The New Statesman Interview - Chris Haskins

The regulator's regulator, he is an insider who dares to criticise the government and its many "no-w

As Lord Haskins of Skidby discovered, on stepping down as chairman of Northern Foods, life outside the corporate cocoon is complex. First he learnt how to withdraw cash from a hole-in-the-wall machine, something he had never done before. Then he went to buy a mobile phone. "I was there for 45 minutes, and they took my private life apart," he grumbles. "You can get out of jail quicker than buy a mobile."

However rusty his basic life skills, do not think Chris Haskins out of touch. For example, he would never, unlike Sir Edward George, governor of the Bank of England, be stumped over the price of a pint of milk. "On the doorstep, it's 41 or 42p, depending on where you are in the country; and in a supermarket, it's 32p," he recites. "And an M&S lasagne sells for £1.54."

Haskins's ready reckoner talents are soon to be redundant. He will remain as chairman of Express Dairies only pending the resolution of a possible takeover bid. Last Friday, he cleared his desk at Northern Foods, where he became the driving force behind ready-made TV dinners and thus the patron saint of the couch potato. Even in semi-retirement, Haskins has no wish to join this breed.

At 64, he has become an integral part of Tony Blair's team of front-line trouble-shooters. As the "rural tsar" appointed to advise on recovery in the wake of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, he enraged both the National Farmers' Union and the Prince of Wales by saying that farmers were living in the past. For the past five years, he has also headed the Better Regulation Task Force, a job he will give up this spring. In addition, Haskins has been a steady contributor to Labour Party funds. As the Enron scandal unfurls, he is quick to deplore corporate sponsorship of political parties. "I have never done it. Never, ever. No favours have been asked of government on behalf of Northern Foods." Personal gifts are another matter, and Haskins has regularly proffered money in tranches that he can price almost as exactly as chain-store lasagne. "I've done £5,000 for about ten years. I think this year, with the election, it would be about £12,000."

So just another crony, some suspect. However, any idea that Haskins is a gilded variant of John Birt withstands no scrutiny. For one thing, Haskins is worried by unaccountable advisers, Lord Birt included. Would he have agreed to be Blair's blue sky thinker, first for crime and now for transport? "I wouldn't. The things I'm interested in are food, agriculture, Europe and regulation, all of which I think I know a bit about."

I ask why he thinks Blair offered Birt his role, and he says: "I don't know. There are a lot of people hanging around with varying degrees of ability and reputation. Prime ministers do have that. There are good people and bad people. Birt is not really my cup of tea, though I do not really know him."

Haskins is all for transparency. As he says: "I publish things. I report. I am very upfront." It is the last trait that makes him such doubtful crony material. With Haskins, you get what you see: an engaging, unpretentious, raw-boned Irish farmer who tramps his Yorkshire acres every weekend. A man of awesome frankness, he lacks the sinuous, thin-lipped ways of those operating in smooth silence and in high places. But Haskins has been there, too.

As the regulators' regulator, he has moved from one department to the next, on the Prime Minister's orders and to the varying delight of ministers. (Jack Straw was displeased to see him, he suggests, and Alan Milburn furious.) Few are better placed to offer a sketch of government at work, and few less constrained in doing so.

He has seen Blair 20 times, he says, or maybe 30. "Not very much. But Blair is always on my side. Whenever one of my reports comes out, he always makes sure that I have his support. He doesn't know me socially at all, but I think he quite likes the way I operate." This compliment is duly returned by Haskins, albeit with unexpected reservations. "Blair's mistake has always been that he wants everyone to love him. I think he has grown out of that a bit now, but there was a period when he was really obsessive about anyone who didn't love him. You can't do that. I always remember being on a train with Robin Cook just before the 1997 election.

"We were sitting in Wakefield, having a cup of tea, when Cook said that the difference between [John] Smith and Blair was that Smith was a narrow river that ran deep and Blair a broad river that ran shallow. I thought that was an interesting analogy - something in it. But I like Blair. He's a charming fellow. He wins elections. He thinks there's more to life than politics." Haskins is also very pro-Brown and thinks the Treasury splendid on most matters, barring transport.

Away from the epicentre of government, the plaudits get more mixed. "You need to watch David Blunkett like a hawk. He's a strange mixture, David. One moment he'll be doing some draconian, Victorian, moral stuff, and the next he will do something really adventurous and bright. The white paper on immigration really is good stuff."

And the recent anti-terrorism legislation? "Terrible. Abso-lutely. I don't know whether that was Blunkett or Blair, [but] they were pushing it through because the Americans wanted them to. It was a complete disgrace. I kept my head down, but I did tell them that it blew away every regulatory rule in the book: transparency, proportionality, accountability, targeting, everything. It was all over the top. A disgrace."

The central problem of this government is, he thinks, a blinkered ideology of delivery, as enshrined in the 1944 Education Act and the 1948 National Health Act. "Other countries have kept local government going well. The great postwar failure here has been accelerated centralisation." Hence the monolith of the NHS, which should, according to the recent King's Fund report produced under Haskins, be broken up into locally autonomous units administered by a corporation appointed by, but independent of, the government.

The health service has become impossible to run, he says. "A million people in one organisation is crazy . . . Labour want to take the credit when everything is going well in the NHS, but then they have to take the knocks as well. They shouldn't have to take either." Is Blair with him on the depoliticising of the service? "I think so, though I haven't talked to him."

In a cabinet that Haskins views as packed with devotees of control and targets, Alan Milburn seems a less hopeful bet. "Milburn and [Stephen] Byers were good lefties 20 years ago. Out of the 20 members of cabinet, there are about 16 who really believe regulation is the only way to get things done. Blair is not a big political thinker. That's the difficulty with Blair. He's not interested in delivery. But he instinctively knows that over-regulation produces undesirable consequences, and nobody else really does believe that, apart from the Treasury."

Haskins, who holds the "minority view" that Gordon Brown is not a foot-dragger on the euro, has shortened the 60-40 odds he suggested last August for a referendum and a Yes vote in this parliament. "If the pound comes down by 10 per cent in the first half of this year [against the euro], then we'll be on 70-30." He is also encouraged by the conversions of ministers such as Robin Cook. "He once told me: 'You're wrong about the euro, Chris. Come back and we'll talk about it in 2010.' Within 18 months of that conversation, Cook was more pro-euro than I am."

Others have been less quick to align themselves with Haskins's thinking. A year after he took on the regulation task force, he says, Blair instructed him to "go round and see all the secretaries of state and tell them what's what. Straw wasn't too bad. But Milburn said: 'I don't think you should be coming into the Department of Health and I am going to tell the PM that.' I don't know what you do with Milburn," Haskins muses. "He has a terrible reputation for being moody and quick-tempered. I remember him as mild and genial. As soon as he got into cabinet, he became a Rottweiler." There are a few, last, departmental vignettes. The DTI is "a mortuary, full of political graves". And transport? "Yup, a no-winner. There are quite a lot of no-winners."

But few insiders care to say so, especially those whose elevation in public life may lie in the Prime Minister's gift. So how refreshing, in a world of the timid, the vainglorious and the ambitious, to find such a steel-toecapped iconoclast. If Haskins lacks deference for politicians in general, he is even more scathing about their fondness for unsuitable tycoons and management consultants ("In business, if you see someone ringing up consultants, it's time to sell the shares").

What we need, he thinks, is a less fractious relationship between parliament and the civil service, a shredding of regulatory red tape and a more osmotic and unsnobbish traffic between politics and business. In France, as he says, people skip between treasury postings and supermarket management. "Trade is lacklustre here. It was always slightly below the Church of England as something you put your children into."

Haskins will leave his business jobs with few regrets, preferring to spend more time with his wife, Gilda, who has not been well. Though he also hopes to step up his Lords attendance, he has formed no special fealty to the Upper House. "My model is to get rid of the whole bloody thing," he says.

Less radically, Lord Haskins is hoping for a new advisory role, centred on agriculture and Europe, and suitable for a recently retired captain of industry with a modest manner and a brand-new mobile phone. "I'm looking for other things," he says. One hopes that, in the kingdom of the mute and unaccountable, there is also a place for those who dare to lace expertise with candour.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Take cover: evil is back