BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 26.05.02

==================================================================================== 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: 26.05.02 ==================================================================================== JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon. Robin Cook has the job of making us believe in politics again. I'll be asking him how he plans to do it and why there seems to be such a big gap between them and us. We'll be asking the Environment Minister if the Government's prepared to bail out flood victims. And those five economic tests the Chancellor says we must meet before we can join the euro... do they MEAN anything? That's after the news read by Fiona Bruce. NEWS HUMPHRYS: Flooded homes: if the insurance companies won't pick up the rising bills... will the Government? And a British euro? Only if we meet Gordon Brown's five tests clearly and unambiguously. Can that EVER be done? JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first, there's a feeling of helplessness, when we watch much of what's happening in the world right now. India and Pakistan squaring up each other with nuclear weapons, the far right making gains across the Channel, the war against terrorism, apparently stalled, and here at home, well, the most common complaint voiced by voters these days for a while now is that they feel powerless. Politicians do things and we grumble a bit, shrug our shoulders, maybe cast our votes and let them get on with it. At least that's we used to do. Now fewer of us bother even to vote and if we do, more of us are turning to independents or extremists... not just in this country but across the Continent too. What needs to happen, to use the current jargon, is that there must be a re-connection between politics and people. A tall order perhaps in these sceptical times. Well one of the people charged with that responsibility is the Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook and he's in our Edinburgh studio. Good afternoon Mr. Cook. ROBIN COOK MP: Good afternoon John. HUMPHRYS: Formerly of course, Foreign Secretary, and I think you were the last Foreign Secretary to go to India and Pakistan, so your view on what's happening there at the moment over Kashmir, it is looking pretty scary isn't it? COOK: It's very grave, and it's very worrying. I would say John that I think the last half-century of conflict and argument over Kashmir has been a tragedy for Kashmir, but even it's been a tragedy for both Pakistan and for India. They trade very little between themselves, less than five per cent, they've had now two generations of hostility against each other, they would gain so much more if they were able to co-operate and trade like any normal two countries side by side and assist each other in making sure that they do take forward the opportunities for development for the people instead of investing as they do so much in defence. Indeed, Pakistan still spends far more on its defence and its military than it does on education which is crazy for such a poor country. This is not just a flash point for the present time, although it's a very worrying one at the present time, it's also strategic problems with both countries. HUMPHRYS: And some of that defence spending obviously has been with us, as you would expect. There are reports in the Independent this morning that we had put a block on negotiating the sale of Hawk jets to India. Is that right? COOK: Well I've seen that story John, I cannot confirm it, I mean, I've seen it only a couple of hours ago on a Sunday morning, but it would make sense. I would point out to you that, as that story makes plain, we actually sell very little in the way of weaponry to Pakistan, the major block we put on Pakistan was first of all when they carried out their nuclear tests some time ago and then of course when the military took over in Pakistan. Since then we've provided very little in the way of export of arms to Pakistan, mainly for the Navy, and indeed we need the Navy to operate in stopping the drugs running around the area. HUMPHRYS: But quite a lot to India, and as the code of conduct that you were partly responsible for bringing in in nineteen-ninety-seven makes clear that we're committed not, I think it's going to be incorporated in a Bill, isn't it, we are committed not to supply arms in areas of instability, arms that may be used to attack others, so it would make sense if we were not going, it would be quite right for us not to sell arms to India or Pakistan at this time, wouldn't it? COOK: In, in present circumstances, it would be plainly wholly consistent with those criteria that we set out that we would not provide weapons to places where there is a risk that those weapons would help to fuel tension. What both sides now need to do is to step back from any military solution to the problem because ultimately no military solution is going to be permanent or stable and look for a way in which they can find a diplomatic solution to enhance the relations between the two countries, and find a way in which they can find a just solution to the situation in Kashmir that's also acceptable to the people of Kashmir. HUMPHRYS: So you'd expect that story on the blocking of arms sales to be accurate? COOK: I've no reason to doubt it John. HUMPHRYS: Right. Can we look at the much wider picture? Obviously what's happening over Kashmir at the moment is not good from the perspective of the war on terrorism, but there are, there are other influences of that war, aren't there? And this addresses the wider question that I mentioned in my introduction and that is bringing people closer to politics and the strength of democracy in Europe as we speak, is there a worry in your mind that if people feel that the most powerful country in the world, the United States, its leader, is going around Europe in effect saying, we're going to do it our way, we'd like you to join us, but if you don't, well so be it - does that lead to a sense, an increasing sense, on the part of many of people of powerlessness in politics, a sense of alienation almost? COOK: Well I think that you're jumping quite a few fences at the one go there John, I mean if I can just take one or two of them first of all. On the question of global terrorism, there is a problem of global terrorism, and it needs a global solution, and if you cast your mind back to September the eleventh and the attack on the Trade, twin towers of the Trade Center, at that time, the United States did set out to build a broad international coalition and was successful in doing it, indeed as the former Foreign Secretary, I must say I was pleasantly surprised at just how many nations came behind that determination that we were going to root out al-Qaeda and prevent it from being a threat to any of us in the future, reflecting the fact that so many nations lost their citizens in the attack on the Twin Towers. That is the way forward and it is very important that we continue to build that international consensus and use the United Nations as the place to take it forward. On the other point you make about the gulf between politicians and those who elect them, that is an issue that does seriously worry me, and that's one of the reasons why I am so keen that we should modernise parliament, so that it looks relevant, so it looks as if it belongs to the same century and sounds as if it belongs to the same century as the people who vote for it, and that's why it's so important we should reform it. HUMPHRYS: And I'd like to come on to that in a moment if I may. But just to, just to deal with President Bush, again, I mean, if he says in effect, as he is apparently saying, look we want your unconditional support, we are his closest allies of course and we are very proud of that fact. Should we offer it to him? Are we, are we saying, yes, you have our unconditional support? COOK: Well you're quite right John in that Britain is the longest ally of the United States, it is, it was a very intimate relationship both in military and intelligence terms, we are each other's strongest economic trading partner, we have a lot of cultural ties, we are very powerful friends and allies, and that continues whatever the administration in Washington, or indeed, for that matter in London, now that of course cuts both ways. It does mean that we have to support each other when we're in trouble, but it also means we can talk frankly to each and I'm quite sure that the United States, because of that, is now better aware of the position, of the opinion of Britain and the opinion of Europe because of what we're able to say with our inside track. HUMPHRYS: You mention the United Nations there, if Washington did decide that it was going to attack Iraq for instance, some sort of invasion of Iraq, is it your view that there ought to be a specific United Nations resolution making that possible. COOK: Well the discussion about this far too quickly in my view slips off into the legalistic view of should there be a resolution and what is the mandate. I think what is much more important is that the United Nations is the forum of the international community. It is the place where you look for building up that broad international coalition and that wider understanding. And of course, it is within the United Nations that the United Kingdom and the United States have been working over the past year to secure a new resolution which will make sure that we have the right barriers in place to stop Iraq acquiring the material for weapons of mass destruction but lifting the barriers to the people of Iraq getting access to economic and humanitarian goods. And that was very much a British initiative and has been concluded only in the last two months at the United Nations. HUMPHRYS: These legalistic things as you say, become terribly important, don't they, when events change? And your colleague Clare Short was quite happy to say yes, she thought there ought to be a specific United Nations resolution. Without it, it would be very difficult to gain the kind of support that, that you yourself, I'm sure, thinks is necessary for such an action? COOK: Yes, but before you get to the resolution you would have to have that wider discussion with the United Nations and you would have to build up a consensus and I would not disagree with the thrust of what Clare was saying, and that is that you would need to have backing of other colleagues within United Nations and you would need to have support of the General Secretary for the action you took. It would be very difficult to proceed in circumstances where you were opposed by those other forces and as I said John, let's not lose sight of the fact that we have just within the United Nations achieved a unanimous decision, a total consensus for the new measures against Iraq. HUMPHRYS: Alright, well let's, thanks for that, let's move on from you being Foreign Secretary as were to being Leader of the House of Commons! Which is where... COOK: ...I'm very happy to talk to you if you are happy. HUMPHRYS: ...absolutely. Your job as you say is to try to make parliament be seen to be doing an effective job, and that's the only way it's going to get the respect of the public which is so important, and you have introduced some changes, some of which people think are very important changes, but you've also had one or two setbacks and I'm thinking particularly of you wanting the Chairman of the Select Committees to be elected by MPs and not selected by party managers and Whips, and that sort of thing. Now that was thrown out last week in, in rather unusual circumstances. That was a setback for you, wasn't it? COOK: Well it was a free vote, and if you're going to be Leader of the House of Commons you have to respect the outcome of a free vote in the House of Commons. What I did was I fulfilled the commitment I gave a year ago that we would offer to the House of Commons a new way of nominating people to the Select Committee, so that they were more in the hands of parliament than in the hands of the Party Whips. In the event, the House took a different view and that's the nature of politics and the nature of democracy. HUMPHRYS: ...but... COOK: ...I would point out John, if I can just finish on this one that, I would say now that we had about half a dozen resolutions on Select Committees, on one of them the House came to a different view to the one that I was offering them, but all the others went through and as a result of that, we will now have more specialist staff for the Select Committees, more administrative help, a clearer focus for them, a bigger role for them in scrutinising draft legislation, so we have taken some very big steps to strengthen the Select Committee system and Tony Blair himself has independently of that announced that he will give evidence to the Liaison Committee, and that makes him the first Prime Minister ever to get evidence to investigate a Select Committee, so I'm confident that we're on the right track, and the overall record and strength in Select Committees is positive. HUMPHRYS: Those are the changes that I was referring to, but you said, free vote. I mean was it really a free vote, technically it was, but we had this bizarre spectacle of the Labour Whips, indeed the Whips standing in the Lobby saying to MPs, or outside the Lobby, saying to MPs as they came out to vote, PLP Parliamentary Labour Party - that way - so it was perfectly clear that they were leaning on MPs. Now that wasn't the right thing to do, or did you know that they were going to do that? COOK: Well I'm very happy to say John, nobody attempted to lean on me, and they would have got short shrift if they had. HUMPHRYS: ...well remember.... COOK: If you look at the result though John, there was a Labour majority for the reform, despite all the things that you describe, most of those Labour MPs voting voted for change and voted for reform. The motion was voting down by a very large majority of the Conservative MPs who are voting who voted against it and, quite why the Conservative Party would wish to reject a proposal that would result in perhaps rather less role for Government Whips is slightly beyond me, perhaps some ten years from now they might explain it in their memoirs but it did seem strange that the Opposition should be voting against a measure intended to strengthen parliament. HUMPHRYS; But even if a free vote is seen to be rigged - as some people on your own side clearly thought it was being rigged then people are entitled to say "Mm, I'm not quite sure about the power of parliament to scrutinise in the way that they ought to be scrutinising". There were reports this morning incidentally that Tony Blair himself has rebuked the Whips for doing - well some of the Whips, for doing what they did. Is that right and should they have been rebuked? COOK; Well, I'm not aware whether or not that story is right, indeed I haven't seen that story. I find that Sunday is too short to read all the Sunday papers John, and there are other things to do. But on the question of the future which I think it is very important, we move forward and look forward, we have decided within the Labour Party that where there are free votes it is very important that members are left to come to their own conclusion, and that's why we have recorded our view that in future occasions the Whips should not be expressing a view to members in a free vote. I think that's right and it's very important that we get that clearly established before we have the free votes that will be coming on future reforms of the House and indeed on the reform of the House of Lords. HUMPHRYS; Right. So we won't have any more of what we saw the last time around then, and you think that will help reassure people that parliament is doing its job of scrutinising the executive? COOK; Well, it is very important that parliament should do that and should command the respect of the public for doing the job well. And that's the whole thrust of the reforms that I want to bring before parliament. I am operating the principle that we need each other, government and parliament. I don't think there's a tension between a vigorous parliament carrying out its job of scrutiny and a successful government. On the contrary, I keep saying good scrutiny makes for good government, it keeps us on our toes, and that's why at the heart of the package I'll be bringing forward will be better measures to scrutinise government legislation, to do it in draft, to give them the act earlier, to have longer to do it, to make sure we've a full year to consider each Bill and to consider the opinion of the people outside parliament as well as we take it forward,. HUMPHRYS; And another important aspect of parliament's operation is obviously the way the House of Lords is constituted and the way it behaves. Can you again restore faith, because that's what we're talking about, restore the faith of people in the way parliament works, if you have a House of Lords that is not - the majority of them have not been elected? COOK; Well, if I can just respond to your preamble to that John, I do think, yes we are restoring the respect for parliament as having the right to make this decision because we did ourselves announce a couple of weeks ago they we're going to let parliament decide the key issue which is what should be the composition, how many should be elected, and that puts parliament in the driving seat which is quite right, because this is about a reform of the second chamber of parliament. As to what parliament will decide, well, that's a matter for MPs, and for members of the House of Lords, but it's interesting that when the Public Administration Select Committee carried out its survey of the opinion of MPs it did discover that the largest single preference was for a mainly elected second chamber. HUMPHRYS; Ah, so your guess then would be that we will end up with a largely elected second chamber? COOK; I'm not guessing John, and it would be wrong - premature of me and wrong of me to try and pre-empt what parliament may decide. It is going to be a genuine free vote, it's not for me to tell them how to vote, but so far the surveys do point in that direction. HUMPHRYS; You hold the media in part, you and many of your colleagues I dare say for lowering the tone of politics in this country. You talked about what is it -"mud wrestling, verses serious consideration of party politics"...... some of which as you say may be mildly boring, but that's partly responsible for turning politics into the soap opera that in some respects it's become. But politicians themselves bear responsibility for this as well don't they. I mean.... only if ministers behaved rather differently, rather better some would say, then we would have greater respect for the institution as a whole? COOK; Well, we're both in this together John, and neither side can actually move forward without the other also agreeing that it's going to change its practise. What I was saying in my speech last Wednesday is that we have ended up with political reporting being too much preoccupied with the things that MPs and journalists like to talk about, effectively the gossip of the Westminster village, the personalities, not the policies as they affect the real people outside there. Now, we've got to change that, we've got to get back so that the political reporting is about the problems in people's lives and the solutions that politics can offer to it. It should not be endlessly about the office gossip and the Westminster village gossip about who last sent an E-mail to somebody else and at what particular date they rang each other up. It's very interesting John and I make the point in the course of my speech that the day in which Steven Byers made a statement about the resignation of Martin Sixsmith was the day in which the BBC outside London and the South-East had its lowest ratings for a year. Now, the public out there want to hear politicians talking about the issues that matter to them. We possibly could do rather less with the press and politicians talking about the issues that matter to lobby journalists and MPs. HUMPHRYS; But if you've lost some respect for the media and clearly you have along with many of your colleagues because of the way that we go about doing our business, perhaps ministers have also lost respect for parliament, or at least are seen to have lost a certain amount of the respect that they ought to have for parliament. Maybe they have..... I won't go into specifics here, but you mentioned Stephen Byers earlier, but we have neither the time nor I suspect the inclination to re-run that all over again. COOK: I'm happy to agree with you totally on that John. HUMPHRYS; I thought that probably you might be. But if ministers are endlessly being accused of not being open enough to parliament, occasionally misleading parliament, then that is going to feed this whole rather unhealthy atmosphere isn't it? COOK; Well, we are trying very hard to make sure that we do take parliament seriously and that we take parliament as a whole. That's the whole point of my having been appointed Leader of the House and carrying out reforms which will strengthen parliament, it's the whole point of Tony Blair agreeing - historically he's the first Prime Minister ever to agree to do this, that twice a year he'll appear in front of all the chairs of the Select Committees in the Liaison Committee. These are very positive steps forward and I intend to make sure that we build on them and do more. I want to see our exchanges in the House of Commons more topical. That's why I'm proposing we cut down the period of notice. If we'd wanted to stop these exchanges being topical we would have invented a rule saying you've got to table your question two weeks in advance. I want to make sure we change that rule. All that will add up to a parliament that is more open, is it better able to do an effective job which is what the back-bench MPs want to do. Can I just make one point. I very much agree with you that politicians also have a role to play in turning this round. I do think that there is a big difficulty now, that if we say anything original, anything imaginative, or anything that's not already in the script, the press are liable to jump on us for either committing a gaff or starting a party split. I do think that if we want the public to respect politicians, politicians have got to be able to speak freely, individually, they've got to come up with the original thought which is then not immediately challenged because it is not part of the party mantra, and the press have got to give us the space to do that. If we do that then I think we may restore some respect for politicians. People who think for themselves don't simply recycle their ...... HUMPHRYS; That's an honour that you've accurately described......But at look at when it began all of this. It rather began around the time that you particularly, your party particularly turned spinning into a very fine art and so people became suspicious and then every time a minister said something that wasn't you know, on his or her pager, then people would say: Aha we've got a story at last! So maybe a bit less spinning from your side and a bit more openness on the other side, then we'll go somewhere. COOK; Well John, we can both go through the history, and I wouldn't disagree with some of the things that you have just said there. What seems to me important is that we make sure that the future is different and we build on that. Now, we both need to agree to do this. Politicians I think should be able and certainly would want to speak more frankly, more openly, certainly many of my colleagues would want to be able to speak more candidly, more openly, but we need a press that takes that in a mature and balanced way and doesn't immediately take the least spark of originality and fan it into a great flame in the headlines. HUMPHRYS; Or a more courageous minister who says; I don't care what they do with it, but I'm going to say it anyway. Maybe that's the way to do. COOK: Well, in that case you'll need a media that rewards courage and does not punish it, John. HUMPHRYS; Robin Cook, thank you very much indeed. COOK: Thank you. HUMPHRYS: In this country we are mercifully free of natural disasters ... not too many earthquakes and hurricanes hardly happen. But we do get floods. And these days - because the climate's changing and we're building new homes on the flood plains - more and more people are getting washed out. The insurance companies says it's costing them so much that unless the Government spends far more money to improve flood defences it's going to prove impossible for many people to insure their homes. The Government has to make a decision on what it's going to do pretty soon. The consultation period ended a week ago, I'll be talking to the Environment Minister responsible, Elliot Morley, after this report from David Grossman. DAVID GROSSMAN: Misery by the gallon. The floods of two-thousand caused over a billion pounds worth of damage - in human heartache the costs can't be measured. But these are scenes we may have to get used to - the Government's latest climate change study predict winter rainfall may increase by thirty per cent over the long term. Already the experts say rivers are rising more often - the need for flood defence has never been more vital. Even before the flood waters drained away from here in Worcester and from other parts of the country the Government promised urgent action to try to prevent that kind of devastation from happening again. What was needed it's argued is not only better physical defences against flooding but also better protection against building, for the green areas around rivers that are needed to allow floodwaters to seep away before they become a problem. But many of the people who live here and in other flood threatened communities say almost nothing has been done, and if there isn't action soon, their homes could become uninsurable and potentially worthless. ANDREW LANSLEY MP: Well the worst case scenario of course is that the consequences of climate change mean very substantially greater flood risk in future and that if we don't have flood defence measures in place, a lot of people will be, well they'll be driven out of their homes. MARY DHONAU: The Government are acting very, very slowly. They've commissioned lots and lots of studies into flooding, but nothing has been done to stop it. It's still going to happen. If we flooded tomorrow, to the same levels as the year two-thousand we would flood just as badly. GROSSMAN: Flooding is a problem that threatens a significant proportion of the population. The Environment Agency estimates that one point nine million properties in England and Wales are at risk from flooding - that's about five million people. MARY FRANCIS: It's quite a serious problem. I mean we have two aspects of it. One is that flood defences haven't been maintained in a sufficient way. And the other is that we have got increasing prospects of more, of rain, over the coming fifty years or so. Something like a, an increase of up to a third in the amount of rainfall, and those two things together mean that many homes are not protected. GROSSMAN: In Worcester one of the homes to be hit in two-thousand belonged to Mary Dhonau. Today the waters have gone but she thinks they'll be back - this house has been flooded in seven of the past nine years - rainwater mixed with sewage. DHONAU: Well this room here is at the moment a makeshift kitchen as I'm having a new one. But during the floods of two-thousand, it my two little boy's playroom and we woke up in the morning and found all their toys floating in sewage. GROSSMAN: And how high did the water come up to then? DHONAU: Well at the worst it came to window-sill height. GROSSMAN: And this is raw sewage? DHONAU: Yes it's raw sewage, yes. We've been flooded seven times, we've made three insurance claims, so this is our third floor. GROSSMAN: From her window, Mary can see the local water company starting work on a sewage pumping station that should mean that any future flooding won't be nearly so vile. But as a whole, Worcester isn't any better protected according to its MP. He says there's still nothing concrete to show for nearly two years of worry. MICHAEL FOSTER MP: Certainly there isn't any defence that's going to be in place by this coming autumn, nor was there obviously for the autumn and the winter period that's just gone, and people have to sort of cross their fingers and hope that the flooding didn't repeat and, and thankfully it didn't but it was very close. GROSSMAN: As the late spring rain falls on Worcester the river Severn fills up but this time sweeps by. Many believe the delay in getting better flood defence in England and Wales is caused by fragmented planning - a tangle of national, regional and local bodies with criss-crossing remits. The lead national organisation is the Environment Agency - its chairman says the time has come for a more streamlined approach. SIR JOHN HARMAN: There are a range of committees around the country who take the decisions on flood defence. Now, now this, this is fragmented, there, there are local committees, there are regional committees. We have to deal with twenty-nine decision making authorities in coming to our annual flood defence budget, as well as government, and its, its contribution through grants, so it's quite a complicated arrangement, and when things go wrong or when there's a flood, it's actually not an easy arrangement for the public to understand and it can be very frustrating to find out who's actually responsible for your flood warning or flood defence service. FRANCIS: It is a, a dreadful maze, all the local authorities in the country have responsibilities for planning flood spending, and for undertaking it. We also have the Environment Agency, we have numerous other planning authorities, and we are pretty sure that there's not a sufficiently co-ordinated system to ensure that the money that is available is spent very efficiently. GROSSMAN: Lovely weather for some no doubt but the pressure for new homes means many, like these, are built on flood plains. Not only are such houses more vulnerable to flooding themselves but also instead of slowly seeping through open ground, rain rushes into the river off tiles and tarmac. The Government has tightened up the local authority planning guidance for building on such sites - but rivers of course don't respect local authority boundaries and the flooding impact of development can hit many miles downstream. LANSLEY: One of the most important things that ought to be done is to institute what's known as catchment management, that is looking at the whole catchment of a river. You know, whether it's the Great Ouse or whatever it might be, and look at that as a co-ordinated responsibility with a body, probably a sort of catchment wide body in place of the present Flood Defence Committees who have that responsibility to ensure that flood defence and the management of that river is co-ordinated. GROSSMAN: Now to get some idea of how high the water floods in a place like Worcester - in November two-thousand it came from all the way down there and reached a mark on the cathedral wall - there. Now the question is, is it economic to try to defend against this level of flooding - the Government insists that to work that question out you need to take into account the value of the property you're trying to defend. But critics say that discriminates against places like Worcester with average or lower than average property prices . FOSTER: A small house owned by a relatively low income family is less likely to be defended than a large house which is owned by a higher income family, and clearly that's not fair, and there are many people who argue against the current formula, on the fairness basis. But also, just looking at the value of the property, to work out what the cost of flooding is, I don't think takes in to account the full impact of flooding, the social costs experienced by those that are flooded are enormous. GROSSMAN: In Worcester, the Severn View Hotel today has a somewhat drier view than it had in two-thousand. It's where the local flooding action group meets. ACTUALITY: "This is the map of Worcester. There are eleven cells - each cell has got to pass the cost benefit ratio." GROSSMAN: They believe the current system means they won't get defended. ACTUALITY: "If we lived in Maidenhead or in Henley of course we would because our houses would cost more and I just want to know what you think about that?" DHONAU: My house is my castle, everybody's house in Worcester is their castle. It just has the same feeling of value to us, just because we're in a different part of the country it really shouldn't mean that we have, don't have the right to be defended. HARMAN: What the system doesn't really reflect, and we think it should reflect is the value of the people that it's protecting. We think it should be much more people based, one only has to deal as we do and our staff do all the time, with people who have been affected by flooding to know that it's a traumatic experience, it can have huge impacts not only in the short term but the long term, it's almost the worse thing that can happen to you as a family, other than a death in the family, is to be flooded. GROSSMAN: Sorting out insurance is one of the chores that goes with being a homeowner but for Mary Dhonau and the millions of others threatened with flooding it could soon become impossible. As flood damage claims go up so could premiums to the point where they become unaffordable. FOSTER: The prospect of flooding insurance being withdrawn from businesses and residents in my constituency has quite literally, been a time bomb waiting to go off. The prospect of people having to pay repairs, bills for ten, fifteen thousand pounds every time a property floods, and not have insurance cover to, to cover that cost quite frankly doesn't bear thinking about for those home owners, and of course the other side to it, is that they wouldn't actually be able to sell the property either, because no one would want to buy it. GROSSMAN: It's easy to see why the insurers are getting nervous, the national bill for flood damage is currently about eight-hundred million pounds a year but it's predicted to rise to one point eight billion over the longer term if there's no extra spending on defences. FRANCIS: Insurers are businessmen, they want to retain their customers wherever they can, but if in exceptional cases, homes are flooding year after year after year, it does just become uneconomic to afford the kind of levels of payment that would be necessary to get insurance. So in some cases yes, there's a danger of not being able to get insurance, but I stress, insurers want to maintain cover, where ever they can. GROSSMAN: The scale of the autumn two-thousand floods shocked ministers - who promised action. Seeing the devastation for himself, Tony Blair was warned insurers could start withdrawing cover. The industry though agreed to continue covering existing policyholders if the Government spent more on defences. That agreement though ends in December and insurers say they've yet to see the rise in spending they're looking for. FRANCIS: The Government has been carrying out a very thorough review of its spending plans for three years to come. And, we wanted the Government to have time to make that assessment and to reach its decisions about what flood defences it could afford. We're very much hoping that we'll hear a favourable result based on the Government's own figures, we believe that more spending of about a hundred and forty five million pounds each year, is needed. GROSSMAN: So if the Government is going to spend all the extra money on flood defence it's going to take to keep the insurance industry happy - where is it going to come from? Well, up to now, defences like the Thames Barrier here in London have been paid for out of general taxation - but a new government report suggests alternative sources of finance. Why not, it asks, impose a tax on developers who build new homes in flood prone areas - or, and most controversially, why not ask everyone whose home is at risk from flooding to pay towards the cost of defending it. HARMAN: The Government's talking in its consultation about a developer connection charge. In other words, if you build new properties in the flood plain, you do add to society's costs. You add to the agency's costs. That ought to be accounted for and so, if money can be recovered through that route, that would seem to us to be sensible. On the other hand, the idea has been put forward that a, a sort of tax is levied on every individual living in the flood plain, we don't think that's sensible. We don't think it's fair, WEATHER REPORT: The weather really has changed - we had a line of torrential rain moving through last night, flashes of lightening, rumbles of thunder... GROSSMAN: In Worcester Mary Dhonau already finds she has to keep a constant eye on the weather forecast - so with that and the worry of losing their home insurance are flood victims to be taxed more as well? Mary's local MP says the idea just doesn't make sense. FOSTER: They bought the home expecting a flooding event, one every two hundred years, but now because of climate change it's one every five years, then it, it isn't fair to ask the home owners themselves to pay for the flood defences and we should look through the General Taxation Fund I think to find a way of helping them overcome what is a natural phenomena or arguably one that we have caused nature to create. GROSSMAN: The test of the Government's commitment to better flood defences will come in July when the Chancellor announces his spending plans for the next three years. But many believe more money is only the beginning - flood defence they say needs urgent reorganisation if it's to meet the challenges of what looks like being a much wetter future. HUMPHRYS: David Grossman reporting there. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Well the Environment Minister, Elliot Morley is in our Hull Studio. Good afternoon Mr. Morley. ELLIOT MORLEY: Good afternoon John. HUMPHRYS: You do accept obviously the increased risk that there is a real problem here. MORLEY: Oh we recognise there's real problem, I mean, factored in, the projections for climate change, increased rising in sea level, in all our engineering and the kind of investments that we're making, and I should point out that some of the positives, despite all these extremes of weather, we have a pretty good record in relation to the performance of our defences, and also the response of our warning systems and our emergency services. HUMPHRYS: You wouldn't be very impressed if you were living in Worcester though would you? And the trouble is that, that Tony Blair talked about the various reports we've had amounting to a 'wake up' call, what a lot of people say, is well we haven't yet woken up, we've had loads of studies but we haven't really woken up to the real dangers here. MORLEY: But that's not true at all John, and I'm very surprised on the River Severn that you didn't go up to Shrewsbury, or Beauly where brand new defences are under construction now and they'll be ready by this Autumn, or indeed other areas that were very hard hit in the two-thousand floods, villages in Norton for example, and Malton where again, huge engineering projects are being put in place, and I spent the country the last two years going around opening both completed defences and starting new ones. So there is a massive investment programme, and not just engineering a hundred million pounds over the next ten years for enhanced flood warning for example, investment on trying to understand the impact of climate change, long term studies, these are very important, but this is real tangible action taking place resulting in reduced risk all over the country. HUMPHRYS: But more is needed as you have often acknowledged, and one of the problems is this extraordinary complexity. Twenty-nine decision making bodies needed in some cases, I mean, that's just crazy isn't it? You need one authority surely to look at the, at the whole flood defence in a particular system for a particular river, the catchment area of a particular river, that'd be the logical way to do it, wouldn't it? MORLEY: Oh that isn't, that is logical, but of course most flood defence committees are based on catchment areas and indeed we've funded some new powered studies for whole catchment area studies because we think that's the way to go in terms of trying to have a long term plan for flood and coastal defence, but we do accept that there is a need to look at the structure of our flood defence funding, and that's why we had the review, and there is a possibility of streamlining it, and though I should say although it is complex, it has by and large delivered a very quality of service around the country. HUMPHRYS: Well again it depends where you are and who you talk to doesn't it? But you do acknowledge it's got to be simplified? MORLEY: Yes I acknowledge there's a case for simplification as indeed I acknowledge a case there, there's a case for increased investment and funding, we already doing that, we're increasing in funding by round about fifty million pounds over the next year, from two-thousand-and-two to two-thousand-and-three, taking us up to round about four-hundred-and-fifty million pounds from all revenue sources. That's record amounts of funding on flood and coastal defence and that's a recognition by the government of the need to reduce risk. HUMPHRYS: May be a record amount but it's still not enough is it? MORLEY: Well you can always argue about how much it should be spent, although I should point out, there is actually almost a limit to what you can spend in any one year in relation to the engineering projects which are often very complex, which you can't just switch on and off, it can take quite a long time for planning permission, for doing the catchment area studies, and then to put them into place, so there's actually a limit in terms of capital spend that you can have in any one year. HUMPHRYS: But that is going to increase isn't it? I mean as, as we, well as the situation gets worse, and it's not going to stop raining for heaven's sake, so we are going ultimately, we are going to need more money. Are you satisfied that the right way to do is to take it from the taxpayer in general taxation? MORLEY: The funding review did say that the, bulk of the money should continue to come from the Exchequer and we except that. What the funding review looked at was the potential for raising additional sums of money, and connection charge for flood plain development is one, the flood plain levy was another, although that wasn't recommended by the committee I should point out, and of course at the moment, the responsibility for flood defence is shared between central government and local government, and local government raise a levy. One of the suggestions within the report was to abolish the levy and replace that with a precept, and of course... HUMPHRYS: ...what's that mean? Replace it with a precept, what do you mean? MORLEY: Well at the present time, the regional flood defence committees have a levy which is agreed by local councils and that's just taken from the overall council tax take. If you have a precept, then the suggestion is that the new customer, the customer bodies, would have a separate precept, replacing the levy, and people would then see that separately on their bills, in the same way as you have a precept for the police or the fire brigade. HUMPHRYS: You're not sympathetic then to the idea that the developers themselves, other people would say it would be entirely fair to tax the developers, because they're the people who are going to make the money out of these developments, some of which will add to the problem willy-nilly? You don't think they ought to pay for it? MORLEY: Oh I think there is a case for the connection charge and we're looking at the response to our consultation at the present time. If developers are building on flood plain areas, then of course it's not unreasonable that they should pay towards either new defences or indeed enhancing the defences that may be affected by that development. There is already provision for that within the planning guidance, PPG25, which restricts developments on flood plains so I think there is certainly a case to consider there. HUMPHRYS: We can't just stop them building on these flood plains can we? MORLEY: In some circumstances, yes you can. And in some circumstances, the recommendation will be that there should not be development in certain flood plain areas. But you, you don't have to say that there should never be any kind of development on flood plains, indeed you take a city like Hull for example, the whole of Hull is on a flood plain, but it's very well defended, and indeed its defences have recently been enhanced. HUMPHRYS: But just to go back to the question of the individual whose home is more at risk, should people who are at greater risk pay more than those people who aren't because many people would say, sure, if you bought a house knowing that you're on a flood plain and you are well aware that you are going to be flooded every year or every two years or something, then on your head be it. On the other hand, you may not have known when you bought the house? MORLEY: Well I think if you take an extreme of someone buying a house right next to a river, then of course they know very well that they are taking a risk when they buy that house. But I do accept the point that you make about people may be living in a flood risk area and not know that, that's why one of the targets which I set for the Buy Report of nineteen-ninety-eight, was that the agency should produce flood risk maps. Now they've done that, they are available on the agency web-site, people can look at that, and it gives you an idea of whether you live in a flood risk area or not. But I should caution, these are a general indication, these maps are not one-hundred per cent accurate. HUMPHRYS: So caveat emptor in that case. MORLEY: That's right. HUMPHRYS: As far as the way the money is spent, again it seems grossly unfair that if you've got a house in Worcester that's worth a hundred-thousand pounds, and somebody else has a house in Henley that's worth half-a-million pounds, the Henley person is going to be better protected than the Worcester person simply because the cost/benefit analysis says it makes better sense to save those people. That can't be right, can it? MORLEY: No it can't and it's not quite a simple as that. It is true that there is really a gigantic scheme just being completed in Maidenhead, but that protects many hundreds and thousands of properties, and of course, a great many lives. It is true I think that the priorities should be the number of people you are protecting. You can't get away completely from the fact that of course you've got to take into account the cost of the defence and the value of whatever it is that you're defending behind that. I do accept that. But people like Mike Foster have made a very strong case that the priorities should be the number of people, should be people first, rather than values of properties. HUMPHRYS: ...and you accept that argument. MORLEY: ...I accept that argument. BOTH SPEAKING TOGETHER MORLEY: I accept that argument, and from next April we will be changing the criteria in the way that we do the assessments to reflect that more. HUMPHRYS: So in future, it will be people, rather than price of property that counts. MORLEY: You can't get away totally from overall value of the property, but I think that the people element is going to get much greater priority, we're going to bring that forward, the number of people that you're defending. HUMPHRYS: Elliot Morley, many thanks. HUMPHRYS: Now, we can't join the Euro - or have a referendum to decide whether we should join - until the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has decided that we have met his famous five economic tests. HE says the tests are clear and unambiguous. Many other people say that's nonsense. They're scarcely worth the paper they're written on...they're so subjective... as to be effectively meaningless. As Terry Dignan reports, reaching a decision could be just as complicated as finding a winner in last night's Eurovision Song Contest. ACTUALITY. TERRY DIGNAN: The Eurovision.....Con-Tests - as some describe them. MUSIC. DIGNAN: Move over Terry Wogan. It's time to get serious. A momentous decision may soon be upon us. And it will matter a tad more than who won last night's extravaganza in Estonia. When Eurovision last came to Britain four years ago, Labour had ruled out a referendum on the single currency until five economic tests had been met. By the time of next year's contest we're promised we'll know if we're ready to join. While it's hard to read the Chancellor's mind, Tony Blair appears impatient for an early referendum. JOHN MCFALL MP; There is a window of opportunity for this referendum to take place, within this Parliament and next year it's recognised that, that is that time when it should take place. JANE GRIFFITHS: There is a very strong ground swell of opinion among Labour MPs that the tests have been met and that it's time to get moving. DIGNAN; The Eurovision Song Contest. There are few events which attract more sneers from the critics. Just listen to some of the lyrics they say. They can mean anything you want them to mean. A bit like Gordon Brown's five economic tests, it's argued. But just because there'll be doubts over what the tests really mean that may be no bad thing from Mr Brown's point of view. Because, according to the cynics, it will ensure the assessment of the tests will produce exactly the result the Government wants. When the call comes there's no escaping the big moment. But, say the critics, that's what Labour did five years ago over holding a Euro referendum. It used the economic tests as an excuse, it's claimed, for delaying an appointment with the voters. The public will be asked to vote on joining the Euro only when the tests are met. There must be sustainable convergence between the United Kingdom and the economies of those European countries which now use the single currency. Sufficient flexibility within the UK economy to cope with economic change is also required. The effect of joining on investment is test number three. Number four - the impact on our Financial Services Industry and number five, whether joining the Euro is good for employment. Yet the validity of the tests is doubted even by those leading economists who believe they've already been met. MARTIN WHEALE: Some of the tests, or one in particular is very odd. The government says that it's concerned about the Financial Services Industry, the implication being that Britain would stay out if it was bad for the Financial Services Industry, even if it was extremely good for everyone else. And I don't understand the priority it gives to the Financial Services Industry, I don't understand why one group should have a veto over the national interest. ACTUALITY - Singing So near - so near. So far - so far. DIGNAN: So near - so near. So far - so far, sang the UK contenders in 1998. Which nicely describes the difference between economists who believe we're almost ready for the Euro and those who say we're not. The Treasury's assessment of the tests - to be completed by June next year - won't end the arguments, according to the former civil servant responsible for refining the tests' wording. SIR ALAN BUDD: They're about directions, they're about how close you are to other economies, so there is a wide area of judgement, in which I think perfectly reasonable people could say yes, I'm convinced by the evidence, it's okay to join, and others, seeing the same answers, will say, well I'm not sure, I don't want to join just yet, and I think within the, any reasonable future, the outcome is going to lie in that range of uncertainty. DIGNAN; Gordon Brown is far too serious a politician to subject his economic tests to this sort of treatment. But why not? Finding a Eurovision winner is hardly a scientific exercise and nor, some argue, is resolving the single currency dilemma. Many regard it as a political question even though the Chancellor maintains the assessment of his tests overrides all other considerations. GRIFFITHS: Well I would hesitate to compare Gordon Brown with Mandy Rice Davies, but they would say that wouldn't they. That's what treasuries do and that's what Chancellor's do, is to say, no, we've got to look carefully and prudently at the economy and of course that's right that the Treasury should do that. But the Treasury is not the whole story, the political reality is the other half of the story. BUDD: We can't have an important decision, like whether we join the single currency, being taken by civil servants, that would be wholly inappropriate. It has to be taken first of all by politicians, and then by the people, and since the five tests are so important in this process, there must be this ministerial, this political judgement involved. So the Treasury officials will do an excellent piece of work, quite wonderful, setting out all the relevant information, asking all the right questions, providing all the tables, providing all the graphs, they'll give all the information. But the final conclusion of whether these tests are passed, will be made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, together with the Prime Minister. DIGNAN; Like the contenders in last night's Eurovision contest, supporters of Britain joining the Euro face an anxious wait. But maybe they shouldn't hold their breath. Because if Mr Blair thinks he can win a referendum, then, it's claimed, the result of the assessment will be a foregone conclusion. But if he thinks he is going to lose, then, surprise, surprise, we'll be told we're not yet ready for the Euro. BUDD: I may be being too cynical about this, but I assume that the Prime Minister and Mr Brown do not want to embark on a referendum, unless they think they can win it. If the five tests are passed, we know they have to hold the referendum, therefore you can see that the logic may work backwards from the referendum to the five tests. If they think they can pass the referendum and want to do so, then they are more likely to find that the five tests have been passed. If they'd rather postpone the referendum, then I think they're more likely to find that we're nearly there but not quite, and we ought to wait a little longer. DIGNAN: Not everyone will agree that last night in Estonia the judges got it right. Mr Brown though will want to convince his audience, the electorate, that the assessment of his economic tests is spot on. So he's promising that all five will have to be met clearly and unambiguously before Britain joins the Euro. But can anyone be so certain about a decision which many regard is as much political as economic. LORD HASKINS; Yes, I mean the word unambiguous is a problematical word. What economist was ever unambiguous, there's always going to be one economist to challenge the view of another economist. So in that sense I think looking for a one hundred per cent answer is going to be very difficult. MCFALL; Well I can sympathise and understand the Chancellor in trying to get his view across that he is very, very firm that these tests must be met but I also concur with economist you know, put two economists in a room and you get two opinions or maybe three opinions. The Economist magazine itself last year did a survey of academic economists regarding Euro entry and would it be good or bad for the country and I think it was split fifty-fifty down the middle. So the phrase clear and unambiguous I think does not apply to economics. ACTUALITY: Singing "We've both made the same mistakes". DIGNAN; In Estonia last night Jessica Garlick sang for her country. Some supporters of Euro entry believe it would be a mistake for Tony Blair to allow Gordon Brown to dissuade him from holding a referendum on the single currency. They fear the Chancellor has been allowed to set too tough an obstacle to joining Euroland. ACTUALITY; "Thank you." DIGNAN; But others say it's a ploy to enthuse wavering voters. FRANK FIELD; The person who'd increasingly been presented as Mr bad in the fight with the Prime Minister, the sceptic, would announce this Pauline conversion and say actually, though I've always held these views, I think now the tests have been passed. LORD HASKINS: I think that if Gordon Brown does get up one day and says we've passed the tests, that sure as hell is going to impress a lot of people who think that Gordon Brown is rather a good Chancellor, which I think would be extremely helpful, to the argument. DIGNAN; It's twenty one years since Bucks Fizz won for Britain with making your mind up. Supporters of the single currency hope they won't have to wait that long before the Government decides to hold a referendum on the Euro. It's all a question of meeting its economic tests. Or so we're told. Because many suspect the test which really matters is the missing one - can the Government win the referendum? HUMPHRYS: Terry Dignan reporting there for the first and probably the last time in his dinner jacket. And that's it for this week, don't forget about our Website if you use the Internet. Until next week then, by the way we shall be on BBC Two not BBC One, good afternoon. 24 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.