Well, thank you very much for that reception and thank you, Mike, for your speech this morning. You asked about our manifestos; I can sum mine up in a sentence: we’ve got an economic plan, it’s working and we need to stick with it. But that’s the one sentence version; I’ll now try and give you the ten minute version and have time to answer your questions.
I always enjoy coming to speak to this conference because you are absolutely vital to Britain’s future economic success and recovery. And in many ways, I believe what I’ve been doing for the last four and a half years is an economic turnaround of our country, and it’s been a joint endeavour with British business and British industry to make it work.
Economy and investment
And as I come and see you today, I don’t claim I’ve solved all the problems or my government has solved all the problems we face but we’ve made some good progress. As we stand today, we’ve got the fastest growing economy of any major economy in Europe; we’ve seen a huge turnaround in terms of employment, with two million new private sector jobs; we’ve seen the deficit come down, not by enough but it has come down, and we see Britain as a place that people want to come and invest.
I had a group of energy investors came into Number 10 Downing Street for breakfast the other day and I pressed them repeatedly: what other country should we be looking at where it’s easier to invest than in Britain and I’m pleased to report there was silence around the room. People said, ‘This is the country where we want to come and do business.’ But there is no ounce of complacency in this government; we are mid way through our plan, there’s still a huge amount of work to do and that’s what I want to talk about today.
To me there were really five things that needed to change in the British economy; we are changing them but we’ve got to stick with the plan.
Cost of government
Number one: we had to cut the cost of government, we had to get the deficit down and we’ve got to live within our means. Now, we’ve made good progress but there’s a huge amount left to do. We inherited a situation where Britain had the biggest budget deficit of almost any country in the world; it was heading for 11%; we’d seen our national debt double; public spending was not being controlled and I think you can see real progress being made.
Not only have we cut around £100 billion of public spending plans in this Parliament but we’ve also done a huge amount to make your government – the government that your taxes pay for – more efficient. We’ve managed to find £14.5 billion of efficiencies within government – that’s just about doing things better. That is worth £850 for every person in the country. We’ve managed to reduce the size of the Civil Service to its lowest level since the Second World War; we’ve managed to get out of about two million square foot of government buildings, that’s enough for another 26 Buckingham Palaces. And so we’ve made some good progress there but again there’s more to be done; we’ve got rid of 200 quangos but I think there’s still more we need to do on this agenda of making government more efficient, getting the deficit down and living within our means because every penny that we spend is money that has to be raised from taxpayers.
And we’ve also seen some individual performances where we’ve demonstrated something absolutely vital, which is that you can, if you work at it – and you all know this in business – you can get more for less. In terms of the Home Office budget, we’ve reduced that budget by 20% but actually crime has come down by 10% as we’ve become more efficient and effective in fighting it.
And so when I look to the future I know we’ve still got a lot more to do; the deficit’s still too high, we still need to make savings; frankly, the next Parliament is not going to be a competition about who can spend your money better, the next Parliament is still going to be a competition about who can make savings more effectively; who can make sure that government spends your money wisely. So that is challenge number one: good progress but more to do.
Enterprise and the private sector
Challenge number two – something, I hope, close to your hearts – was to make this country more business friendly and more enterprising and entrepreneurial because, in the end, it is a recovering and growing private sector that we need to be the growth engine of our economy.
Again, the inheritance was, frankly, pretty poor. In terms of the burden of government regulation, we had gone from fourth in the world to 86th in the world; we were sliding down those competitiveness league tables. And again we’ve taken action but again I would argue there’s more we need to do.
We’ve been looking at your agenda: we cut corporation tax, now coming down to 20%, the most competitive rate of any advanced country, and we’ve said we’re going to keep it the most competitive rate; we’ve reformed planning, we’ve made it easier to build; we’ve invested in infrastructure, which I’ll say more about later; we addressed some of the issues around personal taxes which I think were a bar to people investing and wanting to grow their businesses here in this country. But this is an agenda we’ve got to keep going on. I want Britain to be the best place in the world to start to grow and to expand a business.
And that’s why I’m particularly proud of the record on trying to encourage enterprise and entrepreneurialism because we’ve got some great big businesses here today; businesses that employ many thousands of people. But the job growth – the net job growth – I believe is going to come from the start up businesses, the small and medium sized enterprise businesses. So some of the things we’ve been doing, like the start up loans scheme, like the enterprise allowance scheme, encouraging new businesses – I really believe that is working. There are 400,000 more businesses in Britain today than when I became Prime Minister; we’ve experienced something like a million start-ups and I want as many of those to succeed and to go on and grow.
So making Britain more enterprise friendly, more business friendly - a big agenda; more to come and frankly I need your help. As I said, standing on this stage last year, I need you into our schools, into our colleges, into our universities encouraging people to start up businesses, to think of how they can contribute to the growth in our economy.
Getting Britain back to work
Third area – again, good progress but more work needing to be done – is getting Britain back to work. What we’ve seen over the last four and a half years, thanks to the efforts of people in this room, is that we have seen two million new private sector jobs; we’ve got 1.7 million more people employed in our country; we’ve got a record number of women employed, a record number of people employed.
To those who sometimes argue, ‘Well, robots and machines are going to come along and take all the jobs and it’s never going to be the same again,’ there have never been more people employed in our country but there are still pockets of high unemployment, there are still some people that don’t have the skills that they need and that is where I think the future of this agenda lies.
Those who said, ‘Private sector growth will never make up for the cuts in the public sector,’ have been proved completely wrong; we’ve created five times more jobs in the private sector than we lost in the public sector but the agenda now, I believe, is about skills and about education and about welfare reform. And this links, vitally, to the issue of immigration.
We need to have proper immigration control; we need to do more, both outside the European Union and, frankly, inside the European Union but the flip side of the coin on immigration is a welfare system that rewards work and an education system that turns out people with the skills necessary to do the jobs that we’re creating in our country today. And no immigration policy will succeed unless it’s accompanied by that welfare and that education reform as well.
So there’s a huge agenda there; when I look at what we’re going to be doing next, we’ve trained – you’ve trained – two million apprentices in this Parliament; we’re setting a target for three million apprentices in the next Parliament. We now see 800,000 more children in good or outstanding schools but we need to do more to intervene in failing schools, at the bottom; more to make sure that young people are getting careers advice at school that really points them to a good and strong future. And the ambition I have is that all our young people, leaving school at 18 rather than 16, should be thinking, ‘Which path am I going to take? Is it either a path to university and to a degree or is it an apprenticeship and the potential of doing a degree through that apprenticeship as well?’
I want to see fewer and fewer people leaving school and simply going into the workforce or indeed I want us to see us almost abolish youth unemployment. So that is the third challenge: continuing to get the country back to work and making sure we have the skills for the future.
Fourth challenge – and very relevant today – is making sure that, as a country, we have the infrastructure that can deliver a successful, modern economy for the entire nation. Again, the inheritance was weak: 2000 2007, years of plenty you might think but actually in those years Britain had the lowest infrastructure investment of any OECD country.
Now, as I’ve said, we’ve had to take difficult decisions in terms of spending, in terms of efficiencies, but we have prioritised infrastructure spending. It would have been very easy, as Prime Minister, faced with the decisions I had to take, to cancel Crossrail, to give up on HS2, not to talk about electrification of railways, not to talk about road or energy investment; I rejected that approach. I know that for Britain to succeed we’ve got to make these infrastructure investments. And what I can say today is we’ll continue to complete Crossrail, we’ll continue the work on HS2. I think the vision of HS3, creating a northern powerhouse across our country, is extremely powerful but what I can say today is focusing on the roads programme.
We are now not only spending as much on rail as any government since Victorian times, but on roads we’re now spending more than any government since the big expansion of the 1970s. And between now and 2020 we have plans for £15 billion of road spending; that could lead to an extra 100 schemes being undertaken on our roads and we’re looking specifically at those pinch points, those problem areas, that businesses and people have talked to us about and told us are so essential – looking at areas like the A303; absolutely vital for the west of our country; looking at the A1 north of Newcastle, a really key road for that part of our country; looking at the A47 in the East of England, a high growth region that needs better transport links; looking at roads across the Pennines and a number of other schemes. So a big investment, only possible because we manage the nation’s finances effectively.
And when I talk about infrastructure, I don’t just mean road and rail; I think the energy investment we’re making in our country is absolutely vital. I’m very, very proud that we’ve restarted our nuclear programme and Hinkley C is going ahead and big energy investment plans going ahead now and into the next Parliament.
I’d also include broadband. If you represent a rural constituency like I do, broadband and being connected to super fast broadband is as essential as being connected to the road and rail networks. I see all those things together and a very big programme for the next Parliament.
Rebalancing the economy
The fifth and final thing we needed to do, we are doing but we need to go on doing – and that is actually to rebalance our economy and, crucially, to sell our economy to the rest of the world. The rebalancing I think is vital. Before us, for every ten jobs created in the south of England, just one was created in the Midlands or the North. That isn’t good enough, the rebalancing of our economy is absolutely essential. I want us to build a recovery and an economy that is rebalanced between north and south and frankly rebalanced between services, finance and manufacturing and technology and exporting.
Now, this work is underway; people sometimes say, ‘Well all this recovery is just coming through in the South;’ that is not the case. If you look at where our exports are growing fastest, it’s the West Midlands; if you look at where employment is growing fastest, it’s the North West and North East; if you look at the part of the country with the greatest trade surplus, it’s the North East of our country. So we are rebalancing but these infrastructure investments are going to be absolutely vital in continuing to deliver that.
But frankly, in this very competitive world and what I talk about as the ‘global race’, selling Britain to the world is going to be as important too. I have tried to lead trade missions all over the world and will continue to do so. I have used international events, whether it’s the Olympics, whether it’s the G8, whether it’s the NATO summit to highlight and advertise Britain and every part of Britain as a great place to invest, and we need to make sure we continue with this. And I want to thank everyone who’s helped to fund the Great campaign which I think has added £1 billion of value to our exports.
Now, of course, as we think about our international engagement that leads us to arguments of – about Europe as well as the rest of the world. I think we need to take all these things together; I want a Britain that is engaged, selling, working, all the networks that we have – and we’re a member of every important organisation there is, from the G8, the G20, the UN Security Council, NATO, the EU and the like.
I’ll just end with two points about the European issue. First of all, Britain will only succeed in Europe if we are a strong economy. From your economic strength comes a lot of your power in international engagement and with a fast growing economy and an economy that people admire, I see that all the time.
Second point – final point – from me is this – and I hope it’s something that all of you, as businessmen and women will appreciate: you never get anywhere in life unless you have a clear strategy and a plan and you never get anywhere unless that strategy and plan includes all of the things that matter to your customers and to your shareholders. And frankly, Britain’s future in Europe matters to our country and it isn’t working properly for us at the moment and that is why we need to make changes. And I agree with what the CBI has said: we should be looking for a reformed European Union.
Now, I’m the politician who has the plan for that reform, who wants to see the single market safeguarded and not have us ordered around by the single currency countries. I want to make sure we belong to a Europe that is about a common market and cooperation and not about an ever closer union and I want to belong to a Europe that addresses people’s concerns, including concerns like immigration. Now, I’m clear, these things can be done; these things can be negotiated and we can then hold that in/out referendum and give the British people a proper choice about staying in a reformed European Union or opting not to belong to it.
That is a plan; that is a strategy to secure the best future for Britain. Simply standing here and just saying, ‘I will stay in Europe; I will stick with whatever we have, come what may’ – that is not a strategy, that is not a plan and that won’t work.
So thank you very much for your welcome, thank you for the work that you are doing to turn our economy round. I think we’ve made huge progress in these last four and a half years on jobs, on investment, on enterprise, on infrastructure but the job is not yet complete. I hope that you will see, as we come into this six months before the next election that the party and the team that has the plan for continuing to turn our economy round is the one that has been guiding you for the last four and a half years. Thank you very much indeed.
You talked a little about young people and up skilling them, making sure they’ve got the skills they need but I’d just invite you to say a few words about the existing workforce as well; we need our businesses to up skill, to re skill; your government enabled part time loans for part time students for the first time; the Open University has about 40% of all those part time students in the UK; about 80% of the FTSE 100 train their staff through the Open University. I wonder if you can say a few remarks about up skilling and re skilling our existing workforce?
I think you’re absolutely right. First of all, all credit to the Open University, which I think is doing a huge amount in our – in our country and around the world to promote learning and life long learning and also I think the work you’re doing with these massive, open online courses – these MOOCs – is a very exciting way of promoting not just the Open University but – you’re doing it – promoting all of the great universities in our country.
You’re completely right: the idea that you go to school, go to college, get a degree and stop learning and start working; that is oldthink. From now on, everyone is going to be thinking about how to continuously increase your skills through your life.
That is why I think some of these apprenticeship programmes are so exciting and I think where we need schools and some teachers to change their opinions about them – because a lot of apprenticeship programmes now are about earning and learning, including all the way up to and beyond degree level. And I think encouraging that through our workforce is going to be absolutely vital.
And I see the university sector and Open University sector as a really key part of our economy and one that I want to see us expand and make the most of. The way we’re going to win, as a country, is playing to our strengths and our universities, our science base – something else I should have mentioned in our – in my speech – are absolutely key strengths of our country.
Prime Minister, congratulations to you for an excellent speech but more important congratulations for the vision you’ve had on the infrastructure sector. Our sector in the UK PLC depends on effective infrastructure; a lot has been done and you articulated that quite well. As we move into the election period, how do we ensure that the promises and the expectation for inward investment continue beyond the election period?
I think we are making good progress on infrastructure. I follow very closely the progress with these big projects, particularly the progress on Crossrail, which I think is going extremely well; HS2; the prospects of HS3. Also the electrification of railway lines around our country; I think absolutely crucial for our future.
How do we make sure we keep encouraging inward investment? I think there’s one real key to that, which is consistency and predictability. Big international pension funds and banks and other investments want to know that they’ve got a predictable and secure environment. And I’d say where that’s most important is energy and that’s why I started my speech with those remarks about energy investors.
If you look at what’s in the pipeline in terms of renewable investment, nuclear investment, more gas capacity and all the rest of it I think you see a very, very predictable and clear infrastructure here for people to invest into and we need to keep that up.
On the issue of predictability and certainty, sometimes people say to me, ‘By raising issues about Europe and European reform, doesn’t that make life less predictable?’ I would argue quite the opposite. I think the worst thing for us to do, as a country, is to pretend this European debate isn’t happening. The best thing to do is to get out there, make the arguments, make the changes and then put that to the British people.
And I make one point about that: if there has been uncertainty, why is it that this has been such an extraordinary period of investment into our country? There have been months, under this Government, where we’ve been getting more investment into Britain than the rest of the European Union put together. So I think actually the record shows that we’ve created a very attractive country to invest into, and that is a key part of our economic success.
Prime Minister, as you know, yesterday Catalonia held a symbolic independence poll, against the advice from our constitutional court in Government to stop it. In your experience – in your opinion, after having managed so effectively, I would say, the Scottish referendum process, what would be the advice for Mr Rajoy, our Prime Minister, on this sensitive matter, and as well to other European leaders and countries where nationalisms are defying their borders?
Well, first of all, I’m absolutely delighted that the United Kingdom voted to stay together. I think we are better together, stronger together, and I’m glad that we’ve had that endorsement. I would say to my friend Mariano Rajoy, and to everyone in Spain: Britain is a great friend and a great ally of Spain. We work very, very closely together with you in so many important forums, whether the EU or NATO. We’re great lovers of Spain. We want Spain to stay united – to stay together. And our belief about referendums is these things should be done through the proper constitutional and legal frameworks. They should be done within them, and not outside them.
I’m very interested in what you have to say about education. My plea to you, really, is educational policy. May we have some clarity on qualifications so we can have some coherent information on apprenticeships that we support wholeheartedly. And perhaps might I suggest humbly that we might consider a ten year plan for education, as opposed to a two- or three year plan?
Very good point. Well, first of all, thank you for what you do. I think the crop of head teachers we have in Britain today are the best we’ve probably ever had, and I’m delighted that more and more are getting recognised through the honours system and in other ways for the work that you do. You can see it in the results: as I said, 800,000 more children in good or outstanding schools. I feel this very passionately, with a ten year old, and eight year old and a four year old in the state system.
I’ve been going round with my ten year old looking at schools in London, and I’ve been absolutely delighted by what I’ve seen. The emphasis on standards and on excellence and rigour, but also on brilliance in drama and art and music. So I think British state education, with the reforms that have been taking place, with the amazing work that’s being done, is in a very good state.
But let me answer your question directly: yes, I agree. We’ve had a period of reform – I think vital reform. We had too many qualifications that weren’t serving young people; we had league tables that weren’t necessarily working properly for schools or for parents; and we had exams that, I’m afraid, had been, in some circumstances, rather dumbed down through changes in approach in the past. And with the reforms that Michael Gove and I worked on so hard you’ve seen a change to standards and rigour and discipline – a change to qualifications.
But the need now is to let those bed down, and to make sure now young people can see what it is they’re going to study with their GCSEs and their ‘A’ levels – make sure that the curriculum beds down, because I think the period of really rapid change in terms of the structures – that is mostly done. Now what we want to see is that rigour spread throughout all our schools, and, frankly, the continued investment into schools by businesses and academy chains and others who want to see excellence in state education.
And that is why I make this appeal again: all of you have done extraordinary things in business. You’ve all got fascinating careers to talk about. I can remember almost everyone who came into my school who talked about their business life or what they’d done outside school. You can be extraordinary role models if you get into our schools and speak to young people about the things that you’ve done, and I would really ask you to do that, because I think if we can link up our schools and our businesses, and our universities and our businesses, better, we’ll be a real winner.
I’d be interested on the Prime Minister’s views as to whether there are certain matters that require much more party political consensus to be built. Some matters don’t lend themselves to five year fixed parliaments, so there needs to be much longer consensus around infrastructure, energy, education, EU immigration – things that last more than a five year fixed term. I’d be interested in your views on that.
The first thing I’d say is it’s good that we’ve got five year, fixed term parliaments and your government working hard all the way through that parliament knowing when the endpoint is; but it concentrates on government, rather than simply concentrating on politics. I think that has encouraged long termism.
Second point I’d make to you: look, we do need more long term – we need consensus about infrastructure, and I think it’s good that the Labour Party have now finally got behind HS2 and are going to back it, and I think consensus about infrastructure is a good thing. But arguing just for consensus for the sake of it I don’t think is necessarily to serve our democracy, our people or, indeed, our businesses. You all have choice in your businesses and your customers have choice and it’s important we have some choice in politics. It keeps us on our toes. It makes us think of fresh ideas. And that’s a good thing.
Prime Minister, thank you very much for your enthusiasm going forward. My concern is, members of the public generally, in terms of an MP – their esteem is not high, and why is that? I think probably we ought to look at MPs who’ve served in industry for a ten year period before they’re allowed to become an MP, because what you’re looking for is having people with knowledge to take the country forward, and you would then regain the trust of the public, which is a very important part of where we should be going.
I’ve got a lot of sympathy with that. I mean, I think it’s true to say that MPs are not universally loved or popular at the moment. I think often when you ask about members of parliament in their own constituencies where people can see that actually we roll up our sleeves and we get on with the job of representing people, trying to solve their problems, trying to bring investment to our local area, you can see those MPs that have got a clear plan about what they want to do for their local people and their local area actually do tend to be popular. So we shouldn’t, you know, throw the idea that the whole system doesn’t work and these MPs don’t work hard; they do, by and large, work hard.
In terms of experience, I would agree with you. I think what we need in the House of Commons is a range. I would say actually there are quite a lot of people who have experience particularly of working in big business. I spent, myself, over seven and a half years working for a FTSE 100 company. I think where we’ve fallen down in the past is not having enough people who’ve worked in small or medium sized enterprises, or been entrepreneurs. But I think if you look at the last election, the 2010 intake changed the House of Commons quite a lot. When I look at my own benches there are a lot of people on those benches who’ve worked in business, in industry, large and small.
But frankly we need people to want to step up and serve. I’ve been really encouraged by the number of people who’ve made successes in businesses, who’ve then want to come and serve the public sector, whether supporting academy schools, whether working in government organisations – I’m looking at John Armitt who did a brilliant job with the Olympics.
I’m really encouraged that more and more people in the private sector see as part of their career serving the country in other ways. So I’m actually a bit more optimistic that we can encourage people to do that, but with MPs, if you know people who’d make good Members of Parliament – they’ve worked in business, they’ve worked in industry - encourage them; my door is always open.
With that, thank you very much. Enjoy the rest of your conference, and thank you for all you’re doing for our country.