Prime Minister’s Questions – NHS & student maintenance grants

Jeremy Corbyn: It is nice to get such a warm welcome. [Interruption.] If Members will allow me for one moment, let me ask the Prime Minister this question. Where in his election manifesto did he put his plan to abolish maintenance grants for all students?

The Prime Minister: First of all, people will recognise that there is no welcome for the thousands of people who have found work in our country. What a depressing spectacle. In our manifesto, we said that we would cut the deficit and uncap student numbers, and we have done both.

Jeremy Corbyn: There is not such joy in Port Talbot and other places that have lost steel jobs. They want a Government who are prepared to support their industries. The Prime Minister has form when it comes to student maintenance grants because, in the Conservative manifesto, there was no mention—[Interruption.] Are you done?

Mr Speaker: I gently say to the Prime Minister’s dedicated Parliamentary Private Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson)—[Interruption.] Calm yourself, man. Auditioning to be a statesman does not include chuntering from a sedentary position.

Jeremy Corbyn: As I was saying, the Prime Minister has form here, because there was no mention of tax credit cuts in the manifesto either. This proposal will affect half a million students, which is not mentioned anywhere in his manifesto. I have a question from a student by the name of Liam, who says:

“I’m training to be a mathematics teacher, and will now come out at the end of my course to debts in excess of £50,000, which is roughly twice as much as what my annual income would be”.

Why is Liam being put into such debt?

The Prime Minister: What I say to Liam is that he is now in a country with a university system that has more people going to university than ever before, and more people from low income backgrounds going to university than ever before. In addition, I say to Liam—and I wish him well—that he will not pay back a penny of his loan until he is earning £21,000. He will not start paying back in full until he is earning £35,000. Our policy will put more money in the hands of students such as him, which is why we are implementing it. By contrast, the Labour policy, which is to scrap the loans and the fees, would cost £10 billion and mean going back to a situation where people went out and worked hard and paid their taxes for an elite to go to university. We are uncapping aspiration; the Leader of the Opposition wants to put a cap on it.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am pleased to say that Liam is trying to be a maths teacher, and that might help the Prime Minister as Liam did say that he was earning £25,000, which is more than £21,000—if that is a help. In 2010, the Prime Minister’s Government trebled tuition fees to £9,000, and defended it by saying that they would increase maintenance grants for students from less well-off backgrounds. They are now scrapping those very same grants that they used to boast about increasing. Where is the sense in doing that? Why are they abolishing those maintenance grants?

The Prime Minister: The sense in doing that is that we want to uncap university places, so that as many young people in our country who want to go to university can go to university. That is what we are doing. Before we have too much shouting from the Opposition, let me say that when they were in Government, they introduced the fees and loans system. Given that this is the week that we are meant to be learning the lessons of the past election, let me read a lesson from somebody whom I rather miss. In the Times Higher Education, Mr Ed Balls wrote that “we clearly didn’t find a sustainable way forward for the financing of higher education… If they”— the electorate— “think you’ve got the answers for the future, they’ll support you.”

In all honesty I say to the Labour party that, when it was in Government, it supported fees and loans. When we were in Opposition, we made the mistake that they did. If we want to be on the side of aspiration and of more university students, and if we want to help people make the most of their lives, the system that we have is working and the numbers prove it.

Jeremy Corbyn: That is from the very same Prime Minister who is taking away the grants that are designed to help the poorest in our society to access higher education. I want to ask him about one particular group who are now being targeted by this Government: student nurses. They were not mentioned in the Government’s manifesto. The repayments that student nurses will now have to make when qualified amount to an effective pay cut of £900 for each nurse. Why is he punishing those nurses when we need them in our NHS?

The Prime Minister: First of all, there are now 6,700 more nurses than there were when I became Prime Minister. I know that the Labour party does not want to face up to difficult decisions, but let me just give the right hon. Gentleman one statistic. Two out of three people today who want to become a nurse cannot do so because of the bursary system. By introducing the loans, nurses will get more money and we will train more nurses and bring in fewer from overseas. It is good for nurses, good for the NHS and good for our country, and it is only a Labour party that is so short-sighted and anti-aspiration that cannot see it.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Prime Minister and I would probably agree that we need to spend more and direct more resources towards dealing with the mental health crisis in this country. I have a question from somebody who wants to help us get through that crisis by becoming a mental health nurse. Vicky from York has a very real problem. She says:

“I would not have been able, or chosen, to study to be a mental health nurse without the bursary for the following reasons… I am a single mum and need support for childcare costs. I have debts from a previous degree. I am a mature student at 33. I would not take on further debts which would be impossible to pay back, and would not be fair on my daughter”.

She is somebody we need as a mental health nurse in our NHS. We are losing her skills, her dedication and her aspiration to help the entire community.

The Prime Minister: But two out of three Vickys who turn up wanting to be nurses are sent away by our current system, which means we are bringing in people from Bulgaria, Romania and the other side of the world to do nursing jobs for which we should be training British people. The British people want to train as nurses, the NHS wants more nurses, and this Government will fund those nurses, so let us help them train and improve our health service.

Jeremy Corbyn: The problem is that the Prime Minister is expecting Vicky and others like her to fund themselves by paying back a debt or paying back from their wages in the future. I do not think that she will have been very reassured by his answers today; they will have been unconvincing to her. He was not very good at convincing the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), a nurse herself, who said:

“I would struggle to undertake my nurse training given the proposed changes to the bursary scheme.” The Prime Minister will be aware that nine out of 10 hospitals currently have a shortage of nurses. Is not what he is proposing for the nurse bursary scheme going to exacerbate the crisis, make it worse for everybody and make our NHS less effective? What is his answer to that point?

The Prime Minister: I will give the right hon. Gentleman a very direct answer: we are going to see 10,000 extra nurse degree places as a result of this policy, because we are effectively uncapping the number of people who can go into nursing. I have to say that this week has all been of a piece, with a retreat by the Labour party into the past. We have seen it with the idea of bringing back secondary picketing and flying pickets, with the idea of stopping businesses paying dividends, and with the absurd idea that nuclear submarines should go to sea without their missiles. Anyone watching this Labour party—and it is not just the leader, but the whole party now—will see that it is a risk to our national security, a risk to our economic security, a risk to our health service and a risk to the security of every family in our country.