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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.
Words: Paul Waugh and Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“Don’t say that word!” Sitting in her Whitehall office, Helen Grant’s normal air of quiet calm is ruffled not by mention of the Labour party, or Sepp Blatter or even Richard Scudamore. No – the offensive term is “penalties”.
As The House raises the dreaded prospect of a do-or-die shoot-out for our national team at the World Cup finals, Grant curses at the very thought. Like many England fans, she recoils at the memory of tournaments past, but knows just how all-consumed the country can become by a sheer passion for sport – particularly among youngsters.
“I remember Euro ‘96. The best aspect of that for me was the TVs blaring, a really hot summer,” she says. “My lads were little and loved it. We had a house full of adults thinking they know it better than everybody else, but the kids and their delight is what I remember.”
Back then, she was juggling the needs of a young family with the launch of her own legal practice and Westminster was a world away. This week, she’s in Brazil as Parliamentary Under Secretary for Sport, Tourism and Equalities, representing Her Majesty’s Government.
Grant was at the England v Uruguay match this week, while her boss Sajid Javid is set to see the England v Costa Rica game next week. Speaking before she flew out, she said “we’re going to be glued to the telly” for the other fixtures.
Unlike Angela Merkel, who attended Germany’s first match, the Prime Minister has so far stayed away from the tournament. British politicians face the accusation of a lack of loyalty if they don’t attend matches but the rival charge of using taxpayers’ cash on a freebie if they do. Is it a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t?
“I think it’s just common sense. Football is a fantastic game, England are playing, we’re very proud of them and I think it’s absolutely right and proper that the sports minister goes to as many matches as sensible. And that’s what I want to do,” she says.
And if England get through their group, will she stay on in Brazil? “I think we have to just take each game as it comes. You always have to have contingency plans in government…” she smiles.
“I have to say I’m optimistic. We’ve got a tricky group. It’s going to be hot as well, which is not easy for the lads. But I think Roy’s done a very fine job actually. The team seem very together. If we get through the group, fantastic. After that, it’s a knock-out tournament – anything can happen. And on our day I think we can beat the best of them.”
Of course FIFA has had problems of its own in the run-up to the big event, with huge controversy about the way the 2022 finals were awarded to Qatar. Grant says that she does not want to “pre-judge” the report of investigator Michael Garcia, but it’s clear she’s concerned. “They’re very, very serious allegations indeed. Let’s see what he comes up with. But what I do think is that no stone should be left unturned.
“I want to see what he finds, what’s proven, which is very important, and I think we go from there. What I do think though is, I think it’s absolutely essential that FIFA and all other big international sporting bodies, I think it’s very important that they are respected, I think it’s very important that they are open, fair and transparent in their dealings, and I think it’s very important that there is good governance.”
And as for FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s recent claim to African delegates that racism among the British media was to blame for the controversy, Grant is not amused. “I think that was the wrong thing to say completely, and I do not agree with it. I back Greg Dyke [the FA chairman who confronted Blatter over the charge] completely.”
English football has had image problems of its own in recent months. The FA has come in for criticism over its handling of a number of racism rows, and last month Premier League boss Richard Scudamore faced accusations of sexism and calls to resign over a leaked exchange of emails in which he referred to “female irrationality”.
At the time, Grant described Scudamore’s remarks as “completely unacceptable and very disappointing”, but stopped short of calling for formal disciplinary action to be taken. She says her views on the row have been “fully aired” and the Premier League boss’s future is now settled. “But as far as I’m concerned,” she adds, “I do expect a reinforced commitment from the Premier League in relation to women’s football and equality issues more generally.”
The storm around the comments has also refocused attention on the wider problem of the lack of female representation at the highest levels of British sport. “It carried on the debate and it brought the issue of women and diversity to the surface again – which is not a bad thing,” Grant says.
Improving the number of women in senior decision-making roles has been a perennial challenge for sports ministers, and progress has been slow. But in the wake of the Scudamore row, Grant warned the governing bodies of English football, rugby and cricket that she would make it a top priority of her time in office. And to prove she means business she set them a strict target: at least 25% of your board members must be female by 2017, or you face losing millions of pounds in grassroots funding from the Exchequer.
“We need to ensure that we get more women on governing boards – so they can shape sport and shape the administration in sport,” she says, insisting that the target is not about “tokenism” but simply “good governance”. “I think it’s a fair, reasonable and sensible statement to make to them and I expect it to be complied with. I’ve been doing this job eight months now and I’ve had the privilege of meeting some absolutely fantastic women who would be well placed on those boards. And the boards and the sports would be all the better for it.”
Some women’s groups expressed concern about the decision to move Equalities out of the Home Office and into DCMS back in 2012, fearing women’s issues may be downgraded to an ‘add-on’ at a less powerful department. But the funding threat is perhaps a sign that Grant, too, is prepared to pursue a muscular and proactive agenda when it’s needed. Sport needs to modernise, and if it’s necessary, she says, she’s “not afraid to use any powers” at her disposal.
Grant is, in fact, not afraid of much that life has thrown at her. The daughter of a single mother, raised on a northern council estate, her first love was the law, which she studied at Hull University. After help from her local MP, Willie Whitelaw, she managed to get funding for a place at the College of Law, Guildford. She spent the next 23 years establishing herself as a solicitor specialising in family law, often dealing with cases of brutal domestic violence. After a brief membership of the Labour party, she was inspired by David Cameron’s leadership victory to join the Conservatives and was among his very first ‘A-listers’. Grant fought off some strong competition to succeed Ann Widdecombe in Maidstone and The Weald (including a young Conor Burns). After just two years in the Commons, she became the first ever black Tory woman minister, appointed as Minister for Justice and for Equalities in 2012. Last year, she was moved to DCMS, while retaining her equalities role.
Using her opponents’ superior weight against them is also something Helen Grant has a lifetime’s experience in. As an eight year old growing up in Carlisle, the future sports minister took up judo, and rose to become under-16 champion for the north of England and the south of Scotland. Raised in a matriarchal household by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother – her Nigerian doctor father had moved to America shortly after she was born – a young Grant quickly realised the benefits of discipline and motivation.
But the sport also brought with it other benefits. For a long time the only mixed-race person in her estate, Grant experienced bullying, name-calling and worse during her childhood, and got into more than one scrap standing up to the offenders. But as she began to be recognised locally for her judo prowess, rather than the colour of her skin, the bullies quickly learnt to leave her alone. “It boosted my self-confidence and self-esteem so much that even though I did get some bullying and people calling me names, because I felt so good about myself I thought ‘I don’t really care what you think’,” she remembers. “And interestingly, as I became a famous person in my school, and then in the town and in the city, the bullies seemed to recoil a bit…”
And as she grew older her sporting success – Grant also represented Cumbria at tennis, athletics, hockey and cross-country – triggered a road-to-Damascus conversion in her attitude to school work, too.
“It was fundamental for me, it gave me a belief in myself, and that was the beginning of my progress academically as well,” she recalls. “I just used to be interested in sport, not particularly wanting to sit down and read. But the feeling I got of winning and my love of competition and doing well and pushing myself made me think ‘well, if I can get that special feeling from sport then maybe I can do it in other things too’. So I did.”
And that liberating and vitalising effect sport had on her is something Grant wants to make possible for every woman and girl. “I know what it did for me growing up,” she says, getting into her passionate stride. “It’s fantastic for self-confidence and self-esteem. There are health benefits as well. And sport is great when it comes to social cohesion, community cohesion. There’s a whole load of additional elements that you get if you participate in sport. So for me, women in sport is one of my priorities.”
New figures released this month show an extra 700,000 people have taken up sport since the Coalition came to office, with the number of participants up from 14.9m in 2010 to 15.6m today. “You can pick around but, tangibly, 700,000 extra people are doing sport. Fact. That’s good news. And included in that are more women doing sport,” Grant says. “But that is not to say we haven’t still got more work to do.”
Sport England will launch a “very big campaign” focused on getting more women into sport later in the year, she reveals, following on from several schemes across the country aimed at increasing participation and eroding the barriers faced by women, and women from ethnic minorities in particular.
“I think if we’re really going to get these participation figures up it’s a matter of asking women what they want and giving it to them. Not being snooty about it and saying ‘this is what we think you want’. Asking: what do you want and what works for you?”
Grant has also just agreed to £2m funding for a new Equality and Human Rights Commission programme tasked with improving the inclusivity of sport, not just when it comes to women and ethnic minorities, but also accessibility for disabled people.
“In terms of inclusivity it’s saying we recognise that some BME groups are not engaging in sports as much as we’d like,” Grant says. “And we also recognise that sports stadia are not as accessible as they should be. What the Equality and Human Rights Commission will be doing is actually looking at, I suppose, the law, gathering evidence, looking at the guidance that already exists, improving the guidance and then very practically – which is something I always like – actually talking and working with sports governing bodies to say ‘right, this is your sporting venue, how accessible is it and what can we do to improve that?’.”
And if the sporting venues don’t do enough to improve accessibility, could she tighten guidelines and force them to? “We could do all sorts of things,” she replies.
In terms of a deadline, Grant says the Commission is going to need “a fair amount of time” before it is ready to report back. Is it likely to be before the election? “It would be nice, wouldn’t it?” Grant says. “It’s important. I want to achieve things.”
Another diversity issue which has caused particular concern in recent years is the lack of black managers in English football. After the sacking of Norwich City’s Chris Hughton earlier this year, there are now no non-white managers at any of the 92 Football League clubs – despite the fact that more than 25% of players are from BME backgrounds.
Grant says it’s vital that sports are representative of society, not just on the pitch but “at every single level”, and backs the inquiry into diversity in management by the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board, chaired by former Lambeth Council chief Heather Rabbatts.
She describes the NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule’ – a law in American football requiring teams to interview at least one ethnic minority candidate for senior coaching roles – as “interesting”, but stops short of calling for its introduction here, suggesting instead the FA should be looking at extending its COACH bursary scheme at the FA’s National Football Centre at St George’s Park, which helps BME trainees progress up the qualification ladder.
“I’m not going to go that far,” she says of introducing the Rooney Rule on this side of the Atlantic. “Many would say it’s worked very well for NFL in America. It depends on having a good stock of people that you can put forward for interview. But I think we’ve got to look at everything. We’ve got a fair way to go and I think we should be looking at everything – including the number of bursaries, and the work that’s taking place at St George’s in relation to the stock of managers that we have across the piece.”
Despite many Asian schoolchildren playing football, we have yet to see any British Asians in Premiership football first teams. West Ham, despite the large Bangladeshi-born British presence in the East End, lacks Asian players too. What does she think about that?
“That’s why I have no hesitation actually once I saw that the detail of the bid that the ECHR put in, those are some of the issues that it’s going to be looking at. They are going to be looking at how can we get more Asian people playing football or any sport.”
And given the large number of young Asians who love and play cricket, why do so few play professionally at county level for teams like Yorkshire?
“I think there will be lots of different reasons, including confidence, feeling included when they participate in sport. These are the issues the Equalities and human Rights Commission will get to the bottom of, and of course we will look at them and have to address them.”
As someone whose own childhood was transformed through sport, Grant is determined to increase participation and deliver on the promises of a long-lasting legacy from the 2012 Olympics.
But given Britons’ love of sport, she also wants to make sure it fits neatly into her other brief: as tourism minister. Has the recent passports controversy offered a good opportunity to show people that they can have a hassle-free holiday in the UK?
“It’s about choice, at the end of the day,” she says. “I would have to say I grew up in Cumbria just on the edge of the Lake District, and my constituency is in the heart of the garden of England. I’m pretty biased – I think those two areas are two jewels among a very rich crown. I think there’s a lot to be said for the ‘staycation’. People need to do what they like. I think we are going to have a great summer, we are certainly going to have a great summer of sport too, there’s lots of opportunities to build your holiday around a spoilt-for-choice list of events – the Tour de France Grand Depart, we’ve got the golf, we’ve got the Commonwealth Games, we’ve got football that we can watch on the TV. It’s a wonderful place to have your holiday.”
So it’s not the end of the world if people don’t get their passports this year? “I’m sure you will get your passport. I’m in no doubt, I’m very confident,” she smiles, her lawyer’s brain spotting the leading question. “But if they don’t want to go away, we have some fantastic places to visit and holiday not that far from here.”
As we leave, only one question remains. What did she make of claims on Radio 5 Live recently that she’d refused to appear on the station because she didn’t ‘feel confident enough to do live interviews yet’?
Grant becomes animated, pointing out that she “hounds” her press officer to ask which media he has lined up for her every week. “I’m really annoyed about it. It’s not me. In fact it’s the opposite of me. I like them [media appearances]…I want more of it, not less of it. Maybe you can say how you find me…if you thought I was a shrinking jibbering idiot?
“I enjoy talking about things that I’m passionate about. I’ve nothing to hide. I want to do this. If they want to ring, if they want to get on the phone, I am very happy to do it.”
If England progress in the World Cup this year, they’ll surprise a few sceptics. And Helen Grant has herself made a career out of defying the odds. As she watches the national team in Brazil, she’ll be cheering them on like a Carlisle schoolkid – penalties or not.
To think there was a time back in the mid-1990s when it was said by his critics on both the left and right that Tony Blair did not believe in anything. Today, no-one doubts that the former prime minister has very strong beliefs, on foreign policy in particular. Indeed, he is often accused of having too many views or the wrong views.
When the ex-Labour leader popped up earlier this month suggesting that the meltdown in Iraq required renewed American and British intervention, it is fair to say that his contribution to the debate was not widely or warmly welcomed. Blair was treated to an old-fashioned Fleet Street monstering as his many enemies in the press gave him both barrels. Did this man – this alleged war-mongering maniac – have no shame? Can he not see, said his opponents, that the rush to war in Iraq in 2003 and his desire to support a marauding, madcap muppet of a US president at any costs helped cause a moral and strategic calamity in Iraq?
Blair seems disinclined to view it like that, unsurprisingly. Anyway, the former Labour leader long ago decided to stop chasing popularity in Britain, which is just as well.
Having begun as a leader obsessed with polls and popularity, in office he became determined to be defined by what he termed tough decisions that might involve him being disliked by large numbers of Britons.
His radicalisation on foreign policy is usually attributed primarily to 9/11, although Blair's emergence as a hawk obviously pre-dates that epoch-defining event. In conflicts such as Kosovo, Blair had already developed a taste for international power plays, the theatrical grandeur of summits and muscular intervention.
The problem with that second-phase Blair, post-9/11, was that he approached it all with the zeal of the convert. In interviews and statements in the Commons, he looked as though he was energised and liberated by having found the true path.
But in the end, although he cited the 1930s and the cost of appeasement in defence of military action, his approach was too often downright ahistorical. Despite grasping the importance of maintaining a good working relationship with the American administration, he seemed not to have any idea how it should be leveraged.
Where some other British leaders from history might have banged the table and demanded assurances on subjects such as the preparations for the aftermath, or even asked politely, Blair was mute.
At the time, I must confess that I thought this was because behind the scenes, he knew what he was doing. Many of those who were in favour of the intervention in Iraq (of whom I was one) presumed, naively, that the Americans had a plan. Contrary to the sneering, the US can do nation-building, as it demonstrated in western Europe and Japan after the Second World War. Unfortunately, the man who was in a position to check they had something similar in mind in Iraq in 2003, did not.
Blair now looks like a man haunted by the legacy of Iraq and the failures of his policy. Of course, he won another election, and his exit from No 10 and the Commons to clear the way for Gordon Brown was handled with great style. But Blair has ever since been a ghostly presence, trapped in political purgatory and condemned to be forever hauled back to one issue and asked to account for his actions.
Even so, Blair continues to fascinate, particularly in corners of the Labour party and beyond. Perhaps this is because even his critics know that for all his limitations he was – thanks to his electoral record – special. No leader since, and no leader on the horizon – with the possible exception of Boris Johnson, thanks to his star power – has the reach of the early Blair 20 years ago. He was the last leader capable of winning very large Commons majorities, drawing votes from England, Scotland and Wales.
With the party system breaking down, and Scotland diverging politically from England – whether it votes for independence or not – we may not see Blair's like again. Depending on your view, that's either a tragedy or a blessed relief. Take your pick.
Iain Martin is a political commentator