Steve Webb: You Ask The Questions

The Lib Dem spokesman on Work and Pensions answers your questions, such as 'Aren't you having it both ways on the deficit?' and 'Isn't Clegg really a Tory?'

Isn't the single greatest cause of poverty in Britain the fact that we're paying so many people not to work? The poor need wealth, not welfare.
Matthew Salter, Birmingham

I think it's a myth that unemployment is mainly about the work-shy who can't be bothered to work. The main rate of Jobseekers Allowance is just £64.30 per week – less if you are under 25, and I don't believe many people choose to live on that amount of money in the long term. We certainly need more jobs, and that's why the biggest spending commitment for the first year of a new Lib Dem government is a green jobs package. We also need to act more quickly when people do become unemployed instead of leaving them for months or years before giving them tailored help and support.

Why haven't British politicians learned the lesson of welfare reform in Wisconsin? Cut benefits, create jobs, and end a dependency culture. Christopher Rope, Ipswich

There are plenty of people who receive benefits through no fault of their own, so how is cutting benefits across the board morally defensible? The phrase "dependency culture" is insulting to those who have poor health or family responsibilities or other perfectly good reasons for relying on what I still think of "social security", many of whom would love to be able to get out and work. Wisconsin-style measures cut the "welfare rolls" but what happens to those people and their children then?

Should the NHS be part-privatised to reduce costs, stop the waste, and deliver what patients actually need? Charlotte Ebbing, Lancaster

I think the NHS has come a long way in recent years. When I was first elected in 1997, I regularly used to be contacted by constituents who had been told it would be two years or more before they could see an orthopaedic consultant for an outpatient appointment and then go on another waiting list for treatment. The money that has gone in to the NHS has made a real difference. There is waste, not least in tiers of NHS management and the NHS IT scheme, but there's no evidence that private healthcare is lean and mean by comparison.

What's the best Tory idea you've heard on work and pensions? Iona Lewis, London

A few months ago I co-wrote a pamphlet arguing that people should be able to access their pension funds early if they wanted to and needed to. The Tories are now saying they would do the same thing, so that definitely counts as their best policy!

On what grounds do you oppose the Tories' perfectly reasonable pensioner pledge of pension credit, free bus passes, TV licenses, and the Winter Fuel Payment? Nadim Chawla, Leicester

That sounds like a description of what Labour has done – what's "Tory" about that list? The Lib Dems have no plans to touch pension credit, bus passes and TV licences, save to say that if we can get the state pension improved then fewer people will need to claim means-tested pension credit. On Winter Fuel Payments we think there is a big gap – severely disabled people under pension age, many of whom may need to spend more on heating. We think their need is greater than, for example, men in their early 60s who are still in paid employment.

There is a real dividing line between the Lib Dems and the other two main parties when it comes to the state pension. The Tories broke the link between the basic pension and earnings back in 1980, causing the pension to decline in real value for the next 17 years. Since 1997, Labour have similarly let the pension decline, including the famous 75p pension rise. Even now, both of the other parties will only say that they will restore the link "by the end of the next Parliament". This is simply not good enough. One of our key spending pledges is to restore the earnings link at once, so that we stop the rot before the state pension withers away completely.

Do you buy the argument that the baby boomers stole wealth from their grandchildren, and should give it back? Ralph Corby, London

This is an interesting idea advanced by David Willetts, who is a very thoughtful MP. It is certainly true that when we think about gainers and losers from government policies we tend to think only about today's generation. David Willetts is flagging up the fact that over the decades some generations can do better than others. Having had a free university education and retiring on a good final salary pension scheme is certainly something that today's young people and working-age population can look on with envy. But having said that, this generation may also find itself financially supporting adult children with their education and caring for one or two generations of older relatives, so it's not as simple as all that.

Isn't your party's policy on the deficit trying to have it both ways – you'll keep spending now, but cut most drastically later? Sounds like a fudge. Rachel Fisk, Oldham

We think that the recovery is fragile, which is why a carefully costed green jobs boost is the top priority for the first year of a new Parliament. But we also think we need to be honest about the task of tackling the deficit by being specific about what we would cut.

Does anyone on the Left understand that the principal cause of the crash was a housing bubble, inflated by lax monetary policy? Benjamin Dexter, Stoke

Most people would agree that my colleague Vince Cable was one of the few politicians to "read the tea leaves" of the economy accurately in the last few years. Vince warned years ago of the danger of excessive credit, both in the private sector and in the form of excessive government borrowing, and also warned of the need to rein in the casino activities of the banks. He also flagged up long before most the need to avoid speculative bubbles in the housing market.

How did you approach your party leader after he was overheard on a plane saying "Webb must go ... I can't stand the man"? Larry Goldberg, Manchester

I backed Nick for leader because I admired his political skills and also liked him as a person and that hasn't changed. Nick contacted me about these press rumours (which I suspect were considerably spiced up before they appeared) and they haven't changed our relationship.

Ken Clarke is right, isn't he, when he says that Nick Clegg is basically a Tory who only joined the Liberals because when he got into politics, the Tories were engaged in civil war? Ffion Greenford, Renfrewshire

Nick worked closely with the former Conservative cabinet minister Leon Brittan at the European Commission and, if he was basically a Tory, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to have joined the Tories, inherited a safe seat from a retiring Tory grandee and waited for the Tories to sort themselves out. The fact that he actively rejected the Tory party, became a Liberal Democrat MEP and now MP, shows that his political choices are based on principle, and that will stand him in good stead in the forthcoming campaign.

Which position in a Lib Dem cabinet do you most covet, other than leader? Kirsty Yuell, Aberdeen

Ever since my days at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, my heart has always been with social security and pensions issues. But I'm happy in any role that involves using my economics background. I also much enjoyed my time shadowing the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Getting the Climate Change Bill toughened so that the 2050 target was for an 80 per cent cut in CO2 emissions rather than the 60 per cent cut originally included in the Bill was one of my proudest achievements in the last Parliament.

Don't you have a duty to be clearer about who you would work with in a hung parliament? Heater Fellan, Guildford

I'm proud we are stressing that the British people should be the king-makers. There have been no talks and no deals. We put our programme for government before the British people as an independent political party and seek office based on that programme. Once the people have spoken, the party that has the strongest mandate has the right and responsibility to seek to govern, on their own or with others. But the more Lib Dem MPs we can get elected, the more we can implement our priorities of fairness.

Big-state liberalism has been tried in Britain, and found wanting. Why don't you join the Tories and help dismantle our mortal enemy – swollen government. William Burton, Saffron Walden

Big-state liberalism is a contradiction in terms! Too much government action in recent years has been profoundly illiberal and controlling. I believe government can be a force for good, but only when it is decentralised and democratically accountable. The Tories don't like government because it stops the powerful taking advantage of the weak.

When did you realise that you weren't a Tory? Neil Redding, Bromsgrove

My academic research involved tracking trends in poverty in the UK in the late 1980s. Every year our analysis would find that Britain had got more unequal. Whilst the Tories were cutting taxes at the top, the poor were being left behind, even being forced to borrow money for basic needs through the Social Fund. They were also cutting back on the help they gave to the poorest people around the world. My instincts are to side with the marginalised and the dispossessed; the Tory instinct is all too often to help the powerful get what they want.

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