Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Quesitons 20-39)


13 DECEMBER 2007

  Q20  Sir George Young: Can I then pick up the point at which I interrupted you. You were going to go on to talk about the social care budgets where in the beginning you said this enfranchised people, you gave them the money, they could decide how to spend it and indeed they could add to it. If you accept the logic of that in personal social care, why do you not accept it in education?

  Mr Brown: The way that we have funded education over the last few years is to increase the diversity of choice available to parents by having academy schools, specialist schools and trust schools. In fact, in academies we are now inviting independent schools in this category, as well as colleges and universities, to play their part in the development of academies. I think that is the best way forward and I do not propose that we return to the state-assisted places scheme. I do not know if you wish to return to it or not.

  Q21  Sir George Young: No, I was just pressing you on the logic of enfranchising people by giving them budgets in one part of the public sector, but denying the same freedom and liberty in another sector.

  Mr Brown: You are essentially talking about, in the social care sector, adults who have got a chance to choose a range of provision that is suitable to them.

  Q22  Sir George Young: Why can parents not do that with their own children?

  Mr Brown: In the state sector, we are providing a range of choice, including of course the first parent-created school in Hackney that has actually been set up in the last few months, so the range of choice is available in the state sector. The question you were asking is: should we have a return to the state-assisted places scheme?

  Q23  Sir George Young: That was not my question.

  Mr Brown: Well, that is the logic of your position, that parents are given money. That is the logic of your position, that you return to the state-assisted places scheme, and I think that did not achieve the results that were intended for it. I think our academies programme, our specialist schools programme, our trust programme and the action that we are now taking perhaps more ruthlessly than before to deal with failing schools is the best way forward.

  Q24  Sir George Young: Can I just press you finally on this. We saw your predecessor here for about 20 hours, a lot of it on public sector—

  Mr Brown: I certainly would not get to Lisbon in those circumstances!

  Q25  Sir George Young:— a lot on public sector reform, and we heard about the scars on his back, how he always wished he had gone further and faster with reform, the forces of conservatism. Do you have the same impatience as he displayed to us to drive this agenda forward or are you slightly more cautious?

  Mr Brown: No, we are just going further and faster now and I have just described how we move in increasing the diversity of supply through greater competition and contestability, extending right across the board in the Health Service moving obviously into social care, in education as well, and I think you will see announcements in the future about how we can do exactly the same in welfare, so I am describing how that can happen. I am also saying, if you take health, education and social service, let us root out failure. The culture of the second best is not acceptable to me. It is a culture of excellence that we have got to achieve and, therefore, we have got to root out failing schools, we have got to deal, as we will, with failing hospitals and failing trusts and, in every area of the public services where there is failure or where there is a toleration of second best, my motto will be, "Failure no more. Second best no more. Tolerating failure no more".

  Q26  Mr Sheerman: Prime Minister, to have a successful public sector, we have to have a successful economy. Even with the announcement of the tackling by the international banks of this problem of lack of liquidity, are you sure that the measures that your Government is taking at the moment fully compensate for the problems that we have had and that you are going to steer us away from recession?

  Mr Brown: I think I have circulated to the Committee this morning the statement I am going to make when I get to the Lisbon Summit about measures that we can take collectively to deal with the turbulence that now exists in the global economy.[2] I think the step forward that was made yesterday by the agreement of the central banks in America, Europe and the UK, including the Bank of Canada and the Bank of Switzerland, to inject what was the equivalent of $100 billion into the world economy is an important step forward. I do believe that the lessons of this summer have shown that you need a better early warning system in the global economy and you need greater co-operation between the international authorities to head off difficulties and, given that this was financial turbulence that started in the United States of America but which has affected some of the smallest organisations in Germany, France, European countries, as well as in Britain, there is a case for looking very seriously at how we can co-ordinate our activities better, so I do believe that it is a wake-up call for the global economy. I do believe that the existing institutions are not good enough and I am going to make it my business to try and reform these institutions to make them better able to deal with the sorts of problems that we have got, for example, reforms that are needed in the credit rating agencies. There is greater transparency needed in the banking and financial institution sector, but also greater co-ordination of the different institutions across frontiers to make possible a better co-ordinated response to the difficulties that arise in the world economy.

  Q27 Mr Sheerman: So, Prime Minister, the quintessential Brown stamp is going to be what—determination, ruthlessness, or is it personalisation?

  Mr Brown: In the public services the issue is how services can not simply be public, but personal and how you can organise them around people's needs and tailor them to people's needs, but also ensure that the individual can direct the development of that service in the future. I think you will see in every area of the public services that that will happen, but rooting out failure is going to be a very important part of the next period of time because we are not going to tolerate second best.

  Mr Sheerman: Thank you, Prime Minister.

  Chairman: I have Kevin Barron's apologies incidentally. He was not walking out because he was dissatisfied with your answers, but he is chairing his own Committee, so he had to leave. We now move on to a subject which you claim very much for yourself, constitutional reform.

  Q28  Dr Wright: Prime Minister, we wanted to ask you some questions about the Governance of Britain proposals that you have brought forward. Before I do that, could I just ask you to say one more thing about something that you spoke about in Prime Minister's Questions yesterday because, as you know, the Parliamentary Ombudsman some time ago made a report, saying essentially that justice has to be done to all those people who lost their occupational pensions through no fault of their own. Yesterday, you seemed to say that, as a result of the Young Review, the resources had been found, I thought you said, to bring them up to the Pension Protection Fund level. Is that exactly the case now?

  Mr Brown: I think you will find the Secretary for Work and Pensions will make a statement very soon on this. The Young Review was intended to see whether within these schemes there was sufficient money so that the guarantee of the £8 billion that we have made as a government over the next 30 or 40 years could be matched by additional money from the schemes. We now believe it will be possible to pay the 90% that obviously people have rightly wanted and the Young Report will be published very soon with the recommendations about how that is done, so I think you can be reasonably confident that the demand that 90% protection be given, as is the case in the specific of 90% of the Pension Protection Board, can be met, but of course there are other issues which will be dealt with when the Young Report is published.

  Q29  Dr Wright: Thank you for that and I am sure we shall look at it again in the next few days. Could I then return to the broader constitutional prospectus that you have laid out and which you have very much made your own mission. When you produced the document back in July, you said that you wanted, and I quote the document, your foreword to it, "to begin the journey towards a new constitutional settlement". I notice this morning in relation to Europe that you said Europe should not waste its time worrying about these constitutional questions about itself, it should concentrate on the things that matter to people. If that applies to Europe, why does it not apply here as well?

  Mr Brown: Well, I think in Europe, everybody who looks at what has been happening in Europe over recent years knows that they have spent an enormous amount of time, and we had to as well, looking at the building of the institutions for a Europe of 27 and, whereas other people say that that has been a waste of time, it was necessary to improve the institutional framework within which the European Union develops. That, in a sense, became the major item in Europe at the expense of the economy, security, the environment and all the big issues that we know we have to deal with. In Britain, I think the opposite is true partly because our Constitution has been, in the traditional sense of the word, unwritten and, partly because a lot of what we think about Britain and Britishness has been implicit rather than explicit, we have not spent the time in our country looking at how modern relationships between the Executive, the Legislature, the judiciary and the people can actually further both a strong sense of cohesion in our country, a sense of national purpose and national unity, and actually make for better governance. I think whereas in Europe there has been an over-emphasis on institutions, and understandably of course when you have had to grow to a Europe of 27, in Britain we have not actually done what I think is of great benefit, looking at how we can actually make our constitutional arrangements far better to deal with the undoubted demands of people for better forms of government in the future.

  Q30  Dr Wright: Countries usually have a new constitutional settlement as a result of some seismic moment in their affairs. Now, unless I have missed it, I do not think we have had such a seismic moment. We have had an intense period of constitutional reform and I can hear people saying, "Look, we've had all that constitutional reform. Surely the task now is to let it bed down and to sort out some of the loose ends that come from it and, above all, to concentrate upon sound administration". Is that not what people really want?

  Mr Brown: Can I put the issue the other way? If you look at every problem that a modern economy and society like ours faces, whether it is the environment, whether it is terrorism, whether it is community cohesion or whether it is skills or facing the global economy, one of the lessons that I have learnt is that you cannot have top-down government anymore, you cannot make decisions and assume that people will simply follow them. Most of the decisions you are having to make can only be successful if people themselves are part of the process. If you take climate change, you cannot solve the problem of climate change without the personal and social responsibility of individuals, so you cannot have a sort of top-down government dictating climate change targets without at the same time having a debate about the personal and social responsibility of people and people have, therefore, got to be involved in that debate. It is true of community cohesion. You are not going to have community cohesion in Britain unless people themselves are involved in the building of their communities. You will not solve our problems in relation to global competition unless the people themselves recognise that they have to change the way they behave, particularly in acquiring skills for the future, so every issue that we face demands a greater involvement by the public themselves in meeting these challenges and you must, therefore, have a constitution that allows people to play their part, sometimes in an unstructured way, but sometimes in a far better structured way, such as some of the reforms that we are proposing now.

  Q31  Dr Wright: I am not sure if that quite amounts to a case for a new constitutional settlement—

  Mr Brown: It is surely telling you that it does.

  Dr Wright:— let alone for some of these things like a written constitution, but I think Alan Beith wants to come in on that.

  Q32  Mr Beith: Prime Minister, you have talked about involving the citizens, but you have produced a document, a fascinating document, with all sorts of things from war powers to ecclesiastical appointments, but some of the key things seem to have been off limits. A written constitution itself, which you mention, is not floated in here at all. The electoral system, which clearly affects the balance of power in society, is not considered at all, despite a Manifesto commitment, and a shift in the balance of power between central and local government is not mentioned at all. Did you at an early stage say that certain of these things were off limits when the paper was being drafted?

  Mr Brown: I do not accept that. I think on the three issues that you raise, we have said not only important things, but are actually doing important things. On the question of the Constitution itself, what I actually said in my statement was that we should discuss a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and we should discuss whether there is sufficient support to move to the next stage of a discussion which would include a written constitution.

  Q33  Mr Beith: Those are different points.

  Mr Brown: On the electoral system, if I may say so, there is a report being prepared, as promised, and will be published soon on the electoral system, so that—

  Q34  Mr Beith: We have been waiting two years for that!

  Mr Brown: Yes, I am saying it is going to be published soon. Then, on central and local government, you may have seen yesterday that a new concordat was signed between the Government and local authorities, including local authorities of all political colours, so the debate about local government and its role in a future constitutional settlement is very much part of the discussions, so I would not say that anything is off limits from these discussions. I think a lot of this is waiting also to hear what the people of different groups in society have got to say about how they see this process moving forward themselves, and part of Jack Straw's review is to consult around the country with groups of people about what are the best next steps forward, so this is a debate which again has got to be not just led by the Government, but has got to involve large numbers of people in different communities of the country.

  Q35  Mr Beith: When people in the communities in Northumberland voted as to what system of local government they wanted, one authority or two, they voted for two and the Government gave them one, so we start from a rather cynical standpoint. Just looking at local government, surely, unless you give local government a viable tax base and the ability to make decisions which central government will not like and, therefore, will not be delivering central government's priorities, you will not have changed the balance of power, will you?

  Mr Brown: Well, as you know, we have had a review that has published its results on the future of local government finance and there is a great deal of discussion going on about how the changes recommended in that might be implemented, so the debate about local government finance is not one that is being ignored at all. There has been a report, we are looking at what we can do and there is a number of suggestions that have been made. This is a perennial problem, as you know: what is the right balance between central and local government for the future and can the balance be struck in a way that is satisfactory for local communities if it excludes the tax base that is available for local taxation? I think what we are seeing actually at the moment is local people wanting to exercise more control, but not necessarily in the ways that we have traditionally expected. People want the authorities that they have in their areas, like the police and the different social services authorities, to be answerable to them and that is why the right of recall, that is why the right to complain and that is why the right to hold some of these authorities to account are regarded as very important. Therefore, I think there is a debate going on, but it is not necessarily a debate only about the future of local government, but it is also about the future of local communities and how people can make authorities more answerable to local communities, and I think that is a debate which will also continue in the future.

  Q36  Mr Beith: Do I detect from that that you actually want to bypass local government, that you see local government as not the best way?

  Mr Brown: No.

  Q37  Mr Beith: That carries the danger that central government sets targets and then simply uses these other mechanisms as some means of trying to ensure that the targets it has set are delivered.

  Mr Brown: No, I do not want to bypass local government, but I recognise, however, that communities are organised in different ways in trying to make authorities answerable to them and some of the big advances in recent years have been holding some of the authorities to account not through local government, but through other mechanisms that are available at a local level. The great story of the development of local government in Britain is one that we should be very proud of and the municipal initiative and enterprise that was shown in the 19th and 20th centuries by local authorities is something that was very important to the development of our society. The concordat that we are trying to strike with local government is to enhance the power of local authorities in future and of course to make them accountable more effectively to their citizens for what they do.

  Q38  Dr Wright: Could we just move this on slightly and turn to this Britishness stuff which I am having a bit of trouble with because it says that "the Government is going to work with the public to develop the British statement of values which will set out the ideals and principles that bind us together as a nation". Now, that is not a modest undertaking. Now, I do not understand what such a statement might contain that could not be made in any decent western European society. Indeed, in the document it talks about the principles of liberty, democracy, tolerance, free speech, pluralism, fair play and civic duty. Well, almost any Western society would recite those, so what would be distinctive about ours? There are bits of distinctiveness of course, and I can think of binge-drinking, I think of family breakdown, I think of a growing incivility, but presumably those are not British values that we want to articulate, are they?

  Mr Brown: I think you are making a case for this discussion actually happening rather than not happening. We had some experience a few years ago in writing a book together when we looked at all these different issues and there is something uniquely British about the relationship between liberty, civic duty or social responsibility and fairness. I think Britain was the pioneer of liberty for the modern world, and I think in later years America took it upon itself to claim that it was the leading country in promoting liberty, but our view of liberty is different from the American view of liberty. Our view of liberty is not the `leave me alone' liberty that you characterise with some of the American Constitution. Our view of liberty is liberty in the context of social responsibility and, in the 19th Century, the idea of civic duty that emerged in response to the industrial revolution is something that also Britain can claim some credit for pioneering, so it is the distinctive relationship between liberty, civic duty and, in the 20th Century, the ideas of fairness that, in my view, characterise what it is for people to think of themselves as British, and that is why we find it easy to accommodate both the liberty of the individual citizen and having a National Health Service that is free to people at the point of need. You rightly say that different countries have different ideas about what the boundaries are between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and you mentioned binge-drinking, but guns is a very good example. Guns are tolerated in America, but guns are anathema to people here if it is just citizens going around carrying guns without a particular use that they have for them that can be justified for their occupation or for some other purpose, and bullying was not an issue that people thought important in Britain in the 1970s or 1980s in the way that people think of it as something that has got to be eradicated now. British values, I think, can be set down. You can have a debate about what it is to be British, and what is the importance of it? The importance of a debate like that is that it brings people together and it allows people to test what it is that holds them together and gives them purpose as a nation. We are a multinational country which cannot base our identity purely on ethnicity or simply on the existence of institutions. At the end of the day, what holds us together are the values that we can agree we hold in common and I think it is possible for us to discuss and debate these and then, out of that discussion and debate, we get a stronger sense of national unity, so that is why I am proposing that we have this debate.

  Dr Wright: Andrew wants to explore this in relation to a British Bill of Rights.

  Q39  Mr Dismore: Just expanding on that answer, Prime Minister, and you also talked earlier on about the need to create a sense of cohesion, purpose and national unity, do you see a Bill of Rights playing a role in that and, if so, why is it apparently the case that the things that actually matter to people are going to be excluded from that? You have just mentioned the Health Service, for example, and 88% of people felt that the right to hospital treatment within a reasonable time should be in the Bill of Rights. Why will those things, the issues that actually people think they have rights about, which they do not, social and economic rights, why will they be excluded from the Bill of Rights? Surely with the right draft of proportionality, making sure we have got the resources to express it in an aspirational way, that can be achieved? Albie Sachs said to me that a country without social and economic rights in its Constitution is a country without aspiration. Would you agree with that?

  Mr Brown: This has been the debate about modern constitutions round the world as to how far these constitutions can accommodate people's desire not simply for political rights to be enshrined in constitutions but social and economic rights. The issue actually comes down to not being against social and economic rights being accorded importance in constitutions but whether they are justiciable, whether people actually go to court or take actions in law on the basis of these rights being set down. That is part of the debate that I think you will see ushered in in January as to whether social and economic rights should be included in this statement but I think the issue becomes not so much whether you think they are important but whether you agree that you should take judicial action on the basis of trying to enforce these rights. That is where a lot of constitutions have had a great deal of problems in recent years.

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