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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 December 2004, 14:10 GMT
Jeremy Vine interviews ...
Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

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.

On Politics Show on Sunday, 12 December, 2004, Jeremy Vine interviewed:

  • Geoff Hoon, MP, the Secretary of State for Defence.
  • Simon Hughes, MP, President of the Liberal Democrats

Interview with Geoff Hoon, MP

Geoff Hoon, MP
Geoff Hoon, MP, the Secretary of State for Defence

Jeremy Vine: Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, joins us from Nottingham. Welcome to you. Isn't it time to admit that January may be too soon for these elections.

Geoff Hoon: I don't believe so. I was in Iraq this last week. I met the Governor of Basra. All the arrangements are moving ahead steadily, certainly in the south, where British troops are mainly operating.

The process of registering electors is well under way and indeed, there is a process for registering the very large number of political parties, who've indicated so far, that they want to take part. So, everything is moving along very well at the present time.

Jeremy Vine: But we heard the, there's a Sunni in the film saying that actually Sunni parties may not be represented, they're boycotting it, and Sunni Muslims may not want to vote.

Geoff Hoon: There have been some suggestions in the aftermath of Fallujah that one or two Sunni political parties might choose not to participate, but actually, the latest I've heard is that they are willing to participate in these elections.

After all, these are elections that are strongly supported by the Iraqi people. All the opinion polls that have been conducted say that Iraqis want these elections to take place and moreover, that they are determined to vote. That's very important as far as ensuring that these elections do take place on time.

Jeremy Vine: And yet the former envoy of the UN, Lakhdar Brahimi said, and I quote, he was asked if the elections could be held and he said, If the circumstances stay as they are, I don't think so.

Geoff Hoon: That's not my understanding and although there are obvious differences in the level of security in different parts of Iraq, and I only was in the south this week where, generally speaking, the security situation remains relatively calm, never the less, most people are working towards the holding of these elections, on time and in the way that has been set out, and I see no reason why for the moment at any rate, there need be any delay.

Jeremy Vine: What about when you hold the election and then there is a result. A disputed result could make things even worse couldn't it.

Geoff Hoon: Well there is an independent election commission for Iraq, it's they who set the date of the 30th January and ultimately, it's they who will decide when that election should take place. It is their responsibility to supervise the process, their responsibility to determine whether those elections are free and fair, as of course they must be.

Jeremy Vine: In what circumstances would you find yourself saying or thinking, we have a result, but it is not valid.

Geoff Hoon: Well it is a matter for the independent electoral committee. It's not a matter for the United Kingdom or the United States.

This election will be run and will be determined by Iraqis. This after all is a major step in the process of Iraqis assuming responsibility for their own affairs.

Jeremy Vine: But there could be such a thing as an invalid result could there not.

Geoff Hoon: Well it's obviously conceivable but what is important is that we provide whatever support is necessary to allow the independent electoral commission to organise the election, for those elections to go ahead on the 30th January. As I say, steady progress is being made in that direction.

Jeremy Vine: The Americans are considering increasing their troops by ten or twenty thousand at the moment. Would we send more.

Geoff Hoon: We've never ruled that out but equally, we have no plans at the present time to significantly increase numbers. Numbers of British troops have varied over the time, around nine thousand (fluffs) to-day. What we do is look at the security situation and act on military advice.

If that security situation changes significantly, then obviously we will consider adjusting our force levels but from what I saw the other day, from the advice that I've been receiving, that is not necessarily, it is not necessary at the present time.

Jeremy Vine: You're not thinking that a certain number more would be necessary in the run up, direct run-up to the election itself.

Geoff Hoon: Well I've never ruled that out, but equally, there isn't any evidence at the present time that that is likely. In particular what we are seeing each week, are more and more Iraqi security forces becoming available. From police officers on the street through to border guards as well as the training of a new Iraqi army.

That is preceding day by day and they're giving us more and more Iraqis to take responsibility and indeed, the principle approach will be to have Iraqis responsible for the security around polling stations and polling booths. So this is something that obviously relieves the pressure on British troops and other members of the coalition.

Jeremy Vine: Can you be certain at the moment, defence secretary, that Iraqis can take control around those polling stations, by the end of January.

Geoff Hoon: Well that is the plan. I can't predict precisely what the situation will be at the end of January. We know that those who are determined to disrupt Iraq, to destroy the possibility of those elections taking place, will increase their level of activity; there will be more attacks, there will be more violence, there will be a greater effort by the fanatics and terrorists to disrupt this democratic process. Our job is to ensure that they are not successful and that the Iraqi people have the opportunity of voting in these vitally important elections.

Jeremy Vine: There were some comments the other day from General Sir Mike Walker, the Chief of the Defence Staff, who said media reporting on the Black Watch might have enhanced the violence against them in Iraq. Is that your view as well.

Geoff Hoon: What he was trying to do was to set out the importance when peoples lives are at risk; when brave men and women are facing the kinds of fanatics and terrorists that we've seen in Iraq in recent times, that we all have a responsibility, everyone, for ensuring the decisions that we take do not lead to extra danger in the face of those who are risking their lives.

Jeremy Vine: And you feel that the media added to that.

Geoff Hoon: I don't believe that the media necessarily helped in protecting those lives, but at the same time I recognise that we live in a democracy. We live in a free society.

We've got to balance that freedom against making sure that our troops are given as much protection as possible, as they undertake risky operations.

Jeremy Vine: You're also facing questions at the moment why it is that we, or the British Army aren't counting, or trying to count the Iraqi dead and we have now a range of estimates.

The Lancet published one saying, a hundred thousand civilians might have died. There's another estimate of fifteen thousand. We should find out shouldn't we.

Geoff Hoon: Well I think we've got to be realistic about this. Obviously, if we do have information, we compile that information.

But necessarily, if you imagine a situation where a British patrol comes under attack, and they return fire, they can't be 100% accurate, as to whether they've killed someone, wounded someone, or whether in fact, enemy forces have simply withdrawn without any losses.

Therefore, necessarily, estimates of this kind are extremely difficult and necessarily are not terribly accurate.

Jeremy Vine: Yeah, but we don't even seem to have a clue how many Iraqi civilians have died and you would think the success or failure of this mission, would to some extent depend on how many people in Iraq have been killed.

Geoff Hoon: Well I've given you a reason why it is extremely difficult to provide anything like accurate statistics. A number of efforts have been made, as you've mentioned. I'm not entirely sure about the methodology of the report published in the Lancet. I've seen other figures, for example compiled by the Iraqi Ministry of Health.

But those figures appear to include terrorist casualties as well as those who have been injured quite innocently. So, I think it is extremely difficult to provide figures that everyone can be absolutely confident about.

Jeremy Vine: We should try shouldn't we.

Geoff Hoon: I don't disagree that we should try and indeed we are trying but all I'm trying to emphasise is that in this situation where there are ruthless, determined terrorists, who in fact are using this, these statistics as a way I think of pushing their case, we've got to be very careful not to rely on particular methods without properly exploring whether they are wholly accurate or not.

Jeremy Vine: Let's turn if we can to the regimental changes which are coming through and about to be announced as well.

Former head of the armed forces, Lord Guthrie, has said that the armoury is dangerously small and over committed. He's said it's become dangerously small for what it is being asked to do. Those are his words. And he knows doesn't he.

Geoff Hoon: Well I work very closely with Lord Guthrie, he was an extremely good Chief of the Defence Staff. He was Chief of the Defence Staff five years or so ago, when I was first appointed Secretary of State for Defence.

We worked closely together. He has strong opinions, and rightly, he is looking to defend the interests of the armed forces.

Jeremy Vine: And you would share his concerns.

Geoff Hoon: I do not share his concerns because what we're trying to do is to ensure that our armed forces and our army in particular, are organised to face the challenges of the 21st century. The nature of the enemy has changed, even in those five short years that I've been in this job.

We've got to make sure, and indeed it's my obligation and responsibility, to make sure that our armed forces are equipped and organised, to face the kinds of challenges we face to-day, not those of a previous generation.

Jeremy Vine: On a final point, the Home Secretary David Blunkett if I can, has taken a pop it seems at half the cabinet. Straw, Brown, Hewitt, Jowell, Clarke, variously described as soft or weak, or leaving things in a mess. He didn't mention you. Is that a compliment or an insult.

Geoff Hoon: I think David has set out the circumstances in which those comments were made. He's been an extremely good Home Secretary.

He was a very fine Education Secretary, and I think we should judge him on his experience in those jobs, where he's done an extremely good job on behalf of the country.

Jeremy Vine: Right, you're using the past tense. Is he on the way out.

Geoff Hoon: On the contrary, I'm confident that he will go on being a very good Home Secretary, well in to the future.

Jeremy Vine: Geoff Hoon thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Interview with Simon Hughes, MP

Simon Hughes, MP
Simon Hughes, MP, President of the Liberal Democrats

Jeremy Vine: The Liberal Democrats are very keen on freedom of information and their president Simon Hughes, joins me now. You voted for the Act, but you're not quite happy with it.

Simon Hughes: Well Norman indicated that there are qualifications. The public interest requirement means that although in general terms it's a good thing, and there will be a hundred thousand bodies whose information is available. For example, if people want to know about their school admission process for their child, then you get that.

None the less there are seventeen categories where the public interest could say, we don't reveal it, and eight categories, where there's an over-riding likelihood that will happen.

So the exemptions are quite big, and as your report quite rightly showed, there's a ministerial veto at the end of the road, even if the information commissioner says, that's got to be released.

Jeremy Vine: You think that might be used.

Simon Hughes: Well, if it is used, everybody will know about it and there will be a great debate about it; so government, it's a nuclear option for government, but yes, potentially they could use it. And the big issues come under national security and the like, but there will be progress.

I mean let's take two optical issues; great debate about the Home Secretary, and whether he did various things properly, public activities. There's a report coming out probably this week or next by Alan Budd, but there may be other issues to do with the use of personnel and so on.

Those are the sorts of questions you could ask to see the papers about, from January 1st. The debate about identity cards, what's the cost going to be. We could ask to see that information after January 1st, so there will be lots of opportunities, which the public don't have at the moment, and I hope they'll be well used.

Jeremy Vine: But there's a worry isn't there that you create a culture where people stop sending emails that are interesting, and stop writing things down because they know that they go in to a file and then somebody else causes them to pop up.

Simon Hughes: Well policy preparation is always going to be exempt, so internal documents saying should we have this policy or that within a party, or a government will be exempt, but you're right, there's a danger of that.

But the experience of the United States, of Canada, is that on balance it's been a good thing and for example, in my local authority they've employed somebody with experience from Canada to come to (fluffs), ... a system. Southwark Council has got everybody teed up, and I hope it will mean that the presumption in future will be, you can have the information. The row will be when you don't get it from a great struggle to obtain it.

There's one other thing that's an issue, which is if somebody says hang on a minute, we're not sure the public interest allows us to disclose that, then there isn't the twenty day deadline that your report referred to. And that's the other potential loop hole in the law.

Jeremy Vine: Do you think as a result of this, people will be able to see the legal advice that preceded the Iraq War.

Simon Hughes: I fear not is the answer. People would like to do so, but advice given to government, policy advice, is probably going to be held to be not in the public interest, or the public interest in not seeing it, will outweigh that in seeing it. But those will end up with real debates, and there will be matters going to the courts. And the good thing is that at last in Britain, we will have a presumption of open information.

We've had a very secret society in public administration terms. And when everybody tells us, trust in public affairs, and government and politicians is very low, this should gradually mean that governments who are open regain trust ; if governments are trying to hide, they'll continue to lose it.

Jeremy Vine: But we saw our reporter, Gillian Hargreaves, walking amid the box files there. That office will be hit by hundreds of request on January 1st won't it. How are they going to cope.

Simon Hughes: Well some of us argued that we should have a staged process, so that not everything suddenly became available. There is a real danger that there will be a flood of information. There's another hidden danger I read ...

Jeremy Vine: (overlap) I never thought I'd hear a Lib Dem saying that.

Simon Hughes: Well, you know, we wanted it, but we wanted it gradually over a four year period so that there wouldn't be that overload on the 1st January. The other thing is that there's a risk that people will start destroying papers that otherwise might not have been destroyed.

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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The next Politics Show will be on Sunday, 16 January, 2005, at 12.30pm.

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