Clashes at British parliament as MPs vote on student fees

9th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Angry rioters clashed with police in violent scenes outside Britain's parliament Thursday as the coalition government faced its biggest test yet in a vote on hiking university tuition fees.

Several officers and demonstrators were wounded in battles in the heart of London as a student protest turned ugly, while a junior government member quit in order to vote against the plans that could triple fees.

Demonstrators surged into the square in front of the Houses of Parliament as lawmakers prepared to vote on moves to allow universities in England to charge annual fees of up to 9,000 pounds (14,200 dollars, 10,700 euros).

Masked protesters repeatedly tried to break through a cordon of riot police around parliament, attempting to rip up the metal barricades and hurl sections on fencing at officers.

At another exit from the square, alongside the historic Westminster Abbey where Prince William is to marry next April, officers came under a sustained attack and charged the mob with horses as objects rained down.

Police said they were attempting to contain the demonstrators within Parliament Square "due to the level of violence officers are faced with".

"Missiles including flares, sticks, snooker balls and paint balls have been aimed at police," Scotland Yard said.

Several protesters suffered head wounds.

Julyan Phillips, 23, a student at Goldsmiths College in London, who had blood pouring from a cut on his head, told AFP: "I was on the front line. I walked up to the police, had my hands behind my back.

"The guys who were next to me were pushing a metal fence towards them but a policeman decided to lash out at me instead with a baton."

He said he was demonstrating because "education is a right, not a privilege".

In an early count, three police officers and six protesters were being treated in hospital, while seven people were arrested.

Superintendent Julia Pendry of the Metropolitan Police said it was "absolutely obvious" that people had come to London "with the intention of committing violent disorder, not coming for peaceful protest.

"There has been a continued unprovoked attack by protesters," she said.

The proposal to raise fees has exposed deep tensions within the Liberal Democrats, putting the strain on their coalition with the larger Conservative party which came to power following the general election in May.

As they try to rein in Britain's record deficit, the plans amount to a reversal of one of the Lib Dems' flagship election pledges. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's party vowed to phase out tuition fees altogether.

Despite a series of last-minute concessions by the government, around half of the 57 Lib Dem lawmakers were tipped to rebel.

The coalition suffered its first resignation over policy when Mike Crockart, a parliamentary aide to the minister for Scotland, quit in order to vote against the plans.

Although the government's comfortable majority in parliament's lower House of Commons meant the measure was expected to be passed, the issue has been the biggest test yet for the coalition.

The Lib Dem U-turn has outraged students who voted for the centrist party and has sparked a series of demonstrations over the last month which have turned violent.

One protester, Andrea Baptiste, 18, from London, said Clegg was "a liar and a snake".

"To raise fees to 9,000 pounds a year just creates serious social divisions," she said.

A defiant Clegg dismissed opponents of the plans as "dreamers" and insisted it was reasonable to make students pay more for their education at a time of deep cuts to public spending.

The rise in fees is also supported by the majority of universities.

Protests also took place in other cities, including Newcastle in northeast England.

© 2010 AFP

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