Prime Minister David Cameron was at Vodafone in Newbury as part of his 4-day economic tour.
I’m delighted to be here. I’m actually particularly delighted to be here. I’m a customer
But I was brought up just down the road from here, and so I remember when this site was just a green field. I can remember Newbury before Vodafone. Actually, my mother was the local magistrate here for 35 years.
I think it was 1985 that the first mobile phone call was made in Britain, and it was made from here, in Newbury. I was checking out on the way here, 1985, Shakin’ Stevens was number 1 in case you were wondering, and actually I was working at Parcel Line in Hambridge Lane as a holiday job, packing parcels.
But the real reason for being happy to be here today is your extraordinary news. This is a great British success story, a huge British brand, a huge global brand and you’re making some massive investments in the UK. You’re creating 1,400 new jobs, you’re investing in stores up and down the country, you’re building out your network, and that really matters to Britain because we want to be a leader in technology, in telecoms, in connectivity and in mobile comms. And all that you’re doing in building out 4G, completing your network, is so important for our country.
And the only other thing I want to say before taking questions – and please ask questions about anything you like; don’t hold back. Say what you want.
This is a really important week for Britain and our economy. This government’s got lots of things it’s got to do, lots of things I’m very proud of, but the most important thing we have to do is turn this economy round, get more of our fellow countrymen and women into work and make sure Britain is 1 of the success stories of the 21st century.
And this week is very important in that respect, not just because of the great announcement that you’re making, as other companies are making, but this is the week when we cut the rate of company tax, corporation tax, in Britain down to 21%, to make us one of the most attractive countries anywhere in the world to invest.
This is the week when we say to people, ‘You can earn £10,000 before you start paying any income tax’, because we want people to keep more of the money that they earn to spend as they choose.
This is the week when, particularly, we say to small business that we’re going to give you back the first £2,000 that you spend on National Insurance contributions because we want more companies to take on more employees.
This is the week when I hope the economic growth that we’re seeing, the success that we’re seeing accelerates, and more people feel that this country is on the move, that the jobs are coming, the business is coming, the economy is turning round, the deficit’s being dealt with and we can look forward to a more secure and stable future.
There’s a huge way to go. I’m actually confident Britain can be a success story, and it’ll be companies like Vodafone and the new technologies that can really help us be that success story.
It’s a fascinating thought that back in 1985 when that first mobile phone call was made no one really thought texting was going to be something people would want to do, and I always think that’s a great example of how the politicians and the experts can’t always – can’t always forecast what the new businesses, the new industries will be. But what the politicians should do is invest in the future, by backing science, backing universities, supporting technology, helping businesses to locate and grow here, because if we do that we can be a real success story.
That was all I wanted to say. Congratulations on what you are doing this week, the shops you are going to open, the high streets you’re going to re-enliven, the services you’re going to provide and, above all, the completion of the network. So, no more not-spots.
Right. Now – okay, questions.
Good afternoon Mr Cameron. I’ve got an 8-year-old son. His name is Joe, and when he was 7 he saw you on the telly and he says, “Look Dad, that’s David Cameron”, and I was quite surprised to learn that he knew who you were. “So do you know what he does?” He says, “Not really, but he’s the Prime Minister”. So my question is just out of curiosity, for infant school or junior school children, do you think it’s important for them to know who you are and who the leader of the country is?
I do. I don’t think we should try and push politics on our children too early but I think teaching children about the political system, about democracy, about citizenship, about what we do, what our responsibilities are, I think that is important and that now does happen as part of the curriculum in our schools.
The way I always explain it, so you can use this if you like, is every school today has got a school council. So I go into a primary school and I say, “Look, you’ve got a school council, you elect people to that council, what’s the point of that council? Who runs the school? The head teacher. Well, what do you do, does the head teacher run the school on their own? No, they listen to the school council, and so that you listen to the ideas that come up through this council.” So I always explain that the school council is really like Parliament, and the Prime Minister is a bit like the head teacher. It’s quite a good way of explaining that actually we have a democracy, we have a parliament, we listen to people’s ideas before we take decisions and that’s similar to a school. And I think that’s probably enough politics for primary school; it can get a bit more developed in secondary school.
As operators, we develop and manage an integral part of the national infrastructure. What more can and should the government do to further support us in the development and expansion of the network?
I’d say there are 3 things we need to do.
1 is we need to make sure we properly protect critical national infrastructure. We need to make sure that we really know, as a government and as a country, what the critical parts of our infrastructure are so that they’re resilient – resilient from floods, resilient from extreme weather, resilient from terrorist attack. And so it’s very important that operators like Vodafone, BT, water companies, gas companies, all work with the government to ensure we can properly protect the national infrastructure in times of need. I think we’re much better at that than we used to be, but there’s still more work to do. I think that’s the first thing.
I think the second thing we’ve got to do together is actually deal with the not-spots, with the gaps in our network. I think Britain has a really proud record in terms of mobile technology networks.
…but we’ve still got a problem…
…when you reach a not-spot and you can’t carry on with your business.
Now that matters for UK Plc, that matters if we’re going to be a success story and so together we need to deal with this. And I was talking to some of the team here before this meeting about what’s called the Mobile Infrastructure Project: how can we make sure with the other 3 main operators, we invest in more, more network, more towers so that we can fill in those gaps and those spots?
Vodafone is committed to doing that; the government is committed to putting in more money to doing that, because it’s not always in your commercial interest to fill in the last bit of the network. But we’ve got to do better at delivering that, and I think that’ll be a key thing for Britain’s competitiveness.
The third thing we’ve got to do is really make sure we’re a broadband success story. Now, again, the picture is pretty good. We’re on track to have one of the fastest and most extensive broadband networks anywhere in Europe. But here we are in West Berkshire, a relatively rural part of our country – I represent West Oxfordshire, just down the road and, you know, for businesses in rural areas rural broadband is not just a sort of nice to have issue, it is a life and death issue. It’s like not being connected to the road network, it’s like not having any access to a railway station; it’s absolutely critical.
And so the government is spending £790 million on rural broadband to fill in the parts that won’t be done by the commercial operators, commercially, but we need to work with you, Vodafone, as well to see what 4G can bring in terms of filling in the gaps and making sure we get to 90%, 95% and then beyond 95%, because as I say, any business in this part of the world that needs to download advertisements, upload data, it’s going to be at a massive disadvantage if it doesn’t have that access.
So I think those are the 3 absolutely critical things, and time is pressing. We’ve got to get our broadband network faster and better than the rest of Europe quickly, because it will be 1 of the key determinants as to whether Britain is a success in the future or not.
I look after the Police Liaison Team here at Vodafone, so we ensure that police get the information that they need to help fight crime. Now, given that the communications environment is changing and the government now more than ever need to balance security versus privacy, I’m interested in what your view on that right balance is?
Public procurement in this area hasn’t always been a success. Not always, but these technologies are vitally important for our public services.
Where are we on this balance of liberty and security? Look, as Prime Minister, I feel a real responsibility to help us fight terrorism, to help us fight serious and organised crime, and I think that our intelligence services deserve proper support and backing. We are under a permanent risk. The situation in Northern Ireland is much better than it was, but there are still dissident Republican groups that would love to be able to do damage not just in Northern Ireland but here on the mainland too. We still face a threat from extremist Islamist terrorism; we’ve seen that on the streets of our capital and I would say that every year since I’ve been Prime Minister at least 1 major plot that could have done major damage to our country and killed many, many people has been stopped.
So I come at this thinking a lot about the security aspect of it. I would argue that when you look at what we do in this country in terms of either intercepting and listening to people’s telephone calls or indeed getting hold of what’s called the communications data, which is simply the data of who called who from where and when, but not the content of the call, I would argue we have very good rules, regulations and laws in place to deal with that. Very simply put, to listen in to someone’s telephone call in this country you have to have a signed warrant by the Home Secretary. A politician at the top of the Cabinet has to individually look at the case and sign it. I think that is a very big thing.
In terms of getting the communications data, who called who and when – which is absolutely vital in solving not just terrorist crimes but solving crimes about missing children or abductions – in order to have that information you have to use the regulation of RIPA. You have to go through that Act and get it signed by a senior official. So I think given that there is a balance between liberty and security, I think we have well regulated security and intelligence services in our country and we operate the law properly, but it’s going to take a lot of work to make sure that continues to be the case. But I would always err on the side of making sure we can keep the country safe; I see that as one of my most important priorities.
Today I heard that the EU announced that all data roaming charges will be abolished, so what’s your opinion about EU regulation and do you think the British people will benefit from EU regulations in the long run? And do you fear the outcome of a referendum about the EU in England?
First of all, I think – happily, because I’m surrounded by Vodafone employees – I think actually Vodafone and the British government are in the same place as this, which is we want new EU regulation to level the playing field but we’re not happy with the content of that current EU regulation.
And so we’re going to work with Vodafone and with the other operators to make sure that in Europe we make sure this regulation works for Britain, works for Europe and obviously it’s better for consumers. I think roaming charges are expensive in Europe and we need to deal with this issue. We’ve got to get it right.
But this does raise a bigger and more important issue, which goes straight to the debate about Britain’s EU membership. My view is very simple: I think the EU isn’t working properly. I think we need to change the way it works, we need to make it work better. And I think that’s perfectly possible to do that; I’ve proved that by cutting the budget. That was something that was spending too much money and I insisted the budget came down, and it is coming down. So you can get change in Europe, and I want less regulation, less bureaucracy. Yes people should be able to move and work around Europe but they shouldn’t be able to just move to Britain in order to claim benefits.
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And so I think it’s absolutely crucial that we stay in the single market, which is at the heart of the European Union and the bit of the European Union we’re most enthusiastic about.
We often win these arguments about regulation. I’d say more often than not we do, partly because when I’m sitting around that table in the European Union I can actually point to our telecoms market, where you’ve got companies like Vodafone that aren’t the national operator, you’re not the inheritor to BT, you are an independent company that has succeeded all over the world. Most of my colleagues sitting round the table are batting on behalf of Deutsche Telecom or France Telecom or Telecom Italia; they’re dealing with the old state monopolies that are becoming a bit more competitive, but they haven’t got the great new insurgent companies like Vodafone that I have.
So we have a lot of clout round the table, we do win a lot of these arguments, we need change in Europe [Political content removed] But we should fight for that reform first.
What do you think the battleground will be for the next election – the top 5 key battleground elements?
I think you can always run through the things that people care about the most: jobs and the economy, immigration’s a very big issue, the future of our health service, our schools and whether they’re providing for our children, the issue of Europe is often number 5 or number 6 issue. But I think personally that the issue will boil down to 1 quite simple but really, really important thing, which is this: our country has been through a very difficult economic time. We had the longest and deepest recession in living memory, and I think the challenge for the government, the challenge for this generation of politicians, is who has got the best ideas to get the economy moving again, to create jobs again, to get the deficit down and to demonstrate that Britain’s got a strong economic future.
But it won’t be won just by talking about the facts and the figures and the statistics. I mean: 1.3 million more people in work than when I became Prime Minister, 400,000 new businesses working in Britain since I became Prime Minister, we’re exporting again, we’re manufacturing again. These are all great statistics. But I think the key in convincing people about whether we’re on the right track will be the values behind all of that. What people really want to know is are those new jobs going to mean more families with a wage earner, bringing home a pay packet, able to provide for their families? Are these new businesses really about people setting up and being able to achieve their dreams of going it alone? Is Britain going to be able to earn our way in the world in such a way that we’re going to be able to reduce people’s taxes and help them to live a better life? In the end I think what people will want to know is who is the best team to provide the stability, the security, the peace of mind so that they know this country is going to be a great place to live in the future?
And I think that’s what I want to get across, and I think the battle I have, frankly going to be a battle obviously with my [Political content removed] opponents; about who’s got the right plans, who’s got the right ideas, who’s got the right values, but I’ve also, I think, got a fight, a battle, to explain to people who’ve become depressed about Britain and worried about our future, who worry is this going to be a great country to bring up children, for children to go to school, for children to get jobs, people worrying about the future generations.
Now, I’m an optimist, and I’m not just optimistic because I’m Prime Minister and I want to talk up Britain. I actually do believe that we can be a success story. If we get our education system right, if we invest in apprenticeships, if we help people to get the qualifications they need, England, Britain, United Kingdom, we’ve got a lot of things going for us: the English language, great universities, very good companies, we’re very inventive, we’re a trading nation. We can be a success story, but that success has got to be based on really good values in education, on hard work and on a government that understands that enterprise is the key to a country’s future success. That’s what I think it’s going to be all about, but the difficult thing about my job is I don’t get to choose, you get to choose. And I’ve got a big job interview coming up in 2015 and I’ll have to do my best when the time comes.
With the facilities that through Vodafone’s fixed and mobile network we can provide to people and businesses throughout the UK – with that in mind, why is it so important to spend so much money on a high speed rail link between north and south?
I think you’re going to see a lot more people doing business over the internet, video conferencing, all of that, but I think the idea that people aren’t going to want to travel for business or leisure or whatever, that’s clearly not the case. And what I’d say about HS2, first of all let me give you a bit of reassurance, because I think there are people who live not on the line, as it were, people living here in Newbury or in the south west of our country who think all the money’s going on HS2, right? That’s not true.
We are spending, in the next parliament, 3 times more on other road and rail projects, including the electrification of the West Coast Main Line coming from London through Newbury and off to Cardiff in Swansea; indeed, we’re spending 3 times as much on other road and rail projects as we are on HS2. But here’s the case for HS2: the West Coast Main Line between London and Birmingham is full. Every day thousands of people arrive in Euston station having been standing on the train all the way from Birmingham, thousands of people in Birmingham having travelled all the way from London standing. It’s full. We need another railway line.
The question for us: do we build an old fashioned Victorian-style railway line or do we build one of the new-fangled high speed railway lines? Just as we want to have the best broadband, the best mobile, the best telephony service, all of that, we want to have one of the best transport infrastructures in our country, so I say we should build that high speed railway line. It gives us the capacity we need between London and Birmingham, it will free up an enormous amount of railway use for other routes, and then as you go north from Birmingham, going to Manchester and going to Leeds, you’re going to end up connecting Britain’s largest cities through one high speed rail network.
And we all know the truth about Britain: economic activity and wealth and prosperity has been too concentrated in the south east of our country and in London, and I think high speed rail will be a really important way of helping to spread that wealth and prosperity. I’m almost old enough – in fact I’m just old enough to remember West Berkshire before the M4, and a lot of people thought, ‘Why do you want to build the M4, what’s that all about?’ It’s been the most extraordinary generator of wealth and prosperity and businesses. This has become a sort of silicon corridor for our country. The M40, hugely important; think of High Speed 1, and what High Speed 1 has done between London and the Channel Tunnel and the transformation of East Kent. We need that to spread to the other parts of our country, so I’m passionate about going ahead with high speed rail.
We should be a country taking long-term decisions to invest in the future. That’s what you’re doing at Vodafone, building out your network. Governments should do the same. That’s why we’re investing in nuclear power, that’s why we’re investing in offshore wind, that’s why we’re building high speed rail, that’s why we’re making sure we can afford our pension system for the future. Governments normally take short-term decisions, not long-term decisions; I’m determined this one is going to be different and we do things that our children and grandchildren will turn round and say, ‘That was the decade they actually took some decent decisions and put this country on track for a better future’.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of that you’ve achieved in this parliament? What do you regret the most in this parliament? And what are you going to do differently in the next one?
I think what I’m trying to say today is there are lots of things that I’m proud of. I’m proud of the fact that we kept our promise to give 0.7% of this country’s GDP in overseas aid to the poorest countries in the world. I think there are lots of countries – in fact I could name them – and lots of politicians – and I could probably name them as well – who would have broken that promise. But I think you don’t break your promise to the poorest people in the poorest countries in the world, so I’m very proud of that.
I’m proud of smaller things like National Citizen Service. It is now a great way for 16-year-olds to take part in community service, to go away from school, away from home and actually learn about citizenship, about volunteering, about communities, and 1 day I want every 16-year-old in the country to do it. I’m hugely proud of that. So there are lots of individual things I could point to, but really I think what this government is about and must be about is turning round this economy. And the fact there are over a million – 1.3 million more people in work, bringing home a pay packet, that is the most important thing this government has done.
What do I most regret? Well, obviously I regret not winning the election outright because I have to expend a lot of energy working in coalition. So that is a regret, but we’ve made it work. I think it’s important in politics that you’re dealt a hand, you’ve got to get on and play it. The country wouldn’t understand if we bickered all the time, they want us to get on and govern and make decisions. But obviously I regret not winning.
What’s the biggest thing we can do in the next parliament that we haven’t done in this? The short answer, I would say, is complete the job. You know, we haven’t finished the work. We inherited a deficit that was 11% of our national income, bigger than anywhere else in the developed world. We’ve got it down by a third, next year it’ll be down by a half, but I want to get rid of that deficit. I want us – when we’re growing, I want us to be paying down the national overdraft, not adding to it – paying down the national level of debt. I don’t want us to be in a position when the next time the storms hit – and storms do hit in international economics – the next time storms hit I want us to be in a stronger position, paying down the debt so we can withstand what can be a very tricky economic world.
It might be unromantic to say finish the job, but there are still too many young people unemployed, there are still too many parts of our country that aren’t feeling the wealth and prosperity of growth, we’re still borrowing too much money and politicians love it when they can get off the need to take difficult decisions and start spending all your money. We shouldn’t be doing that; we should be focussing on the job in hand, completing the job, and that is why I’ll be seeking re-election for a full term when the election comes.
How do you think that mobile and government can come together to increase government’s reach to the people?
I think we should be transforming, and we are to an extent, transforming the way government delivers its services so it is digital by default. You should be able to pay all your bills, council tax, pay your taxes, get your driver’s licence, apply for your passport; you should be able to do all of this digitally by default. And I think your companies, with the technology you have, you should be helping us to do this, and then I think we should be working with you to sell this around the world. There’s a small company I’ve done a bit of work with – they come on my business trips around the world – called Monetise. When they started, they were nothing, a tiny company, they do mobile banking services; they’ve now got millions of customers all over the world.
This is an enormous revolution about using mobile telephony for banking, government and other services, and we are good at it here. We should be even better at it and then we should sell it round the world. Some people say why don’t we just make voting much easier, so you can vote by internet, vote by phone, and then we’ll get the number of people voting up? I think there’s something wrong about that, and I’ll try and explain why. I’m not against making it easier to vote, but I don’t think that’s the problem. People don’t vote because they’re not convinced it matters enough. And I think if we just say, “I’m going to make it easier for you”, I think they’ll say to us, “You haven’t really solved my problem, I’m not voting for you because I’m not convinced you’re going to make a difference”. And as someone who cares passionately about public service, about politics, about the future of our country, I want to convince people that voting is worth a rain-sodden trip to that polling station. It’s really worth wearing out the shoe leather, putting the cross in the old fashioned box, because you get to choose who governs you, and that is something that people in this country have died for, and people around the world are still dying for.
So, yes, okay, let’s have a debate about making it easier, but let’s not miss the point, which is to try and demonstrate through our politics and our public life that it can make a difference, we can make good decisions as a country or bad decisions as a country. And I think for young people, they are the most idealistic of all in many ways. And I think simply pandering to them by saying, “I’ll make it so easy to vote; it’ll be just like, you know, voting on X Factor”, misses the point. They want to know that the politicians they’re voting for have got a beating heart and really care about the future of this country and they’re going to take decisions that will give them a better future. So, I’d rather crack that than simply just use your technology to save someone a trip to the polling station.
Do many of your Cabinet use social media and, if so, do you encourage them to?
Yes, I think they all do and I encourage them. The fact is if you’re in politics, you need to use all the means of communications in order to discuss ideas and to convince people of your plans and also to get the feedback from them. And I think using Twitter, using Facebook, all of the modern methods are – politicians should all be doing that.
So, I tweet. I don’t tweet that regularly. I think – I still think that politicians have got to work out how to try and make decisions in a thoughtful and considered way in a – not just a 24-hour news environment now, in an hourly, minutely news environment. I sometimes sit in the Cabinet Room, which is such an extraordinary honour to sit in that room where Churchill sat in May 1940 and he was trying to decide, with his Cabinet colleagues, about whether we should fight on against Nazi Germany. And there’s a great book about it called ‘Five Days in May’. Can you imagine that today? You’d have, like, ‘Five Minutes in May’. You’d have Sky News outside say, “Well, I think the Prime Minister’s dithering. When are they going to make a decision? I’m coming up to a deadline”. You’d have, you know – I’m not asking for sympathy because, you know – you do this job because you love it, but the pressure of media deadlines, the Twittersphere going round and round so quickly means that it is difficult for politicians to stand back, take decisions in time. And we need our politicians to do that.
So, what I try to say to my colleagues is, “Use social media to communicate and to listen but also try and take the time to think through the big decisions so that you get them right”. And I think that’s going to be – it’s going to be just a challenge we have to learn to live with. It sometimes means that you have to just let a bad thing roll on for a while, while everyone’s saying, “Why can’t they make up their mind? Why can’t they make a decision?” Because you sometimes you need a bit of time to work out what the right thing is to do.
As leaders, in Vodafone we understand the importance of getting work life balance right. Earlier, you just mentioned your schedule just for today. How on earth do you manage to get that right, or strive to?
Well, I have the advantage; I live above the shop most of the time so I’m able to wander upstairs and see my 3-year-old. And I get to see my children when they come back from school. I’ve a long working day but I can pop and try and make a bit of time. My 3-year-old has an interesting experience of life because of course she was born when I was Prime Minister and – so, she’s never lived anywhere else other than Downing Street. So, she actually thinks that Number 10 Downing Street, Number 11 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and most of Whitehall is actually her home.
My view is that it is possible to be a good Prime Minister, a good husband and a good father at the same time. You have to recognise that you often have to drop everything and concentrate on a national security issue and the job that you have, but it must be possible to do those things. I think, though, increasingly in our country, people are finding it very difficult particularly to make the child care numbers add up. I think for working parents, when you look at the costs of child care, you look at what you can get paid and making all that work is incredibly difficult and I think we need to do more here.
We’ve done the 15 hours a week of free nursery care, but what’s coming in next year is this concept of tax relief on your child. So, if you are a working couple, if you’ve got a child and you’re spending, say, up to £10,000 on child care, you should get the first £2,000 back to help you with the bills, because I meet far too many people now who say, “You know, I’d like to – I work 1 day a week. I’d like to work 3 or 5. I can’t because if I pay the extra child care I’m really not making any money”. And obviously we hope that pay levels – I’m sure we all do – hope that pay levels will go up in time as we grow in competitiveness and productivity. But I think the government should be helping with tax relief of child care – not to force people back to work, not to point a finger at a family and say, “You should do this”, or, “You should do that”, but to give people the option to support people with the choice that they want to make. And I think that’s the biggest things we could do right now for work life balance.
If we were to go ahead with fracking in the UK, what impact do you think that’d have on the economy and also the prices from the energy companies?
I think it’s really worth standing back and looking at the big picture of what’s happened in America and they’ve been really going for this for some years now. Their gas and electricity and energy prices are now somewhere like half of ours. They’re seeing this phenomenon, which we want to see here in Britain, of reshoring, of manufacturing businesses relocating back into the United States, and their economy is really benefitting from this unconventional gas. They’ve also become more energy independent. It means that they’re going to be now a net exporter of energy. They’re less reliant on sources of fuel from difficult parts of the world. So, it’s been a real success and so I think we would be totally wrong to cut ourselves off from this and say: “We’re not going to look at it”.
The figures are pretty depressing. In Europe as a whole, we’ve got 75% of the shale gas reserves they have in America. They’ve dug 10,000 wells; we’ve dug 100. So, if we think about Europe, our continent, we are missing out. We are falling behind and, in this business, you know that if you fall behind on technology, you fall behind and you get beaten by your competitors. It’s the same for our country. So, I really think we need to look at it. I think that we should be – and we are now – digging some unconventional gas wells.
I believe it can be done safely. It can be done with environmental safeguards. I think there are a lot of scare stories put out about it. We’ve put in place now quite generous packages for local people. So, if a well is dug in your area, you immediately get £100,000 for the community. You then get 1% of the revenues – not 1% of the profits, 1% of the revenues, which could be as much as £10 million over the life of that well. And having seen what we’re doing on onshore already with conventional oil and gas in for instance Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, I think we should be investing in this. I think we should be pushing forward with this and I think the best test of all will be when it is there for everyone to see and people can see whether it is environmentally damaging and see what the traffic effects are. And I think they’ll be hugely reassured.
I think it’s a little bit like the Newbury bypass – controversial thing to say. I remember before the bypass arrived, we sat in traffic on the way into Newbury. You sat in traffic in Newbury and it made people’s lives a misery. Then the bypass proposal was made. There were massive protests. Now the bypass is there, would anyone want to sort of rip it up and replant the grass and go back to traffic jams? Of course not. I think this is about progress and I think governments and countries need to be on the side of progress if we’re going to be prosperous and successful in the future.
When you came to power, there was a much heralded bonfire of the quangos and one of the bodies that survived was our regulator Ofcom. And I just wondered how well you thought they were doing in terms of promoting the needs of business?
There are some quangos you can’t get rid of. You have to have a regulator for telecoms and media. What we tried to do was look at regulators and decide whether – were they really policy makers, in which case policy should be made in government, or were they regulators with a function where you have to be impartial and away from politics. And if they were those things they should be left, but if they were policy makers they should be abolished and brought into government. And we have saved a lot of money and we have had a bit of a bonfire. But Ofcom does have a very important role in terms of awarding licences and policing behaviour and the rest of it.
Do they always get it right? No. Did Ofcom almost become perhaps too big with too many responsibilities because of the arrival of telecoms, media, broadcasting, everything within this one body? I don’t know. Someone could write a doctoral thesis about that. I would argue overall if you look at the state of the industry that you’re in, if you look at Britain’s very competitive telecoms market, very competitive mobile telephony market, pretty effective broadcasting market and domestic TV production market, the industry is in good hands. Now, that’s mainly down to you and businesses like yours, but I don’t think we should say that the regulators had nothing to do with it. They may have made decisions that you’ve disagreed with but, overall, I think they do a reasonable job.
What’s your most impressive selfie been?
Well, I can certainly say the most – the one I’ve had the most grief for, which is obviously the one in South Africa where I don’t think any copy of this selfie actually exists. The Danish Prime Minister has said to me that she’s never going to release this picture of me, her and Obama, which I think – until we’ve all retired – is probably a very good measure.
Although you are responsible for great technology, you’re also responsible for making my life a lot more difficult because everywhere you go – it’s not just the selfies but people film everything now. And the quality of the video is remarkable and the speed of upload is incredible. So, something you say, you know, one minute is uploaded on the internet the next minute we live in and that’s – in a way, that’s a very good thing. It makes politicians more accountable. It makes things more direct but it certainly means that, when you stop for a cup of coffee at Newbury service station, it takes you longer to get the cup of coffee because there are quite a few people who want selfies on the way through.
Do the government have any plans to support retail and get customers back on our high streets?
Well, first of all, this does give me an opportunity to end where I began with a thank you to Vodafone because actually it’s quite interesting for a business that is so much about new technology, does a huge amount over the internet, that you are doing what I think people call bricks and clicks: you are investing in high street stores as well as running a great service on the internet.
And that I think is hugely important because I love our high streets. I think that actually the high street’s a really important part of British culture. I love shopping. I’d like our towns – our market towns – to have investment in them, and seeing boarded up shops is incredibly depressing. So, what Vodafone’s doing is going to help 140 shops – that should be 140 high streets – is really going to help with that.
What can the government do here? I think a number of things we can help with. First is we can help by dealing with the issue of business rates, which we did in the budget. We took £1,000 off the business rates of a lot of small shops to give them some relief. I think that is important. Second thing we can do is employment allowance. So, we’re saying to businesses, particularly small firms, “You don’t have to pay the first £2,000 of your National Insurance contributions”. So, as you walk down the high street and you see the florist and the store and the café, and all of them are going to have £2,000 off their tax bill which will help them run successful businesses.
I also think we need to change some of the rules. There are very strict rules that if you have office space it has to be used for office space. If you have retail space it has to be used for retail space, and I think this has meant that high streets haven’t been able to change fast enough to reflect the changing way that people live and shop. We’re lifting some of these restrictions. So, if you’ve got unused office space you can turn it into residential space or into retail space and vice versa. This sort of flexibility is important because increasingly people are going to be using the high street for going to a café, for meeting people, perhaps for going to a store, having already done the research on the internet. The shopping experience – and the high street experience – is going to be different.
So, the government’s got to help by freeing up the rules, cutting taxes for businesses on the high street, helping local authorities with advice about how to get high streets going, which Mary Portas has been helping with. But, in the end, it does come down to all of us. If we don’t use our high streets, if we sit at home and we order everything on the internet and we don’t use our high streets, we will lose them. We do need – if we care about the high street shops, the high street culture – then, as consumers, we’ve got to make sure that we’re using and caring about what we love. Vodafone is making it easier by putting these very attractive, interesting shops on our high streets where people are going to want to go to see your great products.
So, thank you for what you’re doing today, but above all, thank you for the very warm reception you’ve given me here back in Newbury. It’s lovely to be back. Best of luck with what you’re doing, best of luck with your investment and thank you for the jobs you’re creating today.