News Editors George Sandeman and Wills Robinson sat down with the long serving Labour politician to discuss tuition fees, Scottish independence and bankers’ bonuses
In an exclusive interview Nick Brown MP revealed to The Courier his proposal of lowering tuition fees by scrapping the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.
The Newcastle upon Tyne East MP favoured reducing the annual fee contribution to £4,000, which is at odds with official Labour policy.
Opposition Leader Ed Miliband believes a tuition fee contribution of £6,000 per annum is acceptable but Brown, who has been in office since 1983, believes the Trident money can be used elsewhere.
Citing the United Kingdom’s membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) he argued that this made justifications for Trident’s renewal redundant.
The nuclear missile project has been estimated by the Government to cost between £15bn and £20bn whilst environmental group Greenpeace have put the figure at £34bn.
The increase in the tuition fee contribution came about as a result of the Government pursuing a programme of austerity to deal with the country’s budget deficit. As part of this policy they reduced the higher education budget by 40% from £7.1bn to £4.2bn meaning the shortfall would have to be covered by increased fees.
Brown, who was awarded the freedom of the city of Newcastle in 2001, also touched on several other hot button issues. Speaking on the £970,00 bonus in shares that could have been given to the CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Stephen Hester, who is paid an annual salary of £1.2m, Brown said: “I don’t understand it at all. It’s more than some people earn in a lifetime and seems disproportionate to what happens in the rest of the world.”
However, Brown did warn that there could be negative repercussions if Hester was not retained to continue his work, stating that civil servants may not possess the required skills to do the highly specialised job.
Brown, a former union worker on Tyneside, also advocated the concept of greater transparency in the remuneration committees that determine executive pay in top companies.
The 61-year-old MP also talked about the forthcoming Olympics and the impact it will have on the North East. With the outstanding sports facilities in Tyneside, and the wider North East, the MP hopes athletes and visitors alike will make use of the surroundings; to the benefit of the local economy.
Having served as Minister for the North East in Government for two and a half years, Brown was keen to project his vision of the region’s long-term economic future.
He placed much emphasis on the need for economic growth through the private sector to create a wider spread and deeper number of jobs. He added that, although the public sector and public service were important, the future for job growth in the region was the private sector. The former Chief Whip pointed to the Nissan car and battery plant in Sunderland and the redevelopment of the steel industry in Teesside as examples of what the North East’s economy was capable of.
Describing the region’s best qualities to attract inward investment, the 28- year tenured MP pointed out how the discretionary income goes further in the area due to the lower fixed costs of living, the high standard of living and “the fantastic people.”
The former Minister for Work also addressed the issue of Scottish Independence saying that, although he was a moderate Unionist, he believed the Scots had the right to self-determination on the issue.
He expanded by saying he favoured different models of devolution for different regions of the UK, suggesting he might back the idea of ‘devo-max’ for the Scottish people. ‘Devolution max’ would give the Scottish Parliament full tax and spend powers over Scots and is likely to be included as a secondary question in the independence referendum.
The independence issue continues to polarise many Scots with those in business split on the issue. Ultimo boss Michelle Mone says she would move her business to London if the Scots became independent, whilst industrialist Jim McColl believes a stronger Scotland would emerge from self-autonomy.
Regarding the forthcoming Diamond Jubilee to mark 60 years of the Queen’s reign, the former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food dismissed the idea of a publicly-funded Royal Yacht to commemorate the occasion. He posed the question: “At her time of life how much time is he going to spend on it?”
Brown further queried if luxury gifts in general were an appropriate way to celebrate the birthday of the country’s second longest tenured monarch, saying such items weren’t “quite in the spirit of the age.”
He also suggested that there were more appropriate ways to celebrate the monarchy, such as health and education infrastructures, that could be incorporated into and celebrated by the wider Commonwealth. He said such projects would be an “enduring symbol of altruistic friendship” in honour of the Queen’s lengthy duty as Head of State.
The Labour backbencher also discussed the concept of ‘Boris Island’, a proposed international airport based in the Thames Estuary, and revealed that it had been a proposal previously considered when Labour were in power. He condemned the project as being too costly and not environmentally friendly given the alternative options of expanding other London-surrounding airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick or even Stansted in East Anglia.
Incumbent London Mayor Boris Johnson is running against predecessor Ken Livingstone and recently announced the prospect of the offshore airport in the Thames Estuary. Extra runways are seen as being critical to London’s long-term economic prosperity given that Frankfurt Airport in Germany and Charles de Gaulle Airport in France have four whilst Heathrow has two despite it being the busiest airport of the three.
A patron of the Leeds Youth Opera, Brown also discussed the benefits cap proposed by the Government and later objected to by the House of Lords. Brown admitted that the Labour party had got itself into a muddle over what its exact position on the issue was, but disclosed that he was of the opinion that child and disability benefits should be universal.
However, he stated that there was “something to the argument” of capping housing benefit given the regional differences in the cost of housing within the UK.
Addressing the issue of the sovereignty over the Falkland Islands he distinguished between the rights of the Islanders to self-determination and the oil resources upon which Las Islas Malvinas, if you’re Argentinian, sit. He said that as long as the Islanders wanted to remain British, they should be able to, but that there could be negotiations with Argentina over potential oil rights.
The MP also commented on the new expenses system for MPs saying that, although it was more restrictive, it was “the right thing to do” as they [the MPs] had “brought it on their own heads.” He also pointed out that, because it was a receipt based system, it had left many MPs out of pocket and that a division had emerged between the wealthy and not so wealthy members of the legislature where the former had an advantage in using the new system over the latter. However, he did humorously make clear that these difficulties weren’t “a bid for sympathy.”
Speaking on the current performance of Labour’s leader Ed Miliband he dismissed polling within the last month, which showed the Conservatives ahead of Labour, as a “rag.” He defended the former Energy and Climate Change Secretary, saying: “he was fundamentally onto something” regarding the concept of ethical and unethical capitalism and the idea of the ‘squeezed middle.’
He also emphasized the need for the rest of the Labour members to “pull together” and support the younger son of prominent left-wing academic Ralph Miliband.
Having entered the House of Commons in 1983, along with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, he recalled his fondness for his time as Chief Whip and the communal feeling of having to “put the Labour Party right” under the leadership of John Smith. He also spoke of how he supported Gordon Brown for the party leadership after Smith’s premature death and played down the oft talked-of rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown saying that “history was being rewritten with hindsight.”
Now a well-known backbench MP, he talked of the greater freedom the position brings, compared to sitting on the front benches, saying he was further able to advance the arguments for “what he had always believed to be right.” However, he did warn that the position should not be abused by using it for “self-indulgent purposes.”
With Brown turning 62 in June he was asked if he intended to continue his political career beyond the next election in 2015. He said he would still be running for public office but revealed he wasn’t sure for which seat considering the forthcoming constituency boundary changes which will take away three seats from the region.
Brown also discussed the issue of House of Lords reform and its present revisory role. He admitted that he’d “thought long and hard” about the issue and that he differed in opinion to the Labour leadership, and perhaps majority public opinion, in that he did not believe there should be a second elected chamber.
He favours continuing the reforms brought in by Tony Blair and believes a second chamber could best serve the country by continuing to appoint individuals of expertise with a function to “advise and revise, to delay but not to thwart” the House of Commons.
He also revealed that he was against possible reforms to the electoral system that would see members of the House of Commons elected by Proportional Representation (PR) rather than the current First Past the Post system (FPTP).
He explained his affinity for FPTP saying it provided a valuable individual connection between a representative and regionalised minority communities that otherwise would not be heard.
He talked of industries specific to the North East such as that the coal mining and ship building communities whose voices would be “lost-off” in a PR system