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Tuesday, 29 May, 2001, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Charles Kennedy quizzed

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Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, answered your questions in an online debate on 29 May.

Issues discussed included how the Liberal Democrats are doing in this election. Their links with Labour, the issue of our voting system and the Liberal Democrats' views on Europe. Charles Kennedy also talked about Liberal Democrat policies on the economy, schools, health and law and order in general.

Charles Kennedy answered a selection of your questions.


Below is a transcript of the interview

Andrew Marr.

I'm joined now by Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats. First question is from Matt Richards in Leeds. He says you've endorsed the comments of Simon Hughes, who tried to make party political capital out of the race riots in Oldham by blaming the Conservatives rather than the racist thugs. What kind of message does this send out to the racist criminals when you say that they are not responsible for these crimes, but William Hague is instead?

Charles Kennedy:

Well, I haven't actually said that, and I don't think that's what Simon was saying, either. We've both gone out of our way to say that these scenes now, what, three nights in a row, and I noticed in fact that last night I think 18 of the 21 arrested happened to be white, that there is no excuse for this kind of activity, whatsoever, condemn it unreservedly. What Simon has said is that politicians have got to weigh their words with care. Indeed, I said much the same earlier in the campaign, because there are always some irresponsible idiots out there who, when they see these kinds of things being discussed in colourful language by senior politicians, must feel a degree of temptation. But I've not described, and neither has Simon, anything of that general criticism of the Conservatives to the specifics of what's been happening, disgracefully, in Oldham.

Andrew Marr:

And what about the BNP, because they've been blamed, haven't they, for actually going into that constituency. Do you think there's something in this?

Charles Kennedy:

I think there might well be and certainly the Prime Minister has got access to better information on this than me. He certainly seems to feel that those kinds of forces may well be at work. They do tend to gravitate towards hot spots over this kind of thing and there should be no place for this either at community level and it should certainly not be a party political issue for the campaign.

Andrew Marr:

But would you accept the general position that it's acceptable for somebody like William Hague to raise the asylum issue without being accused of being a racist?

Charles Kennedy:

Yes, definitely. Because there is a serious and perfectly sensible debate to be had about the fact that, self-evidently, our asylum processes in this country are not working properly. Now that is a worthwhile debate to have. As somebody said in a BBC debate a couple of weeks ago, the issue is not asylum, the issue is the management of asylum policy, which is obviously inefficient, to say the very least. That's what we should talk about. But let's not overlay this kind of discussion with some of the vocabulary that we've seen, not from William Hague, although I think the 'foreign land' speech was to say the least regrettable. They argue that was about Europe, but let's face it, certain other people would interpret it to suit their own rather unfortunate ends. By all means have a sensible debate but let's keep it as un-emotive as possible.

Andrew Marr:

Right. Well, let's move on to another subject, economy and taxation. There are two questions here, if I may. James Kenyon asks how much money would be raised both from the penny on the basic rate and the up-rating to 50% for those earning over 100,000, and what guarantees have we got that it will be enough to make the improvements that you claim? And then Phil Ridley from Winchester also makes the point that top earners are the most mobile of our workforce and proportionately add a great deal to the economy. Will a 50% tax band not cause top managers to defect to the US, etc, where the income is also higher?

Charles Kennedy:

Well, first of all, the penny in income tax raises about 3 billion, 3.1 billion in today's prices. The top rate of income tax, for every pound above 100,000, that takes in about 3.9, 4.1 billion. So, 3 billion, 4 billion, essentially speaking. Is that going to be enough? The answer is no. And we're not pretending it's going to be enough. It is still quite a marginal overall increase in tax, because politics is the art of the possible. Now it will help and year upon year into a parliament, if you are putting those additional sums in, this is above what Labour is pledging, it would be bound to result in tangible improvements. But all these issues, whether it's the health service, education, crime, they are demand-led and demand is potentially infinite. So, I think we can make a difference, but I'm not saying we can solve all the problems.

Andrew Marr:

People would ask then, would tax go up eventually again under a Liberal Democrat influenced government?

Charles Kennedy:

Well, that's certainly what we're proposing. But that really comes to the second question about the impact this would have to the top rate earners. If you look at both tax proposals, the one pence increase on the basic rate, people need to keep this in perspective. All that it does is take the basic rate of income tax back to where it was the day that John Major stopped being Prime Minister. Because Gordon Brown implemented a one pence cut in the interim period, this last parliament. So, nobody considered it draconian then, and it's therefore not draconian now. The 50 pence top rate is nothing like what led to the brain drain from this country under the punitive top tax rates of days gone by, the Labour governments of the 60s and 70s. And, again, it's a lesser take from the top rate earners than was the case under most of the time. I think it was eight out of ten years that Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. And I didn't remember the top rate income tax payers saying that she was squeezing them until the pips squeaked.

Andrew Marr:

Right. Moving on to education, Steven Gordon from Glasgow asks; if tuition fees are abolished under a Lib Dem administration will English and Welsh students be subjected to the same graduate tax that we Scottish students will pay when we begin work?

Charles Kennedy:

Well, I take issue with him calling it a graduate tax. What we've set up is an endowment so that at the end of your three or four-year course at a Scottish university, you can pay 2,000 to clear that element of your debt, or you can add it to your student loan and pay it off in the normal way. But the money that raises, matched by 50 million of new money in Scotland, enables you to give more support to the poorest potential students, because all the evidence shows that where the money is needed is at the point at which the student is likely to go to the tertiary sector. And it's not so much a problem later on when they've actually got their degree, they've got a better prospect of a job and a degree of repayment is necessary. So we would go for a similar scheme in England. One of the things we are proposing at this election is that the cut-in for repayment in Scotland at the moment is 10,000. On a UK basis, we've argued that should go up to 13,000 and Jim Wallace, who's our deputy First Minister in Scotland, has acknowledged that the Scots would come into line with that policy.

Andrew Marr:

Right, speaking of Scotland, then Ian Moore from London has a question on devolution. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all had referendums for assemblies of parliament. Why is the Liberal party, as he calls it, not offering the English people the same opportunity to debate if they want their own parliament? Why is it we are only being offered the piecemeal break-up of our country? Big point there for a lot of English people, why not an English parliament, why regional assemblies?

Charles Kennedy:

Well I think regional assemblies are better because the whole point of devolution, and it's easier to achieve this population wise in Wales or Scotland, or for that matter with the mayor of London, is to try and have something that geographically is more focussed and more relevant to the communities it's serving. Now England's a big place, to say the least, even if you take London out of the equation, it's still a big place. And somebody in Newcastle, I suspect, well, where's their nearest capital city, it's in Edinburgh. Somebody in Bristol, their nearest capital city is in Cardiff. They probably feel as alienated from London as the Welsh and the Scots have in days gone by. So that's why we would prefer to go down the regional route for England.

Andrew Marr:

But is there not a legitimate English national feeling that is being submerged under the arrangements that are developed?

Charles Kennedy:

Well what the next House of Commons has got to do is start addressing this with a degree of seriousness. I think some parts of England have a more developed sense of regionalism, the north-east is one, the north-west is another, south-west is another. Other parts like the Midlands not to the same extent. So what I think needs to happen in terms of the handling of political and parliamentary business for England is something more akin perhaps to an English grand committee of English-only, or MPs representing English constituencies.

Andrew Marr:

What about English votes for English laws, would you be against that?

Charles Kennedy:

I wouldn't necessarily rule that out at all. I don't have a burning ambition to turn up, you know, in the division lobbies at 10 o'clock at night to vote on school provision in Dorset for example. I think that's better done by the MPs representing English constituencies. But I think the two might need to go hand in hand.

Andrew Marr:

Yes, because you could have a problem I suppose if one party was in power, as it were, at UK level, but not in England.

Charles Kennedy:

Yes, and I think that would be very healthy. I'm not an 'Apocalypse Now' person when it comes to all of this. I think let's just take the fairly limited example, given the political and financial power he's got, the Mayor of London. Now he's hardly the person that Blair wanted to be working with, but they've had to bend to the clearly expressed will of Londoners. They've had to bend on big issues like the Tube, and they've had to work with the grain round about them. That's a lot better than what went on in days gone by when, to hell with what people thought at different levels, we just impose and steam ahead regardless.

Andrew Marr:

Right. On the election campaign generally, Jeremy Langton from London asks, on 9th of May you were pontificating, he says, about how the Liberal Democrats would not get involved in a Tory-Labour slanging match. On the 10th of May you were attacking Labour's pledge card and the Tory's tax plans. Explain yourself, he says.

Charles Kennedy:

Well, I think there's a difference between getting involved in a purely negative slanging match. And I think we saw it particularly over tax and national insurance. Quite frankly those two were banding about figures that most people's eyes would glaze over. I just think it passed the electorate by. We stayed out of that. But I think when you do have relevant disagreements or distinctions, by all means go and argue your case robustly. But that's very different from getting personalised about other people and you would certainly won't get that from me. However much I might disagree with some of them, or vice versa.

Andrew Marr:

Right, and now on to, inevitably, European policy. It's been dogging the campaign the last few days. Andrew Cryer from Bolton asks, recent European players have said there needs to be tax and social policy harmonisation for the Euro. And of course we had Mr Jospin most recently. As it's the Liberal Democrat policy to join the Euro, how can they make any claims to do with social or economic policy if they will be taken at an undemocratic European level?

Charles Kennedy:

Well, Mr Jospin is perfectly entitled to his own opinions. They are not the opinions of the British government, they're certainly not the opinion of the British Liberal Democrats and I think that that speech has got to be seen against the backdrop of his likely presidential challenge against President Chirac. Equally the French are not arguing the same case as Chancellor Schroeder of Germany so this is by no means some kind of a continental

Andrew Marr:

A closed argument

Charles Kennedy:

A stitch-up, you know, at our expense. We are all allowed to express our views. The simple fact is that you do want a level playing field in terms of tax, so there isn't unfair competition across Europe. And if you look at for example the way a country like Ireland has been able to play the system, and I say that not in a pejorative sense, but play the system to maximum advantage and sometimes to our disadvantage. Good luck to them. But you need to be engaged to do that. There is no question, we want to retain a national veto on tax and two elements of tax which are UK-decided, which is corporation tax and income tax. Customs and excise and VAT, that's the European arm of the matter.

Andrew Marr:

Right, moving on, probably finally now, to, back to the relations with the Labour party, tactical voting and all of that. Dave Pegg from Beverly wants to know isn't a vote for you just a vote for New Labour? As an opposition party why did you spend more time attacking the Tories? And, Christian de Feo from Antwerp, who is a UK citizen, says that Lord Owen, you may remember...

Charles Kennedy:

I do indeed.

Andrew Marr:

...the former leader of the SDP, once said that if the Labour party moved to the right, the SDP would die. Given that Labour has moved more towards the centre, at least in rhetoric, what's the point of having a Liberal Democrat party at all?

Charles Kennedy:

OK, two quick points I think here. First of all, if you return Labour MPs, and let's be honest, it's looking at the moment that Labour are the likely winners of this general election. It think there's a broad consensus emerging round that one elect yet another landslide Labour majority in the next House of Commons. What's the point? I mean, you need an opposition that's going to be arguing against or arguing beyond the ambitions of a Labour government.

Andrew Marr:

Can you be that opposition?

Charles Kennedy:

Well I think we can because the way the Conservatives are conducting themselves and what we've seen yet, I think, is as nothing to what's likely to happen after June the 7th. The sound of cameras being set up and scaffolds being erected, I mean is almost audible, round about London SW1 at the moment. They're going to take themselves off the field of battle, they're going to have a great leadership row, all sorts of blame will be apportioned if they lose this election. But there will be no coherent opposition to a second term Tony Blair government. And I think that's where we come in.

Andrew Marr:

So you can give a serious opposition?

Charles Kennedy:

Well, I think we can be the more serious opposition. Whether numerically of course we can be the larger opposition is totally in the lap of the gods. But I do think British politics needs a coherent opposition. We're not liable to get it from the Conservatives. We've got to try and present ourselves in that way for the remainder of the campaign.

Andrew Marr:

Charles Kennedy thank you very much.

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