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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 November 2005, 10:44 GMT
Party line
On Sunday 20 November 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed Geoff Hoon MP, Leader of the House of Commons

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Geoff Hoon
Geoff Hoon, Leader of the House of Commons

ANDREW MARR: Now climate change may be one of the most serious problems facing Tony Blair but he's got others which seem more immediate just now.

He's just tasted defeat in the House of Commons over his terror legislation.

Last week he faced the wrath of Cabinet colleagues on education reform.

And then there's the health changes and the benefits system.

Now, the Leader of the House of Commons, Geoff Hoon, says the government needs to work harder and earlier to convince MPs about these reforms, particularly education. And he's called, when the time comes, for a smooth transition to Gordon Brown.

He joins me now from his home near Nottingham. Mr. Hoon, do you believe that the government can now get through the toughest, most radical parts of the planned changes to education welfare reform?

GEOFF HOON: Yes I do. Good morning. And what is important as I said in that interview that you quoted from, is that we discuss these vitally important issues with Members of Parliament, with councillors, and indeed with the country at large.

There's nothing more important than education, as far as our children and young people are concerned. And it's important that we go on raising standards in the way that we have been doing since 1997.

ANDREW MARR: What do you think - this may be an impossible question - but what do you think your real majority is for the tough radical changes in the House of Commons? Not your paper majority but your real one?

GEOFF HOON: I'm perfectly willing to discuss parliamentary processes with you. We can debate, we can speculate. But I think it's important that we don't lose sight of what this is about.

This is about carrying on improving our educational system. We've doubled the amount of money spent on education, there are thirty-two and a half thousand extra teachers.

ANDREW MARR: Sure...

GEOFF HOON: There are a hundred and thirty thousand extra people supporting them...

ANDREW MARR: But it's not simply processes though, is it?

GEOFF HOON: I am going to try and answer, I am going to try and answer your question because when we discuss those issues with colleagues they all rightly give credit to the fact that there has been a very significant improvement in education. What we're saying to them is that we have to go on making those improvements. We can't stand still.

We can't simply sit back after a third successful general election victory and say, right we've done that, we've sorted out education, we can now relax. It isn't like that. The world isn't like that. We spent that extra money. We now have to discuss with Members of Parliament, as I say, with councillors and with the country, further improvements.

ANDREW MARR: But if you can't get those changes through the House of Commons then it's all so much hot air which is why I return to the question which is what's the real majority?

GEOFF HOON: Well I do believe that we can get those changes through, and again going back to that interview, what I think is important, the Prime Minister has made this clear. Ruth Kelly our Education Secretary has made this clear, is that we will have now a detailed period of discussion with colleagues.

There is nothing more important to Members of Parliament than education. It stirs passions, as you say it stirs passions in the Cabinet, on the back benches. We've got to use that passionate engagement on education to set out clearly where we want to go. And I believe that once we have done that we will achieve that majority.

ANDREW MARR: Is it true, is it fair to say that the more radical aspects of that, the hardest cutting edge on the education reforms has now been blunted because of what happened in Cabinet last week?

GEOFF HOON: I don't accept that. It was a very lively discussion in Cabinet as there always is, on a whole range of issues not just education. The idea that you gather together a number of experienced politicians and they don't have a point of view, and they don't want to discuss this, is frankly fantasy. We do have these discussions.

ANDREW MARR: Did that lively discussion move things or change things at all?

GEOFF HOON: Well - I think we have to reflect not only on the discussion that took place in Cabinet but also the discussions that will take place over the weeks and months ahead. It's important, as I say, that we get this right. We have achieved a great deal in education and it's important that we go on improving the quality of our education for our students across the country.

ANDREW MARR: It does sound as though the intervention by John Prescott and others has changed things a little bit. Can I ask whether you think more generally there needs to be a change of mood, approach tactics from No. 10, that perhaps the old days when there was a massive parliamentary majority that could be relied on completely have changed and business just has to be transacted in a different way by Tony Blair from now on?

GEOFF HOON: Well can I just first of all make a comment on your first point. This is a process, it doesn't just change as the result of a single meeting. There are a lot of discussions that will take place both within the Cabinet, other Cabinet committees, and indeed obviously and rightly, with Members of Parliament.

So this process doesn't just change as a result of a single meeting. But equally you are right, we have a different majority, a much smaller majority than we enjoyed up until the General Election. We've got to recognise that that sort of majority means that there has to be a great deal more discussion, consultation.

And we have to work harder to persuade those colleagues who have self reservations, clearly there are some, that we're heading in the right direction. But again it comes back to what I started with, it comes back to the question of improving education, making our schools still better for our children and students.

ANDREW MARR: And is it plausible that you might come out of this process of discussion with something like a pilot scheme for London, rather than a complete national project, for these independent schools?

GEOFF HOON: I don't believe it is, because we have set out in a detailed White Paper, and our first task actually is to encourage all those people who've commented on the White Paper, to actually look at it and read it in detail. Because it's a complex document that contains a huge number of measures for continuing that process of improving education.

And out of that discussion of that document I believe perhaps there will come adjustments. But the central thrust of what we're doing I believe is right, it's set out clearly in the White Paper and I believe it is the best way forward to ensure that we continue to improve the quality of our education system.

ANDREW MARR: You've got the welfare changes of course as well, and other things to get through. What do you think the lesson is, from what happened on the terror law defeat? What do you take away from that, and how do you, how does everybody change their behaviour in government as a result?

GEOFF HOON: Well as I've said again in that interview, I think there is sometimes a temptation, a tendency for us to wait almost until the last minute until we see the prospect of a difficult vote before perhaps we engage as much as we should with parliamentary colleagues who have some reservations and difficulties.

Therefore I do believe that it's important and this is precisely what we are going to do in relation to education, is that we begin that process of discussion and debate as early as we possibly can. We identify where the difficulties lie and seek to address them in consultation with parliamentary colleagues so that we are getting the maximum engagement.

ANDREW MARR: This does require...

GEOFF HOON: I think that's the right way forward.

ANDREW MARR: This does require a change of tone. Do you think Tony Blair's up for that?

GEOFF HOON: Yes I do, and I don't believe that actually it is a very significant change in tone as far as the Prime Minister is concerned. He's always recognised the importance of taking colleagues with him and he's always recognised the need to ensure that there is as full a debate as possible inside the parliamentary Labour Party.

But before this occasion though we do need, we do need to go a little wider because one of the issues will obviously be the involvement of councillors, local education authorities, we need to discuss with them as well, the impact that these changes will have as far as their responsibilities are concerned.

ANDREW MARR: I just asked, because Tony Blair's halt of rhetoric has been steely determination, lead from the front, charge straight ahead and from time to time take on the Labour Party where he thinks the Labour Party is wrong. And that mode of behaviour is going to be a little trickier to pull off from now on, isn't it?

GEOFF HOON: I think that a - if you forgive me for saying so Andrew - a journalistic characterisation of the way the Prime Minister behaves. I think sometimes people overlook the huge number of meetings that the Prime Minister does address as the liason committee regularly comes before the parliamentary Labour Party and has a very open debate with Members of Parliament. Every week there is a meeting with senior members of the parliamentary Labour Party to discuss all manner of issues. Sometimes I've attended those meetings.

ANDREW MARR: This is still the same man who told us over the Terror Bill that he'd prefer to be right and defeated than wrong and get something lesser through. It doesn't sound like he's changed enormously?

GEOFF HOON: Well I think actually that's what the country wants. They want a Prime Minister who is prepared to exercise his judgement, reach a conclusion, and then go for that conclusion, because he's convinced as were the police at this case of course, that that was the right way forward. And any, anything less than taking the right decisions and making those judgements I think people would be suspicious about. So I don't think we should criticise the Prime Minister for trying to do what is right.

ANDREW MARR: Sure, but on education reform, on welfare reform, he can't afford to be defeated in the way that he was defeated on the Terror Bill.

GEOFF HOON: I recognise that it is important that we carry an overwhelming majority of our colleagues in the parliamentary Labour Party. And of course we had that for the Terror Bill, six out of seven Labour MPs voted for that Bill. I think it's important that we obviously improve that number.

I'm not suggesting that we do not want to see a clear, an absolute majority in parliament on these proposals, made up of Labour Members of Parliament.

ANDREW MARR: And you've said that you would like to see a smooth transition, if at all possible, to Gordon Brown. Do you think when the time comes for the Labour Party simply not to have a contest, is a realistic proposition?

GEOFF HOON: The one difference of course on previous contests is that we will be in government, we will have been in government by then for quite a number of years. These are two men who together created New Labour. I don't actually believe that the differences between them are anything like as great as are suggested in the newspapers.

Given that Gordon is such an outstanding candidate and someone who clearly is the overwhelming choice for the great majority of the party, all I said was that I do not see a necessity for a contest but, let me make it clear, if someone chooses to stand and has the appropriate support in the democratic party that the Labour Party is, then necessarily a contest will take place.

ANDREW MARR: Geoff Hoon, Leader of the Commons, thank you very much indeed for joining us this morning.

GEOFF HOON: Thank you very much.

INTERVIEW ENDS


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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