No more fire, but plenty of spark;People;Interview;Peter Hain

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Can an old libertarian socialist like Peter Hain make a good new Labour minister? Biddy Passmore finds out

What is Peter Hain, firebrand of the 1970s and former chairman of the Young Liberals, doing as new Labour's minister of education for Wales?

A good job, seems to be the general view. The articulate left-winger and anti-apartheid campaigner has buckled down, accepted current spending constraints and is beavering away at his portfolio of education, economic development and transport.

There is not much time for sleep, he says, but he is enjoying himself. He loves Neath, the constituency in South Wales he has represented since a by-election in 1991, and he loves being a Welsh Office minister. He has even learnt enough Welsh to start his speeches in the language, although it would take a "quantum leap" to make him fluent.

Wales seems to love him too. Leading lights in the world of education are almost embarrassingly warm in their praise. "It's a wonderful change to have a listening minister," says Gethin Lewis of the National Union of Teachers. "His marks in the first year are good," says Neil Harries , director of education in Caerphilly and Welsh chairman of the Society of Education Officers. "He's met anyone who wants to meet him."

"Someone we can do business with," says Anne Hovey of the National Association of Head Teachers. "He's very well prepared, got a good grasp of detail, a very sympathetic ear and he takes action quite quickly and follows it through." The only worry is that he will be promoted out of Wales.

Teachers in England sometimes wonder if the Government has changed. They have no such doubts in Wales. But Mr Hain bridles at the suggestion that he has more latitude than English ministers. "There is the same agenda and political framework for the whole of Britain, as set out in the manifesto," he says dutifully. But he concedes that he is "tailoring the agenda within the tramlines of government policy to meet the distinct needs of Wales".

That has meant some striking differences from English education policy, most recently in his decision not to let Welsh primary schools abandon the national curriculum in non-core subjects to make way for the 3Rs, but to offer them a slimmer curriculum. There is no "naming and shaming" of schools, and education action zones, so contentious in England, will only be activated in Wales if the Welsh Assembly chooses to do so.

But education policy has a different feel in Wales anyway, and not simply because of the more intimate scale. This, Mr Hain says, reflects a culture that is keener on education and more socialist in its values: cooperative, rather than competitive. With few exceptions, most children go to the local school. Only 17 schools of the 2,000 in Wales have opted out.

The downside, he adds, is a certain parochialism, but he salutes the strong sense of community. In Neath, collections for charity raise 10 times more than they do in much richer Putney, in south-west London. Mr Hain has spent a great deal of his time in Putney since arriving in Britain in 1966. His anti-apartheid parents had been forced out of South Africa and settled there. The 16-year-old Peter, who had been a pupil at Pretoria Boys' High School (all white, but comprehensive), found himself at Emanuel Boys' School in Battersea, then a grammar school. It was, he says, "trying to be a public school and wasn't" - and he didn't like it.

He wishes he had gone to a comprehensive. But he got three good A-levels, in physics and pure and applied maths. There followed a one-year apprenticeship with Lucas and a year doing mechanical engineering at Imperial College before realising his mistake (only for himself, he stresses - he thinks engineering and science are critical priorities). He switched to economics and politics at Queen Mary College, graduating with a first.

By then, he had become heavily involved with politics, chairing the campaign to stop the Springboks' tour of Britain in 1970 and the Young Liberals from 1971-73. He has always been a libertarian socialist, he says, and therefore felt more at home with theLiberals in those days. He found Labour too conservative - "just part of the establishment".

He did not join the Labour party until 1977, by which time he was a research officer for the Union of Communication Workers, living in Putney with his wife and infant son. In 1983 and 1987, he stood as Labour candidate for Putney against David Mellor.

His wife Patricia (a Putney girl, naturally) teaches autistic children - "one of the most difficult jobs you can imagine," he says, "I couldn't do it". Of their two sons Sam read physics at Oxford University and Jake will study human sciences at Sussex. Both attended Elliot, the comprehensive their father would like to have gone to.

There was a brief political flurry in early 1996 when it emerged that they were at an opted-out school. But Peter Hain could say that, while he himself had voted against opting out, the school's decision to go grant-maintained was to protect its comprehensive status in pro-selective Wandsworth. He emerged squeaky clean, unlike some.

Now Mr Hain hopes that the few Welsh schools that have opted out will find it more beneficial to "come into the community voluntarily". He wants to move away from categories and on to standards, concentrating on literacy and numeracy, as well as the general shortage of skills vital for Wales's transition from an economy dependent on manual labour to one driven by high technology. He wants to stop the "leakage" of 16-year-olds from full-time education, cut the high levels of truancy and widen access post-16. The Education and Training Action Group, the committee he chairs that is drawing up a blueprint for education for the Welsh Assembly, will, he says, be "quite radical" on careers and 16-to-19 funding.

A prolific writer, with 13 books to his credit he likes to spend his spare time on hill-walking, music and sport. In music, his taste tends towards contemporary fare (Catatonia, Manic Street Preachers): this 48-year-old even goes to rock concerts. In sport, while associated with rugby and vice-president of Neath Rugby Club, he has played soccer more.

He also has another love: motor racing. Last week, he finished third in the House of Commons vs House of Lords touring car race at Donington, driving a "frighteningly fast" Vauxhall Vectra. His own car is a BMW. What colour? "Charcoal grey," he says. "Were you hoping it might be red?"

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