Webchat with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg

 

Nick CleggDeputy prime minister Nick Clegg came to MNHQ for his third webchat in September 2010, ahead of the UN Millennium Development Goals summit. This is an edited transcript of the live chat. He was quizzed about maternal mortality and international development - and other political issues closer to home.

 

Maternal health and mortality | Spending cuts and the economy | Are you a Tory? | PoliciesOther 

 

Letter ANick Clegg: Hello everyone, thanks for having me on Mumsnet this evening. As you know, I'm here to chat today about the MDG Summit at the United Nations next week, and particularly to focus on maternal health in developing countries. So development is tonight's theme, but I've just read through the thread and seen that there are quite a few posts about the coalition. So, if nobody minds, I thought I'd jot down a few responses first.

I can see that opinion amongst Mumsnetters on the new government is pretty mixed. But, I have to say that, for me, the choice now is as clear as it was then: no party won the election, so the only way to give Britain a strong and stable government is if politicians work together. That means a coalition is necessary, and it has to reflect the preferences people expressed at the ballot box.

Coalition is normal in a lot of other countries, but it's not something we're used to here. That said, a lot of people I have met have told me they think it makes sense. They have to work with people very different to them, why shouldn't politicians as well? In government it means combining the best of our ideas, and I think even we have been surprised at how radical that has allowed us to be. We now have a five-year plan that will get the economy back on track and clean up our politics, too.

A big priority for us is making sure the UK with others plays its part in helping the world's poorest, which is what next week's summit is all about. It's a scandal that every three seconds a child dies somewhere in the world from causes that could have been prevented. And for millions and millions of women pregnancy carries huge risks. So we'll be using the summit to push for an action plan with other countries and partners to tackle the poverty and disease that blight so many societies. I'd love to hear your views on these issues so, please, fire away.

 

 

Maternal health and mortality

Letter QUnePrune: If hygiene is the biggest 'saviour' of pregnant women, how do you propose to change global society to ensure that all women have access to a hygienic environment to give birth in? If nutrition is the next biggest factor - well, that's a hard one too (which is a huge understatement). And where does the aftermath of childbirth fit into this? Infection, fistulae, prolapse etc. These can ruin lives.

Letter ANick Clegg: It's all about women's empowerment. Unless women feel more in control of their own lives and crucially how and in what circumstances they give birth we will not be able to tackle very high maternal mortality rates. That's why we are reorganising our entire aid programme to put women at the heart of everything we do on developing countries. We think we will be able to double the number of women and babies saved by UK aid by 2015.

 

Letter Qhealthymums: The best way to help mothers and babies in poor countries would be to make sure they all have access to free healthcare, that countries have propoerly equipped clinics in rural and urban areas, with properly trained medical staff. Are you going to support poorer countries to give their women and children free care? How will you address the shortage of nurses and doctors?

Letter ANick Clegg: The UK is a leader in supporting countries around the world to remove financial barriers that prevent poor women and children in developing countries getting life-saving care. The UK assisted the government of Sierra Leone to lift health user fees for women and children, which has led to a huge increase in utilisation of primary health care. Early indications are that the double of outpatient consultations have almost doubled in the first three months.

 

Letter QSpeedyGonzalez: Did you know (according to a recent Radio 4 documentary) that during WW2 the infant mortality rate fell significantly? This is said to be because so many obstetricians were on the battlefield. Good obstetricians are absolutely vital and their knowledge and experience is invaluable. However, for most women having babies, the best possible care comes from midwife-led units. One of the measures used by this UN summit to evaluate the quality of maternal care is 'Proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel'. In order to succeed, this MUST refer to midwives FIRST, not obstetricians.

The reason for me detailing all of this is that it seems ironic to me that this conference is being hosted in the USA. Their maternal mortality rate is appallingly low - according to the WHO they rank around 42nd in the world for deaths in labour. The USA has a heavily obstetrician-based approach to maternal care, and it's all driven by money.

So the scope of this conference should include the USA as a place where maternal (and infant) health desperately needs attention. Contrary to the summit paraphernalia (from their website) it is not just a problem affecting developing countries. Nick, are you brave enough to raise this issue at the conference? 

Letter ANick Clegg: I really agree with what you say about the fantastic role played by midwives. Even Miriam and I noticed a difference with our children - two of them were born abroad and the third with midwife care on the NHS, and the difference in care and treatment was really striking. As for the US, inevitably the focus of the MDG Summit should remain on the developing world, though of course we shouldn't be sanctimonious in the rich world about our own standards of care.

You might be interested to know that in the 1930s Britain's high maternal mortality rate was seen as the "great blot on pubic health". In 1935, Stanley Baldwin, as prime minister of the last Conservative/Liberal Coalition government established a national midwifery service. This move, coupled with the necessary policies and resources, saw maternal deaths in the UK fall by 80% in just 15 years. The resonance with where we are today is uncanny and only serves to sharpen this government's resolve to seek and equally radical result.

 

Letter Qkevta: I've been really impressed with the breastfeeding support in my local area (Hertfordshire), but am aware that such resources are not available throughout the UK. Given that breastfeeding is supposed to be the best way to feed a baby, and that many third world countries supposedly follow the example of the western world, and thus see formula feeding as a desirable option (hence high child mortality rates through contaminated water, malnutrition, etc etc), will there be a greater emphasis on breastfeeding support in the UK to try to normalise it as a feeding method here and elsewhere?

Letter ANick Clegg: Kveta, I'm delighted that you've received great support for breastfeeding in your local area. You and others have picked up on the importance of breastfeeding for mothers and babies both in the UK and particularly in developing countries.

Evidence shows that support to breastfeeding in developing countries would reduce infant deaths by more than 10%. UK development policy and programmes completely recognise the importance of immediate and exclusive breastfeeding for mothers. The UK supports the World Health Organisation's (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes.

 

Letter Qarses: I think the Maternal Mortality Coalition plan is a good thing, or at least would be if it weren't being discussed in a climate where most of us are genuinely worried about the impending spending review and what it might mean.

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, their life may be the harder course I see, but on the other hand, mine is happening to me. It's very difficult to discuss this issue with you Nick, as important as it is, when afraid that public services will be decimated and the poor in our society cast aside in favour of benefits for the more well-off. I am surprised you did not expect these questions, and will be even more surprised if you do not answer them.

Letter ANick Clegg: Of course I realise that people feel very, very anxious about the Comprehensive Spending Round, not least because there's so much uncertainty about before the announcements are finally made. Nor do I want to disguise the difficulties we face - difficulties, incidentally, which any Government of any composition would face.

But I think it's worth putting some of this into perspective: after the Spending Round, we'll still be spending around £700bn of public money per year, more in cash terms than we do now; we'll be spending almost exactly what Labour did for most of their years in office; and the proportion of public spending as a % of our national wealth will still be over 40%.

Judging by some of the deliberate scaremongering in parts of the press and from political opponents, you'd be forgiven for thinking that we're turning the clock back to the 1930s. It's complete nonsense - we're simply trying to reduce our deficit over a five-year period so that we can get the economy going, keep interest rates low, create jobs and spend money on public services rather than on the country's debt interest. It's not easy, but I genuinely think in the long run it's the only responsible thing to do.

 

Letter Qdinkystink: Given in the poorest countries, so many factors (distance from health facilities in case of complications, lack of infrastructure, poverty of population, unhealthy living conditions where clean water and clean air is far from the norm, lack of education and suspicion of the new, to name but a few) contribute to the maternal death statistics, how is the upcoming conference actually envisaged to tackle all of these contributing issues?

Letter ANick Clegg: I completely agree, but unfortunately there is no quick fix, and no single action that will save a mother's life from complications in pregnancy and childbirth. That's why the UK is taking a comprehensive approach to improving maternal health in poor countries focusing not only on access to essential health services - and that includes doctors, nurses and midwives - but also focusing on the wider infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water. Next week at the MDG Summit, I will be urging other world leaders to step up their efforts too - it's only through collective action that we will make a difference.

 

Letter QStewieGriffinsMom: I would like assurances that our current government will never try to emulate previous American policy preventing funding to clinics which offer support services for birth control, including access to abortion. That policy was utterly destructive for women and I fear our current government is so reactionary in policy that they will use this 'policy' as an excuse to further cut international aid.

Letter ANick Clegg: The coalition government is committed to ensuring women have choice over their reproductive health - particularly over when and how many children to have.

The Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell launched a public consultation "Choice for Women – wanted pregnancies, safe births" at the end of July to inform the development of a new business plan on reproductive, maternal and newborn health. I would encourage anyone interested to go onto the DFID website  and have their say about what the UK should be doing on these issues.

 

 

 Spending cuts and economy

Letter Qbreathtakingben: Nick, do you still support a levy on the banks, despite the fact that it will decrease trading and therefore growth and put us at a greater risk of double dip recession?

Letter ANick Clegg: We've actually imposed a new levy on the banks in the last budget - again something which people are forgetting Labour never got round to doing. It will raise about £10bn over the coming Parliament, and will help deal with the economic effects of a recession which the banks helped create in the first place.

But we're also going further, we're actively looking at introducing a Financial Activities Tax, we're going to make the banks publish their pay and bonus deals, and we're trying to find a solution to the bank lending crisis (especially to small and medium-sized companies). I totally agree when people, especially in the public sector, say they don't know why they're having to pay the price of a recession they didn't cause, the bankers should do their bit too.

 

Letter QAuntyJ: Nick, why do the cuts have to be so quick? What do you think reaction of grassroots delegates at the party conference will be to the deep cuts in public spending?

Letter ANick Clegg: Lots of you have said you're either unhappy or angry about the Coalition Government itself, or worried/anxious about what we're planning to do to deal with the deficit. 
The crucial thing to remember about coalition politics is simply that it happens when voters say they don't want any single party to govern on their own. As a matter of principle, I don't think there's anything wrong with politicians of different parties working together in the national interest. Of course that offends people who feel really tribal about their politics, but I'm not sure if dog-eat-dog tribalism has produced good government in the past.

As for the deficit, I wish there was a get-out-of-jail-free option. There isn't. We have the largest peacetime deficit in UK history. It's simply not fair to saddle our children with this generation's debt. There's nothing fair about spending billions and billions of pounds on debt interest which could be used for schools and hospitals instead. You can't create jobs in the long run on the sands of debt.

I realise that some people think that Labour would have pursued a pain-free alternative: the truth is they were planning about four-fifths of the cuts in unprotected departments that this Government is planning, and they had announced £44bn of cuts without spelling out where they would fall. This is not easy, not at all. But we're trying to do it over the next five years as fairly as possible, which is why we've introduced measures to lift 900,000 low-paid workers out of income tax altogether, and new guarantees to pensioners.

 

Letter QFrameyMcFrame: What about Sheffield Forgemasters though, Nick? You sold them down the river.

 

Letter ANick Clegg: Forgemasters were promised an £80 million loan by the last Government 11 working days before the election was called - from a 2010 budget which simply didn't have enough money in it. The loan was not affordable, and it was wrong for Labour to write out cheques they knew would bounce. I regret as much as anyone else that we couldn't go ahead with that loan when we got into Government as Forgemasters is a brilliant company which I know well - but we've offered any help we can manage to Forgemasters once the financial picture for future years is clearer after the Spending Round is complete.

 

 

 Are you a Tory?

Letter QLadyBlaBlah: Today's headline in The Times read 'The Poor Must Accept the Cuts - Nick Clegg'. How can you explain this remarkable about-turn? How can anyone accept anything you say as being truthful?

Letter ANick Clegg: I hope you'll have a look at the article, not the headline which was very misleading. The point I made in my article - something Liberal Democrats have been arguing for years - is that we should be increasing incentives to work and reducing the patterns of long-term benefit dependency.

That's why we made a big start in raising the income tax personal allowance by £1,000 in the budget so that people on low pay pay much less tax. And that's why we're going to reform welfare in a way which of course supports the vulnerable, but does so in a way which encourages people into work. This will take many years, and it's complicated. A bit like our deficit reduction plan, I think too many people think these changes are going to happen overnight. They won't - instead we've tried to be upfront with people early on about what we're going to do over the coming five years.

 

Letter Qmrsden: When did you realise that you were actually a Tory? Before, or after the election?
 

Letter ANick Clegg: I was asked this question hundreds of times during the election and I always gave the same answer. The party that won the most amount of votes in the event of a hung parliament had the moral right to be the first to seek a government. That was the Conservatives and that is exactly what they did.

We formed a Coalition with them but that doesn't make anyone in the Liberal Democrats a Tory. We're a distinct political party with distinct policies. I hope you see lots of them in the Programme for Government - 900,000 people out of paying tax; the Green Deal; a guaranteed income for pensioners; a fairer politics; a banking levy. The list is long and it will grow over the next five years. For the first time in 70 years if you voted Lib Dem at an election, you get Lib Dem policies in Government.

 

Letter Qcupcakesandbunting: If I'd wanted to be dragged kicking and screaming back into Thatcherism, I'd have voted Cameron. Turns out I and many of my friends and family voted Clegg and got dragged back to Thatcherism anyway...

Letter ANick Clegg: I understand that people are very anxious about what is coming. The public's finances are a mess. We have to make difficult decisions about cuts because it is not liberal, progressive or fair to force our children to pay back our debts. Instead of putting money in the pocket of bonds dealers who profit from our rapidly increasing debt, we should be spending it on the public services that matter to us all.

I also hear it's going to be like Thatcher and the 1980s again. Let me be clear, this is nothing like the 1980s. Then whole communities and industries were gutted. I'm an MP from a great Northern city - Sheffield - and I know that people there and across the country fear the spectre of the 1980s. But we are doing things very differently - taking low-paid workers out of paying tax altogether; high-speed rail; a £1bn regional growth fund to help places like Sheffield; a huge job creation programme through a Green Deal to properly insulate our homes; a Pupil Premium with real money to help the most disadvantaged children; a national insurance tax break for companies starting up in economically deprived areas, a triple locked pension guarantee.

 

Letter QFrameyMcFrame: Bah! Nick, I liked you on the TV and I liked the Lib Dem policies. But I can't stand the Tories, and you've turned into one.

Letter ANick Clegg: Well there's at least half a compliment there. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are as distinct as we've always been, but the fact is, when parties come together I think people are inevitably going to draw these kind of comparisons.

At the General Election the Liberal Democrats made four key pledges: fairer taxes, more money for disadvantaged pupils, cleaner politics and a greener, rebalanced economy. All of those ambitions are at the heart of this government's agenda and that is something we are very proud of.

 

 

 Policies

Letter Qchampagnesupernova: Are you relieved that the decision to renew Trident has been shelved?

Letter ANick Clegg: I know a few people have asked about Trident. It's a thing that we openly disagree with the Conservatives about. I hope people find that refreshing about the Coalition - we're from different parties and we have separate ideas about things like Trident, and we reflected that openly in our Coalition Agreement.

I've always said that a nuclear deterrent system designed in the 1960s to flatten Moscow at the touch of a button was not necessarily the only option in today's world. The threats we face are very different. And with the public finances left in a mess by Labour, I think it's worth exploring alternative systems. That is why the Liberal Democrats will continue to champion alternatives to the system, even as the Government as a whole is committed to renewal subject to a value for money review of the whole system.

 

Letter Qanotherplaceisinthewrong: What exactly is your position on tuition fees for undergraduates, Mr Clegg? At one time you wanted to abolish them.

Letter ANick Clegg: I still don't like tuition fees, I think they discourage young people from going to university who are intimidated by the prospect of sky-high debt. That's why we're looking at different options, including the possible alternative of a graduate contribution scheme where graduates pay back to their university dependent on what they earn after they leave university, which would be far more progressive than current arrangements. But this is fraught with practical difficulties, so we don't yet know whether this is worth trying out in practice.

 

Letter QAnnieLobeseder: Perhaps while discussing pregnancy and childbirth, you could raise the related subject of the ongoing horror of female genital mutilation. According to the website of the charity FORWARD, FGM continues to be inflicted upon approximately 100-140 million African women worldwide, and each year, a further 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of the practice in Africa alone. Even more appallingly, this practice is carried out right here in the UK, where an estimated 6,500 girls are at risk of FGM every year.

While the practice is illegal under UK law, no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted for this crime, so among communites where FGM is practised, this law is no deterrent.

I would like to know where the current government stands on the issue of FGM, how it intends to raise awareness of the issue, how it intends to make sure that no UK citizen ever has this horror inflicted uopon her, and how it intends to raise the issue with other world governments to eliminate FGM worldwide.

Letter ANick Clegg: The coalition government strongly supports and advocates for the elimination of FGM and other harmful traditional practices as part of our sexual and reproductive health, maternal health and gender equality strategies. We support the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) programme of action, which urges governments to prohibit FGM and protect women and girls from such dangerous practices.

On such a complex and sensitive issue it's sometimes frustratingly hard to know if you're making any real progress - but I'm determined to keep this high up the international agenda.

 

Letter Qruthie48: Nick, 180,000 qualified nurses retire within 10 years (as seen in the Nursing Times). As there will soon be a chronic shortage, are there any concerns about making nursing degree level?

Letter ANick Clegg: It's difficult for me to know exactly what's going on in your ward/hospital - as you know, it depends on what PCTs and hospital Trusts are deciding in each area. But I think it's important to remember that we've explicitly excluded the NHS from the cuts falling elsewhere, ringfencing the NHS budget is really important for a public service which is not only crucial to every familiy in the country, but also the largest public sector employer in the country.

 

 

Other

Letter Qomnishambles: Action plans are all well and good, but is the money in place to see it through and stick to our prior commitments?

Letter ANick Clegg: Of course, money and financial commitments which have been made to the world's poorest are central to reaching the MDGs by the deadline in 2015. I think we should be proud in Britain that the UK is a leader is this regard - the Coalition Government has made very clear its commitment to spending 0.7% of our national income on development assistance. The challenge now - and this is what I will discuss with world leaders next week - is to make sure others live up to the promises they made. And to play our full part, we will go further and make new commitments next week.

I'm also really looking forward to hearing from the private sector about what it can do to support government efforts to deliver the MDGs.

 

Letter Qedam: Nick, as you will know, the Fawcett Society is seeking a judicial review of your government's failure to carry out the required equality audit before the budget. How can you persuade women - and men who care about equality - that your party notices or cares about discrimination when you've been happy to help the Tories attack women, children, the poor and those least able to help themselves? That's not just my view of the budget, it's what the IFS data and the equality data in the House of Commons library statistics showed.

Letter ANick Clegg: We've got a really difficult job to do: deal with the deficit, because it's impossible to fund welfare and public services if we keep wasting money on debt interest instead; but do it in a way which also promotes fairness.

We're trying hard to get the balance right: that's why we've given the triple lock guarantee to pensioners (their pensions will now rise automatically by 2.5%, earnings, inflation - finally, years after the earnings link was broken in the 1980s).

That's why at the time of the CSR in October we'll announce a "Pupil Premium", a policy I first wrote about a decade ago, which will allocate additional money to children in school from the most disadvantaged backgrounds; why we've ended the grotesque scandal under Labour's tax system that a multi-millionaire paid a lower rate of tax on their capital gains than their cleaners did on their wages; why we've massively increased child tax credits etc.

Of course, deficit reduction on the scale necessary isn't easy, or without losers. But some of the analysis bandied about to prove that our plans are "regressive" are very partial, including for example making all sorts of assumptions about what we will do in future budgets (not yet decided) or completely ignoring the countervailing effects of job creation in future years.

 

Letter QMoralDefective: Is 'git' a sweary word?
 

Letter ANick Clegg: Yes, if it's aimed at me. 

 

Nick Clegg: Thank you to everyone who took the time to come and post tonight. Sorry I couldn't answer them all. We got drawn off topic a fair bit, but I do understand why, and I think it would be fair to say you've given me a tougher grilling than Paxman!

I'm pleased we at least managed a few questions on the MDG summit, and a lot of people clearly have strong views on what you want us to achieve there. Good night Mumsnet.

P.S. I'm not a Tory!

Last updated: 21-Sep-2010 at 1:05 PM