BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 16.12.01

Film: David Grossman describes the u-turns and policy changes announced by the Government since the war on terrorism has dominated the news agenda.

DAVID GROSSMAN: The government stands accused - in those by now infamous words - of trying to bury bad news. That's a very difficult charge to prove, but, what we can say is that whether by accident, or design, there's been plenty happening in the past three months that's been all too easy to miss. Before September the 11th, probably the biggest political story around was asylum. Then the government's policy was to try to deter unfounded applications by giving out vouchers instead of cash benefits. Tony Blair called it firm but fair. TONY BLAIR: It isn't right that we carry on with the present system. We've inherited a complete mess in this area as he knows, with a backlog of tens of thousands of claims and we have a system that will be fairer and faster and will deter the bogus asylum seeker. GROSSMAN: The vouchers though were hated by many Labour back benchers and so in September they were scrapped. And while he was at it, the Home Secretary conceded that estimates of the backlog of asylum claims were hopelessly wrong, that there were in fact twice as many people waiting for a decision as previously thought. But the government has done something concrete to stop disappointing asylum statistics grabbing the headlines month after month. In September, they announced that in future they'll only publish the figures every three months. And then, there're cannabis - let's remind ourselves of what the government had to say on the subject, shortly after it was elected in 1997. JACK STRAW - 1997: I want to tell you now what we are not going to do. We will not decriminalise, legalise or legitimise the use of drugs. GROSSMAN: So, has that policy now changed. Well, that's a hard call to make and you certainly need a clear head to try and work it out. They haven't legalised cannabis but instead in October, the Home Secretary proposed reclassifying it, putting it in the same category as prescription painkillers. If this happens you couldn't be arrested for simple possession of cannabis but you could still technically be taken to court. So that's clear then, isn't it? One bad trip that the government avoided over the past few months, is being dragged out to Greenwich to explain what they are doing with the Dome. There's still no buyer and no plan and it emerged very quietly in the Commons earlier this month, that in the past year the government has spent nearly three hundred and forty thousand pounds employing a PR company for the Dome. When I rang the PR company to ask them what they do for their money, they explain they answer press enquiries, press enquiries like, why does a building that's been shut for nearly a year need a PR company. And as one building refuses to go quietly, another will never be built. This is Picketts Lock in North London, the site chosen to build a brand new forty two thousand seater national athletics stadium, to host the World Athletics Chanpionships in 2005. It was, said ministers, to be a prestige venue for a prestige event. CHRIS SMITH: It is an extremely good design and it provides us not just with the opportunity to have a good venue for the 2005 Championships but also for a high class performance centre in perpetuity. GROSSMAN: Sporting plans though, don't always work out and in early October, the Government abandoned the Picketts Lock project saying it was just too expensive. The Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, though did helpfully suggest that the world Athletics Championships might like to hold their event in his home city of Sheffield. The initial response of the sport's governing body to this idea though, has been less than sporting. If the world championships look like a non starter, a definite sporting winner though has been Derek Casey. Never heard of him? He used to be the Chief Executive of Sport England, a body that doles out Lottery cash. He resigned in June but it didn't emerge until November that his severance package was worth nearly half a million pounds. Opposition MPs want to know how come Mr Casey apparently got so lucky. In luck too is British Nuclear Fuels. In October they were given permission to run their mixed oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield, a controversial decision since BNFL was found to have falsified safety data on the plant. What is safe to say though is that there would have been far more of an outcry if it wasn't for the war. The same is true about the announcement to build a new fifth terminal at London's Heathrow Airport. The Government have had the results of a public enquiry into the project since December last year, but only gave the go ahead last month. These are sheep not cows. That might sound a rather obvious thing to say, but it was an observation that was apparently lost on a group of government sponsored scientists who spent five years searching for evidence of BSE in sheeps brains - only to find they'd been looking at cows brains all the time. The Rural Affairs Secretary, Margaret Beckett, announced this rather embarrassing revelation in a press release posted late at night on the internet. She was though indignant when facing accusations that she'd tried to bury the story. MARGARET BECKETT - 22 OCTOBER 2001: There was and is absolutely no intention to conceal or to mislead. A press pack was issued at a separate press conference carried out the following day, which gave all the information to any of the media who were interested. GROSSMAN: It's report time for the government. In the rose garden of Number Ten about to introduce Labour's latest new idea is a very proud looking Tony Blair. The idea is for the government to publish a yearly account of itself to voters - detailing its successes and failures. TONY BLAIR: The annual report is all about holding the government to account about charting our progress against the clear promises we've made. GROSSMAN: Packed with glossy photos, this must-read publication was even available in supermarkets. But if you're looking for a copy of the annual report this year, perhaps as some last minute Christmas present, don't bother because ever so quietly with no publicity at all, in October the government announced they'd no longer be publishing it. But of course you can find out all this information for yourself now can't you. In November, the government published its timetable for bringing in its new Freedom of Information Law. And you and I will be given far more access to far more government information before the Christmas decorations come down in January. January 2005.
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.