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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 March, 2004, 15:38 GMT
Virtual warfare
Jeremy Vine interviewed Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary on Sunday 14 March 2004.

Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Jeremy Vine: First of all let's look at those bombings in Spain and those bombings remind us, do they not, of how vulnerable we all are here.

Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary
Geoff Hoon - we are 'convinced' of our judgements

Geoff Hoon: Well certainly, we have consistently warned people that they must be vigilant, they must take care and above all else, if they see something suspicious, they must report it to the authorities. And obviously, we've been saying that for some time, but these appalling events do clearly pull those warnings in to sharp focus.

Jeremy Vine: And is there a whole lot that we can do though to defend ourselves against this is there?

Geoff Hoon: Certainly, if people do report for example, things that are suspicious, things unusual, the police will not mind. I know there's a British view, perhaps, that we should not necessarily disturb the police, but what we're really saying that if something is strange and surprising, people really ought to warn the authorities of their concerns and not worry about being wrong.

Jeremy Vine: What should we be looking out for though Mr Hoon? How do we spot a suicide bomber?

Geoff Hoon: I don't believe necessarily that individuals will be in a position to do that. But for example, today, actually by coincidence, the British Transport Police are urging people to look around the carriage on a train or a bus, to make sure that if there are any packages, any brief cases, any suitcases that do not appear to belong to any particular individual, they should ask each other, they should ask fellow passengers. They should bring it to the attention of guards and those in authority. It's that kind of action that can make an enormous difference, if the public do co-operate as I'm sure they will.

Jeremy Vine: You just said that people would not be in a position to do suicide bombings, are you saying that because of some intelligence you've got or what?

Geoff Hoon: No, I didn't say that. You asked me about warning about suicide bombings and what I was saying was that it's not always easy I accept for members of the public to identify such people.

Jeremy Vine: Oh I see okay. I'm with you. There's a report in the papers today which says that you may be considering putting marshals on trains, is that something you are seriously thinking about?

Geoff Hoon: I know that the British Transport Police are considering a range of measures. I'm not in a position to-day to comment as to whether they are specifically considering that particular proposal, but obviously as I've emphasised, it is important that we do continue to take appropriate action to protect us as best we can.

Jeremy Vine: But is that use that you can make as Defence Secretary of our armed forces. Clearly a tornado jet is not going to do anything against a terrorist in this country. But would you consider putting soldiers at railway stations and other places?

Geoff Hoon: Well from time to time British forces have been used in that kind of response. We placed British forces at Heathrow Airport for a limited period. But obviously, there are limits as to what British Forces can do to be effective. Perhaps a more important change that we have made is to make available, in each region of the country, some 14 rapid reaction groups of reservists who will assist the civil authority in the event of there being a crisis. They will be there at very short notice to assist the primary responsible civil authorities, should there be any kind of an emergency that requires their help.

Jeremy Vine: Given that the latest claim of responsibility mentioned the war in Iraq. Do you honestly believe that Britain's role in that war has made this country a safer place?

Geoff Hoon:We've got to make judgements about the long term interests of the United Kingdom and we are absolutely convinced that dealing with threats to international and global security of the kind posed by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, will ultimately make Britain a safer place. These are never easy decisions but it is vitally important that we have regard to the long term safety and security not only of this country, but other friends and allies around the world as well.

Jeremy Vine: Mr Hoon, thank you for that. Do stay with us if you can. Defending against terrorism is part of the Armed Forces job, but the military also needs to be able to fight more conventional wars. Since Labour came to power, British Forces have been engaged in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and that has stretched us. Mr Hoon now has a difficult choice; invest in the basics, troops and kit or go for a high technology computer system, which the Americans believe is vital. David Thomson reports.


Jeremy Vine: So Mr Hoon this network capability system will essentially link us with the Americans will it.

Geoff Hoon:That's one thing that it might achieve but perhaps much more important, is it will link together in a network existing technology. Bear in mind that British Armed Forces have enormous and sophisticated technology already. Go on to a modern warship, you will see that stuffed with modern high tech equipment. Similarly our modern strike aircraft are very sophisticated aircraft indeed. You perhaps need to do more on the ground to equip our ground forces with technology, but the key to this is linking all of those different elements together to ensure that when we detect a threat, that that information is passed quickly to those who have to decide what to do about the threat and as quickly, then to decide how to deal with it, by bringing in to play the weapons that can then destroy a target; so it's about pulling together, all of the different technology that we have already, in a single, effective, speedy network.

Jeremy Vine: But on the most basic of points, if you've got a spare fifty thousand quid, isn't it better to spend that on a soldier than a computer.

Geoff Hoon: Well, unfortunately as your package described, this kind of equipment costs rather more than the fifty thousand pounds. We obviously cannot and will not in any way neglect the welfare, the training, the expertise of our soldiers, and those who contributed to the package to say that we will still require people on the ground doing the job of a traditional soldier are right, and they're doing that tremendously well in Iraq today. But at the same time we cannot afford to ignore this technology.

Jeremy Vine: It's just that there is a trade off for you isn't there because every pound you spend on this kit, is a pound you don't spend on a soldier or a flack jacket or whatever.

Geoff Hoon: That isn't the case actually. We still will equip our armed forces to do the job that they're required to do in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, on the ground, as they're doing so well to-day. At the same time we can't all fail to ignore the kinds of technological changes that have affected almost every other aspect of our life. If you think about the revolution in television, or in business that this technology has brought about, it's that kind of change that we've got to see now in the military as well, and it will mean looking hard at existing capabilities, and trying to decide whether those existing capabilities, can be adapted and developed in order to do this new kind of job.

Jeremy Vine: But regiments are over-stretched. The armed forces are over stretched and you might just look at the map of the world and see where all the places we're operating in, and say we can't afford this thing.

Geoff Hoon: Well I don't accept that they're over-stretched. Certainly some key elements of our armed forces have been working extraordinarily hard but we able to maintain our present commitments, we're able to conduct the kinds of operations that are being conducted so successfully in Afghanistan, in Iraq, at the same time maintaining our commitments in places like the Balkans and the Falklands and elsewhere; so we are maintaining our effort today. But at the same time, in order to be able to carry out that effort still more effectively in the future, we need to invest in this kind of technology, in this kind of military capability.

Jeremy Vine: Doesn't it start to ring warning bells with you? Anybody who's got a computer at home knows that after eighteen months, the thing is obsolete, and somebody who knows more about computers than them is telling them they've got to buy a more expensive one. We're going to get sucked in to that aren't we?

Geoff Hoon: Well that's certainly part of the challenge that we face but that is why I put so much emphasis on the idea of networking together existing equipment. This is not as if we're simply constantly investing in a new computer. What we need to do is to make sure that the existing investment - there's a considerable technology as I said, that the armed forces already have, is able to work more effectively together. That's the challenge, and that's what we're trying to achieve.

Jeremy Vine: But just to illustrate this problem you've got with your budget, you've reportedly written this letter to the Prime Minister, basically saying that you're concerned the Treasury is not going to allocate you enough money in the summer. Is that true?

Geoff Hoon: Well I'm not going to comment on every letter that I write to the Prime Minister, or indeed to the Chancellor and...

Jeremy Vine: Not every one, just this one.

Geoff Hoon:(overlaps) you might imagine inside government, we are writing a good number of letters, but what is important is to emphasise that the last spending settlement, the Chancellor agreed with the Prime Minister's support, to the largest sustained increase in defence spending in twenty years. An extra three billion pounds to invest in precisely the kind of technology that your package described that we need.

Jeremy Vine: Will you need more than that though?

Geoff Hoon: Defence spending is not easy to contain in the modern world. I accept and recognise that. We've got to make some difficult decisions. I also recognise about ensuring that we've got the right kinds of capabilities, but I'm confident with the support that we've had from the Prime Minister and from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, we can continue to invest in these battle winning equipment.

Jeremy Vine: Because one of the things that happened when news of this alleged letter came out in the papers, is that the Treasury seemed to strike back, and they pointed out, sources pointed out that your department is not very good at spending its money Mr Hoon, and they're fed up, the Treasury are fed up with what they call MoD inefficiency and over-administration. What's your view of that?

Geoff Hoon: Well I'm not going to comment on that kind of anonymous briefing. I've no idea whether it's reliable or not. What I can say is that we've had significant investment in defence; we need to maintain that investment, and as your package has well described, it's in stark contrast to the Conservative party, who are proposing to cut something like a billion and a half pounds from the spending level established at the last spending settlement; so actually defence will not be safe in the hands of the Conservatives, but we are going on investing in this kind of battle-winning capability.

Jeremy Vine: And finally, on a personal note. It's a year since the war in Iraq. You've come through twelve months where at one point you were being tipped for the sack by almost everybody. Do you still have an appetite for the job?

Geoff Hoon: Yes I do. It's an enormously important job. It's a great privilege to work alongside Britain's armed forces. They do a tremendous job and they're widely admired around the world. It's a great privilege to be part of the team that delivers such effective defence for the United Kingdom.

Jeremy Vine: Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary, many thanks.

Geoff Hoon:Thank you very much.


Interview with: Vincent Cable MP, Liberal Democrat

Jeremy Vine: Here in London I'm joined by the Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman, Vincent Cable. Maybe you should take on some of those Green ideas and make yourselves a bit more distinctive.

Vincent Cable MP, Liberal  Democrat
Vincent Cable MP: 'We're not bereft of ideas'

Vincent Cable: Well we already have in fact. We have a distinctive environmental agenda of our own. We do believe in fairer taxation.

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) reining back the car industry.

Vincent Cable: Not deliberately reining back the car industry. The Government, these days, shouldn't be picking and choosing which industries to rein in, that makes no sense, but clearly environmental taxation, geared at reducing pollution, is eminently sensible, and something we subscribe to.

Jeremy Vine: But we are talking about bigger things than that here aren't we? We're talking about what Peter Lilley in the film called, the over-lapping consensus that seems to put you and Labour, and the Conservatives, on roughly the same territory on so many things. I mean can you think of an argument for example against low inflation?

Vincent Cable: Well, there is, there is certainly an argument against deflation. You know if you actually have falling prices, that would be a disastrous state of affairs, and indeed there is some danger that the European Union could get in to that position. But I think the basic premise you are going from is right. There is a broad consensus and that's because most countries realised in the '70s and '80s, that politicians can't make two and two equals five. I mean you know you had very left wing governments, Mitterrand in France, British left labour government which created a balance of payments crisis. In the United States you had Reagan, pursuing very right wing policies. Tax cutting, but the budget deficit rising, driving up interest rates, creating a crisis, and that kind of instability doesn't help anybody, and so we have to accept a basic framework of financial discipline. And even the Greens, when they're in government, as they are in Germany, accept that.

Jeremy Vine: But for you, as the third party, that puts you in a situation where you look bereft of ideas doesn't it?

Vincent Cable: Not bereft of ideas. There are certain things we basically subscribe to. There has to be financial discipline, there has to be stability. But within that, there is plenty of scope for radical difference. I mean we argue for example for significant tax reform to create a fairer tax system, which is why we're arguing for local income tax instead of council tax. A high rate of tax on the very high earners.

Jeremy Vine: But you don't talk about happiness. You see Mr Taylor of the Greens there said, "Why don't politicians talk about happiness for a change?"

Vincent Cable:Well I'm not sure that it's the job of politicians, or economists for that matter, to make people happy. People have defined spiritual satisfaction in their own lives. We have to be competent.


Vincent Cable: create a framework of stability within which people can live.

Jeremy Vine: Sorry to interrupt. Say for example, take some more tax and bring in some more public holidays, so people just feel they're not continually you know chasing the next pay check, they're actually taking some time off. Enforce that, enforce holidays. How about that?

Vincent Cable: Well not enforce. We have in fact in Parliament within the last year passed very sensible legislation, to help people pursue more flexible working lives, and indeed, if people are bullied by their employers, and not allowed flexible working, they can be taken to a tribunal. That was a good piece of legislation which I supported and spoke for. But the danger is, when you start introducing coercion. We have this for example, working time directive, which may, under certain circumstances compel people not to work even if they want to, and that would be completely unacceptable in a democratic system, and very damaging to the economy.

Jeremy Vine: Could you not even say as Liberal Democrats, our aim in life is to get the rich and the poor closer to each other. We will squeeze the rich until the pips squeak.

Vincent Cable: No, the last bit of your statement, I don't agree with. I mean squeezing the rich till the pips squeak is I think foolish and unrealistic.

Jeremy Vine: It might be quite popular.

Vincent Cable:If it was pursued in an extreme way, it would not be popular because people would say it's neither fair nor sensible, but we do in fact argue for a higher rate of tax on earnings over a hundred thousand pound a year, 50% rather than 40%, and that is achievable, and it is redistributed in a moderate way, and it provides revenue for useful services.

Jeremy Vine: Vincent Cable, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, thank you very much indeed for joining us.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

Let us know what you think. That is the Politics Show Sunday 14 March at Midday.
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