PoliticsHome | Only the latest five entries on the PhiWire are visible to non-subscribers
- Sign up to see last 24 hours
Dont have an account?Sign up here
Somewhere in the sea between Cherbourg and Southampton, I was checking out a children’s creche. I was at a conference on a cruise ship and was curious about the facilities in case it might make a family holiday some day. Cunard’s Queen Victoria is a magnificent vessel, offering every luxury to passengers who can afford the fares. For those to whom money is no object, there are round-the-world voyages stretching several months, experienced from the comfort of duplex apartments served by liveried butlers. Accommodation in steerage may be cramped, but it’s hard to put a price on the romance of a crossing on such a fabulous ship.
Relative to other facilities, the so-called ‘Kidzone’ is a relatively modest affair, around the size of the average sitting room , with a small annexe. Standing at the front desk, where parents drop off children, I could just about see it all. There was the usual array of toys, bricks and colouring books, and a soft play area with a decent enough climbing frame. Outside, one or two children were playing happily, well outnumbered by staff.
By walking two paces into the room, I could have viewed everything. But rules are rules, and my request for a quick look prompted an extraordinary kerfuffle. There were forms to fill, a laminated visitor pass to be issued, and even talk of a wristband.
Clearly designed with paedophiles and child snatchers in mind, the procedures were rigid. Up to a point, quite right too. The murder of Soham girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by school caretaker Ian Huntley in 2002; and the shocking crimes of Vanessa George, a nursery worker who sexually abused children in her care in 2009, reinforced the case for intense scrutiny of anyone working with vulnerable people or young children. Highly unusually, women were involved in both these cases, demonstrating that being female – or a mother – is not a total disqualification from committing dreadful acts against children.
Of course, childcare providers, in whom parents place the utmost trust, must take all reasonable steps to protect those in their care from risk. Yet such crimes are vanishingly rare, and the ability to calculate risk is a vital life skill. I do not know of any case, anywhere, in which any passenger on a luxury cruise liner has managed to cause any harm to anyone by standing for a few seconds in the middle of an empty creche. As I waited for all the requisite paperwork to be completed, I tried to let the experience wash over me. I stood patiently while two staff rifled through fat lever arch files, trying to find the right forms. I knew there was no point in questioning it. It wasn’t personal. They didn’t set the rules.
But all I could think was: how did it come to this? How can we have arrived at a point where in any setting involving children, every stranger, no matter what the circumstances, is treated as a potential threat? Allowing sensible staff to exercise some discretion in certain circumstances is a bit like passenger profiling at airports. It may be politically incorrect to say so, but certain types of people, who behave in certain ways, are statistically far more likely than others to attempt to blow up planes. It’s just a fact.
Companies and organisations responsible for the wellbeing of children – or air passengers – should obviously operate on certain principles designed to minimise the risk of harm. But they should also allow staff to exercise common sense. Both MPs and the media have a role to play in creating a more sensible approach, by not pushing for legislation and regulation for every remote possibility.
Insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach to risk – be it in airports or cruise ship creches – is not only a waste of time and resources; it is an insult to the intelligence of staff in such settings. Worse, it infantilises us all.
Words by Paul Waugh
Photos by Paul Heartfield
David Richards wants to make something absolutely, completely crystal clear. “I am not retired,” he says. “If anything, I’m busier than ever I have been. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”
He may no longer be in uniform, but Lord Richards of Herstmonceux is still every inch the can-do soldier. At just 62, the man formerly known as General Sir David Richards is also very much in demand.
Having stepped down as Chief of the Defence Staff last year, he’s since become a consultant to governments and companies around the world, committed to pro-bono work for nearly two dozen charities, joined the board of a logistics firm and become senior adviser to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He’s also writing a book and helping a movie project about his exploits in Sierra Leone. And only this past week, he’s given evidence to the Defence Select Committee and delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords.
Driven by a restless energy and (in his own words) rebellious nature, the outspoken former Army officer is in no mood to put his feet up after a distinguished military career stretching over more than 40 years.
From life as a commando gunner to commanding ISAF forces in southern Afghanistan, he’s impressed the last three Prime Ministers enough for each of them to promote him to more senior posts.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the former CDS has devised a clear blueprint for life after the armed forces, because having a plan is the Richards way. In his maiden address, he quoted the ancient soldier philosopher Sun Tzu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”.
And it’s the lack of a proper strategy in Iraq, or indeed Syria, that is most preoccupying him today. Having spent years taking on the Taliban in Afghanistan, he says that the rise of Islamic extremists ISIS are just one symptom of a wider problem.
“For me, the biggest strategic risk facing all Western countries is militant Jihadism. And states need to come together to focus on that challenge and agree a grand strategy for dealing with it.”
The worrying news from Iraq should be a wake-up call for the West, he insists. “If I was still advising the Prime Minister I would be saying, first thing, contain the crisis, don’t let it spread any more. And there are things to West can do to prevent that happening. I think Jordan in particular needs help. Lebanon is very vulnerable, Turkey can look after itself and is. Iraq you don’t want it to spread any further outside into the Gulf for example.
“Kuwait I think is quite vulnerable as a result of this for various reasons, it’s got a big Shia population, Bahrain which is an important ally, is trying very hard to put its house in order under the Crown Prince with the King’s huge support, at some cost to them politically within their own Sunni minority.”
Focused, disciplined and unflinchingly candid, his summary of the Iraq situation is the sort of advice David Cameron received regularly during National Security Council meetings on every crisis from Libya through to Syria in recent years.
He points out that he had warned repeatedly of the dangers of the West failing to get a grip of Syria, dangers which included spilling Jihadism over its borders. “I don’t want to sound terribly clever over all of this, [but] I pushed very hard for a containment strategy. Some people who should have known better even said ‘what is a containment strategy?’ I thought it was bloody obvious what a containment strategy was. Iraq was definitely one of the countries that I and others said needed to be part of this containment strategy.
“Although I think there is some merit in what Tony Blair’s saying, that you can’t connect what’s happening today with that decision [to invade Iraq], I would connect what’s happening today with our inability to sustain our support at a critical moment. Blair needs to be listened to on that, whatever his motives are for saying it.”
But for Richards the biggest worry is that the UK, and the US, will fail to learn the lessons from Syria and Iraq and threaten all their hard work in Afghanistan. As the former Nato commander in the country, it’s a subject very close to his heart as the troop withdrawals loom.
With home-grown terrorists a fresh concern, he reveals an anecdote to underline his point. “When I was Chief Defence Staff and Drummer Lee Rigby was so sadly murdered in Woolwich, the head of the Security Service [MI5] rang me to just check that the Armed forces didn’t attach any blame to some oversight on the part of the Security Service,” he explains.
“It was very good of him to do this, Andrew Parker. I of course immediately reassured him that no such blame was attached. We know how many lives the Security Service and the SIS have saved over the last many years with close involvement from the armed forces. So it just wasn’t an issue. And he said to me ‘Well, can I say one thing to you?’ I didn’t know what he was going to say. He said: ‘The Armed Forces can be very proud that since they went into Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 not one terrorist incident has been planned or executed from Afghan soil’. And I think that’s one hell of an achievement which we all want to hang on to. It takes a lot of effort and passion and commitment and that’s what Iraq has now brought back into perspective.”
Central to delivering on our promises to the Afghans is the exact nature of the pull-out at the end of this year. Richards fought – and lost – a battle in the National Security Council to go for a ‘conditions-based’ withdrawal rather than an arbitrary timetable of the end of 201 favoured by Barack Obama and David Cameron.
“I accepted there was some merit in agreeing a date, even though I wasn’t 100% supportive of it, I accepted it. Some things you know you are not going to win,” he says. “But we then fought quite hard battles to honour the commitment to remain capable of combat and able to support the ANA [Afghan National Army] and ANP [Afghan National Police]” This meant keeping 5,200 British troops there until last Christmas, though he adds that “some people wanted to draw down earlier than that.”
He explains how he won a pledge from the NSC to leave enough ‘combat’ capable forces in place even at the end of this year. “We had options, one of those options was that we had to be ‘all out’ of Helmand by 31 December. I successfully argued that we had a commitment under the Chicago conference that we had to be capable of combat i.e. to support the Afghan army until the end of 2014. If we were in a position to get everyone out by then, then quite clearly the last six months we couldn’t do anything to help.
“So we had agreed at the NSC that we would have between a three to six month period after that [December 31], during which you would close the hospital and do all the things you have got to do. We committed to remaining in the combat role until the end of 2014 if we get out of Helmand. So if we are all out by Christmas 2014, then we cannot honour that commitment.”
Richards is dismayed by rumours from Whitehall that there is pressure to speed up the withdrawal. “Have they learnt nothing? We are seeing in Iraq what could happen in Afghanistan…If we don’t continue to help them in the way they have asked then I am concerned that we will end up in the same position. Perhaps now what we are seeing in Iraq might just tweak their consciences."
“If we don’t do as we promised we would do for the people of Afghanistan, then there’s a real risk that come next year Afghanistan becomes Iraq. I think that would be tragic. We‘ve fought very hard there to get to the point where we are where there have been successful elections. The fact is 8 million odd Afghans have decisively rejected the Taliban and want our help, contrary to a lot of the liberal media’s misrepresentation and they do not want the Taliban.”
To ram home his point, he adds: “If we don’t honour our commitments made in good faith at Lisbon and in Chicago and then on the economic side in Tokyo, and then Afghanistan turns into an Iraq over the next year or two, then it should be on the conscience of every Western so-called statesman, because they will have caused that to happen.”
The thinly-veiled reference to both Barack Obama and David Cameron is an indication of the frustration Richards sometimes felt when arguing against the conventional wisdom that ‘Afghan fatigue’ among the voters is now a fact of life.
Richards got into trouble just before he was appointed Chief of the General Staff in 2009, when he predicted that the UK would have to be involved in Afghanistan for the next 40 years. He was talking more about development, security reform and governance than a combat role, but the details were lost amid the noise of a political battle.
He still insists that the Afghan National Army will continue to need support from the West even after the pull-out, and possibly for a generation.
“They are good low level fighters. But an army, to become proficient like the British Army, the American Army, takes probably a generation of patient learning, it’s not as easy as people would think. To get all those moving parts from logisticians, to artillerymen to infantrymen to the armoured corps, the work with air support, to get them fed on time, to be able to evacuate them if they are injured, all that you can imagine is an extremely complex business,” he says.
“And where the Afghan Army and police continue to need help is in the development of their officer corps and their high level processes and in the more difficult technically demanding areas such as air support, helicopters, logistics maybe in artillery, in terms of their officer training.”
Yet, again, he has concerns. “I’m worried that we, Britain, are not playing a sufficiently big role in the other areas that I mentioned. Because essentially I think there’s a tiredness with Afghanistan and people want to do the minimum acceptable. The Italians and the Germans will have many more people supporting the Afghans come early 2015 than we are.
“Obviously America is talking now about 10,000 [US troops] think they would liked us to have somewhere proportionate, around a thousand, as a sort of rough division we were looking at. As I understand it, and I’m out of date, we are in the low hundreds. If the Afghans are happy with that, genuinely, I’m not an expert any more, and the Nato commander says that he can do without any more help from us, well fine. My instinct is that we could probably do a bit more.”
Richards is not phased by the idea of working with some ‘Taliban’ groups to hammer out a peaceful future for the country. When he was ‘Comm, ISAF’, he did a deal in Musa Qala with tribal elders and local Taliban.
“Whether some of those tribal elders were Taliban or related to the Taliban or had Taliban in the family didn’t worry me at all, because actually there’s a complete misconception about a lot of the Taliban. A lot of them are just tribes who oppose the dominant tribe in the provincial Government. They legitimise their opposition by saying they are Taliban because it gives them greater street cred.
“Then there’s the Quetta Shura Taliban who pull the levers who are connected to the provincial and rural Taliban. But it’s not a monolithic organisation like perhaps sadly the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan] is in Pakistan. Which is why there’s a big difference between the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban.
“But of course we’ve got to bring them into the negotiating process. The history of every insurgency is that there will be such a process at the end. And the signs are that they could be.
“Afghanistan must not revert to what it was, i.e. extremist Taliban rule which gave safe haven to Al Qaeda and their look-a-like. We achieve that, and we can still achieve it, as long as we continue to help ANA and the ANP into the long term. But you don’t achieve it over time simply through military means.”
On this point, Richards hits back at critics of the wider move to help Afghanistan’s economy and civil society. “I think there was a lot of drivel talked about nation building and ‘we don’t do nation building’. It was to make sure that we consolidated the military gains by getting the people on side. I’m not some limp-wristed liberal. I wanted to do it because I am a moral soldier, but I [also] wanted to do it because it was a hard-nosed part of the analysis of what was required to win the campaign.”
That credo of being a ‘moral soldier’, combined with a stubborn refusal to carry out orders he believed were wrong, is in fact what gave him his career break. In the spring of 2000, he was put in charge of a small task force told to evacuate British citizens from Sierra Leone.
“My orders were to extract our people, we call it a non-combatant evacuation operation, and get out. But I knew that if I did that the country would collapse and the RUF [Revolutionary United Front] would be back into Freetown chopping arms off everywhere again,” he explains. “I was conscious about failings in Rwanda. I was conscious about failings in some places in Bosnia. And I said, well I’m not going to be part of that.”
Some have assumed that this was Blair’s first ‘liberal intervention’, but Richards explains that in Freetown, he was as far from Downing Street as he was from the MoD. And he was not far up the military chain of command.
“I was a brigadier and I had no linkage to Tony Blair the Prime Minister. But I had met Robin Cook the year before when I was going into East Timor [to head a task force], I met him at Sydney airport. And he made clear to me that Sierra Leone was a special country in the eyes of Blair and himself. And so he didn’t want it to collapse.
“They had agreed a rather dodgy deal there which I thought he felt rather guilty about, it wasn’t good for the democratically elected President Kabbah. So when I was there in early May 2000 with orders to do an evacuation operation I could see that would lead to the collapse of the country. I said to myself I’m sure that’s not what Tony Blair or Robin Cook were expecting. And so I put my metaphorical telescope to my blind eye and decided to do what I did.”
Acting independently, he radically expanded the area of evacuation to help support beleaguered President and trained up a small army of Sierra Leoneans to help.
“My orders came through three days after I’d started this. Which was do only an evacuation. So I ignored those because I was able to pretend that’s what I was doing. And then 10 days later some sort of orders came through that allowed me to support the UN which was a key part of the operation but actually my main effort was fighting the RUF with what I called, because there were some quite dodgy people in it, my ‘unholy alliance’. And actually they fought very hard on behalf of the people and the government, and the RUF were defeated.”
“It worked very well. Six weeks later we were able to leave with lots of pats on the back. There is a company that’s thinking of making a movie of it. We will see. You never know.”
But was there no reprimand from the MoD at all, afterwards?
“I was bloody lucky that I got away with it. There’s no doubt that If it had gone wrong that I’d have been chopped off at the knees, which is what a number of friends told me was going to happen.
“The MoD couldn’t argue because I was successful. I don’t advocate it as a route for stardom. But on the other hand Lord Guthrie was the CDS and I felt that he would support what I was doing too. But between me and that level which was the top of Government level, Guthrie, Blair, Cook, Geoff Hoon, there was about two or three layers that were determined that I should do my evacuation operation and go. And I kept saying well if I do that the country’s going to collapse. ‘You have your orders, Brigadier!’ So I looked at my team and I said ‘I’m not up for this’. And they said ‘we are with you Brigadier’.
“It puts a lie to the fact that I was a very ambitious officer, because it’s always slightly surprised me that I ended up as Chief of Defence Staff, although it says much for those who allowed me to do it, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve got a slightly sort of rebellious side.”
But Richards stresses that he had done his homework beforehand and knew the chances of success. “This was not a random gamble on my part. I absolutely knew the country, I knew the forces I had and I felt we could win. I was lucky but I wouldn’t want it to be characterised it as a cavalier operation because I knew what I was about to do.”
In his MoD office, Richards used to have a prized photo of himself sitting alongside Tony Blair. As part of an in-joke about a British ‘coup d’etat’, the picture reveals Blair had even allowed Richards to sit in his seat at the Cabinet table. The pair of them clearly agreed on the wider need to combat Jihadism and on intervention overseas, but Richards is uneasy with the idea that the Sierra Leone success was a template that gave Blair a taste for toppling Saddam Hussein.
“I think Kosovo and Sierra Leone are put in that bracket. But you know every operation is unique. I didn’t know Tony Blair, I did get to know him later. I didn’t talk to him about Sierra Leone. I suppose there is some possibility that [because] we did these things effectively and efficiently…
“But if you look in both Kosovo and Sierra Leone, although a different scale of activity, both the generals, me and Mike Jackson, we knew what we were doing. There’s a great phrase in the military which is ‘clout don’t dribble’. And in both cases we were able to clout. A lot of mine was psychological, I just exploited what looked like a much bigger army than it actually was and we very judiciously took the RUF on in particular places and dealt with them and that intimidated them and I knew that would happen because they are a bunch of bullies and when bullies get a sharp rap on the knuckles they tend to disappear and that’s exactly what did happen.”
Was the key difference between Sierra Leone and Iraq that he had planned properly for the aftermath?
“We left behind a training team, DfiD went in and did some work. Sierra Leone which is a difficult country..their economy is growing, they’ve had successful elections twice since then and they are very keen on their democracy. But like a lot of under developed countries they need help. And I’d like to see Britain putting more help into these countries as part of my containment strategy. Because funnily enough Sierra Leone has got a very large Muslim population, as have a lot of these countries in West African and we know also sadly in East Africa.
“We need to make sure that those good Muslims, and I’m very proud patron of the armed forces Muslim Association. The vast, vast majority of Muslims want nothing to do with this, we need to help those countries. I said this in the case of Mali and the other west African countries. I don’t think anything has happened, we are there but it’s not part of a coherent strategy designed to make it unattractive to any wobbly Muslims in the countries in question to go over to the other side, why would they if their jobs are coming and they see prospects for their children, then they will stick with the status quo. I just think it needs a bit more method in the madness than I think is probably the case.”
As for Iraq itself, Richards is certainly not a fan of the Blair approach. “I’m of the view that the invasion of Iraq was a grand strategic error. It liberated Iran, the secular bulwark against Iranian expansionism was removed. It sucked in, as a result of the poor decisions on the Iraqi army and the Baathist membership, a lot of people who are today fighting there again.”
When the National Security Council repeatedly discussed the Syria crisis, Richards was a constant voice warning that the Opposition should not be armed unless the West decided to get involved and attack Assad’s air defences.
“What I said was if you’re going to intervene, do it properly. The worst of all worlds is to do enough to keep it going, but not enough to allow the opposition groups to win. I could see that’s what was happening. I wasn’t having a go at my own Government per se, but I was trying through the Government to argue with America and everybody else about how we should do this.
“We were all supporting people who weren’t given the means to do it properly and were all fragmented. Inevitably the most powerful and most efficient and the most active have come to the fore.”
He adds that he does not want to use the benefit of hindsight, but points out that he had some foresight of how Syria might play out. “One of the other things I pushed for - don’t want to sound terribly clever over all of this - I pushed very hard for a containment strategy. Some people who should have known better even said ‘what is a containment strategy?’ I thought it was bloody obvious what a containment strategy was. You contain the conflict as best you can geographically and in other ways. I was very worried about Jordan and Lebanon and I argued hard to put more effort into helping them economically and with the humanitarian relief. We’ve done a good effort but it’s not been dramatic and full enough to stop what is happening.
As for the NSC itself, has it proved a useful tool of Government? “I think the NSC is an extremely good idea in principle. Has it reached its full flowering? No. I do think it needs to be more strategic in its approach. We tended to be a bit tactical, we still are. I banged on at length about this and if the Prime Minister was bothered to read this he would be chuckling I think because he will recognise what I’m saying again to you now.
“That said, it’s a very effective vehicle for decision making. The fact is that Libya, whether one disagrees or avers that it was a tactical success but strategic question mark, nevertheless it was a very dynamic decision making process. We were all very collegiate about it, I had some misgivings early on but once those were allayed I was very happy to play a very full and constructive part in that campaign. I think the NSC did particularly well over that.
“I think on Syria, which is really the cause of what we’ve been talking about and the spill over into Iraq, I don’t think probably we did sufficiently focus on a proper plan. Which included a containment strategy within that to deal with it in a strategically sound way. We were over-focused on getting rid of Assad and not sufficiently concentrating on the strategic implications and the broader regional risks. And therefore there is some criticism in that.”
Some defence experts worry that the National Security Council is in fact too much a creature of the Foreign Office. On this, Richards is aptly diplomatic. “It tends to be dominated by the Foreign Office. I offered myself on more than one occasion senior military officers to go in to give them the an understanding of strategic process, that so far as I know has still not been accepted that offer. So there is a little bit of tension between what the NSC Secretariat, which isn’t big enough by the way, now does and they are not trained. I still believe they need some military people, just two or three, to give them that breadth and depth of understanding of process.
“I think on balance it’s a very good thing, definitely an improvement on what went before but it still needs tweaking and needs to think more in terms of what is in Britain’s vital national interest and less instinctive reaction in line with our rather liberal instincts. I’m afraid it’s a bit like that. Vital national interests is a term rarely used at the NSC I think it ought to be a bit more.”
The NSC has certainly been preoccupied with Ukraine as much as Syria since the beginning of the year. What does he think of the way the West has handled the situation?
“I’m contrary on Russia,” he says, with a smile. “I believe in states working together to the common good and trying to bury their differences and I also believe in Realpolitik, states that understand the realities.
“In the case of Russia, I would like to know whether our, Britain’s, Europe’s long term interest is with Russia or against Russia? Are they going to be a perpetual antagonist or are we over time going to try to bring them in to the body of nations in the way I think we neglected an opportunity to do in the ‘90s.
“They went through a very difficult time then and we sort of ignored them and rather rubbed their noses in it, the collapse of Communism. So I do think Russia is finding its way out of the post Communist era. There’s a certain amount of double standards being applied. When a Western power feels its vital national interests are at stake then it’s ok to use military force. But as soon as Russia, perhaps quite mistakenly, feels similarly threatened, then it’s not OK.”
And on the issue specifically of Ukraine, Richards again defies conventional thinking among some in Government. “I’m reluctant to get into Ukraine and the detail. But for what it’s worth a democratically elected president was turfed out through a coup d’etat. He might not have been to our liking but he was democratically elected and he fled to Russia. This is why I sympathise with Russia, in that people are saying this was all part of some Russian grand design. That was not the case.
“What happened is that their strategy which was to persuade by negotiation and debate Ukraine to not become affiliated to Europe in a formal sense but to remain balanced between the two, in return for which they gave them a very good deal on gas, and economic support and actually is a much better deal economically than Europe was offering. That collapsed after the coup in Kiev that saw the president ejected. And then Russia saw that some people who were clearly opposed to Russia were calling the shots in Kiev, how representative of the nation as a whole we did not know by the way at the time, but I think this is an issue which we have to think about. How is our instinct to side with the underdog always right in that we don’t know that the majority of the people of the nation in question necessarily support the vociferous minority causing the problem.
“There was no vote on this in Russia or indeed in Syria..When we instinctively sided against Assad…it’s an instinct, the underdog democrat versus the demagogue and all that sort of stuff. But actually a lot of people living in these countries might be quite content to live under the demagogue if their children are being educated, they’ve got decent jobs and their houses are kept warm in the winter. And I think that’s something we need to think through a little bit.”
Closer to home, Richards was in post at a time of some severe troop reductions. After years of sacrifice of both blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last thing many in the armed forces wanted to come home to was the round of staff cuts they’ve had to endure since 2010.
“I always wonder if people feel I sort of let them down,” Richards says. “[In 2010] I was of a view that the biggest strategic risk facing Britain at the time was economic meltdown. I count myself as a strategist, and therefore I thought there was every reason why the armed forces should contribute to ensuring that wasn’t the case. So I was never arguing for no cuts. I argued along with others successfully for smaller cuts.”
Richards’ relationship with Philip Hammond was said in Whitehall to be sometimes scratchy. But he’s happy to pay tribute to the Defence Secretary.
“I’ve got to give Philip Hammond credit for sorting out MoD’s finances, they were in a state there’s no doubt about that. Although it was very painful, he had the moral courage to hold our toes to the fire. And under Future Force 2020, with which I had a lot to do, the British forces will look very impressive, will still be the second biggest spender in Nato and after the Americans we will be the most capable.”
Yet when the Treasury came back for more cuts in the last spending round of 2013, Hammond, long seen as the ‘bean-counter-in-chief’ by some in the MoD, dug in and defied George Osborne. Did he have a role in the Defence Secretary's apparent Damascene conversion to the merits of military spending? Richards says that he and other military chiefs had argued that they ‘couldn’t take any more’.
“Did I have a role in his Damascene conversion? I probably did but so did lots of others, in that it’s a fact that when sceptical politicians who know very little about defence come into the MoD, if they give themselves half a chance after a while they really love it.
“The armed forces, we are actually like big sheepdogs: stroke us and we are very loyal we do everything and anything people want. And I think that gets to them after a while and they become very protective of us.”
One area where Richards certainly didn’t see eye to eye with his boss was on plans to replace regular forces with reservists. “I didn’t particularly agree with the reservist strategy…are we calling it a strategy? I think it’s a reserves policy. There’s a big difference between a policy which is that’s what you want to do and a strategy which actually delivers it. I didn’t agree with the reserves policy.
“It was taken out of my direct chain of command, I didn’t have anything directly to do with it. I think you could say that’s because people knew I wasn’t going to be very helpful over it. But I don’t know,” he says, with a wry smile.
The review was done by others but he points out that a key recommendation was for a pilot scheme. “In that study’s recommendation as I recall - I don’t think they’ve removed it, would they do such a thing? - it did say that it needed a pilot project as a proof of principle. And the Government decided it was such a good idea that that wouldn’t be required. It looks to me like that would have been a wise idea.”
The real problem is one of a capability gap that’s opening up, he warns. “We’ve got an army that’s rapidly coming down to 82,000 regulars, which was meant to be brought back up to effective fighting strength to the point of committal through the reserves policy. It looks to me like there’s a risk that the army will be at 82,000 but the number of active reserves available will not be what the government had hoped and the Army needs.”
So there would the numbers be an issue in future conflicts? “For the sort of operation that the reserves were envisaged being involved in, which is particularly important on sustained campaigns, then yes we would have a problem. Our regular soldiers would have to go back more frequently.
“I’m just putting myself in the position of the CDS today. In terms of a short notice, one-off intervention role for six months wherever, the Army can do that. It hasn’t affected the high-readiness forces. But it would affect enduring operations. For a sustained Afghanistan type campaign, which are in cycles of five, the reserves under the concept play a very big part in cycles 3, 4 and 5. They wouldn’t be able to do that and therefore regular soldiers have to go back quicker than is desirable.”
Despite their differences over reservists, Richards tries his best to be polite about Hammond. “He was a sort of tough dad, he was quite difficult to begin with, we did what we had to do and I think there is now a very good relationship between the two….although he will never make a soldier I can tell you that.”
Richards is impeccably courteous, yet it’s obvious there were tensions. “I have respect for him. He’s not a very fluffy guy….he doesn’t need other people, he’s very much his own man. And therefore he’s not very clubbable. Whereas the military tend to be quite clubbable, we are a team effort. He doesn’t need that. He has a good sense of humour and when I left he was very kind in what he said and I count him as a close colleague and a friend. But I don’t think I’ll be spending Christmas with him.”
Asked about the media ban imposed by Hammond and MoD on private lunches or meetings between military and officials and the media, Richards can't hide his bemusement.
"I'm not surprised, I fought against it," he says. "He doesn't trust…he's very…only he wants to control the MoD as a whole's access to the media. I think it's do-able in the short term but I think it's counter-productive in the long term.
"And I have to say people find it a bit peculiar. Actually as I said to him more than once, we have no interest in undermining what he's doing. We would educate them and if he brought us into his approach we would probably be very effective but honest in advocates of it. But he didn't want to do that and he and his spad run it. I don't know whether they think it's successful or not. But I know lots of journalists think it's wrong."
The MoD’s decision not to renew tenancies for senior military staff in London apartments, including in Kensington Palace, has also caused irritation. Richards is blunt about his own stay in the Royal residence.
“I wish you to know I paid a hefty rent, it was not a grace and favour residence. As far as I know only Government ministers have grace and favour residence - a little thing to remind people!
“We loved it and it meant that in a difficult and demanding job, one aspect of it was fantastic. The people in Kensington Palace were extremely kind and we lived in a lovely part of London. I have to say without that there were occasions when I might have said ‘oh this is not worth it’ but Kensington Palace was a great icing.”
So was it short-sighted of ministers to target it for his successor? Richards responds with a wider argument about the need to recognise the sacrifices that those in public service make.
“You will always have an army or armed forces. Every country does. The difference between the British armed forces and those of most other countries, and I’ve come across many, is the quality of our people,” he says, “We don’t pay them brilliantly by any means. I only now when I’m outside do I realise for the first time what people can be paid. But because we look after them and because it’s socially at every level acceptable to be in the Army, whether you a private in the greenhouse from Yorkshire or the heir to the throne and you are a captain in some smart organisation, the fact is there is a consensus that it’s a good to be in the armed forces.
“If you lose that because you don’t look after your people well, you will have an army, a navy and an air force, but it will be the sort of army, navy and air force with which we don’t associate with the British, that you associate with banana republics ultimately. “We have outstanding people and we need to look after them. And we owe them a certain amount.
“If the Chief of Defence Staff, with all the pressure on him, having I hope given a lot to the country, isn’t allowed a small apartment in Kensington Palace, there’s got to be something wrong. So I am sad that the bean-counters haven’t seen the wood for the trees. I’m worried that certain politicians and certain senior civil servants don’t see that it is quality that makes the British armed forces able to punch above their weight and do all the things that we are used to.”
He may have swapped his khakis for a softer ermine, but David Richards isn’t planning on giving up the fight for his troops, or the causes they risked their lives for. The swashbuckling rebel soldier certainly isn’t shy. And he’s definitely not retiring.
The House: The Defence Reform Act received Royal Assent this spring, and the new Defence Equipment & Support ‘plus’ procurement body is now up and running. How is the new system an improvement on the old one?
Philip Dunne: “There are two main planks to it. One is for the procurements which are undertaken through single source suppliers, which is about £6bn a year out of our £14.5bn. We have been operating under rules which were first codified over 45 years ago, in 1968, where we were faced with a very different environment; the defence industry was much more fragmented, and the capability requirements were very different.
“Under the old regime we as the customer had very little ability to look back at contracts and to ensure that we were being charged appropriately for materiel that was being supplied without competition. So we tended to get charged by companies for things that weren’t necessarily strictly appropriate to charge, and we hadn’t had much ability to check that. So what this new regime does, by setting it up under an independent regulator – it will be called the Single Source Regulations Office – we will have a lot more transparency in the relationships with the suppliers, so they will be obliged to provide information regularly to us and to the regulator. And we will therefore be in a better position to ensure that the invoices are appropriate for us to pay, and if there is a dispute we have a mechanism for dealing with a dispute rather than taking each other to court. So this will be a much more efficient and beneficial system for the taxpayer.
“The other aspect of it is what we’ve done to the way DE&S [Defence Equipment & Support] is organised. We provided through legislation for a GoCo [government-owned, contractor-operated] entity, but we have set up a bespoke government trading entity [DE&S Plus], which has won a lot of freedoms from the current constraints governing central government bodies, to essentially operate within an agreed envelope of cost. Each year its budget will be set and it will then be up to the management of the organisation to deliver within that framework, with a lot more flexibility to retain the higher-quality people they’ve got within the organisation and to recruit skills where they feel there are gaps.
“We are introducing three elements of private sector advice to that entity. We’re in the midst of recruiting some project delivery expertise, some HR expertise, and we will – once the project deliverers are on board – we will also look to bring in some additional management information and finance capability. We think with that private sector skill bolstering that’s happening already in DE&S it will be in much better fighting-fit shape to be able to negotiate these enormous and long enduring contracts with the defence industry. And we are increasingly looking to direct our purchasing in accordance with the white paper that we published 18 months ago now, where open competition is the order of the day to try and maximise value for the taxpayer.”
The MoD previously made clear that the GoCo option was its preferred route for procurement, before it was forced to scrap the plan after two of the three consortia interested in the contract withdrew. Is GoCo something the MoD would want to look at again in the next parliament?
“We’ve got the enabling legislation for the next parliament to look at. I think at the moment we are proceeding down the path of the bespoke trading entity. It’s got its new freedoms. It needs to get on and make them work. There will be an opportunity during the next parliament to have a look and see whether it’s working well enough.
“The proof of the pudding is already that we’ve made a lot of changes. Bernard Grey, since he became Chief of Defence Materiel, has instituted a lot of change within DE&S, and we are now in our annual major projects reports, delivering capability much more to budget and much more on time than was happening under the previous government. But we think that change needs to continue.”
How has the Government sought to give more clarity to the Armed Forces about their equipment programmes?
“As a result of the financial crisis and the appalling legacy of over-commitment without proper funding this department has suffered – we inherited a £38bn black hole – we had to make some very tough decisions on equipment and personnel.
“I see defence as being at the cutting edge of what we are doing across government; trying to introduce an efficiency into the civil service-run organisations, taking advantage of private sector skills where we can. But finding the best model to fit the entity rather than being dogmatic about how we do it.
“On equipment, we’ve done two main structural things. Having inherited this major black hole in the budget, we have balanced the budget, and we did that by essentially looking at some of the most expensive legacy programmes that we inherited and bringing forward out-of-service dates for equipment that was old and therefore increasingly expensive to maintain. That’s a reason why we took out the carriers and the Harriers that flew off them, because there was already a programme underway to replace them. So we’ve created a capability gap for a short number of years, which is rapidly coming to an end, and the carrier floats off on 4 July. We’ve taken some dramatic and significant steps to retire old programmes, knowing that in most cases the frontline forces were getting state-of-the-art equipment coming through. Air is the most obvious one at the moment; we are in the process of going through a generational change in the combat air capability. The Tornado is coming to the end of its life and is being withdrawn from service in 2019, and the Typhoons are continuing to come into service. At the same time we’ve upgraded all the logistics fleets. The same goes for the helicopter fleet; we will have, this year, more new helicopters in service in one year than we have done in peacetime before. So we’re withdrawing old platforms which were expensive to maintain and replacing them with new ones. So there’s a lot of change been happening.
“The second major plank has been to give clarity to the Armed Forces chiefs and to the industry that supports them about what our equipment programme is going to look like. That draws a contrast with the previous government, where the reason we got into this black hole was because what the politicians said – particularly in response to some of the challenges in serving in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time – is ‘they must get the kit they need and we’ll worry about paying for it later’. What we said is we will have a proper plan. So from January last year we put in a costed, ten-year, forward-looking equipment programme, audited by the NAO. We are upgrading it, and it is more granular than an equipment plan has been before under previous government.
“We are setting that out by year, by service, and within each service by major capital item going forward each ten years, then updating it each ten years. So every year, there should be greater confidence in the validity of the assumptions that we’re making on these forward programmes, which gives greater confidence to everyone involved that we will be able to deliver – if something is in the programme it will be funded."
Four UK Typhoons have been deployed to Lithuania as part of the Nato Baltic air policing mission, and we’ve seen them scrambled to stop Russian planes encroaching on several occasions. How important is this show of force in the increasingly dangerous situation over Ukraine?
“We’re playing an important role in helping to maintain confidence in the Baltic states in light of our Nato commitments, and the Typhoon squadron that’s currently taking part in the Baltic air patrol are doing a magnificent job, helping yet again demonstrate the outstanding capabilities of the Typhoon platform.”
Moving on to Iraq, US-supplied Humvees and other arms and equipment have been captured by ISIS and have reportedly been used by ISIS fighters across Iraq and Syria. Is the MoD aware of any UK-supplied arms and materiel having fallen into ISIS hands?
“I’m not aware of any equipment having fallen into ISIS hands, but we obviously can’t guarantee that. Equipment has been supplied to Iraq, the Iraqi armed forces; if those forces have been overrun then the materiel could be taken into other people’s hands. We can’t guarantee that. We don’t have people on the ground, we don’t have troops on the ground.”
Has the UK and the West been caught by surprise by ISIS’s rapid advance in Iraq?
“It’s not really my area of operations, but what I think I can say is that we have been surprised by the extent of the speed in which the Iraqi battalions appear to have in fact given up the fight. It seems as though a number of divisions and battalions have not proved effective, and that has therefore allowed ISIS to make quicker advances than it otherwise would have done. I think we can draw a contrast with the security forces in Afghanistan, who we’ve been mentoring very closely over the last three years, and they are now performing as expected in taking the fight to the Taliban.”
What do you make of Lord Richards’s comments in the House of Lords this week, warning that defence spending – which is forecast to fall to 1.9% of GDP by 2017 – must “as a minimum” stay above the 2% target required by Nato?
“I think the equipment and capability that our Armed Forces have and are getting has never been better, so I think from an equipment and capability point of view, I think our Armed Forces will be in as good a shape as they have been.
“We’re at 2%. We’re meeting our Nato commitment currently, and I think it’s important – I personally think it’s important – that we endeavour to do so. The Comprehensive Spending Review will follow the next general election and the defence posture will follow the next Strategic Defence Review. So we’ve got two major staging posts which take us beyond the period, which need to happen before we get to the period 2015/16.
“What I can say about funding is that the assumption on which we’ve predicated the ten-year forward-looking equipment plan is a 1%+ real increase in spending on defence equipment, from 2015 onwards. And that’s been submitted, it’s had Treasury consent for us to work on that assumption. So from an equipment point of view, I think we are anticipating an increase in spend from 2015/16.”
For those of you that missed it, the Daily Mail's website hit a new low this week. "Arise Dame Angelina: After days of hobnobbing at rape summit, starstruck William Hague hands Tinseltown's queen Jolie a gong."
The Foreign Secretary came to the House on Monday to report back to MPs on the successful 'preventing sexual violence in conflict' summit in London, where he had been hobnobbing.
The Brangelina correspondent of the Daily Mail will no doubt report that William Hague failed to mention when questioned that he was so starstruck that he was handing out gongs to his new friends.
Tragically, there was no sign of either Brad or (Dame) Angelina in the public gallery.
Hague has the great grounding of having led his party, been annihilated at the polls and come back balder, wiser and acclaimed by all sides. He is the closest this Twitter generation of a Parliament has to a statesman.
No minister, including the prime one, has as deft a touch at the despatch box as Hague. Unlike his boss, who cannot resist playing for laughs because he yearns to be liked, to be cheered, the Foreign Secretary treats the House at all times with respect.
"Our embassies held events to mirror what was going on in London for the entire 84-hour period and our intensive social media campaign reached all parts of the world," he said, after briefing the House on Iraq. "This was the most important milestone yet in our efforts to address this issue. My intention is to create unstoppable momentum in addressing these crimes, which are among the worst experienced in the world today."
Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said the summit "was a genuine credit to the work of campaigners and activists around the world who have tirelessly worked to raise this issue up on the political agenda. The British Government, and the Foreign Secretary personally, have done a great deal in recent months to help do just that, and I commend him sincerely for his efforts."
But MPs wanted to talk about Iraq: many contributions can be paraphrased as 'I told you so'.
Alistair Burt, one of the most thoughtful members of the House, said: "It is a pity that we have had to run these two subjects together, because no one should underestimate the extraordinary work that my right honourable Friend has done in relation to raising the issue of preventing sexual violence in conflict to such a level. He fully deserves all the commendation he is getting."
It is hard to remember Hague as a pugilist, the man who used to taunt Tony Blair, the comedian who had the House in stitches with his delicious poking of The Lord Mandelson - "It would be no surprise to wake up in the morning and find that he had become an Archbishop."
Before our eyes, and in a process so subtle that we barely noticed it, William Hague has quietly become a 'Great Man' of British politics.
Words: Paul Waugh and Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
World Cup fever has arrived in Andy Burnham’s office. A whiteboard lists the Shadow Health Team’s sweepstake choices, the wallcharts are scoured and the talk is of which game is on the TV tonight.
Burnham himself has drawn Costa Rica in the sweep and he’s remarkably blunt when asked if England will win. “Well, ‘no’ is the answer to that!” he laughs. “I’ve got Argentina to win.”
Giving a straight answer to a straight question may seem unconventional in Westminster. But it fits neatly with a wider attempt by the Shadow Health Secretary to restore trust in politics by letting politicians say what they believe.
From his widely-praised commitment to the Hillsborough justice campaign to his new drive to tackle the obesity crisis, sport is a serious business for Burnham. But it’s only one part of a bigger message that the voters will respond to Labour as long as it gets away from the language of ‘retail offers’, soundbites and media management.
With the NHS likely to be one of Labour’s big cards to play in 2015, he’s spent the last couple of years crafting a set of policies that are aimed at ‘resetting’ the health service for the 21st century’s ageing population.
One key task is to get the millions of NHS staff on board and Burnham has committed the party to awarding the 1% pay rise recommended by the independent pay review body. Only this week, the Royal College of Nursing urged its members to ask their MPs and candidates one question: will you back our pay rise? Burnham is behind them: “At the moment in the NHS people are working flat out, it’s hard under intense pressure and then to single out NHS workers to say you can’t have this modest rise after years of freezes, I think it risks undermining morale in a very serious way.”
As well as pay, staff shortages are the most common cause for complaint among doctors, nurses and midwives. Burnham says NICE’s recommendation in principle of minimum staffing ratios is ‘a good one’ and should be adopted. “A lot of other countries do use it, Australia, Canada, it’s established practice elsewhere.”
On the funding of the health service, he’s quick to distance himself from reports that Labour will adopt Frank Field’s plan for a 1% rise in National Insurance contributions to cope with spiralling costs.
“I have never put that forward so it’s not a proposal that’s come from me or the team,” he says firmly. “Before the NHS asks for more money, it’s got to be able to look people in the eye and say ‘we are spending every penny you give us as best as we possibly can’. My argument is it genuinely can’t do that today.”
Which brings us to his Big Idea. Burnham says that a key way to find savings, while radically improving care, would be to implement his flagship plan to reshape the NHS to include social care.
“My argument is you’ve got to start with social care because social care is prevention. If you are supporting people where they want to be in their own homes surrounded by the people that they love and are comfortable, that is the priority, it seems to me – to invest there and to remodel services beginning there, and that’s what our policy is all about.
“It’s not an old-fashioned kind of ‘oh, let’s have a penny on this for the NHS’, we are saying first you need to fully integrate health and social care. The simplest way I can put it is create an NHS for the whole person, one service for all one person’s needs and reshape services in that way.”
He says that the regulator Monitor has estimated that £6bn could be saved by integration, and many councils are trialling pilots, though he’s cautious about the exact numbers. “I wouldn’t say today it gets you out of jail [on funding], it’s not easy, it has to be worked at. But these are not imaginary savings, these are real savings.” Having served as both Health Secretary and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he’s also aware he has to give himself wriggle room. “Then if that question then arises, having done that, that the NHS still doesn’t have enough, well then you’d have to consider that question at that point. But we are not at that point,” he says.
“For me the cost of social care in the 21st century is as unfair as the cost of pre-NHS medical care. It’s the same thing – vulnerable people get very financially battered by the cost of their condition.”
Just before Labour left office, Burnham proposed a non-means tested ‘National Care Service’ but he says that “my thinking has evolved from where I was in the last parliament”. “One of the big reflections I made was that in an ageing society you can’t disaggregate people’s needs.” Instead of a separate service, he now backs the idea of a single health and care budget that will be used by the NHS and local authorities to commission integrated services. Under Labour’s plans, hospitals would be the lead providers.
“It’s kind of a road, a journey, rather than it all gets done straight away. I’m saying that a fully-integrated adult social care budget and the NHS budget, once you start thinking of that as one as a single service – I’m not going to rebrand it, but if you think of it as a National Health and Care Service, that would be it.”
Integrating the NHS and social care is also proof that Labour still believes that hospitals have to reform, he says. “I think it’s a more fundamental thing than this system of inspection or that system of auditing. Driving ever-increasing numbers of older people to hospital beds is no answer. We have to reset the NHS as a whole-person service.
“We have to build out from your home, one point of contact for your care. That would be a big thing, wouldn’t it? Just one person to ring. And your carer is central to that, giving them support, rather than being invisible to the system as they are the moment… But to do all of that, your hospital is going to have to change and we are going to have to allow hospitals to grow into that.”
Burnham says it’s his desire for integration, rather than fragmentation, of services that means the Lansley reforms have to be reversed. “That’s why the competition stuff has to go, that’s why our commitment to repeal the Health and Social Care Act is a very solid one. This is a real battle ground of the General Election.”
Not that he gets on any better with Lansley’s replacement, Jeremy Hunt. Their clashes at the despatch box are noted for the whiff of acrimony. Why does he think they don’t get on? Burnham is uncompromising, pointing to the claims that Hunt made about him being involved in a cover-up of the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal. “I don’t believe that he believes in the NHS. But it’s more than that. He made claims that he had to retract. Claims that from a Secretary of State to a former Secretary of State I don’t think should be made,” he says.
“I believe he’s acted in a highly partisan and unprofessional manner; he has made claims which are not true. I think that’s behaviour unbecoming of the office.”
The rationale for Tory attacks on Labour over Mid-Staffs is clear, he adds. “He seems to have taken the script on the economy and tried to apply it to health, like he’s been told by Lynton Crosby that that’s what he’ll do. So everything is Labour’s fault and it was all awful and relentlessly go on about that to distract from what’s happening now. It’s a highly tactical, PR-driven strategy.”
To some in his party, Burnham himself was seen as being in favour of market-oriented reforms of the NHS when he was a young MP in the Blair government. Did the experience of being Secretary of State and of fighting the Labour leadership election cause him to change tack?
“Though it was hard going over that line in the leadership campaign, it think it has probably made me a better politician. In that it really makes you question ‘what do you believe?’; ‘why are you in it?’; ‘fundamentally what are you about?’. Although it was depressing and hard at times, I don’t regret it because it did help me do that.”
He says that even when he was a junior health minister in 2006, he picked up from hospital visits the messages from the front line. “One of the things it did teach me...people were getting the message from the last government of ‘private good, public bad’; that’s how it seemed to them. What I saw as people were driving more and more market reforms into the NHS is that I felt they were going to take the NHS to the wrong place.”
Warming to his theme, he adds that there’s a strong economic case for keeping the market out of the health service. Only this week, it topped a global table of the best health systems.
“If you look around the world, market-based systems cost more, not less, than the NHS. The NHS is remarkable for the fact that it provides great care for less than 10% of GDP.
“That’s the answer to the people on the right of politics who go ‘oh, it’s a black hole, and it’s unsustainable’. France, Germany, the Netherlands, certainly the United States are spending much more than we are in terms of GDP. But also markets are the wrong answer for another reason: in the end, markets deliver fragmentation and the future demands integration.
“The public NHS matters, it’s a really important thing. That is what Danny Boyle was celebrating at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games: people before profits. The idea that you can trust it when you go in because they are not worried about the shareholders or the bottom line, it’s you. And the staff give more of themselves to that system because they too believe in it.”
Another big factor driving up costs is obesity. Burnham has always rejected calls for Labour to back a sugar or ‘fat tax’, and says introducing levies on food, not least given the bills already faced by many families, is not something anyone in his party “could justify in any way”.
He accepts the age of the “finger-wagging nanny state” has “run its course”. But he claims the fear of that ‘nanny state’ charge has had a wider chilling effect on the discourse around public health, and discouraged politicians from acting on other areas where regulation is justified.
“The danger is that in the end, the fear of that could stop politicians from doing things we really should be getting on and doing,” he says. “I think the current government is guilty of this. They have left a drift, there’s a real loss of leadership on public health.”
Burnham and his shadow health colleague Luciana Berger will publish a public health paper early next month setting out the party’s thinking and aiming to “reframe the debate” in favour of more proactive government policy, particularly when it comes to children.
“We’re saying, where is it right for the government to act and where is it right to let people make their own choices? We say it’s absolutely right for the state to intervene, and to do so even more decisively than we did when we were in government, to protect children. Because children don’t control the situations they’re exposed to, the environment they’re in or the food that’s put down to them. Therefore I do think the state has an absolutely clear, moral and intellectual basis for saying ‘we will act to protect all children’.”
He makes clear that he expects Labour policy to include a cap on the amount of sugar and fat in children’s food, and particularly cereals. Burnham says he’s “not comfortable with the idea that any child in my constituency sits down at breakfast time to a bowl of food that is 38% sugar. And if people are comfortable with that, well, I’m going to disagree with them.”
“In the old days we had it [sugar] from the bowl on the table, and you put it on your Weetabix. But it’s built in now, isn’t it?” he continues. “My wife’s the one who always picks them up and goes ‘look at this!’ She’s the one who got me on to it. You buy some of the products that look as though they’re slightly healthier, they’ve got grain in or whatever, they don’t have ‘sugar’ in their name on the box. But then you look at them and go ‘oh my God, it’s loaded!’. So I just don’t think people are able to monitor and control the amount of sugar that they’re taking.”
Laughing off those branding him ‘the Frosties Killer’ – “I don’t think it would be that bad. They would still exist, I can confirm that” – he says the move would simply be about introducing some clarity for both the consumer and the companies.
“This isn’t anti-business, or anything like that,” he insists. “The big players say to us: [we want] clarity, a level playing field, tell us where we’re working. That would be better. The Responsibility Deal, the Government’s approach, just really hasn’t worked, because the minute one company says ‘well actually we’re peeling away’, it kind of goes.”
Burnham has been with his wife, Marie-France – or ‘Frankie’ – since they met as students at Cambridge more than 20 years ago. The university sweethearts married in 2000, just a year before Burnham became an MP. But towards the end of the New Labour years the family was hit by a series of devastating blows.
In 2006 Frankie’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away. A short while later her mother was diagnosed with the same cancer, and shortly after that, her other sister was hit too. Burnham couldn’t help but feel that he was surrounded by cancer. After a genetic test showed Frankie too could be at risk from the disease, she took the agonising decision to undergo a double mastectomy.
“We’ve been through a real, terrible, hard journey. First her sister died, then her mum got it, her other sister got it, then her mum died. So we really had a terrible journey. But you’ve got to see the positives, haven’t you? And the positive is that enabled her to get ahead of it, to be honest. It’s a sign of how times are changing; ten years ago it wouldn’t have been possible. The genetic testing that was brought through made it possible.”
More than 45,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK, with a survival rate which lags well behind comparable countries like France, Germany and Italy. Early diagnosis, Burnham says, is the key to turning that around.
“I’ve been through my own journey with it, so I’ve seen the devastation it causes. So many women I knew. It’s so common, sadly,” he says, pausing to compose himself. “Early diagnosis is everything. Increasing access to diagnostic tests in primary care. Mike Richards, the [former] cancer tsar, always advised that that is the way you can make a really big change on cancer. Any cancer. Having more easy access to GPs to get quick tests.”
“But more broadly,” he continues, “it goes back to the public health policy. One of the ideas that we are going to put centre stage is a new emphasis on physical activity. I want to make it the absolute centrepiece of our public health, make it preeminent in terms of our public health goals. Because I think it’s the easiest way to a healthier society, and a more sustainable health service.”
Burnham says it’s “hard to understand” why the levels of exercise in Britain lag so far behind places like the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where more than half the population take part in regular physical activity. Particularly for a country which “loves its sport” as we do.
No policy is yet set in stone, but he reveals Labour is actively looking at setting up a new ’50 by 25’ campaign, aiming to get 50% of people in the UK physically active by 2025. At present, depending on the measurement, the figure runs between 25% and 35%.
“What I’m proposing here isn’t a sort of old-style target, ‘the government tells you to get active’. What I have in mind is more of a kind of shared national ambition,” he explains. “Councils would sign it, companies would sign it, charities would sign it. And in signing it they’d say ‘OK, we are going to take responsibility to deliver this little bit’. So ‘we’ll get 50% of our workforce active by 2025, we’ll put in showers and we’ll help people to cycle to work’, or ‘we’ll put a gym in’. Or the councils might say ‘we’re going to reallocate the roads a little bit, we’re going to give cyclists more space’.”
Burnham says he wrote to Jeremy Hunt proposing a similar cross-party campaign off the back of the Olympics. “And what did he say? ‘Thanks but no thanks!’ I think they missed the moment. They really missed that cross-party spirit that built the Olympics, they should have had that coming out of the Olympics.”
On another area of public health concern, e-cigarettes, Burnham is more conflicted about the possible need for more regulation. Describing e-cigs as both a “gateway” leading people in to smoking, and an escape route out of smoking, he says Labour policymakers must “tread carefully”. “There’s absolutely no doubt about it – they are a gateway product. But then they’ve helped other people with smoking cessation. There’s a lot of evidence to support that, and we don’t want to lose those benefits,” he explains. “It’s a difficult one. But I’m troubled by some of the advertising of them. I think they’re exploiting some loopholes there in terms of advertising. So it’s an area to take forward carefully.”
Could a Labour government look at tightening those rules on advertising?
“Oh yeah,” he replies. “I’ve noticed at Goodison Park, it’s all round the perimeter all the time. Given they are a product that is leading people to smoking, and given we’ve banned [advertising] that 15 years ago, is it now acceptable for that? So I am looking at that.”
The interview is peppered throughout with these regular references to Burnham’s first true love and passion, Everton Football Club. Whether the discussion is about e-cigarettes, politics or his family, the conversation just seems to flow naturally back to the Toffees.
As with most football fans, it becomes quite clear Burnham often dreamed of leading his beloved team out onto the hallowed turf. But unlike most fans, Burnham recently had the chance to do just that. At the end of May he captained an all-star Toffees team against a Liverpool XI in a charity match at Goodison. The Blues won 2-1, courtesy of a late penalty won – and converted – by Burnham himself. And to make it even sweeter, the Reds were led out by fellow Labour MP Steve Rotheram.
“It doesn’t get any better!” Burnham enthuses, with a grin as wide as a Goodison goalmouth.
“He [Rotheram] still protests that I went down far too easily. What’s the modern phrase? Entitled to go down! And I scored it. Of all the things in politics, the situations I’ve found myself in, running towards the Gwladys Street End taking a penalty against the old enemy was a heart-in-mouth moment.”
Burnham has even taken his Shadow Cabinet colleague – and Norwich City fan – Ed Balls to a few games. But would he take the other Ed? “I would if he wanted – I would love to take him if he wanted to.”
Whether the Labour leader would be entirely welcome at a Merseyside football ground at the moment is uncertain. His decision to pose with a promotional copy of The Sun last week caused predictable ire in Liverpool and, after protests from several MPs and the resignation of a councillor, Miliband apologised.
The incident came at a particularly sensitive time for the Hillsborough families, with the inquests into the tragedy underway and verdicts expected soon. Burnham, who has attended many of the hearings himself, says he’s “more and more confident” that things will be set right this time and “we’ll get justice for the 96”. “It’s 25 years late,” he adds. “It’s not justice as it should have been. But I’m confident that we’ll get a form of justice. Which is what the families deserve.”
While Burnham may describe himself as ‘tribal’ in both his football and his politics, his work on the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, and particularly his long struggle in office to re-open the investigation, has won him heartfelt praise from the Reds and the Blues in both those divided fields. Few, if any, politicians have done more to get to the truth than him, and on his visit to Anfield for the 25th anniversary of the tragedy this April he was given a moving standing ovation by Everton’s cross-city rivals. “From my point of view, from a personal level, nothing I will ever do in my life will ever matter more to me than the privilege, really, of working alongside the families,” he says. “We’re with them all the way.”
But what about that Miliband photo op with the Sun – was Burnham consulted? “No,” he replies, brushing the question aside. “Look, I think he was right to apologise. And that’s that really.”
Burnham says he’s 100% committed to winning in 2015 and “making Ed the Prime Minister”, laughing off suggestions that he’s on ‘manoeuvres’ for a leadership run himself. Or, as one unnamed MP recently put it: “Andy has left the reservation”.
“I love that phrase: ‘left the reservation’. It conjures up all kinds of images,” he says chuckling. “My focus is on winning [in 2015]. And my driving thing in politics is the NHS, and putting it in a position where it will thrive in the 21st century. If I’ve got a mission that I’m about, it’s that.”
But with Labour’s poll lead shrinking, and some shadow cabinet members expressing fears that the party’s message isn’t cutting through in its traditional heartlands, the election is looking far from a sure thing. So, if Labour fail to win and the post becomes available, will he have another stab at the top job?
“It’s there for us to win. It’s in our hands,” he says, rejecting the premise of the question. “I’m more upbeat than that. My big reflection on the locals and the European elections is that I came through that and thought the election is more winnable than I thought it was before. There is a poll lead, and it’s been there pretty steadily. And I think it’s all there for us, really.”
He admits he does worry about the threat from UKIP, and says he faces hostility from voters on the doorstep who are angry about the “nature of our politics”. “We knock on doors and we all get ‘there’s no point, you’re all the same’,” he says. “I think politics has been trading in a degraded politics for too long. Small soundbite, gimmicky things designed to make headlines in magazines and newspapers. But not policies of scale and substance, based on a philosophy that the public can say ‘that’s worth voting for, that’s going to change things’.
“My generation has been schooled in that reduced version of retail politics. I hate that phrase. Retail offer. It’s not a retail offer is it? We need to offer something better and bigger, a bigger vision of what society can be.”
“And that’s what my health and care policy is meant to be,” he continues. “Can Labour be audacious enough to dream of a bigger vision for everybody’s care in the 21 century? That I think is the route back.”
He may think an England victory at the World Cup is unlikely. But Andy Burnham is still convinced that a bold and radical Labour Party can win in 2015. And for once he will be cheering on the red team, not the Blues.