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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 February, 2005, 11:42 GMT
Jeremy Vine interviews
Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

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.

On Politics Show, Sunday 13 February, 2005, Jeremy Vine interviewed Mark Oaten MP, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman.

Mark Oaten MP
Mark Oaten MP, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman

Interview with Mark Oaten, MP

Jeremy Vine: And the Liberal Democrat's Home Affairs Spokesman, Mark Oaten joins us now.

Your colleague Evan Harris rather let the cat out the bag there didn't he, because he said our policies haven't changed but the language has.

Mark Oaten: Well in a sense that's one of the arguments I've been trying to get across. These have been liberal policies for many years, but I've been irritated that the phrase liberal, has always attracted the other phrase, soft. Actually, these policies for many years have been effective.

They're much harder to deliver, they are more likely to reduce some of the causes of crime, and that's why I've actually said, no they're not soft, they're tough, tough liberalism.

Jeremy Vine: But harder to deliver does not mean that they are tough, you're just playing with language aren't you.

Mark Oaten: Well actually, if you're talking about a policy which is more likely to reduce the causes of crime for example, something which Blair said he wanted to do, that is very difficult to deliver. It's a lot harder for public services to deliver, but it's also a lot tougher on the individual.

You can fine somebody and they pay the fine or they don't, that's actually quite easy for them to do. It's a lot tougher and harder on the individual, who's committed that crime, if you make them face up to some of the reasons why they're getting into crime in the first place and I think it's a more effective policy is stopping them reoffending. That's why I think it's tougher. But it's still a liberal policy.

Jeremy Vine: You said a few months ago, we had to toughen up the message because, unfairly, we were being perceived as weak on crime, so in the back of my diary I wrote tough liberalism, and it worked for me as a phrase.

Mark Oaten: It does.

Jeremy Vine: It's cynical though isn't it.

Mark Oaten: Well no, it's about this frustration Jeremy over, why is it for example, that when I talk about actually getting prisoners educated, getting them trained, people think that's soft. It's just not and I get really frustrated by that, that has got to be the tougher approach to stopping the problem we have of so many prisoners coming out and committing more crimes.

Now if you listen to the tabloids, if you listen to the right wing press, it's lock em up, throw away the key. That is actually a soft, easy option. Mine is a much harder one to deliver and is more effective in the long run.

Jeremy Vine: Let me talk about some of these alleged soft policies, your drug law policies. Cannabis fully legal, nobody gets prosecuted for growing it, having it, or giving it to their friends. No imprisonment for any one for possessing any drug.

Ecstasy reclassified from Class A to Class B, that's tough is it.

Mark Oaten: It is tough because the ...

Jeremy Vine: Why.

Mark Oaten: Well the easy thing to do in those circumstances is to have blanket bans everywhere. Is that really going to be effective in tackling the problem of drugs in his country. What we say makes a lot more sense, is to re-direct police time to getting tough with the dealers, to getting tough on the class 'a' drugs.

Jeremy Vine: This is about making life easy for the police is it.

Mark Oaten: It's about making the police more effective in their time. It's about making it very difficult for the drug dealers. We've got to get that message across, we have to ...

Jeremy Vine: Well why not chase the users and the dealers. Why not.

Mark Oaten: Well I want to chase the users of the hard drugs as well. But I equally recognise there has to be some kind of education message across to the public. I want to make sure that children are not messing with the very very serious drugs. And that means a tough education message. But you also have to be realistic about cannabis use at the same time. And that's why we make those differentials between the classification.

Jeremy Vine: If you take a look at Sweden which has got the toughest policy on drugs in Europe. They don't distinguish between users and dealers, and they don't even distinguish between hard and soft drugs. And they've cracked down, they've reduced drug use among fifteen year olds over the last three years. They've, that's succeeded, that's almost the opposite of what you're doing isn't it.

Mark Oaten: Well we're fire fighting a situation in this country where drugs are out of control amongst youngsters. Now it happens to be my view that the way you best deal with that is to have a grown up discussion with youngsters about different drugs, which ones are the most harmful.

Jeremy Vine: Not punish them.

Mark Oaten: Well course you're punishing individuals if they're taking the most serious drugs.

Jeremy Vine: Not sending them to prison are you.

Mark Oaten: The idea that you're going to take somebody and send them to prison for using cannabis is just, sounds ... may be good in the tabloids, but is it an effective use of police time. Is it an effective use of public money.

Jeremy Vine: Heroin use, you wouldn't go to prison for that, under any circumstances.

Mark Oaten: No, there would be some circumstances if they were linked obviously to crime. But what I'm concerned about at the moment, if you do go to prison, what is the likelihood that they can get you off heroin, and what is the likelihood you don't come out and just start stealing to feed your heroin habit. It's not good at the moment.

We have a drug problem in our prisons. Isn't it more effective to actually have programmes in place to get these individuals off the drugs, to try and break that cycle. Again, that's tough, it may sound soft to some of the tabloids, but surely it's a harder thing to achieve to actually get some of these people off those drugs, and it's in the long term interest to actually do that.

Jeremy Vine: But it needs to work and you don't know that it will work and the public certainly don't seem to think it will work because as we heard, they've got a pretty dim view of your crime policies, in fact the latest polls suggest that only 6% of voters think you're best-placed to tackle crime.

Mark Oaten: I know that currently things aren't working, and I also acknowledge that trying to persuade the public that this is a different approach, a more effective approach, it's going to be difficult and in a sense that's why I've tried to use the language of tough liberalism to get in to this debate, to actually say to the public, just please pause for a moment, what you may have written off in the past as being a soft easy option, think about it, it's actually a tougher option, it's more effective and I feel a lot more confident talking to somebody on the doorstep who has just been the victim of a crime, coming up with these as alternatives, rather than a quick approach of saying, oh yeah, I agree, let's lock 'em up, which I know is not going to tackle crime in the long term.

Jeremy Vine: Let me ask you about another area which is drinking and your policy is, as I understand it, to lower the legal drinking age to sixteen. How does that stop children drinking.

Mark Oaten: Well that's not the policy, we have a policy which is that we believe that we have a need to review the common age of consent, and we think that sixteen is a good one.

Jeremy Vine: Okay, on a factual matter then, clear this up for me. Three weeks ago, Don Foster, your Culture Spokesman was asked in the Commons, is it liberal democrat policy to legalise drinking at sixteen, and he replied yes.

Mark Oaten: And what I've said is that no, we're not going to do that at the next election. We believe that because of the problems we have with binge drinking, because of the obvious health concerns, it would send all the wrong signals. In the long term, if you look at the age of the consent, if you can get married at sixteen, if you can pay taxes at that age, you need to tidy all those issues up. But at the moment, it would send all the wrong signals.

Jeremy Vine: But it doesn't send the right signal that does it, to children about drinking. If you start thinking about harmonizing all those things, and allowing children to drink alcohol at sixteen.

Mark Oaten: I agree, I don't think it does, which is why we're not going to introduce this policy. But we do recognise that if you have people getting married at sixteen, you need to address a whole load of peculiarities about whether you can vote at that age, all the various things need tidying up at some point. But no, at this stage, because of the problems we have with teenage drinking, it would send the wrong signals.

Jeremy Vine: And you'll tell Don that at some point before ...

Mark Oaten: I'll tell - and Don's very comfortable with that.

Jeremy Vine: ... the election. All right. Go Karting we saw in the film there and that's part of the plan for youngsters who've been convicted of joy riding. Again, what is the message there. Someone goes out joy- riding and they get punished by being allowed to go, Go Karting.

Mark Oaten: Well the point of the policy there is to actually get them doing the Go Karting before they go joy-riding. If I, as I have, I've got two young children, and I thought that one of them was going to be killed by a joy rider. What do I want to see as a sensible policy.

I actually want to prevent that happening. Now if that means we can go in to some of the estates, we can take some of these kids who are nicking cars, and get them doing something else, get them on a track, involved in a car mechanics course, get them doing joy riding - again, I accept it may sound soft, but think about it, isn't it a better thing to do than just leave them running around estates, nicking cars and killing people.

Jeremy Vine: Well it will sound soft to them, and it will sound soft to the victims of joy-riding.

Mark Oaten: But surely the message to the victims is, how do we stop this happening again. And if we can stop ...

Jeremy Vine: Punish people surely is the answer.

Mark Oaten: But what's that going to do. They pay a fine, and they just come out and nick some more cars.

Jeremy Vine: Well where's the deterrent effect in a Go Kart.

Mark Oaten: You need to match the punishment, with then something as alternative for those kids to do on a Friday and Saturday night.

And at the moment if they are running round estates, nicking cars and joy-riding, you have to do something else. Of course you punish, but you match the punishment with an effective measure, which is get them in to a course, looking at cars, get them a job and break that cycle.

Jeremy Vine: But again, you offer Go Karting lessons, but why not give them to children who haven't broken the law.

Mark Oaten: I'm very keen to do that. I think we should be getting in much earlier, going in to estates, getting to eleven, twelve, thirteen year olds, identifying some of the kind of individuals we know are likely to get in to crime, and having good youth policies, as a preventative measure, because I couldn't agree with you more.

Getting this tackled at an early stage with those kind of activities is better than waiting for the problem to happen.

Jeremy Vine: Just looking at this set of policies dispassionately, it leaves you very vulnerable in a General Election campaign doesn't it, to the kind of charges we heard from the other parties.

Mark Oaten: If you pick them off individually, I can absolutely see the leaflets the opponents will produce.

Jeremy Vine: Soft on drugs, soft on joy riding.

Mark Oaten: Absolutely, I can see them, I can see them saying all that. I ask the electorate to go beyond the headline and think about this. What is effective, having a sensible drug policy which actually tackles the causes, getting youngsters doing alternative things ... not being in crime.

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) You've got no evidence it's effective, that's the trouble isn't it. You don't know whether it will work.

Mark Oaten: We do know from some of the other models that have been put in place. In fact even this government themselves have tried some of these pilots in various parts of the country.

They've taken some youngsters, they've got them involved in these alternatives. We know for example in the prison service, Transco have taken prisoners out, from nine in the morning, sent them back at five in the evening, they've been working for Transco.

What's the reoffending rate there, when they leave prison. It's 7% compared to a 70% reoffending rate when all the prisoner does is lie in his prison cell all day long. These do work, but you have to be bold to talk about them, but you have to persuade the public they're tough options, not soft options as well.

Jeremy Vine: All right. Final question in a completely different subject, in the news to-day, Labour apparently, determined to keep on with its policy of house arrest for terror suspects. Are you pleased about that.

Mark Oaten: Well I hope they will do a U-turn on this issue, because unless they do, then the Tories and the Lib Dems will defeat them in the House of Lords. We've got to get the balance right between civil liberties and protecting this country. House arrest does not get the balance right.

If Charles Clarke is prepared to talk to us about getting rid of house arrest, then we would certainly welcome that. But at the moment, the jury is very much out.

Jeremy Vine: Mark Oaten, Lib Dem Home Affairs Spokesman, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

End of interview

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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The next Politics Show will be on Sunday, 20 February, 2005 at 12.30.
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