Nick Clegg answers TSR questions about ‘Your Freedom’

Nick Clegg interview CS thumb

On July 01 Nick Clegg launched the ‘Your Freedom’ website, allowing the public to nominate and vote for laws and regulations that they would like to see abolished. The Student Room was asked to gather questions for Nick Clegg from its vast youth audience. The response from TSR users came thick and fast, once again demonstrating their proactive nature and willingness to engage with the site.

Their questions and DPM’s responses are below:

1. In the lead up to the election, responding to a question about the digital economy on The Student Room, you said “It badly needs to be repealed, and the issues revisited.” There is significant public opposition to the Digital Economy Act. Will the government repeal it? If not, why?

That isn’t a position we agreed in the coalition agreement, but my view is still that the Act was rushed through at the tail-end of the last parliament and parts of it would have benefited from much more scrutiny. There are things in it that are good, like various measures to do with the regulation of the media, but a lot of people continue to have big concerns over the parts of this legislation which deal with copyright infringement, particularly the measures to block access to websites which might carry copyrighted material. So, as the various parts of the bill are being implemented we will look into any concerns that are expressed to ensure that civil liberties are being properly protected throughout.

2. When will you as a government start listening to the advice from professionals such as Police Officers on Crime and punishment, Teachers on what our education system needs, doctors and nurses on what the NHS needs? As a second part to that will you follow scientist’s advice in the classification of drugs?

I hope that in our first few months we’ve already shown that this Government isn’t convinced, as governments sometimes are, that Whitehall knows best, and we don’t assume to have a monopoly on the best ideas. Your question touches on a simple, but important, truth: the best way to make policy is with the help of the people who actually put it into practice. That is why, for example, we invited Britain’s six million public sector workers to submit their ideas on how we can make the services they provide more efficient, while making much needed savings too.

But it isn’t just about listening. Government also needs to let frontline professionals exercise their own judgement instead of trying to micromanage everything from the centre. So we’re looking across the board to see where we can scrap excessive bureaucracy and regulation, and how we can empower staff, for example in schools and hospitals.

On drug classifications specifically, scientific advice is hugely important. These decisions are usually complex and sensitive, and the less politicised they are, the better. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs plays an extremely important role, providing high quality, independent and expert advice, which we will of course consider in future decisions.

3. Are you planning to introduce an EMA alternative (such as a card), scrap the £100 bonuses or just scrap it altogether?

EMA bonuses have been stopped, allowing us to pay the weekly EMA to more young people. We think that is the right way to distribute the money at a time when big reductions are needed in public spending. In terms of financial support beyond 2010/11, we’ll be considering longer term arrangements as part of the wholesale review of public spending that is being conducted this autumn. With the nation’s books in such a bad state we now have to look at every single pound Government is spending to make sure that absolutely none of it is wasted, making sure we use it in a way that reflects the things that we, as a society, believe in. That includes greater fairness in our education system.

4. What guarantees can you give that any ideas submitted through Your Freedom and Spending Challenge will actually be taken into account by the government? I can’t help but think that the government will simply ignore any it doesn’t like, but then will spin the ideas they are doing anyway in their favour as a sign of public support…

So cynical! We’ve had tonnes of ideas – over 100,000 through the Spending Challenge website and thousands more on Your Freedom. Are we going to implement all of them? No we won’t, and I don’t think anyone would expect us too. But each and every idea is being looked at by a dedicated team and the best will be considered for the upcoming spending review and a new Parliamentary Bill aimed at restoring and protecting civil liberties; so some of the ideas submitted will lead to real concrete changes. It’s a new way of shaping government policy, and whenever you experiment with different and spontaneous ways of engaging people, especially on this scale, it’s impossible to predict the outcomes. But I am delighted at how these projects have gone so far and the level of interest people have shown.
5. With growing proof that speed cameras do not curb deaths in the locations they’re placed (and also deaths at that location not caused by vehicles adding to the total before a camera is placed) will you be telling other county councils to follow Oxford’s lead in scrapping them all?
I haven’t seen that research but I’d be interested to. There is a lot of evidence which shows that cameras can be a useful tool in cutting speeds and reducing the risk of collisions, but it is true that they shouldn’t be overused and other means of improving road safety – like better education on the risks – are important too. What is really important is that local councils and communities are able to decide what is best for them. We have ended central funding for new fixed speed cameras because we don’t believe it is up to central government to dictate to councils that cameras should always be the default option, and we have removed ringfencing from local authority grants so communities can set their own priorities.
6. The Criminal, Justice, and Police Act of 2001 allowed for police to hold indefinitely the DNA samples and fingerprints of anyone arrested for a recordable offence, even if found innocent or released without charge, will you repeal this act?

The law as it stands is unacceptable. The Coalition agreed very early on that we will adopt the protections of the Scottish model on DNA. This means that DNA taken from people arrested for, but not convicted of, minor offences won’t be retained, and if DNA has been taken in respect of a serious offence, but a conviction does not follow, it will only be retained for a limited period. These changes will be put to parliament in a Freedom Bill later this year.

7. If protest and free speech are part of every person’s liberty then will you repeal the acts which are intended to stop terrorism, antisocial behaviour and serious crime, but which in effect only stop legitimate protesters? In particular the Terrorism Act 2000, and other legislation which prohibits protests near Parliament.

Again, the Coalition committed very early on to upholding the right to peaceful protest. Right now we are reviewing the law to ensure that non-violent protest is protected. Defending people’s liberty and safeguarding their security is not always an easy balance to strike, but recent times have seen it tip entirely the wrong way, and we need to correct that.
Let’s not forget, though, that protecting the right to protest relies on more than simply changing legislation. It’s also about ensuring the police properly understand and apply the laws that currently exist, and, crucially, it is about good communication between police, protestors and wider communities too.

8. The Sunday Trading Law is a medieval law that should be revoked. Why should businesses be restricted by a religiously invoked law, of which many people don’t believe? Businesses should have the right to trade by normal hours on a Sunday, should they so wish. Agree or disagree? Why?

The Sunday Trading Act 1994 restricts large shops – those with more that 280 square metres of trading space – to opening for six consecutive hours between 10.00am and 6.00pm. All other shops are free to open whenever they wish.

These rules provoke strong feelings on both sides. When they were reviewed in 2006 a whole range of individuals and organisations put their views forward, not only faith groups but also businesses, trades unions and others, and opinions were mixed. Unsurprisingly some businesses, especially larger shops, favoured extending hours, but many small local businesses argued that they would end up taking a disproportionate hit. Trades unions were also concerned that relaxing the law would impact on staff rights. The review concluded that, overall, the majority of people consulted felt the present law has the balance about right. The Coalition Government hasn’t seen any strong evidence to suggest the contrary, so at the moment there are no plans to change it.

9. Labour had suggested last year youngsters should be doing compulsory community service: “That would mean young people being expected to contribute at least 50 hours of community service by the time they have reached the age of 19″ to quote Gordon Brown. This is an insightful idea but aimed at the wrong group in my opinion. Surely, this would be a better idea for those who are on benefits who refuse work and satisfy taxpayers to an extent, what are your thoughts – criticising or not on this idea?

I agree with the principle of young people playing an active role in their communities, and the Government is hoping to pilot a National Citizen Service for sixteen year olds next year, depending on the outcome of the Spending Review. It’s a good way to help teenagers develop their skills and, also, a sense of belonging that can be extremely beneficial to a person’s self-confidence.

On your suggestion, our priority is actually to help more of the people who are currently claiming benefits into work. It’s the surest route out of poverty and is how we get people onto the right track for the long-term.

10. During the election David Cameron pledged to create a website for students to provide information about costs/benefits of going to university. You created the Your Freedom site which may or may not yield benefit for students, will you deliver the student site as promised which almost certainly would provide tangible benefit?

You’re right that access to useful information is hugely important for people taking decisions about higher education. Students need to understand the costs involved, as well as whether or not previous students were satisfied, and the likely places particular courses could take them. What we’ve decided to do is work with the Higher Education Funding Council and UCAS to improve the quality and consistency of information that is already out there. The Government asked each university to publish an employability statement showing how they help students first prepare for the working world and then make the jump into the workplace. A substantial number have done so and we’re expecting more to be published shortly. The Higher Education Minister, David Willetts, is also overseeing further work to ensure that, over the next two years, people applying to higher education can access a standard set of information on a course by course basis. The information that is made available will depend on the items which students say they actually need.