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Jo Swinson’s speech to Liberal Democrat Spring Conference

March 10, 2013 9:00 AM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats
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Conference I want to put an idea to you. An idea that is often obscured by figures, balance sheets and talk of AAA credit ratings. The idea is this: that the economy is about people

A few months ago, a woman came to one of my surgeries. She'd heard about my 'Get East Dunbartonshire Working' campaign to find 100 work or training opportunities in 100 days. She wanted to know what advice I could give to her son. He was just about to turn 18 and looking for a chance to gain skills and work experience, and she was worried about his future prospects.

I was able to tell her about the investment this Government has made - from delivering more apprenticeships than ever before to giving half a million young people the chance to earn or learn through Nick Clegg's Youth Contract. I put her in touch with local training schemes and the companies that signed up to my initiative.

And what was the result of 'Get East Dunbartonshire Working'? Well, we exceeded our target of 100 opportunities in 100 days, with 31 people gaining work experience, 9 people starting apprenticeships and 69 people going into new jobs. Real action making a real difference to people's lives.

And it was to help people in our local communities that's why we got involved in politics in the first place. Why I stood to become an MP and why as a Party we entered this Coalition.

We Liberal Democrats have our own story to tell on the economy: a story made up of millions of people not just millions of figures. We want to create jobs and cut the deficit not just so numbers balance on a spreadsheet but to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling every individual to get on in life.

Now conference I don't mean to say that the financial numbers don't matter. Of course they do. They matter because of how they affect the lives of people up and down the country. People who are looking for training and opportunities to get on in life, people finding work, and finding that work pays, people who want to know that while they work hard and pay their taxes, the super rich don't opt out. So yes the figures do matter.

And they were horrendous when we first came into Government. We were left with an alarming financial situation by a Labour Party that simply can't be trusted to manage the economy.

You know the difficult job we've been tasked with when it comes to the economy - Steve Webb put the key challenge brilliantly yesterday "How do you create a fairer society when the country's broke?"

Labour's outgoing Treasury Minister put it more bluntly in his infamous welcome note: "There's no money left". Ed Balls used to brag about Labour's light touch approach to banking regulation - which put bankers before the ordinary people who use banks and trust them with their savings. Pyjama parties with media bosses, cosy relationships with union barons, doubling the 10p tax rate hitting low paid workers hard: that's Labour's record.

And now what are their plans? How will they right these wrongs? Ed Miliband recently said Labour would reintroduce the 10p rate. I wonder if he's heard of what Danny Alexander calls the 0p rate? Raising the income tax threshold to £10,000.

And now Labour also want to steal Vince's plans for a mansion tax. If only they'd listened to Vince when they were in Government, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now.

And what of the Conservatives? Well we know we can't trust them to build a fair society. Until we got into Government no one could stop the Tories from looking after the super rich who fund their party while ignoring the needs of ordinary people who struggle to make ends meet.

The Tories wanted to cut inheritance tax for millionaires - we said no. The Tories wanted to take housing benefit away from under 25s - we said no. The Tories wanted to implement the crazy Beecroft plan to hire and fire at will - and we said no.

And there's so much more we could do, would do if we weren't in coalition with the Conservatives and saddled with enormous economic challenges. But as Liberal Democrats we are making a real difference to people's lives right now.

And today I want to focus on some of the fantastic things we are doing to build a stronger economy in a fairer society: making our tax system fairer; standing up to economic vested interests and challenging concentrations of power; harnessing the potential of everyone in the UK through a modern workplace revolution and creating opportunities for people with a million new jobs and a million new apprenticeships.

Conference let's return to an idea I touched on earlier. Thanks to Liberal Democrats people now know that work pays. It's not an earth shattering idea, but it is an important one. Work should pay and delivering on our manifesto commitment for a fair tax system means that it now does. It's not fair to ask low-paid workers to pay hundreds of pounds in income tax - as they did under Labour

So we're putting £600 back in the pockets of 24 million people on low and middle incomes, as of next month. And you know we're not going to stop there: in the next two years we're going to increase this tax cut to £700, so that no one pays any income tax on the first £10,000 they earn.

And as Danny has said, we should go even further so that people working full-time on the minimum wage don't pay any income tax at all. Helping hard-pressed workers struggling with the rising cost of living and putting more money back into the economy.

That's one end of the scale - but the system needs rebalancing at both ends. So we're taxing private jets, we've increased Capital Gains Tax and for those who think a tax return is the place to show their creative side, we're cracking down on tax avoidance and clawing back money from those playing hide and seek with HMRC by closing loopholes and catching tax dodgers we'll bring in £9bn more each year - £9bn pounds.

With that, you could insulate nearly a million homes. Build nearly 1000 primary schools or host one magnificent Olympics - every year, wouldn't that be nice? By radically rebalancing our tax system we're putting money back in the pockets of low paid workers instead of the Swiss bank accounts of hedge fund managers.

Building a stronger economy in a fairer society means shining a light on corporate greed. Holding vested interests to account so people know the odds aren't stacked in favour of one group.

Liberals have a long history of curbing executive power and patronage, from widening the franchise throughout the nineteenth century to pioneering the use of free trade. So how do we apply this Liberal principle today?

Over the last decade, directors' pay has quadrupled with no clear link to company performance. Under Labour, executive pay rose from being 47 times that of that average worker, to 120 times. What does that say about our society? About what we value? About who we value?

Last year the shareholder spring saw a backlash against excessive pay. Thanks to Liberal Democrats in Government, we're now forcing companies to have binding votes on executive pay, curbing greed and stopping reward for failure. A radical reform to the balance of power in the economy.

But as Vince has been saying - long before it was fashionable - we also need to change the balance of power between banks and their customers. People need to be able to trust the banks again to look after their hard-earned cash and savings.

So we're putting a clear ring-fence between risky investment banking activities and day-to-day high street banking because banking should be safe for ordinary people. And now during the UK Presidency of the G8, we're driving the agenda of openness and accountability around the world.

The Government's commitment to transparency for the extractive industries is absolutely crucial. We already know that a wealth of natural resources can be a blessing - or a curse. Resources are worth billions and managed well, they can make a major contribution to a country's economy and transform people's lives.

However much of the developing world has unfortunately seen the ugly side of resource extraction, with pockets of wealth amid crippling poverty, waste and corruption.

I'm delighted to build on the work of my predecessors Norman Lamb and Ed Davey to champion strong EU rules so that extractive companies have to publish what they pay to foreign Governments.

We've also taken the lead in creating a new global standard for transparency in these industries - to empower citizens around the world to hold their Governments to account.

Holding those in positions of power to account is not only fair, but is vital to building a stronger economy.

Conference, as a woman in politics, I have always been passionate about breaking down the barriers that stop women from participating fully - whether in politics or business. When Nick invited me to join the Government as a Minister in the Department for Business, I immediately asked "Do I get shared parental leave?"

Luckily, Nick said yes, and right now, I'm taking the Bill through Parliament to make it happen. Giving dads and mums the freedom to choose how they share time off after having a baby. Replacing rigid rules based on the outdated stereotype that assumes that men are the breadwinners and the role of women is to stay at home and look after children.

As every parent knows, having children brings both joy and plenty of challenges. Our changes will let families get on with sharing the care responsibilities in whatever way works for them.

A better working life also means better access to childcare so we've made childcare a priority. Two thirds of women with young children say they'd work, or work more, if they had access to more childcare.

We've listened: we've extended free early years education for 3 and 4 years olds to 15 hours a week and for the first time we'll provide this to 40% of 2 year olds, from the most hard-pressed homes. And there will be more help on childcare to come.

Hand-in-hand with quality childcare should be the freedom for parents to manage their time. But not just parents, everyone, every single employee, which is why we're also extending the right to request flexible working to all employees. A modern workforce is a flexible workforce too

And a modern workforce should take into account the full potential of our older workers. We know that many older workers will value the chance to work flexibly and there's no reason why those who want to keep working should be forced out on the grounds of their age. We've put an end to all that by abolishing the default retirement age.

Taken together, these changes mean that those who want to work can do so whether the new mum who wants to continue her career, the stay-at-home dad who wants to work flexibly, the thriving 65-year-old who loves their job: encouraging and supporting them at work can only boost our economy.

Jobs and a stronger economy go hand in hand. Every person who has benefitted from the one million new private sector jobs we've created since coming into Government has a story to tell.

Vince told me about a letter he received from a father who had been worried for a long time about the future of the Vauxhall Plant at Ellesmere Port. Imagine for a moment that we'd received that letter 3 years ago - what could we as Liberal Democrats have done to help?

Well, we could have written a letter to the Secretary of State or tabled a few questions in Parliament. But because we are in Government, because Vince is the Secretary of State for Business, we managed to save 2,100 jobs and create 700 more atEllesmere Port last year. And that father who was writing to Vince was doing so to say: "thank you for doing whatever you did to save it."

That is why we entered this Coalition, not to balance the numbers on a spreadsheet but to help everyday people find work and get on: the mother in my constituency surgery who wanted help for her son, the father who feared for the jobs at Ellesmere Port and the young people given the chance to get on through Nick Clegg's Youth Contract.

There are more people in work than ever before, youth unemployment is lower than when Labour left office and 1 million people have started an apprenticeship since the election

So conference yes the economy is about people. People who know that it pays to work because the tax system is fairer. People who have the power to challenge vested interests. People who can achieve their full potential in workplaces better suited to modern lives. People starting new jobs and new apprenticeships so they can get on in life. That's what a stronger economy in a fairer society is about.

And it's what Liberal Democrats are delivering in Government