Sunday, April 30, 2006

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: We ask Prime Minister Blair the BIG questions on his blackest week ever


By Ian Kirby

PRIME Minister Tony Blair has refused to rule out sacking his embattled Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

In an exclusive News of the World interview he admitted there were "no excuses" for the catalogue of errors that allowed 1,023 foreign prisoners to be freed without deportation.

And the PM revealed the Home Secretary's long-term future would "depend on what happens" as officials and police try to trace lost offenders.

At the end of his worst week —but before the latest revelations about John Reid—the News of the World asked Mr Blair the toughest questions.

And in a combative question-and-answer session at 10 Downing Street, the PM:

ADMITTED he was "angry" at the prisoners debacle.

BLANKED questions about John Prescott.

INSISTED the week's events have made him more determined to stay on and complete his reforms.

ATTACKED the legal establishment for putting criminals before victims.

PROMISED new laws and police powers to combat anti-social behaviour.


News of the World: What was your reaction when you were told about the prisoners?

PRIME MINISTER: The reaction you'd expect—pretty angry about it. But it was important to get to the facts and see what people had been trying to do. I make no excuses for what happened, it was wrong and shouldn't have happened. The reason the problem was uncovered was because people started to make changes.

We had no knowledge until we started to work through the system about whether foreign prisoners were being deported.

NOTW: We still have no idea where most of them are or what they are capable of...

PM: It is important to say that of the 1,023 prisoners, 355 have been dealt with. They will work through the rest of them. I'm saying none of this in mitiga-tion—just presenting the facts.

This is a systemic failure that goes back over years. That's no excuse not for us to have sorted it out. What isn't correct is the impression this is a problem that has just arisen.

NOTW: Was it a quick decision for you not to accept the Home Secretary's resignation?

PM: Yes, because my point is: In the time he's been Home Secretary has he been trying to sort it out? Actually he has.

NOTW: But a News of the World reader would say, ‘Hold on, at what point does someone become responsible?'

PM: I think it's a fair point.

NOTW: When you look at our polls or randomly dip into our mailbag crime is the number one issue. People are sick of living in fear. But from that, surely, comes some accountability? He's known about this for some time.

PM: Yes, but he has been acting on it. That's where I disagree with people who say he's ignored it. He hasn't.

NOTW: Do we know where these people are?

PM: No, but this is a backlog going back over many years, including many years before he was Home Secretary.

NOTW: What changes have you put in place to stop this and isn't there a wider problem —the deportation system is overstretched, it cannot cope?

PM: We have made it easier to deport people. There is a strong case for saying people who are guilty of serious criminal offences and are foreign nationals—unless there is some very, very good reason—should be deported.

NOTW: If a serious crime is committed by one of these prisoners, does the situation regarding the Home Secretary change?

PM: I don't think I'm going to speculate. It depends on what happens, what the reasons are.

NOTW: The British crime survey last week said that two thirds of the public think sentences are too lenient. Why do courts refuse to get tough?

PM: The frustration for me is that I have been introducing legislation the public would support but we are constantly getting it watered down.

Its time to have a proper national debate about what we want our system to do.

NOTW: Why are victims' needs not being put first by courts?

PM: It's borne out of a completely mistaken view of civil liberties, because the civil liberty that should matter most is the right to be safe, free from fear.

NOTW: Surely you can pass whatever laws you want but if judges don't hand out the sentences it means nothing?

PM: Look, the judges should do their job and do it utterly independently of government. But judicial decisions don't happen in a different country, a different society. That's why you need to have a discussion about what's necessary.

NOTW: Do you believe in instant justice?

PM: The reason we introduced on-the-spot fines and fixed penalty notices is to say that you need an instant remedy. If they get a £100 fine they might think twice about doing it again.

NOTW: But judges have used the Human Rights Act to block this sort of justice and challenge tough sentencing.

PM: Yes, but it is perfectly right for courts to say that there are other human rights that have to be put in balance here.

NOTW: But they're not saying that, are they?

PM: No, and that's why I say that in the end this is not just about the laws we pass. It's about an attitude we have about the issue of civil liberties.

NOTW: Are you saying some judges put civil liberties ahead of public safety?

PM: I think it is that the system we have is not sufficiently geared to concerns of people.

NOTW: Do you regret the Human Rights Act?

PM: No, because all the Act did was give people the ability to challenge the government in this country. They already had that right in Europe.


NOTW: May I ask you about your legacy?

PM: What? The ‘L' word we don't use?

NOTW: What jobs do you still have to do?

PM: The most important thing for me is to carry on the programme on the NHS, our schools, this whole business to do with anti-social behaviour and respect on our streets, which I believe passionately in and think are the things that people really expect me to do.

I'm not saying we haven't made mistakes, but what I can say is that if you look back over eight or nine years in the local communities it's very hard to say things have not improved. That's not to say there are not still massive challenges.

NOTW: Does a week like this make you more determined to see those changes through?

PM: Yes. The pressure, especially the longer you have been there, gets more intense.


The comparison with Black Wednesday is quite interesting. Black Wednesday was the day the government lost control of the economy, interest rates shot up and this was a fundamental moment of the collapse of the government's policy.

I'm not saying this has not been a bad week because it obviously has been, but I don't feel that's where we're heading.

The very fact that a minister getting booed at a union conference is seen as the equivalent of Black Wednesday— well, hang on a minute!

First, is what she's trying to do right or wrong? Second, are there actually improvements in the service? Third. This is what happens when you are in government. Particularly if you go to address a conference where people have a particular interest.

If you measure the seriousness of this against the collapse of economic policy I think you see the world of difference that there is.

For me, the tough week is just another tough week.


NOTW: You said you were annoyed at the treatment Pat Hewitt got. Would you agree that the NHS has had its best year yet?

PM: I know that everyone is going to deride it, but what's the best way of measuring whether the NHS is doing well or not? It's by the results.

And all I can say is get a sense of balance. If you go to an accident and emergency department it is a different experience than it was four or five years ago. And if you are waiting for a heart operation you will wait for a lot shorter time than you did eight years ago.

Although you will have readers who have had bad experiences from the NHS, you will have many who have had excellent treatment.


NOTW: John Prescott, from 1995 to 1997, was at the forefront of the attacks on John Major over sleaze. He may now regret saying morality for a Tory meant not getting caught.

Prime Minister: I don't want to be difficult about it, but I don't want to comment on it.

NOTW: OK, let's not make it specific to John Prescott. It was a big part of your campaign to talk about your moral code.

PM: Yes, but I don't think I talked about the private lives of Tories. It would be a very bold political leader who says there will never be any problems in the personal lives of any of my ministers.

NOTW: Sure, but from the point of the readers, they completely bought into the idea of a sleaze-free Cabinet. We now have a Deputy PM who, having made his own attacks on the Tories, has been caught out.

PM: How many different ways do you want me to say nothing? There's nothing I can say except I think these are private matters and I don't think anybody in politics should cast stones at other people on that.

In respect of the Tories I don't think you would ever have found me making comments about their private lives.


NOTW: What new powers can you promise for this autumn?

PM: ASBOs do work but they can be difficult to get.

I think there is a case for allowing a senior police officer to impose an instant ASBO that then comes to court at a later time, so they can halt the offending behaviour straight away and then come to court at a later time so you can decide what happens to a person.

Breaching drug testing and treatment orders should be an arrestable offence. I've spoken to police officers who are fed up with people who breach their orders.

They can't arrest them for it and then it's months before they come back before the courts again.

I also think for people who sell drugs to youngsters there should be a minimum sentence. We do this for gun crime, and for unlawful possession of a firearm now is a minimum five-year sentence.


On organised crime we need stronger powers to be able to open up the bank accounts and financial circumstances of people who have got no particular visible means of support but are living a lifestyle wholly inconsistent with that.

There is a very strong case in my view for allowing the police to seize cash or assets above £1,000 in value in circumstances where they suspect someone is involved in drug dealing.

Now that would give you an immediate ability to take a car or the cash off people who are operating in local communities.

I still think there is a gap between the powers needed on the ground to try to do some of these things and what is there now. What's there now is working when it's being used—there are drug dealers' houses being shut down, crack houses are being shut down. There are anti-social behaviour orders that do actually work when they are secured.

There are situations where as a result of people being tested for drugs on arrest they don't get bail if they're not prepared to take treatment for their addiction.

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