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The Prime Minister Tony Blair MP
The Prime Minister Tony Blair MP
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW:
PRIME MINISTER
TONY BLAIR MP JANUARY 13TH, 2002

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST:
And now as we promised you earlier in the programme we welcome the Prime Minister, good morning Prime Minister.

TONY BLAIR:
Morning David.

DAVID FROST:
And congratulations on the fact that your team is top of the Premiership today, at least until Arsenal play this afternoon. Maybe you should put Bobby Robson in charge of Railtrack?

TONY BLAIR:
Well it's an interesting thought you might find him difficult to persuade.

DAVID FROST:
Yes the salary might be slightly different, mightn't it. Tell me, Prime Minister, the, while you were in India and Afghanistan and Pakistan there began to be a growing chorus, a cacophony almost of people here saying what's he doing over there, he's paid to sort things out here, not to sort thinks out over there, he shouldn't be there, he should be here and so on, did that take you by surprise?

TONY BLAIR:
Not really I mean you get used to, to the criticism that comes with the job but all I would hope that people understand is that after September the 11th, the impact was not just in America, not just on international relations, it was actually on our economy and the reason why things have begun to get better, it looks like the American economy is beginning to pick up, the British economy is weathering the storm pretty well, is in part because we took action after September the 11th, built a strong international coalition, dealt with the problem in Afghanistan and therefore that confidence that the international community was going to move forward again had an impact really on our jobs and our living standards and our way of life. And so when you've got a situation as you have with India and Pakistan, where if there was a conflict there in exactly the same part of the world that would impact on all our countries, I think it's important to do everything we can to sort it out. So you're in a situation today where the domestic policy and foreign policy are more closely interlinked than perhaps ever before, so I hope people understand that and understand that it is important that we play our role in trying to sort out some of these issues.

DAVID FROST:
And this, this I suppose could be said to be a compliment, although probably it's a back-handed compliment, but a lot of people say that the problem when the Prime Minister is away is that everyone's got the impression here that if you are not actually handling the case, if you're not in charge of things then nothing gets done and that¿and on something like foot and mouth for instance would be one example when you take on the case things get done, when you're not here or you're not on the case they don't?

TONY BLAIR:
I mean I think that's very unfair obviously but you know I would also say that we shouldn't exaggerate, the amount of time I actually spend out of the country is a very small proportion of the Prime Minister's time but I think it's important to do it, where there's a serious issue, as I say, that can impact either on the strength of the international community, also of course on our own country and I really think, you know if you look back on September the 11th, straight after that there was a real loss of confidence, economically, I mean it wasn't just the act of terrorism, it was the fact that people were being laid off, the stockmarket was going down, people thought there was a real sense of a deepening economic gloom as a result of what happened and therefore the action that we've taken in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the strength of the international community pulling together, sorting it out, has calmed the situation not just in terms of the politics but also has allowed people to have the confidence in their business dealings, in their investment in industry to try and move the economy forward again. And I, I just think one of the lessons of today's world is that we are more inter-dependent than ever before, that problems in one region of the world impact really quite quickly on problems in another part of the world and particularly with the state of global finance today, remember something like, I think it's world trade has increased something like ten fold in the past couple of decades. The amount of finance traded across international frontiers has grown six fold in just the past few years and so it really matters on the streets of Britain, jobs, living standards, crime, 90 per cent of the heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan, it matters what happens abroad. So I hope, I believe actually ultimately people do understand that.

DAVID FROST:
Coming on to what's happening here, Prime Minister, Stephen Byers said about trains, that the rail network is in a worse state than when you took over in 1997 and Peter Hain a minister in your government, or at least I assume he's still in the government, is he?

TONY BLAIR:
Absolutely, yes.

DAVID FROST:
Admitted last week that we have the worst rail network in Europe. Now is it true that the reason for the delay in acting on this you feel is that as a government you took a gamble on being able to sort out Railtrack which in retrospect you wouldn't have done?

TONY BLAIR:
Well in, when we came to office in May 1997 it is possible we could have then said well we're going to change the whole of Railtrack, get rid of privatisation, renationalise and so on. I simply point out had we done that at the time there would have been an outcry that we were acting dogmatically, that this was Old Labour back, it was perfectly sensible for us to try and make the system work. What really happened is that once Hatfield happened back some 15 months ago now, once Hatfield happened it became obvious that the actual state of infrastructure, the state of the track itself was in far worse condition than anyone had ever thought and ever since then we've been having to renew the track, put new infrastructure in place, the plans that are being announced tomorrow by the Strategic Rail Authority, I was just listening to the summary of that on the news just now. These plans are, are not something we've just suddenly thought up in the past few weeks, they've been worked on literally ever since the announcement of the ten year plan of investment for the railways, they will combine public money and private money. What is being announced tomorrow is the detail of that, what will it purchase for us, but unless we renew fundamentally the railways infrastructure in this country then we're not going to put the railways in the state people want them.

DAVID FROST:
But in terms of the so-called gamble or whatever, if, if you'd known then, 1997, '98, what you know now, you would have acted differently?

TONY BLAIR:
Well hindsight's a wonderful thing, but we didn't is the truth and as I say if we had done that at the time, because whenever you reorganise there's going then to be a period of delay and difficulty as we're having now with Railtrack, we're having to sort out an entire new company structure, a different type of management, there is always then a delay, a hiatus as you sort things out. Now in the end what people need to know is one, we are getting the new management in, the Strategic Rail Authority in the hands of Richard Balfour I think is going to be a very powerful and good giver of momentum to the programme to sort out the railways and the investment's now there over a period of time. But you know if I can just take you back to '97 again, people say well why didn't you put the money immediately into the railways? Well the answer to that is quite simple, first of all we needed to sort out the economy, to rid of the big debt and to make sure the national finances were in proper order, we've done that which is one of the reasons why Britain's one of the most successful economies in the world today. But secondly education was the number one priority and after education came health. Now we have set aside the money and this was done, as I say not just in the last few weeks or the last few months, the money is set aside for railways investment and what will be announced tomorrow is exactly how that money's spent, what will it buy in terms of rolling stock, new stations and so on.

DAVID FROST:
This is a quote from Stephen Byers interview, I'm looking forward to discussing these matters in the run-up to the next election, question, does that mean that you have the Prime Minister's nod that as long as you don't do anything terribly silly you're going to be there for the duration, Stephen Byers, he's in full agreement. How many other ministers have got that guarantee?

TONY BLAIR:
Well you know I never discuss reshuffles, I'm not going to do that now but I really think that some of the attacks of Steve Byers in the past few weeks have been extremely unfair. I mean the idea that he's responsible for example for the rail strikes I think is particularly unfair since he's condemning the strikes and saying, as I'm saying, this is a ridiculous way to sort out disputes today?

DAVID FROST:
Does Stephen Byers have your 100 per cent confidence?

TONY BLAIR:
Of course if he didn't have my confidence he wouldn't be doing the job and the question is is he taking the right decisions. Now I don't believe there was any alternative but to say to Railtrack you know when they were coming back for more and more and more money, when it was perfectly obvious that the state of the track was far worse than anyone had anticipated, I'm sorry this can't go on. So it was the right thing to take the decision to restructure the company. It's also the right decision to streamline the regulation and get in a new head of the Strategic Rail Authority, Richard Balfour, that has now been done¿

DAVID FROST:
But it's said¿

TONY BLAIR:
It's also right to get the investment in and that's what he's now doing.

DAVID FROST:
Yes but of course the very fact that the way that Railtrack was mugged as they say, means that it's going to be much more difficult to get in that £30 or £40 billion you need, people won't really want to invest in a new Railtrack, I mean it's sort of, like investing in a Titantic?

TONY BLAIR:
No I disagree, I actually think if we carried on with the old structure when it was perfectly obvious that the company wasn't any longer frankly a going concern, where its debts were piling up, it was having to come back to government for more and more money. Far better, even though it's difficult to take the tough decision to sort the company out, to get a new structure in place and then we have the combination of public and private money to rebuild the railways over the next few years. And remember we're doing this incidentally, this is something people you know often don't, don't fully appreciate, the numbers of passenger kilometres travelled is now 20 per cent up on five years ago, so we're having to do all this against a background of far greater pressure on the service itself. But there is no alternative, but to sorting out the investment, putting the right structure in place and then over time rebuilding it.

DAVID FROST:
How long will it be before passengers notice an improvement, I wouldn't have thought of saying this a few years ago, first of all when will it get back to the standards of British Rail?

TONY BLAIR:
Well the truth is, as I say, because of Hatfield people now understand the state of the track, there is still today as we speak some 30 per cent more speed restrictions on as a result of problems with bits of the track that are having to be renewed. But once that is complete and I can't be sure exactly the point when, but once that is complete then of course the service will get better but will the service improve? Past what with the British Rail standard if you like, yes it will once that new investment¿

DAVID FROST:
Obviously it's going to take time because one of the reforms quoted today is that the building of a thousand more waiting rooms which means there are going to be more delays?

TONY BLAIR:
Well no I mean obviously whenever you do construction work there are problems then. But I was interested when I was looking back over the interviews we'd done in the past few years, back in 1998 you were interviewing me really about education, were we going to be able to get our education programme in place and we have. I mean we've now got Britain according to the most authoritative international survey in the top eight of countries for education in the world, primary school results better, secondary school results better, still a long way to go but clearly moving forward. Two years ago you were interviewing about the National Health Service and I said then it will take time but with investment and reform we will turn it round, now there are still big, big challenges in the Health Service, don't get me wrong, there are huge pressures there for the winter time and all the rest of it, but we, if I can just finish¿

DAVID FROST:
Yes.

TONY BLAIR:
Last week we had the first report of the modernisation board for the Health Service, now that is board which has the Royal Colleges on it, the British Medical Association, Royal College of Nursing, Unison, people who are independent of government and their statement on progress in the Health Service was quite clear, yes big challenges still remain, yes there is still a massive amount to do but the Health Service is improving and is getting better. So today you're interviewing me about transport and what I would say to you there again is that with the investment and the change going in it will get better but it will take time to do so.

DAVID FROST:
And the fact was that yes, transport came third, first of all there was education and then there was health, tell me on health¿

TONY BLAIR:
Because you have to do it on the basis of the economy, you know if your economy isn't, I mean previous Labour governments, this is the essence of New Labour, the previous Labour governments came into power, they spent money that they didn't have, the economy wasn't run properly and then it all fell apart. We have probably had the best record in economic management of any government in this country since the war, we've put in a whole series of changes to the way that the economy was run, we've sorted out the public finances, we've got many more people back to work, we've reduced the debt repayment levels of the country. Now we've got the investment going into schools and hospitals and rail, we've got the highest numbers of police now that this¿will have by the end of next year the highest numbers of police in this country¿

DAVID FROST:
In terms of two years ago that you were talking about, when you said the thing about bringing our health spending up to the European level, European average, did you mean the European average then, when you said it, which was about 8 per cent, or the European average in the year 2006 when the pledge runs out. Which, which average were you going for?

TONY BLAIR:
Well obviously as I've said before it's got to be the average we know about, I mean we don't know what it's going to be in 2006 but the investment in the Health Service that we put in is yielding results, I mean just, as this report showed last week and it didn't, for obvious reasons, get a great deal of publicity because it was a very positive report but it showed that there were more beds in the Health Service than a year ago, that there were 10,000 more nurses, that we were making the changes necessary to give people the Health Service we need. Now we've got to keep that up, that's why there's the debate at the moment on how we fund the Health Service for the future but we are getting there.

DAVID FROST:
That's very clear that you were talking about the average as it was then, but that does mean that if it's 11 per cent average in Europe in 2006 you will have achieved the 8 per cent but will still be way behind the spending of other countries in Europe?

TONY BLAIR:
Yes but it's not going to be that, in actual fact what's happened in Europe is that the amount, the percentage of spending to the proportion of national incomes remain roughly constant in the last 10 years. I mean I should just point out to you as well, it's very interesting that there is, there is a huge debate going on about healthcare in Germany at the moment, in France doctors have been on strike because of certain problems and issues within their Health Service, I think it's important therefore, I mean I sometimes feel like making this deal with the media, I shouldn't pretend everything in our Health Service is perfect but they shouldn't pretend everything in the Health Service is bad, the truth is it's mixed. There are real examples of good practice in the National Health Service today, the actual fundamentals of the system are in fact sound but yes there are still big challenges and still big problems to overcome.

DAVID FROST:
But you've got, like with the hospitals you've got this three star, two star, one star, no star classification. What happens to a failing hospital who's on no stars for two years or whatever?

TONY BLAIR:
Well Alan Milburn's going to be talking a bit about this next week but essentially if a hospital carries on failing and providing a poor service then we should have provision for the hospitals that are doing well, if necessary to take over the management of the hospital that isn't. And so it's very similar to what we're doing in schools now and it's part of what is a huge programme of reform in our public services, you know again if I can go back to the essence of New Labour and what we were about when we were elected, sorting out the economy first, make sure the public finances were in sound order, got the unemployment levels down and then the programme that we got for public services and this is the next phase, is a programme of significant investment and reform and change. The reform programme going through the Health Service at the moment is the biggest reform programme since its inception.

DAVID FROST:
And talking, talking of the Health Service, and I know and we all know and sympathise with your desire for your family, for your children to have as normal and private life as possible, but in terms of MMR, what do you say to those anxious parents who say the government's urging us again this week, urging us to have an MMR injection and we have a right to know if that government practices what it preaches?

TONY BLAIR:
What I would say to people, I hope people can understand this, is that once we go down the path of discussing our own children's medical condition, what things they do, what things they don't do it becomes very difficult to draw a line for us. But what people need and should have the reassurance about is this, that we are completely behind the campaign to make sure that people do have the vaccination, we believe it is safe, we believe the evidence not merely of the governments chief medical officer but also the Royal Colleges of virtually every single independent body that's looked at this and I would not be asking people or saying to people we advise you to do this if I thought it was dangerous for my own child.

DAVID FROST:
And that, and since you'd be unlikely to go against your own advice people can draw their conclusions from that?

TONY BLAIR:
I'm not, as I say, I'm not going to either by directly or by¿once we, I mean look I understand why people say well it's important that you, you¿tell us everything that your own children are doing but I really ask people to understand this. This isn't the only piece of advice that the government gives parents of children, they give you know literally scores of pieces of advice and I know people say well we only want to know this, we won't know anything else, it doesn't work like that, you know the moment we do this we're then asked, and it would be perfectly legitimate then to ask us for the details of the treatment and so on and then across a whole range of different bits of advice or campaigns we're asked for the same thing.

DAVID FROST:
Well of course in that area the papers are dominated today by another famous father and his son, do you think the stories about Prince Harry should have been printed or would it have been unrealistic to think they could have been suppressed, what do you think?

TONY BLAIR:
I think it probably is unrealistic and I think that the way that Prince Charles and the Royal Family have handled it is absolutely right and they've done it in a very responsible and as you would expect in a very sensitive way for their child.

DAVID FROST:
This is a very difficult situation?

TONY BLAIR:
Well I know this myself.

DAVID FROST:
Moving on to the Euro, if, if in fact there was a situation where the five economic conditions were met or not met, if they were met or not met and we went in or not went in, which would you rather happen of those two?

TONY BLAIR:
Well obviously in principle we're in favour of people joining a single currency.

DAVID FROST:
So that would be your clear preference?

TONY BLAIR:
Well I mean otherwise you wouldn't be in favour of it in principle but the economic tests aren't camouflage, they do have to be met because it's an economic union, I mean in the end this will have an impact on our economy. Now the question is can we say that the case for Britain joining is clear and unambiguous, if it is, if that's what the assessments find then we've already made the political decision as a government that we believe it's right to recommend that people join and you know the single currency today is a reality. I mean there it's being used in 12 out of the 15 European Union countries.

DAVID FROST:
But the, but you will be involved in the economic assessment, this won't just be the Treasury will it, I mean you are the first lord of the Treasury, let's face it¿

TONY BLAIR:
I would say not and of course we will be involved, but in the end it is, you know the actual economic case has got to be assessed on a hard-headed economic basis, you know that's why when we set out back in October '97 the, the economic tests, we did so on the basis of well is it good for the British economy, good for investment, good for jobs, good for the financial services, is it going to improve the living standards of the British people or not. Now I'm not for an instant saying that there aren't big political and constitutional questions around the single currency, there are of course, what I'm saying however is that for us to recommend it as a government the essential precondition is that those economic tests are met and that it's a good thing for the British economy.

DAVID FROST:
A degree of inevitability?

TONY BLAIR:
Well there's nothing inevitable about it but it is important that we don't ignore the reality of it and one of the things I've said to people look sometimes as a Prime Minister you have to say things that people don't want to hear as well as the things they do want to hear and if you go back over British foreign policy towards Europe in the past 50 years, the truth is at every single stage, I mean it's remarkable if you read the history is, at every stage Britain has said oh it won't happen, it's not worth it, we shouldn't be part of it and at every stage, at a later stage we've come along and said okay it is happening we will be part of it and now let's try and make it work. So what I'm saying to people is for goodness sake let us keep the option open, this idea you can close yourself off from the rest of Europe is pie in the sky, 60 per cent of our trade is with Europe, millions of British jobs depend on it and if the economic case is a good one then I believe that we should be prepared to make the political case for the British people.

DAVID FROST:
And in terms of that Jack Delors said you would be ideal as the next leader of Europe, did you say that today, wasn't that good news?

TONY BLAIR:
I didn't, no, I think I should be concentrating on trying to be a good leader here.

DAVID FROST:
Well people will love that, yes, and in terms of the House of Lords, are you prepared to consider a higher proportion of elected MPs following what happened this week?

TONY BLAIR:
Well I think the problem with this, I mean I've seen the Conservative proposals today, the difficulty with this is that as many as there are people there are different proposals on the House of Lords and if you end up changing the House of Lords fundamentally so that you move effectively to an elected second chamber, there are a whole series of issues that flow from that that I don't really think, for example the Conservatives have thought through with their proposals. For example they're suggesting that you bring the House of Lords numbers down to 300, that you have the vast bulk of those, elected on a constituency basis but then because of the problems you get into they're then saying that you should be elected on a 15-year term. Now that would mean that today you would have a House of Lords elected before the 1987 election, I think people would find that a very, very¿

DAVID FROST:
It was attempting to make the people freer and not so worried about the party whips, that's why John Wakeham suggested it isn't it?

TONY BLAIR:
Yes but he suggested for 20 per cent so I think that if you were to start going down the road of say that you would 80 per cent elect for 15 years, you would get rid of the one thing that I think people do actually believe is sensible to keep about the House of Lords which is that you don't get exactly the same type of people that go into the House of Commons.

DAVID FROST:
But you're prepared, you are prepared to consider and respond warmly to this idea that seems to be growing among Labour MPs and Conservative MPs that there should be a higher number than 120 or 20 per cent elected. Are you prepared to reconsider that?

TONY BLAIR:
Well let's wait and see what the consultation actually throws up because there are other people saying that that isn't a very good idea. What I want to do is get the right process and procedure that allows us to have a House of Lords, that is different from the House of Commons, we shouldn't replicate the House of Commons and the House of Lords, that's just a recipe for gridlock, that allows us to have people who aren't, haven't spent all their lives as full-time politicians and is essentially a revising chamber. You know if you start going down the road of replicating the House of Commons and the House of Lords you will find enormous practical problems and you know just so that people again understand, I mean I am the first Prime Minister who has given up power of patronage in the House of Lords, I no longer, as John Major did, as Margaret Thatcher did, nominate the independent peers, that's done by an independent body now.

DAVID FROST:
But in your eyes the life peers who are there at the moment will stay?

TONY BLAIR:
Well it depends what reform goes through obviously but I think that you do need an element that is an element that isn't the same as the House of Commons, in other words aren't elected in the same way as the House of Commons.

DAVID FROST:
Incidentally in terms of what

DAVID Davies was saying earlier on about the one thing they need is assurance of government support for a national stadium, do you support the idea of a national stadium at Wembley?

TONY BLAIR:
I do support the idea of national stadium, I mean we set out the criteria that had got to be met and it's essentially in the end, it is a decision for the, for the FA but insofar as they need, as it were, our, to know that we're behind the concept of a national stadium, we are.

DAVID FROST:
So that is in fact, you may well have assured that it will be built today by those words?

TONY BLAIR:
I mean as I say insofar as government support in principle is concerned it's certainly there, I think what is important obviously is that we don't want to get in a position where financially the taxpayer is funding this, I mean it's got to come from the Football Association itself but I understand that they have put together the right financial deal, if they have that's great, I mean let's get, get up and get on with it.

DAVID FROST:
We'll take a break there for the news headlines, Prime Minister, and then we'll come back here. [BREAK FOR NEWS]

DAVID FROST:
Headlines today in the paper about the fact that failed asylum seekers who are sent back from here are in danger of or may already have received hideous treatment back home, maybe including torture and so on, maybe we should be more clement on that subject since that's the sort of thing that asylum was originally intended for?

TONY BLAIR:
Well it is and therefore anybody who claims asylum goes through the procedure where their claim that they will be subject to torture or abuse is tested, but you know a short time ago people were saying that we have been far too lenient on asylum seekers. Now they're saying we're being far too tough, actually what we've done is to speed up the process and make it clearer and more transparent but the basic test is still the same, have they a legitimate case that they will be subject to persecution. If they have then they stay, if they haven't then they go.

DAVID FROST:
What about the subject of the tube too, we've just got time to mention that because it would seem it's becoming less likely for the PPP to happen which in the, because the test may be failed, one of the two tests may be failed, in that case what would you do, hand it back to Bob Kiley and Ken Livingstone?

TONY BLAIR:
Well I don't know if they are going to fail at all, I mean I think the PPP as far as I'm concerned is absolutely on track because it allows us to get very large substantial investment into the tube over the long-term and public as well as private money. You see if you end up just doing it under the old system then we won't get the investment that we need, I mean this is the problem with both railways and tube, the reason why we're trying to do it by combination of private and public money is that when we relied simply on taxpayer's money for tube or for rail we never got the investment in there. You know sometimes you know people talk as if there were these halcyon days when you know there was a wonderful investment in the railways and the tube and all the rest of it. For 20 years we had no proper investment in either and that's why you've got the situation in the tube and rail that you do today, we've got to put that right, that's what we did.

DAVID FROST:
We're virtually at the end of our time Prime Minister, is there any reflection you'd like to make on your friend Gordon?

TONY BLAIR:
I mean only¿We attended the service for Jennifer on Friday, I mean I, it's a terrible tragedy, I think everyone feels terribly sorry for them and particularly because they would have been such wonderful parents for her, that's, it was a really, really moving service on Friday and I thought what was, said to Gordon what was wonderful about it was how even in her short life she generated an enormous amount of love and you know it's a situation I think now, I mean I know now they will have their, their time to grieve and then rebuild.

DAVID FROST:
Prime Minister thank you very much.

TONY BLAIR:
Thank you.


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