BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 01.12.02

Interview: JACK McCONNELL, First Minister of the Scottish Parliament.

Explains his attitude to public services in Scotland and reveals that the Scottish Labour Party will be pledging not to use the Parliament's tax raising powers after the next Scottish parliamentary elections in May.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: And we'll also be talking to the First Ministers of Wales, Northern Ireland ... and, first, Scotland. Elections take place in the Spring to elect new Governments for all three nations. In Scotland, the First Minister, Jack McConnell, has been in place for just a year. He's the third in only three years. When he took over he was seen by New Labour as THEIR man... a convert to the cause, if you like. But a year on, it's beginning to look as though perhaps they were mistaken. It turns out that HIS idea of how to improve the public services is not exactly in line with Tony Blair's. So, is Mr McConnell forging a uniquely Scottish ideology for Labour north of the border? Well, he happens to be south of the border today and he's with me. Good afternoon. JACK McCONNELL: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon and welcome. Now, let's look at some of the things that you've been doing. You've abolished tuition fees, you have rejected specialist schools and foundation hospitals, you have introduced free long-term care for old people, much more money for teachers. Is this all about buying off the opposition, or is it your uniquely distinctly Scottish vision of what you should be about? McCONNELL: It's certainly not about buying off opposition, it's about making sure that reforms in Scottish public services are the right reforms for Scotland and go with the grain of the Scottish system. We have a very different education system in Scotland to that south of the border, we have a different structure for health and we have a different criminal justice system too, and we need to have reforms in Scotland that are right for Scotland and make an impact where they are required in our communities. HUMPHRYS: And if they are very very different from New Labour as indeed they are, the way you execute these things... McCONNELL: Mmm (agrees). HUMPHRYS: Then so be it. It's not just pragmatic differences, it is a distinct philosophy. McCONNELL: Well, it's not so much a distinct philosophy as the right thing for Scotland. It's about making sure that we implement reforms in Scotland that can have an impact in Scotland, and are not just copied from somewhere else. The whole nature of devolution is about making sure that the reforms in Scotland will make a difference in Scotland and go with the grain of the Scottish system. HUMPHRYS. Mmm, but...and if you're doing things in a very very different way from Westminster, therefore from New Labour in Westminster, that is, then so be it, it is different. McCONNELL: Mmm (agrees). HUMPHRYS: Let me give you a couple of illustrations of where I am trying to take this. The fire strike at the moment...the fire-fighters' strike...the English Government tells...the Government in Westminster I should say specifically... McCONNELL: (Laughs) HUMPHRYS: Tells the fire-fighters "reform or you do not get any more money" that is consistent right across the administration. Rather different in your own administration in Scotland, isn't it? We've had one of your ministers resigning after he had talked about "Fascist bastards in the fire-fighters' Union", we have had another one refusing to endorse the Scottish executives' motion of this "being an unacceptable strike". It tends to suggest more sympathy with fire-fighters in Scotland than there is down here. McCONNELL: I'm not so sure that some of that language that was used last weekend or at least is alleged to have been used shows any sympathy, but I think that we need to be very clear about this. In the fire-fighters' dispute, the support of the devolved Government in Scotland...for the position nationally where any additional resources have to be backed by reform is absolute and Cabinet Ministers in Scotland are united about that. Where we have implemented reforms in Scotland, we have linked additional money directly with reform, and I'll give you an example in relation to the education... HUMPHRYS: Can I pick that one up in just a moment, I'll just come to that in just a second...stay with the fire-fighters for the moment. What I'm suggesting to you is that your approach might be a little more conciliatory than we have seen thus far in London. McCONNELL: No, I think we have been careful because we are not directly involved in the negotiations in the fire dispute nationally. We have been careful to not only support the position, but also to not inflame the situation and to manage what is a very dangerous situation in Scotland as it is elsewhere, where the Army and the other forces are trying to ensure that night after night then people are not put in danger, so our priority in Scotland has been to make sure that that is in place and that is happening properly, rather than to say or do anything that might inflame the dispute one way or another. HUMPHRYS: I fully understand that, but when you deal with the unions you do tend to have a more emollient approach. I mean, when you had this Government here has a huge difference over PFIs with the Union, your approach to that was to do a deal over PFIs with unions in Scotland. McCONNELL: No, actually there's been an agreement nationally as well as in Scotland. They have two different agreements and... HUMPHRYS: Yours much more to the liking of the unions I should think. McCONNELL: I wouldn't necessarily bet on that, and the programme of public/private partnerships PFI Schemes in Scotland is more extensive than it is in any Whitehall department, so we're going ahead with a radical reform of the physical infrastructure of public services in Scotland and we have been able to win support for that, so the fact that there is not a controversy and a row around this all the time doesn't mean to say the reforms aren't taking place...I hope... HUMPHRYS: You're being emollient. McCONNELL: Well, no, I think it means that we're communicating, we're winning support, we're making sure that people are on board for what we're trying to do... HUMPHRYS: You're not picking a fight then, let me put it like that? You're not picking a fight? McCONNELL: Well, I don't think it's necessarily the case that picking a fight is the best way to reform public services. I think that in a country the size of Scotland, which has, for example, got a larger...a smaller population than some of the health authorities in England...that we can actually pull people of the great benefits of devolution is in pulling people together and making sure that reforms are meaningful and happen immediately and I mentioned education a minute ago, I think that that was the case in education. We have radical restructures of the teaching profession in Scotland in a way that was done with the support of Scottish teachers, now that is a far better than a legislature and it is making a difference in Scottish schools. HUMPHRYS: I'll offer you some reasons for that in just one second, but you would avoid as far as fire-fighters' strike is concerned, for instance, you would avoid using expressions such as "wreckers" which has been used in Westminster. McCONNELL: There's been language used on all sides here, in Scotland and in England, you know which I think has occasionally...we've got there a situation where people are getting themselves into corners. I think what is important in the fire dispute is that we get people back round the negotiating table, we get a settlement to this, but that any additional investment is linked to reform and there can be no doubt about that whatsoever. HUMPRHYS: Right. You mentioned the teachers a couple of times, let's have a look at that. And yes, indeed, the teachers liked the deal and I'm not surprised they liked the deal when you look at what they got - twenty three per cent more in cash and they were promised various things - I'll read out a couple of them by 2006, they will be working no more than twenty two and a half hours a week in their classrooms, a thirty five hour week, no increase in days' worked over the one ninety five and so on. All sorts of reforms to their working practice - they won't even have to do any photocopying, I understand, so it's hardly surprising that they liked it is it, and if that isn't emollient, then heaven knows that is. McCONNELL: Well, I've watched your programme over the past eighteen months regularly discuss this topic and I think, if I can say so, mis-represent the deal that was reached. HUMPHRYS: So that's wrong then? McCONNELL: Well, the teachers' deal in Scotland, for example, increased the working hours, the contractual working hours of teachers in Scotland by twenty per cent for each working week. HUMPHRYS: In the classroom, no more than twenty two and a half hours? McCONNELL: It's the contractual working hours in Scotland by twenty per cent in teachers' working week. It ensures that we can now reward the best teachers in Scotland with a higher salary than those in the main and that we have...after eighty five years in Scotland when it was impossible to sack a teacher...we are now able to move people who are not fit for the job out of the classroom, and it's also ensured that teachers now in Scotland have to go through compulsory professional development and training each year and additional days are added to the working year as a result of that, now all of that was worth buying, and we did that... HUMPHRYS: Well, it depends on the price... McCONNELL: Well we did that only by taking the teachers' salaries in Scotland up to the level they were in England in the first place anyway, so we've done that, we bought reform with investment, but we've also made sure those reforms will improve standards in the classroom, I think that was a good thing to do, we did it by consent, we won an agreement and I think you see the benefits in Scottish classrooms. HUMPHRYS: Indeed you did do it by consent and as I say I'm not surprised because it looks to be the kind of deal that the firemen here for comparisons..of course you can't make direct comparisons but nonetheless the sort of thing that anybody would leap at. I mean twenty-two and a half hours a week in the classroom, not bad. McCONNELL: Well I don't see the firemen volunteering for an extra twenty per cent on the working week or some additional days training each year.... HUMPHRYS: ..depends what's involved in that working week. McCONNELL: ...from their holiday time or disciplinary procedures that make it easier for them to be dismissed, or rewards for those who are carrying out the best work and all those were a key part of that deal in Scotland and that deal is making a difference to standards in Scottish classrooms. HUMPHRYS: The point I'm really making here, the broad point is that your approach, your approach - put aside the outcome for the moment - but your approach is different. There seems to be, at Westminster, there seems to be quite a deal of enthusiasm for all sorts of reasons that one can understand, some of which one can understand, some of which are probably based political reasons to have a go at the unions, to say look, to the public at large, we are separate from these people and fully understand that. You seem not to be doing that in Scotland, more old Labour than new Labour in that sense. McCONNELL: I don't agree with that and I think when we need to we will. But what's best for Scotland and what's best for Scottish public services and for the opportunities that exist in Scotland today is to make sure that we can implement reforms in a way that makes a difference right now, rather than simply try and do it in a way that causes controversy just to perhaps appeal to those who would rather write headlines. HUMPHRYS: Alright, let's look at another difference then if you like and that is over tuition fees. Now a very clear difference here, there's talk of top-up fees, the government here appears to want top-up fees, you've abolished even the basic tuition fee and students will have to pay for it after they graduate. A lot of people say very sensible, whether it is sensible or not, it is very different from what's happening down here isn't it. McCONNELL: Well one...I've watched Charles Clarke on this programme over the past fortnight and he said one of the options that he's looking at is the graduate tax and therefore you know perhaps looking at some of the lessons from the Scottish changes. We need to again, I think, be able to implement reforms that are appropriate to our own circumstances. The Scottish university system is an excellent world class university system, we have fifty per cent of our students in Scotland...of our young people in Scotland going into further or higher education. That's the target in England, which I think the figure is currently thirty-five per cent. So there is a need to do something radical in the English system and the Scottish system I think what we need to do is to make sure that the resources we have there are used best and we have..we promote the excellence in our universities, that has got us a reputation all over the world that we want to preserve. HUMPHRYS: You were able to go - and your party was able to go into the last Election - saying that there will be no tax increases during the lifetime of this Parliament, you won't be able to do that again this time will you, bearing in mind some of the things you've had to do, or have chosen to do, such as for instance, long-term care, free long- term care, you won't be able to say no tax increase will you? McCONNELL: Well we will say no tax increases and we will also, I think, use the opportunity that comes through devolution to make best use of the budgets in Scotland. I think the scale that we operate on in Scotland, a country of five million people, a budget of twenty billion pounds, a new parliament and a ministerial team that are committed to getting best value for that, we can use that scale in Scotland to actually make more of a difference with the money and I think that will be one of the long-term benefits of devolution and one of the drivers for English regional devolution where people see the operating at a more local level can make a difference. HUMPHRYS: Just a very quick thought, which may or may not drive a great wedge between you and your colleagues down here and that's St. Andrew's Day, it was St. Andrew's Day yesterday, some people are saying there ought to be a national holiday in Scotland and I notice the Parliament took a day off on Friday, so what about it, national holiday for St. Andrew's Day in future? McCONNELL: Well, I think we should celebrate St. Andrew's Day in Scotland but I'm more interested in celebrating Scotland all over the world on St. Andrew's Day. HUMPHRYS: But no public holiday, no national holiday? McCONNELL: One of the interesting things that happened this weekend, was for the first time ever the Foreign Office and the new devolved government in Scotland worked together to get the British Embassies all over the world to celebrate St. Andrew's Day more than they'd ever done before.... HUMPHRYS: You're not answering my question - holiday or not? McCONNELL: I'm.....I think a holiday is the wrong way to go... HUMPHRYS: Oh, you do... McCONNELL: ...I think we need to celebrate Scotland all over the world on St. Andrew's Day, we are doing that and we are doing it in partnership with our colleagues in London and that's the real benefit of devolution. HUMPHRYS: Jack McConnell thanks very much indeed for joining us this morning. McCONNELL: Thank you.
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.