Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-79)



  60. Surely that is why we have elected Members of Parliament—to put their views forward. When there is, for example, a very specific policy like the Public Private Partnership on the Underground, who do you think ought to be responsible for doing the negotiating—ministers from the Department of Transport or ministers from the Treasury?
  (Mr Blair) Because you are dealing with vast amounts of public money it would be very odd if Treasury ministers were not involved, but the actual negotiation is carried out by the ministers of Transport. They have been managing the PPP for the London Underground and I, personally, think that is the best and right way forward. I think the PPP offers the possibility of massive investment for the Underground over a long period of time, where the private sector, at long last, bears some of the risk. Again, I am afraid we will probably disagree on that.

  61. If, in fact, Treasury ministers or Treasury advisers are actually doing the negotiating over the Public Private Partnership, should they be able to come before the Select Committees concerned, or should the Treasury then reply that this is not a matter for them but a matter for Transport, when Transport is not doing the work?
  (Mr Blair) It must be the case, surely, that for ever and a day Treasury has input into big, infrastructure projects, but the people that, in the end, should answer the questions are the Transport Committee and the transport ministers, in my view.

  62. If the Secretary of State says that he wants to see more work done on encouraging people onto public transport, would you think it was a sensible policy decision to get into a situation where motoring is going to become cheaper and public transport is going to become more expensive?
  (Mr Blair) I do not think that, necessarily. People are going to want to use their cars and if they want to use their cars there has to be a balance over how much you tax the car user. It would certainly be an interesting and bold criticism to say that the Government had not raised fuel duty enough, but it is not one I hear a great deal from ordinary members of the public. So there has got to be a balance there. For public transport the best thing is to do the investment programme that we are doing. I think that in relation, as I say, particularly to the Underground, the key thing is to make sure that you tie the private sector into it. The great advantage of the PPP, in my view, is that the private sector bears some of the risk.

  63. Your own Social Exclusion Unit said they thought the balance in the ten-year plan was wrong. Do you think that that, therefore, ought to be reason for a change in the forthcoming examination of the plan?
  (Mr Blair) I think I will let Alistair Darling carry out that examination without pre-judging it. I think the most important thing about the 10-year transport plan is that for the first time we have tried to bring together a comprehensive investment programme over a significant period of time. It is a 180 billion programme, some from the private sector and some from the public sector, and most people, I think, at the time, thought that was the right and good way forward. Inevitably, however, there will be people who come forward and say that there is this aspect or that aspect that is wrong. I do not think we should be worried about that.

  64. No, except that if the Social Exclusion Unit—who, after all, are these "blue skies thinkers" presumably that you want to listen to—come up with a very clear steer that they have looked at the plan and they think the balance is wrong because motoring is going to get cheaper and public transport is going to become more expensive, would you think that was a good reason for listening to them?
  (Mr Blair) We are listening to them, actually. However, they are not blue skies thinkers. What they did was produce a report—

  65. Grey skies thinkers?
  (Mr Blair) They are actually people who produce detailed policy work on a specific problem. The problem that they were handling was this: how do people who are from low-income families travel because they often cannot afford a car? What they were saying was that you have got to make sure that we get the balance right between investment in public transport and roads. I accept that. Some of the things we are trying to do for low-income people is to give them help with travel costs. For example, as part of some of the New Deal programmes people can get help with their travel costs so that they can get to work. Some people, literally, were not able to go and get the job just because they could not afford the travel costs.

  66. If there is an ultimate division—very specific division—with the Social Exclusion Unit or Lord Birt and his advisers going in one direction (ie, lots of roads and not so much in public transport) and the Department of Transport wants to do something boring like improving public transport, who ultimately adjudicates?
  (Mr Blair) The Department of Transport decides the transport policy. Incidentally, it is not right to say there is a choice simply between investing more in roads and investing more in public transport; there is a perfectly sensible case for saying we need to do a bit of both—in fact a lot of both—if you want to put the transport system in the right shape. However, it does not feel like that, or work like that, from where I am sitting. When we have our regular stock-takes with the Department of Transport we will sit down and look at the various problems that there are and how we sort them out. It is done on a perfectly co-operative basis. I do not notice a great problem with it. The challenge, however, as you know—and as the Select Committee itself has pointed out—is huge. There is a huge transport challenge ahead of us, and I really think transport, as much as any other area, is the area where you need people coming forward with all sorts of different ideas. I do not think that is a problem. On some of them you will say "I am afraid we will not do that" and on some you will say "Hang on, there might be something in that". You will be familiar with the RAC report which was published recently. I think to come from a motoring organisation, that was a fairly significant report in terms of some of the tough decisions that it was facing up to. So transport is one area for me where blue skies thinking has never been more appropriate, although a lot of it comes at a pretty big political price, when you analyse it.

  67. They did say we do not pay enough for our motoring, which I find interesting from a foundation for motoring. Do you think that the Government would be prepared to risk a certain amount of immediate criticism to do something about such things in the future?
  (Mr Blair) I think we get a certain amount of that in any event. I think there are three issues, I would say to you, on which I think there is a lot of long—term thinking. I want to give you a thought as to what I think some of the problems are. One is transport, one is pensions, one is housing. I think in all three of these areas it would be better if we were able to have some cross-party consensus that would survive individual governments in dealing with them because they are really tough long - term issues. The political pain for any government dealing with them in my view is enormous, whatever government is in power. I do not have the exact answer or solution to this but I do think they are areas where it is worth in some way trying to establish some broader political consensus.

  68. You are quite secure that Government is clear about where it wants to go and there is no division between your special advisers and the people with responsibility?
  (Mr Blair) Yes, I am absolutely sure about that. These things are discussed regularly, as I say, at our stock-takes. There are problems which I read about occasionally which I do not recognise as problems from the inside.

Dr Gibson

  69. Prime Minister, it would be remiss of me not to say that the announcement yesterday of the money for science and technology was brilliant, it is absolutely welcome by the community and I am sure it is a brilliant decision, particularly in terms of science education setting up that initiative with Wellcome. I want to push you on higher education and I want to lay off tuition fees and top up fees and look deeper at the problems of getting younger people into higher education. I think you have an intention of 50 per cent under 30 by the year 2000. My question would be why just 50 per cent. Why are universities still seen by many people on the working class estates as a "them and us" situation, that they are no-go areas? How are we going to get our young people to see the value of higher education and the horizons it opens up and the understanding of the world? What initiatives are being taken by the universities and the Government to progress social class 3, 4 and 5 into higher education?
  (Mr Blair) Undoubtedly this is the big problem for higher education because if you look at the overall levels, the numbers are rising. If you look at it by social class, for the poorest group of people it has not risen much over the last decade or so. I think there are two things which are necessary. First of all we have to ease the financial passage, and that is one of the things we are looking at now, how we increase help for people to get access to higher education. The second thing is to try and raise the general standard of schooling because one of the things which people often forget is, if you go to a really good school and you get a good education you are far more likely to stay on to the sixth form, and then you are more likely to think about university because you are achieving. I think that the tragedy of a lot of the poorer children is they never get that chance. You will know this from your own constituency. Occasionally I meet young people, sometimes I meet them through the fact that they have joined the Labour Party or whatever, you meet them when they are aged 23 or 24 and they are really clever people and they have never had any proper education at all. Funnily enough it was through action in the political party that they started to think and some of them go to college a bit later but you miss enormous amounts. There is a large squandered talent there. I think improving access is one thing. Improving the schooling is another because then they are more likely to know what they can achieve. I think the third thing is to send out—and we do do this but I think we could do a lot more of it—people from the universities into these schools and say to them "This is what can happen". I remember a short time ago I was in a London school in a difficult area and heard a short speech given by a young black girl who had got to Oxford University and came back to her school and was saying to them "I did it, you can do it". We need a bit of that as well so they do not believe this is something for people of a certain income bracket or class and not for them.

  70. Do you think Vice-Chancellors and universities do enough of that or do you consider they are still elitists? I do not just mean Oxford and Cambridge, I think the whole university system can be criticised for being elitist in terms of the A levels they attract, the league tables, the scores. How do we break that down? How do we get them excited to go out there and want to do it? Do we fund them to do that in terms of a community interaction fund? How do we get them to take that seriously when for them it is high class teaching and research which are the big things which give them kudos?
  (Mr Blair) I think we do it by a mixture of helping with some funding but also pushing them some more too. Those are some of the things we are looking at with the universities as well. Of course they miss out on talent if the children are not there. The more I look at the education system the more I think it starts with what happens in the nursery and schooling. We know already—the evidence is now clear from here and the United States of America and the rest of Europe—nursery education is important in delivering people to their primary schools with a greater capacity to learn. If they leave their primary school and they do not have the requisite results, you spend two or three years in your secondary school catching up, and that is very hard too. So we want to improve the primary schools. Then we have introduced the new literacy and numeracy for 14 years olds to make sure that they catch up there. All the way through if you are catching up you are missing out on large numbers of able people. So you have got to go right back to the beginnings of the education system. It is also one of the reasons why programmes like SureStart are important, because these are programmes which frankly will have no paybacks for the Government in any recognisable political timeframe but they are immensely important in local communities in getting kids from disadvantaged backgrounds into some type of learning environment early on with the support for the parents which is necessary. In the end there are lots of things we can do with the universities and we should do it but my belief is ultimately you have to start with the school system.

  71. If it went from 50 per cent to 80 per cent you would be happy?
  (Mr Blair) I would be happy but I would not like to put that in a target, if I can say that very frankly. If we get to 50 per cent that is great. We should not omit the good news about the British system. I think we have the lowest drop-out rate for graduates in the Western world, so that is good. On science, as you say, we are investing a massive amount in that and the work the Committee has done has been excellent in this regard. I am passionate about science. I am one of these people who is personally ignorant about it but politically passionate about it. I am not a scientist myself, I do not understand very much about science, but I have no doubt at all that it is in the field of science and biotechnology in particular that a huge amount of our future prosperity lies.

  72. We will get you a place in a university for a month or two to catch up.
  (Mr Blair) Maybe not quite yet.

Mr Sheerman

  73. Prime Minister, your remarks to the Labour Party Conference last year caused our Committee a great deal of work because we have been looking—to be helpful—at the cross-departmental inquiry into student finance. We published our report only last week. Central to that is the FE sector, the link at 16, keeping kids in education especially from poorer backgrounds between 16 and 18 and then giving them the push into higher education for a year. One of our recommendations was the EMAs for 16 to 18 and I was delighted to see the Chancellor announced that yesterday but not until 2004, there is that time lag. One of the crucial things is this first year where if they drop out of university, they drop out in the first year, so a higher education maintenance allowance in the first year we recommend very strongly. There is a hole in the policy where the Green Paper on 14 to 19 and the EMA and all that stuff points to further education being crucial, but it is the Cinderella in funding in terms of short term contracts, in terms of salaries. Is it not about time you did something about that because it is crucial to the kinds of successes we need to keep kids in the system and getting the best of their potential out of them?
  (Mr Blair) I agree, it is essential. I think our view has been that we need, though, to look very carefully at how we perform in that sector and make it work more effectively. I suppose there is always going to be a constraint on funding. I agree, I think that is a big challenge for the future.

  74. Will our report free up the log jam we understand that there is between you and the Treasury to get the student finance issue resolved?
  (Mr Blair) There is no log jam at all, but there is a serious question as to how you make the best use of the resources that we have and it is important to get it right, very important to get it right.

  Dr Gibson: Thank you.

Mr Kirkwood

  75. One the biggest changes that I have noticed since I have been chair of the Social Security and then the Work and Pensions Committee over the last six years has been the extent to which the Treasury has been absorbing policy generation, and this is a problem, I think, for us all. This may be something that you would like to reflect on between now and the next time when we meet. I certainly believe now that when you look at the amount of work that is done in Public Service Agreements, the actual generation of policy and the funding of policy that a lot of the departmental work we do is limited because we cannot get to the source of where the ideas are coming from. What I would really like you to think about—and maybe you do not want to say anything about it today—is whether we could get rules of engagement whereby perhaps on cause shown to you in special circumstances some of us in respect of important reports that we are doing might be able to tax the Chancellor directly about his plans because the welfare to work agenda—and I am not saying any of it is wrong—and all the new thinking like pensions credits seem to be derived from the Treasury itself, and that is a huge problem for us as departmental chairs.
  (Mr Blair) I also have been very closely involved in all this work myself.

  76. So it is your fault?
  (Mr Blair) I do not know if it is my fault, but it is our collective achievement in some senses with some of this policy. Again, I would say to you that in the Department of Work and Pensions you will find in what Andrew Smith can tell you everything that you need to know, and the policy, ultimately, is driven from the department. Of course, because it is a big spending commitment and it has got other ramifications, then the Treasury is involved, we are involved, and that is how you would expect it, but the policy on this has been very much driven forward by the department. Maybe there is a slight mythology about how these issues are all determined. Sometimes when I read things it is almost as if either ourselves or the Treasury came along to a department and said, "Right, that's it, we have decided the policy; go away and do it." It is not like that at all, not even remotely like that. There is a discussion between us all but the policy detail is worked out by them.

  77. I would still like you to reflect on that.
  (Mr Blair) I will certainly reflect on it.

  78. Maybe it is a misapprehension in our minds but it is limiting some of our effectiveness as committees. Can I turn very briefly to a headline policy for your Government of tackling child poverty. Is it still the target you set out in 1999 in your Toynbee Hall speech to abolish child poverty by 2020?
  (Mr Blair) Yes it is.

  79. Does that mean that the target for 2004 is still on course, which is to reduce it by a quarter?
  (Mr Blair) It is, yes.


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