Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100-119)



  100. That has not changed?
  (Mr Blair) Yes, that is true, but as more negotiations go on and he fails to comply and you know that he is developing these weapons of mass destruction, then over a period of time you are entitled to draw the conclusion that this threat is growing not diminishing. In addition to that—I think it is very important people realise this—our pilots are in action virtually every day over Iraq. This is not something which has gone dead post the end of the Gulf War, it is still very, very live indeed. The fourth issue is—this is why on 11 September you can say either "this is a one off event, and you should not read anything much into it other than the terrible atrocity which happened" or you can say, as I would, "there are lessons which should be learned from it"—we knew about al-Qaeda for a long period of time. They were committing terrorist acts, they were planning, they were organising, everybody knew. We all knew that Afghanistan was a failed state living on drugs and terror. We did not act and to be truthful about it there is no way we would have got the public consent to have suddenly launched a campaign on Afghanistan but for what happened on 11 September, but we should learn from that. What we should learn from that is that if there is a gathering threat or danger let us deal with it before it materialises rather than afterwards. I say it again, because it is important, in the general flow of stuff which comes out of Washington or here people can get the idea that all the decisions have been taken and so on. They have not been but there is a threat. The threat has changed in the way I have described post-11 September, partly because of 11 September itself. The options are open but we do have to deal with it. How we deal with it, however, is as I say an open question.

  101. Prime Minister, the special relationship with the US is clearly the key part of our security policy and the closeness, the unwillingness to criticise is justified by the fact that we have special influence on the US administration. Can you give to the Committee any example of ways in which that influence has changed or modified US policy?
  (Mr Blair) I never like to approach it in that way because it suggests almost as if you go along as a supplicant to the US and you make a case and if you are lucky you win a verdict on points. It is just not like that. The truth is we are very interlocked in our strategic relationship and we discuss and deal with issues the whole time together. If I can give you issues where we worked closely. I do not put it like "an influence on them". If you come up and say to me "You were a constraining influence on George Bush post-11 September", I was not. He did not need constraining. He acted sensibly by his own lights. The first conversation we ever had was him saying "Look, there is no point in just sending a load of missiles over for effect, we have to deal with this issue in a considered way". Now we worked then very, very closely with them on all the strategic details of that Afghan campaign. To give you another example where we have worked closely; the new NATO-Russia relationship, which is very, very important, is a huge breakthrough because it allows Russia to move closer to the West, puts the whole of that relationship and the tensions within it on a new and better footing. That was something we worked terribly closely with the United States on. Now whether you describe that as having influence, I prefer to look at it as a partnership.

Mr George

  102. I am not going to ask anything on defence, Prime Minister. I am going to ask about the subject of the Defence Committee's next report which is on homeland security, we call it Defence and Security in the UK, which has identified a number of Government Departments locked into silos, a phrase that you have used. The first question I want to ask is the assessment of the threat from terrorism ranges on the one hand from the apocalyptic and that we should do everything and spend enormous amounts to, on the other hand, maybe a growing perception that we should be fairly laid back about this, it is either not going to be a great threat or if it is there is not very much we can do about it. Could you please tell us whether you think the Government's positioning on that spectrum is right and, if it is, what structural changes have we made to meet this changed threat and whether the resources which are being allocated to Central Government, local government, the health service, etc, are right to meet the threat?
  (Mr Blair) That is a very good question. On the spectrum, we will come probably, I hope, somewhere reasonably in the middle of it. The difficulty for the Government is this: if you sit down and get a whole group of people in and say, "Tell us what all the potential threats are, what are the things the terrorists could do?" they will give you a very long list, most of which might make Hollywood scripts but do not necessarily correspond to the reality of what may happen. On the other hand, we know enough from the terrible events of 11 September to know that sometimes what you might have thought was completely unthinkable does happen. You cannot simply say, "The threat has receded, there is nothing to worry about"; that would be wrong. The threat has not receded. Al-Qaeda is still there. The fact is the combination of technology and extremism means that you have to be very vigilant. On the other hand, if you are not careful, you could spend millions or billions of pounds on theoretical threats that never materialise. This may sound a slightly tedious and diplomatic answer to give you, but you have got to take a common sense view. We are trying to take what steps we can to guard against certain eventualities that, if you like, as a result of 11 September you cannot simply dismiss out of hand or say that is a pretty fantastical notion. How are we changing government? There is the Civil Contingencies Group which looks at how our defence against these threats is organised and we are trying to make that work across government and, I think, in a more effective way. A word of real caution here. My experience is that you cannot be very sure where this threat comes from. Part of the difficulty is that you will get intelligence that flows in the whole time. I never really understood this before I came into government. You get a vast amount of intelligence the whole time and picking out the bits that you should really be alarmed about as opposed to the bits you have to just put in the tray marked "too absurd to think about" is very, very hard. So we are doing what we can. We are not being alarmist about it but we are taking protective measures and we have got the Civil Contingencies Group and Secretariat that makes it work across government.

  103. You have been in a few bunkers in your time—the fuel protests, foot and mouth—but the question I want to ask you is, what experience have you gained from operating in that crisis management environment that has led you to make changes to the structures? I know you appointed Sir David Omand as intelligence and security co-ordinator. What made you believe that such a post—and increasing the role of central government—was actually necessary to deal with the potential crisis and indeed potential catastrophe that could envelope us if you got the policy wrong?
  (Mr Blair) Again, that is a good point. The one thing that I have learned is that you have to have very strong central command if you are to deal with a major crisis. I do not just mean foot and mouth or the fuel crisis, but if you are talking about Kosovo or Afghanistan, there is no other way of dealing with it. You have got to have the relevant ministers and people pooled round the table. Two things that I have learned are that, first of all, when you are in a situation like that you have got to put aside the normal bureaucracy and thinking. If you are constrained by that, forget it, you will never get on top of it at all and you have got to be prepared to knock the rules out of the way in order to get the thing done. The second thing is that you have got to have cross-departmental co-operation. If you do not have that it is absolutely fatal to the proper operation of that. That is why David Omand is going to perform that role. He has got a lot of experience, he was a very distinguished Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, and I think he will bring the right focus and intelligence to it.

  104. He has just been appointed and it is now ten months since 11 September. My anxiety and perhaps your anxiety is that departmentalism reigns supreme and it will be very difficult, despite Sir David Omand's appointment and the establishment of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, to get government to think genuinely in a joined-up way and to realise that dealing with terrorism involves the entire spectrum of government—central government, regional government, local government, the private sector, the European Union, the UN, everybody. Are you happy now or would you be prepared to tell us what slight concerns you may have that the structures are actually there, that Sir David will be able to bang a few heads and will be able to bring about a co-ordinated approach? Is he reporting to you or the Cabinet or to whom does he report?
  (Mr Blair) David Omand works with Andrew Turnbull who is the new Cabinet Secretary and he will report to me but to other ministers as necessary. Maybe I can make two points to you. The first is that post-11 September, of course, I actually chaired a lot of meetings of ministers myself. We were going through in detail intelligence reports and so on about what the potential homeland threats were. Secondly, I think one of the great advantages of our system is that we have very good senior working relationships with the people in our intelligence services, and I think that is of assistance as well. But I felt that once the immediate crisis had passed we needed to put this on a more sustainable, formal footing, and that was the reason for Sir David Omand's appointment.

  105. A number of people have put to us—and I do not necessarily accept this argument—that despite the fact that Mr Blunkett is doing a very good job heading all this that what might be needed is an American style director of homeland security who is able to focus exclusively on this single issue. Without in any way wishing to cause problems for a wonderful Home Secretary, is there any credibility in this kind of argument?
  (Mr Blair) Personally I believe not, frankly, because I think that you risk confusing the situation. Well, I looked at it but I did not take long to form the opinion that it was not the right thing to do.

Mr Mullin

  106. Prime Minister, why have you resisted making the security services directly accountable to Parliament?
  (Mr Blair) I suppose for the reason that Prime Ministers before me have too.

  107. What is that then?
  (Mr Blair) I think it is better handled through the Committee that we have that scrutinises the work that they do.

  108. Is it that you do not trust Parliament?
  (Mr Blair) No, it is not that I do not trust Parliament. There is no point in being overly coy about our intelligence services. The work that they do is the work that intelligence services do and I think it requires a very special form of scrutiny otherwise you put at risk the work that they do. I have to say that I think the Committee does a very good job at scrutinising them and then coming forward to me, as I found from our conversation the other day, saying, "There is this, that and the next thing you could be doing better."

  109. They do spend a lot of public money on issues that are close to most people's hearts. You do not think they should be accountable directly to Parliament as they are in many other countries?
  (Mr Blair) I do not because I think the way that they work at the moment is right and I think they need a certain degree of discretion to work in the way they work effectively. The British intelligence services—and again this is something I have only got to know since being Prime Minister—I have a huge regard for them and they are highly regarded and respected throughout the world, correctly, for the work they do. You obviously have different perspectives when you are sitting in my chair, I guess, rather than somebody else's, but I feel that our intelligence services do a very good job, that the system works well for the country, and I am wary of changing it in a way I think might not do such a good job for the country.

  110. The same answer might have been given by a previous Prime Minister in relation to the previous system where they never talked to anybody at all?
  (Mr Blair) True, but I think the intelligence services are qualitatively different.

  111. Jack Straw said the other day that he had an open mind on the issue; you do not, I take it?
  (Mr Blair) I do not want in any way to contradict what Jack said, but I think the present system—put it like this, as I am sure he will have said to you, "there are no plans to change it". That is the way we put it.

Mr Mates

  112. I think the accountability is there in other ways, as you and I know when we talk about these matters. I just said that as an aside but that is accountability to Parliament. There are nine of us, we are all Members of Parliament, and we do know what we need to know and do what we need to do. It could not be done in the way that Chris Mullin's Committee would want to do it. I am sorry to get into controversy. I want to talk to you about Northern Ireland. Since you took on the job you have followed John Major in investing an awful lot of your own personal time and commitment in a difficult problem where there are not many runs to be made, and I think we all admire you for that. You sold the Good Friday Agreement to the people of Northern Ireland with a promise that you would insist on parallel progress in all the things that the government had to do and all the things the paramilitaries had to do. The perception is that that promise has not been carried out, do you regret making it?
  (Mr Blair) I do not. I totally understand the concerns and fears that there are. First of all, let me pay tribute to the work that John Major did before I came to this office. Secondly, I really do believe that the Northern Ireland peace process on the whole has delivered huge things for the people of Northern Ireland. However, I think we have reached the point in time now when people say well four years after the Good Friday Agreement is there still clear evidence that the paramilitary groups, particularly those attached to parties in government, and that effectively means the relationship between the IRA and Sinn Fein, are we satisfied that the process of transition from violence is still taking place or has it stopped? I agree—which is what we are looking at now following the talks we had at Hillsborough a short time ago—we have to look now at how we make it very clear to people that there is not some tolerated level of violence or preparation for violence.

  113. Bertie Ahern, after his last election, when Sinn Fein candidates were elected, said there is no question of them being part of Government until their paramilitary wing has permanently put weapons behind them and the use of force behind them. Now we have had to accommodate them, I understand this, in the Northern Ireland Executive because that was part of the Good Friday Agreement, but does there not come a moment when you have to take a decision about all the paramilitaries, but the Provisional IRA in particular? While it is very welcome that they have closed off two bunkers as far as we know, we do not know the details of this, they are probably old weapons. All the evidence is coming forward that they—not the Real IRA, not the extremists—are busy obtaining new weapons, training for the use of new weapons, testing new weapons and this is something we cannot tolerate behind Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein political party. At some stage somebody has got to say—I think it is more for the British Government to say than the Northern Ireland Executive—"enough is enough and we are not going on until these things change". Do you believe we have reached that moment?
  (Mr Blair) I do accept entirely that we have reached the point where it has to be made clear that these things are not tolerated and not acceptable. We are looking at how we do that. I think we have said that we will come back to people before the end of the parliamentary session and say that very clearly. I think there is a worry in parts of the Unionist community that in a sense what we have said as a Government is "Look, okay, if you are not setting off bombing campaigns and killing police and security people, you can do everything else you want to do". Now that is not the case. The only thing that I would caution is this, that we are in a strange situation here where our belief is that the IRA have never been further away from the resumption of violence, that is our belief. On the other hand, they have to understand that ceasefire is not what it is about in the end. What it is about is a permanent move into democratic and not non-democratic politics. We said back in 1998 that the test of that should become more rigorous, not less, over time and that is why I think you are right in saying this is a moment where we have to reflect on this and plan out the next steps forward. I hope we can do that and do that in a way which is satisfactory. I think it would be a tragic loss if we forfeited all the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland. Sometimes I say this to people when they say "Well, what have we got out of this process?" I say "Well, if you look, for example, at unemployment in Northern Ireland which was by a long way the highest anywhere in the UK, now it is not." There is money, investment, jobs have come in there. In two thirds of Northern Ireland there are no troop movements. Let us hope the situation is maintained. For large numbers of people in Northern Ireland the process has brought huge benefits. The trouble is for some, I mean if you are on the Short Strand or in one of these interface areas then you are asking what has the peace process done for you, and that is understandable. All I would say is we had all that and more before. Now what we have got to do is make sure that the last bits of this are squeezed out of the system. The more I look at these peace processes, whether they are here or anywhere else, I think the one thing perhaps which was difficult though understandable at the time was we tended to give the impression that the Good Friday Agreement was an event after which suddenly everything would change, and it was never going to be like that really. Maybe we should have tried to give a clearer understanding that it was a process, not an event. The truth of the matter is whether in the Middle East or Northern Ireland or any of these areas it is going to take a significant period of time before you squeeze every bit of old sectarian violence out of the system.

  114. As you know better than most it is all about perception. The perception is that the Government is continuing to make concessions whereas nothing is coming back from the other side. Do I take it from what you have said in this stock-taking that you are considering not making any more concessions until you get moves from the paramilitaries?
  (Mr Blair) It is not so much a question of that but I mean in any event, frankly, irrespective of whatever else happens, we have to make it clear that there cannot be procurement of weapons, targeting of people, because that is inconsistent with the very basis upon which this deal is done. We do say that. Maybe I should just say this, that I often get from people in the Unionist community "What has the Agreement delivered for us?" and my answer to that is very simple: first of all it has delivered the Union on the basis of the principle of consent; secondly it has got Sinn Fein and a partitionist assembly and a power-sharing Executive; and thirdly we have a situation where our relations with the Irish Republic are absolutely transformed on the basis of them changing their constitution. I totally understand why people see that when there are debates on policing or the emblems and flags and all these types of things, that they feel their identity is somehow under threat, but really if you look at the big picture of what this Agreement has achieved, and if you went back 10 years and said you would have Sinn Fein and a partitionist assembly and a power-sharing Executive accepting the principle of consent, people would have told you that you were for the funny farm. We have achieved a lot, you are right, but there are some tough decisions now.

Mr Curry

  115. Prime Minister, when negotiators came back from Doha about eight months ago and there was a new World Trade Round in prospect we all thought we had shaken the fiasco of Seattle off our feet and left that behind us, our hopes were high; but those hopes are now very thin and the principal reason those hopes are very thin is the United States Farm Bill, which is a massive injection of production related subsidies into that sector going in precisely the opposite direction the rest of the world seems to want to go. Every protectionist on the planet has now got wings because of it. Do you agree that has been (a) a serious miscalculation and (b) massively irresponsible on behalf of the American administration?
  (Mr Blair) Let me try and choose my words carefully. I think it would be very unfortunate if it pushed the Doha process back. Now countries will take protectionist measures from time to time and you know there has been a big battle between us and the United States over the steel issue. What must not happen is that it changes the basic negotiating positions in the Doha process. Of course the Americans would also point to the Common Agricultural Policy and say the Europeans have got some thinking to do there, and I guess I would agree with both criticisms and say that I hope we can recommit ourselves to substantial change by Doha and make sure, I think by 1 January 2005 which is the date which has been set for the conclusion of this round, and I hope that it is.

  116. The date for the conclusion of the agricultural part of the negotiations, which is crucial to the developing world in particular, is actually March next year. Do you agree that there does seem to be about this American administration a sort of assertive unilateralism perhaps on issues other than to do with terrorism and security? Do you think one of the roles of the rest of the Western partnership is to try and draw the Americans back into re-engagement in the international community? Do you think it is realistic to talk of those targets still being met?
  (Mr Blair) What was interesting was that in the G8 Agreement on Africa we did recommit to that process and actually it was very forward language on the phasing out of agricultural subsidies and so on. As I say, there will be times when countries take particular positions and it is unfortunate that those signals are sent out. On the other hand, I hope and believe that it has not changed the basic US position and it is our job, obviously, to make sure that the US and everyone else keeps to that timetable that we have set out. You are right in respect of agriculture that it is even tougher, although we in Europe have got to do a bit of thinking on that front too.

  117. Today, Prime Minister, there is published a report on the technical aspects of combatting foot and mouth disease. The lessons learned inquiry comes out next week. We have had some radical proposals to reform the CAP, which will be a very difficult negotiation. The Government has decided to finance, subject I assume to the trials being successful, some of the major elements of the Curry Report. However, as far as the rural sector is concerned, the heart of the matter is still that relationship between the pound and the euro. Have you ruled out a referendum on the euro in this Parliament?
  (Mr Blair) Have I ruled it out? No, our position is as I have set it out many, many times, which is that we are in favour in principle but we have got to do the tests and the assessment of the tests by June next year and if the tests are positive we will put it to the people in a referendum.

  118. So you would anticipate that if those tests were successful, having done nothing to really prepare public opinion for the debate—and there have been perceptions (whether you agree with them or not) that yourself and the Chancellor may take a different perception of this—you think that standing from an absolute stone cold standing start you could still win a referendum in this Parliament?
  (Mr Blair) I have always said to people that I think that you will never have any difficulty getting a public debate going on this subject once it gets underway. It is important, however, that the tests are done in a serious and considered way. That is what we are doing. There is no difference at all between myself and the Chancellor on this. These tests have got to be passed but if they are passed we will put it to people in a referendum. I think that people will listen a lot to the economic arguments. There are also lots of political and constitutional arguments, we know that, but we think people will listen seriously to the arguments about jobs, investment and trade and so on. I have no doubt we will hear a lot about this in the coming months, but the position really has not changed and will not change.

  Chairman: I am sure we will be able to give much more priority to European matters in our next session. We now move on to the final phase, the quality of political life.

Jean Corston

  119. Prime Minister, such evidence as there is would suggest that in the league tables of public esteem politicians are right down there with journalists and estate agents, and it is said that this has reinforced voter apathy, low turnout and, indeed, alienation from the political process. To what degree do you accept any responsibility for this state of affairs and how do you think we can communicate the truth, which is that the overwhelming majority of us are committed to the old fashioned concept of public service?
  (Mr Blair) That is a very good point. We touched on it earlier. I think we have got a collective responsibility. I do not think it is just the Government's or the Opposition's; it is Members of Parliament as a whole. I think that it is in part—and I do not want to repeat what I said earlier about how we communicate with people because I think that is an important part of it as well—about how we develop a better policy debate. I am sure I am not just speaking for myself when I say that probably every person round this table came into politics because they were interested in certain ideals, they have certain convictions and they are basically interested in policy, the direction of the country. What I find most frustrating is when you squeeze out the policy debate and you are debating what I have called rather dismissively from time to time "froth", I think you can spend an awful lot of time on those questions, and we need to look at how we get a better and more developed public debate and also to understand one thing which I think is important for ourselves and the media : I believe that the public are in the end more interested in policy. When all of us go out and talk to people and we meet them, what they want to know is what is going to happen in their local community as a result of decisions taken by the Government in Parliament. That is what we have got to get back to—having that debate in a sensible and considered way. It is not unique to our country. It is very important that we realise this otherwise we will talk ourselves into a state of great depression about the state of British politics. This goes on everywhere. I cannot remember what the turn-out figures were for the United States' Presidential election but I think they were are about 50 per cent or something.


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