Webchat with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg, Justine and CarrieThis is an edited transcript of a live webchat with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg on 6 Jan 2010.  He was our first webchat guest of 2010. He battled through snow and a throng of Westminster reporters to give us the scoop on the Labour leadership row – and tell us his views on maternity leave, tax credits, education policy. Oh, and fried bees.

NickClegg: Hi, I'm here - only a bit late, snow brushed off having crossed the road from the Commons. Looking forward to answering as many questions as possible.

Labour leadership challenge | General election | Biscuits etc | Lib Dem policies | Mansion tax | Taxes/cutting public services | Voting system/hung ParliamentVoting Lib Dem | Women in politics | Family-friendly working | Childcare vouchers | Education | Home education | BNP | Extreme right-wing groups in Europe | Nuclear deterrent | Disposable nappies

Labour leadership challenge

Letter QAntoxo: Just heard the news about Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon. What are your thoughts?

Letter ANickClegg: In fact, I just passed Geoff Hoon about five mins ago briefing a gaggle of journalists in Westminster. I've long thought that the Labour Party needs to have a socking big internal row to rediscover a sense of identity/purpose.

Whatever happens next, I think today will be looked back on as an important moment when that argument took off. Gordon Brown isn't Labour's only problem - they've been in power for over a decade, they're tired, and they've lost sight of the reasons why they wanted to get into power in the first place. So they need to have a spat to sort themselves out. In the meantime, we need an election as soon as possible to give the country the fresh start we need.

Letter Qonebatmother: Ooh, have just seen that Hoon and Hewitt are trying to defenestrate Brown and replace him with ... well, um, we're not quite sure. Can you confirm whether you agree with Stephen Tall, the editor of LibDemVoice, who says of all possible Cabinet replacement candidates: "Medicore and lacklustre doesn't even begin to cover it."

Letter ANickClegg: People are kidding themselves in the Labour party if they think getting rid of Brown will sort out all their problems. The country doesn't need a secret ballot, it needs a general election.

Letter QPorpoise: So, who would you pick to replace Gordon Brown, then? What do you think of David Miliband? Or Alan Johnson?

Letter ANickClegg: Replacement for Gordon Brown? Me.


General election

Letter QEwe: What are you planning on doing to get your actual policy ideas across in a media circus dominated by Brown and Cameron?

Letter ANickClegg: One of the most important things I do – and one of my favourites – is to hold open "town hall" meetings with people, where anyone can come along and ask any question. I just talk with people for an hour or so about my ideas for the changes we need, and it's a great way to meet and engage with people. I'll be doing more and more of those meetings around the country in the next months. It's only one small thing, but a good example of the way we work night and day to get our message across regardless of what the national media do. 

Letter Qpersonanongrata: Nick, what would you reckon to a live Mumsnet election debate with David and Gordon (or whoever it might be)? Seems the logical way to go now you've all been on individually.

Letter ANickClegg:Yes I'd love to do a live debate with Gordon Brown and David Cameron on Mumsnet. Bring it on!


Biscuits etc

Letter QBigBadMummy: Biscuits, biscuits, biscuits, Nick. Please can I ask your favourite, and whether you dunk or not. Let's get the important stuff out of the way and then we can move onto the political stuff.

Letter ANickClegg: Let's get this one out the way: Rich Tea if dunked; HobNobs if not. I have a fruit bowl and a biscuit tin in my office, and to be honest, it's always the biscuits first.


Letter Qoblong: Do you ever regret telling GQ magazine how many woman (was it 30 or something?) you'd slept with in your youth?

Letter ANickClegg: Hi oblong. I try not to dwell on it. Let's leave it at that!


Letter Qgrendelsmum: I hear you are secretly a failed novelist, and just turned to politics as a back-up plan. I wonder what your novel was about?

Letter ANickClegg: Yes, I once wrote a (terrible) novel. I'd just read a book without any punctuation (Garcia Marques I think) so I tried to mimic that style. Impenetrable, pretentious garbage.


Letter QPrettybetty: As your wife is Spanish and you speak the lingo I was wondering which is your favourite Spanish word? And why? Truly hope your party do well at the next elections. We do need a change!

Letter ANickClegg: I think my favourite Spanish word is Pestana, meaning eyelash. I just really like the sound.

Letter QMoreSpamThanGlam: Come on Nick, tell us something astonishing!

Letter ANickClegg: I once ate fried bees in China. Is that astonishing?


Lib Dem policies

Letter QWhineMaiden: What difference do you think you could make to families, education and health?

Letter ANickClegg: A big difference. We'll cut income taxes for millions of families by up to £1,400, paid for by closing loopholes that benefit the richest, imposing a new "mansion tax" and making sure polluters pay for the damage they cause. We'll make maternity and paternity leave completely interchangeable so parents can split the leave however suits them best.

On education: I believe that will we only have a fair society when all children get a good start, no matter where they live or what their parents do. So we will stop paying tax credits to people on above-average incomes and put that money instead into schools so they have the money they need to cut class sizes and give children, especially those from deprived backgrounds, the individual attention they need.

And on health: there's a huge crisis for the NHS at the moment because of the problems with public finances. There are increasing pressures on many vital services: the birth rate is increasing, there are ever more expensive cancer drugs available, and increasing obesity is leading to more heart patients. To ensure these services aren't cut, we will bear down on all the unnecessary bureaucracy, top=heavy management that we all know still exists – that's certainly what a lot of nurses and doctors tell me. And we'll redirect every penny to front line services, like maternity, cancer and heart care, that could face cuts.

Letter QOnebat: Do you, fundamentally, believe in progressive taxation for working people (say £20K+)? Also, what do you think the nation gains from your 'no-deal' policy? Particularly with regard to pushing through electoral reform?

Letter ANickClegg: I believe in fair taxation – I've just made this point to Gordon Brown an hour ago at Prime Minister's Questions. It's ridiculous that after 10 years of Labour the poorest 20% pay a higher share of their income in tax than the richest 20%, and that a city banker pays less tax on their capital gains than their cleaner does on their wages. The question is: how do we make it fairer?

We will make sure no-one pays tax on the first £10,000 they earn – meaning tax freedom for almost 4 million working people and low-income pensioners, and a tax cut of £700 for millions of others. Pensioners will get up to £100 extra in their pockets. The change will be paid for by introducing a mansion tax, closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy and making sure polluters pay for the damage they cause.

As for electoral reform and the complete reinvention of the rotten politics at Westminster that I think we need: I genuinely don't think they'll happen without more Lib Dem MPs and more people voting for the Lib Dems. I guess my view's pretty simple – if you like what we stand for, please vote for it!fair taxes; smaller class sizes/more one to one tuition in primary schools; a new sustainable economy weaned off the boom and bust of the City of London; clean, transparent politics. Over the coming weeks, I'll be talking about all four in much more detail. Hope you're tempted to give us a try. 

Letter QSantaschristmascakeywakey: What are your thoughts on devolving responsibility and funding back down to local councils? Do you think the Labour Party has centralised them because both your party and the Conservatives have more of a hold on local government than they do?

Letter ANickClegg: Hello Santaschristmascakeywakey, Britain is more centralised than any other country in Europe (except Malta, though their population is about the size of Croydon!). This has been going on for years: poll tax, nationalising business rates, forced privatisations, targets, inspection, and Whitehall diktat. We will scrap all the silly targets the government sets, make sure local taxes including business rates are raised and spent locally, and we will give people a real say over things like their local NHS, neighbourhood policing and new housing.

Letter Qcoldtits: What are the Liberal Democrat policies on supporting lone parents, both in the home, and at work? What are your policies on the current Tax Credit system? What are your policies on the minimum wage?

Letter ANickClegg: Hello coldtits (why not turn the heating on?). I'm sounding like a stuck record, but our tax changes would really help people, including lone parents, working on low incomes. It's absurd that someone working full time on the minimum wage has to pay about £1,000 of income tax. Tax credits have been a real lifeline for many families. But families should be able to sleep easy knowing that they can spend the money they receive without worrying it will be clawed back by the Treasury.

We will fix the payments of tax credits for six months at a time so that payments are stable and predictable for families – though of course there will be cases where exceptions are made, like if someone loses their job or has their hours drastically cut.

Letter QWiseoldelf: Vince Cable is a huge plus for your party. He has consistantly been correct about the economy and seems to have an uncanny ability to 'say the right thing'. Does this mean he is just a: very good economist / businessman; a very good politician (says what people want to hear); has the power of fortune telling / demonic powers. Love the idea of him on Strictly though!

Letter ANickClegg All three! Vince and I had dinner together yesterday evening in a small restaurant near his home in South West London. Judging by the reaction of some of the other people in the restaurant, he's rightly regarded as a hero (and he can dance better than any other MP).

Letter QSwedington: My children commute to school by train and some mornings they are subjected to bare-breasted women pictures in our tabloid press being thrust in their faces by fellow passengers. It's 2010. Would the LibDems commit to banning this objectification of women from our print industry?

Letter ANickClegg: Hi Swedington. I don't like it either, and I wouldn't want it on my kitchen table with my children. But I'm afraid I don't think censorship is right for a free society like ours.


Mansion tax

Letter QLisadoolittle: I am a part-time student, but I go home to vote, in Chris Huhne's constituency. He owns seven houses, none of which is individually worth more than £2m but the total of which is greater than £2m. Why won't he be paying mansion tax? Why have you structured the mansion tax this way? If you want to tax assets, why not tax the total assets instead of individual ones? And what was wrong with a local income tax? Taxing assets instead of income is fundamentally unfair and encourages consumption instead of saving.

Letter QBrahmsThirdRacket: Dear Nick, do you really think that introducing mansion tax will make up for the shortfall from reducing/eliminating tax for the poorest. Also, don't you worry that if you tax the rich too much they will simply move elsewhere, removing their money from our economy? I like what you say in principle, but my main problem with the LibDems is that most of your policies seem to fall into the 'that's a nice idea' camp, but seem fairly naive.

Letter QBramshott: This Mansion Tax is very headline grabbing, but how can any tax which doesn't tax income be fair? What about a pensioner living out her days in a large house, okay she might not need it, but it's her home. Surely the tax should only be on houses when they're sold?

Letter QLisadoolittle: Any chance of an answer on why tax assets instead of income? And if you tax assets, why tax single assets instead of total assets? It really hasn't been thought through, has it? Nice soundbite, no substance. Typical politician. The Lib Dems were meant to be different. Guess I will have to vote Green.

Letter ANickClegg: Dear Lisadoolittle, Bramshott and others.  I know there's been a lot of argument about the 'mansion tax' and we've planned for some of the concerns people have – over-65s could roll over their tax bill each year, for instance, and have the bill paid out of their estate.

The reason it's worth doing, I think, is that property is an important form of wealth in Britain – and it's also very concentrated, especially when it comes to properties of this value.  The money we'd make from the mansion tax would go towards giving money back to people on low and middle incomes – one of several changes we'd make so that we can do this, but still an important one.

Lisadoolittle makes a very good point – I hope I can alleviate your concerns. The reason is that there are two anomalies in the system that mean single mansions are taxed far less than the equivalent value held in several properties.

First: everyone pays Council Tax on houses, but the rates are the same for a £750,000 house as they are for a £20m mansion. Someone who owns lots of houses has a big liability for Council Tax (or if the tenant pays, that's reflected in lower rent), while someone who only owns one big house doesn't.

Second: your first home is exempt from Capital Gains Tax. So if you have a single mansion and you sell it, you don't have to pay a penny of tax on the profits. On the other hand, if you have several buy-to-let homes, you have to pay a big chunk of any profit to the tax man.

Our mansion tax doesn't directly correct these anomalies, of course, but it does go some way to correcting, on balance, where the burden of tax falls without the huge complexity of a "wealth tax".


Taxes / cutting public services

Letter QCleanandclothed: I think everyone is agreed that no matter what additional taxes are raised, spending has to be cut as well to reduce the deficit. In what area will you cut spending the most?

Letter ANickClegg: You're completely right - significant cuts are necessary, and simply talking about 'waste and efficiency' savings isn't enough. That is why we have said we will scrap the like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system (which will cost £100bn or so) and the Child Trust Fund (why borrow money and lock it up for 18 years when the children who get it will have to pay all the money, plus interest, in higher taxes?).

We've also said we will impose a £400 limit on all public sector pay rises, reform public sector pensions and stop paying means-tested tax credits to above average earners. We will remove great swathes of public administration, such as the central bureaucracy that monitors local government.

We must be willing to look at all areas of public spending and not ring-fence any departments from potential savings. Only by making substantial cuts will it be possible to reduce the deficit, let alone reallocate some of the money to funding our few, limited, proposals for additional spending (like investment in schools and creating new green jobs).


Voting system/hung Parliament

Letter Qmateykatie: You have said that in the event of a hung Parliament, you will support the party with the biggest mandate from the British people. Does "biggest mandate" mean the party which wins most votes, or the party which wins most seats? Please don't dismiss this as a technicality, we all know it's THE fundamental question.

Everyone with even a basic knowledge of the way votes are distributed in practice means that if Labour wins most votes, they will automatically win most seats, but that it is possible for the Tories to win most votes and not most seats.

Letter ANickClegg: I'm afraid I don't agree, I don't think this is the fundamental question. The fundamental principle is that any outcome of the election is driven by people's choice in the ballot box, not a stitch-up between politicians. That's the principle I'm trying to convey. Speculating about a (very, very unlikely) photo finish between other parties doesn't seem to me to get to the heart of the matter.

Letter QLeninGrad: Could you come to an arrangement with Labour to not stand for some seats to avoid splitting the vote please. I have never understood why you don't do this.

Letter ANickClegg: We're going to stand candidates everywhere because we're different to Labour, simple as that. Iraq war, civil liberties, political reform, fair taxes - on these and other big issues there are big differences between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, so I think it's right that we give people a chance to choose. I just don't believe that there are only ever two answers to every problem - why not three?

Letter QOnebat: If snowed-in with all mod-cons, Dave or Gordon?

Letter ANickClegg: Both. Watching them squabbling would help pass the time.


Letter QStickylittlefingers: The Lib Dems have consistently got a high share of the vote. If the Tories come begging to you for your support, will you please insist that some form of PR is introduced (I'm liking the AMS myself) so that we have some choice beyond right wing and even further right wing? Peter Mandelson's policies are making me want to emigrate! But the Tories don't offer anything different. This country needs a liberal, socialist party! Or I'm getting my coat.

Letter ANickClegg: Lots of questions on this one: let me assure everyone there are going to be no backroom deals. It is the voters who decide who gets what MPs, and what power the parties have to deliver their priorities.

Our stance in all circumstances will be to use whatever power granted to us by the voters to deliver the radical changes we believe Britain needs: fair taxes, clean politics, a fair education system that gives our children the chances they need, and a kick-start to the economy to make it green, and sustainable with jobs that really last. If that's what you want: vote for it.

Letter QGrandmabet: If you do find you hold the balance of power after the election, will you use it this time to instigate changes such as proportional representation - it is the only way it will ever be introduced but you would have to be firm. Are you?

Letter QSleeperService: Would the lack of electoral reform be a 'deal breaker' for the Lib Dems in any potential coalition?

Letter QSwedington: Isn't it high time the Lib Dems acknowledged their prospect of power lies in holding the balance of power. I think it's terribly cynical to take the electorate for mugs. Who are you arranging to jump into bed with should the situation arise? True-blue Dave or Red Gordon?

Letter ANickClegg
: Dear Swedington and others, the simple answer is this - I don't get to decide who forms the next government. The voters do. Whatever the outcome of the election, and there's no way to predict it, my party will focus on getting our policies delivered, in whatever way we can.

A fairer voting system is one of the key changes I want to see, but it's not enough in and of itself to build the fair society I want. There are four big changes that are my top priorities: fair taxes, a fair start for all children (investing an extra £2.5bn in our schools to cut class sizes and ensure children get the individual attention they need), a fair, balanced economy (breaking up the banks and investing in green infrastructure) and a new kind of political system (PR is one of the changes, but I also think people should have the right to sack corrupt MPs, and that we need to clean up party funding too). The more people who vote for us, the more power we'll have to make those policies happen.


Why vote Lib Dem?

Letter QSausagerolemodel: I have been a long-time electoral supporter (but not activist or campaigner) of the Lib Dems, but am constantly frustrated by what seems like a lack of balls (for want of a better word) to seize the moment and make a case for yourselves - especially when the other lot are bickering like fishwives because you have good policies but seem almost embarrassed by that fact!

My question is: is my opinion distorted because the media always want to portray elections as a two-horse race and unfairly don't give you coverage that you deserve to get your policies across?

Letter ANickClegg: I totally agree. Our policies are great! I could spend time worrying about the media, which seems reluctant to acknowledge that we are a big party, which got a quarter of the votes at the last election, is the biggest Liberal Party in Europe and runs the majority of the big cities outside London. But complaining gets us nowhere: that's why I'm out there, talking to everyone I can, at town hall meetings, in schools, on the radio, on forums like this one, to let people know about our ideas and see that the only way to get the policies we promote is to vote Lib Dem.

Letter QBecauseI'mWorthIt: I am a lifelong Labour voter. I have a strong sense of what the Labour party stands for, as well as a strong sense of what the Conservatives stand for. But I don't really have a clue about the LibDems and your policies, and I have a sense (which could be totally wrong!) that your policies have shifted over the years, and that this reflects your position as a central party, sandwiched/squeezed between left and right.

So what do you stand for and why should I consider giving you my vote? We are a family of four: two full-time working parents, (I hope that we are counted in 'hard-working families'!), middle class and with two teenage children, one of whom (hopefully) will be off to university later this year. I'm interested in what you would do for us, obviously, but I'm also particularly interested in what you will do for our society.

Letter ANickClegg: Fairness is our core value. And a completely revamped way of doing politics is crucial to delivering a fairer Britain. Flowing from that, there are four core priorities for us: fair taxes; smaller class sizes/more one-to-one tuition in primary schools; a new sustainable economy weaned off the boom and bust of the City of London; clean, transparent politics. Over the coming weeks, I'll be talking about all four in much more detail. Hope you're tempted to give us a try.

Letter QSnice: Is it a bit depressing to be leading a party who realistically can't win given the current 'first past the post' system? Or do you just take that as read and focus on achieving some sort of coalition?

Letter ANickClegg: Don't do us down! One in four people who voted at the last election supported us – that's 6 million voters, more than any other liberal party in Europe. The political map is changing really fast: 50 years ago only 2% of people voted for someone other than Labour or the Conservatives. That figure has shot up to 40% at the last local elections. We run the majority of the big cities outside London, like Sheffield, Newcastle, Liverpool and Bristol. There's an irony in all of this: we may be the smaller of the three main parties right now but we have the biggest geographical spread. Present in the big cities where the Conservatives aren't, and in the rural South West where Labour has disappeared. So I think there's all to play for.

Women in politics

Letter QDavidTennantAteMyHeart: What concrete steps are the Liberal Democrats taking to ensure their elected representatives are more representative of the electorate as a whole? It's something the party has talked the talk about for many years. I seem to remember Paddy Ashdown making great show of encouraging women and non-white candidates. But nothing came of it then and I'm not quite sure if anything has changed since. So what are you doing now to make sure the Liberal Democrats don't remain a party dominated by white men? I'm a supporter and activist so you have my vote anyway, but I would like to see change.

Letter ANickClegg: We desperately need more women in Parliament. It's got all the hallmarks of a place which has been run by men for far too long. For 300 years it had a shooting gallery, but no creche. And the yelling and guffawing in the Chamber puts so many women, especially, off politics altogether.

So what can we do? It's good that a decision has recently been made to establish a creche at Westminster, but we need to go further: special support for female candidates (something we do already); far more flexibility in votes/hours so that mums (AND dads) can get home (wherever that is) as soon as they can; job shares; and a new electoral system which doesn't simply regurgitate the same (largely male) machine politicians in the old establishment parties.

Miriam (who also works full time) and I struggle to get the balance right, like many working couples. We broadly divide things so that I try to get the kids up, do their breakfast, walk them to school, and Miriam gets home to put them to bed. But sometimes it just doesn't work, so we're very lucky to have my mother, neighbours and others who help us out. 

Families and family-friendly working

Letter QJackTheHallsWithBauersOfHolly: What sort of provisions would you make for parents wishing to go back to work after having children? Currently, it would cost me over £300 a week for childcare if I worked, and I didn't earn this much before I had my children, so I have to stay at home. Tax credits don't help as if I did work we would then earn 'too much' as a hosuehold to qualify, although we would be barely scraping by. And please don't answer with phrases like 'middle income' earners as I don't know what that means.

Letter ANickClegg: You're right: this is a huge problem. By the time you take the cost of travelling to work, childcare, tax, national insurance and all that into account, for lots of people going back to work just doesn't make financial sense. That's one of the big reasons we're proposing the tax reforms I've mentioned. You'll be able to earn £10,000 before you pay any income tax at all – which means £700 less income tax if your income is higher than that. And that's for both partners, if you're both working, so it's up to £1,400 for a working couple. It would make a real difference to families like yours, I hope.

Childcare vouchers

Letter QHeated: Would your party retain the childcare voucher scheme if your party got into power/were power sharing in a hung Parliament? As a key worker, the voucher scheme makes it financially possible for me to work.

Letter ANickClegg: The childcare voucher system is a real help to people, but the problem is it doesn't help everyone fairly. Someone working on the minimum wage isn't allowed to participate. Lots of employers don't offer the vouchers at all. And people on the highest incomes get twice as much of a discount as people on ordinary salaries. Over the longer term, I'd prefer to have universal childcare provision of 20 hours a week for every child from 18 months, which helps everyone equally. But that isn't affordable at the moment because of the current situation with public finances – so we should keep the vouchers until it is.

I want to make sure childcare costs don't stop people from going back to work, and that's why we'd raise the income tax threshold to £10,000, cutting your income tax bill by £700. I think that would help, too.


Letter QLilybolero: Is it right that clever children from professional households with middle incomes should be prejudiced against in terms of university entrance and fees? My children go to state schools, and suggestions have been made that it should be harder for them to get into university, simply because we, their parents, went to uni, and that we should have to pay 10-30k per child per year (interesting on a household income of about 45k before tax). It is seeming less and less likely that our clever academic children with dreams of being doctors and archaeologists will be able to even go to university. How will you protect people like us and our children?

Letter ANickClegg: I have always believed university admissions should be based on your grades and your ability, not your background or your bank balance. That's why we have always opposed tuition fees, which push up the cost and make it harder for people other than the very wealthiest to afford to get a degree. We will scrap unfair tuition fees for all students taking their first degrees, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable in these difficult economic times.

Letter QYouKnowStuffingIsForLunch: Is there any chance that with the scrapping of student fees you would consider getting rid of existing student loans? Thereby wiping the slate clean for those of us who suffer their effects.

Letter ANickClegg: It just isn't right that people are saddled with mortgage-style debts for the simple aspiration of trying to better themselves and get a degree. Given the state of public finances, we are having to phase out tuition fees over six years instead of doing what we'd like, and scrapping them altogether on Day 1. I'm afraid however much we'd like to write-off old debts, it isn't affordable. But I think our tax cuts of up to £700 would help make ends meet even while you are paying off the loan.

Letter QMorningpaper: As the only party leader who is an atheist, can you clarify your party's position on state-funded faith schools favouring children from religious families in their admissions policies? Will this practice be allowed to continue under a Lib Dem government?

Letter ANickClegg: Many parents want to send their children to schools that are run by faith groups or have a faith ethos, and many of those schools are really excellent. Some, including ones in my constituency in Sheffield, do a lot to reach out to other communities and promote inclusion – which I think is hugely important, and more faith schools should make that kind of effort. I'm not hostile to faith schools at all, but I want to make sure they are engines of inclusion/tolerance, not segregation or intolerance.

Letter QGrendelsmum: You can famously speak foreign languages, which seems to make you almost unique in British politics. My husband's (small) business has customers across the world, and has difficulty employing British people with sufficient language skills to communicate with clients abroad. How important do you think foreign languages are to British businesses?

Letter ANickClegg: Languages are so important to British businesses exporting abroad. Of course we're very lucky that English is a global language, but my own experience suggests that you can get through to people (even if they speak great English) in their own language in a completely different way.

Letter QSaker: What is the LibDem policy on inclusion of special needs children in mainstream schools? I have a son with special needs who was lucky enough to get a place at a special school and, whilst not perfect, that is pretty successful for him. But I see and hear of many children with special needs who have been placed in a mainstream environment and who are struggling. It is also apparent that many mainstream schools have little training and experience of how to manage or include these children and would prefer not to have deal with them.

I think there are ways of making some inclusion work - for example, special needs units attached to many more primary schools would allow children to be part of their community school whilst getting the specialist help they need. But I believe that, for many children with disabilities, special school is the best way forward.

Would you commit to not closing down any more special schools and look at opening more where they are badly needed? Would you look into the whole system and actually listen to the parents and teachers to understand what children like my son need. Or more realistically maybe, if you were able to share government with one of the other parties, would you undertake to put this issue higher on the political agenda?

Letter ANickClegg: We start from the view that parents deserve as much choice as possible when choosing suitable settings for their child. There are many parents who want to have their children educated in mainstream schools. Sadly other parents are forced to put their children into mainstream schools, even though this would not be their first choice.

We would move to a position where Local Authorities would be required to provide access to suitable places in Special Schools for those who require this. We would end the presumption in the Government's 2004 SEN Strategy that "the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time". Mainstream schools should also be encouraged to work with special schools so that children can experience being together whenever this may be appropriate.

Letter QMadameDefarge: Apologies if this has already been covered, but have you any policies with regard to the shocking state of SEN provision in schools? Millions must be spent on various agencies, none of whom will talk to each other, heads who run out of SEN budgets, and children who are utterly ignored and failed every single day, even with full statements. Because all SEN school provision devolves onto one teacher who has probably had an afternoon's training, SENCOs who are completely untrained and just general unjoinedupness of the current system.

What we do need are named advocates for individual children who take ownership of that child's needs and coordinates all involved parties, and that advocate should ot be school based.

Letter ANickClegg: The underachievement of many children with SEN is truly shameful. Our plans to introduce a £2.5bn Pupil Premium would give a massive funding boost to many children with Special Educational Needs, meaning that schools would have more money to provide specialist and one-to-one support. But we realise that when it comes to supporting children with SEN, money isn't everything. We would improve teacher training so the workforce becomes better at detecting SEN and providing appropriate support.

Letter Qlinglette: An overwhelming majority of mumsnetters favour allowing parents to start their summer-born children's reception education at five years old if they (perhaps supported by nursery staff or, where appropriate, by professionals such as speech therapists) believe the child is not ready for school. I am unusual in having benefited from a local provision (in Bradford) allowing such deferment. It has transformed my late-talking son's life-chances and saved the tax-payer large amounts of money (had I been forced to start him at 4.0, he would have needed a Statutory Statement and one-to-one support, but now he is coming along nicely and clearly won't need that).

Would the LibDems support this greater flexibility on school starting age, and do you think it should just be up to the parents or should it be necessary to get the opinion of nursery staff/speech therapists/paediatricians?

Letter ANickClegg: We believe a better approach would be to create a more flexible curriculum, which would enable teachers to adapt teaching according to the needs of an individual child. We would scrap the restrictive national curriculum and the prescriptive Early Years Foundation Stage, so that younger children could enjoy a more play-based setting, but in a structured environment. The Government needs to recognise that children develop at different paces and drop their one-size-fits-all approach to education.

When I look at how my seven year old and five old are thriving at our local primary school, I think it's largely because the school didn't seek to impose a straitjacket approach in Reception and Year One. The issue isn't, in my view as a father, whether your children step into a classroom at 4 yrs old, but what happens in that classroom. Creativity, individual attention, fun, flexibility is so important when children are that young.

Home education

Letter QNettie: What are your opinions on Clause 26 of The Children Schools and Families Bill regarding Home Education? Are you Aware of the mass presentation of petitions to Parliament against the Badman Review just before Christmas? Will you be attending the meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Home Education this afternoon?

Letter ANickClegg: This is an important issue and my Liberal Democrat colleague Annette Brooke is going to be attending the APPG. The proposals set out in the Government's latest Education Bill are ill-thought out and heavy handed. Not only have ministers not yet properly thought out what should be expected of home educators, but they are now in danger of enforcing a "one size fits all" education through a system of registration which could well become a licensing system. We will therefore vote against the existing Government proposals and the Second Reading of this Bill.

The Liberal Democrats support those who want to home educate, and understand that it is usually a positive choice for the children and parents involved. We regret that the Badman Report has given the impression that home education is more likely to be related to child protection issues than school education, and we understand why this has caused concern. It is important that the policing of child protection issues is separated from the issue of whether a suitable education is being delivered.

It is quite sensible for all home educators to be obliged to notify local authorities that they are home educating. Local Authorities cannot do their present job if they do not know which children are being home educated. A voluntary system would do little or nothing to address the minority of cases where home education could be of poor quality or non existent. But notification is very different from licensing/registration.. It is our intention that notification would lead to more support for home educators, such as help with exam costs and access to resources. It is also reasonable to ask all home educating parents to provide information on their home education strategy annually in writing or at a meeting.

There now needs to be further detailed consultation on what is reasonably required of home educators before any system is introduced which effectively gives Local Authorities or the Government the power to decide which home education they will or will not approve.


Letter QMonkeysavingexpertdotcom: What will your party do to reduce the impact of the BNP in Britain?

Letter ANickClegg: I loathe the BNP, but simply telling people how odious they are isn't enough. Our experience shows that the way you beat the BNP is by getting out on people's doorsteps, listening to their anxieties/hopes/grievances, dealing with them, and showing how the BNPs policies of hatred simply don't help solve a single problem. Hate doesn't create jobs. Hate doesn't build affordable homes. Hate doesn't stop crime, or deal with climate change.

A few years ago everyone predicted that Burnley would be the first BNP run town in the UK. We started a fight back and now run the town, and I'm hopeful will return the MP for the town at the next General Election. At the local elections last year, there were six Labour held council seats up for grabs. We won five of them (unfortunately the BNP won one). In other words, as the Labour vote is collapsing, we are emerging as the strongest anti BNP party in many cities and towns of England. 


Extreme right-wing groups in Europe

Letter QChampagnesupernova: What do you think of the Tories' alliances with some fairly dodgy right-wing types in Europe? And doesn't it put you off sharing power with them?

Letter ANickClegg: I think the Tories have made a really serious mistake, and it's not just because their new 'group' has rather a lot of unsavoury people in it. In Europe, you get things done – and deliver for people back home in Britain – by negotiating and keeping a seat at the top table.  Their new group in the European Parliament won't carry anything like as much weight as the main groups – and that's bad for British influence.

In a global age, we can only keep Britain safe from international crime, work to tackle climate change, and build a strong economy if we work with our allies, especially in Europe. Turning our backs on the EU would, to put it simply, make us less safe, and less prosperous.

Nuclear deterrent

Letter QStewieGriffinsMom: I would like ask you the same question I asked Cameron and Brown [only Brown answered]. Do you believe that the replacement of Trident is a violation of our nuclear non-proliferation treaties? I would also like to add my support for the continuation of tax credits, simplifying and expanding the benefits systems, better physical and financial support for carers, Sure start and children's centres.

Letter ANickClegg: Lawyers will argue about the legal status of Trident, but I'm absolutely clear that there is no longer a case for the like for like replacement of Trident. We can't afford it any more (£100bn over 25 yrs) and the cold war threats it was designed to address have changed dramatically.

Disposable nappies

Letter QStewieGriffinsMom: Do you use cloth nappies?

Letter ANickClegg: We use disposable nappies for our 10-month baby. I know we shouldn't - the case for reusable nappies gets stronger all the time, though given Miriam and I both work I would want to be sure that our local nappy laundry services could really help us, and the nearest one to us is seven miles away...

NickClegg: I'm afraid I'm being pulled away - a real pity, I've hugely enjoyed trying to answer as many (not enough!) of your questions. Here's my email address if you want to get in touch with other queries/questions: cleggn@parliament.uk. All best, Nick.

Last updated: 9 months ago