BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.03.02

Interview: Interview with Helen Liddell Mp, Scottish Secretary.

Does the Government need to take more notice of its own MPs?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Helen Liddell, there is a problem isn't there, because those weren't a collection of just the usual suspects as we always say on these occasions, serious people, worried about the direction the party's going in, the government's going in? HELEN LIDDELL: But the process of government is not easy, it is complex and some of the issues that were raised in that, that film are very serious ones that we do engage with backbenchers on, and indeed, every Wednesday, the parliamentary Labour Party meets, forum for every member of the parliamentary Labour Party to raise concerns, Prime Minister meets with the representatives of the backbenchers every Wednesday afternoon, but the issues are serious ones, the issue of Iraq is an extremely serious one, we do need to have a debate about the, the issues around Saddam Hussein and his failure to ... HUMPHRYS: ...hasn't it happened... LIDDELL: ...well... HUMPHRYS: ...well given that, that the, given that the ... LIDDELL: ...well, this is part of it, this is a part of it, this is part of the process, this, the discussion and debate that takes place within the PLP at Prime Minister, Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made it absolutely clear decisions are not imminent in relation to Saddam Hussein but there are serious issues about the fact that he is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, he is not allowing weapons inspectors into Iraq to check what the situation actually is, and I would be disappointed if our backbenchers were not wanting to be part of that debate, and indeed Jack Straw meets them on a regular basis so that their concerns and anxieties can be addressed. HUMPHRYS: Well in that case it's a bit odd, isn't it, that they are saying, so many of them are saying, we are not part of it, we're, you know, the mushroom treatment, we're kept in the dark and they throw, I won't say what the word is, because we both know it, they throw things on us. And then there is that genuine feeling, isn't there, particularly over Iraq, I mean there is a feeling, Tony expressed it there, former Foreign Office Minister himself, he said, there is enormous unease about any kind of invasion, intervention, take the point the point that you made, nothing's been decided but there is this enormous unease. LIDDELL: And I think it is naturally that there should be debate and discussion about it? HUMPHRYS: Do you share it? Yourself? As a Cabinet Minister? LIDDELL: Well I think it is important that we have a full discussion and debate, but at the same time we have to send a clear message to Saddam Hussein, the way this can be ended is by him acceding to the UN Resolutions by allowing weapons inspectors in, because the situation as it exists at the moment is, is not tenable in the long-term. But you know, we've achieved a huge amount as a Labour government. We've been in office now coming up for something like five years. Now in the past you used to criticise us for not having debate. Now we have debate and you criticise us ... HUMPHRYS: ...well no, because it is not us criticising you, it's your own backbench MPs who are criticising you because they do not feel there is this open debate, they feel they are being told things and they're having things sprung upon them, and clearly they're afraid that in the case of Iraq, you will ask Chris Smith himself, he wasn't in that film, he said to a newspaper this morning, 'we are not happy at the prospect that we might be going into this on the coat-tails of the United States' so there is this clear unease that they're being taken in directions that they're not easy with. LIDDELL: And that's why there is a dialogue with the backbenchers, not just in the House of Commons incidentally but in the House of Lords as well. Ministers have gone out of their way to engage the debate on, in relation to Iraq. We have been very open about our anxieties about Saddam Husseim. But you know, frankly, the picture that you paint is not one that I recognise, I do not. HUMPHRYS: ...they, they I insist, they, not us. LIDDELL: ...well, you know, I... HUMPHRYS: ...they are painting it. LIDDELL: Somebody wrote this morning that you cannot call for firm government and then bleat when you get it. I think it may have been you John. But you know, government has to govern, and the government also tries very hard to ensure that we take, not just our MPs, but also the party... HUMPHRYS: that what they're doing? LIDDELL: Well every Cabinet Minister is now going out and talking to the party throughout the country so that they're engaged in the debate as well. But we have to take into account what we have achieved. You know, I listened to Ian Davidson there talking about our Employment Reform agenda. HUMPHRYS: Oh. LIDDELL: We have a very balanced agenda, that's how we've been able to have something like a National Minimum Wage, and at the same time create one-and-a-half million more jobs since we were elected in 1997. HUMPHRYS: But yes, but what, what they don't like is the enthusiasm that they see you, the government showing, for the private sector versus public services, I mean Consignia, the Post Office as we used to call it, is a very good example of that. They don't want you to open up the market in the way that you appear to be prepared to do to the private sector. They want you to intervene...intervene, Jon Cruddas, you saw him there, former adviser to Tony Blair himself, said it's a very dangerous and serious situation for the government, this. LIDDELL: Well let me tell you, you've, there are a number of points with... HUMPHRYS: ...well the crucial thing is whether you would intervene or not, isn't it? LIDDELL: ...well the issue about, that Jon Cruddas was talking about, is this, this issue of transfer of undertakings and the very real anxieties that have been raised by the Trade Union movement about the transfer, for example, of pensions, security of employment... HUMPHRYS: ...yes but this particular thing is about you realising the laws for the Post Office so that there can be competition, that's the crucial thing. LIDDELL: Well, let me, let me take the private sector issue first. HUMPHRYS: Alright. LIDDELL: This is something that, that we do take very seriously indeed. Both Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers have made it absolutely clear that we take on board many of the criticisms that the trade unions have on this. We are consulting, we are soon to come to a conclusion. On the issue of Consignia, now people have known for a very long time that Consignia has serious difficulties, now the most telling statistic of all, it takes twenty-eight pence to deliver a twenty-seven pence letter. Now I think all of us can recognise that any company that is facing that does have difficulties and... HUMPHRYS: you won't intervene then to stop the sort of private competition that it's, is being threatened? LIDDELL: I think that, if you bear in mind the debates that have been about the Post Office over the years, the constant pressure for allowing greater commercial freedom for the Post Office, there is no doubt that the issues surrounding Consignia have to be addressed... HUMPHRYS: ...MPs have a lot of doubt about the way it's going. LIDDELL: One of their main concerns is about universal service obligation. We have a bottom line, and our bottom line is protecting the universal service obligation, but we cannot run away from the nature of some of the difficulties, the difficulties that Parcel Force has experienced over something like twenty years, and Consignia has to address these matters, and in relation to the overall issue of competition and post.... consultation and competition, well frankly I think Consignia and the Regulator need to sit and talk about that. HUMPHRYS: What about worker's rights? We're seeing, let me quote you Ian Davidson, you saw him on that film there, "we don't expect a Labour Prime Minister to have as a closest, as his closest ally, a Spanish Conservative and an Italian neo-fascist", it's why you are reaping a whirlwind of discontent, and what they see is a limit to the extension of workers right. Okay, some workers rights have been improved since you've been in power, nobody disputes that, but what you are now saying is 'thus far, and no further' and they're deeply worried about that, particularly when they look at some of his closest allies on this. LIDDELL: Well, I think if the picture was being presented to them like that, I can fully appreciate why they're worried, but you have to remember that the Prime Minister also deals with Germany, with Sweden, both left of centre governments, and we are full players in the European Union and must work and deal with democratically elected governments right across... HUMPHRYS: But Berlusconi? LIDDELL: ...well he's the democratically elected Prime Minister. But let me address this economic reform agenda. We are going to have to create between ten and twenty million jobs right across Europe over the next decade. We can only do that by reforming how our labour market operates, and we are the government that was prepared to sign the Social Chapter, we're the government that introduced the national minimum wage... HUMPHRYS: ...acknowledged that. LIDDELL: ....and because of that we have managed to create one and a half million jobs in the economy. HUMPHRYS: Yes, but now they see you siding with the right wing, that's what's worrying them and they're deeply puzzled by it. Can't you imagine that you'd have been a bit puzzled by it if you were sitting on the backbenches as a Labour MP, and you'd seen him cosying up with people like Berlusconi. LIDDELL: Well, we are driving the economic reform agenda right across Europe and rather than us following the economic policies of the Italians or the Spanish it's really in many respects the other way around, they are following our economic policies. We are one of the strongest economies in the world, the fourth strongest economy in the world. Both the OECD and the IMF say that we will go faster than the other G-Seven nations in 2OO1-2OO2. Part of the reason for that is the economic reform agenda and the fact that we have been modernising our laws to bring fairness but also to bring flexibility to the future. HUMPHRYS: Well, and as far as fairness is concerned they are worried that you are not guaranteeing that workers who have transferred to the private sector do not keep exactly the same rights and working conditions as they had in the public sector. Your don't seem able to give them that guarantee. LIDDELL: Well, as I said a couple of minutes ago both Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers are very much in the front line of this issue, and have made clear statements. We've been consulting on the changes, the rights of trade unionists, particularly in relation to pensions. We will be coming to a conclusion on that shortly. But we cannot pickle the British economy in aspic. You know we are a reforming government, we want to create jobs and opportunities for everyone and that means we must all move ahead. HUMPHRYS: But either you are listening to your backbenchers, taking on board their concerns and saying, okay we'll bear all that in mind and we will maybe nudge in a slightly different direction, or you're not, because clearly a very large number of them want you to travel in a different direction LIDDELL: We are listening to our backbenchers and you know, you and I have been around a long time John. We know that in the past Labour governments have lost touch with their core support. We have never done that and we will not do that, because it is important that everyone is engaged in the debate. But when we engage in the debate it is important that it's a rational debate, that it's an open debate and that everyone is fully informed within it. That is our intention, we will deliver on that. HUMPHRYS: Helen, Liddell, thanks very much indeed for joining us this morning.
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.