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Journey of a Lifetime
Transcript: Any Questions?  9 May 2008


PRESENTER: Jonathan Dimbleby

PANELLISTS: Frank Field
Alan Duncan
Lord (Chris) Rennard
Alice Thomson

FROM: Brereton and Ravenhill Parish Hall, Staffordshire


DIMBLEBY
Welcome to Staffordshire and to Brereton, which this year, unhappily, remembers a forlorn centenary. In 1908 a mining disaster in the local pit Coppice Colliery. Today, though, things have moved on a great deal and Rugeley Power Station is now the main employer in the area. While to the south of the parish there's Cannock Chase, the smallest area of outstanding natural beauty on Britain's mainland.

We're the guests of the parish council and the Brereton and Ravenhill Heritage Committee and we're in the parish hall.

On our panel here: Frank Field was the minister for welfare reform in the first years of the Labour government. He was then charged to think the unthinkable. He did just that and among other things concluded that the tax credit system, to quote his words in this week's Spectator, quotes: "Might as well have been designed at the Mad Hatter's tea party". It was of course designed by the Chancellor of the day Gordon Brown. Frank Field, incidentally, duly got the sack. Now he's the leader of the seismic revolt against what the Prime Minister admits to have been a mistake - namely the abolition of the 10pence tax rate.

Alan Duncan was an oil trader but gave up what would now be an even more lucrative business to become a Conservative MP, he's the Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Alice Thomson is a columnist and associate editor of the Daily Telegraph. Forging her career at The Times newspaper, where she was a foreign correspondent covering both the Gulf War and the Bosnian campaign. And in a couple of months time she'll return to The Times as columnist and interviewer.

Charles Kennedy was to have been the fourth member of our panel. However, he didn't make it. For one reason or another he missed his train at Euston. We then made every effort to let him do the programme, as it were, virtually from London but one way or another he didn't turn up, he's gone off our radar. Mercifully though at the very last moment the Lib Dems chief executive Lord Brereton at Rennard, Chris Rennard, who was nearby campaigning I think in Crewe has stepped into the breach and indeed he has this very moment stepped on to this platform. Looking remarkably cool and not at all out of breath, are you absolutely knackered?

RENNARD
I'm absolutely fine, thank you very much indeed.

DIMBLEBY
Well it's very good to have you on the programme and thank you for stepping in to the breach. This is our panel. [CLAPPING] Our first question please.

TORRELL
Carol Turrell. Is it possible for the West to impose aid on the Burmese government?

DIMBLEBY
Can the West impose aid on the Burmese government? Frank Field.

FIELD
The answer's clearly no. And I don't think we should spend too much time condemning the Junta there, that's what we've been doing for ages with sadly little effect. But there are some very practical things we can do. I think first we ought to abide by the Junta's rule and get food in for the Junta to distribute. Secondly, I would hope that while practically everybody was in unison, condemning what a dreadful old regime it was, there would have been a few people, maybe in the academic community who took a different view and had some link and have some links with the Junta. And I think it's very, very important for those who when practically the whole world was spitting in the face of the Burmese leadership was putting another view to encourage them to get in touch with the Junta to say what is happening is a disaster and it is of such magnitude that when that's happened elsewhere other countries have quite properly brought people in. And then I think we ought to say we'll come in under your control. In that once that starts the chances are that the control would begin to dissipate. And lastly their close friend is China and we ought to be putting as maximum amount of pressure on China to get the aid in. But I don't think we can have a stand off, we - every hour that goes by more people die and I think we've just got to work within the very limited framework the Junta is currently offering us.

DIMBLEBY
Alice Thomson.

THOMSON
I think the last point's the one I really agree with most - is that China has had a really bad press in the last few months, it's got this whole Tibet problem, it's trying to run up Everest with a torch but everyone's trying to stop it from getting round the world. And actually this is China's chance to say look we are part of the international community we can help here, we've got very good contacts with Burma, we know how to get in there, we can do something about it and actually if you let us help, if you send your aid to us we will go in there and we will try and distribute it. And actually I think it's a fantastic chance for China to say we're going to come on board and we're going to help and we're not going to be ideological about this. And that's what I hope will happen and I think whether it happens through the UN or whether it happens with America or however they do it I think if everyone could be grown up enough to say this is China's chance to really take a lead in an international disaster it would be fantastic news for everyone. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Alan Duncan.

DUNCAN
It's been nearly a week since this happened and every single minute matters. Because it wasn't on film and television in the way the tsunami was it doesn't mean that it's a smaller and less significant event. There is perhaps a million people here now desperate for food, water, health and care and it's not happening. And the reason it's not happening is because this knuckle headed, old fashioned military dictatorship is putting up obstacles to giving its own people the aid they desperately need. Frank is right, we shouldn't just get into a political battle about how dreadful they are, although they are. What matters is that we use every conceivable way of getting aid into that country as quickly as possible. Yes the Chinese matter, so does international pressure matter and everything we should do is to try and just get lorries and helicopters into that country to do things. I mean it is a disgusting regime. They're due this weekend to have a referendum which basically is a referendum which will keep the military dictatorship in forever and anyone who campaigns to vote no is liable to a three year imprisonment. It is the disgusting backwater of horror and what that country needs is help and the whole world should put pressure on this regime, so help can get to their people. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Chris Rennard.

RENNARD
There is, I understand now, an international duty - the United Nations duty to protect - which would at least give some justification in international law for an intervention. But as everyone's been saying it's a question of practicalities of how can you do it. Perhaps the only way is through pressure on Chinese and China this year in particular is very conscious of its public image. It's had its problems in Tibet, it's failed to act in Zimbabwe but now we have to say that if you want to restore your image and reputation in any way before the Olympic Games you have to act now in this terrible situation and bring pressure on the Burmese government to allow the aid in.

DIMBLEBY
Do you sympathise with what Alice Thomson said and what also Frank Field touched on that if the aid would get there more effectively by giving it directly or indirectly to China, maybe in addition seconding all your people to the UN, you'd be happy to do anything like that if it would get the aid there?

RENNARD
Well in a situation like this you shouldn't really argue about who is controlling the helicopters, you'd simply provide the equipment and provide the food and whoever will deliver it you let them deliver it.

DIMBLEBY
Do you think, Frank Field, given that it may work in practice, that in principle governments will respond that way? Can you imagine the British government saying yes we will - we've committed at the moment, the British government, $10 million, just over £5 million, saying okay we'll hand all this to China to deliver if we can't get in ourselves?

FIELD
Well I think first we ought to be trying to get it in to hand over to the Junta to distribute. That's the first move. The second is then to say look our voluntary movements - if you want government support - will be under your command. I am less hopeful than Alice is about China's role and China somehow wanting to be so rational and respond to the international community. I mean Alan described how awful this regime is but the regime in China is also equally awful. And I don't think we quite get the measure of the Chinese mind to think it works like a Western mind. But I agree all these things must be tried, no opportunity should be lost. But I still think the best way in is in the first instance to bow down before the Junta, to get food in, to let them distribute, to then let them control our agencies in the distribution and then hopefully the operation gets so large that they cannot control it. But the urgency is huge.

DUNCAN
I doubt they've got the capacity to do it, that's the trouble, it's such a closed toy town idiotic society I doubt they've got the means to overcome the broken roads, the swept away bridges, they won't have the machinery, it was probably all built in about 1951. I mean this is a collapsing backwater of a country and they can hardly cope with daily life let alone a disaster of this scale.

DIMBLEBY
That's what the British Ambassador's been saying UN people have been saying and those extremely eloquent reports from the BBC correspondent on the ground, Frank Field...

FIELD
But there are three American aircraft carriers now in the area, they clearly could do a great deal in distribution but what we need is for the Junta not to in a sense dress it up, as Alan's saying, clapped out, toy town all the rest of it, that we are in control and we are managing this affair and we've invited them in to do the distribution.

DIMBLEBY
But given that you agree with what Alan Duncan says about the nature of the regime do you really expect them to say yes we will take the equipment and the men and the resources from American aircraft carriers and have them on the ground under our control - is that realistic?

FIELD
It's not realistic but it gives them the face saving formula ....

DUNCAN
While their people die, that's the trouble.

FIELD
But they're dying now and what else are you proposing Alan? I'm just thinking we should operate on all fronts. One of them and then more than one may work. Maybe none will work.

DIMBLEBY
Thank you. If you have thoughts about that the Any Answers number is 08700 100 444 and the e-mail address any.answers@bbc.co.uk. Our next question please.

TURRELL
Alan Turrell. If the government had made a better job of publicising the many things, e.g. minimum wage, family tax credits, that it's done to help the low paid would the political fallout from the 10p tax issue have been significantly reduced?

DIMBLEBY
Alice Thomson.

THOMSON
I think this is the great tragedy about this is that Gordon Brown spent 10 years as Chancellor desperately trying to help the poor, that was his main remit. I don't think he was very good at it, personally I think actually he made it far too complicated, far too complex and it didn't always help the right people. But he did try, his heart was in the right place, this is what he wanted to do - he wanted to redistribute wealth. And actually he made a real go of it. And just in one budget when just a throwaway line he's managed to give all that up and it really is - he's gone from Robin Hood to being King John. It's astonishing to me that he could actually have done that, for someone who ideologically believes in an issue so much and it's so fundamental to him that he could have done that. And all really just to try and give the middle classes a boost just before he become Prime Minister, I just don't think it was worth it in any way and that's why I think it's so sad.

DIMBLEBY
[CLAPPING] Was there a way of reducing the political fall out Alan Duncan?

DUNCAN
I mean the fact that Gordon Brown wanted to address child poverty I assume is true, let's take him as a genuine politician who wanted to do that. The fact that he has successfully addressed it is a total myth and worse than that it's a tragedy which has adversely affected a lot of people. All his methods of doing so are very centralised, they're very complicated and Frank Field is the great expert in this and he's pointed out that out too. Even to the point where people who have tax credits suddenly find their circumstances change and the government sends them a bill for a rebate which is the cruellest thing to do anyone who is impoverished and has to count one, two, three or four pounds a week on their household budget. Now what Gordon Brown did here was with all the complicated apparatus which the questioner has asked about the minimum wage and working family tax credit etc. etc. has just thrown a grenade into what he did manage to do. The thing about the 10p rate is that he reduced the upper rate from 22 to 20, abolished the 10p and forgot to calculate that the poorest people were the ones who on the margin would be hurt and then what is worse is that he has stubbornly refused to do anything about it. Now Frank and the Conservative Party and other people in his party spotted this, right from the start we said oh hold on, this simplification is going hurt the poor. Frank moved an amendment which would have set down some rules but actually the changes are in this year's budget and he moved an amendment and I think he was duped by Gordon Brown, it's for him to say where we now stand. But I think he was conned. In all honesty he thought that he was being given a good deal by Gordon Brown but to this moment Gordon Brown has not delivered. So what we have is a Labour government supposedly championing the poor, making poor people poorer and stubbornly refusing to address the consequences of their own actions. Frankly on the back of that Gordon Brown deserves everything he gets. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Chris Rennard.

RENNARD
Well his last budget of course as Chancellor the Exchequer Gordon Brown thought he'd delivered a coup de grace to the Conservatives by reducing the basic rate from 22 pence to 20 pence. But of course in doing so he did it at the expense of poorer people by effectively doubling this 10p rate, the starting rate, which the low paid paid tax. Sort of Robin Hood in reverse policy. It's the sort of thing I think many people would have thought might have come from a Conservative government not from a Labour one. That's why many Labour supporters are so deeply disillusioned with Gordon Brown and his party at the moment. It's rather like the poll tax, as the Conservatives brought it in in the early 1990s, disproportionately poorer people having to pay more of their income to the government than rich people are. That simply can't be right. I think that was a major theme in the local elections and one of the reasons why the Labour Party did just so badly a week ago. And you saw the look of shock in Gordon Brown's face the morning after the local elections when his party was reduced to just 24% in share of the vote. I think it'll also be an enormous issue in the Crewe and Nantwich by election in two weeks time and again he will suffer very greatly from the fact that he's punishing poorer people for no good reason. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Frank Field, the Prime Minister has conceded it was a mistake, do you think that mistake was in the form of an oversight which could be a political incompetence or do you think, as some have said, not least senior civil servants, that he must have known what he was doing because he would have been told what the impact of the change would have been?

FIELD
The then Chancellor, now Prime Minister, knew and of course politicians perhaps are more prone than anybody else to rewrite history. Alan has rewritten history and I'll just correct him in a moment on that. A year ago when the - it was announced that these tax changes were going to appear I put down an amendment on that then budget 12 months ago that we should prepare a proper package of compensation so that no low paid workers lost. All but one of the Conservative Party did not vote, Alan did not vote on that. The Liberals voted, the Nationals voted, a few Labour members voted. One Conservative member voted with us in the lobbies and he since has been expelled from the parliamentary Conservative Party and joined UKIP.

DIMBLEBY
But given that background, you say he knew - when you say he knew, he knew what he was doing and had decided that it was either the right thing to do or it would be a stupid thing to do regardless of the 5.3 million households affected?

FIELD
I assume he must have thought it was a proper thing in the whole of the budget. He might have thought that somehow people were going to be compensated adequately through the tax system and I saw people nodding when Alan said oh I've been duped and all the rest of it, the budget comes back in the very end of June, the very beginning of July, and there will then be a blocking mechanism done by Labour members and while I'm quite certain the government is working hard on that package they've shown an extraordinary inability to communicate what was communicated in private publicly, which is where it is important that it is communicated. And I do believe the stakes are very, very high for the Prime Minister indeed, that if his backbenchers are not satisfied by then on the form that the compensation package will take it may destroy his premiership.

DIMBLEBY
Because you, amongst others, are ready to go into the lobbies and vote against the budget through an amendment and that will be treated at least by the party as a vote of confidence in the Prime Minister and therefore he falls?

FIELD
It would be very difficult obviously for him to continue. It's not to defeat the budget, it is to delay the giving of permanent authority for the abolition of the 10p until we've seen what the compensation package is.

DIMBLEBY
What in your view has he got to say to make it clear that the compensation is enough to, as it were, stop this possibility?

FIELD
Well I think the debate has moved on from that, what I was hoping he would have said is some very simple sentences is that I was - I got it wrong, I apologise, that every effort is being made to find as many as possible of those people who've lost out, all means at the government's disposable - disposal will be used to deliver that compensation package and everything will be backdated to April 1st - sorry the beginning of the financial year, what April 6th isn't it, yes. Now that statement in those clear sentences has actually not been uttered and therefore I think ...

DIMBLEBY
Forgive me - it's not clear what you are saying either. You're saying it's got to be backdated, as many losers as possible have got to be compensated - what constitutes enough losers being compensated for you to be satisfied that there are enough?

FIELD
I think if the government had immediately come forward with that simple statement their good faith would have been kept. I think now people will want much more detail of how the compensation will operate. And I think there are three serious ways that they're doing it. Looking at the tax system and increasing allowances, and to see whether through the tax system one can do a claw back, so only those who lost out with the abolition of the 10p gain. Again to increase allowances and then to adjust national insurance contributions, so only those under £19,000 who lost out gained. And Anthony Barber, a Tory Chancellor of quite some time ago, himself introduced a scheme to particularly help low income groups by introducing an allowance which was clawed back as income rose. So I think the Treasury has three proposals which I'm sure it's actively working on but whereas before we would have actually I think trusted the government their inability to make those four simple sentences public has changed the mood of the backbenches. I tried to get a motion down to say the government is doing - is searching, is going to try and find as many people as possible, we'll use the tax system, but we must have it backdated. The truth is that most able members of parliament thought that far too modest and mild to get them to sign. The argument has moved on and the government underestimates the anger now on the backbenches that they must assuage if they're going to safely deliver their budget.

DIMBLEBY
That means reopening the whole budget in effect to deliver what you're talking about.

FIELD
Well Alan will say it's reopening, the Labour side will rightly say it's adding to the budget.

DIMBLEBY
Alan Duncan.

DUNCAN
Yes I'm not fussed about whether we call it reopening or adding. Setting aside who voted which way and why basically we are in common agreement that what matters here is not the 10p tax, as such, what matters is the financial penalty as a consequence of abolishing it, that has hit the poor, whereas everyone who is richer has had a reduction in tax. And that is inequitable, unfair and any sense of decency in politics must I think compel all of us to address it. And I think what we've just heard tonight all in this hall and all listening may want to remember - I think we have just witnessed a very, very serious moment in British politics because I think what we are now seeing is such a focus of attention on Gordon Brown in the months ahead that almost anything could happen and it is his entire credibility and decency which I think are on the line. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Chris Rennard.

RENNARD
Well I simply don't agree with Alan Duncan - you should ignore which way politicians voted or didn't vote in parliament on this issue. As Frank Field eloquently explained the Conservative Party did not vote with Frank Field and the Liberal Democrats ....

FIELD
Well I've got it here and I'll explain why if you want ...

DIMBLEBY
Let's not go there - let's not go there.

FIELD
That's what I was trying to avoid, I'm trying to avoid ...

DIMBLEBY
You've both made your point - you've both made your points. I don't think we'll go - I don't think we'll pursue that any further because there's lots to discuss. Alice.

THOMSON
I think there's a much bigger point here actually and I think nothing is going to appease Frank from now on, I don't think there's anything that Gordon can say that is actually going to make this any better, I don't think it is going to get any better. And I think the extraordinary thing for Frank is that he's waited 11 years for this to happen because 11 years ago he came up with a very, very plausible plan for benefits and for a way of thinking the unthinkable and changing this country. And one person stopped him and that person was Gordon Brown and 11 years later it is coming back to haunt him. He instead chose an incredibly complex, difficult system that Frank Field hadn't suggested, that had nothing to do with it, he then sacked Frank, 11 years later Frank's saying your system is terrible - it sucks, it hasn't helped the poor, it's a complete disaster and you don't deserve to be Prime Minister. And I don't think anything Gordon can say will change the opinion of that. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Just to summarise very briefly, Frank Field, at the moment unless you get very unambiguous clear answers you and you believe a majority of Labour backbenchers stand read to bring this government down on this issue?

FIELD
I can't say how many colleagues will, all I can say is that I believe the temperature and the anger on the backbenches is not going down but actually going up. And I do think Alan's point - he asked two points in his question - one given all that Labour's done shouldn't people be more grateful and the truth is once you've done it people move on quite quickly and they're not that interested in what the actual record it. But there is Alice's point - this most fundamental issue - the idea that we should put people's taxes up and compensate them through tax credits and we've got this weird world where four out of five people who claim tax credits have some of the tax credits clawed back through the tax system. I mean it is weird beyond belief and that the aim surely must be to lessen and then abolish tax on those who are low paid. And to remember Mr Gladstone's view that you don't have to be very clever to spend somebody else's money giving it to a third party. But to make your strategy against poverty successful the aim of when you distribute money is actually to extend freedom rather than to extend dependency. And I think that's at the heart of this programme.

DIMBLEBY
We must move on but before we do - you provoked this discussion Alan Torrell, what is your own view?

TORRELL
I think it's fair to say that yes the benefit system can be simplified but I think the point to be made is that under a Labour government the low paid have lots of benefits, minimum wage ect., which they didn't get under the Tories and they've politically undersold those benefits they've given.

DIMBLEBY
Okay thank you. If you want to have a thought about this or indeed any of the other issues we're discussing that number once again 08700 100 444. Our next question please.

COOPER
Nigel Cooper. Should the limit for abortion be brought down to 20 weeks?

DIMBLEBY
Alan Duncan.

DUNCAN
This is all coming up in the Embryology Bill probably on the 19th and 20th of this month. I'm very ambiguous about abortion, I mean I don't like issues of this becoming a matter of party politics, so I'm glad they're a matter of a free vote, I think that's healthy for democracy. My basic view of abortion is leave it alone but it does appear that the science has so changed over the last 30 years that there are some very strong arguments for saying that allowing abortions later are really I think destroying a life that could clearly be enjoyed outside the womb and that there are arguments for bringing it closer. I think just of the view that if I were to vote on this I would agree to bring it from - I think - is it - it's either 24 to 20 - 24 ...

DIMBLEBY
The proposed - the proposal is 20.

DUNCAN
But beyond I wouldn't want to see anymore upheaval in the laws on abortion. It's - we end up getting in a dreadful mess I think if that were to happen.

DIMBLEBY
Alice Thomson.

THOMSON
I feel very strongly that we spend far too much time talking about this 20-24 weeks and I think yes there is a question, I think it's incredibly sad that we have to have abortions at all, I think it's fantastically difficult as a situation to talk about. But I think we spend our whole time talking about this rather than talking about the hundreds of thousands of children who are born who then go into foster care, who aren't looked after properly, who have very, very few prospects because no one cares about them. If the people who spent their whole time campaigning about anti-abortion and talking about the foetus, rather than talking about children, actually focused their concentration on some of the children who really, really have got the most appalling lives it would be fantastic. And Alan said when he was talking about it that the research shows that they are - between 20 and 24 weeks the science has changed, well the research today actually, which is the most extensive research they've done, shows that at 24 weeks there is a possibility but at 23, 22 weeks it hasn't changed over the last 10 years. And that it is extraordinary that we're very, very worked up about this tiny period of time when it isn't viable at 23, 22 weeks, when we should be concentrating on children the whole time and we have got good abortion laws and we should be concentrating on making sure teenagers don't get pregnant and trying to help them stop getting pregnant.

DIMBLEBY
The research you refer to is by a team from the University of Leicester reported in the British Medical Journal, which suggests that there's been, I'm quoting the report or from the report: "No change in the survival rates of those born before 24 weeks. During the 12 year period care for the 150 babies born at 22 weeks remained unsuccessful and none survived to be discharged." Frank Field.

FIELD
I agree with what Alice has said but I don't necessarily think it's an either/or one situation or the other. I was going round the maternity in the local hospital at Arrow Park on one occasion and there was this tiny baby in the intensive care unit and I was struck that at that time because the anti-abortionists had so messed up the voting in the House of Commons we had no time limit at all at the end of the day and the Infant Life Preservation Act was the one which operated, therefore the 28 weeks then operated. And I asked how old the baby was at birth and they said 24 weeks and I said but you abort in this hospital up to 28 weeks, but you save other babies. And they said yes that's the law you tell us to carry out. And it does seem to me proper that we should look very carefully at that work from Leicester University because although it says - and they've done it twice now in the media - that the viability has not changed, they've actually not told us much about the numbers around 24 weeks who do actually survive. And I think that's - we ought not to put our medical staff in a position where on one occasion they save a baby and on another occasion they kill a foetus of that same age. Therefore I'm in favour of lowering it, if the anti-abortionists insist that they're only going to vote for 20 weeks, I think the whole thing will be lost, we might actually win on 22 weeks. But I think from what Alice and Alan have said you will have got a very clear view that there is no stomach in this country for going back to a situation where people had to go back streets for their abortions, with all the dangers that that involved. Of course it's right to try and cut teenage pregnancy and particularly of young mums but we're less successful in doing that than anywhere else in Europe, so we have a huge problem here which while both parties have actually tried to make some real change on we've been unsuccessful with. But I hope those who think that every foetus is a baby from the word go when they come to voting are prepared to compromise when we vote otherwise the whole reform will be lost.

DIMBLEBY
Chris Rennard.

RENNARD
Well I agree, I really don't think people in this country want to go back before things were - before David Steel's Abortion Act of 1967. But the issues of course about late abortions and there are lots of people who don't late abortions. But of course I don't know anybody who will actually say they were in favour of them. It seems to me that if you genuinely want to reduce the number of late abortions you have to talk about things like sex education at an appropriate and early age and contraception provision that goes with that education and you also have to talk on issues like access in the early stages of pregnancy. And if those people who say they're really only concerned by the issue of late abortions will talk a bit more about sex education and access to abortion in the early stages of pregnancy I think perhaps they were more sincere in the talk about being concerned about late abortions rather than perhaps a just more fundamental opposition to the 1967 Act.

DIMBLEBY
Our questioner, what do you think about this - Nigel Cooper?

COOPER
Thank you. When David Steel brought his bill in I was a general practitioner in family practice and unhappily I have to say that although there are all sorts of rules and regulations from the word go with a few notable exceptions we had abortion on demand. And that to me is what makes a lot of this discussion quite useless.

DIMBLEBY
Okay that will doubtless provoke a thought or two for Any Answers - 08700 100 444, that number, e-mail address any.answers@bbc.co.uk. Our next please.

SHANKS
David Shanks. Who is the greatest liability for Labour - Wendy Alexander or Gordon Brown?

DIMBLEBY
This is the dispute over whether there should be a referendum and if so when it should be in relation to Scottish independence. Lord Rennard.

RENNARD
Well it's amazing that Gordon Brown, a very proud Scot, has become such a liability to the Labour Party in Scotland. And that was very clear in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year. Now it seems Wendy Alexander has made it very unclear what the Labour Party stands for for a referendum on independence or not. Parties who are very confused tend not to do very well, so they're both liabilities in that sense.

DIMBLEBY
Frank Field. We have to - just to remind you - we have an apparent - not an apparent - a self evident contradiction in what is publicly being said with Wendy Alexander saying in the Scottish parliament that she is offered our support to bring this issue forward now and bring it on, she said before that. The Prime Minister's public statement on this is this is not what she said, he said when this was put to him by David Cameron. Do you see that there is a confusion, to put it mildly in the various positions adopted by the two of them?

FIELD
Well as you say there is a confusion but as there's this dispute within the Scottish family I feel loathe to actually join in.

DIMBLEBY
Are you sure you do?

FIELD
But of course I will. And I welcome Wendy Alexander's stance, I mean the dominant - one of the great successes in British politics has been the leading of the Scottish Nationalists and he's brilliantly been calling the tune and I think what Wendy Alexander's tried to do with this is to at least pull back part of the debate. I think what she doesn't understand when she's talking about the need for a referendum in Scotland that quite a few of us in England think we need a referendum as well on this issue. And given ...

DIMBLEBY
How would you vote in that referendum?

FIELD
I voted in the House against devolution because I thought that the Scottish voters should be confronted with what the aim of this policy was, which was independence and they should face up to it fair and square. But I have to admit that what is - the devolution of powers in Scotland, the exercise of them has been impressive and I was wrong on that issue. But I do think it's wrong that the English question is - cannot yet be registered effectively within in our parliamentary institutions. The last Queen's speech, something like two-thirds of the bills were mainly about England, sometimes about Wales but all the Scottish members could vote on them, I do not think this is acceptable and I think one of the advantages of having a Scottish prime minister would be for him to open up the English question, it would not only surprise the voters but we might actually get a rather surprising result from English voters in that at last somebody who might not naturally be thought to further their interests was prepared to open that debate.

DIMBLEBY
But are you saying that you would like to see a referendum in which English voters would be invited to say whether they wanted to stay within the United Kingdom or to leave from it, is that essentially what you're saying?

FIELD
I think when Scotland votes for more powers to the Scottish Parliament I think we should have a similar campaign and vote on whether people in England wish for similar powers in the House of Commons on English matters.

DIMBLEBY
And you would vote - you would vote in favour of that? [CLAPPING] That's very - I must just go to our audience very briefly, that was very unambiguously I think put by Frank Field that there would be the equivalent right to devolve to English members, I'll be corrected if I'm wrong, devolved to the English members of parliament those matters that relate directly and exclusively to English affairs. Who would favour that if there were such a referendum and would vote in favour of that form of devolution, would you put your hands up? Who would be against it? Well overwhelmingly - 99.9% - would be in favour of that. Alice Thomson.

THOMSON
You couldn't then have a Scottish prime minister, is the only problem, because he wouldn't be able to vote on most of the issues. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Who is the greatest liability - we've certainly meandered away but very interestingly - who's the greatest liability, this is on the assumption of David Shanks that either of them are a liability - Wendy Alexander or Gordon Brown?

THOMSON
Well my view actually is that for the first time ever I think Wendy Alexander said something incredibly eminently sane and I'm partly Scottish and I think it's because Alex Salmond's played this fantastic game in Scotland and he doesn't want a referendum now, he knows the Scots don't want a referendum, they're far too canny, they know they haven't got enough money to go it on their own, it's much more likely for the English to want to go it on their own. So Alex Salmond said let's go - he wants to wait, he wants a long game, he wants to wait until the Tories get into power because when the Tories get into power he can turn round and say to the Scots - look you're not being represented, they're all Labour up here why don't we split now. Whereas actually Wendy Alexander - and the Tories should do the same - should say no we want a referendum now because if we have a referendum now we're going to win it on not having independence because actually if you look at the polls none of the polls are above 23% in Scotland and some of them are around 14/15% for independence and that's why Alex Salmond doesn't want to have a referendum now because he knows he's going to lose it. So actually Wendy Alexander's talking sense. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Alan Duncan.

DUNCAN
Alice thinks she's talking sense, the trouble is that doesn't stop her being a liability and in terms of liability I mean crickey I mean put together Gordon Brown and Wendy Alexander you've got the sort of marriage made in hell frankly. But the real issue about liability goes beyond Gordon Brown. I think it is becoming clear to people watching that the cabinet divides between ....

DIMBLEBY
Watching here and listening at home.

DUNCAN
And listening at home.

DIMBLEBY
Just checking that you knew where you were.

DUNCAN
Of course, who I'm speaking to personally one on one now. ... is that the cabinet divides between those who actually we can respect - and if I can put it this way - are grown ups, like Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, people like that, perhaps my own opponent John Hutton and Frank Field in his capacity but below that in the cabinet is now a cast of younger people who I think have become very, very cocky and are an enormous liability to the Labour Party now in terms of people like Ed Balls and the Millibands and Purnell and people like that and they've never seen opposition, they think they will inherit the earth and they, I hope, are not going to. The second issue then is Scotland. Look it's very easy to say to hell with the Scots and let's just be English and let England govern England and from a Conservative point of view that would be in our interests, we'd find it much easier to be in government. But please, please, please never forget that the union, the United Kingdom of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is a precious international asset - one plus one plus one plus one equal far more than four. We'd lose our seat on the Security Council, we'd have splits within our own island, we'd have all sorts of difficulty I think and disarray. Stick with the union, go through this difficult patch, make it work and let's not be rash because in the years ahead future generations would sorely regret it. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Our next question please.

TAYLOR
Ken Taylor. Is Gordon Brown following a media agenda with the reclassification of skunk cannabis and if so what are the policy changes can we expect from him to regain popularity with the electorate?

DIMBLEBY
The hypothetical on the end, two questions and only very limited time I'm afraid for this. Chris Rennard.

RENNARD
Well I think that Gordon Brown is always following a media agenda. And that's part of the problem. And we had that with the whole of the scenario of the on/off election last summer. And also he's always failing in actually reconvincing people, in terms of sort of restoring sort of trust. Perhaps there was in the heady days of '97-'98 when New Labour won and people had very high expectations and hopes of what they would do. They were deeply disillusioned ever since. And I [indistinct words] see now there's nothing he can do because he's lost the one thing he had last summer which was the appearance for a short while of freshness, newness and competence.

DIMBLEBY
On the question itself, of reclassification, you are in favour or against the reclassification from C to B?

RENNARD
I actually think the reclassification in terms of a tabloid headline is probably pretty irrelevant. I don't think people understand these classifications at all ...

DIMBLEBY
So it's not going to send the message that the Home Secretary believes it will send that this is - we can't put our youth at risk and this is very dangerous and you shouldn't do it?

RENNARD
It doesn't seem to send any message at all actually. All people do understand is that politicians argue amongst themselves and perhaps try to score points on this issue. And a few years ago the Liberal Democrats of course suggested there should really be a Royal Commission on this issue, to take the issue of drugs out of party politics, let the medical experts and let the police actually work out what is best to reduce drugs consumption in this country and follow their advice rather than argue about it amongst themselves or just as you suggest follow cheap headlines in the tabloid newspapers. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
To pick up on that the context was of course the Advisory Council and the Misuse of Drugs advised against the reclassification. Alice Thomson.

THOMSON
On this one I actually do agree with Gordon Brown, it's probably the only thing at the moment that I think he's got right. But I feel quite strongly that actually cannabis is a dangerous and I've got four small children and I can say that I feel the same about all drugs but I feel it equally about cannabis, as I do about heroine or crack. Cannabis is far, far stronger than it was 20 years ago, there are far more incidences of psychosis, they can really ruin particularly boys lives, they can take lives. It's appalling. I've interviewed so many families when it's completely ripped them apart, I've had to work on a lot of case histories for the Telegraph and it is really, really depressing to see what cannabis can do. I think any message we can send out to say this drug is really seriously dangerous, don't take it, is incredibly important and the more we can do about that the better. [CLAPPING]

DIMBLEBY
Alan Duncan.

DUNCAN
It was wrong to degrade and it would be right to upgrade it again whatever the advice. But let's not pretend sadly it's going to make that much difference. It would send out a signal but what matters is all the attendant activity around it, like the prosecution policy, rehabilitation, education and an appreciation of the fact that unfortunately in this country anyone who wants a drug of almost any sort can get hold of one and they do. So prohibition at the moment is not working very well but I totally support any kind of strong activity which can do its best to address the problem.

DIMBLEBY
Are you saying do you think briefly that it will make a difference in contrast to what we've just heard?

DUNCAN
I think over time perhaps a marginal difference but in terms of the question - the trouble with this government is right from the start it's been spin, it's been government by headline and now it's coming to a very, very messy end and we have a government that is paralysed, it's in disarray, it's dithering ...

DIMBLEBY
Okay.

DUNCAN
Gordon Brown ...

DIMBLEBY
To stop any further dithering, we're going to - not that you were dithering, I must, because we're nearly at the end bring in Frank Field.

FIELD
I think it was a mistake to lessen the classification at a time when cannabis was getting stronger and therefore more dangerous, that sent out a very strong message. And I think it's right to change that message and increase the warning. I think the Advisory Council is right on all the other recommendations that it made and the government has accepted those. But I don't believe this is a media driven agenda. I don't believe the Prime Minister's stand on the 42 days, despite the difficulties it will get in, in trying to fight that through the Commons is a media driven agenda. And he's right on both of these and he deserves support.

DIMBLEBY
Do you believe, assuming for the purposes of argument, it may be a rather large assumption to make, that he survives as a result of the 10p tax rate, if what you've said turns out to be the case, namely that the government is brought down because he doesn't do enough to satisfy you, do you believe, if he does survive that, that he can go on to win the next general election with the polls as they are now, with the huge gap between the Conservatives and the Labour Party?

FIELD
I think that any government who's been in the length of time we've been in it's always more difficult to win in the next election but I am confident that we will win the next election.

DIMBLEBY
Thank you. On that resolute note we come to the end of this week's programme, unhappily. Next week: Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister; Clare Fox, the director of the Institute of Ideas; the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt and the Lib Demos youth and equality spokesperson Lynn Featherstone. Join us there. From here in Brereton, the parish council's parish hall, goodbye and thank you. [CLAPPING]

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