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David Blunkett MP, home secretary
David Blunkett MP, home secretary
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: DAVID BLUNKETT, MP, HOME SECRETARY MARCH 17th, 2002

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

DAVID FROST: Now onto the subject of crime and punishment. How to deal with the former and mete out the latter. That's an age old conundrum and one person is responsible for steering through change and modernisation, the Home Secretary himself. So it was David Blunkett who suffered the wrath of thousands of officers this week, protesting at plans to reform the way that the police service is in fact run. But there's lots more on his plate than just angry policeman - what to do about street crime, drugs, asylum and prisons, the list goes on. Well here to talk about all those things, we're delighted to welcome to the studio the Home Secretary himself, David Blunkett.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Good to see you.

DAVID FROST: Good to see you David.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Good job I'm a Sheffield Wednesday supporter this morning and not a United.

DAVID FROST: It is. Absolutely, very, very fortunate. I mean what a scene.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well it reminded me of the criminal justice system, you know, half of them are sent off but the other half carry on.

DAVID FROST: Or one out, the lot out.

DAVID BLUNKETT: One out, the lot out. Very good.

DAVID FROST: Trade union, yes. Very good to see you.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Thanks.

DAVID FROST: Let me start with one of the subjects that's on everybody's thoughts at the moment, more, more than in fact was the case a few months ago, that street crime in London, but in other big cities, muggings, mobile phone robberies, people saying that you've got six times as much chance to get mugged in London as you have in New York and so on. What can you do about that? Is there anything that can be done about that? Can you take action on that?

DAVID BLUNKETT: I think what happened in New York shows that you can. And we're putting together a programme, which I shall be announcing in full on Wednesday when I've asked the Prime Minister to convene a round table meeting of all those who have a part to play, which actually will show that we can make the most enormous difference. I think it's worth just reflecting on the fact that whilst crime overall has fallen, nobody really believes things are better unless they feel it in their own street in their own neighbourhood, so there's no point in telling people that things are getting better if they don't actually believe it. So the issue of street crime, of robbery, a lot of it - over 50 per cent of it in relation to mobile phones - makes a difference to the psychology. People don't feel safe, they don't feel that it's safe, particularly in the major cities, it's not just London it's across the board. In fact the ten forces with the highest level of street robbery account for over 80 per cent of the total in Britain and it's those ten police forces that I'm going to target.

DAVID FROST: And how do you target them? Do you target them with a combined action or a fast track -

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well we've been working with the police and with the Crown Prosecution and criminal justice service over the last few months to put a package together and I've decided that we should accelerate that, we were going to bring it in in July, given the enormous rise in the level of street crime and in the concern about over the last two or three months in particular, I think we should accelerate that. So we're going to bring it forward to April, we're going to play into that the two very targeted experiments in Hackney and South Manchester that are tackling youth crime - because actually part of the enormity of the rise is actually 11 to 15 year olds who are getting in major trouble now with the law. It's not just that they take the mobile phone, it's that they actually end up with violence and other activity around it, so it, if you like, it escalates from what they originally set out to do. We're going to, firstly we're going to use the - what's called the national intelligence model. We're going to link that to community policing, what the Metropolitan Police have been doing over the last five weeks, which is to get very large numbers of police on the street but targeted, looking at the particular time of the day, the particular neighbourhood, the particular problems that arise when kids come out of school or the kids who are not in school are truanting and causing havoc. And that's why we want everybody round the table, the Department for Education & Skills and schools, we want the Crown Prosecution and the court system, we want to ensure that we bring in the British Transport police, because in New York one of the great advantages was to combine the police forces together so that the subway in New York, which was notorious as you'll know, I don't know how long ago it was since you've travelled on it but it used to be notorious, now it's safe. I think it's three months since there was a major incident on the underground in New York, they've literally changed it from a city where people were scared to walk on the streets -

DAVID FROST: Right.

DAVID BLUNKETT: - into a city where people are proud to be New Yorkers and we've got to do the same.

DAVID FROST: Well that was our man Bob Kiely, who's over here now, of course. Tell me, one, there's another thing, when you've done all those things, that wide ranging plan you've just outlined, there's also the problem in addition to deterrents and people feeling safe, but there's also the problem of detection, isn't there? I mean in some of these cases 90 per cent of crimes go unpunished, don't they? And that, obviously, people are not going to be frightened, deterred, unless they're going to be caught.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Yes, I think knowing you're going to be caught is the biggest deterrent of all, obviously, by appropriate punishment afterwards. And trying to do something to remedy the situation, there's no point in punishing somebody if they come out and do it again, so we've got a major challenge there, particularly with young people, we can't write off 14 year olds otherwise we've written them off for the next 70 years. If we're going to do that then we need the police in the right place at the right time, they need to be well trained, we've got four and a half thousand more police officers now than we had two years ago, 1500 more in the last four months. We still need many more but we're on track now for the 130,000 that I promised over the next year. We're going to back that up with the police reform agenda, with support staff and neighbourhood and street wardens - this is all about that neighbourliness that I keep hearing about from the opposition - it was all in our white paper, the policy paper at the beginning of December, incidentally, including the non-emergency number that the Chairman of the Conservative Party was talking about earlier on. It's all, it's all in our paper so I'm really pleased that the literacy scheme worked and they're able to read our policies, David, and then recycle them, that's really comforting to me.

DAVID FROST: I'm sure you're absolutely thrilled about it. Talking of police there, ten to one they voted against the new plans and there are further negotiations just about to start this week, with the Police Federation, are you approaching those in the spirit of take it or leave it, or in give and take, that you've given a bit already and you'll give a bit more? Which way are you approaching these?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well I referred the issue to conciliation, and I meant conciliation. So in such circumstances all of us have an obligation to see if we can find a solution. I can't give way on the major reform agenda in terms of the out-dated arcane regulation. I can't give way on things like the medical retirement and changes to practices in terms of health and occupational health services. I can't give way on the support officers or on the prioritisation and rewards, incentives, for those who are at the sharp end, doing the difficult job, particularly getting people to stay on the beat, in the community, doing the job out there. But I can look at the broader concerns that they've raised and we can't be anything else but aware of the worries that they've got about whether our package is sufficiently balanced to reward staff who currently rely very heavily on overtime. So we've got to sit down, take a deep breath, say do we really need to work on overtime, do we need more staff instead, can we prioritise using the police better, can we get them out of the police station and into the community? If we can do all those things and achieve my goals and cut the overtime bill, re-using it for priority policing, let's do it, you know, that's a piece of common-sense in my view.

DAVID FROST: Right, well you're very clear on the things you feel you can't move on and then the things but you do think that on the question of overtime, there is a solution there to be found between men of goodwill. Each giving a bit.

DAVID BLUNKETT: (OVERLAPS) I think the issue, the issue is getting it down, re-using the money wisely but not ending up with thousands of officers feeling that they've lost out, being bitter about it, taking their bow, because we need them. They're the sharp end. They're doing the difficult job, they need our support but they also need our commitment to decent management, to reprioritisation and of course to more of them. And I'm giving all those pledges and it's just a great shame that people don't always hear - I had the same problem when I was driving through the reforms in education, that people always hear the criticism, they never hear the words of support, they never hear the back up. And I was as good as my word, teachers got the two thousand pound uplift, they got the new incremental scales, they got the literacy and numeracy programme working, which is now delivering to kids. I can do the same for the people - because this isn't, you know, policing is about delivering to the community. I was in a meeting in my own constituency on Thursday night, old ladies being mugged, street crime on the increase, people in despair, what we all said is that we've all got a part to play in this which is what the meeting, the Prime Minister will chair on Wednesday, is all about. This is backing the police, not blaming the police. It's about actually saying, you know, each, each part of the system has a part to play. And I put the police reform agenda into play, I've put the negotiations about the conditions and reforming the system, I've got a major policy paper in the spring on criminal justice with the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General, trying to do the things that people are debating and talking about. My only regret is how much time it takes.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of the people who say this is centralising the power in the Home Office too much, that in a sense this is the first step towards a British FBI or something like that, can you reassure those police?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well absolutely. I mean I will possess, should we get the police reform legislation through the Lords, far less power than the Mayor of New York ever had, and I've obviously met both ex-commissioners and ex-Mayor Giuliani in the last two months, talked to them about what they were able to do. Mine is not taking operational policing, I wouldn't dream of doing that, I'd be crackers to, I've got enough on my plate as it is already. But I do need some levers to pull because we have this tripartheid approach, police authorities, police chiefs and the Home Office. The one bit of that system that doesn't have any levers, other than the resource that the cash, is the Home Office and I'm just simply saying well if you mean tripartheid let's do it together, each of us taking responsibility.

DAVID FROST: Now something else, David, that's very much in the news this week, and again next week, is obviously the subject of drugs in general and cannabis in particular, and four months ago you announced those plans to reclassify cannabis from B to C and this week the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs said while cannabis is not harmless it doesn't lead automatically to harder drugs, no long term ill-effects on the vast majority of users, not addictive to casual users, far less addictive than tobacco or alcohol, even with very heavy cannabis smokers and so on. It was the report of - there couldn't have been a more positive report, in a way, from an important body, and I know you have got to talk obviously, take a look at the Lambeth scheme and you've got to talk to the Home Affairs Select Committee, but this, but this finding must bring the moment, when cannabis moves from a B drug to a C drug, closer.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well the Council for Misuse of Drugs have taken a very close look at this, they've been in being a very long time, they're made up of scientists, contrary to one national newspaper who said they were all liberal and social workers - which is a wonderful way of dismissing anybody's findings. We do need to take a look at the way in which the experiment in South London has enabled targeting of Class A drugs, of crack and heroine in particular, because, you know, just reflecting on my new street crime initiative and the ten major areas, 75 per cent of crack and heroine users are directly involved in major criminality, in robbery and often violence.

DAVID FROST: Seventy five per cent.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Seventy five per cent. So the two things go hand in hand, if we can target the Class A drugs, if we can get the prioritisation of police time, not just in stopping them in the street - this is what we were talking about earlier - getting the detection but getting the conviction. There's absolutely no point in simply stopping people for its own sake, we want to actually use the intelligence model to get people through the courts and treated and then that makes sense.

DAVID FROST: Yes, you mentioned prioritising Group A drugs and so on, so that would be greatly helped, obviously, by, I mean how do you see cannabis being treated in, when it becomes section C? I mean that people would be ignored who were just smoking a humble joint or cautioned, or would it be like a non-arrestable offence or like a prescription drug or what?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well I, I did promise that I would listen to and respond to the all-party Home Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, I will do that, I think their report is due out probably just after Easter. But when in October I started this process, I wanted people to know that we weren't intent on legalising cannabis, any more than we are handing out barbiturates to people in the street. We are, however, keen to get this into some sort of context. If someone's walking down a street, they've got a small amount of cannabis on them, should you spend five hours going through the arrest and charging process or should you give them a warning? It just seems sensible to give them a warning and Class A means you've got to pick them up and you've got to put people away and you've got to get them treated. Class C means that you can actually deal with that in a light touch way, warning people, making sure that they know that it isn't illegal - that isn't legal - to take, to have and take the drug, but deal with the dealers. It's the traffickers, it's the pushers, it's the people who are literally killing other people. Cannabis doesn't kill any more than tobacco or alcohol, but Class A drugs, crack in particular, and heroine, do.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of asylum, which is always on people's minds and so on, you said that that seeking British citizenship should speak English and understand some basics, the British way of life, and that the, you're uneasy with this system of importing brides - or indeed importing bridegrooms - into this country, and that 70 per cent of all weddings involving foreigners are done to get residency. That's a big scam, isn't it?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well it is if it continues in the way you've just described. I think there are perfectly legitimate ways in which we should ensure that people can come to this country, it's why in the policy paper I said let's concentrate on giving people a legitimate economic route with a work permit, to be able to come, work here, make a contribution, earn a living, rather than the enormous illegal working that currently takes place. Let's have an asylum system where refugees have a gateway, using the United Nations commission to actually be able to target those who are most at risk, and stopping those who are being, literally, smuggled across the continent - very large numbers of them we see at Sangatte - you know, I've always found this very interesting and it's again in one or two of the papers this morning, the reason we've got such a problem with Sangatte is actually that these people can't get into the country, rather than that they are getting in. And if we had the encampment at Dover and people were say trafficking across from Ireland, across our country, I'd expect our law enforcement agencies to break that trafficking stream, that link, that road right across Britain. I expect the French to do the same. But what I couldn't expect is that France would send their police or their armed forces to Dover to intervene, which is what some of our newspapers think I should be doing in terms of Sangatte and Calais. I can't send mass British police or armed forces to deal with the entry to the tunnel or the ports. I can only work with the French in strengthening their hand and putting our people on our side of the barriers to make sure that people can't get in.

DAVID FROST: When you're talking there of troops, there was a story here on the front page, as you'll know, of the Telegraph saying that Blunkett warns Blair of riots in Britain if we go ahead over Iraq. That there'll be riots in the continent, riots in this country. Is this indeed, an attack on Iraq would spark riots in the Middle East that could spread to Britain.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well I think they're quoting an un-named minister, trying to quote me from a very sensible Cabinet discussion. I rest my case for those who have got access to the web-site, to the Today programme last Monday morning when I was questioned about this whole issue and I said of course there are issues of balance between the problems we've got with Saddam Hussein and the threat that he poses together with resolving the threat to all of us from the conflict in the Middle East. That seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable statement, it's not a challenge to anybody. We can debate these issues slightly more sensibly than we have in the past.

DAVID FROST: If we are part of the military attacks on Iraq, would that decision be a Cabinet decision or in fact a prime ministerial decision?

DAVID BLUNKETT: Well, as you know, if you're declaring war then of course you have to go the Commons, if you're engaging in a particular emergency action it rests with the prime minister. If we're taking a conscious decision with the United States and our other international partners, then of course we discuss that in Cabinet. And one of the great benefits of the discussion we had in Cabinet ten days ago was that everyone was able to give a balanced profile of what they thought and the Prime Minister was able to say, quite rightly, look the management hasn't lost its marbles, we know that there are difficulties here, we're talking to the US, let's try and get this right and let's do so in the context of tackling that intractable problem of what's happening in the Middle East. All of us acting sensibly, thinking sensibly, like everyone else who's doing this programme. We're no different to any one else.

DAVID FROST: And just before we go to the news, how are you going to vote - I asked David Davis - how are you going to vote on hunting this week?

DAVID BLUNKETT: I'm going to vote the same way as I did last time we voted on this, which was to vote for the middle way and if that falls to vote for abolition.

DAVID FROST: If that falls, vote for abolition - and you think it will fall, the middle way?

DAVID BLUNKETT: I think it will tomorrow night but I think that there are real endeavours now to try and find a way forward, not least because we could spend the next N number of years arguing about this, displacing other essential pieces of legislation if we weren't careful, only to find that we hadn't actually achieved what we wanted. And what we want is a humane system of ensuring that we're not over-run by foxes but that we don't treat them and ourselves in a barbaric fashion.

DAVID FROST: All right, at the point, David, thank you for that. We'll have an update on the news headlines from Sian.

[NEWS]

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much Sian, and thank you very much indeed David for being with us today. We should reiterate, I guess, what we said at the beginning, that you are in fact a supporter of Sheffield Wednesday.

DAVID BLUNKETT: Yes, it has its problems but I'd rather be that than Sheffield United.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much.

INTERVIEW ENDS


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