By Mo Bhana
The Shadow Education Secretary has been lambasted over its student debt ‘U-turn’ after the Tories demanded an immediate apology from the Labour’s school’s supremo.
Angela Rayner was challenged to say sorry for ditching an Election pledge to wipe out graduate debt.
In the Commons last week, Ms Rayner sparked outrage among Conservatives by appearing to abandon the promise by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the campaign to ‘deal’ with existing student debt and reduce it.
The promise – along with a pledge to scrap tuition fees – was seen as a huge vote-winner for Labour among younger voters.
“They refer to comments made by (Mr Corbyn) and I would remind them that he said we would look at steps to reduce or eliminate the debt burden.
“Perhaps this confused members opposite, that is not something their frontbench has done for seven years.
“For instance, we would look again at the repayment threshold for student debts, which they have frozen at £21,000… We would look at the interest rates on debt, which they allowed to reach an extortionate 6.1%.
“And I’ve said once, and I will say it again, we have no plans to write off existing student debt and we never promised to do so.”
In a letter to her yesterday, Education Secretary Justine Greening called on her to apologise for abandoning a “clear commitment to reduce the debts of millions of people.”
She wrote: “In pretending that the Labour Party never intended to clear student debt, you are further misleading those who put their faith in you.”
The Shadow Chancellor also backtracked on Jeremy Corbyn’s key pledge, admitting it would cost £100bn which is “a lot of money.”
Labour gained a big surge in votes from young people after promising to help students stuck with massive debts from paying £9,000 a year tuition fees.
Mr Corbyn also promised to get rid of fees altogether.
During the election, Jeremy Corbyn said he would act to reduce the debt burden of students having to pay £9,000 fees.
He said: “I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after.
“I will deal with it.”
Several frontbenchers have distanced themselves of talk of a debt amnesty.
In March 2016, the total amount of debt owed by English students and EU students studying in England, who under the current system do not have to pay anything upfront, was £76.3bn.
In their manifesto, Labour promised to scrap university tuition fees in England but there was no mention of writing off unpaid student debt.
However, his close friend and colleague, Mr McDonnell, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show today: “We will look at what we can do.
“We are going to try to, it’s a real ambition of ours – I don’t want to promise something we can’t deliver.”
Presenter Andrew Marr said it originally sounded to be a promise, prompting the Labour MP to reply: “What Jeremy said is we recognise young people are coming out of college now with debts of £50,000 – they cannot even think about buying a house or get on the property ladder – so we’ve got to tackle that.
“But the issue is the system has got to be tackled anyway because it’s falling apart.”
Asked if a future Labour government would help students by dealing with some of their debt, Mr McDonnell replied: “We’re going to try to. It’s a real ambition of ours.
“I don’t want to promise something we can’t deliver.”
Gaining the student vote through promising to reduce tuition fees has been a common method in recent elections.
The Lib Dems promised to slash tuition fees during the 2010 election, which many believe got them into the coalition with the Tories.
However, it never happened and at the 2015 and 2017 elections, the Lib Dems suffered massive losses as students turned away from them.
Labour hit back by insisting Mr Corbyn had never pledged to write off debts for students who had already graduated.
Tim Loughton, a former education minister, accused Labour of a “scam” while ex-leader Iain Duncan Smith said Labour had treated students as “election fodder”.
“During the election, her party made it categorically clear to endless numbers of students that they would abolish the student debt,” he said. “Will she now get up and apologise?”
Recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested students in England are set to graduate with average debts of £50,800, with many poorer students incurring much higher sums.
Under the current system, loans that are not repaid after 30 years are written off for degree courses started after 2012 and after 25 years for courses between 2006 and 2012.
The Green Party was the only party at the last election to make a firm manifesto pledge to write off student debt.