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The Big Interview: Tim Loughton MP
TIM Loughton has been on the warpath this week. During an explosive appearance before the Education Select Committee on Monday, the former Minister for Children and Young People laid into his former department, likening Michael Gove to Young Mr Grace, the store owner in Are You Being Served?
Since he lost his job in the September reshuffle, the MP for East Worthing and Shoreham has loudly complained that the government has “dropped the ball” on tackling child exploitation. But a senior Whitehall official, stung by the criticism, described the 50-year-old as a “lazy incompetent narcissist obsessed only with self-promotion”.
Bill Gardner spoke to Mr Loughton about his new life on the backbenches.
Your appearance at the Education Select Committee has certainly ruffled a few feathers. Do you stand by what you said?
Certainly. My complaint is that the children and families agenda has been a declining priority, especially since the reshuffle.
The department has dropped it like a stone and I just don't understand it. I think they have made the wrong call.
This is an area where we had made some real steps. We had got some real Brownie points and we had put it on the radar.
Then the Jimmy Saville scandal comes along and demonstrates why people need to be so aware of it.
But now the department has gone completely silent on it. For instance, we now have just one children's minister where before we had two.
Also, you would have expected the minister for children to respond to the debate we had in Westminster but it was a Home Office minister instead. I found that very worrying.
If you were doing such a great job, why did David Cameron sack you in the September reshuffle?
You tell me. I have no idea.
Politics is a funny game because by all accounts most of the ministers who left were doing a good job.
I was summoned to see the Prime Minister. I actually thought there was a chance I could get promoted.
He sat me down and told me what a wonderful job I had done. Then he said he wanted to give someone else a go.
It was certainly a surprise and I was very disappointed. Afterwards I had more than 500 supportive emails and letters.
To be honest, it's still a mystery to me. I suppose I had done the children's brief for longer than anyone else, so that might have had something to do with it.
Do you think you can be more effective as a vocal backbencher than as a minister?
I don't think you can be more effective from the backbenches because the best place you can be is as a minister defining policy.
We were bringing about real change in child exploitation that I hope will be continued by the new incumbent - but it's a worry when you see the whole thing going quiet.
It's crucial that the work should be carried on.
You likened your former boss, education minister Michael Gove, to a character from Are You Being Served? Do you stand by that?
Let's be clear - Michael Gove is doing a fantastic job in education. He's done a hell of a lot to shake up schools in a short space of time.
My concern is that there is another part of the department which was dealing with kids in care which also needed Michael's attention. To me it seemed like children and families was becoming de-prioritised.
I was always very vociferous about it to Michael - but I did find it difficult to get airtime.
He was very focused on schools instead, but there's no need for the two to be mutually exclusive.
You also said the education department was like working in an episode of Upstairs Downstairs. What needs to change?
It was an off-the-cuff comment about how all the ministers had their offices on the same floor, way above the civil service.
I found it very frustrating because it seemed impossible to get anything done quickly.
In most workplaces, if you wanted to go and have a chat with a colleague, you can do that without much fuss.
But there, if you wanted to go over something with somebody, even just for a few minutes, it had to be diarised and recorded. It was incredibly frustrating.
It's across government - not just in education. Civil servants are very set in their ways which is not conducive to good government.
You have made repeated calls for a wide ranging historic inquiry into all child sex abuse since the 1970s. Why?
I think it's really important that a historic abuse inquiry should be carried out. Every week there has been a news story and another celebrity arrested.
But this was a much wider issue than that. It happened everywhere, in care homes, schools and we have seen the recent arrests in the Diocese of Chichester.
There are some very grim stories coming out, so how can we be sure that kids are better protected than they were in Jimmy Savile's heyday?
The way to approach this is to get a group of heavyweight experts to sit down and look at historic abuse going back to the 1970s. We need to know how to make sure this never happens again.
But if the government appears not to be taking the lead on this then the public will not be reassured that something meaningful is being done to sort this out.
Why should married couples be given tax breaks?
It was a firm commitment in our manifesto that we should recognise marriage in the tax system.
We are completely out of kilter with other countries on this. The Prime Minister said he was a huge fan of marriage and I agree.
All studies agree that it's the most stable way to bring up kids. We made a commitment to recognise that but almost three years on it still hasn't happened.
This isn't about some return to the 1950s version of family, this is about modern communities working well. I would apply the same rule to civil partnerships.
If you are so committed to gay rights, why are you opposed to legalising gay marriage?
The two things are completely different issues. It's true that I personally am not going to vote in favour of gay marriage.
While I'm a very enthusiastic supporter of civil partnerships, I don't support this. It's not about equality because civil partnerships already have all the rights given to married couples.
I just think it's a bit of a non-issue when you have got married couples with kids really feeling the pinch. This is an issue of conscience. I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.
Do you expect your constituents to agree with you on this issue?
My job is to represent my constituents in Parliament. They expect me to have a view on a range of subjects and to stay true to those views.
Before this came up, I don't think I had a single letter in more than 15 years about gay marriage.
Subsequently I have had hundreds of emails and letters urging me to oppose the motion. The number of people asking me to support it is in single figures.
I have also heard from a number of gay people telling me: “We don't need this. We don't want to go and get married.”
So this is a very complex issue and not as clear cut as some people like to portray it.
Losing your ministerial job must give you more time to spend on constituency matters then.
I hope that I was always a very active constituency MP as well as taking on my responsibilities as a minister.
At times it could clash with constituency matters, but I was always very keen to resist any encroachment into that time.
I suppose it does mean I can spend more time on important local issues like flooding and the works on the A27 - and I'm grateful for that.
Shoreham Airport recently underwent a name change to Brighton City Airport to attract more trade. Should Worthing, Lancing and Shoreham become part of Greater Brighton?
If I supported this, I think I would be lynched by my constituents! There's no wish to become part of Brighton.
This is an idea that last loomed in the 1990s when Brighton merged with Hove, and it was resisted hugely. Quite a few of my constituents were ready to man the barricades.
While we might be neighbours, there's a lot of difference between the good folk of Brighton and the folk of Shoreham and Lancing - so thanks, but no thanks.
You are certainly making a name for yourself as a rogue backbencher. Do you want to return to being a minister in the future?
I have made no secret of the fact I was very disappointed to lose my ministerial position. It was great to have the opportunity to put policies into effect.
That's why you get into politics for, to make a difference. So I would certainly relish the chance to do that again.