The real PMQs: David Cameron answers i readers' questions

Last week, the Prime Minister agreed to answer questions from i readers. You sent in more than 700. We forwarded 20 of the best to Mr Cameron, who answers them below

Q: Mr Cameron, how do you feel about the misery the bedroom tax is inflicting on the less fortunate in the country and why do you feel the need to keep it when it is so flawed? (Dave Evans, Tipton)

A: This is a basic issue of fairness. If you live in private rented accommodation and receive housing benefit, there is no extra funding for empty rooms. The same should apply for social housing. We need to use what we have fairly and properly. Last year, in England alone, there were a quarter of a million households in over-crowded social housing – and yet at the same time there were around 400,000 under-occupied households, in some cases a single person in a family home.

It’s about fairness to the taxpayer too. Housing benefit cost £24bn last year – that is £1,000 for every household in the country. Left unreformed that would have spiralled even further. We urgently needed to get a grip – and we have.

Q: Before you went into politics, what was the worst job you ever had? (Nicola Hadfield)

A: The toughest was working night shifts in a parcel warehouse in Newbury – but it was very satisfying and I earned some good money. The worst was a direct-sales job stopping people in the street and asking them to fill out a questionnaire. Door-to-door canvassing, which I love, is much easier.

Q: Before the election you said there would be no top-down reform of the NHS. In office, top-down reform of the NHS is precisely what the Government has been doing. Why did you make that pledge? Why have you not stuck to it? (David Blake, Boxgrove)

A: I love the NHS and want to safeguard it for generations to come. The most important thing for me is not how our action is perceived, but whether that action is right – and all the numbers, projections, evidence on the NHS showed that it had to change if it was to survive. Our population is ageing, treatments are advancing rapidly; we simply couldn’t afford to stick with the status quo. So we have done some sensible things like investing more money in the NHS and giving more power to doctors and nurses – the people who know their patients best. The changes we made have meant 23,000 fewer administrators and 4,400 more clinical staff. I would say that is cutting bureaucracy, not increasing it. The bottom line is I want an NHS that is there for people, that cares, that is free at the point of use – and everything we have done and will do is about achieving that.

Q: Can you promise, without caveats, an in/out referendum on the EU in 2017, regardless of what compromises you may negotiate with Brussels? (Martin Lawrence)

A: Yes. If I am Prime Minister after the next election the British people will have their say.

Q: Why do ministers frequently kick teachers? Wouldn’t it be better to work with the profession rather than against it? (Jim Moore)

A: I have enormous respect for teachers. And I believe the teachers we have in our schools today are the best ever. To go into a classroom every day and engage young children or teenagers and get them excited about what they are learning is a formidable, hugely important job. Everyone in this Government gets that.

We are also absolutely determined to reform our schools to make them best in the world. We don’t serve our children – not least those from the poorest backgrounds – if we stick our heads in the sand about what’s gone wrong in education. We urgently needed change, and we are bringing it. Critically, we must attract the very best talent into teaching. That is why we are reforming pay so that schools can reward their best teachers, and why we’re supporting fantastic programmes like Teach First. We all need to work together in the national endeavour of educating our children: teachers, parents, politicians – all of us.

Q: The number of malnutrition cases treated by the NHS has nearly doubled, along with diagnoses of rickets. How is this Government intending to reduce the growing health gap between rich and poor groups in Britain? (Jackie D’Arcy)

A: This is something this Government takes extremely seriously. There are a number of immediate things we’re doing, like giving parents from the poorest families vouchers to spend on milk, fruit, vegetables and vitamins; and increasing the number of health visitors by 50 per cent. Long-term, the plan is about tackling the causes of poverty – building an economy where more people can get on; reforming welfare so that it encourages work; improving schools to give every child a decent start in life. We’re seeing progress on all these fronts but there’s a long way still to go and we have got to push on.

Q: As a lifelong Conservative supporter, I have found it increasingly difficult to put forward arguments to my socialist friends as the Government appears to have abandoned the North-east [of England] where I live and work. What plans does the Government have to encourage more investment in the North-east rather than London and the South-east? (Bill Ash)

A: I totally reject that – far from abandoning the North-east, we are doing everything possible to bring wealth and work to all parts of our country. More than 110,000 apprenticeships have started in the North-east with this Government. Nearly a million people there have seen their taxes cut. And we’ve had targeted interventions too, like the Regional Growth Fund which has helped create or save more than 65,000 jobs in the North-east.

And there are positive signs of recovery. Nissan is expanding in Sunderland. A massive new train building plant is being built in Newton Aycliffe. Oil rigs are being fabricated on Tyneside as a new wave of North Sea investment takes place.

All this is critical to my plan for Britain. I don’t want to go back to the old, unbalanced, debt-fuelled economy of before, where the North fell further and further behind – we are building a recovery for everyone, so that when there is increasing prosperity we all share in it.

Q: Rents are soaring. Why is a rent cap, used in cities such as Berlin, not being debated here?  (Daniel O’Sullivan)

A: Because the evidence suggests that rent control simply doesn’t work. It’s a quick fix that causes further problems – above all discouraging investment into housing and house-building. The root of the issue is that not enough homes have been built in this country and that’s what we’re working to fix. Housing starts are up 16 per cent this year. The Build to Rent fund is a £1bn pot which is helping to build homes for private rent. £19.5bn is being invested in affordable homes – and we’re on track to deliver 170,000 of them by 2015. We’re also doing a load of other things like relaxing planning rules so that offices can be converted into homes.

The fact is that whether it’s soaring rents or lack of housing, whether it’s renters or buyers who are hurting, we are seeing the fallout of decades of under-building in our country – and we are taking bold, long-term steps to sort that out.

Q: Why have energy companies been allowed to raise their prices for gas and electricity by so much? What is the Government going to do to help? (Thomas Hewitt)

A: People across our country are sick of rising prices. We get that – but we don’t believe in offering phoney short-term fixes that won’t actually solve the problem in the long-run. Instead we have been looking forensically about how to get energy bills as low as possible for as long as possible.

Already we’ve legislated to force energy companies to put customers on the best deal for them. Beyond that, we are taking action on two fronts: making the energy market more competitive; and rolling back the cost of government levies. On competition, I want more companies, I want better regulation and I want better deals for consumers. We’re carrying out a competition test this year to work out how to achieve that. On levies, we are looking extremely closely at this issue, mindful of how people have been suffering with high energy bills.

Q: Why did the Government sell the Royal Mail at a knockdown price? (Steven Flannighan)

A: You have to remember that just a few years ago, this business was losing billions and costing the taxpayer a fortune. We believe this was a good offer for Royal Mail. Don’t forget – the sale happened in the face of considerable opposition with the threat of strikes and a lot of negative publicity. Labour did their best to make a sell harder. Many good investors – the kind you want to stick around for a while – were quite put off. What is key is that we gave free shares to the 99 per cent of Royal Mail staff who wanted them – and the company will now get the investment needed to modernise.

Q: Because I find it impossible to forget what Gordon Brown (never mind Tony Blair) did, I really want to vote Conservative. My question is: how can I vote for a party that cuts taxes for the rich (50 per cent rate) and increases the burdens of the poor (the bedroom tax)?  (Jean Binnie, Knaresborough)

A: We came into Government with a monumental economic mess to sort out. In doing so, we have had to take very difficult decisions – but in every single one we have done what is fair, what is right, and what is in the  long-term interests of our country.

You mention the cut in the top rate of tax. The fact is that if you carry on with a relatively high top-rate, that makes this country a less attractive place for wealth creators and entrepreneurs to be. If they decide to go elsewhere, that means fewer jobs created, less money for the Treasury, and less money to spend on schools, hospitals and growing our economy. These are all the things we took into account when cutting the top rate. Beyond that particular case, the fact is this: the top 1 per cent of income-taxpayers contribute nearly 30 per cent of all income tax – and those with the highest incomes will contribute more to income tax this year than under any year of the previous government.

And we have cut taxes on the lowest earners too. By raising the personal allowance to £10,000, we’re cutting the tax bills of 25 million hardworking people and taking 2 million people out of tax altogether. Above the political noise, these are the facts.

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS

Q: Prime Minister, you and your Coalition Government are very quiet about the advantages of  1) the UK remaining in the EU, and  2) Scotland remaining in the UK. Could you please spell out all the arguments, loud and clear? (Peter Wilkins)

A: Being in the EU does bring advantages. We’re a trading nation and the single market is vital for investment and jobs. Almost half our exports go to the EU and one in every 10 jobs is linked to the single market. But I also think that Europe needs to change. It needs to be more competitive, more flexible, more outward-looking. And that’s what I’m working to achieve: we’ve cut the EU budget for the first time in history, we’re cutting red tape, we’ve launched  negotiations for an EU-US trade deal that would be worth up to  £10bn a year to the UK alone.

On Scotland and the UK, my case is clear: we are better, stronger, richer together. We are a family of nations united as one. We share the risks when things go wrong, and share our assets and strengths for the common good of us all. We have achieved so much as a United Kingdom and our future is brighter and more prosperous as a United Kingdom. That is what I’ll be  arguing for, head, heart and soul until that referendum.

Q: Why are we handing £280m a year to India when they can afford to launch spacecraft to Mars? (Lorenzo Frediani)

A: We decided to stop providing financial aid to India. This reflects the fact that our relationship is shifting to a new, more modern footing focused increasingly on trade. So we will finish existing projects, but will not provide financial grants after 2015.

Q: What are you going to do about the impending arrival of more Eastern European immigrants into the UK (from Romania and Bulgaria) and what steps are you taking to ensure that taxpayers are spared from further economic disruption due to increased resources required from the NHS, housing and welfare? (Julie Thompson)

A: I know people are deeply concerned about this – and I share those concerns. That’s why, when I became Prime Minister, I extended the time of the transitional controls on Romania and Bulgaria from five years to the maximum seven years.

Now that this date is approaching, we are changing the rules so that no one can come to this country and expect to get out-of-work benefits immediately – we will not pay them for the first three months. If after three months an EU national needs benefits, they will only be able to claim for a maximum of six months unless they can prove they have a genuine prospect of employment. We’re also toughening up the test which migrants who want to claim benefits must undergo. This will include a new minimum earnings threshold, to prove they are working. If they don’t pass the test, we’ll cut access to benefits like income support. And newly arrived EU jobseekers will no longer be able to claim housing benefit.

All this is sending a clear message to anyone who thinks that Britain might be a soft touch in terms of the benefit we give out. These measures say loud and clear that is not the case.

LIFE AS PM

Q: In what ways do you feel that being in power has changed you?(David Buckingham, Leamington Spa)

A: The biggest difference is that in opposition you say things, in government you do things. I’ve made changes – longer hours, more structure and a discipline about getting on and making decisions. Others will have to decide how that has changed me!

Q: What have been the main changes to your family life since living in Downing Street? (Sally Henry)

A: Moving out of your own home and into No 10 is a bit of a shock, but we’ve tried to make it as homely as possible. The really good thing about it is being able to pop upstairs and chat with Florence [aged three] – she’s never lived anywhere else.

Q: What is the worst thing about being Prime Minister? (Paul Simmons)

A: It’s an honour and a privilege to do this job and there isn’t a day when you don’t feel that. The moment I dread is the arrival of news about losing one of the members of our Armed Forces or police officers. The toughest decisions are about these issues – and also the dreadful hostage incidents we’ve had in recent years.

THE FUTURE

Q: I’m an A-Level student. I find my future hanging by a thread as employment for graduates is decreasing. How will you ensure that graduates (beyond the Russell Group/Oxbridge universities) will have employment based on their academic abilities and skills?  Thank you! (Ammarah Adam, Lancashire)

A: I’m sorry you feel like that – but actually I believe you and other students like you have reason to be increasingly confident about your future. Over the past few years we’ve seen 1.4 million new jobs created in our private sector. After some long and difficult years our economy is turning a corner. That is not happening by accident; it’s happening because this Government came in with a serious economic plan – dealing with our deficit, cutting taxes on businesses, investing in infrastructure, reforming welfare and education – and you have my word that we will stick to that plan to keep on creating more good, well-paid, high-skilled jobs for people like you.

Q: What advice would you give your own children to prepare them for the future. Which specific  industries should they target their efforts into? (Caroline Chilley, Leicester)

A: I do rather go on about the importance of school and work, especially English and maths as they are the biggest vaccination against future unemployment. But I also believe you should follow your own star.

Q: If there was one thing you would like the UK to achieve in the next 10 years what would it be? (Matthew Guntrip)

A: I’m going to cheat and give you three, but they all relate to one thing: building a country our children can be proud of: 1. Get back in the black by dealing with our deficit. 2. Get our youth unemployment rate right down to the best in Europe. 3. Move up the international league tables for literacy, numeracy and science – that would be one of the best ways to  secure our future economic success.

What do you think of the Prime Minister’s answers? Let us know at i@independent.co.uk

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