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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 February, 2004, 14:03 GMT
Reform agenda on track?
Jeremy Vine interviewed Peter Hain MP, Leader of the House of Commons on Sunday 01 February 2004.

Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Peter Hain MP, Leader of the House of Commons
Peter Hain MP, Leader of the House of Commons

Jeremy Vine: Let's speak then to cabinet minister Peter Hain, joins us from Swansea. Good afternoon to you.

Peter Hain: Afternoon Jeremy.

Jeremy Vine: So we heard Alan Milburn there talking about the reform agenda being a must. Is that still how you see it.

Peter Hain: Yes because we still have huge challenges to meet. We have big inequalities still in our society. We've not managed to close the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom.

We've got huge challenges to get health services, education services, other services to people, in a way that they feel is good for them, rather than a bureaucratic way, with lots of forms and lots of, all sorts of complicated procedures around it, and we've got big challenges on things like road transport.

We all want to have the use of our cars but how are we going to be able to drive forward that, at the same time not just get in to permanent grid lock; so all around us are challenges for this century which we think we're in a better position to meet as a labour government, because we're prepared to put the, the public investment in, that concerned us or not, and we want good quality pubic services, but good quality public services for this century, not for fifty years ago.

Jeremy Vine: So the notion of the tuition fees vote, where you just squeaked through in the teeth of great opposition from your back benchers, is not, let's not try that again, but let's go for more of the same.

Peter Hain: No. There are two issues here. First is the policy procedure and process that led up to the higher education votes and it was a messy process, and the Prime Minister and Charles Clarke, the education secretary have all said, as have I, that we really need to do better next time.

We can't have a situation where a policy appears to drop out of the clear blue sky and members in the party and our back bench colleagues in the parliamentary labour party, then have to grapple with the, with the issues. We have to have a situation, and this is what the Big Conversation is about.

No government's ever embarked on such a consultation listening exercise before. We have to have a situation that should have applied on student fees, where we face up the issues to everybody and we say look, Universities need more money, we need more support for students, how do we finance that.

Tax payers are already putting in 14 in to universities, for every one pound put in by students; so you can't keep soaking tax payers. How do we get a fair system.

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) .... they grasped all that and they still didn't like it and you could have talked to them for a hundred years about it and they still would not have wanted the policy.

Peter Hain: I don't agree. I think if there had been a better understanding and a feeling that labour MPs outside government were really being listened to, because when we did start listening and engaging in the detailed way that Charles Clarke was widely praised for doing, we realised that they had some good ideas too on the back benches, and we took them on and we therefore had a coming together.

Now that could have happened not in a moment of crisis in that kind of helter skelter fashion as the hours ticked by to the crucial vote, it could have happened out, in the country, and in the party for months before as we are now doing with the Big Conversation, and framing our next election manifesto, and all these huge big challenges to, facing the country.

Just take one if I may. China and India now between them are producing millions of graduates a year It's not just a question of facing low cost, low labour cost pressures and competitive threats for our goods and services from say China and India.

It's actually facing the fact that they've got to compete for us for being knowledge-based economies of the future, and we have to have more and more highly skilled, high quality people coming through our universities and we have to have a sensible system of financing them.

Jeremy Vine: You just seem to be so split over what policies to bring in. Jack Cunningham, former cabinet minister talked about bitter divisions within the party, and he said, I spent eighteen years in opposition, we were fighting then in the labour party on all sorts of fronts against in particular militant tendency, and the hard left, to stop the development of a party within a party. He said, this, i.e. the tuition fees vote, gets perilously close to that doesn't it.

Peter Hain: Well I don't recognise the current situation from the days when we fought militant, who were a poison in the party with their Stalinist methods. There's nothing like that here.

Jeremy Vine: But you are divided aren't you.

Peter Hain: Well there are serious arguments within the parliamentary labour party especially, and a lot of back-bench MPs feel they're not being listened to, that their votes have been taken for granted, and we need to resolve that.

And I believe we need a new policy making process in governments, and with our back-bench MPs where policies are not just launched from on high, but there's genuine consultation. The issues are laid out and ... And people then have a chance to say what they think and the same must apply to the party too. We have a policy forum process, but it hasn't been working well enough. The student fees policy should have gone in to that. The identity cards draft bill, which is being put in draft, I think we should have more draft legislation, as indeed we are.

That's an example of a policy that should also, and will go in to the policy forum process; so that the party in the country and MPs, particularly in the labour party but of all parties, have a chance to get to grips with these legislative proposals and to improve them as inevitably that process will do and I don't think the government from the centre as it were by dictat, is going to work any more and the Prime Minister has been clear that he recognises that and is willingly taking on a new approach to policy making, in which people are able to participate because other Jeremy, you can't solve the problems from government alone, you've got to involve people and they must feel ownership, whether it's the car user facing grid lock on the roads or the pensioner worried about their pensions and wanting to know how to (overlaps) ... or students wanting a better deal out of universities.

Jeremy Vine: I'm just wondering Mr Hain if what you're telling us there is, is not actually that the system is broken inside the labour party, which would be quite easy to fix, but it's about the whole course of government dictated by people like Alan Milburn, who say reform is a must.

Now you said a while back, we need to change the trajectory of the government to enthuse our activists, our members, our MPs. That's about policies, not just a system isn't it.

Peter Hain: It is and the issue is not do you have reform or don't you have reform. I agree with Alan. Labour government, we came in to government to change the society and we are doing so and we've been very successful in lots of ways with employment up, near full employment now.

With massive public investment coming in to our health services, our education and our other public services rescuing them from the dreadful state they were in when labour was elected, and we must never forget both the economic success that we've achieved of economic stability, and the record public investment.

But having acknowledged that, it mustn't just be taken for granted. We've got to continue reforming and meeting these big challenges and I've mentioned a couple of them. Jeremy Vine: I want to just talk to you about something else which is the way the government is perceived by voters particularly in the wake of the Hutton Report. Something strange is happening isn't it.

The judge made swingeing criticisms of the BBC, decided the government did nothing wrong, and yet the public and a lot of commentators seem to be taking the BBC's side. Can you explain that.

Peter Hain: Well there was almost a prediction from the media that heads were going to roll within the government, whether it was the Prime Minister's of the Defence Secretary's or others. But, and in a sense they felt cheated. They created a caricature of what I think the situation honestly was and they felt cheated.

And I think that's the problem that we're grappling with now. In the end, I believe people will say, even if they disagreed with us going to war in Iraq, even if they didn't think we should have taken military action to topple Saddam Hussein, and many didn't as we saw millions marching and so on.

But even if they didn't, they didn't agree with that, we acted for honest motives, and Lord Hutton has vindicated that, and yet his criticisms of reporting were there to see.

Jeremy Vine: You say you acted from honest motives and Lord Hutton has vindicated that but actually that may not matter very much if the public's view of this is borne out because polls suggest three times as many people trust the BBC as the government, and you have a trust issue going forward don't you with your agenda, because people seem to think that they can't trust you.

Peter Hain: We do have a trust problem and indeed the whole political class has a trust problem.

Political commentators, the BBC, other broadcasters, SKY, ITV, the print journalists particularly the political print journalists and politicians in government and opposition, I think we now operate in a little Westminster bubble, completely divorced from where people feel political issues that they want to know about and they want to make choices about, and they want to form opinions about are at.

And I constantly meet people who say that they're turned off by this whole Westminster bubble, where everything is about a clash or a personality split or a gaff and tiny little words are manufactured and there's a big spinning machine, including I'm afraid on the BBC but it applies right across politics and involves politicians in both government and opposition too, and we're turning off people by the millions; viewers, listeners, readers and voters.

And unless we start sorting this out together, the BBC and the government, broadcasters of other companies and the print journalists, then I think politics is going to be in a very serious situation and we're going to see declining voter turn out, and that's not good for democracy, and it's not good for us as a government, and it's not good for you in the BBC. That's the problem we have to confront together.

Jeremy Vine: Is Greg Dyke correct to say that the government tried to bully the BBC during the war.

Peter Hain: Well Greg's a very old friend of mine. I have a very high regard for him and I think it's a shame that he went. But he made the point in that same interview that the government was pressing its case for what we saw as fairer treatment by the entire media, including the BBC, and he as the Editor in Chief was saying, We want to maintain independence.

Now I think it's perfectly proper as Greg himself acknowledged, for the government to put its view firmly, but for the BBC as in independent body, and it must stay firmly independent of government, to actually say, No, we think we should do it this way.

I think that's not the issue. The real issue is that the media spin operation, and the way the political class interacts with it, has not got out of hand in the BBC and elsewhere, and is the real problem we're facing.

Jeremy Vine: Don't you think though that this partly comes down to weapons of mass destruction. That the world and his wife now says, There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even members of the American administration are saying that. You and your cabinet ministers are the only ones left it seems, saying, you still think they're there. Don't you have to clear that up.

Peter Hain: Well we do and as soon as the Iraq Survey Group, which by the way has uncovered a lot of evidence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programmes, a lot of evidence of secret laboratories he denying, and other chemical and biological weapons ventures.

What I think is not the case is we haven't found missiles in the middle of the Iraqi desert pointing at neighbouring countries.

Jeremy Vine: Oh come on, they've found so little. They've found so little Mr Hain the head of the group ...

Peter Hain: Indeed.

Jeremy Vine: .... has come back and said he was wrong.

Peter Hain: I don't, well what he said, there were no weapons of mass destruction in the sense of missiles that were armed and ready and waiting and pointed. And I think that's what the public believe was the case as well.

But he's also found, and they have also found, and he himself said that Saddam remained a big threat and needed to be toppled, so I think what David Kay is saying is much more complicated than that, and I think there's a disjunction between the public and many others thinking that what we were expecting to find, was armed missiles pointed, pointing at us, did actually find some missiles that Saddam had denied, but let's wait for the survey group to finish, then I think we'll have to account for what we did, but all I can say myself finally on this is that I saw evidence, it was categorical on Saddam possessing chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

Now, I saw that intelligence evidence, so did the Prime Minister, so did other cabinet ministers.

That informed our decision to go to topple him. I think we were right in doing so. But let's wait and see what, what the jury finds in the end.

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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