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Breakfast with Frost
Charles Clarke MP, education secretary

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

DAVID FROST: Well I'm joined now from our Norwich studio by the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, and we'll turn to some of the other issues facing education and you and education in just a moment but first of all the fire strike - good morning Charles.

CHARLES CLARKE: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: Your reaction to what you've been hearing from John Monks on the fire?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well I don't think there's been any kind of conspiracy of the kind that he was talking about. What I do think has been, from the very beginning, is a commitment by the Government to improve our public services, so we've had fantastically large amounts of money going into the public services and determination that with that we should modernise and reform those public services. That's been a constant theme of discussions everywhere, it's certainly a constant theme of discussions which has informed this fire service dispute but it affects every area of public service - education, health and so on.

DAVID FROST: And what about, do you think you're going to have to bring in legislation quite soon to make firefighters, along with prison officers and policemen, unable to strike?

CHARLES CLARKE: I hope not, I hope there'll be an agreement and I hope the employers and the union will come together to resolve this. I hope that the key issue, which has been the core of this argument, ie: modernisation and the various practices such as not sharing control rooms, not being trained for paramedics, full time and part time firefighters not working together and so on, will be properly addressed with a programme for sorting them out along the lines set out by Sir George Bain. I think that's the right approach to take, and by the way it's the kind of discussion which is taking place, not only in fire but right across the whole of the public service, as it should be.

DAVID FROST: And is there any possibility that if it was a transitional loan, over a two year period, that the Government in that way could put more money into it but it's a loan so it will get paid back?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well I think everything depends on the actual arithmetic and the costing of the modernisations. One of the things that's rather surprised me about recent events is it appears from the employers side there hasn't been enough costing of the modernisations - that's why I wish the Fire Brigades Union had involved itself with the George Bain committee, and by the way I wish they would still do that now, I wish they'd suspend their action and get involved with the George Bain committee in how to modernise and work out the detailed costings that are involved. If we have a detailed modernisation programme which is accepted by all sides, then we can have a reasonable pay settlement which is accepted by all sides and the financing implications can be understood by all sides and precisely the question you just asked, David, can be addressed.

DAVID FROST: And what about the quote from John Edmunds, that this is now no longer a dispute between the Fire Brigades Union and the Government, it has descended into a fight between the Government and the whole union movement. That makes it more serious, winter of discontent, all those phrases coming up.

CHARLES CLARKE: Well I don't think John is right on this. As I said earlier, the whole invest and reform agenda has been a very sharp matter of political discussion within the Labour movement, over the last year or so. For example, on public/private partnerships in hospital building and school building - and John's played an active role in those areas. Our position has been very clear, we want to modernise, we want to reform as well as invest. Most of the trade unions accept that and are part of the discussions in their particular industries to do that - quite rightly so. I think the Fire Brigades Union stand out, in one sense, in that until it appears the middle of Thursday night, they weren't prepared, over months and months and months, to discuss the modernisation agenda. If it's now the case they are prepared to, I'm delighted. So let's get down to discussing it.

DAVID FROST: Do you think this dispute will run and run 'til Christmas?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well obviously I very much hope not. I think the rationality of the Government's position is obvious and I think it should be accepted. As I say, the kinds of modernisation we've been talking about really are unexceptionable in any other walk of life. The idea that a full time firefighter and part time firefighter can't serve together in the same appliance is incredible, and should be just not part of it. Their shift pattern, some parts of it are very, very difficult to understand. So I'd say let's discuss those. Now at the end of the day, if the Fire Brigades Union decides it's not going to discuss any modernisation, not going to accept the four per cent that is on offer without modernisation, and decides it wants to go on strike, then the dispute will continue. I think that would be exceptionally regrettable, I think it's the wrong thing to do. I think the right thing to do is to discuss modernisation and for employers and employees to come together on the agenda set out by Sir George Bain.

DAVID FROST: And in fact you could, if it did go on and on, the dispute, you could do a Reagan, I mean after all he fired all the air traffic controllers, a much more skilled job than firefighters, and carried the day. You could do that, you could start again with a new fire brigade fighting force.

CHARLES CLARKE: Well in theory, but I think that's a very, very unattractive course of action. And by the way, though of course air traffic controllers are more skilled than firefighters, they don't have the, the courage that firefighters have in the way that they have to go into very, very dangerous situations and risk their own lives, and I think the whole community respects that. But I think that kind of approach, the Reagan kind of approach, is not the kind of approach that anybody wants to go down at all. We want to go down agreements, discussions, establishing how we can modernise. And the most important thing I want to say, David, is that the Government has taken enormous steps, which I think the trade unions generally acknowledge, to invest far more to get quality public services, but if we're going to invest far more, as set out in Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review, we have to reform our services so they better serve the people. And that's what we're about and it's very, very much out of line for the Fire Brigades Union to say they're not prepared to talk about the modernisation side of that agenda.

DAVID FROST: And what about the feeling a lot of people have that once again that there's a pattern emerging that the Government just didn't take enough planning earlier on with training the army on the red engines or whatever, that in fact we have a pattern here, it was what happened with foot and mouth and what happened with the petrol crisis and now with the fire crisis, that the Government eventually gets its act together but it's always too late?

CHARLES CLARKE: I don't accept that actually, David. I think on this particular dispute there's been a lot of planning, including a lot of training, for a very long period of time and that's why we have the system going at the moment. I think in the case of the other examples you make, they're different cases in each area. Foot and mouth, the reports have been published to, to look at where we are. But I just simply don't think that that is true. The fact is we planned very fully to deal with these contingencies which are here now, and we have a system which in a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, a fire strike, is as robust as it could be.

DAVID FROST: Thank you. Let's move on to education, Charles, if we may.


DAVID FROST: On this question of top up fees, the university funding crisis, the 2001 manifesto, as we know, pledged that you wouldn't introduce them and there are reports that you could in fact pass legislation to introduce them, hold that legislation in terms of activating it until after the next election, and thus live up to your pledge. Would that be the plan, could that be the plan?

CHARLES CLARKE: That's not what's intended and, but it certainly is true that that could be done if we wish to do that. There are three main pledges in our manifesto in this area, David. The first is to expand the university students to half, 50 per cent of the population. The second is to fund world class and excellent universities and the third was not to introduce top up fees during the course of this parliament. Those are ...

DAVID FROST: But you - I'm sorry to interrupt you just for one second there but a lot of people feel the first of those is completely at cross purposes with the top up fees. You want 50 per cent, and that's a great idea, to go to university, but then you're discouraging them with point number three.

CHARLES CLARKE: I think that's a very real question and a number of people have said, all the way through, that the downside of top up fees is the access issue, the extent to which they would dissuade people from going to university who otherwise might have done so. And I certainly think that's a very serious problem about the top up fees approach. It's not a killer argument, if I can put it like that, but it's a very major consideration and would need to be in any scheme that was evolved. But the second of those three pledges, putting enough money into the universities to be able to compete world-wide, is also exceptionally important which is why, although I wouldn't use the word crisis that you used, the fact is there is a funding gap which has to be filled and the issue is who puts in. To what extent the state, to what extent the individual student, to what extent the alumni of the universities, as happens in the States, to what extent the society as a whole? And that's precisely the debate which we're having at the moment, but it must be done without threatening access, for the reason you just implied.

DAVID FROST: And in fact as you, as you look at these programmes - you said you're not madly in favour of top up fees or so on, or words to that effect, and probably have slightly more leaning towards the graduate tax, which people prefer because it comes later when the, when the ex-student and now the graduate, you know, has got more chance to pay.

CHARLES CLARKE: What I'm strongly in favour of is the individual making a contribution towards their university education. Of the two ways of doing it through the fee structure, whether top up or not, or through graduate tax, I've always been slightly inclined towards the graduate tax myself. But there are quite serious practical arguments about that which are difficult. For example, it could be up to 17, 18 year period before the money comes back, and that's a very long period of time to finance, and that's a serious disadvantage of the graduate tax approach. On the other hand, the fees system wrongly dealt with could give rise to the kind of problems you've described. Now those are precisely the kind of issues which I'm addressing at the moment and will be publishing my proposals on early in the new year.

DAVID FROST: And in fact your predecessor, David Blunkett, has also expressed his concerns and fears. He also is, like you, in principle anti-top up fees, according to the Independent today.

CHARLES CLARKE: I've seen the reports in both, about both what David Blunkett and Estelle Morris have said and I think what both of them have said is correct, which is that there is an issue about access, particularly for people from poor backgrounds, to universities, if you have the wrong type of fee system. And I agree with that, as I said earlier in this interview. The question is making the balance between the different areas to get it right. The one thing which I think would be a bad idea would be just to let it all drift along as it has done, for too long I think, without facing up to the issues of university finance, which are very important. And by the way, David, I think that means looking at the nature and structure of the universities too. The extent to which the work they do in research and teaching and developing and strengthening the regional economy goes across all universities or can be done in a smaller number of universities or whatever.

DAVID FROST: And in fact people are concerned also about the elitism, that you might create an ivy league in this country, a magic circle of ten rich universities that put the others way behind and you create a two-tier university system.

CHARLES CLARKE: Yes I don't - I don't - I think we've really got already a four or five tier university system, so I don't think that's the issue. But the elitism, as you call it, I think has to be looked at very carefully. We do need world class academic research being done, and that is done by an elite. The question is how do people get into that elite, is it only based on people with money being able to do it or can people from every background, every society in Britain go to those universities - and that's why the access argument that you raised earlier is critically important because if we're going to use the talents of our people, in our elites, as world class researchers or whatever it may be, then we have to ensure that every child who is bright, whatever their social background, is able to get into those elite universities.

DAVID FROST: And what will you do, Charles, to make sure that the A level fuss that we had this year doesn't happen again next year? Is there a way you can guarantee that it doesn't?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well I'm pretty close to being able to give a guarantee but I'll only do that finally when I see the report to be produced by Mike Tomlinson in the next week or so, with his final recommendations on what we have to do. I haven't seen that yet and when I do I'll give my judgement. But I believe we will be able to give that assurance and I agree with you, it will be a good day when we can put all the brouhaha of last summer behind us in those areas. But, as far as I'm concerned, we are ready to do whatever it takes to carry through what Mike's recommendations will be to assure people of the integrity of the A level qualification, which is so important.

DAVID FROST: And you're not really considering, as Estelle said was always being considered when she was here, an international baccalaureate to take over from a discredited A level?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well again, I wouldn't use that language but it's not true to say that we're not considering an international baccalaureate. There are a lot of people who think that some kind of international baccalaureate would be a good idea and we will be publishing proposals on the whole 14-19 curriculum again in the new year. But what I won't do is bring in any idea of any different changed exam system until we've fully re-established confidence in this exam system, firstly, and secondly, any changes would only be brought in on the basis of consensus rather than put through in any other way. But I don't think we should close our minds to the benefits of some possible wider exam system along the lines of the baccalaureate in France or the international baccalaureate or the ... in Germany, whatever it might be. We need to look at how we can develop and extend the abilities and talents of children by whatever means.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much Charles.


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