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Journey of a Lifetime
Transcript: Any Questions? 29 September 2006
PRESENTER: Nick Clarke

Jo Swinson
Beverley Hughes
Will Self

FROM: Altrincham Grammar School, Altrincham

Welcome to Altrincham in Cheshire on the leafy southern edges of Manchester. We're the guests of Altrincham Grammar School for Girls, a foundation school with a special emphasis on languages whose Ofsted reports positively glisten with superlatives.

Our panel: Beverley Hughes is the minister for children and young people and families and she knows this area well. Originally as a council leader in nearby Trafford and now as MP for Stretford and Urmston. Her ministerial career was interrupted after a bit of bother over an Eastern European visa fraud scandal, she stepped down as immigration minister, insisting that she had never intentionally misled anyone and didn't have to wait long to be taken back into the fold.

Alan Duncan is shadow trade and industry secretary and a keen Cameron moderniser. At the start of the party's leadership campaign last year he warned the Conservatives faced historical oblivion if they failed to reflect modern Britain. As a one time oil trader he recently pointed up the lack of business experience amongst ministers in the department he shadows but he has a more particular down on Gordon Brown, for turning his old friend Prudence - remember her - that's fiscal prudence - into a slag.

Jo Swinson was the youngest MP elected in 2005 and already speaks for the Liberal Democrats on Scotland and is a member of her party's gender balance taskforce. She was the first MPs to use podcasting as a way of communicating with her constituents in Dumbartonshire. She's currently trying to get a TV licence dispensation for women's refugees - each room needs one at present while the House of Commons makes do with two licences for 1,515 sets. Not particularly relevant to anything, it just amused me.

Finally Will Self, writer and columnist, whose latest publication The Book of Dave looks at the world through the eyes of a taxi driver. Interesting for a man wedded to cycling and long distance walking, who claims to be an essentially solitary person. Will Self - you're never alone in a taxi. Ladies and gentlemen, our panel. [CLAPPING]

And our first question please.

Ifta Harohon [phon.]. Should Tony Blair go by December so that we can have a Brown Christmas?

CLARKE Beverley Hughes.

HUGHES The short answer is no. We had a really successful conference this week in which as a result of the way in which people behaved, looking at policies not at personalities, thinking about some of the big issues and some fantastic speeches, including one from Tony Blair, I feel very strongly that the delegates at that conference and the wider membership really endorsed Tony's view that he should go in his own time and he's given a clear indication of the kind of timescale that will be. And I think that's very important because I think one of the biggest things that upset the Labour Party membership over events of recent weeks was the fact that some of that activity seemed to prejudge what actually the membership will decide when they take the decision through our process to decide on who the leader should be. And I think it's very important now that we've got a period of calm where people who are interested in putting themselves forward as leader can show by their actions and words what kind of leader they would make and it gives the membership time to reflect on that. I think our main job as MPs during these coming months is to listen to our members, to take cognisants of what they're saying about what they want that process to be, whether they want to endorse Gordon, whether they want a contest and we should be trying to make sure that what they think should happen is what happens and let the decision clearly be there - because it is their decision, it's not the journalists decision, it's not the newspapers decision, it's our members decision and that's what ...

CLARKE But as an MP - sorry as an MP do you want a contest yourself?

HUGHES As I say I don't want to contribute at this stage ...

CLARKE Okay, no that's fine, if you're not going to that's fine, we'll move on.

HUGHES I want to take the views of my members and they're quite angry at the moment and I think that over the next months, as I say, we should take the views of the members as to the way they want things to go.

CLARKE Thank you. Alan Duncan.

DUNCAN Well as Beverley says her members are very angry at the moment and there are deep ructions within the Labour Party. Unlike an American presidency we don't have fixed terms, where it's every four years and that's it. In a parliamentary system these things can happen in the middle of a parliament and when a leader falls out with his own party then off he can go - off she can go, it can happen. And December is an arbitrary date, what's going to happen is that the continuing conflict and struggle between the membership and the feeling of the Labour Party will be pitted against Tony Blair's wish to stay probably until next July. Even if he were to go would it be a Brown Christmas? Well it might be someone else's, it might be a different name. And I think that there are other contenders and I just sense that actually Tony Blair would like to stay along - stay on as long as he can to make sure that it's somebody else. And one thing we can see is that there are deep ructions in the Labour Party and the trouble is this is paralysing government. This is not good that it should linger, linger, linger but when you look at it one has to admit, even as an opponent, that Tony Blair is actually quite a phenomenon - he really has got communication skills - and I simply don't see anyone else in the Labour Parry who can match him. So we'll see what's going to happen. In the meantime, I hope that my own party is simply going to prepare for what we hope will be government in a few years time so that by the time the next General Election comes people will say not just that we're going to win but that we deserve to win.

CLARKE Thank you. Jo Swinson.

SWINSON Well [CLAPPING] should Tony Blair go by December? Well I think personally he should go as soon as possible, in fact perhaps he should have gone quite a long time ago. He's certainly for a long time been a electoral liability for his own party, as my experiences in the General Election last year showed. But I actually think this goes wider than just the impact that he has on the Labour Party. I also think that Tony Blair has had a huge impact on the country and particularly I think he in many ways epitomises the lack of trust people now have in politics. I remember in 2003 when a million people matched in London and across the UK there were protest matches against the war in Iraq but just were not listened to. And it's very damaging for our democracy when people actually take part and get involved and then it is ignored. And what that means, frankly, is that people don't trust Tony Blair, that's not just bad for the Labour Party, it means people transfer that to not trusting politics and politicians at all, they disengage, they turn off, they're less likely to vote and if that happens then we've all got a problem with democracy. So yes he should go. [CLAPPING]

CLARKE Will Self.

SELF Well I think of Gordon Brown, somewhat bizarrely, as the kind of Anthony Eden de nos jours, I mean he's been lingering around for a very, very long time now, waiting to take up the premiership. And somewhat in contrast to what Beverley said, as I understand it, the decision on the succession to Tony Blair was made some years ago in a trendy restaurant in Islington, as far as the upper reaches of the Labour Party are concerned. My feeling is that when Gordon finally gets the chalice he'll find it very, very heavily poisoned because I think we're all aware that if he were a politician of genuine conviction - and I don't know if I can say this on Radio 4 - balls - he would have arrested the chalice a long, long time ago. So I think he's a busted flush, whether or not we get a Brown Christmas. As to whether Tony Blair should go - I don't know I find myself in an invidious position, I wrote my first piece attacking Tony Blair very shortly after he became leader of the Labour Party, I've never had any stomach for him at all, I view him as the kind of air guitarist of political rhetoric. [CLAPPING] I don't think he's debased political debate because he lies, I actually sadly think he believes a lot of what he says, that's what's so depressing about it, for people who stand outside of politics. So my rather bizarre viewpoint - should he go? - it feels like he left a long time ago, leaving this bizarre Tony Blair shaped hole that carries on talking. [CLAPPING]

HUGHES I'll just make a comment because I understand the temptation to make those kinds of cynical remarks and personal attacks on people's characters but actually it does us all a great disservice because it denigrates politics, it makes it an activity that no decent person will want to enter and that will be very damaging for our democracy. We should be arguing about the issues, not people's characteristics which may or may, Will, not be true.

SELF Well what has denigrated politics during two Labour terms is a failure to introduce a written constitution to this country, it's a failure to deal with issues that a voting system that is historically rigged in favour of the main parties, it's issues like that - it's a failure - it's a lot of harum scarum schemes to increase public spending and boost the pockets of the rich at the same time, it's all of these things. And in particular it's what Jo picked up on which is a colossal lack of moral courage in foreign affairs, that's what's denigrated politics [CLAPPING]...

CLARKE We'll have another question please.

Sandy Shaw. Does the panel think leaving one's date of birth off a job application will end age discrimination?

CLARKE Thank you. New rules are upon us to outlaw the idea of anyone being banned from a job because of their age, people can go on working certainly up until 65 and maybe longer still. Beverley Hughes what do you think about this one?

HUGHES It's not just a question of leaving the date of birth off the job application but there is a real issue of age discrimination in this country, it's probably the most serious form of discrimination in the workplace that there is at the moment and that's bad for individuals. It's also actually bad for business and we've got population changes coming along that have serious implications for us economically. In 15 years time about a third of people working will be over 50. A hundred years ago there were 14 workers for every retired person, today it's four, by 2050 there'll only be two workers for every retired person. So we've got some huge shifts that have enormous economic implications for us. So both of those reasons - discrimination against individuals - that shouldn't be happening, we should be employing people on the basis of what they can offer, whether they can do their job and who's the best person, not their age. And we shouldn't be discriminating against people either because they're too old or because they're too young. So what these regulations will do will encourage change of attitude, change of culture in the workplace, change of employment practices, so we don't get that discrimination and also through the changes to the retirement age it won't be possible to have a compulsory retirement age below 65 and it will be possible for employees to have the right to ask to stay on after 65 and to negotiate that with the employer. This will address also some of the real economic challenges that we face over the next few decades.

CLARKE Okay, Will Self.

SELF That all sounds good to me, I mean I'm a sort of gerontophile myself and I think that older people have an enormous amount to offer our society. But rather the way Beverley puts it, it's all work and no play and I sort of think it sounds like we're all just going to have to work forever, quite hard, and I'm not really very keen on that. I think the sort of - I'm not keen on it at all in fact, I mean if it sort of went - if it went hand in hand with a better set of attitudes and legislation to encourage people in the work/life balance when they were younger then it's all well and good that we're all going to have to work when we're older but as it stands it looks a bit grim doesn't it. I was rather - I was rather looking forward to my sort of Saga holidays actually.

CLARKE Your publisher's not going to retire you Will Self is he?

SELF I don't imagine so, I mean some writers have great late flowerings. I mean it's funny isn't it we do live - it's interesting hearing that because conspicuously we still do live in a society that overvalues the idea of the young and says that - we've had this very tremendously young prime minister, or at least he did look young to begin with.

CLARKE Jo Swinson, from the other end of the - well no an end - one end of the spectrum, I certainly withdraw that remark, sorry about that.

SWINSON Well in the House of Commons at least you can think you can almost feel like you stay perpetually young in there. Will leaving your date of birth off an application form end age discrimination, well no on its own of course not. And let's remember that it was 30 years ago that the equal pay act was introduced and yet there's still an 18% gender pay gap. So it's not going to solve the problem overnight but I hope what it can start to do is be the start of a change in culture that says it's not acceptable to judge people solely on their date of birth and rather on their merits and whether they're able to do the job. And as someone who is - has been a young candidate and now a young MP I certainly think that's a good idea, because all too often people do use age as a way of judging you without actually considering whether you're qualified. But I think the government's position on this is not actually as strong as it could be because while they're saying they don't want to have age discrimination, they're still defending the fact that with the minimum wage, for example, 16 and 17 year olds only get £3.30 per hour, 18-21 year olds get £4.45 and then if you're over 21 you get £5.35 for doing what could well be the same job, you could actually have somebody at a younger age who is experienced and qualified and somebody that is five or six years older than them starting the job and still learning the ropes getting paid much more. That's a form of age discrimination, if the government's serious about this then it has to tackle that as well.

CLARKE Thank you. Alan Duncan.

DUNCAN [CLAPPING] Well it's a funny old world, I mean you've got British Airways saying that they'll only top up their pension fund if the retirement age in the company goes up to 65 and then we've got legislation coming in saying that - and the trade unions support and incidentally so do we - which says you cannot discriminate against people for wanting to work longer. So you've got a lot of conflicting influences and views here in what is very complicated territory. Can you, for instance, now advertise a job saying 10 years experience preferred or will an employer face some kind of rebuke if that's what he chooses to do? So it takes you into very awkward territory about experience and judging an individual about whether they have the experience to do the job or have the capacity to continue doing it for longer. I actually hope this does work and that it does remove discrimination where it does exist but I tell you what's bugging me - I think that over the last few years, and particularly under this government, we've become very bad at making law. We no longer scrutinise it, it doesn't go properly through committees, it's rammed through on a timetable. This government has legislated for gestures rather than for justice. It'll do things like you know we want to make sure that outward bound courses are safe and it's now very difficult for teachers to take people outward bound because there are so many risk assessments and things. You know we are ending up with legislation which is well intentioned having very, very perverse consequences. And my concern is that that might happen to this legislation. But at the moment we're for it, we give it the benefit of the doubt but I predict here that it is going to face some very, very difficult tests in court because it's going to bed down into something that genuinely achieves what it's setting out to achieve. [CLAPPING]

CLARKE You may want to join in that discussion after the Saturday edition of the programme, please do ring Any Answers on 08700 100 444, 08700 100 444 or you can e-mail us at Let's have our next question.

BOJINSKY Adam Bojinsky [phon.]. Having allowed a large number of economic migrants from Poland into the UK couldn't not allowing those from Bulgaria be seen as a case of all EU states being equal but some being more equal than others?

CLARKE Thank you. A decision will be taken shortly about whether workers from Bulgaria and Romania will enjoy the same sort of full employment rights that those from Poland and elsewhere had a couple of years ago. Jo Swinson, what do you think about this?

SWINSON Well I think that the workers that we've had coming over here from Poland, from my discussions with employers in many of the industries that have been finding it actually difficult to fill positions, whether that's in catering or tourism or so on, they've actually welcomes with open arms many of the Polish immigrants who have a strong work ethic and have in fact been keeping many of these industries going. But what I would say is that the government's initial estimates obviously as it turned out proved to be hideously out and of course part of the reason for that has been that Britain has allowed full work rights for immigrants from Poland but other EU countries have not. And I think what we have to do is deal with this on an EU level. When Romania and Bulgaria accede into the EU next year we need to have agreed timescales for the phasing in of the rights with the other large economies in the EU, such as Spain, Italy and Germany and so on and I think they can be a great asset to the economy and hope they will be but we need to do it on an EU level.

CLARKE Is that a very liberal point of view, after all the liberality of the way that Britain responded to Poles and Hungarians and others was admired in Poland and Hungary, elsewhere may be not, but you're saying this liberal view should now be axed is that right?

SWINSON No I think we should welcome these people but I think it's just sensible to say that it makes sense for the other countries in the EU to do the same thing. And in fact we should perhaps be a liberalising influence on them.

CLARKE Will Self.

SELF Yeah I mean there's two countervailing pressures here aren't there. I mean on the one hand we want to have a vibrant economy with the kind of wage differentials that allow for growth and for that we depend on this kind of influx of essentially cheap labour and we've also, let's - follows on from the last question - we've got an ageing population, maybe we need this influx of workers. But on the other hand we don't want to - we want - it is really a case of some nations are more equal than others. I mean if you follow a true libertarian economic doctrine - and I hope that Alan Duncan will follow through on what he says on this - of course there should be a complete global unrestricted flow of labour, there is no argument against it whatsoever, if you argue for an unrestricted flow of goods and services across national boundaries then the same principles should apply to labour. And we should obviously fling our doors wide. But I think actually Jo has put her finger on it, it's a question of how robust the institutions of the EU are and to what extent this is part of a process towards a federal Europe and we're looking to, as it were, level the playing field for all member states and to what extent this is just a short term quick fix attitude towards problems within our own economy. And we have to make a decision about that, it's vital what our attitude is towards greater Europe.

CLARKE Alan Duncan.

DUNCAN I think this is a brilliant question because it goes to the heart of the future of how the European Union will work. It's a very, very important issue with profound consequences. I can't think of a single incident reported in the press or whatever in which for instance Polish workers who have come here have caused any great social difficulties or legal difficulty. I think they've been a great bonus to Britain over the last few years, in catering and construction, and the many, many other areas. I think it's done them enormous credit and it's done great good for us. If the economy turns it may be different, they may well go back home but we'll see. But what's of fascinating and important significance here is that the argument about the European Union, as Will in many ways has implied, is that there's uniformity of rules all the way across it. You know I always think we're the good guys, I think we apply the rules fairly and a lot of the other members of the European Union don't. I think that we over apply European Directives, for instance. But here what we are seeing for the first time is other members of the European Union, rather than us, saying that actually if Bulgaria and Romania are to join then they've got to follow different rules. Now that means that the nature of the European Union in the future could end up being very, very different - it could be varied, it could be flexible - and it opens up potentially lots of other arguments about saying well I'm not sure things are fairly done, something different suits us and therefore you put an end to the uniformity. Now at the moment I think there are some arguments for just holding back on what might happen if Romania and Bulgaria were to join but there needs to be serious debate - and actually I have to say I don't think that Jo can have it both ways, which I think she just did. She said you know we're the great Europeans, we believe in total uniformity but by the way Bulgaria and Romania ought to have it different. So actually what you just said Jo did not add up. Come back if you wish.

SWINSON Well yeah what I would like to say is of course we need to get to that situation but you have to accept I think that we're in also a period of transition and when this - the countries accede to the EU then because it's all happening at once that can actually put quite a lot of pressure on the labour markets in different countries and so on and so forth. So to do so on a phased basis and particularly doing so in step with other EU countries over a period of years. But I don't think that there should be forever different rules for Bulgaria and Romania, that certainly wouldn't be a tenable position.

DUNCAN Well we'll see what happens as a result but I sense this is opening up a whole new area of argument for the way in which the European Union will work in the future.

CLARKE Thank you. Now Beverley Hughes this was of course the area of interim arrangements for Bulgaria and Romania that got you into a bit of bother a couple of years ago, what do you think about now?

HUGHES It wasn't quite this issue but it was one aspect of it, yes, yeah sure.

CLARKE Very cheeky of me, I apologise.

HUGHES I think this is - well I think this is a very good example, not just of big questions about the way the EU will go but a good example of one of the big challenges that the changes throughout the world are facing us with and this was the issue - one of the issues we were talking about at conference about how you need to approach these issues with a kind of balance between the need for openness and recognising that we are increasingly one quite small world but also recognising the issues about security and people's fears of security that you've got to address. I think Jo's suggestion that every EU country should have to do the same thing is really nonsense. We cannot and will not relinquish our own national right to make the decisions at any point in time that need to be made in relation to our economy. That's what happened with the accession countries in 2004, different countries made different decisions about the right to come and work. Countries like Germany decided to put on quite rigid quotas and actually that hasn't necessarily been totally successful because they've seen people come into Germany because of course everybody has the freedom to enter a country, it's the freedom of work that you can restrict, so people have come into Germany and worked illegally in some of those countries that put on quotas. So there's no easy route here. But we'll - going to make an assessment based on where we are now, two years on from the accession of the other eight countries, and I think that we'll probably need to take a phased approach this time to Bulgaria and Romania because that is where we are now, two years on, after the accession of the other countries. But I would like to say just a couple of other big points, yeah. I think it's absolutely right that we recognise the contribution that these and other workers have made to our economy, there are some sectors where we couldn't do without them. They are very hard working people, very aspirant, they want to work and not to be supported here. And secondly, I mean in terms of the EU, there's a reciprocity here, which is what the EU and the agreements are all about. We have many of our people now already going to Bulgaria and Romania, buying property, when they accede our members will be able to go and work there, many people are already setting up businesses in those countries. And if we want those benefits from other countries in the EU then obviously we've got to reciprocate and that's part of the deal.

CLARKE You make this sound very logical but surely the truth is that if the numbers of Poles, for instance, had been nearer the estimated 10, 13, 15, 000 a year than the 400,000-600,000 who actually came this wouldn't be an issue now, it's only an issue isn't it because of what happened in 2004?

HUGHES Well it's also an issue because there have been those numbers of people who've come in and worked and we need to look at not only the contribution those people are making, positively, but the impact in certain communities if they tend to come and settle in significant numbers in some communities and what the impact there is on housing and on public services. That is a changed position from where we were two years ago and that's why we need to take an approach that's relevant to where we are now and not simply have a fixed position, it's got to be related to our economy and the situation socially in our communities.

SELF It all sounds if you really break all of that down it sounds to me like you know send us your poor and huddled masses so they can fix our boiler and if we don't want them we'll come and [CLAPPING] we'll come over to your place and buy a timeshare villa and if we don't like the villa and we don't need your plumbing skills then you can go back home again. That's what it really boils down to, it doesn't touch the issue of whether the European Union can be regarded as an aspirant democratic entity with those kind of human values being spread across the board or whether this isn't just some kind of advanced labour exchange for rich countries.

CLARKE Thank you. Our question Adam Bojinsky, you are Polish are you?

BOJINSKY Well I'm of Polish descent.

CLARKE Polish descent and what do you think about this question, do you think that Bulgaria and Romania should be treated the same as Poland and Hungary?

BOJINSKY Well I think that they probably should because as we mentioned they - the immigrants haven't actually caused much damage here, as it were. But also the fact that the EU is a sort of club of countries where everyone should be equal and how can you treat Bulgaria or Romania as a second class citizen in this sort of group?

CLARKE Thank you very much. Let's have another question please.

Assad Samin [phon]. Can NATO really defeat the Taleban or will it suffer the same fate as the other armies who tried?

Thank you. Afghanistan is very much on people's minds at the moment, pleas are being heard on all sides for more troops to try and deal with the Taleban in the south of Afghanistan. Alan Duncan, what's your view?

Yeah, if they were to make the effort. And at the moment it's us and the Americans who are there and NATO is hardly lifting a finger. And even this week they have declined to send any further troops. And so what we have is a very sorely overstretched British contingent doing their very best and very professionally and up against it, without the help which frankly if NATO is going to I think fulfil the role that it now has in the modern world should also be assisting with. But let me just quickly go to the heart of the point behind the question is actually should we be there in the first place? Yes. When the twin towers were bombed the fact is al-Qaeda's main base was Afghanistan. The Taleban were the host government for the real terrorist threat and I think that actually we were quite right to go into Afghanistan, notwithstanding all the difficulties which throughout history Afhganistan has presented to any occupying or invading army. But the fact is that is the real seed bed of terrorist activity. It is also a ghastly government - the things it does to women, to its own country, to the life of anyone in their own country is spectacularly revolting. And on any kind of moral basis there is an argument for being there but on a strategic security basis there is an argument too. My concern is that we have too few troops, insufficiently equipped, not being adequately supported by this government in the task they have been set [CLAPPING] and the mission they've been given is a very difficult one in the circumstances. But the stories I've heard of what our troops are doing there are absolutely amazing and it makes you proud to realise that our troops are professional and in the circumstances in which they are fighting fantastically decent in the way they are going about their job. [CLAPPING]

Just briefly, do your constituents agree with you, I mean after all this poll for BBC Radio showed 53% of those questioned opposing British military operations in Afghanistan and only 31% supporting the UK's presence there at all?

Yeah I mean I can quite understand that polls are going to say get our boys out because they're probably very concerned about what they're being subjected to. But there are times where one has to just stop and think about what the strategic forces are in the world at the moment. I mean I've spent 25 years going to the Middle East trying to understand the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, trying to understand social change in the Gulf stages, be it beyond them in Iraq and Iran but in countries like Saudi Arabia too and it is essential, if we're to look at the security of the world, that we do understand these forces. And whereas I can probably imagine that in this room there is a lot of concern about what's going on in Iraq and who on earth is not concerned the fact is that in Afghanistan, which is the fulcrum of so much conflict, and undeniably part of the genuine and severe terrorist threat that we face I think that we should be there. I would also that terrorism is a very, very complicated phenomenon and you can't just argue about it in terms of goodies and baddies - them and us - the West and Islam - the clash of civilisations. It's far more complicated than that as David Cameron said in his foreign affairs speech two weeks ago. But on Afghanistan, if we just turn our back on it great difficulties could ensue which I think will cause more problems later.

Thank you. Beverley Hughes.

I agree with Alan. Yes NATO can succeed there and actually we have to, it is not an option not to because of the position of Afghanistan in the whole of that area, because of its history, because of - as Alan said - its central position as the seat of terrorism and because of the role of the Taleban and what it's played in creating the society that is there now. The general secretary of NATO has said today that he does need more troops, he says he's had promises from Alliance countries that he will get them and he and we will keep pressing for those troops because actually reports today from one of Alan's colleagues I heard this evening who's been there really was very heartening about the progress that is being made both in security and in reconstruction in Kabal in the north and in the west. There are still real problems in the south and that is what the extra deployment is particularly needed for because it will be more difficult to get the change there in the south and more personnel are definitely needed. I think what Karzai and Musharraf and ourselves and others are really trying to do is so important. It's about building security as the basis for peace, for establishing a democracy and for the economic development that will then liberate those people from the vile regime that they've had to live under. And I think that if anyone just thinks for a minute about what that has meant in practice for ordinary children, for women, for families being under such a regime of terror, not knowing what's going to happen to you and living in extreme hardship because of the stranglehold of terrorists then it's just hard to imagine when we compare that with our own lifestyles. And I just feel there is a moral imperative but also there's a hugely important political and security issue for us all in helping Afghanistan to become the country that I really believe it can do and I think its people are good people and we need to help them get to where they want to be.

CLARKE Before I bring the other two panellists in I think Assad Samin you wanted to add something, the questioner, on this point.

Yes I mean basically the British - we suffered three major defeats in three major wars. The Russians were kicked out after 10 years of occupation after killing one and half million Afghans, that's about 250 Afghans per day over 10 years and still they couldn't defeat them. You're talking about numbers ...

CLARKE You think the Taleban will never be defeated by force?

SAMIN Well we have about 20, 30,000 troops there, one of the Russian commentators was saying that they had 115,000 troops and we threw absolutely everything we had at them, including bombs that create earthquakes and they came back at us harder than before. So I think that NATO's going to lose this one.

Will Self.

You know what you're talking about and these people really don't. That's all I can conclude. You know Oscar Wilde said that England is the native land of the hypocrite and when I hear politicians speak like this I know I'm still living in the same place.

I think we should all resent that comment because we are genuine in what we say.

You can resent it all you like but there is a regime that compels women to wear the hijab, that says that they can't drive a car, it is an anti-democratic regime, it's called Saudi Arabia and we send it a lot of arms. So you know don't come up here on a public platform and tell me this is all about bringing democracy and human rights to another country. What the papers are saying today about the situation that British troops are in in the south of Afghanistan is that they're having battles like Rorke's Drift. It's interesting that that kind of imperialist comparison comes up with this conflict. We hear here from the platform that this is the breeding ground for terrorism, I think that the report that was inadvertently released by the joint intelligence agencies in the United States this week revealed that Iraq is in fact the place that is the real school for international terrorism. I don't know what this rhetoric flying around this platform is all about. This man knows what he's talking about - Afghanistan can eat how many troops we fling at it up and spit out their bones and it'll be a very, very dismal thing. What's happened there is that the US have tried to institute an eradication of the opium trade there and it's driven people into the arms of the Taleban because they have no other means of subsidence. And you know it's a case of Britain having delusions of imperial grandeur to imagine that we can somehow bring democracy to this country. [CLAPPING]

Jo Swinson.

Well obviously I agree with Will that in countries like Saudi Arabia the rights of women are severely oppressed and that's not something which I welcome, I think that's something that we should definitely be trying to influence and change. But I don't think that that is an excuse to stand by and do nothing and not even try to stop the Taleban from regaining control of Afghanistan. And outside Kabul things are very much in the balance across the country ...

There's something we could have done - we could have tried to prevail upon the Americans not to institute their eradication programme for the opium harvest, there is a legal market for the opium produced in Afghanistan, there is a world wide deficit in morphine and diamorphine, painkilling drugs, it's the mad moral puritanism of the American administration that is driving this country into the ground, believe me it's true.

That may well be the case but we also I would say do have a moral imperative because you know we went into Afghanistan after September 11th and I think we have a responsibility to see it through. Alan and Beverley are quite right that NATO doesn't have enough troops and it does need to be given the resources to do the job because otherwise as the questioner mentioned this is a notoriously difficult country to try to fight within. So we absolutely do need to encourage our partners in NATO in any means of influence that we have to do their duty and contribute the troops that are so badly needed. But I would say that we absolutely cannot stand by and just let this country go back to the control of the Taleban for all of the reasons outlined about it being such an evil regime in terms of the way it treats its citizens.

You want to come back Beverley Hughes.

I just want to say you know I just cannot accept - I just can't buy this kind of neolistic argument that says that if you can't do the same thing everywhere, if you can't solve the world's problems in every single place, if you can't act in a purist way equally in every part of the world that you should do nothing, nowhere. Solving these kinds of problems is messy, it creates moral dilemmas for all of us but we have to act where we can and we have to act in Afghanistan in my view and to not do so from that kind of argument I think would be terrible.

Thank you. Any Answers available of course after the Saturday programme 08700 100 444. Another question please.

Kay Douglas. What are the panel members' views on the future of grammar schools?

CLARKE Thank you. I'm not going to ask for a vote in this particular hall but nor do I want to tackle this subject in all its possible breadth. But Will Self do you think they should have a future.

SELF I went to one and look how well I've turned out. [LAUGHTER AND CLAPPING] I think you know the idea of comprehensive education was part of the kind of idealism of the 1960s and '70s that looked forward to a completely egalitarian society, that's what it - the school was a microcosm of what people believed might happen. Bear in mind this was a time when the Labour Party still had clause four, I mean that's how crazy things were. You know and things really haven't worked out that way and if you have essentially an education system that presumes an egalitarian society in an inegalitarian society then you end up with the situation that we have at the moment. You know teachers don't like selective education because it means that they end up with more difficult jobs if they're teaching in schools that are not, if you like, the grammar schools and that's why they don't like it and there's a certain kind of rigidity about it. But the situation we have at the moment - the situation where I live in London is that there is an astonishing flight from the state school system, I mean the number of people attending state schools has gone down I think by 20% in the last 10 years and it's a really, really difficult position. There has to be some kind of selection I'm afraid coming back into the state system in order to prevent that.

CLARKE Okay. Jo Swinson.

SWINSON Well I attended a state school and I have to say I am actually a fan of the comprehensive education system although I appreciate there are challenges with it. I think that it's important that education is tailored to individual children and that certainly not all children are best in an academic setting and we need to have much more vocational qualifications interspersed. But I would say it's also not always clear at the age of 11 which route is the best for an individual pupil. And so that would be my concern with that. But there is, as Will says, there are many people opting out of the state school system and this is a huge problem, we can't just solve that by selection because if you have lots of people opting out of the state school system then the problem is what is left in the state school system and very often it's the most vulnerable people in society that are given what is left and then that can just perpetuate a spiral to deprivation.

CLARKE Beverley Hughes.

Yes clap, sorry, don't let me stop you. Beverley Hughes.
Well as regards schools I support all schools, certainly all schools in my constituency whether they're grammar schools or secondary schools, I support the pupils and the teachers and the families because they're all trying to do the best for children. And our position as a government on the future of grammar schools is that it's parents locally that will decide and that's what's happened here.

CLARKE Are you glad there are grammar schools in your area?

HUGHES I don't support the system myself and I'll tell you why, it's not from any ideological position at all, it's simply because I think - well two reasons really - I've got seven brothers and sisters and we all had to go through the system - some passed and some didn't and I can tell you the difference that made in the life chances between those who passed and those who didn't has been very stark and I've seen that in my own family. The second reason is this, that if you plot the pass rate of the 11+ in this borough, which has it universally, then you'll see that it varies with the social and economic factors in different communities. Here in Altrincham and Hale about half the children, just about, get a grammar school place. In parts of my constituency it's about 17%. That is not because those children aren't born as clever as the people here, it's not because they are less able, it's because they've had more disadvantages up to that age and that has a real impact on their ability to pass the 11+.

CLARKE Thank you. And Alan Duncan on this.

DUNCAN I fully support grammar schools and will defend them to the very end. [CLAPPING] That said - that said I always thought that 11's a very odd age for selection and I think that getting hooked on the 11+ is an error. So I'm not a defender of the 11+. But I'm also as fervent in my defence and enthusiasm for making sure that the majority of those schools in Britain which are not grammar schools and are not private get the attention that they deserve. And that's what David Cameron and David Willetts, as our education spokesman, are saying and everything we're saying at the moment about education to make sure that the majority of schools can reach the attainment that a system really merits, otherwise we become decivilised and their prospects go backwards.

CLARKE You'll notice the warning signs, I'm struggling to get an extra question in, here it comes.

WHITTAKER Mark Whittaker. Would any of the panel like to take the opportunity of being in Manchester to say sorry for something in front of a sympathetic audience?

CLARKE Thank you. John Prescott said sorry in Manchester in front of roughly a sympathetic audience I guess. Beverley Hughes, you're a Manchester person.

HUGHES I think John would have wanted to have said sorry very much to the delegates at the conference and people listening in. I'm sure he didn't find that difficult in the sense that he just knew he had to do it.

CLARKE What about you though?


CLARKE Anything to say sorry for quickly?

HUGHES Oh sorry, is that the question?


HUGHES I thought you were asking me about John - I thought you were asking me about John Prescott.

CLARKE I'll tell you what you've blustered past your time now so I'll let you go on that. Will Self.

SELF I'd very much like to apologise for the fact that in 1997 during the election campaign I put a sign in my window saying: A vote for Labour is not necessarily a vote for that sanctimonious git Tony Blair. How wrong I was.

CLARKE Jo Swinson.

SWINSON Well my sister lives in Manchester and I may as well make this apology on the radio. Her birthday was at the end of August and although I've bought her present she still hasn't actually received it yet.

CLARKE Thank you.

SWINSON So I'll be able to make that up tonight.

CLARKE Alan Duncan.

DUNCAN I'll say I'm sorry we don't have any Conservative members of parliament here but I'll do my best to make amends.

CLARKE Thank you all very much indeed. My apologies for allowing poor Beverley Hughes to get that question slightly the wrong way round. Anyway next week Jonathan Dimbleby will be back in this chair, they're going to be in Romsey in Hampshire with Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; David Willetts, shadow secretary of state for education; Julia Goldsworthy, the Lib Demo treasury spokesperson and the political journalist John Sargent. But for now from all of us in Altrincham goodbye. [CLAPPING]

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