Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)
RT HON MR TONY BLAIR, MP
TUESDAY 16 JULY 2002
20. Could I ask you one question, Prime Minister. Would you support the recommendation of the Procedure Committee that twice a week there should be half an hour for Members of Parliament to ask topical questions, which would in a way take the power away from Government to make statements when they wanted, and would put power back in the hands of Members of Parliament, the House, to ask the questions that they believed were very relevant and very current?
(Mr Blair) Ask it of whom?
21. Of a Minister. That is, after Question Time to have half an hour on a Tuesday and Thursday for what would be described as topical, current questions?
(Mr Blair) Well, I think I will take advice on that one, Sir Nicholas, if you don't mind. I am sure that we probably made a response to you at the time. I do not know though that that would cure it, I have to say. Perhaps I am coming at this from a different perspective. I do not think the issue is just how we change some of the parliamentary procedures. I think the issue is how we communicate with people in a different way about politics, and I think that is an issue for the political parties. On Parliament, as I say, I will look carefully at what you have just put to me there; for Parliament, it is trying to get people to focus on the reporting of what occupies most of parliamentary time, which is detailed, proper scrutiny and if it is not reported anywhere and no one ever hears about it, I think it is hard to get the commitment from Members of Parliament to do their job.
22. Sticking to scrutiny for a minute, pre-legislative scrutiny, are you in favour of it?
(Mr Blair) Yes, I am, yes.
23. Do you agree that a great deal of time and effort could be saved by everyone, Parliament and the Executive, if more Bills could be examined in draft?
(Mr Blair) Yes, I think we have got six at the moment that are being looked at in that way, but I think it is a very, very good idea.
24. And the quality of the legislation would be better?
(Mr Blair) I agree.
25. So why do we not do more of it?
(Mr Blair) I think we are doing more of it from where we were a short time ago. We are certainly looking to do even more of it.
26. Do you remember the last Election?
(Mr Blair) Yes, I think I can reasonably say that I do. It is one of those questions you ask me and I think there must be a trick in it somewhere, but yes, I do.
27. Presumably you had a sneaking feeling that you might win.
(Mr Blair) It was possible, it was always possible, yes.
28. So why was not more done to prepare Bills in draft for the first session of this Parliament?
(Mr Blair) Well, we were actually. If you look at the Bills that are, and I can get you , though you probably know them better than me, a full list of all the Bills that are being done in draft, the Communications Bill for example. I think there are six in total that are being prepared in draft, and I think that is more than there used to be. I actually took part in one of the very first pre-legislative scrutinies which I think was to do with consumer protection and trade descriptions and all the rest of it, and it was an enormously helpful exercise to go and take evidence from people. I understood that we were doing more of it, but perhaps I should give you a commitment that we will be doing even more of it.
29. Yes, perhaps you could. Do you foresee a time when all Bills will be made available in draft?
(Mr Blair) I do not know about that because I think sometimes for speed of legislation and sometimes because of the subject matter, you would not necessarily; but in general terms I am in complete agreement with you, and I think the more we do of it, the better.
30. Given that everybody agrees that is a good thing, what are the obstacles?
(Mr Blair) Well, I do not think there are any particular obstacles and, as I say, my understanding is we are doing more of it, but it is obviously, I guess, the pressure to get legislation through and sometimes if you have got a Bill whose basic point requires very urgent treatment, for example, you had terrorism legislation or whatever, then pre-legislative scrutiny is not necessarily the right course to take, but I think, certainly with anything that throws out real technical questions, it is a very good idea.
31. I certainly understand the point about emergency Bills, like the terrorism one, but we still get enormous Bills which have been years in gestation turning up here as though they have been drafted at the last moment and indeed it is as if some have been drafted as we go along. It is government moving the huge number of clauses at report stage, which is not satisfactory?
(Mr Blair) Well, I have to say it is not unknown in the experience of previous Governments as well. It is important that we try to get, and with some of this legislation the pressure is to get it through, for example with some of what we are doing on the criminal justice side, so I do not doubt it will be very thoroughly debated, but we really want to push the process on and get the changes made.
32. There has of course been a shortage over decades of parliamentary draftsmen. Is that a limitation still?
(Mr Blair) To be fair, in certain respects it has been actually and it is something that we do need to look at. They are under enormous pressure and do a really superb job under enormous pressure, but pre-legislative scrutiny, particularly for Bills which are technical in nature, is a good thing, but I would not want to promise that I could do that in every case.
33. Prime Minister, you talked about disconnection between the public and Parliament and you talked about the role of the media. I wonder if I could just ask you a few questions about the housekeeping, if you like, between your relationship and Downing Street's relationship with the media. You have recently had a Prime Ministerial press conference, some would say, a very presidential form of press conference. Do you think that was effective?
(Mr Blair) It is for others to judge whether it was effective, but sometimes you cannot win on this. If you have a press conference, then you are criticised for being presidential, but if you do not, people will say "you are not being open with us". And one of the things that we are trying to do is to find better ways of communicating, maybe coming before the press every month and saying, "Right, ask me whatever you want".
34. Are you going to come before the press in that style every month? How frequently are they going to be held.
(Mr Blair) We have said every month and I think there is a date set for the end of this July. Again I should say to you though that I talk to the press at press conferences. For example, at every European Summit we have a press conference and whenever I go on any trip abroad I have a press conference. When I am out in the country I am liable to be door-stepped. It is not as if the only time I ever see these guys is once a month, but it was again part of the way of saying, "Well, how do you communicate with people?" It would be interesting to see whether the press conferences carry on being carried live with people watching them and, like this Committee, it is all part of, I guess, what we are all trying to deal with, which is how do we get people to have some feel of what you are actually doing.
35. What about the lobby because you know the lobby is a very different sort of organisation? There can be sustained questioning, rather unlike this Committee, I might add. You have got a small group of people who can pursue a particular issue and some would say that Mittal would not have been exposed if it had not been through the thorough questioning of two or three very able journalists. What is the future of the lobby because it has been said that the lobby is going to be replaced by this new form of press conference?
(Mr Blair) No, it is not that, but it is simply important to open the lobby up, and there is no great mystique about it. I think, and I may be wrong about this, but I think we are the first people to actually put it all, as it were, on the record and the official spokesmenthe two civil servants that do these lobby briefings for meif you have occasion to read the notes they have to be pretty quick on their feet, and it is like 45 minutes of Prime Minister's Questions twice a day.
36. Well, they are on the website and we do read them, and they are going to continue?
(Mr Blair) Absolutely, we have briefings for journalists, but how we change that over time and make it so that it is more open to other journalists as well, that is an issue too.
37. Can I just ask a question which points us into the next section which is on the delivery of public services. I was fascinated to come across an article that you wrote just a couple of months ago, and I could not believe the headline. It said, "I have learnt the limits of government", and when I read it, it said, "After five years in government, I know only too well that passing legislation or making a speech will not solve vandalism on estates, raise standards in secondary schools, look after the elderly at risk. Indeed the state can sometimes become part of the problem." You are a can-do Prime Minister and you are impatient with all these blockages stopping you from doing things. You press the buttons, not much happens, and you pull the levers, not much happens, but nobody listening to the Spending Review yesterday could believe that there were limits to what the state could do. This was a state that can fix things, was it not?
(Mr Blair) Of course, but there are still limits. What I am saying is not that we cannot get things done and deliver things and indeed I would say that we have. If you take primary schools, for example, we have got the best ever primary school results this country has ever had by a large margin. Now, that was only done through delivery. The fact that we have got virtually every Health Service waiting list indicator as moving in a direction better than in 1997 is because of delivery. The fact that we have got 13/4 million people going through the New Deal is because of delivery. Does that mean to say there are no limits to what government can do? Of course there are limits, and the point that I was making in the article was that ultimately, for example in local communities, we can enable, but we cannot do everything. I was at a community the other day up in Teesside where we have given this community a lot of money invested in its local schools, a lot of money invested in its local community partnerships, but the most exciting thing about that local community was that the people, who were very ordinary people, from a working-class background and on a difficult estate, they had taken charge of how that money should be spent and they were doing it. Now, what would make the difference to that estate again is not just government in the end, but them: if government does the wrong thing in relation to that estate, government could get in the way, so I think it is not that I do not believe government can do a lot, and I suppose that is one of the differences between right and left in politics in that the left of politics believes that government can be a benign influence for change in doing things, but there is a limit to what government can do because in the end you require people to take responsibility for their own lives and that is why the political philosophy that you and I both share is about a state that is enabling, not a state that is controlling.
38. Prime Minister, you have said that the campaign to improve public services is what got you up in the morning. But what teachers and doctors and police seem to be saying is that actually Whitehall is getting in the way, that they seem to be intervening too much. For example, Home Office Ministers announced 46 initiatives in the ten months to March of this year. The Education Secretary has issued 4,500 pages of policy guidance in the last twelve months. How are teachers, policemen and doctors supposed to cope with all that and do their jobs?
(Mr Blair) Well, first of all, some of these figures become a bit alarming, but actually are rather misleading as well. For example
39. But they are accurate, are they?
(Mr Blair) They are not actually, in relation to the documents sent out to schools. There is a huge amount of double-counting because some documents are sent out to primary and secondary schools, so they are not different pieces of information. However, having said all that, there is a tension between the centre and the locality, and again let me be very honest with you about the process of change that I think we have undergone here. When we are trying to turn around public services, and I do not want to make a sort of heavy political point, but let me just say this, that when we came in in 1997 there was a serious and fundamental problem with our public services. In education, in health, in transport, there had been gross under-investment over a long period of time, particularly in health and in transport, and the result of that was that there was a service which was just going backwards and backwards and backwards, with for example people saying, "Why haven't you reduced the Health Service waiting lists more as a Labour Government?" We have brought them down 100,000 and people say it should be more. Yes, it should be and we will get there in the end, but it had gone up 400,000 in the few years before we came to office. We had massive cut-backs on critical investment in critical areas. Now, at the beginning, we were driving a lot from the centre. I think as we have put the national standards in place and the national framework in place for accountability, for example, the Health Service's proper system of inspection there for the first time so that we know what is happening in individual hospitals and elsewhere, then I think in a sense you are right, we need to start getting out from the centre, particularly when we have got a successful school, a successful hospital, a successful local authority, so I think yes, there is a balance that needs to be got right here. I think we are adjusting that balance, but I do not agree that the public service reform has not been driven hard by government. I think it has and I think it is paying dividends, but it takes a long time to turn around a failing public service, and they were failing when we came into office.