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Five policy questions from first election debate

The first head-to-head TV debate of the election campaign between Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer gave many voters a chance to learn more about what the two contenders for prime minister had to offer.

But the hour-long programme – aired on ITV on Tuesday evening – also left many unanswered questions as the pair struggled to go into detail on some of their key policy areas in the allotted time.

Part of this is likely down to the fact that the election manifestos where the parties will set out their pitch to the nation haven’t been published yet, and the parties may well be holding back some of the details of existing pledges for future announcements.

Here are some of the unanswered questions remaining after the first TV debate:

What’s the full story behind the Conservative’s £2,000 tax claim?

Throughout the debate, Mr Sunak said at least a dozen times that calculations by “independent Treasury officials” showed that Labour would have to put up everyone’s taxes by around £2,000 a year to fund its policies.

According to the Conservative Party, the costings, released on 17 May, “show that Labour have a £38.5bn black hole in their policies – the equivalent of £2,094 in taxes on working families”.

“Labour’s revenue raisers would collect just £6.2bn a year by 2028-29 or £20.4bn over the next four years. This would mean a black hole of £10bn in 2028-29 and £38.5bn over the next four years.”

Sir Keir called the claim “garbage” and a letter released by the BBC shows that the chief civil servant at the Treasury wrote to Labour two days ago saying that the Conservative Party’s assessment of their tax plans “should not be presented as having been produced by the Civil Service”.

Analysis by The Spectator of Conservative policies also showed that, if they same logic was used as the £2,000 calculation, the party’s own pledges would amount to £3,000 in additional taxes a year.

Nick Davies, programme director at the Institute for Government an expert being cited by the Tories in the party’s evidence,  told i that the interpretation of his work was “misleading” and “not independent or fair”.

The questions that remain, therefore, are whether the Conservatives’ initial calculations can be trusted and if there really are black holes in either party’s policies.

What plans do both parties have for social care?

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had made it his state ambition to “fix social care”, but little progress was ever made. The “health and social care levy” intended to pay for plans to create a £86,000 lifetime cap on care costs was scrapped in 2022.

When asked what his plans would be to fix the social care crisis facing the UK, Mr Sunak said: “We’ve already implemented charging reform. Pilots are in place to implement the reforms that will be rolled out later this year. We’ve already given social care an extra £8bn. The pressures are immediate.”

Sir Keir, meanwhile, said his party “will have a plan for social care” set out in its upcoming manifesto, adding: “Like everything else in our manifesto , it’ll be fully costed and fully funded.”

But, given only a short amount of time to respond, he was very vague on what this plan would look like. He said: “It starts with the workforce – as you know, one of the biggest problems in social care is the workforce.”

As a result of chronic underfunding, staff shortages and rising waiting lists for social care, it is an issue that many voters will likely want more detailed answers on.

SALFORD, ENGLAND - JUNE 4: (EDITOR'S NOTE: This Handout image was provided by a third-party organization and may not adhere to Getty Images' editorial policy.) In this handout provided by ITV, Julie Etchingham hosts Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (C) during first head-to-head debate of the General Election on June 4, 2024 in Salford, England. The first televised debate of the 2024 General Election between Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer will take place on ITV. (Photo by Jonathan Hordle - ITV via Getty Images)
Julie Etchingham hosts Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during first head-to-head debate of the general election (Photo: Jonathan Hordle/ITV/Getty)

What is Labour’s plan for preventing future strikes in the NHS?

When asked about high NHS waiting lists, Mr Sunak said he’d struggled to get them down due to ongoing strike action in the health service.

Sir Keir responded that the Prime Minister was “blaming others” for his own failings, but the question was quickly turned on him by Mr Sunak, who pushed him on how he would end the strikes.

The Labour leader said: “We’ve got to resolve them, and for months and months and months the Prime Minister hasn’t resolved them.

“They’ve been arguing about who gets into the room. You’ve got to get in the room. You’ve got to resolve that because the NHS needs to get back to work.”

The Prime Minister received a round of applause when he responded saying he had rejected the unions’ demand for a 35 per cent pay rise for junior doctors, and kept the pressure on Sir Keir.

He added: “But I will say this. When Keir Starmer says he’ll resolve it, he hasn’t explained to you how.”

Sir Keir concluded the back-and-forth by saying he would also not commit to the unions’ demand, but insisted that the “grown-up” way to end the strikes was to “negotiate with the doctors and come to a settlement”.

However, many watching this exchange – including, most likely, the junior doctors themselves – would have wanted to hear more about what Sir Keir was willing to offer striking NHS staff to get them off the picket line.

Will Labour back Conservative plans to prevent tax on state pensions?

One of the Conservatives’ early campaign pledges was to bring in the “triple lock plus” which would ensure that pensioners’ tax-free allowance would increase at the same rate as their state pension to prevent them paying tax.

Mr Sunak was quick to point out in the debate that “Keir Starmer hasn’t matched that pledge” and went on the attack, adding: “[It] means for the first time in our country’s history, if Labour is elected, pensioners will pay tax.

“I do not think that is right and you should explain to everyone why you think pensioners should be paying a retirement tax under your government”.

Labour has avoided backing this pledge, and Sir Keir’s only response was to accuse the Conservatives of making unfunded spending commitments.

The tax-free allowance threshold is currently frozen at £12,570 until 2028, by which point the state pension is predicted to be around £12,893.

If Labour has no plans to intervene or unfreeze tax thresholds, there is a chance retirees receiving the state pension could, as Mr Sunak said, begin paying tax for the first time. If Sir Keir wants to win over older voters, an answer on this issue may be needed.

What offshore processing plans are Labour considering?

There have been multiple hints from Labour over the past year that, although it is opposed to the Conservatives’ Rwanda scheme, it would consider processing asylum seekers in a third country.

No details have been revealed, however, about whether this would actually happen and where the processing could take place.

Sir Keir gave a firmer answer on his party’s stance on Tuesday evening, claiming that he would be open to using a third country for processing if it could be done “in compliance with international law”.

Mr Sunak, meanwhile, warned the audience that no flights to Rwanda would take place if Labour won the next election, and that bringing in the policy would help reduce small boat crossings in the Channel.

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