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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 November, 2003, 11:49 GMT
Tuition fee plans to be "tweaked"?
On 30 November 2003, Sir David Frost interviewed Peter Hain MP Leader of the House of Commons

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

Commons leader Peter Hain MP
Commons leader Peter Hain MP

DAVID FROST: This has been a key week for the government.

On Wednesday the Queen's speech detailed its programme for the next session of Parliament, included plans to raise tuition fees, cover asylum laws and to introduce an appointed House of Lords.

And on Friday the Prime Minister launched his Big Conversation, an initiative to ask the voters what they want the government to do.

Some commentators have said Mr. Blair would be better off talking to his back benchers first.

But one man who's done a lot of that for him over the last few days is the leader of the House, charged with getting all this through, and that's Peter Hain. Good morning.

PETER HAIN: Morning David.

DAVID FROST: Well, lightning question. Are the stories in the papers today true, that in fact you are going to raise from 15,000 to 20,000 the point at which students would start to pay back loans?

PETER HAIN: Well, Charles Clarke has written a piece for the Observer in which he's made it absolutely clear that the principle of a graduate repayment scheme is not up for negotiation because how else would we find the money to plug this gap in university finances.

He's talking to people, and he's willing to listen about ways in which it can be tweaked. But the basic principle, compared with say the Tories, who want to cut a quarter of a million students off from the chance to go to university. We think we should widen the access for students to go to university.

DAVID FROST: But will 15,000 becoming 20,000 be part of the tweaking?

PETER HAIN: Well that's not a matter for me. That's a matter for Charles Clarke and he is pursuing these discussions with colleagues and he's been listening to virtually every Labour MP who's talked to him about this matter because it's a difficult issue.

Why are we doing this David, we're doing it because universities by the middle of the decade will face a funding crisis. We've invested more but either you get the money from taxpayers, most of whom haven't been to university, most of whose children won't have been to university though we're raising the number.

Or you do what the Tories want and you ought to ask Michael Howard about it if I may say so - to deprive a quarter of a million students of the chance to go to university which they will have the chance to do under Labour. These are the big choices. You can't duck these choices and Charles Clarke's made that absolutely clear.

DAVID FROST: And that's, on tuition fees, that's plan A. If in fact tuition fees were defeated in the House of Commons what's plan B?

PETER HAIN: Well I don't think we're going to get to that situation. This is a much fairer system.

DAVID FROST: Is there a plan B?

PETER HAIN: At the moment students have to find ..

DAVID FROST: But if you did lose, what will you do?

PETER HAIN: Well, we are confident of getting our legislative programme through, including on this matter. Why? Because we think it's a fairer system, a better deal for students.

They don't pay the money up front, they pay it when they're in work, when they're earning a decent salary and only then. It doesn't fall on the parents. And we don't think we should load it on the taxpayer.

And if we have extra money spare we'd probably spend it down the school system, or on those who want technical qualifications. Students actually get more subsidy from the taxpayer than any other group in education. So those are the choices we're facing.

DAVID FROST: And what about this Big Conversation, described by a couple of people as a big con really. But what in fact can people influence? I mean, can they for instance, what are the three most important policies they can influence?

Can they for instance influence taxes? Can they influence the future of A levels? Can they influence the referendum on the EU Convention? Are all those things too big for the people to influence?

PETER HAIN: Well the Big Conversation which is an unprecedented and unique proposal for a government to consult with people about the big challenges facing the government and the country.

DAVID FROST: But can they have an effect on the big issues?

PETER HAIN: Yes they can. You mentioned health. Now there's a big issue about a huge cost on the Health Service of drunkenness and of smoking and therefore how can we encourage people to take responsibility for better health lifestyles themselves? Better diet, not smoking, not going on drunken binges.

These are big issues. Now the other issue is how do we actually make Britain much more competitive? India is churning out a million graduates a year. In China the hourly rate of pay for a billion workers is 30p an hour. How do we compete in the coming decades? The only way we can compete is by getting a more skilled population. That's part of our university record ...

DAVID FROST: Will they be able to change? Will you be willing on the basis of this conversation, to change basic important policies?

PETER HAIN: I hope so because, say, when I was with the Prime Minister in Newport in South Wales on Friday when we launched this, people were saying there, people from the local area, a low income area, saying that they were really concerned about anti-social behaviour. That they wanted local police officers to stay in their community for longer than the typical limited time before their career moves on.

Now that's an idea I hadn't come across before. There's lots of things like that. If we can engage people in the process of listening and us listening - and them taking part. Together we can have ownership of all those future policies that Britain will have to face up to.

DAVID FROST: Does, it is only the future, does in fact, we talked about top-up fees, are they something that come into this Big Conversation, or are they ruled out?

PETER HAIN: Well the future of university finance obviously is. But this Bill which Charles Clarke intends to introduce shortly is part of a process of reforming university funding in this legislative session. The Big Conversation with the whole of the British public and everybody can contribute through the website of the Big Conversation or they can contact their local MP and get involved in meetings. This particular Bill is going through this year.

DAVID FROST: Moving on from that. We will create a more representative Second Chamber which, as you know was the manifesto and then this week, instead of a more representative Second Chamber we have announced an all appointed Second Chamber. Those two clash with one another.

PETER HAIN: Well they don't because ...

DAVID FROST: Now, now this is going to be acrobatics at its best ...

PETER HAIN: David, you can't call a representative Second Chamber one which has still got hereditary peers, that are there by accident of birth or something in their ancestry centuries ago. You need a more representative Chamber.

The House of Lords actually voted for a fully appointed Second Chamber when they voted on this earlier this year. And I'm sure they're not going to do a somersault. Why is this an improvement? When we get rid of the hereditaries and you have people appointed on an independent basis according to whether they ought to be there rather than according to whether they were born by accident ...

DAVID FROST: But they're not representative if they're appointed ...

PETER HAIN: But what you said ...

DAVID FROST: In July, you said in July Peter, in the long term a fully appointed Chamber is not a sustainable solution.

PETER HAIN: Yes, that's right. In the long term. We've got a ...

DAVID FROST: What's going to happen in the long term?

PETER HAIN: In the long term we'll have to see whether we can get a consensus and this will be part of the Big Conversation consultation by the way. Another issue, and many issues, as to whether there's a consensus in parliament for a more democratically constituted Second Chamber. Now I voted, as it happens, for a democratically elected Second Chamber but that was defeated in the House of Commons.

The only proposal I think we can get agreement on is to get rid of the hereditaries and get therefore a more representative Chamber at this stage, and have the House of Lords performing its role properly as a revising Chamber and a scrutinising Chamber, not a vetoing Chamber, and I think Michael Howard should call off his hereditaries and his Tories who are defying the will of the House of Commons on a whole series of issues. We saw that only the other week. Let's have a Second Chamber that performs its proper constitutional role ... not vetoing the House of Commons.

DAVID FROST: An appointed Second Chamber, is not a more representative Second Chamber.

PETER HAIN: Well it obviously is.

DAVID FROST: Anyway, one last ...

PETER HAIN: More representative than the hereditaries, isn't it, it's got to be.

DAVID FROST: Well they did some good things too. But last question. Is it absolutely clear on the basis of what you've briefed and so on? That there will definitely be a Hunting Bill forced through this parliament by Labour?

PETER HAIN: Nothing will be forced through.

DAVID FROST: Rammed through.

PETER HAIN: The issue's unresolved here. The House of Lords abandoned the Hunting bill in mid-stream, that's pretty well never happened before.

DAVID FROST: But you're going to have another go.

PETER HAIN: We need to resolve this. We can't allow the House of Lord to completely abandon the government Bill. We need to resolve it. We'll do it in our own good time and we'll end with a situation as our manifesto promised to end cruelty to animals.

That's the objective and we have to do it in a way that moves us forward in a sensible fashion. Not just a knee jerk fashion right at the beginning of a parliamentary session.

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