Jenny Willott MP: the Gair Rhydd interview

Gair Rhydd met with Jenny Willott Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central for an interview:

Do you think you’ve been a successful MP for Cardiff Central?

I hope so. It’s a very rewarding and interesting job. I’ve done lots of different things at a constituency level and in parliament as well. There are a couple of campaigns that I’ve been very heavily involved in that have been quite successful in the longer term. One of the campaigns that I was involved in before I was even elected was around a steelworks in the bay which went bust in 2002 and everyone who worked there lost their pensions. In the end we managed to persuade the previous government to put a lot of money into restoring a large chunk of the pensions of those thousands of people affected by that. Then we’ve had smaller campaigns and smaller issues like last year the council was looking at how bins were collected, so that bins would only be collected once a month rather than once a fortnight. This is clearly a massive issue, especially in student areas where people generate more rubbish than you can fit in a bin for four weeks. We’re working to stop them doing that again this year. So yes there’s lots of big campaigns and also lots of small ones.

How hard was it to go against your party on the rise of tuition fees?

That was a really difficult one actually. It was very simple in some ways in that I knew I didn’t agree with it and I felt really strongly about it. Not just because I have a lot of students and I represent them, but also because I disagree with it, I think it’s wrong to charge people that amount of money for a degree. But in parliament parties do work together, the people that you work with are your colleagues in your own political party and it’s really difficult decision that you’re going to vote against them and go into the lobby with a different political party. That’s hard to do, and also I had to resign from government to do it, so I knew it was going to get a lot of publicity which was going to be a challenge. But I never doubted that it was the right thing to do.

What would you say to those who might not trust a politician again as a result of the Lib Dem’s controversial breach of promise?

Well, I think politics is a difficult area to build trust. The reason the Lib Dems went back on that promise is because neither Labour nor the Conservatives would support our position; they didn’t agree with us so we were actually the only party who had the position that people shouldn’t pay tuition fees. I think the trust issue is a much more difficult one, and it’s not just the Lib Dems; Tony Blair promised not to bring in tuition fees in the first place and went back on that promise and brought them in, so it’s an issue that comes up over the years. The reality of what you can do in government is often different from what you think it would be when you’re outside of government. I think it has real challenges for how people trust politicians and what people think of politicians – I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know how you resolve that. I would be worried that politicians would stop making commitments ahead of elections in order to avoid the possibility of breaking that promise because people need to know what they’re going to vote for.

Do you think we should change the electoral system so that we don’t end up with a hung parliament?

No I actually think it represents the way the British public thinks. If you look at the way people vote there hasn’t been a party which has had half of the support of the British public in a really long time. So actually having a system where a party which gets 30% of the vote, a third of people want them to be in government, and yet they have an outright majority to be able to do what they want, when the majority of people didn’t want them; that is a very undemocratic system. I’m a Lib Dem and I think we should have a much more proportional system so that the government actually represents the views of what people wanted. We’re going to have to get used to a mix in government because smaller parties are getting a lot more support. I don’t think we’ll go back to a system where you just have Labour and Tories and nothing else. I think we will end up with hung parliaments and coalitions governments. The way people look at politics is going to have to change so rather than having a party get in and do everything; that just won’t be the case. I think we have to accept a bit more compromise. In everyday life we have to compromise, you don’t often get to pick who you work with or your family, so you accept it in all other walks of life. In other countries they have coalitions for years and they understand that means compromises in order to get an agreement that works for the majority and I think that will be more common in the UK.

Do you believe welfare reform has benefitted your constituents?

Has it benefitted them, no. But that’s not what it was designed to do. There are some things as part of the reform program, which are good, and then there are other things that have been done to save money and they’re not done to help people. There has been greater emphasis on helping people get to work with whatever support that they need to do that. One of the things which has been popular is the support to set up businesses. It had been really difficult if people want to set up their own business or go freelance when there was no support for them and they actually had their benefits stopped before they were able to start earning enough to be able to live on it. Under the new system, people can get paid benefits for six months while they’re setting up a business, they can get grants to help them buy equipment and support to help them do that with business plans and so on. There have been some really difficult things as part of the welfare reform as well. A lot of benefits, tax credits and things have been frozen; clearly for people who are on lower incomes and rely on that can make life really difficult. The economy was in total and utter mess, and whoever came into government after the last election would’ve had to make really difficult decisions. I don’t completely agree with all the things that have been done and have raised concerns over the years. People on lower incomes have had a really tough time over the years and I don’t think anyone would deny that.

Regarding the bedroom tax, as you say a lot of the welfare reform was brought in to save money, and now the evidence has shown that the bedroom tax doesn’t save money and hits the vulnerable in our society, the disabled. Would you support a revision of that policy?

Yes, when the bedroom tax came in, it was in the welfare reform bill and I was on the committee looking at that. I went through it line by line and raised quite a few concerns at the time. We managed to get the government to put a lot more money into the discretionary pot so that people can stay in their homes if it makes more sense rather than moving. We managed to get more groups of people exempt so that it didn’t apply to people who are foster carers, people who have a spare room because they’re waiting for another child to come and people in the military who are overseas.  It does highlight a difficult and challenging issue as there are people in houses that are technically too big for them, and there are other people in houses that are overcrowded. We do need to make sure we are making the best use of the homes that we have. I have a lot of people coming to see me because they’re crammed into small accommodation and they’ve been on the housing list for years and years waiting, so it does go both ways. The way it’s being applied however is too blunt. One of the things we said is that we would want to change it so that if you’re offered somewhere smaller and you turn it down then you should be responsible for paying the extra benefit but if there is nowhere for you to go then you shouldn’t be penalised. We’ve drafted that bill and are trying to get the Tories to negotiate with us but recently one of my colleagues Andrew George wrote a bill on that and the Tories blocked it.

I think to a lot of people it comes across as quite an obvious attack on the poor, what would you say to that?

That’s not what it was intended to do at all. I honestly think the intention of it was to make better use of the housing stock. Funnily enough Labour brought it in for private accommodation under the last government. So we had a system that wasn’t fair because if you’re getting benefit for social housing then you get all of your rooms paid for so there is a disparity there. The idea was to make the system fairer for those who are waiting. But the way it was done was too blunt.

What do you make of the rise of the far right across the UK?

I find it quite scary. It’s happening everywhere, especially across Europe. I think it shows that people have been having a tough time. At a time when people are struggling financially they like blaming obvious targets and the far right are populist and they basically serve up victims on a platter. I think it’s incumbent on the rest of us to point out where their arguments are quite damaging. But I think it’s indicative of people feeling like they’re not being listened to. People in Greece for example, where it’s a far left party, feel as though mainstream politicians aren’t listening to them and it’s the responsibility of the mainstream to make people feel they’re heard so they don’t need to turn to extreme governments.

How do you feel about the possibility of Jo Stevens becoming MP this year?

Well I’m the MP for Cardiff Central, I’m a Liberal Democrat and I’m standing at the next election and I hope to be the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff for the next five years.

Do you feel like you achieved what you had wanted when you first got into politics? 

When I first got involved I had worked in the voluntary sector. A lot of what I wanted to do was social justice issues: disparity and inequality. I think some of that is making sure that I have, as a local MP, helped as many people as I can. I’m very proud of my record on that, I’ve helped literally tens of thousands of people that I have done things for over the last ten years. That’s a really satisfying part of the job, knowing I’ve made a difference in people’s lives and make it better. Being able to be in government as a party and being able to change the way the country operates, for example with changes to the situation tax so that people on lower income don’t pay tax at all. Now there are three million people who don’t pay that tax who did when we came into government. Trying to get that balance changed and make society more equal has made me proud.

Is this the best job you’ve had?

It has its down side. But it’s very satisfying; especially when you push through cases you’ve been working on for a really long time. There aren’t that many jobs where you have the chance to do things on a really big scale but also small scale, local issues which are both hugely rewarding.


Interview by Rhiannon Tapp