BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 19.05.02

Interview: IAIN DUNCAN SMITH MP, Leader of the Conservative Party.

Is the Conservative Party really changing?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first... the state of the Conservative Party. The Tories are trying desperately to show us that they're not the same as the party that we have rejected so decisively at the last two elections. Things are changing. They're becoming more compassionate... more caring... more cuddly. In the past few weeks we've seen Iain Duncan Smith spending some time with poor people on a deprived council estate in Glasgow. We've seen another member of his Shadow Cabinet spending a night with homeless people. And whole teams of Tories have been travelling across the Continent in search of ways to improve our public services. What does it all add up to? What are they changing from and what are they changing to? I've been talking to Mr Duncan Smith this morning near his home in Buckinghamshire and that was the first question I asked him. IAIN DUNCAN SMITH: Well, the problem that we have to face as a party and I've asked all my colleagues to do that, is to recognise that the way we are perceived by the public and in the past have been perceived, is that a party that is centred on only really a couple of issues, maybe Europe, perhaps tax and that's it. What I want to be able to show, is that the party, the Conservative Party has never been just a two issue party, it's a much broader party, it's always been concerned about issues to do with public services. So what I'm getting them to do is to broaden out and to be talking about the things that people really do think are of huge importance and the Health Service in the last seven or eight months since I took over has been a prime concern. The failure in the Health Service is something we want to tackle, so what we are doing is saying, look we're changing but changing really to be ourselves again, not this party so quirky and centred only on a few things but actually a much broader party that will look at things that the public are really concerned about and bring those solutions that will actually help them in their daily lives. HUMPHRYS: And one of the things that you seem to be concentrating on is the vulnerable. I noticed that in your Harrogate speech that you made last year, that the section was entitled "Championing the Vulnerable". So one wonders whether you now want us to think of the Conservative Party in these terms instead of in the old days you might have thought of the Conservative Party as the party of business people, thrusting, energetic, get ahead, fighting for yourself and all the rest of it. Now, we should be thinking of poor people, people who live in the most deprived bits of Britain, people with the biggest problems, is that the idea? DUNCAN SMITH: The purpose of what I do when I talk about the vulnerable is to demonstrate that even though wealth is created much higher in this country, that people have more, more disposable income generally, there are huge sections of the population who simply are trapped in dependency and whose lives really don't change in any beneficial way at all. So, we are not changing from being a party that believes in enterprise, far from that at all because it is enterprise, ultimately business creation, job creation that helps people out. But what we have also got to recognise is that there's something else, it's the way in which the state has so taken over the way that people live their lives that they themselves get very little control over their lives. One of the points I made in the speech in Harrogate and I will be making it again this week, is that this nation we have now, has a more centralised, authority based structure than we have ever had before. Everything is based on Whitehall, every decision it almost seems is taken by Whitehall, let me give you an example John. A few months ago you will recall, I raised the issue of Rose Addis, who is a constituent of mine. HUMPHRYS: The elderly lady in hospital. DUNCAN SMITH: That's right, she had a problem with treatment, she didn't get the treatment that she needed. I raised it for one very simple reason, within about three days of their concern, the family's concern, we had the Secretary of State for Health actually commenting on this individual case. Ridiculous, the only person... HUMPHRYS: 'Cause you raised it. DUNCAN SMITH: No, no, this was before I raised it. The only reason I raised it was because the hospital had dismissed her, the Secretary of State had dismissed her, it was a ninety year old woman who couldn't get any redress and this family felt frustrated because nobody cared and my point was saying, this is absurd that we spend three or four days with the Prime Minister and myself, concerned about a single issue in a hospital, why? - because the system is so centralised that now Whitehall runs everything right down to the single patient's treatment. That's mad and that's also going to damage people. HUMPHRYS: But centralised - the Welfare State is centralised, what you seem to be saying, what you are very clearly saying is that you want a society where people help themselves. DUNCAN SMITH: Yeah, I want a society where people take control of their lives, where they take not just responsibility but they get the opportunity to be able to shape their lives in the way that they will want to do it. I yesterday, when I was up in Scotland, I went to Easterhouse again, privately, to talk to... HUMPHRYS: That's that very deprived estate.. DUNCAN SMITH: The Easterhouse project is Project Fair which is there, run by local people to try and get people out of their dependency, out of their difficulties, out of their drug addiction, get their kids fed in the morning and I went to talk to them and ask them this question: what the biggest problems you face? It's the same question I've been asking wherever I've gone, on whatever estates and I was absolutely struck by one thing that they said to me. They said and many others have said the same: look the problem is if we go for state money in the way it is now, what the government does and local councils do, is they give it full of strings. In other words, if you want some money you must do the following things and report on the following things. And they say, but we know that's not what's needed here. What's needed here is another approach, what people want to get them to take control of their lives, to get them off this dependency, we need to work with them but the state can never focus on this because it needs to constantly report targets and figures. So they are saying, what we want to be able to do is little groups like this to be set free, just to be able to get on with what we know is right for this community and it's what happened in New York, it's the lessons we are learning from all over these other countries that have solved the problems that we don't have. HUMPHRYS: That's fine for people who can help themselves, but two things about that. One is... DUNCAN SMITH:'s not about people who can help themselves, it's about communities of people who have helped themselves, helping others help themselves. HUMPHRYS: Alright, so it's still a kind of charity. I mean, charity is perhaps not the exact word there, but it's one group of people helping another group of people, or one group of people helping themselves and the trouble with the sort of going to the housing estates occasionally, or your Social Security man popping off to spend a night on the streets with homeless people and that sort of thing, people think that's a bit of a gimmick. What you are actually doing is distracting attention.... DUNCAN SMITH: ...hardly.. HUMPHRYS: ...let me suggest to you why people are concerned about it, is that you are distracting attention from the real issue here which is charity is all very well and fine but there are an awful lot of people (a) who cannot help themselves in the way that you describe (b) who absolutely need the State to help them, need the Welfare State. And the way to help those people, the most deprived people is quite simply to give them more money through the State and if you are saying, we are not prepared to do that, then they are going to get a bit worried about what you mean by helping the vulnerable. DUNCAN SMITH: That's a very good question and in fact I notice in your articles that you've written for a Sunday paper, you have often touched on this and I think some of your comments have been quite interesting on this matter. You've talked about the powerlessness that people feel down in their communities because when you talk about people saying they just need more money, that's not the case. I mean there has been huge sums of money, Welfare spending now is rising faster than health or education under this government and yet when you visit places like Easterhouse or the estates in Faversham or you go to Liverpool and see the way some of the people live, you realise that it's not the money that's helping them, it's the dependency that it's creating which is trapping them. Now, what I am saying is not you sweep all that away. What I am saying is we have to try and understand that the problem here is actually now politicians getting in the way of what people really want to do for themselves and what I am saying is we want to drive that power out of Whitehall, down to the levels that it best sits at. It could be at schools, it could be at hospitals, it could even be down in the estates, on these groups where they are able to tap in to funds, they are able to run these things but in the way that they know is right. HUMPHRYS: Sounds like the same old Tory line really doesn't it, doesn't sound like the new caring, compassionate Conservative Party. DUNCAN SMITH: I think the most caring thing that I can do for anybody is allow them to help themselves, with others.... HUMPHRYS: ..if they can. DUNCAN SMITH: Well that's exactly the point. A compassionate society is one that actually wants people to help themselves and those who are quite incapable of course are helped but the key point is and this is the point that's made to me time and again when I go to visit these projects, they say to me: the thing that we do is that we try to get people to take responsibility for their lives and when they do, to give them a sense of purpose and as they do that, they bring themselves with us, off their dependency into jobs, they get jobs. HUMPHRYS: You're telling me nobody ever tells you: we simply need more money - we're poor or we are single parents, we can't help..... DUNCAN SMITH: Of course they say money is vital, we all know that. HUMPHRYS: Are you prepared to give them more money? DUNCAN SMITH: Listen, the key is they are getting lots of money but it's not getting to them. The reality is that councils, central government is wasting vast sums of money because the way they apply it is far too often against what central government thinks are the requirements. They set the targets, they are the reporting structure. You only have to take the Health Service John. You look at a series of managers now who are so worried about what central government thinks that instead of doing what they think is necessary for their hospital, too often they end up simply fiddling figures to report back against what they think that Mr Milburn wants when he wants to be able to report back to Parliament to say it's alright we met the following targets. That is a system gone mad, it should be about people in those hospitals saying: look, we can deliver better services. Let me give you a good example, when I went over to Sweden, I visited a system in Stockholm and some of my colleagues have visited other systems. The one thing that they said to me was we had your system here and we chucked money at it, far more that you are and it never worked. What they've done is exactly what I am saying, decentralise completely, they've given control to county councils, to hospitals and they give patients the right to choose their hospitals. HUMPHRYS: They spend less money. DUNCAN SMITH: No they spend the money they were already spending but now the effect is dramatic. Their waiting lists have collapsed, the patient has the right to choose in Stockholm, you can't do that here, you can't choose your hospital, you can't choose your doctor. That's what I mean about giving people control over their own lives, making the system serve them, not the other way round. HUMPHRYS: You say that, this is the other way in which you are changing, we need to catch up with the way people live their lives in modern Britain, I'm quoting from one of your speeches. Now you had a chance to do that on Thursday, when the House of Commons voted on changing the adoption laws so that unmarried couples could be adopted...could adopt children. You told your MPs to vote against that. DUNCAN SMITH: Quite rightly. HUMPHRYS: Well, it may be right from a moral point of view, from your perspective. DUNCAN SMITH: No, it's not a moral point of view, it's a very practical point of view John. HUMPHRYS: Before you tell me why it's right from a practical point, let me hone in on this point about the way people live their lives in modern Britain. The way people live their lives in modern Britain is that forty per cent of them, forty per cent of children are brought up out of wedlock, now that is a fact. So what you are saying is, we need to catch up with them but not with forty per cent of them. Very odd thing to do. DUNCAN SMITH: With respect John, that's utter nonsense. HUMPHRYS: Which bit of it. DUNCAN SMITH: Let me explain to you why. HUMPHRYS: Well, forty per cent of it. DUNCAN SMITH: Let me explain why. What you are leading to is not right. The reason why we took that position, why I took that position, why my party took that position was for purely practical reasons. It was supported by the way from Torche, the Tory Reform for Homosexual Rights, they supported it, why? HUMPHRYS: Not mentioned homosexuals at this stage. DUNCAN SMITH: No, no, wait a minute. They supported it why? And others supported it because the key here is what's good for the child, not what's good for people's lifestyles, what's good for the child. What we are dealing with here is children who are in deep difficulty, often in and out of care and their lives have been destroyed, the reason why I think and I believe fundamentally it's wrong to simply say any couple can just adopt, it's because essentially what we know from all the figures is that couples that are not married, their systems, their allegiances break up far, far quicker than married couples. HUMPHRYS: So they're not fit to be parents? DUNCAN SMITH: Wait a minute and the result of that is that because they're taking these children from care, already often disturbed, these children then very quickly end up back in care being shunted around. The reason why it's important to make sure that there is an individual who actually holds the responsibility for looking after that child is so that no..... what ever else happens that child is looked after and not shunted around. It is a simple fact. And the real problem is that the adoption agencies at the moment could do much more to open up adoption to children of different ethnic minorities to parents who don't, who aren't of those ethnic minorities... HUMPHRYS: ...but, no no, but that's, again that's a separate issue... DUNCAN SMITH: it's for children, it's protecting children John, that's the key. HUMPHRYS: Well you're, you're protecting children against being married...... against being adopted by unmarried couples, so in other words, unmarried couples are not fit to bring up children... DUNCAN SMITH:, no, no, no... HUMPHRYS: ...that's the essence of what you're saying, that's the only... DUNCAN SMITH:, no John. We're talking..., no, no, no it's not. HUMPHRYS: ...and this is the way people live in modern Britain, forty per cent..., DUNCAN SMITH:, no John, John this is the most ridiculous, ridiculous line of questioning. HUMPHRYS: Why? Why? DUNCAN SMITH: ...let me, let me answer that. No let's let me answer it for you. The reason we've taken this is quite simple. You're dealing here with children who are in severe difficulties, they have suffered .....often emotional problems, they've been in and out of care, what you do not want to do is to put them into a home that is very likely to break up and then to be back in care again. HUMPHRYS: So forty per cent of homes in Britain are likely to break up... DUNCAN SMITH: the key, let me, let me finish this, let me finish this. The key problem therefore is to make sure they are settled. And look John, you can go and look at all the figures, the reality is, and I think the ... the family survey that's taken place across the UK but many other figures show that cohabiting couples are nearly four or five times more likely to break up than married couples, so you're simply dealing with reality. It's not condemning anything, it's simply saying the children need stability, and what you can't do is say, we're just going to punt to a lifestyle. Fine, people who want to adopt children have a very simple choice. They can get married to adopt children, that's fine. But the reality is those children need absolute protection far more than anybody else, and that's that what we've stayed on and I'm simply determined that it is the right thing to do. HUMPHRYS: And you'll be doing it again tomorrow when MPs vote on homosexual adoptions, you, you will say homosexual couples may not adopt. DUNCAN SMITH: Well it, it's not whether it's homosexual or heterosexual. The simple point is about children as I said to you earlier on and I repeat this - the Tory Reform For Homosexuals Group, TORCH, they supported this, why? Because they said the most important thing is the protection of the child, not satisfying different lifestyle changes. That's what we're about. Of course we recognise the way people live their lives, but the reality is when you deal with children, you must always work to protect children, I'm absolutely clear about that, I stand by it. HUMPHRYS: Well fine, but people will say... DUNCAN SMITH: did the government until they discovered by the way they got into difficulty with some of their backbenchers. The government line was exactly the same, then they panicked, because they realised a number of their backbenchers disagreed and so they walked away from it... HUMPHRYS: ...well it may be, it, it may be... DUNCAN SMITH: ...that's not leadership. HUMPHRYS: it may not be leadership, but be may be that they are in touch with the way people lead their lives... DUNCAN SMITH: they were in touch only with their backbenchers John... HUMPHRYS: ...and, and, and well... BOTH SPEAKING TOGETHER HUMPHRYS: ...well they may be in touch with that. They may also be in touch with the forty per cent of people in this Britain, who in this country, who are not married and live as unmarried couples. You are not, and what, whatever the argument... DUNCAN SMITH: ...but there is not a huge demand John from unmarried couples to adopt children, it is not... HUMPHRYS: ...well now you're shifting it around... DUNCAN SMITH: it's not... HUMPHRYS: ...I mean whether it's a great demand or not, there are some people who want to do it... BOTH SPEAKING TOGETHER DUNCAN SMITH:, no, let me take you back to your word. You said forty per cent. Not true. There is not that demand. HUMPHRYS: Forty per cent of couples... DUNCAN SMITH: ...that's exactly... HUMPHRYS: this country with children... DUNCAN SMITH: ...exactly right. HUMPHRYS: ...are not married DUNCAN SMITH: ...and I said... HUMPHRYS: ...and you're saying they're not fit to adopt children... DUNCAN SMITH: ... No. What you said is forty per cent of the couples in this country want to adopt children, not true. HUMPHRYS: Alright, alright, let's move... DUNCAN SMITH: ...let's go to reality, protect children, that was the key. HUMPHRYS: Okay. Let's, let's move to another area where you seem hugely, by your own admission, you would accept of course, arithmetically you're out of touch and that's with MPs in the House of Commons, one-hundred-and-sixty-six MPs you have, fourteen of them are women, you have no ethnic minority. Now you have ruled out doing all the things that could make that change. You have ruled in only exhortation. Now how are you going to change. Again, it's saying, we want to be different, we want to cast aside our own image, but we're not going to do it. DUNCAN SMITH: Oh well we are. We are going to get more women and more members of the ethnic community to become Members of Parliament. HUMPHRYS: How? By exhorting the constituencies. DUNCAN SMITH: No, no, we've changed some things very dramatically. We've changed the selection process, now that people actually apply to become MPs. We changed the period in which they go, they get selected, that's changed dramatically. HUMPHRYS: Not going to be all women short lists? DUNCAN SMITH: We don't need all women short lists and I don't believe that that's right and I think the Labour Party has actually been failed by that in a funny sense. What I want is people of quality to come forward, have an opportunity to stand, and to get the right chance to be in those seats. And what we've done as I've said, we've changed the way in which we select, we now have more women coming forward. Many women were put off by the selection process. We've got many more women on the list and will have many more. Many more members of the ethnic community coming forward as well. What we're also doing is we're doing things like profiling constituencies, being able to demonstrate to associations that perhaps may not be as in touch with the way that people live their lives in their associations... HUMPHRYS: ...and all of that may... DUNCAN SMITH: they are, and at the same time what we're also showing is that certain key constituencies need to think very careful, carefully about the type of person that they want to select. All of this is part of a process of change. And those associations by the way are already demonstrating that they desperately want to find a wider variety of candidates, that is happening, so I don't take.... HUMPHRYS: ...but the acid test is when they actually select those candidates, isn't it, as you know, and what you have said is if we don't reflect the Britain we want to lead we will never be asked to lead it, so in other words if, in three or four years time from now, when we have another election, if you don't have fifty per cent women and roughly seven per cent ethnic minority candidates then you will not be fit to lead the country? DUNCAN SMITH: No John, I didn't get down the road saying quotas, and you can't misread, I said... HUMPHRYS: ...if we don't reflect the Britain we want to lead we will never be asked to lead it... DUNCAN SMITH: ...exactly, that's right. You're not going to expect my party to suddenly in the course of one parliament jump to some quota system that puts us in exactly the same position. I'm talking about the sense that the public will get of us that we are getting more women involved... HUMPHRYS:'s got to be very, very different from what it is now, isn't that right? DUNCAN SMITH: ...we are getting more members of ethnic communities. It will be different from what it is now. That's the plan, and that's my determination and you know, I have a large number of advisers, ethnic backgrounds, all helping with this, women in charge of the candidates process for the first time ever... HUMPHRYS: ...okay... DUNCAN SMITH: ...I don't feel in any way defensive about this, really quite positive. HUMPHRYS: Right, and, another area, now this is somewhere where I've been arguing throughout this interview that you haven't changed very much, here's somewhere you have fundamentally changed since, since the last leader... DUNCAN SMITH: can't have is both ways John (sic).... HUMPHRYS: And that was, you can, in politics....have it in any way you like (sic) and this is the Euro. The trouble is, you've been, you've sorted out the Euro as far your party was concerned, as far as you were concerned, and you've stayed very quiet about it since. Now the problem with that is that while you have been quiet about the Euro, support for it has been growing, and that's a problem for you, isn't it? DUNCAN SMITH: Well we can look at those figures any time you like. I don't actually believe that is the case, that support is quickly growing. HUMPHRYS: Well let's just quickly for the benefit of the audience... DUNCAN SMITH: ...well there are lots of different polls John... HUMPHRYS: ...well let's take the MORI poll, May two-thousand-and-one, thirty-three per cent in favour of the Euro, sixty per cent against, and using the same sorts of questions and all the rest of it, last month, forty-three per cent in favour, fifty-one per cent against, so it's moving against you, if you take that particular poll. DUNCAN SMITH: But there are other polls too John,I don't want to argue about polls... HUMPHRYS: ...alright, let's use that poll... DUNCAN SMITH: view is that my party is very settled about it, we haven't just shut-up about it, when the Euro was launched in the New Year, we were very explicit about why we believed it would wrong from Britain to join, both for Economic and for political reasons, constitutional reasons, we've said it again in the last few days, and whenever the issue arises all I've done is said to my party, look, the British people have known for some time that we have strong views about the Euro, quite rightly it's a huge and important issue. What they don't know from us is how strongly we feel about failing health care, about rising crime on the streets and about public transport. So what we want to do is to broaden that view so the public knows that when they come to make their decision, they will know that we have policies and we have ideas that are on a wider range of issues, we're not going to run away from the Euro issue, far from it. The policy of the party is quite clear. As and when the referendum is held, we will campaign to keep the pound, and we will do it without a problem. HUMPHRYS: The trouble is while you've been concentrating on other things, talking about other things, talking less about the Euro, people like Ken Clarke have been quietly mobilising their forces and now he has set up this Tory European network, and it's working against your interests. DUNCAN SMITH: Not really at all, and Ken is the first to accept that. What we've done is I've begun to treat this as a grown-up issue for grown-ups, unlike the government, and what I'm saying simply is that the party, no party is absolutely going to have everybody on the same line. The party must have a view and a policy, which is ours, to keep the pound, and the vast majority of my party will back that, there will be some who would like to take a different line, and I've said to them fine, when the campaign begins, you go and campaign for what you believe in, and when we've won it, you come back, that's not a problem. HUMPHRYS: When do you go into full attack mode? DUNCAN SMITH: We're always ready to be in full attack mode. As you've probably noticed, the thing I want to point out is that whilst we have been campaigning on Health, Crime, Transport, the government, who's got into huge difficulties on these issues with problems on Health, rising waiting lists, problems on Crime, with huge violence on the streets, what we're saying is, that's the real issue. Don't distract by trying to go to the Euro. We want a campaign to keep the pound, but you should get on, either hold a referendum, no problem to us, or actually shut-up and get on and sort out Crime, and Health, which is what you should be doing, and now you're looking for a distraction, because you're failing and in the meantime John, whilst we've been doing that, Labour MPs have been splitting from their government. A large number have said they don't want to scrap the pound and that wasn't the case nine months ago. HUMPHRYS: Iain Duncan Smith, many thanks.
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.