BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 30.09.01

Interview: JOHN PRESCOTT, Deputy Prime Minister.

Explains why worries about effects of war, the erosion of civil liberties in the UK, the impact on the British economy and on the Government's commitment to public services are misplaced.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: John Prescott, pretty well everybody seems to be agreed that something must be done in this war against terrorism, but clearly there is a job to be done isn't there, to persuade the public and indeed the party, that we ought not to be handing the Americans a blank cheque. JOHN PRESCOTT: Well John, let me just say about the survey. I think it reflected genuine concern that there is not only in the Labour Party but the community generally. I think the questions were somewhat simplistic and I think some of our chairmen told your interviewers that, but it is about concern, about this horrific incident that occurred in New York nearly three weeks ago. And I think that's one significant point, there has been no immediate military strike from the Americans that we could have expected a few years ago to be frank and that means there is a lot of discussion going on, it's not only about a military option, it's a financial option, it's a diplomatic option, you know, how do you deal with all those things that fund and finance global terrorism. And I think that shows that Tony Blair's efforts in getting that kind of consensus together which everybody accords him, and properly so, has made quite a difference in that matter, though we're clearly shoulder to shoulder and I think in those circumstances we must add to it that we've had a second meeting, we've had one meeting of Parliament, there will be a second recall, we are still having our political conference, and our conference is where we define what the Labour Party point of view is and I'm sure it will be unanimous in supporting this Prime Minister in his fight against global terrorism. So yes, concern, uncertainties inevitable in this, we don't know the full implications that can flow from this, but what we have at least is a consensus that we've never had before, of nations who have never come together to unite in a case against globalism and talking about the proper rational response and not only about justice but about social justice, the refugees as well as the terrorists. All these are important concerns that this Labour Party will always be concerned with. Thank goodness we've got a leader who makes decisions and also goes out and explains them and finds himself to be very accountable to the people. HUMPHRYS: But still concern and you touched on it, still concern that we should not be handing the Americans a blank cheque? PRESCOTT: Well, of course we're not and I mean the Prime Minister makes that time and time clear. What we are doing is standing shoulder to shoulder, what we are agreed is the objective to tackle global terrorism and we are as the UN said using all proper and necessary measures to achieve that. Now that is our course of action, that is what we're doing at the moment. There will be probably some form of military response, we must wait and see if that is to occur, but there will be all the other things, the financial instruments to stop the financing of terrorism. Our security measures that we are considering at the moment. It's across a broad front and they always cause some uncertainties. Why - because as David Blunkett says, it's always a difficult balance between that of human rights and the security of our people and the security of our people must be our overriding objective. HUMPHRYS; But that given that it isn't a blank cheque then, given that it's not and you said quite clearly that it isn't... PRESCOTT: Well, the Prime Minister says exactly the same thing. It's not accounting, liabilities and assets, it's about working together, but make no mistake, we have agreed to work very closely with America... HUMPHRYS: Sure. PRESCOTT: ...and the consensus to do all we can to rid ourselves of this terror. HUMPHRYS: But if we're not saying to the Americans we will do precisely what you want and not ask any questions about it then clearly there is a point at which we might well say - we're a bit uneasy about that, we don't want to go down that road. PRESCOTT: No, I think as Tony explains it's a partnership. I mean you may be President Bush and I'm Tony Blair and we talk about the problem...... HUMPHRYS: We're the senior partner, we're a very senior partner. PRESCOTT: Of course we are a very senior partner because it's most of their assets that are being used in that case. But I think it does bode well that we're having these kind of discussions, to hear what the American President's saying. He's not rushing into this in a short term act of revenge, he is looking at the long term run of how we deal with global terrorism. That attack on that building, that killing of thousands of people of many nationalities made a significant difference, it was a change and it was a sea change of a scale that has brought all the nations together to say we are to do something and to discuss how we do it, how we achieve it and that's what the consensus is about. HUMPHRYS: And what many people are saying - we heard some of them in that film there, people like Oona King and Glenys Kinnock and Neil Gerrard we've heard if from Clare Short as well, is that we must not tackle as one of them put it, Oona King put it, we mustn't tackle barbarism with barbarism, we must not risk ..... PRESCOTT: I haven't heard anybody suggest that.... HUMPHRYS: Well, no. I mean if we attack Afghanistan in the way that many people have suggested we should and some in America seem to want to do... PRESCOTT: What you're saying to me I that the fears of what might happen by some who say this might be the response... HUMPHRYS: But they are real fears aren't they? PRESCOTT: Well, they are genuine fears, because we don't know exactly what is going to happen, how it will happen, right? But then not to draw from that somehow that we're not concerned about innocent people, or act of barbarism, eye for eye as I saw on your film there, no, we want to have a measured response. Everybody has talked of that measured response, nobody wants to kill innocent citizens, nobody wanted to see six thousand innocent citizens murdered in those tower blocks that we saw in the United States. HUMPHRYS: No, indeed, but one of the reasons.... PRESCOTT: By the way most of those comments I think that were said there, they were showing a genuine balance.... HUMPHRYS: Oh did you, no question about that..... PRESCOTT: There is some uncertainty but we don't like what has gone on about terrorism, we do want to do something about it and they were balancing that and expressing properly a concern. HUMPHRYS: Of course and one of the reasons for the concern, part of the reason for the concern of some people like Oona King and Glenys Kinnock is that when Tony Blair talks about doing away with the Taliban if they get in the way of stopping them getting bin Laden or whatever it may be, of the terrorist camps..... PRESCOTT: That's the UN position at the moment, not only the individuals but those nations who harbour them, so this is actually Tony Benn or President Bush. HUMPHRYS: Tony Blair yes. PRESCOTT: Pardon? HUMPHRYS: Tony Blair, you said Tony Benn yeah, Freudian slip! PRESCOTT: But it was in fact the UN resolution that says that and I think that's quite important for a consensus that you have the ideas and the values embodied in a UN resolution that is accompanying this. HUMPHRYS: But what I'm trying to suggest to you is that people, many people are concerned when they hear talk about making the Taliban our enemy if they don't do what we want, because what you do with an enemy is that you try and destroy him as Tony Blair himself suggested this morning. And they are worried that that might result in exactly the sorts of casualties and increasing this terrible humanitarian - worsening this terrible humanitarian disaster that already exists in Afghanistan. PRESCOTT: I thought Glenys Kinnock was making clear, that the actions of this government, its action against women, its undemocratic nature.... HUMPHRYS; Although supporting the Taliban. PRESCOTT: ....quite offensive about this regime, and we're not saying because it has these offensive features they should be tackled, what we are saying, if there's a condition and they don't deliver up bin Laden, it's quite clear they know he's there and if they're not prepared to deliver then they are protecting and I think the UN resolution and the combined view of all of us, if they do that and they prevent us arresting these terrorists, getting rid of them, getting rid of their whole organisation, then they are assisting and they declare themselves by that definition.... HUMPHRYS: But then.. PRESCOTT: .. to be an enemy to the UN resolution. HUMPHRYS: And if you attack them as a result of that you do then inevitably risk real civilian casualties, don't you? PRESCOTT: Well it's the nature of what we are talking about, what kind of attack, but a whole range of things, but don't forget, I think we need as much effort to deal, not only with their terrorists camps and one presumes at least the Americans didn't make the choice this time. I think President Bush said was that, send a missile costing twenty million pounds or something to destroy a ten-dollar tent. I think when they did that last time, perhaps they have learnt a lesson, perhaps they realise it's long-term and I think that's what they've taken into account and what is equally concerning is the drugs that actually this Taliban organisation trades in. It provides funds, it actually grows poppies to provide funds for funding terrorism and maintaining that regime. Now to that extent, I think that is something that is assisting the terrorist organisations and we'll have to make a judgement about. But let us wait on that. We have told them, we expect them and want them to produce these terrorism to us, let's see what happens. HUMPHRYS: The other thing that worries many people is the possibility that has been raised of widening the war to include countries like Iraq and Iran and all the other terrible seven that have been listed. Do you share the concerns of the worries, the consequences that might flow from that? PRESCOTT: Well I think, I welcome the fact that Iran has also condemned these actions also... HUMPHRYS: ...but has not said it would support the United States... PRESCOTT: ...well, whatever in whatever form they've condemned them and I say there's one important reason that tend to unite all these nations, it's not a moral outburst, most of them are suffering some form of terrorism in their own countries and we can see that clearly when the countries are mentioned and in those circumstances they have common interest to come together to defeat this challenge of global terrorism. It is on a scale now unprecedented and the reaction has to be a rather unprecedented one and one that actually has a measured response and that's what this consensus is about. I certainly wouldn't like to see and I don't think anybody would like to see an extension of the war. But what we have committed ourselves to and I admit we haven't declared it to be a war, but it's a kind of war against terrorism as it's being said, what we have committed ourselves is to root out this international terrorism and those that harboured it. Now is may be a bank and it may be a country like we have in Afghanistan, if that's the case and we have to judge each by its own measure. HUMPHRYS: What about the effects on the way we live at home? Serious worries about what all of the measures that are being talked about now might, the effect they might have on our civil liberties. Do you share those concerns? PRESCOTT: I think everybody shares a concern where you have to find a balance between the civil liberties, human rights issues. We have legislation that govern most things now, so you can be challenged in the courts but there are people who think it's rather difficult to understand why people who advocate the kind of terrorism action that we've actually seen can still reside in this country. We can go to extradite, but because of our legal process it takes many years to do it. Now is that the proper balance? Should we harbour people like that? HUMPHRYS: Do you want to change the law to make it, to stop that happening? PRESCOTT: Well I think David is looking at all these things at the moment... HUMPHRYS: David Blunkett, yes? PRESCOTT: David Blunkett and indeed we as a government would look at that. And I think Tony Blair made clear this morning that we'll be looking to some form of legislation, hopefully with the co-operation of all in the House of Commons to be brought before it. So there is a range and you know, some have been looked at before. I heard the discussion on the film about the ID card, House of Commons committees, various governments have looked at it and have rejected it, but there is ... HUMPHRYS: ...including your own? PRESCOTT: ...pardon? Oh yes, absolutely, and Labour dominated committees have said the same thing. But it would be right I think to look at the whole range of measures and to make a judgement and if they don't stand up because there will be a public debate about them, this is a democracy, government doesn't come along and say we're going to do this. That's what Parliament is there for to challenge, have the debate, and agree or disagree and it's to get that proper balance but, it is difficult, I think the foreign... the Prime Minister's made the point about these exchange bureaux, where huge amounts of money are traded through them and don't have the same financial regulation. Why shouldn't we do something about that? Why some banks who may be involved in money laundering, or accusations as such, why shouldn't they be subjected to tougher regulations. This is what is involved I think in tackling global terrorism and it simply isn't just a military option. HUMPHRYS: What's you own view, if I just pick out one of those, about ID cards? PRESCOTT: ...well it's an interesting one John because you may have heard I was one of the spokesmen for Transport up to a little while ago... HUMPHRYS: ...I'd heard rumours, yes... PRESCOTT: ...and I had to make a judgement about that in regard to the motorist licence, the car licence and in fact what I did there with the driving licence was to agree as all European countries have, that if you get a new driving licence now it will have a photograph on it. And what's interesting is if you usually go somewhere and someone says have you got any identification, they usually pull out their driving licence don't they. If you go for a passenger, pensioners' pass on a bus or a train, you're required to provide a photo, if you even go and change a video. Now all these things have got us used to a kind of using photographs... HUMPHRYS: ...none of them are compulsory of course. PRESCOTT: That's an essential point and indeed I was coming to that. All these are voluntary, there was even talk of them going on your banker's card for example, they're all voluntary. Now have we reached the stage where it would be effective as in our help in a way in this country, to have an ID card. Now David's made it clear, you don't think, he doesn't think we should react to this terrible global terrorism as the sole issue, so there will be a proper public debate. It will be reopened. HUMPHRYS: What's your view? You sound fairly relaxed about it. PRESCOTT: Well I think I tried to face that question with the licence and I thought it was alright and I think that's happening more and more... HUMPHRYS: ...yes but that was voluntary as you say... PRESCOTT: ...yes, but I mean that's one where I had a practical way to have to make a decision. I could have said no, we shouldn't go ahead with it, disagree with Europe, but I didn't think it made that difference. The requirement that you should have an ID card, I'll be quite honest, I don't think fills me full of dread, as a seaman I had an ID card, I couldn't go anywhere without an ID card. There are many many examples where it's been, but it is a difficult balance, it does cost money, I heard Frank talking, it cost a billion pounds, I don't know whether it costs that amount, but certainly select committees have gone on balance against the compulsory requirements of an ID card, but I think it's a proper decision and debate to have and I notice public opinion seems to be quite supportive... HUMPHRYS: the moment of course, but in the wake of a terrible disaster like that people do... PRESCOTT: ...absolutely, that's a fair point. But that's why we said we'll not make a decision quickly in the wake of such a decision, we'll have a proper prolonged debate about the matter, then a decision will be made. HUMPHRYS: So for sure, nothing would happen in less than say, a year, do you think? PRESCOTT: I don't know. David is looking at these matters and he will come to the House and I think the House is the place to make these decisions... HUMPHRYS: ...right, but a long time anyway, it's not going to be... PRESCOTT: Well, I've no doubt when we come back we'll be pressed in the Commons about these issues and the Prime Minister I think made clear again this morning in interview that there will be some legislation that we bring forward, legislation whether it unanimous agreement, I think will be quite easy, where there's controversy, we have to clearly tread carefully but what we have to do, our first security at the end of the day, is the security of our citizens and we must always do what we can to see that we maintain that. HUMPHRYS: There is obviously going to be an effect, there is already an effect on the economy. Gordon Brown has to meet various commitments, a lot of commitments, including a lot of... PRESCOTT: ..he's done very well so far, hasn't he? HUMPHRYS: ...I never answer those questions...(laughter from Prescott)... including a lot of extra spending on health and education. Are you assured that that extra spending is safe? PRESCOTT: Well we have the Chancellor's judgement who says that in his judgement, he told the Cabinet and he's made public statements to the effect that he intends to keep the improvement and increase in spending on public services. I hear in the film again, that people think will that be one of the casualties of it, he's made that clear that it's not so. We are in the strongest... HUMPHRYS: ...he hopes it's not so. PRESCOTT: Well, yes, everything is a hope in these situations... HUMPHRYS: ..that's my point. PRESCOTT: ..there's always the demands on them but I think there is a matter of record now. It isn't the first year of a Labour government. I've been on your programmes before when you have always told us, well you'll be taxing us this and you'll be doing that. We're four years on, we have the lowest inflation, the lowest levels of unemployment, the lowest interest rate for decades and... HUMPHRYS: ..and now we've got a war or at least something like a war faces us. PRESCOTT: ..but well, but nevertheless we have reserves, we have sound political finances... HUMPHRYS: Almost gone, not much left, after foot-and-mouth and all the rest of it. PRESCOTT: Well again.... HUMPHRYS: No, no just a fact, there isn't much of it left. PRESCOTT: We approach this situation in a stronger situation with growth in our economy, most of our allies in this. So I would say to you, we've a strong position, we have to judge it as it's going on. But the one important point I would make to you because I think you have pointed out to me before in Public Private Partnerships, why don't you spend the reserves? We have transformed what was a borrowing debt of twenty-eight billion to something like an eighteen billion surplus and we always said, why don't you spend it and we've made it clear that's for contingencies. There couldn't be a bigger contingency at the moment and that is the long term view that has been taken by the Chancellor. So in four years, he's been good at his predictions, good at producing a stable economy and making sure that we can have economic prosperity along with social justice. HUMPHRYS: But we are now... PRESCOTT: If we'd have listened to all the demands to spend the reserves on different sections, we'd have had nothing now. HUMPHRYS: But a lot of those have had to go on things like foot-and-mouth disease and the aftermath of Hatfield and so on as you know and there isn't very much of that left. And we are now in a situation where we are facing some sort of war, whatever kind of war it will be and when Tony Blair was asked this morning, what would be the cost of that war, he said quite rightly: don't know, how can you possibly say. So if we are faced with the situation where we.... PRESCOTT: ...why are you going to go on to say something else if you can't possibly say? HUMPHRYS: Well, because what I am going to put to you... PRESCOTT: ..because you want to ask the question. HUMPHRYS: Well certainly that, that's my job, that's what I get paid for, certainly that, but this is the point isn't it. We've seen how much some of the sorts of wars we've been involved in have cost, three billion pounds in the Iran/Iraq war, in the war against Iraq, for instance. Now if we have no idea how much this war is going to cost us, how much damage it is going to do to the economy, then we cannot be sure that the economy will grow the way it is going to do, we cannot be sure how much is going to be left in the pot to pay for all that extra spending that your government is committed to. We may well then face very serious decisions, isn't that right, isn't that inevitable? PRESCOTT: No, it's not inevitable, it's may, may, may. There's a possibility... HUMPHRYS: Oh, well, a lot of it isn't a may though, a lot of it is a certainty... PRESCOTT: I mean who knew how much foot-and-mouth would cost when it first started... HUMPHRYS: ..quite.. PRESCOTT: ..that's why you have reserves, that's why we did have quite a large reserve instead of having to borrow like the Tories were constantly doing in their regime. But what we need to be doing is to look at those problems, like Gordon Brown is, take the long term approach on it. We have committed our public expenditures up to 2003 which led to the tremendous increase in public services, of course we are undergoing the next three year discussion about public expenditures and all these matters will be taken into account. But there is a very big question here, just how deep would be a recession if that was to happen. At the moment the definition is, if you have two negative parts as the IMF calls it, then you have recession. But what happens will depend on consumer growth to a certain extent. We do hope we can say to people, keep on acting as normally as you can because if you begin to cut and restrict your expenditure and you cut the consumer demand, it leads to cuts in other industries, it leads to unemployment, it leads to a bigger demand on the resources for paying unemployment and dealing with those difficulties. Now, we don't know what that balance is going to be, when will the uncertainty go away, will it last twelve months?, eighteen months? - will it be eighteen days?, will people do it? But I would say to ordinary people, your everyday expenditure is important in this battle. If in fact the consequences are a deep recession, then we will pay for it in another way and it will be an extra burden to the cost of security. So I don't know what the balance of that is, a lot depends on the psychology of the ordinary consumer. HUMPHRYS: Sure but the question is, are we committed, is the government commitment to that extra public spending even if for instance, it meant raising taxes ultimately to pay for it. PRESCOTT: We're committed to delivering on election promises, we've made it clear, I'm not going to get my cards out... HUMPHRYS: Yeah, but you've got a problem here haven't you on taxes and on spending and if the one fights the other... PRESCOTT: the way you know, the last time we had our exchange about that, there was one we hadn't quite completed, that is taken in the courts in the first seventy days, we did it last week, so we did it in four and half years. So we'd done the first card, will we be able to deliver on the second, the more doctors, the nurses, the teachers, the growth in the economy... HUMPHRYS: ..which means more money. PRESCOTT: Well, we have budgeted up to 2003, which money is being expanded at the present time, we go into the second period of the budget and we will assess how it goes, we have promised the people in this country to carry out that improvement in public services and we will have to face that decision for the resources, when it comes, you and I are agreed we don't know what the uncertainties are. HUMPHRYS: But what I am concerned with establishing is that you will do whatever it takes to raise the money to spend that extra... PRESCOTT: want to take us across three or four bridges, I can't give you an exact definition or interpretation of what's going to happen. I can tell you we have promised that at the election, we've made delivery the real issue to fight on at the next election and it would be very difficult to be able to move away from that. But the consequences of this, of fighting global terrorism, of fighting shoulder to shoulder with all those who have agreed to do it at the world level, is what we have as given us a commitment, we will face that commitment and our manifesto ones of improving good public services. HUMPHRYS: The biggest worry you had as a government before those terrible events in New York, coming to the conference here, was the reception you'd get, particularly from the trade unions, about your plans for the public sector, more private involvement in the public sector... PRESCOTT: was in our manifesto. HUMPHRYS: Obviously sure, but...and hugely unpopular. Now, clearly that's been overtaken by events, but it does remain a very serious problem for you doesn't it, this opposition within the party. PRESCOTT: Something hugely unpopular doesn't get through at conference and.. in the way a manifesto is agreed. It went through conferences, these decisions, it wasn't just a manifesto... HUMPHRYS: There were various things said after the manifesto had been published that aroused... PRESCOTT: Well I saw Frank into that, perhaps some interpretations were wrong.. HUMPHRYS: Frank Dobson, the former Health Secretary. PRESCOTT: Yes, and that may well be the case. But I have no doubt in my mind and if anything these events even show us all the more that if you are to get the investments into your public services, after decades of you know tens of billions of disinvestment in our public services, both governments, Labour's and Tories, have never found enough for it. We are now trying to catch up with putting more public money and we put additional private money. That requires a partnership formula, we think that's right, it's what we intend to put and we will argue our case with the party and the electorate, because they want those public services. Some of these decisions may be difficult but it's never meant that this government will not carry out difficult decisions to achieve and do what it said it will do. HUMPHRYS: John Prescott, many thanks.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.