The point about this morning is to try and answer your questions, so no long speech from me. I just wanted to kick things off by saying this: for the last 4 years, the government I lead has been pursuing a long-term economic plan for our country. Now, I’m not going to tell you that everything has been fixed, that every problem has been sorted; there’s still a lot to do to recover from the very deep recession this country suffered after 2008. But I think what I can say is that the plan is working and we should stick to that plan and you can see it in the number of people that have got jobs, the number of new businesses that have started, the recovery that we’ve seen in our economy.
And all I really want to say in terms of introduction is that this is a plan that’s not just based on facts and figures in here, it’s also got the right values in here. So, when we said we were going to cut the deficit, it’s important, because this country’s been borrowing too much money. And the figures are that we’ve cut the deficit by a third, next year it’ll be cut by a fifth, but the values are, that that’s right, because it shouldn’t be right for us to pass on debts to our children that we’re not prepared to pay ourselves.
We said, as part of our plan, we wanted to get more people into work in our country, and because of businesses like this and small businesses around the region that I’ve been visiting, there are actually 1.8 million more people in work in our country than there were 4 years ago. That’s because the private sector has created 2 million extra jobs, and that’s more than outstripped some of the jobs that have been lost in the public sector in our country. Now those are the facts and figures but, again, the value involved is that the best way to help people out of poverty, the best way to give people security, the best way for a family to have stability is to have a job and a regular pay packet, and that’s what that part of our plan is all about.
We said we wanted to build more infrastructure, we wanted to build the railways, the roads, the bridges and the ports to make our country a success, and I can give you the facts and figures about the Northern Hub, the electrification of the TransPennine railway line, the start of HS2, the improvements that we’re making to the M6, but again it’s not just about facts and figures, it’s about what sort of country we want to be. And I think in the past we’ve been far too much based on the South East and London, far too much based on financial services, and not enough based on the regional power houses of our country, of which the North West, Manchester, Liverpool, Warrington should be a really key part of our economy, and we want to change that by building the infrastructure that we need.
We said that we were going to improve the schools and skills that are vital for our economy, and full marks to United Utilities for the massive investment you’ve put into apprenticeships in our country. The North West, actually, over the last 4 years, has trained more apprentices than any other part of the country, and I think that’s absolutely critical to our future. Again, the facts and the figures are that there are 250,000 fewer children in schools that are failing than when I became Prime Minister 4 years ago. But the value of that is that every one of those children, in a better school with a better chance, can make the most of the opportunities in their life.
Finally, as part of our plan we said we wanted to get to grips with the failures in the system in terms of welfare and immigration. Now I’m not claiming we’ve solved all those problems, but we have put a cap on the amount of money a family can get in terms of welfare, so that you’re always better off in work than on welfare, and we have put in place stronger controls on immigration, particularly from immigration from outside the European Union, and combining that with a welfare system and an education system that’s working properly, we’re creating jobs that British people are able to do and able to take.
I wouldn’t say the job is done; I’m the first person to say, 4 years in, that we need more time to complete this plan, but I just wanted to say by way of introduction, we have a plan, the plan is working and it’s not just a plan of facts and figures, it’s a plan of the values that I think make this country great: that if you work hard, you get rewarded; if you put in, you should be able to do the best for yourself, your family, your community and your country.
That was all I wanted to say. Now I want to take questions. If you raise your hand there are roving microphones. Feel free to ask me about anything; doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be able to answer. So I’ll do my best, but questions on anything you want to ask about: domestic, foreign, international, what have you. Who wants to go first? Gentlemen over here.
[indistinct] going on in the country, but I really want to know, what’s it like to have tea with the Queen?
What’s it like to have tea with the Queen? Well, do you know the funny thing is, I see it as one of the great privileges of my job. I see Her Majesty every week when Parliament is sitting, and we have an audience for a week, but it’s not an audience – there’s no cups of tea, no cups of coffee. But it’s probably one of the most valuable hours that I have, because when you think of Her Majesty, I’m her twelfth Prime Minister. She started with Winston Churchill, and she has literally heard it all before. And I find the experience of sitting down with her for an hour and talking about the issues the country faces, domestically, internationally, the problems we have, it’s actually an incredibly useful exercise explaining to someone so knowledgeable, who’s heard all of this before, about how we’re going to try and tackle these challenges. I’m not sure it’s always of huge benefit to her, but it’s of great benefit to me, because I find it helps sort out the problems in my own head about the things that we need to do.
I think she is the most amazing public servant. I think we are so lucky to have a symbol of national unity in that we do with our royal family, but also to have someone who’s fulfilled that role so magnificently for all these years. It’s hard to think of a time when she’s ever put a foot wrong, and I think she is an absolutely magnificent person in the work that she does and it’s a privilege to have spent a bit of time with her.
Next question? Gentleman here. Hold on, we need a microphone for you. Here’s one. There we are.
So, net migration last year was 212,000 people coming to the UK. When you, before you were elected, pledged to reduce that to under 100,000. I was thinking, being part of the European Union, is that an issue when trying to reduce immigration?
The short answer to that is yes, it is an issue. And let me explain how we’re trying to deal with this situation. There are 2 sources of migration: there’s migration from outside the European Union and migration from inside the European Union. And what we’ve done is we have cut migration from outside the European Union by a third: it’s now at its lowest level since 1998. How did we do that? Well, we started to close down universities and colleges that weren’t universities and colleges, they were just ways for people to get round the immigration rules. So we’ve shut down 700 bogus colleges. We put a cap on the number of people that could come here purely for economic purposes from outside the European Union, and that has played a role.
We said that you couldn’t come if you’re unskilled; we’ve got plenty of people in our own country that we should be training up for jobs that are being made available, and that has made a difference. And we’ve also been much stricter on trying to remove people that have no right to be here in the first place. Yesterday I was in Slough, following on from an Immigration Service raid where they’d been going into houses and finding people who had no right to be here and making sure they were removed. So on migration from outside the European Union we’ve made good progress.
Inside the European Union it is more difficult, because part of being a member of the European Union is that you have the right to take a job and go and live in another European Union country, and that’s an advantage that many of our own citizens take advantage of.
But I think what we should do therefore is not scrap the idea that if you want to take a job in France or Germany or Spain or Italy you can, we shouldn’t get rid of that concept, but what we should change is to say that you can only move if you actually have a job to go to, and I think we had too many examples of people who’ve come looking for work but who haven’t found work who’ve then been claiming off the unemployment system. So what we’ve changed is to say, “If you come, you can’t claim benefits for at least 3 months”, and if you do start claiming benefits, after 3 months, we can say, “Sorry, you haven’t got a realistic chance of getting a job, you have to go back to your original country”.
So we can make an impact on European migration, and we need to. I think part of our problem has been, because our economy is now growing much faster than other European economies, many people are coming from Europe to work in Britain, because their economies aren’t creating jobs where our economy is creating jobs. So I think deal with the welfare tourism and we’ll deal with some of the problem of EU migration.
But do you know what? The biggest answer to the migration issue is actually the welfare issue and the education issue. I was just asking some of your managers here how many apprentices you hire every year, and it’s great; you hire over 40 apprentices every year. I asked how many people apply for those apprenticeships and it’s something like 3,000 people apply for those jobs. But when you ask: “Right, how many of those 3,000 have got the basic English and the basic Maths that you need to start an apprenticeship?” and then you hear, well, actually quite a lot of those people who are applying for those apprenticeships don’t have those basic qualifications.
Now, if we want to crack the immigration problem, we’ve got to make sure we’re turning out of our schools people who are capable of doing the jobs that the economy is creating: part 1; and part 2: we need a welfare system where if you can work, you should work, and if you don’t work, you don’t get benefits. If we crack those 2 problems, the draw of Britain as a magnet for migration will be considerably reduced. So tougher controls, tougher policing of illegal migrants, make sure that – one of the things I said yesterday: if you’re here illegally, you shouldn’t be able to get a bank account, you shouldn’t be able to get a driving licence, you shouldn’t be able to get a council house, you shouldn’t be able to use the health service without paying, all of these things. We need not just a strong border control, we need to make sure our country is there for our own people and for people who have a right to come here, not for people who have no right to be here and who come illegally. Do all those things and we will crack the problem.
Sorry, long answer but complicated question. The man right at the back over there.
Hi. I’d like to ask you the question I asked Angela Eagle in a local supermarket recently. I asked her: why would any party get themselves into a referendum with the almost certainty that they’re going to lose that referendum? And, of course, I’m talking about Europe, when it’s our biggest trading partner.
Well, I think the truth about why get yourself into a referendum is quite an easy question to answer in a way. Look, we have a representative democracy. You send Angela Eagle or me or David Mowat, your local MP here in Warrington – you send people to Parliament to debate issues and make decisions on your behalf about how much money we spend on the health service, what we do with education, what our foreign policy should be. We have a representative democracy; I think that’s great. We shouldn’t have referenda on all of those issues, but when you’re effectively changing the rules of your democracy – so if you’re saying Europe should have more power and we should have less power, I think it’s a right to have a referendum.
People should have a right – to give an answer to the question, “How and who governs you?”. And I think we’ve been badly served in this country by not having any referenda on Europe since that original one in 1975, because you’ve had governments, Tory ones and Labour ones, who have passed these treaties that have passed power from Britain to Brussels, but you’ve never been asked that in a referendum. So don’t have referendums on all the things that Parliament discusses on a day to day basis, but you should have them on the big constitutional issues.
Now, as for what the result will be, I profoundly believe that if I go to Europe, between now and 2017 I can negotiate a better package for Britain. I won’t solve all the problems that we’ve got with Europe, but I think I’ll be able to lead to some real improvements in terms of our relationship with Europe. And then what I want to do, and I’ve guaranteed this will happen, before the end of 2017, give you the British people the choice: do you want to stay in this reformed European Union or do you want to leave? Now, I happen to think the right answer will be in a reformed Europe that it will be worth staying. Why? Because as you say sir, we need a trading relationship with Europe; we need influence in the single market; we want to have our say on the continent of which we are a part. And I think people will vote to stay in that sort of Europe. But it must be their decision. You can’t hold people in an organisation without their consent.
So, okay it’s a different issue, but I would say exactly the same on the Scottish referendum. The Scottish people voted for a Scottish National Party government. It is their policy to have a referendum and break up the United Kingdom. I had a choice as Prime Minister. I could have said, ‘No, not listening to you, not interested’, or do the right thing and say: “Look, you want to have this debate and this decision; it is your debate and your decision. We hope that you stay. But on something as profound as how you’re governed and who governs you, you should have a referendum.” But in the end it will be the people that decide and the politicians should obey their command. I think that it is the right way to run our system. In the end the people are the master and the politician is the servant, and it should always be that way round.
In the 1980s when the 40% tax bracket was introduced that was seen to be a rich man’s tax, and Nigel Lawson recently raised that issue again because now it’s down to 1 in 6. So, is that something that will be addressed in your manifesto?
Well, I think there are 2 issues, aren’t there? One is, what is the top – what should the top rate of tax be? And we recently cut it from 50p to 45p because our judgement was that actually at 50p it was not raising as much money as it should. If you actually have a rate that is less than half you are more likely to generate more revenue, and I believe that’s what’s happened. But there is a second issue, isn’t there, which is we’ve now got a 40p rate and a 45p rate, and I know that a lot of people believe the 40p rate now rate kicks in quite early, and quite a lot of people who don’t see themselves as fundamentally very wealthy are paying that 40p tax rate. Now, I’d love to be able to stand here and say we’re going to sort all this out, we’ll raise the thresholds for all these tax rates. I can’t make that promise today.
What we have done as a government over the last 4 years is tackle the biggest pressures and problems that face the British economy. And the most important one was getting the deficit down so we weren’t living beyond our means. Where we had room for tax reduction, and we may some room by keeping public spending down, by managing the nation’s resources carefully, we gave priority to the lowest paid by lifting the starting threshold of income tax. So we have now raised to £10,000 – soon to be £10,500 – the amount of money you can earn before you pay any income tax at all. I think that was the right judgement. I think, in as much as we had some spending power to give tax cuts, it was right to take people out of tax and to give all taxpayers earning under a certain amount of money that benefit.
So here in the North West for instance there are about 340,000 people who 4 years ago were paying income tax who aren’t paying income tax anymore, at all. And those will be people earning minimum wage, who aren’t wealthy in any way at all, who are working hard to put food on the table for their families. And I think that should continue to be the priority, is to try and make sure that if you work hard, if you do the right thing, we are supporting and helping you. And I think that has to start with tax cuts for the lowest paid, and so that’s what we focused on.
I’d love to make more promises. I understand the problem with the 40p rate kicking in while people aren’t earning a lot of money. But I have to look very carefully at the books before I can make any promises about it.
Let’s have the gentleman back there behind the cameras.
I have, last month, just made the arrangement to pay my student loan off. I have been working for 10 years to pay off my £12,000 loan. How do you justify raising it to £9,000 a year and leaving students in £30,000, £50,000 of debt, given that the latest statistics say that the country has already lost money?
Right. Well look, on student loans I don’t have any proposals to change the current system that we have introduced but I would strongly defend the system that we have of asking students to take out loans and repay those loans. I know it’s a hard thing to do, and congratulations to you sir for working so hard and paying down your loans. But I think we have to ask ourselves quite a fundamental question which is: what is the right way to pay for good universities? Because these things don’t come for free. If we want to have really good universities with good lecturers, good libraries, good science labs, good qualifications, we’ve got to pay for them. And I would argue we have got to have good universities, because we are competing not now with America, France and Germany; we are competing with India and China and Brazil and the new countries that are rising up in the world.
So we need good universities. We are fortunate in this country that we’ve got great universities. How do we pay for them? Well we have got a choice. We can either get all the taxpayers to fund universities, but then we would be asking people, some of whom haven’t been to university, to pay for people to go to university who will probably end up with better jobs than the people who haven’t been to university. So I think it’s fair, frankly – and I am being very candid about this – I think it is fair to ask students to make that payment by taking out those loans.
What we have done as a government is to say that you don’t start paying back the loan until you are earning £21,000. When you left university, sir, it was lower than that. We’ve increased it to £21,000. And you don’t start paying back the loan in full until you are earning over £30,000. Now, I think that is a fair arrangement. Yes that does have some costs for the taxpayer because some people don’t make those levels of earning. But I think it is a fair way of saying we are going to have great universities, here’s how we’re going to pay for them and only the successful graduates that earn a decent salary afterwards will have to pay back that money.
Now, other countries are going to have to grapple with this problem, and I would argue that the best thing for your politicians to do is not try and sell you some short-term easy answer where we all pay the bills and we stack up the debts for the future. It’s much better when your politicians say to you: “We are going to take some difficult decisions. We’ve made a careful calculation of what needs to be done, a careful assessment, and here is how it is going to be done, and it is good for the long-term health of our country.” That is what we are doing with our pension system, that is what we are doing with our public sector pay, that’s what we’re doing with universities, that’s what we’re doing with railways and roads and infrastructure. Long term decisions that means that our children will have as bright a future or a brighter future than we have. And I think it is absolutely key. So sorry to make people to have to pay back their loans but I am convinced this is the right system for our country.
When is Britain going to impose tougher sanctions on Israel about the bombardment of Gaza, and how are they going to protect the UN schools that are currently being attacked by Israel?
Well, I think the first thing we should do, and I said this yesterday, is that we should be very clear that we want an unconditional, immediate, humanitarian ceasefire that applies to everybody. What we are seeing happening in Gaza at the moment is completely tragic and ghastly. The loss of life is appalling; it is heart-rending watching these scenes on our television. And so I repeat that again today.
And let’s be clear about Britain’s role in where we can clearly help. We have kept our promises about our aid payments to the poorest and most needy in the world, and so we have already been able to give £7 million of aid to people in Gaza. And I can announce today that we are going to give a further £3 million in aid to help make sure that people in Gaza have the basic necessities of life: the food, the shelter and the assistance that they need.
But while calling for an unconditional and immediate ceasefire we do have to be clear about a couple of points. Yes, it is awful what is happening in Gaza and the loss of life, but we do have to remember whenever we have had a ceasefire in the last few days it has been a ceasefire that has been obeyed and observed by the Israelis but it has not been observed by Hamas. Hamas continue the rocket attacks that are not aimed at military targets or political targets: they are aimed indiscriminately into Israel in order to do the maximum damage that they possibly can. And so we do have to understand that that has to stop in order for there to be a lasting ceasefire.
Of course, the bigger picture is we need a genuine peace deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and my worry is that the more this is put off the more impossible it will become, because the facts on the ground are beginning to make a 2-state solution impossible. And so when I went to Israel earlier this year I urged the Israelis to see the advantages of a peace deal from their point of view; the idea of living in peace with a neighbour, Palestine, should actually be good for Israel and not a threat to Israel. But the first thing is a ceasefire. That is the first thing we need.
More questions. Let’s have the gentleman here.
Just getting back to the plan, do you think utility companies like ours have a role to play in getting the unemployed back to work, particularly now that we are beginning to face a real skills shortage in the industry?
I think you’ve got a very big role to play because what we need in our country is to make sure that we are educating and giving people the right skills to work in a modern economy. And, as I said, our economy became too unbalanced between financial services in the South East on the one hand and all the other skills and other parts of the country that we should really be using to make the most of our resources. Now, where I think utilities come in is actually you’re training people in vital electrical engineering, civil engineering, really important tasks for rebuilding the infrastructure of our country. And if Britain is going to be a success we need the most modern motorways, we need the most modern ports, we need to invest in new sources of power – including nuclear power and unconventional gas which, I think, we do have some supplies of we should be making the most of.
We’ve got to make sure we’ve got high speed rail, not just conventional rail. If we’re going to succeed we have got to have modern infrastructure: broadband is going to be absolutely essential. If we’re going to take on the rest of the world, you can’t have download speeds that are worse than your competitors. So the training and the educating that you’re doing as a utility, in some of those really important engineering skills, I think is absolutely vital for our country.
And we need to work in partnership with you because we have got to make sure that our schools, colleges, universities are producing people with the skills and talents that you need in order to take them on and train them. And I think one of the things we got wrong as a country – and it was great talking to your apprentices earlier – is I think at school we haven’t explained enough to people what the various different pathways are that you can take. I don’t blame teachers for this, but it is a fact that most teachers went to school, then went to university and they are very familiar with that path, that you do your A Levels, you fill out your UCAS form, you go to university. They’re not as familiar with the apprenticeship path, but some of your apprentices are actually studying degrees while they are doing their apprentices. So there are opportunities to earn and learn in a way that I think many young people find attractive.
So, please go on doing what you’re doing. We need to do better in schools explaining to people what the opportunities are and we need to be very clear with young people that, of course, we want you to choose courses and subjects that you like, but we are totally failing you if we don’t explain that the basics of education must include basic English, basic Maths. I say this to my own children, I say, “Try and think of a job that doesn’t include English and Maths”, and my son said to me, “Ah what about being a football player?” and I said, “Well, actually, you know, you’ve got to be able to read the contract and then you’ve got to be able to count the money.” So, English and Maths, if you want an apprenticeship at United Utilities, you need English and Maths. Does everyone know that at school? I don’t think they do. We need to get out there and sound it from the rooftops that English and Maths are vocational subjects as well as academic subjects. We haven’t said it enough.
Couple more questions. Let’s have the gentleman over here and then one at the back over there. Sir
I’m interested to know what can the British government do to help stop Putin and support Ukraine?
Well, where do you want to start? I think first of all we need to be clear about what it is that’s happening on our continent. You know, this year we are commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the First World War, and that war, at heart, was about the right of a small country, Belgium, not to be trampled on by its neighbours. We had to learn that lesson all over again in the Second World War when the same thing happened to Poland, to Czechoslovakia and other countries. And, you know, in a way, this is what we’re seeing today in Europe.
Ukraine is a country recognised by the United Nations, a country that should have every right to determining its own future and the relationships it wants to have in the world, whether with Russia, whether with the European Union. And Ukraine has a right not to have its territorial integrity impugned by Russia, but yet that is what we’re seeing. There is no doubt in my mind that it is Russian money, it is Russian people, it is Russian weapons that are being sent into that country to help the separatists to fight their battle against the Ukrainian government. And we say the tragic result of that with the shooting down of MH17, the Malaysian Airlines flight. We can’t be 100% certain yet that it was a separatist firing a Russian built weapon, but that looks by far the most likely explanation.
So we’ve seen an appalling loss of life, so we have to ask ourselves what more can we do? Now, we’re not about to launch a European war, we’re not about to send the fleet to the Black Sea, we’re not looking for a military confrontation. But what we should do is use the economic power that we have – the European Union and the United States of America – to demonstrate to Russia that what Russia is doing is unacceptable. Unacceptable to the Ukraine but also unacceptable because, if we stood back and did nothing, tomorrow it would be them destabilising countries in the Baltic states, it would be them destabilising Romania; the neighbours of Russia would start to feel the pressure of what Putin is doing in the Ukraine.
And the reason I think we can succeed is this, very simply put: in the end Russia needs Europe and America more than America and Europe need Russia. Yes, of course, many European countries buy gas and oil from Russia. Yes, of course, we benefit from inward investment by Russian businesses and people into the United Kingdom. But frankly, together, in Europe and America, we are stronger if we stand together and say, “If you carry on like this we’re going to make it harder for you by putting in place these sanctions.” Yesterday, we had quite good success in Europe listing a whole lot more Russian cronies who are going to be effectively blacklisted, listing a whole lot more industries where we’re not going to trade. And we just need to keep turning up that pressure until Russia decides to behave like any civilised country and allow Ukraine to choose its own future. So, it will be a tightening of the ratchet unless Mr Putin changes his approach. There’s still time for him to do that and he should.
Final question was the lady at the back.
I was going to ask, if you didn’t work in government, or your career path had taken a different track, what would your alternative dream job be?
That is a really good one. Well before I worked in politics, or before I became an MP, I had a job in a business not totally unlike this. I worked for a big media company that was a big part of ITV. It owned businesses in America and businesses in Europe and I enjoyed that work. It was satisfying employing people, trying to run the business well, trying to be part of a team. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was passionate about being a Member of Parliament because I believe in public service. I really love – quite apart from being Prime Minister, but I love being a Member of Parliament, an MP, representing a local area and trying to tackle people’s problems and issues and trying to do the best for the part of the country that you represent.
It is an amazing opportunity to have, to work for others and to serve others, and if I wasn’t doing that I don’t quite know what I would do because I like what I do, I enjoy being a Member of Parliament. It is an enormous privilege to be Prime Minister, but, of course, it’s a privilege, you know is not going to go on forever. And I have this unique sort of job where, in the end, the British people decide whether you go on doing it or whether you stop doing it, and so the decision, in a way, is not within my control.
But I just hope that when we come to 9 months’ time I can convince everybody that we’ve got a plan, we’re delivering on that plan, it isn’t finished yet and I’d love to finish the job, because I’m passionate about this country. I think we can be a massive success story in this century as we have been in previous centuries. We’ve got to do some difficult things, we need an honest and clear assessment of our strengths as a country, but if we play to them there’s nothing that we can’t do or that we can’t achieve. So I’m going to stick at that job, and when you all eventually throw me out of it I’ll have to think of doing something else.
Thank you very much indeed. You’ve been a great audience. I’ve loved coming. Thank you.