John Hutton: 'The media are entitled to be sceptical but the scientific context is important'

The Monday Interview: Cabinet Office Minister

Promising a bonfire of unnecessary regulations is one of oldest tricks in the Whitehall book, straight out of Yes Minister. But when Tony Blair promoted Mr Hutton to the Cabinet on his 50th birthday the day after the May general election, he ordered him to get to grips with the issue in a wider and more systematic way than any previous government by redefining the public debate over "risk".

And the Prime Minister told Mr Hutton to try to persuade the media to adopt a more balanced approach to the potential risks from scientific and technological advances. Mr Blair believes Britain (and Europe) is falling behind in biotechnology, the "industry of the future", and may miss out on its huge economic and social benefits because the debate is being dictated by "conspiracy theorists".

So Mr Hutton, flanked by the Government's chief scientific and medical officers, has had talks with broadcasters on how to ensure people are given the maximum information about future risks with minimum alarm. Talks with newspaper editors will follow. Other issues are more sensitive. Mr Blair is famously pro-GM and is worried decisions about it are being driven by emotion rather than science.

As a loyal Blairite, Mr Hutton is happy to raise the Prime Minister's banner. In his first newspaper interview in his post-election role, he agrees intervention by politicians in the media is "difficult territory" but insists a mature and open debate about the risks and challenges facing the nation will help it to make correct decisions.

The former Health minister confesses the Government almost wasted millions by installing temporary screening equipment at ports of entry during the Sars epidemic in China two years ago in response to a media frenzy. It made the right call, but only just.

And he says during the scare over the MMR vaccine, the health of children was damaged because the media gave so much prominence to the views of Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who raised the alarm over a possible link with autism, now dismissed. "You had 99.9 per cent of scientific opinion on one side and .1 per cent on the other, but their views were given equal value and prominence," Mr Hutton says.

"I am not finger-wagging at the media. I accept they have a difficult job.They are entitled to challenge government scientific advice. They are entitled to be sceptical. But the context is important and that's what we have to talk to the media about.

He does not want to rerun the debate over MMR or GM but to ensure "we are very careful about the way such issues are presented", for example, over advances in genetics and stem-cell research. He says: "We haven't got it right on GM. We have effectively closed research and economic opportunities for the UK. There is now no research being done into GM in the UK. That is an economic blow. 'Frankenstein food' makes a great headline but it's a travesty of the truth."

He hopes to set up a "better dialogue" between the media and the independent scientific experts who advise the Government to ensure "a better balance" in the debate. Will his mission concern the way the media covers the new terrorist threat facing Britain? He has no criticism of the coverage since 7 July but admits concern about contradic-tory speculation and cannot resist a dig at journalists who had accused the Government of exaggerating the al- Qa'ida threat but now warn that further attacks are inevitable.

The lesson he draws from the past few weeks is encouraging: that people were sensible about the terrorist threat. "We have to try to minimise the risk but there are risks you can't exclude," he says. "People know that."

Mr Hutton's promotion to cabinet rank came as no surprise. Although he represents Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, he is a member of the so-called "North-east mafia" of ultra-loyal Blairites. For 10 years the former law lecturer shared an office with Stephen Byers at Newcastle Polytechnic. He entered Parliament with Mr Byers and another member of the club, Alan Milburn, in 1992.

Since then, he seems to have followed Mr Milburn around. He succeeded him as Health minister when Mr Milburn became Secretary of State for Health. In May, he succeeded Mr Milburn as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in charge of the Cabinet Office. And he and Mr Milburn shared a flat in Kennington for 10 years. But despite his belief in open government, Mr Hutton refuses to say who did the washing-up.

He is open enough to admit another drive to cut red tape sometimes produces "rolling-eyes syndrome". Yet he manages to bring this driest of subjects to life. "The Government traditionally gets caught between a rock and a hard place. You get accused of dithering and incompetence if there is a problem and 'Something must be done'. When you intervene, you are accused of meddling and being a nanny state."

After complaints by industry about unnecessary burdens, the Government is to cut the number of inspectorates from 11 to four. "There is a risk that the better-regulation agenda becomes a process-driven exercise that doesn't change the culture of Whitehall," he says. "It's not about cutting regulations by 5 or 10 per cent. It's not about lowering environmental standards or rights at work. But globalisation is producing pressures. We need a modern, mature debate about when governments should and shouldn't intervene. It's at the heart of the relationship between the state and the individual." Mr Hutton agrees much of the red tape in Britain now emanates from the European Union. "It has had a regulatory culture. It has to move beyond the starting point that legislation and regulation is needed. Regulation at EU level should be a last resort, not a first resort."

His other main responsibility is to drive forward the Government's public service reforms. The Cabinet Office can be a tricky berth, since Whitehall departments are suspicious of initiatives from the centre and guard their independence jealously. So does the Treasury, which also oversees the reforms.

But Mr Hutton seems well-qualified for the task after six years at the Department of Health. "At the centre of this agenda is one proposition: providing the best possible public services. We shouldn't excuse bad performance or brush it under the carpet. In some cases, we will need to change the organisation providing the service."

His mantra is "quality and choice" and he dismisses as patronising the criticism that people do not want choice, merely a good local school or hospital. Consumers expect choice and certainly exercise it when given the option of three or four hospitals to get their treatment more quickly, he says.

He thinks the best of the public sector lags behind the best in the private. So the challenge for a progressive centre-left party - he is happy to describe himself as as a "social democrat" - is to make the case again for taxpayer-funded services that ensure the poor get similar opportunities to those who pay to go private. His Blairite prescription may cause some tensions with the Brown camp, which is cautious about another dose of market-driven reforms, mainly in education, which Mr Blair wants to see before leaving office.

"You can't have no schools or hospitals provided. Everyone understands that. There is a need for continuity. That is different to some parts of the private sector."

He admits there are probably still too many performance targets set by the Government but insists it was right to set them to lever up the poor standards of service inherited in 1997.

Mr Hutton says things are getting better, even if people will not necessarily thank the Government. Ask people what they think about the state of the National Health Service, he says, and the answer will be broadly in line with what they think of the Government. But ask them about their local hospitals, and the response is more favourable.

The lesson he draws from his long stint in trenches at the Health Department is that reform is an endless process that will never be completed: when one problem is solved, another demand will arise.

He wants to see public service reforms entrenched in Whitehall as well as on the front line. He hopes Sir Gus O'Donnell, the incoming head of the Civil Service, will up the pace. But he rebuffs calls for a civil service Act to guard the independence of officials and provide controls over politically appointed special advisers. Asked if he supports the idea, he replies: "Oh dear, is that the time? The legislative programme is very crowded."

The CV

* BORN: 6 May 1955

* EDUCATED: Westcliff High School, Essex; Magdalen College, Oxford

* CAREER: Senior law lecturer, Newcastle Polytechnic, 1981-92; MP for Barrow-in-Furness since 1992; Parliamentary private secretary to Margaret Beckett 1997-98; junior Health minister 1998-1999, Minister of State for Health 1999-2005; Cabinet Office minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster since May 2005

* FAMILY: Three sons and one daughter from first marriage, dissolved in 1992; remarried in 2004