BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.02.02

==================================================================================== 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: 10.02.02 ==================================================================================== JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon. The politicians told us the world changed after September 11th. I'll be asking the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon how this country's armed forces will respond. Are they already overstretched? There's been a rash of strikes recently. Are we seeing the old unions flexing their muscles again? I'll be talking to the Tories' Trade and Industry Spokesman. And why are they still selling off so many school playing fields? All that after the news read by Darren Jordan. NEWS HUMPHRYS: The trade unions are starting to make life difficult again - especially for the government. Is this a return to the "bad old days". And the playing fields of England are vanishing. What happened to the promise to preserve them? JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first defence. The one thing on which all politicians agreed in those dark days following September 11th, was that things would never be quite the same again. All the old assumptions about National Defence would have to be re-examined. How could we defend ourselves against this new kind of threat? What extra demands would be made on our armed forces and on the taxpayers who'll have to pay for them? Well, this week the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, will produce a discussion document that will lead to a new chapter in the Strategic Defence Review; that was published three years ago and was supposed to take us through to 2015. Mr Hoon is in our Nottingham studio. Good afternoon, Mr Hoon. GEOFF HOON: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: The SDR, Strategic Defence Review, concedes it says, at the time it was written, that there's no direct military threat to the home land, but of course that's changed as a result of what happened on September 11th. So, we are going to have to reinforce our home land defences aren't we. HOON: Certainly, that's one of the issues that we will set out in this discussion document and I will set out to Parliament when we debate this document on Thursday. It is very important that we look at the implications of those appalling events in the United States as far as our own domestic security is concerned. HUMPHRYS: What kind of things are we going to have to do that we are not doing now? HOON: I don't believe that anyone should be concerned that we are not setting out the very highest levels of security in this country and certainly in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, we stepped up protection at key installations right across the country and we obviously continue to have special regard to any threats to the United Kingdom. But nevertheless, the purpose of this discussion document is to discuss in the round, the kinds of threats that we might face that we might not have anticipated before September 11th, to see whether it is necessary for us to adjust, not only our defence response but also how that works alongside the police and other security protection available within the United Kingdom. HUMPHRYS: I see there are stories today about bringing back Dad's Army, I hate to use that phrase, but everybody knows what we mean by it. HOON: Well, certainly, one of the concerns that I have as Secretary of State for Defence is that we should not be using regular Armed Forces, who clearly have a role and responsibility, both within the United Kingdom but also increasingly importantly these days overseas to protect installations where perhaps, there might be a role and responsibility for say, our reservists and that's something that I think we do need to have a debate about and I hope that after Thursday that will happen. HUMPHRYS: So, what, have more of them, or simply re-deploy the TA who are there at the moment, what sort of things are we thinking about? HOON: Well, it could be either of those things and I think that's why we do need to have this public debate. Our reserves provide an enormously important role in support of our regular forces. We have adjusted the way in which they are trained and operated in recent times to make them more usable, many of them for example, serve regularly nowadays in the Balkans. They are a tremendously skilled, complimentary force to our regular soldiers, I want to see whether we can use their skills as well in the United Kingdom more effectively. HUMPHRYS: So that might be a bit of a change of policy mightn't it, because we had been more or less running down the TA. HOON: Well certainly it will be a change of emphasis and I do believe that this is one of the things we need to look at in the light of those events on September 11th and I am keen to involve the reservists, as well because they have, if I can put it this way, a regional footprint, they are spread across the country, they are volunteers, they are people who give up their time, weekdays, weekends, to serve their local communities. It may well be, that if there is a key defence or other national installation, in their locality, that they will look forward to the opportunity of serving by offering their skills and resources. So I think there are a number of things that we have to look at, not least their attitude towards this, their employers, how the community believes that we ought to be providing this kind of protection. HUMPHRYS: So it would be in fact, it would be a bit more than a change in emphasis wouldn't it, because we were reducing them. Now, we are talking about augmenting them and this fairly significant change, if it happens. HOON: Well, certainly I think we have to learn lessons from September 11th. People wanted to rightly, be reassured that vital installations were being properly protected and it may well be that reservists have a role in this. So, certainly augmenting their existing role, I certainly don't see this as being their only responsibility, but it may be something that they could do alongside the other jobs that they do so well. HUMPHRYS: And that might well help here at home, but overseas we are going to have problems aren't we, because we do have them at the moment, some people think, and the jargon that's always used, is over-stretch. There is a serious danger of over-stretch isn't there, Bruce George, Labour MP, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, himself, says that his committee believes that we are over-stretched. HOON: We're certainly stretched. I wouldn't actually use the word over-stretch at the present time... HUMPHRYS: ...what's the difference? HOON: Well the difference is that we are operating to our maximum capability, that we are not at the moment, at any rate doing more than I judge reasonably, I can ask of our armed forces. But obviously, it is something that I have to have regard to. I am not pretending that I am not aware of the criticisms and I recognise that it is my job to ensure that Britain's Armed Forces do as much as they can, properly and successfully, in the remarkable way that they have done so lately, but at the same time we don't ask so much of them that it leads to a situation which has occurred in the past, where perhaps people leave earlier than they would like, because we are simply asking too much of the individuals involved. HUMPHRYS: And clearly it limits what we are able to do, I mean we saw Mr Karzai the interim leader in Afghanistan coming here last week and saying please can we have more forces, staying longer, and we had to say to him, sorry, no, no chance. HOON: Well that is one of the factors that we have to take account of because clearly, what does lead to overstretch - and I found this in the Balkans when I first took on these responsibilities - is the situation where you go into a particular theatre for a period of time and then, at the end of four months or six months, it's necessary to replace those forces by others and it's that constant rotation of our forces that does lead to overstretch and it is something that we've had particular regard to as far as Afghanistan is concerned. HUMPHRYS: And all of these peace-keeping, or whatever they may be, missions, they always last longer than they were intended to when they were set up don't they - I mean a matter of historical record. HOON: Well, they don't always last longer. We had a very successful operation in Macedonia last summer where we said quite clearly that British forces would be involved for thirty days, and they were involved for thirty days, and at the end of that thirty days they were able to return to the United Kingdom. But I accept that generally speaking it does take longer to resolve the situation on the ground whether it's in Sierra Leone, the Balkans or for that matter in Afghanistan than we initially anticipate. I was in Afghanistan this week. It's a country that will require an enormous amount of help and support from the international community, and security support is one aspect of that. HUMPHRYS: And does Field-Marshal Lord Inge, the former Chief of the Defence Staff himself has said - I don't know whether you would agree with this statement - he said we are, and I quote him verbatim, or at least literally, "dangerously overstretched". Now, there's really little left to deal with the unexpected, although that's pretty much what you're just saying, isn't it. I mean that's it, there isn't much left now to deal with things that might crop up, that we might otherwise have hoped to? HOON: Well, I wouldn't accept his first comment, but certainly we are operating at the limits of our capabilities and it is important that that is recognised, that there is a limit to what we can achieve. HUMPHRYS: So when Tony Blair says as he did at the Labour Party Conference last year, talks about moral obligations to help in the case of another Rwanda happening for instance, the reality is, though we might feel that moral obligation,. The reality is we'd be able to do precious little about it isn't it? HOON. What is important is, that we strike a balance. We clearly do have to respond to catastrophic humanitarian situations, that's always been the traditional response of the United Kingdom, but equally we have to recognise that there are always limits. There is only so much that a country of the size and resources of the United Kingdom can manage, so it's a balance. It always has to be struck, that hasn't changed. HUMPHRYS: So maybe we'd better stop making such grandiose promises. HOON: I don't believe that we've made grandiose promises. What we have done is set out Britain's responsibility in the world. We do have a responsibility, and indeed broadcasters like yourself encourage it because these days it's possible to see live pictures of appalling events around the world. That means that people in the United Kingdom say we must do something about this we must help. Sierra Leone is a classic illustration of that. We saw appalling pictures of babies, small children, with their arms hacked off by rebels trying to intimidate the local population, and people rightly said in the United Kingdom, what are we doing to help, what are we doing to try and sort out that appalling situation. HUMPHRYS: And if you put that in the context that we've been talking about and future Sierra Leones or whatever it may be, what all of the points to is that we need more resources doesn't it? HOON: Certainly, if we are going to engage more fully in the world, then obviously we will need the resources to achieve that. The balance will then change. There's always a balance to be struck between the available resources and what we can achieve. It's my job to do that on behalf of the government, I have to try and get that right and try and balance the resources against the kind of commitments we have. HUMPHRYS: And you don't inherit a very encouraging picture really do you really given what's been happening with defence spending over the - as I say over the last few years But if you look back, we are now spending less on defence as a proportion of our gross national product than we were in the twenties, and it's forecast that, that spending as a proportion of GDP is going to continue to fall, not by very much admittedly, but continue to fall over the next couple of years. HOON: All I would say in response to that John, you've concentrated on what is going in, I would ask you to at least concentrate equally on what has come out in the last twelve months... HUMPHRYS: ...yes has come up, but that's the whole point, we're talking now about the future and you concede that we are stretched. You wouldn't go as far as saying over-stretched but you concede we are stretched. You also concede that we should continue to make the sorts of promises or statements that Tony Blair made with the implications that has, that people expect us, given our history and given our skills at it, to intercede when things go terribly wrong in other parts of the world. Therefore, we are going to need more, not less, in future, that's my point. HOON: And it's a fair point, but what I meant by talking about what's come out, I was referring in fact to the achievements of the Armed Forces of May and over the course of say, just the last twelve months... HUMPHRYS: Sure. HOON: ...helping at home in United Kingdom with floods, with foot-and-mouth, helping overseas in places like Sierra Leone, the Balkans and more recently, in Afghanistan. Tremendous achievements with a limited budget and something that I expected to be able to continue to achieve, but recognising that I also have to strike this balance between the resources we have and what we can expect to take on around the world. HUMPHRYS: Indeed and nobody would gainsay the tremendous things that have been done by our Armed Forces in many parts of the world, but the thing is, what we're now seeing is that you're already having to do the odd nip and tuck here, where you ought to be sitting there confident, saying yeah, I got the resources that I need, we're seeing things happening like the mothballing of the Tornado Squadron that was protecting London after September 11th, that sort of thing. HOON: Well I think that was somewhat overwritten. The specific reason for that was actually a shortage of pilots, not actually a shortage of resources. We'll have the same number of aircraft in the sky, we'll have the same level of protection for London and the United Kingdom that we ever had, but over a long period of time, long actually before this government came to power, we faced a shortage of pilots, they're being recruited into the civilian airlines, often with very considerable financial inducements and we need to train more pilots. That process is under way, but like training any highly skilled people it does take time to deliver. HUMPHRYS: And as Lord Guthrie said, the last Chief of the Defence Staff, he said our Defence programmes were under-funded before the eleventh of September, there is now a new commitment, the eleventh of September, the result of that, and we can be sure new threats will appear. You wouldn't argue with any of that I suspect, would you? HOON: Well I think you'll find that all Chiefs of Defence staff and Sir Charles was a very distinguished one and all Defence Secretaries want to see more resources going into Defence, wouldn't be a surprise if I said that to you. But obviously there is a balance that has to struck not only within Defence in terms of our commitment, but across the government as well. We have to make sure that we allocate the right amounts of money for Defence, as against the Health Service, Education, Public Transport, all of the other priorities that government obviously has to respond to. HUMPHRYS: And the right amount in your view clearly is that the Defence Budget should increase as a proportion of our GDP? HOON: I'm sure that all of my colleagues in the Cabinet as we start a new spending round will be arguing for more resources for their particular departments, I will be no different from that. HUMPHRYS: As a result of everything that's happened in the last six or seven months, is this peace dividend that we were promised and indeed experienced at the end of the Cold War, is that over now, is that finished? HOON: Yes I think it is and I think most countries have recognised that. There was a period under the last Conservative Government where Defence spending declined very significantly, as a result of the peace dividend. Something that actually occurred in most other countries at the same time, so I make no political point about that. But I think what we saw during that period was a world that, I suppose in a sense was more safer, but was probably more uncertain, and what we're seeing now, we saw it in particular in the Balkans, the outbreak of a number of regional conflicts, a number of conflicts within particular countries, Afghanistan the most recent of them, where in fact the international community does have a responsibility to play a part and does need to make available the Armed Forces to be able to provide safety and security. So there has been a change, the world is a more uncertain and more unpredictable one and we have to respond to that. HUMPHRYS: So at the very least, Defence cuts will end? HOON: Well that has been the case already, we have... HUMPHRYS: ...not quite... HOON: ...a budget for Defence at the moment which is seeing an increase in Defence spending over a three year period. Obviously as Secretary of State for Defence I would like to see that continue. HUMPHRYS: How long are we going to, given that the war on tterrorism is going to last for a very long time, as we know, because the present Chief of Defence has said so apart from anybody else. How long are we going to rush around chasing Bin Laden, because we've got forces involved, or had forces involved in that as well as the Americans of course? HOON: Well we still have forces involved in that and my guess is, as long as it takes. This is a man who has perpetrated some of the most appalling deeds in our history and we need to ensure that he's not capable of delivering that again. So as long as it takes I think is the answer to your question. HUMPHRYS: And the war on terrorism clearly itself will take as long as it takes, that's stating the obvious, and when President Bush talks about apparently threatening half the world, he talks about fighting his axis of evil. I see reports this morning that we are now saying that we agree with him, that Iraq, which is part of that axis of evil according to President Bush, should be attacked, is that the case, are we now saying, right, we are with you, we are committed, we are shoulder-to-shoulder with you on that, as well as on everything else? HOON: Well, please remember that one of the operations that British Forces are engaged in is protecting the no-fly zones in the North and South of Iraq... HUMPHRYS: ...I'm talking about something different though, attacking Iraq? HOON: Well we are there as part in fact of a significant humanitarian mission to protect the population in Iraq against the appalling activities of Saddam Hussein. At the same time, over a long period, we've had concerns about Iraq continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, something that they've tried to do in the past. We've also obviously had concerns about the threats to their neighbours. They've been engaged in war in Iran, they attacked Kuwait, we responded as part of the international community... HUMPHRYS: are we going to try to bring down Saddam Hussein with the United States if that's what they decide to do, I'm tempted to say, 'when?' because it's perfectly clear what they intend to do, look at the way they've increased their Defence spending and all the rest of it. Are we going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them trying to bring down Saddam Hussein? HOON: I'm not aware of any present plans in the United States to do that. Certainly the events in Afghanistan demonstrated that before the United States takes that kind of action they will consult with their closest allies as they did then and I anticipate that will be the same again as far as any action in Iraq is concerned. HUMPHRYS: So do you agree with Peter Hain, the Foreign Office Minister, who says we shouldn't be a 'patsy' of the United States? HOON: We're not, we're a close friend and ally of the United States, we listen, we debate, but I assure you in the regular exchanges that take place at all levels between the American Administration and the British Government there is an exchange of views in both directions and it's not simply the United States saying what should happen, this is a discussion. HUMPHRYS: And does that mean that that includes thoughts about NMD this defence system that President Bush wants, are we moving closer, indeed, is it imminent that we will say, okay, we'll help you provide that missile defence shield that you want by using your Fylingdales station? HOON: If the United States has yet to take a specific decision as to the way forward... HUMPHRYS: But have we agreed that when it does, and I say when advisedly, are we agreed that when it does, we will go along with them? HOON: Well since they haven't taken any specific decision as to what kind of system they anticipate developing, it would be premature for me to respond to what is still a hypothetical question, but obviously we have made clear, as the Foreign Secretary made clear this week, we understand the position of the United States, we understand why they are so concerned about these kinds of threats and indeed we recognise that September 11th demonstrated that if there are other countries or other organisations that are capable of getting hold of weapons of mass destruction, clearly they are prepared to use them, as those appalling events demonstrated. HUMPHRYS: I think I could take that as a 'yes' couldn't I? HOON: You can take it that we perfectly well understand that we live in a dangerous and uncertain world and we understand why it is right that we should defend and protect ourselves against it. HUMPHRYS: Geoff Hoon thank you very much indeed. HOON: Thank you. HUMPHRYS: Long-suffering commuters had a reprieve this week. The RMT postponed a strike that they'd been threatening. But there are plenty more in the wings ... not least the Post Office and staff in benefits offices. So what's going on here? Weren't the unions supposed to have changed their spots under this government? New Labour... new unionism! Well, maybe, but it certainly doesn't look like it at the moment. Iain Watson has been trying to find out if the new-style unionism is over almost before it's begun. IAIN WATSON: The winter of discontent, twenty-three years ago. According to some newspapers, history's repeating itself. Yet last year fewer than half-a-million days were lost to strikes, compared with twenty-nine million in 1979. But the perception that a new era of consensus has been consigned to the dustbins of history all because of a small number of high profile strikes is worrying Labour politicians; they fear voters will see industrial action and Labour governments as conjoined twins. FILM CLIP: ACTUALITY WATSON: 'New Unionism' was created by modernisers when Labour was in opposition to banish this image of industrial relations which was regularly satirised under the previous Labour government of the seventies. So individual benefits rather than old-style collective action became the focus - with the aim of attracting people in less traditional industries, not just to the Labour, but to the trade union banner. ALAN JOHNSON MP: Unions have changed dramatically and changed in a way that reflects the fact there's more women in the work place, there's a greater emphasis on individual rights, individuals want more flexibility rather than to be ruled by a rigid shift system. I think unions have met that challenge and are meeting that challenge. JOHN MONKS: So an agenda which was looking forward to where people I think mostly are now, and not looking back to a "them and us" class warfare-based trade unionism, that was always an exaggeration, but it was part of the image. MARK SERWOTKA: If new unionism means forgetting the basics of the trade union movement, which is ultimately to provide collective representation and defence of its members, then I am against it. WATSON: And the unlikely congregation at this north London church have to be counted as doubting Thomases when it comes to new unionism too. Members of the PCS trade union, working in job centres and benefit offices have been in dispute since September over plans to remove safety screens which shield them from potentially violent customers. The Labour government had promised new rights in the workplace in return for a culture of partnership. There are some signs that this bargain is breaking down. Some unions have elected far left candidates to high office, but even moderate trade unions have little faith in what they see as an almost theological commitment by the government to private sector involvement in the public services. So some say new unionism is finished, while old style trade unionism, rather like Lazarus, is risen from the dead. The government has so far refused arbitration in this job centre dispute; some say that plays into the hands of the far left who want new unionism to fail. A little over a year ago the civil service union, the PCS, voted for a member of the predominantly Trotskyite socialist alliance as general secretary elect. He says there's a mood now for more robust representation. SERWOTKA: Well I think my election was significant and I think it has been followed by other trade unions also going down the same route. Fundamentally you know I'm not prepared to shy away from the issue of industrial action as a last resort, and I think the members knew that when they voted for me. WATSON: The RMT are now in negotiations with South West trains but action continues in the north of England; and last week postal workers voted for strike action too. There are fears at the highest level that scenes of militancy may put off potential recruits with fewer than one in five workers under thirty belonging to a trade union. MONKS: It doesn't make it easier to, I think to take people in the newer labour market in the newer industries and services, if the image of trade unionism is join us and fight your boss. I mean we know that most people want to get on well with their employer to be held in respect and esteem by the people for whom they work and that's a basic human need, but having said that it depends very much on people's experiences. If they're having a rough time off their boss, they're looking for a union that's tough and prepared to be militant. JOHNSON: Strike action is damaging to everyone involved, everyone involved. It does nothing to actually improve employment relations. ACTUALITY. WATSON: Despite criticizing industrial action, the government seem reluctant to intervene to make scenes like these a rarity. The Conservatives have signalled that they'd restrict the rights of workers in essential services to go on strike unless they'd considered less disruptive measures first. But Labour say that's going too far. JOHNSON: It's typical of this kind of repressive knee-jerk reaction and there was a few other despots in history that had the same idea whose names would be very familiar to students of these things, so I don't think there is any case whatsoever for banning strikes when, you know, if there's industrial conflict, what's the reaction? Oh, we'll just ban strikes - the conflicts are still there afterwards. WATSON: The image of trade unions in recent years has improved in the eyes of the wider electorate as debate and discussion appeared to eclipse disputes and denunciations. But some moderate trade union leaders worry about a reversal of fortune unless some of their headstrong colleagues volunteer to sign up to more subtle ways of settling disputes. KEN JACKSON: Why not go to binding arbitration, there's no difficulty, if you've got a case that you can support and that an independent person will support, why don't you go to arbitration? It's only at the end of arbitration where, when you've got the decision, and an employer won't accept it, for whatever reason, then you know you, you're free to take industrial action. WATSON: It seems to be the government's attitude as much as its actions towards trade unions which is causing tension. The strategy had been to isolate far-left trade union leaders, but in reality the ranks of the disaffected go much wider than that. Some supporters of 'new unionism' those with close links to the Labour Party, now feel alienated by the government's tone towards trade unions. And this could cost Labour rather more than they might have anticipated. EDMONDS: Downing Street doesn't make a distinction between people who are clearly mainstream members of the Labour Party and trade unions and those that are members of other parties on the extreme left. I mean that really is very silly indeed, and it makes people very cross. I mean the idea that I'm on the ultra left when I've always regarded myself as the sort of, rather sort of right of the Labour Party, although some of it has gone past me in the last few years, I mean that's really extraordinary and it's very difficult to make alliances with people while you're abusing them. WATSON: Contrary to reports, Number Ten hasn't apologised for the suggestion that trade unions may have featured in the rogue's gallery of wreckers last week. And the mighty GMB is still angry over plans for more private sector involvement in the public services; they're reducing affiliation fees to Labour and could hit the party's council candidates too. EDMONDS: What we're going to do in the next few months is we're going to really focus on the local government election and say, we regard that election as a referendum on public services and privatisation. And the energy that we have and the support that we can give will be focused on those Labour candidates who support our agenda. People who don't support our agenda, no doubt they can get support elsewhere. But the ones we will support will be those that believe that privatisation has gone too far and should be reversed rather than continued. Instead of saying to the Labour Party, here's the money, you campaign on our behalf, much more of our money will be used by ourselves and we'll say we'll do the campaigning and our members will decide the precise direction of it. I think that's the way of the future. JACKSON: Well I don't think any prime minister of whatever political persuasion he is, is going to be publicly held to ransom, I don't think you can do that and I don't think people would respect any prime minister that was seen, because of people withholding money, that he would then capitulate to the demands of what's going on. WATSON: Labour ministers say there will be no return to the bad old days. ACTUALITY JOHNSON: Our approach, which is not anti-trade union as the previous government's approach was, and is very much about giving people at work rights and responsibilities is the right approach, and we need to do more to ensure we foster a partnership approach collectively in the workplace. EDMONDS: The new unionism agenda, the partnership agenda, is fragile; and the way it needs to be strengthened is by proper legal rights for people at work, proper security, a commitment from the government that employers must provide decent information and decent consultation rights. Without those things there is a danger that people will say, well partnership is just hot air, let's forget it. WATSON: While strikes are still few in number, images of industrial militancy could affect how new unionism is perceived. If voters fear that the era of consensus is in danger of being replaced by confrontation, then Labour may yet pay a political price. While they've little purchase with the far-left trade union leaders, the government may need to work hard at promoting partnership with some formerly loyal allies - if they want to avoid scenes of further collective action. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Iain Watson reporting there. As he said, any increase in trade union militancy that affects the public services is bound to be embarrassing for the Labour Government. Naturally enough, the Tories are trying to add to that embarrassment. But wasn't Margaret Thatcher supposed to have curbed union power for ever. Their Trade and Industry Spokesman, is John Whittingdale. And I will get to that particular question in a minute, Mr Whittingdale, but you are getting rather steamed up about all of this, aren't you, and it's quite hard in some ways to see why. I mean looking at...doing some of the figures, last year, there were half a million days lost in this country to strikes, rather fewer than that. In 1979, there were twenty-nine million days lost through strikes, are you getting a bit over worked up? JOHN WHITTINGDALE: Well, I think you're right that we need to keep it in perspective. We are not seeing another winter of discontent of the kind that we had in the late '70s. But I do think that we are beginning to see an upsurge in union militancy and we are now seeing strikes, we've seen strikes being held on the trains, which have caused huge distress and problems for commuters. We've had a strike ballot now, approving industrial action in the Post Office. We've got strikes going on at benefit offices, we've got talk of strikes on the London Underground, and there just seems to be that we are slowly slipping back to a position of industrial conflict, which it looked as if we'd left long, long behind. HUMPHRYS: But if talks break down, unions have a right to do something about it, to take industrial action, to go on strike if it comes to that. That should be their right, shouldn't it? WHITTINGDALE: Yes, I think in the main, unions do have the right to strike, but management also have the right to respond to a strike and I think one of our principle complaints would be that the balance has been tipped in the last few years, towards the unions. When the Conservative Party left office, we had carried out a number of trade union reforms and as a result, we had probably the best state of industrial relations that we'd had for many years, strikes had been reduced hugely. Now, the Labour Government have carried out one or two measures, for instance they have introduced a new requirement whereby employers are no longer able to dismiss strikers for eight weeks, at the beginning of a dispute. They have also introduced a statutory recognition of trade unions, so employers are forced to recognise trade unions. There is also a new measure coming in to recognise the new kind of union official, the union learning representative. All these things taken together, are beginning to tip the balance back in favour of the trade unions, and as a result you are seeing growth in trade union membership and also growth in strike action. That is exactly what we said would happen if they did this. HUMPHRYS: So, would you scrap them, or not bring them in, all of those things? WHITTINGDALE: Well, obviously we will need to look at the position when we take office once again. But, to give a specific example, the measure I referred to, the eight week limit during which employers can't take action against strikers, that was a new innovation, it had never existed in law before until this government took office. The government is now under pressure to extend it further. There is a debate taking place this coming Tuesday where the Chairman of the Trade Union Group of Labour MPs, is moving an amendment to make that an indefinite period, it's to extend the eight week period.. HUMPHRYS: But that wouldn't go through. I mean would you get rid of the eight week thing?. WHITTINGDALE: I don't know whether or not it will go through... HUMPHRYS: Well, alright, whether it would or not, would you get rid of the eight week thing? WHITTINGDALE: Well, we will be tabling an amendment on Tuesday to remove the eight week limit and restore the position to what it was when we left office. HUMPHRYS: Theresa May - you say unions are allowed to strike, you could hardly say anything else I imagine to a broad question like that. But Theresa May wants a no strike agreement on the London Underground. How do you get that, if the unions don't buy into it? WHITTINGDALE: Well, I think the London Underground is a special case. It is a monopoly service, owned by the public sector, where there is very little alternative and we've seen with the strikes that have recently taken place, the enormous misery that has been inflicted on London commuters. So, I think we are entitled to look at it slightly differently. The government has come forward with its own proposals which involve a huge amount of public money over the next few years and I think we are entitled to say that there should be some kind of return for that public money. So we have criticised what the government have come up with because it doesn't have these requirements that we would like to see, requirements for safety, for reliability, but also a no strike agreement, because I think that, some of the other alternatives which we might look at and are not available in the London Underground and we've seen that it can cause huge damage to London and therefore, we would be looking for some kind of no strike agreement. HUMPHRYS: Well, you better read Norman Tebbit's book in that case because...his autobiography, the one he wrote himself, because he looked at it, he told us in that book, while when he was in power, Norman Tebbit, not exactly, I think you'd have to agree, a softie, where the trade unions were concerned, and he said, it would be, and I quote "wildly expensive and unenforceable". WHITTINGDALE: Well, there are disadvantages to most... HUMPHRYS: ...pretty big disadvantages...unenforceable... WHITTINGDALE ....previous Conservative governments have looked at this in the past and haven't done it but I think that the kind of action that we have seen in recent times, particularly in the London Underground, has caused such disruption..... HUMPHRYS: ....strikes always do.. WHITTINGDALE: ...that are able to look at this again. Will I think the London Underground is a particular case because there is no alternative for most commuters. HUMPHRYS: But Tebbit says unenforceable, can't be done. WHITTINGDALE: Well I think in the main he is right to point to disadvantages and obviously that is something we are going to have to look at. HUMPHRYS: That's not just a disadvantage, that kills it stone dead. WHITTINGDALE: I don't think it is enforceable. I mean actually in the case of the Underground, if you look at the experience in America, in New York, they have a no strike agreement on the New York Underground. HUMPHRYS: They agreed to it. WHITTINGDALE: Well, and I hope that they would agree to it in this case as well. Obviously, the first thing that we will be looking to do, is to try and achieve agreement to have some kind of no strike understanding and certainly during the film we've just seen, Ken Jackson, for instance, seemed to be willing to at least consider something like that. HUMPHRYS: Right, but if they wouldn't, you'd be prepared to enforce it, or try to enforce it. WHITTINGDALE: I think ultimately, if agreement is impossible, then obviously we have to keep the option of legislation as a fall-back, but I hope it wouldn't be necessary, and we would be investing a lot of money into the tube in return for it, and it would need some kind of arrangement like arbitration, perhaps pendulum arbitration, but these are things that we will need to look at, but what I think is important is that the kind of experience that we've had unfortunately only too recently, something has to be done to give protection to London commuters. HUMPHRYS: Iain Duncan Smith wants, apparently, to go even further that. He said that strikes in certain essential services should be banned altogether. WHITTINGDALE: Well, a ban on strikes in essential services is one option. There are a number of different options and Iain actually mentions several of those in his recent comments. I think where it comes to essential services, we are entitled to look again at the law and examine a number of these options. To give you an example, perhaps one way of addressing it might be to have some kind of minimum service requirements, so that yes, unions would be entitled to take strike action, but they would be required to still maintain a minimum service. Now that happens in a number of other European countries.... HUMPHRYS: would still be a ban on striking though, wouldn't it, therefore... WHITTINGDALE: ...well it would a ban on all out total strike, but that is a, that is one particular option, but it's also another... HUMPHRYS: ...but it's the bans on all out total strikes that work isn't it, because there's no point on having a ban on everything when people don't want to travel at any particular time so we can have the services, there'd be no point in that, would there? WHITTINGDALE: Well I think a requirement to maintain a minimum service would still allow a union obviously to take action and to put considerable pressure on the management, but it would provide some kind of protection to the commuter or to the London tube passenger, or to the person who's going to suffer as a result. HUMPHRYS: So you're looking at that seriously are you? Just to deal with that before you move onto another... WHITTINGDALE: It is certainly an option that we would wish to look at alongside various other options, perhaps a 'cooling off' period in between a strike ballot taking place and an all out strike starting, so I mean, what I'm not in a position to do is come and give you a detailed .... HUMPHRYS:, I understand that. WHITTINGDALE: ...but obviously, when you have cases overseas in Europe, where we have something like minimum service requirements, or in America where we have 'no strike' agreements in the tube, those are things we're going to look at to see whether or not we could apply them in this country too. HUMPHRYS: Tony Blair says, indeed he said it I think on Sky Television this morning, 'taking away the right to strike wouldn't work, it causes more problems than it cures.' WHITTINGDALE: Well it is something that we would only look at in very specific cases, and you would need to judge this on a case-by-case basis, but the government I believe are at least in part responsible for the position that we are now in, and we have to look at what is happening now, not what's going to be happening in four years time, and we are seeing this growing level of union militancy, which is causing great suffering to the people who are most affected, that's the passengers, the commuters, and I think the government has contributed to that, because they have given additional powers to the trade unions and it is hardly surprising that if you give more power to trade unions, then they will use it. HUMPHRYS: Why is all this necessary, in this sense. You've been saying for many years, boasting some might say, that Margaret Thatcher sorted out the unions all those years ago, and she made, she did other things. She made the link, the funding link, the relationship between the unions and Labour transparent, she did all sorts of things and sorted them out. Why is it necessary to revisit all of this now? WHITTINGDALE: Because I think of the changes that have been made which are beginning to tip the balance back towards the unions. I would entirely agree, I think the trade union reforms which Margaret Thatcher brought in, did usher in a period of very good industrial relations, but the government have begun to give more powers back to the unions and as a result we're seeing growing strike action. And you're right to identify the point about funding as well, one has to look at the fact that in the last year the Labour Party received nine million pounds from the trade unions, now at a time when their membership is falling, when they're finding it harder to raise money, nine-million pounds delivers a huge amount of influence, and there is I think a concern that the unions are now demanding their payback, and that a lot of these measures that we're seeing the government come forward with, to give more power to the trade unions, are in a sense the payback to the unions for the finance that they give the Labour Party. HUMPHRYS: ...except that they have been cutting the amount they get from trade unions and they've been going to business as well, or rather instead of, in some cases, and you've attacked them for that as well? WHITTINGDALE: Nobody would attack the Labour Party or the Conservative Party for seeking donations. I think where our concern lies is what happens as a result of those donations, and we have seen a number of stories about government policy being changed in favour of companies or individuals who have given money to the Labour Party and there is one in the newspapers this morning, the story in the Sunday Telegraph about the letter that the Prime Minister sent to the Romanian Government about a bid from a individual living in this country who was also a major Labour Party contributor, and I think that that does raise serious questions which need to be examined. HUMPHRYS: John Whittingdale, thanks very much indeed. WHITTINGDALE: Thank you. HUMPHRYS: One of the promises the government made in 1997 was to stop schools selling their playing fields ... but it's still happening. And there's something else, other playing fields - used by the community as a whole - are being lost to the developers. The government is so worried about this that three years ago it promised to spend a hundred and twenty five million pounds, some of which on creating new sports grounds from derelict land. As David Grossman reports, so far not a single new playing field has been created with that money. DAVID GROSSMAN: You join us with England 4-1 up against Germany. Well all right this is actually a playing field in Brighton but for the children who use it, this turf is where they rehearse dreams. The field's owners though see it a bit less romantically - they want to sell a three acre chunk off for housing. The government came to power pledging to end the sell off of school playing fields. In came what it claimed were strict new rules, but critics say that some schools are still selling off green space and that another battle against the developers is now being fought to save college and community sites, that don't have the same level of protection as schools. Labour's 1997 sport manifesto promised decisive action: "We will" it said "tackle the decline in school sport by ending the sale of playing fields." KATE HOEY MP: The manifesto commitment, probably like a lot of manifesto commitments was not really thought through and therefore if we are being honest we have not complied with what the manifesto said. We have made attempts to make things better but I don't think it's been really treated as an important and serious enough issue. GROSSMAN: This is Ashmole School in North London, the government's given approval for the sale of around six acres of grounds for housing, the money's needed to completely rebuild the school which is crumbling and ramshackle. Campaigners against the scheme showed me how much land they'll lose to the developers. No-one disputes that the school needs complete rebuilding, what they question is that the selling off of playing fields is the only way to pay for it. TANIA MYRISTIS: I feel the government has let us down terribly because I feel that they should fight for our playing fields, which they obviously are not doing in this case. We are going to lose six and a half acres of playing field and to me that is disgraceful. They should be putting money towards building the school, helping us achieve what we can for our children and not letting buildings ..building companies come and build houses on our land. GROSSMAN: Once it had left the sidelines of opposition, Labour brought in new rules on school land sales. From 1998, the Education Secretary became the referee and had to approve all disposals. So far, Estelle Morris and her predecessor have been asked to make ninety-nine decisions and refused permission just twice. Evidence perhaps of a commitment missed. RICHARD CABORN MP: That's not true. First of all we brought the sale of playing fields down from forty a month, when we came in to power in '97, down to a little less than three. And the money that actually is gained from those sales, with the new stricter regime that the Education Department's put in to operation, is making sure that all that money goes back in to recreation and sports facilities, in the schools. GROSSMAN: But we've been to schools where they're hoping to build on, they've got permission to build, new buildings, nothing to do with sport. CABORN: Well, I say where there has been part of a playing field sold off then the money that's gained from that will be ploughed back in to the education and sports system in the education in the schools. GROSSMAN: So the claim is forty sales a month under the Tory blues and just three under the Labour reds. But how are these numbers worked out, with and an insight into the government's rather relaxed attitude to statistical precision here is, of all people, the Schools Standards Minister. BARONESS ASHTON: We have attempted to work out a guesstimate of what we believe. We believe that probably somewhere around thirty to forty playing fields a month were being sold off. This is now, my Lords, comparative to something in the order of three, but these are guesstimates and I would not wish to be held responsible because we simply do not have the information. ELSA DAVIES: I've been hearing a figure of forty playing fields a month that used to be coming forward for disposal. That figure is quite unsubstantiated. It's really very suspect and very frequently it's used to imply that these were forty school playing fields. I think it's not appropriate for government to be using figures that are really not available. GROSSMAN: School playing fields though aren't the only ones the developers have their eye on. Well located college and community sites are just as highly prized, but, whilst any proposal to develop school land now has to be approved by the Education Secretary, other developments do not. Critics say that's a loophole big enough to build a housing estate through. Varndean Colleage, near Brighton, has a strong sporting tradition, Steve Ovett was once a student here. Varndean's Principal, Alan Jenkins, needs to find money for repairs and expansion at what is a very successful institution. He says with nowhere near enough money in his budget, selling three acres of playing field has become his only option. But would still leave plenty left for sport. ALAN JENKINS: We regret this as a solution, but it is the only solution that is currently available to us. What we had here was a balance between educational gain and some environmental loss. So yes, we've always reckoned that to be the case, but clearly we feel strongly that in the current funding context, there is no option in order to meet the educational need, other than to progress in this way. GROSSMAN: Protesters against the Varndean sale with a bit of help from their children are working to change minds. Today, they're busy making posters -there's no point sending them to the Education secretary Estelle Morris though, because Varndean's a Sixth Form College and not a school, she doesn't have to give her approval for the sale. Such a distinction is pure nonsense say campaigners. PETER FIELD: You've got to have a comprehensive programme for all sports facilities in this country if we are to encourage our children to take up sport and actually have the ability or have the facilities to be able to do it and that runs right through further education as well. What I would say to government is, you know, please don't sell off these playing fields, give more protection, because once these playing fields are sold off, they're gone for ever. We can't replace them. HOEY: The anomaly of further education colleges being left out of any consultative process, by anyone other than the Planning Authority is an anomaly. This could be corrected quite easily and I think is very necessary. GROSSMAN: The developers are coming. The Royal London Insurance Company's sports centre in Colchester is boarded up, its pitches closed and awaiting sale. The company may not need them anymore but the whole community has lost a valuable facility. The Royal London Colts have kept their name but little else, they now have to borrow a pitch from the nearby rugby club. Colchester's MP says it shouldn't matter who owns a pitch, if there's community need it should be protected. BOB RUSSELL MP: The real issue to me is all the other playing fields, not school playing fields but all the other playing fields owned by organisations, by companies, by private firms, the Health Authority and other public agencies, because those playing fields are being sold off at a far greater rate than school playing fields. GROSSMAN: In sport, practice shows. The government says it's still looking to improve protection for all playing fields no matter who owns them. CABORN: We'll never stop the total sale of playing fields, it would be wrong to do that, if there are surpluses there. But we are moving to look at the, in a wider context than just school playing fields, it's the whole of sports facilities, which we're doing through the planning regime, and that's a revision of the planning guidance, and also asking every local authority now to do a needs assessment on sports facilities, including playing fields, and looking at what is actually there, and making sure that we've got the match right and bit by bit I think we're going to put in a much more comprehensive approach to the whole question of sports facilities. GROSSMAN: Changing the rules could be timely since there is evidence that development pressure on all types of playing field has shot up in recent years. In the year to April 2001 planning applications for development on playing field sites was forty-five per cent up on the previous year. What's more the number approvals increased by sixty per cent with four-hundred-and-forty-six projects given the go ahead. But the government say many of these developments only enhanced facilities. CABORN: I'll give you an example where there were three rugby pitches and they wanted to put on new accommodation for stripping and indeed a gymnasium. What they did they reconfigurated the three rugby pitches and then built the new pavilion, new sports complex. They didn't actually lose any of the area that was actually used for active sport but what they were able to do was enhance the quality of the facility by building on that particular, that was showed as a closure of a play area. GROSSMAN: Of course playing fields need some buildings like changing rooms, but some say the government's wrong to assume that all sport related building on pitches is to be welcomed. DAVIES: When it comes to putting large tennis centres, which take an enormous amount of land take, onto a playing field, then we would wish to have far greater and stronger scrutiny of any application that comes forward for that sort of development. It's just not good enough to say we're building indoor facilities on playing fields, unless adequate playing fields are being allocated in other parts of the neighbourhood, GROSSMAN: Not only is the government accused of going back on its promise to preserve existing playing fields, it's also alleged it's completely failed in plans to open new playing fields. In March 1999 the then Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, unveiled the green spaces initiative - a three-year programme to spend one-hundred-and-twenty-five million pounds of lottery money turning derelict land like this into playing space. But, three years on and not one single new playing field has been opened with the money. JOHN GREENAWAY MP: I think it typifies what's wrong with the government's approach. We get a high profile press launch, lots of media, appearing to spend government money on a worthy cause, except it's not government money, it's lottery money, it's been filched from other good causes, and then three years down the track we find that the initiative's hit the buffers, there are no new playing fields, partly I think because people didn't think through, it never dawned on them, that if there was land available for new playing fields, you wouldn't have to be selling off the playing fields which already exist, and that's the real issue, that these fields are still being sold off at an alarming rate. GROSSMAN: Still up in the air the Royal London Colts would quite like one of these new pitches now that theirs has gone. So when might they be ready? The government says the timetable isn't anything to do with them as it's run by arms-length agencies. One organisation that holds over thirty-one million pounds of the fund to build new playing fields is Sport England, they say they only got hold of the cash last June. DAVID PAYNE: I think it's fair to say this has, this programme has taken longer than everybody would have hoped to have actually come to fruition. It was only last year that we actually received the authority to actually take this programme forward. We think we're moving quickly but I would agree it's, it has taken too long, but we very much hope that there will be live projects for everyone to see this year. GROSSMAN: Back at the world cup final in Brighton the referee's looking at his watch. Land for housing is extremely valuable and selling playing fields a temptation for many owners - the problem is that as space to run around in, this land is priceless. HUMPHRYS: David Grossman reporting there. And that's it for this week, until the same time next week - don't forget the Internet by the way - our web-site if you're on the Internet, good afternoon. 26 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.