POLITICS

Eric Pickles Accuses Justin Webb Of 'Looking For The Negative' As He Struggles To Explain Volunteer Policy

10/04/2015 10:15 BST | Updated 10/04/2015 10:59 BST
Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles leaving after a Cabinet meeting in Downing Street, London, before the annual Budget statement is delivered by Chancellor George Osborne.

Eric Pickles' attempt to show the Conservative Party is running a "positive" election campaign ran into trouble on Friday morning, after he got into a spat with BBC Radio 4 interviewer Justin Webb.

The Conservatives have been accused of going deeply negative with 27 days to go until polling day. Yesterday defence secretary Michael Fallon said Ed Miliband would "stab the United Kingdom in the back". The Labour leader attacked Tory campaign chief Lynton Crosby for sending out "minions" to engage in "gutter" politics.

The communities secretary may have hoped his interview on the Today programme this morning, scheduled to promote David Cameron's plan to grant workers' three days' statutory leave for volunteering, would have presented a more friendly face of the party.

However Webb appeared unimpressed with the lack of detail in the policy announcement and forced Pickles to admit companies would not be forced to organise time off for their staff.

During the testy exchanges, Pickles repeatedly complained about Webb's interviewing technique. "My answers seem to be getting in the way of your questions," he said. "Maybe if I could speak for 15 seconds before you go onto the next question?"

Webb hit back: "I wasn't going to go to go onto the next question because I didn't feel you were answering that one."

The BBC presenter added: "Talking of positive, would you welcome the Conservative campaign becoming more relentlessly positive perhaps now than it has been in recent days? Is it part of a recalibration of the campaign?"

Pickles insisted the volunteering announcement had been planned for a "considerable time" and was not designed to make the party look less negative. "Often I find, and I don't mean this at all rudely, that when you come on to a programme like this to announce some positive stuff that by the nature of things you look for the negative. You're just going your job, that's the nature of reporting," he said.

Webb ended the interview curtly: "Eric Pickles, thanks."

justin webb bbc

Labour reacted to the interview with glee. "Complete car crash for Eric Pickles. Chaos for Tories as desperate and unfunded plan falls apart," the party's press office said on Twitter.

Under plans announced by the prime minister, the Working Time regulations will be amended to make clear people are entitled to 28 days' paid holiday and three days' paid volunteering or serving as a school governor. They would be able to take the time in a block or flexibly.

Pickles was unclear on whether companies would be granted exemptions if they could not afford to grant the time off work. Asked if there would be such provisions in the legislation, he said: "We expect a bit of give and take on this in the same way we expect people to have a bit of give and take with regard to annual leave."

The communities secretary also insisted it would not add to costs in the NHS, with potential gaps having to be filled by extra agency workers. Pickles said: "We're talking about three days and it would be worked out according to patterns of work and it will be worked out to ensure that it doesn't cause inconvenience to the health service."