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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 February, 2005, 15:33 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, Sunday 20 February, 2005, Jeremy Vine interviewed Rt Hon Michael Howard QC MP.

Conservative leader, Michael Howard

Interview with Michael Howard, MP

Jeremy Vine: Michael Howard joins me now. Welcome. Before we get on to the thrust of that, I know you've got an announcement on Council Tax and reducing pensioners bills. So what are we to expect?

Michael Howard: We have Jeremy because we think that older people in our country need dignity, respect and security. We owe them a great deal. Many of them fought for the freedoms which we enjoy today, and I think you can tell a lot about a country by the way it treats its older people.

Now council tax as it's been used by Labour, as one of their most unfair and oppressive stealth taxes, has hit older people particularly harshly. Do you know a third of the increase in the retirement pension, the basic state pension since Labour came to office, has been eaten up by increases in Council Tax. So we make this our priority.

We've already explained that we have four billion pounds available to give back to tax payers in our first budget, and the first priority from that money will be to help five million pensioners with their Council Tax bills, and we'll be announcing the details tomorrow.

Jeremy Vine: Well at the moment the poorest pensioners get help anyway don't they, so you won't be helping them?

Michael Howard: Well the very poorest do, but there are many people just above that line who are really finding great difficulties in coping with these Council Tax increases. Council Tax has gone up 70% since Labour came to office, that's about five hundred pounds a year on average, that's a real burden, especially for people on fixed incomes.

Jeremy Vine: What are you going to do for them?

Michael Howard: Well, we're going to help five million of them. We're going to announce the details tomorrow, you're going to have to wait a bit for that. But I can tell you that of the four billion pounds that we've set aside to give tax payers back, of their hard earned money, 1.3 billion will be set aside in order to help these five million pensioners with their council tax bills.

Jeremy Vine: Well that is a fair chunk isn't it when that four billion is going to be spread quite thinly to cut taxes, you've told us you'd like to cut taxes. You don't think cutting income tax is a priority.

Michael Howard: We'll be sending out in due course what we're going to do with the rest of the four billion pounds but look there are lots of things I'd like to do. There are lots - I think people are paying too much tax. We've had sixty six tax rises under this government.

And we know that an awful lot of that money is being wasted so there are lots of things I'd like to do, but the paramount rule that we've set ourselves is we're not going to make any promises we aren't certain we can keep. People have been let down before by politicians making promises about tax.

I am determined that we will keep the promises we make, so that although there are lots of things I'd like to do, lots of taxes that I would like to reduce or abolish, we've got to be clear, we will only make promises that we know we can keep. We know we can keep the promise we're going to make tomorrow, to help five million pensioners with their Council Tax burden, and that's why we're saying what we'll say.

Jeremy Vine: And finally on Council Tax, any good news for those people who pay Council Tax, feel they're paying too much, but are not pensioners.

Michael Howard: Well, they're going to be in a much more difficult position if Labour get back because not only is Labour going to increase the number of Council Tax bands, they're going to have a revaluation, which is worked very unfairly.

If you look at what's happened in Wales, four times as many houses in Wales have gone up a band as have gone down a band. That's a rigged re-valuation.

Jeremy Vine: But that's because Councils are needing to spend more money,Tory councils as well.

Michael Howard: No, no, no, no. This is a re-valuation which is going to affect the whole system. And it's a rigged re-valuation.

Jeremy Vine: But you have to re-value as well.

Michael Howard: You have to re-value but you can re-value in a fair way, not the way in which it's happened in Wales, and not the way it's going to happen in England if Labour are returned.

Jeremy Vine: You were a great fan of the Poll Tax. You guided the Poll Tax through parliament in 1987. You said, and I quote, 'it is clear, simple and fair: the poll tax is fairer, more accountable, and more acceptable'. That is not exactly a qualification to speak on this subject is it?

Michael Howard: I was wrong about that. And we made a mistake about that. Governments do make mistakes. But if you look at the Council Tax, we had Council Tax for four years before 1997; nobody marched in the streets, nobody was threatening to go to jail.

What's happened since then is that Labour have made it in to one of their worst stealth taxes. They've heaped taxes and burdens on local authorities. They haven't compensated them for those taxes and burdens, so local authorities have been forced to increase council tax by, as I say, an average of 500 a year and so Labour have put on the Council Tax a burden it was never designed to bear, and we're going to have to change that.

Jeremy Vine: But you see your Poll Tax history, some will think, rules you out of being the guy to fix the system. When you started your leadership of the Conservative party, you used the slogan, forward not back didn't you. That was your slogan and it's not being used against you by Labour, to devastating effect isn't it?

Michael Howard: No, I don't think so at all. Look, the choice of the election is going to be clear. Mr Blair has had eight years in which to fix things, he's had eight years in which to deal with the problems the country faces. And now having completely failed to do that in those eight years, he's now apparently expecting people suddenly to believe that he's going to do it if he gets a third term.

We have very clear ideas about what needs to be done. The people's priorities are the priorities which we are talking about. The need for clean hospitals, the need for school discipline, for more police officers, for controlled immigration, for lower taxes; these are the people's priorities, they are our priorities and we are setting out very clearly, and very precisely, what we will do to make things better for the people of our country in all these vital areas.

Jeremy Vine: But Nick Sparrow, your ex-pollster said in the film, the Conservatives should be saying the government is not working. Instead they are having to defend their own past.

Michael Howard: Not at all. We are talking about ..

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) You are to some extent the past aren't you.

Michael Howard: We're talking, no, no, no, no, we're talking about what's happening in the Council Tax today, and how we can remedy the problems that arise with Council Tax today, as a result of the way in which this Labour government under Mr Blair, have wasted so much money in the last eight years, and given tax payers such a bad deal.

Jeremy Vine: Do you worry, as Nick Wood does, and he's a supporter of yours, as he puts it, that being drawn in to the mid '90s is where the nightmare lies?

Michael Howard: We're talking about the future Jeremy. We're talking about how we will deal with the problems that people face today and are going to face over the next few years.

We're setting out our plans very clearly, exactly how we will deal with what the people want dealt with, their priorities are our priorities; Council Tax and the need to deal with Labour's unfair stealth taxes is one of them.

Jeremy Vine: Don't you personally have a problem though, in that you are so clearly associated with the past and the past that was voted out of office spectacularly in 1997?

Michael Howard: Well you seem very keen to talk about the past. I think most of your viewers are much more interested in the present and the future, and that's what I want to talk about. I mean if you want to talk about the past, we can talk about the fact that when I was Home Secretary, crime fell by 18% - the only time that's ever happened.

But I think most people are interested in the future, in what's going to happen in the future and how we can offer a real alternative to Mr Blair's failure. Mr Blair's had eight years to deal with these problems. He's failed to deal with these problems. It's time for the country to change direction. We're heading in the wrong direction.

This is such a great country and we could be doing so much better than we are. And it's such a shame that we're heading in the wrong direction. We can change that. The country needs to change direction, and I have a very clear idea about what needs to be done.

Jeremy Vine: Theresa May, who was quoted in the film, said, 'twice we went to the country unchanged, unrepentant, just plain unattractive, and twice we got slaughtered. Soldiering on is simply not an option.' But isn't that what you have done? You haven't had a Clause Four moment in your party have you?

Michael Howard: Well there you go again. You're keen to talk about the past.

Jeremy Vine: It's about definition. It's about finding out who you are.

Michael Howard: You're keen to talk about the past. No doubt, no mystery about who we are and

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) All we know about you is what you did in office.

Michael Howard: Nonsense. You know what we are putting forward. You know, look, let me tell you, let me give you one specific example. We spent more than a year having an independent body look at the way in which the Government is wasting tax payers' money.

It was carefully thought through. We've published the results. No one has been able to pick a hole in them. It's because we've uncovered all those savings, because we've done the work, because we've thought it through, that we're now able to say we're going to save all the money that the present government is wasting.

We're going to re-spend a lot of it in different way, in more effective ways, that's how we can afford to have 40,000 more police officers. That's how we can afford to have an increase in the basic state pension, 7.00 a week for a single pensioner. 11 a week for a married couple.

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) But that's just an accounting exercise.

Michael Howard: No. (interjects) It is much more than an accounting exercise because what we're showing people is that there is an alternative to a government that is going to continue to waste their money and put up taxes, and that alternative is a government that will get them value for money, and lower the taxes they pay. That's something that is of fundamental importance.

Jeremy Vine: Given that it is predicted that you are going to lose this election, and no one has cast a vote yet, so we don't know. But can you foresee some kind of ideological water-shed moment for the Conservative Party, on a par with Labour's Clause Four moment. What would it be like?

Michael Howard: We don't, we don't need a Clause Four moment.

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) You keep losing elections.

Michael Howard: No, because Labour had to ditch an out of date ideology, and they had a whole lot of baggage which made them unelectable. What we're doing.

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) And you don't.

Michael Howard: No, what we're doing is applying timeless conservative principles to the challenges of today and that's how we've worked out, how to spend the tax payers' money better. How to trust the people, how to trust doctors and nurses and teachers. Not to take every decision from behind a desk in Whitehall.

How to enable doctors and nurses and teachers to use their initiative and their expertise and their experience to do what they can do best. Not stifle them with a whole lot of government targets and government directions. That is a fundamental disagreement between Labour and the Conservative Party. We will give local people power.

You saw it last week in our proposal to have elected police commissioners to make the police more responsive to local people's priorities. So yes, what we're doing is applying principles to the needs of today, to the needs of the nation today. To show people that we need to change direction and that there is a credible alternative on offer.

Jeremy Vine: Meanwhile we're getting snowed with material released under the Freedom of Information Act aren't we?

Michael Howard: Which I welcome.

Jeremy Vine: Which has resurrected 1990s events like Black Wednesday, and we've had John Major giving interviews all over the place saying, whatever he was saying, that's not very convenient for you is it.

Michael Howard: Well that was when the economic growth started. I mean we're constantly being told what a splendid period of economic growth we've had. It started when we came out of the ERM. It was the Conservative government that laid the foundations for that economic growth.

Jeremy Vine: But Mr Howard, so long as you defend what you did in the past like that, you make Labour's case, which is that you haven't changed.

Michael Howard: Not at all. I'm perfectly prepared to show that some of the things which Labour are constantly trumpeting about today, had their foundations, had their roots in what that Conservative government did. So if you want to debate that, we can debate that.

But I think most of your viewers are interested in what's going to happen in the future, in our plans for the future, how we can achieve the things they want, and that's what I shall be talking about.

Both together

Jeremy Vine: Good, well let's just talk about some of the events from this week then, and you launched first of all, a new policy on the NHS, which was the return of the matron with the power to close dirty wards. Where do the patients go when their ward is closed?

Michael Howard: Well, they go in to other wards, or if necessary in to other hospitals. But should anyone today, be in a position where they have to stay in an infected ward?

That is what happens in our hospitals today. The National Audit Office found that in more than one case in ten, where a local infection team said, this ward should be closed because it's infected, the manager said, we can't close that ward because if we do, we'll miss our Government targets.

That is an outrageous state of affairs. It means that people in hospitals today are dying because of the Government's targets. And a Conservative government will certainly not allow that state of affairs to continue. We will give matron the right to say, this ward is infected, it has to be closed.

Jeremy Vine: But there may not be any other places, that's the point. There may not be any other empty beds.

Michael Howard: Well you have to increase capacity and we would. But no patient should be made to stay in an infected ward, where they could pick up a disease from which they would die. That is a completely unacceptable state of affairs.

Jeremy Vine: That's a spending pledge there is it on capacity.

Michael Howard: Absolutely. We have made it plain that we're going to spend at least as much as Labour on the health service, and we will certainly..

Jeremy Vine: Well more, if you need more beds.

Michael Howard: We will certainly have the resources to make sure that it is possible for matron to say, this ward is infected, and no patient should be allowed to stay in it. We cannot have a situation in which patients are allowed to stay in infected wards, and pick up diseases from which they might die.

Jeremy Vine: All right, you also launched a proposal to test immigrants for TB, AIDS and hepatitis. In July, your shadow Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley said, and I quote, 'it is unethical to enforce testing on individuals. I think it is also unnecessary'. He's not on board.

Michael Howard: He's talking, he's certainly on board. He was talking about asylum seekers, and we've made it plain that...

Jeremy Vine: He was talking about all categories of immigrants.

Michael Howard: He was talking about asylum seekers and tests at the port. Now we've made it clear that we're not going to test asylum seekers. We think that if someone is fleeing persecution, they shouldn't be denied sanctuary because of their poor health, and we do think that tests at the ports are not the right way forward.

So what we're saying is that people who want to come to this country for a long period of time, or want to come here to settle, should be tested before they leave their country of origin, in a proper way. And if you look at TB, we thought we'd beaten TB, we thought we'd eradicated TB in this country. But now it's increased by 25% in the last ten years and three quarters of the people in this country who suffer from TB were born abroad.

The medical, the Chief Medical Officer said a few months ago, in our battle against TB the disease now has the upper hand. Well we can't, I don't think any government can just sit back and allow that state of affairs to continue. And that's why we say that we should have proper tests for people who are coming to settle here or stay here for any length of time, in their country of origin.

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) It's not unethical.

Michael Howard: Certainly not. By doctors who are accredited to the British Embassy or the British High Commission.

Jeremy Vine: While we're on the subject of immigration, the Sunday Mirror today says your father was an illegal immigrant. He was granted leave to remain, provided he did not change jobs. He did change jobs and he stayed.

Michael Howard: No, no, I didn't know anything about this story until I read it in the Sunday Mirror today. But no, if you read the story it makes it clear that even the story doesn't allege that he came into the country illegally.

Jeremy Vine: Stayed illegally.

Michael Howard: But anyway, you know the truth is that on these questions of immigration, I have the responsibility of saying and doing what is in the interests of our country. I don't believe it is in the interests of our country, and not in the interests of good community relations in our country, to have a state of affairs in which immigration is out of control and in chaos. We think it should be controlled, we think parliament should set an annual limit every year, just as they do in other countries in...

Jeremy Vine: (interrupts) .. your father, could I ask you about your father, your father wasn't an illegal immigrant.

Michael Howard: No, he came in to the country perfectly legally. Even the Sunday Mirror story makes that perfectly plain.

Jeremy Vine: He didn't say illegally.

Michael Howard: No, of course he didn't. Otherwise he wouldn't have got the citizenship, which he did a short time afterwards. No, no. But none of that affects my responsibility to put forward what's right for this country. We think that immigration should be controlled, it should be limited and we've set out some very clear plans as to how to achieve that.

Jeremy Vine: And you believe you can win the election?

Michael Howard: Absolutely I do. Anybody who takes the British electorate for granted is a fool, and and I'm very much looking forward to the campaign, and am absolutely confident we can win.

Jeremy Vine: Michael Howard, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

End of interview

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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