Cameron-Harman love in as Labour prepares for a new leader

Though PM ducks questions on human trafficking and PMQs itself

There was a strangely jolly, almost flirtatious mood at Prime Minister's Questions today, as David Cameron paid tribute to Harriet Harman as a "credit" to her party. Facing Harman for the last time before the Opposition elects a new leader, Cameron joked that Labour's acting leader was the "most popular" of the three Labour leaders he has faced including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And he reminded the House that "it's au revoir" rather than "goodbye" as Harman remains elected as deputy leader, a role in which may well see her stand in at the despatch box in the future.

Harman expressed sympathy to Cameron over the death of his father, and congratulations over the birth of his new daughter, but asked some tough questions on human trafficking. Harman urged Cameron to opt in to an EU Directive on the issue, but Cameron refused, claiming it goes no further than the Government's own plans. Harman said "I know some in his party are irrationally hostile to Europe" but that she hoped Cameron would not let them get in the way of signing up to the EU Directive. Cameron later implied he would consider arguments from Labour MPs for signing up to the directive.

In a separate and more partisan exchange, Cameron said it was "the height of irresponsibility" for shadow ministers to go to the TUC and encourage strikes amid the need for cutting the budget deficit.

Finally, Harman asked Cameron if the Tories were still enthusiastic about returning PMQs to twice a week, as they sometimes argued while in Opposition. Unsurprisingly, Cameron said he favoured a once a week session, describing that as "one of the few things" with which he fully agreed with Tony Blair.

UPDATE: The Prime Minister is wrong to say that Britain does not need to sign the EU Sex Slave Trafficking Directive, says former Europe minister, Denis MacShane, secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficking.

"Last week Teresa May told me Britain would not opt in. Today the PM said he would examine the issue but claimed British laws covered all the problems. But the whole point of an EU directive is that it obliges cross-frontier cooperation and an obligation meet EU rules.

"Sex slave trafficking cannot be combatted on a nation-only basis. The Government is sending out the wrong signal by saying No to a European-wide coordinated campaign. It was sad to see Nick Clegg whispering in David Cameron's ear to provide arguments for traditional Tory Euroscepticism on EU directives.

"The campaign against sex slave trafficking will continue and many will be disappointed at the opposition of Mr Cameron to this important EU directive," MacShane added.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.