BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 23.06.02

==================================================================================== 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: 23.06.02 ==================================================================================== JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon. The Universities say they're running out of money and the crunch is coming. We'll be reporting on that. The Tories say they want to help the vulnerable. Which vulnerable and how will they help them? I'll be talking to the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary David Willetts. Why is the government getting so upset with the civil service? And that summit in Seville. Britain got nowhere with its asylum proposals... is the European Union simply getting bogged down? That's after the news read by SOPHIE RAWORTH. NEWS HUMPHRYS: Who ARE the vulnerable in society ... and do the Tories really know how to help them? And are the men from the ministry letting down their political masters? I'll also be talking to Menzies Campbell of the Liberal Democrats later about the Seville Summit. But first there is a crisis in education ... higher education. The universities say they simply don't have enough money to educate all the students. It's been getting worse over the years because the number of students has been going up. The government wants half of all young people to be in higher education by 2010. That will cost. As Terry Dignan reports, the vice chancellors are saying that something's gotta give. TERRY DIGNAN: Tony Blair wants these fourteen year olds to aim for higher education. Many are from backgrounds where going to university isn't the norm. So this group have come to London's South Bank University for a taste of college life. But those who run our institutions of higher learning fear the Government is offering them education on the cheap. The Government wants our universities to absorb hundreds of thousands more students and provide them with world class teaching and research facilities. But this could mean a worsening funding crisis for higher education unless the Government foots the bill. The alternative is to ask those who currently pay towards their tuition to dig deeper into their pockets. For Labour that's politically risky. IVOR CREWE: If the university system is to expand more money must be found to persuade poor students to go to university and to get universities to find ways of recruiting them and then keeping them. That additional money has either got to be found from taxes which is politically unpopular or it's got to be raised from better off students and their families, which is also politically unpopular. SIR RICHARD SYKES: We've always prided ourselves on our higher education system. It's certainly been one of the best in the world, but to-day, I believe it's in real jeopardy, and it's in real jeopardy because it is under financed. DIGNAN: The student population under both Labour and Tory governments has grown enormously. It doubled between 1989-90 when there were just over a million - and last year, when there were more than two million students in higher education. Yet spending per student here at South Bank and other universities has been severely cut - down nearly forty per cent over the same period. Although Labour has halted the decline in funding, it is still well below 1980's levels. SIR CREWE: There is a funding crisis in British universities and it really arises from the fact that there's a been a real cut practically every year over the last twenty years in the amount of money that universities get per student. DIGNAN: Tony Blair promises that fifty per cent of eighteen to thirty year olds will be in higher education by 2010 - an extra three hundred and fifty thousand students. But whereas seventy-three per cent of eighteen year olds from professional middle class families go to university, only thirteen per cent from unskilled backgrounds study for a degree. Which means South Bank's Vice Chancellor is spending more on working with inner city schools to encourage pupils there to aspire to higher education. If he can't fill his undergraduate places, the Government takes money away from him. ACTUALITY: "How many of you have never been inside a university before?" DIGNAN: Many of South Bank's students don't have as strong an academic background as those at Oxbridge, for example. Which makes them arguably more expensive to teach. PROFESSOR DEIAN HOPKIN: They don't have the kind of family backgrounds which have books and support. They need a lot more encouragement. And indeed their prospects they often feel themselves are not quite as good as those from more privileged backgrounds. That means that the cost of educating that sector of the population is bound to be greater so you add up numbers and additional costs and you have a serious deficit in funding coming up. ACTUALITY: "This is Perry Library and we have three hundred thousand books." DIGNAN: The agency which distributes Government funds to English universities says students from less well-off areas are thirty per cent more expensive to teach. And it warns that without extra funding, Labour may have to drop its fifty per cent participation target. SIR HOWARD NEWBY: It is very important that we don't sell our students a false prospectus, that we don't attract increasing numbers of students into a system which is of declining quality. I don't believe this government wants that, I certainly don't want that, and so if the resources are not available then I think we, we would have to re-examine the, the targets. ACTUALITY: "Theo's got the steady hand." DIGNAN: The day out includes a team building exercise. But many students are on their own financially. Labour has abandoned maintenance grants and introduced tuition fees. Although the less well off don't pay fees, some argue it's made raising participation levels even harder. Vice chancellors hope a review of student funding will help those most in need. PROFESSOR HOPKIN: When they arrive you have to keep on encouraging them because of course the monumental task of facing new challenges and often very serious financial obligations, you think about this, many of these students are facing student debts greater than their parents earn and that is really a quite considerable obstacle." DIGNAN: Imperial College, London, demands the highest entry standards of its students, many of whom are from better off families. But like South Bank, it's short of cash. Tony Blair wants elite institutions like Imperial to compete with the world's best, especially in science and technology. Fine, they say. We'd love to. But how can we when we don't have anything like the financial muscle of the top American universities. SYKES: We can show very clearly that we're under funded about three thousand pounds per student per year. That means that as a college we're losing about forty million pounds a year on educating students. How can we survive under those circumstances. How can we remain internationally competitive, its impossible." DR IAN GIBSON MP: Many of the talented people have gone elsewhere, they've gone to the States, to Europe and other countries to do their work. And particularly because not only do they want to teach students but they also want to do research and the research funding has not been to the level that's necessary to compete with Japan, Europe and the United States, so it's been very difficult to keep the excellence that we once had. DIGNAN: Imperial College has found the money to research ways of eradicating malaria. But with so many more students, higher education cash is spread thinly. A proposed graduate tax would take years to produce much revenue. Universities say they need the cash now - an extra nine billion to pay for more students, teachers and better facilities. Gordon Brown is promising more for science. But now that students are paying towards their education, he's unlikely to take much away from other priorities. WENDY PIATT: Higher education is probably not a priority. And particularly because the students themselves are able to contribute more there would be a reluctance from the Treasury to inject a lot more money into the system. DIGNAN: The Government could put a lot more money into higher education quite easily with a big increase in tuition fees. Labour politicians, though, Tony Blair included, get very nervous about asking their middle class constituents to cough up more for their children's education. Yet top universities like Imperial want to go even further and set their own fees. SYKES: We would set our fees based on the institution, based on our mission, based on our courses, based on what we offer and the final product, and of course, that means that we'd have to charge full fees. If we did that, we would have to charge full fees only to those who could afford it, then we would have to have hardship funds, scholarships, bursaries, so that those people who were talented, who came in to the college on the basis of, of talent and quality were actually funded then, through the hardship funds. DIGNAN: University funding is being examined closely in Wales and Northern Ireland who want to follow Scotland where contributions towards tuition are made after graduation. But many English universities oppose this. Instead, the most popular, like Imperial, want to levy their own charges. Ministers are now reconsidering their opposition to so called top up fees. PIATT: Should the theology student from Luton pay the same as the law student from Oxford, and the older universities should be charging much higher fees for their courses because they would be able to do so. ACTUALITY; "OK, so now let's look at some examples of one D-data." DIGNAN: There are signs support for top up fees is spreading beyond elite institutions. At the very least, say many vice chancellors, the current flat fee of just over a thousand pounds must be increased if next month's comprehensive spending review doesn't come up with the money they want. These medical students won't welcome the prospect. And neither will Labour MPs. GIBSON: I have had some of the most uncomfortable moments of my political career so far as Norwich North MP in terms of dinner parties and parties and on the street and in the supermarkets where people come up and say; oh thank you very much it's really great the Labour government is asking us to pay a large percentage of our salaries towards having two or three of our young people going into higher education, that's not why we voted Labour. SYKES: I think everybody complains because once something's been free and then you start to charge for it, people complain. There's no logic to it. Twenty five per cent or more of people entering university full time education in this country today, come out of independent schools. That means they're coming from families that have been paying substantial amounts of money for their secondary education. This is a crazy situation, they're now coming in to tertiary education and getting it basically free. DIGNAN: Labour says it has already put more money into universities, especially for science research. But many of those who run our institutions of higher learning are less than impressed. At best, they say, the decline in the quality of higher education has slowed not halted. CREWE: What will happen is that we will have a very cheap mass higher education system in which inevitably the quality of the learning experience for students will gradually deteriorate. It'll then raise the question as to whether it's worth while expanding the system in the first place. SYKES: There's got to be a fundamental break now to make sure that the top universities particularly are being funded for the full economic costs of what they do. And if they're not funded for the full economic costs of what they do, they won't be able to attract the best people from anywhere in the world, they won't be able to remain competitive and if our universities don't remain competitive, particularly in terms of research and scholarship, the country won't remain competitive on an economic basis. DIGNAN: Labour has made schools its priority, not higher education. Yet it has put universities under intense pressure - to recruit more students, especially from poorer backgrounds - and compete on a world stage. But who will pay has still to be decided. HUMPHRYS: Terry Dignan reporting there. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Tony Blair has come back from the European Union Summit in Seville telling anyone who'll listen that Britain got pretty much what it wanted on illegal asylum seekers. That's one view. The other is that we went there with a proposal for some kind of sanctions against countries that refuse to take back their illegal immigrants and it was thrown out. And what WAS decided will be so ineffective we might almost as well have stayed at home. Critics of the European Union say: so what's new? The EU has now reached the stage where it's almost impossible to take firm and speedy action on anything that's remotely controversial. And there are some very big issues coming up - not least the enlargement of the Union from fifteen to twenty-five members by 2004. The Liberal Democrats have always been the most enthusiastic EU party. Their Foreign Affairs Spokesman in Menzies Campbell. Good afternoon Mr Campbell. MENZIES CAMPBELL MP: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: Another lacklustre summit by most standards or by most judgements anyway, is the European Union running out of momentum do you think? CAMPBELL: I don't believe it's running out of momentum and the enlargement that you referred to a moment or two ago is going to ensure that it doesn't, because of course if we get up to twenty-five members then clearly there has to be a very substantial programme of reform in order to ensure that the union continues to operate and that programme of reform is in some senses being carried on outside the Seville Summit by Giscard d'Estaing at the convention which is taking place in Brussels at the moment, designed to produce proposals for what I believe essentially will amount to a constitution for Europe, making clear what are the responsibilities of Brussels, what are the responsibilities of individual Parliaments and more particularly what are the rights of individual European Union citizens. HUMPHRYS: A long way to go on that but I'll come back to that in a moment if I may. Let's just have a look at those asylum proposals that we took to Seville. What was agreed was a fudge by most assessments, not much is going to happen for a very long time. I mean that is a matter of concern to us with our particular problem. CAMPBELL: Well I think the important issue though is the fact that the principle was agreed that the only way in which this can be done is upon a European Union wide basis and although you are right to say that the language was typically opaque, in truth what happened was that the proposal that economic sanctions of some kind should be used against countries that wouldn't co-operate, that proposal was pretty well dumped. There's a proposal as you know today that Clare Short has described as morally repugnant and silly, well that may not win her many friends in the Cabinet but I think it was right for her to make that judgement and I think it was right for France and Sweden to lead the charge against the idea of the imposition of economic sanctions. HUMPHRYS: But the problem is that we do have a serious problem in this country right now with people who will not go back, choose not to go back to the countries from which they came and the countries from which they came won't have them anyway, even if they wanted to. So there is this serious difficulty. What do we do? What should we do about it? CAMPBELL: Well I think you start first of all with a system of enforcement which is much quicker, much more effective, much more efficient than the one we have at the moment. If there are people who are genuinely not entitled to be here, who don't fall within the terms of the United Nations' convention, who aren't part of our moral responsibility, then we should make sure that they go through the process and are returned as quickly as we possibly can. HUMPHRYS: Their countries may not have them back - some of them. CAMPBELL: There's a way...we've also got to deal not just, forgive me, not just with asylum but with the causes of asylum in the sense that many of these countries are very poor countries and that's why the suggestion that we might threaten them by withdrawing aid, seemed to make very little sense, indeed as some said, would be counter productive. We've got to use economic reform, the offer of assistance, incentives, all sorts of things of that kind, so as to do our best to ensure that the economic conditions which provoke people into being economic migrants are so far as possible removed. You have to attack this problem from both ends. HUMPHRYS: So in effect we should bribe countries to take back their own people, who shouldn't have been here in the first place. CAMPBELL: Well I wouldn't put it like that because you have to recognise..... HUMPHRYS: slotted it in. CAMBPELL: Well you have to recognise that in countries like Bosnia and Afghanistan where there was terrible instability it was inevitable that there would be refugees from these countries. Now we have to say to the refugees and to these countries: look stability has been restored, often with the assistance..of the effectiveness of British forces and British political emphasis, now it's time for you to go back and we will assist you in the re-assimilation of these people, so as to ensure that the causes of economic migrancy are so far as possible reduced. I think that's entirely sensible. It's also, if I may say so, in our long term interests to do so. HUMPHRYS: Sure but their response to that is to say thanks but no thanks. The refugees will say, or the asylum seekers will say, we'd sooner stay here and their own country is saying, no we not going to have them back, we'd sooner not. Then what do you do? CAMPBELL; Well, if they're not qualified to stay here they shouldn't be staying here. And that's why I said earlier part of the problem that we currently face is that our procedures for dealing with these matters are far too slow and far too ineffective. That's why we have to be much speedier in the way in which we deal with those who seek asylum here and who are genuinely entitled to do so, and much speedier with those who come here who are not entitled to do so, because they're seeking economic migrancy. May I just make one other point about economic issues. Remember we live in the United Kingdom in an ageing population. Large parts of our economy will lack the sort of supply of labour which will be necessary to keep the kind of economy and the kind of standard that you and I have got used to. That's why I personally believe we should be looking towards a kind of green card scheme which operates with such effectiveness in the United States. Bring people here who have got something to offer. That I think, would do a great deal for us and it would do a great deal for them. HUMPHRYS: Yes, I said I would return to enlargement You say there is a programme of reform being put together at the moment of all sorts, but the trouble is so long as rich and very powerful countries like Germany say, actually we're all in favour of enlargement, however we're not going to spend an extra Euro on it, on the things that would be needed, for instance the CAP would require a huge amount of extra money and would have to be reformed profoundly. They say, we're not prepared to put another penny in, how do we get to enlargement by 2004? CAMPBELL: Well, I think you're right to point to the fact that, that headline goal may be difficult to achieve and it's particularly so because the CAP requires to be reformed and one of the disappointments of this week, I don't know if you noticed, there was essentially, even before Seville, there was a shelving of the urgency, of the need to reform the CAP. I hope that, that will be reversed, because half of the EU budget is spent on agricultural support and if you take a country like Poland, in the first wave of those wishing to join the European Union, the financial advantages to Poland if the CAP is unreformed would simply be unsustainable so far as the contributors are concerned. It would be as if Poland had won the lottery without even having had to buy a ticket. HUMPHRYS: And as far as the Irish are concerned if they throw out the Nice Treaty in their next referendum, which at the moment looks as if they will do, again that's going to cause a massive problem. It simply can't happen then. CAMPBELL: Well, I'm a little more optimistic than you about the Irish Referendum, because as you know at Seville, Ireland was given the, if you like, the declaration of neutrality which was always there in substance, but was exploited by those in Ireland who argued that Irish boys would be made to go and fight for a Brussels army. That's nonsense. HUMPHRYS: Yes, but that's sort of been discounted hasn't it? CAMPBELL: Yes it has. There's been a proper declaration of neutrality and that we hope will get rid of that rather foolish argument. I think we should take the advice of Pat Cox who was the Irish MEP who is the leader of the European Liberal Democrats in the Parliament, who said "Look this is an issue for Ireland itself. Left to its own, Ireland is likely to get it right". And I think we should heed that advice. HUMPHRYS; One final quick thought about Romano Prodi. He wants a government for Europe and he wants a much more streamlined one. And we might have an inner Cabinet in which Britain might not even sit. Would you go along with that? CAMPBELL: Certainly not. Mr Prodi from time to time offers us these versions of how he sees the future. But the truth of the matter is, these are only proposals. It is governments that decide, not Members of the Commission and I think Mr Prodi would perhaps be better employed directing his concern as to how the Commission can be made much more effective, much less sclerotic and can demonstrate in a way that the European Union can be much closer to the people who elect Members of the European Parliament and who are citizens of the countries which are members. Part of the dissociation if you like, between the people of Europe and Europe itself has been because of the nature of the Commission and the way in which it has behaved in the past. HUMPHRYS: Ming Campbell, many thanks. JOHN HUMPHRYS: The Conservatives say they are worried about the vulnerable people in our society. Funny word that.... "vulnerable". Who exactly does it include? The poorest... the oldest... the weakest, yes...? All of them? Others? And what are they going to do to help them? Do they KNOW? Or might this whole thing be an attempt to change the Tory image ... to stop being seen as the "nasty party" so that the middle classes can once again vote for them without any twinge of conscience? I'll be talking to the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, David Willetts after this report from David Grossman. DAVID GROSSMAN: I visited Easterhouse in Glasgow. One of the poorest public housing estates in Europe. Iain Duncan Smith negotiating the soaking litter strewn pavements of Easterhouse was not looking for voters. There aren't too many Tories to be found behind the doors in these streets. Instead he was looking to reposition his party as the champion of the vulnerable. IAIN DUNCAN SMITH: The nation that leaves its vulnerable behind, diminishes its own future. GROSSMAN: So, who are the vulnerable that the Conservatives say they want to help? It seems the party's definition ranges far wider than just including the residents of deprived areas like this one in Glasgow. On The Record's been trawling though recent Conservative press releases, speeches and newspaper articles and we've found that vulnerable can almost include anyone you want it to. There's vulnerable car drivers with too much congestion. There's users of public transport vulnerable to poor service. There's people vulnerable to having asylum seekers moved into their area. There's even businesses vulnerable to too much taxation. So does the commitment to help the vulnerable actually mean anything or is it simply so much empty political rhetoric?. PROFESSOR BOB HOLMAN: If the Conservatives want credibility, vulnerable must mean vulnerable to poverty, to debt, to their children not having adequate nutrition. Only then will they be taken seriously in places like this. GROSSMAN: Deciding on a precise definition of who the vulnerable are is only the beginning of the Conservatives' task. Many say that at present the party only really sees areas like this as being a backdrop for their latest photo opportunity and it won't really be believed that they want to help, until they start explaining exactly how they're going to do it. PROFESSOR HOLMAN: This constituency is the sixth most deprived in Britain. GROSSMAN: Bob Holman is a community worker and academic who lives in Easterhouse. With large number of unemployed, pensioners and single parent families he says, the Conservatives need to back up their caring words with promises of increased benefits and pensions. PROFESSOR HOLMAN: From the Conservative leaders that I've spoken to I think they are sincere, they have got a concern for vulnerable people, but so far they haven't put it into any policy practice. And their statements are very vague, and in a place like Easterhouse where 83 per cent of people receive housing benefit, the big test for them is will they get more money in their pockets? Will Income Support rates go up so that they can have a decent lifestyle. It's going to be tested by money. GROSSMAN: As well as increasing benefits the Tories also need to help the working poor if they're really serious about no longer being seen as the party that drives past places like Easterhouse, with windows rolled up and nothing to say. And helping the low paid it's argued, means not only reaffirming the party's support for the minimum wage - so far only grudgingly accepted - but also actively pressing for an increase in it. PROFESSOR HOLMAN: There are more jobs in Easterhouse, but they're what people call "grotty jobs" that is they're temporary, they're meaningless and they're on the minimum wage. The minimum wage is �4.10 an hour and that's far too low for a decent lifestyle. Now the real test for the Tories is this - if they want to help vulnerable people they've got to raise the minimum wage quite substantially. GROSSMAN: Iain Duncan Smith undoubtedly earned some respect in Easterhouse for coming at all and speaking to a public meeting in a local church. But the message on the vulnerable needs pinning down and fleshing out if the commitment is to be believed and the Tory leader's prayer is to be answered. HUMPHRYS: David Grossman reporting there. JOHN HUMPHRYS: David Willetts, when your leader, Iain Duncan Smith, says that you will help 'the vulnerable' who does he mean by 'the vulnerable'. Who's included in that? DAVID WILLETTS: We mean people who live in our most deprived communities, where public services simply aren't delivering what they need. We mean people, who when faced with the sort of shocks that we could all face, of bereavement, or sickness, or crime, because they don't have the network of social contacts and perhaps also the financial resources they're more hard hit by them, and we mean people who are just not getting a good enough deal from public services that should be at their service, but instead feel that they are on the end of a bureaucracy that isn't taking account of their interests. HUMPHRYS: So you ought probably in that case to stop talking as you've been doing, collectively I mean, about drivers being vulnerable to congestion, constituents being vulnerable to asylum seekers in their midst, businessmen being vulnerable to taxes for heaven's sake. The suspicion is that you are broadening the agenda as it were, so as to make it, this use of the word vulnerable, effectively meaningless. WILLETTS: Well in a sense, we are all vulnerable when government policies don't work. But yes, we need to focus on this, on particular groups of people who are part of society, to whom we all have obligations, and who are clearly not able fully to participate in the sorts of quality of life that you and I take for granted. That's what we talk about when we say we want to help vulnerable people. HUMPHRYS: But when people like you talk, as you talked about the end of Thatcherism, in the sense that, that this is no longer the time for Thatcherism, you've always said it was fine for its time but now we have to move on from that. Even though you have theoretically moved on from that, your position is still, New Labour position as well for that matter, a hand-up and not a hand-out. WILLETTS: Yeah, I don't want to see people trapped on welfare dependency and in all the visits I have paid in the council estate in Birmingham, going through twenty-four hours London, seeing London through the night, in Kent, looking at their Social Services project, no person that I've spoken to has ever said, the solution for our problems is more means-tested benefits. And that I'm afraid, is the way in which the direction of social security spending is going under this government. So we've got to break free of that sort of old way of thinking and look at better ways of helping people most in need. HUMPHRYS: But helping people, you usually add on to that, helping people to help themselves and that's the essence of this argument isn't it? Do you accept that there are some people who cannot do any more than they are doing to help themselves and therefore who need more help from the state to improve their lot? WILLETTS: I accept that this is not, just sort of 'pull your socks up, you can do better on your own without any help'. We've moved beyond that. These are people who are facing quite appalling adversity and just telling them 'pull your socks up' simply won't do and governments do have an obligation to design better public policies. I mean let me give you an example, Gordon Brown said at the time of the last election that one point two million children had been lifted out of poverty. We now know that wasn't the case. In fact, at best it was half a million and that was probably just caused by improving economic circumstances. The problem is that he's got such a complicated benefits system that families aren't getting the benefits to which they are currently entitled. And I know that Bob Holman for whom I have great respect... HUMPHRYS: ...we heard him in that film. WILLETTS: Yes exactly, and he makes some very powerful points but he, I know, would recognise that designing ever more complicated systems which is what has happened in the past few years, which aren't then taken up by people, doesn't help them at all, we need something much more simple and direct and workmanlike. HUMPHRYS: Ah well indeed. And the simple and direct solution that Bob Holman had was that you, the state that is, give more money to many of these people who can't help themselves, put more money into their pockets. Are you saying that a future Conservative government would give more state aid directly to these people. Put aside all the helping themselves and... WILLETTS: ...I certainly hope that we would operate a better and more effective benefits system and that's what, in my role... HUMPHRYS: ...not quite what I'm asking you though is it. The better benefit system might be simply a more efficient benefit system. I'm asking you whether you would give them more money? Just as simple as that. WILLETTS: Let me give you a practical example John. We had a Bill before the House of Commons earlier this year, in which the Labour Government wanted to spread means testing to yet more pensioners. And I've worked with Frank Field the former Labour Minister and with the Liberal Democrats and we said, pensioners don't want even more means testing, this would have taken over fifty per cent of pensioners into means tested benefits. We said, let's try a different approach and we proposed jointly that instead the money should go in a higher rate of pension for older pensioners because older pensioners tend to be the poor ones. That I believe would have been a better way than the one that the government brought through into law. So it's not just the matter of the total, it's also a matter of how you design it. And also, we mustn't forget, that alongside the state, there is society, and one of the things that comes across very strongly when you visit these deprived areas, is some of the best and most effective projects are done by volunteers in the charitable sector. HUMPHRYS: Sure, but to go back to that pensions thing, in other words what you're saying is, take some of the universal benefits that might benefit people who are reasonably well, well-off pensioners who are reasonably well-off, and give it to those people, directly to those people, increase the pension, the state pension of those people who are the worst off, and you'd be very happy to do that. WILLETTS: That was a proposal that, together with Frank Field and the Liberal Democrats we put forward as an alternative to Labour's means testing, more means tested benefits for pensioners, and it's an example of what we're trying to do. We're trying to work out ways in which given that of course governments do have responsibility. better ways of discharging that responsibility. Let me give you another example... HUMPHRYS: ...just before you give me another example, just finish dealing with that one, if that meant that extra money needed to be put into the pot to help those most vulnerable people, extra in addition to that which you have as it were redistributed from the better off, more taxpayers' money, you'd say if that's what they need, sobeit, we would do that. WILLETTS: Well we've already made clear that when it comes to public services as a whole and I'm not now just thinking of benefits, when it's talking about public services as a whole, reform of public services will take priority for the next government, over the next Conservative Government, over the question of tax cuts. I mean we obviously hope in the long term to be able to bring down the burden of taxation, but Michael Howard the Shadow Chancellor, has made it clear that what he wants to do, above all, is to reform the public services and that'll be the priority. Now within that, on benefits, I want to have a better benefits system that doesn't trap people in dependency, 'cos all too often this benefit expenditure that Labour ministers boast about, has become part of the problem, not part of the solution. HUMPHRYS: You mentioned child poverty earlier and this government has made a great deal on its targets to halve child poverty I think it is by 2010 and then eliminate it altogether by 2020. Do you sign up to those targets as a party? WILLETTS: I certainly want to see child poverty reduced. I think the trouble with the definition... HUMPHRYS: would... WILLETTS: ...yeah, but the trouble with this definition is when Labour says that, they must have a very narrow financial definition of poverty. They're thinking that by designing complicated benefits structures in the offices of the Treasury, on Ed Balls' computer they can announce they've eliminated child poverty. Are they saying that children are not going to see crack needles in the alleyways outside their estate? Are they saying that people are not going to still be suffering from mental illness? Are they saying that families are still not going to be under pressure? HUMPHRYS: ...they're saying those families are going to be so much better off that the kids won't be poor, that's effectively what they're saying. WILLETTS: And my view is that anybody, and Bob Holman certainly believes that, you've got to have a much more, much more complicated and much more sophisticated understanding of poverty, and in these deprived areas, there are lots of charities that understand that poverty is not simply a financial matter, and one of the other matters, one of the other things we're trying to do, and this is another practical example of what we're learning, as we address these important problems, they all say they spend all their time bidding for penny-packets of money under a whole host of different government schemes, each initiative launched by a different ministry in order to get forty-eight hours headlines and in some of these deprived areas, the people who are there trying to help, are now spending all their time bidding for money under twenty or thirty different grant schemes, we're looking at a much simpler and more direct way of helping those communities so their energies are not absorbed in dealing with intricate schemes, each one of which may be very well intentioned, but their overall impact is to divert an appalling amount of energy away from the real help that people need. HUMPHRYS: But to go back to poor children, the most direct and obvious way to help them is to make sure that their family has more money. What you were describing, the needles in the gutters and all that sort of thing is social depravation and of course, that is something that every party will work towards eliminating. But what I was asking you was whether you sign up to the notion that you eliminate child poverty in the sense that you simply give the families more money? Bob Holman says more money in their pockets. WILLETTS: Well I want to see families with better incomes, with higher incomes, yes. I want to have a more effective benefit system. Again, let me give you another practical example. Gordon Brown is very proud of his family tax credits, but we've established that for the Working Family Tax Credit, for some groups the take-up rate is a low as fifty per cent. And there's another complicated set of changes due next year. And what I want to see, is a reliable system that works, rather than ever more ambitious and complicated changes, each one pronounced as being a contribution towards ending child poverty, but so complicated that everybody in the local Citizens Advice Bureau and all the people like Bob Holman who want to be helping the local community, spend their time helping them fill in complicated claims forms. There are better ways of helping children and families in poverty than that, and that... HUMPHRYS: ...I'm sorry, I was going to say if I can ...... move on to pensions, hugely important at the moment, always important but particularly so at the moment, and a very simple question really, do you still believe that, do you believe, we'll leave the 'still' out, that the state benefit should be increased, state pension should be increased? WILLETTS: I certainly believe that we've obviously got a statutory commitment to rise in line prices and as I mentioned earlier John, we had quite an imaginative proposal for helping the older pensioners who tend to be the poorest... HUMPHRYS: ...that is to roll in all the benefits, all the different sorts of ... WILLETTS: what I was thinking of is a more recent debate we had on these means tested benefits when we proposed a higher rate for older pensioners. But what we want, we agree with the government, the government's objective, they say, is that instead of forty per cent of pensioners' incomes coming from the state... coming from the... HUMPHRYS: ...private sector. WILLETTS: ...private sector and sixty per cent from the state, they want to reverse that, and they want to see sixty per cent of their incomes coming from the private saving and forty per cent from the state. We completely agree with that objective and our criticism of the government is that everything they have done in the past few years has taken us further away from that objective, and in particular, Gordon Brown's five billion pound a year tax on the pension funds has been one of the main causes of the crisis in occupational pensions... HUMPHRYS: you rescind that? Do you rescind that, put it back? WILLETTS: ...well, I mean I wish we could, the trouble is the money is already being spent. We'll have to look at how we can encourage people to save and we've already announced some practical proposals. We want to see less red tape and regulation on occupational pensions, we've proposed a bold reform of annuities so that people aren't obliged to buy them at the age of seventy-five. We've proposed reforms to the way this new accountancy standard is imposing burdens on business, and on Thursday, Iain Duncan Smith and I are convening a Pensions Summit of fifteen major organisations involved in pensions, TUC, CBI, National Association of Pension Funds, Age Concern. We're coming together in the most broad meeting on the subject of this pensions crisis since it began, to hear practical proposals from our guests about how they would like to see us tackling it. HUMPHRYS: And one of the things that you want to do as I understand it, is change the way the state pension is funded. At the moment, it isn't funded in a sense, because you and I pay for our parents pensions, assuming you're not of pensionable age, I'm not quite yet. The difference you would like to see is that pensions would be funded out of present income that, maybe as investment of the stock market or whatever, big, big change. I mean, in the early stages of that it would mean effectively us paying twice, wouldn't it? WILLETTS: Well we want to see people with more funded pension savings. How we achieve that is something that we are going to listen and learn about at events like the meeting on Thursday. HUMPHRYS: ...immensely difficult because we've still got to fund our parents' pensions. WILLETTS: It is difficult and of course the problem is that it gets ever more difficult as we go backwards. One of the problems we've had is that the government has been quoting figures that sadly are not accurate. They say that we are saving billions of pounds a year, the figures show that we are twenty-seven billion pounds a year short of the amount of income that we need to be saving in order to generate a prosperous retirement. We are heading for more welfare dependency amongst pensioners, I want to see pensioners enjoying a prosperous retirement. HUMPHRYS: And what would you do today, and I'm not talking about what you would do in five years, what do you think the government should do now to heal the crisis, to prevent the crisis in occupational pension schemes, we are seeing Final Salary schemes disappearing and a lot of people facing poverty in their old age, that they had paid not to have. WILLETTS: Yes and I think a lot of people have been very shocked by the closure of Final Salary Pension Schemes. As I said I think we need to reform the accountancy standard, we need to reform annuity law and we need bold measures to cut back on the burden of red tape and regulation on pension schemes, because of course pensions are a good example of the wider point. People don't want to be dependent on benefits in their old age, they want to have provision for themselves as part of a society which cares for their pensioners, they don't just want more means tested benefits. HUMPHRYS: David Willetts, many thanks. WILLETTS: Thank you John. HUMPHRYS: There's always been a certain amount of tension between government ministers who decide on policies and the civil servants who have to carry them out. Creative tension, if you like. But if reports coming out of Whitehall these days are to be believed, it's a lot worse than that. The government is increasingly frustrated because it thinks the civil service simply isn't geared up to deliver the goods. It wants fundamental changes. The new Cabinet Secretary (the most senior civil servant of them all) will be setting out his ideas this week. As Paul Wilenius reports, the men from the ministries remain to be convinced. PAUL WILENIUS: An atmosphere of anxiety surrounds Tony Blair's plans to modernise Britain's public services. So far they're long on ambition, but short on delivery. Despite the elegant policy papers drawn up by his civil servants, there's still delay seeing action in the real world, outside Whitehall. It's making Number Ten nervous about fulfilling its election promises. Worried about dark plots and conspiracies. The behind-the-scenes battles between Labour Party special advisors and civil servants in Stephen Byers transport department exploded into the open recently. Tony Blair's critics say this showed he's obsessed with spin and controlling the government machine. Yet there are wider concerns that it reveals a growing tension between the governing party and the civil service, which could hold back desperately needed public service reform. SIR RICHARD PACKER: One of the problems is that the present administration when they first came in, immediately suggested that they were going to improve the delivery of policies, radically. That was a very large claim - I don't think it was well thought through, and so far it hasn't happened. JACK CUNNINGHAM MP: If ministers are in office and don't know how to take forward, to manage their departmental responsibilities and commitments, that's not the fault of the civil service. That's the fault of the ministers themselves and, and frankly, if people come in to government with no experience of ever managing anything, then we're bound to get some people who think well the world's against me 'cos I'm not doing this or not performing very well when basically it's their own fault or their own inadequacies. WILENIUS: In the beginning in nineteen-ninety-seven, there was euphoria, especially for a victorious Tony Blair. But in the last election campaign he was rebuked publicly, for something he knew privately. UNNAMED WOMAN: "You haven't done anything to help anybody." WILENIUS: He was visibly shocked, and knows things must really get better or he may face much worse next time. On health, education, law and order and other key issues he has to start delivering. But the government fears the civil service may not be up to the job. TIM ALLEN: You've got to remember that when the Labour party took over in ninety-seven, there was a great feeling that there had been drift, there had been lack of co-ordination from the centre, ministers saying whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted, no central organisation of, of, government policies, and so it was, that was part of our criticism of the Major government. That was out in the open as a criticism of, of the way things had been run and it was one of the objectives of the Labour government, was to put that right. PACKER: It is true they've shaken up departments and there's a lot more power in the centre, in one respect, I hasten to add, only in one respect it did remind me of the Third Reich where there was overlapping, overlapping responsibilities and nobody quite knew where ultimate responsibility lay, departments are responsible, there's groups at the centre with the prime ministers' ear and I rather think that from those out on the periphery, it seems as though, if something goes wrong, departmental responsibility is clear, but if something goes right, they read in the newspaper that it was all the Prime Minister's idea. WILENIUS: For Tony Blair and his communications chief Alastair Campbell, centralised control of the government's policies and media message was an obsession. Indeed, there was a feeling that the civil service was just not as good as the slick hi-tech Labour operation. Although key civil servants were moved, retired or sacked, there is still irritation that things move far too slowly. ALLEN: Any prime minister sitting in Number Ten, one of their constant frustrations is, is what they decide to be the policy of the day and what they want to implement often gets changed or stalled as it goes through the chain of Whitehall and, and actually gets implemented on the ground and that is a constant frustration, I'm sure this administration feels it just like others have felt. LORD ROBIN BUTLER: I think if you look at the history of the civil service, you look at it earlier in the century, the civil service was notable, the British civil service was very good at making changes; if you think of the setting up of the welfare state, the national health service, the national insurance system, these were all achievements of the civil service and I believe that, I think it would be astonishing if the civil service was now less good at doing those things than it used to be in the past. WILENIUS: But Labour wasn't convinced. They doubled the numbers of special advisors to eighty and gave these political shock troops unprecedented powers to control Whitehall. They're civil servants, but also political appointees. Yet the public's been shocked by the revelation of the extent of their political partisanship, revealed by the infamous Jo Moore e-mail, and the action of fellow advisor Dan Corry in checking the political background of the Paddington rail crash survivors. Former colleagues insist such behaviour is normal. JOHN McTIERNAN: I think it's very hard to talk dispassionately about the Dan Corry e-mails. I think that everybody who works for a Minister, civil servant or special advisor has a duty to ensure that their minister is fully briefed when they go into a meeting with anybody, whether it's an international delegation or it's a delegation from a local community, in this case a delegation from Paddington Rail Survivors Group. JO GIBBONS: I think that what Dan did was something that special advisers have been doing for years and I'm not just talking about under the current regime I'm talking about under previous regimes - it is quite legitimate to try and establish if there are points of opposition to the government to why those, why those are occurring and it is quite legitimate. ALLEN: Anybody involved in politics when attacked, wants to find out about who the attackers are. I don't think that's particularly new or particularly dangerous. I think, the only new thing is that nowadays you do it through email, and email gets found out. WILENIUS: However, Sir Humphrey is coming out of the shadows to fight back, and there are calls to strip these advisors of their civil service status. LORD BUTLER: Now the time has come really for political special advisors, rather than being treated as temporary civil servants to be treated as employees of political parties who are in government. At the moment the Opposition is given money by, from the public purse to employ their researchers. Now I think that to work for political special advisors the same thing ought to happen in government. There should be money that comes out of taxation, which the government in power, the party in power can use to employ people who are political special advisors, and that that shouldn't, they shouldn't be treated in the same way as civil servants. WILENIUS: Labour gave Number Ten press boss Alastair Campbell and Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell new powers over Britain's bureaucrats. Powers which are also questioned. TIM COLLINS MP: We would not only strip Alastair Campbell of his powers, we'd make it unlawful for anybody to have those powers. It cannot be right for an independent neutral civil service that's supposed to be able to work for any government at any political colour to be under the command of party political hacks, like Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. That is a corrupting process, it should be reversed, and it should be made illegal. WILENIUS: And the traditional impartiality of Whitehall is under threat from another development, according to the former head of the civil service. LORD BUTLER: One aspect that does worry me, is that there have been recently, some people who have got political affiliations who've been appointed to civil service posts. And clearly there is a danger in that because an in-coming government of a different party, may not be so happy about employing those people. WILENIUS: The prospect of even more expert or special advisors coming in to the government from outside, which will be proposed this week, is worrying another former top civil servant. PACKER: The suggestion that yet more advisors might be brought in smacks to me of desperation. We've tried the medicine at one dose, now we're going to multiply the dose by several times and hope that it works. COLLINS: They have to be limited in terms of their numbers, Labour have doubled their numbers. We think they should be cut by at least twenty-five per cent and they should be limited in terms of their powers. They should not have the right to order around career civil servants. WILENIUS: In Parliament, senior MPs are trying to learn more general lessons from the Stephen Byers debacle. The chairman of a Commons Select Committee wants a bill to sort out the problems between civil servants and special advisors. TONY WRIGHT MP: There are some areas which are still areas of potentially difficulty, which need to be identified and, and sorted, and I think as I say, the broad framework of all this now needs to be put on a statutory footing. Not that you would do, not that it would try and cover every detail, that would be silly. But I think the broad, the broad framework has to be set down in law, so as I say we know who these people are, we know what jobs they're supposed to do, and we know what happens if things go wrong. I'm not sure it will be in this Queen's speech. I want it in if not this one, the next one. What I do want is some progress towards getting a civil service bill so that we can give some constitutional protection to the civil service for the first time. That's what the government said it wants to do and I think that will be a very important thing. WILENIUS: But the new Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull is set to unveil modernisation proposals this week which will have the opposite effect. His priority is to open up the civil service to more outsiders, rather than rushing to introduce a civil service bill. ALLEN: I'm not quite what a bill would set out to achieve. There is a very clear distinction between the political role of special advisors and the civil servants, so I'm not sure what problem it would aim to solve. It shouldn't be the civil service's role to somehow take that upon themselves and to tell ministers what they can and can't do. And to tell special advisors that, that although they represent the party that has won an election they, they can and can't do certain things. CUNNINGHAM: I think there is a risk that legislation could make things worse, that obviously depends on the quality of the legislation and the foresight of the people who are designing it. And I think great care needs to be taken to ensure that if there is such a bill and such legislation, it is put on the statute book, that it is pragmatic in how civil servants and ministers would operate in the future. WILENIUS: The real fear permeating the corridors of Whitehall, is that if there isn't a bill, it could spell the destruction of the civil service as we have known it for the last hundred years. LORD BUTLER: There always is a danger of politicisation in the civil service and I'll tell you how it can happen. If an incoming government decided that for example, it was going to appoint permanent secretaries from people who were affiliated to its own party, the next time a government of a different party came in, they would of course not be happy to continue with those people, and they'd want to make a change. Now this has happened to some extent in Australia and it only has to happen once, and that's the end of a permanent civil service. And I'd be very sad to see that, because I think that the permanent non-political civil service has been a great asset to the quality of government in Britain. WILENIUS: The biggest problem for Tony Blair is that he needs the special advisors and civil servants working in Whitehall's backrooms more than ever before. They're vital to help deliver better hospitals, schools, and transport before the next election. However, there are worries this goal could be put in jeopardy by damaging battles with the media and civil service. PACKER: They have given the impression of over regarding presentation, that over regard has now caught up with them, they're finding it rather difficult I would say to give up the over emphasis but real events, real progress are what ultimately governments are judged on, as we have seen, you can fool some of the people all the time, but not for, you can't fool everybody all the time. CUNNINGHAM: When I went to the cabinet office in that new role the prime minister created, I found on my desk a red button in a box, and I asked what it was, and they said 'oh it's a panic button minister' and I said 'well you'd better take it away because part of my job is to tell people not to panic' and I think there's a very important lesson there. You know prime ministers choose people carefully to be in their governments, and they don't choose people expecting them to lash out and blame others or to allege conspiracies in the civil service where none exist or to get into a kind of siege mentality about the media. WILENIUS: Civil servants are hoping this is the kind of advice Tony Blair will be listening to. Otherwise they fear a further deterioration in their relationship between them and the government. They say that's not what they want, instead of being thought of as enemies they want to be regarded as allies, allies who could be vital in the future. HUMPHRYS: Paul Wilenius reporting there. That's it for this week.... and, indeed, for the rest of this summer. Football next week. But we'll be back in September to preview the Party conferences... whoever wins the World Cup. See you then - have a good summer, 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.