Arriving at the Thistle Hotel at 1pm as instructed, I’m issued with a green wristband (is that supposed to be ironic?) and asked to take a seat. I’m part of a group waiting for the coach that will take us to the latest Tory PR exercise – Prime Minister Direct – at a mystery location in Brighton and Hove. A mixture of people are gathered in the Renaissance Room and I try to cast judgement on all of them. The old man with the walking stick, the elderly couples holding each other up, the group of middle aged women gossiping in the corner. I just KNOW what there agendas are going to be. Looks like I’m all alone.
I sit on the nearest empty seat and start talking to the two women sat next to me. I’m keen to find out what questions people have asked, and how they were invited. It turns out that they filled out suggestions on improving public services through the government’s website, and they have been invited as a result of their participation. At least these two have a similar agenda to me – the protection of frontline services for those most in need.
Eventually the coach turns up and we’re transported to the ‘secret location’, which turns out to be Hove Town Hall. Upon arrival we are greeted by a group of protesters from the Brighton Benefits Campaign. One of them asks if we’re Tories, to which I reply “absolutely not”. One of the protesters (who must have barely reached puberty) shakes my hand. I knew I shouldn’t have worn that blue tie. We wait to go through the airport-style security scanner as police “explosive sniffer team” dogs are walked up and down the line. Having been pre-warned that taking bags may slow things down I had opted to not take one, but rather fill my pockets instead. By the time I’d finished fumbling around with the contents of my overflowing pockets I had pretty much decided that this was a mistake.
So into the town hall we go and we’re treated to a cup of tea and free copy of the Argus. It’s now 2pm and we’re expecting a 2.30pm start. At 2.40pm we head in to a room set up with chairs in an oval shape and a table with two glasses of water in the middle. We are all given a question paper and told that if our questions are not answered today, we can leave a question on the form and we will receive a reply in due course. We wait until just after 3pm and someone from the Argus comes out with a prepared speech and very badly introduces the prime minister. I wait for the lights to go down and Eye of the Tiger to start playing but sadly all that happens is that David Cameron enters the room. I wonder if he notices that I’m the only person I the room not applauding.
To his credit, Mr Cameron apologises for arriving later than scheduled and immediately tells us that this meeting is about us asking him questions and so there will be no big opening monologue from him. He then spends the next five minutes telling us that because the previous government has mis-spent all of our money, cuts are necessary and the current deficit is higher than that of Greece. My heart sinks as it becomes clear that this will form the basis of all of his answers this afternoon. He also tells us that although he will do his best, he cannot guarantee an answer to every question. He assures us that any unanswered questions will be recorded by his representatives and that all questions will receive an answer. Finally before taking questions, Mr Cameron tells us that some changes being proposed by frontline workers are currently under investigation, such as hospital workers not having to undergo a new CRB check every time they change hospital or district.
And so to the questions. First up is an elderly lady who asks “Who was the senior partner in the war for the first two years?” Clearly this is a question that Mr Cameron was expecting. He apologises once more for the comments he made to Sky News when visiting America, admitted he was wrong and is insistent that he intended no offence when he made the comments. After a few minutes of relentless questioning, I actually start to feel a little sorry for him. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times he apologies, this lady will not be satisfied. Eventually he moves on to the next question, joking “I can see you’re not happy still, but I can only apologise.” For once, I agree with him.
Questions follow on why the government are supporting the admission of Turkey to the EU, what role PCSOs will have in the new policing structure, and how the government proposes to tackle the growing problem of drug addiction. All are met with top-level answers without drilling down into any kind of detail. Turkey is apparently a country that wants to become secular and will bring political influence, making the EU more secure. PCSOs have a role within the community and the police force, but should not be used as an alternative to police officers. The drug problem should be managed by putting more money into residential programmes “…but this will be difficult because of the dire economic state that Labour have left us in.”
When asked why the government doesn’t fund an agency of unemployed people that could help fill temporary skills shortages for small businesses, Mr Cameron diverted the attention to the “benefit trap” without answering the question properly at all. He was equally vague when questioned on benefits and providing incentives for employers to recruit. I didn’t get the chance to ask my question as it was put to him in a slightly differently format by two other attendees, and although I tried to follow up his answers I was unsuccessful in gaining his attention. His incentives for employers to recruit seem to be purely based around tax breaks – the reduction in corporation tax and allowing small businesses to employ up to 10 staff before making national insurance contributions. Using the form provided, I have asked Mr Cameron what real incentives he plans to give the private sector to recruit, as this seems a rather fanciful notion. I shall blog his response in due course.
One audience member asked how he planned to help unskilled workers find jobs. The response was that £50m has been invested in FE colleges as these are best placed to provide the most relevant training. Mr Cameron also promised that everyone unemployed for more than six months will be guaranteed a job or work-based training. Again, no details on how this will work in practice were provided. It’s a great suggestion, but fanciful at best.
One positive to emerge was that Mr Cameron said he has instructed Vince Cable to look into reducing bureaucracy in recruiting agency staff. When asked about increasing rights for agency staff he replied that more rights for agency workers would increase bureaucracy and therefore make it more difficult for businesses to employ, thereby reducing the number of jobs available. Providing this doesn’t affect the quality of working conditions for agency workers, this is a move to be applauded as employment legislation is a minefield at the best of times.
On several occasions, Mr Cameron stated that “I will do everything in my power to encourage the private sector to employ people again.” Unfortunately this was never backed up with anything more than talk of tax breaks for businesses.
On Incapacity Benefit, Mr Cameron suggested that claimants can be grouped under three headings: Those who are incapable of working, those who have a disability (be it physical or mental) and those who are capable of working but choose not to. At this point I would have loved to have questioned him on what percentages of total claimants he thinks make up those groups, but unfortunately I did not get the chance. Mr Cameron said that those who are incapable of working should receive more money than they currently do, and those that have a disability but are capable of working should receive support from the government in preparing themselves for work. Still no answer on what jobs they will be applying for though.
The question of why the local Connexions service had been cut was put to Mr Cameron, but he chose to push the blame to the local council and said that although he appreciated the hard work of Connexions employees, the service tried to do too much and was ineffective. This view was clearly not held by the Connexions employee present.
A local GP asked if the amount of paperwork involved in his work could be reduced. Mr Cameron proposed that the abolition of targets would help with this.
The biggest direct beneficiary of the meeting was a local PCSO who commits to over 800 hours per year. She had previously written to Nick Herbert to make suggestions for improvements to the PCSO service but had only received a response from a junior minister, who had referred her back to the managers of her own force. Mr Cameron promised to set up a meeting between her and Nick Herbert.
The sensitive issue of time-limited social tenancies was put to the Prime Minister. He suggested that he had merely put forward the idea for consideration, and it would not affect existing tenants. Showing a complete lack of understanding of why people would be in social housing, Mr Cameron suggested that people could be moved between social and private housing as and when necessary.
Graduate tax, devolving power to GPs, the equality of cuts and immigration were also discussed, but the biggest insult was saved for NHS staff.
An audience member thanked Mr Cameron for keeping cuts away from the NHS, but questioned why £10m worth of cuts were still being made, including changes to staff working conditions. The predictable answer was that costs are still increasing and so to simply stand still, cuts need to be made. The questioner suggested that rotas were constantly changing, break times were being cut, and shifts constantly moved around. Shockingly, at the end of this particular discussion Mr Cameron summarised that “People in the NHS shouldn’t be worried, because at the end of the day it’s all about the patient. Not working conditions or anything like that.”
Despite arriving 30 minutes late, Mr Cameron closed the questions after 50 minutes.
Today could be summarised as successful PR exercise for the Prime Minister, but ultimately nobody really benefited. The tone of the session was relaxed and there were a few moments of light relief with technical hitches and the odd joke. To his credit, Mr Cameron knew that he was not going to be popular and he handled the tension in the room very well. That said, nobody received the level of detail in the answers that they would have liked, because as soon as the discussion reached a certain level Mr Cameron would move to another audience member under the guise of “answering as many peoples’ questions as possible”.
From the voices outside the town hall at the end of the meeting, Mr Cameron still has a lot to do if he is to convince the sceptics that his brand of well-packaged capitalism is going to work. Looks like I wasn’t so alone after all.