BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 09.06.02

Interview: JOHN BARCOW, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Contends that the Conservative Party is changing and cites its change of stance on public services tax and adoption, inclusion and asylum.

JOHN HUMPHRYS; John Bercow - less popular than the Euro, not difficult you might say, but nonetheless there must be some significant, basic fundamental change. Right? JOHN BERCOW; Well, first of all the pound is more popular than any of the political parties. That was the point that Iain Duncan Smith made this morning, and he was absolutely right to do so. Of course modernisation is not for the Conservative Party an optional extra. It is absolutely critical both to getting our approach and policies right, and to reconnecting with the electorate, so it's not an isolated act, it's not a one off gesture. It is a continuous and positive process of change to allow us to get it right and to reconnect with the electorate. HUMPHRYS; Just on the subject of Dominic Cummings I see some reports this morning in the papers that some people, important people in your party think he should be sacked for his frankness, no? BERCOW; I'm certainly not arguing for that. I think Dominic Cummings is a brilliant man. I think he's got many good ideas. He's hired to give his advice. He's a first class character, but the position on the Euro has been made absolutely clear by Iain Duncan Smith and indeed by others in recent days. We will play, and Iain as our leader will play in particular, a prominent role in any referendum campaign if the Prime Minister dares to call it, but we will be team players, we will be on an equal footing with politicians from other parties and indeed all of us as politicians will be on an equal footing in any referendum campaign with people from other parts of public life who want to keep the pound. The issue John, frankly, of staying out of the Euro and keeping our currency is too important to be left exclusively to the politicians. HUMPHRYS; Let's look at something else that's terribly important from your point of view as well. You acknowledge that there has to be fundamental change. The difficulty is that when it comes down to the wire, the policy wire, and I fully accept that you don't have all of your policies properly formed yet, so let's not. if we may go down that road, clearly there is some way to go yet, but nonetheless it begins to look like an image-changing exercise and that's all, because when you do get to the difficult decisions, things you have to make decisions about now, such as public services, it seems that you say in the case of the NHS for instance: yes, there's a big debate going here and we want to join in that, we do want fundamental change, but everything you do and say and look at in Europe suggests that what you actually want is more private involvement one way or the other. Now that is hardly in keeping with the message you're trying to deliver, is it? BERCOW; I don't think that's right. What we want is more choice and greater effectiveness in delivering the service. HUMPHRYS; All of which involves more private involvement. BERCOW; Some of it might involve more private involvement. It could mean greater use of social insurance to complement the resources raised by the state through taxation, but the key point is this, most other countries in Europe use different systems to our National Health Service model, and most of them have in common the fact that they are more effective at translating care from a word to a deed than we are. They have a better record for example, on cancer care, on treating people with heart disease. In so many different respects, there's greater choice of GP, in France there are no national waiting lists, in Germany and Denmark you've got a twenty-eight day guarantee of treatment. So it would be crazy not to look at the way they do things John. HUMPHRYS; But they all have greater private involvement, that's my point. So the message you're delivering, even thought you want the message to be one thing, it comes out as another, because when it comes down to it, everything you are seriously interested in involves greater use of the private sector one way or the other. BERCOW: I don't think that understands the full picture, I think the important point is this .The government has gone in for micro-management mania. They want to regulate everything, they want to stop the professionals using their judgement to provide the best service to the patient, to the pupil, to the user of the transport service, to people who are scared of the really outrageous increase in crime that we've witnessed. So what we want to do is to look at other ways of doing things, and the difference between ourselves and the government is really very simply stated, and it's very starkly illustrated in relation to health. We have an open mind, we want to learn from others, we want to see how and why it is they do things better. The government, in the form particularly of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are basically saying: we know it all, we've got nothing to learn, and yet it doesn't hang together John, does it. They've taken under a hundred thousand million pounds from us in taxation over the last five years, but the services have got worse, not better. We want to make the services better and not worse. HUMPHRYS: Ah, but that's the point. You say you have an open mind on this, and yet when the Chancellor says, look, one of the ways we can deal with the problem of the NHS is raise a lot more money in taxes and put a lot more money into the NHS, you say to that, no. You don't say, well, we'll consider that, we may even abstain on the vote on the budget in which all of that is proposed, you actually vote against it. That sends a pretty clear message doesn't it? BERCOW: Well the reason why we voted against it is that the government is just offering more of the same. What we saw in the Budget was just more talk, more taxes, no change and no difference because there's nothing new about it. HUMPHRYS: And your mind is set against that? BERCOW: Well look at the evidence, it's not a question of having an abstract theory or a dogmatic prejudice, it's not like that at all. I'm sure the government's intentions on these matters are good but the record speaks for itself, over the last five years we've had increased bed blocking, we've had the contraction of the residential care home sector, we've got an increase in the number of people waiting to become in-patients, it's very different for people to get out of hospital, we've got more administrators in the Health Service now than we've got beds. All of the time the government's been in office we've had more money taken from us and if you look just as an example, at Scotland, we see in Scotland John... HUMPHRYS: ...yeah, more money. BERCOW: ...that over the last five years, since Tony Blair became Prime Minister, twenty-eight per cent increase in real terms in expenditure on health, at the same time, you've had on average an increase of one quarter in the waiting time for treatment. HUMPHRYS: Fine, all of that may be true and you know your analysis may be spot on, but the point I'm making is not that, the point I'm making is that you've looked at all the facts, as far as you are concerned, and you have now made up your mind and your mind is made up along the following lines - we will not take more money out of people in tax in order to put into the public services, this particular public service and that's that, it's closed. BERCOW: What we're saying is this - it may very well be that we will need to spend more on health care in this country... HUMPHRYS: ..which you will raise that in direct taxation? BERCOW: No, what I am saying is this - we need very likely to spend more on health care in this country but the Conservative approach is to say, what exactly is needed, what reforms are required to deliver what is needed, how much will those reforms cost and by what means should they be financed. Now that is a logical and considered process. HUMPHRYS: Ah, but on the last bit you've decided, haven't you, that's the point. On the last bit you've decided because here we have the Chancellor saying, we've looked at these problems as well, we acknowledge there are problems and we have decided on one of the means by which the money should be raised and that is extra taxation, you have turned your face against that. That's really the only point I'm making. BERCOW: No, if you ask a Labour question John, you get a Labour answer. What happened was that the Chancellor asked Derek Wanless to conduct a very quick scissors and paste review of the Health Service in this country and he... HUMPHRYS: And he concluded that it needed more money. BERCOW: No, the important point was that he wasn't asked or entitled to look in any detail at the way things are done on the continent, four pages only of the report covered continental systems. Now that we're saying is, we haven't got all the answers, we've got an open attitude, we've got a mindset that says it hasn't worked well so far, the government, despite its good intentions hasn't delivered, it's been very disappointing to see the results over the last five years, let's look at how perhaps we can do things differently and better. HUMPHRYS: You might have been able to persuade people of that if you had abstained on the vote in the budget, but you didn't you voted against. So clearly the impression that you give people is they've made up their minds on that at least, haven't they. ] BERCOW: We are making up our minds as we go along on the issues, on the basis of the evidence... HUMPHRYS: That is exactly my point. BERCOW: On the basis of the evidence John, not on the basis of an abstract theory, not on the basis of a dogmatic prejudice. HUMPHRYS: Whatever the basis of the evidence may be, my point is and you accept it, is that you have made up your mind on certain issues and that is one, fine. BERCOW: Let me put it to you like this John. I have counted up and may have miscounted, there may be more, no fewer than twenty-three references from Gordon Brown and other ministers to the need for investment and reform to go hand in hand in relation to the public services in general and health in particular. What we've had is some additional investment, no reform and a deteriorating service. Now that is really a very disappointing situation. HUMPHRYS: Right, let's move onto another area where I am trying to make the same point to you and that's the areas where you have made up your mind, you say you want to be seen as more inclusive and more tolerant and all the rest of it, given the chance you actually go in the opposite direction and it's the vote we heard about from Paul Wilenius in that film, it's the vote in the House of Commons on adoption by unmarried couples and by gay couples. Now, again, you could have said, we leave that open, we let people vote according to their conscience and all the rest of it. Instead, you had a three line whip and it was to vote against. It sends a very clear message again doesn't it and rather different from the image that you are trying to create. BERCOW: Well there could have been a free vote and I would have been perfectly happy with that. HUMPHRYS: How would you have voted... BERCOW: ..look, let me just make the point, that wasn't a decision for me, as you know John these matters are decided by the Whips, I'm just a junior and humble figure in the great scheme of things, it's not for me to.... HUMPHRYS: ...a member of the Shadow Cabinet, not quite that humble... BERCOW: ...issues and what happened was very simply stated. The Conservative opposition decided to give a signal that its preferred position was to concentrate on reducing the barriers to married couples adopting and to increase the opportunities for them to do so, getting rid of out-dated and silly rules on mixed race, against mixed race adoption, saying that people were too old to be able to adopt, saying they were too middle class or any such nonsense as that. That was our position, but there was a three line whip, John, to attend, people were then entitled to exercise their discretion as to how they voted. Now if you ask me how I see... HUMPHRYS: ...pretty unusual way of going about these things. BERCOW: No, I think it's a really very sensible way and it shows the way in which under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith the Conservative Party is changing. My attitude is very simply stated on this subject, we had a decent and reasonable point of view, the government had a decent and reasonable point of view, the difference is we lost, they won, they will now get their way and introduce their reform. What should our response be - it seems to me that we would be absolutely crackers to bore people rigid by continuing to bang on about this subject incessantly and we will not do so. What we'll do is... HUMPHRYS: So in other words, you accept that that was at least a sort of desirable outcome... BERCOW: ....what we will do is look at the evidence and what I would like to say is that given that this area of policy concerns some of the most damaged and vulnerable children in our society, who come from the most appalling backgrounds and suffered terrible abuse, trauma, mental and physical inflictions. I hope the government's policy works and if it does, I'll say three cheers to that. HUMPHRYS: And had you been there, had you been in the House, instead of not being in the House, you might have found yourself voting in favour of the government's view. BERCOW: ...these are hypothetical questions... HUMPHRYS: ...indeed, indeed, but you... BERCOW: ...and I haven't come to a view about that and I'm not going to offer a view... HUMPHRYS: ...Mr Bercow, you know... BERCOW: ...and it would be very foolish of you to expect me to do so. HUMPHRYS: Ah well, it might be foolish of me to expect it but I don't believe for a moment that you haven't had, given it very serious thought and have a view on it and it's interesting that you don't offer that view. BERCOW: As I say, I think that we took a very constructive approach, I think Iain offered leadership, but he displayed what we've seen in so many areas in the period since Iain became leader of the Conservative Party. That combination, that winning combination, of clarity with tolerance. He had a firm view, he offered that view and then the Conservative Party said to colleagues: it's an important issue, be there if you can be there. It wasn't judged to be a priority when I had another commitment for me to be there, and then exercise your discretion and listen to the arguments... HUMPHRYS: ...and their...your outcome would have been desirable, their outcome was almost equally desirable, is the point you're making. BERCOW: I think the public expect us to be open-minded... HUMPHRYS: Fine. BERCOW: ...and I think that the age in which we just damn everybody else's policies and everybody else's motives is frankly behind us. As I say, I think that we had a decent and reasonable position, we emphasised the arguments for married couples adopting, the government had a decent and reasonable position, let's see how it works. HUMPHRYS: So given that they had a decent and reasonable position, you wouldn't want to go into the next election with your policy being 'we are against it'. BERCOW: Well as I say, I've then got to see what the evidence is... HUMPHRYS: ...sure. BERCOW: ...but the important point is that those colleagues who did vote with Labour Members and some Labour Members voted with Conservatives, it was a very mixed picture. But those Conservatives who did vote with the general trend of the government didn't have any disciplinary action taken against them. That's a sign of clarity with tolerance... HUMPHRYS: ...okay. BERCOW: ...the way in which the Conservative Party under Iain has changed. HUMPHRYS: Fairly quick thought if we may, on Section 28, the bit about homosexual, teaching homosexual or tolerating homosexual teaching in schools. You are meant to be reviewing it, in fact, here's somewhere else, isn't it, where you have actually closed your mind. Given your thoughts as expressed in the House of Commons on gay adoption, we can take it that actually you want to keep Section 28? BERCOW: I don't think you can take that as red at all, Iain Duncan Smith announced during the course of his leadership campaign, that if he became leader, he would review our policy on Section 28. John, I don't mind telling you, I was absolutely delighted when Iain made that announcement. We are going to look at alternatives, we know that over the last few years we have appeared at best out of touch and at worst, nasty. I can't predict whether there will be a policy change. It's no secret that I am enthusiastic about looking at the alternatives, but what I would say is the idea that most thinking people would be heartbroken or inconsolable at the thought that our party might change its position on this subject is frankly absurd. HUMPHRYS: Right. Asylum. Here you had again, you, a more tolerant approach, we thought, all sorts of things said by the Shadow Home Secretary. Then we see Iain Duncan Smith going into print in the Daily Mail with some pretty powerful stuff. Indeed, we're told that Mr Cummings to whom we referred earlier, had some fairly strong language to use when he spoke to the leader about that. Bit of a mistake again, wasn't it if, the message you want to deliver is that you are a more caring, tolerant party? I mean, let's not, we haven't got time to discuss the whole asylum issue in general, but for Mr Duncan Smith to have done what he did at that stage was sending the wrong message, wasn't it? BERCOW: No I don't think that's right. It was an extremely measured article that Iain Duncan Smith wrote and it seems to me that what has... HUMPHRYS: ...not one of them is allowed to come here. Not one. Measured? BERCOW: Iain rightly objected to the outrageous behaviour of the French government, its refusal to accept its responsibilities and its determination to dump on Britain. That's the way in which the French have behaved and Iain has rightly objected to that. But what has characterised Iain Duncan Smith's approach and Oliver Letwin's approach as Shadow Home Secretary on the subject of asylum has been judgement, wisdom, decency and restraint. It couldn't have been done better. We've spent most of our time rightly talking about other issues, we have addressed asylum, and we've done so with decency and judgement. HUMPHRYS: John Bercow, many thanks. BERCOW: Thank you very much.
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.