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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 June 2006, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
A Labour view
On Sunday 18 June 2006, Andrew Marr interviewed Jack Straw MP, Leader of the House of Commons

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Jack Straw MP
Jack Straw MP, Leader of the House of Commons

ANDREW MARR: Now Jack Straw, Leader of the Commons, has held a string of top jobs ever since Tony Blair became Party Leader.

Shadow Home Secretary, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary until his abrupt departure last month.

In his new job, Leader of the Commons, his brief is to clean up party funding, reform the Lords and revive the Commons. A modest little agenda to get him up in the morning. Good morning.

JACK STRAW: Good morning.

ANDREW MARR: Thank you very much indeed for joining us. Let's kick off, if we could, with the Lords. We were just talking about that with Billy Bragg. Have you settled on your own view of the best outcome?

JACK STRAW: I'm not settled on my own view, and indeed, just to clear this out the way when it came up before the House three years ago I voted against any elected element.

ANDREW MARR: I was going to mention that, you're quite right.

JACK STRAW: Well let me deal with that because I'm ... but I'm thinking about this issue and thinking about it much harder than I had to do three years ago, but I agree with Billy Bragg that this is about participation. It's not.. the House of Lords sounds very ... rather stuffy institution, indeed in some respects it is a rather stuffy institution, but it plays a very important role in the running of our democracy. In my judgement it could play an even more important role if we made it, as we said in our manifesto, more representative.

Now that's the easy bit. The more difficult bit is to say exactly how it should be composed, what it's power should be, relative to the House of Commons, and previous attempts, which go back 30-40 years to reform the House of Lords have all fallen away not because people think it should stay as it is, but because they're not agreed about where it should go. So what I'm trying to do is to find a consensus. No surprises, I think a consensus will lie roughly in the middle of the various proposals.

But we've got to ensure that what we come up with is, as Billy Bragg was saying, something which gains public confidence, ensures that people can see Parliament working better, and, very important point for me and for most Members of Parliament, does not undermine the powers of the elected House of Commons, because people do understand what the Commons is there for.

ANDREW MARR: But you could, as it were, write into a reform precisely what the Lords was and was not allowed to do in relation to the ...

JACK STRAW: Yes, and we've got a joint committee of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

ANDREW MARR: Meets next week I think.

JACK STRAW: No, they met last week. I'm sure it meets next week as well but it met last week and took evidence from Charlie Falconer and myself and other senior members of the Cabinet, and what that is doing is to look at what is called the conventions, laying down what the Lords can and can't do.

But all of this, along with, as you say, party funding and a critical role which is about continuing the programme, that especially Robin Cook set in hand, to modernise the House of Commons. It's about making politics in this country more relevant to people and improving the way our democratic systems operates.

ANDREW MARR: People think that there are these cronies, rich blokes, rich women, pouring money into the party coffers and ending up in the House of Lords. What are you going to be able to do to really address that widespread perception.

JACK STRAW: Well people do think that. Let me first say that they're wrong in thinking that. There are some people who have been donors to the Labour Party, have also gone into the House of Lords, but just as it should not be a qualification for getting into the House of Lords, that people have given money to a political party, it should certainly not be - let me make this point - should certainly not be a disqualification either.

I am really grateful personally, not that I've ever benefited in this way, to those people who've made a lot of money in business or whatever it is, and have then decided to give some to charity and philanthropy. And other countries actually that manage to cope with the way they honour - with a small 'h' - such people, I think rather better than we do, but what we don't want, what we cannot have, is to get away from this idea that there was.. there's any favouritism in this.

Now the current arrangements are pretty effective in filtering this. Sometimes they may fall down a bit but we've got to improve those. But the other point about this is the overall issue of party funding and one of the things I'm obviously looking at is whether you should cap the overall level of party funding more than it is capped today, because ...

ANDREW MARR: A big problem with the unions of course in that because they give a lot of money, but can I just return to the tone of all of all of this, because after the: "cash for peerages row" there is intense anger out there, and I just wonder whether you accept that there has to be something quite radical, something quite dramatic to reassure people that politicians are listening.

JACK STRAW: Politicians are listening. I mean let me make this clear that there was no: "Cash for peerages" certainly on the evidence that I have seen. There have been these allegations, of course there has been, there is concern in the light of what has been said, but I repeat the point, just so far as the Lords is concerned, donations to any political party should not be a qualification, and they're not for getting into the Lords, neither should they be a disqualification.

Now, on the overall issue of party funding, there are two sets of figures which I worry about. One is that membership of all political parties has more or less halved in the last 25 years, whereas spending by political parties has more than doubled in real terms in the same period. So essentially what the parties are having to do is to pay for active ...

ANDREW MARR: Well maybe you should all be spending less. I mean ...

JACK STRAW: No, I think we should do, and in 2000 I introduced the most major change in election law in 100 years and that set caps on national spending for the first time, but only for the election period. And I think there's a strong argument to have caps on spending both nationally and locally the whole time, so you don't make an arbitrary distinction between elections and the non-election period.

ANDREW MARR: Caps on spending, a new look at how donations are raised, possibly a little bit of extra state funding, an attractive package, it is the Conservative package.

JACK STRAW: It's a package which, let me say, we put forward and was put forward by the Labour Party in the late 1990s. I just remind you, if I may Andrew, the Conservatives did absolutely nothing to improve standards in this field or any other while they were in government. It took us, coming in, in 1997, to establish a range of measures, including to ask the Committee on Standards in Public Life for a report. Patrick Neill was chairing it at the time and I then implemented.

ANDREW MARR: And was the loans loophole on your side as well?

JACK STRAW: Well none of us ... actually if loans had been specified as a problem, and noticed as a problem by any side in 1999/2000 we would have dealt with it. The loophole we dealt with at the time was blind trust.


JACK STRAW: But let me say, capping spending, very, very important and an element perhaps of state funding, what we've done is asked Sir Hayden Phillips, former Permanent Secretary of the Lord Chancellor's Department, a very distinguished public servant, to look at the issue, to take evidence from all concerned, hopefully to come up with an agreed position.

ANDREW MARR: Okay, we've been hearing a lot today about judges. You're a former Home Secretary yourself, where do you stand on the widespread anger in the papers and indeed in politics about alleged soft sentencing by judges? Is there a liberal elite, do you think, at the top of the judiciary who just don't get it?

JACK STRAW: I don't think there are, is the answer. I know many judges, moreover, if you look at the facts, overall they speak for themselves which is that sentence length has gone up overall I think in the last ten years by about 30%. Sentences for rape have more or less doubled I think from 3 ˝ years to around 7 years. And that's illustrated by the fact the number of people in prison has increased, not decreased, 16,000, rising shortly next year to 80,000 ... 16,000 ... under a programme that I put in place.

The other thing we need to remember about the judiciary is what we take for granted about British judges. They are incorruptible, their reputation for fairness and for the law is world class. You don't see any of the stories in this country that you see in other countries about the judiciary. Yes, sometimes some judges are open to criticism in respect of individual sentences. There are now mechanisms for dealing with that.

The problem, I suggest, however, is that people don't know as much about the judiciary as they do about other areas of the Criminal Justice System, and one of the things I think which is really important, and the Lord Chancellor, Charlie Falconer, takes this view as well, is that judges ought to be getting more out into the community. There's a judge called Judge David Fletcher in North Liverpool, working from a Criminal Justice Centre in North Liverpool, not only having done justice in particular cases, but getting out into the communityż

ANDREW MARR: So people know who he is and ...

JACK STRAW: My understanding from Lord Falconer is that public confidence in the judiciary in that area has greatly increased, and I hope that's an example that other judges are able to follow.

ANDREW MARR: So it sounds as if you're much more with Charlie Falconer on the softer judges issue than you are with Doctor Reid.

JACK STRAW: It's not a ... let me make this clear ...

ANDREW MARR: I'm trying to be helpful.

JACK STRAW: I'm sure you're trying to be helpful, Andrew. It's not a competition. If you're Home Secretary, you have to face pressure as John Reid has done, as I did, as.. let me say any Home Secretary would face in respect of public concern about individual sentences. And John Reid did not criticise the judges, he expressed reservations about a particular sentence. I'm pretty certain I did too. But we're all agreed about what needs to be done.

The other thing we are proud about, which doesn't come through in a great many of these stories, is the record of this government on crime and law and order. I notice that David Davies dodged lightly around it, but the simple fact is, crime has come down, the chances of being a victim of crime has come down, the number of police on the streets has greatly increased. People are getting overall tougher sentences, but of course in individual areas the current arrangements need to be reviewed.

ANDREW MARR: They certainly do, I mean it's been an incredibly damaging few weeks both for the government and for the Home Office. Do you think the Home Office is dysfunctional?

JACK STRAW: There are ... some of the systems, which was John Reid's point, not about the people in it, who do work very hard and most of them do an extremely good job. Some of the systems in the Home Office, particularly in the area of asylum and its interface with the prison service aren't, as John Reid said, fit for purpose in today's circumstances where there is far greater ...

ANDREW MARR: Would you break it up do you think?

JACK STRAW: I certainly would ... I mean if you're asking me personally, I wouldn't break it up because the problem over the foreign prisoners issue was trying to fit together better immigration and nationality directorate with the prison directorate.

Let me say that's a personal view, I've not been Home Secretary for five years and it's a matter for the Prime Minister, but ... and I say, you know, John Reid is the first to say, having come into it fresh, that many parts of the Home Office are working significantly better than they were and I'm proud of what I've done, what David Blunkett did, what Charles Clark did and now what John is doing. But at every stage, what happens is, with the Home Office, you get one thing right and then there's another problem.

So the problems when I was Home Secretary were some aspects of asylum, rising crime, falling police numbers, crisis in the prisons, you sort those out and then other issues arise. But the overall record of this government still, which no one can take away from us, is crime down, juvenile justice greatly reformed, increased numbers of police, less chance of victimisation.

ANDREW MARR: You yourself have said approvingly that sentences have got longer. There's a lot of anger, as you know out there that sentences don't turn out to be what they seemed when they're given down. That leads ineluctably to more prisons.

JACK STRAW: We have built more prisons and more prison places.

ANDREW MARR: But you need more still.

JACK STRAW: And the chances are that more have to be provided. I've never had a problem about building more pris ... For Pete's sake, I was one of the Home Secretaries greatly increased the capacity of the prison service.

I wish it were possible to deal with criminals outside prison, but most people who end up in prison go there because community punishments have failed. So it isn't a difficulty for me about getting people into prison and keeping them there until they are better reformed.

ANDREW MARR: It appears to be quite urgent. I mean you're running out of places and you're back to completely run out of places.

JACK STRAW: Well, I've not seen all the figures.

ANDREW MARR: I think they're disputed.

JACK STRAW: I faced similar pressures with far fewer places 9 years ago and the prison service does have an extraordinary capacity for coping with pressures, but I know that John Reid is dealing with the matter as well.

ANDREW MARR: If politics continues over the next year, as it has done over the past six months or year, you're going to lose the next election.

JACK STRAW: Politics changes. We've had a run of poor headlines. The local elections were not as good as we thought they would be or hoped, but by the way, they were no worse than they were a couple of years ago and we then went on to win the 2005 election.

ANDREW MARR: But you're in deep trouble now and you must know it.

JACK STRAW: I don't accept we're in deep trouble. We face a Conservative Party that has a different face in David Cameron.

ANDREW MARR: A popular different face.

JACK STRAW: Ostensibly popular, yes, no one denies that and we must get engaged in the fight with the Conservatives. The bigger worry for the Conservatives is - where's the beef in their policy? What are their policies? We've heard one this morning which is to scrap identification cards ... identity cards which would be grossly irresponsible.

It would undermine the fight against crime and the fight against terrorism, and not provide additional resources just like that to produce additional prison places. Indeed the idea that dealing with crime and terrorism and illegal immigration by identity cards and buying prison places and these are alternatives is utter nonsense. But can I just say this ...

ANDREW MARR: With respect, that is a relatively detailed point in respect to a general point I was making to you which is that you are in deep trouble as a party. The Prime Minister is there and so long as he is there, the whole Labour Party is transfixed about this incredibly boring succession issue as it's become, and you can't get off that until there is a change.

JACK STRAW: Well with great respect, I'm in greater touch I think with the whole of the Labour Party than are you. They're not transfixed by that matter. What people in the Labour Party understand, whatever their concerns about individual headlines, is that we are now in the 9th year of a Labour Government. We've never had 9 years of Labour Government.

Tony Blair's huge achievement is to have us elected not once, not twice but three times with working majorities, and if you look overall at Labour's record in this last 9 years, on the economy, on education, on health, on crime and much else, it's a fantastic record. What we have to do, of course, is to get through these local and temporary difficulties and ensure that we continue with a programme to transform the economy and transform public services.

ANDREW MARR: Alright. We'll rejoin this conversation in just a moment but first back to Moira for the news headlines. [BREAK]

ANDREW MARR: Moira thank you very much, now I'm rejoined by Mia Farrow in a pincer movement, a terrifying pincer movement between our two political guests.

JACK STRAW: The rose between two thorns, as it were.

ANDREW MARR: I didn't say it, you said it.

JACK STRAW: No, I said it.

ANDREW MARR: Of course you've been in Darfur yourself not that long ago.

JACK STRAW: I was in Darfur, I was also in Abuja where these peace talks between the two sides wereż

MIA FARROW: Yeah, he was a key player there in Abuja.

JACK STRAW: Thank you very much for saying that, but when I went to Abuja earlier in the year I had to read the riot act to the two sides, the warning sides, and particularly at the time the rebels who were not allowing their leaders to go to their talks, and frankly were just messing around, and one of the things that.. it's quite important that people understand this, one of the reasons that they were messing around was that the delegations from the rebel groups, but also to some extent from the Government of Sudan as well, were enjoying the life in luxury hotels in Abuja far too much and ...

ANDREW MARR: Dreadful. We're just coming to the end. One thing I just must ask Mia Farrow about, because all your work with children, you have this law to identify paedophiles in America. Is it working? What would you say to these two guys about that?

MIA FARROW: Yeah, I think it's working great in America. If you've got someone who's been identified as a paedophile and lives across the street, then you need to take whatever steps you need to protect your own children, so there was a lot of furore when the law was being discussed, and now that it's settled in I think it's essential for parents to know.

DAVID DAVIES: It's a good argument, isn't it. We have lessons to learn, though, there's no doubt about it. That's what we should do, go and look at ...

MIA FARROW: People have settled down now, it really works.

JACK STRAW: I mean I agree. We've got to learn these lesson, that's why Gerry Sutcliffe, the Home Office minister, has been asked to go there by John Reid and will be going there to look at these lessons. But I also, if I may say, agree with David Davies on this issue as well ... and John Reid.

We've got to be very careful, you can learn lessons from other countries, they're not necessary immediately translatable into this country, but of course.. I mean I ... the murder of Sarah Payne happened when I was Home Secretary. I used to meet her parents. It was a terrible situation, and any parent facing those circumstances is desperate about anything that could have been done to present ... to prevent their murder, and that's why the search for better arrangements has to continue.

ANDREW MARR: Alright, well listen, thank you very much to all of you, and indeed to all of my guests.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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