Nick Clegg transcript

Sunday 25 April 2010

Nick Clegg transcript

Saga speaks to Nick Clegg

PAUL LEWIS: Hello. In less than two weeks we will have to decide who to vote for in the General Election. The leaders of the three biggest parties in Parliament have agreed to answer questions from Saga readers. Today it's the turn of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. The Liberal Democrats, of course, have surged in the polls in the last 10 days, to achieve an almost equal footing in popular support with the Conservatives and ahead of Labour, but it's still very unlikely the party will win a majority of seats Parliament; much more probable is that no party will get an overall majority and that Nick Clegg will play a crucial part in deciding who governs the United Kingdom.

The votes of people over 50 will of course be crucial in deciding whether that happens. Nationally the over 50s are likely to account for a majority of the votes cast, and in many marginal constituencies the votes of older people will decide who is elected.

Saga's own manifesto for the Saga generation called for fairer finances, abolishing ageism, supporting carers and an intelligent approach to retirement, safer streets and a Parliament with a better balance of age and experience.

I am Paul Lewis, and thousands of questions have come in for the man who has gone from being "Nick Who?" to the person who, in two weeks' time, could decide who governs the country. Your votes may help him or prevent him achieve that key role.

Nick Clegg, welcome to Saga Speaks to the Party Leaders. Let's move straight to our first question, and we will start with the State Pension, a great concern to many of our readers. B Clarke writes:

"What exactly, Nick Clegg, without all the waffling", he says, "are you going to do for pensioners? Pensions are not very big compared with the rest of the EU. How about putting some money in?"

NICK CLEGG: First, we want to restore the earnings link immediately, and let me be very sort of specific on the detail. We basically think that pensions should increase either in line with earnings or inflation or 2.5%, whichever is higher. As everybody knows, the breaking of the earnings link -- well, it actually means that if the link hadn't been broken you would be getting a pension of what, about £135 rather than £97. That's one immediate step.

PAUL LEWIS: Let me ask you question about that --

NICK CLEGG: Yes, of course.

PAUL LEWIS: -- because we've had another question about that, because somebody's been reading your manifesto carefully, and it says "We will boost the State Pension immediately by restoring the link immediately with earnings growth", but in the tables at the back of your Savings and Spending, it doesn't start until 2012. Which is it?

NICK CLEGG: No, we would restore the earnings link immediately, but of course in terms of the costs, the costs relate to -- because there's been a decline of course in earnings, and --

PAUL LEWIS: As earnings are less than price increases.

NICK CLEGG: Exactly, so the calculations are based on the latest information available on inflation.

PAUL LEWIS: So it would start immediately?

NICK CLEGG: Yes, it would start immediately.

PAUL LEWIS: Sorry, you are in full flow, but perhaps --

NICK CLEGG: I am sorry, the second thing I wanted to say was, I mean, if you consider that I think about 37,000 people died of the cold this winter, the other immediate thing we would want to do is dramatically change the tariffs available to people on low incomes, particularly those retired on low incomes, who are finding it extremely difficult to meet heating bills, particularly when we have such cold winters.

What does that mean? Well, very specifically, at the moment, as probably everyone knows, the tariffs that you are charged when you pay for the heating in your home starts higher for the first units of energy and then decrease. This, in our view, is exactly the wrong way round, because it means of course firstly you have an incentive to burn up lots of energy which is bad for the environment because it gets cheaper the more you do so, but secondly, it is also socially unfair because it means that someone who is living in a five - storey mansion pays less per unit of energy to heat their whole home than a retired couple do to heat, you know, their flat, for example.

So we would want to turn that on its head and make the first units of energy cheaper, rather than the latter bits of energy, and we would also dramatically change the so-called social tariffs which are offered by the energy companies, which often, frankly, aren't anything of the sort. They are often not cheaper than the cheapest available commercial tariffs.

So that's the second big step.

So restoring the earnings link of pensions, changing dramatically the way in which energy is charged, and then of course we have particular plans on care as well.

Firstly, we want to see --

PAUL LEWIS: Let's move on to care a bit later, if we may, and stick with pensions.

NICK CLEGG: Okay, sure.

PAUL LEWIS: Dennis wants to know: "Why did the Lib-Dems scrap the Citizens Pension idea?"

And many other people have said, "Why don't you have a universal pension of £130 a week", as Saga would like.

But first I'm going to ask you, from Brian:

"You're on record as saying the old age pension is about 30 quid a week. Do you know how much it is?"

NICK CLEGG: Of course I do. It's about £97. I got it wrong and I apologised immediately, and made a spectacular --

PAUL LEWIS: So how much would it be?

NICK CLEGG: Well, of course, if you had restored the earnings link, or maintained it, it would now be around £135. I got it wrong, I was embarrassed, I said "sorry" immediately. Mind you, not as embarrassed as I would be if I was the government who have presided over, what, 2.5 million pensioners still living under the poverty line. But no, I got the figure wrong in a particular interview. But can I just --

PAUL LEWIS: Why not go back to telling us what --

NICK CLEGG: Yes, exactly. We want that, of course we do. It's our stated intention that we should have a citizen's pension which would be in line with the pension credit, which would be universal and would be as generous as the questioner envisages.

PAUL LEWIS: So in lines with the pensions credit, £132 a week?

NICK CLEGG: Exactly. We are just being very open. We don't know how to pay for that now. I mean, really --

PAUL LEWIS: You did at the last election but you don't in this election?

NICK CLEGG: Of course, because as we all know, the world has changed utterly. So what we have done is we have said "That is something that of course we will deliver, and we think should be delivered, by the next government when resources allow, when growth returns, when the tax receipts come back, and when we fill this black hole. But you see, what we did a year or so ago, when we looked at the state of the public finances, realised that because of the greed of the bankers, you know, the economy had gone belly up, there was much less money around, we decided we had to be a lot more selective about what we spent money on and what we didn't.

So in the area of pensions we thought restoring the earnings link, making sure that we have these significant changes in how energy is charged, an approach to carers which perhaps we can come to in a minute, and we said the citizen's pension is what we want to deliver. We will deliver it, but we are just not going to be able to promise it overnight, because I think the one thing that, you know, no-one is going to believe any more is politicians promising something for nothing. What we have tried to do in our manifesto, as you suggested earlier, is actually detail quite precisely not only what we are going to do but how we are going to do it.

PAUL LEWIS: And one of the things you do suggest is taking the winter fuel payment from people aged 60 to 64. We've had a number of emails on that, including A Crowhurst and J Cutworth. Isn't it just the wrong time to cut £500 million from the winter fuel payment when fuel prices have gone up so much?

NICK CLEGG: Well, let me be clear, I think there's been some slightly mischievous misrepresentation of our position by some other parties.

The age eligibility for winter fuel payments is going to increase from 60 to 65 over the coming years.

PAUL LEWIS: As the women's pension age rises.

NICK CLEGG: Yes. That's a decision which the government has already taken. What we are saying is there are a large number of people in this country, particularly those who are disabled and those who are terminally ill, who we think should receive the winter fuel payment.

PAUL LEWIS: That are younger than that?

NICK CLEGG: Yes, yes. So irrespective of age, we think there are people who are terminally ill, people who are severely disabled, who aren't receiving the winter fuel payment, which is really really unfair because it means that, you know, if you are a carer of someone who is severely disabled and you need to keep your home very warm, you've got no help to do that under the current system. So we want to extend the winter fuel payment to about a million people in that category.

How we would do it is by simply bringing forward the date at which the age eligibility rises, bring it forward now and use that saving, if you like, in order to actually extend the winter fuel payment. We think that is fair. But let me stress, anyone who is under 65 who receives the pension credit will continue to receive the winter fuel payout.

PAUL LEWIS: But that's the ones who receive pension credit. The ones under 65 who don't get pensions credit will have it taken away from them.

NICK CLEGG: The ones under 65 who are not on a pensions credit will receive the winter fuel payment when they are 65, not before, and instead we will be using the money, as I said, to extend the winter fuel payment to people who we think -- and I hope everybody would agree -- are in very serious need of more help.

PAUL LEWIS: Sure, but people currently getting it will have it taken away from them and then get it back at 65?

NICK CLEGG: Yes. I mean, I'm being very open about this --

PAUL LEWIS: You are, I'm just trying to be clear that we've got it right, though.

NICK CLEGG: That is the effect of it, but can I just sort of put the choice like this: given that money is tight, we have a choice: do we extend the winter fuel payment to people who are disabled, who are terminally ill, who desperately need help and whose carers are given no help at all with their fuel bills, or, for instance, do you maintain a system which is going to change anyway in the future and isn't helping those people?

PAUL LEWIS: And will you maintain it in the future? Because AJ Crowhurst also says, "Vince Cable", your Shadow Chancellor, "said on TV that the Lib-Dems would review the winter fuel payment and might revoke it, which none of the other two parties have said."

NICK CLEGG: No, that's not our -- our plan is exactly as I have set out, which is to bring forward the increase in the age eligibility and use the money instead to extend it to a million people who really really need help.

PAUL LEWIS: Let's move on to tax. We have had an awful lot of questions on this, and of course your headline policy of raising the tax allowance to £10,000. This means that no?one will pay tax on their income below £10,000, but of course we have had a number of people, including Edith Steel, who says "At present the personal allowance for people over 65 is already almost £10,000, and indeed, by next April it will be £10,000 for people over 75. There's no appreciable difference. Why not do something radical and abolish the basic rate of tax for pensioners?"

NICK CLEGG: Well, that would be one option. We have chosen instead to raise the --

PAUL LEWIS: -- but that won't help people over 65 --

NICK CLEGG: It will help a bit. It will be about £100 on average per year. As you know, the allowance is different --

PAUL LEWIS: Sure, but for the over 75s it will be £10,000 anyway by next April under present government plans, so they will get nothing more from you.

NICK CLEGG: Well, the vast majority of people will get some extra benefit. We have calculated that benefit as around £100 for many, many pensioners, but of course, I mean, we are being quite open about the fact that the people who it helps the most are people who are working during their working lives who are able to retain more of their money --

PAUL LEWIS: And many of them are quite well off.

NICK CLEGG: Well, it takes -- well, I think it's not -- it takes about 3.6 million people out of paying income tax altogether. And let's think this through. If we introduce this, it means that for people who are working but are working up to retirement, they are gaining £700 a year in money which they retain, which of course helps them prepare for their retirement much much more fully. If you combine that with our approach to removing the compulsory retirement age, removing the compulsory age at which you have to take out an annuity, so in other words giving more flexibility to people to decide how to structure their retirement, how to access their pension funds, plus the fact that they will be getting more money in their pocket during their working life, I think that adds up to a very, very good deal for people who are seeking to make sure that they are looking after themselves and being looked after with dignity in old age.

PAUL LEWIS: Wouldn't it mean £700 for you and me as well, and perhaps we don't really need it?

NICK CLEGG: Well, it depends. It depends how much you also receive money in capital gains, it depends how much contribution you are making into your pension pot if you are an upper rate earner; it depends what kind of home you live in -- we are saying there should be a Mansion Tax on properties over £2 million -- it depends on how much you fly, for instance. So some flights we think should be charged more because of the environmental impact --

PAUL LEWIS: You will take it back in other ways.

NICK CLEGG: Of course you take it back in other ways, and crucially, you do take it back in ways where at present you've got huge loopholes in the tax system which generally only benefit the very rich. So I read in the newspapers constantly, "Oh, this proposal isn't fair because it actually helps the rich as much as it helps everybody else." That's nonsense. If you are someone who is presently exploiting these huge loopholes and if you are lucky enough to be able to employ a football team of lawyers and accountants to get out of paying tax or paying much less tax than anybody else, under our scheme you will pay more and the money will be redistributed to millions of people who I think desperately need a break.

PAUL LEWIS: Sure. But for ordinary people who are nevertheless well paid like you and me, who don't exploit the tax system, who pay higher rate tax -- as I'm sure you do, as I do as well as, I have to confess -- we would still gain 700 quid, and we really don't need it.

NICK CLEGG: No, but you would lose out -- I'm not sure everyone will welcome this --

PAUL LEWIS: I don't live in a £2 million house, either.

NICK CLEGG: Well, no, but for instance, we are saying that in the pension contributions you make to your pension pot, we think that the tax relief should be equalised at 20%, so you would in a sense be receiving less tax subsidy, less tax relief on your pensions contributions. I don't want to wilfully underline where you are going to lose out, but you would receive less of a tax subsidy at that point, and that money, which saves a lot of money, would be recycled penny for penny, pound for pound, on raising the threshold to £10,000.

PAUL LEWIS: Yes. Of course there is a headline in one of the newspapers on the day we are broadcasting this, which says --

NICK CLEGG: There are a lot of headlines.

PAUL LEWIS: -- which says "Experts plan Clegg's £5 billion pension plan", where you are going to take £5 billion of tax relief back. Doesn't it mean, if you do that, that people simply won't want to save?

NICK CLEGG: I think it's a question of sort of first principles, of fairness. Do I think it is fair that many many people on ordinary incomes are paying, as taxpayers, a subsidy to the top 10% of earners in this country which is twice as much as the subsidy they receive? I mean, however much you might have experts rolled out to say this, that and the other, I just think that's unfair. I simply don't see why, when money is tight, people on ordinary incomes should pay twice as much to the people who least need help.

And by the way, let's also remember, if we can get technical for a minute, the top 10% of earners, when they get tax relief, the 40% tax relief on their pension contributions, the vast vast majority of them move down to the sort of basic rate of tax on how they are taxed when they secure or take their pensions later. In other words, the vast majority of them move down to the 20% bracket anyway, so they are getting a double benefit at the moment.

PAUL LEWIS: So it is a tax-saving dodge, in your view?

NICK CLEGG: It's an unfair benefit to people who least need the help. And crucially, if we do this measure and we basically say yes, there should be tax relief but it should be the same for everybody, I think we can do something much fairer with that money.

PAUL LEWIS: We are having loads of questions coming in, hundreds of them. Let me just give you this one, which doesn't have a name with it:

"If you were in government with David Cameron", and we will come on to the prospects of that in a moment, "what would your attitude be to the Conservative proposal to raise the level at which inheritance tax is paid to £1 million?"

NICK CLEGG: I think it's completely wrong. I think it's the wrong priority at the wrong time. Here we've got an economy in serious trouble, a black hole which we desperately need to fill. Money is very, very short. What do Conservatives want to do in that environment? They want to spend what little money there is around to give an inheritance tax cut to double millionaires. Now, there's a huge difference there. We're saying -- and I'm enjoying some answers on the specific questions about how our scheme works. We are saying that we want to make sure that the tax system is fairer, in other words, give a tax break, a significant tax break to large large numbers of people who desperately need a break. The Conservatives want to spend billions of pounds only giving a tax break to a tiny number of people who are double millionaires, in inheritance tax. I think it's the wrong priority. And by the way, I think if they were to get into government they would drop it immediately, because surely they would realise this is the most inappropriate use of scarce resources at a time when we should be using that money to give people help.

PAUL LEWIS: Another pledge by the Conservatives is to freeze Council Tax. Council Tax came out as one of the most hated taxes when Saga did a survey some time ago. R Ritchie says:

"Why is it that my wife and I, both disabled, mid?70s, pay double Council Tax, while those households with four wage earners pay the same?"

NICK CLEGG: I agree. I think Council Tax is iniquitous, it is unfair, and in the long run we want to see it removed altogether. The way we want to see it removed altogether is by moving, over time -- and this will take time; again, we don't think we can do this by waving a magic wand and doing it by next Tuesday, but over time we should remove Council Tax altogether because it's not a fair tax based on the ability to pay, as your questioner has rightly indicated, and move towards some form of local taxation based on the ability to pay. What we would like to see is some early pilots where local authorities, if they want, put themselves forward to see how they could pilot this kind of thing.

PAUL LEWIS: So a local incomes tax, in fact?

NICK CLEGG: Well, I mean, it's an immensely complicated shift, bluntly, to move from Council Tax to a local income tax. We would want to take an immediate step to provide local authorities with more say on how money is raised and spent, by, for instance, localising business rates. That would probably be a more dramatic step in terms of making the tax system a more devolved tax system than anything else. That's something we would want to do immediately. In the longer term we want to move away from Council Tax.

But can I just make a point about the Conservative proposal of freezing Council Tax?

PAUL LEWIS: Briefly, because it's your policies we want to know about.

NICK CLEGG: Okay, it is, but all I would say to people is, don't believe that we can deliver something for nothing. We have been having a discussion here about how we are putting forward proposals which are controversial and about how we would pay for our proposals. The Conservatives now have a 'shopping list' which keeps getting longer every day. They want to give an inheritance tax break to double millionaires, they want to freeze Council Tax, they want to give a National Insurance tax break to small businesses, they want to stop the National Insurance increase. They want to hand-pick a few married couples to give them a tax break. And on all of those things, they are not explaining how they would pay for it.

PAUL LEWIS: Well, they would disagree with that, but --

NICK CLEGG: Well, you can't say all that, by the way, and say at the same time you are going to cut the deficit but only tell people how you are going to do that after the election, and then spend a lot more money on public services without spelling out how you are going to pay for the money. The reason I underline this point is because I think in this latter phase of the General Election campaign, a lot of people, I think, are going to ask very searching specific questions about how the political parties are going to help them and their families, and they will want to know that people aren't only just saying what they're going to do but also explaining how they are going to do it.

PAUL LEWIS: Hayley Higginson wants to know exactly that:

"How will the generation now in their 40s and 50s who have saved in pensions schemes cope with devalued pensions? My husband has saved since he was 16. The pension is going to be peanuts. With this happening, how can you encourage young people to save?", and she says she is a "worried, wavering Tory voter". How can you assure her that her pension her husband saved for will be worth having?

NICK CLEGG: Firstly, the State earnings link --

PAUL LEWIS: No, no, I'm talking about a private pension, not a state pension.

NICK CLEGG: Private? Well, the main thing we want to see of course is more flexibility in the way that people administer their own pension plans, allowing people access to drawing down from --

PAUL LEWIS: They will have less in retirement then.

NICK CLEGG: Actually, all the evidence is strangely enough that if people feel that it's more flexible, they start saving earlier. This might sound counterintuitive because I have heard the argument, we have looked at this argument that says that then you have less capital to draw on later. I think it's logical -- I speak as someone who is 43 and it seems like a long way off, but I of course, and my wife, will need to think about how we prepare for retirement, and actually it would encourage me more to save if I feel I have a greater say about how I would then use those savings. I also think that scrapping the compulsory age at which you would take out an annuity would also give people more flexibility.

PAUL LEWIS: You talk about what you want to do, and of course that will only happen if you have the power to do it, and I think realistically the power you will have will be if there is a hung Parliament and you are in there, saying --

NICK CLEGG: Well, you never know. Dramatic things have happened over the last week or two!

PAUL LEWIS: If there was a third of the votes each you would only have 100 odd seats, so I think a majority with Nick Clegg as Prime Minister is perhaps unlikely. But anyway, leave that to one side.

NICK CLEGG: I'm glad you call it "unlikely" rather than "impossible". You never know.

PAUL LEWIS: "In the event of a hung or coalition Parliament", Roger Davis asks, "what areas of your plans, some of which you have told us about, would you not compromise on?" And he says "no ifs or maybe's".

NICK CLEGG: Right, four things. We want to see a fairer tax system in the way that I've described. We want to see more one-to-one tuition and smaller class sizes in our schools because we think our schools are still not providing a fair start in life to all children. We want to take a radically different approach to the other two old parties to banks: we want to split up the banks, we want a 10% tax on their profits until they are split up.

PAUL LEWIS: These are things you will do? This will be your price for power?

NICK CLEGG: I will be very very clear, if I can just finish. The fourth thing is cleaning up British politics, both in terms of party funding reform, reforming the House of Lords, giving people the right to sack their MPs, having a fairer electoral system.

So fairer taxes, smaller class sizes, a new approach to the economy, a particularly new approach to the banks, and cleaning up politics. Those are four things where I have been very very open for months now. That is our -- if you like, that's our blueprint for government.

PAUL LEWIS: That's your price for power? That's the price for supporting you if you have a minority in the House of Lords?

NICK CLEGG: Those are the changes which we think are absolutely necessary to make Britain a fairer place and to restore people's confidence.

PAUL LEWIS: I know, but are they your price of power, all four of them, no compromise?

NICK CLEGG: Clearly, if you talk to other parties it is absurd to suggest that you don't have any compromise on anything, because then of course you will never ever get an agreement. I think people are actually a lot more mature, dare I say it, than a lot of the conventional political wisdom suggests, and that people accept that politicians need to talk to each other.

So what I am saying is, is it a tablet of stone in which I will never ever countenance that there can be any modification exactly how long it will take us to deliver this specific dimension or that? Clearly not. Of course you need to. What I am saying, and I have been much clearer than Gordon Brown and David Cameron, is that these are our priorities. This is what we are arguing for. We want to win the argument in this election campaign so that we have the legitimacy, if you like, and the momentum, to say to any other politicians we are having to speak to, these are the things we want, and by the way, these are the things that millions and millions of people voted for as well.

PAUL LEWIS: Many people I think would like a hung Parliament but they would like it really because it means there will be a sort of government of national unity. We have had a question come straight in live, as hundreds of others have, from Derek Patterson, and he says:

"If there is not a conclusive result of the election, could we have the opportunity of electing a government of national unity, as was done in World War II, with the best of all parties in the cabinet?"

Is that your dream as well?

NICK CLEGG: My view is that there are now such big issues that we are facing that there are now areas where we need to cooperate across parties, regardless of the outcome of the election.

Let me give you a very good example. I think this issue of the fiscal black hole, this great structural deficit, is now so great, and there has been so little candour certainly I think from the other parties on exactly how they would deal with this, it would be a good thing to have the Chancellor of whatever party that is -- ideally of course it would be Vince Cable, because I think he has distinguished himself quite rightly as by far the most authoritative politician on this issue for months -- to have Vince Cable and the other Chancellors and Shadow Chancellors of the other parties, the Governor of the Bank of England and the head of the Financial Services Authority, sitting in something that Vince Cable and I have called the Council for Financial Stability, and for once agreeing with each other what the scale of the fiscal deficit is, coming clean with people how big that black hole is, and being open with people about how long it would take to fill it.

That in a sense -- I mean, it's not a government of national unity, but it is trying to seek unity on a particularly urgent and big problem that we face as a country, and I think politicians should act in the national interest and put people before politics.

Also I think on care we need to have a common approach. I think on public sector pensions we also need to have a common approach --

PAUL LEWIS: This would involve other politicians --

NICK CLEGG: Yes, absolutely.

PAUL LEWIS: You wouldn't just say Vince Cable for that --

NICK CLEGG: Oh no, no, no.

PAUL LEWIS: You might say Vince and Alistair Darling and one or two others to discuss it together.

NICK CLEGG: No, no, very explicitly, the proposal that Vince and I put forward is that the Chancellors and Shadow Chancellors of each of the parties should explicitly be sitting together, because I just -- you know, I think -- again, I think people are much more open to this than conventional political wisdom suggests. They want politicians to talk to each other on those issues where everybody intuitively knows none of the political parties have got all the answers and the scale of the problems are so great that they extend not only beyond one party, they actually extend beyond one government to one Parliament.

PAUL LEWIS: Of course the scale of the public finances is almost beyond human comprehension, isn't it: £952 billion of debt. We are planning to spend £163 billion more this year than the income from taxes. Although you have a lot of detailed figures in your manifesto, people are still confused what you do.

Geoff Barnes and David Williams both say to me:

"What are you going to do to reduce the £1 trillion debt", which it is, roughly, "to get the UK out of what they call bankruptcy? What's the Lib-Dem solution and its time-scale?"

NICK CLEGG: Okay. The bit of the deficit, the bit of the black hole that we are focusing on, is what the economists call the "structural deficit". The structural deficit is in effect that bit of the black hole, the deficit, which is immune to growth. In other words, even if the economy was to sort of grow like billy-o, you would still not be able to touch that. It's like a sort of layer of deficit. All the economists agree that that is the bit that --

PAUL LEWIS: How much is that?

NICK CLEGG: Well, it's estimated at around £67 billion, so just shy of £70 billion. Now, the Government have announced £19 billion worth of increased taxes in order to start dealing with the structural deficit. We have put forward £15 billion worth of cuts and savings in our manifesto, of which two-thirds, £10 billion, would be added to that £19 billion from the government as a down payment, if you like, to further dealing with the structural deficit. That takes you close to £30 billion of dealing with a £67 billion structural deficit.

What we want to do is arrive at a point where, over the next four years, you halve that structural deficit. We think that we are getting within shouting distance of that, although of course we would need to take further measures to make it a reality. So that is, if you like, in very concrete terms what we have set out in our manifesto, what timetable we envisage and also what bit of the deficit we think most critically needs to be addressed.

PAUL LEWIS: But all the experts I have talked to -- and I have talked to many over the last few weeks about this -- say that you are going to have to save so much money -- and you mention a figure of 70 billion -- you are going to have to cut the public sector, you are going to have to get rid of people in employment with the government, and yet June Bonewell says:

"You said in Saga magazine", in the statement that you made "you wanted thousands more police on the streets. How do you provide thousands more police and cut £70 billion off public spending?"

NICK CLEGG: Sure. The only way I think you can square that circle is that when you make any commitment to provide more of anything -- and we are absolutely committed to providing 3,000 more police officers on our streets -- you need to spell out where those cuts come from. Now, as it happens the cost of providing 3,000 extra police is almost exactly equivalent, as coincidence would have it, to the money the government wants to spend -- your money -- on finalising completing the ID card project. So there is a simple choice. Do you spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a plastic card which you are going to have to pay for, to have the privilege of the Government storing lots of your personal data? I personally think it's a no-brainer. Better to stop that and spend the money instead on more police officers.

In the same way, we have a very specific pledge to raise the starting salary of servicemen and servicewomen at lowest ranks who go into the military services, because we think it's wrong that someone who starts at junior ranks in the Army at the moment is being paid about £6,000 less than someone who starts in the police or the army[sic]. Again, we would be very clear that can only be paid by cutting things. We think there is too much bureaucracy at the Ministry of Defence: 800 civil servants, for instance, up and down the country working on communications. We think there's too much sort of top brass, two Admirals for each warship. We also of course, in the longer term, think there are some big defence contracts like the third tranche of the Eurofighter, the Trident and so on, the like-for-like replacement of Trident, which are not justifiable.

So, yes, the only way you can provide more of anything is by spelling out how you are going to provide less in other areas. I completely accept that, and I am very proud of the fact that in our manifesto we have set out, line-by-line, where we are cutting things and saving things in order that we can be credible on how we are going to provide more of other things.

PAUL LEWIS: We are about halfway through and I'm going to move on from finances, but just before I move on from what we have been talking about, all these plans rely on you having a say in government, and yet you have said Labour is increasingly irrelevant, you have talked about Gordon Brown "squashing" in number 10 --

NICK CLEGG: I don't think "squashing", but --

PAUL LEWIS: "Squatting", and David Cameron, who you might have to join up with, is opposed to electoral reform. A number of people say to us, how can you work with any -- either of these men?

NICK CLEGG: Well, the question really is, how can they work together with the Liberal Democrats?

PAUL LEWIS: Because they need you.

NICK CLEGG: Well, yes. This is where I think in a sense people sometimes ask the question the wrong way round. If we get enough people supporting us, and that is why I say to people, you know, "Join us. Support us. It's your country, it's your election, not mine." It's not my personal choice about whether I play 'eeny meeny miney mo' with the other parties, but if a sufficient number of people, millions of people, support the Liberal Democrats, support our proposals for restoring the earnings link, for fairer taxes, for smaller class sizes, for cleaning up politics, for a new approach to banks, then other parties will not be able to avoid our, you know, demands to deliver on those things. That's what I care about.

I honestly didn't go into politics to sort of just thrash out deals with other politicians, I'm much more interested in seeking to win the argument and have enough support for the big changes that we have talked about.

PAUL LEWIS: We have talked about the Conservatives and Labour, who I suppose one imagines you would have to work with, but Nick Crowson - Towers writes, in an email which has just come in:

"Would you work with the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, maybe others, to achieve a workable majority of minority parties?"

Quite an aim there, isn't there, for you?

NICK CLEGG: It's a Smorgasbord of options. But my answer is the same, which is that firstly I am not going to second guess what millions of people will decide either by postal ballots on over the next few days or in the privacy of the ballot box on May 6th. I have never ever agreed with the kind of complacency with which other politicians from other parties have sort of sought to either second guess people -- or actually even worse, which is now happening from both David Cameron and Gordon Brown -- frighten people into saying "You are not allowed to choose", as if somehow people should do what they're told. I'm not going to do that. I've never done that; I'm not going to do it now.

What I am going to do, and I've been very clear about this right from the beginning, is that whilst I can't anticipate the outcome of the General Election, I can predict now what are the things that I will always fight for. I've been really open about that. Those are those priorities that we talked about earlier. If you like them, vote for them. I will then seek to try and deliver them for you.

PAUL LEWIS: That's a clear message.

Let's move on now to ageism. Let me start with this question:

"Vince Cable is clearly one of your assets", says Russ Butterfield, "but the rest of your team looks very young, and Nick, you are only 43. Do you think it's important that Parliament should reflect the age of the population?"

NICK CLEGG: Yes, I think it is.

PAUL LEWIS: And 43 is not too young to be such a key person?

NICK CLEGG: I can't deny my age, I'm afraid. It's one of those things that I can't change. The grey hairs will start soon. If they haven't started during this campaign, they will soon. But I agree --

PAUL LEWIS: Apart from Vince, it's a young team.

NICK CLEGG: You say that, but I mean --

PAUL LEWIS: I didn't say it, Russ Butterfield says it.

NICK CLEGG: Let me explain. Ming Campbell, my predecessor, is an absolutely vital part of the Liberal Democrat team. We have Chris Huhne, who is in his 50s; he's one of the absolute leading members of our team. I think we've got a great mix of experience, enthusiasm, youth, age. But, the wider question is, do I think Westminster as a whole should be more reflective of society as a whole and that it should encourage those of whatever age to join in politics? Yes, I do.

My own view is that one of the things that discourages people from perhaps joining in politics later in life is that they are so put off by this kind of facile, you know, Punch and Judy kind of culture in Westminster, which I think is very off-putting to anyone who has a mature outlook on life. One of the things I would seek to do, by delivering the big changes, the new politics that I have talked about, is introduce a more level-headed approach to politics where it's not all boiled down to how loud people can yell at each other for half an hour every Wednesday afternoon. I think we can do better than that, and I think that will attract more people who are otherwise being repelled by Westminster.

PAUL LEWIS: So that's the political side, but C Charlesworth says:

"You are only 43", as they put it, "How can you have any conception of what it's like to be a pensioner? Have you, for example, ever put a relative in an old people's care home?"

NICK CLEGG: I haven't put a relative in an old people's -- of course I have grandparents, and, you know, my family is as concerned as everybody else about what happens as parents and grandparents get old. My parents are retired, they are in their mid-70s, and of course I'm also an MP and extremely proud to serve my community in South West Sheffield, where of course I'm constantly seeking to help.

The one thing I would say is that I hope we are not going to get to that position where people say that because you are like this or you are like that, or you are that age, that you somehow can't imagine what it's like. It's a bit like saying that you know, a man could never imagine the dilemmas of a young mother, or that someone who is older can't imagine the dilemmas of someone who is leaving university. I think one of the things that makes us human is our ability to empathise, our ability to express compassion and our ability to imagine the lives of others and seek to try and help others. That's certainly what I have always sought to do myself.

PAUL LEWIS: One specific question from Alan Livingstone:

"What does your party intend to do to safeguard the over 50s against age discrimination? For example, will you allow firms to continue to discriminate against those of pensionable age at 65 by forcing compulsory retirement?"

NICK CLEGG: No, I think it's wrong.

PAUL LEWIS: You would scrap that rule?

NICK CLEGG: I would scrap that rule straight away. I really think it's so out of date. So many people I meet who come up to their retirement age are saying, you know -- they almost feel, how can I put it, they almost feel they are delivering the best of their years in work, and they don't want to be told that they suddenly are no longer welcome in work. Many employers I speak to also say that they would welcome the ability to employ people.

So I think we should scrap the retirement age. There has been recent legislation, as you know, which is --

PAUL LEWIS: The Equality Act.

NICK CLEGG: -- the Equality Act, which is, you know, specifically seeking to tackle age discrimination, and I think all of those things would make a big big difference in making society generally much more -- much less discriminatory against those beyond a certain age, and also get the best out of people. I mean, this is the thing. In a sense I've got an old-fashioned liberal view. My world view starts with the idea that every single person, irrespective of what gender, what age, what religion, what denomination, what part of the country they come from, deserves the right to be able to live their lives out in full. And I think age discrimination is one of those many things that holds people back.

PAUL LEWIS: Just very briefly, because it's a point that was made to me by David Cameron and others: You say employers support this. Not all of them do. A lot of them quite like the fact that at 65 you can say "Time to go", without saying "We would like you to leave because you are a bit past it."

NICK CLEGG: Well, I disagree with him. Again, I have spoken to employers who see it as an opportunity, not as a cost, and I think they are right. If every time we came up with a suggestion which might actually help many people, we reacted to those people who shouted loudest about their fears about what the effects would be, then nothing would ever change.

PAUL LEWIS: Now, you have talked about changing this. Obviously there are difference points of view. If you were Prime Minister or if you had a say in the structure of the next Cabinet, would you have a Minister for Older People? This is a question from our editor, Kate Bravery, put on behalf of many readers who have sent it into us.

NICK CLEGG: I hadn't thought about it before, if I'm really honest with you. I hadn't thought that what would be required was like a Minister just devoted to older people.

PAUL LEWIS: There's a Minister for Women in the present Cabinet, for example.

NICK CLEGG: There is, but what I'm trying to say is just because I haven't thought about it doesn't mean that I'm implacably opposed to it. I'm probably slightly wary, if I'm honest, of segmenting the British population into lots of little groups and then before you know it you've got a Cabinet three times the size because everybody's sort of falling over themselves to represent this group or that age group.

But can I say I think what is essential, and this is the crucial thing, is that all the things that effect older people -- we've talked about some of them today, occupational pensions, obviously the public state funded pension system, retirement age, heating bills, discrimination in the workplace. All these things need to be acted on together, and if that requires one person to act as a champion, then I would be very, very open for it, but it seems to me one of the roles of a Prime Minister is to say "Look, it is wrong, it is unjust that so many older people are being left behind and ignored. That needs to change, and I as Prime Minister will make sure that heads are knocked together to deliver the best and fairest outcome for older people in this country.

Whether you do that with a Minister or whether you just do it by actually the Prime Minister saying "This is something I'm going to look at, focus on and make sure the departments work together", I'm agnostic. Whatever works best.

PAUL LEWIS: One of the things you would like is a flexible decade of retirement, and K Bowen asked about this, and indeed others have as well, allowing people over 65 to work part-time and draw some of their pension. How would that work, he wants to know? And at the same time John Sutcliffe Braithwaite says he is 72, "going on 22", he says, still working, renovating a house, and he wants to know how you galvanise what he calls "this under-used resource", and I guess he means people in their 70s.

NICK CLEGG: By the way, I certainly recognize the characterisation of 72 going on 22. My parents are 75 going on 14, given their energy. It's just wonderful to see. As I say, I think one of the big differences would be just to stop this nonsense that somehow when you hit a certain age you are no longer welcome in the world of work. I think that cliff-edge needs to be removed altogether, by removing the compulsory retirement age, but then, accompanying that, also make sure that the rules are more flexible so that you can drawdown part of your pension while you are winding down in the world of work, so if you are working part-time that you nonetheless can drawdown part your pension.

We've got to, in general terms, get away from this conception of retirement as a cliff-edge, that, you know, one moment you're like this and the next moment you are in a different world, you are treated differently and you're suddenly put in a different category. That, I think, is quite a shock to a lot of people who don't feel like that themselves; they feel full of energy and vim and vigour and initiative, and of course they've got an immense amount of expertise and experience.

My father -- this is a very small example, by the way -- used to work -- he's retired now, many years, but he used to work in banking. And I have been very struck, speaking to him, and he speaks to me about the colleagues who used to work in banking with him. He and his friends and colleagues are more enraged by what has happened in the banking system than almost anybody else. I think, why can't we use their experience, in the sense of the generation of bankers who upheld slightly more old-fashioned virtues in banking, to try and sort out the banking system now? And yet there seems to be no concerted effort to use the experience of the past to deal with the problems of the present.

PAUL LEWIS: Some people of course might think -- leaving your father out of it -- that the past has been the problem.

NICK CLEGG: The immediate past. It has been, as you know, since the deregulation of the banking system in the mid-1980s.

PAUL LEWIS: No-one wants to categorise people of course when they reach 65, but of course there does come a later stage in life when people do need care, they need to go into a care home. We have had a lot of questions on this, and we have had a question from Marilyn Roebuck, Patricia Adams, Elizabeth and so on, they have all asked us:

"How are you going to deal with the costs of people going into a care home in later life? As we all live longer, more of us will need that."

NICK CLEGG: Our proposal is for a shared contribution by the individuals and the State. It is very much along the lines that the Wanless report set out some years ago. However, we also recognise that it is immensely expensive. We don't know precisely where those resources will come from. The other parties have other ideas. The Labour Party, as you know, have ideas about removing the cost for those in most acute need but not other people. The Conservatives have an idea about asking people to make an £8,000 contribution, but it doesn't help for anyone who is receiving care in the home.

So what I would like to see, after the General Election, is a concerted attempt for all the parties to sit down together, and I, as leader of my party, would you know, say right now, openly, I commit personally to trying to make that cross-party approach work, because we've all got different ideas. None of the ideas are perfect, none of the ideas are complete. Why don't we get together to try and create the best of all worlds and provide a solution which is then sustainable over the long run?

In the meantime, the only other thing I would say is that, given that the Government has allocated I think around £460 million or thereabouts for its flawed Care Bill, I would like to use that money instead to provide an immediate respite, about a week's worth of respite, to those carers who provide care of 50 hours or more, because I think that is something we can do immediately, to provide a break to at least a million carers in this country, who provide a lot of care to people who they care for and love, but then let's get on with finally agreeing on a durable approach which would work well into future.

PAUL LEWIS: We will come back, if we may, to this consensus, but specifically, Vanessa Dugman has asked about the point you have just mentioned. She says:

"Your idea to give a week's respite care to carers is great. How would it work in practice, and who would look after the person they are caring for?"

NICK CLEGG: Well, what we would do is in practice provide, through the local authorities, the money, which -- under our scheme I think it would cost about £420 million, so it's almost exactly the amount of money that the Government has allocated to its own flawed Care Bill -- so that money could be provided so that the care that the carer is providing to their loved one is provided by someone else for a week. That would then of course allow the carer to take some time off, just be on their own, take a break, go on holiday, spend some time with some friends. That is the way it would work. Of course, do remember, the government had allocated some money to local authorities to provide respite. Of course none of it has actually really reached the ground at all. Our scheme would finally provide that respite.

PAUL LEWIS: So you would solve the problem other people haven't been able to solve?

NICK CLEGG: We would provide it by providing the money which at the moment is being misallocated in a flawed Care Bill.

PAUL LEWIS: Well, you've talked about the flawed Care Bill, you've mentioned that several times. I'm sure a lot of people don't quite know what you are talking about. This is the Bill to provide care at home for people, is it? The one that has just gone through?

NICK CLEGG: It's the government's Bill, which as you know, provided -- is great for people in greatest need, but actually, as all the local authorities have said in reaction, it would mean that you have less care --

PAUL LEWIS: So you would scrap that?

NICK CLEGG: It's a very -- it's giving with one hand and it's taking with another. It's deeply deeply flawed. It's making a great promise and raising hopes that people's care is going to be improved, but in fact, for the vast majority of people who do need care, the local authorities who have to administer this are now already saying that the care would be cut. I don't think that is right.

So given that it's so flawed, why don't we make sure that money can be used to provide respite to a million carers straight away, and then step back for a minute? As Joan Bakewell and others have said, quite rightly, this is so important it's better to get it right rather than rush headlong into a solution which isn't right and actually only pretends to provide care when it does nothing of the sort.

PAUL LEWIS: Well, you want to have this tripartite approach, this big Care Commission. One of the first things the present government did in 1997 was set up a Commission to look at how you pay for long-term care. It is now proposing to do it again. There is no consensus. And when three parties have tried to sit down and find a consensus over the last few months, it hasn't worked.

NICK CLEGG: You say that but, you know, our ideas, for instance, on a shared contribution, an individual contribution for care and a contribution from the State, under our scheme, you would get -- everybody would get guaranteed up to two-thirds of the cost of care, and that for those people who can afford it, the remainder would be paid from their own pocket and others who can't afford it would have the full cost covered. As I say, what we have not been able to spell out, because it's just very difficult to do so right now, is precisely how you would resource that. But that is our proposal, and can I stress, that was a proposal which we took directly from the government's own reports, from the Wanless report. So, in a sense what we were doing --

PAUL LEWIS: It's very expensive and no-one has agreed with you.

NICK CLEGG: It's very expensive, but surely then, if you've got ideas which have been provided in a report by Derek Wanless to the government itself -- we basically agree with that approach; we think the other parties have got other ideas which only take you so far but not any further -- surely the thing to do is this: Beyond and above almost any other issues -- we talked about the structural deficit earlier -- the time is ripe for a cross-party approach.

PAUL LEWIS: Very briefly, I want to put this. Jim Cheatham:

"I am my wife's full-time carer ... reached pension age. Will you stop the system whereby I lose Carer's Allowance when I get my State Pension? Carers get little enough already", he says.

NICK CLEGG: You mean --

PAUL LEWIS: The overlap between the Carer's Allowance and the State Pension?

NICK CLEGG: Because of the withdrawal rates of the Carer's Allowance? To be honest, I really need to look at that, because as you know, the allowances get withdrawn at different rates.

PAUL LEWIS: Oh well, he will be disappointed, because he says none of the leaders will give such an assurance.

NICK CLEGG: No, no, I'm --

PAUL LEWIS: And the NHS. We've had a number of questions about this, and Francesca Elliott says, as a retired nurse, recently retired, there are too many overpaid managers and not enough nursing staff or insufficient and undervalued nursing staff. It does cost £127 billion a year. Will you cut the NHS?

NICK CLEGG: What we will do is cut precisely the waste that --

PAUL LEWIS: The "overpaid managers", she calls them?

NICK CLEGG: Yes, absolutely. I mean, 5,000 new managers have been employed in the NHS over the last year, yet the increase in the number of nurses has been below 2%. We now have more administrators and managers in the NHS than we have hospital beds.

PAUL LEWIS: That is the problem. You would reverse it?

NICK CLEGG: Oh yes. We would make sure that you save money by stripping out unnecessary levels of bureaucracy, bearing down on the constant money being spent on new managers and new administrators, and spend the money, penny for penny, pound for pound, on the services that we need in the NHS: A&E Departments, maternity wards, mental health services, GP services and so on.

I think where money is tight you can't pretend to people -- which of course is what the Conservatives are doing -- that you can carry on spending more and more money without spelling out where coming from. We're saying, for instance, get rid of the strategic health authorities, which is a regional layer of bureaucracy in the NHS which still, for the life of me, I don't quite know what the point of it is. Get rid of it and use the money to employ nurses and protect frontline services.

PAUL LEWIS: I think Francesca Elliott will be very pleased with that answer.

Moving on to another subject entirely, Mrs Woolley from Banbury says:

"How are you going to tackle the binge drinking that puts us off going into town centres in the evening?"

A big concern.

NICK CLEGG: It is a very big concern, and the fear I think that people have in Banbury and elsewhere of venturing out into town and city centres on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night because they think they are sort of no?go zones is really pernicious and very unfair, because it traps people in their own homes.

What we will do about it?

Firstly, we think that what needs to be stopped immediately is the sale of very strong alcohol in supermarkets below price. I wandered into my local supermarket in Sheffield some months ago and found that you could buy a bottle of vodka -- a very strong drink -- for less than the VAT and the duty combined. That sort of loss leader sale of alcohol should be stopped immediately.

PAUL LEWIS: I won't ask you how many you bought.

NICK CLEGG: Actually, on that occasion I didn't buy it, I was just doing my own market research.

Secondly, I think there should be a sort of 'one strike and you are out' approach to people selling alcohol over the counter to under age drinkers. If you do that and you are shown to do that, your licence to sell alcohol should be revoked immediately.

And of course we should continue to allow local authorities and the police to bear very heavily on pubs and clubs that are being a source of a lot of the disruption.

PAUL LEWIS: 24-hour licensing?

NICK CLEGG: My own view on licensing is that there are perfectly good reasons to have extended licences in some places, but you've got to give local communities a greater say about whether those licences are welcome or not. I have to say, I don't agree with this assumption that has arisen in some parts of the debate that a return to chucking everybody out at 11 pm, at exactly the same time up and down the country on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, is a solution. We all know it wasn't; it actually created -- speak to the police -- it created terrible bottleneck (excuse the pun) of lots of people, worse for wear, having drunk a lot of alcohol just before closing time, suddenly spilling out into our streets.

So I think what we need to do is be sensitive about where licences are extended, but crucially give local communities more of a say in the process.

PAUL LEWIS: A lot of other concerns about law and order, including your approach to prison and to prison sentences. Suzie Powell says:

"Spell out what you would do to help change offenders' ways, rather than jailing them."

On the other hand, Jean Reid, who is a retired magistrate, says:

"I'm very concerned about giving suspended sentences when in my opinion people should be put in jail."

NICK CLEGG: Of course people should be put in jail.

PAUL LEWIS: But not for less than six months.

NICK CLEGG: What we are saying is that there is a problem, and the problem is the following. Now of course the other parties will claim there isn't a problem. There is a massive problem when young men who go into short-term prison sentences now of 12 weeks or less are coming out of prison and reoffending at a rate of 9 out of 10 of all young men. So that is a system which is failing, because what you are creating is, instead of prisons where people are being punished and rehabilitated and turned away from crime, you are actually creating overcrowded colleges of crime. I think that is unacceptable. It is unacceptable, but because of the complacency and tough talk from Conservative and Labour governments, more and more victims of crime are emerging every week, having been maimed, burgled, mugged, beaten up, because of the stupidity of a criminal justice system under Labour and the Conservatives which produces more crime.

So all we are saying -- all we are saying, because our opponents have distorted this dramatically -- is that there should be a presumption against short-term prison sentences that don't work. I think what is soft is sending someone to prison for six weeks or so, to have a bed-and-breakfast all expenses paid-for course in how to become better criminal. I'm perfectly happy to spend £40,000, as we do as taxpayers, putting somebody behind bars. I am not happy on spending £40,000 on putting someone into a college of crime where they become a better criminal. That is stupid, it is wrong, it reproduces crime, and only the Liberal Democrats will change it.

PAUL LEWIS: Let's move on to something else that maybe only the Liberal Democrats will change. We have had an awful lot of questions today and in the past about Equitable Life, a very specific point, but very concerning. David Luthwaite says:

"David Cameron has pledged to resolve the situation. He said something about it on the Saga webcast. What's your view on the matter? Would you fully compensate victims of the Equitable Life scandal?", he asks.

NICK CLEGG: Well, first, I have met many many people who have been affected by this.

PAUL LEWIS: Yes, but would you compensate them?

NICK CLEGG: We would compensate them. Vince Cable in particular has been taking a lead on this for many many years. If you look at our manifesto, it's written there in the manifesto. I'm not sure if it is in the other parties' manifestos -- it may or may not be. We have got a manifesto commitment to set up a swift and just system of compensation.

PAUL LEWIS: So that is fairly unequivocal, of course if you can do it.


PAUL LEWIS: "I love Europe", says Alan Fitzgerald, "but I hate the European Union and the Euro, and I hate the fact that people this country were denied the opportunity to vote against the Lisbon Treaty and the European Constitution".

He says:

"It's madness having 27 different countries trying to use the same bank rate, the same currency", although of course they don't, it's the Euro, so leave that to one side.

Why does your party not support withdrawal from the EU?

NICK CLEGG: We don't support withdrawal from the EU for the very simple reason that I think whatever one's views of the European Union, heaven knows, it's not perfect, I worked there for a while and this is a laborious way of reaching agreements at best. I actually campaigned, when I was a Euro MP, against the waste of sending MPs down to Strasbourg every month, the waste of the Common Agricultural Policy. It ain't perfect, but there are things which I just think we have to be open about, which we can no longer do on our own. We cannot deal with climate change on our own. The weather doesn't stop at the cliffs of Dover. We can't deal with the international criminal gangs whose tentacles now reach into every community in this country unless we work with other countries in Europe. We can't preserve jobs in this country unless we regulate the banks who got us into so much trouble, who now sprawl over across Europe and indeed across the world. We can't stand up to China and the other countries in world trade talks so that we can secure business opportunities for businesses in Britain unless we work together.

I genuinely think -- not that the European Union is perfect, but what I do think, though, is that we are stronger together and we are weaker apart, and that, you know, the one way to make sure that we become weaker in the world is by pulling up the drawbridge and sort of whingeing from the sidelines. Let's get stuck in there. If we don't like things, let's get stuck in there to change it.

One final word on referenda and all the rest of it. I think there should be a referendum on it. There should be a referendum, though, on the fundamental question: Do we stay in or do we go out? I will argue --

PAUL LEWIS: You want to settle it once and for all?

NICK CLEGG: I want to settle it once and for all, and what I think was always very dishonest about the Conservative pledge on the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty -- remember a cast-iron guarantee which they promptly dropped when it was no longer convenient to retain it -- is that even if we had had this referendum on the Lison Treaty, and let's imagine for a minute everybody voted to reject the Lisbon Treaty, what would have changed in the European Union once we rejected the Lisbon Treaty?

PAUL LEWIS: You are going to answer that, are you?

NICK CLEGG: Nothing. Literally nothing. It would just sail on exactly as it did before.

So all I'm saying is, let's have the debate. I want to have a debate from a position of someone who wants to reform the European Union but leaves me to lead it. But after all, I actually worked, as I said in the debate last week, for the man who was sent by Margaret Thatcher to bat for Britain in the European Union. I learned, not that it's perfect, but you can reform it by being within it. And then let's have the debate that I think many many people want, even people who don't agree with me on Europe, which is do we stay in or do we go out?

PAUL LEWIS: Okay. Lots of people have taken different sides on that. We have John Wheeler very much pro Europe, others very much against it. Let's move on, though, because an aspect of Europe of course is the number of people coming to the United Kingdom to work --

NICK CLEGG: Of course.

PAUL LEWIS: -- immigration, lots of questions on that, including many coming in today.

Rosemary and Steven Chandler say:

"England has benefited from immigration but it's now out of hand. People can't afford housing, people can't get jobs. How do you propose to address those problems?"

Lots of people, Saga generation people, see their children and grandchildren unable to buy a house, unable to get a job, because they say foreign people are taking them.

NICK CLEGG: I think we need to do three things.

Firstly, we need to tighten up our borders. The chaos in the immigration system over the last couple of decades, under both the succession of Conservative and Labour governments, has been truly unacceptable. It was Conservative and Labour governments, for instance, that removed the exit checks, so that we not only knew who came into this country, we also knew who had to leave once their visas expired. We would reintroduce those straight away, we would reintroduce a border police force, we would make sure that we properly monitor who is coming in and who is going out.

The second step: We would make sure that people who come to work here not only have to show that they've got a sponsor who is sponsoring their arrival, not only show that they've a job to go to, but crucially, that in their work permit, on the stamp in their passport, they are only entitled to work in the area, the region where that job is located. So in parts of the country where there clearly might be a strain on public services, on housing, on schooling and so on, we don't place an additional unacceptable strain on those areas.

Third and finally, we have a problem. We have a problem and it's because of the chaos in the system, we've got lots and lots of people who are living in the shadows of the British economy, basically helping criminal gangs and unscrupulous criminal employers.

I want to go after those criminal gangs, I want to go after those criminal employers, and what I want to do is draw some of those people out of the shadows and make them -- well, I would want to put them in the hands of the taxman rather than leave them in the hands of criminals gangs.

So those are the three steps that I want to introduce to bring some sense so that we have an effective, workable but fair immigration system.

PAUL LEWIS: David Green asks -- and it is on a Sunday we are looking at this: "Is it true you are an atheist? And if so, how could you cope as Head of State of a Christian country with a Queen at its head?"

NICK CLEGG: Well, the Prime Minister of course is not the Head of State, it's the Queen who's the Head of State, so let's get our division of labour right between -- heaven forbid that we have politicians who suddenly become heads of the church.

I don't know, I have always been very open. I was asked a question once in one of those questions where you're only allowed to answer "yes" or "no", and I was asked "Do you believe in God?" As it happens I don't know whether God exists. I'm much more of an agnostic. But of course when I was asked "yes" or "no", I tried (as I always do) to give a straight answer, and I said "Well, no, I don't know". As it happens I have an immense amount of respect for people of faith. I'm not a man of faith --

PAUL LEWIS: But you could do it.

NICK CLEGG: Well, my wife is, you know, religious. My children are being brought up -- my three children are being brought up in her faith. I accompany them to church pretty well every week because, you know, I respect that. Large numbers of my family are, it's just that I am not a man of faith. I know it's fashionable in politics, just as it is fashionable in politics to say that you support a football team even if you haven't since the year of sort of -- since you were two years old. It's also fashionable to suddenly pretend that people have faith when they don't. I have always been very open about the fact that I am not a man of faith.

PAUL LEWIS: A church-going agnostic or atheist.

And very finally, Arthur Shackle, just in so I want to ask it. He says:

"You deserve a chance in high office, but how prepared are you for this huge responsibility? It must be beyond your wildest dreams."

NICK CLEGG: Well, I really wouldn't be sitting here, I wouldn't be campaigning up and down the country, I wouldn't be advocating the changes I wanted, if I didn't think that I was up to it.

I accept of course that doing something different sometimes makes people worry, there's a risk. But you know, change is not risk-free. I'm not going to pretend it's risk-free. I'm not going to pretend that we can deliver on all the expectations that people have of us overnight, but one thing I can guarantee is that I and my team, Vince Cable and others, will work our socks off day and night to try and deliver the changes that we think Britain deserves.

PAUL LEWIS: Well, that is all we have time for. This webcast was recorded on April 25th, just after the second television Leaders Debate. Nick Clegg is the Parliamentary Candidate for Sheffield Hallam. There are five other candidates. On the website you can see details of the webcasts where I put your questions to the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron and the leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown.

My thanks to Saga readers, to those of you who are putting questions live, and of course our thanks to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg. Thank you very much.

NICK CLEGG: Thank you.


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