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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 November 2005, 12:21 GMT
New boy on pensions
On Sunday 06 November 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed John Hutton MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

John Hutton MP
John Hutton MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

ANDREW MARR: Now, after all the Cabinet drama this week, both personal and political, one man found himself with one of the most challenging jobs that Tony Blair could ask any of his ministers to take on.

When he replaced David Blunkett just on Wednesday as the new Works & Pensions Secretary, John Hutton assumed the job of handling hot potatoes such as incapacity benefit and the pensions crisis.

It may be promotion but it's got a few down sides too, probably. John, can I start off, congratulations on your promotion first of all.

JOHN HUTTON: Thank you very much.

ANDREW MARR: ... and welcome. Can I ask you however about incapacity benefit because that has been probably the hardest thing. Do you have a settled view of your own about, for instance, means testing better off, more middle class people taking IB?

JOHN HUTTON: Well look I - I've been in the job for about three days, I've actually spent one day in the department so far. No I don't have a settled view about that. I mean we did set out, I think Andrew, broadly the direction of travel in our manifesto and let me just make one or two things clear about this - this is not a cuts agenda in relation to incapacity benefit -

ANDREW MARR: But in relation to individuals it might be.

JOHN HUTTON: No, what it's about is providing more opportunity for people who are now effectively stuck on incapacity benefit - many of them for years and years and years. Trying to find better ways to get them off benefit, back into work. You know when they come onto incapacity benefit, nine out of ten people say they expect to get back into work and in fact for the vast majority -

ANDREW MARR: They don't.

JOHN HUTTON: - that never happens. It needs a system to help them do that

ANDREW MARR: Sure. Your own colleagues say that incapacity benefit is something of a scandal. That it has replaced unemployment to a certain extent, people have come off that and stayed on - so there's a real need, I assume, to get the numbers down. Now if you're going to get the numbers down, you do need a few sticks as well as some carrots.

JOHN HUTTON: Well I think what we've got to do is build on the experience in those areas where we've tested out new alternatives about how we can support people on IB getting back into work, and they've proved very successful.

And I think the job for us is to look at how quickly we can extend those pilots across the country because, you know, quite simply we know that they work.

ANDREW MARR: So you don't think that incapacity benefit is too high and you don't think the wrong people are getting it?

JOHN HUTTON: Well as I said, I'm, with great respect, not going to answer any of those detailed questions yet, I've got to find out ...

ANDREW MARR: It's only a general question that one.

JOHN HUTTON: No, you're asking about incapacity benefit levels and I think that's something that clearly we need to look at but I've tried to make it clear, in the interviews I've given so far, that this is not about cuts, this is about opportunities and extending opportunities for people to get back into work, and that's the right responsibility, I think, of the decent society, when it comes to welfare reform, it is to support people who want to look after themselves and their families, who don't want to be on benefits - and in my experience, I've got six thousand people in my constituency on IB, they want to work and -

ANDREW MARR: (OVERLAPS) And it would be a failure for you, as a minister, if at the end of your time, however long it is in the department, there were still six thousand on IB in your constituency.

JOHN HUTTON: Well I think it would be and I think that is the whole focus of the reform programme.

ANDREW MARR: Yes, I mean the reason I'm asking this is that you, as I said, defended David Blunkett when others wouldn't - you came onto the radio and television to defend him. Everybody, whatever they say about some of his personal issues, would say that he's his own man, he's a tough guy. What they're saying about you is that you will be Number 10's man in the DWP - Tony Blair wants cuts, Tony Blair wants this and John Hutton's the man to deliver it.

JOHN HUTTON: Well they would say that, wouldn't they. Look, I think, I think David is a decent man and I'm terribly sad that he's had to leave the government. I mean he resigned from the government for reasons that he's made clear but I think, and people want their pound of flesh still, they're still pursuing and hounding him.

My job is to support the Prime Minister in the delivery of the manifesto which every Labour Member of Parliament was elected on - and that's what I'm going to do. I'm very confident with the general principles behind the welfare reform agenda, they're the right ones.

They're balancing rights and responsibilities, providing more opportunities for people and, crucially - and this is often what gets missed in this debate - providing more support generally for people who really cannot work, and we know that they can't.

ANDREW MARR: The trouble, the trouble is - if I may say so - we know the principles. You know, we've been waiting for a green paper, presumably we're going to have to wait for it even longer now, if we have to wait for a green paper longer every time the minister resigns, we're never going to get anything done in this government are we?

But when it comes to the general application of the principle, things that we've been reading about in the papers, like naming and shaming GPs who are right at the top of the list of handing out sick notes, is that the kind of thing that's still on the agenda? People do need to know that.

JOHN HUTTON: Well I just said, Andrew, I've got to read into this, this brief, and understand the precise arithmetic and the numbers and the arguments and so on. So, again, with respect, I'm not going to get into the great detail ...

ANDREW MARR: Does the same go for pensions, I mean can you say anything - this idea that we should all be working a bit later, we should be working 'til 67.

JOHN HUTTON: Well look, I think there's a couple of issues there that, you know, and this is why we need a national debate on this, people are living longer, that's a great thing, but we also know that the number, the ratios, if you like, between those in work and those who are of retirement age, it's not, not looking good.

People are living longer, we've got a declining birth rate. Now there are some very difficult issues for our country to resolve and that's why when David Blunkett was in this job he quite rightly said we need a national debate about the future of pensions. And what I want to do is build a consensus. There is no point in me coming in and doing some reforms, two years later they're all unravelling and unpicking. We've got to be able to get it right -

ANDREW MARR: But - but ...

JOHN HUTTON: - we've got to get it right and it's got to last 30, 40 years more -

ANDREW MARR: ... we've had a national debate on pensions for an awful long time now. One of the problems -

JOHN HUTTON: I think it's one of those debates that's actually going to go on -

ANDREW MARR: I know, but at some point decisions have got to be taken and one of the things that irritates people -

JOHN HUTTON: And it will be -

ANDREW MARR: - is the deal which has been done between the government and people in the public sector, who, if they're currently employed in the public sector, aren't going to have to work longer, aren't going to have any restrictions on their pensions, whereas people in the private sector look at this and think hold on a minute, I'm going to have to work longer, we're going to have to work harder for our pensions and yet if you're employed by the state you're okay.

JOHN HUTTON: Well two things I would say about that, Andrew. Firstly what we did, in the deal that we reached, and both sides moved, it's true, the TUC moved, the government moved, but we've closed the existing schemes in the public sector, new people coming into the civil service and to the national service, into the schools, will have a retirement age of 65 - that's a very important principle. And in making that change we've secured something like 13 billion pounds worth of savings for the taxpayer.

So those reforms I think are right, they take us in the right direction. But look, I'm not pretending for a second today that there aren't going to be some pretty big issues for us to resolve in relation to pensions. But what we try to do is, we're going to receive Adair Turner's report, I think later this month, we then need to talk to people about it and I think hopefully in spring we will have our conclusions.

ANDREW MARR: So, so it's sometime in the spring. Much more generally - you're seen as an outrider - this strange phrase people use - on the Blair project. Is this the final period? I mean a whole series of specific reforms, education, health, your agenda, what's in your in-tray, and indeed the 90 days, it doesn't look to a lot of people as if the government is going to be able to carry its business in the House of Commons.

JOHN HUTTON: No I don't think that's true, I think the government will carry its business in the House of Commons and I think -

ANDREW MARR: Not on 90 days -

JOHN HUTTON: Well we'll wait and see about that. There's plenty of steam behind the government's reform agenda. We've just been re-elected - I know it's not convenient to remind ourselves of this - less than six months ago we got a third term -

ANDREW MARR: Well that's what's so extraordinary about it -

JOHN HUTTON: Well - and we are carrying that agenda forward and we will carry it through. So the idea that the government is running out of steam, I think is complete nonsense. The reason why, actually I believe, we're having the difficulty that we're having, is because we've actually got a radical reforming agenda. When you go back to the Nineties -

ANDREW MARR: You've got a radical reform agenda - but you haven't got the MPs who are going to push it through -


ANDREW MARR: I'm sorry - for example, just because it's in front of us at the moment, this 90 days thing, you know perfectly well it's not going to get through. Number 10 is admitting it's not going to get through.

JOHN HUTTON: Well now that's not ... but let me just come back to the point I'm trying to make - let me try and just develop the argument - if you go back to the last years of John Major's premiership, the Tories were then getting into difficulties because they weren't doing anything. They were the victims of events, they were being buffeted because they had simply run out of steam. The difficulties we've got now, and of course we've got difficulties, there are arguments in Parliament and outside as well, the arguments we're having now are because the government has a radical reforming agenda.

It's not running away from any of these difficult decisions, whether it's schools reform or NHS reform or welfare reform - we are going to tackle these problems. That is the job of government and we've got a prime minister who is not going to run away from those arguments, because he believes this is the right thing to do, I believe it's the right thing to do and so does the Cabinet. Our job is to carry the argument and that is what we're going to try and do.

ANDREW MARR: Going back, and I apologise for this in a sense, but it is absolutely right at the front of everyone's attention at the moment, you can't get 90 days through without the Conservative. We've just heard from David Davis the Conservatives are not going to let you get that through. You are constrained as a government in ways you have never been constrained before.

JOHN HUTTON: Well yeah, we've got a smaller majority, but I think in relation to the 90 days, I think those who are saying we shouldn't have 90 days have got to explain why they think something less than that is going to do what the police think is necessary to protect the security of our fellow citizens.

The police have made it absolutely clear, the importance they attach to 90 days. And for people like David Davis and others to come on here and say we aren't going to do this, they are tying the hands of the police behind their back in tackling the fight against terrorism.

ANDREW MARR: But that's what the House of Commons is going to do.

JOHN HUTTON: Well but our job is to say look we believe this policy ...

ANDREW MARR: You're allowed to complain about it ...


ANDREW MARR: - but my point is you can't get it through.

JOHN HUTTON: We're not complaining about it. Our job is to set out the case for the 90 days, and that is what we're going to do. I think there's a compelling case for 90 days. The police have made it clear they believe this is an essential tool in the fight against terrorism and those who say it is not acceptable have got to explain how they can, how they can explain that away.

ANDREW MARR: John Hutton, 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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