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Breakfast with Frost
Robin Cook MP, leader of the House of Commons
Robin Cook MP, leader of the House of Commons

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

DAVID FROST: Well it's been quite a difficult week for the Government really - we've just been talking about the row in Europe and the firefighters only yesterday lifted their strike threat over the demands for a 40 per cent pay rise, or the first part of it but the resignation of Estelle Morris must have marked another difficult point. Her resignation, followed by the appointment of Charles Clarke to the job, has sparked a furious debate over the nature of politics in Britain. On Tuesday, Robin Cook will be adding his weight to this argument when he tries to persuade MPs to agree to his plans to modernise the House of Commons, and he joins me right now.

ROBIN COOK: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: Good morning Robin.

ROBIN COOK: I can't remember a weekend where I came on and said it's been a good week for the government, it's always turned into a rough week for the government.

DAVID FROST: ... twist the old thing, good news is no news, it's that way round isn't it?

ROBIN COOK: I'm afraid so.

DAVID FROST: Well actually it said on some of the things it's been a very difficult week - all those words. Actually, just before we come to the modernisation, you know President Putin, what we were talking about Chechnya, how do you see Chechnya now? As a continuing crisis point?

ROBIN COOK: It's a very difficult one and one of their most intractable problems in foreign policy at the same time. First of all, I would say that we've all argued that the Russians do need to have a political strategy as well as a military strategy for resolving that problem but in fairness to President Putin, of course he will always say when you put this point to him, if we're going to have a political process both sides need to play. We need people in Chechnya who are willing to play a political game as well as a military one.

DAVID FROST: Right. Thank you for that. Now there's a story in the Telegraph today that says Robin, in terms of this passionate modernisation that you talk about, Robin Cook, the leader of the Commons faces an embarrassing parliamentary defeat after senior Labour politicians and left wing rebels allied to oppose plans for modernisation of the House.

ROBIN COOK: Well first of all, David, I don't believe there's any difficulty or any defeat on the great bulk of the package - and let's be clear, the bulk of the package is about making the House of Commons more effective, it's a good thing, that's why they want to see more bills and drafts in through parliament, getting in the act earlier, which is why also we want to cut the very long period of notice for questions, so question time could be more topical, more relevant, and that's also why I want to see parliament come back in September and end a very unhealthy period of three months in which there is no parliament. I'm quite sure there will be a lot of support for those proposals. Of course, the area where there's divided views among MPs is in the question of the sitting hours. Now there's a free vote for MPs, members can make up their own minds whether they want to break that reform but the results of a survey we've had among MPs is quite encouraging, there's a majority of 70 there for change, because a lot of MPs agree with me, if we want to set the agenda of public debate we've got to start early in the day.

DAVID FROST: What and get on the lunch-time news, as it were?

ROBIN COOK: Well at the present time we don't start until 2.30 in the afternoon and that means the major statements on policy will probably come on at four o'clock in the afternoon. Now, David you and I have been lifelong professional communicators - neither of us would call a press conference at four o'clock in the afternoon from choice. If we really want parliament to be setting the agenda, we need to do it in the morning. And, actually, a lot of MPs recognise that case.

DAVID FROST: Apparently the affection for these awful hours into the evening are partially backbenchers who think that one of the few powers they've got left is to hold on to a minister by sheer attrition, into the evening and so on, and therefore they'll have less power to do that.

ROBIN COOK: Well basically I'm not proposing any reduction in the hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, the hours will be just as long, there'll be just as many opportunities to hold ministers to account, and indeed - with September sittings - rather more. Indeed, I would argue that these proposals will enable the House to do a more effective job of scrutiny. But, you know, we're also supposed to do a job of representing the public out there and that really means we've also got to try and be normal and I don't actually think we look representative, when we work hours which the rest of the public regard as abnormal and daft.

DAVID FROST: In terms of the modernisation, three things you said you should go on to next or whatever, is some of the language, the honourable gentleman, rather than the dishonourable so and so or whatever, but not using names - which I rather like the old-fashioned style of that but maybe I'm wrong about that - but electronic voting, people say that should come in, and more modern facilities for MPs, are those three things on your agenda?

ROBIN COOK: Well Tuesday will not be the end of modernisation because it won't be the end of the change in society or the changes in technology and some of these things - maybe not all of them - but some of these things I think we should look at. I find it rather odd that we talk about the voting public, when they come into the House of Commons, as strangers, and that belongs to an era before the mass franchise.

DAVID FROST: I spy strangers.

ROBIN COOK: Yes, absolutely. And I think we need to make sure that parliament is accessible to the public and that's why I would like to see some changes - particularly, why don't we have an interpretative visitor centre at parliament? We actually don't have one, whereas up and down the country, in Scotland every distillery has an interpretative visitors centre. It's time we had one for parliament.

DAVID FROST: And of course one of the things that this, these changes will do is to help women MPs who find the current hours particularly irksome, which leads us on to Estelle Morris, who joined us here two or three times recently and we were very happy to have her. The, you said that she'd been hounded out of office, either by the press or by the opposition. Other people have said no, Robin's wrong about that, she wasn't hounded, she just went of her own volition or whatever. How do you see it now?

ROBIN COOK: Well, I'm very impressed yet again at the press, if you utter the slightest breath of criticism to them they get very sensitive and very upset and very hurt. They're very good at handing out the criticism, rather bad at taking it. Look, I'm in a mellow mood this morning, David, so let's put in a good word for the press. There's a very good article in the Mail today by Stewart Steven in which he says Estelle was a decent warm human being. There's something worrying if somebody as warm and decent as her feels uncomfortable in public life and if you want a government of human beings then politicians have got to be treated as human beings.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of the firefighters, we had the news that there was a delay in the first strike days and so on, are you confident about that this morning, you and your colleagues, are you confident that you're going to be able to ward off the whole thing and somehow find a compromise between 40 per cent and four per cent?

ROBIN COOK: Well I don't know about the whole thing David but I do think John Prescott's done a terrific job this weekend in getting us a breathing space with postpone of the first strike and what we've shown in the last two days is that we're looking for a reasonable solution which I think all reasonable people out there would want us to get. But that's got to be a solution based on if there's additional pay in turn for agreement to modernisation. Now that's the bargain that's on the table, the review there can bring it forward, I hope we can make progress around those principles.

DAVID FROST: It's just like old times, isn't it? The government really getting involved in a public sector dispute. You've always tried to stay hands off but John Prescott's come in there and played a decisive role.

ROBIN COOK: John Prescott has a lot of credibility in this, and a lot of credibility among the union movement. Now what he has been doing over the last 48 hours has been bringing the fire brigade union to understand that there is a prospect through review of their grievances being addressed, but addressed in exchange for modernisation. It's got to be a basis on which we end up with a more modern, more efficient fire service, and if we do that then there may be ways of addressing some of the concerns among the fire brigade about their pay.

DAVID FROST: And will, in fact, MPs get a chance to vote on Iraq, before our troops go in - or only after?

ROBIN COOK: I, I totally endorse the statement that Jack Straw has made that we should have a substantive motion in the House of Commons but if MPs want to vote we'll give them the opportunity to do so.

DAVID FROST: We'll just take a break for the news. We're talking to Robin Cook and now we're joining Moira.


DAVID FROST: Thank you Moira. Well earlier on Chris Patten softened his opposition to our going ahead unilaterally if the UN turn us down, he didn't endorse it but he said it could be justifiable, which was a slight change or addition to his point of view. If we had to go ahead with the Americans just single-handed, or double-handed, how would you feel?

ROBIN COOK: Well, David, it's always very wise for politicians not to speculate on what might happen in the event of a failure of the strategy, the strategy throughout this has been to handle the Iraq crisis through the United Nations and that's what we're doing. We're very near to getting a resolution and we want to make sure that we redouble our efforts to do so.

DAVID FROST: And do you agree with Michael Meacher when he said - talking of New Labour - we do not believe in capitalism?

ROBIN COOK: Well Michael is always very stimulating and very intriguing in his statement. Personally, when I put money in the bank I expect to get interest on it - I hope that doesn't make me an old-fashioned Victorian capitalist, and I think most of your viewers would feel the same way.

DAVID FROST: Robin, thank you very much indeed for being with us this morning.


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