Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 314-319)


4 JULY 2006

  Q314 Chairman: May I welcome everyone, including the Prime Minister, to the ninth session. This time we have varied slightly in that we have four themes instead of three, and I am grateful to you for agreeing to that change. The themes, as usual, have been notified to the Prime Minister, but the individual questions have not. The four themes are: first of all, the Prime Minister's leadership style; secondly, the counter-terrorism strategy; thirdly, migration and population policy; and, fourthly, which I think is going to be a regular, ongoing item, is an international update, I think we describe it as because it will be quite wide-ranging. Those are the four subjects and we start with your leadership style as the Prime Minister. Can I remind you of a true incident I told you of a while ago. My first understanding of primus inter pares was when a colleague of mine was appointed Secretary of State for the first time, attended Cabinet and when it got to a very controversial area of debate, Harold went arund the table, listening to the voices, and at the end said, "Well, I think that's clearly carried". My colleague looked up and said, "I'm sorry, Prime Minister, but I have been keeping a tally and it was two against", at which point every other head, except hers and the Prime Minister's, dropped and stared at their pads, and Harold smiled at her sweetly and said, "I think you'll find my arithmetic is correct"! Do you run a democratic Cabinet or are you the one who does the arithmetic?

Mr Blair: Well, we have not actually had votes at the Cabinet, no, because I do not think it is probably a very good idea really, but of course you have a discussion on the issues that arise. In the end, it would be odd if the Prime Minister did not have a firm view as to what he thought was the right thing to do.

  Q315  Mr Beith: It seems a good time to ask you, Prime Minister, have you changed the role of the Prime Minister in ways which would outlast you?

  Mr Blair: No, I think everyone does it in their own way, and my general view of this is that you are accused of one of two things. You are either accused of being dictatorial or you are accused of being weak and you kind of pay your money and you take your choice with that, and occasionally both at the same time.

  Q316  Mr Beith: Have you found it easier to get positive headlines out of announcing new laws, cracking down on crime, for example, than out of making sure that departments are actually run properly and administering laws they have already got?

  Mr Blair: I have not found it easy for some time to get positive headlines through any route at all, to be blunt about it! No, I think it depends. In relation to the Home Office, and I am very happy to go into this, I think there are two views, if I am open about it. One is that actually legislation is not the answer and it is a system of management changes and the other, which is the view that I have, is that legislation is in part the answer and you need the management processes to go alongside that. No, it is not a question of whether it is positive headlines or negative headlines. The fact is that, particularly in the Home Office sphere, I think because of the way the world is changing so quickly and the nature of illegal immigration and crime is changing, then I think it is not surprising that you have had a lot of legislation. On its own, it is not the answer, but I would not want to be without any of the bits of legislation we have passed.

  Q317  Mr Beith: But you are without quite a lot of the bits of legislation you have passed. A substantial part of the Domestic Violence (Crime and Victims) Act 2004 and 17 distinct parts of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 are not in force yet. The High Court has commented on the fact that many of the Orders necessary to the 2003 Act are not in force yet and you are reviewing the Act anyway, so, far from being content with it, you are concerned, as I think a lot of people are, at the effect of the automatic third off for guilty pleas and the halfway mark for potential parole which has to be announced by the judge in passing sentence, so all this legislation you are very pleased about, a lot of it is not in force and some of it you are reviewing within a couple of years of it coming on to the statute book.

  Mr Blair: Actually the bulk of it is in force and the main parts of it, for example, the indeterminate sentences, we are pleased with. It was an issue at the time, if you remember, about whether you got the automatic reduction in the sentence as a result of a guilty plea and actually the Government's view, I think, originally was that you probably should not if the person, as it were, was caught red-handed, and there was that whole debate around that. I think it was because of the Home Affairs Select Committee report actually which said, "No, you really should have it as automatic" that we then changed the law, but obviously time goes on and then concerns develop. If I look back on it, in relation to the 2003 Act I think it is quite a good example of it. I think the indeterminate sentences are working far better than the previous system. On the other hand, however, as we see from the concern about recent cases, with this area in particular, and I almost think it is kind of sui generis in terms of legislation, there is a constant need to go back and look again and review the legislation that is there because changes are happening so quickly in the way that these issues are developing, as I say, not just in our country, but actually throughout the whole of the Western world at the moment, so I think when you look at the Home Office, it is not a question of saying, "How do you get the right headline?", it is a question, however, of saying that there is massive public concern out there about aspects of the criminal justice system. I think you can track this back, and actually going back over the last 20 years there has been a lot of concern about the way the system works. Interestingly, I looked at the period before we came to office. I think we have had over 50 Home Office bills, but actually in the period before we came to office there were over 60, including 19 in the last session, so, if it is a feature or a characteristic of our Government, it has not been limited to our Government, but I suspect the actual reason is not to do with the particular Government, but it is to do with the nexus between the public concern and the very quick-changing nature of the problem we are trying to deal with.

  Q318  Mr Beith: What I am suggesting is that you are afflicted with the same disease as your predecessors and that is the belief (a) that legislation on a continuing basis solves problems, and (b) that it is actually a good way of signalling to people and showing to people that you mean to do something about crime, and about a whole series of other things, including terrorism. Have you exaggerated the value of legislation and underestimated the problem?

  Mr Blair: I do not think so because, as I say, when I look at the major pieces of legislation, and some of them are reasonably small pieces, but in the major pieces of legislation on anti-social behaviour, on proceeds of crime, on anti-terrorism legislation, on asylum and immigration, there is none of those bits of legislation I would want to be without. Each of them has made a difference. If you take anti-social behaviour legislation, until we started changing the law to give greater powers to the police at the front line, we did not really have the ability to make a big difference to this issue in local communities; we now do. If you take the Proceeds of Crime Act, if you were to talk to any of the senior police officers engaged in, for example, organised crime, they would all of them say that the Proceeds of Crime Act has been an important part of their being able to tackle organised crime effectively. If you look, for example, at the immigration and asylum legislation, there is still a huge issue out there incidentally on both of those questions. On the other hand, I do not think we would ever have got the massive reduction in asylum applications between a few years ago and today where last year we had the lowest number since 1994, I think, without the legislation. The one thing I am not saying is that legislation is the whole of the answer, but I in fact powerfully disagree with the view, although I know it is very commonly held, that legislation is not part of the answer. I think it is part of the answer and I think it is not surprising that the previous Government and this Government have been going back over this area and legislating again.

  Q319  Mr Beith: Have you ever assessed what the impact on a department, like the Home Office, is of carrying through so many bills, preparing them, having a bill team to carry them through the House, working out implementation, trying to see them through into effect? The management time and the leadership effort which has to go into that legislative process is not being engaged in getting the Department running properly and that is presumably one of the reasons why the Home Office is not fit for purpose.

  Mr Blair: I do not think that is the problem. I think the problem is, and it is a very good debate to have incidentally, but I am in profound disagreement with people who say that it is systems management in the Home Office alone that is going to solve this. If you take the issue to do with illegal migration and how you deport people, the fact is that the legal context within which immigration officers are working is of massive importance to them in how they are able to carry out their task. If the legislation is not helping them and backing them up, it is far more difficult for them then to remove people.

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