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Labour has no plans to write off student debt, Angela Rayner says

Universities Minister Jo Johnson claimed it was a ‘spectacular and embarrassing U-turn’

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has insisted Labour has “no plans” to write off existing student debt, adding: “We never promised to do so.”

The Labour frontbencher suggested Conservative MPs were “wilfully misrepresenting” her party’s policy.

Her remarks came after Tory criticism in the Commons following Jeremy Corbyn’s pre-election pledge to look at ways to reduce the debt burden on students.

The Labour leader, after stressing his party’s desire to abolish university tuition fees, told the NME: “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.”

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith accused Labour of using students as “election fodder” and asked Ms Rayner to apologise.

Speaking during an emergency debate on Government moves to raise tuition fees, Conservative James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) asked Ms Rayner: “On the subject of being weak and wobbly, can you confirm is it still Labour policy to pay off all £100 billion of the outstanding student debt?

“Is it still your policy, yes or no?”

Ms Rayner, in her reply, said: “A cynic might say that they’re wilfully misrepresenting my party’s policies. We have never said that we would simply write off all existing debt.

“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.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with the party's election manifesto (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“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, unacceptable 6.1% in the year to come.

“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.

“Unlike the party opposite, we make sure all of our plans are fully costed and outlined in our manifesto – perhaps they could learn something from that.”

Mr Duncan Smith, intervening in Ms Rayner’s speech, said: “During the election her party made it categorically clear to endless numbers of students that they would abolish the student debt.

“Will she now get up and apologise for using them as election fodder?”

Ms Rayner said Mr Duncan Smith seemed to have “failed to understand” Labour’s policy.

MPs have been allocated up to three hours to debate measures which allowed tuition fees to increase to a maximum of £9,250.

Oxford University (William Conran/PA)

A previous opportunity to discuss the issue in the Commons was cancelled in the last parliament.

Ms Rayner said higher debt would stop disadvantaged students going to university.

Universities minister Jo Johnson argued Labour wanted to talk about process “because its policy platform is disintegrating before our eyes”.

He branded it a “spectacular and embarrassing U-turn”.

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