Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was last night grilled by people from across Greater Manchester with a wide range of topics on the agenda.
The event at the Museum of Science and Industry, organised by radio station Key 103, took place 24 hours after the Coalition government appeared to be in deadlock as Mr Clegg instructed his MPs to vote against David Cameron’s proposed parliamentary boundary changes.
This decision followed Conservative backbenchers’ refusal to support the Liberal Democrats’ flagship policy of introducing an elected House of Lords.
Though the mood was tense at first, with the question querying the current relationship between the coalition partners, Nick Clegg responded with his trademark chirpiness describing the situation as the pushing of a ‘pause button’.
He began by summarising how the government was formed two years ago and why entering a coalition was a better option that staying in opposition.
Mr Clegg said: “It’s better than retreating into our little corners and throwing stones at each other for the next several years, and maybe have several general elections before some kind of slam dunk outcome is provided.”
He added: “We’ve tried to stick to what we said we would do, some people don’t like that because they think compromise is betrayal.
“I think that compromise is inevitable in politics if no-one has won an election and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
“What’s happened recently is the new thing.
“For the first time one of the two parties in the Coalition, in this case, the Conservatives, are not able to deliver their bit of that contract, which is to do with the House of Lords.
“So we’ll just park House of Lords reform, park the other bit of controversial parliamentary reform, which is the radical redrawing of the boundaries.
“Sometimes you have to push the pause button.”
He continued: “In the meantime, we’ll get on and deliver a whole bunch of other things in the Coalition Agreement – which, frankly, touch on people’s lives in ways that most people in the country think are much more important.”
Questions frequently raised in the one-hour session related to the August 2011 and economic reform.
A member of Claim, a Manchester youth charity, asked Mr Clegg why the government perceived the riots as base criminality, rather than looking into social-economic circumstances.
He responded that was not ‘an either/or’ and claimed he was the main person who pushed for the victims’ panel, chaired by Darra Singh, Chief Executive of Job Centre Plus.
Mr Clegg discussed the outcome of the panel and commented on how Manchester organisations are fulfilling the recommendations.
He said: “There is a need for the sort of stuff I saw at an excellent Moss Side boxing centre this morning.
“There, youngsters are coming off the street and out of trouble to invest all their energy into boxing. It’s fantastic.”
“But there are also quite tough messages in that report about the kind of problems which occur when kids fall through the cracks between primary and secondary school.”
He added: “We’ve also massively rolled out ‘restorative justice’, and I was very insistent about that.
“It’s not a soft option, but it’s a smart way of administering justice.
“It says you’ve got to speak to your victim, you’ve got to hear for yourself the damage you’ve done – and then you’ve got to make up for what you’ve done.”
Another member of the audience observed that though the rioters were treated with swift justice, the same couldn’t be said for bankers.
Mr Clegg responded: “There are tough laws on white collar crime, but by God it takes long for justice to catch up with people, and with the white collar world in particular.
“We’ve said very, very clearly – not least after the Libor scandal – so what we’re doing right now in government is looking through the laws and seeing where we can introduce new penalties and new sections where we can and where it’s justified.”
The Deputy Prime Minister also asked his audience to wait patiently for economic reform, comparing banks to ‘the thumping heart in our bodies’ which have the wider duty of serving society, not just serve themselves.
“I think one of the things we need to do to resuscitate our broken banking system is to make sure our banks have proper branches in our community, so bank managers can make decisions rather than have this ‘computer says no’ attitude because of what some credit committee has decided down in London,” Clegg said.
“The new Swedish bank Handelsbanken is showing some of the virtues of old-fashioned banking.
“We need more of that, but it’s not an overnight job.”
He said he was very proud of the City Deal he had struck with Manchester, and described it as: “The biggest step towards giving Manchester greater freedom to borrow money and invest it for the benefit of the people.”
Oxfam spokesperson Serena Tramonti mentioned that the French government has recently introduced a Financial Transactions Tax (a levy placed on monetary transactions from bank to bank).
She questioned why the UK government, when it is obviously in need of money, was resistant in supporting it.
Mr Clegg said that he is ‘massively supportive’ of the tax being implemented across the world, where transactions move at a great velocity over the globe.
He added: “We are no slouches when it comes to taxes on financial systems, through stamp duty and through the bank levy.
“The only point is a practical one that we disagree with the French government.
“The idea that you can apply a financial transactions tax on transactions which are very fluid, very mobile, and very global, on national level does not make sense to us at all.”
A member of the audience was concerned about the government’s need to make savings and to still retain effective policing.
Mr Clegg assured her that if he were a chief constable, he would do as much as he could to protect front-line policing, and be included for PCSOs.
Clegg said: “I was talking to a PCSO at the velodrome this morning who brought in about 15 because he knew which ones were the troublemakers, to spend some time on the BMX bikes.
“He was saying it’s had a great effect because it’s taken kids off the street and he develops a relationship with the families.
“That is PCSO work at its very, very best. It’s grassroots, not behind a desk, and not filling in forms. I’m a big fan of PCSOs.”
Other issues covered included the government’s green record, tuition fees and an increased overseas aid budget.
The afternoon ended on an optimistic note when the Deputy PM assured the audience he will do his ‘damndest’ to secure a United Nations arms trade treaty secured once everyone returns to the negotiating table.