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BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW
JOHN PRESCOTT MP OCTOBER 22nd, 2000

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

DAVID FROST
Sadly this week the focus on our safety on our railways has returned after Tuesday's tragic rail crash at Hatfield. Four people died in the Hertfordshire crash as the Great North Eastern Railways London to Leeds train came off the track at 115mph. The initial report said a broken rail was the most likely cause of the accident this comes just over a year after that dreadful Paddington crash when 31 people died, questions again being asked about safety across the whole network. And there's one man who has the answers to all of these questions and that's the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Good morning John.

JOHN PRESCOTT
Good morning.

DAVID FROST
With all we hear about trains going at 115mph, straining the rails more than at 25mph and all of those things, and some rails that have worn out after 12 months, are we actually coming to a point where we have to choose between safety and faster trains?

JOHN PRESCOTT
No safety has to be the top priority without a doubt and I think we should just say at the moment, bearing in mind the relatives today and those who have suffered out of this terrible tragedy are meeting today and I'd like to extend my sympathy to them, but there's no doubt about it and I'm sure they would say to me, safety, safety, safety¿that's the top priority.

DAVID FROST
Does that mean that things like the tilting trains or faster trains have to be held up because, because the rails can't cope with them?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well I don't accept that there's a conflict between them but I've inquiries to tell me about that and I do see that they operate in other railway systems and they're operating trains at close on 300mph so I can't accept there's a direct conflict but there may be problems in our system and that's why I have these inquiries which I've set up, Lord Cullen, to look at the whole management of safety and the culture of safety but on the technology and the possibilities of the maintenance techniques etc, the health and safety people are now looking at that as they've announced.

DAVID FROST
And in terms of, in terms of, in terms of right now, 81 stretches of rail have been listed by railtrack where trains have to go slower, how, how long would you imagine that that will continue? Until they can all be repaired?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well I think the first statement is to say that the speeds have been reduced and everybody agrees if it's down to very slow speeds there's a less likelihood of a problem developing from it and I want to be assured that the best safety procedures are in place and this is what I call a kind of transition problem. I inherited a kind of industry that was deeply flawed in its management systems and I think everybody's now readily accepting that, even those that implemented it. And I've said in hand what I think is the long-term future of new strategic rail authority, new safety process coming out of Cullen, new resources of a scale of investment for safety and the management of the rails that we haven't seen. But in the meantime there are these problems that have gone with passing signals at danger, the broken rails which have been increasing, though in some cases we've seen some reductions in other areas of safety and improvements and what I've got to be sure and the public want me to be sure, is that they are now making sure that it is as safe as possible could be. So I've said to the Health and Safety Executive, I want you now to look at the procedures, the maintenance, all that has been operated by Railtrack, have an independent assessment to me, report back to me on Tuesday on whether what we have on our railway system now, the other areas, where possible, of danger that we operate in the best possible safety procedures.

DAVID FROST
And if, if there was a need, some of these reports say that whatever, how far could you go in terms of Gerald Corbett's talked about needing a wholescale restructuring of the industry, if Sir Alistair Morton or somebody was to recommend for instance instead of 25 train companies there were four or five could that be done? Could it be done?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well it already, it could be done with the kind of architecture I created three years ago. I saw the problems of a fundamental flaw, we opposed it in opposition so I set up the Strategic Rail Authority which is Alistair, Alistair Morton, who can look at the whole strategic approach of the railway system and the other matters about fundamental reforms, more resources, all those help in that and so we have set that up and now, and running. And on the franchises, for example there are 25 train operating companies, I saw the need to start the renegotiation of franchises which I've started and that is already beginning to reduce the kind of amount of operators in the industry, reducing the problems that have come from fragmentation so there are less and less owners or operators likely, at the moment, and more likely to be reduced in the final stages of the renegotiation of these franchises.

DAVID FROST
More likely to be more reduced, so we could¿

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well they are, it is happening now.

DAVID FROST
Yes it could, we could end up with as few train operating companies as five instead of 25?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well you could do, we have to wait the negotiations and a lot of this is very dependent upon the companies in their negotiations, some have got varying ranges of contracts from 7 to 15 years. I've said to them why don't we renegotiate these contracts so you can guarantee you get the best levels of investment, we get the safety that we want in this industry and you renegotiate it with the new contracts and I'm prepared to extend those periods of contracts to build in that continuity and the guarantee of investment which so patently failing in the previous arrangement.

DAVID FROST
And the, apparently Railtrack's going to get, it says, another £5 billion on Monday, is that £5 billion advance on the £60 billion or is it an extra £5 billion?

JOHN PRESCOTT
No in the ten year plan that I could see the desperate need for resources and indeed when I was on opposition I could see even under the state sector we weren't getting the resources into the rail industry and therefore I needed to find a new way forward and this kind of public-private partnership evident in my ten year plan shows that £60 billion will now be available in the next ten years for railways, that's the biggest scale of investment that we've seen in railways for decades¿

DAVID FROST
Right¿£65 billion?

JOHN PRESCOTT
But no, but it does allow for all the safety, now it's not the extra £5 billion, what the actual regulator will be announcing tomorrow is the access charges to achieve that kind of expenditure. I, as government, have to commit so much of the money, the private sector also and what the regulator does tomorrow is decide the track charges to allow you to meet those investments in safety and in the improvement to the railway system.

DAVID FROST
What's your timetable for strengthening the law in terms of things like corporate manslaughter?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well in that we have now a consultation, we've made a judgement that we feel that's a proper road to go along, so we have to consult with all parties that are concerned and therefore to that extent the timetable is the one that I wait on Cullen to see what recommendations he has to make on this matter and I hope by the spring next year I will have them and I hope the Hatfield inquiry will have been completed to give him further information on the matter of culture, the culture of safety in the industry and then as I announced at conference I will bring in a new piece of legislation which will take into account not only the corporate manslaughter arguments but all the recommendations that may come out of Cullen.

DAVID FROST
And your man, your man Gus, Lord MacDonald, welcomed the fact that Gerald Corbett had survived and not, not had to leave, do you welcome that too, do you agree with him?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well that, he didn't say that actually, but I don't want to get into the personalities of who's in Railtrack or who's not in, what Gus talked about and which I fully agree with, is we want the continuity of responsibility of management decisions to come from Railtrack, Railtrack have an obligation under licence to maintain a safe Railway system. I have agencies that advise me whether they're doing that or not and if they're not doing that they make a recommendation to me and I have the authority to take their licence away from Railtrack. But I have agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive that advise me whether that's so or not.

DAVID FROST
And in terms of some of the other things today, the government to compensate BSE victims, multi million pound compensation package for sufferers of the human form of BSE, it's a moral issue says Tony Blair, quoted there, do you know if that's going to go ahead?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well you know this is a very, dread, terrible really we inherited and we've set up the inquiry and the statement, I think, is to be made on Thursday and I think you must wait 'til Parliament is told in that statement exactly what the government's position is.

DAVID FROST
You were right, people said, about warning that that last fuel blockade, was, was a real danger, that you spotted the danger of it to the government, apparently before anybody else did. Are you confident that at the end of 60 days the government this time, if there is a repeat of that, because you've got tougher plans for drivers, tougher plans for the police, or whatever, do you think you can, you can survive, you can win this time because to lose again could bring down the government?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well I think we've never had any doubt that governments will govern, that's our very strong line and we're not going to accept negotiations from any kind of lines outside oil refineries and we've made that absolutely clear and I don't think we're lost on that central position at all. If you say to me is the public concerned about the level of oil prices etc, yes I could say that they are and I make that very clear. Now Gordon is to make a pre Budget statement in November and I think we must wait for him to make his announcements then and what he intends to do. But be clear about it, this government will govern, I'm very strong about that and I think the government is as well¿Jack Straw¿Jack Straw¿

DAVID FROST
That was what was so damaging last time, everyone saw the government being thrashed by the hauliers and the farmers?

JOHN PRESCOTT
It wasn't being thrashed, it's held to its line, that it wasn't prepared to negotiate and let's face it when people start talking about moral victories, I've had enough experience in my life to know that a moral victory is not necessarily a victory. What you find then is governments say we will not accept your terms, then they've come out and said well in 60 days you'll have to. But I would make clear don't accept those terms at all but we do listen, we do consult and many things have been changing in the last few years in response to that and we'll continue to do that.

DAVID FROST
Tell me, it said in the paper that you've rung, or got a message from China to Peter Mandelson of a solidarity call in the face of the Geoffrey Robinson book, was that true?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well I think you get a lot of speculation about this, but I did talk to Peter about that, I'm very firm about this, all of us in government need to concentrate our minds in getting our message over to the electorate. I won't pull out the card this time David, but we have a good record, we want to put that across and people like Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson will be playing a major part in that. So when the response, and the question you're asking, it comes from all this kind of froth that comes out of the books from people who sell in papers, you know such as the Mail, you are not here to do us any favour, I don't think that people in this country care a damn about this.

DAVID FROST
No Geoffrey Robinson said "I wanted to contribute to making the government more effective and I believe that over time it will that impact" I doubt you'll agree with that?

JOHN PRESCOTT
I don't agree with that, what I do say to Geoffrey, I said he's produced his book and I'd rather talk about the economy rather than book economy but what we find now, you write a book, you do the serialisation of it, you pass it over to the Daily Mail, they make the maximum out of it from political consideration. I'd like to say to Geoffrey, Geoffrey we'd agreed that we want to see this government elected, wouldn't it be nice if the money you've got from the Daily Mail was actually given to me to finance my battle books and I'll put a little slogan on it, financed by the Daily Mail to fight to get a return of the Labour government.

DAVID FROST
Right Geoffrey Robinson is you're listening we're going to call right now, the call will go straight through to John Prescott.

JOHN PRESCOTT
And you know the shock story which we can give the Mail, Geoffrey Robinson gives money to the Labour Party.

DAVID FROST
That would be the shock story because the other story¿

JOHN PRESCOTT
Which is what he always has done.

DAVID FROST
Did you see apparently Jonathan Powell asked Geoffrey Robinson for some party money and so on.

JOHN PRESCOTT
That's Labour¿you know I read these speculations constantly in the press and I think I've learnt in my three years in government, high level sources, inside people, I just don't read them.

DAVID FROST
Friends of the couple, friends of the couple. But the other thing is, Paddy Ashdown, you had Geoffrey Robinson last week¿

JOHN PRESCOTT
Another book¿

DAVID FROST
Another great exciting book coming out this week in which he confirms that Tony Blair and he, if there'd been a close majority after the last election, that they would have got together in a coalition, would you have served in that?

JOHN PRESCOTT
No, Paddy's dreams, why shouldn't Paddy dream about it and now write about it in his book, of course we agreed to have meetings, Tony Blair made it absolutely clear we would discuss issues of constitutional matters right, and we continue to do that and we thought that was profitable and right on major constitutional issues. But Paddy wanted to go further, he wants to sit in this little chair in the Cabinet and become part of the government, I wouldn't sat in the same with him, no.

DAVID FROST
And you wouldn't next time do it with Charlie Kennedy?

JOHN PRESCOTT
Well I've got to be careful what you say about this, to this extent, you remember I sat in the, I was in the Callaghan government, not in the government but in Parliament and we did an agreement with the Liberals because we thought that was in our interest to do so. Liberals want to do one that's in their interests but it's not in ours, you shouldn't do anything like that and I don't believe in it anyway.

DAVID FROST
Thank you very much indeed John. Next week Paddy Ashdown himself will be here, enjoy the Great North Run, top of the morning, good morning.

END

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