Live webchat with Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown with Carrie and JustineThis is an edited transcript of a live webchat with prime minister Gordon Brown on 16 October 2009.

GordonBrown: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. This is my first webchat, so bear with me if I'm not as fast as you'd like! I'm really pleased to be making my webchat debut with Mumsnet as there are loads of things the Government is doing for parents that I'm really passionate about; big choices we've made that have changed lives for millions of parents, things like flexible working, maternity and paternity leave and Sure Start to name a few.

Looking at what's already been posted, I'm sure we'll also get to discuss lots of non-parent related issues too. Some of the big issues I'm working on every day include beating cancer in this generation and protecting our planet for the next generation, so I'm really keen to have your views on those too. I'll get through as many of your topics as possible and will come back on the main issues if we run out of time. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Childcare vouchers | Banking/financial system | Climate change | MPs' expenses | Education | Help for middle-income families | Maternity pay | Maternity services | Miscarriage | Sure Start | Breastfeeding | Armed forces | Self-employment | Tax allowances | Gordon's health | Child Trust Funds | Prescription and hospital parking charges | Biometric passports | Sarah's work | Women in politics | Reasons to vote Labour | Mumsnet political focus group | Swine flu | Home education | VAT on medical devices | Premature children and starting school age | Asylum seekers | Trident and nuclear policy | Incapacity benefits system | Miscellaneous |
 

Childcare vouchers and cost of childcare

Letter QPaolosgirl: I would like to ask him if he really plans to scrap Employer Supported Childcare Vouchers, and if so, why? They help thousands of families to meet the ever-increasing cost of childcare, allow women with children to continue to work, and help the economy to grow - crucial, given the current economic climate. Why, when over 44,000 have signed a No. 10 e-petition asking him NOT to phase these out, would he continue to press ahead? Providing 2 hrs a day of nursery places to some 2 year olds is simply robbing more of Peter to pay less of Paul.

Letter Qfabhead: Why on earth he is getting rid of childcare vouchers - most women I know couldn't have returned to work without them.
 

Letter AGordonBrown: Paolosgirl, Fabhead,loop9, Domesticlattern and many others, I can see that Childcare Vouchers are a big concern to many of you, so let me take this opportunity to clear a few things up. Firstly, no one who is currently using the scheme will be affected in the next five years, so please don't worry about any sudden changes.

We are phasing in the changes so that families who currently benefit don't lose out in the next Parliament. Second, low and middle-income working parents will be able to benefit from childcare support through tax credits that are worth on average £68 per week for 470,000 families - much more generous than tax relief on vouchers. And third, we are not actually abolishing the childcare vouchers. What will be happening is the Treasury will be phasing out the tax and national insurance relief employees receive for childcare vouchers, but companies will still be able to offer childcare vouchers to the people they employ and, in fact, we expect many of them will continue to provide support for childcare.

We are making these changes because we feel that the tax relief is currently badly targeted. Around a third of the benefit for ESC goes to the 6% of parents who pay tax at the higher rate But more importantly, we want to use the money to extend free nursery places to many thousands more 2 year olds. These nursery places are really popular with parents and they give children the very best start in life - helping to achieve a fairer society in which everyone can thrive.
 

Banking and cleaning up the financial system

Letter Qbossykate: Gordon, would you consider a windfall tax on banks? Considering the generosity of the tax-payer in bailing out and propping up the entire banking system last year, shouldn't some of the profits be socialised if the losses were?

Letter AGordonBrown: To bossykate and others, I'm as angry about the banks as you are. We are determined that we receive more money back from the banks than we have had to invest in them, so the banks will be paying us, the public, money, not the other way round. On bonuses and pay, we are setting international rules so that you can't escape by moving your employment from one country to another; pay in future must be about long-term success, not failure. You'll find me making further statements about this in the next few weeks.
 

Climate change and the Copenhagen summit

Letter Qted: Congratulations on your plans to attend the Copenhagen summit on climate change. Are you disappointed that more leaders aren't going to attend? Why do you think that is? And how worried are you and Sarah about global warming?

Letter Qspidermama: I would love to be able to vote Labour again but while you're funding new coal-fired power stations, failing to curb the dangerously excessive carbon emissions from the aviation and shipping industries and failing to invest properly in renewable energy I cannot be complicit in what appears to me to be a sleepwalk into catastrophic climate change which is already killing people and will wreak havoc in the lifetimes of our children and their children. How do you intend to make your mark on Planet Earth's date with destiny - the climate change agreement in Copenhagen in December?

Letter AGordonBrown: To Ted and others who are asking about the environment - yes, we do need an agreement in Copenhagen, and I'm going to go there and am asking other leaders to do so. We are putting forward new proposals in the next few weeks. On air travel we have air passenger duty, but we know we need an international agreement on aviation and shipping. All of us can play our part in cutting these emissions - why not sign up to Ed's pledge at www.edspledge.com - and I'm really pleased Mumsnet is backing 10:10.

Sarah and I are doing all we can at home, including solar panels on our house in Scotland. Believe it or not, we are advised that even though we are at the top of a hill, solar panels create more energy than a wind turbine. You might be surprised there's sun even in Fife!
 

MPs' expenses and the Legg report

Letter Qoblong: I'm not one to stick up for MPs but this Legg action on expenses is bang out of order. Seems to me he's arbitrarily decided expenses limits after the event, making MPs pay back money and look like they've broken rules which didn't exist. So my question is a simple one: has Sir Thomas Legg exceeded his remit? Yes or no?

Letter AGordonBrown: Oblong, on MPs' expenses we've got to get rid of the old discredited system as soon as possibe. Once Sir Thomas Legg has discussed it with MPs, we've got to settle it for good. And that means MPs will have to pay up.
 

Education and the Cambridge report

Letter Qronshar: Can I ask why the government thinks it is acceptable to aim for a 30% pass mark at GCSE level (five and above, not including the important subjects)? That means that 70% of our children are being failed by a system which is heralded as opening up higher education for all. Well no, only 30% in reality.

Letter AGordonBrown:A decade ago, 1,600 schools didn't meet the 30% passmark at GCSE. Now we've got it down to 270 and by 2011 every school will have to be above that target, but I agree with you we've got to do even better than that in future. So we are putting in extra measures for personal tuition of pupils, tougher standards of discipline and achievement, and better support for teachers and headteachers, and higher standards from them.

Letter QHeBewitcheditude: Why has your government already rejected the Cambridge report? Do you always know better than education professionals?

Letter AGordonBrown: HeBewitcheditude, on the Cambridge Report, it's useful to consult with experts and that's why we commissioned own independent review by Sir Jim Rose, which has been backed by experts, teachers and parents. On the back of the Rose review, we're already putting in place the biggest reform of the primary curriculum in decades but the Cambridge report doesn't take into account we're already taking action.

And it overlooks that we're recruiting 13,000 specialist maths teachers and giving one-to-one tuition in English and maths to tens of thousands of children. And it also ignores the hugely successful Every Child Counts and Every Child A Reader programmes that give specialist early support for six and seven-year-olds.

Our reports suggest that it's better to start earlier than six. Indeed, we want to make sure children are learning and playing from an early age and it's for that reason we've reduced the nursery starting age to three, now looking at how some children can start at two, and introduced Sure Start in every community. If you want to add in more ideas for kids for the future go to www.labourspace.com.

Letter QVulpusinaWilfsuit: What do you think of Willetts' claim that you have dashed the hopes of a generation by not opening up university places this year? The universities are ready to teach the students, the students want to come, your own policy aspires to increase the number of young people in higher education. Resolving this issue, surely, is a clear vote winner for you, and for the millions of families for whom education is a route to wider horizons.

Letter AGordonBrown: There are 10,000 more students at uni this year. Today, there are more than a million students studying in our universities, an all-time record. But we want to do more to help people get to college and uni. More people are receiving grants now than ever before, but we want to break down any other barriers that exist and we are happy to listen to your proposals.
 

Help for middle-income families

Letter QLilyBolero: I would like to ask how much more the middle classes are going to be squeezed in order to pay for the economic problems the country finds itself in. Invariably, new initiatives help the poorest in society (which is of course how it should be), aren't felt by the higher earners, but for people like us, just above the threshold for 40% income tax, we neither reap the benefits of tax credits, nor have the high income to buffer us from other charges/taxes brought in.

For example in education, we would have to pay full fees for universities, which we will barely be able to afford. Much of the press portrays people like us as able to afford things like private schools etc (and thus justify things like uni fees) - it's simply not the case. It's still a struggle to make ends meet.

So my question is, how could you, and will you protect the 'lower-middle earners' who at the moment are hammered for everything?

Letter AGordonBrown: LilyBolero, child tax credits are designed to help middle-income earners back up Child Benefit. Six million families will be receiving about £30 per week from Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit for the first child. So we are trying to help where we can with some of the costs of bringing up a child. There's further help if your child is under one, and many people receive tax credits on top. We've brought the basic income tax rate from 23p a few years to 20p now.
 

Maternity pay

Letter Qbabybroody: Is there any chance at all of increasing maternity pay? Suddenly dropping a wage and still having the same bills to pay out for puts an enormous strain on things when life is difficult enough with a new child coming into a family.

Letter AGordonBrown: Babybroody, I know having a child is a life-changing experience and it has its challenges. We have come a long way in terms of improvement to maternity pay. In 1997, women were only entitled to 18 weeks' maternity pay. This has now more than doubled to 39 weeks. We've also more than doubled maternity allowance, which has gone from £55.70 per week in 1997 to £123.06.
 

Maternity services

Letter QLulumama: Why do maternity services still seem to be at the bottom of the pile when it comes to investment and staffing levels? I believe the NHS would save an absolute fortune by providing more midwives and one-to-one care from a named midwife, which is the aim, but seems no closer to being achieved.

Women who are supported by a known and named MW seem to come through birth better, both physically and emotionally, and then use less resources post-birth in terms of counselling, birth debriefing, even having post birth-repairs /surgery. The illusion of choice remains an illusion, often women have to fight to give birth in a midwife led unit, or at home, due to lack of staff

Considering birth involves the needs of the woman and the baby, surely more investment at this critical point in the lives of the mother and baby would reap long term benefits for all?

Letter AGordonBrown: Firstly, can I assure you that maternity services are a top priority for the NHS. Our aim is to recruit around 4000 more midwives by 2012. We've recently introduced a new choice guarantee for women which includes having a named midwife. Every SHA now has plans in place to ensure care is provided by a named midwife. The latest figures show a 38% rise in the number of students entering training since 1997. 

Letter QCorinnaLouisa: I think it should be possible for all women to choose which NHS hospital / birthing unit they have their baby in, regardless of what NHS catchment area they are living in. It is not fair or equitable that those living in wealthier boroughs have exclusive access to better NHS services. What steps will the Government take to create an open-choice policy for birthing services and when will this take effect?

Letter AGordonBrown: CorinnaLouisa, we introduced the new choice guarantee for women as part of Maternity Matters, which amongst other things included the choice of place of birth. We're working hard with Strategic Health Authorities to make sure this happens.


Miscarriage

Letter QJustineMumsnet: Miscarriage, sadly, is a common occurrence and lots of Mumsnetters have suffered poor experiences of the NHS during this sad time. Because of that and drawing on Mums' experiences we've come up with a code of practice with suggestions of some fairly simple ways of improving the treatment of parents who miscarry - we'd be super grateful if you'd take a look at it and give it some consideration.

Letter A GordonBrown: I know so many people who have suffered miscarriages and it's terrible, so hard for them and their partners. More help needs to be available, so I'm looking at the code of practice and will come back to you.
 

Sure Start

Letter QLilyoooohhhh: What is the future of Sure Start centres? Our local one is great and a real lifeline for many parents and children. Please don't let them become another initiative / reinventing the wheel. I have worked in many 'new initiatives' when funding has been withdrawn only to be replaced by the same thing. If it works, be proud !

Letter AGordonBrown: Lilyloooohhh, I promise you Sure Start is here to stay! In fact, we are on track to reach our target of 3,500 children's centres by March 2010 – that's one for every community. I know how important they are for young families, especially in the current economic climate. They are one of our success stories and something we are absolutely committed to continue investing in.
 

Breastfeeding

Letter QTambajam: Just wondering how much of a priority you place on supporting and encouraging breastfeeding? We know if a child is breastfed it reduces their chances of heart disease in adulthood yet campaigns such as 'change4life' make no mention of breastfeeding.

The national breastfeeding support infrastructure (eg national helpline) is currently held together by volunteers. In large parts of the country a mother is unable to receive face-to-face support from someone qualified to offer it. Midwives and health visitors may have had as little as six hours' training. So many mothers and babies are being let down. Government infant feeding survey revealed 90% of mothers who gave up in the first two weeks wished they could have continued further.

Letter AGordonBrown: Tambajam, we want to encourage and support more and more mothers to initiate and continue breastfeeding. Our advice is based on World Health Organisation guidance, which recommends exclusive breastfeeding through its report, Optimal Duration of Exclusive Breastfeeding, and this is backed up by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition in this country.

However, we promote informed choice for mothers and their partners in deciding how to feed their infants and we fully support mothers in their choice of feeding method. Breastfeeding is the best way to feed your baby and it has positive benefits for mum's health too. Thirty two local health trusts across the country will receive a share of £3 million to support mums, particularly those from less well off areas, to start breastfeeding and to keep breastfeeding for longer.
 

Armed forces

Letter Qherbietea: Why have the Labour Government failed the armed forces so spectactularly? My husband is an RAF sergeant and is very overworked and considerably underpaid, as every member of the armed forces is. Tony Blair and, subsequently, you have let them down at every single avenue. They have been over-committed in battle areas, and lives are being lost because of this.

Yet, this week you announced you are going to send more troops in to Afghanistan. That means breaks between tours are going to be less all over the world and the men and women left in the UK to get the tanks, planes, helicopters, boats etc will be working much much harder to keep things ticking over. And where is the new equpiment that could save more lives? This Government can't go on treating the armed forces with such contempt.

Letter Qjcscot: I am the wife of an army officer who's currently serving in Afghanistan. I'm not going to ask why we're there (a very complex answer, I'm sure) but I do want to know why the government is not supporting the Armed Services properly. Why is there such a short gap between op tours, in clear breach of the harmony guidelines? Why is the refurbishment of MQs so under-resourced and behind schedule? Why is the procurement system so woefully inadequate and unfit for purpose? How is the defence budget going to be affected by cuts in government spending?

Letter AGordonBrown: We are proud not just of our armed forces, but of our forces' families and the amazing support you give to our people in Afghanistan. I have visited our troops in Afghanistan several times in the last year and a bit. We will do everything we can to make sure that every aspect of the military covenant is honoured. We have increased the support on the ground, with vehicles and equipment, and our duty is to make sure that everyone who serves in Afghanistan is fully equipped for the tasks we give them. Can you please thank your partners, and all our forces, for the amazing work they do.


Help for self-employed people

Letter QFlibbertyjibbet: Why is there no equivalent of the Childcare Voucher tax break for the self-employed. My partner and I are both self-employed with two children who need childcare. We have to pay the full cost ourselves. Friends on much higher incomes than us have both their employers in the scheme saving that family £250 a month (one is a higher rate tax payer) than us for exactly the same childcare.

So, can you tell me why my self-employed partner and I are £200 per month worse off paying childcare than families on the same income who happen to be employees? Month on month, year on year. I can't bring myself to work out the long-term figure. This government is supposed to help entrepreneurs but you are imposing this unfair stealth tax on self-employed families.

Letter AGordonBrown: I know that ESC is not available for the self-employed, however self-employed parents can benefit from a number of other Government childcare schemes such as the free part-time nursery places for three and four year olds, and this provision has been extended to many more two year olds. The childcare element of the Working Tax Credit also offers help with childcare costs for working families on middle and modest incomes.
 

Tax allowances

Letter QCammelia: If Labour win the next election, are you going to copy the Tories and bring back married couple's tax allowance and if not, why not?

Letter AGordonBrown: The problem with the Married Couples Tax allowance was that it actually went to married, separated and divorced couples, when most people want to help children. So we thought the best help we could give to children was to replace it with the Children's Tax Credit. Together with other measures we've introduced, this has helped to lift some 500,000 children out of poverty - and make seven million families with 12 million children better off. We believe this is a fairer system.
 

The PM's health

Letter QDuffy: Sorry to be blunt, but how is your health? I really, really don't want to vote for you and suddenly find David Miliband is running the country (assuming you win, which I hope you do) and clearly there's been lots of rumours in the papers etc?

Letter AGordonBrown: Thanks for your interest in my health. I'm fine, run a lot, keep fit, have had one problem; I lost my sight in one eye playing rugby but the sight in the other eye was saved by brilliant NHS staff, and there's been no deterioration in my sight since. So I'm fighting fit - thanks for asking.
 

Child Trust Funds

Letter QStarlightMcKenzie: Please can you tell me if the purpose of setting up Child Trust Funds was to enable the government to withdraw funding from higher education by encouraging families to save to pay for it themselves? Have you considered the repercussions of the Child Trust Funds in about 14 years from now, when many immature 18-year-olds will be bombarded by advertising companies who have looked up names on the electoral role to target with their 'solutions' to relieve these 18-year-olds of the burden of their parents/grandparents/family etc savings that were intended for their education/future?

Letter AGordonBrown: starlightMcKenzie, the Child Trust Fund is about giving every child the best start in life, with the chance to have some savings. Nearly five million kids now have a Child Trust Fund, which gives them £250 at birth and again at the age of seven. Unfortunately, under opposition plans, 900,000 children would miss out on Child Trust Funds, so a family with two children earning over £16,000 a year would see a £1,000 cut in payments. If you're against this go to www.labour.org.uk/the-conservatives-choice.
 

Prescription and hospital parking charges

Letter QPollyanna: Will you scrap car parking charges in hospitals for cancer patients who are out patients? (I know that you have done this for inpatients already).

Letter AGordonBrown: We are abolishing prescription charges for cancer patients from April. And Andy Burnham is trying to cut back on car parking charges paid at hospitals. On cancer care, nearly everyone now sees a consultant within two weeks but we want to do better. We want anybody with suspected cancer to have their diagnosis within a week. We are trying to take the fear out of cancer, because if people are screened and there is early detection then the rate of survival from breastcancer is over 90%.
 

Big Brother and biometric passports

Letter Qedam: Will you promise to give up the government's love of large IT databases and obsessive monitoring of/interference in the private lives of citizens? I'm talking about ID cards (waste of money inherently insecure), the NHS electronic database (ditto), Ofsted interfering in private arrangements between families, councils using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to snoop in our dustbins or when we apply for school places. There has been a drift towards Big Brother in many aspects of public life. Please stop it.

Letter AGordonBrown: Edam, yes we are moving to a biometric passport, but that's what every country is trying to do. Your passport can be your source of identity. We are asking for very little more information than is now asked for your passport, and it is voluntary.


Sarah's work and family life

Letter QOttavia: Does Sarah get irritated by how hard you work and (presumably) how little family time you get? Obviously, you do an important job - it's not like you're off with your mates down the pub - but my husband is pretty high-powered and busy and I get hugely frustrated by how little time he has for us (especially as I also work full time).

Letter AGordonBrown: Ottavia, I think Sarah works much harder than me! She's a busy Mum like most of you and I'm proud of the work she does for charity.

Letter QRTKangaMummy: What do you like to watch on TV, and if you were able to go to the cinema or theatre, what would you want to see - musicals or plays?

Letter AGordonBrown: In cinema terms I need to take my sons to see Up. On TV I watch a lot of sport. I used to be a teacher at a university and loved it. You've asked about the press - more and more people are hearing news direct on brilliant sites like Mumsnet.
 

Women's representation in politics

Letter Qslug: Do you agree that Parliament is unrepresentative of the UK population as a whole? When I look at the list of MPs I see mainly white, middle-aged, independantly wealthy men. To be honest, the thought of being governed by the Bullingdon Club gives me the heebejeebies. So what are you doing to make Parliament more representative?

It strikes me that the working hours are not conducive to family life, which is probably why you see few women MPs of childbearing age. Are there equal numbers of womens loos in the Houses of Parliament? How about breastfeeding rooms? Is there a creche available for MP mums (and dads?) Is it fair to say that until you have family-friendly working policy in the Houses of Parliament we will continue to see mainly men with the wherewithall to employ nannies or support stay-at-home wives standing as MPs?

Letter AGordonBrown: slug and others, yes, we need far more women in Parliament, in our local councils, in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly - whenever there are decisions to be made. There are some amazing women already changing the world, but if anyone on Mumsnet is interested in running for Parliament I can assure you we are working to make Parliament more family friendly, more in touch, more representative. I'll be speaking about our record and what needs to be done, on Tuesday. If you've got more ideas on this, please go to www.labourspace.com.


Reasons to vote Labour in the next election?

Letter Qwhispywhisp: Please can you convince me to vote Labour at the next General Election? BeccyCat: What are your two reasons why I shouldn't vote for David Cameron?
 

Letter AGordonBrown: To everyone asking why they should vote Labour, at the next election the country faces a big choice - the biggest of a generation. Last month at Labour Party conference I laid out Labour's ambitions for Britain: building a new economy that tames the old excesses of a risky bonus culture, meeting and mastering the challenge of an ageing society with a National Care Service as a partner to the National Health Service, beating cancer in this generation, transforming politics with a right for you to recall your MP and a referendum on a new voting system and the house of Lords.

The election to come will not be about my future, it's about your future. Your job. Your home. Your children's school. Your hospital. Your community. Your country. The opposition talk about change - but the question isn't whether the country needs to change - it's how. So when they say they represent change, ask yourself this - is that change that will benefit my family, or only a privileged few?
If you're a family that's feeling the pinch, don't take it from me, just ask them the question.

How can you say "we're all in this together" when you would scrap tax credits for middle-income families at the same time as giving a £200,000 tax giveaway to each of the 3,000 wealthiest estates?

If you want to help your kids save for their future, just ask the question. If you care about us, why would you make a family on just over £16,000 a year, with two kids, miss out on £1,000 in Child Trust Fund payments to their children?

And if you're one of the millions of Britons who loves our NHS, don't take it from me, just ask them the question. If you care about us, why would you scrap the right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks?

And if you're worried about crime, don't take it from me, just ask them the question. Why would you cut the Home Office budget by the equivalent of 3,500 police officers this year alone and then make it harder for them to catch the most violent criminals using DNA evidence?

And if you care about a proud Britain, don't take it from me, just ask them the question. Why would you put this country's prosperity and power at risk by placing Britain at the fringe of Europe rather than at its heart? Ask them: how can you deliver change when you so clearly haven't even changed your own party?


Mumsnet and politics

Letter Qpolicywonk: Prime minister, when you say that you'd be happy for people to get in touch or discuss ideas further, what sort of communication route are you thinking of? Would you be willing to meet up with a bunch of Mumsnetters (those you've singled out, such as RnB on autism and Wilf on university places) to discuss certain issues in more depth?

Letter QCMOTdibbler: For all the joking about a MN focus group, you really could (and can) do a lot worse than listening to MN. You can't tell, but you've been talking to women of all colours, ages (you can't tell who is a teen mum, and who had their first at 40+), with disabilities, visual impairments, of many or no religion, and all socio-economic groups. And, we're always here, and always ready with some opinions

Letter AGordonBrown: CMOTdibbler and others, would you allow me to come back and answer some of the other questions, and hear your views on some of the big issues we've got to address in the coming months and years? I'd love to come back! It's been great to hear from you. Some asked whether Sarah would come with me (or in preference to me!) - she's coming in soon.

Swine flu

GordonBrown: There has been some confusion about which vaccines are safe for mums-to-be, and I know there have been some reports which suggest Pandemrix is not recommended by the World Health Organisation. So let me reassure you that position is now out of date, it goes back to the summer before the vaccine was licensed. The World Health Organisation supports the use of vaccines as recommended by the respective regulatory authorities.

Now the European Medicines Agency and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation have recommended that the GSK vaccine is given as one dose that gives instant protection from swine flu. People who have the other vaccine which requires two doses have to wait three weeks between them and they are not protected until the second - we'd rather people were protected as quickly as possible. For more information you can go to www.nhs.uk.

Home education

Letter QFlamingoBingo: Why is your government trying to push through legislation regulating home education that is based on a review that was highly flawed in many ways, and motivated by the suspicion that some parents choose to home educate to hide child abuse and domestic servitude, when there is no evidence whatsoever for this suspicion? No other sector of parents are assumed guilty of child abuse until proven innocent, so why home educators?

Letter AGordonBrown: Our priority is always what's best for children. We absolutely support a parent's right to choose to home educate their children and, of course, the vast majority who do so do a great job. In fact, part of the Badman Report sets out ways in which we could help home educators. It identified where Government could do more for parents with children with special educational needs and for those who want more access to things like exams and further education.

We do know, however, that there are a very small number of cases where local authorities have concerns around home educated children. So it is right that in a proportionate way we ensure that we can respond when this is the case.

Overall, we believe that the Badman report is fair and balanced and should be seen as a positive thing for home-educated children, ensuring they are getting the education they are entitled to and that they are safe and well.
 

VAT on medical devices

Letter QHatchypom: I have recently bought a cochlear implant upgrade for my daughter; without it she is profoundly deaf. Why did I have to pay almost £1,000 for the VAT on a medical device ? It's hardly what I would describe as non-essential.

Letter AGordonBrown: It's difficult for me to answer this one as I don't know the details of your particular case. What I can say is that cochlear implants would usually be free on the NHS. If you send me your details, I can ask the Department of Health to look in to this for you.

A number of posters have asked if I can go into more detail on their specific questions or if I can cover the ones I missed. Anybody can write to me at any time at 10 Downing Street, London SW1A 2AA, and we will always try to get you the most up-to-date information from the relevant department.
 

Premature children and starting school age

Letter QParanoid2: I would like to know your opinion on the current situation where premature children are discriminated against and are forced to start school earlier that children born at term, in some cases children are in theory still three years of age.

Ed Balls failed to address this question at all when he came to Mumsnet. I am aware that children can defer entry until the following year, but that is even more damaging for the child as in most cases they will be forced to join the class that they would have joined if they had started a year earlier.

When is the government going to give parents of children who are born prematurely the option of deciding what's in the best interest of their children, some of whom will have encountered many hurdles before they even start school.

Letter AGordonBrown: Up the age of five, it's up to parents to decide when their child should start school. Some parents want their child to start earlier than five, so we're looking at whether all authorities should make places available from the September after a child turns four.

On the other hand, some parents like yourself, may feel they want their child to start later than this. Currently, no child has to start until they are five years old and schools must hold a place for them. You're right however, once a child turns five, they do have to attend school. I'm sorry you feel this puts your child at a disadvantage. However, we think that leaving it till later would mean some children would start long behind others, so we think we have the balance right.
 

Asylum seekers

Letter QBuca: I saw an article about single parent asylum seekers having their support cut. I wanted to ask Gordon Brown why he is cutting support to people who are already so poor (and not allowed to work) and what impact this is going to have on children.

Letter AGordonBrown: You are absolutely right that we always need to think about the impact of policies on children, so I can assure you that we aren't cutting the amount of money given to lone parent asylum seekers.

All those waiting for a decision on their case are provided with housing, a family allowance, healthcare and their children go to local schools - and the amount of money we are providing for asylum seeking families went up by 5.2% this year.

The majority of asylum seekers are receiving more support and we have made the system fairer by standardising the rate for all new asylum claims for single adults. So there has been a change, but we have rightly focussed throughout on protecting the most vulnerable and making sure that kids have all the help they need.
 

Trident and nuclear policy

Letter QStewieGriffinsMom: I would like to know how the government actually believes that replacing Trident does not invalidate any of our international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation?

Letter AGordonBrown: We all want a world free of nuclear weapons and I've always said we should have the minimum deterrent necessary. Since 1997, Britain has cut the number of nuclear warheads by 50% and I recently announced that I'm prepared to look at reducing our nuclear weapon submarines from four to three.

Our policy on Trident is in line with all our international agreements on non-proliferation, and I'm determined that the world must go further. So just a few weeks ago I went to the UN Security Council and put forward a global deal where countries that already have nuclear weapons offer civil nuclear power to those countries prepared to give up their plans to obtain nuclear weapons. In return, countries like ours who already have nuclear weapons will play our part by reducing the global total.
There is more detail about the deal here, and I'm proud that Britain played such a leading role in a campaign that will make all of our children safer.
 

Incapacity benefits system

Letter QPolicywonk: David Freud's changes to the incapacity benefit system have resulted in great distress and alarm among some very vulnerable members of our society, particularly those with acute physical or mental disabilities.

Claimants report that representatives of ATOS, the private company that is assessing people's claims, are simply not sufficiently trained. Tens of thousands of ESA claimants are having their benefit stopped, sometimes for weeks at a time, before the ATOS ruling is overturned on appeal.

I'd like to hear your views on the suitability of ATOS to carry out this work, and it would be fantastic if you would undertake to look closely at its performance, and make changes if necessary.

And this isn't a question, but I'd like to congratulate you warmly on the fantastic achievements of DFID over the last 12 years. You, Clare Short, Hilary Benn and Douglas Alexander deserve a sustained round of applause.

Letter AGordonBrown: The idea behind the new assessment is to look at what people can do, rather than what they can't and to make sure those who face barriers in getting back in employment have the help they need to do so. Of course, we understand that there'll always be some people who can't work due to their disability and we'll continue to make sure these people receive the support they need.

As far as the assessments themselves are concerned, they are carried out by fully trained, experienced doctors and nurses who undergo rigorous training on how they do this and show they are capable of carrying out the assessments properly.

What's more, all the work carried out by these healthcare professionals is subject to a yearly audit within Atos and this audit is in turn checked by senior medical professionals from Atos and by Government doctors.

Thanks for what you said about DFID and our successes on development. It is one of the things I'm proudest about our record in government, but actually the sustained applause should go to the public - it's the campaigning of people all over the country that has made our successes possible, so thanks to you for your commitment.
 

Miscellaneous

Letter Qmorningpaper: Do you consider yourself to be an unlucky Prime Minister?

 

Letter AGordonBrown: Morningpaper, you ask if I consider myself an unlucky Prime Minister? Not when I'm sitting here at Mumsnet!

Last updated: 04-Nov-2009 at 12:24 PM