LONDON: Britain’s parliament on Thursday approved plans to increase fees paid by university students, a vote which split the coalition government and sparked clashes between police and protesters outside of the building.
The lower house of parliament approved the plan by a reduced majority of 21 votes, indicating that several members of the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition parties had failed to back it. The coalition has a working majority of 84 when everyone is present in the 650-seat house.
Demonstrators, angry at plans to raise the amount students pay for their university education, threw missiles and placards at police in the square in front of parliament. Mounted police then tried to break up the crowd in chaotic scenes.
Police said they had tried to contain protesters in the square after flares, snooker balls and paint balls were thrown at them. The protesters tried to push the police back using metal barriers and then started a fire in front of parliament.
Police said seven people were arrested and three injured police officers taken to hospital.
Commentators said the vote was the biggest challenge faced by the coalition during its seven months in office and the clashes could herald further unrest as austerity measures bite.
“I’m a public sector worker and I think it’s about more than just tuition fees; it’s about showing people are angry with the way the government are going about reducing the deficit,” said Henry Trew, one of the protesters.
Some protesters accused the police of being heavy handed.
“The police have been antagonistic in their approach to the demo. Everyone knows that if you compress a group of people they get nervous and a lot of people are frightened,” said Elizia Volkmann, 39, an artist from London.
“There are many young people here under 17.”
A Reuters photographer was taken to hospital after he was hit in the face by a rock.
University students and school pupils have staged a series of protests in recent weeks, with hundreds of demonstrators arrested and a building housing the Conservative Party headquarters being attacked.
The government has made cutting a record peacetime budget deficit its priority and government departments have to reduce spending by some 19 percent over the next four years.
The government plans to allow universities in England to charge students fees of up to 9,000 pounds ($14,100) per year — almost treble the current limit, as it cuts state funding for higher education as part of an austerity programme.
The Liberal Democrats have angered their many young supporters and have been accused of betrayal for breaking a pre-election pledge to oppose an increase in fees. – Reuters