BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 27.01.02

==================================================================================== 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: 27.01.02 ==================================================================================== JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon. Is it time for a political truce on the Health Service? There's no sign of the heat going out of the debate at the moment and I'll be talking to both sides. How SHOULD we run the NHS? Is the government having second thoughts about tuition fees for students? And who will decide policy in the Labour Party in the future? Might the Party Conference get its power back? All that after the news read by Darren Jordan. NEWS HUMPHRYS: Paying to study ... The government's having second thoughts about tuition fees ... but will it pacify the parents? And this is the way the Labour Party used to make policy. Is Labour now going to give policy making back to its conference? JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first, the big story of the week - the Health Service. Correction - the big story of the next four years. That's what Tony Blair thinks it will be and who would argue with him? The public services have become the main battleground between the two big parties and this past week it's got personal. Iain Duncan Smith cast aside the moderate approach he's cultivated since he became the Tory leader and we saw some real bare-knuckle brawling in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Who won? Well, it's hard to tell because the battle is still being waged, even though Labour say they want to draw a line under the argument over the way a 94 year-old woman was treated in a London hospital. In the midst of all the emotion of the past few days it's not been easy to see what the parties really want out of the Health Service over the coming years and how they intend to get it.... and where they differ. So let's talk to both sides. For the government, the Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid, who's in our Belfast studio and, first, the Shadow Health Secretary Liam Fox. Dr Fox, time to call a truce on the use of individual cases, such as that of the old lady? DR LIAM FOX: Well I think this case has actually come to an end in terms of the details emerging on that one. I think there are general points to be made about when you use individual cases in politics. Number one of course has to be that the individual concerned wants their case to be raised, which of course was what happened here when the family themselves wanted to raise the case and did so with the Evening Standard. The second thing I think has to be taken into account is, is this an isolated case or is it something that shows a general trend and the reason that I think this case had resonance with the public and the reason that the government had such an incredible response to it was because up and down the country people will say, well I know something similar that happened to my next door neighbour or my granny and we've already had the Audit Commission report showing that in Accident and Emergencies up and down the country, an independent report saying that things have been getting worse, patients have been waiting longer. HUMPHRYS: But you yourself can't have been very happy about it. I mean you've been reminded of what you said back in 1992, dredging up personal cases of misery to find out the one that's gone badly wrong in the NHS, etc etc. It's loathsome. FOX: Well, if it's the one case that's gone wrong and the point I'm making is that I think that most of the public will say this is happening a bit too often. We all know of cases of people who have been waiting in Accident and Emergency and then of course we have the two consultants today from the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, working there for over twenty years, saying that this has been happening, not on a one off, but actually quite often and this is a case where consultants are raising the cases on behalf of the patients. HUMPHRYS: So we might see Iain Duncan Smith on the floor of the House of Commons tackling Tony Blair in quite this same way in the future, unless of course he's getting a bit nervous after the treatment he got last week. FOX: Well, it is perfectly legitimate to continue to press the government on the quality of the health care that we get. And you know, it's been a very strange tactic by the government, the first response was to deny that anything had happened, the Health Secretary said that was almost untrue what the family had said, it was fiction. The second response was to try to smear the family, they didn't care about the relatives...this old lady had some racist problem which I think most people found pretty disgusting and the third one is now to say, if you raise any complaints at all about it, you must be trying to undermine the NHS itself. Well, I wonder how that explains doctors who are raising their own complaints on behalf of the patients. HUMPHRYS: So, you are going to keep doing it? FOX: Well, that's our job, is to raise the issues that the public are unhappy about... HUMPHRYS: And if it means individual cases, then so be it? FOX: Well, if individuals want their cases to be raised and these cases are indicative of what is happening in the wider picture, then that will continue to happen. FOX: ......if individuals want their cases to be raised and these cases are indicative of what is happening in the wider picture, then that will continue to happen. HUMPHRYS: The fundamental charge against you from Labour is that you are seeking, deliberately, to undermine the NHS and there is something in that isn't there, because you want people to pay more privately for their care and that inevitably will undermine the NHS. That's bound to happen isn't it? FOX: No, it's not a case of undermining the NHS and this of course..... HUMPHRYS: ..but you want people to pay more privately for their care, that is what you want to do. FOX: No and this is a preposterous argument that if you raise legitimate concerns on behalf of patients, that you're setting out to undermine the NHS or to damage the morale of doctors and nurses inside the service. I mean I've worked in casualty, I know how difficult it can be, but doctors and nurses are not a separate group from the patients, they actually care about..... HUMPHRYS: But I'm making a slightly separate point here, I'm making the point about you wanting us to pay more privately and it is that, ultimately, that will undermine the NHS, the whole ethos of the NHS. FOX: Well, what you have to do if you want to do what the Prime Minister says, to bring our care up to other countries and our levels of spending up, is that you will have to have expenditure that goes on top of whatever you're doing in the NHS. It is not a question of either/or, it will be a question of augmenting it and that will also mean that we have to have a quality, publicly provided healthcare system. And, you know I think it's very important in all of this, that we remember what the essence of this debate is, it's not about the system, it's about the patients. And if there's a difference emerging between the parties, I think it's that we see the patients as being at the centre and the system should try to accommodate them. Labour seem to be saying, you must defend the system at all costs and try to squeeze the patients into it. Well, I think there is a fundamental, philosophical difference. HUMPHRYS: Yes, but the point about the undermining point, is that if you do undermine the NHS in all sorts of different ways and it might be by raising the kind of case you raised on Monday, on Tuesday or whatever, or Wednesday, you will then encourage people, people will then say, oh it's a bloody awful service, I will sign up for a bit of private medicine. That is the effect that you seek in effect. FOX: What I would like to see is a wide debate on how we provide proper healthcare to people in Britain, how it can be that the fourth richest country in the world is being overtaken by countries who are a lot poorer than we are, and I want a proper debate on how we think about funding the service, how we go about organising the service, and I think that one of the prime problems the government's had this week is they can't decide whether they're the government representing taxpayers and those who receive public services or whether they are themselves the NHS. HUMPHRYS: Mm, but the reason that I'm pressing you about this is because of something that you said just a few months ago and let me quote it to you: "it was a mistake merely to promise to match Labour's spending plans, the funding handicap of the NHS comes from our inability to top up state spending with private income". Well, that proves doesn't it, that you want to replace the NHS with something different. It might be better, it might be worse, but it would not be the NHS that we presently have, that's the point. FOX: If I'd wanted to use the word replace, not top up John, I'm sure I would have done so. HUMPHRYS: But if you top up sufficiently then you fundamentally change the NHS, that is the point isn't it? FOX: No, it's not topping up the NHS, it is making sure that beyond the NHS we also have other provision, and we're also able to access that. It means going beyond what we have at the present time, it's quite clear that the NHS as we have at the moment is not actually giving people in Britain the quality of care they require, and I think that all of us should be very concerned about whether we're simply accepting a model which was designed in the nineteen-forties and trying to apply it to the Twenty First Century. HUMPHRYS: Yes, but they would say, they do say, look at least we are putting the money into it, might even have to raise taxes to do so and that's going to improve the service. You're not even prepared to go that far. FOX: Well, I think that we have to ask with taxes having been raised and the government undoubtedly having spent billions extra on the NHS where it's gone, because we're certainly not seeing when people are using the service is this benefit. We know that taxes have been raised, we all know our taxes have gone up and yet patients are waiting longer to see their GP, they're waiting longer in Accident and Emergency, there are over a hundred-and fifty-thousand extra people on a waiting list just to get on the waiting list, so clearly it is not working, there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that leaves.... HUMPHRYS: The lesson you draw from that is a bit more private spending and not necessarily a lot more public spending. FOX: The lesson I draw from that is that we need to be looking at the experience of other countries to see where they've been successful, where we haven't, how we organise the system, how we fund the system, all these questions. It's time for a proper mature debate in this country and to get away from what I think has become an intellectually appalling level of debate that we've had to suffer in recent years. HUMPHRYS: Liam Fox, thank you very much indeed. JOHN HUMPHRYS: And let me turn to Northern Ireland where the Northern Ireland Secretary, John Reid, is waiting for us. Dr Reid Good afternoon. DR JOHN REID: Good afternoon John. JOHN HUMPHRYS: David Blunkett, Alan Milburn, both of them have said in the last couple of days, that lessons should be learned from what happened on the floor of the House of Commons and the way the whole thing was handled on Wednesday and thereafter. One lesson, surely, is that it is a mistake for the Prime Minister to get involved in individual cases in the way that he did and it's no good saying, well he had no choice because it was raised by the leader of the Opposition, he did have a choice of course because he could have said, I'll look into that later and in the meantime etc, etc, etc. REID: Well, how should this debate be conducted and I agree with the person who said that dredging up cases of personal misery is the lowest form of political debate. That wasn't me, that was Liam Fox, your last guest... HUMPHRYS: ..though of course you did it yourselves when you were in Opposition time and again... REID: I beg your pardon, we didn't do, we gave anonymous examples of the type of thing that happened. Nevertheless, I agree with you, I mean the way to conduct this debate is not to count up individual complaints letters and then pit them against individual thank you cards, many of which are sent to the NHS. It's first of all to try and..and I'm very glad that we're now trying to separate the views of the various parties on this and that's why I think Iain Duncan Smith has made a terrible, long term blunder last week because there is a distinct difference. We believe that the public ethos or public service should be supported, we should put in more money into the Health Service and that we should reform it in order to make its output more efficient. The Conservatives believe in cutting back in the money in the public services down to thirty-five per cent of GDP, about twenty billion pounds out and running down the ethos of the public service and going, as you properly pointed out, towards private sector provision. In other words, we put forward an NHS solution and the Conservatives are putting forward, not an NHS solution but a DIY solution. It is not a National Health Service provision they seek to get to solve the problem, it's a do it yourself provision which is fine for the top ten per cent, but for ninety per cent of the people of this country, will leave them with a worse service. HUMPHRYS: But just to finish off that point about Tony Blair's handling of the case on Wednesday, I mean surely when he got it wrong and I mean it is simply not true that you did not use individual cases, though I think you acknowledged that, certainly David Blunkett acknowledged that yesterday, he said we did it ten years ago and I can remember us doing it and he suggested that perhaps lessons should be learned from that. But the point is, what was wrong surely, was for Tony Blair then, to go on and attack the family of this old lady in the way that he did. REID: Well, what Tony and the other Labour spokesmen did, was to repeat what was already in the public domain from the hospital themselves. But I think you're right, what we ought to be doing is debating how we improve health provision in this country. Now, if we were to take the position that everything is perfect then I can see why the Conservatives might be justified in saying that everything is awful, but we have never done that. We have said that there is a lot being done to remedy the mistakes of the Conservative period but there is still a long way to go. But don't forget that over eighty per cent of people who are served by our National Health Service, are satisfied with it, eighty-six per cent in the last opinion poll in a Conservative newspaper. That by definition means that we have a long way to go, so how do we do it? First of all we put in more money, as we are doing, secondly we provide through that better resources, something like twenty seven thousand more nurses over six thousand seven hundred new doctors. But we also have to support the ethos of public services. What is the alternative being presented to people by Liam Fox and the Tories. It is to go back to the very policies that made the system at present incorporate deficiencies. In other words, to cut back on the spending, to tell people they have to provide their own Health Service and to denigrate those, I mean to say that people in the Health Service are treating people worse than dogs, that sort of language is an attack on the whole ethos of the public service and that's why I think that Iain Duncan Smith last week, and I understand why he did it, on the view that any publicity is good publicity and they are worried about the fact that he's unknown. He will find it isn't, he's now fighting on the ground of the public services and he's made a very, very serious strategic blunder. HUMPHRYS: Well but hang on a minute, I mean, it isn't as if it's just Iain Duncan Smith joining in this attack. We had two consultants, you'll have read about them this morning, or heard them on Radio Five this morning, two consultants themselves, no axe to grind, no political background, unlike the chap at the London Hospital, saying things are wretched, and the sort of thing that we heard about with this old lady happens over, and over and over again, and we have raised the question, now, there are, are they not allowed to do that themselves, damn it, they work in the Health Service. REID: Of course they're allowed to do that, and of course we admit there are deficiencies, but if the debate is conducted in terms of letters of complaint versus thank-you cards to hospital staff, then fair enough, we can go on doing that. There are, you know, millions of people in this country who have sent thank-you cards, who are satisfied with what they've had, millions of people, including myself incidentally.... HUMPHRYS: ...of course... REID: ...who owe our lives to the National Health Service, as a young man, my life was saved by the National Health Service, but that is not a very sensible way of doing it, by taking individual cases and swapping them and that is why the public last week got turned off. What they want to know is, who's committed to providing for the vast majority of people in this country, a National Health Service that is well funded, and we are doing that, the biggest ever sustained increase, who is intent on reforming the system, of persuading people, of arguing with them inside the Health Service to improve the output, and who on the other side, on the Conservative side, is arguing that actually public services are a bad thing, people in the public services are treating the patients awfully, and you ought to provide your own health service through private insurance... HUMPHRYS: What they want to know... REID: ...that is a debate I welcome. HUMPHRYS: Well what they want to know surely is the government of the day is on their side, and not on the side of the system, or on the side of the NHS, on the side of the producers, and the trouble is that you gave us very strongly, Tony Blair in particular, gave us very strongly the impression in the earliest days of your parliament, when New Labour was a new thing, that you were on the side of the patient and if necessary you would take the producers, the doctors, the nurses and the system itself to task. Well now, what's happened is you have been forced to do a turnaround on that have you not? REID: No we haven't... HUMPHRYS: ...and this is the difficulty that you're now facing and so it was a bit of an own goal for Tony Blair, wasn't it? REID: No we haven't done a turnaround John. When Tony Blair said a number of years ago that we were in difficulty arguing, persuading people to change, that was over things like literacy and numeracy. We took on that challenge and people now see that we were right to argue what we did, because we've improved the education system and we are prepared to meet that challenge in the National Health Service. But I tell you this, nobody can be on the side of their patient if they're against investment... HUMPHRYS: No, no (INTERRUPTION).... REID: one, let me finish John, you've asked a legitimate question. It is a different thing to say that we want to invest and we want people in the Health Service to look at all the methods, to look all the potential demarcation disputes, to put the patient first as we want to do it, and to go out of your way to denigrate people in the National Health Service by accusing them of treating people worse than animals. That was the line that was used last week, worse than dogs from the leader of the opposition. Now that isn't just something that's plucked out of the air, there is an agenda behind that, it is denigration with a purpose, it is to say to the British people, you can never get health provision through the National Health Service and therefore you have to go private. It is a DIY health service... HUMPHRYS: ...alright, but what they've done, is they've scored a direct hit one way or the other because you've had to...., let me remind you what Charles Kennedy of not the Conservative but Charles Kennedy leader of the Liberal Democrats said yesterday, Tony Blair now praises them, praises public service workers that is, because it suits him politically to do so. So they have had an effect haven't they, clearly? REID: First of all John, I don't accept that there's been a direct hit. I welcome very much that the leader of the opposition has moved the ground of argument onto the future of the National Health Service and the public services. He may have won a few minutes of glory, but he has lost the hours. He has made a strategic blunder. And secondly I can give you an even more modern quotation from Charles Kennedy because he was on the television this morning, saying that it was irresponsible for the leader of the opposition to try and dredge up an individual case of misery. It's alright for members of parliament of course to privately raise cases, but when someone does resort to what Liam Fox himself called 'the lowest form of debate' he will get publicity, of course. I mean, if I'm an nonentity and want to get myself into the papers I will do anything to get publicity but I may win the minutes but I will lose the hours because the real question here is who will provide the investment and the reform to give patients in Britain a National Health Service that will meet their needs and who is telling them to go away and do it themselves, offering them tax cuts, reduction in investment and denigration of the public services, that's how we got into this mess with the last Tory government and it's no answer to the future of the Health Service. HUMPHRYS: John Reid, I have to end it there, many thanks. REID: Thank you John. HUMPHRYS: Are we about to see a big change in the way we pay for students to be educated at university. What the government did four years ago was bring in tuition fees and change the way the loans that students live on are repaid. The effect of that was to stir the middle classes and apparently Tony Blair was shaken by their anger. So he has ordered a review to look at the whole thing. The trouble is - as David Grossman reports - any solution may cause new problems instead of solving the old ones. DAVID GROSSMAN: Stephanie Fulford arrives in Leeds with her parents to check out the university. The journey from school to college is daunting, Stephanie plans to study Geography so it certainly wouldn't do to get lost. How her time in higher education will be funded is rather uncharted at the moment, the government's reviewing the system, not least because it wants to make sure that by 2010 half of all young people find their way into college. The government has a problem in trying to expand higher education - it's going to cost. Especially since many of the students it's trying to attract, are from low income backgrounds, who could potentially need far more financial support. The introduction of loans and tuition fees has helped to pump more money into the system, but has also upset a lot of middle class families who have to bear the brunt of the expense. In announcing this review, the government's hoping to steer a course through these competing concerns, but almost any policy change they can come up with seems to risk upsetting somebody. BARRY SHEERMAN MP: It seemed to me a great shame that we should immediately start unpicking that because it was a bold decision. Many of those decisions have to be painful, but they were right and it seemed to me, you know getting it wrong to go back on it and say, oh well we've made a mistake, there was no mistake, you had to change the basis of student finance, no modern, modern government who wanted a first class, world class Twenty First Century university system, could afford to go on the old way. ACTUALITY: "Can I just say a big welcome to everybody here, who's come to the open day". GROSSMAN: With more students than ever streaming into universities, Tony Blair's concerned that they and their parents don't feel put upon. Stephanie's parents already have a son at university and the costs are adding up. BARRY FULFORD: If Stephanie goes away for a three year course - then we'll be looking at somewhere in the region of three or four thousand pounds to fund Stephanie plus the thousand pounds a year to fund Andrew at Birmingham. So in a very short period over five years, we'll be looking at something in excess of twenty thousand pounds, possibly, to fund them through university. GROSSMAN: You can forgive today's students getting a bit nostalgic abut the way their predecessors were funded. Up until 1990, students received a means tested grant towards their living expenses. Today though grants are just a memory, replaced by the Tories with loans. Students now also get handed a bill for part of their tuition fees - although the poorest fifty per cent are exempt. This whole system though is now under review. MARGARET HODGE MP: We want to ensure that we've got the balance right. There were concerns expressed and there are continuing concerns expressed over the balance. Are we asking, particularly people from lower income backgrounds to pay too much towards their living costs. GROSSMAN: Students have always wanted more money, but since the introduction of loans the issue of graduate debt is of real concern. Students can now borrow up to �3,815 a year from the government's scheme, a bit more for students in London. Barclays estimate that last year's graduates have an average total debt of �10,000. That's hardly small beer and say some a powerful disincentive to staying in education beyond school. GORDON MARSDEN MP: Perception is all important and if you come from a background where no one in your family has been to university and none of your peer group are going to university, then the perception of piling up a lot of student debt, even if in fact that doesn't translate in to reality with repayments, is very important. GROSSMAN: The government though is believed to be looking at options that stop well short of reintroducing universal grants. One possibility is targeted bursaries, perhaps expanding the current Opportunity Bursaries Scheme worth �2,000 each to six and a half thousand students from poorer backgrounds. MARSDEN MP: The benefit of the Opportunity Bursaries Scheme is first of all that it's there already and therefore there is a bureaucratic structure which wouldn't have to be reinvented. Secondly, it would relieve substantially the concerns of students coming from first generation or disadvantaged or working class backgrounds about debt. CONNOR RYAN: Well you still have something like three times as many people from professional families as from blue collar families going to university, so higher education is still to an extent a subsidy of the middle classes. If you want to see greater participation from working class children, as well as seeing improved standards in schools you need to have some sort of targeted support at those students, rather than having some blanket reintroduction of the grant. GROSSMAN: As Stephanie explores Leeds University, the government's got to consider not just how she and other students are to be supported, but how they can fund their ambitious plans for the expansion of higher education itself. DR NICHOLAS BARR: Thirty years ago we still had an elite system, where only 5% of 18 year olds went to university. Now, it's easy for the tax payer to finance a small high quality system. Today we've got 35% of young people going to university with an aspiration of a 50% participation rate and that is huge enormous staggering progress, very warmly to be welcomed, but one of the implications is that the tax payer cannot be the sole source of finance for a mass system. GROSSMAN: More or less everyone agrees that student finance urgently needs a boost. But who should pay for it and what form should it take, that of course is the difficult bit. The debate on the answers to those questions is raging at the heart of government. With the Education Department, Number Ten and the Treasury all desperate to make sure that when it's published the review reflects their own individual agendas. MARSDEN MP: The Treasury obviously are concerned to avoid open ended commitments to future expenditure which will cause them enormous problems. Number Ten obviously are alert to the sensitivities politically, broadly of the issue. Not least because students and their parents are a vocal political force. And the department, while taking those points on board is also acutely conscious of its broader objectives, which Number Ten shares, of widening participation in higher education, so there's bound to be conflicts of view points. GROSSMAN: One possible solution that the government's been looking at to raise money for higher education is an extra tax on graduates. SHEERMAN MP: Personally I think there's nothing wrong with a system that said look, those people that benefit from higher education have benefited and you know got much better incomes because of the education they got should, should pay something back and I think if that's a good principle it should apply to anyone, whether they're.. whether they're twenty- five or thirty- five or sixty- five. Then you know let's have a graduate tax where something flows back into the system. If it was ring fenced for higher education investment, I think that would be a wonderful thing GROSSMAN: But for the prospective students looking round the Geography department, having to pay a graduate tax after university isn't something they should get worried about just yet. Although at one time keen on the idea, the government is believed to have reconsidered after an getting an unfavourable reaction in focus groups. RYAN: I think the problem with a graduate tax is that once the middle classes start calculating what the repayments would be, they would find firstly that they're significantly more than would be repaid under any loan system and fees system combined, and secondly that there would be no way of paying all the money up front, so one would have to continue making those payments for a period of perhaps a quarter of a century. UNNAMED WOMAN: Hi, I'm Ellie, I'll be taking you round the campus, I'll show you all the main bits. GROSSMAN: As most students will admit the odd hangover is unavoidable but a financial hangover that lasts forever could make many think twice about taking up a place at university. The Scots have opted for a limited form of graduate tax, where instead of up-front tuition fees students have to pay back a fixed amount - two thousand pounds after they graduate, so long as their income reaches a certain threshold. BARR: Higher education is then free at the point of use, so then you have free higher education for everybody and it's repaid by an income related graduate contribution, that's eventually switched off. That looks very much like free higher education paid for out of taxation and that's not froth and bubble and spin, that is real. Higher education would be free at the point of use, no student would have to pay tuition fees up-front, they would go to university, they would sign a bit of paper, it would all be free, they would get their degree and once they started earning more than a certain amount there would be an add on to their income tax which would last until they'd paid their agreed contribution. GROSSMAN: There's plenty to learn too for Stephanie's parents as they get to grips with student finance. It seems we're unlikely to move to ANY form of graduate tax soon because, quite simply the Treasury doesn't like the idea. MARSDEN: The main problem in terms of finance is that it would take a very long time for that money to feed back in to the higher education system, unless the Treasury were able to or were prepared to give a sort of advance against it, which I think unlikely, but I think there are other problems with it as well, with the move to people being in self employment, with greater graduate mobility, with all of these factors I think you would find in effect it would be a lot more difficult to collect than people have sometimes thought, and we could end up with the same problems that we've had with the Child Support Agency, GROSSMAN: There is an idea that would actually save the Treasury money. At present student loans just keep pace with inflation - so what about getting graduates to pay them back at a more realistic interest rate? BARR: If the interest rate that students paid went up by two or two and a half per cent so that it was equal to the government's cost of borrowing that would close a huge fiscal black hole at the heart of the present loans scheme. Next year, the student loans company is going to lend about two thousand five hundred million to students. Of that amount seven hundred million will never come back because of the cost of the interest subsidy, so to put it another way, if next year students paid a slightly higher interest rate, equal to the government's cost of borrowing, it would be possible to spend seven hundred million pounds on grants or on other measures to promote access and the same would be possible the year after that and the year after that. GROSSMAN: But would reform of student finance on its own make any difference - some Labour politicians argue that the whole review is something of a distraction when it comes to attracting more students to university particularly those from poorer backgrounds. They argue that the real barriers to higher education are well before aged eighteen and it's these problems that urgently need attention and finance. SHEERMAN: All the evidence my select committee took in the last year in terms of looking at access to higher education and retention in higher education could not find hard evidence that students on lower incomes were being put off coming in to higher education. Now a lot of people said you will see it soon, the statistics will start showing, but I have to say still today I haven't seen convincing evidence that this has been a bar. HODGE: We've got to intervene when people are very young to encourage them to come in to higher education and to raise their aspirations. There is this terrible statistic that I always quote from some research that was done which showed that over 40% of young people from the lower socioeconomic groups never think about university as an option for them, during their school years. That means their teachers, their friends, their family, all the influences on their lives don't put university as an option for those individuals, because of their background RYAN: I think the issue here is can they successfully introduce the sort of reforms that are necessary in order to increase opportunities, in order to allay some of the concerns about the existing system, but at the same time make sure that there is sufficient money for higher education? GROSSMAN: As Stephanie and her family head home it's an uncertain time for her - she's got exams to come and has still to decide which if any university place to take up. The review of student finance probably comes fairly low down her list of worries at the moment but what the government eventually decides could have a lasting impact on her and thousands of other young people for many years to come. HUMPHRYS: David Grossman reporting there. Remember the good old days (that's how SOME people described them) when the Labour Party's polices were decided at the Party Conferences. Passionate debate ... and, often, poisonous divisions. Well all that changed in 1997. The passion was taken out of the politics and now, instead of the conference delegates deciding the new policies, they are decided by "forums" of the chosen few and offered to the conference on a take-it-or-leave basis. But the leadership is getting worried because the members are losing interest ... and many of them have left the party altogether. So now Labour's new chairman wants to get its members more involved in policy making again. Iain Watson reports on whether that will create more problems than it solves. IAIN WATSON: The tranquility of Ogmore in the South Wales valleys was about to be disturbed, a Cabinet big beast had come to town, it's Charles Clarke, Labour's Superparty Chairman. He has more powers than any of his predecessors and enjoys Prime Ministerial patronage. Here to beef up the by-election campaign, his wider challenge is to boost party morale and stop disillusionment descending into division. CHARLES CLARKE MP: Where political parties have divided from their governments, the most obvious recent example being the Conservative Government in the early nineties - but before that the Labour Government in the late nineteen-seventies, then at the end of the day those divisions have led to the people feeling that they're unelectable. WATSON: Even in winter, it isn't too much of an uphill struggle to get Labour Party members and even Cabinet Ministers out in the streets of the parliamentary by-election. Labour will be challenged here in Ogmore by Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, though this seat should be safe, there are fears there won't be enough Labour activists to pull out the votes at Council elections later this year. Losses are expected and party membership has also taken a bit of a tumble since the 1997 election. So the smell of fear isn't unknown at Labour's Millbank nerve centre. This internal Labour Party document exposes concerns over voter apathy and lack of political activity. So the Party Chairman, Charles Clarke, is anxious to find incentives to get the party members back into action. He's promising less control freakery from on high and more power for the grassroots over policy making. But if his reforms don't go far enough, the party membership may remain inactive; if they go too far, then Labour could be zapped back to the era of division and disastrous election results. Even modern day modernisers have had a rebellious past. PATRICIA HEWITT: Patricia Hewitt, St. Pancras North. Many of us in this conference are also angry about much of what the last Labour Government did and a great deal of what the last Labour government failed... WATSON: To head off the sort of stand up rows seen at Labour Conferences in the eighties, Tony Blair took policy discussions behind closed doors in that National Policy Forum. That system will now be relaxed a little, but one former Cabinet Minister says his colleagues must listen more to the views of the members. CHRIS SMITH: I hope that ministers will always use the policy forum, not as a fig leaf for giving some party justification to things that have already been decided, but as a genuine exercise in listening, understanding what people are saying and sometimes, if the policy forum coherently and cogently argues against what is currently on the table, sometimes being prepared to change minds. WATSON: It may not look like it but this is trendy Islington in North London, a member of Labour's National Executive Committee has come to meet the activists. Charles Clarke wants Cabinet Ministers to follow Anne Black's example by engaging in more question and answer sessions with the masses. But she isn't intoxicated by his promises. Indeed, she's concerned that some of the Chairman's reforms owe more to style, than substance. ANNE BLACK: My worry is that some of the changes I've seen so far will just turn out to be more effective ways of members telling ministers what they think about policy and ministers telling them why they're wrong. And if that's all it is, then we're going to have problems. WATSON: Labour Party meetings aren't always gripping affairs, so the Party Chairman will offer members more than the right to form a respectful audience for visiting ministers. He wants them to be able to discuss a range of policy options at an early stage, rather than simply voting for or against pre-prepared documents at Party Conferences. Some influential voices say these options must cover potentially divisive topics, such as taxation and be discussed in full public view. ANNE CAMPBELL: The process of voting on options at conference is something...that's if you like the end of the process but that's got to be genuine too. I think there was a lot of anxiety around the first round of policy for it that you know, whatever we did, we mustn't let it go to Conference 'cos we might get the wrong decision. We need to seek the party's views on whether we should keep the level of taxation low, or whether we should go for an increase in taxation in order to fund public spending. WATSON: Do you think it would be alright to allow the membership to have a debate over the levels of taxation? CLARKE: Of course, that is a central question and I've got no doubt that when we come to the economic policy review which will be in the years 2002/2003, concluding at the 2004 Party Conference, that we will do just that and it's right that there should be that kind of debate about our aspirations and how we go about achieving them. But the one thing I would caution is that that debate must be very much tempered by reality. WATSON: But that kind of 'trust the membership' response isn't universally popular; while the Party Chairman says it, Tony Blair's in favour of giving party members more say over policy options, ministers close to Gordon Brown are thought to be more sceptical. And those who have seen the effects of an overdose of internal party democracy in the past, warn that problems lie ahead if the result of Charles Clarke's reform is to give more say to party members rather than to the wider electorate. BOB WORCESTER: I think there are several pitfalls that we might catalogue about this initiative. Number one, and I think this is the big problem, it might re-ignite the conflict between old Labour and new Labour. New Labour won the '97 election, New Labour was re-elected with a massive majority in 2001, a party that is perceived to be, whether or not they are, perceived to be, by the British public, split, has a difficulty winning a General Election. WATSON: But Labour's Superchairman has anticipated some of the problems. He knows that party members can be as cantankerous as Railtrack shareholders. So Charles Clarke wants to catch the public mood too. He also wants non-party members to be consulted in the government's future direction. But some policy makers are warning the Party Chairman to proceed with caution. ANNE CAMPBELL: There will always be a worry I think amongst party members that if you start asking people with different political views, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to come in and give their views, we might actually go down the wrong track. So, I think it's all got to be done quite carefully. WATSON: Some leading Labour modernisers say that Millbank's attempts to motivate the party membership require a little bit more than simply tinkering with the policy making structures. They say there's disappointment at what's perceived as a sense of drift in Labour's second term. And now these unlikely critics are setting up a new organisation to ensure that government policy better reflects the party's priorities. Michael Jacobs is the General Secretary of the Fabian society, a Labour think-tank named after the Roman General, Quintas Fabius, who would delay his battles until he felt they were absolutely necessary. Five years into a Labour Government, Michael Jacobs is consulting with other modernisers, including a former policy director at Millbank, to find a way of giving the government more momentum. MICHAEL JACOBS: I think there are a lot of members of the Labour Party who want to see the government be more radical, be more committed and this group, provisionally called Compass, which doesn't yet exist but which there are discussions about, is aimed at bringing those people together to try and put pressure on the government in a sense from the radical wing of the party. There are lots of pressures on any government to be more cautious, more moderate. We need some pressure on the government to be more radical on issues like poverty and equality, on decentralisation and democratic revival ANNE BLACK: If the government was doing things that every party member approved of, then they wouldn't actually care much about the mechanisms. They wouldn't really give a toss whether Conference or the National Policy Forum made the final decision. The problem you get is if you have policies that people are unhappy with and no mechanism for saying so, or for changing them and at that point, they disengage, they stop becoming active, maybe they leave. WATSON: While some ministers are notoriously thin- skinned about criticism, Charles Clarke seems big enough to welcome it; he says ministers should be given the same luxury as the membership on policy development and be permitted to 'think aloud.' But there are warnings that voters might be confused about the government's stance on any issue if ministers are allowed to come out with different lines. WORCESTER: If you allow in a Cabinet form of government different people to be saying different things you are certainly leaving yourself open to exploitation by the opposition during a General Election. Any time that the Prime Minister or one of the leading members of the Cabinet will pronounce on something, they will hit back with ah, but you are split on that issue and that will permeate down into public opinion and possibly do them damage. CLARKE: Yes there are risks, but I think the risks of going down the course I've described of relative openness are less dangerous, both to our party and to politics in general, than the risks of just being in closed smoke-filled rooms and discussing what we're talking about, without having the open discussion. I think that would a more risky enterprise at the end, so we're prepared to take the risks. WATSON: But hard cases make good law and when Europe Minister, Peter Hain unfavourably compared our railway with those he'd observed on his travels in the continent, it was made clear to the press in lurid detail that he'd been rebuked for the crime of saying what he actually thought. A leader pollster believes that in practice, Labour's Party Chairman will have to set limits on his colleagues' freedom of speech. WORCESTER: On some issues, I think the mild mannered Clark Kent will be dropped on by Superman in the guise of Charles Clarke from a great height. Now it's alright to talk about some of the peripheral issues, cultural affairs or whatever and depart mildly from the party line, but if they start coming out with something different on the Health Service, something different on education, or transport, or the Euro, these things upon which the next General Election will be fought, won and lost, these are the issues upon which they will have second thoughts if people start stepping too far out of line. WATSON: The fate of this man could suggest the reduction in control freakery is strictly limited. A by-election panel chaired by Charles Clarke himself in Ogmore kept Mark Seddon, left-wing Editor of Tribune, off the final short list of candidates. CLARKE: Would it be clever politics or not? Would it be clever politics just to include people because they want to be on the short list? Would it be clever politics just to put people on the short list because they say, 'I have a name and I'm a terribly important person' or is it better politics to say we're going to put in front of the membership, people who have performed well under the simulated, I acknowledge, pressures of the by-election interview style that we had and that's what we decided to do. Now had Mark performed better he would have been on the short list. But he didn't. WATSON: Even modernisers say Charles Clarke must be seen to deliver on his wider promises to banish control freakery, otherwise loyal Labour Party activists may decide it's simply not worth putting themselves through all this. UNNAMED MAN: Well I resigned the Labour Party for what they're doing to the normal working people. JACOBS: They feel that the democratic structures of the party are no longer operating properly and that they don't feel involved any more. Almost that it feels like you're a member of a supporters' club rather than a democratic organisation and there's very grave concern about the new policy making machinery that the party has adopted and whether ordinary party members can be involved in it at all. WATSON: So the challenge for Charles Clarke and his colleagues at Labour's Millbank headquarters is to do just enough to lift the spirits of a mildly moaning membership without leaving themselves too open to attack from a more confident opposition. That may well be a task of superhuman proportions. HUMPHRYS: Iain Watson reporting and that's it for this week. If you are on the internet, you can keep in touch with us of course through our website. Until next Sunday, goodbye. 20 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.