On politics, education and business - Business Works

Theresa May on politics, education and business

The Right Honourable Theresa May MP, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and Shadow Minister for Women talks to Roger Prentis about politics and the challenges facing the UK and discusses some new approaches to tackle the issues.

Theresa May in her office at the House

q: Why did you go into politics and what aspect of it is important to you?

a: I have been interested in politics for a long time - the "bug" started fairly early in my life. I was a Councillor for a number of years at the local level before coming into Parliament.

I suppose that the reason I went into politics, and what is closest to my heart about it, is making a difference for people's lives. You can do that in politics in a range of ways although, in Opposition, your options are less wide than they are when you are in Government. Obviously when in Government you can make changes that affect people's lives through legislation, but as a Constituency MP you can also make a real difference to people and your local community as well.

q: There must be quite a difference between the local and national levels of politics?

a: There is a tremendous range of things to get to grips with. The danger of politics is that it is very easy to reach a position where you know a little about a lot of subjects as opposed to knowing a lot about a small number of subjects. You can specialise of course like some people who have been Select Committee Chairman. Gwyneth Dunwoody was a very good example - she took a great deal of interest in transport for a number of years and was known as an expert in the field.

Theresa May at White Waltham school

My current roles in the Shadow Cabinet mean that I have a wide range of issues to deal with at any point in time. But my Constituency is my base - I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the fact that the majority of my local constituents voted for me. I believe that one must pay attention to the local constituency and work on issues there. It helps you keep your feet on the ground and enables you to be able to talk to people and find out what the issues are that really matter to them and to hear from people what the implications of legislation actually are. One of the things I feel we are not so good at in this place is really thinking through how pieces of legislation are actually going to work in practice.

q: Do you think that there is too much "point scoring" in Parliament rather than serious debating?

a: I don't think that there has ever been a "golden age" for Parliament at any time where the quality of debate was necessarily significantly different. I think that the problem we have today is that the bits of Parliament that are picked up by the media and seen by most people tend to be the more rumbustious exchanges. Prime Minister's questions (PMQs) is the classic example - that is the one that most people see if they are going to see anything. The bit from PMQs that is mostly shown appears to be two people having a good argument with each other over current issues.

We have made a very conscious effort under David Cameron as Leader to change the way we approach politics here more generally. We won't just oppose things because the Labour Government has proposed them. For example, just last weekend when David was interviewed on the Government's proposals on welfare reform - apart from pointing out that they appear to have taken some of our ideas - he offered our support. It doesn't matter that they have taken our ideas, so long as they have done it in the right way. Notwithstanding the fact that Labour Back Benchers may rebel against it and therefore the political opportunist way of doing it would be to say, "Ahh, we can join them and have a go at the Government." Actually, if we think that the Government is doing the right thing we will support them. We did it with the Education Act under Tony Blair, so I think that is taking a different tone and approach.

q: How do you think business people regard the machinations of Parliament?

a: I think that there are some problems around the general view of Parliament.

Some of the particular debates of the past few weeks highlight this - for example, the discussions about MPs' expenses and allowances - we on the Conservative side have been pushing for the need for radical reform. We need to adopt the same sort of practical approaches that are used in business and elsewhere. There are quite a few of my colleagues who joined Parliament after the last election who find it difficult to believe that they don't have to provide a receipt for every single expenses claim.

In the old days, being an Honourable Member who said that they had spent a certain amount might have been acceptable without supporting proof, but, frankly, those times are long gone. We have to show that we are adopting the same rigorous approach to our accountability that people would expect in other walks of life. We should follow best practice in the public sector and the private sector in our Audit arrangements and I am pushing for this.

Debates like that on expenses and allowances can often get in the way of people's image of Parliament because they damage its reputation.

There are other issues too that people have about the way Parliament does its business. The length of time it takes to get change, for example, can be quite frustrating sometimes. The over-reliance of Government in the last few years on legislation and that can cause problems for people. Also, I think that there are a lot of people that feel we don't spend enough time examining proposed legislation from Europe when we have a series of proposals. We have a series of proposals to change this and improve Parliament's scrutiny of European legislation. We need to make sure that Ministers cannot go to Brussels and sign up to something without Parliament having discussed it. At the moment, there is an image that they just go and sign up.

q: It seems that a Government with sufficient majority can "force" things through Parliament - even resorting to the Parliament Act - if they wish. Do you think this is a problem?

Custody suite at Maidenhead Police Station

a: I think that it presents some difficulties and it affects people's attitude to what Parliament should be doing. It is part of a general change in attitudes - people no longer have a hierarchical view - that there are people "up there" that take decisions about what happens to "us". The same is true in business: there is a concept about wanting to be part of the decision-making process - it isn't about a lack of respect for authority, it is that people now expect to be treated on a more equal basis. Bringing that into politics, it is important that politicians and parliament should recognise that people don't necessarily want us to make decisions that they want - they recognise that there are differing views out there - but they need to know that all the views have been properly taken into account. Also, sometimes people just want an explanation of why parliament has gone down a particular route rather than another.

They also don't want to see government wasting money. There is a classic example recently where the Department for Transport spent nearly £650,000 on two surveys asking people about their views on road user charges - at the same time that a million people signed a petition on the Downing Street web site saying that they did not want it. It makes people wonder why Ministers don't know what people think when the message is so clear already.

q: Various politicians or parties have been in power for several terms recently. It would seem that their downfall is in appearing to push things through almost regardless of public opinion?

a: We have had two governments that have been in for a significant period of time the Conservatives from 1979 to 1997 and the current government since. This is different from the 1960s and 70s when there were constant changes. It does mean that it is easy for government to get out of touch and become complacent in what it is doing. Failing to listen to people and appreciate public opinion, along with the relentless pressure from the 24-hour media always to be saying something, leads to a situation where Ministers are sitting back and thinking they should come up with a new idea each day to be seen to be doing something. Often they haven't thought it through and that leads to all sorts of problems.

One thing we need to do is restore the power of parliament. Parliament has been increasingly sidelined over the years with government just doing things regardless. Ken Clarke Chaired the Democracy Task Force for us and there is some work being done here in my office about how we can improve the process of creating legislation and how we can restore the power of parliament so that it holds the Executive to account properly.

q: What are the big challenges facing us today in the UK?

a: Obviously the economic down-turn is the thing that is on everybody's mind at the moment. Beyond that, there is the issue of energy security - this is a significant challenge. That ties in, of course, with climate change and environmental issues and how we adjust to those to the extent that they require changes in behaviour for both businesses and individuals.

Issues like energy security seem to have crept up on us - people have been discussing them in the background for a while, but government doesn't seem to have really grasped their importance.

q: As a nation, we have a variety of energy options available to us - we are an island and have tidal power available, wind power etc. as well as our oil reserves. What should we be doing to address the problems?

a: If I can couple this with climate change issues, we have to look at a future where there is a different balance in energy. Yes, we do have to encourage renewables, but I think it has to be a wide range. Government seems to have grasped at wind farms as the solution, but omitted things like tidal and wave power - a lot of work has been done in Spain on this - and photovoltaic power. It is important for us to have a spread of renewables available to us.

There also has to be an increase in local micro- and macro-generation and we believe that it is important to establish a fair price for carbon. But we also feel that we should be helping people who are putting into place generating ability and to give them proper tariffs when they feed into the national grid so they get a benefit from any excess they produce.

q: Do you think that the current carbon tariffs are appropriate?

« it is very easy to fit something in as a "green tax" when it isn't »

a: It is very easy to fit something in under the heading of a "green tax" when it isn't. We would classify the government's current retrospective excise duty increases for cars under that heading. You may have made a perfectly sensible decision on purchasing a vehicle six years ago, then suddenly you get hit by a tax increase - this is portrayed as a green tax and it isn't one. There is a place for green taxes of course, but the government must be absolutely clear what are genuine ones. We would use the money generated from such taxes to feed back to people through our family fund. This would give a real incentive for people to change their behaviour.

q: How much of the economic downturn is due to the global situation and how much is due to our local actions?

a: There are clearly aspects that relate to the global situation. We feel strongly that the government failed to do the prudent thing - to take appropriate actions in the good times in case there were not such good times ahead. They therefore failed to put anything aside - as they say "to repair the roof while the sun was shining" - so their room for manoeuvre now is very, very limited just at the time when people need the government to have exactly that flexibility to help and give them support. We feel that part of it is very much about how the government has failed to prepare properly.

q: We also seem to be somewhat ill prepared for the demographic changes - the ageing population. What impact do you think that will have on society?

« we had some of the strongest pension provision in Europe, now we have some of the weakest »

a: It is staggering how we have moved away from a situation where we had public and private pension schemes that was very well regarded around the world. To quote Labour MP Frank Field, "In 1997, we had some of the strongest pension provision in Europe, now we have some of the weakest." With Gordon Brown taking £5 billion a year out of pensions it means that they have been hit hard. We used to have groups of people who could take early retirement if they wished and often they would then put a lot back into the community when they did retire. Now people have to work longer and that has implications on how we structure the work place and its flexibility. Added flexibility will be even more critical to allow people to continue to work if they have to for financial reasons. It does raise some real challenges - the government is bringing in the Single Equalities Bill later in the year and one of the issues it will be putting into place properly is the whole approach to age discrimination. It also raises issues for the Health Service - complex issues - and these have to be thought through very carefully.

Theresa May MP in the House

q: The UK has become very much a service culture - do you think that we will have to move back into a production economy more in the future?

a: I think that market forces will control the outcomes. I don't think that government can artificially create a situation and I don't think it would be right to do so. Other countries have developed the ability to manufacture and we have been through waves where manufacturing in the UK survived because of quality, if not price. Now we find that quality is being produced in other economies as well as price so it does become a real challenge. However, as the economies of other countries grow, their cost structure will change and that will cause a re-balancing.

q: How do you feel the development of the "tiger economies" will impact on this?

a: China and India have massively growing economies and these will have a significant impact. We have heard the government talk about the "knowledge economy" and what we have to offer, but if you look at the quality of graduates from India, for example, our edge is fundamentally challenged. Our advantages have always been our flexibility and our ability to innovate. These are important, but even there things are changing.

q: Our education system has always been held in respect by the world. Do you think we are approaching education in the UK in the right way?

a: I think we need to take a long hard look at the education scene. There are aspects that do seriously concern me.

The government has pushed strongly in the school sector towards diplomas as opposed to A Levels. I totally agree that we should consider vocational education here in the UK, but not at the expense of the academic education. Maintaining high standards of academic education is going to be important to enable our universities to be able to continue to take their place on the world stage. That way, we will continue to have a lot of, for example, Chinese students coming to study. Maintaining our academic edge is very important - take chemistry - there are a number of chemistry departments in universities that have already closed and this is a real area for concern.

« ... not such a clear-cut decison for business to stay in the UK ... »

This also ties in with government's responsibility to create an environment where business feels it is a good place to be. What has happened is that this has been eroding - with the legislation, the regulation, the taxation and so forth. Now it is not such a clear-cut decision for business to stay in the UK as a result. In addition, graduates are being recruited from around the world already, but if government does not look after the corporate environment then it will be even easier for them to move elsewhere.

In the Thames Valley, for example, there are a number of very large and significant companies that are doing business around the world to the great benefit of the UK - jobs and revenue - but the decision of where to site the company is becoming more flexible. The government has therefore to be very conscious of the issues that matter to business and remember that issues such as education and transport infrastructure are critical, along with others that the BERR (the Department for Business, Education and Regulatory Reform) considers.

q: One of your roles is as Shadow Minister for Women - why do we need a Minister with special responsibility for Women?

a: There are a number of issues that particularly affect women that are cross-departmental. There needs to be someone to bring a focus to and highlight the relevant issues. Some are difficult issues that might affect men too, but the overwhelming majority of those affected are women. For example, domestic violence. This is a real issue that cuts across a number of government departments and it needs to have a focus to ensure that it is on the political agenda and being addressed. In the past, it is the sort of thing that has tended to have been overlooked. It is the things like this that predominantly affect women that government needs to address and you need a Minister to provide the focus. The position of Minister for Women was introduced by the Conservative government and it is a position that has been maintained since.

Flexible working and some of the workplace issues are amongst the challenges about which I have to try to change people's perception. A lot of people are concerned about flexible working because it is something that the government says people have the right to request in certain circumstances. In fact, however, flexible working is not necessarily about working less hours - it may be about working part time or job sharing, but it might also just be the tailoring of your working time. It might equally be for a man or for someone with a particular medical condition such as arthritis or MS or for an older person. Whoever it is for, the flexibility enables them to remain in the work place and contribute to the economy. People should think of flexible working as something not only for women and something that can be of benefit in a wide variety of contexts - and, importantly, it is not just about someone working less time.

q: Women are strong in the political arena in the UK - what do women bring to politics that is special?

« women "do" politics in a different way »

a: Women "do" politics in a different way. They are more likely to approach it in terms of what we can deliver for people, not just what can we talk about. They challenge the stereotypes of women and their focus tends to be much more on the delivery and the provision of solutions.

We discussed earlier the "ya-boo" politics - women tend not to get so involved in that - they have a more practical approach looking for solutions. They also bring different experiences and therefore a different perspective. In the family it is still very often the woman who has most contact with the school, the Doctor's Surgery and so forth so they bring an experience of what is actually happening out there.

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