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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 16:44 GMT 17:44 UK
SNP maintains peerage opposition
Winnie Ewing
Winnie Ewing might have been a peer if the party's policy changed
The Scottish National Party has voted against taking up seats in the House of Lords.

During a debate at the party's national conference in Aviemore, some argued the SNP should use every opportunity to advance Scotland's interests.

But opponents narrowly won the debate, saying it would amount to a sell-out.

Nationalists also discussed plans to scrap student loans and write off graduate debt as part of a 100m package to reform student finances.

Bruce McFee, SNP MSP for West of Scotland region, said they were being asked to support an "undemocratic bastion of privilege of the British State".

Ermine robes

"To become, frankly, the political prostitutes of Scottish politics - not bought and sold for English gold but for ermine robes," he added.

It was suggested party leader Alex Salmond might have benefited from a change to policy, by taking up a Holyrood seat vacated by an SNP MSP compensated with a peerage.

Stewart Stevenson, MSP for Banff and Buchan, indicated during the debate that he did not want to go to the House of Lords, ending speculation that he might have stepped aside for the SNP leader.

Mr Salmond said he favoured the current stance against the Lords.

How dare anyone suggest I have ambitions to wear ermine - or have any trappings whatsoever
Winnie Ewing

It had also been suggested that veteran Nationalist Winnie Ewing would be a candidate for the House of Lords, if the party reversed its policy.

She told the conference: "How dare anyone suggest I have ambitions to wear ermine - or have any trappings whatsoever."

But she argued for the Nationalists using every opportunity to advance Scottish interests.

She supported an amendment which would have allowed SNP members to sit in the Lords provided they agreed to toe the party's Westminster line.

She referred to the years when she sat as an unelected member of the European Parliament in the 1970s and said it had helped raise the profile of the SNP's point of view.

Winnie Ewing
Winnie Ewing might have been a peer if the party's policy changed

Delegates also debated plans to scrap student loans, voting overwhelmingly to replace them with means-tested grants.

The party will look at writing off the debts incurred by existing graduates.

The SNP's education spokeswoman, Fiona Hyslop, said Labour and the Liberal Democrats had let down Scotland's education system and its students.

"A graduate currently requires an income of around 22,000 to cover the annual interest of their student loan debt, however average graduate salaries do not meet this threshold," she said.

"It is no wonder that one in three of those who graduated since Labour came to power in 1997 cannot afford to start paying back their student loans.

"People should have access to a university education based on merit rather than ability to pay."

Party leaders have dismissed claims from rivals that the package could not be funded. They argued it was fair, just and a boost to Scotland's economic prospects.

Nationalists said it would form part of a 100m package to reform student finance arrangements.

Brian Taylor was in Aviemore

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