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ANY QUESTIONS
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Journey of a Lifetime
Transcript: Any Questions? 29 February 2008


PRESENTER: Jonathan Dimbleby

PANELLISTS: Stephen Timms
Justine Greening
Lembit Opik
Ed Husain

FROM: Westcliff High School for Boys, Essex


DIMBLEBY
Welcome to Westcliff High School for Boys, which is in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex. The school is a grammar school and specialist humanities college with over one thousand boys on its role and it scores highly on every official indicator of achievement. As a foundation school Westcliffe has been allowed to generate the capital to develop and redevelop its facilities, including the hall from which this programme is being broadcast.

On our panel: Stephen Timms has been a minister in several departments but since the reshuffle forced on Gordon Brown by Peter Hain's resignation he's been minister for employment and welfare reform.

Lembit Opik speaks for the Liberal Democrats on housing but he's also one of those MPs who's widely thought to bring sparkle and originality to what can occasionally seem a rather drab House of Commons. He's got a pilot's licence, he nearly killed himself paragliding, he fears that before long an asteroid will destroy us all and he's one of the few parliamentarians who regularly makes it into the celebrity gossip columns. Do you like that bit of it?

OPIK
Well there's no greater honour than appearing on your programme but I do enjoy some of the celebrity stuff, if that's not too cheeky an answer.

DIMBLEBY
Soon after her election to Westminster Justine Greening, I'm sure she did not have Lembit in mind, told an interviewer that she was too normal to be a member of parliament. Normal or not she's the youngest female Conservative in the House and she's a shadow treasury minister.

Ed Husain made his mark as the author of a book entitled The Islamist - Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I saw Inside and Why I Left. The book has made a powerful impression on many of those who have read it, not excluding, by his own account, the Prime Minister. Ed Husain's now the deputy director of a new think tank called the Quilliam Foundation, which seeks to promote a Western Islamic revival as a counterweight to the extremist ideologies that he describes in the Islamist.

Why Quilliam Ed?

HUSAIN
Quilliam are named after a 19th Century Englishman who embraced Islam and became Muslim freely and it's to remember that memory of a 19th Century indigenous English Islam that predated the Indian immigration Islam that [indistinct words]...

DIMBLEBY
Interesting thank you. Let's go to our first question. That's our panel. [CLAPPING] Our first question please.

LANZ
Sylvia Lanz. Reasonable self-imposed news blackout or denying the public their right to know an item of obvious interest?

DIMBLEBY
Prince Harry of course and Afghanistan. Lembit Opik.

OPIK
I think it's a reasonable news blackout. I suspected they might do something like this because when Harry was originally going to go to fight it was effectively made impossible by the media feeding frenzy around that. It all went quiet. With respect to the British press, who I don't always praise, I think they have acted honourably on this occasion. And I think he was right to be given the space to do what he considered his duty, leaving aside his royal stature, for the purposes of this country. I think it's a great shame that his term has been brought prematurely to a close because he and all the other soldiers who are so brave in Iraq and also in Afghanistan do need our recognition and just because he's a royal doesn't make him any less noble for the risks and the contribution he's made. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Justine Greening.

GREENING
Well I think that you know we should be very proud of all the troops that we've got serving out in Afghanistan including Prince Harry and actually think that in an age when often people feel that the media can be quite cynical at times that from my perspective I think it was very responsible of them to manage to keep this secret, so he was actually able to get on with his job which is serving our country. He's trained in the army, he wanted to go and serve, I think that was absolutely right and I'm really pleased that he was able to at least go and do some active service before this news story broke and I think it was absolutely the right responsible thing of the media not to break the story and I think it wasn't just responsible for Harry, most of all it was responsible on the part of the soldiers that he's serving with and their safety. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Ed Husain.

HUSAIN
Our right to know has to be balanced by his safety and the safety of the soldiers that serve side by side with him in very difficult territory in Afghanistan. So on this instance I think the media was right to remain restrained and not to go ahead and report this incident and it was a tragic shame that that agreement was broken by an American media outlet.

DIMBLEBY
In relation to the media - to the public right to know, do you think it would have been possible, because there have been several voices raised saying that the British public has been denied proper information, as the question - part of the question - implies, do you think it would have been possible to have said in advance whatever Prince Harry does once he is in the army we will not be covering his deployment anywhere because of the national interest, his interest and the security of troops?

HUSAIN
Prince Harry is not an ordinary guy, I mean his being out in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan naturally attracts a lot of attention and in this context we've got to understand the mindset of our detractors and our enemies who - I mean if you put him in the Iraqi contest the word Amir - the Arabic word for prince - has various connotations including a gifted prize. So I mean al Qaeda have taunted him several times - come and fight in Iraq - so I mean yes in our context of British liberal democracy and fairness and equalitarianism we want everyone to do everything and us to have access to this but we've got to be realistic vis-à-vis the kind of expectations that people have and will deliberately not just target him but target everyone else around him.

DIMBLEBY
But the point I'm suggesting is whether or not had it been made clear in advance that there would be a blackout it would both - whether he'd been in Germany, Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Wiltshire - there will be a blackout, as there was with say Prince William when he was at university, that would have had the effect of letting the public know that they would not be hearing anything about Prince Harry and protected his security...

HUSAIN
But the arrangement was ...

DIMBLEBY
It's just the thought that people have expressed.

HUSAIN
Yeah, sure, sure, I mean I understand that but I think the arrangement was that the public will know when the three month period was over and the BBC and other news outlets followed him on that arrangement - in time this would be made public. It seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do.

DIMBLEBY
Stephen Timms.

TIMMS
I agree with [CLAPPING] I agree with what the others have said. There was a D notice, that system does depend on media outlets honouring the obligation not to make reports, that was honoured, I think that was the responsible thing to do. From what's emerged today it sounds as though Prince Harry's been doing a great job alongside the other 7,000 or so UK troops who are in Afghanistan doing a great job for us and I think it was right for the press to respect the notice that was placed on them. As I understand it the information has been around on some websites in other countries for a while, I think it was right for it not to be reported in the UK.

DIMBLEBY
And what's your response to that point which says now listeners, viewers, readers will not know when they're being told and when they're not being told truths that someone else is deciding that they ought or not to have available to them?

TIMMS
Well it seems to me that there is some inevitability about that kind of limitation given the circumstances that the troops are dealing with and I think most people around the country will feel that's a reasonable sacrifice to make given what all these men and women are doing on our behalf.

OPIK
What's interesting about this example is that the British media are able to - a man and woman - to behave responsibly when they really have to. And the second thing which I'm pleased about is it shows that on this occasion the media did not lead the story, in other words a decision was made about a royal doing something important for the country and the media respected it. I'd just like to see a bit more of that partnership and it doesn't cause trouble, I don't think, for freedom of speech because there was never an effort to lie to the public, it was a matter of - what amounts to an official secret and grateful that the media acted responsibly this time.

DIMBLEBY
Sylvia Lanz you asked the question, posed the dilemma.

LANZ
Well as far as I'm concerned his commanding officer, his grandmother, his father and very few people beyond that had a need to know this information, I think the news blackout was one of those so-called win/win situations. The media had fantastic access to him for the human interest story to be told afterwards and the blackout kept him and fellow soldiers safe. I think it's an indictment of the media and the gossip mongering interested public that this poor man says that those 10 weeks of being shot at were his only chance of normality in life. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
We've got a packed - 3, 400 people in this hall unscientifically selected audience, who thinks that the blackout was reasonable, the self-imposed blackout, would you put your hands up? Who doesn't think it was reasonable? Well 99 - if I'm right about 400 - 99%, 99.5% think it was a reasonable blackout. You may have thoughts about that Any Answers if so will be for you after the Saturday broadcast of Any Questions, the number to ring 08700 100 444, the e-mail address any.answers@bbc.co.uk on this or of course any of the other issues that we now come to discuss. Our next one please.

JACONELLI
Stella Jaconelli. Will the immigration point system work?

DIMBLEBY
This is the new point system that the government is introducing to select and restrict the numbers of immigrants from outside - obviously outside the European Union - coming to this country. Justine Greening.

GREENING
I don't think it will because I think there are a number of issues that it doesn't address, not least of which the problem that we already have. As a London MP probably about 50% of my casework is immigration and I'm dealing every week with people who have been here in the UK for maybe nine, 10 years and are still in the system trying to get an answer, a final answer, out of the immigration service as to whether they can stay or whether they then have to go home. And this point system won't address that at all. And I also think that the extent that where we've had essentially unplanned immigration now for many, many years, I mean a decade, we're still going to be left with that as an issue to deal with for many communities who've seen pressures on local services that have been getting greater and greater over the years. So I think this is probably too little too late. And frankly without a cap on the number of economic migrants we have having a point system is pointless in a sense because if you're not going to cut off anywhere then there's no point grading what kind of - what priority of people we're going to put on on having come to this country to work here.

DIMBLEBY
A cap suggests you believe there are too many immigrants in this country, do you believe there are too many immigrants in this country?

GREENING
I think the problem is we don't actually know the number. I've tabled parliamentary questions to find out how many people are in the system waiting for an answer on whether they will get indefinite leave to remain.

DIMBLEBY
So how do you know how big the catch ...

GREENING
And I've been told that number doesn't exist.

DIMBLEBY
So how do you know how to cap if you don't know whether you've got too many already here or not?

GREENING
Well these are some of the issues we're confronted with, we don't have secure borders and I think what I'm saying is that actually there's a whole range of things that need to be put in place for us to have a proper functioning controlled immigration system and actually it's going to take more than this point system to fix that.

DIMBLEBY
[CLAPPING] Stephen Timms.

TIMMS
I welcome the new system. I think it is going to be effective and I think it will target the resources of the Home Office in the right way. We need immigration into the UK. We've actually done very well - economically we've done very well out of immigration. I'm a London MP, like Justine, and I'm quite certain that one of the reasons that London is now overtaking New York as the financial centre of the world is because of those who've come into the UK from outside to join our workforce. And by the way at the same time as that's happened, over the last 10 years, the proportion of UK nationals in work has risen. I think the key is that those who are coming to the UK should be coming here to work and that's what the point system will allow, it will allow us periodically and regularly to define what are the skills that we need to come into the workforce, it will allow us to manage student applications - I think all of us would welcome the fact that a lot of students come from outside the UK to study here and that's good for our education institutions, it's also very good for Britain in the future because it means that those students returning home after their studies are ambassadors for the UK for the rest of their working lives. So I think the scheme is going to work ...

DIMBLEBY
Will it have the effect of limiting the number that come into the country from its present level?

TIMMS
Well that'll depend on the economic circumstances and it'll depend who we need to come into the workforce at any one time. I don't agree with Justine about this idea of an arbitrary cap, I think that's far too inflexible and it would only in any case apply to a fairly small proportion of those who come into the UK. I think we need to manage it and manage it with the needs of the economy in mind.

DIMBLEBY
It follows from that that you don't think there are too many immigrants in this country at the moment, as some people say there are and that there is, with the point system, no need to have a cap because one way and another whatever increase it is we can accommodate it?

TIMMS
No actually I mean I don't think there are too many people in the UK at the moment, I think we need to [AUDIENCE NOISE] I think we need to make sure we have a properly managed system to meet the needs of our economy in the future and that is what this scheme will provide.

DIMBLEBY
[CLAPPING] Ed Husain.

HUSAIN
I think the point system will make it a lot more difficult and it'll allow the kind of people Britain and Britain's economy needs to be attracted to Britain. But the whole discussion about immigration, I mean the elephant and the [indistinct word] really is about numbers and the response from the audience here indicates that. And we've got to be honest and say that over the last five, six years the number of immigrants, not just from Eastern Europe but other countries, have put significant strains on public services - be they hospitals, be they schools, be they housing - and we've got to be honest about that and say what can be done. Having a cap I think is a feasible idea but how it's implemented is up for debate and scrutiny. But at the same time the immigrants that are already here in large numbers, the discussion must be about how to integrate these people without burdening them with larger numbers of immigrants who then cluster in certain areas and create further socioeconomic problems. So cap - yes; point system - yes; but underlying all of that how do you integrate those people who are coming and more importantly large numbers who are already here?

DIMBLEBY
You say it's about numbers and you say there are obviously pressures in certain areas, do you believe that there are too many immigrants in the country at the moment?

HUSAIN
Well my experience of the country is rather limited to certain parts of the country and as I see it - I mean I've recently been visiting Bradford, Leeds and it's odd to say that the answer to that question has to be yes. There are far too ...

DIMBLEBY
And why do you say that - why do you say that?

HUSAIN
I say that because when we go into certain parts of town and this is England we ought to find a certain English, British, presence, where people have come to Britain from other countries - my parents, my grandparents - they ought to integrate into the fabric of this country, this is a country that's been very genuine, very hospitable, very harmonious in its relations by and large in comparison - in comparison with other European countries. And I think it's not too much to ask that we should see, for example, not in the name of multiculturalism mono cultural ghettos being formed in Bradford, Burnley, Blackburn, Leicester and so on. [CLAPPING] But to see a genuine - a genuinely multicultural Britain in which people from all ethnic backgrounds, all religious backgrounds mix and live side by side together in peace and not cluster - cluster together besides certain butchers and certain religious institutions. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Lembit Opik.

OPIK
I'm very interested in Ed's answer there. My parents are Estonian, they came from Estonia as refugees in the Second World War and I wouldn't have been born if they hadn't been allowed to settle here because they'd have been sent back and my father would probably have been killed by the Soviet system. So for that I will be forever in this country's debt. And I think this country has a very noble tradition of standing up to the plate when we really are required to do the right thing. In terms of a cap ...

DIMBLEBY
That itself is not to do - that phrase - is not to do with immigration but to do principally with asylum.

OPIK
That's right but I would simply point out that one of the biggest problems of immigration we've had has been because of the war we had in Iraq which because of our military action with America caused a lot of people to end up being displaced and we cannot walk away from that responsibility if [CLAPPING] if we want to talk about immigration. Turning specifically to the point system - that could work but don't really like to hark back to the early '90s but let's remember that whatever system you have if you don't resource it properly it doesn't work. We already have a system for immigration which in theory at least could be quite effective but the Conservatives cut down when they were in government cut that system and Labour haven't really rebuilt it. The home truth here is that this country, successive governments of this country, have allowed immigration to continue fairly unregulated not least because I think there's been an underlying assumption that's helpful for our economy. Now we can discuss that but if we're going to be honest about that, whether it's a point system or some other system, we have to resource that process properly. And let's recognise of course that most people don't leave their home countries because they want to, they feel an economic imperative to do so. We can't blame people for trying to better their lives.

DIMBLEBY
Do you believe - I've asked all three, because as Ed Husain says for many people this is essential in the end about numbers, whether it's a cap you're talking about, whether it's a point system - do you believe there are too many immigrants in this country?

OPIK
Personally I don't. My judgement is that the immigrants in this country, including those people who are here illegally, are making a net contribution to our economy. Other people say different things but I think on balance a lot of the jobs that they do we wouldn't get done if those people weren't here and privately ...[CLAPPING] and - I mean I'm not saying that because I'm a Lib Dem and we're not in government - I'm saying privately maybe ministers need to be a bit more honest and we have to have a more honest debate about this otherwise we'll be talking - we'll be talking in riddles, then we'll never have an honest immigration policy for the United Kingdom.

DIMBLEBY
Ed Husain.

HUSAIN
If people aren't prepared to do these jobs here then there needs to be a change of culture among British workers who take British jobs. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Are you saying that that change in culture means people being prepared to do what many think of as unpleasant jobs for lower rates than at the moment people are willing to do those jobs?

HUSAIN
Then maybe those rates should be upped, there are other ways of getting around it, rather than saying we're going to outsource those jobs to Polish people or to whatever else. There's an inherent racism there, I'm sorry, there's an inherent racism in saying that British people just can't take say, for example, cleaning the streets or what have you and therefore we'll go and bring two million Polish people to do that job. Why can't we change the culture of work to ensure that we do those jobs ourselves?

OPIK
Ed that's not what's happening. In Montgomeryshire, my constituency, there is a very big Polish community because we can't get anyone else to do the jobs, there's virtually full employment in parts of my area. So in order for the companies to expand they import Polish people and they integrate perfectly well. We've got a Polish shop and frankly it's sold out all the time because everyone else goes there as well. And the reality is we need to stop being frightened of foreigners coming into this country. On the whole of course there's going to be a few crooks but on the whole these people are noble, they're doing their best and they're just trying to better themselves. And I think that's got to be respected.

DIMBLEBY
Justine Greening. [CLAPPING]

GREENING
I think we also need to remember though that there are nearly five million people in this country who are on out of work benefits. I see many in my surgery every week, they're on incapacity benefit, they desperately want to get into work but actually whilst ever there is a sort of constant source of labour that can come in from overseas they don't get a look in because employers don't have to offer them roles. And the other thing I would say ...

DIMBLEBY
Are you saying - are you saying that those people would prefer to be working on the minimum wage in the sort of jobs at the moment that many immigrants do than to be in receipt of the benefits that they are?

GREENING
They want a chance to work and earn their own money. And the other thing I would say is that in my experience a lot of these - a lot of these economic migrants are working in the black economy, they have no workers' rights, we've seen what happened to some of the Chinese cockle pickers, they're not leading wonderful lifestyles and I think that many of them are earning just about enough to subsist but nowhere near enough to get home even if they want to. And for me living in a modern Britain that is not the kind of country we should be supporting.

DIMBLEBY
Minister.

TIMMS
[CLAPPING] I think Lembit made a very important point about the net contribution the people who come to the UK from outside are making to our economy. Justine's talked about the number of people on out of work benefits, that number is a million fewer today than it was 10 years ago. One of my first duties as employment minister a couple of weeks ago was to announce the latest employment figures, they show that the rate of employment amongst UK nationals is higher now than it was 10 years ago.

DIMBLEBY
So why are you bothering with this point system then if it's all working effectively, why the point system if the market is functioning?

TIMMS
I want to underline the fact there has been a very positive contribution to the UK economy from what's happened over the last 10 years ...

DIMBLEBY
So why do you need the point system?

TIMMS
We need to manage the system more effectively, I think, in the future. There have been a lot of people who've come into the UK in the last few years, including ...

DIMBLEBY
But the point are there people coming in who you don't want to be coming in because they aren't either earning enough, they're not highly qualified enough, is that what is happening?

TIMMS
No, a lot of people have come - and Ed made the point about people from Poland - a lot of people have come from within the European Union and that of course is not going to be changed by any of us, it's their right to do that, it's in our interests to be able to move freely and trade freely within Europe. And the other side of that is people coming from Poland and other European countries into the UK.

OPIK
I actually think we can talk about the point system and there's some case for it but there's a big problem here as well, let's remember that if we are going to get the best from the rest of the world outside the European Union that leaves a vacuum of talent in second and third world countries. So if we're going to take out from there we have to put back in. And I'm really concerned that to sort ourselves out we might make problems worse in terms of health and the economy in countries that we really should be supporting.

DIMBLEBY
[CLAPPING] Much in there perhaps for Any Answers, I'll give the number if I may once more 08700 100 444. We spent quite a lot of time on that, let's move swiftly please to our next.

EDWARDS
Ian Edwards. Can it properly be said that the Prime Minister's call for plastic bags from shops to be phased out is anything other than tokenism?

DIMBLEBY
Getting rid of or reducing the plastic bags - is it more than tokenism? Ed Husain.

HUSAIN
I don't think it is, I mean I think it's putting a strong argument into the public debate - to be more concerned about our environment and if someone like the Prime Minister raises that question I think the fact that we're talking about it here and now creates more and more public awareness about the implications of disposing and the use of waste. So I think it's genuine yeah.

DIMBLEBY
Would you have liked your leader to have got it out before the Prime Minister Justine Greening as an idea?

GREENING
Well I think a little bit of tokenism perhaps. The experience that they had in Ireland when they introduced a similar approach several years ago now was actually not to tackle climate change or the environment it was actually about reducing litter. But it did definitely reduce the number of plastic bags used. I think the other key issue though is that sometimes we just get stuck on one particular aspect, what I'd love to see these supermarkets now looking at is reducing packaging and doing a whole load of other things. [CLAPPING] And I think that what's very positive about what's happening at the moment is actually companies are now starting to take their own responsibility for doing what they can for their customers and the environment which I think is good to see.

DIMBLEBY
Stephen Timms, I'm going to take a real gamble and suggest you're not going to disagree with the Prime Minister's ...

TIMMS
I'm not - I'm not indeed. And I welcome very much what Marks and Spencer's has said this week about this, I think that's the right thing to do. There used to be a Kwik Save just round the corner from where I live that charged a penny for its plastic bags, that seemed to me at the time to work pretty well. I hope the supermarkets will do the responsible thing, I think Justine's right we are starting to see more of that and Marks and Spencer's announcement is an example of that. But if they don't then I think it may well be that the government will need to do something more. But I welcome the progress we've seen so far.

DIMBLEBY
That something more appears to be a regulatory framework which would then require supermarkets and others to charge for plastic bags is that right?

TIMMS
It could be and I think we've seen the Irish tax measure proving quite effective, I mean maybe something along those lines would be necessary. But I hope the supermarkets will do the right thing of their own volition and we've started to see that process I think this week.

DIMBLEBY
Lembit Opik.

OPIK
I actually think that it's time we recognised the solutions to our environmental problems are local. Even as we sit here there's a meeting in a place called [Welsh name] in my constituency talking about wind turbines - the pro and the anti arguments. And it has to be local. If we always pretend that some other great big body will come along and do all the right things for the environment then it will never happen. So I completely agree with the idea of stopping these mountains of plastic bags, which I bet are under the sinks of every single person in this room. And I don't mind the miniscule inconvenience of having to remember to take some reusable bags from my house to the shop. Is that so high a price to pay to hopefully over time stop the deaths of dolphins and often other sea life because of these bags which last a thousand years? So it's a small step but it's an important one and if we make a lot of small steps then we'll make a big difference. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Thank you and to our next.

LONGLEY
Thank you. Graham Longley. Who will be running Russia after the election on Sunday, the newly elected president or the newly appointed prime minister?

DIMBLEBY
Stephen Timms.

TIMMS
We'll need to wait and see what the outcome of the election is although [AUDIENCE NOISE]...

DIMBLEBY
Are you all agog?

TIMMS
I think one particular outcome is widely expected. And I think frankly we will then simply have to see how things develop, what the new realities of the power structure in Russia are going to be, it's widely expected obviously that Mr Putin will continue to be a very influential figure but I don't think we should pass up the possibility that actually there could be a significant change, as a result of what happens this weekend, and that some of the difficulties there have been in the relationship between the UK and Russia there could be a chance here to improve things over the next few weeks. I certainly hope so but we will need to wait and see.

DIMBLEBY
You would welcome it if Medvedev turned out to be his own man? And Putin's influence declined?

TIMMS
Well if there's an opportunity to make some headway on some of the difficulties between our two countries I think that would be a very welcome development.

DIMBLEBY
Justine Greening.

GREENING
I think it will be interesting to see how that relationship between the two men works but at the end of the day it will be in the way of who is the president by the looks of it. So we'll have to wait and see what the outcome will be but no I think it'll be an opportunity for us to try and improve our relationship with Russia, perhaps it's certainly been a challenging one over the recent years and certainly over the past 12 months. So I think hopefully we'll be able to use it to try and rejuvenate that relationships a bit more positively than we've had in the last few months.

DIMBLEBY
Lembit Opik.

OPIK
I think Putin is a man who loved power, probably didn't take too kindly to other people muscling in and had to have his way. And that way I suppose he reminds me of Margaret Thatcher really. But - but we must also recognise that a man like Putin isn't just going to walk away, it's not in his psychology. I think that the president will start being the inferior partner in that relationship but there is going to be a shift over time. I think with great countries like Russia you have to make these changes gently because instability's the last thing we can afford. So I would guess that in the years ahead the president will become more powerful but Putin is going to be around for a few more years yet and I'd like to think of this as a transitional period from a time when Putin reigned supreme.

DIMBLEBY
Ed Husain.

HUSAIN
I think we've been here before with Yeltsin and Gorbachev, the sense of hope in the air repeatedly. But I'm sorry to say that I'm the pessimist in the panel here that Russia hasn't delivered. There's been an expectation of democracy in Russia over and over again and the rich have gotten richer and the poor have become poorer in Russia up and down the country and the fact that you've got huge millionaires living in London not paying their fair share of taxes, involved in all sorts of criminality, killing one another - Litvinenko case last year and all the rest of it. I'm not convinced an election in Russia on Sunday will bring about any significant change. [CLAPPING]

OPIK
But I think you've got to look at this in terms of a much longer timescale. Look where Russia was 25 years ago, 30 years ago. I was involved in the independence movement for Estonia, as I've inferred before, and the stuff that I saw from the 1970s there - the torture machines and everything else - Russia has made a step change, for its faults, and there still is corruption and everything else. I choose to be more optimistic than Ed I think on this one because I think that the alternative of not assuming that Russia will take its proper place and become more democratic is unthinkable.

HUSAIN
But look where East Germany was and we look where East Germany is now today - so communist countries can move forward, the question is why isn't Russia moving forward significantly enough, my hunch is that the pressure on Russia for countries such as Britain and others hasn't been applied significantly enough.

OPIK
But although this is becoming dialogue, others say that I think what we saw in the last 15, 20 years where all kinds of unresolved issues from the 1940s and 1930s being worked through one after the other let's also remember that the West won the Cold War by virtually bankrupting the Soviet Union, now it was the public that suffered more than the high command there and perhaps that was good in the long run. But we have to work together. I mean we make speculations but the real thing we can do is have a proper economic partnership which means it's really important that Russia does not mess up its relationship with the West at the moment I think that's a tiny bit precarious.

DIMBLEBY
We'll leave that there, thank you and go to our next. [CLAPPING]

POTTER
Fern Potter. What is the panel's view on Network Rail paying its senior managers bonuses last year, being fined on overrunning on engineering work earlier this year and just yesterday having its chief executive knighted for his services to public transport? [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Justine Greening.

GREENING
Well I think as somebody who uses the train service regularly in my area I find it slightly galling frankly to see bonuses paid out when our local service is so bad. And certainly over Christmas and New Year almost bewildering that at this time of year when people are trying to get all over the country en masse and there were so many problems. And I mean the irony of course is now they've been fined, I think it's £40 million, and it will go into the Treasury whereas surely it should at least go back into the transport department so we can actually spend it on improving our transport system that so desperately needs the money on it. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
And what about the knighthood you're asked, Sir Ian McAllister's knighthood?

GREENING
Well I think it's - from my perspective - a bit of a side issue compared to the actual state of the railways and that the fine that the Network Rail had which, as far as I can see, is our money being paid back to us and somehow it's going to end up in the Treasury when actually what we'd all like to see it spent on effectively is improving transport.

DIMBLEBY
Stephen Timms, minister.

TIMMS
Well I must say I think Network Rail works a lot better than Rail Track did and I think that's [AUDIENCE NOISE] ...

DIMBLEBY
Minister, minister, because there was a sort of response - if I can put it like that - from the audience I'm just going to ask them, because they're - how many people in this - in this hall are users of public train services, would you put your hands up? A huge proportion. Who shares the view that Network Rail and Rail Track are noticeably different in their performances? And who doesn't share the view? You've got an uphill task minister.

TIMMS
I'm grateful for the support that was shown. But I ...

DIMBLEBY
For the benefit of those listening - for the benefit of those listening out of 3-400 people there was one supporter.

TIMMS
I went to Liverpool yesterday by train, I must say it worked absolutely perfectly. We are [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] - we are - I sense I do have an uphill struggle but let me just make this point - we are seeing a significantly larger number of people using the railways today than was the case a few years ago, I think the number of passengers is now more than at any time since the 1960s and actually that of course reflects the fact there's been a very large investment in the rail network. But I think it also reflects the fact that the rail network has been better managed over the last few years than before. So I don't begrudge Sir Ian his knighthood.

DIMBLEBY
Do you begrudge the senior managers their bonuses - again Fern Potter's question?

TIMMS
I really think that's a matter for the company, rather than for me.

DIMBLEBY
Do you begrudge the fine £14 million?

TIMMS
Well I think that's entirely appropriate, they had a problem - they had a problem on one of their projects, there are rules about how that should be handled and handled in my view in the right way. But let's not overlook the improvements there have been in the rail service in the last few years, there's more to come but I think the improvements there have been have been welcome.

DIMBLEBY
Lembit Opik.

OPIK
This is an example of Labour's hyperinflation, it used to cost one and a half million pounds for a peerage, now it costs £14 million for a knighthood. [CLAPPING] And for Stephen to say that he thinks that Network Rail is better than Rail Track is like saying bronchitis is better than pneumonia. I came down by train today but I got a lift to Wolverhampton so I wouldn't have to use Arriva because Arriva's so unreliable I'd probably be walking in at the end of the show. And Arriva always say the same things, they say it's not us, it's Network Rail which is letting us down. Now I don't know whether that's true or not but two things I'm sure of: number one, I'm going to have that meeting with Arriva pretty soon and secondly, if we really want to sort this out we've got to make the operators responsible for the infrastructure, like in the old days [CLAPPING] so that .... so that quite simply they can't hide behind each other when what happens is we miss our connections and we end up late for business.

DIMBLEBY
You serve a Welsh constituency, Welsh - your party in Wales believes in the renationalisation of the railway system, do you?

OPIK
We've talked - ooh - we've - Norman Baker will shout at me if I answer your question.

DIMBLEBY
He's your transport spokesman.

OPIK
He's my transport person but I have to say ...

DIMBLEBY
Well as you don't mind being shouted at or shouting at Arriva why not give us a chance to see what he would shout at you for?

OPIK
Okay for clarity, the party's position across the UK isn't to nationalise. In Wales we have talked about a policy to not renew a franchise at the end of the period, so it would come back into state ownership. Now let me be careful, Norman Baker's federal position is that we don't renationalise but I think we all feel the same way about sharing the responsibility of the infrastructure with the operators because at the moment it's ridiculous - when you make a complaint they say it's not our fault. Because I'm not really interested, if I'm paying the very high prices for rail tickets in this country I'm not interested in hearing excuses on a train when I'm going to arrive at one o'clock in the morning at my destination. I want them to say sorry you're right we'll fix it and 12 months time find the trains working.

DIMBLEBY
Do you believe your party in Wales [CLAPPING] do you believe your party in Wales is right, I understand that you're not speaking for the spokesman?

OPIK
I think we are right to do - I think we are right to threaten the railways with what actually happened with Network Rail, which was basically renationalised, saying if you can't sort it out then we will. But I'd like to think that we can get a less confrontational partnership going with Arriva, I seriously hope that Huw Irranca-Davies, who is a Welsh MP, will convene a meeting with Arriva and interested parties and MPs from all parties to make sure that we fix these problems. So I think in a fit of pique we did pass that policy but as far as I'm concerned now the answer isn't to talk about the grand strategies it's the minutiae of running a system so that you can get on to a train at one part of the country and have a 90% likelihood or better than 90% likelihood of getting where you want to go on time because if you don't then unfortunately business people will drive and that's bad for the environment aside from all the traffic jams and everything else. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Welsh Liberal Democrats have fits of pique - that's almost racist.

OPIK
Well I had a fit of pique, I take responsibility.

DIMBLEBY
Ed Husain.

HUSAIN
Well I regularly use public transport and the rail service and the thing that amazes me most is that almost on a weekly basis there are glitches on the rail service. And it's got to be said that in most private sector companies you deliver, you keep your customer base happy and you get bonuses and it seems deeply unfair that Sir Ian ought to receive such a high bonus on the back of such poor service and widespread disgruntlement in the public, vis-à-vis the service that he's delivered. [CLAPPING] Going forward I can only suggest that ticket fares either remain frozen next year or there's a decrease and there's a better level of service.

DIMBLEBY
Thank you. Fern Potter, you provoked that debate, what's your own feeling?

POTTER
Well perhaps - perhaps I've missed the point of knighthood but I always thought it was for excellence rather than mediocre. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
If Arriva, the Welsh Liberal Democrat party in Wales, Sir Ian McAllister want to have a word about this on air - 08700 100 444 and the e-mail address any.answers@bbc.co.uk after the Saturday broadcast. We'll go swiftly to our next please.

ROBB
Andy Robb. For what cause, if any, would the members of the panel be prepared to climb up on to the roof of the House of Commons?

DIMBLEBY
Can you think of something you care enough about to want to climb up onto the roof, even if you, unlike the demonstrators weren't able to make it, Justine Greening?

GREENING
Well actually I have to say Heathrow's a subject quite close to my heart, so I probably feel as strongly as they do, I just don't think my way of showing it would be to climb up on the House of Commons roof terrace. I don't really know what I would go up there for actually ...

DIMBLEBY
You have sympathy - you have sympathy with them for making that gesture?

GREENING
I think that many people feel on a whole range of issues, whether it's Heathrow or whether it's something like post office closures, that what is happening out in the country is not what gets debated in Parliament and we have topical debates allocated every week and you know what they are never on these big issues that are really bothering people out in the country. And I think whilst ever we've got such a big disconnect between what we're able to debate in Parliament - and we saw it this week in Europe and we're going to see it on the European Treaty again next week - whilst ever there's such a big disconnect between what people are concerned about, whether it's Rail Track or other issues, than what's debated in that place then people will try and find a way of nevertheless getting their message across. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Ed Husain.

HUSAIN
I can't really think of anything that will get me to protest in that fashion ..

DIMBLEBY
Is it because you're afraid of heights or you don't feel strongly enough?

HUSAIN
I think a combination of the two and also the fact that you know chaining yourself and handcuffing yourself to things - it just seems, it's not my kind of protest really I'm afraid.

DIMBLEBY
It's very urbane. If you were however to feel strongly about something and in about a sentence or so say what it was - an issue about which you feel so strongly that you would like to make your voice heard loudly enough for people not to be able to ignore it, what would it be?

HUSAIN
Having just returned last year from living in Saudi Arabia I'd say gender segregation.

DIMBLEBY
Thank you. [CLAPPING] Stephen Timms.

TIMMS
I think probably the best reason for going up on to the roof of the House of Commons is to admire the view, it is a very good view. I don't agree with what Greenpeace did this week. And in terms of a subject I feel really strongly about, I'm the minister for employment but this happens to be my strongly held personal view as well, I think it's getting more people into work, I think that's a way that you can really transform people's lives, including people who've been out of work for a long time into a job. And if going up on to the roof of the House of Commons would help with that I'd be delighted to do it. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
It may well have been that Greenpeace was enthusiastic for what happened, it was actually Plane Stupid was the organisation who got up there. Lembit Opik.

OPIK
If I could be told that by climbing on to the roof of the House of Commons and getting arrested I could find a cure for Motor Neurone Disease I'd do it. I'm the president of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, my father died of it a few years ago, it's a dreadful disease, not very well known but it creates paralysis from the outside in, your mind is sound but your body shuts down. And I've been trying to find enough money, help the association find enough money, to get a cure and to this government's great credit they've now given seven and a half million pounds in match funding to our £15 million target. Today we actually found part of the cure - but no sorry part of the clues towards a cure - and frankly if I could get the rest by climbing on the roof I would. So save me bother give money to Motor Neurone Disease. [CLAPPING] Association and save me from arrest.

DIMBLEBY
That's an invitation to Any Answers, any pet cause of the Lembit Opik type or any of the others, what would make you climb to the top of the Houses of Parliament, 08700 100 444. That brings us to the end of this week's programme. Next week we're going to be in London, as it happens, at the Royal College of Music with the present Mayor of London Ken Livingstone; the shadow leader of the House of the Commons Theresa May; the editor of the Spectator Matthew D'Ancona and the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman who had wanted to be leader Chris Huhne. Join us there. From here at Westcliff High School for Boys goodbye. [CLAPPING]
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