Frequently Asked Questions

I have been receiving email correspondence asking for my stance on a wide range of issues. Below is a quick overview of my answers. If you want a more detailed response on any issue, or if you have questions about an issue not covered below, please do not hesitate to get in touch: stephen@stephenwilliams.org.uk

1.    Support an increase in overall public spending?

The most recent Budget announcements showed that the Liberal Democrats have put the UK’s finances on a steady and fair path of recovery whilst ensuring that nobody is left behind. We will make sure that we do not make any further unnecessary ideological cuts that the Conservatives plan for the next Parliament. However, we will also not jeopardise the recovery with uncalculated spending as Labour plan to do.

We will protect cuts in to vital departments, such as Education, and ensure there is investment where necessary. We are the only party who planning to increase NHS funding in line with the recommendations from the NHS Chief Executive – around £8 billion per year by 2020 - and have laid out how we will fund it.

2.    Support raising the minimum wage to the living wage?

The Liberal Democrats believe it is important to strike a good balance between protecting employees' rights and making the labour market more flexible.  We are tackling low net pay by cutting taxes for people on low and middle incomes so that people keep more of the money they earn. So far, we have taken 2.7 million low paid taxpayers out of income tax altogether, and have given a £700 tax cut to more than 20 million people. From this month, 3.4 million people will pay no income tax at all. As the economy recovers our priority is to protect, and indeed create, jobs. To raise the minimum wage to the living wage level at this point in time would risk the progress we have made in reducing unemployment.

That said, we raised the National Minimum Wage (NMW) in October 2014, with an above inflation rise for the first time since 2008. Because of this, a worker on the adult minimum wage working a 36 hour week, 52 weeks a year now receives £355 a year more in their pay packet. Last month, we announced that the adult NMW will rise in October from £6.50 to £6.70 per hour. According to the current trajectory the minimum wage is due to rise to £8.23 by October 2019. Finally, we are publicly naming and shaming any employers who fail to pay the NMW and have increased the maximum penalty from £5,000 to £20,000 by secondary legislation.

3.    Stop TTIP?

I am not against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in principle but I certainly believe it must be negotiated with care. Negotiations are ongoing but if and when the EU is satisfied and reaches an agreement with the US over TTIP, the final agreement will be sent to the 28 EU national parliaments. At this stage the UK Parliament will have the opportunity – in plenty of time – to fully scrutinise TTIP through debates in both Houses. Simply put, if I believe that TTIP will not benefit the UK then I will vote against it.

What I would also like to make clear is that neither the EU nor the US are looking to lower standards through the TTIP process and we have not authorised the EU to agree to anything in TTIP that would do that.  The high standards of food and environmental safety we enjoy in the UK are not up for negotiation and there is nothing in TTIP that allows for a reduction or watering-down of the UK’s food, environmental, health or labour standards.

I know also that some people are worried about the potential impact on the NHS.  However, As both the Government and the EU Trade Commissioner have made clear, the NHS is excluded from TTIP negotiations. The balance between public and private provision of public services will - quite rightly - continue to remain with national governments regardless of the progress of TTIP.

4.    Ban zero-hours contracts?

Zero-hours contracts are not ‘bad’ in all cases. They can, and do, work for some employers and employees and can provide greater flexibility, which is essential in a dynamic workforce. However, they have often been exploited by employers and that is why in 2014 Business Secretary Vince Cable launched a major review with the goal of enhancing workforce rights. As a result, we banned exclusivity clauses and this will allow employees on zero-hours contracts to have the freedom to find work with more than one employer. Furthermore, a new code of conduct will be developed with businesses to increase awareness of zero-hours contracts and to ensure employers are using them correctly. The Code will outline: when the employer should be using zero-hours contracts; the rights and responsibilities of employee, as well as the employer; and specific guidance on allocating work, notice of hours and cancellation of work. 

5.    Support a UK ban on fracking?

I am absolutely committed to a low carbon future where energy is produced through renewable resources. However, this is a gradual process and I believe it is better for gas to be produced in the UK than for us to import it from the Middle East or Russia.

Contrary to the idea that shale exploration will increase our carbon emissions, the independent Committee on Climate Change has concluded that shale gas production in the UK is entirely consistent with our policies to tackle climate change.

Robust laws and protections are already in place to manage the potential risks of fracking. The Infrastructure Act will only strengthen them further. The Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, Ed Davey has ensured that the UK has the world's toughest environmental protections on shale, learning lessons from elsewhere such as the US.

It should also be noted that the Liberal Democrats and I are absolutely committed to promoting renewable energy. Whilst in government we have doubled the UK’s share of total energy generated by renewable sources, created the world’s first Green Investment Bank, planted one million trees and increased our lead as the world’s number one generator of offshore wind.

6.    Support raising corporation tax and the top-rate of income tax?

I believe that raising corporation tax or the top rate of income tax could pose a threat to the strong economic growth that we have ensured since entering government.  Evidence has shown that raising the top rate of income tax to 50% raises negligible amounts of money for the Treasury and I feel that we must be pragmatic. 

That said, I am glad that we have delivered our 2010 manifesto commitment to ring fencing banks to ensure taxpayers are never again expected to underwrite high-risk banking. We have been arguing for this for years, and under this government we have delivered the most radical reform to banking in a generation. We have also electrified the ring-fence to ensure that retail and investment banking remain separate.

We have introduced a £2.5 billion permanent bank levy to both encourage responsible banking and make sure that banks pay their fair share to society. We increased the rate of the levy in January 2013 to compensate for the reduction of corporation tax. Furthermore, under this government the richest pay more than they ever did. The rate is 45p for the highest earners, compared to 40p under Labour.

7.    Support the introduction of rent controls?

The Liberal Democrats believe that rent prices are too high but we do not think that introducing rent controls is the right way to bring down high rents. We believe that building more houses and increasing supply will be more effective at bringing down prices in the long term and providing more choice for renters. Evidence from Britain and around the world shows that rent controls can lead to fewer properties on the market, and higher rents as a result. A price freeze, as proposed by Labour, would bump up rents as landlords raise prices before the freeze takes effect.

8. Support legislation that bans MPs having second jobs and/or sitting on the board of companies?

If MPs do any paid work outside Parliament it is important that they are registered, transparent and accountable. However, I personally do not think that MPs should be dedicating their time to second jobs. Voters elect their MPs to work for them, and so their principal purpose should be to represent their constituents. As MP for Bristol West I cannot see how I would find the time to have another profession even if I wanted to and I have never had a second job in my 10 years as an MP. That said, I do not think that issue requires legislation. MPs must declare outside interests and if constituents feel that they are doing a poor job as their MP then they can hold them to account.

9.    Support the abolition of student fees?

No. Liberal Democrats made a pledge before the last election to phase out tuition fees - a pledge we could not deliver given the compromises of coalition government and the state of the public finances. Not being able to keep this pledge was very difficult for me personally and so I did not vote in favour of fee increases. However, we have had just 8% of MPs in the House of Commons during this parliament and so it simply was not possible to phase out fees.

What Liberal Democrats insisted on, however, was to make the whole university fees system fairer so that people can afford to go to university regardless of their background. More students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before and the new system operates as a graduate tax so that those who earn more after graduating pay back more. The reforms have also put around £2 billion into universities, stabilising the sector. Labour’s plan to reduce the cap on fees to £6,000 will only benefit graduates who go on to obtain high paying jobs as under the current system low earning graduates are already exempt from paying back their student loans.

10.   Support the building of more publicly-owned social housing?

Yes. Liberal Democrats have made affordable housing a priority in government. We have overseen the building of 170,000 new social and affordable homes and have brought 150,000 existing social homes up to a decent living standard in this parliament.

Looking forward, we have set an ambitious goal to build 300,000 homes a year, including in 10 new Garden Cities in areas where homes are needed most. We have also committed to introducing a new “Rent to Own” scheme, which will help working people buy their first home for the same cost as renting. Rent to Own will allow each month’s rental payment to steadily buy you a share in the home, which you will own outright after 30 years.

11.  Stop private companies running NHS services?

I, and my Party, remain fully committed to ensuring that the NHS always remains free at the point of use and that access is based on need. I will always resist any attempts to “privatise” the NHS, but suggestions that the NHS has seen a wide scale privatisation under this government are hyperbolic. Private provision makes up just 6% of the health service, only 1.5% higher than the previous Labour government. We have been very clear that while in some cases we see a role for the private and charitable sectors in the NHS - just as previous governments have - we strongly believe that the NHS should always remain free and be based on need, not ability to pay. It is these principles that form an important part of the fairer society that the Liberal Democrats are seeking to build.

12.  Support increasing public funding for the NHS?

Yes. The Liberal Democrats are the only party who have a credible plan to secure the funding that is needed for the NHS over the next Parliament. Under Liberal Democrat spending plans, health service funding will be at least £8bn higher per year by 2020, which is higher than any other party. This is not a figure that we have plucked out of the air, it is the amount that Simon Stevens, the NHS England Chief Executive, has said is needed in order to secure the future of the service.

We also want to make sure that NHS money is spent more effectively. If we remain in government we will commission a fundamental review of NHS and social care finances in 2015, before the next Spending Review, in order to assess the pressures on NHS budgets and the scope for efficiencies.

Finally, we will focus additional funding on our priority areas of mental health and prevention. For too long mental health has been neglected in the health service and we want to see ‘parity of esteem’ so that mental and physical health conditions are treated equally.

13.   Support the re-nationalisation of the railways?

The Liberal Democrats opposed the original privatisation of British Rail, as we made clear at the 1992 General Election. We recognised that it would involve significant structural upheaval at that time. However, we do not think a full-scale renationalisation of the railways is practical at this time. That said I believe that public sector operators should be allowed, and encouraged, to bid for rail franchises as they come up for renewal.

14.  Maintain the cuts to Legal Aid?

As you may be aware, the Government has reviewed the entire legal aid system to ensure that it is sustainable, proportionate and affordable. All three main parties have recognised the need to make savings in the legal aid budget. Our reforms have ensured that legal aid remains available for the most vulnerable cases.

The Government used the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) to target legal aid resources at those who are most in need. It was estimated that the changes introduced by the LASPO Act would save an estimated £320 million per year by 2014-15.

However, the Liberal Democrats are clear that the reforms should not go further than is absolutely necessary. For example, we made sure that government plans to remove the right of legal aid defendants in criminal cases to choose their own solicitors were scrapped. Rest assured that we will continue to do what we can to ensure that reforms to the justice system do not go further than needed.

15.  Support making people work for their benefits?

No. The Liberal Democrats are working towards creating a fair welfare system but, unlike the Conservative Party, we do not want to see benefit claimants targeted and made scapegoats for economic problems.   

16.  Support closing down legal tax avoidance schemes and strengthening sanctions?

Yes. Tackling tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance is a top priority for the Liberal Democrats and we are fully committed to ensuring that the wealthiest individuals and multinationals in society pay their fair share. It was an issue I pursued with vigour when I was the Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman in Parliament from 2010-13.

In government, we have invested nearly £1 billion in HMRC to make sure that everyone pays they tax they owe. As a result of closing over 40 tax loopholes, strengthening enforcement and working with our international partners, we will have secured an additional £100 billion over the course of this parliament in additional tax revenues.

We have proposals to do even more in the next parliament, including raising an extra £6 billion from tackling tax avoidance and evasion as we finish the job of cutting the deficit. We are also introducing a new offence for firms that fail to act to prevent economic crime, as set out in this month's Budget. This is something that Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has pressed for throughout our time in government.

17.  Campaign for a Bristol congestion charge?

I do not support a London style congestion charge for Bristol. It would be damaging to the city centre economy.  Cribbs Causeway shops would gain a major advantage over Broadmead, Cabot Circus and Park Street. However, for many years I have advocated replacing fuel duty with road pricing.  This would be a smart tax, charging pence per mile depending on the road being used, time of day and fuel efficiency of the vehicle.  Technology now makes this switch possible. I wrote about this idea two years ago in The Green Book (http://green-book.org.uk/)

18.  Support a coalition government again?

Yes. I feel that coalitions have an important role in democracies, and often offer more electoral legitimacy than single party governments. It is worth noting that Labour’s “landslide” victory in 1997 wielded 43.2% of the national vote – hardly a strong majority. The parties that have formed this Coalition Government between them commanded 59% of the vote.

The current political landscape certainly suggests that coalitions could become a permanent feature in future elections. Of course, with any potential coalition agreement it will be our priority to deliver as much Liberal Democrat policy as possible. I am proud that since entering government in 2010, we have been able to deliver a number of our flagship policies from our last manifesto – the pupil premium, the £10,600 tax-free income tax threshold and the triple lock guarantee for pensions, to name a few.

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