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Page last updated at 13:11 GMT, Sunday, 29 January 2006

Jon Sopel interview

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 29 January 2006, Jon Sopel interviewed:

  • William Hague MP
  • Hilary Benn MP

William Hague
William Hague

Discussion with William Hague

JON SOPEL: Well the Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, joins us now from Darlington. Mr Hague, we tried to be as helpful as we could. It doesn't sound like this new centre right grouping is doing that well.

WILLIAM HAGUE: I think you could have saved the BBC telephone bill a little bit there, because I know it's done with the best of intentions, ringing around the groups, but obviously they're not going to say in response to a phone call, that they're going to change their allegiances in the European Parliament.

This is a big decision for any such parties. We are talking to quite a lot of the parties; we're at a preliminary stage in this. I'm going to Brussels - the next couple of days, but these are pretty preliminary meetings, and I'm expecting this process to take some months yet.

JON SOPEL: Yeah, so you've got no concrete pledges yet, of any party that will join you.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well if I had, I wouldn't be a position to reveal them at this point. Obviously there are confidential discussions going on between some of the parties.

I also want to consult our own members of the European Parliament and Timothy Kirkhope, the Leader of our MEPs about how and when to implement the pledge that David Cameron has made. It's worth looking at the bigger issues that you've just been looking at in your report on the Austrian Presidency there.

One of the reasons we want to do this is because we want to address the crisis approaching Europe at the moment; the crisis of leadership as Tony Blair has quite rightly called it in Europe, and look at how to address the challenge of competition from China and India; Europe is facing a profound crisis: economically, in keeping up in Higher Education with the rest of the world, and we can't just go on in the same old way and that's why we want to form a, a new grouping and put forward new ideas in the future.

JON SOPEL: Well just on this new grouping, I mean how are you doing. I mean obviously you've got confidential discussions, but do you sense that this new group if coming together, or will come together.

WILLIAM HAGUE: I think it will come together, there are certainly parties interested in, certainly in discussing it and there may be parties interested in joining it, it's much too early to actually announce such a grouping.

We said, David Cameron and I, said last month, when I asked about this, that this would take some months. It wouldn't be resolved in a matter of weeks and there a lot of people to consult. All the parties bear in mind, have their own rules, their own internal procedures. Some of them have their own electoral timetables - elections we face in the next year.

It's quite a complex jigsaw but at the heart of it all, is the need to put forward a modern agenda for Europe, that is very different I'm afraid from that (interjection) .. pushing forward the Constitution, a rather centralising agenda that we just heard about, that the Austrian presidency may be putting forward.

JON SOPEL: Okay Mr Hague, you talk about the big ... issues there facing Europe and let's assume you scrape together the five different nations that can come together to form a new grouping. You want maximum influence to shape events. You're going to trade being in one of the biggest blocks for being in a very small block; you're going to lose influence.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well what does influence come from in the end? Influence comes from the power of ideas, and from actually setting the agenda for the future. Where for example has British influence over European events come from in the last fifteen, twenty years.

Now has any influence over the ideas that we should have less tax, or have a more open economy come from - some of the things we've built in Britain, that Gordon Brown is now undermining - it's come from the power of our example, and the power of the ideas that have been forward in this country in the last twenty years.

And so I think it's very important to bear that in mind. That's where real influence comes from. But of course when it comes to working with other parties in the European parliament, we will continue to work on a whole range of inter-related issues, with all the other groupings in the European Parliament, and nothing that we're saying prevents us from doing that.

JON SOPEL: Well I just wonder how you're doing winning over your MEPs. I mean Caroline Jackson said, Why should anyone give up the influence of the main centre right group, to go and sit with Latvian nationalists. Edward McMillan-Scott says, Burning boats is not a proper policy or even ... Stevenson, he says, Do we want to sit alongside a bunch of fascists, out-casts, and ne'er-do-wells.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Yeah, well of course we wouldn't want to do that and no one is suggesting that we do that. Some MEPs have differing opinions, there are other MEPs, if you wanted to - if you've chosen to quote MEPs, who agreed with leaving the EPP er, the Group, you could equally well do that. There are divergent opinions about that.

But I think is what it comes down to. It's the, it's influencing future ideas, it is moving on from the old Europe, just tagging along with received wisdom is no longer adequate and there's a real crisis coming in European affairs and we want to build a political grouping that can address that, and advocate a modern, flexible, open Europe, not an evermore, centralized declining Europe.

JON SOPEL: Okay, just a very quite postscript to that question. If those MEPs who've spoken out so vehemently against moving from this grouping, what happens if they stayed? Are they going to be de-selected.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, we'll address that question if that happens. Obviously, I want all of our MEPs to stay together and will very much be saying that to them this week. Again, this is going to take some months to resolve, but we've got the patience and the determination to resolve it. All our MEPs will stand on the same platform at the next European elections, which are due in 2009. But we haven't taken any decision about what would happen to individuals who didn't go along with it in the meantime. We'll see where we get to on that.

JON SOPEL: Okay, let's just talk about one of the big international stories that's still in the headlines, following the elections in the Palestinian Authority. I mean the EU is meeting tomorrow, to discuss among other things, whether to suspend aid following the election of Hamas, what's your view.

WILLIAM HAGUE: I think the EU response has to be firm but gradual. This aid is very important to Palestinian people. After all, one of the key building blocks of peace in the future I think between Israel and Palestine, is the economic prosperity of Palestinian people. That is absolutely fundamental to it. So the withdrawal of such aid would be a very serious flow to Palestinian people.

Now that is something that has to be borne in mind by Hamas. It is in their interests now to choose democracy, to choose negotiation, which does of course in the end mean recognising the right of Israel to exist and negotiating with it. Now we have to push to them towards the correct choice and we could not possibly give vast quantities of aid to a terrorist state. But we don't want to withdraw such aid; so I think the EU has to give a firm but gradual response. We need to see Hamas moving in the right direction, if such aid is to continue.

JON SOPEL: We don't have a lot of time. I just want to put to you something that Lord Tebbit has, is due to say this week about the direction of the Tory Party at the moment. He says, he's likened David Cameron to Pol Pot, who he says is intent on purging even the memory and name of Thatcherism, before building a new compassionate, green, globally aware party, somewhere on the left side of the centre ground.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well Norman is an old friend of mine but if he thinks the Party is going in the wrong direction, I would totally disagree with him and so I think would the vast majority of people in the Conservative Party and the vast majority of people that want to see a different government. I think what David Cameron is doing for the (interjection) ...

JON SOPEL: Behind those headlines (overlaps) ... seriously, Mr Hague I'm sorry to interrupt you. Don't you sense though, that there is a deep unease among certain sections of the Tory party about the positioning?

WILLIAM HAGUE: No, I think the mood in the Party is actually the best that I've known in the Party for fifteen years.

And I think that in the themes that David Cameron is emphasising, of local accountability, of decentralisation, of care for our environment, of combining social justice with a strong economy, is actually ensuring that we return to the finest traditions of the Conservative Party, and I think that all of those who've served in Conservative governments in the past, should be applauding that, and egging him on.

JON SOPEL: He's not Pol Pot then. WILLIAM HAGUE: Well I don't think anyone rationally can describe him as that, but I imagine that's just a bit of hyperbole on the part of Norman Tebbit. As I say, I think David Cameron - David Cameron is making sure the Conservative Party is in the centre ground of British politics.

That is critically important. All of us, who've been through the elections of the last ten, twelve years, know that very well. And he's doing in line with great Tory traditions that we can be very proud of, and I think it's going to succeed.

JON SOPEL: Okay, William Hague, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

End of interview

Hilary Benn
Hilary Benn

Interview with Hilary Benn

JON SOPEL: Hilary Benn joins me. Hilary Benn, has the international community forgotten about Afghanistan.

HILARY BENN: Not at all. And the fact that the Afghanistan Conference is taking place in London this week, will be a demonstration that the international community is going to stick with Afghanistan, its democratic process and its recovery as a nation from the terrible trauma it has suffered over a generation or more.

We've seen real progress in Afghanistan with the election of the President, President Karsi, the parliamentary and provincial elections that took place at the end of last year; it's going to be a long hard haul though, because this is one of the poorest countries in the world and it's vital that the international community does continue to stick by the people of the country, as they try and recover from the trauma that they've suffered.

JON SOPEL: Very difficult though to re-build a country, as you found in Iraq, when there isn't security.

HILARY BENN: Of course security is the pre-condition for development. It's the foundation stone for a better future for the country and its people. And that's why so many nations are there as part of the international force. That's why there's a UN mandate. That's why Kofi Annan is going to be, among others, at the Conference this week. And it's important that we undertake this deployment, which is going to be difficult in that John Reid made the announcement about last week, because security is the framework, on which can then be built, reconstruction, economic development, improvements in Health and Education. But we do need to recognise the progress that has already taken place.

Three and a half million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the end of the conflict, and that is always a good sign. We got six million children in school, about a third of those are girls, and we have to remember that under the Taliban it was illegal for girls to be taught in school, although some very very brave people, defied that law and taught girls at home. The economy is growing. We've seen schools and clinics refurbished, but this is a very poor country; one in four Afghan children die before their fifth birthday, and I think that really tells you all you need to know about the scale of the challenge.

JON SOPEL: But isn't the other problem as well that it's a very much a patchwork of countries. You've got War Lords in different parts of the countries, leading their different ethnic groups and the rich of Kabul doesn't run through the rest of the country.

HILARY BENN: Well you're right. This is a country which has been fractured and that's why what President Karsi has been trying to do is gradually to extend the remit of the government, and that includes the government beginning to demonstrate to people that it can provide services. Also about talking to the Warlords, trying to get their weapons off them, integrating people in to the political system; it's going to be a long hard slow process, but it's begun. Many people at the time the Bonn process set out, the steps that the international community hoped would occur, said, well we don't really think this is possible.

I don't think that it will be, that it will be possible to have elections in Afghanistan, the country isn't ready for democracy. And yet, we've seen, over the last in particular, with the election of President Karsi and the Parliamentary Elections, about seven million Afghans, coming out to vote. 40% of those were women in the Elections for the Parliament, and for the Provincial Councils. We have seen progress and that's why it's so important we should support it.

JON SOPEL: And how worried are you about putting these troops in harms way because HELMUND where they're going is a very insecure place, we've even seen the military top brass giving interviews in the papers this morning, talking about their concerns.

HILARY BENN: Well it certainly is going to be a difficult deployment and John Reid made that point in the House of Commons last week. And that's why the force that the UK is deploying, with support from other countries, is going to be adequate to the task and if people try and take on those forces, then they will respond.

But they're not going there as John said, to wage war, they are there to help support a process of reconstruction, to ensure that there is security and then on the back of that, for others to come in, including the Afghan government, as it develops its role and the work that we will be doing on alternative livelihoods, particularly because Helmund is a province where a lot of poppy is grown. And that process of changing from a, an economy which is dependent on poppy, to one where farmers, very poor farmers can find other ways of earning a living, is going to take time. You have to have the security first, but at the same time, we're prepared to deploy the money and the people, as security permits, to ensure that people have a better life.

JON SOPEL: Okay, Hilary Benn, closer to home - David Blunkett has said this morning that there seems to be a new understanding between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Are you seeing that?

HILARY BENN: Well I think there's always been a very strong relationship between the two of them, and the fact that the government has achieved so much over the last eight years, is down in particular to the leadership that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have shown.

JON SOPEL: But their relationship at times, has also been very fractious. The fact that they're getting on well, presumably that means they've agreed a timetable for handing over power.

HILARY BENN: Well John, we're just going to have to wait and see. The Prime Minister indicated before the election that he wouldn't stand for another term.

He will pick a time to go of his own choosing. He said he wants to serve the full parliament and I think people are just going to have to be patient. I know speculation of this sort gets you all very excited, but just bear with people and in due time, we'll find out what's going to happen.

JON SOPEL: And a very quick word on the education reforms. Do you think you are going to have to make some compromises, to satisfy the rebels, if you're going to get this piece of legislation through.

HILARY BENN: Well there's a lot of people on the backbenches in parliament who are concerned about aspects of the White Paper. 80% of people are very strongly supportive of, and Ruth Kelly has been talking to a lot of people about that.

And there are concerns and concerns do need to be addressed, and the fact that the Education Selection Committee produced its report this week, and Ruth says she wants to respond to it, I think does mean that we're going to see I hope agreement. Because in the end what matters is, how can we take steps that are going to help children in constituencies like mine, that I'm speaking from this morning, so those children can go on and progress in life, get a job and contribute to society.

JON SOPEL: Okay, Hilary Benn, we must leave it there. Thank you very much.

HILARY BENN: Thanks very much.

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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The next Politics Show will be on Sunday 05 February 2006 at 11.55am on BBC One.
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