§ Madam Speaker
It will be for the convenience of the House to know that the subjects for debate on the Queen's Speech will be as follows.
Thursday 16 November—foreign affairs and defence; Friday 17 November—health; Monday 20 November—investment (trade, industry and transport); Tuesday 21 November—social affairs (education and home affairs); Wednesday 22 November—the economy.
I shall now call on Mr. Douglas Hurd to move the Address, and Mr. Gyles Brandreth will second it.
§ Mr. Douglas Hurd (Witney)
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 and 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.I am delighted to have this honour, with my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth), for several reasons—not least because tradition allows me to start with a short hymn of praise to my constituency. It will be short, and it will also be disinterested, because I am not seeking to represent the seat again.
I hope that the House will not think it impolite when I say that when I leave Parliament, it will be my constituency that I shall miss the most. It is true that in my giddy youth I dabbled with various ideas about proportional representation, but I am clearly of the opinion that the system in which single Members of this House represent single constituencies containing thousands of people—whether they voted for them or against them—is a precious part of our constitution.
The west Oxfordshire constituency starts on the outskirts of Oxford and stretches westwards into the Cotswolds. To the south, it begins on the old county boundary of the River Thames, and continues north across the royal forest of Wychwood up to Warwickshire. It is a mixture of substantial towns—some old, some new—and a great number of traditional villages. It is at its best, perhaps, on a spring evening when the daffodils are bright against the grey stone. Then, it seems entirely placid and rustic. But that is an illusion, because all human nature is there—together with a great deal of human activity—and always has been. The stone from the Taynton quarries came down by river to be used in the building of Windsor castle and St. Paul's. Gloves were made at Woodstock through the centuries; blankets are still made in Witney.
In the 21 years that I have been in the House, there has been a substantial change in west Oxfordshire. When I started, the big employer was British Leyland and the component manufacturers around it. Buses called at the villages in the morning and came back at night, taking hundreds and hundreds of my constituents to work at Cowley. However, working at Cowley was not in any way to be taken for granted in those days. There was a reign of confusion and uncertainty by shop stewards at British Leyland. Now, there are many fewer jobs at Cowley, but they are good ones.
8 The change has come round all the market towns and big villages that I represent, where there is now a ring of thriving industrial estates. Along the River Windrush, in one of the old blanket mills—until recently there was actually a donkey on the payroll—people now make electronic components for aircraft manufacturers round the world. That is the new and competitive British economy in which Conservative Members firmly believe.
Oxfordshire has a strong faith in education, and we welcome the provision for nursery places outlined in the Gracious Speech. Witney certainly got there first—as it was put at the time, thanks to the praiseworthy zeal of Rev. Charles Jerram, the infant school was founded in 1836. I have with me the song of those infant school children:This is Witney Infant School, Where we are taught the happy rule, To love our God and parents kind, And leave all useless things behind. But we must come with faces clean, Neat clothes—all whole—fit to be seen… Then let us all attend to time, Be there before, or just at nine: And in the afternoon so true Be always in the school at two"—and it stresses:And only a penny we do pay Per week for learning every day.The difficulty now is that it costs a little more than a penny a week.
During the past year, I have visited many schools and met many governors, parents and teachers. Like my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have also received huge numbers of letters. There is a mood of anxiety about the subject. Those concerned have met the reductions in individual school budgets with some hardship, but on the whole they have met them with once-and-for-all devices such as using school reserves. They are now stripped of that protection and are waiting for this year's figures.
I have found very strong support for the achievement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment—and, indeed, strong personal affection for her. I support the measures in the Gracious Speech to improve the position of grant-maintained schools. I am a strong supporter of the assisted places scheme. The abolition of direct grant schools was an act of particular vandalism in Oxfordshire, because of the excellent schools that were in the city and in Abingdon. The assisted places scheme does something to redress that.
I know that the quality of teaching is more important than the size of the class—[Interruption.] I should have thought that that was an obvious statement. I know, too, that the figures for my county are worse than they might be, because of the financial policies of the county council. But I also know that when my constituents listen to the Budget speech in a few weeks' time, they will hope and expect my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to strike a difficult balance. They will certainly listen with one ear—one eager ear—for news about taxes, but they will also want to be sure that he gives full and practical effect to what the Prime Minister has said about priority for spending on education.
I congratulate the Prime Minister not only on his return from New Zealand—[Laughter.] Safe coming and going is always an achievement in this world. In particular, I 9 congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way in which he represented the interests of this country in New Zealand. I thought that he came across extremely well, especially on the two main difficult subjects that he had to handle—nuclear tests and Nigeria. Neither is easy, and I thought that the Prime Minister represented the interests and views of this country firmly, clearly and without pretence on both those issues.
No one can suppose that the task that the Commonwealth, Europe or the United Nations are setting themselves on Nigeria will be easy; the right balance will not be at all easy to strike. But if we continue on the way that my right hon. Friend charted at Auckland, we shall both build up the reputation of the Commonwealth and do our best for the people of Nigeria.
I return to, and conclude on, the last sentence of the Gracious Speech, which is always there, in which the Queen prays that the blessing of almighty God may rest upon our counsels. The counsels that we give from this House, and the way in which we arrive at them, are under attack. I believe that we should be more self-confident, perhaps, than we have shown ourselves to be in recent weeks and months in responding to those attacks; otherwise there is a danger that we may look for the wrong defence and the wrong remedy.
I do not believe that sleaze and scandal are really what worries people about this Parliament. What worries them most—it worries many thoughtful people—is the sense of empty noise and phoney warfare. Here, to my faint surprise, I find myself agreeing with remarks made by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Tebbit the other day. For most people outside Parliament, education, the economy, Europe and the other themes of political argument in this country—big themes, on which there is plenty of natural disagreement—are more than playing fields on which two or three teams of politicians pit themselves against each other.
There used to be in this country a strong and vivid appetite for adversarial politics—in the days of Gladstone and Disraeli, or of Gladstone and Lord Randolph. But for one reason or another, that has gone, and there is a real danger that, egged on by the media, all parties in the House—all of us—may play out the old play not realising that beyond the footlights half the audience has crept away, and the other half is sitting there in mounting irritation.
In that context, I am glad that the divorce reform and mediation Bill is in the Gracious Speech; it is right that it should be debated. It may well be right that the conscience clauses should be decided by the House on a free vote. On past form, that procedure has led to a better debate in the House and probably to a more acceptable conclusion in the country. What I have said is intended not as high-minded exhortation, but as low political advice.
I believe that, in the time that I have described, political success may well go to those who sound least like politicians. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has found that often to his benefit. He has found—and, I believe, will find again—that an ounce of robust and reasoned common sense is worth a wilderness of soundbites and spin doctors. I wish my right hon. Friend and the Government all success in the coming Session.
§ Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester)
Speaking of those who sound least like politicians, here I am. Having been a Member of Parliament for only three and a half years, I like to think that I am still loosely in touch with reality. But today I am not entirely sure. I am overwhelmed by the honour of being asked to second the motion, particularly because it was moved with such effortless brilliance and sage wisdom by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), who is one of the most civilised and civilising people I know.
Incredible as it may seem to the more casual observer, I have something quite distinctive in common with my right hon. Friend. We share a birthday—in different years, of course—of 8 March. That is a very good birthday for those who aspire to political life in a secretarial capacity. Your own secretary, Madam Speaker, was born on 8 March. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary was born on 8 March. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney—a previous Northern Ireland Secretary, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary—was born on 8 March. And yours truly, the secretary of the House of Commons Scrabble club, was born on that date—each to his own.
More intriguing is the fact that my right hon. Friend's wife and my wife also share a birthday of 14 March. They share that birthday with Albert Einstein and Michael Caine, and not a lot of people know that. More curiously, Mrs. Hurd and Mrs. Brandreth share the same birth year because both, of course, are 21. My right hon. Friend's contribution to this House and to this country has been quite extraordinary. We are all in his debt and I am happy to say that, in future, I shall be able to say that literally as well as figuratively. I cannot think of anybody with whom I would rather entrust my overdraft.
My right hon. Friend is not the first international statesman whom I have had the privilege of knowing. Shortly before I came down from university, I had a memorable encounter with the late John Diefenbaker—at least, that is who I think it was. He certainly said that he was the Prime Minister of Canada. Just as my right hon. Friend was president of the Cambridge union, I was president of the Oxford union, and when I encountered Mr. Diefenbaker and told him of my parliamentary ambitions, he gave me his well-worn line. He said that when I succeeded and arrived in Parliament, I would spend the first six months wondering how on earth I got there and the rest of the time wondering how the rest of them got there.
I am genuinely thrilled that I did get here, despite the fact that the description of some of our procedures given to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) does not quite accord with how the House seems to work. I do not know whether you have seen "The Final Cut", Madam Speaker, but if I were you, I would sue.
Having worked in different worlds before I arrived here, I must say that I have been heartened and impressed by the calibre, commitment and comradeship that I have found in this place. Whatever picture the media may care to paint, this seems to me to be a good place where—for the most part and in all parts of the House—good people of good faith are doing their best to do a good job for their constituents. We should not always let the cynics have the last word.
11 Of course, I am here only because I have the unique good fortune to represent the city of Chester, which is quite simply the finest place there is. It has 2,000 years of matchless history.
§ Mr. Brandreth
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) is not quite right—it is 1,101. I was sponsored by a carpet shampoo firm, and I have declared it.
The joy of being a Member for a marginal seat is that it keeps one on one's toes, as the hon. Gentleman will discover in due course. I have to tell him that I would not stand anywhere else if they asked me, and they have.
I am thrilled to play my tiny part, however brief, in the 2,000 years of the matchless history of Chester—a Roman fortress, a cradle of our monarchy, the last city in the land to fall to the Norman conquest and a bastion for the Crown in the civil war. Indeed, with our historic walls, our fabulous rows, our beautiful river, our ancient cathedral, our theatre, our galleries, our gem of a race course and our model zoo, we are the jewel in any crown. It is no wonder that James Boswell—the Alan Clark of his day, though possibly more reliable—called Chester thefairest English city I have seen".Candidly, I cannot claim a lot of personal credit for the glories of my constituency, although I do try. Colleagues may be shocked to hear this, but whenever there is a bit of good news going in my part of the world, I do my best to get in on the act. At least I have learnt something from the Liberals. Naturally, when the news is less good, I tend to duck, but in Chester I do not have to do much ducking. We are the epicentre of all that is best in Britain, and we have falling unemployment and record levels of inward investment to prove it.
Farming, tourism and retail have long been central to our economy, and now we are becoming a significant centre for financial services and a growing industrial base. Strix is the name of just one of the companies that have recently moved to Chester. It makes switches for electric kettles—for 70 per cent. of the electric kettles in the world. If people want the best communications, the best quality of life, the finest work force and the keenest entrepreneurial spirit in the land, they should come to Chester. We have the lot.
Believe it or not, as well as having our own soap company, Bradford Soap, we even have our own soap opera, "Hollyoaks", just launched on Channel 4. It goes out on Monday nights, so it will have a bit of competition next week. If one is looking for a non-royal soap, do tune in. It is more "Baywatch goes north-west" than anything else. Since it is set in Chester, it must be good.
I was pleased to meet up with a sixth-former at the weekend, who said that she preferred the recent television version of "Pride and Prejudice" to "Hollyoaks". My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may be gratified to learn that she likened him to Mr. Darcy. This is the bit that I did not check with him. "Tough but tender," was how she put it. He may be less happy to learn that she also took a fancy to Mr. Bingley, whom she said was a dead ringer for the Leader of the Opposition—a poppet with a grin. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) is muttering to me about whom 12 she saw as Mr. Collins. Wild horses would not drag from me whom she saw as Mr. Collins. Suffice it to say that she seems to have had some sort of unfortunate experience youth hostelling near Yeovil. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) should not take that amiss. He would have been delighted to hear what she had to say about Lady Catherine de Burgh.
The House will not be surprised to learn that I plan to welcome the Gracious Speech. I believe that the Leader of the Opposition plans to be more critical. Indeed, I know what his plans are, because one of his more innocent spin doctors gave me a detailed preview of his speech under the misapprehension that I was Robin Oakley.
Chester will welcome the Gracious Speech because our city has a range of outstanding schools and a real passion for quality education. My constituents recognise the importance of putting nursery education within the reach of every four-year-old and of extending the opportunities open to grant-maintained schools.
Law and order is an issue of paramount concern to my constituents, which is why they will wholeheartedly endorse the proposed criminal procedure and investigations Bill as a further element in the Government's determined programme to be tough on crime and tough on the perpetrators of crime.
In Chester, the number of police has risen by 38 per cent. in the past 15 years. We are getting more officers again this year—more on the beat and more with dedicated beats—and we are getting more closed circuit television. Never mind the rhetoric, the result is higher rates of detection and falling rates of crime.
Controversial as I know it will be on both sides of the House, I believe that most of my constituents will agree with me that the divorce and mediation proposals are positive ones, which should strengthen rather than diminish the institution of marriage. I say that cautiously and as the Back-Bench Member responsible for taking the Marriage Act 1994 through the House. Incidentally, when early one morning my wife heard me described on local radio as an expert on the Marriage Act, she nearly fell off her bunk.
On behalf of my constituents, I welcome the Gracious Speech. This has been a proud moment for me—on a par with the first time that I was invited to open a building and unveil a plaque in my constituency. I pulled the little string, the blue velvet curtains parted and there I saw the words,This plague has been unveiled by Gyles Brandreth MP.I found no such misprints in the Gracious Speech. Indeed, moments before coming into the Chamber, I took a telephone call from Trevor McDonald, who asked me to tell you, Madam Speaker, that the Queen's Speech in the Queen's English was exactly "comme il faut". Trevor, of course, is above party politics, but for style and syntax he gave the speech 10 out of 10. For content and for Chester, with pride and without prejudice, I do the same.
§ 3.3 pm
§ Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)
It is traditional at the beginning of our debate, before commending the right hon. and hon. Members who have just spoken, to note the deaths of hon. Members in the past year. I am sure that the House will want to record its appreciation of the work of Sir James Kilfedder, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, Geoffrey 13 Dickens and Derek Enright—different characters, but people who all, in their different ways, brightened the dullness of political life. They will be missed. In particular, perhaps I may be permitted, on behalf of the Opposition, to express our grief at the tragic and very recent loss of Derek Enright, who will be long remembered and deeply mourned.
I am delighted to commend the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) and the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth). The speech of the right hon. Member for Witney was, of course, as elegant as ever. As Northern Ireland Secretary, Home Secretary and, indeed, Foreign Secretary, he was never less than decent, assiduous and honest—and, on occasions, he was far-sighted, courageous and successful. He served no fewer than three Prime Ministers and was totally loyal to all three, which I would take as a compliment.
After the election, of course, the right hon. Gentleman will have more time for his own writing and Conservative Members will find food for thought in at least two of his earlier offerings. Written in the 1970s, they tell of a rather different age and, indeed, a different Conservative party. One is called "Truth Game" and the other "An End to Promises"—probably not many sales among the Cabinet nowadays. The best testimonial to the right hon. Member for Witney, whose speech I enjoyed and I commend him for it, was that offered by his friend and colleague the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir J. Critchley), who said that he isa touch too clever for the Tory party.That charge has never to my knowledge been levelled against the hon. Member for City of Chester, but I greatly commend him for his speech. I mean no offence when I say that I greeted the end of it with some relief since I gather that he holds the world record for after-dinner speaking. It is recorded that he spoke for 12 hours and 32 minutes, though sadly it is not recorded how many of the audience stayed to the end of it.
The hon. Member for City of Chester came to the House with a great reputation for loudness; indeed, that was only for his sweaters. He also runs a teddy-bear shop, I understand, in Stratford, so who says there is not sufficient diversity of experience in the House today? He is also a past winner, I am told, of the world Monopoly championships. No doubt there is a place on a board of the utilities waiting for him. More important, he is the author of a book called "Great Sexual Disasters". The remarkable thing is that it was written before he came to the House. I have no doubt that a sequel is well on the way. He made a highly witty and amusing speech and I commend him for it, as I do the right hon. Member for Witney. They have lived up to our usual standard of speeches before the main debate begins.
Before I come to the main part of the Queen's Speech, I should mention the issue of Northern Ireland, which was mentioned in the Queen's Speech. The Labour party will continue to back the Government in their efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland, and we will do so even when progress is difficult.
All of us know that for the current ceasefires to be turned into a lasting peace, there must be all-party talks with a view to a negotiated, constitutional settlement that has the support of both communities in Northern Ireland. Those talks can take place only in an atmosphere of trust where all parties are committed exclusively to the 14 democratic path. That is why we have supported the establishment of an international commission to look at arms decommissioning in parallel with preparatory talks that could lead to substantive all-party negotiations. We very much hope that the two Governments can proceed in this direction as soon as possible. It will be a hard road ahead.
We appreciate the enormous pressures on all involved in the search for peace—pressures that are often conflicting. From the first, we have supported the Government and we will continue to support them while we believe that they are acting genuinely and in good faith in the search for peace.
On the rest of the Queen's Speech, I cannot, of course, comment—it would be quite improper—on how Her Majesty responded when it was first put before her, but I think that the reaction of most people would be, "Is this it?" Indeed, she could be forgiven for fearing that she was the victim of another hoax, but this time it was not a joke by a DJ pretending to be the Canadian Prime Minister but the British Prime Minister presenting her with a joke of a Queen's Speech. It is utterly irrelevant to the interests of Britain. It is the programme of a party that has ceased to have any real vision or purpose in government at all. It is about the interests of the Tory party, cobbling together any old brie-à-brae of legislation that can keep the Conservative party in one piece. Because that can be done only by appeasing the extreme right-wing members of the party, it is they who have determined the small substance of the programme, which is as far from one-nation politics as it is possible to imagine. There is nothing about jobs, nothing about reducing inequality and insecurity and nothing about helping those in poverty. Indeed, there is the opposite.
The programme has another purpose. In an extraordinary move—and an extraordinarily inept one—an advance press briefing on the Queen's Speech was given yesterday, not by the Leader of the House, as is traditional, and not by any of the Ministers who will implement the Queen's Speech, but by the chairman of the Conservative party. What did he say in what journalists call an "unprecedented" eve of Queen's Speech briefing? He gave the game away. What did he say the purpose of the Queen's Speech was? He said that it was "to smoke out" the Labour party. He did not say that it was to provide new energy, ideas or vitality for Britain, but that it was to smoke out the Opposition. He did not say that it was to help the people of Britain, but that it was to play a game in the run-up to the election. I say that a Government's job should be to govern. If they cannot govern in Britain's interests, they should not be governing at all.
Let us look at the problems that our country faces. They demand a radical Queen's Speech, a giant of a Queen's Speech and one that matches its ambitions with the nation's problems. Instead, we get a rag-bag of right-wing ideas, fiddling around at the edges of Britain's problems—a pathetic mouse of a Queen's Speech that is designed not to help Britain, but to secure the survival of the Tory party. There cannot be any more eloquent testimony to the state of today's Conservative party than this.
Let us look at the problems that we face. There are the scandals in the privatised utilities; there is nothing in the Queen's Speech about that. One in seven 21-year-olds is unable to read properly and one in five cannot count. 15 There is drug abuse and violent crime. One in three people is on welfare benefits under this Government. The national health service is under strain and has been turned into a two-tier system. Public transport is crumbling and pollution is rising. Does the Queen's Speech address any of those questions? It is utterly irrelevant to the problems of Britain and shows no real recognition of the state of Britain today.
Britain is 35th in the world standard of education-35th Britain. To be 35th may be good enough for the Conservative party, but it is not good enough for this country or for our children. Can the Conservatives not see that it is, in part, because of our slide in the education league that we have slumped in the economic league too, from 13th to 18th? They are not the only team to have slumped to 18th in the league; Wolverhampton Wanderers has as well, but at least Graham Taylor did the decent thing—he resigned. He will be at home now, watching our proceedings on the TV as many unemployed people do, and he will be speaking for the nation when he says, "Do I not like this Queen's Speech."
It is extraordinary. Britain is 18th in the league of prosperity—18th in the national income per head. Over 16 years, Britain has had the lowest growth rate of any G7 or European Union nation and the deepest recessions—two of them. Even at the current point of the economic cycle, investment is below what it was in 1989. According to the Bank of England, it is 20 per cent. below what it was at previous similar stages in the cycle. Between 1979 and 1993, the level of investment in the United Kingdom was the lowest of that of any of the 18 countries of the G7 and the European Union. There has been record borrowing, a decaying infrastructure and a 20 per cent. devaluation. All that has happened after the Government have had £120 billion of North sea oil and £80 billion of privatisation money, which they have taken and spent. People often say of the Conservatives that they may be cruel, but that they are competent. This is an economic record of shame. They are cruel and incompetent in equal measure.
Of course, what happened to the great relaunch of the Prime Minister—relaunch No. 19—when he came back from his holidays? We all remember the press briefings, do we not? The leadership election was won. We were told that he was "brimming with energy" and "fizzing" with new ideas. Perhaps what will worry the Cabinet as much as it worries us is the report that the Prime Minister was making a Cabinet "in his own image". He was looking at all areas of policy, and he was going to "stamp his personal authority" on every area.
That bit at least we can accept: this Queen's Speech has the Prime Minister written all over it, with the imprint of the last person who sat on him. It is a Queen's Speech designed to appease those who kept him in his job. It has been dictated by his party's craving for survival rather than this country's need for change.
We will, of course, examine each Bill on its merits. Some Bills are likely to be uncontroversial. There must, of course, be a broadcasting Bill. We have accepted the principles of the White Paper, and we shall examine the contents of the Bill with care. There must be legislation on defence, the reserve forces, Army discipline and chemical weapons. Some of the housing proposals in the Queen's Speech are those that we urged on the Government. We 16 will scrutinise carefully legislation on the disclosure of evidence in criminal cases to see that it is fair, although we have supported the royal commission's recommendations on making the system more open.
The divorce and domestic violence legislation is now back on the agenda, but where is the scope and the vision that matches up to the problems of Britain today? Surely that is the point that Conservative Members should understand. In so far as there is an agenda of substance, it is one dominated by the right—for example, vouchers for nursery places. We know that the Secretary of State did not want them, nor did her Ministers. We know that she was overruled by the Prime Minister, and why? Because, as The Sunday Times put it,
a powerful coalition of Tory right-wingers, including Michael Portillo and John Redwoodleant on him: they who must be appeased, and appeased they have been.
There will be no choice when the nursery places are not available. A huge bureaucracy is to be created and £5 million will be needed to administer the pilot projects alone. Many local authorities—including the chairmen of Conservative local education authorities—are already saying, and it has not been denied either, that they fear that they will lose funding. All that will happen when the £165 million could provide a real guarantee to all four-year-olds of a proper nursery education.
What else did the right demand? It demanded more money for assisted places. Why? Not because that will even begin to address the problem of under-achievement in our schools, but because it imagines that that will make things difficult for the Labour party—another piece of smoking out. That £100 million will be spent to play a party political game. That money is there to be spent on our children's education, and the Prime Minister chooses to spend it on subsidising private education for 30,000 children while the educational needs of millions go neglected in our country.
Resources mean choices—assisted places for the few, or smaller class sizes for the many. I know the choice that the Labour party makes; it is the choice that British people make. [Interruption.] It is the choice—[Interruption.] Before Conservative Members tell us that class sizes do not matter, why do so many of them send their children to private schools with small classes? [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Blair
I gather that I am being accused of bad form by the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw).
We all know the purpose of the asylum Bill. The former Tory research director, who is now a Conservative candidate, said when he left:Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and again in the 1994 Euro-elections campaign, played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt.17 Of course the hurt is done not only to the Labour party. When politics is played with such issues, it causes hurt to many ordinary, decent people in this country who should not be hurt.
We oppose bogus applications and fraud and we recognise the need for immigration controls, but race and immigration should not be the plaything of party politics. Let me suggest to the Prime Minister how the issue may be tackled to ensure that it is not.
We should be clear in our minds what the real problem is—the real opening for fraud. According to recent parliamentary answers, not a single asylum decision on the fast track has been taken within the seven-day limit; the average is 40 days. The decision on the substantive procedure is meant to take 28 days; it takes, on average, eight months. The appeals procedure is supposed to take nine weeks; it takes 10 months. If we deal with those delays, we shall start to deal with the problem properly.
The Prime Minister denies that that issue is being used to play the race card in any sense. Let the new Bill go to a Standing Committee of the House, so that evidence may be taken and considered, and let it be a genuine consensual exercise in getting at the truth. I am delighted to see that some Conservative Members are nodding at that.
§ Mr. Blair
It is not an unreasonable proposition. It would be a way to take the issue out of party politics and have it dealt with sensibly and with reason.
I very much hope that we shall hear a pledge in the debate, especially in the light of events of the past couple of weeks, that Nigeria will not be on the list of nations decreed by the Home Office to be free of internal repression.
On housing, the Government have removed the duty to find accommodation for priority homeless households. That duty on local authorities is to be scrapped despite warnings from charities and local authorities of the effects of doing so. It is a cruel and senseless measure, which will harm some of the most vulnerable people in Britain.
Every issue that is now considered by the Government is considered on the following basis. I want to describe the way in which government now works, and I believe that many Conservative Members know, in their heart of hearts, that this is how it now works.
These are the tests that are applied. What can put Labour on the spot? What can squeeze a headline out of tomorrow's papers? What can keep the two wings of the Conservative party together? As a Minister said to a newspaper the other day, it is government by tacking. It is a tawdry, low-life, demeaning exercise in political tactics. It is everything about using government as a propaganda machine and it is nothing about the interests of Britain as a country.
Consider the year since the previous Queen's Speech. [interruption.] It is very interesting. Conservative Members all want to shout sedentary interventions, but I do not think that they want to intervene today. No—they do not want to intervene today; they are so pathetic. It is another little game: usually, they intervene; today, they are all going to sit there and shout instead. Why do not they, just for one minute, behave like a Government 18 instead of a rabble? What is wrong? Do they not dare to stand up today? Is there a problem? It is a little game with the Whips. To think that those people can keep themselves in government for another 18 months—it is a tragedy for this country.
I shall take advantage of the fact that Conservative Members are not going to interrupt me. Let us look at the past year—[Interruption.] Does the former chairman of the Tory party want to intervene? The tactic of not intervening is so bad that I can believe that he might have thought of it. No one wants to intervene—what a pathetic bunch they are.
§ Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
Conservatives recognise convention and tradition. We recognise that during the speeches this afternoon, on this special day, we do not intervene.
§ Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)
As someone who was. a one-nation Tory long before I entered the House, I must say that the right hon. Gentleman is not doing much to convince people like me that he has converted.
§ Mr. Blair
If the hon. Gentleman considered the current position and policy of the Government on the immigration issue that has just been raised, on Europe, on tackling poverty and on employment, he would probably find that he had a lot more in common with what we say than with what the Government say.
Let us consider the past year since the Queen's Speech. If the BBC were to run a review of the Tories in the past year, it would not know whether to get the news, sport or light entertainment departments to put the compilation together. The country needs to know how the Government are run. Let us consider the Nolan inquiry. There were allegations of sleaze and we were told that there was no need for an inquiry. Then, there was an inquiry and the Government accepted the findings, but their Back Benchers did not like them so the matter was put in the hands of a new committee. There was then a vote—the Government lost the vote, said the vote did not matter and blamed the Whips. That is how the Government conduct their business.
On the issue of the utility bosses—the fat cats—first, there is no need for an inquiry, but the pressure grows so there is a Confederation of British Industry inquiry, and with it the new mantra, "Wait for Greenbury." We wait and the recommendations appear. First, the Government accept them, but when they try to implement them they find that they hit the wrong people—the subject was not even mentioned in the Queen's Speech.
On the subject of arms to Iraq, first, we heard that there was no need for an inquiry but then we were told that there would be an inquiry and that we were to wait for the Scott inquiry. We are still waiting. On the subject of Europe, the Whipless wonders were expelled to darkness for daring to defy the Prime Minister. They were propelled into fame; they were so in demand by the media that they should have paid council tax on 19 No. 4 Millbank. They were brought back into the fold having conceded nothing, having given up nothing and having won the policy battle.
§ Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)
While the right hon. Gentleman is on the subject of Europe, will he say whether a Government led by him would join the single European market and retain our controls on immigration?
§ Mr. Blair
We are in the European single market and we have made it clear that we shall retain our veto on immigration issues. We have always said that.
As to the family and domestic violence Bill, imagine trying to portray the Lord Chancellor—of all people—as a wild-eyed, anti-family, anti-religious destroyer of all that Britain holds dear. One expected him to turn up eating muesli and wearing sandals. The Government caved into the pressure, but then there was a backlash against the backlash. The Government caved in again and the Bill is back in the Queen's Speech.
Never was there a greater show of appeasement or a better indication of how the Government work than at the Conservative party conference when the Defence Secretary made one of the most ill-considered speeches ever delivered by a Defence Secretary. The chiefs of staff were appalled, the Special Air Services were sickened and former Tory Prime Ministers found the speech revolting. But what did the Prime Minister do? He stood up and he led the applause. The Prime Minister, who once would have had us at the heart of Europe, rose to salute the person who would have us out of Europe altogether.
The Prime Minister does not believe in that policy—I would have more respect for him and for his current position if he did. The Prime Minister has lurched to the right on Europe not through deliberation but through default. It is time that the one-nation Tories who disdain such views stood up and said so loudly and clearly. They must sit in the Chamber, listening to the stridency and extremism, asking themselves why the Prime Minister caves in to the first four or five members of the hard right who want to see Government policy change. One-nation Toryism is dead; it is finished. There is only one party of social justice in the House today. Do not ask me who it is, Madam Speaker: simply read the comments of the hon. Member for Aldershot which appear in today's Evening Standard.
§ Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)
As we are talking about supposed cave-ins, will the Leader of the Opposition explain Labour's education policy to the House? Last year Labour favoured taking grant-maintained schools back under political control, but when the right hon. Gentleman sent his child to a grant-maintained school, the policy changed and suddenly grant-maintained schools were in favour. Extremists such as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) complained and the Labour party shifted policy again. Now it is in favour of retaining half of all grant-maintained schools under political control.
§ Mr. Blair
The hon. Gentleman is wrong on every point, and if he were to read the relevant Labour party documents, he would realise that. I will tell him what the difference is between Labour and the Conservatives. If we 20 make a change, we do so in the interests of this country and we stand up for that change. What is more, if there needs to be a change, I lead it; I do not follow it.
§ Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)
Why should we believe the right hon. Gentleman's views on Europe today when they are the complete opposite of his views 12 years ago? What will his views be in 10 years?
§ Mr. Blair
I have heard it all now. Twelve months ago, the right hon. Gentleman sat in the Cabinet and agreed with the Government's policy. He is the man—I shall be corrected if I am wrong—who served in the Government at the time of the Maastricht decision and supported the Government all the way. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)
Does the right hon. Gentleman know that last year there were 38,000 bogus and 1,700 genuine applications for asylum in Britain? Bogus applications damage race relations in this country.
§ Mr. Blair
I hope that no one will suggest that we or anyone else are in favour of bogus asylum applications. I hope that the Government are not either. Earlier, I made a suggestion that is worth considering. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman would agree that the Bill should go to a Special Standing Committee that would take evidence. That would take the matter out of party politics altogether.
Not a promise has been kept on tax, VAT, mortgage relief, the value of the pound, Europe, education and health. The Conservative Government have created a less equal, more unfair and more divided country than any Government this century. For decades, our nation, under Governments of both political persuasions, tried to pursue policies that brought the nation together because it was fair and efficient. Today, there is not even a pretence at it by the Government.
Britain as a nation is less fair, less united and less cohesive. It thinks and acts less like one nation than at any time this century. The Tories may wrap themselves in the language of the nation state, but they have done more to destroy the fabric of Britain than any party in living memory.
§ Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)
A few minutes ago, the right hon. Gentleman suggested that he would rather belong to a party that had constructive and objective views on Europe, so why does he not come and join us? Why does he not accept that he has already moved down a whole pile of avenues that the Conservative party has advocated over the years? Perhaps he should recognise his true position in future.
§ Mr. Blair
At first I thought that it was an error of judgment by the Whips to stop interventions. Now I know that it was a canny and intelligent move. For heaven's sake, we know perfectly well that there are different views 21 on Europe in the Cabinet, but now the Government cannot even discuss certain issues connected with Europe as they are so worried about disagreeing.
We needed a Queen's Speech for Britain. We needed measures to lift Britain up the prosperity league by raising investment in skills, infrastructure and the regions and to bring knowledge and information to the people by harnessing new technology for our schools, in the workplace and in the home. We needed a Queen's Speech to provide new opportunities for the young unemployed, to build homes for the homeless and to allow people a decent standard of living. We needed a Queen's Speech to reform welfare and allow people back into work who need and want to work, to cut class sizes, to raise standards and to take tough action against failing schools. We needed a Queen's Speech to restore the health service as one unified system of proper public service in Britain. We needed a Queen's Speech to make the streets safe again by legislating for a proper crime prevention strategy in every part of Britain.
We should and could have had a Queen's Speech to revive local government, to bring real democracy to the nations and regions of Britain and to clean up politics after years of Conservative sleaze. We should have had a Queen's Speech with a foreign policy based not on the need to appease people within the Conservative party but on Britain's true national interests.
The Queen's Speech was not designed to make Britain proud, hopeful or confident. It will merely strengthen the desire of millions of people to see the Government put out of office. They have been there too long, they have told too many lies and they have made too many mistakes. They have nothing whatever to offer the future of Britain.
A Queen's Speech designed to smoke out the Labour party has instead smoked out the Government. It exposes them for what they are—tired, inept and incompetent. The Government have given up governing the country. By their tactics today, they show just how pathetic and pitiable they have become. The Government are now behaving like an Opposition and they will soon get the chance to be an Opposition. It is time for them to go.
§ The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)
At the outset of his remarks, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the Leader of the Opposition, paid tribute to those of our former colleagues who sadly died in the past 12 months. I willingly join him in that tribute. They each in their own way made a distinctive contribution to the House, and we shall miss them. I reiterate our sympathy to their friends and families.
No one who knows my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) will be remotely surprised by the quality of his excellent speech. I sat alongside my right hon. Friend often enough at international meetings to know his worth. Time after time, often in a hostile environment, he won arguments for the United Kingdom, and won them well.
In the House, my right hon. Friend has a particular reputation. Throughout the years I have known him—that goes back to long before I became a Member of this place—my right hon. Friend has always been valiant for moderation. Not for him the cheap and silly soundbite to sully his opponents. My right hon. Friend is rightly 22 contemptuous of that. His politics have been constructed on rational argument. I believe that the country and the House will be the poorer when he leaves this place.
My right hon. Friend has been a generous source of wise counsel to the country as well as to the Government. He has been a great servant of the state. I am most grateful to him. All of us in the House who wish our country well should join in those sentiments.
I congratulate also my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) on his amusing speech. He was very amusing but not wholly frank. My hon. Friend had a dark secret that he declined to mention—his distant ancestor, Jeremiah Brandreth. Jeremiah was an agitator, a left-wing agitator, and, like so many, he was rather unworldly.
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentleman says that he was a good one. Well, he was known as the hopeless radical, and so good was he as a left-wing agitator that he was arrested and convicted, and became the last man to be beheaded for treason in this country.
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentleman may unknowingly be right.
I have not told the House that Jeremiah was arrested by a Mr. Waldegrave, an illustrious predecessor of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary. I warn my right hon. and hon. Friends: if they consider that the spending round is rigorous, let them know that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is in no mood for compromise.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester was president of the Oxford union. He had an endearing habit in debate. If he found—it was a most unusual circumstance—that he was losing the argument, he would physically stand on his head to confound his opponents. I congratulate him on an extremely useful preparation for national politics.
We have heard U-turn after U-turn from the Leader of the Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman does not literally stand on his head, but he has a remarkable chameleon-like ability to change political colour, depending on the audience that he is facing. I have rarely heard such copperplated nonsense as he fed to the House this afternoon. It was humbug at its worst, and juvenile in its style of criticism. It was what we have come to expect from the right hon. Gentleman—cheap soundbites and no sign of his real policy substance, if he has any.
We had the usual nonsense and absurdity that we have heard over the past few days about lurching to the right. That is this week's approved soundbite from the thought merchants who govern the right hon. Gentleman in his back room. I hope that one day he will learn to give up this silly name-calling—
§ The Prime Minister
I will later.
I hope that, one day, the right hon. Gentleman will learn to give up this silly name-calling, and learn to address serious issues of policy that are of interest to the country.
23 The right hon. Gentleman had something to say about "one nation". Only one party—mine—is truly the "one nation" party. The right hon. Gentleman has an interesting way of claiming to be in the "one nation" party. He would start by dividing up the United Kingdom and covering it with a rash of assemblies; he would then give the remnants to Brussels, because he would not want to be isolated on any single issue. He would put the young out of work with a minimum wage; he would destroy grant-maintained schools, and the choice they offer. As for defence, he would put it under the control of a former member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—which describes most members of his shadow Cabinet.
Those policies would not create one nation. They would weaken it, split it and divide it—and that is what the right hon. Gentleman stands for.
§ The Prime Minister
In a minute.
Let us just examine the latest soundbite: "lurching to the right". Giving parents more choice—is that lurching to the right? If it is, I willingly lurch in that direction. Reforming welfare to help those in genuine need: a lurch to the right? I welcome it. Fighting crime and the drugs barons—is that a lurch to the right, or does the right hon. Gentleman agree with it? Helping the disabled, giving tenants the right to buy their homes, creating incentives for enterprise—what sort of lurch is that? What are those, other than commonsense Conservative policies that are in the interests of this country?
The Opposition conduct policy by finding their cheap sneer of the week and using it, whatever happens. When—if ever—they return to real politics, they will find that there is much more substance to politics than the childish, juvenile nonsense that they spout day after day after day.
§ Dr. Reid
I believe that the Prime Minister personally has not lurched to the right. We are suggesting that he has been caught in a trap by those on the right. There is, however, a way in which he can illustrate his moral fibre—the fact that he is not a prisoner on every issue—and show that he is not prepared to use the race card in a general election. Will he accept the Leader of the Opposition's suggestion that the asylum Bill be dealt with by a Special Standing Committee? The people of Britain can judge from his answer whether he is really committed to "one nation" policies, or whether he is a prisoner of the right.
§ The Prime Minister
I shall turn to the asylum Bill later. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that there is one party in the House that is using the race card, and it is not mine: its members sit on the Opposition Benches.
When the right hon. Member for Sedgefield next talks about world prosperity, he might get some of his facts right. The countries that have risen in the prosperity league include low-taxation, free-market countries such as Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore; the countries that are slipping down the league include countries that have pursued socialist policies of high taxation and high spending.
§ The Prime Minister
Not for the moment; I may do so a little later.
24 The right hon. Gentleman sees his job as being to disagree with everything—to attack the Government's motives first, and their policies second. In his view, all is wrong; nothing is right. But if he were in power—ah! Amazing things would happen. We would never be isolated anywhere in the world. He would never be isolated: the world would automatically accept his position. Everything would suddenly become for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Taxes would not rise, although the deputy Leader of the Opposition says that they will rise for the highest-paid. That is not something that I heard from the Leader of the Opposition at the CBI conference just the other day. But of course, spending would rise, because spending promises are made daily, despite the efforts of the shadow Chancellor.
Unemployment, the Opposition think, would vanish. The sun would shine. That is the substance of the right hon. Gentleman's soundbite, day after day. His position is, of course, total baloney, and he knows that it is total baloney. I intend to concentrate on the real world of sound policies, not on the right hon. Gentleman's world of soundbites. This country is now enjoying a more sustained and secure recovery than it has known for many years.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Hon. Members should not persist. They heard the Prime Minister say that he will give way a little later, and having heard that, they should not persist.
§ The Prime Minister
I reiterate that I shall give way to some Labour Members in a few moments.
Britain is back in business in a big way. The changes of the past 16 years have transformed this country's prospects for the better. Sixteen years ago, the dead could not be buried in Labour Members' constituencies; 16 years ago, we could not take our own money abroad; 16 years ago, people could not run their own companies, because of the way the trade unions ran amok; 16 years ago, Britain had an incipient inflation problem.
The Leader of the Opposition may choose to forget, but I do not think that the nation will have forgotten the shambles that emanated from Labour policies. Whenever the Opposition talk about this country, they try to talk it down, and refuse to recognise what has happened. Inflation is no longer a serious issue: it is under lock and key.
The number of people out of work—[Interruption.] The deputy Leader of the Opposition sniggers. When was inflation less than 8 per cent., even on a rigged quarterly basis, under the last Labour Government? It has been about 3 per cent. under this Conservative Government for three years, and shows no sign of getting out of control. What help have we had from the Opposition to bring down inflation?
The number of people out of work has fallen by almost three quarters of a million. It is now below Germany, and well below France. A higher proportion of British people are in work than ever before in our history, and more than in any comparable European country. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not like it, but that is the real world, from which they try to hide.
Strikes are at their lowest level since records began, interest rates are at half their peak, public spending is under control, and growth is firmly based on rising 25 exports and rising investment. It is the most secure platform for prosperity that this country has known for generations.
§ Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East)
The Prime Minister has explained how other countries have moved within the economic prosperity league. After 16 years of Tory government, where has Britain moved in the economic prosperity league? We want to hear it from his own mouth.
§ The Prime Minister
We have moved, over the last few years—[Interruption.] Curiously enough, I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at The Sunday Times, which exploded Labour's advertisements. It showed that, in fact, Britain is becoming progressively more prosperous, while socialist countries are becoming progressively less prosperous. That is because they insist on policies such as the social chapter, from which they cannot opt out once they have signed in—unlike what the Leader of the Opposition suggested the other day.
§ Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. I want to ask a question similar to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth). Has not Britain now moved down the prosperity league from 13th to 18th place? Will he give the House the benefit of his opinion on why that has happened under his Government?
§ The Prime Minister
I can tell the hon. Lady directly that Britain is now the fastest-growing economy—[Interruption.] She does not like that. We have put right what was wrong under the last Labour Government, and Britain is now the fastest-growing economy in western Europe. She does not have to take just the Government's word for that: she should read what the OECD has to say about the British economy. It is the OECD that comments favourably about us, and it was the IMF that carted Labour away to the knacker's yard when a Labour Government were trying to run the economy.
§ Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Leader of the Opposition, not only throughout his speech but in all that he has said all over the country in the past 12 months, has hardly been able to point to a Conservative reform of the past 16 years, in labour law or in industrial law, in health or in education, that he proposes to repeal? Does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps no one in the House has moved further to the right than the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)?
§ The Prime Minister
The Leader of the Opposition certainly seems to have lurched quite a long way to the right, but I sometimes wonder to what extent his party has lurched with him. I think that Labour's heart and soul are where they always were—opposed to strong defence, nuclear weapons, low-inflation policies and free enterprise. That is where the heart of the Labour party is, even if a squatter is moving off its land on to ours and posing as the leader of the Labour party.
§ The Prime Minister
I should like to make a little progress now, and I trust that the hon. Gentleman will permit me to do so.
26 I have set out the platform for prosperity that we now have, but it is not a platform that the country can afford to take for granted. Getting there has not been easy. The policies that picked Britain up from its knees were fought tooth and nail by the Labour party, and those who fought them are not the people to build on them in future.
As the Leader of the Opposition said, we still face many challenges—harsher competition from all over the world threatening jobs and security, a growing elderly population in need of care, tidal changes in technology and rapid social change.
Conservatives are clear about how to deal with those problems. First, we have an unswerving commitment to an enterprise economy. That means low taxes, for the economic benefits they bring. It means incentives to encourage investment and create wealth, policies to increase personal prosperity and choice, and Government accepting that they should not always interfere. There are times when Governments do damage by interfering. In short, ours are policies to make Britain the enterprise centre of Europe.
§ The Prime Minister
I shall not give way to the hon. Lady now, but perhaps I shall a little later.
Opposition Members will hate our policies, because they hate choice. In their hearts, they hate the private sector, and believe that our great public services can be built only by higher taxation. As usual, they are wrong. People do not want, and in the 1990s they do not need, every choice to be taken for them by the Government or by some other central bureaucracy.
Of course, there will always be a role for the state. I do not favour a totally laissez-faire attitude in society, any more than I want a nanny state. Conservatives have always accepted the social obligation to care; so do the Government, and so will Conservative Governments after the next election. But we need those who can do so to care for themselves. For those who cannot, there must be the help that only an enterprise economy can pay for.
We care for our public services—schools, hospitals and welfare. I grew up dependent on those, just as people do today—and unlike some Opposition Members, I do not intend to kick away the ladder that I climbed as a boy. But to build our public services, we need growth, not high taxes. Growth is built on policies for enterprise, not on the policies of envy and spite that ignite Opposition Members.
We must also win the war against crime, protect the stability of the United Kingdom and stand up for our sovereign interests abroad. In the future, as in the past, that will mean tough action to deliver safety and security.
§ Mrs. Mahon
As the Prime Minister was talking about public services and choice, is he aware of the serious problem facing people in Calderdale and Kirklees, who face having their water cut off in a few days? Why was there no provision in the Queen's Speech to try to prevent that from ever happening again'? This is a first-world country, so why is the greedy, incompetent privatised Yorkshire Water allowed to run that company? When will the Prime Minister take responsibility for the delivery of free clean water to the people of my constituency?
§ The Prime Minister
In addition to everything else, the Opposition have a policy to make it rain when it is 27 convenient. We have just heard from the hon. Lady the absolute instinct of the Labour party to oppose the private sector whenever it can. Were there never problems in the old nationalised water industry? Of course there were.
A year ago, I spoke about the changing situation in Northern Ireland. Since then, the ceasefire has held, and there is a new atmosphere in Northern Ireland. There is a new situation: a growing economy, more jobs, policemen patrolling without armed soldiers in tow; in a word, Madam Speaker, peace. For weeks—and for, I believe, negotiating purposes—Sinn Fein has been declaring a state of crisis. It has warned—but it tells us that it is not a threat—that violence could return unless the other parties come rapidly to the negotiating table. But violence does not return of its own accord, like the daffodils in spring.
If Sinn Fein is committed to exclusively peaceful methods—as its leaders claim it to be—there can be no question of violence returning. Let Sinn Fein say that unequivocally. If its commitment is real, threats and thuggery should stop. The killing has stopped, but much else has not. A 16-year-old girl is dragged from her home in west Belfast by masked men, tied to a lamp post and assaulted. Her hair is cropped, and paint is poured over her. A 67-year-old woman from Londonderry is taken to hospital in shock when seven self-proclaimed provisionals with baseball bats break in and smash her house.
That may not be murder, but it is not peace, and it is not behaviour which merits Sinn Fein's entry to talks. I want Sinn Fein to denounce such behaviour and to stop it. I have given Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness the freedom to appear face to face on the media and express their views. Let them do so, and express their opposition to the punishment beatings which go on day after day after day in Northern Ireland.
Almost every day brings a fresh atrocity—there have been 250 since the ceasefire. Each assault, each threat, each so-called warning puts a question mark in the minds of reasonable people. I wish to move forward to negotiations involving all parties, including Sinn Fein. I believe that we can, and I shall work for that, but it will need good will and trust. We cannot move forward at any price, and we cannot move forward with a gun held to our head. The road to peace will be open if those erecting road blocks remove them, and I hope they will.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I agree with the Prime Minister. There was a recent case in Londonderry when individuals took refuge in the cathedral. Martin McGuinness—who had directed people involved in the stoning of houses—also directed those who wanted to put pressure on the bishop to remove those individuals from the cathedral. When a ship is decommissioned, it is not only put out of service but its crew is scattered. Until the IRA battalions are scattered, there can be no lasting peace.
On the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, may I point out that the methodology of the agreement still denies people the right to equal citizenship which is at the heart of the Gracious Speech? I yearn for the day when the people of Northern Ireland will be able to put forward an elected representative to negotiate a way forward.
§ The Prime Minister
We all look forward to the day when the road is open, not just for the preliminary talks 28 we are looking at currently, but beyond them to the round table talks between all the constitutional parties which can find a proper settlement in Northern Ireland. I look forward to that day, and I pledge to the House that I will continue to work for that day—but not, as I indicated a moment ago, at any price.
§ Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)
I totally agree with the Prime Minister's comments on the punishment beatings by both sets of paramilitaries. But on a slightly different aspect, bearing in mind the fact that the promotion of jobs in Northern Ireland is mentioned in the Gracious Speech, that the Prime Minister has played a noble role in the peace process in Northern Ireland and that he is aware that the Republic of Ireland has a 10 per cent. corporate tax which helps the Irish Government and the business people in the Republic of Ireland to attract investment from the United States and elsewhere, will the Government consider introducing a 10 per cent. corporate tax in the north of Ireland, in order to treat both parts of Ireland equally and to help to attract inward investment? I bear in mind the Prime Minister's conference in November, when I had the pleasure of hearing him, and I congratulate him once again on that. Surely the introduction of a 10 per cent. corporate tax in Northern Ireland would be a big step forward.
§ The Prime Minister
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his special pleading—a special pleading with which I am familiar from my visits to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland enjoys a number of other advantages not enjoyed in the south or elsewhere. One must consider the position in the round. Not only would the hon. Gentleman be surprised, but the House would be astonished beyond belief, if I were to deal with such tax measures on this occasion. [Interruption.] I fear that, despite the tempting invitation from the shadow Home Secretary, I have no intention of doing so.
Our commonsense, practical programme of traditional Conservative values is set out in the Gracious Speech. The centrepiece of our economic strategy will be unveiled later this month in the Budget. It will show our determination to turn Britain into the enterprise centre of Europe. As I said a moment ago, I do not intend to anticipate its contents, but it will be consistent with sound public finance and our resolve to move further towards a more enterprising economy. We have brought public spending under control. We will reduce it further, and, when prudent, we will cut taxes on companies and individuals.
For Britain to compete in tomorrow's world, more of our young people will need to be taught and trained in the skills and knowledge of the new century. Already, our education reforms offer parents more choice and pupils more opportunity. Up and down the country, parents are choosing grant-maintained schools for their children. That is excellent news. We will ensure that those highly popular schools can grow to reflect parents' choice in the future, as I believe they will.
I have given a commitment to make a nursery place available for every four-year-old in the country.
§ The Prime Minister
I shall not give way for the moment. I have given way quite a lot, and I want to make a little progress.
29 We will take a further significant step in that direction by giving parents the power to choose the nursery place they think is the right one for their children. Parents expect that choice, and they will get it.
Those young people will be entering a world of rapid change. One of the key areas of change is broadcasting. Digital technology will revolutionise broadcasting, just as much as the switch from black and white to colour television. Britain will be right at the forefront of those changes, and the broadcasting Bill will ensure that we stay there.
The Conservative party has a long tradition of helping those in need. [Interruption.] It is fashionable for hon. Members to dispute that. The Conservative party has provided more social advance than the Labour party has ever dreamt of. But to help those people to best effect, we must ensure that only those in genuine need receive that help, and our programme will do that.
In housing, our measures will ensure that those in greatest need get the help they deserve. We will raise the standard of social housing by increasing competition in its provision. We will introduce measures to ensure fairer access to social housing, and we will give new opportunities for tenants of housing associations to buy their own homes. Those are the measures that the Leader of the Opposition forgot to mention in his catalogue of what was not in the Queen's Speech.
We intend to offer further help to disabled people. Fate has robbed our fellow citizens who are disabled of a great deal. Governments should not rob them of choice. We will give disabled people themselves the funds to pay for the equipment and services they need. We have extended, and will continue to extend, the choice available to them.
Britain has always opened its doors to those who are in genuine need of asylum, but our current system has been abused. This year, some 40,000 claims for asylum will be made—10 times the figure in 1988. The Labour leader spoke of delays in applying for asylum. With that increase in figures, of course there are delays, and that is why we need reform. Only a small number—
§ The Prime Minister
Not at the moment.
Only a small number are likely to succeed, and they deserve to be determined speedily. The asylum and immigration Bill—[Interruption.] I suggest that Opposition Members read the Bill before they talk about it. It will ensure that applications for asylum are dealt with quickly and efficiently.
Genuine asylum cases will always receive a ready refuge in our country. That is our tradition, and it will continue. Of course we will continue to honour our United Nations convention obligations, just as we always have. Of course genuine asylum seekers will be treated with sympathy, as they always have been. But further action, including legislation, is necessary to deter bogus asylum seekers and to speed up the consideration of spurious applications, which, I regret to say, form the vast majority of asylum claims.
§ The Prime Minister
I will give way in a moment.
30 We will take that action in the interests of fair, but firm, policies. Those who attack that Bill, as the right hon. Member for Sedgefield did, do our excellent race relations no service whatsoever. He said that he opposed bogus applications. So do we, so he should support us on that issue.
On the criticisms that have come from some Labour Members, I have always believed strongly in racial tolerance in Britain. I grew up in a multiracial community. I am proud of the way in which race relations have improved in the past two or three decades. It did not always seem likely that they would do so.
Today, many members of ethnic minority groups are role models for all of us, not just for those of their own race and colour. They are Britons. They grew up here. They represent their country—our country—with distinction, at home and abroad, and they must have the same rights as every other citizen. I will not see that progress threatened by those who use race for short-term political gain.
In the interests of good race relations, I will ensure that we have a fair system of asylum—fair for those who need help, and fair for those who do not believe that this country should receive bogus asylum seekers either.
§ The Prime Minister
First, I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) who, I think, has a particular interest.
§ Sir Michael Shersby
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the past year or so, the United Kingdom has been a target for a sustained and planned campaign of illegal immigration, employing the use of sophisticated forged documentation? Is he further aware that my local authority, the London borough of Hillingdon, is paying more than £1 million a year to care for unaccompanied child refugees, who have been brought to this country as part of that campaign? Does he agree that, in dealing with the problem of illegal immigration and asylum, we have to deal with those issues?
§ The Prime Minister
I agree that those difficult issues exist, and we should address them. But I must tell the whole House that we are seeking to address a particular problem. It is not a help to good race relations to leave that problem unresolved; nor is it a help for Opposition Members, for political reasons, to turn that Bill into a Bill about race, when it is about proper asylum procedures.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)
In that spirit, will the Prime Minister take some time to reflect on the suggestion of the Leader of the Opposition that the proposed Bill be considered by a special Committee? Also, following the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth, will he investigate why only one Nigerian national has been given refugee status in the United Kingdom so far this year? Will he also take the necessary action to declare Nigeria a country of significant upheaval, thereby enabling Nigerian nationals whose applications for refugee status are subject to appeal to claim benefit pending the outcome of the appeal?
§ The Prime Minister
We shall deal with everybody, from whatever country, on asylum on a fair and free and 31 open basis. That includes those people from Nigeria. I saw some of the rumours about Nigeria a few days ago, and fair old nonsense they were.
As far as the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is concerned, of course, as a matter of courtesy, I will consider what the Leader of the Opposition said. I have to say to the House that I do not immediately find myself attracted by it, for this Bill will be the subject of the proper, wide-ranging discussion that all Bills have in the House during a very lengthy procedure. But of course I will consider what the right hon. Gentleman had to say.
§ Mr. Corbett
I am most grateful to the Prime Minister. The whole House will welcome the way that he has spoken about the issue, and the language that he has used in doing so. In that spirit, rather than simply as a matter of courtesy—which is not unimportant—will he take the wider point of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), that if we are going to make the maximum contribution to sustaining and developing good race relations, we would do it best on the basis of consensus? Will he bear that in mind in thinking about my right hon. Friend's suggestion?
§ The Prime Minister
I have borne that in mind in the manner in which I have approached this issue, but I have to say that it is those who raise the question of race when we are dealing with the question of asylum abuse—[Interruption.] It is those who do that who raise the problem. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that it is his hon. Friends who have been behaving in that fashion, not this Government.
What we are seeking to do—[Interruption.] No one denies—certainly the right hon. Member for Sedgefield did not deny it, to his credit—that there is a serious problem of asylum abuse. It is the responsibility of this Government and this House to deal with that question of abuse. It is not the responsibility of this House to drag in extraneous matters that could damage race relations while we undertake consideration of the Bill. Those people who do it cannot claim to be doing it in the interests of asylum seekers or in the interests of good race relations. I appeal to the Opposition to get off the kick they seemed to be on some days ago, and to deal with this Bill responsibly, as I believe it should be dealt with.
§ Sir Peter Emery
My right hon. Friend started this section of his speech talking about education. Will he bear it in mind that there is a vast campaign by Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled local education authorities, which go out of their way to try to urge headmasters, governors and parents to resist voting for a grant-maintained system? That has to be examined, and the Government must take positive action about it.
§ The Prime Minister
I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend says. I know that there have been real problems there.
32 Whenever our country has been faced with change and difficult circumstances, the family has been a rock for the people of this country. No Conservative Government led by me could introduce legislation that would undermine marriage and the role of the family. At present, almost three quarters of all divorces are completed in less than sixth months, on grounds such as adultery or unreasonable behaviour. In future, no divorce would be possible in less than one year.
The family law Bill will put in place a framework to ensure that married couples face up to the responsibilities they have to each other, and, critically, to the children of that marriage. It will remove the incentive for couples to make allegations one against the other, often harming their children, and usually for the purpose of obtaining a more speedy divorce.
This Bill ensures that arrangements for children precede divorce, and it allows divorce to be barred when it would cause grave hardship. I believe that these measures are emphatically pro-marriage measures, and I believe that they deserve support. But I recognise that it undeniably touches upon the religious convictions and personal conscience of many hon. Members.
I have no wish to seek to ride roughshod over those convictions; so, as far as the Government are concerned, we shall propose free votes on matters of conscience in the family law Bill, and I hope that other parties will follow that lead.
The Bill will also deal with domestic violence, a crime from which every person should be protected, whether married or unmarried and in cohabitation.
Over the past two years, we have seen the largest ever fall in recorded crime. However, one of the most frustrating features of our criminal justice system is that cases have to be dropped because of the current rules on disclosure. That may mean that too many guilty people walk free. We will introduce changes to ensure a fairer balance of disclosure between the prosecution and the defence.
One of the most worrying problems we face is the growth of organised crime, which does not respect international borders. Such crime is often a trade in drugs, bringing untold misery for profit. Only in the past few days, we have seen a particularly highly publicised and tragic case of how drugs can devastate a family. In such an evil trade, no drug is soft, and no drug is safe. We must use every resource against this threat.
We will remove the present barrier to the Security Service helping the police and other agencies against organised crime. The usual statutory safeguards on the actions of the Security Service will, of course, continue to apply.
§ The Prime Minister
Not at the moment.
Many of the drugs from south America are smuggled to northern Europe through the Caribbean. Over the past few weeks, I have consulted Caribbean leaders about ways in which to break the chain. At their request and with their agreement, I will ask the European Union to give them effective help. The intention would he to find 33 the resources to stop the Caribbean being used as a way station for drugs from Latin America en route for northern Europe. If we can stop the drugs trade there, we shall damage it significantly, and do a great service to many hundreds of thousands of people throughout northern Europe.
§ The Prime Minister
No, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I have taken the attention of the House for a long time. I know that there are right hon. and hon. Members who are waiting to speak.
Those are new approaches, but they are necessary. I believe that they can succeed.
The tradition of voluntary military service is an important thread in our national fabric. The reserve forces make a vital contribution to this country's security and well-being. By their selflessness, dedication and sheer enthusiasm, they enrich the quality of our national life and they deserve our gratitude. The reserve forces Bill will enable the reserves to respond more flexibly to the new challenges facing the country since the end of the cold war. In future, they will be able to take their part in peacekeeping and in many other matters.
Our legislative programme will allow us to build on the successes of the past, and to meet the challenges ahead. The policies that Labour advocates would squander our opportunities as a result of its readiness to increase spending, its readiness to put up taxes, the certainty that it would let inflation rip, and its discouragement of investment with more red tape. Labour will try to square its tax and spending inconsistencies with windfall taxes of one extraordinary sort or another. Such policies do not add up to a credible programme of opposition, let alone of government. They add to the reasons why Labour, as it has admitted in its own documents, is unfit to govern.
We have served our nation well, and we have built a strong economy. Labour's policies do not add up. We have been tough on crime; Labour has been soft. It is not remotely fit to govern. We have offered choice and high standards in schools; Labour Members exercise choice themselves, but would deny choice to others. They are not fit to govern. We have raised the quality of care in our hospitals. Labour would rip up our reforms and plunge the hospital system into chaos. Again, Labour is not fit to govern. We have stood up in Europe, often alone. Labour Members would not; they are not fit to govern, because they are not prepared to stand alone.
Our legislative programme is the right programme for this country; it will also be a litmus test for the Opposition. Let those who say that they support the market support the measures in the Finance Bill. Let those who rightly, and merrily, take the opportunity of choice in schools support our plans for choice in schools. Let those who would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime join us in being tough on the criminal. That is the litmus test, and we shall see what comes burning through.
While we set out important long-term policies, Labour demonstrates time and again why it is unfit to govern. We will pursue our objectives for the economy, for choice, for opportunity and for a safe and secure United Kingdom. That is what lies at the heart of our programme. I 34 commend it to the House. No other party can put the interests of this country first as this Conservative Government do. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
I join the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party in congratulating the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address.
The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) has an elegance of phrase that we will, frankly, miss in the House, because it is not found in too many other right hon. and hon. Members. I must say to him, bluntly, that I am not sure that we will miss his management of the nation's foreign affairs, though his long commitment to the business and affairs of the nation has been diligent and is highly regarded.
I seem to remember that the right hon. Gentleman was once famously described by Andrew Rawnsley as "Sir Geoffrey Howe on speed". That is an interesting description. We have all noted how quickly he left the Government in order to spend more time with his bank manager. I think he will be missed as well when he leaves the House.
I had intended to remind the House of the ancestors of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth), but unfortunately the Prime Minister got there before me. I had intended to say that the fact that his ancestor was beheaded by an ancestor of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), was perhaps an early example of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.
The hon. Member for City of Chester has often said that he has spent the past few years trying to live down being a past television personality. I suspect that he will spend the next few years trying to live down being a past Conservative Member of Parliament, and I wish him luck in that.
Of course there are some things which we welcome in the Queen's Speech, and I will touch on them in a moment. But overall, a glance at this programme tells us, frankly, all we need to know about the Government. It tells us that they are no longer a Government of direction, let alone of any kind of long-term vision. They cannot be saved by new policies, because they have none—they ran out of those ages ago. They cannot be saved by another relaunch. I have lost count of how many relaunches they have had since the last election. I recall that the most recent one lasted a full two days before it was forgotten. They cannot be saved by another lurch to the right—they have done too many of those.
Let us admit, since the Opposition parties know it, that this Queen's Speech is not the event that matters in the month of November. It is an example of going through the motions. The Queen's Speech is a charade—a pantomime. It is a necessary formality before the real event in less than two weeks' time, the Budget.
The Government now have nothing further to say to the nation except, "Please vote for us because we're going to give you a tax cut." That is the beginning and end of the message that they will now present to the country. It is 35 their only hope and they know it. Their assumption is that they can hoodwink us once more—that they can fool the nation again.
The Government believe that we will not remember that the tax cuts pledged before the last election were paid for afterwards with higher taxes, higher mortgages, lost jobs, bankrupt businesses and broken lives. They think that we will forget that. They think that people would rather have a little more money in their pockets today than decent schools and better chances for their children in the future.
The Government think that Britain can be fooled again. I think that they are wrong. Just compare Britain's economic situation last year with that achieved this year. Last year, borrowing was £1 billion above target at £35 billion or thereabouts. Today, it is not £1 billion above target, but likely to be £10 billion above target, at £30 billion. Last year, the inflation rate stood at 2.5 per cent., but this year it has nearly doubled to 4 per cent., and it is going up. Last year, the growth in gross domestic product was 4 per cent., but this year it is barely 2 per cent. Last year, growth in sales and manufacturing output in Britain stood at 4 per cent., but this year there was zero growth, and more bad figures were published today. However, last year, the Government said that things were so bad that we had to have record tax increases, but this year, they say that they are so good that they can afford a tax cut. Who the hell do they think they are fooling? They are not fooling anyone. Everyone in the country knows what the Government know, and they know beyond peradventure that the Government are preparing to risk responsible management of the nation's economy for short-term tax cuts to save their own skins.
We now learn that the Labour party will stand idly by and allow the Government to do that—so we hear—because Labour Members dare not vote against a Budget that puts Conservative tax cuts before Britain's interests.
On Monday, at the Confederation of British Industry conference, the Leader of the Opposition said that he was "unashamedly a long-termist". I applaud that commitment and I agree with it, but a person cannot be an unashamed long-termist if the best that he can do is to abstain when the Government so obviously place short-term party interests before the long-term interests of the nation. It will not wash.
I believe that Labour cannot do what it rightly and understandably seeks to do—win a reputation for economic responsibility—if Labour Members will not vote against a Government who are so plainly acting irresponsibly.
If the Labour party will not stand up for the long-term interests of the nation in opposition, how on earth can the country trust it to do so in government? If the Labour party acquiesces to the present Government distorting the country's finances to get themselves re-elected, why on earth should the country not conclude that Labour would do exactly the same if it were in their place?
In two weeks' time, we shall see the cynicism of the Government by the Budget that they present, but we shall also know the mettle of the Labour party by the way in which Labour Members vote on that Budget. The nation will be watching both of them.
36 Today, however, we debate a Queen's Speech that—the Leader of the Opposition put it rightly—is barely a sufficient programme for three months, let alone a full year. That is precisely the point. For it is a cut-and-run programme, designed to be ditched at any time for an early general election. They are fag-end measures from a fag-end Government.
The one thing that drives the Government—obsesses them—is to find something, anything, to mark out clear water between themselves and new Labour, which now appears determined to become indistinguishable from them. The Leader of the Opposition's tactics—in my opinion, good tactics but bad strategy—are driving the Prime Minister absolutely mad.
Turn as he will, the Prime Minister has not a clue about how to handle that. Blown hither and thither by the gales that rage in the Conservative party, he now tacks frantically from one side to the other, driven on by his own weakness and rebellions all around him. One week, he leads the applause for his Defence Secretary, who has grabbed the wheel and swung it towards clear blue water with a speech of such juvenile right-wing nonsense that it discredits not only his position but the whole nation; the next, we are told that he has at last found firm anchorage, sheltering under the lee of the Deputy Prime Minister, safe in the harbour of one nation Toryism.
§ Mr. Ashdown
However, a week later, there he is, throwing overboard long-planned legislation on divorce and domestic violence and making the Lord Chancellor carry the can, to satisfy a tiny group of Conservative right wingers and the ramblings of a freelance journalist on the Daily Mail.
I predict that it will not be long before the Prime Minister is off again, blown on by a news headline or a minor revolt of Conservative Back Benchers or a Minister who has now become too weak to control. Behind him he will trail that sorry, bedraggled Armada that now passes for the Government of our country.
§ Mr. Ashdown
Oh, he can; that man can. He can drag them behind. The albatross of the past 16 years hung around their neck, weighed down by broken promises and political sleaze, paralysed by internal divisions and ministerial incompetence, they will limp on until they make their final rendezvous with the ballot box.
What drives the programme is fear—fear of what that ballot box will bring. But fear is not only the Government's stimulus; fear is the weapon that they intend to use—it is the only weapon that is left to them and it will be their chosen weapon at the next election.
The Government will raise fear over constitutional change—we heard it today. They will say that it will break up Britain. But the opposite is true. The Union is more likely to be broken by the arrogance and contempt with which the Government ride roughshod over opinion in Scotland and Wales and the communities of Britain. They will raise fear over the chaos which they say would follow any change to the way we are governed. But the opposite is true. Britain's democratic structures have become so out of date, so out of kilter with the needs of a modern, citizen-based, information-rich society, that 37 they are now just as much a block on progress as are the out-of-date machines in too many of our competitive industries.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
The right hon. Gentleman talks about changes in the structure of government. Over the past 18 months the right hon. Gentleman and I, and our colleagues in Somerset, have worked together with success to save the tier of Somerset county council; indeed, we have succeeded in saving the county council tier across most of the country. Given the two-tier structure of local government that we now retain in this country, does the right hon. Gentleman's party still intend to superimpose on top of it—under Westminster and under Europe and Strasbourg—the tier of regional assemblies?
§ Mr. Ashdown
A tier of regional government already exists. The only difference is that it is not democratically accountable. The Government have gone round constructing it—there are people in Bristol who deal with Government Departments for the west country, but the people of the west country have no control over them. All we seek to do is to ensure that those people are democratically accountable to the areas that they serve.
The Government will raise the fear—we have already seen it today—that the nation is about to be swallowed up by Brussels. But the opposite is true. All that Brussels does, it does because the Government have agreed to it, in secret, in the Council of Ministers—and the only person who agreed to more than the Prime Minister was his predecessor.
Many of the things that we and everyone else want for our people in the years ahead—security, the right framework for a strong economy, a powerful voice in the world, a clean environment in which to live—can be achieved only if we work constructively with our European neighbours. But the Government would sacrifice all that to appease a few rabid anti-Europeans on their own Back Benches.
The Government will raise the fear that if we try to invest in education, we will become bankrupt. But the opposite is true: the one certain way to bankrupt Britain is to fail to invest in our people. For they are the most important resource that we have.
The Government will raise the fear that long-term investment in our infrastructure and a long-term programme to clean up our environment will mean short-term misery for us all. But the opposite is true. Unless this country starts taking the long-term view, it is bound to go on failing—in the short term and in the long term.
The Government will raise the fear that the country cannot be safely governed except by people who have had as much experience as they have had. I presume that they mean people like the Home Secretary, whose chief experience since his appointment two years ago is that of being found guilty eight times by the courts for breaking the laws which he is supposed to be there to protect.
§ Mr. Ashdown
The hon. Gentleman says that it is nine—I am happy to accept that. Frankly, I have lost count.
38 If it is experience that the Government value so much, if it is experience that gave us the poll tax or the arms to Iraq scandal or sleaze on the Back Benches or economic bungling and mismanagement or the misappropriation of aid for the world's poor into the Pergau dam scandal or the timidity and failure of three years of fatal hesitation in Bosnia, then frankly I think we can do without it. It is not that sort of experience that Britain needs, but new ideas, new energy and some new policies to prepare it for the next century.
§ Mr. Ashdown
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little progress I shall happily give way later.
The Government's programme for the next year should have contained such measures. But it does not. There are some measures that we can welcome in the Queen's Speech, as I said earlier, but they are few in number and small in character.
If the Bill on asylum is designed to speed up the procedures for dealing with applicants and to weed out bogus applicants, we would welcome it. But that will not be its purpose. Instead, I believe that it will be a disgraceful attempt to play the race card by blacklisting certain countries' nationals and preventing them from even applying for asylum. I speak of countries such as Nigeria, from where there have been 9,000 applications for asylum since 1993, of which only four have been granted. I am happy to give way to the Prime Minister if he is prepared to answer the question. It would put many minds at rest.
The Leader of the Opposition quoted from an article—which I saw also—by Mr. Andrew Lansley, who was the head of research for the Conservative party at the last election. Interestingly, it is an Observer essay that is targeted at the methods used to destroy Labour in 1992. It is entitled "Accentuate the negative to win again"—and we have seen quite a lot of that. In the article, Mr. Lansley, who is now a Conservative party candidate, saysImmigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and again in the 1994 Euro-elections campaign, played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt".They are the words of a Conservative candidate who was the Prime Minister's research director at the last election. I shall happily give way to the Prime Minister because I believe that he has a very good reputation on race issues. It is the Prime Minister, and not those on the Back Benches, who will run his party's policy on the matter while in government. Will he personally repudiate the sentiment expressed by Mr. Lansley and give an absolute undertaking that it will not recur during the next election campaign?
§ The Prime Minister
I indicated earlier to the right hon. Gentleman that I grew up in a multiracial area. [Interruption.] Will the right hon. Gentleman do me the courtesy of listening? I grew up in a multiracial area and, from time to time, I lived in a rented house with people of more than one race. While I lead it, the instincts of my party will not be to play race at any time, in any way, on any occasion or upon any provocation. That will not be our policy.
I believe passionately in the equal rights of everyone in this country—whether they be black, brown, yellow or white. That is my firm conviction and it has always been 39 my firm conviction. That will be the Government's policy for as long as I sit on the Front Bench. I hope that that is clear.
§ Mr. Ashdown
The Prime Minister's emotions and his sincerity about the matter are not to be doubted; what must be doubted is his control of his party. The Prime Minister has not done what I asked him to do. Is he prepared to stand at the Dispatch Box and repudiate the words of his parliamentary candidate, Mr. Lansley? He is not prepared to do that, and therefore we must infer that at the next election Conservative candidates will be free to put forward that sort of policy.
§ The Prime Minister
The right hon. Gentleman is doing exactly what I said earlier, and it is contemptible. I have set out the Government's policy, which is the policy of the Conservative party. It is the policy of every hon. Member and of every parliamentary candidate. Is that clear enough for the right hon. Gentleman?
§ Mr. Ashdown
The Prime Minister is not prepared to repudiate Mr. Lansley's words: I think that the nation and the House will recognise and understand that deficiency.
§ Mr. Ashdown
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The difference is that we took immediate action to solve the problem. The Liberal party is the only party that has conducted an independent inquiry, which included members of the public and people from the Commission for Racial Equality, to root out the problems.
Racism can be found in all of us and in all organisations. It is an endemic bacillus that grows in the Conservative party, as well as in other political parties. It is often found in our own backyards, where we want it least. The issue is not where racism occurs, but how one deals with it. We rooted out the problem and we dealt with it. I have asked the Prime Minister to repudiate a statement that I believe is thoroughly racist in character. No one doubts the Prime Minister's sincerity or his commitment to the issue, but everyone will have noticed his failure to repudiate that statement.
§ Mr. Ashdown
No, I shall now make some progress. We would support a sensible Bill to strengthen the powers of the health service ombudsman, as proposed in the Queen's Speech. But we believe that other measures are wrong or a distraction, or both.
We will oppose the introduction of nursery vouchers. They will do nothing to expand provision and could wreck the provision that is already in place. We will oppose any attempt to force religious schools to opt out against their will. We support the Government in some of the foreign affairs matters identified in the speech, such as working to strengthen ties with members of the Commonwealth and pursuing a comprehensive test ban treaty. But that makes the Government's refusal to oppose French nuclear testing in the South Pacific completely incomprehensible and shameful.
40 We will support the Government in working for prosperity and stability in Hong Kong. China must realise that freedom and prosperity in Hong Kong are inextricably interwoven and that, if one is damaged, there is a risk of damaging the other. I visited China recently and I understand why it is suspicious of democracy. But I believe that the Chinese have little to fear. Hong Kongers will use their freedom and democracy carefully and responsibly. I hope that the Chinese Government understand the value that Hong Kong places on the new democratic institutions, and recognise the damage that could be done to the viability and success of the whole community if they are destroyed.
But the British Government must also put their house in order in relation to Hong Kong. The Government's refusal to recognise the position in which their policies have left the non-Chinese ethnic minority community in Hong Kong is, frankly, disgraceful. They are mostly people of Indian subcontinent origin and many have served, and some have fought, in the armed forces for Britain.
Under the agreement signed by the British Government, those people will not be entitled to Chinese passports after 1997 and the Government still refuse to allow them the right of abode in Britain. So that community—4,000 or so in number—will be left effectively stateless after 1997. That is disgraceful, even by the standards of dishonour which have characterised the Government's immigration policy. I hope that the Government will reconsider the issue, as I greatly fear that when Hong Kong is handed over to the Chinese we may see, on one side, Hong Kongers demonstrating about the Chinese crushing democracy and, on the other side, ethnic minority Indians demonstrating about the fact that the British Government have robbed them of their right to statehood.
This Queen's Speech opens the last full year before the next general election. It is clear that the Government have nothing else to offer, so it is time to spell out the alternatives. The time for mere "oppositionism" is past. The country knows how awful the Government are and the people want to know what we would do instead.
Warm words and weak promises are not enough: we need clear proposals and costed policies. That is what the Liberal Democrats, at least, are determined to provide. Last week we published an alternative Queen's Speech and next week we will publish a fully costed alternative Budget. At the core of our proposals are three priorities: to invest in people, to clean up the mess of our politics, and to build for the long term.
We have made clear what we would do specifically to achieve those aims. We would invest £2 billion in education now in order to pay for free, quality early-years education for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it, for more books and equipment in our schools, for better post-16 education and for an entitlement for everyone to a period of relearning at some point in their adult lives. If necessary, we are prepared to ask people to put a penny on their income tax if that is what it takes to fund that essential investment for Britain. It is that important.
We would put in place a radical programme to clean up the mess in our politics by making quangos accountable, setting higher standards for public representatives and reforming the House of Commons. It 41 would include a Freedom of Information Act, fair voting and a Bill of Rights so that Britain's constitution is ready for the next century, not stuck in the last one.
We would build for the long term, creating a stable economic framework for business success, supporting innovation and small businesses and helping unemployed people to get back into jobs. We would invest in a modern integrated transport infrastructure for a modern Britain, shifting money from roads to rail to pay for it and re-establishing public control over Railtrack if privatisation goes ahead.
We would create the framework for a national interactive information network with universal access for all. The Liberal party has been calling for that for more than a decade.
We would put green action at the heart of Government policy, building the basis for a clean and environmentally sustainable economy and making an historic shift in taxation by cutting tax on what we want more of, such as jobs and wealth, and putting it on what we want less of, such as pollution and the consumption of finite raw materials.
We would ensure that Britain plays a full part in Europe. Instead of wasting our chances sitting on the sidelines, we want Britain's influence to be used to reform Europe's institutions to make them more democratic, decentralised, open and accountable. We understand that we cannot build the new Europe in the face of the apathy or antagonism of Europe's citizens, so we have no difficulty in saying that further integration—which we believe should take place—can happen only with the specific agreement of our people, given through the ballot box in a referendum.
So much else could have been done in the Queen's Speech. It could have included the abolition of the hated and failed Child Support Act 1995 and its replacement with a fair and effective court system, a housing Bill which really improved access to housing, a crime Bill to make headway in preventing crime in our local communities and a Bill to help small businesses that would penalise the late payment of debt. There could have been legislation to turn welfare payments into payments for work to help people back to jobs, a civil rights Bill for people with disabilities, and so much more. However, for those we shall have to wait for a general election. Until then, Britain will be forced to mark time because we have a Government who are out of time—a Government who, in the deadly words of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, are in office but not in power.
The vote on the Nolan report showed the Government to be out of touch. The haggling over the divorce and domestic violence Bill showed them to be out of control and the Queen's Speech shows that they are out of ideas. The country cannot wait for them to be out of office.
§ Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)
It is always reassuring to see the Liberal party sticking with the manifestos that it put to the country four or five times in the past with so little success. We learnt this morning that the leader of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), has added poor skills at clairvoyance to poor skills in politics, because he 42 condemned the Queen's Speech as a set of fag-end measures before he had the chance to read it. We can understand his problem: he can no longer win power in Westminster and he sees his waning popularity going to other parties, so he desperately tries to find ways to re-establish the Liberal party as a party of government.
The House will recall when the Liberals were preparing for government. It was a long time ago, and they do not seem to have got very far with the preparations. Now the Liberal Democrats are busily preparing for more tiers of government in the hope that eventually they will hit on one where they might have more influence or pick up some scraps from the table of power.
§ Mr. Redwood
The leader of the Liberal party asks about me. I enjoyed six years in government and I still have influence on government because I belong to a party that wins elections, has good ideas and can address the issues of the day, as the Liberal party is clearly unable to do.
I shall deal now with more serious issues than the Liberal party. The House should consider the great trouble that two people are taking to understand the mood of the nation. I am thinking of those terrible twins, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and Mr. Alastair Campbell—the Mr. Smooth and the Mr. Nasty of the Labour party. As they burn the midnight oil avidly reading the issue polls on which they are spending a fortune—probably from the trade union movement—we can picture their disconsolate faces when they see what the issue polls are saying. They ask the issue pollsters to tell them what the public want on law and order and the public want a firmer line. People want the Government to stand up for the victim rather than for the criminal. They favour the measures that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is about to bring before the House.
The terrible twins then ask the issue pollsters what the public want on taxation. Of course the public would like taxes to be lower, not higher. There is no market out there for the traditional socialism of taking more money from the public and spending it on the silly schemes and bad public policies that Labour always adopts in local government and used to adopt in central Government. They then ask the pollsters what the public want on defence and the public want a strong and sound defence. They want the nuclear deterrent to be retained and Britain to be properly defended, and another Labour shibboleth hits the dust.
The terrible twins then ask what the public would like on education and surprise, surprise, the public want what the leader of the Labour party has taken for himself. People would like real choice for their children to go to a good school—a grant-maintained school that puts standards first, second and third. Why is the leader of the Labour party never able to say why he sent his son to such a school? He would not want to say whether it is because the school is better run, spends more money and believes in academic discipline and proper progress. Of course it does. It can be done and we shall have more such schools if we follow policies of choice and differentiation in our education system.
On all the crucial issues, the terrible twins discover that, far from wanting socialism, the public want more conservatism, so they go to their leader and say, "We have 43 a problem, Leader. The public want the Government to be more conservative, not less. The public do not want a socialist Administration. You must shift your rhetoric and change your soundbites. You must show that you are becoming the greatest Tory of them all."
The problem for the leader of the Labour party is that he is not leading the Conservative party, nor influencing it. He is leading the wrong party. Whereas I and my right hon. Friends love our party and want to see it succeed, the leader of the Labour party clearly does not love his and is trying to drag it kicking and screaming into the 20th century when the rest of us are moving into the 21st century. That is the Labour dilemma.
As a result of all that, a large number of gagging orders are sent out to every member of the shadow Cabinet. I believe that they are allowed to make the tea on a rota but it is an idea-free zone, a debate-free zone. They get more and more gagging orders from on high and the soundbite of the week, however appropriate it may be.
We in the Conservative party have work to do. There are serious issues that worry the nation, and that only a Conservative Government can and must tackle. People are worried about the security of their jobs, their homes and their families and it is those issues which the Queen's Speech, followed by the Budget, must tackle and be seen to be tackling in a way that meets the mood of the times.
I am delighted that the Government are bringing forward measures on broadcasting. If we deregulate broadcasting as thoroughly as we did telecommunications, there is a chance that we shall have another great British success story on our hands. It is the Government's job to deregulate; it is the industry's job to innovate and to create jobs. That can happen only with the right deregulation policies pursued by a Conservative Government.
The Government are treading warily into the difficult issues of divorce and the family. I was reassured when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that there would be a free vote on the conscience issues and I am delighted that he intends the Bill to strengthen the family and not to undermine it. We need to look the nation in the face and say that the Bill makes divorce more difficult and helps the children of those families under pressure and threat. It will put the children first, as they will suffer from too rapid a divorce or too acrimonious a split in the marriage that was meant to sustain them.
§ Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)
The right hon. Gentleman talks about families and the difficulties that they experience. Does he agree that the rigid formulae which the Child Support Agency applies cause great difficulties for families, and especially for children?
§ Mr. Redwood
The important principle that if someone is old enough to father a child, he is old enough to make a financial contribution to the welfare of that child, had to be sustained. It is important that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security keeps rules and methods in view to ensure that they are fair and reasonable. We must never lose sight of the fundamental principle that the main responsibility for bringing up children must fall on the parents. If they have money, they should apply that money to doing just that, not rely on neighbours—taxpayers—to pick up the bill.
44 I am delighted that, through the Queen's Speech, we shall tackle the issue of law and order. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made progress, for he has introduced several measures in past Sessions. Unfortunately, the balance is still not right. Too many criminals are still getting away undetected. Too many seem to be able to get through a trial unconvicted when the evidence against them seems to be quite strong. My right hon. and learned Friend must again consider the balance.
The nation will be relieved to learn that the scandal of too many illegal immigrants who abuse our generosity on asylum rules will be brought to an end. We do not object to paying benefits to those in need in our community and we do not mind helping those who face a genuine threat to their lives in the countries from which they are fleeing. At the same time, we do not want to see an avalanche of new people arriving in the country illicitly and illegally and abusing a system that was set up to help others and not them.
The Queen's Speech must be underwritten by a strong and good Budget. It is vital that we return £5 billion to the taxpayer. Current levels of taxation on home owners, small businesses and prudent pensioners are far too high. They are especially too high on families that are trying to cope with their children and their daily rounds. If we are to create the room to return £5 billion, we must cut public spending by £5 billion. That is to reduce not public spending, which is planned to increase by much more than £5 billion, but the rate of increase. We can do that while not damaging one teacher, nurse, doctor, soldier or policeman. Those important people provide vital public services that account for about one third of public spending, and can be put on one side in the public spending round.
There are, however, spending cuts that could be extremely popular with the public. For example, they would love to see the 7 million sq ft of empty office accommodation in the central Government estate sold or let, thus bringing in income or a receipt for the nation. They would love to see an end to the many hospital closures that often result in expensive reorganisation schemes that, far from saving money, cost money, and to see local hospitals supported by the Government. Through that approach, we could start to introduce some of the benefits and the good news that stem from the Government's health reforms, such as trusting patients and general practitioners, in a way that Labour never would, so that they can choose better treatment. If they are to have real choice, there must be enough different types of hospital from which people can choose. That means bringing an end to many closure programmes.
We can sell empty houses from the Government estate that are owned in the names of the health service and of the Ministry of Defence. We could start to reduce the Government overhead, as I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer wishes to do.
I would love to see the Labour health team put on the spot, but it will have a problem anyway. I believe that the members of the team are sponsored by Unison, which means that, under the new rules, they will be unable to speak in the House on health matters. Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends may say that that will make little difference. It might be a good idea, however, for the 45 shadow health team to tidy up its arrangements so that we can return to the good old debates to which we became accustomed.
We must ensure that our policies are geared to producing the jobs and the prosperity that the public are yearning to see. I hope that the £5 billion of public spending savings can be returned to mortgage holders, prudent pensioners, small businesses, and especially to families by increasing tax allowances.
I would like to see the Government marching boldly into the councils of Europe with a policy for jobs and prosperity for the whole continent. It is time for us to influence Europe for the better. Europe is not working as well as it should. One in five of the working population is out of work in Spain, one in seven in Ireland and one in eight in France. Those are unacceptably high levels of unemployment. Something is clearly going wrong on the continent with European policies. We should argue strongly for freer trade with eastern Europe. There should be freer trade across the Atlantic through the excellent idea of the North Atlantic and European Community free trade area, which we need to negotiate.
Let us deregulate business rather more and rid ourselves of the many directives that destroy jobs and do other damage, especially to small companies. We should say that the European Community should look again at the run-up to currency union, which is producing a dreadful fog of deflationary policy across the continent. Far from creating prosperity and bringing economies together, that is doing untold damage to the continent and its economies and causing them to slip further and further behind American and Asian competition.
Now is the time for Britain to make a positive contribution to the European debate. We should say in Madrid that we are committed to the success of Europe and to a Europe that works well. We must say that it is necessary to change the agenda dramatically if Europe is to become open for trade, business and success of the sort that we all wish to see.
The Leader of the Opposition has put forward a new means of negotiating in Europe. I hope that it is a method that he will ask the new Labour Chief Whip to adopt when discussing, behind the Chair, ways to expedite proceedings. The Labour Chief Whip would go to the Conservative Chief Whip to ask him about the Conservative view of business for the next week. The Conservative Chief Whip would tell him. The Labour Chief Whip would say, "That is excellent. I must not be isolated so I shall accept all of that." It would greatly improve our proceedings if we practised that negotiating style. I greatly recommend it to the Labour Chief Whip, but I am not so keen that my right hon. Friend the Conservative Chief Whip should adopt it. I think that we should adopt the continental view and get our retaliation in first. We should set out our agenda so that Labour can follow it, as it clearly would follow the European agenda from France and Germany, were the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) ever given the chance.
I commend the Gracious Speech and the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the House. The speech contains measures to tackle the issues arising from crime, housing and education in a way that only Conservatives can do, which is a way likely to produce success. We need more choice in the public services. There should be higher quality in those services. There 46 should be stronger action on law and order. We need to reassure people about their jobs, homes and families. We need Conservative Budgets to complete the job. There is nothing on offer from the Opposition parties that would go to the heart of the matter.
§ 5.7 pm
§ Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)
It is interesting to take up the remarks of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). Perhaps the House will understand why we in Wales were so pleased when he resigned his position as governor-general.
Much interest and attention has been focused on what the Prime Minister called the family Bill. I note that the reference to it is tucked away on the back page of the Queen's Speech. The relevant passage reads:My Government will introduce legislation to reform the law governing divorce and other aspects of family law.We are all aware that two in five marriages end in divorce; we have the highest divorce rate in Europe. As Members of Parliament, we see regularly the evil consequences. There is a multitude of single-parent families and there are wrangles with the Child Support Agency. Children are in care and many of them turn to crime. A recent survey undertaken by the directors of social services, which was published early last month, revealed that many local authorities have overspent on their child care budget. They are having to economise and consequently fewer young adults receive the support that they need. Children will have their needs recognised, but they will be largely unmet. The cause, say the directors, is the rise in the number of single mothers and of families where adults are unemployed.
I readily subscribe to the theory that children are best brought up in two-parent families. The alternative is there for all to see. That is the view of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition: he believes in family values, and does not want the destabilising of society that we are witnessing.
In 1956, the Government of the day appointed a royal commission to advise on divorce. It concluded that making divorce easier would undermine marriage and threaten family life. In 1995, it is clear that the commission was absolutely right. I have no wish to question the sincerity of the Lord Chancellor in championing the Bill that is mentioned in the Gracious Speech; nevertheless, I am not at all sure that he has got it right. Certainly, the Government should encourage two-parent families—financially and in other ways.
This is the last full Session of the present Parliament. I am sure that any impartial observer would agree that we have had three and a half years of sleaze and mismanagement. Back in September 1992, on Black Wednesday, Britain was driven out of the exchange rate mechanism—an event that continues to hang like a dark cloud over all that the Government do. It is no coincidence that, ever since then, the Labour party has led in the opinion polls on the key issue of economic competence.
This Parliament also saw the Government's humiliating defeat over VAT on fuel. That was little more than a sordid attempt by the Government to penalise the poor, and it was vetoed by the House of Commons. Eventually, we witnessed the spectacle of the Prime Minister's 47 resignation as leader of the Conservative party. Any impartial observer could only describe those events as a catalogue of ineptitude and failure.
By contrast, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has shown himself to be abreast of the problems facing Britain today. As he said this afternoon, and as he said on 25 April,
I lead my party, he"—that is, the Prime Minister—follows his.—[Official Report, 25 April 1995; Vol. 258, c. 656.] What a contrast that shows between the two leaders.
The Gracious Speech should have contained proposals to start, at least, on the course of putting Britain back to work. It was, however, essentially irrelevant. It was, after all, the Conservative party, and the Government that it formed, that destroyed so much of our manufacturing industry almost immediately on coming to power in 1979. That destruction was a mistake of gigantic proportions: whole communities were decimated. In its wake has come social distress.
Wives are bravely going out to work in supermarkets, usually part time. I have nothing against the idea of women going out to work, but there has been a reversal of roles: the men are in the dole queues. According to the official statistics of 18 October, 11.7 per cent. of males in my constituency are unemployed; for females, the figure is 5.7 per cent. The national figures are 10.3 per cent. for males and 4.8 per cent. for females. Such developments can lead to domestic violence and family break-up.
As for young people, 650,000 aged 18 to 25 are out of work; 280,000 have been unemployed for more than six months. I was also struck by the fact that more than 60 per cent. of young black men in London are unemployed. Apart from creating social problems, that is waste on a colossal scale. What is more, only by returning people to work can we reduce the horrendous social security budget. An unemployed person can cost the taxpayer some £9,000 per annum.
I commend the plans of my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor, who a week or so ago presented concrete plans to tackle youth unemployment. The initiative would be paid for over the course of a Parliament by the proceeds of a proposed windfall tax on the excess profits of the privatised utilities. In particular, our young people must be brought back into society by being given a stake in that society.
Reading the Queen's Speech, I found my mind returning to 1979. In the intervening 16 years, we have experienced a huge polarisation of incomes and wealth—a vast increase in insecurity, and a fear of redundancy and the consequent loss of income that could eventually lead to the repossession of homes. There is toleration of circumstances in which most people are afraid to walk the streets at night because they may be mugged by the unemployed youths whose numbers have multiplied as a direct result of Government policy.
It seems that, in the past few years, the public have finally realised how they have been misled over the past 16. That is why the Government have collapsed in the opinion polls. When Lady Thatcher came to power, she promised to roll back the frontiers of the state. That certainly has not happened; indeed, there have been 48 persistent attempts to claw more power to the centre. The Government have undermined the power of universities, of health boards and of others. Local authorities have been a particular target: they have been emasculated, and made into mere agents of central Government. Quangos have abounded, with elected representatives replaced by appointees—invariably of a Conservative persuasion. In Wales, where the Conservative party is thin on the ground, those patronage appointments have stuck out like a sore thumb.
It is obvious that the time has come for change. What could be more appropriate than the words of Oliver Cromwell to the Rump Parliament? They are appropriate, too, in that they were last used, to devastating effect, by the late Mr. Leopold Amery in the debate on 7 May 1940 that brought about the fall of the Chamberlain Government.
You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!In less eloquent language, I would say that this Conservative Government have been rumbled. It is time for them to go—and, from the country's point of view, the sooner the better.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes). He and I have debated across the Floor of the House for the best part of 30 years, and—despite his youthful good looks—I still regard him as "old Labour". When I hear so much about "new Labour", I wonder what the Labour party's real views are. The hon. Gentleman's constituency contains one of the greatest steelworks in the country; he is also a long-term supporter of nationalisation. I wonder how he really feels now, with new Labour prepared to surrender all the policies on which it formed a Government when I first came here 31 years ago, and to do little more than try to copy the Tories in all that it does.
It was a first-class Gracious Speech. When I heard the leader of the Liberal Democrats listing all the Bills that he felt should have been included, I could only thank goodness that he is not the Prime Minister of this country. The problem with Parliament is that there has been far too much legislation, with the result that too much of it has been ill thought out and needs to be scrutinised a great deal more carefully. The mere passing of legislation cannot be a solution to our many problems.
The Gracious Speech does more than set out Bills for the next Session; it makes it clear that Britain's real priorities still remain the economy, Europe and education, a subject I want to talk about later. Those are the issues that really concern the ordinary people, not some mass of incomprehensible legislation.
It has been pointed out that this is the last full Session of this Parliament. For me, it is the last full Session of any Parliament because I shall he retiring at the next general election. When I hear the Opposition pleading for the occupation of the commanding heights of the economy and for a radical socialist programme, I feel that I am in strange territory debating the Gracious Speech with them tonight.
49 As is pointed out in the Gracious Speech, Britain's economy demands a great deal of our attention. It states:My Government will continue with firm financial policies designed to support economic growth and rising employment…
My Government will improve the performance of the economy, by encouraging enterprise and competitiveness and offering support for small businesses. The Government's policies are now bearing fruit in a remarkable manner. Only yesterday, we were told of the large investment at what was the old Ravenscraig plant in Scotland. I came to the House 31 years ago from the Iron and Steel Federation. I was well aware that even the Conservative Government under Harold Macmillan had found the management of a nationalised steel industry almost impossible. There was that moment, subsequently called the judgment of Solomon, when some money was allocated for the Steel Company of Wales and some for Ravenscraig. As we all know, sadly that money was not enough and subsequently the Ravenscraig plant had to be closed.
Yesterday, we were informed of the creation of 3,000 real new jobs. It is far better for the people of that very lovely part of Scotland to have real jobs than to have phoney jobs fed to them by a Government, of whatever colour, in the belief that somehow throwing money at something nobody wants will make a success of it.
Another reason to be pleased with the economy is that the level of inward investment is growing all the time. Hardly a week passes without our hearing of companies from overseas investing in Britain. The reason why they invest here is simple—we have the sort of policies for the economy and for investment that attract them. We do not have the rules and regulations that would be part of the social chapter under a Labour Government. We do not try to cling to fixed exchange rates, in the way that is now ruining the French economy and causing strikes by French workers in almost every town in France, even as I speak. We have an economy free from regulation, which is attractive to overseas companies that want to invest. I am delighted that His Royal Highness Prince Charles is today in eastern Germany encouraging more investment to come to this country.
Britain's economic performance, our low inflation, our low unemployment compared with what it was—and I shall show in a moment how our policies are designed to improve employment—and the fact that we now have an economy recognised to be the one seriously growing economy in the European Union, are all factors of which we should be proud. I am delighted that in the Gracious Speech Her Majesty made it clear that the Government's policy is to continue to underpin those factors.
Of course, it is no good Britain, a small island in the North sea, thinking only of what happens here; we must see ourselves in a world context. We must be careful about our increased involvement in Europe. I have always regarded Europe as an opportunity to build a market for British goods-a real and genuine single market that would be of benefit to every citizen of Britain. Europe should not be some giant supranational grouping of nations where we would lose our sovereignty.
I still want to know what the Labour party's policy is on a single currency. The Leader of the Opposition was asked that question, but he skirted round it. I am convinced that, with the intergovernmental conference being held in Madrid in June next year, it is essential that 50 we stand our ground. Only yesterday we were told about £2 billion of fraud and waste inside the Community. Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) referred to redundant offices in the centre of London, but it is the redundant offices in the centre of Brussels, with £15 million of furniture unaccounted for, with which we should be concerned.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that point, but did not the report show that more than 80 per cent. of the money not accounted for was spent by national Governments? Therefore, there is a responsibility on national Governments, not just on European institutions, to ensure that the money is properly spent.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am delighted that he made that point, because it is one that I intended to make. I listened with great interest to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, in which he referred to reducing the Government's deficit. Rather than having more and more cuts in this country, we should look seriously at the contributions which, as the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) rightly said, are made by national Governments to the European Union. Plenty of cutting and waste eradication could be done in Europe.
§ Mr. Foulkes
I shall try again to explain my point to the hon. Gentleman, who obviously misunderstood me. I was referring not to contributions by national Governments to the European Union, but to money spent by national Governments on behalf of Europe-wide programmes. There have been many problems with lack of accountability in those spending programmes within countries, including Britain. For example, a great deal of money is unaccounted for in the common agricultural policy within Britain. The British Government need to get a grip on that.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson
I well understand the hon. Gentleman's point and I, too, want those savings to be made. I have never understood why we make vast subsidy payments to the tobacco growers of Greece and Belgium while asking the taxpayers in Britain to finance no-smoking campaigns. A great deal of nonsense is attached to the way in which money is spent in Europe and I hope that stringent measures will be taken.
At the time of last year's Gracious Speech we heard, as we did yesterday, about fraud and waste and I entirely support what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about fighting it. However, we must do so in a way that shows the people of Britain that we are not just fighting it, but winning the battle. The information that we were given yesterday was extremely disturbing.
When the intergovernmental conference takes place next June, it will be in all our interests to recognise that, while we want a strong trading community and want the single market to be a success, there is a great deal of natural Euro-scepticism among the electorate of Britain, and not without reason. When we go to the conference, we must ensure that we do as Lady Thatcher did, and make our voice crystal clear.
My last comment is about education. I was especially delighted to hear a reference to grant-maintained schools in the Gracious Speech. In my constituency we probably
51 have as many grant-maintained schools per acre of land as anywhere in Britain—probably more. Those schools are all working incredibly well and successfully, to the satisfaction of parents, teachers and administrators.
Indeed, the 100th grant-maintained school opened in New Milton, in my constituency, a year or so ago. The record of such schools' performance shows that they are doing a job superior to anything that was provided by the normal local education authority. So I find it incredible that the real resistance to grant-maintained status still comes from the county councils that are trying to protect their interests in connection with that responsibility. In my constituency, that comes from the Liberals who run Hampshire county council.
Only the other day, the headmaster of the grant-maintained school in New Milton that I mentioned had done some work to improve its performance and the availability of places there, only to have it condemned as naive by the representatives from county hall. I back that headmaster, Gordon Skirton, who has done a fantastic job and made his school one of the showplaces of that part of Hampshire.
I cannot understand why, when one of my hon. Friends asked the Leader of the Opposition about his policy on grant-maintained schools, he was so evasive. Here is something that works. If the Labour party is now taking leaves out of the Tory book and adopting things that work, surely here is one that the right hon. Gentleman could latch on to firmly. Indeed, he has done that for his own son, and I do not hold that fact against him. He has seen a success and has gone for it.
This may be the last full Session of this Parliament, but no one yet knows when the election will come. When it does, the people will have to make a judgment between a party with a proven track record and the Labour party, which is now trying to pretend that it is some new creature—new party, new Labour, new Britain.
Those of us who entered the House some years ago still see the same faces on the Opposition Benches. Admittedly, some of those people are very quiet, almost to the point where one feels that they have been silenced altogether. But those people are still here, and if the Labour party got into government, their voices would be heard again. New Labour, like all the other Labour party policies, would go into the dustbin.
The Gracious Speech is first class, and I thoroughly support it.
§ Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) spoke about quangos, and I am disappointed that the Government do not intend to do anything about them. The rights of Members of this House have been bypassed, because the Government have strengthened quangos and created more of them. Yet they said that they would not bring in more Government control.
I raise that point because of what happens when one asks a parliamentary question—about Government expenditure, say. For example, one of the biggest quangos in Scotland is Scottish Homes, and the taxpayer gives it a great deal of money to administer Scottish housing. I do 52 not complain about Scottish Homes as a landlord, but I expect it to be accountable to the House, because of the millions of pounds that have been paid to it.
Yet when a parliamentary question is asked, the Minister merely says, "I refer the hon. Gentleman to the chairman of Scottish Homes, who will write to him in due course." That is always happening, with Scottish Homes and with every other quango, and it means that hon. Members can do nothing but wait for an answer from the chairman or chief executive of one of those bodies. That is not good enough.
Last week we debated the powers of the House, and shortly after the debate on Nolan, an official was appointed to look into hon. Members' affairs. Many Conservative Members complained that we were taking away the powers of the House, and of Parliament in general—the high court of the land. Yet every day Ministers can shy away from answering our parliamentary questions and send them off to the chief executive or chairman of a quango. We may have to wait weeks for an answer, although the rule of the House is that we can ask priority questions, and even get Ministers to come before the House and answer questions. I am disappointed that nothing is to be done about that.
I cringe when I hear hon. Members say that we shall tackle the drugs problem—even the Prime Minister said that. He and others harp on about what happened 16 years ago, but I cannot recall any young boy or girl dying of a drugs overdose in my community 16 years ago. Last year, in my community alone, seven children died of drugs overdoses. Probably other hon. Members can say the same, because that has been the experience in their communities, too.
It is frightening when decent mothers and fathers are scared to allow their children to go to a youth centre without accompanying them to make sure that they come safely back to their own homes, yet that is the sort of society in which we are living now. I do not lay all the blame for that at the Government's door, but we are entitled to more from the Prime Minister of the day than a statement that he will tackle the drugs problem. How will he do that?
Only a short time ago, the Prime Minister sacked Customs and Excise officers, and now we read in the papers every day about tobacco and beer by the lorryload coming across from France on the ferry. If beer and tobacco can get through, I am sure that many other items can do the same. We should have been strengthening, not weakening, Customs and Excise.
I am disappointed, too, that nothing is to be done about the problem of the Child Support Agency. Like many other people, I have brought up my children in difficult circumstances, and I am proud of the fact that I have a close bond with my wife and family, which I value. But I am realistic enough to know that families break up.
I am the first to say that if legislation had been introduced to chase up fathers and mothers who were not fulfilling their responsibilities, I should have supported it. But at the moment couples can have amicable arrangements for maintenance, drawn up with lawyers, and the father can he paying the maintenance that has been agreed, when in steps the Child Support Agency with a rigid formula, insisting that a certain amount of money has to be paid—or else. That rigid formula is causing terrible stress up and down the country. If a family breaks 53 up and the husband is left on his own, a decent man will allow his ex-wife to take away whatever bits and pieces of furniture—such as a washing machine or a bed—are necessary for the wife to set up a new home. But the CSA formula does not allow for the father to buy a bed, a carpet or a washing machine for his home. That is ridiculous.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who has left the Chamber, said that the taxpayer must not pay for other people's children. But most of the people whom the CSA is chasing happen to be taxpayers, because the CSA gets hold of men and women who are paying tax through PAYE. The CSA is putting people under so much pressure that some are questioning whether it is worth their while keeping their job, and those people may decide to disappear or give up their job.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Andrew Mitchell)
May I make two brief points to the hon. Gentleman? First, following a change to the rules earlier this year, we have now agreed that no absent parent can pay more than 30 per cent. of his net income—income after tax, national insurance and 50 per cent. of any pension contributions—in respect of maintenance. That gives protection that was previously lacking, and the hon. Gentleman is right that such protection should not be lacking in the future.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman referred to cases where a maintenance agreement has been reached between a mother and father and in which the taxpayer is not involved. In the terms described by the hon. Gentleman, the CSA would not be involved in those cases. Where the taxpayer is involved, it is right and proper that the CSA should protect the interests of the taxpayer, the mother and the father. I hope that he will bear those two points in mind.
§ Mr. Martin
Thirty per cent, of the take-home pay of someone who is on a low income—or even a reasonable income of, say, £200 a week after tax—is an awful lot of money. The Minister should speak to some of his Conservative colleagues if he does not want to take my word for it. A decent man or woman who wants to talk to a CSA official is not allowed to do so.
§ Mr. Martin
I see the hon. Gentleman nodding in agreement. The CSA department for my area is in Falkirk, and I rang it yesterday on behalf of a constituent. The line was engaged several times. I, a Member of Parliament, was trying to get through to Falkirk. What must it be like for a man trying to earn a living in a factory? Does he have to ask his boss whether he can use the telephone? If he does not get through, does he have to ask his boss again in half an hour? The boss might ask him the reason, and he will have to reply that he is trying to call the Child Support Agency because he is having difficulties. What an undignified situation for any worker.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I visited the Falkirk department of the CSA recently, and there is a dedicated telephone line for Members of Parliament and their assistants to get through to the department. If the hon. Gentleman was unable to get through yesterday, he should give me the details and I shall look into the matter. I can tell him that most of his colleagues in the House who have sought to get through 54 directly to the CSA have been successful. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that central call facilities have now been installed in all six CSA centres around the country, and those facilities have made a radical difference to the handling of these matters.
§ Mr. Martin
The Minister is missing the point. What is the use of me ringing a direct line? I wanted to know what my constituents were putting up with, so I used the number that they must call. Field Marshal Montgomery did not have fancy meals because he wanted to know what his troops were eating, and one must find out what is going on. There is no point in me using a fancy line and then telling my constituents that I can get through. Of course I can get through. I am concerned about a chap who works for the parks department of Glasgow district council, for example, and who wants to get through but cannot because the line is engaged.
I am not here to legislate or argue for rascals who are not looking after their children. I am talking about decent men and women who are going through the trauma of a break-up, but who want to keep their relationships with their children. They do not want to let their children think that they are letting the family down, even if the parents are living in different homes. But a person who calls the CSA to ask for the formula to be explained to him will not be dealt with by an official of the CSA. He will be told that the CSA will arrange for someone in the local social security office to give him an interview.
The Government have told us about the citizens charter, and they want all the utilities to provide good services. But the Government would expect better from a utility than it sending people to a third party because it does not do interviews. There is a very serious problem. "The Cook Report" television programme last night stated that people were contemplating suicide because of their difficulties. I hope and pray that that is not the case.
Every hon. Member who is dealing with such cases would agree that the men and women who are working hard to try to keep their head above water and trying to maintain their relationship with their children have been hit the hardest. One of my constituents rightly wanted to make sure that his child stayed with him at the weekends. He and his ex-wife agreed that, in our modern society, the child needed a bed of his own. The man had to go out to buy a bed for his child, but the CSA would not take that into consideration in its formula.
The CSA does not take all travelling costs into consideration, and the Minister will agree that consideration is given only to the cost of substantial journeys to and from work. I think that I am speaking for many hon. Members when I say that it is time for a review of the system, and it is time for those who have responsibility for the matter to look at it in a humane fashion. They must remember that people are not out to run away from their children, and that they want to give their children the best in difficult circumstances. They should be given every opportunity to do so.
I was worried by the Government's statement before the recess about the privatisation of HMSO. There is no mention of it in the Gracious Speech. Conservative Members might ask why we should complain about that, when we always complain about privatisation. But I see some method in the Government's madness. I think that the Government intend to reduce HMSO to a rump, a small unit, so that they do not have to introduce legislation 55 in order to privatise it. That in turn means that the proposal will not be scrutinised by the House on Second Reading or in Committee, or by the other place.
The Government's proposals will have a profound effect on the important services of the House. Because of the dedicated work of Hansard, the printers and HMSO, all speeches are available for hon. Members in the Vote Office the following morning. If the Government reduce that service to a rump, the House, hon. Members and their support staff could lose an important service. The House does not have storage facilities for the publications that we need for our Standing Committees and Select Committees and for Hansard. Hon. Members should be aware that that is what the Government intend, and it will cause us hardship.
It is rightly said that the public, for whom we have a Public Gallery, and the media are entitled to scrutinise what we do and say. If we lose the excellent service that we have in Hansard, the facilities and the open government that we often boast about could be endangered.
How can an organisation that employs 2,800 people be reduced to 20 without damaging the services that we have in the House? That will not benefit the House or the taxpayer. If any private publishing company seeks to take over HMSO, it will zero in on the lucrative areas and dispense with the areas that provide a service to the British people.
Hon. Members have made representations to the Select Committee on Administration, of which I am the Chairman—I speak here in a private capacity—that colleges, schools and universities should be entitled to cheap editions of Hansard. That has been agreed by the House. Can there be a guarantee that that service will continue after privatisation? I put it to the House that that will not be the case.
In Canada, the privatisation of the publishing facilities of the House of Commons has turned into an absolute disaster, so much so that the Canadian House of Commons is seeking to get back that facility. It should be borne in mind that if the Government are allowed to go ahead, any private publisher will probably seek a five-year contract. If, after a year, we discover that hon. Members are not getting the service that they once had, we shall have to buy out that contract, and that will not be a saving to the House or to the taxpayer. HMSO has outlets not only in London, but in Glasgow, Belfast and Manchester, where people can buy a Select Committee report soon after its proceedings are concluded. We risk losing such services.
That matter is the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who will be appearing before the Select Committee next week. Perhaps the Minister could tell him that he will not have an easy time. Will he convey it to the right hon. Gentleman that the decent thing to do would be to refrain from introducing such a far-reaching proposal? If that was not possible, the second option would be for the Minister concerned to introduce legislation, so that every hon. Member had the opportunity to say his or her piece.
§ Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)
I add my 56 congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) and to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) on the excellent way in which they moved and seconded the Loyal Address. My right hon. Friend is leaving the House at the end of this Parliament, but I hope that that will not be his last contribution, as he has been a considerable servant of the House and the nation. I suspect that in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester it is unlikely that another such witty speech will be delivered in the course of the debate on the Loyal Address—certainly not by me, even if my voice allows me to complete my remarks.
The Leader of the Opposition had some nerve in characterising the Queen's Speech as a lurch to the right when he has been in perpetual motion almost since he became leader of the Labour party. For the leader of the Labour party to win a headline yesterday, after his speech to the CBI, that he will not be taxing the rich must have come as faint surprise to the members of the party that he leads. When the music stops, one wonders what policies will be put forward by the Labour party under the present leadership.
We did not hear today what proposals would be made if the Labour party was managing our affairs in the next 12 months. It was all very well making points about the supposed inadequacy of the measures placed before the House, but there was not the glimmer of a suggestion of what a Labour Government might have done. Platitude after platitude tumbled from the mouth of the Leader of the Opposition, which really is not good enough if we are to have the constructive opposition that he claims to offer.
I do not see a lurch to the right in the legislative programme. Each measure must be judged on its own merits. In broad intent, the measures go very much with the grain of public opinion. What will ultimately matter is the detail—whether we get the balance of equity right in some of the more sensitive areas.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others on the Treasury Bench will pay serious attention to the way in which we scrutinise legislation—not in response to the Leader of the Opposition, whose big issue today was whether we should have a Select Committee to consider the one measure on immigration, but with regard to whether we should try to improve our scrutiny as a whole by using the Select Committee procedure more in conjunction with the Standing Committee procedure in ways that we have tried in the past.
We need to be concerned about the quality of the legislation that we pass. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) spent much time on the Child Support Agency, which is a classic example of how the House failed to understand some of the consequences of the original legislation. It is no criticism of the hon. Member for Springburn to say that his speech was not one that he or anyone else made during the passage of the original legislation. That is a commentary on whether our processes are entirely adequate.
On some of the difficult issues coming up in this Session, a certain amount of investigative work by the House, as opposed to the combative approach, might be helpful.
§ Mr. Michael J. Martin
I agree that, with hindsight, we will all see things differently. I am saying that things 57 have gone so badly wrong that the House must act. If we have made a mistake in legislation, we should move quickly to change it.
§ Sir Alan Haselhurst
I was not intending to debate the substance with the hon. Gentleman, but was merely making a glancing reference, to make a wider procedural point, but I accept what he says.
I am glad that the divorce Bill has been included in the legislative programme as it goes to the heart of what is wrong with modern society. Most of us would profess to believe that the family is a very important building block in the stability of society. It is deeply worrying that so many marriages are breaking down. One meets social workers, teachers and others who say that some of the difficulties that they have encountered can be traced to a disturbed and fractious home life. If we can place greater emphasis on reconciliation—marriage guidance, to use an old-fashioned term—it will be helpful.
Those who have reservations about whether we might appear to be making divorce easier by removing the fault element must face the fact that, if we are not careful, we will simply deter people from getting married, in which case we shall not have the problem of whether it is easy or otherwise to get divorced. People will simply live together, as increasing numbers are doing. We have to consider this question carefully.
Many years ago, I was much influenced by A.P. Herbert's book "Holy Deadlock". As the House will remember, he had a great impact on legislation to change the old divorce laws. Surely we cannot be thinking of moving back to the point where people have deliberately to construct a sin or fault to obtain a divorce. That cannot make sense. I hope that we can have a much more constructive approach and that the divorce Bill may be the path to it. Of course, there are no easy answers, but it is absolutely right that we should give the subject an airing in this Session.
The physical structure of a home, as opposed to what goes on in it, is another vital component of family stability. The measure in the Queen's Speech to give housing association tenants a right to buy has already given rise to controversy. I must express my appreciation to Ministers for excluding villages with a population of under 3,000. They have thereby excluded every village in my constituency. Clearly, there is a need to protect the structure of village life. If landowners can be persuaded to make gifts of land, or make it available at low cost, so that low-cost housing for part ownership or rent is available, we do not want to lose that opportunity. It is not likely that such housing could easily be replaced within the village envelope—not without some cost to the green belt. That compromise is sensible. If housing associations are to be the main providers of social housing, it is not right in principle that there should be a blanket prohibition on the right of the occupants of such houses to buy at some point. Within our larger communities, there should be scope for replacement houses to be built when some are sold to present tenants.
As the break-up of marriage has increased at such a pace, we have so many more families and part families to accommodate, which is deeply worrying. The demand for housing continually outstrips our ability to supply. It is all very well for us to point out that there might be enough physical accommodation. Nevertheless, it seems 58 extremely difficult to get the numbers to fit what is available. It seems that, in certain cases, there is a need for more new-build.
I hope that the Government might consider using the receipts from council house sales. What the Labour party has to say on the subject has to be complete nonsense. It wants to release all the receipts—about £4 billion. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) is shaking his head. We are never quite clear from day to day what Labour Members think. A blanket release would have a tremendous impact on public expenditure, which would have to be compensated for by savings elsewhere.
Surely it must be possible to trickle more money from receipts into certain areas of housing need through the housing association movement and thus ease some of the difficulties. That might have a beneficial effect on the construction industry. Stable families also need a stable home environment and we have got some way to go in that regard.
After the stability of the home and the relationship within it, the third component is the quality of education that children receive, particularly in the initial years. I welcome the extension of pre-school learning. That has to be right. However, I hope that it will not be done at the expense of reception classes in infant schools. This is a serious dilemma and it is not an issue for party political point scoring. We must batten down the numbers in some reception classes before we launch into more pre-school provision. Overcrowded infant classes will to some extent negate the good foundation that pre-school learning will provide.
I confess to some neutrality on the use of vouchers. However, why not experiment with that method? Let us find out where it takes us and whether it is valid and welcomed by parents. It will help if we try to protect the pre-school playgroup movement, rather than let it be extinguished because of a takeover by universal nursery provision. Some children are more suited to, and some parents prefer, a different environment. If the voucher system helps us to be neutral between those two types of provision, it will be a wholly good thing.
I am pleased that there is provision to give grant-maintained schools borrowing powers. I very much hope that the Government will allow the grant-maintained school system to prosper, because it deserves to prosper on its merits. I have not met anyone involved with grant-maintained schools who does not remain wholly enthusiastic about them or who would wish to put the clock back, so the grant-maintained movement will spread of its own accord. If the Labour party wants to interfere with it, that is its affair, but tens of thousands of people see the system's benefits and we should allow the movement to develop because it is popular rather than rush to tell people that they have to choose it because we think that it is better.
On a very different theme, I suspect that one minor measure will appear during this legislative year from among the other measures that will be placed before us. It involves an important issue in my constituency—Stansted airport. In response to the airport authority's request, there will be a proposal to increase the number of passenger air transport movements. No doubt we will have a chance to debate the issue in detail later, but I hope that the Government will hear in mind the sentiments that they expressed on the recent publication of the rural White 59 Paper when they determine their response to the BAA's request for a higher limit. If we are to retain proper management of the development of an international airport in the countryside, caution should be much in our minds.
Finally, if there is an issue missing from the Queen's Speech that I should have liked to see in it, it is further attention to land compensation. I relate that to what I have just said about Stansted airport. I find it absurd that, years after the new terminal opened, there are still people waiting for compensation for the loss of value of their homes.
The other day—as I believe he did; I hope that I have not got him wrong—Sir John Egan, wearing his tourist authority hat, complained about the long-drawn-out processes involved in planning inquiries. No wonder people want to draw inquiries out and protest against development: they know that on top of all else, they will have to wait an age to get the compensation that will be their due if the development takes place. We really should be more thoughtful about people's needs in that respect.
The programme before us today on the whole faces up to some difficult and sensitive problems that need attention. I hope that we will get the details right. Like my hon. Friends, I shall be watching to see how their new-found responsibility and respectable credentials will guide Opposition Members in their approach to the Bills before them and whether they will give them their blessing in the course of the year. I think that they are relevant and necessary. They will have my broad support.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
I shall start with a point that will receive wide support. Members of Parliament are often described as unusual in one respect or another. We are especially unusual this evening in that it is 6.11 pm and we are discussing the Queen's Speech. We may well be the only people in Britain discussing it.
I confidently say that, in the pubs and clubs of the United Kingdom this evening, there will no hushed silence if someone suggests discussing the exciting proposals that the Government have put before us for the coming year. I am pretty confident that the viewing figures for "Coronation Street" will stand up well today compared with last Wednesday. Television sets will not be switched off as people discuss what the Government have in store for us.
In common with the vast majority of the people, I have only one interest in this Queen's Speech: that it should never come to fruition—not because, as I hope will be the case, one or two measures will he voted down but because I hope that the year in Parliament will not be completed as a result of the people at long last having the chance to make a judgment in a general election, and the sooner, the better.
No party in modern history, certainly since the war—in fact, no party this century—has had quite the opportunity that the Tory party and the Government have had over 16 long years of experimenting with the economy and people of this country. What a dismal Queen's Speech comes at the end of those 16 years. This 60 should be a time of unbridled optimism because no Government have had the massive economic advantages that this Government have had.
It is not being wise after the event to speak of the massive income from North sea oil revenues. Anyone who was in the House in 1979, as I and other hon. Members were—and as you were, Mr. Deputy Speaker—knows that we all knew then that whichever party won the 1979 general election would, in all probability, be able to remain in power throughout the 1980s because of the inexorable increase in revenues from the North sea. We knew that even a Government of unique economic incompetence such as we have had would be able to shore themselves up with those revenues. If we add to that the privatisation proceeds from the disgraceful sale of our national assets—a dubious way of getting the money—which now total £84 billion, we may think what an economic advantage that should have been to the Government.
It is said that one should never say "if" in politics—and probably one should never say it in life—but I would not be human if I did not think, "If only the Labour Government of the 1970s had had the oil revenues that the Government had in the 1980s. If only that money had been available to invest in our manufacturing industry, schools, the infrastructure that our railways need and in our hospitals."
I will make one constituency point. I know that this is a general debate and I shall observe the rules, but if I could mention one item of expenditure, I would think of the overwhelming support at the Princess Royal hospital in my constituency for a consultant maternity unit. Unarguably, the population would sustain such a unit but, time and again, despite overwhelming public pressure, that request has been turned down. My word, the money could have been better spent than it has been by the Government.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)
Anyone listening to the hon. Gentleman would think that public expenditure had gone down during that period; actually, it has been going up, especially on health.
§ Mr. Grocott
The hon. Gentleman was here, as I was, in 1979. That is precisely my point. The Government have had a massive opportunity to make investments but have squandered it on paying for unemployment. That is where the huge increase in public expenditure has come from. The hon. Gentleman knows that. That is why we cannot have a sensible debate across the Floor. The matter will have to be resolved in a general election and the sooner, the better.
Anyone who discussed what needs to be done in our country today without starting from the point of acknowledging the failure of the past 16 years could not have a sensible debate. There is no recognition of that failure from the Government or in what the Prime Minister said. If I had to encapsulate the failure in two or three words, I would say that the legacy of the Government is that people, after all those oil-rich years, feel insecure and uncertain; they have forebodings about the future. We have little confidence in the future for our children. The trendy way to describe that is as the lack of a feel-good factor. That is what it all adds up to—insecurity at work and concern about crime and a range of other matters.
61 I want to concentrate on what is for me the most important factor: insecurity at work. There is a lack of jobs and a lack of security in jobs for those people who have them. It will be painful to some hon. Members who were around at the time, but I make no apology for casting my mind back—as perhaps the Prime Minister should from time to time—to the 1960s and the contrast between today and then, when he and I were roughly the same age and starting to make our way in the world. We have 1960s nostalgia days now. Even Lord Lawson, I am told, goes to them sometimes and no wonder he is nostalgic about those days—nostalgic for the days when there were real opportunities, real apprenticeships and real jobs for people leaving school.
Tory Members often wonder why there is no discipline in our schools. One of the key reasons is that there used to be a sort of contract with children at school: if they worked hard, did their best and did well, at the end of a proper period of schooling there would be an apprenticeship or job for them. When that contract with our young people broke down, the series of social disasters—and I do not use that world lightly—that we have had was the almost inevitable consequence. The contract has been broken. Conservative Members seem to fail to understand it.
The figures on jobs are terrifying. I make no apology for mentioning the figures for my region. In September 1979, about the time that the last Labour Government left office, there were 99,200 claimants for unemployment benefit in the west midlands—3.9 per cent. of the work force. In September 1995, the figure was 203,700–8.1 per cent. of the work force.
The west midlands, the traditional heartland of manufacturing—engineering, industry and car-making—escaped the worst of the recession even in the 1930s. The number of jobs in manufacturing industry in the west midlands in 1979 was 985,000; the figure is now 507,000. According to a recent survey, 10 million people—40 per cent. of the work force—have had first-hand experience of unemployment in the past five years. Apprenticeships were the golden opportunity for school leavers in the 1960in which I grew up—and the 1970s. In 1979, there were 346,000 apprenticeships nationwide; in 1995, there were 216,000.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
I am afraid that I shall put to the hon. Gentleman a point that will be put to Labour Members again and again between now and the general election. If the hon. Gentleman's criticisms are so serious, why do Spain, which has been socialist for more than a decade, and France, which was socialist until a short while ago, have far worse levels of unemployment than this country?
§ Mr. Grocott
It would be far more profitable if, instead of making international comparisons, with all the problems associated with them, the hon. Gentleman made national comparisons. He should just make the comparison between Britain now and Britain under the previous Labour Government.
Conservative Members get things so horribly wrong. The issue is not just the level of unemployment, horrendous though that is, but the problems that people in jobs experience—the quality of jobs and the lack of job security. There has been a massive growth in part-time and temporary work. An estimated 1.3 million people who 62 work part time or on a temporary basis simply do not want to work on that basis. We all have horrendous stories from our constituencies. I know of youngsters who have been employed in the same place for up to two years on the basis of a succession of weekly contracts, for heaven's sake. What basis is that for building an economy or for building a community in which people can feel confident about themselves and others?
Conservative Members totally fail to understand the problem of low wages. There are 1 million people earning less than £2.50 an hour and there are 300,000 people who earn less than £1.50 an hour.
I make all the allowances for opinion polls that others make. However, the following figures are so overwhelming that we should take note of them. I quote from the Gallup political and economic index poll of December 1994. The public at large were asked a simple question:
From what you know, are most of the new jobs now being created skilled jobs requiring education and training, or are they low level, unskilled jobs requiring little or no training?The "don't knows", whom one eliminates as one always does, amounted to 19 per cent. Some 16 per cent. thought that the new jobs were skilled jobs which offered hope. Some 65 per cent. thought that the jobs were low-skill, low-level jobs. That is why there is no feel-good factor around.
In the same poll, a comparable question was asked:there is a lot of talk at the moment about economic insecurity—the feeling that people don't know whether their jobs, earnings or homes, are safe or not. From your own personal experience, do you think a lot of people are feeling economically insecure or not?There were 2 per cent. "don't knows", 4 per cent. who said no and 93 per cent. who said that a lot of people were feeling insecure. Even allowing for sampling error, the figure was similar to the poll in an Iraqi general election. The figure is overwhelming and not surprising.
I give another revealing answer. The question was asked:Or again, from what you know, are most of the new jobs now being created secure jobs with long term prospects or are they short term and temporary jobs without any real prospects?There were 11 per cent. "don't knows", 3 per cent. said that the jobs were secure and long term and 86 per cent. said that they were short term and temporary. Yet people wonder why there is no feel-good factor.
I worked in independent television before I came back to the House. The number of jobs there has gone down from 16,000 to 8,000 in the eight years since I left the industry. The Government tell me, "But lots of small, independent production companies are mushrooming and burgeoning all over the place." Those jobs are without training and without security, and no one can sensibly build a future on them. That is the Government's economic legacy to the next Labour Government.
The Government's employment policies have profound economic effects. Unbelievably, the Government have managed to make us a deficit country in manufactured trade. Who could have believed that Britain, the workshop of the world, would now be in deficit in manufactured trade? The figures are familiar and I will not repeat them.
Job insecurity and the waste of unemployment also have social effects. Does anyone, apart from a few Conservative Members, really suggest that economic
63 insecurity and unemployment have nothing to do with the fact that crime has doubled under this Government? Conservative Members who believe that betray how totally out of touch they are with the vast majority of the people whom they and we represent.
Another consequence is homelessness—we all know the figures. Yet another consequence was reported the other morning in the British Medical Journal. I freely admit that I am not in the habit of reading that magazine, although it is a worthy specialist publication. It described the health of civil servants who were in secure jobs as opposed to the health of those whose jobs were threatened by reorganisation or privatisation. Is it any surprise to anyone in the world, apart from Conservative Members, that when the survey was carried out, the ill health reported by those in insecure jobs was substantially greater than that reported by those in secure jobs? That is common sense—we keep hearing about common sense—and we have to keep repeating it.
§ Mr. Foulkes
Did the survey include Conservative Members of Parliament with majorities of less than 10,000?
§ Mr. Grocott
I am sure that the health consequences would be the same. My hon. Friend refers to the job security of Members of Parliament. When I was first elected, being a Member of Parliament was rated as a peculiarly insecure job because one could usually be guaranteed only four or four and a half years. A job with four years' security is now a copper-bottomed, Bank of England job. Most of our constituents would envy such a job.
What do all the figures tell us about the future? I give one final example from the opinion poll, which Conservative Members really should take seriously. People were asked:Do you think that children today have a better future in front of them than you had when you were a child, a worse future, or about the same?The answer to that question is the real commentary on any Government. As everyone knows, that is the one question that almost always gets a positive reply. However rough things are, most people think that the next generation will have things just a little bit better. In this opinion poll, 15 per cent. thought that the future would be about the same for their children. Some 18 per cent. thought that the future for their children would be better. Some 63 per cent. thought that life for their children would be worse.
There we are. After 16 years of this Government's economic experimentation and after 16 oil-rich years, two thirds of people in this country are quite convinced that the future for their children will be worse than it was for them. That is a record of which the Government should be thoroughly ashamed. The sooner that the people have the chance to sling them out at a general election, the better.
§ Sir David Knox (Staffordshire, Moorlands)
The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) was my neighbour when he represented Lichfield and Tamworth between 1974 and 1979. It did not prove a terribly permanent base 64 for him, and he wisely moved elsewhere. He did not make quite such controversial speeches when he was in Staffordshire. I can only assume that there is something about the air in Shropshire that has changed his views.
The hon. Gentleman exaggerated the benefits from North sea oil. He forgot the disadvantage, which was the effect on the exchange rate and on the level of unemployment, as we saw in the early 1980s. It is as well to remember that.
The hon. Gentleman seemed to take 1979 as the turning point for unemployment, but perhaps I can remind him that it was not that year but 1974 which represented the turning point. At the time of the 1974 general election, the unemployment rate was about 500,000. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about unemployment, and he must accept that that rate started to increase under the last Labour Government—at one time, it reached 1.5 million people. The numbers declined a little after that, but then rose again. The problem of unemployment is not as simple as the hon. Gentleman has suggested.
If a Labour Government would have as much effect as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, however, I am rather puzzled about why the Opposition have adopted so many of the economic policies pursued by the Government. If the Government's economic policies are so bad, surely a Labour Government should opt for policies that are totally distinctive from them.
None the less, I do not in any way underestimate the problems caused by unemployment, which are real, and socially divisive. It is bad for people to be out of work, and particularly bad for young people. To that extent, I share the hon. Gentleman's views about the effects of unemployment.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) spoke about the Child Support Agency. I had a great deal of sympathy with his comments about the difficulties that people encounter when trying to contact-the agency. He mentioned people's difficulties when trying to contact it by telephone, but what about the problems encountered by those trying to contact it by letter? I have found that in many cases the CSA does not reply to letters.
Oh yes, the CSA replies to Members of Parliament's letters, but that is not the point. People should not have to go to their Member of Parliament to get their problems resolved. It is disgraceful to recall the number of constituents who come to us and say that they have written to the CSA up to five times, and not had a scrape of a pen back. I hope that Ministers will take that matter seriously, because, although the principles of the CSA are undoubtedly correct, I am afraid that its practice has not been. Although it has undoubtedly improved since its inception, it still leaves a great deal to be desired.
In the past, I have been extremely critical of the heavy legislative programme before the House, so it would he ungracious of me not to record my appreciation of the fact that the legislative programme in the Session that was prorogued last week was significantly lighter than that of previous years. I am also pleased to note that the legislative programme outlined in the Gracious Speech appears to be less onerous than in most of the years that I have been a Member of the House.
Before I get too carried away, however, I notice that, as usual, the ominous wordsOther measures … will he laid before you.65 appear in the Gracious Speech. I hope that there will be few, if any, of those other measures.
It is important for those of us in the House to remember that, in the real world outside, the public are increasingly fed up with the mass of legislation that descends on them year after year. All too often, understanding and implementing that legislation diverts them from their real work of creating wealth and providing services.
That is particularly true when the legislation has been badly drafted or not properly thought out, as has far too often been the case. I therefore hope that the comparatively light legislative programme facing us will mean that those outside the House will be able to get on with the practical tasks of making industry and commerce more efficient and more competitive, and making the service sector, in particular the public service sector, more effective.
That does not mean, of course, that I think that there should be no legislation. I welcome many of the measures included in the Gracious Speech. In particular, I am pleased about the proposed housing Bill, which will, I understand, increase the opportunities for housing association tenants to exercise the right to buy and will include measures to help the homeless. We will, of course, have to wait for the details of the Bill, but no one can be happy about the current arrangements for dealing with homelessness. I hope that the Bill will lead to an improvement in the current situation.
I also welcome the Bill on nursery education, because it will enable the Government to fulfil their promise to provide nursery education for all four-year-olds whose parents wish it. That is a major step forward in improving the standard of education in this country, and it will be widely welcomed by parents.
I was pleased to see the positive remarks about the European Union in the Gracious Speech. In the past 40 years, this country has all too frequently adopted a very reluctant attitude towards European unity. As a result, British interests have often been greatly damaged.
We are told that, at the moment, enthusiasm for the European Union has declined in the other member countries of the union. That may well be true, but, if it is, I believe that the reason has been the severe economic recession experienced throughout that union. It is normal for the Governments of countries in the depth of an economic recession to be unpopular, and obviously the European Union shares that unpopularity. As the countries within the union recover from recession, however, I have no doubt that the popularity of national Governments, and also that of the European Union, will recover, and that enthusiasm for further development within that union will increase once again.
When that happens, there is a danger that Britain will be left behind. That would not be in our best interests. This country has been bad at assessing intentions in Europe in the post-war era. At the Messina conference about the establishment of the European Economic Community in 1955, we sent only a Board of Trade official, the unfortunate Mr. Bretherton, and only as an observer. When he left, he said:I leave Messina happy, because even if you continue meeting, you will not agree: even if you agree, nothing will result: and even if something results, it will be a disaster.That must rank as one of the greatest political misjudgments of the post-war era, and it cost this country dearly.
66 A short time after the Messina conference, the scale of that misjudgment became apparent to this country. We had to apply to join a community that had been set up without any British input. Eventually, in 1973, to obtain admission, we had to accept rules that would have been different and more to our suiting if we had joined at the beginning. Britain was the loser.
Alas, the attitude of Mr. Bretherton has been the attitude of this country for too many of the past 40 years. At present, that seems to be the attitude that we are taking towards the single currency. The current British view is that there is little chance of a single currency being introduced in the European Union, and that we can he semi-detached about it. Some people even suggest that the Government should say that Britain will not join a single currency during the next Parliament. Others even go as far as to say that we should never join it.
I am afraid that that could well be the next major misjudgment about the European Union by this country, as I believe that it is probable that, within the next few years, the European Union, or at least a core group of countries within it, will move towards a single currency.
Fortunately, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is participating in the discussions about a single currency, and, as long as he continues to do so, British interests will be represented. There will be a British input in the arrangements that are eventually adopted. If the Government were to state, however, that under no circumstances would they join a single currency in the next Parliament, or that they would never join it, we might be asked to leave those discussions—or, if we stayed, our influence would disappear.
When the single currency was eventually introduced, Britain would be left outside. Sterling would come under enormous pressure. After a short time, such would he the effect on the British economy that we would be compelled to join, but we would be joining a system, and would have to accept conditions, in the latter stages of whose formulation we had played no part. Once again, in the name of an illusion about sovereignty, we would have suffered a self-inflicted injury.
I therefore hope that the Government will refrain from making any commitment not to join a single currency, and that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will continue to play a constructive part in the current negotiations about a single currency. In that way can British interests best be protected and advanced.
Finally, may I say a word about our approach in the House to the legislative programme? My anxiety arises from the change that has come about by moving the Budget date forward—not that I have any specific objection to the Budget being brought forward. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) drew attention to that matter in an authoritative speech in the debate on the Address on 18 November 1993.
This Session is starting on 15 November, today's date. We shall debate the Gracious Speech until Wednesday 22 November. The following Tuesday, 28 November, will be Budget day, and the debate on the Budget is unlikely to finish before Tuesday 5 December. Although there may be a Second Reading debate the day before the Budget, it is more likely that the first Second Reading debate will take place on Wednesday 6 or Thursday 7 December.
67 That means that the Committee of Selection will not be able to appoint any Standing Committees until Wednesday 13 December, and that in turn means that the Standing Committees will not he able to meet until 19 December, and will probably not meet until after the House returns from the Christmas recess.
The consequence of all that is that the legislative programme will get off to far too slow a start, and the programme will be clogged up later in the Session. The position is further aggravated because one of the Standing Committees that previously considered other Bills in the spring will deal with the Finance Bill from the end of January until Easter.
It therefore seems to me, as it did to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale two years ago, that the business managers should aim to clear all legislation and end the Session by the summer recess, that there should be no overlap period, and that the state opening of Parliament should take place in the middle of October, when the House returns after the summer recess. We could then hold the debate on the Gracious Speech and get several Bills into Committee before the Budget, thus smoothing the flow of legislation through both Houses of Parliament.
There is an especially strong reason for completing the legislative programme by next summer recess and holding the state opening in October. The Session of Parliament that starts in the autumn of 1996 will of necessity be a short one, because a general election will have to take place by May 1997. It would surely be sensible to allow sufficient time for some Bills to complete their passage through Parliament before that election. I ask business managers on both sides of the House to consider that important matter very seriously in the weeks ahead.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Sir D. Knox) spoiled a very good case with his last few words, because many of us would regard it as one of the saving graces that the legislation in the next parliamentary year—if there is one—will be saved by the bell, as a general election will prevent it from reaching the statute book.
I agreed with the hon. Gentleman, however, when he said that he would have preferred there to have been much less legislation during the past 16 years. So would many of us; that would have avoided legislation introducing the poll tax, water privatisation and so on.
May I pick up the hon. Gentleman on the main theme of his speech—the enthusiastic thrust of his speech relating to Europe? I warmly approve of the tone of his remarks.
I was on the other side of the Atlantic ocean in the United States for two or three weeks this autumn, visiting industrialists to try to persuade them of the importance of investing in Wales, which would help overcome our economic difficulties.
While I was in the USA, the Secretary of State for Defence made his appalling speech at the Conservative party conference. Industrialists in the United States asked me, "Does that mean that the United Kingdom may not be a full part of the European Community? May that mean 68 that you are on an outside track, that you may pull out? If that is the case, we don't want to invest in the UK; we slitall invest in mainland Europe."
That is the effect that speeches such as that made by the Secretary of State for Defence have on the real living standards and prospects of people such as my constituents. Ministers should think very seriously indeed before they make that type of speech.
As the hon. Member for Moorlands said, the importance of the European Union—whatever the problems are with the details—to the industrial structure of these islands is immense. We have 160 American companies in Wales and 47 Japanese companies, and I am certain that they would not have been investing in Wales were it not for the fact that we were part of the European Union.
Yes, let us make Europe more effective and efficient. Let us cut out the waste. Let us avoid any fiddles that are going on. However, to rock the boat and suggest that we are pulling out is contrary to our interests in Wales, and, I suspect, to the interests of the inhabitants of the rest of these islands.
I am sorry that I did not speak sooner after the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). It was interesting to hear him address the agenda that is close to his heart. It was interesting that, in a speech made so soon after he relinquished office as Secretary of State for Wales, he made not a single comment about Wales. That was the extent of his interest in Wales while he was Secretary of State; we are very much aware of that.
The Government would be well advised to take good heed of the warnings coming from below the Gangway on the Conservative side; otherwise, they will have an almightily difficult !ask in the intergovernmental conference.
Conservative Members said that the Conservative party was proud to stand on its record. Well, we know what the Tory record for the past 16 years has been in Wales. Unemployment has increased. Having increased from 80,000 to more than 130,000, even after changes in definition bringing it down to 110,000, the net figure for unemployment is 35 per cent. greater now than in 1979. A devastating pattern has become visible in male employment, which has decreased from 618,000 to 492,000—a reduction of 20 per cent.
Gross domestic product per capita in Wales has decreased from 88.3 per cent. of the UK average in 1979 to only 84.7 per cent.—a reduction of 3.6 per cent. Wales is now at the bottom of the league. Industries such as the coal industry have been almost emasculated. That industry now employs only about 1,000 people in Wales, and only three of the former National Coal Board pits remain.
The one glimmering of hope that the Conservative Government had—the pattern of inward investment in Wales during the period of office of the previous Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt)—has been totally undermined, and inward investment has been reduced from more than 1 1.5 per cent. to half that figure. That was the success of the Secretary of State who is now the Back-Bench Member for Wokingham. Thank the Lord that he is no longer Secretary of State for Wales.
69 As I read the Queen's Speech, I cannot help but notice that not one of the legislative proposals has anything directly to do with Wales. Wales is not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. It appears to be a Queen's Speech of a Government who have run out of ideas and lost direction. Its proposals appear to be geared as much to holding the Conservative party together as to any agenda that is required outside the Chamber.
Very different items would have been included in a Queen's Speech addressed to the needs and agenda of Wales. The priorities would have been, obviously, to try to overcome unemployment—the scourge that we have suffered so long—to invigorate the public services, to strengthen social justice, to improve community identity and community responsibility and to provide transparent and democratically answerable government in all its aspects.
I believe that those aims will be achievable only when we have our own Parliament in Wales, because they do not appear to have got any closer under successive Governments, albeit Conservative Governments, in the past 16 years.
Many aspects of the Government's proposals are disturbing for us in Wales. We are worried about aspects of the broadcasting Bill. I take a different line from the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott), who commented on the independent television sector. There are as many as 14 small independent companies in my home town of Caernarfon, and 800 jobs are dependent on that sector. They may not have the security of jobs in the BBC 20 years ago, but they form an important part of our economy.
We are worried about possible changes to the broadcasting structure. If S4C has to share a six-megabyte slot with Channel 4 in Wales, we shall return to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s that have since been overcome by the present broadcasting structure. We are worried about the prospect of achieving an English language service for Wales, which is desperately needed. There is a danger that the ITV contractors that serve Wales may be gobbled up by super-national conglomerates, which are designed to meet not a broadcasting need but a commercial need.
We are worried about the implications of the housing Bill. The hon. Member for Moorlands said that it was an attractive Bill. For some people, the right to buy a house from a housing association may be attractive, but the hon. Gentleman should cast his mind back, as I do, to the time when there was an abundance of council-rented accommodation available. Such accommodation has now gone, because it has been sold. Many of my constituents who cannot—and will not be able to—afford to buy a house have had to depend on the housing association sector.
If that sector also starts to lose its housing stock due to the same mechanism, where will those people turn? It is no use saying that they will turn to the private sector, because, in my area, the rents in that sector are driven by the holiday home rents of midsummer, making it impossible for people to rent houses all year round. That is particularly true of those on low wages. The alternative for such people is to become totally dependent on housing benefit—it then becomes almost impossible for them to return to employment. That constitutes a trap, and I urge the Government, whatever changes they are undertaking, not to undermine the housing sector in that way.
70 I have doubts about a prospective nursery voucher scheme. I do not want to see the introduction of such legislation in Wales.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by the Opposition on the implications of the asylum Bill. I heard the Prime Minister's heartfelt assurances that he did not have racism in mind when introducing the legislation, and I accept that he is genuine. But I suspect that other people do not view the legislation in that way.
Documents have been quoted in the Chamber to show how such an agenda has been considered to secure a party political advantage, whether in the 1992 election, the European elections or other elections. Any general approach to asylum that cuts out certain countries—perhaps Nigeria or Sri Lanka—and does not allow asylum seekers from those countries is nonsense. The truth of that has been shown in Nigeria in the past few days, and, sadly, in the difficulties of the Tamil people and the Singhalese suffering in Sri Lanka.
There will be genuine asylum cases. I am aware that the present Home Secretary's family came to these islands not so many decades ago. I welcome the fact that it is possible for people like him to come here. What I find it difficult to understand is that he should be the man who closes the door on other families with equally pressing reasons to be seeking asylum.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)
The hon. Gentleman makes a mistake in assuming that the Government have any plans to change their approach to the United Nations convention. We continue to support it, and always will, when we look at individual asylum-seeking cases in this country. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman waited to see our Bill before making such remarks, and carefully studied the proposals contained within it. Meanwhile, he should think carefully about what proposals he would introduce to stop the massive number of bogus asylum applications to this country, which come from all parts of the globe, not specific parts.
§ Mr. Wigley
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not believe that that massive number of people—I have heard the figure of 17,000 mentioned—is the biggest problem facing the peoples of these islands. I believe that the figure is used for political reasons—it is one agenda item on which the Conservatives can unite. I shall wait to see the details of the Bill. I hope that the comments made in the press outside the Chamber and by hon. Members inside the Chamber will have an influence on the Bill, so that it does not end up as bad as it initially appeared.
We are worried about the forthcoming Finance Bill. We fear that it may contain a cynical tax bribe at the expense of pensioners, disabled people and, particularly, local government. If there is to be a 5 per cent. reduction in the money available to local government, that reduction will directly hit those who depend on services such as community care services, which will be unacceptable. If there is money available for a reduction in the tax take—I doubt whether there is—the Government should reduce or eliminate employers' national insurance. That would at least be a step in the right direction; it is crazy that we tax employment at a time of high unemployment.
When I consider the agenda set out in the Queen's Speech, I am conscious that a different agenda is needed in Wales. If we had our own Parliament with legislative
71 power, we could produce a different agenda for the coming year. There is a need for employment legislation to overcome the problems faced by the 110,000 unemployed people in Wales. We should create a different education structure in Wales that will avoid the need for a nursery school voucher scheme and for schools to opt out of the state system.
There is a need to ensure an equitable system of charging for water, so that those on low incomes are looked after and single-person households receive a fairer deal. There is a need for legislation to safeguard disabled people against discrimination and provide them with an organisation that looks after their needs instead of sweeping them to one side, as the legislation passed here in recent weeks and months has done.
There is a need for a local government functions Bill to return to local government the powers that it once had. I would go further and abolish the ultra vires rule, and give local government general competence. There is a need to develop the arts in Wales, which are suffering from the Government's cuts and policies. There is a need for an agriculture Bill to assist new entrants into farming and to assist those farmers who want to retire and make room for others. There is a need for a Welsh language Bill to cover the privatised utilities that have escaped the intentions of the Welsh Language Act 1993.
We need a renewable energy strategy in Wales—a non-fossil-fuel-related energy. We need a housing Bill to meet the housing needs, which are chronic in many areas of Wales. We need more accountability in the health sector. We need an integrated transport structure. We need legislation to change the present non-accountable structure of quangos.
The present Conservative Government offer no help in any of those sectors. They have not introduced the necessary legislation, or given us an elected body to pass Acts on our own behalf. It is nonsense that we in Wales have a tier of government—the Welsh Office and the quangos—that runs so many aspects of everyday life, but does not have direct democratic accountability on an all-Wales level.
The need for more accountability is becoming more and more accepted by the vast majority of the people in Wales. In Wales, as in Scotland, the people have an overwhelming desire for greater democratic accountability and a structure of government of our own. Until and unless we have that structure of government, what can we do'? We can continue moaning to this place, which takes not a blind bit of notice. Select Committee reports are left on tables and shelves; we hear Queen's Speeches that do not even refer to Wales.
The agenda of Plaid Cymru over the coming year is to bring forward detailed draft Bills on the subjects that I have mentioned, knowing full well that there will not be time in this Chamber to discuss them and that no commitment will be made to the needs of Wales. The people of Wales should be able to see what their own Parliament could be doing and what Westminster cannot and will not do on behalf of Wales.
When the Welsh people face that choice at the next election, there will be a surge of support in favour of Wales—like Scotland—having its own Parliament and 72 taking decisions for itself, rather than leaving them to a Parliament in Westminster, with neither the interest in, time for nor commitment to Wales.
§ Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)
I agreed with the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), who pointed to the necessity of this country remaining a member of the European Union. He dwelt particularly upon the investment that is needed—and that will be forthcoming—in Wales. His comments apply equally to Bedfordshire, which has been dependent on inward investment for years and will remain so if it is to reduce local unemployment.
I am glad that the Queen's Speech refers to the Government's support for the middle east peace process. A terrible tragedy has befallen Israel with the assassination of Mr. Rabin, but I am convinced that Israel will draw strength from the past. It will remember that Mr. Begin reached an agreement with Egypt and that Mr. Rabin made the breakthrough with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and with Jordan. I am convinced that Mr. Peres will solve probably the most difficult problem of all and achieve a peace settlement with Syria. Everyone in the House and in the country wishes the Israeli Government well in their efforts to continue the peace process and bring stability and prosperity to the middle east.
I have always been interested in that part of the Gracious Speech which says:Other measures … will be laid before you.I would like to add that the "other measures" will deal with the unforeseen problems that could arise when the original measures are passed. One such problem involving council tax has come to light.
A High Court judgment in the early summer ruled that the conversion of part of a house into a granny annex meant that two council taxes would apply to the property. One of my constituents received planning permission to alter part of his property to enable his parents to live with him. The planning permission contained the strict condition that the annex would not be a separate dwelling. Imagine my constituent's surprise when he was served with two council taxes. He, and many others like him, are assisting the country and the social security system by caring for elderly parents. What will happen to the problem of the two council taxes when his parents die'?
Judges regularly ask—one reads about it in the text of their judgments—what Parliament intended when it passed particular legislation. They then go on to interpret the law in each case. I assure judges that Parliament intended the council tax to be simple and fair. We did not want to revisit the hideous poll tax anomalies that occurred with students, second homes and unoccupied properties. Parliament did not want to see a dwelling that is changed—not expanded—attracting two council taxes. Other measures should be introduced to ensure that the law is clear in that area and that people will not continue to suffer.
I welcome the announcement in the Gracious Speech about divorce law reform. That is a very important matter, but not a party political one. I hope that votes throughout the legislative process will be based on cross-party support and agreement. The divorce law reform Bill
73 presents us with an opportunity to do something about the Child Support Agency and the way in which it operates. I do not believe that the CSA can continue to function in its present fashion.
We sometimes forget that, in the difficult personal circumstances that arise out of separation or divorce, people are up against it not only financially but emotionally. They come to our surgeries seeking information about benefits and it is our constitutional duty to help them, which we do with enthusiasm. But Members of Parliament are hardly qualified to deal with emotional problems.
Reasonable payments for children must be made and enforced by law if necessary. However, in view of its record of mistakes, clumsiness and insensitivity, I do not believe that the Child Support Agency is the appropriate avenue through which to proceed. We could, and should, revive the 1980s proposal to create new family courts whose first task would be to bring the parties together in an informal and conciliatory atmosphere to calculate what could be reasonably afforded and paid to meet children's needs.
Such a change would take time; in this country we are suspicious of courts. It was once said that the problem with English courts is that there is apresumption of innocence in an atmosphere of guilt".I believe that we can overcome that problem. We could, and should, replace the Child Support Agency with family courts that would make a fresh start by assessing reasonable levels of maintenance and ensuring that maintenance was paid. We all agree on that.
Of course, change will not occur overnight. In the meantime, I plead with the Child Support Agency to sort out the existing cases before it takes on any new ones. That is a small request, but it is supported by those who are in the middle of dealings with the agency.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Sir D. Knox) pointed out, the Queen's Speech comes very close to the Budget announcement and to the public expenditure statement. Therefore, hon. Members may make final appeals to the Chancellor of the Exchequer at this 11¾th hour. The news of increased levels of inward investment are encouraging for the Chancellor and for the country, but we cannot let up for a moment in our drive to attract more modern industry to this country and to reduce unemployment.
I wish to make two brief points on tax and on expenditure as a prelude to the Budget. The Government are concerned about the cost of nursing and general care for old people who are forced to leave their homes because they cannot care for themselves. Widows and widowers are particularly worried about the costs involved with selling their homes and about what will occur when the sales go through. We should make a legislative change to assist them. When people sell their homes and go into care, I believe that the income from the capital raised and invested from the sales should be tax free in order to help people to pay for their care. That would cause many old people far less worry at a difficult time and would be a sensible and sensitive use of the tax system.
As to expenditure, schools in my constituency in Bedfordshire have had a difficult time with their budgets this year. People are interested in what the Government 74 have said about the assisted places scheme, but that is not their immediate priority. They are interested in nursery vouchers and in the development of nursery education, but that is not their immediate priority either. People are very interested in the development of grant-maintained schools, but there is bound to be a short pause in parental enthusiasm because of uncertainty about who will win the next general election and what a possible change of government would mean for grant-maintained schools.
The lack of enthusiasm to opt for grant-maintained status does not denote a lack of interest: parents are being realistic about the present political situation. People believe that the priority is to inject more money into schools, and therefore into the classroom, in the next financial year. I have a long list of improvements that must be made to schools in my constituency—not least to ensure better delivery of the national curriculum.
I am aware that Conservatives control only one county, Buckinghamshire, but the Government need to make it possible for Conservatives on county councils to produce realistic and sensible budgets in February that will put more money into schools in 1996–97. If those realistic Conservative budgets, which it is their duty to produce, with us supporting them, command support—as they will if they are sensible and balanced and presented to the public as putting more money into schools—and are voted down by Labour and Liberal groups on county councils, the electorate will know where to put the blame. Conservatives in every county hall in the land should make it their priority to produce budgets that prove to the electorate that more money can go into schools in the next financial year.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer presides over a strengthening and rapidly improving economy. It is of cardinal importance that we begin the next century with our education and skills capable of keeping us right in the forefront of industrial nations. That is the only way to reduce unemployment in Britain.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
I am most grateful to be able to say a few words about the Queen's Speech as I have not done so for many years. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir D. Madel). Until he mentioned education, I found what was saying very thoughtful and intelligent. I thought that it would be difficult to follow him in the same vein—especially for me—but then he got on to education and became rather more political, so I am encouraged.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) said that people in the pubs and clubs of Telford, Cumnock or anywhere else would not be discussing the details of the Queen's Speech and that we are the only ones debating it. Perhaps they are more interested in discussing a few words from another member of the royal family. We, however, have to talk about what was said earlier today in another place.
Each year, with a diminishing degree of credibility and authority, the Government almost seem to pretend that they have suddenly found themselves in office. They put forward a programme as if they were a new Government taking over the legacy of the past. They keep forgetting 75 that the legacy of the past 16 years is their legacy. The failures of 16 years represent a millstone that is constantly around their necks.
In the past 16 years, we have witnessed Ministers privatising utilities, then retiring and sloping off to line their pockets with part of the profits of the utilities that they have privatised. That is part of the legacy of the past 16 years.
We have seen our manufacturing industry decimated. It is all right for France, Germany and other European countries to continue their manufacturing industry, but somehow it is not all right for the United Kingdom to do so. That is one of the failures of the past 16 years.
As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin said, we have a growing drugs culture that is fuelled by the increasing grinding despair of many young people who are unable to find work. Crime has doubled, and the numbers of beggars in the streets and homeless people have increased. That is another failure of the past 16 years.
With respect to Conservative Members who have spoken, they cannot get away from that and slough it off as if it has not happened and as if they did not have that legacy as they seek further support.
The leader of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), said that the Government had run out of ideas. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Sir D. Knox) said how wonderful it was to have a light legislative programme. That might demonstrate that they have run out of ideas, but we can recall some of the so-called big ideas of the Government and of the Prime Minister himself.
I remember the cones hotline. That was heralded as a big idea. I remember sitting in a traffic jam hour after hour thinking about the cones hotline. I could imagine all the other people sitting in the traffic jam line thinking exactly the same. That was the Prime Minister's so-called big idea. It did not come from a junior Minister in the Department or even from the Secretary of State for Transport but from the Prime Minister. That idea was abandoned ignominiously earlier this year.
There was also back to basics. We do not hear much about that now. We used to hear of it all the time. We were attacked for having a soundbite of the day or the week, but the Government's soundbite used to be back to basics. We know what went wrong with that. We know about the sleaze that was exposed, the concern that was expressed and the parrot-like repetition of back to basics beliefs, which seemed rather strange in the light of what was happening.
I have chosen two examples, but other equally daft ideas were dismantled and discarded and bit the dust in the same way as the cones hotline and back to basics. Although all those ideas were discarded, some of the policies of the past 16 years, and the past few years in particular, are continuing to bite hard on the way of life of the people we represent.
Rail privatisation is an absolute disaster, but it is still going ahead. It was described by one late hon. Member as the poll tax on wheels. The whole process has been a total disaster. Now there is not even a timetable of the trains running in Britain. Crash follow crash on the rail 76 network. No connections are now guaranteed. The running times have been lengthened to make sure that the trains arrive on time occasionally and the people who were heralded as the saviour of the railway—those in private enterprise—are pulling out day after day. That failure continues to haunt Conservative Members.
There was also the reform of the national health service. Apparently, more money is being spent on the national health service, as the hon. Member for South Worcestershire (Mr. Spicer), who is falling asleep, said in an earlier intervention. In reality, we have witnessed the creation of trusts duplicating the work of boards and the development of the market within the health service, which means that more accountants are necessary to pay bills and pass them from one level to another, thus leading to a huge increase in bureaucracy. Money is spent on bureaucrats, not on nurses and doctors.
Conservative Members would like to forget it, but we should not let them forget the appalling legacy of the poll tax. The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who used to enjoy his days at the Foreign Office, shrugs his shoulders. They want to forget about the poll tax. They want people to forget about it, but it brought injury upon Scotland, England and Wales. People were rioting in the streets even in the south of England because of the injustices of the poll tax. It was finally abandoned, but it cost billions of pounds to introduce the poll tax and it cost billions of pounds to get rid of it. Money that could and should have been spent on services was wasted on an ideology, a dogma in which the Tories said they believed. When they saw it in practice, they realised that it was an absolute disaster. All of us and all the taxpayers and the people of Britain share the cost and suffer as a result. So there is a whole legacy of failure. I wanted to dwell on that legacy for a few moments because we shall not let Conservative Members forget it.
It is clear that the Gracious Speech represents an attempt to cling on to power at the next election. It is clear also that the attempt will be made in vain. We, the Opposition, will not let the Government forget their record of failure over the past 16 years.
What is in the Gracious Speech? We are told that the President of France will visit next year. Is that wise when he continues to ignore the protests of the world about nuclear tests? The Government, however, continue to support him in the continuation of the tests. There will be a real danger of unrest if the President arrives and the tests are continuing.
We are told in the Gracious Speech that it remains the Government's priority to preventthe proliferation of weapons of mass destruction".If that is their position, how can they justify supporting the French nuclear tests? These tests are an essential part of proliferation. How can the United Kingdom expect other countries to adhere to the non-proliferation treaty? They must do so, of course, if we are to ensure a safe future for our children. How can we expect other countries to adhere to the treaty if we encourage nuclear tests that are an essential element of proliferation? I hope that the Government will think seriously about their support for the French Government in their nuclear tests. We are alone in our support. We were isolated at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. It does the Government no credit to continue with their support.
77 We are told in the Gracious Speech that asubstantial aid programme will be maintained, focused on poorest countries".I hope that that will be the Government's position. As we say in Scotland, I hae ma doots. There has been well-informed speculation about two levels of cuts in the Overseas Development Administration—a 12 per cent. cut in the public expenditure round and cuts as a result of the fundamental expenditure review. It is rumoured that the Government, in their bilateral programme, will leave the Caribbean, Latin America, the Pacific, south-east Asia and parts of eastern Europe. If that happens, the Government will not have a substantial aid programme. That would be a disaster.
The Prime Minister said, as is stated in the Gracious Speech, that a central part of the Government's programme is a fight against drugs. If that fight is to succeed, we must continue to help the smaller Caribbean countries with mono-economies that depend on the production and sale of bananas or coffee, for example. These are vulnerable and fragile economies. I know that the Minister has heard directly from the Prime Ministers of some of the smaller Caribbean countries that if they suffer as a result of cuts made by our Government, they will find it difficult to prevent an increase in the production of marijuana and other drugs in their countries. It would he disastrous if the Government moved in line with some of the rumours that I and others have heard. I hope that what is stated in the Gracious Speech becomes a reality. Those of us who are concerned specifically about overseas development will be watching the Government carefully.
I am glad to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), is on the Government Front Bench. That is fortuitous. I understand from reports in the Scottish media today that among the other measures to be introduced will be one to deal with the control of raves in Scotland. I see that the Minister is nodding. I am delighted by the news. The Minister will be aware that one of my constituents was one of the first to die in a tragic incident at Hanger 13, a nightclub in Ayr.
I am not against young people enjoying themselves. Indeed, I encourage them to do so. I have three children. They are getting on a bit now but, like us all, they were young once. They went to nightclubs. At the same time, I am aware of the dangers. There is the tragic case of the girl of 18 who obtained an Ecstasy tablet—it was not contaminated—on her 18th birthday. It is a dramatic and awful case. There were three such cases in one nightclub in Ayr.
There were some who shrugged their shoulders and said that there was nothing wrong. There was a clear need for better stewarding. Lord Milligan, a senator, said that in the High Court in Airdrie today when sentencing someone. He said that the stewarding in Hanger 13 was appalling. He observed that the selling of Ecstasy and other drugs had been allowed to continue for a long time.
Ecstasy contributes to or results in an increase in body temperature and dehydration. When many young people are involved in energetic dancing and there is nowhere for them to cool out or chill out, there is danger. The situation for three young people in Ayr was fatal. I welcome what I understand has been proposed by the Scottish Office.
78 The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) has made a breathtaking U-turn. When I was expressing concerns about Hanger 13—lack of stewarding and the lack of a chill-out area—he was shrugging his shoulders and saying that I was scaremongering. He alleged that I had it in for the proprietors of Hanger 13. I am glad that he has converted on the road to Westminster. I do not know whether the Scottish Office Ministers have effected the conversion, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has changed his stance.
I used to be the chairman of the Lothian region education committee. Being in office in local government gave me at least a little power. In this place I have experienced the continuing frustration of 16 years in opposition. To have a small amount of power at local authority level was a much more enjoyable and satisfying experience. I learnt a great deal about the education debate, albeit in a Scottish context. It is appalling and offensive that personal and puerile attacks should continue to be made by Conservative Members on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. These attacks should be discontinued immediately.
My right hon. Friend has made his individual decision within the terms of the current education system. It comes ill of Conservative Members to attack his individual decision when many of them do not use the state system. They do not use grant-maintained schools. Instead, they send their children into the private sector. They tell us that class sizes do not matter but they send their children to private schools where there are smaller class sizes so as to give them a privilege.
The next Labour Government will not encourage opting out. When I was chairman of the Lothian region education committee, I encouraged opting in. Two private schools came close to opting into the local authority system in 1978 and 1979. I would like to see that happening again. It is fortunate that there is not much opting out in Scotland. It is not a popular move.
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has been going round the country trying to encourage schools to opt out. That has had a counter-productive effect, but we do have the appalling assisted places scheme. It is ridiculous that, when the education budget is limited, increasing amounts of money should be taken away from local authority schools and spent on assisted places: money is being poured into the pockets of private schools, and taken from the public sector schools to which people such as me send our children—whether they be grant-maintained or, as in my case, run by local authorities.
The hon. Member for Moorlands spoke of the prospect of nursery vouchers. Conservative Members continually describe that scheme as extra provision of nursery places, but that misrepresents the proposals. Again, money will be taken from the public sector—which is currently providing good nursery teaching places—and given to people with vouchers who will buy places in playgroups. Again, the Government will extend provision only through cheapjack solutions, while bypassing the real problems of education.
In regard to Scotland, Conservative Members talk of "jobs for the boys". It is interesting to note that recently in Monklands—when Mr. Nimmo-Smith has been getting to the truth in a proper judicial way—some of the accusations have been falling by the wayside, and proving untrue. What we do know is that, in health trusts all over 79 Scotland, people like Aileen Bates—a well-known Tory—are getting nice, highly paid jobs. That is a job for the girls! Meanwhile, Scottish Office Ministers with whom we do not agree but who we thought had a little political nous are spending more and more on appointing political advisers. First Gerald Warner from The Sunday Times was brought in; now the Tory party's public relations officer has been moved to St Andrew's house, paid for by the taxpayer. That is outrageous: jobs for the boys and girls are being financed by public funds for the advancement of Tory policy. It is disastrous, ridiculous and disgraceful.
I could continue at length, but I know that others wish to speak. Finally, let me say something about devolution of power in Scotland. Alone among 72 Scottish Members, the Secretary of State for Scotland—the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth)-and nine other hon. Members, one of them the Under-Secretary of State, are steamrolling policy through a House of Commons in which an English Tory majority is legislating for Scotland and has done so for a number of years.
Scotland did not vote for the poll tax, but we got it. We did not vote for national health service trusts, but they were forced down our throats. No one in Scotland wanted the reorganisation of local government, but a minority Tory Administration in Scotland—with the right hon. Member for Stirling and the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang) in the forefront—forced it on the people of Scotland. That is causing great resentment. What Scotland wants is real devolution of power to its people—and that is what a Labour Government will bring. That is what ought to be, and will be, in the first Queen's Speech under a Labour Government. [Interruption.]
But we do not just want devolution of power to Scotland. Power must devolve to Wales, Northern Ireland and, ultimately, to the rest of the United Kingdom. It must take place within England as well. [Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. There have been several seated comments during the hon. Gentleman's speech; indeed, there has been almost a running commentary. I deprecate that.
§ Mr. Foulkes
I deprecate it too, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have become used to the running commentary of the Under-Secretary of State in Scottish debates—his nickname is Peter O'Sullevan—but I am grateful to you. It is good to be protected by someone who is almost from the same clan.
We will not forget the legacy of the past 16 years. We will constantly remind the Government of it in the run-up to the general election. We will expose the fact that they have run out of ideas, and over the next few months we will make sure that they are run out of office. We will also present our positive plans for Scotland and for education, the health service and local government—all the plans that Labour spelt out in its recent conference.
I look forward to making the same points, not on the green Benches of Westminster, but on the stump throughout the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. David Evennett (Erich and Crayford)
I am 80 delighted to be able to speak today. I deplore the attack made by the hon. Member for Caenarfon (Mr. Wigley), who is no longer present, on my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood); he was an excellent Secretary of State for Wales, and worked extremely hard for the Principality. Let me also say—following the speech of the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes)—that most Opposition speakers seem to forget the many achievements of the Government over the past 16 years, including the improvement in living standards for all sections of the community. [Interruption.]
Opposition Members do not like the facts. They may wish to recall the 1960s as a golden age; I regret to tell them that it was in that period that the problems were created. Labour Governments ignored long-term problems for the sake of short-term advantage. Rewriting history now will not help.
I believe that the contents of the Queen's Speech are important, constructive and relevant to the needs of the people. I am convinced that the legislative programme proposed by the Government will be well received in my borough of Bexley, and throughout the country: it will be supported by all ages and all groups in my constituency, because it addresses the real issues facing my constituents. I refer to education, law and order, training and immigration and asylum, for instance.
I appreciate that the electorate are interested in our legislative programme and the forthcoming Budget. On both those important events, they will judge the Government. Although the Chancellor of the Exchequer's part of the equation remains a closely guarded secret for the next two weeks, the detailed legislative programme has been unveiled today. In my speech, I shall concentrate on the education proposals.
Contrary to some of the siren voices that we have heard from the Labour party—both in the House and, I regret to say, outside—the Government have not run out of steam. We have a coherent philosophy, and a programme to implement it. One of the Conservative party's problems has been our failure to highlight our vision and our achievements—our vision of the future of our country and its people. I am confident that that vision is one that the country needs and strongly supports.
Of course, every Government and every political party must implement unpopular measures at times. It is a credit to the present Government that they were willing to make unpopular decisions in the national interest. The real question for the people of Britain at the next election remains the same: what sort of Britain do we want? Is it a country willing to travel a socialist road of Government control, bureaucratic rule, higher Government expenditure, higher taxation, more decisions from Brussels and a bland uniformity, or does it involve our Conservative vision of choice, opportunity and less government'? To me, the socialist philosophy is alien to the lives and aspirations of my constituents—and, I believe, those of people throughout the country; and nowhere is the stark contrast between the philosophies of the two major parties more apparent than in education.
The Gracious Speech contains two important legislative measures on education: two important steps to build on the successful education reforms of the past decade. Bills are proposed to deal with nursery education, and to extend the powers of grant-maintained schools. We in this 81 country have an education system that is still the envy of the world. Choice, diversity, standards and opportunity are the basis of our system.
During 20 years of Conservative control in my borough of Bexley, we continued to provide a wide variety of secondary schools. Regrettably, in May 1994 control of the council passed to a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. However, even that group maintains the single-sex, grammar, religious, technical and—although it does not like them—grant-maintained schools. It does not want to get rid of grammar schools because it fears a parental backlash.
Bexley has maintained different types of school, offering diverse education to cater for the wishes and needs of its children. The Labour party, nationally and locally, would, if it could, end that choice and diversity. It would end the grammar schools, take away the powers of the grant-maintained schools and attempt to gain what it failed to gain in the 1960s and 1970s—to impose its aim of an all-embracing neighbourhood comprehensive.
Conservative Members believe in standards, and crucial to the maintenance of academic standards is the A-level examination. While no examination is perfect, at least A-levels provide a benchmark. However, we understand from Labour Front-Bench spokesmen outside the House this week that Labour wants to destroy the A-level examination. Instead, it wants a watered-down version that would allow more pupils to pass. Labour wants pupils to be able to pick and choose their courses under a new post-16 qualification that would broaden their study. We all welcome any broadening of study, but we do not want to lose the benchmark of academic excellence. Such a change would diminish standards.
Instead, we should be encouraging and improving vocational education, building on existing blocks and raising it to the standard of A-levels. We do not want to legislate to reduce the standard of A-levels or to replace them with something inferior. We must build, improve and raise up—not, as the Opposition want, diminish and destroy.
Labour would remove grant-maintained status from schools and reintegrate them into some sort of local education authority control. I believe that the principles behind GM status are right—to remove the dead hand of LEA control, to allow the head and governors of a school to run their school and to ensure greater parental involvement. The policy has been worth while and effective. It works.
The new Bill to give GM schools more borrowing powers is welcome as it will extend their opportunities to run their own affairs. I want there to be more GM secondary schools and I believe that that will be the case. At any rate, the new Bill will command tremendous support from parents, governors, heads and teachers in existing GM schools. We look forward to more parents being allowed to vote for GM status. We want all of them to be more involved in the affairs of their schools.
The Labour party, both in Bexley and nationally, opposes GM status at every turn. It actively campaigns against it in local ballots. It opposes GM status in principle, yet, as we have heard already this evening, many Labour politicians still choose to send their children to GM schools—they just want to deny my children and the children in my constituency that same opportunity.
82 In the neighbouring borough of Greenwich, Hawksmoor primary school, under the able leadership of the headmaster Paul Adams, faced a determined and vitriolic campaign against its attempt to obtain GM status. There was opposition from Labour-controlled Greenwich council and from the local Labour party. They were frightened that they would lose control over the school and would not be able to dictate education policy. However, the parents voted for GM status and the school is now flourishing in Thamesmead, both academically and in the support that it has from its parents. It has an increasing number of pupils on its roll. The headmaster is no longer subject to the criticism and party political antics of Greenwich council.
In Bexley, the local Catholic schools and BETHS boys' school say that they have tremendous advantages in being free of LEA control. The Barnhurst primary grant-maintained schools, which I regularly visit, are thriving. All those schools are benefiting from GM status. The pupils benefit and the parents like GM status.
Other schools, both in my borough and across the country, have benefited greatly from local management of schools, another Conservative Government initiative. It allows schools more freedom from LEAs. I had hoped that there might be a provision in the Gracious Speech to give even more power and responsibility to such schools. I am sure that that will be the case in future. Long term, the role of the local education authority will be diminished and its control over individual schools reduced. That will be good for education and for the education service generally. A much smaller LEA, providing services that can then be bought by schools locally, will be of advantage to the schools.
§ Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
The hon. Gentleman suggested that people vote for grant-maintained status so that schools can escape from local authority control. Can he therefore explain why, throughout the country, it is predominantly Conservative-controlled authorities that have the largest number of school opt-outs to GM status, while cities such as Sheffield—which has been Labour-controlled for a number of years—have had few opt-outs?
§ Mr. Evennett
As the hon. Gentleman has been listening to my speech, he will know the answer to his question. The propaganda, the fear factor and the activities of the local Labour party have frightened parents. The LEA tries to claim that opting out will be the end of civilisation as parents know it. I mentioned Hawksmoor school earlier. The activities of Greenwich were phenomenal in trying to urge parents and teachers to vote against opting out. The politically motivated Labour party and LEA, using the fear factor, encouraged parents not to vote for opting out. I believe that that will change when a Conservative Government are re-elected at the general election. There will be a groundswell of support for opting out, despite the opposition of the Labour party.
The other new education Bill relates to nursery provision. I have always been a keen supporter of nursery education and some years ago I served on the Select Committee carrying out a detailed study on pre-school provision. For many children, it is a vital building block for their future. Under the previous Conservative administration in Bexley, there was a phased programme for increasing nursery provision. That is continuing under the Labour-Liberal Democrat regime.
83 I welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech to increase the provision of nursery education for four-year-olds and the pilot scheme to introduce vouchers. At a recent meeting with the Labour chairman of Bexley education committee, I deplored the council's decision not to participate in the pilot scheme. Of course, that decision was taken for party political reasons and not in the interests of Bexley children. Labour deplores parental power and choice because it reduces Labour's control and its ability to dictate local education policy and provision.
I have never believed that local authority nursery provision is the only worthwhile pre-five provision. I believe, as do all Conservative Members, in choice and variety. I accept that, nationally, playgroups have done a marvellous job and I would not want them to be destroyed or diminished in the job that they do and the reputation that they hold. Many independent nursery schools and independent primary schools with nursery classes also provide a good service. Parents must be allowed freedom of choice. Competition between providers of nursery education will undoubtedly improve standards and enhance that sadly underrated sector of education. We should all pay tribute to the nursery teachers and nursery nurses who have a rewarding but demanding working week, and whose career development and progression are often considerably less structured than those in other sections of the teaching profession.
It is essential that nursery education is relevant to the needs of the pre-school child, and is of high calibre. Mere child minding, or constant structured play, is not the answer. The proposed legislation will allow best practice to develop, give parents more real choice and provide the foundation for effective provision for nursery education.
The Labour party always cries out for more nursery education, yet manages to oppose any constructive proposals. Despite what it says, the general public, especially parents, will welcome the Bill as a constructive step that will increase nursery provision for all four-year-olds. The expansion of nursery education to cover all four-year-olds has been an aim for more than 25 years. Now, under the Conservative Government, it looks as if that aim will start to become a reality.
I have concentrated on the nursery proposals in the Queen's Speech, but I am also convinced that the overall legislative package will command widespread support throughout the country. I welcome the fact that this year's programme is not overburdened with Bills. Over the past few years, many of us have been concerned that there has been too much legislation. Conservatives believe in less legislation, but effective legislation.
I believe that more help for small businesses, more deregulation and firm financial policies to increase economic growth and employment will not only be welcomed by everyone in the country but will build on the improving economic situation. Contrary to what we have heard from Opposition Members, although it is not overburdened with Bills, the Gracious Speech has plenty of content, and will provide a wide and successful legislative programme.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
I do not intend to follow 84 the line taken by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), because I disagreed with so many of his comments that if I dealt with them all, I should not have time to make the contribution that I intended. So I hope that I shall be forgiven if I do not refer to his speech at all.
However, I shall briefly mention two previous speeches. In the first of those my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) talked about unemployment, which we all know is still unacceptably high. He also referred to the problem of the large number of people who, although employed, are in low-paid, temporary and part-time jobs.
When I look in my constituency, in the local press or at the job centre, I see that too high a proportion of the jobs on offer are temporary, even in the public sector, which traditionally has permanent jobs. There are also far too many part-time jobs on offer to people who seek full-time jobs—although I accept that things are different if people actually want part-time jobs. An appalling number of jobs are low paid—an issue that I have raised many times in the Chamber and elsewhere in the House. I mean not simply low pay but poverty pay, which is unacceptable. It is a scandal that such low levels of pay should exist in Britain today. I find nothing in the Queen's Speech to address any of those problems. Indeed, it is regrettable that, after 16 and a half years in office, the Government are allowing them to get worse and worse, and they have still failed to do anything to change direction.
I shall also refer to the speech by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Sir D. Knox), who spoke about the business of the House—I was going to call the hon. Gentleman's constituency Leek and Moorland, but I believe that that is a building society. I serve on the Procedure Committee, which recently considered the Jopling reforms so as to produce a report for the House to read before deciding what it wanted to do in the new Session. The matter was dealt with towards the end of the previous Session. In evidence both from the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, it became clear how much the introduction of a November Budget has changed the procedures of the House and how great an effect that has had on the Government's legislative programme. Whichever party is in government, we shall have to address that problem.
As the hon. Member for Moorlands rightly said, if the Queen's Speech is on 15 November and the Budget and the debate on it only a couple of weeks later, there is almost no time for either the present Government or an incoming Labour Government to arrange for the Second Readings of Bills and to get them into Committee before the turn of the year. We need to tackle that problem because it will cause a major headache for any Government, and delay legislation.
I shall pick out three main statements from the Queen's Speech. The first is:A substantial aid programme will be maintained, focused on the poorest countries".The second is:Legislation will be introduced to enable students to choose between private and public suppliers of subsidised loans.My final extract is:My Government will bring forward legislation to make better provision for housing and to promote the smooth running of construction contracts.85 The Government have floated the idea, and allowed it to become general knowledge, that they may consider a 12 per cent. reduction in the overseas aid budget. I do not believe for a moment that they intend to do that. The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is now on the Government Front Bench, was closely involved with overseas aid in his previous position, and I know that Baroness Chalker is also committed to that cause, but my theory is that it will not be she who determines how much is spent on aid. I believe that if it were her decision, there would be no reduction.
The Government will probably not make a 12 per cent. reduction but will suggest a smaller figure, in the hope and belief that people will say that as it is not as bad as they expected, it is acceptable. If that is the Government's intention, they have got it sadly wrong.
Overseas aid is in the interests of this country, because if we do not assist other nations, we must accept that they may be forced to take decisions that are not in the world's best environmental interests. We all know that environmental issues are no respecters of national boundaries, and decisions taken in other parts of the world can have severe environmental consequences for us, however many thousands of miles away we may be. I emphasise my hope that what is in the Gracious Speech about aid will prove to be true.
Oxfam says:Instead of cutting aid, we believe that the UK should be increasing aid in line with its international promises and obligations. In this year's budget, aid agencies are calling for…No further cuts in the aid Budget… Bilateral assistance to be maintained at its current level. In 1996–97, this would require an increase in the ODA's total budget of £100 million".The Government must not allow aid to be cut either in cash or in real terms. We want to see an increase. I give the Minister the benefit of the doubt, as I know that he is sympathetic to overseas aid. I hope that he will give to the Government the message that there is an overwhelming feeling throughout the country, and that people want us to move towards the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of GDP. We are way below that target, and the figure has fallen in percentage terms. I am realistic and I know that the target will not be achieved overnight, but we must not make further direct reductions; we should move in the right direction.
The second issue to which I want to refer is student loans. I was surprised to hear people questioning whether students should be able to get a loan from the private or the public sector, because that is not addressing the real problems being faced by so many of our students. The student loan system has been discredited. It is wrong, and the Government should reconsider their approach to student finance. I accept that it is not an easy issue, and there is a lot of money involved, but it is totally unrealistic to expect students to take out loans which they must pay back when they enter work and reach a certain percentage of average national earnings. Not all students get work speedily nowadays when they finish their course.
I accept that the loan scheme has a neutral interest rate and that repayment is index-linked to allow for inflation, but most students—certainly my two daughters, and others of whom I am aware in my constituency—have debts to banks and other people when they finish their education. The student loans scheme is adding to the burden of debt that those students face. Students finishing 86 education may also be entering into relationships, getting married or wanting to buy a house. They will find that they must repay student loans, as well as bearing those other financial burdens. While looking at how loans can be provided in the future, the Government must reconsider whether the loan system is the best way of financing those who go on to university education.
My main comments today concern the housing Bill. In principle, I welcome the fact that we are to have a housing Bill, but I do not believe that that Bill will in any way address the real housing problems in Britain in 1995. The Government will fail to deal with the problem once again. I accept and agree that people should have the right to buy from housing associations, but we must look at that issue carefully. I am worried about the population figure of 3,000 that has been set for a village, as it is an arbitrary figure, but that issue can be properly debated and all of its implications can be considered.
When I heard that the Government were extending the right-to-buy scheme, I thought that one of the things that they might do was to give councils the right to buy back houses from people who are unable to sell them, although I do not mean that in the way that the Government might think. I know many people who would love it if the council were able to buy back their house, but the council has neither the finance nor the powers to be able to do that. The Government might receive more votes in many parts of the country if they gave councils the right—as well as the finance and the powers—to buy houses back.
A few weeks ago, I received a letter from the Manchester and District housing group. The letter stated:An independent study carried out for the 30 housing associations who are part of the Regional Equity Group has revealed an astonishing difference between the Government agencies spending on Regeneration in the North. Most agencies spend over 45 per cent. of their allocation in the North but the Housing Corporation allocates for housing associations less than half of this at 22 per cent.While we recognise that there is a demand for more resources in the north because of deprivation and aging properties, insufficient funding is provided to meet the problems that occur. Housing Minister after Housing Minister has visited my constituency in the 12 years that I have been a Member of Parliament. I should warn any Housing Minister not to come to Burnley, as nearly all of them have lost their jobs and ended up on the Back Benches after visiting Burnley.
A previous Housing Minister—the right hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who has moved on to higher things in the Treasury—once said that Burnley had a peculiar cocktail of problems. My constituency had a traditionally high percentage of home ownership, a high percentage of older properties and a high percentage of people on low wages. The combination of those factors meant that Burnley faced a particularly difficult situation.
A survey done by the Lancashire housing inquiry was presented to the right hon. Gentleman. The committee involved in the inquiry was chaired by the then Bishop of Burnley, the Right Rev. Ronald Milner. The report stated that there were 34,000 households in Lancashire on council waiting lists, and added that 9.9 per cent. of the private housing stock in Lancashire was unfit, while a further 21.7 per cent. was in need of renovation. The report added that more than 50 per cent. of the private housing stock in Burnley, Pendle, Hyndburn, Blackburn and Rossendale was built pre-1919, and that is why so many houses need improvement.
87 Shelter says that it believes thatthere is an annual shortfall of at least 100,000 affordable homes to rent".That and similar figures are quoted by many independent bodies which believe that there is a shortage of housing to rent in this country. There is nothing within the Gracious Speech—I am sure that the housing Bill will not deal with it—that will solve the problem by meeting the housing demand. The Government fail to recognise that many people choose to rent, or have to rent because they have no alternative.
Another aspect to which I want to refer is homeless households. Shelter has said:Local authorities' duties to provide emergency help for homeless people, including families with children and vulnerable single people, are to be seriously weakened. Local authorities will have a duty to provide a minimum of 12 months temporary accommodation to homeless people who are in priority need and who are not intentionally homeless. Some groups will be excluded altogether from even emergency housing.During the Government's consultation on homelessness, almost everyone said that they had got it totally wrong and that their proposed solutions would not solve the problem. I have said on previous occasions that the Government have made homelessness a national problem. Some 12 or 15 years ago, homelessness was a problem for the big cities. It is now a problem throughout the country, and it exists in almost every constituency. A combination of the Government's social security and housing policies has created that problem, but their current proposals will not make the situation better, and could make it worse.
People are worried about what the Government are going to do to housing benefit in the Budget. Will they make it more difficult for people to be able to afford the portion of the rent that they must meet if they do not get full housing benefit? Will they make local authorities pick up a bigger share of the cost of housing benefit? That is a danger.
I received a letter this week from the Bradford and Northern housing association which referred to the opening up of social housing and difficulties with rent. The letter stated:In particular, if social housing is opened up to the private sector, under the principle of increasing choice, we are concerned that there should be a level playing field in terms of both regulation and standards…there is no doubt that, even amongst the best private landlords, standards of properties and service are different and affected by commercial motivation.That is a great worry to many people. The private sector is not meeting public demand for rented accommodation. I have often said that without housing benefit and state intervention there would be no private rented sector.
On the condition of stock in the private housing sector, the Bradford and Northern housing association went on to say that if the Government move away from the mandatory grant system
it will leave those in unfit housing which is outside of a particular strategy in a very precarious position.I have met and written to various Ministers on that issue. We all know that in many parts of the country, councils are unable to meet their obligations for mandatory 88 housing grants. Mandatory housing grants are, in theory, public led, because they depend on whether the public ask for grants.
In theory, if, following the means test introduced by the Government for grants, a house meets certain conditions, the Government have to give a grant. Because the Government know that that policy is failing in many boroughs, they intend to leave it to local authorities to target particular areas. But if additional resources are not provided, the problems will not be solved.
Of course councils will be able to deal with the worst areas, but in a constituency such as mine, which has many long terraces of pre-1919 housing stock, a single empty house which is not maintained can gradually destroy a complete terrace. What are local councils supposed to do if they do not have sufficient resources? That major difficulty remains.
The Government have failed to recognise that the only way to deal with housing problems—the shortage of property to rent and the need to improve housing stock—is to make more cash resources available. The Government cannot abolish homelessness by virtue of an Act of Parliament. The shortage cannot be dealt with unless there are houses for the people. That is the difficulty.
My final point concerns houses in multiple occupation. Recently, the Campaign for Bedsit Rights said:Two in five houses in multiple occupation were unfit in 1991 and the risk of death from fire was 28 times higher than in self-contained housing".Burnley borough council has highlighted its belief that there should be a licensing system. It has responded to the issues of multiple occupation and homelessness in detail. One problem is that although the Government consult, we all know that they will not take any notice of the results. They make their decision before the consultation takes place. People increasingly believe that it is pointless to respond. However, I hope that on these issues the Government will listen carefully.
Burnley borough council says that a licensing system is necessary becauseit is important to protect the health and safety of tenants".That underlines the point made by the Campaign for Bedsit Rights to which I referred earlier. The council continues:it ensures that houses in multiple occupation known to authorities in England and Wales are inspected; that HMOs are inspected to the same standards throughout the local authorities".The council says that such a licensing system would bea useful tool in reducing the number of deaths.Those are all objectives that we should seek to achieve. The council says:the licensing system gives a more pro-active approach, generally, so preventing as many problems occurring.Many hon. Members know from their own constituencies the problems caused by such properties, often occupied by poor or unemployed people. Some are appalling. Just going through the door makes one ask oneself why people should have to live in such conditions in 1995.
The housing Bill should do more than just touch on the problems; it should ensure that there is an adequate licensing system so that units of multiple occupation are of the best possible standard throughout Britain and, most 89 importantly of all, so that those who live in them do so safely without running the risk of being burnt because of the failure to meet many of the safety requirements.
I am disappointed at the measures in the Queen's Speech. I hope that the Government have listened to the few comments that I have made and that they will listen to others that will be made during the remaining days of the debate, and will respond positively. Burnley's reservoirs are only 2 per cent. full and there is equally little content in the Queen's Speech. I hope that the Government will deliver a little more than we were led to expect when we first heard it this morning.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)
I begin with two specific questions arising from the Gracious Speech that trouble me and on which I genuinely seek guidance and information. Will my hon. Friend the Minister be good enough to arrange for his appropriate colleague to write to me about them?
The first question concerns the phrase:to allow grant-maintained schools to borrow on the commercial market.Does that set some new precedent for borrowing by public sector undertakings? Will they still be subject to Treasury permission or are we breaking new ground? I was under the misapprehension, perhaps, that public undertakings were allowed to borrow in the best markets already, so I should like some clarification on what exactly is new about that statement.
The second detailed point concerns the phrase:to promote the smooth running of construction contracts.I understand that that could involve penalties for late payments by contractors to sub-contractors. If so, does it not open up the whole issue, which has been the subject of past consultation and which I gather will be the subject of future consultation, of statutory provisions affecting firms that pay sub-contractors' bills late? Will not that open up the whole issue before the Government's future survey on the matter? What precedent, if any, has been established? Will it apply only to the construction industry and, if so, why? I should be grateful for some detailed response to that.
When the history of our times is written, surely only two matters will stand out in the year ahead as having real political significance—the Budget, as has been said several times already in the debate, and the matters surrounding the intergovernmental conference in Rome next year.
The Budget should have three objectives. First, it should ensure that the present halt in the economy, as measured by the most recent manufacturing output figures and by the leading indicators of the Central Statistical Office and the unemployment figures published tonight, is reversed.
The second objective is the need to ensure that the amount of GDP that the Government take falls below its present debilitating level of 42 per cent. In that context, I warmly welcome the phrase in the Gracious Speech that reads:The share of national income taken by the public sector will be reduced.That seems to be extremely good recognition of that second objective.
90 The third objective should be to ensure that whatever fiscal measures are taken, they do not further distort the economy. This all adds up to an across-the-board reduction in taxes and interest rates—the crucial emphasis should be on across the board. I realise, however, that that position is not shared by a number of my hon. Friends. They argue, for instance, that special measures are required to stimulate housing or, more particularly, home ownership or, even more particularly, first-time buyers. I do not agree. If there is an overall and continued revival of the economy, the housing market will revive with it if there is genuinely unsatisfied demand for houses.
Speaking as a former Housing Minister, I am not totally convinced that there is massive unsatisfied demand for housing. Just before the House was prorogued, I received a written answer from the Minister with responsibility for housing, which showed that there are 845,000 vacant dwellings, 737,000 of which are in the private sector. I understand that some will be unsuitable for habitation, because they are either in poor condition or badly located. I also know, however, that many of them are empty because we still discriminate against private letting. Proportionally, we have the fewest such lettings in the western world. When I was Minister for Housing I tried to do something about that. Baroness Thatcher was generous enough to accept that in her book, but went on to say that she did not much like my suggestions because they detracted from her laudable emphasis on home ownership.
The quicker that we remove the distortions in the private housing sector, the better. The housing Bill foreshadowed in the Queen's Speech, to which the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) referred, provides such an opportunity. I would abolish all discriminatory arrangements for home ownership and state intervention in the rented sector. I would completely open up the private rented sector, while retaining heavy criminal penalties against landlords who exploit tenants.
Exploitation of any kind is wrong and should be stopped. One of the things that the Government do not shout from the rooftops enough is that they have been extremely tough in attaching the criminal law to landlord and tenant legislation. They may have to use the proposed housing Bill to extend those provisions to include banning extortionate service charges by the managers of leasehold properties.
It is worth giving three qualifications regarding exploitation. First, it is not only private landlords who charge tenants excessive management fees—Labour-controlled local authorities, such as Ealing, also do so. Secondly, much exploitation is of the landlord by the tenant who knows how to use the courts to his or her advantage. That is even true of shorthold tenancies where, by clever use of the courts, six-month tenancies are often turned into 12-month periods, with the landlord often earning no rent in the last six months. For that reason, there may be a case for shortening the minimum shorthold period from six to three months.
The crucial point is that much exploitation occurs when there is a shortage of supply. If renting were made more attractive and more rented properties were available, tenants faced with, for example, excessive service charges would simply move elsewhere, which would act as a deterrent to bad landlords. Exploitation is one symptom of a distorted rented housing market. That is why it is so important for roll-over relief to apply to property to let as much as to any other business.
91 On the theme of loosening up the market, I would certainly abolish the Housing Corporation and all aid to housing associations. The Spicer Budget would give all the money saved directly to those who needed it through housing benefits, which would be managed in the manner that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is rightly proposing. In other words—in response to some of the mockery from Opposition Members—I would give the money to those genuinely in need of help with housing, rather than spending it on bricks and mortar, which benefits the deserving and the undeserving alike. I suspect that, after 50 years of resenting such attempts to focus money on those who really need it, the Labour party is beginning to change its mind. Some of the mockery may die on the lips of some Opposition Members fairly soon when the Labour party, after all these years, at last begins to realise that, if one is going to help poor people, one should do so directly. That is my view and the perfect instrument is housing benefit, rather than by spreading money across the board through the Housing Corporation and housing associations.
I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will firmly resist calls further to discriminate, intervene and distort the housing market because it would not help to create the dynamic and flexible economy that he is seeking.
Similar points could be made against some of the arguments of my hon. Friends about preserving special tax treatment for executive share options. The policy should be one of reducing the general level of taxation rather than preserving, let alone extending, the number of exemptions to tax. In the case of share options, there may be a reasonable way through, if the policy is to tax at the point at which shares are sold rather than, as proposed, that at which the option to buy is exerted.
Clearly, one issue is whether executive share options are to be treated as income or capital. The way around that problem would be to abolish all tax distinctions between capital gains and income. That would certainly bring down the rate of capital gains for those on low incomes. Rather than introducing more exemptions, I would reduce to 15 per cent. the entry point for income tax.
Above all, the Budget and the Queen's Speech need to be seen as part of a strategy for encouraging enterprise, risk and work, as opposed to being capable of interpretation as any sort of one-off sweetener to the electorate. That would badly backfire and, quite mistakenly, would threaten to bring into disrepute the whole concept and purpose of low personal taxation.
The second question is that of Europe and I do not want to detain the House for long on that matter. In practice, the die is cast for the year ahead. I am not confident that, for the time being, much will be done to reverse what Lord Denning has calledthe tidal flood of European law".The treaty of Maastricht is in place and the process of establishing the appropriate institution for monetary union now gathers pace under the protection of law. Whatever anyone says, the law of Europe is that a single currency must be established by 1 January 1999. In that context, the sooner that the Government and the Conservative party give a firm commitment to maintaining the opt-out on the single currency, the better.
92 Moves by the Commission and others to create a federal defence, immigration and foreign policy must clearly be resisted. The Queen's Speech refers to the Western European Union and to strengthening it, but I trust that that is not to be undertaken at the expense of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Above all, I hope that the Government will build on the increasing anxiety in Europe about the premature destruction of national democracies in favour of an undemocratic super-state. The objective now must be to build on the momentum in Europe aimed at substantive revisions to the treaty of Rome so that the European Court of Justice, the Parliament and the Commission are once again brought under the control of national Parliaments.
This is, of course, a momentous task in whose fulfilment the British Government will undoubtedly have to play a leading part. Nothing less than revision of the treaty of Rome will do if we are serious in our intent of maintaining a Europe of closely associated, freely trading nation states.
I suspect that the credibility of such a policy now largely hangs on attitudes in Germany, whose economy is the size of those of Britain and France put together. There is no doubt that there is growing anxiety in Germany about the future of the deutschmark. What is less clear is whether it is accepted there that, as Germany did not opt out of the single currency laid down by the treaty of Maastricht, whatever German politicians may say, Germany has no option but to go ahead with joining a single currency—unless, that is, Germany secures the appropriate amendments to the treaty of Rome. If she were to do that she would, of course, have to accept the rejection of the concept of acquis communautaire, which goes to the heart of the present development of the European Union. Increasingly, there are those in the Bundestag who want to amend the treaty but realise the full implications of such an amendment.
There is certainly not a cat in hell's chance of all that being supported by a Labour Government, were such a thing ever to happen. They would press on as fast as possible with the process of creating a centralised, socialised state of Europe. That is as good a reason as any for supporting the Gracious Speech—almost whatever it says—and I do.
§ Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
In the debate so far, there has been much mention of the concept of one nation. I want to examine that concept and how the Queen's Speech addresses some of the inequalities in our society, especially in the inner-city areas, part of one of which lies in my constituency. I shall consider briefly how the housing and education proposals in the Queen's Speech fit in with the concept of one nation.
At best, the traditional one-nation Tory approach is that the Government should be even-handed with different individuals across society, irrespective of the various inequalities from which those individuals suffer. On the other hand, many Tory Members today have the idea that all a Government should do is stand back from problems, allow market forces to determine how resources are allocated and watch how, by some miraculous trickle-down process, the benefits of wealth creation affect and help everyone in society.
93 That may be a marvellous economic theory, but many of my inner-city constituents are still waiting for the trickle to come down; it has not affected or benefited them. They have suffered grievously in the past 16 years under the Government.
The Opposition have a different meaning in mind when we use the term "one nation". We support the concept of one nation, not because we believe that it exists in Britain today, but because we believe that it should exist. We look around us at what has happened to our nation, which has been torn apart by the Government's economic and social policies over the past 16 years.
We see a nation in fear of crime—the crime rate has doubled while the Government have been in power. At the same time, we see a nation that needs unifying and in which attention needs to be paid to the problems of the poorest and neediest individuals and communities in our society. For us, the concept of one nation is the concept of a fair nation—something which Conservative Members appear not to recognise.
It is also interesting that a Government with such a profound belief in the free market have at least recognised some of the problems of our inner cities, to the extent that, in the past few years, they have brought into play a number of distinct policy initiatives to try to deal with some of the problems. Unfortunately, there are no more of them in the Queen's Speech, but we must question the validity and worth of what there has been.
There was the creation of the urban development corporations—we have one in my constituency in Sheffield. We have had single regeneration budgets, city challenge, city grants, estate action—a whole range of different initiatives which in many senses are interventionist and go against the main thrust of Government policy, which is to let the market sort out such problems.
At the same time, those resources, which, by and large, have been top-sliced from existing Government programmes and so have not involved new money, have gone only part of the way towards dealing with the problems, which have been exacerbated throughout by continual cuts in local authority budgets caused by cuts in central Government grant and by capping. It will be interesting to see whether capping will continue as the local authority settlements are announced later in the Session.
As well as cuts in the help that local authorities can give to inner cities, there are measures such as local management of schools, under which the formula funding approach has taken money out of the inner cities and redistributed it to other schools.
Government policy has thrown up projects that have attempted to deal with the problems of our poorest communities but, in general, has taken money which could have directly addressed those problems out of the hands of local authorities and schools in inner cities. Over the past 16 years, a whole range of indicators have shown that the inequalities in our society have become greater. There is nothing in the Queen's Speech to give us any encouragement that that trend will be reversed.
Let us consider some of the indicators, such as health. A King's Fund report this year showed that, for the first time in the past 50 years, death rates among the poorest in our population are rising once again. Ken Judge, the director of the King's Fund, described that as 94a striking and alarming new feature".The report also stated:Social divisions have accelerated at a rate not matched for such a sustained period by any other rich industrialised country.It is not only a matter of death rates. A good recent study by Dr. Snell, the responsible medical officer for Sheffield health authority, showed that in the city of Sheffield there was a whole range of inequalities which meant that people suffered in different degrees from different illnesses, especially in respect of respiratory and heart disease. There are major differences in health conditions, which have become worse rather than more equal over the past few years.
This year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation inquiry into inequalities of wealth in this country showed again a picture of a Britain more divided than at any time since the second world war. The bottom 10 per cent. of people who are earning have suffered a 17 per cent. reduction in their living standards since 1979. The top 10 per cent. were 60 per cent. better off. It is not only a problem of unemployment. The wages of the poorest people who are working fell in real terms during that period.
Unemployment has also worsened those inequalities. Among households in the economically active age range, there was an increase from 3 to 11 per cent. in the number of households in which no one was earning. At the same time, there was an increase in the number of households where two people were earning.
The increase in households where both people are earning and the increase in households where no one is earning have led to a disparity in wealth and living standards. The increasing disparity in wages and earnings, the increasing disparity in overall income levels, and increasing unemployment, have created ghettoes of despair in inner-city areas, which are in themselves a threat to the fabric of our whole society. They are a threat to the whole idea of one nation and unity.
Fear of unemployment and fear of crime are not confined to inner-city areas. People in affluent suburbs are in fear of crime, and are often afraid to go out at night. They are in fear of losing their jobs; in the most recent recession, unemployment has hit middle-class people on middle earnings in the suburbs, as it has hit people in the inner cities. The reality for many people in our inner cities is not that they fear losing their jobs, but that they are certain that they will never get a job. Young people may have been on one or two training courses, but their prospect of getting a job is extremely remote.
Nothing in the Queen's Speech suggests that the Government recognise the worsening health in some areas, with greater disparities shown in all the health indicators, worsening inequalities in income and wealth, as the Rowntree report so accurately demonstrated, and enormous disparities in unemployment. Whatever the Government may say about what they are doing to deal with unemployment nationally—we must recognise that unemployment is far higher than when they came to power in 1979—there are enormous disparities between different parts of the country, and between different communities in Sheffield.
In parts of Sheffield, unemployment is below the national average. In Sheffield, Hallam, unemployment is well below the national average. In my constituency and in Sheffield, Central, unemployment reaches 30 per cent. in some areas. Youth unemployment is far higher and 95 unemployment in the Bangladeshi community is at 80 per cent. There are enormous disparities in the opportunities for people to get a job. Those are unacceptable figures and unacceptable inequalities in this day and age, and they give the lie to the claim that we have one nation in any meaningful sense.
In May last year, in the Darnall area of my constituency and Sheffield, Central, we had some quite serious race disturbances. They were race disturbances because they involved fights between young people of the Asian and white communities in the Darnall area. They involved fights in the street, damage to vehicles, the stoning of a public house and general unrest on the streets. There were a number of arrests, which were followed by demonstrations against the police.
I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) recognised that the problems went far deeper than the incidents of two nights might have led us to believe. The incidents were triggered off by particular events, but they reflected, in our view, some fundamental social and economic problems within the area.
We therefore commissioned a review. We asked the Government for support, but they would not support the review, and said only that they were interested in looking at it. With the financial support of the Rowntree trust, which had commissioned a work on inequalities, we commissioned an independent review of the problems of the community to try to get a basis for action to stop racial disaffection continuing in the community. Our view was that, although the community had a history of living together, wanted to live together and wanted peace and harmony, enormous problems were beginning to tear it apart.
The review was conducted independently by Professor Paul Wiles, the dean of the faculty of law at the university of Sheffield. He was helped by Blanche Flannery, a former chair of the trades council, Alan Aikin, previously a managing director of a local company, and the assistant chief executive of Birmingham City council. We made sure that the review was independent, and we made sure that local people were asked what they thought were the problems of the area and what should be done.
It was not surprising that some organisations were criticised. The police were criticised in some respects for their policing of the area. I am pleased to say that they have made every effort to improve the situation and that the community has responded positively. That has been a positive outcome of deliberations in the past few months. The city council was criticised for the way in which it operated its youth service, which was fair criticism, although it was rightly praised for its housing service, for its schools and for the planning service it offered.
It is not surprising that, when the authors of the report looked at what needed to be done, they said:Many of the problems of Darnall spring from its poverty, lack of employment for its citizens and lack of facilities for its young people. Those responsible for providing services to Darnall cannot be held responsible for these basic conditions. Instead the major responsibility must be laid at the door of national government policies which have exacerbated inequalities of wealth, worsened employment rates and reduced public expenditure on local services.96 That reflected the views coming from local people, who were widely consulted in a major public consultation exercise, about their community, about what the problems were, and about what needed to be put right to make their community a better place in which to live.
I have written to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and to the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration to say that it is now up to central Government. Of course, there are problems at local level; the police and the local council must respond. However, their response will not help to solve the problems unless we also have a proper response from central Government.
It is not acceptable that the community has 30 per cent. unemployment and has no chance of its young people getting jobs, whether they are white or Asian, when it has on its doorstep the Sheffield industries where most of the jobs are. Something must be done. We have in Sheffield a training and enterprise council—a Government quango—which has millions of pounds to spend. We have a development corporation next door which has £50 million of resources at its disposal.
The Government and their quangos have a responsibility to ensure that resources are directed to the areas in greatest need. If we do not tackle these problems in our inner-city areas and if we do not address the polarisation and obvious inequalities of our society, we shall provide a breeding ground for racism, racial tensions and racial unrest, and we shall again have the riots that we have had in the past couple of years. We can stop that happening if we address the problems together.
I have already talked to the chair of the TEC, and I have had a letter back from the Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment. They both say that they will now start to address the issues and do what they can to help. The theory of trickle-down will not deliver jobs and resources to these communities; it simply will not happen in that way. We need positive training programmes directed at these areas.
We need to convince business that it has a responsibility to employ people, once they have got the proper skills, from these areas. We need to ensure that proper local employment projects are created and that resources are diverted to them. We need to ensure that construction projects go ahead in these areas, using local labour as a basis for training local people to build the homes in which people in the community can live. If we do not address those problems, the corrosion of collective despair will affect not only the local communities, but our whole society.
One of the issues that came out in the review was that there was a belief in the white community that there was unfair treatment in the allocation of housing, whereby Asian families had a better chance of a house. The review investigated the matter and found that not to be true. The real problem is that there are people in desperate housing need—it does not matter whether they are white or Asian—who are competing for houses that do not exist in sufficient numbers. More social housing which people can afford is needed in communities such as Darnall.
We want to create a new village called Attercliffe village next door to Darnall. The concept has the involvement of local people, housing associations, local builders, the city council and the development corporation. If we used that scheme imaginatively and 97 trained young people to build their own homes for their community, we could not merely create homes for that community and remove a source of racial discontent, but house that community and give people jobs at the same time.
If the Government's housing proposals in the Queen's Speech were genuine, they would be about building more homes and putting into decent repair many houses in inner-city communities. The Government do not intend to deal with the housing crisis by building homes for people to live in. Instead, they intend to make certain homeless families the scapegoats, and they will try to use those families as the justification for unfair competition among some people in our community for housing. They will say that those homeless families are jumping the housing queue.
I accept that, under the current homeless persons legislation, it is possible for people who live with their parents or in-laws to go down to the housing department and claim that they are homeless in an attempt to jump the housing queue. I am sure that that happens in some cases, but let us be absolutely certain about the facts.
At the beginning of the 1980s, people in Sheffield had to wait two years for a decent family home. It may be acceptable to people to live with their parents or in-laws for two years, but imagine when that waiting time extends to six years, with the possibility of being on the waiting list for up to 12 years. At that point, family tensions, discontent, in-fighting and bickering start to pull relationships apart. When that happens, it is no surprise that people decide to go down to the housing department, because they simply cannot stand it any longer.
Other people may lose their homes because of repossession or because of harassment from a private landlord—unfortunately, that happens. Those people and others suffering family turmoil need, most of all, some security. They need a permanent roof over their heads. The Government are planning to take away that security and permanence by saying that such people can have only a temporary tenancy.
That means that those people will have to live with instability—the threat of having to move to another house will hang over them. Such a move means not just another house, but coping with another district, another set of neighbours and perhaps another school for children. All that disturbance to family life, which those people have already gone through once, will be repeated every year, or every two years, as a result of the Government's proposed legislation. That is not acceptable. It is not a fair way to proceed, and it is discriminating against those in greatest need in our society.
If the Government pursue that policy towards the homeless, the Labour party will fight them. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), who has said that the next Labour Government will repeal that legislation, because it is not the legislation of a fair and civilised society. It is certainly not legislation designed to unite the country and create one nation.
We should obtain the capital receipts of local authorities and use them to build new homes and repair existing ones. That is what local authorities want to do, but they are prevented from doing so.
The Government's education proposals are not fair and are unacceptable. It is interesting that the Government should allow extra capital spending for grant-maintained 98 schools, which can borrow on the private market, presumably free of Treasury control. It is interesting that the Government have nothing to say about the thousands of schools that have not chosen to opt out, and whose buildings are often in a deplorable state.
A school in my constituency has a two-year lifespan, after which it must be pulled down; its 500 pupils will have nowhere to go. The cost of replacing that school is greater than the capital allocation that Sheffield has received this year for the maintenance of its education buildings. The Government's proposals for GM schools are unfair, and they fail to address the problems faced by most of our schools, which have not opted for GM status.
No new funding has been offered to meet the cost of the Government's proposals on nursery education. That simply means that the resources currently devoted to providing nursery education for children in deprived communities will be spread to cover a nursery voucher scheme, and will ensure a place in a playgroup should parents want that. I have nothing against playgroups, whose development I encourage, but if playgroups for all are to be provided at the expense of proper nursery education for inner-city children, that proposal will be utterly opposed by the Opposition.
It is extremely important that we see the proposals in the Queen's speech for what they are. They do not address the reality of the concept of one nation. They do not address the real problems of inequality in our society. In fact, they will make the problems of housing and education worse. Those proposals reveal that, as far as the Conservatives are concerned, the concept of one nation is a myth rather than a reality.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
As a one-nation Conservative, I listened with interest to what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said about housing. I also listened carefully to the remarks by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Worcestershire (Mr. Spicer). I do not intend to develop my thoughts on housing now, but I register my political interest in legislation on it, in particular the regulation of homes in multiple occupation, to which the hon. Member for Burnley referred.
I must apologise to the House because I was carried away during my intervention on the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) by a sense of excessive chivalry and generosity. I said that, 18 months ago, he worked with Conservative Members in Somerset to save Somerset county council. In fact, that is not true, and I want to correct the record. He initially favoured the abolition of the county council, but then went strangely silent when he discovered that a number of his own supporters did not agree with him. That is why, in reply, the right hon. Gentleman reiterated his party's support for regional assemblies.
As the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) will know, England will be lumbered with regional assemblies, according to proposals from both Opposition parties, in order to address the West Lothian question. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who happens to be my parliamentary pair, will be proud to know that there is now a research paper in the Library entitled, "The West Lothian Question".
99 I commend to my right hon. and hon. Friends, particularly those on the Front Bench, an amendment to a famous statement by Dr. Johnson. According to this version, he might have said, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a Government knows that in 18 months' or so time a determined attempt will be made to hang it, it should concentrate its mind wonderfully."
I shall set out certain longer-term objectives which the Queen's Speech has given us the opportunity to pursue, but I also emphasise to my right hon. Friends that we need to win the tactical skirmishing, week by week. I simply note that we did not win the skirmish last week.
Among the longer-term objectives, I include advancing on the Home Office front; advancing, most importantly, on the small business and deregulation front, where there is much more to be done; and holding ground on the health front. In recent years there have been good increases in spending on health, but we need to address the considerable problems currently facing national health service dentistry and the financial plight facing those elderly people in residential homes, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir D. Madel) referred. We must regain ground on education; that also I shall discuss later.
Regarding the Home Office, the Opposition parties claim that there has been a lurch to the right in the Conservative party. I am not exactly a fully paid-up member of the right of my party, but I entirely commend a discriminatory, careful lurch to the right on various issues.
The difference between the right of the Conservative party and the left of the Labour party is that I cannot think of a single issue about which the left of the Labour party has ever come up with any proposals or policies that are popular—which commend themselves to the public outside the narrow enclaves of the left of the Labour party. That is why the Labour party has remained in opposition for so long, whereas the right of the Conservative party frequently has proposals or policies that are widely popular. The proposals in the Queen's Speech to tackle asylum seekers and adopt a tougher approach on law and order are both very popular.
Regarding asylum seekers, I shall briefly present an argument of much wider significance on the migration issue. We are constantly told that the United Kingdom and Europe must be able to compete with the United States of America and the far east, but the two latter have an advantage that we in Europe do not have. They have enormous reserves of what I would call cheap—perhaps "coolie"—labour.
In the far east, those reserves arise from the underdevelopment of the region. In the USA, they arise from the massive social inequalities that the tradition and the geography of that vast country permit—there is not much "one nation" politics in the United States—and from the illegal immigration that, in spite of their efforts, they are unable to control and which, I am told, may make Spanish the first language of the United States some time in the next century.
Europe is different because the various peoples of Europe will not tolerate their Governments allowing much migration into western Europe, whether legal or illegal. I draw far-reaching conclusions from that phenomenon, but I must pursue that subject another time.
100 I simply say, on law and order, that we must tackle the nonsense whereby debatable decisions or sentences or courses of action are reported in the courts almost daily. I am grateful that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is tackling that matter. Judges and magistrates are not elected, unlike local councillors or Members of Parliament. They can be influenced only by legislation or public opinion, both of which have a role to play.
We need to make more progress in deregulation, especially in food hygiene. If we do not make that progress by administration, I am afraid that some of us will have to advocate the repeal, or at least the drastic amendment, of the Food Safety Act 1990, which I believe led to several of those difficulties. We must tackle that issue in the remaining months of the present Parliament.
On Europe, I should say, having heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Worcestershire, that I have become a consolidationist. There is so much wrong with the European Community that we must tackle those problems and put them right before we start any of the fanciful developments that some of our partners would like to develop. Those problems include fraud, which we read about in the papers this morning; the massive problems of the common agricultural policy; the common fisheries policy, if that is subject to reform; and harmonisation, which has led to many of the problems that I have mentioned.
There must be a significant increase in education spending this year. When I met my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury a couple of weeks ago, I told him that he should give the Secretary of State for Education and Employment whatever she asked for and round it up by another £50 million. The fact, which I support and welcome, that the Government propose to invest more money in the assisted places scheme means that they should also apply extra money to the rest of the public sector.
I have had reservations about the assisted places scheme, which was intended to replace direct grant schools. I recall my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) referring earlier today to the abolition of direct grant schools. It was perhaps the biggest act of vandalism that has been carried out in recent politics in the United Kingdom. Unlike my right hon. Friend, I have an interest to declare because I was educated at a direct grant school.
I am sorry that it was not possible to re-establish direct grant schools instead of creating the assisted places scheme, because that means that in the public sector of education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) said earlier, we do not have nationally the variety of provision that existed, at least at the time that I was educated, when there were direct grant schools and grammar schools.
That is a weakness of the public sector of education. The development of grant-maintained schools, which I emphasise should continue to be subject to parental approval, may be an indirect way of restoring that variety, but it is an indirect, not a direct, way.
I listened to the remarks by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) about budgetary policy. He, having been recently in the Government, is in a position to know whether spending may be cut by £5 billion and whether taxation may be reduced by a similar amount.
101 I have already described what needs to be done in the education sector. We probably need greater expenditure at the Home Office if we are to continue to beat back crime. We cannot cut the health or defence budgets. I am glad to see that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), and the parliamentary private secretary to the Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), are present. We cannot cut the defence budget any further. A proposal was announced yesterday to close the Culmhead GCHQ station in my constituency in 1999. I shall go into the details at the appropriate time and I have tabled a written question, but I hope that that closure will not weaken our surveillance facilities which, given the huge uncertainty that continues to exist in eastern Europe, central Asia and the middle east, remain important.
Given those pressures, there is a case for a more cautious approach to budgetary policy than has been suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham or my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend), who is chairman of the Back-Bench Conservative finance committee and who has talked of, I think, £7 billion-worth of cuts.
The bulk of Conservative supporters in my constituency to whom I have spoken in recent weeks are reluctant to espouse the case for reductions in taxation. I have to persuade them that after three years of economic success and growth, the British taxpayer deserves a dividend. A reduction in taxes will reinforce the recovery which, until now, has been substantially based on exports and investment. We seek a reduction in taxation to stimulate the domestic market, which needs it. I differ from my hon. Friend the Member for South Worcestershire; the housing market needs stimulation. A Budget without those measures would have a considerable hole at its centre.
When I am asked, "Where would you make the reductions?" I have one suggestion arising from recent correspondence. I do not think that the issue will make a substantial contribution to the search for reductions in public spending, but it is a social matter that angers a number of people. I am referring to the ability, under present legislation, for young people to live a vagrant and sometimes vulnerable life style—even when they have a parental home prepared to take them and when they enjoy good relations with their parents—at the public's expense. No one suggests that those young people should not live independently, but we should question whether they should live at public expense.
A constituent told me that her adopted son had been in trouble with the police, was regularly attending the doctor for drug and alcohol abuse, and had lost three stone in weight. She wrote that he was living in a bedsit in Taunton, paying rent to a landlord who was no doubt also being supported by the Government. Her letter stated:we adopted our son at three years old after he had been removed from circumstances similar to the ones he is presently living in. It seems ironic that the social and medical services who were eager to place this child at two and a half years, are no longer able to help either him or us, saying that after 16 years old, parents have no rights.Other constituents have written to me about the sad case of their daughter. I shall not give the House all the details, but the letter said:Our daughter has been given the opportunity to live independently but in extremely vulnerable circumstances.102 My constituents spelt out the difficulties that their daughter had encountered, involving rogue landlords and others. They continued:We are caring parents who have in no way expressed a wish that she should leave home. Indeed, our daughter has every convenience at home and can make use of them at her leisure. Social Services have given her money to allow her to live independently. There has been no discussion with us of any kind.Ministers who have discussed such matters in recent years have failed to address them directly. I hope that in the Budget, and possibly through housing legislation, such issues will be tackled. In all other respects, I commend the Queen's Speech to the House.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
The state opening of Parliament is always a splendid occasion and today has been no exception. Today's ceremony makes me particularly proud to be a member of the greatest democracy in the world. It is therefore a great shame that the speech of the Leader of the Opposition did not measure up to the splendid occasion that we enjoyed today.
Before referring to the comments of the Leader of the Opposition, I must point to one omission from the Gracious Speech that was brought to my attention by my local evening newspaper. I am told that the newspaper is tonight running the headline, "Wife to follow in MP's footsteps". According to the front page of my local evening newspaper, my wife intends to submit her name for consideration as the Conservative party candidate for the new Basildon borough constituency. Husbands and wives occasionally keep secrets from one another, but my wife is the mother of five small children, and when I return home tonight, I hope to discuss with her what arrangements she intends to put in place to make that happen. It is yet another example of responsible journalism.
I return to the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition. It is not good enough for him to come to the Dispatch Box and, like a failed Shakespearean actor, utter empty words. I have never heard a speech as infantile as the one that he made today—it must have been written by a bunch of kids who know absolutely nothing about life.
Only yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition addressed the Confederation of British Industry and put his foot in it. He said that the social chapter is a statement of principle. Today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security wrote a letter to the Leader of the Opposition, in which he said:It is a transfer of power to make decisions about social policy".The social chapter is certainly not just a statement of principle. The Leader of the Opposition seems to be obsessed with the so-called right wing of the Conservative party. The right hon. Gentleman came to this place to represent his constituents in exactly the same month and year as I was sent here to represent my constituents. In the intervening period, his political beliefs have changed dramatically. It is absolutely staggering.
We also heard today a typically sanctimonious, humbug speech from the leader of the Liberal Democrats. As usual, he said that he wanted to break up the United Kingdom and lead the country into a united states of Europe with one Government.
103 The most important part of the Gracious Speech upon which I shall dwell is the section about drugs. In his speech today, the Prime Minister said correctly that no drug was soft or safe, and he promised the country that the Government would put in place a host of measures. I particularly welcome his remarks about MI5 entering the international sector, and the fact that the European Union will be asked to find resources to prevent drugs that emanate from Latin America entering Europe via the Caribbean countries. The Prime Minister reassured the House that the Government would do all that they could to clamp down on the drug barons. I believe that the new legislation that is to come before the House will assist in the conviction of more drug criminals.
As 18-year-old Leah Betts lies in her hospital bed tonight, I am ashamed to admit that it appears that the drug she took came from the constituency that I represent. I know Basildon college, Raquel's discotheque and my local police force very well. I am ashamed that it appears that drugs have been peddled in my constituency. I understand that four people have been arrested today in connection with the matter, and I hope that the House will unite in the crusade against drug abuse. It is a most evil practice and there is no such thing as a soft drug. I hope that all Members will do everything in their power to stop drug abuse in their constituencies.
The Queen's Speech includes the following sentence:The United Kingdom's minimum nuclear deterrent will be maintained.When I first became a Member of Parliament, the Opposition Benches were full of supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. A recent amendment to a Bill was signed by 43 Members, but a number of them withdrew their signatures before the debate. I hope that the country will watch carefully how Labour politicians behave in regard to defence. Had it been left to the Labour and Liberal parties when I entered the House in 1983, Britain would not have reached its current position whereby we are well defended. It would appear that the world is more peaceful than it was some 12 years ago. The intergovernmental conference in 1996 will be a momentous occasion for the United Kingdom.
I had the honour of having my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister visit my constituency on Friday, and he shared with 200 business representatives just how the United Kingdom has the competitive edge on many of our European partners. It would interesting to hear the weasel words of both Opposition parties on our membership of the European Community. They will have to stand up and be counted, just as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be at the intergovernmental conference.
I am delighted that legislation will be brought forward to enable the construction and operation of a high-speed rail link between London and the channel tunnel. I have long been a supporter of the channel tunnel. Had I been fortunate enough to speak in the transport debate a week ago, I would have pointed out to the House the incredible hypocrisy of the Opposition in respect of the channel tunnel. Had it been left to socialists, they would still have been talking about who would build the channel tunnel. After 100 years, it was the Conservative party that made that fine engineering feat possible. I do not believe that my party has taken enough credit for it.
104 When the Bill comes before the House, my particular desire is that Stratford should be given the opportunity to become an international railway station. Although politically I have nothing in common with the three Members of Parliament representing Newham, the four of us are united in believing that Stratford is the best possible site for an international rail station, and it would be of enormous economic benefit to my constituents in Essex.
The speech of the Leader of the Opposition was blown out of the water when my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) intervened. It is hypocrisy beyond belief for the Leader of the Opposition to lecture the House and the country on grant-maintained and selective education in view of what he has chosen for his own son.
The Leader of the Opposition and the deputy leader felt fit to mention me in their speeches to the Labour party conference. It is unfair of me to comment on their remarks when they are not here. I shall wait until they are present, but when I have the opportunity, I shall deal specifically with the education of one's son. This may have affected the Leader of the Opposition's choice of education for his son, but it also affected the education of my own son. When he spoke about the smirk on my face when I was re-elected for the third time as Member of Parliament for Basildon—
§ Mr. Amess
No. The chickens are Labour Members who do not have the guts to stand as socialists in the next election. That is the reality of the so-called chicken run. Some Labour Members are still proud to be socialists, but many Labour Members are chicken. As I say, they are frightened to stand in the next election as socialists. I hope that over the next parliamentary year we shall be able to deal with the issue in greater detail.
I am delighted that a measure will be introduced further to streamline the handling of asylum applications and to strengthen enforcement of immigration controls. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) was right to intervene to say that if asylum seekers enter the country in circumstances that are not entirely as they claimed them to be, they bring immigration into discredit.
It seems that the Government intend to introduce legislation to reform divorce law and other aspects of family law. I remember trying to amend a divorce Bill that was being introduced during my first year in this place. It is well known that there are many solicitors and barristers in the House, and I was ridiculed when I tried to amend the proposed legislation. I felt that we would be wrong to agree to the changes that were being proposed. It seems that time has proved me right. Many of my constituents—mainly women—came to my surgeries to say, "David, we had no idea that it was quite so easy to obtain a divorce."
105 I would like to see fewer divorces and, perhaps, fewer marriages. Once a couple have children, they should think extremely carefully about their responsibilities. Perhaps the Government should introduce a Bill to deal with parenting. I have visited every education establishment in my constituency over the past year, and it is clear that the heads have come to the conclusion that we must focus on parenting above all else. Of course, it is always a minority of parents who cause concern.
The gloves are off. If anyone wants to know what Labour and the Liberals do when in office, he should suffer Basildon district council, or Essex county council, which has disgracefully sabotaged care in the community and undermined our excellent grant-maintained schools. The Opposition parties will have to stand up and be counted, and I believe that they will be found wanting.
§ Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Bates.]
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.