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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 March 2006, 12:33 GMT
Peer nominations
On Sunday12 March 2006 Andrew Marr interviewed Alan Johnson MP, Secretary of State, DTI

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

Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson MP, Secretary of State, DTI

ANDREW MARR: I'm joined now by Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

There's an awful lot to talk about in that area, including Oxfam's accusations that yesterday Britain and other rich countries are dragging their feet over the World Trade deal.

So crucial to relieving poverty of course in Africa.

But, Alan Johnson, we should start with the money issue. Whiter than white was the original promise, and it looks a bit tarnished now, doesn't it?

ALAN JOHNSON: No, I don't think so at all. I mean if you were trying to make an argument and I don't think you believe it actually. If you were trying to make an argument that somehow in this country we have a political establishment that's basically corrupt, I think that's absolutely ridiculous. In fact, I think in this country we have - and this applies to all political parties incidentally - I think we're free of the kind of corruption we see elsewhere.

And certainly as far as this government's concerned, we've introduced measures like the Freedom of Information Act, which actually made our life very difficult but was absolutely the right thing to do. And we've done things like appoint a House of Lords appointments commission and other measures to try to ensure that we're as transparent as we possibly can be in terms of government appointment.

ANDREW MARR: But when you see something like the story this morning, about these loans to the Labour Party and three guys being put up for peerages after that. You must think this sort of demeans politics and makes a laughing stock of the House of Lords. And it's really not what Labour voters back in 1997 ever thought or believed would happen.

ALAN JOHNSON: No I don't, and my concern is, you know, you're dragging politics into disrepute. No I don't.

ANDREW MARR: It's not me. There is nothing wrong..

ALAN JOHNSON: Well you are in a sense of this story, there's another story this morning that show that this whole story that was running, I think a year ago, about David Blunkett and the blonde, was total, absolute rubbish.

ANDREW MARR: I didn't mention that.

ALAN JOHNSON: Every word of it was rubbish. Well I just make the point that sometimes we have the story but we don't have the follow-up that shows that this story was absolutely false in the first place. Now I don't accept that. I don't accept there's anything wrong with people donating to political parties.

We actually introduced a measure you may remember that said that every donation that was over 5000 has to be declared. We did that in government. There's nothing wrong with people offering loans to political parties if they're on a commercial basis. And these loans as far as I understand were on a commercial basis.

ANDREW MARR: What's the connection with peerages?

ALAN JOHNSON: Well the connection with peerages is that we set up the House of Lords Appointments Commission and asked them, they were asked not to just to go wider than a political establishment in terms of putting people in the House of Lords. But the Prime Minister also asked them to vet the applications made by political parties for peerages. I mean you really can't be much more open and transparent than that.

ANDREW MARR: And yet, this government has lost a heck of a lot of people at the top after one story or another. I mean an enormous number of Cabinet ministers have gone and you know that as well as I do. Now why is that? Is it because the press are particularly nasty to you? Is it because there is a problem with Labour and money? What is it?

ALAN JOHNSON: Well I think once you've been in power for nine years you'd have had a number of changes at the top. I heard your thesis earlier on that the Tories were always involved in sex and we were always involved with money. I don't think that's particularly true. I remember Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton were nothing to do with sex, they were to do with money. A thousand pounds being asked for every question that was to do with money. In terms of the....

ANDREW MARR: I'm sorry, I thought you going to give us the other side of the story?

ALAN JOHNSON: (laughter) Well, because I actually do believe that if you look at those resignations. If you look at Peter Mandelson for instance.

ANDREW MARR: Absolutely.

ALAN JOHNSON: About the Hinduja brothers. Peter was cleared. There was a full enquiry and he was cleared. He had resigned because of the, he felt that it was putting pressure on the government.

ANDREW MARR: That was the second resignation, but there was the first resignation over the mortgage of course. I mean, you've had problems with mortgages in your party it has to be said.

ALAN JOHNSON: In terms of mortgages we're all in, you know, proper accommodation and I don't think there's a mortgages come up in terms of the stories we get from the press but, you know, I really think that they are at the lower order of scandals if you look around the world, and they are not indicative of any kind of corruption in the system.

ANDREW MARR: And when it comes to Tessa Jowell, popular Cabinet minister, got quite a popular response in the Commons last week. If David Mills gets into further trouble - he's facing charges, sort of, huge slew of allegations against him coming from all directions at the moment. Can she survive, should she survive, or having made the separation between herself and her husband, is that the end of the matter?

ALAN JOHNSON: Well yes she can and yes she should, because there is a complete separation between what Tessa does as a Cabinet minister and what is happening with her husband, you know...

ANDREW MARR: She's had to absent herself in Cabinet meetings over Iran..

ALAN JOHNSON: But this is an old story, I mean that was 2002 that that came out and it was Tessa herself who decided that she should absent herself. Now fortunately the DCMS doesn't have too much to do with the Iranian situation so it's not affected her ministerial capacity. And in a sense that story just shows the integrity that Tessa has.

ANDREW MARR: Wouldn't it make politics much better looking to the rest of the country if at some point you were able to remove the whole patronage issue from the second chamber, have a different second chamber that was either elected, or appointed by a completely independent body, that didn't have this connection with money into the back pockets of political parties?

ALAN JOHNSON: I think that's an important point. And the whole issue about reform of the House of Lords is its, I mean it's been a going issue since I think 1918 when the House of Commons decided it should be reformed.

And some of the problems around the House of Lords at the moments is about moving from the hereditary peers going out and finding a new system as an interim measure, and therefore there's lots of appointments that are, you know, are not the old traditional system of it being handed on from family to family. So I do think there's an issue there and I do think we need to get back to tackling this question of House of Lords as Charlie Falconer has said it's an issue that we intend to return to.

ANDREW MARR: Would you like to see an elected Chamber, I feel that...

ALAN JOHNSON: ...I was one of only I think two people who voted when we had that incredible series of votes the year before last, for a 50% appointed and 50% elected, that didn't seem to get any favour. The problem is that every single option got voted down. But there, you know,

ANDREW MARR: It was a bizarre evening, I remember it.

ALAN JOHNSON: Yeah. And the current system is totally unacceptable and it has to be changed.

ANDREW MARR: Um. OK. Turning to your own department. Oxfam are the latest people saying that those great promises for a sort of new Marshall Plan for Africa where Britain was really going to be part of the leadership of that. Not nearly enough has happened, and there needs to be a new push, a new summit of some kind.

ALAN JOHNSON: Well they're right. But in terms of what's happened, this is I think the first anniversary of the report of the Africa Commission. We did, we've done an awful lot on debt cancellation. We've done an awful lot on aid. Trade actually dwarfs those two in terms of the potential for pulling people out of abject poverty. And that's the area where so far we've failed.

And I think Oxfam are absolutely right to point out that time is running out, to point out this is a development row. This is meant to show that the developed world are not, no longer going to be selfish and hypocritical, and ask developing countries to open up their markets while we stay behind our tariff barriers and our non-tariff barriers. Now the UK is at the liberalising end of this argument. Obviously our arguments are through the EU, the Commission deals with the negotiations on behalf of 25 Member States. We're at the liberalised end of the spectrum but we feel quite frustrated.

ANDREW MARR: Are we making progress, because talks collapsed, Hong Kong last year, we've had another flurry of talking in the last few days.

ALAN JOHNSON: Well the talks didn't collapse in Hong Kong. Hong Kong certainly wasn't a roaring success, but neither was it a failure because we came out of Hong Kong, unlike the previous rounds, with the train still on the track. And we made some limited progress, but no way near enough.

ANDREW MARR: So where are we now?

ALAN JOHNSON: Well we had the meeting with President Lula of Brazil during the week. They're crucial because they are a leading voice for the G20 countries, the developing countries. And in terms of how we galvanise action, the agreement between Tony Blair and President Lula was that there would need to be a heads of government meeting to try and move these..

ANDREW MARR: Sure, because the deadline is meant to be, what, early April.

ALAN JOHNSON: The deadline effectively is when the US runs out of their fast-track procedure. The US can get any deal straight through Congress and the Senate with a Yes or No answer up until the end of this, well next year, but effectively the end of this year. Now once that goes and once...

ANDREW MARR: Definite yes is it?

ALAN JOHNSON: Well that's why we need to get a deal by June. We need to have it agreed by the end of the year because all the detail needs to, the flesh needs to be put on the skeleton. I'm still optimistic but, you know, we do need to keep pushing and we do need organisations like Oxfam to continue to say what they're saying, and to continue to be as critical as they are, because I think there's an awful lot in that criticism.

ANDREW MARR: One other area that you oversee is the whole question of business regulations and there is a kind of growing crescendo of resentment and worry, places like the CBI, about the sheer quantity of regulations now bearing down on British business. I mean, huge numbers of new regulations for every week or month in power that New Labour has been there since 1997. Is it time for a bonfire of the vanities, or a bonfire of the regulations at any rate?

ALAN JOHNSON: Well we've had a bit of a bonfire of the regulations but business would say we still need to go further. I do have to say I spend 50% of my time with businesses telling me we need to de-regulate, and another 50% with businesses saying where we ought to regulate because they're concerned about unfair competition.

But there's an issue here about are we serious and on the back of the Hampton and Arculus reports we've now got a situation where every single piece of legislation is scrutinised in terms of whether it's necessary or not, and we're looking at previous legislation particularly in Europe and saying if it hasn't been implemented and it's not necessary why don't we just get rid of it.

And under our presidency we got rid of a whole stream of regulation, a whole raft of regulation but fortunately the British people will never see but, you know, they were pretty scary.

ANDREW MARR: I read a nice thing about you in one of the papers this week saying, one of the brightest Cabinet members languishing a little big down in your current job. Shadow Cabinet reshuffle coming. Was that a domestic?

ALAN JOHNSON: This was a letter from my wife to one of the papers ...

ANDREW MARR: You've got it! Alan Johnson thank you very much indeed for joining us.

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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