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Tutored by the Lords

As constitutional crises go, the one caused by Scottish student tuition fees is small beer. Stripped of real powers in titanic clashes earlier in the century, the Upper House can now only propose revisions to the work of the Commons and not thwart the democratically elected chamber. But as the controversial amendment to exempt other UK students from fourth-year fees along with their Scots and European Union classmates was batted back and forth at the Palace of Westminster this week, real issues were at stake.

First, the Lords' continuing intransigence is founded not so much on its built-in anti-Labour majority as on almost universal recognition that the Government has made a mistake and created an indefensible anomaly. It did not foresee the consequences of what it originally proposed, was forced to make a concession for Scottish students because of the four-year degree and was then bereft of argument to defend the resulting position for English, Welsh and Northern Irish students.

Second, the House of Lords can still delay legislation, in this case by disrupting the parliamentary timetable and forcing the Government to postpone the whole of the higher education Bill. That would be a severe embarrassment since the changes to student support would have to go on hold for a year. Therefore Lord Steel and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish have been playing for high stakes in maintaining the Upper House's opposition. There is such a large Labour majority in the Commons that encouragement of backbench rebellion - the usual way to pressure governments - would be ineffective. Hence the Lords' stance.

The cost to the taxpayer of a climbdown would be small. Ministers would soon recover from loss of face. Those who are former student activists themselves might even commend today's student leaders for a well presented campaign.

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