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PM defends seven years of austerity
Conservative plans to stick to an austerity programme for at least another seven years were defended today by David Cameron.
Mr Cameron said the current American budget crisis - which has seen the US government plunged into partial shutdown by the failure of Congress to agree a spending plan - reinforced the necessity for continued action to get Britain's finances in order.
Chancellor George Osborne announced plans yesterday to commit a future Conservative government to running a surplus in the years after the deficit is eliminated - effectively meaning no let-up in spending discipline until the end of the next parliament in 2020.
In a round of TV interviews at the Conservative conference in Manchester, the Prime Minister backed the plan, echoing Mr Osborne's warnings that if Britain does not reduce its debt, it risks being pushed "over the brink" by a future economic crisis.
"What we are saying is that in the next parliament we should be targeting to have a surplus rather than a deficit," said Mr Cameron.
"Our deficit is the annual overdraft, if you like, and as long as you have an overdraft, you are adding to the overall stock of debt in the economy.
"Our debt levels are at a very high level. As the Chancellor put it yesterday, the last crisis put us close to the brink. If we had another crisis and we hadn't got our debt levels down, then that could push us over the brink. This is the responsible thing to do.
"But because our economy is growing, because we are creating jobs, because those jobs are paying taxes, I don't believe it will be impossible to achieve this. I think it's perfectly possible to do and it's the right thing to do for the long-term health of the country."
More than 700,000 US government workers face unpaid leave in the first federal shutdown in 17 years after a midnight deadline passed for a budget deal, despite a last-ditch bid for an agreement by President Barack Obama.
Republicans in the House of Representatives have made delaying Mr Obama's healthcare reforms a condition for passing the budget.
Mr Cameron said: "It is a reminder to all of us that we that we need to have properly-planned public expenditure systems, properly-planned tax, properly-planned arrangements for getting our deficit down.
"I know some people want to get away from the subject of deficit reduction and sorting our economy out and turning it around.
"But I think we will see lots of reminders over the coming months, like what is happening in America, that it is absolutely vital that we grip it."
The Prime Minister praised a £50 million scheme to encourage GPs to offer weekend and evening appointments, which was announced overnight.
He insisted the pilot project could help cut the pressure on NHS hospitals' stretched accident and emergency departments.
"A lot of people going to A&E need a doctor rather than A&E, so I think this pilot scheme of having, around the country, GPs' surgeries open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, is a very good step forward," he said.
Mr Cameron also defended the Government's mortgage guarantee scheme, Help to Buy, amid concerns that it could re-inflate the housing bubble, saying it was "the right thing to do".
" I don't want to be the Prime Minister who stands aside, who says you can only buy a flat or a home in our country if you've got rich parents, that's not fair," he said.
"The problem in our housing market was 110% mortgages, a mortgage for more than the value of the property, the problem was self-certified mortgages, when you are just setting out your earnings without them being properly checked, the problem was irresponsible lending by banks, it wasn't 95% mortgages."
Mr Cameron denied that the coalition's intervention in the mortgage lending market was comparable to Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy bills under a future Labour government.
"There's a big difference, which is the mortgage market today isn't working," said Mr Cameron.
Mr Miliband's energy market proposals were not "properly thought through", said the Conservative leader. "We all want to see low energy prices - we need to see them for 20 years, not just for 20 months."
He also went further in committing the Government to extending its freeze on petrol duty, saying he was confident that Mr Osborne would " find the money" to pay for it. The Chancellor announced his ambition yesterday to scrap a 2p-a-litre rise pencilled in for September 2014, but said this would be conditional on identifying savings elsewhere to pay for it.
"Yesterday, you heard the Chancellor yet again say we're going to freeze petrol duty, because we want to help families fill their car," said Mr Cameron.
"We will find the money, I am quite convinced we will, because this is a real priority to make sure families do not face huge bills when they want to fill up their car."
Mr Cameron said the coalition had made "very difficult decisions".
"I think we can now say to the British people that the economy is turning the corner," he said.
"We have not solved Labour's debt crisis but we are on the way."
Mr Cameron and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt visited a GP practice in Manchester which will be offering evening and weekend access as part of a separate £500,000 locally-funded scheme.
The Range Health Centre is one of 35 which have joined forces to increase the hours they are available to around 50,000 patients from 52 a week to 66 - though it does not involve extra doctors.
It is due to be in operation by Christmas.
Practice director Colin Tate told the Prime Minister there were "some IT hurdles to get over" as they seek to ensure medical records can be shared.
"But they are doable," he said.
Dr Ivan Benett, the clinical director of the Central Manchester clinical commissioning group (CCG) said mothers with small children were one of the main groups that could be kept out of A&E.
" We need to make them realise that the first place to come is here," he said.