Thanks very much. Well, good afternoon, and thank you for the welcome. It’s great to be back in York. I just wanted to say three things. The first thing is, I think our economy is turning a corner, and I think that is good and positive news. And here at Portakabin, you’ve got: 200 extra people employed this year, a business that is investing more, that’s building more, that’s exporting more, that’s employing more and that’s really good news. And, actually, Yorkshire and Humberside is the area of the country outside London where the number of people in work is growing the fastest. There are 110,000 more private-sector jobs today than there were in 2010. That’s good news. We’re heading in the right direction. There’s a whole lot of work still to do; we’re not out of the woods yet, the job isn’t done yet. But, we’ve turned the corner and we’re heading in the right direction.
The second thing I wanted to say is that we’ve got to finish the job. We’ve got to finish the job we’ve started. And when people ask me well, what, you know – ‘Is it all worthwhile: the difficult decisions that we had to take, the difficult cuts, the – the hit that people have taken? Is it all going to be worth it?’ And my answer to that is it will be worth it, if we properly finish the job we’ve started: if we keep paying down the deficit, if we keep interest rates low and if we build a recovery that benefits everyone in our country. I don’t want this recovery to be like previous recoveries, when there’s been lots of rewards for rich bankers, and it’s been okay if you’ve been insulated from difficult decisions. I want a recovery for everyone: North and South, rich and poor: all people in our country benefiting from recovery.
And that leads to the third point, which is what we need to do to really make sure that people’s living standards improve in our country. And, to me, it’s some pretty simple things: we’ve got to keep the economy growing; we’ve got to make sure we keep providing jobs, because work is the best route out of poverty; and, as we provide those extra jobs, the government’s got to keep its own costs under control, so we can go on cutting your taxes, so you have more of your own money to spend as you choose.
Now, we’ve done some of that; we’re lifting the first £10,000 that you earn out of income tax, and that’s a good step forward. But we’ve got to keep on with that work, so we can keep making sure that you keep more of what you earn. That was all I wanted to say. As I say, I think we are heading in the right direction, and the jobs numbers are encouraging. Here, in Yorkshire and Humberside, unemployment is down 15,000 since the election, but there are still too many people out of work – too many young people out of work – so we’ve got to finish the job that we’ve started.
That was what I wanted to say to kick things off – very happy to take questions on any subject you care to mention.
What would the implications be for England if Scotland decided to opt out next year?
Very good question. I think – and I like the way you put the question, because often a lot of people are thinking what is the outcome for Scotland, if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom. But your question is, sir, what’s the outcome for England. I think the outcome would be bad. Of course, we can all exist as separate, independent countries. Scotland could go it alone if she wanted to. But I think we’re all better off together. And I think it’s quite important that we, the English, send a message to the Scots, that we want you to stay. Not just because we think you’d be better off, but we think we’ll all be better off if we stay together. Why do I say that? Well, I think the United Kingdom’s been a success story. I think together: we are stronger, we are more prosperous, we are more secure. If you take, for instance, our armed forces, I think we benefit from having British armed forces, all helping to keep us safe and secure around the world.
Think of the problems of terrorism. Very much in my mind at the moment with all the news that we’ve had recently: the appalling events in Nairobi; the apparent abduction of the Libyan Prime Minister this morning, although apparently he’s now back in his office and okay. When you think about how we keep ourselves safe as a country, it’s better that we have, you know, police forces that work together, intelligence and security services that cover the whole of our United Kingdom. So, I think we should send a very clear message to the Scots: ‘We want you to stay.’ And I hope when they come to take that referendum decision next year they’ll vote to stay. The indications are good at the moment, but I’ll be fighting that argument as hard as I can.
Prime Minister, recent experience with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in the provision of a translation service for technical documents of EU countries resulted in lengthy delays. In this case, it took five months to get hold of one French technical document. Does the Government plan to improve the services and thus import UK exports?
That’s not good enough. And that’s a really good point you make, sir. We have put resources into UKTI, which is the organisation that’s meant to help businesses export. Exports are growing, particularly to countries outside the European Union, because the European economies have been having a tough time with the crisis in the Eurozone. But if it’s taking five months to get that sort of assistance, that’s not good enough. So, if you give me the details – I’ve just had a reshuffle, and moved some of the ministers around, and hopefully that keeps people on their toes. But clearly the ministers in BIS are going to have to listen to this, and I’d like the information you’ve got so I can give them a stiff talking to.
Prime Minister, how can Conservative stance on taking Great Britain out of the European community be seen as a good move for a company such as Portakabin, who are hoping to expand in Europe?
Well, I don’t want to see Britain leave the European Union. What I want to see is a reform to the European Union, and then a referendum so the British people can make their views clear about whether it’s best to stay in a reformed European Union, or to leave. And I think the best outcome is for a reform of the European Union and Britain to vote to stay. That is what I want to achieve. So, you might want to ask the question, ‘Well, why do you want this referendum? Why put all this – why have this uncertainty?’ And it seems to me it’s – it’s important, because the way the European Union is working at the moment, it isn’t working properly: it’s adding too much to the cost of doing business, it’s not very competitive, we’re falling behind other regions of the world. I think the European Union bosses and interferes too much in individual countries’ affairs. I don’t think the European Union is currently getting it right between the Eurozone countries, who share a currency, who clearly need to do more things together. They should integrate faster. But it’s not getting it right for them, and it’s not getting it right, really, for those countries, like Britain, that I think should keep our own currency, and stay outside the euro.
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You talked about jobs there. What’s your backing for the construction industries, regarding getting building – building again, regarding house building?
You can’t have an economy growing and recovering without a sense that construction, and housing and building is actually moving forward. So, I’ve spent a lot of time on this and tried to address all the different bits of it. Because, the truth is, when I became Prime Minister, the whole construction and building market was not in a good state. The planning system was too complicated, and it was too difficult to get homes built. The mortgage market wasn’t working properly; you had banks that were severely damaged by the crash, and so, as a result, they weren’t lending to people who could actually afford a mortgage, but just couldn’t get a big deposit on a mortgage.
So, we’ve taken action right across the piece. We’ve changed the planning system to make it easier and faster to get planning, to get building going. I think that’s really important. We’ve also taken some of the rules and regulations off planning and building to make it simpler, because there were so many obligations on some housing schemes – they weren’t going ahead. And then, crucially, this week we put in place this programme called ‘Help to Buy’, which, I think, is a really, really important programme, which helps, particularly, young people, but all people.
If you want to buy a house, at the moment the problem for too many people – they can’t save for the deposit they need. They might – I met a couple this week in Northampton: she was working in data collection, he was an engineer, they both had decent salaries – earning in the 20,000s, they’d been living together happily, they were renting and they were fed up with renting. They wanted to buy a house. They could both afford the mortgage payments with their combined income, but because they didn’t have a rich mum and dad, and because it’s so difficult to get the 85%, 90%, 95% mortgages that many of us were able to get hold of, they couldn’t put down the deposit for a house. So, ‘Help to Buy’ means the government helps guarantee that bit of the mortgage to get it up to 95%. So, they only then need to save 5% of the value of the house they wanted to buy in the East Midlands, and they’ll be able to get on the housing ladder.
Now, this isn’t just good for those young people, it doesn’t just help the people who want to buy homes, it actually helps unlock growth in the market because the builders and the developers will know that there are people who are able to buy their homes. Put simply, if you think about it, you know, the builders won’t build if the buyers can’t buy. And so, we’ve unblocked this whole market and I think we’re really going to start seeing it moving properly.
I don’t want another housing boom, I don’t want prices rising out of control, but I think sometimes people in London live in a little bit of a bubble, because they see house prices rising in London and they think that must be happening everywhere else in the country. It absolutely isn’t. Outside London and the South East, house prices have gone up this year by 0.8%. The market isn’t functioning properly. I think this change will really help.
What about social housing for people who can’t –
We need to build more social homes. We’ve built something like 86,000 under this government. We need to make it simpler and easier for those homes to be built. But, I think the two go together. I think it’s a mistake sometimes to think that general house building has no effect on, quote, ‘affordable housing’, because housing becomes less affordable if we don’t deal with the overall housing shortage in our country. But, we need to do both.
Prime Minister, one of Julian Sturdy’s key pledges in 2010 was to have York’s outer ring road dualled, and I was wondering: can you give the commitment that this, and the dualling of the A64 in North Yorkshire, will happen, because it’s a big issue to local businesses?
I know these are both important future road schemes. I know, from my own experience, how the ring road can sometimes be a bit of a car park and we really need to take action on that. But, what the government’s done is we have got a big forward roads programme. You know, we’re going to be spending up to £3 billion a year, in the coming years, on roads. Now, those two schemes are currently ones that are being looked at. They’re not in the roads programme yet, but I don’t see any reason why, with local councils getting behind them, local MPs getting behind them, they aren’t schemes that we can look at for the – the sort of schemes that we can look at for the future, and we should do.
Prime Minister, can you guarantee that every private investor who has applied for shares in Royal Mail will get some, and, if not, why not? And, can I ask a second quick one? Do you think people should read the Guardian after it’s disclosure of all these secrets, which have compromised our national security?
Well, on the second question, people can read any newspaper they want to. There are days when I’d recommend reading absolutely no newspapers at all. But, there’s a serious point here though, which is, you know, I think our intelligence and security services do a very good job at keeping us safe. You know, every year since I’ve been Prime Minister there has been one or two major plots that could have led to huge loss of life in our country, and we rely on the intelligence service and the police to help keep us safe.
Now, I think we have a very good legal framework in which they operate. You know, for someone’s telephone call to be listened in to, a warrant has to be signed by the Home Secretary. For the knowledge about who called who when to be used in any way – it’s governed by the regulation of the RIPA Act, it’s governed by a specific act of parliament. All our intelligence services are subject to parliamentary scrutiny through the Intelligence and Security Committee. There are specific commissioners who inspect and see what our intelligence services do.
So, I’m satisfied as Prime Minister that they do an important job, and they’re properly regulated and overseen. And when you get newspapers who get hold of vast amounts of data and information, that is effectively stolen information, and they think it’s somehow okay to reveal this – I think they’ve got to think about their responsibilities. They’ve got to think about: are they helping to keep our country safe? And, to be fair to the Guardian, when I sent the Cabinet Secretary and the National Security Advisor to go and see them, to tell them about how dangerous it was for them to hold this information, they agreed to have a whole lot of it destroyed. So, you know, they have understood it on some occasions, but I think they need to show understanding about this issue, because it does go to our ability to fight terrorism.
On the second question – the first question, rather – about the Royal Mail share sale – look, I want to see this be a big success. Above all I want to see it be a success for Royal Mail and Royal Mail employees, almost all of whom will be taking part in having shares. The point of this privatisation is actually to allow this company to compete with the many other companies that deliver parcels around the country. It needs access to private capital, it needs access to private management, it needs more money into the business and all of that will become possible. Part of that is having new shareholders, and I hope that as many people as possible who’ve applied for shares will be able to get those shares. I want this to be a popular a piece of capitalism. I’m sure that is what will happen, and the exact facts, and figures and approach will be revealed relatively shortly.
Defined benefit pension schemes in the private sector are very few and far between nowadays. Whilst they’re still quite plentiful in the public sector. What are you going to do to manage the future liabilities to tax payers from those schemes?
Well, in the public sector we have taken some quite big steps to make public sector pensions more affordable. If you look right across the piece of all those public sector schemes, we’ve cut the long-term cost through the reforms we’ve made. We’ve cut them by something like in half over the long-term. And that, you know – the reason why we’ve had quite a lot of – we’ve made difficult decisions, and we’ve had some quite difficult disputes – was to make sure these pensions are affordable.
Now, I actually want to have good public sector pensions. I want people, you know, who are teachers, or doctors, or firemen – I want them to have that public service ethos that’s backed by a good pension. But, as we’re all living longer, it isn’t possible to go on having good pensions unless we also work a bit longer in order to earn them. So, that’s what we’ve tended to do with these pension schemes. We haven’t ended them being defined benefit schemes. We’ve kept on with the fact that they are good and generous schemes, but we’ve asked people to contribute a bit more, and also to potentially work longer in order to earn them. That, I think, makes them good pension schemes for the people involved, but affordable for the country. Long-term cost, cut by around a half.
The Press newspaper, York’s local paper, which has been running a campaign for the past year to stamp out poverty in York. It’s a prosperous city, York, but the Citizen’s Advice Bureau tell us that about 1,500 people per annum are coming to them struggling to meet the basics for costs for food, – bills for food, and heating and so on. What do you as Prime Minister – do you, Prime Minister, plan to do to tackle such problems?
I think the best thing we can do to tackle poverty is to get more people into work. The best route out of poverty is work. And that’s why the fact that there are, you know, 87,000 more people in employment in Yorkshire and Humberside than there were in 2010, is good. The fact there are these 110,000 new private sector jobs: that is good. There are actually 52,000 fewer households where no-one works, because that’s – households where no-one’s working – they can be the most trapped in poverty. So I think that’s the single most important thing. But it doesn’t stop there. We’ve also got to make sure that the benefits system works effectively for the poorest households. We’ve got to make sure, though, you’re always better off in work, which is why we’ve capped some of these welfare bills. Then we’ve got to make sure that markets are working properly and that prices aren’t rising fast. At the moment, inflation is relatively low. We, nationally, have made available a council tax freeze for local councils for each of the last three years. Sadly, the Labour council in York has decided not to freeze its council tax, although the money is there, available, if they wanted to. So, York city council could help by freezing the council tax. That, I think, is the way that we will help lift people out of poverty: focus on work; keep reforming the benefits system; make sure that key prices, like the council tax, are kept down and grow our economy.
Five years ago, I travelled round Syria. I met some lovely people; I was really bowled over by the kindness and the generosity of the local people that I met. I just wondered what the government are going to do to help those people in the lost generation.
Well this is one of the tragedies of our time. This is an absolutely appalling humanitarian crisis. I was meeting, actually, last night, with someone from Lebanon, and he explained to me that, if you look at how many refugees have left Syria and gone to Lebanon, for the scale of Lebanon’s population, it would be like 15 million people coming to live in the UK. That’s the scale of the movement of people, and the pressure that the neighbouring countries are under.
Now, the first thing we can do is to help with humanitarian aid – is to help with the – the people in the refugee camps in Jordan, in Turkey, in Lebanon. And Britain is the second largest bilateral donor, after the United States, in terms of the money that we’ve given. So we have – and by doing that, we have encouraged other countries to give as well. So we are more than playing our part in terms of helping people.
But the truth is, what’s really needed – because those people don’t want to go on living on aid, they want to go back to their country. What’s really needed is a political solution, a political settlement, where we try and bring together the various parties and the various sides in that conflict, and have a transition to a Syria that is democratic and free, and all the rest of it. Now I’m clear, for that to happen, Assad has to go. You know, he has done so much to brutalise and butcher his own people, it’s unthinkable that he can be part of the solution. So we need to keep up the pressure. That is what the international diplomacy is about.
But, in the meantime, I think it is right not to, you know, get Britain involved with boots on the ground, or anything like that, but to help the legitimate Syrian opposition, who are trying to stand up for people in that country, who are being brutalised by this dictator. As long as we’re always standing up for those parts of the opposition that want a free and democratic Syria, want a Syria where, if you’re a Christian, that actually you have rights, and all the rest of it.
So that’s what we should do, but it is a very difficult and painful process, and the progress is much, much too slow.
Thank you. Prime Minister, what can be done to improve the perception of apprenticeships as a positive viable choice for young people, compared to going to university and doing a degree which may have no practical application?
I think it’s a really good question. I think, when – when people see the apprenticeship schemes that are running now, and see that the training that you’re getting – I think if more people could see that, they would realise that it really is, as you put it, a fully viable career option. And so I think there’s a couple of things we need to do.
First of all, keep funding the apprenticeships. There’ve been a million apprentices trained under this government, and we need to keep the money going – and we will – for the growth in apprenticeships.
Second thing is, I think we’ve got to do a bit better at school, in explaining to children what the career options are. This is no criticism of teachers, but most teachers have been to school and then university, and they’re very familiar with that path, they know what it involves – you do your A-levels, you fill in your UCAS, you go to university – they don’t always know what the apprenticeship schemes are, and so I think we need better advice in schools about what is available.
And here’s where companies like Portakabin can come in. I think it’d be great if some of the people that work here could, on occasion, go into a school and just tell their story. You know, I think it’s one of the things that we don’t always recognise, is that young people are endlessly looking for role models, and looking for who to follow. And, actually, someone who’s done an apprenticeship, who’s succeeded through that, who’s maybe gone on and done other workplace training and has got a great career – going to talk about that in a school can make a huge impression. Because I want us to have a system, more like the German system, where, as you say, it’s an accepted norm that as you go out of school, you either think, ‘I’m going take that path to university’, or, ‘I’m going to take that path and be an apprentice.’ If we’re going to succeed in this very competitive world, the idea that we can have lots of people leaving at school at 16, at 17 or even at 18, without going one of those two routes, I think is very, very bad idea.
So I want a country where, in the end, everyone thinks, ‘It’s one route or the other route for me.’ And we need to correct something that people, I think, don’t often understand, is: if you do an apprenticeship coming out of school, that doesn’t shut off the chance of going to university later. Some of the best companies in our country, companies like Rolls Royce, exporting aeroplane engines all over the world, where many people on the board of that company were apprentices, went on, trained, did university degrees later, and then got to the very, very top of that company. That’s what happens in Germany. We shouldn’t copy Germany in everything, of course. We’ve got to go on beating them at football. But we should copy them on this one.
Chris Huhne has said that the scale of information harvesting and collaboration with the National Security Agency wasn’t known to the National Security Council. Why is that the case? And, secondly, if I may: do you agree with some of your Conservative colleagues that green costs on energy bills are too high?
On the second question first. Look I want to see energy bills low, not just for 20 months; I want to see them low for 20 years. So we’ve got to address all the things that are causing energy bills to rise. So we have to have a competitive market between the energy companies. We’ve got to do everything we can to bring on new sources of fuel, like, for instance, shale gas, which is revolutionising the cost of fuel in America. And as for green levies, and other things like that, they shouldn’t be there for a moment longer than they’re necessary. We need to have a balanced energy policy in this country, we need to have some nuclear power, we need some renewables. So some of those subsidies have been necessary, but as soon as those industries can pay for themselves, or as soon as we’ve got to a reasonable level, those subsidies shouldn’t be there for one moment longer than necessary.
But here’s the thing. Look, of course it’s very attractive to say, ‘I’m going to freeze energy prices for 20 months,’ as Ed Miliband has done, but it is basically a con. And it’s a con because he is not in control of the worldwide price for gas. And so he can’t guarantee at keeping that promise, because the gas price could go shooting up, in which case he’d have to break his promise, or the gas price could go shooting down, in which case a freeze wouldn’t be as good as what customers would get. So it’s a con. And what we need to do is make changes to the energy market to make sure we can have low prices, and hopefully keep those low prices for as long as possible. We’ve got to address the causes of prices, rather than just come up with what is, effectively, a con.
As for Chris Huhne, the Guardian’s new correspondent: look, anyone on the National Security Council is fully able to go and speak with the intelligence agencies, to quiz them about the work that they do, to ask for presentations. I’ve – you know, as Prime Minister, I’ve been to Cheltenham to go and see what GCHQ do. I’ve been to see the Secret Intelligence Services, to talk about the work that they do. I meet regularly with the Head of MI5 and discuss his work. Any member of the National Security Council or, frankly, any member of the Cabinet, is absolutely at liberty; they are Privy Counsellors, they are able to access this information, and they’re able to go and have those conversations.
What I’ve said, I hope for the benefit of everyone here and for the benefit of anyone watching at home, is I’m satisfied that the work these agencies do is not only vital, but it is properly overseen. And that is what this debate needs to be about. Do we want to have well-funded intelligence services that can help to keep us safe? And, if people want to suggest improvements for how they are governed and looked after, I’m very happy to listen to those. But, as far as I can see, we have a very good system, a system we can be proud of, and a system we believe that works very well and, indeed, is copied by other countries around the world.
Anyway, thank you very much for making me so welcome today. It’s very exciting what you’re doing in Europe, the expansion that you have here. Obviously, we need to see a growth in house building and construction in our country. I think that is now underway, and I’m sure Portakabin can be part of that success.
But it’s been really good to come and see what you. Thank you for all your questions, and thank you for the warm welcome. Thanks very much indeed.