Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)




  1. Welcome, Prime Minister. We are delighted to have you here today. It is the first time a Committee has ever had the opportunity to question the Head of Government on his role as Head of Government. It is 65 years, I have discovered, as a result of a little bit of research, since a Prime Minister was last before a select committee. Strangely enough, in the 1930s Prime Ministers appeared four times. I do not want to appear to be putting ideas into your head, but it so happened that in those days the Prime Minister combined the job of Prime Minister with Leader of the House. I hope you will not tell Robin Cook that I mentioned this. It was in that role that he tended to get called; so you are actually making a unique contribution to accountability today. Before I ask you to say a few opening words, it might be helpful to those who are listening and watching on the screens if I explained the procedures we are going to follow today. It is fairly straightforward. The Committee has chosen four themes. We have told the Prime Minister what those themes are—only the themes, not the questions. When he first put the proposition of these sessions, two a year, he himself said he did not want to know the questions, and, to be honest, I do not know the individual questions; I just know the areas of questioning. The Prime Minister has been told the themes so he could focus his brief. I think everyone would understand that. Today's themes are four, as I say. We start with the Prime Minister's role at the centre of Government and his relationship with Parliament. Then we move on, appropriately after yesterday, to the delivery of public services; then into international affairs, with particular focus on the war against terrorism and related issues; and, finally, a brief section on quality of political life. Can I emphasise, particularly to the press, that this is the start of a process. There is no way in which this sitting can be comprehensive. The wider we cast our net the shallower our questioning inevitably becomes. This is the first of two sessions each year; the next one is in January. It will be impossible to cover every major issue; and it will be impossible to call every individual member. May I express in advance my gratitude for the offer, and at the end I will thank all my colleagues who have said they are willing to sit back quietly on this particular occasion. The aim is to move away from the approach of Question Time in the House, by having the opportunity to come back with repeat questions; it need not be confrontational; it can be a questioning discourse. I hope that it will therefore be calmer and more productive than from the House of Commons' point of view, and hopefully even more from the public's point of view. Having said that, Prime Minister, would you like to make a few opening remarks?

  (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. I call Tony Wright, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee.

Tony Wright

  2. Prime Minister, it is good to have you amongst us. You say that Prime Ministers in the past have refused invitations like this to come to speak to a parliamentary committee. Of course, as you know, I used to write to you and ask you to come along to an event like this, and you used to write back to me telling me that the constitution would not allow it. Indeed, you wrote to me on 17 June 2000 to say: "I can see no case for departing from the long-standing convention that Prime Ministers do not themselves give evidence to select committees". What I would like to know is: does the fact that you have come here mark a completely new style of government?
  (Mr Blair) I suppose in light of what I wrote to you it marks something of 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.

  3. Is part of the change of perspective caused by the fact, just as the last Government had the word "sleaze" attached to it, this Government has got the word "spin" attached to it; and we have now got a whole trail of people, from Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Robin Cook and Clare Short saying, "We spun too much; we must do it differently". Is this part of doing it differently?
  (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

  4. Prime Minister, what a lot of us are interested in, is what are the constraints on a Prime Minister today? Is it the Cabinet; is it Parliament; is it the Civil Service; is it individual Government departments? What I am interested in is the inner-wiring of your Government—how decisions are made. Traditionally a government department would work up a policy because that is where the expertise was, that is where the ministers were, and if it involved sensitive issues or other government departments it would be brokered through sub-committees, possibly ending with Cabinet. This process seems to be short-circuited under your administration. Can I just quote what one of your former Cabinet Ministers said: "More and more decisions were being taken by Number 10 without consultation with the relevant Minister or Secretary of State. He makes decisions with a small coterie of people, advisers, just like the President of the United States. He doesn't go back to Cabinet, he isn't inclusive . . .". Is there any substance in what one of your former colleagues said about this style of Government?
  (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.

  5. If Mo Mowlem has got it wrong, what about Sir Richard Packer, a former Permanent Secretary? "They have shaken up Departments and there's a lot more power at the centre. There are groups at the centre with the Prime Minister's ear . . . if something goes wrong, departmental responsibility is clear; but if something goes right, they read in the newspaper it is all the Prime Minister's idea"?
  (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 people than either the French Prime Minister, never mind the Elysee and the Prime Minister combined, or the German Chancellor.

Tony Wright

  6. I am not sure we are comparing it with other systems; I think we are comparing it with how we recently run the Government here. I think that is the comparison. You have always been very open (and you are today) about the need for this strong centre. Last year you talked about "making sure that the writ of the Prime Minister runs throughout". If you look at what has happened, just the sheer growth of Number 10, more than doubling of the number of special advisers inside government, about a third of those are inside Number 10, we cannot pretend this is the same kind of government that is going on now, can we?
  (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.

  7. Prime Minister, with respect, you have not expanded the centre so that you can deal with correspondence have you?
  (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, an 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.

  8. What I want you to say is, that we now have a different way of doing government here. Peter Hennessey talks about "Washington has now come to Whitehall". All the people who know about these things say something similar. Why can we not just say, there may be good reasons for having it, we have a Prime Minister's Department. The fact you have come here today means we are moving towards a Prime Minister's Department. Why be so coy about it?
  (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, I don't mind much". 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

  9. Have you not strengthened Number 10 but weakened your Government and weakened Parliament? If you are going to have all this power focussed in the centre, and in many cases on one person, do you also need to have the checks? Is it not the case that the checks are not working any more, in that Cabinet is not a check; the Civil Service around you is increasingly special advisers and Parliament has been weakened? If you are going to move the centre of gravity into Number 10, do you not also need to make sure you have the checks, so that in a parliamentary democracy we can hold to account the place where the power has now moved to?
  (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.

  10. One of your colleagues said that if you want to seek an entry into politics you no longer need to do it via Cabinet, but via a member of the UK presidential staff; that is Graham Allen. If he is right, is it really the case that the Cabinet is this enormous constraint? Has not the decision-making process moved over to some extent to special advisers whom we cannot get at, because you will not let Parliament cross-examine them?
  (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.

Tony Wright

  11. Charles Clarke told the Wickes Committee last week that we have too many special advisers. Is that right?
  (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 Leigh

  12. Prime Minister, you are strengthening Downing Street but, unfortunately because the Vote for Downing Street is contained within the Cabinet Office we have no idea what is the cost of these various units you are creating. Are you prepared to open up the accounts of Downing Street so that we can scrutinise them?
  (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.

  13. As you know, the way we often operate as select committees, we do not expect you to know every answer but we would be very grateful to receive a note. For instance, you have created several new offices within Downing Street: the Office of Public Service Reform; the Office of the e-envoy; the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit; the former Strategy Unit; the Performance and Innovation Unit. Are you prepared to give us a note on what these are costing, the staffing?
  (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.

  14. Thank you for that, Prime Minister. There have been reports that the cost of Downing Street has doubled in recent years. These are press reports and it is all the more important that we get the facts. There has also been criticism by departments that these offices are uncoordinated and lack coherence; and Sir Andrew Turnbull has been charged to try and improve their performance. Could I ask you about the Office of the e-envoy, which we understand from our work on the Public Accounts Committee, is now employing 270 staff which is costing up to 30-35 million a year. When we asked them, "What about the targets they have set?"—for instance you have said all government services should be on-line by 2005, but the e-envoy was unable to tell us how successful he has been in persuading government departments to actually meet these targets. Do you agree, there is no purpose in setting up all these central units if they are not actually delivering improvements on the ground, and departments are not listening to the advice you have given?
  (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 Sheerman

  15. Prime Minister, most of us, I think, would not argue with the need for a stronger centre in order to deliver on policy and public policy reform. What we see over a number of years, not just under your Prime Ministerial period, is the centre getting stronger and Parliament getting weaker—not only getting weaker in terms of its ability to scrutinise the executive but really seeing (and I think you will have seen coming in when you did and myself coming into Parliament at the Election before) the way in which parliamentary debates are much thinner and weaker; much of what we do is less effective. In one sense there is a peripheralisation of politics and Parliament. We have devolved assemblies. We have the move of power to the European Union, and we have re-energised an Upper Chamber. Is this going to be your only contribution to improving that kind of Parliament/Executive relationship or can you think of other ways in which we can improve it?
  (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 have given even 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, but 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 a nd I think it is unrealistic to expect them to devote a lot of time to that, they will never do any talking.

  16. Prime Minister, some people have argued that the Select Committee system is one way to re-energise the parliamentary initiative and if we are to do that, we have got to be able to scrutinise, and indeed our method of scrutiny can actually help in your own ambition for putting public service investment in, but demanding reform. We are at the very heart of being able to help in that scrutiny process in terms of evaluating whether the extra money that was announced yesterday is actually effective, but the problem we have very often when we are trying to scrutinise the Executive is that many of the decisions are still seen to be made not in departments and our writ does not run. We cannot get anyone from the PIU to come before a Select Committee, we cannot get anyone from your Policy Unit before a Select Committee, and you say the media takes interest, but the media would take much greater interest if I could get Andrew Adonis in front of my Committee or other senior advisers when we suspected they were making very important policy decisions in Number 10 or in the PIU.
  (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.

  17. Why are you so reluctant to allow it? This is going to be every six months, it is going to be very useful and I welcome it, so why are you so reluctant to allow senior policy influences, if I can call them that, to come before a Committee? It is not going to be life-threatening, is it, to have a frank discussion with a Select Committee?
  (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.

  18. You do take the point that we can in fact help you in terms of scrutiny, as a more powerful Parliament? I got the feeling in your first Government that you saw Parliament as rather peripheral and I actually feel the change now, that you perhaps think we could actually be quite useful to you as a partner? I do hope that you do push these reforms not just at these twice-every-year meetings, but see the Select Committee system in Parliament scrutinising the public policy reform as an essential element of the change in the Constitution that you are going after?
  (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

  19. Prime Minister, there is massive voter apathy at all levels of government. The electorate, the voters are concerned that there is a lack of independence shown by Members of Parliament because of the power of the party machines. Much legislation goes through Parliament undebated because of the timetable motions or, as they are now described, "programming motions" and many important issues now have been ceded to the European Union. For example, even those herbal medicines that we can take are now subject to the European Union rulings, not in fact the rulings of our own Government. Can I ask you sincerely, as somebody who has been devoted to Parliament all the 31 years he has been in this place—and I will say to my colleagues I have been in opposition all 31 of those years- can I ask you, Prime Minister, under your Prime Ministership, is Parliament actually working and does Parliament continue to have a meaningful role or is it just some necessary inconvenience that you have to deal with in order to provide a façade for the democratic process? I ask that question seriously because what is happening deeply worries me and, I believe, worries the voters.
  (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 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.


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