Help
BBC NewsAndrew Marr Show

MORE PROGRAMMES

Page last updated at 08:49 GMT, Sunday, 19 July 2009 09:49 UK

Swine Flu 'overreaction'

On Sunday 19 July Andrew Marr interviewed Alan Johnson MP, Home Secretary

Please note 'The Andrew Marr Show' must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Home Secretary: "precautions need to be taken" but the public mustn't pay attention to headlines.

ANDREW MARR:

Alan Johnson MP, Home Secretary
Alan Johnson MP, Home Secretary

"Not a poisoned chalice, but a perfectly formed goblet".

That's how Alan Johnson describes his new job as Home Secretary. Alan Johnson and the Goblet of Fire.

After all, violent crime, anti-social behaviour, the immigration system, the terrorist threat - just a few of the issues bubbling for him each morning.

He's with me now.

Let's start by looking at the problem of knife crime, in particular, which is something you've been focusing on.

38,000 serious offences involving knives in the last year for which figures were taken up quite a lot.

This is becoming a really serious problem, isn't it?

ALAN JOHNSON:

It is a serious problem and my predecessor Jacqui Smith, together with the Prime Minister, launched the Tackling Knives Action Programme just about a year ago, focusing on the issues where there was the major problem - cities like London, Manchester, Merseyside - and there's been encouraging results.

I mean I've said that statistics on crime is the area where they matter the least and where personal experience matters the most, but those statistics in terms of the provisional figures for the number of people coming into hospital, having been wounded by a sharp object, are down 32% in those Tackling Knives Action Programme areas, those ten areas.

It's now increased to sixteen, but in the ten original areas the police are stopping more people - 250,000 stop and searches - and finding fewer weapons, and there's about 5,500 knives have been taken off the streets. But you know that …

ANDREW MARR:

It's a real …

ALAN JOHNSON:

… it's a, it's a longer problem than just one year, which is why the programme goes on for several years. But everyone together … The police are doing a marvellous job, but also the local agencies and schools and charities in local community groups are really getting to grips with the issue.

ANDREW MARR:

Can I ask about a longer perspective issue? When New Labour first came in, there was plenty of money and there appears to have been plenty of will to tackle anti-social behaviour in the wider … To make the streets calmer, quieter, less threatening, ASBOs were brought in, and it hasn't really worked. I mean more than half, 60% I think, of young, younger people with ASBOs break the ASBOs. There's a lot of laughter about them, a lot of ignoring of them, and our streets don't seem to have been cleared and made safer as a result of, as I say, ten years of money and ten years of no doubt serious politicians. Why do you think that is?

ALAN JOHNSON:

Andrew, first of all that's wrong. The introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, parenting orders, acceptable behaviour contracts - all of this …

ANDREW MARR:

All of that stuff.

ALAN JOHNSON:

… the agencies working together to tackle a problem that was previously ignored - has had an effect. Public confidence in the fact that that's being tackled has improved. And my point is not that this hasn't worked and we shouldn't have done that. My point is that it needs constant leadership and we have to ensure …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) Well I mean you say that, but I would have thought people like the Probation Service, people one talks to on the streets, newspaper reporting, a lot of the statistics about crime, Social Services, would all contest that. They would say out there it is not greatly improved after, as I say, a lot of money and a lot of political will.

ALAN JOHNSON:

I don't think they would. I'm not suggesting that the problem's gone away - there are still issues there, of course there are. That's why I believe we should give it a higher profile. Not by introducing new measures and new laws. I think we've got all the laws in place that we need. There are some aspects that might need to change, but they're around the edges. I mean you quote this point about people keep breaking them. Statistics show very clearly …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) 50 … 50% of people break ASBOs; and under the age of 18, it's 62% or thereabouts.

ALAN JOHNSON:

Well, yeah, you have to look at this in the context of anti-social behaviour that was happening day after day after day. For 66% when they've broken it the once, when there's been one breach of that ASBO, they don't breach again. And so the statistics are that around 93%, if they've breached it a couple of times, they won't breach it again.

ANDREW MARR:

(over/inaudible)

ALAN JOHNSON:

You haul them back eventually. And this is in the context of people's lives being made a misery. Now I know from my constituency, other MPs know from their constituency, that when this kind of thing was happening in 1997 the MP in general had to get the police together with the local community. They had to do the facilitating. There was no machinery there. And when you did it, the police would say, "Look, we haven't even got the legal basis to take a truant back to school". True, until the Anti-Social Behaviour and Disorder Act came in. So things have been transformed. Are they perfect out there …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) Certainly not.

ALAN JOHNSON:

… are there things that still need tackling? Absolutely. And I am absolutely clear - and so is the Prime Minister - this is one of those things that ruins the quality of life of people. It's not what we would call high level crime, but to those people it matters more than you know organised crime and bank robberies, etcetera, and we have to tackle it as effectively as we do those more serious crimes.

ANDREW MARR:

Figures in the newspapers this week talking about the population rising to over 70 million and immigration being a very, very large part of that. Does there come a point - and you're in charge of immigration policy - does there come a point where you say well actually we have enough people in this country, we don't want further large-scale immigration or indeed we don't want further immigration and we have to put a cap on it?

ALAN JOHNSON:

I don't think a cap is the answer because the problem with a cap is it's an arbitrary figure, and what you need to do is to ensure that you make the case - and there is a very strong case - for the importance to our economy of migration. Now the point is this: we have introduced a system where rather than an open door policy, it's a closed door policy for the unskilled. The door is closed under our points based system for the unskilled. The door can only be opened from the inside for those who are skilled - i.e. we determine that we need those jobs and we advertise them first in Job Centre Plus to see if there's any local people who can take those jobs before we allow them through. And just to torture this analogy one more step - for students and people coming in on short-term permits, the door has you know got all kinds of alarms and security alarms, which is why we've closed over 250 bogus colleges. So the Australian points based system that we introduced last year is a really effective way of tackling these issues at the same time as ensuring that we keep a strong economy in this country.

ANDREW MARR:

You grew up on a sort of white working class estate. Now on estates around the country, as you know, quite a lot of people have been turning to parties like the BNP on this because they perceive that people from outside are getting a better deal and are taking British jobs for British workers, to use a well-known phrase. Now is that all got up by the BNP or do they have a point?

ALAN JOHNSON:

I didn't grow up on a council estate. My mum didn't even qualify to get a council house. I grew up in the slums of Notting Hill. On the corner was Oswald Mosley - the corner of my street, Southam Street in Notting Hill when I was a kid. It started off the Notting Hill race riots when I was a 9 year old. Mosley would stand there with the same argument of hate and division and intolerance as we hear from the BNP now. It's not new. It comes around in waves. He stood as a parliamentary candidate in North Kensington.

ANDREW MARR:

Didn't get very far.

ALAN JOHNSON:

I bought my kids up on a council estate - a very good council estate, the Brickwell Estate in Slough - as a postman, and I know very well how the argument at times when jobs are harder to find, this argument that the racists use can be so destructive. I have absolute faith in the British people who not just fought a war against Fascism, but have seen this come in waves - Mosley, National Front, now BNP.

ANDREW MARR:

Okay.

ALAN JOHNSON:

I have absolute faith in their ability to look at these issues, to ens… Of course politicians have to speak to people in the language they can understand about the problems they are facing …

ANDREW MARR:

Okay.

ALAN JOHNSON:

… and successive mainstream politicians of all political parties have done that in this country, which is why we don't have the same problem with a Right Wing established group as they do in countries like France and Italy.

ANDREW MARR:

Let me ask you about another problem raised in the papers today, which is that there are a group of 20 or so quite hardline Islamists who were sent to prison because of what they were doing, and they're now coming back out again and there aren't really proper controls on what they do once they're back out. There's clearly quite serious alarm about this.

ALAN JOHNSON:

There are proper controls. The simple fact is anyone who's been sentenced to longer than 12 months is released on the ba… when their sentence is complete.

ANDREW MARR:

They're staying in bail hostels, some of these guys.

ALAN JOHNSON:

But that's a good place for them because the place where they're staying, they stay under very strict conditions with very well trained staff. If they're foreign nationals, we'll send them back. Sometimes we can't because … if we're sending them back to a country where there could be a death penalty, for instance, but we keep them under...

ANDREW MARR:

(over) So they are securely supervised and watched?

ALAN JOHNSON:

Very securely supervised, very closely monitored.

ANDREW MARR:

Okay.

ALAN JOHNSON:

This is not the same as control orders. Control orders are people who we can't charge. They haven't been through the system. This is when people have been through the system, been convicted, served their sentence, and are then very strictly and tightly controlled.

ANDREW MARR:

Right let's move on, if we may, to yet another of the big issues, which is swine flu. Now you were Health Secretary. You were across all of this stuff. What's going on inside government as you look at the potential for a very serious epidemic and further waves?

ALAN JOHNSON:

Well I have to say, Andrew, what's going on is what I told you on this programme in the very early days of this when there were some commentators saying that government was overreacting. We've been preparing for this for a long time. It came actually above terrorism as a threat to this country, and so we have the whole Cobra machinery, the inter-agency working; we'd gone through simulation exercises like Winter Willow where everyone was involved. And what we're seeing is that that is absolutely the right approach. No country was better prepared than this country.

ANDREW MARR:

So when people pick up their papers today and they read that women who want babies should perhaps put that off, that young women with young children are under great threat and all the rest of it, how worried should they be? Is this alarmism or is this realistic?

ALAN JOHNSON:

I think it's an overreaction to say that women shouldn't have babies during this period. And so does Steve Field, who's the General Secretary of the Royal College of General Practitioners. I think that's an overreaction. You know these debates will go on and what we've been doing and what Liam Donaldson …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) Can I just push you a little bit on that? What about, what about young children and mothers with young children? Should they be taking extra precautions about where they go, whether they go on hol…?

ALAN JOHNSON:

They should be taking precautions that we've said right from the start. The thing about this virus, H1N1, it hasn't read our … You know we produced a fabulous strategy, but the H1N1 virus hasn't read it, so it will obviously be doing things that were unexpected.

What we're finding - and we've found this out some time ago - is it's attacking the young rather than the elderly, which traditional seasonal flu would attack. But in general, the vast majority of cases, it's a mild illness. We've got stacks of antivirals to cover not just 50% of the population but above that. We've got a vaccine on the way.

The very important public health messages - catch it, bin it, kill it, you know wash your hands, use a handkerchief, etcetera - are the simple messages that are as applicable now as they were at the beginning of this. And you know parents have commonsense. And you know where we disagreed was this idea of swine flu parties - I mean that was not a sensible move - but the vast majority of parents are doing what they should be doing and abiding by public sector ad… public health advice.

ANDREW MARR:

We've been talking a lot about Afghanistan in this programme. As a member of the cabinet, are you confident that when the military comes to this government and says we need more helicopters, we need more this, we need more that, they will get what they need?

ALAN JOHNSON:

Yes, I do. And I thought that Matthew Parris was absolutely wrong and Patrick Hennessy was absolutely right. Look, this is the defining conflict of our age - recognised as such by Barack Obama.

ANDREW MARR:

But we still need to know how to get out again, don't we?

ALAN JOHNSON:

Well, no but the point is this. I mean what worries me is this counsel of despair that you heard from Matthew Parris. This is a NATO-led operation - 40 countries involved in what was a safe haven for militant international terrorists to carry out their plots around the world. It is also, of course, very close to Pakistan - a secular democracy with a nuclear capability. If we just pull out and leave that situation as it is when we know 93% of the Afghan public have said they don't want the Taliban back, when we've got democratic elections virtually for the first time controlled by the Afghan… Afghanistan people themselves, first time in 30 years, I think you know our …

ANDREW MARR:

Okay.

ALAN JOHNSON:

… the bravery of our soldiers, which is an inspiration every day, in a democracy you'll get the views of Matthew Parris but let's hear the other view much more strongly. They're doing a very, very important job.

ANDREW MARR:

We heard both today. Very, very quickly, another 19 point Tory lead at the moment. Game over pretty much in realistic terms?

ALAN JOHNSON:

Not at all. Look where the Tories are, whether it's the late 30s …- one of the polls said 37, early 40s - 8 months before a General Election everything's to play for. It is game on.

ANDREW MARR:

Alright, alright. Alan Johnson, for now thank you very much.

INTERVIEW ENDS


Please note "The Andrew Marr 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


Your comments

Name
E-mail address
Town or City
Country
Comments




FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit