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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.
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 the...it 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
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
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
HUMPHRYS: The lesson you draw from
that is a bit more private spending and not necessarily a lot more public
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
JOHN HUMPHRYS: And let me turn to Northern
Ireland where the Northern Ireland Secretary, John Reid, is waiting for
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
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
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,
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: ...no 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.