Scots Liberal Democrats warn Clegg: Think again on allowing tuition fees

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SCOTTISH Liberal Democrats have fired a warning shot at the UK party's leader, Nick Clegg, over his proposals to ditch the promise to abolish tuition fees south of the Border.

The party championed their abolition in Scotland, securing the policy in their first term in coalition government.

But Mr Clegg has indicated the policy may be dropped as the party is forced to adjust to the current economic conditions.

Yesterday, Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott said the party had no plans to change its position north of the Border.

Former party leader Charles Kennedy, meanwhile, warned the proposal risked alienating young voters. While tuition fees are only levied south of the Border, both Mr Kennedy and Mr Scott believe there will be implications for Scottish universities.

The decision to oppose the major political parties on tuition fees was taken by Mr Kennedy when he was party leader, and insiders believe he will go all out to win the argument on tuition fees against Mr Clegg, even risking an internal row ahead of the general election.

Mr Clegg faced a grilling from conference delegates during a question and answer session, with many urging him not to scrap the policy of free fees or alienate young voters.

Mr Kennedy, who is also rector of Glasgow University, told The Scotsman that the debate was a "useful reminder" about a policy that had built up the party's "profile and credibility under successive leaders".

That remark will be seen as a clear dig at Mr Clegg, who despite stealing the march on other parties over expenses and residency rights for Gurkhas, has failed to lift the Lib Dems in the polls.

The Steamie: Gerri Peev blogs from the Lib Dems' conference

Mr Kennedy said he would advise the party leadership and colleagues to "think very carefully indeed before they took any fundamental step away from where we have been on tuition fees.

"All these things absolutely do have implications for Scotland," he added. "Tertiary education on a UK funding basis, if there is a policy change in England it pretty rapidly has ramifications in Scotland.

"In due course they will lift the cap on courses south of the Border. That will have an immediate knock-on effect in Scotland.

"We have got a very wary eye on what happens south of the Border."

Mr Scott said he was "relaxed" about a different approach to fees south of the Border.

"Policies that Nick and his colleagues decide for England is very much a matter for them," he said. But in a warning to Mr Clegg, he insisted that the Scottish Lib Dems would continue to pursue their own policies on education, regardless of the Lib Dem leader suggesting that fee-free tertiary education may not be affordable.

"We were genuinely proud of what we achieved for Scotland. I think seeking to deliver that in the Scottish sense given our educational tradition was the right thing to do.

"We have no plans to reverse where we are in Scotland but I respect there will be a different take south of the Border if that is what happens.

"The issue in Scotland which is obviously very important for us is how we continue to fund universities and what the policy implication for any policy decision for Scottish universities and that is something we will have to pay a lot of attention to."

A split in the party also emerged yesterday over whether the Lib Dems should back an independence referendum.

While Mr Scott remains vehemently opposed to a referendum, two Lib Dems called for the party to take on the nationalists by backing the referendum.

Kevin Lang, prospective parliamentary candidate for Edinburgh North and Leith, and George Lyon MEP broke ranks to back the vote.

Mr Lang said the SNP privately believed they would lose the referendum.

He said it could "settle an issue which I fear is haunting Scottish politics".

His view was backed by Mr Lyon. The two are opposed to independence and want the referendum to argue the case for the union.

SNP MSP Dr Alasdair Allan said: "These comments are a very welcome development, and an embarrassment to Tavish Scott."

The Liberal Democrats yesterday also called for greater devolution as part of a bid to counter the independence movement.

The party backed calls to implement the findings of the Calman Commission to give more powers to Holyrood and for Cardiff to take charge of areas including justice and policing.

Alistair Carmichael, the party's spokesman on Scotland at Westminster, said: "Devolution was Labour's fix but for us it was only ever going to be a staging post on the road towards what this party has stood for since the time of Gladstone – home rule."

Senior MP Simon Hughes said reform was also needed to end the Barnett Formula.

Cable hits out at 'cynical' Tory ploy

VINCE Cable, the Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman, will attack the Conservatives for a "cynical" plan to cut 53 billion of public spending, the equivalent of the entire defence budget.

In his keynote speech to conference today, Mr Cable will accuse Shadow Chancellor George Osborne of creating conspiracy theories about public finances, and will insist that Britain is not bust.

But he will also admit the Lib Dems could not rule out tax rises to bring down public debt.

"It would be dishonest and unbelievable for me to say that taxes overall should never rise," he will tell delegates.

"But the Liberal Democrats' starting point is to aim for fairer not higher taxes."

He will say that his priority is to cut income tax for those on low and middle incomes, forcing the highest earners to make up the difference.

Mr Cable's attack follows Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's swipe at David Cameron as a "con man", and he will jump on the leaked Treasury documents that the Tories claim show the woeful state of Britain's public finances.

"No-one does political cynicism better than the Tories. They pose as tough guys cutting spending sooner and deeper than anyone else."

SNP spent 1bn 'helping the rich'

THE Scottish Government has spent nearly 1 billion on policies that disproportionately benefit the rich, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott has said.

Mr Scott suggested that the SNP had sought to "bribe Middle Scotland", in his keynote speech to the Lib Dem conference.

"Research I am publishing today shows that – over four years – the SNP will spend 950 million on a set of distorted priorities and hand-outs that give more to the rich than to the poor."

The four key policy areas were a council tax freeze, which cost 700m; movement to free prescriptions by 2011 which cost 130m, abolition of bridge tolls, which cost 68m and a movement to more free school meals, which carries a bill of 50m.

Mr Scott released a paper showing that families earning 100,000 a year, living in a high-end council tax band G home were saving 802.37 a year through these key policies.

Meanwhile, a family taking home just 15,000 – which accounts for 40 per cent of Scottish families – and living in a band A home would only gain 6.07 a year.

The SNP described the claims as "nonsensical" and hypocritical.