Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 160-179)

6 JULY 2004


  Q160 Sir Nicholas Winterton: If that is the case, Prime Minister, how is it that many people on the Upton and Moss Estates in Macclesfield—a delightful town—are having their lives made hell by the yob culture, anti-social behaviour, low-level crime involving theft from cars, stealing of cars themselves, burglary, by the activities by a limited number of people, often driven by drugs? Would you believe that that is possible in many parts of this country?

  Mr Blair: Yes, I certainly accept that these are real issues in communities up and down the country, which is one reason why I think it is so important that we take forward and implement the measures of anti-social behaviour which give the police more powers than they have ever had before, and, in particular, we single out and deal with the issue of drugs and the relationship between drugs and crime.

  Q161 Sir Nicholas Winterton: Would you also accept that many of these people whose lives are being made hell can no longer rely upon the police because the police say they have inadequate manpower to respond to incidents on an estate such as the two that I have mentioned, and they are forever telling me, making representation on behalf of those that I represent, that they have inadequate resources to devote to going to the various incidents that are reported. What is the Government going to do about that and, further, my final point, what are the courts going to do about dealing with these young people who are apprehended, who are making people's lives hell, because so often they appear to pat them on the back and say, "You have done wrong. Please do not do it again", but many of these people are recidivists and go back and do it again because the punishment is inadequate?

  Mr Blair: First of all, I totally sympathise with the problem that you are raising. As I say, it is a problem in communities up and down the country. That is why a few years ago we began the process of introducing legislation specifically designed to deal with anti-social behaviour and did so on that basis; but I think the point about anti-social behaviour is that a lot of the crime is low-level crime in the sense that if someone is convicted in a court then the likelihood of them going to jail for a large period of time is pretty limited. The trouble is the combination of these types of low-level disorder make life hell for people: it is gangs of youths hanging around street corners abusing pensioners on the way to the shops; it is people putting bricks through the window; it is people writing graffiti on the walls, or burnt-out cars. The whole reason we began this anti-social behaviour push was because we could see, I could see, and so could every other Member of Parliament, that this issue as much as the big crimes that attract the headlines in the newspapers was what was worrying people. Therefore we have introduced a whole range of new powers, and I think one thing that is really important is that in the local area people sit down, analyse what powers the police now have for fixed penalty fines on low-level disorder and behaviour, ability to fine parents of kids who are misbehaving in this way, the ability to shut down houses that are being used for drug-dealing, the ability to confiscate the assets of drug-dealers, the drug-dealers who drive around in the big cars and with money in their pocket. There are powers for the police to deal with this now, and a lot of these have come in recently. The police have got the power now to apply for a very quick shutting of a pub or a club where there is constant disorder, and I think what is happening in different parts of the country is that the police are working out: "How do we use these new powers to the most effect?", but that is one aspect.

  Q162 Sir Nicholas Winterton: What about the resources, Prime Minister?

  Mr Blair: I was just coming on to that. The second thing is that the police themselves . . . It is a fact that we have record numbers of police, but the fact is for the public you can give them whatever statistics you like; if they do not see the copper out there on the street they say, "So what". I think we have got to approach this in a slightly different way, and that is why I favour the expansion, as well as of the police, of community support officers and street wardens. I think you need a support team alongside the police in these areas. What has been very popular in certain parts of the country where it has been tried is that you will have a police sergeant, say, a police officer, and you will have two or three community support officers or street wardens and between them they will patrol the area. That does not necessarily mean that you catch all the criminals, but it is a big deterrent effect, it gives the public a lot of reassurance and, armed with the new powers, which mean, for example, they can do on the spot fines, that is very, very important. The problem for a police officer, and I discovered this when I was talking to police officers and saying to them, "If there is graffiti on the wall and you know who has done it, why do you not take them to court and get them fined?" They would say to me, "Look, I have got to take them down to the police station. I have got to go through hours of charging. I have then got to take them to court. I have got to make sure they turn up at court. I have then got to get the witnesses there. I have got to take the case to the Magistrate. It takes nine months and by the time I get to the end of that, for hours and hours of work, the person gets a fine." That is the reason why we introduced the on the spot fines. There are thousands of those being used; there are the anti-social behaviour orders being used as well. All I am saying is I think there are areas where the local authorities and the police have got together and really worked out how they can use these new powers, and I am very willing—and this is where we need feedback from the MPs, because actually this should be something that any person, or any member of the public can agree with—I am very willing to go back and legislate again on this anti-social behaviour if there are problems in the way the law is being used because it is a big, big issue for people.

  Q163 Dame Marion Roe: Prime Minister, is it not the case that the Barker proposals[4]will only serve to draw people out of the inner cities into ever increasingly sprawling suburbs and that this will be at the expense of the regeneration of our cities, the redevelopment of derelict brown sites and the protection of the Green Belt?

  Mr Blair: I do not believe that is the case, Marion, because the Barker proposals, the proposal by Kate Barker in housing, recognises the fact, and it is a fact, that there is an excess of demand over supply for housing in the south of the country. This is just a fact, and the curious thing about the debate we have in housing is that when I am talking to Peter I am having debate about empty houses and when I am talking to you or a Member of Parliament from down in the south their problem is completely different. The truth is that for many families in the south of England it is difficult for them get on the housing ladder; many parents find it very hard to see how their children can get on the housing ladder. We have to expand the supply. What we have tried to do, and the idea behind not just what Kate Barker has said but the proposals John Prescott has put forward, is to identify certain specific areas. There is no question of us concreting over the south or diminishing the acres of Green Belt at all; and we have got a target of 60% or more for brown field sites that we are meeting, but we are going to need to expand the number of houses in the south-east. If we do not do that, then we just do not have the supply of houses that we need.

  Q164 Dame Marion Roe: But, Prime Minister, how can you square the targets for house-building in the south-east that is contained in the Sustainable Communities Plan, which, of course, will serve to further draw economic activity away from the rest of the country, with the Deputy Prime Minister's policy document to revitalise other areas of England through the Northern Way?

  Mr Blair: Because I think you have two separate issues here. I represent a constituency in the north-east of England. That constituency has need of business opportunities, investment and so on. The north-east is doing significantly better than it was a few years ago, but we have got certain policies that help develop that region and deal with that region's problem. The problems in the south are different. I do not think we are going to be . . . By expanding the number of houses in these particular areas, very limited particular areas, particularly in relation to the Thames Gateway where you have got vast tracts of derelict land that we are trying to revitalise, I do not think you are going to take jobs out of the inner city, but what you will do is provide economic regeneration for areas that are, as I say, at the present time, even in the south, derelict, and you will also provide additional housing supply for people that desperately need it, and they do desperately need it. I think with the issue of housing . . . Of course, every time you say you are going to expand housing you get an outcry from people saying, "You are going to concrete over the country or the Green Belt". All we are trying to do is to make sure that there is a sufficient supply of reasonably priced housing that people can get their feet on the home ownership ladder and bring up their family with some prospect of owning an asset.

  Q165 Dame Marion Roe: One final point, if I may, Prime Minister. Is it not the case that the planning for the provision of the necessary infrastructure for this massive number of new houses in the south-east is actually woefully lacking? I am talking about new hospitals, new roads, new schools. Is there not a risk that these vast housing estates will have nothing to actually bind the inhabitants together into a sustainable community?

  Mr Blair: I can assure you, because I Chair the committee on the Thames Gateway, that that is not case, that the Health and Education Departments will be a vital part of this, so is the transport infrastructure; indeed you cannot develop these estates . . . I think to call them vast estates is a slight exaggeration, but it is impossible to develop without putting the basic facilities and infrastructure in there; and that is why the very purpose of having the Cabinet committee that I Chair is so that we make sure that we have actually got the health, the education, the transport infrastructure, the policing infrastructure that is necessary; and the reason why we have set up, as it were, a body that brings together all the various aspects of government in respect of the Thames Gateway is precisely for the reason that you give, Marion, that we know there is no way that we can make this work unless we put in the infrastructure as well, otherwise you just have communities that will put pressure on existing services.

  Chairman: A final question before we go on to the education aspect. David Lepper.

  Q166 Mr Lepper: I am concerned about housing in the south-east and the south as well from a slightly different perspective from the one that Marion has pursued, Prime Minister. I am not so concerned about drawing large numbers of people into the south-east as about providing affordable housing for people, like my constituents, who already live there. My area of the south coast in Brighton and Hove is an area of high housing prices, whether we are talking about buying or whether we are talking about renting, low provision of social housing, high provision, comparatively, of privately rented housing. What we do see are families, as you have just suggested, not sure how their youngsters are going to be able to find their way into the housing market to stay in the area in which they were born. What we also see, I think, because of that is problems of recruitment and retention for our public services, particularly health and education. I wonder whether some of the regional planning that we have talked about so far really is the best way of looking at this issue. I am concerned at a very local level with providing in precise travel to work areas the housing that is needed; and all the planning that has been proposed for the south-east in housing is not going to help my constituents, I do not think.

  Mr Blair: Let my try and deal with one particular aspect, David, of what you are putting to me. Obviously there are always limits to the development and the particular development. The four areas that we have looked at, in particular, do not include yours, but on the other hand, the key workers housing programme is a programme that we have started in London, it is true, but we want to take into other parts of the country where we are providing help for about 10,000 key workers now, and that will be significantly increased over the next few years, and helping precisely those people who we need to recruit in the areas where the cost of housing is very high and yet the salary for a teacher or a nurse or a police officer is not going to be sufficiently higher on any basis for them to be able to live there. So we are trying to do that as well. I think there are certain issues that are the coming issues. I think one is to do with pensions, which is a topic perhaps for another day, but the other is to do with housing. I think both of those will have a much higher prominence in the political debate in the next few years than, as I believe, certain of the issues like the Health Service get into a different place.

  Q167 Mr Lepper: I think one of the issues that the Barker Report raises is about the balance between building for buying and building for renting and particularly social renting. Do you feel that we have got that balance right at the moment? Which way do you think that balance ought to swing in the future? Can you give us some suggestions about how we head in the right direction?

  Mr Blair: The two things that I would say to you is whether the balance is right or not is pretty much a matter of random judgment, to be honest. I believe we have got the balance about right, but I accept that people can make a different judgment. We are trying to make sure that we increase social housing. We are investing a lot in that as well as housing that people will buy. I think the other issue in relation to this is that we also need to look very specifically in certain areas where it can be very difficult sometimes to get the right planning permissions, where there is not enough ingenuity and innovation in how we deal with developers in areas where sometimes they could get easier development if they were prepared to make some commitment to social housing. I think these development issues are again coming up on the agenda. Some of them are very, very difficult to deal with. I think we are getting the balance right, but I do think that the implementation of the Barker Report is a very important part of making sure that for housing in the south-east the situation is somewhat eased.

  Q168 Mr Sheerman: Prime Minister, a lot of governments that have been in power for seven years tackling something as complex as the reform of public services tend to run out of steam. Has your administration run out of steam?

  Mr Blair: No. There is a short answer for you. No, I do not think so. I think the recent health service plans indicate very clearly that we have not.

  Q169 Mr Sheerman: If you take something like the reform of 14 to 19 education, there is a feeling around that the Government is losing its enthusiasm for really shaking up for the 14 to 19 agenda and that they are getting concerned that the Tomlinson Report—because it is going to introduce some very radical proposals for how we educate our young people that the Government is getting nervous and backtracking. What do you say to that sort of thing?

  Mr Blair: No, I think that would be completely wrong, Barry, actually. On the contrary, I think we are prepared to be very radical in relation to 14 to 19 year olds in particular to make sure . . . I think this is one of the issues for us to address, that the vocational stream is given the importance that the academic stream has always had. I held a reception in Downing Street last night for people who provide education post sixteen, and what was interesting there was the very clear view of people from the independent learning sector, from further education colleges and from schools that increasingly young people are looking for very high quality vocational skills training and that a lot of the problems you get in schools are when you have got children aged 14 who may well want to go down the vocational route who are forced into the academic straight-jacket and feel that they are not getting any benefit from that schooling at all. We are awaiting the final report from Mike Tomlinson a little bit later in the year, but I think you will find our response measures up to the scale of the problem. I would point out as well that from 70,000 a few years ago we have now got 250,000 modern apprenticeships, and we will be expanding that still further.

  Q170 Mr Sheerman: But right at the heart of everything you say these days and have said for a very long time about the reform of public services, you have put choice and personalised service right up front. I sometimes get the feeling that you do not explain well enough the way that you see that as a dynamic. Can you explain to us why you see that as a dynamic for change and reform?

  Mr Blair: I think that there are two aspects to this. There is choice for parents and pupils between schools, but there is also choice within whatever institution you are in to pursue, for example, the vocational rather than the academic route, and I think you need to get both of those things right. I do not think . . . Choice, in my view, applies in a different way in education and health, but choice is meaningless unless the capacity is there, unless you are providing, for example, the good schools. If you have one good school in an area and everybody wants to get into it and the other schools are mediocre or doing badly, there is not a great deal of choice because some people will not be able to get into the school that they want to get into. So you have got to combine choice with expanding capacity and raising standards. It is why I do not believe that you can have a free-for-all on schools. I think you need freedom for schools but not a free-for-all: because if you end up saying to schools, "Right, you get on with your own business. Do whatever you want", and those schools are not performing adequately, you are going to end up with a situation where the parents that are the most assertive get their kids into the best school and the other parents end up with their children getting a poor education, and that is not fair.

  Q171 Mr Sheerman: The choice is quite complex for a lot of people. There is an argument that choice favours those people who are well informed, can make those judgments, sophisticated judgments that they are, and, indeed, who have money. Is not choice loading the dice towards the sort of professional middle classes?

  Mr Blair: Let me say, first of all, my view very strongly is that choice should not be dependent on money. I do not believe that we should be giving subsidies to private schools or private healthcare. That is a debate we can have in another forum maybe with other people here, but that is not the choice in my view. However, I do believe it is very important, and I do not think this is simply a middle class preoccupation at all, it is very important when parents come to decide their secondary school, in particular, for their child that there are a range of good schools for them to choose from. I think that is not something limited to people of a certain income. I think that many working class parents feel exactly the same: they want their children to do better. People are often very well aware of what are the good schools and what are not the good schools.

  Q172 Mr Sheerman: We only get good schools and we only get good hospitals if people value the public service; and you will remember, as I do, John Smith's commitment to turning what he thought was a selfish society, worshipping getting rich quick and all that, into serving the community, bringing back serving the community, doing public service jobs as being high value. Do you think your administration has done enough to lead on making public service a respected profession whether it be in health or in education?

  Mr Blair: I do not think it is just a task for government, but I do think the Government has done a lot on this. If you look, for example, at education, if you look at the rises in teachers' pay over the past seven years, they have been significantly more than they were before, the expansion of the numbers of teachers, the expansion of teacher training places. If you are the head teacher of an inner city school in London today it is not impossible that you are on an almost or actually at a six-figure salary. I still think there is a lot more that we need to do. In my view the people who are the entrepreneurs in our public services are every bit as much deserving of public esteem as the entrepreneurs in the private sector. All I would say to you is if you look at the programmes that we have introduced, whether it is specialist schools or excellence in cities, they have made significant differences to school results, and I think it is hard for any of us to go into our local constituencies and visit local schools and not see the investment that has gone in there. Seven years ago we were pretty average on technology in the classroom. We must be one of the best in the world now for the amount of computer technology, and so on, in the classroom.

  Q173 Chairman: What about the child who wants to do woodwork or home economics rather than textiles or even an academic side of the subject?

  Mr Blair: That is where I think the point that Barry is making about Tomlinson and how you provide a really good vocational stream is very important; but I think one of the other things that helps in that is to get more involvement from local business and the business community in schools as well. The specialist schools often have a connection with their local business. Some of the children now in the specialist schools that have a specialism in enterprise, for example, will go and spend some time with local employers before the age of sixteen. I think that is all very helpful and I think, as I say, one of our main tasks in the new next few years is to put the same emphasis on raising vocational standards as we have on the academic side. One of the weaknesses of the British system over a long period of time is that the vocational side has not been given the same prominence.

  Q174 Tony Wright: Prime Minister, choice seems to be the Government's big idea at the moment, indeed it seems to be the opposition's big idea as well, and yet we had the Chairman of the Audit Commission last week saying that he thought it was a useful idea. What I want to ask you is: is it a big idea, is it a little idea, or is it a sort of middle sized idea?

  Mr Blair: The big idea is to raise the standards of service and to do it on the basis of equality rather than on the basis of ability to pay, and choice has a role to play in that. I know people can be very sniffy about choice, but if you are waiting for a long time for an operation and you have for the first time the ability to go anywhere you need where there is spare capacity within the Health Service that is able to treat you, I think choice is very important; and I also think it is very important not, as I say, that we simply introduce choice and theory. The choice is often there now in education. You need to raise the standard of good schools, however, and raise the number of good schools in order that people can exercise their choice better.

  Q175 Tony Wright: What you describe there is in a sense people's second choice. People's first choice is to have a decent service down the road. What everyone is saying to me is that we are putting all this money into public services, record levels of investment in public services; we are now seeing some of the fruits of that coming through, more rapidly in some areas than others, education, health. Why can we simply not stick with that so that people have got some guarantee about getting a good quality service down the road? Why now go off and chase choice?

  Mr Blair: We are not suddenly going off and chasing it. If you take the National Health Service, one of the reasons why you have got every single waiting list indicator and waiting time indicator in a better place is the development of the diagnostic and treatment centres in various different parts of the country, particularly where there is high waiting, where people can go to if they are not able to get into their local hospital. Of course, what everyone wants is the good school and the good hospital on their doorstep. The question is, given that we live in an imperfect world and they do not always have it, are they then just stuck with a failing or poor service on their doorstep or can they exercise the choice to go elsewhere? The important thing about choice is, let me make this clear, choice is only really a means to an end and the means to the end is making sure that if someone does not get a decent service they can choose to go elsewhere and if you do not give them that choice then, actually, that is highly inequitable. The one thing you can be sure of with the more assertive, wealthier, middle class people is that they will make damn sure, one way or another, that they get to the place they need to get to.

  Q176 Tony Wright: Do you not think that people are just a little bit jaundiced about choice? A few years ago we had a rather good directory enquiries service. You just phoned up this number, 192, and they would tell you the number that you wanted and everything was straightforward, and then choice decreed that we had to have loads of different numbers that none of us could remember. We now have a report that has just been published which says less people now use the service than did before and the price is just the same. Do you not think that people just want quality and if that means a bit of planning, let us have a bit of planning?

  Mr Blair: There is planning and where it is necessary you have to plan. I do not agree that choice is not still important for people, Tony. If you look at your local school and you think the results are really not good enough, I do not think it is fair to say to that parent, "I'm sorry, you've just got to wait until the school miraculously becomes better or until someone intervenes and makes it better." Insofar as possible you have got to be able to say to the parent—and this is where you need to open up the school system, have greater diversity of supply, of different types of schools and so on—as far as possible, if that school is not to the standard that you require there is another school that you can go to, and I think the same is true with NHS care. What interests me about both the education and the National Health Service debate is that people say to me now, "What are you on about more change for? You're always on about more change. We've just been through one lot of change and now suddenly you're coming up with another lot of change." I remember when we first introduced specialist schools people told me it was going to end up with elitism. I remember when we first introduced all the changes in the National Health Service people told us it would undermine the nature of the Health Service. The improvements we have seen in health and education have largely been as a result of the policies on which the next ramp of policy actually builds.

  Q177 Tony Wright: What I am simply putting to you is that people want to be able to see in practical terms what some of this means. Let us take a town with just a couple of secondary schools, one is at the posh end of town and is over-subscribed and the other one at the poor end of town people do not want to go to. You tell me which model of choice is going to enable those people in the poor end of town to go to the school in the posh end of town?

  Mr Blair: The model of choice is, and this is why I say choice without building the standards and capacity is a chimera—

  Q178 Tony Wright: So what are we saying?

  Mr Blair: What we are saying is, and this is where I would disagree with the policy of other political parties, is that I think it is extremely important that you do not say, "Well, that school is failing. Tough! There's nothing you can do about it." You have got to intervene and ensure that that school gets better, if necessary by changing the management at the school, the head teacher at the school. That is why the numbers of failing schools, for example, is down by more than a half since we came to office.

  Q179 Tony Wright: That is collective choice. That is us choosing to put in place a policy that will produce that result, that is not individuals choosing.

  Mr Blair: Exactly. I am not saying that choice alone is the answer. I am saying, however, that choice has a part to play along with building capacity. The reason why we are building up choice within the National Health Service rather than simply giving it to people immediately now is that if you do not build the capacity in the Health Service then what you will do is you will just move the bulge of demand round the system. If you actually expand capacity then it makes perfect sense to give people choice.

4   Barker Review of Housing Supply, 17 March 2004 Back

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