BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 16.12.01

==================================================================================== 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 ==================================================================================== ON THE RECORD RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION: BBC ONE DATE: 16.12.01 ==================================================================================== NICK ROBINSON: Good afternoon. What are the Conservatives for? I'll be asking their leader Iain Duncan Smith. Does the government really want to give more power to MPs? I'll be finding out from the Leader of the Commons Robin Cook. Plus all those stories buried under news of the war. That's all after the news read by DARREN JORDON. NEWS ROBINSON: Thanks Darren. Welcome back. Hello I'm Nick Robinson. John Humphrys is away today. Fighting for Parliament's rights - that's what Robin Cook says he's doing. Later, I'll put it to him that many people are going to take some convincing that this government means what he says. And we'll bring you a Christmas stocking full of stories you may have missed in the fog of war. First though, to Iain Duncan Smith. The Tory leader said that the character of his leadership would be set in his first three months...people should - he said - be able to say that "that bloke looks as though he knows where he's going". That three months is up so... can they and does he? Mr Duncan Smith joins me now. NICK ROBINSON: First, though to Iain Duncan Smith. The Tory leader said that the character of his leadership would be set in his first three months. People should, he said, be able to say that that bloke looks as though he knows where he's going. Well that three months is up, so can they and does he? Mr Duncan Smith joins me now. Thanks for joining us on the programme. IAIN DUNCAN SMITH: Not at all, pleasure. ROBINSON: It seems to me that is the test Mr Duncan Smith, isn't it, do people know where you are going and if you look at the opinion polls, more than half of people say, they haven't an opinion on your leadership at all. Does that worry you? DUNCAN SMITH: No, it doesn't. I think the important thing when I said about the three months, is that we as a party settled, that we recognised that we were bound together by more than we were divided over and that we were therefore giving focus to the things that frankly, most of the British people had felt we no longer cared about, or hadn't talked about. And on that, I'm very strongly on the view that it's the public services that have switched people off. They feel as though there was no alternative to the government because we didn't seem to produce one. That was there concern. ROBINSON: Well it's the public services I mainly want to talk to you about today. But just dwell briefly on this problem of you failing to make an impact, does it concern you too that the only thing that people seem to keep going on about is that you struggle to keep your voice when you are making public performances and asking questions in the House of Commons? DUNCAN SMITH: I find that sometimes the commentators are more interested in the performance than they are in the message and the reality here is that most British people want to know how their public service is going to be improved when they are failing, when they know that the government is failing over health. What they want to know is there is an alternative and to spend time as to whether or not someone's had...lost their voice or not is quite ridiculous. In truth, I spent four mouths pounding up and down the country and it's getting better. Nice for your concern anyway..(laughter). ROBINSON: Well let's turn to those public services and those policies. We thought we knew what you felt on a whole series of issues. I want to see if we still quite know what you think on these. Let's start with tax and spend. You are a tax cutter, you are a Tory, you are a Thatcherite Tory, then along comes Michael Howard, the Shadow Chancellor and he says, public services are - and I quote - "the number one priority and take precedence over everything else". Have you gone off tax cutting, do you mean that the Tories will not now promise to cut the tax burden? DUNCAN SMITH: No, I think what the public want to know from us is first of all what we think our priorities are in terms of the things that they see as failures and problems in their lives and that's what Michael Howard was talking about. He said that for us in this next Parliament we are going to focus on those issues that we think need reforming. Big change and I think the big agenda here is reform and change in the public services it gives to people greater choice and greater quality. That's what they want. But they also know that we as a party are a believer..are believers in low tax economies, in other words comparatively low tax economies are the successful ones, they are the ones that allow you to live on more money and focus that money onto those public services. So, the balance is simply saying we have to establish our credibility, in terms of how we are going to change and reform those services and then how we are going to apply that money and then, we can talk about what the burden of tax will be to the British people to support that. ROBINSON: Okay, now that's a presentational point, it may be an important one.. DUNCAN SMITH: It's a very important one... ROBINSON: need to get your credit with the electorate for talking about public services but people took you to believe... DUNCAN SMITH: ...well....producing reforms... ROBINSON: ...well people took you to mean and they wrote it up this way, that what you were saying is we've learned our lesson, we are not saying what we said at the election, which is we can both have tax cuts and improve the public services, we are saying that the number one priority, to quote Michael Howard, is the public services. We can't have those tax cuts. DUNCAN SMITH: No, he didn't say that. This is important, two things have got to be understood and this is what we've understood and I hope the media will understand this. The first is that we have four more years to run in this Parliament. The government which has already raised tax massively on the British people but done it in a way that they weren't told about, through stealth taxes, through things that they don't know, not through income tax. That's already the case and people are beginning to feel the pinch. But what they've got is another four years in which we are now seeing the beginnings of a further ramping in taxation. We have no idea where they will be in three years' time or four years' time as we run to a General Election. So for us to start now saying, this is going to be the position absolute in four years, I think the British people would say, no-one can say that. But what they want to know and what we can say, is you are failing on these public services, you have no route map. I mean for example, it's very important this, the government the other day, the Prime Minister, said they were going to increase public spending on the Health Service to be in line with the European average. Well, first of all, he said it was eight per cent and I've proved to him the other day, that that eight per cent was already being achieved in Scotland, Ireland and Wales and they were failing as well, that's the key issue. ROBINSON: Yeah, and I want to ask you about health spending and also about your ideas for reforming the Health Service. But let's just be clear about this. People thought you and Michael Howard were signalling a change, that you'd learnt your lesson from the last election, that you knew the Tories couldn't have credibility by saying we'll cut your taxes and maintain public services. What you are clearly saying to me is, no we've got a presentational problem but we can offer tax cuts and increases in public spending. DUNCAN SMITH: Don't simplify it to the extent that it then gets over read. What I'm saying to you is, our priority is to deal with the public services, quite rightly, to bring a radical set of reforms, that will give people that choice and quality. Once we've done that, we can look at how to finance that, once we don't that we can then say what is the level of tax that people will need, whether we can be able to bring that down below where the government is and at the same time, if the public understand that and we able to, to show that they will increase the level of spending and focus it better... ROBINSON: And that's what you want to do, you want to be able to say to the public, we'll cut your taxes, personal taxes, the taxpayer... DUNCAN SMITH: No, what we want to be able to say to the public is, we can do two things. We can show you that you need to reform the system, having reformed it, you can find a way of financing it which actually focuses the money directly where they need it and we then are able to say the government is taking more of your money, we want to take less, but at the same time we want to make sure on those issues, those things that you worry about, that the money is being spent and being used. That's the critical issue. ROBINSON: Let's pick up what you were talking about in terms of health spending, you've been very critical of the government, we'll talk about what they are doing in a second. What about you, at the last election, we were very clear where Mr Duncan Smith stood. You said, the party said, we'll match Labour's spending on health and education, it's a priority, that's what we mean by it. Will you do that in the future, will you say that as the government increase these spending plans, we'll match it. DUNCAN SMITH: Well let me just run that one past you, look you have a government here, that came into power on the basis that they said that their spending profile would solve the problems in the health service. What we've seen is actually, as the public know, the health service is getting worse, yet they are supposed to be spending more on it. The government then came back and said, we are going to spend even more on it and that's the solution and yet we find ten billion pounds a year now is wasted in the Health Service, in other words it doesn't go towards treatment because it's just not...the system doesn't cope and the worse bit is in this last year, they are not going to be able to spend up to seven hundred million pounds allocated on the Health Service, cause the system can't take it. You ask me, if I am going to agree with them, saying we are going to spend yet more, I say, you tell me why you can't spend the money you've already got and why you're wasting so much, before we decide whether or not, your solution is correct. The answer is it's not. They have to work the system change first. ROBINSON: Plenty of people agree on the case for reform... DUNCAN SMITH: That's my point... ROBINSON: ...and we'll talk about the reform, but it's also important to talk about money isn't it. You see, because you've travelled round Europe... DUNCAN SMITH: ...absolutely... ROBINSON: ...and you've said let's look at these other countries and how they do things. Now one of the things you want to emphasise they do, is they spend more private money. But the thing you don't emphasise very much is they all spend more public money as well, take Germany. In Germany, it would cost twenty billion pounds in this country, to reach what they spend on taxes on health. France spends more, Sweden you've been to, spends more. Even the United States of America spends more as a proportion of its national income than we do on health, so it's a simple enough question to say to you, do you therefore, want to spend more taxpayers' money on health. DUNCAN SMITH: It's a simple enough question but it's a wrong question. The question - you just hit it at the last point, when you said, even the United States spends more on health, correct. What..however we have is a government here in Britain, that seems to believe that the only way of getting health sorted is through direct taxation and spending more of people's tax money. No other system that we have visited, that is successful, actually does it that way, they have a mix of ways of spending. Some of them have a proportion of tax added to by a sort of insurance system, some have pay as you go, some have relief on that. My point here is, if you look at France for example, you have a system that spend give or take very similar amounts in tax, what they... ROBINSON: ...well not give or take similar amounts, if I may, Mr Duncan Smith, the latest OECD figures have Britain spending five point eight per cent of GDP, almost six per cent of its national pot on health from taxes, France seven point one per cent, it's a lot more. DUNCAN SMITH: Hold on, hold on. Just remember what else France spends apart from tax, that's the key point. My point is, that we look at these systems and we see that all of them are mixed systems, they are systems that have much greater voluntary, much greater private involvement and as well as a state based level. And I'm saying that the problem for us at the moment is if you just go on saying we're going to apply more tax and more tax to this system, you find that (a) it can't spend it as I showed you, and (b) it's completely over-stretched and the inefficiency becomes greater, not less. So the trick here, the important point here, is to say that you must put the reform of the system first, then you can sort out exactly how you finance it. ROBINSON: But this is partly about your credibility as you do that process, isn't it and you've told people that you want to cut their taxes and people think that if you cut their taxes you may well not be able to spend enough money on health. It won't be, to use Michael Howard's words, a number one priority. DUNCAN SMITH: Absolutely. ROBINSON: I put it to you that other countries, whatever their system, spend more of their taxes on health and you say, well I can't even promise to spend... DUNCAN SMITH: but Nick, the way to look at it is not that they spend more of their tax, they spend more of their GDP on health. You see, you're getting locked into the same old Labour argument which is, everybody spends more tax. The truth is, they do spend more of their GDP, but the reason why they get better treatment is because that GDP is better focused because it involves other mechanisms for spending money. ROBINSON: Well let's talk about those. DUNCAN SMITH: Now we're looking at that and that's the reason why Labour has ruled that out. Gordon Brown said there is no way that they are going to go down that road, that the NHS must remain as it is and simply a matter of raising tax money... ROBINSON: you've only been in office... DUNCAN SMITH: ..the public don't believe that. ROBINSON: You've only been in office three months and people don't expect you to have a detailed health plan.. DUNCAN SMITH: ...absolutely... ROBINSON: ...but they can be clear about your principles, you spelt out what Gordon Brown says his principle is, your principle clearly is, from what you've said, that people, not through taxes, must pay more themselves directly for health care, you can debate how, but they must do it. DUNCAN SMITH: Yep...what we're going to do is look at the best way that is applicable to Britain that we can bring forward that actually gives them and this is the important thing, the high jump is that it must improve quality and it must give them greater choice. Can I give you one example. I went to Sweden the other day, now Sweden is a country that had a system very similar to ours, actually probably it was closer to ours than anything else, a health system funded almost wholly through taxation. It is funded at the moment mostly through taxation. But what in Stockholm they've done is change something very important. They've actually said that patients have the right to choose their hospitals and that GPs, doctors, with them will be able to pick what they think are good hospitals. Now that major change has changed the whole attitude of treatment in the hospitals. They've even taken one hospital, treating what we would call NHS patients and moved it into the private sector, that the quality has improved dramatically, the waiting lists have collapsed, we're beginning to see how you reform a system that was very static and very rigid. ROBINSON: They've done another thing, they charge people to go to see their doctors, about ten pounds, I'm told it is to see the doctor in Stockholm, now as a principle... DUNCAN SMITH: ...they have always had a system of charging though in Sweden, which is entirely different from... ROBINSON: a principle, people have assumed that the NHS is free at the point of use, there may be the odd prescription charge, there may be a charge for your dentist, but to see your doctor it's free... DUNCAN SMITH: ...well don't say... ROBINSON: ...are you Tories saying let's think about... DUNCAN SMITH:, I'm sorry, let's start, let's stop right there before, we get this nonsense from the Labour Party, they always say this is free at the point of delivery and you want to charge. The truth is... ROBINSON: ...well we're asking... DUNCAN SMITH: ...the Labour government already charges people. They charge them for their prescriptions, you know to go and see a dentist you get charged. The reality is many people, today we see a report, probably four hundred million pounds a year being spent by people who don't have the right income, who are having to go and find private treatment... ROBINSON: this is very clear, you are saying... DUNCAN SMITH:'re being charged already. ROBINSON: ...there are lots of charges and there are no... DUNCAN SMITH: ...Labour hasn't done away with them... ROBINSON: there's a charge to see your GP, or a charge to go to the hospital... DUNCAN SMITH: ...Nick, it's a living lie that Labour tells that says this is absolutely free. Everybody who knows who uses it, knows that in certain categories you pay. The question is, right now, the system itself doesn't work to deliver even though they do pay. That's the truth. How do we reform that system first and then how do we look at the financing of that system. That's very important. ROBINSON: Let's just be clear though what you're saying is because we already pay, because you think Labour are misleading about this...we may have to pay, we Tories may have to come to you and say you'll have to pay to go and see your doctor. DUNCAN SMITH: ...but they already pay. Nick, sorry, let's stop this, no, this is a silly argument. People pay through taxation for their service. They then pay as charges when they go and buy in many categories their treatment across at the chemist, and they pay if they go and see a dentist often if they can't get an NHS one. My point is, the public already know they're paying. The problem for them is they don't get the service that they feel they ought to. That's the priority if we can get the reform changed, if we can get the structure better so that people get a better quality we can look at how we raise the extra finance, then I think people would say I'm prepared to pay and that's how I'm doing it. I'm doing it through tax, I'm prepared to look at other ways... ROBINSON: ...they may pay on health. Let's turn to a different issue, an issue with which you were associated with very, very clearly and you said that people should know where you're going, it's the Euro of course, you've been the clearest of any Tory leader, never, it's not going to happen. You won't actually countenance it. Now, why on this crucial issue are you never talking about it then. You don't talk about it, you stop other people from talking about it, is it because you think it doesn't matter very much any more? DUNCAN SMITH: ...supposed to have stopped everybody talking about it... ROBINSON: ...or is it you're a bit scared to tell people what you think about it? DUNCAN SMITH: No, not at all. I have to say that if there is one subject on which the British people are clear about the Conservative Party, I think it's probably Europe and I don't think therefore that we need to carry on and on and on about that subject right now. We are clear and the public's clear and let me just reverse this question on you slightly, if Mr Blair was sitting here, why would you not say to him, why was he so dogmatically determined to enter the Euro, because he's a believer in principle. I simply have said we at the next referendum, when it comes up, we will simply oppose it, but there is scope for those in my party who disagree to campaign for. I think that's tolerant and reasonable and that's a good position to be in. ROBINSON: The fear some have is that this is becoming a fact on the ground, notes and coins are about to come in, we saw them waved at the Laeken summit yesterday, interestingly enough, Dixons Group, they say you can go into their shops and they own a lot of them and you can use Euros. And who's the Chairman of Dixon Group, Stanley Kalms, the Treasurer of the Conservative Party, so it's going to happen isn't it? DUNCAN SMITH: ...who's also opposed to the Euro... ROBINSON: ...will he take donations in Euros, for the Tory Party. DUNCAN SMITH: As far as I am concerned, you know very well that the Dollar exists, that doesn't mean to say you have to adopt the Dollar. The whole issue about currencies is that they keep within your national democracy the power and control to set your tax rates, to also adjust your interest rates in accordance with what is necessary for you domestically. Far too many of the public remember while we were in power the ERM debacle, under the ERM where we ended up having record levels of unemployment and difficulties and problems and people don't want to return to that and my simple point is you know, they may well go to notes and coins in January, but Europe itself is heading deeper and deeper now into recession and I don't think we necessarily want to copy that. ROBINSON: And will you, now we have a new process of reform in Laeken will you do what you said in the past, which is to say we don't want this to happen at all and if I become Prime Minister, I'll renegotiate these treaties, they'll go. DUNCAN SMITH: Well we've yet to hear exactly what they've agreed at Laeken but as far as I can see there are a number of things I think the British people will be deeply uneasy about, the European Arrest Warrant... ROBINSON: ...but the key question is not..with respect your opinion is whether as Prime Minister, if you became Prime Minister, you would say to people, this has to go. DUNCAN SMITH: We're going to say to people that we want a Europe that is about nation states co-operating and trading and things that get in the way of those we'll actually want to change and things that are in favour that, we want to keep, but we want to have that and I think that's the flexible response to Europe as it is, and by the way, September eleventh showed us one very important feature which is that the old idea of the great blocks, the structured and rigid blocks, which is at the moment what Laeken was discussing, are probably over, we need greater flexibility, we need nation states to co-operate rather than be coerced. ROBINSON: One last subject I want to ask you about, whether people are clear where you're going. You were clear, you said I'll be intolerant of intolerance on the issue of race. Now then we saw your Chairman say to members of the Monday Club, it's incompatible to be in our party and believe the things that you believe, but now I read you're having them back. DUNCAN SMITH: I'm not having them back, we haven't got anywhere near that. ROBINSON: I read in the paper that... DUNCAN SMITH: ...well you can read what you like Nick in the papers, you can read what you like in the papers, but I shouldn't always believe what you hear in the papers, I see no suggestions to that extent. ROBINSON: So the Monday Club as far as you are concerned are... DUNCAN SMITH: ...we've already told the Monday Club what happened and we told them quite clearly that their whole position on race and the way that it was used and as we saw on their website, was not compatible with the Conservative Party's views on this matter and they were told that they therefore could not be part of the Conservative Party, they've had to go away and we'll wait and see what they come up with. ROBINSON: ...well, they had to go away and possibly change what they believed, I just want to be clear... DUNCAN SMITH: ..radically change... ROBINSON: ...but if they come back and say to you, okay, well we've cleaned up our website, we don't say things like... DUNCAN SMITH:'s not just a case of cleaning up websites... ROBINSON: ...this is what they used to say, we already pay host to large numbers of people of non British origin who seem to believe that everything this country's traditionally stood for is profoundly negative, they behave like lodgers in a hotel. If they just don't say that any more, they're welcomed back? DUNCAN SMITH: We didn't say that all, you're completely misusing what we said. The Chairman was absolutely clear that they could not continue as part of the Conservative Party as they held those views and they held them in a way that set an agenda which was not the Conservative Party's agenda. I think most decent and reasonable people would recognise that. Our agenda is the one that I state with the party and I'm not going to have that taken down side roads by others. ROBINSON: Is there no chance, just so I understand this, that you kick them out one day, and then say, back you come a little bit later. DUNCAN SMITH: We've made it absolutely clear that any group that holds those sort of views and makes those as a policy statement is not going to be part of the party. And I also must say, something much more positive which you don't want to rest on, is that we have changed a lot of things, I have the first Vice-Chairman who is of ethnic background, I have advisers now from an ethnic background. We are making changes to the candidate procedure, which will bring in people from ethnic backgrounds and more women, some very radical change I'm making, but I'm determined to do it, and I'm determined to make the change that brings us back into line with the way the British people think. ROBINSON: Iain Duncan Smith, thank you very much indeed for joining us today. ROBINSON: Now this isn't a government which is renowned for championing the rights of Parliament - the attempt to control the awkward squad on the Select Committees, in the House of Lords and, indeed, the Standards Watchdog herself have all seen to that. But this week the leader of the Commons Robin Cook unveiled a series of proposals designed - he said - to beef up MPs powers. Well, I've been speaking Mr Cook about whether he really means it. But first Terry Dignan reports on the doubts he's got to overcome. TERRY DIGNAN: There was a time when we regarded our Parliament at Westminster as the envy of the world. Lit up at night by the Thames it still makes an impressive sight. Yet in the eyes of many its image is tired. Robin Cook, and other Labour MPs, fear voters are losing interest in Parliament. Four in ten can't even be bothered to vote for someone to represent them here. GRAHAM ALLEN MP: I think in the country there's a sense that Parliament itself is irrelevant. TONY WRIGHT: I just think now there comes a moment in the life of an institution where you really do have to reform or die. And I think we almost got to that point with Parliament. DIGNAN: If Parliament is to regain the respect of the public, it may have to become a stronger, more effective institution. Yet a more powerful Parliament is bound to make life difficult for Tony Blair and his ministers. But keeping Parliament weak carries with it the risk that voters' confidence in our political system will decline even further. ALLEN: You look at the low turnout there was at the last election, you look at the way some Members treat Parliament as well and indeed the way the House itself is run, it doesn't inspire confidence. DIGNAN: Parliament needs a makeover because there's evidence that faith in our politicians has fallen to a new low. British Social Attitudes has been asking voters if they trust governments to place the nation's needs above their own party interests. Back in 1974, thirty nine per cent said they did. By 1996, under John Major, the figure had fallen to twenty two per cent. Last year, under Tony Blair, just sixteen per cent said they trusted governments to put the nation's needs above their own party interests. PETER RIDDELL: There is, if not a crisis in democracy, there is a scale of disillusionment, particularly amongst younger people and particularly amongst the socially excluded, which is very serious and has to be addressed by Parliament. DIGNAN: In the past week Robin Cook has been explaining to those who want reform how he'll do it. To increase media coverage of the Commons, questions to Mr Blair and his ministers would start earlier in the day. There'd be more debates held at shorter notice to give MPs a greater chance to speak out on issues which matter most to voters. But Robin Cook's real aim, as he told the think tank of the Constitution Unit, is to reinforce Parliament's ability to hold ministers to account on behalf of the people. ROBIN COOK MP: If we want the Commons to retain the affection of the British public then we must be willing to reform it so that it can match its status as the central institution of our democracy. LORD NORTON: A lot of the attention has been on hours of sitting, Prime Minister's Question Time. To some extent those are marginal to the real issue which is how do you strengthen the House of Commons in calling government to account? MARK FISHER MP: The objective of reforms must be the greater effectiveness of Parliament in scrutinising the government and holding it to account. At the moment Parliament's ability to scrutinise is out of kilter with the power of government, the whole balance has shifted towards the government away from Parliament. DIGNAN: They're building a new visitor centre at the Commons. Robin Cook hopes the public will be equally impressed by his plans to strengthen all-party select committees. Made up of backbench MPs, they're allowed to question ministers and their officials in detail. But the government decides who sits on them. ALLEN: I used to be a Whip, I know how the process works, I know how you get people on select committees and I know you put people on there very often who are going to give the government an easier ride than perhaps are more independent-minded members. FISHER: Both the choice of chairs of the select committees and indeed the membership have got to be taken out of the hands of government. These are the bodies that scrutinise the work of departments and they have a very important scrutiny role. It's ridiculous that the people who are scrutinising government should be appointed, effectively, by government. DIGNAN: There's currently some high quality craftsmanship on display at the Commons. Some might argue it puts to shame the poor quality of much government legislation that comes before Parliament. Still, MPs are there to put right any flaws. In truth, ministers are loathe to make changes. WRIGHT: The bit of Parliament that's shocked me more than any other while I've been there, is what we call the standing committees which are the places where bills, legislation, is looked at. If you're on the government's side, it's seen as a form of dissidence, even to contribute to debate. I mean it's an absolute nonsense. No wonder we get bad legislation because it's an appalling way to do it, it's just really like a sausage machine and there's no real scrutiny in that at all. LORD NORTON: There's nothing worse than bills going through, becoming the law of the land and then it's realised they're not working. We've had all sorts of examples of that over the year. It makes for bad law, it undermines the reputation of parliament and of government and it just clogs up parliament and government because you need more legislation later on to correct that which they got wrong in the first place. DIGNAN: Robin Cook wants to strengthen the ability of MPs to expose and correct defects in government legislation. One idea is to make greater use of outside experts and take more account of the views of the public. But some ministers may not like increased scrutiny of their legislation especially if it makes it more difficult for them to push their bills through parliament. Getting it right at the new visitor centre meant paying attention to detail at the drawing board. Many MPs would like a bigger say when legislation is still at the planning stage. But this pre-legislative scrutiny happens only occasionally. ALLEN: I think what we need to do is to make sure that it becomes the norm, there may be certain bills that it's not appropriate for, but I think we should say as standard practice a Bill should go through so many weeks of pre-legislative scrutiny. DIGNAN: But reformers want to go further. They believe that scrutiny should be bolstered by allowing outside experts to give their views of proposed legislation. LORD NORTON: This is central, that the House of Commons has information and advice that is alternative to that provided by government. If the government is a monopoly supplier or a near monopoly supplier of information to the House of Commons, the House of Commons cannot do an effective job in challenging government. DIGNAN: But what ministers want is to be allowed to carry bills over into the next session of Parliament if time is running out. Robin Cook agrees. Yet even Labour MPs concede this would deprive the opposition of an important weapon. FISHER: It takes away the weapon of power and time, from not only the opposition parties, from parliament as a whole, and it's only time at the moment that puts pressure on the government to make concessions and to compromise on their legislation. DIGNAN: Although he made no mention of it to the Constitution Unit, Robin Cook has a compromise in mind. In return for allowing ministers more time to get their bills through, the government could hand control of the day to day parliamentary timetable to a new all-party business committee. But he's been forced to keep quiet about the idea because some ministers don't like it. RIDDELL: This proposal was made by Robin Cook, when he put it to Cabinet there was a kind of horror from the traditionalists, people like Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, Jack Straw the Foreign Secretary who's very interested in Commons matters, and Margaret Beckett the former Leader of the Commons who's very conservative on these matters, and so Robin Cook was forced to drop this idea. FISHER: We've got to convince the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and a number of other vested interests. The reason for it is that the moment the government takes complete control of all the business of the House, so it's not parliament's business, it's the government's business. PAUL TYLER MP: I think there's resistance from people who like to see Parliament as really the lap dog of the Executive, you know, something that's got to be organised and run, but it isn't something that's allowed to interfere with the, with the business of government. DIGNAN: Down the corridor from the Commons there's another house which needs modernising - the House of Lords. But Tony Blair's plans are seen as merely cosmetic. He's shown again, that when it comes to parliamentary reform, his taste is somewhat restrained. The dilemma is over electing the Lords. That might increase its power - so ministers have decided only one in five peers should be elected. RIDDELL: They want a subservient House which essentially tidies up for the failings of the House of Commons and has a veneer, a pretty small veneer of democracy of elected members. ALLEN: The proposals don't go far enough, we have got a massive landslide victory in 1997 and 2001 and I think history will not judge us very well if we don't use that tremendous opportunity to do something that most of us in the Labour Party have dreamt about and that is having a properly elected House of Lords or second chamber. DIGNAN: And if that does make it more of an equal to the Commons, it may be no bad thing. Even Labour MPs are often pleased when the Lords sends legislation back here to the Lower House, heavily amended against government wishes. Indeed, some Labour MPs who voted for the Terrorism Bill were rather hoping the Lords would make changes to the legislation. WRIGHT: I remember going through the Lobby on one of these votes and one of my colleagues shaking his head and saying, never mind, the Lords will sort it out for us. And everybody agreed with that and it got you off the hook, because you knew what you were doing was daft, but they would sort it out down the corridor. But of course when it comes back from down the corridor, then of course the system says, who are these people down the corridor to decide what we do, not elected are they? So at the moment it's a real nonsense. DIGNAN: Parliament stands proudly at the apex of our political system. Yet despite its splendour, its image is now tarnished. The job of Standards Commissioner is being downgraded because Elizabeth Filkin, who investigates allegations about MPs' finances, has trodden on too many toes. Even some MPs who have criticisms of Elizabeth Filkin are appalled at the way she's been treated. They fear it will deepen voters' cynicism about politicians and could cast a long shadow over any serious attempt at modernising parliament. ALLEN: I think we've managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on this one. I think politics in the UK is probably the cleanest in the world and yet the perception we've managed to generate is that we want to be the judges in our own court. Nothing could be further from the truth. WRIGHT: Even at the level of perception which is so important here, people should've seen that you know to have set about trying to remove her, or to downgrade her is ruinous, in terms of people's perception of this institution. And it destroys all the good work you've done in these recent years to pull back trust that had been lost through those bad days. DIGNAN: In a few days' time Parliament rises for Christmas. Labour MPs will look back on a year which brought them a second landslide victory. Yet more people stayed at home than voted Labour. Robin Cook believes they're losing faith in our political system. His problem will be persuading his cabinet colleagues that the answer is a stronger parliament. NICK ROBINSON: Robin Cook, you published proposals you say that will modernise and strengthen the House of Commons but do you accept that some people are going to find it very hard to believe that that's what they'll do, given that this is a government seen often to ride rough-shod over the will of Parliament and to be obsessed with control freaky. ROBIN COOK: Well I think they should look at the proposals on their merits. If they look at those proposals they will find that we are providing for longer, fuller scrutiny of Bills, earlier scrutiny of Bills, an awful lot more coming to the Members in draft, we're going to strengthen the Select Committees that scrutinise or hold to account ministers, we're going to give them more resources to do the job properly, professional back up, these are not the actions of a government that is trying to avoid scrutiny, on the contrary, what I am trying to do is to make sure Parliament can do an effective job, because only if Parliament is seen to do that effective job, we don't have the respect of the public. ROBINSON: So you are clear then, that this shouldn't be a make-over, a paint job, because some people have looked at your proposals and they see proposals to change the hours of the House of Commons and the sitting times for Prime Minister's Questions, and they say, these may be all very well, they may be valuable, but this is a paint job, it's a presentational gimmick. COOK: Well certainly not, and some other analysts have actually said that this is the very comprehensive package, more comprehensive than we've seen in the past, under government of either colour, it is not a cosmetic effort. The question of the hours I'll leave there, but they are only there so that we can make Parliament more effective. I do strongly believe if Parliament wants to set the political and public debate of the day it's got to meet it at the start of the day, that's why I want Parliament to start sitting earlier, and the hours that we are providing are hours so that we can carry out that bigger job of scrutiny that I provide for within that package. I don't see this as a conflict, a confrontation between government and parliament, we both need each other. As keep saying, the principle behind these proposals is that good scrutiny makes for good government. ROBINSON: Well let's put that to the test with one of the proposals you make, inevitably in the House of Commons, particularly one with a very large majority, there's a real limit to what the Opposition can do to oppose or even to change any legislation. Now one of the main ways they can do it is to get your backs to the wall, so that you know that you're going to lose your bell because you've run out of time and concessions can be made. Now we saw that this week on the Anti-Terrorism Bill and yet you're going to change the rules aren't you, so it's less easy for Bills to run out of time, less easy for the Opposition to do its work. COOK: Well the main complaint that the Opposition have made over the past two or three weeks is there was not enough time as they saw it to consider that Bill, it was rushed. Now I don't think that we should provide in the rules a system which ensures that we cannot provide adequate scrutiny for the Bills that are going through. I want to make sure that Bills do have that time for proper debate and proper exposure. That's why I'm suggesting this proposal that effectively each Bill should have twelve months before Parliament. Now that will long enough for Parliament to do a thorough job of scrutiny. So long as you include that deadline at the end of the year and you prevent us from carrying one Bill forward from one year to the next year, then Bills are going to be rushed because it's the only way of beating that deadline, and that's not good for Parliament and it doesn't make for good legislation. ROBINSON: On the other hand, people will see the government made changes to its Anti-Terrorism Law, dropped the idea of a law on religious hatred, why not, because they were persuaded by arguments, you heard plenty of arguments and the government ignored them, it was because in the end there was just that deadline and you had to either drop measures or you were going to lose the entire Bill and that's healthy for Parliament, isn't it? COOK: It's very healthy for Parliament to be able to debate measures and it's very healthy for Parliament to scrutinise measures, I think it's also important that Parliament should provide adequate opportunity to listen to the public health side as well. One of the provisions we have in our standing orders is for a committee that is going to consider a Bill, is to take evidence from the public before it considers the Bill. We hardly ever do that because we are in such a rush to get the Bill through to meet that deadline... ROBINSON: ...let's just... BOTH SPEAKING TOGETHER ROBINSON: ...let's stick with that, because Mark Fisher you've seen, we've just seen him in the film, he's a former Labour minister, he says the proposal you've got which effectively takes this deadline away, he says it takes away the weapon of power and time, and it's only time he says, that puts pressure on the government to make concessions and to compromise and what people worry is, there's the weapon, Robin Cook's taking it away. COOK: Yes but you can't on the one hand say that time is the great weapon and on the other hand, as Members of Parliament constantly do, including quite often, Mark Fisher, is complain that there is not enough time to look at a Bill. What I am trying to do is to respond to that demand that there should be more time for consideration. The Bills should be thoroughly debated, that there should be an opportunity to take evidence from the public and if that time is there then Mark, and anybody else, can make their considered view and explore where the Bill could be improved. ROBINSON: Well, some say, alright we hear what Robin Cook says about giving us more time, but what he should do in return for that, because the government gains a little, as I've been spelling out, is he should give us some control over how the time is allocated, instead of the government being able to say, we will decide precisely how long each of these Bills is debated for and when, do as they do in the Scottish Parliament, let all the parties influence how the time-tabling is done, are you tempted by that? COOK: Well first of all, can I just say that this is not something which government is going to gain from, it's where uniquely.. Parliament will also gain, it's in all our interests and we all have benefit in this, if there are those in the Opposition who want to say, well, we're willing to look at this change, we want to have this change, we can see the benefit of having longer time to debate Bills, but in exchange for agreeing to that we want some quid pro quo, well let them come and put that proposal to me, and obviously these are proposals for consultation, I am willing in the process of consultation to explore what they might want as a quid pro quo... ROBINSON: ...and if they quid pro quo it, as Paul Tyler of the Liberal Democrats says, we want to help determine the business of the Commons, when it meets, when it discusses and so on, will you concede that, will your Cabinet colleagues let it, because it's said that you asked them to do it and they said, come off it Robin, we're not giving that power up. COOK: ...when the......Cabinet approved the memorandum a week ago there was a lot of enthusiasm and support around the table... ROBINSON: ...not for that measure though, was it, you were forced to drop it as I understand it... COOK: ...yes but if I can come back to your point about the quid pro quo, if the Opposition, both of them, come to us and say look we can see the case for the carry over, we can see the case for not killing off every Bill at the end of the session because that means they're rushed through, we welcome the greater time that will be there fore debate, but we want this in exchange for it, then all that's up for consideration, there's a consultation period, I'll listen to whatever they say, but first of all, I want to hear them say that yes, we recognise this case for the longer period of studying Bills. ROBINSON: It's a very interesting thing you've said there, but they may say to you, we're willing to offer this deal, I mean can you deliver the deal Robin Cook, can you go to the Cabinet and say this great power that governments like to keep, deciding when they time-table Bills, I want you to give it up. COOK: If I had a deal, and went with the deal, then I think there would be a very good prospect of getting agreement to the deal, but with respect Nick, we can't negotiate this through the television studio, we have to negotiate it with the Opposition, as yet they have not come and said this to us, indeed there is some indication that the Conservative Party themselves would not welcome the business committee, far less see it as something that they could accept and exchange. ROBINSON: Well, let's move on to an item of reform that you've said you're going to turn to, but haven't yet spelt out what you'll do and that of course is about the Select Committees. Again it's a bit hard, isn't it, having credibility as a parliamentary reformer, when you represent a government which nobbled the committees, tried to say to Parliament, this is who you can have as chairman and this is who you can't have as chairman. Now a lot of people have said they regret it, I assume you do too. COOK: Well if they tried to nobble it, they certainly did not succeed in nobbling it because there was a vote in the House and both those individuals were restored to Committee which is quite right, because it has ultimately to be a decision for Parliament. But that debate released an enormous amount of energy and interest in how we make sure we reform that system, that night I gave a commitment we would come forward with an independent authoritative system which would be independent of party influence... ROBINSON: ...meaning no influence for the Whips, just so we're clear what independent means, that MPs can choose who they like, and the Whips won't have a role at all. COOK: We have already reformed our system within the Parliamentary Labour Party. It's so that the system that was in use last Summer has gone and in the future it will be an election by all Members of Parliamentary Labour Party, but the question that remains to be resolved is how do those nominations from the party get presented to Parliament. Now what we are looking at in the Modernisation Committee and I hope to be able to report on this by the end of January, would be a system that would be independent of party influence, have no Whips on it, would be able to act as the referee, would be able to make sure that there had been fair play, that there had not been abuse of the rules and would only then submit the names to Parliament for Parliament itself to decide so that would clearly make it a Parliamentary process independent of party control. ROBINSON: Now that's how they get into those jobs, the question then is what powers they have when they are on Select Committees, or chairing them. Are you minded, I know you're not decided yet, but to pay committee chairman to say, we will make a career structure for committee chairmen and what's more we'll give them more staff too? COOK: But the point of the agreement is indeed in that last point, which is more staff, there needs to be much more support for the Select Committees to do their job of scrutiny, which often can be quite technical, for instance, the financial scrutiny does need to have support from financial experts, we are all committed in that and will be certainly recommending that. On the question of the pay for Chairs, the difficulty here is that the Chairs of the Select Committees themselves are divided as to whether or not they wish to be paid. We will be taking evidence in the course of this week from the Chair of the Liaison Committee, that's the body that brings together all the Chairs of the Select Committee, we want to hear very carefully what he says... ROBINSON: ...are you tempted to let them be paid? COOK: Our minds are not closed on it. If there was a demand for it, if there was a consensus among them I would certainly be willing to canvas putting it to the Senior Salary Review Board for their advice, but there is an important principle which many of them hold to which is all Members of Parliament are equal and all Members of Parliament should have equal pay. ROBINSON: ...although the argument against that as you know is that, this is not about making Select Committee Chairmen rich, what it is about saying is that the only way to progress in Parliament and to progress your salary too, isn't by having a Red Box, isn't by being a minister, or a bag carrier for a minister, but what you can do is be one of the chief scrutinisers of Parliament and so pay is a very important signal of that, isn't it? COOK: Status is also important and like many of those you are currently chairs of Select Committees I rather suspect would feel possibly...certainly surprised and possibly insulted if they were offered ministerial posts, it's far less a question of bag carrying. But look, this is an issue on which I have an open mind if the chairs of Select Committees can agree on this, certainly it is an issue on which we are prepared to act. The important issue is that we are going to make sure they have more resources, we are going to make sure that they have more opportunity to communicate with Parliament and to make sure that they carry out their job of scrutinising government. ROBINSON: Now this debate about how the Commons runs itself, isn't happening in a vacuum and that makes it a problem for you doesn't it. The Parliament is seen by many people to be struggling for its existence, its life really and they see ministers hands round Parliament's throat. They look at the Standards Watchdog, Elizabeth Filkin, and they say, what do they do when she caused a bit of trouble, they got rid of her. COOK: Well on the question of having ministers having their hands round the throat, I do think after the past two weeks, it's very difficult to say that ministers have their hands on Parliament's throat, nor do we want to. We need Parliament, we need Parliament to do a good job of scrutiny and make sure that we stay on our toes. On the question of Ms Filkin, Ms Filkin was not due to...was not got rid of, Ms Filkin is eligible for another period of re-appointment, we have decided that we should test the market to make sure we have the best candidate, we invited Ms Filkin to come forward on this short-list, she was guaranteed a place on it, if she was the best candidate, she would have been re-appointed. ROBINSON: But by in effect saying, you can't be automatically re-appointed, you gave a signal months in advance, you are not wanted, we don't like the way you are doing your job and what's more, by the way, we are going to review the question of whether you really need to spend as long doing your job as you say you do. COOK: Well, Sir Gordon Downey, who was her predecessor did of course write in the course of this week, that of course if you take an appointment on a fixed term, you have no guarantee of automatic reappointment. Nobody else in the world has that Nick. As to the question of days.... ROBINSON:'s a signal in a sense isn't it, Tony Wright is very clear about this, we've just heard him say it, he's a committee chairman from the Labour Party, he says it was - and I quote - "ruinous in terms of people's perception of Parliament". And you seem to be saying that the removal of Elizabeth Filkin, however it came about, was neither here or there. COOK: We were very keen to make sure that we had the best candidate for the job of the Commissioner for Standards and we have a very... ROBINSON: ...and she wasn't the best candidate for the job? COOK: We will never know that because she's declined to take our invitation to come forward for the short-list... ROBINSON: clearly thought she wasn't likely to be the best candidate for the job, otherwise you would have just re-appointed her. COOK: No, we never came to such a conclusion. We said that we wanted to have an open competition, I must say this seems to me, the more open, more transparent way to go about the process of re-appointment. ROBINSON: Now, some will say, that the only answer to what happened to Elizabeth Filkin is end self-regulation, that MPs can no longer be allowed to hire and fire the person meant to regulate them and interfere with her reports. If there is a proposal for self-regulation, the Committee on Standards and Public Life are looking at that, will this government bring it about? COOK: Well the Commission on Standards and Public Life to which you refer, used to be the Nolan Committee. They were the ones who devised the present system and indeed far from turning it down or watering it down, Parliament actually strengthened it. We gave more power to the Commission of Standards than had been recommended by Lord Nolan and his commission. If the current commission, under Sir Nigel Wicks, wishes to propose changes, then I would expect Parliament would be willing to accept those changes. We need to see what they are going to propose, but if they want to propose anything, we will of course listen with great care. ROBINSON: Finally, let me ask you this, a few minutes ago you said, how can anybody think that we were not in favour of a strong Parliament, given what's happened in the past two weeks, which of course are a whole series of defeats for the government in the House of Lords, people will open their newspapers and they'll read this from a Home Office source. It would be fair to say that reform of the Lords procedures has a very willing advocate in the Home Secretary, it's an absurdity that the will of the Commons can be frustrated in this way. Now, what people will read into this, is that when Parliament tries to scrutinise what the government does, you don't like it ... and what you say, if we will change the rules to stop you doing it. COOK: I think you are asking a bit much Nick, to expect ministers to like it when Parliament exercises that job of scrutinising it. What I was saying is that Parliament has exercised that job of scrutiny, there's certainly no evidence here as you yourself put it earlier, that ministers have their hands round Parliament's throat. ROBINSON: And Robin Cook wants to see more of that sort of scrutiny? COOK: I want to see Parliament able to carry out an effective job of scrutiny and I think that the better it can do that job of scrutiny, the better the legislation will get, the better the draft of the legislation will become. That's good for everybody and it's good for government as well. ROBINSON: Robin Cook, thank you very much indeed. COOK: Thank you. ROBINSON: I was talking to Robin cook earlier. Now no matter how much news there is, newspapers only have so many pages to fill, news bulletins only so many minutes. That means that at a time of terror and war much political news fights to get a hearing. Sometimes that suits the government just fine. So, as a public service, David Grossman has been rounding up some of those stories that may have slipped beneath your personal political radar. 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. ROBINSON: So now we know then. That was David Grossman reporting. That's all for this week and, indeed, for this year. If you're on the web you can keep in touch with us through our website. John Humphrys will be back in the New Year. Until then, it's goodbye from me. ...oooOooo... 28 FoLdEd
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.