From the Prime Minister's spokesperson on: Coalition first anniversary, Fixed Term Parliament Bill, Scotland and Universities.
Coalition First Anniversary
The Prime Minister’s Spokesman (PMS) said that there had been a discussion at Cabinet this morning on the implementation of the Programme for Government over the past year. The message from Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander at Cabinet was that the Government had done a lot of what it had set out to do over the past year. There had been some very significant achievements and we had made good progress on our key priorities, which were to strengthen the economy, modernise public services, raise aspirations and implement political reform.
The PMS went on to say that the Prime Minister had made the point in Cabinet that as a five year Coalition Government we had been able to focus on issues that had held back Britain for generations, due to the fact that many of those issues involved long-term questions about sustainability - from eradicating the budget deficit to reforming welfare, pensions, university fees and so on. The Prime Minister made the point that these were particularly difficult issues, and that having a Coalition Government helped in tackling them.
Asked if the Government would be publishing a document setting out the actions taken over the past year, the PMS said that there were two sets of data that outlined the Government’s progess. Firstly there was the Coalition Agreement/Programme for Government, which outlined 355 commitments of which 26% were complete, 64% were in progress and 10% were not yet started. Then there were Business Plans from every department, which reflected the commitments made in the Coalition Agreement. The Business Plans had 1276 actions that departments had to complete by a certain point. By the end of April 2011, 66% had been completed, 31% were still in progress and 3% were overdue.
Asked about those policies which had been abandoned, the PMS said that clearly there were occasions when the policy had changed.
The PMS went on to say that the Programme for Government set out a number of policies and they were in the process of being implemented. Obviously other things would arise and would be dealt with, but last year we put in place some machinery to reflect the fact that we had a Coalition Government. That machinery, including the Coalition Committee, the Quad and so on, would deal with issues in the normal way.
Asked if there was a need for a second Coalition Agreement, the PMS said that there were no plans for a second Coalition Agreement, but there could be a point where the Government wanted to say more about what it would do next, which Governments in the past had done. We had designed the machinery to be robust and operate so that as issues arose they could be dealt with effectively.
The PMS said that it was unprecedented for a Government to set out in so much detail at the start of Parliament precisely what it would be doing for the period that followed. The Business Plans set out in great detail specific actions that would be undertaken. There were events that Governments responded to, and no doubt there would be further policies set out in the coming years but that was not so different to what other Governments had done before.
Fixed Term Parliament Bill
Asked about the timetable for the Fixed Term Parliament Bill, the PMS said that the Bill was currently at the Report Stage in the House of Lords.
Asked if the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore had spoken at Cabinet about the Scottish referendum, the PMS said that Michael Moore had updated Cabinet on the issues related to Scotland following on from the elections last week.
Asked if the Prime Minister contributed to the conversation, the PMS said yes. The Prime Minister repeated what we had been saying publicly, that this was a matter for the Scottish Parliament and we wouldn’t stand in the way of a referendum.
Asked if the Prime Minister accepted that a referendum would be politically binding as opposed to legally binding and that this meant a second referendum would be needed, the PMS said that he would not get into speculating about the process.
Asked if the Prime Minister thought that rich students should be allowed to buy places at university, the PMS said that our universities policy had been designed to do two things; firstly, to deal with the sustainability of university finances, which required us to take some difficult decisions about the way the cost was shared between the taxpayer and the students. Secondly, we were trying to improve access to higher education and universities, particularly for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
The PMS went on to say that if the journalist had been referring to comments made by David Willetts this morning then what Mr Willetts actually said was that we were listening to proposals and once we had set out our policies in the White Paper we would ensure that we improved access to higher education.
Put that one of the ways of improving access was to let richer people buy places and use the money to help fund less privileged people, the PMS said that at the moment there was a quota system, which meant that some people who had the required qualifications to get into university were turned away. One thing that could help us improve access and social mobility would be if we could increase the number of university places and therefore enable more people who were currently being turned away to go to university. We were looking at how we could do that effectively, but we had not yet outlined the policies. David Willetts had been talking about the objectives of our policies, not the policies themselves.
The PMS went on to say that we were listening to suggestions for increasing access, whilst recognising that we were starting from a position where there was a problem with the funding of universities, which we had to deal with. For example, one suggestion was that some charities could potentially sponsor people to go to university, which under the current system wasn’t possible. We would test any specific proposals against our objectives.