TUESDAY 16 JULY 2002
Mr Alan Williams, in the Chair
MR TONY BLAIR, a Member of the House, Prime Minister, examined.
(Mr Blair) Thank you, Mr Chairman. Thank you and all your colleagues for giving me the opportunity to appear before you today. As you rightly said a moment or two ago, it has been the custom and practice over many years of Prime Ministers to refuse to come before select committees, and I am happy to reverse that practice today - at least I am at this stage! I would only say, I think it is a practice, as you indicated a moment or two ago, that is going to continue. Indeed, I think we have already roughly set the date for our next meeting in January, so there is no going back on that now. I think it is a very good idea to do this because, as all of us know, politics comes under a great deal of attack; it is under relentless 24 hour media gaze; and I think a session like this can help to show to the public, and to the media, that all of us in Parliament are trying to do our best to struggle with the issues that concern our constituents. Whatever political perspective we come from, that is our main reason for being here. Today there is often so much focus on the issues of process and personality I think we all feel there is sometimes a danger that is what people feel, that we as politicians always do focus upon. It is interesting to look back on the last year and how my own time is spent. The vast bulk of it is actually spent on pretty detailed discussion, mostly on domestic matters (but not exclusively obviously), in particular the economy and public service reform. I think the advantage of this session is that it allows us to look at those issues in detail before the public and, perhaps in doing so, to illustrate better what Parliament is really for and what politicians, Left or Right, really care about. Just very, very briefly for the policy agenda of the Government, I think it really splits into these areas, if I can just summarise them briefly: the first is in relation to the economy, how we maintain financial and fiscal discipline, strong growth, low inflation and low interest rates but, at the same time, encourage many people off benefit and into work; secondly, how we produce the public services that, for the fourth largest economy in the world, we really should have - and that is a programme, that for the Government is based around the principles of investment, on the one hand, and reform, on the other; thirdly, how we create and rebuild strong communities in which there is a sense of responsibility, and in which issues like crime and anti-social behaviour are tackled properly, but in which we are also trying to deal with the issues of social exclusion, of deprivation and poverty which still mar many of our communities, particularly in the inner city; fourthly, there is the issue of Europe, and how we take forward our relations with Europe. It has been a key priority for this Government to get a position where we consider a more constructive and engaged position for ourselves in Europe; and, finally, in relation to foreign policy as a whole, how Britain is engaged in the world, and uses the tremendous strengths we have, particularly in respect of our Armed Forces, but does so on the basis of certain key principles, which we can see in issues like development aid and so on. Those are the five main areas for us: the economy; public services; civic society; Europe; foreign policy and defence. I think if I can say so in concluding my opening remarks, today is a good day to start this, straight after the Comprehensive Spending Review, so that we can have a good and sensible discussion about the very important statement the Chancellor made yesterday. Once again, Mr Chairman, many thanks to you and your colleagues for giving up your time. I am, as I say, delighted to be here.
Chairman: Thank you, Prime Minister. We now move straight into the first theme - the Prime Minister's style of government.
(Mr Blair) I suppose in light of what I wrote to you it might suddenly go down as a Damascene conversion to appear before the select committee, but I think it is really as a result of my desire to try to engage in the political debate in a different way. If we go back to even when I was first in Parliament in 1983, I think there was a lot more focus on what would actually happen in Parliament and parliamentary debates. I think, increasingly, there is not that, so we have to look at new and different ways for engaging in serious and proper public debate. The truth is, Prime Minister's Question Time is an excellent way of holding the Prime Minister to account but I think, if we are all absolutely honest about it, it is 80 per cent theatre as well. I think this is an opportunity for us to discuss these things in detail. I am afraid I cannot promise you that I will come before every select committee, because I think that would be a rash and bold commitment to give. I think that this forum, twice a year, where we can discuss things in detail for over two and a half hours is the right thing to do. To that extent, yes, it indicates a change of perspective that I have had, to try to make sure that people understand better what we are about.
(Mr Blair) I think it is part of doing it differently, frankly. Perhaps I can put it to you in this way: there is no point in me coming before a gathering like this unless I am to open up more than I would if I was doing the normal knock-about. When you are in Opposition for 18 years, as we were, there was a tendency (because this is the way that Opposition works) that you believe the announcement is the reality. In many ways in Opposition it is, because what matters is the policy you are announcing; you are not actually in a position to deliver anything on the ground. I think for the first period of time in Government there was a tendency to believe, as it were, that the same situation still applied. It does not, in fact. For Government the announcement is merely the intention; the reality is what you have to go on and deliver on the ground. I think, in a sense, doing it this way, making sure that we have more ministerial statements, making sure that we try and find new ways of reaching out in direct conversation with people is a way of overcoming what is perceived, I think, often unfairly, as issues to do simply with news management.
Sir George Young
(Mr Blair) I truly believe not, no. I think that is unfair and wrong. I think we have roughly doubled the number of Cabinet sub-committees that we inherited in 1997. I think there are now over 40 Cabinet sub-committees. I have regular bilateral stock-takes with Ministers. The Departments, of course, are charged with policy, but the reality is for any modern Prime Minister you also want to know what is happening in your own Government, to be trying to drive forward the agenda of change on which you were elected. It is true that at Cabinet, yes, I would be surprised if the first time I knew of a problem is that it suddenly surfaced around the Cabinet table. But I regard that as good management. That is not to say when critical issues come up that the Cabinet does not sit and discuss them; but if there were particularly very contentious issues and the first I ever heard of it was at Cabinet then I would think some process of communication between Departments and the centre had broken down. I do not actually accept that we have changed fundamentally principles at all; but I do probably place a lot more emphasis on bilateral stock-takes - although there are, as I say, the Cabinet sub-committees and of course I chair groups of ministers myself.
(Mr Blair) I do not accept that either! I certainly had not noticed that all the things that went wrong were never laid at my door from the media coverage I have seen, with the greatest respect. People will always say these things. If you go back in politics I think Prime Ministers fit into two categories: those that are supposed to have a strong centre are accused of being dictatorial; and those that do not are accused of being weak. You pays your money and you takes your choice really. I think you could find similar comments like that made from former people who have worked for most Prime Minsters in the past. One thing I do say though very strongly is that I make no apology for having a strong centre. I think you need a strong centre, particularly in circumstances where, one, the focus of this Government is on delivering better public services. In other words, the public sector for this Government is not simply a necessary evil we have to negotiate with, it is at the core of what the Government is about. Therefore, delivering public service reform in a coherent way it is, in part, absolutely vital for the centre to play a role. The second thing is, in relation to foreign policy and security issues, I think again that the simple fact of the matter is that in today's world there is a lot more that needs to be done at prime ministerial level. You need, for those two reasons, a stronger centre. Before I came to the Committee, I was looking through some of the facts and figures in relation to this and we worked out that my Number 10 office has roughly the same or perhaps even fewer people working for it than the Irish Taoiseach's. To put this in context, there are far fewer than either the French Prime Minister, never mind the Elysee and the Prime Minister combined, or the German Chancellor.
(Mr Blair) As I said to you a moment or two ago, I think that we needed a stronger centre. Let me give you three examples. First of all, just take the sheer volume of correspondence we now get from the public. I was told just before I came here that for the first seven months of this calendar year we have received something in the region of 500,000 letters. That is over double what John Major's government was receiving. There are all sorts of different reasons for that, but the fact is we have had to increase the number of staff to deal with it.
(Mr Blair) No, I am giving you examples of this. The second example is in relation to foreign policy, where it is correct that we have changed and brought in, for example, Sir Stephen Wall, and Sir David Manning who are now my advisers there. That has expanded from where we were before. When I first came to office John Holmes, who was the adviser to John Major and to me, absolutely outstanding civil servant, brilliant guy, he was literally handling all foreign policy matters, all European matters, all defence and security matters and Northern Ireland. It just is not possible to do the job effectively with that much pressure being placed on one person. In relation to policy, yes, again it is true that we have expanded the number of policy advisers, but that is because I think it is the right thing to do. I think it is important that in these big public service reform areas we are in constant dialogue, keeping up an exchange of views and partnership with the departments to drive forward the process of change. The short answer to your question is, I am not disputing the fact that we have strengthened the centre considerably; but I say that is the right thing to do; it is necessary if we are wanting to deliver the public service reform that is essential for us and given the totally changed foreign policy and security situation.
(Mr Blair) I think to say that is not either constitutionally or practically correct. You mentioned the United States of America, let us set this in context: in the United States of America there are 3,500 or even 4,000 political appointments; we have 80 special advisers for the whole of Government. There are 3,500 senior civil servants; there are 80 special advisers; there are 400,000 civil servants as a whole. I think we need to get this in context. Strengthening the centre, yes. That is not an admission; I am openly avowing that. I am saying this is the right thing to do. The reasons for it are as I say. There is another thing, I have never really discussed this in detail with former Prime Ministers, maybe I should one of these days, but I cannot believe there is a single Prime Minister (and some of you around this table have experience of them) who has not wanted the Prime Minister's writ to run. I cannot believe there is a Prime Minister sitting in Downing Street saying, "Let them just get on with it". It is not the real world. The real world is that with the Prime Minister the buck stops with you; that is the top job and that is how it should be. As I say, I think there are very particular reasons why the centre has been strengthened in this way. Future Prime Ministers may decide to do it differently, but I have a kind of hunch that most Prime Ministers will want to keep that strength in the centre.
Sir George Young
(Mr Blair) I am afraid I do not accept the premise of that. I do not accept that Cabinet government is weakened. I think the fact that, as I say, you have roughly double the number of Cabinet sub-committees is an indication that Cabinet government is strong. I chair regular ministerial meetings; for example there is a ministerial group on public services, and one on issues to do with Europe that I chair. For example, in relation to welfare reform in the first Parliament I chaired all of the meetings in relation to that programme - the Health Service plan likewise. It is slightly different with street crime, which is in the COBRA setting but actually it covers the range of Government departments. I do not accept that the checks and balances are not there. The checks and balances with the Civil Service are still very much there. On the foreign policy side, for example, the two senior people advising me are career civil servants who have spent all their life in the Civil Service, and absolutely excellent they are too. With the greatest respect, I think we have to distinguish very carefully between two quite separate things: a stronger centre, which I think is necessary and right particularly given the focus that this Government has; and weakening Cabinet government. I do not know whether we have said this to people but we have regular bilateral stock- takes - every week I have several bilateral stock- takes with the main ministers - and we go through then all the programme they are trying to deliver, and how it can be helped; what are the issues that are of concern to them. I think that the process of Cabinet government is alive and well, I have to say. I do not think it is inconsistent with a stronger centre.
(Mr Blair) No. We just had yesterday the Comprehensive Spending Review. I do not know how many meetings Gordon and I have had about this in the last few months, a score or more, never mind informal contacts by telephone and so on. The idea that is all decided by special advisers - it is the most important thing we have done as a Government - it is absurd. Special advisers have a role to play, and I think their role is sometimes a bit misunderstood. Indeed, I think some of the reports from Tony Wright's committee are interesting in this regard and welcome. I think it is important we have some understanding of what they do. The idea that they determine the policy of the Government, I really believe is something that would not be recognised by any Cabinet Minister, even if you were talking to them off the record in private.
(Mr Blair) There is a distinction I would draw between different types of special advisers. Obviously I think we have the right number otherwise we would have fewer of them. I think it is important also to realise that in respect of special advisers there is often talk of them being simply media people. Actually few of them are media people; the vast bulk of them are policy people.
(Mr Blair) I am prepared to do what we have always down as a Government. I am not going to change the practice from the previous governments. If you want the most up-to-date figures we have got we can let you have them. I do not have them to hand.
(Mr Blair) I am prepared to do, as I say, what we have always done. I do not know the exact details we have given before but we will give you the up-to-date details consistent with that practice. Can I just point out to you though, that some of these are actually located in the Cabinet Office. For example, the e-envoy does work for the whole of Government, as does the Cabinet Office. The Delivery Unit is there for a very specific reason. This was an innovation after the last Election. Perhaps it might be helpful to the Committee if I just say a word or two about what it does. The important thing about the Delivery Unit is that it enables us to focus on certain very key indicators for the Government; and they work in partnership with the departments concerned. I think that most people now, a year into it, would consider them helpful - most people within departments. It allows us to clear obstructions across government for some of these issues. For example, we have been looking at the issue of delayed discharges from hospital. It is one of the things the Delivery Unit has done. We have managed to get it down quite significantly. They did that by helping the Department focus on certain issues, but also removing obstacles elsewhere in government. It is not just a matter for hospitals, it is a matter for social services and other departments too.
(Mr Blair) I totally agree with that, but I do not agree that they are not. The reason for having a specific focus on electronic government is that this is a huge issue. We are not the only Government in the world that has woken up to this and is doing it. I do not know of a modern government in the developed world that is not focussing on this. I am not familiar with the evidence the e-envoy gave to you, but he gives regular reports to us and I can assure you that we are, in my view, on target to meet the Government on-line proposals and it is necessary. In today's world a lot of people will want to do business with Government in a completely different way. You mentioned a moment ago the Office of Public Service Reform - again I do not think there is any confusion about this at all. What that does is focus on certain specific public service reform issues. It does that working with departments. For example, we are devolving, as you know, 75 per cent of the National Health Service budget to primary care trusts by the end of 2004. Whether the structure of those primary care trusts is right - and there are some really tricky issues there, about their incentives, about the way they receive that money and the things they can do - these are vital to whether they succeed or not. The Office of Public Service Reform has been working with the Department of Health to analyse from the experience we have got so far whether this is working well or not. I think these things have a sensible function from the centre. Again, I would say it is in the tradition of what Governments and Prime Ministers have done over a long period of time. I was reading what I think Derek Rayner did for the Thatcher Government in terms of the Efficiency Unit, which was set up by Margaret Thatcher and was an innovation. I think the Conservatives at the time thought that was quite successful in trying to cut down the costs of government. These things will come up from time to time. There will be issues; there will be units or special groups set up. I do not think we should see that as some great constitutional innovation. I think it is more to do with just keeping Government up to the times really.
Chairman: Before we move on - we will have a note then on the initial question from Mr Leigh. We will remind your secretariat.
(Mr Blair) Well, I suppose this is one way, I guess, today. Everyone around the table will have their own views and insights into this. First of all, again factually, in terms of the numbers of hours that, for example, I spend answering questions in Parliament, I have spent longer doing Prime Minister's Questions than in the same period of time my predecessor did and given more Prime Ministerial Statements than either of my two predecessors in the same amount of time, which is interesting to note. And there are more Ministerial Statements under this Government than under the previous one. However, I do not think that is really the issue. I think the problem is this, and again let me just be frank about how I see it: when I first came into Parliament, there was still some interest in debates in Parliament even at 8 o'clock at night, even when the House was not that full. And if you wanted to make your mark as a Member of Parliament, and I remember Gordon Brown and myself doing the Trade Union Bill at the time- though I am not sure if we still hold quite the positions we adopted at that time, we made them very eloquently nonetheless- but I remember being very conscious of the fact that if you wanted to get ahead, that is what you did. Now, this is just my assessment of this. We have got to try and look for new ways of making Parliament relevant and capturing people's interest, recognising, and I think this is the honest and blunt truth, that unless there is a tie-in between the media reporting and what we do, then you will not get politicians over a significant period of time... I do not think any of them will mind talking to a not very full House, but if they are talking to a not very full House and no one ever hears that they have even talked, unless they read it 50 years later in Hansard and I think it is unrealistic to expect them to devote a lot of time to that, they will never do any talking.
(Mr Blair) I suspect you would get quite a lot of interest, though whether for the right reasons I do not know. I do not recognise this as what is happening. For example, in the Department of Education, on education policy you are better talking to Estelle Morris than you are to anybody else, whether in my Policy Unit or elsewhere, and I simply do not recognise this notion that policy is not made in departments.
(Mr Blair) No, but I think that there is a reason why no government has ever done it, and the reason is that in the end Ministers are accountable and it is Ministers that should be held to account. I do not mind, for example, people saying to me, "Well, this is a practice that all governments have always adhered to, but should we change it?", and I would give you reasons why I do not think we can change it, but sometimes it is put to me almost as if we were the first Government ever to refuse to put special advisers before Committees. No government has ever done this and I think it would change quite significantly for reasons I know Richard Wilson gave in some evidence I was reading the other day. I think it would change the relationship quite significantly. If I may say to you really bluntly, they are not the people who will tell you what the policy is; Ministers are. I do not know if you have heard differently from Ministers coming before you, but there is no Minister in my Cabinet that I know of who is not the best person to tell you about what the policy is and ultimately it is those Ministers that take the decisions. Now, of course it is a product of a whole series of influences that come to them from within their own department, from outside their own department, but if you wanted to know who the best person is to talk to you about any of these policies, it would be the Ministers themselves.
(Mr Blair) Well, point taken, and we will reflect on what you say, but I think what we have got to look at is different ways of engaging political debate and I do not personally think that is about special advisers versus Ministers. I think it is about how we make sure that the public get some sense of what politicians actually care about and think about. I think the most frustrating thing, and may be it is just me who feels this, but I would have thought a lot of you feel this too, that the most frustrating thing about modern politics is the difference between what you know you spend most of your time thinking about and working on and what the outside public probably thinks you spend most of your time thinking about and working on. I think it is looking for ways of bridging that and today is one example. It is there, it is live on television, people can see it, they can make up their minds, there is a sensible and intelligent exchange of questioning that is not done in a sort of bellowing-across-the-Chamber way and I think we have got to look at ways of extending that. What I am really saying to you is, I think it is there, that we need to look at the innovation, and I am not convinced myself that the innovation is about pushing special advisers into the limelight.
Sir Nicholas Winterton
(Mr Blair) First of all, you are living proof that the party machine has its limits and long may that be the case. But I think that the issue of voter apathy, and it is not just an issue for this country, it is right around the Western world this is happening, I think that if people had a clearer understanding of what Parliament was doing and how Parliament spent its time, as I was saying a moment or two ago, I think they would see a far greater connection between their lives and what the Members of Parliament are debating. But I do not really believe that is a fault of this particular Government or that it arises from something that we have done. As I was saying a moment or two ago, in terms of accountability, coming to Parliament, making statements and so on, we have been every bit as assiduous as any previous government and, as I was just saying a moment or two ago, if you look at the amount of time I have spent answering questions in the House of Commons, and if you add Ministerial Statements to the Prime Minister's Questions, it is probably longer than either of my two predecessors, so what is the real issue we are dealing with here? I think it is to do with this disconnection between the political discourse and the public and I think we have got to think of the ways that we can bring the real political debate before the eyes of the public. Just to give you an example of something somebody said to me the other day when I was out on a visit. A young person stopped me and said exactly the thing that all of us will have heard, "I do not vote. There is no difference in any of the political parties. Nothing ever changes. What is the point?" and all the rest. I said, "What interests you? What are the things you are really interested in?" and he said, "Well, my big commitment is on overseas aid". I said, "Well, this is a Government which has put a massive commitment into overseas aid". This was someone who is very active in local charities, would have gone out and spent a lot of his energy and commitment to try and raise money for those charities and, rightly or wrongly, I think it would be hard to dispute that this Government has done anything other than give a huge commitment to overseas aid. It was total news to him, what the budget was, how it had been increased, what had happened, any of it, and that, I think, is the problem. So if what people see is a political discourse that takes place solely in terms of personality or process and not policy, then I think they do become disconnected over time, so I think that is part of it. What is interesting, I was at a meeting of Prime Ministers a short time ago and this issue was raised by everybody around the table, so it is not just happening here. I am not sure what the answer is, except perhaps that the answer is for us to have a far stronger and better way of communicating to people about what politics is really about and the things that really matter. There is also, perhaps something to be said for looking at new ways of trying to communicate with people.
(Mr Blair) Ask it of whom?
(Mr Blair) Well, I think I will take advice on that one, Sir Nicholas, if you don't mind. I am sure that we probably made a response to you at the time. I do not know though that that would cure it, I have to say. Perhaps I am coming at this from a different perspective. I do not think the issue is just how we change some of the parliamentary procedures. I think the issue is how we communicate with people in a different way about politics, and I think that is an issue for the political parties. On Parliament, as I say, I will look carefully at what you have just put to me there; for Parliament, it is trying to get people to focus on the reporting of what occupies most of parliamentary time, which is detailed, proper scrutiny and if it is not reported anywhere and no one ever hears about it, I think it is hard to get the commitment from Members of Parliament to do their job.
(Mr Blair) Yes, I am, yes.
(Mr Blair) Yes, I think we have got six at the moment that are being looked at in that way, but I think it is a very, very good idea.
(Mr Blair) I agree.
(Mr Blair) I think we are doing more of it from where we were a short time ago. We are certainly looking to do even more of it.
(Mr Blair) Yes, I think I can reasonably say that I do. It is one of those questions you ask me and I think there must be a trick in it somewhere, but yes, I do.
(Mr Blair) It was possible, it was always possible, yes.
(Mr Blair) Well, we were actually. If you look at the Bills that are, and I can get you , though you probably know them better than me, a full list of all the Bills that are being done in draft, the Communications Bill for example. I think there are six in total that are being prepared in draft, and I think that is more than there used to be. I actually took part in one of the very first pre-legislative scrutinies which I think was to do with consumer protection and trade descriptions and all the rest of it, and it was an enormously helpful exercise to go and take evidence from people. I understood that we were doing more of it, but perhaps I should give you a commitment that we will be doing even more of it.
(Mr Blair) I do not know about that because I think sometimes for speed of legislation and sometimes because of the subject matter, you would not necessarily; but in general terms I am in complete agreement with you, and I think the more we do of it, the better.
(Mr Blair) Well, I do not think there are any particular obstacles and, as I say, my understanding is we are doing more of it, but it is obviously, I guess, the pressure to get legislation through and sometimes if you have got a Bill whose basic point requires very urgent treatment, for example, you had terrorism legislation or whatever, then pre-legislative scrutiny is not necessarily the right course to take, but I think, certainly with anything that throws out real technical questions, it is a very good idea.
(Mr Blair) Well, I have to say it is not unknown in the experience of previous Governments as well. It is important that we try to get, and with some of this legislation the pressure is to get it through, for example with some of what we are doing on the criminal justice side, so I do not doubt it will be very thoroughly debated, but we really want to push the process on and get the changes made.
(Mr Blair) To be fair, in certain respects it has been actually and it is something that we do need to look at. They are under enormous pressure and do a really superb job under enormous pressure, but pre-legislative scrutiny, particularly for Bills which are technical in nature, is a good thing, but I would not want to promise that I could do that in every case.
(Mr Blair) It is for others to judge whether it was effective, but sometimes you cannot win on this. If you have a press conference, then you are criticised for being presidential, but if you do not, people will say "you are not being open with us". And one of the things that we are trying to do is to find better ways of communicating, maybe coming before the press every month and saying, "Right, ask me whatever you want".
(Mr Blair) We have said every month and I think there is a date set for the end of this July. Again I should say to you though that I talk to the press at press conferences. For example, at every European Summit we have a press conference and whenever I go on any trip abroad I have a press conference. When I am out in the country I am liable to be door-stepped. It is not as if the only time I ever see these guys is once a month, but it was again part of the way of saying, "Well, how do you communicate with people?" It would be interesting to see whether the press conferences carry on being carried live with people watching them and, like this Committee, it is all part of, I guess, what we are all trying to deal with, which is how do we get people to have some feel of what you are actually doing.
(Mr Blair) No, it is not that, but it is simply important to open the lobby up, and there is no great mystique about it. I think, and I may be wrong about this, but I think we are the first people to actually put it all, as it were, on the record and the official spokesmen - the two civil servants that do these lobby briefings for me - if you have occasion to read the notes they have to be pretty quick on their feet, and it is like 45 minutes of Prime Minister's Questions twice a day.
(Mr Blair) Absolutely, we have briefings for journalists, but how we change that over time and make it so that it is more open to other journalists as well, that is an issue too.
(Mr Blair) Of course, but there are still limits. What I am saying is not that we cannot get things done and deliver things and indeed I would say that we have. If you take primary schools, for example, we have got the best ever primary school results this country has ever had by a large margin. Now, that was only done through delivery. The fact that we have got virtually every Health Service waiting list indicator as moving in a direction better than in 1997 is because of delivery. The fact that we have got 13/4 million people going through the New Deal is because of delivery. Does that mean to say there are no limits to what government can do? Of course there are limits, and the point that I was making in the article was that ultimately, for example in local communities, we can enable, but we cannot do everything. I was at a community the other day up in Teesside where we have given this community a lot of money invested in its local schools, a lot of money invested in its local community partnerships, but the most exciting thing about that local community was that the people, who were very ordinary people, from a working-class background and on a difficult estate, they had taken charge of how that money should be spent and they were doing it. Now, what would make the difference to that estate again is not just government in the end, but them: if government does the wrong thing in relation to that estate, government could get in the way, so I think it is not that I do not believe government can do a lot, and I suppose that is one of the differences between right and left in politics in that the left of politics believes that government can be a benign influence for change in doing things, but there is a limit to what government can do because in the end you require people to take responsibility for their own lives and that is why the political philosophy that you and I both share is about a state that is enabling, not a state that is controlling.
(Mr Blair) Well, first of all, some of these figures become a bit alarming, but actually are rather misleading as well. For example ----
(Mr Blair) They are not actually, in relation to the documents sent out to schools. There is a huge amount of double-counting because some documents are sent out to primary and secondary schools, so they are not different pieces of information. However, having said all that, there is a tension between the centre and the locality, and again let me be very honest with you about the process of change that I think we have undergone here. When we are trying to turn around public services, and I do not want to make a sort of heavy political point, but let me just say this, that when we came in in 1997 there was a serious and fundamental problem with our public services. In education, in health, in transport, there had been gross under-investment over a long period of time, particularly in health and in transport, and the result of that was that there was a service which was just going backwards and backwards and backwards, with for example people saying, "Why haven't you reduced the Health Service waiting lists more as a Labour Government?" We have brought them down 100,000 and people say it should be more. Yes, it should be and we will get there in the end, but it had gone up 400,000 in the few years before we came to office. We had massive cut-backs on critical investment in critical areas. Now, at the beginning, we were driving a lot from the centre. I think as we have put the national standards in place and the national framework in place for accountability, for example, the Health Service's proper system of inspection there for the first time so that we know what is happening in individual hospitals and elsewhere, then I think in a sense you are right, we need to start getting out from the centre, particularly when we have got a successful school, a successful hospital, a successful local authority, so I think yes, there is a balance that needs to be got right here. I think we are adjusting that balance, but I do not agree that the public service reform has not been driven hard by government. I think it has and I think it is paying dividends, but it takes a long time to turn around a failing public service, and they were failing when we came into office.
(Mr Blair) No, I would not accept that. First of all, these so-called new inspectorates, things like the Housing Inspectorate, will be unifying existing bodies. Secondly, in relation to the targets, I think it is important that if we are spending large sums of additional money, people want to know how that money is spent and that it is going to deliver a result in the end, but how that result is delivered, there is in fact substantial devolution happening. We are devolving more of the schools budget to the average school than ever before. By 2004, as I was saying a moment or two ago, 75 per cent of National Health Service spending will go through the primary care trusts. We have started the process for the first time of getting money directly down to schools so that your average secondary school is going to be getting over a period of three years £1/2 million or, in the more challenging areas, £1 million to spend as they want. Now, no government has ever done that before, so I think there is more to do in this area, but the basic principles of public service reform really are these: national standards and frameworks of accountability and inspection; then local devolution as far as possible to the front-line; greater flexibility in terms and conditions of employment, which is why we have new doctors' contracts, new consultants' contracts and so on, new ways of teaching and all the rest of it; and choice and contestability. Now, as we have put in place the national standards and a framework of inspection, then it is possible for us to take the centre out of the equation, particularly when a public service is performing well. So I am not disagreeing with you, that there is a tension between the centre and the locality, but we are adjusting that in the light of the reforms we are making.
(Mr Blair) It is.
(Mr Blair) Well, I do not accept that because I think yes, there is a balance you have to get right, but, on the other hand, if you are spending very large sums of money, then I think the public expects to see outcomes for those sums of money. You cannot simply be in a situation of saying, "Well, here's the cash. Do whatever you want with it".
(Mr Blair) Well, I do not agree with that either. I think where I disagree with Martin Wolf is that that is not all we are doing. If all we were doing was just giving some money to them and saying, "Right, here's your target, that is it", but we are not. We are changing the structure within which these organisations work, so that, for example, as I say, for schools now there is a greater devolution of their budget, there is also greater flexibility, which is one of the things in the Education Bill, as to how they hire their staff and the types of staff that they hire, and we are introducing mechanisms within the Health Service of contestability and choice for the first time. Now, if you are a heart patient and you are waiting more than six months you will have the choice to go elsewhere to get your operation. We are introducing the same - piloting it - in London. These are changes and reforms - the opening up, for example, in the health service of diagnostic and treatment centres, where we are bringing in outside providers - which go far beyond the mere setting of a target. I think they are important. The reform of the criminal justice system, so that the whole basis upon which the police and the criminal justice system works, has changed in order to make it more helpful, to convicting the guilty. These are big reforms too. So I do not doubt that there will be issues in relation to bureaucracy and tension between the centre and the locality, but I think if you were to talk to most people - and I spend a lot of my time talking to front-line staff in the health service, in the schools and in the police - sure, there are always the frustrations you get with a reform programme, but on the other hand I think that most of them accept that policy is moving in the right direction.
(Mr Blair) I think if public services do not improve by the time of the next election people will hold us heavily to account.
(Mr Blair) Yes, because they are based on the most cautious assumptions. I think the record of the last five years shows that those assumptions have been well made.
(Mr Blair) They will notice in two ways, I think. First of all, if you take my own constituency, I cannot think of a single primary school in my constituency that does not have something to show for the investment of the past few years. I look at my secondary schools now, becoming specialist schools and investing in new equipment - whether they are specialist art schools or specialist sport schools - there is major investment going in. I think of the new community hospital being built just on the outskirts of Sedgefield village (done under PFI, which may be controversial but, nonetheless, it is a new building taking shape). I think they will notice it in their local communities. The second thing, to go back to the point that John was making about targets (and that is one of the reasons why it is important to set targets), is that they will be able to say we have either met them or we have not. We have got challenging targets in relation, for example, to the health service that, by the end of 2005, there will be no one waiting for more than six months. That is a massive change, and it is going to require a lot of work to do, but that is the judgment they will make.
(Mr Blair) I think the basic targets that the Government has, people know. For example, in the health service we set out very, very detailed targets as to what we have got to achieve. If we do not achieve them people will be sitting there saying "You have not done it".
(Mr Blair) I was not aware that that was a particular problem, but I am very happy to look at it if you tell me that it is.
(Mr Blair) I think we have got to take different steps in relation to different public services. If you take the health service, there are two problems with the National Health Service. One is capacity and the other is the systems within which they work. If we take capacity as a problem, capacity is actually about the numbers of people. We do not have enough nurses, doctors and consultants. Occasionally we do not have enough ancillary workers. So I do not think it is wrong to be increasing capacity. Where I think you are absolutely right is that we have to be driving up productivity at the same time. All I would say to you there is that if you look, for example, at out-patient waiting lists, which we were pretty heavily challenged on in our first term of government, as a result of a whole series of structural changes that have been made, and modernisation within the health service, those have come down pretty dramatically. So that you have now got a situation that whereas in 1997 I think there were just over 70,000 people at any one time waiting over six months for an out-patient appointment, today the figure is a few hundred. That is where the extra staff have been used to raise the productivity. I do not disagree with you; I think this is a major question for us over the next few years, as to how we get more productivity out of the additional staff that we are using. However, I do think that in certain services, particularly health but additionally, I would say, in teaching - classroom assistants - we have increased the number of support staff in schools by something like 80,000. I think if you talk to most schools they would say that is necessary. I was in a class the other day myself where the classroom assistant was absolutely vital in helping the teacher. You can measure this in productivity, and there is a challenge for us to do more there, but I also believe there are certain gaps in the staffing that we do need to fill, and if we do not fill them then our public service achievements will be at risk.
(Mr Blair) I think that is a very good point and it is a problem, because if you are not careful every time you announce - this comes back to something I said earlier - extra money for the health service people turn up at the doctor's surgery the next morning and say "Where is it? We want it now and we want all the things it is supposed to buy". I think the way that you manage expectations is, in part, through publishing detailed plans, which we have done, for example, on the health service - the ten-year plan. We have called it deliberately a ten-year plan because it is going to take ten years. It is not going to happen overnight. Secondly, if I can go back to the issue of targets, that is one way in which you say to people "This is what we are saying we can do by this date." If we look, for example, at the levels of the targets in schools, we are not saying we can get everyone up to the right standard in two or three years' time; we are saying that there is a step change but it takes place bit by bit by bit. That is where I think that the targets, in fact, do have a role to play in helping to manage those expectations, though I agree with you it is a big problem.
(Mr Blair) Let me give you a couple of examples of where we recognised that we had to do more and introduce change and where we have, I think, reasonably successfully succeeded and tried to build on that. The first is in relation to the Ministry of Agriculture, where we did not achieve the targets we wanted to achieve, and we actually re-fashioned the whole department, which I think was important and necessary. I think that department is working far better now than it was before. One of the things that the Office of Public Service Reform did was work out a change programme with that department, bringing in new people and reorganising the way it worked in order to make it more effective. Then, I would say, by contrast if you look at the Department of Work and Pensions, I think our record on getting people off benefit and into work is a good one. A lot of people came off long-term unemployment. I met somebody yesterday who had been unemployed for six years on the basis that they were disabled and, as a result of the New Deal for the Disabled, he is now working and working extremely well. That is someone who had no chances before and has got a chance now. What have we done to build on that? What we have done to build on it is to put the Department of Work and Pensions together - re-fashion that - rather than the old Department of Social Security, and one of the most important things we are doing as a Government is in relation to Job Centre Plus and the merging of employment and benefit offices. I saw it myself the other day, when I went into one of these new Job Centre Plus offices. It is like going to see a bank manager. It is not like someone behind a screen, filling in your benefit form and getting you out of the way as quickly as possible; it is someone sitting down with you and saying "Look, these are the issues that we can help you deal with. Instead of paying you benefit let the first question be 'What can you do? What do you think you need in terms of skills to get back into work?'" So, I agree with you, there is no point in doing this unless the bad is dealt with and the good is rewarded, but I think there are examples there.
(Mr Blair) There is, I believe, now - to deal with the very issue you were mentioning, which was sport in schools - a programme worked out between the Department of Education and the Department for Culture in order to make sure that we significantly increase school sport, and that will mean - I think I am right in saying - 75 per cent of children in the next couple of years should get at least two hours of sport a week and there will be increased facilities. For example, this summer there is a whole series of programmes being run in parts of the inner cities, particularly for the more disadvantaged children, to come along and participate in sports programmes. I think the general point is well taken; there is a general failure, I would say, for all Governments to try and recognise the read-across from one department to another. It is amazing how quickly, in government, departments get into their own silos and stay there. So I do not disagree that there is a general issue, but we are trying to tackle that.
(Mr Blair) I think you have to look at what the implications are - in particular, if I can say so, Mr Chairman, as we were talking about bureaucracy a moment or two ago, as to what that would actually mean on the ground. The other thing, if I can say this very honestly to you, is that one of the things I have learnt in five years of Government is that there is always a danger that a problem pops up, you set up some piece of machinery and before you know where you are it is spewing out vast numbers of directives, guidance and all the rest of it and some poor so-and-so down at the ground has to make sense of it all. Perhaps I can come back to you, or David, with a more considered answer on that specific point, but I would not like to commit myself there.
Chairman: That would be helpful.
(Mr Blair) The Kings Fund report is an interesting place to start because I think you will also find that the Kings Fund report said there had been considerable progress made in the health service. Virtually every independent report that is done on the health service at the moment says what I think is the truth, that there are real improvements taking place but there is a long way to go. The difficulty is that you tend only to get the second part of the sentence read out, not the first part. If you take, for example, the hospital building programme, yes it is true they are often replacing other hospitals but they are far more effective and efficient in treating people. It is the case, too, that if we look at capacity within the health service, additional numbers of nurses, doctors and consultants are happening. If we look at cancer treatment, I think the most recent reports on cancer indicate that we are beginning to improve significantly the treatment of people with cancer. When we came to office, I think, 67 per cent of people were seen within two weeks if they were suspected of having cancer and it is now 95 per cent. The extra equipment, of course, is far more effective equipment. I have seen some for myself in a hospital the other day, which treats people far more quickly than before. If we look at the health service waiting lists, I think I am right in saying that apart from one small indicator every single waiting list for the health service, in- or out-patient, is in better shape than in 1997. That is not to say there is not a long way to go because there is a long way to go, but there are real improvements being made. It is an interesting thing about the health service, but if you actually ask people whether they are satisfied with their own treatment within the health service very large numbers of people will say "Yes". I think the problem we have had in the health service, to be honest about it, is a capacity problem, which has meant that access to the health service is difficult, so people have to wait too long for operations or wait too long when they are in accident and emergency departments. The only alternative is for a long period of time to increase the investment. Again, I think it is terribly important that we explain this properly. People sometimes say that we have been in five years, we have had all this extra money in the health service, what is it all coming to? The fact of the matter is that yes, we have been in power five years but for the first two or three years we were very tough on spending; we had to be because we had high levels of debt and we had to get the public finances under control. It is really only in the last couple of years that money has started to come to the front line and we need to keep this up year on year, to bring our levels of spending up roughly to the European average. That we will do. I think you will find that in the coming couple of years people do recognise the considerable improvements on the ground. Sure, there is still a great deal to do, but I think it would be a mistake to say that nothing has happened. Interestingly, when the Modernisation Agency did its report a short time ago (and that has the BMA, the Royal College of Nursing - people, as you know, who can be pretty sceptical about the achievements of any government) they had exactly the same take, that there is a lot of improvement but there is a long way to go.
Mrs Roe: Prime Minister, I wonder if I could just focus on the Government's structural ability to spend money wisely. I would like to talk about social care, which I think is an example of this. The fact that there are separate budgets for the National Health Service care and that provided by local authorities often results - as I am sure you are aware - in patients falling down between the gaps. You will also be aware of the collapse in the number of care home places - 47,000 since 1997 - and that has, of course, resulted in a high incidence of bed-blocking. There are currently, I think, over 5,000 beds blocked at any one time, with 40 per cent of these being blocked by the same patient for over a month. This must have a cascade effect back through the health service - cancelled operations, for example, have risen from 50,000 in 1997 to 81,000 i 2001-02.
Chairman: Can we have a question please?
(Mr Blair) I accept entirely there is a real problem here but, first of all, we should get the facts accurate on this. It is correct that there are just over 5,000 delayed discharges - bed-blocking, in other words. I think when we came to power it was just over 6,000, so it has reduced not increased. It is a serious problem. Are we thinking of structural change for social care? Yes. One of the things that we are proposing, as part of the reforms, we have given social services a very significant increase - some 6 per cent in real terms - but what we are saying is that with that money social services are going to have the responsibility of making sure that someone is properly placed, and their money will be dependent on that. That is a system that they have in Sweden, which has been highly successful and we would like to introduce that here. We are also trying to get far better co-operation between social services and hospital trusts locally. So there is no doubt at all that it is a problem and, yes, it is true also there have been some more cancelled operations, although remember, too, that there are over half-a-million more operations happening a year. Also, what is important to realise is that the actual average waiting time for operations is coming down and not going up.
(Mr Blair) I have to say we did not devote an enormous amount of time to it, but, on the other hand, it is a perfectly serious issue. There are a lot of people who want to use herbal or alternative medicines. I am not sure what the answer to it is because, at the moment, it is very much, as you say, done in the private sector. I do not know that we gain a lot by trying to bring it all in-house, as it were. I am perfectly happy to have a look at the recommendations that others have made on that. So thank you for that.
(Mr Blair) Because I think it is a good idea to have lots of different people from outside who can give you interesting insights and ideas.
(Mr Blair) I actually do believe that. I am afraid I think that we are going to have to disagree about this. John Birt comes in and works unpaid as an adviser; he is not brought in as an expert on transport, or any other subject. He is brought in as someone who will look at the entire system and give you interesting and good insights, which he does. He did this particularly in relation to crime before he looked at transport. It is absolutely correct, you could perfectly easily say to me that all the information was there in the Home Office, but he collected and put it together in a way that, I thought, brought insight.
(Mr Blair) It is probably correct that there is not. The transport policy of the Government is set out in the ten-year transport plan, but I just think that sometimes we should not think that the only insights that can ever be delivered are either by experts or politicians; I sometimes think they can come in from people from the outside who can make a useful contribution.
(Mr Blair) Because you are dealing with vast amounts of public money it would be very odd if Treasury ministers were not involved, but the actual negotiation is carried out by the ministers of Transport. They have been managing the PPP for the London Underground and I, personally, think that is the best and right way forward. I think the PPP offers the possibility of massive investment for the Underground over a long period of time, where the private sector, at long last, bears some of the risk. Again, I am afraid we will probably disagree on that.
(Mr Blair) It must be the case, surely, that for ever and a day Treasury has input into big, infrastructure projects, but the people that, in the end, should answer the questions are the Transport Committee and the transport ministers, in my view.
(Mr Blair) I do not think that, necessarily. People are going to want to use their cars and if they want to use their cars there has to be a balance over how much you tax the car user. It would certainly be an interesting and bold criticism to say that the Government had not raised fuel duty enough, but it is not one I hear a great deal from ordinary members of the public. So there has got to be a balance there. For public transport the best thing is to do the investment programme that we are doing. I think that in relation, as I say, particularly to the Underground, the key thing is to make sure that you tie the private sector into it. The great advantage of the PPP, in my view, is that the private sector bears some of the risk.
(Mr Blair) I think I will let Alistair Darling carry out that examination without pre-judging it. I think the most important thing about the ten-year transport plan is that for the first time we have tried to bring together a comprehensive investment programme over a significant period of time. It is a £180 billion programme, some from the private sector and some from the public sector, and most people, I think, at the time, thought that was the right and good way forward. Inevitably, however, there will be people who come forward and say that there is this aspect or that aspect that is wrong. I do not think we should be worried about that.
(Mr Blair) We are listening to them, actually. However, they are not blue skies thinkers. What they did was produce a report ----
(Mr Blair) They are actually people who produce detailed policy work on a specific problem. The problem that they were handling was this: how do people who are from low-income families travel because they often cannot afford a car? What they were saying was that you have got to make sure that we get the balance right between investment in public transport and roads. I accept that. Some of the things we are trying to do for low-income people is to give them help with travel costs. For example, as part of some of the New Deal programmes people can get help with their travel costs so that they can get to work. Some people, literally, were not able to go and get the job just because they could not afford the travel costs.
(Mr Blair) The Department of Transport decides the transport policy. Incidentally, it is not right to say there is a choice simply between investing more in roads and investing more in public transport; there is a perfectly sensible case for saying we need to do a bit of both - in fact a lot of both - if you want to put the transport system in the right shape. However, it does not feel like that, or work like that, from where I am sitting. When we have our regular stock-takes with the Department of Transport we will sit down and look at the various problems that there are and how we sort them out. It is done on a perfectly co-operative basis. I do not notice a great problem with it. The challenge, however, as you know - and as the Select Committee itself has pointed out - is huge. There is a huge transport challenge ahead of us, and I really think transport, as much as any other area, is the area where you need people coming forward with all sorts of different ideas. I do not think that is a problem. On some of them you will say "I am afraid we will not do that" and on some you will say "Hang on, there might be something in that". You will be familiar with the RAC report which was published recently. I think to come from a motoring organisation, that was a fairly significant report in terms of some of the tough decisions that it was facing up to. So transport is one area for me where blue skies thinking has never been more appropriate, although a lot of it comes at a pretty big political price, when you analyse it.
(Mr Blair) I think we get a certain amount of that in any event. I think there are three issues, I would say to you, on which I think there is a lot of long - term thinking. I want to give you a thought as to what I think some of the problems are. One is transport, one is pensions, one is housing. I think in all three of these areas it would be better if we were able to have some cross-party consensus that would survive individual governments in dealing with them because they are really tough long - term issues. The political pain for any government dealing with them in my view is enormous, whatever government is in power. I do not have the exact answer or solution to this but I do think they are areas where it is worth in some way trying to establish some broader political consensus.
(Mr Blair) Yes, I am absolutely sure about that. These things are discussed regularly, as I say, at our stock - takes. There are problems which I read about occasionally which I do not recognise as problems from the inside.
(Mr Blair) Undoubtedly this is the big problem for higher education because if you look at the overall levels, the numbers are rising. If you look at it by social class, for the poorest group of people it has not risen much over the last decade or so. I think there are two things which are necessary. First of all we have to ease the financial passage, and that is one of the things we are looking at now, how we increase help for people to get access to higher education. The second thing is to try and raise the general standard of schooling because one of the things which people often forget is, if you go to a really good school and you get a good education you are far more likely to stay on to the sixth form, and then you are more likely to think about university because you are achieving. I think that the tragedy of a lot of the poorer children is they never get that chance. You will know this from your own constituency. Occasionally I meet young people, sometimes I meet them through the fact that they have joined the Labour Party or whatever, you meet them when they are aged 23 or 24 and they are really clever people and they have never had any proper education at all. Funnily enough it was through action in the political party that they started to think and some of them go to college a bit later but you miss enormous amounts. There is a large squandered talent there. I think improving access is one thing. Improving the schooling is another because then they are more likely to know what they can achieve. I think the third thing is to send out - and we do do this but I think we could do a lot more of it - people from the universities into these schools and say to them "This is what can happen". I remember a short time ago I was in a London school in a difficult area and heard a short speech given by a young black girl who had got to Oxford University and came back to her school and was saying to them "I did it, you can do it". We need a bit of that as well so they do not believe this is something for people of a certain income bracket or class and not for them.
(Mr Blair) I think we do it by a mixture of helping with some funding but also pushing them some more too. Those are some of the things we are looking at with the universities as well. Of course they miss out on talent if the children are not there. The more I look at the education system the more I think it starts with what happens in the nursery and schooling. We know already - the evidence is now clear from here and the United States of America and the rest of Europe - nursery education is important in delivering people to their primary schools with a greater capacity to learn. If they leave their primary school and they do not have the requisite results, you spend two or three years in your secondary school catching up, and that is very hard too. So we want to improve the primary schools. Then we have introduced the new literacy and numeracy for 14 years olds to make sure that they catch up there. All the way through if you are catching up you are missing out on large numbers of able people. So you have got to go right back to the beginnings of the education system. It is also one of the reasons why programmes like SureStart are important, because these are programmes which frankly will have no paybacks for the Government in any recognisable political timeframe but they are immensely important in local communities in getting kids from disadvantaged backgrounds into some type of learning environment early on with the support for the parents which is necessary. In the end there are lots of things we can do with the universities and we should do it but my belief is ultimately you have to start with the school system.
(Mr Blair) I would be happy but I would not like to put that in a target, if I can say that very frankly. If we get to 50 per cent that is great. We should not omit the good news about the British system. I think we have the lowest drop-out rate for graduates in the Western world, so that is good. On science, as you say, we are investing a massive amount in that and the work the Committee has done has been excellent in this regard. I am passionate about science. I am one of these people who is personally ignorant about it but politically passionate about it. I am not a scientist myself, I do not understand very much about science, but I have no doubt at all that it is in the field of science and biotechnology in particular that a huge amount of our future prosperity lies.
(Mr Blair) Maybe not quite yet.
(Mr Blair) I agree, it is essential. I think our view has been that we need, though, to look very carefully at how we perform in that sector and make it work more effectively. I suppose there is always going to be a constraint on funding. I agree, I think that is a big challenge for the future.
(Mr Blair) There is no log jam at all, but there is a serious question as to how you make the best use of the resources that we have and it is important to get it right, very important to get it right.
Dr Gibson: Thank you.
(Mr Blair) I also have been very closely involved in all this work myself.
(Mr Blair) I do not know if it is my fault, but it is our collective achievement in some senses with some of this policy. Again, I would say to you that in the Department of Work and Pensions you will find in what Andrew Smith can tell you everything that you need to know, and the policy, ultimately, is driven from the department. Of course, because it is a big spending commitment and it has got other ramifications, then the Treasury is involved, we are involved, and that is how you would expect it, but the policy on this has been very much driven forward by the department. Maybe there is a slight mythology about how these issues are all determined. Sometimes when I read things it is almost as if either ourselves or the Treasury came along to a department and said, "Right, that's it, we have decided the policy; go away and do it." It is not like that at all, not even remotely like that. There is a discussion between us all but the policy detail is worked out by them.
(Mr Blair) I will certainly reflect on it.
(Mr Blair) Yes it is.
(Mr Blair) It is, yes.
(Mr Blair) Yes, that is absolutely right. First of all, let us not discard the fact that half a million have been taken out of poverty, and that is after many years in which poverty rose significantly. One of the reasons why we are extending tax credits and extending the New Deal and introducing programmes like Sure Start and the Urban Regeneration Programmes is precisely to take more and more children out of poverty. Sure, it is a very demanding target but that is an example of the Government being pretty bold about its aims. Okay, we are not able to achieve everything we would like to have achieved by now, but I think we have still achieved quite a lot.
(Mr Blair) Yes. It is not just in the Comprehensive Spending Review but in the Budget, for example, the extension of the employment credit is very important, and the uplift in the Working Families' Tax Credit. There is a disabled tax credit as well. This is part of the general change in the tax and benefits system and it is a really radical reform. Let us again take a step back for a moment and reflect. Most of the world has suffered some contraction in growth. Some countries have gone into recession. We have had lower rates of growth in the past year than we have had in the previous years but unemployment has carried on falling. That is for a reason - because there has been a genuine reform and change in the labour market.
(Mr Blair) There is no suggestion of that. I do remind you of the fact that there has been a huge debate about how you measure some of these things. It is important to get the right answer, not for reasons of manipulation at all but just to get accurate data. After all, the data that you were mentioning a moment or two ago is data that we released.
(Mr Blair) I totally understand that and we would not do that.
(Mr Blair) I hope so and I would like to thank you and other leaders in Burnley and elsewhere for the help that you have given in this. We are working on it very hard. It is a big issue and problem. I think it is very important that we strengthen the cross-community dialogue and inter-faith dialogue as well in those communities. I think it is important that we look at what we can do by way of regeneration in those communities too because there are social issues that underlie some of this. I also think it is very important that all the main political parties, as I am pleased to say they did, come out very strongly against the extremists and the racists who want to exploit these issues.
Chairman: We now move on to international affairs.
(Mr Blair) By reminding people of what happened on 11 September and by reminding them, too, of the fact that those responsible for it, the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and Osama Bin Laden, were not unknown before 11 September. They were known, they were very active but for all sorts of perfectly obvious reasons there was not a great deal of a concerted nature done to deal with them. We need to keep people eternally vigilant about this.
(Mr Blair) Certainly I would be very happy to repeat it. I am not saying anything about any new phases or any of the rest of it but I would be very happy to repeat it at any point in time.
(Mr Blair) Do you mean fresh documents on new aspects?
(Mr Blair) Absolutely. The only reason we have not published some of this documentation before is that you have got to choose your time for doing this otherwise you send something rocketing up the agenda when it is not necessarily there. Certainly if we do move into a new phase, yes, of course, we will publish.
(Mr Blair) I think we have to decide that at the time really. I cannot honestly believe myself that people were not given the opportunity to express very clearly what they felt on it.
(Mr Blair) I think there are all sorts of ways that can be done. We did not feel as a Government that that was necessary at that time.
(Mr Blair) You can do but I would not want to commit myself at this stage on what is on any basis a hypothesis about what might or might not happen in the future.
(Mr Blair) Surely. We will keep up detailed consultations with Parliament. I think most people say after 11 September we did. We made frequent statements after 11 September. I came to the House myself I think on 14 September and then I updated that. Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon both made regular statements to the House. We will keep the House very, very closely involved indeed.
(Mr Blair) Strangely, if you actually talk to the Americans what they will say is the Clinton administration also had a policy of regime change but how you pursue that policy is another matter. It is true, certainly, however, that the issue of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction is on the agenda in a different way. I would refer back to what I said in the House, I think, on 14 September - this was literally, as I said, a few days after 11 September - when I said that these issues of weapons of mass destruction were the coming next issue. I do believe that they are. I think they pose an enormous threat to the world. How we deal with that, however, is an open question. That is why I say constantly to people there are no decisions which have been made in relation to Iraq at all but there is no doubt that Iraq poses a threat in respect of weapons of mass destruction and there is no doubt that this is an issue which should be dealt with. The one thing that we have learned post 11 September is that to take action in respect of a threat that is coming may be more sensible than to wait for the threat to materialise and then to take action.
(Mr Blair) No, there are no decisions which have been taken about military action.
(Mr Blair) No, people should not read that into it either. That is not to say that it is not important that we look at all the various options that we may have but as I have said to people, I think I said in the House a few months ago, there are no decisions which have been taken about this yet and if the situation changes in any serious or dramatic way we will tell them.
(Mr Blair) Yes, certainly I agree that we should act, as I hope this country always does, in accordance with international law.
(Mr Blair) As far as I am aware there is no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the actual attack on 11th September.
(Mr Blair) There are various rough linkages there but the issue is weapons of mass destruction. It is not what happened on 11 September or the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
(Mr Blair) I think there are things which have changed there. First of all, it is clear that Saddam Hussein is still trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, there is the whole issue of weapons inspectors where he is still refusing to abide by the UN Resolutions. He is in breach of areas....
(Mr Blair) Yes, that is true, but as more negotiations go on and he fails to comply and you know that he is developing these weapons of mass destruction, then over a period of time you are entitled to draw the conclusion that this threat is growing not diminishing. In addition to that - I think it is very important people realise this - our pilots are in action virtually every day over Iraq. This is not something which has gone dead post the end of the Gulf War, it is still very, very live indeed. The fourth issue is - this is why on 11 September you can say either "this is a one off event, and you should not read anything much into it other than the terrible atrocity which happened" or you can say, as I would, "there are lessons which should be learned from it"- we knew about al-Qaeda for a long period of time. They were committing terrorist acts, they were planning, they were organising, everybody knew. We all knew that Afghanistan was a failed state living on drugs and terror. We did not act and to be truthful about it there is no way we would have got the public consent to have suddenly launched a campaign on Afghanistan but for what happened on 11 September, but we should learn from that. What we should learn from that is that if there is a gathering threat or danger let us deal with it before it materialises rather than afterwards. I say it again, because it is important, in the general flow of stuff which comes out of Washington or here people can get the idea that all the decisions have been taken and so on. They have not been but there is a threat. The threat has changed in the way I have described post 11 September, partly because of 11 September itself. The options are open but we do have to deal with it. How we deal with it, however, is as I say an open question.
(Mr Blair) I never like to approach it in that way because it suggests almost as if you go along as a supplicant to the US and you make a case and if you are lucky you win a verdict on points. It is just not like that. The truth is we are very interlocked in our strategic relationship and we discuss and deal with issues the whole time together. If I can give you issues where we worked closely. I do not put it like "an influence on them". If you come up and say to me "You were a constraining influence on George Bush post 11 September", I was not. He did not need constraining. He acted sensibly by his own lights. The first conversation we ever had was him saying "Look, there is no point in just sending a load of missiles over for effect, we have to deal with this issue in a considered way". Now we worked then very, very closely with them on all the strategic details of that Afghan campaign. To give you another example where we have worked closely; the new NATO-Russia relationship, which is very, very important, is a huge breakthrough because it allows Russia to move closer to the West, puts the whole of that relationship and the tensions within it on a new and better footing. That was something we worked terribly closely with the United States on. Now whether you describe that as having influence, I prefer to look at it as a partnership.
(Mr Blair) That is a very good question. On the spectrum, we will come probably, I hope, somewhere reasonably in the middle of it. The difficulty for the Government is this: if you sit down and get a whole group of people in and say, "Tell us what all the potential threats are, what are the things the terrorists could do?" they will give you a very long list, most of which might make Hollywood scripts but do not necessarily correspond to the reality of what may happen. On the other hand, we know enough from the terrible events of 11 September to know that sometimes what you might have thought was completely unthinkable does happen. You cannot simply say, "The threat has receded, there is nothing to worry about"; that would be wrong. The threat has not receded. Al-Qaeda is still there. The fact is the combination of technology and extremism means that you have to be very vigilant. On the other hand, if you are not careful, you could spend millions or billions of pounds on theoretical threats that never materialise. This may sound a slightly tedious and diplomatic answer to give you, but you have got to take a common sense view. We are trying to take what steps we can to guard against certain eventualities that, if you like, as a result of 11 September you cannot simply dismiss out of hand or say that is a pretty fantastical notion. How are we changing government? There is the Civil Contingencies Group which looks at how our defence against these threats is organised and we are trying to make that work across government and, I think, in a more effective way. A word of real caution here. My experience is that you cannot be very sure where this threat comes from. Part of the difficulty is that you will get intelligence that flows in the whole time. I never really understood this before I came into government. You get a vast amount of intelligence the whole time and picking out the bits that you should really be alarmed about as opposed to the bits you have to just put in the tray marked "too absurd to think about" is very, very hard. So we are doing what we can. We are not being alarmist about it but we are taking protective measures and we have got the Civil Contingencies Group and Secretariat that makes it work across government.
(Mr Blair) Again, that is a good point. The one thing that I have learned is that you have to have very strong central command if you are to deal with a major crisis. I do not just mean foot and mouth or the fuel crisis, but if you are talking about Kosovo or Afghanistan, there is no other way of dealing with it. You have got to have the relevant ministers and people pooled round the table. Two things that I have learned are that, first of all, when you are in a situation like that you have got to put aside the normal bureaucracy and thinking. If you are constrained by that, forget it, you will never get on top of it at all and you have got to be prepared to knock the rules out of the way in order to get the thing done. The second thing is that you have got to have cross-departmental co-operation. If you do not have that it is absolutely fatal to the proper operation of that. That is why David Omand is going to perform that role. He has got a lot of experience, he was a very distinguished Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, and I think he will bring the right focus and intelligence to it.
(Mr Blair) David Omand works with Andrew Turnbull who is the new Cabinet Secretary and he will report to me but to other ministers as necessary. Maybe I can make two points to you. The first is that post-11 September, of course, I actually chaired a lot of meetings of ministers myself. We were going through in detail intelligence reports and so on about what the potential homeland threats were. Secondly, I think one of the great advantages of our system is that we have very good senior working relationships with the people in our intelligence services, and I think that is of assistance as well. But I felt that once the immediate crisis had passed we needed to put this on a more sustainable, formal footing, and that was the reason for Sir David Omand's appointment.
(Mr Blair) Personally I believe not, frankly, because I think that you risk confusing the situation. Well, I looked at it but I did not take long to form the opinion that it was not the right thing to do.
(Mr Blair) I suppose for the reason that Prime Ministers before me have too.
(Mr Blair) I think it is better handled through the Committee that we have that scrutinises the work that they do.
(Mr Blair) No, it is not that I do not trust Parliament. There is no point in being overly coy about our intelligence services. The work that they do is the work that intelligence services do and I think it requires a very special form of scrutiny otherwise you put at risk the work that they do. I have to say that I think the Committee does a very good job at scrutinising them and then coming forward to me, as I found from our conversation the other day, saying, "There is this, that and the next thing you could be doing better."
(Mr Blair) I do not because I think the way that they work at the moment is right and I think they need a certain degree of discretion to work in the way they work effectively. The British intelligence services - and again this is something I have only got to know since being Prime Minister - I have a huge regard for them and they are highly regarded and respected throughout the world, correctly, for the work they do. You obviously have different perspectives when you are sitting in my chair, I guess, rather than somebody else's, but I feel that our intelligence services do a very good job, that the system works well for the country, and I am wary of changing it in a way I think might not do such a good job for the country.
(Mr Blair) True, but I think the intelligence services are qualitatively different.
(Mr Blair) I do not want in any way to contradict what Jack said, but I think the present system - put it like this, as I am sure he will have said to you, "there are no plans to change it". That is the way we put it.
(Mr Blair) I do not. I totally understand the concerns and fears that there are. First of all, let me pay tribute to the work that John Major did before I came to this office. Secondly, I really do believe that the Northern Ireland peace process on the whole has delivered huge things for the people of Northern Ireland. However, I think we have reached the point in time now when people say well four years after the Good Friday Agreement is there still clear evidence that the paramilitary groups, particularly those attached to parties in government, and that effectively means the relationship between the IRA and Sinn Fein, are we satisfied that the process of transition from violence is still taking place or has it stopped? I agree - which is what we are looking at now following the talks we had at Hillsborough a short time ago - we have to look now at how we make it very clear to people that there is not some tolerated level of violence or preparation for violence.
(Mr Blair) I do accept entirely that we have reached the point where it has to be made clear that these things are not tolerated and not acceptable. We are looking at how we do that. I think we have said that we will come back to people before the end of the parliamentary session and say that very clearly. I think there is a worry in parts of the Unionist community that in a sense what we have said as a Government is "Look, okay, if you are not setting off bombing campaigns and killing police and security people, you can do everything else you want to do". Now that is not the case. The only thing that I would caution is this, that we are in a strange situation here where our belief is that the IRA have never been further away from the resumption of violence, that is our belief. On the other hand, they have to understand that ceasefire is not what it is about in the end. What it is about is a permanent move into democratic and not non-democratic politics. We said back in 1998 that the test of that should become more rigorous, not less, over time and that is why I think you are right in saying this is a moment where we have to reflect on this and plan out the next steps forward. I hope we can do that and do that in a way which is satisfactory. I think it would be a tragic loss if we forfeited all the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland. Sometimes I say this to people when they say "Well, what have we got out of this process?" I say "Well, if you look, for example, at unemployment in Northern Ireland which was by a long way the highest anywhere in the UK, now it is not." There is money, investment, jobs have come in there. In two thirds of Northern Ireland there are no troop movements. Let us hope the situation is maintained. For large numbers of people in Northern Ireland the process has brought huge benefits. The trouble is for some, I mean if you are on the Short Strand or in one of these interface areas then you are asking what has the peace process done for you, and that is understandable. All I would say is we had all that and more before. Now what we have got to do is make sure that the last bits of this are squeezed out of the system. The more I look at these peace processes, whether they are here or anywhere else, I think the one thing perhaps which was difficult though understandable at the time was we tended to give the impression that the Good Friday Agreement was an event after which suddenly everything would change, and it was never going to be like that really. Maybe we should have tried to give a clearer understanding that it was a process, not an event. The truth of the matter is whether in the Middle East or Northern Ireland or any of these areas it is going to take a significant period of time before you squeeze every bit of old sectarian violence out of the system.
(Mr Blair) It is not so much a question of that but I mean in any event, frankly, irrespective of whatever else happens, we have to make it clear that there cannot be procurement of weapons, targeting of people, because that is inconsistent with the very basis upon which this deal is done. We do say that. Maybe I should just say this, that I often get from people in the Unionist community "What has the Agreement delivered for us?" and my answer to that is very simple: first of all it has delivered the Union on the basis of the principle of consent; secondly it has got Sinn Fein and a partitionist assembly and a power sharing executive; and thirdly we have a situation where our relations with the Irish Republic are absolutely transformed on the basis of them changing their constitution. I totally understand why people see that when there are debates on policing or the emblems and flags and all these types of things, that they feel their identity is somehow under threat, but really if you look at the big picture of what this Agreement has achieved, and if you went back ten years and said you would have Sinn Fein and a partitionist assembly and a power sharing executive accepting the principle of consent, people would have told you that you were for the funny farm. We have achieved a lot, you are right, but there are some tough decisions now.
(Mr Blair) Let me try and choose my words carefully. I think it would be very unfortunate if it pushed the Doha process back. Now countries will take protectionist measures from time to time and you know there has been a big battle between us and the United States over the steel issue. What must not happen is that it changes the basic negotiating positions in the Doha process. Of course the Americans would also point to the Common Agricultural Policy and say the Europeans have got some thinking to do there, and I guess I would agree with both criticisms and say that I hope we can recommit ourselves to substantial change by Doha and make sure, I think by 1 January 2005 which is the date which has been set for the conclusion of this round, and I hope that it is.
(Mr Blair) What was interesting was that in the G8 Agreement on Africa we did recommit to that process and actually it was very forward language on the phasing out of agricultural subsidies and so on. As I say, there will be times when countries take particular positions and it is unfortunate that those signals are sent out. On the other hand, I hope and believe that it has not changed the basic US position and it is our job, obviously, to make sure that the US and everyone else keeps to that timetable that we have set out. You are right in respect of agriculture that it is even tougher, although we in Europe have got to do a bit of thinking on that front too.
(Mr Blair) Have I ruled it out? No, our position is as I have set it out many, many times, which is that we are in favour in principle but we have got to do the tests and the assessment of the tests by June next year and if the tests are positive we will put it to the people in a referendum.
(Mr Blair) I have always said to people that I think that you will never have any difficulty getting a public debate going on this subject once it gets underway. It is important, however, that the tests are done in a serious and considered way. That is what we are doing. There is no difference at all between myself and the Chancellor on this. These tests have got to be passed but if they are passed we will put it to people in a referendum. I think that people will listen a lot to the economic arguments. There are also lots of political and constitutional arguments, we know that, but we think people will listen seriously to the arguments about jobs, investment and trade and so on. I have no doubt we will hear a lot about this in the coming months, but the position really has not changed and will not change.
Chairman: I am sure we will be able to give much more priority to European matters in our next session. We now move on to the final phase, the quality of political life.
(Mr Blair) That is a very good point. We touched on it earlier. I think we have got a collective responsibility. I do not think it is just the Government's or the Opposition's; it is Members of Parliament as a whole. I think that it is in part - and I do not want to repeat what I said earlier about how we communicate with people because I think that is an important part of it as well - about how we develop a better policy debate. I am sure I am not just speaking for myself when I say that probably every person round this table came into politics because they were interested in certain ideals, they have certain convictions and they are basically interested in policy, the direction of the country. What I find most frustrating is when you squeeze out the policy debate and you are debating what I have called rather dismissively from time to time "froth", I think you can spend an awful lot of time on those questions, and we need to look at how we get a better and more developed public debate and also to understand one thing which I think is important for ourselves and the media : I believe that the public are in the end more interested in policy. When all of us go out and talk to people and we meet them, what they want to know is what is going to happen in their local community as a result of decisions taken by the Government in Parliament. That is what we have got to get back to - having that debate in a sensible and considered way. It is not unique to our country. It is very important that we realise this otherwise we will talk ourselves into a state of great depression about the state of British politics. This goes on everywhere. I cannot remember what the turn-out figures were for the United States' Presidential election but I think they were are about 50 per cent or something.
(Mr Blair) 49 per cent and there are issues to do with voter turnout in recent elections in other places ,as well. I think that is what has got to happen. I do believe it is important also that collectively we get across the notion that politics is a good and noble part of public service, which it is. I believe that whether politicians are Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, whatever they are, that most of them come in with a genuine desire and belief in public service.
(Mr Blair) I have talked about this before. I guess as well that if you go back to Dickensian times you could probably find a bit of that going on at that time as well. I suppose it is not entirely new. I think it is all about how we go out and reach people in different ways for public debate today, recognising the reality. That is the important thing that I think we have got to recognise. There is no point in us sitting back and thinking we can wind the clock back. You read these fantastic accounts of how Gladstone would go out and address 200,000 people. Most of us when we are addressing rallies nowadays they are usually rallies of the converted. We would probably all say that. If they are not - and I have been to a few of those too -
(Mr Blair) I can recall a few, I think, but it is completely different. Gladstone would speak for 45 minutes or an hour and go through a lot of detailed policy. I remember when I did my very first interview for Look North for the North East just after I had become a Member of Parliament on some great issue of the day, the journalist asked me the question and I said, "There are really ten points I would like to make on this." He said, " You have got about 15 seconds," and that is the reality and we are not going to be able to change that. What people will watch on the news is 15 or 20 seconds. We have spent two and a half hours today. For those people who watched live that is fine but whatever appears on the news will be a tiny little segment. We have got to find ways of using new technology and reaching the people in different ways and at least having underneath the headlines a genuine policy debate. I think that would be in the interests of Government and Parliament alike.
(Mr Blair) I suppose there will always be a sense in which young people can be less committed to politics than older people. We all came to politics at different stages but I was probably about 20 before I first got into politics. Sometimes you meet people at the age of 12 or 14 who are fascinated by politics and you are not sure whether to be pleased or worried. There will always be an element of that, I think, but there is a way of reaching out into schools, into universities, and into the new technology that is important and can make a difference. I would like to see all of us as political parties be far more active there. That comes back to the point Jean was talking about raising the general esteem of politics. In the end it is important that people want to go into politics. It is important that young people when they are slightly older and are interested and fascinated and that they want to go in it. I sometimes worry when you meet some of the bright young people in their late twenties and they say, "I am not sure I really want to go into politics", when you are sure that 30 or 40 years ago those people would have been desperate to get in there. Again, it is a job we have all got to do because the one thing that is for sure is that in placid times for governing a country it may not make so much of a difference - although it always makes a difference - if you have a moment of crisis then it is important that you have the quality of people who are committed to public service and committed to the country in politics. That is why I think this is something we should all look at as political parties. Maybe again we should be looking at this across the political parties together rather than thinking that we are just in the position of competition with one another for a limited number of highly politically conscious people.
Chairman: Thank you very much. First of all, may I apologise to those who did not get in but obviously they will be borne in mind next time. May I make the point to the press and to colleagues that as we have now cleared many of the questions relating to the role of the Prime Minister next time it will be possible to go into much more depth on individual issues. I think it has been a very wide ranging and very good natured exchange and it shows that you can disagree without acrimony. I thank you, Prime Minister. It has been an impressive performance. It has been a real marathon for you. I am sure the Committee have enjoyed it very much and look forward to the next session.