Sunak vows to axe ‘rip-off degrees’ as Starmer sets sights on NHS

Rishi Sunak has pledged to create 100,000 more apprenticeships a year by shutting down “rip-off degrees” as he battles to remain in No 10.

The Prime Minister wants to see the worst-performing university courses replaced with high-skilled apprenticeships if the Conservatives stay in power after the General Election.

He said his party is offering young people “the employment opportunities and financial security they need to thrive” as he seeks to narrow Labour’s double-digit lead in the polls.

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Sir Keir Starmer’s party said the policy is “laughable” after the Tories “presided over a halving of apprenticeships for young people”.

Labour is setting its sights on tackling NHS backlogs, with Sir Keir detailing first steps to clear waits of more than 18 weeks within five years of taking office.

The party is warning that the treatment backlog, which currently stands at 7.54 million, could rise to 10 million if the Conservatives are in office for another five years.

Measures Labour would take include creating an additional 40,000 appointments, scans and operations each week during evenings and weekends and doubling the numbers of scanners.

Sir Keir pledged to “work with NHS staff” to put the health service “back on its feet”.

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Health Secretary Victoria Atkins criticised the plans as “more ‘copy and paste’ politics from Labour” while highlighting the Tories’ long-term workforce plan and £3.4 billion plan to upgrade NHS technology.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies said achieving Labour’s goal would be “highly stretching,” as “the challenging fiscal situation facing the next government will make it incredibly difficult to increase health spending at anywhere near similar rates” as previous Labour governments, which made big reductions in waiting times alongside spending hikes of over 7% a year in real terms.

Sir Keir has come under pressure over Diane Abbott’s candidacy, after it emerged she had the Labour whip restored on Tuesday following its withdrawal in April last year over comments she made about racism.

The Labour leader continued to refuse to say whether the veteran MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington would be allowed to stand under his party’s banner on July 4.

He faced renewed questions after it was reported an internal investigation into Ms Abbott was completed five months ago, but insisted the matter would be resolved by Labour’s National Executive Committee “in due course”.

But there was relief for Labour as deputy leader Angela Rayner was told she will not face any police action after an investigation into the sale of her former council house almost a decade ago.

Ms Rayner had faced claims she may have broken electoral law and dodged capital gains tax and council tax because of the way she and her then husband used separate homes.

But Greater Manchester Police and Stockport Council both confirmed they would take no further action against the Ashton-under-Lyne MP.

Ms Rayner hit out at the Tories’ “desperate tactics” after the police probe was triggered by a senior Conservative, while Sir Keir said his deputy “has been vindicated”.

Meanwhile, after making a renewed pitch for the so-called “grey vote” with the promise of a £2.4 billion tax break for state pensioners on Tuesday, Mr Sunak is shifting his focus back to youngsters.

He has promised 100,000 extra apprenticeships by the end of the next parliament, backed by new funding.

The law would be changed to give England’s universities watchdog new powers to shut down courses deemed as underperforming.

Mr Sunak, who is campaigning in the South West on Wednesday, said: “Improving education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for boosting life chances. So it’s not fair that some university courses are ripping young people off.

“Thanks to our plan, apprenticeships are much higher quality than they were under Labour. And now we will create 100,000 more, by putting an end to rip-off degrees and offering our young people the employment opportunities and financial security they need to thrive.”

An additional 5.8 million apprenticeships have been delivered under Conservative governments since 2010, with 340,000 starting in 2022/23, the Tories said.

But Labour pointed out that apprenticeship achievements among under-19s are down 50% since 2015/16, while starts have dropped by at least 30% in every English region.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “It is laughable that the Tories, who have presided over a halving of apprenticeships for young people, are now announcing this.”

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson said: “The shockingly low pay for those on apprenticeships will remain, doing nothing to encourage more people to take apprenticeships up or tackle soaring drop out rates.”

In other General Election developments:

– Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey will launch his party’s General Election campaign in Wales on Wednesday, promising to “champion the best of Welsh farming”.

– Scotland’s First Minister John Swinney will urge Labour to “follow the SNP’s lead” by fully nationalising Network Rail as he officially opens the Levenmouth rail link in Fife.