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Monday, 4 June, 2001, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Tony Blair quizzed

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Prime Minister Tony Blair answered your questions in a BBC News Online debate on Friday 1 June.

BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr asked Mr Blair about the NHS, school sizes, public sector pay, tuition fees and petrol tax.

He was also asked if he felt the Socialist Alliance represented true Labour support, and what he thought about voter apathy in the young.


Below is a transcript of the interview

Andrew Marr:

This is Andrew Marr in Liverpool with the third of the BBC News Online Leader interviews and I'm joined today by Tony Blair the Prime Minister. Mr Blair can I start off by putting to you a question relevant to today's headlines, this is from Richard Green from Bristol in the UK who I suspect is a doctor. He's talking about the BMA polling result today which was overwhelmingly in favour of the threat to pull out of the NHS. He says that GPs are being considered by the government as less important with NHS Direct, walk-in centres and nurses doing much of their work, do you really plan to use GPs less and think they don't play a vital part in the healthcare of the community that cannot be taken away?

Tony Blair:

They play an absolutely vital part in our local communities which is why we want to see more GPs. Through the Primary Care Trust we're actually giving them more power and we're very happy to sit down and talk with them about the problems that they have. I understand, of course, that there's a massive amount still to do in the National Health Service but the answer's got to be to keep the investment going in. I think that things like NHS Direct are not a threat to GPs, practice nurses are helping doctors, they're not a threat to GPs, on the contrary it's a sensible way of trying to provide a modern service for people.

Andrew Marr:

These GPs feel very badly done by, they're very hurt and bruised in some senses, after four years they're saying they need an extra 10,000 GPs, you're offering 10,000 doctors overall. After four years of a Labour government shouldn't things be better?

Tony Blair:

Well we are of course making improvements to services like NHS Direct and the money is also going to help the accident and emergency departments and the cardiac and cancer services. But we're the first to recognise we've got more to do, the answer surely is to keep the investment coming in and not go for the Conservatives and their plans on cuts.

Andrew Marr:

And what would you say to these doctors then today?

Tony Blair:

We are in the course of a negotiation with the doctors, we are actually increasing the numbers of GPs, we're putting a record investment into the Health Service and surely the vital thing is to keep that investment going in rather than turn the clock back to the Conservative days of cuts.

Andrew Marr:

Right, can I move on to another story that's been around today, lots of talk of landslides and so on, I think Margaret Thatcher has entered the debate recently, talking of cults of personality and so on. John of London says that he thinks the only danger is if the administration remains the same for too long and suggests that no Prime Minister should be allowed to serve longer than two terms, it doesn't say John Prescott I have to say, it just says John of London, perhaps you could address that?

Tony Blair:

One concern for me is that in a week's time I'm still going to be Prime Minister, never mind two terms or however much longer people may speculate on. Of course the Conservatives were in power for 18 years, what is important, I think, is to recognise that in the four years we've been in office we have made a start, the economy is stronger, there are more jobs, we're getting the investment into public services, there are things like the minimum wage that we've done that are symbols of a different type of philosophy in government. But I don't suppose any government was ever going to achieve everything in one term.

Andrew Marr:

Neil Prosser from Reading on the same subject said, quotes Margaret Thatcher saying I applaud strong government but not over-weaning government sustained by ciphers and a personality cult?

Tony Blair:

Well it's interesting that she says that, I think that it's very important that we get a mandate to carry on the work that we're doing and the thing that, as I was saying at the press conference I was doing this morning, I mean people go on about the election as if it was some sort of foregone conclusion, it's not over yet. So people will wake up to one of two things on June the 8th, either myself and the Labour government will carry on doing the work that we're doing and try and complete the job that we've begun or people will have Mr Hague and the Conservatives in power. Unless people come out and support us we can't carry on that work and I'm not asking for anything other than a mandate to keep the economy strong, to invest in our public services, have a sensible constructive attitude to Europe and to make sure that we have the items of fairness like the minimum wage or the working families tax credit, the children's tax credit, and the extra help for pensioners. Of course Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party are totally opposed to these things. But that's surely what the election should be about rather than speculating on the size of any majority in an election that hasn't even happened. I think what is sensible is that people decide and work out, because the people are the boss, what they want. Do they want to carry on with the policies that we've started and let us finish the job or do they want to turn the clock back to the Conservative years?

Andrew Marr:

Let's turn to some of those services that we were talking about, education and we've had an email from Mike Hall of Hinckley in Leicestershire who said: "my daughter is nine years old and she's in a class of 36, when will you guarantee that she's in a class of 30 or less or will she never be in a small class?"

Tony Blair:

Well our guarantee was that we would get the five, six and seven-year-olds in class sizes of under 30 and we've effectively achieved that, by September that will be fully complete. In respect of the other children in primary schools, of course the extra money that is now coming to primary schools means that primary schools can either have another teacher or another classroom assistant. Some schools, for example, prefer to spend the money on classroom assistants rather than classroom teachers and it's also the case that they could spend the money on other things like computers and equipment. So I think in the end what I would say to Mike is that your daughter will be taught in a better provided for school and I think it's then for the school to decide exactly how they want to use the resources that we put in. But I do point out that we've had the best primary school results this country's ever had. When we came to office something like half of 11-year-olds were passing their test results, it's now 75 per cent and rising and that is no small measure due to the extra investment that's gone in. But again, there's a distance to go.

Andrew Marr:

Rachel Dodds on the same subject from Oxford wants to know exactly how you're going to recruit 10,000 new teachers given low morale rather than poor pay and excessive workloads, she says?

Tony Blair:

Well first of all on teacher's pay, we have actually increased teacher's pay, we've not merely introduced the pay awards and not staged them as the Conservatives did. We've also made sure that for those teachers who pass the performance threshold they get an additional 2,000 a year, we've also introduced special additional premiums for advanced skills teachers and other types of teachers who are doing special jobs within our schools. We're also increasing the pay of head teachers significantly and in respect of recruiting teachers, the reason why teacher applications are something like, I think 30 per cent up now on this time last year, is precisely because we've introduced student bursaries, we're giving special help, so-called golden hellos to teachers in shortage subjects and we're also writing off student loans for new teachers coming into shortage subjects as well. Now again we've got more to do but we are doing things and the other thing I would say to you, you've got to be very careful of saying all teachers, like all people in the Health Service, have very low morale. I meet lots of teachers, yes who've got substantial problems but also are really teaching our children wonderfully and are dedicated to them and actually are excited by the prospects of change for the future.

Andrew Marr:

Moving on to another service, transport, Ben Walls from Cambridge says if we have the highest petrol tax in Europe why do we have the worst transport and roads? I don't want a Tory reduction in petrol tax, he says, what I want is petrol tax ring-fenced to fund better trains and roads, is there any prospect of doing that kind of, hypothecation of taxes, ring-fencing those sort of things?

Tony Blair:

No we won't hypothecate the tax because there are huge problems once you start hypothecating particular taxes for particular things except in very, very specific circumstance. But the point that Ben was making is right in the sense that you can either spend the money on transport or not. Now we have got put together what is a 180 billion programme over the next ten years, public and private partnership, to renew the transport infrastructure. We had to stabilise the public finances first which we did, got the national debt down, put the public finances in order. Then I said the number one priority was education, the money is now coming into health, we've got money there now for extra police numbers. Transport is also a big priority for a second term and the only basis on which we're going to improve the transport infrastructure is to invest in it. This money will come in now, over the next few years if we're given the chance to do it. What I'm thinking about fuel duties incidentally is that if you added all the different motoring costs in different European countries it's not quite as stark as some times appears and actually on taxes overall, of course, we're one of the lowest tax countries of any major European country.

Andrew Marr:

Continuing on the public sector, public sector pay, John Roberts from Prenton in the Wirral says: "my wife is a staff nurse and I'm a police officer, throughout the term of Tony Blair's office we've heard what he'd like to do in order to improve the NHS and public services in general but I'd like him now to recognise the hard work that all those in the public sector put into the services to bring about the improvements he wants. It's not only those in London who work in such occupations that feel they're close to the breadline. It is time he brought our pay and conditions into line with those in the private sector?"

Tony Blair:

Well first of all I do pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of the staff that work in our police service, in our education services, in all our public services and the health service obviously and you know sometimes people say well we don't give enough credit to people for the hard work that they're doing, I constantly say this, it doesn't always get publicised but that's not to say it's not said. Secondly we are trying to raise the pay and terms and conditions of those in our public services but I want to be quite blunt with you. Some of the biggest difficulties I have and I suppose the first lesson you really learn as Prime Minister is there is a never-ending list of the things that you've got to do that need money spent on them and what we've tried to do is to balance out the actual investment in the service with additional support for those working in the service. For example, there are nurses within the health service who've achieved a far larger than inflation pay rise, I know there are still some, and it may be that while your wife is in this situation you haven't. But nonetheless we are trying to get extra money, we are, for example, offering not just student nurses but also student teachers and also those going into the police service now additional incentives in order to recruit them. Now it will take us time to do everything but the fact is there is money coming into the service, it will take time to improve but the worst thing we could do is take that money back out again.

Andrew Marr:

Moving finally to tax, Dale Bassett of Cardiff said that just before the 97 election Labour announced they had no plans to increase taxes and that tuition fees would not come back, yet now the average family's tax bill is up by 870 and just 30 weeks after they were voted into office Labour introduces tuition fees, what makes you think we believe your promises this time? And Paul Robertson of Lincolnshire wants to know what promises you can make on indirect taxation?

Tony Blair:

Well the thing I can't do and didn't do before the last election is to sit down and write a budget if you take the children's tax credit into account, certainly with families with children, then the vast bulk of ordinary families in Britain are actually better off not worse off and of course insofar as we kept things like the fuel duty escalator to stabilise public finances, the only reason we've got mortgage rates around about half of what they were in Conservative years is because the public finances are in good shape. If you look at living standards overall and take into account things like mortgages I believe the vast majority of people are better off. Now it is the case, on tuition fees, incidentally, that in our last manifesto we made it quite clear that we would base our proposals on the Dearing Committee Report that was. The Dearing Committee was set up because universities said to the last Conservative government, we will start to charge fees ourselves unless you change the system of student finance because the present system is incompatible with rising numbers of students coming to university. The previous government, because the situation was so serious, actually had a cap on student numbers. Now when we came to office we got the Dearing Report, we acted on it, 50 per cent, incidentally, of families don't pay tuition fees and another third pay reduced fees, but if we want to expand student numbers then the extra money and we are putting into universities has got to go to frontline services and that's why it's so important we carry on with the investment that. But virtually all round the world societies have had to change the way that they finance student education because of the increased numbers going to university. When I was at university in the 70s, seven per cent of school leavers went to university, today the figure's 35 per cent, we want to get it up to 50 per cent so we have to change the basis of contributions.

Andrew Marr:

Something that's coming up quite a lot which relates directly to the student tuition fees is apathy or a decision not to vote, a positive decision not to vote by a lot of young voters in particular and one study suggests half of young voters may not vote at all, are you concerned about that and why do you think it may be happening?

Tony Blair:

I'm concerned but I think it's wholly mistaken of young people. What do they want? They want a job, they want mortgages to be low so that they can buy a house when they're able to do so, if they're unemployed they want to get off benefit and into work and they want to make sure that they've got a chance of decent higher and further education. Now let's look at the choices here, we're offering more jobs in the economy, a million more jobs and low inflation and low mortgages, the Conservative policies aren't properly costed and therefore would run us back into debt financing and higher mortgages. They would scrap the new deal that takes young people off benefit and puts them into work and in relation to universities, as I say, the Conservative proposals, and it's a remarkable thing to me that they've not had more coverage of these proposals but the Conservatives are trying to finance what they say are these tax cuts that they're offering people, they're trying to finance those in part by taking, as I say, one and a quarter billion pounds or a quarter of the entire university budget away. So any young person who's got a student loan now or who's thinking they might go to university wants to think very carefully on that choice

Andrew Marr:

Finally Paul Heron of London, we're in a heartland area in many ways here in Liverpool, do you think the development of the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party is a sign that you're taking your core voter (working-class) he says, for granted?

Tony Blair:

No because the Socialist Alliance which is basically Arthur Scargill's politics, you know if the country wants to go back to that. They can but I don't think that people do and I represent what is, is a supposedly Labour heartland constituency in the north-east of England. People in my constituency want exactly the same as they want in any other part of the country, they want a well-run economy, they want investment in public services and they want a fair chances and a fair deal for everyone. And what they do not want is a return to the choice that we had in the early 1980s between an unreformed Labour Party that frankly, you know, wasn't able to run the economy properly and a Conservative Party that didn't care about social justice. And I think the fact that we have a Labour Party today that is modern, forward-looking, that believes in, in more jobs for people, better public services, but also will work with business and enterprise is something I'm proud of and I will defend that against anyone in any Labour heartland anywhere.

Andrew Marr:

Tony Blair thankyou very much.

Tony Blair:

Thank you.

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