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Page last updated at 12:51 GMT, Sunday, 26 February 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 26 February 2006, Jon Sopel interviewed:

  • David Willets MP
  • Lord Falconer

David Willets
David Willets MP

Interview with David Willets

JON SOPEL: Well the Shadow Education Secretary David Willets joins me now.

And Mr Willets, as a result of what you heard this morning, are you still on-board with the proposed Education Bill.

DAVID WILLETS: Well Jon, we'll have to see the final proposals and as you said, there have been so much chopping and changing, I think it's best to be prudent and wait and see the bill.

But if we think that overall the Bill will increase the freedom of schools, even if it's not as much as we would like, even if its got blemishes and flaws, then yes, we would back the Bill.

JON SOPEL: So Ruth Kelly said this morning there would be less selection as a result of the proposals, you welcome that.

DAVID WILLETS: I personally think the most important form of selection is selection within schools, so that you can have proper setting; so that pupils are taught with other pupils of similar ability and speed. And one of our frustrations is the latest statistics - so actually there's, there's a decline in the amount of setting within school. When it comes to a cross between different schools, there my view is the government wants schools to specialise, if schools are to specialise they ought to be able to select some students by a particular skill in that speciality.

JON SOPEL: Right, so you believe there should be more selection

DAVID WILLETS: I think, yes, I think if the government says that schools should have specialisms and they allow schools to select in - up to 10% of pupils in accord with some of those specialisms, I think that should be simple across the board.

JON SOPEL: Let's talk about the role of Local Education Authorities, because the original plans foresaw very little other than a strategic role for the Local Education Authorities, now they will be able to, may be able to commission and build community schools. Do you welcome that change in the legislation.

DAVID WILLETS: No, I like what Tony Blair said originally, I thought he was right. He said, he thought that in future, new schools should be by new providers, coming in, delivering a education of course, but in a different way. I thought that was an imaginative way of getting just a bit more diversity in to our system. So I regretted if they make any concessions, and what we will do is be trying to ensure as the Bill goes through the Commons, if it passes its second reading, that we try to restore perhaps some of the original radicalism of what Tony Blair was talking about last year.

JON SOPEL: Can you foresee any circumstances now where you will oppose this legislation because you've gone so far to say that even if there is the slightest, most tiny incremental step towards greater freedom for schools, you'll back it.

DAVID WILLETS: Well what we're looking at is the underlying philosophy and whether there's any extra freedom for schools, and remember that within the Bill, we hope there will be the option of schools to become these new trust schools, which are not unlike the grant maintained schools that we introduced when we were in government. Now they will, supposedly have more freedom to own their own admissions policies, they'll have more freedom to own their own property, they will have the right to employ their own teachers directly: those are gains.

We'd like to see more. But we will look at the Bill overall, and if we think that behind it, there is some scope for more freedom for schools, then yes, we'll back it. But I must say I think you're right, it is a pity it's being diluted, and I think people should conclude from all this, if they want real public service reform, they should look to the Conservatives.

JON SOPEL: Well, then I'm sure, there are many people watching this programme today who will say, well you are Her Majesty's opposition. If there is so much in this Bill that you think has been diluted, watered down, amended, changed because of backbench pressure, what on earth are you doing supporting it.

DAVID WILLETS: Because, I mean we'll have to see the Bill. But the way I see it is, if it's a step in the right direction, then even if we think it is a modest step ... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: No matter how small.

DAVID WILLETS: Well, we'll have to see exactly what there is the Bill but I think a legal framework for example, that creates Trust Schools, that enables schools to link up with outside organisations, that gives them more freedom over their staff and over their assets - that has enormous potential, that would enable a future Conservative government to go further and give more freedom for schools. And if we can, if we can use the legislation that Tony Blair brings in, to further reform education, to give more freedom for schools and above all of course to focus on raising the quality of education, then I think we should take that opportunity.

JON SOPEL: So it's a Trojan Horse, it may be small reform now, but if you win the next election, you push further.

DAVID WILLETS: Well it's both a matter of what the practical measures are but as I say, it's also the philosophy and what I welcome in some of Tony Blair's more radical statements, I think he's moving on to our ground. I think he's recognising you have to allow new people to come in and create new schools for more diversity. You've got to give schools more freedom and I don't want to fake a disagreement with Tony Blair, when he talks like that - I agree with him when he talks like that and we're going to make sure that what he talks about becomes the reality.

JON SOPEL: Isn't the real danger that actually what you're doing is playing a political game here with this. You know that it will be disastrous for Tony Blair to only win this with the support of the Conservatives. And so the more that you say, oh yes, we're going to support this, the more it might encourage Labour to rebel. And actually, it's a rather arcane game being played in SW1, that the vast bulk of Conservative supporters, won't understand and wouldn't really support.

DAVID WILLETS: Well I think you're right about the Westminster arcane game. Cos what really matters is the quality of education. (interjection) ?

JON SOPEL: And you're playing it.

DAVID WILLETS: No. I think that the trouble is we've got, there's been a lot of talk about the Westminster manoeuvring and not enough about the thing that really matters, which is how you raise the quality of education. And indeed I tried in a speech on Friday in Portsmouth, to say, Let's remember the case for example, for more freedom for schools and more choice for schools, is powerful, international evidence, it's how you raise standards.

But when it comes to the, to the voting in the House of Commons, when we signalled to Tony Blair that we would support a Bill, that had education, serious education reform in it, we would try to ensure that he recognised, he didn't need to do deals with these left wing rebels, he could rely on conservative support to deliver real education reform.

JON SOPEL: And no matter what, isn't the temptation there for you as Her Majesty's opposition, that phrase, that's what your constitutional role is, to oppose this and possibly deal a fatal blow to this government.

DAVID WILLETS: Well you're getting to a very important question here which is how we should conduct ourselves as opposition, and you're right, one instinctive reaction and it's a very powerful instinct, is sitting on those opposition benches, is just endlessly to oppose everything the government says.

But I personally think that what the people that you are talking about, what people, worried about the quality of their children's education want to see is an opposition party that when it sees Tony Blair using language that we endorse, even if we think he's half hearted, even if we think he's got a problem with his rebels and he's sadly mad more concessions than I would have liked him to see, if we think that his underlying philosophy is one of more freedom for schools, and more choice for parent, I don't want to pretend I disagree with that when I don't.

JON SOPEL: Okay, David Willets, thank you very much indeed.


End of interview

Lord Falconer
Lord Falconer

Interview with Lord Falconer

JON SOPEL: Well, Lord Falconer is here with us now. Welcome to the Politics Show.


JON SOPEL: Why are you doing this now.

LORD FALCONER: It's time to try to move the debate forward. Lord's reform is unfinished business. It's not at the top of people's political agenda. But it's an important thing, and it's a thing to try to achieve.

But in order to avoid it dominating one or two parliamentary sessions, we think the right course is to try to see if a consensus can be built up on how you reform the Lords. Because a consensus to reform the Lords, is the best, the most durable, and the most effective way to reform the Lords.

JON SOPEL: And how far have you tested the water on this.

LORD FALCONER: We haven't. We've made it clear today, that that's what we seek we're going to do. We note that things appear to be changing on the two opposition parties view to it. As far as the Conservatives are concerned, they say they're in favour of Lord's reform, so to the Liberal Democrats. So let's see if we can build a consensus on both powers and position of the Lords, and on composition.

JON SOPEL: I mean isn't there a cross-party consensus on it, and that it that there should be a hybrid change, but with many elective people. Robin Cook supported it, the Tories supported it. The Liberal Democrats supported it and there was one person who didn't support it, that was Tony Blair.

LORD FALCONER: Well this initiative makes clear that the Prime Minister is keen to see if there is a consensus. If a consensus can be built, then he would support it.

JON SOPEL: Right, so he would support the possibility of a hybrid chamber with elected, an elected element.

LORD FALCONER: Well that is what both other opposition parties want. There's significant support for it in my own party. Let's see what sort of consensus can be built. I don't know what the consensus building will produce, but if it produced a result where the primacy of the House of Commons were clear, and a way forward on composition was clear, then we would certainly not stand in the way, indeed we would encourage reform along those lines. But the crucial thing is, let's see if we can build a consensus.

JON SOPEL: Well, Lord Falconer, let me ask you your view on this. Would you be satisfied with a hybrid chamber with many elected peers sitting there.

LORD FALCONER: Yes I would, and I think that we need to see whether or not that represents a consensus, or there is some other consensus. If there a consensus and I've made it clear what I think are the answer to the question you've just given, then let's build on it.

JON SOPEL: And has Tony Blair changed his mind on this. I mean I personally am not in favour, certainly not in favour of a partially elected or hybrid chamber. I don't think it would work is what he said eighteen months ago or there abouts.

LORD FALCONER: His view is that if a consensus cross-party can be built, by which we mean something that we could get through the House of Commons, the Houses of the Parliament, then we would support it. And what we're trying to do is move the debate forward.

JON SOPEL: (interjects) I'm just, sorry, I'm trying to establish whether he has changed his view or he will just go with a proposal just in the name of getting something done.

LORD FALCONER: Well, as - if there is a broad political consensus for change, then we will support it. If that involves a hybrid house, then that is something that could be acceptable.

JON SOPEL: So what's changed then.

LORD FALCONER: Well we need to move forward in relation to Lords' reform. The time is right now for moving it forward.

JON SOPEL: Is it because you're just fed up with being defeated in the House of the Lords, which you have been on a whole you know ?

LORD FALCONER: No, I don't think ...

JON SOPEL: Glorification, ID cards, religious hatred, you name it.

LORD FALCONER: This is nothing to do with losing or winning in the House of Lords, because whatever conclusion comes out of Lord's reform, it is extremely unlikely to change the way that the House of Lords currently operates, which means, two parties have got to come together, for a measure to get through. So if the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are against a particular proposal, that tends to stop the proposal.

JON SOPEL: So, well it seems that what you're saying is that you are moving to what the Liberal Democrats and the Tories wanted, which is some sort of hybrid solution. What percentage of elected peers, or is that going to be the sticking point?

LORD FALCONER: We need to have a debate not just about composition and the numbers who might be elected is something that needs to be discussed. We also need to have a discussion about who you ensure the primacy of the House of Commons, because I think everybody is agreed that primacy of the House of Commons is a vital part of any reform of the House of Lords, or ensuring that that remains the position.

JON SOPEL: You say today is the start of this, what do your political antennae tell you. Do they tell you that this is actually going to be quite straight forward, because essentially, you are moving on to what was the Tory and Liberal Democrat ground?

LORD FALCONER: I don't think we are moving on to the Tory or Liberal Democrat ground. I think what we're doing is discovering whether or not there is a broad sense right across the political and the public feeling. That you do need to reform the House of Lords, because the current arrangements are not durable in the long term. If there is a clear consensus about what this change should be, we should do something to make sure it actually happens.

JON SOPEL: Just looking at the politics of this. David Cameron has talked about ending the anomaly of the Royal Prerogative. I mean, do you - you're not just a bit worried that you're being out-flanked by the young new leader?

LORD FALCONER: No, not at all. I think the time has come for looking at this important constitution issue. It's unfinished business. We need, we need to move forward and we need to move forward in a way that reflects I think the public mood. The public aren't particularly, as I say, interested in constitutional reform, but if there is to be some, they want it to be done on an agreed basis and in a way that doesn't clog up the legislative programme.

JON SOPEL: Prince Charles, will he take a lot of interest in this.

LORD FALCONER: I've no idea.

JON SOPEL: Do you hear from him often?

LORD FALCONER: Er, I've no - I mean I don't want to talk about any - they're private conservations.

JON SOPEL: Okay, you don't want to talk about private conversations. It's reported in the papers this morning that he likes for example, what David Cameron is coming up with on his Peace Corps proposals. This idea of you know, students in gap years doing a year of public service. Would - you talked about there is a line that he should not cross - if he was to support something that David Cameron is coming up with, is that crossing a line?

LORD FALCONER: Well, what I said when I last spoke about this earlier in the week is it's perfectly legitimate and appropriate for the heir to the throne to have views on particular issues. He must not engage in any way in party politics, I don't think that he does. The fact that some of his views might coincide with the views of another political party, doesn't make his views illegitimate. But he mustn't engage in party politics. And I think everybody agrees that's the right approach. Where the line ... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: You, you ...

LORD FALCONER: ... is to be drawn ...


LORD FALCONER: ... in any particular case, is obviously for debate. But I don't think he's crossed it.

JON SOPEL: You talked, you talked about, earlier in the week, talked about, I don't know, architecture in the rural economy, those are fine, those are issues that he should raise. But if it was to be a proposal that was going to be the centre piece of say, Tories appeal to the electorate at the next election, would that be crossing the line.

LORD FALCONER: Well, I don't want to talk about a particular proposal. He's done lots and lots of things through the Prince's Trust, to for example, get young people in to work. Many of those ideas have been picked up by one or other or both political parties. That does not make what the Prince has done, party political.

JON SOPEL: Let me just ask you about another story in the papers this morning and its concerning the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, in particular the business dealings of her husband and maybe the suggestion that she hasn't adhered properly to the ministerial code of conduct. What do you have to say about that?

LORD FALCONER: Tessa has been a, a truly excellent Minister. She was fantastic as Public Health Minister, she brought the Olympic Games to this country. She is the best culture minister we could have. She has my full support.

JON SOPEL: And are you confident that she has adhered to the ministerial code of conduct?

LORD FALCONER: Of course. Those are judgments that she's got to make. She's been a really good minister at every level. She should stay in her job.

JON SOPE: You've got full confidence.


JON SOPEL: Okay, Lord Falconer, thank you very much indeed.

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 March 2006 at Noon on BBC One.
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