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Thursday, 3 October, 2002, 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK
Ask cabinet minister John Reid

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  • Click here to read the transcript


    Prime Minister Tony Blair has told the Labour conference his government is at a crossroads and must now deliver on its pledges.

    In his keynote speech, the prime minister said Labour was "best at its boldest - and so far we've made a good start, but we've not been bold enough".

    In a direct message to union leaders and Labour activists unhappy about the use of private cash in public services, he declared that it was time to move on from "old principles".

    Tony Blair defended his relationship with the United States and restated his tough stance on Iraq.

    Mr Blair described events in the Middle East as "ugly and wrong" and called for a revival of negotiations leading to a viable Palestinian state based on the boundaries of 1967 but warned that Israel must be free of terrorism.

    Were you convinced by the prime minister's speech? Is the government winning over the doubters? Has Tony Blair increased his standing within the party?

    You put your questions to the Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid in an interactive FORUM.


    Transcript


    Newshost:

    Mark, UK: Why is Britain not backing the new deal to admit weapons inspectors?


    John Reid:

    Well we are backing it. Our aim is to stop Saddam having any chance of using weapons of mass destruction.

    Now when the weapons inspectors went in last time, every conceivable object was put in their way and they were then expelled. And indeed up until July of this year, the United Nations were trying to negotiate to get them back in.

    So we have said that the weapons inspectors should go back in but they must be free to go anywhere, anytime and anyone. Now if that is done, you've a chance of actually getting at these weapons of mass destruction. But it must be on that basis.


    Newshost:

    And you see the current situation as Saddam still trying to confuse the issue and to wriggle?


    John Reid:

    Well he's got a history of prevarication and a history of trying to delay. So we've got to make sure that it's absolutely clear that they can go anywhere at anytime without any notice and send anyone and also that there is no prevarication either when they get there or before they get there.


    Newshost:

    Chris Davies, USA/UK: Do you believe that if the US and UK proceed with military action against Iraq without it being approved by the UN Security Council; that this will significantly reduce the UN's ability to deal with future problems, possibly relegating it to no more than another League of Nations?


    John Reid:

    Well I think the biggest threat to the United Nation's future, legitimacy and authority is if it fails to act on this one. That's why we've put so much effort into making sure that every member of the Security Council is on board and that's the discussions that are going on at present. To fail to act on this would not only be to leave the threat of Saddam Hussein, but it would be to completely undermine the legitimacy and authority of the United Nations.


    Newshost:

    Do you see the parallel with the League of Nations which of course fell apart at the time of the Second War?


    John Reid:

    The League of Nations fell apart because of its unwillingness to act. The United Nations was set up by charter in order to make sure that the same mistake was never made again as was made with Hitler.

    By failing to act early, it took 50 million deaths and 6 years of war to stop Hitler and that is why the United Nations was set up. So never again would they allow someone who had dictatorial tendencies and such an armoury to go unchecked. That is why the United Nation's authority is now at stake.


    Newshost:

    PD, UK: How does the Labour party propose that the world community should address "regime change" in Iraq?


    John Reid:

    It is not our primary aim. Our primary aim is to get rid of the threat from the weapons of mass destruction. If by some unlikely chance, Saddam, even at this late stage, was to honestly get rid of those weapons and we could all see that that had happened and let's the inspectors unfettered and free - fine. However, it is unlikely that he will do that because all of his history suggests he won't.

    Secondly if as a result of getting rid of the weapons of mass destruction we get rid of Saddam, there is no question in my mind or anyone else's mind that it would be an undoubted boon for the people of Iraq.


    Newshost:

    No fears that it would be just out of the frying pan into the fire when a following regime may be just as bad as Saddam?


    John Reid:

    It is difficult to imagine any regime in the world which is as brutal, dictatorial and dangerous as Saddam Hussein, which is precisely why because it's such a unique threat that the United Nations has to take very, very firm action indeed.


    Newshost:

    Steven, UK: The tone of Tony Blair's speech seems to hide the agenda that "New Labour" wants a divorce from trade union. Are we seeing the birth or American style politics, dominated by cronyism and big businesses?


    John Reid:

    No it is natural that the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions should change over the decades and over the century because the world is changed around us. One hundred years ago, when Labour was formed, the working people of this country had no extra money - they were only producers. Therefore it was quite sensible then to have a predominate role of the trade unions in the Labour Party because they are the producers organised.

    Nowadays, 75% of working families are consumers. They have much more money - they want more choice, more diversity. So although we now share common aims with the trade union movement on social justice and so on, they have to look after the interests of workers as producers in the workplace and so on, but we have to govern for the whole country. We can't be held liable or determined by only one group in society.


    Newshost:

    Do you think the unions are now, after Tony Blair's speech, more or less on board?


    John Reid:

    Well I hope they have learned from the debates we've had not only that we intend to go ahead but why because it's in their interest. We are spending a great deal of public money on the services the public want, but we're spending also in addition to that about 25% private money has been brought in.

    What does that mean? It means a huge amount of money has put in to improve public services and if they don't operate along with us - the representatives of the workers - to reform at the same time as we invest to make sure the service is as good as anything you can get elsewhere, then in a few year's time people will say, the Health Service can't give us the service we want. We've put in enormous amounts of money but it's incapable of change.


    Newshost:

    Tony Blair clearly believes that only PFI can help him fulfil those election promises. The unions clearly don't accept that - or some of the unions don't accept that argument.


    John Reid:

    It's not only private finance. Let me give you a couple of figures. When we came to power, 22 billion was being invested in capital investment every year. Under Labour by the end of 2002/03, it will be 38 billion - a huge increase. And of that increase this year, 85% is actually public money - taxpayers' money. So it's not as if we're not investing.

    I could understand it if the unions were saying we're not putting any public money in - we're putting huge amounts in and on top of that we're saying let's get more money in. Why? Because if it means that another 100,000 people in pain can get treated, that what's doing it.

    How do you explain to someone whose mother needs a hip operation and is in constant pain that she can't have it because some of the trade unions objected to where the money comes from? We're not going to do that.


    Newshost:

    Anthony Hook, Dover, Kent: Before the General Election the Government said it had no plans to increase taxes and spending on public services. Why did you so quickly cave in and do something similar to what the Liberal Democrats were calling for? Does it show the Lib Dems are thinking ahead of Labour?


    John Reid:

    Before the '97 election, we didn't have any plans to increase taxation and we didn't quickly change our minds. It was nearly five and half years later when we added 1 penny and in between times, what happened to change circumstances? Well the world economy went into recession and despite the fact that we were in a position where we were much stronger than any other economy to resist it, nevertheless it did affect Britain, as anywhere else. We found that in order to meet the plans we wanted, because of changed circumstances, we should put a penny on the general taxation that we take from people.

    Now, we made the argument, we made the choice. It was five and half years after we had first made the pledge and I think people can understand that.


    Newshost:

    Do you think that it seemed before that it seemed that no political party could make that sort of argument - that taxes should go up to fund public services? And of course it wasn't tested in a general election. Do you think that argument can now win elections? Do you think the public is ready to accept a tax-raising for investment platform?


    John Reid:

    I think it is true that the sense of values and priorities of people have changed - partly because we have been arguing that, partly because they are now convinced that we are not spendthrifts. We're running the strongest economy for almost half a century.

    However, having said that, no one should think for a moment that you can willy-nilly increase taxation without having a terrible effect on the economy as well as on the people who vote for you. So we've no intentions to go back to the days of tax and spend.


    Newshost:

    You're not going to do it again - between here and the next election?


    John Reid:

    I never jump in ahead of the Chancellor who is a very powerful man and doesn't like any of us doing that. But certainly there's no return to the days of tax and spend. We have used all of the money incidentally that we raised for investment - not to keep things going but to invest in the future.


    Newshost:

    Alan Hall, Stockport, England: John Prescott said that "an independent review" is just some fancy words for a freeze, (in relation to PFI). Does this also apply to the fire fighters' independent review?


    John Reid:

    I think they were talking about two different circumstances. Let me say first of all, this idea that we've had a huge outbreak of strikes isn't entirely true. We've lost this year, 350,000 man-days through strikes. With the Tories you were losing 27 million man-days when they were in power. So we shouldn't all go into a state of panic over this.

    The trade unions know that we have now created 1.5 million new jobs and we've brought in a minimum income for the first time in Britain's history. We've given legal rights to part-time workers, the legal right to be a member of a trade union. They know that we've been fair to trade unions. But the fire-fighters feel that they are due more than the going rate and because it has knock-on effects - because if one group gets a huge increase, without proving they're an exceptional case, everyone else claims it. So because of that, we've said let an independent person look at this.

    My final comment is, it isn't true there haven't been any reviews of the private finance initiative. There have been scores of them from the individual decisions that are initially - which is an economic review - through the National Audit Office, through all the independent reviews and most of them show we're getting good value for money.


    Newshost:

    But doesn't that depend on how you look at the figures and that in the short-term it looks as though it's a good form of investment, but in the long-term these PFI programmes actually in the long run cost a great deal more?


    John Reid:

    No they don't. People might be interested in how a Minister makes a decision - I've made some of them. At the Ministry of Defence I had about seven, I think, and I put three of them out to private finance and kept four of them in the public sector. What we do is we draw up the cost over 25 years - not this year, but 25 years - because if you build out of public money, you've got to maintain for 25 and more years.

    The history of the public money is they are normally hugely over budget, normally hugely late and normally have terribly maintenance costs which means that they run down the hospitals and the schools aren't kept in condition. So we take the cost of it for 25 years - the public sector, then the private sector - we compare them and whatever is the best value we go that route.


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