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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 09:45 GMT 10:45 UK
Malcolm Bruce quizzed

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Malcolm Bruce is chairman of the Parliamentary party for Liberal Democrats. He answered your questions on Wednesday 16 May.

A senior Liberal democrat figure, he has held many portfolios for the party, including the Treasury role. He most recently took on the parliamentary party management job, to try to ensure the message from his colleagues was made clear to voters and the media.

A transcript of the Forum appears below.

News Online Host

Why is the Liberal Democrat Party so obsessed with the idea that increasing direct taxation to increase spending is going to solve Britain's problems? As the BBC pointed out today the extra £8 bn promised by the Liberal Democrats is only an extra 2% on top of £418 billion that the treasury has already forecast for next year's spending? The difference promised by the Liberal Democrats will not be very significant. Labour has managed to increase spending by more than what the Lib Democrats are proposing and have done so without raising income tax.

Malcolm Bruce

No that's a, that's not true on either count, they didn't raise spending by more than we promised, they actually did it by less because of course we would always add to our commitments as economic growth allows. What we're giving is the guarantee that we will fund before we've even considered economic growth and Labour have consistently misrepresented our position on that and of course Labour did increase tax by a significant amount through the backdoor, by banging up fuel taxes, by introducing other stealth taxes. They may have cut the standard rate of income tax but when the Conservatives did that the same thing happened, every other tax went up by even more. Under our proposals we admit that the tax burden will rise, we will still be one of the lowest tax countries in Europe and I think what we're offering is a targeted costed increased in taxation, open and above-board using the fairest system which is income tax based on people's ability to pay. And the response we're getting from that is that the Liberal Democrats are offering an agenda where what you see is what you get and frankly that's a lot different from what Labour and the Conservatives are offering.

News Online Host

Okay we've had another email from someone called Mike, who says "don't you think that the money that you could raise from the proposed penny in the pound rise in income tax could be found from making cuts in the Civil Service and cutting down on bureaucracy in government?

Malcolm Bruce

Well we're certainly in favour of a more efficient use of resources and we certainly do believe that every government should always look at whether or not they can deliver with less people but I think it's frankly delusion to think that you can find the money you need for the extra teachers and doctors simply by efficiency savings. Indeed the Conservative's figures do not add up on that count because all they're cutting is the inflation increase, the number of civil servants overall has actually gone down under Labour as it did under the Conservatives. So we are certainly interested in finding better ways of delivering services and not controlling it so much from the centre as Labour have tried to do but we're not claiming what that will yield because it's a bit uncertain and we're trying to be absolutely clear that if you take what the government is doing and you look at the difference the Liberal Democrats are explaining how we will be different, what the money will cost and where it will come from. And of course we'll try to seek efficiency savings but I think what the Tories are trying to claim those efficiency savings will yield is not only not realistic it's a cop-out because it's not being willing to say truthfully what their programme will cost in terms of either cuts in services or increases in taxes.

News Online Host: Okay well let's stay with services, James Kenyon, how does a mere, a mere £3 billion solve the massive crisis that we have in public services?

Malcolm Bruce

Well it's not a mere £3 billion it's £42 billion across the whole Parliament, across all the, the services but we don't think people are actually terribly interested in discussing telephone numbers. We think they want to know what difference we're going to make, we are not talking about the tax or the amount of money in the abstract, we're talking about 6,000 more police officers, we're talking about thousands of more doctors and nurses, we're talking about more teachers, we're also talking about improving the pay of the lowest paid people in the Health Service which is a very real issue. Now, you know, those are real issues that have been independently assessed, for example the Institute of Fiscal Studies say that they do add up and they will make a substantial difference. We are not claiming that that will solve the problem, what we are saying is that other parties are not even prepared to do that, haven't the slightest chance of coming anywhere near containing or improving the situation and that, we fundamentally, is our unique selling point and it's what many people will turn to the Liberal Democrats to get because they're not getting it from the other parties.

News Online Host:

Now the last couple of days of course we've seen that some disputes between the Conservatives, so it is alleged, about what their plans are, had a message from Nick Mitchell in Leeds, he says "isn't there a tension still in your party between the Liberals and the Social Democrats, does the Liberal Democrat policy of increasing public spending not show that in the end it's the old SDP who are in charge"?

Malcolm Bruce:

No I, actually there's absolutely no tension whatsoever and I may say I come from the Liberal wing, I've been a, I joined the Liberal Party 40 years ago and I think that the essence of our agenda is classical 19th century Liberalism which is about, yes offering value for money and efficiency but recognising that you, you cannot borrow your way through, you have to be open and up front about how you raise the taxes. But we would actually like to see the taxes on the lower-paid cut and that is an aspiration we're certainly committed to trying to deliver. We're also a party, however, that believes very strongly, not only in social justice but in the right of individuals to pursue their own lives without interference from the state which is a good, classic Liberal position. I am utterly comfortable in a party which is the fusion of the best of the old Liberal Party and what the Social Democrat values brought into it and the truth is I don't think you can tell the difference and indeed the majority of the members of our party were never members of either the Liberals or the Social Democrats, they joined the Liberal Democrats and I have absolutely, nobody even asks frankly which wing you came from, we're all one united party and we're absolutely agreed on our policies.

News Online Host

Have you had to produce a Liberal manifesto and go towards, if you like, the, the Liberal part of your heritage because Tony Blair has essentially stolen the mantle of social democracy?

Malcolm Bruce

We haven't had to go anywhere, I mean we have stayed where we always were, what we're watching is the other party flying around all over the place, the Conservatives divided and rather incredible but shooting off to the extreme right. It's true the Labour Party have moved to the centre, the Liberal Democrats have never regarded themselves as a party of left, right or centre, certainly radical, certainly trying to be open and honest. But it is also true that on issues like immigration, asylum seekers, some of the attitudes towards crime and policing, the Jack Straw as a Home Secretary has promoted a very iLiberal [sic] agenda, we haven't had to go anywhere, we've had to stand up and fight for Liberal values and one of the interesting things actually, to answer the previous question is, Charles Kennedy who came from the Social Democrats, I think, has been at his most comfortable and most effective when he's been fighting a classical Liberal agenda. And indeed on the background to the Romsey by-election where the Conservatives tried to play the asylum seeker's race card, he took on William Hague robustly and we won the by-election, one of the safest Conservative seats. I think that demonstrates that the Liberal agenda still commands credibility, this is a tolerant society, it may have intolerant people in it but the majority of people know that if you want to be comfortable in the society you live in you've got to try and live and make do, deal with real problems but not try to manufacture prejudices where they don't need to improve community relations.

News Online Host Right okay, well let's move on to social security, this is from Colin Stangroom, "if the Liberal Democrats win the election what will they do for couples who do not have children and who've lost out in previous budgets"?

Malcolm Bruce

Well I think one of the things we will do is try to, try to set out if you like a fair and costed agenda. You've got people like pensioners, now everybody is going to be a pensioner and we are offering to increase in real terms the pension, to offer care for people, in the elderly, in their old age, personal care which is something that everybody, I think, will feel comfortable with because that actually means that whether you're single, whether you have children or not you can have the reassurance that when you do get to the, to an elderly position and need care that you will get it. Of course there are a whole load of other issues like transport that we wish to improve, we need better public transport, we need - if you like - a more efficient way of getting people about and if we want to discourage car use we've got to provide alternatives. So I think our view is that we do believe in education as fundamental to a good society and that under our policies people who are single will benefit from a better environment, better transport system, better care for the elderly and a more civilised society and indeed better educated children make for better educated citizens and whether you're single or not the people you rub along with, young people and people coming out of education, if they're more tolerant, more giving, more part of the society we all benefit.

News Online Host But Labour took away, or removed the married couple's allowance and they've replaced I with benefits which are targeted¿

Malcolm Bruce

Yes.

News Online Host

Towards families that have small, young children, it's a mean-tested benefit so not everybody gets it¿ Malcolm Bruce: Yes.

News Online Host

I think probably what our questioner was getting at is there a hope that you would restore that tax break for married couples?

Malcolm Bruce

No I think our view is that, that society has changed in any case and whilst we recognise the institution of marriage and the right to bring up children and we think children should be supported we also recognise that people have a free choice as to how they do it and we're not sure that the tax system should try to influence it one way or the other but we do recognise that children require support and mechanisms for delivering that is to the benefit of the whole of society. I would stress however that one of our, our aspirations which is to cut the, the tax on the lower-paid, to abolish the 10p rate and replace it with a 0p rate would benefit every tax payer and certainly those on low incomes whether they're married or not, whether they have children or not. So it is not true that we are trying to, if you like, manipulate the system in favour of families, our investment is in children because children is everybody's future whether they're your children or other people's children

News Online Host

Right okay, let's move on to a particular issue that affects London, the Underground, now Paul Murray from London says that "he understands the Liberal Democrats are proposing a bond scheme", this of course was a feature of your campaign for London Mayor of course, the promotion of the bond scheme to secure the future of the London Underground. How does that compare with the government's proposals for this public-private partnership we've heard so much about in terms of how much capital would be available to actually improve the infrastructure and do you think a bond system, well a bond issue would result in a safer system than we'd have if we just went to private industry?

Malcolm Bruce

In a sense the answer to all those questions is yes, I mean the whole reason for doing this is that we believe that a public transport system like the London Underground has got to be fundamentally under public control and accountability. We also recognise, however, it needs massive investment and the best way to get that investment rather than straightforwardly out of taxation is to raise the money on the private market. As long as you can give a return our view is that money will be forthcoming and the bond system is tried and tested and the reason, indeed, that¿

News Online Host

Where's it been tried?

Malcolm Bruce

Well it's been tried and tested in the United States and the reason indeed that Bob Kiley was brought in was that he had exactly that kind of experience in New York. And I think there's a great misunderstanding in this country, people think that America is the bastion of free enterprise and free market, actually there's a huge amount of public investment that goes on in the United States and the public-private partnership is that the public agency actually delivers the requirements, controls the organisation, what the private sector does is put up the money and gets a reasonable return. This is a good cooperation but what the government are trying to do is effectively give the private sector real control over the management, that compromises safety and also, at the end of the day, probably makes the whole delivery more expensive, it means you don't get as much for your money. We think our system is proven elsewhere, it would work, most Londoners want it, the Mayor wants it, our candidate wanted it, Bob Kiley wants it. In fact virtually everybody but Gordon Brown wants it and Gordon Brown's on a loser on this one in terms of actually justifying his behaviour.

News Online Host

Right now let's move on to¿a pointed question here from Phil Chalk in Walsall, why isn't a vote for your party a wasted vote?

Malcolm Bruce

It isn't a wasted vote for, for a number of reasons, the first is that we actually now have 47 MPs so in 47 constituencies you've actually elected Liberal Democrat MPs. There are many other constituencies where our potential to win is great, we've had a poll that says when we asked people if they thought the Liberal Democrats could win in your constituency how would you vote, we would have won 216 seats. What we're really saying to people, this is a party that is heading for government, we believe that we have a credible and coherent set of policies and people to implement them that, that would be beneficial to this country, we're already sharing in government in Scotland and Wales and demonstrating a positive difference which I think is generally acknowledged. And what we're really saying to people is if you like what you see here and you vote for us you can build us up to the point where we can become the government of this country. It is a process, it may be, at the moment on the current poll ratings that we don't look as though we're going to win this election although in three week's time who knows how things may move, we're fighting every constituency. But it's absolutely clear that first of all in many constituencies we either hold or can win the seat and we need Liberal Democrat votes to deliver that and by building the base vote across the country you're basically giving a clear message that Liberal Democrat policies are increasingly what the country wants. And I believe that when Labour say, for example, they've got a programme for ten years, well I'd like to think in ten years time, the election after next, people might seriously be thinking about the Liberal-Democrat led government. We're serious about t5his and we want people to take us seriously.

News Online Host

Well there we go, an exciting prospect, that's all the time we've got, plenty more questions but from me Sean Curran and from Malcolm Bruce from the Liberal Democrats goodbye for now.

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