Examination of Witness (Questions 80-99)
RT HON MR TONY BLAIR, MP
TUESDAY 16 JULY 2002
80. Is that still the case despite the fact that the recent household below average income figures produced in April 2002 showed that there was only a half a million reduction when people were expecting more of a reduction?
(Mr Blair) Yes, that is absolutely right. First of all, let us not discard the fact that half a million have been taken out of poverty, and that is after many years in which poverty rose significantly. One of the reasons why we are extending tax credits and extending the New Deal and introducing programmes like Sure Start and the Urban Regeneration Programmes is precisely to take more and more children out of poverty. Sure, it is a very demanding target but that is an example of the Government being pretty bold about its aims. Okay, we are not able to achieve everything we would like to have achieved by now, but I think we have still achieved quite a lot.
81. The IFS has said recently that further progress can be made but only if the Government is prepared to commit significant extra resources and can achieve dramatic increases in employment rates for parents. Is there anything in the Comprehensive Spending Review that will satisfy the IFS that you are going to achieve the 2004 target?
(Mr Blair) Yes. It is not just in the Comprehensive Spending Review but in the Budget, for example, the extension of the employment credit is very important, and the uplift in the Working Families' Tax Credit. There is a disabled tax credit as well. This is part of the general change in the tax and benefits system and it is a really radical reform. Let us again take a step back for a moment and reflect. Most of the world has suffered some contraction in growth. Some countries have gone into recession. We have had lower rates of growth in the past year than we have had in the previous years but unemployment has carried on falling. That is for a reasonbecause there has been a genuine reform and change in the labour market.
82. Can I ask you a question about targets. There is a consultation now about how you measure poverty. You will give us an assurance, will you not, that before we arrive at 2004 when some of these other sign-posted targetswhich I agree are very tough and I agree the Government has done much to head towards themthat there is no suggestion that we are going to manipulate the definitions so that the goal posts change before we arrive at these dates?
(Mr Blair) There is no suggestion of that. I do remind you of the fact that there has been a huge debate about how you measure some of these things. It is important to get the right answer, not for reasons of manipulation at all but just to get accurate data. After all, the data that you were mentioning a moment or two ago is data that we released.
83. It makes people very cynical if you start changing the rules.
(Mr Blair) I totally understand that and we would not do that.
84. Just one question on social exclusion. I am sure you will recognise that the Task Force reports into the disturbances that took place in three places last year underlined that social exclusion was very much at the root of those disturbances and it could, in fact, have happened in other places but that the misinformation used in those places by extremists caused what happened. Do you believe as a result of the Co-ordination Unit and everything in the Comprehensive Spending Reviewand obviously we have yet to analyse everything in thatthat the Government has now got the policies in place to ensure that we do not have a repeat of those events that happened a year ago?
(Mr Blair) I hope so and I would like to thank you and other leaders in Burnley and elsewhere for the help that you have given in this. We are working on it very hard. It is a big issue and problem. I think it is very important that we strengthen the cross-community dialogue and inter-faith dialogue as well in those communities. I think it is important that we look at what we can do by way of regeneration in those communities too because there are social issues that underlie some of this. I also think it is very important that all the main political parties, as I am pleased to say they did, come out very strongly against the extremists and the racists who want to exploit these issues.
Chairman: We now move on to international affairs.
85. Prime Minister, the war against terrorism and the possible conflict with Iraq: last year after the outrage of 11 September there was a substantial degree of consensus in public and parliamentary opinion. The approval ratings of government conduct were high also in terms of the possible military intervention of British forces and so on. We are now moving into a further phase of the war against terrorism. How do you think we can keep public and parliamentary opinion on board as we move?
(Mr Blair) By reminding people of what happened on 11 September and by reminding them, too, of the fact that those responsible for it, the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and Osama Bin Laden, were not unknown before 11 September. They were known, they were very active but for all sorts of perfectly obvious reasons there was not a great deal of a concerted nature done to deal with them. We need to keep people eternally vigilant about this.
86. And your own role, Prime Minister? Last September you brought together the four relevant select committees at Downing Street. Would you be prepared to repeat that as we possibly move into a difficult phase with Iraq?
(Mr Blair) Certainly I would be very happy to repeat it. I am not saying anything about any new phases or any of the rest of it but I would be very happy to repeat it at any point in time.
87. In terms of informing public opinion, you will recall that last September there were a number of documents published by the Government setting out the case. Will you consider that again?
(Mr Blair) Do you mean fresh documents on new aspects?
88. Weapons of mass destruction, the nature of the threat and so on.
(Mr Blair) Absolutely. The only reason we have not published some of this documentation before is that you have got to choose your time for doing this otherwise you send something rocketing up the agenda when it is not necessarily there. Certainly if we do move into a new phase, yes, of course, we will publish.
89. In terms of Parliament you will recall that there was quite a lot of anger in Parliament that we were denied a vote on the issue and the device of a debate on the adjournment was used. Are you against having a substantive vote if it were to come to a military conflict in the future?
(Mr Blair) I think we have to decide that at the time really. I cannot honestly believe myself that people were not given the opportunity to express very clearly what they felt on it.
90. Why are you against having a vote where people can say "we are for" or "we are against" this particular military intervention?
(Mr Blair) I think there are all sorts of ways that can be done. We did not feel as a Government that that was necessary at that time.
91. Why not do it directly?
(Mr Blair) You can do but I would not want to commit myself at this stage on what is on any basis a hypothesis about what might or might not happen in the future.
92. Can you at least give this assurance, that Parliament will be consulted before British troops are deployed?
(Mr Blair) Surely. We will keep up detailed consultations with Parliament. I think most people say after 11 September we did. We made frequent statements after 11 September. I came to the House myself I think on 14 September and then I updated that. Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon both made regular statements to the House. We will keep the House very, very closely involved indeed.
93. Turning to Iraq, Prime Minister, you will recall there has been a sea change in US policy from the last administration. President Clinton was for containment of Iraq, President Bush now talks of regime change. Has our policy in the UK evolved in just the same way from one President to another?
(Mr Blair) Strangely, if you actually talk to the Americans what they will say is the Clinton administration also had a policy of regime change but how you pursue that policy is another matter. It is true, certainly, however, that the issue of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction is on the agenda in a different way. I would refer back to what I said in the House, I think, on 14 Septemberthis was literally, as I said, a few days after 11 Septemberwhen I said that these issues of weapons of mass destruction were the coming next issue. I do believe that they are. I think they pose an enormous threat to the world. How we deal with that, however, is an open question. That is why I say constantly to people there are no decisions which have been made in relation to Iraq at all but there is no doubt that Iraq poses a threat in respect of weapons of mass destruction and there is no doubt that this is an issue which should be dealt with. The one thing that we have learned post-11 September is that to take action in respect of a threat that is coming may be more sensible than to wait for the threat to materialise and then to take action.
94. Are we then preparing for possible military action in Iraq?
(Mr Blair) No, there are no decisions which have been taken about military action.
95. Are we to interpret the recent deployment of British troops from Kosovo and Afghanistan as possible preparation?
(Mr Blair) No, people should not read that into it either. That is not to say that it is not important that we look at all the various options that we may have but as I have said to people, I think I said in the House a few months ago, there are no decisions which have been taken about this yet and if the situation changes in any serious or dramatic way we will tell them.
96. Do you agree we should only take action in accordance with international law?
(Mr Blair) Yes, certainly I agree that we should act, as I hope this country always does, in accordance with international law.
97. There are two sets of UN Security Council Resolutions, those after 11 September and those after the Gulf War. So far as 11 September is concerned, is there any evidence linking Saddam Hussein with al-Qaeda?
(Mr Blair) As far as I am aware there is no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the actual attack on 11 September.
98. Or linking al-Qaeda?
(Mr Blair) There are various rough linkages there but the issue is weapons of mass destruction. It is not what happened on 11 September or the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
99. What has changed then in respect of weapons of mass destruction and the Gulf War Security Council Resolutions since the change of US President?
(Mr Blair) I think there are things which have changed there. First of all, it is clear that Saddam Hussein is still trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, there is the whole issue of weapons inspectors where he is still refusing to abide by the UN Resolutions. He is in breach of every single one.