And now for something completely different...

12th June 1998 at 01:00
"I WAS the first person from my family to go to university. I grew up in a council house and come from a working class background," said Bill Rammell, Harlow's Labour MP.

"Council house? I used to dream of living in a council house. I was the first person in my family to go to university and I was brought up in a shoe-box."

"Shoe-box? Luxury. When I was five I was sent down t'pit, studied by candle light, warming me bones on the breath of the ponies and then became the first member of my family ...".

So went - well, almost - the debate on the Government's decision to end maintenance grants for students, which led to more than 30 Labour backbenchers defying the party line.

The Tories - making an unusual excursion into bleeding-heart politics - hid under the skirts of Lord Dearing's higher education report, and championed the poor, who they said will be hit hardest by the debts they will incur at university under Labour plans.

The pugnacious John Hayes (Con) - yes, first in his family to go to university - said the Dearing committee believed the abolition of the grant would damage the prospects of working-class people.

Education Secretary David Blunkett argued that the new loans system was fair because graduates would only make repayments once they were earning.

And while former viscount Tony Benn was out of the "most-working-class kid in the House" contest, he knew which side he was on. "We should tax the rich, not the educated," he said.

The rebels were supporting an amendment by former teacher Dennis Canavan (Lab) that would make grants available for students from low-income families.

One robust government supporter was Lorna Fitzsimons, former National Union of Students president (and first person from her family to go to uni, of course), who bulldozed into the debate. Poor students, she said, would be exempted from tuition fees.

It was the first outing for the reshuffled Tory education team. David Willetts pointed out the Bill means that while an Umbrian will pay pound;3,000 in fees to do a Scottish four-year degree, a Northumbrian will have to pay pound;4,000.

Theresa May rued that her first speech, supporting the Government's child protection measures, would not set the political world alight. But at least she did not get a dressing down from the Secretary of State, who told her colleague Damian Green that he would have to do much better to succeed on the Opposition benches.

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