Today is a defining moment for the Liberal Democrats. Today we show what can be achieved as a party in power – that we can deliver on a promise that we put on the very front page of our manifesto: giving a fair chance to every child.
The Liberal Democrat’s purpose in Government is to make Britain a better, fairer nation. And ahead of next week’s comprehensive spending review, today we set out our plans for a four-year, £7 billion investment in improving opportunities for the most disadvantaged kids in this country.
Every disadvantaged two year-old will be entitled to 15 hours free early education – in addition to the existing entitlements at the ages of three and four. Every poor school child will get additional help from a Pupil Premium paid to their school. Every young adult who wants to go to university will be able to do so, undeterred by financial barriers.
By the end of the spending review period, we will be investing £3 billion a year on this Fairness Premium – including £2.5 billion on the pupil premium alone, £300 million on the extra help for two year-olds and £150 million on the university fairness scheme. From next year, we will he helping poorer children from two to twenty: from a child’s first shoes to a young adult’s first suit.
Given that we are having to cut spending these are sizable new commitments. But even as we cut spending, we are determined to invest in fairness.
Whatever Labour say, we have no choice but to tackle the deficit. Ed Miliband thinks otherwise. He says he represents a ‘new generation’. But he seems happy to saddle the next generation with the debt that his Government racked up. I am not.
Every day we lose more in interest payments to the financial markets: the amount we pay in interest is enough to build a new primary school every hour. Let me be absolutely candid: we have a hard road to recovery ahead of us. But also let me assure you, that as Liberal Democrats we are determined to ensure that road leads to fairness, too.
For me, this is personal. A decade ago I argued in favour of a pupil premium to help children and close the educational gap. Under Labour this gap has been left to widen and for too long the achievements in life have been dictated by the circumstances of birth. I represent a constituency in Sheffield where, for all Labour’s promises, inequalities still scar the community.
All of us are having to work hard in order to make the spending review fair. We’re all having to accept difficult cuts in many areas of public spending that we would very much rather avoid. Both parties in Government are having to negotiate and compromise. We’re all having to change our positions on some issues when the arguments demand it.
But all of us in this government, including the Prime Minister and myself, are not willing to compromise on a better future for the poorest children.
None of this would have been possible without all the hard work done by members up and down the country at the last election and over the many years before that. We should all be proud that we are delivering in Government the changes for which we have campaigned for so long.