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BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST HOSTED BY PETER SISSONS INTERVIEW: ROBIN COOK MP LEADER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS JULY 22ND, 2001
Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used
PETER SISSONS: Well last week was full of political surprises inside and outside the Chamber. In a moment I'll be speaking to the new Leader of the Commons, the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook but first this from Guto Harri.
PETER SISSONS: Well that was our political correspondent Guto Harri and this is the Leader of the House, Robin Cook.
ROBIN COOK: Good morning
PETER SISSONS: Good morning, first of all what are your thoughts as you watch the mayhem in Genoa, are you well out of it?
ROBIN COOK: Well first of all I think it's an immense tragedy, not just for the importance of these summits but also for all the people who went there to make their point peacefully, to demonstrate to get across their point that it's all been obscured by a small minority who went there to commit violence. I do know from experience that these meetings are very important as you heard Tony Blair said at the start of this programme. The face-to-face contact, the private discussions, the personal ability to get to know the person you're speaking to does actually change opinions and if we are going to have increased global trade, increased global contact it is very important we have increased contact between global politicians.
PETER SISSONS: The arrangements for these summits which to the outsider look immensely plush and you're told that £80 to £120 million is spent in Genoa, maybe more, and they have poverty as their main theme. It's all pretty insensitive and provocative to protest groups?
ROBIN COOK: Well there is perhaps a cultural issue here, some of those countries such as Italy would regard it as insulting to their guests that they did not provide them with that type of reception. Actually when we met.
PETER SISSONS: Would you be insulted if you didn't get a slap up feed and a nice hotel room?
ROBIN COOK: Not in the slightest and indeed I was just going to say when we had it in Britain a couple of years ago actually we did it as a very low key and a very minimal way. When we did it in the United States actually I remember Bill Clinton took us to a livestock market which was converted for the big occasion. So different countries have different ways of approaching this but do remember all of those leaders would actually much rather frankly be at home at the weekend with the family, they don't go there for the food, they don't go there because of the places they're accommodated in, they go there because they know these international talks are very important to the people they represent.
PETER SISSONS: But we used to be told that the work on the way to summit was done by the officials known as the shepherds and now we're being told the work's being done by the leaders themselves, that they have to be there, they have to eyeball each other. Now either the officials are, are not getting the stuff sorted out in advance or, or they're failing, they're failing their leaders in some way by, by making the summit so important?
ROBIN COOK: Peter let's get real, it's a process and indeed yes a lot of the detailed work is done in advance, I heard somebody today complaining that they had heard before the summit about the big fund to help with aids and to combat the spread of HIV in Africa, yes they have heard of it before but they heard of it before because the work that was being was a deadline of that summit, without that deadline, without that focus a lot of that work wouldn't happen. And secondly it is very important that the leaders meet in order to decide on strategic questions, it does look as if in Genoa they were able to get across the importance of climate change, the importance of tapping global warming and if that happened it only happened because these people were closeted together and discussing it between themselves and got across to President Bush how strongly the rest of them feel.
PETER SISSONS: Okay now in your new life you find yourself at the centre of what Donald Anderson called the peasant's revolt over the composition of the Select Committees, have the peasants won?
ROBIN COOK: I would never dream as Leader of the House of describing members of the House of Commons as peasants.
PETER SISSONS: If they had to describe themselves as peasants?
ROBIN COOK: I think that it would probably more difficult for me to use the same term. No don't under-rate what we've achieved, I promised only four weeks ago at the end of the Queen's Speech that we would get the Select Committees up and running before the summer recess so they can start their job of scrutiny and we've delivered on that. That's the shortest time it has ever been done in any Parliament.
PETER SISSONS: You're taking credit for the peasant's revolt?
ROBIN COOK: I'm certainly taking credit for the fact that we've got the committee's of scrutiny up and running faster than ever before.
PETER SISSONS: Yeah you've got them up and running and they were dismantled and then you had to get them up and running again?
ROBIN COOK: They were not dismantled, they, it was a free vote on Monday, I argued for it to be a free vote, I assured the House of Commons it would be a free vote.
PETER SISSONS: It was a free vote which the government needed to win, it was only a free vote in name.
ROBIN COOK: No, nothing but, nothing but, no it was absolutely a free vote and I made that perfectly plain to my colleagues last Thursday. But if I can come back to the issue of substance, in order to get the Select Committees up and running by the summer recess we had to use the existing system. If we started saying let's first design a new system we'd be here 'til November and everybody agreed with that judgement.
PETER SISSONS: But are you glad to see Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson reinstated?
ROBIN COOK: Well we accepted the will of the House and I did reinstate them myself.
PETER SISSONS: Glad to see it happen, glad to see MPs reassert their independence?
ROBIN COOK: What I do, what I do welcome is that there is now a momentum for reform and I think it's very important that we seize that tide for reform and make sure we carry it through, that's why when I chaired the Modernisation Committee on Wednesday we agreed we would meet during the recess and try and bring forward a report early when Parliament returns in October so that this never happens again and we've a new system which makes it plain those going on Select Committees are independent, are appointed by Parliament, not by government.
PETER SISSONS: So when you talk about reform you're not talking about just the hours that, that MPs work and tinkering at the edges but you're talking about giving back-benchers back some of the powers that government has taken away from them?
ROBIN COOK: Hours are important and I wouldn't under-rate that, I'd like to see more women in parliament¿
PETER SISSONS: But will they have¿
ROBIN COOK: If I can just finish that point Peter, if we're going to see more women in Parliament we do have to have hours which enable them to be a Member of Parliament and a member of a family. But yes we will tackle these central questions and the first report we'll bring forward is about the process of appointing the people to the Select Committees and then I want to look at how we bring in more draft legislation so Parliament can do a job of scrutiny earlier.
PETER SISSONS: Do you wish¿do you wish to see Select Committees freed from executive control, do you wish to see the House of Commons in its purest sense with the Whips off decide who's on its select committees and how they organise them?
ROBIN COOK: I think that the last decision on who goes on a Select Committee must be Parliaments and now we must make sure we find a system that is transparent, that is fair and that does put Parliament in charge.
PETER SISSONS: Do you feel a bit bruised by your move back to the front bench in the House of Commons from your nice residence at Chevening and your official residence in London?
ROBIN COOK: The trappings are only secondary Peter, look I had four enjoyable years at the Foreign Office, I don't regret a minute of it, not many people actually go a full Parliament at the Foreign Office and hardly anybody ever goes two and I find my new job very congenial, I'm loving every minute of it.
PETER SISSONS: But it must have been a bit hurtful?
ROBIN COOK: I have spent four years now on planes, on one occasion in five days I did 55 flying hours, actually I'm quite glad to be back in Commons, I went to Parliament to be in the Commons, not to be flying round the world.
PETER SISSONS: But it does give you an opportunity, doesn't it, in political terms to build a powerbase among, to become popular again among back benchers, to be the man who gives them back which, that which Mr Blair and his control freaks took away?
ROBIN COOK: I'm not interested in a power base Peter, but I am interested in standing in Parliament, I've been there for 30 years, I love it, I'd like to see it reformed. Yes I would quite welcome the chance to be remembered as somebody who brought Parliament into the 21st century.
PETER SISSONS: And will one of the reforms be kicking out peers who go to jail from their, stripping them of their life peerages?
ROBIN COOK: Well if by that am I going to bring in Lord Archer as a Bill to the House of Commons, the answer's no, I think the only person who would be flattered by that would be Lord Archer's great ego. But we will some time while he's in prison be bringing forward reform of the House of Lords and part of that reform should make sure that people who are disqualified from the Commons are also disqualified from the Lords.
PETER SISSONS: And that's it, that's it for this week, thank you Robin Cook, I'm back next Sunday at the same time, I do hope you can join us then, from all of us here this morning. Good morning.
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