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Journey of a Lifetime
Transcript: Any Questions? 23 November 2007

PRESENTER: Edward Stourton

PANELLISTS:
Tony McNulty

Nick Clegg
Amanda Platell
Philip Hammond

FROM: The University of Essex, Colchester


STOURTON
Welcome to Colchester. It is said to be our oldest town but it's home to one of the country's newer universities - the University of Essex our hosts was granted its charter in 1964 and it should, I think, be a source of pride to those of us at the BBC that the university website places at the top of its list of famous former students, above a Nobel prize winner and indeed above a Latin American president, one of our own reporters - Brian Hanrahan - quite as it should be.

At the end of a not entirely smooth week for the government we're joined by a man who as minister of state at the Home Office knows a thing or two about rough patches - Tony McNulty. I imagine you were at least pleased this week that it wasn't your department for once in the firing line?

MCNULTY
I understand fully the notion of collective responsibility Edward.

STOURTON
We'll see about that in the course of the evening. On my right Philip Hammond who as shadow secretary to the Treasury has been one of those holding the Chancellor's feet to the fire over CD gate. The Liberal Democrats have been fighting among themselves this week - the third member of our panel - Nick Clegg has made a formal complaint about being called "calamity Clegg" by some of his opponents in his party's leadership election. And I see in the paper, Nick Clegg, that you've been saying that you're not really enjoying the whole process of the leadership election, you say it's been neither a fruitful nor an enjoyable process?

CLEGG
Did I? I think I was referring to the last few days, it will be an extremely fruitful and extremely productive process when it is finally over.

STOURTON
Finally the Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell is the last on our panel. She's cross with me for calling her waspish this morning, when I trailed this programme, and she'd rather be known as firm and fair. Please welcome our panel. [CLAPPING]

Let us have our first question please.

PROVAN
Marianne Provan. Why should Alistair Darling be held to account for an error by a junior member of staff at Revenue and Customs?

STOURTON
Philip Hammond, why indeed?

HAMMOND
Well we've got a lot of facts still to uncover about this disastrous security lapse at HMRC but the original story that it was a junior member of staff that made the decision to send this data out is beginning to unravel. It now seems that far more senior members of the HMRC management structure were involved. And the buck has to stop with the minister - the member of the Cabinet - who's ultimately responsible for the department, that is accountable to Parliament for the conduct of the department. So if it is a systemic failure within the department that has occurred then it is right, ultimately, that ministers - the minister responsible for the department - answers to Parliament for that failure.

STOURTON
And just to be clear do you mean you think he should in the end resign if that becomes apparent?

HAMMOND
Well I think that will depend - that will depend on the facts when we know them all, I mean it's clear from what's come out in the last 24 hours that this story goes back to March of this year and if we think carefully we will remember that in March of last year it wasn't Alistair Darling that was the minister responsible for the Treasury, it was one Gordon Brown. So until we know the whole story I think it's not quite clear precisely where the finger should point.

STOURTON
Nick Clegg.

CLEGG
I think there's a huge difference between personal responsibility and political accountability, they're two distinct principles. I don't think anyone is suggesting that Alistair Darling himself, as an individual, is personally liable for what happened but in government there is this simple principle that if something goes spectacularly wrong on your watch, in the area for which you are responsible, then rightly in a democracy the person at the top should be seen to take political accountability for those mistakes. It's the same principle which operated when Charles Clarke was forced to resign from the Home Office. No one believed that he was personally responsible for the fact that foreign offenders were not being deported even though courts had recommended they should have been or the reason why I, for instance, have been calling for Sir Ian Blair's resignation from the head of the Metropolitan Police - I don't think he's personally responsible for the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes but I think that was something - such a grave tragedy with such - now we know - such a series of errors took place, accountability needs to be seen to take place. I'm not sure at the moment whether we can really suggest that Alistair Darling should take political accountability, precisely for the reason that Philip said, it didn't happen during the time that he was responsible. But those are the two principles that you need to distinguish and they're both equally important.

STOURTON
Amanda Platell.

PLATELL
I think it's very important that politicians don't constantly call for each other's heads because I think the public basically don't like it. If you look at the polls they're pretty well split as to whether or not Darling should stay. What he has to be very careful about is that he doesn't mislead the public and everything he says in Parliament about this must be scrutinised by the gentlemen around this table - obviously not Tony. And if he does mislead then he would have to go. But I mean he's only been in the job for a few months, wouldn't we really rather at this point that he just sorted this ungodly mess out?

STOURTON
Do you think what he's said so far constitutes a misleading statement in the sense that he gave the impression that this was very much a one off mistake by a junior official? I mean I know it's a bit more complicated than that.

PLATELL
Well I don't think it's got to that stage yet and at the moment it's nit-picking isn't it, I mean he was a junior official who's been there for a very long time, I mean when does someone - it certainly doesn't seem at this point that is a senior person and it doesn't seem as though it's come across the government's watch. Now if either of those things are true then the whole thing changes.

STOURTON
Tony McNulty, you would demonstrate collective responsibility, so what do you think about this?

MCNULTY
Well I think the first thing to say is this was a very serious and horrendous mistake and potentially at least has quite profound implications for people, hopefully it won't. I was surprised when I was listening to the others that - I didn't think I'd say this tonight - but broadly I agree with Amanda, in the sense that ...

STOURTON
You're a bit uncomfortable about that.

MCNULTY
I'm troubled by it, if I'm saying it in an hour's time I might be even more troubled but the point that we treat these very, very serious subjects almost as a game and just sort of say right when are we going to call for a head and whose head? Doesn't really do the public a whole lot of good and I would profoundly disagree with what Nick says about Ian Blair, I know that's a side issue, and while I'm on Ian Blair, the notion that Boris Johnson can be a serious mayoral candidate having said trigger happy ...

STOURTON
Hang on, hang on, wait, we're going off - we're going off way at a tangent - way at a tangent...

MCNULTY
... cops the way he did today and yesterday is quite appalling. But nonetheless - nonetheless Philip's right - there are very serious facts to uncover in this. For the specific and more general point about the use of data by government - by the public sector generally - and I would just urge people to let the inquiries and investigations unfold, resist the speculation and then see, as Amanda suggests, where we're at at the end of that.

STOURTON
Do you think, Philip Hammond, you're guilty of using this as a game, as a means of scoring political points without the public good in mind?

HAMMOND
No and we've been very careful in making a measured response to what is probably the biggest security - data security - lapse ever in government. But we do want Alistair Darling to come back now to the despatch box to deal with these new revelations, this new information, which does, on the face of it, conflict with what he told Parliament on Tuesday and he has to clarify that situation.

MCNULTY
Alistair has said very clearly the points review will look directly at all that went on, he's very keen that there's an interim report by Christmas. Then and only then, not at the will or behest of the opposition or the media, should there quite properly a report to Parliament. We can't have ...

STOURTON
So Philip Hammond - Nick Clegg wants to come in ...

MCNULTY
... drip, drip, drip of very select information coming out.

STOURTON
Okay, Nick Clegg.

CLEGG
Well I think we need to bear in mind that I think if any damage has been done to Alistair Darling the far more significant damage that has been done has been done to the government's plans for an ID card database. [CLAPPING] And I sincerely hope that we will look back on this week, irrespective of what happens to Alistair Darling, and say this was the week that the final nail went into the coffin for an unnecessary intrusive expensive and illiberal ID card project. [CLAPPING]

STOURTON
Our next questioner was going to make exactly that point. So - but Tony McNulty is the obvious person to respond to it because it's a Home Office matter, we're back to the Home Office again.

MCNULTY
I don't agree with that - there's a surprise. I think given the way Western society's going generally, given the everyday use people make of technology, in all sorts of shapes and forms, from mobile phones to loyalty cards at supermarkets, to your ATM machine, then identity will be absolutely crucial and the protection and security and verification of that identity central to that. No, no and I would say in the next breath of course in the context of the HMRC thing it's very, very easy for Nick and others to say oh well if that's the best you can do in terms of securing our data jump from that to ID cards. I don't think that's a really serious contribution to the debate.

CLEGG
Well hold on a sec - I mean the criticism many people who are concerned about ID cards raise regularly is that you can't trust the government to look after your most precious intimate details and now we know we can't.

MCNULTY
Which is why - no, no - which is why the - no you can't just on this, let's see what the facts are on this but what seems to be ...

CLEGG
Well the facts are that 25 million people's bank accounts ...

MCNULTY
Not as - not as an absolute [CLAPPING] but not as an absolute result of the fact that computer records are held by government, that doesn't follow absolutely. And I do say - it's nothing to do with digging, I'm quite happy to defend this point - ID cards and the verification of identity will be absolutely crucial. The private sector will get way ahead of the public sector on this, we need to for our own individual security, not the government's, our own individual security ensure that that ID is protected. And I'm not - had anyone else come up with a better way than the way suggested?

STOURTON
Amanda Platell. [Talking over] I want to bring Amanda Platell in.

PLATELL
Well you say if anyone else has got a better idea - it's actually your job to have the ideas for these things, it's your job to protect our - this really delicate information. And I think that there's a kind of tone - I know this has been a terrible week for the government and I admire you for even having the guts to come up here tonight and defend the position and the things that you're going to have to defend, I know it's very difficult. But tonally I have a real problem because it's almost like you say well ID, it's not really a problem for ID cards, forget about that, you're all just being very silly. We are deeply concerned and we feel we now have a government that doesn't listen to us and until you start listening you're going to just get into more and more and more trouble. [CLAPPING]

STOURTON
Just a minute I want to bring in Philip Hammond.

HAMMOND
I think the government should demonstrate conclusively that it can walk before it starts thinking about running. It's lost 25 million people's personal data and it says the solution to this is to collect the personal data of everyone in the country and put it on a database.

STOURTON
But it's true, isn't it, that the - what's happened this week doesn't effect the basic argument about whether ID cards are needed to make us more secure or not?

HAMMOND
And I profoundly disagree with Tony and his argument that ID cards will make us more secure. ID cards will not make us more secure, that is not the solution.

STOURTON
Tony McNulty, come back.

MCNULTY
Well I say I disagree with that and partly the start of what Philip was saying goes to the point too. No one is suggesting that somehow the government should no longer have the personal records they need to secure the universal application of child benefits, that would be as absurd as saying - leaping from the particular failings with this database to ID cards. There needs to be - I take the gentleman's point about saying well you can't do it - there needs to be and continue to be a profound debate, not just on how you can do the identity register and the ID cards, but how we can collectively local government, central government, private sector, secure the individual's identity. Identity cards are part of that solution I think very profoundly, building on the biometric passports and securing that document. And I think there is a real need for debate. I don't say it dismissively about the need for that debate or not having that debate and getting the arguments more readily but I do say identity and identity fraud notwithstanding the HMRC points will be a profound issue, along with the use of technology in the context of defining your - and defending your - identity for many, many years to come and that's not going to go away.

STOURTON
Well it is a matter on which our listeners, I know, have strong views. Just a reminder of the number for Any Answers which is after the Saturday edition of Any Questions, 08700 100 444. The e-mail any.answers@bbc.co.uk. But I want to move on from it now because since Amanda reminded us it's been a difficult week for the government we're going to remind ourselves of another area that was difficult. Let's have our next question.

BOLLS
Good evening. Sue Bolls. How do you think the Northern Rock issue should be resolved and do you think the Bank of England was right to lend a private company public money?

STOURTON
Nick Clegg.

CLEGG
I think that decision, which wasn't of course just taken by the Bank of England but also by the Chancellor, the now oft quoted Alistair Darling, might prove to have been an error in the sense that extending that lifeline, using taxpayers' money, whether it was £24 billion maybe more, with the justification that money was going to be returned with a what they call a penal rate of interest is now looking like an extremely sort of threadbare strategy because the government hasn't under sustained questioning been able to give us - taxpayers - any real copper bottomed guaranteed assurance that that money will be returned. And I think that increasingly, as we've seen the value of what remains of the Northern Rock shares go through the floor, as it has done over the last 48 hours, it might be better for the government to bite the bullet and in effect take over direct ownership of Northern Rock and then over time, where necessary, dispose of some of its assets but try and get the business back onto its feet rather than in a sense have Northern Rock tied round the taxpayers' neck like a great sort of albatross. Remember I think every single person in this room is paying the equivalent of £900 per person, that's like sort of, whatever it is, I don't know how many multiples of the Millennium Domes down the drain without even the benefit of a pop concert at the end of it. And so I think we now need to - I think the government needs to look at this very long and hard, think about actually going in and taking over the Northern Rock directly, rather than having this great liability on behalf of all of us extended to it.

STOURTON
I suppose before I continue with this question with the panel I should ask if any of you are Northern Rock shareholders - no, jolly good. Well Amanda Platell what do you think?

PLATELL
I do think it's correct but a very easy shot that we're all up for 900 quid to bail Northern Rock out if we can bail it out. But there was a real problem of contamination at the time when this - when it fell into the dreadful trouble that it did. And if he hadn't - if Alistair Darling and the government hadn't contained that contamination it would be a lot more than £900 that all of us would be looking at at the moment because the market's feeling fragile at the moment, people are feeling fragile, savers are feeling fragile. So I think they - pardon the pun, it's another expression - between a rock and a hard place. But one of the most interesting things I think about this is when you look at it is so many things that are going wrong at the moment are actually leading right back to Gordon Brown's door, I mean he, in the first place, was the one that established the tripartite system and made the Bank of England independent and that took away some of the responsibilities for the Bank of England to actually intervene earlier when banks like this were starting to go under. And I think if he hadn't done that then we'd be in a very different position at the moment and it's really interesting, isn't it, that after all this time Gordon Brown's been left to duck from all the responsibility of almost everything, that all these paths are leading right back up to his door.

STOURTON
Just to return to Northern Rock though, your view is that we may be in a mess but we'd be in a much worse mess if they hadn't taken the steps that they took originally?

PLATELL
Yes, yes exactly.

STOURTON
Philip Hammond, would you accept that?

HAMMOND
Well let's just look at the sequence of events. Firstly they dithered and prevaricated and failed to stop the - for the first time in a 140 years - queues around the block outside a British bank. Having got to that point they had to offer the guarantee, that was the only way to prevent contamination across the financial system. But once you guarantee the deposits in a bank then you're in and if that bank can't borrow money anymore in the markets you have to lend it the money. So we've slid into this position of £24 billion of taxpayers' money being outstanding. Now when Alistair ...

STOURTON
But what you haven't - when said is whether there's anything that could have been done which would have dealt with the problem without getting into the position we're now in?

HAMMOND
Yes I think there is. The Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank both made liquidity available to the markets and thus avoided the pressure on any individual institution. We've been told that the Bank of England wasn't able to do that because of European Union legislation but the ECB was apparently able to do it. We know that the governor of the Bank of England pointed out to the government long before this crisis that there was a gap in the legislation that wouldn't allow a bank to be quietly and discretely reorganised away from the public glare if it was in trouble. They could have legislated to resolve that. They could have put in place a proper depositor protection scheme, so that people didn't have to be afraid that their money would be lost in the bank. But when this money went in Alistair Darling told us that it was secured against high quality assets and that the taxpayer would get it back. The Guardian today is telling us that only 50% of the money is actually secured against specific assets and the rest is just secured by what's called a floating charge, which effectively puts the taxpayers a long way back in the queue if anything goes wrong. Alistair Darling told us we'd get our money back, if we don't I think his job is on the line.

STOURTON
Tony McNulty, will we?

MCNULTY
Well the interesting point about what Philip just said is he didn't answer in terms the actual question about as and when intervention was required would anything different have happened had there been a Conservative government. Someone said, who I have not necessarily got much time for, we support wholeheartedly the action that the Bank of England and the financial service authority are taking to provide liquidity to Northern Rock etc. etc - David Cameron, mid September. So you can't talk about - you can't talk about should have done this, should have done that, this should have happened, that should have happened without offering, as a serious opposition, a full alternative. And it's nice words but that does not substantiate legislate this legislate that a substantial alternative at the time, legislation doesn't happen within weeks. This does need to be resolved. I probably broadly agree with Amanda but not wholey - you'll be happy to hear - in the sense that I think going back to and almost blaming the Prime Minister for the sub-prime crisis in the States isn't really appropriate. I think it's early days [Talking over] at the very least to cry the tripartite arrangement, I don't think that's certainly been strained over Northern Rock because it's such an exemplar in terms of a banking crisis. But nonetheless I don't think it's - we can bury it early. We do - we are looking long and hard at this, I know they are at the Treasury, Alistair has said very clearly we will look after the taxpayers' interest, the savers' interest and the broader issue of financial stability that Amanda touched on. And at the minute, as we're dealing with the markets, as we're dealing with potential purchasers, nothing is ruled in and ruled out and that's what must prevail.

STOURTON
What I don't think I've heard from any of you is an intelligent idea about what we do next, I mean does anybody have a sort of - sorry that's rather rude but I mean [LAUGHTER] ...

HAMMOND
A well financed purchaser who can salvage the Northern Rock business, ensure financial stability and return the taxpayers' money and if possible keep most of the jobs ...

STOURTON
The tooth fairy in fact.

HAMMOND
... would be fantastic, would be fantastic. [CLAPPING]

STOURTON
Sorry Tony McNulty you wanted ... yes.

CLEGG
I did have a proposal, it's obviously not intelligent enough for you to have remembered it, but it is that I think the government in a sense need to cut its losses and admit the gravity of the situation and take control of Northern Rock on a temporary period of time, directly, it's the only way that the taxpayers' position, which in other words I think is going to deteriorate over time can be more fully protected. But these are all imponderables. I mean Philip's idea - nothing that has happened over the last 48 hours suggests that there is this bidder who ticks all those boxes.

HAMMOND
No you're absolutely right, but nationalising it doesn't ...

STOURTON
Very briefly because I want to move on ...

HAMMOND
Nationalising it does not improve the taxpayers' position, it still leaves our £24 billion in and it leaves us running a bank that will require more financial support in the future.

CLEGG
Philip ...

STOURTON
Okay, okay forgive me Nick Clegg I just want to bring Tony McNulty in very briefly.

MCNULTY
The government does understand the gravity of this and as I say all options are on the table, probably not the tooth fairy, but the point that this is in market sensitive territory and of course the government and the authorities are looking at not only all the options but also seeking the well provided, well sourced, purchaser that Philip refers to but in the context, as he said very clearly - Alistair not Philip - taxpayers' interests, savers' interests and financial stability. This is something that could really - I think it's dissipated a wee bit - but the full shake out of the sub-prime crisis in America still ripples around international financial markets.

HAMMOND
And don't forget the jobs.

STOURTON
I would like to go to the next question please because it's very much on the subject of the news at the end of this week.

GRAY
Good evening panel, John Gray. What do the panel think about the recent revelations from the ex-defence chiefs regarding the lack of funding and lack of moral support for our armed forces?

STOURTON
Amanda Platell.

PLATELL
It's absolutely shocking isn't it, I mean I was watching it last night and I just couldn't believe the ferocity of the attack on Gordon Brown. And we have to remember that these are not - these are not people who are to make cheap political points, I mean this is not like a political game. These are men who lead our army, who are responsible for our defence, and they would normally try and do things behind closed doors and for them to come out in this way and particularly to finger Gordon Brown is very, very serious indeed. And it does really shock me that we have a government that - it's fantastic that we've been able to treble spending on the NHS, double spending on education but Gordon Brown is not telling the truth when he says he's increasing the budget year on year because effectively it hasn't been increased and effectively we're fighting on far more fronts then we were before and I think it's a national disgrace that we're sending men out there who are not coming back because we're underfunding these wars. [CLAPPING]

STOURTON
Tony McNulty, although I'm sure you don't like what was said in the House of Lords do you accept that these men were acting in good faith and in a non-partisan way, they were just making a point that they felt very strongly about?

MCNULTY
I don't doubt that at all, I wouldn't impugn their integrity at all, I think that would be a very, very foolish thing to do. And rather like Des Brown said this morning I think - on the Today programme - he welcomed their broad contribution to the debate because however harsh and sometimes personal their feelings were - and I understand that as well - the fact that we are getting centre stage not just the issue of defence spending, which we can debate, but the role, sacrifice and all other aspects of what our armed forces do for us must be good, I think, in peacetime, let along when there's conflict because far too often it is the sort of hidden in the corner and not really terribly up the agenda in terms of politics....

STOURTON
It sounds as if you have some sympathy with - it sounds as if you have some sympathy with what they did?

MCNULTY
No I don't have sympathy with them or the way they said it necessarily but I would fully expect ex-defence staff chiefs to put their position and put it very, very forcefully. I don't think I agree with Amanda or the thrust of what they were saying about there being a paucity of resources spend on defence over the last 10 years. Certainly over the next three years there's close on 8 billion increase and I think there was, without nit-picking, in some cases - I can't remember which one was on this morning - was saying that Iraq and Afghanistan are costing all those monies where the operational imperatives there are paid out of contingency fund and not out of the defence budget. And I think Des Brown took that point on as well this morning.

STOURTON
Were you surprised by the very direct attack on the Prime Minister that some of them went in for?

MCNULTY
I think - I think so because I don't think in broad terms that stands up to real scrutiny and I think was a tad unfair. It's not the case that defence has been starved over the last 10 years and nor will continue to be but I don't want to lose the political debate around that. I do agree with them on the broader issue that's been surfacing over the last couple of months that says we should not only value what our armed services do far more readily than we do - media included - but actually politicians and media show it and mean it far more often.

STOURTON
Nick Clegg.

CLEGG
Well I think what we need to remember - three things I would suggest. Firstly, Tony shouldn't express such surprise, this has been rumbling - everyone in Westminster knows this - for months now. The top brass, both retired and current, have been saying in every less diplomatic terms for months now you cannot carry on asking our brave soldiers to fight, particularly on two fronts, on such meagre resources. Secondly, they know that it's Gordon Brown who paid - who signed the cheques of what up to £5 billion to fight a war in Iraq. I suspect some of this actually represents or reflects some deep unease about our entanglement in that very conflict. And thirdly, it's not just about the equipment, it's not just about the equipment out in the field it's how they're treated when they come back home. And frankly some of the revelations about sub-standard housing, which both families of military personnel and military personnel themselves have to withstand, is just a human insult. And I think we really need to be as focused on the kind of conditions we ask military personnel to live in as we do the circumstances in which they have to fight wars on our behalf. [CLAPPING]

STOURTON
Philip Hammond.

HAMMOND
Well we're in a garrison town and people here will know the strength of feeling amongst military personnel about the issue of underfunding. And also the issue of having a part-time defence secretary at a point where the country is at war. So we need a full-time defence secretary as a mark of respect for our armed forces. But we also have to I think recognise as politicians, from whatever party we are, that we have to match the commitment that we are asking our armed forces to undertake to the resources that are available. Now we've got two choices: we can either make more resources available for the commitment level that we've set or if we cannot make those resources available or choose not to make those resources available we must cut the level of commitment. It is immoral to send people off to fight a war without the tools to do the job. [CLAPPING]

STOURTON
Amanda, you want to come in?

PLATELL
I utterly agree with you that that role should not be split and that there should be a solid defence brief. But quite frankly Philip you have had some time to make this point. It's only when the government gets into serious trouble that the Tories have leapt in and started to argue this and I think it does rather smack of opportunism, I'd rather you'd made the call a long time ago. [CLAPPING]

STOURTON
I'd like to go back to our - I'd like to go back to our questioner if I could - John Gray, what do you make of what you've heard from up here?

GRAY
Well I agree entirely with what some of the panel said but as an ex - excuse me - as an ex-infantry [indistinct word] myself and we have a son who's actually serving in the army, he's been in Iraq and Afghanistan twice I find I'm absolutely ashamed in the way this government's treating our armed services. Not just the funding but as Nick said about the welfare facilities as well of the servicemen and the service women when they come back to this country, I think it's appalling and we should be absolutely ashamed.

STOURTON
And that [CLAPPING] Tony McNulty you can argue that the crisis in Afghanistan and Iraq are crises that have erupted and had to be dealt with but the problem of the way people are looked after at home is one that has always been there for your government to see and deal with.

MCNULTY
Well it has been and I would agree that there have been some difficulties and I think though, to be fair, when the - these have been pointed out with some vigour to the MOD over the last couple of years, they have and are being dealt with, perhaps not fast enough for some people, perhaps not fast enough given the service that these young men and women put in but it would be absolutely unfair I think to say that nothing has changed at all over the last four or five years in terms of what we give our service personnel and I was very, very pleased - very pleased that Alan Johnson has announced today that the priority treatment for all veterans, in terms of the National Health Service, and that's right and proper. And I don't agree actually that the government's record over 10 years, in terms of defence, is shameful and I think the point by Philip and David Cameron about part-time defence secretary is just puerile and shouldn't be in this debate.

STOURTON
Well let me ask the audience. The questioner said he was ashamed or we should be ashamed of the way we treat our armed forces. How many people in this audience would agree with that? Pretty much everybody. How many people don't agree with it? It's half a dozen hands maybe going up. Well it's obviously something people feel very strongly about and I hope that some of you listening will ring in to Any Answers after the Saturday edition of Any Questions. Just a reminder of the number 08700 100 444 and the e-mail any.answers@bbc.co.uk.

MCNULTY
.... use the point about celebrating far more readily in a much more high profile way what our armed services do which we're just not good at that, it's more than just Remembrance Day, we must understand that.

STOURTON
Okay, forgive me - Amanda Platell I think we've got lots more - we've got ...

PLATELL
... done anything about this, it's been in the newspapers, like my newspaper, that have campaigned for recognition for our troops coming back, not your government, so I'm glad you're doing it now.

STOURTON
We'll move on. Our next - our next question please.

BELL
Diane Bell. Is there any interest in the Liberal Party leadership election apart from fisticuffs?

STOURTON
Well I notice you called them the Liberal Party rather than the Liberal Democrats. I think I'll give Nick Clegg a bit of time to collect his thoughts before we go to him, why don't we start with Tony McNulty with that one.

MCNULTY
No, no, no I was asked the other week did it really matter who was the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and I think the answer is yes actually. Their [indistinct word] should be a vibrant third party in British politics, I think it's in the interests of Britain they stay the third party but that's by the by. And I think there has been or should have been a degree of robust political debate where now some, I don't know, five, six, seven, eight weeks, however long it is, we now have a very, very clear picture not only what the Liberal Democrat Party stands for but equally what Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg stand for, I haven't got a clue.

STOURTON
So your ideal Liberal Democrat Party is one that's just strong enough to deny the Conservatives coming anywhere close to you but nothing more, is that the sort of ...

MCNULTY
Forgive me if that sounds rather selfish but that broadly describes it, yes.

STOURTON
Philip Hammond.

HAMMOND
Well I congratulate Tony on having defined a purpose for the Liberal Democrats because I've been thinking about this for years without success. Both Nick and Chris Huhne say that they want to transform the way politics is conducted, that they want to reach out to people who are disillusioned with the traditional style of politics and then they both spend six weeks slagging nine bells out of each other. So I'm not sure that they've achieved their objective of changing the terms of politics, and I'm not sure that the watching audience will see either of them as very different from the way they view politicians in general.

STOURTON
Entirely different to the measured and civilised manner in which your party conducts its leadership. [CLAPPING]

HAMMOND
Well we don't have as many as the Liberal Democrats these days.

STOURTON
Well yes, Amanda Platell.

PLATELL
Well I think the most - it is very important that we have a proper leadership contest and I think that the most disheartening thing is the fact that the two contenders seem to be the ones who are most disillusioned in all of this. But I'm very glad to see tonight Nick that you're actually off that sofa because I was starting to think you two looked like the Ant and Dec of British politics. I'm a Lib Dem leadership candidate get me out of here.

STOURTON
Well Nick Clegg is sounds as if you've got a bit of a job of work to do persuading people.

CLEGG
Well after those predictably po faced disingenuous but I admit faintly comic observations from three people who aren't exactly friends of the party. Look you have to ask yourself do you think it's irrelevant what six million people thought who voted for the Liberal Democrats? Do you think it's - who would have stood up against the illegal invasion of Iraq? Who would have argued against ID cards when the Conservative Party was flip flopping on it? Who would have argued in front - in favour of [CLAPPING] hang on, hang on, hang on I'm only halfway through my list. Who would have argued the case for the environment before it became fashionable amongst other parties? Who would have argued for a much more devolved kind of politics in which everything is not decided by bureaucrats and politicians in London? These are the big things that determine politics. And whether you like it or not there's only actually one party that's been standing up for all those kind of principles - they're liberal principles, they go back a long way in British history, I'm extremely proud to be a part of a party and hopefully the leader of a party which is the inheritor of that liberal tradition. And I genuinely think to simply wave away the opinion of six million people is by terms either a little bit condescending or overlooks what I think is a fine tradition in British politics which I'd like to see more of. I personally believe - final point - that most people don't accept that there are just two options in British politics, that it's just ding dong stuff between left, right, Conservative, Labour. Most people, I think, want a bit more choice in British politics not less. [CLAPPING]

STOURTON
You've stuffed the hall here.

CLEGG
The brown envelopes will be on their way shortly.

STOURTON
Do you accept that there is an injustice to Tony McNulty's rather cynically expressed view that you can't tell the difference between - or we can't tell the difference between you and your rival - between you and Chris Huhne?

CLEGG
Well I know that everyone does like pistols at dawn and fisticuffs law, it's eminently more amusing but I'm afraid ...

STOURTON
But there needs to be a choice doesn't there.

CLEGG
... but the awful trust is we're actually hoping to lead the same party and the fact is that what unites us and what unites everyone in the Liberal Democrats and the kind of things I talked about is just of greater importance in the long run than what I think as somewhat passing synthetic differences between two individuals.

STOURTON
But if they can't see a difference how can your members make a choice?

CLEGG
Well ...

MCNULTY
They could job share.

CLEGG
Well hang on, Tony, given that our poll ratings have actually gone up during this context maybe we should on a sort of permanent basis. No I mean of course there are differences, there are differences of style, there are differences of ambition, there are differences of emphasis but I'm just not in the business in an internal contest in a party of creating unnecessary disunity and division where at the end of the day, after December 18th, when this is announced, actually the key thing for the Lib Dems will be to be much more united and reach out to voters who haven't voted for us before or perhaps have drifted away from us. That is the task of the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.

STOURTON
Do you think, Amanda Platell, despite the slightly, forgive me, waspish comments you made a moment or two ago that it matters for British democracy that we have a third party of the kind we do at the moment?

PLATELL
Yes I do, I think it's very healthy and I think especially as - the Lib Dems have fought corners I think what you did especially over the war was important for this country, it was important when both the government and the Tories fell in behind those wars in Iran and Afghanistan, that was important. I am all for more voices, more people out there being elected and a more honest debate which we see so little of now in British politics.

STOURTON
And it's true, isn't it Philip Hammond, that in some areas, the environment being one, that Nick Clegg mentioned, they have led where you have followed?

HAMMOND
Well the Liberal Democrats have had various issues that they've campaigned on in the past but they're also a party, I'm afraid to say, which on many issues has faced two ways at once and presented - I know this very well in my own area, in South West Surrey, South West London and Surrey where the Lib Dems have variously pushed forward and then been pushed back again, they face different ways, they say different things to different audiences and I'm not sure that I see in the Lib Dem approach anything really new about politics.

STOURTON
Okay well we mentioned the environment, at least I did, so let's take our next question, which will take us further in that direction.

WARD
Hugh Ward. In the light of the government's recent commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should it have announced further expansion of Heathrow?

STOURTON
Tony McNulty.

MCNULTY
I think yes but I think within the caveats that came with that announcement in terms of meeting the air quality issues that were laid down in the original aviation white paper. What people didn't dwell on in terms of the expansion of Heathrow was this would be instead of the expansion, as I understand it, of Stansted which was originally going to come before Heathrow and may well put into balance whether there is a subsequent need for a second runway at Gatwick. So I do think you need to see things in the round. Yes of course aviation makes a huge contribution to climate change and all those issues and that must be taken into the balance. I actually, as an ex-transport minister, glorify in the fact that finally we've got the high speed link from London to Brussels and Paris that I think should mean obviating along those short journeys the need to fly to Brussels or Paris at all, I think investment that way and getting a balance across the piece is the answer rather than saying people can't fly anymore, rather than trying to restrict and regulate flying out of the market. Is there more we can do? Yes through Europe - through Europe, potentially through taxation with emissions trade in and others but I think if we are realistic about making advances in terms of climate change and aviation's contribution we need to see it in the round rather than singularly.

STOURTON
Philip Hammond.

HAMMOND
This is one of the really hard questions that politicians have to deal with from time to time. There are obviously huge economic advantages to Heathrow, it's a driver of the economy in London and the South East. But equally aviation is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. The government has to show - it's for the government to demonstrate - that it can meet the standards that it has set on air quality, on noise pollution, that it has genuinely looked at the alternatives - and Tony's mentioned high speed rail as one of them - before it makes a commitment to any expansion at Heathrow. And I think there's one other thing as well - we've got a change - a new change - to the regulatory environment in which airlines operate, the open skies policy in Europe, and I think that it might be sensible just to wait and see how the pattern of aviation in Europe changes in response to the open skies policy both between London and other European aviation hubs and between London and some of our regional airports before we make a decision about where any additional capacity should go.

STOURTON
Amanda Platell.

PLATELL
This is a very odd moment for me, I can't think of anything more to say anyone. I think actually that all three parties are at the moment seriously concerned about the environmental issues, I think they're all trying to find a way that we can change - that we can actually balance our commercial imperatives with the imperatives for the environment, it's incredibly difficult, it's not just up to the politicians, it's up to every single one of us. And I think the tide has really moved now, I think we are taking it much more seriously.

STOURTON
Nick Clegg.

CLEGG
No I'm not convinced, I think it just simply flies in the face of all of the rhetoric about the environment if you then go ahead with such a dramatic expansion in one of the world's busiest airports, it's as simple as that. And also - I'm no expert and I haven't - I'm not going to claim that I've read all the economic analyses - but I wonder sometimes about the very breathless claims about the economic advantages brought by an ever expanding Heathrow Airport. Remember a huge amount of traffic that goes through Heathrow is transit traffic, I just don't understand what great economic advantage we are deriving from people flying in, going from one terminal to the next, and then flying out again. And thirdly we have too many aeroplanes who are still flying in and out of Heathrow half empty - that cannot be sensible from an environmental or economic point of view. We need to change the economic incentives for the airlines so that they first use their own capacity, fill their seats, before we start deciding to plaster yet more of West London with more tarmac.

STOURTON
Okay. [CLAPPING] I'm not going to explore that further because I want to just squeeze one final question in before we go.

RICH
Tony Rich. What is the most important item the panel has lost in the post?

STOURTON
Where shall we go. I think Amanda Platell you can deal with that.

PLATELL
Oh I lost a whole pile of love letters from an old boyfriend, since you ask, but now I send everything registered post, absolutely everything, costs me four quid a go but that's what you have to do.

STOURTON
The love letters didn't have your bank details?

PLATELL
No, far too many details I can tell you.

STOURTON
Gosh what a thought. Philip Hammond top that.

HAMMOND
I certainly try not to use the post for anything important, far too dangerous these days, far too high risk strategy.

STOURTON
So can you not think of anything that you...

HAMMOND
I can't think of anything I've ever lost in the post but I really wouldn't send anything - I genuinely wouldn't send a valuable document or anything through the post I'd always send it using a courier.

STOURTON
Nick Clegg.

CLEGG
Well I'm told that the ballot papers for the election of the next leader of the Liberal Democrats were sent out two days ago I haven't received mine yet. [CLAPPING]

STOURTON
Are you - not by any chance - accusing your opposition of jerry mandering in some mysterious way?

MCNULTY
Genuinely like Philip I can't think of anything - seriously - that I have lost in the post save for very, very recently, but it was for my brother, a ticket for a West Ham game that occurred about three days after the postal strike, so he's still waiting for that ticket I think but happily got to the game anyway.

STOURTON
I'm not sure what it says about you all that you never send important things in the post.

MCNULTY
You were talking about receiving not sending.

STOURTON
Well I think it was sent actually the question was. Have you never sent some love letters or something precious?

MCNULTY
Certainly not to Amanda, I mean with the best intentions, no I genuinely can't think either way that I've missed that.

STOURTON
With that wonderful thought I think we'll leave it. Next week: Geoff Hoon will be with us, Caroline Spellman, Lynn Featherstone and Matthew Parris and we will be in Staffordshire at Westwood College at Leak. Any Answers number 08700 100 444, any.answers@bbc.co.uk is the e-mail address. But from here, from [LAUGHTER] from the University of Essex - University of Essex goodbye. My apologies. [CLAPPING]
























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