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Thursday, July 22, 1999 Published at 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK

UK Politics

Michael Ancram answers your questions

Michael Ancram answers your questions
Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram answers questions put to him by users of BBC News Online.

Q: As a Scot who holds an English constituency and has served in the Northern Ireland Office you would hold definite views on devolution.

Will the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party be the first to drop the unionist tag to guarantee itself a future in Scotland as Tartan Tories?
Malcolm McCandless, Dundee, Scotland

A: No, because we still believe in the United Kingdom, and that is what unionism is about.

But we accept equally that the United Kingdom has changed - we now have a devolved United Kingdom. The danger is that devolution runs on out of control and ends up with the breakup of the United Kingdom.

And as unionists, we will continue to try and point out to people that even within a devolved United Kingdom, the benefit of remaining as a United Kingdom remains.

Q: The Conservatives won the Euro Elections because Labour's vote was split by Plaid Cymru, The SNP, Greens and UK Independence Parties. Parties who's vote will fall at the next election. Does Mr Ancram believe that these anti Euro votes will go to the Conservatives or not?
Harry Hayfield, Ceredigion, Wales

A: Votes will only come to us if we can show people that our ideas, our policies, what we stand for, are what people themselves want to see.

What we learnt in the European elections where we had a simple straightforward message that we wanted to be in Europe but not run by Europe, we wanted to be able to retain our own rights of self-determination did strike a chord with the British people and they responded by voting for us.

I would like to think when we get to the next election, not just on Europe, but on many other areas as well, we will be able equally to have a clear, straightforward message which people will respond to by voting for us.

Q: Although I have lived in the US for 16 years, I still retain property in the UK (and therefore pay UK taxes), and have a patriotic interest in UK affairs.

What really differentiates today's Conservative party with the Labour Government who, in many respects, have stolen the Tory agenda?
Mark Newdick, USA

A: In many ways they have been adopted policies which we were pursuing before the last election because they realised those were the policies which the British people wanted to see pursued.

The difference between us is that Labour, even though it now calls itself new Labour, still believes in a society which is imposed from the top downwards--that is what being a socialist is about.

We as Conservatives have always based or policy particulars on a belief in people, individuals and on a belief in the family.

These are the elements which we use in order to draw up our policies. I think as we see over the next months ahead the Labour government increasingly coming up against the political realities and retreating as it will into old-fashioned dogmatic socialism, the clear difference between us will be very, very open for all to see.

Q: Why does the British Conservative Party support Pinochet, an internationally recognised violator of Human Rights who persecuted and murdered his own citizens in Chile? Why does Her Excellency, the Baroness Margaret Thatcher support Pinochet, her personal friend?
A. Eguizabal, Dallas, Texas, USA

A: We believe Pinochet should be dealt with in his own country. We think it's right if there are charges to be brought, they should be brought in Chile and that is where that should happen.

We don't think it`s right that we should be involved in that particular issue. All countries that have come out of the dictatorship into democracy - there many across the world - have to resolve the problems of the past. We believe it's for those countries to resolve those problems themselves, it's not something we should be interfering in.

Q: Does Michael Ashcroft have the full support of the Conservative Party in his legal action against The Times?
Simon Smith, Newcastle

A: He obviously has to take his own legal advice. He's taken legal advice, he's issued a writ against The Times and given that is a legal matter I wouldn't want to comment on those issues any further other than to say as William Hague made clear to his backbenchers last night that we are not going to see a senior member of the party driven out of office on the basis of smear and innuendo.

Q: Are you supporting him in his legal action?

A: No, the legal action is his legal action. He had to make up his own mind about that given the legal advice he was receiving.

Q: Do you believe that there is a organised smear campaign against the Tory treasurer? If there is a campaign who in your opinion is to blame?
Hertog van Norfolk

A: I've said for some time that I believe there is an organised smear campaign. The motivation for it is unclear.

We know for instance that documents that are not only classified but because they belong to the previous administration can only be released with the consent of the previous administration were leaked to The Times newspaper two weeks ago. Although the details of the documents weren't very significant the actual fact that they were released in that way does suggest that there are some very serious misdeeds taking place within the government at the moment and that is something that I have asked Sir John Kerr, who is the permanent under-secretary of the Foreign Office to investigate and he is doing so.

I think there has been a clear politically-motivated campaign in which The Times newspaper has played a part. We see today they are using the cloak of parliamentary privilege to make innuendoes and assertion about Michael Ashcroft on their front page and on their inside page they're telling people in Eddisbury to vote Labour and I think there is no coincidence between those two things happening.

Q: How do you expect us to believe that Michael Ashcroft has no role in policy-making when he contributes such a large proportion of your finances? If I gave a party one-fifth of it's total income, I would expect to write the manifesto.
Chris Rumfitt, London

A: I can tell you as the chairman of the party, he has no role in policy-making. Policy-making in the Conservative Party is at an early stage now, but it is carried out by the Shadow Cabinet, by the front bench teams, by the Members of Parliament and that's something we`ve always taken great pride in.

He doesn't play any role in policy making. What his job is to ensure we have the widest possible base of financing as week as a party. Over the last year, he's broadened the base of financing considerably. We have many more people giving money to the party than a year ago.

Q: After all the problems the Tory Party experienced in the late '80s early '90s with dubious sources of funding why do you allow the Ambassador to the United Nations for Beleize to (a) donate enormous sums of money to the Conservative Party and (b) be the party's Treasurer?
Mark Curry

A: Michael Ashcroft actually fulfils the criteria in the Neill report in terms of donations and the Neill report was something, when it came out last year, that we pressed should be implemented as soon as possible, because we do think it is right that there should be clear rules in relation to donations to parties.

I suggested at the time that the legislation to be put into effect immediately. I always said that if they were really keen to see donations given on a regulated basis, they should have had speedy legislation on this.

As you know, the Labour Party's funding is full of mystery, the blind trusts that financed Tony Blair before the last election - we are still not being told who gave to them.

We know large sums of money are given to the Labour Party. We know Bernie Ecclestone gave them £1m and the ban on tobacco advertising at Formula One was exempted for a time.

We know that that announcement on hunting was made subsequent to £1m being given before the last election and a refresher of £100,000 being given by the animal welfare people fairly recently. I suspect the Labour Party are nervous about regulations for funding, we are not.

Q: Why does the Tory party not reveal how much money it has received from this foreign subject?
Regards, Sanjay

A: At the moment we declare as we have to, according to the rules, we declare all those who give over £5,000, their names are published annually. Michael Ashcroft himself has made clear how much he gives.

Q: Could your party please explain why carers never seem to be noticed or appreciated for the extremely hard work they do. Your comments on what the Tory Party intend to do for carers (they do not appear to have done anything in the past) would be appreciated.
Yours sincerely, A. Dawson

A: I also feel that carers are not sufficiently appreciated. What I try to do in my own constituency, which is where I come in contact with the carers, is to make sure the work they do is appreciated within the community as widely as possible.

If we do that right across the country then the contribution that carers make within our society will be much more clear seen.

Q: What might the Tories do ahead of the next election?

A: The important thing is that carers do contribute very valuable functions within our society.

It is important that that is recognised. And certainly at the early stages of policy formulation, as I said earlier, these are things we would want to consider in terms of policy.

In terms of making sure that that contribution is recognised, I think it is the thing we can do now, I'm sure my colleagues do the same as I do.

Q: Does Michael Ancram agree with John Major and apparently Mr Hague that the devolved Parliament for Scotland will eventually lead to the break up of the Union?

A: I think there's a danger intrinsic in devolution that once you start unbundling the United Kingdom that that might happen.

We will work very hard to try and ensure that it doesn`t happen. One of the reasons it could happen is if the imbalanced situation which now exists within the United Kingdom in relation to the role of Scottish MPs in Westminster is allowed to continue without an attempt to make it more fair.

And William Hague has put forward proposals in relation to English legislation and the role of Scottish MPs on English legislation, which I think would make it much fairer.

Making it fairer and removing the need for resentment in the United Kingdom, there is less danger of break-up.

Q: Does the Tory party really feel their recent smear campaign, alleging the Labour party is being bribed by the anti-hunt lobby to bring forward legislation to ban fox hunting, is going to win them any support amongst the vast majority of the British public?

Supporting the pro-hunting lobby is only promoting the view that the Tory party is only interested is upholding the interests of rich upper class 'toffs'.
Paul Mansell

A: I don't think anybody has used or suggested that this is a bribe. What we've said is that it must be more than a coincidence that if an organisation gives you £1 million and then £100,000 and shortly thereafter you announce a policy which appears to be consistent with that, that the two facts are not unrelated.

I understand from a leaked memo of one of the Home Office ministers that the fact of the support being given financially and the lack of legislation on hunting had been something which had been raised with him.

Q: And the point about whether or not supporting fox-hunting aligns you with toffs?

A: We take a view as a party that people have got to make up their own minds on it. There are people within the Conservative party who don't support hunting and we've always said this is a matter for a free vote.

But what we do believe is that where the legal rights of minorities - and this is an activity which has been legal for a long time - are being challenged, then the voice of that minority must be heard, that there should be proper consultation.

This policy has been jumped out of the blue by the prime minister for political reasons because the time on the television programme where he announced it to the surprise of all his colleagues, I understand, he was under political pressure, is not the result of consultation, is not the result of talking to the minorities involved or hearing what their viewpoint is. I think in a democracy that's very dangerous.

Q: As a member of the Conservative Party I am frustrated at how out of touch the Conservatives are at the moment.

The transport policies will lead to long-term disaster and are no more than short-term opportunism. We cannot continue to build more roads and must ultimately restrict physically or fiscally their use. Be radical - raise taxes on cars and road use and invest it all in cheap efficient public transport.
J. McFarlane

A: The point we are making on transport is if you`re going to try and deal with what is undoubtedly a problem - and I find all round the country where I go, transport and traffic jams and congestion and difficulties of getting around are raised with me - if you`re going to deal with that, you have to deal with it in a way that`s going to systematically work.

What we have at the moment and what we are attacking is a government that is if you like penalising the motorist, trying to persuade people to get out of cars by putting up petrol prices, by all sorts of different suggestions being made now, but without doing anything to provide a viable alternative.

That is the key point that if you're going to try and move people from driving their cars - which they're perfectly entitled to do and is a right we all have to respect, if we have to persuade them, we have to show there is a better way.

To do it by coercion seems to us to be totally wrong. What we have seen after two and a half years of this Labour Government who came in saying they would make transport better is there are longer traffic jams, more congestion and on too many occasions we find people can't simply move around.

Q: I am glad to see the Conservative Party grappling with transport policy. Instead of proposing a freeze in the duty on petrol, why not propose a substantial cut?
Chris Klein

A: I think it's important that you have petrol prices at a proper level in relation to the cost of other things.

What we've been complaining about in relation to this government is we introduced an annual increase in petrol prices because we felt they were below the level at that stage and we called it an escalator.

The point about an escalator, when you reach the floor you need to reach, you get off it. This government seems to believe that the escalator is unending and goes on into the very heavens themselves. That is beginning to Sear Russly damage the motorist.

It is damaging rural areas where a car is not a luxury but a necessity. It`s damaging any area where goods have to be transported by road and the price of petrol has to be passed off in the price of goods and people are finding that the cost of the living is going up.

We believe that the time has come now to call a halt to this increase and to try and see that we have a proper transport policy which is going to allow people the freedom to make their own decisions in terms of transport but to actually get around.

Q: If the Tories no longer want to reduce traffic, does this mean they have abandoned their promise to prevent people being poisoned by air pollution?

A: It's not a question of abandoning a promise to reduce traffic. We want to make sure people can move around and move around freely.

We have less miles of road per head than the main countries in Europe. I'm not suggesting we should have massive road-building programmes.

What I`m saying is to blame it all on the motorist, which this government is doing, is actually coping out of the real problem.

How do you allow people to move around the country in a way that is environmentally acceptable?

This government started off with tremendous trumpeting of how it was going to do it, it`s been blocked by the Treasury and the prime minister and at the moment we have no transport policy at all and the country is worse off as a result.

Q: Although acknowledging that I am a Labour voter, I am interested in your views on political fundraising. Do you think it is about time that parties should be state-sponsored, and what would be the implications of such a move?
Yours Faithfully, Jim Ablett

A: I`m always nervous about state sponsoring of parties. Politics is politics and I don`t think my constituents would be pleased if they thought their tax-payers money was going on party politics.

It is healthy in a democracy that people should be able to come forward and support their party. We are seeing at the moment an enormous increase in the donor-base of our party, many more people coming in at different levels.

I think that`s a healthy part of a democracy. I think when you actually start saying that the tax-payers are going to pay for - let`s take an example -for party political broadcasts being made by party politicians, I think the British public would soon say, "This isn`t a proper use of our money."

I would like to see as many individuals funding as possible. This is what I said earlier, that I think the Neill report is a good report and should be implemented.

I`ve always been against very large block donations which is why I opposed the enormous donations the trade unions gave and still give and expecting something from return from the Labour party.

I would like to see the donor-base of my party, which is the party I can speak for, being as wide as possible where as many people as possible are giving money to support the party and the principles of that party which they believe in.

Q: Is it inconsistent with our constitutional principles to join the single currency? And should such principles overrule sound economic judgement?
Saqib Dodhy, 19, Birmingham

A: I think what is important about the single currency is first of all to realise, which is denied by the present government, but is a reality, that the single currency isn`t just about economics, it`s also about sovereignty and the constitution.

Because at the moment - because the moment you go into a single currency - and we will see this happening in the countries that have -increasingly important matters such as interest rates and the levels of taxation, will devolve or they will centralise away from the individual countries towards the centre of Europe.

Those countries will be less able to take those decisions, and they aren't just economic decisions but go to the very fundamental basis of a country's sovereignty.

You can`t divorce the constitutional and institutional side from the economic side. And we`ve said all along that we believe that the single currency is damaging to the ability of a country to run its own affairs but now that it`s there in 12 of the European countries, we will be able to see on the ground how that is right.

Q: Why do you think that after 20 years of Conservative rule, Britain boasts four of the poorest regions in Europe?
Mike Vere, Malvern, England

A: I think if you look at the results of the 20 years, the standard of living in Britain overall rose considerably during that time, as indeed did the quality of life.

There were certain areas where we weren`t at the end as successful as we have been in other areas. Take for example Scotland which at the beginning of the period we were in office, was way down the league of - although it`s not a region - but in terms of the regional analysis done economically, it was way down that.

By the end of our time, it was almost top of the regions in the United Kingdom, so enormous changes were made.

Q: As a long standing unassuming mild mannered Conservative voter, I feel a real deep stirring of English national pride rising to the surface.

Will the Conservative party support the notion that at any future election that candidates regardless of their political party, have next to their name on the voting slip their nationality: English, Scottish, Welsh, or Other.

Greg Hill, Northampton

A: I`m not sure whether that is elections in England. I have no difficulty in saying to my constituents in Wiltshire that I`m a Scot and I hope they believe as a Scot who has lived in Wiltshire over the last ten years that I represent them well.

I`m a United Kingdom member of parliament. I`m there to represent my constituents.

Q: Does the Tory party really expect to succeed in the polls, when it still contains hated figures of the previous administration, such as John Redwood?
Leo Denham

A: We are going to win the next election because the British people are going to see that we have listened to them, that we have learnt what is worrying them, that we understand their ambitions, that within our principles as Conservatives we will have policies which will deal directly with those fears and those ambitions.

We`ve always, I think, succeeded politically because we are not a dogmatic or ideological party, unlike the Labour Party but are a party of principles.

Q: The suggestion here is what was worrying people in 1997 in part at least was some of the individuals.

A: I think the British electorate are much more sophisticated than to make important decisions who governs them on the basis of personalities.

If you look at the work that John Redwood does, he`s an enormously hard worker within our party, I have tremendous respect for the work he`s doing at the moment on shadowing John Prescott.

What is important is the work, the policies, the energy, the enthusiasm, and in the end, showing people in this country that we understand what they are feeling, what their concerns are and that we can meet them.

Q: Do you recognise that the party has an image problem, in that too many senior spokespersons (including, unfortunately, the party leader) appear to be 'odd' to members of the public?
Dr Michael Temple, senior lecturer in politics, Staffordshire University

A: He must make his own judgement, and as one of the senior spokesmen, I`m not going to analyse whether I`m regarded as odd or not. That must be for others to judge.

Again I think what is important is that we show as a party we have, since the election, gone out, listened to people, heard what they have to say to us and we are now responding in a way which is clearly Conservative, it is clearly in touch with the mood of people again.

Q: What does "in Europe but not run by Europe" actually mean? How does Mr Ancram justify this, especially to the 40% of the electorate (according to polls), who would like to leave the EU altogether?
Austin Spreadbury

A: It means that we are part of Europe. We`ve always been part of Europe but we`ve been part of Europe in a more special way since 1972 and we accept that, but that doesn`t mean that we have to have all our policies dictated from Europe.

We at the moment are seeing the Labour Government running with the tide and suggesting that our foreign policy and our defence policy and our tax policy and our currency policy should all be run from Brussels.

We don`t believe that. We believe you can be in Europe but retain our rights of self-determination as well. That`s something we have done in the past and want to continue to do it. If you ask the British people what they understood by that at European elections they will give you very much the same view as I`ve given and they supported us.

We put forward the position of being in Europe but not dictated to, if you like, not run by Europe, and all the opinion polls suggest that about 75% of the British people think that`s the right position to be in.

As you are probably aware, the Welfare Reforms and Pensions bill is currently going through the House of Lords. Known as IR35, it's application to the UK company tax laws will force at least 60,000 small businesses to close next April. What is the Conservative Party's view on the reform bill?

A: The Conservative Party in the House of Lords has been working actively to try and change the bill. The trouble is the Labour Party have a large majority in the House of Commons and that large majority can carry the government`s policy.

That is the political reality at the moment. All we can do is try and show how very hostile to business this type of legislation is and hope that the Labour government even at this late time will see sense

Why is it that whenever I, not only as an ordinary citizen but as a Conservative Party member, write to William Hague even to ask the simplest question, I get an answer back from Ian Philips that treats me as an idiot (or sometimes, no answer at all)?
Alex Swanson

A: We have a large number of people who do write us to. Obviously those letters can`t all be answered personally by William Hague. At the same time I try and see all the letters that come into me. I treat every letter seriously. If he would like to write to me, I will treat his letter seriously.

Q: Are you really going to allow that loathsome spiv, Archer, to stand as Tory candidate for Mayor of London?
Jules Beach

A: Who stands for candidate for Mayor is going to be a matter for the Conservatives in London. The system of selection has been done in order to provide the most democratic base for selection.

That means it will be decided by all the membership, some 90,000 members of the Conservative Party in London. And that`s going to contrast very sharply with what`s going to happen in the Labour party where I think we are going to see a candidate imposed on the Labour party against the wishes much the majority of that party, so I believe in democracy. I think democracy is important.

Q: I am currently engaged in work experience in John Redwood's office and work in an office near to yours. I was saddened to see MPs especially in opposition are at the stage where recycling paper clips is mandatory. Why are opposition and indeed other members deprived of state funding as in Germany or large scale private financing as in the US?
Rameen Ghobadian, London

Q: Why are you deprived of state funding?

A: It`s important to make the distinction between state funding of political parties and support for oppositions, because we do get money in support of oppositions -it`s called short money, the Liberals get some and we get money, which is there to support the parliamentary activities of the shadow cabinet and the frontbenches.

That is something which has just gone up. But I have to say to you that it`s very hard if you`re the main opposition to try and do all the things you need to do to oppose effectively unless you have sufficient financial backing.

Q: So you would like to see more?

A: We`ve just seen a good increase and I have to say it`s a good increase in the short money. I think it was important that that did happen because an opposition is an important part of a democracy.

An opposition needs therefore to be effective. When you`re in government, you have all the advisers and all the departments to research and produce the policies and everything else; you have all the information officers and the government information service to deploy it.

In opposition, you don`t have that. So I think it`s right that the tax-payer, through short money, does contribute toward helping with opposition parties.

Q: How confident are you that anyone except the prime minister, let alone your party, can get a fair share form the BBC when the BBC Online introduced coverage of the Question Time interview with Tony Blair by using the comment from one viewer saying, "What a brilliant Prime Minister we have. A man full of vision and honesty. Tony Blair is putting the British people first."

Do you think these comments provide an accurate and balanced reflection of the views of the British people, or the political views of the BBC staff responsible for the site.
David Pilling

A: I think an interesting question. The report came out the other day about the BBC`s coverage of the Euro-elections which I have sent to the director-general of the BBC because I think it`s important that he sees the lack of balance that there was in the coverage of those elections, both in terms of the timed coverage of it and the way in which the coverage took place where very small minorities were given excessive time because the BBC thought that they created a political story which I think fitted the BBC`s political agenda at the time.

Q: So have you employed a media monitoring company to monitor the BBC?

A: This was a monitoring exercise done independently of the BBC.

Q: You were talking about that at one stage.

A: We don`t employ a company to do it. We have people who do it as a professional contribution to their belief that the broadcasting media is not necessarily as unbalanced as it should be.

I`m grateful when they produce the evidence that I can then take forward.

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