BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 12.05.02

==================================================================================== 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: 12.05.02 ==================================================================================== JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon. Another disaster on Britain's railways. Are these accidents inevitable or are they the consequences of the way the industry has been re-structured? We'll be addressing those questions. We've been talking to Spain's Foreign Minister about Gibraltar. Will his soothing words calm fears of a British sellout? Another big business donation to Labour Party funds has come to light. Should we be concerned? And we'll be looking at whether the Tories have better ideas than the government about how to run our schools? All that after the news read by FIONA BRUCE. NEWS HUMPHRYS: The people of Gibraltar say the Government wants to hand over them over to Spain. What do the Spanish say? And is this the sort of education we'll see much more of if the Tories get back into power? I'll also be talking to the man who's become the Conservative's chief sleaze buster, Tim Collins, about the latest controversy over a business donation to the Labour Party. JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first, Potters Bar, at least we now have a pretty good idea of what caused that train to come off the rails - a problem with the points - but that raises a number of questions, some of them for the politicians to answer. The Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers said this morning that it was a one off accident 'a unique event' and there's plenty of money for repairs and maintenance - is all that true. The Liberal Democrat spokesman is Don Foster and he's in our Bristol studio, but let's turn first to two rail industry experts. The author and journalist Christian Wolmar and the Director General of the Association of Train Operating Companies, George Muir. Christian Wolmar, what wide lessons are there to be learned from this, let's look at the structure of the railways first. CHRISTIAN WOLMAR: Well, I think we shouldn't jump to any conclusions. There's two possible causes for this, one is sabotage, in which case there's no lessons to be learned, it is just a terrible thing, except security. HUMPHRYS: Just deal with that one very quickly first of all and we'll get rid of it, because most people seem to think it's a pretty wild guess. Could a couple of drunken yobs done that damage or would you need to have a pretty skilled knowledge and a lot of effort. WOLMAR: No, it's not vandalism, it's sabotage and I use that word advisedly and that's because it would take some effort and a little bit of knowledge about the rail industry. You'd also need a very big spanner and quite a lot of physical effort, it couldn't be done in a couple of minutes. So it's not vandalism but it could quite easily be sabotage. HUMPHRYS: But there's no obvious reason why that should have happened? WOLMAR: No, but I mean there are a lot of crazy people around, who do a lot of crazy things as you know John. HUMPHRYS: But as you say, no lessons to be learned from that. So let's look at the wider implications, possible wider implications. WOLMAR: Now, if this is down to maintenance, then it really is trouble again for the rail industry because only eighteen months ago we had an accident five miles down the track, where was caused by a broken rail and that was down to faulty maintenance and people ignoring that broken rail for quite a long time, finally snapped, killed four people. So, if we have the same kind of accident five miles down the track, eighteen months later, also caused by faulty maintenance, it raises the whole question again about how the industry is structured and having all these contractors and sub-contractors on the industry, whereas before we had British Rail and a unified structure. HUMPHRYS: So is that what we are talking about, the separation of the people who operate the trains, from the people who take care of the track, that's the big issue as far as you are concerned. WOLMAR Absolutely, the key point about privatisation was not only that it sold off the railways to the private sector, but in a way the most damaging thing it did was to fragment the railway and to break it up and railways need a unified system. You need to have somebody at the top basically giving orders, it's like a military operation. The best run railways in the world are places like Switzerland and Japan where they do have a unified structure. Of course you occasionally use contractors, but here they rely on contractors so much and that would be put in question again. HUMPHRYS: Right, George Muir, do you agree with that? As the man who speaks for the train operating companies. GEORGE MUIR: Well just now I'm still trying to get my mind round the horrific feature of this accident and what does seem to be this extraordinary sort of one off circumstances of two nuts not being where they should be. Now, if it is a question of faulty maintenance, I would like to get away from the debate as to structure because I.. HUMPHRYS: But it might be crucial to do, as Christian Wolmar said. MUIR: Indeed it might be but I think it's in danger of being a fundamental distraction because whatever the structure is, whether everybody is employed by one employer or by two or by three or by more, eventually there's got to be good trained people doing the job. Whether the person who does the job is employed by British Rail or by Jarvis, they've got to do the job. HUMPHRYS: That's fine but what Christian Wolmar is talking about is a line of command here and that's the important thing. Would the train operating companies, if the political decision were taken that perhaps there ought to be a reunified railway, would the train operating companies be interested in that? MUIR: I think it's a distraction. I can't say that it would be better or worse but I don't think that's a solution to the issue. I think it's terribly important that we focus on solving the real problem and not solving.... HUMPHRYS: But it maybe that you cannot solve the real problem unless you can solve this question of the structure of the railways. MUIR: Of course you can solve the problem. It is wholly possible to have a major company like Railtrack with good control over major subcontractors, dozens of other industries do it, the off-shore oil industry - BP doesn't own everybody on an off-shore industry. This is a dangerous distraction from getting on with real jobs. WOLMAR: George, I think the whole way the industry was privatised may well have been responsible for nearly all, with the exception of Great Heck, all the accidents after privatisation - Southall and Paddington... HUMPHRYS: ..but we had accidents before privatisation. WOLMAR: We did have accidents but if you look at these accidents carefully as I have done, you see that in each case there's failure of communication between the different parts of the rail industry and the problem is it's not like the oil industry. Trains are running the whole time, they are always under the command of the signal people, it's not other industries where it's a much more relaxed flow. The railways are an intense industry. HUMPHRYS: It's a powerful argument isn't it Mr Muir. MUIR: I don't think it is, I think it is a dangerous distraction from the real issue which is set about good training, good command, good control systems, flowing through of the maintenance and it is wholly true that this can be done without everybody being employed by the same person. HUMPHRYS: Quick thought about money then because obviously maintenance is hugely expensive, is there enough money in the system to do the job that ought to be done? WOLMAR: Oddly enough there is a vast amount of money going into the industry at the moment, far more than under British Rail. The trouble is again, because of this system, a lot of it is being wasted. For example, the West Coast Mainline was supposed to be re-furbished at the cost of two, three billion pounds, the price seems to now be somewhere near ten billion pounds and rising and nobody quite knows where all that money goes and that again is a problem with the structure. HUMPHRYS: Mr Muir. MUIR: Well, indeed, I have to unfortunately, Christian, I have to simply disagree again. This is not a structural issue, there is a lot of money going into the railway but I think what we haven't appreciated is the increased tonnage and use of the railway. The big Intercity lines, for instance the Great West Line and the North East Lines now have thirty per cent more traffic and tonnage than they did six years' ago and on essentially the same network and what we do know is that the use of the network increases the requirement for maintenance renewals. So we are really hammering this network as it's been hammered never before and put West Coast on one side which is a very difficult problem, but for the rest of the network, it shouldn't surprise us that an immense amount , more money is required to handle this vastly greater volume. HUMPHRYS: Alright, thank you both for that for the moment. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Let's get a political view on that. Don Foster, the structure of the railway Christian Wolmar says is absolutely crucial, George Muir says no it isn't, it's a dangerous distraction. What do you think? DON FOSTER: Well can I begin by first of all giving condolences to those families of the people that were killed in this tragic accident, but I think Christian's absolutely right. The fragmentation that we saw following privatisation has led to significant difficulties, not least because we frankly don't know who to praise and who to blame for each of the things that are happening on our railways and there a number of things that could be done very quickly to resolve that particular problem. We could very easily reduce the number of train operating companies, that is by reducing the number of franchises, and going a stage further and giving an opportunity for the train operating companies who want to, to take over responsibility for the maintenance of the track on which their trains run. That doesn't mean wholesale re-nationalisation but it is a way of reducing that fragmentation, and fragmentation is also reflected even in the safety arrangements that we've got for our railways. We've got a number of different bodies who are involved and indeed a number of different bodies currently involved in the current investigation. HUMPHRYS So you wouldn't go back to the old British Rail; system. You wouldn't go back to having an operator of the trains and the operator of the railways, of the track, of the infrastructure all one body? FOSTER: In the ideal world I'd certainly like to see that, but the reality is achieving that would to some extent, as George Muir says would be a distraction, but more importantly, would cost a vast amount of tax-payers' money to buy back all of those shares in the train operating companies and the various other bodies and that money is urgently needed. HUMPHRYS .....well maybe you simply give them Railtrack...maybe you give the train operating company...find a way of giving the train operating company Railtrack. FOSTER: Well, that's a possibility, but the linking of the maintenance of track with the train operators I think is the most sensible way of moving forward, but let me give you one specific example about where I believe we've got real problems. Following all of those previous accidents, recent accidents, that Christian Wolmar referred to, we've had a number of detailed reports. Those reports have made a number of recommendations about improvements that need to be made with very clear timetables associated with them. But the reality is that in each case we have not seen those recommendations implemented to timetable, and indeed, in the case of the most recent crash at Hatfield, we haven't even had the publication of the final report as to what happened there. So there's real concerns that because of this fragmentation we don't even know who to blame for the fact that we're not getting on with the recommended improvements to our railway system. HUMPHRYS But isn't that partly because some of those recommendations would have been absolutely breathtakingly expensive. If you'd introduced the kind of ATP system right across the network the way that was recommended on one occasion it would have cost countless billions of pounds and you'd then have to start saying do you not: should we be spending that amount of money to save one life? Of course every life is precious, but you have to put this into context. FOSTER No, John you're right. You choose a very good example, Lord Cullen's recommendation of the introduction of Advanced Train Protection Systems to be installed by 2008 and to be up and running by 2010 is in my view totally unrealistic, not least because the type of system that we really need to see which is the European Level Two System to be technical simply isn't operating anywhere in the world at the moment, so that's an understandable one where the industry has quite rightly said, look, we simply can't do it, it costs too much, and anyway it's realistically not possible to do. I have no objection whatsoever to the industry looking at the various recommendations that have been made, making clear where they don't think that they can be achieved, or are not even sensible to do, and we have a revised timetable for those recommendations we're going to go ahead with. But that has not happened either, the vast majority of recommendations that the industry accepts should be done have not been done to timetable, and where there's been a disagreement there hasn't been a sitting down and a coming forward with a clear new timetable so the public knows what's going to happen. HUMPHRYS Is..... FOSTER: If we're going to regain confidence we need to know what is going to be done, who it's going to be done by, how it's going to be paid for and when it's going to be achieved. HUMPHRYS: But the other way of regaining confidence might be some say, to put this whole thing into context - it's very difficult to have this discussion at the weekend like this when people are grieving for their loved ones and people are in hospital terribly injured, but the fact is railways are safer than other forms of transport. We had terrible accidents when British Rail was running things, and indeed before British Rail came along. Have we not to say this was a terrible accident, and we'll try and learn the lessons, but let us not over react, let's not scare people off the railways. Some politician have done exactly that. FOSTER; To some extent you're right. And I accept entirely that our railways are very much safer than travelling on our roads. Indeed if you look at the figures per passenger mile safety on our railways is actually getting better still, but that doesn't alter the fact that there's a great deal that needs to be done that could be done, and will be done more easily if we had a less fragmented system. I'll give you one other example. HUMPHRYS Make it a brief one. FOSTER; Four and a half years ago the government introduced a Secure Railway Station Scheme, to make our stations themselves very much safer. Four and a half years on less than ten per cent of the two-and-a-half thousand stations have achieved accreditation. Nobody's pushing them, nobody's making that happen, and that's just one of many examples of things that could be done and have not been done. HUMPHRYS; Don Foster, many thanks. HUMPHRYS: The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had a torrid time of it in Gibraltar last week - jeered and booed by local people who are convinced that the Government is preparing to sell their sovereignty to the Spanish. Mr Straw talks about sharing sovereignty - but only if the people of Gibraltar agree. And he says any agreement would most definitely NOT be a staging post on the road to Spain taking over. Until now the Spanish would have had big trouble with that. But as David Grossman has found out, they now seem prepared to see their claim to Gibraltar deferred indefinitely. DAVID GROSSMAN: The very British colony of Gibraltar - it's home to several hundred wild apes but more importantly a community passionately defensive of their right to be British. Just over two square miles of territory, this rock on the southern coast of Spain has somehow managed to cast its shadow over the whole of Europe. Spain and Britain have been locked in a dispute over its sovereignty for three centuries. For years the Rock of Gibraltar stood as a symbol of the British Empire - resolute and immovable. But now that empire has passed into history, its status in the eyes of London is diminished into that of a pebble in the shoe of its diplomatic relations, particularly with Spain. Now Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart have pledged to resolve the dispute over Gibraltar by the summer, but for the thirty thousand people who live here, who are bitterly opposed to any change to their sovereignty, that sounds like a stitch up and a betrayal. PETER CARUANA: We think that the United Kingdom has got no right whatever to compromise our rights as a colonial people, to decide our own future, by going off to hatch bilateral deals with Spain. PETER HAIN MP: We're never going to hand Gibraltar over to Spain. Full stop, end of story. What we're trying to do is establish a modern sustainable stable status for Gibraltar that gives Gibraltarians security, ends this dispute, and allows us all to move forward to the benefit of Spain, to the benefit of Gibraltar, to the benefit of Britain. GROSSMAN: Showing their colours is something Gibraltarians are very good at. In March almost the whole population joined in protest at Britain's plans to do a deal with Spain to share sovereignty of the rock. When Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, visited last week the entire police force struggled to make sure he got through the streets in one piece. The British Government insists that although exactly what joint sovereignty would mean in practice has yet to be agreed with Spain, the population of Gibraltar have nothing to fear from any deal since it wouldn't be implemented without a referendum. HAIN: Gibraltarians are the only group of British citizens that have a veto over national government policy because they will have a referendum in the end, without which any agreement that we reach with Spain, if we do reach an agreement, cannot be implemented. So, I think it's important that Gibraltarians look to the future and see the opportunities for them, if we do reach an agreement, an end to border delays, an end to all the aggravation from Spain, a modern status for Gibraltar, huge investment coming in. CARUANA: The British government says that nothing will be implemented in practice unless we approve it in a referendum, and that sounds jolly good, but it's only half the story. The other half of the story that they don't explain so clearly in the UK, is that whatever agreements of principles they reach, whatever concessions in principle, the UK makes to Spain on our sovereignty, on our right to decide our own future, on our future options, they will stay on the table as the agreed Anglo Spanish position, even if we reject it in a referendum and we consider that to be a complete betrayal of our future rights as a people. GROSSMAN: A piece of living history, signed in 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht is the reason Britain and Spain agree that Gibraltar can't be given the right of self-determination. In this faded Latin, Britain took sovereignty of Gibraltar forever but agreed to hand it back to Spain if it no longer wanted it. Over a hundred years before Queen Victoria was born it seems, Gibraltar's fate was sealed for all time. HAIN: Look, let's just be sensible about this. The Treaty of Utrecht has the force of international law on the sovereignty issue, nobody disputes, nobody of common sense disputes the essential provision, that if we gave up sovereignty which independence for Gibraltar would mean, it would have to pass to Spain. Now we're not about to do that. We're not about to hand Gibraltar over to Spain and nor are we about to give Gibraltar independence. SIR MALCOLM RIFKIND: We live in a time when self determination, it's supposed to be the fundamental principle, that's what we, what Mr Blair in particular goes round preaching, and if the people of Kosovo are not being required to share sovereignty with Belgrade, which we all know is indeed going to be the situation, they're going to move towards independence, if Mr Blair was prepared to fight a war, for Kosovo not to be controlled by Belgrade, why is he handing over Gibraltar to Madrid. GROSSMAN: They've had a referendum on joining Spain before in Gibraltar - in 1967 only 44 people liked the idea. Then Spain dismissed the exercise as irrelevant. Now Spain says it will accept the result of any referendum so long as it's not treated as legally binding on the two governments. That in itself represents a welcome change in Spanish thinking. JOSEP PIQUE: We accept the democratic expression, by the Gibraltarians, but never these democratic expression, must be interpreted as a self determination rights expression. GROSSMAN: Rock solid Gibraltar certainly isn't. It's actually riddled with miles of tunnels. These on the north face were dug to blast hellfire on the French and Spanish armies who laid siege to Gibraltar in the 1780s. That siege of course has long since been lifted, these tunnels are now a tourist attraction but the siege mentality among the Gibraltar population persists. And given that they are as determined today to resist any change to their sovereignty, as they were in the days when these tunnels resonated with the sound of battle, the question is why is the British Government so committed to forging a deal with Spain. The answer lies partly in the characters of the British and Spanish Prime Ministers. Both see themselves as pragmatic, forward looking politicians, able to set aside ancient disputes, but partly in hard nosed modern EU politics. CHARLES GRANT: I think there are two reasons why the British and Spanish governments are keen to get a deal on Gibraltar. One is that Tony Blair and Mr Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister are very close allies in Europe. They agree on lots of things, economic reform, close relations with the US and a non federal future for the EU. So they like to work together and they want to remove this bone of contention that has damaged relations between their two countries. The second factor is that other governments in Europe, and the European Commission have been really messed around by the Gibraltar dispute over the years because it has prevented them from reaching deals on a whole load of EU business and NATO business as well. So, therefore they are putting pressure on Britain and Spain to sort this out. HAIN: We've had a situation where European legislation, say on air safety, and on a single sky which will stop delays that irritate us all so often, that Gibraltar finds itself suspended from that, because Spain will not agree to Gibraltar being included because that will be to recognise Gibraltar's sovereignty status, which Spain doesn't do, it feels Gibraltar should be part of Spain. Now, you either have to say the rest of Europe has to suffer and we all continue to have air delays, we all continue to have security problems with air..our airlines, or we actually, proceed in the interests of the whole of Europe. GROSSMAN: But for the people of Gibraltar this argument is perhaps the most offensive of all - that what they see as their fundamental rights should be compromised in the name of diplomatic horse trading CARUANA: The foreign office has identified some advantage to the United Kingdom in reaching a strategic alliance with Spain, in the European community, and Spain has exacted that price from the United Kingdom, if you want a strategic alliance with us, do a deal over Gibraltar, otherwise we won't be the sort of friends that you want us to be in the European Community, and I think it is regrettable frankly that the United Kingdom should feel the need to sacrifice the political rights and aspirations of the people of Gibraltar, simply to curry favour with Spain, GROSSMAN: From Gibraltar the suspicion is that the negotiations on the colony's future are really a bit of a sham, that it's a done deal. But from here in Madrid it's a very different picture. There are still several areas of important difference between Britain and Spain, most crucially whether any agreement, if it emerges, will be final, whether Spain is prepared at last, to renounce its historic claim to full and exclusive sovereignty of the rock. HAIN: One of the reasons why the negotiations which have been going very well, have reached a very tricky and difficult stage to the point where perhaps we won't be able to agree is precisely because we want a permanent settlement. That is the only solution which will be acceptable in Gibraltar and acceptable to Britain and is in Spain's interest as well. Now Spain has had this historic claim, and my message to the Spanish government is let's agree a permanent settlement now, not something that hands Gibraltar over to Spain because we're not going to do that. Not something that is a slippery slope towards full Spanish sovereignty because we're not going to agree that either and even if we did that wouldn't be supported in our Parliament, and wouldn't be supported in the referendum, which we promised the people of Gibraltar. GROSSMAN: But to many Spaniards the sovereignty claim on Gibraltar is cherished in the way that only an ancient grievance can be, it's a battle scar on which oaths are sworn - abandoning it unthinkable. The Spanish government says that although it cannot formally renounce its sovereignty claim it is willing to re-phrase it as a long term, dormant and peaceful aspiration. PIQUE: For any Spanish government the historical aspiration to recover the full sovereignty of Gibraltar is an unavoidable aspiration. But I agree in reaching an agreement which will be an enduring or lasting agreement, but without renouncing forever to these historical aspiration expressed by any Spanish government through the history. So we have to combine these two. I know that this is very difficult to solve. GROSSMAN: You will want to find a form of words that keeps alive in the distant future Spanish sovereignty over the whole of the area you claim, including Gibraltar, but gives a commitment that you will not revisit that claim the day after. PIQUE: Absolutely, absolutely, we have to.. we have to say well, we have reached an agreement, this agreement is stable, this agreement is providing a future of stability and certainty, so there will be no claims immediately later on. But Spain is always aspiring to recover in the future but always through negotiations in very, very friendly approach, to recover the full sovereignty on Gibraltar. RIFKIND: I think the Spanish will take what they are offered, they cannot believe their luck, that they've got a British government naive and foolish enough to be contemplating offering them co-sovereignty, they will take it, they will say thank you very much. They will no doubt behave very nicely for a few years and then they will revert to their claim for full sovereignty and for incorporating Gibraltar into Spain regardless of the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. GROSSMAN: The British military is long used to fighting for Gibraltar, the colony was won and kept because of its huge strategic importance at the mouth of the Mediterranean. The Spanish have started to make noises that they want joint sovereignty of British military installations on the rock as well, that could ultimately mean no deal is possible since Britain long ago made it clear that the British military base will stay British. HAIN: We will retain our full control over the military base there on the rock, which is of key strategic importance to us, another bottom line. GROSSMAN: In Gibraltar though, any row over the future of the base is a side issue that doesn't change the fundamental principle at stake. The right of a people, however few in number, democratically to decide their own future. CARUANA: In the 21st Century, 18th Century problems have got to be resolved in accordance with 21st Century principles, and the 21st Century principles that unite us all, is democracy, human rights and respect for the wishes of people and respect for the rights of colonial peoples to decide their own future and that means that the British Foreign Secretary doesn't rush off to Madrid to do bilateral sovereignty deal with Spain, against the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. PIQUE: It's very important to say to the Gibraltarians, you have to think about it. If you think that the current situation is permanent, you are in a you're in a mistake. You have to think about a new future, more stable, based on a real, a real understanding between very....two important countries in Europe, like the United Kingdom and Spain. GROSSMAN: The negotiations over Gibraltar pick up pace next week. The Spanish Foreign Minister will be travelling to London to continue talks. The Spanish Prime Minister arrives the week after. But even if the two governments do manage to resolve their remaining differences, Gibraltarians certainly won't see the matter as settled. HUMPHRYS: David Grossman reporting there. JOHN HUMPHRYS: And now to this week's scandal over donations to the Labour Party from big business. Scandal? Well, that's how it's being presented by the opposition. Labour says it's rubbish. But there does seem to be an endless series of stories involving rich businessmen giving money to Labour and, one way or another, seeming to benefit from their generosity. Today's installment features Richard Desmond, who made a fortune from pornography and wanted to buy the Express group of newspapers. He gave a hundred thousand pounds to Labour at almost exactly the same time as the decision to allow the takeover to proceed unhindered. Coincidence or conspiracy? Tim Collins is the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister. The Labour Party says pure coincidence, absolutely no link whatsoever, Mr Collins, and you've no evidence to the contrary have you? TIM COLLINS: Well, John, like you and I suspect quite a few people watching this programme, I saw Stephen Byers, who's put up of course, by the government to talk about this on the Frost Programme this morning. HUMPHRYS: I suspect he wasn't put up to talk about that actually, but about other things and it happens... COLLINS: He was asked about it and of course his line of defence is to say, oh well I've made it clear, some months in advance that I would automatically rubber stamp the judgement of the Director General of Fair Trading and in fact Stephen Byers read out a quote this morning and I think if you'll permit John, it's quite important to pin him down on this because what he read out this morning, was what he'd denounced in October of 2000 and he said, and I quote "my policy from today will be to accept the advice I receive from the Director General of Fair Trading on whether or not to refer merger cases to the Competition Commission". Now, this morning Stephen Byers stopped at that point in the quote, but in fact it actually went on because it said "save in exceptional circumstances" and it then went on to talk about in circumstances in which it might be appropriate for him to intervene including national security or unusual circumstances. Now, the point about this John, of course, is a take-over of a national newspaper group doesn't happen every day or every week, it's quite a rare event and it's even more unusual that you have a string of Labour MPs, including the chairman of two Select Committees, calling on a Labour government at that time, to refer it to the Competition Commission, one would have thought Stephen Byers could have intervened, he chose not to and the issue is was this donation a relevant factor. HUMPHRYS: Well, but if the Director General of the Office of Fair Trading had said to him, Secretary of State I don't see a problem with this at all, he was quite right, based on what he had said, to accept that advice surely. COLLINS: Well it wasn't automatic, this was the DTI line that we were hearing overnight and this is what Stephen Byers was trying to imply this morning, that his hands were tied, he had no opportunity to intervene, he'd made it impossible for him to intervene... HUMPHRYS: reason to intervene... COLLINS: The point is that there were circumstances in which he retained a power to intervene, one would have thought that the take-over of a national newspaper group is certainly circumstances in which he should have considered it. Once again, we find I'm afraid Stephen Byers being less than truthful. HUMPHRYS: Well let's be fair about it, he could have intervened, there's no question about that, but he had voluntarily, more or less, given up that option in a sense and that's the point he was making this morning, which is a fair point isn't it. COLLINS: Well, less rather than more John. He hadn't actually given up the power entirely, he had that power, he had that discretion, he chose not to use it. HUMPHRYS: So, are you suggesting that the Labour Party said, oh right, here's a bloke who's prepared to give us a hundred thousand quid, we'll take that hundred thousand then we'll give him his string of newspapers. Are you saying that? COLLINS: No, what I am saying John is I don't actually believe the government are guilty in all the instances that have come up, whether it be the Mittal affair or the Powderject affair. I am saying however I think it unlikely they are innocent in all of them, and I do think now we must have an independent investigation, a procedure set up, a non-partisan one, I fully accept that they wouldn't accept Conservatives going and reaching this judgement but I'm afraid that they have forfeited the right to expect the public just to take it on trust. HUMPHRYS: But that's a bit lose isn't it. I mean you can't say, that particular magistrate courts or crown court has acquitted a hundred defendants this week, what's going on there, some of them must have been guilty, let's have the trials again. COLLINS: Well, I think the parallel, the rather close parallel if you forgive me John, is what happened when the Committee on Standards in Public Life, took the view some years ago that the public were no longer prepared to allow Members of Parliament to sit as judge and jury in their own trials if you like, and that we set up the system of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Now, I've written to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, drawn that parallel, invited them to recommend the setting up of some independent, non-partisan investigatory mechanism, maybe a person, maybe a committee of cross-party privy councillors who can look into all these instances, look at the papers, satisfy the public that nothing untoward has happened. HUMPHRYS: But the reason we are having all these instances is because the Labour Party decided to do something that you yourselves should have done and didn't do, which was effectively say we must open up the books so that people can see if a rich businessman is giving us a load of money, they should know about that. Now, had they not taken that some would say very brave and very transparent and open decision, we wouldn't have known about these things in the first place. That's why we know about them, because they did something you should have done? COLLINS: Well, as one of the newspaper columnists reported recently, that rather is though the Labour Party are saying, well it's alright we're shafting you in public. I don't actually think this is a very good defence from the Labour Party, bearing in mind this Richard Desmond donation was made in the months before the last General Election. But for the investigative journalism that we've seen this morning, we wouldn't have known about it until this autumn... HUMPHRYS: ...yes we would.. COLLINS: ..eighteen months later. We would have known that a donation of more than five thousand pounds had been made. One has to ask the question, why was this donation smuggled in, a very few days before Labour's own legislation would have required it to be published and known before the election, why did they not want the electorate to know about this at the time they went to vote in June last year. HUMPHRYS: Tim Collins, many thanks. HUMPHRYS: The government admits that our secondary schools aren't as good as they should be - particularly for less academic children. The Tories say they think they know what's wrong: too little choice of schools and too little freedom for schools to be different. The Shadow Education Secretary, Damian Green, is producing a pamphlet on it this week and I'll be talking to him, after this report from Terry Dignan. TERRY DIGNAN: The pupils of Uplands Community College in East Sussex may not know it but politicians are keeping a watchful eye on their progress. Labour is still striving to improve standards. Now the Conservatives are looking for ways to do even better. Twenty-five years ago a Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, called for a great debate on education. He got his wish and by the time the next Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had come to power, a consensus had emerged between Labour and Conservatives that government intervention in our schools was essential to raise standards. Which has left the Conservatives with a dilemma. Do they now try to be distinctive and promise to free schools from all government diktats or use vouchers to boost parental choice? Or do they keep to a consensus and narrow their differences with Labour to issues like vocational training? When last in power, the Tories, worried about standards, imposed a National Curriculum on schools and made SATs, Standard Assessment Tests, compulsory. They ordered test and GCSE results to be published so parents could choose schools using League Tables. Tony Blair adopted these ideas and a Numeracy Hour and Literacy Hour in every primary school. The Conservatives are now debating how to extend parental choice, improve standards and interfere less. ANDREW TURNER MP: Well it would be attractive to parents because it would enable schools to do what they thought was in the interests of their pupils rather than being trammeled by too much direction from the centre, whether that centre is County Hall or Whitehall. GILLIAN SHEPHARD MP: I think that a government has a responsibility to put in place the parameters within which the education system works. Therefore, you have a view about standards which are tested, you have a view about the curriculum which is set in place. DIGNAN: When the Principal of Uplands entered teaching, schools were under less pressure from government. ACTUALITY You're doing four AS Levels - you're doing five - many are doing five this year. DIGNAN; Since when the number of government directives and instructions has increased out of all recognition. But the pros and cons of direct government intervention have divided policymakers, politicians and professionals. DAVID JAMES: Well there's no doubt at all that central government has pumped, primed huge initiatives over the last ten to twelve years and there's equally no doubt that standards in education have improved very considerably as a result. TURNER: We've introduced changes, they have introduced changes which have elevated the importance of standards, but I do think we have to be slightly modest in saying we, who in my case was last in a class room in 1984, know how teachers should teach. That's not something on which I would say politicians ought to have an opinion. SHEPHARD: The Literacy Hour and Numeracy Hour had their birth in my time as Secretary of State and I believed and continue to believe, that there was a lot of confusion in teachers' minds about the best way to teach literacy, reading, writing, and arithmetic and mathematics, and the Literacy Hour and the Numeracy Hour again remove that uncertainty, they give a lot of training, they give a lot of certainty, about how best to achieve good results. And I think both the Literacy Hour and the Numeracy Hour have worked extremely well. ACTUALITY: OK. well, I'd like somebody to come and show us 123 times 45 on the grid. DIGNAN: Labour Ministers have extended the Numeracy and literacy strategy to secondary schoolchildren. But Shadow Education Minister, Damian Green, says teachers are demoralised by all these initiatives. Wales has scrapped tests for seven year olds and along with Northern Ireland, League Tables. At Uplands, staffing problems are blamed on teachers' salaries, not excessive government intervention. But Labour, too, now says good schools will be less regulated despite professional praise for many government initiatives. JAMES: We've seen as a result of the government intervention and government initiatives, a huge improvement in the standards that are being achieved by primary schools, as a result of the numeracy and literacy initiatives and we've been impressed by that to the point that the Literacy Hour at primary schools, we've taken forward and established a learning, a language for learning hour here in students' first year here. Very impressed by the quality of the materials that have come in through from government about literacy and numeracy and using it, and this is a direct result of government intervention in indicating where schools should be going. ACTUALITY DIGNAN: The Tories argue that the drive to increase standards in schools should be driven by market pressures, not government initiatives. They believe parents, not politicians or civil servants are the best judges of whether a school and its teachers are up to scratch. Left to their own devices good schools, like this one, will continue to fill their classrooms. Those which under perform will have empty places. TURNER: We've won that argument to a great extent and now I think parents are more able than they were, because of choice, because of the opportunity to choose which school their children go to, to a great extent, not untrammelled, they are more able to appreciate what a school has on offer, and to make a rational decision about which school they want their child to attend. DIGNAN: Rupert Simmons runs the Conservative county's Llocal Education Authority - LEA. His powers are limited because successive governments have devolved control of LEA budgets to Heads and Governors, a policy which accords with demands for schools to run their own affairs. Yet while a former schools' chief inspector wants to go much further, Conservatives are now calling for stronger LEAs. COUNCILLOR RUPERT SIMMONS: I think it has a role in challenging - I have a responsibility for a hundred and ninety-seven schools, across the whole county - a role to challenge the standards, to try and facilitate the raising of those standards. CHRIS WOODHEAD: I mean the logic of the argument to me is crystal clear. That tax payers' money ought to go in to schools, it ought to be used to pay teachers, to buy text books and so on and so forth, and every penny that is withheld from the school, we've got to have a damn good reason for withholding it. I think the schools should have the resource and the schools should have complete freedom to purchase whatever service it wants from whomsoever it wants. DIGNAN: When Iain Duncan Smith campaigned to be party leader, he argued that parents should have more choice over where they send their children to school. He wanted to offer parents vouchers - or credits. Each voucher would be equal to the value of a state education but could be used to defray the cost of a place at a private school. It's now unclear where the Conservatives stand on vouchers because Damian Green is arguing for a less radical option. He wants to extend parental choice by creating schools which specialise in a vocational education. If you wanted your child to join these pupils, you could try moving into the school's catchment area. Less well off families, though, may not be able to afford this. So would vouchers make it easier for them to gain admission? Over-subscribed schools might have to expand overnight, leaving the less popular to decline even further. The views of sceptics are echoed by a former Tory minister who experimented with the idea. SHEPHARD: I think I'm right in saying that I'm the only former minister who has direct practical experience of running a voucher system, because in the last days of the Major Government, when I was Secretary of State, we had a pilot scheme of vouchers for nursery schools. There is no doubt that this scheme empowered parents. They had the voucher, they could spend it where they wished and it also encouraged the setting up of a lot of private nurseries and the provision of more choice. However, the system was unwieldy to administer and costly to administer. JAMES: Parents know what's best for their children and they should be given, they should be given the freedom to choose where they would like to send their children. The issue is really space in schools for them to be able to do that. And if you looked at our situation at Uplands for example, last year there were over a hundred more applications than there were places available and there's the danger of creating a lot of distress, when, if parents feel they've been given opportunities they don't really have. DIGNAN: But those who yearn for the hustle and bustle of the marketplace believe vouchers are the logical next step, once schools are free from ministerial interference and no longer beholden to councils for any of their funding. WOODHEAD: We've got a small, relatively small number of schools, very popular schools, over subscribed, it's the school that selects the pupil, rather than the pupil that selects the school. So the challenge for the whole system is how do we develop more, better schools, how does the market become more consumer orientated so that parents do have a choice as to which school, particularly which secondary school, they send their children. TURNER: The advantage of such a system would be that there would be a mechanism by which the parents could exercise, which, obviously subject to the places being available, gave them more choice and the second advantage would be that the money would flow to the people who are running the schools, so they would be able to afford to expand successful schools, or even set up new schools. ACTUALITY: DIGNAN; Uplands is no ordinary comprehensive. It's a specialist technology school. Damian Green wants more faith schools too, and, for the less academically able, vocational schools. Parents could then use vouchers to exploit this extra choice. In contrast, Labour will allow students here to attend vocational courses at local colleges two days a week. There are Conservatives too who would prefer this to separating children into the academic and vocational. SHEPHARD I wouldn't be particularly in favour of having a wholesale reorganisation dividing schools into, and this is the implication of your point, vocational schools and academic schools. People point to France, it hasn't worked, there is not parity of esteem whatever anybody tells you. The also-rans and the failures are poked off into lycee technique, and their parents tell you so. I mean that doesn't work. DIGNAN: Exam time. The academically able here achieve results way above the national average. So why shouldn't they have their own school, too? WOODHEAD: Let's accept the logic of the argument. If we're going to have more schools for the non academically inclined child, then we ought to have more schools for the academic child. DIGNAN: The Tories have a vision of a market in education which will offer greater choice. Ministers wouldn't interfere, teachers would decide how to teach. It's a distinctive policy but it may have to overcome parents' fears that markets create winners and losers. HUMPHRYS: Terry Dignan reporting there. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Damian Green, things seem to be improving at certain levels anyway, the last thing surely that teachers need or want is another round of restructuring, will you leave things alone for a bit? DAMIAN GREEN: I think the last thing teachers need is to continue to have a Secretary of State in the Government that tries to tell them in great detail how to do their job. The purpose of the ideas I'm coming forward with this week are particularly to help those ..the bottom end of the educational heap if you like, those who are less academic, those who are most failed by the system. There have been some improvements in some schools. We had in your film, clearly a very good school there, what we too often find is that there are schools, particularly in our inner cities where the gap is widening between the best and the worst, where the most vulnerable children in our society are often being failed, where their parents feel they have no particular power over the education their children get and I think it's those parents in particular that I want to help. HUMPHRYS: But there seems to be a bit of a contradiction between you wanting or saying that you want to free up the schools and the teachers and yet at the same time, trying or saying that standards should be improved by setting central objectives, central directives even, making children learn a foreign language for instance, there is a contradiction there. GREEN: What I am saying is that some of the things that were done which were regarded as controversial at the time, like setting up Ofsted, like having regular testing, publishing results of those tests, were very good in terms of increasing schools accountability, the shone a light into our schools so that we could see which ones were working and which ones weren't. Now that tended to happen in the 1980s and the 1990s, what's happened since this Government came in is that they have left that there and I glad they've left that structure they inherited there, but they piled on top of it a micro management of schools, of lessons, of the curriculum, of the way teachers do their job. In the last twelve months for instance, the Department for Education sent out four and a half thousand pages worth of directives to every school in this country. Now, teachers can either teach or they can read Estelle Morris's great thoughts on how they should teach and what a lot of teachers are saying is that they would quite like some professional respect from Government. HUMPHRYS: All right, well let's see how you would give them more power in all sorts of different ways. Let's look first at the Local Educational Authorities, the LEAs, Iain Duncan Smith, your leader, has said, I quote "we should put our faith in local councillors. We will revive local government". Now, you can't do that if you feel as contemptuous or as dismissive of LEAs as some of your past pronouncement have suggested. I mean you regard them as wasting a lot of money, too much bureaucracy and all the rest of it. So are you going to give LEAs more power, or are you going to chop them off at the knees? GREEN: I've never said anything contemptuous ..... HUMPHRYS: Not you personally, no, no but your predecessors certainly have, been dismissive of LEAs. GREEN: What I am saying is that you should give schools the choice. What I want is to centre education policy on the school now if, as we saw again in your film, you have a good Local Education Authority, then I dare say head teachers, as that head teacher did, said fine, we can work with out LEA, they provide support services that we value. Where you have failing LEAs, as you do in Islington, in Hackney, in other areas of the country, then I want to give schools power to get out from under... HUMPHRYS: Ah ..opt out of the LEA control.. GREEN: The problem in the past has been either people have said, as some argued in that film, the Government must compulsorily scrape the LEAs and let every school go out on its own, or they've got the system you have now where schools have no choice at all. Now what I am saying is that it should be for the schools, it should be for the Heads and Governors and parents of the school to decide what's the best support mechanism for our school, do we want to stay with the LEA or..... HUMPHRYS: So if they say we want to get out from under the LEA and now please can we have all the money that would have gone to the LEA and then passed onto us, or some of it passed onto us, you're prepared to say. .if you want to get out of the LEA you can you can have all that money. GREEN: Well, with the caveat that obviously we're developing this policy. This is not the next election manifesto.. HUMPHRYS: ...but that's the principle that... GREEN: ...the principle is that I think schools should be the institutions that in the end have the power to decide in our education system, and as I say a lot of them will no doubt decide to stay with the LEA HUMPHRYS: Well some will decide to stay with the LEA of course, but the danger is that many of the very best will choose to leave the control. They'll have a degree of self confidence, they'll have good parent-governor bodies and all the rest of it and they will decide to leave the LEAS. You've then got a problem for parents who want to send their children to the best schools, you actually in the end are going to reduce their choice, that's the danger isn't it. So the power will not reside any longer with parents, which is what you wanted to do, the parents have the schools you said. GREEN: Well, I don't think that the power does reside with the parents now. I think that what..... HUMPHRYS: No, but at least an LEA can take the broad picture can't it. It can say this school should do this, know there is a degree of control, there is a degree of...the possibility at any rate of a good LEA being able to distribute the best facilities around its area. GREEN: But what the LEA can't do is create more places in the good school. The LEA is enjoined for instance to reduce any surplus places, i.e. if there are parents that want to go to a good school, that good school can't expand because that would create in the jargon, surplus places at the other schools they don't want to go to. So the current system actually takes choice away from parents and the place where this is particularly important often is in the inner cities, in those areas where you have disadvantaged parents who may well not have the money or clout to get their children somewhere else, either to move and go somewhere more leafy or to pay for it. And it is the extension of the choice that is available to a relatively small amount of parents that I want to extend to as many parents as possible. HUMPHRYS: But the point I'm making is that the danger is that the good schools will opt out leaving the LEAs to deal with the rest. GREEN: But what the good schools may well decide to do is expand or may well say, and the other half of my thesis on how to improve inner city education is (a) let the good schools expand, but (b) also make it much easier for new people to come in and set up schools, and it may well be consortia based on existing good schools who say, you like our school but it's full, well maybe a couple of miles away let's set up another school operating on similar lines so that if parents want to send their children to that type of school they can do so. HUMPHRYS: Who would set up this school. Would the parents themselves be able to get together and say we'd rather like a school and we know how we want it run You would enable them to do that?. GREEN: They could do, yes. Parents could do it, that's worked in some areas. There may well be teachers, groups of teachers who say, we've run this school in a good way, or we've worked together in a school, why don't we have the freedom to do it. HUMPHRYS: Where are they going to get the money from? GREEN: At the moment, no. I mean school places would be paid for by the state as they are now. It doesn't have any particular effect on the actual amount spent, it's the way you spend it at the moment in if you like the school system. We have a completely centrally planned system. Ever more power actually taken away from LEAs to the centre, but even within the system everything is topped down including who sets up schools, where they set up schools, what sort of schools they set up. What I'm saying is that if you actually give parents and the individual schools more input into this, you'll get a much more flexible and responsive system that will drive up standards, particularly in those areas where we most need to. HUMPHRYS: And you'd let anybody do it, I mean if, I don't know, the Moonies for instance said you know, we'd like to have our own school, or some crazy fundamentalist group decided that they wanted to have their own school. GREEN: Clearly, one of the functions of the Department for Education and indeed of Local Education Authorities, is to stop crazy people setting up schools. You wouldn't remove any of that responsibility, nor of course would you remove Ofsted. I mean any schools that were set up would still be inspected, would still have to publish their results, would still have to meet whatever demands the National Curriculum put on them. I'm not saying that you can set up a school and do what you like but I am saying that if you have more people setting up a school, you'll get better education and it's not... HUMPHRYS: Well, the trouble with that, we don't want to spend too long on this, but it doesn't stop people at the moment teaching children Creationism and all the rest of it, there are problems and there will be problems. GREEN: There's one school where I've heard the man who runs the school say actually, they talk about Creationism in religion not in science lessons. HUMPHRYS: We better not go down that road. GREEN: I think there's an important point and this is often regarded as some kind of ideological drift and people talk about America. Actually the place to go and look at this is Holland, where seventy per cent of children are not educated directly by the state but they are all state educated in our terms. Nobody is paying fees, but actually the state gives money to other bodies to set up schools. HUMPHRYS: The way to do it surely, if you are going to do that is vouchers, then parents really are empowered, they would be able to say we've got this money, we will use this money to do x, y and z. GREEN: Well I think that's a long way down the road, if ever, because what you first have to do is actually give the parents the opportunity of exercising the choice. If you started now, if you gave parents a voucher tomorrow, it would be like saying to somebody, here's your food stamp, oh by the way the only place you can go and shop is Sainsbury's, so even if you prefer Tesco's, you can't do that. HUMPHRYS: But you'd have a market? GREEN: Well you wouldn't actually, if you can only spend something in one place, what you haven't got is a market and also, I mean one of the..the only point where I rather differed from your film where the summary said what I was about was setting up a market, I think in the ten thousand word pamphlet I am publishing this week I don't use the word market. What I am actually about is trying to improve schools' standards and I think the way to do that is to give parents more choice and the sort of theories of markets are not directly relevant to this. I think what you need to do is say in practical terms, what would allow parents to exercise their choice and it seems to me, actually, allowing popular schools to expand, allowing new schools to be set up and also massively and radically improving the way we do vocational education and the way to do that. HUMPHRYS: Yeah, because what you said right at the beginning, was you are most concerned about the less able children and the people..children you aren't getting good education at the moment, not quite clear how that would help them. GREEN: Oh, I think it is because the areas where as I say the existing system is failing worse, is often in our inner cities, where they do tend obviously to be, if you like, a collection of disadvantage and one of the ways in which our system, relative to other European systems, most fails pupils is in the vocational field. You describe them as less able, which is interestingly.... HUMPHRYS: ...academically... GREEN: ...many of them will be very, very able and what I saw again in Holland, was thirteen year olds re-wiring a room for real, plastering a real brick wall. They were the less academic children, the type we often have big problems with, the fifty thousand truants a day we have, they were those type of children, (a) they were doing something that was relevant (b) they were good at it and therefore (c) they were turning up at school regularly and enjoying school. Now, that seems to me, quite a good vision for us to go for. HUMPHRYS: How much independence should schools have? Should they be able to choose which pupils they take, in your veiw? GREEN: I think they do effectively already. If you are a good school, then you quite often... HUMPHRYS: Do you approve of that? GREEN: Well, it's like approving or disapproving of the weather. If you run something good, then people will want to come to you, if you've only got a limited number of places, then you are going to have to pick somehow or other. Now you can either have it picked at random, you can have it picked by geography, you can have it picked by whether you have got brothers or sisters at the school, you can pick it by some form of ability at something or not, but in the end you are going to say yes to some and no to others. The only way - you'd never eliminate that problem - but the only way to mitigate that problem is actually to say, if this school is run in such a good way that it's got more demand than supply, then allow it to supply more. HUMPHRYS: Damian Green, many thanks. HUMPHRYS: And that's it until next week. Don't forget about out web site. See you next Sunday afternoon. 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.