§ Madam Speaker
Before I call the mover of the Loyal Address, I must inform the House of the proposed pattern of debate for the Address.
Thursday 17 November—foreign affairs and defence; Friday 18 November—home affairs and environment; Monday 21 November—industry and education; Tuesday 22 November—health and social security; Wednesday 23 November—the economy.
§ Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)
I beg to move,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:Most Gracious Sovereign,We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.First, may I thank you, Madam Speaker, for calling me early in this debate.
I am conscious of the great honour given to me, my family and my constituency on being asked to move the Loyal Address. It is to my constituency of Dartford that the honour most surely and rightly belongs, as I have been returned as its Member in four successive general elections—at each election, the Conservative vote has been significantly higher than the time before. I note with real humility that, earlier this year, I became the longest continuous serving Member of Parliament that Dartford has had this century.
My record of service to date cannot compete with that of a predecessor, Sir William Hart-Dyke, who, like me, served as an Education Minister but was Conservative Member for Dartford from 1865 to 1906—a period of 41 years. I must tell the House that it is my firm resolve to sit here longer than Sir William.
The constituency, which is triangular, is a perfect blend of town and country. It is about five miles across and eight miles from the River Thames in the north to the apex of the triangle in the middle of the Brands Hatch racing circuit in the south. The House also knows that the Thames provides another service; it separates Kent from Essex.
The constituency comprises the borough of Dartford and the three northern parishes of the Sevenoaks district council—Horton Kirby and South Darenth, Hartley and Fawkham and Ash-cum-Ridley; names that are known to every hon. Member.
For decades, Dartford has made a significant contribution to the social, economic and political history of our region and our country. Given its location near to London, the channel ports, the A2, A20 and M25, Dartford stands ready to seize the opportunities that have been created by the announcement of the Thames gateway project; the proposed relocation of the campus of the university of Greenwich on Dartford north marshes; and the recent go-ahead for the construction of an intermediate station at Ebbsfleet on the channel tunnel rail link. Dartford faces a dynamic and exciting future for jobs and for learning. I am glad to have assisted in the creation of that future.
8 In 1992, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) seconded the Loyal Address with a witty and noteworthy speech in which, unknowingly perhaps, he gave the definitive description of the qualities necessary for the Members selected to propose and second the Address. In 1992, my hon. Friend told us that he had been advised by a "distinguished and senior member" of our party thatThe motion is nearly always proposed by some genial old codger on the way out and seconded by an oily young man".—[Official Report, 6 May 1992; Vol. 207, c. 56.]Well, there we have it. The House may remember with some kindness that I was not always a genial old codger on the way out, but that I was once an oily young man.
Indeed, on 4 November 1981, I was asked to second the motion on the Loyal Address. I made inquiries then, which showed that—since 1885, at any rate—I was the first Member of Parliament from Dartford to second the motion. By the same token, I am the first Member of Parliament for Dartford to propose it—thus becoming, in my own lifetime, a legend in joining the select band of Members—such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) and Lord Rippon of Hexham—who have completed the double since 1945.
§ Mr. Dunn
I heard a pip squeak.
Thirteen years have elapsed since I seconded the motion on the Queen's speech. The House will remember that, in 1983, I became Minister for Schools, and that in 1988 I stopped—or, rather, was stopped from—holding that post. I was ever conscious of the advice given to me after my return to the Back Benches: "Be sure that the going up is worth the coming down." I also received a second bit of advice: "You can warm your socks in the oven, but that does not make them biscuits." At the time, I did not understand the significance of that advice, but I now see clearly that it applies to the Labour party.
During my time as Minister for Schools, I was delighted to serve under two outstanding Secretaries of State—Lord Joseph, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley. I am able to say that I helped to shape crucial and radical education legislation in the 1980s. I helped to enact the Education Reform Bill of 1988; I contributed to the abolition of the Greater London council; and I myself terminated the wretched existence of the Inner London education authority.
During my time in the House, I have battled with education spokesmen for the official Opposition. The first was a grammar school boy, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock). The second was a public school boy, a Wykehamist —the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice). The third was the product of a direct grant school, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw); and the fourth had been head girl in a direct-grant school—the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). It was a matter of supreme irony to me, a secondary modern school boy, that I spent my time defending opportunities in an educational system which those spokesmen seek to destroy, but which had given them the best advantage.
Those people do not like to be reminded of that advantage now—in rather the same way, I suspect, as all references to links between the Labour party and Mr. Clinton are being quietly dropped. Indeed, before I came into the Chamber, rumours were spreading that the Leader of the Opposition was now looking for a new role model, 9 and had decided to base himself on Ramsay Macdonald; and that the deputy leader of the Opposition had decided to base himself on himself.
The Queen's Speech referred to legislation that will authorise the construction and operation by the private sector of a high-speed rail link between London and the channel tunnel. I welcome that legislation, because it makes Ebbsfleet and all the economic benefits associated with it a closer reality. It will also provide, through parliamentary procedure, local authorities, institutions and, above all, the people of Kent with the opportunity to give Parliament—in the form of petitions—their views on the impact of the rail link as it affects them and their communities.
The Queen's Speech also refers to the environment. It says:The delivery of environment policies will be strengthened by legislation to establish environment agencies for England and Wales, and for Scotland.I welcome that with all its implications for the environment and the National Rivers Authority.
The Queen's Speech also refers to the Government's determination to secure peace in Northern Ireland. We should all give the Prime Minister our thanks, and wish him the best of luck in the great work that he is about.
Other recollections and incidents have gone through my mind while preparing this speech. I remember asking a Liberal Member who is no longer in the House—he was so dim that even the other Liberals noticed—how the Liberals could provide accurate voting intentions within a few days of the start of a by-election campaign. I was congratulating him on his party's efficiency. "Bless you," he said, "We simply think of a figure that seems reasonable and publish it." He moved off, laughing.
Recently, my wife was approached outside church by a constituent who said, "Mrs. Dunn, I am not political, but when I see Tony Blair smile I know what it must have been like to be Red Riding Hood."
I recall speaking with colleagues who agreed that the children of Members of Parliament enjoy stories with a political flavour. There is the one about the time the Labour party stole granny's Christmas bonus, which was followed by a second story the next year.
If the House is sitting quietly, I shall begin my favourite story. Once upon a time, an elderly couple lived out on the windswept moors of Holland Park. They considered themselves to be poor, or at least to identify with the poor. During the day, they spent long hours raising food parcels for needy folk such as Ken Follett, Maureen Lipman, Lady Antonia Pinter and Melvyn Bragg.
One evening, the old man noticed that his wife was crying. He said, "What's the matter, my dear? Is an issue bothering you?" "No," she said, in a strange overseas accent—she came from a distant village over the Water —"I'm starving." The old man thought deeply, and then he rang the bell. A footman came in, and the old man ordered bread and butter for his wife. When the old lady had finished eating, they got into their limousine and drove away to the inherited family mansion in Essex, talking happily about the virtues of socialism and the benefits of self-sufficiency.
The moral of the tale is that those who preach the virtues of socialism rarely practise it. For them, self-sufficiency is inherited wealth, marrying inherited wealth, which is not the same as creating wealth. For us 10 on the Conservative Benches, self-sufficiency is sturdy independence and people taking decisions about their lives for themselves. For us, the state is the servant of the people, not the people the servant of the state.
I believe that new and improved cannot beat tried and true. I commend the Queen's Speech to the House.
§ Mr. Raymond S. Robertson (Aberdeen, South)
It is a tremendous honour for me to second the motion. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Robertson
It is an honour for me to second the motion moved so wittily and eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn). However, the honour belongs not to me but to my constituents in Aberdeen, South. My constituency is a diverse one, of many contrasts. It has captured the old, and blended it uniquely with the new. It can boast of a magnificent past and look forward with real anticipation to a bright and formidable future.
When I arrived in the House in 1992, I knew well that most new hon. Members are haunted by ghosts of their predecessors, wary of tales of fine speeches made and great battles won. Unlike others, however, I arrived not just to be haunted by ghosts of Members of Parliament from Aberdeen, South past, but to be plagued by their reincarnations.
Those range from the loquacious number cruncher who leads for the Opposition on social security, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), to my smooth, urbane, cricket-loving hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat) and, finally, to my modest, self-effacing—that is what he told me to say—hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone), about whom I should not be too rude, as it has often been said to me that greater love hath no man than this—that he loses his seat so that his friend can win it back. I am delighted, however, to inform the House that membership of that unique band is closed, as I intend to remain its newest recruit for a long time.
Earlier this year, when on by-election duty in Monklands, East, my Lanarkshire past caught up with me in a rather vivid way. When canvassing a particular door, I was delighted to recognise a name from my school days—that of a former schoolteacher of mine. When he answered, he looked surprisingly delighted to see me for someone from Airdrie, as the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) will agree.
Before I could tell him what a splendid candidate we had, he said, "Ah, Raymond, I was just thinking of you." My chest puffed with pride. "I have just retired," he went on," and I was counting up the number of ex-pupils of mine who have made it on to the front page of the newspaper." My chest puffed up even more. I thought I must be in some select band. "Do you know that it comes to 12?" he said. "Really," I said, a bit taken aback. "Yes," he said. "Two ministers of the Church of Scotland, one Member of Parliament and nine murderers." I am glad to tell the House, however, that the murder rate has been decreasing recently, and that it is down 15 per cent, in Scotland alone.
11 When I was asked last week by my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip to second the motion, I readily agreed, and then stopped and wondered why. Was it because, as the hon. Member for the most northerly Conservative seat in the country, who probably has the furthest to travel from his constituency to the House, he thought to make my journey today a bit more worth while by asking me to do something useful while I was down? Or was it because, as a Scottish Member attached to the Northern Ireland Office who works four days a week in England and who regularly attends Welsh Questions, I am somehow seen as the very embodiment of this United Kingdom Parliament?
Or could it possibly be that, halfway through the life of this Parliament, it is a timely reminder that, halfway through the previous Parliament, no one gave very much for the Conservative party's chances in the election that was to come? Certainly no one thought that we would increase our representation in Scotland and win seats from Labour. In Aberdeen, South, however, we did just that. Let me assure the House that what we did in Aberdeen, South last time will be repeated throughout the country next time.
My constituency covers the southern half of the great granite city, stretching from the West End communities of Holburn, Hazelhead and Rubieslaw, through Rosemount and Ferryhill and the buoyant international harbour, over the River Dee to Tony and Nigg, and beyond that to the North sea. It also takes in the beach and Pittodrie stadium, the home of Aberdeen football club. I can safely assure my hon. Friends that that club is the only team that plays in red that I support. My hon. Friends will not be surprised to learn, however, that, like other teams of that particular hue, they are dangerously close to the relegation zone and have had a run of bad defeats.
In Aberdeen, there is much talk of changing the manager. When asked, my advice to the director of the club was to watch out. History shows that, when red teams in trouble change manager, it definitely helps and all seems well—for a month or two. Then the inherent problems resurface, the same ones that proved fatal to old regime. Own goals start to be scored again. The left wing resumes its domination when instructions shouted from the manager's dugout are ignored. The midfield collapses under the strain. Added to that, it now seems that someone, somewhere, is always prepared to throw the game. I believe, however, that Aberdeen football club will recover and avoid relegation. Who knows—it might even go on to win the cup. But I cannot say the same for Opposition Members who wear the red jerseys.
My constituents welcome the Gracious Speech, particularly the commitment to deregulate this country's gas market. Although, sadly, Aberdeen has seen the demise of some of its traditional industries such as shipbuilding, and a decline of others such as deep sea fishing, it has at the same time not been frightened to reach out and embrace new challenges, the most notable being oil, gas and their service industries.
Aberdeen's current wealth and prosperity is based very much on the oil and gas industry, a prosperity which goes beyond the city boundaries, as a regional unemployment rate of only 5 per cent.—and falling—graphically illustrates. The rapid expansion of that sector has brought tremendous benefits to the city and its people.
12 Deregulation of the gas market will help the rest of the United Kingdom to enjoy further the benefits of our oil and gas industry. The United Kingdom has become one of the world's biggest producers and leaders in such technology. One major oil company based in my constituency estimated that that measure alone will reduce gas bills to industry and to the individual household consumer by between 2 per cent. and 8 per cent. That is another example of the benefits to the whole country from the successful exploitation of our precious natural resource, the North sea, which we in Aberdeen have been pioneering for some 25 years.
My constituents also welcome the measure outlined for a Criminal Justice Bill for Scotland. Although—almost uniquely in Europe—crime figures have been falling in Scotland, and now in England, too, there is no room for complacency, and more needs to be done to support our eight Scottish police forces. The Bill will provide that vital support.
As my constituency has a large retired population, it will come as no surprise to the House that the measure intended to safeguard occupational pensions is greatly welcomed in Aberdeen, South, given the many experiences there of Maxwell pensioners. We must ensure that never again can pension funds be stolen and abused for personal profit by another Robert Maxwell seeking to plunder a lifetime's investment and to destroy what for many is their security for retirement.
Although it was not directly mentioned in the Gracious Speech, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland intends to introduce a Children Bill. My constituents will welcome that, as I do. They will join me in hoping that the new parliamentary procedures agreed in the past Session will be put to use to put that important measure on to the statute book.
The use of those procedures will show that Parliament can be truly sensitive to the differing needs, and flexible to the differing priorities, of the constituent parts of the kingdom. But while there remains one sovereign Parliament, there is more than one way in which to pass legislation. It also shows that Conservative Members are not frightened of constitutional change. But to any such proposed change, we will always supply one fundamental, non-negotiable criterion—does it strengthen or does it weaken the union between Scotland and the rest of the kingdom? Any proposed change that strengthens the union will have our total support. But if any change weakens the union, we will oppose it absolutely, and fight it to the end.
That is why we oppose the constitutional plans of Labour, the Liberals and the nationalists, who in their own way seek first to weaken then destroy the historic union, which in the first decade of the next century will celebrate its 300th anniversary.
My constituents sent me here in 1992, above all else as a vote of confidence in that union; to support that union and to fight for it. That is why they join me in supporting the Gracious Speech, delivered to this the sovereign Parliament of Scotland, of Northern Ireland, of Wales and of England. I have no hesitation in commending it to the House.
§ Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)
As Members may know, my right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip was 13 taken ill this morning, and before beginning my speech I am pleased to tell the House that his condition is described by the hospital as stable, and not a cause for alarm. I know that we all wish him and Anne well, and we also wish him a speedy return.
It is the custom of the House that the Leader of the Opposition has the pleasant duty of congratulating the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address, and I am delighted to do so. The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) gave a somewhat unusually combative proposal of the Loyal Address, and at some points I was not entirely sure whether he was moving the Loyal Address or giving an after-dinner speech to his local Conservative association.
Nevertheless, I hope that I shall not do the hon. Gentleman irrevocable damage if I disclose to the House that, as he will know, I have personal reasons for being extremely grateful to him. When he was an Education Minister, although he may have done many things wrong, he did one thing right: he reversed the planned closure of a vital special needs school in my constituency of Sedgefield, despite the fact that the education experts wanted it closed.
At the time, I thought that that was merely a one-off act of compassion on the hon. Gentleman's part, but last year in the House he threw greater light on his decision, when he said that the last thing any Minister should sensibly do is to listen to the educational world for advice. The only advice he could give was to listen to what they say and "then do the opposite". Given such an attitude, the only surprise is that the hon. Gentleman never made it to the Cabinet. However, I wish him well most sincerely.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) seconded the motion with great flair, humour and wit, and said that he had the dubious pleasure of being in a House containing no fewer than three other Members who at one time had represented his constituency but had then lost it, only to win again somewhere else. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I say that, given the size of his majority, I hope that at the next election he will be able to satisfy at least half the requirements of that elite club. Both speeches, the proposing and the seconding of the Loyal Address, were able. I congratulate both hon. Gentlemen.
It is also the custom at this time to review one or two personal events for the House over the past year, and I hope that I shall be forgiven for saying that the past year has been marked by deep sorrow for my party. Twelve months ago, John Smith gave the kind of spirited, witty and principled speech that earned him respect across the Chamber and throughout the nation. I believe that we united across party lines then, and that we still do so now, in his memory.
I pay particular tribute to the life and work of Jo Richardson, who, despite immense physical pain, never wavered in her tireless work for her constituents and for the cause of women everywhere. To those two names must be added the sad loss of colleagues on both sides of the House—James Boyce, Stephen Milligan, Ron Leighton, Bob Cryer and John Blackburn, all of whom served their constituents and their country with dedication, and will be sorely missed.
Parts of the Queen's Speech we welcome. Thanks to the efforts of the British and Irish Governments and the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, there is room 14 for cautious optimism about the future of the Province—more room than at any time, certainly in my generation. The Opposition will continue to support the peace process and to play our part in building a future of conciliation and prosperity. Her Majesty's Opposition exist not only to oppose Her Majesty's Government, and we shall be pleased to continue to support the Government in the peace process. Indeed, we shall take an active part in next month's conference on the economy of Northern Ireland.
We also rejoice at the defeat of apartheid and the return of South Africa to the Commonwealth. The Opposition, at least, are proud of the part that we played in the battle against the evil of the old regime. I play particular tribute to the steadfast work of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), who has made such an outstanding contribution over the years.
We also welcome plans to expand the European Union, and look forward to the entry of new members from northern and eastern Europe, and we shall continue to make constructive suggestions for the reform and improvement of that Union and to press for the Government to regain our influence within Europe.
§ Mr. Blair
In a moment, if I may.
On the detail of the Address, we have long urged legislation on the regulation of pensions, the establishment of an environmental protection agency, a new criminal cases review authority, and rights for disabled people. We shall, however, carefully scrutinise the detail of all those Bills.
The pensions regulations must be comprehensive and clear. We all know of the scandal of people cheated of their savings by unscrupulous advisers who abused poor regulation. Our people will not be satisfied unless there is proper protection for the hard-working majority who save for their retirement and who should have the absolute right to see the benefits in old age.
On the environment, we wish the new agency to be able to take action to protect our environment and to have proper powers of enforcement. I welcome the fact that, as I understand it, there will be legislation on the criminal cases review authority. The new system for investigating miscarriages of justice is long overdue. I very much hope that the method of investigation is independent and fair, and can be seen to be fair.
Disabled people across Britain were greatly angered by the Government's conduct during the passage of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. We welcome new legislation in the Queen's Speech, and we look forward to it being implemented properly.
Millions of people are desperate for changes in the Child Support Agency. Currently, the agency is a complete shambles, which is causing misery to tens of thousands of families. I very much hope that a radical reform of the agency is on the agenda in the coming year.
§ Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he supports the Bill on European own resources—yes or no?
§ Mr. Blair
I am coming to that very point in a moment. I will then answer the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw).
15 Taken as a whole, the Queen's Speech expresses the central quandary facing the Conservative party today: whether to praise Thatcherism or to bury it. Four years after the right hon. Lady's departure, the Conservatives still cannot decide. The result is the hallmark of this Government: dogma tempered only by dithering.
Nothing could make the point better than the debacle over Post Office privatisation. There are two extraordinary features of it. The first is not that 10 Tory rebels opposed it, but that 340 Tory Members, including the Prime Minister, supported it. One message at least is clear: "If you don't want the Post Office privatised, don't vote Tory at the next election."
The second extraordinary feature is the manner of decision-making; that is what is most extraordinary. One faction demands privatisation, so the deed is done; it is then the centrepiece of the Queen's Speech. Then another faction rebels, so the proposal is removed. Then the first faction mounts another rebellion, and Ministers fall over themselves to proclaim their sorrow and anguish at this omission from the Queen's Speech. Finally, the Government cast around for any hapless part of the public sector to privatise. Air traffic control is floated as a possibility, until even the genius of this Government's public relations understands that the notion of Group 4 being in charge of air traffic control is not an immediate vote-winner.
Ultimately, what do the Government privatise? They privatise the Atomic Energy Authority commercial services department. It is alighted on as a victim to be sold off. What does that tell us about this Government? It tells us that they are so riven by faction and buffeted from one day's headlines to the next that they cannot address the interests of the country, and that they are woefully out of touch with public opinion. The combination of those factors makes them incapable of delivering good government.
There should be a Bill about the Post Office in the Queen's Speech—not to privatise it, but to liberate it within the public sector. Such a Bill would pass with virtually unanimous support. Why is it not in the Queen's Speech? The reason is that, although the Government do not have the courage to privatise the Post Office, their dogma prevents them from adopting the only sensible alternative. The result is bad government.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
In reviewing my party's attitude to various issues, would the right hon. Gentleman also review his own party's attitude to clause 4, and whether his party really—[Interruption.] Does his party really intend to abolish it, or is it just the rhetoric that he opposes?
§ Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)
On the issue of factions, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he agrees with the 61 members of his own party 16 who signed an early-day motion calling on a future Labour Government to scrap Trident? Does he agree with that—yes or no?
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)
Since the right hon. Gentleman commented a little earlier on praising or trying to bury Thatcherism, does he regret voting for the changes in trade union reform which the Government have taken through the House over the past 15 years? If he does, which of the trade union reforms that the Government brought in, despite opposition from the Labour party, would he seek to reverse as a Labour Prime Minister?
§ Mr. Blair
I have set out many times our position on trade union legislation, and I have said exactly what parts we will change and what parts we will not change. Since the hon. Gentleman intervened in my speech, perhaps he would answer this question. How did he stand at the previous election on the specific promise that he would not raise tax in this country, since he joined the Government in raising it straight after his election to the House?
§ Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)
In reference to the right hon. Gentleman's comments on the public sector, does he think it right that inefficiencies in public services should be tolerated at the taxpayers' expense if they lead to greater employment? Does he agree on that comment with his deputy leader? Will he tell the House if he disagrees?
§ Dr. Spink
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with his right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) that the minimum wage would cost tens of thousands of jobs in the country? Will he support the job seeker's allowance, which will help this Government to get the long-term unemployed back into work?
§ Mr. Blair
The hon. Gentleman should be aware of recent evidence, published in the United States, of precisely the opposite effect. Indeed, it is the case that setting a proper floor for wages is a sensible way in which to operate the labour market. Secondly, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that I think that many people in this country see this Government failing to take action in relation to those privatised utilities and the pay increases awarded to their chairmen and directors, and find it quite obnoxious that the Government oppose a decent living and wage for people at the bottom end of the income scale, but do nothing about the abuses at the top.
17 I was talking about the conduct of government. We see the same conduct not only in relation to the Post Office but in respect of the quite extraordinary furore which has been whipped up among the Tory party over Europe, with briefings and counter-briefings rolling around the press rooms of Britain today. So desperate are the Government to get their rebels into line that the chairman of the 1922 Committee has been dispatched to tell us that, if the Government are defeated on the Bill about own resources, or "even if there is any amendment to it", a general election will immediately ensue. (Interruption.] There is at least some support for that proposition from the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), but that may simply be because he is retiring.
It has surely come to something when a Government can secure the passage of their own legislative programme only by threatening their own demise. The Government might threaten a general election. I think we can be sure that they do not dare call one. However, what a way to run a party and a Government. That underlines the degree to which all those questions become a matter not of the nation's interest, but simply a ball played from one part of the Conservative party over to the other and back again.
I can tell Conservative Members that the country sees the gap between what the Conservative party today represents and what it wants a Government to do, and the country is appalled at how that gap ever widens. That shows that the politics of the 1980s has run its course. The concerns and needs of the British people have changed, and it is the Labour party that speaks for them.
The British people want an end to the laissez-faire economics and the boom and bust of the past 15 years. They want a new economic approach, based on partnership between the public and private sectors and between management and employees to invest in industry to make our performance more dynamic and to give business and families the stability to plan for the future.
The British people want strong public services, decent schools and well-run local hospitals, where pupils and patients, not bureaucrats, receive the resources. They do not want them to be sold off or broken up. They want poverty, inequality and mass unemployment to be attacked, not treated as of no consequence. They want safe communities liberated from violence, drugs and gangs of hooligans, where, in place of piecemeal initiatives, there is a comprehensive strategy—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I believe that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) is not giving way at the moment. Is that correct?
§ Madam Speaker
Order. The right hon. Gentleman has indicated to me that he is not giving way at the moment.
§ Mr. Blair
The vast majority of people in this country want safe communities, and they do not believe that the Government are delivering them. Above all else, perhaps, they want to feel that their voice is heard and that political institutions work for them and not for the people in charge. They want real democracy, with power devolved downwards, not an ever-increasing centralised state.
18 The vast majority of people want to feel that they can trust their Government. The truth is that today no one believes a word that the Conservative party says—and no wonder. Let us consider tax, and the promises made at the last election. In March 1992, the Prime Minister said:I have made it clear, we have no plans and no need to extend the scope of VAT.The former Chancellor of the Exchequer said:We will not have to increase taxes. I cannot see any circumstances in which that will be necessary.That was said weeks before the general election. They now say that they did not know how bad the economic situation was.
One might get away with that if one had been in power for 13 days. However, by the last election, the Government had been in power for 13 years. They knew the truth. Look at how many taxes the Conservatives have introduced. Let us consider the new Tory taxes and what they will mean for the average family: home insurance tax, car insurance tax, airport tax, petrol tax, VAT on fuel and cuts in the married couple's allowance and cuts in mortgage tax relief. In total this year, they mean £360 on top of the £500 a year that families are already paying extra in tax since the election; 7p on the standard rate of income tax; £860 for the average family. In the light of the gap between what they have promised and what they have done, is it any wonder to them the cynicism and disgust with which their record is viewed by the majority of British people?
§ Mr. Norman Lamont (Kingston upon Thames)
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Government found it necessary to put up taxes in order to reduce borrowing, which was greater than anticipated. The right lion. Gentleman's party fought the election on putting up taxes not in order to produce sound finances, not in order to reduce borrowing, but in order to spend more money. That was why the right hon. Gentleman wanted to put up taxes. The right hon. Gentleman now tells us that he has changed his party's policy. Will he tell this House now that the policies of tax on which his party fought the election are wrong?
§ Mr. Blair
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what the difference is. We told the truth at the previous election. [Interruption.] I suppose that the Prime Minister will be relieved that, at least for once, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) has come in on the Government's side.
§ Mr. Blair
We will judge that Bill in the light of the principles that we have set out. We have supported the settlement at the Edinburgh summit, but the hon. Gentleman knows that of course we have our differences with the Government over the social chapter. I can tell him, although I was going to deal with it later in my speech, that, in the light of the allegations about fraud and waste in the common agricultural policy, and in the light of the discrepancy between the position set out by the Chancellor last week and the figures given in some newspapers this morning, we will of course press the Government on all those issues.
19 Now let me ask the hon. Gentleman, or perhaps the Prime Minister, a question: is it the case that the chairman of the 1922 Committee was speaking on behalf of the Conservative party when he said that the own resources Bill would be treated not as an ordinary piece of legislation but as a motion of confidence in the Government? I have to tell them that, if that is how it is to be treated, life becomes much more difficult, not less difficult, for the Government. The hon. Gentleman will understand that.
I was about to deal with the Chancellor of the Exchequer's interview in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph, which, as ever, is interesting to read. The right hon. and learned Gentleman described himself as "fairly panic-proof", which is a reassurance to us since he is in charge of the nation's finances. He went on to say that his policieshave so far delivered very little to Mr. and Mrs. Smith up and down the country.So far—they have been in power for 15 years; how much longer do they want before their policies deliver something? What they have delivered is an election programme secured on one basis, then broken with a series of record-breaking tax rises straight after the election.
§ The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)
The right hon. Gentleman keeps giving way to interventions, then failing to answer them and returning to his speech. He was asked a moment ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston (Mr. Lamont) how he now reacted to his election promises of the last election to raise taxation in order to raise public spending. If he now criticises what we are doing, which of the tax increases that he has attacked would he reduce and which spending would he cut—in contrast to the tax increase promises on which he fought the last election?
§ Mr. Blair
Last week, we published a comprehensive set of tax reforms to close the tax abuses that the Government have allowed to go on. What is more, we set out the huge windfall profits that have been made by utility companies, and will be made on the sale of the national grid. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to get spending down, there is one good way of doing it: get unemployment down, and let the unemployed get back to work.
The tax failure of the Government is in the end the product of their economic failure. The mismanagement of this country's economy over 15 years is a story of incompetence on an epic scale: the two worst recessions in living memory; bankruptcy and insecurity for millions of people; the decimation of large parts of the industrial base. With the boom-bust economics comes the inability to plan or invest for the future.
It is not even as if the living standards in our country had soared above those in other countries. The opposite is the case. According to the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures for average income compared with that in other countries, 20 Britain is just above Finland—lower than Germany, France and Italy, to be sure, but lower now than Belgium, Iceland and many others.
§ Mr. Blair
No, I am sorry.
Of course, now the economy has reached a different point in the economic cycle. There is recovery and growth, and inflation is low. We welcome that. However, the question is not whether we are at a different point in the economic cycle. The question is whether this burst of growth will be different from the others that have preceded it. This time, the Government say, the long term will come first, which is precisely what they—noticeably the Prime Minister himself—said at the beginning of the 1980s and at the end of the 1980s.
What is the Government's over-arching priority now? What is the clamour throughout the Tory party for next year's Budget? It is for tax cuts, and the bigger the better. Whether they will be given or not will depend not on the state of the economy but on the state of the Tory party.
§ Mr. Blair
The lesson of the past 15 years is that, unless we put the long term first, unless we have an economic policy that is stable and geared to the needs of the real economy, unless we strengthen our industrial base and make the investment in industry and people that we need, the reality is lower prosperity for all of us. Look even now: when we are barely out of recession, interest rates are raised. The chairman of the Conservative party promises that it will be the last such rise in interest rates. There are capacity constraints on output already. There are skill shortages—with 3 million unemployed —in parts of our economy.
Most galling of all, the Conservative Government uniquely had the one-off, God-given bonus of North sea oil, and squandered it. They had hundreds of billions of pounds' worth of North sea oil. On top of that, they had the privatisation proceeds. They were used not for investment but merely on current spending. What other country with all those resources would have had such a record of failure as the Conservative party has presided over?
If reports are true, there are new oil finds in the west of Shetland field. For heaven's sake, let us not squander that natural advantage as earlier natural advantages were squandered. Let for once the short-term interests of the Conservative party take second place to the long-term interests of the country.
The same prejudice has led the Government to ignore the danger signs of the tearing of the social fabric of our country. We are as a nation more divided and less equal than at any time this century. Millions of people live on benefit, in poverty and without hope for the future. Of course there is a social and moral case for tackling that inequality, but there is an economic case, too. In parts of our inner cities, a generation of young people grows up in a culture of low employment prospects, poor education 21 opportunities, family instability, drug abuse and crime. With no stake in society, it is hardly surprising when they show little responsibility towards it.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) should not persist, as it must be obvious that the right hon. Gentleman will not give way.
§ Mr. Blair
After 15 years of Conservative government, tax and spending as a percentage of national income are up and not down. Why? Because we are paying the bills of failure. We are paying for the dole queues, poverty, low pay, homelessness and crime. The Government never learn that, the stronger and more united our society, the less we waste and the more we can invest. That is the difference.
Good public services are a part of that. A moment ago, the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) asked me about efficient public services. We should look at the national health service. We have been promised even more legislation now to improvethe management of the National Health Service".What has happened since the Queen's Speech 15 years ago, when the Conservatives said that they would do the same? Bureaucracy and administration are up £3 billion a year. There are 20,000 general and senior managers, compared with 500 a few years ago. Some £70 million has been spent on company cars.
This week, the true Tory philosophy on the health service was revealed by the chairman of an NHS trust—a serving Tory councillor. He said that the duty of doctors is to the balance sheet of their managers, and not to the needs of their patients. We can thank him for his candour, but that is not the national health service that the British people want.
Of course, we need efficient management, but we do not have that. We have expensive management, which is swallowing millions of pounds, while many people are on waiting lists and are forced to wait in indignity and injured on trolleys in hospitals when they should be getting proper care.
This week, it was revealed that £30 million was put into the collapsed Health Care International. That must be added to the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on railway privatisation and the poll tax, and the hundreds of millions wasted on the national curriculum. The Government have wasted public money at every turn, and they have wasted it on dogma.
Last week, one Minister had to admit that he had lost £30 million of public money in four months, while another was found guilty of breaking the law and misusing £240 million in relations with countries overseas. A third—the Home Secretary, no less—was found to have acted unlawfully in respect of his own treatment of the victims of crime.
22 The tale of how those victims have been treated is a scandal of arrogant incompetence from first to last. The new tariff system of compensation is manifestly unfair, and it was rejected by all victims' groups. It has no support anywhere, and when the Government launched a consultation exercise about it, not a single representation was in favour of the Government's plans. They were warned that it was unlawful—they took not the slightest notice.
Meanwhile, the Home Secretary tells the Conservative party conference that he wants to put the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system. It is as rotten a tale of Conservative hypocrisy as is possible to imagine, even from this Government. The fact is that, whether on combating drugs, juvenile offending, illegal firearms, racial violence or the treatment of victims, it is the Opposition who have been standing up for law and order in this House and not the Government.
The chance of a new start for the Government and the country has been thrown away in the Queen's Speech. It is no wonder that the public turn away from politics when the Government refuse to hear the voice that they are speaking with. It is the Opposition who will continue to speak up for what the people of this country want—a modern and dynamic economy, action on crime, decent schools for all, hospitals run for patients and unemployment and poverty attacked.
The Prime Minister may scorn "the vision thing". He promises "the action thing", but where is it? His Government are not dictated by the action thing, but by the dither thing. That is where they are, all the way through from the Child Support Agency to whether Ministers should resign, the channel tunnel and the Post Office.
There is a case for action on behalf of the people of Britain, and it will be put by the Opposition. We know what needs to be done—the people of Britain know what needs to be done—because we share the hopes and ambitions of our people. We share their schools and hospitals, their values and their basic decency and we share something more—their shame at what has happened to Britain under the Conservative Government.
The Queen's Speech shows a Government who are out of touch and out of steam. At the next election, it will be our pleasure to put them out of office, too.
§ The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)
I was sorry to learn earlier that the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) has been taken ill. I was delighted to hear the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) say that the illness does not seem to be serious. I think that I speak for the House in saying that I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will soon be fully recovered and back here carrying out his duties.
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield mentioned the sad loss of a number of colleagues on both sides of the House and I join him in the tributes that he paid to them. We may dispute and disagree often and violently in the House—sometimes that is our duty and our responsibility—but, whatever the interest or party that we represent, we are all here to serve the public. From time to time, therefore, it is right for us to put aside our party differences and acknowledge the work that is done by our political opponents. I happily do so today, not only on 23 behalf of hon. Friends who are sadly no longer with us but on behalf of Opposition Members who sought to serve their country and their constituents.
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield had some grave charges to lay before the Government—I shall deal with those that are relevant later and with some other matters that the right hon. Gentleman overlooked—but if he is going to attack the Government he really should get his facts right. If he is going to disparage the Government, he really should try to keep a straight face while he does it. If he smiles when he does so, it will hardly be a surprise to him that the House and the country are unlikely to take him seriously on those issues. If he shows signs of not believing what he says, he cannot be surprised if other people do not believe him either.
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield was graceful about my hon. Friends and their proposing and seconding of the Gracious Speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) entered the House on the same day as I did. We knew one another for many years before we came to this place. I know him well and he has always been blessed with the gift of clarity. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why are you smiling?"] I am not laying charges against my hon. Friend; I am about to praise him. I come here to praise him, not to disparage him. One always knows where one is with my hon. Friend—sometimes that is very good and sometimes it is just very clear.
In this country, at least, we always know where we are with my hon. Friend, but abroad he has a slightly less certain touch. Seeking tickets while on holiday in Italy, he consulted his Italian phrase book, marched up to the booking clerk and, I am reliably informed, said something quite unspeakable in vile Italian. My informant did not tell me what it was, but I understand that it was emphatically not a request for a day return to Milan.
In Florida, my hon. Friend visited Seaworld—[Interruption.] Relax. While watching the Walrus of Oz—I do not understand why the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) smiles when I mention the Walrus of Oz—my hon. Friend became a volunteer from the audience to play alongside the walrus. The starring piece of his remarkable performance was a passionate embrace with the walrus. That was embarrassing enough for him, but it was made far more embarrassing by the most deadly words that any Member of Parliament can hear on holiday, uttered by a lady who rushed up and said, "Mr. Dunn, I am one of your constituents." Only time will tell whether that will increase his majority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) entered the House only at the last election. He referred to his first term in this House, which I am sure will be one of many. What he did not mention—we all know that he has a healthy appetite—was his election battle bus, which became notorious in his constituency for being parked outside a fast-food hamburger stop nearly every meal time. Entering with three companions, he ordered four hamburgers. "One each?", asked the attendant politely. "I don't know what they're having", said my hon. Friend, "but these four are for me." Clearly, elections build up the appetite in Aberdeen, but both my hon. Friends added to their growing reputations in their speeches this afternoon.
24 Last year, I placed Northern Ireland at the head of our priorities: self-evidently, it remains at the head of the Government's priorities. The past year has brought a new atmosphere and measured progress, but there is still a very long way to go before peace is secure and life in Northern Ireland returns to the same gentle tenor that we would expect it to have and would wish to see elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Next month, so long as the ceasefire is maintained, we shall open the exploratory dialogue with Sinn Fein and the loyalist political representatives. In those talks, the decommissioning of illegally held weapons will be a vital subject. Last week's outrage in Newry—the murder of Mr. Kerr—showed how urgent that remains. Gun law has no part in democratic politics and the paramilitaries of both sides must abide by democratic principles if they wish to take part in democratic politics.
The people of Northern Ireland, too, are impatient for political progress, and I believe that they are right to be. As part of an overall settlement, we shall make proposals for a possible way forward within Northern Ireland, including a locally accountable assembly.
We have made good progress with the Irish Government on a joint framework document that covers relations between the two Governments and between Northern Ireland and the Republic. I hope that circumstances will allow us to complete the remaining negotiations speedily. The two Governments are seeking joint positions on some difficult issues, including the territorial claim that remains in the Irish constitution.
Northern Ireland's future must be resolved freely, and without prejudice or duress, and that was acknowledged in the Downing street declaration. As part of a balanced settlement, requiring change on both sides, the Irish Government agreed that the Republic's constitution would need to change to reflect fully the principle of consent in Northern Ireland. It is obviously important for Northern Ireland to be recognised as a legitimate part of the United Kingdom while that remains the wish of the greater number of the people of Northern Ireland.
A more relaxed relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic is also important. Many people in the north want links with the south. There is already valuable co-operation and we would like to help it to evolve. Closer links would foster reconciliation and benefit business. Organisations in different sectors—tourism being an obvious example—will, in their own interests, wish to build up relationships. In the joint document, we shall suggest a framework for cross-border structures, working on common ground and on a reciprocal basis.
I know that there are fears about joint authority—not least in the House but also beyond it, and most importantly throughout Northern Ireland—so let me make it clear that joint authority is not under consideration, and has been rejected by both Governments.
I emphasise that those will be proposals; they will not be a straitjacket. This is not a London-Dublin deal, worked out and set to be imposed. The proposals will be published for public consultation and put to the democratic political parties in Northern Ireland. When the final outcome of the talks process is known, it will be submitted to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum.
25 The tasks ahead remain formidable, but each and every day without violence is another small victory for Northern Ireland. The benefits of peace which people are now witnessing will be a powerful disincentive to renewed violence.
I cannot promise that those endeavours will be successful, but I can promise that we shall pursue them, with the hope of reaching a lasting peace. I express my thanks to right hon. and hon. Members, on both sides of the House, who put aside the normal political differences to support the process.
Before I discuss the contents of the Gracious Speech, I wish to mention our economic prospects, as did the right hon. Member for Sedgefield.
A year ago, many people had doubts about economic recovery. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) delved into his stock of gloomy soundbites and forecastrising unemployment, falling output and shaky prospects for growth.Since then, unemployment has decreased steadily, month by month. Today it fell by more than 45,000, to below 9 per cent. for the first time since December 1991. Throughout the European Union— [Interruption.]— only Portugal and Luxembourg now have less unemployment and, overall, the average is much greater throughout the Union, at 11.5 per cent.
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield told us that one of the ways ahead was to reduce unemployment, but he would have been more gracious if he had acknowledged that we have reduced unemployment far more successfully than any other large country in western Europe, and that only two small countries have a lower rate.
§ The Prime Minister
I shall give way later.
As for growth, output is currently increasing at more than 3.5 per cent., and we are forecast to have the fastest growth among the main economies in the European Union this year and next.
The problem for the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East, is that his every forecast turns out to be wrong—not some of them, but all of them. The laws of statistics and probability are suspended for the hon. Gentleman. If any hon. Members wish to win the lottery that we have established, they should ask the hon. Gentleman for numbers that are certain to lose, and their fortune will be guaranteed.
I do not wish to be unfair to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East. He is by no means the only misery merchant on the Opposition Front Bench who is seeking to spread despondency. The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who is enjoying an agreeable chat with the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), was a trainee misery. He spoke of "big concerns" about how long the recovery would last. He did at least have the honesty to admit that there was a recovery. He spoke ofbig concerns about how long the recovery could be sustained before it led to a balance of payments crisis.As it happens, the trade balance is narrowing as output grows, and the hon. Gentleman was wrong.
26 The hon. Gentleman has heavyweight company. The new deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), was in the gloom stakes as well. [Interruption.] Yes, he was. He is smiling now, probably because he knows that I am going to remind him that he saidI don't see much inward investment flooding in, but I see companies flooding out.I do not know what country the right hon. Gentleman was in when he said that, because it certainly does not apply to this country. The only things that are flooding out are exports, at record levels.
The right hon. Gentleman also seems to have missed the inward investment. Last year, this country attracted 40 per cent. of the total inward investment from the United States and Japan that was made in the European Union. Black and Decker, for example, moved a production line to Britain from Germany—not even from the United States or Japan. Why? Because, in the words of one of its workers,Industry is flexible and the social chapter isn't.Where is the Black and Decker factory? In a place called Spennymoor, bang in the middle of the constituency of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield.
The deputy leader of the Labour party should ask his right hon. Friend whether he has seen any inward investment flooding into this country—or he could ask the hon. Member for Livingston. NEC is investing hundreds of millions of pounds to create hundreds of jobs in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I could have mentioned that Samsung is creating more than 3,000 jobs, that Fujitsu is creating 1,600 or that Asat is creating 1,000. Up and down the land, there has been a vote of confidence from external investors in this country's future, and in this Government's management of the economy.
§ Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)
At the 1992 general election, the Prime Minister and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear that they could conceive of no circumstances in which they would increase taxes if they won the election, yet afterwards they increased taxes. Can the Prime Minister help the House? At the time of the election, did the Prime Minister and the Chancellor know the true state of public finances and mislead the public, or did they not know the true state of public finances—in which case, why should anyone listen to the Prime Minister's predictions now?
§ The Prime Minister
I think that the hon. Gentleman could have done better than that if he had tried. He may live in his own little dream world, and he may have overlooked the fact that there was a worsening recession not here but elsewhere, which was why, right across Europe, unemployment rose and others ran into the difficulties that we ran into in this country.
If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about inconsistencies—perhaps in view of what his right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield had to say about taxes—perhaps he or his right hon. Friend could tell us why they now propose to introduce a windfall tax, a payroll tax, a health tax, an entertainment tax and a development tax. Perhaps, as they are so concerned about expenditure and taxation, they will tell us which of their spending commitments—to the minimum wage, the emergency employment programme, the new technology trusts or the abolition of compulsory competitive tendering—they will scrap. For if their oratory is honest 27 now, their policies are not; and if their policies are honest, their oratory is not. The sooner they square that circle, the sooner we will hear little lecturettes from them.
Up and down the land, there has been a vote of confidence in the British economy from foreign investors. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East and the hon. Members for Livingston and for Dunfermline, East say none of that. They can, if they wish, remain the three blind mice on the Labour Front Bench, but foreign investors see what is happening in this country. To quote the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, they have been "flooding in", they are "flooding in" and, while they have a Conservative Government with the policies that we follow, they will continue to "flood in" and to provide jobs in the right hon. Member for Sedgefield's constituency.
§ Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)
Is the Prime Minister aware that, for every pound that has come into this country, more than two in the last year, and well over two in the past 15, have left? British Steel is investing £97 million in America, but nothing in this country. What policies does the Prime Minister offer to develop manufacturing based on investment by British firms in their own country?
§ The Prime Minister
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned British Steel. I was in Port Talbot a fortnight ago—one of the most efficient steelworks in the world. It has the longest export order books that it has had for a long time and it is hugely successful. The hon. Gentleman may know nothing about steel making, but I suggest that he goes to Port Talbot to see for himself what I saw—the efficiency of that manufacturing industry in the United Kingdom.
If the hon. Gentleman went to the motor show he would see a British motor industry that will soon be a net exporter of cars. If he visited Triumph motorcycles, which was killed by the Labour party, he would see it producing top-of-the-range motor cycles to sell to Germany, Japan, the United States and elsewhere. The Opposition run so well the story about British industry doing badly that they believe it. In reality, British industry is up off the knees on which it found itself when the Labour party was in office. It is now growing, investing, expanding and exporting to each and every part of the world. It is about time that the Labour party stopped knocking British industry whenever it has the chance.
§ Mr. Skinner
Earlier, the Prime Minister talked about unemployment coming down. Is he aware that large sections of the British people do not believe his Government and their fiddled statistics? Does he understand that the other day independent figures were compiled on every British coalfield where many of the pits have shut? In Bolsover and north Derbyshire, the Prime Minister's figures show unemployment at 12.5 per cent., but independent statistics show it to be 23.5 per cent. In Durham, the figure is 33 per cent. and it is the 28 same in Ayrshire. In Wales, the figure is over 30 per cent. The truth is that all this twaddle, which has probably been written by Sarah Hogg, is a stranger to the truth.
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentleman is such a believer in conspiracies that he probably does not yet believe that there is really a Wednesday in the week. He should not squeak until he is squoken to.
§ The Prime Minister
I suspect that there may be millions of people asking the same question over the next two and a half years.
§ The Prime Minister
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I suspect that he or his hon. Friends may want to intervene later. I want to make some progress.
I want to deal with the legislative programme for next year contained in the Gracious Speech. Over the years, we have introduced many controversial supply side measures, privatisations and deregulations. Time after time the Opposition have opposed them, yet they do not seem to follow that opposition through. They do not commit themselves to reversing those privatisations. We all know why. They know that the privatisations are right, but they want to capitalise on public concerns when the measures are going through the House. If the Labour party's opposition is genuine, let it commit itself now to reversing all the privatisation measures that we have carried out. If it does not do so, it should keep quiet and realise that those measures have greatly improved the efficiency of British industry in recent years.
The Opposition will not commit themselves to that because they know that privatisation works. They know also that renationalisation would blow for good and all the belief that this is a new Labour party in any sense. Whatever the balance between public and private sector might be, the Opposition usually, and grudgingly, think that it happens to be right at the time. They do not know whether to go forward or back. They do not say yes and they do not say no. They loathe private ownership, but they dare not reverse it.
We intend to proceed with privatisation. This year, we shall privatise the Crown Agents. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am glad to hear support from Opposition Members—I hope that it will be translated into support in the Division Lobby. Crown Agents plays a significant role in delivering our aid programme. We have agreed with its board that the best way of developing its services is in the private sector.
We shall introduce a Gas Bill to bring genuine competition into the gas industry. Consumers already benefit from a fall, after inflation, of more than 20 per cent. in gas prices and they will reap further benefits. New suppliers will be able to enter the gas supply market, giving customers more choice and better service. Safeguards protecting price, safety, standards and social obligations will remain for as long as they are necessary.
The Agricultural Tenancies Bill will make it easier for tenants to rent land and to benefit from the improvements that they make to it. Landlords and tenants will gain 29 greater freedom in negotiating the terms of a tenancy, within a framework that protects legitimate interests and that guarantees that tenants are rewarded for any improvements that they may make. That has been agreed by landlords and tenants alike and will open up opportunities for young farmers to take their first step in the industry.
§ Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)
The Prime Minister gave a catalogue of successes in industry. Will he comment on how the building industry will prosper in the coming year? There is a need for rented houses and for improvements to houses, yet no reference is made in the Gracious Speech to the building industry. Has he a comment to make on the future of the building industry?
§ The Prime Minister
I am not sure what legislation, for that is what the Queen's Speech deals with, the hon. Gentleman may have in mind for the building industry. The growth in the economy, which we are now seeing, will bring the building industry back to greater health. That is the way in which to bring it back to proper health.
We shall introduce the Jobseeker's Allowance Bill to help more and more unemployed people back into work. The new allowance will replace unemployment benefit and income support and will underline the bargain between job seekers and taxpayers. Job seekers are right to expect benefits but the taxpayer is right to expect a job seeker to seek a job, and the Bill will ensure that that is so.
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentleman should get his head out of the sand and look at the falling total of unemployed people. The figure has been falling for nearly two years. One day he might acknowledge that this country is doing better than almost any other in western Europe in putting people in work, in keeping people in work and in having the highest level of adult population in work.
The Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill will allow private finance to contribute to the development of one of the most important infrastructure improvements of recent years. Both public and private sectors will have a role to play and the project will be likely to create between 10,000 and 15,000 jobs.
The Pensions Bill will implement all the main recommendations of the Goode committee. It will offer greater protection for members of occupational pensions schemes and it will implement a common pension age for men and women at 65, which I was interested to note was accepted as reasonable by the Commission on Social Justice.
§ The Prime Minister
I have read the commission's report. I recommend it to insomniacs.
We have a meaty programme of supply side reforms and I look forward to introducing them to the House.
We shall also introduce the European Communities (Finance) Bill to give effect to the financial arrangements reached at the Edinburgh summit.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Will the Prime Minister tell us whether the £250 million predicted increase in the United Kingdom's contribution includes 30 forecast increases in gross domestic product by the end of the century? Can we have a straight answer to the question?
§ The Prime Minister
The straight answer is yes. I hope that that is straight enough for the hon. Gentleman. I must say that, having asked for a straight answer, he looks very discomfited to have actually got one. I suggest that, if he does not want a straight answer, perhaps he should have asked his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
§ The Prime Minister
I will make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
I am still saying it: consistency is a virtue.
Those financial arrangements were warmly welcomed at the time, and for good reason. They safeguarded our rebate—worth £2 billion a year. They produced the smallest-ever increase in own resources, and over a longer period, and they moved this country significantly down the list of net contributors to the European Union budget. The difference that the new arrangements will make, compared with what we would otherwise have paid, is to increase this country's net contribution to the European Union by £75 million next year, rising to around £250 million in 1999, with the qualification that I conceded a moment ago. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has set out the figures clearly to all hon. Members.
I have seen suggestions that the new arrangements would double our net contributions, which is nonsense and can safely be dismissed out of hand. The outcome of the Edinburgh agreement was reported to the House and strongly supported here. This Bill is necessary to honour that agreement. We shall introduce it early in the Session and take it through speedily.
No one should doubt the importance of securing the Bill unchanged and early. I know that some hon. Members dislike it, but it is not an optional measure that can be used as a bargaining counter for other European negotiations. It is an international commitment, entered into two years ago with the full support of the Cabinet. No British Government would have credibility in international negotiations if they failed to implement the agreements that they had freely entered into with their partners abroad, so for that reason there is no room for compromise on the Bill. That means that its successful passage in all its essentials is inescapably a matter of confidence, because of the agreements reached with our European partners. I hope that there is no doubt in the House about that.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Is the Prime Minister making it clear to the House that, if the Government were to lose any vote on the Bill, he would seek a dissolution and the country would have the opportunity of a general election?
§ The Prime Minister
I have just made it perfectly clear that the Bill must be passed in all its essentials to ensure that we honour the obligations that we entered into with our European partners.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
In the spirit of friendship, may I put it to my right hon. Friend that if 31 the passage of the Bill were made contingent on effective measures and results in combating European fraud he might have a more coherent response?
§ The Prime Minister
I made it clear in my speech at Leiden earlier this year that it was important that the whole of the European Union attacked the outrageous problem of fraud that exists in Europe. The figures that we have just seen were produced by the Court of Auditors, which, I remind the House, has its present powers because the British Government in general, and I in particular, demanded them in the Maastricht treaty. I must tell my hon. Friend that I did so because I believe that fraud in the European Union is unforgivable and must be rooted out.
The British Government have been the leader in the European Union in rooting out fraud. We have less fraud in this country than anywhere else in the European Union, and my right hon. Friends and I intend to press again and again to ensure that the Court of Auditors has the powers necessary to root out fraud across the Community.
I shall say something else to my hon. Friend, because I hope that he will back me here, too. In order to do as I have said, it may be necessary for the Court of Auditors to have greater powers to go into each country in the Community, including this country as part of the European Union, to root out fraud. I believe that it should have those powers, and I support them. We shall do all that we can to minimise, and then to eliminate, fraud in the European Union. I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, but he need not tie it to the Bill, for we embarked on that several months ago.
The House will know that earlier this summer the Government began to consult on a range of proposals to improve the position of disabled people. Following the consultation—
§ The Prime Minister
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.
Following the consultation, we decided to go further and, contrary to our original intimation to hon. Members, to propose a Government Bill in the Gracious Speech, rather than producing a hand-out private Member's Bill.
We have an excellent record over the years, and a great deal has been achieved.
§ The Prime Minister
I have already promised to give way to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), and I shall do so in a moment.
A great deal has been achieved, but we can and should do more. The Bill will follow an exercise that focused not only on what should be done but on how it could be done and how quickly. The Government will announce the details of the Bill shortly. Let me simply say now that it will include a right not to be discriminated against in employment, a right of access to goods and services and 32 the establishment of a national disability council to ensure that the voice of disabled people is heard more clearly within Government.
§ Mr. Wareing
The Prime Minister will be aware that in 1983 I introduced a private Member's Bill to outlaw all discrimination against disabled people, but that it was outrageously attacked by the Government and Conservative Members were dragooned into the Division Lobby to oppose it. The same thing happened to the Bill recently introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry). I was told at the time that education and persuasion represented the way forward.
The Queen's Speech says only that the Government will introduce a Bill to "tackle" discrimination. It is not enough simply to select employment and one or two other aspects. Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that the legislation will make it illegal to discriminate against disabled people, as it is to discriminate against people on the grounds of race, sex or religion?
§ The Prime Minister
I have set out what will be in the Bill, and the hon. Gentleman will have the chance to read it as soon as it is published. The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People will make the details clear.
§ The Prime Minister
I am replying to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby. If the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) will do me the courtesy of listening, I shall contemplate giving way to him when I have finished.
I have set out the details of what will be in the Bill, and I advise the hon. Member for West Derby to wait until he sees those details, which will be debated fully in the House and in Committee.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke
Is the Prime Minister aware that nothing that he has said corresponds with the measures in the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood sought to introduce, which was disgracefully talked out by Conservative Members? As a former Whip, and as a former Minister responsible for disabled people, will he discourage The Guardian from saying that simply because the Government have introduced a Bill nobody else can introduce a Bill on the same subject? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if my hon. Friend or any other hon. Member introduces such a Bill, he should discourage the Government Whips from talking it out and denying the rights of 6.5 million disabled people and their carers?
§ The Prime Minister
I have limited influence over The Guardian, as recent events have shown; the hon. Gentleman must take up his complaints about The Guardian with that newspaper. As for the position of disabled people, he, too, would be wiser to wait and read the Bill before making judgments on it.
33 The remainder of the legislative programme will honour a number of important commitments that we have given. The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill will be another important step in the Government's battle against crime.
§ The Prime Minister
Not on this point.
Like the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill will crack down on those who offend on bail, increase the courts' powers to confiscate the assets of crime and streamline the operation of the courts.
The Environment Bill will set up an environment protection agency and a Scottish environment protection agency. I suspect that that will be widely welcomed in the House and elsewhere.
The Health Service Bill will take forward our programme of reform by streamlining the national health service management structure. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield spoke about expenditure in the national health service on administration. I look, therefore, for his support for the abolition of one entire tier of the management structure in the regional health authorities. They will be abolished while the district health authorities and family health authorities will be merged. We shall judge whether the right hon. Gentleman's words are matched by his actions in the Division Lobby as we seek to cut administrative expenditure.
We will introduce a Bill to provide for the supervision of those discharged under the Mental Health Act 1983. This is to ensure greater security for the community and better welfare for those recovering from mental illness. Many hon. Members will be aware of the problems that have arisen in that area. I believe that the Bill will be warmly welcomed and I am grateful for the intimations from the Opposition that they will help to speed the Bill through to law.
There are three important additional measures that we intend to introduce under the general heading of law reform. The Criminal Appeals Bill follows the Government's acceptance of the recommendation of the Royal Commission on criminal justice that a new body is needed to consider possible cases of miscarriage of justice. The new body will be independent of both Government and the courts and it will be able to review wrongful convictions.
The Children (Scotland) Bill will ensure a comprehensive reform of child care in Scotland. It follows the reports of the inquiries into the Orkney and Fife incidents, and the White Paper of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, "Scotland's Children: Proposals for Child Care Policy and Law", published last year.
§ The Prime Minister
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall tell him bluntly that I shall not give way to him on this occasion.
34 The Bill's welfare measures include the introduction of more flexible arrangements for local authorities to care for children in need and the introduction of more stringent criteria for taking children into care.
We shall also introduce a Medical Act (Amendment) Bill to introduce new procedures to enable the General Medical Council to deal with the very small minority of doctors whose performance is found to be seriously deficient.
Those are measures of reform which, I believe, will command widespread support in the House. I am encouraged by the overt support already given to these Bills across the House and I trust that we shall be able to agree speedily on their handling. Those are some of the things that are important across the House.
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield spoke of many things, but we did not hear a great deal about practical issues from him. We have heard a great deal from the right hon. Gentleman about new Labour, although no one seems quite sure what that means. We are now getting some clues. I was especially interested in the way in which the right hon. Gentleman allocated his shadow Cabinet portfolios.
Whom did the right hon. Member for Sedgefield choose as his shadow Foreign Secretary—Britain's ambassador abroad? He picked the hon. Member for Livingston—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I agree: it is a choice entirely appropriate for the Labour party. Surely the hon. Member for Livingston is not the man who, as the cold war was heating up, "pleaded with" and "begged"—his words—the Labour conference to vote for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Surely this is not the same man who spent much of his political life equivocating over whether Britain should be in the European Union. Apparently, the answer is yes. There is not much new there.
The hon. Member for Livingston is not the only clue—
§ The Prime Minister
They are tired old arguments, I know, but they are the best that the Labour party has got.
The hon. Member for Livingston is not the only clue; there are other square pegs in round holes. Let us take the shadow defence team. What do they have in common? The answer is consistency. They are consistently against Britain's nuclear defences. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the man to whom the Leader of the Opposition would entrust Britain's nuclear defences, is a member of parliamentary CND. Indeed, he is not alone. I have a list, which my hon. Friends may care to hear. It includes the right hon. Member for Derby, South and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson)—[HON. MEMBERS: "More."] There are lots more Opposition Members who are against our nuclear capacity. I am just telling the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) who they are. The list includes the hon. Members for Peckham (Ms Harman), for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and, of course, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield. All that gives a new meaning to being brothers in arms. They would scrap our nuclear weapons.
It is another clue—[HON. MEMBERS: "You have missed one out."] I missed one out. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure who the hon. Gentleman is, but 35 someone will tell me. It shows that they are not only against Britain's nuclear capacity but are proud to be against Britain's nuclear capacity and would scrap it. Why did we hear so much about Rosyth from Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen if that was the case?
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentleman says that they are yesterday's arguments. They do not care about Rosyth now. The hon. Gentleman should keep quiet. He is digging himself a bigger hole by the minute.
Another clue to Labour's new team is the right hon. Member for Sedgefield's choice for his shadow Treasury team—the team responsible for setting and collecting taxes.
§ The Prime Minister
I shall say something on taxes in which the hon. Gentleman will be interested. Only a fortnight ago, the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms Primarolo) was talking about the importance of collecting tax—absolutely right, vitally responsible. But, some small thing nagged away at my memory. Was not it the hon. Lady who supported a campaign urging people not to pay their community charge? So there we have it—new Labour. The person that the right hon. Gentleman has put in charge of collecting tax was part of the campaign inciting people to break the law and refuse to pay their tax. So, there is not very much new about Labour there either.
Over the past four years, I have consistently pursued a number of long-term objectives.
§ The Prime Minister
I am about to. They include low inflation. For the first time, we may be in a position where we have broken the inflationary psychology that has damaged this country time and again since the war. We have pursued objectives of supply side reform for lasting growth, a better quality of life for all our citizens, a higher standard of public service and a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. They remain at the centre of my objectives for this year and for the future. The programme outlined in the Gracious Speech will take those objectives forward and I warmly commend it to the House. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Ashdown
It is tradition, but pleasurable on this occasion, that we pay tribute to those hon. Members who opened the debate. I agree with the comments of the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the leader of the Labour party, about the hon. Members for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) and for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), neither of whom I see in the Chamber. [Interruption.] I beg the pardon of the hon. Member for Dartford, as he is present. Those who know him will recognise his speech as characteristic of him. I recall very well sitting opposite him—self-evidently— 36 when we took GERBIL, the great Education Reform Bill, through Committee. I cannot say that I necessarily enjoyed the occasion, but I often enjoyed his interventions.
The hon. Gentleman is the man, as I recall from a 1970s party conference, who demanded the total commitment of the Conservative party to the selling of council houses and who said that those Conservatives who did not follow that idea would be disgraced and exposed. I do not suppose that we can necessarily hold him responsible for the fact that his hon. Friends and Westminster city council have perhaps taken his advice a little too literally.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, a new hon. Member, rightly drew attention to the fact that his predecessor, who also seconded the Loyal Address, did that only once because he lost his Scottish seat and now represents a seat in England. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South is more interesting because of his predictions, three of which were drawn to my attention recently.
In May 1987, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South predicted that Thatcherism and Mrs. Thatcher were here to stay and would capture the hearts and minds of the people of Scotland. I do not think that that prediction was borne out by subsequent elections in Scotland. In October 1990, still supporting Mrs. Thatcher, he predicted that the poll tax would work if only we kept it in place long enough. However, when the Prime Minister's predecessor was bundled out of office, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South declared:I've been telling them all for a year. Give me a new leader and I'll give you a majority of 5,000.The hon. Gentleman was wrong again: his majority was 1,154. If I were the Prime Minister and I heard the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South committing himself to undying loyalty to the Prime Minister's cause, I would run for cover immediately on the basis of his predictions and his sense of consistency in those matters.
The start of a new parliamentary year provides the House with an opportunity to review what the Government have done and to look forward to what they will do. I am not sure which makes the bleaker prospect. Behind us lies a period of almost unparalleled weakness and bad government. Ahead of us, based on the Gracious Speech, lies a programme of timid measures and uncertain commitments.
Only in Northern Ireland can the Prime Minister and the Government claim a success. As the House will agree, the Prime Minister is entitled to feel satisfied with what he has achieved for peace in Northern Ireland. It would be fair to say that much of that has been a personal achievement in respect of his personal patience and commitment. With the Irish Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman has opened a way to peace and reconciliation which many of us—I speak as an Irishman and as someone who served on the streets in Northern Ireland as a soldier—did not believe that we would see again. My party and I have supported the Prime Minister fully and we will continue to do so as long as he holds, as we believe he will, to his present policies.
However, the Government go further in claiming successes, as we heard from the Prime Minister. They would have us believe that their second claim to success lies in the economy. I am told that, in private, the Prime Minister is much given to bewildered complaint about 37 why the British public do not recognise that success and begin to like him all over again. The reason for that is very simple: the public are not that easily fooled.
The recovery may now be under way. As some have argued, we may be seeing the start of the fabled virtuous circle, but there is a long way to go before that is clear and proven. However, everyone knows who is responsible for what has happened to the British economy over the past few years. Of course, there has been a world recession, but everyone knows that, thanks to this Government, Britain went into that recession first, stayed in it longest, went down deepest and has suffered more harm and damage than any of our major competitors. Everyone knows that our present recovery has taken place not because of the Government, but despite the Government.
Of course, an economy will become more competitive if its Government devalue its currency by 20 per cent. To be forced to devalue the currency because of economic incompetence and then to claim a triumph because our goods are cheaper is something of a cheek.
§ The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
§ Mr. Ashdown
If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make a little progress and then I will happily give way to him.
The ordinary person in Britain has taken a severe battering from the Government over the past five years: lost jobs, threatened homes, cut services, burgeoning crime and swingeing taxes. If now the economy is improving, people can be expected to feel relieved, but it is a hit much for the Prime Minister to ask them to feel grateful.
§ Mr. Aitken
Before the right hon. Gentleman gets away with that typical Liberal Democrat catalogue of exaggerated incompetence on the part of the Government, would he please explain, first, why unemployment has been coming down steadily for 20 months, with the fall now exceeding 406,000, and, secondly, why Britain's share of world trade is increasing and why exports are rising at record levels of 10 per cent? That is not a picture of a Government doing anything but enjoying success.
§ Mr. Ashdown
The answer to both the right hon. Gentleman's questions is that, because unemployment in this country peaked so high, only now are other countries coming to that point. Also, our economy went so low that it is hardly difficult to make progress from the position in which the Government put it. I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to one of the underlying figures for our economy. Investment per head per annum in Britain is £2,800. In France the relevant figure is £3,800, in Germany £4,500, in the United States £5,500 and in Japan £6,500. One of the facts of Britain today is that, although our wages are lower, our unit costs are higher. That is because this country has not made the investments in capital machinery and improved techniques that it should have made. That is what will beset the economy as we go into the next phase of the recovery.
It is already the case—surely the right hon. Gentleman will accept this if he will not accept the other point—that, with more than 2.5 million unemployed, British firms are 38 hitting a skill gap and, therefore, cannot make use of the recovery that is now in place. 'We could not have a bigger indictment to lay against the Government.
The question now is this: what happens next? The Chancellor tells us—he has done so several times—that there will be no tax cuts this year. Everyone knows that that is because he wants to save them until closer to the election. That, incidentally, is not just my view, a cynic's view or the view of an opposition Member of the House of Commons. Long-term interest rates make it clear that that is the view of the markets as well. They think that, by next year, Chancellor Clarke will be preparing to make the same mistake as Chancellor Lawson made in 1987—tax cuts, a pre-election consumer boom, once again leaving Britain to pay the price in higher mortgages, lost jobs, higher interest rates and tax rises after the next election. As the Chancellor plays the miser this year, to make merry with tax cuts next year, the country would be well advised to remember the old Russian proverb: free cheese comes only in mousetraps. That is what is now being prepared.
We believe that, where the Chancellor has room for manoeuvre, it should be used not to boost consumption for the next election but to invest in Britain for the next century. That is why the right economic policy and the economic policy for which we will press this year and next year must be to restrain consumption, to keep unit costs down and to increase investment.
Over the past few years, and especially over the past few months, we have seen more than just damage to our economy. Against the background of a widening gap between government and governed and falling respect for politics, we now have a Government who seem to believe that they can operate below acceptable standards and beyond the law, and do so with impunity. Does the Prime Minister really believe that, when it comes to answering legitimate questions about the activities of Ministers, those Ministers should treat the truth as something that has to be dragged out of them like a rotten tooth? Does he find it acceptable that the answers, when they come, are at best incomplete and at worst unconvincing?
In a Government more careful of their honour and less desperate to cling to power, the kind of things that have been tolerated in the past few months would have been simply unacceptable. Always, the Prime Minister reacts behind events, never ahead of them, driven to action by a small group of Back Benchers here or a collection of newspaper reports there. It seems that the Prime Minister's chief calculation is not what is right or what is wrong, but what he can get past his divided and warring party.
Is not it a comment on the Government, on Conservative Back Benchers and, I am bound to say, on the House as a whole that, when it comes to stopping the Government doing something wrong, something stupid or something illegal, it is not this Chamber that stops them but, more frequently, the other place or, indeed, the courts? In the past week, the present Home Secretary, a former Prime Minister, a former Defence Secretary, a former Foreign Secretary and the present Foreign Secretary have all been judged to have acted either illegally or beyond their powers, or both. Perhaps that is what the Prime Minister means by conviction politics.
I do not much care what damage the Prime Minister does to the Government or to the Conservative party. Frankly, I do not think that there is much that his 39 Government could do that would surprise the British people. But I care very greatly about the severe damage that all this is doing to our political system. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has established the Nolan committee. I just wish that he had done it earlier when it was first proposed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). Whatever the outcome of Nolan, its work will be deficient unless it includes not only the conduct of those in public office but the funding of political parties. Whatever the Prime Minister's personal sincerity on this matter—I do not doubt it—he will not set new standards in public life so long as he ducks that issue in the interests of the Conservative party as a whole.
Looking ahead to the forthcoming year, it is clear—indeed, it has already been the subject of some debates on both sides—that the issue of Europe and foreign affairs will play a large part in our business. I have some brief points to make on those subjects. First, on overseas aid, I can only assume that the commitment in the Queen's Speech to use aidto promote sustainable development and good governmenthas been left in because the speech went to the printers before the Foreign Secretary was hauled over the coals by the High Court last week. More appropriate would have been clear proposals to separate the disgraceful—what was it?—"entanglement" of arms and aid.
Secondly, Hong Kong is now within three years of being handed over to the Chinese, yet we have not even debated Hong Kong in the Chamber during this Parliament. I wonder whether in all our history there has ever been a similar occasion on which the House has had such responsibility for the future of 5 million people to be handed over to another nation and so comprehensively ignored it. The Government must bring the matter to the Floor of the House for debate. I hope that they will do so soon, preferably before the end of the year.
Thirdly, Europe is the battleground where the Prime Minister has now allowed open warfare to develop within his party and his Cabinet. That is his affair. It has been brought about in large measure by his weakness. What is Britain's affair is our future in Europe. We have no confidence in the Government or their policies on Europe. If this Government fell, it would be of their own making, and it would result in a Government who were bound to have more constructive European policies and more unity than this Government. We want to see, and we will vote for, a more competitive, decentralised, democratic Europe. We will support measures to improve efficiency, give better value for money and fund the Union effectively. We will continue to support measures which lead to closer co-operation where it is in Britain's interests.
One area in which such measures will prove increasingly important is defence co-operation. Once again, as on the issue of petrol taxation and so much else, the Government are doing in secret what only months ago they criticised us for proposing in public. They are pursuing closer European defence co-operation, in this case with France. The United States' unilateral lifting of the arms embargo in Bosnia is a grave development for the long-term future of that country and of security in 40 Europe. Its practical and immediate effects on the ground may not be great, but its long-term political effects could be very serious.
First, that lifting of the arms embargo will accelerate the breakdown of the fragile ceasefire in Bosnia. Secondly, it will make a wider, and much more dangerous, war in the Balkans more likely. Thirdly, it will make the position of UN troops, including many British troops, more dangerous, and the likelihood of a UN withdrawal more certain. Fourthly—in the long term, this is perhaps the most important—it will open the way to a weakening of the Atlantic alliance and the withdrawal of the United States once again into isolationism. That is not what we seek, but we must confront the fact that it is likely to happen. We do not welcome that, and we must respond to it. We in this party recognise that that makes closer military co-operation among European nations necessary for Britain's defence and Europe's security.
There are provisions in the Queen's Speech which we shall support, including measures to provide greater competition in the gas industry and a Bill to protect the rights of disabled people, provided that it is effective and not, as we fear, a fob-off. The sadness of the programme is not what is in it, but what could have been in it.
We could have had a commitment to an independent Bank of England; nothing would do more to assure the markets that the Chancellor does not intend to risk the economy next year for Conservative tax bribes before the next election. We could have had legislation on the late payment of bills, for small businesses. We could have had a commitment that the Government will put their money where their mouth is, and begin to invest now in the education and skills which are lacking and which are holding back British industry. However, education was not even mentioned in the Gracious Speech.
We could have had a commitment that followed the Prime Minister's own words and made certain that we provided the resources necessary to give early learning opportunities to every three and four-year-old, but there was nothing on that. We could have a commitment to reform the discredited Child Support Agency legislation or a commitment to an energy conservation Bill to begin to build a clean economy in this country and to shift resources away from road building towards investment in our railway infrastructure. We could have had a commitment to build the integrated information super-highway which this country so badly needs.
We could have had a commitment to create a framework for a broader public-private partnership, now that the death of Post Office privatisation has marked the end of ideologically driven privatisations. We could have had a commitment to reform our antiquated constitution, to decentralise power and to open up the system. The Government could have provided for a Bill of Rights, and made sure that there were Parliaments in Scotland and Wales so that real trust could be rebuilt between politics and the people of this country. But we have had none of those.
This is probably the halfway point of this Parliament, but, judging by their timid programme, it is the beginning of the end of the road for the Government. We have seen in this Queen's Speech the last splutterings of an ideology that has run out of ideas, energy and steam. When Governments lose their nerve, they lose their purpose. The next thing that happens is that they lose office.
41 The programme illustrates clearly that this Administration are not the master of events but are at the mercy of them. They are led by a Prime Minister to whom things happen, rather than by one who makes things happen. He is a weak Prime Minister, who cannot command a wilful Cabinet or reunite a divided party. The Government have lost both the trust of the nation and confidence in themselves. They cannot go too soon.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)
Before my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister leaves, may I congratulate him warmly on his speech and on the way in which he pointed out the successes of the economy over which he has personally presided for so many years? I am delighted to be able to congratulate him on those and other matters to which I shall refer later.
Thirty years ago this month, I made my maiden speech in the House. The Labour Government of 1964 had just been elected, and there was talk of national plans. Ministers patrolled what they deemed to be the commanding heights of the economy and there was a belief that somehow a new socialist crusade had started. Having listened to the speech by the Leader of the Opposition this afternoon, I can see that all the crusading zeal of the Labour party has now totally evaporated.
Not only is it not concerned with the commanding heights, but the Labour party does not even want to rediscover them, and certainly does not want to reoccupy them. The Leader of the Opposition is, I have no doubt, a charming and articulate person, and one could be forgiven for believing that he came from an eccentric wing of the young Conservative movement. But he is certainly not the sort of socialist who I confronted here 30 years ago when that Government were elected. The Labour party go on repeating the old mantra of criticism, but it clearly has nothing to put in place of what was in the excellent speech today.
I was delighted by many of the proposals. The Prime Minister has been praised for it already, but he should be praised again for his initiative in Northern Ireland. This time last year, many were saying that he had embarked upon the impossible, that he had taken on a poisoned chalice and that he could never make it succeed. We have come a long way since then and, regardless of whether the policies outlined in the Gracious Speech regarding Northern Ireland come to fruition, the fact is that the argument has been moved to a totally different place. There is no question of going back to where we were before.
I was delighted also to see the proposal for legislation dealing with discrimination against the disabled. As a trustee of Flying for the Disabled—the aviation group for tetraplegics and paraplegics—I know how keen disabled people are to play a very real and full part in ordinary communities, and to be able to enjoy as near as possible the facilities which everybody else takes for granted. I regard that as an important milestone, and those who have complained about what has happened in the past should realise that we were then talking about a private Member's Bill. We are now dealing with Government legislation, and that is extremely welcome.
I also welcome the section dealing with the delivery and strengthening of environmental policies. I represent an area which is perhaps as environmentally sensitive as any. Although the Government were good enough to give 42 us national park status on planning matters just before the recess, my area is surrounded by sites of special scientific interest which do not always enjoy the protection that that title might imply. I very much hope that legislation will strengthen SSSIs in this country.
Finally, I come to points on which I should like to dwell for a moment. Like everyone on this side of the House and—I would guess—in the country at large, I wish the Government to continue their firm financial policies. We have seen booms disappear into inflation in the past, but this time we appear to be on course for something very different; sustained growth with low inflation. That is a prize which I have not seen any Government achieve for any length of time in the 30 years which I have been in this place. That prize is certainly worth the effort which it inevitably will require.
The juxtaposition of that section in the Gracious Speech and the preceding paragraph jars somewhat. I listened with care to what the Prime Minister said about the Bill dealing with the European budget that is likely to be put before us. I recognise that the agreement at Edinburgh had, more or less, the support of the whole House. But we were not as aware then as we are now of the level of extravagance, fraud and waste inside the Community. We should not merely rely on discussions among ourselves in this Chamber or elsewhere in Parliament, or allow those discussions to detract from the fact that the ordinary people of this country find it impossible to understand how we can contemplate spending more money on Europe, given the amount of waste that seems to take place.
The Audit Commission's report on fraud does not merely identify individual accounting errors or a slip of the pen in some small office. It identifies institutionalised fraud, which means that British Steel must compete against nations that still subsidise their steel industries. Until that fraud is stopped, we will never persuade the ordinary people of this country to become Euro-enthusiasts.
§ Mr. Wolfson
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely essential for the Community to develop teeth by imposing substantial fines on the countries and people responsible for perpetrating such fraud? I could not agree more with his view that the ordinary people of Britain will not buy the concept unless that is done.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
I agree. My hon. Friend is correct. I go further and draw his attention to page 2 of the Gracious Speech, which tells us that the Government "will promote budgetary discipline in the Union and combat fraud." Would it not be better if we could have a taste of that before we commit ourselves to paying even more money to that organisation?
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
As one who believes in the "Europe des Patries" that President de Gaulle promoted so well when he was alive, I would never have got to that point in the first place.
The sort of Euro-lunacy that worries my constituents is exemplified by the reports that appeared in most newspapers today—the story that British acorns are no 43 longer any good. The British oak tree provided the ships in Nelson's navy—many were built at Bucklers Hard in my constituency. The New Forest has just had almost the biggest acorn crop on record, but we are now told that the acorns are no good and that we must import them from eastern Europe. That is absolute lunacy and it must be fought beak and claw. Hopefully, we shall do so under the section of the Gracious Speech that deals with promoting the principle of subsidiarity. The pigs are having a wonderful time in the forest and the bumper acorn crop means that the pannage season has never been better. No one in my constituency can understand why we are being told that there is something wrong and that we must import acorns from eastern Europe.
§ Mr. Enright
I know nought of pigs and acorns and will leave that specialty to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that national Governments and institutions were supposed to detect fraud? I totally agree that they have failed lamentably. Therefore, it behoves us to create a fairer system to dig out fraud. Surely that must be done, as the Prime Minister suggested, by appointing more people to the Court of Auditors who can get a grip on fraud and eliminate it. Perhaps they could also eliminate the common agricultural policy, which would get rid of fraud at one stroke.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
I agree. I am concerned about the fact that fraud is institutionalised and not accidental. As hon. Members may know, I have a home in France. I have a good relationship with my neighbours. I do not know how French people think, but I know of my neighbours' concerns about the European Community and they are almost the same as mine. No one will persuade a French wine producer to cut back on production. No one in the French Government would try to do so, for all sorts of good political reasons.
The situation cannot be controlled by a group of detectives looking for fraud. We know where it is. We know about the 19 billion bottles of wine that no one wants and the steel subsidies that the managing director and chief executives of British Steel mentioned the other day. We know that those things are happening. I do not want pious words from the Government or anyone else. I want real action. Let us tell those organisations, "Change your ways. If you don't, you won't get our money." It has to be as simple as that.
Ultimately, we must be prepared to withhold our funds until the problem is sorted out. Otherwise, I am convinced that it will continue and that, as we widen the Community by bringing in new eastern European countries, it will increase. I am concerned about the proposals for widening the Community because, sadly, they may well mean bringing in countries that will dump their agricultural produce on this and the other developed countries of Europe. That would ruin farmers here, in France and elsewhere. We must be careful.
As the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) said, we want teeth. If there is fraud and malpractice, they must be matched by a national Government refusing to keep upping the ante to pay for it. If we do not do so we will create the greediest monster that the world has seen. It will dwarf anything that the Marshall aid people produced for Europe after the war.
44 The facts are simple. The Prime Minister is reported to have said that he is the greatest Euro-sceptic of them all. There is nothing wrong with being sceptical about Europe. Nine tenths of our population are sceptical and so are at least 50 per cent. of the Swedish people, as was proved the other day. Euro-scepticism is common sense.
We must back up the provisions in the Gracious Speech and ensure that they are not merely a form of words to keep us quiet, but result in real action to stop the hole in the boat that will ultimately sink our economy as well as everyone else's.
Otherwise, the Gracious Speech has much to commend it and I hope that it will receive a speedy passage.
§ Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest (Sir P. McNair-Wilson). My experience of the House goes back as far as his. We probably both entered at the same time. Since then, my experience of political developments has been a little different from his, but I think that we would both agree that the Bill to increase the United Kingdom's contribution to the European Union is the most controversial in the Gracious Speech. On principle alone, it is difficult to justify any increase in our contributions while the scandal of frauds that run into so many billions of pounds continues. In such circumstances, it is sheer impertinence to ask for additional contributions. I also agree with the remarks that the hon. Member for New Forest made about the steel industry.
Much interest will centre on an important omission from the Gracious Speech—the vainglorious attempt by the President of the Board of Trade to privatise the Post Office. Those 20 or so Tory Members who said that, in all conscience, they could not support such a measure deserve the grateful thanks of the nation.
That incident also shows what a lame duck Administration this Conservative Government have now become. There was every indication that people of all political persuasions throughout the country opposed privatisation of the Post Office. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out this afternoon, commercial freedom is one thing, but the Post Office has served the nation well for many years and it should be left in the public sector.
It would not be unfair to say that the country is becoming heartily sick with the word "privatisation". That applies particularly to people employed in Government establishments. They are constantly threatened with such a proposal, which is bound to affect morale. Those who work in numerous establishments in south Wales are being made to feel uneasy, as I know from personal experience. The Patent Office in Newport should, for commercial reasons alone, be left in the public sector, but it is not mentioned in the Queen's Speech and is therefore left in limbo. A clear and categorical statement should have been made that it was to be left in the public sector.
The proposals to privatise the Crown Agents and the commercial activities of the Atomic Energy Authority are part of the same pattern. There have been rumblings of discontent, too, about the future of the Passport Office, Companies House and the Business Statistics Office. The 45 gas industry, which is no longer in the public sector, was brought out of the Victorian era and, while in public ownership, developed into a highly successful enterprise.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans
The hon. Gentleman has said many things. Does he agree that, had his party won the 1979 election, it would not have gone down the route of privatisation, as this Government have successfully done, including privatising companies such as British Telecom? Had his party won that election, the telecom industry, for instance, would have been allowed to trundle on in its own sweet way, becoming ever more inefficient, expensive and uncompetitive with telecom companies abroad.
§ Mr. Hughes
I find it difficult to understand what British Telecom has to do with British Gas, to which I referred.
As I was saying, even a privatised British Gas cannot be left alone and a fresh attack is made on the industry in the Queen's Speech. It is as though the Government have a manufacturing competition in the gas industry. We know, however, that ultimately the consumer will pay, especially less fortunate members of the community.
This Parliament is well into its third year and it is time for the Government to realise that dogma must be put to one side. That is also the view of the former Conservative Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who is quoted in Monday's Western Mail as saying that ordinary people had "had enough" of sell-offs. How right he is. By contrast with his remarks, the Secretary of State for Wales declared:It's certainly not the end of privatisation.He said that the Government would continue to sell off publicly owned industries. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is the Secretary of State for Wales, but I can say without fear of contradiction that he is completely unrepresentative of the people of Wales. The Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility for his appointment and for allowing him to run riot in Wales.
In recent weeks, there has been a good deal of interest in the report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Protection. I was surprised that it was not directly mentioned in the Gracious Speech. I welcome the proposal, however, to establish environment agencies in England and Wales and in Scotland. During the long recess, I had the privilege of visiting the United States with the transport group of the House. We had a long session with the director of the American environment agency, which seemed to be doing useful work in monitoring various activities that adversely affect the environment. It involves a bureaucracy of several thousand people, however, so I suppose that one could say, "Governments beware".
I wonder why the Government are being coy about the Royal Commission. The jackpot question which any Government must face, whether they be the present Administration or—I hope before too long—an incoming Labour Government, is, what will the proposals cost? The cost implications may be Government's reason for shying away from the matter and not mentioning it in the Gracious Speech. I applaud the Royal Commission's 46 principle that the money saved from cutting back on road building should be spent on public transport. I agree that massive investment is now required in public transport. The worst nightmare would be if the money saved from cuts in road building were not spent on public transport. The Treasury would then laugh all the way to the bank.
The class issue must also be addressed because all manner of proposals have been made to place much heavier taxation on motorists. In economic jargon, we must consider the "elasticity of demand", for the poorest sections of the community would be taken off the road. Top executives would still cruise along in their Jags and Mercs, yet ordinary people who use their cars to go to work, busy housewives who use their cars for shopping purposes, and people in rural communities where public transport is often almost non-existent will be hardest hit. Surely the disabled should be a major consideration. We should all remember that private transport was once the prerogative of the rich.
During the past decade, south Wales has suffered many thousands of redundancies. A friend who is a second-hand car dealer in Newport told me about the length to which ordinary people would go to keep their cars on the road having been made redundant or having suffered some other misfortune. Individuals value the car for the independence and mobility that it gives.
On the issue of jobs in Wales—charity begins at home— the automobile industry is now the largest manufacturing sector in Wales. On 22 July, a perceptive article by Robin Roberts appeared in the Western Mail. He pointed out that Wales had emerged as a major player in the automobile industry. That is self-evident when we think of Ford engines in Bridgend, Bosch in the Vale of Glamorgan, Lucas Girling in Cwmbran. Many other firms may be less eye-catching, but are nevertheless important to the local economy. In what predicament would our steel industry be without the automobile industry?
Likewise, as Professor Garel Rhys of the Cardiff business school recently pointed out, wages in the automotive sector are greater than the Welsh manufacturing average. Those arguments illustrate that Wales has derived substantial economic benefit from that sector of industry.
To return to my recent American visit, the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, and I was vividly reminded, out there, of the fact that that prosperity is essentially based on the automobile.
I believe in an integrated transport system, which has long been the policy of the Labour party. I have tried to draw attention to the snags and difficulties that will be encountered in trying to implement such a policy. My mind goes back to the mammoth Transport Act 1968, steered through Parliament by Barbara—now Lady—Castle, at the height of her powers. In the event, that major Act did little to change transport policy in this country.
The proposals in the Gracious Speech are irrelevant to the problems confronting Britain. A few months ago, the Prime Minister talked avidly about getting "back to basics". As I understand it, there was no reference in the Gracious Speech to that issue. It has been ditched, like so many other things. Nevertheless, there is something in those words that I appreciate, although the Prime Minister's basics might be a little different from my own.
47 I was brought up in the mining valleys of south Wales, where there was a moral foundation in family values. People worked hard and were law-abiding, and I feel that we need to return to similar values. People should be able to leave their homes without fear of being attacked, or of their homes being burgled while they are away.
That the devil finds work for idle hands is as true as ever it was. We need jobs for our people, especially the youngsters who have no stake in society. They should be helping to create the wealth of the nation, not being increasingly sucked into the dependency culture.
Millions of people throughout the country are calling for a sound education for their children, better training and more apprenticeships. They are also crying out for an efficient national health service to cater for all. They want decent homes to live in and an adequate pension when they retire.
In wealthy Britain, as we approach the turn of the century, those objectives should be well within our reach. They form the core of my basics, and I feel sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition shares many of those values and beliefs. I feel sure that he will lead us to victory at the next general election, to bring to power that long overdue Labour Government.
§ Sir David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes); I agreed with him especially when he emphasised the importance of the motor industry. He will know what it means to my constituency and to Bedfordshire. Given that we have completely lost truck production in Dunstable, it is critical that Vauxhall Cars and ACD Components, to name but two local firms, do well. I could not agree more with what he said about how vital that is to our economic future.
I welcome in the Gracious Speech the references to the progress that has been made in Ireland, the widening of the European Union and our commitment to close co-operation with our partners. I naturally hope that Norway will follow Sweden and vote itself into the European Union when it has its referendum.
I think that the Gracious Speech shows that less legislation will be passed, which will be of a better quality. I hope that, by having fewer Bills, we will achieve the aim of better legislation. I am delighted that there is no education Bill. We have had 13 in 15 years, and I hope that we have laid the foundations for educational stability. However, given that stability, which I think is welcome throughout the teaching and education profession, boycotts of tests must end now, so that all the trade unions in the teaching profession co-operate in those vital tests.
I also welcome the fact that there is no trade union Bill. We have had plenty of trade union legislation. However, the Government need to keep an eye on one thing, given the legislation that we have passed. When an industrial dispute has occurred and remains unresolved, and a noticeably improved wage and salary offer is made to the work force, there should be a ballot on the fresh offer, and industrial action should be suspended while that ballot takes place. I believe that the long signalmen's dispute in 48 the summer could have been brought to an end earlier if there had been a ballot when the employers made a fresh offer.
If the Royal Mail is to be reconsidered—I think that it will have to be because of the business changing; the Royal Mail is, after all, confronted by international competition—it is up to management to persuade the work force that changes are needed, and it is essential that there is a joint management/work force approach to the Government on the need for new legislation.
It is not our job, as politicians, to persuade the work force of the benefits of the proposals—that is the management's job. However, I have no hesitation in saying that, if the work force can be persuaded that a change is good for them, their families and the business, public opposition and anxiety about the Royal Mail will vanish rapidly.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)
I have followed my hon. Friend's remarks with great interest. I agree very much with the thrust of what he has just said, but surely one takes into account not only the work force but the customer.
§ Sir David Madel
I agree, but one of the problems for the Government was that it was obvious that the work force did not support the idea, and there was no management/work force agreement. Everyone in the Royal Mail should be thinking about ways to take the business forward. Taking the business forward successfully includes the customer, but the work force are a vital part.
One sentence that is always included in the Gracious Speech is:Other measures will be laid before you.We can all draw up a batting order as to what we like. I have no hesitation in saying that we must have changes in the Child Support Agency.
The Social Security Select Committee report into the workings of the Child Support Agency was extremely thorough and helpful. The Government could act on two recommendations quickly. In paragraph 51, the report says:As part of any review of the retrospective nature of the Act, we suggest the Government takes into account past property and capital settlements.In other words, the problem of clean breaks is being considered.
In paragraph 65, the Committee says:We recommend that travel to work costs are included in the calculation of exempt income.You can say that again in a constituency such as mine, where some people have to travel out of Bedfordshire to seek work.
I believe that the Budget will be the centrepiece of this year's legislative programme.
The Budget that will come in a fortnight includes not only taxation but what we might expect in the way of Government expenditure. There is currently a good deal of loose talk about slashing the roads programme and switching to public transport, but I ask the Government to remember that some bypasses are environmentally essential.
I am backed in that regard by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. In my view, it is a priority to give Dunstable its bypass, rather than merrily starting 49 to widen the M1 between Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire. Loose talk about cutting the roads programme does nothing for the environment, or for villages and towns such as Dunstable that are clogged with vehicles. It undermines the debate we need to have about how we will improve the road infrastructure.
A local matter is causing enormous concern in my constituency: the Local Government Commission, and the point that it has reached. In Bedfordshire, the commission originally recommended a north-south split, but then said that it wanted a three-way split—in other words, a complete change. Inevitably, that has prompted an intense further debate.
The commission's first mistake was not to present the status quo as an option in its first report. Although the report contained a chapter on the status quo, it did not state that that was an option. The commission also made some administrative mistakes. It sent leaflets about local government reform concerning Buckinghamshire to my constituency in Bedfordshire: hon. Members can imagine what that did for local morale.
In a speech on 27 February 1993, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:In the 1990s I want to agree a new pattern—one that lasts, in its turn, well into the next century to come.There is therefore no need to rush into what should be done about Bedfordshire. First, the Audit Commission must be sent back into the county to examine the cost implications of change. Bedfordshire county council says that the three-way split will cost £36 million extra over 10 years; South and Mid-Bedfordshire district councils say that they could save £5 million a year. We must have impartial, accurate financial advice and guidance on the true costs.
The county council and the district councils are at loggerheads on the matter. In the county, however, opinion is solidifying, favouring either a three-way split or the status quo. The north-south split, the commission's original recommendation, seems to have gone out for good. But there are now bitter disputes and complaints about opinion research polls, market research and what people really want. None of that is doing local government in Bedfordshire any good.
§ Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if there is no consensus about what should happen in Bedfordshire, it would be very dangerous to go ahead with reform? Reform that has not been made with consensus never works in the long run.
§ Sir David Madel
The hon. Gentleman's intervention was a bit premature: I shall be dealing with that shortly.
We do not need, and should not have, shadow elections next May; we should have normal local government elections. In May, nearly all Bedfordshire will vote in local elections. Moreover, the county and district authorities will note from sections 137 and 141 of the Local Government Act 1972 that they have the power to hold an advisory plebiscite. It would therefore be possible next May, on the day when nearly everyone in Bedfordshire will vote, also to ask whether those people want a three-way split or the status quo. Of course, arrangements would have to be made for the few villages that are not voting to be able to answer that question.
50 Because the advisory plebiscite would take place on the same day as the local elections, additional costs would be small. Schools and village halls would already be open for voting purposes. If a plebiscite takes place, the county and district councils must immediately stop spending council tax payers' money on putting out propaganda. The local press and local radio are perfectly capable of conducting in-depth interviews enabling various people to put their views across, and it would be entirely possible to include explanatory leaflets about the two options with council tax bills when they go out in late March and early April, thus keeping costs to a minimum.
There are precedents. As the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) probably knows, the borough of Tower Hamlets has conducted an advisory consultative postal plebiscite ballot on whether the people in the borough wanted a high, low or medium spending budget. In May 1979, people in various parts of the country had two votes, one in the general election and one in the council elections. There is nothing new about being asked two questions on voting day; parish and local elections often coincide.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, kindly answered my Adjournment debate on local government in Bedfordshire on 18 October, before the commission's final recommendations. He said:We want structures to be based on local consensus, and that can be achieved only if all those involved have taken part in shaping their local government for the future." —[Official Report, 18 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 256.]I stress the words "all those involved". That points to using the 1972 Act to conduct an advisory plebiscite. The three-way split remains my preferred option, but, in an attempt to end our difficulties in Bedfordshire, I advance my proposal in good faith. I hope that it will be met with good will.
§ Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)
I agree with the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel) about the Child Support Agency. I am on record as saying that all parents—fathers and mothers—should support their children if they can do so, and that there should be legislation to ensure that they do. I do not think that the CSA is finding the parents who are not carrying out their responsibilities, however; I think that it is taking the easy option, and finding the parents who are easily traceable.
I have described one case to the Minister. It involves a mother whose husband was given custody of the children when the marriage broke down, because of family circumstances. The father is unemployed and the mother is working. It turns out, however, that the children are in the mother's home nearly every evening, where she feeds them. At night, she sends them home to their father, because the school is near where he lives and she starts work early. Every weekend she looks after the children, and she takes them on holiday.
Because the CSA has a certain way of calculating, no consideration is given to that mother. No one would dispute that she is fully meeting her responsibilities to her children, but she is being expected to hand over a large part of her earnings to her ex-husband.
51 That is unfair, and I hope that the Minister will take on board the complaints being made about the CSA. In many instances, its methods are hitting people who are trying to bring up their children in difficult circumstances and to get on with their lives; it is unfortunate that their homes have been broken up, but the Government's methods of calculation do not help.
There is no one to whom the parents can go. There are no officials with whom to talk over their problem. Officials send out circulars saying that a parent must pay a certain amount and if they can do that, there is no reason why, in a caring society, those parents cannot discuss the matter with those officials face to face, so that they can obtain advice and be listened to.
I am disappointed that more has not been done about employment. I come from a community with a long tradition of railway engineering. Great emphasis has been placed on the technology required to create the channel tunnel link between here and Europe. That technology and the necessary training and skills are built up over generations. We had generations of skilled people in Springburn. We had a railway workshop that employed 3,000 people, but it now employs about 300.
Those left do not want to know about redundancy payments, but want to get on with serving the railway industry and doing a good and decent job. They are still worried, because there is talk of cutting the existing work force by more than a third. I am going with my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) and for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) to visit that factory on Friday to see what we can do.
If the Government can exert any influence over British Rail Engineering Maintenance, I hope that they will do so. The Government argue that there will be an upturn in the economy, but it would be terrible if that upturn took place and we did not have the skilled labour to cope with it. Work forces and factories may have to turn away orders, which would then go to Europe. That will happen if we have any more redundancies in the railway workshops.
The Government should look at the so-called employment agencies that have been set up. They have been set up with good intentions, but there is not enough scrutiny of them. There is one in my constituency that is in difficulties. The Prime Minister mentioned scrutiny of spending in Europe. There is no point in having that scrutiny when hundreds of thousands of pounds is being put into some of these employment agencies without any scrutiny. Those agencies are supposed to create work.
I can highlight my point by referring to a company known as Glasgow North Ltd. It was set up with money left as a legacy for the people of Springburn by the railway industry. When there were huge cuts in the railway industry, it left about £500,000 for the community as a pump primer. Glasgow district council, Strathclyde regional council and the Glasgow Development Agency have put money into the organisation, which is being run by well-meaning and reputable people, but there has not been enough scrutiny.
The chief executive has been suspended. I do not want to say anything about him now, because he is entitled to his say. I do not want to use the Chamber as a way of getting at him. That is not what I am about. However, a 52 deficit of £300,000 has been discovered in that organisation, and one does not need to be a mathematician to work out that most of the legacy left by British Rail when it pulled out of Springburn has been used up. If it was not for the legacy, the company would be bankrupt.
In the past, I have told Ministers that it is no good simply saying that they are bringing employment to an area because they are setting up these organisations that will look after things. Some of the officials in these organisations have had no experience in the business world. They cannot be left to handle big budgets.
My community has been let down. In some pockets of my constituency, adult unemployment is as high as 50 per cent. The organisation is supposed to be creating jobs, but instead we have lost £300,000. I hope that there will be a thorough investigation of the company, because it is not the only company in Glasgow or in the United Kingdom. I hope that there will be more monitoring and more public accountability.
Ministers talk about local government, and say that it should be more open. They must set the same standards for the employment agencies, so that elected representatives or any member of the public can scrutinise what is going on.
The Gracious Speech mentions health, and specifically the disabled. I make a plea for consideration to be given to the carers in our society. A few weeks ago, I lost someone very close to me. The carer in that case was 80 years old. She wanted to look after her husband to whom she had been married for 61 years. They brought up their family together. When the war began, her husband, who was exempt because of his job, decided to go and serve his country. He never had a day's idleness. He carried out hard and heavy work from the age of 14.
Her husband's illness meant that he needed constant care, but his wife was treated despicably. She was lucky if she got four hours' sleep a night, and if she asked for help from social services, it was given grudgingly. Sometimes it took social workers four or five months to come and see her, and when they did come they did not let her know that she was entitled to certain allowances.
I know that everyone can say that carers receive disability allowance, carers allowance and so on. However, we must remember that, when a loved one becomes ill, people cannot always obtain the necessary forms from the post office, because they are too busy looking after their loved one. Doctors, social workers and those coming into contact with carers should be more interested in finding out how they are coping.
The lady of whom I am talking thought that she was going to be visited by a social worker. In fact, it was someone from the social work department doing a survey about how her husband had contracted his disabling illness. The survey lasted one and a half hours. An old woman who was not getting much rest had to sit and listen to someone from the social work department asking probing questions, which obviously must have been hurtful to her. We are not doing well by carers in our society, some of whom are in their 80s and who sometimes have illnesses themselves that they overlook to care for their loved ones.
The Government keep telling hon. Members, when we ask parliamentary questions, that they have not cut health services, yet when one considers the position at the pit face, as it were, we find that cuts are being made.
53 Glasgow royal infirmary is the main hospital serving my constituency. Bypass operations have been cut by 100 at that hospital.
After this speech, Ministers will probably write to me to say that, overall, another 100 such operations have taken place in another part of Glasgow. Anyone who knows anything about the hospital system, however, knows that general practitioners refer patients to a consultant at their local hospital. The patient is then put on the waiting list for heart surgery at that hospital. He does not join the waiting list for any hospital in Glasgow. If bypass operations have been cut by 100 at the local hospital, patients in its area must wait all the longer for their operations.
The worrying feature is that, if a patient waits too long for heart surgery, he or she can become inoperable. Sometimes, patients are no longer there to operate on. I hope that the Government will take that on board and that their answer will not be that numbers have risen. If we play the numbers game, we sometimes play with people's lives.
I worry about the housing sector. To my knowledge, nothing was said in the Gracious Speech about housing. The Government and even the Prime Minister attack the Labour party on the question of dogma. It is a known fact that the Government have a hang-up about local authority housing. They are obsessed with the fact that local authorities in Glasgow have houses to look after.
I am the first to accept that some of that housing is not fit for human habitation, but some of it is excellent. The answer is not to starve local authorities of the finance they need to repair housing and to carry out improvements that are needed to give people decent, quality housing, but that is what is happening.
The agency Scottish Homes is an excellent, first-class landlord. It started off as the Scottish Special Housing Association. Its aim was to help smaller local authorities that did not have a big maintenance and building team to build houses for people on the waiting list. It became a landlord, and now the Government want to unload its housing stock on to the private or voluntary sector.
I have no objection to housing going to a local housing association that has a track record. Scottish Homes, as the agent of the Government, is seeking to give the impression that that is being done democratically, but it is not. If it does not want tenants to remain with Scottish Homes, why does it not put a question on the ballot paper asking tenants whether they want their housing to go to the local authority? That would be democratic.
In a desperate attempt to unload its property, Scottish Homes is encouraging some of its management to set up housing associations, which it should not be doing. The worrying feature is that some of those housing associations have no track record in being landlords and in maintaining and looking after property. My deep concern is that Scottish Homes will cajole people and say that they have to opt for housing associations with no track record.
Those housing associations may have to go to the banks to borrow large amounts of private finance. After five or six years, when Scottish Homes and the Government pull away safety nets, the sort of financial difficulties that I explained in relation to Glasgow North Ltd. involving bad management may arise. Tenants in excellent housing all over Glasgow may have to run around looking for a 54 landlord to take them on. That is dangerous. I hope that the Minister conveys my deep concern to his hon. Friends in the Scottish Office.
§ Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)
I commend my hon. Friend for raising that important point, which has not had nearly enough attention. Does he agree that Scottish Homes' tenants, of whom there are many hundreds in my constituency, have not been given a democratic choice but only one take-it-or-leave-it option? In addition, they face the prospect of Scottish Homes management telling them that the one advantage of transferring to a new housing agency is that money will be available to such an agency, but will never be available to local authorities. Why should that be the case?
§ Mr. Martin
That is my point. If moneys go to agencies with no track record, why should they not go to local authorities? If the Minister could show good cause and prove that some local authorities are irresponsible, I would be the first to say that they did not deserve support, but any hon. Member who knows the Scottish scene will know that no local authority in Scotland could be considered irresponsible and incapable of handling housing finances.
I know other hon. Members want to speak. I am grateful that I was able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
§ Sir David Knox (Staffordshire, Moorlands)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) who, but for the conventions of the House, I should refer to as my hon. Friend. I share the concern that he expressed about unemployment and I am conscious of the problems in his Glasgow constituency and in Glasgow generally. Unemployment has always seemed an awful economic waste, apart from its appalling social consequences.
Fortunately, the position in my constituency is much better than in Glasgow or in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Staffordshire, Moorlands has the lowest rate of unemployment in the west midlands and one of the lowest in the country. None the less, unemployment is too high in my constituency and I am glad that it is falling at quite a fast rate.
It is more than two and a half years since the last general election and we are into the second half of the present Parliament. We have just completed the second of two fairly heavy parliamentary Sessions, during which a great deal of legislation has reached the statute book. There have been some claims, in the press and elsewhere, that the Government have lost their purpose, because the legislative programme for the coming Session is not as heavy as those of the past two Sessions.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In the real world, away from the chattering classes, where people do things rather than talk about them, the public are fed up with the avalanche of legislation—often ill-considered—that has descended on them year after year and that has diverted their attention from constructive activity and from their real work. Those people are looking to the Government for a period of legislative calm and consolidation, during which the radical reforms and changes of recent years can be given a chance to settle down and made to work more efficiently and more 55 effectively. That is true not only in parts of the public sector such as the health service and education, but throughout the private sector. Continual revolution is not a recipe for good government or for national success. Whatever the media may think, the country is calling for a period of quiet, steady administration.
That is not to say that there should be no legislation in the coming Session. I welcome many of the measures in the Gracious Speech. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel), I regret the fact that much-needed legislation to reform the Child Support Act 1991 has not been included—I hope that I can add the words, "at this stage", because I very much hope to see such legislation later in the Session.
I warmly welcome the proposed Bill on pensions. An increasing number of people retiring today look forward to receiving occupational pensions. It is important that they should enjoy the security of knowing that their pension rights are adequately protected against the activities of people like the late Robert Maxwell. We must ensure that the Bill provides that security. As it passes through Parliament, perhaps we can keep in mind the lesson of the Child Support Agency, because when the Child Support Act went through the House, no one realised that it would have the consequences that it has in fact had.
I also welcome the proposed legislation on the gas industry. I believe that, in general, British Gas is a highly efficient company and that that has been due to the high quality of its management— I think of people such as Sir Denis Rooke, who have held prominent positions in that industry— but continuing good management cannot be assured. If the industry is to be efficient in the future, as it has been in the past, it requires the spur of competition, and I hope that that will be the result of the proposed Bill.
The Bill dealing with discrimination against disabled people is also very welcome and will, I hope, enable hon. Members to put behind them the controversies of the past Session. Discrimination of any kind is deplorable and unacceptable. The House has a duty to reduce it wherever possible. I have always believed that the law has a part to play in the battle against discrimination, although I do not subscribe to the view that legislation alone will eliminate it. I am not, therefore, expecting utopia for disabled people to result from the Bill, but I hope that it will ease their lot and help to improve their quality of life.
I welcome also the European Communities (Finance) Bill, which implements decisions reached at the Edinburgh summit in December 1992. Although it will involve a small increase in Britain's net contribution to the European Union, the contributions from other countries will grow more quickly, thus reducing the proportion of our contributions to European Union funds. The Bill, therefore, is in the interests of Britain. It is also in the interests of the European Union, as it will facilitate future development as the Community widens and deepens.
It will be interesting to observe how the official Opposition react to the passage of the Bill. They claim to be strongly committed to the European Union. The Bill will be a test of that commitment and of the new style of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the Leader of the Opposition. If they oppose the Bill, or indulge in silly parliamentary ploys to delay its passage 56 through the House, the country will know that so-called "new Labour" is just the same old soiled and tainted Labour that we have always known. I am bound to say, given remarks that the right hon. Gentleman made this afternoon, that I feel that it will be the same old soiled and tainted Labour that we have always known.
More generally, I welcome the positive references in the Gracious Speech to the European Union. British membership of the European Union is the most important issue that has faced the country since the end of the 1939–45 war. It is one that we have not handled well. Twice this century, Europe has been torn apart by awful and dreadful wars. Between 1914 and 1918, and again between 1939 and 1945, the cream of the youth of Europe was slaughtered and immeasurable material damage was done with the destruction of industry and property throughout the continent. Both those wars could have been avoided if Europe had been united.
After the second world war, the other countries looked to Britain to take a lead in uniting Europe, but we failed to do so. Eventually, they went ahead on their own and the European Economic Community was formed in 1957. We kept aloof, but by 1960 we realised that our failure to join had been a dreadful mistake. It then took us 13 years before we were eventually admitted in 1973—a 13-year exclusion that cost the country dearly.
Since we joined, we have not been good members. Too often, we have whined about how badly we are treated in the Community. Some people refer to the other Community countries as though they should be dependent territories. Some—a small minority, admittedly—speak about the other member countries as though they were enemies. Others—a rather larger group—try to blame the Community for all our shortcomings. Every piece of European legislation is distorted and twisted and held up as an object of ridicule, no matter how beneficial it may be. Some people—I am afraid that this has included Ministers on occasions—blame Brussels bureaucrats for decisions to which British Ministers, answerable to the House, have been party. Abuse of members of the Commission is stock in trade for vulgar populists.
Such constant sniping does the country great damage: it undermines our authority and reduces our influence in the Community and it diminishes our influence in the world at large. Far from advancing British interests, that behaviour has done great harm. In many cases, it is done, so we are told, in the name of patriotism, but the sooner everyone realises that British membership of the European Union is the highest form of patriotism, the better it will be for us. Outside the European Community, we would merely be Europe's offshore island—a relatively impoverished island with little influence over our own destiny and none at all in the world at large.
More than 30 years ago, Harold Macmillan said that if we remained outside the Community, the realities of power would compel our American friends and others to attach increasing weight to the European Economic Community and to pay less attention to us. Earlier this year, the out-going American ambassador, Raymond Seitz, a very good friend of this country, emphasised, in a valedictory speech to the Pilgrims, that the influence in America of any member state of the European Union depended on the degree to which that country was effectively engaged in the European Union.
57 The possibility that Harold Macmillan foresaw so clearly in the early 1960s is now reality. That shows clearly that the patriotic line in Britain today is full-hearted support for membership of the European Union. It is in Britain's interests to be at the heart of Europe and it is against Britain's interests to be outside the European Union or to be a semi-detached, uncommitted member.
One of the great successes of the European Community in recent years has been the Single European Act, which has freed the flow of trade in goods and services within the Community. We must now build on that, and the next step is a single currency. It is both desirable and inevitable. There is no single market in the world without a single currency. If we had one it would further free the movement of people, goods and services, and eliminate the costs of exchanging currencies.
More than that, a single currency would ensure the continuation of the single market. If there is more than one currency in a single market, those who manage the currencies will begin to cheat and play one currency off against another to try to gain benefits for themselves. Protection would inevitably follow, and when that happened the single market would be dead. Therefore, I hope that, as the European Union moves towards a positive decision on a single currency—as I believe that it will sooner rather than later—the Government will adopt a positive attitude towards the issue.
My worry is that this country will opt out of the single currency at the beginning, but that within a comparatively short period we shall find that that decision has been damaging to Britain. We shall then have to join an arrangement and accept conditions that we have played no part in drawing up, and that consequently do not take into consideration special British interests and circumstances peculiar to Britain.
Once again, in the interests of an illusory sovereignty we shall have given up the chance to influence the framework in which our country operates. In my view, that would not be very wise.
§ 6.1 pm
§ Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)
I should have liked to hear in the Queen's Speech proposals to make more accountable the health service, especially trusts, which are basically local hospitals serving local populations. In April two trusts were formed in Stockport—the health care trust, which is responsible for community services, and the acute services trust, which is responsible for hospital services.
Since then, several local issues have arisen that demonstrate the serious problems caused by the trusts' lack of accountability locally and by the way in which they are operated. The trusts are run by boards consisting of executive and non-executive directors, all appointed by the region. The model is from the private sector.
Meetings are not open to the public. When I asked why not, I was told that there were three reasons. The first, apparently, is that closed meetings help trust members to focus on decision making. The second is that they are supposed to be more efficient. The third is that apparently in closed sessions members can be more robust in their dealings with each other than they would be if they were exposed to the public.
58 However, when meetings are closed, information about how decisions are being made, and about the problems facing the health service, is not available to the public. Private-sector models cannot be transferred wholesale to the public sector, especially to the health service, because health involves numerous issues concerning resources and their use—especially as the money being discussed and dispensed is public money.
In the health service there is also a moral dimension. Our society has a strong belief in the value and intrinsic worth of the individual. It does not believe that one person's worth should be measured against that of another. When people cast their votes for political parties they take into account the moral values that we as politicians hold. Health is that kind of moral issue.
People have strong beliefs and values concerning entitlement to treatment and what the health service should provide. Yet elected representatives, the guardians of public opinion at both national and local level, are not represented on the boards that make those crucial decisions. Ours is a representative democracy, and that is something that we consider valuable. We are not supposed to be experts, but we are supposed to be the voice of the people.
Important decisions are being made about health care—such as who should have what care, and the level of treatment that people should have. Those are not only resource issues but moral issues, and the public have strong opinions on them. The trusts have the job of making decisions about how to manage their budgets and meet their targets. Various options are open to them. They use the phrase "increased efficiency", but where does increasing efficiency end and making moral judgments about how worth while various people are begin? Only elected representatives can say when that line has been crossed. Over the years, doctors have made many decisions about treatment, and I have had reservations about the powerful position that they held, but transferring that power to unelected boards will not necessarily help.
The trust boards are pleased about the change in the relationship between the service and the public. A trust chairman, Mr. Lilley, has said that doctors' first duty is to the organisation, not to their patients. The idea of organisations being paramount and becoming the arbiters is chilling. Indeed, a senior health service officer in Stockport told me that the best thing about the reforms was that the trusts now employ the doctors. I do not share his enthusiasm.
While we were talking about efficiency and resources, the same person told me that a recent study had shown that most of the cost to the nation of an individual's health care is incurred during the final year of someone's life, and that a large proportion of that is spent during the final month of that person's life. It will not be long before a board, working within limited resources, begins to say that it is not an efficient use of resources to spend money on someone who has not long to live.
This summer, the Department of Health issued a statement saying that although medical care of the elderly continues to be a national health service responsibility, nursing care does not. How long will it be before the trusts decide that it is not efficient to use resources on older people at all? Indeed, are they already making those decisions? We do not know, because they are made privately, in secret.
59 It may be decided that it is not efficient to prescribe a more expensive treatment that could afford somebody a better quality of life. It may be decided that efficient use of resources means treatment designed to keep people out of hospital beds, such as day care and day surgery. There is nothing wrong with those as such, but rational, logical efficient allocation of resources can lead to decisions that the people who elect us would and do find unacceptable. Yet those people's voices are not there on the trust boards to say no. The trust boards are unlikely to say no, because they are all appointed. Chief executives will not say no because they will want to make their trust boards seem efficient and effective. Indeed, their jobs depend on doing so.
Several health issues have arisen in Stockport in recent months. One concerned the appalling conditions in long-stay psychiatric wards. The second involved a proposal to train new staff to take on duties performed by nurses. Thirdly, there was a £500,000 overspend by the acute services trust. Fourthly, there were the salary costs of the new boards, and fifthly the sum spent on a logo and set-up costs. The sixth issue was a proposal that in future the staff providing laundry and catering should be re-named "hotel services".
Those issues became public knowledge not because of open meetings but because information was leaked by staff and the issues were taken up by the local paper. Of course, the trusts' initial response was that the rumours were a load of rubbish and the local press were scaremongering. Yet that turned out not to be true. Every one of those stories was factually correct. People from the health commission read about the problem in the local press, and its chairman visited the psychiatric wards and ordered them to be closed.
The only information that the public are getting from the trusts is the information that the trusts wish to impart. I suspect that important discussions about the health needs of my constituents, and those of all hon. Members, are going on behind closed doors. Why cannot that discussion take place in public? Why cannot local people see what is happening? Why cannot there be a representative on the board? Is the reason that millions of pounds have been cut out of the health service and that the decisions that are being made would be unacceptable to the public and are therefore being kept away from the public? Such decisions might involve care of the elderly, for example.
Under the new system, we all have a price tag on our heads for treatment. For some of us, the local health commission sees that price as not worth paying. What is happening is not being made clear. It may be easy for Conservative Members to allow decisions about our worth to be made in private and to welcome the new efficiency which, they claim, will develop quality of services. Quality of services for whom? Moral issues are marginalised in the new efficiency cult.
Conservative Members should be worried because in accepting secrecy, they are depriving the political system and its representatives of any teeth and they are making us an ineffective and irrelevant part of the system. It all comes down to making accountability only an issue of a balance sheet. We are here not to be experts, but to 60 represent views and to say that if efficiency means that my constituents will not be treated, let us have some inefficiency.
§ Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East)
I understand the important point made by my hon. Friend about the play-off between efficiency and accountability. That is often the case. My hon. Friend has adequately described the secrecy within hospitals. How do we know that we are getting efficiency from the trusts? We would know if we had an accountable system.
In the Walsgrave hospital trust in Coventry, a large capital bid has been made to move an inner-city hospital to an out-of-town location—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Order. We are at the beginning of a Session. I think that we should start as we mean to go on. Interventions should be brief.
§ Ms Coffey
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am talking about the balance between accountability and decision making. His point is that it is difficult to understand the criteria for those decisions because the information is simply not available. Facts and statistics can be used to present cases as the organisation wishes them to be seen and not to give impartial information to the public so that they can make a decision.
There is no point in having ultimate accountability. Whenever they are challenged over the lack of accountability at every level in our society, the Government say that accountability comes at a general election. Accountability must exist at every level of decision making because small decisions, which may seem trivial to the Government, often have great consequences for local people.
I have been unable to get figures from the chief executive of our local health care trust about where he spent the £215,000 set-up costs. Before the trust was set up, when there was an elected representative on the health authority, I would have got that information. Now, the chief executive decides whether he gives me the information and when he gives me the information. I could, of course, write to the Secretary of State for Health. I would, no doubt, get a letter referring me back to the chief executive of the trust. Many of us go round and round that circle in sheer frustration, not for ourselves, but for our constituents. The political system is no longer the method of accountability. We have to beg for information that the people who have elected us believe we should be given. That is very damaging.
Having elected representatives on trust boards might take away some of their efficiency. We may irritate the professionals, but the professional system and the political system, side by side, provide a check and balance. That is the only way in which to ensure that the professionals do not pursue an internal agenda which is unacceptable to the public. I am very afraid that that is what is happening within the health service in terms of the decisions made daily, weekly and monthly. As Members of Parliament, we hear about such decisions only when our constituents come to see us.
An example is a constituent whose mother is in a Tameside trust hospital. The mother, who is not elderly, had a stroke and is in a coma. My constituent was instructed by the hospital staff to remove her mother from that hospital and to find alternative private nursing care. I 61 have no doubt that the trust hospital was acting within its rights. To my constituent, who was on the receiving end, the hospital's decision was the ultimate brutality. I have little doubt that a thousand similar incidents are happening as a result of using the criterion of the efficient use of resources throughout the health service. To be honest, that is not good enough. Indeed, it is frightening.
§ Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)
At the end of the Gracious Speech, one sees the words:My Government will promote further measures of law reform.It so happens that at 2 pm today, just before the debate, I was talking to two constituents with whom I had been in touch before. Their stepdaughter was run over by a hit-and-run driver in a stolen car some months ago. The offender was apprehended and given four years, which did not seem an awful lot to my constituents given that their girl had been killed. They came to see me in some emotion because they had just heard that, after roughly 14 months, their girl's killer was about to be released from prison. They did not come to me in a vindictive spirit and I do not put this point to the House in a vindictive spirit. I give this example as a simple and stark reminder of the things that victims in our society simply do not understand about the law, and I share their incomprehension.
§ Mr. Wolfson
I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend making this point, based on his constituents' recent experience. Does he agree that the law will fall into greater and greater disrepute unless, in the public's mind, sentences reflect the seriousness of crimes?
§ Mr. Walden
That is precisely my point, which my hon. Friend has put rather better than I have.
The point is on my mind because there has been an upsurge of concern in my constituency—such concern was not there 10 years ago, when I was elected—about a series of crimes which, admittedly, are fairly petty but are often brutal. I am sure that all hon. Members know what I am talking about because I suspect that it is happening all over the country. I highlight the point because it concerns my constituents far more than it did and because I am talking not about some god-forsaken inner-city area but about a quiet market town. Of course, when such things happen, it makes no difference whether one lives in a god-forsaken inner-city area or a quiet market town, but I make the point to show that it is not purely a city affair and that it is beginning to arouse concern in small and previously rather quiet areas.
When I go to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary about this matter, I get the sort of answer which I might expect and with which I sympathise, in the sense that he can demonstrate to me that he has given more police officers to the Thames Valley police. When I go to the chief constable, he tells me that he has to give preference to places such as Milton Keynes and to the city areas where crime is even more rife than it is in my small town. However, something has to be done.
I am not suggesting the spending of any more money, because I do not think that we have that money. In fact, I know that we do not have that money as a nation because we are some £35 billion in debt. So, there is not much point in asking for more money. But something will have to be done to intensify the existing programmes to get policemen out from behind their desks and to continue cutting, where 62 possible, the red tape with which they have been inundated, partly as a result, I am sorry to say, of some of our legislation.
I shall say little about Europe because I do not think that it deserves much more than that. We and the world outside—the press—will spend much time getting extremely excited about the issue surrounding Europe in the next few months. I do not think that it is important at all in the real scale of concerns in this country. Unfortunately, it will be used in the House by some of my hon. Friends, and certainly by the Opposition and the media, in the way in which Europe is often used in this country—as a form of escape from the fundamental problems that face us, problems which are of our own manufacture and have nothing to do with foreigners.
For those very reasons, the issue will be built into a huge bubble. My hunch is that the Government will win the day, despite all the intrigues and combinations on both sides of the House and all the speculation in the press. In other words, we can look forward to two or three months of wasted time and energy in the House on a subject on which it seems the Government are taking a perfectly reasonable line and which the Opposition know in their heart is reasonable and sensible. That is how we are working. I put it like that because we are increasingly working in such a style. There is a series of phoney wars in which we, as a Parliament, are engaged, often with the press. No doubt I shall contribute a little to that myself at some stage.
It is worth asking ourselves in all honesty just exactly what we think we are evading when some of us try to blow up issues beyond their natural proportions. Many things are wrong with Europe. I do not want to go into that. It is perfectly obvious that for years and years we shall have to battle against corruption. We all know that we cannot do anything very quickly in certain parts of southern Europe. To pretend that such issues are of major importance in relation to the fundamental problems facing this country seems to be an act of national evasion. No doubt, we shall be able to evade those issues over the next few months all the more enjoyably because of that not very important and, in my view, rather mechanistic Bill.
One of my hon. Friends said that he was glad that there was no mention of education in the Gracious Speech. I do not share that view. I should have liked the Gracious Speech to refer to a Bill on that subject because the absence of any mention of education either means that we have the right system now or that we have given up trying to get it right. The Bill that I would like would be called the Public Schools (Voluntary Purchase) Bill. I am perfectly serious about it, as I shall explain.
One of our favourite forms of evasion is when, for various reasons, Opposition and Conservative Members evade what seems to be an absolutely central and obvious truth—there will never be high-quality state education while the public school system remains as it is. That has nothing to do with ideology. I ask hon. Members to wipe their minds clean for a moment of all the old arguments about public schools and join me in agreeing on one simple, obvious and undeniable fact. Six or 7 per cent. of the most influential, most powerful and often, although not always, richest people have no personal experience of, or stake or interest in, the state education system; in other words, they are the governing elite. Let us be frank, we are talking about big business men, doctors, journalists and Members of Parliament. They have the most influence in our society. When all those people virtually unanimously get out of the 63 state system, that governing elite, however it is defined, will never put its heart and soul into ensuring the quality of that system.
I am glad to see that one Opposition Member is nodding. That truth seems self-evident. If we try to evade it, we shall never get to what I consider to be close to the heart of the educational problems which concern hon. Members on both sides of the House. We should not simply continue with our traditional attitudes towards public schools. Conservative Members sometimes defend them on the totally spurious ground that they are a manifestation of choice. Of course they are not. Only people who have enough money can attend public schools and even people with quite a lot of money are beginning to find it rather expensive nowadays. So, when Conservative Members adopt that attitude, it is totally spurious.
Opposition Members sometimes seem to gain more pleasure from their resentment of those institutions than from thinking more positively about what might be done to bring some of the benefits derived by people who attend our best public schools to people who do not have the money to go to them.
That wound should not be left to fester—that is not too strong a word, because the current position has an extremely damaging effect on our society. I know of no other western country that has such a primitive form of educational apartheid. It will not go away. Rather than leave it to fester, we should think about it. I am glad to say that the Government have done a little thinking—I have always supported it—in the sense that they have set up grant-maintained schools. I believe that they have done that partly in the hope that, over time, those schools will become centres of excellence, their reputations will be high, they will attract people away from private schools and, at the same time, they will be open to people who, of course, do not pay fees.
Again, let us be honest rather than talk in tedious slogans as we do sometimes. Grant-maintained schools will be good only if they concentrate the powers rightly given to them by the Government on the improvement of teaching. I know from experience that those schools sometimes think that, since they are receiving 10 or 15 per cent. above the average rate of funding, they will provide new facilities. New facilities do not necessarily produce higher-quality education. They may be desirable, but they are not often necessary to improve education. Instead, dedicated teams are needed and grant-maintained schools have powers to recruit such teams. We may hope that grant-maintained schools will grow up to challenge public schools and open a frontier, as it were, but we cannot be sure of that because in British education there is a tradition of too much talk about facilities and not enough talk about intellectual quality.
What are we to do? I have suggested a Public Schools (Voluntary Purchase) Bill. It is nonsense to talk about abolishing public schools. That is part of the old debate. Also, we would find ourselves abolishing institutions of extremely high quality, quite apart from the question of personal choice. So abolition is not worth a moment's serious discussion. What is worth discussing, however, is the Government's provision, which already exists, for public schools to opt into the state sector. The other day 64 I saw a report of one independent school—I cannot remember exactly where the school was—doing just that. It was not a famous independent school.
One of the reasons why private schools may hesitate to opt into the state sector is, of course, cost. If they entered the state sector, they would receive the same funding as everyone else; yet, as we all know, private schools tend to spend rather more to achieve smaller class sizes, and so on. That is one of the reasons—not the only one—for the relatively high quality of their results. We must be honest about that. Few private schools would take advantage of such a provision in my legislation. Indeed, few have shown such an interest so far. The Government should show a little more social imagination about the questions that I have raised and give a higher priority to tempting some schools over the line and into the state sector.
I have always had doubts about the assisted places scheme and I have expressed them frequently in the House. The scheme seems to be a very hit-and-miss affair. I suspect that we could all give examples of cases in respect of which large amounts of money have gone to completely undeserving middle-class people to allow them to send children to very expensive schools. That is indefensible.
There is also a charity flavour about the assisted places scheme which I do not like. I should like the scheme to be abandoned. The very considerable amounts of money involved should be spent on trying to tempt—there cannot be a question of force—more private schools into the state sector.
That might sound idealistic. Of course, I do not believe for a moment that Eton will come into the state sector. I have discussed this point with some private schools. With regard to what I have described, I am thinking of former direct grant schools like Manchester grammar school or Latymer Upper school, which are very good schools. When I was asked to present the prizes at my old direct grant school recently, I was forced to point out that people like me would not be allowed to attend the school now because we could not afford to do so.
Given their traditions, it is wrong that such schools should be in the private sector. They are precisely the schools that should come back into the state sector while maintaining their traditions and selectivity. All the costs should be paid for by the Government on the condition that the rule of access is by selective examination. There should be no social precedents or fees.
Imagine what it would be like for someone living in a not very happy inner-city area if an opportunity were suddenly to open up for that person's child, who possessed an unusual talent, to attend not just the local comprehensive—which might be good, although the records suggest that that might not always be the case—but, as used to happen in the slightly better old days, a much better and more demanding school and so move out of that somewhat restricted social background. That would be a step forward. Schools which returned to the state sector and which operated a completely open selective policy—I do not shun the term "elitist" policy, because they would be elite schools—would put pressure on existing public schools to show their laurels. The more high-quality schools there are in the state sector, the more difficult it will be for the private sector to attract paying students.
65 Over time, I would expect my policy not to produce dramatic results, in terms of weaning Eton into the state sector, but to blur the current extremely damaging apartheid divide in our very old-fashioned country between state and private. I would expect a movement gradually to a variety of schools, including former public and elitist—I use that word in a positive sense—schools, open to all the talents in the country, irrespective of background or influence.
Many people, perhaps some of those on the Conservative Benches, would be unhappy about my suggestion because they believe in the private sector. I, too, believe in the private sector. That is why I stressed that there was no question of force applying and that schools would return to the state sector on a voluntary basis.
Let us face it, in the real world some people send their children to private schools for snobbish reasons. There will still be plenty of second-rate—or even third-rate—private schools to which such people could send their children because there will always be such institutions as havens for snobs and their delusions. People could continue to send their children to bad schools and pay large amounts of money for as long as they wanted to do that.
§ Sir David Madel
I am sorry to interrupt my next-door neighbour. Would the examinations to obtain entrance to those schools be held at the age of 11, 12 or 13? Would they be held at a particular age? A child might develop later and be very good at 14.
§ Mr. Walden
My hon. Friend has made a good point. As my hopes of success for my Bill are restricted, I had not given its drafting sufficient care to give thought to my hon. Friend's point. However, movement between schools is important because people develop at different ages. That is the kind of flexibility I had in mind. I am perfectly serious about my point and about saying that this country will never get anywhere educationally until the problem is tackled positively and creatively and not in a negative or vengeful way.
The frozen educational line, with all the resentments and grotesque hypocrisies that we all see in our social lives, with well-off people—let us be frank, sometimes Conservative councillors—saying, "There are some absolutely marvellous comprehensive schools in my area, but they are not for children like mine", that dank snobbery which is rather characteristic of this country, and our obsessive classlessness, about which we hear from both sides of the House and of which I strongly approve, because classlessness, in my terminology, very often means levelling downwards, are the two sides of the coin that warp social attitudes in this country and rob many extremely intelligent young people of the opportunity to promote themselves in life.
Because of those two sides of the coin, many extremely second-rate people gain jobs to which they have no right because of their intellect or intelligence. They gain them simply because they have some facile or plausible patter which they have learnt at a school which, unlike so many state schools, at least teaches them to read and write properly.
That may all seem to be a little like a self-indulgent flight of fantasy. I sometimes become irritated, as I am sure all hon. Members do, when we in the House or people outside refuse to stare in the face problems which 66 arise every day and which, if they are not solved, will not allow our country much of a future at all. If we have just an adequate education system, and not a superlative system, we will find the world a very competitive, ruthless and overwhelming place. Although I am not entirely serious about my Bill—if I were, I would have presented it in another way—I believe that we should think about these matters and not evade them.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) described his proposal as a flight of fantasy. Like many others, I listened with great interest to what he had to say, and I find myself in complete agreement with his comments about the origins of what he described as educational apartheid. I would extend much of what he said to an analysis of our health service and the apartheid that all too often exists in it.
We have a spirit of bipartisan agreement at the moment, but I fear that I will lose it fairly shortly. The person who was ultimately responsible for the management of the health service for 11 long years, Baroness Thatcher—who frequently would recount what she described as her party's achievements in respect of the health service—on her own admission would not dream of using the national health service. She once famously remarked that for her it was essential to go into an hospital of her choice, at a time of her choice, with the doctor of her choice. Would that that option were available to everyone. The analysis by the hon. Member for Buckingham of the education service also applies to health.
I wish to confine myself to a few words about the operation of our democracy. I have chosen to make my remarks today because the occasion of the Queen's Speech should tell us one or two things about the strange way in which our democratic system sometimes works. I am talking about the process of the Queen's Speech. I enjoy the pageantry and ceremony of it, but, in all respects save one, we are clear about what part is pageant and what is part of the real power structure in our country.
When we traipse into the House of Lords, the pageant is that we humble commoners go along to listen to Her Majesty speak in the House of Lords, and members of the Upper House—the really important nobility—sit and wait for us to turn up and stand at the Bar. That is the pageant, and no one gets too worked up about it, whereas the reality—at least I hope that it is the reality—is that this place is a bit more important than the other place and that it is in this place where real power resides.
We keep up the fiction with every Bill that we pass. Every Act of Parliament contains the words which we all remember:the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled"—again, it is as though we are the least important of the lot. Occasionally, it feels like that, I admit, but let us acknowledge that that is not part of our democratic procedure.
There is another part of the fiction of today which we all understand and which we know is a fiction, and that is calling it the Queen's Speech. We know that it is not the Queen's Speech. We know that it would be utterly intolerable if the speech were written by an hereditary monarch. I am sure that Her Majesty would subscribe to that view as well. The speech is written by the Prime 67 Minister of the day. We understand that. We agree that it would be an utter disgrace if an hereditary ruler wrote the speech, and it would certainly be an utter disgrace if an hereditary ruler refused to give assent to a piece of legislation that had been passed by this House and by the House of Lords.
There is one crucial aspect of our democracy in which the pageant and the power have become hopelessly muddled and it needs rapidly to be disentangled. The vast majority of people in the other place are there because they have inherited their titles. Their power is not simply part of the pageant or of the ceremony; it is a real power that they are able to exercise—they have inherited the right to legislate. That is an intolerable power to exercise in a democracy. We have Walter Bagehot's phrase about the efficient part and the dignified part of the constitution all tied up. I do not mind what hereditary peers call themselves and I do not mind much what they do, but I object when they are able to legislate on the proposals that are put before the House during the year. There are 759 hereditary peers out of a total membership of 1,203. The sooner they lose their right to legislate, the sooner we can enjoy the ceremony of such occasions without confusing them with political power.
I introduced a Bill on this matter, but, sadly, like most of my attempts at legislation, it fell by the wayside earlier this year. Since then, I have made one or two inquiries. One figure which surprised me, I am pleased to say, was provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), in his capacity as Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Select Committee. I asked a parliamentary question to find out what floor space in the Palace of Westminster is occupied by the House of Lords and by the House of Commons. Rather to my surprise, 58.3 per cent. is occupied by the House of Commons and 38.7 per cent. is occupied by the House of Lords. I expected it to be far less than that, I must say. I am not sure whether those 759 hereditary peers and their various activities require all that floor space. I have a simple proposal: let us stop them inheriting the right to legislate. Without losing any sleep over what the next proposal to reform the House of Lords might be, let us reduce the area to a sensible, manageable size. It might be nice if hon. Members were allocated a little more space in which to operate.
There are two other aspects of our democracy which could have been improved in the Queen's Speech, but sadly there is no mention of them. It is incumbent on us to do something about them quickly, not least because we can be certain that, in the next 12 months, the House of Commons will send observers, possibly as part of the United Nations or as part of the European Community, to ensure that electoral systems in other countries operate properly so that the international community can validate them. That has happened time and again and I am sure that it will happen in future.
When we perform such operations, it is incumbent on us to make sure that our own House is in order and that our own democratic procedures—I have already mentioned one, which is getting rid of the hereditary element—are in order. There is one glaring respect in which they are not. It is a topical matter, because it follows last week's United States congressional and Senate elections. I refer to the expenditure of parties and 68 individuals in general elections in this country. The Senate race in California cost $28 million—admittedly that was for the unsuccessful candidate, thank goodness, so perhaps money does not buy everything—and $18 million in Virginia. That is £11 million for one election.
Thankfully, in this country one cannot buy commercial time to fight elections, but we have one huge anomaly which needs to be sorted out. We all accept that it is absolutely right that there should be limits on election expenditure in individual constituencies. That has been acknowledged for 100 years because of the simple, blatant truth that, if one individual can spend far more than another, there can be no hope of a fair contest. We have no limit or restriction on, and no attempt to control, what parties can spend nationally in election campaigns. That is despite the fact that—even the least modest would have to acknowledge this—the outcome of a general election is determined much more by what is spent nationally on advertisements and the paraphernalia of politics than by what each individual spends in his or her constituency.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans
I accept that there should be limits on individual candidates. The two candidates that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—they were Huffington in California and Oliver North—lost, irrespective of the amounts that were spent on their campaigns. Money does not buy everything; it does not persuade people to vote for certain parties—policies do. The one thing that is absent from everything that we hear from the Labour party is what it genuinely believes in.
§ Mr. Grocott
I made precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. I said that the candidate whom I mentioned happened to lose. Yet it is universally acknowledged that in the United States it is not worth thinking about standing for a Senate seat without about $10 million ready to spend up front—that is the figure most quoted. Of course money is not everything in elections, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not seriously suggest that we should get rid of controls locally. I hope that he will acknowledge—if he does not, I guess that he will be in a minority of one—that there is some sense in saying that we need controls over election expenditure. The sooner we introduce a system of control over what parties can spend nationally, the sooner we shall acknowledge that there must be a ceiling on what can be spent in a general election. The amount varies greatly between the parties. We need to have proper open accounting of the income and expenditure of political parties. I know that Conservative Members are rather reluctant to have that happen.
To take a simple example, although we cannot buy commercial television time—thank heaven—there would be nothing to stop a political party, if it had the money, distributing a free video nationally. That would almost amount to the same thing. Clearly there must be some limit on parties' expenditure. The sooner we tidy up that part of our democracy, the better.
Although Conservative Members might smile at what I am saying, if they went to observe an election in another country and discovered that one party had phenomenally more resources than another and spent phenomenally more than another, I am sure that they would report it. At least, I hope that they would. If they did not, they would not be good election observers.
69 My last point is also about the workings of our democracy and we regard it as fundamental when we assess democratic systems overseas: it is the need for variety and fairness in the media that cover elections and the run-up to elections. I find it deeply ironic that Conservative Members have suddenly discovered that the newspapers in Britain can be unfair. It is a pleasure to see it dawn on their faces as they discover that the newspapers do not always report Tories nicely and the Labour party as if we were all rogues; the newspapers can also be unpleasant to Tories occasionally.
Tory Members claim that some Conservatives have had to leave office because they have been hounded by the tabloid press. I remember a quotation from the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). This is not an attack on him. I quote him as exactly as possible. He said something along the lines of, "It is very unfair if Cabinets are determined by the tabloid media." I wish that he had said at the last general election, "It is very unfair if general elections are decided by the tabloid media." If he did say that, I missed it.
The only safeguard in our democracy is diversity, different centres of power and competition within the media. I am deeply alarmed at what the Government have done in broadcasting. I hope, although I fear that it is a vain hope, that even at this stage the Government will learn by their manifest mistakes and introduce changes such as I have proposed.
The Government have changed our rules on the ownership of television companies in the past 12 months. I know that there is nothing more tedious or self-indulgent than quoting one's own speech when it is right, but other people quote our speeches frequently enough when they are wrong so I make no particular apology for doing so. We had a debate just 12 months ago on a Government order that allowed television companies to merge. Those television companies only two years previously had been delighted to bid for their franchises under the existing rules. In the debate I said:We already know two inevitable consequences of his"—the Secretary of State's—actions: the industry will suffer further job losses, and decisions will be made in London and not in the regions."—[Official Report, 8 December 1993; Vol. 234, c. 449.]I quote that because it is precisely what has happened. It has certainly happened in respect of the merger between Carlton and Central Television. There have been further job losses and, in effect, a regional television company has been taken over by a London one. Certainly in Birmingham—the regional capital that I know best—what was once a thriving centre of television excellence is now reduced to a news studio and basically a regional output as opposed to a centre for making programmes for the network.
If a decision has been shown to be a mistake, surely before further decisions are made about relaxation of media controls and rules on ownership there should be at least a review of the mergers that have taken place and whether they have brought benefits to the viewer. This is not just about broadcasting. It is about our democratic process. If we have a system in which power and control in the media become more and more centralised and are in the hands of two or three individuals, it is not only bad for the industry but fundamentally bad for our democracy.
70 Three or four other matters could have been tackled in the Queen's Speech. We have seen in the pageant of today how they illustrate some of the strengths and failings of our democracy. In a country which is fond of lecturing others on their democratic process, it is time that we got our own house in order.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)
I was interested to listen to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott), but there seemed to be an inconsistency between his first and second points. He claimed that he wanted more party politics in the upper House, yet in his second breath said that he wanted to cut party politics for the lower House.
§ Mr. Spicer
I was paying close attention. His first and second points seemed inconsistent.
You will not be surprised to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I welcome most of the Queen's Speech. I am sad that Post Office privatisation is not in it. I would certainly have privatised Post Office Counters as well as the Royal Mail. Privatisation of Post Office Counters would have given greater liberty to post offices. There is anxiety in rural areas about rural post offices. It would be good for rural post offices to have the freedom to develop. I suppose that I am also influenced by my experience in government, when I learnt that it is a mistake to privatise one part of an inter-related industry.
We made a mistake in privatising the electricity industry without privatising coal at the same time. I was the Minister responsible at the time and I argued for the privatisation of coal, which would have been a good thing. I would have privatised the two parts of the Post Office, but we have not done so. That is sad, but I shall move on to other measures that are good.
I certainly approve of the measures to create greater competition in gas, precisely as we did in electricity. We created a dynamic structure and moved towards a competitive industry. That has been successful, particularly on the power production side and increasingly on the distribution side. We could do the same for gas.
The principle of flexible contracts for agricultural tenancies is a good idea as it will ultimately help more people to enter the industry. The problem is that the proposal relates to the present structure, financing and policy of the agriculture industry. If the aim is to bring more new tenancies and young, new farmers into the industry, the greatest single obstacle to it is the workings of the common agricultural policy, which will not be overcome by the new legislation. The quota arrangements in particular will undoubtedly result in a disproportionate rise in the value of quota-based land and farms above the value at which new entrants can easily enter the industry.
That raises the future of the common agricultural policy. The CAP needs an absolutely radical change, and until such a radical change—preferably a repatriation—is made in the method of support for the agriculture industry we will not overcome the distortions that are at the root of the problem, particularly for new entrants.
By abolishing the CAP, we would, in a stroke, abolish 63 per cent. of the budget that is causing anxiety among some hon. Members. Our approach must be more radical.
71 I agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have said that the real issue is not so much what legislation we are to introduce but how we address the fundamental problems affecting not only this country but the entire western world. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Sir D. Knox)—this is one of the few matters on which I agree with my hon. Friend—that unemployment will be a massive problem, not just for this country but for the whole western world into the foreseeable future.
I obviously welcome the fact that British unemployment has fallen consistently from quite high levels, and today's figures, showing a reduction of 50,000, are good news indeed, but a clear picture emerges from the long-term and secular effects of unemployment here and in other European countries. Ten years ago, unemployment throughout Europe was about 5 per cent., but now it is nearer to 10 per cent.
It is quite clear that, in the longer term, finding people jobs in the western world will be a major problem. Even if people find jobs, there is a new sense of insecurity about those jobs. Most of the current political and economic issues in the western world relate to this issue—for instance, that of protectionism versus free trade. I warned my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) that I would refer to an article that he wrote in the Evening Standard in which he apparently flirted with protectionism. The trend towards protectionism in the western world is a result of the growing concern about unemployment. Most of the economic concerns expressed by hon. Members relate fundamentally to unemployment. I shall return to the point.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel) that a crucial element in the Government's strategy for the next year must focus on the Budget, which will be delivered in about a week. The Queen's Speech mentions fiscal probity and the need to reduce the total amount of resources as a percentage of GDP that go into public spending. That is good, because the solution to unemployment is fairly straightforward. If we are to deal with unemployment, we must create jobs, and that means investment, particularly in smaller businesses.
I argue that there are only three things that Governments can do to encourage investment: first, to ensure a low-tax regime; secondly, to have sound money so that production costs do not rise disproportionately to revenue; and, thirdly, to maintain free trade. Sadly, the latter was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech.
Ensuring sound money and reducing taxes is a difficult balancing act for any Government, particularly in the context of our large borrowing requirement. Some difficult decisions must be made. I suppose that we all have our own shopping lists of what we might do to try to get the budget into balance and to meet the objectives of sound money and fiscal probity outlined in the Queen's Speech.
My own hobby horses include housing benefit, and I speak as a former housing Minister. The enormous increase in housing benefit clearly causes concern, especially among those who believe—as I do—that, ultimately, all our housing stock must be transferred to the private sector. I would include housing associations 72 that were genuinely in the private sector in that calculation. That means that all the financing and revenue associated with housing must come through market rents and prices.
It is well known that we have the smallest private rented sector in the entire western world at about 7 per cent. In Germany, the figure is more than 50 per cent. It is manifestly important to create a substantive rented sector, and that requires transferring our entire stock to the private sector. Part of the reason for doing so would be to focus state spending on those who really need it, rather than on bricks and mortar. That is not achieved under the present system, partly because of the way in which the housing benefit system works and partly because of the various large sums—the current figure is about £4 billion or £5 billion—that still go directly into bricks and mortar.
Since it is imperative to channel all housing support through the housing benefit system, controls must be established on the rents for which housing benefit is available. The cost of housing benefit is now tens of billions of pounds, whereas a few years ago it was £4 billion or £5 billion. It has gone up astronomically, and greater controls must be established.
Another of my hobby horses—it is controversial, of course—concerns industrial grants. The way to support industry is by having policies of low tax, free trade and sound money, and not by giving money directly to industries that would be unable to support themselves without it. That is particularly true of foreign industries. The reason why foreign industries are investing heavily in this country has, I believe, nothing to do with the grants that they are given to locate in different parts of the country. It is entirely to do with the fact that this is now a good place in which to invest from a market point of view. If we take into account transportation subsidies, we are talking about £5 billion or more being spent on industrial grants that could be better saved.
Another area in which savings are available is investment in transport, particularly road and rail. I do not understand why we should be the only country in Europe that does not fund some of that investment through the private sector—especially through tolls—paid for by the travelling public because we could thus save billions of pounds.
A clear strategy is available to the Government to enable them to carry out that aspect of the Queen's Speech which relates to returning to sound money, reducing the public sector as a percentage of gross domestic product and thereby encouraging industrial growth, which is clearly associated with the problem of unemployment.
The remaining issue is free trade. I am concerned about developments in Europe because it is becoming one of the first major protectionist trade blocs. The Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation had its final meeting yesterday and shunned the concept of protectionism and the North American Free Trade Agreement is also avoiding that concept, but that is not true of the European Union, whose very inception was based on it—in those days, it was primarily aimed at the United States. That tradition of protectionism has not only been maintained but advanced. It is outrageous that the European Union has yet to ratify the Uruguay round of GATT, having caused all sorts of obstacles to its settlement, but that is very much a part 73 of its tradition of developing protectionist measures—not necessarily tariffs, but anti-dumping measures and other means of restricting trade.
In recent times, the most notable protectionist measures were aimed at the one area with which trade should have developed—the eastern European countries, for which protection has been potentially disastrous. If that protectionism was removed, it is one of the reasons why the common agricultural policy would have to go.
§ Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
On the difficulties of balancing the budget, does my hon. Friend accept that the Chancellor's job will be much more difficult in view of the Red Book explanation that our net contributions to the European Community will double next year, from £1,700 million to more than £3,500 million, and that they will increase more in the following year? In such circumstances, should not the House be careful about adding further to that massive extra burden?
§ Mr. Spicer
Certainly, and I shall develop that argument, although I shall not detain the House. It will require a radical solution to deal with protectionism, centralisation, the lack of democracy and the problems caused by destroying the institutions of law and democracy in nation states—especially a state such as ours—and replacing them with a democratic vacuum in Europe. My hon. Friend mentioned problems of accountability with respect to payments to the European Union, which we now hear are often fraudulent. I agree with him.
The intergovernmental conference in 1996 will be our great opportunity for change, but I do not underestimate the difficulties that we will face. Laws are coming out of Brussels so fast. We must consider the fact of the acquis communautaire and the moves towards a single currency, for which some of my hon. Friends pressed—notably my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands. Mr. Kohl is firmly entrenched and is a man in a great hurry.
We are moving so fast towards a federal state of Europe, with the resultant consequences for protectionism and a lack of democracy, that two things must take place if we are to be effective in 1996. First, we must develop a firm idea of how the wheel of misfortune is to be reversed. It will certainly entail a radical change in the way in which the European Court—a legislature that is not accountable to anyone—can create its own laws and the way in which the Commission operates by initiating its own directives. The Commission, too, is accountable to no electorate. It will require radical changes in the way in which the common agricultural policy and budgeting processes work.
The Government will have to insist on radical changes. That means that the Conservative party must unite. It is difficult to see how any progress can be made without a united Conservative party. The party will have to unite rapidly around specific radical proposals to amend the treaty of Rome and it must unite with other European centre-right parties, which will be an enormous challenge. Any other problems are mere distractions. We do not want divisive discussions about consequential matters or issues relating to the past. Given the challenge that lies ahead, the issue is what will be the Government's core strategy during the next year or two. Great willpower and unity behind a clear, radical programme will be required.
§ Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East)
Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the newest Member of the House, I looked forward to the Gracious Speech. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) referred to the ceremony that attaches to it. With many other hon. Members, I moved from this Chamber to the other place and was surprised to discover on my arrival that the Gracious Speech was in its closing stages. The hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) may have been disappointed that Post Office privatisation was not contained in it, but it is clear that the Government have run out of things with which to replace it.
I was happy to see that a number of pointers had been included, although I noted them with some trepidation as, in the past 15 years, even when the Government dealt with important issues, they sometimes had an unfailing knack of making the lives of those who were miserable even more miserable.
My general conclusion about the Gracious Speech is that it was a missed opportunity. As a new Member of Parliament I had hoped—perhaps naively—that the period of legislative calm would provide an opportunity to introduce many measures that would greatly benefit my constituents. Indeed, I had hoped that it would provide the opportunity to introduce legislation that would create jobs and tackle the current scenario, in which people who are already disadvantaged find themselves further disadvantaged because of their inability to find employment in, for example, the west of Scotland, where I live and where successive Government policies have resulted in the run-down of industries.
I was interested in the Prime Minister's opening remarks, in which he spoke of the democratic opportunities for Northern Ireland. With my colleagues, I welcome the moves for peace and for changing the democratic structure in Northern Ireland, but because of where I come from I have an interest in the development of democracy. I would have liked the Gracious Speech to propose legislation to allow legislative devolution in Scotland and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, rather than the present system under which powers are devolved to the civil service and we do not have an opportunity to debate issues of great significance to the Scottish people in the way that the House usually debates them.
I was reassured when the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) said that children's legislation is likely to be introduced this Session. It is a sad reflection on the Government that they did not see fit to include in the Gracious Speech references to a children Bill for Scotland as it is rare for such legislation to have cross-party support. Its inclusion would have been a pointer to the people of Scotland that the House was listening.
I was grateful to hear the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South refer to that matter in his witty speech. I noticed that he referred to my constituency, which showed tremendous bravery on his part as the Conservative party lost its deposit in the by-election at which I was elected to the House. I am greatly reassured that, in the hon. Gentleman's quest for four hamburgers, he did not sample 75 the brew occasionally enjoyed by some of my constituents, which has caused me some anxiety in recent days.
I said that I welcome certain aspects of the Queen's Speech, one of which is the reference to pensions. I have a unique interest in that matter as I am probably the only hon. Member who is a Maxwell pensioner, having had the misfortune to transfer my pension funds into a Maxwell scheme. Those of us who have lived through those traumatic days realise that it is now almost three years since the discovery of misappropriation of funds both from Robert Maxwell's companies and pension funds associated with those companies. Considerable stress has been caused to people throughout that period. I look forward to seeing the terms of the legislation to protect the security of pensions, referred to in the Gracious Speech. I only regret that, over that three-year period, other companies have been able to exploit the loopholes in pensions legislation and many people tonight are as insecure as I am in thinking of their futures.
I look forward to the forthcoming legislative Session not just because it is my first opportunity to contribute fully in the debates of the House but because the "legislative calm" referred to by a Conservative Member will allow people to see the extent to which the Government have run out of steam after 15 years in office. That became obvious today when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition outlined the radical opportunities that the Labour party can provide for the future.
In my constituency tonight there will be no great rejoicing at the Queen's Speech because of the missed opportunities within it. During the forthcoming Session I hope to see more compassion for those who have been disadvantaged over the past 15 years. I hope that in Scotland, as in other parts of the United Kingdom, more emphasis will be placed on discussion of the constitution that governs this country, not least in relation to the operation of the House. As a lady Member from a constituency that is some 450 miles away, I am conscious of the fact that there are few lady Members on either side of the House and that the organisation of our business is sometimes a disincentive to participating in it.
The Queen's Speech was a missed opportunity to legislate for a Scottish Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin referred to the opportunity to change the constitutional operations of this House. The establishment of a Scottish Parliament would give us an opportunity to set an example and show how the operation of this House and the other place can move forward into the closing days of the century and, indeed, into the next.
§ Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)
On these occasions one is always tempted to discuss what is not in the Gracious Speech rather than simply concentrate on what is in it. I noticed that it contained no reference to matters such as aircraft, airports or airlines, so I hope that the House will forgive me if I raise a parochial point that needs to be established at this early stage of the Session.
Under the other measures that will be laid before us, the Government may be persuaded that the time has come to invite us to raise the air transport movement limit at Stansted airport, which was imposed as a result of the 76 decision to allow the development of that airport. I hope that the Government will approach that matter with caution because, while the 78,000 figure that has been allowed clearly does not equate in practice to the 8 million passengers per annum throughput to which it was intended to relate, and some adjustment must be made to allow the airport to handle 8 million passengers in due course, the airport owners will obviously be tempted to approach Parliament only once to have the limit adjusted. They would like to see the limit taken away altogether so that they could provide unimpeded for up to 15 million passengers per annum. That option would not be well received in my constituency and I hope that the Government will not be persuaded that the time is opportune, during this Session, to make such a large concession to the airport owners. I fully accept that, at some stage, an adjustment will have to be made to the current figure.
Although it may not require a legislative move, we shall also expect to hear a Government response to the report of RUCATSE, the working party set up to look at runway capacity in the south east. We must face up to that question at some stage. We hope to hear from the Government soon whether and when we need further runway capacity.
We also expect a report from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on the air services agreement with the United States, which is of great commercial concern to this country. The generous offer which he made a few weeks ago to allow American carriers free access to our regional airports and Stansted airport appears to have received no response yet from the other side of the Atlantic and we hope that he can report some progress on that matter as it is crucial to not only our airports but our airlines.
We have reached the time when a Parliament starts to slow the pace, not because the Government are running out of ideas but because that is the right attitude to adopt in order deliberately to allow the measures taken earlier in the Parliament to take effect. We are seeking to do no more than reinforce or bolster what we have already set in hand. I find myself on the side of the consolidators as opposed to those who now want to make radical departures. The people whom I represent are not looking for great radical departures at this juncture. The most important subjects to the British people at this time include education, and the Government recognise that neither the professionals in education nor the parents whose children are in the system want more upheaval. They want a period of consolidation in education.
I welcomed the experiment of grant-maintained schools and I want it to work. I want it to have time to work. I want parents to be increasingly satisfied.
Talking to parents of children at schools that have become grant-maintained, I find that they are extremely pleased, and none of them would wish to revert to the previous position. Opposition Members may have a hard task, at the time of the next general election, to persuade the electorate that they should vote in such a way as to have their grant-maintained schools taken away. However, let us discover the results of that development. A clear advantage is already being demonstrated, and I wish that advantage to continue to be developed.
I would be happy with developments into more nursery education, but I do not want them to take place in such a way that we upset the pre-school playgroup movement, 77 which plays a very important part in pre-school education. I hope that we shall take a distinctly conservative approach to what is obviously an important area of education. Generally, I believe that stability should be stamped on our education policy.
Health is another cause of concern to our constituents. Following the reforms that we initiated in the health service, we are in transition. I do not think that we need too many more reforms on top of reforms, although it is reasonable to tighten up administration.
The Opposition should not suppose, mistakenly, that the only opinion among professionals in the national health service is that the Government have got it wrong. Many people would strongly argue that the trend of the Government reforms is correct, and is working, but that it will require more time for it to be demonstrated to work. People simply want assurance at present that what we have set our hand to is correct, that it will benefit them in the form of treatment that is available faster and as near to home as possible, and that they are in safe hands. I think that we can demonstrate that, given more time.
People are worried about law and order. We have made tremendous strides in legislation. We have taken actions, many of which are controversial and many of which are unacceptable to the Opposition, but we must allow them time to work.
People are worried about their safety. It will help the Conservative party if people begin to realise that there is a continuing downward trend in crime as a result of the measures that have already been taken—not additional measures. That trend has begun to appear at last in the past year. We want that to develop. It is the best thing that we can deliver to our constituents.
I am prepared to acknowledge the modest further privatisation measures in the Gracious Speech. However, Conservative Members should acknowledge that the public have been slow to recognise the benefits of privatisation. One has to drag it out of people that steps that we took to put British Airways into the private sector have been enormously successful, transforming what had been a crippled airline in the public sector, costing us thousands of pounds, into one of the most profitable airlines in the world. When one challenges people on British Telecom, one can cause them to say, "Ah yes, perhaps it has improved rather dramatically". However, at the time of the privatisations there was no great enthusiasm for them, and we know that there has not been any enthusiasm in the Labour party. We should own up to the fact that railway privatisation has yet to be proved.
I am not distressed that the Royal Mail privatisation is the absent course in the banquet of the Gracious Speech. There was a perfectly good commercial case for the privatisation of the Royal Mail, but most of our constituents found it difficult to go along with that. I think, therefore, that a wise pragmatic step has been taken. Let us take the rest of the time in this Parliament to demonstrate that what we have done is working and showing benefits. That will help to prove the credentials of our philosophy against the credentials of the Labour party. We need to demonstrate results.
One of the important subjects that will be discussed in the rest of this Parliament will be the Government's fiscal performance. Undoubtedly, the present unpopularity of the Conservative Government is associated with the fact that taxes have increased, contrary to the expectation at 78 the time of the 1992 general election. In so far as the Opposition wish to be gleeful about that, they are recognising that higher taxes are not popular. They have tried to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Government in that respect, but it will be interesting to see where they end up with their policies, because every word of policy that they breathe has a large expenditure tag attached. It is hard to see the Opposition being on the low tax side of the equation when it comes to the test.
I feel that the electorate wants to return to a low tax regime, and that is what we must deliver. The Labour party is in no position to say that it can deliver a low tax regime. In the Finance Bill presented in this Session, there will not be radical moves towards cuts in the burden of taxation, but if we are sensible—if we consolidate on the progress that we are making—I think that we and the electorate can expect benefits in the rest of the current Parliament.
We should place our greatest emphasis on ensuring that British industry is able to capture a larger market share for its goods in the world. I do not believe that it is possible to achieve the continuing economic growth and increasing employment to which the Gracious Speech refers unless British industry performs more and more effectively. Therefore, it is crucial that the initiatives taken by the Department of Trade and Industry are allowed to develop and take effect in helping all sectors of British industry, small and large, to improve their performance overseas. We must again ensure steady improvement in our training and education policies to help on the supply side and—I hope that this will be included in the Finance Bill—there must be further help for small businesses, which play such an important part in our export effort.
However, we are entitled to recognise that output is up, productivity is up and expenditure on research and development—which is crucial—is up 9 per cent. compared with last year. That is where the success of Government will be measured, and we must try to ensure that that measurement gets bigger and bigger in the remaining years of the current Parliament.
Finally, I refer to the European Communities (Finance) Bill. It seems to me, I say to my hon. Friends, that we are involved in that case with a treaty commitment. If members of the Conservative party believe in the rule of law, what greater demonstration can there be of our adherence to that philosophy than if we are able to deliver on a commitment that we have made in the name of the country?
Of course it is right—and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister laid such emphasis on it—that we must attack the mismanagement, and the scandalous fraud, that takes place in the Community, and we may need greater powers to do so effectively. However, we have to tackle fraud in our social security system in this country, and our answer to that is not to tell people who ask for more help in social security, "I am sorry, you cannot have any because there is so much fraud going on. You must try to get it back from the money that has been wasted on fraud"—of course not. We have to fulfil our social security obligation while we continue to attack the fraud and waste in the social security system. That seems to me the right parallel for us to adopt in terms of the financing of the European Community.
It worries me that people use the arguments about fraud to disguise thinly their opposition to our being in the Community. When we are trying to help British 79 business—because it is on the performance of British business that we depend—it is nonsense to be flirting with the idea that we might not be members of the Community, or that we might be in some second rank of the Community. It creates consternation among our partners in the Community, and confusion among the business people of this country.
We should recognise that there are enormous opportunities for British business in Europe. It should be our priority, during the current Session of Parliament, to ensure that business has the opportunity to maximise those opportunities and thereby obtain progressively better results.
The Government have a clear agenda. That agenda has been set in previous Sessions. Today's Gracious Speech is a supplement to what we have already embarked on. In the speech by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the Leader of the Opposition, I heard nothing of an alternative to the agenda that we have set. His was a kind of staccato manifesto-style speech: he tried to include every buzz word from motherhood to apple pie, but he had no coherent strategy to put before the British people.
It is hard to find an issue, theme or principle on which the Opposition will base their objection to the measures in the Queen's Speech. I fear that they will descend into opportunism, simply trying to pick off points where they can—hoping, perhaps, that the economic recovery will fail and they will be able to cash in. It should be the Government's business to ensure that the economic recovery does not fail, and to do all in their power to help British business and industry to produce that result.
§ Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)
I welcome the Queen's Speech. Its approach to Government policy for the coming Session strikes me as clear and sensible. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), I support the provision of an opportunity for consolidation for both Government and nation. The speech contained measures that will help to strengthen the work that the Government have already done.
Let me begin by commenting on the requests for a change in the approach adopted by the Child Support Agency. A large number of my constituents have a legitimate case against the way in which the CSA has treated them, and there is no doubt that administrative changes are needed; however, changes are also needed in the criteria that are being applied in a number of instances. I am particularly concerned about the way in which the agency overturns—sometimes in the most draconian way—clean-break agreements on the basis of which people have planned the lives of not only their previous families, but the families that they may have in the future. Surely it is not constructive to cause difficulties for both families. I call for considerable changes, on the lines suggested by the Select Committee report.
I also feel strongly that staff and pensioners in pension schemes should be fully represented on pension fund boards. It is vital for legislation to provide that opportunity for full and effective representation. It is interesting to note that the first thing that Robert Maxwell did when he embarked on his nefarious activity of misusing his companies' pension funds was to get rid of 80 the employee representatives on the boards of those funds. We must put that right, and give pensioners the security that they seek, if we are to progress with what I consider to be a very positive result of the Government's approach over the past 15 years—the increase in the number of people who take out pensions for themselves, and in the number of companies that provide additional pension schemes. The proof of the pudding must be in the eating, and people will feel secure only if they are presented with evidence of success.
I welcome the enlargement of the European Community, which has always struck me as right. I am delighted that the Government are pressing forward; we have already seen the result of this country's leadership in that regard, and the leadership of the Prime Minister. I also think, however, that enlargement can work only if we build flexibility into the Europe that Britain wants. We need to be sovereign states working in partnership.
A counter-argument has been advanced; it was mentioned today in an intervention by a Liberal Democrat, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). That argument is that stronger structures will be needed if an enlarged Europe is to work properly. There may be some truth in part of it, but if we try to tie arrangements too tightly through Brussels, we shall not help individual member states whose nationalism remains strong—as, indeed, it should; and it will surely never be stronger than it is in Britain. We must respond to the idea of national sovereignty and patriotism: it is not possible to throw that away and retain the people's support. The closeness of the vote in Sweden demonstrates that. I support the opinion expressed today that it is common sense to view European developments sceptically, but that does not mean—certainly in my case—that one is opposed in any way to the European ideal or the European intention.
So far, we have not seen enough evidence of where the concept of subsidiarity is actually working. I hoped that by now—following Maastricht—we would have seen a raft of examples, produced by our Government, of changes in legislation that had been in the pipeline, but would not now be introduced, as a result of the acceptance of the subsidiarity concept. There is not enough of that yet, but I believe that only such examples will enable us to carry the electorate with the argument for the European Community in the long term.
I was pleased to hear the assurance that, for example, the recent concern all over the country about herbal medicines will not turn out to be justified. As Member of Parliament for Sevenoaks, however, I cannot let the debate pass without airing the concern first expressed today by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Sir P. McNair-Wilson) about the fact that British acorns from British oak trees are now being targeted as being unsuitable for commercial sales within the European Community because our acorns grow trees that are less straight than those elsewhere.
If such controls were imposed, they could have a major effect on Britain's landscape. It is a complete turnround: in the past, because of the curves in their structure, British oaks were ideal for the building of beams and timbers for houses, ships and wagons.
I am not saying that present needs are the same as they were when we built a fleet to defeat Napoleon, but surely this is a matter for free choice in Britain by British people, rather than for interference by Brussels. Unless the 81 position is changed, it is unrealistic for any of us—from the Prime Minister down—to accept that the European Community will benefit our country, and that it is not trying to impose legislation that we could well do without. Subsidiarity—yes: let us have much more of it.
As for the issue of the EC budget, I agree with those who have argued that it is a treaty obligation. Surely, having basically supported the Prime Minister's actions at Maastricht—and Conservative Members certainly did—the House has no option other than to support the agreement; nor should we do otherwise. We should, however, argue strongly for heavy penalties to be imposed both on countries that do not police fraudulent activity properly, and on companies that are found to have carried out such activity. That must be the quid pro quo for Britain to feel that the European Community is beneficial to us.
The Queen's Speech refers to continuing withfirm financial policies designed to support continuing economic growth and rising employment, based on permanently low inflation.Other hon. Members have mentioned the importance of lowering taxation overall. The Conservative party believes in that and will carry it out when it is prudent to do so.
I should like to air what I accept is not always the current philosophy among Conservatives. I do not feel that it is inevitable that a Conservative Government should take income tax only one way. Income tax is a tried and proven method of raising public finance. It is generally regarded as fair because it is a progressive tax and it is effective and flexible. I would be uneasy if my party felt that the extension or deepening of VAT was the only way to raise taxes rather than being prepared to raise income tax if that became necessary.
If we are to win back support in Britain, we will need to lower tax overall before the next general election. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor on his approach so far. As a result of the Government's sensible financial policies and with the recession ending, production in British industry increasing and an excellent export record, I believe that by cutting public spending and building up the tax base with a revived British industry, we shall be able to bring tax down before the next general election. I am confident of that.
I am talking in the longer term, when Conservatives are in power yet again as I hope and intend that we shall be. There is nothing historic in Conservative philosophy or practice which ties us to look only for lower and lower levels of income tax, irrespective of the position of the economy. Income tax is a flexible tool that can be raised or lowered sensibly. That flexibility is not necessarily present in the application of VAT.
I do not back off from the fact that I was a supporter of the imposition of VAT on fuel. However, when one imposes a tax that requires the provision of relief for a large proportion of the population on whom that tax will bear unreasonably heavily, it raises the question of whether that tax method is the most sensible one available.
I welcome the move to establish new arrangements for reforming the agricultural tenancy laws in England and Wales. That has been on the agenda for a long time. I represent a constituency with a considerable rural element and I know that there have been discussions between the Government, the National Farmers Union, the Country 82 Landowners Association and many other interested parties. Those discussions have produced a reasonably agreed way forward. That is an example of the Government taking trouble with their legislation before introducing it and I welcome that positive step forward.
Part of the Queen's Speech deals with lessening the levels of management in the national health service and with the provisions for mentally ill patients. I share the concern of many at the increase in the number of managers in the health service. I accept that we started with a service in which there was very little idea about how much it cost to deliver services to patients. That. had to change. In order to achieve that we needed people with financial and administrative expertise and with the authority to make the necessary changes in the way in which the health service was run and in the provision of information on which management could make informed decisions. All that requires increased numbers of management. However, that must not be allowed to get out of hand. There is no doubt that there is some public concern about this.
General practitioners are burdened by the amount of information that they have to produce. They accept that some of it may be necessary and, in many cases, they are even prepared to accept that most of it may be necessary. However, they ask for increased feedback. They want to know what the information is used for and whether it is of real value because its collection takes up a lot of time. It is important that the steps that the Government take should lessen the layers of management. I hope thai the changes will focus on the need to ensure that all the information that is being collected is shown to be useful. That knowledge must be fed back to the people involved in its collection.
I am concerned about the operation of the health service for the mentally ill. There will be new legislation to deal with the help given to people with a serious mental disorder who have been discharged from hospital. The new legislation will ensure that they are cared for under supervision. My plea is that my Government ensure that the proposals are practical. However good the system of supervision may be on paper, it is no good if it cannot be delivered in practice. The professionals in the mental health service wanted to get patients out into the community wherever that was possible. However, perhaps nobody appreciated how difficult it would be for the most seriously ill to be supervised effectively. The legislation will be aimed at plugging those holes to ensure that supervision is more effective than it has been, but it must be practical.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
My hon. Friend is making a number of points with which I agree warmly. Provision for the mentally ill is particularly important and I hope that my hon. Friend and the Government will realise that practices vary across the country. In some areas, including my area of Somerset, the health and social services authorities have done well in coping with the opportunities that they have. In other areas, particularly nearer the home counties, things have not been so satisfactory. I hope that when implementing the legislation the Government will listen to those who deal with these matters, particularly organisations such as the National Schizophrenia Fellowship.
§ Mr. Wolfson
I agree that there is a variety of provision and that is to be expected at this stage in a new 83 development. That does not suggest that the policy is wrong. There is a recent example in my constituency where a mentally unwell patient has been strongly supported by his local community. There could hardly be a community in a small area that is better able to offer support and the people are positive about wishing to provide that support. Nevertheless, there is great unease and uncertainty among local people about what sort of supervision is available for that individual and how it is being carried out. If that is a difficulty in the situation that I have described, how very much greater the difficulty will be in inner cities, where resources are stretched in a major way and where large numbers of people require the services. I ask for that argument to be given careful attention when the legislation is introduced. One is looking for practical, not theoretical answers.
I welcome the commitment to involve the private sector to build the high-speed rail link between London and the channel tunnel, for which I have argued in the House for a long time. At the beginning, I said that the project would require public money if it were to be achieved. I proved to be right on that. There will be a partnership between the private sector and the Government to achieve that link, which is proper. We need to achieve that as rapidly as possible.
A number of hon. Members have referred to the lack of a measure to privatise the Post Office. I supported privatisation and I regret that it is not being introduced, but I am not getting hugely fussed about the matter. Conservative Members exercised a proper role in arguing against privatisation. The point was made earlier in the debate that we should demonstrate the effectiveness of our privatisation policy—perhaps British Telecom is the best example of all—when we consider people's common concerns about privatisation of the Post Office. Similar concerns were aired at the time of privatisation of British Telecom, which has been hugely effective. I hope that we shall return to the issue.
I welcome greatly the policy in Northern Ireland. I pay great tribute to the achievement of the Prime Minister and of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in making the opportunity for the peace process. The benefit from achieving peace not only to the Province, but to the British taxpayer, will be enormous.
We have all been affected by concerns about terrorism close to home and further away. The way in which the people of the Province have continued their lives, business life, education and day-to-day living, despite terrorism, is remarkable. They have demonstrated, as I hope the House has and will continue to do, that terrorism will not triumph. All hon. Members knew that there would never be a military solution in Northern Ireland. It required a political solution and we are moving effectively towards achieving that. Long may the process continue positively.
On crime, I note that, despite a number of measures mentioned to promote law and order reform, no mention is made of what I consider to be one of the major drawbacks to achieving public confidence in the law process: delays in bringing cases to court and in bringing them to completion and sentence. Often, completion takes place so long after the crime has been committed that it is even more difficult for the public to appreciate the connection. If attention were paid to gearing the courts 84 and our criminal justice system to deal with prosecutions with far greater dispatch, that would act as an increased deterrent.
The legal profession does this country no service when it makes too much use of delaying tactics. Obviously, that should be balanced with the desire for fairness and for the opportunity to prepare a just and proper case and to argue it in court. All too often, however, delays are sought and, in the end, they do not do the name of British justice any good.
I strongly support the measures outlined in the Queen's Speech and I shall look forward to supporting the Government.
§ 8.4 pm
§ Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)
As a member of the Opposition Whips Office, I had not expected to speak tonight, but I am not one to let an opportunity pass. Opposition Whips are less restricted than Government Whips in their capacity to speak in the Chamber. There is a good reason for that, and it can be summed up simply: Government Whips are paid and Opposition Whips work voluntarily. I do not apologise for taking this opportunity to comment on the Gracious Speech.
I disagreed with much of the speech made by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson), but I agreed with two points: first, that involving the English oak. The fact that European Community legislation was due to affect it was news to me. Before I came to the House, I was a lecturer in horticulture, and one of the characteristics of the English oak, whose botanical name is Quercus robur, is its distinctive shape. No amount of EC legislation will change that; only prolonged and extensive genetic engineering over many years could do so.
Secondly, I agreed with the hon. Gentleman when he said that hon. Members on both sides of the House support the moves to achieve peace in Northern Ireland. We watch that matter with great interest.
The Gracious Speech was sparse. Perhaps of necessity, I shall concentrate on some of the things that should have been included. It is amazing that the Government have run short of legislation after 15 years in office. That has happened largely, perhaps, because they have become so enshrined in their own dogma that they do not have the capacity for new or original thought.
It is sad that the Government have run short of steam at this stage. Largely because of their having been in office for 15 years, the need for a progressive legislative programme has never been greater. It is clear that they do not have the capacity to deliver such a programme. I regard the Prime Minister's threat of an early general election more as a promise. I hope that the Government will move aside and let the Opposition implement a progressive programme of legislation.
The Gracious Speech has all the signs that the Government have run out of steam. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), who hopes to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) are at the vanguard of the push for a Scottish Children Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is a great specialist in that sector.
85 In Scotland, there has been great all-party demand for a Scottish Children Bill. All sides have agreed that it is necessary. I understand that suggestions have been made to the Government through the usual channels that the new procedures in the Scottish Grand Committee might allow much of the discussion on such a legislative programme to be kept off the Floor of the House so that we could make progress. We all know how much a Scottish Bill is needed.
§ Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to that Bill. He will know that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) sat on the Committee that considered the Children Act 1989. The Government promised at the time that it would be extended to Scotland. We are still waiting for that promise to be kept. Anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) could do to expedite the measure would be most helpful.
§ Mr. McMaster
As I have told my hon. Friend before, I have read his excellent and harrowing book on the Cleveland case. It exemplified the need for a Children Act in England and Wales. Following the Orkney case, I believe that we very much need such an Act in Scotland.
It is sad that that has been referred to today only by nods and winks. It is not in the Gracious Speech itself, but we had a nod and a wink from the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), who seconded the motion and said that it was hoped that something would be done. But that will not be taken as a guarantee by anyone on the Opposition benches or anyone outside the House, because we want to see exactly what a Scottish Children Bill might contain.
All Scottish Members should note that a draft Bill is, in fact, lying on the Table and is ready to be picked up and debated, because the whole of the movement, which encompasses all the political parties in Scotland, has been working on this for some time.
Since entering the House, and indeed before, I have always taken a particular interest in the rights of disabled people, and until recently I was secretary of the all-party disablement group. I give a very cautious welcome to the fact that discrimination against disabled people is at last mentioned in a Gracious Speech. However, I am a bit suspicious about exactly what the Government propose.
The Prime Minister said today that the Bill would include legislation to outlaw discrimination in employment. I must tell the Prime Minister and Conservative Members that one cannot outlaw discrimination in a piecemeal fashion. One either believes that disabled people are full and equal citizens or one does not. There are no halfway houses.
We must try to get across to the Government—after the disgraceful debacle earlier this year on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill—that disability should no longer be a health issue. It should no longer be an employment issue. It is, quite simply, a rights issue. It is an issue of disabled people having the right to be full and equal citizens.
I can tell the Prime Minister that anything less will not be welcomed by the disability lobby in the United Kingdom. Some 6.5 million people in this country are disabled. There are 651 parliamentary constituencies. Simple arithmetic tells us that all of us represent about 86 10,000 disabled people. That is perhaps something that Conservative Members would be wise to take into account as they consider what form a disabled persons Bill should take.
I recall that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill failed not because the Government argued against its substance, but because it ran out of time. It was talked out. We all remember what happened, and it was a disgrace to this place. I could not help thinking about it during the summer recess. The Bill needed only one and a half minutes to get through. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Dr. Berry) said that he would accept the Government's amendments, yet the Bill ran out of time immediately before the House rose for its 13-week recess.
Those arguments will not wash again with disabled people. If the Government are opposed to civil rights for disabled people, they should have the guts to say so, and to vote that way.
The only reason of any substance given for opposition to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was its costs. It should be noted that its costs, as portrayed by the Government, were calculated on a cost analysis, not a cost benefit analysis. The way in which those figures were calculated was very dubious: there was double accounting, and the cost analysis assumed a time scale that was never assumed by the Bill. Has the cost of the proposed Bill been assessed? Will it be assessed more accurately and more fairly than the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was last year?
The House could do a lot better for disabled people. Today I had the pleasure of bringing my mother and father to the state opening of Parliament. My father, a fairly fit and agile man, who nevertheless occasionally needs the use of a walking stick, came through the Norman porch and was asked by the attendant whether his walking stick was absolutely essential. My father said that he thought that he could manage the stairs without it, so they took it from him. He managed to climb the stairs.
Later, after we came out of the Royal Gallery, by the route suggested on his ticket, we had to go downstairs to collect his stick and were told that it had been moved upstairs. Staff at the Houses of Parliament are taking walking sticks away from people and telling them to go upstairs to collect them. If that is our attitude towards disabled people, discrimination legislation is necessary.
A better example than that, perhaps, was the massive lobby earlier this year in Westminster Hall. The Hall was packed with disabled people. It was the biggest lobby, perhaps, that the House has seen for some years. An announcement portrayed the Government's attitude towards disabled people to me. It said, "Any disabled person needing to use the toilet should do so now, because the disabled toilets are about to be removed." If that is not an exact sign of the Government's attitude towards disabled people, I do not know what is.
I shall also mention, in relation to disabled people, the forgotten army of carers, who we all have in our constituencies. Often—not by choice, but because a loved one becomes ill with a physical or mental disability, or both—they are forced to spend 24 hours a day caring for their loved one. There is obviously a need for resources, and we know that they must be examined closely.
There is a need for all the Government agencies, and the local government agencies and voluntary organisations, to adopt a flexible approach to care, but 87 they cannot do that unless they have a framework in which to provide that care. There is so often a need for respite care for the carers. Sometimes, a week or a fortnight's break could make all the difference.
I shall mention another glaring absence from the Gracious Speech. Many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, participated last Sunday in the armistice services throughout the country. I was hoping to participate in the three services in my constituency, as I have done for the past 20 years, but unfortunately was on a plane returning from America that was diverted to Gatwick airport, and so did not arrive in Paisley in time.
Many of us would have participated in those services. It is not good enough for any of us to remember those veterans once a year. What is urgently needed—the British Legion tells us this, as do organisations such as the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association—is a Department of Veterans' Affairs, not at Cabinet level, but at one removed; a sub-department of the Ministry of Defence.
At the moment, veterans of the armed services have to find their way through a maze, dealing with many Government Departments and sub-departments to try to sort out pensions, or disability allowances, perhaps to claim a medal, or whatever. There is a glaring need for such a Department to be set up as a one-stop shop.
America has met the need for comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation for the disabled and a Department of Veterans' Affairs ahead of us. Not only that, but America did so under President Bush, who was hardly noted for his left-wing credentials. He thought that those things were important enough to be done. I urge the Government to take a similar attitude.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) spoke about the housing situation in Scotland, which has become worse and worse over the past 15 or 20 years. I see that the Minister responsible for housing in Scotland is in his place, and I acknowledge that many good things have happened, too. I especially welcome his recent announcement concerning investment in my constituency.
I want to draw the attention of the House to what is happening to Scottish Homes tenants throughout Scotland. Scottish Homes is a large housing provider, and provides investment for the private and voluntary sectors. It has now decided that it no longer wishes to be a landlord. The members of its board are all appointees of the Secretary of State, and although the Government claim that there is a degree of independence, I find that rather difficult to believe.
I am not entirely happy with the decision, but I could live with it if Scottish Homes intended to give tenants a real choice as to who their new landlord would be. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Springburn said, tenants have been told that they will certainly not be allowed to opt in to local authority control, even if that is their desire. They will not be given more than one take-it-or-leave-it choice. Scottish Homes local management will decide which option to put to the tenants in an area, and the tenants will be able to decide whether to accept it.
88 That is reminiscent of some of the elections in the worst days of the Soviet Union. I do not say that those people should be forced to remain Scottish Homes tenants; I do not even say that they should be forced to move to local authority control. But if they are to be moved at all, they should at least be given a real choice. They should have not one take-it-or-leave-it, like-it-or-lump-it choice, but a genuine choice.
Furthermore, local authority housing in Scotland would not qualify for the additional resources that will be made available to the new housing associations that win ballots. That is the spectacle in the Scottish Homes areas at the moment. The management have told the tenants that they will offered a new housing association, and that, if they accept that choice, they will get the advantage of additional resources not available to local authorities. But if the choice is to be free and fair, it should include more options, and there should be a level playing field, with the extra resources being made available to local authorities, too.
One of my pet hates is hearing people tell me that they are fed up with paying council tax to subsidise council housing. I am not sure what happens in England and Wales, but for several years the housing revenue accounts in Scotland have been completely self-financing. Many of the people who make that complaint are owner-occupiers, as I am, and we get mortgage tax relief. We benefit from the Exchequer, whereas, in proportion to their income, council house tenants are perhaps the most heavily taxed people in Britain. That must be changed.
My speech would not be complete unless I mentioned the Child Support Agency. Most other hon. Members who have spoken so far have mentioned it. I shall not dwell on the subject, because many of the arguments already advanced have reflected what I wanted to say. The agency has caused genuine heartbreak to many people. There are many stories in the newspapers about people attempting suicide, sometimes successfully, and at least some of those stories are only too credible.
The Government must deal with the problem. They must examine the clean-break arrangements that many people made when they were first estranged. They must take into consideration the problems of fathers and mothers whose children live some distance away. If those people are to be caring parents, they need some resources to visit their children or to allow the children to visit them. Those are just a couple of examples of the aspects that need to be dealt with.
There is also the gross inefficiency of the administration of the Child Support Agency. I am fed up with getting standard letters in reply to the detailed accounts of cases in which I have tried to encapsulate the particular problems of a constituent. The agency's replies seem to consist of standard paragraphs in a random order, and that is not good enough.
I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) is in the Chamber. He has fought a concerted campaign about how difficult it is for hon. Members to get through to Ministers now, because we are fobbed off and our letters passed on to executive agencies. That is bad enough, but often the executive agencies do not even have the courtesy to reply to our questions. That is not good enough in a healthy democracy.
89 Another problem that needs an early resolution is the continuing legal battle between the Government and the European Court about women currently in receipt of invalidity benefit who now find that they are not entitled to it until they are 65, so they cannot pick up the benefit when they retire. I am sure that hon. Members will have received many letters on that subject. The problem desperately needs to be sorted out; there is no doubt that it is an example of discrimination against women.
Perhaps above all else, I should have liked to hear in the Gracious Speech an announcement of a measure to abandon the Government's plans to impose VAT at 17.5 per cent. on fuel. However, we live in hope—although not much hope—that there may be something in the Budget to deal with that. If VAT is imposed, it will cause genuine hardship to many people, especially pensioners, throughout the country.
I had a letter today from South End Elderly Forum, in my constituency, asking a pertinent question—when the pension increase has been assessed at 2.2 per cent., why are Members of the House of Commons getting an increase of 4.7 per cent.? The Government might find that difficult to explain to the pensioners, although we know why it is happening. It is because the Government broke the link between pensions and prices or incomes, whichever was the higher—a decision that has caused untold hardship.
I shall finish with a comment that I hope has some support on both sides of the House; it should have. It is on a subject that we mention little enough in the House. Many of us come from a local government background, and we should not forget that background when we come here. In the light of the current debate in the press about Members' interests, I do not think that any Member of the House should feel hard done by in comparison with the lot of elected local councillors.
Local councillors often work 50, 60 or 70 hours a week—the equivalent of full-time work—for an income of £60 or £70 a week. It is time that the House recognised that elected local councillors have a job to do. In many large authorities, it is an extremely responsible job, and it cannot be done on a part-time or totally voluntary basis.
I hope that, during the year, the Government will find time to examine the remuneration of councillors—a suggestion that has some support among councillors of all political parties. Too often, councillors are at the sharp end. They get all the criticism and quite often they are blamed for things that are the fault of this place. Yet they do not get any recompense.
I remember when I was leader of a local authority and was working as a lecturer in a Glasgow college. One day, as I left the college, the principal said to me, "Is that you going away already?" I got to the council buildings and met the provost, who said, "Is that you just here?" That is the pressure on many elected local representatives.
The Gracious Speech refers to a Bill to introduce a job seeker's allowance. I wonder whether some Conservative Members should declare an interest in the matter. I very much suspect that, after the next general election, many of them will be the first to benefit from the allowance.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
A number of the points made by the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) will be echoed in my speech. However, I point 90 out to him that the Labour party has, I believe, now receded from its original pledge to restore the pensions-earnings link, for good spending policy reasons. All pensioners should be aware of that.
I am not one who believes that a programme packed full of legislation necessarily means a better-administered country. Debating, and passing, new legislation is not the only task of this House. This year gives us a considerable opportunity, through Question Time, through set-piece debates and especially through the work of the Select Committees, to play an important part in improving the administration of the country and in improving the performance of existing legislation by ensuring that it is implemented properly.
It is fair to say that Bills needed to be amended heavily, either in their later stages in this Chamber or in the other place. Some legislation has passed on to the statute book in a not entirely satisfactory state. A number of speakers have referred to the Child Support Act 1991, which was passed just before the general election. The Opposition had every reason to spot the deficiencies in that Act and to make much of them. They fell down on their job just as, I am sorry to say, some of my right hon. and hon. Friends fell down on their job in terms of not spotting the deficiencies, especially those relating to the financial formula, which have now become all too clear.
I hope that an effort will be made early this Session to implement the recommendations of the Select Committee on Social Security. I hope that that can be done without legislation because it will mean that it can be done speedily. Whether or not the recommendations require legislation, they need to be carried out. That is an important objective for which I and a number of my hon. Friends shall look this year.
Having expressed a caveat about legislation, I stress that I welcome a number of measures in the Gracious Speech. Two especially will be welcomed in my constituency and in the south-west generally. They are the proposed legislation on agricultural tenancies and—I understand that this will be included in the legislation on the environment agency—the measure to establlish national parks as free-standing agencies. Exmoor national park is in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), who has been promoted, made a vigorous attempt in the previous Session to ensure the passage of the National Parks Bill, which originated in another place and which would have achieved that effect. Such legislation is Government legislation and that is why it is right to go down that route.
Another item that will be welcomed in my constituency is the intention to legislate for disabled people. I was one of the Members who came to the House on a Friday prepared to support my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) if his motion came to the vote. It did not. I wanted to see progress made in the previous Session on this important issue. I hope that we shall see significant but realistic progress in the current Session. The work and the eventual report of the Select Committee on Employment, of which I am a member, will be helpful and relevant to that legislation.
I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice), the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, on the Front Bench because I want to enter a caveat about a matter related to disablement. I see in the press reports that the Government are considering, perhaps as a sop to some of 91 the dissidents in this party—although I cannot imagine any mentality that would regard it as an attractive sop—doing something rather drastic to the industrial injuries arrangements.
I should welcome clarification and great care on the matter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I would not necessarily object to taking the provision of compensation for industrial injuries away from the taxpayer. However, various questions are begged. If, for example, responsibility fell entirely on an employer, it is possible that a small business, hard pressed financially, could go bankrupt as a result of a significant compensation claim. I do not find acceptable the suggestion that I have seen in the press that employees who are injured should get compensation only if they are prepared to sue their employer. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) made the point earlier about the delays and difficulties in getting litigation into the courts and we are all aware of the difficulties in getting legal aid in such matters. We must be careful about that matter and I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary listening to that point.
I also welcome the proposed legislation to promote increased competition in the gas industry. That will help to reduce costs to consumers, which is extremely relevant at present as we are moving towards, probably, a further increase in VAT on gas and electricity, as the hon. Member for Paisley, South mentioned. We need to be vigilant to ensure that small-scale users of gas benefit from the legislation. I do not mean only poor people who, for various reasons, use little gas. Let us consider, for example, a household that has only recently been connected to gas. A number of its implements may run on electricity or oil, so it will not use much gas. We must also be careful about the possibility, which has been rumoured, of increasing standing charges. There is much argument about standing charges. I believe that, at a modest level, they are understandable and justifiable, but I would not want to see a hike in standing charges as part of the process.
I also welcome the proposed legislation on the national health service. The measure on NHS management will give us the opportunity to bear down on the cost of administration and on the numbers involved at all levels, not only at regional level. It will also give us the opportunity to explain why, on the face of it, there has been an increase in managers. I believe that it is a way in which to ensure that this huge service, which costs so much money, continues to work efficiently—indeed, more efficiently.
I also welcome, as I said during an intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, the proposed legislation to ensure proper care for people with mental disorders who are discharged from hospital. There is enormous concern and sensitivity about the issue in my constituency and elsewhere. The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has considered one or two cases in which things have gone wrong, in that people with mental disabilities have not been cared for properly. The proposed legislation provides an important opportunity which we shall want to pursue.
One other point on the NHS relates to what I want to say later on privatisation. It is occasionally suggested, as it was with regard to the railways or the Post Office, that 92 the only way in which to get significant efficiency improvements in public services or public utilities is to transfer ownership—to privatise. It may, regrettably, be true that that is the only way in which to get improvements. My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) mentioned significant improvements in British Airways and British Telecom.
However, if that were true, it would be a damning indictment on those responsible for managing those services. The national health service, we must remember, is a clear example of a public service which will remain in the public sector. The Prime Minister gave a very passionate personal pledge, based on his own experience, to that effect at Bournemouth last month. Yet, while remaining in the public sector, the national health service is improving its efficiency and the reforms that we are carrying through are designed to improve that efficiency. A number of us would never have backed those reforms if we had not believed that they would improve efficiency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden also made the point that, on Europe, he believed that the Prime Minister was right to treat the Bill mentioned in the Gracious Speech as an issue of confidence. The Prime Minister was right to make that clear now and not to wait until people take up positions and mess about over the coming weeks because it is not like the other legislation that will come before the House. It is legislation designed to implement an international agreement. In effect, our honour is involved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden said. That does not mean to say that we all profess ourselves happy with the way in which the European Community organises its finances. Several hon. Members have referred to the appalling level of fraud in the European Community. We must make parallel progress on fraud and increasing the resources of the European Community.
There are a number of nonsensical ways in which the Community organises its finances. For example, I understand that tobacco growing receives a vast subsidy from the European Community, in the common agricultural policy, yet on the other hand, individual countries—it is a very prominent problem in this country and among the medical profession—are taxing the consumption of tobacco so as to reduce consumption. Indeed, we are constantly lobbied about the desirability of banning tobacco advertising.
Another example of nonsense in the European Community is that the system of raising money for the Community is not related to the gross domestic product of the individual nations. It is an historical anomaly. It was originally related, I believe, to the extent of trade which countries had outside Europe. That was the situation when we joined in 1973. It is now 21 years later and we need to begin to move towards a fairer and better-based system of raising resources for the EC.
While on the subject of the European Community, I shall mention another matter. The hon. Member for Paisley, South referred to ex-service men. Regrettably, over the past few days it seems that cases involving pregnant service women will come before the courts and may involve the payment of telephone-number sums of money to certain individuals. I and my constituents find it extraordinarily offensive that the taxpayer should be milked of that money, when at the same time there must be thousands of veterans who were honourably wounded and injured in their country's service, through both the 93 great wars and in other disputes, who on the whole have received very small sums of compensation for those injuries. It would be an extraordinary nonsense if our courts were forced by foreign legal processes to disgorge vast sums to those particular individuals.
The Minister knows that I am a positive European. I very much support progress towards an effective and progressive European Community. I would be reasonably relaxed if the House were, in due course, to take deliberate decisions on single currency, monetary union, defence community and such matters, provided that they were taken deliberately. The idea that our legislation, which we have deliberately passed, should be set aside by individuals appealing to a foreign court is offensive. The example of the pregnant service women is even more offensive and I hope that it can be averted in some way. Otherwise, it would form a thread, more than the other issues affecting Europe, which, if pulled, could bring down the whole paraphernalia, which I would regret very much. It would cause tremendous hostility to European progress in this country.
The Leader of the Opposition reinforced, I am sorry to say, the myth generated by the media and by some of my hon. Friends about Post Office privatisation. He said, and the media said at the time, that 340 Conservative Members were as keen as mustard on Post Office privatisation and that only a tiny group, the members of which could be counted on the fingers of one hand, were spoil sports and prevented the progression of that measure. I was involved in some of the meetings and discussions which took place and I must say that that is complete rubbish. Not only were the intended dissidents much more numerous, but many of those who, out of loyalty, might well have supported Post Office privatisation, would have done so reluctantly. Therefore, I welcome the omission of that measure from the Gracious Speech.
I read in The Sunday Times, so it must be true, that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), who was one of those critical of the Government's retreat over Post Office privatisation, is about to produce a pamphlet which, among other things, will call on Conservative activists in the constituencies to play a role in electing the leadership of the party. At our leisure, we may care to reflect that the Conservative party has been in government for 15 years and the Labour party has been in opposition for 15 years. I believe that there is a causal connection between that fact and the power given to activists in the Labour party. Some power has always been there and, of course, some power just after 1979 was brought in to elect the leaders.
Whatever view we take on that, I believe that my party should certainly go down the route of consulting more closely its constituency activists. The Prime Minister has done very well in meeting them over the past 18 months and I am grateful to him for making that effort, especially in the south-west. However, if constituency activists had been consulted over Post Office privatisation, the whole thing would have been dead in the cradle. It would have fallen at the first fence. It is a tribute to his persuasive powers, and to the fact that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is a big beast of the jungle, that the measure got as far round the track as it did.
The withdrawal of that measure gives us breathing space to consider how we need to help our Post Office retain its effectiveness and its market share and also to 94 see in a balanced way, not just as ideological propaganda, what our foreign competitors are doing. The claim being made that the Dutch post office is being privatised is rather far-stretched. The Dutch post office is still responsible for telecommunications and 30 per cent. only of the whole process is being privatised. We privatised telecommunications some 10 years ago, so we should look at the facts before we go further down that route of privatisation.
As I said in a speech earlier in the year, our constituency supporters are anxious for consolidation—for example, anxious to see the consolidation of the considerable changes that have taken place in education and health. Also, we have carried through important legislation over the past year in criminal justice, law and order and in deregulation, on which we need to build. The Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 is largely only an enabling Act. The Somerset journalist Christopher Booker claims that it will not have the effect that many people want it to have. We have to work this year, if we are not busy passing contentious legislation, to ensure that those changes occur and that they produce the desired results.
If some of my hon. Friends, in this Parliament, want to go down the route of perpetual revolution, I suggest that perhaps they ought to stand not as Conservatives—I attach some meaning to the term "Conservative"—but as perpetual revolutionary candidates. They might find that they would get rather fewer votes than the Devon branch of the Literal Democrat party and, possibly, only slightly more votes than the Natural Law party.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
I sense that the hon. Gentleman is coming to the end of his remarks which, in many respects, have been refreshingly frank. However, he has not given us the benefit of his views on the job seeker's allowance. Does he share the Labour parity's view that we had an insured benefit, the contributions to which have increased by 40 per cent., while the benefit itself has been cut by 25 per cent. over 15 years? The Government intend to keep the contributions at 40 per cent., but will cut the benefit in half. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is not a reform? It is simply a matter of giving a fancy name to an existing benefit. It is not a reform, it is a disguised confidence trick.
§ Mr. Nicholson
The hon. Gentleman should not draw me into subjects on which I had not intended to comment. From what I have heard of the proposals, I am happy that they should continue to provide assistance and an incentive to job seekers.
I listened with interest to the Leader of the Opposition. He started a new device which I do not believe he will be able to continue in many of his speeches. He gave way to interventions in quick succession. To some extent, that eclipsed the fact that he did not give a considered or effective reply to any of the interventions. Perhaps he hoped that no one would notice that while he was busy giving way to another intervention.
There appeared to be very little flesh on the bones of the speech made by the Leader of the Opposition. In contrast, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was able to draw on facts, figures and definite indications, particularly of economic progress. While I have not referred to economic progress so far today, I believe that 95 it is happening all the time. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be glad to know that unemployment has fallen by 400,000 over the past two years.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out, we are regaining market share and obtaining investment from the United States and Japan. That investment would not come here if we were to leave the European Community. Over the next year, I hope that we will not be sidetracked by contentious issues which would upset the electorate, and that the electorate will have time to perceive the considerable progress and success that we have achieved and will continue to achieve.
§ Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)
It must be heartening for the Opposition Deputy Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), who is on the Opposition Front Bench, that there are Conservative Members who are as self-disciplined as Labour Members when it comes to supporting their party on certain issues.
As I read the Gracious Speech today, I tried to find a terminology for the myth that is being perpetrated about the state of this country, what the Government have done to it and what they plan to do with the 13 Bills to which the Prime Minister referred. I had to draw on times when I had time to develop a hinterland in my reading. It came to me that it was all rather like "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest". That is a book about people in an establishment for people who are supposed to be mentally ill. Some of the people there are mentally ill, but others are just pretending. I am not sure whether the Government believe what they are talking about or whether they are just as mad as they appear to be.
I am a little younger than some and I have not seen "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". However, I am told that this is rather like a Walter Mitty world. In my youth, I saw "Billy Liar" although I know that "liar" is a term that is unacceptable in the House. "Billy Liar" is about someone who genuinely deludes himself. We are told that the Gracious Speech is a consolidating Gracious Speech. It appears to me, when I consider what the Government have done to the economy and to the people of this country, that it consolidates on failure.
The Government talk about speeding up. From my physics studies I recall that one can drop at 32 ft per second per second. That is the speed of acceleration of gravity. The Government claim to be going faster than they were before and to be catching up. I suggest that they are plummeting and obeying the law of gravity. They are getting into a worse state at an ever-increasing rate.
The Gracious Speech refers to "continuing economic growth". In the early 1980s, the Government destroyed the manufacturing base of this economy. They called that slimming down. They did not slim down; they sacrificed the economic base of the economy. That was an irresponsible act of economic suicide.
I have a degree in economics. Anyone with a background or interest in economics should consider our colleagues in the European Union and ask which of them is as badly equipped as the United Kingdom to deal with the upturn which is likely to come when the German 96 economy begins to pick up after swallowing east Germany and begins to get on with the business of growing.
The United Kingdom economy will not be well placed to deal with such an upturn in its free market Hayekian model followed by Chancellor after Chancellor. Although we called the previous Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, a monetarist, there is no evidence that she was one. She was simply a free market neo-liberal who was willing to allow the market to take whatever revenge on the economy it required for its own profit.
Let us consider some of the facts. Reference has been made to rising employment. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) showed that he was living in the world of Walter Mitty or Billy Liar when he referred to 400,000 fewer unemployed people. Recent statistics about people receiving income support show that the number receiving category E income support—income support for disability, sickness or single parenthood—is now 2 million. This year, 500,000 more people than last year were receiving income support for that category alone.
The recession is still biting hardest in the south-east of England, although the Conservatives are sadly trying to delude themselves that there has been a turnround there. There has been a 63 per cent. increase in registration for income support in the category to which I referred because the Government are disguising the true number of unemployed people. Those people cannot find employment. They are on income support and are not registered as unemployed.
Just before the recess, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that we should not consider such statistics. He said that we should not consider the number of people receiving benefits as that would give a figure of 5 million. He said that we should consider the work force count. I have examined the work force count in the United Kingdom and in Scotland. A comparison of the statistics in May 1990 and May 1994 show that there are 1,996,000 fewer people registered as employed in the United Kingdom economy.
The relevant figures for Scotland, in which I obviously have a special interest, show that there are 55,000 fewer employed people in the work force count in 1994 than in 1991, which was the last peak of employment in Scotland. It is strange that there were only 900 new registrations as unemployed in Scotland last year, but 23,000 new registrations for income support under section E.
That is the reality of the supposed rise in employment. Employment is not rising in this country. There are now 25 million people—(Interruption.] As usual, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) shouts out an expletive rather than something sensible. If he were to go to the Library and examine the statistics and economic trends produced by the Government's researchers, he would find that only 25 million people are employed in this economy. Six million of those are part-time employees. There are 19 million people supporting the economy out of 56 million people. That is what the Conservatives have done to our economy. That is what their fiction of rising employment and economic growth really amounts to.
The Gracious Speech mentions fiscal policy. One thing that the Government refuse to face is manufacturing industry's demand for a decent tax allowance system to allow it to invest in machinery. The capital formation of 97 our economy must grow at least at 3 per cent. per annum if we are to have growth in the economy. It is about 1.5 per cent. at this moment because we are not receiving the capital investment support for our manufacturing industry that the Engineering Employers Federation and even the Confederation of British Industry are demanding so that we can deal with the supply side of the economy. If the German and other European Union economies turn up, we will have to obtain our supplies from other members of the European Union, because we are not prepared and committed at this moment to supplying our own manufacturing industry with the equipment and support that it requires to take on that challenge.
One measure which I should like to see but which is not mentioned in the Gracious Speech relates to insolvency and the protection of subcontractors and suppliers. One of the biggest dodges in the economy at the moment is to hold payments to the point at which one's company goes bust and debts can be shipped on to someone else. The banks then claim any money that is left. Those who supply the labour—it tends to be small firms—and the materials to construct many buildings receive no recompense when the big man becomes insolvent. The Government talked about that matter in the previous Session, but they have failed to bring forward any proposals.
The Gracious Speech mentions improvingthe working of the labour market".When the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) was an Employment Minister, he asked me to open the Grangemouth jobcentre. I was happy to do so. Taking his invitation at face value, I read up on what was happening in jobcentres. I found that jobcentres fill only 10 per cent. of 10 per cent. of available jobs. They are not reaching the heart of the need for employment and filling jobs with people who need employment. The problem with jobcentres is that they are not equipped or staffed well enough to seek employment as it comes on to the market.
The Gracious Speech mentions promotingincreased competition in the gas industry.I must comment on the way in which the Government's Post Office privatisation aspirations have been silently dumped. We are still waiting for a commitment to give the Post Office commercial freedom. There is no point leaving the Post Office as it is, when it cannot go into the market to borrow capital and equip itself to take on the challenge of the Belgians, French or Dutch who would take bulk mail from Britain and redirect it through their channels back into Britain. It is not enough for the Government to say, "We will not privatise post." We must free the Post Office. We are looking for the conclusion of our argument—that is, the Post Office in the public sector, with commercial freedom.
We hear people talk about the success of British Telecom. By the end of this year, its "success" will be 96,000 redundancies among highly skilled people who worked for British Telecom when it was a public enterprise. It is never good enough to look at the profits; we must look at the economic consequences for the people of our country—the people who require to be fed and to he housed and the people who require an income—not just companies which require profits.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans
The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise that thousands more people are now employed in the telecommunications industry, with Mercury and all 98 the cable operators throughout the country. Thousands more people are involved in telecommunications as a whole. Does the hon. Gentleman argue that BT should have sustained the number of people who were employed in that industry, irrespective of demand for its product?
§ Mr. Connarty
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who often sits in Committee with me, for that intervention. Of course, I do not say that. There are more jobs, but there are not 96,000 more jobs. We have not faced the challenge that BT has made to the Government—to give it freedom to fight off the cable companies and overseas companies that are taking markets that it should have. The Government have brought forward no proposals to provide such commercial freedom.
It is interesting that the Government have made such proposals for the gas industry. The problem is that the Government are not privatising and creating a market. There is no doubt that they have privatised and created regional monopolies in water, electricity, and so on. Just before the summer recess, there was a report from an electricity company that it was going to give the f187 million accumulated excess profits—its words—not to the consumer or to the people who paid for electricity at what has been a 10 per cent. increase in price, but to the shareholder. That is because of the Government's philosophy of profit first. It is not consumer first, it is profit first. That is the philosophy behind their legislation.
The Gracious Speech also refers to the job seeker's allowance. As one of my hon. Friends succinctly said, the job seeker's allowance is an insurable benefit for which people pay which will be cut. It is not that one seeks unemployment. We are told, given the Conservative party's arguments, that after six months people become dependent on a handout—they receive not an insurable unemployment benefit but a handout.
I can draw on a great deal of experience from my constituency. In Grangemouth, where 40 per cent. of North sea oil comes on shore, a constant stream of men are involved in construction and refitting in the chemical industry. There is a constant round of jobseeking. People might get a 14-week contract here or a three-month contract there. If they are lucky, they might get six months in a major contract in one trade; then they are off seeking work again. Because of the number of people in the various trades, such as pipe-fitting, it is not unusual for someone to try for three, four or five of the shutdowns before getting on one.
Such people will be told after six months that they have to go on to income support. Then they will be seen not as unemployed people seeking work but as social security dependants. That is what the job seeker's allowance will do. The idea that it will be an incentive to seek work is wrong. I believe that, in the main, unemployed people seek work all the time. They do not seek to be unemployed. It is an insult to suggest that they do, and the Government should know it.
As for the function of benefits for unemployed people, I have been asked by the Scottish Front Bench to look at skills and training in Scotland. The facts and figures show that the Government do not know how successful their training programmes for young people are. Only 10 per cent. of young people are followed up because of the way in which the Department of Employment seeks the 99 statistics. Ninety per cent. of young people are not followed up, so we do not know what is happening to them.
I hoped that a word might be said in the Queen's Speech about what the Government intend to do in Scotland about youth training. The new apprenticeship scheme, which sounds excellent, turns out to be a scheme which will work in particular against engineering organisations involved in training in Scotland. It might be the same in England and Wales. The Government intend to target more capital to colleges. The colleges will be the providers. Organisations such as the one that I visited in central Lanarkshire on Friday—a charitable organisation set up by employers in the manufacturing industry—will not receive any money from the Government. In that training agency a machine costs £30,000-plus. The agency will never be able to afford to keep up, yet it trains the skilled manufacturing engineers for the future, such as process operators. They will not receive assistance from the Government because of the way in which the Government have structured their support for the new apprenticeship scheme. Nothing was said about that in the Queen's Speech.
§ Mr. Raymond S. Robertson
That is all very well, but how does the hon. Gentleman respond to the fact that Britain has one of the lowest levels of youth unemployment of all the countries in the European Union?
§ Mr. Connarty
If one took all the 16 and 17-year-olds off the register, it would improve the level of unemployment registration in all European Union countries. Which country does that? Only the United Kingdom. People are not allowed to register; they are therefore not unemployed. That is the reality of the way in which we count our figures. So it is a bogus question. It is not a fact.
Talk of equalising the state pension is attractive to many Opposition Members, as I am sure it is to many Conservative Members. However, in the Opposition we do not talk about women not receiving the pension until they are 65. When the Government talked about equalisation a few years ago, the age was to be perhaps 63. That sounded like a good scheme. There would have been slight changes. It could have been supported by all. To make the retirement age for women 65 is just to make women worse off.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) spoke about disabled persons. He knows much more about the needs of disabled persons than I do. For 15 years, I taught people with learning difficulties. Many of them had physical difficulties. I know that one cannot legislate for equality just by saying that it will happen. One has to provide resources to achieve equality. One change that I should like to see may be simply a change of language, but it is important. I notice that the Scottish Sports Council has started to talk about people with disabilities or with special needs. When I taught, we did not talk about mentally handicapped children. Thank goodness, one day we may not talk about people who are disabled. People have disabilities. If we give them the resources, they will show again and again that they can overcome those difficulties.
100 I now turn to what is planned for Scotland. The only mention of Scotland in the Queen's Speech is:Legislation will be introduced to reform the Scottish Criminal Justice system.The idea that the Government can introduce legislation to impose spot fines on people as a contribution to solving a major problem in Scotland is wrong. The problem is that police force numbers in Scotland are inadequate. I was speaking to the chief constable of Central Scotland last week, and he said that what he needed from the Government was more resources for manpower. I was speaking to him about the problem of drugs in our communities and neighbourhoods. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South wishes to intervene or is just waving his hands about.
§ Mr. Raymond S. Robertson
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for intervening again. He is talking about police complement numbers. Why has Labour-controlled Strathclyde refused during the past 15 years to bring its police complement up to the numbers agreed by the Secretary of State?
§ Mr. Connarty
The chief constable of Strathclyde has said that the problem is that the matching funding from the Government is not available. The hon. Gentleman attempts to mislead the House with such a question because he does not accept that the Secretary of State has any control. I am sure that he will accept that 50 per cent. of all police funding comes from the Government and 50 per cent. from the local authority. The money is not there. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South is shouting in the Chamber—I do not know if he has had a good lunch.
It is very important for the Government to talk to the police, and the chief constable of Central Scotland is a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Scotland). He clearly said to me that if the Secretary of State—not his council—funded his force properly, he would have the complement to deal with the problems which I asked him about.
The problem that I mentioned in particular was drug use, and it is clear that that is an increasing problem in our communities. The only way to tackle it is by strong and adequate policing and by adequate education. There is a good drugs initiative in central Scotland, with a Central police officer who has just been seconded in charge for the Scottish Office. I hope that the Secretary of State will seriously bring forward decent resources for that.
We could have done without the proposal for aggravated trespass. I do not know whether hon. Members have received the letters which I have had from many people saying that the measure on aggravated trespass was not required. Many people in Scotland did not abuse the freedom to roam and the Scottish Landowners Federation did not require that provision, but the Government have brought it in.
One thing which I should liked to see in the Queen's Speech, but which, unfortunately, was not, was a proposal banning drinking in the streets. I do not mean sitting out in cafeterias and sidewalks as one would find in most of Europe. Drinking in the streets is one of the biggest threats to and banes of the people of Scotland that I have come across. Elderly people feel trapped in their homes because the street corner has become a place not just for congregating, but for drinking.
101 I believe that certain types of wine which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) are causing problems, but I do not think that we can blame one type of drink. The fact is that young people—even under-age youths—can stand on corners and drink. The buying of drink is illegal if one is under-age, but not the drinking of it. In towns in Scotland I have seen people congregating and passing around vodka, whisky and other strong drinks. The Government should think seriously about banning that. They would clear up a lot of problems and pressures on our communities if they had the courage to do so.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that local authorities can submit draft byelaws for approval from the Scottish Office? Those will be looked at sympathetically, with a view to taking forward the very point which he mentioned.
§ Mr. Connarty
I am aware that there are a number of pilot schemes running in Scotland and that they are well thought of. The point that I am trying to make—I was a member of a licensing board for a number of years—is that if legislation were available, local authorities could ban drinking in the streets without having to make special considerations. If legislation became available to all local authorities, I am sure that they would take it up. The pressure from the public would be for them not to go to the Secretary of State, but to do it themselves. I am sure that authorities would respond at the local level, where they should be responding.
Another aspect of the Scottish system which I have found most disturbing during my two years as an hon. Member is where people carry out heinous acts and then, for some reason, judges give them a light sentence. I know that we are not supposed to murmur judges, but I have been drawn to suggest that certain judges are not really living in the same world as the victims of crime and the people in our communities.
I shall not go into the details, but one such case involved someone who got 200 hours community service for abusing a daughter for 10 years. Recently in my constituency, someone caused the death of a young woman by driving a lorry over the central reservation. The lorry might have been going too fast, but it was impossible to prove because the tachograph was broken. The driver's sentence was reduced to 200 hours of community service. Such cases make people wonder whether the criminal justice system has been turned on its head and whether they can get justice because judges are allowed to pass sentences that are far too light.
Yesterday, in a case in England it was admitted that a much greater sentence would have been imposed under new laws passed for England and Wales. I hope that the same sentences will be available in Scotland and that the Government will let judges know that they are there to serve the public and not some idea of what they consider to be adequate justice.
There was mention of Northern Ireland in the Gracious Speech. Everyone wants peace. When the Downing street announcement was made, I told the House that I had lost a relative in a pub bombing in 1973, at the beginning of the troubles. The relative was not of my generation and was not close, so I did not know him well enough to understand the loss that his family felt. Many other people have been scarred by the experiences of the past 20 years 102 and we all want the peace process to come to a speedy but final conclusion, rather than a rushed conclusion that will later be regretted.
The passage on Northern Ireland is appropriate to other parts of the United Kingdom and I do not say that as a pan-nationalist of any kind. Why is the provision ofa comprehensive political accommodation founded on the principles of democracy and consentnot considered adequate and necessary for Scotland? Why should a Government who raised only 25 per cent. of the votes of the other political parties not bow to the wishes of the majority of people and legislate as they wish? The Government should take some advice from those who are winning the votes and winning people's support. It is important for those principles to be found throughout the United Kingdom. We are a sham of democracy. Unfortunately, the relationship between the Government, Scottish Office Ministers and the people of Scotland is a shameful sham of democracy.
I respect the fact that the determination of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South is a result of his deep-felt need to support the Union. He feels that the only way to do so is by not giving an inch, but he and people like him are seriously deluded. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—a well-known anti-devolutionist for many years—said recently in print and on radio and television that what the Government have done to local government structures in Scotland, without the consent or support of the people, has made him accept that a Scottish Parliament is necessary. That is what has happened because of the Government's lack of understanding of what they are doing to democracy. I remain committed to a united kingdom, but one in which there is subsidiarity in some sense rather than the stupidity that we have at the moment.
I am reminded of what the Government have done on the quango front. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) described it well when he said that we should look back in our history books. When I learned about history in school and about why democracy and the 1832 Reform Act were necessary, I found that it was because of rotten boroughs. Powerful people in government could place other people in charge of certain boroughs, which would get them to Parliament where they could legislate and run people's lives. We have seen the Government do the same time and again, to the point where there are 10 times more people in quangos running our world than people in democratically elected positions. The Scottish people find that deeply offensive.
A children Bill was one piece of Scottish legislation which was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech but to which the Prime Minister referred. Scotland has been waiting some time for a children Bill. England and Wales have the Children Act 1989, which is perhaps not as perfect as it was made out to be in the beginning. Today, I read an article which said that the Act has not been used to provide accommodation for 16 and 17-year-olds, although that provision was contained in it, because it has not always been used correctly. In Scotland, however, we have no law that enshrines the United Nations declaration on the rights of the child.
The meetings that my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) and for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and I had with the Minister responsible—sadly, he is in another place and no Minister in this House deals directly with social legislation for 103 Scotland—led us to believe that the Government were committed to putting that matter in the Queen's Speech. Documents inadvertently leaked just before the recess, however, showed that the Secretary of State was unwilling to raise the matter in the Cabinet and had received no such commitment.
Many Scottish legislative matters are outstanding, including the conclusions of the Orkney and Fife inquiries into abuse of children in care, the need to upgrade and modernise the adoption service and the legislation required to remove the abuser rather than the child from the home. Children are often doubly traumatised by being first abused and then removed to a place of safety, whereas the abuser is allowed to remain in the accommodation where the abuse took place. The Scottish Law Commission report No. 135 on children and divorce in Scotland was published two years ago last March. I took a large birthday cake to the Scottish Office last March to remind the appropriate Minister that two years ago he published a report saying that we needed to upgrade and modernise Scottish divorce laws. In Scotland, "custody" means possession of the child, and a person who loses custody loses possession of the child. It does not mean that the child has any rights.
Another promise was that it might be appropriate to take that measure to the Scottish Grand Committee. The measure would not be controversial in the sense that it might radicalise the position in Scotland. Indeed, there would be unity across the parties for it. I am now told that the Secretary of State is dragging his heels and we cannot get a commitment that he will take the matter to the Scottish Grand Committee. Is he the Secretary of State for Scotland or the Secretary of State in Scotland? We are hearing that question from people who want that legislation brought forward. It is time for the Government to look seriously at using the Scottish Grand Committee. They should take their courage in both hands and let the people elected for Scotland, the majority of whom are not Conservative Members, sculpt that legislation for Scotland's needs.
The Gracious Speech delayed rather than consolidated. It is a sign of democracy in decay rather than as it was envisaged when we set up the parliamentary system. The Government are in the doldrums and I have a suggestion for a little pep-up: let us have a general election so that the people can choose another Government.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
First, may I pay tribute to a young man called Nigel Hunter? Nigel is a member of my team who has suffered from muscular dystrophy since birth. He has been my mentor in all matters relating to the House and the disabled. He and thousands of people like him who have been looking not for politically correct fairy tales but for practical and affordable assistance to enable them to live richer and fuller lives will welcome the part of the Gracious Speech that refers specifically to their needs. I hope and believe that, when we come to the legislation, they will welcome it as much.
I entirely support the measures connected with the European budget because we made a commitment which we must honour. The House endorsed by an overwhelming majority the agreement reached by the 104 Prime Minister and if the Opposition choose to oppose that in any form, it will simply be regarded, not only by my hon. Friends but by millions of people outside this House, as an act of crass political cynicism.
As a Kent Member, I would be expected to welcome the legislation that will lead to the building of a rail link. My constituents in Thanet look forward to the day when our local line will be linked to the fast line from Ashford to London and we can enjoy the benefits of a faster and better service. As I represent an agricultural constituency, hon. Members would also expect me to welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech relating to agricultural tenancy laws, and I do.
Finally, in relation to the printed part of the Gracious Speech, I endorse all the comments that have been made from both sides of the House in support of the determined and courageous efforts of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. I am sure that we all wish him well.
That brings me to the section of the Gracious Speech that says:Other measures will be laid before you.I should like to spend a few moments that are left at the end of several rather long speeches, in commenting on some of the measures that I believe should be laid before us.
I join many hon. Friends and Opposition Members in saying that there must be changes to the legislation relating to the Child Support Agency. It is easy to be a politician on either side of this, or indeed any, legislative forum and have 20:20 hindsight. It behoves us all to consider legislation and find out how it works, and then, without shame to say, if it needs fine tuning, that we must change it. That is certainly so.
I support entirely the fundamental principle behind the Child Support Agency—the concept that people with children should pay for those children. However, reading the representations that have been made to me by my constituents who have been affected, I realise that we have committed a cardinal legislative sin in introducing what effectively has been retrospective legislation—and that is almost always bad news.
It seems to me that all previously and reasonably entered-into agreements—commitments not only in terms of what have been known as clean-break settlements, but, for example, hire purchase arrangements, for the purchase of a car which are legally binding on the people concerned—must be taken into account in any formula.
It is not surprising that the agency is in danger of becoming totally discredited, not as the Child Support Agency, but as the ex-spouse support agency. How much of that money goes to the children who are supposed to be supported?
Payments should be needs-related, not means-related. If they are going to be in any way means-related, if the child is supposed to benefit from the enhanced prospects of an absent parent, surely that money should be placed in trust for the child, not simply become part of a family budget to pay for beer and skittles for an ex-partner.
There must be a right of appeal against the assessments, and the assessment of income must include such essential ingredients as the costs of travel to work, which, from my constituency to London, can be £1,500 to £2,000 a year of unavoidable costs. If the people on whom we are placing the burden of support are to be able to work to 105 pay that money, surely those costs must be included in the assessment; and so must the costs of a second family. It is no good saying that we have moved from one family to another partner who has children. Members on both sides of the House know of cases where the absent parent finds himself—or, in one or two cases, herself—confronted with a demand for dramatically increased payments, while receiving nothing in support for someone else's children that they have taken on board. That problem must be tackled; and so must the burden of lump sum payments.
It is pointless telling people with no money in the bank, "By the way, you owe us £1,500 in arrears." I accept the hazards, but we must consider a position in which no payment is due until the appeal has been heard and the proper amount has been determined. Some people argue that, in those circumstances, some people will try to play the system and appeal repeatedly with a view to putting off the evil day before they pay anything—and that is true. I cannot deny it. However, even that is preferable to placing an intolerable burden on people who do not have the money to pay, and who, therefore, are driven to distraction by the new burden that is placed on them at a time when, in most cases, as most of us know—and some of us have suffered broken marriages—one suffers enough stress and trauma with the break-up of a relationship.
There are few relationships whose break-up is solely the result of the behaviour of one partner. It takes two to make a marriage, and most often it takes two to make a break-up. At the moment, when people are suffering those traumas, we are adding, and have added, to those problems. I hope that that will be tackled.
Also on the subject of other measures that may be laid before us, it will not surprise you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to know that I want changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. You would expect me to say that, given that I chair the all-party animal welfare group. We legislated in haste and have repented at leisure. The Act was introduced for the right reasons: we had a problem, and we sought to solve it. It had all-party support and the backing of the RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association and many other eminent bodies. In practice, however, it has not worked as we intended it to, and the time has come to change it.
The Act has been misused by the authorities—by the police, and particularly by the Crown Prosecution Service; cases have been brought under that Act when they should have been brought under the Dogs Acts. Convictions under the Dangerous Dogs Act can lead to only one sentence—the death of the dog concerned. We therefore see cases like that of Otis, a not-pit bull terrier who will end his days—I believe that he is now 11 years old—in kennels and in distress, because the case will go to the European Court of Human Rights and the dog will be dead before the case is heard.
Then there is Saaba, whose case is subject to an appeal on a legal technicality. Saaba is a German shepherd which escaped from its home. The police did not want the dog to be destroyed; they were horrified, having advised its owner to plead guilty—which the owner did—and asked for costs and a caution against the owner, when the magistrate's clerk was forced to say, "I am sorry, but we cannot do that; the charge was brought under the wrong Act and the dog must be destroyed." 106 As I have said, in too many cases the Act is not working as it was intended to do. Today, in another place, Lord Houghton tabled a Bill seeking to amend the Act arid to give the magistrates court the power of discretion. That is the simplest, easiest amendment that we can make. I know that the Bill will be given a fair wind in another place, and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will give it a fair wind here.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary recently mentioned identity cards. He concluded that further consultation was necessary, and seems minded to introduce, initially, a voluntary identity card scheme. I must tell him that I expect such a scheme to be not worse than useless, but largely ineffective. I am certain from conversations that I have had with police officers of every rank that within the police force—in the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation—that there is now overwhelming support for the introduction of a "must produce" card: not a card that must be carried, but a card that must be produced in the same way as a driving licence.
I also believe that there is strong support for such a card throughout the Community. It will not be simply an identity card; it can and should be, in my view, a European Union travel document, a document that carries medical records, or, if the carrier wishes, a driving licence and a social security passport. It should even be able to carry banking information. Discussion about the future of the identity card has gone on for too long. I believe that it is another of the "other measures" that the Home Secretary—in this case—should lay before us this year.
The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, when we passed it, was going to be reviewed within six months. I believe that that review is now overdue. I have spoken to the Home Office Minister responsible—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department—and I understand that the review is about to take place. In Kent, which has channel ports, we see the effect of third-country entrance. Inevitably, because of the routes that they have taken to the United Kingdom, people have had to come from third and, in some cases, fourth and fifth countries. They are not genuine asylum seekers. We used to return them immediately to the third country from which they came, and I feel that we have made a mistake in allowing a right of appeal in all cases. We should revert to the previous practice.
I am concerned at the concession that we have afforded to the channel tunnel operators. Unlike ferry and airline operators they have no carrier liability. The ferry operators and the airlines have to take responsibility for those coming into this country without the current documentation. It will be possible for an illegal entrant into the European Union, arriving perhaps in northern Italy through Genoa, travelling across Italy and through France, to buy a ticket from Paris on the channel tunnel for £200—that will be better than paying £2,000 to travel in acute discomfort in the back of a container lorry—and to arrive in the United Kingdom unchecked. I do not know why we have given that concession to the tunnel operators. It is a mistake and it should be changed.
I should like to see the appeals process speeded up so that those who warrant genuine political asylum should be granted it humanely and swiftly and those who are not asylum seekers, but economic migrants, should be returned to their country of origin as swiftly as possible.
107 I would like to think that under "Other measures" the Department of National Heritage may find time to address cross-media ownership. Earlier in the debate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott)—I am sorry that he had to leave—expressed concern about relaxation of the takeover rules. I believe that he was referring to the commercial terrestrial television channels. Having afforded to Mr. Murdoch the opportunity to own a satellite channel and a plethora of newspaper titles, we have created one organisation with distinct advantages over all others. Mr. Murdoch's henchmen will say that if the other organisations wanted to buy satellites, they could do so. That is not entirely realistic.
I should like to think that far from tightening the regulations, the Government will free up the takeover rules for cross-media ownership to allow television stations to take over each other, to allow newspapers to take over television stations or television stations to take over newspapers, and to allow telecommunications organisations such as British Telecom or Mercury to take over both. Unless and until we create the economies of scale in this country that are needed for a modern communications industry, I believe that Europe will miss out. If we are to have a European communications industry to meet the needs of the 21st century, it will be United Kingdom led because we are the leaders in this field.
If we do not relax the rules, the Americans and the Japanese will become the major players and once again we will be left to pick up the dog ends after the international companies have taken the lion's share of the business.
It is vital that we address immediately—that means this year—the matter of conditional access or encryption. At the moment there is what we are not allowed to call a cartel, so let us call it a complex monopoly, within the European Union. Mr. Murdoch, Bertelsman and Canal Plus effectively control the gateways to encrypted satellite for analogue systems. That is a horse that we cannot put back in the stable and we should not try to do so. Within a short time the technology will move to fully digital transmission. That is the moment when we, together with our European partners, can and should introduce an open access single standard so that all players—all broadcasters and cable operators—may have access to encrypted satellite transmission on fair terms. I am not suggesting that those who supply and create the technology should not be able to benefit from their hard work, but we cannot afford to allow relatively few players to slice up the cake throughout Europe and then deny other people access. That is precisely what is happening now through the Murdoch organisation.
The time has come when the House must introduce a privacy Bill. Having taken a lead in the matter, I have been surprised in the past couple of weeks to discover the strength of support for such a measure from Opposition Members and from my hon. Friends. The time has come to introduce such a measure for the sake of democracy in this country. That does not mean that it should protect the high, the mighty or even Members of Parliament. It means that it should protect the people.
We must make electronic eavesdropping a criminal offence. We must control media intrusion by telephoto lenses and trespass to a greater extent than is currently the 108 case. If hon. Members ask people, "Should there be a privacy Bill?", they say, "No, you are just trying to protect yourselves." If they then ask those people, "If it is your phone that is being tapped or your wife who is being photographed in her bikini, with the pictures appearing in a tabloid newspaper, how do you feel about it?", they receive a different response. The introduction of a privacy Bill is in the public interest.
We need an independent press tribunal with statutory powers to act in the public interest. The Press Complaints Commission has failed this country dismally. It is time for it to go and for us to have a proper and statutory independent regulator.
I have mentioned a few omissions from the Gracious Speech, but I am confident that they will all be introduced under other measures to be laid before hon. Members.
§ Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). We sympathise and empathise with the point that he made on behalf of the individual, who will benefit from and be satisfied with a Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people. Many hon. Members would go along with his view on privacy, provided that there was also a freedom of information Act on the statute book. The linking of a privacy Bill with a freedom of information Bill would show that we support the principle of having some privacy and opening up the books, figures and secret information that are not available to the public. If we had that balance, we would have a better society and a better press.
I am aware that I am ending the debate on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) opened it on their behalf. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) referred to the fact that a number of questions were put to my right hon. Friend and that he did not receive the answers that he thought he should receive.
It was interesting to see shoals of Tory Members ready to leap to their feet to tackle my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield when they saw the Chief Whip, the Deputy Chief Whip or a Treasury Minister make a little movement of the hand. We saw my right hon. Friend dispatch them quickly and effectively with answers that they did not like. That is one of the difficulties that Opposition Members recognise in relation to the Government and to Conservative Members, who are not in touch with what the people of our country feel or think on a variety of issues, from employment, investment and job security to the nature of the society in which they live. That failure to understand the feelings of the country is transmitted in the House through foolish, mediocre and banal questions that are swiftly dispatched by my right hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Taunton talked about the Prime Minister's facts and figures. The Prime Minister gave us the same myths and the same shibboleths as we have heard time and again from the Government. Such selective facts or simple quotations are not supported by evidence, which I shall discuss.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), who I am glad to see in his place, referred to the 400,000 drop in unemployment. He got the background to that right. He spoke about the reason for 109 it and he compared youth unemployment in this country with that in other European nation states. He also threw in Billy Liar. I am not able, because of the generation gap, to know too much about Billy Liar. I do know, however, about Walter Mitty. We know all about mental health. One of the most interesting speeches of the CBI conference this year was made by the Secretary of State for Health, at a gathering of a thousand members. All the captains of industry were there on a very dark and murky morning in Birmingham. All were eating high-cholesterol food for breakfast, and the Secretary of State chose mental health as her subject. I thought that it was very apt to come to a CBI conference and talk about mental health. Again it shows just how much the Government are out of touch.
I welcome the fact, as mentioned in the Gracious Speech, that the Governmentwill work for early implementation of the Agreement concluding the GATT trade negotiations, and for early establishment of the World Trade Organisation.The Labour party has consistently supported GATT and its opening up of world trade. We were the original signatories way back in 1948. We criticised the Government for not going far enough in bringing financial services into GATT. We hope that they will work on that when the new World Trade Organisation is set up.
We have also insisted that the Government make appropriate provision, as part of the GATT, for social legislation in other countries, social rights—a veritable social chapter for GATT throughout the world. It is interesting to note that the Government, under pressure from the United States Administration, have agreed to look at those aspects under an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development investigation. So we shall follow that with great interest.
It was also of interest to see in the Gracious Speech support forcontinuing economic growth and rising employment, based on permanently low inflation.We particularly like the phrase:My Government will reduce the share of national income taken by the public sector.I thought it very rich of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) to intervene on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames left the present incumbent of the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer with a public sector borrowing requirement of £51,000 million, which even the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to and said, "Well, he did leave me that, didn't he?" Conservatives talk about our nationalised industries, the PSBR and the money that was put into them. That money was for investment. What we see now is money for consumption, having to pay thousands of millions of pounds in unemployment benefit, pushing up the PSBR. That is where the right hon. Gentleman went very badly wrong. He is the man who gave us Black Wednesday.
The Prime Minister talks of falling unemployment in this country, but this happened because of the 11 per cent. devaluation of the pound. Our trade picked up. It is a classic case of trade picking up after a devaluation. Trade picks up and unemployment falls, but one does not have stability. The Government talk about permanently reducing inflation, but they do not have 110 the stability that exists in Europe, within the exchange rate mechanism, with currencies that are stable one against the other.
We saw yesterday, in the United States, how interest rates have risen. We will shortly see interest rates rise again in this country. The Government cannot within the context of their economic policy deliver low inflation, with productivity and growth rising, and at the same time keep interest rates down. It is beyond them, we see that it is beyond them, as do the public.
The Prime Minister said in his speech that Labour Members should stop knocking industry. He might have dipped into the CBI conference in Birmingham last week. There were nine Labour Members of Parliament to two Conservative. Last year at the conference, John Smith made a speech that received more applause than that of any Conservative Member. This year my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) spoke. He received greater applause than any Conservative Minister. Again, it shows how out of touch the Government are with the feelings in industry, and throughout the world of commerce. Industry and commerce are listening to the Labour party. They are listening to its ideas and finding an echo back. As I said earlier, that lack of understanding of how the people out there feel is bringing the Government to grief.
The Prime Minister spoke about inward investment—Black and Decker in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, NEC in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), and Samsung in the north-east of England. Of course, he gave no credit to the Labour local authorities that helped to bring the investment into those areas. Certainly Samsung would not have come to my area without the help and support of the Labour council. The Government have never properly accepted that fact.
The Government are totally divided. They are divided on Europe. We hear Ministers speak and then we see Conservative Members of Parliament queuing up on College green to give television interviews saying that they might not support the Queen's Speech. Whoever heard of a Tory Back-Bench Member telling the public, on the day of the Queen's Speech, that he might not support it?
There is a great rift on Europe, and the same rift exists on regional selective grants and inward investment. The Prime Minister and the President of the Board of Trade both talk about inward investment, but the Secretary of State for Employment says that he does not believe in regional selective grants. At least the Prime Minister had the grace not to say that inward investment would not come to our country if we had a social chapter and a national minimum wage. He was careful and sensible enough not to say that those would be bars to inward investment, so that, if nothing else, was an honest statement.
Considering the Queen's Speech overall, we accept and support some of the measures, such as that on disability. However, we heard what could best be described not as an unexciting Queen's Speech, but as a Queen's Speech with nothing to it. The Government are prepared to try to administer for two and a half years with no ideological backing, simply trying to steer a course between two different shoals in the Tory party, veering first one way and then the other.
111 The public are entitled to a Government who have the support of their Back Benchers, a Government who know where they are going and will give leadership to the people so that they feel a sense of security in their lives, their jobs, their homes and their families. They have none of that from a Conservative Government whose time has passed. Their ideas have passed, too, and soon they should accept that they have no future, go to the country and let the people choose.
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
The Gracious Speech gives us an opportunity to reflect on our great institutions—the Church, the monarchy, the judiciary and Parliament. Other than God, of course, everything is transitory: the sovereign, the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister. I believe that they are doing a magnificent job and that those institutions are fundamental to society. I support them, and there is little that I want changed in the way in which they work.
It is the institution itself that is all-important. There can be little doubt that in recent times what I regard as the tendency to dwell on the behaviour of certain players has damaged the institutions in the eyes of everyone, especially in the eyes of our constituents. I hope that those people who are engaged in dwelling on individuals' behaviour fully understand the damage that is being done in our country today. I also hope that the members of those institutions realise the responsibility, not only to themselves but to others, that they carry.
I know that many people say that the Government should consolidate, and should not move forward with a radical programme. I do not support that view. It is a little like riding a bicycle: consolidating rather than moving forward is a recipe for stagnation. We can all think of previous Governments who did that, at their peril.
I have never minded the Conservative party, or myself, being unpopular, so long as the policies are right for this country and we are prepared to argue for and explain them to the British people. I do not want this or any other Government whom I support to suffer an attack of nerves or a loss of confidence. Although I accept that our majority is smaller than it has been in previous Parliaments, I very much believe that my colleagues will respond to strong, determined and courageous leadership, of which the Prime Minister has shown himself to be more than capable. I am thinking especially of Northern Ireland.
It would be a great mistake for the Conservative party to try to ape one of the present socialist partiesLabour—by doing nothing and saying nothing other than "yah boo." After all, it is only too clear what a mess that gets us into with the media when they find precious little news to occupy their time. I am delighted that the Government have decided to continue with their radical programme.
I refer first to the economy. There can be little doubt that the economy is in good shape, with the lowest inflation for 27 years, strong growth and a sharp fall in unemployment. Unemployment in my constituency fell today by 101, a drop of 2 per cent. Incidentally, unemployment has dropped by 21 per cent. since the general election. I pay tribute to all the people who have made that possible.
112 There should be no mystery about why there is no feel-good factor at the moment. The reason is the loss of value in people's properties and especially the use of people's properties to raise money on their businesses. I hope that, as we continue our economic policy, that situation will change.
As a Conservative, I have always believed in reducing direct taxation while putting the burden on indirect taxation. That is why I believe that it is necessary to continue to shrink public sector spending. I confess to the House, however, that I do not underestimate the enormous challenge that my party faces in combating the Labour party's economic policy, which it revealed some weeks ago. I quote the words of the shadow Chancellor, who said:Our new economic approach is rooted in ideas, which stress the importance of macro economics, neo-classical endogenous growth theory and the symbiotic relationships between growth and investment in people and infrastructure.My constituents in Basildon have been talking of nothing else since.
The Gracious Speech also gives us an opportunity to show our patriotism. I refer in particular to the measure on the channel tunnel. How often have I heard it said that transport is better in France, that the streets are cleaner in Germany and that people work harder in Japan, none of which is true. When I travelled on Eurostar last Monday, I had in my mind the propaganda that claimed that Britain had failed miserably in terms of its rail infrastructure compared to the continentals. I felt enormously proud that it was a Conservative Government who had the vision to fulfil a 100-year-old dream by building the channel tunnel. We left a magnificent facility at Waterloo, travelled at 186 mph and arrived in a dump of a station called Brussels Midi.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) said earlier today that the good thing about the River Thames was that it separated Essex from Kent. I know that he meant that in a friendly fashion. Likewise, I look forward to the debates ahead on the rail link through the garden of England. I hope that my old home ground of Stratford in east London will eventually be allowed to develop its site as a link station in the whole project.
I entirely understand the reference to Europe in the Gracious Speech. I recall well the time when a Conservative Government took us into Europe and I also recall that it was a socialist Government who held a referendum. I have no natural liking for referendums because I believe that general elections are the mechanism for political momentum and change. However, I believe in referendums where there is a clear issue of sovereignty.
It is said that the Conservative party is split on Europe. The record shows that the Conservative Government took us into Europe and have made all the running since, whereas the Labour party has changed its mind practically every other year. I do not think that it is right that year in and year out the Conservative party continues to take the flak on that matter, so I hope that when a united states of Europe, with one Government and one currency, is proposed the issue will be put to the British people, not in a general election but in a referendum.
I end my speech by referring to other measures that I hope will be laid before the House. Crime is caused by poor example and lack of individual responsibility. We 113 should all be concerned at the level of crime because our constituents certainly are. I successfully introduced a ten-minute Bill—
§ It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.