Webchat with Tory leader David Cameron

This is an edited transcript of a live webchat with David Cameron on Friday 14 March 2008.

Justine: David Cameron is here and ready to go so pull up a chair. From experience we know that he won't be able to cover all your questons in this session, but please be assured that he will see them all and we send a round-up list of any that haven't been answered at the finish. So without further ado, over to you Dave!

Flexible working | Maternity care | Maternity leave | Special needs | Education | Rape | Tax | Politics | Work-life balance | 'Choice' | Bikes/ties

Flexible working

lalaa: What will a Conservative government offer to mums regarding flexible working? In my experience, there are an extraordinary number of mothers who would like to work around school hours but for whom the reality of 'flexible working' practices are that they are anything but. This is, again in my own experience, particularly true for those Mums who worked in mid to higher paying jobs before they had children. A right to request part-time working is not the same as a right to part-time working.

Given that our children need support for reading and homework in the evenings after school, and that in some areas, such as my own, after school homework clubs are not viable due to lack of staff to run them, mums at my school have no choice but to not work if they are going to be able to support their children adequately. This seems, to me, a huge waste of talent.  I would like to see the Government working with businesses and schools to deliver some joined up thinking in this arena. What say you, Mr Cameron?

DavidCameron: On flexible working I don't think it is a cop out to say, as we have done, that we would extend the right to request flexible working to all parents with children under 18. This would be a big breakthrough - and the figures seem to show that firms who have adopted the right to request grant it in 90 per cent of cases.

frannieS: On flexible working the law is pretty weak as it is a 'right to request' and 'duty to consider' not an obligation to provide. Would you introduce an obligation on employers to agree flexible working in certain situations?

DavidCameron: You are right on pay gap - that is one of the reasons for doing our flexible maternity/paternity package. It will help change the culture where business sort of assumes that it is only women that take time off for babies.

Maternity care

Rowlers: Maternity services have had a bashing in the news recently. What does the Conservative Party plan to do to improve the quality of maternity care?

DavidCameron: On maternity the first thing we would do is have a moratorium on the closure of consultant-led maternity units. I think the evidence for saying that we need much larger maternity units is not proven and we should stiop and think again. 

SilentTerror: I will probably vote for you Dave, but would like to know whether you think nurses pay should be equal to that of other public sector workers of similar educational background, ie teachers/police. And if not,why not? Also, where would a Tory government stand on confrontation with GPs over increased surgery opening hours? I am a paediatric staff nurse married to a GP and cannot see any shop floor benefits to our service despite 'massive' funds being injected. As you have a lot of experience with NHS paediatric services,are there any obvious things that you have seen that could be done better? Many thanks for your reply.

DavidCameron: I can't give you some spellbinding thing I would change, but having children's A&E services closed at night, as our one is, is nuts as that is when children get ill.

Maternity leave and health services

artichokes: Today's news is filled with Mr Cameron's announcement about extended maternity leave for both parents. Despite the hype, am I right in thinking that the only difference between his policy and the current government policy (to be implemented by 2010) is that he would allow both parents to take time off concurrently?

DavidCameron: The difference between our policy on parental leave and Labour's is as follows. We are both committed to 52 weeks paid maternity leave by the end of the Parliament. They are saying that the mum has to take the first 26 weeks and after that the dad could take over some of the remaining entitlement. We are saying that apart from the first 14 weeks, which the mum must take, the rest could all be used flexibly. Also, we would allow it all to be taken concurrently. Basically we are saying - it is your 52-week entitlement, share it, use it, flex it in any way you think works for you. Hope that makes sense. 

SilentTerror: I will probably vote for you Dave, but would like to know whether you think nurses pay should be equal to that of other public sector workers of similar educational background, ie teachers/police. And if not,why not? Also, where would a Tory government stand on confrontation with GPs over increased surgery opening hours? I am a paediatric staff nurse married to a GP and cannot see any shop floor benefits to our service despite 'massive' funds being injected. As you have a lot of experience with NHS paediatric services, are there any obvious things that you have seen that could be done better?

DavidCameron: I can't give you some spellbinding thing I would change, but having children's A&E services closed at night, as our one is, is nuts as that is when children get ill.

Special needs

avenanap: I emailed David Cameron a few weeks ago to ask him why the joining fee was the same amount for different sectors of society and what help would his party offer to families of gifted children considering they and other special needs children are expensive (books etc). Some woman from his party emailed back and totally avoided answering my question.

I like you David, I may vote for you but I need straight answers, there are a lot of children who are unhappy in state schools because they have specific needs that the state can not cater for. What would your party do to support these children? A comprehensive education is not the best for every child. There are a lot of bright children placed in classes where the teachers are too busy doing crowd control then teaching. This is a waste of talent. What will your party do for these children?

DavidCameron: We need a big change in terms of SEN. First up, we should put a stop to special school closures - and then reform the law. I think that at the moment the system is biased against special schools and some parents and children are being pushed into mainstream schools when it is not appropriate. Parents should have a genuine choice between special and mainstream schools.

needmorecoffee: Dave, under the Tories, would wheelchair services be able to get a child a wheelchair within a year. Do they expect you to lug round a child with CP and epilepsy in a wheelcbarrow while you wait?

DavidCameron: Very good point on wheelchairs - we have had issues with this as my son with CP is growing fast. People have very different experiences in different parts of the country. I think the principle should be that parents should get more choices, delivered faster and then the state should pick up the bill. At the moment it is still a bit like a Model T ford - any colour you like as long as it's black.

needmorecoffee: Well yes Dave, we agree, but are the Tories going to actually do anything about this. Are disabled children's services going to be be funded better - our PCT refuses to pay for more paediatric physios or OTs so the poor staff work over-hours - unpaid - top try and fill their caseload. So we get one hour every five weeks rather than every week, we wait up to two years in Bristol for a wheelchair etc etc. It is pants. Well, I challenge Dave to come round to our disabled children's group and see what life is really like for those on income support, caring 24 hours a day and tell us how conservatives will improve our lot. Especially as Labour introduced child tax credits which are fab and something Tories never did. It's at Hop Skip and Jump in Bristol and we do have cake and biscuits. But we have articulate women caring 24 hours a day, mainly in poverty, and not be listenned too by anyone 'in power'. Roger Berry MP came and gave usual non-answers.

DavidCameron: Fair point. I always say that I am lucky to get so much help and I know from my surgeries how there are parents with disabled children who have to cope under the most incredible pressure. The figures for family breakdown in these circs are terrible. I will ask my team to see if I can get to Hop, Skip and Jump when next in Bristol. I would like to come and listen.


DavidCameron: Thanks for making your voice heard! As well as the focus on the educational needs of young people with learning difficulties, the point you make about social care and the burden we place on family carers is an important one. Social services are provided by local government rather than national government, so one way we can help get more money to front line services is to cut down on the bureaucracy from Whitehall which takes up so much council time and money.


squonk: Mr. Cameron, I have a question about school entry. You have been quoted as saying that you don't have an issue with parents who lie in order to get their child into a better school. Do you stand by your comments, and if so, how do you propose to make the system fairer for everybody so that parents don't feel a need to resort to such underhand tactics. On a similar note, do you feel that it is fitting for someone in such a powerful position as yourself to openly admit condoning such dishonesty?

DavidCameron: Of course, no one should lie to get their child a place at school - and that is not what I said. I was merely trying to recognise the fact that there is a dreadful shortage of good school places and we shouldn't be surprised - or jump to criticise - those parents who try and do all they can to get their child inot a good school. I think that parents making choices and getting involved is a good thing and will help to drive up standards.

ronshar: Mr Cameron, I would be interested to know what the Conservative party position is with regards to schools/education. I feel very strongly that parents do not really want a choice of school. What we actually want is a GOOD local school. If all schools were the same high standard we would not need to choose! Why do schools not have to perform the same? Why are some allowed to become so bad in the first place? Do you think that the teaching profession has to explain why it allows some of its teachers to underperform? As a nurse if I performed badly a patient could die! Thank you. I also loved your Budget tie. Very dashing. PS You are much nicer than Gordon!

DavidCameron: On school choice. Of course what we all want is a good local school, but I think that an element of choice and competition is a good way to help get it. Ask yourself: why is it so difficult to set up a new school in the state sector? Why should so much of the innovation be in the private sector? We have plans to make the provision of new schools much easier.

Whitty: I would like to know when tests for small school children will be scrapped cos they don't prove or achieve anything. I would also be keen to know if Britain will ever follow in the steps of those fantastic European schools that focus on play till six years old. Thanks

DavidCameron: I think some testing is important in making schools accountable to parents, and helping schools track the progress children make as they move up the school - which is vital if the school is to see how well it is doing.  But clearly there needs to be a balance.  That's why we have proposed replacing key stage 1 tests with a short standardised reading test at the end of year one, to make sure children have mastered the basics.

tortoiseSHELL: What do you advise a parent to do in an area such as mine, where the secondary school where your child will get a place only gets 23% 5GCSEs+? Can't afford private, but couldn't send my children there - it wouldn't be an education. Who do you prefer 'facing' - Tony Blair or Gordon Brown?

DavidCameron: I don't mind who I face as long as they are facing me from the other side – Britain needs change, and that won't happen until Gordon Brown and his colleagues are facing me from the opposition benches! I agree we desperately need to improve schools in areas which have been let down by poor results.  I've seen in other countries – like Sweden – how allowing new schools to set up in the state sector, and giving parents more choice, can make a real difference to the quality of education available to parents everywhere, and I'm determined to learn some of those lessons here.
We also need to give head teachers control of discipline in their schools, because often it's the disruptive minority which ends up dragging results down for the rest of the class.

RTKangaDYSONMummy: What are you planning to do for our children wanting to go to university? Are you going to help them with fees and living expenses? What will you do to make us more like Scotland?

DavidCameron: Sorry, I can't give you much joy on tuition fees and top-up fees. We need good universities to compete for the future, they cost money and the pressures on spending are huge. We have to ask students to make their contribution. We should look at the interest rates they pay as the debt position for too many is getting worse. And we must make sure there are good bursaries, but sorry - fees will stay.

Smurfs: David, please can you advise as to what changes if any you would propose for increasing the age at which children start school to bring it in line with other European Countries. I personally feel that the current situation disadvantages summer born boys who are not ready to sit still and learn at just turned 4. Your thoughts please. Thank you.

zog: Also, what would you do with regards to the ridiculous amount of red tape
there appears to be in every area of life now? Plus, I see a huge list of volunteers required in my local area every week. How about matching jobseekers up with voluntary positions so they get decent work experience (something other than litter picking ), the charities get their positions filled and the taxpayer gets something for the money they're paying out anyway!

DavidCameron: Three questions here. I agree on the red tape point – sometimes central government has to trust local organisations more, and not try to interfere all the time. On the work experience point, I think we need to focus these programmes on those who have been out of work the longest – because the longer someone is out of the workplace, the more difficult it is to get back.  What we've said is that someone who has claimed JobSeeker's Allowance for longer than – say- two out of the previous three years should be required to join a community work scheme if they are to continue to receive benefit. We haven't got any plans at the moment to change the rules for starting school, but I will make sure our Schools team are aware of your views on that.


frannieS: What will the Conservatives do to improve the rape conviction rate?

DavidCameron: It is a disgrace that only one in 20 ends in a conviction. No easy answers here, but longer term funding for rape crisis centres (three-year deals rather than hand-to-mouth one year deals) would help.


davidtennantsmistress: Dear Dave, we have high taxes, high costs of living with food, rents/mortgages, energy bills. and yet the wages don't seem to be going up at anywhere near the same rate. As a lone parent (not my choice I might add) it's hard, as it is for lots of low income families. How will the Conservatives help to bridge the gap between it for those in need.

DavidCameron: The cost of living is now the big issue in my maibag and surgery. As you can see from the Budget, no one can make extravagant promises about cutting taxes, but what we could do is to stop making it worse. We would say for example: no big council tax increases without a local referendum and no new green taxes unless they are offset pound for pound by cuts in family taxes elswhere.

MissChief: David - could you be truly working parent-friendly and finally commit to making childcare exempt from tax? It would do so much for so many but with all the surestart schemes, tax credits etc, no party seems to have committed to making this simple but powerful promise.
As you're also my MP, I'd like to ask what you plan to do to stem the decline of small rural towns - local shops closing etc and 1 supermarket moving in.

DavidCameron: I know the cost of childcare is a huge issue for many families.  We've said we want to do things like looking to make the support provided by the childcare tax credit simpler and easier for parents to use. But on this and other specific questions about tax cuts, the answer will be the same I'm afraid:  I can't make promises now, except to say that we will make cuts in family taxes generally a priority by offsetting new green taxes pound for pound by cuts in family taxes.

On the decline of small rural towns and villages, which as you rightly say is a massive issue in areas like the one I represent, we can start by suspending the programme of compulsory sub-post office closures while we reassess the options for bringing new business to local branches.  All the evidence suggests that when a local post office shuts, other local shops are hit too and the local community suffers hugely.

Freckle: And for those of us who have given up well-paid and interesting careers (or indeed low-paid and uninteresting careers) in order to raise our own children, will you allow the stay-at-home spouse's tax allowance to be transferred to the working spouse?

DavidCameron: As I warned to MissChief, I'm afraid that any questions on tax are going to get the same answer – I can't make promises at this stage, except to say that family taxes in general are a priority. As for your general point, I think it's important that politicians value the choices that parents themselves make. In the past, some Conservatives have given the impression that all young mothers should stay at home. Today, the Labour Party gives the impression that all young mothers should work. I think actually both are wrong. Instead of imposing a choice on parents, we should be doing all we can to support the choices they make for themselves.

PersephoneSnape: Shouldn't you aim any tax breaks at children rather than couples? What do you propose regarding the CSA/C-MEC. Didn't the Tories introduce the CSA in the first place? Do you support the reforms or don't they go far enough? How will you make absent parents pay maintenance?

DavidCameron: On the CSA and CMEC, yes I think it's fair to say that the search for a system of child maintenance that works properly has been a long one, which has involved governments of both parties.  All MPs will have had heartbreaking cases in their constituency surgeries.  The system hasn't worked as it should, and we urgently need to get it right. We supported the Government's latest reforms as going in the right direction, while saying there are still lessons to be learnt from how they manage these things better in other countries – like Australia. On the tax breaks issue, all families do a vital job, and there are things like flexible working arrangements which we can do to help all families. But the current system is loaded against those parents who want to make a long-term commitment to each other.  So we've said we will scrap the couple penalty in the benefits system which pays couples to live apart, and we'll recognise marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system.

Habbibu: The Tories' assumption is that people don't like paying tax. But I do. We earn a reasonable wage, and I want to pay tax to support those who don't, or who have more needs than we do. I'd happily pay more tax for better state schools, NHS cleaners, etc. How would you try to attract voters like me? Or do you not think there aren't enough of us to bother?

DavidCameron: Actually, I think the problem in recent years hasn't simply been that taxes have gone up, but that people see so much of the money has been wasted. We simply haven't had the sorts of improvements in schools and hospitals – or indeed in social justice – that we should have seen, for the extra money the Government has taken in tax. But I realise that our public services do indeed need resources, as well as improvements in the way they are delivered to make sure the resources are spent well. So we've said we can't promise upfront unfunded tax cuts at the next election. Instead, as our economy grows, we will share the extra money which that generates between spending on public services and tax cuts.


PrincessPeaHead: Hurrah! Hello and welcome (you are so right about moratorium on consultant-led units btw). You are married to a strong intelligent working woman, and so I assume (rightly, I hope) that you are not as misogynistic and paternalistic in approach as so many of your colleagues on both sides of the House. What are you going to do to ensure that similarly strong and intelligent hardworking women are properly represented in Parliament, in Cabinet, on the Bench and in boardrooms? We all know about the terrible numbers of women MPs. But look also at the judiciary. Ten out of 100-plus High Court Judges; three out of 35-plus Appeal Court judges; 170-odd out of 1,200-plus recorders. Yet the number of women entering the law has exceeded the number of men since the late 1980s. This needs to change. What do you suggest?

DavidCameron: Good point about the law. The point I always make is that if a political party like mine underrepresents women it is missing out on half of the talent of the country - my wife normally interrupts at this stage and says "considerably more than half". We are making some progress - with 30% of our candidates in the most winnable seats now women, compared with just 9% of the parliamentary party. I believe that organisations should try to sort themselves out, which is what I am doing with my party. As you say, if the large number of women going into the law doesn't result in more women QCs and Judges then those involved will need to ask themselves some pretty searching questions.

JingleyJen: I would like a government to introduce compulsory voting. It works in other countries. In this country we don't get a representative view in any election as the turn out is so poor. If it was going to be introduced there would have to be a "none of the above" box, it would be really interesting to see if 50% of voters actively stated that they didn't think any of the options were representative of their views. Please comment.

DavidCameron: I don't back compulsory voting. It is a right - and should be seen as an obligation - but I don't think we can make not voting a crime. We need to inspire people that change is possible, rather than force them at the point of law to vote for us (or not).

Wickedwaterwitch: I'd like to ask David what he intends doing about ID cards. If he GUARANTEES to scrap them I might consider voting Tory. And I've never done so in my life.

DavidCameron: Yes, ID cards would go. Guaranteed.

Work-life balance

charlysangel: Hi. Juggling work and family commitments is chaotic. I have two questions: what are your experiences of work and family integration? What changes do you envisage could be made to improve families experiences of work and family integration?

DavidCameron: Balancing work and family is never easy.  Some parents prefer to work from home so they can integrate the two more closely; others try to keep a clearer boundary.  Most of us who work in offices will usually prefer to take at least some work home rather than working too late in the office. Again, I think the key to all this is flexible working.  That allows people to adopt the lifestyle which suits them and their families best.

FlossieTCake: Flexible working law is indeed very weak, and at the end of the day, if your right is refused and you believe your employer is being unreasonable, you still have to drag it through a tribunal to get what you need. I left my last job precisely for this reason. I really want to know how you reconcile the idea of everyone in paid employment with the idea that children need more input and support.

DavidCameron: I'm sorry to hear of your experience.  But as I said to Lalaa, the figures seem to show that firms who have adopted the right to request flexible working grant it in nine out of ten cases. So I do think it would help to extend the right to request flexible working in the way I've suggested. 

LittleBella: Someone in your Cabinet (may even have been you) declared that under a Tory government, lone parents would have to work full time when their children were five or over. Why? What's wrong with part-time work and having enough time and energy to discharge your responsibilities as a parent? Is it because you're intending to dismantle the tax credit system and the making work pay agenda? And does this mean that lone parents would not have the choice other parents have, of home educating their children?

DavidCameron: No, the principle we support is that lone parents are encouraged to return to work, but not forced into a position where they have to work hours that are completely incompatible with good parenting. What our Social Justice Policy Group said was that those with children at primary school should be expected to work for at least 20 hours a week and that parents with children at secondary school should be expected to work for at least 30 hours a week. In fact, both we and the Government have accepted the principle behind these recommendations. There is a lot of evidence that helping a household to make the transition from worklessness to work has beneficial effects for both parents and children alike.

But there need to be safeguards. For example, in the next few years the Government wants lone parents with children over the age of seven to receive Jobseeker's Allowance instead of Income Support, and it's important that the definition of a "reasonable job" - as applied to parents claiming this benefit - reflects the limitations that good parenting is going to place on their ability to work.

Also our strategy on childcare will address many of the challenges faced by parents of school-age children.


mcnoodle: I often wonder why you politicians are so obsessed with offering us 'choice'? Particularly in relation to schools and hospitals. I don't want choice. I want to know that my local school/hospital is as good as the one in the next town.

DavidCameron: Everyone agrees that the most important thing is having good hospitals and schools.  The issue is how we get them.  As I mentioned to ronshar, providing more choice is one way – not the only way, but an important way – to make sure that standards in our schools and hospitals improve. Apart from anything else, giving people more choice lets the providers of services know what works.  Parents for example will tend to choose schools with strong discipline and setting by ability so, if parents are able to exercise choice more, schools will learn that those are the approaches to adopt.

Tinker: How do you attract voters who don't want choice? I don't want to have to shop around for my gas and electricty; I want a state-owned supplier. I don't want choice in schools; I want them all to be state schools and good. I hate all buses being horrid different colours; I want them all to be state-run and efficient and reliable and a nice shade of bright red. What are you going to do about people like me with choice fatigue?

DavidCameron: I think the evidence shows that, within limits and with some exceptions, giving people more choice often raises standards.  So actually even those with 'choice fatigue' benefit, because of the way that schools and service providers respond to the wishes of those who have exercised the choice. But I agree it's not the only answer, which is why we've set out other ways to improve public services too – like cutting down on the paperwork from Whitehall, and giving head teachers control of discipline again.

PrincessPeaHead: Oh I agree Tinker. How is it helpful being able to choose between four different hospitals to get your hip replaced, when all you want is for your nearest hospital to do it efficiently and well and not to kill you with MRSA in the process?

DavidCameron: I think I've answered this point! Patients won't choose the hospitals that perform badly, so those hospitals have an incentive to improve their standards. So this is one way in which we can get standards to improve for everyone. After all, it's in those societies where people had no choice at all, and had to put up with exactly what the state gave them, that standards in public services were lowest. I don't think that's a coincidence. But more choice isn't the only answer.  On MRSA, for example, evidence from abroad shows that screening patients for infections when they're admitted to hospital, and then isolating those who test positive, is highly effective in combating superbugs.

ChopsTheDuck: Do you still ride that bike to work, or was it just a publicity stunt? (Dp and I were wondering this yesterday.)

DavidCameron: Yes, bike is still in use - I cycled to work twice this week. I always do it on a Wednesday to try and get some energy up for the bizarre ritual of PMQs. And - no - no car following behind. I have massive panniers.

Highlander: What was with the plethora of purple ties on budget day?

DavidCameron: Sorry about the ties - at least I was wearing one.

DavidCameron: To all, I am afraid that I have to sign off and join my conference in Gateshead. This is a great site and I have enjoyed the conversation. As I said, I want it to be continued with my party and so Maria will be on here soon, if that is OK, and I will get some answers to some of the factual questions posted later. Meantime, thanks and goodbye.

Flexible working | Maternity care | Maternity leave | Special needs | Education | Rape | Tax | Politics | Work-life balance | 'Choice' | Bikes/ties

Last updated: about 1 year ago