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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 March, 2004, 13:37 GMT
Conservative spring conference
Jeremy Vine interviewed David Willets, MP, Conservative spokesperson on Economic Affairs on Sunday 07 March 2004.

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

David Willets, MP,  Conservative spokesman on Economic Affairs
What we are trying to do with our policies is to extend choice.

Jeremy Vine: Let's speak then to David Willetts who's co-ordinating policy for the Conservatives. Welcome to you. Thanks for coming in.

David Willetts: Thank you Jeremy.

Jeremy Vine: A huge task, Max was saying, to actually win the next election.

David Willetts: It's a big task, but not an impossible task and we're serious about tackling it, and I think again you've seen at Harrogate this weekend how the party is motivated, it's united, it's purposeful, and we know what we've got to do and we're doing absolutely our level best to achieve it.

Jeremy Vine: But you need a 10% swing and it's never been done before and it - no sign of it.

David Willetts: Well I don't think we should be sort of tied up in these sort of historical figures. I think increasingly the electorate take each election as a free-standing choice.

I think increasingly peoples won't say, Oh I'll vote for that party cos that's how I voted last time; so each election is a new opportunity for us and we're approaching this forth coming election as a new opportunity, and it's a, as you can see at Harrogate, I mean the whole mood there behind Michael as our leader, was very up-beat and very positive, and we know that as we no longer have the distractions of endless speculation about the leadership, it's a marvellous opportunity for us to show how Conservatives can serve Britain in the 21st century.

Jeremy Vine: Why then are you in this situation where every time we see a poll, you're four points ahead, or three points behind, or five points behind. You're hovering around Labour, you're not pulling clear.

David Willetts: Compared with the polls that I've been used to for in fact for much of my time since I first became an MP in '92, then I think the polls show that we're making significant progress. They show that we're up there ...

Jeremy Vine: .... (overlaps) .... Iain Duncan Smith was your leader actually.

David Willetts: Well they show that, we're up there with Labour. In some polls we're ahead of Labour, but you know, there's no point sort of looking in to the narrow entrails of the polls. The crucial question is whether on the big issues, people feel that we Conservatives are offering them a prospect of making Britain a better place in which to live.

And we do have, I freely accept, our work cut out, over the next 15 months, but we can do it, and we've shown again at Harrogate, the whole way we approached it.

In Saturday's session, we took people through the stages of their lives, showing how Conservatism could help them with everything from childcare, better schooling, better health, better pensions. If we can get those messages across effectively, well then I do believe we can win the next election.

Jeremy Vine: It's not just the narrow entrails of the polls though is it. We were hearing one of the speakers in Max's piece say, you know that actually you've got a situation where Michael Howard seems to be a hit with the pundits if you like, but he isn't registering with ordinary voters, 68% of whom said in our poll, not much difference.

David Willetts: Well we had a traumatic time last autumn, let's face it and when Michael became leader, well I think the achievement that he's already made in terms of uniting the parliamentary party, completely transforming the way that we're seen amongst the sort of professional pundits, that's very important.

Jeremy Vine: That's internal though isn't it.

David Willetts: Yeah, but I freely recognise and part of the challenge we've been tackling at Harrogate is we have to look out and show to people that these policies that we are working on, the policies we've already announced, the policies we're explaining at Harrogate, are not to do with some internal Westminster game, the only possible reason for pursuing the policies we're pursuing, is we think this will make life better for the British people.

We're going to improve the quality of the education their children are receiving, improve the quality of healthcare.

And the whole message from Harrogate and beyond is look out, communicate with the mass electorate, we've got a very powerful and attractive message, and now we've got to explain it. And that's what we're doing.

Jeremy Vine: Let me ask you about a specific policy Mr Willetts if I can which is pupils' passports. Clear up some confusion for us on this if you can. This is where parents are written out a cheque by the government and they can take it to another school. Can they take that cheque from the State sector in to the private sector.

David Willetts: Well the crucial point is the one that Michael Howard was making in his speech to-day; that what we're trying to do with our policies is extend choice to people who've not had choice before.

Extend control to people who've previously felt controlled by powers they couldn't themselves influence; so what's very important for our pupils' passport is it should help people who are getting a poor deal from an existing state school, that's what the pupil passport's about.

It's not our intention to use the pupil passport as a device for a parent who's already paying some high fees at Eton to get a contribution to those fees. That is not the purpose of the pupil passport. It's to extend choice and control to people who don't currently enjoy it.

Jeremy Vine: Well I ... then I'm confused because we went on your Press Web Site last night, where it says, and I quote, Parents, we can see this on the screen, "Parents could use the money to move their child to another state school, or an independent school, if they were prepared to make up the difference."

David Willetts: Well this is the question of the status of the school. If there are schools that can provide an education for the cost of the pupil passport, then we're not going to inquire as to whether a City Technology College, or any more than happens now, a Church of England school, we're not going to say well, you can't go to that school. But the important point is ...

Jeremy Vine: Outside the state sector, that's the point.

David Willetts: No, the point is that that education should be available for the cost of the pupil passport. It is not intended as a device to enable people to make a contribution to higher fees that they're already paying in the independent sector. The logic of the pupil passport is to help people get an education for the cost of the state education. That's what it's about.

Jeremy Vine: So nobody can use the pupil passport to take their child out of the state sector.

David Willetts: They can't use the pupil passport as a contribution to higher fees that they're paying within, for a private education. That is not the purpose of the pupil passport.

Jeremy Vine: Why not? Why not?

David Willetts: The purpose of the pupil passport is as Michael was saying to-day, to extend choice, to extend control to people who've not currently had it, and let's face it, the biggest single scandal in the educational system is in some of our inner city areas for example, people who are manifestly unhappy with the quality of education their child gets and they appeal to go to a, for their child to go to a different and alternative school, and of those appeals, four out of five appeals are rejected.

There are large numbers of parents who are unhappy with the education their child is getting in the state system. We want to help them with the pupils' passport. It's not the purpose to help parents who are already paying higher fees in the independent sector.

Jeremy Vine: Why are you in such confusion on this? This morning Liam Fox, one of your colleagues speaking to David Frost, this is what he said, "I think if you pay your taxes and the state doesn't give you what you want, you have a right to take some of that money back and take it where you want it". Take it out of the State sector in other words. The press release I mentioned said, Parents can use their money to move their child to an independent school. What is going on?

David Willetts: I don't think there is any confusion. If I may say so Jeremy, I think that perhaps there's some confusion in your mind. What I'm saying is, that let's not the purpose of the pupil passport, it's not our intention of the pupil passport to enable that to contribute to higher fees that people are paying in higher education, er, in private education; so if someone who is paying private fees of 12,000 a year, it's not the purpose of the pupil passport to pay a contribution to independent fees that are already being paid.

However, the pupil passport will open up the delivery of education, and the value of the pupil passport which will be determined by the level of public expenditure going on in schools, that should be able to be spent to buy a complete full education with no extras, with no charges on top, that on itself should be able to pay for an education and we hope that indeed there will be new arrangements, new schools, new schools that will want to enter in to and contract with the state system as if I may say so the best historic example is Church of England school.

Those are schools that have had an independent, that have been historically independent, and that operate within the state, within the state financing arrangements. That's what we're talking about.

Jeremy Vine: While we're trying to pin down the confusion here, you want to leave it with me. What you have said is different from what your press release is saying. It says, and I quote again, "Parents ... Could use the money to move their child to another State school or an Independent school, if they're prepared to make up the difference". That's different. Correct. Its wrong isn't it?

David Willetts: I'm talking about using the pupil passport as a fixed amount of money to pay for an education from a wide range of schools. I'm not talking about using the pupil passport as a contribution to higher fees already being charged by private schools. That is the position.

Jeremy Vine: David Willetts thank you very much indeed.

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.

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