Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 180-199)

6 JULY 2004


  Q180 Tony Wright: I do not know what building capacity means. Does it mean that we are going to make the popular school twice as big?

  Mr Blair: I do think there is a case for saying that good schools that are popular can expand, but I think that you also have to intervene in the case of failure and make that school that is not providing a good service improve it.

  Q181 Tony Wright: Why do we not do what the Americans do with their charter schools, which we were interested in at one time here, which basically allows anybody to apply to any school and they have a lottery to decide who gets in? That is a radical choice model that people could understand, but that is not one that we are embracing, is it?

  Mr Blair: We are not embracing that one, no. What we are embracing, however, is the City Academy model which means that you take a school that has failed, you are turning it round with outside sponsorship, with some government investment, the school is run with its own distinctive ethos and purpose and these schools that are now starting are immensely successful. I simply say to anybody who wants to see how you actually can turn around failing schools that they should go and visit some of the new academies that are starting up round the country. If you take the treatment of heart disease and heart patients within the National Health Service for example, when we introduced the choice for people that after a certain period of waiting you could choose to go wherever you wanted it was fantastically successful and popular. It has helped build up capacity within the system and as a result of it people are getting treated far faster. What I would say about this choice issue in a sense is to demystify it. It is not the be-all-and-end-all of the entire debate, but what it is is an important lever in circumstances where otherwise your user of public services has no choice but to use a bad service. The reason why I think it is so important for our side of politics to take this up is that my passionate belief is that public services should remain for all parts of the community. Public services should not be the services for those that cannot afford to go private. Once that happens—and this is the danger, for example, with parts of the education system in London, let us be blunt about it—then you lose the support for universal public services. We are not going to have a free-for-all but we are going to have greater freedom, greater independence and we are going to do that against a background of wanting to say to parents, if the school that is on your doorstep is not sufficiently good, we are not going to leave you with the choice of either going privately or sticking with the school that is not up to standard.

  Q182 Chairman: Prime Minister, I listen but I do not understand. I have got my Public Accounts Committee hat on at the moment. Following on from what Tony has said, schools have finite capacity, they can be expanded to a limited extent. The idea of choice is fine, but the idea of the sort of absolute choice you have adduced is just unattainable unless you have an enormous massive surplus capacity and therefore wasted resources within the system. It is fine in theory but it will not work in practice.

  Mr Blair: I just do not agree with that argument. I do not see what is difficult to understand about it.

  Q183 Chairman: I will tell you what is difficult to understand. I have a school in my constituency exactly as Tony described, where the people from Donald's patch would try to get into that school, and I can understand why. One has had a situation where a grandfather living within the catchment area adopted the granddaughter from Donald's side so that the child would go to the school on my side. The school on my side already has all these portable classrooms, there is nowhere else to put people. How do you give choice in a situation like that?

  Mr Blair: Surely that makes my point for me, that what you have got to do is you have got to ask why are the other schools in the area not of a standard—

  Q184 Chairman: You have not answered the question. Where are the children going?

  Mr Blair: The very reason why you are having to deal with this problem is that at the moment the good school is over-subscribed and as a result of that there are people who are not getting the choice of school that they want. The answer to that surely, Alan, is not to take away their right to choose but to expand the capacity within the school system of good schools, which is the reason for the changes and reforms we are making, and then give them the greater choice.

  Q185 Tony Wright: My local authority and others are still pursuing a pretty robust surplus places policy. Are you now announcing the end of the policy of removing surplus places from the system?

  Mr Blair: No, I am not saying that. I am simply saying that you cannot say that good schools are unable to expand simply because you have got surplus places elsewhere when the surplus places elsewhere may be in a school that is not up to standard. We have a very simple choice on this if you like. We either say that in no circumstances is that good school going to be able to expand, even though it could expand and wants to, because there are surplus places at a school that someone does not want to send their children to. I am sorry, in the end that is not acceptable. We have to make sure that we are not simply allowing the good school to expand but we are also taking measures to deal with the school that is not up to scratch. That is why I do not agree with the free-for-all. I think it is important to give parents a range of different choices. When people say that this is something that simply middle class parents want, I do not agree with that. I think it is something that all parents who have got aspirations for their children want. Unless you could expand the capacity this is a meaningless debate, I totally agree with you, but if you do expand the capacity it is a very meaningful debate for parents.

  Q186 Chairman: Let us take it in school terms. If you expand a good school by 30 places at entrance, you have to expand it by 30 places all the way through the school system to accommodate those extra children as they go through. That is a massive increase. It is not attainable particularly on existing sites. In the meantime, even if you have got what you want, what you are doing is only creating a return to the secondary modern by having a two-tier school system within the same time.

  Mr Blair: You are not doing anything of the sort. The very hypothesis you posit is that you have got your two tiers, ie you have got one school they all want to get into and you have got another they do not want to go to. We really will have to debunk this idea that we do not have different tiers of provision within our public services at the moment. There is not a single one of us round this table who is a parent that does not look at different schools to see whether they are good or not. Therefore the tiers that you have are tiers in relation to quality. In the example that you give, if your successful school in your community thinks it is unattainable and it does not want to expand, it does not have to, but that is not the issue. The issue is whether you say to them they are not allowed to expand even though they could, which I think is an unacceptable restriction to put on them, but that is not all I am suggesting. At the same time, if the school in your constituency—and I do not know the ins and outs of it so I do not want to criticise it—is not providing high enough standards, we have got to ask why and then take remedial action. I am not suggesting this thing called choice hangs out there on its own as a sort of abstract because in the schools system at the moment in theory there is choice. The problem is there are not enough schools to choose from and therefore you have got to have both, both the capacity and the choice. I say to you in all honesty, I passionately disagree with this notion that at the moment this is a system where there is a marvellous degree of equity and everyone just goes to their next-door school because they think that is really what they should do. It is not what happens. As you know perfectly well, people move homes, they do whatever they can do in order to get their kids into the best school and I think that is natural. People want the best for their kids and they are going to carry on doing that and our job is to provide more good schools. We have put far more money into the most disadvantaged areas for schooling. The Excellence in Cities programme is raising the standard of schools in some of the poorest parts of the country.

  Q187 Mr Sheerman: Would you support an academy for Swansea?

  Mr Blair: I think if you can get one, get one. All I can tell you is that you will find some of the most disadvantaged kids in schools that are new schools and they are providing high quality education and I think all of these schools are schools that had fewer than 20% of the kids getting five good GCSEs.

  Q188 Mr Hinchliffe: I think I would be the first to acknowledge that there have been some very significant improvements in the NHS in terms of quality of care in particular and indeed increases in capacity. I was struck very strongly recently when the NHS White Paper was launched at the exchange that took place in the Commons between the two front benches which was almost exclusively around this narrow area of choice as the key issue in health. If you are still Prime Minister by 2020 and there is quite a good chance you will be, half our children will be clinically obese on current trends. We are currently spending between £6.5 and £7.5 billion economically on obesity and, frankly, choice is an irrelevance to the real health issues. It is very nice to talk about this consumerist approach to choosing hospitals but it really does not address some of the pretty serious problems that we have. Do you not feel that the Government has a role to play in shifting the focus of the debate on health towards a preventive agenda rather than on to a hospital and curative agenda?

  Mr Blair: I totally agree with the last point, I think we do have a responsibility. I think you are right in a sense to say that this concept of choice has become a surrogate for a debate about the consumers' role in public services. My view of this again is very, very simple, which is that for my father's generation post-War people got the basic services that they never had before and that was a tremendous innovation and step forward and a whole lot of social progress through the 1944 Education Act and the creation of the National Health Service and so on arose from that. What we do in the private sector part of our lives is we have gone beyond mass production, we have a range of different choices and we operate far more as consumers. I think that in respect of public services people demand and expect to have, particularly with the large sums of money going in, a more personalised service, a service more responsive to them. That is why when we first said you should be able to see a health professional within 24 hours and your GP within 48 I know it caused problems for some GPs, but I used to say to my people, is that the most we can offer? You should be able to get access into the health care system pretty quickly and that is the reason for walk-in centres and NHS Direct and so on. I agree with you that sometimes the thing appears to revolve around choice. I think it is more fundamental than that. It is about how you personalise public services for today's world. I think the choice argument is important in that. All I say is that the empirical evidence we have within the Health Service is that when people are given the choice they enjoy exercising it.

  Q189 Mr Hinchliffe: We have a Public Health White Paper coming out in the Autumn. Will that be a radical White Paper in terms of putting public health at the centre of the Government's agenda cross-departmentally? One of the worries that I have on a range of policies is that we can evaluate them financially, we can find the cost implications of them, but we rarely ever seem to address the environmental consequences and the health consequences. A good example is the Congestion Charge policy in London. We know the costs of implementing it, we know the cost benefits arising from it, but we have not evaluated the positive health consequences, the fact that people need to walk more and cross the street safely.

  Mr Blair: The point you make about public health and prevention is absolutely right. I hope the White Paper is radical in this area. It is difficult though because you will run into this concept that you can see over the issue to do with smoking bans and the issue to do with obesity and whether we discourage certain types of advertising of particular foods to children and all the rest of it. I find it quite difficult to talk about the issue of what is the Government's role in relation to obesity? In the end I cannot tell someone how to live their life.

  Q190 Mr Hinchliffe: The Government's role is to evaluate in any area of policy the possible health consequences.

  Mr Blair: Yes, that is true. I think what you can do is educate people as to the lifetime changes they can make in order to give themselves a better and more effective life. I think you reach quite early on in these debates a crux which is the issue to do with—if I can call it in crude political terms—the nanny state notion, to what extent is the Government able to say this is what you must do? I think what the Government can do in relation to healthy living is that it can explain to people what the facts are. It can do a lot more in schools, for example, to make sure that people know what the consequences are of the lifestyle that they lead and it may be in certain areas—and the smoking issue is one of them—that you can take action now that maybe a few years ago people would have said, "What on earth do they think they're doing getting into that?" So this debate does move. I agree that the prevention aspect is fantastically important, there is no doubt about that at all. If you look at health care costs going forward, the biggest single item of cost will be people who have got chronic diseases that they need to manage of one sort or another and sometimes these are intimately linked to the lifestyle that they have led. This will be a very important debate. The policy conclusions out of it will be quite difficult and the balance between educating people or trying to persuade people and enforcement will be quite difficult.

  Q191 Derek Conway: Sticking on this question of choice and, as you say, it is a question of whether the consumers' role is the driving force or whether it is the service provider. I am dealing with a case at the moment where in the Queen Mary, Sidcup, a surgeon said to a constituent, "I think it's in your best interests to have your leg amputated." This was not a nice choice. So he was taken to the Roehampton Limb Centre and it was explained to him what the consequences would be and he thought, "Yeah, I can live with that, that's okay," except once the operation happened the Primary Care Trust insist he goes to a different limb centre, where the limbs are completely different and the impact is going to be completely different for him. A small case, important to him, but the choice has gone from the surgeon giving the patient an informed choice about the consequences of the operation and then bureaucracy screwing the whole thing up. How do you get your demand for consumer-driven choice through the system without making it consumer led rather than service provider led, which is the problem that exists in the Health Service today?

  Mr Blair: I think that is a very good point. I think you have to have, first of all, the capacity that you require. For example, if the Primary Care Trust was saying to him that he had to go to a different limb centre, that is presumably because there were difficulties with them—

  Q192 Derek Conway: It is because of the contracts they sign.

  Mr Blair: Once you have a fixed tariff within the system it will become easier for people then to move around the system in a better way. Even when you do that you will still have a key question which is how you build capacity in the longer term. Whether we are talking about the best surgeons or the best schools, there will always be a tension because people will want to gravitate to where the best quality service is. I think public services have their own distinct ethos, but I think they are the same as every other walk of life in this sense in that if there was no contestability in any set of circumstances there tends not to be much of an incentive on people, other than the ones who are absolutely dedicated just for the sake of being dedicated, providing a decent service and that is why I think this principle of contestability is important. It will be easier with the fixed tariff for your constituent to move within the system in the way that they want. The reason why we are rolling out choice and not simply introducing it immediately is because we recognise we do have to expand the capacity of the system before the choice is meaningful.

  Chairman: Prime Minister, we are now going to move to the energy policy section. Current recent events have focused attention on the short-term problems and possibly long-term problems in relation to oil, but we need to look at the question of the energy facilities and prospects across the whole range of energy.

  Q193 Dr Gibson: We will move you from AC to DC now, I think, the energy debate. There is a lot of interest in the country about the link between energy, electricity and solar production and climate change. I think they are linked in people's minds. All we have been talking about so far does not come to anything unless the machines run, the buses run and so on and we have fuels that do not destroy the environment. So we really want to look at the energy policy of the Government, whether it is really going to get us to that world that many people make their speeches around. In fact, last night I see Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his first Green speech, adopted the approach of the Eastern Orthodox Church "that destroying the environment was a sin, and that Christians had a duty to protect it." Your Chief Scientific Adviser, David King, goes on to describe climate change in his terms as "a weapon of mass destruction". How would you relate to those two statements?

  Mr Blair: I do not think I had better qualify on the religious status of climate change, but the single biggest long-term problem we face as a world is the issue of climate change. The evidence now is overwhelming. The Kyoto agreement, which we support and whose targets we will implement, amounts effectively to a 1% reduction in emissions, whereas the evidence that we have is that there is a 60% reduction in emissions required by 2050.

  Q194 Dr Gibson: Let us look at some of those targets then in detail. There are many people who think we are not going to reach them with the policies we have now. Professor Trevor Davies, who operates a five-star department at the University of East Anglia and Norwich, it is a world class organisation, they have the Tyndale Centre which the Government gave them there, has said to me, "The generation of electricity from renewable sources"—in this country—"is falling well short of Government targets and the gap between those targets and energy actually generated is increasing. This will mean that the target for 10% for 2010 will be missed. Therefore, more proactive promotion, awareness-raising and innovation . . . is needed." Do you think he is talking out of his head?

  Mr Blair: No, I do not think he is talking nonsense at all. We believe we will meet the target for renewables, but it is challenging and I think that there is a need, as we are doing, to step up investment in renewables. My own view of this, having looked at it very carefully indeed and it is one of the issues that we will be raising in the context of our G8 chairmanship next year, is that without a concerted push on the science and technology we are not going to be able to meet, not merely the Kyoto targets, I do not mean Britain as a country, I mean any of the countries, or deal with this problem on anything like the scale that it needs to be dealt with.

  Q195 Dr Gibson: What role has the United States got in that because, quite clearly, they do not agree with the global warming research that has been done elsewhere in the world? In fact, many people think they have taken positive steps to prevent those targets being met across the world. Do you agree with that?

  Mr Blair: We have a disagreement with the United States about this. I think that the Kyoto Protocol is essential. I think it is an essential first step. I think we then need to build on it. One of the parts of the debate we are pursuing with the United States is as to whether there is at least certain areas in relation to science and technology that we can agree we need major investment in for the future. If we are going to rely on fossil fuels for our energy requirements in the future we are not going to be able to deal with the climate change issues as well. I do not think that is just an issue for America, incidentally, I think it is going to be increasingly an issue for China and India and some of the emerging economies that are going to be immensely strong as well. We have a disagreement, but it is not a disagreement simply with the American administration, obviously there is a very large part of Congress and the Senate that do not accept this thesis either.

  Q196 Dr Gibson: How does the conversation go with the President when you bring this subject up, is it friendly or do you pass by in the night on the subject?

  Mr Blair: It is perfectly friendly but there is a disagreement.

  Q197 Dr Gibson: Does he storm out of the room?

  Mr Blair: No, he does not storm out of the room. As he points out to me, this is not merely a problem with the administration, it is a problem with Congress and Senate as well. I think the Senate voted 100 to nothing against the Kyoto Treaty when it first arose. Yes, of course, it is a dialogue we must pursue, but as they point out, even if the administration agrees, you have then got to get it through their Congress and so on. I do not think we should give up on the dialogue with the United States. I think increasingly within the United States the debate has shifted in the sense that there were statements from some parts of the administration when they first came to office that suggested they did not accept the science on climate change. I do not take them as saying that anymore. I think they accept the science. The question is what do you do about it? That is in itself a significant change that we need to build upon. The fuel cell technology, tidal energy, what is the capability of the full renewable package? This requires an awful lot of investment in research and development as well as simply building on what we know now.

  Q198 Dr Gibson: Let me ask you what you think of the comment by James Lovelock, the hypothesis man, who said that "opposition to nuclear is based on an irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction." He thinks and there was a newspaper headline recently saying this, "Only nuclear power can halt global warming". What do you think of that in terms of your White Paper, which leaves the nuclear option absolutely open and unclear? People are saying we need nuclear power. Do you agree with that?

  Mr Blair: I think it is a question of balancing the costs and making sure that the concerns that people have about safety are dealt with. The reason why we left it open is precisely because we recognise this is a debate that is not over. I certainly do not favour closing the door on that debate. We have not committed ourselves to a new generation of nuclear power stations, but I do not think you can close the door on that. I think it is a debate that will continue. Unless you deal with the costs and the concerns that the public have I think it is very difficult to see the future for it.

  Q199 Mr Key: Prime Minister, why do you think that the United Kingdom is resistant to nuclear power generation?

  Mr Blair: I think it is because people believe there is a safety issue in respect of it. We all judge what our own constituents would feel. If any of us round the table suddenly went along to our local constituents and said, "We're going to build a nuclear power station in the constituency," how widely supportive do you think they would be?

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