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SOPHY RIDGE: Well Theresa May has this week travelled to Brussels and Dublin to try and renegotiate the Irish backstop, so far seemingly without much luck. Well joining us now is the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss.
LIZ TRUSS: Good morning Sophy.
SR: Welcome. It is the first time I have interviewed you on the show so I am very keen to find out your Brexit red lines because this week Jeremy Corbyn has set out what could be seen as a path to a deal with a permanent customs union. Is that something that you could back?
LIZ TRUSS: Well first of all I do think that Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Brexit is better than Tony Blair, at least he is acknowledging the referendum happened and that we need to move forward but fundamentally we need to have an independent trade policy, that’s what we set out in our manifesto, that is what we need to be able to have the freedom to succeed after Brexit, so the customs union isn’t the right approach and what we showed two weeks ago in Parliament is we do have a way through. The Brady amendment got the support of a majority in Parliament …
SR: But it’s not going to get the support of the EU, that’s the problem isn’t it?
LIZ TRUSS: I believe it is. We have already seen movement from the EU, they have said they are prepared to come back to the table and talk about the opportunities and we’ve got that on the table, the time limit, the unilateral exit mechanism looking at all terms and arrangements and I believe that Theresa May can get that deal. I mean this is one element of the Withdrawal Agreement that the Conservative party and others had an issue with, in fact Jeremy Corbyn himself has said that the backstop is an issue. The EU has indicated that there can be further discussions and we now need to get that done.
SR: They haven’t indicated that they are going to budge on the backstop at all.
LIZ TRUSS: But before any negotiation nobody goes in saying I’m going to give up all the things I previously said, they don’t say that but the fact is that the EU do want a deal. This is one element they have always said …
SR: At the beginning of the negotiations.
LIZ TRUSS: But they always said that the backstop is a temporary measure. Now what we want to do is make sure that is properly in law, that it is either temporary or we have got a unilateral exit mechanism and that is the way through, that is the pathway to the future, it commands the support of Conservative MPs, it commands the support of quite a number of Labour MPs in Leaving seats and that is the majority. If you remember, a few weeks ago the EU were saying there is nothing that commands a majority in the House of Commons in Britain, please tell us what you want. We told them what we want and now is the time to deliver and I appreciate that Jeremy Corbyn has come to the table but the reality is, what he’s proposing does not deliver on what we want as a country.
SR: Just to be really clear, if it were to become government policy to pursue a customs union, would you resign?
LIZ TRUSS: It is not government policy, I am trying to …
SR: Yes, but I’m trying to find the red lines.
LIZ TRUSS: I want an independent trade policy, I think that’s incredibly important and I don't think we would command the support of Parliament if we had such a policy.
SR: Can you see any problems if …
LIZ TRUSS: I absolutely do not think that should be our policy.
SR: Okay, not quite the answer to the question but I do see where you’re coming from. Now less than 50 days to Brexit, if MPs can’t reach an agreement by the end of March do you think there should be an extension to Article 50?
LIZ TRUSS: Well I believe that MPs will reach an agreement by the end of March and I think any negotiation, any piece of work, as the deadline approaches, minds get focused and a deal gets done and I think by extending the deadline that doesn’t create any new information, all that does is delay things and that would be a very bad idea.
SR: Are you worried about a no-deal Brexit?
LIZ TRUSS: I don’t want a no-deal Brexit but we are prepared for it and we will have to do it if absolutely necessary but I don’t believe it will be necessary and the best way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is getting the deal the Prime Minister has laid out.
SR: Can I just get your comments on a story that’s been in the news today about Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who has announced this crackdown on bosses who mismanage pensions schemes. Can you just explain what the aim is there?
LIZ TRUSS: Well what that’s all about, it’s about organisations like Philip Green’s organisation where there have been issues with pension schemes being mismanaged and it’s about saying that’s not acceptable, it’s not acceptable to play merry hell with the contributions workers have made over a period of time and essentially run off without making good the pensions you promised to those people in the future and so we’ll take further sanctions. I mean on the Philip Green issue, I do think it is disgraceful that he has been able to use non-disclosure agreements to effectively silence victims of sexual and racial abuse and I think we need to look seriously at those non-disclosure agreements and get changes to them because I think it’s completely wrong that people like Philip Green have been able to flout the law.
SR: Okay. Now this week your Conservative colleague Christopher Chope blocked some legislation on female genital mutilation. I mean you’ve been speaking out about this on Twitter, what went through your mind when you first saw that that had happened?
LIZ TRUSS: I was just absolutely appalled because we know there has only been one conviction against somebody for female genital mutilation. This is an action that harms the lives of girls, this is happening in our country in the 21st century, I find that appalling and we need to do much, much more to stop it and when I see one of my colleagues opposing a measure that could have saved girls’ lives, could have saved girls from that horrendous experience, I am absolutely appalled by that.
SR: Are you ashamed to be sitting on the same benches as him?
LIZ TRUSS: Well I am going to be speaking to him this week, I want to see him change his mind, I want to see the Conservative party make sure that we show that is completely unacceptable.
SR: So you say you are going to speak to him this week, have you asked for a meeting?
LIZ TRUSS: Well I will be looking for him round the Commons and I think Conservatives do need to put peer pressure on our colleagues who are stopping these types of things happening. This is a very, very serious issue, it has been an issue in this country for some time. Girls’ lives are at threat and it is appalling that we weren’t able to put that legislation through. I know that the government, the Chief Whip has said that he is going to find the space to put that through in government time and I think that’s very positive so we will take action against and on this issue.
SR: Should he have the Whip removed do you think?
LIZ TRUSS: I will change his mind. I think the way we win in politics is by bringing people over to your point of view. I don’t like the deselection-itis that’s going on in the Labour party, I think it’s highly, highly destructive but I do think we need as a Conservative party to tackle the real issues of modern Britain and for female genital mutilation to go on, for those girls to be under threat and us not taking action on it, I think is something that isn’t acceptable.
SR: One of the other issues of the modern world is social media, something I was talking about with my previous guest, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary. So I am interested in your perspective because I know you are someone who doesn’t really like new laws and legislation necessarily but do you think there should be more regulation on social media companies?
LIZ TRUSS: I’m a parent of two daughters, one of which has a mobile phone, so I completely understand where parents are coming from and I do my best to limit their use, make sure the phone has a curfew …
SR: You lock it in a box, is that right?
LIZ TRUSS: I do lock it in a box at night and make sure there are rules but I think all parents get worried about exactly what might be happening, you can’t have 24 hour surveillance on your children and I do think that companies have a responsibility, schools have a responsibility – I was very pleased by an announcement last week that they are seeking to get more schools to ban mobile phone use in schools – but when it comes to regulation, we need to make sure we get that regulation right because what can sometimes inadvertently happen is you end up putting power in the hands of the big companies, the companies with the big legal departments, the companies that can deal with these issues and we don���t want to be in a position where social media companies become the censors, that they become the arbiters of what’s right and what’s wrong. I think ultimately, yes, the government does need to look at the regulatory landscape, we are about to launch our White Paper on online, and we need to look at all of the bodies we’ve got at the moment – we have got a Broadcasting Standards body, an Advertising Standards Authority and I think what changed since we put all those regulatory bodies in place is we’ve never before had online media and whatever content it is, we need to think about it in a similar fashion. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s on TV or whether it’s online, we need to look at it across the board.
SR: It’s interesting hearing you talk about regulation there, you are someone I know who often speaks out about too much regulation not used in the right way so I just wondered, do you think the modern day Conservative party has strayed a bit far from its Thatcherite principles?
LIZ TRUSS: I think sometimes we can end up having quite a lot of micro regulation but that doesn’t mean to say we don’t need really tough regulation in areas like competition and areas like unfair practice, but sometimes having too much regulation can actually stop taking the big decisions that we need to take. So I am not against regulation in principal, what I am saying is that we have to be very, very careful that the regulation that is in place isn’t just benefitting the big players in the market and actually stopping people enter markets and a lot of small businesses across the country. What they say to me is we have to go through so many different government bodies, we have to get so many permissions, it’s actually really difficult for us to compete with big energy companies or the big mobile phone companies. So yes, we have to have regulation but you need to make sure it’s simple, you need to make sure it is transparent and you need to make sure it benefits the consumer and not those with vested interests already in the market.
SR: I am being told we are out of time but there is just one more question that I want to ask you so I’m going to squeeze it in anyway. You gave a speech on Monday where you talked about women and so I just want to take a quick look at what you did say about women: “We are brought up to be compliant, to behave yourself. Well I say no to that, I think we need to be disruptive.” Are you disruptive, what’s the most disruptive thing you’ve done? Other than collaring Christopher Chope in the Commons.
LIZ TRUSS: [Laughs] Well I do try, I make a conscious decision to try and speak out because I am at the top table in government and quite often there can be pressure to always go along with what the party wants or to not speak out.
SR: Do you get mansplained to sometimes?
LIZ TRUSS: Of course, yes, and I think it happens in every walk of life. I used to work in the oil industry, I’m familiar with the practice of mansplaining and there are quite a lot of people in my party and others who think they know best and think they know more than you and will like to tell you what to say. You often have to think what is the most outrageous thing I could say and actually decide to say it.
SR: Go on, you’ve got a platform!
LIZ TRUSS: Well what I can say about women is that too often girls are taught to be compliant, they’re taught to be good, they’re taught to behave themselves and in fact the most successful women don’t, they do things differently. Theresa May was somebody who spoke out when she made the speech about the nasty party, Mrs Thatcher was a leader who didn’t always take things lying down and I want to encourage the next generation of businesswomen in particular to be prepared to say those things and take those steps.