Welfare, House of Lords reform, Scotland, education and tax were among the topics discussed at this press briefing.
House of Lords
Asked if the House of Lords announcement will be on Wednesday or Thursday this week, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman (PMS) said he wasn’t in a position to confirm the timing.
Asked if the there were any PM words of support for today’s UK campaign, the PMS said that a statement would be issued shortly.
Prime Minister’s speech on welfare
Asked if the proposals set out in the Prime Minister (PM)’s speech due later today would be implemented before or after 2015, the PMS said that the purpose of the PM’s speech would be to start a debate on some of these issues. The PM would say in his speech that some of these things would be potentially addressed in the next parliament. The PMS pointed out that at the time of the Budget the Chancellor said that if we continued cutting departmental spending at the same rate as we had in this spending review, then we would need to find a further £10bn of savings from the welfare budget and that the purpose of putting that number out there was to allow this debate to happen.
Asked if the exemptions for pensioners would continue beyond 2015, the PMS said that the current spending plans ran until 2014/15. The PM had made clear promises on benefits for pensioners and he would stick to those promises, but clearly there needed to be a debate about welfare reform generally if we needed to find further savings in the welfare budget.
Asked when the promise to pensioners would run out, the PMS said we had set out the policy for a parliament.
Asked if the PM disagreed with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that all matters should be up for debate, the PMS said that the PM would be talking primarily about working age benefits today.
Asked again if the proposals would be implemented before 2015, the PMS said that the PM wanted to discuss some of these issues with Coalition partners and that it was possible for the government to make changes to welfare policy at any stage.
Asked whether the driving force behind the proposals was saving money or social reform, the PMS said that we needed to take action to deal with the deficit. We had already made some progress on that, but the projection set out by the Office of Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) at the time of the Budget suggested that if we continued to cut departmental spending in the first two years of next parliament, at the same rate as we had in this spending review, we would need to find a further £10bn in savings from the welfare budget. We needed to look at how we might make those savings, but the PM was also clear that there were certain things in the present system where the incentives did not necessarily work in the right way. We needed to do more to ensure that the incentives encouraged work and got people into work.
Asked if we would still go ahead with the PM’s proposals post 2015 if the economy improved and the OBR predicted that the £10bn savings weren’t needed, PMS said that there were two arguments for reform - one was the financial environment and the other was that we needed to make sure that the system worked the right way and created the right incentives for people.
Asked if deeper savings would be sought if OBR projections worsen, the PMS said he would not get in to hypothetical questions.
Asked if it was likely that some of these policies would form part of the next Spending Review, the PMS said that the timing of the next Spending Review had not even been confirmed so he was not in a position to say what would be in it.
Asked why the PM had settled on the figure of three children regarding Child Benefit, the PMS said that the PM had not settled on any figures in this speech, he had set out some ideas.
The PMS went on to say that this was a speech that looked at the questions that we needed to consider rather than attempting to set out the answers to those questions. The PMS said that he was not in a position to say what the answers were or what the government might do. Some things were for the future and some things would require discussion within the coalition.
Asked if the PM’s speech had been agreed in advance by coalition, the PMS said that people see speeches in advance so they would be aware of today’s speech.
Asked if the PM should be putting the speech out as a political one, PMS said that it was not unusual for PMs to set out their views on policies for the future and sometimes they needed to talk beyond the next election as some of these issues were long-term issues.
Asked if there was any research that showed that benefits claimants had actively turned down work, the PMS told the questioner to speak to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) or HM Treasury (HMT).
Asked if the PM was aware of Michael Gove’s plans to reform the education system and bring back a new kind of O’Level, the PMS said that the PM was aware that Mr Gove wanted to reform the education system and had appointed him with that in mind.
Asked if following on from the Sunday Times article which claimed that Jimmy Carr’s TV audiences had doubled, the PM regretted making it a personal issue, the PMS said that the government had been clear that it would deal with tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance and that we didn’t regret that in any way and would continue to pursue it.
Asked if the government had spoken to Natwest/RBS and whether they had asked for the problems at RBS to be resolved, the PMS said that the HMT had been in contact with RBS and were being kept informed of developments, but that this was primarily a matter for RBS and that they were working hard to resolve the issues.
Asked if the PM had a view or message for the Egyptian authorities on the election of their new president, the PMS said that the PM had written to President Mursi to congratulate him on his election and that we welcomed Presidents Mursi’s statement that he intended to form an inclusive government that would govern on behalf of all the Egyptian people.
Archbishop of Canterbury
Asked if the PM agreed with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s view on the Big Society, the PMS said that they clearly disagreed.
Asked what the PM thought the Big Society was, the PMS explained that principle of the Big Society was that when there was a problem, the answer was not always government action or new laws and that through community action and engagement results could be achieved. The PMS went on to say that parts of today’s speech were about individual responsibility, encouraging people to do the right thing and rewarding people who work hard. We should not always assume that the answer to every problem is action by the state.
Asked if the PM had been in touch with President Erdogan following the plane downing, the PMS said that the PM hadn’t had direct contact on that issue, but that he expected that there had been contact between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Turkish authorities. The Turkish authorities had made clear that they were consulting NATO allies in the context of Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty. We would be represented by our ambassador to NATO at the NATO meeting the following day.
Asked if the Government’s stance on civil servants being paid via tax avoidance companies would be applied to other parts of the public sector such as the BBC, the PMS said that the Chief Secretary had made a statement about that particular issue about a month ago stating that we were ending that practice within government departments.
Local Government Association (LGA) report
Asked if there was a Downing Street response to the LGA report due tomorrow about the threat to services from the squeeze on funding, the PMS said that the report hadn’t been published yet, but that we had a tough financial environment where we had to reduce the deficit and that had involved looking at spending by local authorities as well as central government. On the issue of road networks, the PMS pointed out that transport was an area that was prioritised within the Spending Review.