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Monday, 9 September, 2002, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
The TUC's John Monks

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    BBC News Online interviewed TUC General Secretary John Monks ahead of the Trades Union Congress in Blackpool from 9-12 September.

    He warned Tony Blair to drop confrontational talk about union "wreckers" when he addresses next week's conference.

    But he welcomed Labour's commitments to more funds to provide better public services, and said that the TUC would support higher taxes to achieve that aim.

    Open in new window : Trade unions guide
    The big unions at TUC 2002

    Mr Monks also said that despite Labour's strained relationship with the unions, "we want to contribute to improvement of public services."

    John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, answered your questions in a live forum.


    Transcript


    Newshost:

    Welcome to BBC News Online on the eve of the TUC conference in Blackpool. I'm Nick Assinder and with me today I've got the General Secretary of the TUC, John Monks. Welcome Mr Monks.

    Twelve months ago at the conference in the Brighton, Tony Blair was due to address you at a very stressful time for relations between the unions and the Labour Party - things have got worse since then haven't they?


    John Monks:

    I don't think they've got worse but I wouldn't say they've improved either. But the ground has changed somewhat. Last year the issue was what role is the private sector going to play in the delivery of public services. This year there's still that issue around but there's been some progress made on the way people are treated if they're transferred to a private contractor. Some things have been done but other things have swum into view. I think the big thing this year is pensions.


    Newshost:

    You think pensions - I was going to say probably the biggest issue though, which I wonder if that may prove a focus for dissent, is Iraq. We've had the Prime Minister talking about that since his return from Johannesburg. Just how much trouble do you think Tony Blair will be in if he does still go ahead and support military action against Saddam Hussein?


    John Monks:

    I think the general view of the Congress will be much more about the processes which are used. For example, is there evidence? Have the weapons inspectors been allowed in? Are the United Nations involved?

    The TUC is not a pacifist organisation and it has supported British Forces on many, many occasions. I think if there is evidence that Saddam Hussein has got dangerous weapons that threaten world peace and the United Nations are determined to do something about it, then we'd expect Britain to support him.


    Newshost:

    Just how much trouble do you think Tony Blair will be in if he does still go ahead and support military action against Saddam Hussein? Although Tony Blair has said he is producing that document of evidence, as he did with the Afghanistan dispute, although the indications are that it won't be particularly much more than what we already know brought together in one document. Would that be enough or do we actually need to some perceived threat to either neighbouring countries or the West more generally?


    John Monks:

    I think there's two things: one is the nature of the weapons that he's developing and I think we know that he's got some nasty weapons - chemical, biological in particular, perhaps nuclear. Has he got the means of delivery is perhaps the next question which make him a threat to both the region and to world peace? I think the Government would have to show that he's of a different degree than other countries around the world that we know are pretty well tooled up with some pretty awful weapons.


    Newshost:

    Other countries break UN Resolutions with regularity and don't seem to attract quite the same approbation. However, the Prime Minister has also seemed to float the idea that if we've got a deadline on Saddam Hussein to allow the weapons inspectors in by such and such a time, that would satisfy some public opinion here. Do you think that will work? It seems to me that from some of the opponents in the his own party, that will have virtually no effect.


    John Monks:

    There's a group who are pacifist about the matter and whatever evidence was produced, they would say it would not justify military intervention in the affairs┐.


    Newshost:

    But that's not pacifism is it? It's fear partly from the escalation of the crisis in the Middle East.


    John Monks:

    It's not pacifism no. It could be pacifism but it could be worries about that actually it could make the situation worse. He might actually be precipitated to let these things off. So there is a range of worries.

    On the other hand, I think that if the man was actually defying the UN and there was pretty solid evidence around, then I suspect that they'd be a fair amount of support for the United Nations to do something about it. I think that's always been the case.


    Newshost:

    Again that's something that the Prime Minister appears to be putting on the back burner at the moment, is the kind of wait and see what we do. It's quite a big battle, isn't it though from starting from where we are now with public opinion to turn that around in favour of action?


    John Monks:

    I don't people have realised what invading Iraq might mean. At worse it could be hand-to-hand fighting round the streets of Baghdad or blasting it into oblivion. This was exactly the situation that George Bush Snr. didn't want when he militarily defeated and liberated Kuwait. So it's a big step. I'm sure they've got the military capability but it could be costly. I don't think people are prepared yet in their own minds for that kind of military adventure.


    Newshost:

    So a big public persuasion exercise ahead?


    John Monks:

    A big public persuasion exercise but I think people will be resistant. It won't just take some marginal information. It will be something that's solid. I think they're looking to see a broad coalition of other nations who are interested in it as well.


    Newshost:

    Well the only nations on earth seems to be the US, George Bush and Tony Blair shoulder-to-shoulder and that's it.


    John Monks:

    Tony Blair is on the side of, what I call, the White House doves - the retinue around the old Bush and Colin Powell as well - who do recognise that if they are to do anything, they do need to do it in conjunction with allies. I think Tony Blair has always been playing that particular card. Hopefully George Bush Jnr. will follow the advice of his father and Tony Blair.


    Newshost:

    Do you not find it odd that a New Labour Prime Minister has such a close relationship with a Republican President? I mean you criticised his relationship with Right-Wing leaders in Europe - is this one stupid, this relationship?


    John Monks:

    No, I think the history of the relationship during and since the Second World War between Britain and America has been unique for Britain - we've kept close to it. I'd never thought it was one of equals - the United States if far more powerful and I don't think it's always the right place for Britain to be. But I think all Prime Ministers have done it. Sometimes they've had to say no, like Harold Wilson did in terms of British troops in Vietnam as well.


    Newshost:

    Indeed and sometimes they get portrayed as the President's poodle.


    John Monks:

    Tony Blair has been running that risk at the moment. But I think he's been seeking to capitalise on the tremendous prestige that he built up after September 11th and the way he responded to that in the United States to try and at least steer this gung-ho White House in a more sensible direction.


    Newshost:

    Do you think he is trying to act as a moderating influence?


    John Monks:

    I'm sure that's what he's trying to do.


    Newshost:

    Rather than simply boost his image on the international stage?


    John Monks:

    Well I don't think he's boosting his image on the international stage because he's rather isolated at the moment. But Saddam Hussein - we know what he's like - he's an appalling dictator and it seems to me that he should be kept a very careful watch on, he should comply with the UN and if there's a coalition that can be built up, if he's not complying with UN, then he's got to know that they mean business.


    Newshost:

    Do you think that, as I said a moment ago, then this could in fact at this conference become the issue? You mentioned public services last time - we'll come onto that if I may. But that this might be the issue where all that dissent - there is a lot of dissent - will coalesce behind?


    John Monks:

    I don't think it will be issue that people coalesce behind because it seems rather remote at the moment, that may be the problem? Over the last ten days, it's seemed a lot less remote and it come up quite quickly. And the way the debate has gone in the White House - particularly Vice-President Cheney's speech - gave it an immediacy and I think was probably a shock to the world.

    But I've got to challenge what you say about that things are generally worse. Some things are not too good - particularly the pensions position and the public services. But some things are very good - the Chancellor's announcements in the Budget on the comprehensive spending review with large amounts of money going into public service - big increases in the number of public servants. And at the background of that, inflation is low, unemployment is low - many things in the economy are going quite well.


    Newshost:

    Indeed but the Prime Minister keeps hammering home this message and presumably he will do this again over the coming weeks. But it has to be allied to reform - reform is often seen as bringing in the private sector. There's been no move away from that as far as we can detect.


    John Monks:

    It's easy the exaggerate the role of the private sector too. We're calculating there's going to be about half-a-million more public servants employed in addition to whatever the private sector do. Often the private sector is more at the margins than in the centre and its role has been exaggerated. One of my criticisms of the Government I think is in terms of the total effort that's going into the public services. The PFI has a way of building things and so on which is quite controversial in its own right. But basically there's a lot of money going into the public services.


    Newshost:

    It doesn't seem to be filtering through and we still get this level of discontent. At the moment we have the fire-fighters threatening industrial actions, the Tube strikes looming and still action threatened from other public sector workers. There's been talk of another winter of discontent, which I know people have said is overblown. But there is a real sense of frustration over a number of issues with this Government which seem to be centred around the public services.


    John Monks:

    There is some frustration - I wouldn't say it's vast. Where it looks quite a lot is that people in Britain have got used to having virtually no strikes and we've had some in the last six months, particularly around the transport area. I am worried about the fire service position. That's a group that are really feeling strongly their grievance and how that's handled is going to be very important.


    Newshost:

    Is there a role for government in that? It's quite unusual for the Government - the normal line is that it's up to the employers and the employees to sort it out. They've come in earlier in this dispute to suggest an independent investigation which has been rejected. Is there still a role for government to get involved in this matter?


    John Monks:

    Well, I am sure there is because the local government employers are basically saying they can't afford to pay the firemen and they would need money from the Government. So the Government is involved it whether it particularly chooses to or not. I know the Deputy-Prime Minister has taken a very close interest and has met the General Secretary of the Fire-Brigades union.


    Newshost:

    Would you expect Gordon Brown to be offering some more money to the local authorities?


    John Monks:

    I don't have the answer to this particular dispute. The Fire-Brigades union, the employers and the Government are going to have to find it. But I'm taking a big interest in it. Nobody wants to see a fire service dispute but we want a good fire service - we've got a good fire service and we want to keep it that way.


    Newshost:

    You mention the question of pensions. Clearly that is an issue that is worrying a lot of people and again there seems to be no obvious answer to it. What do you think the Government should be looking at? Is it time to go back to square one in a sense? Restore SERPS - go back to a scheme like SERPS and perhaps at the same time restore the link for existing pensioners?


    John Monks:

    Yes. I think what we're seeing now is that employers - not all, but too many - are quitting providing good quality pension schemes. I've got some figures from one union that has got 300 agreements that 50 employers in the last three weeks have served notice that they are going to close down the final salary pension scheme.


    Newshost:

    That's going to leave a lot of people in the future in poverty.


    John Monks:

    Exactly - a lot of people in poverty. Now that's going to put the weight on what the state does and what individuals can do. So the Government was hoping that employers and individuals would sort out their pensions for the future and it could perhaps minimise the state - it can't do that now.

    So the basic state pension, I think, should be kept in line with earnings. The state second pension of course is coming in, which is a sort of successor to SERPS, which is going to be a useful addition for the low paid. But basically, at the end of the day, what are employers going do? And the key decision the Government have got to take - and I hope they take it in the Green Paper which is coming out on pensions in the autumn - is are employers going to be made to contribute something for all their employees. For however short a time they are in employment, they build up a pension pot.


    Newshost:

    A sort of compulsion here?


    John Monks:

    Compulsion, yes.


    Newshost:

    And if not, what do you fear?


    John Monks:

    If not, two things will happen: one is larger numbers of young people in the economy today will look forward - if that's the word - to a pretty bleak retirement.


    Newshost:

    But it's difficult to persuade them at this stage in their lives to take pensions seriously


    John Monks:

    That's the trouble - people are very short-termist. Nobody thinks about pensions much until you get to about 40 years old and then you think time is ticking on. But a lot of young people don't care and if they get a pay increase and they lose their final salary pension, they think something will turn up and that's their great optimism. But in this area they're being short-changed.


    Newshost:

    Another issue that persistently comes up and we were expecting things during the summer holiday on the euro. We had Bill Morris, a couple of days back, suggesting that really now the time has come for the Government to decide that public service is such an important issue and should come top of the agenda and forget the euro until the next Parliament. Is that a sensible course of action for the Government to take?


    John Monks:

    I don't agree with Bill on that - I think the euro actually gets more urgent not less. It's never going to be a perfect time to join but if the economy is in reasonable shape for joining next year - and all the portents at the moment are that it will be - then I think that's when it should be done.


    Newshost:

    So when, October next year?


    John Monks:

    I'm not bothered which month it is - it's going to be a hard fight to win, the referendum. But that's what people become statesmen for - not just staying in office but actually doing things with the chance that you've got. I think the destiny of this country is to be a whole-hearted member of the European Union and not a half-hearted member. I think it's very important that we get in as soon as we can.


    Newshost:

    You don't fear, as Gordon Brown apparently fears, the possible effect on his plans for public sector spending for example?


    John Monks:

    He got ticked by the European Commission not that long ago, who were a bit worried that maybe he was spending too much compared to the growth targets and actually they warned him he might have to put taxes up. That's not a very welcome message.


    Newshost:

    He's done it once, I suppose he can do it again.


    John Monks:

    He's done it once with a lot of support from the TUC when he did it.


    Newshost:

    And would you support another tax hike?


    John Monks:

    If it's to pay for better public services, then yes.


    Newshost:

    But if that was as a result of entry into the euro?


    John Monks:

    Well I think we're going to have to pay for better public services - nothing comes for free. What I don't want to see however is the euro blamed for a tax increase that protects public services.

    The rest of the European Union, particularly the northern European countries, have got public services which we aspire to - whether it's health services, housing, civilised cities, transport and so on. Their services are absolutely excellent, for example in countries like Holland. But you've got to pay for it and you've got to pay for it over a long period.


    Newshost:

    It sounds as though you're expecting more tax rises?


    John Monks:

    No, I'm not particularly expecting more tax rises. But I do think that the average tax take in the European Union countries is a few percent higher than it is in Britain and that is to pay for their better public services. And the idea that somehow we'll get away with tax cuts and good public services - I think that is not an honest choice.


    Newshost:

    Do you think it's time then, perhaps over this conference season, that this pro-euro campaign really steps up a gear now? Similar to Iraq perhaps - there's a huge debate to be had and a great deal of persuasion needed it appears for the public. Even after people have been to Europe and experienced the euro at first-hand, there doesn't seem to have been this great expected surge of support.


    John Monks:

    I didn't expect it just because people went on holiday and if they went to two or more countries, they didn't have to change their money - that convenience issue is not the crucial one. The crucial one is where does our economic destiny mainly lie - I believe it is with the euro countries. Do we want to be a leader and a whole-hearted player to exert maximum influence? If we do, we've got to join the euro - what do we lose if we stay out? I think we lose a lot if we stay out and we emphasise our island distinctiveness. Well that's fine in many cultural ways, but it doesn't make a lot of sense in the long-term economic development of this country.


    Newshost:

    You don't fear that that closeness to Europe would put strains on the relationship with the US which obviously you value as well?


    John Monks:

    Well it's interesting. A lot of people in the US would welcome Britain joining the euro. A lot of people in the US don't give Britain this special place that Britain sometime claims that it has got - particularly on the economic sphere. Military - special relationship - culturally, sometimes as well. But economically the biggest player in Europe is Germany. Germany has the biggest economy and the United States looks at Germany for leadership on economic matters much more than it does on us.


    Newshost:

    Coming back to the link between Labour and the unions which as we said at the beginning was under severe strain last year. Since then some of the unions have actually withdrawn money from the Labour Party and there have been threats to Labour MPs that if they don't tow the line, they'll lose their sponsorship. What's in it for the unions now, this link, it seems a one-way street?


    John Monks:

    Well it's not a one-way street. Unions, by and large, for the whole 100 years that this link has been around since unions propelled the formation of the Labour Party, have basically done it because they think it's better for the country and it's better for unions, better for working people to have a Labour government than the alternatives.


    Newshost:

    Is that still the case?


    John Monks:

    Yes, that's still the case. We've got full-ish employment, we've got low inflation, we've got economic growth, we've got big public spending - that would have been a positive Utopia for the TUC ten years ago. In 1992, after Neil Kinnock lost, I don't think we ever thought Labour was ever going to win again. So it's a big improvement on the very conflictive Conservative years.

    One of my jobs, next week, is to keep reminding people of the broad perspective, both historically and across the board about what's going on. These are good times although there is a lot still to be done.


    Newshost:

    So why is it that so many people in the union movement and the people who think the Labour Party, in a sense, is their party, feel that it is no longer their party and that somehow it is divorced from them?


    John Monks:

    Tony Blair did alter much of the basis of the Labour Party.


    Newshost:

    Some say, created a new party


    John Monks:

    Well he certainly built a new wing onto it and called it New Labour. The new wing was an appeal to middle Britain and to the very fast growing working middle classes of this country who Labour had not appealed to and lost support among some time in the 1970s. So that appeal, where he's managed to span the traditional supporters with new supporters, is still an essential basis for winning elections.


    Newshost:

    But that's the point isn't it - that he hasn't brought with him some of his traditional supporters and in fact they see that the middle-classes and the obsession with middle-England is to their detriment?


    John Monks:

    I think what Tony Blair has still got to do is to unite those two things. If pensions are disappearing, that's an issue that spans middle Britain and the traditional support. If workers are looking to be treated up to the best levels of the way workers are treated in the European Union - that's an issue that spans, whether it's the middle-class or the working-class, however you want to define these terms.

    It seems to me that there are things that unite people - it's not that if you're pro-business you're anti-union. But you are pro the right kinds of business - the ones who've got ethics, the ones who have got standards and not the ones, in general, who are cancelling the pension schemes at the moment.


    Newshost:

    So you foresee the conference that should have happened last year, in a sense, being run this year with Tony Blair facing those questions?


    John Monks:

    The Prime Minister's speech is challenging to the TUC. We want to be challenged - we want to contribute to the improvement of public services and so on.


    Newshost:

    But you don't want to be described as wreckers etc?


    John:

    We certainly don't want any of that stuff - that's run its course.


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