ITV Leaders' Debate: Party leaders go head-to-head ahead of election

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Five of Britain's party political leaders have clashed on the Brexit deal and NHS funding as they went head-to-head in the ITV Leaders' Debate ahead of the General Election.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and Green co-leader Caroline Lucas also locked horns on social care, rising living costs and changes in education.

The two-hour debate in Salford, which was hosted by Julie Etchingham, came three weeks before voters go to the polls on June 8.

The absent Conservative leader Theresa May came under attack immediately - accused by Ms Wood of being "too scared" to debate - before the government's Brexit plan was attacked by all but Ukip leader Mr Nuttall.

Lib Dem leader Mr Farron said the prime minister had "chosen to interpret (the vote) in an extreme way" while the Plaid Cymru and SNP leaders both accused her of ignoring them.

"Gibraltar has had more attention than Wales," said Ms Wood, while Mrs Sturgeon said the Conservative leader had failed to achieve "compromise and consensus" by pledging to stay in the single market.

Ukip's Mr Nuttall - who was accused of being an "ambassador for Theresa May" in her absence - said Britain's exit from the single market "was clear" on the day people voted in last year's EU referendum.

Green co-leader Ms Lucas, meanwhile, accused Labour of giving the Conservatives a "blank cheque for a hard Brexit" as she joined the Lib Dems in calling for a repeat referendum on the final Brexit deal.

In a debate on investment in the NHS, Mrs Sturgeon said parties must speak out against "needless Tory austerity" as she called for a renationalising of the health service.

Ms Lucas said ending Britain's nuclear programme would fund the health service, while Mr Farron said investment could be achieved by his party's pledge for a penny rise in income tax.

Ms Wood said spending on foreign wars and refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster was wrongly prioritised ahead of the NHS.

Mr Nuttall said money from the foreign aid budget should be redirected to the health service, a stance that saw him roundly attacked from his rivals.

Mrs May, who along with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declined to debate, came under attack during the opening statements.

Plaid Cymru's Ms Wood accused the prime minister of being "too scared to come here tonight" and said she was showing "weak leadership".

Mrs May refused to take part in TV debates from the outset before Mr Corbyn said he would not participate without her being there, leaving their five rivals to pitch for votes next month.

There was general consensus among the panel - with the exception of the Ukip leader - on opposition to the Conservative government's reintroduction of grammar schools.

Meanwhile only Ms Wood said she had no concern for large class sizes - arguing quality teaching was the key influence on pupils' prospects.

The right-wing Mr Nuttall, who caused amusement after twice mistakenly calling the Plaid Cymru leader "Natalie", found little agreement with his left-leaning or liberal rivals throughout the debate.

He was also mocked by others for suggesting there would a dividend from leaving the EU, with Mr Farron saying: "Where's your bus?" - referring to the Leave campaign's discredited tour bus pledge of £350 million per week for the NHS.

However the Ukip leader did unite with the Greens to call for an end to the High Speed Two (HS2) rail project while agreeing with the Lib Dems on a call to axe Sats exams for primary school children.

Debating the squeeze on people's wages, Mr Farron returned to his Brexit argument as he said staying in the single market was the best long-term economic plan to protect jobs and wages.

Ms Lucas spoke of how "shameful" it was that one of her constituents was unable to buy tights to go to a job interview because the bedroom tax had been so costly for her.

Mr Farron called for better pay for care workers while Ms Wood echoed his concern about low pay for staff, saying zero-hours contracts were "a real scourge" on society.

Building up social care would take pressure off the NHS, Ms Sturgeon said.

The leaders of all seven of the parties represented in 2015's debate were invited to appear in 2017's edition, which again offered them the chance to make short opening and closing statements.

Four of the five leaders used their final statements to condemn Mrs May and Mr Corbyn for their debate no-shows with only Mrs Sturgeon opting not to reference it.

Speaking after the debate, shadow cabinet minister Andrew Gwynne told ITV News it was right for Mr Corbyn not to appear after Mrs May confirmed she would not take part.

He said Britons faced a choice between a "race to the bottom" Tory Brexit and a Labour Brexit which would serve "the many", while adding his party was the only one to pursue a "fair taxation system".

Some of those participating had called on the absent Tory and Labour leaders to face them under the TV studio spotlights in the build-up to the debate.