in addition if you simply look at the parliamentary reality, those age groups were very important to us at the last election, some of the gains that we made, not least against Labour."

Former Lib Dem president Simon Hughes said the entire education budget should be protected during a future spending squeeze, describing it as "absolutely sacrosanct".

He said the party was having an "honest" debate in public about what its priorities should be given the tight budgetary constraints. Although that debate had not "concluded", he said it was clear most party members wanted the fees pledge to be retained.

Mr Clegg and Treasury Spokesman Vince Cable have insisted that nothing is off-limits as they are determined to show they are serious about slashing spending to tackle Britain's record national debt.

'No question mark'

Mr Clegg told party members on Sunday that the issue was one of affordability, not commitment, since experts had told him that the policy could cost £12.5bn to implement over the next four years.

"There is no question mark over the policy of the Lib Dems on tuition fees," he said.

"There is no question about my personal commitment to that policy. The only question is when we can afford to scrap tuition fees."

"We want to deliver that policy but it is a policy which has significant financial implications."

Mr Clegg has warned of "serious and bold" cuts in spending under a Lib Dem administration - but said they will be in areas that allow vital public services to be protected.

Withdrawing tax credits from high earners and freezing public sector pensions were a price worth paying to ensure the party could cut class sizes, support disadvantaged pupils and keep key public sector workers in their jobs, he has argued.

The autumn conference is the last before the next general election, which must be held within the next nine months.

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